"Good Lord," said Liz, looking around the crowded Church Hall and raising her voice to make sure she could be heard of the din of excited children, "I had no idea there'd be so many!"
"Oh, these are just the under-twelves," Private MacKay confided, "The teenagers get a separate meal and a disco, but they don't like too much adult supervision so I always leave that to Sergeant Benton to organise with a couple of junior squaddies."
Liz nodded, wondering which adult was currently supposed to be supervising the red-haired twins who were running around one of the circular tables, screaming at a pitch that threatened the glass in the windows. As MacKay moved away, clipboard and pen in hand, Liz felt a tug on the hem of her skirt, and looked down to find a small blonde girl gazing up at her. "Hello," she said, crouching down to be nearer the child's level, "I'm Liz. What's your name?"
"Kate." She still had her coat on and was clutching a shiny pink party hat in her left hand.
Liz guessed the girl couldn't be more than four, and looked around to see who she belonged to.
"Have you seen my daddy?"
Oh, Lord, thought Liz, If she's one of the kids who's lost a father… what on earth do I say? She stalled for a moment. "You haven't taken your coat off, Kate – here, let me help."
As she began on the buttons, Kate piped up again: "Mummy said to ask daddy to do my coat. Because she's not coming to the party. But I can't find him, and Uncle John –" she pointed across the room toward the door, where a casually-dressed Sergeant Benton was issuing every new arrival with a party hat and squeaker "- he said to ask you."
"Oh." Liz suspected that Benton had pointed in MacKay's direction and the child had been confused when the Private had moved away. "Well, sweetheart, what's daddy's name?"
Kate clearly had to give that some thought, and fixed Liz with a steady, serious gaze that looked somehow familiar. But while Liz was still figuring out who that expression reminded her of, the girl looked up, squealed "Daddy!" and launched herself at the tall figure who had appeared at Liz's side.
Liz straightened up, clutching the empty coat, and stared in astonishment as the Brigadier, wearing grey trousers and a blue crew-neck sweater, swept the child up into his arms. Laughing with evident delight, he planted kisses on Kate's cheek as she giggled and hugged his neck. "Hello, tiger!" he said, "You're early." He gave her another kiss before turning to Liz, still with that unfamiliar grin on his face. "Thank you for looking after her."
"That's alright, Brigadier." Liz glanced down at the coat she was holding, to force herself to stop staring at this casual stranger with the captivating smile, though her brain was stuck on 'repeat' – He's married? He has a daughter? She calls Sergeant Benton 'Uncle John'? "Um… we'd only just met, really." She hefted the coat – Selfridges Pure Wool, she noticed – and added, "I'll go and hang this up. Have a lovely time, Kate."
Three hours later, Liz would gladly have exchanged her party hat for a tin helmet and ear defenders. The tables had been cleared of discarded hats, paper plates with crusts on, and plastic dishes with bits of trifle left in them, but had now acquired a coating of used serviettes, feeding bottles, crumpled wrapping paper from the prizes won so far, and assorted items of infant clothing. The children appeared to be as energetic as ever, running about and jumping up and down while the adults gathered themselves for the next event, and the high-pitched shouting and chattering was beginning to wear on Liz's nerves.
"Is it always like this?" she asked Private MacKay.
MacKay looked around at the devastation, an indulgent smile on her face as she watched Captain Hawkins' toddler playing with a torn sheet of the paper that had wrapped the 'Pass the parcel' prize. "Actually, I was just thinking that it's going much better than last year," she said, "Your party games have been a great hit – and the Doctor's magic tricks were amazing!"
Liz nodded. She suspected that the Doctor's magic tricks owed a good deal to Time Lord knowhow, rather than sleight of hand, but at any rate he had succeeded in making a roomful of excited children sit still and relatively quiet for more than five whole minutes. In its way, it was an achievement to rival the defeat of the Nestene. "What's next?"
Her question was answered by a deep "ho-ho-ho" from the direction of the main door, and a rotund white-bearded figure in a red suit stepped into the room, to be greeted by cheering, clapping and more jumping up and down. Plonking his sack on the table in the middle of the room, he waved his hands and called for everyone to sit down, then put a finger to his lips and said "Shhhhhhhh!"
Stillness descended, and Liz sank onto the piano stool and rubbed her forehead just over the left eye, where her head was starting to throb. "Thank you, Sergeant Benton," she murmured.
She had assumed that the Brigadier had set a strict budget for the presents – a few shillings each, perhaps for the small children, a little more for the older ones. But as Benton, in his Santa guise, began to hand them out, she realised that he must have paid at least four or five times as much as that. As more wrapping paper piled up on the tables and the floor, Lego, stickle-bricks, jigsaws, Corgi cars, soft toys, costume jewellery and children's card games abounded.
"Kate Lethbridge-Stewart," called Benton, holding out the last present, and shaking his sack to show there were no more in hiding. Liz smiled as the little girl politely thanked Santa before skipping back to her father, clutching a rectangular box wrapped in red paper with cartoon reindeers on it.
The was a squee of excitement as she pulled the wrapping off: "Look, daddy! 'noc'lars! Like yours!" She pulled a pair of yellow plastic binoculars from the cardboard box and looked through them, peering this way and that.
After a moment, the Brigadier gently pulled them away from her face, turned them around and handed them back to her. "Now try it," he said, and Liz saw the girl jump, then giggle with surprise as she found the object of her attention – the Doctor – looking much closer than she expected. She switched the glasses round the other way again and looked in Liz's direction, then turned them again and studied the ceiling. "They work much better outside," said the Brigadier, "Shall we take them to the park tomorrow?"
"Will you be home?"
He got to his feet, picked her up and kissed her cheek. "Yes. In fact, I'm coming home right now, with you. It's nearly your bedtime."
Santa had already positioned himself by the door, ready to say a personal goodbye to one and all, and there was a scraping of chairs and a last burst of conversation as everyone stood to collect children, presents, bags and coats. The Doctor, not to be outdone, strode across to stand next to Santa, and was making a great show of waving to all the children.
"Bloody cheek," Liz heard Private MacKay mutter, "Anyone would think they'd done all the hard work. Come on!"
She led the way across the emptying hall to stand next to the Doctor, and Liz followed. Already, she noticed, several young squaddies were making a start on clearing the rubbish. Three more were stacking the chairs.
"Thanks, everyone!" The Brigadier's voice echoed around the almost-empty hall. He was leading Kate by the hand, and Liz smiled as she saw that the little girl still had her party hat on and was wearing her new yellow binoculars over her coat.
As the Brigadier passed along the line, prompting Kate to say her 'thank yous' and adding his own, Liz turned her thoughts to a long soak in a hot bath, with a glass of wine on the side and a good book to hand.
She absolutely refused to think about how it would feel to kiss him.
[A/N: That's it for now. If there's enough demand, the moments in between 'The Silurians' episode will follow, but it may take a while!
Meanwhile, don't forget to check out the new Brigadier forum – link via my profile. ]