In the small alpine village of Verbier, there is a museum for things that shouldn’t exist.
It doesn’t look like much; just a little house at the end of a long lane, with low eaves and a green door. You mightn’t notice it at all except for the neat little sign in the window. When people think of museums they think of marble floors and pillars and security guards and gift shops, but the world is full of neat little signs in windows, put there by hobbyists with skin wrinkled as walnut shells, to draw you into a room you might wander around for five minutes on holiday and then never think of again.
The Shanghai Museum of Propaganda Posters is cloistered in the basement of an apartment block. The Darwin Twine Ball Museum is just a community centre with a four-metre ball of twine outside. The Bendery Military Museum is a converted Soviet steam train beside a disused station in a country that officially no longer exists.
Any building can be a museum if someone cares enough about the things inside it.
The Verbier Museum of the Impossible is run by Anke Von Grisel. Arthritis has made Anke’s knuckles big as baby turtle shells, and it takes her longer and longer each morning to wrap a tie around itself and fit the knot to her neck. As proprietor and sole employee of the museum, the opening hours are whatever Anke likes, but Anke likes being punctual, and so she unlocks the front door at exactly a quarter to ten each morning, and most days there is at least one curious tourist outside.
This is because of the sign. The sign reads;
VERBIER MUSEUM OF THE IMPOSSIBLE
NO TIME TRAVEL PLEASE
‘Yes, yes,’ she says, by way of welcome. ‘We begin.’
The Museum is a single room at the front of her home. The floor is white pine and the walls are hung with age-faded tapestries in wool and cotton and silk. Twelve exhibits sit on plinths around the room. Anke makes these plinths herself from the native Verbier birch. Word is that Gunther, whose museum two towns over houses a collection of seventeenth-century marionettes, orders his plinths online.
This horrifies Anke. Anke has standards.
‘Now,’ she says carefully, taking her position at the first plinth. There are small indentations worn into the pine floorboards, and the heels of her hiking boots slip into them with a sigh. ‘This is a pipe.’
It is. It’s fifteen centimetres long and entirely ordinary. The only thing remarkable about it is that it has been laid out on a square of gleaming white silk. All the exhibits are. Anke’s standards are exact.
‘Polyvinyl chloride,’ Anke explains. ‘Nothing exciting. Made in the Eighties. Never fitted or used.’
Anke has a very particular way of speaking. Clipped. Careful. Like everything she says is taken from a cue card, and there are only so many words that will fit.
‘Made by a company called Marburg Plastic. See?’
She points at a little stamp.
At this point, she waits. She always waits. Anke is small, and she is thin, and her voice is nothing more than the rasp of wheatgrass, but she is, in her own way, a performer.
‘Except that this company does not exist. It never has. Marburg has never had a plastic factory. I went there. I researched. This pipe is machine-made, mass-produced. There should be thousands. But I can find no others like it. No factory. No employees. No records. Nothing but this pipe, sticking out into the world.’
The next plinth has another white silk square, and on it sits a coin.
‘I hate this one,’ Anke says quietly.
The coin has a double-headed eagle on one side, and the face of Adolf Hitler on the other. The date on it reads 1954.
‘Do you begin to see?’
The third plinth holds a metal sphere, covered in a grid of circuitry.
‘I don’t know what this is,’ Anke confesses. ‘It was sent to me by a British collector. He found it in his garden.’
The card reads Toclafane.
‘He could not explain to me how he knew the word,’ Anke says. ‘It was just in his head. No memory. No context. Just floating, unsupported. Like a nightmare.’
The fourth exhibit is a cameo painting of Napoleon on a stegosaur.
It is at this point that Anke pauses, as if suddenly aware that without explanation these are just confusing little trinkets, and that the relics that are the obsession of her life can so easily come across as nothing more than junk.
‘Other museums . . . normal museums, hold relics. Pieces of the past. Evidence of lives and cultures lived.’
She indicates the twelve plinths.
‘I think these are relics of other pasts. Pasts that never happened. A factory. A regime. An invasion, by creatures not of this Earth. Alternate histories. Now, all that remains of them are these exhibits, poking out into our timeline like a foot from out of a duvet. Glimpses into the might-have-been.’
Anke rubs at her temple, and rushes through the final exhibits quickly, though when she reaches the twelfth exhibit, she says nothing about it at all.
‘Look around if you like. I do not have a gift shop.’
Later, the ancient landline on Anke’s desk begins to ring. Anke has never married and has no family. Only one person ever calls her.
The caller is young, and English, and speaks so quickly that his words trip over each other. Wherever he is, there is something very loud happening. Anke can hear deep booms and roars, the fierce blart and crackle of electricity. There are other voices too – mechanical snarls that sound more like the tread of tanks than anything that could come from a human throat.
‘Oh, do shut up! Can’t you see I’m on a call!’
The caller does not always sound young. Sometimes, he sounds old, and archly frustrated, or kind and faintly amused. Sometimes he sounds Scottish, growling like an idling engine. Once, when the caller rang, they sounded female, which might have confused Anke, except for the fact that she owns a museum for impossible things. It takes a lot to confuse Anke.
No matter what the caller sounds like, Anke always recognizes their voice.
‘I tell you again,’ she says. ‘You cannot come here. You cannot take my exhibits away.’
There is a roaring crackle down the line, static or fire or snarling beasts, and Anke instinctively jerks her head away.
‘Anke,’ the caller says. ‘Listen – these things you’ve collected. They’re symptoms. Signs that something’s wrong. If you’d just let me study them –’
She looks around at the exhibits. Very few are valuable, in any understandable sense. And yet, she would lose none of them, even the coin.
Her gaze lingers on the twelfth plinth the longest.
‘Goodbye, Doctor,’ Anke says, and hangs up the phone.
The next day, the masks arrive.
It was a bad night for the exhibits. It always is, after the Doctor calls. The shard of impossibly ancient crystal from a place called Mordeela trembled and fizzed on its silk. The black tuxedo bowtie rustled against itself like a frightened snake. The pages of Adelaide Brooke’s biography have again gone blank, as if unsure what the famous astronaut’s end should be. Anke sat up with them – speaking to them, soothing them – and when she woke up there was a box outside her door.
She places the picture frame back on the twelfth plinth, and brings the box inside.
People often send things to Anke to be assessed. Old photographs. Newspaper articles about alien invasions that the newspapers themselves say they never wrote. Blood tests that prove the British royals are werewolves. Nearly all of them turn out to be worthless. Inside the box are two masks. The note with them reads: Worn by a long-forgotten cult who worshipped impossibility and contradiction.
Anke lifts the masks out carefully. The first is male and made of silver. The second is female, and gold. The faces they depict would be beautiful, if not for a certain subtle quirk to their features. A . . . slyness.
A dispassionate cruelty. Like trickster gods from an old myth.
They make Anke uneasy.
Summer turns to winter. The stream of tourists slows. Anke begins work on a plinth from the masks. It is hard work, and she takes many breaks, carving an old log to create the shape she sees in her head. It is foolishness, she knows, but when she places the masks upon it she imagines they are pleased with her work. Spirits, receiving tribute.
In the evenings, she makes minute adjustments to her cue cards, and tries to find any mention of a cult who might have worn such masks, or any clues as to who might have sent them to her. Anke has reached the end of her life’s savings. It is likely that the masks will be the last exhibit she ever owns.
One night in November, the Doctor calls again. This time, the sounds of battle are fiercer, and the voice is smooth and rich. There is a touch of the pirate in it, or the poet, and Anke, dry and scowling, cannot help but imagine what the man behind it looks like.
‘Anke! Doctor here. I need you to –’
‘I have told you,’ Anke snaps. ‘These exhibits are mine. I protect them.’
‘There are fractures in time, Anke. Someone is causing time to skip, like a needle on a record. These things you have collected – they’re . . . canaries. Canaries in a coal mine. Proof that something is wrong. That dark times are coming.’
‘Proof,’ Anke says. The word comforts her. She had hoped . . . ‘Then I must keep them safe. From everybody. From you.’
‘Listen to me. Those relics are like thorns poking into our reality. Keeping all of them together might cause a tear. A fracture. Something could come through, Anke, and I don’t know what that might be.’
The masks gleam in the corner of the room.
‘Good,’ Anke snaps, and hangs up the phone.
Christmas Day in Verbier is white and red and stubbornly evergreen. The ringing of bells echoes off the mountain and, as always, Anke eats her modest Christmas dinner at her little kitchen table, trying not to look at the extra place she has set. Twenty years. It has been twenty years.
Next year, I will not set it, she thinks, as she thought the year before. Next year.
That night, a storm breaks over the mountain. The first crash of thunder is so loud that Anke is out of her bed before her bones remember they are old. Lightning cracks the sky, bright enough to leave a memory of itself in her eyes, bright enough that it slices through the swirling snow.
It is not the thunder that woke her, Anke realises.
The phone is ringing.
She staggers downstairs, shrugging on her housecoat. Another peal, and Anke has to grab the bannister to keep from falling. The thunder feels like it is shaking the house apart and yet, despite the apocalyptic crash and roar, the artificial chirp of the phone cuts through.
By the light of slashing lightning, Anke picks her way through the darkness. The wind has broken a window, and now snow is piling beneath it. Plinths have toppled in the gale. Flakes of white are everywhere. The tapestries have fallen off the wall.
My exhibits. My treasures.
She runs to the twelfth plinth, and it is only when the battered old photo frame is safe in her hand that she crosses to her desk and answers the phone.
It is not a voice he has heard before, and yet she knows immediately who it is.
‘Not anymore,’ the voice says. It is an old voice, deep and warm as a mine, rich as Christmas and twice as kind. ‘Now, I’m really more of a curator. Like you, Anke. And you must listen to me now, because we do not have much time.’
Anke looks down at the photo in her hand.
‘I have made mistakes, Anke. I have been arrogant. I have thought only I knew the answers. That only I could fix things. A bad time. A dark time. The things you have collected, they’re evidence of that. Glimpses into dead timelines. Fragments of the never-was.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Anke says, though she does. She has thought of little else these last twenty years.
The argument. The storm, so much like tonight. The way he ran out the door. The way he ran from her. He vanished, vanished so completely that she began to distrust her own memory, until the photo in her hand was the only evidence that there was a gap in her heart where a person should be.
‘I don’t understand either,’ the Curator says. ‘Not all of it. It’s always a mess when more than one of me gets involved. I changed things. Anke, I worry that in doing so I opened a door. That I might have let something in.’
‘That’s why I keep them,’ Anke whispers. Snow is melting into the photo in her hand. ‘I thought . . . I thought maybe if I collected all these things, then he might come back too.’
There is a noise behind her. Anke turns, and the lightning cracks the darkness in two.
She sees that the masks are not on their plinths any more. They are not on their plinths, but they have not fallen. Instead, they hang in the air, the way another museum might hang its masks from wires.
There are no wires here. The masks hang exactly at head-height. As if being worn by people she cannot see.
It is the most frightening thing Anke has ever seen in her life.
‘Anke,’ the voice in her ear whispers, as the thunder booms and the lightning howls and the masks slowly begin to turn towards her, their cruel smiles shining wide. ‘Do you know what a paradox is?’
Doctor Who: The Wintertime Paradox is a brand-new Doctor Who story anthology written by Dave Rudden for the festive season. Get your copy here!