Autumn. The grass underfoot was thick with mud and damp leaves. She squelched around and between gravestones, searching through her handbag for a hankie, or a cigarette, or something to occupy her hands.
She’d grown bored of his ramblings about the stained glass windows and plead the old I-need-to-stretch-my-legs-after-the-bus-trip. She planned to stretch them about as far as the wrought iron bench on the road outside the churchyard, but in the event she never made it that beyond the gate.
Her foot caught on the broken stump of a gravestone and she stumbled, half falling. Her hankie fluttered out of her grip and as she made to catch it before it hit the muddy ground, her eye fell upon the next stone in the line. Her clean hankie fell, unnoticed, into a puddle, cloth greying at once.
An old, old stone, weathered around the edges and spattered with moss, but the words were still legible. She read the words, and the date, and she read them again, her hand clasped tightly over her mouth.
Footsteps squished behind her. “Fancy trying out the pub?” he said. She didn’t know how long she’d been standing at the graveside, her hand over her mouth. “I’m parched.” She turned to look at him, wide-eyed. She’d forgotten all about him. She’d been in another world. Another life. “What’s wrong, love? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I —” What could she say? The truth? I just trod on the grave of a very dear friend of mine — I didn’t know he was dead — yes, this grave, this eighteenth century grave. I knew him. I knew him. “I don’t know. I had a bit of a funny moment.”
On the walk to the pub, she dug through her bag for a cigarette with shaking hands. He had to light a match for her, blathering on all the while about the bloody stained glass windows in the church.
A lump had risen in her throat. It stayed there, choking her, all afternoon, all the way back to Inverness on the bus, all the way up to their hotel room, where she took off her coat and then put it back on. I-need-to-stretch-my-legs-after-the-bus-trip.
There was a phone box on the corner. She dropped in her money and dialled the number from the address book in her handbag. As it rang and rang she leaned against the glass, praying. Please don’t be out. Please don’t be busy. Please don’t have moved. He might have moved. She hadn’t spoken to him in over a year.
“Hello?” She couldn’t contain her sigh of relief at hearing his voice. His wonderful voice, familiar as the sun even after so many months. She could hear other voices in the background — not people, a radio or a television chuntering away.
“Ben,” she said. “Oh, thank goodness.”
“Polly? That you?” There was a rustle and a click. The television or radio turned off. “Everything alright? You sound awful.”
“I need to —” A car rolled by. “I need to talk to you.”
“What’s all that racket?”
“I’m in a phone box,” she explained. “In Inverness.”
“What’re you doing in Inverness?”
“I’m on holiday.”
It was turning out to be such a silly, stilted conversation, but after the day she’d had it was too much. She sagged against the glassy wall and burst into tears, sobbing down the phone. She couldn’t help it. She’d been holding back tears all afternoon and the longer she’d been holding them back the more tears had built up behind the sluice-gates.
“Pol?” The line crackled. “Are you — what’s happened?”
“I’m sorry.” Polly wiped her eyes with her free hand. Her makeup would be a mess. She’d have to fix it before going back to the hotel. “It has to do with — you know.”
“Oh.” He knew. Of course he did.
“I was visiting this church today,” she said. “With my — friend. This friend. And I was just — just walking in the churchyard, and I found a gravestone.”
“A gravestone?” If she didn’t sound so disconsolate he was sure to have said a gravestone, in a graveyard? Shocking, Duchess.
“A gravestone,” she repeated. “It said — Ben, it said James Mccrimmon.”
Silence. The line rustled. “You don’t know it’s him. It could be a different —”
“James Robert Mccrimmon. Born seventeen twenty-four.”
Further silence. “Bleedin’ ‘ell.”
“When did he —”
“Seventeen eighty-eight.” The year was etched indelibly into her memory.
Silence. Silence. “That’s not such a bad run, is it? For the seventeen hundreds. That’s, what, sixty—”
“I’m just sayin’.” He was quiet. “Could be worse.”
“I know, but —” But. “I just. I never thought of this.”
“How’d you mean?”
“I think about them a lot. Do you?”
Silence on the line. “I try not to.”
“Well, I think about them a lot.” She swallowed. “It’s just — I always pictured him off with the Doctor somewhere, having adventures. Not like this.” It sounded so silly when she said it out loud.
“Well, he is, isn’t it?”
“It’s a time machine, Duchess. They’re both out there somewhere, or they will be — and so will we. We’ll all be on the moon in a hundred years or so, right? It hasn’t happened yet. It’s still happening.”
“I suppose.” It was one thing to wrap your head around temporal relativity as a general concept; it was quite another to see it happening before your eyes. It’d been five years or so since she’d last seen Jamie. He’d been dead a century and a half. He might be off somewhere right now, with the Doctor. It was enough to make her head spin.
Now that she thought of it, he’d been dead since before she was born. Her whole life, his bones had been lying in that tiny Scottish kirkyard, waiting for her to stumble on them. “I suppose. But — oh, Ben, it was awful.”
“I know, Pol. I know.”
“I feel like I ought to do something. Leave some flowers.”
The line crackled. “Yeah. Do that. Leave some for me too, will you?”
“I will.” The pips sounded. “My money’s running out. I have to go. My — friend — they’ll be waiting for me. For dinner.”
“Yeah. Alright. Listen — phone me when you’re back in London, will you?”
“I will. Good-night, Ben.”
Click went the line. She stared at the mute receiver. She wished fervently that the Doctor was a normal person, with a phone that she could call — how was it that he could live in a phone box and not have a phone? It didn’t seem possible. She could call him and five years or so would have passed for him, too, and Jamie would be with him, or else she could ask after him, make sure he was alright.
She hung up the receiver and scrabbled through her handbag for a compact mirror. Her make-up had run. She dabbed at it fruitlessly with a hankie, trying to have the conversation in her head. Doctor, she might say, Doctor, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve met this boy and he’s a nice boy, and now I’m going on grown-up holidays with him to look at churches that I don’t even like because it feels proper, and he’s asked me, Doctor, and what should I do, Doctor? I can’t very well turn down a perfectly nice boy for not being a different nice boy who’s made it perfectly clear that he’s not interested — what would he say to that load of nonsense?
Not that it mattered. She couldn’t phone him, no matter how much she wished. If there was one thing she knew about the Doctor it was that he didn’t look back. He’d sauntered out of her life as oddly as he’d come into it and, most likely, she’d never see him or Jamie again, and now Jamie was dead. Jamie had been dead for a century and a half. Almost two centuries. It’d only been five years.
There was no sense in looking back. She applied a fresh coat of lipstick and declared herself satisfied with her reflection. She’d go back to the hotel.
The next day it rained. “I thought we might go to the museum,” he said.
Polly sat upon the bed, lacing her shoes. “You know, I think I left my gloves in that church yesterday.”
“I think I’ll take the bus down and get them.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s not worth the hassle. I’ll buy you another pair.”
She shook her head. “They were a gift.” They were nothing of the sort, but he wasn’t to know that.
“So write to the church or something. Ask them to post them.”
She tightened her laces and smiled at him blandly over her shoulder. “You don’t have to come with me. You go to the museum. I’ll join you for lunch.”
The rain had mostly dried up by the time she reached the church. The ground was even wetter, moisture seeping up around her shoes. Her hankie was still in the mud where she’d dropped it.
The village’s wee greengrocer sold flowers. She’d bought a bunch, and now she did her best to arrange it on the grave. She knelt on the grass, heedless of the wet and the mud, trying to make them look nice instead of limp and sad. James Robert Mccrimmon, the stone said, solid and deeply unnerving.
“Was he a relative of yours?” a voice piped behind her.
She jumped, her head swinging around. Standing on the path was the vicar, a little old man with a gentle accent. He held the head of his cane in one hand and an unlit pipe in the other. “I’m sorry. I didn’t meant to startle you. Was he an ancestor? We don’t get many flowers on such old graves.”
“Oh,” said Polly, standing up, self-conscious about the stains on her knees. “Yes. Yes, he was.” It was as good an explanation as any. Certainly better than no, he was one of my best friends, once. She dusted strands of damp grass off her skirt.
“Now, you’re not from around these parts,” said the vicar.
“No, no,” said Polly. “I’m from London — my grandparents moved to London.” She squelched across the grass to the gravel path.
“Well, it’s always nice to see someone honouring an old grave.” He laid a hand on her arm. “You look half frozen, child. I was about to make tea?”
“Tea would be lovely.” Polly stole a glance at the grave. It didn’t look so bad from a distance. Her flowers were a bright splash of colour amidst all the browns and mottled grays.
He led her down the path to the vicarage. “You seem troubled.”
“Oh, no,” said Polly. “No, it’s just — graveyards.” She couldn’t begin to explain, not any of it. She indicated the grave behind them. “Do you know anything about him?”
“Not a thing, I’m afraid. I presume he was a local boy?”
“Yes, he was. He was a Jacobite,” said Polly. “A piper.” He flew to the moon and back. He liked the Beatles. He was one of the bravest people I ever knew. I miss him.
“Fascinating,” said the vicar, patting her arm. “Fascinating. Have you been to Culloden?”
“Yes. A long time ago.” Five years ago, in seventeen forty-six.
She drank her tea; and afterwards, the vicar shook her hand. “Do come back,” he said. “It’s so nice to meet young people who know their history.”
I don’t think I shall be coming back. “Yes. Thank-you for the tea.”
Don’t ever look back, she told herself on the bus to Inverness. It’s bad for the soul.