John limped through the stalls, dodging pushchairs and avoiding eye contact with the overly enthusiastic vendors trying to get him to sample their hemp lotions and vegan dips.
After their unexpected encounter in Russell Square Gardens, Mike Stamford had called and invited him over for dinner (“Suzy wants to meet you, says she wants to hear embarrassing stories about med school. Just don’t tell her about the golf buggy incident!”). John had volunteered to bring dessert. He certainly wasn’t going to attempt to bake something, especially not in the tiny, ill-equipped kitchenette in his depressing bedsit, so when he woke up to a reasonably sunny Saturday morning he decided to make his way to the local farmers’ market. He’d walked past signs for it before, but he’d never had a reason to actually go, since there was only so much kale a man could eat on his own.
Although he had been hoping that getting some exercise and fresh air would lift his spirits, he hadn’t anticipated how crowded the market would be, and more than once he found his hand instinctively twitching toward an imaginary gun after being jostled by passersby. He tried to keep his head down, focusing on the tip of his cane as it tapped against the pavement. Eventually, the yeasty smell of fresh bread drew his gaze upward, and he sidled up to a table heaped with all manner of baked goods. The banner running across the top of the booth was decorated with practically pornographic close-ups of pies and the words “Greg’s Goodies.”
“You looking for anything specific?” John looked up from the Victoria Sponge he’d been surreptitiously poking, and found the vendor grinning at him. He was a middle-aged man, handsome, whose salt-and-pepper hair was at odds with the silver hoop in one of his ears and his shirt, which was decorated with tattoo flash that said “BAKE OR DIE.”
“I don’t suppose you have anything low carb here, do you.” John gave a wry smile as he eyed a particularly appealing carrot cake. (After cracking a joke about his expanded waistline, Mike had mentioned that he’d been trying out the Atkins diet. John had resisted the urge to comment, though really, the man was a doctor and should know better than that.)
The vendor laughed. “I’m afraid you’re out of luck there, mate. Maybe you should get some bacon from Miss Hooper.” He gestured with his chin to a booth across the way, where a young woman with long brown hair pulled back into a tight ponytail was erasing the words “lamb chops, £14/kg” from her chalkboard inventory. According to the hand-lettered sign on the booth, her stall was called “Straight from the Slab.”
“Hah, well, not so sure my friend would like that for dessert.”
“Fair enough.” The vendor put on an exaggerated scheming expression. “Then maybe you should just forget him altogether and get what you want.”
It was nice to be having a conversation with a stranger who wasn’t regarding him with obvious pity. John was used to people constantly casting anxious glances at his cane, or — even worse — maintaining the kind of unnaturally focused eye contact that can only come from studiously avoiding looking at his cane. “Yeah, maybe that’s a good call. Now I just need to figure out what I want.”
“How ’bout a —”
“Gavin, can I borrow your phone? The battery on mine’s dead.”
John turned his head to the side to see who had just interrupted the first decent conversation he’d had in days (and christ, wasn’t that a depressing thought, reduced to socializing with friendly bakers trying to sell him cupcakes). Then he turned his head up. It was a tall, slender man with dark curly hair and an… interesting face. (John had a weak spot for interesting faces.) On top of what appeared to be some rather posh clothes, he was wearing an apron with various molecular structures printed on it; John couldn’t recognize any of them from his biochemistry training.
The vendor rolled his eyes. “For chrissakes, Sherlock, it’s Greg. It’s literally IN THE NAME OF MY SHOP. And no, you can’t borrow my phone, I dropped it in a vat of cake batter yesterday — I threw that batch out, by the way.” (This last bit was directed toward John, who was eyeing the Victoria Sponge with new suspicion.)
The man — Sherlock? — gave a put upon sigh. “Er, here, use mine,” John volunteered, passing his phone over.
The man turned to him as though he hadn’t even realized there was another person there, ran his eyes rapidly up and down John’s body, and then took the phone. As he slid out the keypad and began typing, he spoke again without looking up. “Afghanistan or Iraq?”
“Sorry?” John gripped his cane a bit harder and glanced at Greg, whose impassive expression wasn’t very informative.
Still typing, and still looking intently at the tiny phone screen, Sherlock repeated himself. “Which was it — Afghanistan or Iraq?”
“Afghanistan. Sorry, how did you know…?”
“Ah, Molly, that must be the goat’s milk.” The brown-haired woman from the butcher stall had approached with a small glass bottle in hand. Sherlock closed the phone and passed it back to John — still without looking — as he reached for the bottle with his other hand.
The woman smiled shyly and shrugged her shoulders. “It wasn’t a problem, I was going to the farm anyway to pick up my meat.”
Sherlock ignored her response to a “thank you” he hadn’t given, instead unscrewing the cap of the bottle and taking a deep sniff. He held the bottle up to the light and peered at it intently. He dipped an index finger into the liquid and drew it out, rubbing it against his thumb as though assessing the texture. Then he popped the finger into his mouth, sucking the milk from it. John tried not to stare at Sherlock’s lips wrapped around his knuckle. John failed. He continued failing not to stare as Sherlock withdrew the finger and smacked his lips thoughtfully.
“Hmm, too grassy. Tell them they need to change the proportions of their feed.” Sherlock handed the open bottle back to Molly and turned his back to her, dismissing her before she could even attempt to respond. After a bit of futile stammering, she walked back to her stand.
“How do you feel about blue cheese?” Sherlock had removed a handkerchief from his pocket and was meticulously wiping his hands.
John glanced at Greg, who didn’t look like he was preparing an answer, and concluded that he himself must have been the target of the question, nonsensical though it may be. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Blue cheese. It’s an important component of any well-selected cheese plate, but many people find the odor off-putting.”
“Who said anything about cheese plates?”
Shelock’s piercing stare returned to John. “I did. You’re an Army doctor and you’ve been invalided home from Afghanistan. You’ve been invited to the house of an old friend for dinner — possibly a long-lost army pal, more likely a medical school classmate. You volunteered to bring dessert but you find yourself stymied by your friend’s irrational refusal to ingest carbohydrates. Fad diets, the realm of the weak and witless. But what you don’t know, much like the rest of the population of England, is that a cheese plate is considered dessert in many places. And that is where I come in.” Sherlock gestured with a flourish toward an adjacent stall, a table piled with a haphazard assortment of cheeses.
John’s eyebrows, which had been steadily climbing toward his hairline over the course of Sherlock’s speech, reached an all-time apex. “Brilliant!”
“And I didn’t even get to your psychosomatic limp.”
“My — what?”
“Never mind. Come with me.”
John looked at Greg and shrugged; Greg only smiled indulgently and waved him off. John walked the few steps to Sherlock’s booth, where Sherlock was already managing to look impatient.
“So, you’re the owner of…” John glanced up at the banner. “…The Science of… Turophilia?”
“Indeed.” The man stuck out his hand. “Sherlock Holmes, master cheesemaker.”
John shook the outstretched hand. “John Watson, amateur cheese eater.” He might have seen the shadow of a smirk cross Sherlock’s face at that, but it also might have been wishful thinking. Dumb jokes might work for Three-Continents Watson with tipsy women in loud pubs, but Crippled Depressed Watson’s game with ethereal cheese-making fairies was another matter.
“Well, John Watson, what kind of cheese do you like to eat?” Was it John’s imagination, or was Sherlock flirting back?
“Um, I’m afraid I don’t know very much about cheese. I like… cheddar?”
“Practically everyone’s an idiot when it comes to cheese. At least you’re aware of it. Just trust everything I say and you’ll be fine.” Okay, it was John’s imagination.
Sherlock continued speaking. “I make all my own cheeses, following strict recipes that have been exhaustively tested to ensure maximal enjoyment. Cheesemaking is a science like any other. It’s all about manipulating variables — milk sources, temperatures, bacterial cultures, curing times, pH. If you are precise about what you put in, then you know exactly what you’ll wind up with. I can identify the age and diet of a goat by the taste of its milk. I can tell butter made from a Guernsey’s milk apart from the butter of a Jersey.”
“That’s amazing.” John had never met anyone so obsessed with cheese. Hell, he was pretty sure he’d never met anyone so obsessed with anything. And he’d gone to medical school.
Sherlock smiled modestly. “Merely deductive skill.” And with that he began digging through his pile of cheeses, muttering to himself and occasionally setting aside a bundle with a small “aha!” When he had amassed a small collection, he began unwrapping one and turned his attention back to John.
“This is a sheep’s milk cheese, aged for three years. The aging lends a nuttiness that complements the natural tartness of the sheep’s milk. The crystals in this one practically bounce off your palate.” He held out a chunk impaled on the tip of his knife.
John nodded, pretending that he not only understood what Sherlock was saying but was impressed by it. Well, he was impressed by it, but probably not for the reasons Sherlock intended. He took the small cube and chewed it with what he hoped was a thoughtful expression on his face. It tasted like cheese. “Yes, very, uh, nutty.”
Sherlock’s lack of eye roll suggested that he was too focused on his task to actually listen to John. “This blue cheese is made from raw cow’s milk. I’ve cultivated my own unique strain of mold that toes the fine line between pungent and offensive.” He held a chunk out in his fingers and dropped it into John’s open palm. “You know, some people have compared the aroma of blue cheese to the smell of sex.” John inhaled his partially-chewed cheese and began coughing violently. “I tend to think those people should encourage their sexual partners to seek medical attention. Though you would know, as a medical man yourself.”
“Um, right. It’s… yes. It tastes very… blue? Like blue cheese, I mean. Not blue like pornography. I don’t know what pornography tastes like.” God, he was becoming more awkward by the second.
Sherlock, thankfully, was barreling on, ignoring John’s inane commentary. “This is a young cow’s milk cheese that was soaked in pinot noir for approximately 24 hours at the start of the aging process. I ensure that each cheese reaches the same exact shade of red before I remove it from the wine. It involves meticulous study.”
“A study in scarlet,” John blurted out, and then inwardly cringed.
“Hm?” Sherlock looked up from the cheese he was gently cradling in his hand, and raised an eyebrow.
“Uh, nothing. It was just… alliteration.”
“A study in scarlet. Hm.” A faraway expression came over Sherlock’s face. “Interesting. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but people like that sort of thing. Yes.” He nodded decisively, as though he and John had agreed on something, then returned to his monologue where he had left off. “The tannins from the wine lend an astringent quality that balances the creaminess, keeps it from being too rich.” This time he held the sample out on an outstretched palm, and John plucked it up and popped it into his mouth.
“That’s very nice. You can really taste the wine.”
“It does retain some alcohol, though in very small amounts. Wouldn’t be enough to intoxicate an infant.”
“So you’re not trying to get me drunk, then?” John tried his best rakish grin.
It was futile, because Sherlock was already focusing on the next sample. He unwrapped a small white cylinder and began spreading a bit on a cracker. “And here’s a lovely fresh chèvre. It’s perhaps a rather obvious choice, but it does round out the plate nicely. And it’s delightful paired with this.” Sherlock drizzled some dark amber honey onto the mound of cheese with a flourish, his long, graceful fingers wielding the spoon with expert precision. He then used those fingers to pop the entire thing directly into John’s mouth — which had been hanging open in an overwhelming combination of confusion, admiration, and arousal.
“Mm, that’s good,” John managed, after he finally swallowed the contents of his suddenly-too-dry mouth.
“I harvest the honey from my own bee hives,” Sherlock stated proudly.
“That’s very impressive,” John replied. Sherlock seemed to preen under the praise momentarily, but then he shook his head back and forth as if to clear it.
“Okay, so.” He looked down at the pile and started sorting out packages. “We’ve got the aged sheep, the special blue, the pinot, and the chevre…”
As he began stacking up the cheeses, it suddenly occurred to John that he’d been so swept up by Sherlock’s enthusiasm (and perhaps some other things) that he’d forgotten that this was building towards a monetary transaction. His army pension was barely covering the rent on his tiny bedsit; he definitely didn’t have money to spend on luxuries. And he might not be an expert, but he knew enough about cheese to know that quality was expensive. There weren’t even prices listed anywhere, and that was never a good sign.
Oh well. There was nothing for it; it was time to let this little fantasy go. Better to speak up now, before Sherlock could give an actual sum, which would somehow multiply the humiliation exponentially.
“You’ve been very helpful, but I — I don’t think I can afford this,” John said, squaring his shoulders and looking anywhere but at Sherlock’s face.
“Don’t worry about it. You’re the first person who hasn’t told me to piss off by the time I got to the line about sex.” Sherlock passed the (alarmingly heavy) bag over to John, who looked up at him and opened his mouth to protest. Sherlock immediately waved a hand lazily through the air, batting the unspoken protests away. “Besides, the first one’s free. That’s how I get my clients hooked.” With that he winked at John — he bloody winked — and turned his attention to another customer.
John stood there opening and closing his mouth for a moment, deliberating just leaving the bag on the counter and making a run for it. Ultimately, he decided that limping away as rapidly as he could (which wasn’t particularly rapidly) would just be too pathetic an exit, even for him. He’d probably trip. And knock over an old lady.
And maybe… maybe this debt could be an excuse. For what, he didn’t know. But he’d figure something out. He turned around, bag clasped firmly in his hand, and prepared to walk back home.
“Hey, mate, no pie for you?” The baker was giving him a knowing grin.
“Ah, sorry, no, I guess not.” He held up the bag and shrugged. “Ta for the help though… Greg, was it?”
“Yep, like it says on the sign. Greg Lestrade. And you are…?”
“Pleased to meet you, John. Maybe next week I can tempt you with something sweet?”
John glanced back at the cheese booth, where Sherlock appeared to be arguing with a middle-aged woman. “You cannot possibly expect me to sell you cheese to put on Ritz crackers,” Sherlock shouted as he threw his arms around in disgust.
“Yeah, I’ll be back.” John nodded a goodbye and began the walk back to his bedsit, with an unexpected spring in his step.