Prompts: Travelling. Family Visit. Favourite Tradition. Toys.
“Watson, could I please trouble you to fetch the Bradshaw and check for trains to Yorkshire tomorrow?”
I, of course, did just as asked, without questioning the motivation or asking why Holmes did not simply fetch the book himself, as he was merely reclining on the divan doing nothing. Meanwhile, I was actually working at the desk, attempting to write up a case that I had entitled The Singular Affair of the Aluminium Crutch. It seemed, for many reasons, an impossible task and I was beginning to think that I should just confine this particular tale to the rubbish pile.
Given that, it was actually with some sense of relief that I left the desk and located the requested volume. Sitting down opposite Holmes, I opened the book. “Where in Yorkshire?” I asked.
He waved one pale, indolent hand. “Oh, York itself will do. A carriage will be sent to meet us.”
I quickly perused the possibilities and it was decided that a train just after nine on the following morning would suit. In short order, Billy had been dispatched to purchase our tickets. Once the Bradshaw was back in its proper place, I settled into my chair again, with anticipation. “So what is the case, Holmes? I was not aware of any new client.”
His face did not show the eager curiosity usual in a case promising enough to take us so far from London. He heaved a sigh. “My dear Watson, I regret to inform you that there is no case.”
I only looked at him.
“I am being forced into the unpleasantness of a…” He shuddered visibly. “Family visit.”
Never had two words so startled me. As far as I was aware, Holmes had no close family save his brother and it would require only a carriage ride to Mayfair to visit that august gentleman. Not that Holmes was very often inclined to do so, of course. But before I could make an enquiry about that, something else occurred to me and I spoke in a more formal tone. “I see. In that case, I suppose you will be travelling alone. I apologise for my assumption. Billy can return one ticket.”
Holmes sat up suddenly, a look of near horror on his face. “Oh, no, my dear chap. You cannot send me into that circle of hell on my own. I insist that you come as well and have already notified the household in Yorkshire that I will be accompanied by my good friend and Boswell.”
My mood improved just a bit, although his words were still somewhat worrying. “Circle of hell, Holmes? That sounds most…unpromising. And might I ask just what relations these are, since you have never mentioned them before this moment.”
Holmes procrastinated long enough to reach for his pipe, consider it, then set it aside again. “I had hoped that the subject would never arise, but sadly Mycroft is being quite intransigent on the matter. There are certain…financial considerations. And the relations in question are, in fact, our parents.”
Would the surprises of this day never end?
My startlement must have been clear, because Holmes’ expression became sulky, “Why is the fact that I have parents such a surprise? Or did you believe that my brother and I sprang into the world fully formed?”
“No doubt from the head of Zeus,” I said lightly. “Actually, that might surprise me less than finding out that you have two living parents in Yorkshire. And that we are going for a visit.”
“A short visit. Two nights only. I have informed them that we desire to be back in our own home for Christmas itself.”
“I shall pack accordingly, then.” Anticipating his next words, I added, “Yes, I will pack your valise as well. Shall we be dressing for dinner?”
He shook his head. “They live quite simply these days.”
I paused, not sure how best to ask my next question. “Holmes, just so I am forewarned, in what way will the visit be hellish? Are your parents somehow…unpleasant?”
He glared at me. “They are entirely…ordinary. Commonplace. Pleasant to the point of madness.”
He did not appreciate my chuckle, so I stood, moved to his chair and bent to place a kiss amongst his curls, which as, the day drew to a close, had begun to escape the pomade. “In that case, I shall bear up as best I can.”
Suddenly, he pulled me down and kissed me on my lips. Just as I began to enjoy it enormously, he pulled back. “And there will be none of that for the duration,” he said darkly.
And so my mood became as black as his. Hell indeed.
Then, he stood and went to open the door. “Tea, Mrs Hudson,” he yelled down the stairs. Sensing my frown at his lack of manners, he added, “Please.”
We did have some good fortune the next morning, at least as we set off from King’s Cross, in that we had a compartment to ourselves. Discretion was still necessary, of course, but at least we could relax a bit and converse at will.
Not that Holmes was inclined to much idle conversation on the best of days and this was far from that. Still, I was curious to know at least something about the people I was about to meet.
But before I could formulate a question, Holmes, who was slouched in the seat so that our knees were touching, with his eyes already closed, spoke. “My mother is a free thinker. Supports the suffrage movement. She is also quite brilliant and very well known within mathematical circles for several monographs which were privately published. In an equitable world, she would be at the top of the field.” He opened his eyes briefly and looked at me as he said, “In her place, I would be quite bitter. But she maintains a hatefully cheerful persona.”
I thought about that, deciding that what I had learned was not a surprise, although it rather contradicted what Holmes had complained about previously, namely of his parents being commonplace. “And your father?” I said after a moment.
It almost seemed as if he were fighting the urge to smile. “My father is kind,” was all he said.
And that seemed the extent of what I was going to learn about his parents.
Especially since the door to the compartment slid open just then and a corpulent man whose red face and bloodshot eyes spoke of far too much indulgence in hard liquor stepped in. By the time he realised we were there, our knees were a respectable distance apart and my eyes, like my friend’s, were firmly closed.
Really, visiting Mr and Mrs Holmes was nothing like spending a holiday in Hades, despite Holmes’ warning.
They were, in fact, altogether ordinary and thoroughly pleasant people, who clearly doted on their younger son and were prepared to welcome his friend and companion into their realm. I did not allow myself to dwell upon how they would feel if it were discovered that at home I share his bed and worship his body.
I did not allow myself to dwell upon that very much.
True to Holmes’ word, the house was not grand, but entirely respectable and they kept a minimum of staff, all of whom seemed efficient and pleasant.
Drinks before dinner were served in a cosy parlour where there was a roaring fire to ward off the cold Yorkshire night air. While Mr Holmes, a tall, thin man with a headful of white and unruly hair, asked me questions about my time in Her Majesty’s forces, across the room Holmes and his mother were engaged in a conversation about some arcane mathematical topic that might as well have been in Greek for all it meant to me. Especially as my mind was distracted by the thought that, were I a very fortunate man, one day I might look across a room and see my Holmes, his hair gone white and his face lined, looking back at me with the same love as he showed today.
Dinner itself passed pleasantly and just as I was starting to look forward to spending a quiet evening in front of that fire with my pipe and perhaps a nice brandy, Mrs Holmes turned a smile on her son. “Sherlock, since you refused to join us and Mycroft on Christmas Eve, we have decided to do the walk tonight as well.”
Holmes groaned. “Really, Mother, I hardly think that it is necessary to---”
She quieted him with a look and I wondered if that were a trick she might teach me. Then she smiled at me. “Doctor Watson, we are not a religious family, but there is a habit we have adopted over the years. On Christmas Eve we walk over to the local church and light a candle with our sons. It has become my favourite tradition and we would be delighted if you would like to join us tonight with Sherlock.”
I glanced at Holmes, who merely looked resigned, then said, “It would be my pleasure.”
So, when the meal had ended, we all bundled up and walked the mile to the small stone church. There was no real conversation as we strolled along. Instead, I watched the stars above and also [circumspectly] watched Holmes, who did not seem quite as put out by the exercise as he might have been. Once, he caught me watching and one corner of his mouth twitched up.
I had assumed, naturally enough, that on arrival we would go inside the church, but that was not actually the case. Rather than set foot in the sacred confines, we stopped in a small copse of snow-covered elms. Mrs Holmes took a slender white candle from the deep pocket of her heavy velvet cape. Her husband searched his own pockets for a moment, without result. My friend sighed loudly and produced a box of Bryant and May’s safety matches, holding them out to his father. Odds were good, I decided, this was not the first time that had happened. Mr Holmes smiled as he lighted the candle that his wife was holding.
Strangely, I found it all a rather spiritual experience. More so, at least, than anything I had previously experienced sitting in a crowded pew with people who seemed more concerned about what everyone else was wearing or what their stocks might do when Monday arrived than about anything of a deeper meaning. Holmes stood just behind me and I could feel his hand touch my back fleetingly.
When the candle had burned down a bit, Mrs Holmes dropped it in the snow and the flame sizzled out.
We trekked back to the house to find hot tea, brandy and mince pies awaiting us.
Later, Holmes and I parted ways at the top of the stairs, with only a look shared between us, and went to our separate bedrooms.
The next day, claiming an urgent need to search for a long-missing book, Holmes took me into the attics, which were surprisingly tidy. We set our lanterns on the top of an oak table. Before starting his search, he wrapped his arms around me tightly and held on. “You have done a terrible thing to me,” he murmured.
Whilst I was enjoying the embrace and the scent of Holmes’ neck, a part of my mind was listening for possible footsteps climbing the stairs. “Have I? What might that terrible thing be?”
“You have spoiled me. Ruined me. Spending an entire night without you was torture.”
My first thought was to tease him a bit over the blatant sentimentality, but there was something in his voice, something in the way his hands clutched at me and when I pulled back a bit to look at him, such naked emotion in his eyes that it all kept me from making light of his words. So, instead, I simply let him hold me.
Then, briskly, he kissed the top of my head and stepped away. “Now to search for Langstroth’s book on The Hive and Honeybee.”
I left him to it and wandered idly amongst the neatly arranged trunks and boxes, until one small trunk caught my eye. It was made of wood and painted in now-faded red and yellow. What really drew my attention, however, were the initials WSSH painted in black on the top. “Holmes,” I said. “Might I open the trunk with your initials on it?”
He was already surrounded by a pile of dusty books and nodded absently, humming to signal permission.
I opened the lid of what I realised was probably a toy box. Any doubt on that was instantly dispelled when the first item I saw was a collection of little toy soldiers. I pulled them out, noticing that they were in nearly pristine condition, causing me to wonder how much they had actually been played with. I did not realise that Holmes was aware of what I had found until he spoke. “Mycroft attempted to instruct me in the art of statesmanship,” he said drily.
“You have met the man, have you not?”
I conceded that with a shrug, set the soldiers aside and reached into the box again. A very heavy leather bag proved to be packed with marbles. “You were fond of marbles,” I said.
Holmes was still searching for the book he wanted. “I was good at marbles,” he corrected. “My brother had fat fingers.”
We both laughed softly.
The next item out of the box was a delight. “I have not seen a kaleidoscope in years.” I put it to my eye, but the resulting display was less exciting than anticipated.
“I developed a taste for scientific enquiry very early,” Holmes said, thumbing through what appeared to be an old dictionary.
At some point, I had mastered the art of reading the true meaning of his words. “You took the kaleidoscope apart, didn’t you? And then attempted to reconstruct it.”
“I was only five,” he excused himself.
Next, amidst the clutter, I spied a wooden doll, dressed like a soldier. His red coat was faded and one eye was missing, but he had a quiet sort of nobility nevertheless. I held him up. “Does he have a name?”
“I called him Captain,” Holmes said. “He was a gift from an uncle. Uncle Rudy, whom I believe always had an interest in…the military. Or in soldiers, at any rate. He is no longer spoken of by most of the family.” Holmes gave me a smile and added, “I have learned to share that appreciation. Well, for just one soldier, but Uncle Rudy would be pleased, I think, that I have gained a flesh and blood Captain of my own.”
Our eyes met and locked. The air between us heated and seemed to thicken with the intensity of our sudden passion. Luckily, the ringing tone of the housemaid’s voice reached us from the corridor below just then, reminding us of where we were. Clearing my throat, I began placing everything back into the box.
“Aha!” Holmes finally pulled out a small book with a yellow cover and held it up triumphantly. “The Hive and Honeybee.”
We dusted ourselves off, picked up our lanterns and started for the door. “Holmes,” I said hesitantly. “They do not suspect us, do they? Your parents, I mean?”
He only shrugged. “Probably not. But, Watson, my parents love me.”
There seemed nothing else to say, so we went downstairs to have tea and fruitcake with the parents who loved him.
The next morning we caught the train for London and home. During the journey, Holmes read his book about the honeybees, while I contemplated the subject of love. Unsurprisingly, I reached no conclusions on the matter and finally fell asleep, slipping into the dream of a cottage to which I had never been and a contentment that seemed to exist just beyond my fingertips.