“After all this time I do not think I need to repeat myself, least of all to you, doctor . I require a brief spell of exercise, as far as Wigmore Street should suffice. I will return directly.”
Sherlock Holmes paced the floor and cracked his knuckles in a way that made me wince for the strength and elegance of those fine, white hands. He refused to meet my eye.
“By way of Bartons the Chemist’s, I presume.”
“You do presume, Watson. You presume to more knowledge than you have; you presume on my nature, good or otherwise; you presume on our friendship.”
“Our ‘friendship’. Is that what we are calling it, not three days since a certain consulting detective without a heart promised me his soul to eternity? Holmes…”
“And now, I suppose, you want me to promise you ownership of my will into the bargain?”
I set my abandoned novel down hard on my writing table.
“My God, d'you not see? All that I want is you free from that damned drug!”
“It is a tool, nothing more. One might as well claim I am in hock to my microscope. Although, come to think of it, with the price of slides these days…”
I put up my hand. Bad enough that he should buy the stuff. Worse that he should make light of it, should joke about the white powder I so detested and that he knew I detested, though not more than I loved him. That would not be possible. In all this world and the next there is nothing more than that.
“Go, then,” I sighed. “I cannot prevent it. I will not wait up.”
Only, please be yourself again in the morning. Not this – this haunted creature, drawn of face and sour of mood. Be my friend, my lover, my graven image of idolatry. Be Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street once more.
I turned to the window, waiting the sound of his outdoor coat brushing the door jamb. Waiting the seventeen, hasting steps down, the crash of the front door, a glimpse of a tall figure striding off into the night.
“You know, of course,” - he spoke with only a ghost of his usual assurance, and after a full minute’s pause - “that this, too, is Sherlock Holmes?”
I looked back, then, and saw him sitting on the couch, gazing up at me from under a shock of disarrayed hair, shoulders slumped, his hand over his brow and a long sigh on his lips. The winter of my anger thawed in an instant.
His lips twitched.
“There is no arcane Craft in reading you, dearest boy. Indeed, there is scarce any ordinary skill, save that which an appreciation of a truly good man gives one. You would have me be the best of which I am capable, because you think me always capable of it. You are wrong, and ignorance is not always the cause of bliss. Allow me feet of clay, John, and we shall get on so much better, you and I.”
But it was not enough – to get on better, to excuse this as a personal indulgence, no worse than the cherrywood pipe or the irritating habit he had of scraping around inside the marmalade jar for the very last dregs.
“Once. Forbear this once. Then the next time will be easier and the next more so.”
“You do not understand. I must have stimulation, or else go mad with boredom. Two weeks without a case worth the name. Petty enquiries solved in a heartbeat; gawkers and celebrity hunters looking only for my autograph or worse, my photograph.”
He sent me a pointed glance, but I would not be drawn. Fame was inevitable. The stories only spread it a little wider. The centre of them all had draped himself full length on the faded velvet, suddenly drained of the nervous energy created, like a vacuum, by the chemical draining away to the final drop.
“Too tired. Too far. Too much to ask you to go.”
He would get extremely short shrift from Mrs Hudson, come to that.
I knelt by him and laid my head on his breast – iron and spare, his heart taking the final furlong at the Derby, calming and slowing only as I stroked his hair and his side, soothing him with whispers.
“No lullabies, if you please. Have mercy on a poor sinner’s ear.”
I stopped his cheek, and his mouth, with a kiss. Gently at first, but he answered me with hunger. Whether there was another hunger in it, for distraction, for the morocco case, I didn’t care. This, too, was Sherlock Holmes, kissing Dr John Watson.
“Promise me you will try to give it up. Try. Only that.”
His answer was a deeper draw on my mouth, his tongue meeting mine.
“Promise me first that you will not. Come to bed, come to my room. Now, John.”
I shifted my good shoulder under his arm and we stumbled there: tangling, laughing, building love again; building my need for him.
It was warm enough, late summer, to undress without a fire. To linger over undressing was a delight, boots to collars, trouser buttons to drawers, lifting the last of our linen away until we were quite bare and in each other’s arms, shivering, shaking with desire. To linger more over sponging each other fresh, was a torture no less delightful and one Holmes insisted on. We shared more kisses as we shared the sponge: kisses on lips, kisses in other places, a sea to navigate by kisses and come safe to shore. To set two candles on the bedstead made light enough, we who would have as surely known each other in pitch dark.
There was never quite enough room on his narrow, bachelor’s bed. In out-of-the-way inns with slack innkeepers and idle servants, we had taken the dangerous luxury of a double bedded room with a stout door and a good, strong lock. I doubt even our dear landlady, whose knowing ignorance we daily blessed, could have got away with ordering the like for the first floor at Baker Street.
The floor was a good place to begin. Holmes kept a stash of Turkish cushions, covered in red Chinese silk and stuffed with down, under his bed. A faint trace of incense hung about them, years after they had reached foggy London’s docks, years after we had used them time and again for a private divan in our pleasure garden for two, in this unremarkable English house of eminent respectability.
We breathed deeply, taking in their scent and each other’s, sensation our master. I set to rousing him, stroking the tenderest places of knee and foot and thigh, splayed as he was amongst the silk, black and ivory on crimson, limp of limb and so far, equally limp of cock, decadent and glorious. There was no hurry; it was often thus. There was a morsel of truth in the fiction of the man without passion. He was not cut of the same cloth as I, for whom abstinence brought a daily reminder from nature. The cocaine was partly to blame, to be sure, but more so nature. Virility is more than base instinct: there is choice, too. That he had chosen me made me prouder than words could say - even had I been able to say the words aloud anywhere but here, in our chambers.
“Yes. Ah, yes.”
My own prick was ready, insistent in its urges but I knew I could last any distance. With such a spur, who could not? He stretched his arms wide, yawning, devious, arch, tempting me beyond sense. A wicked, crooked grin invited me to crouch over him, sinking into the pillows until our bodies came together. All at once I was pinned, writhing in his grip as he sighed and urged me on with rolls and snaps of his hips and shoulders, bucking under me: moaning like a high-class rent boy, half play-acting like them, half real for me. I held his face by the chin, kept his gaze, struggled to be free and not to be, never to be. Maddeningly inconsistent touches of his hard belly and the thick bush of hair at his groin now rubbed, now brushed at my straining flesh, giving and taking away until I howled at him to finish me with his hand, his mouth, his arse, in the crux of his thigh, against his navel, anything. But as he teases with the solution to a mystery, so he plays out Venus to the last possible moment: that I may marvel.
He let me go, shook the last claw of the drug free from his brain and rose up against me, until we knelt chest to chest. Now he had put aside that craving by sheer force of will, his will was fixed on me. Its power to command could have made me climax with a word. Instead:
“Steady, steady. Not even midnight yet. All the world going abed and none to hear. Time, for once, is on our side.”
“Speak for yourself.”
I looked down our bodies, the sinews of our thighs taut with balancing on the shining, shifting silk, at my cock proudly on parade, at his still half-hard, heavy and hooded, waking from sleep to come and play, hesitant where I am too forward.
“Sex... sex, my dear doctor, is in the mind before it is anywhere. My mind has already run ahead of yours, the flesh will come. Play with me.”
There was something peculiarly delicious about the weight of him in my hands. With my head resting in the crook of his neck that I might be free to use both, I circled the shaft of his penis with my left hand and felt between his legs for his balls with the other. They were firm, ripe but not yet tight as were mine, drawn up for battle. I smiled at the comparison even as my mind supplied it. If this was battle, there would, if all was well, be two victors and no losers. And as the slightest glance at the average pornographic book will tell you, one can have entirely too much metaphor.
Straight, then. Have it straight, what we did. What we desired, which was and is consuming ecstasy and everlasting love; which was and is, an offence to the laws of England - and damn and blast them in that respect, amongst others.
Know that we panted, that we called each other by name and as beloved, as darling, as my heart, my own. That we begged each other to suck cock, to ride a thigh, to lick each other’s nipples and hipbones and necks and balls, to twist about so that we lay face to end on the floor, then on his bed, to use our lips to worship and provoke the most profane, the most ordinary act of coming to sexual climax. Know that I used him as the Persian poets used the beautiful wine bringers of the taverns, thrusting between his thighs on a slick of tallow grease and chanting something not at all like poetry and more like “fuck, fuck, fuck”.
Have it straight, too, that on that particular night Holmes did not ever achieve a full erection but that, nevertheless somehow, though that strange constitution of his and in some corner of his superlative mind, he overcame that small inconvenience as he did so many others. That when I cried out, so did he. When I shook in every limb, he tensed and flexed and released after me. When we lay together in the ruin of the sheets, sticky with sweat and semen, his seed was mixed with mine.
I dared not ask him how he did it, not being quite in the mood for a disquisition on physiology, a subject I arguably knew far more about than he.
The morning after, when we had given the new housemaid the slip by separating in the early hours, we only shared a smile at breakfast and shrugged.
Like the unasked-for lecture I had narrowly avoided it, too, was doubtless Sherlock Holmes.