Read The Islands of Dr. Thomas Online

Authors: Francoise Enguehard

The Islands of Dr. Thomas (3 page)

BOOK: The Islands of Dr. Thomas

She wrote it down though. She wrote profusely and secretly. Neither her closest friends, nor her brother, nor her grandmother, nor her parents had any idea that she spent hours writing in her diary. Putting everything that happened to her down on paper, all the contradictory emotions that troubled her, gave her a way of working things out or getting over them. Once she had explored whatever was on her mind by writing it in her diary, she was filled with a peaceful contentment that calmed and comforted her whenever she reread the pages, even in her worst moments of insomnia and anguish.

She had so much to say in these notebooks that she filled one every year. The more she wrote, the more she realized she had strange tastes; she imagined most of her friends felt the same way about her. Often, too often perhaps, she experienced emotions that seemed the opposite of what she should be feeling. For instance, the funnier the situation and the more people around her were laughing, the sadder and closer to tears she became. In those moments, a crushing weight would suddenly fall on her shoulders, for no apparent reason, and she would feel as if she carried the pain of all humanity. Usually no one noticed, and in a few minutes she could compose herself and face life again. Every time she emerged from this struggle between her reason and the unfathomable distress that sapped her vital resources, she felt a little older.

Often, she felt as though she lived a double life. One was visible and ordinary, the other parallel, identical on the outside but a completely different experience from the first. In her other life, she seemed to watch herself evolve and observe the people and events around her as though they were in a film or a novel. The only way she had found to describe this odd separation from herself was to compare it to when photos, because the subject had moved while the photograph was being taken, appeared blurry and superimposed—as though the photographer had taken the soul by surprise.

, she sometimes said to herself,
I haven't been developed properly

Writing was her daily refuge. She tucked every element of her life into her diary, her reaction to books she read, descriptions of people she met, her doubts, fears and wishes. The process itself of writing things down was a physical sensation, a sensual pleasure, a comfort. She always used the same type of notebooks (Clairefontaine brand, spiral) with French-style graph paper pages that were just glossy enough to make her think her Waterman fountain pen was skating around the rink. She always used the same pen, and always put the little pink blotter, stained by blue ink marks, on the last page. She could not bring herself to replace the blotter, as though she were afraid her words would disappear along with it.

Taught by a Latin teacher who believed that form mattered as much as content, Émilie drew a margin down the left-hand side of the page and wrote the date and a title inside the margin. It was a comforting, child-like habit typical of a careful and studious young woman.

She spent long hours with her notebook, wrapped in a blanket of utter happiness. Everything was possible in writing, and everything was allowed. Her prolific reading had made that abundantly clear.

Outside of this secret garden, Émilie played all the games other girls her age enjoyed: She hoped boys would look at her and find her pretty, she tirelessly leafed through catalogues in search of the latest fashion that would make her irresistible; but then, in a split second, for no reason at all, everything would come tumbling down and she would be standing back watching herself, as though her soul had momentarily vacated her body. She would feel ridiculous and have an irrepressible urge to cry, cry enough tears to drown. In these moments, all that remained were the comfort of pen and paper.

Today, everything was fine. Late in the afternoon, as she was having a cup of hot chocolate with her best friend at the skating rink, her friend said, “Uncle François is here.”

“I know,” Émilie replied laconically.

What else could she have said? The emotion she felt from the minute he set foot on the island would be incomprehensible to her friend and everyone else she knew. She was sure of it. No one would understand even if she tried to explain.

“He was at grandmother's for tea this afternoon, and then he's going to your place.”

She thought at first that the lights around the rink were turned off, as they did when it was about to close. But no, that was not it. This place—her favourite place that welcomed her every Thursday and every weekend—had suddenly lost its lustre as soon as she knew that François was headed over to her house. There was only one thing she wanted to do: go straight home. Forget the snow!

Émilie took a deep breath and went into the living room. He was facing her. With the elegance she was so drawn to, François stood up to greet her the way he always did, as if she were a grown woman instead of a sixteen-year-old girl. She looked deep into his dark eyes as she approached him, and could see that he was relieved. So he had been waiting for her! He had been worried she might not come home. He opened his arms and hugged her, giving the customary kisses, one on each cheek, and she sat down in the little red armchair across from him.

In that magic moment of their reunion, she felt as though she had crossed over to her other existence, the one she had eloquently christened “my extraordinary life” in her diary. Her blood flowed more quickly in her veins, she sat up straighter, she felt clever, mature, like a grown woman…whole.

The contact between Émilie and François was so subtle and smooth that no one around them noticed how intense it was. For François, however, Émilie's affection was as palpable as if she was blind and touched his face to recognize him at each visit. Her unbounded admiration, this inexhaustible and undemanding affection she showed him, set off equally strong emotions that reminded him of the feelings he had on the sand in Langlade, a deep serenity and a heartfelt belief that he was finally where he was meant to be. Émilie's gaze, at once demure and penetrating, was nothing at all like the blind adoration of a schoolgirl infatuated with an older man, someone she could dream of without fearing that he would become bolder. When he looked in Émilie's eyes, he saw, instead, that she accepted him unconditionally, without having to suffer from this eternal schism between his past and his present. He also had the sense that he had something to give her as well. He was not sure what, but it was certainly something she had never asked of anyone else.

Completely overwhelmed by the intensity of that moment, Émilie allowed herself to become lulled by the conversation which had quickly resumed. She wanted to observe, to listen to him talk, all things that she would carefully write down in her diary later, even if it meant staying up part of the night to do so. In a few days, when he would be leaving, she would have this detailed account of his visit that would help her fill her days until he returned, a little pebble beach between two banks of fleeting happiness. For the moment, it seemed to her that she was only completely alive when he was near her. After a minute or two, François turned to her and she happily joined in the conversation.

The day after the snowstorm, day broke under a magnificent sun. The wind continued to howl. Émilie was awoken a little earlier than usual by gusts of wind coming in from the open sea and rattling the windowpane. Her whole room seemed to shake. She decided she may as well get up.

Émilie did not really like the fine weather, those postcard days when every wave, every cloud and every ray of sunshine was so neat and tidy. But today, she was eager to go out and watch the sea rise in anger and, it seemed to her, carry off her overflowing emotions.

She especially enjoyed it when the storm ended, when the worst was over and nature thought it was finally time to calm down. She felt that she wouldn't be disappointed this morning: Although she couldn't see the ocean from her window, the moans and creaks of the window pane let her know the direction and the force of the wind. Since most people found her taste in weather unusual, to say the least, she knew she would not have a lot of company on the shore.

On the islands, people took note, almost religiously, of fair-weather days on their calendars and agendas. Those incomparable days when all the elements—from the wind to the sun, from the landscape to the seascape—joined together to create of the islands a true paradise. It was so rare that they wanted to write down all the details: what they did to celebrate the occasion, whether they had a picnic and where or with whom, and especially what the “high temperature” of the day was, proudly announced on the radio by the weather service thrilled to be able, for once, to be the bearer of good news.

“It's odd,” her grandmother had remarked as she wrapped her scarf around her face and put on her woollen mittens, “you don't like going out for a walk unless the weather is terrible.”

Émilie did not answer; she had wondered the same thing herself and tried numerous times, unsuccessfully, to come up with a reasonable explanation.

Bundled up warmly to face the blustery wind from the sea, Émilie headed for the wharf and then, courageously, for Pointe aux Canons. The ocean greeted her with a slap of cold wind that took her breath away. Doing her best to catch it again, she walked out to the shore, where she could be as close as possible to the rolling waves.

It was too bad, she thought, that in Saint-Pierre, unless you walk for a good hour out to the coves at Alumette or Savoyard, it was hard to get close to the ocean. A wharf, a breakwater, or in this case the port itself got in the way of getting close to the giant. It was not like Langlade; there, on stormy days, you could climb on the dunes and be at one with the ocean, stand within reach of its waves, feel its angry spray and foam on your face.

She finally reached the spot she was looking for, between the Île aux Marins and the cliffs of the Route du Cap. From here, she could see the monster, far behind Petit St-Pierreits, waves lead-coloured despite the sun, their foamy crests, broken off of the waves by the squalls, floating over them like an eerie mist. In the distance, the windswept coast of Newfoundland, flecked by large ice patches, emerged in a rare brightness. There was not a boat in sight; no one would have been foolish enough to take to the sea.

Despite the cold, Émilie took deep breaths, filling her lungs with the odours of iodine, seaweed, and even the pungent garbage from the port. Without thinking, she tasted the damp, salty air that always reminded her of the blocks of butter she was sent to get at the Olivier farm every summer, and that the farmer's wife carefully wrapped in waxed paper.

A particularly strong squall nearly knocked her to the ground as she made her way along the slippery stones and she resigned herself to walking back up the hill to the road, which was sheltered from the windy salt-shore. It was here that she caught sight of François, walking along the other side of the road. Camera in hand, he was examining some old buildings that were from another age, a time when fishing, tall ships, rope-makers, and caulkers still gave life to the island, the golden age of the “terre-neuvas.”

Nowadays in the port of Saint-Pierre, people spoke Gallician and Basque, and the Spanish trawlers that ploughed through the waters near the Grand Banks, two by two, had replaced the sailing ships from Saint-Malo and Granville. The warehouses filled with salt cod in the early years of the colony and then with crates of alcohol during the Prohibition in the 1930s now languished in a slow and anguishing decline, their siding, roof shingles, and window frames lifted off by one gust of wind after the other.

Émilie walked over to François, overjoyed at their chance meeting. For once, there was no one around, no appearances to keep up, no faking interest in a boring conversation. As she was crossing the street, he turned in her direction and waved vigorously at her. He hoisted the strap of his camera back up on his shoulder and watched her move towards him.

Émilie glowed with happiness; she was almost running in her eagerness to get to him.
When was the last time someone looked at me like that?
François wondered, touched by her spontaneity.

Heaven knows why, but women were interested in him! He was never without women to go out with, companions who would spend an evening with him, a few weeks, occasionally a few months. His social standing, his success, his very comfortable income—François was modest, he would never think of calling it “wealth”—made it easy to meet people this way. He often thought it was more a question of a woman's pride in “catching” a successful architect, the thrill of the conquest, than it was about being interested in him. This doubt made him hesitate to talk to them about anything serious; he had never tried to describe his childhood or his career or his deepest desires, even to the most intelligent of the women he met.

“What are you doing out here in this wind?” François exclaimed when she was beside him.

“The same thing as you are, I imagine,” laughed Émilie. She gave him a kiss on each cheek, her lips icy and salty at the same time.

He started to laugh: Only she could talk to him unpretentiously like that. He had noticed that people did not speak to him the same way anymore. In the last few years, they seemed to talk with him differently. Was it out of respect or embarrassment? Did his fame and fortune intimidate them? Some, indeed, seemed impressed, and he suspected that even people who disagreed with him completely treated him with kid gloves. But not Émilie! With her, it was quite the opposite. When they were at a family dinner, or having a relaxed conversation with friends as they were the night before, nothing he said escaped her. She commented on it, argued with it, made it a point to stand up to him every time, as a point of honour, as though she were chatting with a schoolmate.

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