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Authors: Francoise Enguehard

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BOOK: The Islands of Dr. Thomas
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Flabbergasted by the images she had just seen—by the tragedy that had shaken the doctor's life—Émilie decided to go for a walk. She needed some fresh air, some exercise, and time to reflect before putting the pieces together.

With Émilie on his arm, François took her to the banks of the Seine. They walked silently, comforted by the closeness of their bodies and the harmony of their thoughts.

All of a sudden, Émilie stopped. “The photo of the doctor on the capstan...that's why he looked so sad.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know how a seal's noises sound like a child crying? They sound so sad. The doctor had just come back from the war when that photo was taken. He must have felt terrible, hearing the seal's moans. It must have brought back such cruel memories. And the poor fisherman, he was just trying to cheer him up...”

“You're probably right,” François said.

He had often thought about that photo, the haggard look in the doctor's eyes. He had assumed it was exhaustion or the fact that the cruel fishers had killed the mother seal and used the babies as circus animals. Now he could see deeper into the doctor's thoughts and knew it was despair in the face of existence and humanity.

They arrived at the Alexandre-III bridge. To lighten the atmosphere a little, François described the architecture of the bridge and pointed out the cherubs playing ivory horns and trumpets.

She smiled sadly. How could people glorify conquest, war, power, when they were all won at the cost of so much blood and grime? Standing before the statues erected to the glory of despots, she suddenly felt as if all the misery of the world had fallen on her shoulders. She was both the vessel and the prisoner of so much suffering: that of Doctor Thomas, with his body and his soul crushed by the war, the three soldiers in the trenches, and all the other nameless victims.

She staggered a bit, steadied herself on the stones of the bridge, and stared at the murky waters of the Seine. She tried to get back to this reality that was so foreign to her; the boundary between real and imaginary was still fuzzy.

Instinctively, François drew her to him in a protective gesture. In his arms, the pain she had felt evaporated as quickly as it had appeared.

“Sometimes,” she explained in a whisper, “I feel like I'm drowning.”

That was the only explanation she could find for the impression she had never been able to share with anyone.

He held her closer to him, asking nothing more of her. “I found those photos very moving, too. Now I understand why Doctor Thomas was never the same after the war. But I still don't quite understand why he left Saint-Pierre and everything behind.”

The reminder of their common mission enabled Émilie to regain her composure. They headed to his office. The receptionist, relieved to see her boss, told him that someone was waiting for him in the boardroom.

“Probably the student I put in charge of research during your visit. I told her to come and meet us.”

François took Émilie into his office, where she hung up her coat and put her purse away. She had a chance to look at the photos for a moment. He had placed the photo of the doctor on the island across from his desk and the one on the capstan to his right. She could almost smell the sea air. Then he showed her into the board room to meet the young woman, who seemed extremely excited.

“I just had a really interesting call from the curator at the Musée national des Arts et Traditions Populaires. They have a collection of about thirty thousand photos by a Louis Le Thomas, a Breton doctor from Landerneau. We think it's the same person, and that he went back to his Breton name at some point.”

“What are the photos of?”

“It's fascinating,” the researcher continued. “He seemed to have done a complete inventory of Breton religious statuary, village pardons, crosses, wood, stone—everything is there it seems. It had never been photographed before and no one has ever tried to do it since. I checked out the dates and information, and it is definitely your man.”

“Thirty thousand photos! That's huge!”

“Yes, taken between 1935 and 1960. That's twenty-five years' work.”

“But...is this all the man did after he retired, or was there something else?” asked François.

Émilie smiled. It was just like him to dismiss thirty thousand photos so quickly. Their eyes met and he smiled back at her, happy that she understood him so well.

“Well, the research is coming along,” the student replied. “We know that in 1968, Louis Thomas moved into a retirement home in Brittany, in la Baule-les-Pins to be precise. He was 81 years old then. We're still looking for more details, but it's complicated, you know. Once he left the Navy after the Second World War, there isn't any archival material to help us. He was about sixty years old, let's say, and from that time on, besides the Breton statuary, he probably didn't start any other projects.”

“Well, 1968 is like yesterday,” exclaimed François. “We should be able to track down a Louis Thomas or Le Thomas in Baule-les-Pins. And what about his family? His wife and daughter? They're in the photos taken in Langlade and Miquelon.”

“We found no mention of them anywhere.”

Retirement homes, nursing homes, hospices, they made a list of all the places in the area where the doctor might have lived in the last years of his life. The young researcher returned to her search for Louis Thomas, a man who was so attached to his Breton roots that he had decided, as an old man, to call himself Le Thomas again.

“It's a little childish, don't you think, to believe that a name can change the course of a man's life or influence his future!” she said to him.

“Maybe he just wanted to affirm his sense of belonging. After all, he'd lived in a lot of different places: Bordeaux while he was studying, Toulon, then Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, back to France, then Spain, Algeria during the war. Maybe that's why he wanted to spend the last years of his life in Brittany.”

“And to put the “Le” back in his name.”

While they were talking, they walked calmly up Montagne Sainte-Geneviève Street in the direction of the Pantheon. He was the one who had chosen their destination. He wanted to show her “the building that was supposed to be a church, but that Napoleon had decided otherwise.” He hoped that visiting the crypt that housed the tombs of Voltaire, Zola, and Victor Hugo would impress her, and that these great names would give her the inspiration to move forward herself, to leave her own mark on the world.

Their footsteps echoed on the marble floor. The walls of the building rose up to a high ceiling, their white expanses interrupted here and there with murals dedicated to Sainte Geneviève.

“I think I know why the doctor was interested in Breton religious statues,” she said suddenly. “I was just thinking about it, as I was looking at all this.” She made a grand sweep of her hand. “You don't find the God of the poor and the afflicted in places like this. You can see Him on a little granite cross at a bend in the road, in the little statues painted by local craftsmen, or in the little black saint in the church in Quimper—what's he called, again? I read an article about it. Oh, I know. The
Santik Du
. Churches, cathedrals, they're for kings, the rich... Calvaries are for the people.”

He smiled affectionately at her lyrical rendition. “You know what I mean. That collection is just like the rest of his work. He always took the side of ordinary people.”

He stared at her with amazement. Why had he not thought of that? Perhaps because he saw Louis Thomas as a man of action more than anything else, a man in the field, a doctor who healed the body rather than the soul, a realist, and no doubt a fervent champion of public schooling, of a free and mandatory education system, like all the other educated and free minds of his time. He had trouble imagining that he was a fervent practising religious man. But a person of faith, yes, no doubt.

They went down into the crypt. Unlike the rest of the building, it was simple, unornamented, a contemplative space where some of the great men of the nation rested in the peaceful torchlight.

“If Paris is a history book, here it is probably
Lagarde et Michard
,” she whispered. He wrinkled his forehead. “
Lagarde et Michard
, the literature textbooks we use in high school,” she explained.

He smiled, realizing that the visit would not have quite the effect he expected. After all, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot had been buried in simple tombs. And, as she added, “Why is Baudelaire still in the Montparnasse cemetery, instead of here?”

“Good, we'll go see Baudelaire! Then we'll go out to a restaurant and I'll take you back to the hotel.”

The next morning he took her out for breakfast at a sidewalk café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Then he left her while he went to a business meeting, one of the obligations he had not managed to cancel or delegate to a colleague.

“Go for a little walk and I'll meet you here at noon. After lunch, we'll go to the Musée des Arts et Métiers. We're expected there this afternoon.”

She watched him walk off with his determined stride, relieved that she would see him again in a few hours. She made the most of her time alone by sitting and observing everything around her. On the other side of the boulevard were the gardens of the former Hôtel de Cluny. Inside, she had discovered in one of the tourist guides he had bought for her, was the tapestry of the Dame à la Licorne, which, she recalled with amusement, also decorated the cover of another
Lagarde et Michard
, the one on Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay and company.
Two other fellows who do not have a place in the Pantheon
.

She was not tempted to go in, and the Louvre did not really interest her either. She much preferred the people who filled the sidewalks, to watch their expressions and try to inscribe a life story on their features, to give them a family and an occupation. Despite any apprehensions she had, there was a great sense of freedom in the fact that she was here, a stranger in the middle of the crowd, freed of the need to recognize or greet anyone.

She finished her coffee—he had graciously paid the bill before he left—and started back up the Boulevard Saint-Michel, with no particular destination in mind. When she reached the Rue des Écoles, she turned left. La Sorbonne, the Collège de France, and the Lycée Louis-Legrand were all within a few blocks of her. From Saint-Pierre, she had imagined these prestigious institutions filled with exceptional students, bookworms who spent all their time in dusty libraries, their faces pale from spending all their days in classrooms and study halls. Though judging by the people she saw around her, the schools were full of students who were quite ordinary. Girls her own age, dressed the way she was, with care- free expressions, walked around the neighbourhood. Crocheted bags
stuffed with books
, she thought, hung from their shoulders. Easter break was about to begin, and the students from the Lycée could already taste freedom.

Would there be a place for her in these schools if she had been born in Paris? Was it good luck to have had the best teachers available? The widest range of courses? The numerous museums, libraries, and cultural centres in Paris to complement her studies? Was she at a disadvantage to have grown up in Saint-Pierre? Would her dream of becoming a writer have seemed more plausible, more realistic, if she had gone to a Lycée in this Latin Quarter? At the very least, would the outstanding education acquired here have inspired in her more ambition?

She suddenly envied all the young girls she could hear talking about clothes, music, and boyfriends, as though they could care less about studying at the best Lycée in France. She thought of the high school in Saint-Pierre, which did not even have a library, of the teachers who, every autumn, arrived fresh out of Teacher's College and who were sometimes so incompetent that people suspected they were sent overseas, like the doctors, to cut their teeth before they were allowed to teach in France.

And what did she know about culture? She had never even seen the inside of a theatre, nothing other than Mr. Haran's movie theatre. Of course she had read Molière, Racine, and Corneille, and seen Feydeau on television, but she had never sat in a theatre. And to think I didn't even know where the Comédie-Française was!

Her jealousy mingled with a feeling that she detested equally: shame. She became convinced that she had deluded herself to believe that she could ever become a writer. How could she have made such a mistake? How could she aspire to rise to such heights when she came from so far away?

She stood motionless on the sidewalk (as were the thoughts in her head) and a couple of people bumped into her before she realized she should step back from the crowd.

For months and months I have been fooling myself, she thought, horrified.

She had, of course, been reluctant to make plans, to envisage her future life, but it was not because of a lack of ambition, as she had assumed, but rather because she was afraid. Her fear of the unknown, of not being good enough to do what she dreamed of doing with her life. And the moment this truth revealed itself, another one came to join it: she was deluded to believe in this grandiose dream of becoming a writer.

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