North London, Early 1985
The Doctor shivered as the frigid, starless night clung to his skin and clothes. He pulled open the glass and metal door of the chip shop, and the warm heady odor of frying fish and chips hooked its tender fingers inside his nostrils. It tugged, and his feet obeyed as he passed through the open door underneath the gilded clang of a bell hooked to its top.
The shop unfolded itself to him in screaming white tile and worn amber wood. Dull chrome trimmed the counter edges in which he saw only tinctured, blurry featureless reflections of himself. A perfect line of pockmarked shiny wooden tables ran parallel to the orders counter and menu board, but the walls of the shop were mostly bordered in booths with high-backed wide seats suited in the ugliest brown naugahyde he’d ever seen. Nearly every seat was filled with hungry diners, and every table crowded with food and drink.
He peered at the order counter and saw there was no queue in front of it. His eyes found the far end of the counter and a bright white sign with blue letters: PLACE ORDER HERE. He was hungry. He quickly scurried to the employee underneath the sign -- a pale woman whose years wrinkled across her face and frosted the few strands of hair that peeked from under her blue cap.
“‘Ello there. What’ll ye have?” she asked.
“‘Ello there. Don’t quite know yet,” he said, glancing up at the pale backlit menu board. He studied the list slowly until his stomach complained with a loud, empty growl. “Oh, sorry,” he said softly, his cheeks flushing a bit pink.
“Right then,” he raised his voice and rubbed his hands together. “I’ll take the regular fish and chips with a ginger ale, please.” Shoving his pale slender hand into his right pocket, he retrieved a few quid, paid for his meal, and advanced to his right down to the end of the counter.
He leaned against the chrome railing behind him, glancing at the other diners as he waited for his order. There was only one empty seat left -- half of a booth where a pale lithe man with broad shoulders sat hunched over his half-empty boat of fish and chips. He sipped from an amber bottle of ale and stared blankly ahead through the front windows into the black night streaked by streetlamps and headlights.
The Doctor pushed his flippy golden brown hair out of his eyes and studied the man for a moment. Shaggy black hair tumbled down the man’s neck until it almost dusted the collar of his white button-down shirt. He reminded the Doctor a little of Rory, except a little older and with darker eyes over which a heavy unibrow spanned and arched like a huge, black bird in flight. His eyes were dull and shattered with thin, jagged blood rivulets like pink rivers fracturing across a map’s surface.
“Your order, sir!” a voice shouted. The Doctor turned and looked in its direction and saw a tray loaded with his food, drink, cutlery, and napkins. “Thank you!” he shouted in reply, floating his voice above the noise of the frying and clanging so the man who’d set his tray on the counter could hear him. He carefully pulled the tray from the counter with both hands and turned around, scanning the nearly packed dining room.
The only empty seat was still the one across from the tired young man he’d studied. He stood still for a moment and thought. Tired humans could react in a number of different ways. He could sense the young man brooded a little -- hooded eyes and tightened lips -- but he thought better of it and walked towards him anyway.
As the Doctor’s boots squeaked on the white tile floor, the young man looked up. His gaze was washed out and weary, and his expression did not change. The Doctor stopped in front of him. “‘Ello,” he said. “This appears to be the only empty remaining seat. Might I join you?”
“Sure,” the young man said softly, and nodded. The Doctor noticed his accent was American but not region-specific: his voice was deep, clear, almost broadcast quality.
“Right, then.” He carefully set his tray on the table and slid into the empty seat across from him. “I’m agreeable for conversation, or not. Whatever you prefer.”
The young man smiled. “I’m okay. I’m glad you sat here, actually. I don’t know anyone here in London. I could use some company.”
“You’re from America, then,” the Doctor replied, shaking some malt vinegar onto his chips from a tall cold glass bottle.
The young man nodded. “Georgia, to be exact. Athens, Georgia.” He took a long, deep swig from his bottle of ale, swallowed, and sat it down gently. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch your name.”
“I’m the Doctor.” He slid a vinegar-soaked chip in his mouth and chewed.
“That’s it? Just the Doctor?”
The Doctor nodded. “That’s what everyone calls me,” he replied after swallowing his bite.
“I’m Bill.” Bill extended his hand to the Doctor. “Nice to meet you.”
The Doctor wiped his slick fingers on a napkin, took Bill’s hand, and shook it. “Nice to meet you, Bill. What brings you to London?”
“My band is recording an album. Our third full one.” He sighed. “But it’s been dragging on for ages and I just want to be done.”
The Doctor looked at Bill curiously as he slid a bite of fried cod into his mouth and chewed. “Oh?” he asked, his voice muffled a little. Realizing his faux pas, he quickly swallowed his bite. “What’s wrong, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Bill looked down a moment, and then back up at the Doctor. His eyes were noticeably sadder. “Doctor, the other guys in the band are my best friends, but the tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife. We’ve gotten into a lot of arguments. We’re all tired, a long way from home, and we feel like shit.” He took another long deep swig of his ale and set the bottle down.
The Doctor gazed at Bill intently. “That sounds awful,” he said. “An old friend of mine said music is a pure expression of joy. Sounds like you lot are having difficulty finding that joy”
“That’s an understatement,” Bill continued, popping a small hunk of fish into his mouth and chewing. “On top of it, our leader singer is acting weird -- weirder than normal, and he’s a pretty eccentric guy to begin with. He won’t even talk to us.” Bill wiped his fingers and looked up at the Doctor.
The Doctor had studied Bill as he spoke. Pictures floated up to the surface of his mind’s chemical bath, and one came into stark focus. A young man with dark eyes and shoulder-length black hair stared into the camera lens. Bill stood to his left, next to a blue-eyed man whose blond curls hid half of his gaunt face. On the end was a young man with thin, almond-shaped eyes whose round glasses and bowl-cut brown hair almost made him resemble Harry Potter.
Then, mandolin-studded minor key music riding on a stair-step backbeat and bass-heavy heartbeat drum floated from the stereo in his brain. Soon, a thin, clear keening voice sailed on top of the music and touched the stars.
The Doctor now knew who Bill was, who they were.
“I don’t mean to offend you, Doctor, because you’re British,” Bill continued, “but I’ve never been to London and I’m beginning to hate this place. The food is fucking awful.” Bill pointed down to his half-finished boat of fish and chips. “This is the best meal I’ve had in weeks. I’m afraid -- “ he said, but suddenly froze.
The Doctor leaned in and gazed at Bill. “What is it, Bill?”
Bill shook his head a little and waved his hand. “I’m sorry, Doc. I’m dumping on you.”
The Doctor’s crystalline green eyes widened. “No! You mustn’t think that, Bill. Please. Go on.”
Bill leaned in and lowered his voice. “I’m afraid that we’re done as a band.”
The Doctor sat straight up. “Rubbish. You lot are hardly done.”
Bill chuckled darkly. “You don’t know the half of it, Doctor.”
The Doctor gazed at Bill. “I may not know what happens in the studio, but I know you and your music are absolutely important. You have much more to give, much more to offer.”
Bill smirked. “Tell that to the other guys.”
The Doctor leaned in and glared a little at Bill. “No. You tell them.” He sat up and smiled a little. “But you can quote me if you like. I’m a fan.”
Bill looked at the Doctor incredulously. “I haven’t even told you the name of our band.”
“Bill, I know who you are. I remembered all your faces after we started talking.”
Bill froze and gazed at the Doctor.
“Let me tell you something, Bill. I’ve heard your first EP and your first two albums and they are absolutely brilliant. Probably the best of American popular music in this century. A product of your combined talents, creativity, sensibility, and artistry. Nothing like it on the radio now, nor --” he stopped himself from accidentally letting their futures spill from his lips -- “do I suspect there ever will be.”
The Doctor grinned. “And...you’ll probably think I’m stark raving bonkers for this.” He slid to the edge of the seat and lifted one of his feet aloft for Bill to see. Bill’s eyes widened as he stared at the Doctor’s shiny black thick-soled boots.
“Whose boots do those remind you of?” the Doctor shouted as he pointed to his own boot.
Bill chuckled. “Michael’s.”
“So, my dear Bill, as you can see, I am a fanboy. Not ashamed of it in the least.”
Unable to contain himself, Bill started laughing. The Doctor felt himself brighten. He pointed at Bill. “See, Bill? You’re laughing. That’s good. Laughter is cool.”
“You are weird, Doc,” Bill said between laughs.
“Yes I am!” the Doctor declared, lowering his leg and sliding back into his seat. He shut his eyes and drank a deep draught of ginger ale and set the bottle down hard on the table.
“Now,” he said as Vincent’s face floated to the surface of his mind’s chemical bath. “I will also tell you something you already know. Artists can be caught in the throes of trials, tribulation, and pain. I had a friend not too long ago who painted absolutely stunning works of art -- probably the finest in the universe. He was a man of singular talent yet haunted by his own demons.”
“What happened to him?” Bill asked.
The Doctor inhaled, damming up his eyes before the tears came. He shoved them back down into himself until they dripped into the caverns of his hearts. “He died -- tragically, at his own hand -- and there was nothing I could do about it.”
Bill nodded. “We lost a friend in a car accident a year ago. She was a photographer. Michael almost shut down. He could barely sing.”
“So you understand,” the Doctor replied. “Loss, pain, darkness...all parts of life. You can let them swallow you whole. Or,” he said, leaning in closer to Bill, “you can treat them like mud from which you sprout and grow like a lotus.”
Bill inhaled deeply, exhaled, and gazed at the Doctor. “You’re right. And I must admit, I do feel better.” He smiled. “Thank you, Doc.”
“You’re welcome, Bill,” the Doctor said before he popped another bite of fish into his mouth and chewed.
Bill turned up his bottle of ale and let the last of the golden liquid slide past his lips and down his throat. He gently set the bottle down. “I don’t expect it will be easy, but we will finish this record. Good, bad, or ugly, we’ll see it through.”
The Doctor swallowed his bite and gently tapped Bill on the shoulder with his right fist. “That’s the spirit, man. You won’t regret it, I promise you.”
Bill smiled, and then glanced down at the Doctor’s bowtie. “By the way,” Bill said slowly, pointing at the bowtie, “I meant to tell you that I like your bowtie, Doctor.”
The Doctor felt himself blush. “Thank you, Bill.” His fingers instinctively fluttered to the ends of his bowtie and he carefully straightened it. “Bowties are cool.”
Bill chuckled. “I might steal that from you. Kind of like you stole Michael’s preference for boots.” He winked.
“Oh, please. Steal to your heart’s content,” the Doctor replied.
And the two men -- the shaggy haired drummer from Athens, Georgia and the time traveler from Gallifrey -- ate, drank, and laughed into the deepening night.
Two Regenerations Later
The Doctor pushed a few buttons on the console of her TARDIS and felt the music hum into the air over the speakers in the console room. Lyrics sailed in a two slightly nasal, clear tenor voices -- one higher than the other -- sandwiched between fiery guitars, bullet-shot snare drums, and a hopping frenetic bass line.
“That’s great! It starts with an earthquake. Birds and snakes and airplanes. And Lenny Bruce is not afraid!”
She heard Mattie’s voice shout behind her, punching a hole in the music. “Who’s Lenny Bruce?”
The Doctor whirled around. Mattie Choudhari walked towards the Doctor from where she’d stood near the TARDIS door. Today the young olive-skinned woman had slicked her short purple hair into a pompadour and topped it with a precariously perched black pork pie hat. Mattie had chosen a simple outfit: a black blazer with skinny lapels; a black tank top emblazoned with a black-and-white picture of five young men with the words MINOR THREAT underneath it in stenciled white letters; a pair of black skinny jeans; and a purple pair of high-top Converse trainers.
The Doctor glanced down at Mattie’s shoes and remembered the same kind of trainers that she wore three regenerations ago. She didn’t let her eyes soften, however, or her voice glow wistful. Instead, she leaned against the console, folded her slender arms, and grinned. “Mattie, as many times as you’ve heard the song, you still don’t know who Lenny Bruce is,” she said, chuckling.
Mattie grinned as she stopped in front of the Doctor. “Before my time, Doctor, as you like to say.”
“Cheeky,” the Doctor replied.
Mattie’s eyes glowed. “You’re obsessed, Doctor,” she said, pointing to the dark-skinned Time Lady who towered over her. “You have near encyclopedic knowledge of them -- far more than me. It’s not my fault you’re twenty four hundred years old and still act like a fangirl when you see them.”
The Doctor leaned down and looked the much shorter woman in the eye. “Says the Anglo-Indian girl who loves American punk rock,” she replied, pointing at the shirt Mattie wore.
“The 1980’s D.C. music scene is one of my special interests, Doctor. You know that.”
The Doctor titled her head and looked at Mattie with a sly smile and narrowed eyes. “So don’t give me shite over my fannishness, Mattie.”
Mattie chuckled. “Fair enough, Doctor. By the way, you never did tell me where we’re going, yeah?”
The Doctor’s raised her eyebrows. “It’s a surprise.”
Grinning fiendishly, she turned around and focused her attention on the console, brushing an errant long black braid from in front of her left eye. She glanced down at her own clothes -- a black velvet blazer, frilly red shirt, tight black pants, and knee-high boots -- and decided they would be fine. The worst this crowd would think was that she was a romantic New Waver.
The TARDIS landed, wheezing and screeching in its usual way. The Doctor spun around and held out her arm. Mattie hooked her arm around the Doctor’s, and the two women walked towards the door. The Doctor pushed it open, revealing rows of tall houses and a deepening pink blush on the horizon above the setting sun. “We are on Oconee Street in Athens, Georgia. It is April 5, 1980. And you, my dear Mattie, are about to see music history happen.”