The Palate Cleanser

“The Case of the Conservative Retirement Home Resident”

By Mike Fowler


It was six p.m. on a Thursday at Hudson Manor Retirement Center in Baker Street, London. Clive Beastly, the evening orderly, had begun to bring dinner to the second-floor residents, parking plastic trays of awful, healthy stuff on the broad, supportive arms of the telly-chairs in each room. “Beastly Meals,” everyone called them, not without reason. I had just awakened in my chair from my pre-dinner afternoon nap, which invariably followed my post-luncheon nap and preceded my pre-bedtime nap. The telly played Fox News, at low volume. A speech by the American Sarah Palin was forthcoming, and Holmes wouldn’t want to miss that. For twenty-first century Sherlock Holmes, Governor Palin was the woman.

Wearily I looked over at Holmes’s chair. Was its occupant still alive? Lately he had been much absorbed by death and the nanny state, twin obsessions of his ever since we moved into a double occupancy here, courtesy of the National Health Service which footed all the bills. We also had his former landlady Mrs. Hudson to thank, she having turned over her Baker Street property to the government after her retirement in 1990, which she, ever the Tory, timed to coincide with Maggie Thatcher’s resignation. Mrs. Hudson now occupied 321 B on the ladies’ floor above us, and at 200 years old–say what you will, socialized medicine could be wonderfully life-preserving–was as feisty as ever. Indeed the dear lady was now convinced she was the former prime minister.

“Holmes,” I inquired softly, then more loudly when he failed to respond. “Holmes, old boy, I say Holmes, are you still among us?” His silence alarmed me, and glancing over at his emaciated form that slumped forward in the attitude of his own afternoon siesta, I detected no sign of animation and his complexion appeared far grayer than normal. “Holmes!” I cried, turning on the lamp beside my chair and preparing to spring to my feet, my old Afghani bullet wound be damned. “Have you done it? Gone beyond the world of crippling woes and wracking care? Congratulations, old fellow! But see here, you’ve left me to my own devices! What am I to do with myself now that you’re gone?”

“Watson, flip off that light!” I heard the familiar commanding voice, to my considerable relief. I restored the room to darkness, then looked over and, as my eyes grew accustomed to the dim room, beheld my constant companion sitting upright in his chair, mostly covered by a colorless blanket, eyes closed, gently sucking on his oxygen tube. The tube ran from the green tank that stood like a sentinel at the head of his bed, down the length of the mattress, and then spanned the short remaining distance to his chair. He handled the plastic line as if it were the stem of his customary clay pipe, and indeed it had replaced his smoking implement and shag tobacco of old, long ago put away for good. “We are setting a trap, Watson, for the Beast!”

“The Beast!” I fairly shouted. “You mean –“

“Yes, Watson, I mean Clive, our orderly.”

“But Holmes, I don’t follow you. Aside from being clumsy and dull and not entirely washed, what has the Beast, I mean Clive, done against us?”

“Watson,” replied the great sleuth in a penetrating whisper, “where are your wits? You know that this is dinnertime on Thursday. And what problem has recurred again and again in room 221  B here at Hudson Manor at dinnertime on Thursday, challenging my acumen as did Professor Moriarty in better days, and occupying my mind to the exclusion of all else save economic sanity and the prospect of death?”

“Ah!” I cried, my gingko biloba supplement at last kick-starting my sluggish short-term memory. “You must mean –“

“Psst!” hissed Holmes just in time, and I pretended to be unconscious–never a difficult task for me–as Clive brought in our dinners with a cheery “Right-o lads, looks like we’ve got baked sausage and pureed greens tonight, and here’s a treat, two little cups of rice pudding for your desserts, me boys.” As I gazed at him through half-lowered eyelids, I saw the Beast place our trays onto our chair arms, then use the telly remote to switch the channel from Fox News to Rachel Ray on the Food Network. That accomplished, he picked up the spoon from Holmes’s tray and was about to help himself to the pudding, when the apparently dozing detective awoke and smote him sharply on the wrist with a hardened breadstick left over from last evening’s spaghetti repast. Holmes’s dessert fell back onto his tray, unscathed.

“Caught you, Beast!” Holmes cried out in glee.

“Blimey, Mister Holmes,” said the pathetic orderly. “I didn’t mean no harm. Sure I’ll get you another sweet, won’t I, if yours is ruined? I just can’t help meself around the stuff, it’s so bloody rich and delicious. What’s more, I throw meself entirely on your mercy and confess that it’s me who’s been nicking your pudding off your tray each Thursday while you are nodding in front of the telly, as you probably have deduced, Mr. Holmes. But you won’t do any complaining about me service, will you gents? I’ve got seven little ones to support, and me orderly pay don’t half cover the expense. It’s only thanks to the British welfare state that I’m above water at all, same as pays all you gents’ medical bills.”

“Capital system, that,” said Holmes blandly, and handed Clive a sealed envelope. “Now be a good chap, Clive, and leave us in peace to enjoy our dinner.”

“Fine, Mr. Holmes,” said Clive, not without a note of exultation. “But you should know that I compensated you for your missing goodies, and you too, Dr. Watson, as soon as I heard the recent sad news. This very day at lunch I sneaked two long-term Cialis pills into your soup, so you gents should be getting ready for a hard day’s night at any moment, if you catch my meaning. I know that Dr. Watson has an eye out for Miss Tardell the activities director, so if I were you, doctor, I’d be watching my chance tonight during the seated volleyball with balloons. And as for Mr. Holmes, didn’t I see a certain Victorian spinster from the third storey give him a passing twinkle in the podiatrist’s wait room last Tuesday?” With a rather revolting wink, Clive slipped out our door.

Holmes snorted at the man’s departure, and I myself could hardly stifle a scoff. As physical specimens we had both sloped past our apex. Due to shrinkage of the skeleton and extreme thinness, Holmes was barely more than a spine with feet. And I, due to increased sedentariness and a mushrooming appetite, resembled a meatloaf with sideburns.

Still, immediately following dinner I began to feel unaccountably robust, and hopped into the tub with my vanilla bath gel that I used for only special occasions that no longer occurred. Then freshly bathed, but with the same sense of heart-thumping urgency, I brought my vanity mirror in from the bathroom, sat it on my tray beside the remains of my meal, and began tweezing my monstrous Victorian eyebrows. Following that operation I began defoliating my cavernous nostrils with tiny scissors and pinching my cheeks between my fingers to stir up my circulation. Holmes, observing me, began chuckling aloud, and I suspected that he had already deduced my plans. Tonight was indeed, as Clive had advertised, balloon volleyball overseen by Miss Tardell, the manor’s “athletic angel” for want of a better term. And although the female in question was my junior by as much as a hundred and forty years, I wished to impress. Never, in fact, had the thought of Miss Tardell in her volleyball leotard so excited me. I felt a spring in my step, or would do as soon as I stood up and attempted to walk, and I felt myself capable of 90 mph spikes of the balloon and game-saving dives onto the carpet, anything to impress the young lady. My main competition for her affection, as I saw it, was my and Holmes’s old rival Lestrade from 251 A. But the retired police inspector was running on his second donated heart, poor devil, and that took a good deal of luster off his game.

“Whatever was in the envelope you handed the Beast, Holmes?” I asked, this odd occurrence suddenly returning to my mind. I was examining my countenance in my little mirror for the fiftieth time, finding ever more lint in my neck folds. “Some written threat against him?”

“Of course not, Watson. I’m about solving problems, not exacting vengeance. My only concern is having my pudding on Thursday, and so I set about achieving that in the best way possible. You look mystified, so allow me to explain before we are both incapacitated by erections and cannot think. You saw Clive switch the channel from Fox News over to the Food Network, so I deduced he’s a cook. What I handed him in that envelope is Mrs. Hudson’s ancient recipe for rice pudding. With any initiative, he’ll learn to make it and spare me mine, and even bring me some of his homemade variety to sample.”

“Brilliant, Holmes,” I said. “And now would you mind if I borrowed the lilac hair cream the queen gifted you in 1887? From the looks of you, basking there in your dressing gown as virginal as the day you were born, you won’t be using it.”

“Au contraire, Watson,” Holmes replied with a grin, tossing over the cream. “I applied a thick layer to my hoary crown while you were soaking your epidermis.” He then further astonished me by standing up, tying his dressing gown more tightly around him, putting on his hat, and preparing to leave.

“But Holmes,” I cried. “What of Sarah Palin? She’s due on the telly in minutes.”

“Not tonight, Watson. As refreshingly rational as Governor Palin is, I’ve an engagement with Irene Adler in 303A, and if you’ll pardon the wordplay, Sarah pales in comparison. Irene will always be “the woman,” and at age 160 she still has got that certain oomph. Indeed, tonight is a night to celebrate.”

“I should say so, Holmes. I haven’t had a horn like this since the swinging 60’s. And I mean the 1860s.”

“Nor I, Watson,” said Holmes. “Usually I swing like a pendulum do, but not this evening. And we have further cause for celebration, old fellow. When you get around to viewing today’s mail, which I’ve affixed to the headboard of your bed with a steak knife for your convenience, you’ll see a letter addressed to you from the National Health. It breaks the news that our Clive referenced, that’s been all over the telly also. We’re finally to die, old man. The government is strapped and no longer will afford the endless keep of relics such as ourselves. It appears we’re to have our sustenance curtailed sometime around 2025, and should make our plans accordingly. High time too, I say.”

And with that he exited, his leg bones snapping and his deerstalker trailing a cloud of lilac scent, the most stalwart gentleman I ever knew.


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