The Brettish Empire

TBE "Extra" -- November 18, 1995
(Revised November 25, 1999)


Hello Everyone,

I recently read an imaginative, moving tribute to Jeremy Brett written by Melanie Hughes. Melanie has graciously allowed me to reprint her story as a "TBExtra."

Melanie recently won top honors in a writing contest sponsored by [the now defunct website] "Manderly" with her essay on the novel Rebecca. She was awarded a trip to London, which she plans to take in January. Melanie is also active on Prodigy's Sherlock Holmes board, "The Wigmore Street Post Office."

Melanie "discovered" Jeremy in 1992 and not long afterward read the "TTT" article from the Washington Post (featured in TBE #11). She has skillfully weaved these elements into the following tribute:

"GULP FRICTION" by Melanie Hughes (The Trout in the Milk)

(Author's note: "The title of this story refers not to any movie, but to the act of holding back tears. Something I made the mistake of trying to do...")

Brad Keefauver, Part-Time Bartender of the Dangling Prussian, set the two wooden crates down near the Prussian's back door and shrugged at Winters. Winters set two near-identical crates down next to the first two and handed me a crowbar. Casting a silent sympathetic look my way, Winters went back inside, leaving Brad, the crowbar, and me alone.

Brad cleared his throat. "You sure about this, Trout?"

I glared at him and gestured at the crates. "I paid you four times what the stuff is worth, Keefauver. What's your beef?"

Brad looked the way Timmy might have after Lassie had sunk her fangs into his hand.

I took the crowbar to the top of the first crate, and as I wrenched the slat off, I muttered, "Hey, you're the one who used to wonder if I was a psycho. You can feel vindicated now."

"I don't claim to understand your feelings," Brad replied. "But I don't think you're a psycho. It's just that this all seems very primal. Far from your usual style."

"What do you think I should do?" I snapped. "Stiff upper lip, proper British reserve? Or just some ethereal peace? My world's been pulled from under my feet, can you grasp that?"

Brad shoved his hands in his pockets. "You'll miss 'Tall, Thin, and Tortured Night'."

"So?" I pried off another slat.

"Sherlock Holmes is sure to be there."

"So?"

"Maggie and Tina are taking bets on him to win again."

"So?"

"Well, then what are you doing here? The three basic reasons the Prussian exists are an interest in Sherlock Holmes, communication, and friendship. You've just said you have no interest in any of it."

"You forgot the fourth reason," I replied, staring in sadistic satisfaction at the rows of highball glasses. "Escape. That's why I'm here. Reality sucks large pointy rocks and I want to get as far away as I can." I turned and began savagely yanking the slats off the second crate. "Hey, you've been paid, and I promised to clean up the mess. Why don't you leave me alone?"

Brad's shoulders slumped and he turned away.

I could already hear the laughter inside the Dangling Prussian. Early yet, the first contestants were arriving. I could imagine it all: a white harvest of poet shirts; delicate handkerchiefs for the consumptives. A sea of soulful eyes. An "all you can drink" special on all the leftover "Great Big Horsehide Chair."

I remembered the previous year's TTT night, when Max de Winter had come in, on the lam from Sam Spade. Sherlock Holmes had cleared de Winter of a murder charge, and de Winter had gone home a safe, happy, though decidedly less romantic, figure. Holmes had also won the contest, although things nearly erupted into a brawl when Tonga showed up demanding equal opportunity.

Well, piddle on it; tonight I was in no mood for romance, mystery, communication--I wanted nothing but the four crates full of glasses at my feet. I had extensive plans for said glasses, plans involving much noise and destruction. I thought about him, and the many characters he'd become, and wondered if I had enough glasses.

I picked up a glass in each hand. "Here's to Macbeth," I said tightly, hurling the first glass toward the brick wall that marked the back boundary of the pub. It made contact, and a satisfactory crashing sound, and I smiled grimly. The night was young yet. "And to Bassanio." The other glass went west.

"Trout?" It was Bob Burr. "What the heck are you doing?"

"I'm performing a non-alcoholic toast." Come to think of it, it was a non-drink toast. Only the last half of the drink-n-smash ritual remained intact. "Here's to Troilus!"

"Trout, have you gone nuts? Those glasses aren't free."

"No; I paid Arminius twenty pounds for the lot of 'em."

"Good heavens, Trout!"

"Here's to Robert Browning and Noel Coward," I proclaimed, flinging two glasses simultaneously. Bob shook his head and backed inside, shutting the door behind him.

"Can't forget Tony Vernon-Smith," I muttered, aiming another glass. Shortly thereafter it joined what was left of its companions with a loud crash.

"Trout, don't be ridiculous," came Tina Rhea's voice. "Come on inside where it's warm. It's got to be 30 degrees out there. Besides, Sherlock Holmes just came in and we need you to help judge."

"Blaph Sherlock Holmes," I retorted, computing trajectory and sending two more glasses through the air at such an angle that they crashed into each other before they hit the wall. I heard the door close again.

"Che Guevera." Crash.

"Orlando." Shatter.

"Paris." Splinter. And on I went, until, just as I shouted, "Captain Jack Absolute--"

"Trout?" came a concerned voice. Rosemary. "Talk to me."

"What's to say?" I snapped back, looking irritably at the first, now-empty crate. I picked the whole thing up and threw it at the wall, too, where it disintegrated on top of its former tenants.

"And that's for Freddie Freakin' Eynesford-Hill!"

I went to the second crate. Thick beer mugs. Hm, I'd have to throw harder. Well, that suited me fine.

"Why don't you come back in with me?" Rosemary suggested logically, not making it sound at all like the plea that it was. "Remember the wet frock-coat competition? It's just starting."

Oh yes, I remembered the wet frock-coat controversy...I even had vague memories of Iamrite Altyme establishing a 900 operator to take votes on whether it should continue. But...

"Not interested." I reared back. "Edward Ashburnham!"

"This isn't helping," Rosemary pointed out. "Anger is good, and even life-affirming, but you're only hurting yourself--and a lot of innocent glasses."

"Oberon!" Smash.

"Trout, listen to me--"

"Dracula!" Thud. I hadn't thrown that one hard enough.

"Trout, what can I do to make things better?"

"You can go back inside." I once again took vengeful aim. "Sheridan Owen!" Crash!

Rosemary sensibly went back inside.

"Dorian Gray!"

The pile of glass was almost three feet high when I threw the last beer mug. Unfortunately, the third crate contained only shot glasses. I wondered if Arminius had gypped me. No matter!

"Otto!" I muttered as the first shot glass reverted to its sandy crystalline state. "Middleton Murry...Father Ricardo...Berowne..."

From inside the Prussian there was a tremendous burst of applause. Ah. Holmes must have won--protesting all the while, of course, that he'd only come in for a drink. My hands began to shake, and I noticed that I had cut one. One of the glasses must have had a rough edge.

Holmes. With throbbing fists I picked up a whole cluster of shot-glasses and took careful aim. This little burst must be spectacular.

"And to the author of this fubar scenario--here's to Sherlock Bloody Fraggin' Holmes!" I watched coldly as the five shot-glasses splattered against the wall.

"I didn't kill him, Trout," came a well-remembered voice, and I whirled to see Sherlock Holmes leaning against the door post, idly chewing the stem of his unlit briar pipe.

"Does it matter?" I finally said, turning to the last crate. Delicate, wispy champagne flutes. Not a decent crash in the lot. Oh well.

"Perhaps not," Holmes replied. Blast. He was still there.

"I suppose you're not leaving until I talk to you," I said flatly.

A brief show of surprise, instantly mastered, crossed the angular features. Apparently people didn't talk to him that way.

I picked up four flutes at the same time and hurled them against the wall.

"Do you know," I began harshly, "do you have any idea, just how many people know of your existence simply because of him? How many people who'd lost the flame came back to you because of him? I'm one of them, you know. Do you know how many people at the Prussian alone came here simply because of him?"

"Quite a lot," he said readily.

"Well, you're full of surprises." I picked up two more flutes. "Hamlet--"

"And Iago," Holmes said quietly.

I sent both glasses flying and reloaded. "Bryan Foxworth...William Nightingale...George, Duke of Bristol..."

As the glasses hit the wall, Holmes said decisively, "I believe that you should cry."

I stared at him in astonishment.

Averting his eyes, he went on, "Many ladies seem to derive some benefit from it."

"I'm not a freakin' lady." I wiped my nose on my sleeve to drive the point home, and realized I'd somehow cut myself again. Bloody annoying.

Inside I heard singing. And to my surprise, it was the gentle "Merry Widow Waltz" tune, Love Unspoken.

"That rips it," I ground out, hoarse with rage. "They go and play beautiful songs on top of everything else. How can they do that when the world's fallen apart?"

Wisely, Holmes did not reply.

Two voices carried over the rest. One was unmistakably Rosemary's clear alto, singing in English for a change. And the other...I felt the tears sting against the backs of my already burning eyes.

"Go ahead," Holmes said. "I shan't tell anyone."

I looked at him in disgust, and an old rhyme came to me.

"Women's weakness shall not shame me
Why should I have tears to shed?
Could I rain them down like water,
Oh my hero! On thy head--
Could the cry of lamentation
Wake thee from thy silent sleep,
Could it set thy heart a-throbbing,
It were mine to wail and weep."

"Very good," Holmes said dryly. "The Widow of Glencoe...section three, I believe."

"Knowledge of Literature, Nil," I muttered, flopping bonelessly down on the step to lean against the back door, my head in my hands. There came the ripping sound of a match struck against brick, and Holmes lit the old pipe.

"It may interest you to know," he said casually, "that for the first time in history, I placed second in the 1895 Tall, Thin, and Tortured Contest."

I barely heard him. "It isn't right...it isn't fair. I had plans, you know. Big plans. I was going to London--in the 20th century. I was going to meet him and say--oh God, it sounds so stupid, but he's gone, and I didn't even get to thank him."

"You can thank him now," Holmes pointed out.

"It's not the same," I blinked. "I'm 36 years old. Never been to London. Wanted to go for years. And why? To meet him. To say 'thanks.' Do you have any idea why, Mr. Holmes? Oh, for you of course, everybody knows that. It's the old story, how I loved you as a teenager, but I went away when I grew up, and even though I never forgot you, I guarantee I never would've come back to you if it hadn't been for him."

I spoke faster, hoping to out-talk the threatening tears. "It wasn't just that. Shakespeare. My stepfather always called him Snakespoop. That's how I was raised. For years I avoided Shakespeare like the plague. And then I saw Macbeth. His Macbeth. Granted, I only watched it because he was in it, but I came away with so much more. My gosh, the language. Why don't people talk like that nowdays?"

"Out, out brief candle," Holmes mumurred. I jumped up, furious.

"That's one Shakespeare speech I don't want to hear right now," I declared. "Besides, I've got over 30 Shakespeare plays on tape at home now anyway. Remember Daphne du Maurier? You've read 'Rebecca,' of course. I never had, until I saw the miniseries with him. And then I had to read the book, and it was captivating and wonderful and...do you know how I'm going to London, Mr. Busybody Holmes? I won an essay contest based on Rebecca, that's how. And I wouldn't even have known about bleedin' Rebecca if it hadn't been for HIS acting as--" I picked up two more champagne flutes--"MAX DE WINTER!"

The singing inside had changed. Tina and Erik were leading a chorus of "Aunt Clara." In the crowd I could still hear Rosemary, but the wonderfully familiar male tenor had dropped out.

"Do you know the best parts?" I asked, and without waiting for a reply--heck, he probably did know--I went on, "I found people who had things in common with me. I found friends, Mr. Holmes. At the Prussian, at the Alpha, at the Wigmore Street Post Office--heck, I've found friends as far away as Tokyo. I can't count how many friends I've got because of him."

"Friends--oh, you mean those people inside to whom you're behaving so rudely."

"A touch! A touch! I do confess--but you're rude to your friends too, bud, so don't mess with me."

"I have few friends, and only Watson would put up with me so well."

When logic returned to me, I might think over what he'd said...but for now, I was still in a mood to throw things.

"I even liked his stupid stuff!" I wailed, picking up a flute quartet. "David Malcolm...Terrance Keith...Edward Parrish...and the evil guy on Battlestar Galactica!"

I kept on picking up glasses and shouting names--Count Kinsky, "the Intruder," Jordan Barker. No, I didn't forget Nicholas Rostov. And eventually there were only three of the wispy flutes left. I hoisted them over my shoulder.

"So, here's to the big almosts. Here's to a detective who was almost forgotten until HE came along. Here's to me, who almost got to meet her hero. Here's to an actor who almost became a star. Here's to a 'becomer' who almost became something that scared him...Here's to a warm-hearted, gentle man who almost had a happy life. Here's to Jeremy Brett!"

But the three glasses never left my hand. As I drew back to fire, a gentle but insistent grip closed around my wrist. And as I whirled in the frustrated rage that can only be understood by one who has experienced glass-throwus interruptus, I saw who it was--and my shaking hand dropped the three glasses.

Jeremy Brett caught them deftly.

"I can think of a much better use for such noble glassware," he said, in a voice that still sounded like steel velvet.

I just stared dumbly back at him. Holmes took me by one arm; Brett by the other, and together they propelled me back inside the Dangling Prussian, where the crowd around the piano pretended not to notice as we slipped into the back corner table next to the privy.

"Heads up," Brad Keefauver called softly, tossing a bottle of champagne in our direction. Holmes caught it and popped the cork, and Brett looked at him in astonished delight.

Basil Rathbone and John Bennett Shaw leaned over the stair-rail to look down at us.

"We've been waiting for you, Jerry," Rathbone said irritably. "The poker game's starting."

"I'll be along, darlings," Jeremy said, waving an airy hand. "I'll just be late."

"You already are!" Shaw said merrily. "Can't get much later than this!"

"Then it won't matter a bit," Jeremy replied. "Start without me, Baz old deary, you can surely go and tease Nigel a little longer. I have things to do. One must have one's priorities, you know."

He looked back at Holmes. "You surprise me, sir."

Holmes arranged the three glasses to his satisfaction and began to pour the champagne. "Then you didn't know me as well as you thought. Yes, Mr. Brett, I will drink with you. And come to that, I would have crossed the road to meet you, as well."

Jeremy's mouth dropped open and he began to blink. "I never dreamed it. I thought myself terribly honored when your disciples pronounced me adequate. I--"

"Disciples." Holmes rolled his eyes. "I've always admired the acting profession, Mr. Brett. And I have the uneasy feeling that, were I to audition with you for the part of myself, I might lose...even as I lost my long-standing Tall, Thin and Tortured award to you this night."

"You're...too kind." Jeremy blinked some more. "Usually whenever I think I'm terribly clever, I end up tripping over things..." Turning to me, still moist-eyed, he smiled sunnily. "Congratulations on winning that contest, Trout. I know you'll enjoy London."

"I'd have enjoyed it more if you'd been there," I said.

"I know, and I'm sorry I couldn't wait for you. But I had a date to keep...with a lovely lady named Joanie. In fact, I'm on my way to meet her now. I just stopped in here for a drink, and you'd never believe it--they gave me this!"

He produced the Tall, Thin and Tortured award and set it in front of me. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the TTT award depicts a stick figure clad in a poet shirt, sitting in "the thinker" position. On the marble base is a gold plate with the engraving, "Life is hard, and then you die."

He brightened. "I'd like you to have it, Trout."

I blushed and shook my head. "There's no award for merely 'short, stout and suffering.' You earned it, not me."

"No, no," he said impatiently. "Keep it as a remembrance of me."

"As if I'd forget?" I replied in barely audible tones, the tears finally beginning.

"Go ahead and cry, my dear," he said softly. "You earned it. But you know, you won't really miss me. You can always find me here in 1895."

He lifted his glass, and I saw the future in it. He'd saved the three glasses in vain, for in seconds they would shatter against the fireplace, together with the glasses and mugs held by every other person standing in the bar.

But I saw more than that.

I saw the long night ahead. Holmes, disappearing quietly into the street, leaving Watson to bandage my hands. Me, being horribly emotional. Rosemary, cheering me with silly stories about Irish wakes. Brad and Winters helping me to sweep up the twenty pounds of broken glass within and without. Jeremy at his most dapper, walking out the door whistling "Got a Date with an Angel."

And, in the far-flung future, some other tall, thin and tortured actor, rightly insecure and completely inadequate, stepping into those Victorian boots.

Bu that was in the future. For now, he was standing in front of me, champagne flute held high. Holmes lifted his own glass, and they both looked expectantly at me. Feeling outclassed but knowing what I had to do, I stood and raised my wispy flute to clink against theirs. And suddenly, everyone else in the Prussian was standing, glass in hand, waiting.

In a quavering voice, I shouted, "Here's to us, and those like us!"

"Too damned few," Jeremy finished for me.

"Too damned few, indeed," echoed Sherlock Holmes.

 


Until next time,

Lisa


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"The Brettish Empire"/"TBE" Copyright Lisa L. Oldham.