They lose the baby.
John cannot breathe around the deep pain swelling under his sternum. The stillness of the ultrasound image will be burned into his retinas forever, permanently projected onto the back of his eyelids. Confirmed: no heartbeat.
He’s a doctor, a fucking doctor, and they still lose the baby. A million useless questions scroll through his mind over and over and over: what did he do wrong? What didn’t he see? What does he have to do to make this stop?
He doesn’t have any answers. No one does.
Mary is small, ensconced in the hospital bed, waiting for the drugs to kick in that will force her body through the motions. The baby was at twenty-five weeks gestation. She has to give birth. A counsellor and an obstetrician speak with her in hushed tones about the procedures and the options, all the pros and cons and ramifications and consequences. John listens to all the things he already knew, the things he thought would never apply to him. He says nothing. When the baby slips free, there will be only silence.
John can’t escape, can’t leave the room, because walking down to the lifts to go to the canteen requires him to walk past the newborn nursery, and there are babies in there that have heartbeats. There are parents standing in front of the glass that have children. There are aunties and uncles and grandparents and friends and John hasn’t called anyone to tell them there was nothing in the ultrasound, now three days ago.
They don’t speak to one another; the nothingness has spread between them. Their budding marriage is already over, just as sure as the budding life in Mary’s belly is over.
It isn’t a question of blame. They can lay blame at each other's feet for the rest of their lives and it won’t make a difference because there is no indication that this was anything under their control. Statistically, roughly half of all pregnancy loss occurs due to chromosomal abnormalities: genetics, mutations. It doesn’t matter who did what or said what or whether anybody lied about anything. In the end, the odds were the baby never had a chance because it didn’t have anything to do with their many terrible choices. The odds were they had never produced anything beautiful or perfect at all, only the illusion of it.
John is being smothered by the weight of all these illusions.
The hospital provides them with a memory box, a baby blanket, and a knit baby hat. The nurses clean off the face gently, gently, and John fits a body that looks absolutely perfect into the palms of his two hands.
A nurse presses a hand into a clay disc, with no resistance, no flail of limb, no curl of finger. The impression will dry in the open air, an echo of a palm print. They all speak in soft voices, an automatic shift around an infant with closed eyes: don’t wake the baby. John does not speak at all. This baby cannot be woken.
Mary had had a glass of wine at the wedding, when the baby was barely any bigger than a poppyseed. Maybe that was why.
John first decided to be a doctor when he was eight and his mum got sick.
It was really sudden, the way it happened. One day she was fine, and the next she was tired, and then they spent Johnny’s ninth birthday in a hospital ward and she turned into someone else. He couldn’t understand, with all the doctors around, why no one was helping her get better. He didn’t remember the last thing she ever said to him.
Harry had been eleven and she was so angry, how dare their mum leave them, how dare she leave when they needed her. Who was going to teach her about make-up and monthlies and boys, who would take her shopping for a wedding dress, who would teach her how to make those perfect flaky biscuits?
In the end, John helped with the girls, instead of boys, to make up for not being able to help with the rest.
They go home the next morning, empty-handed. John settles Mary into bed, her body still wrecked and aching from induced labor. He sets the prescriptions next to her on the bedside table with a tall glass of water. She takes them wordlessly and slips down under the covers. Standing outside the door, John can hear her crying, but cannot bring himself to go back in. The sharp ache under his sternum throbs in unison to her breathy sobs. He hates the noise.
In the kitchen, he makes tea and sifts through the post. The normalcy of it is hateful. That the post went on being delivered is hateful. John’s entire life stopped five days ago and it is hateful that the rest of the world had gone on without them, as if it didn’t matter, as if everything important hadn’t ended with the nothingness of an undiscoverable heartbeat. He makes beans on toast and doesn’t eat any of it. He washes the dishes without thinking about anything at all.
It takes John all day, but eventually he works up the courage to enter the second bedroom, the nursery, and set the memory box on the side table. He shuts the door behind him.
Finally, finally, he has to turn his mobile back on.
First, he calls Sarah. Her voice is gentle when she answers. “John,” she says, before he can begin, “you can take as much time as you need.” He closes his eyes for a moment and thinks, for once, a minor government official has been sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong and John is grateful for it, so grateful, because he’s missed three shifts and Sarah isn’t angry. He doesn't have to explain.
“No,” he responds. “I think I have to quit. I don’t think I can go back to it again, you know? A doctor. I’m a doctor, Sarah, and I didn’t notice.”
She is quiet on the other end of the line for a beat, then two, before she sighs. “You’re a good doctor, John. A very good doctor. There wasn’t anything for you to notice. I’ll take you off the schedule, but if you’re ever wanting back, just get in touch.” She ends the call before he can protest.
One call is quite enough for today, he thinks, putting the mobile back on the table and turning away.
John’s father had been the sort of man who didn’t cry. He turned to drink instead, but he was a quiet drunk who could always get it together to make toast and eggs in the morning for his kids. When John turned nineteen, it was like he just sort of let go, like he’d just decided a decade was enough and he’d gone on as far as he could, and it could be over now. Truth was, it was his liver that had had enough. The last thing he’d ever said to John was, “you’ll be a great doctor.”
The last thing he said to Harry was, “don’t be me,” which is exactly what Harry was becoming--an alcoholic.
When John finally enlisted, Harry got rip-roaring drunk and called him at three in the morning, asking why he was so determined to leave her with absolutely fucking nothing in the world but her own thoughts. How dare he leave, off to the ends of the earth in search of their parents? Was he expecting to find his own forgiveness for letting them go?
They didn’t speak again until he was sitting in a military hospital in Birmingham recovering from a bullet wound. They each spent hours trying to apologize to each other for how right she’d been.
An excited, tinny giggle sounds from the other end of the line. “John! Oh, Johnny, just the person I’ve been wanting,” she says. Harry had taken the news that she was going to be an aunt extremely well and had embraced the role whole-heartedly. She was even going to meetings, doing twelve-step programs: now eight weeks sober. “I need to know what you’ve decided to do about the nursery.”
John rubs a hand over his face. “Harry, there won’t be a nursery.” He pauses, listening to Harry’s quick intake of breath on the other end. “We’ve, uh. We’ve lost the baby.”
The breath goes out of Harry in a whoosh and John wonders if she’s somewhere a bit private. He should’ve asked before he said.
“Oh, Johnny,” she breathes. “John, are you all right? Do you need me to come down? Where are you?”
“Fine, no, we’re fine. Everything’s been sorted, we’re at home now. We found out a few days ago and it’s over, it’s all over, we’re fine.” He is not fine, but he is not going to tell Harry that. He needs Harry to be fine. He needs Harry to not disappear into the bottom of a bottle. “There’re pictures, if you’d like to see.”
Her voice is cracked and very low and a bit dusty sounding. “Oh. Um. Maybe sometime,” she answers. No, then. No one wants to see pictures of a thing like that.
“We’re fine, here, Harry. Are you all right? Do you need to come down?”
“No, no.” She sounds far away. “No, I’ll call Clara, she might come and stay a night. I’ll call Clara. John, let me know if you need anything, all right? Just let me know. I’ve got to go.”
She rings off before she starts to cry and John is grateful.
Maybe it was because six weeks ago, John had stayed late at the clinic for the fifth shift in a row, and Mary had carried two armfuls of milk and veg and whatever else home from the Tesco seven blocks away, on her own.
Mary doesn’t really get out of bed for a week. John can hardly blame her, because they’ve both been watching her body change and transform back into its old slim shape. Give it a few more weeks and it will be like there was never any baby at all: the fade of swollen belly, the letdown of slightly swollen breasts. At twenty-five weeks, Mary’s slender frame carried an obvious, in-the-way weight, and her body seems to flounder with the loss of it, unsure now how to occupy space.
John sleeps on the couch and doesn’t go back to bed with her. There’s no use pretending. He’s spent too much time already with Mary, pretending. They had been married--married--for a month when John discovered Mary Morstan was, in fact, an infant who had been stillborn in 1972.
The irony is not lost on him.
A.G.R.A., the thick black marker on the memory stick read. “My initials,” she had said. In a fit of trust and loyalty, he had burned it. “Everything about who I was is on there,” she had said. “The stuff on there, I would go to prison for the rest of my life,” she had said. Well, it was gone, good and gone, and it wouldn’t have to come between them and she could go on being Mary Morstan.
Except she had built and become Mary Watson on that identity, and he already knew she couldn’t keep the identity of a stillborn child she had filched from a grave marker in Chiswick Cemetery.
In Afghanistan, if you asked, John would say he felt helpful. He felt useful. He felt like he was saving people.
He would lie.
His first patient was eighteen, a kid, a child, somebody's child, who stepped on an IED on his first routine patrol, losing a leg and taking a gut full of shrapnel. He lived for eleven hours, and the last thing he said was, “we tried so hard,” and John didn’t know what that meant. After that, the faces started to blur together. John never had the guts to write it down, but everyone kept track of their saves versus their losses, and John was on the wrong side of the scale when he got shot.
He doesn’t remember where he was or what he was doing. What he does remember is being shot, the feel of heat ripping through muscle, the sudden surge of blood outside his body, pain like when the sun shines too bright, and Murray’s face in his. Murray, who said, “don’t even think about it, Johnny,” like he was telling him not to take the last pudding at the canteen, and pressed too hard on the wound. And John thought, please, god, let me live.
So he lived.
For a short time afterward, in hospital, in physical therapy, in his bare military bedsit, he regretted it.
Maybe it was because of the nightmares they each suffered, the restless nights that woke each other up several times a week. Maybe it was the stress of never really getting over it: what they’d seen.
The first time he goes out, he buys bread and potatoes. He forgets milk.
The first time he makes dinner, he loses track of time staring into space and leaves the pasta on to boil for too long. It goes soggy, inedible.
The first time he does laundry, he finds a burping cloth Mary must’ve tossed in with the last load of things she washed. He sits on the floor for an hour, holding it, wondering what they were going to do with all these things.
Grief makes a person fumble, wrong-footed. John is not a stranger to the struggle to keep his balance, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Instead, he feels pushed and pulled by each old wound re-opening. He thinks about his first Christmas after his mum died, the first class he had to go to after his dad went. He thinks about the routine of paperwork after losing a patient.
Confronted by reality, grief colours everything with the questions of how to deal with it. Will he or won’t he react to the unexpected movement of a bird taking flight from the roof of a building across the street? How will he (should he?) react to the sight of a pram, to the ring of a toy being shaken? Does he dare to order takeaway? To answer his mobile when Harry calls?
He thinks about every old hurt again, trying to decide if he will ever forgive himself for all the things he let happen.
He thinks: not yet.
John comes home from Tesco three weeks after the ultrasound to find the flat immaculate and a yellow paper on the kitchen worktop. He puts the milk and yoghurt in the fridge and turns to look at it, and is surprisingly unsurprised to realize it is a note from Mary.
A.G.R.A. called and I’ve had to go.
It’s a convenient excuse, likely no more than a half-truth. He wouldn’t have bought the yoghurt, had he known.
He calls her mobile, which is, of course, disconnected, and wanders through the flat. In the bathroom, her shampoo and hairspray are still there, half-full. In the bedroom, he slides her wedding rings gently into the top drawer. Mary Watson no longer existed--never really had.
He gets one text two days later: Trail cold at the Czech border. No signs of surveillance or danger. –SH
It is the most reassuring thing that has happened so far, to know that even though John never called or texted or made an effort at all, someone is still there, watching at the fringe of John’s life, waiting. John makes a cup of tea and stares at the wall in the living room for three hours thinking about everything.
The dull ache underneath his sternum lessens, just the tiniest bit, as though there had been some kind of resolution.
John met Sherlock Holmes at the end of January: a swath of colour in the grey of winter. It doesn’t really surprise him to find himself thinking about Sherlock now with the same sort of melancholic nostalgia he feels when he thinks about Mary and the ultrasound. John feels like he is remembering Sherlock again the way he did when Sherlock was away, even though now Sherlock is here and Mary is gone, instead of the other way round.
Sherlock had swept John up and reignited that peculiar sensation of having another person in your atmosphere. Sherlock was loud, he was energy, he was fire. Sometimes he was sour and dark and despondent, an oil lamp on the cusp of burning out, and other times he was a bonfire, an explosion of words and fury and intensity, and other times still he was a hearth at home, crackling with familiarity.
You couldn’t merely exist around Sherlock--you had to be purposeful. You had to decide to live. You had to put effort into it.
They went to crime scenes and chased cabs and dodged blow-darts and bullets. They existed in the tenuous domesticity that is built on cups of tea and violin compositions and late-night takeaway. It was dangerous and absolutely mad. For eighteen months, it was brilliant.
Then Sherlock stepped off a roof like he was expecting to fly.
The world went sort of foggy.
John spent a lot of time not thinking about it. He spent a lot of time not thinking about Sherlock’s outstretched arms, or the flail of his legs against the stark grey backdrop of Bart’s, or the blood weighing down curls on the pavement. He spent a lot of time not thinking about why Sherlock had done it and he never, ever, ever thought about what he could have done to pull him back from the precipice.
Then he’d found Mary, or maybe she’d found him, bright, beautiful Mary, who was the opposite of Sherlock’s dark, dangerous life. She was stable, she was steady, she was natural--a new nurse at the clinic. The sheer bold normality of a workplace romance after months of floundering in the wake of mad-insane-spectacular.
After eighteen months with Sherlock and eighteen months without, Mary felt like a saving grace. Like balance. He didn’t have to chase criminals and carry a gun; he could lean around a soft shoulder to help make risotto in the kitchen and watch telly. John sometimes felt like he was eight again, when things had been sunny and his mum had made scones and served tea in the garden.
John moved in with Mary after a month, too much too soon, but he needed the feeling of another person in the fringes of his life. Without Sherlock, he felt like he was accommodating emptiness; with Mary, he accommodated the vivid promise of the future.
It wasn’t adrenaline-fueled cases and clients, it wasn’t Chinese take-away at one in the morning, but it was reliable and after decades of uncertainty, it didn’t always feel right, per se, but it did feel good. He bought a ring on their eight-month anniversary and tried his damnedest to orchestrate the perfect moment.
Sherlock was dead for exactly two years, four months, twenty-two days, and twelve hours. Exactly, because when you’re Sherlock Holmes, you apparently get to schedule your resurrection down to the second.
John had visited Sherlock’s grave exactly one hundred and twenty-four times.
221B Baker Street looks exactly the same as it did the last time John was here, which is nice, because it seems like time also stopped here when it stopped for John in the ultrasound room five weeks ago. The microscope is still on the table, the papers and files are still strewn about the sitting room haphazardly, and the skull on the mantelpiece is still overlooking it all with disdain. Sherlock is out, which is also nice, because John gets to take a moment to get a feel for what he’s been doing since they last saw each other, nearly a month and a half ago now.
Mrs Hudson busies herself making John a cuppa and pointedly not mentioning either Mary or the baby, confirming John’s suspicions that Sherlock had told at least some people what had happened, and he is grateful, grateful for the intrusion. Mrs Hudson had been so happy to hear that there might be a baby at 221B. In any other circumstance, John would have asked if she were all right and comforted her a bit, but in the current circumstance, John isn’t even sure if he is all right, and he is in no position to comfort anybody, so instead they talk about the weather.
The milk in the fridge is current and the only body parts he sees are properly stored in the freezer. There is a loaf of bread that looks a bit stale but not mouldy, and the beakers and test tubes are clean, waiting for the next experiment. The violin case is open but there are no papers on the music stand, so probably Sherlock has been playing but absent-mindedly, which means there is a case on.
Good. That’s good.
John takes the cup Mrs Hudson brings and says meaningfully, “It’s all right, I’m all right,” before she bustles back downstairs. He picks up the old book next to his chair and tries to pick up on the plot again so he can continue. So he can think about something other than Mrs Hudson carefully wiping the tears away in her kitchen.
Sherlock swirls in several hours later--two or three, it’s hard to remember--flushed with post-case adrenaline. John finds himself sitting Sherlock down on a chair in the kitchen and pulling out his old first-aid kit to clean a few scrapes and decide if the cut through his left eyebrow needs stitches.
“So he pulls a knife, a knife, honestly, and starts shouting about how she deserved it, all very useful when half the Yard is sitting just on the other side of the window. The attack was predictable, could tell by the angle he was holding his knife and the wear on his shoes, but I was unarmed and none of this--” he gestured at his face--“would have happened if Lestrade hadn’t waited so long to interrupt.”
It is reassuring to hear Sherlock go on about the case because they aren’t dancing around the issue of what John’s life had been like in the past five weeks. Sherlock explaining a case is so much easier to handle than Sherlock explaining how he has been keeping the surge of sympathetic faces at bay.
John sits back in the kitchen chair. “No other injuries, then? He just bashed up your face a bit?”
There are a few scrapes across Sherlock’s knuckles and he is settling his weight on his left hip as though he might have been struck across the right side of his ribcage, but Sherlock nods anyway. He jumps up and strides back to look over some papers in the sitting room. “Still a few cases on, though,” he says. “Private clients, nothing terribly difficult but things I can’t do simply from the flat. Could use an assist, if you’re available.”
His voice is perhaps a bit too nonchalant, and Sherlock very rarely takes more than one client at a time so it feels like a set-up, but John allows it. “Yeah, I’ve got a bit of time. I’m just preparing, you know, to pack up.” He doesn’t feel the need to explain this and Sherlock doesn’t ask him to. They both know that Sherlock already knows about how John didn’t go back to work, about how he is living alone now, about how the army pension isn’t enough to sustain the empty flat.
“You could move back here,” Sherlock offers casually, shuffling through the pile of papers on the desk, looking for something. He appears to be only offering John responses distractedly. John is grateful--again--for the show. “Bedroom upstairs is still free.”
John can’t stop the grin before it tugs the corners of his mouth, even though it makes the ache in his chest swell just a little, like it irritates the edges. “Yeah,” he says. “That’ll do nicely.”
Sherlock’s last words to anyone were to John: “Goodbye, John.” John had carried those words with him like a personal religion. Goodbye. Please, will you do this for me? It’s my note.
Except that wasn’t ever intended to be the last. Seeing his face again, peering down at John’s with that sly grin, made John so angry, because he had wanted so many people to not be dead, and he was only getting this one man back.
And John knew that he wouldn’t trade this one for any of the others. He would continue to choose this particular one, this one who had apparently left and lied and forced him to watch and made him promise--please, will you do this for me?--and let him drown in mourning and melancholy. John knew he would always choose this one.
He hated himself for it.
Maybe that was why: you only get the one miracle.
The first morning of John’s married life, he’d gone out and picked up an at-home test kit, and when it came back with two pink lines Mary cried for two straight hours. He didn’t know whether it was out of joy or fear or anger or fulfillment or loss. When she was finished, she kissed his cheek and said, “It’s going to be a girl.”
They did everything right. They waited eleven long, difficult weeks to tell anybody, because they were both medical professionals and they knew the statistics. Mary had regular ultrasounds and took pre-natal vitamins and read What to Expect When You’re Expecting and The Day-by-Day Pregnancy Book.
She was a nurse. John was a doctor.
They thought they had this under control.
The last room of the flat he needs to pack up is the second bedroom: the nursery.
It took John two weeks to go through the entire flat to reach this point. Sherlock had been startlingly present, although perhaps not helpful, sitting in whatever room John was sorting through and occasionally criticizing John’s taste in household accoutrements. It was odd, having Sherlock around. Having another body in the flat felt strange, having been alone in it for several weeks now. Even though every last thing about that other body was the antithesis of Mary, it still reminded him of what it was like to have her there. It left everything feeling tender, bruised.
The project of packing and moving is a welcome distraction from those sorts of thoughts.
John gets rid of everything he doesn’t immediately need, which essentially boils down to everything that was even a little bit Mary’s. Even the wedding rings go, now tucked back inside their original ring box, thrown into the pile of the detritus of a life together. If he occasionally sees Sherlock scavenging an unidentifiable item or two out of the piles, he pretends not to.
But he had asked Sherlock not to come, not today. The nursery is a private thing.
Since they hadn’t yet chosen a colour to paint, everything they’d collected is still in boxes. They had been planning to move it all out to paint the weekend after the ultrasound. John had wanted it yellow; he detested pink. There’s a cot, toys, onesies, blankets, all the things they were going to need, brought in to build the nest.
John isn’t interested in any of these things. He is only interested to know whether the memory box is still sitting on the side table. He has studiously avoided the nursery since Mary had gone, because he isn’t sure whether he wants it to be there or not. He takes a deep breath. Opens the door.
The ache behind his sternum roars to life, causing his stomach to roil and his eyes to sting. His knees give out; his back hits the wall hard. The evidence of the consequences of an ultrasound, seven weeks ago, disappeared out of his life along with so many other things. The empty space taunts him, as though he could go back to the kitchen and find Mary, still there, still pregnant, smiling at him. He thinks about a palm print pressed into clay and wishes he had taken the time to memorize every little crook and line and detail.
Had he cried, at the ultrasound? At the hospital? He can’t remember. He slides down to the floor, pushing the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, painfully hard. He sits for a long time. When he takes his hands away, they are wet and his eyes feel heavy.
He’s a doctor, a fucking doctor, sitting on the floor in the nursery of a baby he lost--a baby he didn’t save.
There isn’t a grave to visit this time. Seven weeks after, John visits a familiar black headstone for the one hundredth and twenty-fifth time and imagines something little there.
It suits: an empty grave for an empty ultrasound.