Before Holmes Met Watson — 6
By Kitanya Harrison, writing as Harrison Kitteridge
Vanity was an unbecoming quality in an army captain, but John Watson was his father’s son. His family had been solidly middle-class — not struggling, but definitely not possessed of enough disposable income to indulge in luxurious frivolities. Nevertheless, a few times a year, his father would go into London for a monstrously expensive haircut and straight-razor shave at the club of a university friend. When John turned sixteen, his father asked if he would like to come along. John had been sceptical about the outing — it all sounded terribly old-fashioned and dull, but he took every chance he got to go into the capital city and figured it wouldn’t take too long at the club, and he could head out on his own afterwards then take the late train home.
The façade of the club was deceptively unremarkable, and John remembered quite well how utterly intimidated he had been by the oak-panelled grandeur of the interior when he’d entered. Every surface had been absolutely gleaming. How on earth did they keep it all so clean? John had wondered. There wasn’t a single grimy fingerprint anywhere in sight, and that observation had cowed him into a bashful silence. A sharply dressed butler greeted him and his father by name and led them to the barber, where they were greeted warmly.
“Is this your boy?” one of the attendants had asked, and when John’s father affirmed that was indeed the case, the woman smiled cheekily and said, “Gets his looks from his mother, does he?” John had smiled shyly and felt much more at ease.
He’d been fascinated by the ritualistic nature of the process. He was used to popping in and out of the barber’s in fifteen or twenty minutes and had no idea so much time, care or pride could be taken in helping someone groom themselves. The subtle woodsy perfume of the shampoo, the decadence of the scalp massage, the almost uncomfortable heat of the hot towel, the feel of the boar’s bristles as the creamy shaving foam was applied, the scrape of the straight razor and the bracing sting of the aftershave — it was all over too soon. John was hooked, and it became a tradition for the Watson men to travel to London quarterly for their barber’s appointments. When he’d been accepted to medical school, his father had presented him with an antique pearl-handled straight razor that must have cost a small fortune. “I know how much you like coming to the club,” he’d said. “And you won’t be able to find a place you can afford when you go away. Using it will be good practice for your dissections — you’ll have the steadiest hands in the class.” As always, he’d been right.
Over the years, John had added a boar’s hair brush to his shaving kit, and he’d discovered a simple formula for an exquisitely smooth shaving foam in Turkey. The extortionately priced shampoo and pomade were English and were all-natural and gently scented with wild honey. His bath soap had been infused with ginger and gourmet coffee from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica and mixed with brown sugar. His aftershave was French and lightly scented with sandalwood and leather.
When he’d joined the Army, John had struggled with many of the regulations but never the grooming standards. There was something about looking so tightly put together that made John feel more in control, and whenever he was having a particularly bad stretch he would pull out the grooming kit he otherwise reserved for special occasions. This was one such circumstance.
Corporal Jalloh’s death had knocked him for six, and he’d been uncertain why at first. He had known her only in passing, but she’d been a squaddie’s squaddie — always first to jump into the fray, breach the perimeter or head over a wall into danger. She had a ready smile, an unwavering commitment to King and Country and never complained. She’d been a cornerstone of their community, but they hadn’t realised it until she’d been removed and the foundation started to shift. She’d be replaced; they always were, but, until then, their house would continue to list, and the cracks it caused would stoke the fires of their insecurity.
John lathered up his hair and breathed in deeply. As his strong, sure fingers began to massage his scalp, he felt some of the tension leave his body. His blunt nails dragging through his hair sent gentle ripples of warm pleasure running down his spine. He’d almost forgotten how good it felt to pamper himself. As he scrubbed with his bath soap, the sugar crystals exfoliated his skin and sent the fine hairs on his forearms and the coarse hair on his legs standing on end. He knew he would be glowing when he emerged. He towelled off and prepared to shave. He set some water to boil and sharpened the blade until it was terrifyingly sharp. He carefully heated a towel, and sighed in pleasure when he felt the heat and steam lift his stubble and open up his pores. When he lathered his jaw and throat and felt the boar’s hair pull at his own, he smiled. The razor slid easily through the shaving soap without snagging once. John carefully went over the terrain twice more, taking off a few thin layers of skin as well. He wet his hands with his aftershave and clapped them to his cheeks, loving the sting. He looked younger, fresh-faced; he felt ready for anything. He dressed carefully and applied some pomade to his hair. As he left his quarters, he thought, yesterday had been terrible, but today would be better because he was buffed to a high polish, smelled divine and, God damn it, he looked good.
The director of the treatment clinic called Sherlock to her office to discuss the previous day’s altercation. She began with the prognosis of the orderly, who’d had to be hospitalised. “He was out cold for an unconscionably long time, Mr Holmes. He’s severely concussed. There may be long-term damage.”
Sherlock didn’t feel a shred of remorse. “Men with glass jaws shouldn’t throw blows,” he replied. “I was attacked, and I defended myself.”
The director observed Sherlock for some time before speaking. “You’re a skilled fighter,” she said.
“Yes,” Sherlock replied.
“You could have killed them if it had suited you, couldn’t you?”
“Why didn’t you?”
What sort of question was that? What would have been the point? Not to mention all the bother that would have followed. “I don’t have homicidal urges if that’s what you’re suggesting,” Sherlock replied, his affronted tone communicating how profoundly insulted he was by the insinuation.
“But you’re drawn to it, aren’t you?” she pressed. “Death, violence.”
“The grave claims us all,” Sherlock replied. “Each step we take, each breath we take draws us nearer. And sometimes other people stick knives in us, or fire bullets into us or cosh us over the head and try to shove us in early. I wish to do my part to see that justice is done when that happens. Violence is a part of that world, and I must be prepared to hold my own.” He gave her a pointed look. “That preparation served me well here under your charge, don’t you think?”
The director fidgeted, and Sherlock smirked. “Why did they attack you?” she asked.
“Because they thought they would get away with it,” Sherlock replied, astounded that this basic fact of life had to be communicated to someone who had taken charge of re-shaping the mental health of others. Wasn’t hubris at the heart of any premeditated crime — the misplaced confidence that you wouldn’t get caught?
There was another prickly silence.
“Your Personal Archive File shows that you meet your Professional Skills Utilisation Requirements as a Consulting Detective,” the director said.
Why did she persist in making declarative statements when she meant to be asking questions? Sherlock’s patience was worn to the point of breaking. “That is correct,” he replied with a put-upon sigh.
“But you don’t work with the police.”
“I take private clients,” Sherlock replied quickly.
“Not many according to your records.”
Sherlock glared at her stonily, refusing to allow her to see the depth of the shame he felt at how poorly his professional life was going. He hoped he managed to disguise his relief when the door to her office crashed open and they were interrupted. Something terrible has happened, Sherlock realised almost immediately. The air was already thick with the fear and apprehension pulsing off the nurse. She was on the verge of tears, and her chest was heaving.
“Have you gone mad!” The director was so taken aback she couldn’t even shout. “I’m with a patient!”
“One of the patients in the secure wing,” the nurse managed to say. Her voice was shaking so badly, it was difficult to understand her. “She’s dead.” The director gasped and leapt to her feet. The nurse was wringing her hands, and Sherlock noted an element of confusion in her expression. It seemed there was more to the story. “She’s dead, but…”
“But what?” the director demanded.
“All her hair’s been shaved off. It wasn’t last night when she was locked in, but now it is.”
Sherlock rubbed his hands together in anticipation. Perhaps rehab wouldn’t go down as a complete waste of time after all.