Palimpsest Definition: A piece of writing material upon which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing, but which is still visible; also, having diverse layers apparent beneath the surface.
John Watson awoke abruptly and completely, his body apparently still primed to rise and throw itself back into the battlefield raging just beyond his hospital tent in Afghanistan. But, when he opened his eyes, it was not to see the khaki and camouflage of his military quarters, but instead just the grimy magnolia walls of his government-sponsored bedsit. The sounds he heard were not the rumble of armoured military vehicles or the overhead noise of the MC-12s doing recon for the Americans, but only the normal muted roar of London traffic. As well as the too-loud heavy metal so-called music that his neighbour played incessantly between the hours of 08:00 and 22:00, when such things were allowed in the building. John suspected that those in charge did not want the tenants sleeping in late, but instead be up and about the business of getting over whatever had led to their discharge from the military. That business, for most of the men [and two women] in residence, meant attending physical therapy or visits to the head doctor.
Lucky John had hit the jackpot, because he had both.
But today was Saturday, so he had nothing on. If he wanted to, he could just stay in bed and listen to the noise from next door. However, there was a good chance that a day spent that way [while it would nicely show a couple of rude fingers to authority] might also be the thing that would send him careening off that thin edge of existence to which he had been clinging so desperately. On that thought, he glanced at the drawer where his doom or his salvation [depending on the day] lay waiting.
When he did actually roll out of the narrow bed to cross the room [three steps] and look out the tiny window, it was to find a warm and sunny day awaiting him. He decided to take a walk instead of opening the drawer.
Skipping a shave, John dressed quickly and then made it out of the building without being forced into civility with anyone else. He held his breath briefly as he passed the small gang of desperate smokers on the pavement and walked away quickly.
The rhythmic tap-tapping of the stick annoyed him as usual, but he tried to set that aside and share the good spirits of those around him, all of whom seemed eager to make the most of a perfect June day. A quick stop at a Costa for a cup of coffee helped brighten his mood a bit. At some point, as he sipped and walked, John realised that he was more or less being swept along by the crowd. Once he lifted his gaze from its contemplation of the pavement, he knew immediately where everyone was headed.
It had been years.
And it felt even longer ago than that.
It felt, in fact, as if generations had come and gone since that time, so distant did the shell of John Watson trudging along Notting Hill today seem from the young medical student who had once upon a time trolled the Portobello Market in search of cheap denims and trendy tees. And maybe some company for the Saturday night pub crawl.
Even as he still allowed himself to be swept along by the crowd, John realised that it was stupid for him to go to the market now. He had very few pounds to spend and didn’t need anything anyway. At least he was in no need of anything that could be found on the variety of stalls lining the road. But he kept going, mostly because the alternative was to return to the bedsit and contemplate the drawer that held his doom. Or his salvation.
But the sun was shining and three Jamaican kids were playing reggae [not terribly well, but enthusiastically] on the corner, while an old woman wearing a bright gipsy skirt and tattered Birkenstocks danced along with the music. Tourists were taking pictures on their phones and he could smell sausages being grilled somewhere close by. So John just gripped the stick more tightly and moved along with the crowd.
Because he’d had nothing so far but the coffee, John paused long enough to buy one of the sausage rolls, asking for extra brown sauce, just because it was that sort of day. Roll in hand, he continued his stroll past the stalls filled with tourist tat, handmade crafts, old vinyl records and occasionally some [possibly] genuine antiques. John relaxed more than he had in longer than he could remember.
He finally ducked into one of the shops behind the stalls, a cluttered and dimly-lit space crowded with all sorts of unusual things: a wooden leg with the Union flag painted on, a silk top hat with a handwritten label reading 1830, a china baby doll whose smile was more disturbing than charming. A pile of leather-bound books that he searched through for a few moments. One table held stacks of vintage Royal Dalton tea cups and saucers. Another was filled with old photographs of stony-faced people in their best Sunday clothes.
Moving on, John accidentally kicked something under the table and he bent down to see what it was. He pulled out a battered metal box and, shoving some photographs aside, set it on the table. The box was locked, but his curiosity was aroused by the faded paint on top. He wet one finger in his mouth and rubbed at the dirt until he could make out the barely remaining image of a crown and, below that, the Rod of Aesculapius. He searched his pockets and found a lone tissue, spit onto it and rubbed more vigorously at the top of the box. Most of the words were too faded to read, but he could make out a few.
LATE INDIAN ARMY
The rest were lost to time.
He lifted the box again. It was clearly not empty, but the lock was rusted closed and there was no key in sight.
Not entirely sure about what he was doing or why, he walked towards the front of the shop, still holding the box.
The elderly man perched on a high stool behind the counter eyed him.
John set the box down. “How much is this?” he asked, clutching the stick like a lifeline. The fingers of his free hand rested lightly on the now-revealed Rod of Aesculapius. “I’m an army doctor.” He swallowed. “Was an army doctor.” The words tasted bitter in his mouth.
The old man studied the box briefly, then fixed his gaze on John again. After another moment, he shrugged. “Ten quid suit?”
It was only a few days until the next pension payment would turn up in his account, so while he might have beans on toast once or twice, he’d had worse. And he actually liked beans on toast, so… John had no idea why this battered old box had become so important to him almost immediately, but it was. He took a couple of five-pound notes from his wallet and very soon walked out of the shop, back into the sunshine, clutching the box as if it held a pirate’s treasure.
John pushed several old issues of the Guardian, two empty salt vinegar crisps packets, and an unopened letter from his sister off the small table and onto the floor in his bedsit, before setting the box there instead. This time, he used a dampened washcloth to clean the rest of the dirt and dust off, but still no more words were visible. Just the original three.
LATE INDIAN ARMY
It seemed most likely that this box had belonged to an army doctor from an earlier era and while he could not explain, even to himself, why that seemed so exciting, John was aware that nothing had interested him so much since before Afghanistan. Before a sniper’s bullet. Before everything went to shite.
He took out his Swiss Army knife and set to work on the lock. It took only a few minutes before the rust gave way, the latch clicked open, and he could raise the lid, which creaked a bit.
The contents of the box were a jumble and he began to sort through it all. Carefully, he removed lancets, an eye dropper, a small set of scalpels and a sewing kit, both wrapped in leather, a few glass slides, forceps, tweezers and scissors. A little amber bottle which bore a handwritten label reading 7% Solution. Whatever its contents had been, they were now dry and flaking.
When everything had been removed and set onto the table, John took a few minutes to study it all, feeling a sense of kinship with the man who had once owned and held these items. He even thought that maybe he felt a vague pride that he had once upon a time followed in the footsteps of the doctor who had used these basic tools to heal.
Finally, he turned his attention to the box itself and only then did he realise that there was a false bottom in the thing. It took a bit more fiddling with his knife, but then he managed to pry it up. “Wow,” he said aloud, although there was no one to hear him.
In the real bottom of the box there lay a thick pile of papers, held together by a length of ribbon, its original colour now faded to a pale ochre. Carefully, John lifted the bundle out and set it on the table as well.
Before examining more closely what he had discovered, John used his electric kettle to make himself a cup of tea and took a Hobnob from his dwindling supply. Then he sat again at the table and began to slowly unknot the ribbon. When it was untied, he pulled it off and set it aside, before picking up the first sheet of paper, which was clearly a letter. He wondered, fleetingly, if it were quite right to read words belonging to someone else, but since the author of those words as well as the intended recipient were no doubt long dead, he set aside his unease and began to read.
My dearest S,
How foolish it is for me to be penning these words, just as dawn begins to peek over the edge of the city, rising on what feels to me like a whole new world. Foolish as well that I feel quite bereft of your company when I only left your side mere minutes ago. How difficult it was for me to do so in light of what happened between us last night. My meagre skill with words fails me completely in the circumstance.
Know only that you have filled my heart with such joy as I have never even dreamt of before. It is all very much a surprise, yet at the same time there is such a sense of inevitability that I feel quite calm. This, despite the obstacles, of which we are both more than aware. I will now slip this poor missive under the door of your bedroom and hope that you receive it with the same pleasure with which I dispatch it.
John set the note down and picked up his almost forgotten tea. Again, he felt as if he were intruding into something intimate, something…special. And yet, it was a bit odd as well. Clearly, it was someone [a man, he thought with very little evidence, beyond a certain masculine look in the penmanship] who had slept with a lover. A first night with that lover, judging by the words. But why had J left?
He drained his cup and made a face at the cool liquid.
Although weren’t the Victorians [the right era, judging by the medical equipment] supposed to be a bit…strict about sexual matters? Maybe one of them was married. On the other hand, he had a faint memory of some film a long-forgotten girlfriend had dragged him to back before he’d signed up for the army. The story was set in a massive Victorian country house during a weekend hunting party. During which there had been a lot of bedroom hopping.
He gave a small shake of his head. The words in the note seemed much more…meaningful than just some drunken fling.
John stood and made himself another cuppa.
There were a lot of letters to read, although they seemed to be in no particular order, so he simply picked up the next one.
My Dearest J,
Whilst I hold no particular regard for a sentimental holiday like the one being celebrated today, as it seems primarily to the benefit of the stationers and Mr Cadbury, who first associated the occasion with confectionary, I know that in many ways you are a sentimental being. And, although, as a matter of logic I scorn the softer emotions, I cherish such feelings in you, because they have allowed such a noble example of humankind to care so deeply for a flawed man like myself. Therefore, in that spirit, I wish you a most pleasant Saint Valentine’s Day and propose a dinner at Simpson’s this evening to mark the occasion.
Yours, most deeply,
Even the noise of the heavy metal from his neighbour went completely unnoticed as John kept reading.
He worked his way slowly through the collection of letters, tracking the eratic evolution of a romance, the everyday details of a life shared, hints of unexplained adventures. It was as if he knew the people involved as well as he had ever known anyone.
Which was why the next letter shook something in his chest.
My Beloved S,
I write these words in the desperate hope that you can find it in yourself to forgive me for my most unforgivable transgression today. There is absolutely no excuse for the cruel words I uttered to you, most horribly in the presence of those thick-skulled minions from the Yard. If there is anyone on earth who knows the true depths of your heart it is I. Therefore, that I dared accuse you of being a machine, a cold-hearted automaton, is reprehensible. By way of poor justification, I can only point to the horrors we beheld within that house of death. The blood, the sight of those poor butchered children, the smells of slaughter, perhaps reminded me all too vividly of the battlefields I have experienced. But that matters not. I can only throw myself entirely on your mercy and hope that you do not desire a severing of our companionship.
Might I come to your room and try to redeem myself? With words, if that is all you care to receive. With my entire being if you will permit me such liberties. I await your judgement.
Yours, if you will still have me,
John got up and walked over to the window, staring down at the road below. Saturday night traffic was lively and he could see some of his fellow residents having one last smoke before turning in. He could not really explain why he cared so much whether those two long-dead Victorians succeeded in their struggle to love another or whether like so many in the modern world they simply gave up and moved on. But care he did.
He sat down again.
And, almost immediately, he was [ridiculously] comforted by the next note. Unlike the others, this was not even a full sheet of the usual heavy old paper, but instead was only a scrap, apparently torn off from a receipt for the purchase of cigars. Scribbled on the back was the already familiar spidery scrawl of S.
Come to me. I will not deny that your words inflicted bitter pain on a heart so recently discovered, but the only fatal wound you could ever inflict upon that organ would be to absent yourself from my life. I do not ‘permit’ your liberties; they are essential.
John sighed in relief and carried on.
My Dearest J,
Our stroll today amongst the notable tombstones of Highgate Cemetery was a significant moment for me. And that, I fear, is a typical bit of the dramatic understatement to which I am so prone, but I feel certain that you will understand the depth of the [previously hateful] emotions that lie behind the remark. The words you spoke, the words I spoke, the truths we shared and the promises that were made have changed my life. Enhanced my life beyond belief.
And now I find myself chuckling, because if there has ever been a pair of hapless idiots for whom a cemetery was the perfect venue for the swearing of private vows, I feel sure that it is we two.
John lost track of time completely, pausing only occasionally in his compulsive reading of letter after letter, stopping only for more tea [the biscuits were long gone, but he found an apple and ate that] or to visit the loo. [All that tea.}
It was like reading a novel, following the lives those men lead. There was humour and pain, some kind of separation, eventual reunion. It was never an easy path they had followed, due both to their individual. often prickly, personalities and because of the unorthodox nature of their relationship in a time when it was illegal.
Finally, at some point in the darkest part of the night, John lifted the last piece of paper from the box.
My dearest S,
Tomorrow we will embark upon a new adventure, a new chapter of our often ridiculous life together. I will candidly say that there were many times when I had cause to doubt that we would ever arrive at this point. All the danger, all the obstacles, our own halting and awkward dance towards one another; so often the world seemed to conspire against us. But here we find ourselves. Tomorrow we will leave London and seek peace in our new home, me with my scribbling and you with your bees. We have been wise to make this change now, before our bones are too ancient. Whilst we still have time.
I will leave this note on the pillow before I go, for the last time, to a bed that does not contain you. The thought of the freedom we shall have in our own cottage is quite exhilarating. I feel quite like a youth again.
Yours, wherever we are,
So, despite it all, it seemed as if those two men made it to a happy ending. John smiled and shook his head, amused by his absurd investment in the lives of two long dead Victorians.
John stacked the letters together, tied them once again with the old ribbon and started to drop them back into the box. It was only then that he noticed a torn slip of paper tucked into a corner. He managed to pull it out and realised that what he had in his fingers was a fragment of an envelope. Only a part of an address remained, the dark ink faded into near illegibility. John smoothed the wrinkles with a finger until he could make out the handwriting.
221B BAKER ST---
Immediately, he went to find his copy of the A-Z, buried in a drawer beneath a pile of pants and socks. Baker Street. Not that far from where he was, actually.
Of course, he had no intention at all of going to the address. There was absolutely no reason for him to set a foot on Baker Street. Whatever had once stood at 221B was undoubtedly gone, just as the two men who had written those words were only dust. No one would even remember them now, in the 21st century.
Still chastising himself for being foolish to even think about visiting Baker Street, John finally stripped down to his pants and tee-shirt and curled up in his bed. Despite all the tea, he managed to fall into a fitful sleep.
His dreams were all of gas-lighted streets, pounding feet running through alleyways, cosy nights in front of a blazing fire, easy conversation with a close companion. Even in his sleep, he yearned for…something. Something he could not even name.
Without ever really deciding to do so, John rose by nine on Sunday morning and dressed quickly. He pulled on his jacket and tucked the envelope fragment into his pocket. No one else was stirring in the building, not even the metal-head next door, as John walked out into another sunny morning and headed for Baker Street.
One part of his mind was convinced that 221B was probably a Pret now. Or a bank. He was going to feel like six kinds of an idiot, that was nearly certain. Yet, at the same time, he felt as if he finally had a purpose in life, even if only for one Sunday morning.
Just to put off the inevitable disappointment for a bit, he found an open Starbucks and went in for coffee and a blueberry muffin. Maybe he should just buy a newspaper and go sit in the park for the day. That would be a much better use of his time, for sure.
But finally he reminded himself that John Watson had been a soldier and had never once shirked a mission. Even the one he should have. He took the stick in hand again and marched towards his destination without any further delay.
That destination turned out to be a tidy stone-and-brick building which looked as if it had been there forever. Inside the small café next door he could see several people having breakfast. He leant on the damned stick and just looked at the black door with its brass numbers and knocker. It might have been the same 150 years ago.
Abruptly, the door opened and an older woman wearing a vivid flowered dress and matching cardigan emerged. She smiled at him. “Morning, dear. You probably want Sherlock, don’t you? I would show you up, but I’m off for brunch with my neighbour Mrs Turner and she gets very grumpy if I’m late and her soufflé falls. You just go right on up.”
She was holding the door for him and John opened his mouth to correct her assumption. But then, inspired by he knew not what, John just returned her smile and went past her into the building. The door closed behind him with such a definite click that he almost felt as if the sound signalled the end of…something. And the beginning of something else. Something new.
Seven kinds of an idiot, no doubt.
He stood where he was, looking up through the open door at the top.
Before he could make a move [if he were actually going to make one] a deep voice sounded from inside the room. “Well, are you going to just stand in the foyer for as long as you loitered down on the pavement?”
John took in a long breath and started to climb, counting as he went, because for some reason it seemed important to know how many steps separated him from whatever was waiting at the top.
Seventeen, as it happened.
One hand slipped into his pocket and took out the fragment of paper with the address written on it.
John felt an almost unearthly sense of calm, of rightness as he stepped into the ridiculously cluttered room and saw a dressing gown-clad man sprawled on the sofa. “My name is John Watson,” he said after a moment.
There was a pause, as a pair of light eyes seemed to dissect him where he stood. Then the man smiled. “Hello, John Watson. I am Sherlock Holmes.”
John sighed and stepped further into the room as he felt the universe settle into place.