Songbirds Series: “This Lonely Angel”
A sort-of “Doctor Who” story; first in the Songbirds Series. Doctor Who and all associated character names and likenesses are owned by the BBC. Used here without permission.
Based on characters presented in episode 3.10 “Blink” written by Steven Moffat and produced by Phil Collinson, Russell T. Davies, and Julie Gardner. Spoilers for the episode “Blink”.
The first time Sally Sparrow comes to Larry Nightingale’s bed – the old double bed shoved against the wall among crates spilling over with digital discs and random cables and remote controls – it’s because he takes her there…but only because she’s exhausted. They both are, their panic-induced adrenaline high long since faded on the winding walk back to his house.
They go to his house because it’s closer than her flat, even though he doesn’t know where she lives. Not that it matters. She mentions along the way she’s been awake for the last two days straight, and now she’s almost falling over from her weariness, so the sooner they can get someplace safe for her to rest, the better. And she is weary: she leans against him as they move up the stairs, nearly hip-to-hip, his arms wound around her just to keep her upright. Though, his arms haven’t left her since they walked – half-stumbling, half-looking back over their shoulders – from the overgrown old Wester Drumlins estate.
He lowers her onto his still-unmade bed because he can’t go into Kathy’s room, not yet. And of a fumbling, stuttering sudden, he scolds himself for letting this pretty young woman settle herself upon sheets that haven’t been washed in over a week. But she’s asleep before he even starts to make his bumbling apology. So, from the floor, he watches her for a long time, almost not blinking, until he falls asleep, too, propped against the hard plaster of the wall.
The second time Sally comes to his bed, it’s nearly a month later. Of course, it isn’t really to his bed she comes, but to Kathy’s, to help sort through Kathy’s things. But amid the poking and poring through dressers and closets and containers full of clothes and bling and shoes (When did his sister get so many bloody shoes? And what is he supposed to do with them all, now?), Sally comes across a ratty, weather-beaten paperback copy of The Phantom Tollbooth tucked between a pair of faded jeans and a maroon pullover.
She looks up at him and asks if he wants it, or if she can take it, as a memento of his sister.
Looking at it, the wide brightness of Kathy’s smile flashes behind Larry’s eyes for just a second, and he blinks. Sure, he tells her; he’ll just find her a bag to put it in, because it’s raining and it’d be a shame to let the old book get any more damaged than it already is. Although, Sally has a coat under which she can tuck it, and a purse with more than enough room for a child’s story book, and she didn’t even say she wanted to take it with her today, anyhow. But he goes into his room nonetheless, holding the book in his hands, to look for a suitable satchel.
He never quite makes it to the closet, instead swaying somewhat woozily to the top of his bed, where all he can do is think of his sister and try to remember what she looked like, and sounded like, and how very lonely this place feels without her, now.
Sally comes to him a minute after, asking if he’s all right. He doesn’t know how to answer, except to lapse into a pointless story about him and Kathy bunking off as kids, to go on a silly child’s adventure to find Paddington Bear’s house that makes him laugh at how stupid the two of them used to be.
Sally doesn’t laugh. Instead, she sits down on the narrow bed with him, one leg folded beneath the other, and tells him a story of Kathy, too: how one girl once asked her friend to come with her to read some strange writing on a wall, and how the team of Sparrow and Nightingale was almost formed, but for the touch of an angel.
Her words bring him little joy…until she tells him about The Letter she knows by heart, that tells another story of Kathy Nightingale, one that makes him smile and chuckle and remember the sister gone but not forgotten.
The two of them sit across from each other atop his lumpy duvet, to trade other stories and more laughter. And, over the course of the warm afternoon, the house doesn’t feel so lonely to him, anymore.
The third time Sally comes to his bed, it’s because she’s crying.
It’s past midnight when she rings him, with tears in her voice, asking if she can come round. He doesn’t hesitate. Of course she can; she always can. They’ll have some tea and talk it out, like they’ve done with growing regularity for the last three-on months. He doesn’t mind. It’s good to talk to her. About Kathy, mostly, but also about all the things he doesn’t know but for which he’s more than willing to sit and listen, if only to have…something…with the pretty blonde miss with the charming dimples and hazel eyes.
Those eyes are teary and glassy when he meets her at the door, where she tumbles into his arms, crying about how she still can’t make sense of it. How can she make sense of anything anymore, knowing what she does? About all the regret, and all the death, and so much potential of life just plain lost -! And how she doesn’t think she can handle the weight of all that knowing and all that not knowing – about what could have been, about what should have been – alone.
Except, Larry wants to tell her: she’s not alone. He knows what happened, too. He feels the same ache in his gut for the missing and the missed. But as he sits her down at the foot of his lonely bed, he can’t quite say that, not with those words. Instead, he presses his lips together and blows a soft, shushing breath.
He pushes her temple from his shoulder and cranes his head down, to look into her deep and shining eyes. “We’ll sort it out,” he murmurs, and strokes the tear-dampened flaxen curls from the corner of her soft mouth. “I’ll help you sort it out.”
She stops, sniffling up a line of hitching snot from her cute, upturned nose, and blinks curiously at him. After a long moment, she actually smiles. “You, Lawrence Nightingale?” she asks, and he cringes at the sound of his Christian name said aloud. But then he nods and feels a smile come to his face, too, because he can’t imagine doing anything else when he looks into her eyes, anymore.
“Yeah,” he tells her. “Me, Sally Sparrow.”
The fourth time Sally comes to his bed, it’s to help him there, though he barely registers it, his senses dulled by the punch of too many bitters…not to mention the still-aching swell of his cheekbone, which – when he glances briefly into the mirror above the toilet sink – is already turning a very un-pretty shade of purple.
Sally wipes his perpetually messy hair from out his face as she helps him lurch from the loo to the top of his equally messy bed, where she lowers him as carefully as she can. She’s stronger than she looks. A lot more scathing, too, because even while she’s visibly troubled by his state – her pale brow furrowed and her pink lips pressed together – she still chides him for letting Banto goad him like he does. Through the haze of alcohol-induced earmuffs, Larry hears her scolding: Can’t he just ignore whatever it is that the self-involved prat mutters to him over pints and twiglets at the pub?
But he can’t. Not when it’s about her. Not when Banto starts in about how Sally’s not worth the time or effort; about how she’ll never give up her circular theories and puzzle-piece musings and girl-detective hypotheses about doctors and angels and other such nonsense. And about how daft Larry is for thinking nobody notices the stiffy he gets every time his little blonde slag comes round the shop.
It’s the word slag that makes Larry throw the first punch.
But he can’t tell Sally that. So when she asks him what could be so bloody well important to make him take a swing at his boss, he rolls onto his side and barks at her to just belt up about it and let him alone. Her response is to get up from the bed and slam the door behind her, making him wonder if maybe Banto isn’t right about her, after all, and maybe Larry should just give up on ever unraveling the wondrous mystery of one Sally Sparrow.
In the morning, he wakes with a hammering headache that’s compounded by the sound of council workers complaining outside the window about the summer heat. He gets up and staggers out to the loo, wondering just how he’s going to apologise for being a right git to Sally last night…when he smells the wafting, warming aroma of freshly-brewed tea coming from the kitchen.
Bleary-eyed and sleep-blanched, he follows that smell, to find who else but Sally – plucky, perky, wonderful Sally – sitting at the table, with one steaming teacup in her hands and another in the empty place across from her.
She blinks at him in the doorway, then smiles that familiar cheeky smile he’s come to look for every time she steps into his sight as she says, “At least you remembered your pants, this time.”
The fifth time Sally comes to his bed, it’s in celebration.
The loan for the shop – their shop, Sparrow and Nightingale’s Antiquarian Books and Rare DVDs, an homage to Kathy but also so much more – finally comes through from the bankers’. In honour of the occasion, Larry invites her to the house, to split a bottle of champagne his sister bought on a whim last Christmas and that’s been sitting untouched in the kitchen bottle holder for the last ten months. He doesn’t think Kathy would mind his taking it, in this case.
Still dressed in his old business school interview suit – the one with the stifling collar and tie – he gets two mismatched glasses from the hutch while Sally crowds close to him, with her hair tumbling in loose blonde curls around her shoulders and decked out in a flowing but fitting dress. She takes the glasses with a grin while he makes a corny little toast about the future of the team of Sparrow and Nightingale before opening the bottle with an explosive pop! that makes them both hoot before they realise it’s spilling over in a bubbly eruption, splattering on his trousers and her skirt.
He curses but she laughs, setting the glasses on the table so she can hand him a towel from the oven door and slap another at her legs. He says she should change, wash her dress before anything sets. (Does champagne set? He doesn’t know…but he also doesn’t care. Not when faced with the alternative.)
To his heart-stopping surprise, she agrees and asks him – twice, because at first he can’t quite think straight to get his mouth to work – if he has a robe or something she can change into. All of Kathy’s clothes were given away or consigned months ago, so he stammers something incoherent and goes to his bedroom, to find her something appropriate. The best thing he can scrounge from his wardrobe is a long suit shirt he hasn’t worn since the days of post-graduation interviews, but it hangs long on him and should be enough to provide her with some modesty.
He turns back to the door with the shirt in his hands, and blinks when he finds her already there, holding the half-full lowball out to him with a smile.
The bubbles will fade before she can change, she says, and they should enjoy the excitement of this brief moment of endless possibilities while it lasts. So he takes the glass from her and raises it to eye level between them, just as she does, and drinks.
When he lowers his glass again, she leans over to kiss him softly on the cheek. She laughs at his sudden mute stupor, then sits down on the cramped bed before raising her glass to him once more. He’s mesmerised by her dimples as her smile turns wider.
“To the shop,” she says, as though nothing has happened, even if he knows different.
The next time Sally comes to Larry’s bed, they stumble there, together: Sally wrapped in his arms, Sally pressed to his mouth, Sally in his every sense and thought, just as she’s been for what feels like his every waking moment for the last three, six, nine months. Since the mystery of the bespectacled Doctor and the strange message hidden on the seventeen DVDs. Since the creaking, creepy halls of the dilapidated Wester Drumlins estate and its fanged, clawed angels. Since the loss of Kathy, the only other person in the whole world he ever thought willing to stand with him against the enigmas and conspiracies and conundrums of his imagination.
As they turn and twist and tumble up the stairs to his bedroom, she feels so soft and smells so good and tastes just like the sweet cherry balm she rubs across her perfect lips in the chilled winter air, that Larry can’t help but sigh against her smooth cheek with every turn of his head for every lonely, love-starved kiss.
It started at the shop, as they’d put the last finishing touches on the last finished shelf of books (“Sparrow’s Choice!” proclaimed the placard she set there) for the official opening tomorrow morning. He placed the open/close sign on the door and they looked at it together, both of them grinning like dizzy fools. When he turned to her, she jumped into his arms, squeezing him around his neck with a joyful little giggle; he squeezed her back, laughing around the wonderfully-smothering folds of her hair. Breaking away for just a moment, she kissed him, quickly…but pulled away again just as quickly, her beautiful eyes blinking at him. Without waiting for her to maybe cover it up or maybe apologise or maybe do something he would never even think of to make them forget that marvellous and sublime moment, he closed his eyes and kissed her back, shutting out everything else in the half-lit shop in one desperate effort to make the moment last forever.
She didn’t pull away.
With barely a word said between them, they almost ran, hand-in-hand and in silent, smiling anticipation, to the house, where now he cups the back of her head with particular care even while he pulls at the bottom of her pullover. But when he breathes her name into the flawless skin of her neck and whispers to her the reasons why he doesn’t want to wait anymore (“Life’s too bloody short!”), she pushes him off of a sudden, shaking her head with a low gasp.
He eases away from that troubled, lost look in her eyes. “Sally…?”
“This isn’t right,” she says, shimmying up from beneath him, her boot heels catching on a fold in the duvet. “I can’t just-! We have the shop-”
“Bugger the shop!” he tells her.
“Larry,” she begins, but he cuts her off:
“Sally, I want you!”
But she scrambles up from the rumpled bed and gets to her feet, blinking too quickly to let her eyes focus on him.
“I’m sorry,” she says, even if she likely knows that’s the last thing he wants to hear. From the bedroom door, she turns back to him and shakes her head again, blinking tears from her eyes. “There’s just- There’s too much…I need to sort out.” And, with a trailing whisper of blonde hair, she’s gone.
She’ll be at the shop tomorrow. But as for this moment, their moment, there’s nothing left, save for the lingering imprint of her form on the top of his bed, and of her voice in his ears, and of her kiss on his lips.
There is one more time that Sally Sparrow comes to Larry Nightingale’s bed, but it’s the last time.
It’s been over a year since the ancient angels and the old phone box-that-isn’t in the basement of the Wester Drumlins house. Over a year of questions and half-formed answers, of tears and laughter, of memories and speculation. Over a year of her leading him through old book shops, dropping recommended titles into his hands while he moves his hip close to hers as they meander through the stacks. Over a year of him playfully pressing a finger to his lips, to shush her in cinemas showing brilliant double-feature classics of their time while she leans her head against his shoulder after the lights go down, her soft hair tickling at his cheek. And over a year of guarded glances and tentative touches, of impetuous kisses and blurted declarations, from which he wonders and worries for a long time that they will never recover.
Until, one day, somehow, the wild-haired Doctor finds his way to them again, on the street in front of the shop, of all places. With only a few words from him (“Good to meet you, Sally Sparrow,” is all that Larry catches), the clasp of Sally’s hand isn’t so cautious anymore, the look from Sally’s eyes isn’t so clouded anymore, and – perhaps most wonderful of all – the press of Sally’s lips is full of such a liberated and untroubled joy, such that Larry has never felt from her before.
So the last time Sally Sparrow comes to Larry Nightingale’s bed – his old, narrow, lonely, messy, cramped, rumpled double bed in the second bedroom on the second floor of the house near the shop – is for the first time they make love, sweetly and quietly, with nothing between them save a new and welcome feeling of hopeful possibility.
Afterward, with their skin cooling in the April air, they lie together in his bed, facing each other, silent and staring. He blinks first, and when he opens his eyes again to her, she smiles, so dear and tender and beautiful that all he can think of to say is:
She giggles, her slender shoulders shaking beneath the light cover of the blanket, and her soft breasts and belly quivering against him where they’re pressed so close, and her hazel eyes twinkling at him in the darkening room. “For what?”
“For this,” he says, squeezing his hand between them so he can stroke at the fine strands of her hair. “For staying.” He drops his eyes and blinks again, because he can’t quite look at her when he whispers, “I think… I want you to stay.”
The springs of the bed give a tiny squeak as she mimics him, shifting closer to raise her hand to his face, her fingers catching a little on his stubble as she fondles his cheek.
“I want to stay, too,” she says, and he can’t help the smile that breaks across his face as he looks up at her again. Though, a moment later, she shakes her head. “But, I can’t.”
“What?” he mutters, his eyes going wide at her. “But, I-! Everything we’ve-!” His throat starts to close, as he blinks his eyes, rapidly, trying to force the next words from his lips: “Sally, I-”
She places her hand against his mouth, hushing him before she giggles again. “Not until we find ourselves a bigger bed,” she tells him with her clever, dimpled smile.
For a moment, all he can do is blink. Then, behind her small, smooth fingers, he laughs, and takes them in his hands and holds them to his lips, kissing gently at them. She rises up against him with a matching laugh, pulling her fingers away to take hold of his face and trade her hand for her lips, muffling both of their laughter with new kisses as she pulls him on top of her again.
So, the next time Larry Nightingale goes with Sally Sparrow to bed – aiding, easing, taking, or tumbling; to talk, to listen, to kiss and cuddle and love and slumber – it’s to neither his bed nor hers alone, but to one they share, together, like all the days and nights as yet unwritten with potential.
I’ve always enjoyed imagining the lives of secondary and supporting characters, and these two – written so well by Mr. Moffat – captured my interest in, shall we say, the blink of an eye.
Everyone in the episode seems to fall in love with lovely, spunky Sally Sparrow, and Larry Nightingale is no exception. This is just my take on that. Not your cup of tea? That’s fine. But I ask that you afford me the same consideration of opinion, and let me have my little Sparrow/Nightingale love story.