We look at alien grace,
by any determined form,
and we say: balloon, flower,
heart, condom, opera,
lampshade, parasol, ballet.
Hear how the mouth,
of longing for the world,
changes its shape?
—Mark Doty, “Difference”
Lot’s Road, Chelsea, London
Sherlock started counting when they turned the corner. ‘One,’ she said under her breath, ‘two,’ and when she reached ten she tightened her one-armed grip around Johnnie’s waist, tensed her thighs on the bike’s rear seat, and twisted to look behind her. Scanned the rushing dark of the night, the spaces between the retreating street lamps.
Their pursuers had shut off their headlamps: she’d caught onto that fifteen miles back. Their brake lights, though: no time to disable them, not with this fog and the way Johnnie was laying on the throttle. Sherlock, when she’d realised about the headlamps, had shouted to keep to a twisting route, and Johnnie had nodded impatiently, as if cornering were the first lesson she’d been taught in remedial motorbike evasion training. They’d turned a sharp curve by the old gas works, around the edge of an open lot about a half a mile back, and—yes, there it was. A low haze of red as the car’s driver tapped his brakes before taking the turn. ‘Damn,’ muttered Sherlock, turning forward again as Johnnie downshifted to take another corner.
It was June. Stubborn London had been decked out in light summer cottons for weeks. Even so, the wet wind whipped like knives around Sherlock’s throat and her face. Lot’s Road was oil-slick, and thick with fog, and the sound of the bike’s engine echoed loud off the stone buildings close on either side. Johnnie’s body was coiled under Sherlock’s hands, tight with concentration as she leaned into the turn and rolled the throttle back on.
Sherlock snugged her hips closer to Johnnie’s, hands in Johnnie’s jacket pockets. She buried her face in the short hair next to Johnnie’s ear—fluttering straw; clammy, familiar skin—and yelled above the sound of the engine:
‘We haven’t lost them. About a mile back and gaining, but slowly.’
Johnnie’s eyes stayed straight ahead, trained on the road as far as she could see—which even Sherlock realised could hardly be far enough, not at any speed. The fog was proving their undoing. It should have been easy to outrun or outmaneuver a car, but even Johnnie Watson couldn’t lay into a road properly when it was both wet and invisible.
For a count of seconds it was just the roar of the bike in the narrow space, and then the shuffle of Johnnie’s leg against Sherlock’s inner thigh, moving again to downshift. Johnnie turned her head as she took the turn, and as she leaned into it she yelled back:
‘Get me to a construction site. Someplace with an open pit foundation.’
London maps unfurled, one over the next inside Sherlock’s head. King’s Road was a straight-away, and Johnnie cursed under her breath as she laid on more throttle. Sherlock wondered if it were a threat or a prayer. Construction sites, Sherlock thought. Housing projects, council flats. They were everywhere; she was always remarking them; London housing capacity still hadn’t recovered completely from the Blitz. But most were restoration projects—and Johnnie had said new construction, an open pit foundation. Sherlock’s brain sorted: adrenaline-fed, a precision instrument. There was one in Brompton; another near the Chelsea Embankment.
She could feel in the tense line of Johnnie’s shoulders that they couldn’t keep this up. Her mind flew over streets. Turns, they had to keep turning so that Sherlock could keep an eye on the brake-lights. One-way streets; alleys; detours; anything the bike could do faster than a car could; anything to buy Johnnie — buy them both—a bit more time. Routes; alternates; she would—
‘Sherlock!’ Johnnie yelled back without turning her head. ‘Construction site; tell me!’
Chelsea then; no more time to think. ’Turn left!’ Sherlock shouted into Johnnie’s ear, and the bike swung around almost instantly to take the tight corner. Sherlock could feel the clenching of Johnnie’s abdominal muscles; she pressed her palms against them, tight, warm, inside Johnnie’s jacket pockets. ‘There’s one near the Embankment. They’re still excavating the foundation. Turn right, now.’
Johnnie swung the bike right, cutting across lanes in the vacant intersection. The buildings here were too close to catch a glimpse of the car’s brake lights behind them. Warehouses and shipping centres; occasional flickering neon in the dim windows of pubs.
In the rush of wet air and adrenaline Sherlock reminded herself to breathe. ‘Another right at the one-way,’ she yelled.
It was one-way going the wrong direction. ‘Jesus,’ Johnnie said, but she didn’t hesitate: only slowed infinitesimally and aimed the bike into the loading and pedestrian area, eyes riveted ahead of her.
‘Left at the next throughway,’ yelled Sherlock, ‘and it’ll be a mile up ahead.’ She felt Johnnie’s exhale as they swung back into a proper two-lane road; the engine growled between their legs. Sherlock turned again in her seat, and watched for twenty seconds without spotting the brake lights.
Then the site was to their left. Johnnie slowed. Fenced-off perimeter, but there was no chain at the entrance gate. Through the fog and the dark Sherlock could just make out the furled, ghostly necks of sleeping earth-movers. On the near side, close to the gate, was a sharp drop-off. Beyond it, darkness and air.
Johnnie turned the bike into an alley across the street from the gate, and cut the engine. Immediately she was kicking down the stand and swinging around on the seat, the teeth of metal zips catching on Sherlock’s wrists as her hands were ripped free of Johnnie’s pockets.
‘Give me your coat,’ Johnnie said, low and urgent. Sherlock stared. She clutched her black men’s coat tighter around her shoulders.
‘What are you doing?’ Sherlock whispered. She hadn’t felt frightened, not during any of it, but she was scared now. It was a low whine in her ribcage, a metal taste in her mouth.
‘Listen,’ said Johnnie, ‘You know all those times you said you didn’t have time to explain something?’ Sherlock nodded, resisted the urge to edge closer. ‘I definitely don’t have time to explain this,’ said Johnnie. ‘Give me your coat.’
Sherlock knew she was being irrational, and she hated it. But she couldn’t make herself take off her coat. ‘What are you doing?’ she said again, and then: ‘I won’t be left out of the plans. You’ll probably make an error in judgment.’ There. That sounded like something Sherlock Holmes would say.
Johnnie cursed, and punched the seat. ‘Sherlock, this is not an error in judgment. If those lunatics,’ she pointed back out the alley, ‘catch us up they are not going to take us in for a civil fucking q-and-a, all right? They are gaining on us in town and we’re not going to make it out of city limits before they close the gap, and I am under no bloody circumstances letting them at either of us. Now give me your fucking coat, Sherlock Holmes.’
Sherlock felt her eyes widen and her head shake. Her brain was shooting off sparking, coppery flares of panic, and she couldn’t see past them. A voice inside her head was telling her to strip off the coat, but her fingers were clamped tight to the lapels.
Johnnie barreled forward, grabbed her by the shoulders and hauled her off the back of the bike. Sherlock’s brain was so fear-flooded that it didn’t catch up until Johnnie had pushed her up against the wall of the alley, pinned by her shoulders. Her breath knocked out of her lungs by the impact of stone against her back, but breath—she couldn’t care for breath when Johnnie was kissing her. Hard. Rough lips moving on hers.
Johnnie’s tongue was fierce in Sherlock’s mouth, angry, and Sherlock thought that ought to have made her more frightened, not less. But somehow, flattened against the wet wall by Johnnie’s two hands and Johnnie’s mouth, the panic eased. She curled her tongue around Johnnie’s, wound them together, licked at Johnnie’s cold lips, at her teeth as they bit at Sherlock. Their skins both wet with sweat and dirty fog, and everything too cold to taste, but Sherlock was tasting. Straining forward. Low, pleading sounds into Johnnie’s mouth. Please, she thought, more. Please don’t leave me.
Johnnie pulled back from the kiss, panting. She took one hand off Sherlock’s shoulder; tentative for a second, but Sherlock stayed pressed against the wall. Johnnie moved the hand to Sherlock’s waist and pulled her own body close against Sherlock, nuzzling her face into Sherlock’s neck and speaking into her wet hair.
‘Remember when we, what we—’ she swallowed. Sherlock shivered. ‘Remember you kept telling me I could trust you, I had to trust you?’ Johnnie asked. There was a long moment before Sherlock nodded. She snaked her arms around Johnnie’s shoulders, and her back.
‘Well,’ said Johnnie, and swallowed again. A wet, breakable little sound. ‘Now I need you to trust me.’
No, said a rebellious spark in Sherlock’s gut. Not like this. But she knew it had lost out. Her arms tightened impossibly around Johnnie for two—three seconds, thinking scarred - golden - three freckles on her left elbow - never let go. Then she forced herself to let go.
Johnnie stepped back into the alley and held out her hands, and Sherlock slowly unbuttoned her overcoat, slipped it off her shoulders, and held it out. She couldn’t feel the cold, but she was shaking.
Johnnie looked about to collapse from relief as she grabbed the coat. She tore off her own leather jacket, wadding it into the body of the coat and tying the coat’s arms around her shoulders. She threw her leg over the seat and restarted the engine, pulled in the clutch and straddle-walked the bike around so it pointed out of the alley, headlamps still off and well back from the street.
There was no traffic. The fog muffled all sounds, and the whole scene was dimly back-lit from across the river, by the hulking floodlights of Battersea Station. ‘Any time now,’ Johnnie muttered. A second later Sherlock heard it, then saw it: a black car with darkened lights, creeping past on the street ahead.
‘Perfect,’ muttered Johnnie. She flicked on the headlamp at the same moment Sherlock said, ‘Wait here and they might not—’ but Johnnie held up her hand, silhouetted against the swirling fog in the headlamp glare.
‘Wait til you know they’ve gone, Sherlock,’ she said. ‘I’m not doing this for nothing.’
And then, before Sherlock could react, Johnnie had rolled the throttle on hard. The bike roared across the empty street. There was a screech of brakes from the direction of the blacked-out car. Sherlock saw Johnnie lift herself off the seat and brace, knees bent, as the bike hit the unchained gate and the entrance burst open.
Then the fog closed in around motorcycle and rider, but Sherlock could still hear the brake squeal, could still see the sickening jerk and arc of the headlamp as the bike spun lengthwise, wheel over wheel into the void. She stood paralysed and it washed over her: a shattering crunching crash; a rush of hot sound, and the yellow-orange flicker of flames.
Chapter 1: 1943
Castle Howard, North Yorkshire
Wartime location of Queen Margaret’s School for Girls
Headmistress Joyce Brown often thought that there were three kinds of girls at Queen Margaret’s: the little mothers; the tomboys; and Sherlock Holmes. In the foyer to her makeshift office, on a Thursday afternoon in early April, sat one unhappy example of each type.
Joyce shuffled the papers on her desk. She pushed back a pile of books. She was putting off calling them in.
The office, as usual, was in disarray. Even now, three years after their evacuation from Scarborough to these palatial yet temporary grounds in the Yorkshire countryside, the flotsam of school administration still failed to conform to that halcyon ideal of ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place’. Joyce looked around at the mess, inflated her cheeks, and let out a robust sigh. Something, she reflected for the hundredth time, ought to be done.
The records and reference books weren’t the only things out of place, after all. The accommodations remained haphazard at best, and the very idea of enforcing standards of uniform dress had been long abandoned. Girls from St. Aiden’s and Pitlochry Houses were jumbled together in the same wing. Neither Duncan nor Garry Houses were left with enough players to make up a side of rounders. Boxes of records lined the corridors, and the filing solutions that had been devised, filling to overflowing the bookcases and armoires of Howard Castle, lacked any systematic approach. One might be in a third-floor boudoir going through a disciplinary record from 1938, and weeks later discover the file for the student’s 1939 roommate secreted in a ground-floor parlour on the other end of the building.
Joyce’s head throbbed. Had such a state of affairs really been allowed to continue for three years? She hefted herself to her feet and stood back from the desk, her fingers digging into the ache in her lower back.
And yet (so ran Joyce’s train of thought, around and around) who knew how long this dreadful war would continue? One shouldn’t like to exert all the energy of organisation unnecessarily. She eyed the teetering stacks of books and paperwork, balanced on the cushions of the sheeted Georgian settee and piled around the base of the dusty curio cabinet. With her luck, she thought, she would have just put the finishing touches on a brilliant organisational scheme, when the telegram would arrive announcing peace.
She scowled, then shook her head, mildly shocked at her own thoughts. She would, of course, be thrilled with such a scenario, she reminded herself. Peace! The mess of the resulting migration back to civilisation, much as it made her head ache to think of it, would be a small price to pay.
Nonetheless, the office remained disordered.
Joyce sighed again, stood, and opened the door onto the space she called the ‘foyer’—actually a former servant’s hallway abutting the sitting-room-cum-office, with a few chairs snugged up against the facing wall. She stood and surveyed the girls before her, as three sets of reluctant eyes rose to meet hers.
Mary Little, lower sixth form, in a pink-and-cream cardigan with her auburn hair carefully pinned into a Victory Roll, had returned from Christmas break and stopped turning in her papers. Joyce heard staff rumours about a boy met at the big Christmas dance, and a ring Mary sometimes forgot to take off before coming to lectures. All well enough, thought Joyce grimly, if the future of young men these days weren’t so tenuous. Best that Mary, dim and benevolent though she might be, have something to fall back on. Even if she did have a fiancé in the wings.
In the next chair Victoria Trevor, hockey captain and upper sixth-form, with all the familiar attitude problems of the nearly graduated, slouched down in her polo shirt and knee-socks, and shuffled her feet in their black cleats. Wanted to make a point that she’d been dragged off the field, apparently. But she must be dragged, thought Joyce. She’d been caught keeping dogs in the hollow next to her dormitory. Feeding them with kitchen scraps, and it simply could not be allowed to continue, not when rations were so scarce. Had a staff member discovered her, perhaps they could have made some allowance, but…no. It had been another student, and by this time the whole school would have heard.
Joyce turned her gaze to the final chair in her cobbled-together waiting room: a spindly Queen Anne with an even spindlier student perched on the edge of it, clutching a thick book on—Joyce squinted—medicinal plants. Best, Joyce thought, to tackle the prickliest problem first. ‘Miss Holmes,’ she said, and held the door open. The gawky fifth-former slouched through, one stocking ripped beneath her shapeless brown dress, her face partially obscured by a long tangle of black curls.
Sherlock Holmes, if truth be told, made her headmistress a bit nervous—and, consequently, a bit tetchy. Joyce wasn’t proud of it, but there you were. It was only that, in her nearly three decades in upper administration, she liked to think she had encountered most student ‘types,’ and could rise to the challenges they presented. Certainly, she had met with bright students before, even exceedingly bright; she had dealt handily with a spate of combative attitudes and behaviour problems; and had quashed the sense of entitlement in many a daughter of a moneyed family. She really felt she ought to be equal to any student who crossed her threshold.
But it was the air Sherlock gave off. The sense that Sherlock Holmes — with no life experience at all, and none of what the staff called ‘people sense’—knew things about Joyce that earned the girl’s contempt—or, occasionally, her amusement.
Joyce was at a loss to think what such things might be. Nevertheless, Sherlock’s narrowed grey eyes with their translucent lids were so unnerving that she found herself searching her memories for anything incriminating she might have forgotten. Such self-possession in a fifteen-year-old: it wasn’t natural. And anyone who had read Sherlock’s file knew that the girl had the courage of her convictions: she’d been chucked out of nearly every other reputable boarding school in the country for insubordination and gross property damage, and no reputable private tutor would come near her.
Be that as it may, thought Joyce, she had a responsibility to the girl. She took her seat, heavily, and looked back across the desk. Sherlock had sat down without asking permission, and was now staring out from behind her black fringe while her fingers picked absently at the crooked seam of her skirt.
‘Professor Martin would help you, if you asked him,’ Sherlock said, in a bored voice, and without waiting for Joyce to open the conversation.
Joyce put on her thin-lipped, chin-up mask of disapproval. ‘Students wait to speak until they are spoken to,’ she rapped out. Sherlock looked unimpressed.
‘What do you have to say?’ Joyce demanded.
‘Yes, Professor,’ said Sherlock, with no outward sign of boredom—no eye-roll, no sigh, that would be too obvious. She managed to communicate them nonetheless. And she kept staring at Joyce until Joyce thought back to what Sherlock had said: Alfie Martin? Help with what? Joyce didn’t understand, but she wouldn’t be distracted, either.
‘I hear you’ve been messing about with chemicals again,’ she said instead. ‘Despite what we discussed.’
Sherlock snorted. ‘If there were any kind of decent chemistry curriculum at this school—’ she began, but Joyce put up a hand. She had a hard-won concession to offer, though no great hopes of its success.
‘The classes on offer at Queen Margaret’s are irrelevant to the point at issue, Miss Holmes’, she said, in her sniffiest voice. Sherlock looked mutinous. Joyce waited a moment before continuing. ‘However’, she said, ‘Professor Hill has agreed to allow you into her upper sixth-form class, provided—’ she waved her hand to silence Sherlock’s attempt at speech—‘you are on your best behaviour.’ She sat back in her chair and waited.
Sherlock gaped, obviously horrified. ‘That’s applied chemistry,’ she said. Joyce was silent. ‘For use in the home,’ Sherlock pressed.
Joyce sighed. ‘I am aware of the class description,’ she said.
‘I don’t know why it’s even offered,’ said Sherlock, with a sneer. ‘What, are you training us up to go into service, or—’ but Joyce interrupted her, quiet but stony.
‘Not all the students at this school have had your advantages, Miss Holmes,’ she rapped out. She held Sherlock’s gaze in silence. Eventually the grey eyes wavered and flicked down to Sherlock’s lap before turning back to meet Joyce’s, hardened up again if a little wild.
‘Well I don’t want to hand in essays on—on removing wine stains from lace table runners, or—or how to make mayonnaise from egg emulsion,’ Sherlock spluttered, an actual note of panic in her voice. Her gesticulating hands convulsed, pale spiders, nearly catching in her curls. ‘I want to learn the theory of it. I want to balance equations, and run real experiments—ones meant to discover things—ones whose results I haven’t already eaten in my—in my pudding course at supper.’
Joyce stifled an ill-timed chuckle. She always forgot this about Sherlock: that despite the girl’s hostility she could occasionally be funny. Almost charming, if one caught her in the right mood. However, it wasn’t Joyce’s place to be amused just now.
‘Unfortunately for you, Miss Holmes,’ she said, ‘you have been expelled from the limited number of schools in England which offer such courses to young women.’ Sherlock started to protest, looking livid, but Joyce cut back in. ‘And in any case, even boys’ schools don’t teach science courses featuring experiments with unknown results; only ones that demonstrate accepted principles. Even university courses seldom do that. One must master the basics before one can progress.’
Sherlock’s chin went up. Joyce saw with some surprise that the girl’s lip was trembling. ‘I have mastered the basics,’ she said, a touch too loud.
This claim was, sadly, more than true.
The problem was, that in the privacy of her own mind Joyce couldn’t help building castles in the sky—or rather, gleaming laboratories in the sky. State-of-the-art facilities she could extend as if on a platter; a perfect offering to girls like Sherlock. A proof of her faith in them. For Joyce, imperfect though she knew she was, believed in the minds of her girls. Almost painful it was at times, how much she believed in them. In her more grandiose moments, she dreamt of the girls of Queen Margaret’s going on to great things. First woman in a full Oxford professorship. First woman heart surgeon. First (when Joyce had had a few glasses of claret) woman prime minister.
And she would intervene for them, she really would. But after all, only so much was possible—and these, the lean years of war. She had argued bitterly, bitterly with the Board of Governors over this very issue, and had come out much the worse. Old Basil Smythe had made it quite plain, over the course of an agonising half-hour, that such chemistry and physics curricula only masculinised the girls. Joyce had been treated to a bravura performance of the hoary old rants: the next generation of wives and mothers and so on; encouraging dangerous tendencies et cetera; the ghastly spectacle to male eyes of an intellectualised woman and so forth; while all the time Harold Townsend-Farquhar had nodded along in such sententious agreement that Joyce had dug her nails into her palms to prevent herself causing a scene. She knew, when she saw one, a battle whose time had not yet come. Besides, she had thought (a tad hysterically), Townsend-Farquhar would probably publish a highly-coloured account of any histrionics in the next day’s Chronicle. So she had held her peace.
And now Joyce took in Sherlock’s wire-taut defiance, the raised yet trembling chin, and wondered if this truly was her calling: to deliver such girls as Sherlock Holmes into the bosom of matrimony. She sighed. She had never particularly yearned to deliver Joyce Brown into it, either.
‘Miss Holmes,’ she began, in a firm but, she hoped, placating tone, ‘I understand your frustration, but we simply can’t have unsupervised chemical reactions going on in the school. Particularly not with the blackout regulations, and the entire south-east wing already destroyed by fire. You must understand this.’
Sherlock sniffed. Her chin stayed up, but there was a flatness about her voice as she said, ‘My experiments wouldn’t start a fire. I’m not some—some tipsy golden-boy down from Eton, playing about with matches.’
Joyce was momentarily derailed. ‘The fire was an accident,’ she said, startled. ‘Set by—by an under-gardener’s capsized lantern.’
Sherlock actually did roll her eyes this time, and finally dropped her chin. ‘So they say,’ she said, with a little shrug of her shoulders.
There was a brief silence. Joyce spent it considering Sherlock, who was now scuffing her already-worn saddle shoes against the legs of her chair. The south-east wing had burned in 1940, shortly after Queen Margaret’s had taken possession, and was now strictly out-of-bounds for all students.
Not that Joyce was a fool, obviously. Even the staff had been known to sneak off there for one thing and another, not all of it as innocent as Harriet McAllister’s photography hobby. She narrowed her eyes.
‘Do you have any specific knowledge you’d like to share, Miss Holmes?’ she asked.
She could actually see Sherlock grinding her teeth as she thought her way around the question. ‘No,’ she said eventually, scowling at the carpet.
Joyce had scarcely ever heard a clearer ‘yes’ than Sherlock’s ‘no,’ but at this point there wasn’t much to be done. The gardener in question had been sacked years ago, and it didn’t do to step on the toes of the Howard family when they were being, by and large, so accommodating. Joyce nodded and rapped her pencil against the desk.
‘In that case,’ she said, ‘listen to me, Miss Holmes. You are fifteen years old. Your exploits have caused property damage, both here and at your previous schools. I understand that you wish to expand your practical chemical knowledge, and it’s an instinct I applaud, but for the safety of the house and the other students I must take a firm line. No more chemical experiments. Do you understand me?’
Sherlock looked ready to tear into something with her teeth. She said, ‘It’s not as though I’ve anything else to do in this—bloody place.’
There was a small but noticeable pause before Sherlock spat out that ‘bloody.’ It didn’t yet sit naturally on her lips; she was deliberately playing the provocateur. Perhaps to distract from the actual content of her statement. A girl like Sherlock: how ought she to occupy her time? A fifth-former who, despite her expulsion from numerous other schools, had already exhausted most of Queen Margaret’s academic offerings—not an athlete, and decidedly not social. Hardly a wonder she found herself at loose ends.
Joyce sighed again, and looked at her watch. Four o’clock already, and still Mary and Victoria to see to.
‘Look,’ she said to Sherlock, and the girl glanced up. ‘I will have a few words with Professor Hill. It’s possible that if you are very accommodating, and cease immediately stealing supplies from her laboratory—of which I officially have no knowledge, so don’t bother to deny it—she will agree to oversee some advanced studies with you on an individual basis.’ A cautious smile teased at Sherlock’s mouth.
‘Do you think you can promise those things?’ asked Joyce, stern. Sherlock nodded, the smile widening.
’No more unauthorised experiments? No more stealing?’
‘Yes,’ said Sherlock. ‘I mean no. None.’
‘No more straying into the burned wing?’ pressed Joyce. Sherlock shook her head, then added: ‘No, Professor.’
Joyce peered hard at Sherlock. ‘I wish to be understood, Miss Holmes. We are doing our best to accommodate you, but you must meet us halfway. Another major breach of the school rules and I shall have no choice but to expel you. Do you understand?’
Sherlock nodded, looking earnest. ‘Yes, Professor,’ she said.
Joyce gave a brusque nod. ‘In that case,’ she said, ‘you are free to go. Please tell Miss Trevor that I will see her now.’
Sherlock unfolded herself awkwardly from the chair, and brushed her mat of curls back from her face. She was almost to the door when Joyce remembered, and the question left her lips before she could think twice.
‘Miss Holmes,’ she said. ‘With what would Professor Martin help me?’
Sherlock turned. She seemed on the verge of smiling again, but now it was in that peculiar, haughty way of hers. ‘With the office, of course,’ she said, gesturing around at the mess. ‘With all the records.’
Joyce took her eyes off Sherlock to look around herself in surprise, but she heard Sherlock’s derisive snort.
‘You were pushing back the piles of papers just before I came in,’ the girl pointed out, waving a careless hand. ‘It’s obvious from the dust. The mess is preying on you, and it’s only getting worse. Professor Martin amuses himself on the weekends by re-cataloguing his rodent skeletons. Boxes of paper probably aren’t as interesting, but he’s done the skeletons three times already this term. I’d welcome a diversion, if I were him. And he always sits as near you as he can, at the staff table.’
Joyce was struck momentarily dumb. She thought of arguing that Alfie Martin most certainly did not sit near her at the staff table, but such a response was hardly suitable. After all, perhaps he did. She would have to take note in future. She shook herself slightly, drew herself up. ‘Thank you, Miss Holmes,’ she said. ‘You may go.’
Sherlock Holmes crouched around the corner from Professor Brown’s office, her heart beating in her chest, her nails digging into the fronts of her thighs. Vicky Trevor, she thought. In the room next door. Being scolded by Professor Brown about—Sherlock leaned her ear closer to the office’s side door—something to do with kitchen scraps. Sherlock felt a drop of sweat make its way down her neck and settle in the divot of her clavicle. Vicky Trevor.
Pashes were common business at QM’s. Most of the girls—the normal girls, thought Sherlock—paraded their infatuations freely, egged on by their friends. They trailed after the older, more glamourous objects of their affection, clutching their little gifts and offering up their little favours. They glowed while they were petted by the older girls; hugged by them; drawn close by them. Giggled as the older girls whispered in their ears.
Sometimes that’s all it was, and sometimes—well. A few months before, when term had been about to let out for the Christmas holiday, Sherlock had stumbled into a storage cupboard and found Rosie Bartlett, skirt hiked up, sat back on the rickety countertop with Justine Digby standing between her legs. Rosie had had a hand up Justine’s white cashmere pullover and Justine’s tongue down her throat, and she kept on making helpless little whimpering sounds, even a second after Sherlock had crashed in and Justine had pulled away. Possibly after Sherlock had stumbled back out, too.
And four months later, Sherlock thought, scowling, Rosie was still fawning on Justine. Rosie obviously didn’t care who knew it; she trotted after Justine like nothing else came naturally. But Sherlock simply couldn’t make herself. It wouldn’t come to her, those simpering smiles and pleasant little offerings, though they seemed the easiest things in the world. The injustice of the situation rankled.
For it had never happened before, that Sherlock Holmes should want to do a thing and yet persistently fail.
It was more difficult, after all, without an audience of friends; and through a combination of thievery, contempt, and clever deductions about their home lives, Sherlock had managed to alienate most of the QM's girls inside of a week. They had then settled into the mutual animosity, the uneasy exchange of barbs for bullying, that had been Sherlock’s accustomed relation to her classmates at all of her many boarding schools. And that was fine, she told herself. She was fine. Alone had always served Sherlock well. Her natural state, she thought, must be watching, and keeping out of sight. Learning, and keeping it to herself. Most of her fellow students were idiots, anyway.
And that was exactly the problem. Because she’d been standing in the library thinking just that - ‘Idiots, all of them, how can they be so dull?’ - chasing down a detail in a book on the nervous systems of rats, when she’d heard her precise thoughts mirrored back to her from behind the bookshelves.
‘I can’t bloody talk to them,’ a girl’s voice said, footsteps sounding in the corridor.. ‘Brats and beaux and table runners, I could die they're all so boring.’
Sherlock’s heart had clenched in her chest.
The pair of girls had moved at a brisk walk, their conversation audible only briefly. The other one had presumably given her friend a look, because the same speaker said, laughter in her voice, ‘What? It’s only true,’ and her friend had snorted and said, ‘Vicky. Lord, you’re impossible, what about an—’ and then they were fading away, out of earshot. Sherlock had stood behind the set of shelves, fingers frozen and trembling over a diagram of rodent skeletons.
And now Sherlock kept thinking about Vicky Trevor.
Vicky who was apparently just as bored by her fellow students as Sherlock was. And what would Vicky prefer to talk about, Sherlock wondered, if not the endless round of schoolgirl domesticity? There were a dizzying number of possibilities; the key would be choosing correctly. Perhaps the experiment with using St. John’s Wort to increase photosensitivity in dormice? Or Sherlock’s attempts, secreted in the old wine cellar, to distill cyanide from leaves of the wild Cherry Laurel? Vicky looked and smelled, constantly, of the out-of-doors; perhaps she knew something about the growth habits of chemically interesting plants. Or—Sherlock leaned closer to the door, behind which Professor Brown was asking Vicky something about dogs—perhaps they could discuss the two labradors, run down by a lorry last June, whose decomposition Sherlock chronicled from start to finish.
What would it be like, then, to talk with another person about the really interesting things? Sherlock felt a bit giddy. She pressed the side of her head against the crack between the jamb and the office’s side door, reaching for strains of conversation just at the moment when doing so became unnecessary.
‘You’re going to drown them?’ shrieked Vicky’s voice in Sherlock’s ear, and Sherlock’s head snapped back. Professor Brown’s voice was a low murmur; Vicky’s wail cut back in. ‘I’ve only been taking them bits and bobs, left over when everyone’s finished their supper,’ she moaned. ‘You can’t, they’re only babies.’
Sherlock revised her mental image of a Vicky enthralled by the chronicle of the decaying labradors. She seemed, on the contrary, to have a soft spot for the things. Pity, Sherlock thought. The fact of the two killed together had been excellent good luck, from a perspective of experimental controls.
Still, Vicky’s seeming extreme attachment to these endangered puppies—Sherlock could hear her through the door, sniffling and hiccuping as Professor Brown said something about self-sufficiency and the school pig trough—presented some interesting possibilities. Sherlock thought briefly about the promises she’d just made; then of the conversations she’d imagined.
Chair legs scraped on the stone floor of Professor Brown’s study as Vicky got up to leave, and Sherlock pictured her. Vicky with her tarnished straw bob, perpetually windblown, flopping in her sea-glass eyes. Vicky with her dry skin and her cracked lips. Vicky in hockey clothes; solid, sand-dark calves pounding down the pitch. Vicky, noisy and rough, banging into their upper-sixth-form biology class, and Sherlock had always found that annoying but now it seemed somehow a blast of cold air on hot skin. Vicky beating her cleats against the delicate legs of a Queen Anne chair, sitting across from Sherlock and not giving her a second glance.
Vicky Trevor was on the other side of that door, blowing her nose wetly into Professor Brown’s handkerchief, and Sherlock would save Vicky’s dogs.