"I hate this cell," she says. "I hate it. I didn't used to, but I do now. I'm bored. I hate it. Get me out of here, sweetie, do it now. Get me a pardon, take me away, blow a hole in the wall and have us all sucked out into the black beyond until the water boils off our eyes and our heads explode but please, darling, get me out of this bloody cell!"
Get her out? She's holding me so tight against the door I'm practically in the cell. Her fists are balled up so tightly I believe she might be about to tear the lapels clean off my jacket.
"River, dear, smile of my heart, garden of my delight, we'll be better able to talk about this when you haven't got my face pulled up between two steel bars."
She releases me with a roar of frustration and paces, looking just as much like a lion in the zoo as any temporally-enhanced human being could ever want to. However, my saying the words, "You look like a lion," right out loud, that may have been a mistake.
"Ever seen Born Free?!" is the retort I get for that.
"Not the film. I was there when they released Elsa, though. She was worried about fitting in with the other lions when she reached the pride. I went along with her, smoothed the way a little, told them to be nice…" She's just looking at me. I explain, "I speak lion."
"We're not really talking about lions right now."
I could point out that we're not really talking right now. She's growling things and pacing, while I lean back and forth, trying to stay in her periphery while I placate her. It's not exactly what I call a sparkling conversation. Got better chat out of Elsa, if I'm honest. This time, however, I manage to keep my mouth shut.
"River, why don't you try and tell me exactly what the problem is?"
"I've been here three weeks this time!"
"It's a prison. The idea is you don't leave very much. Most people don't leave at all. You know I'd take you away every night if I could; it's just difficult to get the timings right, that's all."
She mutters something. I ask her to repeat it, but she's paced to the other side of the cell and I have to wait for her coming back. "I said," she snaps, "Especially since you got a new one!"
"A new what, love? I'm not following."
"Toy. Mate. Human. Companion. You know, I always thought that was a suspect sort of term, 'companion'. It stinks of dodgy, how-do-I-put-this, dinner party introductions. 'Ooh, I'm the Doctor, and this is my – dot – dot – dot – companion!'"
"What on earth are you implying?"
"Not just on earth, my love!"
Oh, now, this really just isn't cricket. Just because I'm not travelling around with her married mother anymore (which situation was entirely Pond's decision and fully endorsed by River herself unless my memory's gone all funny!), she's not happy anymore. I was afraid of this, you know. That's why River and Clara haven't exactly met yet, per se, in the traditional sense of both of them being in the same galaxy during the same era. I'm just that sort of person; the sheer love I incite in others leaves them prone to jealousy. What can I say? It's a curse.
"My occasional absences, dearest wife, and you are after all my wife and one and only wife, have absolutely nothing to do with my companions, thank you very much."
"Oh, then what have they to do with?!" she cries, spinning on her heel and facing me with her arms folded. "And why are you just standing there? Open this cell!"
She deserves to be challenged, and thus I challenge her. "Why?"
"So that I can get out?"
"Because it's dull in here," and she falters away onto her bunk as though it's all quite too much for her and she might falter from existence any moment now with the sheer unfairness of it all.
I turn, and walk back to where I came from, not moments ago. Straight back to the door of the Tardis. Behind me, I hear her sit up, so outraged by this she can't even speak right away. Before she can find the breath or the words, I tell her, "Get a hobby."
Ah! Oh, no! I've gone blind! Blind, I tell you, and I won't be able to work the Tardis properly, and I'll never see another new planet again, and when I make a friend I'll have to feel their face and it'll be all awkward! I'll never know the beauty of the Cristallo eclipse, and didn't I have so many chances to go and watch it? Just never got round to it and now I never will, oh, God, somebody help me! I'm blind! I've just wakened up and I'm blind! I go staggering round the console, holding onto the rail lest I damage some terribly important control, feeling ahead of me until my hand finds something soft, smooth, hairy round the top and there's something pressed against my palm.
"Doctor," comes the mumbling, "That's my nose."
"Clara! Oh, dear, sweet Clara, how I wish I could see your pretty round face just once more… Just once, to know it was the last time, to make perfect my memory of it, and-"
My fingers are exploring, trying to do just that. Here's the smooth edge of a recently-waxed eyebrow, the little flappy bit at the very edge of an earhole. Here's a featherish fringe of lashes and… And then both her hands come up, wrap around my wrist. Carefully, as though speaking to a madman and not one so recently disabled, "Doctor? Are you feeling alright?"
Oh. My eyes must still look normal. She can't tell. I feel my way to a chair and sit down, so that I can bear telling her the news. "Clara, I… I've lost my sight."
"Oh, for God's sake," she mutters.
"Well, that's hardly helpful!"
Steely fingers grip the top of my head. Honestly, I never suspected she harboured such terrible cruelty, that there could be such darkness in her soul, as to pull my hair at a time like this.
But maybe she isn't as strong as I thought. She grips, yes, and she pulls, but there's no pain. There's just a tight, hugging sensation, like taking off a sock. Then, oh, glorious! Light! Colours! It's blinding at first and then the shapes resolve, to show me Clara standing with a black wool beanie hat hanging from her left hand and a look of utter disdain on her face. "That," I begin, "was pulled down over my eyes, wasn't it?" She nods. She doesn't trust herself not laugh so she doesn't open her mouth. "I promise you, Clara, I was not responsible for putting that on."
"Mm-hm," she mutters, "And I suppose the hat fairy crept in in the night and put it on for you, did she?"
"You're not funny. I thought something truly terrible had happened."
"It has; looks like this was a nice hat, until it got stretched out on your head…"
Some time has passed since the blindness incident. There have been no more episodes of what Clara insists upon calling my 'sleep-hatting habit'. I do, occasionally, still dream of hats, this is true. But that's been happening for a few years now. I don't think that's anything to worry about. Anyway, since my eyes still function and I'm still safe to fly a Tardis…
Sorry, I got distracted. All of a sudden I could hear River's laughter in my head, that of one of my old instructors from the Academy, who always did scorn my assertions that six pilots weren't strictly necessary and - I'm rambling. I'll stop now. Painful memories. How did I get started on this?
Oh, yes, still travelling. Took Clara to Vegas. Actual Vegas this time, got it right. No submarines involved. I could have taken her to the casino district of Atlantis, y'know. I told her that. Me and Plato, I told her, we had a ball down there. He forgot most of it. I promise it was nothing to do with the whole continent eventually sinking into the briny deep. But no, it had to be the American version. Always wanted to go there, on her little list, so on and so forth. And who am I to get in the way of a young girl's dreams, eh? So I took her to Vegas.
Unfortunately it happened to be the day a Kanta'ari probe landed in the Nevada desert. You know, the whole Area 51 incident. One totally non-hostile alien explorer is captured and suddenly half the universe is on the brink of war, except for muggins here, stuck in the middle, make sure nobody incinerates anybody they might regret later on. Same stuff, different day, really. That was the gambling off the cards, then. No pun intended.
We did meet a lovely FBI man, though. He was a friend of Canton's, said he was getting on well in the service. He was called Craig. Lovely way about him, always smiling. A big, stretched smile. Like he was on the point of laughing.
He did laugh, actually, when I insisted on speaking to their prisoner-of-war. He laughed, and he walked away.
Clara turned to me, with her hands in the air. That, I thought, was totally unnecessary; she was the one person I never expected to be armed. "I wasn't going to say anything," she started-
"But now you feel like you have to?" She looked a little surprised. "I deduced this from the fact that you then said something."
"Fair point, well made. It's just, it's getting in the way now, so I have to ask."
"Was this really the best day to wear that jumper?"
"What jumper? We're in Nevada, in the desert, I don't need a-agh! I'm wearing a jumper! Where did I get a jumper from?!" I look down at myself and I am, indeed, visibly, undeniably, wearing a jumper. It is a pink jumper. It has words on it. The letters are of uneven size and some of them are a little bit gathered. The knitting is too tight over the colour-changes, it's a common beginners' mistake, and I am, make no mistake, wearing a jumper. A pink jumper which says, They Are Already Among Us in big blue letters.
Not the best jumper for dealing with a crisis. Not the best jumper for trying to get a load of American men-in-black to take me seriously as an authority on alien life forms…
"Clara, I'm wearing gloves."
"Well, it's very cold, Doctor."
"Timelords have incredibly adaptive metabolisms. It's all the intergalactic travel. We adapted so that we'd be able to survive wherever we land. A bit brisk, yes, but not very cold."
"Well, then, can I have them?" I peel them off and give them to her. They are of beige and brown stripes, and long enough to go almost from my elbow to the backs of my knuckles. They have no fingers. I'll tell you why. Because fingers are the very devil to knit by hand. Clara grouches, even as she slips them on, "I don't believe you. You told me yourself, the ice on this planet is five-hundred years old. You've been wearing gloves you don't need all day and my hands are turning blue."
"But that's just it, Clara. I haven't been wearing them all day."
"Oh, so they've been in yoru pocket doing exactly nothing while my fingers fall off, is that it?"
"No, I mean I wasn't wearing gloves and then I looked down and there were gloves on my hands. I mean it's happened again. The knitting, Clara, don't you see? I didn't put that hat on in my sleep. That jumper was more than just a crime against fashion. They're coming to me!"
"…Magically appearing knitwear?" She leans briefly on the door of the Tardis. "Can we go back for another round with the ice monsters, please? I'd rather lose my toes to frostbite than get into an adventure about magically appearing knitwear."
I open my mouth to tell her she should never dismiss a potential adventure out of hand. Nearly every really good adventure I've ever been on has started with something innocuous. Usually I wander into them while I'm trying to take a brief holiday after the last great adventure, actually. What starts with knitwear might end with vast, untold fortunes, brave new worlds, bold discoveries, villains vanquished, lives made immeasurably better! Then the phone rings inside and I don't get a chance to tell her any of that.
"You have a phone?"
"It's a police box, Clara. It has to have a phone. The point of it is to have a phone."
"But who calls you?" I stop, even with my hand on the receiver, and find I can do nothing but stare at her. Clara raises one finger saying, "That didn't come out right. What I meant was-"
"Be quiet, I'm on the phone. Hello?"
"Doctor!" Yes, I'm used to that. Nobody can ever just say 'hello' back before they begin. "Doctor, come at once!" I am not used to taking orders. But I recognize this voice. It's the Governor over at Stormcage. He and I have had, oh, quite a few little chats, down the years…
"What's she done now?" I ask him.
"It's alive!" he bawls. It's all he can say, and he says it a couple more times. "It's too long!" he says. "It's taking over. It's ali-" And there he is cut off, his voice changing as if he's been gagged, something soft crushed into his mouth.
Hanging up, I look at poor Clara, so absolutely unprepared for what awaits her. "Quick detour on your way home, if you don't mind." With as much enthusiasm as I can summon, "'Bout time you met my wife…"
She's knitting me a scarf. It's a very long scarf. Just to give you an idea, it is currently holding both myself and Clara (very separately I assure you) in much the manner a python holds its prey. Like the Governor said, it seems to be very much alive, wriggling and writhing and wrapping and crushing, did I mention the crushing?
Clara says something. It could even be an idea. It could be a useful something. But the scarf has judiciously covered her mouth, so I have no idea what it is.
"Well," River says, shrugging. In her hands, the needles fly, adding row after row to this impossible, stripy scarf, "you told me to get a hobby. I took up temporal knitting. You see, it's a process whereby-"
"Whereby the strand of yarn to be used is exposed to the vortex before knitting, enabling the eventual item to be transported effortlessly to the intended recipient. I know what it is, River, I invented it. I wrote the book on it."
"You wrote three books, sweetie." She has them next to her in a stack, and strokes them like a treasured pet.
"By the way, when you're changing colour, you need to leave a little extra slack in behind. Stops the letters bunching."
She nods, looking mildly into the distance. "Oh… That makes sense, actually."
"Listen, I'm having a bit of trouble breathing, here. And Clara there is having to breathe through her nose, so I imagine it's worse for her – " Some fervent noises of agreement escape the scarf. "Starting to get a bit hot in here too. So why don't you tell me what I can do to make it stop, and we'll go from there?" River doesn't answer right away. She seems intent on huffing for a bit first. So with the gap in the conversation, I turn my head as far towards Clara as the scarf will allow and tell her, "Don't worry; she's not always such a psychopath. Well… no, that's not exactly… But she is lovely. And really it's the knitting that's to blame and not the woman herself, so please don't judge her by this. In an ideal world you'd get along, you two."
Clara, like a huddling penguin, shuffles forward towards the bars. She looks at River, those big dark eyes wide and very honest, and starts to speak. "Clara," I say, "I'll stop you there, because-"
"Shut up," River murmurs. "Let her finish."
But… But you can't tell what she's saying. Really. It's coming out something like 'urmblemurblepurzel'. And yet River is looking up, starting to pay attention. Clara cuts her eyes at me, asking darkly if she may go on. I nod her right on ahead. Apparently I missed a lesson or two when I was a boy. I don't speak Muffled-by-Scarf-ese…
Clara continues, "Jaurmwelbufzelburblelly." River lifts a hand up, resting at the base of her throat in that classic gesture of 'I'm touched'. "Uhrferselmebrles, murbleghs."
River's hands stop moving. The needles stop clicking. And when she lays them down, the flow of hate and time and rage is broken. The scarf falls to the floor, inert, a thing of yarn and no more. I shake loose and take my first true breath in a while. Clara is by the bars, smiling.
"Oh," she says, "And I should tell you now, the gloves were really nice. I ended up with those. I'm keeping them. I hope that's okay."
"What's your colour?" River asks her. "You have the hair for a beret."
"I'd love a beret. Um… green? Like a dark-ish-"
"Sort of a bottle-green sort of colour, say no more."
I creep up to the edge of this bizarre exchange. As bravely as I dare (which is still a lot braver than I feel), "So… everything is… okay?"
They laugh. Dismissively and as one, which I find little bit disturbing, but they laugh. Laughing is good.
"What about the scarf?"
I ask them, looking down at the limp, defeated heaps around our feet. River starts as though seeing it for the first time. "Gosh, that did get a bit out of hand, didn't it…" Cautiously, as if it might start up its squeezy, crushy games again, she picks up the needles, and in a flash she has it cast off and finished and dead. The moment she cuts the final thread, it vanishes. "Where did it go?" she murmurs. "I knitted it for you, so it ought to have gone to you."
"Oh." That sound is out of me before I can quite stop it. A memory from six hundred years ago. I knew I'd seen those coloured stripes before somewhere… Funny, now that I'm thinking about it, I never did know where that came from. "River, I wouldn't worry. I think I got it, a long, long time ago…"
She doesn't understand. Neither does Clara. They shrug at each other, in a synchronized sort of way I'm not sure I like. But so long as nobody kills each other with a scarf, I'll call it a victory. I start towards the cell door, sonic in hand to open the lock.
"Darling? What're you doing?"
"Oh, well, Clara's off home for a bit. I thought me and you, nice resort planet, private beach, warm sea, swimwear, you're shaking your head, River, why are you shaking your head, you wanted out, River, remember, hence all the knitting, swimwear, River, why are you shaking your head?"
"I might just sit in," she says, sauntering back to her bunk. The cell, now, is littered with half-used balls of wool, and she idly picks over them, looking particularly at the green ones. "Do send me a postcard, though, won't you?" I must be staring. She looks up, doing her 'innocent' face, which always looks anything but. Grinning, "Well, sweetie, I've got a hobby now."