One of Sherlock’s most vivid childhood memories is of Mummy answering the front door and, after giving the smiling man on the step no more than the briefest glance - not enough time for him to finish saying "Good Morning" - snap, “not today, thank you,” and shut it in his face. Catching the confused expression on Sherlock’s face she’d smiled, said “you can tell a lot about a man from his shoes, love,” and gone back to her study, humming cheerfully.
Sherlock had stared after her, wide eyed, then spent the rest of the summer working out what she’d meant. His conclusions were many and varied but the general gist of them was that shoes were important (something he’d tried and failed to explain to the police three years later) but what was more important – if you wanted to know what someone was like, rather then how they lived - was how they took care of them.
Which goes some way to explaining why Sherlock makes a point of watching John clean his shoes.
If they’re not on a case then John does the job on a Saturday morning, straight after breakfast. He cleans all the shoes he owns – when he moved in he had three pairs of brogues, one pair of patent dress shoes and a pair of army boots – regardless of whether he’s worn them that week or not. He starts by spreading sheets of old newspaper around the left and front of his chair, then lines the shoes up on the floor to the right. The cleaning materials are retrieved from under the sink and set out neatly on the newspaper and John’s final action before he settles down to the task is to make a cup of tea for himself and a coffee for Sherlock.
That first time, Sherlock had started to view proceeding surreptitiously from the kitchen but had quickly become transfixed and moved to the sofa for a better view, albeit from behind one of the broadsheets so that John wasn’t aware of the level of observation he was under. John worked one pair at a time, first removing any dust and dirt with the largest of the brushes (and a damp cloth for the more stubborn bits of mud) from both shoes. Then he picked up the left, working polish into the seams, instep and stitching (using a smaller brush for the brogues and the boots and a white rag for the patent ones) before setting it aside and doing the same to the right. Both were then polished to a shine and set to the left side of the chair and he moved on to the next pair.
This was not John simply making sure his shoes looked presentable to the outside world. If he’d just wanted them clean and shining he could have done the job in a third of the time with a damp piece of kitchen roll and a shoe-shine block and bought a new pair every time an old one gave out. But that was not John Watson’s way. No, John Watson had chosen his shoes with meticulous care – they were all leather, from well known makers, and more expensive than the rest of his wardrobe combined - and he made sure he gave them the care they deserved, deemed it worth his time to lavish attention on something that so many other people did not think worth the effort. These were not actions of a man who gave up on things easily.
The next Saturday, when Sherlock realised this was a weekly event, he didn’t bother to hide his interest at all. John had asked, after five minutes of intense scrutiny, why Sherlock was so interested, but Sherlock hadn’t attempted to reply, just raised an eyebrow and continued to stare at John from his prone position on the sofa. John hadn’t repeated the question, merely shrugged and returned to his work, something that - if Sherlock had been in the mood to be honest with himself – he would have been thankful for, because he had not cared to analyse his motives. Not then anyway.
Now though, he’s happy enough to admit to himself – and would to John, if he should ever ask again - that watching this domestic ritual is both soothing and reassuring. Not just for the monotony of John’s actions (although they have a lulling rhythm that is pleasing to Sherlock’s musical side) but because, in the course of cleaning his footwear, John is demonstrating the very nature of his soul.
It started off as a test - one Sherlock didn’t know he was administering any more than John know he was taking - this most mundane of tasks being weighed, measured and found far from wanting in the depths of Sherlock’s heart and brain. Now it has become an affirmation that Sherlock was and is right to trust his heart; right to open himself up and let John in; right in thinking that this was a man who would not shy away from the difficulties of a life shared.
These days Sherlock makes John a second cup of tea halfway through the proceedings, which really is only fair since Sherlock’s shoes have now joined the line as well.