Title: The Ghosts of England
Characters: Watson, Holmes, Lestrade, allusions of Mycroft & Yarders (note - character death)
Word count: 1972
A/N: A piece inspired by the song 'The Ghost of England' on an album called Ghosts (2008) by Triple Tree [a side project of the band Sol Invictus]. This was coupled with ruminating on how we create myths out of true stories, and how so frequently the true story is greater than the myth. A little bit different that my usual pieces, please enjoy and tell me what you think.
'The Ghosts of England'
London is an ancient city. Old enough that it was settled before even the Romans set sandal on the shores of the Thames. Nowadays you stand on antique streets that are built on inches, and hands and yards of history and you can feel the very civilization under your feet.
It is an uneasy feeling.
There are times when a damp wind is blowing during the dead of night and you may catch the slight sound drifting through the streets, a lilting echo of a violin eerie against the bricks, or the sharp, swift thunder of hoof beats pounding on stone streets. Mark it, for these are the ghosts of Old London, the true remnants of men that became heroes and the legends that were immortalized in myth.
Doyle told a tale of Watson and Holmes and Lestrade to the world. They were good men in a hard time, and became great men in an even harder one.
Even now England remembers them as heroes. But it was London that they loved, and old London does not forget. It is in London where you may spy their ghosts. For they are ghosts – yes – but that does not make them any less real, or any less true.
It is one cold night just shy of the turn of the century when Watson realizes what is happening.
He'd long accepted as his lot in life to be helped up after a brawl, for his war wounds rendered him stiffer and less agile than Holmes. It is shock to turn at the end of a scuffle to realize that it is Holmes who is out of breath, and Lestrade who needs to be helped up.
None of them can linger through the cold and wet waiting for criminals without effect anymore, and Watson scolds Lestrade for as much one evening as he wraps up bruised ribs, taken from being caught off guard. He has given up on Holmes, who will no doubt work himself into an early grave, but he gives the little man a curt warning about perhaps staying behind his desk more frequently, sending out Constables, etc, etc.
He sees Lestrade to a cab, just to ensure that he will make it home after that hit on the head, and notes with a writer's eye the fine lines of platinum that shine through that stubborn brown, and the deep lines around the mouth.
That night, Holmes plays Massenet's Elegie, and no words are necessary between them.
Time is running out, and all too soon only the legends will remain.
It is a warning shot when Mycroft Holmes dies, for he is a casualty of a War in which he never fought, but which he died for anyway, an old man fighting a young man's war.
All too soon, the other men are following, Gregson one year, Bradstreet the next, and in one month alone Youghal and Jones and MacDonald are laid in the welcoming arms of the earth.
Watson has never thought of himself as an old man precisely, but it is with something of bitterness that he accepts the RAMC's decision to have him spend the War at home. But he resigns himself to the prospect of doing good, wherever he is, and throws himself into managing a hospital.
It disguises the fear well enough. But something of the terror strikes him when he sees the silver-haired and gaunt Lestrade and realizes that his world is slipping away from him, piece by piece.
Even as they grow old, London is aging faster. The swirling warmth and quagmire of emotions that had dominated the character of the city are not so much fading as being scrapped away by the years and Watson sees them go with a saddened eye.
He wonders how much of his own life is caught up in the stones, and how much of his own self is being worn away with the city. She is colder, in a way which displeases him, and he continues to write of the adventures of the famous detective in hopes to return life to the old Lady.
But he can only see hardness in the city's streets, and in the calls between people, and in the very wind that blusters by him daily. His optimism would like to think it is something of wisdom settling into the very bricks of the city, but his heart knows better.
His London has changed, moved on, and been forgotten. Their London truly knew them; this London knows only the brain without a heart, the doctor without a wit, and the professional without a clue.
It is a smothering feeling of inevitability, to be whitewashed with myth.
It is a shock when the little professional retires, though even Holmes would admit he deserves it. He has a great passel of grandchildren and even some great grandchildren, all with his curiosity and his will, and some even with his lively dark eyes.
Watson is glad of this, though he does not say, and resigns himself to being a grandfather by proxy. Family is a kind of immortality that none of them expected, and only Lestrade achieved.
He is with them when he dies, surrounded by grandsons and granddaughters, and so he is told, laughing. It is a good end for a good man and Watson cannot think to mourn over that.
No, it is that the truth is fading, and only the story begins to remain.
All Lestrade's kin show up to the funeral, wearing the black of mourning and Watson thinks that at least some one will remember the truth of Lestrade. He cannot say the same for himself, and wears the old grief with an ease that surprises him.
Watson retires to Sussex to live once again with Holmes. He hopes it will return him some of his vitality, but in reality it reduces him to nostalgia, for those days are gone forever.
Holmes is an old man, as is he, and their younger days are not coming back to them. Holmes is all too haunted by his own legend, and Watson sees it in the faces of the villagers when he goes to market. The upturned faces shine with recognition, and the peculiar glint of eye that comes with idealism. They whisper behind their hands, and follow their movements across the green, as if they were something more than men.
They stare for he is the Sherlock Holmes, and dally, asking for autographs and trifling pieces of deduction, seeing only a character in a story and drawing a stick man, when for the true Holmes only a Master's paintbrush would do.
Legends are painted in black and white, Watson knows, where the truth is all too often blurring shades of grey. He is quite sure which is the more beautiful.
They do not leave the cottage often.
When Sherlock Holmes died, there was no great funeral, though he was undoubtedly a great man. There was only the priest, and an old man leaning on his cane beside the overturned earth and God.
And if only the priest and the old man and God know where Holmes is buried – the priest is sworn to silence and God will keep the secret. The old man brings the truth to his grave.
And if the wind of the Thames ever reaches the Sussex coast, it smells of wet and salt as the seaside should, and not of tears.
John Watson was the last of a great legend, and it wore on him like an ill-fitting coat. For how could he say – these were my friends and my life and my grief – when already they are only legends to the rest of England.
The London that he knew has died and is dying all around him. The War has seen to that, and he does not think the world will ever be the same. He feels as if he were a character in a storybook, where Holmes and Lestrade and so many others are locked into simple, dry legend when the truth was always more vibrant and so very beautiful.
How could he explain that in making their legend and tightening their myth, they are strangling his life and have left his memory a stricture, a living man who walked with the dead, a dead man waiting on the ever-living?
In the last days, John Watson died, and the truth died with him. And so to England, the men of Baker Street lived only in a legend.
He was buried in Sussex, under a little gray tombstone far off the beaten path near the cliffs of the sea, beside the little gray tombstone of his dearest and truest friend.
Age takes him where love could not go, and so the truth ends.
The legends say that on that day, in London, even though the dawn had been clear and bright, and the air dry with wind, there was a deluge of rain.
For the face of the old city had lost some of the charm of its youth, and it painted on buildings like rouge, and roads like lipstick but it could not regain its former beauty. Like an old lady, London tried to speak with the sweetness of its youth, or the warmth of its middle years, but only whispers of those graces yet remain.
Older she might have been, and hardened with the stain of years, and colder than ever before, but London was a great lady, and ladies do not forget their lovers, and they do not leave their dead without mourning.
Their city wept for them.
The myths say that he is buried in St. Paul's for unnumbered services to the Queen, in the London which he loved.
But the dead tell no tales, and there are two grey stones in Sussex, near the smell of the sea, that are overgrown with pale white wildflowers.
Wags will tell you that they do not exist, that they are fiction and nothing more. They are heroes of a myth, great men of a legend, inspiration for the ages, and none now remain who can speak to dispute them.
But the truth is still living, in little white wildflowers on two gravestones in Sussex, and in a pair of dark, round eyes you may encounter on the street.
London can still feel the same footsteps, hear those same voices, as walked and protected her streets a century ago. For London loved these men, and these men loved London, and love is strong as death.
London may be an old lady, but she knows that when the night is right, they walk amongst us once more. For it is more than myth that strolls her streets, and more than legend that haunts her alleyways. It is the true Holmes, and the true Watson, and the true Lestrade.
For the truth – you will find – can never truly die.
And if, perhaps, one dark night in London when the moon is shrouded in fog and the street lamps cast only a dim, flickering halo of light, you may catch a glimpse of a dark shadow walking beside you on the streets of London. He is a grey specter that you can see only out of the corner of your eye, and he will speak nothing to you, nor will he stray from your side.
He may carry a cane, and wearing an old fashioned three piece suit, check the time with a pocket watch dangling from his watch chain. He may wear a bowler or a top hat, and if he gently fingers it before he leaves you – well – he is a gentleman.
And if you cannot touch him, think nothing of it.
Truly, it is only one of the ghosts of England.