Sunday Snippet – Blessed Isle
Excerpt from Blessed Isle by Alex Beecroft
1790 British Age of Sail
For Captain Harry Thompson, the command of the prison transport ship HMS Banshee is his opportunity to prove his worth, working-class origins be damned. But his criminal attraction to his upper-crust First Lieutenant, Garnet Littleton, threatens to overturn all he’s ever worked for.
Lust quickly proves to be the least of his problems, however. The deadly combination of typhus, rioting convicts, and a monstrous storm destroys his prospects . . . and shipwrecks him and Garnet on their own private island. After months of solitary paradise, the journey back to civilization—surviving mutineers, exposure, and desertion—is the ultimate test of their feelings for each other.
These two very different men each record their story for an unfathomable future in which the tale of their love—a love punishable by death in their own time—can finally be told. Today, dear reader, it is at last safe for you to hear it all.
It is too late now to cut a long story short, but I will endeavour not to protract it for very much longer. On Edwards’ fifth turn about the deck the powder monkey returned, bringing with him, up the companionway, a rusty-aproned surgeon, and, leaning on his arm, a man I knew. Ned Compton, coxswain’s mate in the Yarmouth, now holding in his bursten belly with a cut down pair of lady’s stays. “Oh, aye, I know Mr. Thompson, sir. Lieutenant in the Yarmouth, he was. Did hear he’d made captain of the Banshee. Congratulations to you, sir.”
“Thank you, Ned. It’s good to see you again.”
He chuckled. “Aye, main glad you must be right now.”
Things became a little more comfortable after that. They let us out. We were given hammocks to sling in the wardroom, and a change of clothes from the slop chest. Either by way of apology, or as a scheme to investigate us further, Edwards invited us to one of the most painful dinner parties I have ever attended, scrutinising my table manners, peppering us with suggestions of what we should have done to prevent the disaster to our fleet. “Also, I wonder,” he said, “what you found to occupy yourselves with, all that time alone on so blasted an isle.”
We made him some noncommittal answer but the thought lodged in my mind. As we plunged back into human society, played cards in the wardroom, stood watches for fellows who were grateful to take a few hours extra rest, the thought of what I had lost began to grow on me like a canker.
I became acutely aware of the space that separated me from Garnet. My hours of solitude, or in the company of other men, seemed grey and barren. Yet my hours with him were a torment of constant awareness and yearning. Without him in the hammock beside me, hot and restless and fidgeting in his dreams like a big dog, I could not sleep. My heart seemed to beat in a cavern within my chest, its tiny flickering unable to fill the dark. A constant squirm of anguish lodged there, like a worm in the flesh.
We breakfasted together and sat next to one another at the wardroom, and yet it felt to me as though he was dead and I was not being allowed to mourn.
Pandora worked her way slowly through the islands of this little known part of the world. The mutineers sweltered in their cage by day and shivered through the exposed nights. I found myself drawn to them, and would spend much of my free time standing by the ship’s rail as near to the cage as I could come. I knew I deserved to share their fate, and in sharing their penance I felt a little calmer.
On our last night aboard as free men, Garnet joined me by the rail. The fitful wind veered into the east. About the bow the water broke into twin curves of luminescence, and the wake stretched out behind us in a sheet of pale green light. A moon like hammered gold hung above us. Other than ourselves, only a midshipman occupied the quarterdeck, and he drowsed by the capstan. From the forecastle came a mutter of voices speaking low and tense. I had noticed a deal of whispering aboard Pandora. She was not a happy ship.
Garnet turned his head to listen, and the faint gilded light flowed across his face. Something in the line of his throat, the shadow beneath jaw and cheekbone, and the little inwards tuck his mouth made at its ends, stopped me dead. Pure beauty, almost too glorious to endure.
He looked at me, puzzled, as my mouth opened and my hands began to tremble. Such dark eyes, intimate as a man’s own fantasies. “Sir?” he asked, briefly uncertain. And then he understood. His mouth curved up, and his face lit with delight. He tugged me forward by the cuff. I swear to you I felt his touch on the material of my sleeve as though it were on my yard. I was mad—I freely admit it—mad with loss and need and regret. I think perhaps I wanted to be caught. I had tasted freedom and knew I could no longer live without it.
We made it no further than down the quarterdeck stair before he pulled me into the shadow of the great cabin, where between the ship’s boats and the arch of deck above lay a patch of shadow so dense we could not see each other, let alone be visible to others.
I hope those ladies who read this will forgive me for the comparison, but, ever had to piss? Ever had to hold it in so long it passed through pain to making you think you were going to die of internal strangulation if you did not let go? Ever have one of those dreams where you cannot find the privy, no matter how you search? You’ll sympathize with my state then. I wasn’t thinking, I’d got so used to having him when I wanted, I just couldn’t hold on any longer.
Dear God the bliss! We were all mouths and teeth and heat, and his hand’s in my hair and the other hand’s down my trousers and he’s going “I never thought… oh Harry… I never thought I’d play this game with you.” And then the doors open and the captain comes out and everything shatters into smithereens like a plate dropped on a stone floor.
Disgrace. Edwards paced up and down behind his desk, hands linked behind his back, lips pursed as though he had bitten into a lemon. Marines behind us, and our wrists tied with rope, and the cabin seemed to pulse ruby red with the force of everyone’s disgust.
I’d been afraid of it all my life, and here it was—exposure, ridicule, abomination, like being flayed and laid skinless on a nest of ants.
“My God,” Edwards turned and glared at us. “In front of my very cabin. Do you have no control at all? No self respect?”
There’s a kind of joy on Garnet’s face, and seeing it shifts everything inside my head. By gradual stages, like sailing out of a fog, the obstruction cleared, my confusion lightened, my shame thinned and lifted: I understood. Garnet needed no refuge, no hidden isle moated all around by impassable sea. Inside himself, where no one else could touch him, he had learned how to be free. How not to be ashamed. “We thought you might like to watch, sir,” he said.
Edwards’ disapproval flickered for a moment. Something intense went through it, fast as lightning. It looked to me a lot like panic. The effort of compressing his mouth back into scalpel thinness made him dab at his forehead with his handkerchief. Reaching for his logbook, he opened it, took out the sheaf of ill written notes that marked the latest page.
“I am,” he rustled through them, brought a sheet out and pressed it to his lips, “a little behind with my paperwork. I have not yet written up my log of the past fortnight.” Setting his elbows on the table, he steepled his hands, as if praying. “There is nothing in here to suggest we ever picked up two castaways from Ducie island.”
I could all but hear the creak of strain as he winched his mouth up at the ends into the straight line of a satisfied smile. “Until I have recorded that fact, you are legally missing, presumed dead.” He crumpled the sheet on which, I guess, his record of our rescue lay scrawled, looked at me with the triumph of a man dismissing inconvenient tedium. Then he threw the only evidence of our existence out of the stern windows, where it bobbed for a while like a duckling in our wake, before sinking.
“If I never record it, there is no legal proof that you were ever here. This frees me of the necessity to bring you back to England for trial. For your guilt, I have the evidence of my own eyes.” Over my shoulder he exchanged a glance with the sergeant of marines. “There can be only one appropriate punishment. You will be hanged from the yard arm until you are dead, and your bodies disposed of in the sea.”