The people in this story have greyed and gone. This is a fiction of their lives.
If I take appalling liberties in portraying the intimate reality of my elders, please understand that the events I imagine may be more intimately mine than the events they lived were theirs. My memories are constructed to suit the evidence; I'm satisfied that they're accurate. Not even the great and terrible Mycroft Holmes can gainsay the truth of my tale. Should Uncle finally outlive me, as I expect he will, he's welcome to give the last word in the matter ... presuming you can pry it out of him.
About Sherlock Holmes and Mary Morstan, there are no new insights here. You could learn more about either of them from their Wikipedia pages. You could read Holmes' well-regarded monographs, or one of a number of sensationally distorted biographies. You could find my mother's brilliant investigative pieces in the archives of the many publications that were blessed by her talent and wit.
I loved and admired them both, but in the end this is a story about John Watson - a collection of the scenes that come to mind when I consider what he meant to me.
If you want the dry facts, the few facts that I once thought mattered, chronology is paramount. If you want the meaning, order the episodes as you will. I have rearranged them many times myself.
Sherlock Holmes was aware of being haunted.
John Watson's memorial service followed the court's acknowledgement that a man lost fifty miles east of the Orkney Islands, all flotation devices accounted for, was most likely dead. Following the memorial service was the recovery of one shoe and an anorak. This was followed by Mary Morstan's perfectly understandable emotional collapse.
She disappeared for some days, then appeared to rally. Pallid and bruised, she staged her revival at the fringes of Holmes' work, sometimes day shifts and sometimes nights, blinking at her notebook then disappearing before recording the official statement. When he first noted her camel-coloured trench coat and run-down black dress boots he recognised her with a little nod. She disappeared for another week. He didn't make that mistake again.
When she finally approached him, she didn't speak. She stood aside from the small knot of journalists hunched over their phones and pads to protect them from the light morning drizzle. Her mittened hands hung at her sides. He turned to her and waited. At last she addressed him, from about the distance you might hail a man who'd dropped something.
"It's John." She closed her eyes as if to steel herself. "He talked to me. He was inside me. He wants to talk to you."
"Mary." He hadn't imagined anything so awful.
"He wants to talk to you."
He stood unresponsive for so long that she finally took pity on him and began to cry.
"I've lost it. I've lost it." She repeated herself until Holmes, blundering and numb, pulled together the empathy he needed and stepped close. Now he could see her exhaustion, her ragged breathing on the verge of hiccoughs. He laid a hand on her shoulder.
"This is grief, Mary, you haven't 'lost it'. Give yourself some …." He stood up straight and looked again.
"Oh, I see."
"I lost it a while back," she confirmed, wiping her nose on a grubby pink mitten.
"It's all right. It ... will be all right." A gentle voice from the grey and cold. "Let's get you home." He took her hand, the one in the other mitten.
Of all the things John Watson loved about my mother, I like to think the best was that she made him laugh. He lay down with her and they'd laugh and they'd laugh, flopping about on the bedsheets until they were sleepy and kissing again. He'd never done that with a lover, without, what? Without performing, without watching what happened when they smiled. It was a pleasure to take the lead, make the jokes, be the sly one, with one eye on the mood and another on the bed. But there was more pleasure in being equals, lagging only a little way behind a partner who was always happy to wait.
Mary knew this about him. They reflected each other, light for light; he loved in her what she loved in him. She knew all about his shadows, too. Evading the photos and the faces at the service, she clung bitterly to the shadows, held his darkness inside herself and away from the warmth of their eyes.
When she lay down that night she felt him roll against her. She must have screamed: her mother stumbled in, night-gowned, pink, and Mary took the offered hand. She'd simply lost her balance, she was overwrought, she was still in shock, she was sorry. Mother Morstan sat with her for a few minutes (how Carol Morstan had hated that nickname, how John had teased), embraced her, and let her be.
This was normal, Mary knew. People feel the presence of the dear departed, sense them nearby, hear their voices for years after they're gone. But the weight of him. His mouth against her nape, his hand on her arm, the scent of him in the bed-covers. Terrible. Beyond and beneath the solace of his tangible presence was the appalling lurch of an accidental step off a rooftop. She clutched the bedpost.
"John?" She barely whispered, and the floor fell from beneath her feet again. "Oh god! Oh god. John?"
The atmosphere thickened around her skin, a draft beneath the hairs on her arms, a smothering pressure in her lungs. "Oh god," she gasped, half laughing, "you dick. You're going to give me a heart attack."
Then a tightening inside her - almost familiar, almost sexual - before the true and shocking pain.
Long before I began to appreciate his true worth, much less his sense of humour, Mycroft Holmes, who preferred that I call him Uncle, had begun the withdrawal from public life and private conversation that is the most conspicuous feature of his current character. He flickered away from me like a late-noticed rainbow, resolving on the cusp of sunset into a tall, bent, hairless, extremely aged spectre propped upon his pot of gold and refusing to pose the necessary riddles.
Uncle will very occasionally indulge me in a game of cribbage. Infrequently he will address me. He no longer appears to hear me when I address him, though I still do it out of spite.
Forty, maybe fifty years ago we enjoyed a brief communion. During one of the troubled periods of my youth, I made a practice of laying myself bare to him. That is to say, I presented myself in his chambers and demanded that he read my questions in my face.
Having disassembled him in my mind, as I was learning to do, I determined that despite the evidence - returning indifference for esteem and archness for affection (perhaps he detected a spurious quality in my emotional displays) - he clearly craved the company of family. I told myself I was doing him a kindness. I was usually rude to him and he was, in retrospect, quite gentle with me.
The incident I recall proceeded thus: I tramped into the office he then held in Whitehall, a room containing precisely nothing of its occupant but his daily effects and an inexpensive reproduction of Boden's portrait of the Queen. (His brother informed me that Uncle supplied it himself to replace the official portrait of the King, of whom he had never approved.) I dropped my bottom into the creaking leather of a guest chair and stared at him until he concluded his business with one fat green binder and turned to another. He perused it as he spoke.
"Today you want to know if I believe in ghosts."
He turned a page, and another. Abruptly, he leaned back and interlaced his fingers in his lap. "At times my belief in the existence of the human soul barely exceeds my belief in the existence of the human mind."
I admit I was sharp with him.
"I don't care about 'souls', or your pettiness. I want your assessment of the likelihood of a self-directed entity that would commonly be called a ghost manifesting as a tangible presence. Perhaps even entering a human body. Given the facts available."
He raised his eyebrows. "The facts available, Helen, are not the sort upon which I would risk my reputation. Not even with an inquisitor as long-suffering as yourself."
His expression was charged with something that might have been described as a plea for understanding. It struck me very deep – surprise and pleasure at this echo of my covert longing to be recognised. His evasion of the real question might be the moment upon which our entire subsequent relationship has hinged.
I won't say I was disarmed, but I laid off the attack. For a quarter of an hour he indulged me with internet links and a list of reading materials to hunt down on my own time. Then he unfolded himself to politely usher me out.
I've considered and reconsidered his parting words my whole life since.
"I believe one thing is true, my dear. No ghost can enter a house that isn't already haunted."
Mary recovered in the cab and was silent. They arrived at the flat.
"Come in, we need you."
Holmes followed her up the stairs, two flights, sixteen steps and a tiny landing. Old stairs, new door, cheap varnish, reproduction. He followed her past the green velvet sofa set to the coat rack, past the grease-spotted kettle in the kitchen and, unnervingly, into the bedroom.
She sat on the edge of her marriage bed and he stood beside it. She stared into a far empty corner of the room, poorly lit. "He wants to tell you something." Her voice was thin and husky.
She said nothing after that, but sat with her brow furled and her fists on her thighs. This was his look, the very creases in his face, his lips too full and a bit awry but set with familiar tightness. This was John and this was what he wanted to say. It was all Holmes deserved, he thought, and more than he'd hoped for. He accepted the small comfort of the living warmth off her body.
She rose suddenly and he stepped back. She walked toward the bath. She began on the buttons of her shirt as she moved, stopped and laid it over the vanity mirror, stripped off her woollen skirt, stepped onto the tiles in her slip and camisole, and closed the door. The tap in the bathtub roared.
Holmes wondered if he should wait. A perverse thread of impatience, not anxiety, tightened in his chest. Of course he should wait. He had forgotten why he was here.
Holmes stopped smoking for good after he returned from Peterhead.
When I was twelve he caught me on the rooftop with his last four nearly impotent cigarettes.
"I was smoking when I killed John Watson."
He had grappled with his friend on the rear deck of a small commercial trawler, he told me, gained an unexpected advantage, and thrown him into the North Sea.
Afterward he'd gone calmly down the ladder to his cabin, where he took copious notes. In the morning they were cryptic even to him, ballpoint gouges in a wet Moleskine notebook. Perhaps an hour after he'd murdered John, he required his input on the thought processes of an average middle-aged Englishman under particular sorts of emotional stress. When he couldn't locate his friend, he informed the captain of the vessel, and the rest was in the public record.
"I don't remember the incident," he said. "I pieced it together after the fact."
He continued, cool and relentless. "I took the drug deliberately. I had a brilliant idea about the cause of the hands' behaviour in the case we were pursuing, and no laboratory equipment on hand with which to substantiate my hypothesis. I was still invincible at the time. I didn't think twice about smoking the stuff."
The mind will shy away from a precipice. I had nightmares for months afterward, endless black and filled with sharks, but in my waking life I kept well back from the edge. Still the thoughts attacked me from the side. Waiting at a shop counter for a dawdling clerk, or dodging a hole in the pavement with the wheel of my bike – I wobbled briefly, righted myself, and pedalled on.
"Is this an object lesson in the evils of drugs?" I'd let the cigarette drift against my leg. I swore as I licked my thumb and pressed it against the hole in my tights.
He made a noise I couldn't interpret. "No, it is not."
I took a casual drag and brushed back my hair. "H.M.S. Watson." The thought slipped in from the side.
"The law forgave me," Holmes replied. "Mary never really did."
My mother made no secret of having been visited by John's ghost. Whether she believed it had actually happened, or whether she accepted that it was a hallucinatory expression of grief, it was harder to tell. Above all things, she was a sceptic. In this thing, though, she was elusive. Did she want to avoid making a decision about it? Did she like to tease? I was infuriated by her coyness.
"Just tell me! Do you actually believe in ghosts?" I was fourteen, as I recall, convinced there was such a thing as truth and not too old to throw a tantrum.
Mother didn't relent, but put one arm around me as we walked and gave me a friendly jostle. "I believe in you, sweetie."
Predictably, I sulked away from her. I walked fast until I reached the next post box, and then stalked away to the next street as she approached.
My quarrelsome mood coalesced around a question that had lodged in my chest some weeks before, indistinct, sooty and shifting like a nest of insects.
Finding that his confession did not greatly alter our relationship, I had begun to pursue Holmes' attention with more ardour than sense. After my second arrest, he must have deemed me worth his time, because he began to share his notes with me – not without a protracted and very uncomfortable examination of my face.
His manner toward me became more solemn and thoughtful. He made deliberate choices of subject matter designed to inform and to cultivate my skills; where previously he had treated me as a favourite little cousin, someone to amuse or to ignore, now he treated me as a student of his craft.
I was thrilled to my core. It was as if Holmes had handed me the keys to adulthood and, to be candid, as if my secret prince had arrived and found me almost worthy. The sensational biographies aren't too far off the mark – he was one of a kind, brimful of arrogance and mischief. His enigmatic charisma might have inflamed the imagination of any young lady too bright by half. His intellectual attention was at the same time everything I felt I deserved, and nothing for which I was prepared. I began to call him "Holmes" in sheer self-defence. He struck back with "Watson."
I speculated casually on the nature of his private life. Never while in his presence – he was too observant and too canny, and not especially kind. I would indulge myself while walking away from a meeting at the rear of St. Barts, or while assembling my clarinet, pausing with both fists around the ebony, reed in my mouth. My thoughts were idle, never entirely salacious, only naughty enough to make me smile when I put one thing together with another and realised, for example, why his brother called him "Osiris" when he wanted to nettle him.
Marching away from my mother, my mind spinning hard, I suddenly put a great number of things together with each other. Puzzle pieces collected over the years, my maturing body finally snapping the picture complete. I stood stiff at the crossing where the pavement fell away from my shoes. I rounded on her.
"You slept with him."
She sighed and wrapped her arms around her lumpy knapsack. Her mouth tilted into that rueful sideways smile that made her look most sad.
"I did sleep with him. We were both in pain. We were doing what we could do for each other."
Rage exploded from the knot in my chest, blacker and hotter than any little crush could have ignited. They'd betrayed me, the both of them, from the beginning. My silly admiration of Holmes, the thrill of inclusion, the new warmth I felt low down as my gaze trailed across the backs of his hands, all that blew away like split pieces of cellophane. It was a relief to see it go. Something more complex and terrible was growing in its place. He and my mother had reached out from the past to hurt me. They had taken from each other what was rightfully mine.
"It only happened once," my mother said. "I don't regret it."
Mary had been a simple thing. A stout companion, a loathsome nag, the source of all wisdom, and the source of bail, among other things. The meaning of her existence had been plain: it was about me. Now she was dark and strange and all at once too far away.
I had been drifting on my own currents for some time, but this moment sent me spinning, dazed, into the outer cold. It was years before we came together again. I can tell you that she waited for me, but I can't know - now that it finally occurs to me to wonder - if she waited despairing, or with calm assurance, or if she simply left the light on and a key beneath the mat. I "discovered myself," I returned to her, and in the years we had remaining I came to understand how the sweetness and the darkness of our natures made us more complete in each other's company.
Holmes smelled it while he sat alone. John's aftershave – not his recent choice, but one from earlier times, primarily Mondays and Thursdays. Holmes' breath came short, he had a sense of falling, and when cold hands clutched his shoulders he lurched up from his seat, away, with a hoarse yell. The icy wrongness entangled his head and his feet and he willed himself still and quiet. He was unsure of his position in the room.
Mary opened the door, and the scent came with her. She wore John's softest cotton jumper hanging just to the top of her bath-wet thighs. She wore the blue of John's dark eyes as well, with his formidable resolve in the set of her chin.
"John?" A short exhalation, stifled.
"He's here," she said. "He's with me."
She guided him to the bed and steadied his hands as he undid the buttons of his cuffs. John's scent from the bed-covers clung to his clothes. Just under the hem of the jumper, John's scent came from Mary, too. Holmes' hands wavered and his breath was a loud rasp, goose bumps rising from scalp to thighs.
Mary stroked her palm over his cheek and made him look into her face. She ran her thumb along the arch of his open mouth and followed with her lips.
"Do this for us."
She bent again and took a deeper kiss.
After they'd slept together, Holmes disappeared for seven months. She tried to contact him once, by text, but the message bounced. It didn't worry her. She'd discharged her duty and they need have no more to do with one another.
A text came from a new number in late April. Baker Street at 4pm. If convenient.
He showed her everything. Every scratch of evidence of John's occupancy, butter smudges under the lip of the worktop, the books and dishes he'd left behind. He cleared off the old armchair for Mary to sit in, neglected to pour tea, then rambled at length about a fascinating series of thefts in the late eighteen hundreds and John's utterly pedestrian lack of interest. He pulled himself up short as Mary grunted and rearranged her legs.
Holmes clasped his hands in his lap. "He once asked me to invite you over."
She waddled down the stairs and he carried her bag. He stood stiffly in the doorway and called out as she left.
"Please visit again when you're feeling up to it. Bring the family."
Mother told me this story.
Holmes didn't invite me to join him in his more gruesome or far-flung adventures. I sometimes grumbled that John Watson's blog was more bluster than substance. When I felt spurned I told myself that Holmes never overcame an idea that crime was no fit subject for a girl. If I'm being fair, I suppose I wasn't as keen on hazard and action as I wanted to be. Too much a Morstan.
Uncle advised me to let John Watson go. "You have your own life to live. Don't try to re-enact his."
Holmes once said "Things are different now," and that was true as well.
As Holmes slowed down over the years I spent more time in his company, a few days a month, to be ignored for the most part while he muttered into stinking vials and to be sent away when things got interesting. When I wasn't on assignment I might settle in for a week at a time. Then I was ordered about: "Watson, my mould please. No, my mould. Watson, I'll have your shoe." It amused me, but my own pursuits eventually took precedence and my visits became more formal and deliberate.
For the sake of symmetry, let us say that I took the opportunity one slow afternoon to question Holmes about ghosts, among other subjects.
He brushed it off. "You've seen me work with dead people. I sometimes take their body parts. Not one of them has come back to haunt me."
"You weren't in love with them."
He clasped his hands on the table. "Even if I were that witless, my desperate passion would never lure a man from his grave."
I tacked sharply. "You had sex with my mother."
"Most people have sex at some point. I was a bachelor, she was a widow." His tone was edging toward sarcasm, which meant I'd taken him aback.
"Yes, but you're gay."
"Oh, well spotted. And what can you conclude from that?"
I chewed my lip and examined him.
"That you're a fairy."
A huff of laughter. "I believe you're mistaking me for my brother." Then he surprised me. "Are you gay?"
The question confounded me. "I don't know."
"So you see how it is." He stood. "You are boring me. Let's go pester Lestrade."
Since he asked I've never wondered, and I've never felt the lack. I have been my whole life satisfied to love Mary Morstan and Sherlock Holmes. They've occupied the place I might have fit a husband, or a wife.
Shivering and gasping, Mary stumbled toward the toilet to heave and spit. Then she rose and touched the blood between her thighs.
"John, please," she whispered. "Please don't do this. Please don't let this happen."
A ferry passes through the water within a few miles of the spot where Holmes believed John Watson met his end.
Uncle had put a pinch of his brother's ashes into a small silk bag which he tucked into his pocket. To join the rest of the family, he told me, handing over the box.
Stars had begun to peep through the clouds when Sherlock Holmes followed John Watson into the sea.
"Tout vient à point à qui sait attendre," I said. "You're forgiven."
First I was hesitant, but as my world has changed and passed I've come to see that I have the right to tell the story as I will. No one is closer to it. I am John Watson's ghost.
I am Mary Morstan's ghost as well, and the ghost of Sherlock Holmes.
Perhaps you, too, will consent to be their ghosts. I hope a little that you might be mine. Tattered and faded, crowded among people who are by now more real, we all would haunt the earth a while longer.
Ideally I should be beyond such cares, but I never did have children.
I want to talk to you.