Monday, June 21, 2010

Tributary Excerpt by Erastes

In the novella Tributary by Erastes, part of the Last Gasp collection, it's 1936 and a generation of disaffected youth waits in the space between a war that destroyed many of their friends and family, and a war they know is bound to come. Guy Mason wanders through Italy, bored and restless for reasons he can't even name, and stops at the Hotel Vista, high in the mountains of Lombardy. There, he meets scientist James Calloway and his secretary, Louis Chambers, and it's there that the meandering stream of Guy's life changes course forever.

Tributary (Last Gasp collection)
Noble Romance (May 23, 2010)


Sir. Sir!

The shell lit the sky with red and white, hit the dugout behind them. His legs were trapped in the debris and mud, and the orderly was calling to him. The machine gun rattled over their heads, its rat-a-tat slow, like auditory treacle. That wasn't right. That wasn't right . . . .*

He awoke to find that someone was knocking and he was tangled in his sheet.


"Wait a moment, please," he said. Shaking his head to rid himself of the dream, he disentangled himself from the sheets, pulled his dressing-gown from the chair, and opened the door. He was greeted by a bellhop he’d not seen before. With a brief nod, he slid past Guy into the room, laid Guy’s evening clothes on the bed, and left without a word or even the customary pause for a tip. Guy's head was still a little too full of mud and explosions to care much, but he called out before the bellhop disappeared around the corner. "What time is dinner, boy?"

"Eight o' clock, sir." The young man had nothing of the gamin charm of Georges, being rather spotty and far too thin to do justice to the frugal cut of the uniform. "They'll ring the gong fifteen minutes before, though."

Without bothering to acknowledge the information, Guy went back inside, gained the bathroom and leaned against the sink, staring at his reflection in the fan-shaped mirror. The dreams were lies. He dreamed things that had never happened—or at least, never happened to him. No doubt a quack would say they indicated some sort of buried guilt or other clap-trap. Guilt for spending the war safe and dry in England while everyone he knew died, or came back so changed they were different men. But while it was acceptable to have psychiatric treatment during the war—what would they think now? And what else would they find out about him, if he went down that route?

So bloody long ago. The world had moved on.

*So why can't you?*

After a quick wash and brush up, getting his hair under Brylcreemed control, and a change into his dinner clothes, he felt better. He enjoyed a cigarette on the balcony, and he was ready to leave when he heard the gong sounding from down below.

He took the stairs at his leisure, allowing himself time to scout out the much-changed scene below. Middle-aged ladies stood in small groups, and he caught the eye of one and was forced to nod in polite acknowledgement before he moved on. He could hear the whisper of curiosity, like a shallow seaside wave dragging the sand of gossip in its wake. John stood at the end of the reception counter.

"The bar is through here, sir," he said.

There weren't many people in the bar; most guests, it seemed, preferred to wait until the dining room opened, but there were about four or five residents dotted around. The barman asked him what he wanted, and Guy ordered a scotch and water. He was just savouring the first hit of it on the tongue when Signora Sabbioneta entered and made straight for him. He'd not even had time to look around. I hope the wretched woman isn't going to be a nuisance, he thought. She wore a wedding ring, but it was quite possible she was a hopeful widow. And damn it, he thought, I like it here.

"Mr. Mason," she said. "I'm glad I caught you before you went in for dinner. Please, allow me to introduce you to some of our guests." She caught hold of his arm and he had no choice but to follow her along the small bar to a gentleman standing on his own. "Captain Mayhew? I'd like to introduce Mr. Mason. Captain Mayhew comes here for a few weeks every summer." She drifted away to speak to the needlework lady Guy had noticed earlier.

Guy nodded and shook hands. Mayhew was about forty, and slim in that way some officers are, never seeming to fill his uniform or civvies, slightly hunched, still wearing his war-time moustache like peace-time camouflage. He was the type who never stopped calling himself Captain, although it was likely he'd not earned that title for ten years or more. The look in Mayhew’s eyes though, Guy had seen time and time again—the one so many men had, and would never lose. The one Guy never saw in his own shaving glass.

"Good to meet you, Mason. Going to stay long?"

He'd mastered his stammer, Guy noticed. Nothing remained of it but the smallest of gaps here and there. Not many people would spot it, unless they'd made a career of cataloguing men like him, safe behind the shelter of a desk in Whitehall.

"Not entirely sure, to be honest. Just driving around."

"Not exactly the best time to be drifting about. Italy, I mean."

Guy gave him a sharp look. "Perhaps not. One place is much like another. Especially in these times. May I get you a drink?"

"Thank you, no. I should get in for dinner, but it was nice to meet you. Perhaps later."

He stood aside as the captain walked by, and without a pause or a comment the signora reappeared to whisk him on to another set of guests: a mother and daughter from Barnstaple, treating themselves to a year abroad. After that it was one of the ladies he'd seen sitting alone on the veranda, two old gentlemen who didn't look like they could make it into the dining room without bath chairs, and one or two others.

Guy had forgotten most of their names by the end and was grateful when the signora released him into the dining room, with the threat of more introductions after dinner. At least he was alone during the meal, alone at a small corner table where he could survey the room at his own leisure. True to her word, and as if by magic, the signora reappeared after the dessert had been cleared away and whisked him into the residents' lounge. It was a large, comfortable room, set off to one side between the veranda and the dining room and accessible from both. It was filled with comfortable chairs, a couple of chesterfields, and a few card tables under a small arch at the back. To Guy's relief, the mother and daughter he'd met earlier made a beeline for them as they entered, claiming the signora's attention.

"Ah, Signorina," said the mother.

For the life of him, Guy couldn't remember her name. The daughter flinched at her mother's faux pas.

"The tap in our room is still dripping most terribly, and the balcony door won't lock, we've just discovered," the woman continued. "I can't possibly sleep in a room where anyone could walk in; I have my daughter's well-being to think of."

Guy exchanged a sympathetic look with the daughter, and ended up smiling at her. Judging by her pinched and repressed expression, she wouldn't actually mind a night time adventure.

"Mrs Darnley," the signora said, transferring her immediate attention so smoothly, Guy couldn't help but be impressed. "I can't apologise enough. Sadly, our maintenance man comes in from Rasa de Varese in the morning, so there's nothing of a permanent nature we can do for you this evening." She took the arm of the older woman and led her away, the daughter trailing in their wake. "However, if you like . . . ."

Left alone again, Guy spotted Mayhew by the phonograph and went over to him. "Do you mind if I join you?" he asked, surprising himself. He'd not been this sociable in years, but it looked as though keeping himself to himself in the Hotel Vista was going to be rather an impossibility.

"Not at all," Mayhew answered, putting down the magazine he was reading.

“Please, don't let me disturb you," Guy said. A waiter approached and asked if Guy wanted coffee and liqueur. "Just coffee, no milk."

"You should try the local stuff," Mayhew said, indicating a small, spiral glass on the table, filled with a deep amber liquid. "Deceptively aggressive."

With a grateful smile, Guy acquiesced. "One of those, then," he ordered, "Whatever it—"

He broke off as a vision came through the door from the reception, and only his self-control, honed with years of practice, stopped him from catching his breath. Beauty personified, a Roman god brought to life. The man was not in the first flush of youth—probably ten years younger than Guy himself, but his hair made him look a little less. Blue-raven-black, and set in boyish loose curls, it reflected none of the artificial yellow light. And yet his face, serious and searching, as it scanned the room, had been what had truly attracted Guy’s attention. A little long, but with high cheekbones that gave distinct shadows to his cheeks. He glanced around the room, as if looking for someone.

*Make it me*, thought Guy hopelessly. *Make it me*. Not since Arthur had his heart leapt so at the first sight of a stranger.
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