It was mid November when the letter came, a thick envelope of hand pressed, expensive cotton rag paper addressed to Sherlock in a large, loopy hand.
‘Something for you,’ John said, absently sorting through the bills and junk mail. Sherlock was absorbed in the papers.
‘Can’t you open it?’ He waived his arm languidly.
‘Looks personal,’ John said, and put it in the outstretched hand.
‘Oh, God,’ Sherlock groaned.
‘What? You haven’t even opened it!’
‘That’s because I know what it is,’ Sherlock snapped. Nevertheless he slid his long index finger under the flap and prized it open, took out two sheets of similarly expensive paper covered in large copperplate.
‘What is it?’ John couldn’t help being curious. Sherlock never got mail, at least not the hand written kind.
‘It’s the Christmas letter from Mummy,’ Sherlock sighed, running his eyes over the sheets. ‘Bad luck, you’re invited too this year.’
‘Your mother wants me to come for Christmas?’
‘Blame Mycroft. He must have told her about you, I never did. Well, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to. I’m sure your family-‘
‘My family don’t do Christmas,’ John said firmly.
‘Unfortunately mine do, and on a grand scale. I try to get out of it as much as I can, but I haven’t gone for the last two years and she’s playing the ‘I’m not getting any younger, dear’ routine. Its emotional blackmail.’
‘That must be where you get it from,’ John smirked.
Nothing else was said, and John had begun to wonder whether Sherlock had forgotten the arrangement until a week before Christmas, when he came home from the shops and found the detective rifling through his wardrobe.
‘What the hell are you doing, Sherlock?’
‘You don’t have an evening suit,’ Sherlock told him.
‘I’m quite aware of that!’
Oblivious, Sherlock was up to his elbows in John’s shirts. ‘Oh, what’s this?’ He pulled out a suit carrier. John snatched it out of his hands before he could open it.
‘It’s my dress uniform, if you must know. What the hell are you doing?’
‘You’ll need a dress suit for the cocktail party on Christmas Eve,’ Sherlock said, plucking curiously at the nylon bag. ‘You could wear that, though, couldn’t you?’
‘Mummy gives a big dinner on Christmas eve. Black tie. Cocktails at six, and then a grand dinner at eight.’ He had the decency to look embarrassed.
‘It’ll need cleaning,’ John muttered.
Sherlock brushed the dust off his hands. ‘Take mine in when you go, would you?’
He left John standing in the middle of the mess of pulled out shirts and cast aside trousers, clutching the suit carrier in a daze.
Mycroft’s limousine oiled up to the curb as John was walking back from the dry cleaners the next morning. The door swung open. John stood there for a moment, then Mycroft’s weasel face peered out.
‘It’s cold, John,’ he said, tartly. ‘Do get in.’
‘You could just ring me, you know,’ John told him, pulling the door shut. ‘That’s what other people do.’
Mycroft ignored him. ‘Christmas,’ he said.
‘What about it?’
‘I doubt Sherlock has given you any useful details?’
‘You’d be right there. Except the black tie requirement.’
‘Oh, yes. Well, I’m sure your mess dress will go down very well. Mummy does like a soldier.’
John wondered if Mycroft could divine the double meaning of the expression any more than Sherlock would.
‘I will collect you at 2pm on Christmas Eve, and we will drive up to Sandon, to arrive about 3.30pm in time for afternoon tea. That should give you plenty of time to get acclimatised. Cocktails will be at 6, dinner at 8. Christmas day is far less formal, but I think smart trousers and a sports jacket would be appropriate. Do you play billiards?’
‘Pool,’ John shrugged. The elder Holmes wrinkled his nose.
‘Well, I’m sure you’ll pick it up,’ he sighed. ‘It helps to keep Sherlock occupied so that he isn’t baiting anybody. It does so upset Mummy, but he can’t seem to help himself. Anyway, we usually decamp after lunch on Boxing Day, at which point my car will bring you home. I have a few business matters on the estate to clear up so I shall stay another night. Will that suit?’
John wondered if he had any choice, so he just nodded.
‘I shall look to you to keep Sherlock on the straight and narrow,’ Mycroft said sternly.
‘I don’t imagine anything I say would affect Sherlock’s behaviour,’ John said.
‘Oh, you would be surprised. Any other questions?’
John thought about it. ‘Should I buy your mother a present? And if so, what?’
Mycroft actually looked impressed. ‘She likes puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles. The more fiendish, the better.’
‘Now I know where they get it from,’ John grumbled as he got out of the car.
The atmosphere in the car had been frosty to say the least all the way from London. This was not helped by the M40 being thick with holiday traffic. They came off the motorway at Banbury and struck out towards the Warwickshire border. The ghostly Cotswold stone of the houses loomed out of the winter night. John took comfort from staring at what he could make out of the passing landscape while the brothers fumed silently at one another. The driver turned into increasingly narrow lanes until at last he pulled in at a huge gateway and rolled down his window to growl into the intercom. The gates swung open, and the car glided through, and into a tree-lined avenue. John leant up to the window, trying not to let his breath smoke the chilly glass.
He’d had no idea it would be like this. Of course, he realised Sherlock’s family were wealthy, but it had never occurred to him just how wealthy, or where their money came from. Now, as the Georgian facade of Sandon Hall loomed into view, its tall windows glittering with a welcoming glow, he tried hard not to gasp. The Holmes boys, it seemed, came from old money. Seriously old.
It was sleeting. When the car slid up to the front door, a black clad figure emerged from the house holding out a huge umbrella for the comfort of the travellers. Mycroft got out first.
‘Good evening, sir,’ the butler said. Mycroft nodded and stalked into the house, leaving the butler standing over the open car door.
Sherlock climbed out. ‘Evening, Fingers,’ he said cheerfully to the man, whose gnarled face lit up.
‘Good evening, Mr Sherlock. Good to see you again. How long’s it been?’
Sherlock patted him on the shoulder as John got out. ‘Two years,’ he said. ‘How’s the wife?’
‘Moved to Whitemoor Open Prison now, sir,’ the butler grinned. ‘The word is that the parole board is likely to look very kindly on her next time around.’
‘Glad to hear it, Fingers, glad to hear it.’
Fingers the butler escorted them under the umbrella into the grand entrance hall and then went back outside to help the driver with the bags.
‘One of your little projects?’ John whispered to Sherlock.
‘Fifteen for armed robbery with intent, and a long and illustrious history of burglary to boot,’ Sherlock replied. ‘If anyone can keep Mummy safe in this old pile, it’s Fingers.’
The entrance hall was a sea of glittering lights, reflecting off the polished marble floor from the immense Christmas tree that towered up through the sweeping staircase towards a glass cupola two storeys up. A woman came sailing down the stairs, her long fingers skimming the delicate mahogany balustrade. She looked for all the world as if she had stepped out of a 1950s fashion shoot, except for the fact that her bobbed hair was ice white. She wore a heather coloured twin set and matching tweed skirt. Even though she was probably in her mid seventies, John thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
‘Mycroft! Darling!’ she cried, embracing the older brother.
‘Mummy!’ John was shocked at the expression of adoration in the spymaster’s eyes, which quickly turned to irritation when she turned to Sherlock to hug him too.
‘Mummy,’ the younger son said obediently.
And then she turned to John and fixed him with her jaw-droppingly fabulous eyes. ‘And you must be John?’
He tried to pull himself together and held out his hand for her to shake. ‘Mrs Holmes, thank you for having me.’
She brushed his hand aside and gave him an effusive hug. ‘Oh, don’t be silly, dear, you must call me Sibyl!’ Then she turned and slipped her arm through his, conspiratorially. He wasn’t sure why Mycroft was glaring at him, but presumably it was because he was suddenly the focus of attention.
‘How was your journey?’ He stared into Sibyl’s face. She was Sherlock over again, those sculpted cheekbones, the same neat nose. Only the eyes were different, huge and a much darker blue.
John opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Mycroft came to his rescue.
‘Heavy traffic on the M40, but it was quite clear after that.’
‘Such a horrid trip,’ Sibyl said, shaking her head. ‘If only you lived closer.’
‘London is necessary,’ Sherlock said.
She brightened up. ‘Well, I expect you’ll want to get yourselves settled. Mycroft, you are in the Print room, and I’ve put you boys in the Hogarth suite. Fingers has laid out tea in the drawing room if you want something before the dressing bell.’