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Short Stories - A Story


Voltaire

This week I’ve been reading Voltaire. So grand it sounds, to be reading his work. And not only Voltaire, but Balzac and Zola, Torkington and Twain. That’s what a collection of short stories offers. One story every lunchtime.

I don’t usually read short stories, nor work by these writers, but that’s the serendipity of life on a boat. Now they are my lunchtime companions, one at a time.

This particular collection deserves an essay of its own. Having been conceived in the mind of a publishing executive somewhere, in London or the Home Counties, it’s now on my boat in southern Sicily, and when I examine the volume I toy with the idea that it must have had an interesting life.

One might surmise an engaging history – a series of tales - if one looked at the face of a handsome middle aged woman with lines radiating from the corners of her eyes and lips, lines recording her undoubted catalogue of lovers and admirers. So with the book. Two inches or so in thickness, a paperback production with a well-exercised spine and, probably, a shorter life expectancy than its hardback sibling might anticipate. The beauty is not immediately obvious, as the cover design is not engaging.

Enjoying the beauty requires a long affair comprising a series of snatched lunchtime trysts, building admiration and memories, until it ends suddenly. The recollections, however, will be pleasurable and will not contain recrimination or pain as might have an affair with a woman of beauty who sees her next lover appearing round the next corner of her life and leaves her man of the moment for pleasures anew.

Publication

Conceived in London under the guidance of an undisclosed editor, with an introduction by Geraldine ________, this copy was born on Guernsey in 1996. The Guernsey Press acted as midwife and despatched the copy off to its first temporary home, before it met its first parents. I didn’t meet the anthology on that island jewel of the English Channel, even though I lived there for a short while some years ago.

In fact I don’t know where I acquired it, but certainly it was this year, and as far as I can deduce it was in Greece – perhaps Paxos or Cephalonia, maybe even Ithaca or Levkas.

Now I think about it, not far from the bones (would there be any remaining) of Lord Byron? Or it might have been here in Sicily - it was certainly an island and somewhere where we engaged in a book-swap; that intermittent activity that cruising folk enjoy. That activity is now in rapid decline, with space on boats at a premium and the advent of the e-reader well under way, but that’s another essay.

The meeting was not immediate. The compendium stole aboard secretly, hidden amongst a set of other books – fiction mostly, with its own set of surprises and new-to-discover (for me) authors such as David Baldacci. It lay undisturbed, secreted in that collection of regular fiction. The first meeting finally took place last week, when I had finished working my way through the novels. Hmm. Not my thing, short stories. Nevertheless I was committed.

That first brief lunchtime kiss engaged me – I think it was accompanied by salami Milanese. That was not a good choice - garlic for a first date? The trysts are – usually - restricted to the lunch hour, but the affair continues unabated. A week already! Have we known each other that long? It cannot be! And, as one does in any affair, in any interlude of love, one develops knowledge of the subject of one’s affections and examines more closely the crows feet and laughter lines, knowledge built up from a series of open examinations made in brief snatches across the lunch table.

I know it will end. The kisses may become uninteresting, I may lose that frisson that one experiences before the next meeting. End it will, but still I am drawn to my lunchtime thrill, each one bringing something different. Such variety! Occasionally, we meet over dinner, but only occasionally, as by the evening I am usually too tired to give mon amour the attention deserving of such an exquisite treasure.

Don't Get Excited!

Hey - it’s only a book! Don’t get carried away, the feelings will pass. Fine, I acknowledge that. A book it is, set, unfortunately, in what is at most, nine point type - as with all affairs, one has to work at it. But what a book! A distillation of so much experience, so many eyes, thoughts, cultures and historical settings, it is there with me, during lunch. Such a flexible spine!
 
So, how did it arrive at my table on a boat in Sicily? I have described the migration from acquisition to acquaintanceship and deeper affection, but what about the laughter lines? They tell the tale of travel, perhaps. Inside the front cover, written hastily in pencil, I see “$5”, so I can assume that it has in all probability travelled on an American boat for some of its life, or at least lived on one. Some literary stowaways have tattoos - ink or embossed stamps - showing that they have been on the 'SV Marie Celeste' or other sailing vessel, but not this one.

Despite being only fifteen years old the cheap paper has acquired a weathered colouring. Weathered but not faded, strengthened towards a sepia tone, with freckling; and there are water stains too – probably from having resided temporarily under a dripping hatch, or leaking deck. Which waves, which seas brought the book here? The tired spine tells me that others too have enjoyed this volume, or parts of it anyway, and that it has been manipulated by their hands. How long were their encounters? Were those encounters at an anchorage, or whilst on passage at sea? Perhaps both, and probably there were some enjoyed with a glass of wine as the sun set, as is the wont of we cruising folk. Or perhaps some encounters were like mine, at the lunch table.

Of course, the volume may have experienced an occasional air flight too. That I cannot know, only guess at – just as I can only guess at the number of harbours and anchorages the book might have visited, and wonder. Romantically, I prefer to think that it arrived at the table via the Straits of Gibraltar, and not via Luton Airport.

These days, ‘books’ – hardly the word - are travelling through cable, fibre optics and via radio signals, to terminate on an e-reader. I’m not sure I would enjoy the company of an e-reader every day at lunch. In fact, I’m not even sure that the words – even of this anthology of short stories – would have the same magic at my lunch table when viewed through an LCD screen.