Through the rain curtain
Blackwell's Bookshop, Oxford, 1956
It's been a long afternoon and Ronald's hand is cramped from the signing. He hates signing - it takes time away from writing, and marking, and there's a lecture he's supposed to be preparing too - but he's under orders to help promote the book and at least Blackwell's is a convivial sort of place.
The readers have been mostly students; even, Ronald has been surprised to see, some of his own. He's pleased, but wishes they would pay as much attention to Beowulf.
Towards the end of the queue there's a tall thin man in a truly ridiculous long coat and a red-haired woman who appears to object to being here; shes muttering something about elves under her breath.
Ronald stretches his fingers and looks up at them. "Hello."
"Hello indeed!" says the man, grinning a mile-wide grin. "Absolutely hello. Lovely to see you, Professor!" He puts the book down. "Well done, too. Excellent work. Of course I always expected that, but still, good to be able to tell you. Brilliant!"
Ronald smiles politely back. "And who should I inscribe it to?" he asks.
The man sticks his hands in his pockets. "Oh, that's a shame." He lowers his voice, leans over. "Come on, have a guess."
"How should I be able to guess?" Ronald says, glancing round to see if there's a shop assistant to hand.
"Sorry, he gets like this sometimes," says the red-haired woman. She raises her eyebrows at the man, who sighs deeply.
"Regeneration's such a nuisance. I should carry a little book or something, like a passport. With pictures." He leans over to Ronald. "How long did it take you to get over the trench fever, Ronald?"
Ronald looks up, meets the other mans eyes dark eyes, but suddenly he recognises the expression in them, despite the face, despite the changes. "Doctor?"
"Told you he was good, didn't I?" The man - the Doctor - grins again. "Yup. Oh, this is Donna Noble. Donna, Professor Tolkien."
"Charmed, my dear," Ronald says, feeling a little swept away. "Doctor - did you know I would write this book?" He lays his hand on the open flyleaf.
The Doctor nods. "Of course. Couldn't say anything - against the rules - but I sort of encouraged it along a bit. And now I can tell you how brilliant it is. Theyd be pleased, you know, if they could see it."
Ronald picks up his pen again. "It seems like a dream, most days," he says. "But then I close my eyes and sometimes I can still see it, Minas Tirith rising from the plain."
"And the wave?" the Doctor asks.
"Occasionally." Ronald thinks for a moment, and writes quickly on the flyleaf in his crabbed hand. "And you? How are you?"
The Doctor meets his gaze, and Ronald is taken aback by the weight of what is suddenly revealed. "Oh, same old travelling," he says. "Same old TARDIS. Not quite same old me." He picks up the book, reads the inscription, and smiles. "Thank you." The book disappears somewhere inside the coat. "Well, we've got to go and deal with a plague of alien piranha thats about to appear in the Isis, so we'll be off." He holds out his hand. "Generally, I understand you shake."
Ronald finds himself returning the smile. "Indeed, generally that is the case." They shake hands again. "Doctor - there's rather a lot of material I haven't yet put into order. Even some of the material I began work on while I was convalescing with the fever. Gondolin, and so on. Should I continue?"
He's rewarded with another of those blinding grins. "Oh yes," says the Doctor. "Keep on writing, Professor. Keep on writing as long as ever you can." And with that, he's gone, Donna Noble in tow.
Laying down his pen, Ronald rubs his brow. No dream after all, then. He thinks of the piles of papers back in his study, and tucked away in a safe corner, the books brought out of Gondor. He resolves to settle down to it now with a vengeance - because the Doctor's advice had been good before. Surely it would be again.