In honour of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary, I am posting my Time Lord fan fiction The Blue Cuckoo in five installments. This story does not feature any particular Doctor or Companion or in fact any characters from the series. But it does feature a Time Lord and is heavily inspired by Family of Blood and Human Nature. Here is the final story in its entirety.
The Blue Cuckoo
by Katharine Elmer
‘It’s not rubbish because you don’t understand it, Mr Barker.’
‘The mathematics of relativity can’t be applied to quantum mechanics. Everyone knows that—‘
‘It can. You just carry the infinity and divide it by—‘
‘Your limited understanding of Higg’s boson is ridiculous nonsense! Honestly, Sir. Do you know nothing of Unified Theory?’
The classroom gasps in fascinated horror. Mr Barker’s face looks like a nuclear detonation as I punctuate my statement with a derisive chuckle. Possibly it’s the chuckle which motivates him to remove me from his classroom. He isolates me in the hallway outside Lab 4 then rounds on me.
‘Who do you think you are?’
‘I’m not sure I—‘
‘How could you presume—‘
‘Not my fault you can’t cross multiply Einstein by Newton!’
‘How dare you speak to me like that?’
I’ve done it now. I made a teacher lose control. This is not affected fury meant to frighten me. Mr B’s bollocking is heartfelt.
‘I am your teacher! you will show respect!’ Barker stutters more half-formed warnings before winding down. ‘I never thought you of all people,’ he sighs bewildered.
Me either. I never thought me either. Mr Barker glares then pronounces sentence.
‘Juliet, report to Room 17.’ I try not to panic.
‘I don’t know where Room 17 is.’
This is a lie. Everyone knows where it is. They just hope they never need to.
‘Now!’ Mr Barker jabs his finger along my appointed route.
‘But sir, I only told the truth!’ I protest.
Barker inhales and clenches before repeating my instructions. ‘Room 17. Now.’
Fine. I will go to Room 17. But I will not go quietly.
‘Mr Barker, sir.’ I make my voice polite and contrite. ‘I apologise for my inappropriate behaviour. I’m sorry you do not understand physics as well as I do. I am sorry you find it difficult to be challenged by a student—and a girl,’ I add with minimal snarl. ‘And I am truly sorry you are so disappointed in me. Believe me when I say, sir, that I don’t know, as you say, who I think I am because who I think I am is not who I thought I was and I think who I am might be someone who you don’t want to know. But I shall take myself—whoever I think I am—to Room 17 as per your request. Sir.’
I drop a curtsey then spin on my heel to flounce down the hallway. Only I turn so sharply my neat plaits smack me across the face. Epic dramatic exit fail.
If a piece of interior architecture can harbour homicidal intentions then Room 17, with its expressionless grey walls and precise geometry, is a stone-cold killer. I have known of Room 17’s existence for some time and I’ve seen the faces of those who’ve endured its tortures: cadaver grey to match the walls.
‘Sit,’ instructs Miss Pemberg, 17’s bullish warden. I sit.
Rumour claims Pemberg was a West Yorkshire Police Officer. Now she is the Detention Supervisor for Wellsthorpe Grammar where her Northern accent terrifies everyone (assuming they can understand her). She receives the most severe classroom offenders, those who violate the rules of academic behaviour to the nth degree.
Like me. And Alistair Jordan. Judging by his gormless expression Jordan has been quarantined here for some time, possibly since his first term at Wellsthorpe. He’s a short, pug-faced tosser who compensates for his stupidity with violence.
I choose a grey plastic chair far from Tosser Jordan and deposit my bag on a square grey desk. At a glare from Miss Pemberg I reposition my bag under my chair.
‘How long will I—
‘SHUT IT!’ bellows Pemberg with vowels which betray her origins.
Right. Fantastic. Visual and verbal silence. How did I get here? How did this happen?
It happened because I opened my stupid gob. I ignored my own strict rules for survival. Now everyone knows what my teachers in primary school knew.
The first day of Reception I arrived fresh-faced, eager. I knew my times tables to twelve and clutched an abridged Oliver Twist. I wanted to impress my teachers. My teachers wanted to test me for Autism.
‘Just because she’s clever doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with her’, my father protested.
He was wrong, of course. No four-year-old should be that clever. No twelve-year-old should be either. So I hide it.
Academically, this is easy. Teachers are predators: only bright objects and sudden movements attract their attention. Visually muted and motionless, I fall under their radar. Ask any teacher who Juliet Annah is and they will look blank, blink then refer to the photos on their electronic register.
‘Oh yes. Round girl, brown plaits, third row. She’s lovely.’
“Lovely” means I don’t misbehave and perform precisely as my test results indicate. Final year of Primary School, I faked my exams to make certain I achieved a moderate standard. Nothing too high or too low—both would draw unwanted attention.
Socially hiding is harder. Teenagers gravitate to anyone remarkably marvellous or ridiculously odd. Since I am potentially both, I force myself to remain blandly ordinary. I orbit the fringes of a modest circle of girlfriends. These average creatures gossip and giggle so energetically I can easily drift in their magnetic pull. The girls assume I am giggling and gossiping with them.
Survival. That’s all I ask for until I am old enough for this much clever to make sense. Today killed that. I’m on the radar now. I may as well paint my face purple then dance on this desk while serenading Miss Pemberg and Tosser Jordan with an aria from Faust.
It’s that damned clue cuckoo clock! The cuckoo clock in Granddad’s attic. His cuckoo clock changed everything last week-end.
Alfred Annah, legendary Wellsthorpe Grammar Physics teacher and my Granddad, died three years ago. My parents have tried persuading Granny Joyce to move from the massive family home into a manageable flat. Last week she agreed. Last weekend we agreed to help.
I did not want to be there, but I love my Granny. I loved Granddad too. Or I tried. So, brandishing a roll of bin liners alongside Mum and Dad, I charged in. We excavated ordinance survey maps, various scientific instruments in various states of disrepair, and many, many clocks. Pocket watches, wrist watches, digital, wind-up, carriage clocks, clock radios: anything anyone had ever used to tell the time anywhere ever.
I had just filled my third bag of clock parts and watches when I found a wooden crate slightly larger than a shoe box. Dust and neglect frosted its surface. When I picked it up the box lid flapped at me like an irritated bird. When I opened it a bird’s face greeted me.
It was an extraordinary, ancient blue cuckoo clock shaped like a house or a barn. An owl spread its wings across the top, like a real bird might perch on a roof. I wiped grime from the enamelled face with my thumb and concluded it had originally been pearl white. Tiny wheel-shaped indigo flowers ran along the edges like faded forget-me-nots.
These metal flowers had tarnished into pale blue stains, though etched details showed the true blue of its original paintwork. Above the clock face two dusky blue doors stood sentinel. The cuckoo must come through there to chime the hours. I tried to pry open the doors. Fail.
‘Does this still work?’ I asked no one in particular.
‘That clock’s never worked.” Granny had climbed the attic stairs to supervise.
‘Not even when it was new?’
‘That clock’s not been new for a long time,’ chuckled Granny.
I stroked the clock’s face. ‘Too pretty to throw out,’
Granny squeezed my shoulder. ‘It should be yours, love. You’re clever. Maybe you can get it to work.’
I replaced the clock in its wooden crate. I closed the lid. With a strange weight of prophecy my forefinger embossed three words in the layer of dust: Save for Juliet.
That night I examined the blue clock in my bedroom. It was so pretty: blue flowers, blue door, pearl enamel, intricate carvings and metal work. Even the chains and weights were exquisite: blue-stained rings linked in an endless swirl resolving into pearl drops like the eyes of the guardian owl. Pretty. I turned it over.
A faded blue door on the back mirrored the ones concealing the cuckoo on the front. A design unfurled across the metal door: swirls, circles and stranger shapes. Time had stained the door but these slender etchings burned a true indigo under layers of rust and dirt. A tiny knob on the back door begged to be opened. I opened it.
I expected messy, broken springs pouring out like intestines. But inside the clock wheeled cogs and impregnating pinions bloomed in beautifully ordered perfection. I squinted further into the blue belly of the clock. Buried beneath the pendulum’s end flickered something like candlelight. I leaned closer.
The light exploded. My eyes flashed gold. The world went out.
Hiking with Granddad across the moors. We see a farm. A blue watermill straddles an energetic river.
‘Once there were many, now watermills are rare. See it scoop handfuls of river and fling it around that great wheel,’ marvels Granddad.
‘It makes the river dizzy,’ I observe.
‘Aye,’ says Granddad. ‘The great wheel takes it, shapes it, uses the river for grinding matter into dust to bake your bread.’
I approach the river’s edge. The shoreline crumbles and I slip into the swift current. The river rushes me to the vortex of the great wheel. I am scooped up by blue fingers at the end of a mighty rotating arm sprouting from a giant churning heart.
‘Stop! Please make it stop!’ But nothing can stop my hydro-powered momentum.
‘Change the rules,’ shouts Granddad from the safe shore. ‘Your mind is stronger than the mill. You are the head of the wheel. Just tell it to stop.’
I am the head of the wheel and the river cannot move me if I refuse to budge.
At the crest of the watermill I stand: one foot on the topmost paddle, one rooted firmly on the axel heart. I press my heel into the centre of the wheel and it stops. All stops. The wheel, the water, the wind. Everything but me.
Granddad applauds. He smiles and I grin back. He presses holy palms together. A tiny blue bird bursts from his hands and flutters toward me. The bird trills a sharp series of staccato chirps. I swear it’s telling me off.
‘Where have you been? What took you so long? Why did you leave me waiting?’ Hovering feather to face, the blue bird squawks a final two note reprimand: ‘cuc-koo’.
The blue cuckoo snaps its curved beak, tucks indigo wings against its narrow body, dips its shining head. I flinch and wince expecting it to my peck my eyes or jump down my throat.
A brief prick of the flesh below my collar bone like an inoculation. Strange fluttering settles around my over-stimulated heart. The bird burrows inside. When its wings spread they break through my shoulder blades. They flap experimentally once.
Then I fly.
Next morning I woke to a repeating sound I thought might be Granddad clapping. But it wasn’t clapping, it was ticking. My searching hands landed on the blue cuckoo clock face down on my bed. The door I had opened last night flapped uselessly, revealing mechanical innards. I slammed the doors and turned the clock over. Three hands ticked happily in a steady rhythm.
‘Granny was right! I fixed it!’
I ruffled my hands through my hair in a congratulatory gesture. Dark strands teased out as if electrocuted. My body felt unusually heavy, but my brain buzzed with activity. I stood up then slammed dizzily back onto my bed. I tried standing again, slowly, digging my fingers into the bed’s edge.
The world did not feel stable. It kept shifting. Slowly but discernibly shifting. Releasing the bed, I adjusted my centre of gravity. I stood and this time kept my feet. The ground still shifted but I let it shift around me. I walked down the hall to the bathroom then collapsed on the tiled floor.
Anticipating vomit I crawled for the toilet. Dizziness, disorientation, buzzing—I must be ill. I laid my hot cheek against the loo’s cool white rim. Nothing happened. I tried to make it happen. I would feel better if I expelled whatever alien invader my body wanted gone. Nothing happened.
When I decided nothing would continue to not happen, I corrected my double negative and went back to bed. While my parents continued clearing Granddad’s attic, I embraced my duvet and tried to ignore the turning earth.
‘What you listening to, Julie?’ Lucie was the music enthusiast in the circle of bland friends I orbited.
‘Fermat’s Last Theorem.’
‘Never heard of it.’
‘Not too surprising.’
‘More of your miserable emo shite?’ Nikki was our arbiter of taste.
‘No, Nikki. It is not more miserable emo shite.’
‘Is that Dawson’s homework?’ Jenny peeked over my shoulder at the book. She was our regular informant.
‘As if Dawson could make sense of this.”.
‘Why you reading it then?’ demanded Jenny.
‘Because I can. Because it’s interesting. Because Fermat’s original proof that no three integers can satisfy the equation for the higher order powers of a Pythagorean triple was ssooo much more simple and elegant than that Andrew Wiles.’
Thus ended my conversation with Jenny, Nikki and Lucie, harbingers of Monday horror.
Why had I said it? I knew better than to say things like that. How did I dare?
‘What have I done?’
I spilled my cleverness all over them. And I liked it. What will they do now they know about me? Where has this new fearlessness come from? Where was I going? Oh right, Mr Barker—first period science.
Which brings me to where I am now: Room 17 with Pemberg and Jordan, bored stupid. I look at the clock. Pointless since I have no idea how long I will be here. In the absence of a window I stare at a grey wall.
Good paint job. No cracks, bruises, scrapes, paint bubbles, visible brush strokes. Wait. There is one ripple in the paint. Moisture should accumulate in a room with no obvious ventilation. At last I have evidence people actually exhale in Room 17. I fixate on the bubble beneath the vinyl layer of Cadaver Grey paint. The bubble becomes an eye.
At first I think it’s a peephole allowing teachers to spy on Room 17’s miscreants. But the eye in the wall is round, bulbous, nocturnal. I blink. The wall blinks back. I look again and the eye is gone. A flicker of movement from the opposite wall of Room 17 catches my attention. Two more nocturnal eyes bubble out. They blink once, twice then fade to grey.
My white knuckles grip the edges of the grey plastic desk. I ignore the walls and concentrate on the perfectly square desk top. Minutes into this meditation my mind goes numb as anaesthetic death.
I shake my head to dislodge the sensation. The tingling becomes a burning. The twitching becomes an uncontrollable need to move. I leap from my chair. Everything from my shoulders to my neck to my hair spasms writhes and jerks in an effort to stop my deadening head. I am vaguely aware of Miss Pemberg shouting and Alistair Jordan laughing; then of Pemberg shouting at Jordan for laughing.
Eventually my head feels like my own again. I am dizzy, nauseous and nursing a minor spinal injury. Miss Pemberg gives me water and asks if I need to see Matron. I drink and croak out a breathless ‘No’. Then Jordan begins his own spasmodic dance.
I watch him gyrate wondering if I looked as pathetic. But I can’t laugh. It’s disturbing to see anyone’s body move so uncontrollably. Miss Pemberg grips Alistair Jordan in a wrestling hold and manoeuvres him deftly out of the room.
‘Stay here!’ she instructs me over Jordan’s shoulder.
I have no intention of leaving. Room 17 has a lot to answer for and I plan to make it talk. Alistair Jordan may be a tosser but no one deserves a dead head seizure dance. These eyeballs best learn who’s boss. I march up to the wall, choose a spot in the random greyness and smack my palms against it.
‘Attention all bulby eyeballs of Room 17!’ I rake my nails down the wall in case slapping didn’t do the trick. ‘You get out of that boy’s stupid head. He’s got nothing interesting in it anyway,’ I command. ‘Deal’, smack, ‘with’ smack, ‘ME!’
My hands hit the wall one last time. I can’t pull them back. I tug harder. Stuck. A thin layer of grey ripples from the wall and creeps across my flesh. A normal person would probably panic at the prospect of being swallowed by a wall but I am fascinated. The greyness slithering up my arms feels fuzzy, like patchy, uneven peach skin.
Panic starts when the grey fuzz reaches my shoulders. I knew Room 17 would be the death of me. Now I’m about to be suffocated by a wall and there’s nothing I can do about it. The dead-head tingling sensation reverberates through my entire body with prickling, burning, unstoppable irritation. I close my eyes as the grey fuzz consumes me.
‘Greetings, Time Lord,’ says the wall.
I inhale tentatively. Breathable. I peel my eyes open. I am face to eyeballs with The Lemur Beast of Room 17. Its bulbous orbs nudge my forehead. What big eyes you have, Room 17. Beneath them a wide, flat nose bumps against my chin in a rhythmic pattern I recognise as breathing. What a big nose you have, Room 17. A generous, lipless mouth splits around pointy grey teeth. They look sharp but have a slight fluffy quality. Indeed, the entire creature wears a thin, patchy fur coat. What big teeth you have, Room 17. I really hope Room 17 doesn’t know the rest of this dialogue.
‘You are not who I expected. You are a child. Where is Time Lord Annah?’
‘I am Juliet Annah. Who are you?’
‘I am The Mould, Time Child Annah.’
If Mould thought this was going to be enough, Mould was gravely mistaken. I have no idea what a Time Child is or why it thinks I am one. I decide it doesn’t matter. I decide to rely on bravado.
‘Speak up when you address a Time Child!’ I thrust balled fists against indignant hips in a universal gesture predicating a “right good bollocking.”
‘I am The Mould of Polemis Five. Lord Annah brought me to his Time Station. He said he would arrange a destination for me but I have waited so long and he has not come.’
Lord Annah’s Station? Had Room 17 been Granddad’s classroom once upon a time? Of course it had. I roll my eyes internally maintaining a fierce facade for The Mould. Time Station? The Mould made Room 17 sound like a bus stop.
‘What does The Mould want from Lord Annah’s Station?’
‘A new life.’
‘And what happened to your old one?’ I demand as if chiding Mould for losing its mittens.
‘I lived with the warlords of Polemis 5. They never knew I existed. Polemi Warriors do not tolerate life outside their own. I hid. I consumed their waste: machine oil, soot, dust, unwanted chemicals—the run-off of Polemis’ brutal world. But the warriors were slaughtered and Polemis destroyed.’
‘Right. Well. Sorry.’ Bollocks. I am losing authority points here but I understood only about half all that. ‘Do you know how Grand— Time Lord Annah intended to help?’
A symbiotic creature that survives on filth. I imagine the feast pubescent students could offer Mould: sweat, oily skin, unwashed uniforms, eraser flakes. Perhaps I could find it a nice home in the Boy’s PE Changing Room.
‘I have what I need already, Time Child. The Mould thanks you.’
‘Oh, good. Glad I could help then.’ First job sorted and I don’t even know what a Time Lord does. Fantastic!
‘The raw power I have consumed from you will regurgitate Polemis’ warrior race through the vortex of Lord Annah’s Station. Polemi warriors will crush humanity to create a new Polemis on Earth. I will have a home and a purpose again.’
Err… Oh, dear. Well, that’s not what I meant to do at all.
Though the Mould has no obvious hands, a solid force shoves me back into Room 17. I land hard, hands and knees slamming against dull grey carpeting. I run my fingers gratefully across its tight weave. Same carpet. I take further inventory. Same walls, same angles, same desks. No eyeballs, no time station, no warriors.
I imagined it. I had a seizure. I passed out and… CRACK!
A thin gap rips across the base of one wall, separating carpet from plasterboard. The crack glows gold like the light from Granddad’s clock. Spidery patterns crawl out of the golden gap, turning blue as they spread across the walls and ceiling of Room 17. Blue like the clock, blue like the cuckoo. Blue like veins.
I am still on my hands and knees when Miss Pemberg bursts in. ‘What the—’ She braces against the doorframe as a tremor rocks Room 17. ‘Oh nicely done, Annah!’
‘What?’ I shout over the roomquake. ‘You think I did this?’
‘Stop being so arrogant and get off the bloody floor before it swallows you whole!’
Miss Pemberg doesn’t wait. She grabs me under both arm pits and drags me through the door, down the hallway. Pulling me to my unsteady feet, she thrusts her furious face into mine. I’m a bit sick of people’s faces having no respect for my personal space.
‘Let me know, will you, if you’re planning more daftness so I can assume minimum safe distance,’ barks Miss Pemberg.
‘It wasn’t me, Miss. I was— It— I—‘
Pemberg lets me sputter half-formed excuses. We both know my efforts are pointless but I am too angry to stop. Who does this silly teacher think she is calling me daft? She’s not even a teacher—she’s a… Fine, I don’t know what she is but she is nothing!
‘How stupid are you, pet?’ Pemberg snaps. Stupid? First daft then arrogant now stupid!
‘You dare call me stupid? You are nothing! I can think you into a pile of dust in a corner of your pathetic little life. You have no idea what I am capable of!’
‘Oh, I know what you’re capable of. Better than you do, flower. You play with the universe like some master juggler. Only you dropped a ball, didn’t you? How amateur.’
Amateur! How DARE she? Miss Pemberg needs to learn some respect.
‘Room 17 has a gas leak,’ I explain in slow, deliberate tones. ‘You should evacuate the building.’ I look Pemberg dead in the eye, my confident assurance scorching her retinas. The world bends to me. Truth is what I say it is. Truth is what I say, I mantra in my head.
‘That right? How interesting.’ Pemberg’s voice flatlines and her retinas look remarkably cool beneath her slim spectacles. Bloody hell she’s tough.
‘Most likely you are suffering from methane poisoning, Miss Pemberg. Perhaps you should, you know, see Matron?’ I’m not convincing her—not even making an impression.
‘Nice try, only it weren’t a gas leak. Room 17’s a galactic alarm clock and you set it off. Any idea what that means, petal?’
Galactic alarm? Set for me? I set off an alarm set for me which was set up to set me up? Set to go off. Setting the stage. Setting me up. Set it off! All set.
My brain tangles in a yarn ball of synapses. There are too many things in my head and I cannot find an end to it. If I can locate the tail of one string I can pull it and unravel the whole mess. But there is no ending, only masses of interconnected wool.
Woolly-headed. Wool gathering. Pull the wool over my eyes.
I clutch the sides of my skull and scream. My body contracts into a recovery position. My head between my knees pushes my ears to shut out the universal cacophony. Seconds or possibly centuries later, I uncurl my body. I stand erect, alert and focused
‘Miss Pemberg,’ my voice crisps civility. ‘I have many ideas of what it means to set off a galactic alarm clock. If you would be so kind, please assist me in figuring out which one I should use.’ I blink guilelessly and smile.
Pemberg retreats a step. She regards me speculatively, trying to decide if I am mad or contagious or potentially flammable. I hold my smile and blink a few more times.
‘You don’t know what you are, do you?’
‘I’m the blue cuckoo!’ I flap my arms for her.
A blue cuckoo hidden for so long I forgot myself. Now I’m stuck under a clueless kid who pulled the pin from a bomb she didn’t know existed. But there’s a spark in me. A blue pilot light struggling.
‘I’m new,’ I confess. ‘I hid because I didn’t want to be me. Only I wasn’t really hiding I was waiting to be found. It was a long game of hide and seek. I’m still trying to figure out if I won.’
‘I know who you are, Juliet Annah. You’re Alfie’s girl.’
‘Granddaughter. Do you know what that means?’
‘Brown eyes and a prominent chin?’
‘Don’t be stupid! We’ve no time for stupid, you know. You made a problem. Fix it!’
‘Can I do that?’ I wonder.
‘You’re the only one who can,’ snaps Pemberg impatiently.
‘Because I’m a Time Child?’
‘Aye!’ she bellows. ‘So, get on with it, then. How dramatic a finish you going for?’
‘A big one?’ I venture. Pemberg slaps my back as if performing aggressive first aid on a choking victim.
‘I have to stop The Mould from using the vortex of Room 17’s Station to pull the warriors of Polemis 5 through space time so they can colonise Earth,’ I regurgitate.
‘I left you alone for three minutes!’ Pemberg scolds.
‘I was bored!’ I snap.
‘Your Granddad made Room 17 a galactic station for shuttling folk about or keeping them waiting—for ages if he needed to. Looks like he left a passenger in’t queue holding a ticket. Over to you then, Time Girl. How you going to sort it?’
I am the head of the wheel. The river cannot move me if I refuse to budge.
I’m going to change the rules,’ I announce, leaping to my feet. ‘But first, I’m going to need some vinegar.’
I race through the halls of Wellsthorpe Grammar, pausing only to slam my fist through the nearest fire alarm. Ouch. I didn’t expect that to hurt.
‘Gas leak! Gas leak in the Science Labs!’ I scream through the tangled school geography.
Despite the galactic menace and the probability I will be expelled for setting off the fire alarm, I am having fun. I haven’t felt this free since my first day of school! This is fantastic!
I skid around a corner, burst through the dinner hall and shove my way through the double doors of the school kitchen. My entrance does not have the dramatic impact I had hoped for. The dinner ladies ignore the fire alarm and continue preparing to feed the multitudes.
‘Gas leak in the Science Labs!’ I shout. No one moves. I’m not sure they can hear me over the mechanical noises of mass food production.
Pemberg shoves past me to the back corner of the kitchen where a large red switch begs to be flicked. She flicks it. All light and sound in the kitchen dies.
‘Right, you lot. This ain’t a drill, you know,’ lectures Miss Pemberg. ‘You need to go now!’ The dinner ladies look at each other. There is little point in carrying on with no power. They shrug and file out through the double doors.
‘Nice one, Miss P! Now vinegar, vinegar… Where on earth do they keep the vinegar?’
Pemberg lowers an enormous plastic jug in front of my face labelled: Malt Vinegar. I take it, turning it over and examining every side.
‘I was looking for something smaller.’
‘Industry kitchens buy in bulk.’
‘Good thing too.’ I shimmy the jug like an unwieldy maraca. ‘We’ll need all of this.’ I race back toward Room 17.
‘Why vinegar anyroad?’ pants Pemberg keeping pace with me.
‘Grey, mottled, slightly fuzzy, growing at an uneven pace and feeding off rot and refuse—I don’t think Mould is a random title. More like a species description.’
‘So The Mould is just mould?’
‘Maybe. Concentrated hydrofluoric acid would be more effective but I doubt they’ll be keeping that in a school. Granddad was always complaining about health and safety rules in the lab. Bleach would do, but it makes me sneeze. So, voila: vinegar!’
I brandish the vinegar jug like a holy sword preparing to kick open the door of Room 17, but it has already fallen off its hinges. Epic dramatic entrance fail. There is now a good three inch gap around the circumference of the room. Blue veins have spread across every surface, pulsing happily with the golden light of energy.
‘That’s my blood, thank you very much!’ I open the jug and dribble vinegar into the widening crack of the vortex. ‘Come out wherever you are, Old Moldy Woldy!’
I splash vinegar against the walls like a possessed painter. The acid hisses and steams on contact while muffled screams shake the grey walls crawling with blue and gold blood vessels. More vinegar, more screams. Gradually the distinctive Cadaver Grey of Room 17’s décor fades to a livelier white glow. Even the carpet retreats into smooth white tile.
But the blue veins, gold light and cracked foundations have gone nowhere. I disinfected The Mould but had neglected to close the vortex. Room 17 is a very clean Station, but a Station still with an active vortex waiting for passengers.
‘Hmph. I rather thought that would work.’
I glare at the pulsing, blue-veined walls. Their wilful disobedience annoys me. How dare they not react appropriately! Where did I go wrong?
Your raw power will regurgitate through the vortex. But how did it take my raw power? How do I get it back? I am at the summit of the universe, one foot over its heart and one hand on its strong arm.
Rooting my feet into the white tile, I reach across the narrow abyss to place my palms against the pulsing blue walls. Strange sounds echo in the crack between wall and floor: an alien language I can almost understand; a vibratory hum of some great engine; a deafening chorus of ticking time. I look down. It’s like the inside of the cuckoo clock. Layers upon layers of wheels, cogs, gears all spinning in different directions. All held together by a single pinion. Me.
‘Apologies Room 17 passengers,’ I grunt with effort. ‘But this Station is closed. Ticket holders best disembark now!’
My open palms vacuum up the web of blue veins. They glow briefly against my flesh then sink into me. A rush of energy makes my heart race and my centre of gravity falter. The ground rotates beneath, the planets revolve above and the cuckoo’s wings flutter inside as the power of Room 17’s Station streams into my blood.
I am the blue cuckoo flying through endless skies. I am the pinion binding together a universal clock. I am Atlas shifting the plates of the earth, finding a better way to hold it all up. After a series of monumental scrapings the walls and floor of Room 17 reunite.
I release the wall, stand straight and square my shoulders. They were made to carry the weight of the world—of many worlds. And I was made for moments like this.
I didn’t need a cuckoo clock to tell me who I am; I just needed a wake-up call. I am a Time Child with a head strong enough to turn the wheel and hands wide enough to pull the walls and eyes hard enough to stare down a beast or gaze though the burning belly of time. I am a twelve-year-old girl with too much clever for this world, but the right amount of clever for the universe. And I am not hiding anymore.
Thanks for the memories, Granddad.
I turn to Miss Pemberg lurking in the doorway. ‘You think I could take GCSE exams next week? College might be a safer place for me.’
‘Reckon the Post-16-year-olds would invite you to their hot parties?’ She’s grinning in relief. It doesn’t look natural on her face.
‘No,’ she scowls in her normal expression. We wait silently.
‘So,’ I open, ‘you knew Granddad?’
‘And he was a Time Lord?’
‘Aye. But he gave it up.’
‘Gave it up?’ I’m new to being a Time Lord but already it doesn’t seem like something I can give up like a bad habit.
‘He left the Time Lords and he left me for her,’ Pemberg voice bleeds with the pain of it.
‘Juliet Joyce. We met in Dublin, 1947. Alfie gave up everything for your Granny.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Alfie were me friend once. He changed me life.’
‘Why haven’t I met you before?’
‘Your granddad weren’t the same man. Alfie I knew died. Didn’t want to know the bloke wearing his corpse.’
‘But you’re here. You and Granddad in same place.’ Miss Pemberg doesn’t answer and her face gives nothing away. ‘Maybe you’ve been hiding too?’
‘Aye. Maybe I’ve been waiting for you.’
She knew I would find Granddad’s clock. The blue cuckoo knew it, Pemberg knew it, Granny knew it. Now everyone’s waiting to see what I might do.
‘It’s not just me waiting, you know.’ Miss Pemberg’s warning echoes my own thoughts. Now you’ve woken up they’ll be coming for you.’
‘Everyone. Everything. From everywhere and everywhen. Some will want your help. Some will want your power. Some will just be curious to see what you are, petal.’
‘But I’m not anything really. I mean, I know I’m a bit clever.’
‘Very clever,’ I amend. ‘But I’m just a kid and I’ve no clue what I’m doing.’
‘You’re a fast learner.’ She indicates Room 17.
‘I need a teacher,’ I mutter dismissively.
‘Aye. But you’ll have to settle for a detention officer.’
Pemberg places her meaty paw on my soft shoulder. She’s offering to help. I need help. Someone like her could toughen me up as well as teach me who I am. Who I might be.
‘I reckon a detention officer will fit the bill.’
I hold out my hand formally. After the smallest pause she takes it. It must be the second time in her life she has made an agreement with an Annah.
‘Now then,’ Pemberg says briskly. ‘You reckon there’s any tea about?’
We take advantage of the school’s empty industrial kitchen. It won’t be empty once the threat of my false fire alarm passes. While waiting for the kettle to boil I let my mind roll around recent events.
‘Hang on.’ My hand freezes around the sugar bowl. ‘Dublin, 1947? You’re not that old.’
‘Oh, flower,’ Pemberg grins wickedly. ‘Just you wait.’
Miss Pemberg tells me all she knows about the Room 17 Station. In time she will teach me how to use Granddad’s clock—really use it. We will encounter many curious, greedy and helpless beings. She says I shall change one day, but hopefully that day will be far in the future. Til then, I’ll show Miss P how the blue cuckoo flies.