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A Walk in the Park

Edited by Alan Downing ©

Over the years, my friend Sherlock Holmes had astounded me with numerous casual deductions of one's occupation. Off the top of my head, I remember times when he identified a cobbler by the unique wear of the inside of his knees caused by a lap stone, a carpenter by the shavings of expensive wood in his pocket and his callosities, and a coastal fisherman by his top boots on a hot summer day and his complexion. Yet those were obvious observations compared to the times that he recognized a compositor by his left thumb, a cork cutter by the calluses on one side of the forefinger and a thickening on the outside thumb, a weaver by the slight indentation in a tooth, and a tailor by the needle pricks on his finger.

His sharp eyes were not the only tools he applied. For example, his keen sense of smell aided in deducing a baker and a French polisher. His insights of obscure mannerisms are the key to distinguishing between military men of different ranks, naval or infantry. In separate incidents, I have previously documented how Holmes ascertained both a violinist and a typewritist by their spatulate finger-ends, by marks on the wrists, visual acuity, and spirituality about the face clearly separated these occupations. Yet, of all his amazing demonstrations, one stands out in particular.

In spring of 1896, I came across an old article written by Holmes ambitiously entitled "The Book of Life." I had not seen this article for some ten years, but it brought back memories. In this article, my companion had stated "By a man's finger-nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs- by each of these things a man's calling is plainly revealed." Despite the many examples that backed his claim, I wondered if the same was as true today as when it was written. In the previous century, the clothes of each manual labourer or craftsmen were easily distinguishable based upon their position in the social structure. These distinguishing features have blurred over the years until it now takes an expert to make the same determinations. I considered the list of occupations that were deduced by my friend in recent years. Although the observations were undoubtedly impressive, many entailed using subtle physical attributes obtained through the unique nature of their trade. Yet, the vast majority of modern occupations in London appear to me to have identical physical requirements. What could distinguish one store clerk from another, or even a bank clerk?

This thought intrigued me for a while. Eventually, I addressed Holmes who was busy indexing his huge books of references.

"Do you remember when I inadvertently challenged you to identify the trades of fellow travellers on a third class carriage on the Underground?"

"As I remember it, you laid a thousand to one against me."

"Would you accept even money?"

Holmes let out a short burst of a laugh, almost a snort. "Have you lost too much at the track lately?"

"No, but I know a good bet when I see one"

"I'm disappointed that I have lost your confidence."

"Not at all, Holmes. Your powers of observation and deduction are stronger than ever. They need to be. The world is changing, and your methods are becoming harder and harder to apply. In fact, for the majority of Londoners, it is nearly impossible to determine their occupations."

"Sounds like a challenge! I accept. Only, let's go for a walk in the park. It is such a nice day, and the Underground is so gloomy."

"Certainly."

It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining down as we strolled towards Regents Park. With a smile on his face, he cheerfully named one store or trade after another as we passed pedestrians on their way to or from work. I knew that my wager was lost. Except for tobacco and similar necessities, Holmes rarely shopped. Still, he apparently had studied every distinctive characteristic of the attire expected at these stores.

"My, my, the next three are from the finest of Regent Street. Garrard's, Elkington's and Hamley's" Holmes continued.

I knew that this demonstration was no bluff. "I give up. You have won the bet. As we have already reached the park, shall we continue our walk to Cumberland Terrace and back?"

So we walked, mostly without conversing. The green grass and blooming flowers overpowered the normal London stenches. Our stroll felt like a relaxing country walk as we walked past oak and chestnut trees.

On the way back, I broke our silence. "How do you do it? Are you in the process of writing another monograph?"

"No. It's a continuous process. The appearances are constantly changing."

"Top hats and frock coats are still fashionable." I commented on Holmes's prim attire.

"It is not so much what you wear, but how you wear it. That is what will separate the clerk from his peers and what helps distinguish the tradesmen. Note the hat, the coats, the fit of the trousers, and the shape of the boots. Are they old or new? Custom or off the rack? If off the rack, where were they purchased and for how much? What is in the pockets?"

"I don't have your powers of observation."

"It is largely a matter of training, and you are more observant than most. Tell me, what do you see?"

We were approaching the border of the park. The scene was a busy one, but I decided to give it a try.

"I see a nanny with two school children."

"How can you tell that the woman is a nanny?"

"It's obvious. She's dressed in the black outfit that Nannies often wear. Similarly, the children are dressed in school uniforms."

"Many of my earlier observations seemed just as obvious to me. Now tell me more."

"There are two married ladies out for an afternoon stroll. Based on their high-quality white-laced dresses, pink bonnets with matching umbrellas, and fine jewellery, they are well off. They are having an animated conversation. Gossiping, no doubt."

"Good. More?"

"There is a man buying a button-hole from the flower girl at the corner."

"Out of the crowd, you chose him to analyze next. Interesting. I had my eye on him as well. Tell me, what do you think he does for a living?"
I did not want to admit to my friend that I chose the man because of his dog. I have a weakness for pugs. "The man is wearing a conservative black suit with bow tie, a bowler, and a white shirt. This is the attire of a clerk of almost any trade."

"Come Watson, let us take a closer look. If you can be more precise and accurate, we'll call it even for the day."

We walked to the corner near Baker Street where the man was still talking with the flower girl.

"Luvverly gladiolers for the Missus, Guv? Fresh this morning," asked the flower girl who was sitting next to her large basket of red and pink flowers.

"Do you have any daffodils?" Holmes inquired.

"No dafs, sir. Take some nice gladiolers 'ome for the Missus?"

"Do you have change for a Shilling?"

"Not for a silling, sir."

"Very well, I have smaller change."

As Holmes bought flowers. I asked the man whose occupation was in question if I could pet his dog, as I was an admirer of pugs. He declined, bluntly stating that the dog bites, and walked away towards the street. Although most likely in his thirties, the man had features that looked old beyond his years. His nose and cheeks betrayed his weakness for drink. Applying my friend's methods, I noticed that his trousers were new but not tailor made. Suddenly, he stopped walking. His dog jerked back as it found itself at the end of its leash. The man stared at a carriage as it went down the street. He took out a pocket watch and checked the time, which I noted was around five. I smiled, for I had a theory that I felt would prove accurate enough for Holmes.

Holmes joined me, flowers in hand. Coyly, he shook his shoulders. "For Mrs. Hudson."

"I hope she appreciates them. You had to tolerate that horrible Cockney accent. I guess in your line of work, you're used to it."

"Not at all. I quite agree. It was 'orrible." Holmes replied in his best Cockney accent. "What did you find out?"

"Well, I am reasonably confident that it is not his dog. He is walking it for someone else, probably for money. I believe he is a recently unemployed bank teller." I beamed.

"So you noticed the carriage with the Bank strong-box. Very good! Very good indeed. I agree, he is currently unemployed. It is also not his dog. Anything else?"

"Only that he drinks to excess. That is why he can't hold a job."

"I believe you have earned back your money. You don't give yourself enough credit. Although you are still as inept as ever in pulling together what you see, your instincts are remarkable. You missed all the important observations of course, but you have again been the conduit that allows others to shine. One could not hope for a better partner."

After all these years, I had come to expect these back-handed compliments. I knew that they were not intended to insult. In fact, from Holmes, these were as positively flattering.

"What details did I miss?"

"Did you notice the transaction between the man and the woman who sold me these flowers?"

"No."

"He paid her a shilling for a button-hole."

"Why would he do that? He couldn't possibly be rich."

"He isn't. They must be working together. She's not your typical flower girl. She's not Cockney. She's Welsh. You must use all your senses. Did you hear how she said 'Silling' for 'Shilling'? Although she tried not to, she rattled her R's, the Welsh language has peculiarities which are hard to hide."

"I didn't notice."

"You would have if you were looking for it. As for the man, you noticed his flushed complexion. Did you notice the small blue spots? Did you note the colour of his calluses on his hands?"

"I have to admit that I did not. I didn't even notice his hands. I was mostly focusing on the clothes."

"That was because you had preconceived notions of his occupation. That was your biggest mistake. Like painters, metal workers, and quarrymen, a miner cannot eradicate the scars of his occupation. The blue spots are tiny fragments of coal that were driven there by blasts. Similarly, coal dust has been ingrained into his skin."

"So, he was a miner. Then, what is he doing in London? Is he trying to get a more gentlemanly trade?"

"No, something much more sinister. You perceived his interest in the strong box and his concern with its timing. Being a miner, you know that he has experience with explosives. Now, what do you think his new occupation is?"

"A bank robber? They haven't caught the perpetrators of the bungled robbery two weeks ago. That involved explosives."

"Precisely. I suspect they are looking for an easier target this time. Regents Park may be their escape route. Thanks to your instincts, they won't get the chance. I saw a policeman on the Broad Walk heading our direction. Go and fetch him while I keep an eye on them. I predict that these two will be easy to follow and eventually capture."

Dedicated to Dr. Joseph Bell… and many other Sherlockians.

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