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Title: A House Already Haunted
Recipients: yeomanrand and shinychimera
Author: ficklepig
Characters/Pairings: Sherlock Holmes/Mary Morstan/John Watson, Mycroft Holmes, Female OC
Rating: PG-ish (non-explicit sex scenes, violence)
Warnings: Major character death (multiple)
A/N: bivouack and a fine anon have been the kindest readers
Summary: Helen Watson tells a ghost story.



The people in this story have greyed and gone. This is a fiction of their lives.

If I take appalling liberties in portraying the intimate reality of my elders, please understand that the events I imagine may be more intimately mine than the events they lived were theirs.

My memories are constructed to suit the evidence; I'm satisfied that they're accurate. Not even the great and terrible Mycroft Holmes can gainsay the truth of my story. Should Uncle finally outlive me, as I expect he will, he's welcome to have the last word in the matter. Presuming you can pry it out of him.

You could learn more about Sherlock Holmes and Mary Morstan by looking at their Wikipedia pages. You could read Holmes' well-regarded monographs or one of a number of sensationally distorted biographies. You could read my mother's brilliant investigative pieces in the archives of the many publications that were blessed by her talent and wit.

I loved and admired them both, but in the end this is a story about John Watson. Not even so much a story as a collection of the scenes that come to mind when I consider what he meant to me.

If you want the dry facts, the few facts that I once thought thought mattered, chronology is paramount. If you want the meaning, order the episodes as you will. I have rearranged them many times myself.


*


Sherlock Holmes was aware of being haunted.

John Watson's memorial service followed the court's acknowledgement that a man lost fifty miles east of the Orkney Islands, all flotation devices accounted for, was most likely dead. Following the memorial service was the recovery of one shoe and an anorak. This was followed by Mary Morstan's perfectly justifiable emotional collapse.

She disappeared for some days, then appeared to rally. Pallid and bruised, she staged her revival at the fringes of Holmes' work, sometimes day shifts and sometimes night, blinking at her notebook and disappearing before recording the official statement. The first time he noticed her camel-coloured trench coat and run-down black dress boots he recognized her with a little nod. She disappeared for another week. He didn't make that mistake again.

When she finally made her approach, she didn't speak. She stood aside from the small knot of journalists hunched over their phones and pads, protecting them from the light morning drizzle. She was obviously waiting. He turned to her and waited as well. At last she addressed him, from about the distance you might hail a man who'd dropped something.

"It's John. He talked to me. He was inside me. He wants to talk to you."

"Mary." He hadn't imagined anything so awful.

"He wants to talk to you."

He stood unresponsive for so long that she finally took pity on him and began to cry.

"I've lost it. I've lost it." Clearly exhausted, on the verge of collapsing into hiccups or hysterics, she repeated herself until Holmes regained his much-disputed sense of empathy and stepped close.

"This is grief, Mary, you haven't 'lost it'. Give yourself some …." He stood back and looked again.

"Oh, I see."

The chill grey emptiness inside him laid a hand on her shoulder and assessed the situation.

"I've lost it," she confirmed, wiping her nose on her mitten.

"No. No, you haven't." A gentle voice, for such a grey cold thing. "It's all right. Let's get you home." He took her hand.


*


I believe that of all the things John Watson loved about my mother, the best was that she made him laugh. He lay down with her and they'd laugh and they'd laugh, flopping about on the bedsheets until they were sleepy and kissing again. He'd never done that without, what? Without performing for someone, watching what happened when they smiled. It was a pleasure to take the lead, make the jokes, be the sly one, with one eye on the mood and another on the bed. But there was more pleasure in being equals, lagging only a little way behind a partner who was always happy to wait.

Mary knew all this about him. They reflected each other, light for light, and what he loved about her was what she loved about him. She knew him all the way through. She knew a great deal about his dark places, too, and as she had looked at the photos and the faces at the service, she wanted to sink down to wherever he was to be held close in the darkness and away from the light.

When she lay down that night she felt him roll against her and she screamed. When her mother stumbled in, night-gowned, pink, Mary assured her that she'd simply lost her balance. She apologized for making a ruckus; she was obviously overwrought. In shock, Mother Morstan soothed. (How Mrs. Morstan had hated that name, how John had teased her.) Yes, I'm so sorry, good night.

Mary knew this was normal. People feel the presence of the dear departed, sense them nearby, hear their voices for years after they're gone. But the weight of him. His mouth against her nape, his hand on her arm, the scent of him in the bedcovers. It had been terrible. Beyond and beneath the solace of his tangible presence was the appalling feeling of an accidental step off a rooftop. She clutched the bedpost.

"John?" She barely whispered, and the floor fell from beneath her feet again. "Oh god! Oh god. John?"

The atmosphere thickened around her skin, a draft beneath the hairs on her arms, a terrible pressure on her heart. "Oh god," she gasped, half laughing, "you dick. You're going to give me a heart attack."

Then her guts twisted inside her and she ran for the toilet.


*


Long before I began to appreciate his true worth, much less his sense of humour, Mycroft Holmes, who preferred that I call him Uncle, had begun the withdrawal from public life and private conversation that is the most conspicuous feature of his current character. He flickered away from me like a late-noticed rainbow, and finally resolved on the cusp of sunset into a tall, bent, hairless, extremely aged spectre propped upon his pot of gold and refusing to pose the necessary riddles.

Uncle will very occasionally indulge me in a game of cribbage. Infrequently he will address me. He no longer appears to hear me when I address him, though I still do it out of spite.

Forty, maybe fifty years ago we enjoyed a brief communion. During one of the troubled periods of my youth, I made a practice of laying myself bare to him. That is to say, I presented myself in his chambers and demanded that he read my questions in my face.

Having disassembled him in my mind, as I was learning to do, I determined that despite the evidence - returning indifference for esteem and archness for affection (perhaps he detected a spurious quality in my emotional displays) - he clearly craved the company of family. I told myself I was doing him a kindness. I was usually rude to him and he was, in retrospect, quite gentle with me.

The incident I recall proceeded thus: I trooped into the office he then held in Whitehall, a room containing precisely nothing of its occupant but his daily effects and an inexpensive reproduction of Boden's portrait of the Queen. (His brother informed me that Uncle supplied it himself, to replace the official portrait of the King.) I dropped my bottom into the creaking leather of a guest chair and stared at him until he concluded his business with one fat green binder and turned to another. He perused it as he spoke.

"Today you want to know if I believe in ghosts."

He turned a page, and another. Abruptly, he leaned back and interlaced his fingers in his lap. "At times my belief in the existence of the human soul barely exceeds my belief in the existence of the human mind."

I admit I was sharp with him.

"I don't care about souls, or scientific definitions, or your pettiness. I want your assessment of the likelihood of a self-directed entity that would commonly be called a ghost manifesting as a tangible presence. Perhaps even entering a human body. Given the facts available."

He raised his eyebrows. "The facts available, Helen, are not the sort upon which I would risk my reputation. Not even with an inquisitor as long-suffering and as forgiving as yourself."

His expression was charged with something that might have been described as a plea for understanding. It struck me very deep – surprise and pleasure at this echo of my own covert longing to be recognized. His evasion of my real question might be moment upon which our entire subsequent relationship has hinged.

I won't say I was disarmed, but I laid off the attack and let him lead the conversation. For a quarter of an hour he indulged me with internet links and a list of reading materials to hunt down on my own time. Then he unfolded himself to politely usher me out.

I've considered and reconsidered his parting words my whole life since.

"I believe one thing is true, my dear. No ghost can enter a house that isn't already haunted."


*


Mary recovered in the cab and was silent. They arrived at the flat.

"Come in, we need you."

Holmes followed her up the stairs, two flights, sixteen steps and a tiny landing. Old stairs, new door, cheap varnish, reproduction. He followed her past the green velvet sofa set to the coat rack, past the grease-spotted kettle in the kitchen and, unnervingly, into the bedroom.

She sat on the edge of her marriage bed and he stood beside it. She looked inward and angry. She took a breath. "He wants to tell you something." Her voice was tight and husky.

She said nothing after that, but sat with her brow furled and her fists on her thighs. This was his look, the very creases in his face, his lips too full and a bit awry but set with familiar tightness. This was John and this was what he wanted to say. It was all Holmes deserved, he thought, and yet it was more than he'd hoped for. He accepted the small comfort of the living warmth off her body.

She rose suddenly and he stepped back. She walked toward the bath. She began on the buttons of her shirt as she moved, stopped and laid it over the vanity mirror, stripped off her woollen skirt, stepped onto the tiles in her slip and camisole, and closed the door. The tap in the bathtub roared.

Holmes wondered if he should wait. A perverse thread of impatience, not anxiety, tightened in his chest. Of course he should wait. He had forgotten why he was here.


*


Holmes stopped smoking for good after he returned from Peterhead.

When I was twelve he caught me on the rooftop with his last four nearly impotent cigarettes.

"I was smoking when I killed John Watson."

He had grappled with his friend on the rear deck of a small commercial trawler, he told me, gained an unexpected advantage, and thrown him into the North Sea.

Afterward he'd gone calmly down the ladder to his cabin, where he took copious notes. In the morning they were cryptic even to him, ballpoint gouges in a wet Moleskine notebook. Perhaps an hour after he'd murdered John, he required his opinion on the thought processes of an average middle-aged Englishman under particular sorts of stress. When he couldn't find him, he informed the captain of the vessel, and the rest was in the public record.

"I don't remember the incident," he said. "I pieced it together after the fact."

He continued, cool and relentless. "I took the drug deliberately. I had a brilliant idea about the cause of the hands' behaviour in the case we were pursuing, and no laboratory equipment on hand with which to substantiate my hypothesis. I was still invincible at the time. I didn't think twice about smoking the stuff."

The mind will shy away from a precipice. I had nightmares for months afterward, cold and black and full of sharks, but in my waking life I only thought about it when it attacked me from the side. Waiting at a shop counter for a dawdling clerk, or dodging a hole in the pavement with the wheel of my bike – I wobbled briefly, righted myself, and pedalled on.

"Is this an object lesson in the evils of drugs?" I'd let the cigarette drift against my leg. I swore as I licked my thumb and pressed it against the hole in my tights.

He made a noise I couldn't interpret. "No, it is not."

I took a casual drag and brushed back my hair. "H.M.S. Watson." The thought slipped in from the side.

"The law forgave me," Holmes replied. "Mary never really did."


*


My mother made no secret of having been visited by John's ghost. Whether she believed it had actually happened, or whether she accepted that it was a hallucinatory expression of grief, it was harder to tell. Above all things, she was a skeptic. In this thing, though, she was elusive. Did she want to avoid making a decision about it? Did she like to tease? I was infuriated by her coyness.

"Just tell me! Do you actually believe in ghosts?" I was fourteen, as I recall, convinced there was such a thing as truth and not too old to throw a tantrum.

Mother didn't relent, but put one arm around me as we walked and gave me a friendly jostle. "I believe in you, sweetie."

Predictably, I sulked away from her. I walked fast until I reached the next post box, and then stalked away to the next street as she approached.

My quarrelsome mood coalesced around a question that had lodged in my chest some weeks before, indistinct, sooty and shifting like a nest of insects.

Finding that his confession did not greatly alter our relationship, I had begun to pursue Holmes' attention with more ardor than sense. After my second arrest, he must have deemed me worth his time, because he began to share his notes with me – not without a protracted and very uncomfortable examination of my face.

His manner toward me became more solemn and thoughtful. He made deliberate choices of subject matter designed to inform and to cultivate my skills, treating me as a student where previously he had treated me as a favourite little cousin, someone to show off to and amuse.

I was thrilled to my core. It was as if Holmes had handed me the keys to adulthood and, to be candid, as if my secret prince had arrived and found me worthy. The sensational biographies aren't too far off the mark – he was one of a kind, full of arrogance and mischief. His intellectual attention was at the same time everything I felt I deserved, and nothing I felt I was prepared for. Besides that, he had the sort of enigmatic good looks that could inflame the imagination of any young lady too bright by half. I began to call him "Holmes" in sheer self-defence. He struck back with "Watson."

I speculated casually on the nature of his private life. Never while in his presence – he was too observant and too canny, and never especially kind – but while walking away from a meeting at the rear of St. Barts, or assembling my clarinet, pausing with both fists around the ebony, reed in my mouth. My thoughts were idle amusement, never salacious, only naughty enough to make me smile when I put one thing together with another and realized, for example, why his brother called him "Osiris" when he wanted to nettle him.

Walking with my mother, I finally put a great number of things together with each other. Puzzle pieces collected over the years, a picture with a meaning my body had finally made clear. I stopped at the crossing and the pavement fell away from my feet. I rounded on her.

"You slept with him."

She sighed and wrapped her arms around her lumpy knapsack. Her mouth tilted into that rueful sideways smile that made her look most sad.

"I did sleep with him. We were both in pain. We were doing what we could do for each other."

Rage exploded from the knot in my chest, blacker and hotter than any little crush could justify. They had betrayed me, both of them, right from the beginning. My silly admiration of Holmes, the thrill of inclusion, the new warmth I felt low down as I let my gaze linger on the backs of his hands, all that blew away like split pieces of cellophane. It was a relief to see it go. Something more complex and terrible was growing in its place. He and my mother had reached out from the past to hurt me. They had taken from each other what was rightfully mine. And it had nothing to do with me at all.

"It only happened once," my mother said. "I don't regret it."

Mary had once been a very simple being. A sweet companion, a loathsome nag, the source of all wisdom, and the source of bail, among other things. The meaning of her existence had been plain: it was all about me. Now she was dark and strange and a good deal further off.

I had been drifting away from her already, but this moment fuelled a sudden push into the outer cold. It was years before we were close again. As I became more sure of my identity, the sweetness and the darkness commingled to make our connection something richer than before.


*


Holmes smelled it while he sat alone. John's aftershave – not his recent choice, but one from earlier times, primarily Mondays and Thursdays. Holmes' breath came short and when cold hands clutched his shoulders he lurched up from his seat, away, with a hoarse yell. The icy wrongness entangled his head and his feet and he willed himself still and quiet. He was unsure of his position in the room.

Mary opened the door, and the scent came with her. She wore John's softest cotton jumper, which hung just to the top of her bath-wet thighs. She wore the blue of John's dark eyes as well, with his formidable resolve in the set of her chin.

"John?" A short exhalation, stifled.

"He's here," she said. "He's with me."

She guided him to the bed and steadied his hands as he undid the buttons of his cuffs. John's scent from the bedcovers clung to his clothes. Just under the hem of the jumper, John's scent came from Mary, too. Holmes' hands wavered and his breath was a loud rasp, goose bumps rising from scalp to thighs.

Mary stroked her palm over his cheek and made him look into her face. She ran her thumb along the arch of his open mouth and followed with her lips.

"Do this for us."

She bent and took a deeper kiss.


*


After they'd slept together, Holmes disappeared for seven months. She tried to contact him once, by text, but the message bounced. It didn't worry her. She'd given him John's message and they need have no more to do with one another.

A text came from a new number in late April. Baker Street at 4pm. If convenient.

He showed her everything. Every scratch of evidence of John's occupancy, food smudges under the lip of the worktop, the books and dishes he'd left behind. He cleaned the old armchair off for Mary to sit in, neglected to pour tea, then rambled at length about a fascinating series of thefts in the late eighteen hundreds, and John's utterly pedestrian lack of interest. He pulled himself up short as Mary grunted and rearranged her legs.

Holmes clasped his hands in his lap. "He once asked me to invite you over."

She waddled down the stairs and he carried her bag. He stood stiffly in the doorway and called out as she left.

"Please visit again when you're feeling up to it. Bring the family."

Mother told me this story.


*


Holmes didn't invite me to join him in his more gruesome or far-flung adventures. I sometimes told myself that John Watson's blog was more bluster than fact. When I felt spurned I told myself that Holmes never overcame an idea that crime was no fit subject for a girl. If I'm being fair, I suppose I wasn't as keen on hazard and action as I wanted to be. Too much a Morstan.

Uncle advised me to let John Watson go. "You have your own life to live. Don't try to re-enact his."

Holmes once said "Things are different now," and that was true as well.


*


As Holmes slowed down over the years I spent more time in his company, a few days a month, dropping in to be ignored for the most part while he muttered into stinking vials, and to be sent away when things got interesting. Sometimes I stayed for a week at a time, when I wasn't on assignment. Then I was ordered about: "Watson, my mold please. No, my mold. Watson, I'll have your shoe." It amused me, but eventually my own pursuits took precedence and my visits were more formal and deliberate.

For the sake of symmetry, let us say that I took the opportunity one slow afternoon to question Holmes about ghosts, among other subjects.

He brushed it off. "You've seen me work with dead people. I sometimes take their body parts. Not one of them has come back to haunt me."

"You weren't in love with them."

He clasped his hands on the table. "Even if I were that stupid, my desperate passion would hardly lure a man from his grave."

I tacked sharply. "You had sex with my mother."

"Most people have sex at some point. I was a bachelor, she was a widow." His tone was edging toward sarcasm, which meant I'd taken him aback.

"Yes, but you're gay."

"Oh, well spotted. And what can you conclude from that?"

I chewed my lip and examined him.

"That you're a fairy."

A huff of laughter. "I believe you're mistaking me for my brother." Then he surprised me. "Are you gay?"

The question confounded me. "I don't know."

"So you see how it is." He stood. "You are boring me. Let's go pester Lestrade."

Since he asked, I've never wondered again, and I've never felt the lack. I have been my whole life satisfied to love Mary Morstan and Sherlock Holmes. They've occupied the place I might have fit a husband, or a wife.


*


Shivering and gasping, Mary stumbled toward the toilet to heave and spit. Then she rose and cleaned a little bit of blood from between her thighs.

"John, please," she whispered. "Please don't let this happen."


*


A ferry passes through the water within a few miles of the spot where Holmes believed John Watson met his end.

Uncle had taken a pinch of his brother's ashes. To join the rest of the family, he told me. He handed over the box.

Stars had begin to peep through the clouds when Sherlock Holmes followed John Watson into the sea.

"Tout vient à point à qui sait attendre," I said. "You're forgiven."


*

First I was hesitant, but as my world has changed and passed, I've come to see that I have every right to tell the story as I will. No one is closer to it. I am John Watson's ghost.

I am also Mary Morstan's ghost, and the ghost of Sherlock Holmes.

I hope that you might consent to be their ghosts, as well. I hope a little that you might be mine. A bit tattered and a bit faded, crowded among people who are by now more real, we all would haunt the earth a while longer.

Ideally I should be beyond such cares, but I never did have children.

I want to talk to you.

Comments

( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
tiltedsyllogism
Dec. 9th, 2013 07:26 pm (UTC)
wow. speaking of hauntings. This was not like anything else I've read. I think I'll need to visit it again to understand what it's doing (to me), but in the meantime: well done you on a terrifyingly vivid and evocative piece. The forward momentum made me a little queasy, to be honest. I will be back to reread for sure.
ficklepig
Dec. 31st, 2013 09:40 am (UTC)
Queasy momentum = lazy transitions = sense of forward motion!

Thanks very much for reading and commenting. It's nice to know it's different and vivid.
holyfant
Dec. 9th, 2013 07:29 pm (UTC)
I... wow. This was incredible. Enigmatic at first, then revealing itself bit by bit, and constructing the characters one step at a time from a shadowy background. I love how Helen has an almost Victorian diction that recalls ACD!Watson, and that she is also called "Watson" and calls Sherlock "Holmes" - it's a lovely throwback to earlier times, and it mixes the generations together in a way that's very fitting for a ghostly story. The brief snapshots of past tragedy - John's death, Mary's breakdown, Sherlock's guilt - leave me wanting to know more, but already paint a compelling picture on their own.

Honestly, I sped through this breathlessly. Amazing work, mystery author.
ficklepig
Dec. 31st, 2013 09:41 am (UTC)
You, stop. You make me all blush with seeing my cunning design. Thank you!
yeomanrand
Dec. 9th, 2013 09:10 pm (UTC)
Oh. Oh, this is lovely. Just lovely.
ficklepig
Dec. 31st, 2013 09:37 am (UTC)
Dear recipients,

I hope this letter finds you well. As you may have noticed, the gift attached bears little but tangential resemblance to anything you may have requested or desired. Sometimes when one fishes, one takes home the fish that takes the bait, and if one must present an anglerfish whole with its head, in place of a filet of silver salmon, one must give thanks that it is not a blobfish.

I "owe you one," as the kids say. If the opportunity presents itself to pay the debt, I shall seize it with all gladness.


Yours with best regards,

fp



PS - Thanks! :)


yeomanrand
Jan. 2nd, 2014 04:54 pm (UTC)
Dearest author,

We were delighted by your gift, and no debt is owed (though we would certainly not say 'no' to another of your delightful fictions!). One of the most wonderful things about an exchange such as this is the possibility that one will obtain a story that one did not know one wanted, but that delights the heart and arouses the senses. Such is this story you have written for us, and though it may not have specifically matched any requests or outlined desires, trust your humble correspondent that this little amuse-tête suited our tastes to absolute perfection.

Yours in gratitude,

Rand

PS - You're welcome!
billiethepoet
Dec. 10th, 2013 02:45 am (UTC)
Oh my, this is breathtaking. Equally disturbing and heartbreaking and it leaves me feeling just as haunted as poor Helen Watson.
ficklepig
Dec. 31st, 2013 09:42 am (UTC)
Hoorah! Thank you.
saki101
Dec. 10th, 2013 09:56 pm (UTC)
How wonderfully, eerily poetic and haunting and tender and wistful and sad. Yes, the narrator is all their ghosts and we can be hers and theirs, too, not just because they want to live, but because we've loved them and we want them to. I may need to weep. This is so intricate and beautiful. Sea foam.
ficklepig
Dec. 31st, 2013 09:44 am (UTC)
[hides]

You make me more sad. Thank you!
mistyzeo
Dec. 10th, 2013 11:14 pm (UTC)
This is heartbreaking and totally eerie and wonderful.
ficklepig
Dec. 31st, 2013 09:44 am (UTC)
:D

Thank you.
neifile7
Dec. 11th, 2013 05:47 am (UTC)
This is a brilliant bit of exploded narrative and a great fit of form and structure to content. Especially that hair-raising address to the reader at the end -- as fully earned a bit of the uncanny as one could ask for. Fabulous work, anon.
ficklepig
Dec. 31st, 2013 09:48 am (UTC)
Eeee.

"Hair-raising," "fully earned," and "uncanny" made my week. Also I had to look up "exploded narrative" because I'm a weenie who never got past 200 level in lit studies. Now I know! Thank you!
mundungus42
Dec. 14th, 2013 07:07 pm (UTC)
I wasn't quite sure where to begin praising this heartbreakingly beautiful story, but I think I've decided on mood, since that's what's haunted me since I first read it. It's a brilliant idea to write this from Helen's perspective, and you drew this bright, reactive young woman with precision and sensitivity, yet by removing her narration chronologically from the events you give her the ability to shape the narrative and how its event affected her. How sad and yet how inevitable that the sins (of omission or otherwise) of her father have subsumed her own existence. It all feels so gloriously Ibsenian that even though this isn't clearly set at any time, it feels like a winter night in a cold place. My heart broke a bit when Sherlock talked about piecing together the night where he killed John, even though he can't remember it. John's visiting Mary and Sherlock feels real as you fill it with sensual details as much as it's an emotional hurricane. You have such a sure and deft hand with style and the shape of this narrative, slowly introducing the child, the teen and finally, the woman, coming to terms with the actions that made her who she is. I am in complete awe, Mystery Author. Thank you for this complicated, absolutely stunningly-written piece. I adored every word! Bravissimaaaa!!!!
ficklepig
Dec. 31st, 2013 09:59 am (UTC)
I'm so glad that the first person OFC narrative worked for you, because god, what a crime against fan fiction. I was all "yisssssss!" that you enjoyed some of the stuff about which I may possibly (who knows?) have danced around in wicked triumph one morning at 2am. (Chronology, coldness, heartbreak. Mmuuuuaaaaaaahhhh ha ha ha haaaaa!)

You should know that you're the bee's knees. Also, that is a fab pumpkin, which I assume you carved.
mundungus42
Jan. 17th, 2014 05:51 pm (UTC)
Oh shucks. :D And yes, I call this my Duh Pumpkin. It's a self-portrait of someone who procrastinated holiday shopping and had to make do with carving a pie pumpkin and gourds one Halloween. It suits me better than I care to admit.

I came back and re-read this amazing story today. It's still one of my favorites from this round! I love it!
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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