A bell above the door rang as Clara entered the shop.
“Be with you in a minute!” called a voice from under the counter.
Clara looked around the shop. It sold what would probably be termed “knick-knacks.” Useless things, really. Stocking-fillers and presents you'd give to people you hardly knew that you worked in a call centre with. She picked up a plastic Loch Ness Monster from a shelf.
“That's a very good gift for someone with an extra finger on their left hand.”
She turned, surprised, and looked up at a tall man with brown hair and an oddly squarish face.
“Welcome to Tawdry Quirks!” he said brightly. “Can I help you?”
Clara put the monster back and dug into her pocket. “Actually, I was hoping I could help you.” She pulled out a piece of folded newsprint. “You put an ad in the local paper? For an assistant?”
The man nodded. “Yes! I've been on my own here for far too long, it's time to bring in some help.”
Clara smiled. “I've got references,” she said, opening her handbag.
“You haven't even asked what the job involves!”
She shrugged. “Um, selling things? Maybe cleaning up a bit? I've worked in shops before.” She passed him a few sheets of paper.
He scanned the references quickly. “This all seems to be in order. Clara Oswald,” he read aloud, tasting the name. “Yes, I could work with a Clara.” He offered her his hand. “I'm John Smith.”
She shook the offered hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“So, do you want the job?” he asked.
“Just like that?” she asked, surprised. “Aren't you going to interview me or something?”
“Oh, I don't believe in all that. I trust my instincts. My instincts say that you, Clara, are going to be good for Tawdry Quirks. Welcome aboard!”
“Where do the novelty salt-shakers go?” she asked.
“Put them next to the blue boxes, yeah?”
“Right, and where are the blue boxes?”
“On the left.”
Clara looked around the shop until she saw the blue boxes, and then she wondered how she could have missed them. Boxes, all different sizes, but all the same rectangular shape and all the same deep blue. She picked one up, balancing the box of salt-shakers against her chest.
“What on Earth..?”
John appeared beside and snatched the blue box from her hand. “Careful.”
“What is that?”
“It's a police box. Or a model of one, anyway. It's what the police used to communicate before they got walkie-talkies.”
“I like them,” John said simply. “I find them... reassuring somehow. Sort of... homely.”
“Do you live in a blue box?” asked Clara, something niggling away at the back of her mind.
“Course not, I live in a house.”
“I do have a real one in the back garden, though,” he admitted, replacing the model police box on the shelf.
Clara laughed. “Where do you even get this stuff?”
“Suppliers,” he said. “They send me magazines with pictures in and I choose whatever feels most interesting.”
“Do you sell a lot?”
“Enough to turn a profit, but not enough to become a soulless minion of capitalism.” Something occurred to him. “Do you want to join the union?”
“There's a union?”
“Well, it's just me at the moment, but you're welcome to join.”
“I'll think about it.”
“You do that.”
John rushed out of the back-room, pulling his coat on. “Got to go out,” he called, “I'll be back before closing time.”
“You're leaving me in charge of the shop?” asked Clara, surprised.
“You'll be fine.”
“But I've only been here a week!”
John stopped at the door. “I trust you, Clara,” he said. “I trust you with my life, and more to the point I trust you with my shop.”
Clara nodded. “Right. Well.”
John left the shop and Clara put her hands on the counter. She was in charge now. She could do this.
The first half hour passed without incident, so Clara was feeling pretty good about herself when the bell rang and a woman with blonde curly hair entered the shop. She smiled at Clara and went straight to the blue boxes.
“Do you know what these are?” asked the woman.
“Police boxes,” said Clara, helpfully. “They're what the police used before technology was any good.”
The woman nodded, held up one of the boxes and, looking at Clara, said, “Do you know why you're here?”
Clara was confused by the question. “I'm here to look after the shop,” she said.
The woman shook her head. “That's not what I meant.”
“Oh.” She wondered if the woman was going to try to recruit her into some sort of cult.
The stranger walked over to the counter and placed the blue box on it, right in the middle between herself and Clara.
“Do you want to buy this?” asked Clara, hoping to avoid the subject of Jesus or Buddha or whoever the woman thought Clara should know about.
“Not today.” She looked at Clara strangely for a moment and then shook her head. “It'll come back to you.”
“What will?” asked Clara, but the woman was leaving the shop now and she didn't especially want to make her stay. She shook her head and took the box back to the shelf where it belonged.
By the time John returned she'd almost forgotten about the weird woman. Certainly she didn't seem worth mentioning to him, so Clara didn't, telling him instead about the old lady who'd brought back a malfunctioning yo-yo not long after.
“She said the string didn't fit,” said Clara.
“That happens sometimes,” said John, “you can't trust string.” He looked at Clara, seemingly about to say something, and then headed to the back of the shop in silence.
Clara frowned, but he was a bit weird. She looked at her watch and decided to tidy the shop up a bit before closing time. She was just alphabetising the colouring books when John appeared at her shoulder.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Course you can,” she said.
“Do you want to go for a drink? With me? You don't have to, I'm not trying to sexually harass you or anything.” He stopped, took a step back and said, “Am I making you feel uncomfortable?”
“No,” said Clara, “you're not.” She considered his offer. He was quite cute, and she'd be lying if she said it hadn't crossed her mind. “Okay,” she said. “We can go for a drink.”
Clara found a seat by the window as John got the drinks from the bar. She wondered if this counted as a date, or if hadn't meant to give her that impression. You couldn't really tell with him. Whatever it was, it wouldn't hurt to check her reflection for messy hair or smudged make-up. She glanced at it quickly, not wanting to be caught preening.
“You look fine,” said John, appearing from nowhere with their drinks.
“I was just looking out the window. At the street. The people on the street.”
“Okay,” he said, sitting down opposite her.
“Is this a date?” she asked.
“Do you want it to be a date?”
“I don't know. Isn't there a law against dating people you work for?”
“Not as such,” said John. “Look,” he said, “whether or not you want it to be a date has no bearing on your employment, I promise.”
“Then yes. Yes, I would like it to be date.” She tried to look confident and worldly.
“I feel like I've known you for ages,” he said. “Not that I believe in past lives, but if I did then I'm sure we'd have met in one. Wait, was that creepy? Did it sound creepy to you?”
Clara reached across the table and put her hand on his. “Relax, you're not creepy.” She smiled at him. “I know what you mean, though. About feeling like we've met before.”
“In real life,” he said with a smile.
Clara frowned. “What do you mean?”
“It was a joke,” he said.
Something was nagging at her, something that had been lurking at the back of her mind since that woman had come into the shop. She shook her head to clear it. “Sorry, I thought you meant... I don't know what I thought you meant. Just... never mind.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I just need to visit the ladies'. Back in a minute.”
In the toilets she studied herself in the mirror. She looked fine, she'd just got mixed up a bit, that was all. Probably just nerves. She hadn't been on a proper date in ages. Before leaving she bought a pack of condoms from the machine on the wall, just in case.
They got a taxi back to his house, and Clara was just drunk enough to let him feel her up on the back seat. They stumbled out clinging to each other, paid the driver after some fumbling for change, and then kissed on the doorstep until it got too cold to stand outside.
“We have to be quiet,” he whispered, “I don't live alone.”
She nodded, letting him take her hand lead her up the stairs to his bedroom.
Clara woke up to find a girl of about twelve years old staring at her with affected disinterest. She stared back for a moment, confused, and then the girl looked away from her and said, “Dad, I can't find my PE kit.”
Dad? She felt the bed move as John sat up beside her.
“Tell them you've broken your ankle,” he said to the girl.
“That's a lie,” the girl replied. “It's an obvious lie.”
“Then limp,” he said. “Look, you're old enough to think up your own lies, I can't do everything for you.”
The girl looked back at Clara and then left the room sulking.
“John,” said Clara, “when you said you didn't live alone, I thought you meant you had a flatmate.”
“I do. Well, a daughter. That's a bit like a flatmate.”
“That's nothing like a flatmate!” She pulled the sheets around herself and sat up. “You could have said something.”
“I didn't want to put you off,” he said. “You might have thought I was trying to recruit you to be her mother. I'm not, by the way.” He picked his trousers off the floor and got out of bed. “I'd better check she's had breakfast.” He pressed a quick kiss to Clara's lips and left the room pulling his clothes on.
Clara wasn't sure what to do. Get dressed, go downstairs, introduce herself to the kid? Stay here and wait for her to go to school? She wasn't sure what the etiquette was for situations like this. She didn't want to seem like she was hiding, though, so she started looking round for her clothes.
“I liked Amy.”
“You're allowed to like more than one person, you know,” said John.
Clara walked into the kitchen and tried to look like she felt comfortable. “Hi.”
John was searching a pile of clean laundry, presumably for the missing PE kit, and his daughter was sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cornflakes.
He looked up and by way of introductions said, “Jenny, this is Clara. Clara, Jenny.”
Jenny looked Clara up and down and nodded while spooning cornflakes into her mouth. Clara liked to think she was good with children, so she smiled at the girl in a friendly manner.
“Didn't you put your PE kit in the wash?” asked John.
“No,” said Jenny through a mouthful of cereal.
She shrugged. “You're the parent.”
John sighed and checked his watch. “You'll be late if you don't get going.”
Jenny stood and picked her school-bag up from under the table. “Can I go round to Rani's after school?”
“Yes, if you must. Phone me when you want picked up.”
Jenny nodded, took a last look at Clara, and left the kitchen.
“So,” said Clara as the outside door slammed shut, “how did you get a kid?”
“The usual way,” he said. He picked up the empty cereal bowl and took it to the sink. “I was young, I fell in love, Jenny came along, and then...”
“And then?” Clara prompted.
He shrugged. “Then her mum left the country. She took the dog. Didn't take Jenny, though. We don't really like to talk about it.”
Clara nodded, feeling bad about having brought up the subject. “Sorry.”
“Not your fault,” said John. He threw a tea-towel towards her. “I'll wash, you dry?”
Clara stopped off at her own flat to get showered and changed before heading to the shop. She'd never slept with her boss before, so she wasn't entirely sure how different things were supposed to be now. It turned out to be much the same only John smiled every time he saw her and she smiled back.
The blonde woman from the day before showed up just before the shop closed for lunch. She stood by the door and asked, “Is he here?”
Clara felt that nagging wrongness return. “John? He's in the back, doing the accounts. I can get him for you, if you like.”
The woman shook her head. “No,” she said, “I'm looking for the Doctor.”
“I don't know what you mean,” said Clara, feeling dizzy enough to set her hands on the counter for stability.
“Of course you do, Clara. Don't you remember?”
She didn't, but she did find a vague memory surfacing in her head. “River,” she said. “You're River Song.” She swayed slightly. “How do I know you?”
River reached out and took her hand. “I'm sorry, Clara, you can't stay here.”
Clara tried to protest, but she was just so tired, and...
She stirred as he lifted her from the floor, muttering, “We have to get back to the TARDIS.”
John sat her on the plastic chair behind the counter. “What's wrong?” he asked, worried.
“Everything's wrong.” She blinked a few times in the light as she opened her eyes. “Did I faint?” she asked, coming back to normality.
“You were on the ground,” said John, “I don't know what happened to you.” He kissed her forehead and hugged her.
“There was a woman...” she started. “She wanted to see a doctor.”
“Never mind about that. Have you eaten anything today?”
“I... actually no, I haven't.” That probably explained a lot.
“We'll close the shop,” said John, “and get you something to eat. I can't have the staff fainting everywhere, people will think I'm cruel.”
“You're not,” she said, “you're really nice.” She let him help her to her feet, didn't protest when he manoeuvred her into her coat and led her out of the shop.
Clara sat in the pub trying to eat slowly from her bowl of chips. She didn't want to look like a pig, but she was hungrier than she'd realised. John sat next to her, looking as though he expected her to faint again at any moment.
“I'm fine,” she told him for the umpteenth time. “Probably just shagged-out,” she said, aiming for levity.
“Maybe,” he said, obviously still concerned.
Clara popped a chip into her mouth and chewed on it, thinking. Something weird was happening, something really weird and not right.
“Do you want to go home?” asked John. “You can have the rest of the day off.”
“What if the shop gets busy?”
“Clara, I sell novelty salt-shakers, the shop never gets busy.”
“Have you really got a police box in your back garden?” she asked.
He stole a chip from the bowl. “Course I have, why would I lie about a thing like that?”
“Can I see it?” she asked, suppressing the feeling that this was somehow terribly important.
He shrugged. “There's not much to see. It doesn't do anything, it just sort of stands there next to the shed.”
“Where did you get it?”
“I got it from...” he tailed off. “It was years ago, I think I bought it off a man.”
“Yeah,” he said, more certain now, “a man. He looked like he sold dodgy mobile phones down the market. Suit and trainers. Sideburns. Slightly unconvincing accent.”
“And he just, what, asked if you wanted a police box?”
“Is that so strange?”
“A bit. No one's ever tried to sell me anything like that.” She smiled. “Sounds a bit like a story, really. Rub it and you get three wishes.”
“What would you wish for?” she asked.
“A shop, a daughter who does her homework, and a girlfriend called Clara.” He smiled at her. “I like my life, it's a good life. I'm not lonely, or sad, and I've got a home to call my own. Lots of people would be envious.”
Clara felt that sense of wrongness again, but she made herself smile. “I'm glad you're happy.”
“I'm happy you're glad,” he said, then frowned slightly. His expression cleared quickly and he said, “Anyway, finish your chips.”
The next morning Clara helped Jenny get ready for school before heading to the back garden to get a look at the mystery box. She stood in front of it, read the faded lettering on the door. Pull To Open it said, like a command. She pressed her hand against the door.
“It's locked,” said John, appearing behind her.
“Why?” asked Clara, not moving her hand. “What's in it?”
“Nothing, as far as I know.”
Clara turned away from the blue box. “Is there a key?”
John took her hand. “I don't want to open it.” He looked at her with a surprising intensity. “Something terrible happens if we open that box.”
Clara shivered in the cold air of the garden. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” he said, suddenly normal again. “I was only teasing you. You should have seen your face, though. It was like you'd seen a ghost.”
“I don't believe in ghosts,” she said, trying to sound convincing.
“Come back into the house,” he said, “it's freezing out here.”
She followed him into the kitchen, stood looking out the window into the garden while the kettle boiled. She tried to shake off the feeling that the box was watching her. She turned from the window and John handed her a mug of tea. “We should get going,” she said, “to the shop.”
“Let's take the day off,” he said.
He kissed her then, and she wondered if it was just to shut her up. She chased the thought away and relaxed against him. He felt solid and comfortable and most importantly real. She put her tea down on the counter next to the sink and reached up to run her hands through his hair. He lifted her onto the kitchen table and stood between her parted legs, moving his mouth to her neck. Clara sighed contentedly and starting unbuttoning his shirt.
The blue box watched.
The next time she was alone in the shop, Clara waited calmly for her visitor to arrive. She had questions, and she wanted answers. She placed one of the model police boxes on the counter.
“What is this?” she asked when the woman walked into the shop.
River shook her head. “I need you to remember.”
Clara stared at the box. She lifted it, turned it in her hands, tried to pin down the fleeting thoughts in her head. “It's... it's bigger on the inside,” she said, surprising herself.
River smiled. “Yes. And what else?”
Clara shook her head. “That's stupid, though. How can something be bigger on the inside?”
“Think. What else do you know about it?”
“Who are you anyway? Why don't you just leave us alone?” She was getting scared now.
“I'm just a memory,” said River. “I'm not really here.” She reached out, placed her hand through Clara's. “See?”
Clara dropped the box. “You're dead,” she said with certainty. “You're dead, and the Doctor...” she fell into silence, frowning.
“You're almost there,” said River. “Please, try to remember.”
“It's psychic,” said the Doctor, rounding the console. “It's in the telepathic circuits and we don't have much time to get it out.” He pulled a lever and turned a dial. “I'm going to hop us forward a few hours, see if we can shake it off.”
Clara nodded and yawned.
“No, no, no,” said the Doctor, grabbing her arms. “You have to stay awake. You have to concentrate. Otherwise you'll never wake up. You'll dream yourself to death.”
Clara clung to him, alarmed. “It doesn't seem real. Nothing seems real any more.”
He swore, turned her towards the control column. “Look at the TARDIS. She'll keep you safe. She'll bring you home.”
His voice was fading into the distance, even as he was standing right next to her. Clara stared up at the TARDIS and tried to stay awake.
Clara opened her eyes. She was alone in the shop. She bent down and picked up the fallen model of the TARDIS. Shaking, she shoved it into her handbag and went to find John.
“I know it sounds stupid,” she said when they reached the garden, “but we have to open the police box.”
“I don't have the key,” he said, shaking his head.
“I know where it is,” she said, pointing up. “There's a spare one behind the P. Help me up.”
John stepped back. “I don't want to.”
“I can't explain,” she said, “mostly because you'll think I've gone insane. But you have to trust me on this.”
“If you open that box, nothing good will come of it!”
Clara grabbed his hand and tried pulling him towards the TARDIS. “If you don't open it, we're going to die.”
“No,” he said, not moving, “we're fine where we are. I'm not letting that thing into my head.”
Clara stopped. “What thing?”
He looked at her, his expression haunted. “The Doctor,” he said.
She took his hand. “You're the Doctor. All of this,” she gestured at the garden, “all of this is a dream. It's not real.”
“It's real to me,” he insisted.
Clara turned to the TARDIS and pushed at the door. “Come on,” she said to it, “he's being stubborn.”
“I'm not being stubborn, Clara. I'm making a choice. I choose to stay here, with you and Jenny and the shop.”
“For how long? Until we die?” She pressed her back against the door, hoping her weight would shift it.
“I'd rather die happy than...”
John looked like he was about to cry. “He's old and he's sad, you don't know what it's like. He doesn't stay still because he's scared to stop running. He's got nothing.”
“He's got me,” said Clara.
He shook his head. “Not the way I've got you.”
“Do you want me to die?” she asked, desperate. “You can die if you want, but I'd quite like to live a bit longer.”
She thought he'd argue, but he just slumped and looked down at his shoes. “No,” he said. “No, I don't want you to die.”
She left the door and took his hand. “It'll be okay.” She kissed his cheek. “You won't be alone.”
“So,” she said, watching the Doctor set the TARDIS in flight. “You secretly want to work in a shop.”
He looked up at her. “What's wrong with working in a shop? Some of my best friends have worked in shops.”
“Nothing wrong with it,” she said, “but it's not what I'd expect you to fantasise about.” She was deliberately avoiding the bit about having a home and a family, it didn't seem fair to ask him about that.
“Just sometimes, idly, I think it might be nice to work in a shop,” he said, defensive. He brushed against her as he moved around the console, and she could see him tense. She'd also been avoiding the whole 'having sex with each other in a fantasy world' issue.
“You don't have to be scared of me,” she said quietly.
“Do you want to go on a date?” she asked, stepping off the cliff.
“A date?” He looked terrified.
Clara shrugged. “Just an idea. A stupid idea, not worth thinking about.”
“Okay,” he said, obviously relieved.
She nodded and managed a smile. “Where are we going to next?”
“Somewhere warm, with a nice beach. I thought we could do with a holiday after all that... nonsense.”
“I'll go and find some flip-flops,” she said, grateful for an excuse to leave the room.
“You do that,” said the Doctor. “And see if we have any sunscreen, I don't want to get burned.”
Clara nodded and headed off into the ship. Things were back to normal, then. They were safe, nobody had died, and that had to count as a good result. She stopped at the door and glanced back to find the Doctor watching her with a thoughtful expression. She shrugged it off. He was weird, he wanted to work in a shop.