He was frowning. Perhaps, like a schoolboy, he was poking out the tip of his tongue? Lips set, a sulky expression on his face, he was snatching glimpses at Gène, trying to imitate his movements as closely as possible.
But it was no good: something was wrong, because the result wasn’t the same. He was honest enough to recognize this, and obstinate enough to contain his impatience. His hand was trailing outside the boat, like Gène’s, no more or less, quite relaxed; he had immediately understood that it was essential to relax. Only his index finger was slightly raised, supporting the hempen fishing line that the locals called a boulantin.
The quality of the line wasn’t in question. His and Gène’s were identical. Just now, Gène, who always guessed what he was thinking without ever looking at him, had suggested:
‘Come over here. Take my place, hold my line. Could be you’ll have more luck then.’
The sea, calm as a millpond, without a ripple, was breathing slowly but deeply. And this imperceptible movement troubled the doctor more than the turbulent pounding of waves might have. At every shift of the liquid surface, he could feel the lead weight on his line lifting from the bottom. So he leaned over the side. He could see about ten metres down, perhaps more, a scene to which he found it hard to accustom himself, rocks separating deep purple clefts, a plateau covered with seaweed, and most of all the fish, quite big fish, silver or rusty-red, coming and going peaceably, in silence, hesitating sometimes for an instant in front of his bait. In spite of his efforts, his hand trembled, a slight moisture broke out on his upper lip, he was ready to give a tug on his line. Why had that fish turned away?
He raised his head and sighed. He found it impossible to stay long peering deep into the water. His heart was palpitating. He had a pain at the back of his eyes and a headache. It was becoming a nightmare. Every time he looked at the Mèdes rock, he had the sensation that the little boat, with its two pointed ends, was getting nearer to it. They didn’t even have an anchor. Gène had simply dropped a large stone into the water on the end of a rope. Was he watching out for the rock? You could see quite clearly how the sea rose and fell, uncovering a large strip of viscous moss and shellfish. Without any breakers, the water was nevertheless covered with white foam, and some of the enormous bubbles washed up against the hull of the boat.
Gène sat on one of the thwarts, an old cap on his head, as motionless as a statue of Buddha, his gaze apparently ranging with indifference far into the dazzling horizon.
Of this, the doctor could only see a blaze that irritated his retina, whereas Gène, who could see everything, announced expressionlessly:
‘Here comes the Cormoran, she’s back from La Tour Fondue . . . There’s Joseph setting his nets by the lighthouse.’
As he spoke, he was pulling in his line, unhurriedly, as if checking that the hooks were still baited, but there was always a fish on the end.
And he slipped it into a container full of fresh algae, picked up a hermit crab (they called them piades here), smashed its shell and threaded it on to the hook.
Rattled, the doctor hauled in his own line. It was jerking, alive. Every time it did this, he sensed he had a big catch, that a miracle was happening and that he was going to amaze the fisherman. And every time, it was one of those nasty fish covered with spines, not even a scorpion-fish, but what Gène called a diable, which had to be taken off the hook – first wrapping one’s hand in a cloth – and thrown back into the water.
Why could he only catch these diables, or at best tiny sérans? They were fishing in the same place, no more than a metre apart. You could see quite clearly down in the water the pink tips of the hermit-crab shells moving across the sea floor; twice their lines had become entangled. You could see the fish too. The doctor was certain he was making the same movements as Gène. He wasn’t a novice. Back in Saint-Hilaire, he was the only angler capable of light fly-fishing on the Sèvre, a more delicate skill than sea-fishing.
He had taken a sudden dislike to that great rock rising up out of the sea so close to them, which continued, heaven knew why, to frighten him. He was getting equally irritated with the sea itself, the perfectly calm blue sea, on which he had been so happy to sail out on this little white boat with its blue gunnels.
His wife had not dared to tease him when he had come back from the cooperative store wearing a straw hat in the shape of a pith helmet, such as he had seen worn by the locals: she had simply said, with her provincial accent:
‘You bought a hat, then?’
He had only to look up to see her, perhaps three hundred metres away; it was difficult, with the water in between, to gauge distances. In the curve of the bay lay one of the island’s sandy beaches, Notre-Dame Beach, shaded by umbrella pines. That white patch on the sand was his wife, sitting quite still, occupied in sewing or knitting. The black patch alongside her was Mariette, their young housemaid, whom they had brought on holiday with them from Saint-Hilaire. The tiny figure doing somersaults on the sand or climbing on to the women’s laps was their son Michel, and the little girl, who was called back every time the water reached her knees, their daughter.
He could see them, and from where they were, they could see him, sitting at one end of Gène’s small boat. It was very hot. Skin exposed to the sun would bake, and by next morning would have turned brick-red. He had experienced this the day before. He had gone out for a walk with his shirtsleeves rolled up. Now, as far as the elbows, his arms looked like raw meat, while higher up the skin seemed pale and unhealthy.
He felt light-headed. He was regretting having hired Gène for an afternoon’s fishing. He would have liked to turn for home, but dared not suggest it.
It was looking down into the depths especially that did it. That clear landscape, so strange and inhuman that he felt he was discovering another planet. The smells too, the salt water, his fingers, which had been handling fish and shellfish, the fragrance from the sun-baked Mediterranean shrubs, carried out to them on the breeze.
He still clung to the childish hope of hooking a good catch and surprising Gène; he frowned even harder, and leaned out over the water until he was dizzy.
They had been in Porquerolles only four days, and already he was tired of it. Utterly worn out. The sun was exhausting. Everything required an effort, an effort to adapt, an effort to understand. The island was indeed beautiful, as his friend Gardanne, the painter of the river Sèvre near Nantes, had assured him. Probably he was just a fish out of water here himself.
‘Pull in!’ Gène said.
He hauled sharply on his line. There was something on the other end, but he had drawn up no more than two metres of it before the fish had escaped.
Now all he could think of was his headache. He was smoking, which was the wrong thing to do because it made him thirsty, and the local wine, which they had brought with them, had warmed up lying in the boat and made him feel sick
Now and then the sound of an engine could be heard. It would be a boat like theirs, a little larger or smaller. Almost always, there would be one or more summer visitors aboard, while a local man stood motionless at the tiller. As it came level with them, he would lift his arm in greeting and Gène would do the same.
‘It’s Ferdinand,’ he would say simply, as if that was enough, as if Ferdinand was world famous.
One of these bustling boats now headed straight for them. It had come from the harbour, not from the open sea. When it was a few metres away, the engine was cut and the boat drifted up until it gently bumped them.
‘You’re the doctor? Do you mind coming? It’s this woman, she’s dying.’
And for Gène’s benefit, the man added offhandedly:
Then he explained:
‘Yeah, we do have a doctor on the island, but he’s away to Fréjus for a wedding, won’t be back till next week.’
‘You better get in his boat,’ Gène advised him. ‘Faster than mine, it is.’
The doctor was a big man. His ninety kilos made the boat lurch dangerously, and he almost fell into the other vessel, before finding himself sitting on a thwart.
‘Will you be going back now, Gène?’
‘Soon as I’ve pulled in the lines.’
‘Get any péquois?’
The engine hiccuped, then started to turn over, the boat swung round in a half-circle and now the doctor could see Notre-Dame Beach, with his wife and children, on his left. He waved to them as they went past. He had tried to persuade them to come out in Gène’s boat, saying they could be taken back later, but Hélène hadn’t wanted anything to do with it. When they had arrived in their car at Giens Point, and she had seen the ferry, the Cormoran, waiting to take them over to the island, she had blenched; she had had to overcome her fear in order even to set foot on board, and now the thought of the end of their holiday, which would mean another sea-crossing, had become a nightmare to her.
They sailed on round some rocks, under an old fort baking in the sun and abandoned to the lizards. The family had been there for a walk the previous day. The ground was covered with a strange squashy vegetation, with red berries that crunched underfoot. The abandoned fort had no doors or windows left. Its walls seemed to be made of white dust, petrified over the centuries by the sun.
There, too, the doctor had felt ill at ease. It had made him think of the Middle Ages, the Crusades. He jumped every time a basking lizard or grass snake made a move, although he had been assured there were no vipers on the island.
‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘It’s her chest getting her. Nothing new, she’s been ailing for years, but this time, looks like the end.’
Here and there, on a beach or one of the island’s paths, he could see groups of people, standing still or walking, holidaymakers like his own family, setting out to explore the place, in white clothes and straw hats. Over there, the jetty. And the harbour, where a dozen yachts were moored, and a man under a derrick was painting a boat bright blue.
‘It’s not far, up behind the church. I’ll take you. You’ll tie up the boat for us, Polyte?’
They left it bobbing in the harbour. The air was thick and heavy. The ground, the trees, the walls, all gave off fumes, waves of heat. Instead of crossing the main square, a bare yellow expanse where groups of men were playing boules, they turned left, climbed a steep path and passed a rubbish heap: the doctor allowed himself to be guided and could still feel the movement of the sea inside his head: his whole body was continuing to live at a rhythm too calm and powerful to be its usual one, so much so that he felt for a moment the urge to feel his pulse, to check that it was normal.
‘Over this way . . .’
They crossed a road, in a place where he wasn’t expecting to find one. They were very near the village, but a little above it, at roof level, and there under the trees, beyond a waste patch, was a row of low buildings, an old barracks perhaps, or, as it turned out, former storage huts for the French Army Engineers. Two women, standing out in the glare of the sun, watched them approach. On the ground near them, were two half-naked and grubby children.
And a door standing open on to a dark blue shadow, almost the same blue as the bottom of the sea.
The two women followed him with their eyes, without speaking. He almost caught his foot in the long prickly leaves of Barbary figs and cactuses growing there for no particular reason.
‘Go inside, doctor.’
At first he couldn’t see anything. Then a figure gradually emerged, a woman coming towards them from the dark interior. She said:
‘I think she’s just gone.’
The doctor glimpsed a red patch: a young girl, in a dress as scarlet as a flag, her thin legs bare, crouching in a corner, against the wall, and staring at them.
And finally, on a mattress on the floor, he saw or rather guessed at, the woman he had been called to attend, a motionless form under a blanket, the face terrifyingly thin, the eyes open and unseeing.
She had only just died. The body was still warm. He smelled broth and found a bowl which one of the women had no doubt brought her, but which was untouched.
‘She is dead, isn’t she?’
The eyes of the girl in the red dress were still staring at him through the darkness and he hesitated to answer the woman, who went on:
‘The last hour, she was trembling all over, I had to hold her . . . Sweating too . . . Bad smell . . . I can still smell it on my hands.’
The young girl hadn’t budged. Crouched down as she was, it was impossible to guess how old she might be.
‘She did want to say something . . . She kept trying, but no, she couldn’t manage it. In the end, I saw these two big tears in her eyes, and I thought then, this must be it. With her arms and legs going, like a rabbit when you knock it out. Just as you were getting in the harbour in Bastou’s boat . . . But even if you’d been here, doctor, you couldn’t have done anything for her, could you?’
No, nothing. He looked around. The man who had led him there was talking to the two women outside. They were outlined against a dazzling sunlit rectangle. Another person was slowly climbing up the path, between the Barbary figs and cactuses. He wore a wide-brimmed gardener’s hat, and the blue of his overall was more sumptuous than the blue of the sky.
‘Look, here comes the mayor now, I sent after him.’ They weren’t in a proper bedroom. It was like nothing he’d ever seen. There were four walls that had once been whitewashed. No window, just the open door. Alongside the mattress of the dead woman were others, covered with rags and old clothes serving as blankets.
Perhaps it was indeed the smell of sweat that lingered in the air, but mixed with other vague and bitter odours, a child’s urine, sour milk, garlic and fish, as well as the fragrance of the pines and arbutus which was the background scent of the island.
‘She’s just died, just now; doctor’s with her.’
The two women outside were reporting the death to the mayor, who now loomed up in the doorway, accustoming his eyes to the semi-darkness, then came forward and automatically took off his straw hat. But in order not to give too much importance to this gesture, he scratched his head, his dark hair standing up in spikes.
‘Frans isn’t on the island, then?’ he asked.
He was the grocer from the shop on the village square, the doctor recognized him, since that very morning he had bought some sweets from him for his daughter.
‘And you’re sure she’s dead?’
In reply, the doctor simply closed the dead woman’s eyes, with a troubled glance at the red dress which had still not moved.
‘Oh, it’s a nuisance,’ the mayor sighed, scratching his head again.
And turning to the women:
‘How long has he been away?’
‘Since day before yesterday.’
‘So he might not be back for three or four days, say?
Come here, my dear, when did your papa go away?’
The girl repeated:
‘Day before yesterday.’
But she didn’t move from the spot, still crouching against the wall.
‘And you don’t know how much money he had?’
‘Did he leave some for your mama?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Where’s her purse?’
He looked around. It was the girl who pointed out to him a hole in the wall, at head height, and where there was indeed a battered purse. The grocer knew it well, because it was from that purse that the woman took her cash when she came to the shop.
‘Just six francs left,’ he announced.
Flies were starting to buzz at the back of the room where the corpse lay.
The doctor had been feeling disoriented for a while now. He didn’t try to react or understand. And yet the words burned themselves into his memory so forcefully, without his realizing it, that he was able later on to recall them with as much accuracy as the nursery rhymes learned in childhood. It was the same with the images, especially the red dress, the simple red cotton dress that the skinny young girl was wearing as her sole clothing. Her hair was pale blonde, her eyes blue. The dead woman too had fair hair, the colour of flax.
‘We’ll need to send Polyte off to get Frans.
He’ll find him if anyone can . . . It stinks in here. You coming outside, doctor?’
And the neighbour who had been there with the dying woman asked him, pointing to the corpse:
‘What’ll I do with her?’
Outside, through the greenery, could be seen the pink roofs of the village, the yellow church, the square where tiny figures were still playing boules; then the harbour with its sailing boats and sightseers, the jetty, the blue mountains of the mainland, and beyond, in the strip of sunlit sea, a warship steaming past at full speed: a torpedo boat with slim lines.
‘You’ll maybe come down to the town hall with me, got to get the burial permit?’
Then the mayor scratched his shoulder and complained:
‘We’re sure to have caught some fleas. It was crawling with ’em back there. Lucky for us you were there, I’d have had to get a doctor over from Hyères for the formalities.’
The doctor allowed himself to be led down, turning back from time to time, and the low row of army huts, with only one occupied, the grey-green cactuses and thornbushes, the tall umbrella pines with their sloping trunks, imprinted themselves on his mind, along with the women who had now moved towards the buildings, leaving the two half-naked children to themselves.
‘They’re the only people like that we’ve got on the island,’ the mayor explained, as they went down the steep path. ‘They came over under the old mayor, six years ago, or I’d never have let them settle here. They didn’t ask permission from anyone. They just appeared one fine day, off the Cormoran, with nothing but an old colonial tin trunk. They only had the two children then. The woman was pregnant. They didn’t ask anyone for anything. I don’t even know where they slept the first night, probably on the beach, although I think it was February or March, and the Mistral could’ve been blowing.’
They crossed the baking hot square surrounded by the eucalyptus trees shading both the façades of houses painted in glaring colours, red, blue and green, and the café terraces, empty at this hour.
‘Nobody said they could go and live in those buildings, they’re the property of the Army Engineers. People didn’t realize at first that’s where they were. My wife, one day, she saw the man come into our shop. He bought a candle, sugar, margarine, and paid for them. Then a few days later, he turned up at the town hall. It was closed as usual, so he went to find the mayor in his house. And he had to wait till he came back from fishing, because our old mayor, that’s all he did, go fishing. He took out some papers from his pocket, and said he wanted to declare a birth. The woman, she’d had her baby all on her own, up there where you saw her! On the papers, the man’s name was Frans Klamm. It might not be his real name. He was fifteen years in the Foreign Legion. You’ll see him, if Polyte manages to get hold of him. Wait, we’d better go and find Polyte in the harbour. Hey –’ turning to a child – ‘you haven’t seen your dad, have you, my dear?’
‘He’s just gone into Maurice’s café.’
‘Polyte! Hey, Polyte!’
A man wearing blue canvas trousers, a rumpled shirt and a seaman’s cap.
‘Ah, now Polyte, we need you. Can you get hold of Frans somehow? His wife has died.’
‘When did he go off?’
‘Day before yesterday.’
‘Who’s going to pay me?’
‘Don’t know. Well, town hall, I dare say, I’ll see to it. Know where you might find him?’
Other men were listening in the darkness of the café, where the zinc counter glinted.
‘Can I take Gène with me?’
‘He’s out fishing.’
‘No, he’s on his way back. Five minutes and he’ll be coming round the jetty.’
‘As you like. Doctor, you coming? Just wait while I get the town hall keys.’
And the grocer went inside the fragrant-smelling shop and took a bundle of keys out of the cash register. The town hall was nearby, only ten metres away, a white singlestorey building: just the one room, with a little garden in front.
‘After you. At first we hoped the army would chuck them out. But they didn’t even bother about them. Sit down, I’ll just look for the forms, wait a bit.’
He opened the window to let the light in and fumbled in some pigeonholes full of papers. The room was small. There were paper chains on the walls and a tricolour flag behind the white plaster bust of a woman representing the Republic.
‘If they’d been beggars, we’d have had something to pin on them. But they were crafty enough never to ask for anything. You understand? Not even free medical care. And yet, God knows, she could have done with it.’
‘The husband works?’ asked the doctor, surprising himself by the sound of his own voice.
‘When he feels like it. You’ll see him. He’s quite good with his hands. He helps the fishermen mend their nets, or stands in for someone on a fishing boat. He does this and that, helps haul up a boat or clean the hull. An odd job here, an odd job there. They live on practically nothing. Then all at once, when he has a bit of extra cash, and he gets the urge, he pushes off. He never gets drunk on the island. He takes the Cormoran. And people know what that means. He’s been seen in Toulon. He goes straight there. And he goes on a blinder, know what I mean? Four or five days, no more, as a rule. Polyte knows some of the bars where he could be. The man doesn’t recognize anyone. He’s always alone. I never go to that kind of place, but the others tell me . . . I knew I had these papers somewhere. Here we are. Got a pen on you? No? I don’t know if this one works.’
‘What was the name again?’ asked the doctor with the pen in his hand.
And he had to mop his brow and cheeks because of the sweat rolling down his face.
‘Frans Klamm. Let me check her name in the register . . . A foreign name too. But she’s French. They are married, mind. I’ve seen their papers. Here we are. Frans Klamm. My word, he’s only fifty-two. If you were to see him, you’d be hard put to guess his age. The wife . . . Anna Kayaerts. Born in Hondschoote. Apparently it’s on the Belgian border, near Dunkerque. She was only thirty-six last November. If you want to copy her name . . .’
He wrote out the death certificate and burial permit, with a sputtering pen. The mayor scratched his head.
‘And now it’ll be a right business to get her buried. Thing is, there’s practically no room left in the cemetery, outside the family concessions. You’ll see. It’s very small. We’ve got two already in a temporary vault, waiting for a space. And she isn’t even from around here. In theory she’s got no right.’
He had obviously just raised a question that was of major importance to him, for he thought it over, muttering to himself, before finally coming to a decision:
‘I’ll have to call a council meeting. And what if Polyte doesn’t find him right away? . . . With this heat, there’ll be an infection in two days. And it’s crawling with vermin up there, like I told you. My advice, by the way, is to change your clothes and have a bath when you get back.’
‘But where will you put her for now?’
‘Do you think I should . . . ?’
‘Or get the children away from there. Those two little kids playing outside, they’re hers, aren’t they? They can’t stay all night in the room where their mother . . .’ ‘No, of course not. But what can I do? Nobody’s going to take care of them, especially with the father away, because you never know how he’d take it. And as for her . . . Unless we put her in the cells.’
‘Behind the church, the council has a sort of lock-up, we sometimes use it as a police cell. It’s full of stuff. It’s where we keep the fire-fighting equipment, the benches and banners for the Fourteenth of July and St Anne’s Day. I’ll take a look. There’s a coffin in there. We always have one in reserve, for the few times we find someone drowned. Thank you, doctor. You’re at the Pension Saint-Charles, aren’t you? In case I need you again.’
He found himself back in the square and not sure what to do. No doubt his wife, Mariette and the children would be walking back slowly from the beach. The sun was starting to go down. The mayor had joined a group of boules players who had interrupted their game. They were standing around now, talking, looking both important and awkward.
The doctor had sat down on the terrace of the Arche de Noé Hotel and ordered an aperitif, since he still had a strange feeling in his chest.
Never had he felt so far away from home, or so far away from himself. The smell on his hands, which had been touching the hermit crabs and then the corpse, made him feel sick. He went to wash them at an enamel hand basin inside the café.
‘What did the mayor decide?’ asked the hotel owner, standing there in his white apron.
‘I don’t know . . . I think maybe they’re going to take her to the lock-up.
The group of men was heading for a lane at the side of the church. The doctor set off slowly to meet his family, and his route took him not far from the army huts, where now there were four or five women standing round the threshold, and a dozen children playing on the ground in front.
He couldn’t see the girl’s red dress, but went on past, and finally after a turning in the shade of the umbrella pines, caught sight of his wife walking along holding their younger child by the hand, while Mariette, carrying the picnic bag which now contained their sewing things, was further back, arguing with the older child, who was dawdling.
He approached them and could see his wife’s lips moving already. She waited until they were nearer to speak.
‘They came to call you out, did they?’ she asked. ‘For someone who was sick?’
As a doctor’s wife, she was used to it.
‘And what about the fishing? Did you catch anything? But what’s the matter. You look red in the face.’
‘Just a rush of blood to the head.’
‘I’ll bet you’ve got a touch of the sun again. Come on, Jeanne! Do what Mariette tells you!’
They were tired. It had been very hot. Everyone had damp skin and a sour taste in the mouth. Michel allowed himself to be pulled along. His father picked him up and carried him on his shoulders.
‘Was it something serious?’
‘It was all over by the time I got there.’
They would soon be back at the Pension Saint-Charles, with its white walls and blue shutters, its rooms painted a dazzling white, its guests now coming back, as they were themselves, from one of the beaches or from a boat trip, its waitresses laying the tables, and the smell of Mediterranean food.
They passed the army huts again on their way back. Some men were coming up the hill pushing a handcart on which the coffin had been placed, a simple box of plain deal, not even body-shaped, being both too wide and too long for the corpse it would hold.
The priest came out of the hut and walked away slowly, opening his breviary.
‘Was it there?’ the doctor’s wife asked.
The local children, now emboldened, had started a noisy game around the buildings. The group of women was larger now, and talking more volubly, one of the dead woman’s small children was eating a piece of bread and jam some kind soul had given him, and the girl in the red dress must have stayed in her corner inside, since the doctor couldn’t see her.
‘Leave your father’s hat alone, Michel!’ said Madame Mahé to her son, who was drumming on the straw helmet.
And she turned round to look at her daughter, still dragging her feet in the dust of the path, with the bad grace of tired children.
From THE MAHE CIRCLE. Used with permission of Penguin Classics. Translator Sian Reynolds. Copyright © 1946 by Simenon Limited. Translation Copyright © 2014 by Sian Reynolds.