Chapter 1 - Lift Up Mine Eyes To The Hills by A.J. Hall
“So,” John said, “you had an uncle called Montague?”
Sherlock yawned. “Really, John, it’s hardly the most unusual name. Specially not in the context of my family.”
That was unarguable. Still, given this was the first conversation he’d managed with Sherlock since shortly before Watford Junction, John wasn’t prepared to let it be shunted into a siding without a struggle.
“I wasn’t focussing on the name, in particular. I was trying to work out how we got from So you’ve never been to the Lake District before? to That would be Uncle Montague.”
“He had a weekend cottage there. Mummy was always afraid, if we came to the Lakes, we wouldn’t be able to avoid having to visit him.”
John frowned. “There were times when I suspected my relations of deliberately moving to the least appealing bits of the country to dodge us showing up on their doorsteps. But avoiding family who happen to have cottages in areas of outstanding natural beauty? Don’t get it.”
“Surely you must be aware that every family has at least one of those relatives? The kind no-one mentions voluntarily – and, if they do find it necessary, use a particular tone of voice?”
At that precise moment, Sherlock’s own tone would have been an object lesson to any aspiring actor aiming to upstage Maggie Smith in one of her towering dowager roles. Nevertheless, John caught the flicker of a muscle in Sherlock’s cheek, a tremor in the beautiful, sculpted hands loosely clasped on the train’s formica table.
He heard a voice – uncannily like Sergeant Donovan’s – muttering in his head, “Yes. And in most families, Sherlock, you’re it. Or, should I say, It.”
“Oh, like Mum’s Great-Aunt Sarah.” John had not been conscious of speaking until the words were out of his mouth. He was rewarded by a quick, upward twitch of Sherlock’s lips.
“I can’t recall your ever mentioning her existence.”
John grinned. “Precisely the point. She thought she was the Archbishop of Canterbury. And she spun people.”
“On the spot. Like tops. I think they finally took her away after an incident involving a monsignor from County Meath and the Lateran Steps. So how did your Uncle Montague’s peculiarities show themselves?”
Sherlock shrugged. “Mummy’s uncle, not mine. No idea. When my family chooses not to mention a relative, we do the job properly.” He put his head on one side; assessing, recollecting. “She once told Mycroft that if he wasn’t careful he’d end up like her uncle Montague. But she was very cross at the time.”
“Good grief. You are sure this was a weekend cottage her uncle had, not – ah – a weekend fake volcano crater with space-launch facilities and added ninjas?”
“Positive. I’ve seen photographs.” Sherlock hesitated; a defensive note crept into his voice. “Mummy made the most ridiculous fuss when he died and she discovered he’d left the place away from the family altogether, to some middle-aged jobbing actor whom he’d met for a couple of days back in 1969. I told her at the time she was being completely illogical, but she wouldn’t listen.”
“Sounds just like Mum and Great-Aunt Sarah’s Crown Derby tea-set. Not that I imagine they actually wanted it at Lambeth Palace, but the principle’s the same. Oh, Lancaster. Grab your things, we’re changing here.”
Brush-strokes of horizontal sleet driven before a howling westerly gale greeted them as they descended. Sherlock stalked the length of the platform, his coat turned up about his ears. Fortunately, the little two-carriage local train was already in the end bay. Sherlock folded himself into a window seat with that characteristic crumpling movement, like a giraffe who’d learnt the party trick of compressing itself into a dog basket, and was asleep before they’d left the station.
His scarf had fallen across his mouth and nose. John, stretching out a hand to clear it away, allowed his thumb to brush gently across the too-sharp cheekbones, caress papery, violet-shadowed skin below where those long lashes rested. Sherlock stirred in his sleep, moving into his touch, uttering a little whimper of content.
For the first time since that nightmare journey to France a week ago, a journey which had ended in a darkened room at the Hotel Dulong in Lyons (a hand like a claw coming up out of the gloom to seize his wrist; a harsh, almost unrecognisable croak, loud in the shuttered silence: “John, help me. I’ve forgotten how tosleep.”) John allowed himself to hope things might turn out all right, after all.
There was coffee.
He had heard the soft chink of the cup being placed on the bedside table; the breathing pause as John waited to see whether he would acknowledge his presence; the almost imperceptible exhalation of disappointment when he did not; the soft whisper of the door closing.
But now –
Aromatic steam drifted past nostrils newly sharpened to appreciate it. Habit still weighed his eyelids shut; habit and something his sluggish brain recognised as fear. The black misery which had enveloped him for so long had, in its own way, been perfection; complete in itself, eliminating all possibility of choice, change, movement. Safety, of a sort. The safety offered by a coffin, not a womb.
He could feel its seductive weight holding back his limbs even now, retarding the movement of his hand towards the coffee cup.
Opening his eyes was the most terrifying act he had ever contemplated. He took a deep breath, composing his mind, nerving every muscle, like a diver on the edge of the high board, just before the plunge.
His lids snapped up.
The room – was delightful in its ordinariness. He wanted to kiss every banal piece of stripped pine furniture, every overly-ruffled pillow-case and valance.
“Boring,” he said aloud, and laughed.
He flung back the duvet and strode to the window.
The rain and wind he recalled from yesterday (or had it been a decade ago?) had vanished; pearl-grey light illuminated an expanse of still water, rimmed by low, rounded hills. At the water’s edge black and white birds with orange legs ran in and out, engaged in an intricate dance with the little wavelets that washed the shoreline. Like a bracelet (or, perhaps, a set of fetters) a viaduct ran slantwise across an inlet; a little train, no bigger than a toy, crossed it as he watched. Even through the glass of the window he could hear the faint, distant hoot of its whistle.
He turned to pick up his coffee cup. He could still sense the dark monster lurking, down below, waiting for him to slip, waiting for him to let it in. Not today, though. Not here. Not if there was any justice in the world.
Justice. The incautious word set up a harsh, mocking echo, a thread of cold laughter from the abyss. His fingers clutched the cup’s fragile handle. A distant part of his mind calculated how much force it would take to make it snap.
How long had the hammering at his door been going on?
He schooled his voice into indifference; anything to make John go away, to fend off sympathy and concern he had no energy to receive.
“What is it now?”
“Do you want the last pair of kippers? Because, if not, I’m bagging them.”
The gathering dark mood dissipated like wisps of smoke before a stiff easterly breeze.
“All yours,” he gasped, somehow managing to choke back a giggle. He heard John’s footsteps retreat down the landing, then flung himself down on the bed, revelling with renewed delight in a world where justice in general might be a gigantic cosmic deception, but which nevertheless contained John and his unshakeable moral core. Even when it came to the ethics of kipper distribution.