Poppies are strange flowers. Their later, artificial season has the power to wound the unwary. This year’s crop, blooming on lapels and shirt pockets, seem obscene to John’s eyes. Sherlock’s death has washed the colour out of everything.
Remembering is the word of the month. The fifth is bright with bonfires and bangers. He avoids traipsing out after six that whole week. Showers of sparks and ear-splitting whistles hold no sentimentality from someone who has seen the darker side of explosive technology.
But there’s worse to come. The second Sunday of the month is scarred by the forced and insincere solemnity of politicians laying wreaths on monuments to the fallen, as though it absolves them of all guilt. Some bloodstains can never be removed.
It’s not that John isn’t grateful for the support civilians offer in their hamfisted awkwardness. . The world would be a darker, lonelier place without the efforts of the RBL on behalf of service personnel. Buying a poppy and wearing it seems the least that he can do, even if it feels as though he is pinning it to his flesh rather than his coat.
But the worst thing about November is when the forgetting starts. The country goes through its two minute cleansing ritual and then moves on, sliding down the helter-skelter towards Christmas. Poppies wither and drop away, replaced by more positive symbols of human charity. A bandaged teddy bear, anyone?
John’s poppy becomes a casualty the following week. A vicious duet of wind and sharp showers put paid to its resilience. It drops off into his hand as he hangs up his dripping coat. He sets it in a shot glass on the mantlepiece, oddly cheerful against the sepia-tones of the flat. It revives in the dryness, although the petals and leaves never fully uncurl.
Its brightness jars him, though. Loath to throw it away, the poppy accompanies him on his next trip out. ****
For all that the location of Sherlock’s grave has never been a matter of public knowledge, it appears that the information has crept out. A pile of beautifully mismatched pebbles stand in a perfect line across the top of the polished marble. A smoking tea light sits forlornly on the grass, circled by an oversized daisy chain. Where did they come from, out of season?
He fumbles in his pocket and plants the poppy against the glossy darkness, the vivid green stalk sliding neatly into the softly damp ground. The breeze teases at the petals, a discreet attempt at reanimation.
Next time he comes, perhaps ten days later, it is gone, The collection of pebbles has increased. Once again, he has just missed someone; three fresh tea lights burn amongst the neatly cropped grass. Their glow is magnified against the marble. The image stays with him as he leaves, half an hour later, back to an existence which attempts to pass for muted normality.
December is a blur. Anthea appears on Christmas Eve, carrying a Selfridges hamper. John stops her with a look and immediately redirects it to Crisis at Christmas. She has the nous to look embarrassed at Mycroft’s crassness.
Mrs Hudson invites him down for a quiet dinner. Greg drags him out for a pint on Boxing Day.
January starts off cold, wet and grey. John spends its first few days in bed, chasing off the flu which struck on New Year’s Eve. Semi-consciousness feels surprisingly pleasant.
And then along comes Twelfth Night. A what-you-will of a day, lit by sudden flashes of sun gilding sodden surfaces. The brightness is blinding. It makes him look up for the first time in six months.
Sherlock’s grave remains as well kempt, even loved. The pebbles have multiplied into cautious pyramids. A youthful candle gleams like a miniature sun against the black stone. There is a light which never goes out drones through his head. Bloody Morrissey. It gives him yet another reason to hate The Smiths. Sherlock, why did you leave me behind? The thought waters his eyes with a sudden, acrid grief.
On the way back, his bus takes a detour to avoid a burst water main. Barts looms up at him before he can blank it out. The traffic stumbles to a halt. Something catches his unwilling eye. The closest lamppost is circled with a wreath of poppies and candles, a breath away from where Sherlock fell. Their tiny flames flirt defiantly against the breeze of feet which traipse obliviously past. The dancing shapes burn into his mind regardless.
Anthea emerges from a silky black car on the corner of Baker Street, carrying a file tied with fluttering tape. There is an unprofessional shimmer to her gaze. Don’t shoot the messenger, John reminds himself. This is her job. “For me?” he asks. She nods.
“There are a number of papers which Mr Holmes has requested you sign in relation to his brother’s estate.”
“Thank you.” She hands over the file. He measures the heft of it. The weight of a life lost.
“I will arrange for their collection at your convenience.”
“That’s good of you. I… I will be in touch soon.” Another nod, and she disappears into the car.
A single plastic poppy has been thrust into a crack of the steps of 221b. Its colour seems out of place, but John leaves it where it stands.
A stiff manilla envelope waits on the hall table. A printed white label. A nondescript postmark. He opens it with due caution. A single piece of paper flutters to the carpet.
On London’s streets the poppies bloom
Against dark stones and half-lit rooms.
Under lampposts and above the grave
of the great, good man we could not save.
In grateful thanks for the work of Sherlock Holmes 06/01/76 - 12/06/12
Five lines of type, unsigned and unattributed. The whole day crashes together with a dreadful clarity. Another secret Sherlock wouldn’t share with him.
John is mute and tear-stained when Mrs Hudson finds him hunched on the stairs three hours later. She guides him to bed with gentle efficiency, never needing to ask why.
Three thousand miles away, slim fingers pin a familiar flower to the inside pocket of an familiar coat. A talisman for someone desperate to return.
The folds of wool shield the flower from the world. It remains in the dark, a splotch as bright as unspilled blood. Through danger nights which spill into weeks, it keeps a ghost safe by reminding him of home.
Home is a grey street with a scarlet postbox. A leather sofa and a silk dressing gown. The clink of a spoon against china, and the warm exasperation of a genuine friend. These all existed once, and he hopes they will again, even if every returning step is soaked in someone else’s blood. Defiance fueled by remembrance is a potent force. It will be enough to bring him home. It has to be.