The Bee House
This is not really a sequel to 'Under the Downs', more a kind of epilogue, a little late summer sunshine to warm your heart. Please excuse the schmaltz. It just came out that way. All comments gratefully received (you know I love them). It's only two parts, second part tomorrow.
(If you haven't read UtD, this probably won't make much sense, so I suggest you go and have some fun with it.)
It began with my fiftieth birthday. Yes I know, I don't want to think about it, but everyone gets old, even me and Sherlock. And actually, it began with making love on the morning of my fiftieth birthday, which doesn't sound quite so aging.
We had been up most of the night chasing a bunch of frankly nasty jewel thieves across New Cross after we had laid in wait for them at socialite Asram Messeh's glittering Diamond Ball, and we were feeling rather pleased with ourselves. It was hardly a big brain case for Sherlock, but it amuses him to catch the predictable burglars red-handed when he's got nothing more intellectually pressing to do.
So yes, we slept late and made love, and then lay in the after-glow, which is my favourite part, especially when I'm tired and Sherlock fucks me. It's not that I don't like being fucked, believe me, it's fantastic, but it tends to be rather, well, rough, that brutal but thrilling invasion. I'm more the tender, loving type. I like it gentle. He always says that when I do it to him, I don't do it hard enough. Maybe he's right, I don't know, since I don't have another lover to ask. Anyway, we were lying in each other's arms, letting our heart rates drop, sweat soaking into the sheets, kissing and looking into one another's eyes. (Yes, it's sloppy, but that's who we are, even after this long. Ten years we've been together, and four since we signed on the dotted line, as he likes to put it – the civil partnership was literally a matter of paperwork, seeing as we both felt that we'd had our ceremony on the banks of the River Arun, under those shivering silver birches. So we are husbands, too, as well as lovers, friends, colleagues and all the other stuff.)
And he said, 'I suppose you want your present now?'
And I said, 'I thought I'd already had it.' And leered, because I love the way it makes him blush.
But then he got out of bed and scuffled about in the drawer of the bedside table while I admired his fabulously naked arse and made plans to have it later in the day. And then he got back into bed and gave me an envelope.
'A card! Oh, darling, you shouldn't have!' I said, because Sherlock doesn't believe in cards or presents. (It's not because he's mean, incidentally, it's just that he sees them as sentimental and unnecessary. But he still buys them for me, because he knows they matter in my head, even if they don't in his.)
And I opened it.
Inside were two tickets for a flight to India, and an itinerary of hotels and sights to be visited over the course of three weeks.
Okay, I'm not ashamed to say it. Yes. I cried.
Because he knew I'd always wanted to go to India and never managed it. I've wanted to go since I was a kid. I saw a rerun of 'Gandhi' at the Woking Odeon because, when I decided I wanted to join the army, my Mum said it was important to understand the alternatives to violence. Anyway, there it was, my fiftieth birthday present. The chance to finally follow in the footsteps of Gandhiji after forty years of putting it off and having other things to do, like scrape lads of the battlefields of Iraq.
Sherlock knows me too well, that's all I can say.
And let me tell you, it was fantastic. All of it. Every bloody minute. But I'm not going to tell you about it, because this isn't the story of how we travelled across India, and how we came to know new sides of one another in the brilliant sun. This is the story of the Bee House. So all you need to know is that it was the best holiday of my life, right up until the moment where we were chasing an antiquities smuggler through a slum in Mumbai, and I slipped on something that I don't even want to think about, and tore the cartilage in my right knee.
Cue anno domini.
You are fifty years old, John Hamish Holmes-Watson. This is your reminder.
The Mumbai police were delighted that Sherlock caught the man – because Sherlock, of course, kept running, leaving me wallowing in a filthy alley, with dozens of kind, well-meaning, but non-English-speaking slum dwellers clustering round me, trying to help.
Sherlock, when he realised what had happened (he thought I had just fallen over), was not happy. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen him so distraught, even when he came home after the fall. It triggered something in him. Something deep.
Intimations of mortality.
'You're going to die,' he sobbed in the A&E unit at the private hospital, where the Mumbai police carted me in some style after the arrest had been made. He was so upset that the nurses were not sure which one of us to treat first.
'Thanks, love,' I said. 'That really makes me feel so much better.'
We flew home the next day, me on crutches and Sherlock in a fugue state. It was hardly what you might call a perfect end to the holiday, but I suppose it was typical. Nothing is ever straightforward around Sherlock.
The following week, I had my arthroscopy.
Sherlock collected me from the hospital afterwards, solicitous to an unnerving extent. I was still stoned on the anaesthetic, but I knew in a couple of weeks I'd be fine, now that the torn gristle inside my knee had been trimmed away, and the remainder mended. Keyhole surgery is a doddle compared with the four procedures I had to have on my shoulder, so I'm not complaining, believe me.
The next morning he was sitting on the edge of the bed with his back to me when I woke. The pain in my knee hit me like a wall, and I must have grunted because he flinched, and his shoulders tensed up. I ran my hand down his white back, letting my fingers linger over the nubs of his vertebrae.
'You're beautiful,' I told him.
He muttered something, and it was then that I realised he was crying. I reached out and pulled him down into my arms, but he kept his back to me, and wouldn't speak.
'We have to talk about this,' I told him in the end, and he humpfed.
'That's what you say about everything. We have to talk about it, Sherlock.' He mimicked me, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
But I'm long past being either annoyed or offended. 'And aren't I always right?'
And a few minutes later, in a smaller voice, face buried in my bicep, 'You're going to die.'
'Yes, love. So you keep saying. And so are you. One day. But not just yet.'
'I'm not going to die,' he said. 'I'm immortal. You've made me immortal with your stories.'
'No one's immortal, even you, much as I would love it to be true. Your body will die, even if the idea of you remains. Besides, I'm in the books too.'
'Your body will die. You are older than me-'
'Only by five years-'
'Nevertheless. And you know how many years a bullet wound can take off your life.'
'I still reckon I've got another thirty to forty years, love. Besides, you might go before me. All that smoking and drugs and starving yourself, that cuts down life expectancy too, you know.'
'I can't bear to think of your beautiful body dying.'
His voice was so desolate. I realised all the reason in the world was not going to help.
'It's not dying that matters,' I whispered into his ear, his delicate, beautiful pink ear, cupped in mahogany curls. 'It's the living that counts.'
He sighed and pressed his head into the curve of my arm. 'Don't leave me,' he breathed.
'I've no intention of it,' I told him, with a squeeze.
'Good, because I couldn't live without you, you know that, don't you?'
'You made me live without you.' (It's still a sore point, okay?)
'I know. I'll never be able to apologise enough for that, will I?'
'It was hell for me too, you know. Living without you.'
'Yes, but at least you knew I was alive.'
'If anything happened to you, I couldn't go on alone. You have to understand that. I'd follow you. Life without you wouldn't be worth enduring. It would be a grey void.'
The words lay between us on the pillow, a solemn lattice of intent. I knew what he meant, but it was a heavy burden to bear, the weight of this extraordinary man's life on my shoulders. To know that my end would deprive the world of him too. A double grief. You'd think it would be flattering, but it's not. I want him to go on, to continue being the vibrant, thrilling, infuriating creature that I love, but he won't be that man without me to provide the fire in his belly.
And no man could commit suicide more easily than him. He would know exactly how to do it, the surest, quickest, most painless way. I know he can do it. He's done it once already.
Only Sherlock could live a life containing two successful suicides.
I pulled him tighter against me. 'Don't say things like that,' I whispered. 'I don't want to think of you that way.'
He wriggled round in my arms until he faced me, looking up at me with liquid eyes. He made me think of Delft then, of Vermeer, all those inky, translucent canals, and the shimmering light. I touched his cheek, bristled with the reddish infant of a beard.
'You remind me of the girl with the pearl earring when you look at me like that,' I told him, and my felt my face lift into a smile that hid the pain his beauty always makes in me. It truly is a tragedy that one day he will die, that one day his beauty will be gone, crumbled to dust, and no one else will ever see his luminous eyes, his heartbreakingly delicate cheekbones.
We lay there like that for a while, mesmerised by each other.
'Do you remember,' he whispered. 'By the river, how we talked about retiring?'
I felt the warmth of that afternoon brim in me again.
'And I promised you a cottage? Yes, I remember.'
'We have that money Aunt Agatha left me,' he said, and gave me those puppy eyes he knows won't get around me, but always do. I wasn't going to tell him that I'd been squirrelling away funds too, all this time, though he probably knew.
'Is that what you really want? I mean, you've always been so urban.'
'You promised me bees,' he said. 'And besides, sooner or later the villains are going to outrun us. We can't allow our legend to be compromised. Quit while you're ahead, isn't that what they say?'
'It would be just a weekend bolt-hole to begin with,' I told him, rolling onto my back and pulling him with me. He sprawled over my chest, his cheek prickling my skin as he rested close to my scarred shoulder. 'We don't need to retire yet, surely?'
'As you said, it's the living that counts,' he agreed. 'But providing for our future would be a good idea.'
He sighed, and I knew he had reframed his fears into something manageable. He could put off the inevitable inside his skull for a few more years. One day we would both have to face facts. But not yet.
'Go and get me a cup of tea and a couple of Co-codamol, would you?'
'Doctors make the worst patients,' he said, and wandered off to the kitchen. Naked.
I can't tell you how happy it makes me when he walks around the flat stark naked like that.
Tomorrow, the cottage scheme takes shape…