Friday, 9 November 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 9): An icy solution

I did not expect to sleep, in the anticipation of that fatal dawn. But somehow, albeit I was fully clothed, and despite the cold and the stink of mothballs from a candlewick bedspread, I drifted away, and dreamed that a light was pulsing in my face, and then brightening, and then fading away – and woke to watch, through the uncurtained windows, clouds dancing across the moon.
At six, Lestrade and Entwistle came into my room. “Shall I wake Holmes?” I asked.
“We have at least another hour,” the metropolitan detective replied tetchily, shining a torch around my room, though for no reason I could deduce. Why had he come so early? Wearing a flat cap, battered sheepskin coat, old moleskin trousers and wellington boots, Lestrade looked more like a poacher than a policeman. At least the priest was in character, in his grey overcoat, buttoned to the neck. One of his hands grasped a bible; through the fingers of the other played the olive-wood beads of a rosary which was attached to an ivory cross with silver tips: a souvenir, I guessed, of some pilgrims’ package to the holy land.
“While we wait,” said Lestrade, “there’s something I want to ask you, doctor.” Out of his pocket he pulled two leather-bound books. “You recognise these?”
“Of course – they’re presentation copies of my reports on Holmes’s cases.”
“Good, good” said Lestrade. “Only, seeing as I couldn’t sleep, I was refreshing my mind about ones I was involved in, and I was struck by an anomaly.”
“Oh Inspector,” I protested. “Is this really the moment to cavil at the literary persona I gave you? Surely you can appreciate how for artistic reasons I needed to accentuate incompetence on your part in order to burnish the lustre of our friend’s accomplishments?”
“Yes, yes, assuredly so,” said Lestrade. But he frowned as he opened one of the books. “I quite like ‘wiry’,” he said. “And ‘dapper’ is fairly kind, if a bit patronising. But ‘ferret-like’? Thank you so much, Dr Watson, thank you.”
“Perhaps in the name of Christian charity we should forget these trivial slights and remember the daunting challenge of the dawn,” suggested Entwistle.
“Yes, padre, quite, just passing the time,” said Lestrade. “Now, doctor, that description of me came from the, um, ‘Adventure of the Cardboard Box’, which I believe I have alluded to before? Well, anyway, re-reading it, I paused at this passage, shortly before my entrance into the story.”
Lestrade assumed a declamatory voice and began almost to chant:
It was a blazing hot day in August. Baker Street was like an oven, and the glare of the sunlight upon the yellow brickwork of the house across the road was painful to the eye… and so on, blah-di-blah-di-blah, and then, finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair, I fell into a brown study. Suddenly my companion’s voice broke in upon my thoughts. ‘You are right, Watson,’ said he. ‘It does seem a preposterous way of settling a dispute’.
He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “So?” I said, a trifle uneasily. “So what?”
“Well doctor, listen to this, from ‘The Adventure of the Resident Patient’,” and he swapped books, opening the second volume (as he had the first) between pages where a matchstick held his place, before beginning a new half-incantation:
It had been a close, rainy day in October. Our blinds were half drawn, and Holmes lay curled upon the sofa, reading and re-reading a letter which he had received by the morning post… forgive me another, uh, skipping a bit, blah-di-blah, and, so on, until, yes, here we are, finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair, I fell into a brown study. Suddenly my companion’s voice
He shut the book with a smack and sat down on my bed.
"Well? Your explanation, doctor?”
“My goodness, Lestrade, you are such a very prosaic ferret.” Holmes had opened my bedroom door softly, and now he was inside. He was fully and smartly dressed – plus-fours, frock-coat, polished boots, deerstalker, alpenstock, with the familiar saxophone-pipe between his teeth, tobacco smouldering in the bowl.
“I’m asking, Mr Holmes, which story is real,” Lestrade protested, “or whether we should conclude that the lot of them, all five volumes of so called ‘case-studies’, are really fiction.”
“Ha! ‘Really fiction’, I think that’s precisely what they are, Lestrade. What a lovely hinterland that is, the zone of ‘really fiction.’ It’s where you are, and I am, and Watson is. ‘Really fiction’. Only in my case, I have to surrender my immortal soul in an hour or so, at which point the ‘really’ can be subtracted from my own diagnosis, and I will become fiction entire.”
“Gentlemen,” Entwistle began, “is this the right moment for ontological status reports?” But Lestrade persisted: “A hot day in August or a rainy day in October, eh? which one?” until Holmes interrupted him.
“The simple fact, Lestrade, is that ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’, which featured you and was a grisly tale of jealousy, revenge and severed body parts – sawn-off ears packed in salt, if I remember – went down very badly with Dr Watson’s public – revolted them, in fact – and he temporarily withdrew it, meaning to suppress it altogether, but forgot. Proud of the passage in which I read his thoughts from the oscillations of his eyebrows, and therefore reluctant to leave it on the spike, he lifted those paragraphs verbatim into the other narrative, thus inadvertently printing it twice. And now, if you please, I shall breakfast before meeting my maker. Or rather, my un-maker.”
We trooped downstairs in silence, bar some mutterings from Lestrade, and finding half-a-dozen kippers in the pantry we broke our fast with those and slices of unbuttered pumpernickel, from a tin, and black, unsweetened tea.
“I have a plan, Holmes,” said Lestrade, at last.
“Oh dear.” Holmes took up his pipe. “Do you wish to share it, pray?”
“I want you to return to Old Coombe Cross, where you made your bargain with that supposed dark emissary fifty years ago.”
“But why?” asked Holmes, with a deep sigh.
“Please,” I interjected, “Holmes, just for once, set down your pride and take Lestrade’s advice. It may be our only hope.”
As we climbed back up the stairs, Lestrade tugged at my sleeve. “Tell me,” he hissed, “that it actually is November – that we’ve woken to an icy November morning, and that you’re not suddenly going to change all of this into a warm evening in July?”
“I promise,” I replied, “that this is November, and that there is a hard frost outside.”
“Not too hard, I hope,” the detective murmured. “Just hard enough.”
“Good grief,” Holmes exclaimed as we went into the courtyard, “do you propose that I should freeze to death, Lestrade, and pre-empt our sinister friend?”
“Go on with you,” Lestrade replied. “Quickly, now. You, too, Entwistle, eh?”
Holmes and the priest pushed through a gate in the perimeter hedge and set off along a twisting path down the valley. The old granite cross stood in moonlit silhouette in the distance, but already there was the faint glow of dawn on the eastern slope of Vixen Tor. “Yes,” said Lestrade, in a triumphant, sibbilant voice as he saw sunrise painted on a cloudless horizon. Holmes and Entwistle turned back at the sound, their four eyes looking – to me, rather absurdly – like dipped headlights in the gloom.
“What is it Lestrade?” Holmes called. Then he slipped, grabbed at Entwistle’s arm, and the two men executed a swift and clumsy jig before falling on the ice.
“Holy skating,” murmured Lestrade.
“What?” I asked.
“Remember? We diverted the water from the Holy Well into the valley? Well, hence this morning’s rink. Come, let us go inside and wait for Mycroft, or Mephisto-whatever he should be called.”
Almost as soon as we were back in the hall I smelt a lemony odour of talc, and for a moment I thought that ‘she’, our shape shifting fantasy woman, was back among us. But out of the shadows stepped Mycroft, or the man we had known as Mycroft – and yet he, too, was altered, his own shape shifted, into someone still recognisable as the creature he had been, but now younger, thinner, his face less plump and more aquiline. He twirled a silver-knobbed cane and sang:
“Don't fail to do your stuff
with a little powder and a puff
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved…”
…Before roaring with laughter and bowing to us both. “You see, I have done Sherlock the honour of bathing and refreshing my appearance before our departure? Am I not young and beautiful, gentlemen? Even though you may find it difficult to love me? Sherlock loved me, once. Now, where is the old reprobate? I can call him ‘old’, now, of course, since I have indulged myself with a dose of rejuvenation to restore the strength I require to drag him down.”
“Delay him,” Lestrade whispered in my ear. “We need time.”
Years in the consulting room have taught me that a well-judged inquiry after someone’s welfare, delivered with kindness and solicitude, will detain the most fretful of clients. And so I began:
“Much as I admire your physical versatility, I’ve always worried about you, you know, Mycroft. Sitting all alone there, year after year – no, decade after decade – in the same draughty corner of the Diogenes club, friendless, austere; what a poignant life you led while you were among us. The facility to wreak so much evil can hardly be any compensation at all, I’d have thought, for such utter loneliness and misery.”
Mycroft stood very still; grim-faced, eyes moist, flattered and self-pitying. He was momentarily trapped, exactly as I hoped he’d be, spiked on his self-regard.
“Ah,” he sighed. “You understand, doctor. So few do. But then, I am but a part of a necessary and organic whole.”
“How do you mean?” I asked. Faint amber sunlight began to glint on the mullioned windows. We sat on settles in the hall. I leaned forward and held his eyes with mine.
And at some length, with much gesticulation and not a few oaths, he told me how his powers were held in check by other universal and supernatural forces which adjusted evil with goodness, but that the existence of the evil was necessary for the good to prevail and for, oh, something about the free existential choices of men and women which baffled me and left Lestrade yawning.
The sun, meanwhile, crept higher all the while, and when it had left the tor’s slope with a last kiss on bracken, granite and thorns, Mycroft sprang up and threw open the doors.
“The day has come,” he cried. “You puny humans think the puppet theatre that the sun reveals each morning is a perfect whole. But I come from the immaterial dark which is mother of the light. My parent darkness is prime, prior, timeless and supreme, and the sun is just her contrary, clock-bound, vice-regent. One day the sun and all this stuff you take for real will go to wreck and vanish like smoke. Now, where’s Sherlock?”
“He’s gone to Old Coombe Cross, where you bound him to you with a bargain fifty years ago,” said Lestrade. “Holmes makes just one request of you – that you go to him as a man, and stay man to his man, and abstain from any other shape. Will you do that?”
“Of course.
” “Do you promise?”
“Yes, yes,” he muttered.
“I didn’t hear you, sorry?”
“I said, I promise.”
“You got that, doctor?” Lestrade very slightly shook his head at me. I began to understand.
“No,” I said, “I didn’t hear.”
“I told this man,” Mycroft shouted, “that I promise not to take another shape while I’m going to fetch Sherlock Holmes.”
“Good,” said Lestrade. “Three times. So - now you are bound to your promise.”
For a moment, Mycroft looked uneasy. But then he fastened up his coat and set off, twirling his cane and singing once more, “keep young and beautiful”. We followed him across the courtyard and as far as the gate, then watched as he took the path which Holmes and Entwistle had slithered along an hour or more earlier.
Lestrade gripped my elbow. The sun rose higher, the sky was a vibrant bronze and blue and the dry-stone walls were steaming. A flock of redwings flew above our heads. I looked down, and beneath the surface of the ice I could see a line of tiny bubbles. The diverted stream was beginning to flow.
“Holy water,” I said.
“Hmm, maybe,” said Lestrade, and gripped me tighter still. In the distance, we could see Holmes and Entwistle standing by the cross. The priest was holding out his bible and cross and mouthing words we could not hear.
The ice started to creak with every footstep Mycroft took. He stumbled. His left leg plunged up to its knee in liquid mud and he screamed. He jumped onto a tussock and swayed, windmilling the air with his stick. “You swine,” he shrieked. “You clever, clever swine.” And the tussock swivelled and tipped right over, and the man we’d known as Mycroft Holmes plunged into the marsh below, yelling and screeching as if the water were an acid.
I thought I saw his face turn to a skull, grinning in agony, as he sank out of sight.
Some two hours later, Holmes and Entwistle having walked in the direction opposite the bog, and the London policeman and I having taken a long road around, the four of us were sitting in the Dartmoor Inn at Merrivale with pints of beer and hot meat pies.
“For a secular man,” Entwistle remarked, “you are highly attuned to the efficacious subtleties of religious ritual, Inspector.”
“Ah ha, excuse me, no” Lestrade replied, fanning his open mouth with his flat cap where a chunk of pie was apparently burning his tongue. “Either your demon was destroyed by holy water, or my villain was drowned. You pays your money and takes your choice, and I know mine. And by the way, doctor, this prosaic ferret saw no skull.”
“But you made him promise three times not to…” I began.
“Humouring him,” Lestrade replied. “Here, padre” – he tossed the priest a five pound note – “fetch us some more beers, would you?”
“I don’t understand,” said Holmes, as Entwistle went to the bar.
“Don’t understand what?” asked Lestrade.
“How we got safely to the granite cross but Mycroft drowned.”
“Well, the ice melted,” I explained.
“That was so lucky,” said Holmes.
Lestrade drew breath, but said nothing. Instead, with a long exhalation, he turned to me with mouth open and eyes wide.
Three walkers came into the bar. “How’s the weather in the South Hams,” Lestrade asked them, as Entwistle returned with our pints. “Crisp and fine like this?”
“Raining like billy-o,” said one. “That’s why we came up to the moor.”
“How did you know that?” Holmes asked.
“What?” said Lestrade.
“That they’d come up from the south?”
“Why, red clay on their boots, of course.”
“Oh.” Holmes sipped his beer. “Clever.”
“I think,” remarked Lestrade, “that at the conclusion of your report of this adventure you might diminish the level of my incompetence? What do you say, doctor?”
“Assuredly,” I replied.
“Bee-keeping is nice,” said Holmes.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 8): A cold snap for Halloween

Mycroft Holmes, now unveiled as a vice-regent of the dark powers, brushed a few damp ivy leaves from his astrakhan collar and leaned down over the Great Chess set. “My cockatrice takes your lion and leaves your king vulnerable.” He smiled at Holmes, delicately moving the pieces. “In fact, your king is fatally exposed, I think.”
The fire murmured and settled. Holmes sighed and placed another log among the embers, pushing it down with the heel of his boot. “Perhaps I must surrender after all,” he said.
“What did you say this imposter’s name was asked?” Lestrade.
“Mephistopheles,” said Holmes.
“Well, it’ll be hello ‘Metphistophelose’ and into my bracelets unless I get a few straight answers pretty quickly,” snapped the London bobby. Not for the first time, I admired his phlegmatism – the absence of any trace of romance in a mind which proceeded instead from one simple building block to the next, eschewing the grand, imaginative leaps which typified Holmes’s deductive procedure. It was exactly his prosaic nature that prevented Lestrade from being intimidated by any sudden turn of events, however Gothic – as in this case – such a turning might prove to be.
Mycroft – or whatever we should now have to call him – gave Lestrade a patronising smile and settled in a rocking chair. “How can I help you, little man?” he asked.
But the Inspector was not to be provoked. “You’ve been posing, all these years, as Mr Holmes’s brother,” he began. “But if you’re not a member of his family, and we now have good reason to believe you are not, then where exactly do you come from?”
“The other place,” Mycroft replied.
“What, the House of Lords?”
Mycroft laughed, shrugged off his coat, folded and sat on it, and stretched out his legs to the fire. “No, no. The nether regions.”
“The where? Are you some sort of weirdo?”
“He means the infernal regions,” said Holmes.
And I added, miserably, “Hell. He says he comes from Hell.”
“Oh yeah?” Lestrade snarled. “Well, you must be the first cove who ever got out of there alive, never mind with his whistle and flute and his boots unsinged.”
“Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it,” said Mycroft wistfully, in the tone of a child reciting a lesson.
“No it ain’t, Sir,” Lestrade responded, “It’s Wilder Hall on the south-western edge of Dartmoor just beyond the margins of the county borough of Plymouth, so don’t go deluding yourself or trying to delude us that we’ve got transported to some zone of the beyond.”
But the wind sobbed in the chimney as he spoke, and the pelmet rattled above shivering curtains, while the air turned icy. “Sherlock will soon know what I mean,” said Mycroft.
“You’ll harm my friend over my dead body,” I cried.
“If you really wish it so, the more the merrier,” Mycroft laughed. “But we have a bargain, haven’t we Sherlock?” Holmes looked away, nodding miserably. “Fifty years ago today, as he has described, not a mile from here, at the old Coombe Cross, Sherlock begged for the gift of clairvoyance. I gave it to him, to exercise and enjoy for exactly half a century, in exchange for his immortal soul. Tonight, on the eve of All Souls Day, and I have come to arrange my collection.”
“How could you contemplate a transaction so unspeakably evil, practised upon an innocent youth in the height of his grief?” I said.
“Oh,” Mycroft replied, “very easily. I have an eternity of boredom to relieve. Eternity without hope, you know, is a very, very, long time. You have no idea how desperate one is for amusement. Sherlock’s soul will be a pretty pet to play with for epoch or two.” He stood up and unfolded his coat, which he swung over his shoulders and which, to my astonishment, had changed colour, whilst serving as his cushion, from black to brown. As he strolled over to the window he grinned and sang softly, “Be sure and get your man, wrap your body in a coat of tan,” then said briskly, “I shall call for you at dawn, Sherlock,” he said. “Enjoy Halloween. Good night, gentlemen.” He climbed over the sill, and as he vanished in the darkness, we heard first the bark of a dog, and then the cry of a cormorant.
There was a crack, and I turned to see that Holmes had knocked over the white king on the Grand Chess board.
“I am sorry, my friends,” he said, “that I have dragged you here to witness the dissipation of my gifts, and indeed, of myself. But a deal is a deal, and this creature who has been my putative brother and my real oracle for these past five decades is only asking me to honour a contract I sought and to which I volunteered my assent. And yet, how very long a stretch, back then, this half a century seemed, and how very far away its terminus.”
For the first time in the years of our acquaintance, my friend looked haggard and defeated. And where, indeed, could his pride make a stand, now that the fons et origo of his talents had been discovered in the diabolical gift of another? To be an ordinary mortal, prey to emotion and ambiguity and quotidian vicissitude, was to be everything which Holmes had once disdained – but oh, how clearly now was an envy of ordinary mortality inscribed on his melancholy features.
Felix Entwistle came in, rattling a tray of crockery and cutlery, and biscuits, tongue, corned beef, pickles and preserved fruits which he told us he’d found tinned and bottled in the pantry. He began to prattle about the hall’s origins as a sanctuary and hostelry attached to the estates of Tavistock Abbey, but I interrupted him and sadly reported what had just transpired, and what was foredoomed for the morning.
“We could,” the priest ventured, “pray earnestly to the Lord in these once consecrated surroundings that Mr Holmes might be delivered from this curse?”
“Forgive me, father,” said Holmes with a bitter laugh, “but I have no appetite for prayer, and nor indeed have I any appetite for the preserved comestibles on your tray. I do, however, have a large sachet of cocaine in my room, and I did take the precaution of bringing the necessary paraphernalia. With your permission, I shall spend my last evening in a reverie of my own direction.”
“Holmes, really, no; I must protest,” I said sharply. But then, of course, I stopped.
“You were thinking of my health, eh, doctor? A little late for that, I fear.” Holmes laughed sardonically again, and left us.
Lestrade pressed a slice of corned beed and some piccalilli between two squares of crispbread and bit into the sandwich with a loud crunch. “Is there nothing which will defeat this fiend, father, if fiend he is?” he asked.
“Oh, the usual sacred objects would destroy him were he to be subjected to their holy contagion – the cross, the bible and prayer book, holy water or the blessed sacraments.”
“He’ll be too cunning to succumb to tricks like those, surely?” I said.
“Tricks?” said the priest, querulously – and I apologised while Lestrade smirked at me and reached for the pickled onions. “Tell me, father, why was this spot chosen for a sanctuary?”
“It rests upon an ancient holy well.”
“Where?” asked Lestrade, with excitement in his voice.
“In the cellarage.”
“Show us.”
And down we went, down a steep flight of granite stairs, their treads hollowed by generations of feet, into a damp, cold, low-ceilinged basement chamber.
“Here,” said the priest. Before us was a low parapet around a cistern full of water. A constant dripping echoed musically around us.
“So, the water flows,” said Lestrade.
“Yes,” Entwistle explained. “The spring that rises here once sank underground again and ran to old Coombe Cross, where it emerged as a brook; hence the monument there. But the monks stopped it to create their local water supply, and the excess flows away through the barton to a system of tanks around the pastures.”
“So if we were to prevent the overflow?”
“The stream would resume its course into the valley.”
“Then let us stop it quickly,” cried Lestrade.
“What’s the point of this?” I asked, as the policeman seized an adze that was lying in the corner of the cellar, smashed a flagstone, and began pushing fragments into an aperture at the side of the cistern through which water had been gently spilling.
“It is a freezing night, is it not, Dr Watson?” said Lestrade.
“Indeed it is. So?”
“Forgive me a little Holmesian melodrama, if I may call it such,” he said. And ripping up an old sack, he caulked the rubble and entirely stopped the flow. We watched as the water in the cistern rose and at last began to fall over the back of the parapet into a channel which seemed to drain down into the foundations of the building.
“There,” said Lestrade. “Now, one of us – perhaps you, Dr Watson – needs to raise Holmes before dawn. Will you do that?”
“Yes, but why?”
“Wait and see, doctor.”
“Surely,” I protested, “you aren’t trying to raise our hopes with some superstitious mumbo-jumbo? Not you, Inspector, of all people?”
“Ha! Doctor, old friend, my project works either way; sacred or profane, my unicorn takes that smug, fat bastard’s gryphon. But if you do have any piety muddled up in your constitution, pray for a fine morning. Holmes’s life, at the very least, depends upon it. Now, vicar, was there any beer in the pantry?”
“I thought I saw some barley wine,” said the priest.
“It’ll do. A couple of bottles will see me to bed. Goodnight, my friends. Be up before first light, if you please.”
Reluctantly, I went upstairs. As I passed Holmes’s door, to my astonishment I heard a guitar playing, two voices raised, and merriment. I paused. One voice was my friend’s – but unmistakeably, the other belonged to Miss Irene Adler. She was singing, and he was clapping and humming along between giggles: “Oh, a slim little waist is a pleasure, and a trim little limb is divine; oh, a sly little eye is a treasure, it’ll get him drunker than wine…”
I went swiftly to my room, almost putting my fingers in my ears.
Already, there were ferns of frost on my bedroom window. The moon was full. The landscape of tors, wind-bent hawthorns, gnarled oaks, ancient fields, furze, bracken and dry-stone walls was silvered and still. And on All Souls’ Eve, the fate of at least one soul was hanging in the balance.


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 7): A bargain with Mycroft

Mycroft’s humming unnerved me. Rumbling through the scarf of fat that swathed his windpipe was a distorted but unmistakeable tune – and had there been a doubt, Lestrade dispelled it when the humming stopped and he picked up the broken melody to sing with a matching flatness: “You’ll always have your way if he likes you in a negligee, keep young and beautiful...”
“Oh, do shut up, Lestrade,” I cried. “That wretched song is beginning to cause grief.”
So we drove in a prickly silence for a while; down the steep hill into Gunnislake, through the village, and sharply down again to the single track of New Bridge. I reminded Mycroft of his promise to “elucidate” our mysteries as we travelled, but he pursed his lips, steered slowly up through the pine-canopied ‘S’-bends of the valley’s side, and said he needed to concentrate on the road. There would be revelations, but “later, later, all in good time”.
“Not as if we’re short of an enigma or two,” muttered Lestrade, and squinting hard at me, he nodded meaningfully at the space above and beside Mycroft’s head, just beneath the Bentley’s courtesy light. I couldn’t get his drift, and raised my eyebrows, frowning. Lestrade nodded again, with vigour, at a place where Mycroft’s halo might have spun, had he earned one, then jerked his right thumb minimally towards the front driver’s side window, and his left towards the passenger’s side. “Well?” he mouthed. I mouthed back: “what am I looking for?” and he mimed smiting his brow with his palm and sank into the leather seat with a sigh.
The afternoon gave way to dusk as we snaked eastward out of Tavistock and upward onto the moor. The leonine stacks of Vixen Tor revolved and faded among indigo shadows and then the road broadened across a high plateau until eventually, a little past Merrivale, we turned into a bumpy lane – perhaps the former route of narrow-gauge railway track – which rose and fell and twisted through abandoned settlements and quarries until finally we drove between the rusting iron gates of a fearsome and ancient Gothic pile.
“Wilder Hall,” barked Mycroft. “Go inside. I’ll park the car, scout round, and join you later in the house.”
“What were you trying to show me?” I asked Lestrade as we pushed open the front door.
“Nothing,” the detective replied.
“Nothing? What do you mean, nothing? It was as if you were performing in pantomime.”
“Nothing. Where the mirrors should have been. Nothing. The driver’s mirror, the wing mirrors – nothing there.”
“Perhaps it’s to do with the antiquity of the car? It is a veteran model...”
“Oh, never mind.” Lestrade sighed again. “Come on. Look. Here.”
A bar of light shone beneath one of the doors off the hall, which Lestrade now pushed open. Holmes sprang to his feet from an armchair by the fire; there was an odd blur for a moment beside him, and a whir as of feathers in the air – then an odour of lemon mixed with the scent of burning coals and applewood.
We heard a series of wingbeats and croaks ascending outside.
“Cormorant,” observed Lestrade, then, “why, where’s that lavender smell coming from?”
“Yes, yes,” Holmes said, breathing a little heavily and straightening his coat and trousers. “Lavender for you, Lestrade, and an air of lemons for you, Watson, and for me, the dark, wicked redolence of patchouli. But her difficulty, you see, is that she can never be in company – never with more than one man at a time. But still, maybe even now she’s upstairs tempting Father Entwistle from his afternoon nap with the aroma of the Magdalene, eh?”
“She?” I said. “But who is she, Holmes? Please tell us.”
“Ah, who indeed? Time might bring an answer. But – well, whoever you want her to be, I suppose.”
“Another mystery?” I complained. “Perhaps we should add it to the list that brother Mycroft has promised to explicate.”
“Mycroft?” said Holmes sharply. “Here already? So. The game is nearly done. No matter. Sit gentlemen. Sit.”
Lestrade, loosening his paisley cravat, took a place on a wooden settle, opposite Holmes at the fireside. “It might appear,” he said tentatively, “that there is a question to be asked about whether you actually have a brother at all?”
Holmes laughed, a little ruefully. “Talking of families, do either of you remember what I said about Rusbridger and his father?”
“That nothing exerts a stronger effect upon a child than the point at which his father’s life failed,” said Lestrade. “Strikes me now it might be apposite to your own case, Holmes.”
“What sages we both are, Lestrade. But wait - what about Rusbridger himself? Does anything I said about him spring back into either of your minds?”
“If I recall correctly,” I picked up, “when I remarked that Rusbridger’s being hung naked over the viaduct was like bait for a giant fish, you agreed that’s exactly what it was, and wondered precisely whom he was bait for.”
“Indeed I did. Well, he was bait for me.”
“What? For you?”
“Of course he was. Some years ago, as you’ll remember, I unravelled the connection between his father, a lap-dancing club, a beach hut in Whitstable, and some British Telecom shares, so in revenge he willingly played his part and dangled, with a few delicious refinements – nudity, a bicycle, car keys, just the sort of stuff to intrigue me – above the place where my father lobbed the Cathedral plate into the River Tamar. Ha! Idiot that I was to suppose that the trove might still be there, with fisherman passing back and forth beneath the viaduct on every tide since. It seems I have all but check-mated myself.”
There was, in fact, a chess board beside Holmes, placed on an ivory-inlaid table, with the pieces set as if in mid-game and scattered with a little ash from Holmes's pipe and from a cigarette – but some of the figurines were alien to me, and instead of the customary pattern of eight squares by eight, the board had twelve squares by twelve.
“What is that strange travesty of a chess set, Holmes?” I asked.
“This? Oh, this is Grande Acedrex, Great Chess, played on a hundred and forty-four squares. Do you see these pieces that have no role in your conventional game? The gryphon here moves one square diagonally then travels straight as many as you please. And this one, the unicorn, begins like the knight and continues as if it were a bishop. Here’s a lion, which can leap four squares in any direction. This is the cocatrice, and this the giraffe...”
Lestrade cleared his throat. Then he yawned.
“The set belonged to my father,” Holmes persevered. “He obtained it from Spain, where it was owned in the 13th century by Alfonso the Tenth, who was called ‘the wise’. Like Alfonso, my father was beguiled by heterodoxy. Like Alfonso, he did not renounce Christianity, but saw certain suggestive affinities between Christian metaphysics and the Kabala of Judaism, the mystical Sufis of Islam, aspects of Neoplatonism, and various arcana and formulae from the Hermetica – and in an alembic of all these resonating influences he thought he saw stirring a transfiguring force that had long haunted history but seldom materialised. Unfortunately, though, while Alfonso was King of Castile and Leon at the zenith of the Muslims’ Iberian ascendancy, my father was the Bishop of Bodmin and Liskeard in crusty old Christian England.”
“What happened?” asked Lestrade who had, I noticed, unobtrusively got out his notebook.
Holmes gazed into the fire. “Like Alfonso, and, for that matter, like Phillipus Aureolus Bombast von Hohenheim, to whom I drew your attention in Calstock, and like a very few others, visionaries and heretics all, my father came to believed that the universe resembled a giant, esoteric harmonium, kept in tune by its cunning Maker, and in the harmony of its chords all phenomena were conjoined in multifarious patterns – flowers, trees, limbs, bodily organs and musical keys, animals, days of the week, signs of the zodiac, planets, precious stones... and so on, et cetera, in a network of correspondences for which diligence might uncover a supercelestial index.”
“Could you do anything useful with it?” asked Lestrade, shifting his buttocks on the elm planks of the settle.
“Oh indeed, yes. Get the combinations right and you had a measure of control over nature. Or so they thought.”
“Sounds harmless enough, compared with some ecclesiastical eccentricities,” I remarked, trying to lighten the mood.
“Unfortunately, a girl died,” said Holmes.
“Oh, my God. How?”
Lestrade licked his pencil.
“Oh, she would have died anyway,” said Holmes, “but you know how it is? There are a number of peculiar but familiar stories which leave the media powerless – by which I mean, particular indications in these stories trap journalists into a specific narrative from which they find it impossible to escape, however innocent the overture, however fictional the ultimate presentation. In this case, I give you the victim child, the satanic bishop, and his wicked spells and potions. And so on.
“The girl was 11, daughter of some parishioners who were newly back from the colonies. She had some ghastly tropical disease, I don’t know what it was, nobody knew what it was, attacking her liver, and my stupid, well-meaning father offered a private service of intercession and brought her here. Look.”
Holmes got up and went to the main table. He removed a green baize cloth to reveal a mass of manuscripts and an extraordinary assembly of interconnected apparatus – tubes, retorts, dishes, stills, burners – which looked like a charred, begrimed and twisted parody of the equipment in his own laboratory at 221b Baker Street. He grimaced as he saw it, and recited softly:
“Here stands the gear that I have never touched,
My father’s stuff, bequeathed to be my prison,
With scrolls of vellum, blackened and besmutched.
Where the desk-lamp’s dismal smoke has risen
“He brought her here, as I say, and, well, I really don’t know what the constituent elements were that he arranged for her: but, say, an emerald, vipers’ bugloss, skin of a rabbit, poems by Spenser, bark from an aspen, music by Lawes, kippers and cream, a shoelace, perhaps, mumbo jumbo, using only his thumb, gibberish, balderdash, all on a Tuesday, under the aspect of Aries, with a corncrake’s feather and more added nonsense and a soupcon of tosh. No damage was done, nothing changed in the young lady’s condition, but she went home and as predicted by all, a few days later she turned up her toes; my father’s valet sneaked and took the red-tops’ shilling and the hacks made up the rest.
“Papa was defrocked and fled – to Malaya, I think – hurling the Cathedral’s treasures over the viaduct and into the Tamar out of spite. He never told me where he was going, and he was so ashamed of his exposure, of the image of himself he saw thrown back in the mirror of the Press, that he never got in touch with me again. And so I wept for the very last time, out there on the moor, before changing my name and moving to London and embarking on a new life.”
“And?” said Lestrade.
“And what?” said Holmes, irritably.
“And why are we here?”
“You don’t exactly brim with compassion, do you, Lestrade?” said Holmes.
“I’m a London copper. A red top reader.” Lestrade grinned. “They’re often right, you know, the hacks. Your old man may not have been a murderer, but he thought he was a wizard, so he was a bit of a weirdo after all, eh?” And he looked at my friend as if to add, “like father...”
“I was eighteen, and as I say, almost destroyed,” Holmes continued briskly, resuming his seat by the fire. He took out his pipe, looked at it, and returned it to his pocket. “The day I realised my father had fled, and fled for good, I staggered out of here, raging, into the Spring sunshine, and stamped across the moor to the old Combe Cross. I cursed the church, but more, and with much more venom, I cursed myself. Why hadn’t I been able to read my father’s behaviour? Why hadn’t I deduced from the drift and growth of his obsessions where a dangerous addiction to the occult might take him? Why had I failed to construct a profile and a prognosis from the books he was buying, the artefacts he was collecting, the habits he was developing? Why was I blind, in other words, to what was staring me in the face. I raised my eyes to the Heavens and begged for clairvoyance, for percipience, for the sheer rigour of observation which would allow me to pierce the veils and comprehend the inner workings of the human mind and its motivations. Why, for a gift like that, I cried, I’d even surrender the priceless immortal soul that my father had insisted smouldered perpetually inside me.”
The fire seemed to groan, and the chimney belched noxious smoke into the room.
Again, Lestrade said softly, “And?” He drew his cravat over his nose while I opened the window.
Holmes stared away, reliving the scene. “Something black came running towards me over the moors, through the gorse and furze, bounding from tussock to tussock and rock to rock. For a moment I thought it was the beast of the moor, then more prosaically, a calf, but when the creature neared I realised it was a black dog – a Labradoodle. But when it reached me...” He coughed, and stopped.
“Yes?” Lestrade persisted.
“It stood up on its back legs and became...”
Again. “Yes?”
Then Holmes said, curtly, “come and join us, Mycroft. Come in. Enter. You see, gentlemen? I have to invite him three times?” And at last the portly figure in its black coat with black-braided lapels, and blue-black waistcoat, and shining black boots, climbed through the open window and strolled over to join us by the fire.
“The dog became your brother Mycroft?” I gasped.
“My Mephistopheles,” Holmes replied.


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 6): Of detectives and detection

Was the hiss emitted by the lifting bottle-cap, or Lestrade’s plump lips? Difficult to tell, but without doubt there was a trace of parody in the Scotland Yard man’s tone when he remarked, putting the metal opener down and pouring his beer into a glass, “this, I think, is a triple White Shield problem.”
The two of us were sitting on scuffed, dun-coloured leather armchairs in the seedy, dun-coloured parlour of Webb’s Hotel in Liskeard, which the unexpected sunlight of this October afternoon failed to penetrate through either of two tall, cobwebbed and mossy windows. Lestrade had just joined me, a sheaf of papers on his lap, all written over in his own distinctively thin and wavering hand (“a penmanship that looks,” Holmes had once remarked, “as if a bluebottle had lately escaped from a bottle of whisky into a bottle of blue-black Quink and then gone staggering across a notepad.”)
There was a bluebottle, now, rubbing its forelegs together in one of the little rings of beer Lestrade’s glass was leaving on the yellow formica-top of our table.
“Brother Mycroft? Get hold of him in the end?” Lestrade asked, swatting at the fly with his papers. It took off, circled, landed on the detective’s head, and when he angrily brushed it away, went back to his beer.
“At the third attempt, yes.”
After my friend had – perhaps unsurprisingly – begged a private audience with the priest, I’d left Holmes with Father Entwistle and gone straight to find Lestrade with my news (either sensational or farcical: as yet, who knew which?) of the newly disclosed allegations about Holmes’s parentage. Sensibly, Lestrade had suggested that we head straight for Liskeard, a part of the see in which Holmes’s father was supposed to have been a Bishop, and the likeliest place to yield a copy of Crockford’s Clerical Directory.
Lestrade had taxed me with the raising of Mycroft, which I first tried to do via Facebook on Holmes’s laptop in his hotel bedroom. I remember a cormorant landing on the windowsill and staring hungrily – or so it seemed – into my eyes just at the very moment the broadband gave out. My next endeavour took the form of a text message, after we’d set off. In reply, I received a stream of unintelligible algebraic symbols. I turned the screen of my mobile to show Lestrade, glanced out of the train and was convinced that our Labradoodle was bounding through the fields beside us. “Look!” I cried. “That dog...”
“A calf,” said Lestrade, tersely. “Try texting again.”
“Can’t. No signal, now. Are you sure?” For the ‘calf’ had just leapt a hedge.
“All right then, a panther,” said Lestrade. “The beast of Bodmin.”
But whichever creature it was, the animal ducked into a birch wood and was gone. Meanwhile we were now so deep in a valley that all hope of phone contact was lost until we reached Liskeard.
Now I was able to tell Lestrade, who had gone to the lending library before joining me at Webb’s, that I had at length used the hotel landline to reach Mycroft Holmes through the porter’s lodge at the Diogenes club.
“He’s on his way.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Very little. The Webb concierge was keen to overhear me.”
“This is a rum business, doctor,” said Lestrade. “Turns out there was a Bishop of Bodmin and Liskeard with the unlikely name of Arthur Plynnfarlong, that he was cashiered for some species of heresy, and that he had just the one son by just the one wife, Shirley, née Holmes, who died in childbirth. What do you make of that?”
“Great heavens. Shirley Holmes? Blow me down.”
“No, doctor. Not that. One son.”
“I don’t follow you?”
“Grief man. Was it Mycroft or Sherlock? It can’t be the both of them if he was Dad to a singleton, can it?”
“Great heavens.”
“So you say, quite often. Well listen, my friend” – and Lestrade swigged his beer then spat, for the fly had moved to the rim of his glass; the insect shot out from his lips, looped the loop, then zigzagged away – “we need to talk about our chum Sherlock Holmes. There’s things don’t add up.”
“For example, what?” I asked, with some heat.
“For example, in your preliminary notes on the man,” (and here Lestrade spread his own shabby papers upon the formica) “which you published in the reminiscence named ‘A Study in Scarlet’, you say, inter alia, ‘knowledge of philosophy, nil’, and, ‘knows nothing of practical gardening’.”
“Yes? And?”
“And then, Doctor Watson, in a collection of reports you gathered under the title ‘His Last Bow’, you remark that ‘friends of Mr Sherlock Holmes will be glad to learn that he has, for many years, lived in a small farm upon the Downs five miles from Eastbourne, where his time is divided between philosophy and agriculture’.”
“When the recession began to bite, of course, he left Sussex to rejoin me in Baker Street.”
“Hmm. Forgive me, but you’re prevaricating just a little, I think.” Lestrade dropped one sheet of paper on the floor and took up another. “Now. Here we have third little yarn of yours, with a deceptively dull title, ‘The Cardboard Box’. I quote: ‘As to my companion [which is, of course, Mr Holmes], neither the country nor the sea presented the slightest attraction to him. He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime. Appreciation of nature found no place among his many gifts’.”
“Rather mellifluously put, don’t you think?”
“Indeed, but hardly accurate if we are to believe this next bit of reportage.” Lestrade cleared his throat, drank again, and continued thus, somewhat to my embarrassment: “The adventure, as you call it, of the ‘Lion’s Mane’ occurs, Holmes says, and this is his direct speech, as set down by you, ‘after my withdrawal to my little Sussex home, when I had given myself up entirely to that soothing life of Nature for which I had so often yearned during the long years I spent amid the gloom of London... On the morning of which I speak the wind had abated, and all Nature was newly washed and fresh. It was impossible to work upon so delightful a day, and I strolled out before breakfast to enjoy the exquisite air’.” Well? Did you never observe the inconsistency? His enraptured stroll, by the way, takes him through the countryside and down to the sea.”
“I... I... well, people change, don’t they?”
“Oh, come off it,” sneered Lestrade. “He always says you’re not the brightest pin in the cushion, but really, doctor, really, wake up and try to shine a little. This isn’t change you describe, it’s the invasion of the body snatchers. Given that you portray Mr Holmes several times as a master of disguise, are you sure, what with the wild disparity of your descriptions of his favoured and unfavoured disciplines and predilections, that there haven’t actually been two or even three different Sherlock Holmeses sharing your digs in Marylebone, London NW1?”
“I think,” said a portwine voice from behind us, “that we should cease this casuistical squabbling and address ourselves forthwith to my brother’s welfare.”
“Mycroft?” I was stupefied. “How the devil did you reach us so swiftly?”
“Why, by the quickest route, clearly,” he replied. “Needs must, and so forth.” The older of the Holmes brothers was sitting on the velvet-covered stool beside the parlour’s old piano. It occurred to me that his habitual garb, sober and severe, a black coat with black-braided lapels and a blue-black waistcoat, was not unepiscopal. His bald head shone and his pewter-coloured, close-shaven chins gleamed and wobbled. But his eyes, as ever, were cold.
“Where is your brother, then?” asked Lestrade.
“Entwistle is taking him to Wilder Hall on Dartmoor, seat of our father’s exile. I sense danger, real and imminent. Come. My car is outside. There are mysteries, I know, but I can elucidate them as we travel.”
Lestrade grabbed an unopened bottle of White Shield and thrust it into his trouser pocket . Mycroft opened the door to usher us into the lobby, but his way was blocked by the concierge, who said: “Sorry, gentlemen, but I’ve had to bolt up the front. Beer delivery. The hatches are open. Health and safety, you know? Wouldn’t want you plunging into the cellarage. This way, if you don’t mind.”
He tried to shepherd us back along a narrow, dingy corridor, but Mycroft was seized with what seemed a mixture of panic and rage, screaming, “I must go out at the front. I must.” And he barged past the concierge, unbolted the door, and rushed into the square, breathing stertorously and clawing at his brow.
“Well, goodness me,” I murmured to Lestrade. “I wonder what that was about?”
“What indeed?” Lestrade replied, helping the concierge to his feet. “And three times, as well, you had to ask him to come. These are deep waters, as our mutual friend might aver. I sense, doctor, that we might be getting out of our depths.”

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 5): The newshounds and the hermitage

It struck me as I sat beside his bed that I had never seen my fastidious friend in pyjamas before, despite more than two decades of cohabitation and almost numberless excursions out of London. True, now and then he would emerge from his study in dressing grown and slippers, violin, perhaps, in one hand, pipe in the other – but the dressing gown would always be braided and elegant, the slippers Persian, perhaps turquoise, delicately stitched in leather. And between the one and the other were never pyjama bottoms, but invariably a trouser of corduroy or cavalry twill, acutely pressed.
But here was Mr Sherlock Holmes, in bed and asleep, in rather shabby flannel pyjamas, grey with a laurel stripe. An absurd jingle formed in my head and rang round and around while I quietly ate my cereal: “Not sure you’ll keep her keen with pyjamas striped in evergreen...”
“Really, Watson, must you make the consumption of muesli sound like the mixing of concrete? Shut your mouth, man, shut your mouth.”
“Holmes – you’re awake.”
“Are you surprised? Who could sleep with that confounded crunching and slurping in their ear.”
“I’m so sorry. How are your eyes? Any better?”
“No, blast it.” He sat up and stared out of his bedroom window at the rising sun. “No. Wait. Perhaps the faintest glow?” he turned his head away. “Or, no, perhaps not.”
“We must be optimistic, though perhaps we should now start to think about a visit to the hospital. By the way, how did you know I was eating muesli?”
“The pained gasp you uttered every time a piece of dried fruit lodged in the molar cavity where a filling ought to be. Really, Watson, you’re as bad over the dentist as Mrs Hudson is with her optician. Halloa!” He sat up. “What’s that noise? And that smell?”
“People breakfasting downstairs, maybe?”
“No – they’re from outside. Open the window.”
Holmes was right. There were nearly a dozen men and women on the street by the hotel, drinking coffee, eating bacon sandwiches and chattering to each other. I told Holmes what I could see.
“Ah,” he said, “the media have arrived, just as the good Inspector Lestrade predicted that they would.”
“Hardly surprising, I suppose. It’s quite a story, isn’t it? Young Rusbridger being hung naked over the viaduct like bait for a giant fish.”
Holmes threw back the bedclothes smartly and jumped from the bed. “Bait, Watson, did you say? Of course – you’re absolutely on the money, old man. He was bait – but bait for whom?”
At that moment there was a heavy knocking and the door was flung open. A man and a woman barged in, and as the woman cried out “Mr Sherlock Holmes?” and elbowed past me towards my friend, the man raised a camera and a flashbulb fired.
Holmes blinked, then smiled. “Well, well,” he said. “I know you people specialise in shock and revelation, but what you've achieved here already is truly remarkable.” I could tell at once from his expression and the way he gazed around with delight that the flash had restored his vision.
“Not sure what you mean, Mr Holmes,” said the woman, “but I have to ask what you know about this Rusbridger affair? You are investigating, of course? Any clues? Any culprits?”
“Steady on,” laughed Holmes, “and please, no photographs full, or even three-quarters, half or quarter length of a gentleman in his pyjamas, eh? Just the face, hmm?” He turned that famous profile alongside the camera, and murmured, “but alas, as you’ve probably deduced yourselves from my garb, I have been indisposed almost since the moment of my arrival – a chill, caught because I failed to appreciate the sharpness of our otherwise salubrious Cornish air. My colleague Inspector Parsifal Lestrade, however, in room three on the corridor below, is fully apprised of the affair.”
“Thank you, Mr Holmes,” the woman said, catching her photographer’s wrist and turning for the door. Then she added: “Is it true, by the way, that Rusbridger was bollock naked with a set of car keys up his arse?”
“Not quite how I would have presented his predicament,” said Holmes. “And for all I know it was a gear lever, and there was a dead bat’s head taped under his left armpit.”
“A dead bat?” said the woman. “And a gear lever up his arse? Way-hay! Come on, Harry.” And they were gone.
“What was all that about a bat’s head?” I asked Holmes as he dressed.
“Yes, it was rather witty, wasn’t it?” he chuckled. “In the middle ages they believed that a dead bat’s head glued to the naked flesh would completely prevent its victim from speaking until the sorcerer undid his spell. Do you get the drift of my playlet?”
“Not really, no. And the gear stick?”
“Oh, just a grace note. I thought the story deserved more excitement. Anyway, one should always sauce the media’s helpings at the feast with a choice titbit or two of fiction. It’s what they crave, after all.”
“More excitement? Isn’t there enough there already?”
There was a journalistic scrum rucking around Lestrade’s room as we passed. “No, not Parsifal, Percival,” he was saying. “P – E – R – C ... that’s right, Percival. Yes, well, yes, there is a female we’d like to interview, now you mention it, Yvonne. She’s quite elderly, wears plumed hats, very striking shades, tangerine and cerise, the one I saw, and lace-trimmed dresses, ankle-length, buttoned boots, my goodness, very polished, and she uses a distinctive perfume with an odour of lavender. Matter of fact she reminded me of my French grandmother...”
“Such a coxcomb, is Lestrade,” sighed Holmes, adding – a little hypocritically, I thought – “the very definition of a media whore.”
A few minutes later we were at our destination: a low, granite building set among the reeds on the water’s edge. At the end of my conversation with Father Entwistle the previous evening he’d proposed that the three of us might find clues here which would elucidate the twin mysteries of Rusbridger’s naked suspension above the Tamar and the sinister warning the priest had been told to impart to Holmes.
“Recently deconsecrated and rather brutally converted to a holiday home, by the look of it,” said Holmes. “Observe those new and scarcely matching tiles masking a hole where the cross has been snatched from the roof and sold elsewhere, no doubt, to some grasping upcountry heathen as a picturesque trophy. And those ghastly, tatted, folderol net curtains! Why look, even the poor old garden there has been turned into a hard standing for a tripper’s car. Oh dear, oh dear. Read me the sign, will you, Watson – my eyes are still rather too sore for close work.”
I read the neat, white, italic inscription which had been painted on a plain wooden board: “Saint Wartha, or Werthur, was rightful heir to the Earldom of Guingamp in Brittany. His father having died, Wartha was persecuted by his uncle Rivallious, who being desirous of the title and its lands, first had the boy’s right arm cut off, and then his left foot. The right arm being replaced by an artificial limb of silver, and the foot by another of brass, these prosthetics began miraculously to grow with the body of the child and to become articulate. Wartha fled in a barrel across the sea to Cornwall, landing here at high tide some time in October, A D 411, and established his hermitage upon the site of this chapel, its vestry garden being the relic of the little allotment upon which, miraculously, vegetables cropped for the holy boy even in the middle of the harshest winter. After several years, Riwallius’s men pursuing him all the while, his enemies discovered him here, and he was much persecuted, and hanged by his brass foot from an oak tree over the cliff at Cothele, then cut down and decapitated. He walked with his severed head beneath his arm to Chy-an-Gweal, near Penzance, where he lay upon a hill in the sunlit warmth of a midsummer’s day and was received into Heaven.”
“Goodness,” I said. “What a gothic tale.”
“There are, though, some singular points of interest and coincidence, don’t you think?” Holmes remarked. “The inverted hanging, for example...”
“But what of the metal limbs and the head-carrying?”
“Retrospective romancing, I would have thought. The silver hand indicating great charitability and generosity, his brass foot the considerable extent of his travels, the cephalophorical phenomenon perhaps expressive of some ostensible oracular gift – am I right, Father Entwistle?”
“What? What? Great Scott” – the priest had quietly crept up behind us – “how in the world did you know I was here?”
“For Heaven’s sake, Father, can’t you see your own reflection in the river?” Holmes turned to greet him. “Ah. You rose in haste this morning, I see.”
“Thank the Lord’s mercy that I have a reflection to shed upon the water,” said the priest gnomically. And it was true that in his unkempt black worsted suit, and crumpled black satin shirt, he looked like an old barn which had been drenched in creosote and stood up on sticks.
“So,” Holmes continued, “why are we here?”
Father Entwistle was staring closely at my friend. “I know you, don’t I? I seem to know your face very well indeed – but from where, I can’t think.”
“The delusion of physiological familiarity in my case is an effect of media celebrity, much as I attempt to eschew it,” replied Holmes blithely. “To business, Father – or rather, to the portent of this location?”
“Rusbridger bought the old chapel and converted it into a weekend cottage. There was significant resentment among some of the more conservative and volatile locals. He stayed with me this weekend because he was scared. I believe he came here on the evening of those frightful events to check his property was undamaged, and he was snatched by a party of vindictive heavies who’d been spying on his movements.”
“But why should they of all people resent the conversion?” Holmes asked. “Apathy and scepticism had stopped them worshipping in the chapel, so it was deconsecrated and empty...”
“Oh, Mr Holmes, surely – the ancient home of a saint which then became for centuries the locus of the Lord’s worshippers in the village... so see it casually and indifferently sold off to and profaned by an outsider?”
“But it’s simply part of a cyclical pattern, Father. Any church or chapel of antiquity has usurped the situation of a pagan shrine – a temple once stood here, I shouldn’t wonder, devoted to the God or Daemon of the river. Ha! Doesn’t the 4th century historian Eunapius record just such widespread desecrations of the sacred places of the old religions by, now, let me see if I can remember... yes, ‘monks, as they called them, who were men in appearance but lived the lives of swine, and openly did and allowed countless unspeakable crimes’? Poor Mr Rusbridger was only closing one chapter and opening another in a trenchant but time-honoured fashion.”
“Where did you learn that quotation?” asked the priest, with some surprise and asperity in his voice.
There was a pause. An oyster-catcher fluted on the far bank of the Tamar, then a second took up the call.
“Learn what?”
“Eunapius of Sardis.”
“Don’t be preposterous. How can one remember where one learns all the stuff one learns in a lifetime?”
“Because,” said the priest, “you got it from your father, didn’t you?”
Holmes was pale. He trembled. “From my father? What are you talking about?”
“That’s why I recognised your face. The lineaments are unmistakable. You may call yourself Sherlock Holmes now, but you’re the son of Arthur Plynnfarlong, the apostate Bishop of Bodmin and Liskeard. It’s true, isn’t it? You are he. Aren’t you? Aren’t you?”

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 4): No sight for sore eyes

I gasped, and swallowed hard, thinking for a moment that beneath the towel she was completely unclothed, as indeed she might as well have been, for she was wearing only a bathing costume of some transparent material.
“That is, might I venture, somewhat unsuitable attire for a cool Autumn evening in the Cornish countryside,” I remarked huskily. “And perhaps uncharacteristic of a young lady’s customary wardrobe.”
“Dear, sweet Doctor Watson,” she laughed, “don’t be shy. Remember the song? ‘You’ll drive him half insane in a bathing suit of cellophane, keep young and beautiful, if you want to be loved’ – have I driven you half insane, doctor? It might appear so.”
I had been tugging and tugging the curtains together, trying to close the gap between them. Now I turned to stare at her and covered the bare stretch of window with my back. My room, as I’ve recorded, was very small. The moist warmth of her freshly bathed body radiated over me, and her lemony, soapy scent was intoxicating.
“That song – why are you singing it? How did you know?” I cried.
“Oh, it’s everywhere, isn’t it?” she said archly. “And now I seem to be wearing one of its verses. Well, never mind.” She danced a step or two, coming even closer to me, whispering, “a slim little waist is a pleasure, and a trim little limb is divine; a sly little eye is a treasure, it’ll get him drunker than wine. Let’s see.” She peered at me and raised an eyebrow. “You are distinctly flushed, doctor.”
“What do you want with me?” I stepped away from the window, but in trying to put the bed between us I stumbled against one of its legs and fell on the counterpane.
“What do you want with me would seem a more apposite question,” she said, fingering twists of auburn hair away from her forehead and leaning over me. “I simply want my car keys. May I have them? Or shall I search you?” She laid a hand on my trouser pocket.
“No, no - ” I leapt away and found my feet again. “I don’t have them. Holmes has them. In room six.”
She frowned, and all her radiance was gone – from me, at least. Snatching up the towel, she strode out. At that moment, when the door swung shut behind her, my room seemed to darken, and it was as if all the cares of my life, woes I had forgotten, and errors, ill-judged or discompassionate actions, follies and failures and embarrassments – all these descended around me like a cloud of ugly, stinging flies. Shaking my head, I pulled apart the curtains, opened the window and leaned out, gulping the damp, estuarial air.
And then I heard the dog barking, and a cry, and a crash, and a familiar voice cried “Watson!” with an unfamiliar inflection: querulous and fearful. I ran at once to help my friend.
Holmes was sitting on the floor of room six in his pyjamas, staring at the wall, a look of sorrow and bewilderment on his face. The Labradoodle dog, I was relieved to see, had absented itself.
“What happened, Holmes? Are you alright? Let me help you up.”
I reached my hand down, but he ignored it. He looked at me with an expression I’d never seen on his face before, as if he had been hypnotised; as if I wasn’t there.
“That woman,” he said, in a trembling voice. “The one who looked the image of Irene Adler...”
“Oh really, Holmes – I thought she looked just like my Mary. And what a louche get up, eh?”
“Really, Watson, is this any time for your pedantry?” said Holmes, testily, reaching around him with his right arm. “Where’s your hand, man?”
I took his hand in mine and pulled him to his feet.
“Whomsoever she resembled, blast her, she’s blinded me.”
“What? My dear Holmes, no? Here, stand still.”
I examined his eyes. They were inflamed, and when I passed a table lamp near them, the papillary contraction was minimal. I went to the a bathroom, fetched a face flannel, soaked it in cold water and began to bathe them. “Tell me what happened.”
“She barged into the room without so much as a knock and said, ‘I think you have my car keys.’ I asked her to be careful of our Labradoodle, but too late, for the creature fled. I protested and demanded that she leave my room immediately. We could meet presently, I said, once I had dressed, in the bar, on neutral ground, where she could tell me who she was and how the keys, if indeed they were hers, had come to be taped between Rusbridger’s buttocks. She retorted that she didn’t plan to leave without her property, and I said ‘well, we’ll see about that,’ reaching for the bell to summon help.
“‘I may see about it, but you won’t,’ she replied, and she stepped forward and breathed into my eyes. And curse it, my sight faded at once.”
“How is it now?” I asked.
“You have relieved the pain but not, alas, restored my vision.”
“It may be, you know, a temporary affliction, like the blindness caused by snow-dazzle or a lightning flash. A night’s rest could be all the cure you need.”
“I hope you’re right. I fear that you are not.”
“Well, if I’m not, we shall resort first thing to the hospital. Come.”
I helped him under the coverlet and placed his head on a pillow.
“My own keys were in my buttoned waistcoat pocket. Are they still there?”
I removed the garment from the back of an armchair. His keys were in place.
“Good. Now, small brass key opens the concealed compartment in the base of my valise. Go on.” I had no need to use the key, for the compartment was already unlocked. “No car keys inside?” he asked anxiously, propping himself on an elbow.
“No, Holmes. Empty.”
“Ah.” He sank back onto his pillow. “I was afraid that might be so. The car keys are taken and our birds may already have flown. Quick as you can. Get yourself Father Entwistle’s cottage. Tell him to keep his own patient hidden indoors at any price.”
“But what about you, Holmes? Shall I send Lestrade to sit by you?”
“Good God, first blinded by a weird woman then deafened by the reminiscences of an old London copper as I lie captive in my own bed? No thank you, doctor. Oh, and if you see my Labradoodle, bring it back, will you? There’s a companionship I would enjoy. By the way, what you meant by louche, in re the matter of the lady’s attire, I can’t imagine. When I saw her she was respectably dressed in bombazine.”
“But when I was with her...”
“Never mind going round all the houses on a clothes horse for a second time, Watson,” Holmes sighed. “Be off with you to Entwistle’s. And quickly, man.”
I raced down the stairs. Lestrade, I observed, was still in the bar, consuming his umpteenth White Shield, and he appeared to be in deep conversation with the skeleton, whose fist still rested upon the till. Briskly, I marched back into the village along the Lower Kelly lane, and by seeking directions from one local after another, found myself heading up Church Lane, reflecting on the irony that only a few hours before Holmes had been, with these very words, celebrating Paracelsus von Hohenheim, the sixteenth century physician and philosopher : “he was the first to teach us to proceed everywhere with our eyes wide open” – and he had added that this precept was one he “always obeyed.”
The Reverent Felix Entwistle’s cottage was a whitewashed little building which shone vaguely in the lamplit drizzle. He opened the door almost as soon as I knocked – a short, portly figure, bald-headed, shiny-faced and dressed in a tight-fitting black suit.
“Yes?” he said, in a high voice – something of a melodious tenor, but with more than a trace of melancholy in its timbre.
“I’ve come to inquire about the welfare of a friend of mine, a Mr Rusbridger,” I replied, as coolly as I could.
“He’s gone,” said the priest.
“Gone? Gone where? I heard he was incapacitated.”
“A woman picked him up. By car. A little while ago. He insisted he wanted to go with her. Could I therefore stop him? No – so off the three of them went.”
“He, she and a big black dog. A Labradoodle, I think.
“But gone where, do you know?”
“No Sir, I don’t, not exactly. But my, my, how I wish I could have gone with them.”
“Why, pray?”
“The woman, of course. She was so very beautiful, you see. I can’t deny that never since I graduated from the seminary have my vows suffered such disturbance. She looked just like Mary Magdalene, you know? In the penance by El Greco? Same flowing auburn hair, same red dress. Ah well. Can’t be helped. Gone now. But oh, when she left, such sadness overcame me.” He looked at his boots and shook his head, and his shoulders heaved.
By now my own experience and these evidences of the lady’s influence and shapeshifting were giving me symptoms akin to vertigo. “Did they say nothing at all about their destination? No hint? No scintilla of a clue?”
“Well, sir, I have no idea what she meant, but she said if anyone were to call tonight, I should say, ‘tell Mr Holmes that we are away eastward to the wilderness, and that his time is nearly come’.”

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 3): The great sulk of Sherlock

Slowly, carefully, Lestrade poured beer into a tall glass. He stopped when there was about a quarter of an inch of pale liquid left in the bottle. “White Shield,” he explained, with a professorial smile, setting the bottle down. “That yeasty little residue would quite spoil the taste, besides turning a clear ale cloudy.” He swigged, and wiped his mouth with a corner of his cravat. “There’s some things they don’t teach you in medical school, doctor. True?”
“Indeed.” For myself, a pot of China tea was all the refreshment I wanted. “I do hope Holmes is all right,” I said anxiously. “Perhaps we should take him something up?”
“Let him stew. Like your tea.” The Inspector laughed, stretched out his legs, and addressed his beer with even more eagerness. “Here,” he said. “How about this?” and he dropped his pork pie hat onto the head of a stuffed goat that was standing by the window, staring out menacingly at the rain-misted river valley.
Even subtracting the goat, the bar of the Danescombe Hotel was a rum venue: crossed besom brushes on the walls, aquaria on windowsills and shelves containing the stuffed corpses of various reptiles and amphibians, and behind the bar, with one bony fist resting on the top of the till, a full length skeleton hung by the cranium from an ebony stand. Serving our drinks, the landlady explained that this decor had been chosen “to attract the tourists,” to which Lestrade responded “well, there ain’t many of ’em” (we were the only guests, it seemed) and the landlady counter-snarled “out of season, innit?”
“Do you know,” said Lestrade, opening and fastidiously pouring his second White Shield, “if it wasn’t for the certificated existence of Mr Mycroft Holmes, I’d guess that Mr Sherlock was an only child, he takes on so when he’s frustrated from getting his own way.”
Half an hour or so earlier Holmes had, in the policeman’s phrase, “created something terrible” when he discovered that Lestrade had been allocated (and declined to surrender) the best and biggest bedroom in the hotel. Holmes retreated to his own room in a sulk, taking with him the dog, which he described as “the most intelligent companion I’m likely to find around here.” As for myself, my own room was even smaller, but without complaint I put my clothes in the wardrobe, my towel on the radiator, my sponge bag in the bathroom and my books and alarm clock beside my bed, managing to make the little space quite homely and appealing.
It was a sorry end to what had been a lively and profitable afternoon. After a short search Holmes had found, parked in a public space beneath the viaduct, a Saab which the car keys fitted– “where else,” he asked, “would the vehicle be, but in Calstock?”– and he surreptitiously retrieved its SatNav – “which may fruitfully reward a later examination.” There was a commotion in the village when some youngsters claimed their canoe had been capsized by a surfacing hippopotamus but (and Holmes claimed he had surmised something of the sort on first hearing the boys’ story) the creature which emerged from the Tamar at his coaxing turned out to be a large and exuberant black Labradoodle, the very dog which was now with him upstairs.
Another group of rougher boys were in the churchyard when we passed on the way to our hotel, and they rocked a funerary angel as if trying to break it from its pediment. Lestrade intervened and chased them away, and Holmes sighed and remarked: “It is much simpler, Watson, to suppose that what we do not understand does not exist. But when subsequently we are confronted with symbols of that which we dismissed because of its incomprehensibility then naturally – do I say naturally? well, no matter – we set about their destruction. Remember what Paracelsus said? ‘He who knows nothing, loves nothing; he who understands, loves’.”
“Para-who?” I said. “Never heard you mention that cove before.”
“Have you not? He was a doctor. I’m surprised you don’t know of him,” said Holmes. “Now, now – down boy.” The dog, which Holmes had secured around the neck with binder twine taken from a gate, was leaping up at him. “Phillipus Aureolus Bombast von Hohenheim, also known as Theophrastus Paracelsus. Born Switzerland, November 10, 1493, died September 24, 1541, only son of William Bombast, who was himself the bitter, frustrated and illegitimate child – mark that point, Watson; it has significance – of George Bombast of Hohenheim, Grand Master of the Knights of St John, who refused to have anything to do with our poor Willy. The critical thing is that Doctor Paracelsus was the first to teach us to proceed everywhere with our eyes wide open: ‘from what is before us we see what is behind us,’ he wrote, ‘and from the external we deduce the internal’. As you know, those are precepts I’ve always obeyed.” He paused and tugged the twine. “Perhaps, oh damp and boisterous Labradoodle, I should call you ‘Paracelcus’? ”
“But what’s the significance of the illegitimacy, Holmes?”
“Ah, it bears on the case of our man Rusbridger. Nothing exerts a stronger effect upon a child, Watson, than the point at which his father’s life failed. Paracelsus senior was a sad and disappointed quack. His son became a physician of such genius and vision that some of his contemporaries thought he trafficked in magic and feared him as if he were Faustus himself. Rusbridger’s papa, you will recall, was a Liberal M.P. who was elevated to the House of Lords but then implicated in a dreadful scandal involving a lap-dancing club, a beach hut in Whitstable, insider dealing and British Telecom shares. He was disgraced, was he not, and forfeited his peerage? Hence the socialist and puritan zealotry of the son, you see, and his chairing of Whitehall Walpurgis, that eminent ‘think tank’ which is to the modern capitalist what the inquisition was anciently to the heretic.”
“But does that,” I asked, “go any way to help explain his nude suspension from the viaduct strapped to a bicycle?”
“It may do, though I’m not sure yet quite how. The SatNav should help us.”
“And don’t forget the song,” I suggested – “‘Keep Young and Beautiful’.”
“Indeed.” He lit his pipe. “We mustn’t forget the song. No, no.”
Lestrade sniggered sceptically. “I can’t readily make any connections myself except saucy and ironic ones, via the old man, the song and the lap-dancing,” he said.
“Down, boy.” The leaping dog frisked around Holmes’ heels. Soon we were walking along the riverside and the Labradoodle strained to get among scents in the reeds which were being stirred in the drift of a light and not unpleasant drizzle. “Ah, what is nature but philosophy,” Holmes observed, inhaling deeply. “For though theory is ever grey, the living tree is radiant in green.”
“Well, not exactly, Holmes,” I said. “It’s rather grey this afternoon and the leaves are turning brown.”
Lestrade snorted and tipped his hat over his eyes.
“Why must you always do this?” snapped Holmes.
He did not come down for supper – a passable if rather over baked salmon with frites and samphire – and when I climbed up to bed I was certain I heard voices in his room.
“Come, admit it is almost time,” announced one of them portentously, in a deep but dimly familiar tone.
“What? It cannot be, not yet.” That was my friend, surely? This voice went on: “Besides, you must help me. You must keep your promise.”
I knocked on the door and pushed it open. “Are you alright, Holmes?”
The dog, lying beside the bed, sat up and growled at me. Holmes was fully dressed but prone on the eiderdown, hands behind his head. “I was asleep Watson. Why do you disturb me?”
“Convinced I heard voices.”
“The wind rattling the shutters, probably. Good night.”
Uneasily, I went to my own room. What did I notice first? The lemony, steamy smell? That the towel was gone from the radiator? Or the footprints leading to the radiator from the bathroom and back again; small, wet prints of a perfectly arched female foot?
The bathroom door opened and a woman emerged. She was mesmerizingly beautiful. With that ahining auburn hair and those rosy cheeks and shoulders, I thought for a moment I saw my Mary again, as a girl.
“I was wondering,” she said softly, as she let my towel fall to the floor, “how I might persuade you to surrender those car keys?”

Friday, 31 August 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 2)

“I suppose there’s always a chance,” said Holmes softly, tracing patterns with his fingertips in the mist on the carriage window, “that this was some sort of sadomasochistic experiment, with a dash of exhibitionism for seasoning. We do find frequently that those two curious urges partner each other.”
“A dash?” I exclaimed. “Call me prosaic, Holmes, but I can’t think how even the most athletic entrepreneur of sadomasochism could manage to remove all this clothes, strap his upper arms to the handlebars and thighs to the rear wheel of a Brompton bicycle, then suspend himself upside down on this makeshift crucifix, one hundred and twenty feet above the River Tamar, by means of a chain fastened to the Calstock viaduct.”
For it was into Cornwall that our train was now heading, the Baker Street Irregulars having quickly established that Rusbridger had not, as we first suspected, been hung by his enemies from a London railway bridge.
“No, no, you’re right, of course,” sighed Holmes. “We must drop that theory into our cabinet of impossibilities....”
“So whatever remains, however, improbable, must be the truth,” I interjected.
“Quite, quite. As you say,” Holmes retorted irritably. “Ah, at last – some countryside.”
We’d left behind the industry and the squat grey housing of St Budeaux and Ernesettle, those grubby outer-garments of Plymouth, and our little train was pulling slowly over Tamerton Lake, towards the Bere Ferrers promontory and the confluence of the Tamar and the Tavy. It was a brooding, overcast afternoon, the journey from Paddington had been tedious, and now a squall swept towards us, furrowing the waters and shaking our carriage.
“The God of Rain rides into the autumn lake,” Holmes murmured. “and this same wind, who caressed the leaves to come, now coaxes them to fall.”
“Strictly speaking, it’s not a lake, it’s an estuary,” I said. “And without wishing to put a damper on your poesy, are the winds of spring and autumn really the same wind?”
“You should know, being a great bag of them,” snorted Holmes. “I was merely regurgitating Chinese wisdom, with which you are perhaps the first to quibble in more than a thousand years.”
“You mystify me, Holmes,” I said, more than a trifle hurt.
We spoke no further as the train rumbled through embankments of bramble and fern, alder and birch, from Bere Ferrers to Bere Alston, and thence, at last, across the great viaduct into the village of Calstock.
The years had not worked smoothly on Lestrade, who was waiting for us by the parapet as we walked back from the station. His limbs were shrunken and spindly, and he had the neck and visage of a tortoise, beneath a pork-pie hat, and above a greasy cravat with a mauve paisley pattern.
“This is your country attire, Lestrade?” Holmes inquired, an eyebrow raised.
“Cryptic coloration, Mr Holmes.”
“Ah, I see. Had no time to sort out my own rustic wardrobe; I came swiftly, just as soon as I got your Facebook message and observed the photograph on Rusbridger’s status page. Where is he now?”
“Recuperating at the cottage of the Reverend Felix Entwistle, the friend with whom he was staying the weekend.”
“What does he say?”
“Nothing, yet. Just sits shivering and shaking his head.”
“How is he?”
“As you’d expect. Shocked. Bruised. Traumatised. Humiliated. Honestly, Mr Holmes, I’m sent here with orders from St James’s to elbow aside the local constabulary and at all costs keep the scandal out of the newspapers, but it’s a devil of a story, and I don’t see how we can.”
“‘We’, Lestrade?” Holmes chuckled and gently pulled the calf glove from his right hand, finger by finger, then rubbed the tweed of the policeman’s overcoat between his forefinger and thumb. “Hmm,” he said. “Harris Tweed. Second-hand. Possibly a Northumbrian lay preacher? No, no – ” he moved his forefinger and laid it across Lestrade’s scrawny lips. “Never mind. Don’t ask. So, it’s not my powers of detection you solicit, old friend, but assistance in stifling the Press? What an irony. But I’m not sure I can help you there at all...”
“Perhaps not an actual suppression, Mr Holmes, but help, maybe, in laying a false trail?” Lestrade had drawn close to Holmes and was all but whispering in his ear. Holmes shrugged, moved smartly away, and paced beside the railway track. Still the rain came down, and came down hard, frustrating his attempts to light his pipe. He leaned over the parapet and whistled. “Not for the vertiginous,” he said softly. And then: “Halloa – is this one of your boys? Perhaps he has something for us?”
A plump young man in a wet and filthy uniform was scrambling along the viaduct, helmet askew. “Sir, sir,” he cried, “we found these in the mud.” And he proffered Lestrade a pair of round, horn-rimmed spectacles.
Lestrade glanced at them and handed them back to the constable. “Rusbridger’s glasses. I recognise them from his public appearances. Put them in an evidence bag, will you, Hodges? And smarten up, lad, smarten up.”
“Wait, let me see,” Holmes said. He took the spectacles, put them on, and squinted around. “They’re reading glasses, Lestrade. Why would our unfortunate friend be wearing reading glasses on his misadventure, eh?”
Lestrade looked baffled. Holmes frowned. “Take me to the exact point where poor Rusbridger was found dangling.”
Once there, some twenty or so yards onto the bridge, Holmes stared first at the ground, where the shingle was much disturbed, then sighed, fell on his knees, put his glove back on, and began rummaging among the stones.
“Ha!” he cried at last, and settled back on his heels, a piece of paper in his hand. He laughed and gave it to me. “Read it aloud for the inspector’s benefit, Watson. And for yours.”
I read, with incredulity: “‘You’ll always have your way, if he likes you in a negligee – keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved’. But that’s impossible, Holmes. Impossible.”
“No Watson, manifestly not. This quaint little ditty that appears to be haunting us, and that you condemned, I seem to recall, as ‘fascist’, is certainly not to be despatched into our infamous cabinet of impossibilities.” Holmes’ voice had brightened. The more the plot thickened, the more cheerful he became. “Now, Lestrade, tell me about Father Entwistle,” he continued. “Is he the parish incumbent? Clearly, his vicarage is our destination.”
“No – he has no living. Too young to be retired, so he must have means, though judging from the cottage, not much of them”
“Well, well. We shall soon find out for ourselves. Where have you booked us, Lestrade?”
“Danescombe Valley Hotel, down on the river. Bit old fashioned, but comfortable, if you don’t mind the chill. Food’s good, anyhow.”
“Excellent, let’s make our way there and have our tea. Take it you have no other surprises for us, Lestrade? No other detail, exotic or grotesque, you might have overlooked but now feel able to share?”
“Nothing at all,” grinned Lestrade, “bar the set of car keys that was taped between the cheeks of Mr Rusbridger’s posterior.”
“What?” I cried.
“Ah,” said Holmes, staring dreamily over the parapet and into the distance. “Now two corners of the jigsaw are complete, at least.”


Friday, 24 August 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 1)

The fog that had engulfed Baker Street all afternoon began to lift towards dusk; I was grateful, for it had been insidiously sulphurous, and heavy and still, and despite a jolly tune on the radio I was gripped with melancholy, and irritated by the tock, tick, tock of Holmes’ fingernails on the keys of his laptop.
“Doesn’t this weather depress you, too” I snapped, throwing the newspaper down on the hearthrug.
“You know me, Watson,” said Holmes . “Mere meteorology has no impact at all on my psyche. I might, though, be saddened if the flat burned down.” And with his toecap he nudged away a newspaper page that had fallen near coals in the grate which were spurting gassy jets of flame.
“Anyway,” Holmes continued, in an unsettlingly bright voice, “where’s it to be? Corfu, as usual? Or somewhere more adventurous? Wherever it is, do send me a postcard revealing whether Eros can still be induced to visit and excite the late middle-aged.”
“Good God, Holmes,” I cried. “You surpass yourself. You amaze even me... how on earth did you know what I was thinking?”
“Oh Watson, really. It was so simple.” He jumped up, turned off the radio, and seized his violin.
“This, I believe, was the tune being played on the wireless when your sorry train of thought began.” And he scraped a lively few notes.
“Indeed it was...”
“And these were the words of the chorus, were they not?” He began to sing in a hoarse and comical voice, tapping his boot on the fender: “‘keep young and beautiful, it’s your duty to be beautiful, keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved’? At which point you began inwardly to recriminate against the depredations of time. All very for the ruddy lyricist, your inner voice snarled, to rhyme out an injunction like that – but hard to observe his prescription when legions of wrinkles have long been on the march, eh?”
“Alas, you hit the mark” I admitted. “I suddenly felt all my years upon me and the song’s theory struck me as positively fascist.”
“Precisely; and then, as these unhappy reflections began to subside, the second chorus was upon you, to wit” – he cleared his throat and croaked again: “‘Be sure and get your man, wrap your body in a coat of tan, keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved’.”
I was about to interrupt, but he held up an imperious forefinger – “By the end of this quatrain the vision of you and your weary but beloved Mary on a cruise to somewhere romantic, where the warm Mediterranean sun could stroke and burnish her flesh – somewhere like, say, Corfu, with a sea-kissed strand, and then dinner by candlelight, and a glass or two of, perhaps, champagne, and then retirement hand in hand to... well, the vision was fully formed, but I draw a veil of decorum over the rest of its lineaments.”
“Extraordinary, Holmes,” I sighed.
“Commonplace, in men of your age.” But by this time his mind had leapt elsewhere, for he was staring out of the front window. “Ha!” he cried, and strode to our door.
“Mrs Hudson!”
Our admirable landlady, still in her outdoor coat and galoshes, struggled dutifully up two flights and into the room clutching her shopping bags.
“You purchased the organic broccoli from Sainsbury’s, I see, Mrs Hudson. Why, pray, was that?”
“Well, Mr Holmes, it seemed like the best bargain. And the healthiest...”
“I presume, by the way, that you did not take up your ophthalmologist’s offer of an eye-test at a reduced price, despite two years having elapsed since the last?”
“Why no, Mr Holmes, but however did you... ?”
“Know?” Holmes sighed, seized his pipe and stuffed it with tobacco. As he spoke on, he dipped a spill into the grate, and in a minute the room was filled with the familiar pungency of his shag. “I know of the ophthalmologist’s offer because I saw his card in the hallway. And I know of your negligence through the broccoli.”
“With respect, Mr Holmes, I had no difficulty seeing the broccoli,” Mrs Hudson protested.
‘Three trays of broccoli, Mrs Hudson, with a card on each. Tray one, loose broccoli; written large on a card, ‘£2’. True?”
“Yes, sir...”
“Tray two, portions of broccoli wrapped in cellophane, and written large on a card, ‘£1’. Am I right?”
“Why, yes.”
“And the third tray, the wrapped portions of organic broccoli, how was the card marked there, in large numerals?”
“£1.10,” said Mrs Hudson, “so I thought you wouldn’t mind paying the extra ten pence for the healthy benefit of it?”
“Ha,” Holmes exclaimed. “A healthy profit for Messrs Sainsbury, I fancy,”
“How so, Holmes?” I asked, inclined to defend poor Mrs Hudson, who was looking bedraggled and browbeaten. “It does seem rather the better deal. Still ninety pence cheaper than the loose stuff.”
“But Watson,” Holmes replied, as if addressing a six-year-old, “in letters and numbers so small that Mrs Hudson was unable to see them, on the loose broccoli card, beneath ‘£2’, it says ‘per kilo’. And on the wrapped broccoli, beneath ‘£1’, it says ‘£3.33 per kilo’. And our healthy chums sealed up as organic portions will turn out to be priced, if you examine the card more than casually, at £3.67 per kilo. Thank you, Mrs Hudson, you may go.”
Our poor landlady left the room, suppressing a cough and mumbling apologies. Holmes shook his head, clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth a couple of times and went back to his laptop.
“Great Scott, Holmes,” I said, “surely this is exactly the kind of swindle which your brother Mycroft, working as he does for the government...?
But my friend shushed me. Then after a brief pause he murmured abstractedly, “what are you talking about now?”
“Why, the broccoli, of course.”
“Broccoli? I haven’t got time for confabulations about green vegetables. Look at this.” He swivelled the laptop towards me. It was open at his Facebook page.
“Oh,” I observed. “Professor Moriarty has shared a photograph of a large and somewhat saturnine dog with a shiny face, I see...”
“Deuce take Moriarty, never mind him. There. Look there. At Rusbridger’s status.”
I looked. And though I’ve seen the devil warriors of Afghanistan advancing with loaded flintlocks in their fists and knives between their teeth, and naked Impi, brandishing sharpened spears, war-dancing with the blood-red rising sun of Africa behind them, what I saw, that Sunday afternoon, on that page in Facebook, truly froze my blood.
“What are you going to do, Holmes?” I asked, my throat dry.
“Going to do?” said Holmes curtly, knocking out his pipe on the chimney breast. “The game’s already afoot, Watson. I’ve commissioned our young friends in the Baker Street irregulars to begin the chase.” [TO BE CONTINUED]

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The spy who was shoved into the cold

Poor Ray Mawby. The late Conservative M P for Totnes, exposed this week as a sometime spy for communist Czechoslovakia, was a lonely and hollow man, which wasn’t really his fault. Unfortunately, he’d been made into a symbol.
Winston Churchill acclaimed Ray as the first of a “new breed” of Tory: blue collars sporting a blue rosettes. Men like Mawby, working class trade unionists (Ray was, I think, in the Transport and General Workers Union) were the party’s parliamentary future, Churchill declared. They were going to sweep aside the gentlemen of the shires, the old Etonians, the Oxbridge clubmen and lawyers.
I’m not sure if he was the last as well as the first of this new generation, but I certainly never heard of another. And like everyone who gets cast as a symbol, Ray was trapped in the role, hollowed out by it, his own volition paralysed. Other M P’s, of whichever party, who conformed more closely to that rather tedious, Downton Abbey-esque script which British politics (as we are seeing now) is inclined to follow, didn’t know what to make of him. They weren’t easy in his company.
Ray Mawby’s life touched mine just once. I was a barely fledged reporter on The Western Morning News, about a third of the way into my first notebook. It was a Sunday. A man phoned the newsdesk, saying he was the Totnes Conservative party agent. He gave me a report of a speech which he said Ray had made at some event in South Devon in which the M P denounced American imperialism and aggression in Vietnam and called for the withdrawal of all Western troops.
My couple of paragraphs appeared in Monday’s WMN, and at about 10 o’clock the editor called me in. He was quite lenient with me (though after all, between my Imperial typewriter and the street were a copy-taster, the news editor, the chief sub-editor, a sub-editor and a proof reader).
But did I really suppose, the editor asked, that the opinions voiced in my report were those usually espoused by right-wing, Tory members of parliament?
It was a useful lesson in stepping back and thinking, and in checking the facts.
And to be fair, the editor continued, I should have been warned that Mawby was frequently a victim of this kind of imposture. Why? Because socialists saw him as a turncoat: a traitor to the trade union movement and, in the editor’s words, “the man who betrayed his fellow proles by taking the Tory shilling”.
How ironic, then, that he was actually spying at the time for one of the Soviet bloc’s beacons of red revolution and worker solidarity, handing the Czech secret services, inter alia, a floor-plan of the Prime Minister’s office and regular reports about the “peculiarities” (sexual, one imagines) of his fellow Tories in the House of Commons.
Doubly ironic, perhaps, that he wasn’t in espionage for any ideological reason or purpose, but because his controllers had discovered he was in the grip of a gambling compulsion and running out of money. A sucker, then, for blank Czechs (forgive me) and left-wing hoaxers.
Poor Ray Mawby, as I say. Why did he gamble? I guess, because he was lonely. Why was he lonely? Because he was a symbol, a fish out of water, a hollow man and an existential void, and for that reason nobody much liked him. In middle-class, liberal-leaning Totnes he was an oik, all hobnail and worsted, old spice and brylcreem in a milieu of muslin and tie-dye, henna and patchouli. “My dear, have you seen his fingernails?”
I was told that when he was in the constituency, Ray Mawby would spend all the night until closing time in the Conservative Club, approaching no-one, approached by no-one, speaking to no-one, spoken to be no-one, standing alone, drinking whisky, and ceaselessly playing the fruit machine.
In 1983, the oik got deselected by an ungrateful constituency party. He afterwards fetched up on the dole.
His replacement, Anthony Steen, was a proper patrician with a mansion who served until 2009 when he, in turn, got dumped by the locals for taking £87,729 in expenses. He complained that his constituents were envious: “Do you know what this is about? Jealousy,” he said. “I’ve got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral.“
There’s no pleasing those Totnesians, is there?