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"Holmes," said I, as I stood one morning in our bow-window looking down the street, "here is a madman coming along. It seems rather sad that his relatives should allow him to come out alone."
My friend rose lazily from his armchair and stood with his hands in the pockets of his dressing-gown, looking over my shoulder. It was a bright, crisp February morning, and the snow of the day before still lay in deep mounds. Down the centre of Baker Street it had been obliterated by the unceasing trail of cars, taxis and articulated lorries, but on the heaped-up edges of the footpaths it still lay in deep ridges, turned grey on the surface by the exhaust of passing diesels. The pavement had been salted but was still dangerously slippery, so that there were fewer passengers than usual. Indeed, from the direction of the Metropolitan Station no one was coming save the single gentleman whose conduct had drawn my attention.
He was a man of about fifty, mildly overweight, substantially bald, and not in the least imposing. He wore a brown coat and polyester trousers of the kind that a man wears when he has become more concerned with the ease of his laundry than with his appearance. He was attempting to run on the slippery surface and failing miserably, so much so that he frequently lost his balance and had to stop to right himself, and would no doubt have made better progress had he calmed his actions and proceeded at a brisk walk. As he ran he jerked his hands up and down, waggled his head, and writhed his face into the most extraordinary contortions.
"What on earth can be the matter with him?" I asked. "He is looking up at the numbers of the houses."
"I believe that he is coming here," said Holmes, rubbing his hands.
"Yes; I rather think he is coming to consult me professionally. I think that I recognize the symptoms. Ha! did I not tell you?" As he spoke, the man, puffing and blowing, rushed at our door and pulled at our bell until the whole house resounded with the clanging. The weather was too cold for the usual crowd of tourists to gather outside, so he was not impeded by the gawping masses. He had only to get past Mrs Hudson, Holmes's admirable lady, who invariably vetted all-comers to protect her valued tenant from autograph hunters and other trivial nuisances. In this regard she did a wonderful job, only failing on occasions when we believe a number of sovereigns changed hands, which Holmes determined not to query as the occasions were rare and did much to improve his standing in Mrs Hudson's eyes, allowing her to turn a blind eye to his own frequent failings.
A few moments later the man was in our room, still puffing and still gesticulating,
"You have come to me to tell your story, have you not?" said Holmes. "You are fatigued with your haste. Pray wait until you have recovered yourself, and then I shall be most happy to look into any little problem which you may submit to me."
The man sat for a minute or more with a heaving chest, fighting against his emotion. Then he passed his handkerchief over his brow, set his lips tight, and turned his face towards us.
"My name," said he, "is George Prendell. I have " At this point he tailed off, having noticed the strange decoration on the far wall, the letters E. R. inscribed thereon.
I have always held that pistol practice should be distinctly an open-air pastime; and when Holmes, in one of his queer humours, would sit in an armchair with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with the patriotic letters celebrating our noble queen, done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it. His landlady too, I believe, frowned upon the idea, but on balance the sum of her entry fees appeared to outweigh the expense of infrequent redecoration.
"Mice," answered Holmes, before the question was asked.
Prendell regarded him from beneath disbelieving brows. "Really? Be that as it may. As I was saying, I have a mystery that has been vexing me for many days now, and I hastened here to have an end to it once and for all. Mr Holmes, please forgive the nature of my question, but pray tell me how is it that you do not grow old? You have been in your extraordinary practice for over a hundred years now, and yet it is unclear to me if you have even turned forty years of age."
"Is that it?" asked Holmes, taken aback. "Is that the entire mystery that brought you here, all flush and breathless?"
"It is indeed."
"Then we can have an end to it in a matter of seconds. The answer, Mr Prendell, is that I am a fictional character, and fictional characters do not necessarily grow old. Think, Mr Prendell, of the Simpsons and young Lisa and her brother Bart, frozen in perpetual childhood."
Our visitor was most perplexed, and it took many seconds for him to return with a response. "But Mr Holmes, how can that be? For I have caught a real underground train to come here, slipped on real ice, and am with you now in your apartment and seeing you with my own eyes. How can you possibly be fictional when I am witness to your presence?"
Knowing Holmes as well as I do, I could see that he did not have much patience with his visitor.
"The solution to that is quite elementary. The answer is, Mr Prendell, that you too are a fictional character."
At this our visitor looked distinctly alarmed, though after a few seconds the alarm entirely passed. "No, no, that is a preposterous idea, Mr Holmes. I would surely know for myself if I were fictional. Your observation is a most inaccurate one. Most uncalled for, I might add. And here's the proof of it." At this, he rubbed his balding head. "I had a full head of hair in my twenties, and smooth skin, but now I am distinctly middle-aged, as you can see yourself. In short, Mr Holmes, I age, even if you do not."
Holmes said nothing for some time. He regarded Prendell with great intensity, unflinching, for more than a minute, so studiously that Prendell began to fidget and eventually asked, "Mr Holmes, what are you doing?"
"The process is not apparent," said he. "And in any case certain fictional characters do age. Those involved, for example, in family sagas. Are you involved in a family saga, Mr Prendell? You see, we know so little about you, so few details; your parents, your physical appearance. I would suggest to you that if I come behind your chair and look a the rear of your head I might find nothing there but a fuzzy indistinguishable mass, because the back of your head has never been described and therefore does not really exist."
"I have parents," protested Prendell. "I have real parents, living in Godalming. I can give you their number, you can call them."
"Mere props, Mr Prendell. Nothing more than minor details to fill out your character, pure backstory. Now, if I may "
Holmes produced his magnifying glass and walked behind Prendell's chair. He stooped to inspect for a while, but Prendell did not appear to be comfortable with the activity and soon moved his hands to the back of his head, interfering with Holmes's inspection.
"Just as I suspected," said Holmes, addressing nobody in particular, "a mass of undescribed and indistinct matter, impossible to focus upon. Now, Mr Prendell, you have your answer. Is there anything more I can do for you? Could I describe you in a little more detail, perhaps? Would that help?"
Prendell was all at odds and quite agitated, but did eventually gather his wits together. "Mr Holmes, I am sorely disappointed. I came here today in good faith with a genuine question, and you have done nothing but abuse my presence. A fictional character indeed! What I find most disappointing is that you have made your unpleasant observation about my nature and not offered me the merest shred of proof. Your argument follows no rational path and is camouflage for your lack of knowledge concerning my original question. I put it to you that you are unable to provide me with a real answer or rational proof of your outrageous theory, and so you waste my time with your ridiculous conjecture. I bid you good day sir, and I can assure you this episode will have done your reputation no good at all."
Prendell wound himself up to face the effort of leaving his seat. But I knew he had cast Holmes irresistible bait with his challenge, and predictably my colleague raised his hand to return the man to his chair.
"You are quite right Mr Prendell, quite right, and I do apologise for my failings. Let me stand quietly here for a while and light my clay pipe and pace the room and I dare say by and by I will be able to offer you more concrete evidence."
Holmes did exactly as he said he would do, and completely ignored the pair of us as he paced, as if we were nothing more than fixtures and fittings in the room. Eventually he emptied the ash of his pipe into the fireplace and revealed to us the results of his deliberations.
"Mr Prendell, have you ever read Treasure Island?" said he, with a twinkle in his eye.
"The Robert Louis Stevenson story? But of course. When I was very much younger, I would say."
"And do you believe it to be populated by entirely fictional characters?"
"Then my suggestion is a simple one. It is a cold day, but a bright one. The snow will be lying more beautifully upon the countryside than it does in our otherwise fair city. I do not feel that I am on the cusp of an arduous business day. What say you we take a train journey to Eastbourne, where we may meet up with a retired gentleman? I believe he may be able to provide the proof you are looking for."
Prendell was slightly surprised by the suggestion, but took it up remarkably quickly. "I cannot imagine you can provide proof of any kind, but naturally I am willing to indulge your suggestion."
"I should be most happy to go down with you too, if I should not be in the way," said I.
"My dear Watson, you would confer a great favour upon me by coming. And I think that your time will not be misspent. We shall arrange for word to be sent to your lady wife. On return may be timely enough for a spot of dinner at Manoli's. We have, I think, just time to catch our train at Victoria.
And so it happened that an hour or so later I found myself in the corner of a first-class carriage flying along en route for Eastbourne, while Sherlock Holmes, with his sharp, eager face framed in his ear-flapped travelling-cap, somewhat similar but not the same as a deerstalker, dipped rapidly into the bundle of fresh papers which he had procured at Victoria. As he thrust the last one of them under the seat he announced his intention to visit the buffet car and return with refreshments, though he made no effort to learn what kind of refreshment Mr Prendell or I might prefer.
He returned with three large cans of John Smith's bitter, and as I saw them I could not help but check my watch, which showed nothing later than a quarter before eleven.
"Yes," admitted Holmes, "a little early, I do concede, but an essential part of the day's arrangements, if you will excuse my presumption."
Undoubtedly I would have questioned my admirable friend's judgement, had he not said these words, but over the years I have become familiar with his habit of forming delicate and sometimes unusual arrangements that inevitably reach a fine conclusion, to which I am not party at an early stage, and which invariably prove to be most entertaining as they unfold. In consequence, I cracked my can with enthusiasm and took a great quaff to show willing and, if I am honest, to encourage Prendell to do the same.
Prendell, as it turned out, required little encouragement, and finished his can before Holmes or I. In fact I was not convinced that Holmes finished his drink in its entirety, for he was careful to dispose of the can in a way that did not convey the level of its remaining content.
On our arrival at Eastbourne, Holmes continued with his peculiar plan, and waltzed Prendell and I into a nearby hostelry, the Admiral Benbow, where we drank pints of Morland's Old Speckled Hen while Holmes disappeared for a short while, no doubt to apply the finishing touches to his scheme.
It was a bright enough little place of entertainment. The sign was newly painted; the windows had neat red curtains; the floor was cleanly sanded. There was a street on each side and an open door on both, which made the large, low room pretty clear to see in, in spite of clouds of tobacco smoke. After twenty minutes Holmes returned with a taxi in tow and a Threshers bag containing a further selection of alcoholic drinks.
"Let us make haste, good fellows," said he. "I telephoned my friend and he is expecting us before noon."
We embarked in the white Peugeot taxi and drove out of the town centre to the suburbs, where we found row upon row of neat modern bungalows, all peppered with snow, white lawns in front of them and wide roads with few tyre tracks upon the white powder, and even less disturbance on the pavements where it appeared that barely a soul had walked. The sea was out of view beyond a cliff edge, barely two hundred yards away, and a bitter wind blew in from its invisible presence. As we disembarked, a curtain across the way twitched and for a second I spied a wrinkled face watching us.
Holmes paid for our journey and beckoned us towards the door of the nearest bungalow. On the driveway outside was a yellow Reliant Robin, its roof cloaked in snow, but the wind had half-cleared the windscreen and I noted the yellow disabled sticker in the corner, the symbol of a wheelchair and occupant, almost a match for the hue of the vehicle's bodywork.
Holmes rang the bell, a cheesy two-tone from the nineteen-sixties. The man who came to the door was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham - plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling. Holmes shook him warmly by the hand. "Barbecue! How the devil are you?"
"I be all right, Mr Holmes. Come land-side and make youselves at home."
He had a West Country accent, and an old-fashioned way of speaking that made me feel very comfortable.
"This is my good friend and colleague, Dr Watson," said Holmes, "and my client Mr Prendell. And our fine host here is Mr Silver, known to his friends as Barbecue."
We filed inside. As a medical man I noticed immediately that Silver had a distinct limp. Holmes produced his Threshers bag and Silver instantly delved inside, coming up with a bottle of rum, which pleased him immensely.
"Ah! Pussers Best. My favourite."
"Yo ho ho," said Holmes.
"Aye indeed. Yo ho ho."
Without bothering to delay himself by performing his duties as a host, Silver took the rum and removed himself to an easy chair, where he span off the cap and delivered himself a great swig direct from the neck of the bottle. I noticed that as he sat he experienced a deal of awkwardness with his left leg.
"Some trouble with your leg?" I asked. "I am a medical man, I may be able to assist."
Silver rapped a knuckle on his thigh, which from the sound was clearly plastic. "If you are a mechanic, maybe. This one is NHS. I lost mine from the hip down. Motorcycle accident."
"Or possibly in the service of Admiral Hawke in England's gallant navy," suggested Holmes.
"Aye, that as well," said Silver, sheepishly.
Prendell rudely pointed a finger. "You are Long John Silver! Or at least a man pretending to be Long John Silver."
"Long John Silver I am!" responded Sliver, brusquely. "Called Barbecue by my friends. There ain't no other. What's you mean - 'pretending'?"
Prendell decided not to pursue his point. He smirked and engaged himself looking around the room. It was indeed a curious room to look around. From floor to ceiling every wall was arranged as shelves, and every shelf was packed with the chintziest of ceramic ornaments. Here were a hundred or so china tabby cats, and over there three hundred ceramic musicians, the entire collection of Beatrix Potter animals, fivefold, a dozen ladies of the lake.
"An interesting collection," observed Prendell, slyly. "Where did you find these fine pieces? At the rear of Sunday supplements?"
"Aye, that exactly. A man has to have some'ing to occupy hiself in retirement."
"Dusting?" suggested Prendell.
"Mr Prendell," began Holmes, who had taken upon himself the role of host, "please sit yourself down and take a drink. Here we are. Bitter or lager for you?"
"I will make it so."
Prendell sat and after a couple more drinks his meanness began to depart and he managed to be entertained, as I was too and I believe Holmes made it three, by Long John Silver's yarns, which began to discharge from him with rapidity as the rum went in, almost as if they had to leave his lips to make the space for it.
He told us of his younger days, when he was still an able seaman, of his time under Admiral Hawke, and his pirate days under Captain Flint, how with money from buccaneering he had bought the Spy-glass bar in Bristol, Then sailed away as cook with the squire and Jim Hawkins and the rest of them on the Hispanola to retrieve the gold of Treasure Island.
From time to time he would sing: "Fifteen men on the dead man's chest. Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!" And in time the rest of us found ourselves joining in with the chorus. Then he produced a squeezebox, on which he claimed to be nothing more than an ignorant and untrained player, but it was hard to think so, with the catchiness of the shanties that came out. From somewhere he dug out an old violin and Holmes joined in, the pair of them playing jigs through the afternoon and into the sunset, and all of us drinking so heavily I wondered what I might tell my lady wife when at some point I returned home. That I had been involved with Holmes on an investigation, and that my role was to get drunk, at first seemed an improbable explanation but seemed to gain in stature as the day wore on.
Long John brought in his caged parrot from the kitchen, or galley as he called it, and the magnificent bird provided us with even more entertainment, as if we had need of it, as it cried, with great rapidity, "Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!" till you wondered that it was not out of breath.
Silver gave the bird sugar from his pocket, and then it pecked at the bars and swore with unbelievable wickedness. The ferocity of its language at first made me gasp, but then Silver was laughing, as he appeared to do most of the time when he was not talking, and Holmes joined in and finally all four of us clutched our sides and guffawed at the animal's lexicon.
"She's been at Madagascar," said Silver, "and at Malabar, and Surinam, and Providence, and Portobello. She was at the fishing up of the wrecked plate ships. It's there she learned 'Pieces of eight,' and little wonder; three hundred and fifty thousand of 'em,"
We had progressed well into the evening before the rum began to do for Silver, and his yarns took a turn for the morose as he bewailed his fate, jumping ship from the Hispanola in South America with a sack of treasure barely worth four hundred guineas, and his failure to meet up with his wife, entrusted with the takings from the sale of the Spy-glass. It had taken him more than a year to work his passage back to England, and with little to his name had opted for a quiet retired life in Eastbourne.
"See, people still knows my name, so I'm still around, but ain't no new adventures for me these days. Ain't even the tale of my return been told."
Finally he fell into a fitful slumber, and Holmes threw a cover over him and made use of the telephone in the hall to hail the same Peugeot taxi that we had arrived in. I looked at my watch and to my astonishment saw that it was a quarter before nine. How the day had flown!
As we made our way back to London by train, I was weary from drink, but Holmes still maintained his customary alertness. "We are going well," said he, looking out of the window and glancing at his watch. "Our rate at present is fifty-three and a half miles an hour."
"I have not observed the quarter-mile posts," said I.
"Nor have I. But the telegraph posts upon this line are sixty yards apart, and the calculation is a simple one.
"Far more simple than proving who is and who is not a fictional character," suggested Prendell, who was now very drunk and earlier had picked the morose mood from Silver when it had come upon him, like a disease.
"Do you remain unconvinced, Mr Prendell?" asked Holmes.
"If a man is missing a leg and learns the text of Treasure Island and calls himself Long John Silver it is hardly proof of anything, except that he chooses to do so. I cannot imagine what you thought to prove through that charade."
"Mr Silver is not of great consequence, except as a distraction. Pray tell me, what have we done all of the day?"
"Drunk beer and made fools of ourselves, though enjoyably so, I would admit.
"And what have we not done, Mr Prendell?"
"I could name a thousand things. What is on your mind, sir?"
"That we have not been to the toilet, not a one of us, despite the copious quantities of liquid we have consumed. Any real person would have been to the toilet at least twice, thrice, perhaps four times by now, but we fictional characters do not find the need to go. You may watch any soap opera, any Hollywood film, or read a novel, Mr Prendell, and you will find that fictional characters do not go to the toilet, whereas real characters go a number of times every day, the more so if they engage in heavy drinking. And there is the end of my plan for the day, my proof to you, Mr Prendell, that you are indeed a fictional character, and I suggest you must find it convincing."
Prendell reddened. "But, but I do want to go, now I think of it!"
"Now that I have mentioned it, now that you find it necessary in order to prove that you are real, but it is over ten hours since you began drinking, and you have consumed a vast amount of liquid, and yet you had not thought once of the notion of relieving yourself until I mentioned it. Ten hours on the grog without relief would be an extraordinary feat of endurance for a real person. Next to impossible, I would say."
Prendell raised his hands to his face and covered his distraught features. "But Mr Holmes, I am a big man with a big bladder." His tone was most feeble and unconvincing, a plea more than a statement.
"You asked for proof that you are fictional and I have provided it, in a most entertaining way, if I may presume to say. You will note that the remainder of your party also did not find it necessary to urinate. Dr Watson, Mr Silver and myself are all fictional characters, and perfectly comfortable with the fact. Indeed, if you check my lodgings at Baker Street, or any description of them you might care to read, you will find that no toilet is mentioned, for the simple reason that I do not require one."
"It's an old house," pleaded Prendell. "It, it, it might have one outside."
"That may be so, but I would not know because I have never had occasion to visit it. In the famous case of the Baskerville hound I spent an entire week living rough upon Dartmoor, with no bathroom arrangements of any kind, but nobody has ever seen fit to query this. It was very easy for me because I am a fictional character, I do not pee and I most definitely do not discharge stools."
"But I, I, I " Prendell trailed off, his eyes wide open and face contorted in horror. "My God! Is it really true, that I haven't peed and therefore I am a fictional character too?"
"Most assuredly, Mr Prendell. Now if you will excuse me, I would like a few minutes of shut-eye to remove the worst affects of the excessive booze."
I feared that Holmes had been harsh on his client, and his deductions had left the man in a deep state of shock. But before I could put my professional skills to use, Mr Prendell rushed across the carriage to one of its many doors, and after a brief struggle opened it. Beyond, there was darkness and the opposing track, and, by the sound of a horn I gathered, an approaching train.
"I cannot live as the figment of the imagination. I want to be real! If I am not real then my life is worthless. I must have free will! I cannot abide this and I shall write myself out." And so saying he threw himself out of the doorway, a moment before the approaching train drew level.
I heard a sound like a carcass falling to the butcher's floor, then the rattle of the train passing us by, and finally the squeal of its brakes as it disappeared into the distance. Our own train continued unchecked. I reached for the Communication Cord.
"One moment, Watson!" cried Holmes, looking at his watch. "It is now nine thirty, and the last seating for dinner at Manoli's is sharply after ten. I suggest that if you pull that cord then the train will stop and we will not be in time."
"But Holmes, a man has just thrown himself from our train and died!"
"And so I suspect our delay would be a long one. We might have an exceedingly hungry evening. And after all, Watson, as he observed himself, he was merely a fictional character, nothing more."
Holmes rose and pulled the door to and picked up a discarded copy of the Metro newspaper from a nearby seat. He returned and began to leaf through it, as if nothing in particular had happened.
"Holmes," I began, unable to restrain myself, "is it true that Prendell was a fictional character? The back of his head appeared perfectly ordinary to me, and it seems strange that he was so unhappy and unfamiliar with his status."
Holmes lowered his paper. "Watson, my good friend, I would not lie to you. No, I was merely teasing Mr Prendell. He had a perfectly adequate rear to his head, and he had simply forgotten to go to the toilet because nobody else around him had gone. You will observe that a group of real people often decide to go to the toilet in rapid succession, as the first brings the act to the attention of the others. This failed to happen today and Prendell simply forgot to go. I suspect he was telling the truth when he said he had a large bladder. He was indeed a real person." Holmes lifted the paper back into place, so I could not see his expression. "But a rather tedious one, did you not find?"
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Copyright Andrew Starling 2003, www.foxglove.co.uk, includes extracts from Conan Doyle's original material, and R. L. Stevenson's original material, copyright expired.