Disclaimer: How I wish I owned them! Anyway, I don't; they're the property of the BBC and of the Tolkien Estate.
Through the rain curtain
It's raining, again. It always seems to be raining, here in northern France. But it's not the grey curtain of drizzle like home - it's torrential, unrelenting, turning carefully-built trenches to pools of mud.
Even inside the shelter it's wet, and Ronald has given up trying to keep papers dry long ago. If you write with pencil most remains legible. He's keeping the radio to his ear, listening for orders from behind the lines. Concentrating is becoming harder; a headache moved in behind his eyeballs last night and it doesn't seem to be shifting.
The clicks of the code come in over his earpiece; he scribbles down the order and passes it to the nearby runner. What good it'll do he doesn't know. Nobody's winning this war, but every day more bodies litter the open ground between the trenches and slump lifeless against the sandbags.
A fellow officer comes to take over at the radio.
"Moderately," Ronald says, fishing inside his tunic for his cigarettes. "Just off outside for a smoke before I turn in, all right?"
The other man nods, already busy taking down the latest communication. Ronald jams on his ugly metal helmet and goes outside, into the pelting rain. His cigarettes are damp and so are the matches, and even huddled into a corner of the trench they don't seem to be lighting until a hand comes into his vision. A buzzing noise, and his cigarette is lit.
"Thanks." He draws deep, hoping the smoke will help the headache, although he's not hopeful. "Want one?"
There's a dry, humourless laugh, and Ronald looks up. The man with the light turns out to be bareheaded and wearing an odd leather jacket without sign of rank or insignia.
"They'll kill you," the man says.
Ronald gestures with his free hand at the rain and the mud and the flashes from the mortars and machine guns. "A smoke won't kill you, unless you wave the light at Jerry."
"You'd be surprised," says the stranger, leaning against the wall of the trench with his arms folded. "How're things going?"
Blowing smoke out, Ronald snorts. "As they have been. I used to think, when I was a boy, that war would somehow be heroic, magnificent turns out it's mud and rain and monotony."
"Or flame and destruction and death," the other man agrees, his eyes shadowed.
"Sure you don't want a smoke?" Ronald asks.
Ronald takes another drag, and watches the other man. He's certainly a newcomer; could be a Jerry spy, of course, except what German would come from Manchester? The lack of uniform is strange, but these days half the troops are in some sort of scavenged, makeshift uniform. He holds out his hand.
"Ronald Tolkien. Signals officer."
"I'm the Doctor," says the stranger, shaking. "Tolkien? Really?"
"Surprisingly enough it's a good English name," Ronald says; after all it's hardly the first time someone has questioned it.
"Of course it is." The other man grins. "Fantastic name."
"So, a new medic, eh?" Ronald observes. "You'll be busy. You don't happen to have something for a headache, do you?"
The doctor gives him a piercing glance. "Headache?"
Ronald nods. "Came on yesterday. Bloody painful."
His companion looks around, and seems to come to a decision.
"I might have something. You off duty?"
"Then follow me!" says the doctor, heading off around the corner of the trench. Ronald drops his cigarette, which fizzles in the mud, and follows. But the man does not lead him to the medics' station, instead taking him down a little-used side trench. At the end, large and blue, is a wooden box.
Ronald stops and looks at it. The doctor is taking a key from his pocket.
"Um," Ronald manages.
The door swings open, and the doctor goes to step inside the box. "Coming?" he asks, as though big blue boxes in trenches are an everyday affair. Ronald wonders, for a moment, if the stranger has gone mad - it happens, all too regularly. "Well?" the doctor says, and Ronald thinks that little can be worse than the mud and the rain and the death, and follows him.
Behind him, the door swings shut with a click. Ronald stands just inside and stares. The box - no, it's a room, a hall, a chamber - is lit with a gentle, warming golden light. It is dry and clean and feels like a different world.
The doctor is standing by a kind of cluttered desk in the centre of the chamber, watching Ronald closely.
"What is this place?" Ronald says, eventually, the words coming out a whisper.
"This is the TARDIS," the other man responds. "This is my ship."
"And you're "
"I'm the Doctor," the man says, and now Ronald realises it's not a title, or a job description, but a name - or as good as. "I'm a traveller."
"Travelling where?" Ronald questions.
The Doctor folds his arms. "Anywhere. Everywhere. Anywhen."
Ronald takes a few steps, further into the room. "If you can go anywhere," he says, "why now? And why here?"
The Doctor turns away. "Long story. I promised you something for that headache."
"It's it's almost gone," says Ronald, and it has, in the wonder of the Doctor's ship. He gestures back towards the doors. "What happens, if I go back out there?"
"Nothing," says the Doctor, with raised eyebrows. "You'll eat your rations, go to sleep, do your job. Go on, if you want to."
Ronald takes off his helmet, puts it on the floor. "Only a madman would want to go back out there."
The Doctor begins flicking buttons on the desk in front of him, which, Ronald sees now, is some sort of machine. It's unlike anything he's ever seen before and he thinks that it is, in its disorganisation, utterly at odds with the graceful shapes of the rest of the chamber. At the same time it reminds him rather of his tutor's room at Oxford, packed with books and papers in no sort of order.
"Fancy going somewhere else?" asks the Doctor, still pressing buttons and pulling levers. "I know the perfect place!"
"The box moves?" Ronald says.
"She flies!" the Doctor answers. "My TARDIS. Best ship in the universe." He pats the desk. "Lieutenant Tolkien - hold on tight!"
The tall column in the centre of the room begins to move, emitting a strange, compelling sound. At the same time Ronald's feet are jerked out from under his legs and he lands in an undignified heap on the floor. The Doctor is clinging on, bracing himself as the juddering continues.
Finally, they stop moving. Ronald picks himself up and straightens his uniform, while the Doctor unclenches his hands from the edge of the desk.
"Sorry," says the Doctor, grinning an insanely wide grin. "Rough day in the Vortex. Happens occasionally." He pushes a lever. "Handbrake on. Right. Now. You'll love this."
"Where we are," the Doctor replies, looking critically at Ronald. "You ought to change. Can't go outside dressed like that."
Ronald follows him down three corridors, up one flight of stairs and down two more, into a vast room filled to the brim with clothes. There are clothes that could be picked up on Oxford Street, clothes that would be more suited to a theatre, and some clothes the like of which Ronald has never seen. He marvels, while the Doctor disappears among the racks, occasionally calling out questions about Ronald's height and size and shoe size. Eventually he returns with an armful of garments - some loose, dark blue trousers, high boots of supple leather, and a sort of tunic to go over the top that is not so far removed from Ronald's own Army tunic. But everything is clean, not muddy, and it's made of soft, luxurious material.
The Doctor directs Ronald to a bathroom where the water runs hot from taps and there are soaps and shampoos. Ronald strips off his filthy, itchy uniform and luxuriates for a while under a jet of hot, clean water. He dries himself, and dresses in the clothes the Doctor brought. He feels a little odd, and perhaps a little stupid, but he also feels comfortable. The face looking back at him in the clear mirror is whiskered and older than it had been a few months ago; Ronald turns from it in search of the Doctor's mystery.
For some reason the Doctor has not changed, and is still wearing his leather coat, but he nods with approval on seeing Ronald. "Off we go!" he says, striding purposefully towards the doors and swinging them open.
Ronald is still expecting to walk back out into the rain of the Somme, but instead he steps on to springy grass. All around there is a sweet, fresh smell, and he stops and breathes it in deeply. The sky is blue above their heads and there is a canopy of tall trees; small flowers are growing around their bases. It's as different from the trenches as anywhere could be.
"Where are we?" he asks, softly.
The Doctor has closed his eyes and is standing still, but at the question he opens them again. "This is the planet of Arda - a long way from Earth. In about the seven-thousandth year of inhabitation, although of course it's a lot older."
"Arda." Ronald rolls the word around his mouth. "It's beautiful."
"Yeah." The Doctor nods. "Not bad." He puts his hands behind his back. "C'mon."
Ronald falls into step beside him. "Where are we going?" he asks.
"Questions, questions!" says the Doctor. "You lot and your questions. For a walk. How long's it been since you just went for a walk?"
"Months," Ronald says.
"Well, then." To the Doctor, this clearly ends the debate. But Ronald is more than content to walk amid the scent of the forest, and he catches the Doctor up and strolls by his side.
For a while they walk in silence, but the questions are multiplying in Ronald's head and eventually he has to ask.
"Are there people here?"
The Doctor turns a sideways glance at him. "Good question. Yes."
Ronald opens his mouth to ask another question, but they are halted by an arrow slamming into the ground in front of them and, from the trees, a cry of "Halt!"
His automatic reflex is to go for the pistol at his hip - but there is no pistol. The Doctor, meanwhile, has his hands raised but a smile on his face, as if he's enjoying himself. After a second, Ronald copies him and raises his own hands.
To his astonishment, a group of men dressed in faded green and brown outfits, and carrying either naked swords or longbows with the arrow on the string, emerge from cover. They are all tall - taller even than the Doctor, who is on the lanky side - and dark-haired, and undeniably handsome.
One of the men steps forwards. He carries the sword in his hand easily, as though it is just an extension of his arm, holding it loosely and ready as he examines first Ronald and then the Doctor closely.
"Who are you?" he demands, the inspection evidently over.
The Doctor lowers his hands. "I'm the Doctor. That's Ronald. Just passing through!"
"Nobody passes through Ithilien without leave of the King," says the man, sternly. "And those are strange names that you give, and a strange accent you speak them in, though indeed these are strange times."
"We come in peace," the Doctor says, apparently at ease with the situation. "We're travellers, that's all. Unarmed." He wiggles his fingers, as if to demonstrate the lack of weapons. "Which King would this be, by the way?"
"The King Elessar of Gondor," the other man responds, a glint in his eye. "Newly crowned, but there is little of his realm he does not know."
The Doctor nodded, as if calculating something. "And you are?"
"I am Faramir, Steward of Gondor and Prince of Ithilien," the man says. "And, though I do not think you mean harm, I am ordered to take all strangers found abroad to Minas Tirith. Our peace is too new to risk breaking it."
"Minas Tirith!" says the Doctor, turning his grin on Ronald. "Fantastic!"