There were many secrets between my friend Sherlock Holmes and myself. Even after
living and working together for many years, there were basic facts about Holmes’
past that I knew nothing about. He never spoke of his family, other than his
older brother Mycroft, who he mentioned infrequently and saw even less. His
childhood was a complete mystery to me. And whether or not he had loved, or been
loved, was never discussed, although I had long since concluded that Holmes had
chosen the life of a celibate in order to remain pure of intellect, and not to
bog down his great mind with softer emotions.
I won’t lie and say I was
unaffected by curiosity: indeed, the very nature of my friend led me to have
great interest in his history, and how his unique powers of perception had come
to be. I wanted to know everything about him, and at times his silence about his
past drove me mad with inquisitiveness, yet I said nothing.
silence between us stretched both ways. Likewise, Holmes never asked me about my
own family, or my own past. And while I would have been happy to expound both
the pleasant and the unpleasant memories of my own sad family, there were
aspects of my life before Baker Street that I preferred not to mention.
Specifically, memories of my time in Afghanistan were so painful that I could
not think on them at all. I shut the entire episode from my mind, and even went
so far as to devise an alternative history for myself, one in which a stray
jezail bullet tore my shoulder to shreds, and left me in a fevered state that
kept me delirious and weak in India for months.
This is not what happened
to me in Afghanistan.
But I blocked the truth from my mind. And I was
greatly relieved that Holmes never pressed me for details. At first, I assumed
it was his natural arrogance that kept him from inquiring into my past. Holmes,
for better or worse, has always been a selfish man, who shows interest in other
people only if they are part of some mystery or crime. He is more than happy to
bend your ear for hours, regardless of whether or not his story is of interest
to you, but he does not reciprocate, and has little patience for tales that do
not involve him or his work. Therefore I assumed he never asked for details
about my service, or about my limp, or my shoulder, or even my wasted appearance
when we first met, because he just didn’t care. When we had first been
introduced, I gave him my cursory, fictional story, and he nodded and accepted
it, never questioning me further.
As our relationship developed, and we
became close friends, a part of me was always on edge for the moment he would
ask about my military campaign. But he never did. He respected the privacy of my
past in the same way that I respected his. I assumed he would tell me about his
family if and when he was ready, and it seemed this unspoken agreement went both
ways, for never did we talk of the times before we met. Our lives fell in
together into a great partnership, and a rewarding friendship.
all, we were both lonely men who came upon each other at a difficult time in our
lives. I was all but shattered after the war, and Holmes was broke and
idealistic, desperate to start his new career. That two men, so opposite in
personalities, with such different histories, could find themselves the best of
friends, is one of those great, beautiful mysteries that lends life its
There was only one episode in our early history together that
stressed the secrets I held from Holmes. I distinctly remember the day Holmes
asked me to accompany him to the Turkish baths, a recent discovery of his and
something he adored. I refused, making up a long list of excuses, each one
infuriating my friend further. There had been a tense moment, when he seemed on
the verge of asking me about my constant, prudish phobia of being seen without
clothing. But then he suddenly looked me over with his calculating gray eyes,
and a softness touched them. Without another word, he accepted my refusal to
accompany him, and never asked me to the baths again.
I don’t think I
had ever been so indebted to Sherlock Holmes’ perceptiveness as I had been at
Matters came to a head the day Holmes was commissioned to
investigate the strange occurrences surrounding the death of Colonel James
Barclay, of the Royal Munsters in Aldershot. I have previously written of this
remarkable case in a story published in The Strand, entitled “The Crooked Man.”
However, I left out many of the more personal details, which marked this case as
an historic one both in my own life and in my relationship with Sherlock
Holmes and I both made our way up to Aldershot upon the bidding
of Barclay’s second-in-command, Major James Murphy. As we entered the barracks,
I felt a twinge of nostalgia, remembering my pride in those early days as a
young soldier in the British Army. But as we approached the Major’s office, I
found myself absent-mindedly rubbing my wounded shoulder, as if my body would
not let my mind forget what my tenure in the Army had cost me.
Murphy was a stout fellow with a fierce gaze. As Holmes and I sat down in his
office, he questioned us about our past experience with such matters, and how we
would handle a case of such delicacy.
Holmes reassured the Major,
recounting the numerous times he had been privy to sensitive information.
Likewise, Holmes assured the Major that I too was a trustworthy gentleman, and a
retired Army surgeon as well, therefore no stranger to the ways of the
At this announcement, the Major’s expression changed. He asked
me under whom I served and where. I gave him the basic details, informing him
that I was attached to the Berkshires and, after Maiwand, convalesced in
Peshawar until I was fit enough to return home.
The Major’s eyes
narrowed. “You were at Maiwand?”
“Yes, sir,” I told him. I shifted in my
chair. There was always a strangeness in the way people looked at me after they
heard I had emerged from that terrible battle alive. Civilians were morbidly
curious. Military men were generally awed. But Major Murphy had apparently made
quite a study of the events surrounding General Roberts’ Afghan campaign, and
now he looked at me with suspicion.
“You received the Kandahar Bronze
Star?” he asked.
I knew the blood drained from my face at the question.
“Then you did not march with Roberts out of Maiwand?” Murphy
I could feel Holmes’ eyes suddenly snap towards me,
boring a hole in the side of my face with their intensity.
very little,” I said quietly. My voice was raspy, as my throat had gone
completely dry. The room began to spin.
“You were left on the
battlefield?” The Major frowned.
I swallowed repeatedly, trying to get
some moisture into my throat. I tugged at my necktie, feeling choked, beginning
to reel in panic. I couldn’t breathe.
The major watched me like a hawk.
“If you were captured, I would have recommended you for the Bronze Star,
regardless of the fact that you were not present for the march.”
something further, but I couldn’t hear him, because there was a buzzing in my
ears, and in horror I realized I was about to faint. Such a sign of cowardice in
front of a commanding officer and, worse, Holmes, was unbearable to me. My fear
of appearing so weak in front of them merely exasperated my panic attack, making
me audibly gasp for air. I felt as though a great hand clutched my throat, and I
grappled at my necktie and gagged.
“My friend is not well.” In an instant
Holmes was beside me, lifting me out of the chair with a gentleness I had never
seen in him. Without another word, he led me out of the Major’s office and
through the long stone hallway until we were outside, in the barracks courtyard.
I pulled away from him then, and walked a small distance for privacy. I leaned
with my palms against the stone wall, taking deep gasps of air, trying to calm
my heart. Holmes did not approach me. He leaned against the wall and smoked a
cigarette, staring at the soldiers in the distance with a bored expression.
Anyone who didn’t know him well would have assumed he was annoyed by the
interruption, but I could see the pinched expression around his lips, and the
way he anxiously kept looking over to me, his eyes soft and wide with concern.
I leaned my forehead against the stone wall, and clenched my eyes shut,
forcing the images out of my head. I could feel and hear and taste and see
everything, everything that I had tried to forget, it all came rushing back to
me in one explosion of sensation, and without warning, I had to brace myself
against the wall and be sick.
It took me several minutes to right myself.
I whispered a quiet mantra under my breath. I am John Watson, I am alive, I
am in England. I am John Watson, I am alive, I am in England. I mumbled the
words under my breath until I could no longer hear screaming in my head. And
then, with as much dignity as I could muster, I wiped my mouth on my
handkerchief, tried to right my hair, and re-tied my necktie.
very deliberately ignored my mumbling, my vomiting, my great display of
cowardice. He flicked his cigarette butt into the courtyard, and looked at me
with a flicker of a smile. “Alright? Shall we resume our interview?”
nodded, feeling my cheeks flush with my shame. Holmes turned abruptly and led me
back into the building, but not before reaching over to briefly, wordlessly,
squeeze my arm. There was such depth of affection in that small gesture, such
reassurance, that I felt on the verge of destroying my manhood once more, and
breaking down into tears. I swallowed the rest of my rampant emotions and
squared my shoulders to face the Major.
Major Murphy, like Holmes, was an
observant fellow who had the decency not to mention what had just happened. He
began his tale of Colonel Barclay’s murder at once, and kept his eyes on Holmes.
For my part, I fumbled for my notebook and began taking notes, watching the last
of my shaking drain out of my hands. By the time Holmes had completed his
questioning, I was absorbed in the mystery as well, and had forgotten the
earlier unpleasant incident.
Indeed, I thought of it no more that day. We
raced from one end of the city to the other, following clues and Holmes’
peculiar hunches, and I was blissfully free of the tormented thoughts of that
That night, however, was a different matter.
That night, I awoke to the sound of my own
I bolted upright, and choked on a cry of surprise when I saw
Holmes standing beside my bed, a candle flickering in his hands, his face pale,
his eyes wide.
“Holmes!” I gasped, blinking, trying to remember what had
happened. I wiped my face with the back of my hand. My skin was clammy, my brow
soaked with sweat. “What….what are you doing here?”
Holmes peered at me
with his brows knitted in concern. “You were screaming in your sleep. I came to
“Oh.” I closed my eyes and sank back under the sheets. My
whole body felt exhausted, muscles taut, like I had just climbed a mountain.
My eyes shot open, and I reached for Holmes’ arm. “What did I scream?” I
“I couldn’t understand,” he said, staring at my hand on his arm
with a frown. “It was nonsensical. Some of it was in Dari, not
“Oh.” Relieved, I let go of Holmes and pulled the comforter
over me. I closed my eyes once more and sank back under the sheets. It felt good
to be tucked in my bed, safe in my room. I let the peace and quiet of the early
morning hours of Baker Street wash over me. “My apologies, Holmes. I am sorry I
woke you. Good night.”
I cracked open an eye, and saw
Holmes looking at me with a very strange expression. He sat on the edge of my
bed, and put his candle on the bedside table. In the flickering light, he looked
pale and beautiful. His very presence seemed to fill my body with warmth, calm
“What?” I whispered. I stared back at him. The two of us looked
at each other, the moment stretching. It was tense, and uncomfortable, and warm,
and pleasing all at the same time. I could feel my whole body loosen, the tight
knots in my muscles releasing themselves from the hold of my nightmare. In fact,
I began to feel slightly woozy, as if drugged. The intensity of the silence
between us, of the look he was giving me, made me feel drunk. My cheeks flushed,
and I saw a reciprocal color spread across the bridge of his nose, along his
“Watson…this will not do.”
“What won’t do?” I
“Watson.” He smiled sadly. “You are not a fool. And neither am
“I don’t know what you are talking about.” It was true. I wasn’t sure
if he was referring to my nightmare, or to the intensity of the look between us.
In either case, I was quite sure I did not want to discuss the
“As a doctor, I would expect you to recognize the dangers of
ignoring such symptoms.”
I sat upright, beginning to feel annoyed.
“Holmes, what on earth are you talking about?”
Holmes stared at me again,
frowning, his eyes sad and powerful and intense, and I could feel it in my
bones, in my toes, in my groin, his gaze seemed to radiate a sensuality about
it, a drunken warmth, and I felt quite hot under the collar.
never presume to pry into your past,” Holmes said quietly.
The flare of
heat which had coursed through my body cooled instantly. So we were not
discussing the intensity of his stare, or his presence, an inch away from me, on
my bed. We were not discussing the alluring thickness of his lips, the way they
seemed surreally red and fleshy against the pale contours of his face, the dark
wild toss of his chaotic black hair. I found myself remorsefully letting go of
the fantasies of another sort of terrible discussion, and instead, narrowed my
eyes at him.
”Then don’t pry,” I warned him.
Holmes sighed. “But
if you are going to continue along with me on this particular case, I feel
obliged to inform you that there may be additional moments of discomfort for
you. And I will not know how to spare you such discomfort if I don’t know what I
am sparing you from.”
Fear formed an icy blockage in my throat. My horror
must have been clear, for Holmes’ eyes softened instantly.
“I don’t need
details. I have a vivid enough imagination as it is. But Watson…I have a
distinct feeling that we are going to uncover some dark history of our client in
India.” Holmes watched me carefully. He suddenly reached out, pressing his hand
against my chest. It was such an intimate gesture, I was shocked, but still I
sighed with relief. The heat of his hand burned through the bedspread and
coursed through my body, lending me his strength, his courage. I needed his
reassurance, his touch, more than I wanted to admit. I let the air out of my
lungs shakily, and Holmes left his hand there, on me, as if he were holding in
my pain, holding me together.
Still, I did not volunteer any information.
He sat there in silence a minute longer, and then he swallowed. “What happened
to you in Afghanistan?”
It was such a simple question.
instantly, I could feel myself gagging. I was going to be sick again. My whole
body tensed, preparing for pain. How could I explain what happened to me in
Afghanistan? All I really remembered was sensation – fear, agony, humiliation. I
remember choking on my own blood, watching my body burn and break. I had begged
to die at some point, for shame of what I had been forced to do, what they had
done to me. My horror washed over me, and I knew I would cry. I quickly turned
from Holmes, curling into a ball, giving up the comfort of his hand in exchange
for the blank, faceless darkness of the corner of my bedroom.
captured at Maiwand.” It took my mind a moment to register the voice as my own.
I couldn’t believe that I had actually answered Holmes’ question. I couldn’t
believe that the high-pitched, wavering voice belonged to me. “I was held by the
Ghazis for ransom. I was tortured.”
Holmes was silent for a minute. I
could feel his breathing through the shudders in the mattress. “Was the ransom
paid?” he asked finally.
“No.” I pulled the sheet around me tighter. “I
was there for three months. And then they left me for dead.”
Holmes was breathing heavily now. I turned to face him then, and I saw, in his
devastated expression, that he was almost as scared as I was. “What did they do
to you?” He seemed to force the words out.
John…” His hand was back on me then, brushing the sweaty hair off my forehead.
It was a very mothering gesture. He looked appalled, but he slowly ran his
fingers through my hair, rhythmically, ritually, as if he were completely at
peace. I closed my eyes and focused on the feeling of his fingers, rather than
the cold ache of my memories.
“They flayed me,” I told him. I don’t know
why I went on, but I could no longer stop the words. They poured from my lips,
relentless. “They ripped the flesh from my shoulder and shattered my bones. They
caged me for days. They beat me senseless. And when the ransom never
I couldn’t finish it. I wept, ashamed, both at the loathsome
memory, and at this moment, crying in front of Holmes. He let me weep as he
brushed the hair from my forehead, and when my tears had stopped, he leaned over
me so his face hovered just above mine. He swallowed, and stared at me with eyes
haunted with sadness.
“…They violated you.” He finished the sentence for
I wanted to be sick. To die. To run from him, to put a bullet through
my head, to kill someone. Instead, all the anger, the hatred, the fear, it
seemed to drain from me as he continued to stroke my head, softly, calmly. He
was not repulsed. I saw sadness and pity in his eyes, but I did not see
I nodded. And to my surprise, the corner of his mouth lifted a
little, and he smiled. “I think you should be able to sleep now, my friend.”
There were times when I thought Holmes was a witch, but never more than
that moment, because all of a sudden, a great, sleepy peace washed over me. It
was a struggle to keep my eyes open a minute longer.
“Will you stay?” I
asked, no longer caring if I sounded childish. “Until I am asleep, at
Without a word, Holmes lifted his hand from my head and climbed
under the sheets with me. He blew out the candle and then turned on his side to
face my back. At first, he did not touch me. But when I scooted back towards the
warmth of his body, he hesitantly lifted his left arm and wrapped it over my
shoulder. He rested his long, thin hand on my sternum once again, pushing my
spirit back inside my body, as if afraid it would flee in fear and never
“Thank you for telling me,” he whispered, just before I fell
“Don’t leave me,” I whispered back nonsensically, not knowing why
I said it. He spooned his body behind mine, pulled me tight into his embrace,
and I fell asleep.
In the morning, Holmes was gone.
I bathed and
changed and ate my breakfast alone, fear forming a hard lump in my stomach.
Perhaps Holmes had changed his mind, was disgusted with me, disgusted by last
night. I ate myself alive with my preoccupations, until a telegram arrived for
me, directing me to Waterloo Station for the eleven o’clock train to Aldershot.
It was signed, “Yours, S.H.” I felt a giddy rush of excitement, and with none of
the previous day’s weight upon me, I rushed to our appointment in
Holmes met me with his usual bubbling enthusiasm that
accompanied him on a case. We boarded the train just as it pulled from the
station, and we pushed our way into a reserved cabin with much
Holmes began at once to expound what he had uncovered in
the early hours of the morning. While I had been sleeping, he had been
sleuthing, discovering the species of mammal that produced unusual, cat-like
footprints, researching the staff of the Guild of St. George in Aldershot, even
finding out which pubs a certain army entertainer could be found in.
mention was made of the previous night – neither the conversation, nor the
indiscretion of sleeping together. But Holmes touched my knee frequently as he
spoke, and as soon as the conductor had collected our tickets, he moved to sit
next to me, never interrupting his story, but continuing on, clasping my hand in
I didn’t mention it. I wanted him to continue his story, because I
was interested. And I was afraid that if I pointed out the fact that we were
sitting with our legs pressed together, holding hands like young lovers, he
would move away. I asked questions and he answered with all of his cocky grace,
glowing in pride as he informed me of what our plans would be once we arrived in
Aldershot. I squeezed his hand and he squeezed it back. We did not let go of
each other until we reached the station, and then, with a flush of
embarrassment, I disentangled my fingers from his, and tried to straighten out
Holmes went about solving his case with all of his usual
verve. But every time I thought that the new affection between us was just my
imagination, or a response from last night’s sordid disclosure, Holmes would
somehow instinctively know I needed reassurance, and reach out to touch my
elbow, or squeeze my hand, or gently rest his arm on my shoulder. All his
gestures were acceptable. No one blinked an eye. But I could feel pleasure and
warmth spread through me at each touch.
I did not have long to ponder
such thoughts, however, as Holmes dragged me from the barrack’s lounge to a
lonely, dark road called Hudson Street, and knocked upon the door of a decrepit
flat. Inside we found a deformed man in such a pitiable condition that at first
I could not believe he was capable of movement at all.
Wood, as I later learned was his name, was at first very curt with us, demanding
to know if we called on behalf of the police and why we suspected him in Colonel
Barclay’s death. However, once Holmes informed the man that the Colonel’s wife
was suspected of murder, Mr. Wood immediately changed his tone, desperate to
clear the woman’s name.
“You can take my word that she is innocent,” he
cried, and then Mr. Wood began his tale, drawing two seats for us close to the
I need not repeat the terrible fate which Henry Wood endured at the
hands of Colonel Barclay. I have explained it all before. But sitting there and
hearing the story was very difficult for me. I watched this man speak of his
torture, watched him spit out his fury and rage, looked at his twisted, broken
body, and I realized, for the first time, that I was exceedingly lucky. I had
survived. More so, I had survived mostly intact, although my body was marred by
scars and my leg would never again work the way it had in my youth. This was a
man who had experienced years of what I had lived through in those
disastrous three months. And when it was all said and done, I returned to
England a hero, maybe not rewarded with the medals that were my due, but with a
favorable record and a wound pension that sustained my basic needs. This man had
been forgotten by queen and country. This man had lived the nightmare for years
and, worse, because he had been betrayed by a fellow officer. My heart filled
with sympathy for this sad creature before me, and as he spoke of the pain of
his return, of seeing his beloved once more and realizing that she could never
love such a cripple back, I shared in his grief. I understood his shame and
However, unlike me, this man was brave enough to face the
horrors that had beaten him. He told his story to strangers. And I, before last
night, had not spoken of my own trial to anyone.
As Mr. Wood spoke,
Holmes gave him his full attention. But somewhere in the middle of the
narrative, Holmes’ hand casually reached behind our chairs, and rested softly on
my lower back. The mere pressure and heat of his touch sent shocks of warmth
through my body, and the tension drained from me. I could breathe again. Holmes
removed his hand soon thereafter, but I could still feel the lingering
reassurance of his touch.
Mr. Wood finished his tale, and Holmes assured
him that we would not ask him to testify unless Mrs. Barclay was brought up on
charges of murder. Mr. Wood heartily agreed to speak up then, as he was loathe
to cause Mrs. Barclay any harm. There was a great love in this man still, and I
once again marveled at the mystery of friendship in this world, that a man
destroyed on account of the love of one woman, could still find joy and
salvation in that self-same love.
“What will you do now?” I asked Mr.
Wood as we prepared to depart.
He shrugged, as best he could with his
hunched back, and offered me a grizzly smile. “To live,” he told me. “Just live.
That’s what life is for, is it not?”
“But after all that has happened to
you….” I wanted – no; I needed to know – how he could go on living after
so many years of humiliation and abuse. I gripped his filthy lapels and begged
him with my eyes. “How can you just let it all go?” My voice wavered.
Wood looked at me thoughtfully. He then smiled. “I cherish the memory of the
love I once had. And that allows me to survive. Love makes horror bearable, Dr.
I felt my eyes fill with tears. Before I could say another word,
Holmes was bustling me out of the room, exclaiming dramatically that we had to
inform Major Murphy of the truth.
Outside, on Hudson Street, it was dark.
I turned my face from the bitter chill of the evening air, and found Holmes once
again by my side, standing very close to me. His face was a breath from mine,
and it would only take a tilt of my head to kiss him.
We stared at each
other for another long moment, and he smiled slowly, lazily. “Come along,
Doctor,” Holmes said at last. He pushed his hat down further on his head and
held out his arm. “I owe you an apology. We are well past your usual dining
hour. Will you join me in the local inn for some refreshment?”
relieved, pleased, and – I had to admit – in love, and I linked my arm in his.
The two of us marched to the nearest pub.
Love did make horror bearable.
And for the first time since my return from Afghanistan, I felt the giddy
possibility of love, and how much I wanted to share it with this man.