Wiggins is a penniless Covent Garden Tadzio. I want to tell stories about him. I wish I knew his given name. In my imagination the only part of him not covered in dirt and soot is his long eyelashes. He shivers beneath patched clothes. He’s left-handed and an orphan and he deserves adventures. He is the only one of the Baker Street Irregulars, that gang of barefoot youths Sherlock Holmes used as his eyes and ears throughout wretched London, named by Doyle. Wiggins is a playful name, don’t you think?
When I was a child I adored the Holmes stories. I wanted to be Wiggins who I believed had a much more extraordinary life than my own.
Wiggins appears only in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four—canonical but minor. His voice is described as high; Doyle never allowed Wiggins to reach puberty. His last appearance would have been in September of 1888.
In 1891, Holmes plunged down the Reichenbach Falls and was presumed dead. He hid from the world for four years. He abandoned Watson and the Irregulars. How would an adolescent Wiggins survive living on the streets of London without his benefactor? Some fifteen-year-old boys found themselves working as telegraph messengers. A few working out of a building on Cleveland Street earned several shillings being prostitutes. Even Prince Eddy used the boys. The scandal, when it broke, captivated the nation.
Rereading Doyle, I found a reference in The Hound of the Baskervilles to Holmes hiring a telegraph boy to deliver a message via bicycle. I think that if Wiggins knew this—1889, he would have been thirteen, too young to be employed at Cleveland Street but he must have known that older men would pay to fuck boys—he would have been jealous, so very jealous. Of course, maybe Holmes did nothing more than hand the unnamed telegraph boy a piece of paper.
At fifteen I enjoyed riding my bicycle. I often visited Robbie Ostroff, whose house was close enough that I could walk to it in minutes, but when you’re visiting a boy you have a crush on, you feel the need to rush there. You want to arrive out of breath.
Though he was a senior, Robbie must have enjoyed my attention. He wrestled, was stout with no visible neck. He had a sparse mustache and his forearms and calves were thick and covered in dark hair. Sometimes he wore old t-shirts that he had outgrown and I had difficulty not staring at the forest that sprung between his wide stomach and the upper span of his crotch.
His room reeked of adolescence and sports. I didn’t know what to do with half the things he played with. It would not have taken a great detective to realize I was gay but Robbie made Lestrade look astute.
Holmes needed a seven-percent cocaine solution to quiet his boredom and anxieties. Robbie enjoyed quiet interludes, 300mg of methaqualone, stolen from his mother’s medicine cabinet.
I find one scene captivating in Tom Ford’s otherwise mundane A Single Man: a golden-hued youth fresh from the shower seeks to seduce Colin Firth. My imagination replaces Nicholas Hoult with a teenage Wiggins, who has been ordered by Holmes to scrub away the patina of grime. Out of the bath, out of the water closet, steps a hesitant Wiggins, pink-skinned for the first time he can remember, damp-curled, an Irregular made Aboveboard and clutching a towel about his waist. He walks to where he sees Holmes reclining on the divan but finds him unresponsive. A lascivious moment becomes languid with disappointment as an empty hypodermic rolls when Wiggins’ toes nudge it on the Oriental rug.
Would Wiggins resist temptation? Prince Charming found a beautiful maiden asleep and he only sought to kiss her. Prince Eddy sought more from those in bed. I remember Robbie Ostroff partially undressed, his jeans unzipped and one hand just resting along the elastic band of his stark white briefs, the tips of his ring finger and pinky actually beneath the cotton and atop the coarse dark pubes.
When had Wiggins first tasted cock—who else wonders when their favorite fictional characters lose their innocence? Would it have been with one of the other Irregulars, a smaller boy, his penis stiff with excitement at one more secretive (and illegal!) act, and would it not have the taste of the street on it, foreskin pushed back, skin coated with an overripe grease that might have made Wiggins gag? I think erotica tells lies about what giving a blowjob is like.
I have never been a Prince Charming.
My untitled Victorian story begins with ruffians—the word alone conjures a sense of time and place and squalor--beating fifteen year-old Wiggins senseless in an alley. I want the reader to sympathize with Wiggins but do not plan on revealing what he has done to deserve the contusions. I myself do not even know. Maybe he has gambling debts. I am a gambleholic. Perhaps, drunk on gin, he is a braggart. Perhaps while serving as an Irregular he had observed things best left unsaid. And unseen.
Whatever his trespass, Wiggins pays for it dearly with the next sentence: The steel of the knife left an acrid taste on his tongue, which wriggled like a worm when presented by any beak. The ruffians cut out his tongue. I wrote of blood filling his mouth and the memory of Robbie Ostroff’s penis between my lips, his semen spurting on to my tongue and leaving a taste that was disappointing because I wanted it to be sweet and found it acrid like a knife. I gagged.
If you gag while giving head, if you vomit back the semen, chances are the fellow you are fellating won’t be very kind to you. That was an afternoon of firsts, including a black eye and a split lip.
What few friends Wiggins had left in the world bring him to a retired Watson and his new Missus. Wiggins’s wounds are tended, he is bathed, they give him clean clothes and a bed in a room facing the east so the sun could reach his bruised and swollen face. Through the morphine Wiggins would have dreams about Holmes, who has let death come between them.
My disfigured Wiggins is visited by Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft. Wiggins is still bleary from opiates and has trouble taking in all of Mycroft. The man is immense. Only his tailor would know his exact proportions—a state secret. Fat men are as common to Victorian literature as ghosts and small glasses of sherry. Their size is not reprimanded by such authors as E.F. Benson or Henry James.
We have never met, but I know you. Mycroft wears a shoddy overcoat. His indiligence is often mistaken as thrift. If I belonged to another family, I might say that my brother spoke about you highly. But the truth of the matter is that Brother Sherlock never mentioned you once. His colleague set down your name on rare occasion. One of the little flies on the wall. Mycroft is winded and his gaze often strays to the bed where Wiggins has been convalescing. I have my reasons to believe that your skills may help solve another crime. I’m not my brother, I have different rules and aims, and greater resources at my discretion. I’m not talking a guinea in your pocket, boy. Comfort is within your reach. They stare at one another, each practical yet unable to comprehend what stirs in the attic of the other’s mind, until the moment becomes intolerable. I know you can nod, Mycroft says.
My story of Holmes’ survivors requires mystery. There has been a murder at a most private dinner club Mycroft belongs to and he needs Wiggins’s help solving the crime.
I’ve never written a mystery before. And my sleuth cannot speak because he lacks a tongue, cannot read or write because he was a street urchin. This is not encouraging. I begin to wonder why I shouldn’t take the easier path and write a simple romantic tale. Why be undone when I could offer readers Wiggins and Holmes, homosexual affairs forbidden by law during their day, intergenerational affairs forbidden by law still in our day? Shouldn’t the taboo appeal to me?
It doesn’t. I miss the deadline.
Months later I am invited to submit to another anthology. I revisit poor Wiggins and create the Club Tarrare. Its door once belonged on the stables of Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s mistress but came to London because the fattest men in the capital demand something both wide and eminent for the entrance to their gentlemen's club. It opened by pulleys and gears. Mycroft and Wiggins stand there and gaslight illuminates the owner and fabled chef, the twin brother of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who works with sauces rather than paint, menus rather than lithographs. This brother Purvis is even shorter than his artist twin and is not at all pleased to see Mycroft has brought someone so thin to the club.
The older men speak French for a while. Wiggins listens to the terse tones of their argument.
On your knees, boy, the dwarf tells him in English.
Wiggins looks up at Mycroft who nods.
There, on the soiled cobblestones, Wiggins kneels. His left side trembles as the memory of being beaten and disfigured threatens to overcome him.
Open your mouth. The dwarf reaches out to clutch Wiggins’s chin. The dwarf’s breath smells sickly-sweet, like rotten fruit.
Wiggins does as the dwarf commands. A thumb invades his mouth. The dwarf peers inside. A Msr. Dudley once asked me what was the rarest meat I had ever tasted.
Wiggins bears the indignity. He has no interest in the answer and is not the least bothered when none is forthcoming.
He is two stone heavier than the others but I am satisfied, the dwarf says before turning back to the club. Since he will work for free.
The air wafting from the open doorway is scented with orange. Tonight’s many courses all feature oranges as a primary ingredient: smelts from the Medway baked in an beurre blanc sauce; cotelettes de Perdreaux à la Duc de Chartres; hare à la Macgregor; sauce au jus de Bigarades. Eels. Sweetbreads. Oysters. Everything floating in orange juice, candied in rind.
Along with the power of speech, Wiggins has lost all interest in food and eats to live as opposed to Mycroft, who lives to eat and has saliva filling his mouth. The most powerful man in the British Empire is ready to fall to his knees for an entrée, such is Toulouse-Lautrec’s culinary prowess.
Mycroft is a bully, though. As was his brother, who had a tongue like a knife. Mycroft enjoys using intimidation in affairs of state. He demands that the chef hire Wiggins as a servant. All of the staff working the Club Tarrare are either dwarves or emaciated so that patrons can feel more gargantuan—none weigh less than three hundred pounds. There are no normal mirrors in any of the club’s many rooms but there are looking glasses fashioned originally for American carnivals that offer reflections that stretch a man wider.
Wiggins has agreed to help Mycroft not out of debt or even for pay. He is scarred and hopes that solving the murder mystery will distract him from his wounds. In the club’s servants’ quarters, he shares a room with a man dying of stomach cancer. The physicians of 1891 are unaware of mesenchymal tumors. Robbie Ostroff died of gastric cancer one hundred years later. His wife was at his hospital bedside. She never enjoyed performing fellatio on Robbie and had no idea that once a fifteen-year-old boy had given him head or that Robbie had contracted chlamydia twice in college.
Wiggins’s dying roommate has worked the club for over a year and smokes so many cigarettes that his fingertips are yellowed. He warns Wiggins that pouring sherry and brandy and placing plates before diners are not the only tasks Toulouse-Lautrec expects of his staff. On the third floor are a number of chambers like no other in London. If a plump patron can withstand the duress of two flights of stairs—and the banisters are scarred from fingernails digging deep like the rock face of mountains suffering the bite of pitons—he can enjoy immense bathing tubs, Egyptian cotton sheets on round beds with goose-down pillows. And lovers.
For reference, I think of a more sophisticated version of the fraternity house I pledged in college. I weighed 110 pounds at the time, the scrawniest freshman to rush Zeta Psi. My ribs were visible when they would make us strip down to our boxers for hazing. I discovered later that my pledge nickname was to have been Auschwitz but a second black eye from yet another indiscretion saved me. I was Pip, like the mark on a die. Or Great Expectations.
All the pledges had to serve dinner to the brothers. Actually, we were not supposed to refuse any request made of us unless it would jeopardize our enrollment at university or hurt the fraternity.
One brother was a theater major. He was soft-bodied smooth, with a mop of auburn hair. I watched him play Falstaff twice. I was charmed twice. He lived at the fraternity house and I knew his schedule enough to be present when he might shower before bedtime. He saw me stare at his dick and balls, hanging loose from the hot water, and told me I had to blow him. The fraternity was homophobic (it was the late 80s) and had already expelled a pledge they suspected of being gay, so this could only be a test, I thought.
Wiggins becomes the favorite of a patron, of course. Perhaps a scene with him helping out of the bath a large man.
Good lad. The room’s a bit chill. Fetch me a towel? Kind of you not to ask about the knee. The fair sex is not the least bit fair when it comes to afflictions of affluence. Gout might as well be French pox. Oh, I shouldn’t be maligning the French…that toad listens from behind the walls, I heard more than once. (louder) No price too steep for this feast. (softer) Could you help dry my legs? That knee makes it intolerable. Good lad. Seen but not heard is a gratifying manner.
I read E.F. Benson to immerse myself in the world of Victorian social climbers and manners. Benson wrote a good many ghost stories, several of which have a measure of homoeroticism. And I learn from Brian Masters’s comprehensive biography that Benson was attracted to men, was friends with Oscar Wilde before his trial, but may have died a virgin. He found the idea of carnality to be distasteful, beastly. He would be considered asexual now, I suppose, if his thoughts on sex were not solely due to self-loathing due to morality.
Sex as beastly. The beast with two backs. I write in the margins of Masters’s book all sorts of notes. Some for the story, some for myself. The days when I felt attractive are gone. Is this due to self-loathing or has age culled my libido?
I cannot decide if the man that Wiggins helps from the bath is the murderer or the next victim. My enthusiasm for the mystery falters every day I read what I have written.
If Mycroft is as smart as Doyle wrote him, then Mycroft should have deduced the solution without even needing Wiggins present. Unless he has an ulterior motive, which stymies me.
I miss another deadline. Another anthology.
Testosterone brings me back to Wiggins and the Club Tarrare.
I weigh more than twice what I did in college. I’m more than twice as old, too. My hair is graying but is still thick. I have, I often think, too much hair. My shoulders, my chest, my back, my arms, my stomach, my ass. I’ve become a bruin. When my doctor wonders why I have not had sex in a decade, he schedules me for blood tests in case I have low testosterone--a condition that flared briefly by the pharmaceutical companies as a chance to sell various topical hormones until men using the drugs started dropping dead from heart attacks. The fraternity Falstaff passed away from a heart attack last week, by the way.
I was researching testosterone and came across the case of Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, a scientist who was a pioneer in endocrinology…and injected himself with an elixir prepared from the pureed testicles of guinea pigs, dogs, and monkeys in the belief it would help with his impotence. 1889. Mad science. Two years before my story. Mycroft would have heard of Brown-Séquard, perhaps even attended one of his lectures at the Royal Society.
Mad science. Elixirs. Mysteries do not intrigue me, but the strange and fantastical do.
By 1891 five years have passed since another notable scientist Mycroft would have been familiar with committed suicide: Henry Jekyll. A wonderful essay by Carolyn Laubender suggests the The Strange Case... is a gay allegory if not Jekyll’s attempt to concoct a solution that would rid himself of his sexual inversion. The character of Enfield suggests that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll and one of the more common reasons men of a certain station were blackmailed was threat of revealing their homosexual affairs. None wanted to follow the fate of Oscar Wilde.
I’m excited to write sentences including Enfield, how he discovered the formula among Jekyll’s effects but as a layman could not make sense of the constituents. He knew it had value, though, and kept it safe somewhere hidden. Perhaps Mycroft has yet to uncover where? Five years of too much food and drink, of gout and diabetes, and a bloated Mr. Enfield can no longer enjoy the pleasures of women like once he had. Brown-Séquard’s experiments were known as an utter failure and made him a laughingstock. But Enfield and Mycroft knew of a treatment that did bring out the beast in a man. Beasts think of two delights: feasting and fucking. Hyde would terrify E.F. Benson. E.F. Benson should have drank a gallon of the formula, I think. A portly man with a thick mustache damp with virility.
The mystery of deaths at the club now seems a ploy of Mycroft, something villainous to secure the elixir because what Empire doesn’t have a need for mad science? Wiggins is a dupe, though. How can he seduce anyone? How can I seduce anyone these days?
The story is impossible to finish. I have abandoned “The Case of the Club Tarrare.”
Yet I know my ending: Wiggins holds the vial. So little, not enough to share with Mycroft. The elixir looks as clear as gin but coats the glass sides like treacle. His removes the cork and the smell is stringent and raises the hairs on his neck. He tips his head back. The first drop stings the old wounds of his mouth, pools in the pit where once was a tooth and Wiggins shudders as he feels something stiff and sharp lance through his gums. A new ivory incisor. If just a trickle returned the tooth, then his tongue--
It has been so long since last I had a man in my mouth that I can no longer remember the taste and so I find myself unable to type the words that need to happen to end the mystery without lying to myself. As I have so often done. I never dared unzip Robbie Ostroff; I was too scared at fifteen to even touch another guy, let alone taste him. And I turned away after Falstaff’s offer, fearful that he would tell if I reached out and scared, so scared of what would happen, what my life would be like if he let me.
I’m more cowardly than Benson or Jekyll. I have found myself slowly transforming into a lumbering hulk, a hairy beast that is afraid of its appetites, ashamed what it wants to consume. Am I too large for even the mirrors in the Club Tarrare?
Wiggins, please regain your tongue and tell me that everything will be all right.
Red No. 2 is the fiction section of Harlot Media.
"The Unsolved 'Case of the Club Tarrare'" by Steve Berman was acquired and edited by Benjanun Sriduangkaew.