Marina Grande on the island of Capri was buzzing with activity. Locals and tourists alike were getting on and off boats, chatting, shopping and going about their business.
One such group, who appeared to be English tourists, had just disembarked from a private yacht.
“Ah, I just adore the Italian islands. So quaint, so picturesque!” Eroica was in his element.
Bonham was organising everyone as usual, and James was running along behind them carrying a pile of leather bound ledgers which he hadn’t had chance to balance.
“Buongiorno Signor James, I am Mario.” An Italian boy had appeared out of nowhere and stuck out his hand.
James eyed him suspiciously. He was no doubt out to hawk some overpriced wares. He would have to keep him away from the Earl, who would be taken in by such things.
Eroica weaved through the crowd towards them. “Oh good, Mario, you’re here. James, meet your new assistant.”
“New assistant? I can’t have an assistant, we don’t have enough money to pay the staff as it is,” James protested.
The Earl slung an arm around James’ shoulders. “Now James, I know how much you have been struggling with your workload, so I just had to find a way to help you. And Mario dreams of being an accountant like you, so he will be helping us for free so he can gain some experience for his CV.”
“It’s true, Signore” Mario said.
James’ eyes lit up. “Well in that case,” he said, plonking the ledgers in Mario’s arms. The boy opened the top one and started eagerly going through the figures with a pen he drew from behind his ear. James noticed that he was cute, but not so much that he had to worry about Eroica being distracted by him.
“Now, as for the reason we are here. The Sphinx from Villa San Michele. I desire it. And what I desire, I always make mine.” The Earl smiled, and the sea breeze caught his hair and loose white tunic.
“We’re ‘eading to Anacapri. That way.” Bonham was pointing more or less straight up. He was not pointing at the sky, but at the small settlement on a steep hill, with an endless set of steps which led the way. “I reckon we get a cab.”
“No! That’ll be too expensive! We can walk.”
“Good idea, James. It is a most beautiful day. And the Sphinx is going nowhere.” The Earl strode off up the hill, and the rest of the gang followed.
“The fabled Phoenician Steps were actually constructed by the ancient Greeks. Legend has it that the women of Anacapri would carry vases full of water up to the top of these steps. So you can stop making a scene, James.” The Earl ruffled his hair.
James was breathing heavily. “How many more steps?”
“Eight ‘undred an’ twenty one,” Bonham told him. “We’ve only gone up an ‘undred.”
“With our luck that awful Major will be waiting for us at the top,” James said, making himself angry at the thought of the way the Earl looked at him.
“Oh, you haven’t heard? Major Eberbach has been sent to a new post in Alaska. Something about bad treatment of his underlings. We needn’t worry about him any more.”
James practically skipped up the next few hundred steps. Mario finished balancing the ledgers before they reached the top. “Is there anything else you want me to do, Signor James?”
James thought about it for a moment. No, he couldn’t possibly ask him to do that.
In a show of surprising strength, Mario gave his new boss a piggy back ride up the remainder of the steps.
“That’s took it out o’ me,” Bonham said, out of breath at the top. The rest of the men were huffing and puffing. Only Mario and Eroica were alike in their superhuman shows of stamina.
“I believe we have time for a little Torta di Calprese and espresso,” The Earl said.
“No way! Anacapri is one of the most expensive places to eat in the world.” James complained. “I brought a picnic, hang on.” He fished around in his pockets.
Eroica frowned at the single soggy cling film wrapped sandwich James pulled out of the bowels of a pocket.
They compromised on finding a cafe which was testing out some new gelato flavours and agreed to let them have some free samples. Although James wasn’t sure if orange and liquorice would catch on.
“Now, it is time to head to the Villa,” Eroica announced. He looked down in horror. “Oh no, this is a disaster.” He had a large splodge of gelato staining his formerly perfect white tunic.
James tried to help him clean it with a handkerchief which had been in his family for generations.
The Earl put a hand to his brow dramatically. “I simply cannot be seen like this.” He looked around and saw a collection of clothes shops full of articles in striking blue.
James ran in front of him, waving his arms. “You can’t! Too expensive!”
Eroica sat and pouted as James industriously worked on a solution. He had haggled furiously with an old woman to obtain a low quality offcut of material big enough to make the Earl a new shirt. He was currently hand stitching it with a needle and thread that he always kept on his person for making emergency repairs.
The Earl smiled and twirled, showing off James’s creation. “What ever would I do without you, James? Saving my life and my wallet over and over.” He wrapped an arm around James’s neck and kissed him on the top of the head. James swooned.
They made their way to Villa San Michele, and were amazed by the beautiful views of the island and the Bay of Naples. Even the Earl seemed to have forgotten why they were here. The men were standing around disorganised, loitering or staring out to sea.
Eroica sidled up to James. “I’m afraid to tell you I was not completely truthful about my reasons for coming here. Of course I don’t want that thing,” he said, gesturing over at the Sphinx. “You thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you?” Suddenly he had pulled out a large box wrapped with a red ribbon. James didn’t think he had seen a present that large in all his life.
“Oh Earl!” James exclaimed. But then quickly recovered. “You really shouldn’t have. You know how I feel about spending money on birthdays. And on other days for that matter.”
The Earl took the lid off the box. It was empty.
“Oh Earl! How did you know?”
There was a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday, and everyone was cheering. Everyone was hugging and kissing James, and he was wondering if he should get out the cling filmed sandwich to share. It seemed appropriate.
The Earl had a special way of looming up on people. “I have a special gift for you,” he said.
“You do?” James said, looking up at the Earl’s smile and eyes as blue as the Bay of Naples.
The Earl wrapped him in his arms and leant closer...
There was a hammering noise in James’ head, followed by a something heavy landing on his head. James found himself back in bed in his room. He took off his threadbare night cap and rubbed his head. A framed painting was on his chest. He picked it up. It was the painting of the Bay of Naples that he had haggled down to ten pence in a charity shop. He put it down on the floor. He would have to glue the frame back together later.
Eroica burst into the room, looking like a drowned rat, if a rat wore a towel around its waist. “James! There’s no hot water! Did you not pay the gas bill?”
“Of course not! They charged us too much. I called them last week and the man put the phone down on me. How rude! Plus you rudely awoke me from the most wonderful dream.”
“Hurry up, get out of bed and get on the phone! I have places to be and I can’t shampoo my hair in cold water.”
James grinned and pulled back the heavily patched bedspread. “It’s warm and cozy in here, and there’s room for one more... well almost.”
“I’ll not let you rot in bed while there’s bills to pay. Sort it out!” Eroica threw his towel at James and stalked off.
James pulled the bedspread over his head and shut his eyes. There was time for one more dream inspired by angry naked Eroica before he could come back and throw a telephone at him.