So here’s the story again, this time highlighting all the names that were hidden in it. Also I’ve written another Author’s Note afterwards, because I was asked about how and why I came up with the quiz in the first place.
“I can’t stand all the noise!” Sherlock raged for the umpteenth time. “It’s driving me MAD! LORRIes [Mad_Lori] constantly getting held up in the traffic and spending minutes stationary outside! The throbbing of their engines is sending me insane.”
“It’s Christmas,” John explained, also not for the first time. “They’re delivering food and presents and other Christmas stuff to the shops. It’s always like this in December. You’re not usually this intolerant of them.”
“I hate this time of year,” Sherlock declared, pacing angrily around the room. “I hate that the taxis can’t get anywhere quickly because of the traffic; I hate that the pavements are full of shoppers dawdling along with huge bags of gifts that nobody will like; I hate that people are sending cards to you when they’ve barely spoken to you or even thought about you all year; I hate that those people are lazy and write ‘Xmas’ instead of ‘Christmas’ ...” His voice rose dramatically in volume. “And most of all I hate that even the most determined villains take December off!”
He stopped and roared furiously across the room. “I need A ‘XMAS’ MURDER [a_xmasmurder], John, or I swear I’ll commit one myself!”
Suddenly he looked round thoughtfully. “Where’s Anderson today?” he asked with a worryingly sly expression on his face.
John decided it was time to take action.
All in all it didn’t take John too much effort to persuade Sherlock that they should go away for Christmas. “I know you’re a LONDON-PHILE [londonphile] and can’t usually bear to leave the city,” he told him the following morning, “but a few days away will do you some good. I’ve rented a cottage in the countryside and the booking starts today. The place looks lovely but I don’t want to go there on my own. If you won’t come, I’ll have to stay behind too – but I am not spending the entire holiday all alone with a grumpy detective who hasn’t got anything to detect. So, either we go away ... or I’ll invite Mycroft over for dinner on Boxing Day.”
Sherlock had finished his packing twenty minutes later.
He’d been so eager to get away from the threat of a visit from his brother that it wasn’t until they had driven across the border of Greater London and were heading northwards that he realised he’d not asked where they going. It was only then that John revealed that the cottage he’d rented was a five hour drive and over 250 miles away in the north of England. Sherlock was appalled.
“Why do we have to go all the way up there?” he demanded, aware but not really caring how whiny his voice sounded. “What if there’s an interesting crime in London and I’m needed by the police? Surely there are holiday lets in the south?”
“You said yourself that it’s always quiet at this time of year,” John told him patiently. “And anyway, I deliberately chose this cottage. The online reviews from people who have stayed there said there was something strange about the place – mysterious clanking noises at various times that nobody can trace. I contacted the landlord before I rented it and he eventually admitted that he’s heard the sounds too. They seem to be coming from under the floor in the living room but they’ve had all the carpets up and can’t find any access point, and the deeds don’t indicate that there’s a cellar or basement.”
He smiled at his friend. “I thought it’d give you something interesting to investigate,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe IT’S A CRIME SCENE [itsacrimescene] and you can have your very own Christmas mystery to solve.”
Though still feeling sulky, Sherlock reluctantly admitted to himself that if he had stayed in London any longer with no worthwhile distractions, his mind would have started to suffoCATE. LEERily [Kate_Lear] he wondered whether a potentially ‘haunted’ house was worthy of his attention – but it was definitely better than nothing.
“The landlord also agreed to stock up the kitchen for us if I gave him a shopping list,” John continued. “This is all part of my Christmas present to you – not only a cottage with a mystery, but on Christmas Day I’m going to cook your favourite dinner: beef WELLINGTON, GOOSE [wellingtongoose] fat-roasted potatoes, and all the trimmings.”
He smiled round at Sherlock again. “And because you don’t like Christmas pudding or mince pies, I’m making your favourite dessert: CHOCOLA...”
“... MOUSSE!” [chocolamousse] Sherlock interrupted before John could even finish the sentence. “Oh God, tell me you’re making your chocolate orange mousse!” He sighed contentedly when John grinned and nodded. “Maybe this isn’t such a bad idea after all.”
They arrived at Hexham several hours later and John checked the directions he’d been given to find the cottage a little way from the town. “Take the Cross Bank road, pass the BENDING SIGN, POSTbox [bendingsignpost] and white house, then take the second left,” he narrated, pointing in bemusement when they drove past the road sign leaning at a strange angle. They turned left onto a narrow single-track road, and after a quarter of a mile the road simply stopped. Sherlock stared at John as he smiled and got out of the car.
“We’re walking the rest of the way,” he told Sherlock. “It’s not far, look.”
Sherlock climbed out and glared down the footpath to their right. Not wide enough to get a vehicle down, the path was heavily rutted and would have been very muddy if there had been any rain recently. Many large stones – some almost big enough to be boulders – were poking out of the earth, making it impossible to stomp angrily along the path ... if anyone should choose to stomp angrily, of course. Sherlock turned to glower at John, but John’s eyes were fixed on the small cottage at the end of the footpath, an ecstatic smile on his face.
“Griffin Cottage,” he sighed happily. “It’s perfect. This is definitely the sort of place I could retire to.”
Sherlock looked at him in horror. “You’re not serious,” he said.
“Why not?” John asked. “Look at it! It’s beautiful, secluded, quiet ... what’s not to love about it? It’s the perfect retirement spot.”
Sherlock wondered whether John had finally lost his mind. “Have you finally lost your mind?” he asked. His accent slipped from its usual careful pronunciation into Estuary English to indicate the scorn he felt about such an idea. “Why would we wanna LIVE ’ERE? CARRY CAdavers [livia_carica] all the way down that path in the middle of winter, when we’re old and infirm?” he demanded. “Are you insane?”
“Well, maybe you could stock up on cadavers during the summer months, or hire someone from the village with a strong stomach to do your deliveries for you,” John suggested easily.
Sherlock grunted in irritation and turned away to glare along the path again, but John’s eyes widened when he realised the implications of what his friend had just said. Sherlock seemed to be assuming that – if their dangerous lives allowed them to live that long – they would continue to be together even after they retired. John hadn’t dared think that far ahead, and certainly hadn’t dared hope that Sherlock would want him in his life forever. He had always wondered whether his friend would have any further need of him once he gave up his detective work, and John had been frequently haunted by melancHOLY FANTasies [holyfant] of spending his last years alone and pining. The fact that Sherlock assumed they would still be together in their old age sent a warm shiver down his back.
“Let’s get this over with,” Sherlock said grumpily, hauling his bag from the car boot and pulling out a flashlight to help illuminate the dangerously stony path. John took out his own bag and locked the car before following along behind.
“We’ve been on the road for hours – it’s nearly seven fifteen, isn’t it?” Sherlock asked as he swerved his way along the path, aiming his torch downwards so as to avoid tripping over any ROCKS.
“SEVEN TWELVE,” [rox712] John confirmed after glancing at his watch, wondering whether Sherlock had taken a sneaky peek at his own watch before speaking.
“I’m absolutely starving,” Sherlock declared. “Your landlord had better have laid in our food like he said.”
“My landlord texted me about our food an hour ago,” John said pointedly. “It’s all there.”
The landlord had indeed kept his promise and the kitchen was well stocked with everything that John had requested. He put off his unpacking until later and started to rummage through the cupboards while Sherlock began rooting through his own bag and carelessly throwing various items around the living room.
“I hope you haven’t got any cigarettes in there,” John commented.
“I don’t need cigarettes,” Sherlock pompously told him.
“Says the man who is so tobacco aSH-ADDICTED [shaddicted] that he wrote a blog article about it,” John replied bemusedly.
Sherlock threw him a dark look. John grinned back cheerfully, and held up a tin.
“THE SARDINEs’ll [thesardine] do for tonight,” he said. “I’ll make toast to go with them.”
He was a little surprised that Sherlock wasn’t already crawling around the floor listening for the mysterious noises, but was pleased to get a light meal onto the table without his friend changing his mind and refusing to eat. Sherlock wolfed the food down, then settled into an armchair and insisted on total silence while they got used to the normal sounds of a strange dwelling and listened for anything out of the ordinary. At half past eleven Sherlock announced that he was bored, chose the larger of the two upstairs bedrooms with the bigger bed (of course), and shut himself away.
John sat up for a little longer, watching the twinkling Christmas TREE LIGHTs [treelight] which the landlord – or maybe his wife – had strung across the top of the window. He was still surprised by Sherlock’s assumption that the two of them would continue to live together in their retirement, and wondered – not for the first time – whether it would ever be worth the risk of telling him that he had been thinking of him as more than a friend for some time now. He was still pondering the pros and cons when he dozed off.
He was woken some time later by Sherlock’s hand gently shaking his shoulder. When he glanced up, Sherlock put a finger to his lips and tilted his head towards the floor. John didn’t need the hint – he could already hear the faint clanking noises which appeared to be coming from underfoot. Sherlock quietly dropped to the floor and pressed his ear to the rug, and John slid off the chair and joined him. They listened for a minute or so, then Sherlock turned his head to use his other ear. His eyes met John’s.
“Is it metal?” John asked softly.
“Sounds more like thick glass,” Sherlock replied quietly, then pursed his lips in a request for silence.
The noises went on for several more minutes, then silence fell again. The two men continued lying on the floor and listening for a while longer but eventually Sherlock got to his feet.
“There’s not enough good lighting here to make it worthwhile starting the search now,” he announced. “I’m going to do some online research into the area and I’ll begin my investigation in the morning. Get some sleep, John – we may be busy over the next few days.”
And without even a ‘good night’ he was gone. Sighing, John turned off the lights, picked up his bag and followed him up the stairs.
By the time John got up in the morning, Sherlock had already lifted all of the rugs in the living room and was crawling around carefully inspecting each of the slate tiles. They were unusual in appearance, not the usual square tiles which were used as flooring. Each one was a different size and shape and they had been joined together like a dry stone wall. Patterns were carved into the tiles and had perhaps even formed pictures when originally laid out but now the carvings made no sense that John could see. He wondered whether they had been salvaged from another house or had been broken during their journey to the cottage, but when he voiced his query to Sherlock he got a snort which he recognised as saying, ‘That’s not relevant, John’.
John settled into an armchair and tried to read, knowing that offering to help in the search would only bring another sarcastic response. Sherlock continued to crawl around the floor, sometimes muttering to himself in dissatisfaction. Occasionally he would bark out a typically BOLD AS BRASS [bold_as_brass] demand for John to move a piece of furniture, ignoring any petulant reply, and eventually John would give in and shove the item across the floor.
After four hours John suggested a coffee break but Sherlock glared up at him as if he was insane. “I don’t have time for coffee, John,” he snapped. “This isn’t a piece of work over which I can simply sKIM. FORTY-SEVEN [kim_47] tiles in the kitchen, a hundred and eighty-four in the living room, and I need to examine each one in detail, so let me concentrate.”
John went into the kitchen and made himself a coffee, then put on his jacket and took his mug out into the garden. Even if Sherlock didn’t need a drink, he himself was in sore need of a strong shot of CAFFEINE. KITTIwakes [caffienekitty] and other birds soared overhead, their cries filling the air, and John gazed at the scenery and thought about how wonderful it would be to retire somewhere like here. The fact that Sherlock might be with him when it happened made the idea even more appealing ... but would Sherlock really ever settle in such a secluded location?
He sat and pondered the thought for a long time but eventually the cold became too much for him and he wandered back indoors again. Sherlock was sitting on the floor in the middle of the living room, glowering down at the tiles as if they offended him.
“There has to be something under the floor,” he said angrily, “but I’ve investigated every tile.” He gestured downwards as he got to his feet. “There isn’t a single one that’s LOOSE, SEE?”
BUNdling [lucybun] himself into his coat, he went into the garden to see if he could find any access points outside the cottage, but returned disappointed twenty minutes later and immediately dropped to his knees and began his close examination of the floor all over again.
John left him to it. What had he been thinking, giving him a mystery like this? Then again, even this was better than a bored Sherlock in Baker Street, and John had deliberately left his pistol behind.
Silence reigned until the early evening, apart from occasional exasperated noises from the man crawling around the floor. Finally Sherlock sat up again and glared at John.
“There’s nothing special about any of these tiles,” he said angrily. “None of them is loose, and all of them came from the same QUARRY.”
QUESTioning [quarryquest] Sherlock about how he knew the tiles’ origin just wasn’t worth the effort, John realised. He tried a different tack.
“Take a couple of hours off,” he suggested. “I see you brought your book on Faust – why don’t you sit and read it for a while and I’ll make us a chicken korMA?”
“DAMN GOETHE!” [madamegoethe] Sherlock said irritably. “I need to solve this mystery!”
John sighed. He had been hoping for a quiet evening eating curry and watching highlights of the Rugby SEVENS. WELL, Sitting [sevenswells] in front of the telly was less interesting than watching Sherlock crawling around on the floor, he admitted to himself. If he was honest, the sight of that tight-clad backside stuck up in the air was even better than going to any circus – and John loved THE CIRCUS [The_Circus] (the ones that didn’t try to kill him, anyway).
There were no sounds from beneath the floor that night, which annoyed Sherlock even more. The following morning John managed to force some breakfast down him before he resumed his search, but after that Sherlock refused to leave the floor for the rest of the day, spending most of his time peering at each tile and occasionally sitting up to look at information on his phone for long minutes. Reluctant to leave him alone no matter how much he wanted to go out and explore the area, John kept himself amused by copying the patterns carved on the tiles onto sheets of paper and then trying to match them up like a jigsaw puzzle, hoping that they might form pictures or words. Sherlock’s response to this was predictably dismissive.
“Your STUPID DRAWINGS [stupid_drawings] will be of no help at all,” he snapped. “If I thought that the carvings on the tiles were relevant, don’t you think I would have worked out the patterns long ago? A bunch of bizARRE SCRIBBLES [r_scribbles] is worse than useless.”
Calmly John swept all the sheets of paper into a neat pile, put them on the dining table and went to sit in the garden for a while.
The next day was Christmas Eve. Again there had been no noises overnight and Sherlock was becoming increasingly exasperated. John couldn’t even escape into the garden for long because of a fine drizzle which soaked him within minutes, and he tolerated Sherlock’s frequent grunts of irritation until late that evening, when his temper finally gave way.
“For God’s sake, give it a rest!” he yelled at his friend. “You’re ruining your trousers and your knees, and you’ve been over every single tile at least a dozen times. Just take some time off, have something to eat, and stop going round in circles!”
Sherlock’s head snapped up. His eyes flickered back and forth in thought, then widened as the epiphany finally came.
“Circles,” he said slowly, then he clambered to his feet and stumbled over to the dining table where he rummaged through the pile of drawings that John had left there the day before. Unearthing the sheet he wanted, he pointed at it triumphantly.
“Oh, that’s clever,” he said in admiration, and prowled around the room until he found a triangular tile which matched the drawing. Kneeling down and inspecting the tile closely for a minute or so, he eventually held his hand out towards John, snapping his fingers.
“Penknife,” he demanded.
“You’re welcome,” John told him flatly.
“Yes, well done; you gave me the idea,” Sherlock said brusquely. “Now give me your penknife.”
Biting his tongue, John fished his penknife from his pocket, walked over and slapped it into Sherlock’s outstretched hand. Curiosity then got the better of him and he knelt down beside his friend, who opened a blade and carefully stuck the point into part of the carved pattern on top of the tile. After long seconds of Sherlock gently wiggling the point, the tip finally slipped under a cleverly recessed handle set into the stone.
“It should have been obvious,” Sherlock explained as he began to prise the handle upwards and hidden bolts under the tile could be heard drawing back. “Don’t you see? The pattern on this stone is unique – it’s the only one that has NO STRAIGHT LINEs [NoStraightLine] anywhere on it!”
Finally getting the handle upright, he stood and threw his weight behind it and the tile began to lift. As John carefully leaned forward to peer into the gap, stale tainted air flowed upwards and the dull sound of items of glass clanking against each other could be heard. John recoiled at the smell of the air, and a moment later Sherlock gasped, dropped the tile back to the floor and stumbled backwards coughing.
“What the hell is that?” John choked.
Sherlock sniffed deeply. “Whiskey, wine ...” He breathed in again. “And a touch of ... rum?”
He looked at John. “What did you see?”
“There’s a lot of water down there,” John said. “I could see the light reflecting off it, but I didn’t get a chance to see anything else.”
Sherlock looked at him with interest. “Oh, this is definitely a mystery worth CHASING. RIVER ...” [chasingriver] He clicked his fingers at John again. “How close is the nearest river?”
“The North Tyne’s not far,” John told him, “but I don’t think it runs right under the cottage.”
Sherlock scrambled over to his laptop and began typing rapidly. “Three days ago it rained hard further north,” he announced after a while, “and the North Tyne starts up there and then runs past Hexham. Some time ago – years, decades, maybe longer – an errant stream from the Tyne must have carved its way into the cellar and flooded it, and whenever the river is high and fast moving, the stream overflows into the cellar and moves whatever’s down there. I have to know what it is that’s making the noises.”
He bent down and took hold of the handle. “Come on, John! The game’s ...” He paused, then quirked a grin. “The game’s underfoot!” And with that, he pulled up the tile again, sat on the edge of the gap and dropped into the ankle-deep water a few feet below.
The coldness of the water made him gasp, and then he reeled at the smell invading his nostrils and throat. The air was thick with the aroma of alcohol and he coughed convulsively for several seconds.
“Sherlock?” John asked anxiously from above him.
“I’m all right,” Sherlock rasped.
“Here,” John said, handing down a flashlight. Switching it on, Sherlock shone the light around the cellar. There were many wooden boxes floating on top of the water, most of which had decayed, broken open and spilled their contents and Sherlock quickly realised what constituted most of the flotSAM.
“LIQUOR! 113 [samlicker113] bottles of it!” he called up through the hatch. (It later turned out that there were actually 117 bottles. He never told John that he’d miscounted. The other four bottles had probably been under the surface anyway.)
“How did they get there?” John asked.
“Someone must have dug the cellar long ago – probably centuries ago – to hide contraband,” Sherlock theorised.
“Pirates?” asked John.
“Pirates,” Sherlock confirmed with a gleam in his eye. “Or some other kind of smugglers,” he added a little reluctantly. “The stream broke through more recently and it moves the bottles around when the river’s higher than usual. The movement has broken a lot of the bottles, or the corks have perished over time and that’s why the air is full of alcohol fumes.”
“D’you want me to come down and help?” John asked him.
“No,” Sherlock replied. “You’d better thtay ... stay up there.” He giggled.
John peered through the hatch with a look of concern. “Are you all right?”
Sherlock started to take a deep breath in an attempt to clear his head, but quickly realised that it wasn’t a good idea. “It’s the thmell ... damn it ... the smell,” he said. “The air is almost pure alcohol, and the fumes are rather intoxthicating. I’m coming back up.”
Pushing one of the less damaged boxes under the hatch, he climbed on top of it and started to pull himself out of the cellar, but snagged the back of his shirt against the rough edge of the tile behind him. Tugging it free, he clambered out and slumped to the FLOOR. “DAMN. ITH THIS Torn?” [flawedamythyst] he lisped, scrabbling to try and reach behind himself.
John looked at his back. “No, it’s fine,” he said, then grinned widely. “I’ve never heard you lisp before. Are you always like this when you’re around alcohol?”
Sherlock scowled at him. “The fumes are overwhelming,” he said carefully. “You’d be lisping too if you’d gone down there. There might be a few bottles intact but most of it’s perished and ruined and not worth a PENNY. DREADFUL [pennydreadful] waste of good booze.”
“I think I can find something safer to drink,” John said, “and we should celebrate you solving the mystery.”
He went to the kitchen and came back with a bottle of wine. Opening it with the corkscrew on his penknife, he handed the bottle to Sherlock and looked around for some glasses, but his eyes widened when he turned back and saw his friend drinking straight from the bottle. Sherlock looked up at him and offered him the bottle. John hesitated for just a moment before shrugging, sitting down on the floor beside him and taking a long glug himself.
They passed the bottle back and forth, idly speculating about what else might be hidden amongst the spoiled treasure trove under the floor. Sherlock was all for dropping back down into the cellar to see if there was anything worth salvaging but John persuaded him to wait until the morning. With the hatch still open, the living room was full of alcohol fumes and John was already starting to feel the effects. He pondered going over to the door and opening it to let in some fresh air but right now he was comfortable and couldn’t be bothered.
“It’th a mere,” Sherlock lisped idly after several minutes’ silence.
“A mere what?” John asked.
“A mere, John,” Sherlock said. “The water under the floor: it’s a thmall ... damn it ... a small pond of standing water and that makes it a ‘mere’. We should name it.”
“Oh, names are important,” Sherlock said sagely. “Names are hidden everywhere, you know. And this mere’s hidden too, so it deserves a name.”
“Okay,” John said, “let’s give it a name. You found it, so we’ll call it the Holmes Mere.”
Sherlock gazed thoughtfully at the hatch. “No,” he said eventually. “Meres are usually named for their location.”
“Hexham Mere?” John suggested.
“Too general,” Sherlock replied, his brow furrowed in thought. He took a long pull on the wine bottle, then his face filled with inspiration. “It’th under Griffin Cottage,” he slurred, “so it’th obvious! The name of the MERE ITH GRIFFIN [mirithgriffin] Mere!”
Abruptly he let out a giggle and toppled backwards, only managing to keep his head up at the last moment so that he didn’t crack the back of his skull on the floor as he fell. Gazing up at the ceiling he declared, “I theem ... seem to be thpec... spectacularly tipthy ... damn it ... tipsy.”
“Yes you are,” John told him fondly, “otherwise you’d have chosen words with fewer ‘s’ sounds in them.” Dragging himself to his feet, he tottered for a moment. “And I’m pretty sloshed myself,” he announced.
“At least you can say shloshed,” Sherlock lamented blurrily.
“Come on, you,” John said, holding down a hand. “Fresh air.”
Hauling Sherlock to his feet, he helped him towards the door and into his coat before putting his own jacket on. Sherlock refused to relinquish the bottle and they took it outside, leaving the door open to let the air in and the fumes out. They wandered to the end of the garden, breathing in deeply but still passing the wine between them occasionally. Eventually Sherlock put the bottle onto the grass, then pointed up.
John’s night vision had kicked in and he gazed awestruck at the clear night sky. “I always forget how many more stars you can see out in the country,” he said. “It’s the one downside of living in London – you can only see the brightest constellations and the occasional planet.” He squinted at the dense starfield. “Mind you, I can’t even find Orion up there. It’s easy to see in London but out here it’s buried amongst all those other stars.”
Sherlock stepped closer to John’s side, his right shoulder touching John’s left before he pointed upwards with his right arm. “There,” he said. “Follow my finger. See the three stars of the belt?” He drew his finger back and forth a little to underline the stars. “They’re named Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka.”
John turned his head and stared at him. Sherlock reached across and turned John’s face back, lifting his chin to direct his gaze skywards. Pointing up to Orion’s Belt again, he then moved his finger downwards slightly. “That’s Rigel at the foot of Orion ...” his finger rose a little, “... and Betelgeuse at the top.”
John’s breathing became a little erratic, and he leaned even closer into Sherlock’s side. Sherlock’s finger returned to point at the Belt again.
“If you look carefully just below Alnilam you can just make out the Orion Nebula. But if you look right-to-left along the Belt and then keep going in a straight line ...” he drew the line for John to follow, “... the next very bright star you can see is Sirius, which is the brightest star in the entire sky.”
John began to open his mouth but Sherlock took hold of his shoulders and turned him slightly before leaning close and pointing upwards again.
“Cassiopeia,” he said, tracing the W shape of the constellation several times. “And the Plough,” he continued after changing their position once more. He repeatedly drew out the shape for a few seconds, then pointed to a different part of the sky. “Over there, the DIOSCUREAN TWINS [dioscureantwins] Castor and Pollux, part of the Gemini constellation. And up there ...” His finger stabbed upwards once more. “That large bright light is JUPITER.”
A SHy [jupiter_ash] look appeared on his face as he asked, “Do you know how many DAYS OF STORMs [daysofstorm] there would need to be on Earth to create enough clouds to fill the Great Red Spot on that planet?”
“No,” John replied in an awed voice.
“Neither do I,” Sherlock said cheerfully.
“What have you done?” John asked him softly.
Sherlock reached down to pick up the wine bottle and take a drink from it. “I learned ash... astromony ... damn it ... astronomy,” he said, his coherence abandoning him again now that he wasn’t spouting information. “Well, I learned a bit – a few conthtell... constellations and planets.”
He handed the bottle to John, who took a long pull from it with hands which weren’t trembling simply because of the cold. As John put the bottle down, Sherlock looked at him almost nervously.
“I didn’t know what else to get you for Christmas,” he admitted, “so I checked the weather forecast which said it would be clear for the next few nights, and ... well, when I wasn’t looking for the source of the mysterious noises I learned some astronononomi... er ...” He stopped and pulled in a deep breath. “... as-tro-nom-i-cal ...” he said carefully, pumping the air triumphantly with one fist before continuing, “... information for you. It’s your Christmas present.”
He grimaced and gestured skywards. “I didn’t have a lot of time, so that’s about all I learned, I’m AFR...”
“OH! GEEK GOD ESpecially [afrogeekgoddess] to impress me, eh?” John interrupted, finding full sentences a little difficult to form at the moment.
“Wuh?” Sherlock asked vaguely.
John took a deep breath and forced his mind to focus. “You used that great big brain of yours to turn yourself into a geek god, learning useful information about an unimportant topic just for me.” A warm feeling was growing inside him which was nothing to do with the alcohol. “It’s a bloody marvellous present, Sherlock. Thank you.”
“I could have learned more if I’d had more time,” Sherlock seemed eager to explain. “If I hadn’t been so busy with the floor tiles, or if you’d given me more notice of where we were going before we left Baker Street, or if ...”
Laughing, John turned to him. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Sherlock, do stop prATTLIN...”
“MERRY Christmas [atlinmerrick] Sherlock interrupted.
“What?” John asked.
“It just turned midnight,” Sherlock told him. “It’s Christmas Day.”
John stared at him. “How can you know the time so precisely ...? Oh, never mind. Happy Christmas, Sherlock. Thank you again for my present.”
They smiled at each other, and for a moment John wondered whether it was worth taking a chance and giving his friend a hug. Both of them were a little inebriated and John didn’t want to take advantage of that, but maybe just once ...?
Sherlock turned away and looked up at the sky again. John gazed fondly at him. He was rapidly coming to realise that he wanted much more from their relationship than just friendship. Ever since they’d met, ever since Sherlock had incorrectly told him, “Your BRO, HARRY [br0-harry], gave you his phone,” (well, maybe not in so many words, but John’s memory appeared to be drunk too) John had been besotted with his friend, and now maybe it was time to admit his feelings. Was it worth the risk?
He was still thinking about it when his phone trilled a text alert. Taking it from his pocket, he found a message from his sister.
“Happy Xmas, J. Thght u’d lke 2 knw we’re pregnant! U’ll b an uncl by nxt Xmas! Harry xxx”
“Stone the crows,” John said in wonder as he texted back his reply.
“Many congrats to you and Clara, HARRY, AND A VERy [arianedevere] merry Christmas! J xxx”
(And yes, he did originally type ‘merry Xmas’ but quickly backtracked and lengthened the latter word.)
Sherlock turned his head to look at him, which apparently wasn’t a good idea because he wobbled dangerously before regaining his balance. “Why do the crows need stoning?” he enquired, shifting his feet into a wider stance.
Pressing Send, John explained, “Harry just texted me. She and Clara have been trying to have a baby ever since they got back together – that’s why she came off the sauce and sobered up. She just told me she’s finally pregnant.”
“Then we should sing a dithyramb in honour of Dionysus,” Sherlock announced grandly. “The god of wine and fertility, don’t you know,” he explained in response to John’s confused look. Raising an arm, he struck a dramatic pose. “‘I know how to lead the fair song of the Lord Dionysus, the dithyramb, when my wits are fused with wine’,” he quoted, then lowered his arm and frowned. “Unfortunately, despite the fact that my wits are quite spectacularly wine-fused, I have no idea what a dithyramb sounds like – which is disgraceful considering that I’m a musiciAN.
“ARION [anarion] invented the dithyramb,” he continued several seconds later, apropos of nothing.
John tried to think of a suitable response but couldn’t come up with anything. Sherlock looked away pensively, then turned back with an inspired expression on his face. “We’ll invent our own dithyramb,” he declared.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea ...” John began, but Sherlock started to croon a sequence of notes as he attempted to compose something vaguely resembling a song. Giggling, John joined in at what appeared to be the CHORUS, IRrespective [khorazir] of the fact that he had no idea of the tune. Not even a children’S CHOIR [squire] singing along with them could have salvaged the cacophony that the two of them were producing and it was a good job there was nobody around to hear it, though John had a mental image of nearby sheep grimacing and frantically stuffing their hooves in their ears.
Eventually they gave up, laughing too hard to sing any more. Sherlock took another drink from the wine bottle, while John wondered if it would be polite to text a Christmas greeting to Mycroft. However, he quickly dismissed the iDEA, REJEcting [deareje] the thought for fear that Mycroft would trace the call. God forbid that he should turn up at the cottage like a BAD APPLE. ‘BET ’E [badapplebettie] doesn’t even celebrate Christmas,’ John thought to himself. He found the concept rather sad – not sad enough, however, to make a friendly overture to Sherlock’s brother right now.
Sherlock looked thoughtfully at John as the silence grew, and John didn’t even dare breathe too hard for fear of spoiling the moment. He was just about to risk everything and talk about his feelings when Sherlock looked up over John’s shoulder and his eyes widened in surprise.
“WHAT ALCHEMY [what_alchemy] is this?” he breathed.
John turned to follow his gaze, and his mouth fell open at the sight which greeted him. “Oh, hello,” he murmured after a moment. “There’s something to cross off my Bucket List. I never thought I’d see that in real life.”
“What is it?” Sherlock asked, his voice awestruck.
“That, my friend,” said John, “is the Northern Lights.”
Sherlock’s eyes were locked on the swirling green and purple patterns flickering across the sky, but he tilted his head as if seeking further elucidation.
“It’s an aurora,” John explained. “It’s something to do with solar winds and electromagnetism. You only get auroras in the north in Britain – we never see them in London. This one’s called the Borealis; the equivalent one in the southern hemisphere is called the Australis.”
“More, John,” Sherlock pleaded. “Give me more data.”
John racked his brain, wishing he could recall what he’d learned when he had read various astronomical books in his teens. “Sorry,” he said finally. “I can’t remember. We’ll look it up later if you want. But I think auroras like that only appear in MIDWINTER [mydwynter] in the north.”
He looked across to his friend, and was stunned by the sight. He was beautiful in the dim light from the cottage windows as he continued to gaze upwards. A soft smile was playing across his face, and his eyes were wide and filled with joy as he watched the overhead patterns DANCING. GRIMly [dancinggrimm], John looked away again. Forcing his mind off his feelings, he tried to concentrate on the science of the phenomenon above him.
“Just think of it as STARDUST MADE [stardust_made] light,” he said eventually, although he was pretty sure that auroras had nothing to do with dust.
“Like you,” Sherlock asserted. “You are my stardust made light.”
John turned and stared at him. He felt like he’d been struck in the chest by a VELVET MACE [velvetmace] – it hurt, but not in a bad way. The beautiful display above him was forgotten as Sherlock’s declaration impacted on his brain.
“My conductor of light,” Sherlock said. He stepped closer, his gaze intense.
“Sherlock,” John said nervously. “It’s the wine ... You don’t ...”
Sherlock reached out and took hold of John’s shoulders. As his friend stared up at him, his eyes wide and hopeful, Sherlock could see the aurora reflected in his pupils.
“I’m not so drunk that I don’t know what I’m doing, John,” he told him. “I’m still in control of my senses – and I know what I want.”
Gently, he pulled John closer.
“What I want is you,” he said softly.
And as the SILENT AURORa [silentauror] played overhead, Sherlock allowed his heart to rule his mind for the first time, closed his eyes in blissful anticipation and lowered his head towards John’s glorious smile.
The next morning Sherlock was up early, sitting in the living room lost in thought while he looked out into the garden through the open curtains. It was still before dawn and the sky was showing no trace of the spectacular display it had laid on last night. The darkness wasn’t helping his thought processes as he considered whether to delete the astronomical knowledge he had learned. It was a complicated dilEMMA. GRANTed, [emmagrant] the information was of no use to him, but it was now incorporated into the events of last night. Would John be disappointed if he wiped out part of that memory?
His thoughts were disturbed by the sound of John shuffling downstairs and into the living room. He looked GREY, WASHed-out [greywash] and exhausted, though that was hardly surprising after only three hours’ sleep.
He didn’t meet Sherlock’s gaze as he wandered across the room. The kitchen was clearly his DESTINATION. “TOAST,” [destinationtoast] he mumbled. “And EARL GREY TEA. SIXTY-EIGHT [earlgreytea68] cups of it, at least. After that, I might be able to talk coherently.”
There was silence from the kitchen for a while, then a muffled curse at the same time as the smell of burning drifted into the living room. Sherlock stood up and walked to the kitchen door just as John pulled two blackened slices from the toaster and dropped them into the bin. Still muttering, John picked up the kettle and took it to the sink, then noticed Sherlock watching him.
“Oh, hi,” he said. He glanced at him nervously. “I definitely had too much wine last night. It’s made me really dehydrated. You?”
Sherlock nodded. “VERY.”
“BURN Some [verityburns] toast for me, too, would you?” Sherlock suggested with an awkward smile, then flinched inwardly. Maybe humour wasn’t the correct approach in this situation. John, however, grinned crookedly at him and put the kettle on, then slotted some more bread into the toaster and turned the dial down a little.
There was silence while John made breakfast, handing a mug and a plate to Sherlock without looking at him. Sherlock took a sip of his tea, then couldn’t stand it any longer.
“John ...” he began.
“Look, let’s make this simple,” John interrupted. “We were both a bit high on fumes and wine, I was blown away by your present to me – and thank you again for that, I was really touched by the effort you went to – but it’s okay. I know that last night won’t happen again, and I’m fine with that.”
Sherlock opened his mouth but again John butted in.
“It’s no big deal,” he said, though a shudder in his voice seemed to be betraying stronger feelings. “I don’t think we have to talk about it any further, all right?”
He forced a smile in Sherlock’s direction, then walked across the living room. “I need some fresh air,” he said, opening the door and shivering when a cold breeze blew in. Grabbing his hooded jacket, he bundled it on and disappeared into the garden.
Sherlock stared at the doorway for a moment, then put on his own coat and followed him out. He found John at the end of the garden, hunched up against the cold, his hands thrust deep into his pockets, the hood pulled up over his head and his face partially obscured. He looked the picture of WOE IN A HOODIE [woe_in_a_hoodie] and Sherlock stopped several paces away from him, uncertain whether a closer approach would be welcome.
John glanced across to him briefly, then looked away again. Sherlock realised that it was down to him to lead the conversation, but right now his massive brain seemed to have been left without a single appropriate WORD.
‘STRING Some [wordstrings] kind of sentence together, you idiot,’ he berated himself. He forced his mouth open.
“I want to ask your permission to delete the information I learned,” he said awkwardly.
John looked round, surprised. Sherlock ran his tongue around the inside of his dry mouth and pressed onwards.
“The astronomy I learned for you for Christmas,” he explained. “I don’t actually need it, and it’s blocking more important information. Would you be angry if I deleted it?”
John straightened and took up what Sherlock recognised as his military stance. His expression was cold, with so little animation in his face that it seemed as if he had PENNIES FOR EYES [pennies_4_eyes].
“I understand,” he said flatly. “Of course you can delete it. I already said so, didn’t I?”
“You won’t leave?” Sherlock asked nervously.
John looked startled. “Of course I won’t leave,” he said. “Aren’t I the one who always STAYS?”
“YOU Only [staceuo] stay because you think I’ll get into trouble without you,” Sherlock said. “At least, that’s what I’d always thought before now. But after last night, I can’t help but fear that you may want to move out.”
John blinked. “If you think I’m that facile, then you’re very wrong,” he said firmly. “Last night will always be a good memory for me, but no, I’m not leaving simply because you want to delete it.” He paused, then added unhappily, “Unless you want me to go, of course.”
Sherlock stared at him, wondering if he would ever be able to bear it if John left. The strength of his feelings was literally INEFFABLE. BOYFRIENDS [ineffableboyfriends] – or girlfriends – hadn’t been a part of his life before and he had never yearned for one, but John ... John was someone who had wriggled into his heart unnoticed, and the mere thought of losing him made him feel as if his heart had been HIT, LIKE HAMMERS [hitlikehammers] thudding into his chest.
“I don’t want you to leave,” he admitted. “But about last night: you really SHOULD BE ...”
“... OVER THIS?” [shouldboverthis] John asked uncomfortably. “It’s fine, Sherlock. I realise you weren’t quite in control. I know it won’t happen again, and I’m okay with that.”
Sherlock stepped closer to him. “I was going to say that you really should be paying more attention. I wanted to remind you that I wasn’t overcome by alcohol. I knew exactly what I was doing, and why I was doing it.” He lowered his head and took a steadying breath, then looked into John’s eyes again. “And I’d like to do it again, and for the rest of my life, if you don’t mind.”
John frowned, obviously confused. “But you just asked if you could delete it,” he said.
“I asked permission to delete the astronomical information,” Sherlock clarified, “not everything. There is nothing else about last night that I ever want to forget.”
John’s eyes filled with hope. Sherlock chewed on his tongue to try and produce some saliva so that he could speak clearly. “I don’t want to lose anything that you consider important. You obviously like science – especially astronomy – and I don’t want to delete it if it matters to you.”
“YOU ARE MY SCIENCE,” [youaremyscience] John told him softly, “and I’ll teach you the planets and the constellations again any time you want me to. You can delete them now – I’m just so honoured that you learned them for me in the first place.”
Licking his lips, he looked into Sherlock’s eyes. “You won’t change your mind about wanting a relationship with me?” he asked. “You won’t find it too much?”
Sherlock frowned as he tried to concentrate. His emotions were running riot inside him and he was finding it hard to focus. “Um, no,” he said carefully in answer to the first question, then continued in response to the second, “and no.”
“And DOUBLE NEGATIVE MEANS YES [doublenegativemeansyes] and you really want this?” asked John, stepping closer inside Sherlock’s personal space and tilting his head upwards until their lips were almost touching.
Sherlock wasn’t sure his legs were going to be able to hold him up much longer, and was convinced he could feel his brain starting to go offline. It wasn’t an altogether unpleasant feeling.
“John, I ...” he said in a shaky voice.
John slid his arms around Sherlock’s waist. “Tell me,” he breathed.
Sherlock desperately wished that he had drunk more of his tea before starting this conversation. What with his dry mouth and the hammering of his heart, he wasn’t sure whether he could manage a declaration worthy of the moment. However, he was Sherlock Holmes and he was damned well not going to let the fact that this was the most important moment of his life DAUNT [daunt] him. He ran his tongue around his mouth again and went for it.
“John Wat-thon,” he began, then grimaced and tried again. “John Wat-thon ...” He broke off and stared at John helplessly.
“YOU CAN’T SAY MY LAST NAME,” [youcantsaymylastname] John said in wonderment. “That’s adorable. It doesn’t matter, though. There are quite enough names hidden in here already.”
“John Watson,” Sherlock said forcefully. He took hold of John’s shoulders and gazed into his eyes as he spoke more gently. “John Watson ...”
“That’ll do,” said John, and kissed him.
Sherlock closed his eyes, wrapped his arms around John’s shoulders and threw himself into the kiss. Until last night he hadn’t had much experience, but kissing John seemed so NATURAL. SHOCKS [naturalshocks] ran down his spine and his legs felt weaker than ever, but everything about this felt right and good and he never wanted it to end.
Eventually, of course, it did end when John drew back to catch his breath. He tried to take a step back but Sherlock tightened his grip to keep their bodies ENTANGLED. NOW [entangled_now] that he’d finally got John this close, he didn’t want to let go any time soon.
He drew in a deep breath, then raised his head in confusion. “I have absolutely no idea what time it is,” he said. “I always know what the time is. I can feel every minute as it passes. But I don’t know whether we’ve been kissing for minutes, or hours, or days.”
“Welcome to my world,” John said affectionately. “Now you know how I feel when I sit and watch you. Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost days just looking at you and thinking how amazing you are.”
He pulled Sherlock’s head down and kissed him again. After a while Sherlock drew back just a little.
“I know it’s still early,” he said, “but I wonder if we might have dinner quite soon?” He looked at John. “I haven’t eaten properly for the last few days, and I need to build up my strength for the plans I have for you later.”
John’s eyes glazed over for a moment, then he coughed and said with a slight tremor in his voice, “Uh, sure. I’ll get started on it in a minute – we can have Christmas brunch instead of dinner.”
Sherlock leaned closer and dropped his voice to a low growl. “Good,” he said, “because I have many, many plans for you later.”
John pulled in a sharp breath. “Well, yes,” he said, “you’ve made that ABUNDANTLY QUEER [abundantlyqueer]... clear! I mean clear!”
They both giggled, then John looked up at the sky, which was beginning to lighten. “It’s nearly dawn,” he said, then smiled at Sherlock. “A new day.”
Sherlock met his eyes. “A new day,” he agreed. They held each other’s gaze for a few seconds, then turned and looked into the pure purple HYACINTH SKY. 747s [hyacinthsky_747] wouldn’t dare sully it with their contrails, Sherlock thought fiercely, not during such a special moment.
They stood silently watching the sun rise, then Sherlock turned to John again. “So ... dinner?” he asked.
John grinned. “Starving,” he replied.
Sherlock smiled at the memory of the night they had first met. “The lower third of the kitchen door handle suggests that there’s a very good cook staying at the cottage,” he said. “I’m hoping he’ll keep his promise of the best Christmas dinner ever.”
John took his hand. “Even if I ruin the meal, this is the best Christmas ever,” he told him.
“So far,” Sherlock said softly. “There are going to be many more.”
John’s smile almost took his breath away. Sherlock kissed him gently and then, entwining their fingers, he turned and led John back indoors.
The AURORA BOREALIs [aurora-boreali] put on an even more stunning display that night. With the bedroom curtains firmly closed, neither Sherlock nor John were aware of it.
Many years ago I used a similar concept of inserting people’s names into a ‘story’ for two different choirs I was involved with, and I also did one for colleagues at work. On all three occasions they were long poems, and I actually used a line from one of them in the examples I gave in my earlier Author’s Note:
We asked to hear our favourite song because it was so good.
We knew Jill wouldn’t do it but we knew that TERRY WOOD.
But TERRY WOODn’t do it and we needed to fill in
So we sang a rousing verse of “WENDY Saints Go Marching In.”
The last time I did one of these – I recently realised to my horror! – was fifteen years ago. Lord knows what suddenly reminded me of them, but it occurred to me that I might be able to do something incorporating usernames from amongst the Sherlock fandom. Originally I automatically assumed that it would be another poem but after more thought I realised that it would be quite hard enough to do without trying to make the bloody thing rhyme as well!
By now the plotbunny was nibbling my toes, albeit with no idea of what the story would actually be, so I trawled the Livejournal comms, AO3, FF and Tumblr and drew up a list of usernames, then emailed that to a group of writing friends – Verity, Anarion, Mirith, Stacey, Atlin and Chocolamousse – and asked them to add any other names they could think of. I didn’t tell them why I wanted the names. The list eventually ran to well over a hundred names and I put them in alphabetical order and started randomly typing notes against various names, suggesting lines or phrases that I might be able to incorporate into a story.
I still wasn’t confident that it was do-able at all because, while there were some fairly straightforward names which should be relatively easy to get in, like itsacrimescene and bold_as_brass, there was a very large amount of far more complicated names like sevenswells and afrogeekgoddess, or people with numbers in their names, which I initially thought were just impossible to include. (I even contacted rox712 to nonchalantly ask how she pronounced her numbers, dreading that she would say it was “seven one two”. There may have been a rather triumphant fist-pump when she replied that she said it “seven twelve”! But I apologise to kim47 if the numbers are “four seven” rather than “forty seven” – by the time I found a way to get that name in, I’d gone beyond the point of caring, which is why I also ignored the fact that samlicker113’s numbers are probably said as “one one three”.)
But that’s where the clever thing happened. Frequently when I wrote a possible line against a name it would make me realise that, in order for that line to work, the boys would need to go there, or someone would need to say this, or do that. To get the Aurora Borealis in, they’d have to be in the north. There’d need to be a reason why they went north ... ooh, how about the general build-up to Christmas in London making Sherlock angry, and a mystery cottage! To get certain names in, I needed lisping, so Sherlock would have to get drunk. To make him drunk for a believable reason, it’d be better if he was accidentally drunk, so maybe he could be overcome by alcohol fumes – which led to the idea of the treasure trove under the floor. And before I knew it, the story was writing itself with almost no encouragement from me!
(And once I decided it would definitely be a Christmas story and then realised what I could do with atlinmerrick, I may have laughed solidly all the way from the station to home one night.)
I got a lot of help from a website called wordwaldo.com where you can type in the beginning, middle or end of a word and then it finds all possible options. Without it, this story would have been a lot shorter and have included far fewer names.
Some of the names slotted in without too much difficulty, but others were a nightmare. Every time I looked down the list, there were some that I really wanted to get in but didn’t believe it would be possible to incorporate them into a phrase. But if a camera crew had followed me around for the next few weeks, they’d have got lots of footage of me suddenly stopping dead on the walk between home and the station, or raising my head at my desk at work, or racing out of the bathroom with an “Ooh!” look on my face, followed by insane giggling as I scrabbled in my handbag for my notebook. I particularly remember the moment of inspiration for how I could use livia_carica, and every time I looked down the list and saw what I’d typed against her name, I would giggle again because it was so ridiculous.
Working out whether I’d be able to use anarion was fun when I found out about Arion, the inventor of the dithyramb – which I’d never heard of before – and led to the singing bit which helped me to use both khorazir and squire. And again I giggled like an idiot when I realised how I could link up r_scribbles and stupid_drawings; and that idea led to John accidentally solving the mystery. The story really did write itself!
Two names were particularly impossible. In November, Mirith Griffin came over for a visit and while I was having dinner with her and Verity and Stacey, I told them what I was doing with the list of names and showed them an extract from what I had written so far. I then put a hand on her shoulder and told her sadly, “Sorry, Mirith, but I just cannot see how I can get your name in.” But some days later Verity emailed me and said she’d been thinking about it while walking the dog and had come up with a suggestion of Sherlock lisping, “The name of the farmer ith Griffin.” We agreed that it was close but not the perfect pronunciation, but was probably the best we could get, and I changed ‘the landlord’ to ‘the farmer’ and added some other bits around that; but I was practically dancing round the office when a few days later I again typed both ‘mir’ and ‘mere’ into Wordwaldo and this time saw a note at the bottom of the page giving the dictionary definition of a ‘mere’, and then the penny finally dropped that if I just called the holiday home Griffin Cottage, I could get Mirith’s name in properly! (Well, I say ‘properly’ ...)
(Also during the conversation in the restaurant I giggled and said that I fully anticipated that memory-genius Chocolamousse would probably comment, “Wait - you say there are 69 names in here? I’ve found 72.” She so frequently finds ‘clever’ moments in my stories that I hadn’t intentionally put in there, I was convinced that she’d find some usernames that I didn’t put in deliberately.)
And the very last name that I found a way of incorporating? None other than arianedevere! I’d given up on that name long ago because of my ‘de-veer’ pronunciation vs the European ‘de-vayhr’, which I used in the earlier Author’s Note as an explanation of how I might have mangled others’ names, plus I couldn’t see how I could get the ‘ariane’ bit in anyway. But I had 68 names by now and, being a pervert at heart, wanted to get in a 69th, so scanned down the list of unused names umpteen times with no inspiration.
But then I finally realised that instead of simply putting that John texted his congratulations back to Harry, I could incorporate my name into John’s actual message. And yes, I freely admit that of all the crowbarred names, that is absolutely the most crowbarred of them all, especially as it uses the English pronunciation of ‘Ariane’ and the European version of ‘DeVere’. But let’s be honest: I was past caring by then!
I’m predicting that the most difficult names to find were holyfant, deareje and staceuo (mostly because even Stacey doesn’t know how to pronounce it!). I’d be interested to know whether I’m right or whether other names were particularly difficult for you. And if you’ve got a minute and haven’t already done so (*shuffles feet and stares down at them awkwardly*), it’d be really nice to know whether you enjoyed the story and/or the quiz. I’ve been a bit sad at not having had much feedback so far. Thanks.
A Happy New Year to all my readers. And a Happy New Sherlock in a couple of days’ time! I shall be watching the first two episodes with Verity and Atlin, and just hope that we're squeeing like demented fangirls after each episode and not shouting and throwing things at the telly. And provided I don’t hate what Mofftiss have done to our beloved characters, then as soon as the episodes become *cough* freely available, I may start typing again and won’t raise my head or get much sleep for at least two and a half weeks as I start thrashing through the episode transcripts. Ah, yes, writing a transcript for the first episode in four days when each one took five days last time. That’ll be fun ...
Love and hugs, Ari xx