Author Topic: A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet
« on: October 31, 2020 »
They say history is written by the victors, and so it proved to be the case with Watson and his hero Holmes, the former having a certain talent with wordsmithing which set the latter on a course for sleuthing superstardom whilst I have been cast as the eternal villain. My purpose here is to set the record straight for anyone with ears to listen.

My story began, as does everybody’s, with my mother. She was, in a word, mmmonstrous. Why the surplus of the unlucky 13th letter, you may ask, gentle reader. Herein lies a tale.

Mother hated me from the first word out of my mouth, which was “m-m-m-mum”; for I had a stutter. Oh, the anguish which greeted an innocent babe! The look of horror in her eyes remains with me to this day, for memories form earlier than the scientific establishment is willing to admit. I even recall conversations she had with my father whilst I was in the womb. He was an ineffectual man, his sole accomplishment being present and accounted for at the time of my conception; he was easily dominated otherwise. He, too, lingered on initial consonants, though his condition was mysteriously acquired only after several years of m-m-matrimony.

My childhood was a series of visits to one speech therapist after another. They, too, were ineffectual. Mother persevered with various home remedies, each more gruesome and outlandish than the last. I recall, for example, an entire month spent with a fish strapped to my chin; how this was meant to correct my impediment remains a mystery.

My face became almost a permanent shade of scarlet from serial humiliations, not least of which her obvious shame at having produced me, which hardship entered her every conversation with neighbours and tradesmen.

I was to suffer under her “improvement regime” for the entirety of my time under her and father’s roof. Naturally, I effected escape as soon as I was able to provide for myself. This involved, I am ashamed to admit, criminal activities.

Everyone is embarrassed for a stutterer. Embarrassment turns to impatience. As it happens, an impatient person is an easy mark for those practiced in the art of misdirection, such as magicians… and pickpockets. In order to sustain myself I took up a career as the latter.

I was so proficient that I came to the attention of a criminal mastermind, who pulled me deep into the underworld. His name was never spoken aloud under pain of death; only written when absolutely necessary, then immediately swallowed, no matter what the medium used. A man was once forced to eat his own hand after having the misfortune to have scribbled it on his palm. I shudder to call him anything at all, but needs must. His headquarters were deep in the bloody heart of Smithfield, so Smith it shall be.

The first thing he did was pay for lessons with an expert speech therapist, so that I might master that which had heretofore mastered me. Self-control is a key which unlocks many doors. Thus did Smith earn my loyalty.

His mind was an encyclopedia of crime which I devoured, from arson to zoning violations, admittedly a backwater of criminality but one which offered rich opportunities for blackmail lest a bit of arson be called for.

That I did not commit any of the more abominable acts can be attributed to a squeamishness which he forgave, realising that he had a keen intellect at his disposal, which was much rarer than another set of meathooks twitching to bludgeon. Not incidentally I also became his bookkeeper, as I had a love for numbers. Suffice it to say much human suffering was represented in the tidy columns I kept.

Thus did a willing and eager pawn eventually come to be heir apparent to the crown. I may well have attained my goal had Smith not decided on one final test: my long apprenticeship declared almost over, he required that I murder my own mum. Genteel poisoning wouldn’t do. He wished me very much blooded.

It was an imposing milestone, yet hadn’t this woman tormented me for years? Caused me untold blushes which all but crippled my love life, a florid complexion being less than attractive to the opposite sex at the time? Left me with scars on my psyche, not to mention a phobia of fish? Oh for some meathooks!

I procured the necessary implements and let myself into the family abode very late the next night. Father was snoring; mother was already lying still and silent as a corpse.

“Who’s there?” she croaked as I stood in contemplation of the act I was about to commit.

“It’s me, mother,” I answered. At this she drew the tattered blanket up to her chin as if a chill had entered the room.

“It can’t be,” she said. “That stuttering fool is dead in a ditch somewhere.” Yet she sounded uncertain and a little frightened, which pleased me.

“Get out of bed,” I told her. “Don’t wake father. He needn’t be a witness to this.”

She froze, prompting me to add with icy finality: “Now, mother. Don’t make me ask you again.”

Mechanically, she got up and drew a shawl around her, then preceded me into the kitchen, there to sit at the bare table. I remained standing, towering over her.

She seemed much older than her actual years. Her hair was speckled with grey, her face, creased by countless scowls. Her hands trembled slightly as she pulled her shawl closer and peered up at me. I noticed she had a cataract.

I drew the butcher’s cleaver from my cloak and laid it on the table. A hand saw followed. She looked down at them, then up at me, eyes wide.

I had no speech planned, considering her beyond enlightenment. And yet something in her good eye stopped me as my hand reached for an instrument of reckoning. Was it a hint of malice still? I grabbed the cleaver and held it over her head.

Without warning she dropped from the chair to her knees, staying my hand at the arc of its revenge. “M-m-m-my son!” she cried – it had been half a lifetime since I had heard those words, even if they had been full of derision and pity. “P-P-Please f-f-f-forgive me!”

Well, this was a turn for the books. I stared down at this wreck of a woman, who was now clinging to her would-be executioner for salvation. She wept.

What bulwark is there against a mother’s tears? And why was she suddenly stuttering? Surely it wasn’t to mock me again – was it?

She hugged my legs more tightly even as my hand couldn’t make up its mind what to do with the cleaver. Finally my grip loosened sufficiently so that it clattered to the floor.

I dropped to my knees as well, and we the both of us became converts there and then. She devoted her life to good works and in fact entered a convent, retaining her stutter to her dying day, considering it a sign from above. I repented my life of crime, and prayed I would somehow escape Smith’s considerable wrath.

There my story might have ended sooner or later, of interest to no one but my confessor, were it not for an encounter with none other than Sherlock Holmes.

Extricating oneself from a vast criminal enterprise is not made easier by suddenly being filled with the best of intentions. It might, in fact, be exponentially more difficult. Without my underworld contacts to call on, I was adrift: without income, friends, possibly a future.

My savings were mostly spent on installing my mother in a first class convent, and what plastic surgery the 19th century had available. The latter involved numerous trips to St. Bartholomew’s, then in the vanguard of such procedures. It was there, in search of relief of the pains of the scalpel, that I met Mr Holmes in a laboratory.

It was was a lofty chamber, lined and littered with countless bottles. Broad, low tables were scattered about, which bristled with retorts, test-tubes, and little Bunsen lamps, with their blue flickering flames: exactly as Watson would come to describe it.

Upon our introduction and the shaking of my proffered hand he rendered me immediately nonplussed by ascertaining that I was a former stutterer with a dark past and a head for numbers; also that I was in physical distress (which I had endeavoured to hide). The final deduction I would attribute to his carelessly strong grip rather than to any extra-natural powers of observation, but astonishment was otherwise called for. I was about to ask him how he had obtained his conclusions when he reached into a pocket and offered me a sachet of powder.

“Try this, it works wonders,” he said, then was off to his next experiment.

As I left the lab a man rudely brushed past, nearly knocking me over. One guess who that was.

The powder did, indeed, work wonders. When its effects wore off I went back to St Barts, to be told that Holmes had left for the day but might be found at his digs up at Baker Street.

A Mrs Hudson let me in, but I was blocked from further ingress by the man who I would in no way call a gentleman: Mr John H. Watson.

“He’s busy,” said Watson abruptly. “I can guess why you’re here though. You require a fresh supply to feed your dirty habit.”

Before I could offer any defence he pulled another serving of the wondrous substance out of a pocket which I ascertained was full of the stuff, and wagged it under my nose.

“The first one was gratis,” he said. “From now on it will cost you.”

Readers shocked and dismayed at my depiction of Mr Watson should remember the words at the beginning of this tale: history is written by the victors. Of what use could it possibly be to Watson to paint himself in such a dim light?

The doctor had left Afghanistan with more than wounds; he had made valuable contacts. I sighed, paid, and made to leave when Holmes appeared at the head of the stairs.

“It’s the mysterious numerate stranger!” he cried by way of invitation. “What are you waiting for, Watson? Invite him to our little sanctuary!”

At this Watson had little recourse but to extend his arm in faux hospitality, and up I went.

“This is where we go to escape the commonplace of existence,” said Holmes once I had arrived upstairs and settled myself into a chair which first had to be cleared of its electric guitar.

221B was, indeed, filled with curious objects which I could only attach a name to later, including a Nintendo; stacks of DVDs, many of them Sherlock Holmes mysteries; a lava lamp (“so retro,” said Holmes dreamily); a MacBook Air, which I learned was like an infinitely turbocharged Babbage Analytical Engine; and a microwave in the corner which Mrs Hudson seemed very fond of, as she was constantly attending to it.

Overseeing it all was a large flat screen upon which was a moving picture, so lifelike I could easily imagine walking right into the frame. “Would you like to play Fortnite?” asked Holmes, greedily reaching for a controller.

“You go ahead on your own for now,” said Watson. “Our visitor and I have important matters to discuss.”

Holmes frowned momentarily, but was henceforth quickly lost to us. Evidently the game was afoot. Watson took me aside and breezily explained all, as the prideful will often do, greedy themselves for an enraptured audience.

It seems that the pair had stumbled onto time travel quite by accident. An elaborate contraption from the imagination of HG Wells wasn’t required: merely a “hit” on a “bong”. Said bong was even produced by my once recalcitrant host, with relish. He never did explain how the pair had obtained the device or divined its wondrous properties.

“You name an era, we’ve been there,” said Watson. “Everything from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Swinging Sixties and beyond. Knowing our own era best, this is where we can best make use of our new knowledge.”

I remained quietly agog as he continued his disquisition. The “TV” in particular had me enraptured. Watson followed my gaze.

“There appears to be enough ‘future juice’, for want of a better term, to keep the various appliances operating for a period as yet to be determined. That we are able to watch television at all would seem to defy all rational explanation. And yet, we are completely up to date with EastEnders.”

Before I could ask what EastEnders was, Watson grew deadly serious.

“You are sworn to secrecy under pain of death. For you are in hiding, are you not? I have merely to disclose your existence in its new form to your previous employer and have him be done with you.”

And so was my plastic surgery, with all the anguish involved, rendered for naught.

The pair’s use of the bong had made the solving of crimes child’s play once they figured out how to aim it in the right direction. While Holmes was reasonably bright, his fabled powers of deduction were mostly fiction and wild guesswork (Watson never mentioned how much Holmes got wrong). Apparently he now spent most of his days either at the lab refining “product”, or at 221B kept in another kind of low stupor by an endless series of games supplied by his nefarious roommate, bent on fame at any price. For Watson had been to the future and seen just how popular Sherlock would become.

The time paradoxes alone were giving me a headache; I was dizzy with causal loops. I half expected the Sherlock DVDs to vanish in a puff of smoke themselves.

There was a sudden ejaculation of joy on the other side of the room as Holmes scored a victory on ‘Fortnite’, or whatever it is people do. This consumed Watson’s pained attention long enough for me to grab the bong and secret it under my cloak, an obvious plan having instantaneously formed, indeed given almost as a gift, to free me of Smith and indeed all my present cares in a harsh world.

“Could you direct me to the water closet?” I asked the still distracted Watson.

“Second door on your left,” he automatically answered, having been unwillingly pulled to Holmes’s side so that the renowned mental giant could have a closer audience for his hooting and gloating.

Once inside the WC I lit the bong, and before I knew it I was in the 21st century.

Upon my arrival it didn’t take long to learn that I have become a villain to end all villains. Truth to tell, this pleases me no end. Annoyed beyond reckoning at the theft of his magic bong, Watson had his revenge. Well, let him have it, for I have the future in the palm of my hand.

Meanwhile, the present occupies me with its myriad delights, from Excel spreadsheets to universal suffrage to Netflix to proper dental hygiene.

I still stutter from time to time, but on purpose and as a romantic lure, as some ladies find it charming that their presence robs you of the power of articulation; that which once helped pick pockets now aids in the theft of hearts. A hint of scarlet doesn’t go amiss, either.

- Her shawl must've slipped from her shoulders.
- Credit where it’s due. I've never actually smoked weed, in a bong or otherwise. I understand it can be efficacious.
- This has been a magical mystery tour for me, too.