'I'm just popping down the road,' Wilf says. 'Just for the walk, you know, a bit of exercise. Does you good, at my age. Do you want anything from the shop, while I'm there?'
'Exercise, my foot. Just for one of them giant bars of Fruit & Nut, you mean,' Donna responds, not taking her eyes from the TV screen where Simon Cowell is disabusing some over-made-up granny about her musical ability. 'Don't think I don't know what you're up to. You know you're supposed to watch your, what is it called, cholesterol. It's not good for you, all that chocolate.'
Wilf's splutters something inaudible but indignant-sounding, but when she looks over to where he's standing in the doorway, he's grinning. 'I know,' he says, lowering his voice conspiratorially. 'But it's bloody nice. Don't tell your mum I said that, eh?'
She gives him a fond smile and a shoo-ing wave. 'Go on, then, your secret's safe with me. I won't tell, cross my heart and hope to die.'
His face clouds for a second, for no reason she can see, but he quickly smiles again. 'Can I get you anything, sweetheart?'
'No, I'm fine. Oh, no, hang on, yes. Get me one of them sudoku books. Them little pocket ones. They keep them in the rack above the TV guides.'
He frowns a little. 'But your mum brought you one of them back from Sainsbury's this morning, love. That blue one, look, it's over there. Don't you remember?'
She glances in the direction he's indicating. A small, chunky paperback titled Extreme Killer Sudoko is resting by the fruit bowl. 'Oh, yeah, I know. I've done it.'
'What do you mean, done it?'
'What does it sound like I mean? I've done it. Finished it. I need another one.'
Wilf crosses the room and picks up the little book, flicking through it to show every grid neatly completed in green ink. 'I don't think you're supposed to just copy out the answers, Donna.'
She gives him some indignant splutter of her own. 'What you trying to say, Gramps? There's no point in cheating at something like that,' she says primly, 'because you're only cheating yourself. I did it. You know, properly.' She turns her attention back to the TV. 'I like it, that sudoku, but it's a bit easy. Don't you think? I mean, it's so obvious where the numbers have got to go. Once you see how it works, see the pattern, it's just... you know.' She shrugs, concentrating on the granny's tantrum.
'Er.. yeah,' Wilf says. 'Right. I'll get you another one, then. '
'Ta.' She glances over again. 'And save me some of that Fruit & Nut, yeah?'
'I know it sound like a stupid thing to say,' she tells Veena. 'but I don't remember having amnesia. I mean, I had these temp jobs, I know I must have because the agency has records and I've checked my bank account, I got paid and everything. So I must have been there. Adipose Industries, and that. But I don't remember. It's not like I don't know who I am or who's the Prime Minister--more's the pity, really--but there are just these... gaps. For the last two years, these gaps. Mum tells me about things that happened, like all that ATMOS palaver, and it's just like... like I wasn't there. It's weird. I don't even remember the accident that caused it, how's that? Apparently I did a complete arse-over-tit down the stairs and don't remember a thing. That's just like me, though, isn't it? Miss out on all the good stuff, I do.'
She drains the last of her wine and squares her shoulders. 'Anyway, enough of all that. Got to keep looking forward, that's what Gramps says. Onwards and upwards, eh? Allons-y! Come on, drink up, do you want another one or what?'
The agency seems happy to have her back, and she doesn't lack for offers of work. Not that she should: 100wpm, and all that.
'Donna Noble,' she tells the skinny streak of piss that comes down to meet her in the foyer of Shackleton Taub & Co. You know you're getting old when the accountants start getting younger and younger. 'Best temp in the Western Hemisphere.' Why stop at Chiswick, after all? The universe is her oyster, and if you don't sell yourself, who else is going to?
SSOP appears unimpressed. He offers her a damp handshake, a desk just outside the Gents and a computer that looks like it last saw action running Wordperfect 1.0. She sees his unimpressedness and raises him outright disdain. 'And what exactly is it you need me to do?'
He waffles on for a while about discrepancies in the purchasing records which apparently involves cross referencing input for eighteen different departments. It's going to take about three weeks, he reckons. She gets bored after about five minutes, but remembers her manners enough to smile and nod when he finally stops speaking. He points out the fire exits and the vending machine, where she bullies him into paying for a coffee and a bar of Fruit & Nut. 'Brilliant,' she says, and sits down at her poky little desk. She rolls up her sleeves, cracks her knuckles and gives him her widest smile, which seems to rather unnerve him.
She fires up the ancient machine and starts bringing up the files as he backs slowly away. The problem, if you can call it that, is evident as soon as she gets into the accounting software. She rewrites a bit and updates all the formulas, sets it to recalculate the figures for the last three tax years and reports back to SSOP after three hours with the results and three different options for making sure it doesn't happen again. He actually gawps, while she's explaining what she's done. She doesn't think she's ever seen anybody really do that before. She slows down and draws him some flowcharts, which seems to help. A bit. Maybe. She doesn't hold out much hope for SSOP's career track, quite honestly. He seems like a bit of a div.
It seems to be a trend, lately: not only are the accountants getting younger, they're getting dimmer. She's lost count of the times she's turned up for what's been pitched as a long-term job, only to find that the problem is simply inefficient procedures that mean everything takes twice as long as it should do. Once she sorts that out, it all falls into place and she's out of there in a couple of days. Which suits her just fine--she's getting a bit tired of being gawped at. She can't understand it--didn't they ever do jigsaws, as a kid? It's obvious--you just need to work out the pattern and find the bit that fits. Simple. After all, it's just operational processes she's talking about, not temporal physics or something.
Two weeks later the agency call and tell her that Shackleton Taub & Co have offered her a permanent job. SSOP's job, apparently. She hears the salary and considers it for a nanosecond or two, but says no. The agency girl sounds baffled, so she tries to explain that she likes being a temp--she likes the unpredictability, the travel, the variety. She likes being a troubleshooter; strolling in, seeing the problem, putting it to rights. Donna Noble: Fixing It and Moving On.
The agency girl doesn't seem to get what she's talking about, but that's about what she's come to expect. She's getting used to it.
Over fish & chips one night she tells her mum that she's thinking about going freelance, setting up her own consultancy. She braces herself for the lecture, but after a short silence Sylvia just says, 'You go for it, if you want to.'
Donna blinks. 'Sorry?'
When she gets the same response, she puts her fork down. 'All right, who are you and what have you done with my mother?'
That gets her a lecture. Comforted, she starts back in on her dinner. 'That's better. Thought for a minute there you'd been kidnapped by aliens. Or I had. Kidnapped by aliens and put into a parallel universe.' She laughs and winks at Wilf, but he doesn't return it. In fact, he looks a bit sick.
She pauses, because you never know, these days. 'Shit. Somebody didn't really get kidnapped by aliens, did they? Did I sleep through some crisis again?'
'No, love' he says, grabbing for a serviette.
'You all right, Gramps?'
'Fine, fine. Just a bit...' he swipes at his eyes. 'I think I put a bit too much vinegar on this fish. Making my eyes water.'
'Eat your chips, Donna,' Sylvia says.
Noble Business Solutions works out well, in the end. Very well. She's like the Simon Cowell of the business world, suddenly famous for doing little more than pointing out the blindingly obvious when it comes to the inflated belief people have in their own abilities. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, her job consists of identifying the chap in the top slot who actually has all the relative talent of the Cheeky Girls and explaining in words of one syllable where he's gone horribly wrong. She loves it.
Most of the time she can tell what the problem is before she even sets foot in the building, but the exception comes when she's called to an outfit in Wales called Hotrod Cow--which conjures up some very worrying images. Her usual factfinding outlets bring up zero information about the company, which leads her to conclude that it's either a joke, a test or a set-up by one of those godawaful 'Gotcha' programmes. She asks for 80% of her not-inconsiderable fee up front on a non-returnable basis and gets it, so she books herself a flight to Cardiff out of sheer curiosity. If it's some cable-TV host who greets her, so be it. She's seen those programmes: the whole point seems to be to make the subject look like an idiot, and she'd love to meet the person who can do that better than her.
She's actually met by a chubby bloke who looks more like a builder than a TV presenter. Or a CEO, even of the sort of firm that would call itself Hotrod Cow. He introduces himself as Rhys Williams. 'You don't know me,' he says, 'which is kind of the point, as far as I can gather.'
She thrusts her luggage at him, then gets in the car and waits patiently--well, more or less--for him to make sense.
It takes some time. He seems nervous, so she tries her best to scale down the Simon Cowell-ness and put him at his ease. It's not easy; he's watching her like she might explode, or something. It's starting to make her nervous.
'What?' she finally demands, when they've parked outside some rather grotty looking tourist office.
He jumps. 'What?'
'Yes, exactly. What is this about? Who the hell are Hotrod Cow, and what do they want me for?'
He looks even more nervous. 'I'm supposed to...' he flaps his hand. 'Test the water. You never met me, so the theory is that I won't set it off.'
'Set what off?'
He gives her a rather endearingly helpless glance. 'I don't know, really. Martha did explain, but it was a bit... technical. Basically, you've got something in your head that--well, it's Torchwood really, I think the Hotrod Cow thing was just Ianto's weird sense of humour--something that Jack thinks can help save the world.' He shakes his head. 'And you know, that needs saving a hell of a lot more than I ever realised when I was just in transport logistics.'
She frowns. Martha, Jack. Has she heard those names before? She feels like there's a pattern hovering just under her awareness, like when you have a name at the tip of your tongue. A jigsaw with no picture on it.
'Tell me about this Torchrod, then, or whoever they are. What do they do? What's it about?'
He takes a deep breath. 'Aliens.'
There's a long silence. 'Aliens,' she says eventually.
He nods. 'And rifts. In time and space. Timey-wimey stuff. You know.'
Something about that childish phrase sends a deep, somehow resonant shiver through her.
You know, he'd said.
Does she? Does she know?
She only realises that she's hyperventilating when Rhys grabs her. 'Shit,' he says, 'are you all right? Donna? Donna?'
She shakes him off. 'I'm fine. Fine. Right. Okay. Where were we? Aliens, then. And time... stuff.'
Rhys looks worried. 'I think we ought to leave it there. Jack said we had to take this slowly. Don't want to, you know...' He trails off.
'Make my head explode?' Donna suggests weakly. The migraine that's just snuck up on her, that feels possible. She grabs the car door and heaves herself out. She needs some air.
It's drizzling lightly, which actually feels nice. Cooling. She tilts her face upwards.
The door to the tourist office opens and a young man in a suit steps out, a worried expression on his face that matches Rhys's. Somehow, the sight of him makes her feel better. Men in business suits, that's her world. She understands that.
The pressure in her head recedes. She straightens herself up, pushes her damp hair out of her eyes and holds out her hand. 'Hotrod Cow, I presume?'
He grins and takes her hand. His grip is firm, professional. 'I normally just go by Ianto Jones.'
'Good to meet you, Ianto Jones. I'm Donna Noble.'
'I know.' He glances at the door, then back at her. 'Have you ever seen The Matrix?'
It seems like rather a non-sequitur, but she doesn't let it faze her. 'Bit of Keanu, are you kidding? Only four or five times.'
'You remember the bit where Neo meets Morpheus and he has to choose between the red pill or the blue pill? To find out about the Matrix or go home?'
She frowns. 'Yeah, why? Is that what you're saying I have to do?'
'Something like that. We need your help, but it could be dangerous. We think we've got a way to prevent... what could happen, but we're not a hundred per cent sure.' He pauses. 'You could go home. It would be safer.'
She looks back at Rhys, standing by the car, then raises her chin. 'Did Keanu go home? Forget it, Hotrod, give me the red pill.'
'Somehow, we thought you might say that.' Ianto smiles and holds open the door of the tourist office. 'It's right this way.'