The bee’s legs softly tickle the bare skin of Sherlock’s arm. He watches the small insect crawl industriously from his wrist to the rolled-up fabric of his shirt-sleeve near his elbow. Perhaps, he muses, it is attracted to the thin layer of salt on his skin, the result of his bicycle ride in the noon heat. Having reached the cloth, the bee turns, wandering in the opposite direction until, suddenly, it halts and takes off, buzzing away to join its companions in the meadow.
Sherlock props himself up on one elbow and uses his other hand to shield his eyes from the sun. Through the gently swaying grasses and wildflowers (scabiosa, galium, malva, cirsium, serratula …) he can see the beehives near the edge of a line of oaks and ash-trees. The hives are busy, now that summer seems to have decided that a return is worthwhile after all. Today, the 31st of August, is the first day of sunshine after a mostly miserable, wet and cold month which felt more like early autumn than what August is supposed to be like, even in England. But today summer reigns with a vengeance: high temperatures, bright sunshine, the smell of ripe fruits and of flowers, and the chirping of crickets and hum and buzz of bees.
Not that Sherlock would have had much opportunity to enjoy a sunny month of August, had there been one. He flops onto his back into the fragrant grass, his arm loosely resting over his eyes to avoid the sting of the sun. He has to be careful not to get sunburned. His skin is still pale despite a faint freckly tan he acquired from cycling earlier this year, on the odd occasions he managed to be out and about on the bike. The rest of the time he spent cooped up in a wooden hut behind stacks of papers without much chance of seeing sunlight, nor listening to the sound of crickets or feeling wind on his face – unless one counts the constant draught in his corner of the shack.
It wasn’t so bad last winter, he thinks, being mostly confined indoors. Of course, work was tedious and uncomfortable even then, but one hadn’t been tempted to gaze longingly out of the window at the green expanse of the lawn and lake and the tall trees of Bletchley Park. The view had been grey and dreary, or, depending on one’s shift, dark. Sherlock actually prefers the night shifts, because with his mind constantly demanding distraction and so preventing him from falling asleep most nights, at least at work it’s occupied, and effectively, too.
So voluntarily, he takes on the unloved night shifts, often working overtime. He spends far longer poring over little rows of garbled letters than he is required to (and, if he’s honest, is altogether healthy). Even now, when he closes his eyes, he can see them marching through his mind: Enigma encoded messages, typed out from intercepted radio messages by the industrious Wrens, the ladies of the Women’s Royal Naval Service. These girls keep the enormous decryption machine of Bletchtley running like a hive of busy bees, providing codebreakers like Sherlock Holmes with their daily nourishment, not of nectar and pollen, but of riddles.
Sherlock has lived on that diet for almost a year now. At first he went reluctantly and not entirely voluntarily, despite knowing that he was perfectly suited for the task. But at the time, the job he had invented for himself had finally begun to bear fruit. The first clients had called upon his services as a consulting detective, the only one in the world. Also, and more importantly, contacts to Scotland Yard had been established, promising cases more complicated and interesting than stolen jewellery and marital infidelity. He hadn’t known what to do with himself after reading chemistry at Cambridge, but his interest in crime and crime-solving soon sparked the idea of using his extraordinary skill at observation and deduction to aid the police, who really do need all the help they can get. He moved to London some five years ago, found himself a flat in Montague Street, acquired contacts, worked on some high-profile forgery cases and even the odd juicy murder.
All in all, things were going quite splendidly. And then the damned Luftwaffe started dropping bombs on his beloved city, and hell broke loose. His flat was spared of damage during the first nights of the Blitz, but of a sudden the war that until then hadn’t troubled him had arrived on his very doorstep. It messed up business. And, worse, it enticed his ever-meddling elder brother to interfere with his life. His motivation was twofold, Sherlock knows. Mycroft wanted to get his sibling out of danger, likely on behest of their parents if not for some brotherly concern and affection of his own. Moreover he saw the necessity to keep Sherlock’s ever active mind occupied to prevent him from employing unhealthy measures to keep himself distracted, now that cases were likely to be scarce with half the city up in flames.
Also, people like Sherlock are sorely needed at Bletchley Park. The place seems to soak them up like a big sponge, an anthill crawling with intelligentia and social misfits. Crossword competitions were held to determine which quick and unusual thinker might be suited to codebreaking work at the Park. The major universities of Oxford and Cambridge were raided, and recruiters searched far and wide, leaving no stone unturned. And now the mansion and the codebreakers’ huts are filled with mathematicians, linguists, chess grand masters, crossword experts, the odd archaeologist or historian, cryptoanalists left over from the Great War, and even people like Geoffrey Tandy, the former director of London’s Natural History Museum who was approached because he is an expert for ‘cryptogams’. His recruiters, idiots, the lot, only belatedly realised that his field of study has little to do with cryptography but with lichens and mosses and seaweed. But Tandy, like the rest of the motley crew, has stayed on anyway.
Sadly, Sherlock thinks as images of his colleagues pass through his mind, the Oxford don with the predilection for inventing languages of his own and writing children’s books didn’t. He’d been interesting to talk to on the one occasion Sherlock met him at George Allen & Unwin’s. The publisher’s secretary had incidentally scheduled their appointments with Mr. Unwin for the same time. Sherlock had wanted to get his study on London soils published (decision still pending due to paper rationing at the moment). The professor had been called to an emergency meeting. A German air raid had apparently destroyed the remaining stock of his fairly successful children’s book. Sherlock deduced the man as they waited outside Mr. Unwin’s office. The don took it in stride, even when Sherlock enquired whether as an obviously skilled philologist he had been approached by Bletchley, which he had. However, Sherlock later learned he’d declined the invitation due to other commitments. Sherlock hopes that one of these is finishing the sequel to his book. He rather liked the first one.
He’d have fit in nicely with the crowd, Sherlock muses as he lies in the meadow, bees humming and crickets chirping around him, creating a far more pleasant noise than the buzzing of Turing’s Bombe machines in Hut 11. So, in fact, does Sherlock. Genius and ‘freak’ both, that’s what he is. It had only been a matter of time until he’d have ended here, anyway. Only the manner in with he was ‘volunteered’ by his brother still riles him. Mycroft more or less blackmailed him into leaving Montague Street head over heels with just a small bag. Sherlock was carted off to Euston Station in his brother’s forbidding black car and put on the next train to Bletchley. Sherlock half expected to be asked to wear a cardboard sign round his neck like the many children who were being evacuated from the city at that time, clogging the platform and the trains, leaving teddy-bears and dolls all over the place and crying for their parents or siblings.
One year of codebreaking. How time flies. One year stuck in a sleepy Buckinghamshire town with only a few short trips to London and one to the family estate in Sussex over Christmas for a change of scenery. Sherlock misses London, its lively rhythm, its grandeur and darkness both, its potential for thrill and adventure, its serene beauty at times and revolting ugliness at others, its history and modernity. Here, there is only tiny Bletchley and its surrounding villages, as quaint and boring as one would expect. There aren’t even any decent crimes round here apart from the odd theft or drunken brawl.
True, London is only about an hour away on the train, but every time he arrives there after a prolonged absence, it feels increasingly unfamiliar with yet another part destroyed or barricaded behind sandbags, another neighbourhood torn apart by fire and death from the skies, or by grievous news from the Continent. In that respect, Bletchley isn’t so bad. Sherlock never thought he’d appreciate staying out in the countryside, but over the past year his cycle rides to natural places like this peaceful meadow with its fascinating flora and fauna have become increasingly important to maintain his sanity. Bletchley Park is a busy place with thousands of people working there, but it’s different from busy London, perhaps due to the high degree of security maintained throughout. It doesn’t feel like home the way London did before the war. Sherlock, who never expected to say that of himself, feels uprooted, cast into a sea of letters. Sentiment, that’s what it is. Apparently he’s not as immune to it as he’d like to be. Without the cycling, without the opportunity to collect specimen or soil samples even his riddle-craving mind would dissolve under the constant pressure and repetitiveness of codebreaking.
Sherlock signed the Official Secrets Act in Mycroft’s car as they drove to the station. Most people working at Bletchley have no clue what transpires in other parts of the Park, in the various huts and the stately if architectonically nightmarish manor. Staff of the various sections are forbidden to talk about their daily work to anybody outside their own station, and there are countless measures in place to prevent news of what is really going on from reaching enemy ears, to the extent that sometimes fake reconnaissance missions are undertaken to let the Germans believe intelligence about their troop movements has been acquired through a lucky aircraft or important papers accidentally found in a waste basket instead through messages decoded at Bletchley.
Despite being mostly confined to deciphering German naval messages in Hut 8, Sherlock has kept his eyes and ears open, and by now thinks he knows who does what at the Park. Not that there is anybody he is eager to tell about his findings, or indeed anybody who’d listen apart from spies of the enemy. It’s not like he has a lot of friends at Bletchley. There are some acquaintances, but even among so many individuals with obviously limited social skills, he is labelled a ‘freak’, and shunned accordingly. In his own hut his fellow codebreakers only seek his advice if they must. Not that Sherlock minds the solitude.
At first, he truly thrived in the environment. They put him under Alan Turing to work on the Kriegsmarine’s Enigma codes, nicknamed “Dolphin”, more challenging to decipher than those of the Wehrmacht or the Luftwaffe. And he loved the challenge. Crib-based decoding is hard, often consisting of guess-work and tenacity and sometimes sheer luck, but it’s rewarding when after hours (rarely) or days (more realistically) of brain-wracking the rows of garbled letters suddenly make sense and can be read as plain text. Most of the messages are boring, however: weather forecasts and routine accounts of submarines and destroyers letting each other know that there are “Keine besonderen Vorkommnisse”, that nothing untoward happened. But there is the odd position notification, and, more valuable still, actual commands that let the Allied forces guess where the dreaded U-boats are heading, and so to warn their convoys of the trap.
It in’t that Sherlock feels a lot of patriotic duty towards the war effort, unlike his brother who virtually incorporates the British Government in his person. People who think they know what he does call Mycroft Holmes Churchill’s lapdog, yet Sherlock knows that in truth the places are exchanged. His brother runs the country, not the official prime minister. And after all, Winston looks far more like a grumpy bulldog than Mycroft, who to Sherlock has always resembled some kind of stiff and stalking bird.
But even Sherlock is aware of the dreadful reports from the war on the Continent and the treatment of all who are different and don’t fit the system in Nazi Germany. He has heard the screaming of the sirens, felt the bombs setting London on fire, and seen the large dome of St. Paul’s wreathed in smoke. He never considered fighting at the front, had managed to avoid conscription on the basis of (at the time non-existent) health issues. God, he’d staged such a show for the medical examiners, pretending great eagerness to join up while behaving increasingly strange, having practised how to enact certain ticks and medical issues beforehand. He wouldn’t make a good soldier, anyway, with his troubles following orders and arranging himself in an authoritative hierarchy.
Imagine that, he thinks, smiling wryly from under his arm. Private Holmes standing to attention. Not a private, though. His familial status and education would elevate him to lieutenant right away. He’d be the nightmare of any commanding officer, so much for sure. Even Turing has to reprimand him now and again, and his superior of sorts here at Bletchley is as far removed from a hard-faced major or colonel as possible. The man wears a gas mask when cycling to work to prevent upsetting his hayfever, for God’s sake. At Bletchley Sherlock lets his brain provide patriotic duty. As this also means trying to outwit the Germans and their ingenious, devilish, fascinating Enigma machines and encoding strategies, so much the better. Sherlock isn’t much good with a gun, anyway. He is an excellent fencer, thanks to lessons both at Harrow and Cambridge, but wars aren’t fought with blades anymore.
It comes with a price, though, working at Bletchley Park. Even for a man like Sherlock Holmes who craves intellectual challenge and stimulation, even needs it to function properly and not fall into the dark pits of boredom, the constant pressure of the long shifts has begun to take its toll. The repetitive nature of codebreaking is slowly wearing him down. What started as a fascinating game of riddles turned into routine. Already after deciphering the third uneventful Wetterbericht in a row Sherlock began to wonder whether he’d not be better off in London, despite the bombs, or as an intelligence agent out in the field, spying on the Germans.
He sighs as he shifts on the ground. A hard tussock of grass is making a hole in his back. His stomach rumbles, and he digs in his trouser pocket for the last of the plums he plucked where he left his bike. He’d been so caught up in his work that he extended last night’s shift beyond breakfast time, and then, seeing the sun out for the first time in what seems like months, instead of returning to his lodgings for a meal and a nap he took the bike and did a good few miles before settling in one of his favourite places in these parts. He has visited the bees frequently over the summer. He doesn’t know who owns the meadow, but the grass hasn’t been mown for hay in June nor later, so likely it belongs to the beekeeper who owns no other livestock. There are no tracks in the grass apart from his own, so nobody has been looking after the hives in the past day or two. In the nearby orchard the plums are almost over-ripe. Perhaps the owner is gone. Sherlock decides to ask his landlady. She knows most people in the vicinity and is an excellent source of gossip.
He slowly eats the plums, savouring their sweetness. Lazily, he spits the pits at a large thistle, trying to hit the downy seed pods. He’ll have to stop by his accommodation or the canteen before his next shift and have some proper food, he knows. Some tea would be good, too. No good denying his transport any form of nourishment as he’s done so often in the past year, simply forgetting to eat (or sleep) while poring over a code. He’d subsisted mostly on milky tea, sugary coffee, and cigarettes.
He takes aim with another pit, spits, skilfully hitting the pod which breaks apart, sending fluffy seeds afloat on the breeze. Well, he thinks a little wistfully as he watches them lift and rise above the grasses like smoke, a cigarette would be nice now, actually. He stills the desire for having something in his mouth by keeping the pit of his last plum on his tongue and slowly shifting it from one cheek into the other, the hard surface rasping against his teeth.
Now and again he still feels the odd craving, despite having stopped smoking over three months ago. Having been forced to stop, more like, on doctor’s orders. In April, after a spring of feverish work due to the capture of a German trawler near the Lofoten Islands which had yielded a complete set of Enigma keys for the month of February, Sherlock contracted pneumonia. Not heeding his body’s warning signs, and continuing to work, at one point he collapsed rather spectacularly setting out on his bike. Subsequently, he spent two weeks in hospital and two on sick leave at his lodgings, almost too weak to use the stairs, his shoulder aching where he’d hit the ground. He should have stayed off work longer to recover properly, but he had entreated Dr. Stamford to allow him back as soon as he was (shakily) on his feet again, the boredom of being confined to his small room almost unbearable. But he should have rested longer. The illness has left traces. Even now he feels a slight wheezing and a sting in his lungs whenever he draws a deep breath. He felt it today on the bicycle. Every small hill makes him gasp for breath, his strength not yet fully returned. He’s always been on the slender, lanky side, but now his tailored clothes are hanging loosely about his frame and he is only slowly beginning to fill them properly again.
He’d been too ill and weak these first weeks in spring to heed the nicotine withdrawal his body was going through. It surely added to his general misery, though. Once he’d recovered enough to try and smoke, he found that he couldn’t stand the taste anymore. It made him retch, and the hot burn made his lungs ache. He still thinks longingly of the splendid rush and focus the nicotine used to provide, but by now this has reduced to a dull craving. It’s similar to the one he encounters for cocaine now and again, despite never having used regularly, only a few times during his Cambridge days when his studies hadn’t been sufficient to entertain his mind. Not that he has to do completely without smoke. Hut 8 is usually full of it due to the majority of the personnel smoking. The first time Sherlock entered it after his involuntary confinement he felt like hitting a wall of fumes, the obnoxious reek of Magnussen’s pipe most prominent.
So, no more smoking. Mike Stamford will be pleased. Sherlock has an inkling that the doctor has been charged by Mycroft to keep an eye on his wayward little brother, because ever since his release from hospital Mike regularly accosts Sherlock and enquires after his health, and has twice pulled him out of a double shift to make sure he ‘doesn’t overdo things’, as he put it. Sherlock wonders whether the jovial, round-faced man is receiving any compensation for his spy-work.
Still, he likes Mike, who is one of the few tolerable acquaintances Sherlock has made at the Park during the past year. He’s a capable doctor, too. That’s the advantage of working on the cribs day in day out. One doesn’t have to deal with too many people, and since many of the odd inhabitants of Hut 8 aren’t much more sociable than Sherlock, even though they work together in teams now and again, he socialises with none. God, the mere thought of that. Conversation, mind-numbing small-talk. Worse, potential attempts at romance. Anything he could do to avoid these things, he would. However, there are exceptions, rare ones. At one point Milner-Barry, a fellow Cambridge man and now head of the Hut 8 Crib Room, invited Sherlock to a game of chess. Uncharacteristically, Sherlock agreed, if only to test his skills against a real professional. He lost, albeit narrowly. The defeat didn’t much bother him. After all, Milner-Barry had represented England at the Chess Olympiade before war had been declared, so losing had been … bearable.
No, Sherlock decides, dealing with people isn’t his strong suit. It’s unnecessary and overrated most of the time, anyway. He is more content out here, surrounded by bees. The only distraction people provide is of an intellectual kind. Most are interesting to deduce, hiding small clues all over themselves in their bearing, way of speech, their clothing, the shape and state of their hands and fingers. All those little details most people overlook because they don’t observe properly. That’s were Sherlock’s expertise and special talent lie. At a glance, he is able to deduce a person’s life story and habits, which in turn enables him to often predict their behaviour. More than once his uncanny skill has come in handy for devising cribs by deducing mistakes made or short-cuts employed by the German operator on the other side. Sherlock’s skill with languages (Latin, Greek, German, French, some Dutch and Flemish and Italian, a Danish and Russian) and generally quick wit help, but in these he is not exceptional at Bletchley.
He shifts the plum pit again and gazes at his watch. Two o’clock. In two hours he has to be back at work. The thought of the cramped, stuffy hut doesn’t fire his motivation to return there. His stomach rumbles again. Too many plums and not enough solid food for the past few days. He really ought to get himself a bowl of porridge and some toast. A wash and shave wouldn’t go amiss, either, he thinks as he runs a hand over his face where the dried sweat is making the skin itch slightly, while his fingers rasp over faint stubble at his chin.
With a sigh, he heaves himself up and shakes out the garbadine jacket he placed on the ground to protect his backside from the moisture still lingering between the grasses. It’s too warm to don the jacket, so he slings it loosely over his shoulder. With a last wistful glance at the beehives, he sets out through the tall grasses to retrieve his bicycle, grasshoppers springing away at every step. Back to the front, he thinks wryly as he secures his jacket on the rack and mounts.
Both his landlady and her visiting sister are out when he arrives at his lodgings, which consist of a small room in a well-kept detached brick house off Buckingham Road, about a mile and half from the Park. Several other employees of Bletchley Park are housed in this area, mostly women. His landlady, an elderly widow named Turner, lost her elder son in the early days of the war. The younger is away fighting in North Africa. She invited her younger sister, Mrs. Hudson, over from London to help her with things, not least looking after her lodger. Despite the two women’s constant fussing, Sherlock likes them. Mrs. Hudson’s late husband, as it transpired, had quite a colourful past and got himself killed during the Prohibition in Chicago, after which his wife returned to England and set up residence in London.
As he climbs the narrow stairs to his room, Sherlock finds a note addressed to him stuck to the bannister.
since – again – you did not come in for breakfast this morning there is some bread and butter and jam put away for you on the middle shelf in the larder. Tea you’ll have to make for yourself. Milk is in the pantry, too. Martha and I will stay in town after church to have lunch with a friend. Don’t forget that we’re expecting another lodger to join us tonight. I did tell you before, twice, but you tend to forget these things so easily. He’ll be renting the room next to yours, so you better remove your extra books and the smelly chemistry set you secretly stored in there. I won’t touch your things for fear of poisoning myself, after what happened with the soda. And get rid of the dead … things in the jars. And the creepy skull. Horrid thing. Please also make some space in the bathroom. We don’t expect to be back before tea.
Best regards, Ellie and Martha
P.S.: Do please eat something, poor starved thing that you are! Remember, you aren’t entirely recovered yet.
Sherlock rolls his eyes as he runs a hand through his tousled curls. Another lodger. Great. Exactly what he needs. He must have deleted the information, because he does dimly remember Mrs. Turner mentioning it. It seemed unimportant at the time, though. Blast.
He enjoys the relative peace and quiet of this place as a respite from the people-infested anthill that’s the Park, and now an invasion is imminent. His room is tiny, he needs the additional space of the formerly spare room for experiments to take his mind of cribs and cyphers. And where and when is he supposed to practise his violin? It’s doubtful his new neighbour will appreciate the musical interludes at odd hours. His two landladies are sound sleepers and moreover occupy a somewhat separate part of the house. They usually don’t complain as long as he leaves out the more modern and experimental tunes and plays the odd Ivor Novello song for them to coo and sigh over.
Well, with a little luck he’ll get rid of the nuisance in no time. Last autumn there’d also been an attempt at billeting somebody in the neighbouring room, but the fellow soon moved out again. Sherlock swore to his landladies that his sudden departure hadn’t been his doing. He didn’t mention that he’d had a little chat with the man, a linguist from Edinburgh, and confronted him with a number of unsavoury things about this past the other surely wouldn’t want to see exposed. He’s going to get rid of the new arrival, too, before he has the chance to settle in.
When he arrives at his room, he finds the door slightly ajar and Hattie, Mrs. Turner’s old black cat, sprawling on his bed. He’d been somewhat annoyed the first few times this happened, the cat treating the room like her territory. But after Mrs. Turner burst into tears one day over breakfast and told him that Hattie had so loved her Robbie and always slept on his bed, and that apparently now that her son’s old room was occupied again Hattie just assumed he had returned, and that please if Sherlock would gently put her outside if she bothered him but not scold or tease her, he rolled his eyes and assured her the damned cat could stay. He surprised himself with that. Sentiment again. Bloody cat.
In fact, Sherlock isn’t really bothered by Hattie treating his room (and in fact the entire house) like her kingdom, and him like one of her underlings. They soon struck a bargain to suit both sides. Sherlock pets Hattie for a few minutes when he encounters her, and in return she brings him all kinds of critters she hunts outside. Mice, rats, squirrels, frogs and toads, and if he’s lucky, a snake. Oh, they are perfect for experiments, now that there is no morgue nearby to acquire fitting dead material. Outside this arrangement, they ignore each other.
The cat stretches lazily when he enters, and yawns. “Hello, Hattie,” he greets her, stooping to briefly scratch her chin and ears. She purrs for a moment, licks his hand once, then stands and with the haughty gaze of a queen surveying her unworthy minion, she jumps down from the bed and stalks off.
Sherlock begins to half-heartedly shift some of his possessions from the other room. On the wardrobe he leaves the jar with the mangled toad, one of Hattie’s more recent gifts, just so the new lodger knows what to expect. A quick wash, shave and change of shirt later, Sherlock makes himself a sandwich from the utensils in the larder, but after wolfing it down he’s still hungry and decides to pass by the canteen for a warm meal. His shift is going to last until midnight with only a half hour break in the middle, and he feels that after the exertion he needs more in his stomach than a sandwich and some fruit.
Sherlock arrives at the canteen with half an hour to spare. As usual, the place is brimming with life: Wrens sitting together in giggling groups, some army personnel playing cards, grey-faced and shadow-eyed codebreakers huddling over their plates. Two women (college graduates, Oxford, one is engaged, the other in mourning, beau in the airforce shot down over the Channel) are playing chess in a corner. Sherlock spots some of his companions from Hut 8. Crossword champion Anderson is chatting up yet another woman, this time a fiercely smart-looking dark-skinned Wren (Jamaican, also crossword champion, attended lady’s college overseas, recently arrived in England, has a brother in the army, likely as a driver; she has started training on the Bombe machines). Sherlock feels a brief inclination to saunter over and warn the girl of her danger. Anderson is a notorious womaniser. But she looks clever enough to see through his ruse.
At another table Alan Turing and Dilly Knox (Cambridge don, used to teach egyptology and Greek at King’s College, now head of Enigma decoding) are engaged in animated conversation, the latter properly attired for a change. He sometimes shows up at work in his dressing gown, having forgotten to dress because an idea hit him in the bathroom. Turing, however, is still wearing sports gear, having obviously used the fair weather for a run to clear his head. Despite being another Cambridge man, Sherlock never really encountered him over there. Turing is younger than he by some five years, attended a different college, and since neither participated much in inter-college activities, their paths never crossed before Bletchley. He is a true genius, though, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of his age and a driving force in the codebreaking efforts at Bletchley. The whirring Bombe machines in Hut 11 which so help the cryptographers by technically limiting the myriad ways a message can be encoded are his invention, partly based on the work of Polish codebreakers. But he’s a weird one, Turing. Shy and mostly living in his own head, he seems happiest when dealing with numbers. Or when he’s running. Sherlock sympathises with him. For him the cycling does it, or his violin and experiments when he needs distraction from abstract brain work.
Sherlock also has a strong inkling that Turing is gay, like a number of people at Bletchley. Unlike some of them, however, Turing is prudently careful not to display it openly. Bletchley Park is notorious for romances, the path round the lake a favourite beauty spot for many couples. But those romantic entanglements conducted in the open are strictly between men and women for fear of repercussions, although there are hints of those of other kinds if one looks closely. Sherlock does look closely, always and unscrupulously, but he couldn’t care less about these things. Romance or sexual intercourse have never interested him. The mere thought is unappealing, and if he’s perfectly honest, quite frightening. Sentiment, he thinks derisively, which makes people irrational and limits their intellectual powers. And sex must be worse if one forfeits the control over one’s body during the act, becoming a slave to base biology. And worse still, it involves having to deal with other people in a very intimate way. No, thank you kindly. It’s not for him, never has been, never will.
So whether Turing and the rest of Bletchley are gay or straight, abstinent or running after everything wearing a skirt like Anderson, they are welcome to their choice of idiocy. Sherlock is glad to leave them to their fancy, as long as they leave him in peace and don’t get on his nerves. All he is interested in is the Work.
As if to test his resolution, after he’s fetched himself some stew, bread and cheese and a pot of milky tea, and is settled on a bench near the door where he can feel a draught of air, a shadow falls on his table. He hears a rustle of cloth and an excited whisper, “Come on, just ask him,” followed by a slight push. There’s a nervous rearranging or hair judging from the sound, and a tentative step forward.
“Hello, Sherlock,” says a slightly tremulous voice, despite the hard work the owner is obviously putting into making it sound calm and confident. For a moment Sherlock is tempted to ignore it. He recognises the voice (educated, middle-class, originally from the East Midlands but stayed long enough in London area to pick up a City dialect, either the family moved or she stayed with relatives, had a slight cold recently) and faint smell of perfume (difficult to place, borrowed, flowery, rather expensive, must research perfumes more thoroughly) and links it with somewhat mousey features and shy smiles directed at him. Better get it over with quickly, he then decides. With deliberate slowness he puts down his spoon and gazes up into the blushing face of Molly Hooper, one of the many female clerks from Hut 8 who spend their shifts punching holes into Banbury sheets.
Sherlock doesn’t understand why so many highly intelligent women are reduced to these uninspired (if necessary) tasks, when many of them would make brilliant cryptoanalists themselves. Molly is no exception. She speaks several languages, amongst them good German and French, has a quick wit and pays attention to detail. She also has a morbid fascination with dead things which Sherlock shares and finds almost endearing. In spring when a mummified bat was found behind the radiator, close to where Turing usually chains his mug to prevent it from getting stolen, most of the women and many of the men cringed and demanded the dead thing to be removed immediately. Only Molly and Sherlock took an interest. Molly even managed to identify the species by the size and shape of its ears (Pipistrellus pipistrellus). Sherlock still keeps the bat in one of his jars. Molly is … all right, as far as fellow human beings range on Sherlock’s scale from ‘obnoxious imbeciles’ to ‘good’.
Now, however, the competent Miss Hooper is reduced to a nervous wreck as she stands, wringing her hands in front of her. She has done something with her hair that makes it look like a bird has attempted to pile it in a nest and failed, and wears lipstick for a change, the colour too pink for her complexion. She has also opened the top button of her blouse, which is reasonable in the heat. Sherlock gives her a quick once-over and decides to be kind and spare her the trouble of a long speech. Molly is tolerable company where codebreaking and talking about dead bats is concerned, but it’s obvious even to Sherlock that she is trying to steel herself into asking him out, and that simply won’t do. Why do people even bother? He sits up straighter.
“Hello, Molly,” he replies evenly.
“I … hello.” She smiles nervously. “I’m sorry for interrupting your meal. I was just wondering …”
“Whether I would like to accompany you to the concert tomorrow evening. Bach, is it? I fear I shall have to decline. Not because of Johann Sebastian, whose music as you rightly recalled I usually enjoy, but rather because the last time I attended one of the amateur musical entertainments here I found the second violins so badly out of tune that I left early. For your sake and that of your friends I hope the conductor will pay more attention to the tuning this time round and prevent his orchestra from thoroughly butchering the pieces.”
Molly blushes almost as pink as her lipstick and the bow in the hair of her friend, the one who urged her on (seems to have a penchant for pink clothing in general, already dressed up for a date, Welsh, doesn’t work in Hut 8 but at the mansion, perhaps on the teleprinters, acquaintance of Molly’s through shared lodgings, broken off engagement, string of lovers), then casts down her eyes.
“Uh, all right, then. Um. thanks for the warning. I guess. I’ll let you know if they were better in tune this time, yes? The violins, I mean.”
Sherlock is about to tell her that he really doesn’t care. She does look rather dejected, though. Why? Isn’t that what one does? Being truthful? Warning her of what is likely to turn out to be an underwhelming experience? Was that not kinder than inventing some kind of lie? Ah … it’s not about the concert itself, is it? She thinks I’m rejecting her. I didn’t say so, did I? Why does she believes it, then? Why are these things so complicated? It’s not my problem she wants to attend a potentially dreadful concert and desires my company. I’ve never given her any indication that I desire hers. Still, better be civil. Might need her expertise on bats again.
“Please,” he offers, smiling briefly. God, it must look dreadfully fake. As an afterthought, he adds, “Pay attention to the cellos, too. One usually plays half a beat behind. It’s quite upsetting.”
“I will. Have a good day, Sherlock.”
He gives her a nod and picks up his spoon again, overhearing Molly’s pink friend mutter in her Welsh lilt clearly loud enough from him to hear, “He is a bit of a freak, isn’t he? Sorry for persuading you to ask him. That’s codebreakers for you. All brains and no balls. Believe me, I know. Don’t recognise a pretty gal when she’s dancing naked in front of them. At least this one knows how to put on his trousers the right way round. But hey, don’t be sad. My friend Jim, he has a good-looking mate who’s in the army and on leave at the moment. I’ll ask him to bring him round when I meet him tonight. You’ll like him. And oh hello, what this? Nice uniform, don’t you think, and the contents aren’t too bad, either. Shame about the limp, but hey, the rest certainly makes up for it.”
Her voice is drowned by the general background noise in the canteen as they leave the building. The last thing Sherlock hears from the duo is a playful whistle and a sharp, “Jenny, behave,” from Molly.
Sherlock sighs and dedicates himself to his meal again. Someone has left a stack of newspapers on the table and he flicks through them as he eats. Unsurprisingly, the crossword has already been filled in but there are a few blank fields, and at least two entries are incorrect. Sherlock seems to have lost his pen, he realises as he searches his pockets. Casting a look around for a familiar and not entirely annoying face to borrow a writing utensil from, he notices that one has just entered the canteen.
Dr. Stamford is stepping through the door, accompanied by what seems to have been the cause for Pink Jenny’s catcall and sudden excitement.
“Bit different from Bart’s canteen, eh?” Mike is saying to the officer who has arrived with him (naval surgeon, rank captain, wounded in action, newly arrived, likely on official invitation, walked from station despite limp, train must have been delayed …). “You can get food all day round here, even in the middle of the night. And decent grub, too. Do you remember the sludge they served at the hospital on Fridays and what looked (and tasted) like the leftovers from the entire week thrown together? You won’t find that rubbish here. But of course it’s no officers’ mess, either,” he adds with a wink and a good-natured clap to the other’s shoulder (flinches ever so slightly, recent injury to shoulder, traumatic experience, limp likely psychosomatic …).
“Mike, can I borrow your pen?” asks Sherlock. The doctor is usually equipped with one, even if he is wearing civilian clothing at the moment.
Stamford turns to him and smiles. “Oh, hello, Sherlock. Wait, let me see.” He pats the pockets of his jacket. “Here,” he says, stepping up to the table and handing over a fountain pen. “Might be out of ink, though.”
Obviously, Sherlock thinks as he receives it. It’s too light. Nevertheless he tries it on the edge of the newspaper and manages to draw only a scratchy line. “It is,” he says, handing it back.
Stamford shrugs. “Sorry,” he apologises at he returns it to the inner pocket of his jacket. “Forgot to refill it. Pencil’s gone, too. Must have lost it.”
At this, the naval officer limps over to the table as well, rests his walking stick against it and withdraws a fountain pen from the flat briefcase he has been carrying under the arm not wielding the stick.
“Here, try mine,” he says.