His first real observation of her is when he’s two.
I ask but this - again to rove
Through scenes my youth hath known before.
Few are my years, and yet I feel
The world was ne'er designed for me
She and Mycroft are sitting on the sofa together, Mycroft reading from a collection of Lord Byron (though he won’t know it is Byron for five more years, just knows Mycroft’s sing-song “reading aloud” voice, all serious vowels and hard consonants). She is sitting close to Mycroft, one long leg tucked underneath of her, the other up in a triangle with her foot resting flat on the couch. Her chin is on her knee, her hands closed together slightly lower, the fingers resting entwined. It is late in the afternoon, the sun shining in from the window behind them. Sherlock can see the dust motes floating in the air around her hair, knows from the experience of having little hands clasped at the back of her neck that the curls at her nape are slightly damp from the summer heat, even indoors.
He tries to scramble up onto the couch with them, look over Mycroft’s shoulder onto the page. Mycroft elbows him sharply; Mycroft doesn’t like to share, especially their mother.
Sherlock’s trying not to cry when strong, capable arms pick him up, deposit him in her lap. Her cool hand brushes curls back from his forehead.
Mycroft keeps reading.
She kisses the top of Sherlock’s head.
Both of the adults are sitting in the small chairs made for the children. It’s a bit ridiculous, Sherlock thinks from his vantage point on the floor; it throws the proportions all off. He’s pretending to be occupying himself with a floor puzzle featuring a collection of dinosaurs. He has done it at least a dozen times already (no, thirteen), but this time he is trying to put it together using only the patterns of the creases that have come from overuse, not from the pictures or the shapes of the pieces.
His mother is waiting for the Mrs. Harris to begin, the slight swing of her foot under the flow of her ankle-length skirt betraying her slight impatience.
Mrs. Harris clears her throat. “Sherlock is a lovely boy.”
His mother smiles -- politely, but not without a pinch of both humor and pride. “Of course.”
Mrs. Harris smiles back, without humor or pride. Maybe a little superiority. “Yes. Very bright. Inquisitive. Always busy, that one.”
His mother smiles again, waiting.
“But.” Mrs. Harris pauses. “But, well. His social skills could use a little work.”
“Yes. Of course he’s still young, but at four we would expect him to be playing more with the other children. We think some pretend play with others might be positive for his development; or he could participate in some of the games the children play.”
Sherlock slots a puzzle piece into place. The other children are boring.
“I see.” His mother’s foot is still swinging. “What kinds of things does Sherlock do?”
“He mostly keeps to himself. Puzzles, blocks. He enjoys the drawing materials. Which is fine, perfectly appropriate. Perhaps in more moderation, though.”
“I see. How would you go about . . . urging him to interact with the other children?”
Mrs. Harris shifts in her seat. “We would encourage him to join in with the others -- spend more time in the dramatic play area. Maybe with the dress-up clothes.”
“Not that you would make him do anything he doesn’t want to do,” his mother says, rather politely.
“Oh no, no. Not at all. We might give him some suggestions or encouragement. But no. We don’t force anything.” Sherlock knows that tone; it’s the one Mrs. Harris uses with her boss when she’s lying about why she was late for work.
“Of course not.”
“No, of course not. But we should also . . . discuss his interactions with the children when he does have them. We think playing with them more could help him in that area, too. Sherlock seems to have some trouble . . . understanding what to do in group situations.”
Sherlock puts the tail on the triceratops. Now they’ve come to the real thing.
“Such as?” his mother asks. “Is he hitting or biting?”
Mrs. Harris laughs. It’s a thin sound. “No, no. Nothing like that. But he does.” She pauses, as if searching for the right word. “He does, bother the other children.”
“Oh,” his mother says. “Oh. You mean he bothers you.”
Mrs. Harris’ mouth opens. “No, no. That’s not what I meant at all.”
“Well. Then can you give me an example?”
“Alright. For example, the other day he told Penny that her hair wouldn’t look so garish if perhaps she had it cut shorter since the braids do nothing to cover up her unusually prominent cheekbones.” Ms. Harris sits up straighter in her chair, the words sounding well-rehearsed. She thinks she’s on surer ground here.
“Isn’t Penny the little girl with the red hair? With the hollow cheeks?”
“I think you’re missing the point, Miss Holmes,” Mrs. Harris says. She puts emphasis on the miss, and Sherlock looks up quickly at his mother. He knows it’s an insult, can tell from the way the woman says it, but he doesn’t understand why.
His mother raises her eyebrows. “What is the point, then? Why don’t you enlighten me?”
“He made her cry. Of course she didn’t understand the whole of what he said, but she certainly understood the meaning -- and we don’t encourage bullying,” Mrs. Harris says, as if crying has ever proven anything.
But it must, because his mother sighs. “We’ll work on it at home. I’ll have a talk with him.”
Miss Harris smiles, and it is triumphant this time. “I’m sure you will. Thank you.”
His mother ties his scarf before she bundles him into the waiting taxi. There is silence for a few minutes until she says, “You can’t go around making people cry, you know.”
Sherlock looks out of the window, sulking. “But it was true.”
“I’m sure it is. But you can’t go around saying everything that pops into your head.”
“Why not?” It’s an honest question.
“Because people have feelings.”
“I have feelings, too,” he says, still looking out the window, watching London go by. He feels his mother’s hand on the top of the head, turning his head until he’s facing her, looking up at her.
“I know, my love,” she says, raking her fingers through his curls and then pulling him toward her for a kiss on the forehead.
She’s putting him to bed when he tells her. She’s just carefully marked their place in The Two Towers and is making sure the curtains are closed when he says it.
“I’ve decided to call you Mother from now on.”
She straightens up from where she has bent slightly to turn off the lamp. “Is that so?”
“Yes. Quite. I’ve decided it’s more official than Mummy.”
“Official.” She turns off the lamp and Sherlock can feel her looking at him carefully, her face mostly in shadow except where it is illuminated by the light in the hall.
She leans down again, but instead of kissing his cheek, like always, she reaches out and smooths down the coverlet with her long fingers. “Alright, Sherlock. Good night.”
“Good night, Mother,” he says as she exits the room, leaving the door open just a crack.
She’s sitting on the couch, legs tucked under her, reading. Sherlock pads in, book in hand. She looks up briefly, then again when she notices the look on his face.
“What does perspicacity mean?” he asks.
She tilts her head as if considering the question. Or him.
“You’re eight. I think you are old enough to find out for yourself.” She smiles, but she goes back to reading her book.
From then on, Sherlock knows that if he has a question, he also has the ability the work out an answer for himself -- whether or not the dictionary is helpful.
Marian Holmes is an English teacher. An English teacher. Sherlock knew this before, of course, but it seems grossly, obscenely obvious to him now, standing in the hallway of her school, waiting for her to be finished with parents’ night. He came with her because he’ll be here in this building next year, when he’s twelve. He’s been skipped forward so much they decided to go ahead and skip him all the way to fourth year next year. He had wanted to get a feel for the place, let it simmer in his mind, give him something to chew on while he sits through Mr. Marks’ geometry class.
Mycroft had gone to university at 16, and Sherlock is desperate to make it there even sooner.
But now, surrounded by the welcoming bulletin boards and old lockers, Sherlock finds himself mildly shocked by the place. It’s dirty. It smells like . . . well, like socks. The algebra on the math teacher’s door across the hall is wrong. And his mother is here every day. Every day -- for years, for as long as he can remember.
She’s bright. She has a sharp mind, he knows that. Brilliant, even. Maybe not quite as brilliant as Mycroft, and certainly not as bright as he is, but even so, remarkable. He knows she loves words, too, always has. There are more books in their flat than anything else -- than clothes, than shoes, than food. But to think that she spends her days trying to cram Shelly and Dickens into the thick skulls of hormonal teenagers brings a sudden lump to his throat.
She could have done anything. Science . . . chemistry, physics, even medicine.
But English at a public school?
He had seen his grandfather, once or twice, at the great big house up north. He’d handed Sherlock a butterscotch and given his mother a disapproving look.
Two boys with what Sherlock had always assumed were two different men before the age of thirty. (Sherlock knew nothing about his father and cared even less.) No wonder the old man disapproved. How pedestrian, though.
Had she settled for this? Also pedestrian. He knew the money had to come from somewhere. She couldn’t afford uni, violin and piano lessons, chemistry sets, books, science camps, Latin tutoring, all the things he and Mycroft did, on a teacher’s salary. The profession must have been a concession to the old man.
She had literally sold out her mind. Her intellect, exchanged for money.
He looks at her sadly when she finally comes out of her room after all of the parents have left, shrugging into her jacket.
Her forehead wrinkles in a familiar gesture of confusion. “What is it, Sherlock?”
He shakes his head. “Nothing.”
She blinks, an outward sign of her mental shrug. They start walking down the hallway. “Take away?” she asks.
“Sure,” he says.
He knows she’s going out because she’s wearing perfume. She smells like fruit and flowers. Tangerine and gardenia, which he thinks is an odd combination, but it seems to work for her. She always wears that perfume when she’s going to meet a man. Sherlock doesn’t mind, never has. There are times when she goes out fairly often, as if she has a regular bloke; mostly she goes out a couple of times every few months. It’s likely she’s had lovers. She’s an attractive woman. She never brings them home, Sherlock has never met them, and that’s the way he likes it. He doesn’t think about it much.
“The menus are in the drawer. Order dinner when you’re ready,” she says, toeing on high heels.
Sherlock doesn’t look up; he’s studying for a chemistry exam at uni. He knows it all, of course, but it won’t hurt to look things over. He’s only fourteen, and knows those eighteen year old tossers who sit behind him are just ready and waiting for him to fail. He won’t give them the satisfaction.
Suddenly she’s standing in front of him. He looks up. She looks happy . . . no, excited. Her eyes are sparkling.
“And do order dinner, Sherlock,” she says. “You can’t forget to eat. You look like a bean pole as it is.”
“Yes, Mother,” he says, thinking that he’ll order from across the street if he remembers.
She sighs, as if she knows he won’t remember. He probably won’t. “Money’s on the table for it.”
“Right,” he says, going back to his book.
“Right,” she says, opening the front door. “Don’t wait up.” The door closes.
She dies when Sherlock is nineteen.
It’s not even a puzzle. Breast cancer. It had killed her mother, now it had killed her, too.
They had known it was coming, but it had still happened fast, all of four months. Sherlock had visited her twice. Mycroft had played a more dutiful son, visiting in hospital and sending flowers. Sherlock hates him for it. Hates himself a little more.
The funeral is a crowd of people Sherlock doesn’t know. The press of sweaty hands to his. Too young, too young, she was too young they say.
He doesn’t know what that means. It’s all dull. He can’t focus.
When it’s over, Mycroft hands him a thick envelope. His name is on the front, in her hand. He puts it in the pocket of his coat.
He starts using cocaine after she dies.
He thinks it’s a coincidence.
John finds the envelope not long after he moves in. He’s (compulsively, Sherlock thinks) tidying Sherlock’s desk when he runs across it, tucked under a copy of Crime and Punishment.
“What’s this?” John asks, holding it up between his fingers.
“What does it look like?” Sherlock asks dryly. John frowns, but just a little, more out of habit than real disapproval.
“Just put it in the drawer. The top right one,” Sherlock says. “I’ll get to it later.”
It’s not the first time he’s told himself that, but this time he actually believes it.