The return of Shirley Holmes: a tale of coal mines, local history and undergarments (part 1) (With many apologies to the shade and immortal memory of Arthur Conan Doyle)

It was around Christmas of the year 2013 and I was convalescing from a severe bout of influenza which had much shaken my normally robust constitution. Holmes and I sat in our sitting room at 221b Keighley Road. Holmes was pasting press-cuttings into her encyclopaedia while I looked out of our study window at a bleak and snowy city landscape. In the Bradford Telegraph & Argus I had read a report that fifteen people were ‘snowed-in’ at a hotel in North Yorkshire. A small fragment of warmth, light, and cheerfulness, perhaps, in a world of winter. Holmes replaced her encyclopaedia on the bookshelves and started to pace up and down, her whole demeanour expressing boredom and irritation. She picked up her violin and played several strange but melodious chords. Finally she resumed her seat. ‘This really will not do Watson. My mind tears itself to pieces if I cannot give it a problem to work on.’ ‘But my dear Holmes’ I replied ‘it is only a week since our floor was covered with letters congratulating you on your discovery of several stable chemical atoms beyond uranium in the periodic table. Everyone agreed that this was a most profound piece of scholarship’. ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ was her reply. Suddenly Holmes’s keen ears picked up a distant sound. ‘Quick Watson the door-bell; perhaps at last someone has a little puzzle for us’. When I opened our front door I saw a young woman in jeans and a waxed jacket with her long whose curly reddish hair spangled with snow. I needed no medical training to notice that she was shivering and that her face had an extreme pallor. I gave her my arm as we ascended the stairs to our sitting room. Our guest spoke in a faint and halting voice. ‘Miss Holmes I am so perplexed I simply do not know where to turn…’ ‘My dear young woman tell us nothing yet, but warm yourself by the fire. Take off that wet coat. Watson has a prescription with gin and lemon in it, which is cheering on a day such as this.’ In a few minutes the warmth, the drink, and a small portion of cold lamb Balti, had restored the colour to her cheeks. She proceeded to unfold an extraordinary tale.

My name, Miss Holmes, is Charlotte Lister. I am twenty-five years of age. After my father’s death, in order to feed my invalid mother and myself, I was forced to become a member of one of those roving television baking competitions. ‘You poor abused creature’ I murmured, although even as I spoke I noticed the defiant look in her eyes. ‘I trust Dr Watson’ she continued ‘that you will never be placed in such a position as I was when, with neither training nor education, I was forced to put bread in our mouths by submitting to such degradation and public exposure.’ ‘Pray continue Miss Lister’ said Holmes. ‘To my astonishment the televised baking proved remarkably successful. We were able to live comfortably, to purchase the freehold of our home, and even acquire a small motor-car. I thought that my career had reached its peak when a local developer in Heaton asked me to redesign the famous Bradley’s restaurant as an artisan bakery, this process to be filmed in a short series of three half-hour episodes. In the first programme we were meant to use a group of volunteer residents to excavate a storage cellar behind the restaurant’.

‘Consider my total bewilderment when one of them, removing what appeared to be a thick root, found that he held in his hand a human femur stained a deep brown. The Police were contacted, and the area was cordoned off. The top soil was removed by a mechanical digger and now the whole skeleton has been exposed and lifted out.’ ‘This cannot have been shown on television’ said Holmes ‘since no mentioned of it has appeared in the newspapers. I should never have missed so bizarre an occurrence as you describe.’ ‘It is true’ said Miss Lister ‘that so far the BBC governors have succeeded in keeping the matter strictly confidential, but the Bradford Police have called on Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard who seems convinced that I arranged the whole business as publicity for my series. He had the audacity to ask me what other surprises I had in my walk-in freezer! Miss Holmes the man is an ignorant boor and yet unless I convince him that these events are none of my doing the broadcasts cannot proceed and I shall be ruined.’ With this she covered her face in her hands and sobbed quietly.

Miss Lister’ said Holmes ‘I’m sure that I speak for Dr Watson and myself when I say that I am personally certain that you have had no involvement whatsoever in this crime, if indeed any crime has occurred. I will spare no effort in establishing your complete innocence. You may expect to hear from me shortly.’ So saying she scribbled a few notes in pencil on her cuff and escorted our client, whose face was now shining with hope, into a taxi-cab. ‘Well Watson’ asked Holmes as she returned to her seat ‘what do you make of our client?’ ‘An honest and much misunderstood woman’ I replied. ‘Always the gallant soldier my dear fellow. I grant you the misunderstanding but as to her honesty I have grave reservations.’ ‘What ever can you mean Holmes?’ I asked. ‘Watson, I am not quite so isolated from popular culture as my biographer would sometimes have his readers believe. I am perfectly aware that this young person has founded her reputation on the slender basis that she refuses, on air, to conform to the normal standards the public expects in the matter of TV chefs. In short, Miss Lister is notorious for avoidance of profanity, and for her use of only organic ingredients and Fair-trade chocolate. But her veracity must be seriously brought into question since in her pocket I saw the characteristic appearance of a McDonald’s menu.’ ‘I saw nothing of the kind’, I remarked. ‘You saw, but you did not observe’ came the reply.

Holmes lit her pipe and spent the next hour smoking and making notes in a small pocket book. Finally she looked up and said ‘Watson’ what information to we have in the encyclopaedia on the subject of Heaton village?’ I passed over the heavy, leather bound volume D-G. ‘Ah yes, Harrap the infamous slug trainer, Hatfield the Barnsley garrotter, yes, here we are…Heaton formerly owned by the Earl of Rosse, ownership transferred to the City of Bradford, some land still in the possession of local landowners etc, abundant wildlife, a natural environment, mines, demolished brick works…. Yes, yes, Watson the encyclopaedia never fails. Well, clearly a wild and desolate spot remote from human habitation, and very much the place to conceal a body.’ Her observations were interrupted by a further ring at the bell. I opened the door to admit the familiar form of Lestrade who, if possible, looked even more complacent and triumphant than usual. ‘It won’t do, Miss Holmes ma’m, it won’t do’ said the police inspector as he sat down and lit a small cheroot. ‘My dear Lestrade’ said Holmes smiling ‘have you come to tell us that you are still persuaded of the absurd notion that my client Miss Lister buried a body in a deserted restaurant as publicity for a television programme.’ ‘I do say exactly that Miss Holmes and furthermore she is presently in the Bradford cells being charged, at my orders, with concealment of the body and murder. ‘Murder Lestrade’ I interrupted ‘who on earth is that poor creature supposed to have murdered?’ ‘Dr Watson’ said Lestrade smugly ‘Miss Lister will doubtless have told you about her father’. ‘Dead’ said I. ‘Missing’ responded Lestrade.

I rose late the following morning after a broken and dream-haunted sleep. There was no sign that Holmes’s bed had been slept in but a receptacle full of the characteristic black ash of a powerful trichinopoly cigar was unmistakable evidence of her nocturnal activities. A pot of coffee and several yeast-extract sandwiches restored my equanimity and before long I heard the sound of Holmes’s latch-key and her light step upon the stair. ‘Watson I am faint with hunger; a cup of tea and a lightly boiled egg if you please.’ Whilst I busied myself with domestic tasks Holmes told me that she had left the house at 4.30 am and walked to Heaton. I have remarked elsewhere on my companion’s ignorance of astronomy and in consequence I was not surprised to learn that she then had to wait three hours for the sun to rise before actually commencing her researches. ‘I have seen cottages and streams Watson, footpaths, quarries and collapsed mine openings. All very suggestive as you will appreciate’. ‘If you say so Holmes’ I replied ‘do you have any plans for the morning?’ ‘First I must visit Miss Lister to assure her of my continuing support; can you accompany me?’ ‘My practice is not very absorbing at present. I will refer all today’s patients to the hospital A & E department and join you within the hour.’ ‘The game is afoot’ said Holmes.

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