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The Progress of Sherlock Holmes

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He’s asleep. His breathing has the rhythmic quality of unconsciousness; shallow, regular, quiet. Slight hiss as air is drawn in through his nose, huff as it slides back out. He’s on his side, his face away from the door, his knees bent and one arm tucked underneath the pillow. Asleep. A reversible condition, but I won’t wake him. Not yet, anyway. Not tonight. Someday, maybe.

(Maybe not.)

The door is partially open, as it often is. There’s plenty of room for me to stand here and watch. Can stand still for hours without making a sound. I know I can, I’ve done it. Repeatedly.

There remains not a single angle from, or condition under which, I would fail to recognise John Watson. Have made a careful study of him, from the length of his thighs and the shape of each of his toes to the dynamics of his gait. If John were kidnapped for any length of time (unable to commit to his regular grooming pattern): would be able to report the precise length of his hair, including facial. Could sketch the shape of his fingernails from memory. If handed a photograph in which John was hidden within a crowd with only his right shoulder visible: would be able to identify him (within fifteen seconds).

(A video; within ten.)

From here at the door, his back to me: the line of his shoulders almost entirely parallel to the stretched pattern of light through the window from the streetlamp outside. Cannot see his face. A pity. The image in my mind: never quite as good as the real thing.

Does he leave his door ajar like this on purpose? (Maybe he’s inviting me, teasing me, daring me.)

No, probably not. Nice thought, though. Too devious. Something I would do (not John). John doesn’t play that kind of subtle game. Feigning sleep behind a half-opened door in order to be watched, to be adored, to be desired quietly (and from a distance). Passive aggression isn’t his modus operandi. No, the door is open because he wants to be awakened when something disturbing happens somewhere else in the flat in the middle of the night (not an unwarranted presumption). Not a special message to me. Something about cigars being cigars. Don’t remember how it goes. Deleted it ages ago. (John would remember.)

His bed: so neat. Obscene. Hospital corners on the sheets, on the woollen blanket Mrs Hudson left folded there for him months ago. Even the bedspread: hospital cornered within an inch of its life. Sitting there in the middle of the day (cross-legged, or curled up, or lying flat on my back) when John isn’t around: the edges often spring free. Can just sit there, breaking his hospital corners, thinking. Breathing. Leaving a mark on space and time.

Sometimes: lie there in his bed and stare up at the ceiling. Watch the pattern of lights from the window, following the cracks in the ceiling to their logical ends. Perfectly straight, perfectly smooth bed. Lie on the side John doesn’t sleep on, the right side. (John is left handed.) Lie there as if John is sleeping on the other side, perfectly occupying the space left there for a bed partner. (Do all left handed people sleep on the left side of the bed? Why would they?)

John never notices the bedspread sprung free at the corners when he comes home. The slightly disturbed lines of it. He’s never, as far as I am able to deduce (substantially far), managed to see that his bed has sprung apart a bit at the seams. That it’s been sat upon. Never made any appearance of recognising the telltale indentation my head leaves on the pillow. (So obvious. You can smell a person on cotton pillow cases. I know. I’ve done it. Repeatedly.)

Maybe he does notice. Underestimating him? Maybe he knows and approves, appreciates my small battles against the remains of his military habits. Though my original, far more likely, deduction is surely correct; he is an idiot. Simply doesn’t observe the signs that someone else, obviously his flatmate (who else would it be?), curls up in a foetal position on his outrageously neat bed in the afternoons (as a proxy for curling up next to object of his pathetic, adolescent, ridiculous, unrequited lust). For the best. Interpersonal relationships: really not my area. (Obviously.)

At night John undoes a single corner of his perfectly folded and tucked creation and crawls into bed, leaving most of the bedclothes undisturbed. So as he falls asleep he looks as though he’s wrapped in some sort of bed-shaped pastry, the form of his body beneath the surface perfectly obvious to the casual observer. His feet, his calves. The spot on his lower back where it curves. His shoulders, rising up to obscure his face from me. His bed clings to him, holds him, soothes him. (I could do that.)

(Could I? Really? Would I have the patience? Wouldn’t it get boring? Maybe. Probably. Maybe not. Impossible to tell. Annoying.)

But in the night he dreams. Dream is the pleasant word for it; there is no verb for enduring a nightmare. Slowly through the night, as the fear approaches (in the shape of a terrorist? Or the threat of IEDs under his feet? Death and destruction, screaming? I don’t know, I’ve never asked.) he starts to shake, and then he rolls onto his back, as if ready to defend himself, pressed against a wall or protecting innocent Afghani children behind him, or some other heroic feat he is surely reliving in his dreams, and as he shifts he rips apart one corner of his carefully-made bed. His arms and legs start to move, first almost imperceptibly, then with more violence. He fights in his sleep, struggles, moans, words fill his mouth but don’t come out. The corner by his head comes apart first, then, within roughly eight minutes, the one remaining hospital corner at his feet. From this I deduce that in his nightmares he fights first, with his hands, then he runs. He runs because the fighting has failed, or because it hasn’t, and someone has died under his hands.

If John dreamed about killing people with his gun, he wouldn’t tear his bed apart every night. The act of pulling a trigger is such a gentle motion, so elegant: only three muscles are required. Flexor Digitorum Profundus, Flexor Digitorum Superficialis and the Palmar Interosseous. Anyone who isn’t me might not even notice the subtle motion of these three muscles of John’s left index finger, not even with the bedding pulled so tight across his body every night. John does not dream of pulling triggers.

And thus during the night the carefully-constructed order of John’s bedclothes is utterly eradicated; from perfect symmetry (the sheets, the blanket, and the bedspread are always laid perfectly evenly on the bed, each side matching the other with mathematical precision) to varying degrees of chaos by morning. Sometimes he pulls all the sheets off his bed, leaving the shiny fabric of the mattress visible. Once he woke up, wrapped in his sheets, inside the cupboard - the mattress pushed off the bed frame, the pillows slumped against the wall. That was early on, not long after Moriarty and the pool. He’d been spooked, triggered, reminded of things he didn’t want to be reminded of, pushed into an awkward and likely terrifying place. All that could be seen of him was a bit of sheet sticking out from under the cupboard door. He would have had to wrap his arms around his legs tightly and stay that way, asleep, tense, alert to the sounds of nightmarish feet against the floor, a rusty bayonet stabbed into the wall. I left him there. What else could I do? His limp was pronounced the following morning, his sheets smelled vaguely of shoe polish and moth balls.

Every morning he observes the evidence of his nightly struggles and he smooths it all out again; remakes the bed, enforces order, straightens the pillows. It’s incongruous, these military ways against the softness of the bedclothes, the plaited rug on the floor, the gingham curtains Mrs. Hudson (so lovingly) strung over the window. Hospital corners on a (soft, deep double) bed. Incongruous.

You would think the hospital corner ritual comes from John’s time in the military, and of course you would be right. But that’s not all: it is a ritual in which John undoes the chaos of his night terrors. Erasing the violence he does in his sleep. Fighting back. Creating a new reality. I’m not sure he likes the reality he creates. In fact I’m fairly certain he doesn’t, not entirely. And so I disturb it for him. Isn’t that how a person demonstrates affection? Giving him what he wants, what he secretly wants? Disorder, but not his own?

A slight shift; deliberate. His breathing has changed its pattern. John’s awake. Why? Didn’t say anything, didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. He’s turned away from me, surely he can’t—

“Sherlock.” His voice is sleep-rough. (Not even a question.)

(How does he know?)

First instinct: stay stock still, a deer caught in headlights. If I say anything, will he roll over and look at me? (How does he know?) Second instinct, vying with the first (clearly originating from my brain stem rather than my brain) is to run. Clatter down the stairs, duck into my room, slam the door, hide under the blanket. Pretend to sleep. Deny all.

His shoulder shifts, he rolls onto his back. Takes the bottom left hospital corner with him, but doesn’t seem bothered by it. Can see his face now (caught in shadow, his eyes hollowed out of darkness). Sighs, moves his hands. Rubs his fingers across his face, then through his hair.

“You all right? What’s wrong?” He sits up. “Sherlock?”

Have to say something. “I wondered if you were awake.”

“Are you in pain?”

Consider the question a moment: the honest answer is yes. Rib still on fire, face aches in various places, headache. Easy to ignore. “No.”

“Liar.” Puts his feet onto the floor, into his slippers; switches on the light. Over-bright; eyes adjusted to watching him in the darkness. The light is painful. Squint. “Come in here, sit down.” Pads over to his dresser; opens a drawer.

Come into his room, sit on his bed. Try to sit cross-legged by my right leg objects. (Swear under my breath.)

Comes to me in his t-shirt and his boxer shorts. (A slight gap between the bottom edge of his t-shirt and the waistband of his shorts: they are hanging a bit low on his hips. See the abdominal muscles in his pelvis. I may be staring; he doesn’t appear to notice.) Hands me three pills, points to the glass of water sitting on his bedside table.

“I presume these are what you’re here for.” Saved by erroneous presumptions. “My last three, so don’t get any ideas.”

Peer at them. Round and white; narcotic opioid alkaloid. Probably morphine. Probably left over from his recovery. Should have searched his drawers more thoroughly.

Put them on my tongue and taste their bitterness as they begin to dissolve. He picks up the glass of water and hands it to me. Take it. For a moment his fingers are knitted through mine.

The water is lukewarm. The pills slide down my throat. He takes the glass again and puts it back on the bedside table. It sits on a coaster that says “Beautiful Torquay!” and shows a faded waterfront scene. He takes my wrist in his fingers. (Flinch. Still a bit tender.)

“That’s sprained.” He sounds surprised, his index finger pressing lightly against the swelling.

“Barely.” Dismiss it. Should snatch my wrist from his fingers, but don’t want to. His gentle fingers, his trigger finger presses against me.

“Must have hurt though, playing your violin tonight.” Thoughtful. Observant. (True.) “Why do you do that?”

“Helps me think.” He hovers his fingers over my cheek, looks at my bruises.

“You wouldn’t have gone out today, if you were at all sane.” The palm of his hand brushes against my jaw. “But you’re a bit mad, aren’t you.” He says it good-naturedly (affectionately).

“Lestrade would have had another dead body on his hands had I not.” Own voice sounds odd to me. Deeper, more intimate, bit defensive. (Unintentional.) Missing some of its usual bite. Pain dulling my tongue?  Or just the effect of sitting on John’s bed. In the middle of the night. Staring at the muscles in his pelvis.

“Right.” The heat of his hand next to my cheek. “I’m sure that’s probably true.” He’s looking hard at my face, then runs his fingers lightly over the bandage across my nose. Close my eyes. He pushes my dressing gown aside and pulls up my t-shirt. Can feel his knee hovering lightly next to my thigh. His hands. One on my waist, as if to steady me, the other tracing the cracked rib. Stifle a groan. “If I’d known you were planning on waltzing around the flat all night I wouldn’t have taken your tape off.”

Huff in response. Was certainly not waltzing. Haven’t waltzed since that disastrous dance class (1982). Facile, boring, tedious, humiliating experience.

“Maybe I’ll put a soft binding on it.” Fingers tracing my sore rib. “That all right?”

Shrug.

“I’m going to find some old bedding.” Stands. Feel the bed right itself with his absence. “Stay here.”

I stay. Empty stomach; lukewarm water. Pills that dissolve. Feel sleepy. Feel groggy. Feel dizzy.

Curled up under the bedclothes. Right side of the bed. John’s bed. Feels so familiar. Comfortable. Perfect. All four of John’s hospital corners destroyed. His bed: a chaos of me. He should be delighted. I have brought him the gift of complete disarray.

“Up you get.” John. Voice seems to come from a distance. He pulls back the blanket and props me up. Feel my feet slither to the floor.

May be floating, possibly suspended in a warm liquid.

Feel the fabric of my dressing gown sliding off me, my t-shirt moving from my shoulders and then over my head.Air: cool against my chest (feels good).

“Sherlock, are you okay?” John. Holding my chin. Open my eyes (heavy). John. Lit from behind and to the left. Light from a lamp on his bedside table. (Yellow-orange glow.) Can recognise him this way too, can see the perfect symmetry of his eyes, the way the firm line of his mouth of set, the left side quirked slightly upwards. His eyes are blue, flecked with brown (if you look close). Complex iris, a mass of pattern and disorder. No sharp edges. No hospital corners. “Sherlock, all right?”

“Yes, fine.” Try to say it. Not sure the syllables come out in the right order.

“Maybe I didn’t need to give you three of those pills.” John’s voice. His hands on my shoulders. John.  “Hands on your head, okay?” Moves my arms (made from soft rubber), places my hands behind my neck. “Hold still a moment. Exhale.”

Push the air out of my lungs. Wait. He wraps a strip of flannel around my chest, once, twice. Take a deep breath and feel; constriction of cloth. Exhale again; he wraps another strip under the first one. Feels like being held, (the way John’s bed holds him). Order around chaos. A revelation: he’s my order, I’m his chaos. Yin and yang. Needs me (need him). A perfect match, a perfect pair. Obvious.

“Breathe.” He puts his hands on my chest. “That’s not too tight, is it?”

Don’t really have an opinion. Feels fine. (Better than fine.) Make a noise that could be interpreted either way.

“John.” This is important.

“Yes?”

“I’m your chaos.” I gesture toward the bed. No more hospital corners. No dreadful, peaceful, complete order that leaves John empty and riddled with pain and regret. No evidence of his nightmares. Only evidence of me. “I did this for you. Like Tchaikovsky.”

Make the connection: it’s so obvious. A second epiphany. These things I do, I do them because they soothe him, make him feel more connected to the world outside Afghanistan, to me. To soothe him, the way his tightly-made bed soothes him in the night when I cannot. (Couldn’t I? I think I could. Worth a try.) He does the same for me, his order soothes me. Symmetry, like his eyes. “Yes?”

Looks at me (vaguely amused; a bit puzzled). How could he be puzzled? So clear, so obvious.

“Okay.” He says it slowly. “Well thanks.” He laughs. “I appreciate that. I think.”

Yes.  I feel a surge of pure joy.

“I hoped you might.” Smile.  Lean forward. Forehead touches his. Shut my eyes, feel my lips meet his.

Kiss him.

He is warm (tastes like toothpaste).

Put my hand in his hair. Kiss him again. Perfect.

He sighs against my cheek. (Warm.)

Folds me back into his bed, tucks me in. Smooths my hair with his hand, putting me in order. (Soothes.)

“Have a sleep now.”

Feel the mattress dip beside me. John is on the left side, I am on the right. Have imagined this so many times; feels absolutely perfect. Wonderful. He is warm, feels like he might be the source of all warmth. A sun that revolves around a cold planet like me.

(Except that it’s the other way around, isn’t it, the planet goes around the sun? Does that make any sense? Who cares, who cares.)

Shift and press forehead against the back of his neck, hand on his hip.

“Solar system.” Words into his shoulder. “Stars are warm, planets are cold. They rotate.”

“Sleep, Sherlock.” John pats my hand. Sleep.

*

Morning. Sun from the wrong direction. Bed is soft, bedding is warm, feels odd. Pain. In my head, my nose, my ribs, god. Ribs. Something holding down my chest. Right leg. Wrist. Gummy eyes don’t want to open. Shuffling sound from somewhere else.

In John’s bed. Eyes snap open. It all flashes in front of me: standing at his door, watching him in the dark. He wakes, he sees me, he gives me morphine.

Oh god. Kissed him. Twice. Oh god.

Next to me the bed is not entirely made, not hospital-cornered within an inch of its life, but ordered, flattened. Pillow removed and placed back in an orderly manner, no hint of an indent on it. It looks as though I spent the night here alone (when I know I didn’t).

Feet on the stairs. John’s feet; would recognise the sound of John’s feet anywhere, under any circumstances. Including these. Including the outer edge of a panic attack, my life flashing before my eyes. (Who else would it be?)

Arms and legs feel hot, then cold. Feet reach the top of the stairs and our roles are reversed; he stands at the door (ajar) looking in at me in his bed, surveying the damage of the night. No hospital corners, just chaos. Just his chaos: me. Feel my cheeks burning.

(The damage of the night: how severe?)

“Oh.” His voice. His every day voice, average voice. His everything is fine voice. “You’re awake. Good.” Two cups in his hands. “I was just about to try and wake you.”

“I...” I don’t have a vocabulary for this. How to gauge?

John’s face: free from any of the obvious emotions. No fear, no anger, no distress. Seems calm, clear, relaxed. As always, just as he looks every day when he comes home and fails to notice the disturbance on his bed. (Is this just one more disturbance on his bed?)

“Pain?” Nothing on his face but his professional concern.

Sigh. “Yes.” Too conflicted and uncertain to lie this time. (Of course I’m in pain.)

“I’m out of morphine.” Apologetic. Slightly wry. About to mention it.  What do I say?

I choose my vocabulary (“Obviously!”). Falls out of my mouth in a rough voice, more raw than intended, more intimate than intended. Don’t relish embarrassment. He smiles lightly (difficult expression to parse).

“Probably for the best. I have some ibuprofen with codeine, though.” Puts the cups on the the bedside table, takes a bottle out of his pocket. “I picked it up this morning.”

“What time is it?”

“Two o’clock. You’ve been out for a while. Sorry about that, I clearly misremembered how strong those pills were. I shouldn’t have given you three of them.” Shakes two beige pills out of the bottle and puts them in my hand; hands me a cup of tea. “These should be fine, though.”

“Not as good, you mean.”

He smiles. “Should do the trick.”

And just like that. All is forgiven. Relief (but something else accompanies it.) Disappointment. Suppose I didn’t really want to be forgiven. Can’t be folded and tucked under the mattress like every other bit of nightly chaos. But today, it seems, I will be. Smoothed over. No lasting damage.

Drink my tea, take my pills. John goes back downstairs to make me some breakfast. Kick the blankets askew on the right side of the bed, even though it hurts. A little more chaos.

Evidence.