THE CASE OF THE SCHOOLBOY GAME

25 Jul

What on Earth are you doing with those, Watson?” asked Holmes, staring at my hands, and he might well have stared because, whilst walking by the park on my way to Baker Street I had picked up a few horse chestnuts lying on the pathway, thinking it might be amusing to plant them in my own small plot of garden and watch them grow into giant trees.

They’re conkers,” I told him, conkers being my childhood name for these nuts.

I know what they are,” he replied irritably, “what I asked is what you’re doing with them or, to put it more plainly, why you have them?”

I’m not perfectly sure, to tell the truth,” I told him. “My first inclination was to plant them in the ground and watch them grow.”

You’d have to live to be mighty old to see much growth from them,” he told me. “You’d beat them to the grave, all right!”

That did cross my mind,” I told him. “But I would see the first shoots as my baby trees reached for the skies, and that would be enlightening.”

How so, Watson?” he asked, and I could see that he was in the mood to turn every observation and declaration of mine into a fresh question, and I was disinclined to allow him the amusement.

Or I might play conkers with them,” I said.

Conkers? What is conkers?” he asked, raising his eyebrows and clearly puzzled by what I had said.

It’s a boy’s game,” I said, “or a girl’s I suppose, when they’re not undressing dolls!”

How can a boy, or even a girl, make a game out of horse chestnuts?” he asked. “I have never heard of such a thing!”

So you were never a young imp playing and having fun with your friends?” I asked him. “When you were a boy, that is,” I added, for clarity. “If ever you were so,” I further added

I was engaged in useful activities during my formative years,” he frowned at me, “and never did a nut enter into them, though I do recall the occasion when I used a rather large coconut I won at a fair to raise the level of water in a vessel and thus plan an escape from the Tower of London were I ever to be trapped or incarcerated inside it.”

Really, Holmes? And did it work?” I asked.

It might have done had the coconut sunk!” was his exasperating reply. “But tell me more of your childhood game, and did all urchins in your corner of the City play it, or were you alone in your fun, as was I for most of the time.”

Didn’t Mycroft like to play with you?” I asked, guessing the answer.

Mycroft, as you will be aware, is my older brother and by the time I was planning devices with coconuts he was working on more advanced matters such as might be of assistance to his adult self when he worked for the Government,” came his cryptic reply. “Now this game of yours, Watson?”

I sighed. As far as I was concerned I was about to describe a childhood game enjoyed by just every boy I ever met to the only child in this land of ours who had never heard of it!

One drills a hole through the horse chestnut, or conker as I prefer to call it, thread some string through, maybe about a foot in length, and tie a not so that the conker remains on the string. Then two of you, for you are with a friend, try to smash the other’s conker by taking it in turns to swing your own nut, allowing it to smash against the other. The winner is the boy with the least damaged conker, and the game, Holmes, is mightily amusing as you would have discovered had you ever played as a child.”

Holmes paused for a moment and gazed at me with his eyes almost alight as though long lost shadows of happy memories were fighting their way from some hidden and too serious depth. Then he shook his head.

No, Watson, I have no recollection of ever being entertained by such a game, and so in order to educate me, how about us having a game of conkers here and now?”

What? In here, Holmes?” I asked, querulously. After all, I was perfectly aware of the damage that could be done by solid objects flying unexpectedly off a piece of string and hurtling towards china plates or porcelain figurines. It had happened more than once in my childhood when wet weather had driven me and my friends indoors. I had received more than one walloping when an irreplaceable treasure had been knocked to the floor in my haste to win a game.

In here,” he said. “Come, Watson, don’t say that you are afraid to take on an amateur in conkers battle?”

We must be careful,” I said, indicating several fragile items he kept on a side table for his delight.

Give me a conker, and I will skewer it!” he said with almost childish delight. I threw him one, making sure it had no unwanted fractures in it, for the last thing I wanted was to be called a cheat by a self-confessed amateur.

He caught it, and reached in his drawer where he kept all manner of useful artefacts, and removed a meat skewer.

Just the job!” he ejaculated, and proceeded to screw the skewer through the flesh of his conker whilst I contrived to make a hole through mine with a clockmaker’s screwdriver.

Within mere moments we had bored holes in our conkers and were threading them with lengths of string. The determination on Holmes’ face was wonderful to behold, and the truth is he managed to thread his nut whilst I was still struggling with my own.

I need a new prescription for my glasses!” I joked as I picked and poked my length of string.

In the end we were ready, and stood facing each other.

You go first so that I can determine the best means of attack,” said Holmes.

He stood before me with his conker dangling and I swiped it with my own, catching it firmly and fairly and sending it hurtling round Holmes’ fist in a rocketing orbit kept safely away from breakables by his length of string.

A good hit, Watson!” he declared, and it was his turn to strike mine, but he missed altogether. “Have another go,” I said generously.

He did, and this time he hit mine solidly, and to my utter dismay my conker flew into two discrete pieces, one of them towards the door just as it opened, revealing a frowning Mrs Hudson bearing a tray holding our mid-morning drinks.

The wicked half of my conker struck Mrs Hudson mid-bosom, and she gave a fevered little scream which ended with her dropping the tray.

Mr Holmes!” she grated querulously, “what games are you playing like an urchin from the streets when there is work to be done and your rent to be earned!”

It’s … I suppose it’s my fault,” I confessed, and set about picking shards of cup, saucer and teapot from the floor.

But Mrs Hudson ran out of the room screaming, and I cut my hand on a sharp fragment of a cup. It bled profusely, which made me grateful that I was a medical man with skills that involved stitching.

I rather suspect a good soaking in vinegar followed by a roasting in the kitchen oven might help,” murmured \Holmes, thoughtfully.

© Peter Rogerson 20.07.17

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