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.…