the case of the receding brain

at a time when telephones were the only barnacles that clung impetuously to the sides of corridors a time when the plague on wings of lemon taffeta built its nests in the houses of the poor three knocks were heard though no-one was there to hear and the first knock was the wafer of a mouse’s sigh the second a profusion of flesh-coloured orchids and the third a concoction of rhinoceros horn and gin

in that time which was this time but oh so long ago a man with a windmill on his nose gave rides to children on the grey donkey downs that troubled his brow the weight of an almanac a Bradshaw’s yes it was the days of Sherlock Holmes I arrived and Mrs Hudson was transfixed to the wall like a monstrous octopus her hands clenching and unclenching in a slow rhythm like the pistons of the train that arrived in the living-room a man descended with thinning ginger hair which followed him at a respectful distance the receiver spoke (I had told you it was close to his heart) and a fine drizzle of precious stones fell from the clouds emerald for the cliffs from which lovers throw their limbs sapphire for the garden where we sow our children like tares ruby for the ghosts that haunt the cellars of deserted mills and diamond for the wind of course

Mr Holmes smoked his three-pipe bandolier and on the carpet before his eyes a jungle was spread out with sorcerous knives and the little hummingbirds one finds on examining the fingernails of priests “aha!” he said and shook the walrus hanging in the air and pocketing Watson’s jawbone he whistled for a cab

the cab was resplendent with feathers of crimson and white and ochre-tinted balustrades of skin and in the recesses of its inner ear was a smoking-room where Holmes sat down with his copy of The Times and began to worry lengths of string from his nose and place the veins of his childhood in a pile beside his boots his shiny boots carved from a single block of anthracite the boots in which he had walked from Piccadilly to the Strand the boots into which he had shaken the last drops of his acumen and solved the riddle of the sands

the cab drew up before a gentleman’s club and Holmes leapt out waiting only to shake a liana from his hair and he mounted the steps three at a time and bursting through the retina of his eye accosted a footman dressed in celluloid ferns

“quick!” he whispered and indeed they did stretching beyond the confines of sight reaching through the drains and waterpipes sliding like droplets of oil in salubrious kitchens in the unfashionable regions of town swinging from the gaslights on Russell Square and the footman led Holmes through the penumbra of the dining-room where lobsters tore the faces of portly men and into a region of howling vortices then across the snooker-room and out into the hall

and standing by a window admiring the sparks and the searing scars that tore the afternoon was the corpse of Coleridge wearing his flesh in tatters yet agitated by his penultimate dose of laudanum animated as if by wires

“I called you when I could”

“I know”

and Holmes seizing the revolver with which jellyfish are made fired three times into the air and a coronet of faded roses appeared in the gloom

“the game’s afoot!” and without another word he began to remove his clothes folding each item of apparel into the shape of some beast or bird and laying them on the floor of his cabin for yes he was now at sea his only companions the footmen in leaves of rustling stalactites and the corpse of Coleridge

they opened the cabin door and followed the passageway through caverns of living jade and towers that sang across deserts of powdered bone where the basilisks blinked slowly in the light of innumerable suns and the slow procession of hours bent in upon itself until darkness fell and the stars bloomed softly in the arch of the falling day and then they fell unendingly spinning like starfish in the crystal air each pinned to the crossroads of his life (or for Coleridge his death) and the head of each was a gaslit music hall and in each a story unrolled for the footman a tale of pastry-trays and wine for Coleridge a lamp of grey tallow and for Holmes the arabesques that rose unbidden from his pipe

at the foot of the gangway they found themselves on the threshold of a room where women in various states of undress exchanged languid caresses with wellmade statues of wax and beyond the room was an opening to a ledge that crumbled on the lip of a precipice and there beneath a stone was a note which read “follow me if you dare for the path is steep”

so they followed the path in somnambulistic haste each pinned to the tail of his comrade though Coleridge stank and they climbed for a day and a night and another day and as evening fell on the second day they reached a glade where the streetlamps bent to admire their reflections in the dew and lichen sprouted like hair from recumbent trees

and Holmes remembered and drew out his violin

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