221D, or THE VOCAL VIOLIN
Part 1 - Heat
Heat waves are worse in the city. The air is thick as heat reflects off walls and cobblestones, touching you like something alive – an animal with damp, dirty fur. Things rust and rot and stink, doors creak on their hinges and windows are stuck, and people snap for no other reason than that they're sweating.
It's the second week of relentless, humid heat, and for the past five days Holmes has been pacing. And playing.
Mrs Hudson is visiting her niece on the coast and I envy them the sea breeze, but this is where I must be, stuck like the sitting-room window. The violin is screeching tonight. Occasionally the bow bounds across the strings in small, harsh, staccato-like skips, like a scornful laugh. It's tearing at my nerves. I don't mind Holmes playing; on the contrary. I frequently stand outside his closed door holding my breath while he plays – but then he plays. Tonight he's making noise.
He is a skilled performer, and if his technique is not absolutely polished and perfected, he more than compensates for it with his breathtaking ability to make the instrument convey mood, atmosphere, emotion. He can make it laugh, or wail, or hiss and scream like a frightened animal. Whatever he feels and wishes, the violin will sing to the listener. Right now I'm not sure its voice reflects anything more complex than impatience with the heat.
The screeching stops and Holmes resumes pacing. I retreat to my room.
It's late in the evening and the sash window is open behind the curtains. I take off my clothes and lie naked on the bed, only partly covered by a sheet. The humid air clings to the skin; the violin sings. I breathe and listen. Yes, it's singing now, its voice simultaneously rough and plaintive, speaking of abstinence and need. A rapid, muddy river hurrying to the sea.
This is what Holmes is doing: playing his boredom away. Nothing happens in this heat, nothing sophisticated enough to require his services. It's too hot for anyone to think up clever plots. What there is is domestic violence, axe murders and shootings at close range, nothing to challenge a mind of Holmes' calibre.
When there's nothing to do, he's bored, and when he's bored he usually reaches for the syringe in the morocco case. But now this source of relief is out of bounds – he doesn't want what the cocaine does to his system, he only wants the effect. Hence the constantly vocal violin.
It sings the violent craving and ruthless desire of addiction; it cries for release and completion. It crawls over my skin tonight, licks my spine from neck to tailbone and makes feverish images dance under my eyelids in the dark. I picture Holmes playing, undressed as I am and glistening with sweat. His eyes are closed and he sways with the force of his music, in time with it. A lamp is lit and shows him in silhouette. When he turns his profile I see that he is fully erect, aroused by his own music. A satyr on a Grecian urn.
I press my face into the pillow and slip my hand under the sheet with a groan, finding a slow rhythm and building it up to the cadences of the violin. The tempo increases, my hand obeys. I imagine Holmes under me, lost in pleasure with eyes closed and his mouth open; I die a small death and then everything is even stickier than before. I wipe myself off with my discarded shirt and fall asleep to the sound of the violin.
Somewhere along the line I made the mistake of identifying my attraction to Holmes – no, my desire for him – and giving words to it. After that, it was impossible to ignore. The first thing to strike me when we met was his energy, the second his strange, intense grey eyes, the third his general beauty. He is always in perfect control of his body despite his considerable height. Holmes in the boxing ring takes my breath away. The ripple of muscles. Skin and blood. I worry about him too, as a friend and a doctor. But mostly I just stare.
The dreadful humidity makes the newspaper porous and pulpy to the touch, the pages nearly ripping as they are turned. I only skim while I eat my breakfast. Some days I don't want to know about the world. These are enlightened times of technical development. We've moved from Boulton & Watt engines to electric railways, from spinning jennies to the speaking telegraph, and still we sentence men to hard labour for having loved. We place poets on treadmills and break their bodies to destroy their souls, declaring their souls condemned already.
It's too hot to walk but I do anyway. I seek out parks and keep to the shade. The air tastes of metal; the Thames has a sickly colour and smells of sulphur.
"This damned weather makes you want constant inebriation just as an escape," Holmes remarks as we sit smoking together after dinner. "Even cheap brandy would do."
"It really wouldn't."
Holmes puts his pipe aside. "What an awful snob you are, Watson. Sometimes I'll drink just about anything."
"Before you resort to drinking anything you usually reach for the syringe," I retort.
We're both irritable. The open window – the one that's not stuck – offers no relief; the air in the room doesn't stir.
"True," Holmes sighs and leans back, stretching his arms along the backrest of the sofa and grazing my neck. I remember my own feverish images from last night and it's all I can do not to blush. "Anything to escape boredom," he adds.
I regret my comment about the syringe. He's already struggling and I don't wish to add to his burden. My discomfort is making me unfair.
"Would you play something for me?" I ask to divert our attention from drugs.
He gives me a look. "I've been playing constantly for a week."
"I'd like to hear something from beginning to end, not two bars here and three there." My smile is a peace offering. "It's different, I imagine, playing only for yourself and playing for someone else's ears?"
"Ye-es." His gaze lingers on me.
"So, will you play?" I urge him. "Please?"
He frowns, half smiling, and opens his mouth to say something but changes his mind and shrugs. Getting up from the sofa, he only says: "Very well."