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Sally and the Genius

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The brilliant white boy is dead, his dark curly hair sopping with blood. Sally looks at the morgue photograph. And sees her brother, seventeen years gone.


Wayne was a ‘genius’ with numbers, they said. What’s a genius? wondered eight-year-old Sally, and decided it must mean hero. He was her favourite, and she was his.

At sixteen, he started seeing things that weren’t there. Because of the drugs. Or he took the drugs to make the things go away. Sally was too young to ask.

On the estate where they grew up, you ran with the Jackson crew or you kept your head down. Being high didn’t excuse you for telling Kevin Jackson you thought he was a fucking idiot and you were getting out of here to go to uni. Wayne became a dead black kid. Everyone knows what one of those is.

Sally was still alive. Wayne had kept an old toy elephant hidden down the side of his bed, and she took it to her own room. Inside she carried every smile Wayne had ever given her, every silly story he ever told, and all his unlived life. She tried to study maths, and hated it. Did A-level, scraped a C.

Her parents looked at her in a slightly dazed fashion, as if wondering why she was still around when their only son was dead. She was rubbish at most things except fights.

‘You’ll grow up a bulldyke,’ her mother predicted.

‘At least I’ll grow up!’ Sally snarled back.

‘Oh lord!’ The arms were waving and the eyes rolling. ‘How can she do this to me?’

Wayne got all the attention, even dead.


‘Where’d you get that attitude?’ Sally asked Sherlock Holmes, the first time they met. She was mostly amused by arrogant bastards, and there was no shortage of them in the Met, but this one had something about him. An honesty perhaps. An intelligence.

‘Oxford,’ he said dismissively, though she’d later learn this was a chummy piece of sharing by his standards. ‘Good place to practise dealing with idiots. You know you just trod on a vital piece of evidence?’

Sally took a deep breath. This weirdo wasn’t to know how she felt about university.

‘Oxford bored you?’ she inquired, shifting her foot.

‘There were some interesting drugs,’ Sherlock said, bending down smoothly to scoop up a chewing gum wrapper. ‘I suppose I shouldn’t admit that to the constabulary but no doubt Lestrade has already filled you in. Now, I suggest we drop the small talk in favour of catching this murderer.’

He said ‘Lestrade’ the same way he’d said ‘idiot’. He said murderer like ‘gift’.

Sally had thought she had a handle on her hatred. Apparently not.

Back at the office, Lestrade gave Sherlock Holmes a folder. He rifled through it, pulled out a blueprint, and got excited. She realised who he resembled. Wayne, in front of 90s afternoon TV, shouting the answers before Carol Vorderman did.

Sally wept at home that evening, but not for very long. She prefers getting angry, so she did, and cleaned the kitchen with the energy she worked up.


‘There’s this absolute nutter at work,’ Sally told her friend down the pub a few weeks later. ‘Not really at work, even – he’s this amateur who insists on turning up.’

‘What, and getting in the way?’ demanded Karen, with sympathetic indignation.

‘Well – yes and no,’ Sally said. ‘He’s some kind of trustafarian. Nothing better to do, poor bastard. Reckons he’s a genius, if you can believe it.’

‘Oh god, the sad prat. Shag him if he’s cute, then tell him to get stuffed,’ Karen clinked glasses with Sally to drive home the point, then downed most of her pint. ‘Fucking blokes! There’s this guy in our sales department, thinks he owns the office. Leches at anything in a skirt but we’re stuck with him cos he makes double his quota.’

‘Yeah, fucking men,’ agreed Sally, even though it didn’t feel quite right. Karen’s always slagging men off and it’s boring. But it’s also safe. She can hide much darker things inside it.

Her brother’s dead, and she hates him for it. She’s ten years older than he ever managed to be. Why isn’t he here and seventeen now, so she can protect him? Why can’t she forget him and enjoy her own kind of success? He’s like an idol that she can’t reach up to smash.


Sally’s mother acts like a stereotype of council estate poor. And female. And black.

Sally never noticed all that until she got on in her police job and moved north of the river. She tries to un-notice now, or at least undo the fact that it bothers her. She can’t. She hates herself for that, way more than she hates her mum, who can at least claim fifteen years of consistency in making it clear that she wishes Wayne was the one alive.

Call it dumb selfishness, but Sally can’t actually wish that.


One ordinary day, Sally is involved in a kidnapping case with Sherlock. He runs around and insults people and he is so like Wayne, Jesus fucking Christ.

Until she sees the little girl screaming, and it breaks on her in a moment of revelation: she does not have to take this. Sherlock is not who he says he is. He’s not a genius. He’s just a lunatic, he always lets you down – and that’s not the worst of it.

It’s probably wrong of her to be so relieved by such a horrible realisation. She distracts herself from that by applying professional focus, reporting her doubts and setting wheels in motion.

She will fix this situation.

At last.

She goes home and falls quickly asleep. Wayne’s toy elephant, dusty and unnoticed, watches from the top of her wardrobe.


Very soon, Sherlock Holmes is dead. In the photograph his dark curly hair is sopping with blood, and there is no meaning in the world, only memories without end or edge.

Sally starts feeling again in the days that follow. As the truth unfolds at the Yard and in the press, she understands what she’s done.

Except no, it wasn’t all her doing. Call it dumb selfishness, but she won’t martyr herself to that. She understands what has been done to her, as well.


Sally stands for a long time on her parents’ fifteenth-floor balcony, looking down and then up, considering.

Just why Sherlock jumped is still not clear, but Sally believes, on pure instinct, that his reasons were good. That feels inexplicably like a gift, to her as much as to anyone else.

Sally has the elephant in her shoulderbag. Whenever she’s wanted to make a grand gesture, she’s consulted this ancient soft toy. It’s more the sort of wacky thing Wayne would have done than an act she finds natural herself, but that’s the point, isn’t it. You lean on other people for the things you aren’t good at yourself. That’s why Sherlock and John fitted so well.

Her understanding of John would probably not be welcome. One more thing for her to carry.

She carries it back into the flat.

Life is brutally unfair. The genius couldn’t change it, and he’s dead. That leaves her, then.

Sally kisses her mother, who grumbles about something, and goes back down in the smelly lift. She gives the elephant to a kid in the playground, who will probably throw it away because it’s old and not a Playstation. That’s his choice.

Sally has to go to work, where she’ll catch a mugger or sit with a confused old lady or make tea for a victim’s family. Whether she can build a world that would be good enough for her brother, she doubts, but the changes she believes in are the ones she contributes to daily, action by action.

She always was good at fights.

Sally Donovan lives.