Chance Encounter
Delia Johnson

          The man sidled up to me at the bar. I did not think I looked like I was wanting for company. I had been drinking steadily for the past two hours and was intending on toddling rather unsteadily off to my room in a bit where I would again pass out in a drunken stupor.

          When Holmes went over the Falls, I determined that I would be contented with a life built with Mary. She was pregnant within a year of his death and I loved her more passionately than ever before. Mary said it was as if I were a whole new man. When she miscarried the baby, I said we would try again, but I couldn’t mean it. It seemed more a sign of the wrongness of living without Holmes to me than anything else. Of course I wouldn’t be happy—couldn’t be happy. Not without him. And not with him, either, for though he had held me in the highest regard in terms of our friendship, my subtle advances had always been rejected, and I found him, as ever, the cold logician.

          Mary told me we would try again, too. But her heart wasn’t in it. I think she knew something was wrong with me, but knew that I would not tell her. I hid her suicide note, in which she guessed that there was someone else, that I was terribly unhappy being married to Mary instead of this phantom lover, and that she could only find one way in which to bring me my happiness and end her neglected suffering. I don’t know if I hid the true means of her death out of fear of reprisal from our relatives, or to save her own honor. For whatever reason, I put away her bottle of poison and sobbed at my wife’s weak heart. No one ever knew that I did not speak of the organ in question.

          And that had brought me here. To this dirty, rank hotel bar on the outskirts of Roma, drinking myself into oblivion night after night in an effort to poison my own organs and drown my pathetic self-serving sorrows.

          England had held too many ghosts and too many friends who would no doubt concern themselves for me and the outlandish behavior I intended to pursue. So I told them I was taking a holiday and wrote beautiful fiction about the wonderful time I was having here, losing myself among the ancient history of the Roman Empire.

          Most people I had encountered had left me alone. Even the barkeep knew only that I was an English widower on ‘holiday’, and kept me in steady supply. Others avoided me like the plague.

          It was, therefore, a most curious incident that this particular individual approached me. He was painfully thin, but decently dressed, with a thick curly black beard that covered most of his face, and long black hair tied in the back.

          “Looks like you mean to do some heavy drinking, sir,” he commented, seating himself next to me. He ordered a whisky from the barkeep and downed it in one shot, holding his breath while the alcohol burned its way down his throat.

          “Yes,” I answered. “And I prefer to do so alone.” I knew I was being rude, but I hadn’t asked for a friend. It occurred to me only now that the man had spoken in English.

          He clucked at me like a mother hen. “No good comes from drinking alone, my man.”

          I scowled. “I am not your man, sir. And as I am nearly finished with my drink I would prefer if you could keep your gregarious commentary to yourself.”

          He chuckled at this. “Just trying to cheer up a fellow Englishman. There’s no need to be cross,” he chastised me.

          I felt a well of shame build up in me. Of course I was miserable and unhappy. But this poor chap was not to blame. “My apologies, friend. You caught me off guard.” I held out my hand, like the good bloke I was. “John Watson.”

          “James Sigerson,” he responded good-naturedly, shaking my hand firmly.

          “Sigerson. . .” I said. “I’ve heard of you, I think. But I understood you were Norwegian.”

          He smiled at me under his beard. “Half, sir, half. My mother was a beautiful English lady and I spent quite a bit of my life in London.” He raised his hand and ordered another round. “As I was saying, I couldn’t help chatting up a fellow Englishman, and you look like you could use some company.” The barkeep set the glasses in front of us.

          “To England!” Sigerson proclaimed, clinking his glass against mine and downing it again. His eyes had a bit of a sheen in them already. A lightweight.

          “How did you know I was from England?” I asked.

          He gave a quick laugh. “I was right again! It’s something of a game of mine. I have this uncanny ability to guess several facts about a man just by looking at him.”

          I raised my eyebrows. “I know one man . . . knew one man who would call that sort of thing a science.”

          He ran his finger around the edge of the glass. “I consider it more an art than a science.”

          I sipped my own whiskey slowly and held out my arms. “By all means, man, deduce away!”

          He sat up, suddenly straight at attention. “All right, then.” He paused, making a big show of staring at me from different angles. “You are a medical man,” he said softly. “A doctor, to be precise. You were once a military man, but received some battle wound, which is the reason for the way you favor your right leg over your left. And you’ve had quite a rough couple of months, first the death of a very good friend, then the death of your wife.”

          I felt the blood drain from my face as he spoke with stunning alacrity, just as Holmes would have. I felt a churning in my stomach and my throat close as tears welled up in my eyes. Holmes. Mary.

          It was too much. I jerked away from the bar and stumbled out the door and into a small garden adjacent to the hotel. My stomach roiled and I fell to my knees by a bush, sobbing and vomiting. A minute later a hand fixed itself to my back, rubbing circles there. I pulled away, mortified to be showing this face to whomever had found me here, mortified at having left the bar and my new-found friend Sigerson after behaving so abominably, but my stomach protested and I vomited again like a schoolboy who’d had too much wine with dinner.

          When I finally relaxed, the contents of my stomach emptied before me, I noticed the hand was still on my back, and another was helping me sit up straight. I looked and saw Sigerson’s gray eyes staring back at me. “I’m so sorry, my friend,” he said. “I did not think my words would cause you this grief.”

          I shook my head queasily. “It is just the result of entirely too much drink for a man of my age, and too much self-pity, I’m afraid.”

          “You’ve had a rough time of it, I can tell.” He put an arm around my back and hoisted me to my feet unsteadily. “Perhaps the night air shall do you good. Should we go for a stroll?”

          I took a deep breath of night air and felt like vomiting again. “You need not bother about me, I can take care of myself,” I said indignantly. I was very drunk still.

          “Of course you can, sir!” he stated emphatically. “I merely wish to make amends for my insensitivity and share the pleasure of your company in your hour of despair. Let me be your confidant, John. I will listen to your woes and tell no tales.”

          Perhaps it was the alcohol, or the loneliness that had consumed me lately, but I could not resist Sigerson’s offer of company, and poured my soul out to him in blubber of words. I told him of the death of my good friend Sherlock Holmes, my overwhelming guilt at being unable to help him in his moment of need. I talked about my wife, her miscarriage, my feeling that I was destined to not be happy, Mary’s suicide, how I covered it up. Things I would never tell my closest London confidante, I gave to this Norwegian stranger on a cool autumn night in Italy as we walked around the quiet garden in the moonlight. A fountain bubbled nearby and I scooped some of the water into my mouth to rinse out the foul taste of bile. By the end, we were perched on a secluded stone bench hidden between two large hedgerows. I was beginning to sober up some, and felt uncomfortably vulnerable.

          “Your friend Holmes,” he said at length, “you cared for him a great deal, it seems.”

          “I did indeed,” I admitted. “He was the greatest man I ever knew.”

          “And your wife . . . she knew this.”

          I shook my head. “I do not think so. She only knew that I was unhappy, and made up reasons that made more sense to her than a man’s intimate friendship.”

          He was quiet again for some time before he said, “May I confess something to you?”

          I smiled. “I believe you are certainly entitled to it after my lengthy treatise.”

          He leaned forward and kissed me before I could react to stop him. I had never been kissed by a man before, and found it deucedly strange for all of a second before my body felt like it was on fire, and I was crushing him to me in a fierce embrace.

          He was not an experienced kisser, this explorer. Indeed, it was as if he had never kissed anyone, but merely observed the act and was trying desperately to imitate. He kept his eyes firmly closed though he had no idea how to seek out my lips, and gave a small gasp when I plunged my tongue into his mouth. When I broke off at last we were both panting heavily.

          “My confession-“ he began, but I silenced him with my hand on his thigh. He let out a hiss of air, and swallowed hard.

          “I know your secret, friend,” I whispered. “And it is my own.”

          Then my arms were around him again, and I forgot all else.


          Somehow we made it to my room in the hotel, spent but still hot with passion. I was as impressed with my own prowess that night as with Sigerson’s. Afterwards, we lay side by side, gazing at the star-filled night out the large window. He had an impressive knowledge of astronomy and pointed out planets, constellations and their dramatic history until I fell into a deep sleep.


That night I dreamed that Holmes stood at the foot of my bed in shadow and we spoke.

          “John, I am so sorry,” he apologized. “So sorry for everything, every pain I have caused you.”

          I shook my head. “You have nothing to apologize for, my friend.”

          “On the contrary, I have everything to apologize for. I knew of your affection for me. I would have to be as ignorant as London’s police force to not see it. But I did not know how to return that affection, and I still don’t. I knew that you loved me, but I could not fathom how to return that love.” He paused then, this ghostly specter in the shadows, searching for words. “I still can’t. To love would be to dull my senses, to take away that which makes me brilliant. I don’t know how to mesh these worlds of love and logic, and that is why I could not be with you. I drove you to find another love, even as I knew you would never be as happy with her as you were with me.”

          “Holmes, this is past now,” I said. “You are still my very dear friend, and everything that you speak of has happened in the past. I knew you could not love and I loved you anyway.”

          “I do not think that I cannot love, John,” he said, his voice almost a whisper now. “I only know that I do not know how, and fear you will not have the patience to wait for me.”

          “If it were only a question of waiting,” I said softly, “I would wait until the end of time.”

          “It could take that long,” he warned.

          “As I waited on Earth, I will wait in Heaven,” I replied.

          “You shall not.” His voice was sharp, and I did not know what he meant by his harsh words, so I let them pass.

          Silence hung between us for a long moment. “I love you, Holmes. I only wish I had told you before . . . when you were still alive.”

          “You mean you didn’t know . . . “ he trailed off.

          “Didn’t know what, Holmes?”

          I heard the rustle of clothing and then in the darkness, he was suddenly near me, his hands clasping my own softly, though I still could not see his face. “One year, Watson. Go home to London and take care of yourself and give me one year to make things right. You shall not be disappointed.”

          Then he disappeared, and my dream shifted, and Holmes and I were lying together looking up at the stars, shoulder to shoulder. Although in life he had no knowledge of astronomy, he pointed out the different constellations to me as I drifted to sleep against his shoulder.


          In the morning, my bed was empty and Sigerson was gone. I returned to England a few days later. I drank no more. And a year later a disheveled old bookseller collided with me on a busy London street, after finally reconciling the worlds of love and logic, and my life has only been full of him since.



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