She was thirteen the first time they met.
It was on the beach at Brighton and the wind was so strong and cold they were both bundled in coats and scarves. Her parents and siblings had gone off to find something warm to drink, uninspired by the sea. She was supposed to go with them, but felt compelled to stay behind in the blustering cold with him. He claimed he had a companion he was waiting for too, but she was somewhere out of sight.
“You’ll catch your death of cold out here,” he said matter-of-factly, not watching her but instead the ragtag group of tourists that made up her family as they picked their way toward the pier.
“What, are you some kind of doctor?” she snapped even though she wanted him to talk to her.
“Why yes, as a matter of fact, I am.”
The broad smile he gave her seemed somehow unnatural, and she found she was immediately quite fond of it. “You don’t look like a doctor,” she noted.
It was another thing said to make him take offense but he didn’t rise to the bait. Instead he reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a sack of jelly babies. He ate one without offering her any. “And just what are doctors supposed to look like?” he asked.
She screwed up her face in thought, concentrating on the doctors she knew in her life from personal experience and television. “Old frail men with flyaway grey hair and white lab coats.”
“Balderdash!” he exclaimed. “Bother. What year is this?”
It was a strange question, but then, he was a strange man, so she answered, “1992.”
“Surely a smart girl like you has seen some other doctors besides that old stereotype.” He ate another jelly baby and she found herself coveting the bag of sweets.
“I don’t think much about doctors, to be honest,” she admitted.
“And yet you’ve a terrible stereotype of them already formed. Don’t you know anyone can be a doctor, if they so choose?” His eyes were twinkling at her and she noted they were the same color as the sea. “Even you.”
“I’m just a kid,” she pointed out.
“Well, not right now,” he agreed.
“Why would I want to be a doctor, anyway? It seems like an awful lot of work.”
“Well, for one thing,” he said, eating another jelly baby, “it means you get to have your very own supply of jelly babies, and not be required to share them with strange little girls you meet on the shores of Brighton.”
She laughed, even though he was being mean. “That’s not a benefit of being a doctor, just one of being an adult.”
“Adult!” the man exclaimed. “Well, I may look like such a thing, but I assure you I’m quite childish at times. Really.”
On the pier, her family was just now realizing she’d stayed behind. Her mother put a hand to her mouth, calling for her, but the sound was drowned out by the wind and roaring of the sea. “I should go,” she said. She didn’t want to get into trouble.
“Do you know what I like the most about being the Doctor?” he asked, turning around to face the sea.
She followed his gaze but found nothing inspiring about the water and instead focused on him, and the way the wind whipped his excessively long scarf about. “What?”
“All the interesting people I get to meet and all the fun places I get to go.” He favored her with that ridiculous smile again and this time it sort of made her insides flop.
She smiled back. “I thought you just mended broken bones and stuff.”
“Doctor is just a title,” he said by way of explanation. “In becoming one, you can do anything. The only people who live forever and see eternity are doctors, actors and politicians. And believe me, the only one worth pursuing is the first.”
“You’re the strangest man I’ve ever met,” she said.
“Oh, I do hope so,” he replied jovially. “Now, you’d better go catch up with your family. I’ve got a universe to go save.”
She turned to go but stopped and turned back to him when she’d gone just a few steps. “What’s your name?” she asked, holding a hand to her dark hair to keep it from blowing in her face.
“Rumpelstiltskin!” he called. “You?”
“Marie Antoinette!” she gleefully replied. “May I have a jelly baby?”
He was smiling again and tossed her the entire little sack. She thanked him with a nod and hurried to the pier and her worried mother. When she looked back out, she saw the man settled in a beach chair, as though sunbathing in the blustery weather, with his hat tipped over his eyes.
She secreted away the jelly babies he’d given her along with the inspiration for her future deep in her coat pocket before turning back to join her family.