The hidden time, I call it. That half hour before dawn, before the rooftops turn from coal black to slate grey at the first strike of sunrise, before the smoke of morning fires in winter turns to smog. Before anyone stirs in this house, even before Betsy puts her chapped hands around the handle of a bucket of shaving water and stomps upstairs in second-hand boots.
It’s a time of change – fevers break, life slips into hereafter; a face turns away from joy or sorrow; a day turns, a year turns. It’s a time that goes by barely noticed in this part of London, with all its layers: office hours and shuttered shops; sweeping curtains and baffle blinds; tall buildings and dark alleys – keeping at bay the sun that, in the country, romps over open fields.
London light is different; it needs permission to come in.
The two of them, behind closed doors – I guessed at it in the first months after the change, turned my face away uncomprehending from their happiness and then, comprehending, from their sorrows as first marriage, then death parted them. From each other and from me, too: for there was a unity there from the first, a harmony which began to weave around us three from the day they first came to view the rooms. I had had better offers – prospects of more money, fewer noxious fumes; far less wear to the carpets. I chose them for the prospect of something different; something bright and dark, something of contrast and contradiction; someone so very out of the ordinary and someone to keep him from being merely peculiar.
They chose Baker Street - made it famous, and I might have hated them for it. Fame is a fire out of control: warming only at first, too apt to consume. Yet we rarely had gawpers, for there was nothing to see nine times out of ten, and the tenth time only visitors who would become famous years later, under names not their own. Everyone knew where Sherlock Holmes was, but only those who needed him called. Only those whom he needed were called upon. There were precious few of those and only one woman amongst them - and she not whom you might think.
You smile, you remember the stories: how there was only one Woman to him, the rest he distrusted but put on a charming disguise to get his way with them, with me. You think me foolish to be taken in. You are not listening. I said he needed me, not that he loved me. He admired Mrs Norton, he trusted his brother, he loved…there was only one soul in the world whom he loved. I know that full well. To witness a great love is not a lesser thing than to be the object of it, only different. To share the body of someone you love with the person they love – well, it takes a certain sort of lover, I grant you, but it is a certain sort of blessing. To share the bed of both at once…
Shameless, oh yes indeed. I confess no shame because I feel none. Not at that memory, the half-light half-hour before dawn when I woke beside them, between them, for the first time. Between them not to divide but to join more closely, to be both mother and wife for two men that had lost theirs too soon.
Our dear detective was, as you well might think, forensic as to detail in his passions. Yet hesitant, too, with a kind of worshipful fear of the unknown, of womankind whom he did not, indeed, wholly trust - and in that mental holding-back , entirely given over to the physical. No-one had taught him what to say, what to do, so he invented it, discovered new experiments for his clever, dextrous fingers, new placs to press his lips, to get the taste of mystery onto his tongue. No-one had told him the limits of what a decent man and a moral woman may do, and our worldly-wise doctor was not about to corrupt him back to civilisation when Bohemia was to be had.
Pleasure was the puzzle, and anything that would crack it was allowed. To lie quiet on the edge of sleep with his hand under mine, a white palm with fronds curled into the cleft of my thighs, forefinger resting on the pearl of flesh which he had polished until I caught fire with the glow - oh, profane and blessed. First the dark moss around had been all mown away: shaved by candlelight with his own straight razor plied by his friend, as he watched and gave instruction in a trembling voice - a puzzle cracked, the mystery of woman and her pleasure laid bare. His eyes never left the sharp edge of the blade. He followed its rhythms all the while he stroked his yard root to tip, sharp chin tipped up, one long leg slung over the arm of a chair, crisp, starched white nightshirt rucked up, crumpled into laundry sin around his slowly rolling hips – oh, indecent, immoral, exquisite.
He carried on at himself, working with the fervour of a labouring saint transfixed by the divine, whilst we set to: we who had both been married once, falling into the old, easy slide of sword and sheath, thrust and counter-thrust, soft groan and stifled curse, the bedsprings singing to us and to him. He held off, though, even when we did not, doubled over in his effort not to reach the end alone, stemming the longed-for surge with a brutal squeeze of his flesh that made me ache with more than sympathy; made me ache to hold him and be tender with all his hurts, most especially the harms he dealt himself. Tender as he was gentle and courteous to me, for the stories are true enough, in their way.
It was a privilege unimagined to watch them together at last, from disordering each other's hair to handling pricks and stones – yes, I know such words, why should I not, words are less than the things they name - spending in the open, wonder on their faces, urgency in their voices, each other’s names whispered and gasped. First names were kept for teasing play. At the finish - for it was who they were to each other, both for the world to see and in their inmost hearts, only Holmes and Watson.
I found a new world, a new gift to give in that hidden time.
I loved in London light.
I had permission to come in.