Monday 23rd December 2019 – their last and their busiest day of the year. A slightly shabby community hall on a dark and cold evening and it’s been raining all day, without pause and without mercy. The hall is almost full. People arriving, soaked; sitting, looking shell-shocked, talking hesitantly to the staff, collecting their filled bags, leaving with muttered thanks, through the double doors and into the night.
The woman pauses to take a break. All of 10 seconds. Deep breath, then a deep draught of coffee. Time to put the smile back on. She’s in her mid-70s now, still beautiful; the long hair, once blonde, now white. She has a rare gift, denied to most. She has the ability to make others feel special: that, of all the people in the world she could be talking to, there’s no one she’d rather be with than you. The ideal qualification for her current work. She calls across to the man behind the counter:
“Darling, has that urn boiled yet? We’ve got some new arrivals. Do be a honey and hurry it up.”
“Coming right up, Duchess. Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” he replies, unruffled. She mock-glowers at him, then turns the full force of her smile onto the new arrivals.
“Hello! Do come in! How lovely to see you! Come and sit down and we’ll get you some coffee. Gosh, you poor things, you must be frozen.” They are. Dripping wet, too. Three more of the left-behinds from England in the 21st Century. Two youngsters – a girl and a boy – and a striking blonde woman, a little older. The younger two are looking rather out of it; the woman appears more self-assured. Their host has seen nearly a hundred others today: families, oldies, recent arrivals to the country. Some shy, some embarrassed, some masking both with a veneer of assumed confidence.
They follow her to a table and sit.
“So, coffees all round?”
The youngsters nod and smile back; “Yes, please!” from the woman. There’s a trace of an accent – Northern? Yorkshire, perhaps?
“Ben? Can we get some coffees here?” The man behind the counter nods. The woman turns back to her guests. “So!” She opens her arms wide in a theatrical gesture, taking in the whole room. “Welcome to the Sally Army hall! Well, it’s a bit naff and the paintwork’s peeling, but it’s nice of them to let us use it and at least it’s warm and dry.” She says this to everyone as an ice-breaker; usually, it works. It seems to work now. The two younger ones raise their eyes to hers and smile back; the older hasn’t broken eye contact since they sat. Mildly disconcerting. Best not to worry about that, though.
“Anyway, I’m Polly. And you’re…?”
The girl speaks for them. “I’m Yaz. This is Ryan.” She looks around and adds, “Look, you’re really busy. We’re sorry to trouble you. We only came in to get out of the rain.” She shares a meaningful look with the boy, who rolls his eyes and shrugs. He is soaked.
“Oh, don’t worry, darling. It’s no trouble. And – I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your other friend’s name?”
The blonde woman starts slightly. “Oh – er – Smith. Joan Smith.” She’s silent for a moment, still gazing at her. “Hello, Polly.” There’s a meaning behind the greeting but Polly can’t grasp it.
Besides, she’s tired, she’s been on her feet all day, unloading heavy crates onto the trolleys, ferrying them into the hall, dealing with the stream of arrivals. And listening to them. Listening, listening, listening – until, if she let it, her heart would break. But she can’t let it. She has to stay in control; if she’s crushed, she’d be of no use to anyone. And she wants to be of use.
“So, Polly, tell me,” says the woman. Yes, definitely Yorkshire. “Crowds of wet people, plastic crates, coffee, biscuits and chatting. What is it that you do here?”
“All this. All these people. What’s it all for?”
“Well, surely you know?”
“If I did, I wouldn’t be asking.”
“All right. It’s – it’s a foodbank. We help people out when they’re down on their luck. Isn’t that why you came?”
“So, you don’t need our help?” She’s a bit irritated now, trying not to show it. There isn’t time to sit around and talk to these three. “I was just going to ask if there’s anything you can’t eat, or if you need to follow any special diet. I suppose I don’t need to. Look, I know you’re wet and cold but – ” she indicates another family, who’ve just come in – “I can’t stay long, I’m afraid. Unless there’s something I can help you with.”
“What year is this?”
That stirs a memory. Of what? Didn’t someone else use to ask that oddest of questions, when Polly was much younger? She can’t place it but it nags at her.
“It’s – it’s 2019. Two days to Christmas.”
The woman’s face has changed now. A flash of anger. “And are you seriously telling me that in England, in 2019, you’re handing out crates of food to all these people?”
“Well, yes. But surely you know that? There are foodbanks all over the country; it’s always in the press and – Look, you’re not journalists, are you? Because I’ve got much better things to do than talk to you if you are. Yes, we give out food. Yes, it’s nearly Christmas, Yes, we shouldn’t have to do it. No, they’re not skivers and scroungers. All right?”
Polly mistakes their surprise as an admission of guilt. She’s caught them out. “No. No comment. Please leave. We’re very busy tonight.”
She starts to stand but the woman grasps her wrist and stops her. Eye contact’s broken now. The woman is looking into the middle distance. Into eternity, perhaps. She’s still angry but not with Polly’s clients. Not the press, then, after all. The woman speaks to herself, almost a whisper. “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Sorry.” The woman’s smile returns and she looks at Polly. Looks straight into her eyes. “You’re a good girl, Polly,” she says quietly. “The best. You always were.”
“I haven’t been a girl for more than 50 years. You’re flattering me.” She likes it, though.
Suddenly the woman stands up. “Right. Come on, you two. This lady’s very busy and she needs us to get out of her hair. She’s a fighter. It’s a different fight now but we all know there are some things that must be fought –”
And that memory again, clearer now. “There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.” Her best friend, when she was young. Her funny, and wise, and kind best friend. What made her think of him, so strongly?
“— and we’re just going. We’ll run and grab Graham: he should have finished his Christmas shopping by now. But just take a long look at her.” They do so, puzzled. “This is Polly. Remember her. I’ve said I always help. And that’s what she does, too. She always has and she always will. So I want you to remember her, understand?” The woman – Joan, was it? – looks round the crowded, shabby hall and suddenly bellows, “Happy Christmas, everybody!” And then turns, holds Polly by the shoulders, locks eyes with hers, then kisses her on the cheek. “Goodbye, my dear,” she murmurs. “Goodbye.”
And sweeps out, the two youngsters following in her wake.
Polly stands, astonished. The cogs are whirring. She can’t place it. And the man behind the counter, wiry and upright despite his age, comes across with three coffee mugs. A little dazed, she takes them, places them on the table.
Then it hits her.
She grabs her astonished friend’s hand and starts to run. With him. With Ben. Out of the doors, into the dark and the rain.
“Doctor!” she yells. “Doctor?”
Her face, Ben’s face, the pouring rain, suddenly lit up by a flashing blue light. A driving wind. And she hears that sound, the sound she last heard half a century ago, the sound she thought she would never hear again, the roar of immense and alien engines.
She turns to her companion. There are tears in her eyes. A silent joy.
“Happy Christmas, Ben.”
“Happy Christmas, Duchess.”
They smile at each other. And arm in arm, they go back into the hall.