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Chapter 7 - Lift Up Mine Eyes To The Hills by A.J. Hall

The candle on the table flickered, its flame reflected in the plate-glass window. Outside, the rising moon had just cleared the further fells, bathing their tops in silver light, turning the clefts and gullies of their slopes into sharp-edged, black pits of oblivion.

Across the table, Sherlock – wearing a new charcoal-grey shirt, his hair barely dry from the shower – fizzed with animation, leaping from topic to topic with dazzling speed, almost forgetting to eat, even though the food was delectable and the insanely expensive white Burgundy Sherlock had insisted on ordering felt as if angels were copulating on one’s tongue.

The inn landlord materialised beside their table. “Sorry you’re having to leave us so soon. Has everything been all right for you?”

John, who had spent a truly alarming number of evenings hearing restaurateurs offer up similar hostages to fortune, shot his flatmate a repressive glance. Remember, the correct answer is not, “Surprisingly so, given I see your pâtissier has fallen off the wagon again and I doubt the smokescreen you’ve been drawing over the rodent infestation in the pantries will hold the Environmental Health off much longer.” Or whatever you’ve managed to deduce this time.

Sherlock flicked him the ghost of a wink in response.

“Everything’s been delightful.” He paused. “And I agree. The Local Government Act 1972 was a travesty of justice. Best of luck with your campaign.”

The landlord beamed; John, from long experience of Sherlock’s methods, deduced that the white Burgundy would have miraculously transformed itself into house white by the time it arrived on the bill, if it didn’t manage to disappear altogether.

“Well, fingers crossed for the Localisation Bill,” the landlord said. “Anyway, well done. We’ve been here seven years, and you’re the first to work the sign out. Hope we’ll be seeing you again soon.”

He passed on to the next table.

“Well?” John said, as soon as he was out of earshot.

Sherlock’s words tumbled out even faster than earlier; he ticked off points on his long, pale hands.

“The inn’s name is the Ape and Artisan but the sign shows a monkey. Second anomaly, the term “artisan”. It’d be more usual to describe a cobbler or a potter that way, not a man who happens to building a wall. Dry-stone walling is a skill, yes, but in these parts it’s one every farmer has to learn. Conclusion; the figures on the sign have significance beyond illustrating the pub name.

“The view of the fells. Not the angle the tourist shots use. Painted on an orientation which centres around the line of the wall. So, the wall’s important. If you transpose the line of the wall onto the map, what do you get? The current OS map gives you nothing until you extend line up to Wrynose Pass, when it hits a monument labelled ‘Three Shires Stone’. One problem; no county boundary for miles in any direction at the current time, so ‘Three Shires Stone’ must reference previous boundaries, presumably shown on earlier maps.

“There’s an older version of the OS map hanging on the wall of the bar. People often put maps on walls, but they tend to be either antiques or modern maps in good condition. They don’t glaze and frame battered relics from the 1960s with visible coffee stains. Not unless the map in question has sentimental value. Our landlord’s in his early ’50s. Born in Liverpool from his accent, but moved to southern England in his teens, only returned north when he and his wife acquired the inn seven years ago. As you yourself prove, people who come here as children often form a passionate attachment to the place. Probably that’s the map he used on the first real mountain he ever climbed.

“On the older map the Three Shires Stone marks the place where the counties of Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire met, before the boundary changes imposed by the 1972 Local Government Act.

“Using the old map to examine the inn sign, you can see that the line of the wall runs along the old boundary between Lancashire and Westmoreland. Notably, both the monkey and the man building the wall are on the Lancashire side. This is a political and partisan painting: their location is obviously symbolic. Google permutations of ‘Lancashire’ ‘monkey’ and ‘stone wall’ and you find an unpublished draft of a poem by Francis Thompson called ‘At Lord’s’.”

“Oh.” The penny dropped. “Harry used to recite that. ‘And the run-stealers flicker, to and fro, to and fro/Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago.’”

“Precisely. ‘Monkey’ and ‘Stonewall’ were nicknames for Hornby and Barlow, Lancashire cricketers of the 1870s. The poem’s tone is elegiac, but it celebrates a triumph of Lancashire, the underdogs, against a much stronger southern team, led by W.G. Grace, the most famous cricketer of all time.

“So, the landlord’s invoking the heroes of Lancashire’s heroic past in support of his campaign to rebuild the historic boundaries and reminding his fellow Lancastrians of the county’s ability to succeed against apparently overwhelming odds.

“Conclusion; our landlord’s a romantic, an optimist and a passionate believer in his native county. And, also, capable of setting a puzzle which kept me engrossed for three and a half hours. Brilliant.”

He stretched back in his chair, interlocking his fingers behind his neck, wearing an expression of cat-like content. An absurd flicker of tenderness bubbled up within John’s chest at seeing Sherlock back to his normal, infuriating, scintillating self.

“Days, not hours,” he observed mildly. “You were fretting about the inn sign on the morning after we arrived here. But, I agree, brilliant. I’m not sure how you’ll pack all that into a review on Tripadvisor, but I’m sure you’ll manage it somehow.”

Sherlock looked at his watch. “You probably ought to do it now, if you’re going to. You’ll have the best of the moonlight, and if things turn out badly you’ll be back before last orders.”

“Do what?”

“Every time you’ve approached the inn during our stay, you’ve avoided using the back lane, though it’s less convenient to bring a car round by the front route and the parking’s better at the back. I infer you don’t want to pass the cottage where your family stayed when you were a child, probably because you’re afraid of contaminating your idealised memories. But tonight’s your last opportunity, and you’re not the man to baulk a challenge. So, I suggest you do it now.”

“I – OK.”

Pathetic as it might sound, John’s life had featured far more holidays with assorted mates than it ever had romantic getaways. As a result, his sixth sense for when a holiday companion was really saying, “Push off out of my hair for a bit” was finely tuned. Of course, this being Sherlock, his motive presumably wasn’t clearing the field to have an unencumbered crack at the waitress – more probably, to pass onto their landlord tips on explosive formulae, in case he decided to liberate Furness from its evil Cumbrian overlords by direct action. In which case, plausible deniability sounded fine, just fine.

John went, silently, for his coat.

By way of asserting free will, he turned his path to the right on leaving the front door. He walked along the salt-marsh at the water’s edge, watching the moonlight dance on the little waves, before his native honesty reasserted itself.

“Oh, who the fuck am I trying to kid?” he demanded of a random shelduck. It made no constructive suggestion in response. Sherlock might have been trying to get a bit of solitude, but he’d also managed to wrap it up in a perfectly genuine, uncomfortably targeted deduction.

John had been avoiding the cottage. And he knew he’d hate himself forever if he didn’t face it before they left early tomorrow morning.

He turned, and made tracks for the lane which ran behind the Ape and Artisan.

The sound of angry voices spilling out into the night from the cottage’s open window as he approached along the lane provoked a quite unreasonable level of affront. People had no business letting their messy domestic complications intrude upon his nostalgic wallowing.

Come to think of it, though, the Watson family’s tenure of this cottage hadn’t exactly been free of conflict. He recalled Harry; restless, bored, loudly opining that they could have gone to Italy for the same money. His mother, observing that “self-catering holiday” was an oxymoron, at least for a woman, as she buttered bread for another batch of packed lunches. Even his father, complaining that no-one else in the family ever made the effort to keep up, striding blithely through mist and low cloud, his confidence in his map-reading only equalled by his utter absence of a sense of direction, so that more often than not they ended up in unfamiliar valleys, the wrong side of unfordable rivers or – on one memorable occasion – climbing Fairfield when they’d been aiming for Helvellyn.

The noises from inside the cottage subsided. John drew a deep breath. No intervention on his part seemed either necessary or likely to be welcome. He stood for a moment in the moonlit lane, lost in the past. In those days nothing had seemed more certain than that the family would continue to return here, year after year, forever. If he had thought then about the distant, improbable event of being grown up, he would probably have assumed he would bring his own family here in due course, and everything would continue for generations to come.

Even before setting out on this trip, he’d known that the man who could have had that family had been left in Afghanistan as surely as if the bullet had hit him in the head, not the shoulder. Standing in the lane, he realised a profounder truth. That man would never have gone to Afghanistan in the first place. And he certainly would never have contemplated sharing a flat with a mad, mercurial genius who routinely held the fate of nations in his long, pale hands.

In fact, that other man seemed to have a remarkably limited view of life’s possibilities. On the whole, John felt rather sorry for him.

He left the cottage’s inhabitants to it, and retreated to the Ape and Artisan.

As he pushed his bedroom door open he saw, first, that his bedside light was on and, second, that Sherlock was stretched out on his bed, reading by its light. Reading We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, John realised, with a sense of shock that he could focus on such a trivial detail in the circumstances.

Sherlock raised his head from his book, intent eyes scanning him from head to toe. One corner of his mouth quirked into a slight, challenging smile.

The smile was, of course, more noticeable because it happened to be the only thing Sherlock was wearing.

For one heart-stopping moment John froze on the threshold, unsure if his leg might, once more, refuse to obey his will. (“It’s a matter of boundaries.”) Sherlock’s expression changed, his smile faded. John heard the betraying catch of his breath, loud in the room’s charged silence.

His mind raced.

Lying naked on someone else’s bed translated to “blatant come-on” in practically any language one chose to mention. Including Sherlockian. No point considering baroque fantasies about crime-scene reconstructions or experiments intended to generate data about changes in human heart-rates and breathing patterns in response to unexpected stimuli.

This is probably the most unequivocal pass you will ever receive in your life. And it isn’t a chance you’ll be offered twice.

John let the door fall shut behind him. The Yale lock engaged with a soft click. He dropped coat and scarf onto a chair and kicked off his shoes and socks. He detected the faintest shift of posture in the long, lean, muscular body stretched on the bed and imagined Sherlock making a mental note:

Observation one; the subject does not run screaming into the night.

Between one breath and the next John accepted – without fuss or reservation – the truth he’d never before admitted to his conscious mind. He’d been falling for months in slow motion, irrevocably committed from the moment he’d caught this man’s gaze across the chill, bright, preservative-reeking space of Bart’s mortuary.

One glance from those agate-pale eyes and you knew you would kill for this man. Thirty hours later, you had.

His bare feet were almost soundless on the thick pile carpet. He dropped to sit on the edge of the bed, twining the fingers of his left hand with Sherlock’s, gripping hard enough to leave indentations.

Sherlock exhaled; a faint, ragged acknowledgement of relief, desire and need. John raised the captured hand to his lips, brushing those elegant, chemical-stained finger tips in the faintest of kisses. He could feel the tremor which rippled through Sherlock’s body; the answering spike of desire threatened, for a second, to overwhelm him.

Oh, God, I want where this is going. I never dared hope he’d want it too.

Still, no-one – not even Sherlock – should be allowed to spring a naked ambush on a man in his own bedroom and not expect some consequences. Pride demanded it. To say nothing of a prudent sense that if John allowed himself to be steam-rollered in the bedroom - as well as in every other aspect of their shared life – he might rapidly lose any shred of free will he possessed.

Deliberately, he forced a tone of detached interest. “Still, why now? Unless, of course, this is one of those ‘last night of the holiday, we may never be in Istanbul again, how about it?’ type of things?”

“No!” Sherlock’s gasp of outraged denial provoked a pang of guilt. Christ alone knew how long he’d taken to nerve himself up to this point.

“Sorry,” John mumbled, kissing Sherlock’s fingertips once again to reinforce the apology. “Still, you can’t blame me for wondering. After all, I wasn’t the one who went out of my way to make it clear there was nothing doing at the outset, was I?”

“I’m fully aware I’m not someone many people would even contemplate a fling with. Still less a serious relationship.” He hesitated. “Any sane person.”

“Oh, well, that’s all right. Got a therapist and everything.”

Sherlock showed no sign of having noticed the levity. “John; you do know you matter to me, don’t you? It’s just – I’ve had it proved to me this week that sins of omission do count, after all. Things not done and not said, still having the power to hurt, half a century later.”

“This the man in the teashop again?” He might not be a genius, but he could make connections, given half a steer in the right direction.

Sherlock barely nodded; he had turned onto his back, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. The pain in his face decided John’s next move. He curled beside Sherlock on the bed, arm across his chest, cheek resting on his shoulder. Almost unconsciously, Sherlock brought his arm up to embrace him. They lay silent for a moment before Sherlock murmured into his hair, “My mother’s brother shared a flat with him. Over forty years ago. My uncle was in love with him, but never said anything. But when he – Peter – left, my uncle couldn’t carry on.”

“What happened to him?”

“Died of drink and drugs.” A pause. “In the wolf pen at Regent’s Park zoo.” His face twisted in a wry smile. “You don’t have to say it. I do have melodrama encoded in my DNA.”

“History doesn’t have to repeat itself, you pillock. Barring unwinnable land wars in Asia, obviously.” John bent his head, began to kiss his way from the pulse point in Sherlock’s wrist to his palm. “God, you’re gorgeous. Mad as a box of frogs, but then; no-one’s perfect.” He took Sherlock’s thumb into his mouth, circling it delicately with his tongue. He felt, more than heard, Sherlock’s shuddered gasp.

“Oh, yes, that. And there. Why are you still wearing so many clothes?”

“Left as an exercise for the student.” John couldn’t hold his own voice steady. By way of demonstrating the right idea, he shed his jumper.

“Ah.” Sherlock slipped the top two buttons on John’s shirt open, letting his fingers dance across the exposed skin of John’s neck. The shock tingled along his nerves. Sherlock’s expression became predatory, almost triumphant. He reached for the remaining buttons; John rolled onto his back to encourage him. He let out a yelp as his shoulder-blade encountered something hard-edged and unexpected amid the bedclothes.

“Hang on a sec.”

He fished out the discarded copy of We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea; somewhat the worse for wear, spine cracked, open at the title page. John caught sight of Commander Walker’s favourite motto, and grinned.

“Grab a chance and you won’t have to be sorry for a Might-Have-Been,” had never seemed like sounder advice.

So he did.