The Case of the Victoria Sandwich
I returned home early from my rounds one cold bleak November day, to find that Sherlock Holmes had gone out. I was somewhat surprised, as when I left, he had been wrapped up in one of his contemplative moods, the Persian slipper of tobacco at the arm of his chair and buried beneath his blanket, metaphorically and physically fortified from the world. In such a humour, I would not have expected him to move from his place at the fireside. Perhaps he had a case?
I sat in my chair, rather disappointed by the lack of company, if truth be told. I had had to endure a rather scathing attack upon my aptitude and morality by a patient whose numerous ailments were certainly more cranial than caudal, and she had not appreciated my finally favouring her with my true opinion. My shoulders are broad, but, like many hypochondriacs, she was deeply manipulative. She had hissed at me;
"I expect those are the kind of accusations to made to your wife, are they not, Doctor Watson?"
I had stared at her, deeply hurt despite myself, for some seconds, then had quietly risen to my feet and managed to retire with dignity intact. It had left me with a sour taste in my mouth, however, as well as dragging back those awful memories of my Mary dying of childbed fever, and I wished for somebody companionable to talk to.
Even Mrs Hudson was out of the house, I thought, miserably, and it was horrible weather to go to my club.... here my thoughts trailed off, as I realised that I had heard clattering around in the kitchen on my way in. For a moment, I was alarmed, but then I also remembered that Holmes' overcoat and hat had been hanging at the foot of the stairs. He had not gone out, then. What was he doing in the kitchen, if it was indeed him?
Warily aware that he could have left the house in a disguise, and left his coat behind, I descended the stairs quietly. I was able to relax my tread when I heard Holmes' familiar baritone carolling to himself in the kitchen. I pushed open the kitchen door, and stopped in astonishment. He was wearing an old towel around his waist to protect his trousers, and stood weighing out ingredients in his shirt sleeves. He looked up at my entrance, with a sheepish look and a smudge of flour upon his face.
"You have caught me, Doctor."
"What on Earth are you doing, Holmes?" I asked, amused.
"I am baking a cake."
"I beg your pardon? I thought I heard you say you were baking a cake."
"That's right. A Victoria Sandwich, to be precise."
He was speaking with innocent nonchalance, as if there was nothing whatsoever extraordinary about this behaviour, but I thought I could detect a faint twinkle in his grey eyes.
"Is this domesticity pertinent to a case? Perhaps the timing of a murder is dependent on how far a sponge will rise, or the oozing of the jam, or its behaviour when a particular poison is added?" I deadpanned in kind.
Holmes laughed now.
"It would be a splendid excuse, would it not? Unfortunately, nothing so practical; this cake will be entirely edible, I hope. I must confess to a little embarrassment; it really does not do for England's foremost Consulting Detective to be caught red handed indulging in bakery!"
"I have caught you at far worse things, Holmes. Why this sudden transformation into Mr Baker of Baker Street?" I pulled up a stool as I spoke, settling to watch Holmes at his work.
Holmes grinned, as he sieved flour into a bowl.
"There, exactly four ounces. I hate to shatter your image of me, Watson, but it is not a sudden transformation. I quite frequently indulge. Remember the superb chocolate cake 'Mrs Hudson' created on your birthday, about which you rhapsodised so eloquently? That was a Sherlock Holmes creation. One of the few moments where I could actually be accused of being thoughtful, but I plead the excuse that I was bored."
"Good Lord! Holmes, I have long suspected you are a dark horse, but this surpasses everything. And I take it Mrs Hudson is aware of your little fetish?"
"She is complicit. She may even be said to encourage me; she has provided me with some of my best recipes, with a dark mutter that it keeps me out of mischief. For some reason, she seems to prefer my habits of baking to those of malodorous chemical experiments or my ballistic decoration of her wall."
"Mm, there is no fathoming some people. So from where does this urge for culinary expression stem - and how long have you been sneaking about baking behind my back?"
"Mainly since the unfortunate affair where I earned that well-deserved flail chest and other unmentionably humiliating injury, and made the decision to give up the cocaine."
"Years, then, and me never guessing – well strike me, Guv'nor!"
"Quite. There was one day during my recovery when you had gone back to work and Mrs Hudson had gone to her sister's. The boredom was exacerbating the dysphoria from the cocaine withdrawal, and I also found myself suddenly overwhelming ravenous – another symptom of withdrawal, I believe. I was craving both cocaine and sugar, and knew which white powder was likely to be least damaging, so I headed for the kitchen.
"However, it suddenly dawned on me that I was eating sugar straight from the jar with a spoon, and I decided this was beneath my dignity. I made a very creditable apple sponge on that occasion. Mrs Hudson caught me removing it from the oven, and was cut off mid-scold when she realised that I had neither exploded her kitchen nor caused fumigation to be necessary. For some reason, it struck her as hilarious – she laughed so much, she had to sit down. She recovered sufficiently to make a pot of tea, and we shared the apple cake together in the kitchen.
"Rather good it was too" he finished, reflectively.
I too was laughing by this time. "Where on earth did you learn how to do it, Holmes? And why continue? I would not have described you as having a sweet tooth."
"It is not so very different to abstruse chemical experiments, cookery. It requires precision, technique, a knowledge of how the different ingredients interact – you try mixing your eggs in too rapidly to the creamed mixture, and.... drat it, man, must you giggle like a schoolboy! It's bad enough that you should have caught me in this ignominious position, with a makeshift pinafore, with flour up to my elbows..."
"...and on your nose..."
"...and on my nose, without you making a meal of it!"
"Or just deserts."
"Your punning grows worse as you age. It must be a sign of impending premature senility. Am I to be allowed to continue explaining myself?"
"Do, please, continue Holmes" said I, wiping my eyes on my handkerchief.
"Well, then. Not only does making a good cake take a measure of expertise, I find it highly therapeutic. It is not often I actually make something, beyond an intolerable miasma. It requires just the right degree of concentration to stave off boredom, whilst still allowing enough space in the brain's immediate living area to cogitate. I think it has provided you with some enjoyment in the past as well, and the Irregulars frequently benefit.
"Mind you, I think perhaps the cookery is deeper rooted in me than my adult forays.
"There have only been a handful of women in my life whose company I can tolerate with equanimity. One was Mrs Marks, our cook when I was a small child. I would find my way to the kitchen and toddle around her feet as soon as I was able to walk, and be rewarded with a glazed cherry or piece of candied peel. You call me an unfeeling machine Watson, but I am quite convinced my heart was entirely given over to her at the time – I adored her!"
I was touched. It was very rare that Holmes indulged in reminiscences of his childhood, particularly memories of such gentle whimsy, and spoken with such unaccustomed openness. This habit of his seemed to have relaxed him as fully as anything could.
"She must have been a paragon, Holmes."
"Oh, she was! Great, round, laughing woman, as fat and jolly as Bacchus."
"Spoken like the true romantic."
"Do not mock my first love, Watson" he chastened, wagging his mixing spoon at me. "Some of the happiest hours of my early life were spent in that kitchen. I would 'help' her with the baking, and there would somehow always be some treat left for me at the end. My squashed offerings would adorn the servant's tables; my mother would never deign to go near them. I was not really supposed to mix with the lower orders, you see, but that only added spice to the pudding – more cooking metaphors for you there."
He had now finished folding the flour into his mixture, and began spooning it out into round, greased baking trays.
"Ensure even distribution...like so...between the two tins. Now, thirty minutes in a hot oven should be ample." Sherlock Holmes placed his tins in the oven as carefully as he might handle a vital piece of evidence. He then straightened up, and dusted his hands off upon his towel-apron, sending a shower of flour onto the floor as he did so (I began to wonder if Holmes' kitchen visits were as devoid of menace to Mrs Hudson as he imagined them to be). He then turned his attention to me, his head to one side, bird-like.
"Now, Watson. What has that vile woman with her list of imaginary complaints said to upset you?"
I jumped. Occasionally, Holmes' forays into mind-reading still had the power to startle me.
"How did you know that?"
"Oh, tut tut, my dear fellow. It was simplicity in itself. I would not have engaged in my guilty pleasure if I were expecting you back sooner. You are summoned from the house in a most urgent manner, for a complex litany of pathology, which would usually mean you were absent for at least two or three hours. I did not hear the patient's name, but when you set out on foot and return within the hour, with mud upon your shoes which could only have come from the excavations in the Edgeware Road, the deduction is an obvious one.
You have frequently and bitterly bemoaned the behaviour of Mrs Doherty, and when I catch sight of the expressions passing across your expressive countenance, which include anger and hurt, I draw the obvious conclusions. Do you wish to discuss it?"
I sighed. "She is just a rather pathetic middle aged woman, without enough to occupy her - I took away her main accomplishment, and she lashed out. I should know better at my stage of my career. Her reply was rather unwarranted, though, and I will admit it upset me a little. A jibe about my arrogance and lack of competence causing Mary's death. With this weather, it's easy to dwell on these things, and such comments do tend to bring the memories a little painfully to the surface. It will pass."
A look of angry indignation crossed Holmes' face, then subsided into one of sympathy. He laid his hand briefly on my shoulder, and gave it a small squeeze. As ever, his concern was manifest more through his actions than his words, and immediately I felt better. As I smiled gratefully at him, a reciprocal grin crossed his features, and he grabbed the mixing bowl and a spoon, thrusting both at me.
"I bet this is a remedy for gloom that you have not encountered since you were in short trousers!" he exclaimed. "Mrs Marks always used to allow me to lick out the bowl, and I have never known anything so cheering!"
I let out a shout of laughter in protest, but Holmes is always difficult to resist, and I suddenly found myself in the ridiculous position of guzzling raw cake mix, huddled over the bowl, and enjoying it thoroughly. When Mrs Hudson returned and discovered two grown men in this attitude (I had persuaded Holmes to join me) she left the room shaking her head, and the cure was complete.
The Victoria Sandwich, finished with Mrs Hudson's damson jam, was exemplary.
That's it! It's not my usual style, but the idea came to me when I was attempting to bake a cake and formulate a Sherlock Holmes plot at the same time. (My cake didn't rise. I'm sure Holmes would tell me it was my technique with the eggs). I would love you to read and review, if you didn't think it was too overwhelmingly silly!
If anyone's interested, the story where Holmes "earned that well-deserved flail chest and other unmentionably humiliating injury, and made the decision to give up the cocaine" is in my stories – The Pugilist, The Detective and the Doctor. Sorry for the blatant plugging!