221b Baker Street, London NW. 6 o’clock in the evening. Bedroom.
“You agreed to take the case, Holmes.”
“Thank you but the memory is, alas, only too painfully fresh just at present. Ach!”
I hauled away one more inch and regarded my left boot, placed as it was against the ramrod spine of the world’s only consulting detective. Between my sole and his skin were two layers of calico, one of cotton lawn and two of Chinese silk brocade reinforced with Arctic whalebone.
“It won’t go any tighter. You have altogether the wrong shape. There is no…extra flesh to mould.”
The face he made as he turned to look back over one shoulder might have pickled a whole jar of walnuts. Both of us were panting; I from the exertion, not to mention contortion, of acting as lady’s maid to someone a head taller than me - he, so fast and shallow that I half-expected him to pitch forward onto the nightstand and end up face down and senseless amongst the debris of powder and hairpieces.
“This…instrument of torture is using my lungs in lieu. Padding.”
He snatched the rags from my hands and stuffed them away seemingly somewhere under his chin, muttering.
“Now tie off the cords. Dress.”
He had disguised himself so often as an old woman – bent back, grey wig, hobbled gait, scratchy whine, shapeless black weeds - that he had laughed my misgivings away, talking of going in disguise to the Opera with a view to spying on Lady Birch and her circle. Every alternative was rejected: he would go as a woman of fashion and let that be an end to it, dear boy.
“I know what I’m doing.”
He said it again now, stuggling into the sleeves of a bottle green evening gown. Heaven knew where he’d found the costume and how he’d allowed for his height: I could only hope it hadn’t graced the stage recently enough for recognition. A merciful veil, a merciless hat plus his own best boots polished to a glow and he was gone, telling me not to trouble to wait up.
I did, of course.
I always did, and not only to see him home safe. One way or another, I have been waiting for Sherlock Holmes all my life. Waiting to meet him, waiting to question, praise and scold him as he expected or deserved, waiting at a church door for him to see me off as I married away, waiting to welcome him back from the dead after he’d fled in the opposite direction, waiting for a friendship not granted to many in this world and offered like the litchi: spiky on the outside but freshly sweet within.
Love was the only thing he didn’t make me wait for. That was a glorious surpise which he sprang on me in the summer of ’95. I’m pleased to report he has sprung on me with delicious iregularity – in every sense of the word - ever since. We had to snatch the hours in secret, of course. Absent the odd dangerous and, precisely because dangerous, exciting tryst among the thick underbrush of woods in high summer, from midnight until dawn was our time,. And what time we made of it. Just as well we neither of us spent our days tied to a desk or minding a machine.
221b Baker Street, London NW. Quarter past midnight. Sitting Room.
“Watson. For God’s sake. Get… it…off!”
I raised an eyebrow. Holmes glowered.
He had stumbled up the seventeen steps and through the sitting room door as if he’d alighted from a pumpkin pulled by mice, and he looked as if it had transformed from a golden coach on the way, with him still inside. Hat and hairpiece he tore off and flung at the hearth.
“Lie down before you fall down. On the couch.”
He had made a mess of the corset strings, trying to get them undone himself when half-undressed in the dark in a cab under an opera cloak. My neat bow had become a tangle,impossible to undo, and over his protests I fetched a scalpel to cut him free. The fee for the mystery he had no doubt solved – there was a gleam of unmistakable triumph in his eye - would more than replace a set of stays, however fancy they were, and these were very fancy indeed. There was something about them – about him bound inside them - that made my hands tremble as I steadied him, peeled away the loosened dress and plucked with the blade at one, then two straining bands. Each snapped with a low, rough musical note like gunshot very far off and a gasp from my friend so like the sound he made the very first time I kissed the inside of his knee that I suddenly found it hard to breathe myself.
He was very still.
What’s in a name? Prelude. Invitation. Submission.
I gave him just enough room inside the ridiculous, fascinating garment to stop him fainting, for it would never do to waste the least conscious moment of this. Under the hem of his skirts I took off boots and stockings but left the rest. All the while his face was hidden amongst the cushions and he was silent in that ever-watchful way of his – listening, deducing, waiting for the criminal to show his hand. Waiting for danger.
Partway through the undressing I realised I was still holding the scalpel, that I had done it all one-handed. So many times at night, over the years before, I had contemplated undressing him, one hand busy on my own prick: second nature to hold a weapon now.
I pressed the blade flat, feather-light against the nape of his neck. Powder and sweat mixed slick there, the scent of violets over the reek of sex on his skin. Crushed mother-of-pearl gleamed in the stuttering gaslight, scattered in the powder until it faded to nature scarcely less white and no less fine. There was a blue shadow under his jaw and no-one would think him woman now. Within the skirts – God, fumbling in the folds of velvet I found his thigh and squeezed, found his arse and knew he’d gone out like that, cock-and-balls-bare under a dress.
His virtue was safe enough, I suppose.
Now, I held steady, steady: setting scalpel still against flesh. A bizarre wish to use it, to make just a scratch, to leave a tiny scar to mark him mine, shrieked at me from a dark corner. I banished it from sheer habit. First, do no harm.
I kissed him there instead, and he gasped as hard as if I had cut him indeed, as if the possibility had shouted to him too and he was waiting to see if I heeded it. I meant to cast the thing aside then, but he reached out behind his back, blind and trusting, to grab my wrist and stop me.
“You are a surgeon, John. I am in need of healing. Look at me.”
He twisted underneath me and was free, crouching on the Turkey rug, my wrist still trapped in his grip, the tip of the scalpel put to his throat as he stared, smiling like a tiger, up into my startled face.
“Did you ever see such a sight. Am I not mortally sick?” he mocked, gesturing at his costume, tracing the girth of my cockstand with his thumbnail across my trouser front. He kept my right hand stock still against the shudder that wracked me, present danger held off by his supreme will.
Never such a sight indeed, and all for me.
He unbuttoned me, divided my smallclothes and drew me out, playing supple grip and twist games one-handed as once I did, as once I daresay did he, in those days, those years before. The blade he kept ever at his own throat, even when I sank to my knees, terrified that I might hurt him but utterly unable to stay standing. His eyes were grey stars in the hour before dawn and his gaze held me with that same strength as his fingers did.
In a green sea lapped with lace like the foam on the shore he surged and drew back, quickening his strokes, inch by inch, moment by moment, urging on my cries with whispers deep and dirty as ditchwater, light and fresh as spring, blessing me, cursing me, Adam’s apple moving under the knife.
“That’s it, John, come darling, come to me, come for me, come quick or come slow, come how you like but do it, do it for me, I want it, I want you, only you, you know it, that’s it, John…”
One moment it’s never been so far from me, I am reaching in desperation for climax and mortally afraid it will never arrive, the next all crashing awareness, shouting pleasure, nerve-endings screwed-up like paper and flung away soaring and I am saying his name over and over and he mine and all the while that scalpel. All the while.
Bright death, the both of them. A healing art.
I have loved him so long now, and never truly knew what I was doing until that night.
I am wiser now.