Let me be clear from the beginning: I do not love danger for its own sake, nor do I deliberately seek it – but I cannot help noticing that most of my life has had an undercurrent of danger. Must I conclude, then, that I am attracted to it? Or that I am attracted to situations and people who attract danger in their turn? I'd like to think that I desire to help, and those in need of help are often found in the proximity of danger. I became a doctor because I wanted to help; an army surgeon who risked his life for those who risked theirs.
Having said that, there is no denying it: danger adds an edge and nudges awareness to a higher level. Sometimes I wonder if this is what Holmes sought in his narcotics; if this is what he felt and saw when he had taken them: reality heightened but subtly distorted, becoming both more and less than what it was.
I do not have the answer. All I know for certain is that danger – tangible, immediate danger – pervaded our travels through Europe as we ran from Moriarty, ran like animals from the hunter's gun.
I have never seen things so clearly as I did on that journey.
Outlines, edges, details; colours saturated and strange – the sharp blue of sea and the mistier blue of mountains, the green of leaves and turf and the chalky green of mountain streams, the soft grey of the morning mist and the very clear grey of Holmes' eyes. The days were shot through with golden moments and the most exquisite, exhilarating sense of freedom. Knowing that every minute could be our last forced us to experience everything more intensely, forced us to really live.
In our day-to-day lives we live for our next meal, for the next work-free day, for a journey or a meeting, and forget to be present here and now. Perhaps we are simply not made for this kind of intensity for a longer period of time. Perhaps we would collapse under its weight.
But we lived it, Holmes and I, right up to the cold, cruel clarity and sharpness of detail on that last day, when danger finally caught up with us.
I need to re-tell myself this. I need to remember.
We left London in a hurry and rid ourselves of our pursuers in Canterbury.
On the train to Newhaven, sun slanted through the slats of the blind and touched us with its paintbrush dipped in gold. I was apprehensive and relieved – we had evaded Moriarty for the time being, but could not allow ourselves to relax. I was also faintly relieved, although this made me feel ashamed, to be separated from Mary for an indeterminate number of days. Our married life had felt some strain lately, and distance and absence would hopefully make our hearts grow fonder.
Then I took a deep breath and locked Mary away in my mind. I would worry about her when I returned.
Holmes was watching me steadily, rocking with the motion of the train, legs outstretched and feet crossed. He played absent-mindedly with his unlit pipe and seemed only half aware of holding it.
We said nothing. His eyes held mine for the longest time and the world fell away around us. I felt that nothing existed but the two of us in the small, confined space of our private compartment. A streak of golden light fell across his cheek, another down his earlobe and neck, and I bit my lip knowing this image would stay with me forever.
Our two days in Brussels were painted in misty silver and gold. Buildings and spires, elegant squares and cobbled streets shimmered with the hazy sunlight of spring. Birds wheeled across a pale sky that seemed higher and wider than ever before. We walked leisurely together, sat on a park bench to smoke, and tasted a local beer named Kriek (which appealed more to me than to Holmes). But never more than one – we needed our senses with us.
I was intensely aware of the closeness of our bodies as we walked, of Holmes' elbow touching mine from time to time, and how he frequently turned his head to catch my eyes in a smile.
Even back home in London, under no threat at all, he remained constantly alert. That habit continued now, but he never showed any anxiety. On the contrary, he seemed in high spirits.
I had always thought Holmes a beautiful man, with those grey eyes that were bright with intelligence and his leanness that belied his strength. In this setting, under these extraordinary circumstances, I found I could not take my eyes off him. Ever since we had left London I had fought a desire to touch him, to feel sinew and bone under my hand as an assurance that this was real, that he was real, that we were both still here and no one had yet robbed me of my dearest friend.
We shared a room at a small hotel, a room that Holmes secured with an intricate system of improvised alarm devices before we went to bed. I slept soundly in the crisp, clean sheets under a heavy spread of red satin, but I am unsure whether Holmes slept at all.
On our second morning in Brussels I awoke rather late, confused and disoriented. It was not until my eye caught the two wine glasses perched on the window ledge, positioned to fall and break against the floor if the window was pushed open, that I remembered. Holmes' bed was empty but the door to the washroom was open and light streamed from it. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and rubbed at my face, walked towards the washroom door with a "good morning" on my lips before I stopped dead at the sight of Holmes.
I stood frozen on the threshold and could not help but stare. He was shaving over the basin, stripped to the waist with a towel slung over his shoulder. Half his face was clean while the other was covered in white lather, his mouth twisted to one side to stretch the skin taut for the razor. The blade gleamed in his hand. When he met my eyes in the mirror, his mouth regained its shape and curled into a smile.
His lips were rosy in the white lather and I had to clear my throat before I could reply.
I felt an urge to pinch myself; it was like a mirage. The morning light was so bright it made everything shimmer after the semi-darkness of the room where the blinds were still down. It fell white on the white of the tiles, of the basin, the towel, and Holmes' skin. His grey eyes were steady on mine in the mirror, seeming nearly luminous in their own right. Light and shade sculpted him, shaped the curves and ridges of muscle and bone; trapezius, clavicle, pectoral… an anatomical model touched by an angel.
I was as shaken by his beauty as by my own reaction to it. My mouth was dry and my heart pounded; my palms felt hot as I rubbed them down my thighs. The desire to walk up to him and place my hands on his waist, to feel the taut, smooth skin of his shoulder against my lips, was so strong that a wave of heat washed through me and I forgot to breathe.
I do not know if he saw, if he understood. I did not stop to find out. Instead I backed away and turned, stumbling back towards my bed, away from the blinding light of the washroom and the humiliation of my own lust.
In Strasbourg, where we went next, Holmes found out that Moriarty had escaped.
The leisurely atmosphere of Brussels dispersed as completely as if it had never existed. Holmes' eyes were bright in his sharp face, his jaw hard with decision.
"Watson, my dear friend," he said, "I think this is where we ought to part company."
I am not easily upset as a rule, but this made me furious. Did he really expect me to follow his atrocious orders and leave him to the wolves? Did he not know me better?
We sat in the salle-à-manger arguing in urgent half-whispers.
I had never known Sherlock Holmes to be afraid. Even now, hunted by Moriarty across Europe, he was not afraid for his own sake. He did not fear death; he simply did not want to die yet. But he did fear for me.
I leaned across the table and held his gaze.
"No," I said.
Holmes opened his mouth to renew his protest, and then closed it. The smile began in his eyes, making them radiant; the fine lips turned up at the corners. I have never loved him more than I did that moment.
I leaned back and returned his smile.
Sometimes I believe those days we spent travelling up the Rhone valley only exist in my dreams and not in actual memory. They seem too clear and vivid, so filled with beauty as to have lost all sense of reality. Whenever I close my eyes I see Holmes as I saw him then: his clean, pale profile against a backdrop of rolling hills, the rapidly flowing river, the greenest green of spring.
Holmes did not spend much time outdoors. When he did, it was usually in the dark alleys and grimy docks of London, not taking fresh, wholesome air in the country. On this particularly brilliant spring day, however, he was lying on his back in a meadow in France, looking up at the startlingly blue sky and inhaling the sweet fragrance of the grass. High above us a lark sang, silver-clear.
The sun was hot and bright on our faces and shoulders. We were in shirtsleeves and waistcoats, Holmes with his hands under his head and a blade of grass between his teeth, I indulging in the childishly poetic task of threading a daisy chain, dividing my smile equally between the chain and my friend's face. Holmes looked happy, and his happiness secured mine.
"Your fingers," he said.
He must have seen the query in my eyes when I looked up.
"I love watching your fingers," he clarified and nodded towards them. "So precise in their work, as a surgeon's fingers must naturally be."
I smiled at him, my face hot from the sun and from the compliment. His eyes would not release me. He took the blade of grass from his mouth and raised himself on one elbow with an earnest look on his face, one that sent a jolt through my body. With a quick look around to ensure our privacy, he leaned forward and sought my gaze.
"I must say this," he said in a voice so low I had to bend closer to hear him. "Forgive me, but I must. I may never get another chance."
My breath caught and my hands stopped working. It sounded ominous. Would he try to send me away again, like that awful afternoon in Strasbourg?
Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. Holmes reached out to catch my wrist and pulled me towards him until our faces were mere inches apart. Very quietly, he said:
"My dearest friend, you cannot know or even imagine what a picture you make, sitting here like that – golden in the sun against the blue of the sky. You are so beautiful, so beautiful..."
When his thumb slipped under my cuff and stroked the pulse point, I gasped. My face burned and my heart was trying to fight its way out of my chest. The daisy chain fell from my lap, forgotten, as I leaned down to meet his lips with mine.
We did not sleep that night, but I have never been so happy to relinquish my rest. I remember every detail of hands and whispers and tongues on skin, of Holmes' eyes fluttering closed in pleasure and our moans mingling. But most of all I recall the long, graceful lines of his body, the marvel of his pale, smooth skin under my fingers and mouth, and the abandon with which I handed myself over completely to another human being. I still carry it with me like a treasure, one whose existence I alone know about.
When we left our hotel the next morning Holmes turned to me and smiled. The smile did not reach his eyes, but his fingertips touching the back of my hand spoke a language of their own.
"Now then, my dear Doctor," he said softly, "we must return to the real world."
The real world.
I closed my eyes and swallowed his words like bitter medicine, like quinine in the tropics.
Back to the real world.
For him, perhaps. But my love for him was my reality, more real than anything that I had ever felt.
Days of sun had kissed my friend's skin golden, and I saw it now against the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland at the Gemmi Pass. I have kept this image in my mind as a talisman.
I know the sun did not go into hiding when we crossed the border but continued to trace its path across the sky each day, but in my emotionally tinged memory, the days that followed our entry into Switzerland were dark with foreboding.
The Reichenbach Falls were an evil place.
I knelt on the damp, muddy path, the knees of my trousers wet and dirty, my hands clenched around the alpine-stock as if it could save me from drowning. Sympathetic hands touched me; concerned voices coaxed me to get up off the ground. I did not know how much time had passed when at last I did. The world blurred around me and my companions were mere shadows when I turned my back on the falls and walked away, made my way unsteadily down the dark, narrow path to the village.
I've found life to be frail, Holmes' voice said at the back of my mind, an echo from the Rhone valley. And short.
I realised now what it must have meant: he had known this would happen.
My tears came then. I thought they would never dry.
Morning slices through the room like a bright blade, cutting into my sleep and prying my dreams open. I lie awhile trying to remember them while my eyes follow the skewed, irregular harlequin pattern of light on the ceiling.
In my dreams, I never limp. My cane has vanished and my shoulder is good as new, free of the scarring and the creak of once-fractured bones. In my dreams the war never happened, but Holmes is always there, because even after three years, Holmes is still more real to me than anything. I close my eyes against the image of him, turn my head on the pillow and consider my options for the day, but the only option I want is not available to me.
It does not do to give up. All I can do is go on living, one day at a time, so I throw off the covers and swing my legs over the edge of the bed. It hurts. Pain is real, so is the chill of the floor, and reality is all I have.
Downstairs the maid has lit a fire and set the breakfast table with tea and toast, strawberry jam and the newspaper. Outside, the sun is trying to disperse the morning mists. I sit down, open the paper and read about the murder of Ronald Adair.
I do not yet know that I will decide to take a walk that day. Destiny takes many shapes. Mine will appear before me in the form of an old book collector with the strangest eyes, very clear and very grey, and later in the day, I will recognise it.