Chapter 1 - Bedtime Story by A.J. Hall
Sherlock had had a babysitter once, when he’d been a very small boy. Or, to be accurate, he’d had a great many babysitters once at that age. The crucial point about this one was that she came back.
He rather suspected Mummy must have been desperate. About that time, the original diagnosis of developmental delay was merging into elective mutism. Later, once he understood such things, he conceived a profound dislike for the term. His family and their friends were already sufficiently inclined to suspect him of doing it on purpose, for effect. The medical establishment had no business giving them linguistic cues in that direction.
When the babysitter arrived it was obvious she had been dragooned into it either by heavy family pressure - her mother was on one of Mummy’s committees - or chronic shortage of funds. From the rigid set of her shoulders, he inferred that she neither liked nor trusted small children. From the knees of her jeans, he gathered that she strongly preferred dogs.
Out of sheer fellow feeling, he permitted her a tight, tense smile.
“Oh,” Mummy said with audible surprise. “He likes you.”
The babysitter’s expression of intense scepticism, not untinged with horror, cemented his approval. Here was, he felt, someone who was prepared to treat the evening as the business transaction it was, and not attempt to clutter it up.
Mummy had clearly pre-arranged the evening with the aim of limiting their interactions to the bare minimum and avoiding every possible risk of accident. Everything had been set out ready for the babysitter; coffee in a thermos flask, biscuits under cling-film on a plate, and, he noted with dread, The Very Hungry Caterpillar located conveniently close to his bed.
Being read to created a particular sort of tense, coiled unhappiness within him. People’s voices were too loud, and they always put the emphasis in the wrong place, and looked at him with false, cheery expressions as if they were expecting him to react to the ridiculous banalities they were parroting.
Or, like the babysitter, they rattled things off in a monotone, as if appalled they were expected to take this kind of tripe seriously.
As an attitude of mind, he strongly preferred the second position. Unfortunately, that didn’t make it any easier to listen to.
The caterpillar had – with frustrating disregard for realism, relative body-weights or gastro-intestinal capacity – consumed its way through one red apple and two green pears when, mercifully, the phone in the hall rang.
The babysitter put down the book next to her coffee-cup, on the occasional table beside her chair.
“Better get it,” she said. “Probably just your mother checking neither of us has murdered the other yet, but you never know.”
She had scarcely left the room before he was out of his bed. When the babysitter returned, the book and shards of the cup rested beside the overturned table amid a dense brown flood which was already seeping into the book’s pages, threatening to render them illegible.
“An unfortunate accident or constructive literary criticism?” she enquired, eying up, apparently, the relative positions of the broken coffee cup, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and his bed. She picked up the sodden book and began mopping at it in a desultory way with the kitchen roll Mummy had also left ready, in case. “But, to be honest, it was doing my head in. Suppose I tell you a story about a snail, instead?”
He was not wholly hopeful. He liked snails - the garden, especially after rain, had a plentiful supply of them. Their appearances in fiction, however, left a great deal to be desired. They couldn’t be trusted. At the slightest excuse they would start talking or doing other completely unsnail-like things, without any warning whatsoever. Still, it was clear the babysitter wasn’t stupid about stories. On balance, he felt inclined to take the risk.
It cheered him immensely to discover that when this particular snail made its entrance into the story it was not merely dead - a perfectly reasonable trait in a snail - but in an advanced state of decomposition. Furthermore, the story immediately took a splendidly dramatic turn as the snail’s corpse successfully poisoned the protagonist - non-fatally, but still something he considered a very sporting effort for a semi-rotted mollusc. Some of the story’s later convolutions puzzled him, and he thought more attention should have been paid to the question of whether the protagonist’s friend could have smuggled the snail into the ginger beer bottle for her own murky purposes. Nonetheless, when the story reached its conclusion he found himself looking hopefully up at the babysitter, an expression she seemed to have no trouble decoding. She looked at her watch.
“One more, but after this you’re going to sleep, OK? Good. Right. The yacht Mignonette set sail from Southampton, bound for Australia, in the spring of 1884 ….”
“No, Mummy, I can’t possibly.” Mycroft raised his Coke can to his lips and took a dismissive swallow, as if closing the conversation.
Sherlock surveyed the scene from beneath the hydrangea bush. The ground was bare beneath the broad canopy of leaves which enclosed him, criss-crossed with snail trails. An excellent lair.
“Really, darling, if you have to drink that dreadful stuff at all, can’t you at least be civilised enough to use a glass?”
“No-one at school drinks Coke from glasses. It’s poncy.”
“And if they all decided to jump off a cliff, I suppose you’d follow them too, for fear of being seen as different?”
“Honestly, Mummy, it’s hardly as if I have to make any effort for the others to see me as – different.” He looked towards the hydrangea as if his gaze could burn through the leaves. Mummy tracked the direction of his glance, and sighed. She rose from her seat on the narrow stone plinth which surrounded the goldfish pond.
“Come with me, we need to have a word,” she said.
Mummy and Mycroft withdrew to the patio. He could see them arguing there. Mycroft, Sherlock noted, had left his Coke can on the plinth. A dawning Idea took possession of him.
He glanced at the ground beneath him. Plenty of snail trails, so surely there must be…somewhere…yes.
Screened from the patio by the hydrangea, he slithered across to the goldfish pond and then back into concealment, just as Mummy and Mycroft passed the hydrangea on their return. Mummy sounded definitely cross.
“Well, if you really can’t look after Sherlock while I’m at the constituency meeting tonight, then I’ll have to see if Miranda’s daughter’s free to babysit again.”
“What, the fat one with the bad skin?”
“You can’t expect me to shut off my powers of observation, Mummy.”
“I can expect you to observe a modicum of manners in how you choose to express the results. Anyway, Amanda, yes. She said when I got back yesterday that if I wanted to call on her any time until she goes back to Somerville, she’d see whether she could manage it.”
“She volunteered ? Having already done it once?”
“Miranda’s never said anything, but I think Roger’s bolting with his secretary left them very hard up. And law text books are frightfully expensive.”
“Another good reason to opt for PPE. Look, Mummy, surely –”
“Not the time, Mycroft. Not the time. Anyway, they seem to have got on perfectly well – she said she’d told him a couple of stories, he’d fallen asleep and then she’d had a chance to do some solid revision till I got back.”
’Good grief, Mummy, what was she using on him? Laudanum?” He raised his Coke can to his lips with an air of profound derision.
Sherlock slithered out the far side of the hydrangea, and made tracks for the house.