The Mystery of My Brother and the Red-Headed League
For me the pleasures of reading have always been akin to the joy of stepping into a labyrinth or overgrown rustic maze. You go looking to get lost. And so when my brother suddenly died, at the age of twenty-four, there was only one place I thought to go: into books.
In the days after the funeral our family house is given over to a restless kind of silence. An oppressive silence, a silence impossible to bear. I do not know what to do with myself, and so I roam about the place in search of some remnant of our shared past, as if to prove that something yet survived. I scour old photo albums. I root through chests of drawers, and that is when I come across a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It is missing its back cover and many of the pages are badly wrinkled, but otherwise it is remarkably well preserved.
I cannot resist turning the crinkled pages until I find the story of ‘The Red-headed League’, my favourite of these stories from years and years before, and soon I am far from this melancholy house, far from my family’s deep and churning sadness, far from myself, and back instead in the warm and familiar fireside room in 221B Baker Street.
In ‘The Red-Headed League’, Sherlock Holmes reminds Watson that, as a rule, the more bizarre a thing is, the less mysterious it proves to be. It is only the commonplace that is puzzling. “My life”, he declares, “is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence”. There is, of course, nothing more commonplace than death, and nothing harder for the mind to fathom. I cannot help but think that in many ways my brother’s death is akin to those closed-room mysteries in which the detective is faced with a seemingly unsolvable problem, such as a dead body found in a room that has been locked from the inside. Perhaps it was Luke himself who locked the door. There is certainly no visible reason why, on a sunny afternoon at the end of June, just a few months after his twenty-fourth birthday, he should suddenly have collapsed, never to wake again.
And perhaps that is why I find myself turning again and again to the stories of Sherlock Holmes, as one would to an old friend. For in the world of these stories every problem, no matter how complex, turns out to have a startlingly simple explanation. (Apart from one outlier which involves a mongoose.) I crave an answer. No, I have an answer. But my brother is still gone. And with him gone so are all the old certainties, and so more than anything I crave a world that makes sense.
The autopsy finds that a genetic abnormality had made his heart swell to three times its normal size. But this is an explanation that only leads me back to other questions. Where were the clues that the great Sherlock Holmes would have noted without batting an eyelid? How did we not spot the tell-tale signs sooner? How did he not notice? And, above all others, why him and not us? A genetic quirk of luck set him apart. Just like his red hair.
My brother’s red hair has always been a source of fascination. He was in a red-headed league all of his own. Everyone else in our family all have the same mousy brown hair as me – parents and grandparents, distant uncles and aunts, cousins many times removed. Yet his hair was not the light strawberry-blond that often goes with pale skin, nor the brighter orange associated with the Celts, but a deep and fiery red closer to flame than gold. I never once heard him called ginger or carrot-top, and though this was probably in part because he would have been quick to attack anyone foolish enough to have dared it must also have been because his hair defied such descriptions. Luke was marked out from birth as feral, wild, strange – an exotic bird with bristling plumage. Now what would Holmes have made of that?
And so I turn detective, and in my search I find that red hair is caused by a simple gene variant and is, furthermore, a recessive characteristic which accounts for the fact that it may appear in children whose parents are not themselves redheaded. It is a sleeping trait, rarely awakened. The same is also true of the genetic mutation that helped his heart swell up to its final monstrous size. This too had slept through many previous generations, as though biding its time. A coincidence? The stories of Conan Doyle suggest there is no such thing. But I cannot stop myself wondering why both these sleepers woke in him alone.
And if he were here he would tell me to stop being such a pain, and just accept it. Shut up and get on with things. I can hear him say it even now. Like so many brothers we were opposites in almost every way, though how much of this came from genetic quirks and how much from our constant and deliberate attempts to annoy each other I cannot say.
Our hearts were different, and so were our passions. The physicians of the middle ages, following Greek and Roman philosophy, believed that the human body was principally composed of four humours, namely black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood, and that good health depended upon a natural balance of these. Those with too much black bile, for instance, would be melancholic, prone to depression and inertia, while those possessing an excess of yellow bile were thought to be headstrong and ruled by their passions. People with red hair were, perhaps naturally enough, thought to have too much blood and were therefore characterised as having a sanguine temperament. They were said to be spontaneous, impulsive and unpredictable, and it is true that my brother was all of those things and wild and tempestuous too. What is more, he frequently played up to the idea that there was a devil within him, and he revelled in hiding my favourite toys in impossible-to-reach places, and scribbling over the pages of the books I treasured most, grinning maniacally all the while. And I would scream, scream with rage.
My brother’s own rages were legendary and cacophonous. As a young child he was liable to stamp his feet repeatedly or throw himself violently around the house while screaming at the tops of his lungs until eventually, having exhausted all his energies, he would collapse upon a nearby sofa and fall instantly asleep. His whims were equally extreme. At ten years old he persuaded my parents to buy him a whole set of fishing equipment – tackle, rod, lure, floats, knives, boxes for bait; for weeks he had gone on about taking up fishing. He then carried his new kit down to the river Arun and spent the day getting more and more angry at the fish swimming past his line until he was shrieking at the river and attempting to pummel the water with his fists. He returned empty-handed, packed the equipment away, and never talked of fishing again. Another time he decided that he wanted to be a photographer when he grew older. He saved up for the most expensive camera he could find, which he wore round his neck for a few weeks as he crept around the garden looking for wild and exotic creatures to photograph. After his first reel was developed – a collection of blurry tree trunks and patches of grass – he put the camera back in its box and stashed it at the bottom of his wardrobe. Perhaps he somehow knew that his life would be short and thus felt the need to cram in as many lifetimes as he could. Perhaps once he had lived a day as an artist, a fisherman or a photographer, he felt his restless inner clock telling him to move on and become something else while he still had the chance.
Perhaps that is why his heart got used up so fast.
What would Holmes have made of all these clues? Would he have seen this coming? I turn back to the Red-headed League, to the tale whose twists and turns I know so well. And I love the story because I know it will end with everything returned to normal. To how they should be. Even though I know that is not possible now.
My brother used to mock me for getting so lost in stories. For him books were a waste of time. He was happiest working with his hands, and it showed in all he became: a highly skilled steel erector and builder; basic knowledge of carpentry and construction; expert at overcoming small disappointments; adept at falling asleep in any place, and at any time; near professional expertise as a hockey player and weight-trainer; mischievous and fiendish sense of humour; inability to control his temper; intense fear of anything that might be perceived as in any way intellectual.
How might he have described me? A bookworm, a daydreamer, a nerd. He called me far worse. But the more pressing question for me is how would he have defined himself? How would he have wanted to be remembered? I do not know, for he rarely spoke of serious things and often, when conversations turned serious, he would say that he believed the earth was as flat as a pancake, that human beings were descended not from apes but from reptiles, and that the world would end a week on Tuesday. I was never sure which he enjoyed more: making those who knew him laugh or shocking people not used to his jokes. But laughter is not the same when it echoes back after many years; like the timber of old boats it is warped, discoloured, and tinged with sadness.
I try to carry on with the book, but it is no longer as easy getting lost as it was before. Grief is a fish hook caught beneath the skin, and just when you think you are used to it lodged there it tugs and pulls. It sets you apart. And of course, like the characters in the story of the Red-Headed League, my brother has been set apart from the rest of us since birth. His appearance hinted at some Celtic heritage that had been lost to everyone else in the family, as though he was somehow intimately bound to those fierce and courageous ancient tribes. As a child he saved his pocket money for bangers and firecrackers, as though even then he understood all this: if everyone around him was determined to force him into the stereotypical role of the flame-haired wild thing then he may as well play up to it. He certainly appeared to relish the fact that he was different. I remember that at a young age he would tell us, without even a hint of a smile, that he was not one of us; and on those nights when he would set up his tent in the garden and insist that he was going to sleep outside and forage and hunt for his survival it seemed possible that he had indeed arrived from some distant and half-remembered Celtic isle.
At other times his blazing hair appeared to be the outward manifestation of that inner fury which he so often had trouble bringing under control. It was easy to see when he was overcome with anger – his movements would become twitchy and his face begin to turn as red as his hair. In my teenage years I became adept at picking up on such signals so that I could time the last word in any argument perfectly before sprinting to my room, slamming the door closed and turning the lock just in time to leave him banging and cursing on the other side. There was no closed room mystery here: we were trapped, of our own volition, on opposite sides of the locked door. There were, of course, a number of occasions when I misjudged both his mood and my own ability to escape in time. I was often left with bruises to show for my miscalculation.
Yet despite the fact that he had amassed a large collection of weapons including, somehow, a police taser, his fury was most often turned upon himself. Even if he had been working on a painting for the last two hours, should he get enraged he would tear it into tiny pieces without a second thought. Indeed, his most prized possessions might be flung across the room or smashed mercilessly against a wall until only broken shards of metal or plastic remained. Even after he had destroyed the toys or gifts he had spent months saving for, he was careful not to display any regret or remorse.
This rage started as childish tantrums that could not be quelled, and grew over the years into the most terrifying and savage transformations. So I take a leaf from Sherlock and play detective. I analyse and dissect my memories, but am only left turning maddening circles. What was the source of these rages? Did he feel infuriated that those things that came so easily to others were closed off to him? Did he feel that he was set apart, that life was not how it was supposed to be? I had little idea back then, and I have less now. I only know that his rages began to decrease in both frequency and intensity around the same time that his hair turned brown. In ‘The Red-Headed League’, the mystery that Sherlock Holmes must solve is prompted by a sudden and dramatic change in a routine existence. In much the same way, we were all astonished when one day Luke’s hair suddenly changed colour.
The initial change was easily explained: in his late teenage years, he bought a bottle of black hair dye and applied it, in secret, whilst locked in the bathroom one evening. He was so pleased with his strange new look, his hair as jet black as a handful of crow feathers, that he retouched his hair again and again every couple of weeks until the bottle was empty. That, though, was the last time he bought any kind of dye. When his new roots grew they were, to everyone’s surprise, the same shade of tawny brown as my hair. After a couple of haircuts, the last remnants of the dye were gone, and for the rest of his life his hair stayed the same colour as mine. And his rages, they began to cool.
The dramatic alteration in appearance and temperament is a mystery suited to the annals of Sherlock Holmes. But his world is not ours, and I cannot despite my longing bridge the gap. I turn back to the book. Holmes too turned to his hobbies to help him focus on the problem in hand, and in the adventure of the Red-Headed League, set during the dull autumn of 1890, he suggests a little music (noting that this stimulates the mind better even than cocaine). And there, over there, even as the sound of a sonata for a single violin spills from an open window, I see my brother. He is leaning against a lamppost. On Baker Street.
His head is shaven, his mouth restless with chewing gum, his shoulders slung back and arms swung low, his skin-tight T-shirt straining against his chest and a chunky silver chain jangling around his wrist. He is the object of curious glances from men with mutton chops, frockcoats and fob watches as they saunter down the street. Not one to take such attention lightly, he gives them back his best What-the-fuck-do-you-think-you’re-looking-at? face. He is propped against the tall black jut of a streetlight, fiddling impatiently with his mobile then glancing up when the heavy clop and smack of horseshoes on cobblestones announce a hansom cab heading down the street, the driver’s red face and greying whiskers visible beneath his cloth cap as he tugs on the reins and rounds the corner. My brother at first undoubtedly feigns a lack of interest, as he always did when faced with something he did not understand, and does his best to turn his gaze back to his phone, while the Baker Street Irregulars mull slowly by.
What would it have taken to finally stir him from flicking through his text messages? The thick pea-soup fog curdling upon the street? The pale and ragged children shivering in vacant doorways? The ladies in crinolines, flat bodices and hour glass bustles? Or, would it have been the sounds – sounds such as the cries of the match-selling beggars and cripples asking for Christian charity, the cat-calls and haggling rising from the busy markets, the regular din of competing church bells, the clatter and racket of cabs and carriages, and the barrow boys at street stalls hollering out their prices?
No, none of these. Whenever my brother went to an unfamiliar place, the first thing he would remark upon was the smell. He would always be the first to pick out and comment on the musty smell that lingers in the houses of the elderly, the scent of damp that always hung about the inside of our family tent, or the tang of chlorine that he identified as it wafted through the air whenever we drew near the local swimming pool. It is likely, then, that within seconds he is clamping both hands over his nose, unable to believe the stink of the nineteenth-century: the sickly reek of the thick and choking fog, the overpowering odour of the bubbling sewers and, more powerful still, the foul stench of the Thames – the murky waters overflowing with animal carcasses, dead strays and rotting human corpses. I can see him stooping suddenly as his stomach heaves, his text-messages now completely forgotten – he is, he senses, not where he should be. And so he starts moving, hurrying down the road, ignoring the dour-faced gentlemen and cockney street-sweepers in his way. He had only been to the capital a couple of times in his life but as he studies the successive street signs (Baker Street, Regents Street, Marylebone) he no doubt recalls the names from school holidays when we would spend long evenings squabbling over the Monopoly board. He soon begins to nod his head, a little of his confidence restored, and whispers to himself as he increases his pace. No problem, I’ve got this down.
I press my eyes closed and cling on to this daydream, following my brother for as long as I can. I must not let it go, no matter how absurd the picture. He begins to revel in the shocked stares and gasps he gets from men and women upon their errands. It is the kind of attention he delights in, and his movements become more and more theatrical as he notices people stealing glances at his skinny blue jeans, his great silver belt buckle the size of a cigarillo case, and his shiny white trainers gradually being darkened by the street’s endless dust and slop.
My brother plays up to the looks he is getting: thrusting his face close to those of the people closest to him, gurning, grimacing or flapping his tongue out like a thirsty dog and then reeling with laughter at the shocked expressions he manages to elicit, or else engaging those who do not turn away in mean-eyed staring competitions. I can picture my brother’s exuberance at his sudden celebrity brimming over, and before long he is cocking his fingers into a makeshift pistol and pretending to take aim, then spinning on his heels, twisting his legs and loping off into all manner of silly walks, all the while chewing away on his stick of gum.
The longer I focus upon the scene, the more real it becomes. There is, it seems, something within me that is desperate to believe that he might just be alive somewhere, if not in heaven then in some equally distant and unknown place. And why not in the world of Sherlock Holmes, a world in which a man might topple down a cliff and later return to his Baker Street rooms unscathed.
Yet as hard as I try, I cannot hold onto him – restless as ever, now bored of showing off to the gathered crowd, he marches down the street until all trace of him is lost amid the thick pea-souper. I try to console myself by returning to the book propped open on my lap. However, I soon realise that I will have to turn back to the beginning of the story; on my last attempt at following the narrative I was unable to keep my mind from straying far from the words on the page. This is not in the least bit surprising, for since the funeral I have found it difficult to concentrate and have trouble keeping my attention focused on even the most basic of conversations without my thoughts drifting away, following not some placid stream of consciousness but a fierce river whose current I cannot fight. In the first days of shock and numbness after Luke’s death, I assumed that as time went by we would slowly be furnished with answers to all the questions that plagued us about what had happened. Yet none are forthcoming, and so I have begun to give myself over to the idea that much of it will remain always a tangle of guesswork and conjecture. I am no Sherlock Holmes.
That is why I must leave my brother striding down Baker Street past hansom cabs, dandies and dilettantes. I cannot quite picture him arriving at 221B in order to have all our questions answered. Knowing him, he is bound to get distracted on the way, to run off on another of his mercurial tangents, indulge another of his legendary short-lived whims.
At least here, in the pages of this old book, he is somewhere I can meet him halfway. If I must leave him anywhere, then I will leave him where I know I can find him, where memory meets imagination and something new is conjured between them. Yes, some books we dive into to get lost. But also we go to find that part of ourselves that is made of stories, revealed by stories, kept safe by stories – that part of us that lives between the pages.