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'The Fishboys of Vernazza' was first published in John Sam Jones' second short story collection Fishboys of Vernazza in 2003 and was short-listed for Wales Book of the Year. A whimsical tale of two Welsh men contemplating their relationship, set against the beautiful Italian coast. Read in full below.
Kiss and Tell bring together over 20 years of short stories from the award-winning writer John Sam Jones including 'The Fishboys of Vernazza' and stories from Stonewall Honour Book Welsh Boys Too.
“This slim, stylish collection is sheer joy.” Peter Burton, Gay Times
The Fishboys of Vernazza by John Sam Jones
Giacomo’s knowing smiles and attempts to engage them in broken English don’t entice them to dawdle in the Bar Gioia, not even with all the fidgety-fingered cradling of his crotch, as is the way of so many Italian boys. They know that the hike from Monterosso to Vernazza will take at least a couple of hours so they can’t indulge in Giaco’s flirting or linger over their sticky pastries and cappuccinos. If they miss the train they’ll have to wait another hour and that will certainly mean they’ll be cutting it fine. Shôn smiles his cheekiest smile and asks Giaco if he’ll be behind the bar later…. And so it’s agreed that they’ll come back and drink sciacchetrà with him after they’ve eaten dinner.
From the gloomy station building that smells rancidly pissy, the passengers that alight the train spill onto the narrow, sun- soaked promenade. Geraint and Shôn stroll beneath the neatly trimmed oleanders, the leaf cover just thick enough to diffuse the sun’s warmth and allow them to feel the autumn’s chill. Every now and then, Shôn darts from the purple shadows and leans out over the balustrade to ogle the few dedicated sun worshippers that lie in skimpy trunks on Monterosso’s sandy beach. Geraint would like to do the same, but it isn’t in his nature to be quite so open about his attraction to other men. Knowing this, Shôn describes the delights that he sees (or just imagines) in clipped, crude morsels:
“Nice ass on that one…. Oh God, there’s one over there who’s got pecs to die for…. And this one here’s got such a packet.” Geraint feigns disdain at the teasing and wonders if Shôn has plans to cop off with some handsome Italian. Then, for a few minutes, he considers his place in Shôn’s life, despite promising himself that he wouldn’t allow such introspection to spoil their time together.
He doesn’t like to think of himself as Shôn’s fuck-buddy, though that’s how Shôn describes their relationship whenever Geraint tries to pin him down. He considers it such a vulgar term, and so American… and it hardly reflects the reality of their nights together when mostly they just cuddle. He’s Shôn’s teddy bear really, but Shôn’s image of himself is far too butch to allow for such a passive interpretation of their liaisons. Geraint doesn’t know how much longer he’ll let him continue to shape this part of his life. Monogamy and a joint mortgage on a three-bedroomed semi, preferably with a garden, is what he hankers for… a quiet and secure marriage. But they retain their separate lives, their separate flats, their separate circles of friends, and come together only once or twice a week, and for holidays, because that’s what Shôn wants. So Geraint takes what he can get; after all, Shôn is a lot of fun to be with… he’s gentle, kind and generous (which tempers the bitchy streak), and when a teddy bear to cuddle is the last thing on his mind, their sex is pretty accomplished. Shôn is the only man Geraint has ever loved. And in four years Shôn has never so much as whispered to Geraint that he loves him.
“What about him?” Shôn quizzes, pulling Geraint back from the edge of pensiveness.
“You’re like a dog on heat,” Geraint jibes.
The track ascends quickly through the terraced vineyards, taking them along uneven pathways that crown the dry stonewalls and up crude, steep steps that connect the terraces. The vines have been recently stripped and most have been pruned back ready for the winter, their few remaining leaves blotchy with red and gold. The grapes, the albarola, vermentino and the bosco wither and wizen in some shady spot, a vital step in the process of turning them into sciacchetrà. The trail takes them past isolated huts that defy the precipitous gradients with stubborn sturdiness. Around these now forsaken vinedresser’s shelters, clumps of prickly pear rear up like tethered, menacing beasts, to deter the inquisitive rambler from exploring. Where the terraces have been abandoned and recolonised by native heathers and squat pines, the maquis has reclaimed the derelict refuges.
Above the vineyards, a sea of white-crested turquoise a thousand feet below them, the path, though obvious enough, is rough. Gouged into the face of the mountain, the original course is obstructed time and again by boulders from rock falls. Where landslides have gashed the sea cliff’s contours, haphazard cairns mark an imprecise direction across the rock fields.
“You’d think they’d have put a sign up about the condition of the path,” Geraint carps.
“There was one,” Shôn says dismissively, “but you’ve got to have a bit of adventure in your life. Besides, the Australians I was talking to last night when you were reading your book said they’d walked it, and once we’ve crossed the ridge we get back onto the terraces.”
Where the vines begin again, the descent becomes vertiginous. Geraint stops every few minutes to curse his new varifocals and their tendency to blur the irregular steps unless he looks directly down at his feet. Pausing on a bluff, he takes in the view: Vernazza, hanging on its rocky spit around an almost circular harbour, looks like a child’s model village, the pink and lemon and ochre of the tall, narrow, green shuttered houses adding to the toy-like quality. Shôn bounds on ahead and after ten minutes or more, Geraint finds him slouched against a rocky outcrop.
“What do you make of this, then?” Shôn asks, pointing at a carving in the rock face.
“Mermaids,” Geraint quips with delight. “That’s what I thought, but…” “Right… they’re boys!”
“Exactly… three cute mermen. I wonder what it’s all about?”
“Probably some local legend,” Geraint shrugs. “The artist was no amateur.”
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
They come into Vernazza by a lane behind the octagonal domed church, where washing hangs from clotheslines and spider plants hang low from balconies of potted scarlet cyclamen. They find the small terrace of the Ristorante Belforte at the top of the uneven steps at the end of the harbour wall, just like the fetching older couple they’d befriended on the train from Genoa had described: four tables, decked with pink linen cloths and napkins, polished silver cutlery and crystal glasses that glint in the glorious October sun. Shôn, his scientist’s eye trained to observe the merest detail, gestures to Geraint that they should sit, as there’s no evidence that the splashes from the waves can reach them. Despite Sol’s benevolence since their arrival in the Cinque Terre, Neptune and his sirens have been irritable, the sea choppy… squally even; rough enough for the ferryboats that connect the five villages to have abandoned their erratic schedules and for the smaller fishing boats to have remained at anchor. Waiting for il cameriere - the waiter - whom the old queens on the train had said, with the campest affectation, was molto delizioso, they watch the translucent, azure waves rupture into cascades of glistening diamonds as they fold heavily onto the rocks not ten metres below them.
Between glances at the menu, Shôn takes in his surroundings. Over Geraint’s shoulder he has a view of the harbour. The fishing boats, brightly painted in red and blue, are pitched by the swell, their short masts tracing the fingerprint whorls on the harbour cliffs where some ancient sea god’s hands once moulded the strata. Wherever the rocks give way to vegetation, agaves cling like stranded starfish. Higher up, between prickly pears and heather, an errant bougainvillea bleeds its loveliness from a deep gash. And he thinks of Geraint, and whether he should commit himself.
With a lyrical ciao, the fingers of his left hand indolently sinuous at his crotch, molto delizioso interrupts Shôn’s reverie.
Shôn studies the boy’s felinity as he approaches their table. There’s a grace in his movements that pleases the eye and suggests he might be a dancer. His arms, the muscles defined beneath a smooth chestnut shell skin, are strong; the sort that take your breath when they embrace you. The features of his face are more Abyssinian than Siamese, and framed by thick black hair, sleek and worn unfashionably long. His smile, in so proud a face, seems slightly mocking but there’s a seductive stealthiness in the charcoal of his eyes that quickens Shôn’s pulse. In a fleeting thought, Shôn concludes that Geraint, alongside one so dangerously desirable, is too safe… too dependable, and altogether too tame.
Between them they have enough Italian to recognise that there’s a choice of local fish on the menu, but they enjoy the boy’s attention and pretend to be stupid Brits abroad, coaxing him to translate pulpo, totani and acciughe. They ask for octopus and squid with potatoes alla genovese and freshly-caught anchovies with lemon. As he writes the order on his pad, Geraint notices the silver ring on the waiter’s index finger.
“I’ve never seen anyone wearing a ring there before,” Geraint says after molto delizioso goes back into the restaurant, rubbing the index finger of his right hand between the two end joints.
“It’s called the middle phalanx,” Shôn says, a bit like a lecturer in an anatomy class.
“Well… whatever… it’s still a strange place for a ring.” “What’s even more strange is the pattern and the figure
engraved on it,” Shôn scoffs.
“I didn’t notice,” Geraint submits.
The boy returns, places a rustic loaf of bread and a jug of wine on the table, and disappears again through the curtain of corded beads that keeps the flies out.
“It’s a merman,” Geraint offers, surprised.
As he clears their table, and just after he’s asked if they want an espresso, Shôn asks him about the carving on the rock above the village.
“You mean the… fishboys?” he hesitates. “You call them fishboys in Inglese?”
“It’s a good enough name,” Geraint quips. “You been to the grotta del Diavolo?” “The devil’s cavern? No.”
“Sometimes, when the sea is tempestoso, the fishboys come into the village through the grotto, and take away… how you say?” The charcoal embers in his eyes glow. “They take away the bad boys.”
They laugh at his fishy tale and Shôn, catching his eye, teases, “And just how bad does a boy have to be to be charmed away by the fishboys?”
“Bad enough that… lui è desiderabile,” he says with an inscrutable smile and carries the plates away.
“He’s quite a story teller,” Geraint says as the curtain of beads clacks. “Bad enough that you’re desirable indeed!”
“He is pretty desirable,” Shôn quips.
“Yes… and did you see how he hid the ring on his index finger in his hand when you asked about the carving?”
“I wonder,” Shôn muses. “When he leaned over to pick up the plates his hair fell forward. He’s got a strange mark behind his ear, all feathery and reddish-purple… just like a fish’s gill.”
They eat ice-creams on the piazza that fronts the harbour and then cross into the purple shade and take a narrow street made even narrower by stranded fishing boats, hauled from the sea for repair or a coat of paint. Geraint gawps at the large, ugly fish being laid on the marble slabs outside the pescheria by the fishmonger, fresh from his siesta. Shôn gawps at the fishmonger’s apprentice, a tall, awkward youth with a cheeky smile. As the boy stands before the open refrigerated display counter arranging rose-coloured fish with golden streaks around a hand-written sign that reads Triglia, Shôn thinks that in a year or two, when he’s filled out a bit, he won’t be unattractive. The boy’s hands are bloodstained and scaly and a silver ring glints on the middle phalanx of his right index finger… and when he turns, Shôn makes out the curious purple mark behind his ear. So the boy’s potential has already been realised. Further up the street the cobbles are drenched in an arc of sunlight. Enjoying the warmth of the sun they peer into the grotta del Diavolo. Shôn wonders if the fishmonger’s apprentice and the waiter put up much resistance when the fishboys of Vernazza lured them into the devil’s cavern.
After a long shower, Shôn sneaks into bed beside Geraint, rousing him from his nap. They cuddle for a while and watch the sun set in a haemorrhaging sky and then they make love, their crazed delight inspired by their holiday mood, the gorgeous waiter and his fable. As their sex gives way to slumber, Shôn supposes that life with Geraint might be worth a try. Watching the last smears of blood fade into the gunmetal sky, Geraint decides it’s time to get off the emotional roller coaster of the half-life he half shares with Shôn.
Later, at the Bar Gioia, Giacomo pours three stout goblets of sciacchetrà. The silver ring on the middle phalanx of his right index finger catches the light as he tilts the bottle. They raise their glasses, and swirling the richly amber, slightly viscous wine, they toast: “Salute!” Geraint’s senses fill with curiosity and cocoa, apricot and Mediterranean herbs. Shôn is aroused by his lusty thoughts for Giaco.
“Is a very good one, no?” Giacomo enquires, his round, cheery face filled with pride. “Is the one my mother makes… much better than the one you buy in the tourist shop.”
“It is very good,” Geraint ventures, his gaze drawn and held in the questioning blue-green of Giacomo’s eyes.
“You want to buy sciacchetrà you come see me before you go back England,” Giaco says when he’s peered too long into Geraint’s confusion.
“We will,” Shôn says stressing the we, jealous that Giaco seems more interested in Geraint.
Giacomo returns to their end of the bar after serving a giggly teenage couple.
“Can you tell us anything about the carving in the rock above Vernazza?” Geraint asks.
“We couldn’t find anything about it in the guide-book,” Shôn says, competing for attention.
“I don’t know,” Giaco says with a shrug. “I never walked on this path.”
“It has three fishboys, like the one on your ring,” Shôn accuses.
Giacomo holds up his finger and looks, almost seriously, at the silver band.
“Is a very cheap ring from a shop in Spezia,” he says, smiling. “Is very fashionable to have a ring here,” he adds, rubbing the middle phalanx with his thumb.
For a while, they watch Giaco’s every move as he serves more customers further along the bar. A larger than life, blonder than blonde girl sweeps into the Bar Gioia with smiles and ciaos for everyone. Shôn observes her carefully and deduces that she’s the local transvestite. She rests her ample breasts on the bar and reaches over to kiss Giaco, ruffling his sandy curls with her crimson nailed fingers. Her skirt rises as she stretches. Geraint and Shôn are distracted by her black lace panties, which are too skimpy to hide her fishy tail.This story and more are all available in Kiss and Tell, including previously unseen work and an introduction from David Llewellyn. Get your copy here or from your local bookshop.