I was dreaming of my one true love. Yes, I distracted myself collecting plants and insects, mapping the terrain I was allowed to roam so freely.
No duties, just my frail state of mind, a monthly report to Mycroft, my beloved, poor, kind-hearted brother. I missed him, I missed London. But most and for all…
I’D got lost in memories too often. They paled the longer my journey went on, but they never faded completely. It was as if a fine silver thread bound my soul to that of my dear Watson.
I shook my head and watched the crowd, seeing everything, and observing everything. I couldn’t block the impressions or ban them from my memory. I saw everything, that old familiar curse.
I chartered a boat and followed the great river called the Ganges, Ganga as she is called in India. A broad, gently flowing river, brown and dull, meandering like a great torpid snake through a beautiful landscape filled with deafening noise only in the great cities I where took lodging for several days. Benares, Laknan, Delhi and then finally Peshawar, near the border to Afghanistan.
As strange as a foreign land might be on first glance, once you are accustomed to, familiar with the food, scents and daily routines you start to settle in confidently. All the people surrounding me, the brahmas, the peasants, women dressed in white and coloured saris, children looking the same as the street Arabs in London, dirty but cajoling happily over a won match of what ever game they played.
Ah, India. A mixture of raw beauty and the fine scents of patchouli, orchids, vanilla and cinnamon. Curry in big hat shaped piles were offered at the markets, every corner offered a new temptation.
I visited Ashrams. I washed my face and body in the Ganga as the Indians did. I prayed to unknown gods, knowing that only one thing could ever make me whole again…
During the night, filled with sounds of both uncommon and alluring harmonies I laid on my back, my opium-filled pipe between my teeth. Again I drifted off – back home, to England, and Baker Street…
I decided to go downstream on the Indus, another of those formidable rivers made to roam great distances at a rather lazy speed. It would take its time. But I had too much time on my hands anyway.
I would cross the border to Afghanistan where the Indus turned westward, then to the south again to join the Arabic Sea at Karachi. Via Kelat and Quetta I would turn to the heart of Afghanistan, passing by Kandahar and then, then…
Tears were running down my face when I thought of Maiwand and my beloved Watson… I could feel the scar on his shoulder under my fingertips. My brave soldier. How much he had suffered then, and how much he had to suffer even now – on my account!
Maybe I would find the answer there! In the hot desert sand, digging through the remnants of the unfortunate brigade that had fought so bravely and had been defeated so thoroughly!
I packed my bundle and left no trace of my existence behind.
She felt fragile, her bones delicate like a bird’s when she had taken my arm and we made a slow, short walk through a nearby park. I thought she would recover, and for several weeks she seemed to do so.
But the next evening, when I returned home from a stressful day in my practice she lay in bed, the covers up to her chin, shivering and as pale as a ghost.
“Mary!” In an instant I was by her side. She took my hand in hers and smiled, a feeble attempt to assure me that everything was fine with her, that I needn’t worry. But I was afraid.
Kissing her white fingers I sat by her side and patiently waited until she was peacefully sleeping.
I deceived myself, her sleep wasn’t peaceful at all. She could hardly breathe, her head lolled from side to side and she whispered inaudibly to whatever phantoms were haunting her.
And then… a shadow was moving! There behind the curtain! I was up in a moment and ripped it aside – nothing. ‘Just a breeze,’ I thought. And nothing more happened during the night.
I left a candle burning. At some point I must have fallen asleep. The dreams that came swept over me in gigantic waves. I drowned in harsh, chaotic noise, laughter, smoke in the air, Holmes playing the violin in an almost devilish manner.
His hair was wild, he looked like a beggar. But his playing was magnificent, powerful, overwhelming. I reached out for him, I could see my own claw-like fingers… with a start I woke up again!
The sheets were drenched in sweat, both Mary’s and mine.
I climbed out of bed and called our maid. We changed the sheets, I brought Mary to the settee in my examining room and there I held her in my arms like a mother with a child, rocking her gently, singing to her…
Mary, o Mary, my dearest heart! What have I done to you? ‘You would have been happier without me,’ I thought and a deep and dark melancholy wrapped its heavy cloak around my shivering frame.
The next three days I stayed at home with my wife our servants surrounding us. Soon it would be over.
But there was no relief in this knowledge. Just grief and a mind numbing void.
Tuesday 27 July 1880 was the British nightmare, an Afghan lesson that had been learned, but will never be forgotten. The Second Anglo-Afghan War, 3,500 miles from home, in the dried out nullahs, and in the 60-degree temperatures, under the sound of Armstrong cannon versus Armstrong cannon, and the Martini Henry breech-loader and its bayonet versus the sharp crack of the jezail and the primitive but deadly Afghan 'Khyber' knife and tulwar sword it had been that my dear Watson suffered.
The British Government in 1878 wanted to stabilise Afghanistan in order to prevent danger to their own territories. To achieve this goal they used military intervention, not to rule themselves, but to make space for a homegrown government that would be sympathetic to British needs. The soldiers who worked for their shilling or rupee were of an international alliance too, though under somewhat different circumstances, it has to be said, as both coins bore the head of Empress Victoria. Shoulder to shoulder with the Berkshire Tommy, was the Baloch sepoy, the Muslim sowar, and the Hindu bugler.
On 27th July 1880, they all stood together, exposed on an open arid plain, while an army estimated at between 10,000 to 20,000 Afghan warriors and tribesmen advanced, firing their artillery pieces with such accuracy that a rumour quickly spread among the Anglo-Indian force that Russian commanders must be present.
And now I sat there, in the same dry, open arid plain, on my knees, every crevice filled with fine sand, and I was sad. Sad for my country, sad for the people who had lost their lives, sad for those who still lived here.
I sighed, my eyes stinging from the dry heat and near tears, and I was glad too. If he hadn’t been wounded, back then, we would never have met.
With a drop of my sweetheart's blood,
Shed in defence of the Motherland,
Will I put a beauty spot on my forehead,
Such as would put to shame the rose in the garden
So I raised my head, knees aching, rising on shaky legs, and went back, through the sun and the heat. With a heavy heart I climbed atop my camel, it roared when I forced it up.
On his back, lulled by the beasts ship-like swaying trot I filled another pipe, and soon in a trance-like state I returned to Kandahar.
Living without Watson was like walking with thorns in my side. Several days I dwelt in an almost catatonic state. A dimly lit room held the sun outside, a sun too bright for my weary eyes. I closed them, tired, fully aware that, if I fell asleep I might never want to wake up again.
‘Holmes. Come back to me!’
Watson? Was that you? Watson, my dear Watson!
With shaking limbs I lay there, staring at the ceiling, then forced myself up from the hard ground, where my exhausted body had found uneasy rest for a few hours.
‘Watson,’ I thought, ‘Where are thou?’
‘Holmes. Holmes come back.’
My dear man needed me. I was up in a minute and ready to go in half the time. Where was my money? The sack with my belongings. A small one, stuffed with the few things I possessed. A postcard fell out.
The tomb of Nizamudin at Delhi. It would reach Mycroft in a month, maybe two, along with another Sigerson report and a lock of my hair in a silver locket, engraved with a rose on one side.
I had to return! Europe, the old continent. I stormed out of the room and the servants I had hired couldn’t understand my rage when they balked at my commands to leave on the spot.
‘Hurry, fetch the camels! We will depart this place as soon as possible!’ I yelled, and they fled like a bunch of chickens, afraid I would rip their heads off.
I would have done! I was angry. Angry at myself, angry to return to England, angry with my brother.
He had mentioned Jonathan Harker in one of his latest letters.
We took a boat to the north, up the Hilmand river, passing Maiwand. We had to go upstream where, a week later in the evening hours we reached Chagcharán, a small, urban village, full of dust and camel dung.
I stayed for a day and a night, then a guide brought me up the Koh-e-baba, the soft hills in the north of this beautiful, but dry land. From there we followed the Hari Rud, another river, and I set foot into Herat on the twelve of July 1895 almost three years after I had ‘perished’ from this world on my own account.
The riverbanks were muddy and I was glad to have chosen the best time of year to travel through Afghanistan. It would be autumn before I would be back in England.
As much as I longed to see my home country again, God had set a great deal of rock, stone and water between me and my final destination.
I bent down and took a handful of the brown mud. It looked rich and smelled of grass and faintly metallic. I straightened my back, pulled in a deep breath which filled my lungs with the moist, warm air surrounding me.
The humidity of this place was heavy, not unlike a wet sheet.
No one would recognize me here, I thought. Here it was common that the men hid their faces behind a cotton veil a custom I planned to adopt. Flies and gnats had accompanied us on our journey for a very long time. I liked the desert better. It was clean.
Persia! Glorious country, gold, silver, fine leather works, silk, almonds and dates (the best to be found in the orient). I closed my eyes and inhaled all those formidable scents, a unique mixture of spices, perfumes and putrefaction.
Mesched, Isfahan and other cities I had visited earlier in my life. Back then, it had been to solve the case of the Persian ambassador…
That had been another life entirely.
I had brought a pair of slippers with me back to England, part of my fee for my service to the diplomat. A fine pair of slippers it had been with its soles made of the finest sheep leather, a smooth silky top formed to a curly, pointy toe, embroidered with golden threads and an inlay of several minor gems.
One I had hung near the mantelpiece in my bedroom, the other at the same place in the parlour, where it caused many humorous glances from our… the visitors consulting me.
I had to hurry. Something told me to hurry.
A month later I left Aleppo, another six weeks to face Constantinople, a symbol for my inner state. A great boisterous city with a cleft in the middle. A cleft running through the body, but not the heart. I noticed the Babylonian mixture of languages from all over the Orient, the beautiful gardens, the mosques, glittering in their ornaments of tiles and golden roofs, crowned by a half moon reflecting the sun.
The scent was different. Here was the Mediterranean Sea, wind from the north carried the faint fragrances of pine woods and flowers with it.
There was also dust and too much manure on the streets which rendered them unpleasant. Oriental idleness ruled the outer districts, where I vanished into the shadows of small passages, hardly wider than my own girth.
I left after a week, supplied with a new outfit resembling my old
I was thin as a rail, my skin bronze and my hair had greyed at the temples. Unkempt it looked like Beethoven’s, the famous composer, in his later years.
I combed my hair, oil tamed it, I’d even found tinted spectacles to hide my bloodshot eyes. The watch chain on my vest secured my old pocket watch still showing the time when the clockwork had stopped, a reminder of my former, happier life. It fit nicely into its pocket.
Deep in thought I let the chain run through my fingers, weighing the small pearl in my hand. I stood for a while, contemplating my old life, not daring to think of a future that had already been lost once in the past.
Tears sprang into my eyes, I cringed and dropped to my knees on the floor. ‘Forgive me, father, for I have sinned…’
“Watson!” I cried aloud, hardly knowing that I did so.
In a moment of crystalline transparency I knew I had lost him.
 Poem written by Malaia, a Persian woman who had lost her beloved during that war.