I met myself once, on a railway platform. In the pages of a book, where I bore a name not mine and lived a memory that until that moment I had never been able to trace, where two men laughed whose faces I knew but whose names I had never been told.
Quite by chance my train was late, so I stepped up to W. H. Smith & Son’s bookstall and began to leaf through the yellow-backed re-prints of popular novels. I have little time for reading – it has not been easy making a living in this time, in this city. I must work harder, quicker, meet orders faster than the rest. I have… disadvantages, you understand, in the eyes of my customers.
What time I do have to read I spend on the newspapers, as a rule. The world is changing, and I look for signs that it may be changing in the right direction. That demands a very close reading indeed, I am sorry to say. That evening, I was especially tired. Tired from work, tired of swimming upstream, tired with the world and its idiocy. I wanted a little escape, and what better than a book of detective stories? Romances may be full of people getting what they want, what they deserve, but I have too much experience of the opposite to be pleased by them. Better a story about people who could never be me.
Until, suddenly, there I was.
The tall, thin man had laughed as he touched me – well, I am used to that now, laughter, and worse. Yet the memory, once conjured off the page, did not feel like that. It was more that he did not laugh quite enough, so he was taking the opportunity while he could. The other, I remembered before I read it, had laughed with me. I think one should always have someone to laugh with.
I bought the book on an impulse, and read the whole story again, with the others, over the next few journeys. Did he, did they, still think of the old cases, now nearly twenty years later? Would they be pleased with what I had made of my life since, my liberators from anonymity and bestowers of a new name? Time is precious, but also fleeting, and an opportunity lost, like a reason to laugh, may not be given again.
The end result of this philosophizing was that I became determined to visit Mr Sherlock Holmes, inhabitant of one of the most famous addresses in London, bringing no case but myself. Thus, I came to be walking up from Oxford Street on a fresh Sunday morning in September. He did not strike a reader as a man who would be at church, and besides, the rest of the week I had to work. Baker Street, the Regents’ Park end, on the left hand side of the street: number two hundred and seventeen; nineteen; twenty-one. Twenty-one B; rooms above street level, and there was the door to the staircase, up two shallow steps: a handsome, glossy black front door with a knocker that had known many more famous hands than mine. It was a little tarnished, not what I should have expected from so energetic and formidable a landlady as the Mrs Hudson of the stories.
I waited on the step for a long time, but no-one came. Everyone out, then, solving crimes, or buying fish for a supper that might or might not be eaten. I had actually turned to leave when the door opened slowly and a woman’s face peered out of the gloom of a narrow hallway. She was not nearly as old as I had imagined: grey- haired now, yes, but then so perhaps were her tenants.
"Mrs…Mrs Hudson? I had wondered, had hoped that Mr Holmes might be in?"
She stared. I am used to that, too; but it was something other which caught her gaze, something over my shoulder. The ghosts of other clients, other times, perhaps, for she shook her head as one scarcely believing that what she had to say was true.
"I am sorry, but Mr Holmes is not at home. That is to say, he is no longer at home. Gone, my dear, gone away. As I shall be doing myself, presently."
It was then I noticed the boxes and crates piled behind her, the ‘For Sale’ sign propped against the staircase ready for the house agent to collect. Where, then, had he gone, and why? There had been nothing in the papers, I could have sworn it. Kept secret, it seemed, for when I asked for a forwarding address she regretted, it was not for her to give it out. Mr Holmes was retired, and had given strict instructions not to reveal his whereabouts to anyone: not to the Press, not to the Police, "and most expressly not to would-be clients."
When I asked after Dr Watson instead, she started. His address also appeared to be confidential, though from a commercial point of view I could not see how a doctor with no address could set out his shingle with any success. A resident patient or two, perhaps? I have since discovered just how much money a really good and popular writer can make. Dr Watson could have specialised in the most obscure of obscure nervous lesions solely by Post Office Box correspondence and been very comfortably off indeed.
How to find a man who does not want to be found? Why, turn detective, of course.
I began with the facts I had. Mr Holmes had left Baker Street, as had Dr Watson. The book of tales in my coat pocket was all I knew of them, bar general legend and a playbill I had seen once, advertising Mr Gillette’s star turn in the leading role. My late mother had refused to take me to see the play, calling it "sensationalist and morally injurious." We never had the Holmes stories in our own library.
I leafed through the pages, which had begun to curl with use and damp – I had read the more exciting adventures in the rain, walking home from the station. Most of the stories in the collection took place away from London, the chief characters in them disguised as I had been. I was hardly in a position to enquire after Mr Holmes’ elder brother in Whitehall, always supposing him still alive. There were a few policemen mentioned by name, one of whom could have no fond memories of the dressing-down he received on the occasion of meeting the detective. That left Inspectors Gregson and Lanner, if indeed so called.
Marylebone Lane police station was busy turning out drunks and ruffians from the cells after a night nursing sore heads and black eyes. The desk sergeant shuffled papers while his constable, blond as fresh honey with a complexion of buttermilk, goggled at me without even troubling to hide it. He must have been new up from the country.
"Sherlock Holmes, eh, miss? Take my advice, you don’t want to go looking for ‘im, ‘less you’ve had a diamond tiara stolen lately, which between the two of us don’t seem too likely. No, miss, there are no such inspectors as Gregson and Lanner, not here, not anywhere in London, and if there were, and they did happen to know where Mr Holmes moved to, which I’m not saying they do, do you think he’d not know within ten minutes of you setting off, and arrange not to be in when you called?"
‘Ten minutes’, I repeated to myself as I made my way to the Underground. ‘Ten minutes’ could only mean the telephone, for no telegram could get there so fast, assuming the sergeant’s words to be no mere figure of speech but a real slip of the tongue. I thought the latter more likely. He certainly knew more than he was willing to tell me, and since that is another enduring fact of my life, I have learned to compensate by reading other people as closely as my newspaper.
The General Post Office, where they keep telephone directories for the whole country, would be closed, but what use were they when I had no idea where to begin to search? The quest had taken on a nearly spiritual significance. Ordinarily I am not one for pilgrimages of any sort. I badly needed to keep my feet firmly on the ground of economy and security. Yet I knew I would not be able to rest without at least trying every avenue open to me.
Once more I delved into the Memoirs, and found my clue in the strange story of The Musgrave Ritual. In it, you may recall, Holmes tells his friend how he started out in London, in rooms at Montague Place near the British Museum. Now, there was one thing I knew very well, and that was the Rag Trade – tailoring and all its associated businesses, one of them at that time being mine. The trade knows well that once you fit a young gentleman with a really good suit, so long as you attend to his changing (or constant) tastes and keep the bailiffs from your own door he is likely to remain your customer for life.
I had several friends and business contacts in Southampton Row, the nearest street to Montague Place with a decent assortment of gentleman’s tailors. Being mostly of the Jewish race in that street, or working for Jews, they would be at work on Sunday. Sure enough, when I went behind the handsome shop fronts into the dens of sweat and toil, buttoners were buttoning, finishers pressing and a nice hot cup of tea was mine for the asking.
The second place I tried came up trumps. Mr Katz, still three parts out of four a German from Hamburg, was a gossipy old man very proud of his long association with the legend of Baker Street.
"Of course, it was long before he was famous that I knew him first. Quite a challenge to dress: so long, so thin, so many darts to make a good fit. But he cut a fine figure when I was done with him. Clothes make the man, indeed, worn the right way, in the right place. Made a tailor’s blood curdle to see what the Americans made of him…"
When I finally persuaded him off the topic of idiot theatrical costumiers not knowing the difference between town and country wear (he had seen the Gillette play), he was careless enough, though he evaded all my direct questions, to let slip just the first syllable of Mr Holmes’ new habitat. "Suss-" could only mean Sussex. I smothered a triumphant smile, made polite goodbyes and left Mr Katz muttering and cursing himself for an old fool, to let his head be turned by a pretty face. Yes, I am positive I heard that last part.
The General Post Office of London is a buzzing beehive of communication that operates, fortunately for the working woman, late into the night. Just as well the new edition of the directory was just out, for he did not seem to have been gone long. I took my place on a tall stool beside a dozen others searching for that vital number and ran my finger down the letter H until I found him. There: Holmes, S. Shore House, Fulworth. Worthing 339.
Another Sunday: sheeting rain falling on the rails, hissing off the engine boiler, streaking the windows of a third class carriage to the south coast, dripping from the points of my umbrella. I had to take a cart to Fulworth village: more money – my money. I’ll be beggared before I ask for charity from James’ trustees. My parents’ own child, the true heir, the boy. Oh, certainly I was my parents’ child too. I was theirs for a long while. Gradually, gradually it crept in, though. Unless I married well (and who would marry me well?), it was understood that the business would fall to him.
Men understand these things so much better, don’t you know? They smuggle their special knowledge in, hidden wherever baby boys have hiding places, across that border when they come naked into the world. He had expectations. I had love, but love does not pay the bills nearly as often as poets would have you believe, and when my parents died I had just enough to set up on my own. Everything since has been what I worked for. They say that is sweeter: well, perhaps. James doesn’t seem very sour to me.
So why spend my time and substance chasing after two faces from the distant past? I asked my reflection in the mirror of the ladies’ waiting room at Victoria and it answered me back:
"Because of the other faces that go with them– the one you see now, and that other one your mother made you wear to hide it; because of the long white gloves and never leaving the house where people might see you. Mother’s face: love and fear, pride and shame, passing across it hour by hour like clouds on a windy day. Father’s face: watching; weighing; deciding. The feeling – drip, drip, like old rain on leaves - that none of those faces ever entirely went away. That’s why."
I couldn’t blame them, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. My mother could scarcely have carried on her deception forever. Their presence brought the moment of truth forward a little, that is all. Without an audience, my father would have made the same choice – I’m certain of it. If he hesitated a fraction to introduce me as his daughter at parties and before guests, well, that is understandable. People have eyes; and tongues. Businessmen have reputations to keep up.
I alighted at the church and asked directions of a startled old woodman taking shelter in the eaves of the lych-gate. It took a little time to lose the usual trail of fascinated urchins, but at last I walked alone up a steep green lane. The sun had come out but sudden showers fell from the crowded may- and rowan-trees as I brushed by and I had to put up my umbrella again. Briars tugged at my skirts. This was deep country. Norbury village had long since been swallowed up by the streetlamp and the omnibus but as a child, I had played in fields damp from dew. I could still name the flowers tangling about my feet.
As I broke cover and came into an open field sloping away right, bright light dazzled me coming off the water – I had not realised that the sea was so near. There was the house, flint and brick under peg tiles, sitting in a large and untidy garden. I braced myself and knocked at the door. No-one came. After a minute or two I tried again.
So, he had done just as the police sergeant had warned me he would; Mr Katz, not so bamboozled by a pretty face as all that, had made up for his mistake. I had reached the gate when a voice, not from the house but from somewhere behind it, stopped me.
I would have known him anywhere even if we had never met. Older, of course, but still in vigorous middle-age: a legend in a garden, a bunch of freshly-pulled radishes in his hand. This was the man who had chased after murderers and saved doomed men, pitied strong men brought low …and laughed with a little girl. He still had shrewd, merry, kindly eyes. I had not expected this and yet, why not?
"At your service, miss. Ah…"
The courtesy was ingrained, and already seemed old fashioned. He had not been told I was coming, that was clear. Behind the manners, he was wary – measuring my face, my dress, trying to work out if I was a servant out of place seeking a new situation, trying to find the most tactful way to send me away. A legend, but he was still a man of his time, of this age and this place, and I no longer a laughing child to make a cautionary moral point for a tale; to show that his illustrious friend was not, after all, infallible. I was not really disappointed: I knew how it must look, at face value.
"If you are here for Mr Holmes, I regret to say…"
"He is retired, yes. My ‘case’ was closed long ago; I only wished to see him again."
Again…and now it dawned, and we laughed, and twenty years flew by. As if at a signal, another figure came tramping up the path, tall as the sweet pea canes, all angles, still well-dressed by Mr Katz in country tweeds of a sober and becoming style, a veiled straw hat under his arm. He looked me up and down and chuckled, dry and clever, and I knew his face.
"Miss Munro," he said, though that is not the name he used, and he made a little bow. "It has been a long time. Would you care for some tea?"
So I went in, and they were proud of me, and commiserated, and offered no remedy; but then, they only solved crimes: they cannot make the world other than it is. They had come here, I think, to live out of the public gaze, for just that reason. I told you, I read people very closely indeed. Of course, I cannot be sure: I only saw that they laughed together, here, often – and I was pleased for it. One should always have someone for that.