Read The Islands of Dr. Thomas Online

Authors: Francoise Enguehard

The Islands of Dr. Thomas (10 page)

BOOK: The Islands of Dr. Thomas

“I don't see anything wrong with that idea,” François said. Nonetheless, he was a bit disappointed he had not thought of it first. “What do you think?” he asked, turning to Émilie.

“I agree. We should have thought of that in the first place,” she said, also feeling a bit guilty.

When an important event took place in Saint-Pierre—whether an artist's visit, a school project, or something else—there was rarely someone around to ask, “What about Miquelon?” The famous hospitality of the islanders did not seem to extend spontaneously to their neighbour island, and each island jealously kept its pleasures and treasures for itself.

Émilie was familiar with the difference between the islands because, every summer, her family crowded into the old Willis jeep for the long trip—twenty-five kilometres of dirt roads—from Langlade to the town of Miquelon.

“It's quite a trip!” she explained to them as she took the photos down from the walls of the museum.

The trip could only be made if the weather was right, if the weather report the night before promised one of those magical days without a cloud in the sky. This required a close examination of the weather patterns and the tidal calendar, complex calculations of the variables, and a determination of the probable time of the next low tide in the sound that needed to be crossed in order to get to Pointe au Cheval and the road to Miquelon. You had to already be there, ready to quickly cross the minuscule sound as soon as the ebb tide would allow it, cross over to Miquelon without delay, and then turn around and do the same thing in the rising tide.

It was generally best to go in the morning, and to travel as part of a convoy in case someone's vehicle broke down or got stuck in the sand. Two or three jeeps travelled the winding road along the beach and cleared a path through the little hills on the Delamaire farm and the Lamunth marshes. It took at least an hour to make it over the bumpy road. The passengers sang popular songs, which had the one redeeming value of making it easier to pass the time and help them forget the repeated jolts on their behinds.

When they got to the edge of the sound, they unpacked their picnic lunch. Depending on the tide, which they were able to judge with an experienced eye, they either rushed or took their time.

The sound was already Miquelon, or at least another world. Here, there were deer flies hiding in the grass, never seen on the eastern or the western dune. The water was both warmer and saltier than in Langlade, because it rose and fell in a little sandy lagoon where it had time to warm up in the sun all day long. On the other side of the sound, which Miquelon residents called a
, there were uncharted territories: bald hills, Île aux Chevaux, the Alouettes point.

At the appointed time, the convoy forged ahead, hugging the shoreline. In some places the sand under their wheels was firm, but in others they feared their vehicles would sink down into the sand; here, they sped ahead as fast as possible and made sure they did not have to break. Too bad for the passengers, who were thrown about. They finally reached the barrier of Pointe au Cheval, the official entry into Miquelon and where the Langlade folk officially became tourists, an impression that became stronger as they approached the town of Miquelon. It looked nothing at all like Saint-Pierre, where their town clung perilously to the side of a rock-face.

Miquelon was beautiful! Sprawled comfortably on a sandbank in the middle of the sea, a human challenge to nature because it was built on the most vulnerable location, at sea level, at the mercy of waves, nor'easters, and the raging sea on its western side. The steeple of Notre-Dame-des-Ardilliers Church rose proudly in the centre of a cluster of houses that were squatter and longer than those in Saint-Pierre, constructed in a way to block the ever-present wind. Spacious gardens lay on either side of the two long roads of the town; carrots, leaks, lettuce, and potatoes were planted there. That also differed from Saint-Pierre, where there was not much space, and family gardens were limited to a tiny plot between houses.

After running a few errands for their parents, the children would go to
Chez Rachel's
to buy cakes and sugar rolls. Rachel discreetly played the role of town baker, although she had no actual store, no front window or sign. Everyone knew where to find her though, and would make a beeline for her mocha cakes, cream puffs, and cake rolls. They would knock on her front door, saying, “Mama sent me to get some cakes,” and Rachel, a short woman with round cheeks, curly hair, and a welcoming smile, would show them into her kitchen. On Sundays and holidays, there were cakes everywhere: baking trays covered in mocha cakes were placed on top of the gas stove, platters of sugar rolls nearly covered the dining-room table completely, and the unforgettable fragrance of butter, sugar, and vanilla floated throughout the entire house.

After enjoying Rachel's goodies, the young people wandered around town, on the Place des Ardilliers or visited the church, until their parents were finished shopping. Unlike Saint-Pierre's church, which was built of concrete and was vast and freezing inside, Miquelon's was made of wood, inside and out, and bathed visitors in its benevolent warmth. Light shone through the stained glass windows and illuminated a huge painting that filled the wall behind the altar—“a reproduction of Murillo's
, given by Napoleon III as a gift to the people of Miquelon,” her grandmother had told her. How had the Emperor of France found out about a church in faraway Miquelon? History did not bother explaining that part.

Late in the afternoon, the family stopped in “to say hello” to two elderly ladies her grandmother had known when she taught school in Miquelon. Then it was already time to leave, “if they didn't want to miss the low tide.”

In the evening, after closing the gate at Pointe au Cheval behind the convoy, it felt as though they had returned from a vacation. When the wheels fell into the familiar tracks in the middle of the dune an hour later, it was as if the automobile could “smell the stable,” as her father would say.

Her grandmother had a historical perspective—as she always did—on the strange phenomenon that distinguished the people of Saint-Pierre from those of Miquelon. The history of the two villages had been very different, despite their proximity. Miquelon had been settled by Acadians and a few opinionated Basques, Saint-Pierre by a wave of Breton, Basque, and Norman fishers, joined by a few “strangers,” mostly from Newfoundland. In other words, Saint-Pierre's population was much less homogenous and more migratory than Miquelon's.

For almost a century, the psychological separation had kept the two communities apart, despite their geographical proximity—a distance of only a few nautical miles. The Acadians, with their tragic history of deportations, who were prevented from settling in Saint-Pierre et Miquelon by a King of France reluctant to feed them, had learned to cherish their solitude.

The establishment of French communities on the islands had led to a demographic imbalance between them, and Miquelon had become the poor cousin, always the last to benefit from the generosity of their mother country. Even more than the isolation, this injustice, whether it was real or simply perceived, had separated them by a chasm that modern life had not managed to bridge.

The idea of breaking with tradition by taking the Doctor Thomas exhibition to Miquelon pleased all three of them.

“Let's go over before I leave,” François suggested.

The longer his stay in Saint-Pierre lasted, the more impatient his partners in Paris were getting. Telex and phone calls became more frequent and tried to bring him back down to earth.

“There are certainly people there who can tell us about the doctor. We might learn something about him.”

As far as François was concerned, that was still the best reason he could think of for turning a deaf ear to the Parisian contingent, who, in the other world, were begging him to come back.

The two men went first with the photos. Émilie, who had school that day, would join them the next day. Jacques had contacted some of his acquaintances in Miquelon and arranged to set up the exhibition in the community hall.

The night they arrived in Miquelon, François called Émilie.

“There's been a change of plans! We can't put the exhibition up in the community hall. There isn't enough light.”

In fact, she remembered that because she had once gone one Sunday afternoon for a dance at cocktail hour—perhaps it had been Bastille Day? The hall had only a few small windows high up on the wall, and they did not give much light to the dance floor or the tables. The smell of warm beer, fiddle music, and the summer heat came back to mind.

“What are we going to do, then?”

“Jacques is going to talk to the priest and see if we can hang the photos in the church. It's that or nowhere.”

Because there was no museum in Miquelon, no conference room, no library, there was not much choice: if the community hall did not work, the church would have to do.

“When do you get here?”

“Everything's backwards,” she replied with a laugh, not paying attention to what she was saying. “Usually I'm the one who spends my life waiting for you.”

There was a brief silence at the end of the line; she could sense that he was smiling.

“Tomorrow, on the mail boat,” she answered. “I leave at eight o'clock and will be in Miquelon by mid- morning.”

She was not sure how long the crossing would take, because she had never taken the mail boat to Miquelon. For her, boats only went to one place: Langlade.

“Hurry. We don't want to hang the photos without you.”

As if I had any control over the time I arrive
, she thought. A childish impatience under the mask of a grown man.

“I'll come and wait for you on the wharf,” he added, suddenly touched by the idea that this time it would be him waiting for her.

A few weeks of sharing the satisfaction and excitement of the Doctor Thomas exhibition with her, watching her bloom a little more each day as others came to appreciate her, hearing her muse about the mysterious doctor, construct hypotheses and then describe—with uncommon insight and contagious enthusiasm—the aesthetic value of the photos, had enabled him to define a few of the diffuse emotions that drew them together. Somewhere, in the unfathomable depths of the soul, a world which cannot be expressed in words because it would slide from the sublime into the ordinary, she and he were one. He was hers, she was his.

As for Doctor Thomas, it was the ambiguity of his photos that had allowed them to discover each other.

The crossing from Saint-Pierre to Miquelon was a complete novelty to Émilie. Although she knew every little step between her home and Langlade—first Le Colombier, then the moment right after Henry's Pass where the sea and its currents had a few surprises in store when it was windy, then the rolling waves in the middle of the bay and, finally, every cove, every cliff and every rock on the coast of Langlade—she knew nothing about the trip to Miquelon. The boat sailed on the other side of Le Colombier, where the puffins made their nests. These ocean clowns, with their funny big red beaks, yellow lips and white circles around their eyes as if they were made-up for the circus, hung by the hundreds off the rocky surface.

Leaning on the railing despite the cool autumn morning, Émilie, not so used to sailing that she would stay inside, looked at the Langlade coast from a completely different perspective. First came Anse-aux-Soldats, then the Cap Percé and the Cap aux Morts. She could make out the Gouvernement Cove with its houses that looked like confetti, and marvelled at the fact that the dune did not even appear over the horizon. “No wonder there were so many shipwrecks in the past! In bad weather, you would think you were in the middle of the ocean!” Except for the two big hills, which were given the off-colour name of Mother Dibarboure's Tits (Mrs. Dibarboure was the wife of the farmer in the area at the end of the nineteenth century, according to her grandmother, of course), the waves were hiding the dune.

After about an hour on the open sea, she caught sight of the rocks of Miquelon, minuscule reefs that she had heard about, because you could see, from Langlade, their foam swirling up angrily when the nor'easters announced, without prior warning, that summer was over.

She was discovering the other side of the Langlade scenery, a little as if she had been invited backstage after a performance. Just beyond the rocks of Miquelon, the other side of the hills came into view: Belliveau, the beginning of the Mirande pond, Chapeau, and finally the village of Miquelon, closed off on the right by its imposing cape.

When she got close to the wharf, she started looking for him. There was quite a crowd that morning, people waiting for someone, or for a package, a letter, an order (a can of paint that you could not get on the island, a pair of glasses that had been sent to Saint-Pierre to be fixed, a special gift ordered by phone from the Trouvailles gift shop), people who were curious to see what was going on. In fact, Émilie was one of the curiosities that morning, because people had seen her on television, and besides, François was there waiting for her.

“The priest said yes,” he announced right away.

The time was not right for anything more than two kisses on the cheek and a bit of small talk.

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