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Save The Last Dance For Me

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She still felt eighteen inside. Bopping the night away to Bill Haley and The Comets, rocking around the clock. Coffee bars and teddy boys. She’d adored Little Richard, having a crush on a black man wasn’t a thing to admit to in the 1950’s. Not even her Birmingham art school friends were that liberal.

It was a lifetime ago.

She was an old woman and there was something growing inside her, crushing her inside, but she still felt eighteen.

That was the cruellest part of all, not the cancer, the fact that she still felt so alive.

There wasn’t much pain, not yet. She knew from John’s face that there would be later on. Sherlock knew it too. They had taken her to see a private specialist.  A friend of John’s, mates rates, but still more than she could afford. Sherlock had paid the bill. He should have kept his money. There was nothing that the expensive consultant could do that the NHS couldn’t.

A lifetime’s too short and a new one can’t be bought.

That had been the Beatles in the 1960’s. She had been married by then and what a mistake that had been.

It had all been so exciting at first, being Mrs Hudson with a shiny gold ring on her finger and a handsome husband. The people who had warned her that Henry Hudson was a bad lot were obviously wrong. He gave her a wonderful life, sports cars and foreign holidays, and the house in Richmond that was repossessed after eighteen months. It wasn’t Henry’s fault that he hadn’t paid the mortgage. The business was in trouble, but he hadn’t wanted to worry her and he certainly never meant to lash out at her that day. How many empty promises had he made over the years? No more violence, no more affairs and no more dodgy business dealings. Florida was supposed to be a fresh start, but Henry had soon gone back to his old ways. Finally he’d ended up getting executed for murder. She had given evidence against him in court. He would have killed her if he had got out. Only Sherlock had ensured his conviction and eventual execution.

She literally owned him her life. Only something else had come along to threaten her without warning. She had thought that she was just tired and a bit run down. Then the doctor packed off to the hospital. Still she wasn’t one to complain. She had gone to all the clinic appointments by herself at first, insisting that she had no family or friends. There was her sister of course, but Muriel would only cry and fuss and she really didn’t feel up to looking after her.

Sherlock had realised that there was something wrong. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

He and John had insisted on coming to the hospital with her after that. Sometimes both of them, occasionally just John, but he was working, so it usually fell to Sherlock to accompany her. He only ever complained about the hours spent in various waiting rooms when she got tired, never about the mind numbing boredom of it all.

Sherlock had been with her when that nice Indian consultant had told her that it was terminal.

Six months. Eight or nine if she was lucky.

In the taxi on the way home she rested her head on Sherlock’s shoulder. “Do you mind, dear?” she asked him quietly.

A muscle had twitched in his cheek. “Yes, I mind,” he said and she knew that he wasn’t talking about her using him as a pillow.

Both her boys had been very good to her, but she had never been quite as close to John as she was to Sherlock. John was more reserved. He never gave her a spontaneous hug or a peck on the cheek. The hospital asked her if she wanted to see a therapist. John thought that she should. Sherlock supported her when she refused.

“Talk to me,” Sherlock had said with that quick smile of his.

Then there was the wish list, you have to make one Muriel had said when she’d stopped being hysterical. Well, she had to be told sometime, best to get it over with.

Mrs Hudson thought about it, but she didn’t want to see the midnight sun or swim with dolphins. All the things she did want were impossibilities.

I wish that I hadn’t given up art school to marry Henry.

I wish that we had had children, but that was my fault. Henry always told me that it was my fault because I had that back-street abortion in 1957 when I was single and scared.

I wish that I didn’t have cancer.

I wish that I was eighteen again, dancing the night away with all my life before me.

Sherlock rapped lightly on the kitchen door. “Mrs Hudson?”

I wish that someone would call me Martha, even though it’s an ugly name that I’ve always hated.

And I wish that…

Mrs Hudson wiped her eyes on a tissue. “Come in, dear.”

Sherlock never bought her flowers or tried too hard to say the right thing.  He was the only one who didn’t treat her any differently and she loved him for it.

He carried a black bin bag, a heavy one by the look of it. “Can I put this in your freezer? It’s too big to go in the fridge upstairs.”

She frowned at the bag in his hand. “I suppose that it’s something disgusting?”

“Just some body parts.”

“Which is what I’ll be soon. Go on then, food poisoning’s the least of my worries.”

The sorrow was there in his eyes and he touched her shoulder as he passed her on his way to the freezer. When he had disposed of the bag he switched the kettle on and made tea for them both.

“I don’t want you to be unhappy,” Mrs Hudson said when he sat down opposite her.

Sherlock ignored that remark. “How are you?” he asked her.

“Well, the painkiller’s are still working so I’m lucky there, not that I know how much longer…I’m bloody terrified.”

The flat admission didn’t faze him out and he didn’t even flinch when she started to cry. Sherlock didn’t offer meaningless reassurances. He took her hand across the table and when she looked at him with utter misery in her eyes he gathered her up into his arms.

It was just a hug. Nothing inappropriate. Nothing sexual, but it was very pleasant. It was a long time since a man had held her close. She leant her head on his shirt front and closed her eyes. Sherlock felt safe and strong.

They stood there like that, neither moving nor speaking, until Mrs Hudson felt able to lift her head and face the world again.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not usually so namby-pamby.”

“It’s all right.” Sherlock still held her hands in his. He bent his head and kissed her cheek.

“Muriel insisted that I make a list of all the things that I want to do, but I couldn’t think of a blessed thing.” She handed him the blank pad. “Isn’t that silly? Mind you I’m always like that if anyone asks me what I want for Christmas.”  It struck her with the force of a ten-ton truck. She would be dead by Christmas. “Oh, dear god…”

“Come and sit down.” Sherlock led her to the sofa. “Let’s think about this list of yours.”

Mrs Hudson didn’t want to think about all the things that she wished had been different about her life. It was far too late for regrets and yet Sherlock was being so kind and patient, she didn’t have the heart to let him down.

“There are things that I wish I had done differently, but it’s no use crying over spilt milk.” She squeezed his hand. He had lovely hands. “I don’t know that there’s anything I really want to do now.”

“Is there anywhere that you’d like to visit?”

Mrs Hudson thought about it. She didn’t feel up to lots of travelling, but she had always loved the sea. “I always liked Brighton. I suppose it would be nice to see it just once more.”

“We could take you.”

“No, not John, just us, that’s what I’d really like.”  Mrs Hudson wondered if she should have said that. She didn’t want to offend Sherlock or upset John. “Is that selfish of me?”

“Of course not.” Sherlock stood up. “We’ll go tomorrow if you’re well enough.” He kissed her cheek again and his lips lingered for a fraction of a second longer than normal. “Good-night, Mrs Hudson.”

She sat back on the sofa when he’d gone and touched her hand to her cheek, just like a giddy girl.

There are things that you don’t wish for, things that you don’t ever let yourself think about.  Not even when you’re dying, least of all then when the cruel mirror shows you how old and ill you are. Youth is just an illusion, a flutter of butterfly wings in your soul, and there’s no point crying for the moon.

*

Sherlock insisted that they got a taxi from the station down to the seafront and Mrs Hudson was secretly relieved that she didn’t have to walk that far.

They strolled along the promenade. Sherlock slowed his pace to match hers and offered her his arm when she started to flag.  The over decorated domes of the Brighton Pavilion were just visible in the distance. Sherlock followed the direction of her gaze.

“Do you want to visit the Pavilion?” he asked

Mrs Hudson shook her head. “I never was much of a one for history.”  She had always lived for today and now when the todays and tomorrows were so few she was determined to make the best of it. “I’d rather go on the pier.”

The Palace Pier was all sugar doughnuts frying in hot oil, brilliant pink candy floss and seaside rock.  Tacky souvenirs, amusement arcades and seagulls that perched screeching on the peeling white paintwork. There was a sense of freedom in strolling out over the choppy grey sea. Mrs Hudson found that there was a bit of a spring in her step. That she could smile at the silly slogans on the 'Made in China' t-shirts and the little boy racing around pretending to be a helicopter. She squeezed Sherlock’s arm. “Are you all right, dear?”

“I’m fine.”

“Not too bored?”

“Not at all.” Sherlock covered her hand with his for a moment. “I like the company.”

They wandered down to the end of the pier, where sea met sky in a merging of bluish-grey water and air.  Mrs Hudson leant on the rail. Further down the bay she could see the wreck of the West Pier, long neglected and devastated by fire, slowly rotting into the waves.

“That was lovely when I was a girl,” she said. Mrs Hudson stole a sideways glance at Sherlock and some spark of devilment made her wonder if she could shock him. “I lost my virginity under the West Pier, in the middle of the afternoon with all the holiday makers milling about not ten feet away. I was only sixteen and my dad would have taken his belt to me if he’d ever found out what I’d done.”

Sherlock grinned. “But he didn’t find out?”

“No, he wanted to know where the bloody hell I’d been, so I told him that I’d been looking for seashells.” Mrs Hudson laughed. “Do you know I can’t even remember that boy’s name now? I know that he was tall and blonde, and I think that he worked in a car factory. And they say that they never forget your first. I must be getting senile.”

“Not you,” said Sherlock softly. “You’re as sharp as a knife.”

“Now there’s a compliment coming from you,” She ran her arm through his again. “Shall we go and get a cup of tea somewhere?”

Mrs Hudson was determined not to look back when they left the pier, but tears blurred her vision. She wiped her eyes quickly with her free hand and she was grateful when Sherlock pretended not to notice. 

They had lunch in one of the hotels that lined the seafront. Not that she had much appetite and she picked at her salad until the waiter came across to ask if there was anything wrong.

“No, nothing,” said Sherlock. He pushed his own virtually untouched plate to one side. “Would you like some coffee, Mrs Hudson?”

She asked for a cappuccino. Once the waiter had gone to get their orders she gave Sherlock a tentative smile. “Would you do something for me, would you call me Martha, just for today at least?”

“For as many days as you want, for as many days as you have left.”

It was said with too much sincerity for her to take offence at his bluntness. It was part of him, a part she like and admired. How many times had she wanted to tell someone exactly what she thought of them and bitten her tongue so as not to cause offence.

I wish I had offended more people.

“What’s so amusing?” asked Sherlock.

“Oh, I was just thinking that I should have been more outspoken.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being outspoken,” said Sherlock, but then he fell silent for a moment. “John tells me that I’m not always considerate of other people’s feelings. That I blunder in and point out all the things that they want to keep private and hidden, which doesn’t normally concern me in the slightest, but I wouldn’t want to distress or embarrass you.”

“Why on earth would you do that, dear? Say what you like to me, I don’t mind.”  Martha Hudson knew that was a rash invitation the instant the words were out of her mouth, but it was too late to take them back now.

“You might, when you’ve heard what I’ve got to say…assuming that I can actually say it.”

“I never known you to be at a loss for words.”

“There’s a first time for everything.”  It was all there, in his voice and his eyes, clear as sunlit crystal.

“And a last,” said Martha very quietly.

She rested her elbows on the white tablecloth. It was still Brighton, still Tuesday. She was still an old woman dying of cancer. Nothing had changed and yet everything had.

 This was absurd. Sherlock couldn’t possibly mean…and even if he did the whole idea was ludicrous, laughable, and rather pathetic. Like one of those silly middle-aged women who went on a package holiday and came back convinced that a young Adonis was madly in love with them. Only it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like that at all.

“You could get any girl you wanted and a quite a lot of the boys as well,” she said. “In fact I’m not even sure if you actually…well, if you even like girls.”

“I like you, isn’t that enough?”

“There’s liking and there’s liking.” She touched Sherlock’s hand. “You don’t have to have sex with someone to prove that you care about them.” Then something sparked in her, more devilment from her wild youth. “Though of course it’s much more fun that way.” Martha clamped her hand to her mouth. “Oh, dear, I shouldn’t have…”

Suddenly they were both laughing too hard to speak.

When they finally sobered up Martha realised that Sherlock was holding her hand across the table.  She looked down at their hands and was shocked to see her wrinkled fingers resting on his white skin. Martha didn’t feel old, but the harsh reality was staring her in the face.

“This is silly.” She pulled her hand away. “I think that waiter must have gone to Brazil for the coffee.”

“I could tell you exactly where he is and what he’s doing, but that isn’t of any consequent at the moment,” said Sherlock.  “We can take the next train home or we can stay until this evening or even until tomorrow if you wish.”

“If wishes were horses then beggars would ride, that’s what my granny used to say.” Martha Hudson remembered another saying from her youth; don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. She watched the incoming tide through the restaurant window. “I used to love Brighton at night, with all the red and gold lights sparkling on the sea. It would be lovely to see them just one more time.”

“We stay then.” Sherlock sounded happy and relieved. His smile lit up the room. “I’ll go and see if they’ve got a double room free for tonight.”

“A double…Oh, Sherlock, you can’t! Whatever will they think of us?” She didn’t know whether to be appalled or delighted.

Sherlock sprung to his feet. “Yes, I can and who cares what they think?”

“Well if they ask me anything I shall die of embarrassment.” A practical thought occurred to her. “Besides we didn’t bring anything with us for an overnight stay, not even a toothbrush.”

“I’m reliably informed that they have shops in Brighton.”

Indeed they did and she had money in the bank, and she couldn’t take it with her. It got to me fun after a while, buying whatever took her fancy. Even the glazed, bored expression on Sherlock’s face as he trailed around the department stores after her amused Martha Hudson. Only the awkward business of selecting a nightie flustered her. She really didn’t want to look like his grandmother and virgin white was definitely out, but dazzling pink pyjamas with kittens on them weren't really her style either.

“This one,” said Sherlock. The nightdress he had pulled off the rack was soft cream cotton with a narrow band of lace around the cuffs and the square neck.  Needless to say it was also in her size. “It’ll match your skin tones and the colour of your eyes.”

“Oh, don’t be silly!” Martha snatched the nightie off him and went to pay. She was well aware that she had gone the same colour as those kitten pyjamas.

They took a walk around the lanes after that. Row upon row of little shops selling beads, artwork, second hand books, black gothic lace gowns and hand-made crafts. When she got tired they stopped at a little café where the tables were set out on the pavement Italian style. Sherlock left her there for a few minutes while he went off on a mystery errand and she took the opportunity to take a couple of the painkillers the doctor had given her. It wasn’t bad, not yet, but she had started to hurt.

 Sherlock came back with a secret little smile playing around the corners of his mouth, but when she stood up she swayed and had to cling to his arm for support.

“I’m sorry.” She hated her old, weak body for letting her down.

“That’s all right.” Sherlock touched his mouth to hers, right there in the middle of the street where anyone could see them. “Time for a siesta I think.”

Sherlock already had the hotel room key, something for which Martha was profoundly grateful. She really didn’t feel up to braving the salacious curiosity of the young receptionist. They went straight up to the room in the lift.

The big, bold double bed brought her up short for a moment. What in god’s name were they doing?

“Just rest,” said Sherlock.

 Martha kicked off her shoes and stretched out on the bed. She was asleep within seconds.

There were shadows in the room when she woke up, but the first thing she saw was Sherlock, who sat on the end of the bed, next to her feet, with his knees drawn up and his arms wrapped around them.

Martha smiled. “You look like an overgrown pixie.” She yawned. “How long have I been asleep?”

“About two and a half hours.”

She held her hand out to him. “Have you been sitting there all that time?”

Sherlock lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. “I shall miss you, Martha.”

“Oh, don’t…” Those could not possibly be tears in his eyes and yet they were. Martha sat up and he opened his arms for her. She pressed her face against his chest with the beat of his heart beneath her ear. “Don’t…”

She cried because she didn’t want to be old and ill, and because she didn’t want to leave him. And his face was wet against her shoulder. Even when her tears snuffled into silence Martha still held onto Sherlock. Neither of them moved for a long time and then he kissed the crown of her head.

Martha brushed her hand across his face. “What a silly pair we are.”

They exchanged sad, loving smiles.

Sherlock ran his hand over her hair, a feather light touch. “Are you hungry?”

She wasn’t, not particularly. “Well, we’d better go down to dinner if I want to show you off, but do you mind waiting while I have a quick shower and get changed into my glad rags first?”

Sherlock assured her that he had no objection to waiting. 

Nevertheless she tried to hurry up in the bathroom, but she was all fingers and thumbs. It took her four attempts to fasten the pearl buttons on the cuffs of her new navy blouse. Then she almost lost her earrings down the sink. Martha stood in front of the bathroom mirror to put her make-up on.  You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That had been another saying of her granny’s, but she could do her damnedest.

Sherlock was just putting his mobile away when she came back into the bedroom.

Martha’s heart sank. “Anything important?” She braced herself for a bizarre investigation that would spirit him away from her.

“Just John. He wanted to know how you were. I told him that you were fine and that we’d booked into a hotel for the night.”

“Did he realise that you meant…” Her gaze drifted towards the double bed.

“I said hotel room singular, but John was late for a date with his dull girlfriend so I don’t think that he was quite listening.” Sherlock frowned. “Why do people miss the obvious so easily?”

“Sometimes I think it’s because it doesn’t fit in with their view of the world. It just wouldn’t occur to John that you and I might…well, that we might be more than friends. It’s probably just as well, I’d hate to cause a rift between you two.”

“It's no wonder that people reach all the wrong conclusions if they insist on bending the truth to fit in with all their preconceived notions,” said Sherlock with such indignation that she giggled.

“Seriously though, I don’t want there to be any unpleasantness between you and John.” She couldn’t go to her grave knowing that she had unwittingly destroyed the one real friendship that Sherlock had managed to sustain. And for what, an old woman’s vanity?  “Perhaps we should just…”

“No, we shouldn’t.” Sherlock crossed the room in two strides and slipped his arms around her waist.  “It’s nothing to do with John, absolutely none of his business and if he chooses to be narrow-minded that’s his problem not ours.  What exactly are we supposed to have done wrong anyway?”

“You honestly don’t see it, do you?” Martha rested the palms of her hands on his chest, smoothing imaginary creases out of his shirt. “Oh, Sherlock, I’m old enough to be your mother.” 

“That doesn’t matter. We wouldn’t be here if it did.”  Sherlock kissed her forehead. “I don’t usually bother much about people or relationships and I expect I’ll say all the wrong things and do all wrong things, but I do want this time with you.”

Martha sighed. “All my life I’ve put other people first, my husband, my family and my friends. I’ve never asked for much for myself.” She bit back the stupid, self-pitying tears that threatened to overwhelm her. “Perhaps I ought to put a stop to this, to us, but I’m not going to.”

“Good.” Sherlock looked genuinely relieved. “I’d be very sorry if you did.”

“So would I.” Martha straightened the collar of his blue shirt. She was glad that he hadn’t worn a black shirt with his expensive black suit. He would have looked as if he were dressed for her funeral. “I like this colour on you.”

“Thanks.”

He looked suddenly bashful and she stood up on her toes to kiss his lips, taking the initiative for the first time.  “Well, where’s this dinner that you promised me?”

Sherlock offered her his arm. “I’ve booked a table for us downstairs.”

*

The hotel dining room was similar to many others that Martha had seen over the years, reminiscent of the days when she used to attend business functions with Henry on both sides of the Atlantic.  There were glittering chandeliers, doubtless glass masquerading as crystal, round tables with crisp white tablecloths set around a central dance floor like swirls of icing on a birthday cake. It was tasteful and pleasant, a touch pretentious, but not so grand as to be intimidating.

They were drawing quite enough curious and speculative glances as it was, which was entirely their own fault. If they had been a little more circumspect everyone would have assumed that Sherlock was wining and dining his maiden aunt, but arm-in-arm had turned to hand-in-hand by the time they reached their table. Martha saw the waiter’s eyes flick down to their joined hands and quickly away again.

Of course Sherlock noticed as well and the moment they were seated at the table he leant across and gave her a quick kiss before he accepted the menus from the waiter. That set the tone for the rest of the evening. They kissed gently and held hands and moved their chairs closer together. No one could mistake them for anything other than a couple enjoying an evening out together.

At first Martha wasn’t sure whether she wanted to laugh, cry or hide under the table. The couple at the next table but one seemed to assume that they were both deaf, since they were making loud, snide comments punctuated by much drunken laughter.

 “Well, I think it’s a bit pervy,” the blonde woman declared. “What does a man like that want with a scrawny old cow like her anyway?”

That wounded. Martha saw Sherlock’s eyes darken with fury and she grabbed his arm. “No wait.” She had heard the inflexion on ‘a man like that’, now there was a touch of the green-eyed monster if she wasn’t mistaken. Martha raised her voice deliberately. “Objective truth remember? I am old and scrawny, but I’ve still managed to pull the best looking fella in the room.”

She started to enjoy herself after that and to take a wicked delight in being outrageous. Martha gave up on the white wine she had never much liked and asked Sherlock to get her a rum and coke from the bar.

“That was always my poison,” she said, “and bring me some cigarettes as well, will you?”

Sherlock grinned. “Smoking’s bad for you.”

“That’s why you’re not having any,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

Martha folded her arms on the table still smiling to herself. She felt young tonight, young and carefree. Martha was well aware that it wouldn’t last; eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.  But tonight was hers, theirs, and she fully intended to have the best night of her life.

It had been nearly twenty years since she last smoked a cigarette and she had forgotten that now days you had to go outside to smoke. There was a salt scented breeze blowing in off the sea. They had to stand behind a concrete pillar on the terrace to light their cigarettes without the match blowing out. Martha didn’t comment when Sherlock took one for himself. She wasn’t his mother.

Brighton glistened and sparkled under a crisp, clear sky.

They smoked in silence and Sherlock put his arm around her when she shivered.

Martha rested her head on his shoulder. She took a long, slow puff on her cigarette. “I should have a cigarette holder, like Bette Davies in all those 1940’s films, a wealthy old woman with her gorgeous gigolo.”

Sherlock laughed. “Are you happy, Martha?”

“Oh, yes.”

They wandered back into the dining room where the tables had been cleared and a band was just about to strike up. For a time they just sat and listened to the band.  Martha watched the couples swaying to the music, once she would have thought it too slow to be enjoyable, but she liked the soft, romantic melodies now.

“I learnt to waltz for Henry’s dreary business dinners, but I was never very good at it.”

Sherlock stood up and held out his hand. “Let’s see how good you are.”

“I’ve got two left feet,” Martha warned him, but the temptation was too much to resist.

She was only a little woman, but she kept her head up and her back straight as they walked out onto the dance floor. Sherlock was an excellent dancer. He moved with a natural grace that made it easy for her to follow where he led.  She didn’t even step on his toes when they twirled around the corners.

The music ended.  Sherlock smiled at her. “Would you like another dance?”

“No.” It had been too perfect, their first and last dance. She had no wish to follow it with another, especially not as the music had changed to a quickstep that she wasn’t sure she could keep up with. “I wouldn’t say no to another rum and coke though.”

Sherlock took her hand for the short walk to the hotel bar and her heart beat a little faster. It was getting late and Martha was getting nervous. Could she really go through with this? It was ridiculous to even contemplate it at her age.  She stole a glance at Sherlock’s profile while they waited to be served at the bar. Earlier on, up in their hotel room, she had said that she wasn’t going to put a stop to this madness and he had said good, that he was glad.

So do it. Go for it. You only live once.

“Sherlock, let’s forget about the drink.”

He looked at her with those beautiful eyes of his. “Are you sure, Martha?”

“Yes, love, I’m sure.”

His smile was brighter than the chandeliers. Sherlock brushed the back of his hand over her cheek. He lowered his head and kissed her softly, as if she were delicate porcelain, breakable and precious. Martha treasured the kiss for a moment and then she deepened it, opening her month under his.

When they separated it was Sherlock who was blushing. Martha thought that it was enchanting. She clasped his hand and they headed for the lift.

*

“This is so naughty.” Martha giggled. “We’ll set the smoke alarm off in a minute.”  The white smoke spiralled towards the ceiling and the unmistakable scent of cannabis filled the air.

“It’s only the same stuff as in your so-called herbal soothers and I disabled the alarm while you were in the bathroom.”  Sherlock handed the reefer back to her and adjusted the pillow behind his head.

They were sitting up in bed, she in her cream nightie and he in, well, not a lot actually.  By the time she came out of the bathroom he had already undressed and climbed into bed.  So here she was, in bed with a naked young man. It felt odd and wonderfully wicked. Martha giggled again and drew the smoke deep into her lungs.

“Did you get this in the lanes?” She passed the slender reefer back to him.

“Yes, from that shop with the plastic dragon outside. It was quite easy to make an under the counter purchase.”  Sherlock blew a smoke ring up towards the ceiling.

Martha watched it drift away and dissolve. “Perhaps you could get some more before we leave, for me I mean, for when things…get difficult.”

“I’ll get it for you.” Sherlock offered her the reefer. “Do you want any more now?”

“No, I’ve had enough.”

They had smoked barely half of it between them. The combination of reefer and rum had made her little giggly, but she wasn’t drunk and she wasn’t stoned, and she didn’t want to be either. Martha watched Sherlock stub the reefer out in a hotel saucer.  She hadn’t felt this nervous on her wedding night or as a sixteen year old under the pier with sand in her knickers.

They had left a single lamp burning on the far side of the room. Martha had no wish to have time’s flaws illuminated by the harsh cruelty of the overhead lights, but she didn’t want to be smothered in darkness either.

Darkness beckoned, black and eternal.

Martha felt a choking bitter resentment, an impotent rage at the fates which had brought her to old age and death, while Sherlock was still a young man, full of energy and vigour. They should have had a lifetime together. She thought of Mr Desai at the paper shop said that eternity was a cycle of death and rebirth.

“Do you believe in reincarnation?” She asked Sherlock, even though she knew that he didn’t.

“No,” he said softly.

Martha knew that he believed that all knowledge, all awareness ended when the brain died. That there was no god. No afterlife. No second chance. She suspected that he was right. Martha shivered. She pressed her forehead against his bare shoulder and was comforted a little when his arms encircled her.

“Are you cold?” he asked.

“I’m afraid of dying.”

“I know that you are.” Sherlock kissed her hair and rocked her gently. He didn’t tell her that it would be all right or that there was nothing to be afraid of. Those kinds of platitudes were for other people.

Martha spread her fingers out on his chest, over the strong, steady beat of his heart. “I’m sorry. I’ve gone all gloomy on you, haven’t I?”

“You’ve reason enough to be sad.” Sherlock hugged her tightly. “I only wish that there was something I could do for you.”

“There isn’t, only this, only now.”  Martha smiled at him. “And this is more than I ever dreamt of.”

“I…I may disappoint you. I’m not very good at this sort of thing…relationships, sex.”

His anxiety melted her heart and gave her courage. “You’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.” Martha interlaced her fingers with his. “It is getting chilly in here. Why don’t we settle down for the night?”

They lay on their sides facing one another and Sherlock pulled the bedclothes up around her shoulders.

“You can hear the sea,” Martha said after a few moments.

“As well as the drunks coming out of the casino.”

Someone was singing ‘Danny Boy’ loudly and badly out of tune.

Martha laughed. “That one will have a headache tomorrow.”

Sherlock kissed her mouth and she clasped the back of his head, sliding her fingers into his hair and rubbing his scalp. Martha could feel the heat of his hand on her back through the thin cotton nightdress. She opened her mouth under his and felt the hesitant slide of his tongue over her teeth.

She giggled.

“What’s so funny?” Sherlock lifted his head so that he could look down into her face.

“At least I’ve still got my own teeth.” She grinned up at him. “Not bad for a scrawny old cow, hum?”

“Not bad at all,” said Sherlock with such warmth that she blushed.

“Oh, stop it you!” She put her thin arms around his neck and pulled him down into another kiss.

They kissed for a while longer. Martha traced the stubble line on his jaw with her lips. When his hand settled over the curve of her breast she felt no shame, only pleasure. His fingers traced over her nightie, mapping her outline and she squealed when he found a ticklish spot.

Sherlock chuckled. His lips were moist against her throat. She could smell his expensive aftershave and the ozone of the sea had settled in his hair. Greatly daring she flicked her fingers across his left nipple. She smiled and kissed his pale shoulder when he made a little noise of appreciation.

His fist closed over a handful of cotton on her hip. “Can I?”

She froze for a heartbeat.  “Yes, love.”  

Sherlock kissed her again.  He drew her head down onto his shoulder. Martha closed her eyes.  She felt his hand move under the bedcovers. He touched the top of her thigh, lifting her nightie and bundling it up around her waist. There was a hollow, fluttery feeling in her abdomen, a mingling of nervousness and desire. 

Sherlock’s hand slipped between her legs, curved over her and simply rested there.  “Are you all right, Martha?” he whispered.

She nodded and felt his shoulder, soft skin over hard bone, move beneath her cheek.  “Never better.”

Sherlock breathed out, a huff of laughter. He flexed his fingers and squeezed her gently. Martha closed her legs around his hand. She tensed her thigh muscles and then relaxed them again. “Oh…” After a few moments she reached down and repositioned his hand slightly. “There, love, just there…Oh, that’s nice…”

Sherlock shifted restlessly beside her. He gave a little moan and pressed himself against her hip. “Martha…”

She could feel how hard he was, how aroused because of her, which was absurd, wonderful and wildly thrilling. Martha curled her hand around him.  “It’s a long time since I’ve held one of these,” she whispered in his ear.  

She slid her hand up and down his length and he moaned again. His fingers juddered against her. “Oh, fuck!”

“I don’t seem to have lost my touch though,” she added wickedly.

Sherlock’s laugh turned into a gasp. He moved up and over her. Martha parted her thighs for him, utterly shameless now.

Sherlock hesitated and she saw the doubt, the uncertainty, cloud over the lust in his eyes.

Martha felt her heart break. “It’s all right.” She touched his face. “You don’t have to.”

“I want to.” He turned his head and kissed her palm. Sherlock closed his eyes. “It’s just that I…obviously, theoretically, I understand the mechanics, but I haven’t…”

“Hush, it’s all right.” Martha hugged him. She hadn’t realised or rather she hadn't listened. Sherlock had told her, hadn’t he? There’s a first time for everything, he had said.

“Don’t look so worried. I think I can just about remember how it all works.”

Sherlock gave a half-laugh, warm and throaty against her neck. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said seriously.

“You won’t, love.”  Martha wriggled down on the pillows, adjusting the angle between them.  She reached for him and found that he was still hard. They kissed again, an affirmation and a reassurance.  She whimpered and lifted her hips when his tongue delved into her mouth. Martha guided him to where he needed to be and then let her head fall back onto the pillow. Sherlock didn’t hesitate this time. Martha felt her body stretch and open, and she clung to him.

Sherlock’s attempt to take it slowly and gently soon floundered.  He buried his face in the curve of her shoulder. “I’m sorry. I can’t…”

“It’s okay. I don’t mind…Oh, love…”  Martha lifted her hips to meet his short, erratic thrusts. She didn’t want to be antique glass, fragile and breakable. She wanted to be a woman.  “That’s nice. That’s good…” She whimpered, feeling the delicious tension coiling tighter and tighter inside her. “Please don’t stop.”

He groaned. “Can’t stop…oh fuck…”

She shuddered. “Oh, Sherlock…oh, god…”

Martha came. Her body spasmed around him. Sherlock thrust into her and froze, and a moment later she felt the hot pulse of his life within her.

Perhaps she ought to have felt shy afterwards, awkward and thoroughly ashamed of herself, but she didn’t.  She curled up beside Sherlock with her head on his chest. He kissed her tenderly and stroked her hair. Martha touched her lips to his skin just above his heart and neither of them felt the need to say anything at all.

*

It was daylight when she woke up, 06.26 by the clock on the bedside table. Sherlock was asleep beside her, sprawled on his stomach.  Martha studied for him a long moment and she sat up with a sigh. She managed to slip out of bed and into the loo without disturbing him. On the way back to bed she stopped long enough to swallow her pills. Not that the pain was bad at the moment, but she didn’t want it to get bad, not this morning.

The mattress dipped as she got back into bed.

“Are you all right?” Sherlock murmured.

“Yes.” She kissed his temple. “Go back to sleep.”

Martha didn’t want to sleep again. She wanted to savour this, to store it up in her memory, something to hold onto when the bad days came.  Martha brushed a stray curl back off Sherlock’s forehead and smiled when it promptly fell forward again.  He would be all right. He had to be.

At least there would be no question mark over his future at 221B. It had been that phone call from Muriel that had galvanised her into action. Muriel’s husband wanted to know what sort of legal agreement her tenants had, which translated into how soon after her death could he kick them out, put the house on the market and retire to Spain on the proceeds.  Martha had gone to see her lawyer that same afternoon. She made one straightforward amendment to her will. Sherlock inherited the house.  That had been three weeks ago and Sherlock knew nothing about it. He would find out after she had gone. As would Muriel who would never believe that she hadn’t acted out of malice, but it wasn’t spite.

It wasn’t spite at all.

Martha draped her arm over Sherlock and rested her head on his back. It was cosy and warm snuggled up to him.

After a while he stretched, tensing his muscles before he relaxed with a sigh. Sherlock repeated the motion a second time and then a third. Martha smiled lovingly when he made a little noise deep in his throat and pressed down into the mattress.  She had been married for enough years to know the condition most men woke up in.

Martha kissed his shoulder blade. “I’m too old for all this,” she whispered laughingly.

She managed to wriggle her hand in between him and the mattress.  He gave a little grunt of relief and ground his erection into her palm. Martha let him rub himself against her for a couple of minutes, but her fingers were being squashed and the angle had started to make her wrist ache.

She pushed at his shoulder. “Turn over for me, love.”

Sherlock rolled onto his back. He woke up properly as he did so and blushed when he realised exactly what was happening.  

Martha wondered if she could make him blush some more. She hesitated for a second. It was daylight. There were no shadows to hide in now.  While she was still thinking about it Sherlock put his arm around her neck and drew her down for a kiss.

They kissed lazily until she felt his hips hitch against her. Then she sat back on her heels, letting the bedcovers fall haphazardly to one side.  Her nightie was crumpled up around the tops of her thighs. He was nice to look at, attractive, appealing, especially with that look of bemused passion on his face.

“Martha?” Sherlock had guessed her intention of course. He wasn’t that naïve, but he looked as if he couldn’t quite believe that she intended to go through with it.

She smiled. “I used to be good at this.”

Martha bent over him. She ignored the ache of age in her spine.  Martha kissed the exposed tip of his erection.

He jumped violently. “Oh, god!”

She giggled and did it again, licking him before she slid her mouth down over him. His hips came up off the bed and he moaned loudly.  Martha put one hand on his abdomen and cupped the other gently around his testicles. This was another first and she wanted to make it special for him.  She swirled her tongue over him and he groaned again, drawing his legs up at the knee. Martha pushed the one nearest to her down again, out of her way. She was so absorbed in what she was doing that it made her jump when his hand snaked over her thigh and down between her legs. Sherlock didn’t ask for permission this time. He simply rubbed her gently and then eased his fingers up into her. She gasped and bore down onto his hand.

Martha lifted her head. “Stop it, you’re distracting me.”

Sherlock laughed. “Are you complaining?”

“You’re a cheeky devil.” She rocked on his fingers, pressing her damp thighs together. “Now are going to let me get on with it?”

“No.” Sherlock brushed the back of his hand across her cheek. “It’s heavenly, like nothing I’ve ever felt before, but I want you.”

Her insides clenched. “I’m nothing special. I –“

“Please, Martha.” His eyes were black with lust. “I want to fuck you.”

It wasn’t just physical. His words touched something deep inside her. Always remembered. Never forgotten. 

Martha felt tears sting in her eyes. “Whatever you want, love.”

She straddled over him. Martha felt the strength of his muscles under her legs and the coarse tickle of the hairs on his thighs.  She knelt up and winced when a sudden sharp pain crunched in her left knee.

Sherlock held her waist to steady her. “Are you okay?”

She grimaced. “Just my old bones giving me gip.”

Sherlock sat up in one neat fluid motion. He pulled her against his chest, trapping his erection between their bodies. “Lean on me.”

“I will.” She bent her head and kissed his mouth.

It was more than one kiss. It was a litany of them, falling softly and then burning with incandescent fire.  

Sherlock tipped his head back and she saw his Adam’s apple bob in his throat. He reached for the dainty buttons on her nightie.

Martha grabbed his hand. “No, there’s no need. I can just lift it up out of the way.”

Sherlock slid his hand out from under hers. “Take it off.”

“Don’t be silly.” She couldn’t do this, not in daylight.

“No one will see.”  His fingers carded through her hair.

Martha flushed. “You’ll see.” And he was the only one that mattered.

“That’s the idea.” Sherlock laughed breathlessly. “Please, Martha.”

That phrase, whispered in that deep lusty baritone would get her to agree to just about anything.  Well, in for a penny in for a pound.  Martha reached up and pulled the crumpled nightie over her head. 

He grinned and she flushed with embarrassment under his intense scrutiny.  Sherlock touched her bare breast and rolled the hard peak of her nipple between his fingers. His erection jumped between and he moaned.  Martha clenched her pelvic muscles and gave in to the ache inside her.

“Come on then, love, fuck me.”

Sherlock drew his breath in sharply. “Say it again.”

She laughed, as happy as she had ever been. “Fuck me.”

“Oh god…”

He urged her up and then down. Martha felt the wet tip of his erection bump between her thighs and then he was inside her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and put her lips to his ear, whispering all the obscenities she remembered from her misspent youth. 

It didn’t take much to splinter the broken shards of his control. Sherlock pounded into her, rolling her over and onto her back so that he could thrust even harder. Martha’s body clenched and shuddered, soaring towards orgasm and she felt immortal in that moment.

*

They were behaving like a couple of teenagers, kissing and cuddling on the train.  Sherlock had wrapped both his arms and his coat around her so that she wouldn’t be cold. She snuggled up to him and he tilted her chin up for another kiss.  Out of the corner of her eye she saw the scandalised expression on the face of the woman across the aisle.  Martha smiled. She hadn’t had this much fun for years.

Martha rested her head on his shoulder. The rain lashed the carriage window in almost horizontal stripes. They were going so fast. Forty-five minutes from Brighton to London Victoria. She wished that the journey were longer, but it wasn’t. Martha looked at her watch. They would be there soon. It was time for reality to reassert its self.

“I think that we’ve both gone a little mad this past day,” said Martha.

Sherlock held her close to him.  “Is it anyone’s business but ours if we have?”

“No, but it’s time to stop, love.” She sighed. “Time for me to stop calling you love and time for you to start calling me Mrs Hudson again.”

“I prefer Martha.” He kissed the crown of her head. “Plato’s allegory of the cave; prisoners chained in a cave facing a wall on which they see the leaping shadows from the fire. Knowing no better they mistake them for reality and are quite content in their captivity. But once a man is freed he sees the shadows for the illusions that they are and he can’t go back in the cave.” Sherlock twisted around in his seat, so that he was looking into her face. “Neither can we, Martha.”

“There’ll come a time, perhaps very soon, when I’ll be too ill and too tired to want anything except…”

“Except what?”

Martha shook her head. “Nothing, love.” Nothing that she should burden him with, perhaps she ought to go away when things got bad, to a hospital or a hospice. The thought filled her with dread. She wanted to stay at home. She wanted to stay with him.

“Please don’t cry.” Sherlock kissed her tear wet cheek. “Except what?”

Martha fumbled in her pocket for a tissue. “A little warmth, a little comfort and your arms around me when it hurts too much or when I’m scared out of my mind.”

Sherlock buried his face in her hair and she felt him tremble. “All right,” he said simply.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it.

Martha closed her eyes and nestled into his arms.  She remembered how they had danced and how they had made love. A stubborn spark of life flared in her.

It wasn’t quite over yet.