Doctor Who: Royal Oak, Chapter One
By Hrolf Douglasson
Sunlight dappled across little waves. In the haze of distance, the faint outline of far-away buildings could be seen – but here, from this point, there was little to suggest human habitation – at first glance. But look closer, look longer, and the signs were all there: neat fields, regular shapes of bright yellow and green, edged and defined by the thin lines of stone dykes. Here and there, barns and small houses, single-storey and surely too tiny to ever raise a family in… some as neat as the fields appeared to be, but others less so, and showing the signs of age and neglect. On the spreading, smooth stretch of water, dark and deep in its colour, there were ships, oil tankers for the most part, but here and there a small fishing boat chugged innocently around the edges of the navigable expanse. Where sea met land, it was mostly cliff, of varying heights and different shades of red, with only an occasional smear of bright white beach. The sky overhead was the lightest, most fragile of blues, with barely another smear of streaky white cloud, and the whole place seemed to radiate a peaceful, gentle, undisturbable calm.
“Ah,” said the thin, tall man at Tam Henderson’s elbow suddenly, “you don’t find this sort of tranquillity every day, do you?”
Tam turned to look at the newcomer. He hadn’t heard any sort of approach, and the man certainly wasn’t anybody he knew. And Tam knew everybody. He’d lived here, man and boy: a stranger was not exactly a novelty, since there had always been tourists, but this chap didn’t look like a tourist, either.
“Y’know,” the man went on, reaching up to rub the back of his neck and squinting into the sunlit sea, “I’ve been to a lot of places, and seen a lot of things, but this sort of calm is really quite unusual. Wouldn’t you say? The sort of peacefulness that reaches out and digs, deep into your soul… like it’s been there forever. ‘Course, it’s had a lot of time to build up, I suppose, what with all the tombs and the brochs and that…”
“Tombs?” Tam began to question, but the stranger started up again.
“Mind you, when I say tombs, what I really mean is ‘strange rock-built structures that we haven’t got a clue about what they were really built for, so we’ll label them as tombs on the grounds that some of ‘em had bones in ‘em when we dug them up’ – but then that’s archaeologists for you, eh?” He grinned: it was a strange sort of grin, that started in the usual mouth area, stretched his prominent cheekbones and extended back into the rear areas of his jawbone. His eyes glittered almost as much as the sunlight on the expanse of Scapa Flow before them, and his short, dark, bristly hair seemed to stand a little prouder without any assistance from the breeze.
Tam regarded his new companion’s crumpled blue suit, and the long brown overcoat that covered it. To Tam’s mind, strangers fell into two broad camps – tourists, who were eccentric, sometimes insistent and frequently lacking in any sort of understanding about the important things in life… and officials, who were inquisitive in a far more focused sort of way, and often had far too much awareness of how rural life ought to be lived. They rarely engaged in small talk, however – although they more frequently wore suits than the tourists did. This new chap seemed to be a whole new species of stranger, and Tam was, in consequence, a little nonplussed. It had taken him this long to rally, but now, when the stranger’s endless gabble appeared to pause, he struck a blow of his own.
“Who’re you, then?”
“Me?” echoed his companion. “Didn’t I say? Oh, sorry…” he patted his pockets for a moment, then pulled out a battered leather wallet. “I’m the Doctor: a sort of investigator, I suppose you could say.” He tried the smile again. It hadn’t improved.
Tam’s eyes narrowed in his weatherbeaten face. “Investigator?” he said suspiciously.
The Doctor’s face registered confusion, then went into a spasm of reassurance. “Oh, no, nothing like that!” he said hurriedly. “Here: have another read.” He opened the wallet and showed the plastic-covered card window. For a fraction of an instant, Tam thought the card within was blank – but then he made out the writing. Bloody London printing, he thought to himself; then…
“It says there you’re from the Agriculture ministry!” he exploded.
“Does it?” The Doctor turned the card to look at it again. “No, that can’t be right…” He squinted at the wallet, as if trying to read it himself and thus confirming Tam’s suspicions about the print quality. “No, look, it says I’m… oh,” the Doctor’s face cleared. “No, not the agriculture lot, look… special investigator, relics and heritage. Here: have another look.”
Tam’s face screwed up in concentration. “I could’ve sworn it didn’t say that before,” he growled. It was certainly unusual for him to get anything that wrong. He was a local lad, canny and well-thought-of round about. This new man didn’t fit; he’d have to consider passing the word around in the bar that night. Whoever he was, he was hiding something. Relics and heritage indeed…
“How do I know that’s not faked?”
“Faked?” The Doctor looked shocked. “Why would I want a fake ID?”
Tam smiled craftily. “You’d know the answer to that more than I would…”
The Doctor leaned back slightly, as if assessing the man before him. Tam was in his mid-fifties, with the build of a man whose whole life had involved hard manual labour and long hours. His boilersuit was his workday one, and his wellies bore the mud of both field and cowshed upon them; a shock of short-cropped, largely grey hair was hidden under a battered cloth cap. His face and hands both showed the wrinkled texture of a life spent out-of-doors, and his eyes glowed blue. He showed absolutely no fear of his unwanted companion, and no sign of giving even an inch of ground. The Doctor slowly smiled again.
“I’m not here to investigate you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he said after a moment or two. “No, really, I’m interested – well, more interested at any rate – in what’s down there.” He nodded towards the bottom of the cliff, and the waters of the Flow.
“Er, Scapa, yeah… Scapa.” The Doctor repeated the name a few times, as if trying to fix it in his memory. “The Graveyard of Ships,” he suddenly announced in a voice as sombre as a funeral bell. “Scapa Flow.”
Tam relaxed slightly. Local knowledge suggested…
“You a local man, then? Don’t remember seeing you here before.”
“Oh, I come and go,” said the Doctor evasively. He nodded out towards the glittering waters again. “What’s all that about, then?”
“What, the contract ships?” Tam shaded his eyes as he followed the Doctor’s gaze. Out in the middle part of what looked like a huge, landlocked puddle, a cluster of grey ships huddled closer together than the surrounding oil vessels. “They’re getting oil out of the Royal Oak.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” There was something unreadable in the Doctor’s eyes suddenly. Almost pain; almost, impossible though it could be, memory.
“That what you’re investigating, then?”
Tam snorted. “Wasting your time, then, ain’t you? They’ve been pumping oil out of ‘er for years; will be for years to come. No idea what they do with it, or why it suddenly became important to do it at all; leave ‘em in peace, I says, and me fathir and grandfather said it before me. They’ve never bothered picking up all the coal from the Kaiser’s ships, have they? And some of them had oil in ‘em, too. Whatever happened to all that, eh?”
The Doctor made no reply: he appeared to be deep in thought. His face had turned from open to closed, from friendly to grim; his head jutted forward and his hands were jammed deep in his coat pockets.
“I couldn’t save them,” he said faintly, after a long, difficult pause. “It all happened so fast… and now this…”
“Now what?” asked Tam, watching his companion closely.
“Eight hundred and thirty-three men,” the Doctor murmured. Then, as if suddenly coming to a conclusion, he turned to face Tam again.
“You say they’ve been pumping oil out of the ship for… how long?” he asked urgently.
“I canna mind… since around the millennium, I’d think,” answered Tam uncertainly. “Why?”
“And it’s only oil they’re contracted to take out?” The questions continued. There was something about the Doctor’s manner that almost compelled answers.
“As far as I’m aware. The ship’s a war grave, they canna go in…”
“That’s odd, then.”
“I was down at the pier yesterday,” the Doctor replied slowly. “I watched the divers coming back; watched them unload their gear and drive away. I was going to go and talk to them, but then I decided not to.”
“Why’s that, then?”
“Because they brought off more than just oil last night.” The Doctor’s face had resumed its grimmer aspect. “I saw them bringing off bodies.”