Read The Islands of Dr. Thomas Online

Authors: Francoise Enguehard

The Islands of Dr. Thomas

The Islands
of Doctor Thomas

FRANÇOISE ENGUEHARD

The Islands
of Doctor Thomas

Breakwater

1 Stamp's Lane, St. John's, NL, Canada, A1E 3C9
WWW.BREAKWATERBOOKS.COM

L'Archipel du docteur Thomas © 2009 Françoise Enguehard
Translated from French by Jo-Anne Elder © 2012 Jo-Anne Elder
Special thanks to Mireille Thomas

ISBN
978-1-55081-382-1

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from Library and Archives Canada.

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We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, which last year invested $154 million to bring the arts to Canadians throughout the country.

Nous remercions le Conseil des arts du Canada de son soutien. L'an dernier, le Conseil a investi 154 millions de dollars pour mettre de l'art dans la vie des Canadiennes et des Canadiens de tout le pays.

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada, through the National Translation Program for Book Publishing for our translation activities. We acknowledge the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador through the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation for our publishing activities.

PRINTED AND BOUND IN CANADA.

Breakwater Books is committed to choosing papers and materials for our books that help to protect our environment. To this end, this book is printed on a recycled paper that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council®.

To René who always understood everything
and
For Maman Alice

Prologue

Saint-Pierre et Miquelon
February 25, 1912

My very dear Doctor Calmette,

You have told me so many wonderful things about Saint-Pierre et Miquelon that I wanted to share my first impressions of the islands with you before anyone else. My wife Emma and I have been here for a week already.

Since we arrived, it has been snowing every day. When our ship dropped anchor in the harbour, the scene laid out before us was rather sad. Even the French flag flying from one of the many government buildings along the dock could not manage to make the grey setting cheerier or more colourful. That was enough to make our fellow travellers begin to complain about their posting and talk about going home! You had warned me about this kind of cavalier attitude and I am glad you did: My wife and I have decided to avoid their company as much as is possible in such a small colony.

We would much prefer to make the acquaintance of the local population. People here seem very friendly. Yesterday I met people from Dog Island, which I will be visiting once a week to treat patients.

My dear Doctor, I am convinced that the healthful air of Saint-Pierre will be in every way good for me. My medical work should help me become familiar with the pathologies affecting people who live by the sea. You know how interested I am in this field of medicine which our superiors in Paris tend to ignore. And, as you well know, I intend to devote my free time to photography.

Your faithful colleague,
Louis Thomas

One

Settled comfortably in the armchair in the cozy home of his two closest childhood friends, a glass of Scotch on the table next to him, François sighed with contentment. The radiator in the living room purred and spread its warmth generously throughout the room. The doors had been opened to make the company feel welcome. His wool coat, soaked by the spindrift, was hanging above the radiator in the entryway and the woman of the house had placed his gloves and scarf directly on its burning hot cast iron surface. His boots were waiting on the mat right next to it, and would be deliciously warm when he was ready to go out and brave the storm once again.

Now that François had taken off the heavy clothing and accessories of the season, a feeling of wellbeing gradually filled him, caused as much by the warmth of his friends as the comfort of their home.

“Six months this time.”

“Yes, much too long,” he replied, taking a sip of Scotch.

It had been six months since François had last come to his islands. It was too long, shamefully wrong in his eyes. He had to admit that over the last few years it had become more and more difficult for him to “escape” (that was the best way to describe it, he thought) and come back to Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, where he had grown up.

His career, more successful than he had ever dreamed, took up all his time. Free time for relaxation, hobbies, even just to think, had been surrendered to the compelling need to work harder and harder, to be ever more productive. Certainly, he drew endless amounts of pride from his success. However, as soon as his mind wandered to the islands for even a moment, when he checked his watch and figured out what time it was in Saint-Pierre, pictured his mother going over to the post office—it is eleven o'clock, she is stopping at the corner to share a funny story with a friend—he could smell the tides, the seaweed, the mud from the harbour. It was like a thunderbolt that struck him with the overwhelming urge to go back to the islands, where everything seemed so much simpler, so peaceful, so easy.

He was regularly afflicted by bouts of homesickness. François had never really been able to get used to the thousands of kilometres that separated him from his family, had never really accepted the fact that he could not simply go back on a whim to be among them. For him, there was only one solution: to cross the Atlantic as often as he could. But the irony of life was such that now, when he enjoyed enough success to be able to afford the trip, he had no time to go.

And yet he was sure that as his crossings became less frequent, they also became more vitally necessary to everything that was genuine in him. Somewhere in these foggy islands remained a part of his personality that he had to protect at all costs. He was definitely not an introspective man, but he had an intuitive feeling that unless he jealously guarded his roots, he would lose the fresh perspective that made him successful and prosperous and he would fade into mediocrity.

In Paris, in his architectural firm, no one said—no one would ever dare say—anything about his trips, which usually occurred on the spur of the moment and disturbed many people's plans. His colleagues considered his travels useless and attributed them to a moodiness that was completely foreign to them. After all, what else could he want, now that he had reached the pinnacle of glory in Paris? And, most of all, what could he possibly be looking for on the other side of the world, in this forsaken place where a couple of handfuls of rundown, wooden fishermen's shanties clustered around horrible government buildings?

If his colleagues had bothered to look more closely, they would have realized that this “hole” (as it had been labelled by a colleague who thought François was too far away to hear) was actually the source of his inspiration and creativity.

François stopped the flow of his thoughts and cast an affectionate look on the couple sitting before him. The friendship the three of them shared was one of the riches the islands had bestowed on him and he regularly drew from this well for his inspiration. Their friendship had shown remarkable strength by surviving decades of separations and changes. No matter how long they were apart, the three of them felt as if they had just seen each other the day before whenever they got together, and continued the conversation they had left off as though it was interrupted just a few minutes earlier.

And theirs was a trusting friendship: His friends neither envied his fortune nor the way he hobnobbed with high society when they read his name in the French magazines that arrived on the island several weeks late. Like everyone else, his friends were proud to see him in the glossy photos of
Paris-Match
, but they worried whenever he looked “exhausted” or “his colour was off.” “Look, he's even thinner than before!” they sometimes commented, and this health report mattered much more to them than the handshake of some VIP or even a senator.

In return, François was interested in their lives, their work, the current events that affected the island. He followed local politics, took part when he could in activities such as the first day of the deer or rabbit hunting season, and tried to maintain a somewhat thin but strong line between his background and the life he still called “new” after twenty years. These trips back to the islands were his anchor for his successful pursuits in the French capital, which he still refused to consider home.

The three friends had known each other since they were children. They had attended the same school, had the same teachers, and had written their matriculation exams the same year. At that point, their lives took very different paths: His friends had chosen to stay on the island while he decided to go to France. His all- consuming ambition left him no other choice.

In Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, young people have to make a difficult and life-changing decision early in life. Should they stay or should they leave? After graduating from high school, for François and others of his generation, the choice was to stay in Saint-Pierre and work or to continue their studies in France (metropolitan France, they called it), where their youthful dreams might be fulfilled.

Strangely enough it was easier to leave Saint-Pierre et Miquelon for Canada or even the United States. Despite the language barrier, the islanders did not feel so out of place. It was closer, and often they knew a few people there. And they had a lot in common with their neighbours, who lived through the same harsh winters and built the same kind of houses to withstand them, and who also bought snowplows, hockey equipment and big cars, ordering from the Sears, Eaton's, and Montgomery Ward catalogues, which sold everything from face cloths to Permapress sheets to furniture to shoes. In short, the people of Saint-Pierre shared that same daily routine and weather with the rest of the population of the vast continent. In Saint-Pierre et Miquelon the air smelled of iodine and the wind was just as fierce as it was in Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, and the winter clouds forecast the same snow as fell on Montreal or Quebec City.

To go anywhere in North America was like taking the coastal steamer. Many of Saint-Pierre's young people had already visited Canada. They might have gone to Sydney to see the doctor or to Newfoundland for trout fishing or hunting. On the other hand, you could count on one hand the ones who had gone to France; that crossing was a major journey.

François had made his decision long before he finished high school, and there was no turning back. He had always known, even as a child, what he wanted to do for a living: erect buildings. He could remember the exact moment he made his choice. He must have been six years old. Spring had come unusually early that year. Across the road from his house they had torn down an old house and started construction on a new building. The curious boy had followed each step of the process as though it were a magical adventure, with wizards who first produced the foundation and then the rest of the house almost out of thin air, where nothing more than dirt and pebbles had been a few months before.

Every morning, as soon as he heard the workers' hammers, he would jump out of bed and run to the living-room window, where he practically had to be torn away from his post to eat breakfast and go to school. When summer holidays finally arrived, he gave himself entirely to his passion. His widowed mother was relieved by his fascination, which gave her the elbow space she needed to get her multiple chores done.

François was mesmerized by the building site outside the window, glued to the sight of the men installing the shuttering and the slab and the pouring of the concrete, which was a pretext for community festivities during which the strongest men from the area came to help. The grinding noise of the shovels mixing the cement with sand on a square piece of wood designed for this purpose, the sound of water added with a knowledgeable eye, and then the grey mix falling by the shovelful into the frames still echoed in his ears. He remembered the captivating rhythm, slow but robust, a symphony during which each of the workers seemed to play from his own score.

Little by little, he saw the framing take shape, watched as the vertical posts rose up, imagined what the interior walls—“like ours”—would look like as he compared the walls of the living room with the ones being built across the road. He enjoyed guessing where each room would be, how they would be furnished, who would move into the house, where the stairs would go, what the chimney coming up from the cellar to the attic would look like when it was finished, and, at last, he marvelled at the exterior walls and the roof of the house as they were added.

One day, he saw one of the men nail a little evergreen to the rooftop.

“What is that man doing?” he asked his mother.

“When a new house is covered and safe from the bad weather, they nail a little tree above the door. That way, everyone who had a hand in getting the house ready knows he's invited to come over for a drink,” replied his mother.

Indeed, one Friday night not long after that, he saw the big bruisers arrive, the same who had helped pour the cement and frame the house. They climbed gingerly up the makeshift ladder up to the front door. For the next few hours he could hear their laughter echoing through the still-empty house. Soon, thought François, the house would be alive with parties, baptisms, First Communions. Magical!

Once the exterior was finished—autumn was nearly here—there was not much else to see. All that was left to do were the shingles on the outside walls and the felts on the roof. These were tedious tasks that required a great deal of precision and fascinated him so much that one evening, when his mother had sent him out to collect some of the broken wood shingles, which had been thrown on the ground for her fire, he had stood stock- still before a partially-finished wall, examining how the shingles were placed one next to the other and nailed at their thinner part to create a uniform surface. For a long time he stared at the last row of shingles, and then, gathering up his courage, ran his fingers along the wood and leaned over to see how they were aligned. He immediately recognized the principle that ensured houses like his own were protected from the elements: rain, wind, and snow. In fact, that day he had the feeling he was reviewing lessons he had learned long ago. This feeling would come back to him often during his long years of study. It was a confirmation—as if he needed one!—that his career had chosen him and not the other way around.

Once the house was finished, he announced that when he grew up, he too would be a builder. No one had anything against that. A carpenter's trade was an honourable profession and paid well. He was given scraps and planks of wood, and for Christmas that year his brothers gave him child-sized tools. From then on, his family got used to seeing him in the basement, sawing and hammering.

At school, several years later, he discovered that, while people in Saint-Pierre et Miquelon built houses in the traditional manner—without plans and following customs passed down from father to son—people in other places had a different way of working. Some of them were responsible for imagining buildings, designing them, producing detailed instructions for every aspect of the construction, and they left the actual work of building to other tradesmen.

That day, almost ten years after he had announced that he would build houses, he refined his plans. He would be an architect. His family was spellbound: an architect? No one had ever seen such a thing in Saint-Pierre. His mother's eyebrows were furrowed with worry: “An architect? That must cost a lot, all those years of school. Where will we find the money?”

A model student, at the top of his class—only spelling and dictations had ever given him cause for concern—he had everything he needed to succeed, as the saying goes. So naturally the high school principal suggested, as he handed him the Governor's Prize and the Parliamentary Award, that François apply for a scholarship to study in France.

Three years later he left the islands with a scholarship in hand, to pursue his dream in France. Many others joined him in exile: a future doctor, banker, lawyer and researcher. Others, like the friends sitting next to him in their living room, stayed behind. Some of them were hoping for a government position, or aspiring to become teachers, fishers, or managers of the family business. Others would soon leave for Saint-Mary's in Halifax or St. Bon's in St. John's, Newfoundland, to learn English before returning to take their place in Saint-Pierre's business community.

At the time, François had bitterly regretted the fact that his friends would not join him in the European adventure. On the dock that morning long ago, standing next to them, he could already feel the distance separating them. He wanted to shout that they were making a mistake, that they were lacking ambition and that a brilliant future was awaiting all three of them in France. However, he had gathered that his friends were happy with their decision, and he felt hurt as he said his goodbyes. In the days and months that followed, his ego let up, and in fact lately he often found himself wondering if his friends hadn't made the better choice.

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