GENESIS OF THE TRUNDLEBUMPS
Simon A Forward
The sky cracked again and again. The bedroom window exploded with colour. But kept the rainbow blasts trapped safely inside the glass. Blossoming over and over around the Doctor’s grey reflection.
My parents would flip. Some old man sneaking into my room. But he did. One night, every year. Not always with the same face. And never so moody as he looked tonight.
“Is that them?” I asked, knowing full well it wasn’t.
“What?” He stared at me, cross. “Don’t be daft. It’s the fireworks.”
“They said. On the news. The war. They could be coming here next. Next year.”
“Well, of course, they could. But it’s not next year, is it?”
“Well, yes, I can tell that from the fireworks. But nearly’s not yet. Anyway, you mustn’t believe everything you hear on the news. They make stuff up. Sometimes.” He turned from the window and swatted Teddy from the bedside chair, taking his place. Then caught the look I gave him and picked Teddy up and sat him on his lap. He didn’t look too happy about it, but Teddy looked comfortable. I had to laugh. “Anyway, you shouldn’t be watching the news at your age.”
“I know. I should be out playing with the other children.” He didn’t answer. He didn’t need to say a word. I bit my tongue. “Anyway,” I said, proving I could match him for ‘anyways’, “I know I shouldn’t. It scares me – but I can’t help it. I have to keep watching. I have to know.”
Otherwise the world – and the universe – was mostly this house. This room. But I didn’t want to say that out loud. No more feeling sorry for myself.
“Well, good for you. It takes courage. To admit you’re scared. Then keep doing the thing that scares you.”
Outside, the night fizzed and burned. Fierce and bright.
“So are you going to tell me a story?”
“You’re too old for stories.”
“Well, all right then.” He fished in his pocket and flashed his fancy screwdriver with a twirl. Waved it back and forth over the machine like a magic wand. “There! I can’t possibly concentrate with that thing chugging away. I’ve no idea why they make them so noisy.”
I rolled my eyes. The machine was quiet. I never even heard it these days. Especially tonight, with all the fireworks going off. Funny the things that annoyed him. Like Teddy and the faint tick and whir of the life support that I only noticed now that he’d silenced it.
He put the screwdriver away and propped Teddy on the window sill behind him. Then clapped his hands. “Right. A story.”
“Let me guess. Is it about you?”
“No, I’m more just the designated driver. Although I set the course and pick all the destinations and – so I suppose you could say I was quite instrumental. Pivotal, even. Quite But it’s really about a young girl.”
I perked up. “Is it about me?”
“No. Why do people always think things are about them? It’s very egotistical. No, it’s about a girl who was a bit older than you. Vicki, she was called. She travelled with me for a while. Oh, a long time ago. Then, once upon a time,” he stressed the words to show he was beginning his story, “I went back to find her again.”
The Doctor scowled, briefly, at the interruption. “Reasons. Anyway,” he stressed, to show that he was winning in our ‘anyways’ competition, “I’d been thinking about her lately. And I realised the universe could use her special talents.”
The Doctor sighed. He knew this was how storytelling went between us. He couldn’t shut me up with his screwdriver. “She had a gift. For honesty. She saw things and called them what they were. Like the Chumblies.”
“Chumblies?” I laughed. It was that kind of word.
“Yes. Chumblies,” said the Doctor sternly. And that made it funnier. “Robots. Chubby and round and – well, they just sort of ‘chumbled’ around. You had to be there.”
“Okay,” I said, wondering how this Vicki was going to help the universe with a superpower like that.
“So yes, I popped by to see her. She was delighted to see me. Jumped at the chance to go travelling with me again. You know, after I’d convinced her it was the same old me. It was just like old times. And I took her to all sorts of places.”
“What sort of places?” I loved it when he took the trouble to describe all the magical worlds out there.
“Oh terrible places. All the absolute worst places I could think of.”
“Oh,” I said. Disappointed but somehow a bit more interested in his story. Thinking, there had better be a point.
“Yes. Our first stop was Mondas. Which wasn’t really that bad. Just a bit miserable. There was a recession on, ageing population, rising energy prices, lots to grumble about. But despite all the misery, the one thing people wanted most of all was to extend their lives. I know right? Somebody had this crazy idea to replace all their arms and legs and other bits with machine parts. As though life as silver giants – tin men without hearts – might be better somehow. Vicki and I went to this expo where they were showcasing some prototypes. ‘Handleplods!’ she shouted out as soon as she saw one. Some journalist caught the word and ran with it. And of course it stuck.”
I frowned. “Handleplods?”
The Doctor did a quick mime: grasping invisible handlebars somewhere around his ears. “They had this whole thing going on with – well, maybe you had to be there. Doesn’t matter. The point is, even as lumbering silver giants with the strength of ten men, you can’t go terrorising galaxies after that.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Anyway, we visited all sorts of other places. Homeworlds of this race and that race, planets where first contact was made between certain races and other races they liked to invade. And I made sure Vicki was there to see them first. Before the would-be conquerors got to announce themselves or before their would-be victims got to give them a name. Basically, before any of the monsters could introduce themselves to the rest of the universe. We met the Shamblewhispers, the Nubbleskins, the Jacketspuds, the Cuddle Monsters. I tell you, even though Vicki liked the word ‘monsters’ for that last lot, the Great Intelligence had to go find a whole new set of servants after that.”
“The Great Intelligence. Long story. And he got to keep the name. Vicki’s not so good when it comes to naming invisible entities. Visual cues, behaviour, that sort of thing tends to be an important part of her magic.”
“I see,” I said, although I didn’t.
“Most of all, we visited Skaro. The home of those abominations you’ve seen on all that news you shouldn’t be watching. Just when a local chief scientist – nasty fellow, no sense of humour – was experimenting with what he called a Mark Three Travel Machine. And that was another thing about him – he just didn’t have Vicki’s imagination. Anyway, just as he’s arranged this demonstration and before he can distribute details of all the modifications he’s made, he wheels out his great project and Vicki – she can’t help herself – blurts out one word.” The Doctor paused, met my gaze. “Trundlebumps,” he said.
“That’s right. Only with more excitement and, well, a bit of applause. Which I thought was overdoing it, but you can’t contain enthusiasm like that. Of course, it earned a lot of stern looks from the scientists in the audience, but there wasn’t a great deal they could do about it. Once we’d done a runner, the word had been said. Out loud. Our work was done. No matter what the chief scientist wanted to call them after that, everybody else thought of them as Trundlebumps. And if there’s one thing that holds true throughout the universe, it’s that word gets around faster than a Trundlebump. And that, dear listener, is how they came to be known, forever after, as Trundlebumps. Like the Handleplods before them they were never so scary after that and they lost all their power to terrorise.”
I snorted. “That never happened. They don’t call them Trundlebumps on the news.”
“Ah but that’s the thing about my stories. They could happen.”
“Soon. In ancient Greece. Perhaps as soon as I’ve left here. They could happen any time. I could leave here tonight and go and find Vicki tomorrow and it could all happen yesterday.”
“I don’t believe you.”
The Doctor jumped up. “That, my girl, is entirely up to you. Time will tell. Perhaps when I come back next year, you’ll have to admit they’re a little less scary. And I’ll be sure to bring the humble pie for you to eat. Would you like it with or without custard?”
“With.” I smiled and shook my head and rolled my eyes all in one go.
“Time I was off. Places to be. Other children to visit. It’s not all about you, you know.”
And he smiled back at me, squeezed my hand and retreated to the big blue cupboard that he always parked next to the wardrobe. And he was gone, in a box that made a lot more noise than my machine.
Trundlebumps, I thought. And I replayed some of the news stories in my head. Replacing the name they used with Trundlebumps.
And I stared at the space where the Doctor’s box had stood. And I muttered at it, telling him he was right. I didn’t have to wait until next year. They were already a bit less scary.
I wondered if Vicki’s trick worked for everything. Maybe I could try it on all the long words the other doctors used. The words I’d practised so hard until I could pronounce them by heart, until I’d grown sick of hearing them. It might be tricky, because the thing was sort of like an invisible entity, wasn’t it? Like that ‘Great Intelligence’ thing. But under a microscope it would be visible and on the net there’d be pictures. Maybe I’d play that game. Tomorrow.
For now, I watched the fireworks spraying the window. Where Teddy sat. Where, if I squinted, I could still see the Doctor’s reflection. Or remember it anyway.
Making me feel a little bit better.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!