Of course, I’d seen his films and always thought he was, well, brilliant -- but, you know, a million miles from the world I live in. Which is here -- Notting Hill. Not the posh bit off Ladbroke Grove with all those private gardens or near Portobello Market, with its quaint cafes and market stalls selling overpriced bread and cut flowers, frequented by those 30-somethings who’ve made all the right choices in life. No, not that Notting Hill. I live a few streets away, bordering a slightly grubbier part of London, more likely to smell of days old rubbish than flowers. Not a bad place to be, really, but when asked, and if I don’t want to feel the weight of judgement for my tiny flat on an obscure street, I simply say I stay in Notting Hill and let people create a vision of my life in their heads.
I like it here though. The few friends I have are nearby -- there’s Greg, a copper who often seems just as disenchanted with life as I am, but he tends to hide it better, and Molly, a friend from university, who spends her days in the morgue at St. Bart’s. She is now married to Greg, but let it be known that she was my friend first. There’s Mike, another university friend and a doctor, and the one in our group that is most adept at making sensible decisions. And, of course, my baby sister Harry, whose life seems to be a string of unfortunate decisions but we love her anyway.
So this is where I spend my days, where I lead a strange half-life. I wake up in this tiny flat that I bought after my wife left me (that is another story entirely), eat some toast with jam, pick up a coffee from the place around the corner as I walk to work, sometimes have dinner with my friends, more often than not, I spend the evening flicking through channels on my small telly and ordering a takeaway. Perhaps I wouldn’t be a million miles from his world if my life had led me to one of those three-story Notting Hill houses with access to a private garden.
And so it was just another hopeless Wednesday, as I set off for work, little suspecting that this was the day which would change my life forever. Work, by the way, is my shop called 'The Travel Book Co.' which, well, sells travel books -- and, to be frank with you, doesn't always sell many of those. Seemed like a good idea back when I was fresh out of the Army and desperately hoping to be anywhere else in the world other than a hospital bed, healing from a bullet to the shoulder. If I couldn’t travel the world in reality, then I could do so through books and help people make their dreams come true. Turns out, I’m a rubbish business owner and even worse at customer service, too much of a grumpy git, so I usually hole myself up in the office with stacks of purchase orders, while Anderson, my shop assistant, works the till. I think he may be even worse at customer service than I am, but it saves me from having to smile and make small talk.
Anyway, where was I… Oh, right, the Wednesday that changed my life.
We’ve just had a major sales push for books about Southeast Asia, the hot new travel destination according to some poll Anderson found on the Internet, and I am attempting to square the books to see how we’ve done. Double-checking the figures I’d entered on the calculator, I hit the equals button and close my eyes for a second, sending up a brief prayer to whatever god is up there, and then look down --
“Shit!” That can’t be right, surely?
“What is it, boss?” Anderson’s greasy head pops round the doorframe.
“Classic. Just classic. All our effort to tempt visitors into reading about Laos or Cambodia or wherever and somehow we’re down £347.”
Anderson whistles in that annoying way he has, as if this doesn’t affect him at all. “Shall I pop out and grab us a couple cappuccinos? Some caffeine to get the juices flowing so we can plan our next push -- I hear Peru is popular with the uni kids!”
Some days I want to throttle him, but right now, I just want him out of my hair. “Best get one while we can still afford it -- we’ll be stuck with instant coffee if this continues…”
Saluting, Anderson spins on his heel and vanishes from the door. With him away, I allow my head to drop to the desk, the resulting thunk sounding loud in the empty shop. The shop is bleeding money and I don’t have a fucking clue how to stop it. At this rate, I’ll be out of a job and on Greg and Molly’s Li-lo by the summer bank holiday.
“Shit. Shit, shit, shitty buggering fuck.”
“Very eloquent.” A voice, deep and slightly mocking, interrupts my panic and I snap my head up to see a customer browsing the shelves opposite my office.
I push back my chair and stumble around the desk in embarrassment at being caught in such an unprofessional state. “S-sorry, I didn’t realise anyone was here. Just a bit of a bad moment there, I’m afraid, not usually one to talk to myself.” I am ashamed to note that I giggle then, a nervous habit from my school days that I just can’t seem to shake. “Can I help you find anything?”
The man, clearly a posh bloke judging by his coat and shoes, finally glances over at me and he proceeds to look me up and down, as if to assess if he can deign to speak with me.
“I always find it useful.”
“Pardon?” Apparently I passed whatever test he’d devised, but he seems to be in the middle of a conversation I don’t remember starting and I have no clue what he means.
He sighs. “Talking to myself -- it can be useful. As most people are idiots, I find it easier to tease out problems if I speak out loud to myself. Granted, I usually employ fewer vulgarities than you just did, but one cannot deny that there is a certain satisfaction in a good curse word.”
Well. That’s not at all what I expected him to say, so I tell him, “That’s not at all what I expected you to say.”
The corner of his mouth hints at a smile and he begins browsing the bookshelves again. “Nothing worse than being predictable.”
“Indeed.” I muster a knowing chuckle, like I, too, am the type of man with an air of mystery, who can wrong-foot with only a simple turn of phrase. In reality, I’m probably the most predictable of men, simple, comfortable, dull.
He picks up a book about Afghanistan and turns it to read the blurb on the back.
“That one is rubbish, just in case you were, you know, looking to buy. I think it was written by someone who knows someone who once visited Afghanistan. Probably shouldn’t have it on the shelf anymore, but we have them in stock so there they stay until they’re sold, which isn’t likely to happen if I keep telling customers not to buy it…” Oh my god, stop talking right this minute, you absolute fool.
The man glances from the book in his hand back to me, an amused look dances across his features and and I can feel a flush creep up the back of my neck.
“Well, then, Mr. -- ?”
“Uh, it’s Watson, but John is fine.”
“Well, then, John, which would you recommend?”
His blue eyes are sparkling and I can’t tell if he’s mocking me or not, so I force myself to take a few steps forward to look at the collection of books I’ve gathered about Afghanistan. “It depends on what you’re looking for really. This one is good for general travel tips, this one for Afghan history, this is about conflict and military interventions in the area, and this --”
“Ah, that’s it.”
I stop pulling books off the shelf. “What is?” Again, I feel like he’s started in the middle of a conversation and I’m stuck playing catch up.
“I couldn’t put my finger on it right away, but now I see it. How long were you in the Army?”
A small shock zips through me. Not that my military service is a secret, but it’s just not something I talk about, even with Greg and Mols, and especially not with random customers that wander into my shop. “I, um, I was -- how did you know that?”
“Yes, well, your hair still has that too short and too neat look: a cut of habit. Your posture, once you’re not slumped over your desk, screams soldier - even now you’re standing at parade rest - and when you mentioned the book about conflict and military history, it was clear that it was a subject you knew well.”
I’m a bit gobsmacked by that and my mouth is hanging open in what is probably a highly unattractive manner. “That was amazing.”
“Was it?” The man looks genuinely chuffed, a faint flush staining his pale cheeks.
“Yes, of course it was. Most people just don’t peg me as a soldier. I mean, I run travel book shop. Not exactly the route most former servicemen go down.”
“I am not most people.” This should sound conceited or self-aggrandising, but something about the way he says it makes it come across as a simple fact.
“No, no you are not.”
He is fascinating and there were so many things I want to ask him. Just as I open up my mouth to ask one of the many questions rattling around in my head, the bell over the door rings and Anderson stumbles back into the shop, expensive cappuccinos in hand.
“Hey, boss! Not only do I come bearing coffee, but Janine was working today and she asked me to say hi to you and threw in a couple chocolate croissants with our order. I’m telling you, you’re in like Flynn with her, Johnny-boy! I don’t know why you keep turning her down. I’d have her in a second!” Anderson, in his usual blundering way, started talking immediately upon stepping into the shop, taking in nothing of his surroundings or the fact that we have a customer, and did not stop until he’s handed me my coffee.
I take the cup with a grimace and glance to my left, at the customer, ready to apologise for my arsehole of an assistant. The man is holding two of the books I had recommended - the ones about Afghan history and military interventions, I am strangely pleased to note - and is gazing at Anderson with distaste.
“Blimey, you’re Sherlock Holmes!”
At Anderson’s exclamation, I suddenly recognise the man standing in front of me -- I’ve seen him on enough magazine covers that it should have been obvious earlier. Now I feel rather ridiculous that it took me so long to place him, but I honestly never expected him to come into my shop. When you see celebrities on telly or film posters, it’s so easy to forget that they’re just people; people who do ordinary things like pop to the shops, meet friends for a drink, and, apparently, patronise independent bookstores.
The man’s - Sherlock Holmes’ - eyes narrow and it’s like a shutter comes down between us. Gone is the reserved but charming man and in his place is this cold and distant stranger. I want to shrink back from him at the change, but Anderson is seemingly oblivious. “Could I get an autograph?”
It’s like watching a traffic accident. Except when I see a traffic accident, the emotion I feel isn’t a deep and unrelenting mortification. Why can’t Anderson ever just shut his gob?
“Fine,” Sherlock Holmes clips out. He sets the books back down on the shelf and makes his way to the counter. If I hadn’t just taken part in our previous conversation, I would have said he was restrained and polite, but now that I’ve seen a different side to him, I can read the irritation in his movements. When he reaches the counter, he picks up an abandoned Bic pen and flips over a flyer for a community performance of Much Ado About Nothing. “To whom do I make it out?”
Anderson rushes over. “Philip Anderson, please, Mr. Holmes!”
Sherlock Holmes jerks his head in a curt nod and begins scratching a note. Upon finishing he thrusts it at Anderson, recaps the pen and slaps it down on the counter.
“Oh, thanks! Hey, what does it say below my name?” Anderson asks, staring at the paper in puzzlement.
“It says ‘To Philip Anderson, Your mere presence is enough to make me despair for the future of humanity.’ And if you have no other annoying questions, I think I’ll be off.” He walks towards the door, coat swirling around him, and stops with his hand on the handle, turning back to look at me, grey eyes reverting to some of their earlier warmth, “Good day, John.”
And with that, Sherlock Holmes whirls out the door, out of my shop, and out of my life.
I feel dazed and strangely angry.
I’d been an oblivious fool in front of one of the most famous actors in Britain, practically simpering under his attention and I’m sure he thought I was completely daft, wittering away as I’d done.
Not only that but Anderson’s complete inability to act like a decent human being made a potential customer practically flee from our shop and cost us a sale. While I highly doubt Sherlock Holmes was really interested in books about Afghanistan, I’d at least had hope that he’d buy something while the books had been in his hands, but then Anderson had shown up and those books were back on the shelf where they’d been sitting for months.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Anderson.” I decide to ignore my embarrassment and focus on Anderson as a target for my outrage. If nothing else, I’m exceptionally attached to my stereotypically British ability to stifle my emotions and carry on regardless.
“Did you see him buy any books?”
“Well, no, but I did get an autograph, and we can now tell people that Sherlock bloody Holmes was in the shop. Maybe that could be part of our advertising!”
“Anderson, he insulted you and then he left. You want to use that to attract customers?”
“Well, no, but no one has to know that he didn’t buy anything. We can just tell people that he was here. ‘The Travel Book Co. - Sherlock Holmes’ bookshop of choice!’ A little celebrity endorsement never hurts!”
I can feel a headache coming on. “I’m sure his lawyers would love that. I don’t have enough money for lunch, let alone for legal fees.”
“Okay, fine. It was just an idea. I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”
I suddenly can’t be in the same room as Anderson a moment longer. “I’m going for a walk - you man the shop. Cheers for the coffee.” I tip my cup at him and make my way out the door to get lost in the thrum of the city.