Mary died three weeks after Analise learned to walk. She was often carried despite the milestone. When left unattended she was quick to escape and run between legs, hugging knees, falling over shoes and purses. She rarely cried, more than content to get back up, fully prepared to tumble forward again in her crimson gown of ruffles and white lace. She had no idea why the house was full of people or why her mother had been absent all week. All she seemed to know was that she was getting a great deal of attention. She liked that. It was a party as far as she was concerned and John was simply glad that no one had the gall to tell a child how to behave at her mother's funeral reception. Most people seemed to pity her enough to find the playfulness endearing. Poor little girl without a mother who would grow up with no memories of her. Analise enjoyed running and the mourners enjoyed their speculations. John didn't care so long as they left by the end of the day. John didn't really care about anything.
It was a constant annoyance to his mother that he didn't even bother to pretend. It took too much energy to look sad. It was too tiring to feign woe. He would have liked grief, truly; would have enjoyed a bit of agony. Instead it was apathy that poisoned him-indifference and uncaring. He made sure Analise was taken care of, his protective instincts undulled by his emotional detachment, but if someone were to ask if he loved his baby girl, he wasn't sure he had the strength to lie and say he did.
The reception itself was a quiet affair with more friends than family. John's mother had taken care of everything and while John wasn't convinced it was entirely what Mary would have wanted, being dead in a box and prepped to burn to ash sort of put a limit on how much that mattered. White lilies in a vase and black bows on the table legs, cold ham and finger foods on trays. Tasteful, traditional. It certainly wasn't an intimate party to celebrate her life but it didn't seem most attendees were all that interested in celebrating anyway. There were small groups of people crying together, a few held in somber conversation, while for the most part John found himself given a wide berth as he sat in his chair and simply waited to be told where to go and what to do. It was a duty his mother was only too happy to take upon herself.
John was relatively sure she was the reason Sherlock hadn't stayed long. Not that it mattered. He recalled him coming, no words spoken with only a hand on John's shoulder to relay his sentiments. They never really needed words. At some point Analise began crying, not from fall but panty foul, and Sherlock had taken her to be changed and tidied up with Mrs. Watson on his heels. There must have been words. Sherlock had looked as coldly indifferent as John felt when he returned with his coat and a kiss for John's cheek. John hadn't seen him since and no one else seemed to care or to notice.
And suddenly that was over a month ago-so John was told and the calendar upheld. He didn't really remember the days in between. He was still sat in his chair, still being fed on the casseroles and quiches of well-wishers so that everything tasted of spinach and cheese. He was still numb. His mother cooked and cleaned and looked after Analise while John sat bone idle with nothing on the telly and indifferent even to every word of every page in every book. Tired was one of the few things he could feel-tired and guilty. He often felt them both at the same time, especially as he watched his daughter play. He did not think it was possible to stop loving one's own child but every day he felt the vacancy of emotion despite her hugs and kisses and cuddles in his chair. His hollowness had taken even that joy from him. The way his mother watched him, John was sure she could tell he no longer carried a single care for the living. "Analise is lucky to still have you," she'd say as a daily mantra. She was worried he was going to kill himself. That thought was the tears at the stove and the frowning glances through the mirrors. John didn't have a reply to that. Most of the time, he worried about having a gun in the house too.
Too much time was passing and none of it where John could feel its benefits. It was already the last week of his bereavement leave from the surgery. It was almost time to man up and go back to living as though everything was going to be okay. It wasn't. It couldn't be. Mary died and took with it all the joy in John's life. What a bitch, he wanted to say some days. It wasn't enough that she had to leave him, she had to go and take every bliss and torture with her leaving him with the cold vacancy of a abyssal hell.
The house was too big. He owned too much furniture. What on earth was he supposed to do with her clothes and make-up and jewelry? How much was he supposed to keep and how much was safe to just burn? He felt like he'd done all this before, felt the emptiness and futility and weariness that sapped his strength of will from him. There wasn't an escape this time. Expectations set his path in stone long before he'd ever had to take his first step. He didn't want to. There was something inherently wrong with waking up and going to work and coming home to his mother and seeing to Analise and going to bed to start again.
This wasn't the life he was supposed to be living. What happened to the old one? He'd liked that one.
Mrs. Watson set down a hot mug of tea on the table beside his chair. Had another day gone? They all looked the same. "More mail, dear," she said as she set a small pile of cards and letters down beside. "There's one from your solicitor."
Just what John wanted. He eyed the small stack of thin rectangles and boxy squares. Did he need to sign something new? Read over more documents in legalese and charter his soul away via biro? He'd had rather enough of their paperwork. It could wait. The whole bloody world could wait though it seemed to continue to move on despite him.
There was the slightest hint of color under the stack of paper-white. John thumbed his way to the item, expecting perhaps some form of advertisement but seeing instead a postcard lost in the middle of pointless condolences and news. No one sent postcards and certainly not from the British coast to a British native. It was a nice enough picture, very stock, but not much of interest outside the general natural appeal of tall waterside cliffs, blue waters, and jutting headlands of grass and wildflowers. There was a certain air of nostalgia about it, though. On the back there was an address but no name-a house called Fair Hill Cottage somewhere down in Brighton. The succinct message scribbled in child-like handwriting read only 'Come at once if convenient; If inconvenient, come all the same.' John could not help the smile that crept upon his face at the familiar beckoning he'd always been hard pressed to ignore.
Mrs. Watson's diminutive sob caught John off guard. "Oh, John... I think that's the first time I've seen you smile in weeks," she said, her lips pursed white against a smile of her own.
He cleared his throat, suddenly very dry of mouth and happy to have the tea at his side. He took a long deep drink, enjoying the scold of his throat as it sank like fire to his belly. The smile wasn't fading. He could feel it burning like the tea through the whole of his body, torches of light in the darkness. He nodded mutely, gathering his own thoughts, before rising up out of his chair with a creak. "I have to go."
She hadn't expected that. Mrs. Watson put her hands on the kitchen counter, her face set in confusion and worry. "Go? Go where?"
"Brighton." He flashed the postcard for only a moment before heading towards the stairs to his room above. His mother was following him within seconds.
"Brighton? Why on Earth are you going there?"
"Watch Analise for me, will you?"
"John!" Mrs. Watson grabbed his arm, her hands shaking slightly in the tightness of her grip. He looked first at her aged hands on his sleeve then up to her frightened eyes. Too much, too soon. The first flicker of life appearing like the spark before the end. "You're not well, dear," she said, voice hushed though no one was there to hear them. "I think you should stay here with family and friends."
John shook his head, giving her hand a pat as he tried to remove himself from her grasp. "No. No, I can't stay. And I can't take her with me so if you could just watch her for a while that'd be great."
Mrs. Watson eyed him suspiciously for a moment before at last letting go, snatching up instead the postcard in his hand as she retreated from him to read. He pursued no more than three steps before giving up and turning back to his room to pack while she tried to make heads or tails of it. Just a week. If he could just have a week, then maybe... Anything. Absolutely anything was possible. Just one week.
"Johnathan Hamish Watson."
Nearly fifty years and that still put the fear of God in him. John stood straighter, his suitcase on the bed and drawers thrown open as he rushed to pack. His mother stood in the doorway, practically barricading it with her body as she expended with insistence.
"Just what do you think you're doing?" she asked, arms coming to cross against her chest.
John took a deep breath then returned to his packing, tossing in socks and pants by the handful. "I don't know."
"What do you mean 'you don't know'?"
"I don't know," he repeated, not at all surprised by the lack of comprehension shared as he lacked plenty of his own. "I just-I have to go."
"Because someone told you to on a postcard?"
"More or less."
"John!" she shouted, brows knit in worry.
John tossed a few pairs of trousers into the dark green suitcase, hangers and all. "I can't explain it, okay?" he said, then tried. "You said so yourself, that's the first time I've smiled in a long time. I need to do this."
"You can't just run off when you feel like it, John. You have a daughter, you have a responsibility to her! You want to be the type of father who just does what he wants, when he wants to, and leaves his child to fend for herself?"
That stung though he kept the wince to little more than a flutter of lashes. He'd been a husband. He'd been a soldier. He was a doctor. He knew all about responsibility, about duty and obligations. He'd never once turned away from the front lines or failed to serve his patients true. He was never unfaithful to Mary. If anyone thought he'd abandon their daughter, even in light of his lost affection, they surely did not know him. His mother should. His mother did. She was speaking solely from a place of worry and desperation and for that he would have to forgive her. "You know I don't. I'm asking you if you can watch her for me. This is one time, it's not a thing," he assured her, giving a bit more time to the fold of his jumper before stuffing it in along the rest.
She sniffed back snot from unshed tears. "What about work?" she asked.
"I'll be back for work."
No answer seemed well enough to please her. "John, you're not well," she started again, rubbing her arms anxiously in the doorway as though there were caught in a draft rather than an argument. "What's in Brighton, why won't you tell me where you're going?"
"I'm going to see Sherlock," he said as he added another jumper and plaid shirt to the haphazard stack he'd packed.
Mrs. Watson scowled. "Him again? John, this is ridiculous. Call him and tell him to come here if he wants to see you. What sort of man summons a grieving widower out of his own home for a visit?"
"The Sherlock kind," he answered, much to her dismay. The best kind. He pushed the top down on his case, running the zipper along the sides. Maybe he'd forgotten a few things but it didn't really matter. First train he could catch. Fast as he could. There was nothing he'd need that he couldn't live without for a week. All things included. "Will you please watch Analise for me?" he asked again, lifting the case off the bed. "Please? I promise when I come back I'll be ready to step up and man up but I can't right now. I can't. I'm going whether I have to take her with me or not but I'd rather her be with you."
His mother stood stock still though her bottom lip gave a tremble. Her dark blue eyes were pinched further along her crows feet with the glistening of something wet within as she kept her post at his door. "I'm scared for you, John," she said, voice on the crying side of hoarse as she continued to bar his way.
John let go of the handle on his bag and wrapped his arms around his mother instead, pulling her away from the door with gentle brushing of her hair. He didn't want her to feel bad. He didn't need the extra guilt. He no more felt a thing for her than he did for his own daughter but neither had he ever been one to permit a woman's tears regardless. He simply didn't know any more words with which to say 'I have to go'. Threats to end his life if forced to stay were far too melodramatic and sensational for his sort of bidding, regardless of the possibility. It wasn't something one said to their mother. Not as a grown man and certainly not when her own fears were already of that vein. For the first time in a long time, John felt a rush of anticipation, though. There was optimism and hope and a giddiness that always followed memories of Sherlock's more memorable hijinks. If Sherlock could bring him those flashes of feeling through a post card, then John had to go.
"I'm sorry, Mum," he whispered against her greying temple. He gave her back a few short pats to accompany the slight sway of their embrace. "I'm okay. I'm alright. Just watch her for me. Please. You know me. I'm not running way. I won't be long. I just need to get away for a bit."
He could feel the dampness on his shoulder as she sniffed again, rubbing at her eyes as she pulled away. "Do you even know when the train leaves?" she asked.
John shook his head. "No. But I plan to be on the next one."
Mrs. Watson nodded, fixing the collar of John's shirt as she slowly stepped back towards the door. "Just don't get carried away, dear," she said, her eyes and cheeks both red.
John gave her a quick kiss before she left him to finish whatever he had left to do.
He took the gun from the safe and stowed it safely in the case.
Could be dangerous.