Read The Islands of Dr. Thomas Online

Authors: Francoise Enguehard

The Islands of Dr. Thomas (2 page)

BOOK: The Islands of Dr. Thomas

Their friendship, in any case, had withstood the test of time. Every time he returned he would drop off his bags at his mother's house (she lived alone since his brothers had married), have a cup of tea with her and listen to the latest gossip from Saint-Pierre, and then hurry over to his friends' house. He would sit down in the same chair, his spot, in the living room, and it would feel as if time had stood still.

“The weather is dreadful,” his friend said, closing the curtains.

He would have liked to tell her to leave them open, to explain to her that he liked to sit in a comfortable room and watch the wild weather outside, to admire the incomparable spectacle of the winter storm through the sheers, to see the clouds of snowflakes waft up to the yellow lamplight, hear the crunch of snow under the boots of the rare passerby, feel the vibration of the windowpanes shaken by a particularly strong gust of wind—but he did not dare say it.

He could understand his friends' desire to insulate themselves from the elements, to shelter themselves from the unending winter.
It's easy for me to enjoy the storm
, he told himself.
In a few weeks it will be sunny in Paris
. Here, it was entirely different. The months of bitter cold, the unrelenting wind, the blasts of winter that hammered the islands again and again might be pleasant for him, but for the people living on the islands they meant more snow clearing—the back-breaking chore of boring out tunnels through the icy snow to release the doors—and paying exorbitant heating oil and electricity bills. It meant the near-total absence of sunshine, which sent people into the depths of depression. “From this vantage point,” as one of his uncles would often say, his request would have seemed surprising and perhaps even insulting.

However, he disliked the heavy curtains pulled across the windows; they blocked the view of the outside from the living room. They reminded him of the iron bars on the windows of Parisian apartments and the wooden shutters in the French countryside, which transformed the neighbourhood or village into a deserted and eerie no man's land. This evening, the drapes were depriving him of the spectacular contrast between the storm outside and the warmth inside the house, of the pleasure of being the jubilant observer who, in his comfortable armchair, knows that only a pane of glass separates him from the biting cold and the deadly gusts of snow.

He remembered, years ago, when he still allowed himself a few moments of carefree time, spending a few days in what his aunt called “the French Heartland.” He had had to buy a flashlight to get around in the night in the little unlit village, after the townspeople had disappeared behind their shutters like termites scurrying underground. He had felt very anxious, as though secret horrors and family skeletons were lurking behind the iron bars and wooden ramparts in the manmade darkness. His designs never included shutters or iron curtains and people criticized him for it, but he tried to ignore the criticism and the fact that many clients added them once their house was finished.

“It's like we were in Langlade!” he joked as he tried to make his way through the little village in Bourgogne.

The intense darkness of the landscape, broken only by a tiny beam of light from his flashlight, reminded him of the evening walks on the Langlade beach that he had taken in his youth. He would search for the fox with shiny eyes, a legendary resident of the dunes, according to an attorney of the last century who frightened everyone with his tales of its terrifying apparitions. At least in Langlade the darkness was natural, because there was no electricity. Once past the first uneasy feelings, enhanced by his fear of the horrible beast pouncing up from the night, he would feel embraced by the soft night.

Sometimes, wandering around on his own, François would turn off his flashlight, and in the brief second that it took his eyes to get used to the darkness and locate some distant light (the reflection of Big Louis' kerosene lamp in his kitchen window, for instance), he would feel like he was drowning. Then he would lie down on the fine sand of a tolt, a little knoll near the water. Before him, beyond the waves that murmured their endless laments, he could make out the lighthouse of Île Verte, the dim lights of a sleepy village on the coast of Newfoundland and, as his body slowly attuned itself to the axis of the Earth, he felt as though he had been reborn on the first day of creation.

After a few minutes, he would close his eyes and plunge his fingers into the fine sand—it was cold on the surface but, when he dug a bit deeper, it still held the delicious warmth of the afternoon sun—and, in the astonishing contrast that imprinted the palm of his hand, he felt an attachment to this place that was rooted more deeply in him than anything he could imagine. He had never forgotten these amazingly sensual moments when he wished he could bury himself, like the countless grains of sand around him, deep in the pink dunes and anchor himself to these islands. The day could rise, the sun could shine, he could stay there, or leave, come back in a hundred years or even a thousand, and the warmth captured in these grains of sand would wait for him, at once faithful and indifferent.

It was here that, for the first time, he felt completely in harmony with the Universe—an exhilarating sensation that he hadn't felt since. He did not know exactly when or where his discomfort had first set in: Was it the day he first left his islands, his hands clutching the ship's rail with a combination of fear and excitement? Was it when he attended his first university lecture and he felt out of place in his badly fitting clothes? Or was it when he finally had the chance to work on the most coveted projects, surrounded by colleagues of his own choosing, all highly qualified men but who were lacking in the human qualities that would have been more in tune with his own? In any case, despite his success, the recognition of his peers, and the admiration of those he loved, there was always something missing, a feeling of belonging that he needed to feel whole.

In Paris, he was homesick for his islands, his ocean, his family and friends; he also missed being in close contact with the forces of nature, the wind, the sea. Paradoxically, the architect felt out of place in the middle of the superb Parisian buildings that furnished his everyday life like the set of a play by Marivaux.

Here, on the islands, inspiration came to him in an impertinent gust of wind stronger than the others, in a ray of sun that finally pierced through the stifling fog that had lingered for weeks, in the sound of a crystal clear pond about to be caught in an icy grip. But even so, his inspiration lacked the means to take shape and room to develop.

One day, one of his childhood friends, a highly skilled surgeon, Professor Emeritus in a Paris medical faculty, set the dilemma out before him: as an orthopaedic surgeon, he too had been forced to go into exile.

“What could I do?” he said, with a wink in his eye. “There aren't enough knees for me in Saint-Pierre!”

“And not enough buildings to build,” agreed François, with a laugh.

As he left his friends' house that night, he would experience the pleasure of walking in the bad weather, and just as he had felt on the dune, he would find himself both overcome by the force of nature and sheltered by its whirlwind. All the way down the road he would see the reassuring lights in kitchen windows, guiding the pedestrians through the winter nights, and have no fear of losing his way. Walking past certain houses, he would peek in at fathers, mothers, and children, going back and forth from table to kitchen sink, and imagine the smell of the food cooking, the cheerful sounds of conversation and laughter as they ate supper together. One of the mysterious customs on the island was that heavy curtains were never hung from kitchen windows, only in the living room. François could watch life going on in houses he had known all his life, those that had withstood the seasons for over a century as well as the new ones built on the foundations of the old. As an architect, for him these were the moments when a house became a home. In a well-designed home, the heat from the kitchen reached into the smallest nooks and crannies, the light banishing any worrisome darkness, the sounds of daily life giving every room a reassuring sense of being lived in. In bad weather, every wallboard and window sash seemed to enclose the inhabitants like a cocoon. Every house he designed, François tried to recreate the comfort and wellbeing of his childhood, using tricks and techniques to convey the warmth of his home where, even after his father had died and despite the weight of his absence, he had never been afraid.

But my goodness, how he loved storms! To be honest, the bad weather was the reason he visited the islands in the winter. The fury of the unleashed elements was invigorating, filled him with energy, shook him out of the drizzly, depressing, and dingy atmosphere of Paris. Here, he felt alive, even if he were never anything more than a minuscule grain of sand in the unchanging order of the world. The unique blend of snow and sea salt on his lips as he walked around the Saint-Pierre waterfront in the middle of February was a nectar he often dreamed of as he strode up and down the streets of Paris, pulling up his scarf to avoid the smell of exhaust pipes.

When he had visited them, the time before last, while they were sitting around the dining-room table and talking again about the miserable winters they had experienced, he had tried to explain that he enjoyed the bad weather and the feeling of being at the mercy of the elements. No one had taken him seriously; well, almost no one. His friends' daughter, Émilie, had flashed a brief smile in his direction, a delicate gaze that suggested she knew exactly what he meant and that like him, she deplored the fact that others did not understand what that euphoric sensation was like—a feeling that, on this tiny island which was nothing more than a deck of a ship moored in the middle of the vast Atlantic, they had permanently escaped a shipwreck.

Where is she tonight?
he wondered, exasperated.

He could have asked the question out loud, but his friends would have no doubt found it strange. In any case, they would not necessarily have been able to answer him. At her age—
sixteen, maybe
, he thought, without certainty—Émilie would no doubt be able to come and go as she pleased, without letting her parents know where she was. As long as she was back at seven o'clock in the evening, everything was fine. She might be at a friend's, or at the skating rink, looking for the handsome young skater or the hockey champion who might take her by the hand and skate around the rink once or twice.
In my day, we didn't have a skating rink
, he thought, smiling to himself at the memory of hockey games on frozen ponds, the frequent falls caused by a blade getting stuck in a tiny wave that had suddenly become a bump of ice.

He took a sip of Scotch, listening with one ear as his friend told him about the last time he went deer hunting in Langlade, and half-heartedly following his stories about trips down the Belle-Rivière and the Des Mâts brook. Curiously, in order for these Tartarin's tales to enthrall him, Émilie would have had to be there, sitting in the little red armchair, her lively eyes catching his. Sometimes, during the conversation, she would have seemed to smile in his direction, watching for his reactions as though she knew in advance what he was thinking and what he was going to say. He missed their silent exchanges, and the story which, ordinarily, would have entertained him and incited a great deal of banter, seemed to fall flat. Something special connected him to Émilie. In her presence, the solitude that often seemed to imprison him dissipated a little. In her intelligent and honest gaze, a little mischievous at times, he felt understood.

The idea that he might have to leave tonight without seeing her made him fidget a bit in his chair. Then, a little embarrassed at not paying attention to his friend's story, he forced himself to pick up the narrative: the deer had just fallen, he was about to describe the way the carcass of the animal had been quartered alongside the bushes.

The three of them heard the door of the entryway open, squeak on its hinges, then the sound of boots being tapped on the threshold to get the snow off them, and lastly the front door being opened and then closed forcefully, the way children are told to do so they will not “heat the sidewalk” in the winter. François could just barely keep himself from breathing an eloquent sigh of relief.

Émilie quickly took off her winter jacket and boots, looking up the hall with vivid interest to see whose coats and accessories were spread out on the radiator. She paused for a moment to admire the handsome silk Paisley scarf, lined with cashmere—he obviously had expensive taste—and the kid gloves in the shape of his hands. She could feel his presence, in these simple objects, an intimate connection, and took a moment to catch her breath as she looked at them.

He's here!

An hour ago she was at the skating rink, spinning around on the ice with her friends, looking out of the corner of her eye at the good-looking hockey player skating with his friends and occasionally breaking suddenly in a cloud of ice to impress the girls. For Émilie, it was not the skater that impressed her as much as the skates, “real ones.” Try as she might to stop with the energy and precision the boys displayed, her blades did not allow her to do the same. Girls had to be satisfied with white figure skates with toe picks, jagged teeth on the end that, according to what was written on the box, made it possible to perform

When she asked for hockey skates like her brother's, her parents had given her a funny look. She decided it was best not to mention that she also dreamed of playing hockey.
Here we go again
, she sighed.
I don't see things like everyone else
. She often thought this, but never dared to say it out loud.

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