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Ofrenda

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It’s the last week of October, so it’s a seasonal kind of inquiry.

“Who was he?” Polly asks one afternoon. She points to the mantlepiece. The skull does not look self-conscious.

“The skull?” She nods. “I wondered about that myself—“

 

[Slow dissolve to a happier time, specifically the late summer of 2011]

“Who was that?” I asked Sherlock one morning, as the light was striking the mantlepiece. “You said it was a friend; did you get to know them pre- or post-mortem?”

“You haven’t looked closely enough, or you could dispense with the political correctness, John.”

“Not my area, really. My experience has always involved flesh.”

Sherlock tsked at my provinciality. “I found it in Doyle’s, the same crowded little junk-antique shop where I found my violin. Quite a different shelf. It belonged to a man in his fifties or sixties, likely Northern European, probably English.”

“I’m surprised you haven’t had his DNA run.”

Sherlock looked the way he does when he’s been caught out acting normal. “It’s … None of his teeth are loose, and it seemed an imposition. I…We didn’t meet ‘professionally,’ if you like. Ending up in a junk-shop…he’s unlikely to have living heirs; people weren’t so fussy about human remains two hundred years ago. I wondered if he might have been a casualty of Bazalgette’s sewer construction. It isn’t that I’m unaware he ‘had a tongue and could sing once,’ but our acquaintance is more recent. He’s been a skull since before I came along, and likely will be when I’m one myself. Are you offended? Would you have him reinterred?”

I was surprised to find myself unwilling to take my usual place arguing in favour of sentimental values. It’s a mark of the way Sherlock acts that I, a qualified and experienced doctor of medicine with an inclination to the latest developments in gene sequencing and science in general, end up pleading for softer things. “Since you accuse me of political correctness, I really ought to. But my acquaintance with the dead—“

“Much wider than mine,” he interjected softly, as he would when he mentioned my days in the army.

“I show respect for the people they once were, and those who survive them. As you said, you never knew the person whose brain animated the rest of that skeleton. It seems as though that ship has sailed. We have no legacy of his life, his thoughts or feelings— but he’s an excellent skull. An interlocutor, an instructor in anatomy, an artist’s model—“

“A reminder that we are dust?”

“At least that even a head as thick as yours is breakable— it’s not a bad job for anyone.”

Sherlock didn’t answer, and I went back to reading the paper. When I looked up some minutes later he was studying me.
“What?” I asked. “Egg on my jumper?”

He shook his head. “You’ll never be ordinary, John.”

“I’m never sure if that’s a compliment or not.”

“You could take him to visit Molly, if you like. Ages since he’s been out, I’m sure he’d enjoy it.”

 

Having no means of gainful employment that day, I resolved to enliven someone else’s. I wrapped the skull in Sherlock’s scarf, placed it in a carrier bag, and went to Bart’s. “Oh, hello, John,” Molly said, her eyes flicking behind me for only an instant. “What have you got there?” I unwrapped my companion. “Oh, this is the one from Sherlock’s mantelpiece, isn’t it?”

My mantelpiece as well. But. “No particular reason. I was wondering if you could tell me anything about him, if you weren’t too busy.”

“It’s dead in here,” she said. “Oh. Sorry. Yes, lots of time today. How would you feel about unwiring his mandible?”

“Do you keep novocaine on the premises?”

“He’s a bit past that. I’ll get the snips.”

One of the best things about my life was having friends who thought questions about a random skull were perfectly reasonable. I really hoped Molly didn’t have kitten skeletons on her mantlepiece, though. I wondered if she had seen that display in Arundel?

“Hmm,” she said. “He seems in much too good shape to be old enough for radio-carbon dating. Do you know anything about him?”

“Sherlock found him in a junk shop.”

Molly winced. “Not really legal. And Sherlock ought to get a letter from a coroner, if he doesn’t already have one.” She tapped on the cranium. “Not too thin. He was getting old, but he was well-nourished. Lots of wear on his teeth, but he kept most of them. I think he was quite well-off. Those fillings look like the very latest in early modern dentistry; he was around in late-Victorian times, after the invention of the electric drill, I think. I don’t really know that much about dentistry, we could ask someone over the way. How much money can we spend?”

“Not that much. Sherlock doesn’t seem to want to try to pull DNA.”

“Isotopic analysis of the dentine,” Molly said longingly. She was quite beautiful when she forgot herself. “Like Oetzi? The Ice Man in the Tyrol?”

“I know what you mean, but by the Victorian era well-off people ate food from almost all over the world: you couldn’t do that kind of analysis on people nowadays, surely?”

She looked at me as though I had taken away her kitten-skelly. “Might be able to find out what part of England or where ever he grew up was, at least. Right, then, non-destructive only.”

“You’re supposed to say ‘Dull,’ then, and pull a face.” It was fun making her laugh.

“Well, fortunately we’re in a teaching hospital, come on.” She wrapped the skull again, and took us through the maze of stairs and corridors to a lab in the teaching area of the hospital complex. “I want to use the toy, Grahame,” she said to the student working the desk.

“Whose account are you planning to charge, Dr. Hooper?” he asked, filling in a form.

“I think the Metropolitan Police will be fine with this.” She turned to me. “It isn’t more than a couple of pounds for what I want. I’ll put it down to Sherlock, believe me.” She unwrapped the skull and put it into a cabinet on top of a machine, set a few parameters, and pressed the button. “If we were going to spend real money, I’d go ahead and make a three-dimensional copy for a sculpt, but as it is I’m just getting the scan sent to my computer in the office. Then I can run it through the facial reconstruction software. It’s not really very good, but it compares with those IdentiKit things. It’s just that they all come out looking dead,” Molly complained.

“Given what you start with—“

“Oh, I know. I’ve seen some of the really high-end CGI ones and they’re better, but you get this ‘uncanny valley’ thing that you don’t if someone like Gerasimov sculpts them.”

The copier beeped, and she wrapped up the skull, thanked Grahame, and we walked back to her office. “This is fun. I can’t usually come up with a reason to use that copier. It gets abused a lot, mostly for speciality Lego.”

It wasn’t more than a few minutes later that we were on Molly’s computer looking at the face of a handsome, oldish man. He did look dead, and a little vague. “Somewhat of a nose,” remarked Molly. “Nice chin. We can do differently coloured hair if you like.”

“I think the dark suits him. Statistically likely, is it?”

“Mm. Do you want me to print this for you, or just send you the file?”

 

[Dissolve back into present-day 221B]

Polly leaned over me, looking at the face on the screen. “He looks a bit familiar to me. Or maybe just generic.”

“Being dead will do that to you. ‘Joining the great majority,’ don't they call it that?”

“Would you send me the file?”

“Of course I will,” and I do, and all is quiet as I try to write up that thing that happened with the engineer’s thumb.

“What were Sherlock’s favourite foods?”

“Why on earth—?”

“Indulge me, all right?”

“If he was hungry, almost anything. Anything from Angelo’s or Viet. Mrs. Hudson’s mince pies. Will that do?”

“Well enough, thanks.” She’s quiet for the next hour, when I get up and stretch and put the kettle on.

“What are you doing?” I finally ask.

“Don’t yell,” she says, looking guilty. “Trying something.”

This is a dangerous remark.

“I won’t put it live if you don’t want me to. Though I might put it on my own site.”

“Polly.”

“It’s just not very English.” She raises her face from her keyboard. “What do you know about the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos?”

“Sod all,” I say, “except that it’s apparently in Spain.”

“Mexico,” she says. She opens another couple of windows and waves me over to see. Skulls, painted and sugar and plain; graves covered in big bright orange and yellow marigolds; tables with pictures and food and cigarettes and bottles and cut-paper bunting; skeletons with guitars and mantillas; cakes with femurs and ulnas on (and more skulls).

“Halloween?” I ask.

“The day after; the month after. All of November is the month of Holy Souls if you’re Catholic. They make shrines—, ofrendas— for the people they’ve lost to come home to and eat and drink, and they decorate the graves and and picnic there with the dead person’s favourite foods. It’s not a sad time. It’s really interesting, because in Europe we thought our dead did the same thing, at Samhain, Halloween, and that’s why we make lanterns and build bonfires. I think the Church moved the native Mexican holiday to the time of the European one because All Saints/All Souls were close enough to the same thing.”

“Wait-- we build bonfires for Guy Fawkes.”

She curls her lip. “No one would care about Guy Fawkes if it wasn’t at the right time of year for a bonfire. Right after the Reformation, plenty of people missed the old ways. Which are a lot older than Christianity, at that. And we also have Remembrance Day, which I know it’s a coincidence being in November but…”

“What, exactly does this have to do with my blog?”

“I was just looking at…does your skull have a name?”

“Not any more—“

“I know, you don’t want to decorate him. But then I thought … It’s been a hard year. And maybe this would help.” She opens another window. “People have tables with their …beloved dead’s pictures on them, and their favourite foods and … I just wanted one. And I thought we could mix in some of that from St. Bart’s —“

At first, of course, I hate the whole thing. No one I know wants to be Mexican except possibly for the weather. But it’s not a horrible-looking page. There’s a few lines of explanation in a box by the side. She’s built a virtual table with one of the less-silly pictures of Sherlock on it, and instead of food she’s put some takeaway menus, a violin, a microscope, a picture of a gas-chromatography machine. GIFs of candles that she’d made from the ones left outside Bart’s. That was the centre of the table. In the next ring were pictures of Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes and Ian Dibell, and more candles. Another concentric ring: Alex Woodbridge, Professor Cairns, Connie Prince, Andrew West…. A bunch of other people I didn’t recognise. “Who are they?”

“The ones who died in Glasgow, with the bomb. And that’s the skull. And that’s my grandmother.”

“Oh, I’m sorry—“

“She was 93 and it was before you met me, but I still miss her. But thanks. If you click on the picture, it links to an article or an obituary. I thought people could send us pictures of someone they’ve lost and I could put them in.”

She is always wanting things to be participatory, and I am always thinking ‘Oh God, no,’ but for some reason I don’t hate this.

“Put in something about ‘trying’ to get people’s… people in and not guaranteeing to get everyone.” I have learned to be careful, because every so often the internet goes mad and _everyone_ including Maru and Angelina Jolie’s Leg, needs to tell me how they feel. “I retain the right not to put some people up, if it comes to that.”

“Well, of course.”

“You’re making yourself an enormous amount of work, and I do mean you, yourself.”

“I know that.”

“Can we run it by Lestrade?”
“Yes, of course, I didn’t want to be cheeky…but I do feel so bad about Fiona Bone’s little girl, and her fiancée.” She sent a link to Greg’s number with a quick note.

“And you left off Jennifer Wilson and the other three not-suicides, if we’re going back that far. And Soo Lin.”

“It can be from any year,” she said, clicking and grabbing and linking. “People you mentioned in the blog, I was thinking, to show they weren’t just… blog-fodder.”

That we thought they were more than just objects for Sherlock to show off how clever he was. What would you say? I ask him. More lectures about the disadvantage of caring? It’s all we have left, Sherlock. And since we do…it’s not the worst job for a skull, or a computer.

“…And the police officers because we’re on their side. You said you knew some people in the army…”

“Don’t be tactful, please. One of my former patients, two men I knew fairly well and a woman I remember meeting were killed by IEDs in Helmand.” I tell her their names, and she finds their pictures from the newspapers. Which makes me angry all over again about the war, and I say I wish it could be everyone. She puts up a bouquet of poppies— I ask her to make them opium poppies and she sighs and sticks a picture of a paper one onto the vase, to be recognisable— and links it to an article that does, indeed, list everyone.

Greg phones in. I put him on speaker. “Tell her to put in David Rathband, all right? And I know you don’t make money off your blog, but my esteemed colleagues here suggest a link to the funds for their families would go very well.”

“Can we do that?”

Polly rolls her eyes.

“I think she says yes. And that I’m a fossil.”

“Not really a fossil—“

“And one of the other DI’s has been to Mexico and says you need more colour.”

“You don’t think this is too weird?” Polly asks, raising her voice.

“Yes, I do think it’s weird,” Greg says, “but blogs are weird and it’s better than just sweeping the dead under the carpet before they’re cold. And Colin wants to know, can he send you a picture of his uncle?”

He rang off.

“I think your project is ‘go.’ “

“I’ll take it down at the end of November?”

“If that’s what one does, good. And if it needs more colour, put in some of the marigolds.”

“I was thinking roses were more English but it looked too much… I hated it. And I wanted some of the papel picado but it looks…strange.”

“You could put them in partly transparent, and then, maybe… fairy lights? Or are they too Christmassy?”

She looks _so pleased_ that I am not telling her it all has to be black and white and tasteful and properly British. I’m not really that much of an ogre, am I?

“I promise I won’t make them blink on and off.”

Or possibly an ogre is what’s needed. The kettle has long since boiled. I make tea, properly, in a pot, and pour two mugs, and look at them.

Then I take a picture, of the mugs and the pot and a package of dark chocolate digestive biscuits, with my phone and send it to Polly. She hears the pings and the chimes.

“There looks like being room for these, next to his picture. Two mugs, in case he wants to share.”

She smiles at me dazzlingly, and in a few moments they are there, on the table. I remember film cameras distinctly, and this technology is weirder than shit. And it does something to my heart to see the cups as real as anything might be on TV with Sherlock’s picture, and at the same time here in our flat, with Polly whom he’ll never meet.

I hand her one of the mugs to drink. “Technology is very strange,” I say.

“Trans-universal objects,” she says. “Cheers.”

“To absent friends. Who from their labours rest.”