The fault lay entirely with my odious brother.
I long ago lost count of how many times those very words could be applied to my life. On this particular occasion, the only question was ‘Why?’ What had he to gain from such an annoying manoeuvre? Beyond the pleasure of simply interfering in my life, of course. The question so vexed me that, without noticing what I was doing, I actually ate the entire plate of eggs and sausage that the redoubtable Mrs Hudson had set in front of me.
Watson, of course, was quietly delighted to see me eat, although he would never say so aloud. The war over regular meals was one we fought often; I might label it an amusement, a private game between two companions who sometimes do not converse as often as they should, at least on important matters.
Breakfast over, I once again picked up the piece of mail which had so bedevilled me. The heavy linen paper and the fine French ink seemed to proclaim my brother’s presence in our sitting room, even while he was no doubt safely ensconced in his Mayfair lair. He can annoy me at any distance.
I could not restrain a sigh.
Watson had already settled into his chair with the Times firmly in hand. My friend persists in reading the most respectable broadsheets, although I have repeatedly told him that there is more to be learned by perusing the more lurid publications. Still, I cannot complain overmuch, because there is something almost endearing in the variety of expressions that cross his face as he reads the news of the day. I have made a study of them and catalogued each one. Perhaps I should produce a monograph on the subject.
He heard my sigh and lifted his gaze from the Times. “Bad news in your correspondence, Holmes?” he asked, his tone somewhere between curiosity and concern. My Watson. Prepared to sympathise or arm himself with his pistol, whatever is called for.
“The worst news,” I replied glumly.
He took my words to heart, as he always does [and if I were a more noble creature, that fact would lead me to guard what I say more carefully] and quickly folded the newspaper. “A case?” Now he was a bit excited. He does love an adventure.
“Nothing so pleasant,” I said. “Only a note from Mycroft.”
“Ah, your mysterious brother.”
“Well, you so rarely speak of him that he has taken on an almost mythological dimension in my imagination.”
Watson never fails to amuse me and I sometimes wonder if he is aware of how rare that ability is. “I never speak of him because the subject bores me immensely.” I fingered the note. “He is calling in a debt.”
“You owe him money?”
The surprise in the question was understandable, because in our household it was John Watson who inclined to debt, due to his unfortunate propensity for wagering. On more than one occasion I have been forced to lock his chequebook into the desk to save him from himself. Now, I shook my head. “Oh, if only it were so simple.”
I dropped the note into his lap. Curiously, Watson picked it up to read. His brow crinkled quite delightfully. “He is inviting you to a social function?”
I groaned in a manner that has been called [by Watson and, ironically, also my brother] overly melodramatic. “No, he is ordering me to attend the horror show that is his annual Christmas ball.”
Now it was Watson who seemed vaguely amused. “From what little you have said about him, I did not envision Mycroft Holmes as the sort of man to host a ball of any sort.”
“Indeed. He is even more unsociable than myself, but his position in the government requires a certain amount of collegiality. As much as he might like to do so, Mycroft cannot spend all his time in the Diogenes. But as an efficiency, he dispenses with all of his social obligations for the year at one time. Hence a hideous gathering of all the most insufferable persons in London.”
“And you,” Watson said with a definite chuckle.
After filing away the exact sound of that chuckle, I glared at him. “And my guest, it says. By the way, you will need a new evening ensemble.”
The resulting debate was loud enough and long enough to bring Mrs Hudson to our door in concern, but in the end I emerged victorious. Not that Watson ceased grumbling about the necessity to purchase the proper evening dress. He kept up a sotto-voiced litany of complaint as we left 221B and during the entirety of the journey to Poole’s in Saville Row.
It was very nearly worth the horror of having to attend my brother’s ball, being able to perch myself on the most comfortable leather divan and watch John Watson being measured for a new tail coat and the rest. The tailor, who had known me since making my first suit at age twelve, was well-used to my eccentricities and Watson, of course, accepted my explanation of having to be sure all was done to the highest standard to prevent any embarrassment on the night.
Bluntly speaking, Watson’s body was all that I had ever imagined it to be from the glimpses inevitable when two men share quarters. Nay, it was more than I had imagined. Sturdy and tidy. Not tall, but perfectly formed. I pretended to fill my pipe while the inner leg was measured.
It was no doubt the flattering glow of the crystal lighting in the shop that made it seem as if a golden aura surrounded my friend.
Never had shopping been so entirely pleasant. By the time we departed Poole’s, with the promise of delivery within the fortnight, I was already trying to devise future expeditions that would provide me with more opportunities to gaze upon Watson’s body without the repercussions of my secret desires being revealed.
It was a pathetic way to live, but I would choose it above an existence without John Watson.
One could not, of course, expect Watson to agree to a weekly visit to Poole’s, even if our finances could be so stretched. But finally another thought did occur.
That night, as we relaxed in front of a cheerful fire, with our port and pipes in hand, I spoke as if some idea had just sprung into my mind.
“Watson,” said I oh-so-casually, “are you at all fond of the Turkish baths?”