Read The Islands of Dr. Thomas Online

Authors: Francoise Enguehard

The Islands of Dr. Thomas (8 page)

BOOK: The Islands of Dr. Thomas

When visitors could no longer bear the glassy-eyed and, it seemed, reproachful looks of the fox and its cohort, they moved into the
pièce de résistance
, the room that contained the most precious objects: original manuscripts dating from the return of the islands to France in 1816—“For the last time,” Henriette repeated tirelessly, to remind people that the history of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon consisted of unending battles between France and England. “Our islands were set on fire seven times,” she would add emphatically. Next to these documents was prominently displayed something that looked like a deformed cannon ball, but it was actually the melted remains of the church bell of the first church in Saint-Pierre, destroyed in 1902 by a violent fire. And nearby was the head of Christ on the cross, a wooden sculpture that obviously belonged to a roadside Calvary: Years standing in the headwinds, and slapped by salt fog, had given the divine face a colour that was doubtlessly similar to Christ's own after his long agony on Mount Golgotha. To this odd assortment were added a few naive paintings by the only known artist of the islands, a Mr. Lemoine, vaguely remembered by a few elderly residents, and most of whose work had been rescued from attics and renovation projects since the museum had opened. Every centimetre of the wall was covered, and showcases filled all the remaining space. One display case contained a collection of bills from the CFA Bank. Jacques had no idea where there would be room for Doctor Thomas' photos in all this clutter.

“Move something, that's easy to say, Edmond,” continued Henriette. “But you know very well that the collections are fragile. If we move them, we never know what might happen to them...”

Actually, the problem was that the museum, housed in a wooden building that was over a century old, had been overheated in the winter, the way all public buildings were, and in the summer had been left open to the attacks of the strong sunshine. This meant that the majority of items he was so determined to protect were slowly deteriorating.

“I know!” The voice came from a member of the inner circle who had been pensive up until that point. “We can take out the animals and the rocks. At least they'll have no trouble being moved.”

“Marvellous!” cried Edmond. “The problem is solved.”

Jacques did a quick mental calculation of the space that would be freed up by the removal of the taxidermy and geology sections. “That should do it,” he concluded. “Thank you.”

He decided not to ask where the wild animals, the quartz, and the granite would find a home.

The museum members got to work very quickly. Since there was no storage space in the museum, they divided the objects among themselves. The fox, the snipe, the goose, and the owl got a breath of fresh air as they were trotted over to somebody's house, while Brother Marie-Victorin's volume was returned to Henriette, who had lent it in the first place. The snowy owl, the partridge, and the Arctic hare took a little ride in the truck to a third member's house. The museum committee swept the floor clean and declared the room ready to present the photography exhibition that Edmond and Jacques had agreed to call:
The Islands of Doctor Thomas

This time François took the scenic route to get to his islands. Instead of going to Montreal, he landed in Gander, in the middle of Newfoundland, rented a car—a big Impala—and drove to Fortune, a little village on the south coast, across from Saint-Pierre, where a little fishing boat was waiting to take him across to the islands.

The trip would give him a chance to make a gradual transition through time and space. The road to the Burin Peninsula, which normally took five or six hours in good weather, would do him good. It was certainly not the kind of paradise tourists with their Kodaks were after; the barrens stretched out as far as the eye could see, interrupted only by a few spindly fir trees that hinted timidly at the presence of a nearby stream. Other than that, there were enormous rocks—which François imagined had been abandoned by gods who had tired of their cosmic lawn bowling game—and a few puddles, tiny ponds. Peace.

After an hour or two, he could feel his stress disappear and his tired muscles relax, all the worries he carried with him every day vanish in this awesomely desolate landscape. Autumn was particularly well-suited to this part of the world, with its raw colours: In the refreshing, crisp air the blue of the sky turned cobalt in the ponds along the road, the heather like a fiery frame to the quartz glinting in the sun. There were no villages in this area. In fact, there was a section of the highway that went for almost a hundred kilometres without a single gas station. Here and there, highway signs announced the invisible communities of Grand-le-Pierre, Bay-L'argent, or Famine: “French names everywhere,” his brother kept saying, “France was everywhere and it abandoned everything.” A few cars passing in the other direction attested to the presence of these little hamlets close by, down a side road or up at a point.

By the time he got to Fortune, François had long ago discarded his identity of famous architect and put on the one that was much more comfortable, that of a local son, homeward bound. The sad fishing village with its tiny old-fashioned houses, its fish processing plant that spurted out pungent odours, with its narrow port where a few rusty trawlers, skiffs, and dories were moored—all of this seemed magnificent to him. With the confident stride of someone who loves the sea and who is eager to feel the rolling waves in his legs, François looked around for the friend who had been entrusted with the special assignment of bringing him home. As soon as he had found him, he handed the keys to the car rental agent, stowed his bag on the boat, and jumped in.

They reached Saint-Pierre during the night, at around eleven o'clock. The weather was so calm and the sky so clear that during the crossing he had been able to stand on the deck and look at the constellations, a rare treat for a city-dweller used to light pollution drowning out the power of the night. He could feel the iodine caresses of the sea breeze, a sign of welcome that touched him deeply. In the distance, muffled by the door of the wheelhouse that had been closed to keep the cool night air out, he could make out the conversations of a few crew members, who after a bit of small talk had left him alone on the deck. They could instinctively guess his need for solitude as he looked forward to his reunion with what they were lucky enough to call their everyday life.

Sitting by herself on a mooring buoy, Émilie watched the boat come into the harbour. You had to know where to look. She first picked out the light at the top of the mast as it slipped slowly into the roadstead, then down the Pointe aux Canons channel to the customs dock, before the boat appeared for a second in the projectors on the wharf. Her heart seemed to be racing even faster in the silence and solitude of the night.

The boat slipped into its regular place. In the lamplight of the wheelhouse she could see her father steering the vessel and make out a few other people, who were busy putting on their jackets and gathering up their luggage. She moved closer to the ship to catch the mooring line they were going to throw to her. At least that was her official reason for being on the wharf. She was in fact searching for François. She did not see him, she heard him.


He was leaning against one of the two dories tied to the rear deck, completely hidden by the darkness, at the exact place where, if she had been lucky enough to make the crossing on such a lovely night, she would have chosen to sit.

Pleased to surprise her, he climbed up the little ladder to the wharf and before anyone could set foot on land or come and interrupt them, he took her in his arms and held her for a moment, a more intimate gesture than any kiss could have been.

“So, it's done?”

“All done.”

He loosened his grasp a little to let her see him, to get a good sense of his emotion. Then he leaned towards her and whispered in her ear, as if it were the most precious secret in the world.

“Thank you.”

She could hear her father turn the engine key, a car stop on the wharf, the doors slam. François moved a few steps away, held her hand for a moment before letting go completely, and in a split second took on his role of local son. Only an hour before he had been convinced that he no longer had to pretend or prove anything when he was home.

“Thank you for picking me up,” François said, before climbing into his brother's car. “See you tomorrow,” he said to the little crowd, while still looking at Émilie.

The next morning, his first visit was to Jacques' studio. Émilie was in class, which annoyed him a little.

“So, where are these photos?”

The photographer smiled at his impatience.

“You wouldn't want to do that without Émilie, surely?”

François grinned like a naughty child who had been caught. Nonetheless, his eyes darted around the studio, hoping to find a pile of large-framed photographs.

“No use looking,” teased the photographer. “Your photos are hanging somewhere where you can see them all properly. They are worth it, believe me. Émilie made a wonderful selection. In my opinion, she has impeccable judgment. It's impressive in someone so young,” he added.

François listened to the photographer describe Émilie's qualities the way a father drinks in compliments about his daughter. He felt absurdly proud of her. Or was it of himself? Proud of having nurtured this tender bond between them instead of brushing it aside the way he usually did with his emotions.

“When are you planning to show them to me?” he asked, realizing that the stage had been set for a special event and he would not be able to escape from the performance.

“This afternoon at five o'clock. At the museum.”

“The museum?”

“Don't worry, they made room. However, Edmond made me promise you would leave the photographs on display there for two weeks, so that the whole town could see them.”

“Why not? Two weeks won't make much difference to me.”

The photographer entertained him for a few more minutes by telling him the story of the trouble they had getting the photos up to the third floor, the debates about the arrangement and the order they should be put in, the height at which they should be hung, the captions that Émilie did not want to put on them so that François would discover each image the way she had. On that point, Jacques and Émilie had reached a compromise: The captions would be placed under each frame after his visit.

A customer came into the studio.

“A passport photo,” the photographer whispered. “I have to go. Remember: five o'clock.”

At five minutes to five, François arrived in front of the museum. He did not know if he should go in or wait outside. He was as nervous as a schoolboy, and felt ridiculous for being nervous. He waited a few more minutes, shook the hands of a few passersby, then decided to go up. Since there was no one in the hallway, he climbed the stairs as fast as he could in an attempt to relieve the stress. Émilie was already at the door of the museum. He could tell that she was as anxious as he was.

He gave her a kiss on each cheek, stepped back a bit, and then said, in an artificially casual tone: “All right, shall we go?”

“Let's go.”

They were alone.

“Jacques will come a bit later. He had an appointment with a client,” she explained.

François suspected it had more to do with discretion.

“And where are they, exactly?”

“In the natural history room.”

Slowly, moving as if to make the most of their anticipation, they walked down the hall past the collections. Sometimes, to tease her, he would stop for a moment in front of some object, pretend to examine it, while looking at her out of the corner of his eye. She played along with a good-natured attitude, smiling in spite of her impatience so that he could tell she was not gullible. Total understanding even when playing games.

Finally they entered the room where the photographs were exhibited. It was the fruit of months of work, and she hoped it would be to his liking.

François was flabbergasted. The photos, which were superb, recounted without words the history of the islands and their people, their hard work and dedication, their rare moments of relaxation and enjoyment, the beauty of nature and also its cruelty. He was overcome by the strange sensation that there was something else underlying the photos. On the walls, he saw an expression of his own feelings, better than he could have expressed them himself. These images, captured by another man in another era, conveyed his sense of being torn and conflicted, the dissatisfaction with work despite success, the deep-rooted questions about the meaning of life, the feeling of never being completely at home...
All this in someone else's photos
, he thought.

Speechless, stunned, he moved slowly and silently from one frame to the next with Émilie at his side.

Everything was contained in these images: the happiness of simple pleasures and the pain they can cause, beauty and ugliness inextricably linked, emotion in the face of things that cannot be said, nostalgia for the past and the tensions of the present, the hidden sorrow, the ineffable distress in everyday actions. All these contradictions—his own as well as those of the artist—were obvious to him. They had been understood... no, the word was too weak...felt, grasped, both by the mysterious doctor and this young woman at his side who had chosen the images and therefore must also have felt the same tensions. He could not find any words to describe how he felt. It was skin deep, raw emotion. He finally found the courage to turn towards Émilie, who was waiting for his verdict, her heart in her throat, nervous. Moving away from these images that were such an accurate reflection of him, he said, “How did you do it?”

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