Wednesday, April 14, 2021
I Hope Mine Doesn’t Taste of Engine Grease – A TARDIS Vignette
“What’s through that door, Doctor?”
Full of the cheery confidence of showing a new companion around his Ship for the first time, the Doctor looked across the hallway to where she was pointing. A large pair of double doors stood off to one side, the once-welcoming wide circular windows strangely fogged by what looked like old steam. They gave the appearance of something once grand that had long been forgotten: very slightly faded; very slightly askew; an incredibly faint smell of something tantalisingly tempting hanging in the air, almost completely lost in a slightly less faint miasma of old steam. And for the Doctor alone, who knew that the TARDIS could have flicked away all of these traces like new in an instant, the tiniest sense drifting directly across his mind of something very like gimlet-eyed resentment.
“Oh – ah – nothing very interesting,” he said evasively. “For a short while it was the – ah – TARDIS Refectory.”
He winced as his new friend’s nose pricked up and she expressed a sudden desire for some food, their having been striding the corridors for so long. He suspected the Old Girl of having wafted the subtlest hints of mouth-watering flavours and fleeting images of favourite treats through her brain at the same time she’d been leaning on his with that distant pall.
“There’s a food machine, you see, close to the console room,” the Doctor continued, starting to walk off again. “It’ll make anything you like – just enter the numbers, ah, hope I’ve kept it filled, and a, a thing like a Mars Bar comes out, covered in white icing, that should, ah, taste of anything you fancy…” He lost his trail, metaphorically and literally, realising that he wasn’t doing the best job of selling a machine that goes ‘ping’ to a companion with her nose against the fascination of a steamy window that was right in front of her.
“Can’t we just take a look inside, as we’re here?” she asked, one hand already at a handle, the door opening at that merest touch with treacherous eagerness.
He cast a petulant glance somewhere in the direction of the ceiling and followed her in.
The Refectory was a long, wide room with two long, slim tables running down the middle of it. The tables looked stylish and striking from the doorway, but up close could have done with a polish. The chairs, too, looked elegant in concept but slightly down at heel, each just slightly out of line with the next along. And though the wide walls should have encouraged a sense of space and cheer for the diner, there was instead a nagging sense of oppression, perhaps because the high ceiling was lost in old steam that somehow contrived to writhe above the Doctor’s head and condense into the occasional droplet that would slip down the back of his neck when he wasn’t looking.
She rushed forward into the room and right along between the twin tables, setting the odd chair a touch straighter as it got in the way, then paused, puzzled, at the far end. “There aren’t any other doors,” she called to the Doctor. “Where are the kitchens?”
The Doctor closed his eyes. A malicious drip bounced off the end of his nose. He resigned himself and walked reluctantly forward to meet her half-way. They took chairs on the left-hand table, pulling them out to complementary angles so he could sit and talk with his hands.
“Well, this is the TARDIS,” he told her. “It’s the most wonderful Ship in the Universe. It can go anywhere, do anything. It doesn’t need kitchens.” He glanced up for a moment. He didn’t think the buttering up was going to work, but it was worth a try. No butter was appearing, though. “You see, many years ago, I had to – well, we had to – well, there was this disaster, and I was rather pressed into – well, into taking rather a lot of people on board. It was the only way to save them all, and I had been rather involved, and the food machine was overloaded, and the TARDIS doesn’t look right with queues.” He sighed. “They weren’t here so very long, just as long as I took to find their home, which really wasn’t very long at all in the scheme of things.”
He remembered that self. Creative; inventive; a whiz with numbers. Able to hold together an impossible string of block transfer computations each threaded through a spaghetti tangle of open-access telepathic circuits purely in their head. Still unable to steer the TARDIS for toffee. People spilling over the Ship for weeks.
“So he, ah, I, ah, we whistled up this place, serves up whatever you want to perfection, takes it away afterwards, and all you need to do is picture it in your mind and ask politely for a plate.” He tapped discreetly on the table. “May I?”
A small saucer appeared on the wrong side of his hand. He gritted his teeth. His friend tittered.
“It’s a little rusty now, I’m afraid. Even I couldn’t make it work immediately without a bit of an overhaul.” And some care and attention and not taking your Ship for granted, said a voice in his head, which may have been his.
“Oh, but I’m sure you can manage something,” she said with a smile. “It is your Ship, and you did design this room, and there’s only one of me now. Couldn’t you just whip up, I dunno, eggs and bacon, or stir-fried noodles, or even a light salad?”
Maybe they’re conspiring against me now, a wicked thought said in his mind, and it was almost certainly his.
“It worked like this,” he said, steeling himself. “You took your plate” – he moved the saucer in front of him with a cursory nudge – “and held your hand beside it.” He cupped his right hand loosely in the air. No pressure. “Then just think of whatever you need.”
Salad, he thought. It should be simple. Lettuce. Tomatoes. Honey and mustard. Nothing like – don’t think it.
Nothing happened. His friend looked at him, her head on one side. He smiled confidently back. It was just possible that he looked like a maniac. The sullen ceiling sent another vindictive drip down his back.
Celery. Avocado. Ham. Chopped walnuts. Olive oil. Rocket. Cucumber. Pear! Not pear! Apple! Cherries! No, no cherries, concentrate!
He brought up his other hand, as if sheltering a tiny flame.
Back to lettuce. Lettuce. Lettuce. Garlic in emulsion. Croutons. Not tellurium. Don’t think of tellurium either. Tel – tol – tul – tuna! Tuna. Boiled eggs.
Unconsciously, his hands began to move, short, chivvying strokes, as if as if rubbing two imaginary pieces of wood together.
Focus. Lettuce. Lettuce. Beans. Lettuce. Just a small salad, it’s not too much to ask.
He could feel something slightly moist gathering between his fingers.
Then, suddenly, it was there, in a neat swirl piled high onto the saucer, covering his hands as he involuntarily flicked it in all directions.
His companion started and wiped some of it out of her hair, looking at him without enthusiasm.
Every time he’d tried to come in here for centuries. Nothing but mashed potato.
He stood up, kicking the chair out of the way. He held out one soggy hand. She didn’t take it.
“You’ve not lived until you’ve had the food machine’s bacon and eggs. The ordinary sort – all that – egg and bacon sort of shape. It’s such a distraction. You have to try it in the proper bars.”
He wiped one hand surreptitiously on his jacket and pushed the door. He sighed, then pulled it open and held it. The old steam above him writhed in what he could swear was smug satisfaction.
All right, Old Girl, he thought. You’ve made your point. I know it’s another one. You’ll always be more important to me than her. I’ll always show you more attention. He crossed two potato-smeared fingers behind his back.
It wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t have the distinct feeling that some showy future incarnation was going to walk in one day and set a banquet with a snap of his fingers.
I write all the time, but almost never publish any more (for all sorts of reasons I won’t go into again just now). But almost every day, notes, thoughts, things that might be essays if that didn’t imply some sort of finality. Two exceptions. What I haven’t done in a very long time is written any stories; this isn’t a story, of course, just a vinaigrette, but I was surprised to find it at all when looking around for the reverse exception – my Twitter. Most days I aim to resist the rage and despair by Tweeting something that cheers me, and most days that’s an anniversary of something On This Day. I’ve done many on each day in previous years, so I read back through before changing one slightly, throwing out another, deciding to make a one-liner into a thread that should secretly be a blog post but if I publish in slivers I won’t notice, or spending three hours freeze-framing just the right screenshot. On this day in 2014, there was just one line: “I Hope Mine Doesn’t Taste of Engine Grease”. I know what it says, but what does it mean?
I looked, I found it, I thought, did I really write this just seven years ago? I thought it was decades since my last one, I put up a Twitter poll and ten out of eleven people wanted to read it, so here it is before I have time to stop myself.
After all, I didn’t want it hanging over me.