historical romance


This is Tom’s mother from Promises Made Under Fire. Very different kettle of fish from Mrs. S.

Mother met me at the station, full of smiles and news. Father’s back playing up, her head much better, thank you, scandal about the neighbour’s son, who’d somehow mysteriously moved to Ireland.

“And your friend Ben—he asked me to apologise for his not being here to meet you but the silly boy’s gone and got mumps.” She slipped her arm in mine. “So he’s strictly persona non grata.”

She didn’t need to add why—any of my platoon could have told you the risk to a man’s wedding tackle. What the hell had I done to get such a run of luck?

“Have you any plans? Apart from rattling around at home?” Mother squeezed my arm, her hand seeming so tiny against my uniform coat. I patted it.

“I’ve a commission to fulfil. No, don’t worry.” I patted her hand again. “It’s not the army. You remember Foden?”

Of course she did, the way she paled at the mention of the name and gripped my arm tighter. She’d have remembered my tears, too. I hailed a cab and carried on. “He left a letter asking me to make some visits on his behalf. Least I can do.”

“You always were a good lad,” Mother said as we bundled into the cab and gave the driver our address.

Good lad I might be, but I wasn’t looking forward to doing this particular duty. “He wanted me to visit his mother,” I said, looking out of the window, unseeing. “Do you think I should write to her and make an initial introduction, rather than just turn up on her doorstep?”

“It would depend on her character. If it were to bring her distress rather than comfort, she might prefer one dose of it.”

Only one dose of discomfort for me, too; I’d forgotten how wise Mother was. “I have no idea. She’s a cook, up in London.”

“A cook?” A brief look—surprise tinged with quickly hidden disdain—crossed her face.

“It will have hurt her as much to lose her son as it would the lady of the household.” The anger I felt shocked me.

“I’m sorry. You’re quite right. You’ve always said that bullets don’t make any social distinctions.” She suddenly produced a mischievous smile. “And since the ‘to do’ with the lad next door, even Father says you can’t tell how brave someone is from the school he went to. He’s very proud of you, you know.”

7-December 1855
Dear Hohenheim,

It seems that a vast period of time has passed.  Another vision ensues.  I see myself in youth, curled into the hard windowseat that looks down into the Hauptmarkt from my room, and occasionally the front door rattles  as a customer enters or leaves.  It is my birthday, and I am ten years old.  Held in my hands is the too-difficult text of Byron’s Manfred, not yet available to me in German, and so I labor over the English original.  Why must he be so metaphorical?  Can he not, for my sake, use less flowery words, so that I am not constantly jumping up to the dictionary?  As I study, a sound comes to my ears.  It is my mother, singing.  She must be brushing her hair, now.  I am drawn away from the puzzling beauty of Byron’s verse to the irresistible beauty of her voice.  She does this because she knows I am listening.

I wander down the main stair, toward the singing voice as it grows louder and more compelling to my ear, and as I do, I realize that something impossible is happening.   It is I, indeed, and I am yet ten, but the angelic voice of my mother is singing “Der Gärtner” which I did not compose until 1842! nor publish until 1851.  Then – the singer cannot be my mother, else she herself composed it in 1820 or before,  and I took it down later from memory.  But this cannot be, because I, here in the finalized Present, know that my mother never composed a tune nor invented any single piece of music, and she learned anew only what I wrote, and then only my student compositions; for my true work did not come until later.  So it cannot be.

By the time I reach the bottom of the staircase I behold the beautiful newness of the paint, the grand doors that lead into what is no longer my father’s shop but is now a concert hall!  Just as had been done to Ha’s library in the Future!  This is my house, indeed, and on what is now a stage, where once lay stacks of cartons of books and Zeitungen, there stands in slimmer guise, with wildly loose hair running free, my mother!  Practicing with a chamber quartett!  She never wore such a seductive coiffure in 1820, certainly!  This is my birthday indeed, for I see she is rehearsing this concert as a gift to me.  I enter the room, and milling about are others, dressed for the concert, listening to the rehearsal as they arrange flowers near the stage, and set the chairs in the hall.  It must be some hours beforehand.

I stand rapt, listening.  The casements are finished in beautifully polished blond wood, the walls shine with bright stucco, new-applied.  The Flügel on the stage shines with a rich sheen.  This Future is wealthy beyond the dreams of the greediest composer’s avarice! And this room, yet another shrine to chamber music.

Do you vouchsafe for me this vision as answer to the pages of bitter regret just past, Hohenheim?  For what could touch me more deeply, or move me more joyously than to see my mother once again, so radiant?  In voice, perfect, sweetly singing a piece I had composed specifically in her memory?

There is a joy in me difficult to contain, now, for I love her utterly.  She is the incarnate presence of the Angel, to me.  Despite her moods and petulances, she never said single word of harshness to me.  She loved me unrelentingly, constantly.  She told me once that she had prayed in song to God to send her an angelic child, to bring her inspiration to sing, and she knew when she was confined with me, that she had Song within her.  During that pregnancy she sang continually.

She, my Beloved, was my first Song, and I ill tolerated parting from her.  Oh joy, mixed with sorrow!  For here, again, she stands.  No more than five and twenty years old, and if possible, her voice more brilliantly colored.  And standing at the door, invisible in the Ghost Realm, I weep for the soul-stirring vision of her..

It is my birthday.

The moment chimes, the audience – a hundred, more! pack into the room, some with flowers in hand, with smiles, greybeard men, grey-haired women, youths, and here and there a serious-faced child – a violinist the one, another a pianist.  I can read it in their faces.  Students at the Konservatorium.

Since when has this dull town had a musical Konservatorium, I wonder?  Oh dear, it is named for me! I learn.  The house, the plaza, the school… how incredibly embarrassing.  To go from obscure neglect to a cult-like fame in death.  A man should never live to see himself become a figure of reverence.  It is not me, it was never me… erect monument instead to the faceless Angel of the Wellspring!

From Lessons in Discovery. Orlando has lost his memory following an accident and can’t remember what Jonty’s Mama is like. He has a shock coming.

“Jonathan! Orlando!”

A voice that seemed to have been designed to penetrate concrete at two hundred yards rang through the college court. It was Sunday morning and the broomstick had obviously landed successfully. Its arrival had been anticipated by the two fellows so they were lurking around to greet the pilot.

“Mother,” Jonty whispered to his companion, before saying in a tone as hearty as hers, “Mama! You’re looking ridiculously well. What has the doctor been giving you to make you look so young?” He was scooped up into his mother’s arms and had the breath squeezed out of him.

“Looking thin again, dear.” Mrs. Stewart always seemed to think that her son was on the brink of starvation, even though he was more muscular and well set up now than he had been this last year. “Dr. Coppersmith, you look positively emaciated.” She grabbed Orlando and squashed any answer out of him, too.

Orlando was stunned. His own mother had never shown any such physical affection for him and the perfume-soaked, genial embraces of this ample lady were a complete shock. He knew he’d met her before although he had no recollection of the events and he’d no time now for reflection, with Mrs. Stewart thrusting an arm through those of both her son and his thin and starving friend and insisting that they go immediately to the Blue Boar for a jolly good feed.

She was most sympathetic over lunch, a meal taken in a quiet room away from the noisy masses so that the recovering invalid shouldn’t be overwhelmed. She’d asked, with great concern, about Orlando’s condition, gently talking him through the times he’d been her guest, the pleasure it had given her to receive him. “Because it has always been a delight to us whenever Jonathan has brought you home. I think of you rather like a son now, which of course must seem very odd today when you no doubt regard me as a stranger. But one day you’ll remember everything, dear, and then it will be like old times.” She beamed.

Orlando thought how much Mrs. Stewart resembled Jonty and how lovely she must have been at the same age. A sudden, small voice in his head informed him that his friend was beautiful now and when he looked at Jonty he realised it was quite true, which was another terrible shock. He had never really considered before whether anyone was eye-catching and he’d now done it for two people within a minute.

They finished their meal with a wealth more gossip and made their way back to Jonty’s set for a cup of tea to refresh them and to give Orlando a chance to collect his thoughts.

Mrs. Stewart insisted that there was nowhere better to take a cup than in front of one’s own fire. She was now ensconced on Jonty’s sofa and her thoughts ran to old acquaintances.

“So you met old George le Tissier on Jersey. I wonder if he remembers me?”

“I don’t think that anyone would ever forget you, Mama.”

“Especially true in this case. Not my most shining moment, Jonathan, I positively disgraced myself.” Mrs. Stewart blushed, something that seemed out of character.

“Whatever did you do?” Their interest was piqued, their appetite whetted at the thought of what revelation might come from this lady’s lips. Jonty in particular was intrigued at the thought of his mother disgracing herself in any way.

“It was a grand ball. A very big occasion, all the handsomest young men were going to be there, including George who was a subaltern at the time. Not that I had eyes for any of them except your father—that’s why I was so excited. Richard Stewart was going to be present and we’d arranged in advance to have several dances together. Got out my best bib and tucker and set off. Within a quarter of an hour of arriving there, a young man I’d taken a waltz with, I can’t remember his name, the ill-favoured surly thing.” She glanced surreptitiously at the often surly thing on her left but he was looking remarkably sweet and kind today. “Anyway, he drew me off into a corner, said he’d never loved anyone the way he adored me, proposed a marriage within three months and when I refused to take up his offer, threatened to kill himself. I spent twenty-five minutes trying to talk him out of it. Meant that I missed my first dance with your father, so I was rather miffed. When I tracked Richard down to apologise he hooted with laughter. He said he knew the chap and that he’d done the same thing numerous times—the suicide threat was all a big bluff of course. I was livid. Your father had to hold my hand and try to get me to calm down. I was all for going and tweaking the chap’s ear, but I suppose the hand-holding made it all worthwhile.”

“It always does.” Jonty smirked slightly and there was a suggestion of a blush on Orlando’s cheeks. How odd, Jonty reflected, wondering if the embarrassment was due to subconscious memories.

Mrs. Stewart sailed on undaunted. “Then blow me down if three dances later a similar thing didn’t happen, though I remember the chap’s name this time. Samuel Parker, and he was a toe-rag. We were walking through the portrait gallery at the back of the house en route to get an ice when he plighted his troth. I gave him the old ‘thank you but no thank you’ and he pulled me behind the arras—I can see you sniggering, Jonty and it doesn’t become you—and started to take the grossest liberties. All he got was a black eye—it was a real shiner, I was rather proud of myself—and he departed. Then I had to go and find Richard again and explain why I’d been late for our next dance. Had the suspicion that he thought your dear mama was a bit of a flibbertigibbet, but he held my hand once more and called me his ‘dear little peach’. I can see you smirking again, Jonty, and if it happens a third time I will have no hesitation in taking you across my knee and spanking you. Anyway, I was furious, furious beyond all measure. So when poor George le Tissier came up all beaming with excitement and asked for my hand, I forgot myself entirely. It was pent-up anger, and I am not proud of myself. Now, are you ever going to make me that cup of tea or will you watch your poor mother sit here, wasting away parched and drained?”

“Mother, I won’t even put the kettle on until you tell me what you did that was so bad.”

“Laid him out, dear. One great big punch and goodnight sweetheart. Now that ends that trifling matter and you need to address the greater one of my desiccated throat.”

When Mrs. Stewart was watered sufficiently to be able to attempt the return journey, Summerbee, the porter, found a cab (she wasn’t inclined to fly the broom). With many a kiss, hug and wave she was sent on her way.

Although I’ve done a number of historicals now – enough to say I am a ‘historical novelist’ – I still feel that not all historical eras are equal. People have said to me ‘the Tudors are very popular. I’d like to see you do something set in Tudor times.’ I nod politely, because there’s no predicting where my muse might take me next. But inside, I’m still going ‘ew, the Tudors. They’re all torture and paranoia and witch burnings.’ I can’t really imagine wanting to write in an era where my nation’s best battleship sunk because someone forgot to put the plug in.

This is slightly hypocritical of me, because I like the Anglo-Saxons a lot, and they are not without brutality either. Plus, their technological level is much lower. But they nevertheless seem more civilised to me – a thoughtful, religious, melancholy people with less tendency towards burning women alive. Maybe I’m reading too much from the example of King Alfred and the Venerable Bede – both the sort of humane intellects I wouldn’t mind meeting in real life.

The 18th Century, though, is still my favourite. Part of this is the clothes. I can’t take Henry VIII seriously in his padded bloomers, but when we’ve moved on to tricorn hats, poet shirts, tight waistcoats and frock coats with swirling skirts; tight breeches and men in white silk stockings, showing off their toned calves to the ladies, well, then you’re talking.

But it’s more than that. I prefer civilization to savagery – I like to write in a world in which I would not find it unbearable to live – and the 18th Century is a time in which it’s possible to exist as something other than a warrior. More than that, it’s a time of great exploration. The world was opening up before Western Man, and as a result the spirit of the age is one of excitement. New things are being thought of every day. New places are being discovered. The world and the human spirit is expanding, and for the first time people are beginning to think about freedom and equality and the rights of man. An awful lot of what we take for granted nowadays was first being thought of in the 18th Century and it’s fascinating to watch it blowing their minds.

I read a lot of 18th Century journals as part of my research, and I find no difficulty in liking these people. They are urbane and amused, confident and surprisingly open minded. They have none of the self-righteous imperialism and prudery of the 19th Century, and while you’d have to cover the ears of the sensitive, because of their vulgarity, I wouldn’t feel a qualm about inviting them around for dinner. The tendency to fight a duel at the drop of a hat would be worrisome, I suppose, and they do drink and quarrel a lot, but they’re never quite what you expect. I think Jane Austen, who was that little bit later, would be shockingly disapproving of them. But in a fight between Lady Mary Wortley-Montague, lady of letters, who travelled the world, wrote letters from Turkey, and invented an early form of smallpox inocculation, and Jane Austen, my bets are on Lady Mary. She, at least, had attended the Empress of Austria when the fine ladies of Austria exhibited their honed pistol marksmanship. I think she’d be the one to walk away from that duel.

BlessedIsle_200x300

Blurb:

For Captain Harry Thompson, the command of the prison transport ship HMS Banshee is his opportunity to prove his worth, working-class origins be damned. But his criminal attraction to his upper-crust First Lieutenant, Garnet Littleton, threatens to overturn all he’s ever worked for.

Lust quickly proves to be the least of his problems, however. The deadly combination of typhus, rioting convicts, and a monstrous storm destroys his prospects . . . and shipwrecks him and Garnet on their own private island. After months of solitary paradise, the journey back to civilization—surviving mutineers, exposure, and desertion—is the ultimate test of their feelings for each other.

These two very different men each record their story for an unfathomable future in which the tale of their love—a love punishable by death in their own time—can finally be told. Today, dear reader, it is at last safe for you to hear it all.

You can read an excerpt and buy Blessed Isle here at Riptide.

Author Bio

Alex Beecroft was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and grew up in the wild countryside of the English Peak District. She studied English and Philosophy before accepting employment with the Crown Court where she worked for a number of years. Now a stay-at-home mum and full time author, Alex lives with her husband and two daughters in a little village near Cambridge and tries to avoid being mistaken for a tourist.

Alex is only intermittently present in the real world. She has lead a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800 year old form of English folk dance, but she still hasn’t learned to operate a mobile phone.

You can find Alex on

her website,Facebook,Twitter or her Goodreads page

 

Here are Charlie and Owen from the Dr. Fell series transported back in time to some anachronistic and unspecified College Compleat with random Captalization and Over-Excited Verbs.  Plus, some Extraneous Authorial Actions and Meta-Moments and an UnWarranted Instrusion from the Wrong Tom Brown.

Non amo te, Dickus Spotticus

Charles T Winkerton inspected the contents of his package glumly.  His assignation with a Burly Brute down by the waterfront had left traces, nay, irrefutable evidence, nay, the Mark of the Beast was upon him.

He rebuttoned his placket, and whimpered.  His bosom buddy and boon companion would be here at any moment and he was afflicted! Sorely stricken!  And there was the small matter of his twice-skipped meeting with his Nemesis Tutor, Dr. Benjamin Rock. His Sensible Cousin, Richard Winkerton, should have arrived last night to rescue him from his Muddle. It wasn’t like Cousin Richard to be late.

“Woe!” wailed Charlie.

There was a tap at the door, and Charlie bit his pouting lips and flung the door open.  At least he would look blooming and pink-mouthed for his Best Friend, Owen, and would not be reproached for being Out of Looks.

“Beloved Boy!” he trilled, and then gulped.  It was his Formidable Landlady, Katherine de Medusa. 

“Hello Kitty,” simpered Charlie, hoping his Charms would be Lucky. 

“You’ve been summoned. The Proctor has had enough of your dockside exploits, playing hooky, and all around failure to be a Serious Student.”

“Hooker!” wailed Charlie. “But I’m free!” He frowned. “Wait! How does he know?  How do you know?”

“I read his note,” said Katherine, and tossed Charlie a crumpled piece of paper covered in a crabbed black hand.  “And the proctor knows all!”

She flounced away passing Owen DeCoverly on the stairs.

“Well,” said Owen. “She’s in a fine taking!”

“Owen!” wept Charlie.

“Heavens,” said Owen. “Are you still declaring, declaiming, denouncing, and…”

“Oh hush up!” snapped Charlie. “I am very into verbal.”

“I think you mean oral,” corrected Owen. “A common conflation of the two words. Damn! Now you’ve got me doing it.  I should never listen to you.”

“That,” sniffed Charlie, “is aural. And, I’ll have you know, I never talk dirty!”

Owen walked backwards out the door and re-entered. “Good morning, Charlie!  How are you this fine morn? I see the roses are blooming in your cheeks!”

Charlie rechecked his placket. “Owen! I am in a Terrible Situation!”

“Again?” said Owen, resisting his urge to yawn his reply.

“Yes,” said Charlie, so distressed that he forgot to Verb.  He flopped into a chair and then sprang up again as the Burly Brute’s Bestowal Bit him in the Butt.

Owen sniggered. “Another Fundamental Problem?”

Charlie checked his placket yet again.  “Stop it, Owen!”

“Let me get to the Bottom of the Matter,” giggled Owen taking over the verb duties.

Charlie rolled his eyes and huffed. “Owen! Cousin Richard promised he’d take my Oral Exam for me and he’s not here! ”

Owen’s chortles crescendoed and cascaded and Charlie Tossed the Dictionary out of the window.

“Plain speaking,” he exhorted, and glared at the final Said Synonym as it Sailed towards Defenestration.

Owen nodded, and took a deep breath. “Carry on,” he said. 

Charlie and Owen paused to check for Verbs, and then they continued. 

“And now I’ve been summoned to the Ologist’s Office!”

“I don’t think you should call him that,” said Owen. “A Slip of the Tongue could be your Doom.”

“Very well, The Proctor wants to see me.  I think my Tutor has sent me to have all my crimes dealt with in One Fell Swoop.”

“Oh dear,” said Owen. “He’s going to switch you?”

“No, pay attention!  I was going to switch with Richard!”

Owen put his head in his hands. Conversing with Charlie made his brain hurt.

“You’ll have to face him.  Tell him the truth about whatever he asks. You know what he’s like about Fallacious Boys.”

“Owen! I never – “

“That’s not what Dr. Benjamin Rock’s valet says.”

Charlie blushed.  Was his prowess Common Knowledge?

Owen patted his arm. “Charlie, no one thinks you passed your first year exams any other way.”

“Oh! Oh!  So not fair!  I did pass them!  I’m a pineapple of perspiration and knowledge.”

“I think I need a verb back,” hooted Owen. “Charlie, go to his study and see what he wants. Remember: a switch in time saves nine!” 

“Oh, hush up,” whimpered Charlie succumbing to a verb.  “If only Richard were here.  He knows how to Handle a Pickle.”

Owen hooked his arm in Charlie’s and walked him across the quad. 

“I’m going to my execution! I’m going to be beheaded!”

“Doing it a Little Too Brown,” said Owen as they paused while a man flashed by in pursuit of a Tom cat.

“I’m like Lady Jane Grey!” wailed Charlie. 

“You’re nothing like her!” said Owen. “She was only a queen for nine days.”

They paused at the Door of Despair.  Charlie quavered and quivered.  He raised his hand to knock. “I do not like thee, Dr. Fell,” he whispered. “The reason why I cannot tell… wait yes, I can!  It’s because you are Mean and have a Switch.” 

Owen grabbed his wrist. “Wait! Charlie! I think I’ve Spotted your Dick!”

Charlie checked his placket and sighed in relief. He was still buttoned and, oh!, his Sensible Cousin Richard was crossing the quad.

He would not have to face the Proctor without his Stalwart Supporter after all.

www.SydMcGinley.com

www.InLocoDomini.com

Apologies for the Faint Smell of Fish (starring the actor laddies from Home Fires Burning)

“Apologies, apologies, apologies, apologies. For the faint, for the faint for the fai-ai-ai-ai-aint, for the faint smell,” the singer paused imperceptibly and took breath, “for the faint smell…of fish. Of fish. Of fish. Apologies, apologies, for the faint…” and she was off again.

Toby groaned. Modern avante bloody guard opera? You could go and stuff it. Give him a nice Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, any day, or something swish by Cole Porter, but not this load of old cobblers’.

“Remind me why we’re here,” he whispered into Alasdair’s ear.

“Supporting the boss.” Alasdair grimaced, making his heavily insured eyebrow dance an expressive jig.  “Surely you can’t have forgotten his protégée? She’s loud enough.”

“Protégée? Is that what they’re calling it this week?” The girl didn’t have a bad voice, she was pretty enough—in a Junoesque way—but why on earth had she decided to launch her career in such a dire production? The Fishmonger’s Daughter. Even the title made your flesh creep.

***

“This should earn us plenty of credit.” Toby sighed. The relief of the interval, the even greater relief of the bar and a glass of red wine, the greatest relief of their companions for the evening having gone to powder their noses—at least he and Alasdair could steal one moment of quiet pleasure.

“Not the best faux-girlfriends they’ve ever foisted on us.” The eyebrow flew up again.

“More ‘protégées’, do you think?” Toby shrugged. “Still, if we smile for the cameras and applaud in all the right places, we’ll get to go to the bucks’ do.”

Boxing, Bethnal Green, black tie and not a woman in sight. Landseer actors out in droves to promote the new film about a gentlemen boxer of Victorian times. Toby couldn’t wait. Maybe there’d be pre-bout singing—it couldn’t be worse than what they’d had to endure in the first few acts here.

“I’ve never been to a boxing match before.” Alasdair seemed equally delighted at the prospect. “Will there be lots of blood?”

“Gallons, I imagine. And styptic pencils and grease and all sorts of black arts being practiced in the corners.” Toby laughed. “Good, honest sport. None of your sissy rubbish.” The last remark had not been just for the benefit of bystanders. Gay they might be, but effeminate they were not—which was all to the good as far as the studio was concerned.

“I’d like to see you try it.” The glint in Alasdair’s eye—the same glint he’d used in their pirate film—spoke volumes.

“Me in shorts, dripping sweat?”

Alasdair swallowed hard, concentrated on his wine glass and whispered, “Stop it” from the corner of his mouth.

“Landseer wouldn’t let me. Spoil my looks.” Toby grinned. “And here come the girls.”

“Maybe that’s a lucky rescue, for once.” Alasdair got his best welcoming smile ready.

The five minute bell sounded.

“Seconds out, round two!” Toby said, brightly. “Prepared for more haddock, ladies?”

The girls giggled, Alasdair rolled his eyes. Business as usual.

Although Toby could have sworn a certain voice breathed, “Wait till I get you on the canvas”, in his ear as they sauntered back to their seats.

“God damn, son of a bitch!”   Corporal Chet Herbert usually watched his language when he was working with a jump class, but with no officers or ladies present, he felt free to express himself as the tiny figure suspended from its silken canopy drifted further away from his pursuing Jeep.  Chet hadn’t expected all the trainees to hit the target zone on their first drop, but how the hell had Valenti managed to not only miss the field, but wind up miles away, in the only clump of trees downwind of the base?

On the other hand, it was a beautiful June day, and if he’d been given the choice of helping a bunch of green paratroopers recapture their chutes and stuff them into ditty bags or taking a quiet drive out into the countryside… he’d have chosen to be right where he was.

The chute went into the trees about a mile from the road—but it did not emerge on other other side.  Chet downshifted, leaving the paved road for gravel, hoping the little bastard wasn’t caught too far up to get at.

Of all the men to jump today, it would be Valenti.  PFC Eddie Valenti, small but tough, snapping black eyes and a ready grin, the only guy in the bunch who had the nerve to read poetry off-duty, a book he claimed his mother had sent with him. “Ma used to teach school,” Valenti said when another would-be paratrooper challenged him. “She says I should read some good books. You tellin’ me I shouldn’t listen to my mother?”

And the crazy thing was – Valenti pulled it off.   “This guy Whitman, he was a real man.  Listen to this:

‘An Army Corps on the March

With its cloud of skirmishers in advance,

With now the sound of a single shot snapping like a whip,

And now an irregular volley,

The swarming ranks press on and on, the dense brigades press on

Glittering dimly, toiling under the sun—the dust cover’d men

In columns rise and fall to the undulations of the ground

With artillery interspers’d—the wheels rumble, the horses sweat

As the army corps advances.”
Yeah, well… Chet knew that book, parts of it by heart.  He knew there was a lot more in there besides military poems and “Oh Captain, My Captain.”   There were love poems in there, love poems written from one man to another, and sometimes when Valenti  caught Chet’s eye, he smiled as though they shared some kind of secret.

Eddie Valenti was handsome as the devil.

Eddie Valenti was dangerous.

But, Chet reminded himself, training wouldn’t last forever, and before too long, Eddie Valenti would be shipped off to Korea, while Chet, with his slightly crooked spine that would not stand up to a march with full pack, would stay here to help train young men to jump out of airplanes without killing themselves in the process.  He would be lonely, but he was used to that.  It was better than worrying about a court-martial.

His foot hit the clutch and he was braking almost before he recognized the flash of white that had to be the missing parachute.

A few minutes of plowing through underbrush brought Chet to the base of a bur oak tree, its massive branches reaching almost to the ground.  He could see the fabric of the chute wrapped around a branch some twenty-odd feet up, but nothing else. “Hey, Valenti, you up there?”

“Herbie, that you?”

Chet hated being called Herbie.   “You okay?”

“Yeah, but I’m stuck.  Can you come up and give me a hand?”

“Yeah, hold on.”  For a man who’d spent most of his boyhood climbing trees on the family farm, this old patriarch wasn’t even a challenge.  The limbs were perfectly spaced for a climb, his boots dug into the rugged bark, and it was cool and pleasant up here in the breezy shade.

He spotted Valenti and had to laugh.  Somehow or other, he was lying atop a limb nearly as wide as his own body, head-downward.  His chute was caught on a dead branch just below him.  “How the hell did you do that?”

“You got me, buddy.  The tree snagged it and I got flipped up here –the damn harness is so tight I can’t get my hand into my pocket for my knife, and I think the quick-release is jammed.”

“Just as well.  You’d drop straight down.”

“Yeah, I thought as much.  Now you’ve had your laugh, how about you get me outta here?”

Chet made sure his own knife was where he could reach it, and inched out onto the limb.  Studying the situation, he realized it wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d thought.  “Look, Valenti, you have to roll over so you can hang on while I cut you loose, otherwise you’ll slide right off the limb and probably take us both down.”

“No can do.  Can’t get hold of the tree.  Can you brace me?”

“Guess I have to.”  Chet crawled out farther and found himself staring straight into Valenti’s face, and found himself uncomfortably aware of the other man’s scent—sweat, and maybe a little fear—and had the brief thought that Eddie Valenti looked good enough to eat. “Okay—”

His words were cut off as Valenti grabbed his head and pulled him down into a kiss.  Stupid, dangerous… but he couldn’t let go of the tree and he really didn’t want to push Valenti away.  After a moment’s hesitation, he thought, the hell with it, and let his lips part, tasting the sharp mix of emotions on the other man’s mouth.  Finally, with a shiver, he pulled back.  “You crazy bastard.”

“You complaining?”

Without answering, Chet wrapped his legs around the tree limb and  got a grip on Valenti’s shoulders.  Even in a mild breeze, the chute was tugging at the jump harness.  This could be tricky. “Okay, loverboy, I’m going to shift you to the side.  You get hold of that branch and hang on, or we’ll be up here all day.”

“Suits me.”  But he cooperated, inching around until he was lying face-down and holding on for dear life.

“Okay, now raise up a little so I can hit the quick-release.”

Valenti laughed.  “Thought you’d never ask.”

Sliding his hand under Valenti’s body felt a lot more personal than Chet had intended.  But, thank God, he felt the ‘click’ and the release of tension as the swaying of the tree pulled the riser lines away from the harness.   It’d still be a pain in the ass to get that chute back, but at least he wouldn’t be hauling back a casualty.

“Now what?” Valenti asked.

“Now I back off, you follow me, and we report in that you need to repeat suspension training.  You can’t steer for shit.”

Valenti looked up from his nose-down position, his grin back and as cocky as ever.  “The hell I can’t.”   He looked Chet up and down from a distance of about a foot.  “I think I got exactly where I wanted to be.”

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