It's been a long time since I just sat down and wrote a story, on my own, purely for fun, not for any particular purpose or project. Today is Doctor Who's 55th anniversary, and thus also five years since The Day of the Doctor. So, I thought I would put together a little follow-up. It's very hastily written and far from perfect, but hopefully enjoyable.
The story is dedicated to my sister Rebecca, an actual museum person and arts expert, and apologies for pretending to know anything about her territory. Alex is named after (but not based on) my good friend Alex, also a former museum person, as a belated gift for their birthday.
Alex craned her neck looked up at the
full, remarkable height of the columns that surrounded the entrance
of the National Gallery. Just in case these huge monuments that
supported the grand, majestic building in Trafalgar Square weren't
enough of a clue, the words “National Gallery” were emblazoned in
gold on red banners that hung beside the outermost columns, and she
could still just about see the name chiselled into the stone itself
She hurriedly stepped into the museum
before she felt too overwhelmed. The sheer size of this place was
enough to make her nervous, even without taking into account the age
and incredible wealth of artwork inside. She was being presumptuous,
ridiculous even. There was no way that she would even be considered
for the job.
Alex looked around in for someone to
direct her to the Under Gallery. There were a couple of security
guards, but neither one of them knew what she was talking about, both
giving identical excuses of it “not being their patch,” and a
fusty-looking tour guide was no more help. She looked at her map; it
wasn't marked on there, but there was an information desk in the
Sainsbury Wing. Or she could maybe ask the girl in the shop. That
wasn't a bad idea; when this job turned out to be a bust she could
try for one there. Much more realistic.
No. Confidence. The key to interviews
was confidence, her dad said, and he'd been to enough of them to
know. Even got a job from some of them. He was proud that she was
even considering the job. She'd been the first one in the immediate
family to “get an education,” as he called it, and once she'd got
her degree she'd been determined to get on the ladder of a museum
career. In a year and a half, she'd managed three months volunteering
at a minor history museum and a very short stint at a studio which
went out of business shortly after. She was about to give up and just
resign herself to bar work for the rest of her life.
Then this job had turned up, out of
nowhere. It had been her dad who'd found it, when she'd gone round to
see him and sheepishly ask about moving back in. A tiny ad in the
borough paper, which virtually no one read anymore. Circulation of
about five, probably, mostly local ads and the odd job, and then,
somehow, this. Under the printed banner of the National Gallery, a
new opening for the role of “Assistant to the Curator of the Under
Gallery.” It read as if it had been written for her.
“Would suit recent graduate of
history of fine art. Hours variable, must be flexible. Ideal
candidate would be local, with a passion for intriguing and unusual
artwork, and strong ankles. Experience in museums and galleries NOT
REQUIRED – we have our own ways of working and don't want to waste
time while you unlearn everything. Must love old relics.”
OK. it read like a
joke, but the number attached checked out and when she called, the
personnel officer had said there was a record of a Doctor Smith
requesting the ad be placed. She couldn't fathom why he had specified
that particular newspaper, or quite what the Under Gallery was, but
she said that the man in question was rather eccentric and set in his
ways, and it was best to let him carry on as he liked. Whatever it
was he actually did there.
Alex had a thought
and pulled the newspaper page from her bag. She unfolded it, and
read, at the very bottom of the advert: “Make sure you take a
look around when you arrive. I'll find you!”
Eccentric was the
word, she thought, but at the very least she should enjoy the museum.
She could have wandered around there for hours, but instead, looked
at the map and decided to go straight for the furthest gallery on the
ground floor – the huge collection of European art that stretched
from the Middle Ages to Nineteenth Century. She ambled from
Boltraffio to Titian and through to Cezanne, walking the centuries
and almost forgetting why she was there. She'd made her way right
through to the end of the Nineteenth Century and was admiring a
Gustave Moreau when someone spoke to her.
George and the Dragon,” boomed a deep, throaty voice at her
shoulder. She jumped and spun round to face the speaker, a well-built
old man who leant heavily on his cane. He was much taller than her
and had once been taller still, but age had hunched his shoulders.
Still, he had managed to sneak up on her even in the quiet of the
Gallery in the morning.
“Sorry, did I
startle you?” he said, his face breaking into a huge smile. “I'll
have to take points off for jumpiness, you know. You must be Alex,
Alex's head caught
up with his words. “Sorry, um, yes,” she said. “Are you Doctor
“Well, I did say
I'd find you, and I found you in front of one of my very favourites.”
Alex followed his
gaze back to the painting.
“Mine too. It's a
little derivative of Raphael, but I enjoy the more abstract style -”
“Oh, don't give
me that,” snapped the old man, “I know you know about art, you've
nothing to prove there. What I want to know is why you like it?”
intently at the image, of the black-clad Saint George on his noble
steed, plunging his lance into the bloodied, cowering dragon.
Saint George isn't the hero. It's the dragon. I guess I feel sorry
“Yes,” he said,
nodding enthusiastically, “I do too. Of course, it was nothing like
that at all. George was this big, swarthy fellow with a huge
moustache, and the dragon was a biomechanoid... Well, I'll come to
all that later. Follow me.”
speed, the old man was moving back through the Gallery.
wait!” she said, as loudly as she could without being too loud for
the Gallery, and dashed after him.
“I'd much rather
you just called me 'Curator,' if it's all the same to you,” he
said, leading her to a nondescript looking door at the far end of the
cavernous room. He pulled an odd, spade-shaped key from his pocket
and fumbled with the lock. “By the way, did you have time to see
the Van Goghs?”
“Not yet,” she
said. She glanced at her watch, and realised she'd spent the better
part of an hour there already. This was the strangest, most
protracted interview she'd ever had.
said, sadly. “Poor old Vincent, such a nice man. I've a couple more
in my private collection, if we have time.” The lock clicked open
at last. “Come on.”
The Under Gallery
was a maze of white corridors, spotted here and there with a painting
or sculpture, none of which Alex recognised. If she'd had time to
look at them, perhaps she could have identified the artists – that
was the sort of test she'd have expected from this, but the Curator
hurried her along into a large anteroom. The walls were patterned
with tiles, white on white, circles within hexagons. A single
painting dominated the room, a sizeable landscape. It depicted a
blazing citadel against a tumultuous background of smog and
The Curator sat
down heavily on the single white bench in the centre of the room. He
whipped a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his forehead.
he croaked, sounding exhausted, “I forget sometimes that I'm not as
young as I was.”
said Alex, half-looking at him and half at the landscape. “What's
“Oh, pay that no
heed, it's been dealt with. Now, come sit. It's about time I asked
you a few questions.”
Alex did so,
perching on the bench next to the Curator. He smelt faintly of
“Now, what do you
know of the Under Gallery?” he asked, fixing her with an enquiring
really,” she replied, taken aback. “I didn't know there was one
until I saw your advert.”
right. That's a relief – if you had known something about it, I'd
have been quite worried. It's a secret you see, set up by command of
Queen Elizabeth and personally entrusted to me.”
Alex was impressed. “Personally? You know the Queen?”
“Oh yes, Good
Queen Bess. Charming lady.”
She smiled sadly.
The old man was obviously getting confused.
“Good Queen Bess
was Elizabeth the First,” she pointed out.
replied, a wistful look coming over him. “Oh, I practically had to
crawl back to her and beg forgiveness after I left her. Terrible,
terrible, but it was a very urgent situation, as I recall. Anyway,
Elizabeth tasked me with taking care of, shall we saw, dangerous
works of art.”
political art, that sort of thing?”
the Curator scoffed loudly. “I mean dangerous,” he hissed.
The sort of things that can't be allowed to just sit around where
anyone can use them. Now, I've dealt with most of them over the years
– locked away the worst of them in the Black Archive, neutralised
the rest, but there's one item left that I must take care of. Before
I run out of time.”
That was the point
where Alex had finally had enough. He was a nice old boy and she was
sure he had lots of lovely stories, but this was not going anywhere.
said, as firmly as she could, “were you going to ask me any
questions about the job or did you just want to tell me stories?”
just it, you see.” He looked at her sheepishly. “I'm sorry, my
dear, I haven't been entirely honest with you. You see, there is a
job opening, of sorts, but it isn't going to be the sort of thing
you're expecting. I don't need to see your CV or anything, I just
needed to make sure you were the right person before I showed you
He pushed himself
back to his feet with his cane, and walked stiffly over to the far
wall, stopping at one of the small pictures that hung there.
“I'm sorry about
the advert,” he said, “a necessary bit of subterfuge, but you
see, one day you're going to be in a rather senior position here and
I needed someone I knew I could trust with this. Of course, time
being what it is, you're a little earlier in your career than I'd
have liked, but needs must.”
Smith,” she sighed, “tell me what this is about. You're not
making any sense.”
he said, gesturing at the tiny, barely hand-sized painting, “exists
for a particular purpose, and unfortunately, it's taken rather longer
than I'd hoped to come to fruition.” He plucked the picture from
the wall and held it out to Alex. An oval of canvas, depicting a bird
– a pheasant, maybe, or something similar – painted in muddy,
“I took on the
role of Curator here as a form of semi-retirement,” continued the
old man, smiling again, “but even I won't live forever. This old
body's wearing a bit thin, and I find myself with the desire to get
back out there and see the universe again. But I couldn't leave until
I'd dealt with this one, last job.”
He crouched down,
slowly, his knees cracking, and placed the picture face up on the
this is one item I can neither take with me nor leave with that UNIT
Alex wasn't looking
at the Curator anymore. She was staring intently at the tiny picture
of a bird. Even in its drab colours, it was somehow quite beautiful.
The more she looked at it, the more remarkable it seemed to be. She
shook her head, looking back at the old man as his cryptic words
arranged themselves in her head.
“You went to all
that trouble to get me here... me specifically... so I could look
after this painting.”
the Curator, beaming. “One day you can hang it up in the main
Gallery if you like, when you're in charge, but for now, just take it
home with you. Well, when we're done here.”
“I can't do
that!” she gasped, shocked. “That's the property of the museum!”
“No it's not,
it's the property of me,” he replied, pointing to himself with a
thumb. “And I'll be giving it to you in just a few moments.” He
reached into his pocket again, and pulled out a box of matches.
said Alex, more confused than ever, “what are you doing? You're not
going to -”
He struck a match
and dropped it onto the little painting. Immediately, it went up in
flames, burning hot and bright.
“Why the hell did
you do that?” cried Alex.
The Curator's voice
was barely a whisper.
The flames grew,
impossibly so, shooting upwards, three, six, nine feet into the air,
licking the ceiling of the Under Gallery. There was no way that the
tiny painting could contain so much energy, and yet, it was still
burning. Slowly, within the flames, an image was forming. A bird, its
Finally, within the
flames, it took shape, a beautiful creature, its feathers red and
bronze and gold, its wings so wide they almost brushed the walls.
said the Curator. “Molto bene!”
“Is it really...
“The image of a
phoenix becomes a phoenix,” he explained. “How else would such
beings reproduce? And once it exists, it renews itself, again and
again... as long as it's cared for. Many people have tried to use
this remarkable creature for their own ends. I've looked after it for
the last few centuries, and now it's your turn.”
The flames were
growing hotter, bursting outwards as the phoenix flapped its mighty
wings. The heat was becoming painful on Alex's skin. Her face itched.
“Are we safe
here?” she asked.
“I may have made
a slight miscalculation,” admitted the Curator. “It happens every
century or so.”
“We need to get
“No time!” The
Curator, once more moving faster than a man of his age should, leapt
between Alex and the phoenix. The flames lashed outwards, and she
smelt the burning fibres of his jacket. He grit his teeth and hissed
as the flames hit him.
And then, suddenly,
it was over.
The Curator dropped
to the floor. He leant on his hands, displaying his charred back for
Alex to see. The flesh was blackened and blistered.
“Oh dear,” he
said, quietly, “that was rather silly of me...”
“Come on,” said
Alex, getting her hands under his arms, “we need to get you
upstairs and call an ambulance.”
The Curator shook
his head. “Leave me. This was bound to happen sooner or later. This
just brought ahead a little. In fact, it might be just what I
needed.” He scooped up the picture in his hand, passing it to Alex.
“Here, take it.” She held it up – the image was now of a
radiant, golden bird, full of life. She clasped it to her chest.
“Wait here. I'm
She ran out of the
room, looking back only briefly to make sure he wasn't trying to stop
or follow her. She thought she saw the same golden flames around the
old man for a second as she ducked out the room, but it can only have
been an afterimage.
She stuffed the
painting into her bag, still convinced she shouldn't have it, and ran
through the winding corridors, retracing her steps as best she could,
until finally she burst out of the door and back into the main
It hadn't taken her
long to get help. The young gent at the information point had got
straight on the phone for an ambulance, and one of the security
guards from earlier had accompanied her on the way back to the Under
Gallery. When she got there, though, something was wrong. The door
had changed somehow – there was no longer a lock. For a moment she
thought she was in the wrong place, but she looked around at the
paintings and was certain she was in the same spot. The guard opened
the door for her, but beyond it, there was nothing more than a dusty,
brick-lined corridor, leading to a fire exit.
Still no one had
heard of an Under Gallery, and anyone she asked was certain there had
never been another level accessible through that door. She didn't
mention the painting in her bag.
It was a month
later, and Alex almost fell through the door to her flat. Her first
week as a very junior displays assistant at the Courtauld. They'd
basically treated her as a skivvy, but it was a step on the ladder
and she got to spend time with some amazing artwork.
She looked up at
the glorious picture of the phoenix, now hanging on her living room
wall, once again mesmerised by its beauty, even more so now that it
had been restored to its prime. She still had no answers to what had
happened the month before. She didn't know who the Curator was –
and like hell his name was John Smith – nor how he'd known about
her or where to place that advert. Why had her chosen her? Could it
be possible that he really did know what she would do in the future?
She supposed it was no more ludicrous than a man who'd spent hundreds
of years looking after a magical painting, but still, it just seemed
too much to accept. If only there had been some way to find him
again, if just to make sure he was okay, but he'd vanished without a
She stuck the
kettle on and crashed onto the sofa. She had a job and the first week
was done. She closed her eyes and tried not to fall straight to
God, that kettle
was loud. Seriously going for it – a long, grinding, wheezing sort
She opened her
eyes. What the hell was that? It was getting louder. She spun round
on the sofa, looking over the headrest. A rectangular object was –
well, the only word for it was materialising – right in front of
her, on her threadbare carpet. It solidified, slowly, into a large,
blue box, with the words “Police Public Call Box” embossed on the
top. The noise stopped with a resounding clunk, and the box opened.
A young man popped
his head round.
said, flashing a bright, infectious smile. “It's me!”
“Who are you?”
she said, peering nervously over the back of the sofa.
he said, “although I'd prefer it if you call me Curator, if it's
all the same to you.” He paused, then shook his head. “Or maybe
Doctor. Let's see how we go.”
This really was too
“You... you can't
be the Curator...”
isn't the only one that renew itself,” said the excitable man. “You
don't get to be as old as me without rejuvenating every so often. In
fact, I've done it so many times now I've started to reuse some of my
old bodies – just the old favourites, mind.”
“What do you
“I wanted to say
thank you. Turns out you were the perfect person for the job, and
that picture looks very nice up there, by the way. And it's been a
while since I took this old girl out for a spin, and she'll need a
bit of bedding in, and I wondered if you'd like to maybe come with
me? Just one quick trip somewhere, I'll have you back in time for
“A quick trip
said the young man, swinging open the doors to his box wider,
inviting her in. she could see through to a room, far larger than
could possibly fit into the box, its white walls lined with hexagonal
“What do you say?