Teaser: “Time and Tide”
ALISON FELT the sear of his condescending stare even before she dropped the oyster shell and fork from her lips. She swallowed hard, sending a dose of lemon and brine as acidic as the lecture she was no doubt about to endure plunging toward her already unsettled stomach, then looked up.
Beyond the serving platters, silverware, and glassware scattered across the tablecloth sat the Doctor, as starched as the silk bib shirt he was wearing, his black dinner jacket and white bow tie immaculate and unruffled. Here was an unimpeachable figure, a self-proclaimed fixed point, a true lord of time. And yet, on closer inspection, one could spy a spot of sauce upon his dinner jacket collar. Staring at it, Alison suppressed a snicker. The image was just about perfect.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. The fork isn’t to be used for eating the oyster, Alison,” the Doctor scolded in a low voice, as if he was worried he might draw further attention to the embarrassing scene unfolding at their table. “That’s to say nothing of the fact that you should never douse the first oyster in lemon juice. It’s important that the first bite is naked. We must taste the liquor of the native seawater to truly appreciate the flavours on offer.”
Alison blinked. “Naked,” she repeated flatly.
“I assumed that you would be familiar with the etiquette, given your background.”
“I was a barmaid,” she retorted. “In Lannet.”
“Observe,” the Doctor commanded, lifting his oyster fork into the air before slipping it into the gnarled half shell. In a momentary frenzy, he worked his hand around the curled lip, shifting his wrist to loosen the mollusc in its briny liquor. When he was finished with this task he put down his fork and, pausing as if to brace for the sensations to follow, brought the shell to his lips. With a sudden gasp of breath the oyster was gone and his dark eyelids snapped shut as he savoured the taste of it.
If the Doctor sighed with satisfaction upon swallowing his latest hors d’oeuvre, Alison did not hear it. As if on cue, the air was suddenly filled with luscious strains as a string quartet began to play at one end of the salon. It was all too much. Alison snatched up her napkin and, balling it, tossed it onto her plate. Within seconds the gloved hand of a vigilant waiter had taken the dish away.
“You really should have at least tried one with the mignonette,” the Doctor told Alison.
“Yes, yes, the hors d’oeuvres were outstanding,” she snapped, growing impatient. “Delicious. Extraordinary. Super! Isn’t there something else we should be worried about? You said this was urgent, right?”
The Doctor nodded quite confidently.
“You told me that the timeline around us is tearing itself apart.”
“And you don’t know why?”
“Well, not yet, no.”
“And you want to stop for a nosh up? You won’t even tell me where we are!”
“I don’t want to worry you unnecessarily.”
Alison crossed her arms and glared at him. The Doctor was undoubtedly at his most irritating when, in spite of his seemingly limitless knowledge and considerable talents, he was doing everything in his power to avoid the inevitable.
The warning signs had been dire enough. Aboard the TARDIS, it was the Master who had first informed them of the calamitous readings drawing them to this mysterious point in space-time, and the Doctor had considered his claims with worrying sobriety. The two had shared only a brief but knowing glance before the Doctor whisked Alison off to the wardrobe, where he spent nearly an hour deliberating on the appropriate evening wear. Alison had resisted at first but sitting here in this posh eatery she was secretly grateful that he had forced her to trade her t-shirt and denim for a beaded evening gown and shawl. It was doubtful that they would have even let her in otherwise! Beneath the elegance of it all, however, there remained some unspeakable threat to the integrity of the timeline.
“There’s no point in being a time traveller if you can’t pop in for a bite to eat just before a moment of impending doom,” the Doctor said. “I assure you, there’s time enough for both.”
“I’d say that’s a pretty shellfish attitude,” Alison managed to say with a straight face.
The Doctor stared back at her, blinking, until his pale face split in a wide, toothy, careless grin. Alison smiled back.
He pressed on: “I don’t want to be patronising—”
Alison nearly choked. “Heaven forbid!”
“—but if I were to tell you what’s really happening here, the first thing you’d do is leap up from this table. There would be running and jumping and shouting and… general shenanigans! You’d want to do something about it! I know you, Alison. I know us! We both know how this is going to end. Before all of that commotion, I’d just like to take a few quiet moments to…”
His train of thought was derailed by the waiter’s return. On the table before him, his plate of discarded oyster shells was replaced by a bowl of steaming, richly coloured consommé. The Doctor rubbed his hands together with glee.
“You enjoy your starters, then,” she said, pushing her chair away from the table. “I’m going to go for some fresh air before we get to all that running and jumping, yeah? Assuming, of course, that this ship of yours is on an ocean and not—oh, I don’t know—drifting toward a black hole or something.”
The Doctor reached for his soup spoon, unconcerned. “You’re going to miss poached salmon with mousseline and cucumber,” he cautioned. “And parmentier! Remember, there are ten courses.”
She shook her head as she began to walk away, but the Doctor had one of his seemingly nonsensical afterthoughts: “Oh, and if you happen to bump into a short fellow in a question mark jumper, don’t stop to chat!”
Alison didn’t look back. As she passed the string quartet she thought she heard him say something about a “hilarious marionette.” Of course, thinking about it, it was more likely to have been a comment on the forthcoming asparagus vinaigrette.
Past a sideboard crowded with canapés, she found an archway. It led into a lengthy corridor lined with wooden doors, all shut. Although the architecture and décor of this place were akin to what you might find in some posh London hotel, Alison knew that they were aboard a ship. This was to be an “historic maiden voyage,” the Doctor had let slip back in the TARDIS. That meant that these were staterooms. And somewhere on this deck, she imagined, there would be an observation deck or viewing gallery offering her a glimpse of just where—and, possibly, when—they were.
She found what she was looking for at the end of the hall. A circular window set in a cabin door showed the golden light of a setting sun—warm and yellow, just like the one she’d always known. They were back on Earth, then, as the salon’s menu and clientele had suggested. Eagerly, she reached for the door’s heavy handle and pushed her way through. At once she was met with a gust of bracing sea air. Alison pulled the shawl tighter around her shoulders. There was some sense to the Doctor’s dress code, though she would never have told him as much.
Blinking into the brilliant light of the sunset, Alison took in her surroundings. They were aboard a cruise ship, and she was standing at the stern. The deck was expansive, a span of bright lacquered planks. Beyond the sturdy white railing was a cold, tumultuous sea that churned with black and grey There were other passengers milling about the deck, each wearing something that would have passed the Doctor’s strict dress code.
As Alison stepped toward the railing for a better look at the horizon, a young couple approached, she in brocade and he in a tuxedo. Alison self-consciously ran a hand over the front of her own dress as the young man made eye contact. Her reserve gave way to shock, however, when he then collided with her quite roughly, shoulder-to-shoulder, deliberately knocking her back without a moment’s hesitation.
Alison turned on the spot, incensed. “Oi!” she shouted, but the young man simply kept walking, unwilling to spare even a single word for the black-skinned woman he’d so brutally bumped out of his way.
These were the moments in history that even life in the TARDIS did not prepared you for.
Alison was ready to charge after them when something caught her eye. There, upon the shining deck, was an unmarked envelope. The tosser walking away from her must have dropped it. She snatched it up, and in her anger she didn’t hesitate to tear it open. Inside was a typewritten itinerary. It wasn’t the contents of the document that left her reeling, however. It had been typed on a slip of ship’s stationery which bore the logo of a two-pointed red flag with a white star. It was the moniker in this header that made an acid fear rise along with oyster and lemon juice in the back of her throat: “WHITE STAR LINE.” Below this, in crisp block letters, was the name of the ship: “RMS TITANIC.”
Alison began to shout before she had even finished fumbling with the handle at the door: “Doctor! DOCTOR!”