[identity profile] tartancravat.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] tartanfics
Title: Invisible London
Fandoms: Sherlock BBC
Characters/Pairings: John/Sherlock, OC
Rating: PG
Word count: 2,000
Disclaimer: I don’t own these characters or make money off them.
Warnings: None
Notes: Beta by [livejournal.com profile] miss_sabre. Inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
Summary: In a garden sit the aged John Watson and the young Jeremy. John diverts his nephew with stories of the London he encountered through Sherlock Holmes, and Jeremy listens, searching for truth in John’s Trading London, London and eyes, London and the dead, London and the sky....

Jeremy Knowles does not necessarily believe everything John Watson says when he describes the London he knew as a young man, but he does continue listening to his elderly relative with greater attention and curiosity than he shows most adults. Jeremy is a sceptical child, prone to questioning the things people tell him. Jeremy is also a slightly sickly child. His doctors say he might benefit from some fresh air, away from the stink of London. Once a week he is driven down to Sussex, where he and John sit in the garden, looking out toward the field where the bees live. The low hum of the bees makes these visits dreamlike, and the stories John tells make them magical.

…. London and eyes.

There was a shop at the end of Baker Street. An old shop, painted green and peeling. It had a name, but the sign over the door was so faded that no one knew what the name was. Maybe it started with a P.

The shop sold everything, but nothing you ever would have expected to need or want. Pith helmets, carpets, tools of astronomy and navigation. Old things. There was only one woman who worked in the shop, old as the things she sold. She used to tell people she’d been a circus performer. Maybe she rode elephants or donkeys, maybe she read fortunes. People thought she was a gypsy, and maybe they were right.

She was part of Sherlock’s homeless network, though she wasn’t homeless. She probably lived in the shop, wrapping herself up in Persian rugs and going to sleep in a wicker basket chair. She was his favourite. She knew things the way he did, but he didn’t understand how she knew. She was sharp, too. She could tell you about yourself, but she never explained how she knew the way Sherlock did, so it was always a mystery.

One day the shop disappeared. Maybe the barely visible P on the sign had faded long ago, but nobody noticed it happen. Overnight the shop was empty. The pith helmets, the wicker chair, the brass instruments that no one knew how to use--all gone. The woman disappeared too. The first time Sherlock noticed the sign had faded completely was the day he walked to the end of the street to pass on a message about a case and found the building empty.

It was a proper mystery. It kept him occupied for days, trying to work out what had happened, but there was nothing. No evidence of where the woman had gone or how. No crime scene was without evidence, not to Sherlock’s eye.

It was the first time his eye failed him, and he never forgot it.

…. London and the dead.

There’s something you discover, as you grow older. There are always bodies. In the next street over a drunk has driven his car into oncoming traffic, or a banker has committed suicide in the house you pass on your way to work. A security guard has been strangled and left by the side of the Thames. You have never seen them; you’re too young. Or maybe you never will see them, maybe you have to become a doctor and go to war and come home to a battlefield to see the dead.

London is always dying. It’s always being born, too, but I never delivered many babies, and there were a lot of deaths. There are always a lot of deaths, but never too many. It’s a balance. Even the murders, the suicides, the tragic accidents. Somewhere in London someone is dying.

Nobody ever told you about death this way, did they?

…. Trading London.

Sherlock Holmes never paid for his dinner. He was a man of his times--loved technology, followed fashion--but in a lot of ways he was extremely old-fashioned. He always preferred a barter system over money. His chosen occupation wasn’t very practical in terms of cash, but it was effective as a means of trade. He wanted Thai food, he solved a problem for the owner of a Thai restaurant. People all over the city owed him favours. Maybe he got them off a murder charge, maybe he rescued their kidnapped daughter, either way he got a free dinner.

London was Sherlock’s to manipulate, but he never got anything out of it for nothing. London was ready to feed Sherlock, to clothe him, to provide whatever gadgets or toys he wanted, but only if he paid the right price. If he solved the right problem, he would get what he wanted.

In some respects, of course, you can’t avoid money. He needed a flatmate to pay the rent, after all.

That, too, was ultimately a system of barter. Doctoring for danger, doing the shopping in exchange for an adventure after lunch.

…. London and signs.

Have you ever looked at a map of the city? It doesn’t look like the city as you know it. If it’s in colour, maybe there’s just the green of the parks, the red and blue of tube stations. It’s not a proper rainbow, it lacks the noise of buses, of someone playing the violin in Trafalgar Square, it lacks the red plaid of an artist’s shirt, the yellow and orange stripes of a businessman’s awful tie. A map is flat, and it doesn’t lay over your mental picture of the city quite right, but you know that it is your city: you recognise the names, the progression of neighbourhoods.

Sherlock Holmes’s London was its own map. He knew every alley, every street sign, every square and park and front door. Sherlock’s London was always in three dimensions and full colour, all five senses, but it was also a map.

You could ask Sherlock the fastest way from Euston Square station to Swinton Street, and he would know, as though he were reading off a list of directions, each turn and crossing, whether there was road work blocking a path, what the best detours were.

For most people a map takes a little twisting. You have to exercise some spatial reasoning to use it, to find where you are and where you’re going and then fold the paper up again. For Sherlock the map and the city were one thing, inseparable.

Sometimes John goes inside and brings out the pieces of his life in London, spreading them on the glass top of the garden table: a skull, a knife, a very old and clunky mobile phone in a pink case. He arranges them carefully, trying to suggest for Jeremy his past adventures, the way London looked when John saw it from his place at Sherlock’s right hand. The skull is fascinating for Jeremy, but the knife is plain and tarnished, and the phone is just old--Jeremy does not appreciate old things simply for their age. These things do not suggest the events John tells in his stories, but the way John arranges them, the way his spotted and slightly clumsy fingers are careful with the knife, almost loving with the skull--John’s touch imbues these objects and their associated tales with meaning, perhaps with truth.

John is old. Maybe his memory is failing him, maybe it invents things that never happened. Jeremy is not certain, but he knows that for John these memories are well-kept and cherished.

Sherlock’s London still lives in John’s stories.

…. London and the sky.

There were a lot of tall buildings. London still has a lot of tall buildings, of course, but they are not the same buildings, and it would be difficult to describe how they have changed, which ones have been flattened and rebuilt, how they are different from the buildings that came before. Most people probably haven’t noticed. Bankers and traders go to work in tall buildings and never look out the window, and when they leave they are too busy looking for the next taxi to look up at the glass and concrete they have spent their day in.

Sherlock Holmes once--no, many times--climbed buildings. He would charm his way into a stranger’s flat, say he’d forgot his keys, was a new neighbour. And then he would go out onto their balcony and drop down to the balcony below, which was what he really wanted. One of those bankers who never looked up at the skyscrapers or the sky would be dead in the flat, and Sherlock would find the body.

Or he would scale a fire escape and climb in through an open window. Buildings to Sherlock were simply crates of evidence, and they could be manipulated the same way he manipulated people.

There was one building. You could see it from the bankers’ offices, and it was strange to look at--like a rocket, or a bullet. It wasn’t there when I was a child, and it isn’t there now. Sherlock never climbed that one--it was all glass, too smooth.

People called it the Gherkin, and looked up at it--even Sherlock--and its windows reflected the sky.

…. London and desire.

Happiness could never be assured simply by coming home to London. Maybe for you the sight of London’s skyline is still a joy. For travelers, for foreigners, for pilgrims of the religion of Anglophilia, London is a joy. When London is new, it is a joy. For those coming home, for those who have seen London’s sadness, its horrors, its mistakes, happiness is not to be found in the street signs, or the buses, or the curve of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

After a war, London seems like a paradise, but it is itself a battlefield.

When you look out the same windows as Sherlock Holmes, you see the battlefield. The more the battlefield is revealed, the more London seems real and whole, and the happier you become.
The more the battlefield outside becomes apparent, the more an internal battlefield is likewise uncovered.

The inches between you as you discuss a murder become a no-man’s-land. A touch is a feint, a turn of the head a tactical retreat. As in all wars, victory eventually begins to seem impossible.

Unlike a city’s wars, in which no one ever wins, the crossing of the no-man’s-land is victory for both sides.

…. London and memory.

You may not believe the London of Sherlock Holmes ever existed. You may suppose that an old man’s memory is failing him, that wishful thinking has made his life seem more exciting than it was.

If Sherlock Holmes leaves any legacy, let it be this knowledge: there is always evidence. Even if you can’t see it. Even if Sherlock can’t see it. You have seen his London, but never observed it. It is there, if you care to look properly.

The old foundations of the Gherkin are visible at the edges of the new building that stands in its place. Blood stains don’t wash easily, and have yet to fade. Libraries still keep old maps, which show old street names and old landmarks. Ephemera is eternal, and antique shops exist for the cult of the old--restaurant menus and ticket stubs have become valuable. Names are still visible on well-made gravestones.

Some things disappear forever, of course, but for the most part London is built upon itself, and layers of its past extend downward like sediment. If you look, if you observe, you will see in the shape of the streets and the names of the buildings that what I say is true, that London remembers its past.

It even remembers the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, though he is long retired.

Date: 2011-09-06 05:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] what-alchemy.livejournal.com
This is a beautiful, nuanced story, for all its brevity - a memorial to a London of the past, a character unto itself, and a testimony to the legends that build up around a man who is larger than life. Just gorgeous.

Date: 2011-09-06 05:50 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shouldboverthis.livejournal.com
This is a stunning tribute to John, Sherlock and London.

I adore Calvino and you have done him proud.

Date: 2011-09-06 08:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mushroom18.livejournal.com
Damnit, this was amazing. I've never been to London but I've read a lot of stories about it, and you just made me want to experience it more. This story was very intimate and a bit sad. In some ways, if you remove some elements of technological innovation, this can also be a shout-out to the canon!verse.

If Sherlock Holmes leaves any legacy, let it be this knowledge: there is always evidence. Even if you can’t see it. Even if Sherlock can’t see it. You have seen his London, but never observed it. It is there, if you care to look properly.

I love how you can see John's love and devotion for both Sherlock and London in every story. I may have to read it again, because somehow it is implied that Sherlock may or may not be alive, and it makes it even more heartbreaking. John bringing out Sherlock's old things and showing them to Jeremy, with great care, just made me teary-eyed.

Date: 2011-09-06 08:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] solrosan.livejournal.com
I just love the feeling of this story; it makes me sad but is comforting at the same time. Thank you!

Date: 2011-09-06 11:13 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nunewesen.livejournal.com
Wow... just... wow. I love London, I love this. I don't know Calvino's work, but if it has inspired this, I am right now off to research on him...

This is beautiful!

Date: 2011-09-06 03:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zephyr-macabee.livejournal.com
This story has such a powerful rhythm; it pulls you in.

Date: 2011-09-08 10:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] durffy.livejournal.com
Beautiful! I just loved this! (And thank you for turning me on to Calvino--I'm going to enjoy making his acquaintance!)

I just wanted this story to go on and on. Zephyr Macabee above mentioned the rhythm, and I agree. It's almost hypnotic.

The section with the old woman and her magical store was so intriguing. I want to go shopping there!!!


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