The capacity of humans to be entertained by the normal variations of nature used to astonish me sometimes. The weather has always been a topic of conversation, especially when it is simply doing what it always does. Change is of the essence of the universe, and weather is simply one normal manifestation of that change.
Watson says I would do well to learn how to engage in small talk. Since chatting about heat and cold, rain and snow, and taking offence at nature’s turning the tables on our human plans seems pointless, I have never bothered.
But this is precisely why I failed to notice, at first, what was happening. We’d watched reports of giant hailstones in Tokyo, tornados in Los Angeles, and snow in Mumbai, but the media always hype weather. It’s a sure draw for viewers. There’s even a bloody channel devoted exclusively to reporting the bloody weather.
It rains for days. Everyone has plenty to talk about. Mrs Hudson goes to Italy with her sister.
One morning we wake up and and there’s a foot and a half of snow on the ground. For London, this would be unusual even in January. The fact that it’s the end of October makes small talk grind to a halt for a brief moment before everyone begins to talk at once. The internet slows noticeably under the weight of photos of people standing in their driveways with shovels.
The weather has suddenly become quite inconvenient. We have been working on a case, one that requires a lot of legwork. I’d planned for us to take the train up to Birmingham and look for evidence of gang activity, but there are no trains.
“We’ll lease a car,” I tell Watson.
“Are you not paying attention?” he says. “We’re snowed in. The M40 is closed. There are no cars, no cabs, no trains, no planes, no bloody boats. Everything is closed.”
“Inconvenient,” I say. Boring to waste a day, I think. “And in any case, Birmingham cannot be reached by boat.”
At that moment, as I’m grousing about the weather, I have no idea then how boring it is ultimately going to be.
It continues to snow for several days. We watch the telly. Giant storm systems, they say. Like hurricanes, but forming over land instead of water. Forecasters, having failed to forecast this, talk of storm systems and arctic fronts and ocean currents. Weather pundits discuss periods of glaciation.
Weather has become the fifth horseman of the apocalypse.
We go to Tesco and fill our cart with canned food, tea, bottled water, and lots of biscuits. Everyone else has the same idea, but we’re all still being polite about it, not fighting over the last box of powdered milk or digestives. Watson says we should buy batteries and lamp oil. And Scotch. He has apparently thought out the apocalypse ahead of time; it is in his nature to expect the worst in any situation.
We leave the telly on. The internet and the cellular networks are still operating, so I do research online focusing on the human trafficking network that my case seems to have blundered across. But there is little progress to be made on that. So I start researching the weather.
“Technically, we are in an ice age,” I tell Watson. He has opened the back of an old radio he found in the basement and is fiddling with wires and transistors and electrical things.
“No shit,” he says. “Sherlock, we need to do something about the windows. Maybe we could seal them with some plastic sheeting.”
“I mean that we are in an interglacial period. Ice sheets still exist over portions of the earth. We are simply in a warming period between glacial periods.”
“Doesn’t feel warm to me,” he comments, examining a wire he’s pulled loose. “I wonder how old this thing is.”
“The earth was not designed for human comfort,” I explain. “We have come to think of what we experience as normal simply because our lifespans don’t permit us to see the bigger picture. It is quite likely that the earth is entering a new glacial period.”
“I thought that was supposed to take years. What about global warming?”
It’s not really a stupid question, I tell myself. People at Tesco were joking about it. Hey, sure could use some global warming right about now! Lifeboat humour. The kind of things people say when they’re in line for the last box of chocolate HobNobs in London. Or when they’re eating their last HobNob, wishing they’d bought batteries instead.
“Paradoxically,” I explain with great patience, “man-made pollution has accelerated the change. Several climatologists are suggesting that the North Atlantic current has been disrupted by desalinisation of the Atlantic ocean, caused by melting glaciers, and this change is ushering in a new period of glaciation.”
“You mean, nature is finally taking revenge on us for ignoring the environmentalists.”
“Nature is impersonal, John. It is not vengeful. It simply is.”
“I still think we should seal the windows. If we’re in the eye of the storm tonight, it’s going to be deadly cold. We need to preserve every bit of warmth.”
Lestrade calls, wanting to know if we’re all right. “They’re moving people into shelters. One’s been set up in the library about two blocks from you. They’re putting up cots and serving hot tea and food.”
“I’m not sleeping on a cot,” I say. “And we have plenty of tea and food. We’ll be fine.”
“Stay inside,” he says. “The storm is going to get worse. They’re warning that the temperature is going to drop even more.”
People on the telly are starting to get excited. Weather maps show swirling white masses over most of the northern hemisphere.
“We expect to see the eye of the storm in roughly three hours,” a woman in a short skirt says (not dressed for the weather. Why don’t weather reporters ever dress appropriately for what they’re forecasting? She ought to be wearing a parka, at least.) On her screen, she points out the eye, a clear spot in the middle of the white swirl. A man in a too-small suit banters with her, saying things about the weather. They seem energised, almost ecstatic, because finally everybody cares about the weather.
Watson is stuffing newspapers into the window wells. The electricity goes off.
“Well, at least the gas is still working,” I say. “We can still make tea.”
He gives me a gloomy look. “How long do you think that will continue? We’ll have to be prepared to feed the fire. Let’s go see what’s in the lumber room.”
First we take a trip to the basement.
“It’s warmer down here,” he says.
“Like a cave,” I say. “It maintains a more constant temperature because it’s underground.”
He’s opening boxes, pulling out oil lamps and tools. He drapes a coil of rope over my shoulder and hands me a pile of folded canvas.
“Is this a tent?” I ask. Because I’ve never known Watson to enjoy camping. The one time we had to sleep in a leased car, he complained that it hurt his shoulder.
“It’s a tarp. We can improvise a tent to keep the heat in.” He shifts a box of flares onto his good shoulder, contemplates another box, this one full of dehydrated food. Mountain Menu, the writing on the side says. He sets the box down and opts for an emergency lantern and an orange sleeping roll instead. Orange, I suppose, so the helicopters will find us in case we wind up sleeping on a glacier.
There’s more orange gear. He hangs an orange parka over my head by the hood, takes another for himself. There are harnesses and boots and a helmet with a lantern in it.
“No first aid kit?” I ask.
He snorts. “There’s already one in the kitchen and another in the bathroom. Let’s bring all this up. We can come back for the raft later.”
I don’t ask why we might need a raft. Perhaps he thinks things will quickly warm up after the storm passes and we’ll be able to float to safety.
“Where did you get all that stuff?” I ask as we head upstairs.
“Army surplus,” he says.
We’ve never talked about the end of the world before. It’s not a deliberate oversight, just a conversation we’ve never gotten around to having. I think people are usually drunk when that conversation begins. If I were to choose my favourite doomsday scenario, I would be hard-pressed to choose between nuclear war and an alien invasion. Nuclear war, because it would be interesting to observe the long-term effects of such a massive amount of radiation. Alien invasion, because if they made it to this solar system, they must have some interesting technology. After seeing Watson’s equipment stash, I assume we are living in his ideal apocalypse.
The lumber room is, unsurprisingly, full of old furniture. Some of it might be so old that it’s worth something. Watson points out that furniture is worth nothing when you’re dead from hypothermia. He takes his small hatchet and breaks up chairs and bedside tables into log-sized pieces.
His room is up here as well. He opens his bureau and finds a third medical kit, several pairs of wooly socks, and a multi-tool with a compass. He sticks a toothbrush in his back pocket, a small mirror in his shirt pocket (for flashing Morse Code to people stranded in other buildings), and a butane lighter in his front pocket. He pulls the blanket off his bed and fills it with the lumber so we can carry it downstairs all at once.
Once we’re in the sitting room, I pile the broken furniture near the fireplace. We’re both cold and the fire is already dwindling.
“Kindling,” he says, and begins pulling books from the shelf. My books.
“What are you doing?” I cry. “You can’t burn books!”
“Why not?” he asks. He is holding an out of print copy of Clinical Atlas of Anatomy in one hand and Boscombe’s Apiary Management in the other.
“Because — they’re books!”
“Do you want to freeze to death?” he asks.
“Then burn James Bond,” I suggest. “My books might actually be useful in the event of an apocalypse.”
“Fine,” he says. He removes an entire shelf of Ian Fleming, John Le Carre, and James Patterson paperbacks.
I make a peace offering, my old school yearbooks. I don’t know why I saved them, but now it seems fortuitous.
The transistor radio doesn’t work, but Watson finds his crank radio in another box in the basement. We take turns cranking for a while, then look for a station. For a long time, all we find is static. Finally, we hear a voice speaking French. It says numbers: inches of snow, air temperatures, numbers of people dead, hours since this started.
We make tea and use the hot water to reconstitute some soup. The toaster won’t work, but we spread jam on the bread and declare it a feast. We sit in the firelight, soaking up as much warmth as we can. In our orange parkas, we make a quick trip to the loo to brush teeth and pee. The pipes are frozen; the water in the toilet looks slushy. We pour the rest of the hot water in and flush it. Fortunately, it goes down. We bring bottles of water into the sitting room.
We build up the fire and prepare for the temperature drop. We don’t open the curtains or look outside, but there is an eerie quiet that tells us that it’s time. As the temperature drops, we shiver inside an extra-large orange sleeping bag under orange blankets inside Watson’s makeshift tent. The fire is blazing with spy novels, but seems to barely make a dent in the chill.
“What’s on your mind?” I ask, to be conversational. The weather — well, no point in talking about that.
“I was remembering that day at Barts, the day we met.” His hair is bright in the firelight, his skin golden.
“29 January, 2010,” I say unnecessarily. I am one of those people who remember useless things. I try to avoid clutter in my mind palace, but there are plenty of things one might need to know without yet knowing they are important. January 29 was one such bit of information. I remembered what I was wearing, what Watson was wearing, the things we said to one another. I remembered winking, god knows why, as I swirled out the door. The name’s Sherlock Holmes… It all seemed so frivolous now. I’m not sure why I saved it, except everything that happened afterwards seemed to say that it was important.
“What if we hadn’t met?” he says. “What if I hadn’t run into Stamford that day, or you hadn’t mentioned to him that you were looking for a flatmate?”
“But those things did happen,” I object. “This line of hypothetical questioning will produce no facts.”
He huffs and I feel his warm breath on my face. “Thank you, Mr Spock. The whole point is that it’s hypothetical. Thinking about it makes you understand your choices better. You learn from experience.”
“Hm.” I can think of nothing else to say. I’m still shivering, but can feel the warmth of Watson’s body radiating from his side of the sleeping bag.
“Six weeks ago, what did you think the rest of our lives would be?” he asks.
“I thought… we would continue pretty much as we had been doing. I would take cases, drag you along, you would say idiotic things that would make me see the solution, and we would get takeout Chinese. Or Indian. You would continue to date boring women, breaking up with them before the third date. You would make me tea, and update your blog, and I would mess up the kitchen and go into my mind palace when you started yelling about the mess.”
“Soo… ad infinitum? The odd couple of 221B, bumbling through one season after another? Will we still be doing this when we’re ninety?”
“Well, I suppose you might… get married at some point.” This is hard for me to think about. The pattern has remained unbroken for over a year: first date, a movie; second date, dinner; third date, break up. But the odds do not preclude Watson meeting a woman who will make it to the third date, and that might just be the tipping point. He will move out, stop coming to Baker Street, and produce small Watsons.
“And what about you? Will you still be chasing down criminals in your nineties? Won’t that be boring?”
“I haven’t planned that far,” I say. “It is human nature to resist change. In spite of my frequent complaints about boredom, I am no different. I crave stimulation, not change.”
“But now, everything will change,” he said. “Whatever we planned or didn’t plan, we’re going to wake up in a world that has already changed. I was thinking about that day when we met because there are moments like that, events that change your life without you even realising it’s happened.”
When he says this, I understand that this is one such moment. Everything is about to change between us, and I can’t stop it. I don’t know if I want to.
I feel his shiver from my side of the sleeping bag. “C’mere,” he says, budging over towards the middle.
I roll on my side, facing him. He slides his arms around me and I do the same to him. We lie, chest to chest, foreheads pressed together, separated by layers of clothing, but warmer than we were.
“I don’t want to wake up in a world where I haven’t already said certain things,” he says. “Before, I didn’t know that I needed to say them, but now I do. I want to say them before we go out and see what’s left of civilisation.” He’s speaking softly, in my ear.
There are things I’ve imagined, fantasies, where he says things to me, and everything changes just because he said them. And (in my fantasy) I think I can stop dreaming about it because it’s true, and I don’t have to protect myself by pretending I have no feelings, and the change inside of me is wonderful because John feels the same.
But right now, I’m terrified. What if I’ve imagined wrong, and this is a different moment, where we will go out and not return together? What if I say the wrong thing and whatever was about to happen takes a left turn?
I see the moment as it arrives. “John,” I whisper. “I love you.”
He leans in and kisses me. And kisses me some more. I’m kissing him back. We’re in the eye of the storm. Everything goes still.
“I love you, too,” he says. “And I’m not afraid now, and I’m not confused. I know exactly what I want.”
We sleep like that, wrapped around one another, breathing one another’s breath.
In the morning, we cautiously crawl out of our tent. Watson looks at his indoor-outdoor thermometer and announces that the temperature outside is thirty below. Inside it’s three. I put more furniture on the fire. Watson makes tea, reconstitutes some dehydrated eggs, and cuts slabs off a giant block of dried fruit with his survival knife. Our silence is contented.
Once breakfast has warmed us, we put on our parkas and boots, hats and gloves, and climb to the roof. The snow reaches the second floor of our building. We use brooms to clear the windows. Then we sit, looking out over the city, now just a sea of white with rooftops poking through like ships.
And we see other people on other rooftops doing the same — gazing across the new landscape. People wave and shout to one another, our new neighbours in this new world. Helicopters approach.