Doctor Who: Royal Oak, Chapter Two
By Hrolf Douglasson
The old car jolted and bounced across the uneven ground of the field. Somewhere in all the blurred vision ahead of them, there was a gate in the wire fence that led onto a road, and the Doctor was fervently hoping the car would find it before he was shaken to bits.
“This is very good of you!” he shouted above the noises of suspension hitting its upper limits at every bump, and the roar of the engine through an exhaust ripped off long ago. “It’ll make getting back to the pier a lot quicker!”
Tam grinned at his passenger’s discomfiture. “It’s nae bother at all, man! After all, you said you’d lend a hand with the kine after!”
“What? Oh, yes, yes. Cows, right? I’m good with cows.” The Doctor’s brows lowered in thought as his head came perilously close to the roof. “I’m sure it was cows… big things, horns, hooves, get milk from them, yes? I’m sure it was cows…” His face brightened. “I like a cow…”
They reached the road, Tam revving the engine and charging the short slope out of the field to eventually land the tyres on mud-covered tarmac. It was the final jolt, a massive landing, but the little car seemed immune to any ill-effects. Tam shifted gear awkwardly, and they rattled along the narrow, single-track road. There appeared to be no consideration given to the chance of meeting any vehicle coming the other way.
Tam pulled the car into the yard of his farm, sending dusty clouds over a collection of tractors seemingly more suited than the little car to the cross-country journey just endured. Chickens scattered wildly, and from within the shabby house, the sound of dogs barking came clearly. The Doctor looked across at his driver.
“I needed to go to the pier, Tam.”
“Aye, I ken that – but there’s nae point, man! If you said they was bringing bodies up out of the Royal Oak last nicht, then if they do it again it willna be until the end o’ th’ day, will it? Thee’s got hours yet: and if you’re right, I want ye to speak tae me fathir about it first.”
“Why’s that, then?”
Tam shifted in his seat to look at the Doctor as he switched the engine off. “Because he saw it all happen frae the shore here. He keeps an eye on the wreck site, and has done all his life. He’ll hae the truth o’ it.”
He kicked his door open and swung out. His passenger saw little choice but to follow suit.
“I canna believe you’ve got it right, mind,” Tam warned him as they trudged across the yard. “The ship’s a war grave, like I told thee: none of the dive ships go near it, and it’s marked wi’ a buoy. The Navy’s always said it’ll stay inviolate, and there’s never been reason to doubt ‘em.” He turned narrowed eyes to the Doctor. “If they’ve decided to tak the men out, there’s plenty o’ folk around here willna like it.”
The Doctor returned his stare. “You people have always taken good care of that ship, haven’t you?”
“Aye… it’s a thing o’ pride for us in Orkney. Like it’s a disgrace that when Kitchener went down wi’ th’ Hampshire, the Navy men stood on the shore and turned us back at gunpoint when we couldha’ helped… and we let ‘em. There’s folk come back every so often to put a wreath o’er the side, to the dead of the Royal Oak: those few who got off and lived tae tell o’ it. We’ve always made ‘em welcome. They willna like this story o’ yours, either.”
“That,” said the Doctor with a quieter smile than his usual one, “is why I need to find out what’s going on. If local feeling’s really that strong, then the best way forward might well be to just put it in the papers.”
“Do ye no have official contacts, then? Folk you could call on tae tell you straight?”
The Doctor shrugged evasively. “Like I said, I’m in and out a bit: I can’t always get hold of the people I need when I’m around.”
“So ye’re on your own up here, then?”
“Well, yeah, I suppose so…”
Tam relaxed and grinned again. “So you’ll definitely not be looking at my kine and sheep figures, then!”
The house was darker inside, but whether that was due to the time of day or the effect of accumulated dirt on the small windows was hard to determine. The smells of dogs and unwashed men were prominent as they entered: the cause of the former came yapping forward, but quietened at a gesture from Tam. The Doctor looked on approvingly. “I’m impressed,” he said.
Tam shrugged. “Betsy there is nigh-on fifteen years wi’ me now: I should bloody well hope she kens the commands! Bruno’s younger, but he does well enough.” He poked his head into the nearest doorway but evidently didn’t find what he was looking for. “Father?” he shouted.
“In the parlour!” came a reply. Tam indicated the way down a short passage towards the back of the house.
“He built this part onto the old house,” he explained. “Mothir wanted a bigger kitchen at one point, and so he built her one. I was too young to help, but me brother Davy, he mixed the lime for it.”
“And where’s he?” asked the Doctor quietly. He could already guess where Tam’s mother was.
“Ah, he went sooth: stays in Aberdeen, now. Something in the oil business, I ken that much. Comes back every few years or so, him and his missis and the bairns.”
“Ever thought of marrying?”
“Tried it once. It didnae work out.”
Tam’s father looked more like his absent brother might have done, with only subtle signs of his advanced years about him. He rose a little stiffly from his armchair before the television to greet the newcomer with a firm handshake and a piercing look into his eyes. “Fathir,” said Tam, “yon man’s saying he saw bodies coming up out o’ the Royal Oak last night.”
“Then he’d best sit down and you’d best go put the kettle on,” said the older man. He pointed to a worn and dusty sofa that appeared to see more use by the dogs than the humans of the household. Yet it was clearly the only other seat, so the Doctor took it. His host settled back in his own chair, but went as far as to turn the television off.
“I don’t get out as much now Tam’s working the farm,” he explained. “The arthritis gets to me most mornings, and once I’m in the chair here, that’s often me for the day.” He shuffled slightly to face the Doctor more squarely. “So now: what’s this nonsense you’re peddling?”
“I know what I saw,” the Doctor replied quietly. “I’ve got my own reasons for asking.”
“Aye, and so do I,” snapped the old man. “Yon ship’s a war grave: ye ken what that means? Do Not Disturb, that’s what! I’ve looked out over that grave since the day it was made, and I’ll tell ye that nobody’s about to be bringing up the bodies of those dead men – not without it being known about.” He turned his face slightly away, and seemed to settle deeper into his crumpled clothing. “Whatever ye saw, it wasnae bodies, man.”
“I’ve seen enough bodies to know what they look like,” replied the Doctor as Tam came back in with three chipped and stained mugs held in one hand. “There’s nothing much else in that ship could need two men to carry it between them. Nothing else that would be covered in plastic sacks while it was being transported.” He leaned closer to the older man. “Not much else that needs bringing ashore quietly and after dark, either.”
Tam dropped heavily into the sofa beside him. “You saw all this last night?”
“That’s what I’m saying,” said the Doctor with an air of defiant finality. “And you know what? I’m going back down there tonight. Care to come and see for yourself?”
He sat back and basked in the uneasy silence of his two companions for a few minutes. Finally, Tam said, “You’re wanting us to go with you, then?”
The Doctor pursed his lips in thought. “Well,” he drawled, “that’s up to you, I suppose. But if I were a local lad who thought one of his sacred places was being desecrated, I think I’d want to see what was going on.” He locked his hands behind his head and leaned back against the faded fabric of the sofa.
“That’s a challenge, that is,” growled the elder Henderson. “If I thought I could stand up to do it, I’d knock you down for that!”
“I’m sorry,” the Doctor said, surprisingly, with genuine sorrow in his voice. “I really am – but I know what I saw, just as I know that it’s not supposed to happen. So I really need to go and find out more: but I’m happy to leave you out of it. It’s likely to get dangerous – and I can’t say more about that. But if you – or Tam here – want to come and see for yourselves, I’d be happy for the company.”
“So it’s help you came here for, then?”
The Doctor fixed the old man with a steely gaze. “I’ve seen more things than you could ever dream of,” he grated harshly. “I’ve saved whole worlds, fought the nightmares of the universe…”
“Talked a lot of crap,” interrupted the elder Henderson.
“Fathir!” snapped Tam. “At least have the grace to hear him out!”
“If somebody is taking men out of the Royal Oak,” the Doctor continued, “don’t you want to know why?”
“Aye, I would so,” agreed Henderson, “but I’m still no’ convinced that they are. What purpose could it serve to bring men ashore who’ve been drowned nearly seventy years or more?”
The Doctor smiled faintly. “That’s the question, isn’t it? Until I can work that one out, we’re just going round in circles.”
“I was barely ten years when it happened,” said Henderson, “but I mind it as if it were just yesterday. Me own fathir hauled us out o’ our beds, and we went down to the shore to help men out o’ the water – burned men, men covered in oil and slime… there were so few o’ ‘em, and then the Navy men came and took ‘em away. We didna’ even ken what had happened, and the Navy wouldna tell us much… but then we heard on the wireless later that the Germans had got a submarine in, and he’d butchered the lot…”
“I know,” said the Doctor gently. “I saw it all: I couldn’t do anything to help, either.”
“You’re looking good for a man of that age,” ventured Tam uncertainly.
“Well, it’s different for me,” his guest replied. “Doesn’t help the anguish of having seen it though, does it?” His gaze turned inwards for a moment, remembering. “I was only passing through: I wasn’t expecting anything like it. I was in the wrong place, watching a fireball, hearing distant screams…”
“Ach, man,” said Henderson in sudden sympathy, “what could any of us have done, short of magically sink that submarine before it got here?”
“Enough of that happened, too. Perhaps too much, at this distance.”
Silence descended once again, broken only by the sounds of tea being drunk. Tam eventually broke the mood.
“So then,” he said, “you’ll have time afore ye go to lend a hand wi’ these kine, then.”