For Tilly


9. Alone on The Water

~~Sorrow’s my body on the waves
Sorrow’s a girl inside my cave
I live in a city sorrow built
It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk

Don’t leave my half a heart alone on the water
Cover me in rag and bone sympathy
Cause I don’t want to get over you.

--The National


~~I sit and I hear the words. I am numb.

Inoperable. Deep. Intracranial pressure. Terribly sorry. Options. Arrangements.

Sherlock sits next to me, legs crossed. He is calm. “How long do I have?” is all he asks.

The neurosurgeon is a classmate of mine from Bart’s. He’s a good man. He is looking at me with sympathy, presuming what they all do. I don’t mind so much. “A month. At the outside.”

I have more questions but Sherlock is on his feet. “Thank you, Doctor. Come, John.” And he is out of the room. I start to follow.

“John – I’m so sorry,” says my old friend. “We can make him comfortable.”

I laugh. I’m surprised to hear it come out of my mouth. “He’s never been comfortable in his life. No need to start now.”


We say nothing on the cab ride home. I am staring out the window. Look at that. Look at the world, still turning. I feel like I’ve fallen off. Sherlock’s fingers drum on his knee. He is out of the cab before it’s hardly stopped and into the flat, running up the stairs. Then he’s into his files. Looking, tossing, stacking. I have no idea what he’s doing.

I just stand there. “Sherlock.” He doesn’t respond. “Sherlock!”

“I’m not interested in examining my emotional state right now, John, which is clearly your object.”

“Then how about your physical state?”

He snorts. “Given what I’ve just been told, what could possibly matter now?”

“We need to talk about it.”

“About what?” He tossed down a folder and turns to face me. “That I have a month to live?” The words strike me like the deep thump of heavy gunfire, at the base of my spine. “I suspect that it’s you who needs to talk about it.”

“Yes, all right, I do. Sherlock…”

“My only concern is how long I’ll be able to continue my work before I am incapacitated.”

I’m incredulous. “Your work?”

He stops, finally, and faces me. “I depend on you for truth, John. So give me truth now.”

I take a deep breath. Detach. Float it away like a balloon. Tether it to you so you can draw it back later. “Your headaches will get worse. You’ll begin to experience aphasia and difficulty speaking. Your balance will be affected, soon you won’t be able to walk or stand. Your cognitive processes will be impaired and your vision will begin to go. You’ll experience nausea, vertigo, pain and muscle weakness. Eventually you will lose consciousness.”

He nods. “You are no doubt aware that the balance problems and aphasia have already started.” I nod back. “I have no desire to go through all that, John.” He meets my eyes. He looks calm, but I know him as no one else does, perhaps as no one ever has. And I can see right now that Sherlock is scared.

“And I can’t watch you go through that.” Worse than the thought of losing him is the idea of watching his mind deteriorate, vaguely aware that it once was special and amazing but unable to remember how or why. Seeing his boundless energy trapped in a body that will no longer obey his commands, laid low in misery by the foreign growth deep inside his brain.

I know what he wants. God help me, it’s a relief. “I’ll take care of you.”

His face softens minutely. “I know you will.” Then his granite composure is back. “No injections.”

I’m momentarily puzzled. “That’d be the simplest way.”

“I won’t have any suspicion cast upon you. It must be believable that I did it myself. Are there pills?”

“Yes. They’ll take a bit longer. Half an hour. But it’ll be painless.”

“Good. Lay in the pills and we’ll take it one day at a time. I will continue to work and you’ll tell no one of my condition, understood?”

I understand. I understand that I can’t obey this request and he knows that I can’t, but that everyone will preserve the gentle fiction that no one knows. “All right.”

“We’ll decide when it’s time. Whoever wishes to see me, I suppose I ought to allow it, but I will spend the last day alone.”

My throat tightens. “Alone?”

“Yes. So I hope you’ll be able to beg off the surgery that day. It’ll be short notice.”

Relief swamps me. “Ah. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

He hears something in my voice and takes a step closer. “John. When I said ‘alone’ what I meant was…” He clears his throat. “Well. I hope that’s acceptable to you.”

Acceptable. My best friend has just informed me that he’d like to spend his last day on earth alone with me. There is no part of that which is acceptable.

My mind has not yet touched the reality that he is leaving. I can barely remember life without him in it. He’s slyly inserted himself into all my memories, as if he’d been there all along. He’s there in Afghanistan, sitting on the next cot, commenting on the other men, bothering me when I’m trying to stitch someone up. He’s at Bart’s, interrupting my study time to drag me over to the morgue, stealing my textbooks and marking them up in red pen when he finds errors. He’s at school with me, at home, in the park I played in as a child.

I stand in our living room and watch him go back to his files. At some point over the past two years he and I have become a hybrid. Sherlock-and-John. The graft has been so complete that even when we’re separated, for days or weeks as has occasionally occurred, I still feel the invisible seam that joins me to him. For a moment, I’m angry. Because he won’t be the one who’ll have to cut away half of himself and go back to being a singular entity. John-and-[redacted]. The seam will remain, though. I will bear the scar down my center to remind me of what I’ve lost.

We introduce each other as flatmates. What we really mean is that we’re friends. People sometimes assume that we’re lovers. None are accurate descriptions. I’m not sure the English language has a word for what we are. Harry once called us “hetero life partners.” Sherlock liked that. It made him laugh. I don’t know if that covers it, either. We’re just – well, we’re just us.

All I know is that there is a deep pit in my chest and it’s yawning wide and hollow and in a minute it’s going to swallow me and I can’t let him see that. “I need to go out for awhile,” I say. My guilt at leaving him alone given the news he’s just been given is mitigated by the knowledge that he’d rather be alone than have to deal with me expressing any emotion.

He just gives me a terse nod. “See you later.”

I turn and clatter down the stairs. My stomach is cramping. I have to hold onto the wall for a moment. I make it outside and hail a cab.

I keep it together until I get to Sarah’s. Yet another relationship in my life that defies categorization. Girlfriend? No. Friend? Yes, but more. Shag buddy? On occasion. These terms might apply, except she’s been more privy to what I go through with Sherlock than anyone. She knows about the seam. It’s made us unable to have what we started out hoping for, but yet unable to retreat into a safe zone of friendship. So we hover here in the land of undefined. She dates other people. I just have Sherlock.

She sees my face and pulls me inside. “What’s happened?”

I’m shaking. “Sherlock.”

“What’s he done now?”

“He’s gone and got himself a bloody brain tumor.”

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