Iâm not sure where this came from. Maybe Iâm trying to make my own sense of Clara.
Sleep and Death are Brothers
Matron paused at the door and turned back to Clara. “And through here, Ms Oswald, we have the Doctor.”
Clara raised an eyebrow at the delivery, which lay somewhere between, “this way to the wolf-boy,” and, “here are the nuclear weapons.” It was the first day of her last stint as a junior doctor. After this she would be able to choose where she worked, well to a greater extent anyway. Her first job, two years previous had been in the Neonatal care unit in Norwich, and now she was finishing in a hospice in Kent.
Had she been less sensible, she might have imagined it to be strangely poetic that her time in training was bookended by birth and death. But her sensibility was her strength, and it was very important to keep a hold of it and remain rational when all around you were falling apart. That’s what doctors were supposed to do, and that’s what Clara would do.
Clara moved to push the door open, eager to meet some actual patients after the mind-numbing tour of the nurses’ station, canteen and cloakroom, but Matron stopped her. “You should know about the Doctor, he’s very old and he’s been here for a very long time. Don’t do anything to upset him.”
“I wouldn’t,” Clara said, startled by the suggestion.
“Just remember, this is a hospice; he’s here to die. Don’t think you can make him better. Having been the physician here for many years, he knows that better than anyone.”
Clara blinked. Being a doctor and not trying to make people better was like being a fish and trying not to swim, but she knew everyone had a time to die, and she supposed this was the place they came to do it. “Yes. Of Course.”
Matron stood aside and let Clara enter. There were two beds in the room. The one nearest the door was empty and not made up, but the other was surrounded by stacks of books and trinkets, and under a midnight blue eiderdown was the Doctor, staring absently out the window at the grounds. He didn’t turn immediately and Clara looked carefully at him. Matron hadn’t been joking about him being very old. He was white-haired and frail and seemed very small lying in the bed surrounded by his things. He had a pair of round-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose and a book lying open on his lap.
Having already entered, Clara knocked on the inside of the door to alert him to her presence and he turned to look at her. Then she noticed his eyes, completely in congress with the rest of him. Instead of being milky with age, they were bright and clear and young. As she approached his bedside though, she could see that she had been wrong in that assumption. They were as old as he was, young as they first appeared, those eyes had seen the joys and trials of a long and fruitful life. “Hello, I’m Clara Oswald, the new junior doctor. I’m on rotation here for the next two months.”
“You can’t be the Doctor,” he said, pushing his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose with a long finger. “Because I’m the Doctor. And if I’m the Doctor and you’re not, then who are you?”
Matron hadn’t mentioned he was senile, but it made sense given his advanced age. “Matron said you worked here when you were younger.”
“Yes,” he said, suddenly remembering and blinking away the suspicion that that been there only seconds prior. “I was the Doctor here for a very long time. Those were the days.” He removed his glasses and laid them on his lap on top of his book. “So, Clara, how are you enjoying training? Decided on a discipline yet?”
“Before I started, I always fancied myself as a paediatrician, but I’m not so sure now. I’ve had a lot of food for thought in the past two years.”
“So you’re almost finished?”
“This is actually my last rotation, would you believe?”
“It was mine too. I could never leave once I got here.”
Clara found a chair and pulled it over to his bedside. “What was it that made you choose here?”
“It chose me. I had very little say in the matter. But if I were pushed, I would say that I always wanted to give hope to the hopeless. People come here at the very end, when hope was almost lost. I could never bear to sit by and watch that last spark be quietly extinguished.”
Clara smiled. “I was beginning to think that this place was all about doling out medication to help people go softly. But here, my predecessor is telling me that he made people fight. You wanted to keep them human until the last possible moment. That’s wonderful.”
The Doctor turned to the window again. “Not that it ever saved them.” He took a deep breath to sigh with. “Funny that you’d call me your predecessor though, don’t you think?”
She hadn’t even noticed. “That is funny. It’s only my first day.”
“Hmm,” the Doctor said.
“It’s almost my lunch break. I was wondering if you would give me a tour of the grounds. It’s a lovely afternoon.”
“Can’t. I wouldn’t know them well enough to show you. I never leave here.” He patted the bed.
“Because, what’s the point, Clara? They bring me my food, bathe me when I need it and change my bedpan. I have everything I need right here. What would I be doing going out there? At my age?”
“You’re never too old for a new experience, surely?”
He picked up the book in his lap. “Just look at captain Ahab here, drove himself mad chasing that whale, and for what? He should have just stayed at home.”
“Well that would have been a very boring book.”
Then the Doctor made the strangest sound; it took a moment for Clara to identify it as a giggle. He was smiling at her and instinctively she put her hand out to him. Just as he was about to reach and take it, Matron barrelled in. “Time for your bath, Doctor. Don’t want you getting bed sores.”
“The Doctor and I were just about to go out and take a walk.”
“Hush now. Don’t be ridiculous. For a start, it’s raining.” Clara looked out the window and Matron was right, it was teeming. She wondered why she had thought it to be sunny. “And secondly, we use the term bed-ridden for a reason.”
“She does have a point,” the Doctor chimed in, lifting his arm for the attentions of Matron’s sponge. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Clara.”
Clara could see a slight scowl on Matron’s face. “All right, Doctor. It was lovely to meet you.”
The rest of the day passed in a blur, and before she knew it Clara was back in the Doctor’s room. “Good morning, Doctor.”
“Doctor. Yes, that’s me. And you’re Clara. What is it you do again?”
“I’m a junior doctor.”
He squinted at her. “Hmm, yes. I remember you said.”
She pulled up the same chair as she had used the previous day and sat down next to him. “What’s that you’ve got there?” He had a small leather covered book in his hands.
“These are my memories. My photos.”
“Reliving past glories?”
“Something like that. Would you like to see one?”
“Very much,” Clara said, leaning closer as the Doctor opened a very particular page, careful not to let her see any of the others.
“Those were the last patients I had before I retired.” He turned it to her and she looked closely at the three figures. A blonde man, a red-headed woman and between the two… “That’s you,” Clara said, glancing up to find the Doctor already nodding. “Weren’t you the looker in your day, eh?”
“I was, wasn’t I? Hot, some might even say.”
She grinned and looked at the photo again. There was something strange about it, the colours, or the clothing the couple were wearing. “What happened to them?”
“Well that’s a long story.”
“I like long stories.”
When the Doctor smiled, his eyes sparkled. “Amelia first came here when she was a small child.”
“And you saved her, right?”
“Don’t skip ahead, Clara.”
“Sorry,” she replied with a smirk.
“When she arrived, they didn’t think she had very long. You don’t see many children here, thankfully, and it made me angry that Amelia might not get the chance to live all of her adventures. So I told her stories of the days to come, ones she would probably never see. Fighting with pirates, saving whales–you know the sorts of things that children find fantastic. The stories, they awoke something in her, something that had been dormant, and she started to fight. She wanted to live. And she did.”
“That’s pretty amazing.”
“There you go, skipping ahead again.” His face fell as he remembered some agony.
“You were pretty close?”
“She and her husband, Rory, were the closest thing to family I had.”
“Don’t be. Everyone has their time, don’t they?” He shut the book again and held it in his wizened hand. Clara reached across and took it, squeezing it lightly. The Doctor’s eyes shut and a lifetime of pain passed across his expression. “I’m so tired, Clara. Everyone dies and I’m always left behind.”
Clara felt her chest constrict. Here was a man who gave his life for others. To see him endure such suffering, just waiting for death to finally come and take him by the hand, was next to unbearable. In the corner of her eye she saw something catch the light and she knew it was the morphine that would easily take his pain away if she gave him enough. “Doctor?” He opened his eyes and looked at her. She squeezed his hand again. “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
“How wonderfully young you are.”
Every day Clara returned to spend time with the Doctor and listen to him tell her about each memory in his book. He had led a fascinating and full life, but each time when they were finished talking, the reality of how much loss he had suffered over his long years weighed heavily on her. No one should suffer that much and still continue. It was a strange thought, because she didn’t normally think like that. Four weeks previous she had tried to get the Doctor to leave his bed, and now that idea seemed like insanity. He was bed-ridden. That meant he couldn’t leave his bed. But then why had he almost taken her hand?
Her thoughts cycled endlessly, but they always came back to his suffering and her capacity to end it. Always. But there were always more memories to hear from his book, so she pushed the thoughts aside until there was only one story left untold.
When she entered the room, the bed next to the Doctor’s was made. “Getting a roommate, Doctor?”
“Am I?” He looked at her and cocked his head, and she indicated the bed. “Oh.” He stared at it for a moment but didn’t seem to be making any sense of what he was seeing, so Clara approached him and pulled up her usual seat.
“Are you going to show me your last photo today?”
“No. I don’t open that page.”
The Doctor pulled himself up to sit straighter. “I had a patient once and from the minute she arrived she fought. Fought the nurses, me–everyone. She was not going to give in. Oh no, not River. But then, just like that, she was gone. There was something about it, the fact that in spite of all her fight, death still wasn’t afraid to come and claim her. It made me so angry, and I’m afraid to say, I did something unethical.”
Clara sat forward, enthralled by this revelation. “Doctor…”
“She had signed an order. She didn’t want to be resuscitated should she die. But… I just couldn’t let her die. Not when I had only just realised what she had come to mean to me.” The Doctors eyes fell to his hands in his lap. “I brought her back.”
“You loved her.”
“Tenses. Past, present, future. It makes very little difference.”
“And afterwards, what happened? Did she turn you away?”
The laugh that followed the question startled Clara into sitting back in her chair in confusion.
“What do I always tell you, Clara?”
“Don’t skip ahead.”
“This is why. Not because you’ll miss a good bit, but you might end up skipping into a parallel universe.” He reached out and tapped her on the nose, which should have felt patronising, but the fondness of it was comforting more than anything. She sat forward again to demonstrate that she was paying attention. “No, River did not turn me away, quite the opposite in fact. It took a very long time and a lot of convincing but in the end, she finally persuaded me to marry her. And for that, I will be forever grateful.”
Clara grinned. “I’ll bet you were a bit of a playboy in your day. A tough one to tie down?”
“Are you married, Clara?”
Such a straightforward question to find so curious. Clara felt that the answer should be apparent–was she married? How could she not be sure? “Em, no, I’m not,” she said finally.
The Doctor squinted at her for a moment before continuing his own train of thought. “Being married is nothing at all like being tied down. It’s holding on for dear life, because someday one of you will inevitably have to let go. Every moment you’re together, in every breath, death is there watching and waiting.”
“Did she die?”
“Doesn’t everyone?” His voice was so forlorn that it made Clara ache for him. “And that’s why I don’t open that page. What if I see her and the person I’ve been remembering all this time is different? What if she had a different nose, or different creases next to her eyes than she does in my memory? No, it would be too much to bear. It’s funny, isn’t it, how you go into this line of work to save lives, and in the end you realise you were in the business of death all along.”
The conversation was starting to make Clara’s head hurt. There was something she wanted to ask. No, needed to ask, and she couldn’t remember it. It wasn’t like her to forget things at all. Her eidetic memory was such that she often wished she were capable of forgetting things. Her stomach lurched as she realised that something was terribly wrong.
“Everyone dies except me, it seems. I’m stubborn like that,” the Doctor continued oblivious to Clara’s inner turmoil.
“Doctor,” Clara said, suddenly breathless. “You’re not dying.”
“But this is a hospice, so why are you here?”
“I have nowhere else to go.”
Clara pushed her chair back, making it screech on the vinyl flooring. “No. You see, this is an NHS facility, right?” The Doctor stared at her, not as though she had gone mad like she expected him to, but as though he were trying to remember something long forgotten that she had just stirred in him. “It’s in the news all the time–NHS facilities are packed to the rafters, and here you are with a medical team all to yourself.” Clara paced towards him. “Doctor? Where are the other patients?”
The Doctor leaned forward in his bed. “Clara, what do you do when you’re not here with me?”
Clara stopped in her tracks and parsed as much of her memory of the previous month through her mind as she quickly could and finally said, “Nothing.” She and the Doctor laughed in unison and then put their hands over their mouths.
The door swung open behind them and Matron barged in. “Doctor, what are you doing exerting yourself?”
The Doctor looked sheepish as he opened and closed his mouth, not sure what to say. “We were just having a private joke, Matron,” Clara said and threw the Doctor a conspiratorial wink behind Matron’s back.
Matron turned to Clara. “And you, Miss Oswald. What are you doing out of bed?”
“You’re very unwell. You need your rest.”
Clara blinked at her. “But I’m the junior doctor. I work here.”
Matron put her clammy palm to Clara’s forehead. “I think you need to lie down, dear.”
“Why would I lie down?”
“Look for yourself, your chart.” She motioned to the chart hanging on the bottom on the bed and Clara cautiously picked it up and read it.
She sat heavily on the bed and allowed Matron to help her lie down and prop the pillows behind her back. “It’s lovely how you two get along, but please go easy and don’t forget how ill you both are.” Matron gave them each a smile and then left the room.
“What does it say?” The Doctor asked, and Clara, still holding her chart, read it aloud to him.
“Oh,” the Doctor said. “Well, I knew you couldn’t be the Doctor, because I’m the Doctor.”
That unknown question clawed at Clara again, and this time she knew why she couldn’t remember. Whatever was growing in her brain was robbing her of her memory. But it didn’t make the search for the question hurt any less. It was burning behind her eyes and she felt that if she could just find it and say it, it wouldn’t hurt anymore.
“Do you want to know what mine says?” The Doctor’s voice floated across from his bed, giving her momentary ease from the headache. He had his chart in his hands and he read it to her. “The Doctor. Cardiac Fracture. Interminable.”
“That’s not even a real thing,” Clara said, grateful to be sure of something at least.
“See for yourself,” he said and passed it across the space between their beds.
Clara read it carefully and sure enough it did say that. ‘The Doctor. Cardiac Fracture. Interminable.’ She flicked through the entire chart, trying to find some sense, but it was filled with nothing but codes and graphs that were of no help whatsoever. She returned to the front page and read the words again, and from the ether, the question came.
She looked up from the chart at him. “Doctor? Doctor Who?”
* * *
When the Doctor awoke, his head was swimming and his right ear was burning. He clawed at it and pulled out the Morpheus Worm that had made a home of his head but was now withering in his hand. He was still sitting in the jump seat next to the console–the last place he remembered being conscious. Dragging a lock of hair down in front of his eyes, he was relieved to find it still dark. He sat back and scratched his head as he processed what had happened and recovered from the shock. Then he remembered. “Clara.”
She wasn’t in her bedroom, which made sense, as she was the one to break the worms’ connection meaning she would have regained consciousness first. But why hadn’t she come to find him? He found her in the kitchen eventually, having torn the cupboards apart in search of some unknown ingredient.
“Hi,” he said from the doorway, hoping not to startle her.
She looked around and her eyes were a little wild for a second before she snapped on the mask of being fine again. “Where do you keep the sugar?”
The Doctor loped in and tapped a hidden cupboard high up and took a bag of caster sugar down. “We keep the sugar up here. But feel free to change that, I don’t mind.”
“I just wanted to make…”
Clara pushed a strand of hair back behind her ear. “Yeah.”
“Come on, then.” He cleared a section of counter space and started separating the eggs into two bowls. Clara stood next to him and began to weigh the flour and the sugar.
“Bad dream?” the Doctor asked, knowing the answer.
“Yeah. And there was this little, thingy, in my ear.”
“Me too. The Morpheus Worm. Keeps you asleep until you die of dehydration and then gobbles your brain up. Horrid things, must have picked them up when we tried on those hats in the Ressifus Markets.”
“If it keeps you asleep, then how did we wake up?”
“You tell me. I couldn’t even seem to think my way out of bed. But you…”
Her hands stopped as she thought about what he had just said. “We were having the same dream. How… I mean, how is that even possible?”
“The TARDIS supports a low level psychic link between its occupants. Helps with the steering. It’s not really noticeable when you’re awake, but dreams can join together from time to time.”
“So it’s all true then? All your friends, your family, your wife–they’re all dead?”
The Doctor paused with his egg resting on the rim of the bowl. “Some are, some are not. And with others, well, it’s complicated.”
Clara put down the sugar and turned to him. “That bed next to yours. That was my death bed.”
The Doctor put the egg back in the carton before taking Clara in his arms and kissing her forehead. “It doesn’t have to mean anything. It was just a dream. A shared worm-induced dream, but a dream nonetheless.”
Clara leaned back and smiled up at him. “There’s nothing wrong with dying though, is there? As long as you’ve lived first.” Her words were bleak but oddly comforting. Her eyes sparkled with equal measures of wisdom and wonder, and he knew there must be a better term, but he could only think to describe it as ‘captivating.’
“Come on then.” she said, breaking the spell. “Those eggs aren’t going to separate themselves.” She broke from his embrace and put her hands on her hips to survey the chaos of the kitchen. “Right, so I was thinking pistachio, do we have any pistachio paste?”
“Green soufflé! I’ve never had it green before. Second drawer, next to the Sherbet Fountains.”
Clara skipped across to the drawer in search of the paste as the Doctor watched. Brilliant Clara. Clara who?