It began with my fiftieth birthday. Yes I know, I don’t want to think about it, but everyone gets old, even me and Sherlock. And actually, it began with making love on the morning of my fiftieth birthday, which doesn’t sound quite so aging.
We had been up most of the night chasing a bunch of frankly nasty jewel thieves across New Cross after we had laid in wait for them at socialite Asram Messeh’s glittering Diamond Ball, and we were feeling rather pleased with ourselves. It was hardly a big brain case for Sherlock, but it amuses him to catch the predictable burglars red-handed when he’s got nothing more intellectually pressing to do.
So yes, we slept late and made love, and then lay in the after-glow, which is my favourite part, especially when I’m tired and Sherlock fucks me. It’s not that I don’t like being fucked, believe me, it’s fantastic, but it tends to be rather, well, rough, that brutal but thrilling invasion. I’m more the tender, loving type. I like it gentle. He always says that when I do it to him, I don’t do it hard enough. Maybe he’s right, I don’t know, since I don’t have another lover to ask. Anyway, we were lying in each other’s arms, letting our heart rates drop, sweat soaking into the sheets, kissing and looking into one another’s eyes. (Yes, it’s sloppy, but that’s who we are, even after this long. Ten years we’ve been together, and four since we signed on the dotted line, as he likes to put it – the civil partnership was literally a matter of paperwork, seeing as we both felt that we’d had our ceremony on the banks of the River Arun, under those shivering silver birches. So we are husbands, too, as well as lovers, friends, colleagues and all the other stuff.)
And he said, ‘I suppose you want your present now?’
And I said, ‘I thought I’d already had it.’ And leered, because I love the way it makes him blush.
But then he got out of bed and scuffled about in the drawer of the bedside table while I admired his fabulously naked arse and made plans to have it later in the day. And then he got back into bed and gave me an envelope.
‘A card! Oh, darling, you shouldn’t have!’ I said, because Sherlock doesn’t believe in cards or presents. (It’s not because he’s mean, incidentally, it’s just that he sees them as sentimental and unnecessary. But he still buys them for me, because he knows they matter in my head, even if they don’t in his.)
And I opened it.
Inside were two tickets for a flight to India, and an itinerary of hotels and sights to be visited over the course of three weeks.
Okay, I’m not ashamed to say it. Yes. I cried.
Because he knew I’d always wanted to go to India and never managed it. I’ve wanted to go since I was a kid. I saw a rerun of ‘Gandhi’ at the Woking Odeon because, when I decided I wanted to join the army, my Mum said it was important to understand the alternatives to violence. Anyway, there it was, my fiftieth birthday present. The chance to finally follow in the footsteps of Gandhiji after forty years of putting it off and having other things to do, like scrape lads of the battlefields of Iraq.
Sherlock knows me too well, that’s all I can say.
And let me tell you, it was fantastic. All of it. Every bloody minute. But I’m not going to tell you about it, because this isn’t the story of how we travelled across India, and how we came to know new sides of one another in the brilliant sun. This is the story of the Bee House. So all you need to know is that it was the best holiday of my life, right up until the moment where we were chasing an antiquities smuggler through a slum in Mumbai, and I slipped on something that I don’t even want to think about, and tore the cartilage in my right knee.
Cue anno domini.
You are fifty years old, John Hamish Holmes-Watson. This is your reminder.
The Mumbai police were delighted that Sherlock caught the man – because Sherlock, of course, kept running, leaving me wallowing in a filthy alley, with dozens of kind, well-meaning, but non-English-speaking slum dwellers clustering round me, trying to help.
Sherlock, when he realised what had happened (he thought I had just fallen over), was not happy. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so distraught, even when he came home after the fall. It triggered something in him. Something deep.
Intimations of mortality.
‘You’re going to die,’ he sobbed in the A&E unit at the private hospital, where the Mumbai police carted me in some style after the arrest had been made. He was so upset that the nurses were not sure which one of us to treat first.
‘Thanks, love,’ I said. ‘That really makes me feel so much better.’
We flew home the next day, me on crutches and Sherlock in a fugue state. It was hardly what you might call a perfect end to the holiday, but I suppose it was typical. Nothing is ever straightforward around Sherlock.
The following week, I had my arthroscopy.
Sherlock collected me from the hospital afterwards, solicitous to an unnerving extent. I was still stoned on the anaesthetic, but I knew in a couple of weeks I’d be fine, now that the torn gristle inside my knee had been trimmed away, and the remainder mended. Keyhole surgery is a doddle compared with the four procedures I had to have on my shoulder, so I’m not complaining, believe me.
The next morning he was sitting on the edge of the bed with his back to me when I woke. The pain in my knee hit me like a wall, and I must have grunted because he flinched, and his shoulders tensed up. I ran my hand down his white back, letting my fingers linger over the nubs of his vertebrae.
‘You’re beautiful,’ I told him.
He muttered something, and it was then that I realised he was crying. I reached out and pulled him down into my arms, but he kept his back to me, and wouldn’t speak.
‘We have to talk about this,’ I told him in the end, and he humpfed.
‘That’s what you say about everything. We have to talk about it, Sherlock.’ He mimicked me, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
But I’m long past being either annoyed or offended. ‘And aren’t I always right?’
And a few minutes later, in a smaller voice, face buried in my bicep, ‘You’re going to die.’
‘Yes, love. So you keep saying. And so are you. One day. But not just yet.’
‘I’m not going to die,’ he said. ‘I’m immortal. You’ve made me immortal with your stories.’
‘No one’s immortal, even you, much as I would love it to be true. Your body will die, even if the idea of you remains. Besides, I’m in the books too.’
‘Your body will die. You are older than me-‘
‘Only by five years-‘
‘Nevertheless. And you know how many years a bullet wound can take off your life.’
‘I still reckon I’ve got another thirty to forty years, love. Besides, you might go before me. All that smoking and drugs and starving yourself, that cuts down life expectancy too, you know.’
‘I can’t bear to think of your beautiful body dying.’
His voice was so desolate. I realised all the reason in the world was not going to help.
‘It’s not dying that matters,’ I whispered into his ear, his delicate, beautiful pink ear, cupped in mahogany curls. ‘It’s the living that counts.’
He sighed and pressed his head into the curve of my arm. ‘Don’t leave me,’ he breathed.
‘I’ve no intention of it,’ I told him, with a squeeze.
‘Good, because I couldn’t live without you, you know that, don’t you?’
‘You made me live without you.’ (It’s still a sore point, okay?)
‘I know. I’ll never be able to apologise enough for that, will I?’
‘It was hell for me too, you know. Living without you.’
‘Yes, but at least you knew I was alive.’
‘If anything happened to you, I couldn’t go on alone. You have to understand that. I’d follow you. Life without you wouldn’t be worth enduring. It would be a grey void.’
The words lay between us on the pillow, a solemn lattice of intent. I knew what he meant, but it was a heavy burden to bear, the weight of this extraordinary man’s life on my shoulders. To know that my end would deprive the world of him too. A double grief. You’d think it would be flattering, but it’s not. I want him to go on, to continue being the vibrant, thrilling, infuriating creature that I love, but he won’t be that man without me to provide the fire in his belly.
And no man could commit suicide more easily than him. He would know exactly how to do it, the surest, quickest, most painless way. I know he can do it. He’s done it once already.
Only Sherlock could live a life containing two successful suicides.
I pulled him tighter against me. ‘Don’t say things like that,’ I whispered. ‘I don’t want to think of you that way.’
He wriggled round in my arms until he faced me, looking up at me with liquid eyes. He made me think of Delft then, of Vermeer, all those inky, translucent canals, and the shimmering light. I touched his cheek, bristled with the reddish infant of a beard.
‘You remind me of the girl with the pearl earring when you look at me like that,’ I told him, and my felt my face lift into a smile that hid the pain his beauty always makes in me. It truly is a tragedy that one day he will die, that one day his beauty will be gone, crumbled to dust, and no one else will ever see his luminous eyes, his heartbreakingly delicate cheekbones.
We lay there like that for a while, mesmerised by each other.
‘Do you remember,’ he whispered. ‘By the river, how we talked about retiring?’
I felt the warmth of that afternoon brim in me again.
‘And I promised you a cottage? Yes, I remember.’
‘We have that money Aunt Agatha left me,’ he said, and gave me those puppy eyes he knows won’t get around me, but always do. I wasn’t going to tell him that I’d been squirrelling away funds too, all this time, though he probably knew.
‘Is that what you really want? I mean, you’ve always been so urban.’
‘You promised me bees,’ he said. ‘And besides, sooner or later the villains are going to outrun us. We can’t allow our legend to be compromised. Quit while you’re ahead, isn’t that what they say?’
‘It would be just a weekend bolt-hole to begin with,’ I told him, rolling onto my back and pulling him with me. He sprawled over my chest, his cheek prickling my skin as he rested close to my scarred shoulder. ‘We don’t need to retire yet, surely?’
‘As you said, it’s the living that counts,’ he agreed. ‘But providing for our future would be a good idea.’
He sighed, and I knew he had reframed his fears into something manageable. He could put off the inevitable inside his skull for a few more years. One day we would both have to face facts. But not yet.
‘Go and get me a cup of tea and a couple of Co-codamol, would you?’
‘Doctors make the worst patients,’ he said, and wandered off to the kitchen. Naked.
I can’t tell you how happy it makes me when he walks around the flat stark naked like that.
I drew the line at thatch.
‘Quite apart from the fact that we’d never get buildings insurance with your record,’ I pointed out, ‘it’s expensive to replace every time you burn the roof off, and it takes weeks too. Possibly months.’
Sherlock sulked. For a week. Then he decided he was willing to accept that constantly rebuilding the roof would be an intolerable frustration to his scientific schedule.
This wasn’t Sherlock admitting he was wrong. Of course not. He is never wrong. He was simply acknowledging that I had a point about the inconvenience.
So, after a week, we got back to talking again, and drawing up our list of requirements:
A minimum of two bedrooms, one for us, and one for visitors (Mycroft and Greg might like to stay, or Molly and her new boyfriend Martin, the pilot whom nobody had yet met but who sounded just ditsy enough to be her perfect partner.) I retained the option of a third bedroom to use as a study, since the majority of my income now comes from the books I write about our escapades.
There would have to be a nice kitchen, or one that could be refitted, because I like to cook. And a bathroom that was big enough for a large shower and a tub that could accommodate two – we do most of our ‘relationship’ discussions sitting in the bath, although these are often sabotaged by Sherlock’s passion for sucking my toes, and that leads to, well, things.
The rest of the accommodation could be flexible, though Sherlock moaned on about wanting beams, despite my pointing out that he always cracks his head on them.
Outside was another matter. There would have to be a garage, which would be converted into a laboratory for Sherlock – because I wasn’t having things going bang inside the house anymore if I could help it. (The thought of a twenty year retirement spent in a fog of Sherlock’s noxious fumes is too much even for me to take!) Sherlock suggested that a further outhouse might be converted into a writing room, if a third bedroom could not be had for the budget. I quite fancied having a separate garden room to write in during the summer, in the style of Virginia Woolf or Roald Dahl. Maybe I was having ideas above my status, but every man has to have his dream.
Then, the garden. There would have to be an extensive and established insect-friendly flower garden, because I was not yet confident enough of my gardening skills to feel I was up to planting one from scratch. A vegetable patch was a necessity, of course. I had already successfully experimented with putting tomato plants in grow bags on the roof at Baker Street. (The aubergines had not done so well, and Sherlock had snaffled all the chillis for evil experiments.)
And space for the hives. Plenty of hives.
It took seven months of weekend visits to Sussex before the ink was finally drying on the paperwork, and I had the keys in my sweaty palm.
The Bee House was finally ours.
And then came the renovation work.
Three months of me camping out in the cottage’s carcass during the week, and trekking back to Baker Street for weekends, of overseeing the builders and schmoozing the council planning officer, while Sherlock did what he did best. Annoying the Met.
Don’t let anybody ever persuade you that renovating a house is a doddle. I think it’s the most stressful thing I’ve done since battlefield surgery. Especially with a genius detective ringing up at all hours of the day and night asking case-related questions, and whining about where the sugar is, or isn’t, ‘and why aren’t you here, I miss you.’
(Well, I can’t complain about the last bit, really, can I?)
‘I’m not there because I’m here, making our love nest habitable.’
(The current task was digging the entire ground floor out to an additional depth of four inches so that Sherlock wouldn’t spend his retirement in a state of continual concussion. Believe me, it was a high price to pay for his passion for oak beams. I was convinced I would end up with mesothelioma from all the bloody dust.)
‘Come home. You could commute daily. Lots of people do it the other way around.’
‘No, Sherlock. I need to be here when the builders arrive, and I’m not getting up at 4am when I’ve shagged you the night before. There are limits. Especially with my knees.’
‘I hate your knees.’
‘That’s not what you said at the weekend.’
‘Okay, come home, and I’ll spread jam on them again.’
‘As attractive as that offer is, they’re coming with the steel girders for the bathroom floor tomorrow morning, and I need to be here.’
‘I should threaten to divorce you on grounds of abandonment.’
‘You’ll thank me when it’s done and you can play in your lovely new lab.’
‘Is it lovely?’
‘You will orgasm on the spot when you see it.’
‘I don’t even know if that’s possible.’
‘Spontaneous orgasm. Documented side effect of certain SSRI antidepressants. Trust me on this one.’
‘Can you get me some?’
‘The sugar is on the top shelf on the second cupboard, where you left it last time you used it!’ And I put the phone down on him.
On a sunny late August morning, almost five years to the day since we found John-Matthew in his riverside tent, I walked down the lane with my toolkit in hand, and screwed the new name plate onto the gate post. It was beautifully hand carved into blue slate. It said, simply:
‘The Bee House.’
‘There,’ I said to myself, and the brambles clustering around the fence. ‘We’re ready for business.’
And then I strolled back to the house, enjoying the view across the valley to Arundel, got into the battered old 1986 Landrover Defender I had bought when we exchanged contracts (because you needed a sensible vehicle out here on the hill, especially in winter), and chugged off to the station to meet my husband.
His eyes were unnaturally bright, which told me he was nervous. I changed gear and then reached out to hold his hand as we careered up the Amberley road on the way home.
‘It’s okay,’ I told him. ‘You’re going to love it, I promise.’
‘Is there a tub?’ he asked.
‘You know there is. We chose it together.’
‘Yes, but is it in?’
‘Of course. We had the bathroom floor reinforced with steel girders. Specially.’
‘I promise as soon as we get home, we’ll have bath. Then you’ll feel better.’
‘Mmm.’ He stared fixedly out of the side window at the view. I knew there was no point in trying to coax him any further. He was in his small, frightened place. He has these moments. Big, noisy, vain, histrionic and above all, robust Sherlock suddenly becomes a small, scared child, regressed to some unspoken time when his world caved in. I’ve often wondered what did it for him, what event he revisits at these pivotal moments in his adult life. I suspect it has something to do with his father, but he has never told me, and I’ve never asked. Some things are better left unsaid, even between soul mates.
We passed Amberley Castle and I turned, the engine labouring up the hill. And then, there was the sign I had put up that morning, and the little lane that ran along the side of the Down like a tarmacked contour line. And at the end of it, the cottage, The Bee House, our new home.
The garden was still a riot of colour, despite the lateness in the season, the borders enriched by rusty heads of sedum and burnished dahlias, the delicate pink of Japanese anemones, the gaudy pink of nerenes, and a low clump of blue salvias, thick with bees.
I saw him staring at them as we climbed down from the car. ‘I got you your first swarm,’ I told him. ‘The beekeeper came last night. Very keen you should join the local apiarists’ society.’
He hesitated, and then knew I had noticed.
‘Welcome home,’ I told him.
Sherlock let himself through the wicket gate in the low hedge, and walked unsteadily out onto the sloping lawn. I followed, entranced at the sight of him surrounded by green, the pasture below the hawthorn hedge, the grass, the late roses making aching splashes of colour in the midst of it all, echoing the sudden roses in his alabaster cheeks. The Down reared up behind us, and in front another, on the other side of the valley, cupping us in their soothing embrace. The river between glittered for a moment, as silver as Sherlock’s irises when he’s cracked a case.
He turned, and I saw the tears shine in his eyes as he smiled faintly at me over his shoulder.
‘Bees,’ he said. But I knew what he really meant.