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    Tim Hobson
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
This story was originally written for the Summer 2023 Secret Author Contest. (It didn't win, but I enjoyed writing it anyway.) That's why there's only one chapter (contest rules).
After the contest ended and the story was published under my name, I changed the title to The LITTLE Book of Poems because some readers were expecting this to be a book of poetry!
I added the image of the book's cover and the flyleaf page with the original inscription written in 1942 in pencil.
WARNING:  This story contained depictions of gay sexual activity and some strong language.

The Little Book of Poems - 1. Chapter 1

Inscription hand-written on the flyleaf of the book, One Hundred and One Famous Poems, Compiled by Roy J. Cook, Copyright 1929, The Cable Company, Chicago.

Dear Randolph,

My best wishes for a Happy Christmas. I hope this little book will become your close and intimate friend. A few of my favorites have been marked and I trust you will like them, too.

Sincerely,

"Uncle" George

December 23, 1942.

ON BOARD HMS P48

GULF OF TUNIS

25 DECEMBER 1942

0600 HOURS

Lieutenant Randolph Faber’s peaceful rest was interrupted by two sharp raps on his door.

Rousing himself and straightening his uniform, the commander of the U-class submarine responded, “Enter.”

Midshipman First Class Edmund Winters opened the door but did not come into the captain’s cabin. “Sorry to disturb you, Sir. Only, it’s time.”

“Thank you, Winters. Please inform Lieutenant Rice that I’m on my way.”

“Sir.” The rating snapped to attention, saluted, and closed the door.

Faber surveyed his tiny quarters and sighed, “Well, Happy Fucking Christmas. Let’s hope this day ends badly for some goddamned fascist sons of bitches.”

The captain—the title given to any commander of a British ship—went into the companionway and climbed the ladder to the upper deck.

“Captain on deck.” The Executive Officer, or XO, Second Lieutenant Stephen Herbert Rice stated the fact as his senior officer arrived on the bridge.

No one saluted, and no one interrupted the performance of their duties, not even to glance in Faber’s direction. To begin with, the submarine’s cramped quarters afforded little space for military posturing, and a moment’s distraction from vital tasks could spell danger or death to all on board the small ship.

Rice was bent over the ship’s pilot, pointing to something on a dial. He turned and spoke to the sonar operator, straightened, and crossed the few feet to where the captain waited.

Coming to attention, he announced crisply, “All is well, Sir.”

“Thank you, XO. I’ll take command.”

“Aye-aye, Sir.” Having been relieved of command, Rice relaxed to “at ease.”

“Try to catch some sleep, Stephen. I’ll call for you if we find anything.”

“I’ll do my best, Rando.” He put a hand on the commander’s shoulder. “And Sir—”

“Yes?”

“Happy Christmas.”

Randolph laughed and shook his hand. “And the same to you, my friend.”

Rice descended the ladder as the captain signed in to the logbook. Gazing up the page, he took note of the ship’s positions and actions during the XO’s watch.

Satisfied with what he read, Faber entered, “Assumed command of HMS P48, 25 DEC 1942, 0600 hrs.

With a sigh, he frowned once again at the ship’s name—or rather, the lack thereof. U-class subs were built, launched, and sent into the war so rapidly that there was no time to christen them. The unmentioned secondary reason was that they were being sunk at a tremendous rate by German and Italian sub-hunters. Proper names (always beginning with the letter U) were bestowed only when they won distinction in battle.

Although P48 had fired more than a dozen torpedoes at enemy vessels, she had yet to score a hit on any of them, so an official name was still beyond her reach.

Faber’s men had unofficially christened her “The Shrice”—a name composed of the popular XO’s initials (SH) and last name (RICE). It seemed to fit, and everyone was pleased they had given their ship a real name, so Faber could think of no reason to object.

He signed, R.M. FABER, LT, RN

Noting a recent entry in the log, he checked the chronometer on the instrument panel. Turning to the Officer of the Watch (OW), Midshipman Frankie Stone, he ordered, “Periscope depth.”

The P48 traveled at a cruising depth of 100 feet below sea level. U-class subs had a 12-foot periscope, so in order to raise it above the waves required the small ship’s conning tower to come dangerously close to the surface.

For this reason, the scope was used sparingly, while the ship relied on sonar signals to echolocate other vessels within range. Currently, she surfaced every 30 minutes for no longer than five minutes if all were clear.

The Mediterranean Sea was notorious for its choppy whitecaps, but since HMS P48’s position lay a few miles inside the Gulf of Tunis where the waters were calmer, Faber could hold the periscope at one foot above the surface, thereby reducing the chance of being spotted.

He squatted and folded down the control levers of the periscope as it rose out of the floor, standing with it as it lifted. The moment it reached its full height, he performed a quick 360-degree circuit. All was clear, which he silently admitted to himself was a disappointment.

“Waves one foot, light chop,” he dictated to the OW, who dutifully recorded the captain’s observations in the ship’s log.

“Cap Bon, 30 point 8 miles, heading 130 degrees.” He slowly circled. “Fembra Island, 18.6 miles, heading 175 degrees.” Another turn. “Cap Farina, 15.8 miles, heading 260 degrees.”

The three sightings sufficed to triangulate the vessel’s position in the water. He had noted, but didn’t report, that Tunis was visible to their southwest, and a few miles southeast of the Tunisian capital lay the site of the ancient city of Carthage.

Randolph longed to visit the ruins if Field Marshal Montgomery successfully liberated the area by driving the Axis troops into Libya, where they would encounter the British First Army advancing westward from Egypt.

The OW’s voice broke into his train of thought. “Roger that, Sir. It puts us at thirty-seven degrees, twenty-five minutes North by ten degrees, naught five minutes East.”

“Noted.”

Faber swept the full circumference once more, hoping for any sign of enemy ships, but found none. Flapping the levers up to indicate he was finished, he ordered, “Down scope. Running depth.”

The pilot turned the sub’s planes downward while flooding the ballast tanks, nosing the submarine into deeper waters, safely out of sight of sub-hunting aircraft and surface vessels.

Submarines rarely stayed submerged for more than eight hours at a time. They were basically surface ships that had the additional capability of submerging. Their time underwater was limited by the need to take in fresh air, both to operate the diesel engines that recharged the batteries of the electric engines and to fill the crew quarters with a breathable atmosphere.

As the eight-hour limit neared, the ship had to rise close enough to the surface to extend a breathing tube and the diesel exhaust pipes above the water. They also spent several hours on the surface most nights, during which time the crew liked to sit out on the decks and even swim in the sea if there were moonlight.

With nothing around her, the P48 executed a tight circle, holding position on the route followed by military shipping from Europe to Tunisia. Her mission was to patrol the entrance to the Gulf, and thereby the city, hoping to prevent Axis troops from landing and joining up with Rommel’s forces in North Africa.

For now, though, Faber would leave the operation of his ship to her experienced crew. He retreated to a small alcove that contained a drop-down desktop in the bulkhead and a swivel chair that was bolted to the deck. He kept an ear on the exchange of information among the officers and ratings on the bridge but allowed his mind to wander.

**

His thoughts turned to the little book of poems he received as an early Christmas present from Vice Admiral Sir George Hampton-Collier.

Upon opening it, he had scanned through the collection with pleasure, happy to recognize many lines of poetry from his school days, but in his haste to embark on this mission, he left the gift on the desk in his billet at the Royal Navy Dockyard in Malta.

He found himself wishing he had brought it with him, partly to give him something to think about when he was not on duty, but mostly because it reminded him of the man he fondly called, “Uncle George.”

In truth, George was Randolph’s godfather, but when the boy’s parents were killed in the German aerial bombing of London in 1915, he faithfully assumed the care and custody of the four-year-old lad.

A naval officer with a promising career ahead of him, he took his young ward with him on all his posting—India, Australia, Hong Kong, the Bahamas, San Francisco, and many others. Growing up on ships, surrounded by officers and men, Randolph naturally decided to seek a career in the Royal Navy.

When he reached the age of fourteen, his uncle enrolled him at Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC) in Dartmouth, where he would serve as batboy to an upperclassman until he turned sixteen, at which time he hoped to pass the entrance exam and matriculate as a cadet.

Randolph’s assigned upperclassman was eighteen-year-old Alistair Woodward, known as “Allie” to his pals and “Sir” to Randolph, whom he nicknamed, “Rando”—although he naughtily referred to the lad as “Randy” when he teased him.

It was soon clear to Rando that his responsibilities consisted of “anything Allie wanted him to do,” and he learned this included bringing in coal for the stove, emptying the chamber pot, retrieving cigarettes for him from the village store—and meeting his physical needs.

The general name for all these duties was “fagging,” which made Randolph a “fag.” He’d heard rumors about the role on board his last ship, and when he left to enter Dartmouth, some of the other cabin boys razzed him about how his arse was going to hurt.

The lads on the ship played around with each other and masturbated together, but none dared go beyond oral activities. Therefore, with reluctance and a healthy dose of fear, Rando entered Allie's bedroom on his first night at the BRNC.

The upperclassman lay stretched out on his bed in his skivvies, smoking. He cocked his head to one side and patted the sheet next to him, indicating that Rando should join him. Stubbing out his cigarette, he spoke in a matter-of-fact tone.

“You are aware why I called you in here?”

“Yes, Sir, I’ve been told what to expect.”

“Good.” The older cadet examined his fag closely. “Have you ever done it before?”

“Erm, no, but I’ve been told how it works.”

With a satisfied nod, Allie gently explained, “You have two choices. You can learn to do it and perhaps come to enjoy it, as most of us have done in our turn. Or you can hate every moment of it, in which case it will be a real pain in the arse every time you have to do it, which I forewarn you will be rather often. Only, it’s how we upperclassmen deal with the stress of competition.”

Rando decided to learn to enjoy it, which happened quickly.

For his part, Allie started out slowly, remembering what he had endured as a fag. After he penetrated to his full depth inside the younger man, though, he sensed that Rando was not suffering and was in fact relishing their intimacy, so he threw himself into their coupling with vigor. And Rando gave as good as he got.

They began a give and take, where Allie would be in control, varying the tempo and depth of his thrusts, seeking to teach Rando to relax and accept whatever was offered. After a while, though, he allowed his batman to take over, sliding up and down the upperclassman’s thick pole.

Between them, they had a jolly good time of it. As they relaxed side by side smoking in the afterglow, Allie inquired, “I hope that wasn’t too much for you.”

“Oh, no, Sir. I rather enjoyed it.”

“At times like this, you have permission to call me ‘Allie.’ ”

“You mean, at times when you’ve been up my bum for half an hour and have unloaded inside me?”

Allie laughed, “That’s a bit more graphic than I would have worded it, but—hell yes, that’s what I mean!”

Without words, the two men entered into an unspoken pact that they would repeat their tryst at least once a day, usually after lights-out. Both of them looked forward to the daily intimacy and release. Their formal relationship, however, was distant and proper at all times.

Uncle George, now a Commodore, visited after the first term and took Randolph to lunch at a swank restaurant.

“I have received reports that you are doing splendidly. Did Woodward tell you I sponsored his entry to the college?”

“No, Sir. He’s never mentioned it. Was he the son of an old friend or colleague?”

“Not to put too fine a point on it, his father was my batboy when I trained here.” The older man smiled at the memories, and Randolph wondered if they included the same extracurricular activities that he and Alistair engaged in.

His loins tingled and his penis began to stiffen, so he changed the subject. “I like it here. We batboys have classes four hours each day, and I am studying to take the entrance examination next year.”

“And when you’re not studying?”

“Oh, we have time for football, swimming—and physical training.”

The commodore raised an eyebrow. “By ‘physical training’ do you mean calisthenics?”

Randolph blushed. Of course, that was what he meant, but he realized his uncle was hinting at the other sort of physical activity.

“Erm, yes…but there’s the other, too.”

A satisfied grin filled the officer’s face. “Ah, yes. I remember it well—from both sides of the bed. In my day, one never spoke of it, but it was well and truly practiced in all the better English boys’ schools. You’ve nothing to be shy about. Virtually every lad grew out of it and graduated to marriage and family life quite happily.”

The young man continued to blush and remained silent, unsure of what to say.

“And Alistair is kind to you?”

With a nod, Rando answered, “He’s a patient teacher, and he trusts me with a lot of his secrets.”

“Does he? Well, I hope not all of his secrets.”

Randolph wrinkled his brow but said no more. The conversation moved on to Uncle George’s latest posting and the news about a German ex-convict who had just published a troubling book entitled Mein Kampf.

“You mark my words, my boy, there will be another war with the Germans—perhaps not right away, but in twenty years or less.”

Secretly, Randolph was glad because it meant he would be an officer by then and might command a ship in the coming war.

**

Later in the afternoon, as Rando rested in his “quarters”—a closet connected to Alistair’s bed chamber furnished with a hammock to sleep in, a rope line on which to hang his uniforms, and a pot to piss in—he was summoned by his senior’s voice.

Entering the upperclassman’s room, he received orders to go to a distant village and purchase a brand of cigarettes that were not sold locally. He had to walk all the way there and back, which would take the better part of three hours.

He set out at once, obtained the tobacco, and started back to the BRNC when a farmer with a dog cart came up behind him and offered a ride home.

Arriving at his quarters, he had removed his jacket and was reaching out to knock on Allie’s door with the cigarettes in hand when he stopped in his tracks. Loud sounds were coming from the other room—identical to the grunts and sighs he and Allie made when coupling.

Leaning his ear against the door, Randolph heard moans of pleasure and groans of pain, along with muffled voices. Alistair’s was the only one recognizable, and it took but a minute for the young batboy to figure out that Allie was the man on the bottom.

Startled and embarrassed, he backed away and hurried out of his room, leaving the cigarettes on his hammock. In the corridor, he looked both ways, unsure whether to stay, hide, or leave the building.

He settled on taking a seat in a window bench at the end of the corridor. He squeezed into it as far as possible, pulled his legs up, and grasped his knees. He sat in silence, waiting to see what would happen next.

About twenty minutes later, the door to Alistair’s quarters opened and someone stepped out. The man had his back to Rando as he faced into the room and said a few words to the man inside, then he backed up into the corridor.

Randolph's breath caught in his throat. The man was his “Uncle” George, who proceeded up the hallway in the opposite direction from where his ward was hiding, stunned and confused by what he had witnessed.

Returning to his small closet, he picked up the package of cigarettes and knocked on his senior’s door. Entering the bed chamber, he noted that the linens were damp and in disarray. The room reeked of sweat and a sweet odor he recognized well from his own exploits in the confined space.

He said nothing, and if Allie realized Rando was aware of the surprising assignation, he never mentioned it.

A few years later, Randolph had his own fag, Reggie Craven, whom he treated with kindness and firmness. The lad was handsome, well-spoken, with soft, round arse cheeks.

He remembered the first night with the young lad in his bed. Taking a lesson from Allie, he had been direct and specific about his needs and expectations. He thought the encounter had gone well. Both of them had achieved release and were sharing a cigarette in the dark.

Suddenly, Reggie rolled over, wrapping his arms in a tight hug around Rando, who soon felt his chest soaked with the lad’s hot tears.

“Wh-what’s wrong? I thought you enjoyed that. You certainly acted as if you did.”

Through sniffles, the batman blubbered, “I did like it. I always like it.”

“So, this wasn’t your first time?”

“No. I’ve been doing it at school for...years, it seems.”

“So I didn’t hurt you or anything?”

“No. You were gentle, more than most.”

“Then what the hell is the matter?”

With a sob, Reggie blurted, “It’s a sin! God will punish us for this.”

Stunned, Rando was unable to think of what to say.

Finally, he managed, “See here. It’s not serious. We’re not...well, I suppose we’re not doing anything so terrible. We’re just helping each other out. I for one need this kind of outlet for the stresses of my job. And you probably find yourself under a great deal of pressure as well.”

“But the Bible says it’s wrong.”

Randolph sighed. “I’m no expert on the Bible, but I think what it was describing was when two men act like they’re married to each other. You and I are just letting off a little steam. We’re actually just giving each other a hand, as friends would.”

“But we’re not friends.”

“No, I know that. But you see what I mean. We’re living in confined quarters where our every word and action is noted and recorded. Our future in the Navy depends on our behaving one hundred percent by-the-book virtually every moment of every day. The only time we have to unwind and be ourselves is after lights-out, in the dark, and you are my only relief, as I am yours.”

“So you don’t think it’s wrong? Don’t men go to prison for doing what we did?”

“Those men deserve prison. What they do is to take advantage of weaker men, and they do it out in the world, in public as it were. What we do behind a locked door in the dark stays between us.”

Reggie didn’t reply. He was clearly being won over by Rando’s logic.

“And by the way, don’t you dare think you and I are the only ones on this base doing this. It’s so common that it’s at least generally accepted that it happens. As long as nothing is said about it, and no one complains, it can go on quietly forever, and no one cares much.”

Reggie remained silent. Finally, worried that his explanation had failed to resolve the lad’s reservations, Randolph asked, “Are you all right?”

A shy voice replied, “Yes. I think so... Can we do it again?”

The memory of his years at the BRNC brought a familiar stirring to the captain’s loins.

**

“Time, Sir.” The Officer of the Watch said, respectfully interrupting Randolph’s reminiscence.

“Thank you. Up periscope.”

Repeating the exercise of half an hour earlier, the captain scanned the horizon in every direction. This time, his heart raced when he caught sight of two columns of smoke to the northeast—the trajectory of enemy ships making their way to Tunis from the Italian port of Palermo in Sicily.

“Two smokes at 20 degrees, eight miles out. Down scope.”

The P48 rested in position for another ten minutes, then the periscope was raised again. The two pillars of smoke now materialized into two troop transports.

Increasing the resolution, the captain read their names—the Carlo Zeno and the XII Aprile. They were escorted by two smaller torpedo boats, the Ardente and the Ardito.

Relaying this information to the OW for entry into the log, Randolph ordered the periscope be lowered.

He spoke with calm resolve. “All hands, battle stations.”

A klaxon sounded throughout the ship. Crew members raced to their assigned positions, bulkhead doors were closed and sealed, and the ship’s normal lighting was replaced by glowing red bulbs.

Faber stepped over to the sonar station. He didn’t need to ask. The operator began reciting.

“Cavitation from four vessels, two large, two smaller. Range five miles and closing.” P48’s torpedoes had an effective range of two and a half miles. They would have to wait a bit longer for their prey to come close enough.

Lieutenant Rice rejoined the others on the bridge. As the firing officer, he donned a headset to communicate with the weapons bay, where four torpedoes were loaded into their tubes. In addition to these, there were two more torpedoes mounted outside the hull that were activated from controls in the firing station.

“Up scope,” the commander ordered once more. He focused his attention on the approaching ships, thinking not about the hundreds of men on board, but only of the prime targets they represented. When the objectives were close enough, he gave the ship’s pilot the coordinates to aim the P48 at the two troop transports, turned to Rice, and nodded.

The XO spoke into his headset. “Fire one.” The ship recoiled from the force of the missile bursting from the tube.

Randolph peered through the periscope, and when the torpedo broke the surface and aimed for its objective, he announced. “One on the way.”

“Fire two.”

The deadly missiles were guided magnetically, so all the P48 needed to do was point them in the proper direction. As they got close to their targets, they should lock on to the steel hulls and explode on contact. It was an admittedly primitive system, and Lieutenant Randolph was aware of research now underway to build sonar-guided torpedoes, but they were not available yet.

In less than a minute, all six weapons of destruction were sent on the way toward their intended victims. The rapid loss of ten tons of ballast caused the P48 to swiftly bob up closer to the surface, revealing her position.

Suddenly, the water around the periscope roiled with a shower of bullets from above.

“Machine gun fire! Down scope!” Faber roared.

The gunfire told him the convoy was escorted by a sub-hunter airplane, whose job was to scan the sea in advance of the ships and indicate the location of any threats lurking below the waves.

The bullets didn’t hurt the submarine, but they indicated its location to the two escort boats, who began speeding toward the spot where the sub was sighted.

“Dive! Dive!” the XO ordered, grabbing a nearby stanchion for support during the abrupt maneuver. The captain did the same as the air in the sub’s quick-dive tanks was blown out, flooding them in seconds with ballast seawater.

The ship nosed downward sharply, causing everyone to have a momentary headache from the sudden change in pressure.

“What is our depth?” Randolph asked the pilot as the P48 leveled off.

“188 feet, Sir—twelve feet above the bottom.” The Gulf of Tunis was relatively shallow, and Faber found himself wishing they were farther out in the Mediterranean.

The P48 was rated to a diving depth of 300 feet, so they were not anywhere close to their maximum, but deep enough to hope to avoid depth charges, which exploded at 100 feet.

Checking the coordinates on the periscope, Faber intoned, “37°17′N 10°32′E.”

As the Officer of the Watch dutifully entered the data into the log, the man couldn’t help thinking he might be marking the site of their grave.

“Rig the ship for silent running,” the captain barked. At once, the electric engines were shut down, the entire crew sat barely breathing, and the vessel descended into a nervous silence. The only sound came from the soft pinging of the attack ships on the surface, as they used their sonar to try to locate P48.

Faber was left with no choice but to hide. The maximum speed underwater of the U-class subs was 9 knots. The surface ships in pursuit of them were capable of double that, so there was no question of outrunning them.

Lying silent and motionless as close as possible to maximum depth was the standard defense practiced by Royal Navy submariners, but the temptation to make a run for it became almost unavoidable. Nevertheless, the captain adhered to regulations and prayed the advice would save them.

The first depth charge detonated above and east of the P48, sending a shock wave all the way to the sea floor and reflecting it back up. The ship shuddered mightily but settled herself ten feet above the bottom of the Gulf.

The blast missed by several hundred yards, but the recoil sonar image might have outlined the P48 as she lay in hiding.

The captain and crew couldn’t help but feel defenseless. Their sole option was to keep still and endure every salvo of destructive dynamite, triggered by a pressure switch, that was launched into the air and crashed into the sea, sinking to the general area where the ship was concealed.

The first explosion led the way for a dozen more. The Ardente was to P48’s port side, while the Ardito took up station to the starboard.

Both captains were experienced and knew the enemy submarine was lying in total silence somewhere beneath them. She didn’t dare to move because the sound of the propellers would appear on their attackers’ sonar screens and give away her position.

Over the next several minutes, the two sub-hunters circled like vultures, sending volley after volley into the general area the aircraft had identified, hoping that one or more of their projectiles would make contact with their target.

Depth charges behaved in three ways.

Ideally, they reached their pre-programmed depth and exploded there, sending a violent pressure wave through the water in every direction.

More often than the attackers would have liked, a charge would fail to detonate and sink uselessly to the bottom.

Once in a great while, the pressure sensor would be defective, and the charge would go off either higher or deeper than intended.

As P48 bravely maintained her silence, a projectile from the Ardito failed to explode and continued sinking toward the bottom of the Gulf of Tunis. It finally did its job, detonating fifty feet directly above the conning tower of the hulking vessel.

The devastating pressure wave unseated the tower, deflecting it to the port side and opening a massive gash in the top of the hull. The ocean rushed in with a vengeance.

The bridge, situated right beneath the conning tower, was inundated with the force of a hundred fire hoses. Men were crushed against the bulkhead, where most died instantly.

The ship was 205 feet long—a little less than half the diameter of a cricket field—and the water quickly began to fill her, beginning at the bottom of the hull and spreading fore and aft. As the engine room flooded, the batteries short-circuited, and the ship went dark. The bulkheads were strong, but the ocean was stronger, and they began to give way with massive groans of twisting steel, drowning the men trapped behind them.

Captain Faber happened to be standing two feet from the ladder, so the blast of incoming sea propelled him over the hole and down to the deck below. He landed in the water rising on the lower deck and got to his feet. With water up to his knees and rising rapidly, he slogged to his quarters, ten steps further down the companionway.

He opened the door, made his way through the deepening sea, and pushed the door closed. It wasn't watertight, but it bought him a little time. He turned to his desk and the captain’s log, which lay open to the day’s report.

As the flood climbed to his waist, he scrawled, “25 December 1942. Direct hit by depth charge. Damage fatal to the ship and all aboard. May God have mercy on our souls.

Clasping his logbook tightly to his chest, he stood on his bunk. Helplessly watching the water rise toward the ceiling, his last thought was of another book—the little volume of poems his “uncle” gave him for Christmas.

He had regretted leaving it behind on Malta, but now he was happy it would survive him and someday belong to someone else. He hoped they would treasure it as he had done, however briefly.

As the vile mixture of salt water and diesel fuel overpassed his head, Randolph Markham Faber, Lieutenant, Royal Navy, recalled a few verses from a poem written during the Great War:

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie...

Remaining upright, HMS P48 gently sank the last few feet, coming to her final resting place on the bottom of the gulf, where she would never be recovered.

As Faber had recorded, there were no survivors, and an oil slick soon appeared on the surface of the Mediterranean, signaling to the attackers their success in killing an enemy ship.

P48 was formally listed as lost with all crew on board. The transport ships continued on their way to Tunis and offloaded hundreds of men who joined Rommel in his unsuccessful defense of North Africa.

The Axis forces surrendered in Libya on 13 May 1943, yielding over 275,000 prisoners of war. The Allies used the coast of Libya to launch the invasion of Sicily two months later.

 

ROYAL NAVY DOCKYARD

MALTA

30 DECEMBER 1942

1800 HOURS

Vice Admiral Sir George Hampton-Collier stood silent in the tiny officers’ quarters that had been the billet of his godson and honorary nephew, Lieutenant Randolph M. Faber, who was declared lost at sea with his ship and crew. Rando was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

The admiral looked sadly around the tiny space. An orderly waited patiently behind him, ready to clear out the previous occupant's belongings and send them home to make way for the next officer who would be billeted there.

Sir George found his eyes drawn to his nephew’s desk. He crossed the few feet to it and picked up a small brown book. Opening the cover, he read the inscription he had written on the flyleaf.

My best wishes for a Happy Christmas. I hope this little book will become your close and intimate friend.” He had signed it “Uncle” George as an affectionate reminder of how dearly he held the young man in his heart.

A quick survey of the desktop showed nothing else of a personal nature, so George pocketed the book and stepped aside, allowing the rating to perform his duties.

“Where shall we send these, Sir?”

After a moment’s thought, the admiral gave the man the address of his family estate in Devonshire. With a sigh, he thought of the Halcion days spent there as his ward grew up and followed him into the Royal Navy.

He opened the little volume randomly, and his eyes fell on a verse by Walt Whitman:

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!

But I, with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

Sir George wiped a tear from his eye and pocketed the book, leaving the room to the orderly.

 

HARTWELL HOUSE, DEVONSHIRE

FAMILY ESTATE OF ADMIRAL SIR GEORGE HAMPTON-COLLIER, ROYAL NAVY RETIRED,

KNIGHT COMMANDER OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE

22 MAY 1946

“Good morning, Sir George,” the admiral’s valet greeted him in the sunny breakfast room. William Barnaby, Midshipman, Royal Navy Retired, had served as the officer’s batman throughout the war, which had ended a little over a year ago.

George had retired to his family’s country estate and settled into the role of landowner and distinguished former officer.

“When does Frederick arrive?” he asked his old friend.

“He is due on the ten o’clock train from Paddington Station, Sir. Carter will meet him, and they should be here thirty minutes later. Will he be joining you for lunch?”

“Yes.” George paused a moment in thought. “I have a lot to discuss with him, so please serve us in my study.”

“Very good, Sir.”

Frederick Winston Hampton-Collier was the son of George’s brother Charles, who had joined the Royal Marines and died at Anzio in January of 1944. As the admiral had no children of his own, his nephew was heir to the estate, which had been in the family for six generations.

For that reason, his uncle invited him to spend the summer working beside the staff and learning the business of running a large operation.

It concerned the admiral that his nephew appeared reluctant to accept the invitation. A student at Oxford, Freddie showed no interest in living in the countryside, nor in assuming the responsibilities of lord of the manor.

George despaired that, after his death, the young man would sell off the property and live a grand lifestyle on the proceeds, thus ending nearly 200 years of family tradition.

**

After breakfast, the admiral retired to his study and made sure all the necessary records were available for Frederick’s education as a landowner and employer. He consulted the clock far too often, as it seemed that 10:30 took forever to come.

He heard the commotion of the arrival of the car on the gravel drive and rose to peer out his window.

To his surprise, his nephew did not arrive alone. Another young man of roughly the same age accompanied him. George resisted the temptation to rush to the front entrance to learn the identity of this other youth, but propriety demanded he wait in his study until the two arrivals presented themselves to him.

After perhaps fifteen minutes, a soft knock came at the door, followed by its opening and the appearance of Barnaby. The valet entered the room with the two arrivals in tow behind him. He stopped a few feet from the admiral’s desk and announced, “Master Frederick and Mister Harold Wickes, Sir George.”

George rose, came around, and shook hands with his nephew, sadly reminding himself that this “nephew” was the real thing, a blood relative, as opposed to the honorific he had bestowed upon Randolph. As he shook the hand, he placed his other hand on the youth’s shoulder and smiled warmly.

“It’s so good of you to come, Freddie. I hope this summer will be a memorable experience for you.”

Smiling back at his uncle, Freddie nodded, “I hope the same.” An awkward pause followed the exchange, which the younger man broke at last by turning to his side and indicating his companion.

“I’m sorry I didn’t give you a heads-up, Uncle George, but I’ve invited my friend Harold to join me. We’re fellows at Magdalen College, and he is interested in the operation of country estates.” George wondered if Freddie was implying that he himself did not share that interest.

Greeting the other lad with a smile and a warm handshake, George said, “I am delighted to meet you, Harold. Welcome to Hartwell. I hope you enjoy your time here.”

With the niceties out of the way, the two young men were dispatched to their quarters to unpack and prepare for a working lunch with the admiral.

Their rooms were located across the hall from each other, and Frederick turned to Barnaby to ask, “I say, since my room and the one next to it are adjoining, I think it better if Harold takes that room.”

Taken aback, the valet hesitated. “I beg your pardon, Sir, but there may be plans to put someone else in that room. I’ll need to check with Sir George.”

“Are other guests expected?” Frederick refused to acquiesce politely.

“Not to my knowledge, Sir, but as I said, it may be planned.”

“Well, they can have the room across the hall.” Frowning to defend his request, he added, “Harold and I plan to confer on a number of matters this summer, and it would be most convenient if our rooms connected. If Uncle George has a problem with that, please inform me, and I’ll speak to him personally.”

“Very good, Sir.” The valet, defeated, helped the two men move into the adjoining rooms. Leaving them to settle in, he hurried to inform the admiral of the unexpected change of room assignments.

“Did he say what things they planned to confer on?” the admiral asked incredulously.

“No, Sir. They said that it was a matter of ‘convenience’ to them to be in adjoining rooms.”

Sir George thought it over. It did not escape him that connecting rooms made conversations and conferring convenient, but they also afforded a means of being together unobserved.

He remembered his many exploits as a younger man and assumed it was likely his nephew was in a relationship with his close friend.

“Well, since it’s what they prefer, we’d best let them have at it, eh, William?”

“As you say, Sir.”

**

Harold gazed out the window of Frederick’s room. “Well, Freddie, I think you finessed that one.”

“It wasn’t too difficult, Harry my lad. After all, Barnaby is aware that I’ll be lord of the manor someday, so he doesn’t want to land on my bad side.”

“And which is your bad side?” Harold smiled lasciviously.

“Well, I’m not sure I can say. Perhaps you’ll tell me, since you’ve had me from both sides quite regularly.” He pulled his friend into his arms and planted a kiss on the man’s lips.

The two men stepped over to Frederick’s bed and removed their clothes. Falling back onto the comforter, they arranged themselves head-to-foot and began sucking each other’s cocks. That soon led to Harold bathing Freddie’s hole with his tongue, which elicited groans of pleasure from his lover.

As they both rose to their knees, Harold penetrated Freddie until he buried his rod deep inside his friend. He took up a rhythm of plunging in and pulling almost all the way out. Freddie responded by rocking his arse back and forth, parrying every thrust with vigor and muffled moans of delight.

After a few minutes, the two exchanged positions and Freddie gave as good as he had gotten from Harold. Afterward, they lay side by side and masturbated each other to climax and release.

With a contented sigh, Freddie leaned over and scraped Harold’s semen onto his fingers. Raising them to his mouth and licking them clean, he said, “I love the flavor of you.”

Mimicking his lover’s actions, Harold agreed, “I think we might not need any lunch today.”

They both laughed, but, conscious of Uncle George’s expectations, they hurried to get out of bed, clean up, and dress for lunch.

As the mean ended, Sir George told the young men, “You two may take the rest of the afternoon to explore, or rather for Freddie to show you around the estate, Harold. I hope you’ll find us to be a well-run operation.”

“I’m sure I will, Sir. And I’m sure Freddie will show me everything.” He stole a glance at his lover, who winked back at him, which did not go unnoticed by Sir George.

Half an hour later, they drove a Range Rover across fields and down lanes.

“This is truly a fine estate,” Harold declared. “But I can’t picture you wasting away here, cut off from society, and—”

“And the men I love.”

“Men, is it?”

“Well, you realize you were not my first, nor was I yours. And who is to say we shan’t find entertainment from other quarters?”

The expression of disappointment on Harold’s face made Freddie hasten to add, “Of course, we will be together, but we can’t overlook the possibility that, from time to time, either or both of us might find pleasure in unexpected places.” He leaned over and kissed Harold on the cheek.

Soon, they arrived at Freddie’s intended destination. A few miles from the main house and surrounded by dense woodlands, a pristine lake glistened in the early summer sun. Parking the vehicle, Freddie led his friend out onto a wooden dock that extended a few yards from the shore.

“It’s beautiful!” Harold exclaimed. “But, this early in the season, I suppose the water is too cold for swimming.”

With a naughty grin, Freddie replied, “It all depends on how vigorous we are.”

Laughing, they dashed off the dock and stripped naked. With shouts of glee, they bounced into the lake and screamed at the shock of the cold water. True to his word, Freddie began roughhousing, and the two soon forgot about the temperature of the water as they frolicked and wrestled.

After a few minutes of exertion, they returned to the shore and stretched out under the warm sun. The grass beneath them was soft and inviting, and in no time they were rolling around, kissing and groping each other. Needless to say, their cocks were hard, which led to more coupling.

Basking the afterglow, Freddie inquired, “So, is it safe to say you won’t mind spending your summer here with me on this dreadfully boring estate?”

“As long as we have frequent interludes such as this, I won’t have time to be bored.”

**

Dinner that night—and in fact every night—was a formal affair, black tie and tuxedoes being de rigueur. The admiral and his two summer guests were joined by two couples, owners of neighboring estates, and also by two young ladies, each the daughter of one of the neighbors.

Upon realizing this, Freddie and Harry exchanged wary expressions. They understood that Sir George not only intended for his estate to pass to his nephew, but also that said nephew would marry and populate it with scions who would continue to hand the property on within the family.

With feigned ignorance of the nature of the friendship between his nephew and Harold, the admiral did his best to parade eligible young ladies through dinners all summer long. And while decorum required young Frederick to conduct himself graciously and in a friendly manner with each debutante, he never demonstrated the slightest intention of taking their acquaintance any further.

Ultimately, his uncle accepted what he suspected from the outset—Freddie showed far more interest in Harold than in any prospective bride.

Sir George accepted that it lay beyond his ability to influence the young man and that the question of succession was properly left to Freddie, who would designate an heir of his own at the appropriate time, so long as it remained within the family.

That being settled, George began to enjoy the frisson of sexuality that accompanied the two young men wherever they were together.

**

One day, as the three of them enjoyed brandy and cigars in the library, Harold withdrew a tiny volume from one of the shelves. Carrying it to his leather wingback chair, he idly opened the cover.

“What’s this?” he wondered aloud. “An inscription.” He looked at Freddie, then at Sir George. “It appears to be from you, Sir.”

“Let me see.” As George took hold of the forgotten volume, a pang of grief nearly overcame him. His hands shook as he opened the book and thumbed through the many short poems.

With a deep sigh, he handed the book back to Harold. “Ah, yes. I gave this book to my godson, Lieutenant Randolph Faber. It was an early Christmas gift, two days before he commanded his submarine in the Gulf of Tunis where she went down with all hands aboard.”

A chill descended on the three men.

“You’ve never mentioned him,” Freddie said, his voice catching.

Sir George sighed, “Well, I don’t dwell on it. It was a sad time. The war took too many fine young officers

and men.”

The retired admiral straightened and fortified himself. “I wanted him to have this book of poems because so many of them were among my favorites. It was such a small thing, but he received it with enthusiasm. The life of a submarine commander offered few opportunities for joy or peace.”

“And the ship was sunk?” Harold spoke with respect for the dead.

“Officially, HMS P48 was reported ‘lost at sea’ because she never returned to the Dockyard at Malta. She was on patrol against enemy troop transports, and they were often accompanied by anti-submarine vessels and aircraft.”

“Their mission was to sink ships full of soldiers?” Freddie sounded appalled.

Looking at his nephew sternly, the admiral lectured, “As I said, we were at war. You are not too young to remember the horrors inflicted upon this country and her people. War means death, and every man on all sides accepts the possibility of sacrificing his life for God and country.”

He sighed, relenting, “We can wish there were never a need for war, but human nature being what it is, aggressions and rivalries often result in conflict. And conflict always takes the lives of good men.”

The two youths sat in silence until Freddie ventured, “And was Randolph one of those? Good men, I mean.”

“Among the very best—a fine officer, a gentleman, a beloved godson who called me “Uncle” George at my request. I miss him dearly.” A single tear appeared at the corner of the admiral’s eye, which he wiped away.

Handing the book back to George, Harold sympathized, “I’m sorry for your loss, Sir.”

Freddie added, “I wish I had known him.”

**

In bed that night, the two lovers found themselves more in need of each other than ever before. The reminder that life is tenuous and can be snuffed out at any moment hit home to them. They made love quietly and with sincerity, each eager to pleasure the other. Their coupling lasted until the wee hours of the morning.

Over the following months, they became inseparable as they worked side by side in the fields, the barns, and the workshops, learning the tools and tasks of the estate. Every night, they shared their bodies with each other, often lost in the moment, aware of nothing but their need to be united.

By summer’s end, Freddie had a change of mind about the estate, which worried him. What if Harry didn’t want to live there and share his life as lord of the manor? How would he be able to live there on his own, without the man he loved?

The matter came up at an odd moment. The two were laboring in the hay mow, shifting bales closer to the loft doors when Freddie stopped and gazed off into the distance.

“What are you looking at?” Harold inquired.

“Oh, nothing in particular. Just the view.”

With a friendly smile, his lover teased, “Taking in all of your someday estate?”

Freddie turned to face him, annoyed. “And what if I am? Is anything wrong with that?”

Startled, Harold defended himself, “Of course not. Only, I am surprised at the change in you over this summer.”

“How so?”

“If you remember, on the train coming here, you told me this would be a tedious duty, and you hoped you’d never have to come back and run this property. You said the last thing you ever wanted was to be trapped out here in the countryside, far from the city life…and far from me.”

“I suppose I have changed, but didn’t the same happen to you? You seem to be enjoying what we are doing together here, and I assumed you liked it enough to at least consider a possible future with me. But perhaps I was mistaken.”

With a deep sigh, Harold looked into his lover’s eyes. “I can’t deny that this has turned out to be great fun. The work is hard, but it’s invigorating. And the time spent with you, in bed and out, has been a delight.” He swallowed. “But it’s not the life for me. I can’t picture myself stuck here for the rest of my life, even if it’s by your side and in your bed. It’s not what I need from life.”

The silence between them became deafening. The two finished their task without another word, walked back to the house, and went into their separate rooms.

After a shower, Freddie knocked on the door to the adjoining room and went in. Harold stood at his window, and Freddie came across to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

“I guess we’ve said all we can.”

Harry turned to face him. “I think you’re right. It’s a damn shame.”

“Better we find out now, than spend years together with you hating every minute of it.”

Harold’s voice quavered with desperation. “Isn’t there some way you might own the estate but hire someone to manage it? We would visit often, so you could handle the accounts and we could enjoy the country life, but make our home in the city most of the time? Many of the landed gentry do that.”

Shaking his head, Freddie explained, “There isn’t enough money to maintain two houses. I’ll have to devote myself to keeping this place afloat—if anything much is left by the time Uncle dies.”

“Why is it so important to keep it in the family? It’s nothing but land and buildings—anyone can own them.”

“And people, too—their livelihoods depend on the estate.” A tear formed in the corner of his eye. “And I have come to love Hartwell, even though I didn’t grow up here or have much connection before this summer. The idea that it will someday be mine has taken root deep inside me.”

Harold pulled him into a kiss. “And hasn’t this taken root deep inside you?”

“Yes. Of course it has.” Freddie stepped back and focused his eyes on the horizon outside. “And I’ll always cherish the time we’ve spent together—”

Dismay filled the other man’s face. “Spent together? Past tense?”

Freddie responded with a long look into Harold’s eyes and a deep kiss. Wordlessly, he returned to his own room, closing the door behind him.

At dinner that night—one that didn’t include guests for a change—Sir George looked around confused.

“And where is Master Harold this evening? He’s never late for dinner.”

Clearing his throat, Frederick announced, “Harry has been called back to the city on family business. He had to leave early, and he sends his regrets.”

George understood at once what had happened, but he also accepted that he must let his nephew deal with the matter on his own. They finished their meal in silence and retired to the library.

Pouring them both a glass of brandy, the admiral offered comforting words. “I can well imagine how this is affecting you. I sensed that you two enjoyed...a deep friendship, one which appeared to extend beyond mere association—”

Startled, Freddie regarded his uncle questioningly, “You mean to say—?”

With a warm smile, George nodded. “Yes, I knew. I have enjoyed the same kind of friendships over the years, and it is always sad when they come to an end. They leave behind an emptiness, a hole in your life if you will. They are hard to forget, and even harder to replace, to move on, to find new love.”

At the word love, Freddie’s eyes clouded. He sniffled and turned away to hide his tears. His uncle stood and came over to stand behind his chair.

Placing a hand on the young man’s shoulder, George spoke softly.

“To love someone is a great thing, not to be taken lightly. Cherish the memories. Remember the good times, the passion, the exchange of affections. And let those memories always be a part of who you are. But accept that memories fade, affections are bestowed upon others, and your loss, your need, will in time be replaced with new hope and joy.”

Freddie’s only response was more sniffling.

The admiral walked over to a shelf along the wall and extracted the book of poems the three of them once examined.

Handing it to his nephew, he explained, “I gave this to Randolph, whom I loved with all my body and soul. He is gone now, and I cling to his memory, but I want you to have this book. It doesn’t matter if you read it or like the poems, but know that it represents a lesson in life I have learned and that I hope will come to you with time.”

Remembering how he felt in Randolph’s empty quarters, he once again opened the little book and read aloud to Frederick:

It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate;

I am the captain of my soul.

 

NUMBER SEVENTEEN ST. GEORGE’S COURT, LONDON EC4

CHAMBERS OF HALIBURTON AND FIFE, BARRISTERS

8 MAY 1975

Alice Burton was in love with Philip Cartwright. Of that, she had no doubt.

But to her dismay, her existence didn’t so much as register on the young apprentice attorney. As private secretary to Lord St. John Fife, Q.C., M.P., Alice was so far above Philip in the pecking order of the chambers that their paths crossed only incidentally in the crowded hallways or clerk’s office.

And yet, every time she passed him, she looked on him with hope, yearning to capture his attention, start up a casual conversation, or perhaps merely exchange greetings.

For his part, Philip was handsome with golden blond hair, green eyes, and an understated physique that said he didn’t exercise and didn’t need to. At six feet, he was four inches taller than Alice, but she considered that an appropriate spacing as she imagined herself dancing with him and resting her head against his strong masculine shoulder.

She had no idea how to attract the budding barrister’s notice, and she was becoming desperate, which is what brought her to the establishment of Madame Flowery, a medium and fortune teller in Ealing.

Exiting from the Tube, she hesitated. Her vicar often expressed a low opinion of clairvoyants and their customers, but Alice was at her wits’ end.

Entering the tiny storefront, she was greeted by a surprisingly young woman. It didn’t require Second Sight for the psychic to grasp that Alice was hesitant to be there and surprised by the youthfulness of the proprietor.

“Expecting someone a bit older, were you, my lady? Perhaps an old hag with crooked teeth and a wart on her nose, straight out of a Disney movie?”

Startled by the directness of the address, Alice stuttered, “N-No. I wasn’t...That is, I suppose I imagined what you do requires years of experience.”

With a kind smile, the fortune teller introduced herself. “I am almost thirty years old. My mother had this shop before me, and she taught me everything she knew from the age of five on up, so I have not only my own considerable experience, having begun here at fifteen, but also another decade and more on my own. Now how may I help you? That is, if you’re still interested.”

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” Alice was flustered. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine. Please forgive my ignorance.”

“Not at all, my dear. Do come through.” The medium guided her into a back room. The lighting was subdued and, in the center, two chairs faced each other across a small table with a flowered cloth over it. Still confused, she looked around.

“Looking for the crystal ball or tea leaves?” Madame Flowery teased.

“Erm, no, I suppose they’re not always necessary.”

“Quite so. My services are direct, one on one, and I have no need of distractions designed to impress you. Do sit down.”

Determined to climb up out of the hole she had dug for herself, Alice did as she was asked, clasped her hands in front of her on the little table, and nervously waited to see what would happen next.

Madame Flowery smiled a little as she studied the young woman for a few minutes. Just as the silence was making the customer uncomfortable, the psychic began speaking softly.

“You are in love.” Alice jerked upright with her eyes wide open.

“You are in love with a handsome young man.” She paused to let that sink in. “He is someone who works where you do, someone with whom you would like to be better acquainted—but he is barely aware you exist.”

“How...how did you know that?” Alice was skeptical but intensely curious.

“Women of your age and station in life come to me for one simple reason—they are frustrated in love and wonder if I can help them. Is that not true of you?”

“Yes, it’s true, but now I am ashamed for bothering you with a problem so common that everyone like me who comes to you repeats the same tired lament.”

“Oh, no, no, no. Each of you is unique, different in thousand ways, special and interesting to me.” She reached across the table and placed one hand on top of Alice’s. “Tell me more about your young man.”

Relaxing a little, Alice experienced a kind of calming influence pervading her body, and she wondered if it came through the medium’s touch.

She began, “His name is Philip, and he is an apprentice barrister. Oh, I should tell you I work in a law office down the lane from The Old Bailey.” Madame Flowery nodded, encouraging Alice to continue.

“He is about my age. A little taller, with—”

“Of course he is handsome.” Madame Flowery interrupted. “That goes without saying. But what is his heart like?”

Alice pondered the question. “I honestly don’t know him very well. We never speak, and I think he doesn’t even see me when we are near each other.”

“No. He is shy.”

“What?”

“He is shy. He notices you, as would any man with eyes in his head. You are young, beautiful, and you have an aura of gentleness and love.”

“I do?”

“Absolutely. So, how have you approached him?”

“Approached him? I guess...I haven’t.”

“I’m not surprised.” She reached her other hand across the table and grasped both of Alice’s. “Here is what I see.”

She peered deeply into Alice’s eyes. “Your heart is leading you in the right direction, and so is his. But you are both too inexperienced to think what to do about it. You cannot wait for him to summon the courage to approach you, so you must find a subtle way to attract his undivided attention, even for a moment.”

Terrified at the thought, Alice demanded, “But how can I do that?”

The psychic shook her head. “I cannot say, but when the time comes, you must seize it. Now, you must simply walk out of here and let your steps take you where they will. Do not plan anything, do not be concerned about where you are going, just proceed until you sense the call of some place.”

“Some place? Where? How will I know?”

Madame Flowery tittered, “So many questions, so little trust. Please, follow my instructions without question. I cannot tell you where or when, but I can assure you that you will have your answer soon.”

Having nothing more to say, the medium withdrew her hands and rose to her feet, indicating that the session was at an end. Following the woman back into the front office, Alice paid her fee and was gently hustled out the door.

“Remember, go where your heart takes you. That’s all you need to do.” With those words, the woman closed the door.

Alice stood on the street for a full five minutes, afraid to take one step in any direction, in case it might be the wrong way to go.

Giving up, she sighed, “Madame Flowery said to walk, so that’s what I’ll do.”

Her steps took her west on Uxbridge Road, to the left on Culmington Road, and left again on Mattock Lane. She found herself beside Walpole Park. Crossing through the gardens she arrived at the roundabout where the B455 split into two one-way roadways.

She took the eastern street, passing a row of shops and cafés, and again turned left into Sandringham Mews. The lane was a dead end, so she paused in front of an older-looking building, wondering why she had ended up there. The sign above the door said “Bookshop.”

Alice wondered at the name. “Odd that it doesn’t have someone’s name on it, or some other personalization—it’s just Bookshop.”

She stood a moment before the door and whispered to herself, “Madame Flowery said I would know when I arrived, and I have a good feeling about this place.” With renewed confidence, she opened the door to the tinkle of the little bell attached to the top of it.

The dimly-lit bookshop, jam-packed and dusty, exuded an odor of antiquity.

Overwhelmed by the ranks upon ranks of books, she said out loud, “I wonder how customers ever find anything in here.”

In response, a voice came from somewhere she couldn’t pinpoint. “And how may I help you today, Miss?”

Startled, Alice jumped back a step. “Erm, I’m not sure. I think I must be in the wrong place.” She moved toward the door.

“Oh, no. I’m quite certain you are in the right place.” A man of perhaps fifty years emerged around the corner of the long shelf beside her. He smiled, and at once she felt a benevolence that put her at ease.

“I...I suppose you may be right.” She smiled back at him, curious about what had brought her to this shop.

“So how it is that I may I help you? Obviously you are looking for a book—or perhaps two?”

Gazing at the amazing collection of books on shelves that stretched to the ceiling, Alice shook her head in resignation.

“I have to confess I have no idea what I’m looking for. I think I had better go.”

The old man moved quickly, which took Alice by surprise. Approaching her, he smiled encouragement. “It’s the same with everyone on their first visit here. I realize the place is a bit...crowded. But I can assure you, if you give it a little time, you will find exactly what you need, even if you can’t say precisely what you are seeking.”

Alice thought to herself, “This is quite disquieting. First, Madame Flowery tells me to walk around aimlessly until I arrive at where I am supposed to be, and now this gentleman says I’ll find what I’m looking for, though I can’t say what it is. I think I had better get out of here as soon as I can.”

She smiled at the old gentleman, “Well, thank you, but I’d better come back another time, when I am more clear about what I need.”

Disappointment clouded his face. “Oh, please don’t go. Not yet. Give the books a chance to speak to you.”

Now she was convinced that this was madness. She inched back toward the door, planning to make her escape and hurry back to the Tube station.

“I realize it sounds absurd,” the old bookseller told her, “but it’s entirely true. The quantity of books here is overwhelming, but there is something here that is meant for you. If you will allow a little time, wander about, enjoy the atmosphere, you will find the right book...or it will find you.”

“This is all so mysterious. How can you be sure it will work?”

“Because it always does, my dear. I trust the books.”

Against her better judgment, Alice relented and did as the old man suggested.

Cautiously at first, she walked between the towering bookshelves, glancing from side to side, not focusing her attention on any book.

She began to feel calmer, almost as though being here quieted her fears. Wasting no time, she dutifully marched up and down every aisle of the bookshop and soon found herself once again at the front door, where the old shopkeeper awaited.

“Well, my dear?”

She didn’t want to disappoint him, but she had felt nothing in particular in her meandering through his shop.

“I’m sure this is a fascinating place, and you do have a lot of interesting books, but—”

“But you think none of them...spoke...to you.”

“Well, yes, I suppose that’s what I’m thinking.”

With an expression between a grimace and a pout, he chided her, “I would say you might have closed your mind to the possibility, perhaps because what I asked you to do is so alien to your sensibilities.”

She was offended and turned, intending to leave without another word, but the bookseller spoke again.

“I almost never offer any guidance. I believe it best to let the customer find what they are seeking without any prompting on my part, but it appears your resistance to that approach is hindering your success. So may I make a small suggestion?”

Reluctantly, she turned back to face him, raising her eyebrows and questioning what he meant for her to do.

Taking her expression as assent, he gestured toward the back of the shop. “If you please, head straight to the end of this aisle and without consideration of any sort, then turn either left or right, as you feel inclined.”

Alice wanted to run away from this crazy place, but her proper British upbringing forbade such rudeness. So she reluctantly did as the mysterious man instructed. At the end of the aisle, she looked left and right and, without knowing why, turned to the latter.

The distant voice directed, “Now go to the end of that aisle, if you please.”

With a shrug and a sigh, the young lady followed instructions. At the end of the aisle, she stared at yet another wall of books, exactly the same as every other one in the shop.

“Now close your eyes for a moment and clear your mind.” This was becoming spooky. “Now open your eyes and reach for the first book you lay your eyes on.”

Almost afraid of what might happen, Alice complied. She closed her eyes, listening intently to make sure the old man wasn’t sneaking up on her. The silence told her she was safe. Opening her eyes, it took a few seconds to focus them. She lifted her arm without purpose and was surprised to find it drawn toward the shelf above her head.

She reached forward and her fingers settled on a small volume. Resigned to completing the pointless task and bid the odd old bookseller farewell, she eased the book away from its neighbors, took it down, and examined it.

The thin volume, bound in leather, appeared quite old. Its brown cover was stamped with a filigree and embossed with letters in gold that said ONE HUNDRED AND ONE FAMOUS POEMS. The book was tall and narrow and less than half an inch thick. A flat brown ribbon extended from between some pages—a built-in bookmark, Alice thought.

A voice behind her made her jump. “So you have found it.” He smiled wisely, “Or perhaps it found you.”

She wheeled to face the old bookseller. “I suppose one might say that, but—”

“But you, a modern woman, do not want to allow the possibility of influences beyond your understanding being able to guide you in the selection of a little book like that.”

Fascinated by her attraction to the book, she opened it to the middle. She smiled at the words printed on the page she had chosen at random.

“Oh, how delightful! I remember this poem from my childhood:

The gingham dog and the calico cat

side by side on the table sat.

“Yes, that one is lovely. Do keep looking.”

Alice leafed through the pages tenderly, aware that the book appeared to be fragile. She turned to the cover page and read, Copyright 1929, The Cable Company, Chicago.

“My, it’s quite old.”

“A real treasure.”

As she continued to examine the tome, she gasped. “There’s a dedication.”

“So there is, my dear.”

Reading in silence, Alice was amazed at the brief epistle to someone named Randolph, signed by someone who called himself “Uncle” George.

“I wonder who these two were.” She mused.

“Alas, we cannot say. It has been too long, and your little book has known many owners before you.”

“How did you come by it?”

“It came to me as part of an estate sale. The owner lived alone and died without issue—a very sad man. The property passed to a distant relative who auctioned it off to pay the death tax.”

He shook his head sadly. “To all appearances, it was once a great farm, but it had been losing money for years when the lord of the manor passed away. I understand it ended up being sold off for housing developments. And it had such a wonderful library. That’s all I could afford to purchase from the collection.”

“And you believe this book chose me?” Her voice revealed a mixture of doubt and hope.

“I fully realize how silly that must sound, but yes, I do believe that books have a way of finding the proper person to own them. How do you feel about it? Is it what you wanted when you came in?”

“I couldn’t tell you what I wanted. I was...well, I’m embarrassed to say, but I was directed—no that’s not the right word—I was persuaded to wander around Ealing until I arrived here, and then to come in.”

“And are you glad you did?”

“I do believe so.”

“How will you enjoy the book?”

Alice pondered the question and realized what had transpired. She had needed some way to summon the courage to converse with Philip, and Madame Flowery and this old gentleman were both part of some undertaking of the universe that brought her to find this little book of poetry as the means to be brave.

“It’s a gift.”

“A gift? How appropriate.”

“Appropriate? Why?”

“Because it started out as a gift—from George to Randolph, both of whom are likely long gone from this life. It seems fitting that it again will be what it once was, and I’m sure that is why you were drawn to it.”

Shaking with the overpowering sense that somehow everything she had done was guided by an unseen hand, Alice paid for the book and hurried to the Tube station.

The next day, she arrived at the office with the little book neatly wrapped in brown paper.

She had told herself, “I mustn’t use fancy paper, or it will look too forward. This way, it’s just a simple gesture of friendship.”

She sat down at her desk and placed the parcel in a corner where it would be noticed, which happened all too quickly. Sarah Beasley, another secretary, passed by and halted. Her eyes fell upon the package and a malevolent smile filled her face.

“Oh, what’s this? Did someone give you a gift?” The sarcasm in Sarah’s voice said she doubted any man would be interested enough in Alice to give her anything.

“Is it from Lord Fife?” Alice’s boss was a kind man, and it was not unlikely that he might give her a token of his gratitude for her years of service to him.

Flustered, Alice stammered, “Yes. Yes, that’s right. That’s what it is.” She instantly hated herself for telling such a lie.

“Well, aren’t you going to open it?” Sarah was far too forward and insistent.

Alice decided she had no choice. She opened the brown paper, careful not to tear it, so she could re-wrap the book once Sarah had left her alone.

Upon seeing the little book again, Alice felt annoyed at what Sarah had forced her to do. She unwillingly showed the woman the cover of the book.

Sarah was dismissive. “Famous poems? How unromantic and impersonal. I’d have held out for flowers or perfume if I were you.”

Indignant, Alice thrust the book into a desk drawer and demanded, “Haven’t you work to do?”

She could speak this way because she was secretary to the Head of Chambers—the third generation in his family to fill that position—while Sarah was merely an assistant to the clerk who served the hodgepodge pool of junior barristers.

Insulted, Sarah huffed away.

Alice made sure the woman had gone away before retrieving the book from her drawer. She picked up the wrapping paper and was about to attempt to return it to its proper state as a gift when another voice spoke from behind her.

“Famous poems? How delightful.” She recognized the beloved voice at once—it belonged to Philip Cartwright.

Blushing, she turned and clasped the book to her chest. “Erm, yes, it’s poetry.” Composing herself, she added, “I discovered it yesterday at a curious old bookshop in Ealing. I haven’t had to time to reach much of it—”

“Well, kudos to you. I didn’t think anyone bothered with poetry these day, and such an old book—it must be full of treasures.” He smiled kindly.

Silently, Alice thanked Madame Flowery, the unnamed bookseller, and the little brown book for bringing the stars together to give her what she had dreamed of for months.

“Would you like to borrow it?” She asked demurely.

“Oh, could I? You wouldn’t mind?”

“Not at all, Philip. I’d love for you to read it. Then we might talk about our favorite ones.”

“Well, with a hundred and one of them, there are bound to be some we both like.”

“I hope so.” She proffered the tiny volume, and Philip accepted it with a gleaming smile.

As he stepped away, he turned to look back at her. Alice thought for the hundredth time how delightful he was to look at. Her own smile spread across her face, shining in her eyes. At last, the two of them were on the right path.

In his sensual, deep masculine voice, Philip told her, “If you’ve no objections, I would love to share this with my...erm, flatmate. He’s a literature buff, and I’m sure he’ll have some insights into all these poets and their works. Thanks again. I’ll return it to you as soon as.”

Something in the way he said flatmate chilled Alice to the core. Her dreams of romance with the handsome co-worker were dashed in that moment.

Struggling to control her emotions, she told him icily, “Oh, why don’t you keep it? I’m not all that interested in poetry. Most of it is totally silly.”

With a confused expression, Philip replied, “Why, thank you, Alice. I’m deeply grateful.”

Her voice was toneless. “Good. I hope you and your...flatmate...enjoy it.”

She turned back to the work on her desk, haunted by a refrain from Tennyson:

’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

That evening, after they made love, Philip Cartwright and Arthur Covington sipped their sherry and balanced the little book on their naked knees. Their flaccid penises were still slightly moist, and they were solicitous not to get a drop on the new little treasure.

“Here’s one of my favorites from Shakespeare,” Arthur said eagerly. “Let me read it to you.”

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon the bank!

Here will we sit, and let the sound of music

Creep in our ears: soft stillness, and the night,

Become the touches of sweet harmony.

“That was lovely,” Philip smiled. “What do you say we have some more of those touches of sweet harmony before we go to sleep upon the bank, as it were?”

“That’s just what I hoped you’d say.” Philip carefully lay the book on the bedside table and rolled over on top of his lover, gently sliding inside him.

 

101 AVINGUDA VICTOR RAHOLA

CADAQUÉS, COSTA BRAVA, CATALONIA

SEPTEMBER 1990

Alberto grunted with pleasure each time Carlos plunged deep inside him. The two had been lovers for twelve years, but the sex always seemed fresh and exciting to Alberto, who was ten years older. He never doubted his lover’s devotion to him, but he often marveled at his good fortune in finding a young man with all the right qualities.

Carlos smiled down as he made love, assuring Alberto of his fidelity and commitment. Although they sometimes changed places, Carlos preferred being on top. He wouldn’t have told Alberto, but it gave him a sense of control, of holding on to what he had, of not needing anyone or anything else.

After an appropriate amount of time, Carlos allowed himself to ejaculate, rolled to his side with his back toward his lover, and closed his eyes. Alberto took care of his own climax and turned to snuggle with the younger man.

Instead of welcoming the contact, Carlos got to his feet and went into the bathroom, leaving Alberto to clean up after the two of them.

It had not always been this way.

For the first several years, their love-making had been fervent, prolonged, and satisfying to both of them. Recently, though, it had become a duty for Carlos, a necessity in order to remain in the good graces of the man who had supported him for almost two decades.

All of this was not lost on Alberto, but he dared not say anything for fear of losing the man he loved with all his heart. He wanted to believe it was nothing more than a mood, or a brief interlude of fatigue with their relationship, that was turning his lover colder and more distant.

He persuaded himself he could rekindle Carlos’ affections by being more available sexually, and he had nearly worn himself out with trying daily, and often more than once a day. The younger man undeniably had a voracious appetite. But who wouldn’t wish for exactly that in a lover?

In some ways, Alberto was also tiring of the relationship, but the prospect of being alone at his age horrified him. Although a wealthy man, he recoiled at the notion that he might have to “buy” love. He only wanted to be needed, appreciated, and ravished from time to time. If Carlos wanted sex more frequently, was it such a bad thing?

Their villa overlooking the Platja del Ros beach on the north shore of the Bay of Cadaqués was roomy and tastefully decorated. Alberto had long ago trained as a landscape architect, and even though he now owned the company, he had not lost his touch with plants and furnishings. Four patios surrounded the building at different levels, and Alberto had created a unique vibe for each of them.

The gay community in Catalonia was friendly and diverse. Alberto and Carlos enjoyed close friendships with men from all walks of life, some of which came with “benefits”. They routinely invited the rich and the not-so-rich to parties and dinners, and their openness and broad-mindedness made them popular throughout their wide group of friends.

The 11th of September was a national holiday for Catalonians, who longed to be independent from Spain proper. In addition to all the formal civic celebrations, Alberto and Carlos hosted a private party for the purpose of asserting their independence from straight society.

Cloistered within the walls of their luxurious villa, the two men created and decorated no fewer than six settings to cater to the vast variety of sexual proclivities among their guests.

A spacious guest bedroom provided room for couples and small groups to play and swap however they liked. The pool was a naturist haven, invisible to all neighboring properties, and the kitchen offered a rare opportunity for local chefs and amateurs to create culinary delights—all while wearing nothing but aprons.

The broad rooftop offered both sunshine and shade where larger groups could cavort, high above prying eyes, and the patio garden presented ample prospects for clandestine encounters with someone else’s lover. Even the wine cellar was available to their guests—as a dark area where anonymous hookups satisfied every kink or fetish.

The two men were known and loved among the gay citizens of Catalonia, and often their entourage included out-of-town visitors from the major cities. All the charitable and cultural organizations they delighted in supporting recognized and appreciated their generosity. During Pride Week, they opened their house to tourists and the curious who wanted to see how the wealthy gay men lived.

In short, these two had everything they could ask for and appeared to be deliriously happy—until a shadow fell over their idyllic life.

It began quite innocently. A package arrived in the mail from Alberto’s American cousin. It contained a worn little book of poems in English. This presented no linguistic challenge since Alberto grew up in the States and Carlos was educated in England.

As they read through the tiny volume, each discovered favorites they shared together over drinks in the evening and sometimes in bed after the nightly love-making. Nothing prepared them for what was to come.

One curiosity of the poetry book was found on the flyleaf—a penciled inscription or dedication from someone named George to someone named Randolph. It identified the book as a Christmas gift given by his “uncle” to the presumably younger man in 1942, in the midst of the Second World War.

“Why is the word uncle in quotation marks?” Alberto wondered aloud, lying naked next to his lover.

“Are you kidding? Don’t be naïve. Remember that the book was published in 1929—the so-called Roaring Twenties, the time when ‘anything goes.’ And notice he says, ‘I hope this little book will become your close and intimate friend.’ That sounds like code for ‘the way you and I are close and intimate friends,’ doesn’t it?”

Alberto chuckled, “Perhaps. Or are you reading your own naughty thoughts into it?”

Carlos snorted, “In that era, when an older man took a younger man as his lover and they went out in public, it became necessary to dignify the arrangement. They could say the young one was a traveling companion, which would only explain things for a while. But if they were related, such as an uncle and a nephew, they could easily live together without questions being asked or rumors being spread.”

“You sound like something of an expert on the subject, my ‘younger lover.’ ” Alberto grinned sheepishly.

Carlos laughed, “Well, as I said, it was the 1920s. The world is much wiser and more tolerant nowadays. No one today questions who we are or why we’re together.”

“Nor should they.” Alberto sat in silence for a moment. “But that still begs the question: who were Randolph and George? What happened to them, and why did this book, which clearly meant a lot to both of them, end up in our hands, nearly fifty years later?”

A bit annoyed, Carlos demanded, “Why does it matter?”

“I guess it’s a mystery I’d like to solve. It’s romantic but also curious. Do you think there’s any way to find out?”

“Well, if you’re serious, I’m sure we can explore some way to try to trace the book back to the two of them.”

“Oh, I’m serious, querido. Dead serious.”

“Fine. We will start with your cousin who sent you the book. They are eight hours behind us in New Mexico, so let’s call him right now.” He picked up the phone and handed it to his lover.

Alberto’s great-grandparents emigrated from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to Santa Fe, New Mexico in the late 1800s. They arrived with almost nothing and opened a small restaurant. By the time Alberto was born, the family owned restaurants in ten cities across the southwestern United States and had become quite wealthy.

After the standard greetings and catching up, Alberto thanked his cousin again for the little book and asked where it came from. The cousin, Héctor, said he had to ask his wife, who explained that she purchased it for five dollars at their daughter’s school book fair because she thought Alberto would like it.

She didn’t have any more information about the book, but she did remember who sold it to her and promised to ask about its provenance. A couple of days later, she called to give them the name of a dealer in old and rare books in Albuquerque. The books had been in a bundle donated to the school for the sale.

When Alberto called the dealer, they said they acquired the books in a consignment from a company in San Francisco.

As Alberto was about to continue the quest by calling the company in California, Carlos stopped him, annoyed at how much of their time was being consumed by all the telephoning and chasing down booksellers.

“Listen, if it really matters that much to you, I have a friend in London who is in the books business. He has people on his staff who trace the lineage of old books, primarily for wealthy aristocrats who need to sell off their libraries to pay the bills for keeping those drafty old castles heated. Let me give him a call. Perhaps he can help us.”

One week later, they drove to Girona-Costa Brava airport to pick up Malcolm Benedictus, a young researcher with a graduate degree in bibliography—the study of books. Both men expected a typical nerdy guy, complete with a pocket protector, horn-rimmed glasses, and pants belted too high above his waistline.

Instead, Malcolm was in his early thirties, tall, handsome in an Indiana Jones way, and a brilliant conversationalist. On the three-hour drive to their villa, he drew them into stimulating and amusing discussions of current world affairs, gourmet kitchen utensils, and the love lives of certain notorious movie stars. By the time they arrived in Cadaqués, the three men were already friends.

That night, after the love-making, Carlos lay in bed smoking—something he was only permitted to do indoors after sex. He turned to Alberto and smiled. “Our Malcolm is quite a surprise, isn’t he?”

His lover agreed, “I think we got lucky with this one.”

Carlos winked at him. “Yes, in more ways than one.”

“What do you mean?” Alberto wondered.

“Oh, don’t tell me you can’t see he’s gay?”

“Really? No, I didn’t pick up on that. Are you sure?”

“Well, it was a guess at first, a feeling—”

“But?”

“But after dinner when we were smoking out on the patio, he asked me if we ever do a threesome.”

“No kidding! What did you tell him?”

“I said it was up to you.”

“Do you want to?”

“Would it be a problem? We’ve done it with other men—threesomes, foursomes, even more-somes.”

“Not necessarily a problem—it’s just that he’s a stranger to us. I mean, what if he’s...you know.”

“HIV-positive?”

“Yes, or any of a number of other nasty things we don’t want to deal with.”

“Well, we can ask him to visit our doctor, and if he gets a clean bill of health, would you want to?”

The look in his lover’s eyes strongly suggested ambivalence. Carlos pouted. “OK. Why not?”

“I can’t put my finger on any one thing, but he’s too—”

“Too what?”

“Too over the top, too good to be true, too much for us to handle.”

“Maybe too much for you to handle, but I think I’d do quite well. I can already picture myself ramming him until he begs for mercy.”

Alberto laughed. “You’d better not, you sadist. We need his expertise if we’re going to track down the history of my book.”

“Fine. I’ll wait until he’s finished. It will be like giving him a bonus—a reward for his good work.”

**

Over the next six weeks, Malcolm labored on his computer searching university libraries and websites of booksellers. Alberto began to refer to the researcher as “the book detective.” He worried that their expert was spending too much time buried in his research, so he highjacked the young man from time to time in order to show him some of the sights in the area.

The Catalonian region called the “Rough Coast” boasted many beautiful resort cities. Cadaqués was one of the smaller and most overlooked of them. One of the attractions of the town was its role as the boyhood holiday home of the surrealist painter, Salvador Dalí.

Alberto took Malcolm to visit the two museums in the city dedicated to Dalí’s art and life, but the Englishman showed no interest in that genre of painting.

Malcolm appeared to enjoy his occasional escapes from the drudgery of tracing the history of the little book, but Alberto sensed that the young man actually preferred sitting on the patio with Carlos, smoking and drinking.

He was glad his lover and the book detective had become friends, and he made sure they had time together without him, as a demonstration of his trust in both of them.

**

One afternoon, Alberto returned from a visit with friends a bit earlier than expected. Their friend Erich had fallen ill, and Alberto left him to nurse his churning stomach in peace.

Entering the villa, Alberto headed to the bar and poured himself a drink. He stepped out onto the patio on the first floor and walked over to the railing.

Below him, an angry sea crashed into jagged rocks, sending columns of foaming water high into the air. A distant rumble of thunder drew his eyes to dark clouds on the horizon, announcing that a bad storm was approaching and driving violent waters ahead of it.

He went inside to search for Malcolm. The study where the researcher usually worked stood unoccupied, so Alberto went up to the young man’s bedroom on the second floor.

He knocked on the door but received no response. Assuming the bibliographer had stepped out, he climbed the stairs to the master suite he shared with Carlos.

As he reached the top of the steps, Malcolm came out of the room.

Alberto regarded him curiously. “Oh, there you are. I was afraid you’d gone out. A storm is coming.”

Flustered, Malcolm nodded and thanked him for the warning, then hurried past and down the stairs. As the young researcher passed him, Alberto detected the scent of Carlos’ cologne.

Entering their room, Alberto found Carlos standing on the balcony smoking. Coming up behind his lover, he kissed him on the back of the neck and wrapped his arms around him. The aroma of his cologne was the same as he had smelled on Malcolm.

Alberto said softly, “I’m happy Malcolm is here.”

“You are?”

“Of course. He is making excellent progress with my book, but I imagine his job can be lonely at times.”

“Yes, I suppose it can.”

“And he seems so relaxed and...comfortable when he’s around you. I’m pleased you two have become close friends.”

Suspicious, Carlos turned toward him and asked, “Friends? What do you mean?”

“I’ve noticed you spend a fair amount of time together. I trust you are using that time well.”

Carlos realized Alberto had figured out what he and Malcolm had been doing behind closed doors. “Do you have a problem with that?”

Alberto’s voice became strident. “I wouldn’t...if you were still nailing me to the bed once or twice a day. You are spending less of that kind of time with me.”

Carlos became defensive. “As I recall, you agreed he might join us after Doctor Mendoza gave him a green light. Have you lost interest in the idea?”

“Not at all, but I haven’t seen him joining us. Instead, he spends a good deal of time alone with you.”

“Hardly. The poor man is chained to his fucking computer all day, researching your damn book. I wouldn’t be surprised if he needed some relief from the grind.”

“And you are providing such relief?”

“We are not going to discuss that. We agreed we have a more or less open relationship.”

“True, but it has become a lot ‘more’ than ‘less’ since Malcolm arrived.”

Carlos frowned but said nothing.

Alberto sensed he should drop the subject before the conversation turned into a fight. Regardless of how angry and hurt he felt, knowing that his lover had a new paramour, he couldn’t risk alienating Carlos into doing something drastic like leaving. Malcolm would go away when the research was complete, and Alberto would have his man back exclusively again.

“Were you two talking about my book just now?”

Carlos examined his lover carefully. After a pause, he replied, “Yes, he had some questions about your family in New Mexico, but I answered all of them.”

With a forced smile, Alberto gave him a little kiss on the cheek. “I can always trust you to know me better than I know myself.”

**

The next day, Malcolm updated Alberto on the latest outcomes of his research. Despite his best efforts, he had found no way to trace back all the way to the book’s publication date in 1929. They agreed it was less important to do that and settled on beginning with 1942, the year of the inscription on the flyleaf.

A few days later, Malcolm announced that his work had gone “as far as we can go.” He had confirmed several moments in the history of the book, but there were gaps he couldn’t fill in.

“It’s likely the book sat on a shelf in someone’s library unnoticed for many years during its history, which would explain why it disappears for ten or fifteen years at a time.”

“I know it’s not a valuable book, but it’s so interesting, if you take the time to appreciate it.”

Malcolm’s interest in the book was purely academic—a challenge to his skills as a “book detective,” as Alberto called him. He didn’t care about its contents.

He reminded Alberto, “You do realize it’s not even a unique book. There have been several printings and bindings, and copies are for sale in any number of catalogs around the English-speaking world, especially in the States.”

“Yes, I understand, but the inscription intrigues me. I wanted to identify those two men and learn how the book came to me from them. So what can you tell me?”

Malcolm smiled, happy to reveal the results of his research. “The ‘Uncle’ George on the flyleaf was Vice Admiral Sir George Hampton-Collier of Hartwell House in Devonshire, England. That’s in the southwest, about twenty miles from the English Channel. He was the legal guardian of his godson, Lieutenant Randolph Faber because the boy’s parents died. Both men served in the Royal Navy during World War Two.”

“So he wasn’t a real uncle, but rather a godfather to the younger man.”

“Precisely. Sadly, Faber—your Randolph—lost his life two days after receiving your book as a gift. He commanded a submarine that was sunk by Italian ships in the Gulf of Tunis, off the coast of North Africa, on Christmas Day 1942.”

“How terrible. He didn’t have long to enjoy the book.”

“No, not at all. But his godfather retrieved the book and took it to his estate, where he added it to the extensive family library.”

“So it disappeared into a mass of bigger and more famous books.”

“So it did. And it remained there for the next forty years or so. When Sir George died without issue in 1955, his blood nephew, Frederick Hampton-Collier, inherited the estate, and the book sat on the shelves until Freddie found himself forced to sell off the property to pay taxes and because it had become unprofitable.”

“So the book went somewhere else.”

“It becomes a foggy area. Yes, records indicate that almost the entire library was sold as a single lot to a dealer, who most likely siphoned off the valuable items and dumped the rest on a commodities dealer. At that point, you’re lucky it wasn’t turned into scrap paper.”

“Heaven forbid!”

“The next time we can definitely place it—only because of the hand-written dedication—is ten years later. In 1965 a bookshop in Ealing sold it to a young lady by the name of Alice Burton.”

He smiled knowingly, “She didn’t own it for long, perhaps as little as a day, because it became the property of Philip Cartwright, a barrister in a stolid old law firm in London. Philip and his lover, Viscount Henry Stanley, amassed quite a respectable book collection over the years, but for some reason this little volume enjoyed pride of place in it. They often showed it to their friends and held poetry readings using it.”

“What happened after that?”

“There’s yet another gap. Upon retirement, Philip and Henry relocated to San Francisco, California, where they lived as prominent members of the gay community. Five years ago, they both died in a car crash, and their joint estate was auctioned off.”

He made a disapproving face, “Whoever valued the estate didn’t regard the book as anything special, so it went for a few dollars to a chain bookstore in Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

Alberto smiled in triumph. “From which it was donated to a school’s book auction, and my cousin’s wife bought it and sent it to me!”

“Precisely.”

“Well, Malcolm, you certainly did your job well. I’m most grateful.”

“I hope I have done my best and answered your questions adequately.”

“You have indeed. As I said, the cryptic inscription struck me. It speaks of affection between two men, one older and the other younger, and the false designation of “uncle” hints at a forbidden relationship, don’t you think?”

“I would say so, but of course, we found no proof of a relationship other than guardian and ward.”

Throughout the entire recitation of the book’s provenance, Carlos sat smoking in silence across from the two men. He was in a bad mood, perhaps because the delivery of the results meant Malcolm’s task was at an end and his new lover would be leaving.

Without warning, he barked, “I don’t see why all this effort and money was wasted on the history of a silly book of poems. What good is it?”

Shocked at the outburst, Alberto asked, “Are you talking about the book itself, or the poems?”

“What possible use is a bunch of fucking poems? What the hell do you get out of them?”

Alberto went over and sat next to his lover. “Carlos, a poem is nothing more than words on a page. You don’t ‘get’ anything out of them. Or rather, you get out what you put in. A poem is a vehicle for thinking—a channel for our minds, our hearts, our thoughts, our emotions.”

“That sounds ridiculously useless. What do you put into a poem?”

“Your hopes, your fears, your dreams, your memories. Poems stimulate us to reflect, to create, to analyze—ourselves and the world around us. They are an abstract form of unspeakable beauty.”

“How are they beautiful? They are just fucking ink on paper.”

Looking across to the other side of the patio, he pointed at Alberto’s flower garden. “What good is that? What purpose does it serve? That bougainvillea you have so lavishly cared for—why? What’s its purpose? It doesn’t produce fruit you can eat, it doesn’t smell good, it has thorns. And anyway, what good is beauty? What does it do for us? It’s just a waste of time and space.”

“Carlos, you’re looking at this all the wrong way. Beauty doesn’t have to ‘do’ anything, it simply exists.” He picked up the little book and opened it to a page near the front. “Here, let me read you this. It’s a line from a poem by the American, Emerson:

Beauty is its own excuse for being.

“Beauty is whatever we make it, Carlos. It’s only beautiful if we see the beauty in it. We have to do all the work. You’re right—the ink on the paper can’t heal the world, it can’t cure cancer, it can’t make us rich, and it can’t make us happy. It can only offer us the opportunity to learn, to live, to see what we are so often blind to.”

“It still sounds like a load of bullshit. What a waste of time.” He turned his head away, sulking.

They were all in the rooftop lounge, four stories above the sidewalk in front of the house and sixty feet higher than the rocky beach at the rear. The lush greenery, planted and cared for by Alberto, hid the entire space from sight, save by airplane or helicopter.

Stubbing out his cigarette, Carlos rose and walked over to the planter at the edge of the patio.

“Alberto, there’s something I meant to show you. Something’s wrong with this bougainvillea you planted over here.”

“Really? I hope not. The damned thing is my pride and joy.” He jumped to his feet and followed Carlos to the decorative planter at the side of the balcony.

Carlos guided him to the planter and place a hand on his back. “It’s just here—”

When Alberto leaned in to examine the shrub, Carlos roughly shoved him, knocking him past the plant and over the side of the balcony. Seconds later, his body crashed into the rocks below.

Malcolm stood and calmly walked over to Carlos. He peeked down at the gentle waves washing over Alberto’s body as if they were trying to soothe the battered corpse. He smiled and turned to Carlos,

“That’s it then, lover.”

“No, there’s one more goddamned thing.” Carlos crossed to the barbecue grill, lit the gas, and reached into his pocket.

“We’ve got to be rid of this fucking piece of shit,” he said as he dropped the book of poems into the flames.

“Wait!” Malcolm dashed to the grill and retrieved the book before any damage was done. “I spent six months tracking the history of this little piece of shit. If you don’t want it, I’ll keep it as a souvenir.

 

POSTSCRIPT

The Spanish police did not accept that Alberto’s death was an accident. Carlos was convicted of murder and sent to prison.

Malcolm Cartwright was charged as an accomplice, but, in exchange for his testimony against Carlos, he received a suspended sentence. He returned to England, where he pursued his career as a “book detective.” Upon his death, his personal library, including the book of poems, was sold to a dealer in Ealing. Coincidentally, it was the same man who had once sold the book to Alice Burton.

The aged man retired soon after that. His son took over the bookshop and began selling off its contents on Amazon.com.

Copyright © 2023 Secret Author; All Rights Reserved.
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I was given a copy of this book (not the one I now own) as a teenager, and I loved it. I read from it almost every day, but somewhere between college and jobs, I lost it. I rediscovered it by accident browsing Amazon, and eagerly replaced my lost copy. When I opened it and saw the inscription, a mixture of sadness and creativity struck simultaneously. There had to be a story behind the note from George to Randolph, and my imagination supplied the one you have read. I hope you enjoyed it!
Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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What an intriguing and well put-together story! With it being so much longer than the others, I was in two minds whether to read it, but I’m glad I did.

The book passing through history and many people’s lives like a bottle bobbing in the sea - a great way to tell a story spanning many decades. I learned a lot about submarines (and other long hard naval things) in the first section, while the second section was sort of like a gay Downton Abbey. A great change to have a female protagonist in part three. Part four (particularly the abrupt and violent ending) was probably my least favourite section but at least it wrapped things up.

Respect to the author for conjuring up four distinct, well-realised time periods and settings in one short story. Plenty of effort went into this.

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On 7/11/2023 at 1:08 PM, raven1 said:

An amazing journey of that small book of classic poems.  I enjoyed each of the very different stories it tied together.  Each was unique and unusual.  The only other connection the stories had was the loss of love.  Sad and tragic events that were sometimes bewildering.  Very well written and conceived plot.

As ever, raven 1, you put down what. I was thinking but in a more elegant way.   I loved this story which connects with my past and future! Like two of the characters I went to Magdalen College, Oxford many moons ago and in two weeks I I will be in a hotel on the cliffs of Cadaqués.  If there are no posts from me after 15 August it will mean I’ve been tossed over!

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3 hours ago, Gary L said:

As ever, raven 1, you put down what. I was thinking but in a more elegant way.   I loved this story which connects with my past and future! Like two of the characters I went to Magdalen College, Oxford many moons ago and in two weeks I I will be in a hotel on the cliffs of Cadaqués.  If there are no posts from me after 15 August it will mean I’ve been tossed over!

You've survive the GA cliffs in many stories.  I sincerely hope the cliffs of Cadaqués won't throw you off.  

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I'm truly grateful for all the comments and reviews (and do keep them coming!). I especially appreciate the response to my research. I spent a large part of my career writing and editing training materials for industries as varied as natural gas pipelines and hybrid cars, so I always enjoy digging for details. It surprised me how much information I could find about HMS P48 - it was a real submarine and ended in the way I described. I even learned about her officers and crew, as well as the ships that sank her. And I am blushing a bit because my allusions to dramas like Downton Abbey and of course to Harry Potter were found out. I hope they added to your enjoyment. Thanks again to everyone who read and commented, especially the Secret Author readers.

Here's the launching of the real HMS P48:

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