Farewell from the Bookshelf!

Please note that GLBT Bookshelf -- the community wiki which was the parent to this fiction blog -- went offline on May 31, 2016, after seven years' service to members.

All Gay Romance will remain online till the end of 2016 in order to give contributors every opportunity to recover materials uploaded here.

Many thanks to all who contributed over the years, and good luck to everyone in your future works!


Blessed Isle - love on the high seas - by Alex Beecroft

This is the first chapter of my novella "Blessed Isle", published in the "Hidden Conflict" anthology by Cheyenne Publishing (in print) and Bristlecone Pine Press (in ebook).

This novella was chosen by Dear Author reviewer Sarah Frantz as one of her pick of best romance books 2009

1790 British Age of Sail

Blessed Isle is the long-lost diary of Captain Harry Thompson, recently discovered in a dusty safe deposit box and faithfully reproduced in Hidden Conflict. Thompson wrote his diary entries at night and in the morning, his lover and former lieutenant, Garnet Littleton, would add his thoughts and commentary. Thus, Blessed Isle is a dialog between the two men, telling the story of the ill-fated voyage of the HMS Banshee, its mutiny, their escape, and ultimately, how they overcame all odds to build a life together in Rio de Janeiro.

Chapter One

I look on the man sprawled face down among tangled bedclothes. The night air is sticky, airless, almost as hot as the day. I'm sat here at the desk, sleepless from the heat, as I will be until dawn brings a breeze from the sea, the scent of tar and ships, and a faint cool. I'll sleep then. For now, I'll light a candle, take out this journal and write. And look at him.

Gauze curtains hang around the bed, milky, ghostly, veiling him. He's kicked off everything but the tail end of a sheet and has hidden his face in the crook of his arm. His back is pale as milk and, in the candlelight, a sheen of sweat gilds his muscles with dim gold. He is a tall man, lithe and slender, and his black hair gleams like jet, curling into the nape of his neck, where a final lock kicks up like a drake's tail.

I lean down to rest a hand gently on his bare shoulder, and he shifts without waking towards the touch. I wonder then, how did I come here? What strange movement of the heavens or gamble of Providence marked me out to be so blessed?

I edge the sash a quarter inch further open, letting in lush, choking air and a multitude of Saint Sebastian's insect life. The pages of my journal lie limp and damp, and the ink sinks thirstily into them. Only a week ago, I examined a ship trading ice out of Greenland, crawled about the hold and parted the woven mats of straw to touch its weeping sides and feel its burning chill with my fingertips. It was the first and last time I have been cold in almost a decade.

Yet there might be some relief from this pressing humidity in the tiny boat-house beneath our tiny house. The thought of taking candle and journal and sneaking down there to write in the cool, is attractive. But it would mean leaving him alone, and I begrudge every moment spent out of his presence. We have been forced to give up so much for this, our state of near married bliss. Best appreciate it now, lest tomorrow the hangman snatch it away.

Oak apple gall and vinegar smell drifts sharp from the ink. I sand the page again and smooth it as I wonder why I want to leave this record. Why not leave our story untold? It is dangerous to speak, let alone to commit the words to paper. My need to confess may be the death of us both. But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that this love should go unrecorded; that posterity should judge men like myself – like him – by the poor fools driven out to grope strangers in alleys, all fumbling fingers and anonymous grunting. Those of us uncaught must perforce be silent. But one day, perhaps, when the world has grown kinder, this journal will be read by less jaundiced eyes. To them I will be able to say there was fidelity here, and love, and long-suffering sacrifice, and joy. To them I will be able to speak the truth.

I trim my pen and dip it. From the waterfront, the docks and warehouses all about us, comes the clap of rope against mast, and laughter; the riot of sailors trying to forget. In the town beyond, the notes of a cavaquinho fall like silver raindrops into the night. But, floating over all, from the hills of the interior comes a rumbling throb of drums as the slaves and the natives too remember their stories, keep their truths alive.

I should introduce myself. I am Captain Harry Thompson of His Majesty's Royal Navy. I began my life as a Norfolk wherryman's son. Pressed aboard the Sovereign under Captain Garvey at the age of fourteen, I took to the navy as a bird, falling from its nest, takes to flight. It was my element and my delight. I filled my hours with work and study. Alone in my hammock at night, I imagined myself a great admiral, pacing the deck of a First Rate, his own flotilla following in strictly measured line behind him. By diligent study of those better born than myself, I polished my manners and my mode of speech, so that I could pass as a gentleman, and thus, in the year 1784 I was made lieutenant. The most junior lieutenant of the Barfleur under Sir Samuel Hood.

A man, like myself, with no family connexions, may serve his whole life as a lieutenant, but I was determined that should not be my fate. If I required either a miracle or an act of heroism to secure me a captain's rank, I would produce one. Looking back, I see my hubris plain, but at the time it seemed inevitable that my mere intent should oblige the world to satisfy it. So when, some years later, a French cannon ball shattered the railing of the Barfleur, bursting into thrumming, foot-long splinters of sharpened oak that sprayed the quarterdeck like spears, I was ready. I stepped in front of the Admiral and received through my shoulder the dart that would otherwise have pierced his throat.

I remember the blur of the sky, hazy, hot and deep, deep blue, all the masts bowing in towards me as if falling atop my face. I felt a crushing sensation as though they had indeed pinned me beneath them, and my mouth filled with blood. I am pleased to say, I could not have cried out even if I had tried. I fell silently into oblivion. And then I awoke in my hammock with a vast pain, and an Admiral in my debt.

Which may be taken as sufficient explanation for why, at thirty four years of age, with a new wig atop my freshly shaved head, and a servant going on before me to carry my baggage, I took possession of my first, and last, command.

HMS Banshee, a sloop of war, swung about her anchor rope in Plymouth that day under gentle English May-day sunshine, and looked as though she had sailed straight out of my boyish dreams. Her paint shone bright azure and gold, and her company, drawn up for my inspection, stood neat and biddable, the officers glittering, the men like a country garden in bright check shirts and ribbons.

I found, later the same day, that she was elderly, had been much knocked about in the Bay of Biscay, and was a leaky, wet ship. Always three feet of water in the well, no matter how we pumped. Always mildew on the food and in our clothes, and her finely dressed men wheezed and coughed as they worked.

My servant unpacked my things and did his best to make the cabin homelike, wiping the black bloom of mould from all the surfaces, installing my few belongings in this sumptuous, almost indecent expanse of private space.

That week I was too full of work to see either officers or men as more than brief, bipedal shadows cast into the cave of my preoccupation. I had a convoy to organize. News had reached London that Captain Arthur Philip had successfully brought his fleet to Rio de Janeiro and, after reprovisioning there, had departed for Australia, his small payload of convicts largely intact. The birth of a new colony was underway, and I was directed to follow with a second fleet, comprising the convict transport vessels Drake, Quicksilver and Cornwall, the supply ship Ardent, and the Banshee as escort and protector. All this I was to organise myself, and to achieve before the month was out.

In my zeal, I drove myself to achieve it all within the week. I wonder now, looking back, whether – had I taken longer, been more scrupulous – I might even then have seen the seeds of the great calamity to come. A bruise here, a livid cheek there, among the men and women huddled behind iron bars in the holds of the transport ships. Doctors assure me the malady could not have lain low so long, but I cannot help but wonder…

Yet hindsight makes Cassandras of us all, encouraging us to cry out 'you should have listened', when it is far too late. Perhaps the doctors are right, and my fault came later. It is my fault, just the same.

The weighed anchor rose with a pop and a spout of bubbles from the decaying detritus that lay on Plymouth sea-bed. The day was fair, crisp and golden as white wine and the breeze fresh. A Thursday, it was washing day aboard the Banshee, and we departed to our fate with the ensign flying, our fleet following, white sails bravely spread, and our rigging fluttering with shirts, small clothes and stockings hung out to dry.

Now, I thought, taking a turn at the wheel to see how she handled – she wallowed like a swimming cow – I have the time to get to know my ship, my men.

The spray flew up like silver lace about the yellow haired, screaming woman of Banshee's figurehead. The wind strengthened and the ropes of her rigging creaked with accustomed strain. By afternoon we were out of sight of land. Our little community of ships sailed alone on the deep blue waves of the Atlantic, under a sunset as juicy orange-pink as a peach.

A great burden fell away from me then, and I sighed as the wind nudged my back and whipped the ends of my ribbon against my cheek, the land and its scurry behind me, a long, long voyage before. A journey to the ends of the earth and back. Now there is time to do more than merely work. Time to live.

The washing came down from the rigging. The watches changed, last dog watch into First watch. The ship's bell sounded out once, soft and silver over the sigh of waves, and in echo came the sweet ring of the bells on Drake and Ardent, and a moment later the distant ting of Quicksilver and Cornwall further behind. Night fell with the lazy downward drift and the sheen of a falling magpie feather.

After eating my solitary dinner, I set my wig on its stand, took off my uniform coat and substituted an old grey short-jacket, disreputable and comfortable. I intended my officers to know at a glance that this was an informal visit. The officer on watch, Lieutenant Bailey, I believe, attempted to hide his lit pipe behind his back as he snatched off his hat with the other hand. I gave him a nod and walked past, pretending not to have noticed, while he pretended not to give my departing back a half salute of gratitude.

I have been down many a companionway – one hand for the ship and one for myself, leaning back to place my weight more firmly on the treads. I don't believe I was aware this was the last time I would do so in possession of my own soul. Not even when I paused outside the closed door of the wardroom at the sound of a voice singing, a voice as smooth and rich as a flagon of whipped chocolate, did I imagine that my life as I had known it was about to come to an end.

A wardroom servant, coming out burdened with dishes, held open the door for me, supposing me too grand to work the latch myself. I ducked beneath the lintel and froze there as if the air had turned to amber. I breathed in scented resin and eternity.

Scattered pewter plates reflected the light from the series of lanterns swinging gently from the beams overhead. The hull curved in about the room like cradling palms. Down the long sweep of table, glasses glittered with pinpricks of silver, the wine within them burning red. He stood behind his empty seat at the head of the table, singing. Braced, his long fingers curled over the back of the chair, the fall of his frock coat devastatingly elegant, he stood like the Archangel Gabriel before Mary. And his beauty was such that had he looked at me and said, like an angel, "do not be afraid", I would have been obliged to him for the needful reassurance.

Words cannot do him justice. What word is 'black' to describe hair as glossy as obsidian, as soft and thick as fur? He wore it uncovered, unpowdered, in the new, French fashion. It lay straight over his brow, though damp had begun to curl and feather the very ends. His top lip was the shape of a Mongolian recurve bow, only a shade or two pinker than his strikingly pale skin. A stubborn jaw outlined in shadow and a long straight nose. Black lashes and strong black brows. A masculine face, and yet exquisite; clear and glorious as a sword thrust through the heart. I gasped at the shock and ecstasy of it, and without faltering in his song – to this day I don't remember what it was he was singing; 'You gentlemen of England', perhaps – he turned to look at me.

His eyes were dark brown, like his voice - like chocolate. Their gaze at first conveyed frankness, thoughtfulness, though with an element of wariness admixed. I saw them widen as he comprehended the interest in my gaze. His song faltered. He licked his lips to moisten them, and a wave of heat and blood rose stinging and tingling to rush gloriously from the soles of my feet to my head. My heart beat twice in silence, the world falling away from our tangled glances, the two of us alone in the pupil of God's eye.

And then normality returned with a chorus of clinks as the slouching officers set down their spoons and cups, leapt to attention, mobbed me with welcomes and glasses of wine.

I couldn't remember his name! We must have been introduced a week ago. One of those dutiful faces beneath cocked hats must have been his. But, distracted by duty, I had been deaf and blind. Impossible though it seemed now, I simply had not noticed.

"Lieutenant Garnet Littleton, sir," he said, and gave me a wry, sensitive smile that made me choke on my claret. Dear God, so much for time! The voyage had only just begun and already I was doomed.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Alex, great to see you posting here!

    I butted in ... did the labels for you and added your credit -- you hadn't actually added credit or labels to the post. Also, I reformatted the top of the post to make it look "right" ... there's a ton of word processor code hiding transparently behind the text here, which is why it went a bit "weird" when you pasted it over...! Easy to fix. (Drop me an email if you want to know about this.)

    Wondeful excerpt!


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