Redbeard sat and looked carefully at the long, lean figure of Mycroft stretched out on the rumpled cover of his bed. Where my friend? The Red Setter leaned forward to push his cold, damp nose onto Mycroft’s hand currently holding a book. Wanna play, you wanna play?
“Go find Sherlock.” Mycroft suggested without much enthusiasm pulling away from the nudging nose of his youngest brother’s pet. Today was one of Mycroft’s rare days when he wanted to shut the present day world out in order to plan his future in the Civil Service.
Mycroft had been poring over the first volume of world history, a heavy tome that was not on his school curriculum. It was a change from politics. He despaired that England was in a mess with thousands unemployed, no confidence in the Prime minister and, if that wasn’t enough, anyone could see that a certain member of the Royal family was deeply unhappy. No, not anyone, could see, he felt as if he was the only one. He was living in a world alongside people with intellectually limited minds and vapid imaginations. People with open mouths who gawped like goldfish in a bowl while the water dried up around them with nobody to change, or replenish, the water. Left to Mummy Sherlock’s goldfish would have keeled over within days. People were like goldfish needing someone to look after them and their interests and Mycroft was determined to be that man.
He had experience. Looking after Sherlock had always been one of Mycroft’s greatest priorities, since his little brother had been brought home from the maternity hospital, in fact. He missed his elder brother, Sherrinford, who had gone to university to read philosophy and politics and was too busy to come home. Too busy to come home for Christmas even. Mycroft was preparing Sherlock for his absence, in turn, by concentrating on his studies leaving Mummy to chase after Sherlock. His gaze left the page and lighted upon Redbeard again. It had been some time since they had been down to the sea and played ‘pirates’ Sherlock had moved on to reading about science and specifically forensic science. A gruesome little boy who had discovered forensic science after he had found a rotting corpse of a rabbit last summer. Quite by chance Mycroft had mentioned to Sherlock that scientists could tell how long the rabbit had been dead for by studying the fat, white, wriggling maggots. “Oh, cool” Sherlock had exclaimed prodding the smelly wreckage with a stick. Mycroft had felt himself blanch as his stomach turned over.
“Go find Sherlock.”
The words penetrated Redbeard’s doggy brain. He knew words, many words, but when they were all one after another he had a difficult time in understanding them. Adults spoke a lot but they spoke too quickly and it became a jumbled noise. Adults had all their day wrong, they went for a walk then stopped doing the good walking thing to stand around chattering away like the chickens in the coop at the shady end of the orchard. Noisy chickens which didn’t take any notice of him. Go. Find. Sherlock. Sherlock not here look for him. Where? Redbeard stood, considered nudging Mycroft to get his help and then decided not to. If Mycroft was just too stupid to understand a simple question he would have to search for the puppy of the family himself. He turned, tail low, silky chestnut ears drooping and trotted to the stairs.
“Redbeard? Where are you?” Sherlock, a seven-year-old ball of curly, dark hair with the rounded pudginess of his mother’s cooking peeked round the corner of the stairs. “Come on, boy!”
Redbeard could feel his ears perk up. How much joy could a dog have than to hear his friend inviting him to play. He ran straight into his boy and bounced off the wall, wagging his tail and trying to lick that happy, friendly, smiling face.
“Plurf.” Sherlock exclaimed. His bare arm wiped his mouth after the doggy kiss. He raced through the sitting room of the ancient beamed cottage and dodged past his father in the front room.
“Put your coat on.” Mr Holmes advised with kind, warm eyes as his son shot past followed by the flurry of silky chestnut hair flying along in hot pursuit. Sherlock had brought small ridges of snow in on his small, blue wellington boot soles. The snowflakes expired into droplets of water and vanished into the carpet.
Mrs Holmes caught her small son and admonished him for leaving the back door open letting cold air into the kitchen. A grey coat with toggle buttons of wood was almost being forced onto her child while Redbeard pranced about on the doorstep scuffling the freshly fallen snow.
“Keep, still, Billy.”
“Not Billy, I hate that, my name’s Sherlock!”
“You’ll stay Billy until you out your coat on, it’s cold out there.”
“I’m not cold!”
“Urf!” Sherlock scoffed and wriggled his arm into his coat.
Redbeard joined in by barking and turning in a circle, the snow flew up into little puffs of white around his paws. Had Redbeard a human voice he might have told Sherlock that the best time of the year was Christmas when there was snow to play in or when the sun shone golden and hot and they could run down to the river. He might have said that Sherlock was his best friend because for every inch that Mycroft had grown he had played less, pushed him away while looking at a ‘book’, a wad of paper between bits of cardboard. Redbeard thought those things were called books but if they weren’t it didn’t matter, the important thing was that he wasn’t allowed to play with them.
Mrs Holmes stood aside and freed her baby of the family while Mr Holmes sauntered in smiling to himself. The Red Setter barked joyfully, trotting off down the garden path ready for another fun day with his best playmate.
“Rrrrmmm” Sherlock growled, his arms wide - in his fertile imagination he was a world war two Spitfire scorching across a perfectly green sward - racing down the snow-covered grey flagstone paving.
“Something the matter, dear?” Mr Holmes asked tenderly of his wife.
They watched their seven year-old screech around the corner of a clump of conifers sending a cascade of white to the ground. “Lift off!”
“The washing machine. It hasn’t washed the clothes.” Mrs Holmes frowned. She closed the kitchen door. Mr Holmes checked the washing machine from where he stood. “Never mind. I’ll switch it on.” He hugged his wife’s waist.
“Stop it!” She protested, enjoying being in love with the tall, handsome man who had made her dreams of having children possible. The man who was practical, kind and unflappable. “They grow up so fast.” She confided. “I can’t believe it, it’s only like yesterday that we had babies. Micy’s so frightfully grown up for his age, don’t you think?”
“I know, he’s a teenager, I can’t prise him out of his bedroom these days.” Mr Holmes detached himself from his intellectually gifted, very hot wife and crossed to attend to the washing machine which only needed a button pressing to set it going. The loud click and gentle whirr were followed by the sounds of water swooshing and gurgling. “That’s it, now.” He smiled. The curling of his lips held a hint of his having all the patience in the world.
Mycroft’s stomach rumbled. He left his book and padded downstairs in his slippers to see if there were mince pies. Mummy and Father were outside. Sherlock was sitting unusually still with a book open at the kitchen table and an uneaten mince pie on a plate. Mycroft eyed his sibling with suspicion and pulled the square biscuit tin of mince pies from the back of the counter. Sherlock’s head was bowed, one hand was palm down on the table, the index finger of his other hand rested on the print.
“Sherlock, what have you done?”
“You must have done something, you are sitting still.”
“I can sit still if I like, it’s a free country!”
“No, you can’t and no, it isn’t, that’s merely an illusion promulgated by the powers that be for the…never mind, that’s not the point.” Mycroft then noticed the little bulge under Sherlock’s woolen jumper. Paper, glue on the paper. “You don’t want your mince pie, then.”
“You’ve glued your finger to the table, haven’t you. You’re a stupid, little boy.”
Tears welled in Sherlock’s eyes. He idolised his big brother who never played with him anymore and was so much more clever than himself. He could never impress Mycroft, no matter how hard he tried. The humiliation of having failed in his experiment was painful enough without being castigated for it.
Mycroft ran upstairs and searched his mother’s room for nail varnish remover. Clutching the bottle he pelted down to the kitchen and poured the pink liquid onto Sherlock’s digit. “What were you thinking! Did you break something again?”
“I was doing an experiment! If you cover your fingers you wouldn’t leave any fingerprints, like on a plate or something.”
Mycroft groaned as he attempted to detach his sibling from the table. “Do you know what happens to little boys who don’t think? The East wind will come and get you.”
“What’s that?” Sherlock whimpered, with hot cheeks, staring at his finger. The strong grip of his brothers fingers on his own was painful.
“It’s a terrifying force that lays to waste the unworthy, plucks it from the earth.” Mycroft intoned gravely as he succeeded in freeing his little brother.
“Can’t you try being nicer!” Sherlock protested nursing his finger.
“I’ll try to be nicer if you will try being smarter.”
The tube of cyanoacrylate glue dropped to the tiled floor as Sherlock snatched his mince pie up and fled for the garden shed. Redbeard bounded after him eagerly and they flew out of the back door kicking up the fluffy, powdery snow behind them. The garden was silent and peaceful, everything that bloomed in colour for the rest of the year was dormant. Shapes were masked into a pleasant sameness with the dusting of snow sparkling pink and blue and twinkling with silver light in the last of the winter sunshine. Sherlock liked to escape to the shed to get away from everyone and sit in peaceful silence, in his own private world. Mycroft had taught him the method of loci, a technique for storing and remembering information, had explained it, at least.
“It’s very simple.” Mycroft had said on a scorching hot July day after Sherlock had swum in the river fully clothed. “Memorise a familiar room, then the whole building. In time it will be located on a street, each house will store what you wish to remember.”
“I can’t think of one” He had replied, confused, his mind reeling with the task of imaging a street full of houses and shops and people and traffic distracting him from focusing on any one thing. “What happens if it rains?”
“You get wet.” Mycroft’s eyes rolled. “You control the weather. It doesn’t rain.”
He had tried to walk down the street he could picture. It was too busy, too chaotic, he felt isolated from all the people passing by as if he was invisible. So he had created a corridor with rooms leading off it instead. A handsome, wide corridor with polished golden-brown oak panel doors rather like that in an imposing, grand house he remembered visiting in Yorkshire the previous summer on the annual family holiday.
“Why bring me here?” John asked, his hand brushing Sherlock’s collar, picking away a speck of fluff while they toured Ancaster Priory in a pretty, peaceful, rural part of West Yorkshire. “I didn’t think you went in for holidays.” He smiled. They had walked around the grounds, admired plants and statues and were now wandering through the house.
“I didn’t think I’d go in for retirement either.” Sherlock returned the smile as he and John turned the corner on the first floor of the ancient stone-built house. “You said you wanted to know what it looks like, my Mind Palace.”
“It’s like this?” It was a startling thought that Sherlock’s hard drive wasn’t sleek, piano-black and all hi-tech. He was surrounded by high, pale, wall-papered walls on which hung oil paintings, all of them neatly labelled, of men in what might be Elizabethan ruffs and Regency men in dandy hose, Victorian gents in frock coats and ladies, resplendent in silk gowns, with full rosy-pink lips and delicately sculpted, pale, beautiful faces. Underfoot was an opulent, sound-muffling rug in rich red and cream with a blue Chinese pattern.
“A little like this.” Sherlock grinned as they came to the handsome, long corridor that was lit by latticed windows with the sunshine streaming in through the cool, white frames.
“It’s got a corridor. Lots of rooms, warm and bright. Paintings?”
“No paintings, plain paneled walls, plain floor, lots of doors. This was the first part I built.”
“So it is a place, then, but not a real one?”
“Mycroft tried to explain it to me. Imagine a street you know, one full of houses, that’s where you store information so that you can walk down the street and find it again. An Ancient Greek poet, Simonides, escaped death by luck when the banquet hall he was in collapsed. He realised that he could remember the names of his dead fellow diners because he could visualise where they had been seated. It’s the same concept.”
John nodded. “You didn’t though, you built a corridor based on this one.”
“We came here on a family holiday, Sherrinford, Mycroft and myself. I haven’t been back here since. I was six then.”
“Does it look like a Palace, on the outside?”
“Not really. No. it’s a composite of structures. I don’t have to walk through it all either, I can go to different rooms at will. A library, a court-room, cold-storage, 221B, the garden shed.”
“Our garden shed?” John glanced across as they walked in step.
“Well, the one that was there before our present shed. I went there quite a lot when I was young. There and the river, they were the only places where I could sit without being disturbed.”
“You’ve always liked your own space.” John agreed. He had understood how Sherlock worked quite quickly but after all these years together, now that they had both retired to what had been Sherlock’s parent’s cottage near the sea, they barely spent any time apart.
“I’ve been thinking, John-”
“No shit, Sherlock.” John quipped, facetiously.
Sherlock paused then creased up, turning away slightly, giggling almost silently for a few moments before he could seemingly speak again.
“Really, you are developing a pawky sense of humour I shall have to guard myself against it. I was going to suggest, before you so very rudely interrupted me, that we find ourselves a housekeeper and some gardening help and then you could devote more of your time to writing this winter.”
“You mean devote time to writing up the stash of untold cases you have tucked away in the trunk?” John enquired smiling up at Sherlock. The thought of spending the coming winter beside the log burner in the cosy back sitting room listening to Sherlock walking him through cases that he had not heard in full before was a very pleasant one.
“Ah, and how did you deduce that?”
“From the way the bedroom carpet was brushed up when you pulled the trunk out from under the bed and the fluff.”
“Anything else? I could have been moving it to get to the box behind it.”
“You were looking through a plants catalogue and it was on the kitchen table open at plants for bees. And you said you wanted to start keeping bees next year. Bees, more plants for bees and fluff on your suit jacket which you left on the chair.”
“My Boswell is learning!”
“I might have picked up a bit over time. I don’t think we need a new table though, it might be old but it’s still sturdy, and that’s the one you glued yourself to isn’t it? It’s part of your history.”
“I remember you tutting rather loudly about a mark on an old table in 221B.”
“I think I got used to worse than that, quite quickly.”
“You mean the severed head experiment on coagulation of saliva.”
“Thaaat wasn’t actually the one I was thinking of.” The back wall pocked with bullets on the yellow, spray-painted smiley.
“You did say you wished to go for coffee but there’s an interesting old book on medieval manuscripts I’d like you to see.” Sherlock changed the subject.
John, a pace behind Sherlock smirked happily. Old was good and growing old with Sherlock was perfect.