There had been a time when he thought that love was a sentiment found on the losing side. Actually, he thinks so still. The difference being that now it hurts whereas then it was nothing but hard fact, no feelings attached. He has come a long way since the woman who now and then still ghosts through his mind palace, reminding him of the day he realised that John might feel something for him but would never give in to it. A dim, wet factory, cold steel and concrete, half broken down, and the voices of two people, one male, one female, sounding clearly through the empty, ghostlike shell of a building.
From his window he can see the undulating landscape, the incredible, larger-than-life hues of colour - sprawling fields of blooming lavender (lilac, John), rusty red earth, green foliage, a sky so blue that it hurts the eyes. No wonder so many painters felt drawn to this part of France. Summer, not really the right time for Provence, too hot, and he has always disliked heat, but this is the only place he can bear to be.
He remembers childhood summers with Grandmère Vernet who was the best cook he ever met and the worst painter he ever saw. But her passion made up for any lack of skill.
The house stands on the outskirts of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. As a boy, he used to accompany Grandmère to the market where she chose the finest fruit and vegetables, the tastiest cheese and juiciest meat and never ever let herself be outsmarted by the traders. As far as he knows, she never set foot into a supermarket in all her life.
He presses his lips together and walks away from the window, softly touching his left arm. It is strange how an ordinary word like supermarket can trigger memories - coffee tea sugar milk dried pasta tomato sauce peas beans steps on the stairs the creaking door the polythene smell of bags placed on the kitchen table with a thud the fridge door opening a soft curse no fucking space for food next time I …
But there will be no next time. Maybe never again.
‘Sherlock.' Mycroft looks at him over his reading glasses which have wandered down his considerable nose, dangling precariously from the very tip of it. ‘Saint-Rémy? Are you sure?’ ‘
I thought you would be happy to see me spend time away from big cities and their numerous chemical temptations.’ He tries for lightness and fails miserably.
‘I think you want to spend time away from John Watson,’ says Mycroft. There is something in his voice which in other people you would call compassion. But he is not other people and does not go in for this sort of thing.
‘John has made it very clear that he does not wish to see me.’ Sherlock prefers to look out of the window. Mycroft sees too much, always has. ‘There are only so many times you can hear that and not believe it.’
He can feel the silence in his back like an actual touch. He still does not turn around. ‘What?’ ‘
There are only so many times you can risk your life for John Watson and survive.’
He finally moves, just a half-turn, a quick look over his shoulder at his brother. Mycroft’s face does not give away anything but Sherlock knows him well enough. His Adam’s apple is moving with an effort as if trying to gulp down some foul-tasting food.
‘John once told me I was a drama queen. I beg to differ. He should see you.’
‘Oh, come on, Sherlock, this game is over. I know a lost battle when I see it and I lost the battle to protect you from your own feelings years ago. But I am not going to lose you.’ ‘
You won’t.’ Sherlock slightly raises his left arm. ‘I am clean. For good.’
‘And yet you want to go to Southern France, to a house you have not visited since you were a boy, to do what? Bury yourself in old cases? Get away from London’s dealers? Drown in honey and lavender?’
The last remark stings. It is what Grandmère Vernet used to say when they were lazing around in the sunlit garden instead of helping her with the dishes. But she is not there anymore. Just like …
Sherlock finally gives in. ‘For once in my life I want to get away from here.’ His gesture encompasses the living room in Baker Street or London as a whole. ‘Last time it was hard.’
They both know he is talking about a rainy day on a rooftop and a tiny speck of a man down on the pavement. ‘Because there was so much I left behind. But now …’
Sherlock tries to concentrate on the pile of old cases, stacked-up folders and cardboard boxes Lestrade had carried up the seventeen stairs to 221B and which he has brought here in a rented Citroën. Some are from the 1920s, exuding traces of Shalimar and sweaty jazz and the tinkling of crystal chandeliers. There is one unsolved chain of murders from the long Edwardian summer before 1914 and even a child kidnapping which took place in 1853. Nothing manages to hold his attention.
There is a hollow feeling, right in the middle of his chest - a large cavity as he once dreamed of saying about his brother - and he knows what he is missing. Not his heart which is here, in the correct place, beating its rhythm. And yet …
He goes into the kitchen and gets himself a slice of watermelon. Not that it will make the hollow feeling disappear but any action is better than sitting around, an open folder in his lap, staring blindly into the distance in the rough direction of London.
He eats the dripping melon contemplatively over the sink, enjoying the sweet, slightly watery taste. Afterwards he washes his hands, dries them on a towel.
A plane drones overhead, on its way to or from Marseilles airport. His throat tightens and he has to drink a glass of water to dispel the feeling.
He has never entertained any nostalgic or sentimental feelings about airports but recently these little drab airfields with their makeshift towers and tarmac half overgrown by weeds seem to have become an integral part of his life.
It is like a distorted scene from a mirror, similar but not the same. Similar but not the same as in January when it was he who boarded the plane and John, Mary, and Mycroft who remained behind. This time it will be Mary who is boarding the plane, child in her arms, not looking back, just as he did then.
Mycroft looms as a dark presence in the background, watching over the scene and making sure she leaves England for good.
Sherlock steps back from the group, nodding sharply towards Mary, stretching his hand to touch a soft downy cheek but pulling it back in time. He turns around and goes back to the car to give them some privacy. Seconds later he can hear steps approaching, someone lighting a cigarette and holding it in front of his face.
Sherlock takes it without looking up.
‘Nothing new under the sun, Sherlock.’
‘Oh, but I hope so. No video this time. No return after five minutes.’ ‘
Don’t worry. Once was fine. Twice would seem careless.’ There is a pause. ‘When did he decide?’
Sherlock shrugs. ‘He told me this morning.’
John has known about this offer for a week. Seven days, twenty-four hours, one thousand four hundred and forty minutes, eight hundred sixty-four thousand seconds … Sherlock tells himself to stop, to pull back from the abyss that is his own exhausting inexhaustible brain.
‘Better late than never.’ He would like to smash in Mycroft’s teeth but has to concede that sometimes his brother is just right. T
he next thing he can hear is the plane door closing, the gangway being pulled away, the engines starting. He does not turn around because he is afraid. Afraid of seeing John’s defeated posture, his twitching hand, his head following the plane carrying away his wife and daughter towards an unknown future in a new country with a new name. A future without him.
In the afternoon Sherlock walks the short distance into town, mainly to distract himself but also to buy some food. Now that he is living alone again he puts more attention to feeding himself because he must. It seems he cannot shed his inner Doctor.
He enters Saint-Rémy through the old Porte du Trou in the north and walks along Rue Nostradamus. Grandmère used to tell him about the prophet and his predictions but he has never understood how people still can give any credit to this nonsense. But he fondly remembers warm evenings in the garden, the scent of oleander and lavender, crickets chirping, Grandmère’s brittle voice telling him about Michel de Nostredame who was not just a prophet but also an apothecary and a doctor and an astrologer. Maybe this has somehow taken root in him and has directed his own penchant for chemistry, nudging him from early on towards a science that once was connected with the ancient traditions of alchemy.
It is strange what a place can do to the mind. He gets calmer by the minute just by walking through the quiet streets until he reaches Place Jules Pelissier with its light golden buildings and shady plane trees and its dolphin fountain. The dolphins’ tails are intertwined, eternally connected.
The thought somehow brings back his earlier sadness. Sherlock tries to distract himself by entering a bakery, buying a small ficelle and two pains au chocolat. He discovers small jars of local honey on a shelf and takes one of them as well.
On leaving the bakery he turns to the right and nearly stumbles over a blackboard someone has inconveniently placed in the middle of the pavement.
Delicate chalk letters announce that a new gallery has been opened. One is cordially invited to enter and look around.
Sherlock has never really been interested in art but anything will do to cover up the sadness which no amount of warmth and sun and sweet-smelling summer has been able to dispel. He looks into the window and nearly drops the paper bag full of bakery goods he has been holding in his right.
He knows the name of the artist - stored away somewhere in his mind palace for research purposes. Not an original, what a ludicrous idea, but a very good reproduction. His forehead nearly touches the windowpane and he cannot stop looking. And then the golden stones of Saint-Rémy seem to drift away, the sunlight disappears, making way for a night sky spanning over a big city far away from here.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ ‘
I thought you didn’t care about things like that.’ ‘
Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it.’
So long ago but the moment has stayed in his mind. During his absence as he prefers to call those unspeakable years far from Baker Street he often looked up to the sky and whenever there were stars he remembered the time he gave away something of himself and John did not understand.
It may have been the first but it surely was not the last time. It has always been like that.
He flinches from the soft female voice that suddenly sounds very close to him. ‘Starry Night, oil on canvas, 1889. I am sure you know it.’ She speaks good English with a French accent.
He shakes himself out of his reverie. She is petite, geometrically cut dark hair with a fringe, wearing a frilly white summer dress strangely at odds with her 1950s existentialist hairstyle and yet she looks stunning.
‘Oh, the van Gogh, yes.’ He clears his throat. ‘I am not very familiar with his work. Not at all, to be honest. I … this just reminded me of someone, something.’ To his eternal embarrassment he finds himself blushing.
Her look is impenetrable but friendly. ‘May I offer you a cup of coffee? It is only my second day here and I am glad about every customer. Which does not mean you have to buy anything, no pressure.’
He follows her into the gallery. It is light and airy, unpolished floorboards, white walls, nothing to distract from the paintings.
‘Most of them are by local artists. Provence is still a Mecca for artists, there must be something in the air and the light that draws them here.’ She walks over to the left wall by the window. ‘My personal van Gogh corner. He is so ubiquitous by now. This is the problem with things you see to often - you stop appreciating their beauty.’ She points to the painting of the nighty sky. ‘Did you know it was painted here?’
Sherlock shakes his head. ‘I had no idea.’
‘It is the view from his window in the asylum here in Saint-Rémy. He painted it in June 1889.’ She takes the picture from the window, leaning it against a chair. ‘It is not what his eyes saw when he was looking out. This is a village of his mind. But to him the sky might have looked like that. There are dozens of interpretations, people talking about the religious aspects or the fact that it seems to precipitate something called the Kolmogorov theory of turbulences but …’
‘I’ll take it.’
She looks baffled.
‘Sorry, but I am not really interested in religion or turbulence theories.’ He realises his words might sound a bit rude. ‘There are things one appreciates without caring about them in general. What is the price?’
Now it is her turn to blush. Sherlock belatedly deduces her. Former art student, left Paris for personal reasons, trying to make a living as a gallery owner but still shy about the financial transactions involved. She is unsure of naming the price because she thinks he will find it too high and will start to bargain which she finds utterly dreadful.
He looks at the back of the canvas. 350 Euros. ‘Do you take credit cards? Or I could pop into the bank and get the cash.’
‘No, a credit card is fine. I shall wrap it for you, just a moment.’ She starts digging behind the counter, bringing corrugated board and tissue paper, carefully wrapping the canvas and tying a purple cord around the package.
‘Oh, I forgot to tell you - this reprint is exactly the same size as the original painting from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.’
Sherlock hands her his credit card and the deal is done.
‘My name is Juliette. And I completely forgot about the coffee, so sorry. If there is time …’ She nods over to the coffee maker behind her.
‘No, thank you, perhaps another day.’ He is suddenly very anxious to take his picture home. So he clamps the package under one arm which is a bit awkward because of its size, grabs his paper bag, says goodbye and leaves. He does not even notice that he did not introduce himself to Juliette.
‘Mycroft just called.’
He is afraid of telling John, of leaving it up to him to choose but of course he knows that this is the only way. No secrecy anymore, no dealings behind John’s back. He has to trust John. If he has learned one thing about love by now then it is this: love means letting the other one choose. Not directing or controlling or influencing the one you love but letting him choose - even if he does not choose you. And still. ‘
He can get her into a witness protection scheme. Against full disclosure of all she knows. And then a new life, a new name, a new identity.’
John’s face seems to do several things at once. When he has himself under control again, he asks: ‘Just her?’
Sherlock shakes his head, takes a deep breath. ‘Her, her and the baby, or all three of you. Whatever you choose. You have one week to decide.’
When John does not answer, Sherlock turns to leave the room. ‘I will be at Barts if you need me.’
He takes his scarf and coat, anxious for John to say something - I need you please stay do not let me do this alone not this time - but John remains silent. Sherlock half remembers his own answer from years ago. ‘Why would I need you?’ What a blind idiot he has been. He softly closes the door behind himself and walks down the seventeen steps.
Back in the house he props the package against the living room wall, makes coffee and puts the pains au chocolat on a plate. Grandmère’s old porcelain with the faded fleur de lys. Very French.
He slowly eats both pains, drinks two cups of coffee. He looks at the old calendar on the wall. 1989, the year Grandmère died. Nobody has taken it down, freezing time within the house forever. But it does not feel odd or uncomfortable to stay in a house in which it will be always 1989. He does not mind these things.
What he does mind is that he has been here for ten days. Ten days since Mary entered the plane with her daughter in her arms. Ten days since he told Mycroft he was going to Saint-Rémy. Ten days without a call or a text or any message from John. He had given himself two weeks before returning to London and starting to work again. By now he feels more like staying here the whole summer. Or even into autumn. Autumn is a lovely time in Southern France.
Drowning in honey and lavender. Slightly sticky but a nice way to go. SH.
Mycroft’s answer comes immediately. Still the drama queen, little brother?
With the merest hint of a smile he puts away the phone, washes his hands and starts to unwrap the package. The canvas has been carefully fixed to a wooden frame so the picture really does not need a conventional frame. He gets the toolbox, measures the distance between two spots, applies a mechanic’s level, chooses two sturdy nails, and starts hammering them into the whitewashed wall.
When all is ready, he walks back as far as possible and considers his work. He is satisfied. And when the setting sun slants through the window, tinting the sky blue and golden, he feels even more than satisfied.
Sherlock wakes up in the middle of the night. He is not sure why. He lies very still, concentrating on any sound other than the chirping outside his window. He gets up and drinks some water from the kitchen tap. Now that he is awake he feels the heat, pouring from the walls, enveloping him and making his body hot and clammy. He walks into the living room.
A pale, slightly bluish moon is shining through the window, bathing the picture in an eerie light. So very different from the golden sunlight. For a second he allows himself to imagine this light on John’s body.
There has been an accident. John’s voice is higher than usual, slightly shrill with fear and panic. Mary was driving and the brakes did not seem to work. John was not in the car, just Mary and the baby. A broken wrist, no harm to the child.
Sherlock ends the call. He knows what his next move will be.
‘I hope Doctor Watson is in good health?’
‘Come on, you know he is. But what about the accident? Malfunction of brakes in a three-year-old Audi, my ass.’
‘Your unusual rudeness is far more revealing than your words.’
‘Fuck you, Mycroft.’ ‘
I will call you again, brother dear.’ Sherlock counts the hours, exchanging some texts with John, asking after Mary and their daughter, desperately trying to convey calm, never touching upon the subject that has been torturing him for months.
He does not regret pulling the trigger on Magnussen, never that. But he should have known that he could not kill the knowledge with the man. Of course he must have had sources, people who knew about Mary’s past, former colleagues, employers, families and friends of her victims.
This is the day Sherlock realises that becoming a murderer has not been enough to fulfill his vow. He paid the price willingly and may have bought some time for John and Mary, time to welcome their daughter into the world, to start building something from the chaos. But it has not been enough. It will never be enough. And there is nothing he can do about it.
John Watson will never be safe.
When Mycroft calls, the answer is as one would expect. ‘Someone paid an unemployed ex-convict car mechanic to tamper with the brakes. Communication via burner phone, Spanish accent, the caller could be from anywhere in Spain or South or Central America. Money was deposited in two tranches, hidden under a container at the back of a supermarket and behind a disused petrol station.’
‘What can we do?’
‘Give me until tomorrow, Sherlock.’
In the morning the picture is golden again. Sherlock pads into the kitchen, breaks off a piece of the ficelle and eats it dry. Drinks some water. He cannot be bothered to make coffee. He remembers the strange sound that woke him during the night. He walks around the house, looking for footprints, but the earth is scorched and does not yield any clues. No prints from tyres, car or bicycle, either. Probably a nocturnal animal in front of the window.
Sherlock finds himself strangely restless. He takes a shower, puts on shorts and a T-shirt and starts walking to the end of the garden. There is a little gate in the wall behind which a path leads to a small forest of oaks. It is already hot but the trees provide at least some shade. The gravel crunches beneath his feet and he is walking like an automaton, almost as if driven by a force he cannot resist. He knows where he is going and does not at the same time.
When the trees open up before him, revealing the light red roof tiles of the town, bathed in the light of the early morning sun, he suddenly remembers. He knows the place. Grandmère took him here, showing him the view, sometimes in the early morning, sometimes in the evening, the roofs coloured blood red by the setting sun. Now he understands why so many artists have come here, drawn by the light and the smells and the soft yet unforgiving landscape.
There is something in the back of this throat that does not want to go away. There is dust in his eye although no wind is stirring.
Sherlock stands there and keeps looking out over the little town and the white cliffs peeping through grass scorched yellow and trees desperately clinging to their leaves.
He turns around sharply and walks back to the house. The unrest is still there, but now twinned with a feeling he can only describe as yearning although he does not know what for. Or he does know but does not want to admit it to himself.
Snatches of what he read last night on the Internet come back to him.
View from the east-facing window of his asylum room … self-mutilation of his left ear … breakdown … did not count the painting among his better works … Van Gogh himself spoke of failure and being led astray, of reaching for stars that were too big and that he had his fill of that.
Maybe this is something Sherlock might say about himself. He feels like a failure because he could not protect John. He let himself by led astray by … what? Feelings? False hopes? The idea that for once in his life he could get the thing he really wanted?
He shakes his head as if to disperse those thoughts. If there is one thing he does want to do even less than drugs, then it is self-pity. He has had his fill of that.
He enters the house through the back door.
He is not alone. He does not hear or see anything, there was nothing outside to create this impression and yet he knows. The air has changed. There is something intangible pulling him towards the living room. Something that has been there the night before, someone who has a key, given to him by another someone who fears his brother might be drowning in honey and lavender.
A man is standing in front of the picture. Jeans, tight-fitting t-shirt, short grey hair. Not that he would need to look at the hair or the back or anything. He would know John among a million other people just by the gravitational force that is drawing Sherlock towards him.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ asks John.
‘You thought I didn’t care about things like that.’
‘Doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate it.’
And then, in the split second before John turns towards him and their eyes meet and their lips are touching each other, Sherlock remembers another thing he read last night.
‘But don't let us forget that this earth is a planet, too, and consequently a star, or celestial orb.’