People always think that if you’ve got your own show and you can stay on the air for a couple of years, you’ve got it made, that the dough just comes rolling in. Well, I can tell you, it doesn’t work that way. Yeah, it’s true that with every successful season, when my contract comes up, I can usually wheedle my way into a hefty salary bump, but it usually comes hand in hand with an even larger cost of living hike.
No, I’m not talking about food and rent and health insurance, or any of that kind of stuff. You see, you can’t be Dr. Peri Brown, Worrier Queen, Relationship Counselor to the Stars, without looking the part. I figured out early on that celebrities won’t trust you, won’t air the dirty details of their love lives on your nationally syndicated TV show, if your shoes aren’t Armani and your purse isn’t Louis Vuitton. Sure, we’ve got sponsors throwing whole wardrobes at me to wear in front of the cameras, but keeping up the image outside the studio? Whew! I never thought clothes shopping required an accountant. And the parties! Yes, I suppose they aren’t technically necessary, but you’d be surprised what people will agree to after a $150 bottle of champagne. How do you think I got all three of the Kelson sisters on the show with their pop star boyfriends? Well, it all comes out of my own pockets, and they aren’t that deep.
Which is how I found myself walking up Brompton Road in the middle of a hot London summer. Bureta came up with this great idea of taking the show on the road for two weeks, to prove to the American audience that Brits’ lives are even more sordid and depraved than ours. I didn’t think it had a chance in heck of being approved. When I can’t even get them to fix the busted spring in the couch that poked that councilman’s wife’s butt and made her think the studio had snakes, there was no way they’d approve the expense of carting a whole production team to England. But then our producer Paul took up the torch and sold it, promising them Charles and Camilla. Well, you know how that goes: two weeks of shows - that’s ten episodes and twenty couples - and not a drop of blue blood was seen anywhere near my couch. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of a single one of these British “celebrities” Paul managed to rustle up, and I watch that orange show with the purple dots on BBC America every chance I get.
It didn’t matter. All the couples had sexy accents and the audience back home was going to eat it up. All I had to do - all I ever have to do - was put on that wise, interested expression, listen as they nagged at each other, and offer a snatch of trite advice that’s obvious to the home viewer and makes them feel oh so superior. Easy enough. So I told myself, “Peri, you never get to travel. You don’t have the time. You don’t have the money. Well, this time, it’s on someone else’s clock and dime, and you’re going to enjoy it.” And so I did.
That particular weekend, I took the Tube to South Kensington to spend the day sightseeing and shopping. I’d spent the previous two weekends figuring out the Tube so that this time, I didn’t end up in Marylebone or Southwark or any other place that sounds nothing like it’s spelled. London’s great that wherever you go, there’s something to see, but it’s lot easier to figure out how to get home when you know where you are. This time, I actually got to see what I set out to see.
First, it was the National History Museum, which looked pretty much like every other collection of rocks and dinosaur bones I’d ever seen. Then there was the V&A, which was a heck of a lot more interesting. I mean, all those gorgeous Scripture books and jewelry and lavish furniture, and it all goes to show that all through history, whether through morality, riches, or comforts, all we’ve tried to do is convince our spouses to stick around. I walked out of those doors feeling that maybe I was still at least a little relevant.
My next destination, after all those museums, was Harrod’s, which is like a museum itself, except the exhibits are for sale. I told myself while I was planning the trip that this was one thing I was not going to miss. It’s only a few blocks up from the V&A, if you can call them “blocks”. London streets are laid out like a third-grader had gotten ahold of the planning map and wanted to try out a pair of those little blunt scissors. You’ll find the quaintest little buildings perched on a wedge among other hulking structures, probably because no one could figure out what else they could do with a plot shaped like Picasso had designed it but couldn’t find his glasses that day. It’s definitely a walker’s city, because traffic moves about as fast as you’d expect when no one can tell where they’re going.
I passed a little, well, I don’t know what you’d call it. They’d call ‘em “terrace houses” - you know, a row of narrow, two-story townhouses, all identical except the doors are painted different colors and they’re all sandwiched together so that you can hear everything your neighbors are doing every night. I don’t know if people actually lived there, or they were offices or shops or whatever. There aren’t any signs in England. If you’re looking for your lawyer’s office - I’m sorry, your so-li-ci-tah - you have to walk up to each door and squint at the little nameplate next to the doorbell. Anyway, the terrace houses were laid out along a claustrophobic little road shaped like a toffee “U” stretched out tall and thin. The middle of the “U” was a sort of a park, with leafy, shady trees planted down the center to give a little relief from the congestion and noise. Of course this place was called Brompton Square. Makes perfect sense.
I stopped on the corner to try to figure the best way to get across the street to the Harrod’s side. I’d just passed a crosswalk with a traffic light, and I could have headed back there, but the street was so busy, I doubted the light would turn soon. It seemed more likely to make me late for my flight back home next week. So I decided to head up the next block to try my luck there. I stepped back from the curb and glanced at the townhouses one last time as I started up the street, and that’s when I saw it: a blue police box tucked among the trees.
I jumped back, right into a tall man who caught me by the shoulders so I wouldn’t fall, going, “Sorry! So sorry!” I mean, really, apologizing to me? I was the one that crashed into him! But they’re all like that in England, you know. If I’d been in L.A., he would have just shrugged me off and left me on the ground.
My attention really wasn’t on him, though, and I parroted his apologies back at him as I twisted around to find anywhere to run and hide. After all, that box meant danger, and not the “what kind of creep lives in a phone booth” kind of danger. It meant the “spaceship appears overhead with aliens and blaster guns” kind of danger. The only two times I’d seen that thing, I’d been chased by a face-changing robot, fled an erupting volcano on a distant planet, and fought humanoid fish bent on taking over the world, right in the middle of sunny California. Who knew what horrible alien mess I was walking into?
It only took me a moment to convince myself that I was being stupid. As far as I knew, the Doctor didn’t bring the aliens with him. He seemed to be more the type who gets drawn to a place because the trouble was already there, you know, like those friends who only show up to your party after you’ve told them just how many kegs you’ve ordered. I figured I was in the middle of the busiest part of London; what could go wrong? I’m sure the Doctor just dropped in for afternoon tea and a stroll through the V&A. He’d probably seen half those artifacts back when they were new. I’m sure I had a silly, embarrassed grin on my face as I pushed through the crowd onto the sidewalk of Brompton Square and leaned back against the wrought-iron fence as I gave that box a good once-over.
I really hadn’t thought I would ever see it again. I suppose it could have been a real police box, but I’m sure it wasn’t. I’d heard that they actually used to use them a long time ago, but they got rid of them long before everyone started carrying cellphones. And even if it had been a real one, no one would put one among the trees like that. It almost seemed like the thing was hiding, trying not to be seen. I’m not even sure how I managed to notice it.
But it was there, and that meant that the Doctor was around, somewhere. He was another thing I never expected to see again, and I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to say hi. I’m not really sure why. The last time I saw him, when he asked me to travel with him, I knew my destiny lay elsewhere, and I hadn’t changed my mind since. I didn’t want to travel with him. I didn’t want him in my life. But at that moment, all I could think was how excited I was to see him.
As I looked around for a boyish grin under a shock of floppy blond hair or Joseph in his dreamcoat, it occurred to me that he didn’t have to look the same. I mean, he changed once, so why not again? “Well, Peri, my girl,” I told myself. “The one thing that was the same between the both of them is that they were, as the locals would say it, eccentric blokes. So, look for anyone out-of-place, wearing weird things. Maybe a guy with cherry tomatoes pinned to his cuffs.” I stepped back out to the street and scanned both ways.
That didn’t work: this American wasn’t able to tell what was weird in that London crowd. Men there actually wear hats! And jackets with vests, in the middle of summer! And hasn’t anyone told these people that tweed went out of style thirty years ago? I groaned and sat back against the fence again, and just watched the police box.
I couldn’t help but think about what that thing meant to me, how its pilot had changed my life. He really did do me a good turn, last time I saw him. Showed me that somehow, somewhere, I had managed to carve out a good life for myself, even if it wasn’t here and now, or even me. And this life wasn’t all that bad, either. I had survived some pretty hard times, fought my own monsters and prevailed. I came out stronger for it, strong enough to know that I wouldn’t find my answers searching the universe in a blue box. I found them right here - no, not in London, or even in L.A., but right here inside me. I wanted to tell him that. I wanted to thank him for it.
But I didn’t get to. The Doctor never showed up. Or maybe he did but I didn’t know it. He could have been any one of those pedestrians who passed by as I stood there enjoying London’s summer sun. Eventually, I climbed over the fence ringing the park and walked over to the police box. I patted it, like it was an old friend I hadn’t seen in years, which it was. And I told it, I said, “Tell the Doctor I said hi. Tell him I’m sorry I missed him.”
I’m sure I looked like a crazy woman, standing there among the trees, talking to a phone booth. I figure, if they heard me, they thought I was one of those Americans and they just walked on, rolling their eyes. I’m fine with that. I know who I am. I am Peri Brown, the Not-Companion. I climbed back over the fence and I glanced one last time at my friend’s fine spaceship. I admit it was still a tempting thought, going out there and exploring other worlds, but that really wasn’t for me. That was for all the other Peris. I smiled, then I stepped into the crowd and resumed my walk up towards Harrod’s.