The story below was the one that was supposed to be published under T, but the month got away from me and I was not able to get most of what I wanted to do done.
After all, it was the A to Z as well as NaNoWriMo for April, and the notion I could write 26 short stories and complete a 50,000 word novel at the same time…
What was I thinking?
Anyway, I had the bones of the story written, I just needed time to finish it. So, here it is, as will for the next few days, stories for U, V, W, X, Y and Z.
The email I received said:
“Go to Newark airport, go to the United booking desk and give them your name. Take proof of identity. Pack for five days, light.”
It was going to be, supposedly, a magical mystery tour. I read in a travel magazine, that a company offered five day inclusive trips to anywhere. You do not get the destination, just what to take. Then, just be prepared for anything.
I paid the money and waited, until last evening when the email came.
I was ready.
When I presented my credentials as requested, I found myself going to Venice, Italy, a place I had never been before.
When I looked it up, it said it took about 10 hours to get there with one stop in between. Enough time to read up on the many places to go and see, though according to the instructions, everything had been arranged in advance.
I could also take the time to brush up my schoolboy Italian.
When I got off the plane at Marco Polo airport, in Venice, it was mid-morning, but an hour or so was lost going through immigration and customs. A water taxi was waiting to take me to a hotel where I would receive further instructions. I was hoping it would on or overlooking the Grand Canal.
At the airport I wondered if there was going to be anyone else on this trip, or whether I would be doing it alone. I’d read sometimes likeminded people were put together for a shared experience.
We had to agree and then fill out an extensive profile so they could appropriately match people. Sometimes, people joined at different times along the way, you just never knew what was going to happen.
That random unpredictability was just what I needed having just gone through a breakup after a long period of peacefulness and stability, and frankly, I would not have chosen this type of tour if I had not.
It was a pleasant half hour or so winding our way through the canals, having paid the driver extra to take long route. I’d not been in Venice before, but I had read about it, and while some of the negative comments were true, it didn’t diminish the place in my eyes.
And the hotel, on its own island overlooking the main canal was stylish and elegant, and my room exactly where I’d hoped it would be. I think I spent the next hour just looking out at the city, and the boats going by, like a freeway or turnpike, a never-ending stream of traffic.
A knock on the door interrupted what might have been described as a reverie, by one of the concierge staff delivering an envelope with my name on it.
Perhaps more instructions.
“Tomorrow will be a free day in Venice. See attached suggested itinerary for ideas on what to do. Then, the following day you will be travelling from Venice to Florence by train departing Santa Maria Novella at 10:20 am.”
I looked at the list of suggested places to visit and a day would not be enough, but I could always come back. I’d always assumed this trip would give me some idea of what was on offer, and that if it was great, I could always come back.
A second reading of the instructions picked up something I’d almost missed. A dining party in the hotel where others like myself, with similar arrangements to mine might attend. It was underlined that it was not mandatory to attend, only if you wanted to.
The only provisor was that you do not talk about where you were going, only about yourselves, an opportunity to meet others and not dine alone. It was an interesting idea. All we had to do was give our name and the time of the booking.
I would think about it.
I arrived at the entrance to the restaurant at five minutes to eight, after a long deliberation on the merits of whether I wanted to see the other travellers.
At first, I thought what the point would be if you couldn’t talk about where you were going, but, after more thought, I wondered what it was that motivated those people who had also opted for a leap into the unknown.
These were not adventure holidays as such, just someone else planning the itinerary so you didn’t have to.
I gave the maitre’d my name and he escorted me to a table set for ten, of which four people were already seated. Were they expecting ten? Would anyone not turn up?
We exchanged greetings and I sat. Two men, two women, sitting together. My first thought, two couples, but I would not make any assumptions.
One of the women spoke first, “My name is Marina Delosa. I assume you are another intrepid traveller?”
“Ben Davis. I’m not so sure about the intrepid part, just lazy, I think, because I’m not very good at arranging my own travel.”
“I think you might say that applies to all of us,” she said.
The others introduced themselves as Angela and Harry Benson, and David Wilson.
“We were quite pleased they chose to start our tour in Italy. I have always wanted to visit Venice, so the travel Gods must be smiling on us,” Harry said.
“I must say I was surprised. I guess it’s one of the benefits of this type of travel, not knowing where you’re going to end up. I think my secret wish was to come here, too, or at least Italy. I think I have a relative or two that came from here.”
“That might be said for all of us,” Marina said. “One part Italian, one part Irish, and not quite sure what the other parts are.”
Another intrepid adventurer arrived at the table, another woman. She was older than the rest of us, but I would not think by more than ten years. She had the same look of trepidation I had felt before coming. And, at a guess, recently divorced, or separated.
“Anne Lebroski,” she said, leaving a seat between her and I. It was an interesting move. I had deliberately not tried to distance myself.
Only six of a possible ten arrived, and it turned out to be a very good evening. Whilst all of us had that battle within not to talk about where we were going, it seemed to force the issue of talking more about where we had been previously, and what we did with our lives.
And as quickly as it had begun it was over and everyone kept the conversation going until the elevator dropped us off, each to a different floor, as if we were deliberately being kept apart. Of course, it was simply my overactive imagination conjuring up different scenarios, perhaps in an effort to make a simple holiday seem more exciting
Suddenly, once back in my room, a great tiredness came over me and I barely made it into bed. Would we all run into each other the next morning over breakfast? It was a thought that kept me awake for all of a few minutes before slipping into an uneasy sleep.
When I woke up, I was confused and disorientated.
In those initial few seconds, and through the blurry eyes of just having woken, what I saw was unfamiliar.
I was definitely not in my room at home.
It took a few more seconds, in fact, almost a minute, before I realised that I was not at home. It was a hotel room, and quite unusual, light seeping through the thick curtains that covered what had to be a window.
Was in morning, afternoon, or evening? It had to be morning.
And, what was I doing in a hotel room?
When some of the fog had cleared away, I slipped out from under the sheet, and crossed over to the desk on the other side of the room. I pulled the curtain aside slightly and more light came in, splashing across the desk. On it was a piece of paper, a receipt, with the name Hilton Molino Stucky, Venice on it.
What was I doing in Venice?
I pulled the curtains further aside and looked out the window. It overlooked a body of water, and right then, a very large cruise liner was passing by. A very, very large cruise ship.
Then, behind me I heard a noise and turned.
There was someone else in the bed, a head appeared from under the sheet and looked over at me. A woman, messy blonde hair and a familiar face.
I didn’t remember coming to Venice or travelling with anyone. I was sorely tempted to say, “Who are you?” but stifled it. Instead, I asked, in what was a croaky voice, “What happened last night?”
The woman looked surprised. “You don’t remember?”
“To be honest, I’m having a hard time remembering where I am, let alone what I was doing?”
“Well, for starters, you were drinking copious quantities of champagne, which you well know you should not because of what it does to you.”
OK, that had a semblance of truth about it, not that I remember drinking champagne, but what it does to me. Exactly what was happening now. Last time, well, I couldn’t remember, but it wasn’t good.
Still, I didn’t know who this woman was, but I had enough sense to play along. The taste in my mouth reminded me of drinking too much wine, which was what I used to do.
“This much is true. When…” There I stopped, realising how it might sound.
Another look, not of surprise, but disdain perhaps?
“You don’t remember my arriving last night. Nor, I’m willing to bet, inviting me here. You rang two days ago, said you just arrived in Venice, and knowing I was on assignment in Rome, called me, asking if I wanted to come and see you, stay a day or two.”
It was not something I would have done, but for the simple reason I didn’t know anyone in Rome to call. But, oddly, she looked familiar. “Marina?” I said, almost under my breath.
The smile returned. “You do remember.”
“Barely, along with dinner the other night, with some other people. Tourists?”
“Yes. Two days ago, you said you’d asked some travel agents to pick your destination, and it ended up in Venice, along with several others. We’re supposed to be going to Florence this morning, but I was hesitant waking you in case you weren’t feeling well.”
Well, that part was true. I wasn’t. And that reference to Florence, it seemed likely. There was another piece of paper on the desk, an itinerary which said I was travelling to Florence by train.
I looked at the clock beside the bed.
I looked at the itinerary, and the train was at 11 am.
The itinerary had two names on it. Ben and Marina Davis. I knew I was Ben, but I didn’t remember anything about having a wife, or friend, named Marina. More of the fog had lifted in my brain, and every instinct was telling me to play along. I don’t know why that message popped into my head at that exact moment, but it did.
“We’ve got five hours before the train leaves. I suspect it might be a good idea to start getting ready. I’ll call down for coffee, and, bearing in mind I’ve lost all sense of orientation and not exactly sure of everything going around me, as you say I should not be drinking wine in copious quantities, I’ll toss you the phone so you can order whatever you want. Sorry, but for the moment, I’ve forgotten everything.”
Let her counter that, or also play along. Her expression told me she was thinking about what I said, but then shrugged. “You don’t remember asking me, do you?”
“I do remember something, and it involves you because you are very familiar to me, so don’t be too upset. I am glad you’re here, because I was simply dreading travelling in Italy by myself, and you are almost a native. There, I knew there was a perfectly good reason why you’re here.”
She didn’t look quite so sure. “I’ll be in the bathroom,” she said. “Coffee will be fine. I think I had too much to drink last night too.”
After she disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door, odd, I thought, for a woman who had slept in the same bed as I, I called down for coffee and croissants. By that time, I was feeling better, and the queasy stomach was subsiding.
Twenty minutes later there was a knock on the door.
I did remember the person outside the door, dressed as the room service waiter. “Alan.”
“They took the bait?”
“Obviously. Too much booze…”
“Slipped you a mickey. Be careful. These two don’t play by the rules. Luigi is downstairs pacing like a cat ready to pounce. Thin short guy in a cheap black suit, pink shirt and grey tie.” Alan shook his head. “No dress sense whatsoever.”
“I don’t remember much.”
“Nothing happened, don’t worry. Had eyes on you the whole time like we promised. Now, you’ve a train to catch. Just be careful.”
He brought the tray in and put it on the desk.
Marina chose that moment to open the door.
“Room service,” I said. “Coffee for two. There’s a croissant too if you want one.”
“Sir,” Alan muttered, and headed for the door, remembering at the last second to produce a form for me to sign.
Then he was gone.
Fog cleared, everything came back in a rush. She was still standing in the doorway, the only think between her and modest, a large white towel wrapped around her. Beautiful but deadly, Alan had said.
Let the games commence.
© Charles Heath 2020-2021