The Doctor and Felix came to the village of Once on New Years’ Eve. Or rather, they came to where the village of Once had once been.
“Where is it?” asked Felix in his lilting German accent, staring into the empty valley beyond the copse in which they stood.
The Doctor tipped her head forwards slightly, to let accumulated snow tumble from the crown and brim of her battered, crumpled old top hat.
“Exactly,” she said.
The village had disappeared years ago, she told him.
“Well,” she continued, her words turning to steam in the cold air, “nobody knows exactly when it happened… or should I say when it, the village I mean, stopped happening.”
It had taken a few months of accumulated surprises and puzzlements and disappointments and silences and ominous remarks before the conscious realisation had gradually dawned upon the people in the surrounding villages that the village of Once was no longer there.
“The government realised pretty quickly of course,” continued the Doctor, “because the people in Once stopped paying their taxes. But the government kept quiet about it, in case it gave any other villages ideas. As best as anyone can make out, the village vanished from existence somewhere between Christmas and New Years, 1849.”
“I suppose it has become one of those perennial mysteries,” suggested Felix in his perfect schoolboy English, “like the Mary Celeste? “
“Umm, not really,” said the Doctor, “You see, hierarchical cultures actually have a very low tolerance for mysteries that are genuinely mysterious. They prefer prosaic mysteries. The Mary Celeste, for instance. I mean it’s odd certainly, but the broad outlines of it aren’t all that challenging to any common sense ideas about how the world works. The ship was discovered with the crew and passengers gone. Obviously, then, they left. The reason why they left may be obscure, but the essential mechanism of the event is comprehensible enough. They left. People can, and will, do that. But an entire village physically vanishing, structures and roads and farm animals and all…” she smiled wryly “…that’s a bit different. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. Or rather, it does happen, but it’s – if you’ll pardon me – vanishingly rare. When it happens, people get very nervous. It undermines their sense of reality. Human beings disappearing, that’s one thing. But property? That’s another. Especially in England.”
Felix chuckled. “So this is one of those mysteries that polite English people do not talk about.”
(The Doctor, by the way, genuinely doesn’t know what happened on board the Mary Celeste. It’s one of the strange things about the Doctor’s life: we know a lot more about some of the events in it than she does.)
They left the shelter of the copse and walked until they reached the bottom of the empty valley. Their feet crunched in the snow, and ice-blue moonlight pooled in the caverns of their footprints.
Felix began to have a very strange sense that he was following a road that he could not see, passing houses that were almost – but not quite – visible.
He suddenly became aware of how cold he was. How his toes were stinging with the cold even inside his boots. How numb his fingers were. He hunched over in his greatcoat and plunged his hands into his armpits. It was like being back in the trenches.
The Doctor didn’t seem to notice the cold, or how it was affecting Felix. She wore her threadbare astrakhan jacket buttoned up, but that meant nothing. She wore it like that whatever the weather.
“So how can an entire village just disappear?” he asked in an attempt to chivvy the Doctor along a bit, “Structures and roads and farm animals and all?”
“A surprising question,” said the Doctor, “coming from someone who’s actually been in villages that stopped existing the same day.”
“That’s war,” said Felix sadly, who had met the Doctor at a football match in No-Man’s-Land on Christmas Day 1914. She had played defensive midfield, and had impressed him by tackling him with great ferocity as he made a bid for the two trenchcoats bundled on the ground nearest the British lines. The bruises on his shins had taken almost a fortnight to fade.
“This might be sign of a war too,” said the Doctor. “The universe is like a battlefield sometimes. Great powers struggling with each other for reasons incomprehensible to the little people who get caught in the rain of shells…”
“So a… a shell, fired as part of some astral conflict, went astray and this poor little innocent village became a casualty, just because it happened to be near the front line?”
Felix felt depressed by this idea. Could it really be that the entire universe worked according to the same horrible rules as that war from which he had just escaped?
The Doctor didn’t answer. She seemed to have withdrawn into sad reflections of her own.
“Nobody ever tried to rebuild, then?” asked Felix nervously, “Or start a new village? It seems a waste. Such a fertile valley – in the warm months, I mean. A stream…” he pointed to a frozen crick, and then gestured around “…and good farming land…”
He knew about things like this. He was a country boy himself, born and bred in a little village not unlike Once must have been. Not unlike that village in Belgium…
“Another interesting aspect of the matter,” said the Doctor ruminatively, “this peculiarly decorous refusal of anyone to reclaim the valley, or even to acknowledge that anything was ever here. You’ll notice that there’s no memorial. Nothing. And we’re in…” she consulted her fob watch “…1962 now, so more than enough time has passed for people to feel as though the lost village of Once warrants some form of commemoration.”
Felix was becoming distinctly unnerved. He felt as though he was surrounded by people, people who could only just be sensed in the corner of his eye, people who were not to be seen when he turned to look at them. He caught himself having to suppress little jumps of panic every time he sensed an invisible wall or door, or an unseen human presence near him.
He felt ashamed of his weakness. He hadn’t been a nervous person a few months ago. The war had done it. But plenty of his comrades in the trenches had coped without becoming nervous wrecks.
He wondered if the presences around him were the ghosts of the annihilated villagers from long ago. He wondered if he could sense them because they had died in a war, and he was a soldier. Did that mean that they could sense him in return?
He became aware that the Doctor was watching him.
“I’m all right,” he said.
She came over to him and threaded one of her arms through one of his.
“Cold?” she asked.
“No,” he said, shaking his head solemnly even as his teeth chattered.
“Good,” laughed the Doctor. Then, in a serious voice: “You can feel it too, can’t you?”
Felix looked up at her. She was much taller than him.
“I’m not imagining it then?”
“No,” she said.
“You expected it?”
He looked down. She’d been testing him again, or using him to test a conclusion of hers that she hadn’t told him about. He didn’t know how he felt about this. At best, it made him feel like an instrument. At worst, like a sheep being sent across a minefield.
“We may as well go back to the TARDIS,” said the Doctor suddenly, “We’ve learned all we can here.”
“What have we learnt?” asked Felix, who didn’t feel any more wise than when they’d arrived – just colder.
“That the village is still here,” she said. “Or rather… the village isn’t here or not here. It’s more complicated than that. But it has, at least, left traces. Traces that are sensible to human beings. That answers one question anyway. A question you asked earlier. The question of why nobody ever built here, or erected a memorial. People sensed that they’d be building on top of… or commemorating… something that was, in some way, still there. The people who came here sensed the village around them, just like you did. Of course, the past is always still around us… but more so here than in other places.”
“So are we going to investigate?” asked Felix, who knew the Doctor well enough already to know the answer.
The Doctor nodded.
“How?” asked Felix.
The Doctor said nothing. She just started leading him out of the valley. They trod in their own footprints on the way back to the wood.
The TARDIS was in a tree. A grand, grave, elder-statesman of a horse chestnut. Winter had turned it into a thing of gaunt, rattling, bony arms. It looked like a snow-muffled riot of skeletons. The TARDIS doors were set into its trunk, their blue blending seamlessly at the edges with the green and the grey and the brown of the gnarled bark. The Doctor flourished her jangly mess of keys around the keyhole, and she and Felix clambered inside.
A few moments later, by their time, they emerged. They had just walked out of a moonlit night; now they emerged into a morning flooded with low sunlight. The tree was younger and smaller now, less grave and angry-looking, but just as skeletal. It was still winter, but a winter 113 years earlier than the one through which they’d just walked. Snow from 1962 fell from their boots into the snow of 1849. When the warmer weather came, it would all melt into the same puddles and then sink into the same earth. When the Doctor and her friends travel, water and dust and seeds and air will travel with them. The future and the past mingle and melt into each other, and cross-fertilise.
Felix was soon looking out from the edge of the same copse into the same valley. But this time, Once was there, cradled in the valley like eggs in a nest.
“By spending Christmas 1849 in the village of Once,” said the Doctor quietly, gathering a stray garland of hair out of her face and tucking it back up under the brim of her hat. “New Years too perhaps. We’ll see how it goes.”
“Will I be welcome?” asked Felix.
“You should be a hit,” said the Doctor, “if there’s one thing Germans are good at – besides classical music and critiques of political economy – it’s Christmas.”