With apologies to the real Surgeon-General Preston, who I'm sure was actually a nice guy.
When first under fire an' you're wishful to duck,
Don't look nor take 'eed at the man that is struck,
Be thankful you're livin', and trust to your luck
And march to your front like a soldier.
- Rudyard Kipling, "A Young British Soldier"
A full seven years have passed. You can't help them any more today than you could then. You're not the same man who docked in Portsmouth; you've carried on with your life. Now just what the devil do you think you are you doing here?
I had asked myself that too many times to count over the past few hours. Yet despite never having a satisfactory answer, I remained in Forbury Gardens in the midst of sub-freezing temperatures, staring at the new monument meant to honor my doomed former regiment.
The lion was an odd choice, I reflected. I had heard some rumour that its stance was incorrect but not having much knowledge in the way of feline anatomy, I was not bothered by that. No, what bothered me about the iron cat was how improper a choice it was as an image. Maiwand had been an unmitigated disaster in a war that itself ended in a draw. What hypocrisy it was to memorialize that disgraceful defeat with the symbol of British strength and power when the surviving veterans did not even merit battle honours! Moreover, lions are native to Africa, not Afghanistan. A camel or even a pack horse would have been more apt.
The terra cotta that ran about the pedestal in between the name plaques was an odd choice too. Already I could see minute chips and fractures blossoming along some of the edges. Why would the sculptor have chosen a material that was not hardier? Did he think to invoke the desert with it, and if so, wouldn't sandstone have been a better choice?
But all my petulant complaints were little more than flimsy barriers against my rising dread. There on the metal plaques were the names of the men I had served with and nearly died with. In neat little columns they ran, all alike, reducing the individual into little more than a name and rank. The plaques indicated nothing of who those men had been.
There – Subaltern Martin Davies. Young, so terribly young, even to my seven-and-twenty years. He had one blue eye and one green eye, and only gave an owlish sort of blink whenever he tried to wink. No one ever knew for certain what became of him. He was only presumed dead because he could not be found among the wounded, and God knew the Ghazis did not take prisoners.
And there – Lieutenant Richard Trevor Chute. I had been acquainted with him and recalled he had been a pale young fellow about my age with a small chin and small hands. I never heard him speak much but he had a way of screwing up his face that was more eloquent than words. He died screaming from pain.
More names. So many more. James Galbraith. William Hamilton McMath. Maurice Edward Rayner. Walter Roberts. Ernest Stephan Garratt.
And Philip Frazer.
The first time I laid eyes on Captain Philip Frazer, he was busily wrapping every one of Surgeon-Colonel Preston's pens and pencils in thick layers of cotton wool, gauze, and sticking plaster. Being newly attached to the regiment and knowing so few people, he struck me as little more than a somewhat scruffy, overly casual soldier.
"Can I help you?" I enquired dryly of this stranger in shirtsleeves.
He whirled about in surprise, not a shred of guilt to be seen. It was hard to judge his age because of the heavy tan and sun-scores on his face, but I guessed him to be about five years my senior. His eyes and hair were nut-brown and his teeth shone white when he grinned at me. "Yes, you can. Check that drawer there and see if I've missed anything, there's a good fellow."
"I shall not," I replied forcefully. "That is the desk of my commanding officer."
The stranger put down his equipment and looked at me carefully. "You're the new doctor, the one replacing old Alfie."
"I suppose so." I had not asked why I was transferred from the Fusiliers; I do not know that I would have received an answer even if I had asked.
"Captain Philip Fraser, at your service." He held out large, dark hand.
"Surgeon-Major John Watson."
"Well, Surgeon-Major John Watson, if you haven't yet noticed, allow me to enlighten you on one point: your commanding officer is awfully fond of his high horse. But horses are scarce out here and I think it's time he shared."
I fought back a smile. I had noticed Preston's tendency to keep things regulated to the letter. Even so, I could not condone such behavior. "And you think mummifying his writing utensils is appropriate retribution?"
The captain shrugged. "He can't write up any reports without pens, pencils, or ink so . . . yes."
This time I felt my lips twitch. "You take exception to his writing up reports?"
"I take exception to his writing up reports about me." He neatly arranged the little packages in a line on Preston's desk. "Or are you going to write me up too?"
There at last was a hint of vulnerability. He might put on a façade of nonchalance but there were anxious crinkles about his eyes. I considered for a moment, and surprised myself with my answer.
The bright grin sprang back into place immediately. "Excellent! You shan't regret this. I'll make it up to you, I promise."
Having seen the forms his retribution took, I was not entirely sure I wanted to see his reimbursements. "That's not necessary, really, Captain Frazer."
"It's Phils to my friends, Major, and yes, it is necessary. I always pay back my debts. You'll see." With that, he clapped me heartily on the shoulder and strode out of Preston's office without a backwards look.
I decided discretion was the better part of valor. Quietly I left the folder of medical records on Preston's desk – the task that had brought me into his office in the first place – and made my own escape. I did, however, find abundant opportunities to use that ubiquitous of army phrases: Didn't see a thing, sir.
Phils, as he insisted on being called, did find a way to repay me that did not require any more prevarications on my part. He made sure to introduce me to any friend of his within earshot – and he seemed to be friends with nearly everyone, not just the officers. Names and faces went by in a dizzying blur. Fortunately, they were able to remember me without trouble. It wasn't long before I was being hailed from across the camp by Rayner, or trading jokes with McMath, or gently ribbing Rawlings about his girl back home, or teaching my orderly Murray a little bit about medical procedures.
And there was Phils, of course. There was always Phils.
Despite his incorrigible sense of mischief, or perhaps because of it, Phils was the one I was closest to. I refused to participate in his pranks but for some reason best known to him, he never played any tricks on me. I think it may have been because I suspected the true reason behind his antics. They were his way of keeping back the madness – the madness of combat and the madness of the silences between.
As for me, I had my journals, in which I described daily activities while subtracting myself from them. As long as I could separate myself from the insanity about me, I could cope. And there was no shortage of friendly ears to turn to, thanks to Phils' efforts.
The dark side of forming friendships was, of course, an ever-present shade over us all. If it was not death in battle, it was death from disease or misadventure, or even desertion. Nevertheless, remaining aloof and untouchable was not a viable option. It may have saved us survivors countless nightmares and equally countless sleepless nights, but how we might have become survivors in the first place without comradeship is quite beyond me. It was hard enough to survive with it.
I was there when Phils died at Maiwand. It was neither quick nor painless. He was shot in the thigh and went down with a startled cry. I rushed forward to help him but I was too far away, and I watched in horror as the Ghazis fell upon him. I don't know how long I stood there, frozen, until Murray pulled me away to tend those who still might have a chance. A few hours later we were retreating ignobly across the desert with the Afghans at our heels, baying for our blood. And then it was my turn to fall.
I spent hours there in that frigid garden, unwilling to stay but unable to leave. When I finally returned to Baker Street, I was thoroughly chilled and thoroughly out of sorts. The former was easily remedied; the latter less so.
I began by trying to document my thoughts and impressions of the day but soon gave it up. I was still too close to the moment and too harrowed in spirit to continue. Instead I seized the nearest novel and endeavoured to lose myself in the story.
"How was Reading?" Holmes enquired suddenly.
I looked up from the page I had been staring at without seeing a word. I had not told him where I had been but I was hardly surprised he knew. "Cold," I answered briefly, and returned to that blasted page.
"Yes, I can believe it, especially if you spent the entire time in Forbury Gardens."
I only nodded slightly and did not look up. If I did, he should see everything in my face and I did not wish to think abut it any longer, much less discuss it.
We sat in silence for a time until I heard Holmes rise from his chair. His footsteps led away from me, towards his bedroom. With a sigh of despair, I slammed my book shut and passed a hand over my eyes. No doubt I had driven Holmes out of the sitting room with my uncharacteristic behavior, and would have to apologize when he finally dared to approach me next.
"I have some papers here," said Holmes suddenly, re-seating himself in his chair, "which I really think, Watson, that it would be worth your while to glance over. These are the documents in the extraordinary case of the Gloria Scott, and this is the message which struck Justice of the Peace Trevor dead with horror when he read it."
He gently took the manhandled novel from me and handed me a short note scrawled upon a half-sheet of slate-gray paper.
The supply of game for London is going steadily up [ it ran ]. Head-keeper Hudson, we believe, has been now told to receive all orders for fly-paper and for preservation of your hen-pheasant's life.
As I glanced up from reading this enigmatical message, I saw Holmes chuckling at the expression upon my face.
"You look a little bewildered," said he.
"I cannot see how such a message as this could inspire horror. It seems to me to be rather grotesque than otherwise."
"Very likely. Yet the fact remains that the reader, who was a fine, robust old man, was knocked clean down by it as if it had been the butt end of a pistol."
"You arouse my curiosity," said I, wholly in truth. "But why did you say just now that there were very particular reasons why I should study this case?"
"Because it was the first in which I was ever engaged."
I had often endeavoured to elicit from my companion what had first turned his mind in the direction of criminal research, but had never caught him before in a communicative humour. Now he sat forward in his armchair and spread out the documents upon his knees. Then he lit his pipe and sat for some time smoking and turning them over.
"You never heard me talk of Victor Trevor?" he asked, and went on to relate to me the details of his first mystery, involving his unhappy friend from university. Listening to him, I found the rest of world slip away until I was quite engrossed in the tale.
"Those are the facts of the case, Doctor," he concluded, "and if they are of any use to your collection, I am sure that they are very heartily at your service."
"Thank you," I replied sincerely. "Holmes, about earlier today . . . ."
He raised his eyebrows. "Yes?"
My nerve failed me. "I don't know that I can speak of it now."
"Then don't speak of it now," replied he simply.
"I feel I ought to."
"Then speak of it when you're ready and not before. I did not tell you of Justice Trevor's death as tit for tat or to guilt you into sharing more than you wish. It was the right time, that is all." So saying, he carefully gathered up the sinister little message and went to replace it in whatever hidey-hole it had come from.
At the bedroom doorway Holmes paused and turned to me. His features were solemn but his eyes held a glint of a particular mischief I should recognize anywhere. "Ask me some time to tell you about the second mystery I ever undertook," he said, and grinned brightly at me.
(1) Davies and Phils are my creations. Everyone else can be seen here: www. garenewing. co. uk/ angloafghanwar/ biography/ portraits. php (remove the spaces)