“I was serious. I can’t tell you what I told them. My words are weapons and have caused enough death.” Bill’s voice was calmer now, surer but still imprinted with some ominous touch of darkness and an endured acceptance of pain.
They sat, three unlikely companions, around a small, coffee table in Madden’s studio, sipping from chipped, china cups – the storm, the healer, the dispossessed.
“Words have a time when their meaning is apt and their sentiment precious. There’s a time to say no, to say thank you, to say I love you, to say I’m sorry…” both Rose and Bill seemed to tremble a little even as even these words kissed the air. “…and words connect with startling power when said at the right time and to the right person. Bill the time is now and I am the right person,” the Doctor concluded with heartfelt confidence and quiet authority as he braced a firm hand on Bill’s shoulder and ducked into his lower line of sight with a reassuring smile and an air of patience and unsolicited forgiveness.
Bill rose in slow motion and walked heavily to a scuffed wooden trestle table in the corner. The table was awash with papers and prints, piles that leaned perilously and heaps that had already surrendered to gravity. What little of the surface that could be seen was pocked with ink stains and chemical reagents, photographer’s tools of the trade. To the right of the laden surface was a ragged, black, cloth curtain slightly open, revealing glimpses of diffused crimson light, string lines of pegged photographs, containers marked, developer, stop and fixer and a splashed and rusted sink wherein floated immortalised moments of lives. Newspaper articles and instructive texts and charts were tacked to the wall as well as faded contact test strips and dog-eared pictures.
When Bill turned back he had retrieved an image from the debris which he stroked a reverent thumb over before passing to the Doctor who took it with equally careful fingers.
“Stella,” Bill said simply.
“She’s passed,” the Time Lord answered in understanding.
“Six months,” he coughed back a sob.
“I’m sorry,” Rose offered meekly and pulled her stool closer to the Doctor and lightly fingered the outline of the subject’s feminine features.
“She’s beautiful and she looks happy,” Bill managed a smile at that before slumping back down on his chair.
“There was the most amazing sunset up along the brae near Davidson’s bridge. The sky seemed lit from below, the world and its wares in perfect, stark silhouette and the few clouds, distinct and clear, as they drifted by. We’d been out for a picnic by the river; the air was warm and perfumed with jasmine and honeysuckle, sugary sweet. It seemed to go to our heads we were so giddy and in love that day. Stella had brought her charcoal and paper and I my camera, though it was heavy to lug around.
“On the way home I just couldn’t resist one more shot of her by that bridge and under that sky. She climbed the stone structure and sat laughing and dangling her legs over the water when some godless stray current of wind blew her bonnet from her head and she reached to retrieve it. She fell. The rapids were too strong. I rushed to her aid immediately but by the time I got to the bridge she’d already been carried quite a distance on the fast, flowing tide. There was nothing I could do.”
The stranger’s listened respectfully with sorrow in their hearts as the tragedy unfolded.
“It wasn’t your fault,” the Doctor affirmed and Bill nodded emphatically as he brushed back silent tears and heaved a great mournful sigh.
“Anyway, that’s not why we’re all here,” he returned to the table, searching again and rubbing his palms against his trousers.
“Just before she fell I saw something, something I can’t explain – a dark umbra, ephemeral that seemed to engulf my Stella in the moment before her death. Here it is, the photograph I’d been taking.”
The laughing face of the pretty, fair haired maiden was somewhat blurred as if obscured by a shadow cast except that didn’t tally with the direction of the illumination. But there she sat so vivid and vivacious in her manner as she rested playfully upon the bridge that her image seemed almost three dimensional and tangible.
“I think that thing, whatever it was, was waiting to claim her spirit and maybe even pushed her. Death itself, her own personal harbinger. I know it sounds ridiculous. I thought so too until I met you.” The Doctor slipped on his broad rimmed spectacles for closer examination and Rose exhaled cautiously as she pressed her face close to his to join the intricate inspection. She noticed, absently, that though she was half peering through his specs, there was no difference with their effect.
“What did I do?” The Doctor sounded slightly affronted.
“Told me about Richard, John and Maggie. I’d shared my suspicions with them one night and that’s when things became even stranger. They all confided to me afterwards that they had been plagued by bizarre and phantom occurrences. Richard, a widower who lived on his own except for a few servants below stairs, woke one night to the sound of scratching from under his bed and when he opened his eyes he saw that the blankets had been stripped off his bed and lay in a heap on the other side of the room.
“John was walking home once at twilight and swore he heard someone following him through the bushes; said he felt a dark, suffocating presence and slept with his door locked that evening. And Maggie had heard shrieking howls from upstairs and seen weird lights in the corridor but when she went to check there was nothing there.”
The Doctor looked intrigued and templed his fingers in thought as Rose shifted uncomfortably, “Scary biscuits,” she shivered.
“Quite,” he replied and reached a steady hand out to clasp hers where it had tensed on her knee.
Bill circled behind them as he returned to his seat and sipped the luke warm tea to soothe his throat before continuing.
“Having seen this apparition in Stella’s photograph all three then begged me to take theirs and sure enough, strange indistinct shadows masked their faces in every shot. I checked all my equipment and took other pictures that afternoon for comparison. Everything was working normally.”
With a resigned breath of someone not expecting to be believed Madden concluded, “I think it knows we’ve seen it. That we know it exists and wants to silence us one by one.” He pulled out a slim hip flask and poured some of the contents into his empty cup.
“Guess that means I’m next.”