Chapter One: 221b Baker Street
It was the smell of the place. The rooms that I’d agreed to take at 221b Baker Street with my new acquaintance, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, had been agreeable enough – close to the centre of town, to the libraries and the hospitals where I studied, and the clubs where I could eat adequately. They were clean, warm and we were well looked after by the housekeeper, Mrs Hudson. But they smelt. They smelt incessantly and almost unendurably. They smelt of the damned chemicals that Holmes kept there, the chemicals with which, when he wasn’t scraping away on his bloody violin, he tinkered all the time. Now, I can hear you asking, ‘what sort of a medical man is it who can’t abide the smell of chemicals? Ain’t they the tools of his trade? Don’t he smell them all the time when he’s in the laboratory and won’t he get so used to them there that he don’t notice them?’ And I’d answer, ‘yes, in the lab they’re fine, because that’s what you expect to smell’. But it’s outside the lab, when they’re somewhere you don’t have to smell them that they bring back the ghosts.
Particularly ether. That strange, thin, acidic smell that gets into your clothes and your hair and sticks up your nostrils and, whilst it’s meant to deaden pain, tells you that there’s a devil of a lot of it that you’re just about to impose on someone else or have inflicted upon you. And that’s why Baker Street could be unbearable; Holmes kept ether by the gallon and the place reeked of it. The last time that I’d smelt ether out of its natural habitat held bad memories, bloody bad memories. That chemical smell was combined with the stink of hot canvas – the canvas of the dressing station of the 66th Regiment in a corner of hell. A dressing station is meant to be a place of help, succour and recovery – a pretty rough and ready place of recovery, I’ll grant you, but not the blood-soaked charnel house that it became in late July a couple of years ago, just a few days after we’d marched from the banks of the Helmand into that godforsaken desert.Those couple of years had been difficult. It wasn’t the bullet in my shoulder that was the problem – not at all. That came out as good as gold in the hospital in Kandahar, leaving me, I know, jerky with my left arm and a little hunched, but none the worse. No, it was the scar on my mind. I know others have seen things just as bad. I can remember those old Crimea and Mutiny boys whom I met when I was a lad. Even if they had all their fingers and toes, those poor old files jumped a league when something went bang. They couldn’t seem to concentrate on much and, so often, could be found flogging matches with their ribbons pinned to their chest and a faraway look in their eyes, not much good for anything else. Indeed, it was their stories and their case studies that got me so interested in medicine in the first place, never expecting I’d become a subject for some other sawbones to whet his appetite upon one day.
It wasn’t bangs or loud noises that lit my fuse, though. No, it was odd things – the high-pitched cry of a newspaper seller, the sort of screech that you hear from a certain type of working girl which passes for laughter: unusual human noises. A particular note or timbre could bring all that yelling and shouting back to me as the tribesmen closed in, their steel flashing as bright as their eyes, blades hacking and stabbing till there wasn’t a blind thing left alive around me. And even now, even two years later, such noises could still set off a sort of numbed panic or rip me shivering from sleep. So, I withdrew, I know I did. I tried to keep such things from my mind; I tried not to read the newspapers; I shunned my friends from the Regiment – even Private Bowler who’d been with me throughout that ghastly time, from Kandahar to Gereshk and back again; even loyal, decent, brave Bowler who’d slung me across the back of a mule when I was bleeding like a slaughtered sheep and protected that native girl like she was his own sister: even Bowler. I just wanted to rub all those memories out, to screw up the piece of paper upon which the wretched, painful story was written and to throw it in the fire.
How I misjudged the man with whom I chose to share those less than fragrant rooms in Baker Street. When Stamford first introduced me to him in the hospital laboratory – all set about by ether-like smells, please note – and Holmes had straightaway observed that I had the mark of Afghanistan upon me, I’d laughed and tried to ignore it. Why would he know? How could he know? It must have been a lucky guess. But I’d no sooner settled into our quarters, and the smell begun to settle on me, than the subject came up again. Holmes had already impressed me with his powers of deduction, his wonderful empathy, what he called his intuition; then, to illustrate the point, he’d volunteered how surprised I’d looked when first we’d met and he’d immediately linked me to Afghanistan. He explained the train of thought that went through his mind. I’ll remember it always:
‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type but with the air of a military man: clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the Tropics, for his face is dark; that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured; he holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the Tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly, in Afghanistan.’
As if these observations weren’t enough, I’d been sharing rooms with Holmes for less than a week when he gave me another demonstration of his powers that utterly staggered me. After lunch he would write at a desk facing out of one of the rear windows. This, I’d noticed, was a daily habit of his. He’d be there for no more than forty-five minutes (I never asked what he wrote). I would usually take this time to read the paper or just to think, sitting deep in an armchair, with Holmes hunched over his papers on the other side of the room.
We’d done this only three or four times when, on this occasion, I was sunk in melancholy, wondering about the future and trying not to linger on the past. Suddenly, he said, ‘Please stop that, Watson. It makes an infernal row; can’t you just have the damn thing put on your watch-chain like any other man would? Why do you keep playing with it?’
At first I thought that he must be able to see my reflection in the glass of the window. How else could he know? I didn’t reply.
‘Trophies like that have their place, I agree, but can’t you be a bit more discreet with it? Hang it from your watch-chain, like I say, or have a little case made for it and leave it on the mantel piece, but do stop tinkering with it, can’t you? It’s damned distracting.’
It was turning into something of a habit, I agree. Whenever the black dog paid a visit I’d ferret it out of my waistcoat pocket, pass it from hand to hand and, I suppose annoyingly, roll it along the surface of the table next to my chair under my palm.
‘What do you mean by trophy, Holmes?’ He couldn’t see what I was toying with; how could he know?
‘Well, it’s obvious what it is, isn’t it? Clearly, it’s round, but it’s not a glass eye or a child’s marble; why would you have such things? In fact, it’s not quite round as the noise it makes as you roll it is uneven. And it’s a low noise, suggesting metal – soft, heavy metal that’s slightly misshapen. It’s a musket ball, Watson – the one they fished out of your back in Afghanistan after it had hit your shoulder blade and lost its shape,’ he answered matter- of-factly. ‘Now be a good fellow and either put it away or give it to me so that I can take it to my jewellers and have it mounted for you.’
‘But that’s astounding, Holmes … how on earth …’
But he interrupted my surprise: ‘No, it’s not astounding; it’s elementary, my dear Watson.’
And there it was: the whole part of my recent life, the part I’d hoped to shroud, to keep from prying eyes, laid bare before me. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if he’d even mentioned the very place that things had changed for me forever – Maiwand. That shocking, sordid, sun-baked gutter where the best men I’ve ever known still lay. Their bones, I guessed, were now as white as the walls of the squalid little village where the pick of Victoria’s men – both Indian and English – were hacked into carrion. If Holmes thought my face haggard, it had reason to be as his words sent me tumbling back into that butcher’s shambles: nothing more than a scratch on the map known as Maiwand.
Dr. Watson’s War is published by Endeavour Press (www.endeavourpress.com)