It began with John’s leg. When I first felt his uneven tread, I knew he would stay. The stump, stump, stump of his cane and his graceless fall into the armchair told me.
It began with Mrs Hudson saying, “You rest your leg.”
And John shouting, “Damn my leg!”
Or it began with John laughing by the coat hooks, having forgotten his cane.
Thirty years later, it began with John in a heap at the foot of the stairs, betrayed by his hip. Or was that the end? Or the beginning of the end? Or, or, or. It didn’t matter, beginnings and endings — John was in a heap at the foot of the stairs and Sherlock’s strength was failing him.
I lost count of the number of times they had run up the seventeen steps, eager to be home, or the number of times they’d run down them, racing to a crime scene. I didn’t notice John slowing down. It must have happened day by day, when I wasn’t watching, when I was high on their joy, aching with their sorrow.
At the turn of the estate agent’s key in the lock, I brace myself. Another day, another violation. It frays my nerves, this business of strangers stomping through every day. It’s all silence, then noise. Silence, then noise.
I don’t know what to think of him when he flounces inside, coat tails swirling, the estate agent’s expression a thundercloud behind him. He paces the rooms, peering at the heavy, wooden ceiling beams, the fireplace, the chimney, the cupboards, the light fixtures, the bathtub, the wooden floorboards, all the while making pronouncements.
“A dog. A Yellow Lab.”
Nova, I think. She has a name.
He pries a strand of her fur from the floorboards, holding it up to the light. After a moment, he drops it, surveying the room with rapidly moving eyes. “One child. No, two. A baby.”
“They needed a bigger house,” the estate agent says.
His nostrils flare. He reminds me of a wild thing, a badger, his dark, unruly hair streaked with silver. His bones moving as if afraid to disobey his command.
“Chemical resistant. Good,” he says, eyeing the slate floors in the kitchen.
And at the wide windows beside the dining table, he stands looking out into the garden with its cold frames, raised beds, compost. Past the garden to the birches and poplars. The small orchard that produces pock-marked apples.
“This is it,” the Badger says. “John will love this.” And he flounces out, casting not a single glance backwards.
The estate agent turns off the lights. “I hope you like them,” she says, sounding sceptical. “Because I’ll be buggered if I show him another house.” She shuts the door, and the key turns.
I listen to the sound of the car starting, then rolling out to the road.
I’m being ‘bought’, then. As if I could belong to anyone without my consent! As if money — money! — could win my loyalty. No. I am determined not to like them. I won’t like them at all.
They were rarely without each other, but in the beginning, Sherlock was alone, in need of a flatmate.
I wondered who would live with such a man, a man who was up at all hours, playing the violin, a man who snarled at the removal men and the postmen and even Mrs Hudson. (I knew he had saved Mrs Hudson’s life. The things I saw when her husband was alive, I did not like to contemplate.)
And then John came, moving in with a duffel bag and his cane.
Thirty years later, Sherlock was alone again when John was in hospital getting his hip replaced. He was alone before that, too, when John was angry, leaving the room when Sherlock entered or pulling the covers over his head when Sherlock came to bed.
Without John, the flat was a desolate, lightless place, and Sherlock lay on the sofa with black clouds in his head.
And, without Sherlock, John was a ghost walking my rooms.
Cleaners arrive to scrub me down. Then removers come, getting dirt and bits of gravel all over the clean floors, bruising my insides with the scrape of sofa legs and the drop of boxes. The stomp of their boots is usual, I know. I’ve been through moving day many times before. But no one ever asks me how I feel about things.
The furniture smells of unfamiliar dust, unfamiliar people, though I recognise the Badger’s scent right away. Cigarettes, chemicals, dead things. All these molecules come in with their belongings, the detritus of their lives. All these molecules descend upon me in great, unsavoury puffs.
Then comes the Badger. I try to shut him out, slamming my front door with a gust of wind, but he only flings it open again.
“Isn’t it obvious where that goes?” he shouts to one of the removal men.
Someone else is opening the passenger door of the car outside. John, I deduce. Arthritis. Hip trouble. He uses a cane to lever himself out of the seat. He shuts the car door gently before ambling towards the house. When he gets inside, he looks round, but I have no idea what he’s thinking.
“John!” the Badger says, returning to the living room from the bedroom, where he’s been terrorising the youngest of the removal men.
John collapses heavily into one of the armchairs, which is still covered with a sheet. He’s more the sitting down type, I can tell. I’m creaky in my own way, and I understand. We houses live a long time.
The Badger puts his hands on the arms of the chair, leaning, and John tilts his head up for a kiss. I’ve come to comprehend these human gestures and what they mean, though I show my affection in different ways.
“Would you like to see the rest?” the Badger asks, hesitant.
“Let’s let the removers finish, shall we?”
The Badger’s chin does something odd, his mouth curving down infinitesimally.
John strokes the Badger’s arm. “What about the garden? You can show me that now. It would be good for me to walk a bit after the drive.”
The change in the Badger’s expression is marked. I’m beginning to get a sense of their relationship: John is The Badger Whisperer.
They walk out together, hand in hand.
It didn’t begin with Sherlock and John. Or even Mrs Hudson. I was much older than any of them, of course. I remembered being built, all the parts of me fitting together. Over the years, I’d had many occupants, many owners. So many years. And so few. I’d loved some tenants more than others. I’d hated at least two.
I had watched Baker Street change. I’d seen hansoms give way to taxis. I’d seen remarkable improvements in plumbing. I survived the Blitz. I’d been gutted and rebuilt inside. I’d been painted and retiled and re-papered. My roof had come and gone and come and gone and come and gone. The rain here. I’d had the windows blown out, then replaced with double-glazing to insulate in winter.
I’d been shot through with bullets, and they remained in me, a reminder: You are mortal, and time is passing.
People think they’re the only ones. They think they’re the ones who have to grow accustomed to a new house, a new place, but the place has to grow accustomed to them, too. I’m not used to their weights or their sounds, the way their hands feel on the light switches, the doorknobs, and the window latches. I don’t know their hours of waking, their hours of sleeping. It’s all new.
My first night with them, I watch, trying to notice everything.
Most of the things aren’t unpacked yet, and they go out for dinner, returning smelling of steak, potatoes, green beans, and wine.
“It’s a nice night for a fire,” John says, contemplating my fireplace, which has been swept clean of ashes.
“It isn’t cold.”
“It’s cold enough. And it’s a fireplace we can use, Sherlock, so let’s bloody well use it!”
“We could use the one before.”
“Not with wood. Go on, you pyromaniac. I’m going to make our bed. And maybe have a bath.”
The Badger contemplates the fireplace and the fully stocked wood and kindling basket for a moment before kneeling to his task. He thrums with energy, even when still. Like a hive of bees.
John is quieter, more deliberate in his actions. His uneven gait takes him to the bedroom, where he finds the box marked ‘bedding’. Corner by corner, layer by layer, he makes the bed. When the duvet has been laid down, he paws through the ‘bathroom’ box to find a towel. A suitcase holds his pyjamas. All these things make sense. The box marked ‘Sherlock’s lab’ does not. Nor does ‘evidence’.
In the bathroom, John rests a hand on the steel rail that has recently been mounted on my wall. He eyes the textured grippers that have been fastened to the bottom of my bathtub. “Benefits of living with a genius,” he says.
As he undresses, I notice his scars. One on his shoulder, faded and sprawling. The fresher scar at his hip, surgical. One on his abdomen, also old. Traumatic injury on his thigh. Smaller scars elsewhere. Scars, I understand. I have them, too.
In the living room, the Badger has got the fire going. It’s warming, I admit, to have a fire going, to have the bath steaming up the walls. Cosy. Houses are meant to be lived in.
The Badger makes a mess in the kitchen, rifling through boxes until he locates a bottle of wine, a corkscrew, two glasses, and an aubergine urn. He opens the wine, takes it to the living room with the glasses, then returns for the urn, which he sets on the mantle with a satisfied expression. Suddenly, he hurtles pell-mell to the bathroom, as if he needs to tell John something.
John lies propped up in the hot water, eyes closed. Halting abruptly at the door, which has been left ajar, the Badger opens his mouth, then shuts it again. He leans against the jamb, silent, and watches until John opens his eyes and smiles at him.
It began with John disappointed, head bowed, standing with his hands on the back of the armchair.
And Sherlock saying, “Don’t make people into heroes, John. Heroes don’t exist, and if they did, I wouldn’t be one of them.”
Their arguments could be loud: slamming doors and caustic insults. Mrs Hudson calling Boys! up the stairs. I listened for years. After Mrs Hudson was gone, there was no one to stop them shouting.
It began with John saying, “Sod the shopping, Sherlock, and help me get up.” Or it began with John bellowing, “What the fuck is this?” when he found larvae in the jam. He didn’t know how to admit he was in pain.
It began when Sherlock died. And then came back from the dead, appearing at my door with a new scar above his left eye. I felt John’s heart stop for several long seconds before he dragged Sherlock inside and hit him so hard he landed on my floor and knocked his skull on the banister. I watched Sherlock get up. I watched John hit him again before Sherlock returned the punch. Had they been near windows, the glass would have shattered. As it was, I got blood in a crack between my floorboards. (It is there still. John’s blood, Sherlock’s blood, I don’t know. Maybe both.)
Mrs Hudson wasn’t home.
They ended up on the floor, breathing hard, sweating, bleeding. I could have foretold what happened next.
It began when Sherlock slid a hand under John’s shirt and laid his head on John’s stomach. It began when John lifted a bloody hand and wove his fingers in Sherlock’s hair. It began when Sherlock kissed the pale skin of John’s middle and nosed at the feathery hairs that disappeared under the denim of his jeans.
It began there. And there was no end.
By the time John emerges from the bath, hair damp, t-shirt and pyjama bottoms on, Sherlock is lying on the sofa in front of a roaring fire. He arches his neck to look backwards at the sound of John’s tread. They watch one another.
John stops beside the sofa and weaves his fingers in Sherlock’s hair. “I’ll never get tired of looking at you,” he says softly.
Sherlock reaches for John’s hand and brings the fingers to his lips to kiss them. “I unpacked Mrs Hudson.” He nods towards the fireplace.
I don’t know who Mrs Hudson is. I gather he’s referring to the urn. But why call it Mrs Hudson? I’ll deduce it eventually. Humans like to name things. One of their peculiarities, but perhaps it’s no different to naming themselves, no different to me calling Sherlock the Badger.
“It’s not home without her.” John pushes Sherlock’s feet out of his way with a gesture born of long practice, and sits on the sofa. “More wine? Are you trying to get me drunk?”
“I plan to take advantage of you later.” Sherlock sits up and pours. “Welcome home,” he says, holding up his glass.
They drink, not talking, sometimes looking at one another. John tickles the bared arches of Sherlock’s feet with his fingers, and Sherlock laughs.
When they’ve polished off the wine, Sherlock pulls John down into his embrace. John hums with pleasure.
“The Alvarium,” Sherlock says suddenly, struck by inspiration.
“Fine. The Tectum.”
“Sherlock! What did we talk about?”
“You talked; I agreed to nothing.”
“We are not naming our house after parts of the brain.”
I’ve never been named after part of the brain before. I’ve been called Innisfree, Hedgerow End, Mole Hollow, Smith Farm, and some things too ridiculous to enumerate. There are worse fates than being named Alvarium. I rather like the idea. Though I’m more like a skull, housing the minds of my people — their voices, their thoughts, their sadnesses, and their joys.
Sherlock combs his fingers through John’s hair. “I like your brain.”
“Well, unless ‘John Watson’s Corpus Collosum’ can fit on a little signpost out front, then you keep the suggestions coming.”
I watch them undress one another. I watch them touch.
I’ve lived with many families. I’ve witnessed violence and tenderness, peace and chaos. I know little of other places, but people, I do know. There is an understanding between two who have been together a long time. Sometimes they grow more angular, other times, they round one another’s edges. And sometimes I think: This one can’t live without the other.
I’ve seen it happen that way.
“I miss 221B,” John whispers a long while later.
Immediately, I know that this must be their old house. 221B. So that’s her name. The place I smell in their clothes and their dishes, their furniture and their books. She must be lovely — they were together a long time. 221B. It’s a nice name. Not fancy or pretentious. It comes off the tongue like percussion. 2. 2. 1. B. And if we could meet, I’m certain I would like her.
There are scenes you remember so clearly, scenes so intimate, there are no words for them.
Sherlock was always an insomniac. Sometimes he went to bed when John did. Sometimes he didn’t. If the former, he often woke early, at four, sometimes three, to pace, to stand on the coffee table, to pull books off the shelves and litter the floor with them. He often performed experiments in the kitchen or played the violin. But he didn’t like to leave the flat when John was asleep.
One night, the violin scraped my walls raw, then went suddenly silent. John woke with a small noise. His hand reached without finding.
In the living room, Sherlock hunkered on the floor, back to the sofa. He curled in on himself, clutching his head.
“Sherlock?” John found his way to the sofa, sitting so he could push at Sherlock’s back and scoot in behind him. He settled Sherlock’s shoulders between his knees.
“It’s like ants crawling round in my head!” Sherlock said, not looking up.
“Mm,” John hummed, pulling Sherlock close and scratching lightly at his scalp. He bent to kiss the dark curls. “I know.”
I had watched them come alive in me, twining vine-like together. I watched for thirty-one years. Four hundred thousand nuzzles, three million maps by fingertip, two thousand sleepless nights chasing criminals, seven thousand crap shows on the telly.
“Make it stop. Get me something.”
John massaged Sherlock’s skull with his fingertips. Sherlock mumbled something I couldn’t hear.
“I can’t lose you. To anything. Those were the worst years of my life,” John said. “I’d rather be shot in the shoulder every year until I die than go through that again.”
I remembered those years. I’d listened to John crying alone, breaking, lost. I felt the pain seeping from the soles of his feet as he walked. There is little a house can do to comfort a human. I could only be myself. I could only protect him from the outside world, not the inner one.
I could hear Sherlock’s hitching breaths. I could see John resting his cheek on Sherlock’s hair.
They sat that way. And night passed into day.
“John!” Sherlock shouts, pacing the living room.
Sherlock is bored. I’ve learned the signs already. Today has been a day full of slammed doors and scraping furniture. I’m nearly mad with it.
John, in the kitchen, making toast with jam, stares at my ceiling. He is the most long-suffering of mortals. “Your queen will be here soon.”
Yesterday, a man came to construct the hives, but there are as yet no bees. I’ve never had hives before. I’ve watched bees come and go from the trees in the orchard and the flowers in the garden. I’ve watched the ants and the birds. That is one thing about standing still. You learn to notice the smallest details. Veins in leaves, the unfurling of buds, the time of things. Sherlock sees differently, it seems. He is always moving, never standing still.
“Augh!” Sherlock shouts.
“Christ,” John says. “We never should have left London.”
Sherlock, in his pyjamas and dressing gown, stops at the threshold to the kitchen, his hands braced on the door jambs to either side of him. He leans in. “There is nothing to do here!”
“You knew that when we moved. What happened to ‘I love you, John. I want you to be happy. I don’t need the city.’?” John moves his head side to side like a parrot. “Go out and find some rotten animals to bring in, I don’t know! The kitchen is remarkably devoid of maggots. I’m starting to feel a bit imbalanced.”
“My brain is rotting! Fairly soon, I won’t even know who the Prime Minister is.”
“You don’t know now.”
“I won’t be able to tell what you had for breakfast.”
John takes a deep breath and looks at the ceiling again.
“Beautiful cacophony,” Sherlock says inscrutably. “It was so organised in its way.”
“I know you miss it. There are different noises here.”
There is a loud rap on the door.
Sherlock’s nostrils flare. “You didn’t.”
“Oh, yeah, I did,” John says, grinning.
Sherlock strides out of the room to yank open the door. John trails after.
The man in the doorway huffs a bit, corpulent and puffy and seemingly reluctant to move any more than necessary. At his feet, on a lead, is a dog of similar build and breathing capacity. A bull pup.
Sherlock goes still and wordless.
“Is that your slimming plan, Mycroft?”
“He’s for John,” Mycroft says acidly, “because he puts up with you.”
“Brilliant. How did you know?” John bends to stroke the dog’s head, then he takes the proffered lead.
“I have my ways.”
“Of course you do,” John says, stepping back. “Come in.”
The dog waddles into the living room, the least rambunctious puppy I’ve ever seen. (Nova used to scratch at the doors, scramble onto the table to steal buns, and claw open the cupboards for crisps and biscuits.)
Mycroft eases himself down into an armchair with a whoosh like a hot air ballon. “What will you name him?”
John considers the dog, flopping into what I’ve learned is his favourite chair. The dog makes a supreme effort and rears up on his hind legs, front paws on John’s knee. “Don’t know,” John answers. “If Sherlock doesn’t kill him off by tomorrow, I’ll think of something.”
Mycroft meets Sherlock’s eyes for a moment. Sherlock is silent, tight-lipped.
“I think Sherlock’s dog-killing days are over,” Mycroft says.
It began with a knife in my hearth, and Sherlock saying, “Obviously, I can straighten things up a bit.”
And Mrs Hudson saying, “There’s another bedroom upstairs if you’ll be needing two bedrooms.”
And John saying, “Of course we’ll be needing two.”
It ended with John sitting in the chair barefoot, silent, his other half gone. It began again when Sherlock returned, bruised and beaten. It began, and it will always begin. I just don’t know when.
It began with shots, it began with bombs.
It ended with Mrs Hudson packed in a box in her aubergine urn.
As you get older, the dead outnumber the living. It’s the curse of longevity. I have few words. What is there to say? I miss them. I am empty. I am waiting.
I wonder if they think of me. If they miss the feel of my floors under their feet, if they miss the view from my windows. I look out on the city, and the world is beautiful. Beautiful cacophony of horns and brakes and people talking and arguing, organised chaos of their hearts beating, blood pumping, lungs breathing. I wonder if they think of me.
I wait, still, the world passing by, city beautiful.
This morning they nailed the sign up in front: 221D. My new name.
There is nothing particularly fancy about me. I’m not sprawling, nor am I showy. Sometimes my wiring is tricky, and I have the odd creak. I’m loyal in my way. Lonely in my way. I’m somewhat out of the way, though less so than I used to be. I can hear the city marching towards me, but by the time it gets here, I may be gone.
At the edge of the orchard, the hives are abuzz with bees, and Sherlock, dressed in a beekeeping suit, watches them as if they are the most interesting things he has ever seen. John stands beside him, also in a suit. The two of them are ringed with a hazy halo of light. Nearby, Gladstone ambles through the grass, blinking at the sun.
“It’s like a little city,” John says.
Sherlock hums in agreement.
Time is a funny thing. I’ve had so much and so little.
I watch the seasons change. I watch new things being born, emerging as if they haven’t a second to lose. They’re so excited.
I’ve watched clothes change, heard words change. I’ve had things added and taken away. I’ve lost things, some of them beautiful. Paintings I loved, trees who had kept me company a century. I’ve lost dogs and cats and birds, even a fish or two. I’ve watched babies being born. I’ve watched them die. People come and go. They stay for a few years or a few decades. I’ve lost a great many of them. I’ve lost more than you can possibly imagine.
I listen to the sounds around me. Sometimes John calls Sherlock’s name in his sleep, and Sherlock wakes him. Gladstone barks into the night when moths hit the screen, or when an owl catches a vole. Sometimes he’s blissfully unaware, snoring by the fire.
Mornings: the coffee grinder. Clatter of dog food in the dish. Kettle on the boil. Whoosh of the cafetiere when John depresses the plunger.
Sometimes they say words I can’t hear, murmuring into skin and ears. Sometimes John shouts, indignantly holding ruined shirts. Sometimes there are dead animals on the dining table and nests on the shelves. Sometimes things explode. Sometimes they shatter. It doesn’t bother me anymore.
Sherlock is studying different species of bees, growing experimental plots to attract them. His brain seems to have quieted, changed. He is learning to stand still. Learning to let time meander as it will. Learning to watch things move by him.
Out by the hives, he and John lean their hooded heads together as the bees swoop and buzz around them. They lean their heads together, conversing without speaking. The more I see, the more I think the world is beautiful. The rain on the leaves of the apple trees, the wind in the branches of the pines, the aerial geography of insects, these two men with their years unfolding to me — I shelter them all, keeping a careful eye on the passing of time, and glorying in the standing still of it.