Watson's hand is tucked securely into the crook of my arm. Nothing unusual about that. We might be taking the air at Regent's Park; we might be casually strolling to the tobacconist on Baker Street or the newspaper shop. We might be trudging to an imminent departure at the falls of Reichenbach. We might be anywhere in the world. But we would not be so at ease if we were not in Paris. For Watson, Afghanistan was his catalyst. I added the chemical reactant when first we met in London. But Paris was the yield1.
He is limping—almost imperceptive, but I notice. Four months previous a Killer called Evans came within a bullet's length of his femoral artery. This act would have instantaneously linked his title to what I myself would have become. A killer. As it were, the butt of my revolver cracked his thick skull.
"You're alright?" I ask him.
My brain instantly analyses his tone for signs of deception. It is a habit I cannot force out of my genes, try as I might for the doctor's sake. I still have much to learn of the ways a lover should behave. He has no reason for falsehoods. Neither of us has anymore.
We are on L'Avenue de la République, several kilometres south of the heart of Paris. We are nearing Le cimetiére de Bagneux. Both he and I know why we're on the continent and there is little to say. Little either of us can do to lighten the mood. But in a sea of reds, a river of violets, and an ocean of yellows and greens, Watson and I wear black for a reason.
"A cup of coffee?"
"Coffee." I point toward four white umbrellas scattered around a chalkboard sign advertising soup de jours, various wines and pastries. "Perhaps a cup before we…" I purposively let my thought trial off.
"Oh, yes. Indeed."
The waiter, a blond moustached expatriate with a clubfoot, nods obsequiously as I order café au lait for us both and watch as Watson stretches out his right leg under the table. He rubs at the thigh, kneading the muscle with his fingers. I make a mental notation to force him to get a complete check-up when we return to London. Although he is far more disposed about matters of his own health than I. He may tell me that I am worrying about nothing. But I have visions of thrombosis dancing in my head, spreading to his lung or heart, killing him as he lay next to me. Death means very little before one has anything to lose. It means everything when one does.
"You are sure you are alright?" He dislikes having questions repeated but I do it anyway.
"I said I was fine, Holmes."
"Yes. I know what you said,Watson." I light us both a cigarette.
His glare disappears and he smiles, shaking his head. He puts the cigarette in his mouth and we both puff wordlessly. More than twenty years and we still call each other by our surnames. This is unlikely to change. Five years he has shared my bed, the deepest sin and secret of our lives, yet I never could call him John. He will always be Watson.
The expatriate (he was a Brummy2, I was nearly certain, although because he was speaking French it was impossible to ascertainthe accent exactly) brings us our cups of liquid encouragement. The taste in hot, strong. Frothy. My head clears as it scalds its way down my throat. Only in France could one get such a cup. I have not had one since Paris with Oscar five years previous.
We had hoped to make a holiday of it. No, correction. Watson hoped to make a holiday of it. The Louvre. The Eiffel Tower. Lord knows what other hovels he hoped to drag me to, pointing and 'oohing' like some slack-jawed tourist. A holiday is something I enjoy as much as having a tooth pulled. I fail to fathom how a supine body by the sea, sand stinging one's corneas, the brain turning to mush is supposed to be enjoyable. I prefer my mind active. To look always to the future and the promises that lie within it. Perhaps that is why I dread being here. It forces me to remember the past.
Watson sits across the unstable metal table looking perfectly contented. It was he who suggested this trip, but I know it cannot hold the same meaning for him as for me. He didn't really know the man. He sips the café au lait and a bit of foam sticks to his moustache. But I say nothing.
I look up.
"We don't have to stay."
I'm staring at him now, thinking.
"I mean, after we go to the cemetery to pay our respects. I know you don't want to remain in Paris. We can go straight away back home. I don't mind in the least."
His eye catches mine. The Anglo culture has a taboo against looking one in the eye. We are taught that this is invasive and bombastic. But Watson allows me the liberty. I see no deception. I never do. And against my better judgment, I am reminded why I love him.
Bagneux Cemetery finds itself sealed off from the living by a large concrete wall, and is accessible only through a metal gate. Why the dead are required to be sequestered from the living is beyond me. Do they need privacy, prey?
A vulgar-looking row of evergreen shrubs lines the cement walkway. They are planted along a geometric plane of two by two. The grave sites themselves seem to be six by six by six, or thereabouts, a grid-like pattern or marble angels and crucifixes, each with weeping bouquets of white lilies or red roses placed in the most central area within the grid.
The artificiality of such a design gives me an uncharacteristic flash of anger. Death itself I have no issue with—I have certainly seen my share and understand the necessity of reciprocating ones place on Earth to another—but why as humans did we have to turn death into some sort of staged act? The length of grief was dependant on the degree of relation (a year for a spouse; six months for a sibling), the little social niceties required by one to spout (he is in a better place; he is no longer suffering; it was his time, etc), and then on a day that will inevitably rain, a pack of black-shrouded hypocrites (who would clearly wish to be anywhere else) gather to throw dead flowers at the corpse and hope for nothing more than to gather with the solicitor and see what the will has left them.
"We are a savage race, Watson," I mumble as we trudge down row after row, pass cross after cross.
He pats my forearm, but it is not a condescending 'there, there' sort of condolence. He is strictly understanding. I never imagined in my past or expect to in my future, have a one who knows me as this man does. He appreciates my moods and is familiar with my idiosyncrasies.
Yet still, he remains with me.
"It's a pitiful grave," the doctor says, and he is right. The grave is not a cross3, (horror of horrors—Ross had said he died a Catholic) and simply states his name and two dates. But I know this to be for the best. Imagine a gaudy display of sunflowers, peacock feathers and Greek statuary—perhaps this would be how Wilde imagined his shrine, but if he was ever to have forgiveness than unobtrusive, unadorned granite lost in a sea of freshly cut grass and manicured walk-ways is the best end to the means.
"Ross blamed himself, you know," I say, though with little context.
"For Wilde's death? How absurd."
"No, for introducing him to an introvert's lifestyle."
Watson grimaces and straightens his soldier's spine. He finds the word distasteful. I must admit I am not overly fond of it myself. "And who do you blame in your case?"
As if anyone would dare attach such a stigma to my name! "Why, you of course, my dear Watson."
"Indeed I do. If not for you, I would have remained my old respectful self." I pause. "Well and Wilde, of course."
"Hmm…and I would not be a blot of shame on the registry of the Fifth Northumbrian Fusiliers."
Part of him is serious. He worries more than he should that I cannot protect him. His honour and reputation mean more to him than mine ever could to me. But inwardly he knows I would direct all my powers to eliminating anyone who is a threat to us. That is why he smiles as he says it.
I have never been personally affected by death. This is not to say that I have never experienced it, but because I have never had more than a distant affinity for anyone who has died. My mother was self-absorbed and disinterested in her children; my father was practically a stranger. My brother and I overcame similar brutalities but we may as well have lived on different planets. My companions as a youth were a series of varied quality governesses and nurses—hired and dismissed at the whim of my mother. When I was old enough to be shipped to school, I was universally labelled as an odd, queer-sort of outcast. Too intelligent, too indifferent to the lads of my own age and station.
In fact, I never really had any sort of companion until I was well into my teenage-years—and then at University. Reginald Musgrave and I shared some similarities (namely friendlessness and misanthropy) and in Victor Trevor I now realise I had discovered some pre-Watsonian qualifications. He was a sympathetic, helpful sort of fellow. But he lacked the intensity and loyalty to have ever been anything more than a slightly interesting acquaintance.
It is not as though I haven't realised Watson would some day depart this life. But like the proverbial elephant in the room, I never broached the subject until it nearly occurred. A chunk of lead an inch to the right and a spewing artery could have taken my only friend from me.
And then what? I would be alone, as Oscar was.
My hands, clad in tan kidskin, are empty. A queer notion, I admit, but staring at the two dates: October 16, 1854—November 30, 1900, causes me to realise how much of our empty lives come down to those two dates. On my own tomb some year in the future there would be two such dates. One, of the same year as Wilde, I would have no memory of. The second I couldn't say much for as it has yet to occur. Mercifully, it may be a quick death, but it was just as likely to not be. Mercifully, Watson may go after me. But he was just as likely not to.
Perhaps I should have bought along some token, I think. A bouquet of daisies, perhaps? Some painted china? The mere thought makes me smirk in disgust. To imagine Watson and I lugging some garish wreath of posies through Montrue4, ensnaring the stares of brightly coloured Frenchmen and their even more brightly-clad ladies. With a heavy sigh, I shove my hands into the pockets of my mackintosh. There is a burning need for tobacco. And a need for Wilde to still be alive. And a need to not need at all.
"I held my gun to him," says Watson suddenly. "Five years ago, I was prepared to do murder. And now I am mourning at his grave."
He is wearing a red-knitted scarf. I had forgotten that. I purchased it for a few shillings the first Christmas we shared at Baker Street. I suppose I had felt obliged to participate in yuletide festivities with my flatmate, but would not be put out about a present. What he had given me that year? Oh, yes, a plum cake bought at some second-rate bakery. I had passed it along to my Irregulars, always eager for any sort of nourishing cast-off. The doctor and I obviously knew each other not so well then.
Yet still, twenty years later, he is wearing this fraying piece of yarn that looks atrocious with his new overcoat. I consider for a moment buying him a new one. Something fine—silk or cambric—dove grey or perhaps cream. But I know I won't. We do not buy each other gifts, save for Christmas and our birthdays. The idea of purchasing Watson a…love tokenis as ludicrous as the scheme that forced he and I to no longer remain silent about each other. Or as grotesque as that scarf.
He presses his hand to my shoulder. I feel my throat clogging in the back and instantly I must fight for control, although truly I know not if it is for Wilde or for Watson. A thousand may fall at his side, ten thousand at his right side but death will not come nigh him.5 I will not allow it. I could not save one, but be damned if I will allow this man to suffer the same fate!
"Perhaps we should return to our room?" Watson speaks softly into my ear. I nod. We've taken a nice suite at a rather new hotel called Ritz6. I saw no reason not to travel as two gentlemen of means. I'd rather not see another cheap, mould-infested Parisian hotel room,he had told me before we left. I agree. Oscar deserved better. As does Watson. We will suffer no more than society says we must and even then we will do so in silk bed-linens and complimentary champagne.
"Come on, Holmes." His hand is still on my arm. He won't let go.
From my pocket, I pull out my silver cigarette case. I suppose I spoke something of a falsehood when I say we never gave each other an un-occasioned gift. For once when I thought I would certainly meet my death, I placed this item of remembrance on the side of a waterfall. Later, he would have my initials engraved into it out of preservation of my memory. For five years now it has rarely left my possession. I like to think of it as a reminder to never be overtly self-righteous. Mistaking Watson was the biggest mis-judgment of my life. One that shall never be repeated.
"Holmes," Watson says. His voice is comforting. "We should go. It's time for lunch."
I place the cigarette case against Wilde's marker, my initials facing away from the stone. This is the third time I have given it away—once out of comradeship, the next out of frustration.
"This is not yourfault either." Watson frowns as if he has hit upon a realisation.
This time, presumably the last, I give it out of acceptance. Perhaps gratitude as well. I take the doctor's arm and allow him to lead me toward the metal gate.
I was right, of course.
1 The amount of product obtained in a chemical reaction. Another words, the result of an experiment.
2 As in from Birmingham
3 Should be noted that Wilde was buried in this cemetery before being moved to the much more familiar grave in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in 1909.
4 The district of Paris where this cemetery is.
5 A somewhat accurate rephrasing of the 91st Psalm.
6 The Ritz Paris is now generally considered theluxury hotel, but it had only been open about 4 years at this point.