A new short story by Joy Wilkinson
The Simple Things
Graham wasn’t keen on bucket lists. He didn’t want to be ticking things off as if there’d come a point where he’d had his fill, and he knew that when the darkness loomed, he found as much solace in the small things – watching the garden birds, dusting Grace’s frog ornaments, hiding the TV remote from Ryan – as he would in bungee jumping off the mountains of Mars.
But when the Doctor offered him the chance to go wherever and whenever he wanted, he knew exactly what to ask for. A small thing, and yet the biggest – a simple kickabout with the first West Ham team to win the cup.
He’d dreamed about it for years. A quick trip back to the glory days of 1964 to tackle Bobby Moore on the training ground. Graham was fully prepared to fall flat on his face in the mud. It would be an honour and a privilege. But this… this was just bloody typical!
“That TARDIS hates me,” Graham despaired. The TARDIS had turned up in a noisy, filthy factory corner, nowhere near Bobby Moore.
“That’s weird,” said the Doctor, checking the sonic.
“No it’s not. It’s exactly what I’d expect. It’s been like that ever since I brought my own cushion along, as if it’s a personal criticism. I tried to explain – it’s memory foam – ”
“No, it’s weird because we are in the right place,” she managed to cut in. “West Ham. Monday 20th April, 1896.”
“Did West Ham even exist in 1896?” Yaz asked, trying to give a stuff about football for Graham’s sake.
“The place probably did, but not the football club,” said Ryan, who had tuned out as much of Graham’s West Ham trivia as he could, but had unwittingly picked bits up.
“No, hang about…” gasped Graham, his eyes starting to sparkle. “Listen.”
They tried to, but it wasn’t easy to hear anything with the CLANK-CLANK-CLANK of the factory racketing on.
“This is an ironworks – that’s what they were called at first – Thames Ironworks F.C. That’s why they’re called the Hammers.” Graham’s heart was CLANKING now.
“Surely it’s Hammers because of the Ham?” Yaz said.
Graham shot her a withering look, but was soon sparkling again as he figured it out. “I never said which cup, did I? So it’s brought us to our first ever final against Barking – the Charity Cup. Last rematch after drawing twice. We win the trophy 1-0 in our first ever season – today!”
“Keep it down, Granddad,” warned Ryan. “If the players are around, you don’t want to give the game away. If you jinx it and they lose, you’ll change the club’s whole history.”
“Did they play here in the Ironworks?” Yaz risked another withering look, but Graham was too enthused to admonish now.
“No, but they worked here, so they must be having a last kickabout before heading to the match. I take it back – I could kiss that TARDIS. I’m going to train with Charlie Dove!”
“Or maybe not,” the Doctor was suddenly grave. “What does this place make, Graham?”
“Ships, mostly. Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, if memory serves.”
“That’s right. For the Navy. And some other countries – ”
“How about for aliens?”
He stared at her. They all did. She wasn’t kidding. They followed the trace the sonic had picked up, through the heat and cacophony of the ironworks to a large door that led into a vast workshop. Or that would have done, if it weren’t locked. A group of young men were hanging around outside, clutching a ball. Graham went quiet, like a shy little kid. The Doctor was still troubled – as were the men.
“Have you got us locked out?” said the man with the ball. “It’s the only empty space. We need to get in and practice, but the boss won’t let us because of some big customer.”
The whole team glared at them, suspicious of the strangers who seemed to fit the ‘big customer’ bill.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a bone to pick with them too. Wait there, won’t be a tick,” the Doctor sonicked the lock and slipped inside. Yaz and Ryan followed, with Graham last, eyes riveted on his heroes, still unable to speak for fear he might only be able to squeak.
The gigantic room was indeed completely empty, until the Doctor revealed what was behind the perception filter. A leviathan of a spaceship. Iron-wrought like a WW1 dreadnought, but a very different shape, tooled for intergalactic skies not seas. Turrets rose on all sides, ready to be decked with alien armaments. A hundred canons at least.
“Draconian Galaxy-class battlecruiser,” the Doctor breathed in horror. “Early model, but I guess it’s another seven centuries before they use them to wage war on humans. I didn’t know you’d crossed paths yet.”
Before the others could get her to break that into bite-size chunks, another door opened and a man in a suit entered with a tall reptilian humanoid woman in a green robe. The gang needed no help to figure out that this was the boss with the big customer, who wasn’t happy to see them sniffing around her gunship. Before the Draconian could declare war, the Doctor was ready with her gambit, for once not even needing to fib.
“Morning! I’m the Doctor – your fifteenth Emperor made me a noble of Draconia. That’s all right, no need to bow, just tell me what on Earth you think you’re doing building gunships here on Earth?”
The Draconian frowned, but took her at her word and answered simply, “Where else should we build it? Our civilisation is too advanced to have our own people do such lowly labour. Our specialists will install the high-tech weaponry and systems, but the basic toil is best left to the basic species. It makes perfect economic sense for us both.”
The boss blushed at being dismissed as primitive and was keen to keep face. “Why wouldn’t she come here? We’re the best shipbuilders on the planet, and we’re almost bankrupt. I’ll take work wherever we can get it rather than see our people starve.”
The gang waited for the Doctor to lay into them both, to tell them the warship would be used against humans one day, and that any warship used against anyone was not good, and that humans weren’t expendable and exploitable by any empire that rocked up with a poxy chequebook… but the Doctor could see that the boss cared about his men, and that the Draconian was just a procurement clerk, and that warships would always be built by poorer worlds and used by richer worlds to destroy each other, and all of a sudden this nice day had nosedived and she felt the darkness loom and then she said –
“Brilliant! Makes perfect sense… except that I’ve brought my mate Graham here to have a kickabout with the guys waiting outside, so would you mind letting them in for fifteen minutes? Go on, you can stay and watch if you pop your perception filters back on.”
Graham never knew if it was the fifteenth Emperor’s honour or just the coolly authoritative way she said it that won them over, but before he knew it, the ship had vanished, the Draconian woman turned into another man in a suit, and soon the whistle was blowing and he was playing footie with Charlie Dove, and all the lads, booting the ball around the vast workshop, with Yaz and Ryan standing strategically to stop it hitting the ship.
The Doctor watched alongside the Draconian, commentating in such a way as to pass on all the fundamentals (including the offside rule) and a whole heap of passion, so that when the time was up, the ground was laid.
“Mind if I have this?” she stopped the ball on a rebound and booted it to the Draconian, who picked it up, curious.
“Such a simple object,” said she – or he, as the big customer guise appeared. “And yet, it’s quite fascinating. May I take this back with me to show the Emperor?”
Charlie Dove was about to protest – as was Graham, who’d hoped for a souvenir – but the Doctor cut in once more. “Please do. You never know, it might help you beat more people than a warship.”
She grinned. So did Graham, realising what she was up to. He reassured Charlie that the team would be fine without their lucky ball and gave them his West Ham pin instead.
“West Ham F.C.? That’s a good name for a team,” said Charlie. “Shame it’s taken.”
“It’s not – yet. I – uh – made it up. You can have it if you want,” Graham stammered, as the prototype Hammers thanked him and headed off to their match – to win the cup.
“Thank you!” Graham shouted, in the TARDIS, to the TARDIS, and to the Doctor and the universe, and whatever else had conspired to allow him to christen his favourite team. Who needed a bucket list when life could twist and turn and surprise you like this on a Monday morning?
The Doctor smiled. She doubted a quick kickabout could ever lead to saving the Earth, but sometimes the simplest things were the greatest things – like her favourite race, and like those beautiful, perfect spheres, on the pitch and spinning in all the solar systems. And if she’d learned one thing about the future, and the past, and the present, it was that she never really knew what would happen next. Which was why hope would always win.