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The Matter of Cake

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Though he was most often a man to set his own patterns and follow none but his own plans, the ability to closely respect a scientific formula had at times been of great use to my friend Sherlock Holmes.  I was able to witness this gift firsthand some months ago, when he utilized his unique talent of altering his perspective to make scientific what would have normally been to him a quite ordinary, and therefore unapproachable task: the making of a cake.  

I had discovered the man in the midst of his process shortly after returning from my early morning errands that day. Upon crossing the threshold at Baker Street, I heard a dreadful row coming from the direction of the first floor kitchen, like the crash of metal falling from a high place.  Under ordinary circumstances, I was never a man to intrude on dear Mrs. Hudson’s personal quarters, but she had at that time gone to visit her family in the country, and the force of the din was cause for some alarm.  I could hardly remember a handful of times when I had seen Holmes in that place in all the length of our friendship, so at first I feared we were being burgled. When I approached the kitchen doorway, however, my hackles raised for a battle, I stopped.

Indeed, quite a scene of destruction as befitting a burglary had been wrought on our poor landlady’s kitchen. Doors and drawers were open wide, and pots and utensils were rent from their proper positions in the cupboards and hooks on the wall.  White powders and halved, empty egg shells ghosted the counters and, in spots, the floor.  One surface in particular was decorated with a collection of cups, spoons, and what appeared to be some of Holmes’ chemistry equipment from upstairs, some upturned and many appearing to have been filled and then partially emptied of their substances. And there, by the range, stood the culprit — the world’s only consulting detective, his back turned to me, one shoulder twitching because of some exertion near his chest.

“Holmes?”

Holmes turned sharply, and I was considerably surprised to find him perfectly looking the part of a professional baker. He wore a square white apron over his trousers, shirt, and vest, and his shirt sleeves were rolled nearly to his elbows. He held a large bowl in the crook of one arm and a long spoon in his other hand, and his knuckles were dusted white with flour.  For a moment I thought that I must be looking at another of his clever disguises, for how well he appeared to belong in that kitchen. I must also confess, at the risk of being deemed hopelessly besotted, that I found him shockingly attractive in that particular costume.

“Ah, Watson!” he cried triumphantly, and he pointed the mixture-covered spoon toward me, like a swordsman poised for a duel. “You must taste this!”

“Holmes, what on earth…”

“Do you remember the Silver Street bakery?” he asked brightly, bringing the spoon back to himself.

“In Edmonton?”

“Precisely that.  Well, there is a baker there by the name of Breyer, and I say with little doubt that he has one of the finest minds of his trade. He apparently reads your sensational accounts in the Strand, but he told me he was a man of science and asked me to divulge some of my methods in finer detail. You can imagine I was delighted. We got to speaking on chemistry, and he told me that he believed baking to be one of the finer sciences in the world! I’ll admit that I laughed, Watson. To that, he said, ‘you doubt, Mr. Holmes, but it is all a matter of perspective!  Treat the cake as an experiment, and your recipe as the control, and see what a fine reaction the scientific method brings you!’  Well, normally I would not be given over to such a fit of enthusiasm, but you know as well as I how few good cases have come our way as of late.  So I took an apron and returned here to set about this ‘experiment.’”

“A fine endeavor if it keeps you from ennui,” said I, in good humor. “Though it’s fortuitous timing that you should take up this task while Mrs. Hudson is gone for the week. I daresay she would not have tolerated this. As for the apron… could you not have simply used one of Mrs. Hudson’s?”

“My dear Watson, that would not do! One must look the part.”

“Of course.”

“And besides,” said Holmes, a sudden smirk quirking at his lips and a playfulness in his eyes, “if I had done that, I would not be able to study the exquisite effect this frock has on you, dear boy.”

I was taken aback.  “How do you mean?” I asked.

“I have observed on more than one of our outings,” he answered, “that you spend just slightly longer than usual looking at the men behind the counters at delicatessens and confectioneries.  As it happens more often than not, I concluded that it must not be any one individual but the image of the man-of-trade that so appeals to you. And, should that be the case, I surmised that I could emulate that and draw out the same reaction.” He cocked his head, considering me, and I noticed the briefest flash of tongue as he wet his lips. “Judging by the repeated path your eyes have made, I believe I was correct.”

I stared at him for a moment, my mouth agape.  Of course he was correct, as he always was, but I had not once given even the slightest thought to such a notion before that moment. A warmth spread throughout me, lingering against my cheeks. Even now, after all this time, he had the ability to instantly fluster me. I coughed out a hopeless, exasperated little laugh, carding a hand through my short hair.

“Really, Holmes, I can understand when it’s a quality of myself that I’ve accepted, whether I display it unconsciously or otherwise. But when it’s something I haven't even recognized in myself…”

Holmes made a satisfied hum in his throat, his smile going warm. He said nothing, turning his attention back to his task.

In the days before I shared my life with Holmes, there were occasions when a fantasy of married life would strike me in regards to the making of confections. And, though of course I had always hoped to offer my wife a comfortable enough life to afford us servants, I could not shake the memories of warmth from my boyhood in the countryside.  I would hound my mother in the kitchen whenever she prepared a rare sweet thing, and she would shoo me with patient hands as I hoped to snipe a taste of it in each of its various levels of completion. Due to these humble beginnings, my image of my future wife always had her in aprons herself, moving with skill around a hot range. I had, in fact, taken some pleasure in imagining coming home from my practice to find her there, back turned to me, happily immersed in her work. I could then approach from behind her, slip my arms around her waist, and bury my face in her neck to comfort myself on the smell of nutmeg and toasted sugar that would inevitably surround her.

A childish fantasy, and perhaps a bit of a vulgar one at that, but I am a man of simple taste and wild imagination, and a hopeless romantic, as Holmes so often reminds me. However, when I looked upon my companion pouring his mixture into the final pan, the complete lack of femininity or roundness in his features posed such a stark departure from what I had always imagined for myself that I, not for the first time in my many years of knowing Holmes, became tickled at the hilarity of the life I had found myself in.  When I let out a soft chuckle to that effect, he turned an inquisitive eye to me, his brow raised.

“Watson?”

“It’s nothing."

“Clearly something about this situation has caused you an attack of whimsy.”  He narrowed his eyes, the smirk returning. “Shall I deduce it?”

“You have not yet seen into every corner of my mind, Holmes,” I remarked.  Then, in fear that he should take it upon himself to challenge that notion, of which I had no doubt he could succeed, I added, “Though I say you would be quite welcome in this one.”

For a moment Holmes only looked at me, but my answer must have satisfied him, as he returned to opening the range and sliding the pan in.  For my part, I turned from him and surveyed the miserable state of the room.  Giving it a proper cleaning would take at least an hour, and though my friend had numerous incredible talents, cleaning was not among them.

“Ha, the deed is done,” said Holmes, “and now all that remains is to wait.”

“Yes,” I replied, “and perhaps to begin undoing what has been done.  I have no doubt of Mrs. Hudson’s affection for us, but I fear she would have our skins if she saw this sorry mess.”

Holmes continued as if I had not said a word. “I must say that this experiment was much more enjoyable than I had expected. And this batter! I’m quite proud of it.”

“I’m glad of it, Holmes.”

“Would you care to lick the spoon?”

At that I looked at him, practically startled.  The words had been innocent enough, but his tone was imbued with boldness and an unmistakable hint of mischief.  His expression was almost treacherously bland, but I consider myself to be as avid and learned a student of Sherlock Holmes as he was of the world of crime; I recognized a gleam in his eyes that spoke of absolute wickedness, and it kindled a fire in me.

“You have no plans for company today?” I asked.

“None at all.  I fear it will be a singularly dull afternoon.” His voice dipped lower, into the range of that satin rumble that always traveled directly to the base of my spine. “Though, of course, should I find entertainment suitable enough, I might turn away all but the most riveting case. I am hoping you could assist me in finding such entertainment, as it seems we will be alone the whole of the day.”

“Then I am your man,” said I, for indeed I was.

I grabbed his hand where it held the spoon and tipped it toward me, keeping my eyes on his as I gave one slow, deliberate upward drag of my tongue through the mixture — but my focus abruptly shifted when the flavors registered in my mouth.  I had braced myself for the worst, as I had not once found Holmes’ impatient nature to correspond well with the precision and subtlety required for a well-crafted meal.  To my astonishment, what I tasted was sweet and eggy, with notes of butter.  It was rudimentary and lacking the depths of flavor from the work of a more experienced cook, and the texture was perhaps, to my mind, given over to a bit too much flour.  I could not dismiss, however, that the mixture was delightfully recognizable as a cake.

“Oh!” I exclaimed, letting him go and bringing my hand to my mouth, a small reflexive smile breaking across my awed face. “It’s good.”

“Said with not a small amount of shock,” said he, the devilish gaze temporarily set aside.  His eyes glittered with amusement.  “You doubted, Watson?”

“I mean no harm by it, but I have been at the mercy of your cooking before.”

Holmes waved a hand impatiently. “Dreadful mixtures made out of necessity, with no regard for flavor or time. This, however, was in the interest of science, and dancing just outside of the pleasure of art.”

I smiled, then took the bowl and spoon from him and set them together on the counter beside us. “I will admit the cake is quite edible,” said I, “but it is a bit sweet and delicate, and at present I have a taste for something a bit more…” I let my fingers slide up the lower front of his apron. “...robust.”  

Holmes snorted, but the wicked gleam was back in his eyes, and a sly smile curled his lips.

So I continued boldly, “Shall I sample that for you as well?”

“You know I do so covet your opinion, Doctor,” said he.

A short bark of laughter came from my companion when I then dropped to my knees and lifted his apron over my head, followed by a much more vulnerable sound when I made short work of his trouser buttons and slipped my hand in.

And so it seemed that we would have found yet another way to defile Mrs. Hudson’s kitchen — the pitiable woman — but that I am no longer a young man, and my knees could not stand up to continued practice for long.  It was that point at which Holmes took me by the hand and led me up the stairs to his bed, and we divested each other of all but Holmes’ ludicrous apron, and passed the time as befitting two men under such circumstances.  

In my joy, I had forgotten the cake quite completely; and so, it appeared, had Holmes, for no sooner had he settled upon his bed beside me, his breathing slowing and his skin flushed with the afterglow of pleasure, than he bolted upright, uttered a rare curse, and dashed from the room.

For a moment I could only lie there, dazed, recovering from the grips of rapture.  But when I myself remembered the cake, I rose and noticed that Holmes had not stopped to adorn his dressing gown.  Concerned by the implication, I took mine from its usual spot hidden amongst his articles, slipped it over my shoulders, put my feet into slippers, and padded down to the first floor.  

As I had suspected, Holmes had taken no measure to dress in his rush to retrieve the cake from the range.  He still wore the apron, as it had never come off, but there was nothing under or over it.

“Good heavens, man!” I cried. “At least cover yourself before you come to the first floor!”

“Nevermind that!” he snapped. “You already know we’re alone. You dwell on trifles, Watson, as always.” He tutted, revealing the cause of his sudden venom.  “This entire experiment has gone to ruin.”

I walked into the kitchen, and before I saw the cake, I could smell that he was right; it was not the acrid stench of something having burnt past recognition, but the slightly unlovely over-sweetness of a confection cooked just over its limit for palatability.  I was chagrined, enough so to forget being scandalized by Holmes’ brazen appearance.  I was not at all regretful of our romp, which had been first-rate. I did appreciate my companion’s zeal for his work, however, and I had never intended to be the cause of any failure on Holmes’ part. I put my hand against the small of his bare back and looked over at the chestnut-brown top of a cake that should have been golden.   

Holmes sighed sadly.  “Oh, Watson, this is all your fault.”

“I am terribly sorry, Holmes.”

He ruffled his hair with his hand in a rare way he did when he was resigned to something, which was rare in itself.  “Well, it’s no matter.  The taste of the batter proves my success as a cake maker.”  

I had had enough badly finished cakes to find issue with his declaration, but I decided not to argue the point.  

“I must confess that having to wait for the cake to finish baking would have blackened my mood considerably,” said he.  “The idea alone is dreary.”

Watching Holmes look at his ruined work, turned from me with his hands upon his hips, I was once again struck by the memories of my imagined wife from the early days of my bachelorhood.  Holmes, his tall, lean form utterly naked but for the white loop of apron crossing his neck and tied loosely just above his backside, served as an even more absurd comparison than before.  

And yet, when I snaked my arms around his waist, and raised myself on the tips of my feet to plant a kiss under his chin, feeling the rough scratch of stubble and inhaling the scents of tobacco, pomade, and touches of salt and sweat that made up the man, I realized that my current reality was far more appealing than I could have imagined.  It was perfect.

Well, very nearly perfect, as there was still the matter of an overcooked cake and a kitchen that had quite lost a battle against the devastating force that was Sherlock Holmes.  As it was my misconduct that led to the current state of the affronted cake, I volunteered to set about returning the kitchen to somewhat near its original appearance.  Holmes agreed with no hint of hesitation or debt, as we were both aware that it would have been me fulfilling this responsibility no matter how the experiment of the cake had turned out.