Saturday, 9 November 2013

This Time, This Place (Part 6) - 50th Anniversary fiction

For 'this is not an adventure' disclaimer and notes on the Sororiate, see Part 1

Part 5 here

From the daybook of Septuagint-Honorarius-Hortus, Year of Grace 1352:

I do not think I have ever seen a face so beautiful. I had the uncomfortable feeling I was betraying the memory of Veritae merely by looking. But Veritae was fifteen years gone, and she was here, in the full flush of her youth. Black hair gathered at the back of her head, large dark eyes, a straight nose with perfectly-shaped nostrils, and lips fuller and lovelier than I could remember seeing. Blessed with beauty. And touched by sadness.

She had not seen me approach; she was looking wonderingly at the Aeturnum that had clearly bonded with her, its petals turning a deeper brown than any I had ever seen. The morning was chill with a fresh breeze, and she drew up the collar of her shining reddish skin jacket.

Without conscious thought I found myself looking around; I was not surprised to see a tall man standing on the Memoriam Steps, his pale brown coat billowing slightly as he stood contemplating the lake.

What is it about large bodies of water that draws our gaze? Perhaps the combination of stillness and movement, the visual appeal of a shining surface and the knowledge of the concealed depth? Perhaps a body of water mirrors the pattern of creation in this way. Perhaps that is the secret of the spiritual repose that water brings us. I made my way carefully down the last part of the path, assisted by a supporting grip on my arm from Abelard; at my age even the slightest slope becomes a (possibly imagined) peril. The young woman became aware of my approach and came to her feet, looking instinctively towards the distant figure of the man before properly registering the figure of Abelard and taking a step back.

‘Do not fear. I know his appearance is against him, but he is harmless.’

‘Oh…’ She put a hand on her chest, taking a deep breath. She looked warily up at Abelard’s face before returning her gaze to mine. ‘Hello. I’m…Martha. Martha Jones.’

‘Septuagint-Honorarius-Hortus.’ At the look on her face I felt suddenly moved to add: ‘But my name…is Maria.’

And there it was, the word that had not passed my lips – had scarcely even entered my thoughts – for six decades or more. Why had I given it now, to this young woman?

Martha extended a hand, but I did not trust myself to take it, so I put my own hands together and bowed slightly. She echoed my action with an uncertain smile. I looked over towards the Steps. ‘And that, of course, will be the Doctor.’

She looked at him and smiled, but there was something else there, something that kept the smile from reaching her eyes. ‘He said he’d been here before.’

‘Many times. Have you seen his Aeturnum?’

Her expression made me realise I should have made myself clearer. I gestured down at the bed. ‘The flower that stands somewhat alone. I had never known a bloom that changed in this way. I do not know how long it took me to understand that they were all the same man.’ I shook my head. ‘Or perhaps I always knew.’

She looked down at the flower but did not stoop for a closer view. ‘The others…what were they like?’ I could see she was resisting the urge to look directly at me.

‘They were…good men.’

One image surfaced in my mind to belie the statement—but then, I had not spoken to that man.

Martha was struggling with another question. ‘Were there…always…others? With him, I mean?’

‘Almost always.’

‘Was there…I mean, did you ever see…a girl…’

‘There have been many…girls…’ ‘Yes,’ she said quickly. ‘Of course.’ She sighed. ‘Never mind.’ She lifted her head, still not looking at me, her eyes seeking out the figure on the lake. ‘So…the Doctor says this is the garden for some kind of a monastery? I sometimes wish I had faith. Must be nice to talk to someone – or something – and know that they hear you. That they see you.’

‘I have often thought it must be, yes.’

She looked at me, a line creasing her perfect brow. ‘Sorry, are you saying…?’ She dropped her eyes, thinking, then looked up again. ‘If you don’t…if you don’t believe, why are you here?’

‘Sometimes, uncertainty has a stronger grip than sure knowledge. Sometimes, one simply waits to be heard.’ I knew that this was not the whole truth, but I hesitated before speaking again. ‘Sometimes…one cannot help but hold on to the little one has.’

She was now avoiding looking towards the lake. ‘Is that…cowardice? Is it stupid?’

‘It is human.’

‘And he isn’t. But he’s holding on to something. Someone.’

‘Perhaps that is why he came here. This place – the blooms, the water, the space – has been known to lay many ghosts to rest.’

All the while she had been speaking to me I was aware that her attention was divided, and now she turned her head towards the lake again. He was moving, returning to the shore. I saw her restrain herself from running to him. She did not look at me as she murmured: ‘It’s a bit pathetic, I know.’

‘You…had a choice—whether or not to accompany him?’

She nodded.

‘Then to expose yourself to such potential hurt could be seen as a courageous choice.’

‘But if it’s pointless…?’

‘Who can say what is the point of anything we do?’ I turned with her to watch him approach. ‘I question daily the purpose of my existence here...but here I remain.’

He thrust his hands into his pockets as he came to stand before us; upright, energetic, with a mobile, youthful face framing the most sparkling brown eyes I had ever observed in a man. ‘Well, if it isn’t my old friend…no, wait, don’t tell me, I know this… Quinquaginta-Soror-Hortus!’ He pulled out his hands as if to shake mine, remembered, clapped his hands loudly together.

‘You flatter me, Doctor; I have not been Quinquaginta for nearly eleven years now.’

‘Really? You sure? Ah, well, who’s counting?’ There was a moment of stillness, as he seemed to be looking at each of us in turn. ‘So,’ he said to Martha, ‘find yourself an Aeturnum?’

She was nodding, but before she could speak, he looked past my head. ‘And who’s this strapping fellow? Have we met? People say all Ogrons look alike, but I’d swear I know that face…’

It was impossible not to respond to his energy. I smiled. ‘This is Abelard. You…left him with us after your last visit.’

‘Did I?’ He froze for a moment, his mouth open. ‘Ooohhh yes, I do remember. Longer ago than you’d think.’ He flashed a quick grin at me. ‘Blinovitch, as well—doesn’t help. Bits filter through. Well, Abelard – interesting choice of name, by the way – must say I like the bits of grey in your hair. Very distinguished. I used to have some of that. Probably will again.’

He looked up at Abelard for a moment or two longer, then returned his attention to us. ‘So, are we good to go?’

‘What?’ Martha seemed taken aback. ‘We only just got here…’

‘Well, mustn’t hang about, we don’t want to get in the Sister’s way…’

‘I am no longer a Sister. I am now an Honorarius.’

He lifted his brows. ‘Oooh, a Dam-in-waiting, practically.’ Before I could assert my modesty, he shot at me: ‘Ever left Caela since you got here?’


‘And how long ago was that?’

‘I…I was…seven years old.’

He stood quite still and examined my face. ‘Sixty odd years on one planet. I don’t know how you do it.’ He firmed his mouth into a line. ‘I’d’ve been doing anything – making flying machines, building a tower of stones trying to reach the sky – after a week.’ A light gleamed in his eye and he grinned. ‘Want to come for a little spin?’

‘What…? You mean…’

He nodded. ‘Twice round the spiral arm and home via the nearest supernova. Close your mouth, Jones, you look like a drunk Kandalingan.’

I glanced at Martha, who was recovering from her surprise. I tried to steady my thoughts. ‘B-but…I have responsibilities…they will be expecting m—’

‘You’ll be back before they know you’ve gone. And I’m not just saying that.’ He extended an arm, indicating the nearest slope. ‘Just over the hill.’ His eyes seemed to reach into my heart. ‘How about it?’

I think I went mostly because I thought it might help me to understand him—to understand what he was, where he came from, where he was going. In the end, I understood none of those things.

But I saw the heart of the sun that lights Caela; I saw the darkness that lies beyond the edge of our galaxy, and the million million galaxies that swim in it; I saw worlds where the sole living intelligence took gaseous form; I saw the deepest chasm in all the known worlds and the winged creatures that exist only to swoop and sing amid its chorus of fathomless echoes; I saw marriage and birth and disease and death and the creation of a new world; I saw enough to make me sink to my knees in awed helplessness, and for him, all it seemed to do was serve as a spur to further exploration, greater excitement, higher joy. Eyes bright, mouth wide, he treated each new sight as if it was a gift to him that he was sharing with us. Watching him, being with him, I certainly came to better understand Martha’s situation, at least.

I do not know if he meant to give me faith, but that is what I have brought back with me from those few days that passed in a few minutes. I have seen the depths inside the smallest things, I have seen how the great can be contained within the tiny, and I have finally seen, finally understood, that we are loved—because all of creation is loved, all of it has purpose and that purpose is to bring forth love. That we are here and that we know we are here, that we can speak and question and dream and cry and laugh is to me a gift that could not be the result of mere chance, the product of a mechanical universe, but could only come from a source ultimately beyond even the very highest graspings of our material minds, something we cannot hope to understand but can only serve by attending to what it offers us from day to day, be it adventure and death or the simplest domestic task that we have performed a thousand times before.

And somehow, in so many of the wonders I was shown, I was brought back to the memory of Veritae. If all of life is a returning to or a quest for the source, that which ignites the spark of life within each of us, then surely we find it displayed most plainly in another heart which surrenders all its defences before us. We look into another’s eyes to see not only their soul but our own, brought to full flower. It is not that we need another to complete us, but that there are parts of us that remain incompletely expressed without that profound and private blending of souls and bodies.

Yes, I believe I understood Martha better, by the time we returned. Who could look into that face, so alive, and not be seized by a desperate longing?

He explained to me the different faces I had seen, the process by which he renewed himself and survived what might otherwise have destroyed him. I could not help but notice the number of times he used the word ‘we’ and then corrected himself—said ‘I’. It was the only private conversation we had, while Martha slept, and I found I could not ask most of the questions that haunted me.

When we returned the Doctor went for a final look at the lake. Martha hovered close to me. ‘Are you all right?’

I was dizzy with exultation…and a sudden profound sense of grief. I managed a nod and stumbled towards the Aeturnum bed. Abelard’s great hands came out to offer support, but I waved him aside. I fell on my knees before the flower that had been Veritae’s. There, the sense of love and of loss overwhelmed me and I wept as I had not wept since I was a novice.

Martha stood silently beside me. I had told her of the rarity of physical contact in our order. When I had recovered, she crouched next to me and gently laid a hand on mine. There was as much of life in that slight pressure as in all the worlds and stars and systems I had just seen.

From the daybook of Octo-Dam-Maria, Year of Grace 1364:

My first act as Dam has been to re-introduce the use of proper names. This has caused some consternation among the older Sisters and Honorarii.

Considerably more consternation in fact, than was caused to Soror-Hortus-Hazel by her discovery this morning of two visitors to the garden. She behaved with remarkable composure; she did not speak to them, but watched them for some time and brought me a report.

A young woman with soft, shining black hair, small, with a rounded face and quick movements. Exceedingly pretty, Soror Hazel said—and I felt the smallest pang that I no longer visit the garden.

The man was tall, with grey-white hair and eyes that pierced, even from a distance. He seemed to be withdrawn, and Soror Hazel noted that the young woman appeared a little uncertain around him, as if they did not know each other very well. He looked at the lake, and she talked and walked up and down, and then they left. Soror Hazel did not see where they went; I assume he had landed the TARDIS a little way away, as he so often does.

Will I see him again? Abelard is a comfort to me in these times, as he is solid proof that those encounters by the lake were real. Today I gave his pacifier to the workshop Sisters to recycle; I have not used it since he bonded. That must be four years ago now. His mane has turned white and his spine is a little bent, but he is still able to carry a food canister on each shoulder. I must get him to help me down to the lake, one of these days.

Part 7 here

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