The second hand moved with the faintest of melodies that fell unheard upon John’s ears. The only audience for its tune was the furniture- an unappreciative audience. Rather than register the passage of time, John’s mind blocked the sound behind a thick door of thought.
There is a train: it leaves the station at a quarter after five.
Any minute now, the alarm would clamour with chaotic commotion. It wouldn’t be necessary, but the alarm wasn’t programmed to sense whether it was needed or not. It would go off and John, already wide awake, would throw an impatient hand to shut it off.
And it’s direct to Cardiff General from this hell hole.
He’d made one promise. One small, impossible promise. Victor’s voice echoed around his head until he was dizzy with it.
Alright, Watson. Grenade on my go!
How could he possibly honour his friend’s dying wish? How could he bring himself to face his wife, to relay his message of undying love, to offer support for her when he couldn’t even support the weight of his own memories? Somewhere in Cardiff, his widow mourned without the knowledge that her hatred for John should run fiery in her veins.
His shoulder ached, his heart was heavy, and a bead of sweat travelled down his temple to moisten the edges of his hairline.
The alarm rang with vicious intensity, pulling John from the depths of his thoughts. After swinging one arm to silence the contraption, he dragged one heavy hand along his stubble-strewn jaw and contemplated exactly how many hours one could survive without sleep. Alternatively, how long could somebody survive with a guilt that crushed them under impossible pressure? One of those would surely be his undoing.
He got out of bed with a mechanical motion devoid of humanity, Victor’s blood still appearing before him in gruesome detail, and marched into the kitchen to stare at an empty fridge. He was grateful for the excuse to skip breakfast. There was no way to stomach a proper meal. Instead, he allowed the refrigerator door to swing closed and stood apathetically still. The floorboards were cold against the pads of his feet, the dim morning light illuminating only the vaguest shapes around him, the city silent with sleep. The silence pressed in on him, phantom explosions audible just barely beyond recognition and it was too much- too much.
Hastily, he flipped on the radio with the eagerness of a starving cat reaching for scraps of food. A smooth, low voice of an announcer filled the tiny flat and the background noise supplied him with the motivation to move once more. He escaped the drab kitchen to rummage in his closet, the radio growing soft from distance but remaining audible as he pulled a button up over gaunt, lifeless skin.
“-weather update, Susan. Now we have a special treat for everyone listening. Exclusively on KACL and for the first time, we are proud to air a special song to celebrate our victory. This one is for our beloved soldiers returned home from the war.”
The war was inescapable. The inside air was suddenly suffocating, viscous as molten lava and desperate to choke the life from him.
The singers chorused a cheery tune and the words were sickly sweet, killing him with boiling molasses. “The boys are coming home, the flags are flying high. And mom has baked her special apple pie. You hug your girl when you walk through the door. Before you know it, it’ll be just like it was before,” they chorused.
Just like it was before. The war was over and now everything could apparently be exactly the way it was in 1938.
With shaking hands, John pulled proper trousers over himself, tucking in the button up, collared shirt into the waistband. Barely keeping it together, he provided his beloved piano with one desperate glance. He could feel the keys under his fingers as though he were actually playing. He could feel the keys fall with melody and entwine to capture his life in enveloping bliss. Shaking his head to clear thoughts of the dusty piano, he escaped the confines of his temporary home to seek the sweet relief of the outside air.
John’s days were composed mostly of waiting. Today his distractions would carry him through the day until evening came. He bided his time in a bookstore, shooting guilty glances toward the owner every few minutes. The shop was ordained with a stunning, handmade sign that proclaimed support of the returned soldiers but he knew his service would have no real bearing on whether or not he was banned for loitering. Still, he risked it in the name of distraction in the music theory book he found.
He bided his time, the day stretching behind him, the end drawing nearer until the sun hung low in the winter sky. Only then did he permit himself to travel into The Crescent, lively and booming with energy. The source of its energy was entwined with the lively band releasing an arrangement of jazz melodies that intoxicated the blood in his veins. Gazing at the stage, he saw himself seven years previous, smiling under brilliant lights that cast harsh shadows as he sang his tunes to a full house. He saw the shadow of his past flicker across the stage, fading into nothing when reality caught up with him.
“Hey,” he called across the bar to a gentleman who was disproportionately bored regarding the stimulating environment around him. The bartender turned to look at him, an eyebrow raised in way of an answer and his hands continued to work at cleaning a crystal glass. “Is Al here?”
“Maybe,” he answered slowly. “Who’s asking?”
“Cap-” he started and the word stuck in his throat like a fly in honey. “John. Watson.”
He walked silently through a door that continued to swing rebelliously back and forth for too long after a body passed through it. John’s heart beat exactly ninety-seven times before a hand threw open the door once more to make way for not one body, but two.
“Good Lord, it is John Watson!” Al shouted, nearly tripping over his feet as he shuffled to clap John lovingly on the back. His knees buckled under it, the pressure unforgiving against his still-tender injury. Al Hodges was the owner of one of the most successful jazz bars in Cardiff. A large man, his fashion was nevertheless impeccable with a finely tailored suit stretched across a robust stomach. He had a round nose with kind, sparkling eyes above rosy cheeks. “How long you been back in town, soldier?” Al’s booming voice was audible and distinct even above the music in the air.
“Just a couple of days, sir,” he muttered, desperate to avoid even one more discussion with any living soul about the God damned war. “The place looks great.”
“Ah, thank you,” he said with a wave of his hand, dismissing the compliment even as it brought a smile to his face. “And what do you think of the house band, Johnny?”
A more perfect opportunity couldn’t have presented himself even if he planned it. “I think you need me up there on keys, Al.” He forced a smile that was like a foreign virus on his face. Yet his charm was the only weapon he had in this war called civilian life.
Al’s face fell alarmingly fast, John’s words seeming an act of cruelty as a frown formed underneath those kind eyes. “Ah,” he said simply, his eyes moving rapidly from John to the current player and back to John. “Tell you what, kid. A friend of mine needs an accordion player for their wedding next month. You still do that?”
John fought the urge to scream and drag his nails against his skin. When he’d been seven years old, his parents had declared him a “prodigy.” He wasn’t, of course, but having a child prodigy had them feel special. In reality, John was simply musically inclined. He picked up the accordion and learned quickly, rapidly becoming more than adept at the instrument. He’d played weddings for years, including for Al and his wife, Molly. At nine, he’d then taken to the piano like a fish to water, the music alive within him. He’d stuck to the piano, continuing to learn until there was nobody better. But still, the ability to play the accordion lived within him.
“Er- a gig’s a gig,” he muttered with poorly-disguised disappointment. He was twenty-seven years old and now doing exactly the sort of performance he did at seven years old.
“I’ll tell him you’ll do it then.” John would have said something in the silence that followed those words cloaked in a disappointed tone but his tongue was too heavy to form any words. “Hey,” Al said quietly, hand on his shoulder once more. “Something will turn up, Johnny boy. Remember: the cream always rises to the top.”
Yes. The cream always rises to the top. But if nobody drinks it- if nobody knows it- it’s going to spoil.
“Another shot of whiskey. Please.”
The bartender silently obliged, a man whose face was forgotten the moment he turned away. John consumed the fresh liquid in an instant, wishing the dulled sensations could kick in as rapidly as he could drink it. He twirled the empty glass along the sticky countertop. The air was thick with sweat, the murmur of voices like a wall of pressure against his ears. It was too much, all of it.
“What division?” said a voice two seat to his right. John’s head turned to see a gentleman with short, cropped blond hair. He was staring at his own glass as bone dry as John’s.
His head turned then and John was startled by how handsome he was. He had a long, narrow nose, a pronounced jawline, short locks of sandy blond hair, and blue eyes that were hooded with intoxication. John had always been a sucker for blue eyes.
“You’re a soldier right?” he asked, eyes darting to the empty glass. “I was, too.” John said nothing but simply continued to stare at the man who seemed so much like himself if he were to be stretched taller and perhaps made a bit more handsome.
“Yeah,” he conceded after some time in silence. “37th division.”
His eyebrows moved together in thought. John had the impression that perhaps he’d reach his thoughts quicker if he were sober. “What is that- the Solomon Islands, right?”
“Yeah, and Bougainville.”
“Jesus. That must have been holy hell.”
John wiggled his glass as he caught the eye of the bartender to wordlessly request a refill. “Something like that, yeah.”
“How long ago did you get back?”
John considered the date, mentally scrapping for a rough estimate of how long he’d been back home. “Just a couple weeks.”
“Ah.” He considered this and John prayed that he would stay silent this time. “Are you going to school? Or going for cash?”
He didn’t particularly feel like explaining to this stranger that he’d already been to school. That he’d love to go back and get his medical degree but he couldn’t. Instead, he just grunted “Cash. I need the cash.”
“Well find something quick, pal. I’ve been to three funerals this month. Nobody’s talking about it because those guys came back fine a while ago.”
John’s stomach tightened, his mouth forming an impossibly hard line of tension. A fresh whisky was placed before him. He gripped the fresh glass until he was certain he could shatter it with his grip. “What happened?”
The stranger dragged his fingernails painstakingly along the filthy countertop, clumps of dried alcohol gathering beneath his already filthy, chipped fingernails. “They needed- They wanted a way to make it… stop.”
John threw his whiskey down his throat, suddenly desperate to get away from this horrible, suffocating prison. He threw down a note of payment, not even caring about his change- not even caring about anything at all other than escaping to fresh air.
“Find something quick,” the gentleman called softly behind him. “Godspeed.”
The Wallace wasn’t his first choice, but he was desperate.
“Our patrons come to hear classics, to shout requests. They’re not interested in original tunes,” said Mel Jackson with a dismissive tone that triggered an anger deep within him.
“I can play the classics,” he scrambled to say, attempting to smile with grace through a boiling sense of frustration. “I’ll take the slow nights, too. Or play during the day. Or-”
Jackson rolled his eyes and put his hand up to stop John’s pleading. “Watson, we just got a new headliner. The gals just love him, they call him “Babyface.” See, he’s eighteen and draws in the crowd- and what a crowd it is!”
“I’m certain I was playing circles around him when I was eighteen.”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “Well you’re not eighteen anymore, are you?”
The portion of him that was always so close to the edge took over, his mouth thrashing before his mind could prevent it. “Yeah, well some of us had a little service to take care of- a little war to fight. Maybe you heard something about it in the papers?”
An infuriating roar of laughed escaped his mouth and John struggled with every bit of self-control he possessed to prevent himself from throwing a punch. “Look,” he said in a stern but still engagingly amused tone, “we’re all grateful for your service. We are! But I have nothing for you here.”
He turned on the balls of his feet away from him and took one step before John threw caution to the wind and gripped him tightly by the elbow. He felt his fingers dig through layers of flappy skin before he got a grip on any bone or muscle.
“Come on, sir. I’m dyin’ here,” John begged, his eyes wide with an attempt to portray every sincerity. “The whole town’s giving me the same runaround; not a gig in sight. The only thing I live for is to play. If I can’t play… what’s the use of me making it back?”
The laughter was gone from Jackson’s face, but his eyes were hard against John’s pleas. “That’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think? I’ve given you my answer. But you can try out for the community theatre guild- they’re down the block.”
With that, he ripped his arm from John’s grip and strode away with all the power and pleasure in the world while John stood helpless and miserable.
Five weeks. Five weeks of trying to find a job and all he had to show for it was two extra weddings that Al recommended him for. He was grateful for Al’s effort, but it wasn’t enough.
John climbed miserably through his doorway, his lonely flat offering absolutely no comfort. Instead, it was a harbour of insomnia, dangerous thoughts, and misery. He fell onto his couch, beaten with age and uncomfortable with lumps, and ran one hand along his face in exhaustion. The entire place was dark and swimming with a mélange of stench from the apartment above his own. He threw one hand to turn on the radio beside him to fill this space with something other than his thoughts and groaned soundlessly as the impossibly upbeat tune of “Just Like It Was Before” escaped the radio.
It played all the time. The tune was easy, he could have done better with it. Yet the song’s promotion of life’s return to normalcy was inescapable and a perfectly ironic background tune to his struggle. Surely he wasn’t alone. Surely the others were suffering. Surely even Victor’s widow-
No. Whisky. He needed whisky. He got up, thoughts of turning off the radio fading away with his desire to numb his thoughts. Scavenging the cupboards, he found merely one empty flask and one empty bottle, both mocking him with their broken promises. A final chord played with the cheery song when a low, soothing voice began to speak into the emptiness of John’s apartment.
“This is Andre Baruch for The American Songbook of Popular Music, brought to you by Bayer Aspirin. We’re are looking for a great swing band to write their very own song in honour of our boys in uniform.” John, whose ears hadn’t been particularly focused on hearing the words, suddenly perked up. It was the strangest of sensations, this total stillness as he intensely focused on each word floating to him from his radio. “Yes, it’s The British Songbook’s ‘Tribute to the Troops.’ One band from each county in Britain will compete in a preliminary round on December 16th. Each winning band from each county will then compete in a nationwide broadcast, live from London on March 22nd to determine who will appear in a spectacular new motion picture musical, and be immortalized in film history.”
The radio diminished to muddled murmurings. The whole world was edgeless, a shadow of itself as the world inside John’s mind churned with the beginnings of a life-changing idea. This was it- he knew it was. This was what he’d been waiting for, this is why the universe had been denying him everything he’d requested.
Swing. Create a song. In honour of the soldiers. It was John Watson to a T: musician, talented, soldier. The idea was forming more quickly than he could grasp it. The world was merely crawling around the sun compared to the racing thoughts within him. Andre Baruch might as well have proclaimed “John Watson: come and get your prize!”
He could see it as though a physical manifestation of his vision truly stood before him. He could write a song detailing the appreciation and adaptation of returned soldiers with both hands tied behind his back. He lived through the war. That was the difference between himself and the other contestants- his personal connection to it all. Somehow, someway, he needed to put together a band- saxophone, drums, bass, trumpet, and trombone- that also served in the war. That would be the key.
Every single member would be a military veteran performing a song about service. They couldn’t lose.
All this time, John had been searching desperately for one minuscule crack in the door that he could sneak through and this was it. Right behind this crack in the door was everything he could possibly dream of.
John Watson had plenty of talent and burning ambition. His songs were authentic from living through four years of hell. John Watson needed something to block out the memory and break this insomnious spell and here it was. His number one priority- his only priority- was to find a group of men who could do this with him.
Well... perhaps not his only priority. Reality snapped painful back into place.
The echo of war burst into the room, a cruel reminder that there was one thing- one impossible thing- to do first.
He must find Victor Trevor's spouse: Sherlock Holmes.