The following is added by John S. (Josh) Watson at a later date:
He rolls unto his face, trying to smother his breath into the thin pillow. It smells of iodine. The blanket he pulls over his head, creating at least a facsimile of darkness. He hasn't slept in nearly two days. They keep coming. All the beds are full, the tents outside crammed like sardines. Thank God it is April now, and the weather holds at least the promise of spring's warmth. A month earlier and men would have died of exposure. A few months from now, and the likelihood will return. The orderlies all assume that the fighting will be finished by the end of this year. But they are far less certain then they were even two or three months earlier.
When he closes his eyes, he sees the face of Andrew McHenry. The patchy beard, the oil-coloured hair that drips into his eyes, those dark eyes that glowed when he recognised a familiar face. Is that Mouse Watson? Hullo! You can't put a steth around his neck and fool me, I swear it is him!
Josh remembers him. They'd been at prep together, McHenry a year or so older, but in his form. He was an alright fellow, didn't bully the smaller lads, always had a joke, played all types of sport well.
"How are you, old friend?" He takes his hand to shake. It is an absurd question. He was admitted with cyanosis1 of the left foot, which was so advanced that it required amputation. He is also not sure they are or were ever friends. Josh knows he was not well-liked at school. For some reason, this bothers him more now than ever it did as a child.
"So they've made you a doctor, have they? I'd not be surprised if you were head of this entire hospital, young as you are. We all knew greatness was in your future, we did."
He can't be sure if he is on the level. "I'm only assistant surgeon, Mackie," he tells him. They talk for a quarter of an hour, sharing a pack of biscuits Josh has from home, talking of Blighty2 and the things they miss. McHenry misses playing rugger, his fiancée Helen and having a pint with the lads, in that order. He looks down at his mangled lower limbs. "I suppose I'll be cheering from the side-lines now," he says sadly.
Josh takes the time to visit with him whenever he has a spare moment, and though his patient's spirits remain high, his condition hasn't improved. His feet, what's left of them, should show signs of healing, but remain raw and bloody. He frowns but doesn't want to worry the man. "Trying all you can to get a blighty wound, eh?"
"Ah, well, you know me. Always was in trouble for mucking about." He reaches for his water glass and downs what little is left. "Not that bad off, am I?"
He doesn't answer. Instead, on a pretext, he tells him to open up and stick out his tongue. Mackie has both the gumption and a flexible enough mouth to do so while making the sort of churlish comment that would have both amused and embarrassed them at school. Josh's reply, too, is the sort of remark that would generally be met with jeers. But all he is interested in is the smell—sweet and fruity—emanating from his breath.
He goes to see Ridgely—the chief surgeon and his CO. He is a large man with an overgrown ginger moustache and an unbending, untiring demeanour. He and Josh share a mutual dislike but begrudging respect. Still, he is a skilled and honourable doctor. Not having the chemicals needed to test the patient's urine to prove his assistant's diagnosis, he tastes it himself. Later, exhausted and sharing a pot of metallic-tasting coffee, he confirms what Josh had thought. "Diabetes mellitus," he says. "Intermediate stages, but with that wound he will regress rapidly. He will be sent home, but given the state of his health it is highly unlikely he will reach friendly soil alive."
"Surely then it is better to treat him here then, sir. We can monitor his diet. I believe there have been results from the partial removal of the pancreas"—
"Absolutely not. We don't have the equipment, the know-how, or frankly, the man-power. That bed is needed by another man who may have a chance yet."
He is dismissing him. Because he missed the signs. Because he doesn't want the much younger man to be thought of as more astute. Perhaps to punish his assistant, who occasionally has trouble holding his tongue when he doesn't agree. He was raised to always speak his mind, to offer his opinion. But he doesn't say anything here. He clamps his jaw shut and freezes his neck. He can feel his Adam's apple bobbing, his eyes are unable to blink.
His superior rises and clears his throat. "If you are planning on speaking, sir, take care of your words. You may have been forced on me by anonymous, high-ranking government officials, but I do have the power to control the quality of your life whilst you are under me."
His eyes un-stick. His mouth goes dry. Ridgely scratches at the ginger moustache and picks up his tin cup. Strangely, he does not look filled with schadenfreude at relaying this knowledge. He is too dispassionate for such trivialities. "I am aware that you didn't know. Clearly Private Watson is viewed upon as a golden son. How fortunate for you." When he walks away Josh is too stunned to move until his brain sends him the message that he does not possess the luxury of time spent with no purpose.
Josh cannot lie to his friend. He has nothing to offer him in the way of comforts, other than what little time he has to himself that could be spent resting his over-taxed brain. "I'm going west3, aren't I, Mouse?"
"I'm so sorry, Mackie."
His eyes bubble for a second, but he quickly regains control. He's a stoic fellow, stiff upper lip and all that rubbish that Josh thinks is bollocks. In the six months he's been abroad, he's seen death many times over, and the lads that have faced it have done so in every conceivable fashion, from blubbering and screaming to silent to laughing and dismissive. "Never mind then," he whispers with only the slightest of wavers in his voice. He tries to remember the people he has cared for who have died. But he cannot remember his mother and only vaguely remembers loving Mrs Hudson. How did his father handle death? He has lost nearly everybody. Nearly.
There is transport every fortnight for those being sent to the boat docks and thereafter, Home. In that time Andrew McHenry's condition deteriorates faster than Josh would have anticipated. Like nearly all the blokes sent to hospital, he is already thin and malnourished, which ironically probably kept him in health longer than he would have at home, but the surgery and blood-loss, coupled with the stress of war and wound has caused his body to shut-down. When he can, he pushes him in a bath chair out into the sun and plays cards with him, smoking and talking about anything that comes into their heads. "You're alright after all," McHenry says, skeletal and festering in his bed, but still of a good humour. "If I'm honest, at school we all thought you too posh. A bit of a wanker. Turns out you're not so bad."
"Oh, I was a bit of a wanker. Still am, for my shame."
McHenry laughs. It's a dry, hollow sound. He asks Josh to write some letters—one to his family and one to his fiancée. The one to Helen is harder for him. The pits of his cheekbones turn burgundy as he stumbles over personal endearments that aren't meant to be shared with a third person. As he writes, two thoughts repeat in the scribner's mind: will he ever have the chance to whisper these sorts of words into a lover's ear...and did his father ever write—or worse yet say—these flowery clichés to his uncle? He can't imagine it. He can't imagine why he wants to know or why he thinks of his father so often.
"I don't care so much for myself," McHenry mumbles. "But what will they do? My mum'll never recover. Dad too, really. I'm his only son."
Josh drops a morphine tablet into the open mouth and places a glass of water at the parched lips. "You need your sleep, chum. Blighty's waiting for you."
The next month is so busy that there is no time to think. This is common after a major incident and they are inundated with wounded. But sooner or later there is enough slack to allow him a few hours off duty. He has plans for a bath and a sleep. But those plans are wasted when one of the orderlies brings him the mail—two letters. And another box.
He saves the box for last. The first letter is from his sister. He reads it, smiling and feeling brightened in a way that only she affects him. When he reaches the end, however, all of the goodness is gone. Also I was forced to fake a letter to Dad...and so on. Blimey. He is a complete shit. Never mind that his little sister, just twelve years-old, has knowledge of a row that no child her age should, but she has felt the need to involve herself in it, because he has been too angry to resolve it himself.
And too cowardly.
He picks up the second letter. The handwriting is dainty, formal and unfamiliar. He does not, however, need to see the stamp to know from whom it has been sent. It is addressed to 'Dr J.S. Watson' which feels wrong to him. He reads the entire letter, all of three pages, and the signature—Mary (Mrs James) McHenry.
My family and I are extremely grateful for your consideration in all that you did for our loved Andrew. Your kindness meant and continues to mean a great deal, though he is no longer of this world. I will pray for your safe return to your own family, who I am sure are very proud of you.
He slams to letter down atop the one from Martie. He allows his body to collapse on the cot. He has the idea that he will sleep for the next month, wake up, the war will be over and he can go home. If only he can keep his eyes closed long enough.
His hand brushes against the box. It isn't a large parcel, but it is the third such that he's received since arriving in France. And there really is not room for both he and it on the bed. He thinks to brush it to the floor, but there is something about the way it is carefully wrapped—the thick butcher's paper, the carefully tied string (a hidden knot, just as his father ties his boots) and the immaculate lettering. So unlike a doctor when he puts a mind to it.
He takes out his pocketknife and jams it hilt deep. He doesn't bother with sitting up. Simply saws a side free and pulls out the contents, each one filling his breast with a curious mix of nostalgia, delight and guilt: A jar of his Uncle's honey. Strawberry jam, probably donated by Mrs Kelly. His mouth waters at the thought of it—they have nothing but apple with pear in the army, and he is already sick of the smell of it. Two pairs of woollen socks—he'll keep those. A khaki-coloured blanket—he'll take that to the tents outside. Food—his stomach rumbles, even though it's mostly canned affairs, sardines, potage and ham, although he is resplendent to see there is a box of ginger biscuits. Some toiletries—his father knows what it hardest to come by in the army. And at the very bottom, a letter and photograph carefully folded into several clean handkerchiefs.
He doesn't want to read it, but he does, holding it toward the window to catch the waning light. It is a fairly comprehensive letter, although not as long as the one he sent the previous summer, the one he cannot answer, the one he calls The Letter.
His father tells him he is volunteering at a convalescence home for injured soldiers. He tells about the men there, what he's done and where they have been. He tells of the horses he's bought and their Christmas, of a barn they are re-building (he can't imagine why) and the weather and his sister at school and the news they have and the news that seems to be held back. He tells, in no uncertain terms, of his complete happiness in receiving the letter that he thinks his son has written.
And of his complete happiness in general. With the exception of the war and the effect he fears it will have. And for Josh, of course, who carefully folds the pieces of paper and places it back amongst the handkerchiefs.
The photograph is of his maternal grandfather—a man who died years before his birth and of whom he knows very little. He thought there to be only the one photo of him, the one taken with his grandmother and his mother when she was a little girl. He is much younger here. He reads his father's note: Found this whilst storing last of possessions from flat, forgot I meant to give it to you years ago. Quite the resemblance.
It is hard to tell from the photograph, but he appears to be a Skinner's man4, in his light coloured mess tunic. But Josh has not realised how very much he resembles the man. The fair hair and light eyes, the full cheeks and flat nose. His grandfather sports a valiant attempt at a moustache, as most Indian officers did, but it is so sparse and blond that it gives him a juvenile appearance. The name—in faded brown ink upon the reverse—says Pvt. J.A. Morstan, Ist Bengal Irregular Cavalry, 1858
For a quarter of an hour, Josh does nothing. Simply sits on his cot in which used to be a nun's cell and stares at the dusty crucifix still hanging on the white wall. Then he pulls the parcel closer, digs out the jam and the biscuits and proceeds to eat every drop and crumb, his mind turning but his lips remaining still. When he finishes, with sticky fingers like a small child, he rises and goes to his haversack and pulls from it pen and paper and pressing on the box, begins to write:
Thanks very much for the package. I'm really pleased Martie is doing well in school and that you are in Sussex. London must be a hornet's nest just now. I'm well, so don't worry about me. I wake up (the days I can manage sleep) and grab a bite and if I'm lucky on a Sunday then perhaps a wash but there is a man that requires my attention nearly every minute of every day. We are pretty well on supplies but food is bullocks here, if you can forgive that. We need socks and blankets and shirts, that sort of thing. Most of the men who aren't dying of wounds die of boredom, I think. There are probably three books in the whole place other than Bibles and the draughts set has a queue most days. Hoping for warmer weather. They say things are well and we'll be home for Christmas.
He thinks of Andrew McHenry and how he sounds like a total wanker. He can't say anything the way he would like. He can't say that the words of his CMO ring in his head like a concussion—forced on me. you didn't know. golden son. how fortunate for you. He can't ask why he (or more likely, Sherlock Holmes) feels the need to protect him. He isn't so green as some of the lads—the 18 year-old school boys and the ones who pretend to be—who come in and blink like doe-eyed calves at everything that comes their way. He is 23 after all. Certainly old enough to realise his own mind and to care for himself.
If only he realised how hard it is to be a father.
The long days of war dragged slowly from one to the next, though they seemed to little affect us. Holmes and I had developed a routine of sorts. It was surely a caprice of fate that we two men, opposites in so many ways, should always find that it was only in each other's company that we could be at peace. For every day that passed further distanced the decade that we had spent apart.
We rose early as a rule in those days. It was against our settled constitutions, but a process we grew accustomed to in a short time. For myself, the sound of the gulls and the jackdaws was a pleasure to awaken to. The smell of the salt air, of honeysuckle, the clean autumnal rains. The sense of having a purpose and being needed. I awoke eagerly most mornings.
On the clear days, we took the horses out. I would pack a canteen of hot coffee and some semblance of a breakfast, usually bread and butter or honey, fruit and maybe some cold meat or cheese, in my haversack whilst Holmes saddled Carlo and Rose. We would ride for perhaps an hour, depending on our fancy and then stop to eat. There was a small glen with a lake ideal for both picnicking and watering the animals that we frequented. Sometimes we would ride along the shoreline. There were many crevices in the cliff walls that provided ample shelter. If we were chilled, we'd build a small fire. We ate our meagre meal and talked on whatever we wished. The day ahead. The flora we passed. The state of the world. Watching the sun rise over the channel is something that words have not been invented to describe.
When we arrived back at the cottage, we would wash and dress for the day. I would take up my hat and my medical bag and head out over the dried fields for Fulworth; Holmes would put on his reading glasses and sit himself down with his chemicals, or he would put on his gloves and walk over to his bees, and we would bid each other a good-morning and go our separate ways. What exactly he did during those long days, I was never completely sure of, but he always seemed to have enough to keep himself busy. Perhaps he would have preferred the old days of singular bursts of action and mental exertion, but he never complained, not once.
Four or sometimes five mornings a week I would volunteer my services. There was no specific time I was required, but as the young doctor, Spicer, had intimated, the number of convalescents had more than doubled since summer and I was very much needed. The men we received were typically too far gone for treatment from the field hospitals—they required more time and energy than the military could invest in them on sight. So they were sent home to familiar soil—to Blighty, the young men called it— for us to try to put the pieces back together.
I would spend my days with those battered young men. Often there was very little I could do for them medically, but I did what I could to lift their spirits. I wrote letters until my wrist ached. I helped them re-learn how to walk. I helped them shave, and eat, and use the toilet. I listened to them when they wanted to talk. Sometimes I just sat with one fellow or another, letting them know they were not alone.
I would always take my luncheon at one of the little outdoor cafés and barring some sort of emergency, I always left the home before supper. The ground was not in the best order and the last thing I wanted was a torn calf or twisted ankle as I stumbled home in the dark. The price of petrol had risen sharply as was expected, and I felt it my duty to not drive the auto unless necessary.
Mrs Kelly typically arrived in the late mornings, frequently to an empty house. She would clean and take our soiled clothing with her, and leave our supper for us to warm. "When he is there," she told me once, "I would gladly make him tea or some matter of dinner. But if I can manage a civil word out of him, I consider it a fortunate day."
I smiled at her reassuringly. "He has a lot on his mind. Don't concern yourself with it." I wondered if there was any difference to Holmes in this lady to the one who had been so tried by her tenant for so many years.
But if he were indifferent to our neighbours, he was not so to me. He had an uncanny way of knowing exactly when I would arrive home. He would be there in our front room with a whisky waiting and a fire lit if there was any sort of chill at all, already familiar with how the cold would affect my bad leg. I was typically ravenous and we would eat the warmed over food, which nevertheless tasted delicious to me. I enjoyed the Scotch broth, Cullen skink and rumbledethumps that I grew up with. My friend would eat as well, with no joy, but with an effort I appreciated. The dark circles of the previous summer had left his eyes. His bare chest was no longer sunken. His breath did not rattle in his throat.
We took our drinks to the fire after eating. The evenings were spent in complete relaxation. Stiff limbs were held out to the heat, glasses lazily refilled, conversation light and easy. There was chess. We sometimes played Holmes' gramophone, a device he updated with the improved technology on an almost yearly basis, so fond of having music readily available to him was he. His collection of discs had to be one of the most extensive in the country. He would also occasionally play his violin for me, but I typically had to request him to do so. More often than not, I would read the evening paper aloud as he stretched out beside me, but if the news was too distressing we would turn to other media. Holmes was fond of having poetry read aloud to him. "You are a man of hidden talents," he told me after one fine evening devoted to Housman's A Shropshire Lad. "The John Bright5 of poetry. I can feel the quiver of every leaf as the words roll off your tongue."
I was prepared to chastise him for the jibe, but his tone of voice and pensive expression told me he was serious. I shrugged off my embarrassment. "I should think the author deserves the majority of the praise. His words are so full of emotion, of sadness and hopelessness. Yet there is a desperation for life. A sort of...thankfulness." I paused. "It is hard to not compare everything to this bloody war, I suppose. Anyway, reading it is one thing. I could certainly never write such a thing."
"Never say never, my friend. We are all capable of far more than we dare to dream of." He smiled languidly at me, hands folded behind his head, his bearing one of complete relaxation. He spoke as if he knew all the secrets of the universe, as if he were a messenger of a higher being. But it was not the condescension of the younger man he had been. He had evolved into something else—something perhaps harder to understand then the arrogant, disaffected genius my readers know him best as. I get a certain amount of satisfaction that I alone knew the struggles he overcame to become this better man.
Those were good days for us, in keeping with the situation, and the one regret I have is that we discovered finishing the barn was a bit beyond two men in their declining years. I couldn't help but feel a pang of regret every time I passed the roofless, skeleton-like building. We had enough of the stalls finished to keep the horses dry, but the rest of the stable was still in pieces, scattered like wooden corpses in our fields. I didn't fully understand why the need to finish it was so strong. I just knew that it was important.
In April of'15, Holmes and I went to London for the benefit concert. It was a gorgeous spring morning, the air smelling of the rich soil I had just sowed the first of many vegetable gardens in. In a few months, I hoped to have a nice crop of carrots, onions and beetroot, among other things. We took the train, as I didn't want to drive such a distance, and Holmes had used his numerous connexions to get us two rooms at the Goring Hotel, then only a few years old.6 We left our evening clothes in the rooms and walked out into the city we had known intimately for so many years. I had wondered if our absence would still elicit the same feelings in us, and all it took was for my friend to suggest lunch at Simpson's for me to realise that, no, they had not changed. I smiled at him as we rambled leisurely toward the Strand in a path that would take us directly down Baker Street. To see tidy houses and busy shops little changed, even in this new world of soldiers, protestors, curfews and censorship warmed me greatly with nostalgia.
That day was a feast for the senses. Not just seeing my old home, but a hundred other things—the roses in Regent's park, the cobbled streets under my boots, the beef roasted to perfection, the teams of people rushing past in the Strand, Holmes laughing over a glass of wine. "The last time we were here," I had said over dinner, "was during that incident with the blackguard Baron Gruner."
"Ah, and a delusional German plays a part in our being here now as well."
I thought about this. "Well, the Kaiser IS German, but I believe Gruner was Austrian."
That was when he laughed.
And the concert. The concert was the best I have ever been too. A man that had personally witnessed the genius of Naruda, Sarasate and Nellie Melba, amongst others, and it all paled in comparison to the amateurs we heard playing with complete hearts and souls that warm spring night. The advertisements had stressed the new symphony specifically written for the occasion but it was the unmentioned choir that stole the show and left an impression on my heart not soon forgotten. They began the night by coming onstage after Her Majesty's heart-felt speech for support for both our own boys serving as well as the many unfortunate Belgians we had taken under our wings. These young lads were about a dozen in number, probably ranging in age from eight to fifteen or so, and they first sang Rule, Britannia, alone at first and then again, inviting the crowd to join them, which we did with gusto. Later they sang Keep the Home-Fires Burning and It's a Long Way to Tipperary, much the delight of the audience. When the show closed with the lads doing Abide with Me and the hymn Jerusalem there was hardly a dry-eye in the house. I felt Holmes' hand briefly squeeze my own as the final lines Till we have built Jerusalem, in England's green and pleasant land were sung in those sweet, innocent voices. The lights were dimmed but not dark, thankfully, for I was barely able to suppress the urge to pull him to me. Certainly I could see many a husband and wife around us doing just that. Anyone who had a son fighting was completely affected by what we had just witnessed. My friend could not embrace me, kiss me or show any other sign of comfort as the rest of our countrymen were free to do just then, but I appreciated that hand in my own right then more than anything in the world.
I only mention this incident, and indeed these two warm spring days a few weeks before I entered my 60th year in this life7, for one reason— the opportunity to express to you, the reader, that there was again happiness in my life. Like Sherlock Holmes, I was a man who had craved adventure in his younger years, a hunger that had only dimmed slightly. However, what I desired all the more were those poignant moments of satiation that had been denied me for so long. Those fleeting moments of pure joy like the sound of children, alive and unsoiled, singing hymns of hope and feeling that a person's companion completely understands. These are things of beauty that I must commit to paper, though the day itself would not seem to be particularly auspicious, simply because I do not wish the memory of it to be lost forever when I at last die.
I expected that we would leave the next morning, and over breakfast I asked Holmes what time our train departed. "Are you in a hurry to do so?" He asked, pouring me more coffee.
"Not particularly, no...but do we not need to get back?"
"Ah, Watson! That is the singular thing of being men of independent means and advanced years. You are free to do as you wish and no-one expects very much from you. Your soldiers will have to do without you for the day and my books and bees without me. I hope that is satisfactory?"
"Completely and whole-heartedly so." I smiled over the brim of my cup.
We did everything that day. Yet, strangely, it was the things that we rarely did together when we lived in London. We remembered my son as we went to the British Museum. It was perhaps his favourite spot in the world and he would have loved the new buildings that had just opened the last year. But it was amongst the familiar artefacts—the Rosetta Stone, the Lewis Chessman or the Burges' armoury that I saw his wide-eyes and gapped-tooth grin following us. He stayed at our sides as we fed the pigeons at Trafalgar Square and then argued in our limited scopes the merits of the Old Dutch Masters and recent acquisition of a large number of Italian Renaissance works at the National Gallery. Holmes's tastes were too French when it came to art, but given it was in his blood-line, I could hardly fault him. But I have to admit, I was enthralled by the four battle scenes Vernet had done of the Napoleonic Wars. They were so very real. Josh, who had little interest in art, would have agreed with me.
We took a cab into the Wolbrook area, where St Stephen's Church guarded Mary's grave. I cleared away the dead leaves and left fresh violets. The memory of my son standing there, a young man weeping for his mother, hit me hard. But I refused to let it linger. This was not a day for tears or regrets. "I won't ever let you stand alone again," I whispered to the ghost.
We walked that day through boroughs of London that I hadn't thought about in a decade. So long as there was warmth in the sky and strength in my leg, we kept on. Bart's Hospital, Regent's Park, Covent Gardens, the little bookshop down the street from our old flat. Even my favourite tobacconist on Oxford Street.
We ate dinner at the Criterion, my choice and a queer one, I admit it when there was Romanos, Simpsons and the Ritz in the near vicinity. But I strongly suspected I would not be in that wondrous city for some time, perhaps ever again, and the place it all began seemed the most appropriate to end it. We had a simple carvery with watered-down beer after which Holmes telephoned to have our bags sent to the train station. We left London, a bit sore and tired, but glad to be going home. The day could have ended there and it would have been one I would not soon forget. But it did not.
I noticed something unusual almost immediately. A change in the landscape that cried out even in the dark. I stared in amazement, afraid to take my eyes off it. So entranced was I that I kept the Ford going past where the road ended. Holmes sucked in a noisy intake of breath but I didn't release my foot from the accelerator until we had driven over 50 yards of dead, rutted ground and banged to a stop next to the barn. The barn that shown in the night like a lighthouse beacon.
"How..." I stumbled and had to compose myself. "How did you do this? How'd you finish it?"
He smiled, clearly pleased. "Happy Birthday, my friend."
"It's not my birthday...not for three weeks."
"It is as they say. The early bird," he caught my eye, "catcheth the worm."
It is ridiculous for an old man to respond to innuendo, so rather than castigate him, I opened the heavy door and walked in. The smell of fresh wood and musty hay stung at me immediately. It was not an unpleasant smell. Carlo and Rose whinnied contentedly in their stalls as I slapped them on their flanks. I was agog at how perfect it all looked: the tack room with the saddles pegged to the wall, the feed room piled with sacks of oats and grain, the steps leading up to the hayloft...
"This wasn't in our design," I protested, following it up with my eyes.
"Change is for the better."
The loft spiralled around the stalls so that the hay could be easily stored around the edge and pushed over. But rather than it being accessed with a simple ladder, my friend had narrow set of stairs installed, complete with handrail. I had realised when we were planning the design, that ladders would have been difficult for me, but neither of us had ever considered steps. I navigated them much easier than I would have ever considered. At the top, there were a great many bundles of hay blocking the view from below, but he had conveniently left room for a man to fit through. There was a good deal of hay spelt on the shelf, a sort of bed in the gable of the wall, just by the hay loft door. I blinked at it a few times.
"I told you not to lose heart. We would find a way."
Holmes knelt in the corner and withdrew several blankets from behind a bale. I was dumbfounded watching him. "I hardly know what to say." I said softly. "You never cease to amaze me."
He motioned me next to him and I lowered myself, weary of the exertions of the day. It had been wonderful. "Keep in mind it will often be too cold. At least to—to stay the entire night. But it is completely private and no-one shall ever know about it save you, me and the five Flemish refugees I paid to build it." He chuckled. "And they speak no English."
I arranged a blanket under my sore leg and relaxed into the straw. It was quite comfortable. "I knew you would find a solution. You always do."
"Not always. You were always too generous in your descriptions of my capabilities."
I glanced at him. "Was it not you who recently told me we are capable of far more than we dare to dream?"
He closed his eyes and leant against me. "Now that does not sound like me at all, doctor."
The biscuits and the cake were Heaven, pure Heaven. God, I hadn't had a proper tripe in decades it felt like and I had to fight the blokes off the jam and honey. Send anything else you can, anything here can be put to use. Desperate need for paper, ink, stamps. I've lost about one stone, six, I think. I try not to think about what I've seen and I know I'm lucky, at least I'm not being shot at. These poor lads can't say that, the lot of them and often all we can do is give them morphine tablets and try to saw off parts they can live without. If I'm rambling, forgive me, I don't think I've slept since March.
Send more socks, if you can. You wouldn't believe the shape of the feet of these lads. I couldn't describe it without being sick. We're running short of some things. Clarkson (the MD) says we'll have supplies any day. He's been saying that since summer started. We don't hear a lot that is happening, just what the men tell us, and it seems more and more all they know is a filthy trench, and rats, and gas and lice. The uniforms are often so infested that we can't get them off. I've seen every manner of creature fall off a fellow—the smell will haunt me for all of my days, I think. Not much news. We only hear, 'things are going well, sure to be over soon.' I've already decided that the first thing to do is murder a steak and kidney pie. And a treacle. And a bottle of Glynefedic. And coffee! God, real coffee that doesn't taste of gunmetal. And a lemon cake. And a pork pie. And...
It's my birthday today.
I never properly answered your first letter. I know. I have it with me. I feel I cannot properly answer it at this time. But when I am home the words will surely come to me. I wish I could speak to you in person.
If I asked you not to show this to Papa, would you? You would, I suppose, but I guess it is unfair that I should ask. I will, though, unless something were to happen to me. I don't guess that is bloody likely. Unless I die of exhaustion. Or hatred.
I've never hated anything so much as this fucking hospital. God, I've said it and I know that it is wrong but I had to. Forgive me for that. My nerves are more threadbare than a poor man's coat. I sleep about three hours most nights. I eat little other than what Papa sends. I get a wash about once a week, if I'm lucky. I really can't smell the filth anymore. All day, every day is blood and limbs and rot and disease and holes and men crying and screaming and dying.
When I first started, I kept a log of their names. The ones I saved and the ones I didn't. But I had to stop after that offensive in Belgium, the one near that little town with the funny name8, I can't for the life of me recall what it is. I worked for 53 hours straight sometime then, I think it was May but it could have been April or June. Time doesn't mean much. I would have kept going, too, but I passed out. Clarkson called me a 'lightweight little prat,' I hear. He's said worse.
It's Christmas in a few days. Last summer we were all convinced we would be home by now. We have to hold on to that hope. Surely we have to be at the end. How much longer can this go?
I miss you and Dad and Martie. I miss you so much that I want to sob even though I know it makes me pathetic. I hope I don't embarrass you if I tell you that. Dad already thinks I'm weak, I know. I probably am. Only a git would whine like this to you, after all you've done for me. God, I hope you aren't embarrassed to count me as your Godson. I'm ashamed of myself most of the time. If I were a stronger man I would tell you that all this doesn't bother me. That it never did, that it never will. But it does. It really does.
So now I'm going to be a complete arse and say that I love you. Thank you for putting up with me when I was a snivelling little shit hanging on your coattails. I really do wish I could have turned out like you. But maybe it is better I didn't.
John Sherlock Watson
It was not a cold day, as one would think. It wasn't snowing, raining, nor any of the other signs of foreboding that one associates with tragedy. It was a mild day for February. I had been in the barn looking over my seeds for the following spring and sharpening some tools. I was in a wonderful mood. Holmes had been playing Vivaldi on the gramophone that last evening, and his Spring allegro was stuck in my head. Humming it, I had plans for tea and a quiet evening at home. Tomorrow I would go into Fulworth, but today I would share a nice bowl of stew and finish discussing Hamlet with my friend. We had been reading it aloud to one another. He was fascinated by the drama.
I saw the delivery boy coming over the hill on his bicycle. I watched him as he drew nearer and nerarer, the wheels slowly spinning over the uneven ground. I watched his dark green cap bob up and down, his ruddy face and ginger hair coming clearer and clearer. It had been a few months since I'd had a letter from my son, but that did not mean anything. He was safe. Holmes had assured me he was safe. He was in a hospital, not a trench.
The boy dismounted and pushed his machine the last few yards. He wore fingerless gloves. The telegram was clutched in one dirty hand. I watched as that hand swung at his side, closer, closer until it thrust it in my direction. He tipped his hat slightly, as if he knew. He licked at his scabby lips in sympathy.
I took it. I managed to tell him no reply and he nodded and left. He left with a great deal of speed, the bicycle hardly able to keep up. I waited until he was out of sight before my bad leg gave out and I fell to the ground, yelling as loud as I could for Sherlock Holmes.
1 A symptom of trench foot
2 Blighty was a very common word for England, or rather, to return home to England from the war
3 Avoidance slang for death. It was (probably still is) considered superstitious in the military to say the word 'die' or 'death'
4 The foremost cavalry regiment in Indian—founded by James Skinner in 1803.
5 Generally considered one of the best Parliamentary orators of his generation
6 The first hotel in the world in which every room had a private bathroom and central heating.
7 Again, playing with their ages a bit, ACD would have W about 63 or 64 in 1915, Holmes about two or three years younger