“He already knew that life was largely illusion, that though wonderful things could happen, nevertheless as many disappointments came in compensation: and he knew, too, that life could offer a quality even worse - the probability that nothing would happen at all.”
― William Sansom (Writer and Auxiliary Fire Fighter during WWII)
John Watson was breathing ashes.
The very air felt singed and reeked of burning; the raw, brutal stench of bombing, the irritation caused by the powdered rubble of disintegrating masonry was nothing compared to the thick, cold smoke of continuing fire.
Shoe Lane was a towering inferno and, despite the heavy units, the trailer pumps and the intensified efforts of the AFS, soon there would be nothing left to save; the rapidly spreading flames were winning that unequal battle.
It had started just after the black-out sirens had sounded, with the anti-aircraft guns firing and a clatter like that of trays of tin cans, after which thousands of fluorescent lights had burst like spectacular fireworks; deadly and dangerous, they foretold the advent of the HE bombs, the 500 pounds explosives that shattered into deadly fragments after their powerful blast.
John wasn’t a fire auxiliary, only a modest ARP warden; he’d been patrolling the Aldwych area when a pink and orange cloud had risen above the imposing Victorian buildings. Disregarding his lack of fire-fighting expertise and his injured shoulder, he’d ran towards the danger and used his tin hat and the sand bucket he’d collected along the way to put out as many incendiaries as he could.
He’d been so wrapped up in his task that he’d not paid attention to the raging hurricane of fire that was enveloping the Square Mile, edging closer to the beloved dome of St. Paul’s. Close to it was Paternoster Row and its warehouses and shops filled with books; paper that would burn as easily and quickly as patches of weed.
His eyes and nose were running, so he wiped his face on the back of his grimy hand, and he couldn’t quite believe his ears when he heard the notes of the famous children’s counting rhyme: “One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow, one man and his dog, went to mow a meadow. Two man went to mow, went to mow a meadow,” sang by two young men who were sitting inside a sort of makeshift landau, a pump and hoses hitched to the back of it.
“Get out of here, mate; them walls won’t hold for much longer,” one of them said, as he quickly jumped off his vehicle and hastened to attach the pump to a street hydrant. His friend was unfolding the hoses and whistling the rest of the tune under his breath.
“Bill, down!” the pump man suddenly shouted; the three men ducked just in time to avoid the incendiary that fell from the sky; it shook and fizzled then shone its greenish lights that would have started yet more fires had not John being quick at smothering the device with his tin-hat.
“Bastards!” he shouted, as he stamped on the devilish tube with his thick-soled rubber boots. “Sorry,” he added, as the one of the men rushed to help him out.
“Quite alright,” he replied, smiling. “William Sansom, Bill,” he said, shaking John’s hand; “And the rascal over there is my brother-in-arms, Leonard Rosoman.”
“John Watson,” the ARP warden returned the smile and clapped a hand on Sansom’s shoulder. “Better let you get on with it.”
The tall, long-faced fire-fighter nodded and, seemingly realising John’s discomfiture, he said: “We have been told St. Paul’s in a really pickle; they can use all the help they can get.”
“Best of luck,” Watson replied and waving a hand in Rosoman’s direction, he walked through the ruins, past Fleet Street and down Ludgate Hill.
Even the avalanche of fire that was Shoe Lane had not prepared him from the spectacle of Paternoster Row: the buildings were ablaze in such a sea of violent orange light it almost looked like a summer noon; the water that was being pumped and poured over the raging flames did not seem to have the least quenching effect.
A handful of wardens were digging through the rubble, trying to salvage what they could while others were tending to the injured.
Watson was on his way to join the latter group when he heard a noise, akin to a wail, coming from the innards of what once had been Trubner & Co.
The magnificent premises of the famous publishers had been gutted by HE devices, but portions of the lower storeys were still standing, even though they were rapidly being devoured by the fire. Clenching his jaw and trying to see through the tears streaming from his reddened eyes, John kicked the singed door down and jumped on it to make sure it wouldn’t turn into an oversized torch.
“Is anyone there? Can you hear me?” he shouted, but no reply came, except for a furious scuttling, as if a congregation of sewage rats had been demolishing a well-stocked pantry. Rats wouldn’t stay and be roasted, he thought. Looters then, he concluded, and the blood went to his head. The criminals and low-lives who took advantage of this terrible war to make an easy profit were worse than vermin, he thought.
“I’m coming to get you, damn scoundrels!”
He forgot his tiredness, the sharp ache in his shoulder, as the blood sang in his ears at the approaching danger. A jagged piece of masonry lay on the grimy floor; he seized it and, brandishing it like a club, he approached the source of the noise.
If the man was a spiv or a wide-boy, he certainly didn’t look the part: he wore neither pinstripe suit nor trilby hat; at first sight, he appeared to be a young man of eccentric appearance: black curls worn unfashionably long, an oversized dark coat, and a striking, angular face with prominent cheek-bones and slanted eyes. He was clutching a pile of volumes to his chest, while the shelf from which he’d extracted them was being attacked by the blaze.
“What the hell do you think you are doing?” Watson screamed, as he approached the lunatic and removed the scarf from his neck with one sharp tug. Nothing more dangerous than a dangling piece of flammable material, he thought, cursing the stranger’s dearth of common sense. The man turned and glared at him, but did not desist from his dangerous mission.
“Right,” John said, and without further ado, grabbed the man by the waist and pulled him away from his prize. Underneath his bulky garments, he was as slender as a school-girl. He had a temper to match and tried to struggle, but he was no match for the heftier ARP warden.
“You have to let me,” he begged, once it was clear he wasn’t going to overpower his opponent. “You couldn’t possibly understand, but that’s the First Edition of the Drömboken.”
John had never heard of any such publication, but it was clear to him that if they didn’t get out in the next minute, they would share the books' fate.
“Either you follow me or I will have to carry you out,” he said, staring the man in the eye to convince him of his seriousness.
“Blasted nuisance,” the stranger muttered, but he followed John all the same. The air was a soup of acrid smoke and ashes and by the time they were out on the pavement, the frosty air felt like a balm on their over-heated skins.
“What possessed you to come here at this hour? Don’t you know about the blackout?” Watson chided, but the man wasn’t paying him any mind; he was caressing the books like they were the only things that mattered to him. John should have found this infuriating, but he was unwittingly amused.
“De Rerum Natura, one of the oldest editions ever to survive outside of a Museum, and it was about to be incinerated,” the man explained, in a gravelly voice that was shot through with the grit of a thousand cigarettes; a plummy tone that spoke of public schools, manicured green lawns and cream teas at the Savoy. A posh boy, thought John, with a mixture of sneering contempt and bitter desire.
“Sherlock Holmes,” the toff went on, “I apologise for putting your life at risk.”
In the vivid light, his eyes shone like sterling silver and his oddly-shaped lips quirked into a half-smile.
“John Watson,” the warden replied, returning the smile and barely refraining from inspecting the younger man’s body for eventual injuries.
“Doctor Watson, to be precise,” Holmes countered and, enjoying his saviour’s surprise, he recited, “You were giving me the once over like a physician would, your fingers have the deftness and suppleness associated with your profession. Yet you are not taking active part in the war which suggests an injury, but one that does not allow you to pursue your profession here; since your hands are unaffected, it must be either arms or shoulders; probably a tremor of moderate gravity; you could still practice, but not surgery, which is your speciality. Since you are enraged with life, you think nothing of risking it every night. Fire-fighting is also out of the question because of the nature of your wound, so what better way of courting death than patrolling the streets at night while the Luftwaffe do their darnedest to raze us to the ground?”
Around them, the battle for the ruination of the City was still raging; the noise was deafening and yet for a moment John thought the world had suddenly ground to a halt: that tall, lanky youth seemed to know him so well; his eyes - like a bodkin - had sliced him open and made an inventory of his present predicament; once again, he realised he was not angry but rather intrigued.
“How did you guess?” he asked, as Holmes extracted a crumpled packet of Caporals from his jacket’s breast pocket.
“I never guess,” the young man replied, lighting two cigarettes with one match. “I observe that’s all; did I get anything wrong?” he asked, and John thought he discerned a note of insecurity vibrating through the nonchalance; for some reason, he didn’t like that, so he was quick to reassure him.
“No, you were right on all accounts. Quite depressing isn’t it? The Hun is destroying Europe and I’m absolutely useless,” he replied, puffing on the cigarette Holmes had offered him. “What about you? You seem fit enough, although you could do with a bit more meat on those bones.”
“Food is an unnecessary distraction,” Holmes declared with a flourish of his pale, elegant hand, “Besides, it only slows me down. As for this war, it’s a long story, but let’s just say that my presence is needed here.”
He’s said war with a scowl worthy of a disgruntled dowager faced with the prospect of music and dancing.
“I would like to know more, but I should go back,” John started,but was rudely interrupted by the clatter of yet more incendiaries; they fell down by the entrance of the building they had exited and their fire went to feed the ones already lapping up the crumbling walls: in a matter of moments, the place where he and Sherlock had been was a collapsing furnace.
“If it hadn’t been for you,” the youth murmured, and unbidden, he took John’s hand in his and held it tight enough to hurt.
“I’ll just leave the books in the crypt then I’ll come and find you,” Sherlock said, even though he was starting to doubt his own sanity.
He’d been on his way back from the offices of the Daily Mail in Tudor Street – a deuced waste of time if you asked him – when the blackout sirens had sung their plangent melody.
Not for him to stay put or seek refuge inside a shelter: instead, he had braved the bombs and walked towards Charing Cross; his progress had been interrupted by the sudden vision in his mind of the entirety of Paternoster Row being burnt to a crisp, its precious contents forever lost to humanity.
At twenty, he was by all accounts still in the first bloom of youth, but he had been called heartless, cold and calculating more times than he cared to remember; it wasn’t unusual that he would suffer more for an object or an idea rather than for flesh and blood, unless that flesh and blood proved worthy of his attention.
Human beings alternatively bored or annoyed him, at least when alive and devoid of criminal intent.
John Watson did not seem special: he was a plain and honest man – of this Sherlock was sure – yet there was something about the doctor that tickled his fancy. It wasn’t that he’d saved him, nothing that pedestrian, even though he’d allowed the pathos of that moment to tarnish his sangfroid. Emotions, he shivered at the memory of his hand in John’s strong and calloused one. He banished the image from his thoughts, shaking his dusty curls left and right, like a wet dog after a bath.
Watson had intimated that he would go help the men at St. Paul’s, since there would be plenty of fires to be put out up on the dome. Usually, they had a set number of volunteer fire-fighters and wardens, but on that particular night the emergency was so severe that they would surely welcome an extra pair of hands.
“I can come and help, too,” he’d said, the words rushing out of his mouth before he could stop them. John had frowned, and this time he had checked him for injuries, inspecting Sherlock’s scalp and the back of his neck. The young man had quite enjoyed being thus manhandled even though he pretended to remonstrate against it.
“You’re sure you’re up to it?” asked the doctor, eyeing his new friend’s rake-thin torso and his sunken cheeks.
“I am in tip-top shape,” he’d sniffed, nose twitching proudly, “I even fence, occasionally,” he added, unaware of the hilarious connotations of that remark. John’s blackened face was transformed as he surrendered to laughter: his blue eyes shone brighter and his mouth relaxed into a dazzling smile. Sherlock couldn’t help joining in; he didn’t even try and resist it.
“Come on, D’Artagnan,” John had said, eyeing the young man with something akin to fondness, “Let’s go fight the enemy.”
Walter Matthews, the Dean of St. Paul’s had the haunted, hollow-eyed look of a man who had not slept for weeks.
“Gentlemen,” he said, running towards them, but unable to stop his gaze from darting upwards. Sherlock suspected the prelate wasn’t even aware of his nervous tick, too exhausted to fully realise what his body was doing.
He directed them towards the labyrinthine path that led up to the dome, and it was at that point that Holmes suggested he should first dispose of his precious cargo.
John nodded and followed another ARP warden up the steep and narrow passage.
Once on the roof, he contemplated the skyline with a heavy heart, but could not suppress a measure of dazed wonder. London was in tatters, broken and hurt, but it wasn’t going out without a fight; its people were resisting the attacks on their homes and lives not merely with weapons but also with their decency, sense of humour and fortitude.
“Magnificent show, isn’t it?” a deep, cultured voice murmured in his ear. John nodded and for a moment he felt almost hypnotised by the combined power of the landscape in front of him and the warmth of Sherlock’s body at his side.
“Terrifying,” he replied, ambiguously. “There’s work to be done, Holmes,” he added, stamping on the remains of a charred piece of wood.
“The game is afoot!” exclaimed the young man, and with a swish of his long coat, he started to dispose of the remains of the exploded devices that littered the rim of the dome.
“Hardly a game,” mumbled John, but as he got down to work he couldn’t help grinning a little. Life had shed some of its dreariness and in all sincerity he could not but welcome this newfound sense of purpose.
“There’s hot tea for everybody in the crypt,” the Dean said, his careworn face lit by a timid smile.
The all-clear siren was still sounding, and the dawn of a new day, a cold, grey morning, released them from their exhausting duties.
John was covered in grime; he’d never felt so grubby in his life; what made it worse was the fact that Sherlock, tangled curls aside, looked almost pristine.
He was about to ask him how he’d managed it when the youth offered him a cigarette, saying, as he lighted it:
“You need a good scrub and a hot meal,” he took the cup that the Dean’s wife had set in front of him and sipped the scolding hot drink.
“Yeah,” Watson replied, thinking of his dingy rooms with its spartan furnishings and cold fireplaces. Rationing wasn’t doing much for his morale or for his wounded shoulder.
“I have more food than I can eat,” Holmes continued, avoiding his companion’s gaze, as if afraid his directness would spook the older man.
“Oh, I don’t doubt that!”
“And I need help carrying those books.”
“I thought you were in tip-top shape. Where are your digs?”
“Baker Street, near Regent's Park”
“Badly hit back in September.”
“Yes, I was one of the lucky few. What about you, where do you live?”
“Can’t you observe it?” John asked, with a grin that his companion found irresistible.
They’d finished their drinks and were slowly emerging from the cathedral into the livid, acrid air. They were faced with a spectacle of destruction, of a desolation so wretched as to be even divested of the noble robes of tragedy.
“Camden Town,” John murmured, closing his eyes for a brief moment.
“We are practically neighbours,” Sherlock observed, “Park neighbours.”
It was evident to the doctor that his young friend was trying to distract him from the depressing sight that had greeted them.
“I shall be immensely glad to see the back of this awful year,” John sighed.
“Not long to go,” agreed the young man, “We should celebrate.”
“A hot bath will do for me, thanks very much.”
It was Sherlock’s turn to grin.
“We could take the tube at Charing Cross,” he suggested.
“Here, let me help,” the doctor said, plucking a couple of volumes from Sherlock’s grasp. “So you speak Latin and French,” he continued, noting the title of one of the books.
“The Méthode de Nomenclature Chimique is a text of paramount importance, as I am sure you know.”
“You just said it so that I could hear your impeccable accent,” John said, barely containing a smile.
“Hardly impeccable,” murmured Sherlock whose cheeks, despite his most valiant efforts, had coloured a fetching shade of rose.