It was a miserable February to be in London. Snow and sleet pelted down one day out of three, and everyone seemed defeated by the same head cold. It was my turn in the barrel, so I kept to the flat, sniffling and huddled over endless cups of tea. Sherlock, who had apparently never before seen mucus outside of a laboratory, watched over me as if I were a particularly interesting rat.
That afternoon he was in the kitchen where he'd been examining something under his microscope. "John, this so-called cold remedy of yours is nothing but alcohol and food coloring. It smells appalling."
"Well I can't smell anything, can I. Leave off, will you?" I looked up in time to see him rooting around in the rubbish. "Don't you dare."
"I'm bored. Aren't you better yet?" He didn't pause until he plucked up a crumpled tissue, pinched between gloved fingers.
"Put that back. The swab up my nose was bad enough." The doorbell rang. "Thank god," I said, and lurched to my feet. "When I get back, that had better be back in the bin."
The woman at the door was ginger-beyond-ginger, about my height and age. Smartly dressed in suit and heels, as if she'd just come from the job at a posh office. She looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't think from where.
"I'm here to see Sherlock Holmes," she said. "My name is Donna Noble."
Sherlock was seated and behaving himself when I showed her into the flat. The latex gloves had disappeared—hopefully into the bin with the old tissue. His pale eyes were keen, studying our visitor. I hoped for her sake—and mine—that she would be able to give Sherlock something to focus on.
I cleared my throat. "Now, er, Miss Noble-"
"Ms.," she corrected. "Do I look single?"
"Well, no—I mean—"
Sherlock spoke up. "On the contrary, Ms. Noble, you look as if you are about to be divorced."
"How did you—?" The woman stopped herself mid-squeak. "That's right, I've heard about you. Go on, then. How'd you figure that out?"
"The impression surrounding your wedding ring is much too large, suggesting that either you've recently swapped out for a smaller ring, or that you've spent a great deal of time fiddling with it, turning it this way and that. As you don't seem to be the type of woman who would ever willingly part with jewelry, it's a fair assumption that you are at best conflicted about your marriage.
"Further, you came into a great deal of money not long after your wedding—I'd say that you've been married about three years? four? based on the condition of your ring—but the money, as is so often the case, has only caused further problems."
"Of course!" It came to me then. "Donna Noble! You're the one who got a lottery ticket for a wedding present a few years back." Sherlock was annoyed, but I ignored him. "I saw you in the papers. It's not working out? That's a shame."
"Shaun... he's a nice man," she said. "He just doesn't know what to do with me." She paused, blinking rapidly for a moment. "You see, my family thinks I'm going mad, but I'm not, I swear I'm not."
"That is the customary proclamation of the madwoman," Sherlock said. "But tell me why they think you mad. And please, don't be boring." He settled back, fingertips steepled against his chin, intense gaze fixed on her.
She twisted her wedding ring for a moment, almost pulling it off before forcing her hands away from each other. "My..." her eyes moved back and forth as if trying to read something in the air,"my sense of time is wrong. I mean someone says,'Oh that happened five years ago', and I know they have to be wrong, that it's been much longer."
I didn't have to look at Sherlock to know he was bristling. I spoke up to forestall a potentially rude outburst. "Everyone does that, Ms. Noble."
"Call me Donna, and no, they don't. Not like me. It didn't start happening until about three years ago. Right before I met Shaun. Right about the second time I disappeared."
"Disappeared? Skip this rubbish about time and get to the disappearance."
"Rude!" Ms. Nob—Donna—said it before I could. "Heard that about you too." She crossed her arms in a bit of a huff. "Three years ago. I woke up in my own bed with my clothes on and found out I'd missed eight days. My mum said I'd had a terrible case of the flu and slept for most of it. Then everyone was talking some rubbish about planets in the sky and everybody forgot all about it. But I didn't text anyone that whole time, and I can text in my bloody sleep."
"So..." Sherlock was speaking slowly. That was never a good sign. "You've come here today because you have a bad memory for dates and you had the flu three years ago. Get out and stop wasting my time."
"Wait. There's something else. I remember things I shouldn't. Like, Agatha Christie, yeah? I was there the day she went missing." Her words picked up pace. "I know that's impossible, but I was. And Pompeii, I saw it erupt. And I've disappeared twice! The first was the day of my first wedding, just pop, right out of the church. Everyone saw it. Mum says I fainted, but I didn't, because I remember. I remember. Oh god!" She clutched her head with both hands and gritted her teeth. "I remember. Lance. Giant... spider..." Her voice rose in a shrill cry and she went limp.
"Donna! Ms. Noble!" I knelt at the side of her chair—my chair, the one I always gave up for clients. Vital signs strong, but her pulse was racing and her forehead felt as if she were burning with fever, her whole head, really. Her hands were clammy. "Sherlock, call 999—with the phone, please." I'd learnt to be specific. I chafed her hands to see if I could rouse her. "Donna, this is John Watson, if you can hear me, please open your eyes."
Still holding her hand, I reached towards the handbag on the floor, looking for a phone, a medic alert card, anything. Sherlock had at least risen, but was just standing there watching our unconscious client.
"At last, something interesting."
"Oh, she'll be fine. Give her a minute. Her pulse is leveling off now."
"How can you tell that from—oh never mind." The handbag was enormous and stuffed with whatever it is women need. I was tempted to up-end it to find her phone.
I'd just reached what felt like a phone in that cavernous monstrosity when her eyes fluttered open. "Oi! Are you trying to rob me? Get off!" She pushed me away, then paused, taking in the change: Sherlock on his feet, me by her chair. "Oh bloody hell. It happened again, didn't it."
Turns out that was the other part of Donna Noble's puzzle: the fainting spells. Her doctors could find nothing wrong and suggested the problem was psychosomatic. As they only seemed to happen when she started spouting nonsense, I was inclined to agree with them, being more than a little familiar with psychosomatic symptoms.
Then she added one more strange thing: "Remember the mass hallucinations that happened a few years back?" she asked. I did. I was in Afghanistan at the time and it was the eeriest thing I've ever experienced, a feeling of being someone else—of being everyone else.
"Yes," said Sherlock. Something in his voice made me look closer. He'd never told me what his experience had been that day. I made a note to ask.
"I don't," she said. "More lost time. I don't remember a damned thing."
"And you want to know what's wrong with you." God help me, Sherlock was taking this seriously.
"Good. Give John your number. I'll be in touch two days from now."
She left soon after that. I tried to convince her to let us take her to hospital, but she insisted on hailing a cab and taking herself home, that she was fine.
I returned upstairs to find Sherlock standing at the mantelpiece, hand idly trailing from one object to another: skull, candlestick, knife, pocket-watch.
"Sherlock, she's a nutter. A rich nutter, to be sure, but the fact remains: an absolute madwoman."
"Perhaps," he said from somewhere miles away. "The hallucinations she spoke of. Where were you at the time?"
"And you remember it quite well." He pulled the knife out of the wood and studied it closer before slamming it home once again.
"Yes of course. Don't you?"
"Those weren't hallucinations, John." Long fingers drifted. Picked up the pocket-watch. Turned it over and over in his hand.
"What? Of course they were, what else could they have been?"
Sherlock replaced the pocket-watch in its customary place on the mantel and looked up with a whisper of a smile. "Perhaps it's time we find out. First, we should learn more about our Ms. Noble."
That was how I wound up skulking around Chiswick the next morning in the pouring rain. My nose was still dripping all over my upper lip as I huddled into my parka. It was bloody miserable. But, we'd found out where Donna Noble's family lived. Donna, of course, lived in a much posher part of town. Sherlock walked up to the front door and rang the bell, while I stayed in the front garden trying to find a bit of shelter.
A wiry old man with stooped shoulders answered the door. Before he could get a word in, Sherlock said, "Is Donna all right? Where is she?" His face was animated instead of wearing his usual placid expression, his voice higher in pitch, accent broadening and shifting into something much less public school. It's a pity Sherlock hadn't taken up theatre. He'd've been a star, and I would be dry and warm in my armchair right now.
"Who are you?" asked the old man.
"Surely you know who I am? I know I've changed, but have I changed that much? Please, tell me how she is!"
"She's... fine. Married now, you know. She don't live here anymore." He stayed there with his hand on the door, ready to close it.
"That's not what I mean, Wilfred." Wilfred? Where the hell had Sherlock come up with a name?
Apparently that was the man's name, because the door stopped closing. He looked Sherlock up and down, taking in the long coat, the scarf. He even noticed me, standing under a trellis by the gate. I don't know what he saw, but his eyes widened a bit.
"You say you're a friend of Donna's, then?"
"You know that I am. Why else would I be here to check on her?"
"And that's your friend over there. Travels with you?"
"Of course. He never leaves my side!"
Great, he made me sound like a sodding dog.
For a moment, I thought the old man was going to start weeping. It took him several tries to speak. "D-Doctor?"
Sherlock smiled, beaming with good cheer and all-fellow-well-met. It was downright eerie. "I knew you'd get it in a moment!"
"But... we heard you was dead! That Martha Jones, she come by and told us—me and Sylvia—"
"All a misunderstanding," Sherlock said, waving a gloved hand. "But please, you must tell me about Donna."
But no, there was no stopping old Wilf now. "But Martha said... there was proof! That group she works with, whats-it, UNIT. They had it, they said. How did you-? Is it really, really you, Doctor?" He was weeping now.
Sherlock didn't even miss a step. "Wilfred, Wilfred, it's all right. It's really me. I want to help Donna."
Wilfred whooped and grabbed Sherlock in a bear hug, tears still streaming down his seamed old face. "Sylvia! Come quick!" I caught Sherlock's eye over the old man's head and raised an eyebrow: What the hell? I got a shrug in return. Okay, so he had no idea either. I wasn't sure if that was reassuring or not.
"Come in, come in. Bring your friend in too, come out of this wet." He swung the door open wide and I have never seen a more welcome sight. We followed him in. He was so excited to see this "doctor" that he practically danced a jig all the way to the sitting room.
A posh older woman came out of a side door, wiping her hands on a tea towel. "Dad? What are you shouting about? Who is this?"
"Sylvia, Martha was wrong. It's the Doctor, he's back!" He grabbed Sherlock by the arm and tugged him towards a chair. "Sit down, sit down. It's good that you're here. I mean, she can see you now, yeah? You got a new face, there's no danger that she'll remember this one! And who's your friend here? Traveling with someone new, I see. I'm surprised you're not with another pretty young girl, you devil-"
That's as far as he got, because the woman crossed the small room and slapped Sherlock hard across the face. "Get out."
"Sylvia," Wilf caught her arm before she could hit him again. I paused halfway between standing and sitting.
"Get out," she said again. I straightened to attention. She continued, "This is all your fault."
"No, Sylvia, he's here to help."
"I am," Sherlock said, his hands extended—I think to keep Mrs. Noble from hitting him again. "I just want to help Donna."
"You knew this would happen." She jabbed a finger towards Sherlock's chest, her knuckles white. "You knew she would eventually start to remember. You said she would die. Well Doctor, she is. She's dying, because of you!"
"I didn't know." He took her by the shoulders with a gentleness that shocked me. "I swear to you, Mrs. Noble, I didn't know." God, how could a man normally so cold ooze such sincerity? I could feel the hair on my arms trying to stand up under my jumper. It was all in the eyes, normally so sharp and penetrating, now they were soft and pleading. Who was he, really? Was the cold exterior just an act, or was this?
"Just leave us alone," Mrs. Noble said. "If you can't fix this, just go away."
"I'll do what I can," Stranger-Sherlock said. "And if I can't, you won't see me again, I promise." He let her go then, and gave Wilf an apologetic look. "I should go. I've caused enough disturbance for now."
The old man showed us out, protesting the whole way.
"We'll be in touch soon," Sherlock said. "But Wilfred, you can't tell anyone that we were here. Especially not Donna. If people think I'm dead, maybe it's for the best that I stay that way for a while, eh?"
"Yes," the old man agreed, reluctantly. "You have to help her, Doctor. You're the only one who can." He sighed, his eyes still bright with tears. "It was good to see you again. After the last time... I didn't think I ever would. And I'm glad you're not still alone, you've got, er-"
"John-" I said.
"-Smith," finished Sherlock. "Plain name for a plain man, oh yes."
I managed a smile while wondering what Sherlock would look like if I strangled him with his scarf.
"He's no Donna," Sherlock said, "but he'll do." He patted Wilfred's hand. Watching him take on a persona like this was a little like watching someone possessed by an evil spirit. "Don't you worry. We'll get her taken care of."
That brought on more blubbering from Wilfred. I stood there with my skin crawling. Something about this was incredibly disturbing—not just weird, or crazy, but disturbing. Bloody hell. This whole family was round the twist.
It took several minutes for Sherlock to disengage himself from the weeping man. "Now John and I really must go. You'll be hearing from us."
As soon as we were out of earshot and back in the street, Sherlock said, "Well. That went much better than I expected."
I grabbed Sherlock's arm. "What in the name of bleeding Christ was that all about? Doctor? Doctor who?"
"I have absolutely no idea," Sherlock said. He was smiling—his real smile this time. He looked as if he'd just received a Christmas and birthday gift wrapped into one. "No idea at all."