So, WordPress is having difficulty digesting a post so (!!!) big. Multiple attempts have failed, so I’m breaking this up into multiple posts – and hopefully this works.
Ikiru, Debussy, Sergeant Pepper’s and Strawberry fields – they’re all here. What’s not? Tom Goodwin, and the backstory from Passegiatta. If you’ve not read this story, you should first. Goodwin appears in key portions of the evening…
I know there are errors galore in here. It’s a complicated story, further obscured by the need to introduce layers of ambiguity. You’ll understand, I hope, that statement after you’ve finished.
First up, Driftwood and the Sumner Collins’ part of the story…then Ted Sherman and the Owl in Part II, and last, the evening begins.
An Evening At The Carnival With Mister Christian
A Somewhat Less Than Divine Comedy
© 31 October 2016 by Adrian Leverkühn | abw
Driftwood: A Prelude to the Evening
Part I: Rogues Bay, Tortola, BVI
There were a few low clouds scudding over the far horizon, yet all-in-all the day’s weather was looking good – better than good, really, especially for the time of year. The air was cool enough to feel – vaguely – like Christmas, at least to folks her in the eastern Caribbean, yet the air was warm enough for shorts – and clinging sand between toes. The late-morning trades had yet to fill-in, so motion inside the narrow, finger shaped bay was still calm, and a single, blue-hulled ketch rode gently at anchor a hundred meters off the small, kidney shaped beach. For a Christmas morning in the British Virgins, the bay and the boat presented a serene, if marginally holiday-like picture, to the man and the Springer emerging from a shrubby, overgrown trail at the south end of the bay.
The dog, an ancient Spaniel named Charley, walked dutifully by the man’s side. Her’s was a possessive, indeed, a protective soul, and she had been with this human all her life, almost from the moment of her birth. Though they hadn’t always been so close, for the past several months the two had become all but inseparable: she slept on his bed – usually nestled under his chin – and rode with him in all his various contraptions – with her ears flapping in the airstream…and a deep grin peeking out from fluttering jowls. She, generally speaking, went everywhere he went, and tended to look after him as best she could, and it was a rare day when they were apart for more than a few hours. And she hated those small snippets of time most of all, so she lived, on the other hand, for the long walks they took, especially walks on long sandy beaches or up in the high mountains, near timberline, where she could fly from rock to rock in pursuit of small, fury tundra dwellers. Still, more than anything else in her world, she loved it when he rubbed her ears. That feeling, she’d heard him say more than once, was the unshelled nuts…the very best thing there was. She stared into his eyes when he did that, and she wanted her soul to join with his.
So, she loved him in her way, cared for him at least much as he cared for her, and she slowed her step to keep pace with his as he trudged through the sand, and she looked up at him from time to time, checked the way he breathed, because something in the air was troubling her.
There was, she noted, something on his face, a cloud in his eyes, perhaps, that concerned her, and he was breathing a little too hard as they walked. She slowed her pace a bit more and pretended to take more than a passing interest in the few clumps of grass they passed, and she looked up at him as he stopped, as he took a few deep breaths through his mouth, then her eyes followed his as he looked down the beach.
“Charley? I think there’s a good piece down there,” he said as he pointed down the beach. She looked where he was pointing, and yes, there it was – she could see it now too. A huge piece of ragged, gray wood. Driftwood, he called it. She took off at an ambling, curious pace, but then heard something that stopped her where she stood.
She turned, looked at the boat in the bay – then cocked her head to one side.
“Get out of here, you goddamned, fucked-up bitch!”
She recognized the tone, and even a few of the words. Angry words. Mean, hurtful words. An angry human’s words. The hair on Charley’s neck stood on-end as she looked at the boat, then she heard contact – rough, physical contact, a wounded scream, pots falling on hard surfaces, more shocked cries of anguish – and retribution.
She stared at the boat, her concern now evident to the man walking well behind her on the beach. She looked back at him and barked once, a low, guttural sound full of suppressed anger, then she turned her attention back to the boat. She knew his attention would be focused there too; she knew because she felt that certain connection had settled between them – again.
A woman, half naked and screaming, ran up onto deck and dove overboard; more angry words followed in her wake as another person, one who almost appeared to be a man, came on deck just after the woman hit the water. This man yelled and threw a bag overboard; it almost hit the woman in the water, then floated a moment before it began to sink out of view.
Instinct set in and without thinking Charley sprinted down the beach and leapt into the water, she swam past the startled woman and dove under a small wave just as the bag disappeared from view. The water stung her eyes but she saw it and swam for it, took the bag’s strap in her mouth then clawed her way back to the surface. Unaccustomed to such an awkward, heavy load, she struggled to make her way back to the beach, only now, to make matters worse, the grainy water stung her eyes. Soon she felt the first screams of panic welling up, and suddenly wondered why she was out in such deep water, yet even so as her head popped out from under a wave she knew her anxiety was misplaced.
There he was, just a few strokes away now, coming for her. She climbed into his outstretched arms and put her hands around his neck, licked his chin. He took the strap from her mouth and lifted her well clear of the water, then she licked his scruffy beard more than a few times, enjoying, as she always did, the way his fur felt on her tongue.
He carried her along until the water was shallow enough, then he set her down and they trudged out of the water, turned and waited for the woman, who was not yet out of the water. The man picked up his backpack on the way to her and slung it back over his shoulder, and Charley ran up to the woman and sniffed her ankles, circling round and round while he walked. The woman sat down on the white sand and looked at the pup once; the woman’s eyes were full of tears and she was breathing in deep, ragged gulps, and Charley could see the woman had a kind, if troubled soul. She came to the woman, sat and leaned into her body – as if to help hold her grief in check.
The woman leaned into Charley too, and put an arm around her, then began crying deeply, indeed, almost uncontrollably. Charley understood, but looked at her own human as he walked up to them. His skin was very pale now, and clearly concerned, she focused on his eyes once again.
Something still wasn’t right; she could see his distress within the shimmering air all around his body, feel it in the way the colors around him changed.
When the man got to them, he sat down heavily on the sand.
“Are you alright?” she heard him ask the woman.
Startled, the woman shook her head, then looked up and let go of Charley.
Charley slipped free of the woman and went to his side; she leaned into him as if re-establishing a physical connection and concentrated on his beating heart while she listened to him breathe. She looked up at him and licked his neck while she sniffed his breath, trying to make sense of all she was taking in.
“It’s okay, girl,” Charley heard him say, but she wasn’t sure yet so she leaned in closer still, pressing into him, in effect propping up his body while she continued to listen to him. Then all of a sudden he was rubbing her ears and she slipped into bliss, so down she flopped – down on her back – in tail-wagging ecstasy. “Yes, it’s okay now, good girl…just take it easy…”
“Did your dog go for my bag, or did you tell her to?” Charley heard the woman ask.
“That was all her. She’s kind of acts like a retriever, when she wants to, anyway. I guess she saw your bag being thrown and instinct kicked in.”
The woman laughed through her tears. “What’s her name?”
“Yup. She’s a Steinbeck fan, I guess you’d have to say.”
“Do you live here?”
“Nope. Boston, but, well – it’s a long story. So, are you alright? That sounded like like some kind of fight out there.”
Charley watched closely as the woman spoke now, clearly interested in what was going on, but the woman looked away and she couldn’t see her eyes any longer.
“Just one more – the latest in a long series…”
“Well, it’s none of my business, but I’ve got a jeep up on the road if you need a lift into town.”
“Is there an airport here?”
“Yup, if you’re headed to the States there’s a puddle jumper to San Juan, connections to Miami or DFW, I think.”
“New York City. Think I’ll head back to my sister’s place.”
“You sure don’t have a New York accent,” and he looked at her closely for the first time. She wasn’t unattractive, yet there was something off-putting about her…even dangerous, perhaps.
“I was born in Stockholm. My sister and I went to college – in New York – and we decided to stay.”
“I see. Well, anyway, the airport’s a long walk from here. Charley and I are going to putter around for a while, but like I said, we’d be happy to drop you off.”
When he stood Charley rolled upright and shook the salt and sand off, all while she looked at the woman; when she was sure they were both alright she took off down the beach toward the driftwood they’d spotted – before the ruckus on the boat broke out.
“We’ll be back in a little bit,” the man said as he followed Charley. “Just yell if you need anything.”
The woman was rummaging around in her drenched bag as he spoke, then she looked up: “Do you have a phone I could use for a moment?” She was holding a dripping cell phone up, and they could both tell the phone would now make, perhaps, a useful paperweight.
He smiled, dug his Iridium sat-phone from his knapsack, unlocked it and handed it to her. “Decent signal out here, so you can call direct to the States; just enter the area code first, then the number, then send.” He turned and walked off after Charley.
“You bet,” he said quietly. He almost smiled, trying not to remember how tough life was at that age, and how quiet his life had always been – compared to what he’d just witnessed, anyway.
The trades were picking up now; he guessed the winds were up to about fifteen knots or so, and as expected, right out of the east, and he did the math while he walked. The boat was fueled and ready to go, and he only needed to pick up a few things at the farmer’s market before returning the rental car, but that was it. He looked at Charley as he walked along, deep in thought about the girl back there talking on his phone. “What a mess,” he said to her, shaking his head.
She was blond-haired and blue-eyed – of course, and decent enough looking in a wide-eyed, bohemian sort of way, but there was something about her that screamed ‘rode hard and put away wet’ – again, something dangerous. Probably in her mid-twenties, he guessed; thirty, tops – she was cute but wore trouble in her eyes. Clearly, she’d had a bad morning and wasn’t at her best, but she struck him as someone who made trouble everywhere she went.
His instinct was to get away from here as fast as he could…away from her.
Charley was maybe thirty yards ahead when she heard trouble – again. The man on the boat was yelling at the woman, then the woman was firing a barrage of evil sounding words back at the man. After this exchange, and without any more fanfare, the man on the boat weighed anchor, raised the main and Charley watched as the boat began sailing out the little bay, and into the Caribbean beyond.
The woman sat down on the beach again, head down and shoulders slumped.
Charley saw the air around the woman was black with evil, and could tell the woman was crying again, but the gray driftwood was close now, it’s siren’s song now unmistakeable and as suddenly irresistible. She nosed closer to the drying wood, sniffed tentatively as she walked around it, measuring the wood and the air around it for anything out of the ordinary.
The man walked up to the wood and looked down at it. “Pretty big piece,” he said. “Weird shape though, hey girl?”
And it was. The wood, half buried in sand and sparkling with dried salt particles, at first glance looked anything but unusual, but it was the shape of the piece that seemed somehow “off” to them both. Maybe four feet long, the wood was radically curved, unnaturally so.
He bent over, began to lift it up when Charley barked.
“What is it, girl?” the man said as he dropped the wood and stepped back.
Charley circled the wood, sniffed and barked again, then looked up him, her eyes full of concern. She saw the woman from the boat walking their way now, and her anxiety only grew more acute.
‘Something’s not right,’ Charley thought. ‘What is it? Why does this feel like…?’
“What is it, Charley?”
“What’s wrong with your dog?” the woman said as she walked up to them.
“I don’t know. This isn’t like her.”
Her arms and paws were outstretched and flat on the sand; her hip was arched up, her stubby tail pointing straight up to the sky – and now very still.
“Is there something under it?” the woman asked, as she too circled the wood.
“I don’t know.” The man bent down to the wood again and ran his hand over it, feeling it, gauging his own galvanic reactions through his skin.
“Familiar,” he whispered in the shimmering air. “What…is that?”
He grabbed the wood and pulled at it sharply. And then again.
With a wet, sucking sound the wood broke free of the wet sand and the man slipped and tumbled backwards; Charley howled and jumped away as the wood rolled over.
“Oh my goodness!” the woman exclaimed. “It’s – magnificent!”
The man stood, brushed sand off his shorts – then he hovered over the wood…
The underside of the piece revealed a carved dolphin, but the carving looked as if it had been sanded, no, polished to a high sheen, because at first glance it seemed as if the body of the animal had been varnished. The man lifted the wood and carried it down to the water, and there he washed away the sand. He looked at the dolphin closely, then dropped the carving on the beach and stumbled away.
“Oh, no! It can’t be…” he whispered as he looked at the two scars carved into the dolphin’s face, just under the eyes. “No, God no, this can’t be happening.”
Charley felt it first. The pulse seemed to come from deep within the wood, but then she looked toward the water and the hair on the back of her neck stood up. There was something out there…she could feel it clearly now. Whatever it was, there was energy joining this piece of wood to something very powerful, out there, in the water.
And whatever IT was, it was getting closer.
“What is it? Is there something wrong?” the woman asked as she watched the man stagger back from the water.
He stopped, turned and looked at the woman, then at Charley.
He followed her eyes out to sea and squinted, tried to see what she felt, then it all came back in a rush. Jennifer. The day his world started to come undone.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said as he looked at the woman. “Now.”
“No time to explain. Charley! Come!” He grabbed the woman’s hand and pulled her along, walked rapidly to the trail the led to the jeep. He turned once and saw Charley still focused on something, something apparently still far out to sea, so he whistled once again; Charley turned, saw him calling her. As if breaking free of a trance, she shook herself and ran after the man and the woman, looking back once over her shoulder as she did.
She saw the dolphin’s head break free of the water not far from the beach, and she stopped dead in her tracks. She was confused, and while she didn’t understand the feelings washing through her now, she knew she’d seen those eyes before.
She heard the man calling her name again as she turned and walked back to the water’s edge. Feelings unknown and powerful washed over as she looked into the dolphin’s eyes, feelings of sadness and despair, and hope. Instinct in total command now, she walked into the water – trying to find her way home.
The man regarded his lunch quietly, as others might a fine painting; he smiled, felt an uneasy truce settle over the room, drifted on currents of time to other days – far away and long ago. To the life that had been his – once upon a time, to the life that had so recently slipped from his grasp. He felt adrift now, cut off from the past, yet the future seemed a land out of time – like there was a wall ahead, the way forward blocked. He felt trapped, boxed-in, that there was nowhere left to go – with all this talk about Hyperion.
The plate, pristine white with green trim, was a masterpiece – to his somewhat practiced eye, anyway – but of more importance than the other “things” calling out to him, the plate held memories of that other life – because the food on his plate connected him to memories of her in ways little else could. Jägerschnitzel, spätzel, red cabbage, and of course a Stiegl bier, their famous dunkelmalz, so hard to come by anywhere but Salzburg. This was the formula that opened the chalice of memory, yet of singular importance this day – of all days – this lunch could only come to life inside the walls of the old ground floor dining room, in the Hotel Goldener Hirsch.
The storied old hotel on the Getreidegasse – just doors from where Mozart came to into this life – was for him a world unto itself, a world of full of memories both good and bad – his father’s world, the life he shared with his wife. Whitewashed stone walls, heavy timbered ceilings, and an Old World ambience that only hinted at the building’s medieval origins, he and his wife had stumbled across the hotel when they’d taken their first real vacation together, not long after they married – not long before his father’s murder. Almost without knowing it, they had been following paths well worn by their parents and grandparents, the standard, almost preordained American tourist’s rote pilgrimage to the Old World.
His parents had made this trip many times over the years, before his mother died – in the White House. But by then, they had little time for him, for time together, and then his father – murdered. The first presidential assassination of the 21st century. Such a distinction. But when he thought of his old man there wasn’t a lot to be proud of, not really. He’d stoked fires of hate and resentment until the walls came tumbling down, and only Smithfield had been able to pick up the pieces. Then all this fusion reactor bullshit hit the fan, and now even that world looked ready to fall.
He remembered his wife, their trip, anything to drift away from that other world. Paris, Brugge and even Lübeck filled the first few weeks of their first trip abroad together, but then the Alps beckoned, and they’d turned south, following instinct’s call to memories yet to be. From Geneva they headed east, caught the narrow-gauge railway at Visp and wound their way up to Zermatt, to the narrow-walled valley brooded over by a mist enshrouded Matterhorn. There was still snow in the shadow of that mountain – in winter, anyway – as there were still snowy remnants in a few other very high regions of the Swiss and French Alps. The man and his wife played among the few traces that remained of the ancient glaciers that had once dominated the Gornergrat massif, but skiing was no longer a commonplace activity here – or anywhere else, for that matter. The weather was now too warm – everywhere – yet they wondered what it must have been like to ski on endless plains of white. The world was so different now, so much had changed so quickly, yet traces remained of those other times, especially here, high in the Alps.
After a week in Zermatt, they left that enchanted valley and wandered north and east through the Bernese Oberland and the Engadin, and finally they went further east, on to Innsbruck and Zell am See, before finding themselves, quite by accident, in Salzburg.
Drawn by memories of his parent’s ramblings, they made their way to a cluster of huge domed churches under an ancient, imposing wall of dark rock, and soon found themselves walking down a rough, cobbled lane. They walked hand-in-hand along this narrow path, taking in shops full of loden capes and rustic leather goods, and as it was midday the air smelled of heavenly creation and they came upon a menu posted outside an old hotel restaurant – and as such, a tradition was born.
For the next few years they returned to the hotel, at first in summer but then one year they came at Christmas, and over time their story melded within those stone and timber walls, became something fine, worth remembering. They grew to appreciate that traditions like their’s were unique, something to cherish, and the man was certain that their firstborn was conceived within these timbered walls, and the memory brought a smile to his face.
But even as change is inevitable some patterns can never be broken, and his wife’s sudden passing left a dark chasm within his soul, a cold place no memory could warm, so it had been years since he’d come back to the hotel. Now his mother-in-law had the kids and he was alone in the dining room early on this Christmas Eve, and he regarded his surroundings as one might a very close friend…as someone or something that could be counted on…as that one constant in an ever-changing universe. So he held the room up to the light of day and peered deep into the well of the past. He looked around the room at tables and chairs and pictures on walls and regarded each as a bulwark, a wall that kept an overwhelming tide of pain from rushing in. He smiled at himself, at his weakness, for there was no sense of irony or self-contradiction in his understanding of the moment.
After picking at his food he signed the bill to his room, then walked up narrow stone steps to the reception desk and got his key to – their room – the same room they had first taken not so many years ago – and every year thereafter – and with that very much in mind he went to take a nap, and to wrestle with memories that rarely left him alone for long.
His was, of course, not a restful sleep, and the dreams that came to him were troublesome, and in the end most unwelcome. He watched great gouts of flame streaking through the air, walls of molten lava swallowing cities – the very end of time unfolding all around him, or so it seemed, and when he woke he felt a chill spreading over his soul.
He showered as the sun set, and he dressed, looked at his hair in the mirror before grabbing a sport coat and heading out into the night. The air on the street was still warm, too warm for Christmas, and there wasn’t a trace of snow to be seen anywhere. He took off down the Getreidegasse, intent on window shopping if he had to do anything at all, but he soon turned to the massive cathedral under the cliff and looked at it for the longest time. Without really knowing why he made his way slowly to the plaza that surrounded the huge building, then walked completely around the structure once. When he’d made his way around he stopped outside the entry, regarding the implications of passage as he looked at the massive doors. He felt he had come upon a sudden choice, that an unwelcome decision had come for him, and he shook his head, made his way up the broad steps – hesitating only once – before he stepped inside.
Churches, indeed, anything to do with religion had always made him palpably nervous, and now walking into this overwhelming space he felt no different. Thinking back, he reckoned it had been ten years since he’d been in any kind of church, and he – almost – wondered why. While he’d never considered himself an atheist, organized religion had always made him uncomfortable…just as his father had, behind closed doors, expressed dismay at the religious impulse – and that, he knew, made his decision to come here all the more unusual. Yet it was, perhaps, a feeling of community he sought this night – of all nights – the spirit of continuity and certainty he found lacking in an increasingly uncertain world. Yet even with this vague feeling lurking in the shadows, he knew these needs would most certainly remain unmet.
The place was almost empty, though it was Christmas Eve, and while it was a weeknight the nave was starkly barren, and he thought about the spirit of community – and how that fabric had been ripped asunder over the past ten years. And now, with events in Israel spiraling out of control, had faith finally given way to despair?
Still, there were a few people under the transept, perhaps tourists like himself, though there was an organist practicing somewhere, and the air inside the vast space rumbled and pealed as disjointed chords burst forth in thunderous waves – like breaking waves of chromatic dissonance – flooding the ancient space with soul-jarring contradiction.
But walking down the central aisle amidst these concussive refrains, he was suddenly overcome by a sense of the familiar, a feeling that was at once as comforting as it was confusing. He stopped at a pause in the music, looked at the massive columns and timeworn pews, then he felt a dizzying shimmer, an electric pulse rippling through the air, and he watched as lights inside the cathedral flickered – then went out. He ducked – instinctively, perhaps – then noticed the temperature inside the cathedral had plummeted and that it was now very cold – in an instant so cold vapor slipped past his clinched teeth – when the breath he’d been holding finally slipped past his lips.
Light, pale light returned, and he noticed people – the people he’d just seen gathered under the transept – were gone. Indeed, all that remained now was a bitter cold that felt – completely unfamiliar.
And yet – the music remained, only now the sharp, penetrating notes of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number Three danced in the air – and it was soon apparent the organist was a master. Suddenly drawn to the music, he walked through the choir to the organ, and he stood watching in awe as the organist, an overweight, middle-aged man, flew through the piece without a single sheet of music in view. The organist and his instrument were as one, and the man suddenly felt the organist was none other than Bach himself. Looking at the man he smiled, felt he was observing some sort of play from backstage, for whatever else might be happening – the organist was certainly dressed for the part!
And it was then, too, that he noticed the organist was playing by candlelight. Indeed, looking around the inside of the cathedral he observed that the only light came from hundreds of flickering candles, and that the air had grown brutally cold.
He turned, suddenly quite afraid, and hurried back through the choir and down the central aisle to the entry, and he pushed the massive doors open as far as he could – but he was pushing against heavy snow now, and as he pushed his way outside he saw deep snow everywhere he looked, a vast expanse of pristine, knee deep snow – and huge, fat white flakes falling at an impossible rate. He looked across the plaza toward the Getreidegasse and saw not one street light burning, not one open shop, and feeling an edge of inrushing panic he trudged off through the snow, hoping to make his way back to the hotel while he still could.
He’d never, ever in his life felt air this cold, and after only a few yards he struggled against the weight of the snow, and the sudden force of unexpected wind – a roaring gale that seemed to suck the air from his lungs. He paused to catch his breath and could just hear the last refrains of Bach’s concerto dying in the wind, and he turned, looked back toward the cathedral hovering over the snow-covered plaza. The same shimmering air he’d seen inside the cathedral filled the plaza, a vast blue aurora pulsing with unseen life, then a vertiginous sensation fell over him. The aurora enveloped him and he felt something grab him by the throat and push him to the ground; he tried to fight the feeling, to lift his face from the howling snow, but then his face was pushed down again, down into suffocating stillness, and howling darkness came for him.
The shimmering halo seemed to wrap itself around him, and he felt for a moment that he was falling – up! Something had him and was pulling him – where?
And in the next instant he was standing before a shop window – it looked to be an art gallery because the only thing in view was a single, ornately framed painting behind a huge window. The only light in the universe seemed to come from an intense light shining on the painting, and he turned, looked around this universe but all he could see was inky blackness, a deep still that enveloped everything beyond the confined gallery window. The vertiginous effect was complete now, and nausea wracked his body as he fought to make sense of this place.
Yet worst of all he realized his hands were bitterly cold, painfully so, and he looked at his clinched fists with sudden concern. His fingers were white, almost frostbitten, and there was snow and ice coating the tops of his hands, yet in that instant, inexplicably he realized the air was impossibly hot now. He looked at his hands again and saw ice melting from them, yet he noticed there was still thick snow tucked into the cuffs of his trousers. Still, he couldn’t see the street, or anything at all beneath his feet for that matter, only the same inky blackness that surrounded the gallery window, and he reached out to steady himself.
He wanted to turn and run, but then the thought struck him – there was nowhere to run “to” – for it was almost as if his body was adrift in deep space. The feeling of vertigo grew overwhelming again, enveloping him completely, and bile-tinged panic gripped his heart as he felt his stomach tumble away in the dark.
He turned, looked at the painting in the window, regained some semblance of place and forced himself to calm down, to breathe slowly, deeply. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them next he saw a star reflected in the window, or what he took for a star, but when he turned to look at it there was something wrong. It, whatever “it” was, was moving, and quickly, too.
It was, he saw, moving towards him.
He instinctively shut his eyes, if for no other reason than to shut out this impossible world, then sudden understanding came for him. He was asleep. He had never left his hotel room, and this was all a dream – a hideous dream – a world inverted – on itself.
He opened his eyes, willed himself to wake, only now the star was very close, yet the air around him was still preternaturally quiet and inky black.
He blinked, tried to shut this world out, to center his eyes and mind. “Wake up, Goddamnit” he shouted at the sight – his hands clasped – unconsciously, perhaps – under his face.
As if in prayer, he realized.
The star, a pulsing blue-white sphere, settled in his hands, and he watched sunspots on it’s face and coronal loops erupting from it’s surface and, totally confused now, he turned to the painting in the window and looked at the image as it blazed away in the intense light, then – with a start – he saw the organist from the cathedral – standing beside him now – and he too was looking intently at the painting in the window.
“Interesting, don’t you think?” the organist said – out of the blue.
“What?” The man turned and looked at the organist; the musician, for that was what he must be, was dressed in knickers and still had on the long top-coat he’d worn in the cathedral. And his hair was, what? A wig? A powdered wig?
“It’s an interesting painting, don’t you think? But – do you remember that day?”
“What?” the man stammered.
“Do you remember,” the man said, pointing at the painting, “that morning? The old woman with the easel?”
“Remember? Remember what?”
“Look at it, would you? Tell me what you see?”
He looked. Again, and for the first time. A boat, a sailboat, lay at anchor in a picturesque harbor. A small harbor, one along the Mediterranean, perhaps in Italy. The boat’s name was just barely legible in the light: Springer. There was a man standing on the back of the boat – with a dog by his side, looking down into the water. Looking down at – what? A dolphin?
“So? Do you remember that day?”
The man stared at the scene yet he felt nothing, no memory came to mind. “No. Why should I?”
“Ah. Well…it was a thought.”
The man turned and looked at the organist, saw two scars under the man’s right eye, but then the organist’s form shimmered in the air, began to fade…
“Who are you – and why am I here?”
The organist laughed, kindly in his way, yet there was a hint of sadness in his eyes. “You may call me – Johann, if that suits you, and perhaps, when next we meet…” the wavering shape sighed as it faded away, back into the shimmering sphere.
Yet the man saw the faint outlines of an odd smile afloat in the pulsing air, and then all was black, even the painting in the gallery window faded from view, and he felt himself falling, falling…down through clouds to an earth far below. For a moment he thought he saw an airplane, an old airplane, soaring inverted over an amusement park, a park shimmering in vibrant light, full of life – then he saw the same gouts of flame, the molten walls of lava he’d dreamed of earlier…
He was conscious of laying in bed, that he was in the hotel, aware of sweat forming on his neck and running down his back, then he saw his jacket, draped over a chair by the window, while his shoes and trousers lay in a discarded heap on the floor just outside the bathroom.
“Damn, that was the worst nightmare I’ve ever had in my life,” he said as he pulled himself up from the bed. He shook his head, rubbed his eyes, and saw the last remnants of snow melting inside the cuffs of his trousers. He staggered under the weight of his many illusions and fell to his knees, and in the next instant he saw men crawling in the window, assault rifles in hand, laser beams zeroing in on his chest…
Then there was thunder and lightning, and he felt the world spinning.
Like he had been pulled inside a tornado, spinning violently as walls of light came for him, then he was adrift on a sunless sea – crying – praying – wondering what had happened to the earth.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony, New England
The girl walked along the seashore collecting driftwood to use for their evening fire, though she stopped to pick up seashells from time to time, or the odd, brightly colored stone she happened upon. While not quite bored, this was a chore she took upon herself several times a week, and the routine wore on her. Her’s was an important task, however, for her brothers rarely had time to spend gathering wood after a long day working the fields, or worse still, hunting in the woods west of the colony. There were bears about – now that autumn was at hand – and there had been reports of wolves taking livestock south of the colony, near William Bradford’s plantation.
Of even greater concern? The local “natives” – for what had once been a strained, if somewhat cordial coexistence had after only a few years fractured as colonists – like her brothers – encroached on the native’s territory and had openly, if not brazenly taken game from their land. Though open hostilities were rare, colonists spent most of the summer reinforcing the colony’s outer fortifications, and a few of the “Indians” she had run across on her beachside gatherings had treated her with cool reserve. Still, despite the language barrier she had made more than a few friends in several nearby villages, and she liked, for the most part, the native women she had met.
Yet even so, she counted “Indians” – along with the dangerous indigenous wildlife one could happen upon at any time – among the things she cast a wary eye for. Her brothers had taught her to trust little in this dangerous New World, and it was a lesson she had grown to appreciate after listening to other colonist’s stories.
From time to time whales visited the inner bay, and on hearing the unmistakable sound of a whale broaching, then clearing water from it’s blow-hole, she looked up from her chores and turned to see what she guessed was a mother and calf swimming along just off the rocky beach. The girl stood, transfixed, for she had never seen a pair so close to shore; indeed, she felt a mad, impulsive desire to rush out into the water and swim with them.
As if reading her mind, the mother turned away from the beach and disappeared beneath the surface; her calf dutifully turned and followed, and the girl looked after them wistfully for a time, before turning her attention back to gathering bits of wood.
And it was just then that she heard a rustling in the tall grass that lined the beach, and she froze, looked intently for the source of the sound. Turning her head just so, she picked up the noise again, only she realized the sound was a lot closer than she’d previously supposed. Now she wondered how long it would be before this thing revealed itself.
She did not have long to wait.
Not so very far away, perhaps ten feet, maybe a little more, a smooth, bronze haired catamount slipped quietly from the grass and onto the beach, turning it’s head away from the girl, and then – after a moment – directly at her.
The cat seemed to stop breathing, then lowered it’s head a bit as it stared at the girl.
The girl knew the outermost ramparts of the colony’s protective wall were almost a mile away, certainly too far to offer any protection now, and as suddenly she knew her life was over. It was as if all decisions concerning the time and place of her death had just been resolved, and now there was nothing left to do but calmly wait for life to unfold as it was meant.
The cat turned – and began walking her way.
And it was then that she noticed an arrow sticking out of the cat’s right flank, and that the animal appeared quite ill. The cat walked almost as if it was taken with too much drink: it wobbled, she saw, unsteadily her way, and as the cat drew near she sensed that the animal was in a deeply fevered pain.
She knelt on the beach and held out her hands – as if to show the animal she posed no threat – but as the cat drew near it simply collapsed onto the sand by her feet. She moved slowly to it’s side, leaned over and stroked the cat’s head, felt it’s nose. Hot and dry, so hot in fact the flesh seemed to be afire.
Then she looked at the arrow.
It had penetrated the cat’s rear leg on the right side and gone all the way through, leaving the arrowhead to repeatedly slash against the flesh inside the cat’s left leg. Both wounds were maggot-ridden and filthy and, she assumed from the look of them, very badly poxed. The only thing she could think to do was wash the cat’s wounds, try to get the arrow out. She stood and turned to the sea, then stumbled backwards in shock.
The whale – the mother, she assumed – had returned and was now impossibly close to the beach, but it was the whale’s small, brown eyes that gripped her heart. Their was a penetrating directness in the animal’s gaze that disoriented the girl, and for a moment she feared she was, in some obscure way, being judged. She could make out deep scars on the whale’s side – two of them just beneath one of it’s eyes – and wondered for a moment if she, too, had been hurt.
Without really thinking, she walked slowly to the water’s edge and cupped water in her hands, then walked back to the cat and rinsed it’s weeping wounds. She returned to the water again and again, until she was satisfied all the dirt and pus were gone and that the wounds were running clear, then she turned to the arrow’s shaft.
When she touched the shaft the cat flinched, opened it’s eyes and looked at her, yet the animal seemed too weak to do more than lift it’s head. Without hesitating, she broke the shaft above the wound and pulled it through the leg, and a fresh torrent of molten black blood ran from the freshly opened wound, spreading out onto the sand. The girl dashed back to the sea and ferried more water to rinse the wounds, then she removed a kerchief from her neck and tied it around the cat’s leg, staunching the renewed flow.
Only then did she turn to look back at the whale, but it was…gone. There was no sign of it at all, either close to the beach or further away, out to sea, and she found herself wondering if she had ever really seen it. Perhaps, she thought, this had all been a dream.
Then as suddenly she heard music, and turning back to the cat she found herself almost face to face with the beast. It was standing now, and eyeing her curiously, but then it’s head turned and she sniffed the kerchief around it’s leg, then she came closer still and sniffed the girl’s hair. The cat circled her once, then again, rubbing up against the girl roughly as it paced, and just as suddenly the animal walked off slowly into the grass, stopping only once to look back at the girl.
Again, she felt as though she was being judged, asked to follow, and the feeling unnerved her…but then there was that music. It was strange, whatever this music was, totally unfamiliar in form, but whatever else it may have been, what she heard was certainly music…but out here? Who could be out here, so far from the colony? Walking along the shore – following her, perhaps? But now, coming from the grass? Was someone hiding from her? What kind of danger was this?
All she was certain of now was that the music was coming from deep within the grassy field next to the rocky beach, the field where wild strawberries grew in summer, yet now it appeared the cat was walking directly towards whoever was out there.
Without thinking she knew she had to warn whoever it was, so she took off through the grass, then realized she was following the big cat’s trail.
The cat’s prints came to an abrupt end, and there she found a man sitting on a blanket. He was sitting with his knees crossed, leaning over a stringed instrument of some sort, and she realized he appeared gaunt, almost emaciated. As she looked at him he played and sang, yet the most conspicuous thing about him was the small, round spectacles he was wearing, for they were tinted a very deep blue, and she had never in her life seen anything even remotely like them. And his hair – so straight and long, and she couldn’t recall ever seeing a man with hair so long.
The man was playing the stringed instrument he cradled gently in his lap, singing about pools of sorrow and waves of joy and images of broken light and none of it made any sense to her…but suddenly – like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky – everything the man sang made perfect sense – and with this realization came the feeling, startlingly clear in sudden intensity, that she had seen and heard it all before…the whale…the cat…and this man singing about something called the universe. She watched him and felt her life dissolving as unseen layers of time drifted by – then everything was spinning in shimmering air.
Thoroughly disoriented, she sat down not far from the man and listened to his music, yet he never once looked up as he played. He seemed, in fact, oblivious to his surroundings, almost as if he wasn’t really there beside her. Then he stopped playing and looked up at the sky, then down again until he was looking directly at the cat.
“Is that your cat?” he asked.
“The cat, there. Is that your bloomin’ cat?”
She turned, saw the lion sitting on the ground behind her, contentedly licking a paw while it looked at the man.
“Uh, no, I thought he must be yours…”
“That’s a fookin’ big cat.”
“It doesn’t look fookin’ hurt, Eleanor Rigby. It looks bleedin’ hungry…”
“Eleanor? My name’s not…”
“Oh, I know, girlie. Just an expression.” He looked around the grass, looked perplexed as if these were not his expected surroundings. “Where am…where is this?”
“You don’t know?”
“I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t ask if I knew, ya know?”
“Did you walk up from Plymouth?”
“Plymouth?” he sighed – as if not sure what she was talking about. “No, I don’t think so…”
“Oh? Where did you come from?”
The man looked around these strawberry fields again, then at the huge cat, then down at his hands and the instrument in his lap. “I’m not…I can’t remember…”
“Well, this is the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Plymouth is down that way,” she said, pointing roughly to the southeast. “Didn’t you come from there? Or are you lost?”
“Lost?” Again, the dead tone in his voice defined the moment, then he looked down at the instrument in his lap and began playing again.
“Nothin’s gonna change my world, girlie,” he sang, but now he sang in that same flat affect, and with that he abruptly stopped. “You been to the carnival yet?”
“The carnival. You must be from the carnival.”
“I’m not sure what that is,” she said. “Where is it?”
He looked around the field again, only now he looked very confused – confused, she saw, almost to the point of tears.
“What the fook!” he screamed suddenly – and he recoiled as if from a massive, unseen blow. It was as if he’d seen something fearful, that something quite painful and unexpected had just happened.
“What is it?” she cried out, but the man’s form began to shimmer in the afternoon air, turning first bright silver, then brighter and brighter blue. She saw blood erupting on the man’s shirt, a very confused look on his face, then stark fear in his eyes as his form turned to pure light.
She turned away from the sight, shielded her eyes as she tried to look at him, but then she realized he was gone.
Still shielding her eyes, she turned and saw the cat was still there, yawning now – as if bored – though the animal was still looking at her. It rolled over on the grass and presented it’s belly to her, and without thinking she began rubbing the cat’s belly – and noticed all the wounds she had cleansed were healed. She looked into the animal’s eyes, searching, trying to remember something vital.
Yet she felt kindness reaching for her, something compassionate in the animal’s eyes, and once again that feeling of familiarity, and judgement. Shaking her head she stood – and the cat stood too – then the cat leaned into her as it sniffed her clothing, then her hair.
She heard someone calling her name. A familiar voice – distant, growing close. She turned toward the ramparts and saw her brother, and several more colonists following him, coming for her.
She looked at the cat, saw it looking at the people, then she saw the cat look into her eyes again, before it settled into a slow trot and ambled off through the grass.
Her brother arrived seconds later.
“Was that a lion?” he cried, pointing to the grass as he gasped for air, as he struggled to catch his breath.
“A lion? Are you serious? Good Lord, no!”
He leaned over, struggling to breathe. “What the devil is that!” he gasped out, pointing at the grass behind her.
She turned, looked at the ground, saw a spreading stain of blood there – then she jumped backwards, slamming into her brother, almost knocking him down. “I don’t know,” she said, her voice now dripping with uncertainty. “I – don’t – know.”
Her brother stood upright and looked around the field. “I know I saw a catamount,” he said, still breathing hard. “It must have killed a deer – right here. Maybe you came along – scared it. Dragged it away – into the woods. We’d better – get out of here.”
The other colonists were gathering ‘round now, and they saw the blood, heard her brother talking about having seen a big cat – and that was enough for them. “Let’s get out of here,” one of them said, and there was a general assent to that proposition.
She turned to look after the cat again, but there was no sign of it at all so she turned and looked out to sea. Nothing. Nothing – anywhere.
“I’ve got to fetch my wood,” she said.
“Alright then. Let’s go.”
It was a long walk back to the colony, and a very cold wind fell in from the north woods, yet she heard the man’s music as she walked along, saw him in her mind’s eye.
What had changed his world, she wondered, and why was he bleeding so?
Part II By Lifting Winds Forgot
Where all that we see, or seem, is but a dream within a dream…
[Log entry from the SailingVessel Gemini: 4 October, 1230 hrs GMT, Tuesday afternoon.
Winds:NNW at 12kts;
Barometer 29.55 falling;
GPS: N50.34.37 W1.04.57.
Passing Ventnor, Isle of Wight, 4.3nmi/330magnetic; now approx 43 nmi to Brighton breakwater, 124 nmi from Exmouth departure. Winds steady@10-12 past three hours, storms building SSW, radar track shows moving in at 20+knots, expect to get hit mid afternoon. Staying close to shore to keep out of channel shipping lanes, traffic into/out of Southhampton/Portsmouth heavy, lots of radar buoys too, good as viz is down to about 5nmi in mod. haze.]
He looked at the sky, at the building storm, at all the telltale signs along the western horizon, and he decided to shorten sail as he closed the coast. He was tired now, tired after so many days at sea, and he was worried about the staysail, about the loose stitching he had found earlier that morning. Too much wind and it might fail – just when he needed it most – so he reeled it in, the genoa too. He looked at the clouds and decided to reef the main, then he walked around the deck and tidied up the little ships lines.
He stood once and looked into the sea – wondered if she was still there.
Oh, how he missed them.
Hers had been a busy morning, gray and damp, busier still as there was a hint of autumn in the air. Her feet hurt with the passing of summer’s warmth, the arthritis in her left wrist bothered her even more than usual for this time of year. And she was tired, too. Tired of it all. She liked to say everything about her life was tired – on those rare occasions when she was in any kind of mood to talk at all, but today felt like one of those mornings when the best thing to do would have been to pull the covers up over her head and go back to sleep. She could hide from the world in her dreams, and sometimes she could even hide from her life – inside those gay little snippets of what might have been. Hide – for a little while, anyway.
She was still an enigma to the few who knew her well enough to see through her moods. Outwardly at least, she was regarded as a warm, caring and indeed, a compassionate soul; as a result her customers were a devoted lot. Never was she seen in the café without her famous, broad and caring smile; never was she without an encouraging word to anyone who came her way with a careworn brow. Men and women young and old stopped by her shop for their morning tea, her freshly baked scones and Devonshire cream, and though they had for decades most would have been hard pressed to think of a reason why – beyond dropping by for their morning dose of that comfortable, all-knowing smile.
Her little shop was off the King’s Road in Brighton, not far from the pier, and she lived in a little white flat just up the hill, not far from the Tay Memorial. Her name was Deborah, Deborah Hill, and she was fast approaching fifty – which was why there was more white in her pale red hair than she cared for. Her eyes were a blue much deeper than the sky; no, her’s were the color of the sea in twilight, just before day surrenders to the night. She was a tall woman, too, and in her youth she had been considered strikingly beautiful, and most men of a certain age still considered her gorgeous.
And once upon a time that beauty had given her a certain freedom, the license to run with fast crowds in London, back in the punk 80s. Backstage at concerts or on the front rows of ‘the scene’ – wherever her charms carried her, really – she was always just along for the ride, yet somehow the life of the party. And she’d met ‘him’ at one of those concerts, and at the concerts that followed. Steve was his name, a guitar player for one of those ‘super-groups’ that popped up regularly back in the day. He was a god, or so ‘they’ said, but he fell for her too – for a while, anyway, because he was one of the first to realize that her beauty was not simply skin-deep. She traveled with the group for a few months, he bought a flat for her in Brighton and she settled into what passed for domestic bliss, in those days, anyway.
And she was pregnant. A little girl, born with a serious neural tube defect, a little girl who lived seven days. Steve was gone a lot after that, then she heard he was with someone else and had moved on. She liked Brighton, the splashy aura of a sunny seaside resort, then her mum died, left her a small inheritance and she bought the tea shop – and inertia took over after that. Her life ran it’s course, ran away from her, and she did her best to hide from the despair – but the pain always came back to her – even if he never did.
She’d taken stock of her life one day – one day after they released her – and she’d found her time hollow – useless and empty. But oh, how the inertia of her life kept playing games with her, pulling her along in all it’s uncertain gravity. She took on help at the shop from time to time, and one girl, a sweet, confused little thing had fallen in love with her. The affair was ultimately more confusing than anything else, but it had been so sweet while it lasted. There was for a time someone who cared for her, someone who listened when she talked – and then, after? Only the silence of broken dreams called her name these days, and one day she’d realized that’s all there was, all there’d ever be.
These days she took her evening walk around Lewes Circle and Sussex Square, and she walked alone, always alone. As night fell she liked to look in windows of the houses she passed, at the warm lamplight and people inside gathered ‘round sharing their day, and she wondered about the lives playing out inside those warm, honeyed rooms. About all the smiling men and happy women and their contented children – and she could ignore the contours of her life, the cherished glowing smiles she never shared.
One evening she watched a little girl playing the piano, and something about the scene touched her. “That should have been me,” she told the gathering darkness, and that was indeed how she saw herself in that moment. That something had come undone, a contract, perhaps.
“This is all wrong,” she said to a passing shadow. “I shouldn’t be here, not like this…”
So she was tired now, her feet hurt so badly she decided to close up shop early that afternoon. The pain, the burning in her feet, just wouldn’t let up, and then she’d bumped her wrist in the pantry and that pain had joined the other and all had grown intrusive. She walked home and soaked her feet in salts, then she dropped off in a chair and dozed a bit, wanting this day to be over, to just be done. Finally and utterly alone at last, she thought. The night couldn’t be so bad, could it?
She opened her eyes, looked around the flat, at the images of broken dreams on the wall, the emptiness she felt there a simple repudiation of everything she’d ever hoped for, and she sighed – nothing had turned out as she’d once dreamed, nothing was going to change her world.
“Yes,” she said then, to the four walls, “I am tired of all this. Of everything.” Such a simple realization, she sighed – wonderingly. Because no, she really didn’t need to carry-on any longer. The choice was hers, after all was said and done, wasn’t it?
And so she chose.
She bathed, changed clothes and got ready for her evening walk, though because it was much earlier than usual it was still light out. In fact, the sun was still high in the afternoon sky, her sky a cotton candy parade of low, fluffy white clouds scudding in from the sea. A good day to walk out to the cliffs, she thought. Yes, she really didn’t have a care in the world anymore, did she? And the view was so lovely out there…the sea and the promise of night.
So, she left the flat and walked east, past the marina, then up to the trail that flanked the cliff’s edge just past all the little boats. She enjoyed, as she always did, the feel of the wind in her hair, the sun on the back of her neck, and even the sound of gravel beneath her feet played along to the music of her growing resolve. She hadn’t felt so free in ages, and as she came to a pair of benches she’d always liked she felt an overwhelming peace. She walked close to the edge, looked down at people walking on the Undercliff Walk and she hesitated. She didn’t want to ruin their day, not this way.
She turned and walked back to the closest bench and sat, looked to the sun still a few hands above the horizon. She hadn’t thought it would be this hard, this letting go, this setting free…then she looked out to sea…at the wind and the waves…the gulls wheeling in the air behind a fishing boat. To be free as a bird, she thought.
“Whatever happened to the life we knew…no, no…that’s not it…”
She heard his voice, at once so familiar – yet so distant. Music in the air now, faraway, looming like a train in the night, like a steam calliope playing the notes of a dream.
“…that we once knew. That’s it, that’s – better.”
She turned, saw him sitting on a broad tuft of grass, clear as the light of day, as free as a bird. He was leaning over his guitar, writing words in a book, then playing another string of notes. He looked up at the sun and the clouds and the birds, then he turned and…looked at her.
“Hello,” John Lennon said. “Do I know you?”
She stared at him, then shook her head. “No. We never met.”
“Are you going to jump?”
“But…what…are you doing here. You’re…”
“Dead? Yeah, well, nobody’s perfect. So, why do you want to jump?”
She shrugged, looked away. “I’m tired.”
“Tired of being alone. Tired of cooking for myself, of going to the cinema by myself, of sitting in a restaurant at a table for two, women looking at me, laughing when they look at me – by myself, while they gloat.”
“So? Don’t be alone.”
“Easier said than done…John…”
“What’d you call me?”
“John. What do you mean…you don’t know who you are?”
He shook his head. “No, not really.”
“That song you’re working on? I liked it.”
“Yeah, ‘where did we lose the touch…’ I really related to that when it came out, sad as it was to realize we…”
He looked away, pointing out to sea. “That’s a hell of a metaphor, don’t you think?”
“What? The channel? I don’t know. I suppose it is.”
“It’s like that, you know?”
“You never know who’s coming along. Who’s going to come whistling through your life. But it’s not the crap-shoot you think it is, ya know?” He bent over his guitar, fingered a G-major chord and found his way through a new passage. “Doesn’t sound quite right – does it now?”
She shook her head again. “No. Why are you here?”
He laughed as he looked up at her. “Wish I knew.” He cocked his head to one side. “Do you hear that?”
She listened, felt the faintest traces of carnival music in the air. “I think so?”
“Was at a carnival…last night maybe. Jennifer. She was there for a while.”
“Sumner. I think there’s someone named Sumner – looking for you.”
“What? I don’t know anyone…”
“Oh yeah, luv. He’s coming,” but he had bent over his guitar again, his head rocking slowly from side to side. “I was lost once, you know. Me and the mates, out in Hollywood. For years, I think, but I found my way back. Then it all disappeared, like in a flash…”
“I know. We cried, we all cried.”
“Then there was this cat, this monstrous, fookin’ huge cat. And Jennifer was there.”
“I’m sorry…I don’t understand…”
He lifted his head once again, looked down the trail to the east. “Well, luv, tomorrow never knows…but the choice is yours. You can be free as a bird, if that’s what you really want, but it’s all coming together for you right now. I’d think twice about it, ya know.”
She felt a breeze pick up from seaward, turned and saw a sailboat making for the curved breakwater, then she turned back to him again. She saw the tuft of grass, she saw the grass had been pressed down where he sat – and there was a guitar pick laying on the grass – but Lennon was gone.
She stood, shook her head, looked east down the trail – but she saw…nothing. She stared ahead, looked at the abyss, at the edge – at the dividing line between the living and the dead – and she wondered what had just happened. She wondered what had happened to her life, to the joy she had once called her own.
“It’s all gone now,” she heard the voice inside her head say, and suddenly she was subsumed within images of loneliness – drifting among the most painful moments of her life. Always “alone, alone, alone…” No, her life was over now, gone, like images of better days in her mind had all been a mirage. Memory taunted her now, daring her to go on…
She turned and walked to the edge again, looked down at the paved walk below, then she looked up, out to sea, ready to take the next step…when she saw a massive wall of cloud rushing in towards the shore. The sailboat, she saw, was about to get pummeled, beaten in it’s race to make the breakwater, still a half mile away.
She watched as the wall of rain and wind hit the boat, and as the boat leaned sharply away, as the man behind the wheel struggled to stand and fight his way to shore – and then, the wind hit her.
She was blown off her feet, felt herself rolling backwards – away from the abyss. She tumbled past the benches, over the trail and into the tall grass beyond, gasping at the sudden ferocity of the raging storm. She fought her way up, struggled into the face of the wind and turned away from the rocks below, then made her way to the bench and – there he was again. He’d come back!
Leaning into the wind, his long hair whipping away in the gale, he turned and smiled at her. She smiled too, tried to wave but he let go then, turned his back and ran before the wind. He seemed to dissolve as the storm gathered around her, then she heard the calliope and his voice over the wind, only now he was singing as rain joined their little symphony.
So the last thing she heard was his laughter, only she wasn’t really sure whose laughter was carried away on those galloping calliope winds.
All that remained now was that smile, a smile at once so vague, yet so familiar. She wrapped herself in the feeling, and with his words for company she turned and walked through the storm – for home.
It was busy the next morning, the morning after the storm. It was busy, and her feet hurt, her wrist too, but she was tired of worrying about all that now. She didn’t quite feel light on her feet, not yet, but she felt a change even so – like when he blew away on the wind he took her cares away. To her loyal customers, she seemed adrift, floating along the currents of a dream that hadn’t ended. To the American who walked in a little before ten that morning, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, the most drop-dead gorgeous, breathtakingly sexy woman in the history of the universe. He sat and waited for her to come to his little table, yet when she made her way there he grew tongue-tied and felt like he was twisted in a ball of tight little knots.
“And what can I get you this morning,” she asked as she watched him stammering his way through the menu above the counter…
“I don’t know? Coffee, perhaps?”
She laughed. “This is a tea shop. Bakery goods and teas, sir. No coffee, that I’m aware of anyway.”
“Oh. Well, what do you recommend?”
She looked him over as if taking his measure: “I’d say English breakfast, perhaps two walnut orange scones, with clotted cream?”
“Like butter, only better.”
“Well, sounds good to me.” He had a local paper in hand and turned to it while she retreated to her little kitchen. He opened the ‘Classifieds’ and began reading through, circling an item of interest, noting telephone number…
…then she was there again, by the table, a tray in her hands.
“By any chance, do you know where Ovingdean is?” he asked, still focused on his paper.
“I do. Perhaps you’d like some tea first.”
He looked up, jerked with a start. “Oh, excuse me…” he said as he folded the paper and shuffled it aside. “I’m still trying to get my bearings today…”
She smiled, put the little teapot on the table, then a cup and saucer. “I’ll be back with your scones in a moment,” and this time he watched her go, admiring her form as she walked. He noticed the way people looked at him then, the very proprietary way they seemed to regard her, and he filed that away as he watched her coming back with another plate.
“So, Ovingdean?” she said. “How familiar are you with the area?”
“Not at all. Just got in yesterday.”
“Like to walk? Or will you need a taxi?”
“How far away is it – from the marina?”
“You’re…at the marina? When did you say you arrived?”
“Yesterday afternoon,” he said warily, uneasily. “Why?”
“Did you get caught out in the storm?”
“Yup, just about made it in, but it nailed me about a half mile out. I thought I had enough speed to beat it, but life’s like that, I guess.”
“What? What do you mean…”
“Oh, you know. You can’t outrun some things, it’s like you’re one or two steps behind…that kind of thing, if you know what I mean.”
“I do,” she said, frowning.
“So?” he asked, as he watched the moods on her face drift by.
“How far? From the marina?”
“Ah. Not much more than a mile, depending on the address.”
“Excuse me for asking, but are you alright? You look a bit, I don’t know – kind of airy?”
“Airy?” she chuckled. “What on earth does that mean?”
“Like you’re up there,” he said, pointing skyward, “up there in the clouds. You know? Free as a bird?”
“What’s your name?” she stammered, his words out of the blue, striking a vital chord.
“Sumner, Sumner Collins…”
She staggered under the weight of his words, stumbled away from the stream of echoes that came for her, but he was out of his seat in a flash and caught her before she fell. Her anointed guardians rushed to her side in that moment, pushing him aside and gathering her up, helping her to a chair by the entry – all cooing tunes of solicitous concern – all standing around her like sentinels warding off evil spirits.
Collins looked at the scene like the interloper he suddenly felt he was; he pulled out a few pound notes and tossed them on the table then slipped out the side door, grateful for the fresh autumn air that cooled his suddenly sweating brow.
He walked east along the Marine Parade, past the Brighton Wheel until he came to a bus stop, and there he looked at the schedule. He sat on a bench in the covered shelter and wondered what the devil had just happened, why she seemed to know him. A bus came along and he rode out to the marina in silence; he hopped off at his stop and walked down the drive, through the massive car park out to the office, then further on, out to his slip in the marina. He went below and changed into shorts and sneakers, then went on deck and hooked up a hose dockside and began re-washing layers of accumulated salt and spray off the hull and deck. He rinsed and dried the deck hardware, then pulled the sails off their furlers and sprayed them down, looked over the troublesome stitching on the staysail and reef points on his mainsail, them laid them all out to dry.
He noticed his stomach rumbling, remembered he’d walked out on breakfast, looked over at a restaurant on the west side of the marina and shrugged.
“Well, it’s either that or another granola bar,” he sighed while he reeled in the nylon hose. The granola bar won, and he quaffed two bottles of water while he looked for his Tilley Hat, then with newspaper in hand he walked up to the marina office, looking for directions. He walked back up to what he hoped was the correct bus stop, and he caught what he hoped was the correct bus and rode out to Ovingdean. It was only a short walk after that, and he came to a farm house with a sign out front…
“Puppies for sale” – he read, and he smiled.
He walked down the drive and came to the house, and a young woman was waiting there as he walked up to the front door.
“Mr Collins, is it?”
“Gosh, I sure hope so. Mrs Lethbridge? If not, I’ve made a long walk for nothing…”
She laughed. “Well, we have three girls left. You wanted a girl, I think you said?”
“Yup. I’ve had better luck with ‘em over the years. High strung, but loyal.”
“Oh, so you’ve had Springers before?”
“My mom and dad were nuts about them, and I think they must’ve passed the gene on to me. I’ve only had one of my own so far, though.”
“I understand. Well, would you like to go see them?”
“Lead on…can’t wait!”
He followed the woman out to a small barn, and a very possessive female Springer met him and started sniffing his legs, then his hands and, having passed that test, was allowed into the barn.
“Litters always smell the same,” he said as he looked down into the whelping stall. The pups looked like little brown and white balls of fluff, half of them asleep, the other half, the alpha half, trying to annihilate anyone challenging their ascendency to the top of the pecking order. “They even growl the same…”
“You’ve had litters before?”
“My parent, several times. My wife and I wanted to, but…”
“A few years ago.”
She nodded, looked at him anew. “So, you’ll be taking her back to America?”
“In time. I sailed over, arrived in Cork about three weeks ago, then crossed to Exeter. I’m going to stay here a few weeks, rest and get some work done on the boat, then I think I’ll winter over in Paris, before heading south to the Med.”
“Really? That sounds a bit like heaven. I wish Rod was about; he’d die to talk boats. I think if he could he’d sell the farm and buy a boat tomorrow, do just what you’re doing…”
“Well, please tell him he’s welcome to come down to the marina, anytime at all. I’ll show him around…”
She turned away from him abruptly. “So, the three females still available are over in this pen,” she said as she guided him over, then she opened the gate, let him in and watched what happened.
His eye had fixed on one immediately, the little girl who hung back a bit; that one watched him closely while the other two stumbled all over themselves to get to his shoes and tear into his laces. The loner just looked him in the eye for a minute, then, when the other two had exhausted their attention span she walked over and sat down in front of him.
He squatted and picked her up, brought her gently to his face while he was still close to the ground, keeping her calm, keeping her eyes in his. She continued to stare at him for a few more minutes, then she licked his chin. He kissed her on the nose, felt her ear canals a bit as he stood, keeping her eyes focused, earning her trust, then he turned to Lethbridge.
“She’s the one.”
“I can tell. It’s always love at first sight, isn’t it?”
“Always. Her eyes are clear and her ear canals are big enough, and her hips and knees look sound. Besides, she’s smart.”
“You’re quick. Yes, she was my pick too, but Rod wouldn’t let me keep another.”
“How many do you have?”
“Four, I think, but that’s a flexible number. One of the boys is a bit too alpha, always off exploring somewhere.”
“Been there, done that. Never again. Got to get trust that first day or they turn into runners.”
“That’s the problem when you keep one from your own litter. Those first few days they learn your weaknesses. What will you name her?”
She stared at him.
“Sorry. It’s a Steinbeck thing?”
“The writer? Oh yes…Travels with Charley. I recall now.”
“Well, we have a little paperwork to get through, and all the veterinary documentation you’ll need for export.”
“Going to France, so EU paperwork is all I need for now.”
They went inside and took care of the necessaries, and she gave him a small bag of the pups food. He gave her his phone and dock information and told them to come down in the next few days.
“Might I call you a taxi?”
“Nope, I came out on the bus, but I think I could walk back faster than that.”
“Well, if you walk down Greenway to the highway, there’s a stair down to the beach from there. But I like walking along the bluff. The view, the breezes…it’s much nicer from there.”
He had a little puppy papoose in his daypack, and it clipped to the shoulder straps. He slipped Charley inside, her inquisitive little face poking out, then they walked, the three of them, out the house and down the driveway.
“Well, a pleasure to meet you,” he said. “And please, do feel free to come down to the marina.”
“I’ll tell Rod, but I’m sure he’ll be down this evening!”
“Okay,” he said with a grin. “I’ll look forward to it.”
He took off down Greenway until he came to the roundabout; there he looked around until he found the pedestrian tunnel she’d mantioned – and he crossed under the highway, with Charley looking around at her new world all the time now. And to him it just felt so good, this being out in the grassy air on foot! He felt so good he wanted to sing out loud – even when he saw the sea…again.
He and Charley had left the British Virgins in June, and battled unseasonably warm weather all the way to Hamilton, Bermuda. Hurricanes were already lining up off Africa – a big one veering dangerously north – so he cast off after taking on fuel and water and a few fresh items from the nearest grocery, and sailed almost due north – until he was in the middle of the Gulf Stream. Any further north and he knew he’d be in the region of drifting icebergs, and sailing alone now he had no desire to test those limits.
Sailing alone…had been tough after Charley passed…and that’s why he’d hit the ‘net and started looking for a pup as soon as he landed in Exeter. This ‘new’ Charley had the same spirit in her eyes, and he was hopeful after just a few minutes that she would measure up, and at least he’d have a few weeks to get her acclimated to life onboard before crossing the channel to Honfleur.
Walking along the cliff trail was all the Lethbridge woman said it would be. Great view, calming breezes – so he decided to walk along past the marina, then backtrack from town. There were, naturally, teens on skateboards and kids on bicycles to contend with, then, as he topped a rise he heard an old Beatles song – Norwegian Wood, wasn’t it? – with someone doing a pretty fair imitation of Lennon’s voice.
“Perfect!” he said to the wind. “What a perfect song for a perfect day!”
He walked along in love with life, looking down at Charley from time to time, looking at her looking up at him, smelling her puppy breath, letting her lick his chin as he wondered about the chance encounters between two such disparate souls as theirs. And he knew he was already in love with her…
…when he saw her…
The woman from the restaurant, her red hair streaming away in the breeze. She was standing near the edge of the cliff, the music getting closer too as he drew near, and yet she seemed oblivious to the world as she looked out to sea. She put her hands out to the side like a bird about to take wing, and he felt her tension gather in the air – like a decision made, then fear came to him…
“Hello!” he called out as he started moving quickly her way.
She seemed to hesitate along the knife edge of her decision, then she stepped forward, her right foot drifting out over the void – and he closed the remaining few yards in time to grab her by the collar of her blouse. He pulled her back and they tumbled to the ground, coming to a rest on their backs; he scrambled up and knelt by her side, helped her sit up and come back to the world, yet the woman seemed to have embraced her own death so completely she remained afloat over the abyss, wondering, perhaps, when the pain would start.
Staring blankly ahead now, her eyes detached from the present, her breathing otherworldly and calm, he watched as her hands started shaking, then as tears came for her she turned her ashen eyes to his and came apart.
He did the only thing he could, the first thing that came to mind: he sat beside her and pulled Charley out of the papoose, then thrust the two souls together.
Charley looked at the woman, recognized soul rendering despair and began licking the woman’s face. Tears turned to laughter, laughter into an affirmation of life, and she held the pup to her face, fought her way back to the living.
“And what’s your name, little girl,” he heard her whispering.
“Charley,” he whispered.
“She’s such a love.”
He nodded his understanding. “Yup.”
“How old is she?”
“Eight weeks and a few days. I’ve had her about an hour.”
She looked up at him. “Sumner?” she managed to say when she saw his face.
“He told me you were coming.”
“John. He told me you were coming. Last night, and again, just a few minutes ago.”
He looked around. “John?”
“Didn’t you hear him singing?”
“I heard singing. A friend of yours, is he?”
She shrugged. “He was here last night, and again, just now.”
“Where’d he go?”
She pointed. “He’s right there.”
He turned, looked at Lennon sitting on the grass – he was bent over his guitar, writing words in a little book, and Collins was wondering why he hadn’t helped when he looked up from his book.
Sumner Collins felt like the earth shifted off it’s axis in that wrenching moment.
The long hair, the round glasses…he was looking at John Lennon…dead now almost forty years – yet somehow he hadn’t changed; indeed, he was as alive now as he had been the last time he’s seen him, the last time they’d been together…
Yet as they looked at one another Lennon seemed satisfied and faded from view. Charley hopped down and waddled over to where he’d been sitting, then she sniffed and sniffed, whimpering a bit as she circled the crushed blades of grass.
“He was here yesterday?” Collins asked. Charley came back to his side, clearly confused now, and he picked her up, held her close.
“And today. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I saw him – not so long ago. Right after my wife passed. It was a weird few days, like a series of hallucinations…”
“He told me you were…that you would be coming soon. From that way,” she said, pointing to Ovingdean. “He told me your name last night, that you were coming.”
He nodded, looked out to sea, wondered where she was now, if she was watching even now.
And when she would come back, he wondered.
“I’m not going to leave you out here,” he said. “Can I take you home? Or could I take you down to the boat, fix you a coffee?”
“That’s right…you mentioned something about that this morning, didn’t you?”
“I was up here yesterday,” she said. “Watching you as you came, when the storm hit.”
“Were you going to jump?”
“I was, yes. Until he came.”
“And today? Why did you come back?”
She looked at him, confusion the only thing clear in her eyes. “I’m not sure. Something to do with him, I guess.”
He slipped Charley into the papoose and stood, then held out his hand. “Come on,” he said softly. “I think we need to walk a bit.”
“Okay.” She took his hand and he helped her up, then without really thinking about it put his arms around her shoulder, the way he used to, so many years ago. They walked quietly along the path, Charley looking over at her from time to time, but for the most part up at him, and she understood. From time to time the pup looked out to sea and sighed.
He helped her up onto deck, held her hand along the rail and steadied her as she stepped over the tall coaming, then down into the cockpit. “Have a seat,” he said as he set up one of the leaves on the cockpit table. “Coffee or tea?”
“Do you have any soda?”
“Coke and diet Dr Pepper. Perrier too, I think.”
“A Coke, please.”
He put Charley down on the cockpit sole, slid open the companionway hatch and hopped below. Charley came to the little bridge deck and tried to hop up, contented herself with looking at him as he went to work in the galley. A moment later he placed a bowl of water and some puppy chow out for her, then he carried up a couple of cokes and some Irish soda bread.
Charley lapped up the water, took a bite of chow – then squatted and pooped, so Collins ducked below for some wipes and paper towels, groaning as he went.
“And so it begins,” he said quietly as he popped back up. “Potty-training.”
“I’ve never had a dog,” Deborah said, barely concealing her disgust as the pup circled and pee’ed next to her feet. “And I feel certain this is the reason why.”
“Yeah. It’s two to three weeks of serious fun.” He bent down and cleaned up her mess, then went below to wash his hands – when his iPhone started chirping.
“Yello!” he answered.
“Mr Collins? Rod Lethbridge here…”
“Rod! Come on down. Just feeding Charley.”
“You’re sure it’s alright?”
“Yup, just cleaning up some poop.”
“Yup, feel free to help.” He chuckled, so did the voice on the other end. “You’ve got the slip number, right?”
“Yes, and thanks for the invite. We’ll see you in a few.”
He dried his hands, went back up to the cockpit – only to find Charley curled up on Deborah’s lap, both now sound asleep, Deborah’s head was nodding forward and jerking back uncomfortably, so he went below for a pillow, got more ice for her drink then went back up and sat beside them.
“You want me to take you below,” he whispered in her ear, “get you under a blanket?”
She opened her eyes and jerked awake. “How long was I…”
“Not even five minutes, but it seems you’ve been through a lot the past few days. Maybe you need a rest.”
“I understand dogs better now,” she said, rubbing Charley’s ears.
“Springer love,” he nodded. “Accept no substitutes.”
She stifled a laugh – “Just Springer’s, you say?”
“Absolutely. Look, the folks I got her from are headed down; one of them wants to see the boat and I told them to come on down…”
“Would you like me to leave?”
“No, absolutely not! Just thought it would be better if you were awake…”
‘So,’ she thought, ‘it’s absolutely not, is it?!’ She reached for the Coke but he handed it to her and she smiled, told him “Thanks” as she looked at him anew.
“Could I get you a blanket? I’m afraid it’s going to get chilly soon.”
She looked around the cockpit, at all the displays and instruments… “What? No heater out here?” she smiled as she looked at him.
“Don’t laugh,” he said, grinning. “I can get it steaming in here – and fast.”
“Oh, of that I have no doubt…”
He turned beet red then Charley sat up and sniffed the air, so he looked down the dock. “Yup, here they come!”
“How did she know?”
“She’s got a good nose…” He climbed out of the cockpit and walked over to the boarding gate just as Rod and his wife arrived.
“Shite!” was the first word out of his mouth. “This is bloody huge!” His wife laughed, but she was looking up and down the length of the boat, shaking her head. “What is she? An Island Packet?”
“Yup, a 485.”
“Bloody hell. How long?”
“Fifty one feet. Well, we don’t stand on formalities around here. Come on up…”
Rod hopped up and immediately went forward; his wife just stood there – still shaking her head.
“Boys and their toys,” she whispered.
“I take it he asked you to come?” Collins whispered.
“Begged would be a better choice of words,” she said loudly.
“Pleaded, dearest. Don’t exaggerate; it’s most unbecoming.”
“Better take my hand,” Collins said, leaning over the rail.
“No rats on board, are there? Other than that big, fat one,” she asked, pointing at her husband.
“Not to my knowledge, but watch your step.”
“Okay.” She reached up, took his hand and he lifted her up.
“Shite!” Rod almost shouted. “She doesn’t even move when she stepped aboard!”
“Well, with all the gear onboard, she displaces fifty thousand pounds.”
“Deborah!” Collins heard Mrs Lethbridge state, “what are you doing here!?”
Rod looked at the cockpit, squinted, saw Deborah and made a beeline amidships.
She’s like honey to the men around here, Collins thought. Amazing. He made his way aft to the ‘pit and went to the companionway. “Better hand the little girl to me,” he said, his arms outstretched, and Deborah passed her over – reluctantly.
“Mind of I come down,” she asked.
“No, not at all.” He held out one hand and helped her down, then went forward to his office. He’d put Charley in the little nesting area he’d made for her, but as soon as he put her there she started whimpering, then crying.
He sighed, picked her up and held her close. “Okay, kiddo,” he began, “let’s get this straight right now. No crying…no whining. It’s time for a nap, okay?” He cuddled her to his neck, then put her back in the nest and wrapped a blanket around her, then turned on the sound system and shut the door. He had settled on a Brandenburg concerto and smiled when the music began, then he turned – and found Deborah standing there, staring at him.
“Thank you,” she said as she stepped into his arms.
“For?” He sighed at the wonder of it all…
“For being there.” She wrapped her arms around him, placed her head on his chest.
He didn’t know what to do, so he put his arms around her, kissed the top of her head, a gesture that would have been comfortably familiar just a year ago – but a gesture that felt new and unsettling in the here and now. “You’re gonna be okay now,” he whispered. “I know it.”
“Am I?” She leaned back and looked up into his eyes, then down, at his lips.
‘So there it is,’ he said to himself. So sudden, so unexpected. He leaned in and kissed her gently, then leaned away. “Yes, I’m sure,” he said as he smiled at her.
She shook her head, looked into his eyes again. “I feel like I know you,” she sighed. “Somewhere, a long time ago, we must’ve run into one another.”
“Honestly, Deborah, I think I’d remember you…” He grinned, kissed her on the forehead. “Can’t ignore our guests now, can we?”
“Right, my Lord and Master.”
He laughed, walked aft, leaned up into the cockpit. “Drinks, guided tours?” he said to Rod, then to Mrs Lethbridge, “you know, I don’t even know your first name.”
“Elizabeth,” she said, smiling. “How’s the little girl?”
“Tired, confused, ready for a nap. Could I get either of you a Coke?”
“You wouldn’t happen to have any rum onboard, would you?” Rod asked.
“White, amber, dark. Jamaican, Barbados and Puerto Rican.”
“You do know you are now Rod’s best friend for life, don’t you?” Elizabeth said, grinning, and Collins went to the galley and fixed two drinks, handed them up to Rod.
“Elizabeth? What about you?”
“Do you have any white wine?”
“Pinot Grigio and Riesling. Riesling works well with cheese, but I’m out of apples.”
“Pinot works for me.”
He opened a fresh bottle and poured a glass, then headed up. Rod was looking over all the instruments while sitting behind the wheel, shaking his head, almost drooling as decades of wanderlust kicked in.
He handed Elizabeth her glass, looked at Deborah sipping her Coke and decided a sail just might be interesting enough to be fun: “If the weather’s nice this weekend, why don’t we take her out for a sail?”
Rod’s eyes lit up, Deborah’s too, while Elizabeth threw silent death-bombs his way – causing all to laugh. After they’d been sitting for an hour or so, talking boats and farms and all the dreams fueling their lives, Rod asked the one question Collins had been dreading.
“So, what brought this on, the desire to sail away from it all?”
“It was something my wife and I planned doing at some point. We’d just bought the boat when she fell ill, and after she passed I decided it was time to move on, see if it was going to be something worth doing by myself.”
“Kind of a big boat for going it alone, isn’t it?”
“It is,” he nodded. “There are automated systems for sail handling and anchoring, and they help, but she can be a handful when the wind pipes up.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Oh, I read a book once that summed it up best. As long as it’s fun. Charley was my last Springer and she passed a while ago, on the trip here, and I just about gave up on the whole thing then. She got me through a lot of the hard times…”
“Could I get a refill?” Elizabeth asked, watching him speak and changing the subject.
“Y’all better come on down,” he added, grateful for Elizabeth’s quick thinking, “and take the nickel tour – so you can find your way around down here,” he said as he went down the ladder. Deborah followed him, and then he heard Elizabeth telling Rod it was time to leave, Rod objecting, then heading down the ladder – followed by a seriously perturbed Elizabeth spitting flames and smoke out her ears.
Yet it was Elizabeth’s eyes that went round down below, and she walked up to the head and the forward cabin. “This is nice,” she said. “Really quite nice. Is this where you sleep?”
“No, mine’s back here,” he said, pointing down the narrow passage in the galley.
“There’s another?” she asked, incredulous.
“Yup. My office is right by you. Charley’s in there, though.”
“An office? May I?”
“Sure. Be my guest.”
She opened the door and disappeared, came out a minute later and whispered in Rod’s ear.
“Bollocks!” he said.
“Look for yourself, then!”
Rod went in, came out a moment later shaking his head. “A washer-dryer?”
“Comes in handy,” Collins replied.
“Do you carry that much water?”
“Water-maker. 25 gallons per hour while running the diesel.”
“Self-sufficiency, but it comes at a price. Complex systems in a marine environment are always breaking down. You either fix it yourself or pay through the nose to get the work done. I’ve always found that about half the workers engaged have no idea what they’re doing, however, so it’s better to do the work yourself. Saves time, money and a lot of aggravation.”
They walked aft. “And this is the galley?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yup. Fridge with a separate freezer, microwave, stove and oven, and over here,” he added, pointing, “an ice maker.”
“Bloody hell!” she said. “I was expecting a paraffin stove and an ice cooler.”
“Good for a weekend,” Collins said, “but life is consumed with running ashore for ice once a week. More in the tropics.”
“Or you could just keep fresh stuff that doesn’t need refrigeration,” Elizabeth added.
“Oh yes, I have a fair amount of that, too.”
“What’s in here?” Rod asked, pointed to a short door low in the passageway.
“Open her up,” Collins said, and when the door opened he heard Lethbridge whistle.
“Yanmar? How big?
“110 HP, 300 gallons fuel.”
“Yup, and both solar and wind generators.”
“Shite. Well, you did it right, that’s for sure.”
“I’ll say,” Elizabeth added, now sitting on one of the “couches” in the main cabin. “I can see how this could be fun.”
Rod looked at her, then at Collins, a huge grin plastered all over his face. “So,” he asked again, “where to from here?”
“Honfluer. Ship the mast to Marseilles then motor up the Seine to Paris. I’ll stay there through winter, then work my way down to the Med in April. I want to spend the summer between Marseilles and Corsica, do some diving. I’m not making plans beyond that just yet. We’ll just see how it goes. So, what about you, Rod? Done much sailing?”
“A bit of racing. Crewed a few Admiral’s Cup runs, back in the day, including two Fastnets, but ever since I’ve just wanted to cruise.”
“What would we do about the farm,” Elizabeth asked.
“Rent it out, I suppose. At least until we know if it’s something we could do long term.”
“Charter a few times down south,” Collins said. “Or hitch a ride with someone heading out.”
“You perhaps looking for crew,” Rod smiled hopefully.
“You never know?” Collins smiled back. “Like I said, if the weather holds let’s go out this weekend.”
“Deb?” Elizabeth asked, looking at her, “can we give you a ride back to town?”
“You know,” she said, “I think I’ll walk in.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Well, I think we ought to head home now,” she added, standing. “We’ll call Friday about this weekend, then?”
“That sounds about right.”
“Well, thanks for the libations,” Rod said as he started up the companionway steps, then Elizabeth followed him up. Deborah remained seated, smiled as they left – but to Collins something seemed amiss.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” he said as he followed the Lethbridges up into the night. He helped Elizabeth down then walked with them up to the car park.
“Where’d you run into Deborah?” she asked when they were well away from the boat.
“On the walk from your place.”
“You should be easy with her,” Rod said. “Still waters and all.”
“She’s sweet, Sumner, but she’s had a rough time.”
“Could you elaborate?”
“I don’t know how to say this,” Elizabeth replied. “Possessive, I guess, and fragile. She doesn’t handle rejection at all. Half the men in town are madly in love with her, if you know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t. Do you mean she sleeps around?”
“No,” Rod said, “quite the opposite, in fact. She’s sweet as can be, but the more impressionable types are misled by that. I’d say a lot of unrequited love surrounds her in that shop of hers.”
“I don’t think she does it deliberately,” Elizabeth added. “She just gives off this vibe, if you know what I mean?”
“Do you think she’s crazy? Off her rocker? Anything like that?”
Rod and Elizabeth exchanged looks up by their car. “No, I wouldn’t say that, Sumner,” she said. “It’s more that she’s a fragile soul. Easily confused by life. Like I said, take care with her. Be easy. Gentle.”
“She’s sweet,” Rod said – almost wistfully – and Elizabeth looked at him.
“She has the same effect on everyone,” she added. “People fall in love with her. Easily.”
“Okay. Well, I’ll see you this weekend.” They soon drove off and he looked around, saw the restaurant on the west side of the marina was still open, just about the time he realized he’d yet to eat so far that day. He walked back to the boat and climbed aboard.
“You hungry?” he asked as he stuck his head below, but she was nowhere to be seen. He climbed below, went forward and found the two of them curled up on the forward berth, both lost to sleep. He shook his head, put a blanket over them and went aft to the galley, nuked a can of chicken noodle soup, then climbed up to the cockpit and ate in silence. A few people were walking out to their boats after dinners out, and he exchanged waves and ‘hellos’ as the parade drifted by, then he pulled out his phone and checked his email accounts.
He found what he was looking for in his home account, a half dozen notes from his sister-in-law Tracy.
Her divorce was final – he read in one, she wanted to know what he was up to in another. ‘Did he want some company,’ seemed to be the thrust of her notes – and he had to think about that for a while. She was an impossible opportunist, always had been as far as he could tell, but she was also easy to be with and had been a big help after her sister passed. Somewhere along the way she’d begun professing feelings he’d been startled by, even rejected at first, but over time she’d simply worn him down, a shallow victory by attrition.
When he let her know Charley had passed she’d grown almost insistent that he return and see his nephews and nieces, spend time in Seattle with them while she weathered her divorce, and he’d promptly departed Cork for Exeter. Still, he needed to fill her in on his location from time to time, as she was his emergency contact if his SART beacon was ever activated. He drew up a reply that hinted he was en route to France and would be there around Thanksgiving, and to think about bringing her kids over for Christmas. He sent it and was turning to go below when he saw Deborah coming up, holding Charley to her breast.
“I think she needs to go to the bathroom. She was licking my ear, wouldn’t stop.”
“That’s the signal,” he said as he leaned over and picked her up. He had set out a piece of astro-turf Charley used to use and he carried her back to the aft deck, set her down. She looked up at him and let fly, panting and grinning at the same time, and when she was finished she ran over to him and hopped up into his hands.
“Good girl! Outside!” he repeated a few times, praising her until he thought she understood, then he carried her back to the cockpit, to Deborah’s outstretched hands.
“No one ever praised me like that when I went to the bathroom. I’m jealous.”
“Well, let me know next time you need to go. I’ll stand outside and cheer…”
“That’s one I haven’t heard in a while.”
“Yup. Sorry, but I was getting hungry and had some soup. Could I fix you something now?”
“I’m not really hungry,” she said.
“Ready to head home? I’ll be happy to walk with you.”
“I was hoping I could stay here tonight.”
He looked at her, but she wasn’t avoiding his eyes now. Far from it.
“Okay,” he said. “I just put fresh sheets on that bunk, so…”
“I wondered if I might stay with you.”
“Did you now? Afraid of the dark?”
“Something like that,” she grinned.
“Well, I’ve got to shower, get on some fresh clothes…”
“May I join you?”
“Look, I’m sorry if this is going too fast, but I…
“You’ve had a rough few days.”
“It’s more than that. More like a rough few years.”
“I’ve been alone. For a very long time. And, well, I think I reached the end of the line yesterday. I either change my life, or I might as well not go on any longer.”
He looked at her, then stepped onto the companionway ladder and walked below. She had moved away, back into the main cabin, but now he took her hand and led her aft into his cabin. “You’d better sit down, take a load off.”
“A load off?” she said as she sat on the berth.
He sat in the settee across from her, looked at her – not quite knowing how to proceed. “You need to tell me what’s going on. The whole story…because I don’t know the why or really even what happened today up there on that cliff. I’ve been ignoring whatever it was, hoping the whole thing would just go away…”
“But he doesn’t go away, does he? He never did, I guess. He tried to becomes the conscience of a generation, and he was killed by the insanity of those times, but you can’t kill an idea, can you?”
“Do you think what we saw is real?”
“I didn’t. No, not at all. I thought I was going mad. And then you saw him. And you know what? – how can two people who’ve never met share a single, contemporaneous hallucination?”
“I don’t think it can happen – but I’m no professional when it comes to those kinds of things.” He sighed. “Deborah, that’s not what I’m talking about. What led you to the edge in the first place? I mean, not every lonely person…”
“Oh, are you so sure? I’m not anymore, Sumner. Loneliness is a silent killer. It chews away at the edges of your soul every waking moment of your life. Whether you choose to live alone or life came at you head on and somehow crushed you, loneliness is only tolerable for just so long. Sooner or later it forces subtle changes throughout every aspect your life, it serves up crushed expectations that wear you out, beat you down. The grayness of a winter’s afternoon comes to define your life and you can’t see beyond the curtain to Spring anymore.”
“Did you ever try anti-depressants, anything like that?”
“Sure, why not try them? Still, those things can’t take away the silence that stalks you, the coming home at night to an empty flat, to an empty life. Oh, the hobbies I’ve read about, my heavens, they’re a panacea, aren’t they, each and every one of them. I tried knitting for a time, then quilting, but then I’d look up and see my living room walls looking at me, accusing me…”
“Of being alone.”
“You say that as if it was a choice.”
“It is, in a way. You go out and your expectations are dashed time and time again, and then you go home and tell yourself that you’re different somehow. That people look at you differently for a reason. That you’re marked…”
“I don’t know how else to explain it, Sumner…Sumner? Didn’t that name come from summoner? The person who summoned people to church?”
“I think so. Why?”
“Well, that made me think about John, about when I was up there yesterday, when he told me Sumner was coming. You see? That I was up there, being summoned?”
“Oh. And now?”
“He was telling me you were coming. It can’t mean anything else.”
“So, what if he was. What does that mean?”
“He stopped me. The wind stopped me, blew me from the edge. The same wind that knocked your boat on it’s side – it hit me when I was looking over the edge, knocked me down and blew me away from the edge, and he was laughing then, a happy laugh, but he was laughing.”
He shook his head, lost within the inward confines of her vision, not sure if she was mad – or if he was now going completely off his rocker. “So, let me get this straight – in MY head. You went up to the cliffs yesterday because you’ve been lonely, for a long time…”
“Yes. I’d say almost twenty years, anyway.”
“Well, I was in your shop this morning and it seems to me you’re surrounded by people – men and women, by the way – who simply adore you…”
“That’s the role I play in their lives, Sumner. The role they’re comfortable with, by the way. And yes, men flirt with me all the time, but I tried that once – and in the end I simply lost a customer. People buy into all kinds of fantasies, and the doting waitress is one of the oldest, but that’s a fantasy that simply doesn’t work out over time. It didn’t for me, anyway, and in the end I was left lonelier than ever.”
“Yes, I suppose there’s fantasy and reality…”
“Yes, and when you paste your fantasy over the reality of someone else’s life, what you end up with is dashed expectations, a bitter lot of pain.”
“So, then wind that knocked me and the boat over…knocked you off your feet and away from the drop-off? That means something in this alternate universe we’ve stumbled upon…”
“Just a manner of speaking, I think. But I can’t account for what I saw up there today. That man’s been gone forty years, so either we’re interacting with death – or with an artifact of Time itself. Or both.”
“Are you retired?”
“What did you do?”
“I worked in government, the State Department. Embassy security, but I was in D.C. most of the time, then I worked in the private sector for about ten years. In Boston, by and large, where my wife was from.”
“What kind of work is that? I mean…”
“Counter-terrorism. Especially after 9/11, but I was on the ground in Tanzania, in 1998.”
“What awful work.”
“Yes, it was. My wife was in the Navy, then continued to work for them after she retired, so in a way we both lived and breathed that stuff all our lives.”
“Poison. For the soul, I mean.”
“I think so, yes. I think the stress poisoned her, made her ill.”
“That kind of hate poisons everyone and everything,” she said. “Tell me. Do you think you’re running away from all that now. Is that what this boat’s all about?”
“Oh, yes, definitely. I think we both wanted to run away from it all, while we could. But…”
“…time caught up with her?” she added.
“With us both, yes.”
“So, have you been alone since…”
He nodded his head. “Yup.”
“So you know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
He looked into her eyes. “Yes.”
“Have you ever thought about…”
“In a way. After Charley passed.”
“How long ago was that? Less than a year?”
“Yup, just a few months, really.”
“So, maybe I’m here, now, to keep you from…”
“Perhaps, but when I saw you in the café I thought there was something special about you.”
“Did you? Why did you walk out?”
“I don’t know. I felt superfluous, but…”
“Maybe because, what did you say, you thought there was something special about me? Do you think that put you off?”
“That’s what I was trying to get at,” she said. “Loneliness becomes self-reinforcing. I think we get to a point where we take unconscious actions to reinforce our loneliness – and we’re not even aware, on a conscious level, anyway – that’s what we’re doing.”
He nodded his head. “I can see that, but that doesn’t even begin to get at why a dead guy was up on the cliff, grinning at me.”
And certainly not what he was most afraid of.
“No, it doesn’t. Wanna take a shower with me?”
“You know? Yes, I do…”
“No buts, Deborah.”
He kicked off his Top-siders and went into the head and turned on the priming pump, then the water and the sump pump, and she walked in beside him – naked as the day she was born. He had to force himself not to stare…her breasts were perfect, her legs gorgeous…then she stepped into the shower and let the water run through her hair – watching him while he undressed. When he stepped into the shower she leaned in and held him for a moment, then put her hands on his shoulders, pushed him down to his knees. She put one foot up on the rim of the enclosure, then took his head in her hands and pulled him to her need.
Her eyes closed as her head tilted back, and she felt his hands on the backs of her thighs pulling her closer still. The hot water running down her back, his powerful hands almost electric and oh! – he hadn’t forgotten a thing, had he?
He heard something bump against the hull in his sleep and his instincts kicked in: his eyes opened and he slipped out of the berth, saw the sun just coming up through a forest of masts as he got into his shorts and shoes, then he went forward and checked the panel breakers. Nothing amiss – so he went topsides and checked all the dock-lines – and found nothing unusual there, either. He looked forward and…
He was sitting on the pulpit, his legs crossed and that guitar resting on his lap.
Collins walked forward quietly and Lennon looked down, played a few notes slowly, tentatively, then started into a gentle acoustic rendering of Fixing A Hole, changing ‘where I belong I’m right’ to ‘where you belong you’re right’ just once, and when he finished he looked up at Collins and grinned.
“Any questions, mate?” he said, looking over his glasses.
“Yeah,” Collins said, stepping forward almost defiantly, “a few dozen come to mind.” Lennon smiled, bent to his guitar and began a slow, dirge-like Yesterday, and Collins fell to the deck, choking off a cry. “No, please, don’t do this to me,” he managed to whisper between gasps for breath, but Lennon played on through to the last few notes, then he looked up at Collins and saw him crumpled on the deck.
“You can’t keep runnin’. One of these days you’ve got to see the meaning within our moment together. Remember?”
Collins looked up – but Lennon was fading from view again, bent over his guitar, feeling his way through the music of the spheres.
“Wait! Don’t leave, not yet…”
But he was gone.
The twins, Phoebe and Sumner, had grown up in a house full of music, music everywhere, all the time. His mother, a truly sensational pianist, had assiduously passed on her gifts, but the boy’s twin sister had always been the intended recipient – and he grew to more fully understand that attachment as he watched mother and daughter play and study together. He grew technically competent over the years – while his sister played music from the heart. Even so, figuring out exactly where the line between those two heart’s lay was a mystery he never penetrated. There was a force joining mother and daughter he simply couldn’t fathom. And he never did.
One evening, while walking home with their parents after a late dinner, they heard four or five ‘pop-pop-pops’ as they approached and as he looked at his sister he wondered what it was. His father was anxious, protective, and when they came to their building he saw a lot of people running around, everyone shouting and lots of people crying. He remembered a man sitting on the sidewalk saying he’d just killed John Lennon, then he saw the man laying on the stairway into their building, foamy blood bubbling from his mouth, and he’d reached out, tried to comfort the man – but his father had reached down and scooped him away. But what he’d remembered most was looking at the man as he reached up…for his hand…and the lingering warmth in the man’s eyes as he struggled against the night.
From the time they grew into this life within their mother’s womb, the twins had been tentatively, yet securely joined in the most oblique ways. They looked eerily alike but couldn’t have been more different in their approach to life – and the world, and as they grew older, the wider this apparent gulf became. His sister became passionate about music in general, then opera, and began playing the cello then singing professionally, while he became interested in flying, then in his father’s various business dealings. She walked to Juilliard when he went away to Princeton, and though he came home for her recitals and debuts, his parents and even his sister ignored his growing academic achievements. He went into the Navy and flew S-3 Vikings for a few years, then returned and went to law school at Georgetown, and he was disappointed when he came to see his stint in the Navy had completely alienated his family. After a few strained dinners he understood the ‘what’ of things, but never the ‘why’, and after school and going to work for the Department of State he found that five more years passed before he saw any of them again.
His father was getting on and tired all the time, yet his mother remained as vigorously youthful as he remembered, but she was in love again, only with another man. His father never recovered and faded fast after their divorce, yet even his death wasn’t the end of their story. A few months after her second marriage, his mother found a lump in her breast, and passed a year and a half later. Only then did the boy become a man in that most final sense; he suddenly found himself adrift in a world without his parents, and he drifted in silence, alone, rudderless, until he found his way again.
Yet for a time he and his sister came together, but he found her frivolous eccentricities and bitter disparagements hard to take, even if she was, in the most fragile way imaginable, a decent soul. But without their mother to anchor her to the here and now, he looked on from afar as she drifted into loneliness, then despair, and he felt powerless to help. She called one night, and he heard in her voice the failings of their mother’s clinging obsessiveness; she simply wasn’t capable of standing up to life on her own. Instinctively, protectively, he moved her to his apartment in Georgetown, helped her get a teaching job at a local day school and she just managed to keep her head above water – but one night she disappeared, leaving him the silliest note, telling him she was moving to California to find herself, to explore life until she could find her place in it.
He had remained in the Navy, though only tenuously as a reservist, and that’s how he met Jennifer. She was a nurse at the time, but with his encouragement she went to medical school at Georgetown. In time they tried to start a family, but nothing worked and they moved on. There were no recriminations, no sidelong glances, just a heartfelt love each never took for granted. When he was honest with himself, he admitted to her years later he was happy with the way things turned out. He was selfish enough, he said, to know he couldn’t have shared her with a child, that he would only love her. And only her. She told him she understood while she held his hand, and their love only grew stronger.
A few years later his sister showed up on his doorstep, destitute, her trust fund exhausted. He took her in again, then discovered she had lost herself within heroin’s warm embrace. He fought through his anger, battled her self-pity, but by then he was rotating between Washington, the Middle East and East Africa. Jennifer was left to carry the burden, and he rightly thought his sister’s return to his life would destroy their marriage, yet in time just the opposite occurred. His sister and his wife struggled together through the contours of Phoebe’s addiction, and in time they came to know each well enough to become easy friends, comfortable enough in each others company to see beyond all the rough edges – and both fell in love with Phoebe’s gift for piano. And this time it took hold, for Phoebe grew under Jennifer’s maternal instincts, and while Sumner thought the attraction odd, he enjoyed watching the results unfold. All his sister needed, he saw, was a mother, and as it turned out, all Jennifer needed was a daughter…
His sister met a man a year later, a good man as it turned out, and she moved with him to a boarding school in the Midwest. He taught Shakespeare and she piano and theory, and her existence took on the comfortable contours he’d always hoped she’d find. And yet, after all they’d been through together over the years, he finally realized how little they really knew of one another. So similar – yet so utterly different.
They drove through New Hampshire one autumn weekend, down twisting, canopied lanes shaded by vast preening limbs shimmering with golds and reds, and they passed a little farm with a sign out front – “Puppies For Sale” caught their eye – and they stopped and looked at the little fur-balls wrestling on the grass. One of the pups held back, studied Jennifer quietly for a while then turned her gaze on him. He was unsettled by the pups inquisitiveness, by the seemingly direct connection it established in those first few moments, but when it – she – walked up to him and sat, looked up at him expectantly he’d been powerless to do anything but pick her up, look her in the eye.
Jennifer too thought the pup’s behavior almost strange, but she held onto the little girl while he wrote the check, and the breeder gave them puppy chow and saw them on their way. He’d been reading Steinbeck those days, and he recounted Travels With Charley to Jennifer and she loved the name, the incongruity of it all, and by the time they got back to Boston Charley had become a part of their lives.
A few years later they talked about retirement, about moving out into the world together, exploring, seeing new places are far-flung travels. They settled on the idea of a boat, one big enough to cross oceans in, to live aboard for long stretches of time, and they settled on Gemini when they saw her at a boat show in Newport. They moved her to a slip in the inner harbor, not far from the Navy Yard, and weekends soon took on the ritual airs of preparation, anticipation of what Gemini offered always on their minds.
Phoebe came home one Thanksgiving, for a visit she said, but he saw she was troubled again, drifting along the edges of vast hallucinations one minute, talking to her ghosts, and the next minute fine, grounded in the here and now. One night before she left, they talked about the Dakota and their feelings that night, about watching John Lennon die, and what that death meant to them.
“I didn’t understand what death meant before that night,” she said at one point, “but I’ve been terrified of it ever since. The finality of the moment, of never waking up again, never seeing or hearing or touching anything or anyone ever again. Not to mention, I can’t imagine being without music. And his eyes – they have haunted me ever since.”
“Do you talk to him?” he asked. “Do you see him?”
And she had looked away, unsure what she could safely tell her brother, but when she looked at him she saw he knew already. The bond between them was as tight as ever, and she nodded her head. “Both,” she said.
“What does he do…what does he say?”
“We talk about music, mostly. What it means, really.”
“You remember how mother used to talk about music as a language, the one true universal language? How the structure of music underscores all emotion?”
“And we talk about death. About that night.”
“Oh?” he remembered saying – even as an icy fear gripped his chest. “I wonder what it’s like,” he told her then, “to take those last few breaths, not knowing what’s on the other side…” But he didn’t, not really, and he was ashamed of the lie, because what he truly felt was that once the light left your eyes – that would be it, the end. You couldn’t, he told himself, experience ‘life’ before you were born any more than you’d been able to perceive any aspect of life – or even an afterlife – after death. “You’re born, you live, then you die – just like the t-shirt says” – or so he liked to say, yet he too admitted that the sight of Lennon’s final, pleading eyes had seared his soul, that something important had passed between the three of them.
And it was during this period, just after Phoebe returned to Wisconsin, that Jennifer’s sister Tracy fell out of the sky and into their lives. He took an instant dislike to her, the lilting pretentiousness of her Junior League Country Club mannerisms, the way she worshipped money, the way she constantly judged people over the most mundane things. Her family spent a Christmas with them one year, and the rapacious way her teenaged kids ripped into their Christmas presents nauseated him. There was something so pathologically narcissistic about all of them, something antithetical to his understanding of life and Jennifer’s approach to happiness, yet even so he could see bits of Jennifer in Tracy, and in the end, hints of Tracy in Jennifer. He knew the bonds between he and his own sister were strong, so he naturally wondered what Jennifer thought of the two of them. Yet that was a question he never thought to ask.
Because not long after that morbid holiday Jennifer was diagnosed with breast cancer, and he was left to wander in the numbness again; despite himself, his heart filled with dread when Tracy showed up days later “to help out,” as she put it, because a lingering finality came with her. She staked out her old room in the Clemens family house in Boston, and sat with Jennifer through rounds of chemotherapy – on those few days when he was away.
He stood in the shower with Jennifer and held her while she vomited; she cried in his arms while he brushed clumps of wet hair from her head, and then he and Jennifer – and Tracy, too – passed into the dull, gray mists of end stage cancer together, that place where all talk of survival is a muted transgression, a violation of the pact of silence that descends on husband and wife when they walk this final path together.
And Tracy was there, through it all. When they stepped out of the shower, it was Tracy who dried Jennifer’s wracked, shaking flesh. When Jennifer went shopping for wigs, it was Tracy who sang the chorus of optimism, Tracy who helped with all the feminine accoutrements he was so clueless about. And then, when darkness consumed his soul, it was Tracy who lifted him free and carried him back into the light. When Jennifer’s white counts tanked near the end, when her body just couldn’t fight anymore and she asked him to let her go, it was Tracy there by his side who kept him from shattering into a million pieces, Tracy by his side, holding his hand as he watched the doctor filling out her Death Certificate. Tracy who tried to piece him back together in the days after…
…and Phoebe had his other hand, holding on just as she had when their mother passed. Only on that funereal afternoon the roles had been reversed, and she sensed something fragile in her brother, something dangerously loose and frayed was coming undone. She stayed with him for weeks, watched helplessly as he began forgetting things; simple things at first, but then even greater dissolutions. Abstract ideas and vast legal frameworks became fleeting constructs his mind could no longer grasp, yet uncharacteristically, rather than fight this new world she looked on as he chose to turn away. As he ran from what he called “the crushing reality of death” – to the cold embrace of the sea.
He rented the house and moved aboard Gemini with Charley, and as she looked on Phoebe couldn’t stand to think he might actually sail away. She couldn’t admit how much she’d come to depend on his steady hand, yet she realized how much life – and death – had taken from him. Because she understood him in ways no one ever could – and no one ever had, not even Jennifer – she knew she had to let him go. There was a unique connection between them, something beyond mere physicalism, perhaps something only twins can understand or relate to. A set of shared expectations borne in the womb, perhaps, or deeper still, in a place beyond understanding. She felt his pain, true enough, but because of her mother’s intuition she understood the solitary landscape he walked, the music that played in his soul. Even so, she accepted his decision to leave without question, because she knew in the end he’d be okay. He was her unshakeable faith, he was the one who could do no wrong, who could shoulder any burden – and always come out on top.
He always had, so he always would, and she trusted that.
That’s just the way he is, she told herself. The order of her universe had always been expressed in the enduring terms of his self-imposed isolation, his innate indestructibility. She was the heart while he was the mind, she told herself over and over again, but as she watched him loading the boat before departure, for some reason she thought about John Lennon bleeding to death on those cold steps.
And then he was gone, and as she watched Gemini sail out into Massachusetts Bay, she wondered when, perhaps even if, she would ever see him again.
He sat up, looked around the deck – everywhere he could in the morning’s pale amber light – but all he saw was a gull on a mooring pier…staring down into the water. He stood, felt his way through his light-headedness and nausea to the rail and looked down into the water.
And he saw the dolphin through the murky water – perhaps a meter beneath the surface – staring up at him, laying on her side – then she too was gone…
“You’re never going to leave me, are you?” he whispered hopefully. He reached out, grabbed a shroud and worked his way aft, sat on the edge of the cockpit coaming and rubbed the water from his eyes, then realized he was shivering. He looked down, saw he had on only shorts and Dock-siders and dashed below, flipping on the breakers for the heater as he passed into the galley. He got coffee going and made some toast, poured a huge splash of rum in his mug and pulled a jar of cherry preserves from the ‘fridge. Yanking a sweater from his cabinet and sweatpants from a drawer, he bundled-up while the Espar heater primed, then kicked-in.
And by that time Deborah was up, wondering where the devil she was and why she smelled diesel fumes…“Are you up?” he heard her ask a moment later.
“Yup. Making coffee and toast. Want something?”
“Anything! I can’t remember when I last ate!”
He looked down, felt Charley circling then squatting on the sole, and he groaned when the yellow puddle spread around his shoes. “Swell,” he managed to say as he got a few paper towels and wiped the floor, then her nether regions, then he carried her to the “poop deck” and let her circle on the astro-turf. They both sighed when she dropped a curly log on the green carpet, and he carried her down below and finished coffees and toast, then set the stuff out on the table in the main cabin while the pup roamed the floor.
“How do you flush the toilet!?” he heard Deb ask, clearly perplexed.
He sighed again and just managed to laugh, then walked aft and flipped a switch, pushed a button. The macerator leapt into action and away it went, down into a holding tank.
“Nothing’s easy on a boat,” he grinned as he walked forward to get Charley’s chow, then he sat and waited for Deborah.
She came out wearing one of his old VS-32 t-shirts – and nothing else – and he marveled at her legs once again. “You know, I hate to say this, but you’re really gorgeous.”
“You hate to say it? Why?”
“I’d feel, well, a little foolish if you got the impression I was simply a shallow misanthrope – only interested in your ass.”
“Yes,” he said, grinning, and they laughed.
“Good, I’m glad. I could use a little shallow, misanthropic attention this morning.”
“Last night was delightful,” he saighed, “and I wanted you to know that. But I had a visitor this morning, and I need to tell you a little story about him.”
“John? He was here?”
“Ah-yup. Sunrise, on deck.” He looked at her, watched as the words sunk in, wondering how to proceed.
“A story,” she said, “about him?”
“Yes. I was a kid when he was killed, but I was there. I mean right there. I held his hand, when he was down on the stairs in our building, bleeding to death. He smiled at me, or tried to, I think. That’s what I remember most about the whole thing, and the look in his eyes as he passed.”
She felt light-headed, almost dizzy as his words slammed into her, and he saw the expression on her face and stopped.
She shook her head, looked down at his hands. “That means this isn’t random,” she whispered. “He wants something from you, or us, perhaps.”
“Look, I’m not sure I believe in all this stuff…”
“That really doesn’t matter, Sumner. Something obviously believes in you.”
“What? What makes you say…”
“You’re a link, maybe the link, to something important. Something in that moment, perhaps. He tried to tell you something, did he?”
“I don’t know, don’t think so?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know either, Sumner…Sumner – summoner? What’s your full name?”
“Sumner Holden Collins, Jr. Why?”
“I don’t know. Are there any other connections between you that might exist?”
“Music. My mom was a…she taught the piano to me and my sister…”
“You have a sister? How old is she?”
“I think I’m twenty minutes older, something like that.”
“What’s her name? Tell me it’s not Phoebe, please.”
“Is it Phoebe?”
“Oh,” she said slowly, turning pale as she sat there looking at him. “Holden and Phoebe, brother and sister. The Catcher in the Rye. His dream, the children on the cliff. That’s what Chapman sat reading, right after he shot Lennon. He sat down on the sidewalk and started reading, and he kept saying…”
“‘I just shot John Lennon.’ I know. I heard him.”
“There are no coincidences, Sumner. I believe that, and now I think I know why he came to me out there.”
“Somehow I’m linked to him, through you…”
He chuckled. “Or to me, through him.”
She looked up, looked into his eyes. “True.” She reached over and took his hand. “I’m not sure I’m capable of leaving you. I started to feel that way last night, and the feeling has only grown stronger since. It’s like I know you, I knew you somewhere before.”
“I think I’d remember those legs…”
“Bosh! So, you’re a bit pervie, are you? Got a thing for legs?”
“Only good ones.”
She shook her head. “Incorrigible, aren’t you?”
He nodded his head and grinned. “Well, do you need a ride into work?”
“What time is it? Seven yet?”
“I’m okay, but I’ll need to take a taxi. I can change there.”
“Need another shower?” he said, just as Charley jumped and tried to climb up his legs. He picked her up and let her settle on his lap.
“Not if you’re going to get me worked up again!”
He smiled at the thought. “I seem to recall you enjoyed yourself.”
“I’d forgotten just how much I love those feelings.”
“Me too. Good exercise, as well.”
“I keep forgetting…you’re an American. Sex is exercise, food is sex!”
“Damn right. Come on, I’ll turn on the shower…”
He was with her in the taxi, along with an unruly wad of canvas stuffed in the ‘boot’ – the staysail that needed to be repaired at the North loft in Gosport – and he dropped her off, kissed her on the forehead before she left. The cabbie looked at him in the rearview mirror after that…
“Know Miss Debbie, you do?”
“Old friends,” Collins replied.
“Is that right…? So, Gosport, is it? That’s a quite a fare, you know?”
“Yup. Got to drop this sail off, but I’ll only be in there a few minutes if you’d like to get the fare back.”
“Sounds good to me. The address?”
Once the address was in his GPS they were off, and an hour later he carried the sail into the loft, an order to repair three areas of blown stitching confirmed. He rode back to Brighton in silence, and the cabbie dropped him back at Deborah’s café.
“I’m going back in a week if you’d like the fare,” Collins said, and the man gave him his card, thanked him and drove off. He went to the café and took a seat, and more eyes fell on him, more than a few full of suspicion – until Deborah came over and kissed him on the lips.
“Try some tea again? A scone?”
“Yes, please,” he said, then “When are you off?” he added in whispered awe, looking at her legs again.
“Mid-afternoon by the time I get my baking done.”
“I’ve got to do some grocery shopping. Anything you’d like me to get?”
“I can handle that.” She walked to the kitchen and he pulled out his phone and checked emails. A confirmation from the sail loft, two more from Tracy, and what? One from Phoebe? It had been months…another coincidence?
He opened hers first and read through it in silence, wincing a few times as her words washed over him. Her husband had passed in late August, just before the new term began, and though she was staying on through this semester…she had no further plans, no home to return to. The questions in her words were plain to see.
He replied: ‘Will be in Paris for Christmas. Expect to see you there. Let me know if you need a ticket. We can get caught up then.’ He sent it, and her reply came just a few minutes later…
‘I miss you so much,’ she began, ‘and can’t wait to see you. Too much to talk about now, so set aside a few days!’
‘Tracy is making noises about coming over with her kids,’ he sent back. ‘Ambivalent about that, at best.’
‘I know you don’t care for her much,’ came the reply, ‘but she’s not the worst person on earth!’
‘A ringing endorsement! I think she’d have been Caligula’s soulmate.’
‘Too much! Can I bring anything with me when I come?’
‘You’ll be staying forward, so no steamer trunks.’
‘Got it, lil brother.’
Deborah slipped by with tea and scones sometime during the exchange and looked at him once, the curiosity on her face plain to see, but she saw he was busy and left him to it. He sipped the tea, a vile herbal concoction, but her berry scones were light and warm, and he munched his way through one before while he worked through Tracy’s notes.
‘Delighted to come to Paris,’ the first said. ‘Tell me when.’
The second was more problematic. ‘Assume we’ll stay aboard with you?’ was the main thrust of that one, and he replied that Phoebe would be staying onboard, but he’d be happy to see to her accommodations once he arrived in early December. He didn’t expect to hear from her after that, but if she did, and if he and Deborah became an item, well, then he’d have to put an end to all these meandering obfuscations.
“Looks like you enjoyed the scone and hated the tea,” he heard Deborah say, leaning over from behind. He felt a breast astride his neck and sighed at the implied invitation.
“Another scone would be just fine, and maybe something I can put cream in?”
“Okay, so English Breakfast it is. You like the berry? I have some cherry coming out in a few minutes.”
“Is that what I’m smelling? It’s a bit like heaven.”
“You have an oven onboard, don’t you?”
“Okay, I can take care of that. Oh, there’re two markets nearby, I wrote the addresses here.”
“Butcher and a place for fresh fish?”
She leaned over and pointed out the window. “Tell Marco I sent you.” She kissed him on the cheek and skipped off to the kitchen, and as he watched her he was lost in the simplicity of the gesture, and the timelessness of her growing hold on him. She brought the pastry and tea out a minute later and sat opposite him…
“I can’t begin to describe how badly my feet hurt…” she whispered.
“Rumor has it once upon a time I gave a pretty good foot massage.”
“I should’ve known,” she giggled.
“Do you have a copy of Catcher?” he asked, and she grew thoughtful.
“You know, I just might. Want me to bring it by?”
“No hurry. You know, these are about the best scones I’ve ever had. Light, but with substance. Like you, I suspect.”
She smiled. “Another loyal patron,” she swooned. “How’s the tea?”
“Oddly enough, the best I’ve ever had, as well.”
“They never get the water to a boil in America. No body, no depth.”
“And I’m now a serious fan of clotted cream.”
She raised her eyebrows. “About fifty percent fat, so best keep that in mind.”
“Sheesh, no wonder I like it!”
She grinned. “I’ll see you later?”
He nodded, looked her in the eye then at the glowering people in the café, left some money on the table and left. He walked down the street to the fishmongers, introduced himself to ‘Marco’ – a rotund man at least ten years older than he – and asked him to pack up some salmon on ice for pick-up in a half hour, and when he finished shopping at the market he picked up the fish and took a taxi out to the marina.
He was up on deck finishing work on a balky halyard winch when he saw Deborah walking out the pier with a couple of sacks in hand; he hopped down and walked out to meet her, took the bags from her and walked beside her out to the Gemini. He noticed the way she was walking – gingerly – and remembered she’d said her feet hurt.
“You need better shoes,” he said. “Those heels are going to kill your feet.”
“Hmm? Oh, well, I’m not going to wear sneakers to work!”
He shrugged his disapproval. “What’s in the bags?”
“Just some stuff to bake with, and a few things for me, just in case…”
“I stay over again.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No. It just doesn’t look like you brought a lot of stuff, if that’s what you had in mind.”
“Well, I thought it a bit presumptuous to move all my belongings onboard.”
He chuckled, looked at her as she walked. “The shower actually makes a decent bath – if you’d like me to fix one up for you – then I can work on those feet for a while.”
“You’re not, like, a foot freak, are you?”
He laughed at that. “The only thing about feet that freaks me out is foot-odor. I can’t handle that at all. Beyond that, I doubt anything turns me on as much as your eyes.”
“Not my legs, then?”
“Close second, but no, the eyes have it.” He put her bags on deck then climbed up, took her hand and helped her up. They got stuff unpacked and he turned on the bath and filled it, let her get situated in the small tub then put out some towels and some lotion. He went forward and grabbed Charley, let her do her thing aft, then put on some music and went into the head, leaving the pup to play on the berth. He sat with Deb while she soaked, looking at her eyes all the while, liking very much what he saw.
“Hard day at the office, dear?” he grinned, trying to keep humor out of his voice.
“Oh, shut up!” she smiled back, then she grew serious. “Did you do this for you wife?”
He shrugged. “Not often. She was a hard core independent, not real touchy-feely, yet she was affectionate in her way. She didn’t age well – her words, not mine, by the way – and I think she was self-conscious of those changes. Once the lights were out though, she was a hellion.”
“And you? How did you feel about her, being somewhat aloof?”
He looked away. “You know, for years we were consumed with our jobs…”
“For most of our married life together, yeah.”
“Were you more friends than lovers?”
“Maybe as time passed, but still, in a good way.”
“I’m not so sure that’s a good way for a married couple to be,” she said. “I mean, to me these days the cornerstone of any relationship would have to be intimacy. I never thought about it much when I was younger, beyond simply loving sex, but I’ve been without for so long now I don’t think I want to live that way, ever again. I look back and realize that emptiness was, for me, well, it’s a wasteland. Self esteem perhaps, or a broken relationship lead some people there, but I was always very sensitive to rejection, physical rejection…”
“What do you mean by rejection?”
“Just that. Sarcasm can seem funny to some people, but when it’s directed at me it hurts, I feel rejected, I get depressed. Then I guess I close down, pull away. I’ve always been that way, even at work. Someone jokes about my baking and I walk away, take it all very personally and I just shut down. Who is this playing, by the way?”
“Pat Metheny Group. The First Circle.”
“I like it.”
He nodded. “I couldn’t handle The Beatles today.”
She sighed. “I’ve been thinking about him off and on all day. Or, trying not to think about him, I should say.”
“I don’t think he’s dead,” he said. “Not really. I think he’s alive in every one who knew him, even if it’s only through his music, and somehow we bring him back to life when we need him.”
She smiled. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“I don’t know how else to explain it.”
“Some things can’t be, you know. Can you explain love? Or the way you feel when you watch a nice sunrise? We can toss words out there, and who knows, maybe words come close sometimes.”
“They’re all we have, Deborah.”
“Really? When we first kissed, when I looked into your eyes I felt a million things I don’t have a word for. And what if I stopped and tried to think of words? Pointless, that. Isn’t it just better to open up to your feelings and accept them? Let them wash over your soul and hold them close. My heavens…what’s the name of this song?”
“Más Allá. I think it means ‘beyond’.”
“This is exactly what I’m talking about…how can you explain feelings in this music? But…why would you even want to? Just let it wash over you…” She leaned back, closed her eyes and drifted in the rhythm – and he looked at her, not knowing if he should be amused or amazed. She was so attuned to other parts of life, so much the exact opposite of Jennifer it took his breath away…
Then the music stopped and he felt a hand on his shoulder – and his eyes went wide. He looked up and Lennon was there – looking down at Deborah. Sumner stood as Lennon turned away, then he started strumming and singing…‘Here I stand, head in hand, turned my face to the wall’…all the way through You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away. Collins looked at Deborah, her eyes now wide open, her head canted to one side. She pointed to the cabin…
“He’s here?” she whispered.
She pulled herself out of the water and took the towel he handed her, then stepped out into the cabin and watched Lennon as he finished the song, then he too stood up.
“Why are you here, John?” she asked, stepping closer.
He looked at her, then took his hand and placed it on her heart, and his head tilted back a bit as is he was basking in the warmth of her flesh, then he reached over and put his other hand on Collins’ head.
“Come together-right now-over me…” he said, and in a heartbeat he was gone again…
…and she collapsed to the floor…
She heard his voice, far, far away.
“Come back to me, Deborah…wake up, come back to me…”
She felt his arms all around her, like she was naked and a warm breeze held her fast to the sun. She felt sand between her toes, a gentle surf lapping at her feet, something calling out to her. No, a voice…calling out to her. She tried to make out the words but they were lost, carried away on the wind and she reached out for the words, crying out for them to stop and she felt herself falling and falling and she was afraid now afraid and afraid she would never stop falling…
She opened her eyes, saw Sumner holding her, saw the concern in his eyes and she reached out for him, put her arms around him. She felt him lean in and kiss her cheeks, felt his tears on her face and she pulled him closer still. He fell with her down to the bed and they kissed again and again, falling into the lush warmth of their sudden life together, falling back into the passing echoes of Lennon’s music, falling beyond the meaning of words into the chance dancing embrace of intertwining souls. She basked in his warmth and drifted off to sleep in the afterglow of his kiss, adrift on balmy currents full of salty promise…
And she felt her feet, pain melting away, strong fingers working tendon and bone, flesh yielding tension through the currents, dissolution in growing warmth. “Oh, yes,” she whispered through her smile, and she felt his hands working through the pain, finding their way to yet another release as she drifted along. Then his fingers pushing through the tension in her ankles, breaking crystalline walls up her calves and on in to her thighs. She felt his hands move past the towels up the soft skin of her belly, molding her breasts to his will as she spread her thighs again. The sudden hardness, the sharp intake of breath and in her mind’s eye she saw his penis inside her, the skin of it yielding to her warmth as it slipped slowly through the currents of her womb.
“Slower…” she whispered. “All the way in…but slower…as slow as you can…”
She saw the waves and eddies of his thrusts as she placed her hands gently on his back, and as she felt each passing wave she rose to meet him, her mind alive with the image of him deep inside. Onward she drifted, rising on the crests of his waves, falling into the wake of his slow glancing dives. She felt the tension in his back, the quivering hover as release came for him and she watched his semen flow in translucent swirling pulses through her womb, still in the slowness of the gentle breeze she had found. She kept to her own rhythm, to her own slow rolling motion until her release joined his, until her need balanced his. She wrapped her legs around him and pulled him close then, held him still inside her own growing release.
“I love you, Sumner,” she barely whispered. “God only knows, but I do.”
Through closed eyes she felt him looking at her through her own spreading smile, then she felt him close again, his lips brushing her ear, then the airy music of “I love you too” washed over her soul. Their dance finished for now, and she opened her eyes and looked for him.
He was looking into her eyes now. “There was never a chance we weren’t going to meet, was there?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think there is anyway anything anywhere could have kept us apart.”
“No coincidences, huh?”
“I think you should sell your shop and move your stuff aboard. I think we should spend the rest of our lives together.”
“Do you, now?”
“I do. I think I should buy you a ring and get down on my knees before we wake up and find out this has all been nothing but a fantastic dream…”
“And what if it was? What then?”
“Then I’m never going to wake up.” He heard Charley whimpering and groaned inwardly at his selfishness, then he hopped off the berth – his feet landing squarely in a spreading yellow puddle.
‘Nothing like reality to fuck up a really good dream,’ he said to himself as he went for the paper towels…
He finished hooking the propane hose up to the little gas grill he’d just hung off the transom, then he lit the stove and went back to the galley and finished prepping the salmon. “Can you make a Hollandaise?” he asked.
“Got lemon, butter and eggs?”
“Then yes, I can.” He pulled out a small skillet and found the lemons, showed her where the other stuff was and adjusted the flame on the steaming broccoli, then went back on deck to grill the fish.
“Nice dolphin you’ve got there,” he heard a man say, and he turned to the voice.
“What’s that?” he said to the man on the motorsailer in the next slip.
He pointed to the water behind Gemini. “That dolphin. He’s been hanging around your boat all day. Is he a pet or something?”
“He’s a she. And she’s been following me for months.”
The man looked at him, shook his head. “Right. How do you know it’s the same one?”
“See the two marks under the eye?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope.” He walked over to the swim ladder and dropped it into the water, then he slipped off his shoes and climbed down into water, bracing against the chill. The dolphin surfaced next to him; he put his hands out and rubbed the side of her face for a minute.
“I’ll be damned,” he heard the guy say.
Collins looked into her eye, watched her watching him, then he heard Deborah come up on deck.
“Oh, this just gets weirder and weirder,” she said.
The dolphin canted it’s head and looked at her, then back at him before she slipped under the water. He sighed and pulled himself back up the ladder, stood and adjusted the flame on the grill while the man stared at him.
“Months, you say? She’s followed you for months?”
“Since Christmas Day.”
“What’s that?” Deborah said.
“She’s been following me, since last Christmas. Maybe longer than that.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, frowning. “Could you turn the stove on for me, please?”
“Yup, if you’ll grab me a towel.”
“Right.” She took off, he turned the flame on the grill down a bit then turned, saw the dolphin had left – for now – and he walked down the companionway and took the towel from Deborah as he went below. He explained the safety solenoid system and showed her how to ‘light’ the stove, then he adjusted the flame and grabbed a platter, went back on deck.
And Rod Lethbridge was standing on the pier, holding a book in his hand.
“Sorry, just wanted to drop by and let you have a look at this. It’s the latest channel crossing guide, radio frequencies and traffic separation schemes and all that.”
“Thanks, come aboard. Where’s Elizabeth?”
“Up in the car, waiting.”
“No, we were just heading into town for a bite.”
“Plenty of grub here. Go grab her and come on down.”
“Wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t sure.”
Collins went below, told Deborah to expect more company and filled her in. “You’re popular, aren’t you?” she said.
“You get used to it when you live aboard. You discover just how many friends you never knew you had…”
“Should I put some scones on? I’ve made the batter and all that…”
“Sure,” he said as he moved to the oven. “Preheat to what? 350?”
“That’ll do. Did you put on enough broccoli?”
“Always. I always cook for four when in a marina, because nine times out of ten at least that many show up.”
“I’m not kidding. You get used to it, though.”
“So, if you want privacy…?”
“You anchor out. Away from shore, but even then, if you’re in a harbor with a bunch of other boats, a little cocktail circuit gets going as the sun sets and the same thing can happen.” He dashed up in time to help Elizabeth aboard…
“You’re sure we’re not a bother?” she asked as she stepped aboard.
“Yup. Don’t stand on formality…go grab a drink. Deb’s working on a Hollandaise…”
“Deb’s still here?” Elizabeth asked wryly, smiling as she passed him.
“I think she became a permanent part of the crew today,” he replied as he walked back to the grill.
“Indeed. Good for you. Can I help back there?”
“Sure, come on.” He lifted the lid and brushed on more ginger-butter and lime, ground a little pepper over the filets, then sprinkled a little soy for good measure. He pressed the flesh, moved a small filet off the fire while the larger piece caught up.
“Holy mackerel! That’s quite a production you’ve got going there,” she said.
“Good looking fish,” he said. “Fresh from Norway this morning, or so I was told.”
“Get it at Marco’s?”
“Yup. Quite a place.”
“Go on Friday if you like crab.”
“Best place around. Pricey, but quite good.”
“Can you hold the platter, please, while I get these off the fire?”
“Sure…uh, do you know there’s a dolphin back here…?”
“Ignore…her? How do you ignore a dolphin two feet away?”
He put the fish on the platter then turned off the gas, turned and looked down into the water. He knelt, rubbed her face again. “Are you okay? Need me to come in again?”
She was still now, quietly looking at him.
“Okay, maybe in a little bit.”
She slipped beneath the surface again and was gone.
“Is she another friend of yours,” Liz asked.
“I don’t know who she is,” Collins said matter-of-factly.
“Come on, we better take these below before they cool off.”
“You say so,” she said, clearly confused now.
And it smelled like a bakery down below, while Rod had fixed a bunch of drinks. Collins put the fish down and got the broccoli on another platter, then drizzled Deborah’s Hollandaise over the fish and veggies. Rice went into another bowl and they carried it to the table and sat.
“So,” Elizabeth said, “tell me about your dolphin.”
“What dolphin?” Rod asked.
“Oh? Did she come back?” Deborah asked.
“What dolphin?” Rod asked – again.
“We met last Christmas. She’s been following me ever since.”
“Where was that?” he asked.
“Better eat up before it gets cold,” Collins said, taking a piece of the smaller filet, then some rice and broccoli. He took a bite, ignoring their incredulous looks, then looked at Deborah. “Great sauce, darlin’,” he said. “Just perfect.”
The rest began eating, but Elizabeth couldn’t stand it after a minute. “So, you swim with her?”
“Again?!” Deborah said. “Can I come?”
“No one else has ever been in the water with me when I go to her. Besides, it’s really cold; you’d probably need a wetsuit. Where’s Charley, by the way?”
“In her nest. Sleeping, last time I looked.”
He nodded, resumed eating. “Scones smell like heaven, Deb,” he said as he stood, then he went to check on Charley. He came out a moment later carrying her on his chest, then he sat back at the table and watched as everyone finished up.
“Okay,” he said as everyone looked up at him. “Time for a swim.” He grabbed his towel and walked up on deck, then back to the aft swim platform. He checked the ladder and hung his feet over and let them dangle beneath the surface, and a moment later her head appeared, her blowhole just clear of the surface.
“Damn,” Rod whispered.
Still holding Charley, Collins slipped into the water – then the dolphin slipped silently beside him and regarded the pup. She spun in the water slowly, revealing her dorsal fin, then her right pectoral, and Collins slipped over and took her pectoral – and the dolphin took off slowly towards open water.
“Excuse the ahem out of me,” Rod whispered, “but what the devil’s going on?”
“I-don’t-know,” Elizabeth moaned.
‘And this isn’t even the half of it,’ Deborah wanted to say.
They watched as he came back into view a moment later, only Charley was riding up by the dorsal fin, quite oblivious to it all, and the dolphin slowed to a stop, let him drift free. Charley looked at him, then jumped into his hands. He held onto the ladder with one hand and handed her up to Deborah, then turned to the dolphin again and drifted back to her. He caressed her face with his hand, then leaned closer still and placed his face on her’s. They lay in the water like that for minutes, then he broke free and came to the platform and climbed into Deborah’s arms.
He was shivering now, and the man on the motorsailer in the next slip was standing on his aft deck – open-mouthed – apparently too stunned by the whole thing to say a word. Collins wrapped himself in the towel and went below, straight to the shower. He stood and let the hot water run down his back, then Deborah slipped Charley in past the shower curtain.
“She’s pretty cold, Sumner. I’ll get another towel.”
“Right.” He held the pup to his chest, let the water warm her shivering body and after a while she looked up into his eyes and licked his chin. Deborah had laid fresh clothes out and he wrapped Charley in the fresh towel until she was snug and warm, then he dried-off with another.
And they were waiting for him when he walked out with the pup under his chin – all of them, even the guy from the boat next door.
“Sumner,” Elizabeth began, “I’m sorry, but this is all just a little too weird. What’s going on?”
“Anyone want coffee?” he asked.
“If you’re going to put more rum in, I’ll have some,” Rod said.
“I think I might too,” the stranger said.
Elizabeth and Deborah nodded.
He put on a large pot and rummaged around for a bottle of dark, then his hidden stash of Bailey’s. He poured equal parts rum, Irish cream and coffee into five cups and passed them around, then sat on the companionway steps while everyone settled in and looked at him.
“Charley and I, excuse me, the Charley I lost recently…”
“Is that the dog, you mean?” the stranger said.
“Yup. Charley was fourteen, hanging in there but running out of gas. We, uh, saw the dolphin last Christmas. It was strange, because I’d seen her once before. Not quite a year before, when my wife Jennifer and I were out walking on a beach out on the Cape. Uh, that’s Cape Cod, south of Boston. Jennifer had learned the day before she was, well, that she had Stage 4 invasive ductile carcinoma.”
“Shit,” the stranger said.
“Excuse me, I don’t mean to be rude, but who are you?”
“Paul Whittington, and I’m a physician. Work for the NHS over in Portsmouth.”
“Do you live aboard,” Collins asked.
“I do,” Paul said, looking at his mug. “This is damn good, by the way. Thanks.”
“Sure. So, the dolphin showed up on the beach that day, and I don’t know why but Jennifer and Charley walked into the water. They held on like that for quite a while, face to face. It was really quite magical, but when Jennifer got cold and came out of the water the dolphin grew very agitated, sounded like it was crying, very odd in a way but I’ll never be able to get that sound out of my mind. Or that day, really. Charley was beside herself, but I didn’t understand why just yet.
“Anyway, Charley and I were down in the Virgins last Christmas…”
“Your wife had passed, I take it?” Whittington asked.
“Yes, a few months before.”
“So sorry. Do go on.”
“We ran into a girl there, a Swedish girl in some distress, and we helped her get back to civilization, then Charley and I took off for Bermuda.”
“On Gemini?” Deborah asked.
“Yes. We were running from a line of hurricanes just forming up north of the Canary Islands. I’d thought about heading to the Azores but decided to keep west of them and headed north, for the Gulf Stream. We ducked into Hamilton and took on supplies, but left when reports showed the newest storm heading towards Bermuda.
“Anyway, I went out on deck one morning and Charley – was trying to pee. I mean trying hard, then blood came out. A lot of blood. She passed away later that day. I knew she had tumors, knew this might happen, but I was selfish and couldn’t put her down. I wanted her with me as long as possible, you see.”
“Why’s that?” Elizabeth asked.
“She was the last bit of Jennifer I had. We picked her out together, we raised her together. Jennifer held on to Charley at the end, and, I don’t know, Charley was the glue that held us together through that moment. Before she passed, when Jennifer passed, I mean, she asked Charley to take care of me. I don’t know how else to say this, but I think Charley understood all that. It’s hard for me to describe, but I grew as close to that dog after that as I ever had to anyone or anything ever before. She became my friend, and I loved her like a friend. And then she left me too.”
He took a long pull on his coffee, held this new Charley close to his chest – letting his warmth soak into her little body. He felt her licking his chin and smiled at her, at the echoes he felt in her eyes.
“So she was gone. I was going to wrap her in sail cloth – when she came. The dolphin, I mean. I had lowered sail at that point, and we were was just sitting out there, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. About going on, I mean. And that’s when I saw her, when she came to me.”
“You mean, out there? When your dog died?” Whittington said, incredulous.
“Yup. And I carried Charley down to her, got into the water with her. I held on to them both out there, like I did earlier. The same way Jennifer held on to her. After a while she took Charley from me, carried her away.
“I wanted to die then, in that moment.” He looked at the pup in his arms, feeling echoes of that moment drifting through his mind’s eye. “Then she was back. I have no idea how long I’d been in the water, but we were in the Gulf Stream then or I’d have passed from hypothermia. She pushed me back to the boat, forced me aboard. And here she is. She won’t leave me, so from time to time I go in with her. I think she understands more than I’d care to admit, but now she’s my link to Charley, who was my link to Jennifer. And I don’t want her to leave me now.”
“Holy Mother of God,” Elizabeth sighed. “Now, that’s one I’ve never heard before.”
“You’re not, like, a schizophrenic or anything like that, are you?” Whittington said.
Collins laughed. “I wish. That would be a tidy explanation, wouldn’t it?”
“Indeed it would, and I wouldn’t believe you for one minute if I hadn’t seen this for myself.”
Collins looked at the man again. “It’s been a very odd period of my life.”
“So, why get another dog, and why name her Charley?” Elizabeth asked.
“Why not? Parents pass on names to their kids, people have more than one dog,” he said, adding, “I can’t imagine not having a Springer with me now. Too much a part of my life, I guess. In a way I can’t quite explain.”
Whittington looked at him again. “I heard someone playing the guitar out there this morning. Was that you?”
Deborah looked away, smiling, then stood up. “Anyone want more coffee?”
“Maybe more rum for me,” Rod said.
Whittington too held out his cup. “Coffee, if you please, Deborah.”
“Fresh scones if anyone’s interested,” she added.
Everyone wanted those too, it turned out, and Deb smiled. Elizabeth went with her, and they started on the dishes.
“Sumner,” Whittington asked, “just how long are you here for?”
“Oh, I’m working my way through a list of repairs,” he said. “Dropped off the staysail this morning near Portsmouth, want to change the belts on the engine and generator, all the fluids too, then I’m going to cross over to Honfleur, run up the Seine and bunk over ‘til April or thereabouts.”
“Oh really? I’m leaving in two weeks. Going to Paris.”
“The marina by the Bastille?”
“Yes. You too?”
Collins nodded. “Then we’ll be leaving about the same time.”
“Want to caravan across. Better for the traffic separation scheme that way.”
“Sure, sounds good. Going on holiday?”
“Retiring. Going to the Med, in fact, where I intend to kill myself slowly, with whiskey and loose women.”
Rod nodded. “Probably the best way to go out, all things considered.”
“So, is that a Nauticat you’ve got?” Collins asked. “What’s the draft?”
“Shoal draft option. Draws less than five.”
“You’ll ship the masts at Honfleur?”
“Cheaper across the river, but yes, probably.”
“I wanted to stay in the inner harbor there.”
“It’s charming, not so overrun with tourists this time of year, but still kind of busy. How long will you stay there?”
“I don’t know. A week or so.”
“‘Bout right. You going to hunt with that dog?”
“‘Shame. They’re good here in our brush. Done much hunting?”
“Navy. I flew ASW aircraft.”
“What? A helo?”
“Oh, the real McCoy. Ever get to chase Ivan?”
“Ah, just so,” Whittington smiled. “Miss it? The flying, I mean?”
“Yes, it’s hard to get it out of the system, isn’t it?”
“Yes, RAF. Jaguars.”
“Bet that was fun.”
“Never saw combat, went on to school and that was that.”
“And you miss it…?”
“Every day. Yes.”
Elizabeth returned with scones and put them on the table, and a bottle of rum mysteriously appeared and was as quickly emptied. ‘The boys’ went up to the cockpit and looked over charts for Honfleur and the Seine estuary, Rod getting more worked up by the minute, while ‘the girls’ repaired to the aft cabin and began talking about how the devil were they going to adapt to life on boats – after all they’d been through together.
“Rod hasn’t stopped talking about it since we got in last night. One look at this boat and he went out of his mind.”
“At one point you looked pretty interested yourself.”
“Well, look around, would you? This is insanely nice, so who wouldn’t want to travel around like this?”
“After the way Rod talked last night I may not have any choice in the matter, but truthfully, I like the idea.”
“Yes. I mean, the bad weather, always having to adapt to strange new ways of making do…sure, that’s a stretch, but so too is living on that farm for the rest of my life. Constant change versus the same thing day after day. We’ve been out there ten years and I feel like the walls are closing in all around me again, so yes, maybe this is the thing to do.”
“I know,” Deborah said. “But things fall apart, don’t they?”
“You two have grown close, haven’t you? So quickly?”
“You have no idea.”
“Quite sudden, don’t you think?”
“Sudden, unexpected, but he’s such a breath of fresh air. And I’m mad about him. Out of the blue, yes, but just completely bonkers.”
“You think you’ll go with him then, when he leaves?”
“If he’ll have me.”
“You are kidding, aren’t you? That man is so completely smitten…I’m surprised he hasn’t asked you to marry him yet.”
Deborah smiled. “Do you really think so?”
“Oh Lord…did you say yes?”
“I told him I love him, Liz. And I do, too.”
“Have you told him about Steve, about all the other stuff?”
“That was so long ago, Lizzie. What would he want to know about all that? Ancient history, water under the bridge.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Okay. How have you been doing otherwise?”
“I don’t know. Too lonely for words, still depressed, then Sumner was there. That’s it. End of story.”
“Vulnerable. We’ll always be vulnerable.”
“Yes, but I feel strong right now. I guess that’s all that matters.”
“Sometimes that’s all we have, Deb. How’s the shop? Business still good?”
“Yes, very. Almost too good now, so I’ve been very tired.”
“That’s good too, though, isn’t it?”
“Too a point,” Deborah added.
“So, if you leave with Sumner, then what?”
“I don’t know. Sell the shop, I suppose.”
“Do you think that wise?” Liz said.
“No. But if the choice is wisdom or following my heart? Wisdom has been very lonely, Liz. Like living on that farm for the next twenty years, maybe, would be very difficult for you.”
“We’re in the same place again, aren’t we?”
“No, not quite the same,” Deb said. “We were young. Impressionable. We took too many chances, stupid ones at that?”
“And we fell apart.”
“We did,” Deb sighed.
“What if we…?”
“Fall apart again? Well, then, we’ll have a much longer way to fall this time, won’t we?”
“I can’t go back there, you know. Not again.”
“It’s not fair of you to not tell him. You know that, don’t you?”
Deborah looked away, winced as Liz’s words hit home. “Maybe.”
“There’s no ‘maybe’ about this, Deb. None at all. He’ll find out someday, and what if he finds out from someone else? You know what happens then, don’t you?”
They looked at one another, and they both knew what would happen.
Because it had happened before…on the same Merry-Go-Round that brought them together. It all started on a summer’s evening, now almost thirty years ago…
Life seemed like a magic carpet ride that night.
Walking through Soho, streets hot and thick, people moving like molten lava. Packed clubs and bouncers on sidewalks, hookers and pickpockets slipping through the steaming mass like hissing vapor, heavy metals playing through the night.
The word was out: George Harrison was going to play one of the clubs that night, and everyone was there. Limousines cruised the streets like sharks prowling a reef, and when word spread Harrison was in one of them speculation grew more heated: something big was in the air tonight, something big was going to happen. Magic was in the air, the wild magic of rising expectations drifting over fetid, bitter-sweet memories of London in the 60s.
Deb and a friend were on the prowl, too, looking for fun in what they hoped were all the wrong places. Up from the country, looking for some magic of their own, looking to have the time of their lives. They slipped into one of the clubs, went down the twisted stairs into a basement crawling with punks and goths, and in their fishnets and leather and PVC they fit right in. But she realized this wasn’t THE place, it was too boho, too frantic, no connections to be had – so they split, went back into the molten flow of the night. Deb followed the clothes this time, the tailored suits and women in heels, and she latched onto a well-tuned group, followed them into another club. A more laid back, upscale place, with roadies setting up on a stage, evening jackets and furs on the dance floor, and while she felt out of place Deb knew this was it. Drinks in hand they slipped into the shadows and watched, waiting for the action. A drummer was at his set and started a raucous solo and the frenzy set in, bass and rhythm guitars joined and then Harrison was on stage; Beware of Darkness set an ominous opening tempo, but then Wah-Wah hit and everyone was suddenly delirious. Harrison’s set lasted a half hour or so, then he was gone and another vocalist appeared, a keyboardist too, and an hour of Prog followed…and by that time Deb and her friend were hooked up and dancing.
Her partner held her close at one point, asked if she wanted to go to another gig. He was playing, he told her, and it would be cool if she came.
He was, as it happened, lead guitar in one of those ‘super groups’ that popped up in the 80s, and while famous was an understatement she’d hardly recognized him at first. After his concert they went to his place, a farm out in the country south of the city, and things soon went from cool to far-out. She became a part of the group’s inner circle, traveled with them to concerts in Asia and Australia, was swept along inside their whirlwind existence and started to lose herself inside the glitterati of the moment. Drugs and booze and private jets, sex anytime and anywhere, time passed in a purple haze until one of the boys overdosed. The group ran home to England after that, and though there was talk about returning to the studio everyone was too bummed to think straight.
Steve wanted to get away from it all, went with her to Brighton. He hid behind sunglasses and they stayed in a hotel for a while, then he bought a flat with a view of the sea and they moved in together. They tried to get off the drugs but were hooked, and one day she was arrested in a sting and he got her out, his lawyers got her a deal in rehab and she was home soon enough. He fell even deeper into the scene, was strung-out on heroin all the time, hashish for a nightcap any time of day.
Then she knew she was pregnant and he seemed to come back to her after that, for a time, anyway. The group went into the studio, and their next album was even more successful than the first, with a couple of number ones to kick off their U.S. tour. He was there when Brie was born, when they found out she was not going to live, and then she felt him pulling away – and it wasn’t long after that he left.
Her father died and she saw her ‘mum’ for the first time years, and knew she needed help to get through his passing. She stayed in the flat now, alone, and her mother came down almost every day, just for a visit, she said. In spite of their differences they grew close, closer than they ever had before, and they talked about all the things they’d never done together, talked about maybe opening a tea shop and baking things together.
Then out of the blue her mum passed, a stroke that hit without warning – and Deb spiraled away from the world after that. She went out for a walk one afternoon and woke up days later in a sanitarium. Weeks passed, then months, the only sunny ray of hope – a new friend. Another Brighton girl, another girl fighting drugs and depression. That girl had tried to find the night – and failed.
Her name, Elizabeth. Liz. Lizzie.
They became the best of friends, the kind of friend you make when you’re fighting the same demons, and their months passed in close combat. When Deb got out her mum’s solicitors settled the estate, she bought a little place and started the tea shop. Steve came ‘round and signed over the flat to her then was gone again. For good, this time, as it turned out, and life began to take on new contours. She drifted along listening to Scheherazade and Prokofiev, baking scones and arranging flowers and living her life as far away from ‘the scene’ as she could – and that other life obliged and stayed away from her. Her loneliness grew into a wall and she kept everyone out and away, on the far, far side of her wall. As life took on quieter hues, no one was allowed close – if only because she felt safer that way. She thought of her parents and her daughter if she thought of anyone at all, and so she danced in the dark, always alone, when she bothered to dance at all.
Liz got out months later and moved in with her, helped get the shop off the ground – then she met Rod. He liked dogs, had inherited his family’s farm and worked at an engineering shop in Southhampton. Stuff for the navy, big ships, not interesting but Liz didn’t need interesting anymore. He was smart and steady and had a quiet wild streak and dreamed big, but Liz loved him all the same and that was that. They got married though she still worked in the café from time to time, but in time and as with most things, Liz and Deb drifted apart.
Years passed as such between the two, with their time together in hospital a kind of dark secret, their very own scarlet letters to tuck away out of sight – but never far out of mind, because both seemed sure if word ever got out they too would be doomed to burn at the stake.
And life aboard Gemini settled into new rhythms of it’s own. Collins rented a car, Deb drove to work or drove him on errands. She baked at the shop and often took Charley with her; he stripped down to shorts and – belly deep in the engine compartment – changed fluids and belts and packing glands. She’d come back to the boat for a late lunch and Charley would bounce all over the deck, whizzing on her astro-turf, always getting underfoot, then, after a last trip to Portsmouth to pick up the staysail, all that remained was to top off the tanks and do the bureaucratic shuffle at Customs.
Whittington came by and told Collins he was ready to go, and his old Nauticat did at least look seaworthy and shipshape, then Rod and Liz came down with their duffel bags – and new boat shoes – both ready to go, they said. Deb had dozens of breads and cakes ready and packed, and Sumner had to laugh at the sight of so much food for so short a trip.
They all hiked into town and had dinner, talked about the looming adventure, about more mundane things – like when the tide was going to turn in the morning. After two drinks Whittington was talking about women and whiskey and how much fun he was going to have in Paris…
“Were you ever married, Whit?” Deb asked.
“Yes, but there are many other forms of self-abuse I have yet to enjoy, Miss Hill, and Paris is the best place, hell, maybe the last place left on earth to enjoy them all. I have ten cases of Scotch on board and a pristine liver. Really, what more do I need?”
“I don’t know,” Deb said, smirking. “Rubbers?”
“You have hidden depths, Miss Hill. I think I shall like you after all.”
“Glad to hear it,” she said. “Liz? You ready for this?”
“What? For our great sea voyage!?”
Collins laughed, shook his head. “You know, the weather in the forecast tomorrow is sunny and warm, with zero wind. The channel is a lake right now. We’re going to motor across a ninety mile wide mill pond…so don’t think of this as Shackleton’s last journey!”
“Famous last words!” Whit roared. “Right now there’s a giant wave forming out there with your name on it, Collins, and halfway across it’s going to come barreling right up the channel and we’re all going to surf our way to Amsterdam!”
“That’ll be fun,” Rod said. “Can’t wait!”
“So, think your fish will go with us?”
“Fish?” Sumner asked.
“I hope so, but she hasn’t been around lately. I think she saw the pup, and Deb, and saw I’m okay. My guess is she left for the open sea, but, well, I kind of hope she’s still around.”
“Me too,” Deb said, and Liz nodded her head too.
“Funny how we’ve attached ourselves to this story,” Whittington said. “And that dolphin’s, too, I suppose.”
“What do you mean,” Deb said suspiciously.
“Oh, not trying to be offensive, Miss Hill. It’s just that Sumner’s story about his wife and dog is now a part of our story too, isn’t it? So now that dolphin has become a part of our story, she has personal significance to all of us; she’s not just another fish out there in the sea. We hold her close, she means something to us. That’s all I meant.”
“I guess that’s part of the bigger picture, isn’t it,” Liz said. “We don’t empathize with other people or animals unless or until they become personal to us in some way.”
“Oh, sure, but now that she is,” Whittington added, “I’m hoping she’s out there with us tomorrow, as well.”
After dinner they walked back to the marina, stopping to wait for the green flash, but it was a no-show and they walked on as the evening closed in around them. The air was a bit cooler than it had been the past week, and Collins saw a bit of mackerel sky overhead…
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we woke up to fog in the morning,” he said, and Whittington looked up at the sky then.
“Yes indeed. By midnight. That’s my guess.”
“Your radar? What’s the range?”
“Sixteen miles. Yours?”
“Shipping lanes start about five miles offshore, the heavier stuff is mid-channel, however.”
“Nothing like fog to spice up your life,” Collins sighed.
“Is fog a problem?” Liz asked.
“Only if there’s a problem,” Collins said, grinning at her.
“Which means what?” Deb said.
“It’s no big deal with radar,” Whittington said confidently as they resumed walking, but he moved in close to Collins then. “I haven’t noticed. Do you have reflectors in the masts.”
“Yup, on the shrouds, port and starboard. You?”
“Yes, of course. I think we should be out the breakwater just at slack water. 0440, I think it is, and get an early start on it. Sun should break it up by ten or so, and we can beat a lot of shipping out of the Solent that way.”
“Sounds good to me. We’d better get some rest,” Sumner said, looking at his watch.
“You decide when we’re going to leave yet?” Rod asked as he came alongside.
“Pull out of the slip around 0430 or so,” Whittington said. “Say about ten minutes to get all the lines aboard, so up on deck around 0415.”
“Six hours of sleep if you’re lucky,” Collins added.
They walked down the long sloping drive to the marina, then out to the boats. Collins helped Liz and Deb aboard, then turned on the spreader lights and walked around the deck, checking dock lines and genoa sheet leads, then the safety lines on the anchors. He went below and checked the bilges and float-switches, made sure the gear Rod and Liz had carried aboard was safely stowed, then he bid them a good night. Sitting at the chart table by the companionway, he pulled out the Ship’s Log and got it ready to update, the charts too, then went over breakers on the panel. He heard Deb in the shower and made a mental note to top off the water tanks first thing in the morning, then went forward and told Rod and Liz to keep any showering to a minimum – at least until they were safely back ashore.
“What about now?” Liz asked.
“Deb’s showering now, but as soon as she’s through. Rod, let me show you how to get it going…” ‘Five hours now,’ Collins sighed as he thought about the short night ahead, but he was getting the same butterflies he had before every trip and wasn’t sleepy, so he went in when Deb finished showering and brushed his teeth, then took his evening meds and waited for her on the bed.
“I’m beginning to know that look in your eyes,” she said when she came in and lay beside him.
He grinned. “Every time I look at your legs.”
“Not at all. You?”
“Wide awake. Nervous – and wide awake.”
“Not much to be nervous about, not really.”
“I’ve never been sailing, I seem to recall telling you. Matter of fact, only boat I’ve ever been on was a dinner cruise somewhere when I was a kid.”
He smiled. “First time for everything, I reckon. Can you swim?”
“Why? Think I’ll need to?”
He chuckled at that one. “You never know. Can you?”
“Well, as long as you’re comfortable out there, but maybe it’s something you’ll want to consider later, at least if you feel like diving or snorkeling.”
“Okay. You’re not mad at me, are you?”
“For what? Not swimming?”
“Of course not.”
“I just, you know, never had the opportunity, never even wanted to.”
“Okay. It’s no big deal.”
“Come here,” she cooed, and she pulled him close, started rubbing his head. “You need to relax a little, try to rest some.”
He settled his head on her lap, tried to close his eyes but to-do lists flashed through his mind’s eye, yet her fingers continued probing, pushing through his cares. Her thighs were below and he leaned forward and kissed one, he even nibbled a bit – until she laughed at his probing.
“Don’t stop there,” he heard her whisper – and he didn’t…
Something chirping, a bilge alarm, perhaps…
He opened his eyes, looked at his watch…
He curses the soul who’d invented alarm clocks and fumbled about trying to shut off the racket.
“Make it stop,” he heard a groan from under the sheets, a hollow voice cracking as she pulled a pillow over her head.
He laughed and climbed out from under the covers, slipped into the shower and rinsed her juices off his face and groin, got dressed and went to the breaker panel and turned off the shower sumps and pumps, then he put on coffee. He turned on the heaters, forcing hot water to run through the engine, in-effect, preheating the engine block. He went topsides and ran the water hose to the tank fill and turned on the water, then below to shut down the electric buses, then back up to disconnect the shore power cord, and Rod was up now, waiting for him.
“Would you coil this up? That and the water hose go in the aft lazarette, along with the fenders.”
“I’ll take care of ‘em.”
He went below and powered up the engine start circuit, then started the engine at the pedestal – setting RPMs to 1200, then jumped back below to light off all the 12volt systems, putting the radar and sonar on stand-by, initializing the GPS and powering up the bow thruster. Back to the cockpit, run sheets to winches and cleats, power to the electric primaries switched to on. Spreader lights, on. Running lights, on. Throttle – RPM to idle – steady at 800. Check safety harnesses attached to jack-lines, check bow thruster operation on the joystick.
Deb and Liz came up then – in shorts and t-shirts.
“You’d better get some fleece on, and a wind breaker,” he told them. “Once we get moving this fog will turn to solid water on your clothes.” They disappeared below.
“How close are you?” he heard Whit call from the slip beside his own.
“Slip the dock-lines and go. You?”
“‘Bout there. What about VHF?”
“Keep on 16, go ship to ship on 72, and if you want me, let’s try 73.”
“Got it. You take the lead?”
“Okay, but keep your radar on standby until we’ve got a few hundred yards between us. I don’t want to fry any nuts or boobs off.”
“Rod? Let’s cut the springs first, then the bow. I’ll hold her off with the thruster, then you pull the stern in and hop on the platform.”
“Got it.” He caught the mid-ships spring-lines and coiled them off, then the bow line. Once that line was secure Sumner got to the wheel and slipped the transmission to forward, but held off on the power. The bow started drifting right and he countered with the thruster, and when Rod jumped aboard he moved the throttle to 900 RPM and Gemini moved forward gently, then she was free of the slip and out into the marina’s causeway. Rod was securing lines and pulling fenders aboard when the girls came up again…
“We’re moving!” Deb squealed.
“We are, indeed,” Collins replied. “Stay in here for the time being. If you go over on this fog it might be hard to find you.”
“How can you tell where you’re going?” Liz asked when she got up into the cockpit.
“Take a look,” Sumner said, pointing at the ‘chartplotter’. “See this little red symbol? That’s us.”
“Looks like a map…” she said.
“That’s right, a nautical chart. We move on the chart, just like a GPS in your car, only I’m overlaying radar information onto the chart so I can see all the ships around us. We’re at the end of the pier here, and we’ll start our turn to the right…about…now!…and there’s the breakwater right ahead. The buoys show up on the chart and the radar, and we’ll follow the channel through this S-turn, then out to the main channel…”
“This is so cool!” Liz said. “Think I could try sometime?”
“Come on,” he said, moving out from behind the wheel.
Her eyes went wide… “I didn’t mean…right now?!”
“That’s okay. Take it.” She stood behind the wheel and held it tentatively. “It’s okay, make easy movements. Turn the wheel left and you go left…it’ll just feel heavier than what you’re used to in a car…”
“You can feel the water through the wheel…this is so weird!”
“That’s the flow of water over the rudder.” He looked at the chart, cross-checked his position against sonar and the depth sounder. “Rod? Check the lights up front, would you?”
Rod shot him a thumbs-up from the pulpit, and Collins was surprised how thick the fog was – he could barely see him up there and he turned around, saw Whittington had tucked in just a few meters off their port quarter.
“Okay Liz, I’ll take it ‘til we’re free of the fog, then you can steer all you want.”
“He’s pretty close, don’t you think?” Rod asked when he got back to the cockpit.
“Yup. With this fog…”
“Okay. We clear of the breakwater yet?”
“Almost. You better get some coffee.”
“Right. You want something?”
He nodded… “Yup, coffee and a scone.”
“I’ll get it,” Deb said, and she and Liz slipped below.
“This stuff is thick,” Rod said. “Even for here.”
“Thickest I’ve ever seen…take it, would you? One four three degrees.”
Collins went to the main and unfurled it about half way, then cleated it off as Deb handed him his cup. “Just in the knick of time…Wow…getting chilly, isn’t it?”
Deb just shook her head. “Glad you kept the heat on. Mind if we stay down here for a while?”
“Nope.” He took Rod’s cup from her and passed it on. “You still got it?”
“Yup. This display is awesome!”
“Yeah, everything right there. Good situational awareness.”
“Damn! I love it!”
“Yeah, slicker than eel snot…” Deb passed him a scone and he went aft – ate the thing in about three bites. Whittington waved at him, shot him a thumbs up and he returned it, then he jumped down into the lazarette and checked that everything was secure. When he got back on deck he walked the rail, checked that all lines were secure before heading aft again.
“Okay, I got it,” he said as he hopped back into the cockpit, and he sipped coffee until they passed the last channel buoy, then he steadied up on 183 magnetic and engaged the autopilot. “All over but the shouting,” he said to Rod.
“You make it look pretty easy.”
“Done it a few times. It might be easy, but it’s never routine.”
“Expect the unexpected,” Rod said.
“That, yeah, and the critical widget that breaks at just the wrong time, or the bearded-hairy that roars by in his surrogate penis at forty knots. There’s always another Crazy Eddy right around the next bend in the road,” he said as he pulled out his logbook and began his first entry of the day…
[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 18 October, 0439 hrs GMT, Tuesday morning.
COG:183degreesMag <.1varE on AP;
Winds: light and variable in fog, viz 15meters;
Barometer 29.35 steady since 0330 hrs;
GPS: N50.48.23 W0.06.87.
Departing Brighton Marina Village on the slack, Isle of Wight, 41nmi/257magnetic; now approx 94 nmi to Seine estuary. Forecast: winds light and variable through midday, fog through 0930hrs, no storms in forecast. English Channel shipping lane traffic separation scheme in effect, zero traffic into/out of Southhampton/Portsmouth/Solent at this time, two radar contacts in the channel east of us, moving west.]
“You keep a log?”
“Have to; it’s a legal requirement. If you’re in a collision or accident of some sort and don’t have one? I’d hate to think of the consequences. Besides, what if you lose all your electronics? I’ll start running a plot on paper down below in just a minute.”
“I saw the chart down there. You mark right on it, huh?”
“Yup. Try to update it every hour, more often when close to shore.”
“It’s a shame no one does celestial anymore…”
“Oh? Well, I still do. At least a noon site every now and then, just for practice, and to double check the GPS.”
“You have a sextant onboard?”
“Can’t do celestial without one, Rod.”
“Shit…sorry. Could you teach me?”
“I’ve got a couple of books you should read first, but sure. It’s not as hard as you think.”
“You know, I just wanted to thank you for bringing us along. This is kind of a dream come true thing for me.”
“My pleasure. It is for a lot of people, but I hope more people would get out here. It’s a helluva way to live, to see the world, to understand people better.” He turned around, made sure Whittington was still tucked in close. “Okay, you take it. Autopilot engaged, just make sure it doesn’t disengage or go haywire. I’m going to start the plot.”
“Got it. 183 magnetic?”
“Yup.” He dashed below, found the girls in the galley making sandwiches of some sort and he penciled in the data he wanted on the chart, then went back and sat beside the wheel.
“Something on radar, popping in and out,” Rod said.
Collins went to the chartplotter and flipped into radar mode and moved the onscreen cursor to the target. “Okay, just under a mile, closing on an intercept course at nineteen knots.” He picked up the radio, confirmed he was on 16 then transmitted in the blind: “Sailing vessel Gemini departing Brighton marina heading 1-8-3, calling vessel approaching on heading 2-8-5…”
“Gemini, Gemini, Her Majesty’s Coast Guard, we’ll be alongside in a moment, hold present course and speed.”
“Gemini received, holding 1-8-3, speed 6 knots.” He switched to 73. “Gemini to Aphrodite, did you copy Coast Guard intentions?”
“Roger, Gemini. What do you want me to do?”
“Maintain visual contact, let the coasties see us together when they come alongside.”
“Roger that, switching to 16. Out.”
“What’s this about, I wonder,” Rod said. “Kind of dangerous, don’t you think?”
“Not really. With all the migrant smuggling going on, I’d imagine their patrols try to take account that smugglers like to work in the fog. Not to mention anti-terrorism patrols. I was boarded approaching Cork, rough seas too. Okay, they’re about here…”
He looked into the fog at about their ten o’clock and saw a little shift in the fog, and a large, rigid-hulled inflatable appeared when only about 10 meters off. The craft maneuvered into position and two men jumped aboard, one carrying a machine gun of some sort.
“Skipper?” The lead man said.
“Here,” Collins said.
“Sorry about this, but we’ve recent reports several small craft are coming from Calais, carrying refuges and such. We’re conducting routine safety inspections.”
“Understood, sir. Two women below, in the galley. Just the skipper on Aphrodite,” he said, pointing at Whittington’s boat. “Need coffee?”
“No thank you, Captain. Destination today?”
“Let’s go below.” He led the coastie below while the other stood at the rail, his gun at the ready. At the chart table he pulled out a binder with all ships papers at the ready, along with the boarding report the Irish Coast Guard had given him.
The coastie looked it over, flipping through the pages quickly, professionally. “Passport, Captain?”
“Yup, here you go.”
“Thanks, skipper. Mind if I have a look around?”
“Feel free. Sure you don’t want some coffee?”
He grinned. “Maybe just a small cup?”
Deb got it going, handed the cup to the seaman.
“Thanks,” he said. “Nasty out this morning.”
“Think your mate needs a cup?”
“Duncan? Coffee?” The machine gunner came to the companionway.
“Please! It’s foul out, right cold now.”
“Is a lot of smuggling going on?” Deb asked.
“Yes m’am…nonstop the last few months. Guns too, troublingly.”
His radio came to life. “Green two, sitrep.”
“Two here, clear in about a minute, Gold-one.”
“That means you’re clean,” he said, smiling. “We’ll, thanks for the warm-up. Back to it.”
Collins followed them out to the rail, and when their inflatable came close again they jumped across.
“Be safe, skipper!” the coastie called out. “Good day!”
“You too!” Collins saluted and they were off, disappearing within the mist in seconds.
“What did he look at below?” Rod asked.
“Well, the log, for starters,” Collins smiled, “then ship’s papers and such.” He looked at the coasties’ boat as it zipped across the radar screen, then cut back to chart/radar overlay mode. Whittington was still at the wheel, and he called him on 16, asked him to switch to 73.
“Aphrodite, go ahead.”
“How you doing? Need to take a break?”
“I do, but how do you want to go about this?”
“Pull alongside, I’ll hop over. Need coffee?”
“Yes, I’m freezing.”
Collins rolled back the throttle and Whittington pulled alongside; he grabbed a portable VHF then went to the rail and hopped over, went to Whittington. His teeth were chattering and he looked grim. “Can you make the jump over to Gemini? Got the heat on below and coffee in the pot.”
“Jesus, I hope so,” he stuttered. “It’s 41 degrees out now, seems to be getting fucking colder by the minute!”
“Hop over, take your time.”
Collins got close abeam and Whit made the jump with no trouble, both glad the seas were mirror smooth. He concentrated keeping just off Gemini’s quarter, found it more challenging than he’d imagined, and time passed slowly. A half hour later Whittington waved and Collins came back alongside, this second transfer equally uneventful.
“We’re clear of shore,” Collins said. “You want to break apart a bit?”
“No, I’d as soon stay in close, in case Deb’s scones come out as good as they smell!”
“She baking again?”
“It’s heaven down there, Sumner. God, she makes me rethink the whole marriage thing. You’re a lucky bloke, I hope you know!”
Collins smiled. “We’ll send you over some fresh ones.”
Collins made the leap and went below. “Dear God! What are you cooking now?!”
“Just a quiche. Want some?”
“Just a quiche?! You’re destroying my routine…tuna salad on crackers for breakfast!”
“Whit says you’re making him rethink marriage.”
“Did he now?”
“I can see why, darlin’. You’re amazing!” She came over and kissed him…
“Another radar contact, Sumner!”
“Playing my tune. Sorry.” He went up to the wheel, flipped screens and ran out the EBL. “Okay, two miles, course 0-5-0, speed 12. Huge return, looks like a tanker or freighter.” He bracketed the target and flipped on ARPA, got their CPA, or closet point of approach and saw they’d pass astern of the vessel – but only by a few hundred yards – so he altered course to starboard 15 degrees. “Why don’t you go below, warm up a bit.”
Collins checked the time…0600 now…he flipped back to chart overlay mode and did a quick calculation of their ETA in France…well after dark, so they’d have to tie up to the outer mole, wait to lock into the inner harbor tomorrow morning.
There was a channel marker coming up and he altered course more to the west to pass close enough for a visual confirmation, then started looking for it…and that’s when he saw her…
He went to the companionway and whispered down to Deb. “She’s back,” he said. “Come up quietly.”
Everyone tip-toed into the cockpit and looked off the starboard rail.
The markings under her eye, the easy, calm motion.
He went to the rail and sat looking at her, their communion absolute now. He wanted to dive in, swim with her and hold her, to welcome her the only way he knew how, but maybe this was the way she knew, maybe he just had to be content to enjoy her from afar. Still, he found himself wanting to know her better, somehow…he just didn’t know how to bridge the gap. No one did, he guessed.
She came closer for a moment, swimming on her side at bit, extending her left pectoral, and he leaned down, reached for her hand…
‘Are you reading my mind?’ he thought. Or did she know what he was feeling? Is it in our eyes? Do our souls connect there?
She broke contact and dove deep, out of sight – and suddenly he felt bereft again…knew she was gone, that she had been saying goodbye. He got up on his knees, looked for her…but no…there was little point now and he knew it. Climbing into the cockpit hit checked the plot of that target on the screen, but he moved with sullen stillness gripping his heart.
“Take it, would you?” he asked Rod, and everyone moved out of his way as he went below; he found Charley curled-up in her little nest and sighed. He didn’t want to disturb her but gently cupped her in his hand and carried her up to his face. He looked into her eyes, lost in the mystery he thought he understood, not in the least aware of how close to the truth he really was, and she licked his chin while she looked at him.
“Do you understand me yet,” he asked her. “Will you ever.”
He felt Deborah at his side and turned to her, keeping Charley close all the while.
“That felt strangely like a goodbye,” she said.
She put her head on his chest, her face next to Charley’s, and she was suddenly aware how intently the pup was staring at Sumner, and for a moment she thought she understood. It was like there was an opening in the clouds and in that sudden, blinding moment she could see the future.
There were dark clouds ahead, storms she could scarcely imagine, but he was there too.
And the quiet piping of a calliope, playing the music of an evening’s walk through the carnival. She listened to the music, and wondered where it was taking them.
[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 18 October, 1700 hrs GMT, Tuesday afternoon.
COG:182degreesMag <.1varE, on AP;
SOG: 4.2 kts;
Winds: light and variable, viz unlimited +15nmi;
Barometer 29.92 steady since 1300 hrs;
GPS: N49.58.06 W0.15.55.
Approaching Seine Estuary, seas still glassy calm. Aphrodite/Whittington now trailing 2nmi, engine trouble continues, he can make 1500 RPM without overheating, and his autopilot ram failed. Helped Paul change impeller but I think the heat exchanger is internally corroded – 15 year old engine. Volvo and SimRad parts in Le Havre so will dock there, check on pulling the mast. Still barely enough wind to fill the main. Can see smog over the city of Le Havre but little else, still 36 miles off the entrance channel. Liz steering last two hours.]
Collins looked aft, at Aphrodite struggling to keep up, thinking it about time to set up their approach to Le Havre. At four knots they were still nine hours out; dropping down to three knots would put their arrival closer to sunrise, around 0500, an all-around much safer course of action with a balky motor. He got on the VHF, asked Whittington to go to 73.
“Aphrodite, go ahead.”
“Paul, let’s drop it back to three knots, take some strain off that pump. That’ll get us in closer to daybreak. We need to tuck in to the right side of the entry lane, too.”
“Bless you! Just thinking the same thing.”
“We’re going to circle around, come alongside. Come on over and get some lunch.”
“Roger that. Thanks again.”
“Liz, let’s make an easy right turn, head back towards Whit.”
“Aye-aye, Captain my Captain!”
Collins shook his head. “Wanna walk the plank, Liz?”
“Not after seeing those sharks.”
“You get used to them. Rod? Feel like taking over for Whit? Maybe for a few hours?”
“Sure. Sounds fun.” He looked at Liz and grinned.
“I want to get him fed and rested. It’s going to be a long night, even longer if that engine fails completely.”
“Think I should stay over there tonight?”
Collins nodded. “That’s worth considering. I know the wind’s going to pipe up sometime this evening. It just has too. If it’s on the nose we’ll have to fight our way in under sail.”
“But the forecast…?”
“No, Rod, I can feel it. It’s out there, building. Liz, better let me take it for the transfer.”
“Okay,” she said as she moved out from behind the wheel.
“Rod, take your foul weather gear with you, and some gloves. Just in case. Maybe a couple bottles of water…”
“Got it.” He darted below and was back up in a flash…
Collins wheeled hard around and came up on Aphrodite’s starboard rail and Rod jumped across; once Rod had the wheel Paul came to the rail and jumped across to Gemini, then staggered into the cockpit and sighed.
“I’m beat, Sumner. Just so tired…I just don’t get it.”
“It’s been a while since you’ve done this, right? The cold this morning, then the sun, not to mention a little stress thrown in for good measure. You’re not drinking enough water too, so you’re dehydrated. Come on, doc, you know this stuff; you’re not immune to the laws of nature.”
“Damn…there’s book knowledge, then there’s the ‘in your face’ reality of it all.” Deb handed him a bottle of Gatorade and he thanked her, then popped the top and guzzled it down. “Very disappointed in that boat.”
“Don’t be. Like I said, a lot of people working on boats these days are opportunists who don’t know what they’re doing. They charge twice what they should, take three times as long to do the work, and usually screw things up. You’re best bet is to take a class or two, then get your hands dirty and do it yourself. Volvo engines are tough to work on though, lot’s of proprietary tools.”
“Fifteen years on, never thought she’d fail.”
“Really? Whit, it was time to consider a re-power five years ago. There’s corrosion all over the block, so imagine what the inside looks like. Probably much worse, and that Simrad AP? That thing’s ancient. Consider a new chartplotter and AP at the same time you re-power and you’ll save yourself some heartache down the road. You won’t need them on the Seine, not for a while, but the technology today is magic.”
“I know. I’ve been looking at your kit. Envy, you know, is a bad thing.”
“This was all standard on the boat, well, most of it, anyway.”
Deb handed up sandwiches and a bottle of water, then came up and sat by Sumner. He thought she looked distracted, almost confused.
“You should think of getting a first mate, too,” he added. “Ocean passages are tough by yourself.”
“Not sure how many I’ll do, Sumner. I plan on…”
“I know what you’re planning, Paul. But you need to consider the unexpected choices waiting for you out there. You may get to Marseilles and decide to head to Greece, or Tahiti. Then what?”
“I see your point. Maybe I should just get a new boat, you know?”
“Not a bad idea, but what you’ve got is good enough. A few potent upgrades, maybe check the integrity of those chainplates…”
“Why? What’s wrong with them?”
“Rust on the tangs, Paul. If they’re in trouble, I’d consider dumping the boat. You could be in for a big yard bill to fix those.”
“What about an Island Packet, like yours.”
“Go to Florida, look at boats about one to two years old. Save some bucks, even with the VAT.”
“Now there’s a thought.”
“Take Rod and Liz with you, head down to the Caribbean, then in April head to the Azores, then into the Med. We can meet up in Marseilles next summer.”
“What would it take to get you to make that trip with me?”
Collins chuckled. “I might go to Florida with you, help with the boat, spend a week or so with you while you work out the kinks, but first things first. Let’s see how Aphrodite shakes out, get her surveyed, see what’s really up with her before you decide to do anything. She’s really a decent boat, when you get right down to it. Some days I’d kill for an inside steering station like you have.”
“When everything’s working, you mean.”
“Yup. Fifteen years is fifteen years, especially out here.” He checked his course, and Rod’s too, then kicked on the AP and let it steer for a while. “But now’s not the time to stress over all this BS. Go below, take a nap.”
Whittington grumbled his way below and crashed in the forward cabin.
“Geez, Sumner, why’d you tell him to take Rod and me?”
“Could be an interesting way for you two to get some experience. You’re taking to this like a duck to water, you know?”
“Do you think he knows what he’s doing?”
“Whit? Yup, he just needs a few extra hands, that’s all. Especially while he’s making the transition to full time liveaboard.” He turned off the autopilot then, and looked at Liz. “Okay, you take it now. Keep the compass on 1-8-5 for the time being,” he said, looking at the chartplotter. “Until we get to this buoy.”
“How far is it?”
“Ten miles or so. Three hours, maybe.” He went below, got Charley and brought her up on deck. He strapped her in a little life-jacket and hooked her up to the jack-lines, then carried her aft – to her Astro-turf mat. When she finished he tossed a few buckets of sea-water on it, then sat with her in the sun, looking aft at Aphrodite, hoping the engine would hold and that she could make it into port…
[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 18 October, 2000 hrs GMT, Tuesday night.
COG:178degreesMag <.1varE on AP;
SOG: 5.7 kts under full sail;
Winds: WSW 25-30 kts, viz 3 nmi + dropping;
Barometer 29.82 falling;
GPS: N49.32.11 W0.14.1.
Approaching Seine Estuary, seas 3-5 feet, spray blowing from crests. Aphrodite struggling with the waves under reefed main and staysail, still keeping station on our port quarter, about a hundred yards aft, and Rod is steering topsides while Paul works below on the AP ram. Now less than 15 miles from port/marina breakwater entrance, lots of heavy traffic in the shipping lane in/out Le Havre. Taking autopilot off now.]
Collins looked at Liz – leaning over the aft rail – puking her guts out – and tried to steer a smoother course through the waves – in order to keep the motion gentler. Deb had given up working down below when the nausea hit, but coming up into the dark hadn’t helped much. Still, she hadn’t barfed yet, which was more then he could say.
“Feeling better yet?” he asked her.
She shook her head in curt, sharp jerks. “Nope. I could curl up and die right now.” She looked aft at Liz – then quickly looked away.
“It gets me every time,” he said, watching her. “First night out in rough weather. I feel better after I let fly, most people do, so don’t fight it.”
She didn’t – and she just made it to the aft rail before she started feeding the fish.
He stifled a chuckle, if only because he commiserated with the feeling, then struggled a little when he felt another rising tide of bile. He started to sweat, felt that urgent sense of panic, then flipped on the autopilot and hopped onto the aft deck and crawled to the rail.
He hoped fish liked scones.
When he got back to the wheel he saw Rod in the glow of the Nauticat’s steaming light, leaning over and garping off Aphrodite’s stern, Paul apparently at the wheel now. Then…nope! Paul dashed beside aft – flashing hash as he went, and with no one at the helm Aphrodite peeled off in a hard left turn, suddenly running downwind. Rod managed to crawl back to the wheel and steady the course, and Collins looked at the wind speed creep up over 32 knots and groaned.
Liz was beside him a moment later. “Are we having fun yet?” she shuddered, wiping her mouth.
“Bad one for your first night. Sorry, but a big front formed off Biscay a couple of days ago.” He burped, groaned. “It’s coming through now, wasn’t supposed to, though. My guess is the wind will die off in about an hour or so.”
“Fuck. I’m never getting on another boat as long as I live.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I know that feeling. First night blues. Gets a lot of sailors, if they’re willing to admit it, that is.”
“Seriously? You keep coming out here knowing this is going to happen?”
“Sure. Take another Prilosec, drink some ginger beer, you’ll be right as rain in a little bit.”
“You want one?” Deb said, crawling back into the cockpit.
“Sure, can’t hurt now. How many have you had?”
“Wait a while before you have another, maybe chew another Tums. Anyway, I doubt you’ll need it in another hour or so.” He had the weather overlay on screen now, looked at wind vectors and direction forecasts, then he called Aphrodite.
“Paul, how are you guys doing over there?”
“Oh gawd. This is a helluva way to lose weight…”
“Roger that. Look, hang on a bit longer, forecast plots look like this’ll blow through in another hour.”
“Heaven to my ears.”
“Last of the wind will be out of the southwest, so the estuary won’t be too rough.”
“Okay. When it settles, would you stay in the lead so we can follow you in?”
“Yup, will do. Oh, I was able to get an email through to the marina. We have two slips reserved. E for echo 2-3 and 2-5. I’ve got them plotted.”
“Bless you, Sumner!”
“Hang in there, you two. We’ve all lost some weight tonight.”
“Ready for some escargot?”
“Oh…hell, don’t say that, okay?” He heard laughter through their open mic. “Gemini out!”
“Escargot?” Liz said. “He can’t be serious.”
“Misery loves company, darlin’.” He groaned, then he looked at Liz looking at him and wondered if that had been an inappropriate thing to say. She had a look in her eye now, one that he recognized. He flipped on the autopilot and stretched his feet out, flexed his calves, changed the radar range to 3 miles and filtered out the sea clutter. AIS info on Aphrodite popped up, then he saw another return about a mile away, ten o’clock relative and almost on the same course into Le Havre – but converging, yet barely making way against the wind. They’d intercept soon, maybe a half hour, so he altered course and eased off the wind and picked up speed, trying to place Gemini between the target and Aphrodite. Maybe the coast guard, perhaps a fishing boat – or smugglers returning from the UK?
He reached for the VHF and called Paul.
“You see that target? About our ten o’clock, a mile out?”
“Check your gain and sea clutter.”
“Ah, okay, got it now, looks like it’s turning towards us. Is that why you changed course?”
“Yeah, think I’m going to run interference, see what we’ve got. Stay a few hundred yards west of us, prepare to call the coast guard if something goes down, and let’s stay on 16 for now.”
“Got it. Out.”
“Gemini out.” He sighed as he studied the screen, considered the evolving vectors. “Deb, Liz? We’ve got a small target a mile out, I’m going to check it out, get a visual. Y’all prepare to go below on my say-so.”
“Okay, Sumner,” Liz said, but Deb sat still, looked at him with a blank, empty face.
“What are you thinking?” she said as she watched him look forward.
“Don’t know. Worst case, smugglers.”
He started the engine and went to the companionway and furled the sails, just in case…then he powered up the mast-mounted FLIR night vision camera and pointed it in the general direction of the target, though the range was still a half mile out. He opened up the cockpit locker and got a hand-held spotlight out and rigged it up, put it in it’s holder…
…500 yards to the target…
…250 yards now…it really should be visible…
The boat appeared in the FLIR screen…a low, open dory, sitting very low in the water…no one visible…
‘Uh-oh,’ he said to himself. ‘Not good…’
He powered up the spotlight and shone it on the metal hulled boat.
Nothing, no one visible.
…50 yards, then 25…
The light was hitting the inside of the boat now, and he saw bodies there. The light hit someone in the face and he saw eyes opening. Throttling back, he moved closer, saw a little kid holding the tiller, a little outboard motor thrashing vainly against the bobbing seas. He couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve, but the kid was looking at him now, shielding his eyes from the light. A woman sat up, started waving at them, and he got on the VHF, making sure the channel was on 16.
“Paul, call the coast guard. Looks like refuges from what I can see – and it looks like they’re in bad shape.”
“‘Coast Guard to unidentified vessel reporting refugees, come in.’”
“‘Sailing vessel Gemini, Coast Guard, go ahead.”
“Be advised, do not approach. It has occurred that these people lure in yachts and ambush. What is your position, please.”
Collins read out the position from the GPS and advised receiving their caution.
“Gemini, if you can, please back off and wait for our vessel. We should be on station in twenty minutes, try to keep refugee vessel in sight.”
“Gemini received…uh, wait one…Gemini here, pan–pan–pan…woman in the water, no, wait, two more just jumped out of the boat, trying to swim our way…”
“Coast Guard received, be advised we’re sending a helicopter.”
“Aphrodite received. On station, wind gusting out of the southwest to three three knots.”
He watched as the kid manning the outboard got up and jumped in the water…just as the little boat slammed into a huge wave, and now the boat turned into a tight circle…
“Fuck this!” he said, gunning the engine and altering course for the little boat. “Liz, get that light on the people in the water…Deb, remember how to set the swim ladder?”
“On it,” she said, jumping aft.
“Make sure your safety harness is on!”
He was losing them in the swell, a head would bounce up on a wave-top then disappear in the trough, and he saw the water temp was now in the low-50s. “They won’t last long in this shit,” he said to no one in particular, then he saw one of the women less then 20 feet off. He swung the stern her way and put the prop in neutral, then hopped aft and deployed the LifeSling. He hurled it at the woman and she reached for it, got a hold of it and he pulled her to the swim platform. When she was aft he reached for her, pulled her aboard, and Liz soon had the light on another woman. He coiled the rope quickly and tossed the sling again; this woman reached up and caught it in the air, and he pulled her in, hauled her aboard.
He heard Paul giving updates on the radio, then heard a helicopter overhead, it’s powerful searchlights flooding the area – then he saw a rescue diver falling like a knife into the water next to the flailing boat.
Liz had another woman in the light, but she was struggling to stay afloat and he turned to Deb. “Get ready to pull us in,” he said as he handed one end of the line to her. He jumped into the water, swam over to the woman and got an arm around her chest, then yelled at Deb to haul them in. He pushed the woman aboard, then hauled himself aboard,
“Liz! You got that kid in the light?”
“Over there!” she yelled, pointing.
He saw the kid thrashing in the water, terrified, unable to swim in these waves…and he took the sling and dove in again…the beam of light leading the way. He got to the kid just in time to pull him up as he sank out of sight…
“Got him!” he called out to Deb. “Haul us in!”
He handed the boy up to Deb, guessing the kid weighed less than thirty pounds. When he was back on deck he looked for the rescue diver, saw him struggling in the water with two more women and motored to their position, swung the stern and cut the prop again, then ran aft to pull them aboard. The diver came up the ladder, obviously out of breath and shaken.
“Merci…thank you,” he said. “It is very cold out tonight.”
Collins nodded. “I’m going to swing in close to their boat now.”
“Oui, yes, good idea. I will help get these people below.”
“Keep that light on the boat, Liz…” He powered over and got next to the dory, and looked down…
…into the maws of Hell…
Bodies, some dismembered, most dead, a few souls still stirring…
“Mon dieu,” the diver said, crossing himself. “Cannibalism…”
Liz dropped the light and vomited, the diver got on his portable radio and checked-in, speaking in staccato bursts he could hardly understand. Collins got a line from the dory with his boat-hook, cleated that line aft and paid out some scope, then ran another line forward and tied that one off. The diver helped him place fenders to hold the little boat off Gemini’s hull, and they waited for the CG’s boat to arrive. Paul swung-by in Aphrodite and looked at the carnage, then motored away – shaking his head…
“Aphrodite here, Sumner, am I needed over there?”
“He’s a physician,” Collins told the diver, who then radioed that information to the crew above.
“Oui, I can get IVs lowered, we can start those.”
“Okay Paul, come on. They’re going to drop IV sets.”
“Right. Off we go!”
“There are reporters aboard the helicopter,” the diver said. “They were working on a story about these refugees. I’m afraid they are videoing everything.”
The guy laughed. “We will all be either heroes or villains by tonight. My name is Louis, by the way.”
Collins took his hand. “Sumner. Good to meet you.”
“I think you have saved many lives tonight, Sumner, but this is an awful story. It repeats many times now.”
“I know. Liz? You alright?”
“No, Sumner, I’m not fucking alright. Not at all.”
“Can you help Deb get some fluid in these people. Paul will be here in a moment, maybe help him if you can.”
“Sure,” she said sarcastically, “I can do that too.”
Aphrodite pulled alongside and Paul timed his jump with the swells – and just made it aboard. He had a nylon bag in hand and jumped below, and a huge orange duffel came down on a hoist from the helicopter moments later. Louis grabbed it and dove below, and Deb came up a minute later, shaking her head.
Then he saw her looking at the people in the dory below. “What about them?” she said.
“One thing at a time, I guess. These people will have to be helicoptered out of here, but I think that’s a job for the coasties.
“Were they…oh! Sweet Jesus…”
“Don’t look at them, Deb.”
She turned away, and he saw her shut down emotionally, then looked off – into the night of human despair.
Louis came up a moment later, checked in on his radio. “Our boat is almost here. I think Paul will go in on our boat, and I will stay on his boat, get it into harbor.”
Collins nodded. “Makes sense. Mon Dieu! What a night.”
“Another day out there and all of them would be dead, your friend says. They are lucky, I think. Many are not these days, but who knows. We find a few, but many more we never do? It is a catastrophe, no? Is that the word?”
“It is. No doubt about it, in every sense of the word.” He looked down, saw two fast moving targets on radar – AIS on them blacked out, a sure sign they were either coast guard or military.
The two boats were on station minutes later and Collins looked on while men and women got to work in the dory, lifting up the living, putting the dead in body bags, then rigging the dory for the tow in to port. A second boat came alongside and Louis helped transfer the refugees from below, then he back came to Collins. “I will be on your friend’s boat, please stay on 16. He tells me the engine is troubled?”
“Yup. 1200 RPM, 3 knots. I’ll stay behind you in case the engine fails. Can you sail?”
“Yes. Okay, not great. See you in Le Havre. E25, correct?”
He nodded, held out his hand again and Louis took it, and then Collins saluted.
“Are you military?” Louis asked. “Retired, perhaps?”
“US Navy, still listed in the reserves.”
The kid went rigid and fired off a salute.
“Easy Louis, no uniform, no need to salute, okay.”
“I must inform base. They will need to contact the attaché at your embassy.”
“No, they don’t…”
“I will see you at the slip, Commander.” He was already on the radio and Collins groaned as the kid jumped to the Coast Guard boat for the transfer to Aphrodite.
“What was that all about?” Deb asked.
“Nothing. Just paperwork. Layers and layers of paperwork.” He released the cleats and the coastguardsmen took the dory in tow, then he re-engaged the autopilot and resumed course for Le Havre, struggling to regain situational awareness in the dark. “What’s it like down below?”
“A rather large mess, kind of like a bomb went off down there. Can it wait?”
“Absolutely it can wait. Stay with me, will you. I’m a little on edge.” He pulled out and set the main again, then the staysail – and decided that was enough for now.
“On edge? Really? You look like a bottle of valium to me, ice come to life.”
“What? What is that supposed to mean?”
“Calm. I think you look calm,” but there was an unfamiliar edge in her voice. Almost like sarcasm, and he wondered what that was about, as she seemed to be pulling away from him by the minute.
“Wish I felt that way,” he said, suddenly unsure what she was feeling, or why.
“I’m sure you can deal with it,” she added.
“Hell, I don’t know. Would you sit with me, please?”
“Can I sit with you too?” Liz said. “I feel like I’ve just been through a nightmare.”
“Come on, sit you down. We all have, you know?”
Liz came and sat by Deb, and they held each other for a moment, then Deb leaned into him. “Has anything like this ever happened to you before?”
“Nope. I’m just…I don’t know. I don’t have the words right now…”
“That boat,” Liz said softly, “I’ve never seen anything like that before, in my life. I’m going to have nightmares about those poor people for the rest of my life…and, oh God, I’m so tired of barfing…”
“Rough initiation,” he said. “Sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” Liz said. “But you know what? When you called me darlin’ a while ago? I knew everything was going to be okay after that.”
“What?” Deb said. “He called you…”
“Force of habit,” Sumner said. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, Sumner,” Liz added. “It was nice. I loved that you said it, really. I felt better after that, like all my fear disappeared,” she said as she snapped her fingers – “just like that.”
“Those poor women,” Deb said. “Such despair. To jump like that…to let go…”
“All of them,” he sighed, shaking his head. “Running from home, nowhere to go, piled into camps in countries that don’t want them, that can hardly afford to keep them. All they can do at this point is keep running, hope they end up someplace they can make a new start.”
“We have such different expectations, don’t we?” Deb said.
“We have countries that still work. Cultures that have stood the test of time. When we intervened over there we upset the balance of things, an order that had existed, well, for decades. Equilibrium was lost, and I guess it’s trying to reassert itself now – only in ways we don’t like. But there are just so many people everywhere you go these days, so there’s not a lot of room left for those who run from failed states.”
“And you want to sail over there?” Deb said, shaking her head. “Why?”
“It’s our world, for better or worse, and the only one we’ll ever have. I realized a long time ago I’m an explorer, that I want to see this world, certainly not all of it but as much as I can – as safely as I can.”
“You’re not planning on going over there, are you?” Deb sighed.
“What? The Middle East? I doubt it. But Greece, Turkey, maybe even Tunisia. Yes, I’d like to go to those places. While we still can, I guess.”
“It’s not always this shitty out here, is it?” Liz asked.
“The weather? Well, all I know is it’s a lot less stable than it used to be. You need the tools onboard to decipher all the trends, and you need knowledge. That front developed fast today, but this happens more often these days than it used to. As our climate changes, we’ll have to relearn how to interpret fast-changing data, be prepared to act quickly when unexpected things develop.”
“There you go again,” Liz grinned. “Mr Calm and Rational.”
“Well, why get angry about stuff like this? Nothing constructive comes out of anger. Anger doesn’t resolve anything, it usually just leads you from one dead end to the next.”
Liz shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m getting more and more pissed off thinking about those people out there. Why do they have to run in the first place? And then why is it that no one will take them in?”
“Yup, all tough questions. I think it’s a failure of empathy, when people in government can hide between layers of bureaucracy our humanity is suffocated. An inability to put yourself in the other fellas shoes, that kind of thing. For me, it’s ‘how would I feel in their situation?’ Problem is, most of us have no frame of reference, we can’t relate to having our homes bombed out from under us. And then, we’re afraid what these people will do, not might do, but will do to our own homes and towns, and to our way of life. Damn good question too, because there’s real potential for trouble. Like I said, there are just too many people in the world, and it’s leading to some very hard choices. We’re learning another ‘new world order’ – how to balance our basic humanity and our desire to do the right thing with all these uncomfortable new realities. I think we’re going to make some bad mistakes along the way, but as long as we keep our humanity in sight, in the end we’ll try to do the right thing.”
Liz shook her head. “It makes me want to go home and curl up in a ball.”
“But what if most people did just that?” he said. “Wouldn’t that be the end of the us? I think the people who embrace change usually come out on top. People who resent change seem to become bitter and withdraw from the world, they stop looking for humane solutions, they lose sight of their basic humanity and hate takes over – and that’s all they see after that. It’s what’s been happening in my country for the last fifty years, and you can see where that’s taken us. But maybe that’s because a lot of influential people have found they can make a living peddling hate and ignorance. Or maybe I’m just a cynic.”
“I don’t think you’re a cynic,” Deb said. “I think you’re out of your mind!”
He laughed. “I do too.”
“Really, who but a lunatic would be out in the channel in a howling gale in the middle of the night, diving into the sea and pulling people out? By the way, I love you so much it hurts right now.”
“I love you too.”
“Well, what the fuck, let’s make it unanimous,” Liz cooed. “I might as well say I love you too.”
“Yippee, let’s go have a threesome,” he chuckled, but they laughed too as they looked at him. “I see a light ahead, that channel buoy, I think,” he said, pointing at the chartplotter. “And look at that…wind’s already under 20. Another couple of miles and we’ll be in the wind-shadow; I bet the seas will be flat again in a half hour.”
“And not a moment too soon,” Liz added. She looked aft, looked at her husband steering Aphrodite – and scowled. “I bet he’s having the time of his life right now, you know?”
He nodded. “He sounds very confident. By the way, I like him a lot. He’s good people.”
“I’ll tell him,” Liz said.
“Not necessary. But he’s really going to want a boat after tonight. Keep that in mind when you talk with him later this morning.”
“I hate to say it, but I want to do it, too.”
“You do?” Deb asked, incredulous. Collins looked at Deb again, wondering what had changed…
“I feel more alive right now than I ever have in my life. I love you, Sumner, for showing me your world, and I know Rod does to. God, to think this has all come about because of a puppy…”
“Speaking of…” Deb said, flying down the companionway steps and forward, to Charley’s nest in his office.
“Gad, did you see the way she moves now,” Liz said. “It’s like she’s been doing this all her life.”
“She’s amazing,” he said.
“You do love her, don’t you?”
“Good. I think she’s been waiting for you all her life, you know.”
“I just feel lucky…” He saw her moving around below, putting paper and other garbage in a trash bag…
“How’s the pup?” he asked when she came up.
“Thirsty. A little TLC didn’t hurt.”
“Never does,” Liz said wistfully, looking aft to Aphrodite.
He moved forward and rolled out the genoa and Gemini’s speed picked up, her angle of heel, too.
“This feels so outrageous,” Deb said. “Like a horse, galloping through the night…”
“Tell me how this feels…” He began sheeting in the winches then pinched in closer to the wind, and he buried the port rail as Gemini heeled hard over. The apparent wind began to roar again, and the girls were holding on for dear life now…”
“I thought you said the wind was going to die down!” Liz yelled.
“Wind speed hasn’t changed!” he said, then he fell off the wind again and eased the sheets, and Gemini settled down again, almost level and the apparent wind speed fell off, too. “That all happened simply by turning into the wind more, hardening up the sails. We weren’t going faster, not that much if at all. Kind of cool, isn’t it?”
“Damn!” Deb said, letting go of her hand hold.
“About half the trip from Bermuda to Ireland was just like that. Rail hard over, wind and spray all the time, and working down below when the boat’s heeled like that is tough work.”
“Sleeping must be rough, too.”
“I slept up here most of the time. Cat nap, maybe an hour or two every now and then. Too many boats out there. Fishing boats, freighters, all the time. And containers fall off container ships all the time too, thousands a year, and they’re just floating around out there. Have to keep an eye out for all kinds of stuff out there.”
“But, is being alone…?”
“It’s stupid,” he said. “Dangerous. I never planned it that way, I guess. But life changed, I adapted as best I could.”
“You’re not alone now.” Deb said.
He shook his head, looked at her. “Nope. And I like the way it feels, too.”
“How much further to the marina?” Liz asked.
“Less than twenty miles, six knots, call it three hours and a little bit.” He looked at the radar, Aphrodite was falling behind again, but not as badly. The loom of city lights ahead was a welcome sight now, and the falling wind a mental comfort, but they were coming on twenty four hours out – with just a few naps. “Why don’t you two grab some sleep while you can. You’ll be more help when we dock if you’re rested.”
Suddenly the motion grew almost calm, then even more so.
“Okay, that’s the wind-shadow. Easy going now. Y’all go now, get some sleep. I’ve got it.”
They both went to the forward cabin and he reset all the display screens for their approach, cycled through the radar ranges, noted heavy traffic in the harbor getting ready to head out to sea, so he started moving to the right part of the approach lane. Once he was where he needed to be, sails were adjusted, the autopilot reset, then he started setting up dock lines and rigging fenders on deck.
He kept busy now, focusing on the approach, following the routines he was most comfortable with, not really needing any help at this point. The city’s lights popped into view seven miles out, freighter traffic mushroomed as dawn approached, then he rolled in the foresails, started the motor, ran it at idle speed. A mile out he rolled in the mainsail, set out the docking fenders and ran his dock-lines, got them ready for a solo landing.
With so much traffic, he had to perfectly time cutting across the departure lanes, and he had to take account of Aphrodite, as well. He let them catch up, then they slipped across the lane and in past the marina breakwater. Making the s-turn through the jetties, he followed the track on his chartplotter towards their assigned slips, then he powered up the bow-thruster, checked function as he let all Gemini’s speed bleed off to zero.
She slowed to a dead stop just off the slip and then nudged the bow over with the thruster, countered the stern with reverse thrust, then cut power as the hull lined up with the slip. Dropping into forward, he added a hundred RPM for a moment then went to neutral and centered the wheel. Ship’s speed was a dead crawl at this point and he worked her into the slip inch by inch, coming to a stop with her in the center of the slip. He hopped off and set the dock lines, repositioned all the fenders, then went through his shutdown checklists, cleaning up lines and gear on deck, then heading below to finish paperwork. He made his call to customs for inspection, to get entry formalities out of the way.
A few minutes later he felt footsteps on deck and went up into the cockpit. Customs, Coast Guard, immigration, they were all there, waiting, but then he saw a few dozen reporters on the dock, several news crews setting up video cameras, including one from CNN. He presented ship’s papers and passports, an inspector asked him a few questions about importing fruits and vegetables, then the local Coast Guard captain thanked him for the operation last night, asked if he’d mind a brief press interview about the incident. They went out onto the concrete pier, the sun just coming up, Aphrodite just now lining up, ready to dock. Lines were thrown, lots of shouting ensued, then she too was tied-off, the news crews videoing every bit of it.
Then they turned on Collins, with Louis and the local captain standing beside him.
The usual questions came in a barrage: ‘what was it like out there?’ And, ‘what was going through your mind when you dove into the sea?’ Then, the dreaded ‘what do you think of the current political situation?’ And finally, ‘what do you think we should do with these refugees?’
“First of all, I was just a mariner rendering aide to people in need…”
“Captain Collins,” a drop-dead gorgeous reporter nearest him asked, “we were above, in the helicopter, and we recorded the scene. You dove into the water to rescue several women and children. Surely this is not simply a case of a mariner rendering aide…”
“I’m sorry. What’s your question?”
“Many people are saying your actions are heroic. What do you have to say?”
Collins looked confused. “I’m sorry, but surely it’s not heroic to save another’s life. I was surrounded by extremely capable Coast Guardsmen, so I was just lending a hand. And I would hope what I did isn’t so unusual, that anyone in the same circumstances would do the same.”
“Captain? These refugees, have you seen many while at sea?”
“No, these were the first.”
“Where did you sail from?”
“Boston to the Virgin Islands, then Bermuda, Ireland and the UK. We left Brighton yesterday morning.” He saw Deb and Liz yawning in the cockpit, the commotion apparently having woken them. Deb came to the rail and handed Charley over to him, and the cameras zoomed in on the pup.
For a moment, anyway.
“Captain, what do you think needs to be done to these refugees?”
“Oui, yes. They are disregarding our laws. What should happen to them?”
“I should think the people of France will know what to do better than I.”
“Yes, but Captain, what do YOU think should happen?”
“I think they should treated in exactly the same manner you’d like to be treated if you were found in a similar circumstances.”
“Captain, where are you headed next.”
“To take a shower.”
Everyone laughed at that.
Then, “but where will you go next, on your boat.”
“I haven’t decided. Do you have any recommendations? Someplace with nice showers, perhaps?”
The gorgeous reporter, a blue AFP logo on her badge, hung around while all the others packed their gear and walked back to shore, then she came over to the boat and approached him.
“Mr Collins, may I ask a few more questions, perhaps onboard?”
“Would later be better?”
“Depends. How long do you think you’ll need?”
“Perhaps I could come over this evening?”
“That will be fine.”
“Say around six?”
Deb took Charley and he pulled out the water hose, hooked it up and began rinsing down the deck and all the gear, the sun just shining through on the marina. He pulled out Charley’s poop-pad and Deb let her roam for a while, then he walked up to the marina office and settled up, asked them to call the Volvo and electronics shops and have them drop by later that day.
He noticed one of ‘the reporters’ in the parking lot, camera in hand, taking pictures of him. He stopped and stared at the man, then went back to the slip, helped Rod get Aphrodite squared away, then they walked back to Gemini.
“So, have you decided when you’re flying back?” he asked Rod. Liz sat close, her ears attuned to her husbands every word.
“Tomorrow morning, I’d think. Depends if Whit needs us around, I guess.”
“Well,” Deb said, “here he comes.”
Whittington came aboard, looking worn out and emotionally drained, but he looked over at Aphrodite and smiled. “Thanks, Rod. She looks ship-shape!”
“I’ve asked the marina to get some folks down to look at things. Hope you don’t mind, but time may be an issue.”
“Nope, sounds good, but I’m about to pass out. You must be too.”
“Circadian rhythm kicking in. I’m up now,” Collins added. “Got a mess to clean up below.”
“You wouldn’t believe how ill those people were. What they had to do to survive.”
Liz spoke-up then. “I really don’t want to hear about it, please.”
Whit nodded. “And I don’t really want to talk about. The reporters got to me up in the car park .” He sighed, then looked at blood and tissue all over his clothing. “Oops, I’ve got to go,” he said, dashing off his boat.
Collins went below, got out the half filled trash bag and went to work…
The AFP reporter came a few minutes early, and by that time Collins was feeling tired. Deb and Liz had set out snacks and wine, and now they sat with Charley on the aft deck, enjoying the last of the day’s sun. Rod came up and sat with Sumner in the cockpit, while the reporter set out her voice recorder.
Looking at Rod, she began: “You were on the other boat, Mr Lethbridge, were you not?”
“That’s correct. I wasn’t really a part of the action.”
“Very well. Captain, reports have surfaced you are in the US Navy. Are these correct?”
“I was, once upon a time, yes. A pilot.”
“Ah, so you are not active duty then? Yet you worked for your State Department, in the intelligence division?”
“Is that not a part of the intelligence directorate?”
He shrugged. “What’s your question, Corrine?” he said, remembering her AFP badge from the morning.
“You are not still employed by the State Department?”
“No, certainly not.”
“I ask only as one of the ‘reporters’ this morning can not seriously be considered so. He works for the LePen people, and I was concerned when I saw him there.”
“You understand what this means? LePen?”
“You seemed evasive this morning, concerning the dilemma these refugees pose to the security of Europe, especially with so many people without documentation continue to pour into Greece.”
“Your ‘do unto others’ comment. Curious.”
“That’s how I feel.”
“I see,” she said, writing on a notepad. “Are you traveling on to Paris?”
“That’s one of the options.”
“Well, I ask only as you seem to have reserved a slip at the Arsenal.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“You are used to dealing with the press, I see.”
“So, may I have some wine?”
“Only have a Riesling. My cellar’s a little low.”
She laughed. “That’s fine.” He poured a glass and she took some cheese and a slice of pear. “Very good,” she said. “Thanks.”
“I was above, as you may recall my saying this morning, and I saw your actions. Have you seen today’s papers?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
She pulled a few front pages from her case, handed them over. “You should be prepared, you are not an unknown here now.”
She laughed again. “A master of understatement, I see.”
“You’ve got that right,” Liz said.
“Ah, Mrs Lethbridge. You were there, along with Miss Hill? What was your reaction to these events?”
“Horrified, I think, best sums it up. When I looked into that boat…”
“Yes, I could see, from above. What do you think our policy should be towards these people?”
Liz looked at Sumner, then at Corrine. “I’ve been thinking about what Sumner said this morning, about the importance of trying to empathize with what these people are up against. I’m sorry, but I can’t see much beyond that. It is a human tragedy, so these people deserve a humane response.”
“What do you mean?”
Collins poured a glass of wine, took a slice of pear and looked away, detesting this reporter’s tactics.
“Only that,” Liz said. “I’m sure the EU will come up with a humane response.”
“Ah, humane. Yes. Miss Hill, you too were close to the action. Anything to add?”
“Me? I just pulled on the rope. Hardly heroic.”
“And about the refugees? Do you have anything to say about the current situation?”
“I suspect ending the conflict in Syria is the place to start. Beyond that? I bake pastry, and not for the Foreign Ministry, so I would say my opinions would only have a certain uninformed quality about them.”
The reporter looked at her, wondered who she was. “I see. Well, will you be here if I have anymore questions?”
“A few days, then we’re going across the river for a week or so.”
“Lovely. Well, I will wish a pleasant journey, wherever that may be.”
“Thanks,” Collins said as he stood to help her get off the boat.
“How long have you known Miss Hill,” she asked when they were on the pier.
“A few weeks.”
“Ah. Well, thanks for the wine.” She handed him her card, then smiled at him and walked down the pier, Collins now so tired he was feeling light-headed.
“You look like hell,” Rod said as he climbed back in the cockpit.
“About how I feel.”
“Let’s get you to bed,” Deb said, and he followed her below, fell onto the blanket and promptly started snoring.
“My God,” Liz said, watching from the galley, “I think he was asleep on his feet.”
“Thirty six hours, non-stop. He’ll kill himself at this rate.”
“What are you going to do now?” Liz asked when they got back up to the cockpit.
“Go home, think about things. What I want to do.”
“What? Like what?”
“Sell the shop, or the flat. Or even stay there, let him go on without.”
Liz seemed shocked, almost betrayed. “Deb? What’s changed?”
“Absolutely nothing. I don’t know how to say this, but he really seems to me to be so much bigger than life right now, and I’m just simply not. So I wonder, really, if I’m what he needs?”
“Deborah,” Rod said gently, “you’re tired and you’re confused, as you have every right to be. We’ve all been through a lot. Think about this before you act, would you? I know he loves you very much, and I think you love him too. That’s precious, and rare.”
“You’re correct, Rod. So, when are you leaving? Gatwick, is it?”
“Yes. Tomorrow morning.”
“Would you make another reservation, for me to go with you?”
“Yes, I can do that.”
“Thanks very much. I should pack my things.”
Liz looked from her friend to her husband and back again, not understanding what had just happened, but she knew something wasn’t right. Something important had happened, something vital had changed, had been snuffed out. She watched as Deb carried the wine and cheese below, marveled at how well she’d fit into this life, and wondered what had come over her friend.
And she wondered how Sumner would take it.
He found her note in the galley when he finally woke late the next morning, and as disoriented as he already felt her words hit him like a hammer blow. He’d stumbled around the boat, saw she’d taken all her belongings – just like she intended never to return – and a darkness settled over him in the hours after that became hard to shake.
Whittington was topsides on Aphrodite when he went topside, his worried scowl following a surveyor poking around the boat’s chainplates, shaking his head and mumbling little off-putting grunting noises as he crawled around the deck.
“Ah, there you are,” Whit managed to say. “Was beginning to worry about you. How are you feeling, by the by?”
“Well, you missed a tearful farewell, that I can tell you.”
“Did the Volvo people make it down?”
“Yes indeed. They suggest a complete re-power, as you mentioned. The autopilot is a goner, too. My friend on his knees here has found a lot of rust, rot in the wood around the chainplates, in the deck and a few floor beams, and the mast step looks questionable.”
“I’m thinking of a trip to Florida.”
Collins laughed. “Well, come on over when your chum leaves, and we’ll open a fresh bottle of rum.”
“That sounds splendid.”
“I’m going to put on some coffee. Want some?”
The surveyor looked up. “I do,” he said, “if you don’t mind.”
“No, I don’t. Whit? You?”
“Yes, I’m coming. Marcel? When you finish?”
“Oui, oui. Another ten minutes and I will be complete.”
Collins went below, started the coffee, found Deb had left a dozen freshly baked scones in the microwave and shook his head. He found Charley in her little nest, an old turd on the towel by her side and he shook his head, cleaned up her mess and took her topsides.
He left her in the cockpit and let her ramble about while he fixed coffees and rum, and he carried two cups topside, along with a plate of scones and some puppy treats. He put them on the cockpit table and Deb’s pastries sat there, staring at him like an accusation. He picked up the pup and gave her a treat, ignoring the scones, ignoring the cold hard fact that Deb wasn’t there with him…
…when he felt Whit hop aboard…
“Ah, rum first thing in the morning. Now this is what I had in mind when the word retirement was uttered in my presence.” He took a sip… “Ah, splendid.”
Collins took a scone and bit into it.
“She was a bit daft this morning, Sumner. Very, I don’t know, ‘off’ in some way. If I knew her better I might be able to shed some light, but I’d have said, if I saw her in clinic, that she was profoundly depressed, morbidly so.”
Collins nodded. “C’est la vie, Whit.”
“So, you’re going to let her go?”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I may just go back to sleep.”
“Don’t do that, mate. Depression isn’t the way forward. Decide what you want, then act.”
“Right. So, how much does Volvo want?”
“Immaterial at this point. I’d guess with the structural issues found so far I’d have to invest a hundred thousand euros to bring her back.”
“Be tough to sell with so many issues.”
“Oh, it’s just an equation. Lose it now, or later. There are two Island Packets in the region for sale, same size as Aphrodite, even less draft so better for exploring the canals. I’m going to take a look in the morning if you want to tag along.”
“We’ll see. I want to move over to Honfleur soon. This is a little too busy for my taste.”
The surveyor hopped aboard, handed Whittington his notes and he scanned them. “So, about a hundred and twenty?”
“Around here, oui. Less on the southern coast, even less in Spain.”
“Have a seat,” Collins said as he went below for the man’s coffee. “Would you like anything in your coffee?”
“I smell rum. A little, please.”
Collins chuckled down the stairs, made another cup and handed it up. He sat down and held Charley close, then he heard his phone chirping and went back below.
It was Liz calling. He picked the phone up and took the call…
“Sumner? Are you alright?”
“No, not really. What’s going on?”
“I’ve haven’t seen her like this in years, she’s very unstable right now. I don’t know what happened. Do you? Did you have a fight, anything like that?”
“Can I do anything for you on this end?”
“Keep me posted, I guess. She asked that I not call, that she’d get in touch when she felt she knew what was best for both of us.”
“I see. Is that what you’re going to do?”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, Liz. What about you and Rod? What are you two going to do?”
“About the farm, and sailing? I don’t know. We have a lot to talk about, don’t we?”
He chuckled. “That you do.”
“Sumner, I meant what I said, you know. We both appreciate so much what you’ve shown us.”
“It was my pleasure. Well, keep in touch, would you?”
“I will, but…no…” He sensed her hesitation, words as yet unspoken. “You too.”
He broke the connection, went into the cockpit and looked around the marina. “The light is different here,” he said. “Warmer.”
“Oui,” Marcel said. “All the way to Lyon, there is a pinkish cast to this land. South of Lyon the light is mellower, almost lavender.”
“Here, what’s this about?” Whittington said looking around. “Bosh…looks the same to me…”
“You are not a romantic, are you, doctor,” the Frenchman said.
“I’m as romantic as the next fellow, I suppose,” Whittington said.
“Ah, just so,” Marcel smiled ruefully. “Excellent coffee. What is the rum?”
“Oh, just some stuff I picked up in the Virgins.”
“And what about you, Captain. Are you settled after your adventures yesterday?”
“You were on television, on the front pages of the newspapers again this morning. How was it? Your fifteen minutes?”
“Oh, that. How are the people? The boy…?”
The man shrugged. “No one cares about them, monsieur. There are now thousands in Calais, all trying to make it through the tunnel to England. A steady stream from Greece, heading north. A disaster, a tide of human disaster.”
“Yes, it is that,” Whittington said. “Was that Deb on the phone?”
“Liz. They’re home, it seems.”
“Ah. I suppose I should call Rod, talk with him about the boat situation.”
“Well, he’d asked if he might buy her if I decide to sell.”
“I see. That would be a handful to take on.”
“Couldn’t do that, not in good conscience.”
“So, what IPs are for sale here?”
“A 370, and an older 320.”
“The 320 is very small,” Collins said, “but the 370 is an ideal boat for one person, even two.”
“Yes, about what I thought. A few in Florida, as well. Much better price.”
“I can go with you tomorrow,” Marcel added, “help you look it over.”
“Splendid. Sumner, you must come with us.”
“Okay. What time?”
“I will pick you up,” Marcel said, standing, “at 0800. It is an hour’s drive.”
“Excellent,” Whittington said, following the Frenchman off the boat.
Collins got his papoose rigged and put Charley in, then grabbed a leash and they hiked off to the beach north of the marina and walked for hours. She ranged ahead when he put her down, quartering from side to side and stopping to sniff everything she came upon, and with autumn’s winds now blowing they had miles and miles to themselves. He looked up from time to time, watched as freighters and tankers left the Seine and plowed out into steep-walled seas, looked at gulls wheeling overhead – their lonesome calls the perfect soundtrack to this bitter day. He took off his shoes and walked into the water and Charley following him in – getting soaked to the bone – then she shook herself off and jumped up on his legs. He pulled a towel from his pack and swaddled her, put her back in the papoose, then turned back for the marina. She was sound asleep within moments, curled up in a tight little ball.
He looked down at her. “I love you, little friend,” he whispered, a tear in his eye.
She looked at the four walls of her living room, the bare shelves in the refrigerator, the terrifying emptiness in her heart where Sumner had lived the last two weeks, an overwhelming grief washing over her when she thought of him.
She could no more control the black hole that called out to her now than she could control the setting of the moon, and when the darkness called out to her during the storm she began the inward collapse she knew would consume her – and him too, if she let it. She fled, for fleeing was the last best thing she could do to protect him. Now she fell into her bed and pulled the sheets over her face and hoped to sleep, hoping in the end she’d never wake up again.
But her mind played tricks on her. She brought her hands to her face and smelled Charley – and she reached out for the pup, wanted to hold her close – but found only air.
She smelled coffee and thought of him at the wheel, fighting the storm, looking after them all – and she thought how she had abandoned him.
She thought of scones and in her mind’s eye she was walking around Gemini’s galley, lighting off the stove and mixing batter, the entire boat filled with the scents of her creations – only now she felt the cold emptiness of the air in her flat, and she turned inward – on herself.
Most of all she felt his hands on her skin, the consuming passions of their encounters still fresh in her mind…in the shower, sleeping with Charley on his chest, everywhere she turned she saw him – and after another sharp, stabbing pain behind her eyes – sleep simply would not come for her.
She dressed and went to the shop, immersed herself in the rituals of preparing to open the next day…but he was there too. Everywhere she looked she felt him, every time she felt him in the air she missed him, and every time she missed him she felt the choking claw of loneliness tearing into her flesh, ripping her apart, the darkness growing more complete with her every waking breath.
Finally, she thought of the cliffs, and how they called out to her, and she wondered what lay on the other side of darkness.
He turned on the shower and let the water warm for a moment, then stood under the warm spray with Charley nuzzled under his chin, holding her close-to while they looked into each others eyes. He rinsed the salt from her hair, cleaned little balls of tar and dirt from between her toes then rinsed himself off. He dried her, wrapped her in another towel then dressed, thought about eating but really wasn’t in the least bit hungry for anything but Deborah’s hands in his own.
He looked at the phone – no calls, no messages – and stepped into the galley, looked around for something to do and failed.
He saw her copy of The Catcher in the Rye on his bookcase and ignored it for a moment, then picked it up and started reading. He looked up from time to time, watched the sun set out beyond the estuary and took another of her scones and picked at it for a while, then made some tea. He picked up the phone, thought of calling her but stopped himself.
I have to honor her wishes, he told himself, not push her into a corner.
She walked out to the edge of the cliff again, her hands and arms outstretched, the sea breeze strong and sure, and she turned her face to the stars. Everything looked so different out here under the moonlight, her skin all silvery blue, the greens and blues of the land and the sea now bluish shades of gray, the sea a sparkling plain of glittering, moon-swept waves.
She closed her eyes and stepped forward…
…and felt his hand on her shoulder…
She turned, faced him, cried out in surprise…
“I was thinking about Eleanor Rigby,” Lennon said, “but really, irony was never my thing.”
She fell into his arms, marveled at the warmth of him, the purity of his being, then she felt his arms around her. He turned her around, looked with her at the sea.
“Is this what you really want?” he asked, pointing at the darkness.
She shook her head. “No. It isn’t, not at all.”
“Then go home.” He pointed towards town.
“Why are you here?”
But then he was singing ‘someone is speaking, but she doesn’t know he’s there’ – and he began to fade, playing-on as he dissolved on calling breezes. She bundled herself up against the night air and began running back into town, stopping only once to look down at the marina, and the darkness she felt growing in her heart.
Calliopes came for her then, and chased her into the night.
Collins followed Whittington up the ladder onto the deck of the boat, the broker already on board, eager to show the boat one more time before winter set in.
“Do you have her maintenance records,” he asked the broker as Whit headed below.
“Oui, of course,” the woman said, and she handed over a manila folder; Collins rummaged through the forms and receipts for a moment, then looked up. “Only four hundred hours on the engine,” she said.
He looked up and smiled absently.
“Tell me, Mr Collins, what were you thinking?”
“Excuse me? What?”
“At sea, with all those refugees jumping in the water?”
‘Dear God,’ he thought, ‘Not again.’ He shrugged, sat down in the cockpit and thumbed through a copy of the log. The previous owner had motored around for two summers then put her up for sale, an all too typical fate for a cruising sailboat, he knew. Broken dreams, like broken promises, were hard to reconcile with the reality that sailing was really hard work, and an unforgiving endeavor emotionally – as well as financially. You either have the emotional and financial resources or you don’t, he knew from experience. This owner had lacked both, apparently, but that was a sad refrain in the boating business, and again, all too common. This woman made her living trading in broken dreams, but c’est la vie, right?
He walked the decks, looked at the chainplates and mast fittings, then the anchoring gear forward before heading below. Whittington was examining the upholstery on the settees and Collins shook his head. Marcel came below and the two of them gathered around the engine and checked fluids and engine mounts, then Collins looked over the mast step.
“It’s virtually new,” he said to Whit while they drove back into Le Havre. “Owner’s asking 250, so come at him hard at 180, see if he flinches, or if he’s desperate.”
Whittington pulled out his cell phone and hit the broker’s number, talked to her a minute then hung up. “She’ll email the offer for me to look over.”
“Don’t jump on it, Whit. You ought to think about things for a day or two. I doubt there are many people looking right now.”
“Quite right. Are you still going to move across the river this afternoon?”
“Yes. I’m not at all happy with the noise in the marina.”
“Yes, I’m tired of answering questions, too. ‘What was it like?’ ‘Would you do it again?’ My God in heaven, I didn’t do anything, so what’s all the fuss about?”
“You are our ‘hero du jour,’ mon Capitan!” Marcel said. “You should enjoy it, for by next week all will be forgotten!”
“Not a moment too soon.”
“So, you think the 370 is a good boat…?”
He settled up at the marina office after he called and was assured his spot in Honfleur’s inner harbor was secure, then he put Charley below and went through his departure checklists. Whit cast off his lines and he backed out the slip and turned for the breakwater.
“I’ll call you tonight!” he said to Whit, who waved and shot him a ‘thumb’s up’ – and then he motored through the marina and out into the shipping lanes. It was about eight miles across and up-river, not quite two hours, and he picked his way through the roadstead, dodging clumps of floating trash and little boats and tugs pushing barges. It was ‘busy work’ – mindless concentration good for keeping his mind off Deborah, and all her impossible contradictions, and even after he’d locked into the inner harbor and warped off the headwall he still found himself flummoxed by her decision to leave.
He set all his lines and washed down the boat, then took Charley for a long walk, heading up a hill north of town where there were vast fields for her to run through, then they walked back into town and he stopped, looked at a café that had snails and duck on the menu, deciding to check it out later. They walked around the inner harbor after that, and as he approached the boat he saw someone sitting in the cockpit. The silhouette of woman…
…and his heart leapt!
But no, as he got closer to the slip he saw her more her clearly. Not Deb; this girl had long hair and a different nose. Ah, it was that young reporter, the girl named Corrine. She was sitting in the dark behind the wheel, and he could see the glow of her phone on her face now, and when he stepped onboard she looked up, smiled at him.
“Hello-o-o,” she said, “I hope you don’t mind, but the wind was cool and I was getting uncomfortable…”
He stepped into the cockpit and she saw Charley’s face pop out of the papoose and made what he assumed was one of those predictable “Oh-h, isn’t that cute” things – only in French. “Could I get you some coffee, some long pants, perhaps?”
She looked at him looking at her legs and laughed. “It was warm in Paris today. But no, have you been to Le Chat?”
“No, what’s that? A pet store?”
“A restaurant,” she said, smiling, “just there, up the street. Dinner perhaps?”
“Uh, well, I have some fresh groceries and was planning to cook here tonight…”
Her lower lip drooped into a full pout, and he smiled.
“What is it? Why do you smile at me?”
“That lower lip of yours. The famous Parisian Pout. You do it well.”
“Ooh, so this is famous around the world now? So…I can no longer get away doing this?”
“Perhaps if I were twenty years younger. But I suspect you get away with most anything you want,” he said, smiling at her thrusts.
She nodded, smiled. “I have been reading about you. Navy, State Department, your were in Tanzania in ‘98. And Iraq in ’04. What were you doing there?”
“Well,” she pouted, “I did not want to talk to you about these things.”
“So, what do you want to talk about?”
“I told you. Dinner. And she is well behaved,” she said, looking at Charley, “so she can come too.”
“You won’t take no for an answer, will you?”
She shook her head. “Definitely no.”
“Okay, give me a minute.” Once below he fed Charley and changed clothes, then hopped into the cockpit. The girl was shivering now, and he placed his coat over her shoulders. “You should have come below.”
“I wasn’t invited.”
“That didn’t seem to stop you earlier.”
“This is fun. You are not so easy to put into the corner.”
“I’m glad you find me so entertaining.”
“No, you are confused, wondering why I am here. Really why.”
“Golly gee, I love this. We’re having a conversation and I don’t even have to participate.”
“You are a lawyer, are you not? So you are good at twisting words into knots?”
“Not that kind of lawyer. Never been in a courtroom in my life.”
“So, government, politics? That sort of thing?”
He helped her down and once on the quay he let her lead the way, looking down more than once to admire her legs and sky-high heels. Very…chic…he thought, and very impractical. “Government, yes.”
The place was just a few meters off the square and there was no line, but she had a reservation and they were taken to an intimate corner table.
“You’re very confident, aren’t you?”
She smiled. “I love this place, thought you might too.”
“And if I hadn’t returned?”
“I’ve been watching you. And having you watched.”
“Have you, now? Why?” He was on guard now, wary.
“So, you’re covered as a reporter. Not your real gig, I take it? Well, what can I do for you?”
“Nothing, as a matter of fact. We’re just concerned either LePen’s people will bother you, or perhaps some of your old friends will try to hurt you.”
“Seems far-fetched. What’s the real reason?”
“I like your dog.”
“I like you.”
“Nope, sorry. I’m twice your age.”
“And twice as smart too, I think.”
“I doubt that. You look good in the candlelight, by the way.”
“So do you.”
“Okay, if you’re not going to tell me why…”
“But I did. Where is Miss Hill, by the way?”
He looked away. “She left. But I suppose you know what flight she was on, don’t you?”
“No. She just left.”
“I could not find much on her, just this little bit.” She handed him her phone and he read about her marriage to the rock star, the baby’s death and her emotional collapse, but that was all there was.
“Interesting,” he said. “That’s more than I knew, however.”
“We have nothing more in our files.”
“AFPs? Or DGSI?”
“Both,” she admitted with a sly smile, and right then he knew he’d have to check in with the embassy later tonight. This was not as casual as he had first assumed.
“What do you recommend here?”
“You come here often?”
“I grew up a few – miles? – from here.”
“I’ve always wanted to come to this harbor.”
“So, you will take the canals? Where to?”
“Paris, then down south come Spring.”
“A dream come true for you?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“And what then of Miss Hill, on top of all your recent grief.”
“Your dossier on me must be rather complete.”
She shrugged. “I’m sorry. For the pain you must feel now.”
“Okay. What about you? Married? Boyfriends?”
“Married, divorced, but I have given up on all that for now. I do not want children, so what is the point?”
“Love, happiness, someone to share the journey with…stupid stuff like that.”
She looked away, then laughed a little. “Stupid. Yes. I too love irony, Captain Collins.”
“Commander, not captain.”
“Ah, yes, I see. Was Jennifer such good company on your journey?”
“She was. As good as it gets.”
“And Miss Hill?”
“I was hopeful.”
“She is lovely. Why did you not go after her?”
“She asked me not to follow her.”
“And you are a gentleman, I suppose?”
He shrugged. “More likely a cynic, or perhaps just a pragmatist.”
“A pragmatist, maybe. Not a cynic.”
A waiter came to the table and they ordered seafood and duck breasts; she wanted wine, he mineral water, and when they were alone she began again.
“So, will you proceed alone?”
“Yes. My sister is coming for Christmas.”
“And this Tracy, your former sister-in-law? She is coming too?”
“You’re reading my email? Why?”
“Again, we are concerned for your safety. You made many enemies in Iraq.”
“Any evidence you’d care to share?”
“Not at this time.”
“So, what’s the plan?”
“We will keep you under surveillance. While you are in France.”
“Anything I can do to help, I assume you’ll let me know?”
The seafood was excellent but he picked at it, his appetite – what little he had left – now completely gone. She looked at him from time to time, feeling compassion for him – but at the same time she held a certain anger for him. He had, after all, been responsible for helping authorize the torture of thousands of Iraqi citizens. He was in a trap of his own making, just as, she suspected, was the case with her own life. The world was no longer a simple place, no longer the simple black and white realm of good and evil. No, she knew everything was gray now. Infinite shades of gray. We were trying to find our way through impenetrable mists of gray, where one action caused thousands of unforeseen counter-actions, where one moment’s truth collapsed into sharp fragments of betrayal in the next.
She looked at him, so tall and angular, the chiseled mariner, hardened by years flying then more years playing chess with deadly adversaries on a global board, now alone, fleeing his past, chasing dreams in a world gone mad.
Well, she wondered, what else could he do? Sit somewhere and watch the world he knew fall apart? Or go out into the world one more time, see what he could see. Learn what he could, and perhaps, forget the past .
And then there was this Deborah woman, an emotional wreck. Of course he had to rescue her. Of course, he had after all his penance to pay. Or was she his absolution? If he carried her back into the world, would he be released from his servitude to the damned?
And yet watching him, listening to him, looking at his actions – as contradictory as they had been – she was possessed by an idea.
Maybe she didn’t know who this man really was? Maybe words on the screen, the words in his file, had missed an essential truth? Maybe he was one of the few worth knowing. She looked at him as he ate, sharp, spare movements, an appreciation of quality, not an effete connoisseur but in a sense a well-traveled man of the world. His career essentially over, he hadn’t run from the world. No, he had re-engaged with life, but on his own terms. What would she do in a similar circumstance?
“Do you like the duck?” she asked.
“Amazing,” he said. “When we used to come, Jennifer and myself, this was always our homecoming meal. Escargot and duck.”
“You still grieve.”
“And for Miss Hill?”
“Yes, I suppose so, though now I think I understand better. I should call Liz.”
“Personally, I think Miss Hill will return soon. She will see her mistake. You said you came to France with your wife? Why? Is there some special reason?”
“Both our mother’s families came from France.”
“Really? Where did your mother’s family live?”
“St Gervais, near Chamonix.”
“Really? How interesting.”
“Interesting? How so?”
“Oh, the mountain people there. So adventurous, so many explorers, I think. So perhaps that fits you after all.”
“We went back only once, but never found family there.”
“You want to return, perhaps?”
“Would you mind if I ordered a soufflé? For dessert? It takes time.”
“No, of course not.”
“I am enjoying myself more than I thought I would.”
“The other night, when you jumped in the water. You know, when I was above and I had no idea who you were, then the Coast Guard is radioing all this information about you so I got involved, then I am assigned to you. It is this big mess for me. I must take a vacation from AFP, take on these duties concerning you because of these things you did in Iraq…”
“Excuse me. What things?”
“With the prison, the scandal. At Abu Ghraib, all those things.”
“That you authored the legal opinions authorizing torture?”
He grew red faced when he heard that… “Me? Your files say I authorized that?”
“Well, let me tell you one little piece of the truth tonight, and make sure you get this down exactly, and that your superiors understand this completely. I fought against the use of torture at Guantanamo AND at Abu Ghraib, AND I lost both times. I quit State after all that bullshit came down, and I damn near quit the human race as well, so don’t you dare blame me in any way, shape or manner for it.”
He opened his wallet and threw some euros on the table, then got up and left the table. He was furious, shaking with pure, unrestrained rage, because he knew what had happened. His record of accomplishment had been altered to fit someone else’s narrative, he’d been made a patsy, or worse, he was being used to hide someone else’s misdeeds. And now, if Miss DGSI was to be believed, he might be a potential target. How convenient – for someone.
There was a fog settling over the harbor as he walked back to Gemini, and when he got back to the boat he found everything coated with cold water. “Swell,” he said as he went below, then carried Charley up on deck.
And of course Corrine was up there, waiting. Very upset. Her arms crossed, shivering.
“What do you want?”
“Then not to talk. To just be with you.”
“Again. No point.”
“I disagree. May I come aboard?”
Charley finished her business and he went forward, helped her on deck. He turned abruptly and went below, trying to ignore the sound of her heels on the deck.
She thought about leaving him to his anger, but she just couldn’t. She followed him below, marveled at the space and found him aft, tucking the pup into a little nest on his bed. “She looks so comfortable, so loved,” she said. “I wonder? Who will love you tonight?”
He spun on her, his eyes full of molten fury. “Again, there is no point to your being here.”
“Whatever. You should not be alone. Not just now.”
“No one should be alone. But I am. So are you. So what?”
“Yes. Again. It is wrong for you. You do not wear it well.”
“Some people wear loneliness like a cloak, a barrier. Not you. On you, loneliness is an obscenity.”
“What do you want, Corrine?”
“Right now? To lay with you, to make love perhaps, to hold you and to wake up beside you in the morning. Then I would leave and never think of you ever again.” She smiled, laughed at the impossibility.
“Always, exceedingly very much so, yes. I love irony.”
“I wish I could again. Nothing would be more interesting. But no. I can’t now, not yet.”
“Then can we not talk? About other things. Places you’ve been, places you want to go?”
“I’m very tired, Corrine. Suddenly more tired than you can imagine.”
“Lay down. Face down, please.”
“Face down, on the bed. Now, please.”
He lay down and felt her get on the bed, then she was sitting astride his thighs, rubbing his back in deep probing motions, then his shoulders and neck, and finally, she felt him relaxing. She slid forward, massaged his temples, then the sides of his neck…
“Turn over,” she whispered, and she felt him turning and lifted a little until he was facing her, and then she leaned close, her arms crossed on his chest, her face just inches above his. “Is this so bad, Sumner? This being together?” She leaned closer still and kissed his eyelashes, then very lightly, his lips.
She could feel his response, this new tension rising between them.
She kissed him while she began rubbing his head again, and she began moving over him, pushing herself along his need. He grew under the soft parade of her assault and they hovered in the indecision of the moment, then she stood and looked down at him for a moment.
“You were correct, Sumner. There is no point to this yet. But we will have our day in the sun.” She turned and walked off the boat, and he went to the cockpit and watched her disappear into the fog, almost laughing as he pulled out his phone.
She woke the next morning in clouds of indecision, the bare walls of her bedroom mocking her as she dressed and walked to the shop. She baked scones and set out her wares on the tables and opened the doors to another day. Customers came as they always did; the polite, discrete longing among the men who visited a given, the camaraderie of working women a nourishing comfort. Her morning passed in the bosom of routines at once damningly pleasant and frustratingly empty. She tried to think of anything but Lennon, of his floating Here, There and Everywhere drifting like an echo through her mind’s eye, so of course that’s all she thought about.
When she wasn’t thinking about him, Sumner came to her. Sumner and her anxiety closet full of freshly laundered insecurities, and then the stab behind the eyes would hit…
When she finished for the day, when she’d cleaned the kitchen and the dining room and made her batters for the next morning’s pastries, she reached for her phone and decided to call him…then her fingers fell away and she placed the phone in her apron and began her walk home.
There was grayness over the city and she thought of last weeks many fogs, and the beginning of her journey across the channel – with him. How full of hope she had been when Brighton fell away behind her, in just such a fog, how she’d felt for a moment that new beginnings were indeed really possible for people like her. Now as she looked around at the gray sky and the gray buildings and all the gray people walking home – she felt the suffocating reality that nothing ever really changes. She was afraid of life, had been since she’d held it in her hands and then, when she felt life slip through her fingers and disappear into walls of grayness – just like this – only fear remained.
When she got to her flat she found Liz waiting for her, sitting on the steps looking down at her phone.
“Hello,” she said as she walked up and unlocked the door. “Come on in.”
“How’re you doing?”
“Fine,” she said as she rubbed her temples. “You?”
“Rod’s in France with Whit, looking at boats.”
“Such a breath of fresh air, our Sumner. Look what he did to our lives.”
“Oh? What did he do to your life, Deb?”
“Revealed the ultimate futility of it all.”
“Did he, now? My, that’s quite a feat, considering.”
“Well, for a mere mortal…”
“There’s nothing ‘merely’ or ‘mortal’ about Mr Sumner Collins, Liz. His larger than life dreams serve only to make the likes of you and me drown in our despair. We look at our little lives and wonder what the fuck happened to us? He makes us ask why we gave up on our dreams. He makes me sick.”
“Oh. I see.”
“Do you? When are you going to admit you’ve lost Rod? Eh, to that little tramp? When will it soak through that thick little skull of yours?”
Liz laughed a little. “Lost him, you say? I had no idea, but thanks for letting me know. Any tea about?”
“Have you called him?”
“No, and I’m not going to.”
“Because you love him so much it hurts?”
“Because you want to go on hurting?”
“Just so. My pain is the only thing I’ve got left that reminds me I’m alive.”
“Other than Sumner, I take it.”
“Do you want tea?”
“No, not really. Just thought I’d drop by and see how you’re doing.”
“Well, you’ve seen, haven’t you? Now what?”
“He called me this morning, you know. Wanted to know how you’re about?”
“Did he? How sweet. Did you tell him to sod off?”
Liz walked to the door. “Take care, Deb. Call if you need anything.”
“Right. Will do. Have a nice life.”
Liz shook her head as she left, and as she walked down the hill to the strand to wait for her bus she wondered whether she should call Sumner again, or even their doctor at the hospital. In the end – no, she said – she decided against either course of action. Deb was an adult, and should be treated accordingly, she told herself as her bus pulled up. She looked up the lane at Deb’s flat before it disappeared from view, then she shook her head again.
Whit and Rod dropped by for lunch, and found Sumner with his feet up reading a piloting guide to the Seine.
“So, look what the cat dragged in?” he said when he saw Rod hopping aboard. “How goes shopping?”
“Do you know, Sumner,” Whit said, “I think that fellow is going to take my offer?”
“Wow, must be in a hurry to get out from under. Rod? Didn’t know you were coming again so soon?”
“I wanted to look at that 320. I like it, but she’s more than ten years old.”
“Oh, what did you think of her generally? Too small, or just big enough?”
“Well, of course I’d love a boat this size, but that’s not the reality…”
“I know,” Collins said. “Truth be told, I liked the 370, and would have been happy with one. I hardly use the space on board this beast as it is. I found the 320 a bit tight though, at my height, anyway.”
“Well, like you, I think the 370 is ideal.”
“Whit? Didn’t you say several were on the market in Florida?”
“Yes, five I think.”
“Did you go aboard the one Whit’s looking at?”
“Indeed, I’m green with envy.”
“When are you going to sail her?”
“Sunday,” Whittington said. “I assume you’re coming?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
A phone started chirping and Rod pulled his out, looked at the number and took the call. He listened for a minute, then cupped his hand over it and looked at Sumner. “Could you talk to Liz for a minute? Something seems amiss.”
“Sure.” He took the phone and listened to her for a few minutes, then handed the phone back to Rod.
“So. Lunch? You want to eat here, or over there?” he said, pointing at a sidewalk café ten meters away.
“Over there, if you don’t mind,” Whittington said. “The scent is overwhelming.”
Rod looked at him, not sure what to say, but Collins ignored him as they walked over to the café and took a seat.
“When are you flying back, Rod,” Sumner finally asked.
“Sunday evening,” Rod shot back. “Have you heard from Deborah?”
“No. She told me not to contact her. Liz has kept me up to date, but what would you have me do?”
“Do you know about her marriage, and the baby?”
“I found out last night.”
“Oh? And her hospitalization?”
“Not the details.”
“Suicidally depressed after the child passed, after that fucking ‘Rock God’ left her. She was in hospital, for well over a year I think. She met Liz there, by the by.”
“I see. Seems odd she wouldn’t tell me about all that.”
“Not at all, when you know the score. I know Liz is awfully ashamed about the whole thing, so I assume Deborah might be as well. It’s a powerful stigma, at least it is in their eyes, from the little I’ve seen.”
Collins nodded his head. “So, what are you going to do?”
“Me?” Rod said. “What am I going to do about what?”
“The boat thing.”
Rod seemed to deflate after that, and ate in silence, leaving Whit and Collins to talk about surveys and boats, and they left a half hour later. Collins seemed calm, outwardly at least, when he walked down to the boat. He went below and called Corrine, and they talked for quite a while.
The fog cleared by mid-afternoon, leaving a sun-mottled sky fresh with hints of November, and she finished cleaning up the flat, tidying her things in the closet, then she took out the trash, set her mail out on the little table by the entry. When she was sure her life’s debris was tidy she put on her coat and a little cap, then set off towards the marina. She stopped every now and then, turned and watched the sun fall to the far horizon, enjoying the sky and the sea breezes, then, as she climbed along the cliffside trail she looked out to sea, wondered about all the life unseen just beneath the surface, and the life all around her unseen in the flats and houses up here, all waiting and hiding just beneath the surface, all these lives invisible – until they weren’t anymore.
She looked down at the marina as she walked past, thinking how wonderful it had all been, the respite of his coming into her life, his willingness to share her unknowns with his knowns. Perhaps if she’d told him about all the slippery contours of her life, if he’d been able to penetrate all the layers of denial and self-recrimination? But no, she’d never really given him a chance, had she? She was through with it all, with life, before he found her. She’d had a chance to see his possibilities, but that was all they were and it wasn’t enough.
“I wonder why I couldn’t embrace such possibility?” she said aloud at one point, and she half expected Lennon to show up at any moment and toss another pithy comment her way, but no, she was beyond even that now, and she was sure he’d know that too.
“Perhaps he’ll be waiting on the other side…” she whispered, but despite it all she didn’t really believe in that, either.
Yet she knew she was afraid right now, hoped it wouldn’t hurt too much, or for too long, and she looked at the trail ahead disappearing into the grays and blues of twilight. She wondered when the moon would rise, then laughed.
“He’d know, wouldn’t he?” He’d tell her everything any fool had ever wanted to know about the moon – and more.
Her benches were another few hundred yards ahead, and the sun was gone now, leaving only a tight, narrow band on amber-salmon along the western edge of the sky. She looked up, saw a few stars, or planets, as he’d pointed out, and sighed. Of course he had.
And the air was cooler now, though the breeze was dying – and she could barely see the way ahead without the moon to light the way – so she felt her way along with her feet.
At last she found her bench and sat, collected herself as she thought about what lay ahead, and she wrapped her arms around her chest to hold the last of her warmth close.
Something caught her eye…at last, the moon! At long last, the full moon was sneaking up over the eastern horizon, willing to light her way one more time…
She stood and walked to the cliff’s edge, stood still, looking out to sea, looking at the moon as it’s slender crescent rose clear of the sea and stood in silent witness…
…her hands came out like the wings of a gull, catching the wind that passed over her arms, and she close her eyes, summoning the courage to walk forward, into that good night…
She felt a hand on her shoulder, firm but steady, not a care and as free as a bird.
“Did I ever tell you about Yesterday?” he said, and she turned to face him.
“Yes. You know, all my troubles were so far away?”
“Yes? What about it?”
“That was Jennie’s favorite, you know, especially near the end. When he came to me down there,” he said, pointing to the marina, “he sang that and I nearly died inside.”
“Did you? Why?”
“Because I was so sure I’d never be able to go on – without you. That I couldn’t lose this life that had suddenly opened up – like the petals of a flower when the sun shines. And because I was so unbelievably lucky to have loved once in my life, I had been absolutely sure I’d never have another love like that. And then I met you.”
“I’m ready to leave now, Sumner. Can’t you let me go?”
“Out there,” she said, pointing. “It’s my time.”
“Are you sure that’s what you really want?”
He took her hand. “Okay. Let’s go.”
“Let’s go,” he said as he stepped to the edge of the abyss, his foot out over the edge.
She pulled him back violently. “What are you doing?!” she screamed.
“If that’s where you’re going, I’m going too.”
“I’m not leaving you until the last breath has left my body. If that’s tonight, then so be it.”
“You can’t be…”
“Do you love me so much?”
They heard him then, though he was far away now. Lennon, playing Yesterday, just one more time. He looked at her, her hair lifting in the breeze, her face framed between the sea and moon.
“You’re so lovely,” he said. “And I do love you so.”
She held him – and then all her fear and grief and shame broke loose, an infant’s lost cry piercing the night. She was gripping his jacket so fiercely he feared the fabric would part, but he held her close while she cried, while she came to terms with life again, until fear dissipated and the will to live returned.
“Where’s Charley,” he finally heard her ask.
“She’s with Rod, on Gemini.”
“We’ve got to get back to her. She’ll be terrified without you.”
He listened to the last of the music as it faded on the breeze, nodding his head as held her close. “I know.”
‘Oh God,’ he thought, ‘how I love your little ironies.”
She came back to him slowly, when she came at all.
Gently, like the flows within the tidal estuary they were surrounded by.
She came to him, she drifted away, her moods always in fragile succession, a delicate stream of contrapuntal thought. Fear and exile, reaching and joining, back and again with no end in sight, and suddenly only one constant in this life holding her to him.
Always this being, this coming to love.
The little girl, Charley, resolute and unyielding, like a firmly set anchor. Charley keeping Deborah mired in the present, in the here and now, and while almost against her will – still – here she remained, somedays dead but for the air that passed her lips, other days a bouquet of freshly arranged flowers. Bittersweet beauty, because Collins knew the flowers would wilt and die soon enough. There were no patterns to the flow, no lunar pull, yet like the tides around Gemini the rising and sudden falls were as inevitable.
After a week aboard in Honfleur he carried her to a physician near Caen, a noted psychiatrist who usually worked in Paris, but who came north for the sea air and kept a small office in his house, and he agreed to see her. After three visits Dr Mann grew intrigued with the depths of her despair, but was concerned that she needed intensive care, perhaps in a specialist hospital, and yet Deborah refused to even consider the idea. In private conversation, Dr Mann told Collins outright that her prognosis was terrible, that she was locked in a downward spiral of an intensifying morbid, and poly-cyclic depression. In his experience, at some point Deborah would simply stop eating and drinking, and the end would come soon after that. He wanted to perform a full exam, and as soon as possible.
And while Collins found such a prognosis hard to fathom, let alone reconcile with the Deborah he had known only a few weeks, Mann’s credentials were impeccable. Still, she had embraced life for a while, shared herself with him, and while he had noted little signs from time to time that concerned him, he found it hard to accept such a bizarre, final outcome.
He asked the physician if there were any other options, and Mann sat cleaning his eyeglasses with his necktie, as if hesitating to go where this was leading. Then finally, he spoke:
“ECT. Electro-convulsive therapies, the so called ‘shock therapy’ of such ill-repute. I have never been in favor of this process, and I regard it as many later came to regard ‘ICT’, or insulin induced coma therapy. No one fully understands the mechanism through which ECT works, and even after seventy years it is considered an experimental treatment option, but for some with severe depressive disorder it can be a miraculous option.”
“What do you think? Is Deborah a good candidate for this treatment?”
He shook his head. “I still do not know, I’m not certain, anyway. She would need to be evaluated first, then we would need to locate a clinic that still uses this technique.”
“Do you know who…”
“Yes, of course, but I caution you, this is a last resort only. There is an NHS clinic in Scotland, but one of the biggest practitioners is at a hospital in Spokane, Washington, in America, where much research is still being done. There are others of course, in Belgium and Germany, but I mention these two first.”
“Nothing here in France?”
He grew distant then, not quite hostile but less accessible. “I will check. There has been more political opposition than medical, you see, and those who study this area do so most quietly.”
“And Deborah…what if she refuses treatment?”
“By the time depressive patients meet the criteria for ECT they are no longer resistant. You must understand…this is, again, a treatment of last resort. I will do some research but you must be prepared to act when the time comes.”
“What do you mean? When the time comes? What exactly should I look for?”
“I’m sorry. I thought I was being clear. In most cases, people like Miss Hill will simply stop eating and drinking. Death comes in four days, possibly sooner, without immediate intervention.”
“I know very little about God, Mr Collins, only that for some people life presents an intolerable series of burdens, and at some point these people simply give up.” He looked away, out his window over an impossibly beautiful garden, and on to the sea beyond his garden walls. “I think the will to live simply – I don’t know the word – ah, yes, vanishes. These so-called morbid-depressive episodes rapidly become ‘end stage,’ Mr Collins, as even with ECT you may only see improvement for a year or so. We are in many such cases only putting off the inevitable.”
Collins left the man’s office in a state of shock, got in his rental car and drove back to Honfleur, and he boarded Gemini in silence. He found Deb having one of her good days, on the aft deck laying in the sun with Charley, and she was affectionate that evening, almost happy to be alive and with him on the boat. Charley was beside herself with joy as they played, and he was too.
Yet by next morning the darkness had returned, and he called Liz, filled her in. She agreed to a hastily arranged visit with Mann and flew into deGaulle, and he picked her up, drove her to Mann’s clinic in Paris. She filled the psychiatrist in on the details of both their earlier hospitalizations, and while the picture came into sharper relief to both Collins and Mann, easy solutions remained elusive, and Sumner began to despair when he finally realized the mossy contours of her life prevented easy examination. She was on a slippery slope now, and he soon felt he was simply along for the ride, holding her hand as darkness reached out for her – and pulled her away.
Liz left with one parting word of wisdom.
“There’s really little you can do at this point, except one thing. Don’t let her drag you down with her. Please, Sumner. She’s my friend, I care about you too. More than I care to admit.”
To Liz, Deborah had grown rooted to life – after the death of her daughter – within the confines of her little shop, within the creamy routines of tea and scones and a dedicated clientele that doted on her efforts, even on her moods. He had arrived and pulled her away from this world, from all those easy routines that held her close to the bosom of unfulfilled need, yet he now realized he’d been unable to pull her completely free from the uncertain, oppressive gravity of that life.
And now it seemed the more he pulled the more intense this gravity became, what had begun as depression moved closer and closer to a viral collapse into total withdrawal. And she seemed to embrace this darkness…
Until one afternoon he saw her fingering the air…as if she was playing a piano in midair. The sight stunned him completely, for her movements were precise, and once she even stopped and appeared to correct herself, replaying notes only she saw in the air. He called Liz immediately, asked if she’d ever seen anything like this before. No, she hadn’t. More confused than ever, he watched this new routine develop with a growing sense of alarm. Was she hallucinating? Growing psychotic? What the hell was happening?
And still there was Charley, whose gentle tugs were as insistent as the tidal flow surrounding Gemini. Deborah could not deny the little pup a way into her heart, and so Deb held the little pup through her bouts of darkness, and within the sunshine of her fleeting moments of happiness, leaving Sumner to wonder just how long this precarious hold on life could possibly last.
After telling Mann about Deb’s piano playing one morning, Sumner took Charley and Deborah on a long walk west of town, to the immense strand of beach that stretched all along the Norman coast. They walked as tides ebbed, revealing immense fields of rocks dotted with marine organisms stranded under the autumn sun, but Charley gave up after an hour and retreated to the warm cocoon of Sumner’s papoose. From time to time he looked at Deb, at her fingers, lost within invisible sheets of music, playing the score to an endless dream.
And still they walked, walked until the sun had arced to the embrace of fields of trees, until the air grew cool and close. He looked at her then and knew she would have walked on forever, and that she had no idea where she was. He took her hand and they turned back towards the village and she held on as if he was her last contact with the world, as if without his guiding the way she would have simply ceased to be. After four hours she had not said a word, and by the time they were back on Gemini she was cold to the touch, yet not shivering or in any way complaining.
She had simply let go, and did not eat or drink that night.
Nor the next morning, when he saw only her fingers shaping chords in the air.
It wasn’t a catatonia, he saw. More a willful turning away, and when she was the same at midday, he called Dr Mann.
“I think so.”
“Where are you?”
“Honfleur, in the inner harbor by the carousel. A green hulled sailboat, the Gemini…”
“I am at the Gare du Havre, so will be there soon…”
Not quite an hour later he appeared on the quay above Gemini, and he was staring down into the water off her stern when Collins made it up into the cockpit.
“You have a friend, it seems,” the old physician said.
And against all odds, there she was, her head out of the water, waiting. Collins dashed below and led an almost somnambulant Deborah to the aft deck, then he took off his shoes and shirt and slipped into the water, and he bid Deborah to follow him.
She walked to the ladder and looked down into the dolphin’s eyes, then turned away and walked below. Collins held onto her, his head against hers, his hand holding hers, and he stayed with her several minutes, then she slipped under the water and was gone.
People had gathered and were looking at him, some recognized him from the refugee incident and then even more people arrived; a minor sensation developed as he climbed aboard and helped the physician make the leap from the quay to the rail, then he went below and jumped in the shower.
Deborah had lain on their berth and not stirred, not while he showered and not while he walked forward and brought the physician to her; now she looked straight through him, seeing no form now – perhaps only spirit. Mann was gentle, fear of what lay ahead made him so, then more concerned after he felt her pulse and looked into her eyes.
“Deborah? Do you know me? Remember me from my office?”
Her eyes flickered, made the slightest effort of recognition – then she slipped away again.
“What do you want to do now, Deborah?”
“Let me go, please,” came her whispered reply – through gritted teeth. “I can’t take this pain much longer.”
The old man nodded his head, then got up from the bed and walked forward, Collins followed – his being now filled with dread.
“She has let go now, monsieur. She has no family, I take it?”
“No, none that I’m aware of.”
“And you two are not married? This is so?”
“That us correct. We are not.”
“Then you can not speak for her, or know her wishes. We can compel state intervention on an emergency basis, if that is what you wish, and you might delay events for three, perhaps four days, but after that?” He shrugged. “You could take her back to England, to the NHS, and perhaps they would intervene. Or perhaps not, as I just do not know what their policy is regarding this form of severe depression. You had not, I take it, been together long enough to know her wishes?”
“No, just a few weeks.”
“You are in an impossible situation, my friend. The danger now is to yourself. She should not stay here, in any event. It will only lead to impossible complications.”
“If I may ask, what concerns you with this dolphin?”
“She’s a friend.”
“I see,” he smiled. “And have you known her long?”
“A few years.”
“Indeed.” Mann stepped back, looked at him seriously. “This is true? You are not playing a joke?”
“Oh yes. She seems to be the central reality of my life these days. I’ll tell you about her someday, doc. Just not tonight. I’d like to be with Deborah for a while, if I may.”
“Certainly. Shall I have the medical services come by? Perhaps in the morning?”
He nodded his head. “I don’t know what else to do.”
“If you were her husband, or her guardian, perhaps, you could intervene, but with all the citizenship issues? I just don’t know, in any event, that we’ll change the outcome in any meaningful way now. This condition is not uncommon, yet it is tragic in every case. I will see you in the morning.”
When the old man was gone he called Rod and Liz, then Whit, and told them what was happening. Liz packed for the airport while he was still talking with Rod, and Whit said he would be right over. By midnight they were all sitting together in the aft cabin, gathered around Deb and talking about their lives, and through all their talk her eyes grew even more distant and unfocused, and finally Sumner recognized the same look from Jennifer’s last days – as cancer closed in in her. But not now! Not again! He still couldn’t believe this was happening, how someone fundamentally healthy could just let go and fall away like this.
“I can’t understand the depth of despair that would bring someone to this point,” he said as they watched the sunrise.
“Few can,” Whittington added. “Like we’ve seen so often recently, we don’t have the necessary frame of reference. I’ve encountered schizophrenic patients who live almost every waking moment of their lives inside a delusion. One women I treated for pulmonary issues was alive inside a room where little babies were being hacked apart and thrown into roaring pits of fire; some days the knives came for her and she writhed in physical agony. That was her day-to-day reality, by the way, a paranoid delusion, yes, but that was all she saw and heard – and often felt. She was in a hospital bed watching that, and her only relief came from powerful anti-psychotic medications that put her into a very deep sleep. How can we relate to that woman, to people like her? It turned out her step-father tortured her for fun when she was a toddler, and I suppose those burning babies represented some sort of lost innocence, but in the end what did it matter what the cause is was? The damage was done, and all that was left was an irretrievably broken human being. What do we do with the sundered shell that’s left? Force them to live inside that Hell? Medicate them into oblivion and warehouse them until their organs fail?”
“It was her father, I think,” Liz said.
“What?” Sumner said, griefstricken.
“I think her father used to beat her mum. I think she had a sister too, maybe he killed her. I only heard her speak of it once, just fragments, really.”
“Well,” Whittington sighed, “that’s the point I’m trying to make. We may never know, and even if we could find out the facts, could understand the causes of her pain, at this point there’s only just so much we can do.”
“This psychiatrist?” Liz asked. “Did he mention shock therapy?”
“She underwent a course of it, eight times I think over a month. She was better for a while, a few months anyway, then she slipped back down.”
“That’s what he said, yes. It’s a temporary fix, a bandaid.” He looked at Deborah, her eyes wide open and staring at music in the air. “The dolphin came this evening, you know. Deb saw her and turned away, wouldn’t even reach out for her.”
“Did you go in with her?” Whittington asked.
“She comes for you now, I think, and you alone, but I wonder what she thought when she saw Deborah?”
“I feel like I interrupted something out there on the cliff,” Collins said, “something I shouldn’t have.”
“Perhaps,” Whit said, “but again, you’ll never know. Deborah is on her own journey now, wherever that may take her.”
“I don’t know,” Liz said. “I think we should throw her overboard, let the cold water shake her out of this…”
“I think they used to do that,” Whittington said, trying to hide his discomfort, “back in the nineteenth century. I don’t think the procedure was effective then, and I doubt it would be now.”
They heard Dr Mann knock on the hull a little before eight and Collins helped the old man below. He looked at Deborah and shook his head. “No change, I see.” He leaned over and put some drops in her eyes and listened to her lungs, then looked at Collins. “I am going to take her to my clinic outside Paris. There we will evaluate her as a candidate for further therapy.”
“ECT?” Whittington asked.
“Yes. I’m sorry, and you are?”
“Paul Whittington, recently retired, pulmonologist and general surgeon with the NHS.”
“Ah. Not so many facilities doing ECT now, I suppose. Have you any experience?”
“No, only peripherally, managing chronic care for a few psychiatric patients.”
The old man looked down at Deborah again. “She is a difficult case. And you, Elizabeth? How are you?”
“Okay, I think.”
“I’m good.” She looked away, still unable to deal with her shame.
“Do you know if ECT was tried?”
“Yes. I was telling Paul earlier, I think eight treatments over a month.”
“I think so, but only for a short time.”
“I see. Do you think she would object to our trying again?”
Liz shook her head. “I don’t think so, but she turned so suddenly this time…”
“Suddenly? How so?”
“She wasn’t herself the last time I saw her. She was more, I don’t know, angry. And she had a headache.”
“A headache? Interesting.” He handed Collins a business card. “This is where we’re taking her, it’s out beyond the south part of the city, beyond Orly and all that new construction on the highway. You should come and see her in a few days, perhaps early next week.”
“So, you are going to intervene?”
“Yes, nutritional support for the time being, until I know exactly what’s happening, biochemically I mean. She will undergo tests, then we shall see. Will you remain here?”
“No, I’m starting for Paris in the morning, getting the mast pulled this afternoon.”
“Ah, well, I’ve never been out on the water. The great unknown…but it is not for me, I’m afraid. Will you help me get her up to the pier, please?”
Paul and Collins lifted her to the cockpit, and then Collins carried her to the quay; men were waiting to take her and a few minutes later they were gone. Collins stood quayside watching the ambulance drive out of view, storms raging in his soul.
“Rather a nightmare, Sumner,” Whit said, putting his arms around Sumner’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry this had to happen.”
Collins nodded his head, shrugged. “C’est la vie, I guess. Liz? What are your plans?”
“I was going to stay here with her, so if I may I’d like to stay with you until we’ve had a chance to visit her in Paris.”
“Okay. Well, I’m leaving to cross over to the marina in Le Havre, get the mast pulled and ready for transport to Marseilles. Paul, what are you doing?”
“I’ll drive back across and meet you at the marina; I’d like to see how this is done. And…I’d like to make the trip to Paris with you as well, if that’s alright.”
“Sure.” He pointed across to the entry: “The lock opens in an hour, so I’ve got to get ready.” Paul left and Liz took Charley out for a quick walk, and he was ready to go by the time she returned. He moved Gemini into the turning basin and watched the lock-keeper start the process, then the gates opened and he moved the boat in and held the lines as water poured out into the estuary, lowering the boat to sea level. They motored across the Seine and back to the marina, meeting Whittington just as a crane moved alongside to pull the mast. Antenna leads and radar secured first, shrouds eased and released from their chainplates, then finally, head and back stays released and the crane lifted the mast and lowered it to a flatbed trailer, and a swarm of men wrapped and secured it for the journey to the Med. Collins placed an aluminum plate over the opening where the mast penetrated the deck and secured that, then raised a small radar transmitter on a short tower aft, and this he connected to the chartplotter. When he had secured the FLIR camera, he motored back to the slip next to Aphrodite and they broke for lunch, walked up to town to a little place Paul had found.
“What’s the word on Aphrodite?” Collins asked after they ordered.
“I’ll close on the 370 in two weeks, then bring her here and transfer my stuff over. Same broker is taking Aphrodite, so no real rush.”
“Liz? You and Rod?”
“This all happened so fast,” Liz said, looking away. “Not sure what we’ll do yet, or what he’s up to, really.”
“Rod’s still young, no real rush, is there?”
“I suppose so,” she said as she looked at him, “but all this with Deb has got me worried.”
“Me, I think.”
“You?” Collins said. “Good grief…but why?”
“It’s just something in the back of my mind, Sumner. Nothing logical or rational, but if it can happen to Deb, I suppose it can happen to me.”
“So,” Whittington said, “have you felt so depressed recently?”
“When I was in hospital, yes, but that was so long ago. Recently? No. Not even once since I got out. I just feel so bad about the whole thing, so helpless.”
“You sure haven’t acted helpless, not as far as I can see, Elizabeth.” Collins took her hand. “You’ve been a good friend to her, and to me, helped me get to her and steady her up. Not sure there was much more anyone could have done to help.”
“Liz, just keep talking about your feelings, don’t bottle them up,” Whittington said. “We English are too good at that, I think. More efficient at bottling up our emotions than even the Germans.”
They laughed at that, but Liz kept a firm grip on Collins’ hand, didn’t really want to let go – and she held firm until their lunch came. Some sort of local fish soup, full of garlic with hints of tarragon and anise appeared, along with bread and wine, and they ate in relative silence, Whittington dipping little slices of bread in the soup and waxing ecstatic over the ‘symphony of flavors’ he found in his bowl.
Back on the boat after lunch, he loaded Charley in her papoose and was getting ready to head back to the beach when Liz came to him and out of the blue she kissed him…then with her arms around him she hugged him for the longest time.
“May I walk with you,” she said at last.
“Sure,” he said as he went topside, not really understanding what had just happened.
When they were away from the marina, almost to the sand, he cleared his throat a little. “Care to tell me what that was all about?”
“You don’t know?”
“Of course not. I’m a man, therefore completely ignorant about what goes on in a woman’s mind.”
She laughed. “Well, first of all, I love my husband.”
“Okay. That’s always a good thing.”
“Second, I’m completely mad about you. I told you, when you called me ‘darling’ that day, something tripped inside of me, like someone turned on a light. I felt something I never expected to feel again…”
“Revulsion? A need to slap my face?”
“Oh, you!” She playfully slapped his arm, then stopped and turned to face him. “No, quite the opposite. I’ve wanted to be with you ever since.”
“Do you have any idea how confusing this all is?”
“Yes, I do, but there’s nothing to it, Sumner. Just a feeling I wanted you to be aware of. I’d rather not cheat on Rod, though heaven knows he deserves it, and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt Deborah. Still, I wanted you to know how I feel. I want you to know when I look at you there are much more than innocent little girl feelings involved.”
“Why tell me?”
“Because I think you deserve to know how I feel, and I don’t want to walk around with these feelings bottled up inside, like Paul said. I want you to know because when I look at you I want you to realize what’s in my eyes.”
“Is your marriage to Rod…?”
“Oh, no, it’s fine, when he’s not off boffing his secretary, anyway. We get on super, most days. We always will, because I think we were friends first, before we were lovers, before we were married. We’ll always be friends.”
“He’s had affairs?”
“There was a secretary at work a few years ago, he had an affair but he couldn’t keep it a secret. We, well, we talked as friends might about it. About his feelings for her, about getting a divorce. And in the end he realized he didn’t want to lose me as a friend. That’s ‘Rod ’n me’, in a nutshell, but I think he still sees her.”
“Jennie and I were like that – minus the affair, I think. There wasn’t a thing we couldn’t talk about, that we couldn’t share…”
“I want you to make love to me.”
Collins didn’t quite know what to say, but he looked at her now, aware of the eggshell fragility he saw in her eyes. “Why? That would seem to be the most confusing thing we could possibly do.”
“Oh, I know, but there it is.”
“Do you mind if I think about the idea for a while?”
She smiled, laughed. “Oh, Sumner, just because I want something doesn’t mean I’ll get it. I’m not a child, you know?”
“I am,” he said, chuckling. “I have been ever since Jennie passed.”
“Hmm? Why do you say that?”
“I think the day she left I lost almost all sense of myself. I had begun to see myself as her shadow, only now she was gone – so what was I? The weird part is…I wanted to move on the boat and sail away, because that’s what we had planned to do together. I didn’t have a life after death, you see, not one of my own. I had the life we planned to live together, yet nothing left of me, not even my shadow.”
“So why is that like a child?”
“Because, I think, I left all my responsibility to myself behind, inside that shadow. I didn’t have a life anymore, and I had lost her’s too. I think that’s childish, at least it is now when I look back on it.”
“Uh-huh. Can I ask you a question. A bad one?”
“Bad? What do you mean – by ‘bad’?”
“I don’t want this to seem mean, but, well, why Deborah? Why do you feel such responsibility for her? You’ve known her – what? A month? Why, after all you’ve been through?”
“A day or a year, what does it matter? When you love someone, is there some sort of timeframe that makes love more or less legitimate? Some sort of statute of limitations that applies? And beyond that, I think a real part of love is something quite a bit more involved than just caring. A sense of responsibility, perhaps, is what I’m getting at, but that’s not quite it, either. Perhaps it’s an appreciation of the vulnerabilities we face when we open ourselves up to love. Our guards are down, we open up in ways we rarely do – other than when we’re falling in love. We take-on a responsibility when we accept that gift, that burden – if you will. That’s a part of our humanity, and not acknowledging that part of ourselves, well, I think we’d be little more than the worst sort of animal.”
“And do you know what, Sumner?”
“That’s exactly why I love you.”
“You really have to stop saying that…”
She stopped walking again when he said that, physically turned him to face her and jumped into his arms, began kissing him, running her fingers through his hair, then with her face on his chest she squeezed him long and hard.
“I’m not asking that you understand, you idiot! Only that you accept my feelings.”
“Okay, okay…I get it!”
“And you don’t have to act on my feelings. Only yours. And you can’t hurt me, not in the way you think. You can only hurt me by turning away from me now, so please don’t.”
“Okay.” But right at that moment all he could think about was Corrine looking over photos of this encounter on the beach – and laughing at what she could only imagine were his intolerable infidelities.
They departed the marina on the turning tide, running upriver at four in the morning, feeling their way through a gentle fog until they passed under the Pont de Tancarville. Running against the Seine’s current, they were averaging perhaps three knots over the ground, and by the time the sun rose over the bluffs above Caudebec-en-Caux the air was warm enough to shed their jackets. Collins had the wheel until the fog lifted, then Liz took over while Whittington took notes and shot endless images with a huge Canon.
Charley sat on his lap when she was topsides, but Collins could tell she was looking for Deborah. She sniffed and pawed the deck where they used to sit together, then would turn and look up at him – wondering what had happened to the world she understood. He would hold her in those moments, afraid of the trust he might lose if he interfered with her explorations, but she always ended up grabbing his hand between her two front paws and licking his fingers, then his chin. And he always kissed her on top of her nose and looked into her eyes after these moments.
They stopped at a little park-side marina that first night and Collins started a pot of soup after the lines were set. They sliced fresh bread and drank wine while the stars slipped from their velvet cloak, and he was concerned the weather was still so warm in late October. Still, they ate his soup under a serenade of crickets and frogs, and that wasn’t a bad thing, he thought. Now well away from the sea the air was still, flies buzzed outside the cockpit enclosure, and it grew warm and stuffy below. When all the dishes were done he shut down the companionway hatch and turned on the air conditioner, shaking his head as he did. He showered, went to his berth and found Liz there, under the covers and waiting.
“Surely you don’t expect me to sleep with Paul,” she grinned.
“Sorry, I just hadn’t thought…”
She took his hand, pulled him down to the bed. “It’s okay, Sumner. I’m not going to bite.”
She started scratching his back, rubbing his shoulders – then she kissed his neck. Lightly at first, then she bit him once, gently, and she turned him over and began playing with him, first with her hands, then with her tongue. When he was hard she mounted him, held him inside with her hands flat on his chest, moving so slowly he was almost unaware of any motion at all. Time passed so slowly like this, her motions – like her words – contradictory impulses she simply could not control.
And neither could he, it seemed.
She reached down at one point and rubbed her clit for a moment and he felt the walls of her womb contracting, milking him, and in that moment he came inside her. She remained on him for a few minutes then slipped down beside him and held on with stunning ferocity.
“Thank you,” was all she said, and those words were the faintest whisper he had ever heard. She kissed him a few minutes later then he heard the change in her breathing as she fell asleep, and he fell into that gentle darkness, fell into a space somewhere between guilt and sorrow, lost in a landscape of impenetrable need, oblivious to the universe overhead, troubled not at all as the by the stars in their courses…
He walked Charley the next morning, early – just before the sun came up. They were tied-up beside a park, and he was stunned at the number of people he saw sleeping in the rough, little piles of drug paraphernalia scattered everywhere he looked. He made sure Charley kept clear of all the detritus then hurried back to Gemini. He cast off and was in mid-channel by the time Liz came up, Whittington a few minutes behind her.
“What’s up?” Whit asked as he looked at Sumner, seeing the expression on his face.
Collins just shook his head. “Lots of druggies passed out in the park, needles everywhere.”
“Ah, yes, heroin is a much bigger problem now than it was just a few years ago. Everywhere you go, it seems.”
“Well, it sure is right there.” He saw a huge barge ahead cutting across their path and he steered towards the right bank, checking the sonar and depth sounder as he cut in as close as he dared, then the skipper of the pushing boat steered the barge right at the Gemini.
“I say, what’s that fellow doing?”
“Playing chicken,” Collins said as he throttled back, and then, when the barge was committed to a course he gunned the throttle and shot across the channel. The skipper of the other boat laughed and shot him the finger. “Ah, that legendary French hospitality.”
Late that afternoon they locked up at Notre Dame de la Garenne, then found a restaurant with a little pier and tied off for dinner. After a huge meal and two bottles of wine, the proprietor let them stay tied up for the night, and after Gemini cleared the locks, they set off the next morning hoping to make the final push into Paris by late afternoon.
The landscape moved from rural to suburban, then they watched all the air heavy traffic in to and out of deGaulle as they entered the city proper. Barge traffic grew heavier still, noise from freeway traffic an odd counterpoint to the bucolic soundscapes of just a few hours earlier, then the Eiffel Tower hove into view, and the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde. Once they passed Notre Dame he cut under the freeway and into the marina just a few hundred meters from the old bastille.
Paul was anxious to get back to Aphrodite and left within an hour; Liz seemed most anxious to get back into Collins as soon as Whittington left and they went below as soon as he’d completed all formalities at the marina office. She was a wildcat, he soon learned, horny almost all the time and seemingly more interested in pleasing him than in having her own needs met. She was Collins’ first experience with a woman so perfectly attuned to her sexuality, and as guilty as he felt at times he simply couldn’t help himself. After almost twelve hours straight that night he finally cried ‘uncle’ – begged her to let him rest, and she lay her chin on his chest and looked into his eyes.
“You’ve never been loved like this, have you?” she asked after that. “Sometimes it seems as if you’re shocked.”
“I guess I haven’t. Jennie was a once a month kind of gal. Deb and I, well, that was different.”
“You’re fantastic. Unbelievable. I envy Rod.”
“You shouldn’t. You’re so good to be with, not so reserved. I swear, after twenty years he stills asks permission before he comes.”
“And I hate to say it, but it’s been almost a year.”
“A year? Since you made love? Why?”
“Sadly, I think he’s at a point in life where he’s lost interest in me. You, on the other hand, have not.”
“No, I have not. But I simply have to take Charley outside now…”
It was past midnight when he got topsides and the grounds were empty, and he let the pup fire away on the grass while he looked up at the full moon coming up over the rooftops – yet he had the feeling he was being watched. There was a little dew on deck when he stepped back aboard, and he almost slipped but found the lifelines and grabbed hold; when he went below he found Liz talking on her phone – to Rod by the sound of things. She was pleasant and wondered when he’d be over and she rang off a moment after he came below, and then she followed him aft and curled up beside him, leaving room for Charley to rumble around before nesting down.
“Seemed fine. I asked when he’d be over but he seemed evasive.”
“Did he call you?”
“Did he ask about Deb?”
“No, he didn’t. Strange, isn’t it?”
“Let’s move you forward, right now.”
“You don’t think…”
They got her forward and he shut off all the lights, then wished he had rigged a FLIR screen at the chart table. He felt someone step aboard and slipped into shadow, then held his breath when the companionway hatch slid open. Hatch-boards moved slowly out of the way, one by one, and he saw a woman’s leg on the top step, in five inch heels no less – and he flipped on all the cabin lights as her foot was almost on the second step.
“Ah, well, if it isn’t the lovely Corrine! To what do I owe this intrusion?”
She smiled. “I must work on my tradecraft.”
“I think, depending on your objective, I’d forego the Louboutin pumps, as well.”
Now she laughed, and Liz came out of the forward cabin to see what the commotion was all about.
“Ah, Mrs Lethbridge. Good that you moved to the forward cabin, as I think your husband’s plane lands at DeGaulle in twenty minutes.” She handed Sumner an overnight bag and came below. “Now, I think you should go to sleep. Sumner and I will be engaged when your husband arrives, and that should erase all doubt.”
“How did he know?” Liz asked.
“I think when Dr Whittington spoke with him yesterday a suspicion was aroused. Nothing definitive was said, however.”
“You’re listening to his calls too?” Collins asked.
“Since I saw you two on the beach, yes. I don’t want to see any trouble for our new hero, you understand?” Her phone chirped and she took the call, listened intently then rang off. “So, his plane is early. We have about a half hour. Can I help you move anything forward?”
Liz went for her toothbrush and a few loose ends were straightened along the way, then she sat down for a minute and collected her thoughts.
“If you’ll pardon me saying so, Mrs Lethbridge. You need a shower. Badly. And wash down there, please.”
“Oh my God,” she said as she dashed to the forward head.
“And you, Sumner. Wash your face, at least.”
“You two should never do this again. I have never seen two less discrete souls in my life.”
They heard Liz get in bed and the lights switch off forward, so Corrine and Collins went aft. He showered and shaved, and when he came out found she was already under the covers, grinning at his nakedness. “I can’t wait to see that in action,” she said, “but not tonight, perhaps. I think he must be very, very tired.”
“I am. I know this, but I have plans for you.”
“Do you indeed?”
“And please do not call your attaché again. Those are not the plans I have in mind for your.”
“No, I am going to retire soon, and you and I are going to sail to Polynesia and make love all day everyday on this boat, tied off in a little lagoon.”
“I think you and Mrs Lethbridge should count on doing that trip together. I think you’d get along famously.”
“Yes, she’s insatiable, isn’t she?”
“You’ve been listening, I take it?”
She bit her lip. “So sorry, but yes. You are vigorous for a man your age. Very much so, yes, I think.”
“You should not be too offended. Actually, I think this is a complement.”
“Oh, no doubt.”
Her phone chirped again and she answered.
“Okay, his taxi just dropped him out front. We’ve informed the security man, so he’ll be admitted.”
“You think of everything, don’t you?”
“Lay down,” she commanded. “Now.”
She crawled on top of him, began thrusting and moaning, and a moment later he felt someone board the Gemini, then heard – Rod? – as he came down the companionway, then aft.
“A-hah!” Rod said as flipped on the cabin lights.
“Bloody Hell!” Collins bellowed – and as Corrine screamed and dashed into the head. “Rod! What the devil are you doing here!”
“Oh, shite! Sorry…is Liz about?”
“Forward cabin, mate. Now sod off!”
“Yes, sorry, excuse me…”
After the cabin door closed Corrine came out and slipped back under the covers.
“I feel awful,” Collins whispered.
“So, don’t become involved with this woman. She’s is pretty, certainly, but uncertain difficulties attach to married women, and you really don’t need such complications now.”
“I’ve been stupid.”
She nodded her head. “Yes, that, and lonely, and confused, and your life has moved from one tragedy to another. It is perhaps time to change your course once again, my Captain.”
“Funny. I’d thought that’s what I’ve been doing.”
“When she is gone I am going to eat you alive,” she said as she began dressing. “So, you like these heels?”
He laughed. “You are in-COR-rigible.”
When she was dressed she came back to him. “Incorrigible? Yes. You have no idea, and I too have been repressing my desires for a long time, so am quite hopeful you will be able to help me with my little problem.” She kissed him once, lightly on the cheek. “Now, I am going to make a commotion, and I want you to follow me out to the street.”
True to her word, she began shouting and carrying on and stormed through the galley and up into the cockpit, then she hopped off the boat with him in quick pursuit. Still in view of the boat, she slapped him across the face and stormed off; Collins came back and crawled below rubbing his face, with poor Rod waiting for him in the main cabin.
“Goddamn, Sumner, I am so sorry for this…”
“Barging in on you like that…”
“Yeah, what was that ‘Ahah!’ all about?”
“I thought you and Liz might…”
“Oh. Well, she slept back here with me on the trip. Seems Whittington snores like a freight train. I suppose he told you.”
“Yes, well, who was that woman?”
“Remember that AFP reporter? She’s tenacious, that’s all I can say.”
“I dare say. How’s Deborah?”
“They’re running tests at the clinic. I’ll go see her day after tomorrow. Are you two staying?”
“Through the weekend. Mind if we stay aboard?”
“No, not at all.”
“Well then, goodnight.”
“‘Night, Rod.” He went to the chart table and did some paperwork, put receipts in his file, poured himself a stiff rum and went aft. “Never again,” he whispered as he picked up Charley and put her on his chest.
She circled twice on his chest – then a long fart drifted across his face.
He spent the next day tidying up Gemini, taking care of all those loose ends removing the mast had left. The sun was out and for early November the air was still unusually warm, local kids playing on the grass in the marina creating an almost pleasant contrast to the waterway and freeway traffic almost out of earshot. By late morning he was ready to tackle the worst of it: he donned his wetsuit and hung his dive gear off the aft platform and jumped in the water. He wondered about Ted then, his old squadron mate, and he wondered why as he slipped on his tank…
With scrub-brush in hand, he ranged up one side of the hull and down the other, cleaning all the water intakes and transducer plates, then replacing all the sacrificial zinc anodes. After an hour below he came out cold and covered in green slime, but he washed his gear down, then himself – thanking his lucky stars Island Packet had included a hot shower on the aft swim platform. Once his gear was stowed, he went below for a real shower.
Rod and Liz were off exploring, and he was glad to be alone now. He dressed, intending to walk to an old restaurant he and Jenn used to enjoy, but just outside the marina a black BMW pulled up alongside and a door opened. He bent down, saw Corrine and hopped in.
“How did the rest of your evening go?” she began.
“What? You don’t know?”
She grinned. “Should I? Where are you headed?”
“Carr’s Irish Pub.”
“One of my favorite places in town. Ever been?”
“I can’t say that I have.”
“Let’s go. I’ll buy the first round.”
When they were seated he looked around at the old timbered interior and felt the warm flush of remembrance. “I wonder how many times Jennifer and I had lunch here over the years?”
“Yes. Our first meal in Paris was always here. Escargot and duck, and the house red, whatever that happened to be. Then a walk through the Tuileries and back to the Crillon.”
“The city has changed, you know, since Charlie Hebdo.”
“I can only imagine. History has a way of catching up with us, as I guess you know.”
She looked at him, gave him a little gallic shrug. “History has a way of killing off the weak, and the unprepared.”
A waiter came and she asked about the special, then followed Sumner’s lead and ordered snails and duck. “So, we start a little tradition of our own today,” she said through a coy little smile, “do we not?”
“I suppose that’s a possibility.”
“You will see Miss Hill tomorrow, no?”
“That is the plan.”
“And the Lethbridges? Will they go with you?”
“I think so.”
“They are scheduled to leave Friday. What will you do then?”
“Relax, I suppose. I’ve been out sailing for over a year now. I want to walk, sit in a sidewalk café and have coffee and watch fat women chase their husbands with rolling pins.”
She smiled. “Yes, life does go on, even at it’s most absurd.”
“So, meanwhile, I am your assignment?”
“For now. Through Christmas, I think, perhaps until you are out of France.”
“Seems a waste. What’s going on?”
“A lot, I think. With all the refugees, we are at a disadvantage.”
“Not my business anymore. I wish you the best of luck, but the world will just have to go on hating without me.”
“So, tell me about Liz, Mrs Lethbridge?”
“What would you like to know?”
“She seemed to attach herself to you. Is that the best way to describe what happened?”
“Well, you did not pursue her, I think.”
“No, I did not. Quite a surprise, in the end.”
“Strange,” she sighed.
“Oh? How so?”
“Men, I think, find it so much harder to say no, do they not?”
He laughed. “That’s the way it is, I suppose.”
“Yet you seemed to find it very easy to say no to me?”
“Yes, odd, isn’t it?”
“You find me unattractive, perhaps?”
“I doubt there’s a man alive who find’s you unattractive.”
“I find you attractive.”
“Good. That makes my life easier.”
“Oh, I was worried.”
“Ah.” He looked at her again. “So, now that we have the formalities out of the way, why are we having lunch?”
She saw his jaw clench and his eyes narrow. “He’s been in the neighborhood?”
“Yes. Twice in the last week.”
“You’re going to have trouble. Where, what cities has he been spotted in.”
“Frankfurt, Brussels, Liege – and of course, here.”
“So, the assumption is they’re moving through Europe, with the refugees. That’s why you were out there that night, right?”
“What about weapons? Anything?”
“Not yet. But if Hassani saw you on television, as I suspect he did, he may make an attempt.”
“We want to move your boat out of such a public space, for a time anyway.”
“A government facility, south of the city.”
“Today would be good.”
“Seriously? Do we have time for lunch?”
“This isn’t an order, Sumner. It’s a suggestion, and an offer of help, but we think you should be aware of the possibility. We know your team was after Hassani’s cell, and we know you were his target in Dar-es-Salaam, and many times in Iraq. When you retired, it might have passed your mind that the danger was over, but we’re not so sure. What did you say? History has a way of catching up to us?”
Their lunch came and he picked his way through the discomforting ideas she presented one by one. Refugees, television exposure, the marina – those all made sense. But would Hassani consider him a target worth pursuing? That he doubted, and his contact at the embassy hadn’t raised any flags, either.
He paid the bill and they drove back to the marina in silence.
“So? What do you think? Will you move the boat?”
“I really don’t think it’s necessary.”
She nodded her head, reached behind her seat and handed him a parcel. There is a weapon in here, and a few permits. Keep one of them on the boat, and one on you, with your passport.”
“What is it?”
“A P88, suppressed. You should keep it with you, on your person, always. I won’t be far away, but, who knows? I’ll need to call in, advise my office that you don’t want to move.”
“If more develops, I’ll move, but it seems a little thin right now. Look, do you know what a copperhead is?”
“It’s a venomous snake, kind of a mean one, too. When I was a kid I ran across one in the basement of my grandparent’s house. I was sweeping up a mess down there when it attacked me, and it just kept striking at the broom in my hand over and over. At first I was scared, then I realized how single-minded it was, how stupid. I moved the broom and it attacked the broom, and eventually it became kind of fun. I kept moving the broom until I led it into a corner, and then I called my grandfather, who came down and killed it.”
“You think Hassani is like this copperhead?”
“Exactly. He’s single-minded, and that’s his weakness. If I’m his target, which I kind of doubt, moving me around won’t matter. He’ll follow me and strike when he thinks it’s time. On the other hand, if I’m a target, knowing where I am isn’t all that bad for us. Secondly, he may be here with another objective in mind, but he may only try to scope me out while he’s here. You could get eyes on him that way, start a tail. No telling where that might lead you.”
She nodded. “Yes, but we would need more surveillance in the area.”
“And a broom, Corrine. You’ll need a wide broom, something to lure him in.”
He smiled as he took the package. “The thought never entered my mind.”
“So, this Hassani,” Rod began, “they think he’ll try to bomb you or something.”
“Rod, there are so many ‘ifs’ right now it’s not worth speculating, but the security services think there’s a risk, and I think you should know about that risk as you’re here on the boat. I don’t think there’s a reasonable…”
“So that’s why they gave you that fucking gun?” Liz said, clearly upset. “Because there’s no risk?”
“No, Liz, not exactly. But I directed an operation where his brother was killed, and his wife. Maybe his child, too. Revenge is a big driver of events in the Middle East, and it sparks an endless cycle of murder and counter murder, but the French had eyes on him before we rescued those refugees. Even so, they think he might have seen coverage of that, and that he might try to exact his pound of flesh.”
“Oh, this is fucking great,” she said, crying, and Rod looked at her, then back to Collins.
“Could I ask you something, Liz?” Rod asked, quietly.
“What?” she said.
“Are you in love with him, with Sumner?”
Her lips began to tremble, and she broke out crying even more loudly.
“I see,” Rod said, looking down at his hands.
“I doubt that you do, Rod,” Collins said. “She’s lonely, insecure, and she loves you very much. That’s about the size of it.”
“So, you don’t love my Elizabeth?”
“I consider you both my friends. That’s all I can or will tell you.”
“That’s not what Whittington said. He thinks you two are in love.”
“I’m sorry he thinks that.”
“And you’re some kind of CIA James Bond assassin type, is that about right?”
Collins laughed. “Not hardly. I worked for our State Department, embassy security. I worked with intel agencies all around the world, even the KGB back in the day, but I was more like a well-connected security guard than some sort of spy.”
“But you’ve, like, killed people, right?”
“Oh, that’s just fuckin’ great. I want to ring your fuckin’ neck and here I am, sitting across from James Fuckin’ Bond with his Walther PPK.”
“It’s a P88, Rod. Much more powerful, you know.”
“Oh, now that’s just fuckin’ great – times two! You really know how to make a bloke feel right as rain, ya know?”
“How ‘bout a fuckin’ rum and fuckin’ Coke?” Collins said, smiling. “Liz? You fuckin’ want one too?”
They both nodded, and he poured three strong ones, and Rod looked at Liz again.
“Well, it’s cards on the table time, Lizzie.”
“Me and Sarah. We’ve been seein’ one another again. For quite a while.”
“I figured that was it,” she said. “Why?”
“I dunno, Lizzie, I really don’t. I think in the beginning it was because I was taking you for granted like, and then all the excitement was gone for good and all that was left was them fuckin’ dogs. Then Sumner comes along with his boat and his dreams and I’m like, yeah, we could still make this work, but…”
“But you’re in love with Sarah.”
“And yeah, I’m in love with Sarah, and yeah, I wanted to find you two in love so I could get a divorce and keep all the property.”
Sumner took Rod’s drink and refilled it with tequila, and he made this one a little stronger.
“You know what, Rod? You need to think about what you’re doing. I’ve been with women all around the world, hundreds of ‘em, and Liz is right at the top of my A-list.”
“So you two did fuck?”
“Did we fuck? Rod? In one twelve hour period she cleaned my clock so many times I was out of my mind. You’d be fuckin’ insane to let this girl go.”
He was staring at Collins now in open-mouthed astonishment. “She what?”
“Listen, Amigo, if she was a fat slob? If she was coyote ugly? If she was a sexual zero? Well then, maybe, just maybe I could see your problem? But let’s face it…she’s cute as hell and she’s the Rolls Royce of pussy…here, let me top off your drink…” He poured three ounces of tequila this time.
“The Rolls Royce of pussy?” he slurred.
“Best goddamn piece of ass I’ve ever had, from here to Bangkok, Ace, and back again. If you don’t want her, just say the word and I’ll take her right off your hands.”
“The Hell you will, you goddamn mother fucker! That’s my goddamn wife you’re talkin’ about!”
Collins looked at Liz and nodded.
“What if I want to stay with Sumner,” she said, looking at Rod.
“You’re comin’ home with me, Miss Rolls Royce Pussy, and that’s all there is fuckin’ to it!”
“No, no, here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to stay here and I’m going home. You get this out of your system, then you let me know if you really want to come home again or not.”
“And you’ll go home to Sarah?”
“Fuckin’ right I will, you slut,” he said as he stood and went forward. He got his carry-on bag and made for the companionway. “Sumner?” he said as he held out his hand, “you’re a man’s man. Thanks for telling it to me like it is.”
Collins took his hand. “Okay. You sure you don’t want to take Liz home with you?”
“Like I says, when she gots you out of ‘er system.”
“You don’t think she should go home with you right now? Because I do.”
“Nah. We’ll see. I wanna talk to Sarah ‘bout all this shite first.”
“Fair enough. Can I help you up?”
“Help me? That’ll be the day…”
Collins sat down and waited, and when he heard Rod fall overboard into the Seine he went out to the aft deck and helped Rod back aboard.
“I think I’m going to puke,” Rod said as he heaved his guts into the black water. Collins let the tequila work it’s magic, then when Rod was through hurling he carried him below and Liz tucked him in.
“Unpack his bag, would you? I’ll run it through the wash,” he said.
“The Rolls Royce of pussy?” she asked, her voice full of wonder.
“Hey, it sounded good at the time.”
She came and whispered in his ear… “You have no idea how much I love you right now.”
“And I love you. And that stupid, silly lout in there, too.”
“Hundreds of women, eh?”
“Well, five, actually, if you count my babysitter and a girl I new in college.”
“Your babysitter? Now there’s a first.”
“Every twelve year old boy’s fantasy. Hardly a first.” He started the washer and they took Charley topsides and out to the trees, and while he was holding her there he thought about the Walther and how little good it would do him if he kept it down below in the chart table.
Rod was a shambles the next morning, and Collins poured orange juice and two acetaminophens down his gullet right off the bat. Liz was contrite and sweet, solving that problem, and Rod said he wanted to see Deb. That settled, they walked Charley and then went up to the street.
Collins decided to rent a car for a few days, and once that was accomplished they followed Dr Mann’s hand scrawled directions out to the psychiatric hospital in a forest beyond Orly airport. Once they arrived he asked a receptionist to call Mann and tell him they’d arrived. Mann arrived a half hour later – dressed in full surgical garb – and he asked them to come along to a conference room.
“When you told me about the recent changes in her behavior, well, that was a big clue. Headaches, too. We performed an MRI yesterday, and the news is not so good.”
Mann had an iPad in hand and pulled up the imagery, and Collins looked at the golfball sized lump in the middle of the first image.
“A tumor?” he said, his eyes filling with tears.
“Glioblastoma, very advanced, I’m afraid. We did a biopsy earlier this morning. It’s confirmed.”
“What’s a glioblastoma?” Liz asked.
“A tumor,” Mann said. “Very aggressive, and treatments can slow growth somewhat, but only that.”
“You mean…?” she said, stuttering into tears of her own.
“Yes, precisely that. Four months, if that, but her personality will begin to dissolve long before death occurs. Her memory is not impaired as it is right now, but because of where the tumor is located, this facility she will lose soonest. Motor skills soon after, and then the pain will become unendurable.”
“May we see her,” Collins asked.
“Oh yes, in an hour. In fact, I would like you to take her with you tomorrow. Are you in Paris now?”
“Yes, at the Arsenal Marina.”
She will need constant help, day and night. Can you provide that on your boat?”
“Then spend some time with her today, and come again tomorrow, around midday. She can go with you then, but she will know nothing of what we’ve found so far. I think you can count on her staying there until the New Year, but we will see.”
“When will you tell her, doctor?” Rod asked.
“I will let the three of you, her friends decide. If you’d like my help at that time, I will be there. Or the three of you may. That is entirely up to you. I thought we might give her a month or so without worry, but again, that is up to you.”
Collins nodded, so did Rod, but Liz seemed unsure of her footing. “I’d want to know,” she whispered. “I’d really want to know.”
“These things have a way of working themselves out,” Mann said. “I would not be concerned now about this just yet. Get to your boat, enjoy the holiday season, let her enjoy this time together with you all. She longs to see you, this I know. Now, if you’ll excuse me? I will send for you in a few moments.”
Silence dropped on them suddenly, maliciously, followed by curtains of disbelief, even Elizabeth’s tears seemed to hide just out of sight, afraid to be seen, or touched.
Collins sat still, his eyes locked in a fixed stare – straight ahead, his mind in battle yet unsure what to think, or now, even what to say. Rod’s arms were folded protectively across his chest, and he was chewing nervously on his lower lip, picking at a fingernail. Liz seemed almost a ruin of the person she had been just a few hours earlier, her face in her hands now, her breath coming in ragged little gasps, then she looked from Rod to Sumner and back again.
“You called me a slut last night. Do you remember that?”
“What are you thinking now?”
“I want to go home now. I want to, to be with Sarah.”
“Yes, I think so. The two of you can take care of Deborah well enough without me getting in the way, and then the two of you can be together. You’ll be happy that way.”
“And you?” she asked. “Will you be happy with that?”
He shrugged. “We’ll see.”
“I don’t suppose it matters what I want, does it?” Collins said.
“Not really,” Rod said.
“So, your hypocrisy know no bounds.”
“No, not at the moment.”
“Well, as long as we’re all clear about that. Liz? What about you? Stay here?”
“You’re goddamn fucking right I’m staying here. Do you want me to stay with you on Gemini?”
“Please, you’d be a great help now.”
“That figures,” a petulant Rod said.
Collins shook his head, looked up when Mann came back into the room.
“One at a time, please,” Mann said.
“Liz, go ahead.”
She nodded and followed the doctor, came back ten minutes later ashen-faced and red-eyed, and she sat by Sumner and took his hand. Rod left the room then, but returned a minute later and walked to a window, stared off into oblivion.
Sumner followed Mann to a post op recovery room; Deb’s head was heavily bandaged and she was groggy, but conscious, her eyes red-rimmed, her skin pure white.
“This looks oddly like a funeral procession,” she said, smiling. “How bad’s the news? They won’t tell me anything, Sumner.”
“Doctors. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”
“That bad, huh? I asked Liz and she started crying. Guess that’s all I need to know for now.”
He took her hand, kissed it. “We’re going to come spring you from this joint tomorrow. Anything I can get aboard you’d like?”
“Just some stuff to cook with, some cherries I guess, any kind of berries.”
He nodded his head. “I’d have brought Charley, but wasn’t sure how they’d handle her here.”
“I can’t wait to see her. We can take her to the shop tomorrow, when I open up.”
“We can do that.”
A nurse came in, told him they needed time with her now, so he leaned forward and kissed her. “I’ll see you tomorrow, darlin’.”
She squeezed his hand. “I love you,” she said.
“I love you too.” He felt dizzy as he walked out of the post-op ward, trying to assimilate the overwhelming load of facts and emotions washing over him – while trying to ignore the whole Liz and Rod melt-down…
But that just wasn’t going to happen.
They were in the conference room snarling at one another…
– I’ve been tired of you for ages, you’re just not sexy any more…
– And I seduced Sumner to get back at you! So take that!
Sumner walked in the room and looked at them – until they stopped and looked at him.
“You know?” he said. “I can’t imagine a more appropriate setting for this discussion than a psychiatric hospital. I could hear you two yelling half way across the lobby, and I feel sure they have at least two more padded cells available – just for you!” He walked out the building and to the little rental car and climbed in, waited for them to come out.
And they did, fifteen minutes later – and with Dr Mann now in their face, pointing at them and delivering a blistering dressing down outside the building. Liz was crying, Rod was pouting, and Collins started the motor, glaring at them both as the crawled out to the car.
She got in the front seat, let Rod have the rear and they sat in silence all the way back to the marina.
“Rod? What’s the plan?” he asked after he shut off the motor.
“I think I’ll get my bag and head on to the airport.”
“Well, hop on down and get it; I’ll drive you out.”
“There’s no need. I can…”
“Yes, there is. Liz, would you go on down and take care of Charley? It’ll only take an hour or so.”
They left together, and Rod came back alone with his bag a few minutes later. Collins started the car and slipped back into heavy late afternoon traffic. “Well, this isn’t exactly how I’d hoped this would turn out between you two,” he said.
“Do you think you’ll stay with Liz? I mean, after?”
“Oh, you know. Deb and all.”
“Frankly, I don’t know, but I doubt it.”
“Because I doubt she loves me, Rod. You heard what she said…she wanted to do this as a way of getting back at you. That’s not love; that’s war. Besides you two will be tangled up in a messy divorce for years, and with all the court appearances you two will be having to deal with, she won’t have time for me.”
Rod looked out at the passing city. “Years, you say?”
“Years, years of hell, yes. At least two, anyway, and you’ll be fighting over property distribution, all the other bullshit that goes along with divorce… ”
“So, tell me about this girl Sarah? She must be some hot shit, right?”
“Oh yeah, a real knockout, huge fucking tits, sweet as can be; she really loves me, too.”
“She’s worth it, huh?”
“Losing the farm, saying goodbye to the sailing thing, two years in court, all that other bullshit?”
He looked out the window again and Collins smiled, and within a half hour made it out to DeGaulle.
“Well, Sumner, no hard feelings, eh? I think I know what happened, and why, and I don’t blame you.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t let me off so easily, Rod. Liz is your wife, and I nailed her, pure and simple. I shouldn’t have. It was inappropriate, but like I said, she’s a damn cute gal and she knows how to be sexy in a way I’ve never known before. I was quite taken with her.”
“Yeah, well, it’s too late now for all that.”
“For all what?”
“Apologies, kiss and make up, that kind of thing.”
“Seems to me you haven’t tried that yet. Do you want to? I mean, really want to?”
“You know, Sumner, right now all I want to do is get back and see Sarah. I don’t really ever want to see Liz ever again.”
“Because of me, of us, what we did?”
“No, mate, it’s been happening that way between us now for a few years, since the first time Sarah and me got together. I should have divorced her then. I wanted to. It’s only gotten worse since.”
“Okay, Rod. Do me a favor, would you? Send me a list of what you’d like to see happen in a divorce. The property and all that, the way you’d like to divide things up. Let me go over it and see if I can handle this in such a way that you both come out ahead.”
“Why? Why would do that, Sumner?”
“Because you’re both friends of mine, and I don’t want to see either of you hurt. The only thing I know about divorce…well, the only folks that come out ahead are the lawyers. If there’s an amicable split, well, you two have a chance of coming out of this alive.”
“You know, if we do divorce, I’d be happiest if I knew she was going to end up with you.”
Collins looked at him and smiled. “I understand. You still love her, don’t you?”
“Oh God, yes.” He started crying and with bag in hand walked inside the terminal.
Collins got in and drove back into the city, wondering if he’d put Humpty-Dumpty back on his wall.
He found a space even closer to the marina and worked his way into the tiny parking place, but he saw a man staring at his car as he shut down the motor. He patted the Walther in his coat pocket as he undid the seatbelt, and as he stepped out of the little Renault he made a show of dropping his car keys and looking at the man’s reaction – but he was walking away now – as Collins pulled a shoelace free. Jeans and sneakers, maroon jacket, olive skin, black hair…he did his best to make his observations as quickly and covertly as he could, then slipped into the marina. At a park bench he stopped and bent over to tie his shoe, and he saw the man looking his way again so he walked to the marina office. Once inside he called Corrine…
“Yes, we are following him now.”
“Let me know what you find. I need to talk to you anyway, so come by after dark.”
He left and walked around the entire marina, sitting on benches twice to ‘tie his shoes’ before he boarded Gemini, then he quickly went below and found Liz up front playing with Charley.
“It may not be safe for you here much longer,” Collins said.
“Did you see something?”
He nodded his head.
“I probably shouldn’t ask you this, but do you have another weapon on board?”
“Have you been through a firearms training program?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then let’s not go there. You’d be better served going for a butcher knife.”
She nodded, then grimaced…“How was Rod.”
“A basket case.”
“I know you heard what I said, about using you to get back at him.”
“That’s not true, I hope you know. I was trying to hurt him, only now I hope I haven’t hurt you.”
He smiled at her, thought about the Liar’s Paradox and tried not to laugh. “So, it seems this Sarah thing is pretty far along. How do you feel about all that?”
“Oh, I hold no illusions, Sumner. She’s young, she’s cute, and she dotes on him. We’ve been married ages now and the bloom is off that rose, I guess you’d have to say. I’m going to be fifty soon and I’ve not been a real career person, so I haven’t a pot to piss in.”
“Well, you’re also cute as hell – for fifty or by any other measure. You’re sweet as can be and a blast to be with, so don’t sell yourself short.”
“Sweet enough to end up with you?”
He looked her in the eye. “Liz, I’m simply tied up in knots right now. I was expecting one set of outcomes with Deborah and now I’m facing an entirely new set. I’ve people in Boston I want to call about her diagnosis, and then I need to see how to go about keeping her here comfortably. And now I’ve got some sort of wild-eyed Iraqi terrorist to keep track of…so I don’t want to tell you things right now that may fall apart in the days ahead. All I can tell you right now is this: I very much enjoy your company, and I’d hate to lose that. After that marathon sex thing the other night I was, well, I was out of my mind in Lust with you. No one has ever made me feel the way you did. No one. I wouldn’t turn my back on a woman like you, because you do indeed make me very happy.”
“Well, that said, your husband still loves you…now, no, don’t interrupt. We talked on the way to the airport, and all I can definitively state right now is he’s one very confused man. I’d say he’s smack-dab in the middle of manopause…”
“Manopause,” he chuckled. “A middle-aged couple’s worst nightmare. Hormonal changes that hit men in middle age can be as emotionally damaging to us as they can be with many women when menopause hits.”
“That might explain some of it, but…”
“You’re exactly right. There’s something missing in your marriage, maybe it was never there, but whatever it is, we’ve got to deal with that first.”
“Yes, we. If there’s going to be a divorce, it’s going to effect the three of us, in one way or another. I could, I suppose, just toss you out on the dock and tell you to have a nice life…”
“Well, I do care about you, Liz, enough to never do that to you, but I care for Rod, too. Divorce is a last resort, at least as far as I’m concerned, but I do NOT want that to become the focus of our lives while taking care of Deborah, and frankly, later, so if there’s to be a split…”
“I understand, Sumner. I do. All I want from you now is your friendship. If there’s to be something more, well, that can wait, can’t it?”
“If that’s the way our relationship evolves, yes.”
“Would you mind too much if we play around in the meantime? I hate to say this, but I feel like, well, I’ve been living in this emotionally barren moonscape for years. What we did the other night was like a dream come true for me…you were the perfect partner, and I fell in love with life all over again…”
“Wouldn’t that become confusing to you, Liz? I mean, even more than we’ve already confused things?”
“I don’t know? Maybe? But even if it’s just every now and then…”
He held his hands up… “You’re asking a drowning man if he’d mind having a life jacket, if I’d mind having wild, uninhibited sex every now and then, and with no strings attached, and with a woman as seriously cute as you. Really, Liz, do you expect me to say no?”
She smiled. “No, I guess not, but you’re wrong about one thing.”
“I’m not confused in the least about things, and I know exactly how I feel about you.”
“Okay. I can accept that.”
“Just so you’re clear, it’s you I love.”
“Okay, I understand that too, but for now – do you understand how I feel about things? Not just about Deborah? One step at a time?”
“I do,” she said, sighing. “Well…I’ve already put the sheets on, and cleaned the bathroom. Is there anything else I can do?”
“You ‘can do?’ Geesh…I don’t know what to say. Thanks? I mean it, yeah, thanks. Uh. I was going to walk up to the market, but I want to wait a while on that.”
“Were you followed?”
“Someone was watching me as I walked in.”
“Did you try to see who it is?”
“That’s not how this game is played, Liz. If it’s who we think it is…”
“If it’s who I think it is…well then, think of it as more like a game of Chess. Two or three moves ahead, but always taking into account where all the pieces on the board are.”
“So? Where are they?”
He shrugged. “If this was anything at all, I’m going on the assumption it was an opening move, so I don’t want to make any stupid moves of my own just yet. That means I’m not making any unnecessary moves, and I may be relying on friends to watch my back. That also means you have to play by a different set of rules from now on.”
“First, be watchful. Be careful, don’t do anything spontaneous. Check with me before you move around topsides or off the boat…”
“Jesus…are you serious?”
“Liz, the safest place for you would be back in Brighton. I know you’d be a big help here, but it’s a risk. One you might want to consider carefully.”
“Okay. Done. I’m staying with you. For you, and because Deb has been a good friend to me. She needs me, and I’m going to be here for her.”
“I knew you would, and that’s why I’m letting you decide. But this is one of life’s bigger decisions, and I’m concerned right now about so much. Almost scared…”
“About Deborah, what she’s facing, what I’m…what we’re taking on. Both physically and emotionally. Yes, it scares me.”
“You’ve been through it before. I haven’t. We can help each other, can’t we?”
He looked at her long and hard, wondering what was sincere and what was an act. “Yeah. We can. Just so you go into this with both eyes wide open. I’ll do my best to keep the bad guys away, but if I can’t, if it starts to go bad and I tell you to move, I don’t want any bullshit. You get to the airport and out of here. Agree?”
“I’ll do whatever you tell me to do, Sumner. I trust you.”
They got back to work, cleaning the interior and disinfecting the head and galley, getting the interior ready to serve as a hospital – or hospice.
Just after the sun set he saw Corrine walking through the marina from the street entrance, and she stopped once to ‘tie her shoes’, then came to the stern and waited for him to come up to the cockpit and help her across.
“Whoever he was, he knew how to evade a tail.”
“I figured as much.”
“So, you’re going to have company. That’s my assumption, anyway. What did you learn at the hospital?”
Collins filled her in, not leaving anything out about Liz and Rod in his telling, and she took it all in like a professional.
“You are to care for her down here, then?” she asked incredulously.
“You know the situation. What would you do?”
“Care for her down here. Yes. But I don’t have to tell you, if this is Hassani, a lot of people could get hurt unnecessarily. You know this.”
He shrugged. “Not if I get him first.”
“No. This you must not do. Do not even think this.”
He looked at her, saw the faintest hint of a smile in her eyes. “Alright.”
“Is Mrs Lethbridge down below?”
“As-tu besoin de quelque chose?”
“J’allais le marché, mais je voulais vérifier avec vous avant que je suis allé.”
“Do you have a list for the market?”
“Je vais y aller maintenant. And I will arrange for someone to stay on the boat tomorrow while you are away.”
“Okay. Tell ‘quiconque’ I appreciate all the help.”
“You should know, some of your people are involved now too.”
“Anyone I know? Perhaps?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she smiled. “Got your list?” He handed her a piece of paper and she read through it then looked up at him – and caught his smile. “I hate being so predictable,” she said as she pocketed the paper.
“Those last few items on the list? Check with our company liaison, I think he’ll get it for you.”
“No doubt. I’ll return around…” she looked down at her watch, “oh, two hours or so. Don’t let your meat loaf, Captain.”
“I’ll save some for you.”
She rolled her eyes. “The story of my life.”
They both laughed, then she turned and walked off into the night. He followed her at a discrete interval and stood among the trees, watched as she went to a BMW sedan and drove off. He waited, watching, and finally saw a shadow within a shadow, then a man stepping out and walking towards the marina.
The man in the maroon jacket, his hands in his pockets, his head down, walking across the street towards the entrance. Collins stepped back deeper into the trees, watched the man as he walked by not twenty feet away, and as he walked over to Gemini – and beyond. At the end of the marina the man stopped and looked at a boat, then began walking back – slowly, looking at boats one by one, most Seine River tourist scows and only a few pleasure craft like his own. Then the man stopped behind the Gemini and pulled out his phone and snapped a few images, innocuous enough for a tourist, but to Collins this character was now anything but…
The man started walking back to the entrance, and Collins screwed the suppressor onto the end of the Walther and waited, and when the man drew near he stepped out of the trees – and directly into man’s path.
The man stopped in his tracks and began to pull his hands out of his pocket.
“I wouldn’t do it,” Collins said.
“I’d keep my hands in my pocket if I were you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Turn around and walk slowly.”
“Who do you think…”
“I’m the sonofabitch who’s about to put three bullets in your face,” Collins said, just showing the Walther.
“Turn around and walk back to the boat.”
When they got to the stern he pushed the man across onto the swim platform, then followed him and pushed him into the cockpit – then down below.
Liz saw the man first, then the Walther, then Sumner, and she stepped into the forward cabin and waited out of view.
When the man was in the main cabin Collins told him to stand still, then he went to the chart table and took out several cable ties – metal reinforced arrest ties – and restrained the man to the overhead hand holds.
“Hassani? Where is he?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
Collins took the Walther and placed it up against the mans testicles.
“One more chance, Paco, then you get to meet your 72 virgins without nuts. Probably won’t be as much fun, ya know?”
“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!”
“Well, okay, I’ll shoot the left one first.”
“I don’t know…” the man almost screamed, “he’s moving around a lot, not one place for very long.”
Collins took out his phone and dialed Corrine.
“I’ve got him.”
“Okay.” She broke the connection.
“You’re not very good, you know?”
The man smiled. “Neither are you.”
Collins felt someone getting on the boat aft and went behind the man, waited for this one to come out of the shadows, then heard him jumping off the stern and running, men shouting, two silenced rounds from nearby.
“You were saying?”
The man seemed to visibly deflate after that, and when Corrine and one other agent appeared his eyes dropped.
“Did you get him,” Collins asked.
She nodded. “On his way to Allah, unfortunately.”
“Too bad, so sad,” he asked. “Me and my new friend here were just about to talk about Hassani’s whereabouts when his friend dropped by.”
“Were you? How nice.”
“He seems rather fond of his testicles. He decided he wanted to keep them.”
“Bertrand, take him in. I’ll be there in a half hour.”
“I’m glad you got here in time. I really don’t know how to patch bullet holes in teak.”
She shook her head. “You are a real humanitarian, you know, Collins.”
“I’m tired of dealing with these assholes.”
They cut the man loose from the ceiling and handcuffed him properly, then ‘Bertrand’ and three other men took him away. A dozen Gendarmes were in the marina now, sealing off the crime scene and a few dozen people on boats in the marina were looking on, wondering what the commotion was all about, and Corrine watched more men arrive and take over from the police.
“What happened?” Corrine asked when they were alone, but then Liz stepped into the cabin. “She was here? She saw all this?”
“I told her what was going on.”
“Did you now. How pleasant.” Corrine shook her head, rubbed her eyes. “So, what happened.”
“I followed you out to the street. He was waiting for you, and came into the marina after you left.”
“My men didn’t…?”
“No, they didn’t.”
“I agree. They’re not taking their work seriously.”
She nodded. “After Hebdo, I thought this was over.”
“Everyone lets their guard down after a few months. They count on that. Anyway, he has a phone, he took pictures of the boat, and I took it from there. You’d better get your team on high alert…there are a lot of Gomers loose running around around here…”
“He has a phone?”
“Yup,” he said, handing it over to her. “Sorry, got my prints on it.”
She nodded her head, smiled. This was the real intelligence coup, right here in her hand. “We are moving two police boats in here tonight. One will, unfortunately, be right next to you. Unmarked, of course. A marked patrol boat will be across from you. Both will be manned, 24/7.”
“Okay. No naked orgies in the cockpit. Got it.”
“That would be helpful. Yes. I am leaving now, we’ll see you in the morning, I hope.”
“Oh, the stuff from the market is on the back here. Not that company stuff yet, however.”
“Thanks. I’ll come get it.”
When they were topsides she pulled him aside. “Thanks. You were a big help tonight.”
“Yeah, well, thanks for all you’ve done.”
“I will be here at daybreak, will follow you out to the hospital…”
“That’s not really necessary…”
“After tonight, I’m afraid so.”
He picked up three bags from the market. “Thanks. What do I owe you?”
She laughed. “Dinner.”
“You’re on.” She kissed him on the cheek and was gone, and he carried the bags down below.
“What’s that?” Liz asked as he carried the bags down.
“Baking stuff, fresh berries, a few odds and ends.”
“Well, let’s get it stowed.”
“Aye-aye, Captain!” he said, grinning. “How’re you holding up?”
“Were you really going to shoot that man in the balls?”
“No way. I hate cleaning up blood.”
She shook her head. “And you did this kind of thing for a living?”
“Me? No, I was just a lawyer.”
“You, like, wouldn’t be getting horny, would you?”
She looked at him like he’d just sprouted another head. “Are you serious?”
“Uh, okay. Sure. Let’s get naked and fuck all night long. Why the fuck not?”
“That’s my girl.”
“Am I your girl?”
“You are right now, that’s for goddamn sure.”
“Does this kind of thing, like, make you horny?”
“You have no idea.”
“Why don’t you go jump in the shower. I’ll get this stuff put away. Oh, by the way, I took a Viagra this afternoon.”
He joined her in the shower a few minutes later, starting to come down off the adrenalin rush but still sporting a raging woodie.
“Do you take Viagra often?” she asked.
“When we were talking earlier.”
“I don’t know, Elizabeth. Just watching you, for some reason I was aroused. Your lips when you talk, your face, the way you move, it got to me. The more you talked the more I wanted you.”
She put her arms around his neck, looked up into his eyes. “Really?”
“Really.” He folded her in his arms. “I guess it’s wrong as hell, but thinking about you since the other night has become a full time preoccupation.”
She was soaping him up, massaging the tip, pinching it ever so lightly, watching him watching her, then she rinsed him off and climbed up into his arms. She lowered herself on him, the water running between them, her legs clasping him, pulling him deeper inside, her back arching against the wall, grinding thrusting gyrating through a cloudburst of emotion, then he had her pinned to the wall, driving into her, their mouths a fusing union, her fingernails spreading talons pulling him closer, then he was on his toes, driving up and in, leaning back, looking into her eyes as her release started, his following her clasping climax within a heartbeat.
Their mouths still fused, her fingers running through his hair, his massaging her back, then she put her feet down – and she knelt and took him in her mouth, cleaning him, reviving him, but he pulled her up, took her face in his hands and kissed her…
“Alright, Liz. You win.”
“Just hold me, would you? You have no idea how much I need you – right now. This very minute,” he was whispering into her hair, into the very fabric of her being, more confused now than he could remember – yet so glad this woman was with him.
He turned off the water and dried her completely, then himself, then they were under the covers and he was shaking, still coming down and she held him…just held him, rubbing his head, holding his face to her breasts, whispering into the air how much she loved and needed him – until she felt the release in him, the easing, the finally letting go, and she kept rubbing and caressing him until his breathing slowed and the first little snores began.
And then she cried. Her release came and she let it go…
…gently, from a warm place she had forgotten existed…
“Oh, God,” she whispered through her sigh, “please don’t take him from me. Let me live within this moment of my life forever.” She smelled his hair, the skin around his neck, wanting to memorize every little thing about him because she was sure, really sure, that something had to happen to make this end. Something or someone would come and take him from her, because nothing really good ever happened to her. Roderick had come close, once upon a time, but not like this. Especially something like this feeling, this place in her heart that had suddenly – and so completely come to life.
He heard his phone chirping a little after five in the morning and he went to the galley and took it off the charging cable and answered it.
“Paul, are you…what’s up? Are you okay?”
“Uh, look, sorry about the hour but I just heard something about Rod…”
“Yes, Paul, what is it?”
“Well, he and another woman were involved in an accident. I’m afraid I have bad news for Liz. Is she around?”
“Paul, what’s happened?”
“I’m afraid he’s, well, he’s gone, Sumner. The woman has a spinal cord injury, and is not expected to recover.”
“Where is he now?”
“London, actually. They were up near there, I think.”
“Okay, have any contact information?” He listened, wrote down all Whittington had. “Okay, got it.”
“Thanks for handling this, Sumner. I wasn’t looking forward…”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I just…it’s all so surreal…”
“What’s going on with your deal?”
“Pick it up sometime next week. I don’t suppose you’d be able to help?”
“Do you know what’s going on with Deb?”
“Yes, Rod filled me in. Beastly diagnosis. I suppose Elizabeth will stay with you there?”
“We’ll see. Why don’t you call when you have a move date.”
“Will do, and thanks, mate.”
“Por nada, Amigo.”
He sighed, then rang off – leaving Collins to tell Liz. He put on coffee and took Charley aft for a wizz, then walked below and put Charley back on the bed. He went into the head and brushed his teeth, then sat down on the bed and ran his fingers through her hair. Charley looked at him for the longest time, then at Liz.
Then she went to Liz and licked her chin…
…and she opened her eyes, those cool green eyes, and he looked at her.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
He was stunned, and marveled at the question…her first thought was for him. That’s Liz, he said to himself. She gives, she pitches in – above all, she tries, she doesn’t run.
“Paul just called. There’s been some trouble, an accident, at home.”
“I know. Rod’s gone, isn’t he?”
“An accident, with Sarah.”
“I don’t know the details, but how do you know?”
“I was dreaming about it, just now. That dolphin of yours was telling us, me and Deb. Sarah is still alive, but only just…and they were in a big city.”
“She came to you both? In a dream?”
She nodded her head, then came and lay on his lap. “I suppose I should go back Brighton now, but I don’t want to leave you.”
“Then don’t. We can deal with things from here.”
“Okay. Is there someone I need to call?”
“I have the information,” he said, then he kissed the top of her head, held her hand – and she ran her fingers through his.
“I love you so much, Sumner. What I felt last night? I don’t have the words to describe my feelings.”
He thought about her for a moment, then about his own feelings, and as confused as he felt the words came easily to him, and to her as well. “I love you too,” he said, squeezing her hand. She rolled over slowly and looked up at him, but there was nothing else to say and they both knew it.
Her hand on the side of his face now, she wiped a tear from his cheek.
Deb was in a wheelchair, out front in the lobby and ready to go when they arrived, but she seemed troubled and immediately he knew she had experienced Liz’s dream too. He didn’t question these things anymore, there was simply no need. The how and the why would never make sense, couldn’t, not really. He had no frame of reference, but maybe he’d talk to Mann about it…
When he saw her there he felt an elation that he’d not expected; he went to her and knelt beside the chair. “Are you ready to try this?” he asked.
“Please, get me out of here,” she said in a dead, wooden voice.
He wheeled her to the passenger side and helped her slide across, then he put the chair in the rear and helped Liz in, then turned to see Doctor Mann waiting for him.
“How are you this morning, doctor?”
Collins shrugged. “We’ll see.”
“This dolphin of your. She has told me all she knows. Your wife, your voyage, your other dog, this other Charley. It is all true?”
“And John Lennon? He comes to you?”
“Yes. I was with him when he passed.”
“With him? How so?”
“We lived in the same building. We were coming home, almost home, when he was shot. I touched him, held his hand as he passed.”
The old man seemed to take it all in stride, bunching his lips and nodding his head gently. “So, these are not hallucinations. Very troubling, even so.”
“I understand. Did you hear about the trouble at the marina last night?”
“The pick-pocket? Shot when he threatened the police?”
“He was anything but… ” Collins spend a few minutes briefing the old man, who nodded his head a lot and bunching his lips, making an odd smacking sound as he did.
“You have lead a complicated life, Mr Collins. What would you like to do?”
“I have excellent support nearby, so I think we’ll be safe, but if the situation deteriorates, where should I bring Deborah?”
“Here. Immediately. And do not trouble her mind with these things. The less she knows, the better.”
“Alright. I was thinking you and I should have a conversation about my dolphin. What do you think?”
He shrugged, smacked his lips. “I have no idea what to think, but with your permission I know of a Jungian therapist, an animist, if you know the term.”
“Not really, but of course. Anything I can do to understand this would be a blessing.”
“A blessing? Interesting. Not the word that comes to mind. Well, please call me at home in the evening, with progress reports or ideas, and I will let you know what I find out here.”
“I have a friend in Boston I want to call. An oncologist. I’d like to talk to him.”
Mann shrugged and smacked away. “Please, let me know if he has any ideas,” then he held out his hand. “Good day,” he said.
When he left the covered loading area he saw two cars fall in behind, both black BMW 5 series sedans, and he smiled at the escort as he pulled into traffic. When he pulled up to the marina, another BMW pulled out, vacating a parking space by the entrance, and he smiled again. He got Deb’s chair out and looked at the sky…lead gray and as heavy, almost like it might snow soon…but it was still far too warm out for anything but rain. He helped her into the chair and locked the doors when Liz came around, and he pushed her through the marina to Gemini’s stern and locked the wheels.
“I can make it on my own,” Deb said, pushing herself up…but she swayed and he held her, then took several deep breaths. He stayed by her side, hed her up, helped her get her bearings. “Okay,” she said after a minute. “Better now.”
Liz went across first, Deb followed and took her hand, then he followed her across, guarding against a fall…but all his concerns about this movement now seemed almost anti-climatic. Once she was below he went back and carried her chair back to the car and stowed it away, watching the men in the black BMWs watching him, then he looked at Gemini, and around the marina.
‘Yup,’ he said to himself, ‘now surrounded by police boats…’
He found Deb sitting in the main cabin, Liz putting on tea in the galley, and he went and sat next to her. And she kept her hands crossed in her lap, looking down at them.
“No one will tell me anything,” she said at last. “I ask them what’s wrong and everyone avoids even looking at me. If I ask you, will you tell me?”
“I’d rather not.”
“My God,” she burst out laughing, “it must really be a doozy, whatever it is!” She crossed her arms over her stomach and her lower lip popped out.
“Are you sure you want to know right now?”
“I think I have a right to know.”
He went to the chart table and got his laptop and opened it, then went to a page describing all there was to know about glioblastoma. He set the computer on the table and turned the screen to her; she pulled it close and began reading, her eyes clear and steady, pure strength radiating from her being. Liz came and sat by her side, and he turned away after a moment and stared out the windows, up into the sky.
“Well,” she said when she’d finished, “that’s really something. And here I thought I was just depressed.”
“You were,” Liz said. “Only this time the ‘why’ of it all was a little different.”
“Have they told you how long I’ve got?”
“Yes,” Sumner said. “And we’ll not talk about that now as I have a few doubts.”
“Such as?” Deb said.
He shrugged. “I’ll let you know. A few things to consider first. My sister will be coming over for Christmas, and my former sister-in-law is making threatening noises about coming as well. She’s made it clear the past few years she’d like nothing more than to sink her claws into me, just so you know.”
“And how do you feel about her?” Liz asked.
“I’d rather spend the night in a room full of cobras than be with her for an hour.”
Deb laughed. “Now that’s an image. So, are you two in love now?”
“What?” Collins said, looking at Liz.
“Liz! It’s plain as day all over your face.”
He looked at her. “Deb, we’ve been through a lot the past week, and it’s been confusing.”
“You have to understand something, Sumner,” Deb said, holding her hand up. “I don’t object, in fact I think I understand. Have since that day we crossed the channel. Could see it in her eyes, knew it was only a matter of time.”
“It’s alright, Liz. Don’t try to explain yourself, because I above all people know you, and understand what you’ve been through. Have you called about Rod yet?”
“About Rod?” Liz said.
“The dream, Liz. You were there, and we talked about him, didn’t we?”
Collins sat down, felt light-headed. “You told Mann about the dream, and my history with the dolphin? Why?”
“I was upset when I woke up.”
“His body is in London, Sarah is at Queen’s,” Liz added.
“I didn’t know her well,” Deb said wistfully. “But they came into the shop twice, together. Said she was a chum from work, just passing by and wanted to say hello. Can you believe that? What must have been going on in his mind to do that?”
“Well, just so I’m clear,” Collins said, his voice faraway, almost distant. “That dolphin, who is still in the English Channel I have to assume, knew two people in London were in an accident, and she told you both. In a dream, last night, in roughly the same relative time-frame.”
Deb raised her hands in a pantomimed shrug; Liz just shook her head and looked out the window, letting slip a long sigh.
“What’s the connection? Between us? Between the three of us?”
“You,” Deborah said. “Your wife, as well. That’s clear.”
“And the pups…the two Charleys,” Liz added. “My Charley, the one from my litter? She has to fit in this puzzle too. She’s a link to the old one, somehow, someway. You said the old Charley got into the water with your wife, when she fell ill. And then it found you in the islands, and again at sea, when the old Charley passed. So, she links you…to…to…”
“Yeah, when the answer comes to you, be sure to let me know, will you?”
“Do you have things to bake with here?” Deb said.
“Yup,” he said. “Fresh cherries, and blackberries too.”
“Excellent,” she stood and reached for the overhead rail, yet her hand recoiled violently when she grabbed the metal. “God, what happened in here?” she said, wiping her hands against her slacks.
“What?” Collins said, now concerned. “What do you mean?”
Deb was looking at the handrail, then she looked at him: “What did you do to that man?” she said accusingly.
“The man who was here,” she said, pointing at the rail. “The man…”
He looked at her as her voice trailed off, as she stared at the metal rail. “Deb? What is it?”
“He was going to kill you, wasn’t he?”
“Deb?” Liz said, interested in what Deb was sensing. “What do you see?”
“Fire. I see fire.”
Collins looked at his watch, made the conversion for Boston in his head, then went up on deck and pulled out his phone. He talked for a half hour, then broke the connection and called his sister in Wisconsin.
“Hey, long lost brother of mine. Where are you?”
“Paris. How soon can you come over?”
“Last exams are the week after Thanksgiving. Mark my papers and turn in the grades. Why? What’s up?”
“Okay. Do I need to come sooner?”
“No, that’ll be fine. Have you heard from Tracy?”
“She’s made reservations on Air France for the 22nd, staying on the Ilse St Louis at a little B&B. That’s all I know so far. Do I hear wedding bells in your future?”
“I’m involved with two women now, one with an inoperable brain tumor.”
“They’ll both be here for Christmas,” he added.
“There are a lot of strange things going on right now. I’d like you to come as soon as you can.”
“Okay. You sure?”
“Yes. Did you get a ticket yet?”
“No. I might need some help with that.”
“Chicago? Has your passport number changed?”
“Okay. I’ll have them send confirmation to your email.”
“You haven’t forgotten my date of birth, have you?”
“Oh, Phoebe, don’t get me started right now.”
“It’s that bad?”
“Yes. Bad. Confusing.”
“Okay, Sumner. I understand. I’ll be…”
“Bye.” He broke the connection, struggled to hold on to himself. Now Deb…and it was all coming back to him…Jennie…his Jennifer…when she first fell into cancer. All the hope, all the false assumptions, then all the denial and fear, then that last goodbye. It was time to live through it all again, but was he ready? Could he carry on with the smiling faces and all the ‘don’t be so glum’ admonishments? Could Liz? Could Phoebe?
Could Charley really be the key to it all?
He opened the messaging app on his phone and sent a brief text to Tracy. “Illness looming with a dear friend, not a good time to come this year. Sorry. S” He looked it over and sent it, then looked around the boat. “Can I do this again?” he said, looking down into the water.
He saw only the reflections of buildings and a few bare trees down there in the darkness, and he felt utter loneliness in that moment, and more that a little afraid of the dark once again – then he turned and went below, just as a few raindrops fell on his bare head.
And it smelled as good as he remembered…all her baking instincts coming alive in the here and now. Warm cherries filled the space, filled his heart as he found Deb teaching Liz all her little secrets and shortcuts. He went to the chart table and checked water levels and the state of charge on the batteries, forcing himself back into the solace of all his own routines and shortcuts, then Liz was standing beside him, kissing his head, and he looked up, saw Deb standing in the galley – watching – and he wanted to turn inward…
“No secrets here, Sum,” Deb said, a wry little grin showing. “I told you I understand.”
“I’m afraid that’s not going to make this any easier,” he said.
“Bosh. Think about it from my perspective, would you? If I’m not going to be here, at least you’ll be with my best friend. That’s not an exactly a bad thing, you know?”
“That’s not ‘exactly’ what I meant.”
“Yes, first Jennifer, then Charley, and now me. But look on the bright side, will you? You’ve only known me for what? A month? How bad will it be, really?”
He looked at her, wondered if she was serious or simply pathologically insensitive. “Okay, sure Deb. Whatever you say.” He went and picked up Charley and got her leash, then they went out into a heavy downpour. He grabbed a foul weather jacket and hopped off the stern and went for the trees, Charley bounding along oblivious to everything in the world but the happiness of green grass and a new scent to chase.
“So, girl, how do we play this? Just let the world roll on by and see what happens, or do we make a scene?” Or, he asked himself, is she going to undergo unexpected behavior changes? And if that’s so, what can I expect as this thing progresses? I’d better get on to Dr Mann…
Two days of rain followed, but the next morning, the 13th, dawned overcast and windy – but dry – and the grass surrounding the marina was verdant – almost too green. Charley wandered on her lead, quartering across the micro-meadow like she was hot on the scent, and Deb came up and sat on the aft deck when the sun threatened to come out. While her swaddled head stood out like a beacon, she just didn’t seem to care about any aspect of those vanities now. Jennifer had confronted her cancer head on, had for a few months entertained the possibility that she could beat it, and her own eccentricities and vanities had played along with her for a while…had become a part of the emotional routines that, in effect, sustained, even buoyed her willingness to fight.
So Deb wakes up one day and learns she has an inoperable – and totally lethal cancer, and knows it will take her within a few months. Her reaction? Get on with the important stuff and throw away the rest. If sun on her face was important, a robe and slippers will do. Time to bake scones? Robe and slippers will do there too. A friend of Mann’s had recommended a fun place for dinner just a few blocks away – and she felt like going out tonight…so her robe and slippers would not do. Some sun on her face would be nice, however, maybe a scarf for her head, too.
She watched Charley running and rolling around, but when Sumner pulled a small rubber ball and rolled it in front of her, she just stood still and looked at it, not quite sure what to do – yet. He picked it up and held it in front of her nose and she sniffed at it this time, then he rolled it away from her…and again, her reaction was stubborn obliviousness. He walked over to the ball and she did too, then she sniffed it, walked around it a few times, then picked it up and handed it to him. Effusive praise followed, then he picked her up and scratched behind her ears, letting her lick his chin as he walked back to the stern.
“How’s the ‘almost sun’ feel today?”
“Almost warm. She’s going to do pretty good with you, I think.”
“Given enough grass, maybe. Growing up on a boat? I’m not so sure.”
“What time do you want to leave?”
“Early, I think. Around six or so, a little before, maybe.”
“Can we shower together again?”
“Sure,” he smiled.
“Good. I wanted to go someplace…do you remember where?”
“Yup. Up to the market, first thing in the morning. Berries. Remember?”
“Uh, no, I’m not sure I’ll be here.”
“It’s okay. We’ll get up early and go. Just you and me.”
She smiled. “That sounds good.”
“You sure you feel like walking tonight?”
“I think so.”
“Okay. We can always drive if you’d rather…”
“I’d like to walk.”
He came over and felt her skin…dry and cold. “Let’s go down and warm up. You can play with Charley for a while…”
He took her below, turned on the heat and covered her with a blanket, unnerved by how fast autonomic function had deteriorated. Her skin was freezing – but she hadn’t been able to recognize the change, let alone express discomfort – and he wondered if he should take her out tonight. Still, it was the first time she’d expressed an interest in going out…
He showered with her, examining the stitches on her scalp, spraying the area with hydrogen peroxide then rinsing it again before patting it dry with a sterile 4×4. He dressed the wound and helped her wrap the area in gauze, then he sat with her on the bed, holding her close while she dozed. Charley snuggled in tight when she was like this, cuddling in close to her chest so she could lick Deb’s chin, and a few minutes later Liz came in and sat on the foot of the bed, smiling and crying at the same time.
He smiled at her too. Closing his eyes to keep them from burning, he couldn’t imagine anything more surreal than where he was emotionally in that moment…
One woman, her head on his chest, asleep with a dog whose lineage stretched back god only knows how far back in time, and her best friend at their feet – all together on this cloudy Parisian afternoon, bound together in time and space to the here and now. And he loved all three of these souls so much that it hurt – physically hurt – when he stopped to think about it…
And this was one of those moments, because Jennifer was there with him, too. Everywhere he looked he felt her. Deborah leaning against his chest – felt like Jennifer. Liz now at his feet – and just how many times had Jennifer laid across the bed, just like this, over the years? These were not merely echoes, he thought. No, these moments were more like eternal recurrences, bound by destiny to to hit each iteration of him as his line drifted through time…he felt them as his father had, perhaps as his father’s father…but what hit him in that moment was how connected he felt to the past – through these feelings in the present.
But…how could that be?
Yet it was, and with Deborah tucked under his right arm he bid Liz to come under his left, and he held these two women as they held him: out of a tender, misshapen fear that the moment could not last…or that this moment had echoed through time in infinite recurrence.
With Liz so safely ensconced he sighed, yet not simply out of a feeling of contentment. No, he wanted to hold on to this feeling as long as he could, this being loved, and loving so much. Yet, was all this immoral? Was this loving so many women in one lifetime simply wrong? Once upon a time he would have thought so; now, he wasn’t so sure. No, now time itself felt like driving in fog…but was he to be the lead car in a chain-reaction accident? All his many pasts were slamming into him – now – with layer upon layer of love crumbling in the mist.
And then Charley came over and curled up on his chest, her head up, looking into his eyes. “I love you too, Charley-girl,” he said as she grinned at him, and she panted gently before she licked him once on the lips, then she too put her head down and drifted off to wherever such souls go when they dream…
He napped as well, though lightly, drifting in and out of random thoughts as each fought for attention. The man in the maroon jacket, Rod’s passing, Paul’s boats…Liz – and Deb. He sensed she was growing more than confused now, couldn’t remember things she’d started working on after five minutes, only now she was breaking down in frustration, beginning to realize what lay ahead. Liz, trying to help as best she could but after not even a week already withering under the weight of seeing someone she knew so well beginning to dissolve before her eyes. Phoebe, poor lost Phoebe, drifting away from life again after her husband passed, needing him now more than she knew…and Tracy, saying she just HAD to come for Christmas, no matter the illness of a friend. She would be there to help. He could count on her, always.
“Right,” he said, and Charley looked up at him, her head canted to one side. “Sorry, girl…”
They took a taxi to La Belle Équipe a little before six, and sat down in the half empty restaurant. The evening rush was still well underway, the Rue de Charrone a bustling hive both on and off the street. He ordered a bottle of water, and on Corrine’s recommendation, a shrimp and beet risotto to go along with their steaks and fries. More people drifted in as the evening’s tempo picked up, the ebb and flow on the sidewalk becoming less frenetic as lovers and other strangers passed by slowly, window shopping with the cares of their world glossed over in splashes of bright light.
He watched Deb as she ate, or tried to eat. At one point she tried to pick up her steak with her fingers, and when he intervened she fell into darkness.
“What’s happening to me, Steven?” she asked in a strange, flat affect. “I can’t seem to remember where we are.” He cut her steak and helped her eat, a few people looked on but their eyes went to her scarf – and the gauze under – and it seemed then that everyone understood. They ate little sorbets and cookies and sipped espressos for the longest time and then, just a little before nine, they left and crossed the street to catch a taxi back to the marina.
He heard sirens, a huge response underway somewhere nearby, then a small Renault pulled up in front of the restaurant and he watched as men emerged with Kalashnikovs. They began shooting people on the sidewalk and inside the restaurant, and he heard the screams of the innocent and pleas of the damned, saw people falling down on the sidewalk clutching wounds and he felt for the Walther, realized he’d left it onboard. He scooped up Deb and carried her to the shadows, then he saw Hassani…across the street on the sidewalk, talking on a small radio.
Had they followed him to the restaurant? Had their surveillance broken down, had they not seen him leave with Deb? He stayed by Deb in the darkness, put his jacket over her shoulders then ran out into the street, took down the registration on Hassani’s vehicle and dashed back to the shadows and pulled out his phone. He called Corrine, and he could hear she was in a car with it’s siren blaring.
“It’s Collins, Hassani is on Charrone in a gray Renault, they are shooting up the Équippe, three men. I have the registration of the Renault…can you copy?”
He read it out and she told him to get under cover, that there were several attacks underway throughout the city, then she was gone.
He looked at Deb’s scarf…now it was a beacon in the worst sort of way and he pulled his jacket up over her head. Looking around, he saw a taxi coming and hailed it, then he got Deb inside. They pulled up outside the marina a few minutes later and he literally carried her down to the boat and got her below.
“What’s going on out there?” a clearly agitated Liz asked when they came down the steps, and Collins told her what he knew as quickly as he could. She nodded… “There are police all over the place…they were here, asked me where you were…then they ran off towards the river…I think they were chasing someone…”
He opened the chart table and grabbed the Walther, then took the girls forward. “Stay here,” he said, then he turned and shut down all the breakers on the main panel.
With everything in darkness he looked outside, then thought better of it and turned on the spreader lights, flooding the deck in bright light. He took a blanket and settled on the galley floor, draping the blanket over his body…concealing his form…
A few minutes later he felt the boat move, and though he could barely hear anything over the cacophony of sirens beyond the marina he was sure someone was onboard now. And then he saw a shoe, a sneaker of some sort, on the top companionway step, then it was coming down, slowly, quietly.
He saw Hassani silhouetted on the steps, an H&K MP5 in his hand, and Collins lined up the sights and squeezed off one round, hitting the Iraqi in the neck. He fell to the cabin sole and Collins fired one more round into his skull, then he remained perfectly still.
A few minutes later he heard police in the marina, then a herd of people jumping onboard. Corrine dashed below, a flashlight in hand and Collins stood.
“Hassani?” she asked.
“Good, we are still searching for three of them. Is everyone safe here?”
“I, uh-yeah, I think so.”
She was gone after that, and he didn’t see her again for days. A crime scene unit came and photographed the scene, a woman took his statement while another crew came below and removed Hassani’s body, and about three in the morning he got out a bucket and paper towels and went about scrubbing the main cabin. Coagulated blood and hair had set on the walls, and he scrubbed for what felt like hours before he was satisfied, then he went forward and got Charley from Liz’s sleeping grasp and took her out onto the grass. He found errant splatters of blood here and there and wiped them up, then put Charley on his berth and took a shower, letting the hot water work it’s way down into his deepest fears.
Liz came in a few minutes after he finished, looking very unsettled. “Something’s not right with Deb,” she said, and he dressed, went to the forward cabin.
And indeed, there was something different about her now. Her eyes were fixed dead ahead and she didn’t respond when he spoke her name. He checked her pulse – fine, strong and steady – then he sat her up on the berth and put a pillow behind her head.
“Deb?” he said as he gently pinched an earlobe. “You with me, Deb?”
She blinked her eyes a few times then looked at him. “Where am I?” she said at last, then her fingers formed chords and she began playing in the air.
“On the boat, with me.”
“No, it’s me, Sumner. Where are you now?”
“I was walking, in a village I think. By a sea of flowers.”
“Was it nice?”
“Oh yes, ever so…but I’m not there now? Where am I, did you say?”
“It’s alright, Deborah. Just close your eyes and rest now.” He sat beside her and Liz looked at him, shook her head, then hid her face and turned away. After Deb fell asleep again he got his phone and texted the old physician, told him about the last few days. An hour later he called back.
“You are still at the Arsenal, at the marina?”
“I am at the hospital this week so I will drop by on the way in.”
He arrived just as two people from the police arrived.
“What happened here?” the old man asked as he stepped below.
“An old friend dropped by. He tried to kill me.”
“Oui, bien sûr, c’est la façon don’t il est avev vous. Now, about Miss Hill?”
“She’s drifting now, and I’m afraid her memory is going, maybe contact with reality as well.”
“Reality? How so? I wonder, may I speak with her?”
“What did you mean by that? Reality? How so?
“She’s playing the piano again, with her fingers.”
They went forward and the old man asked to speak with her alone, so Collins shut the door behind him and sat with Liz in the main cabin. Without asking she got up and made coffee, warmed a few scones then cleaned up after herself.
They were sitting together when the old man came back out.
“So much faster than I expected. The tumor must be growing exponentially now. Did anything come of your call to Boston?”
“No sir, nothing.”
“This is a terrible cancer, it tricks all our best therapies. Still, the speed of this deterioration makes me wonder if we missed something.”
“Anything else you can do? That we can do here?”
He sighed. “No, not at this time. Just expect this to become much more difficult, and when you cannot carry on any longer, we will move her to an end of life facility.”
“So,” Collins said. “That’s it? How much longer, do you think?”
Mann shrugged. “We would need new imagery, more labs, to answer that question, but it’s not really so important now. It may be days now, not weeks. She may be able to stay here a month, but I doubt even that now.”
“She seemed to take a serious turn for the worse yesterday,” Collins said.
“Odd, isn’t it. Our world seemed to take a turn last night, as well,” Mann sighed. “And not for the better.”
“We were just a few meters away, up on Charrone.”
“Oh? Did you observe these events?”
“And how was she, after?”
“She had a quite vivid dream, I think. She called me Claude, said she had been on a walk, by a sea of flowers, and she talked about the moonlight later, in her sleep.”
“She may be traveling now.”
“Traveling? What do you mean?”
“It is a hope of mine, not really even a theory, but I’ve always wondered even so. Do we, as death grows near, do we travel through time? Are our souls no longer prisoners of time? Can we go back to another time where we lived with greater happiness? Or to the future, to a place we have yet to recall, as of yet?”
“I see. Have you…”
“No, not in many patients, Mr Collins. Only a few, those who have had an altered brain, often through cancer, occasionally through injury. These patients recount vivid experiences we cannot account for. Recollections of facts they could not have possibly known. I do not like to say this, but I was hoping to see such recollections with Miss Hill.”
“I know…I know. That must sound vulgar. Yet whatever the reason, we are where we are now, and she presents us with an opportunity to learn. When she becomes the teacher, Mr Collins, we must listen. When she has these recollections, please question her. Try to tease out the smallest detail, everything is important, nothing is irrelevant…not where she is, or even what she smells. She may know names. People’s names, or a street, or the name of a building. She will come out of these dreams in an altered state, and for a few minutes she will inhabit both these worlds. It is then when you must be there, when you must concentrate on everything she says.”
“This playing music, in the air? Was this as before?”
“Yes, though this seems different somehow.”
“Has she mentioned someone named Claude to you before?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“Okay, please, write down everything you remember she says. Next time, be more methodical. You remember, the ‘who what where why when’ axiom? Try to get to the bottom of these things.”
“You think it’s important enough to do this?”
“I do. But please, if you do not, let me know. I will stay with her, or have someone here to stay and record these events.”
“No, we can do that,” he said, looking at Liz.
She nodded her understanding. “Okay. But what does it mean, doctor? These recollections?”
“I can not say yet, not really. But if these recollected events, inside a dream and as death nears, are indeed the manifestation of another time, I will leave it to you to consider the deeper implications of such an event. What we know about what is beyond death is very limited, Madam, but perhaps what we are witness to in these rare cases is like a window. Into time, perhaps, a new way of understanding time, or what it means to pass into death. And to reconsider…in a new way, I hope…what resides beyond the moment of our death.”
“That’s Deb,” Liz said, and they all rushed into the forward cabin.
“What is it, Deborah,” Sumner said.
“Sumner? She’s here, outside, now.”
“Who is, Deb?”
“That fish, the one with the scar…”
Collins rushed topsides, looked all around the boat but found nothing, not a trace anywhere he looked. He went below, back to the cabin and found Mann talking to her about the dolphin, and what she’d seen…something about another boat, another boat named Springer, and a man on that boat. He listened, stunned, as she described a village by the sea, the music she’d heard and other long walks by the sea.
He turned and went aft to his cabin, and he sat there in silence, lost as the implications of her words crashed down around him.
A few weeks later he made the drive out to DeGaulle again. Phoebe was arriving, and he was by now more than a little relieved. Relieved to see his sister again, relieved to have more help, relieved to see beyond the bewildering world of Deborah’s inrushing dreams.
When Liz left, to go back and settle Rod’s affairs – or so she said – he was filled with a terrifying sense that everything was unwinding now. All the love that had bound together four souls on Gemini evaporated in the heat of Liz’s farewell, and he was left with Charley to confront Deborah’s dreams, with Dr Mann always hovering just out of view, waiting for the latest report.
Her eyes were hollow pools now, her skin sinking in on itself, turning pale gray two weeks ago, but now he saw that yellowish tinge that could only mean death was closing in. The physician said it was time to move her, but Collins said no, not yet. He couldn’t let go, not now. He wouldn’t let her pass alone in a hospital room. This was home now, her home as much as his.
She hadn’t left the bed in a week, and a nurse placed a catheter, started IVs. When she spoke now, she spoke through the morphine-tinged world of pain, and when heard her pleas he would hit the pump and dose her again, then turn away in fear. He learned to change her IV bottles, and Charley slept on her chest almost all the time now, yet the little pup was growing now, filling out more, and he wondered how much longer Deb would be able to tolerate the weight.
He saw Phoebe standing curbside and pulled up alongside and dashed out into her arms, crying into her shoulder, holding her tight.
“Oh, God, I’ve missed you, little sister…”
When he was spent, she leaned back and looked into his eyes. “Can you drive?”
“Yeah, sure. Sorry, but it’s been a rough couple of months.”
“Why wouldn’t you tell me what was going on? Your email was a bombshell, what you’ve been through? I can’t even imagine…”
“I’m sorry, Sis… I didn’t want you to leave school until your term was over.” He took her bag and put it in the rear and they drove into the city – in desperate little silences. He parked and got her bag and led her to Gemini’s stern, then he helped her across. Dr Mann met them in the cockpit, subdued, thoughtful, then he saw Phoebe…and Collins had to smile.
“This is your sister?” the old man said playfully. “Mon dieu, if I was ten years younger!”
Phoebe blushed and held out her hand. “And you are?”
“Oh,” Collins said, “sorry, how thoughtless of me. Phoebes, this is Deborah’s physician, Dr Mann.”
“Henrí,” the old man said, taking her hand and kissing it. “Enchanted. Now Sumner, we have a few things to discuss, then I must leave.”
“Please,” Collins said, indicating they should sit in the cockpit. “Fire away.”
“You are still adamant about her staying here, I assume?”
“Well, I want a nurse here in the evenings, for now, perhaps full time within the week. Is there a place for her to sleep, if needs be?”
“Yes, I can rig a berth in my office.”
“Ah? Well, perfect. I am concerned that soon the morphine may not be enough, but at that point we will be out of options. You are familiar with what will happen then?”
“Good, that is a discussion we can dispense with.”
“Did she wake up while I was gone?”
“Yes. We had a most interesting discussion.”
“The house again?”
He nodded his head. “Oui. I think I now have a good picture of the social structures, enough to call in a historian and get an opinion concerning the authenticity of her observations.”
“What’s this?” Phoebe said.
“I’ll tell you later, Phoebe. Dr Mann? When will the nurse come?”
“Tonight would be best.”
“Okay. I’ll have the room ready.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to come down on my way home this evening,” he said, looking at Phoebe, “to see how the new arrangements are working out.”
“Of course,” Collins said, grinning.
“He’s an interesting old coot,” Phoebe said as she watched the old man walk out the marina. “Is he a pervert, as well?”
Collins shook his head. “I’ll leave that to you to find out, if you don’t mind. He’s a psychiatrist, so watch yourself.”
“Well, shall we go below, let me meet this gal of yours?”
“Apres vous, cheri.”
He dropped her bags forward, then led her aft to his berth, to Deb.
“Dear God,” Phoebe said when she looked down on Deb’s emaciated form, “she’s changed so much from the photos you sent.”
“I think it’s the morphine,” Collins said. “As soon as we started Jenn on that stuff, she went downhill, fast.”
“I remember. I honestly don’t know how you’re doing this again, and so soon.”
“Not any other options, kiddo. I hope you’d do the same for…”
“No, well, I was going to say whoever you’re with at the time. Assuming you love them, that is.”
“Sumner, I think we’re both a little too old to be playing The Dating Game.”
“Speak for yourself. I’d as soon die tomorrow than live without that kind of intimacy again.”
“Really? Don’t you get bored with all the tediousness of it all? The clinging needfulness, the constant manipulations?”
He looked at the ceiling. “You know, Phoebes, I can’t say those things stand out to me as anything I’ve endured. Jenn? Needful? Piffle – she was the essence of self sufficiency.”
“That, or you’re simply an armor-plated nomad.”
“Oh, he’s not that,” Deb said, looking at Phoebe.
“You’re awake!” Sumner cried.
“Your powers of observation never fail to astound,” Deb smiled. “So, this is the famous Phoebe. Turn around, dear. I want to see if you’re as big an asshole as your brother.”
“Well, I see someone is feeling better today,” Sumner said, sitting on the bed beside her – then taking her hand in his.
“The magic morphine the good doctor gave me this morning was unusually refreshing, but I need a shower. Sumner? Would you do the honors?”
“Well,” Phoebe said, “I think I’ll unpack?”
“Thanks,” he said. “I see you in a bit.”
“Bye!” Deb said to Phoebe. “Nous allons commencer dès que je suis prêt…”
“Oh, vous parlez français?”
Phoebe shook her head and left, leaving Sumner to look on, confused.
“Nice to see you feeling so good this morning…I didn’t know you speak French?”
“I don’t feel good, Sumner. I don’t feel anything at all right now. It’s like I’m numb from the nose down, and the top of my head feels like it’s going to explode. Oh, my foot’s tangled in the sheets…”
He helped her out of bed and into the shower, and he washed her with a lemon scented wash she said she used to like. He dried her and dressed her as best he could, then redid the bandage on her head before he led her to the main cabin, rolling her IV stand along by her side.
“Where’s Liz?” she asked.
“I suppose she went out.”
“Oh. Would you like me to bake today?”
“If you’d like. Could I help you?”
“Oh, I can help out,” Phoebe said, coming out of the forward cabin.
“Who’s this?” Deb asked, perplexed.
“I’m Sumner’s sister, Phoebe. I just got in.”
“Oh, aidez-moi à faire quoi?”
Phoebe looked at Sumner, who now seemed stunned. “Do you feel like baking today, Deb?”
“No. I’d like to just sit here for a while. Perhaps we could talk.”
Phoebe came and sat by her. “Why don’t you sit back and rest? That shower took a lot out of you, didn’t it?”
“Why does my head hurt?”
He watched as his sister put her arms around Deb, and how they wilted into each other. Death had become the leading man in both their dramas, and he saw in that moment these two women seemed to recognize a common need, and each fell into the moment, into each other’s need.
They sat and talked through the rest of that first day, talking about how to bake scones and how tiresome teaching the piano had become, and the words hit him like a lightning bolt; Sumner bolted out to a store and came back with a small Yamaha piano, one so small Phoebe could sit at the fold down table and play.
The transformation was instantaneous. Deb grew increasingly enraptured with the keys, attentively so, then Deb wanted Phoebe to teach her a few chords, then a few more.
What was more startling was the speed with which Deb picked up the intricacies Phoebe demonstrated. When Dr Mann arrived the two women were working their way through a simplified Clare De Lune, and the old man smacked lips as he stared at Sumner, then he shrugged his shoulders as he came close.
“What is going on?” he whispered.
“My sister, she’s a piano teacher. There has been a connection, I think.”
“You think? This is staggering. Miss Hill has no prior experience?”
“I don’t think so.”
They sat and watched, Mann mesmerized by the speed Deb grasped the phrasing, and even complicated movements of the hand posed no challenge to her. At one point Deb took over and began playing the opening from memory, and after perhaps a minute she stopped.
“What comes next?”
Phoebe began playing from memory, going perhaps three minutes into the piece before Deb interrupted.
“I’ve got it.” She started over, played from the beginning again, playing up to the point Phoebe had just reached, then she stopped and looked up. “This is fun,” she said. “Notes are colors; I can see them, and they play back to me.”
By this point Mann was studying her movements, first her hands, then her eyes.
“Tell me, Deborah. Describe the colors you see when you play that opening phrase.”
She played them again, her eyes closed now. “Silvery blue,” she said.
“Deborah, keep your eyes closed. Yes, now play red…”
She moved down two octaves and struck a chord.
“Can you play something that says happiness?”
She struck another chord, and another, and to Sumner she had hit the epitome of happiness.
More chords…and she had found pure melancholy.
“Anger, Deborah. Show me anger…”
Pounding, furious anger…
“Now, Deborah, play what you feel inside – just now…”
What emerged was a distillation of longing and utter despair, linked expressions of a walk by the sea in moonlight, with perhaps a storm passing along the far horizons of her mind. She played for several minutes – then grew still, the memory of her music lingering in the air like the most subtle scents of spring.
When Collins looked at Mann he was wiping tears from his eyes, while Phoebe seemed to be adrift on a sunless sea, suddenly bereft of knowledge as she tried to understand what had just happened.
Deborah’s features seemed to change in the aftermath, but to Collins it seemed as though she had discovered something new and vital, a new way to talk to the world, perhaps, and another way to see into her passing inner landscapes. He went to her and hugged her, and she looked up at him, a muted kind of half smile on her face.
“What is it?” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, nothing at all.”
“I feel very tired. Could I go back to bed now?”
The old physician came to her and helped her stand. “I’ve forgotten,” he said. “Could you tell me your name, please?”
Deborah looked at him, confused. “Do I know you?”
“We met earlier. My name is Henrí. And yours?”
“Marian. Marian Orgeron.”
“Nice to meet you, Marian. Let me help you to bed now.”
Mann led her aft and shut the door, leaving Collins and his sister to follow the crumbs to some sort of meaningful answer to the questions flooding their minds.
“Orgeron…Orgeron…why does that name sound so familiar…” Phoebe said. She pulled up her phone and Googled the name, but nothing popped up and she shook her head. She opened up her email and searched contacts, then emailed a professor at Princeton. A few minutes later her inbox chirped and she opened the file, then stood and looked aft. “Of course, the bi-tonal chords. Well, I’ll be damned…I should have known.”
“Orgeron was one of Claude Debussy’s teachers, a friend of Wagner’s and a great influence on both their later music. She was truly gifted, a woman ahead of her time. She passed in obscurity. What Deborah just played…well, my guess is the piece is at least a hundred years old. There were no recordings of it ever made, and the only sheet music that exists is in the rare music collection, in the private collections library at Princeton. A serious music historian, perhaps a doctoral student of the French Impressionists and Symbolists…they might, just might have heard this piece before, but they would have studied at Princeton. No where else. Van Cliburn was rumored to have played it once, but that would be the only public performance of it, ever.”
“So, it’s impossible she would have heard it before?”
“Well, not impossible, but I would say highly unlikely. Assuming Cliburn played the piece – and she was present, not to mention she was capable enough to memorize the piece…”
“But you know of the music? How?”
“My husband, Tom, was such a student. He photocopied it for his research, I played it several times while he was writing.”
“Did you play any of it today, when you were teaching Deborah?”
“No…the Clair de Lune fragments were the closest we came to those structures, but Sumner, her fingering was perfect. The first time through. That’s just not possible, and for someone who’s never played before? Totally impossible.”
“No, it’s not,” Mann said as he came back into the main cabin. “Pardon me, but I overheard some of what you said, and I am now a little nervous.”
“Oui. If what you are saying is true, Miss Hill may no longer being experiencing displacements in Time within her dreams alone. She may be manifesting personalities from these visits, here in the present.”
“What are you talking about?” Phoebe asked. “What could you possibly…”
“In her dreams recently,” Mann said, “she has been recounting visits to other places in distant time. The phenomenon is rare, but not without precedent in people with advanced brain lesions, or tumors. We have been documenting her explorations, if that is indeed what we have been witnessing, for weeks.”
“In her dreams, she is moving through time.”
“Yes, just so. Well put.”
“So today, she was conscious, awake, but she not only played a piece of music that has been played – maybe – just once in the past one hundred years, she seems to think she is the composer, someone who passed away ninety years ago.”
“That seems to be the case.”
Phoebe sat down, took a deep breath, shook her head violently. “No way,” she said. “Sorry, but there’s just no way this can be happening.”
“Too true,” Mann said. “So, we must look for an explanation. Find out what you can about this Orgeron, and then we will ask Miss Hill.”
“No… You know what? I left Chicago last night, this morning…sometime…and I thought I was in Paris…but you know what? I’ve entered some weird-ass parallel universe where nothing makes sense anymore…and my brother is the keeper of this lunatic asylum…”
Mann laughed. “Again. Well put. Sumner? Is the nurse not here yet?”
He shook his head. “Nope.”
The old man smacked his lips and pulled out his phone, just as they heard a forlorn “Hall-o” coming from the quay.
“Well, speak of the devil,” Mann said as he walked up to the cockpit.
“I’d better go help…”
Sumner led a twenty-something nurse by the hand down the companionway steps, and even Phoebe took in a sharp breath when she saw the girl. Tall, willowy tall with pure white skin and deep red lips, waist-length brunette hair parted in the middle, deep brown eyes, sharp, inquisitive eyes. Sumner was beside himself, she saw, tongue-tied and speechless.
“This is my sister, Phoebe. She’ll be staying up front, so let me show you to your room.”
Phoebe stood. “And what is your name?” she said, holding out her hand.
“Sophie. Sophie Orgeron,” the nurse said as she held out her own.
Phoebe looked gut-punched as she fell back into her seat, and Sumner felt light-headed again. Only Dr Mann seemed relatively unaffected by this latest coincidence, and he stepped down into the cabin and looked at the young woman anew.
“Perhaps related to the composer Marian Orgeron?”
“Oui, yes, she was my great-grandmother…but, why do you ask?”
“Oh, nothing…nothing at all,” Mann said, rolling his eyes. “Sumner? Show her to the room, please, then she should meet Miss Hill…”
“Of course,” he said. “Follow me.”
The desk in his office was now a bed, and Charley’s nest was now in the knee-space. He picked her up and held her… “This is Charley. You two will be sharing the room from time to time.”
Sophie looked at Charley. “May I?” she said, holding out her hands. He held her out and Charley almost leapt into the girl’s arms – and went about licking her face until she was giggling uncontrollably. “Mon dieu…she is so affectionate!”
“We run a happy ship here, M’am. Here, I’ll take her. You’d better go wash up.”
“Oui, yes, please.” He led her to the head and gave her a quick lesson on procedures for flushing and showering, then left her and closed the door.
When she emerged Mann led her aft, but Collins walked up into the cockpit, and Phoebe followed. “You know, ever since Charley passed, things have been getting stranger and stranger. Did I tell you about the dolphin?”
“What? No. Sumner, really? What’s going on? This is getting looney?”
“You’re telling me…”
Mann came up into the cockpit… “I want to take you both to dinner, and Sophie will stay with Deborah now. Let’s go, please.” He walked past them and off the stern, then stood waiting for them.
Collins shook his head. “I’ll go get our coats,” he said. “Something’s getting lost in the translation…”
They – walked – over to the Isle St Louis and to a unmarked cellar door – and then down a flight of stairs into another world. There were a handful of tables, a jazz quartet in a dimly lit corner, and Mann was greeted by the owner and half the people down there like he was some sort of demigod. Menus appeared, a bottle of wine too – Mann’s favorite, or so he told them. Collins studied the menu, but nothing was familiar.
“Sorry,” the old man smacked, “this is a vegan restaurant. If I can help you make a choice,” he said, looking at Phoebe, “please let me know”
“Well, this is greek to me,” Sumner said. “I’ll let you order for me.”
“Do you like mushrooms?” Mann asked.
“As long as I don’t take a trip, sure.”
“Ah, yes. Don Juan, Castañeda. Those kinds of mushrooms. No, I cannot offer you those tonight, but my favorite dish here is loaded with mushrooms.”
“Sounds good to me,” Phoebe said.
“Excellent!” He called a favorite waitress over and ordered, just as a plate of vegetable fritters arrived. “Help yourself,” he smacked, “and bon appetite!”
“Very good,” Phoebe said after taking a bite.
“You know of course that with Miss Hill we are moving rapidly into the realm of the unknown,” Mann said. “I would say yet that I do not understand the focus of all these manifestations.”
“What do you mean?” Collins said.
“I would have said that Miss Hill is the locus of these things, but then I remember the story of your dog and that dolphin. These features developed as a result of your wife?”
“I would say so.”
“Dolphin?” Phoebe added. “What dolphin?”
“In a minute,” Collins said. “Doctor, what’s my wife got to do with this?”
The old man smacked and shrugged, looked up at the ceiling. “So, what do we know? Your wife gets ill, she and your dog have an encounter with this dolphin. Your wife passes away and you flee. You run into this same animal in the Caribbean, then again in the middle of the Atlantic, right after the dog passes away. Then you meet Miss Hill, in Brighton. What happened there? She was suicidal when you met; this I understand. But what else happened?”
“John Lennon happened.”
“Sumner?” Phoebe said, now sounding violated. “Don’t.”
He looked at her. “I’m sorry, Phoebes. He’s become a part of this story, too.”
She shook her head. “Please?”
“Now is the time to talk about these things,” Mann said, “when we may be able to make sense of their meaning.”
She shrugged, seemed to acquiesce to the moment.
“When I saw Miss Hill, Deborah, the first time up on the bluff, she was getting ready to jump…”
Phoebe brought her hands to her face, and he heard a sharp intake of breath.
“Lennon was there,” Collins said. “He’s visited several times since.”
Phoebe was shaking her head, crying now. “No, no, no…” she whispered.
“Why is this a cause for such pain, Phoebe?” Mann asked, concerned.
“Because we were with him when he died,” she said.
Mann looked from Phoebe to Sumner, then back again. “How is this so?”
Sumner spoke now: “We grew up in The Dakota, my mother was a musician and she knew Lennon. We were coming home when it happened, we saw him and he reached out to us as he passed.”
“Excuse me,” Mann said. “Did either of you touch him?”
“I did,” Sumner said.
“I did too. And he coughed on me,” Phoebe whispered. “His blood went in my mouth, and my eyes.”
“Has he appeared to you before, Phoebe?” Mann asked.
She looked down, then gently nodded her head. “Yes,” she whispered.
Sumner sat back and closed his burning eyes. “This is too much,” he sighed.
“I told you I think this is crazy.”
“So, before I say anymore, when this nurse, Sophie? When we go back to see Miss Hill just now, we hear music. It sounds real…live, I think, is the word. We go in and the music is gone, but the air smells like patchouli, but I see there is no incense burning. This, I think, is significant at the time, but it makes no sense. Until now.”
“The song?” Collins asked. “What was he playing?”
“Yesterday,” the old man said.
Phoebe buried her face in her hands. “No-no-no-no-no-no-this-isn’t-happening…can’t be, not again…”
Collins stood and left the table, went up the stairs and out into the night air. He walked down to a circular row of benches outside the chapels of Notre Dame and sat, looked out on the Seine as it flowed ceaselessly to the sea. It was cold now, and a damp mist hung over the city, amber streetlights lining the river receded in clinging fog.
And he felt him there beside the benches.
“I’m sorry your life is so painful now,” Lennon said, “but it won’t always be this way.”
“What about you, John? How is it for you now?”
“I wish there was some way I could describe what this is like. I don’t have the words, ya know?”
Collins nodded. “Yeah, I think I do.”
“I could see the love in your eyes,” Lennon said.
“You looked so afraid, and I felt so helpless…”
“Like you do now.”
“Like I do, yes, now. I don’t know what else I can do for her.”
“You’ve already done it, you know. Don’t worry now. Just accept what comes.”
“I won’t see you for a while. A lot you won’t understand is going to happen, and all we knew is at an end now. But I’ll see you on the other side.”
“Okay, my friend…”
He turned to look at him, but…he was gone.
“Just accept what comes,” he repeated, then he closed his eyes, thought of all he’d seen and done the past few months, Deb and Liz and Rod and Paul. Charley, always Charley, her deep brown eyes the only constant in his life but for…
“What a roller coaster ride this has been…”
He stood and walked back to the cellar; dinner was already on the table and he sat, looked at Phoebe, then at Mann. “Sorry. The air was getting a little close, if you know what I mean.”
“I smell patchouli,” Mann said, “again.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“Was he…?” Phoebe tried asking, but her voice cracked, and she stopped when she saw his face.
“So, how’re the mushrooms?”
“Really good,” she said. “Very…I don’t know. Depth, I think, is the word I’m searching for.”
“Depth. Yes,” Mann said, “that’s it, precisely. You know, Sumner, your sister is very wise.”
“Oh, you have no idea, Henrí, but maybe – in time – you will.”
She looked away again, her future shrouded by their past. She picked at her dinner after that, though Sumner managed to finish, and they walked back to Gemini as deeper shrouds of fog fell over the city. Gemini’s hull and deck were slippery now, coated with rivulets of beading water, and Sumner hopped across first, almost slipping and falling, then Phoebe made her usual light-footed hop and scampered up into the cockpit.
Mann looked at the slippery hull and hesitated. “You know, I think I will go home now.”
“Ah, well then, thanks for dinner. What an interesting place.”
Mann smiled. “Once you give up eating animals, well, you know, the choice narrows.”
“In this city, I can’t imagine the frustration.”
“And you? You seem to have such an affinity for animals. Curious dichotomy, don’t you think?”
“Probably because I don’t think about it, I guess?”
“Perhaps, but we’re all so conflicted these days, between the desires imposed on us by our past, and the needs of a very uncertain future. With so much tension in the air, I’m afraid we must all risk being more tolerant of each others gentle eccentricities. If we fail to act so, I fear we will find the future less hospitable than might agree with us.”
“Change is inevitable,” Collins sighed.
“Yes, but even so, change must be managed with intelligence, or chaos becomes the winner. And who knows, perhaps, civilization falls. Well, good night. I will check in with you tomorrow.”
“Good night, doctor.” He went below and found Sophie talking with Phoebe, and when he looked at the girl he found himself wishing he was thirty years old again. ‘My goodness, but she’s so lovely…’ he said to himself as he went aft to check on Deb. She was asleep, laboring under the weighty spell of fleet footed dreams…so he closed the door and went out to talk with Phoebe. And Sophie.
He stretched out on one of the settees and closed his eyes.
“Are you tired, little brother?”
“Exhausted, but more emotionally than physically.”
“I had no idea I was walking into such an interesting…set of circumstances.”
“Oh? Well, perhaps I was afraid you’d change your mind and not come.”
“Not likely. I’m now homeless again, and not quite dead broke, but getting there.”
Sophie laughed at that. “With your talent? Surely not.”
“Talent?” Phoebe mused. “What talent?”
“Miss Hill tells me you are a wonderful pianist. You could earn a good living here as a teacher.”
“Not at home, not anymore. You know, there was a golden age of the piano in America, back in the 50s and 60s. Those were my mother’s years, I suppose, but that’s gone now. I think it has succumbed to our era of instant gratification, leaving poor little wretches like me to drift away on the forgotten currents of a dying age.”
“Then you should move here. Things are not so commercialized yet.”
“Yes. I saw how civilized Paris has become last month,” Phoebe said.
“That’s not fair,” Sumner said.
“Maybe not fair, but I would assume true, nevertheless.”
His phone chirped, and he fished it out of his coat pocket. “Yello.”
“I’ll be at DeGaulle in an hour.”
“Yes, see you curbside?”
She broke the connection. Well, we’re about to get crowded here.”
“Tracy?” Liz asked.
“No, my other friend. Liz.”
“Really? Where will she sleep?”
He smiled. “I guess up forward, with you.”
“I guess, for tonight, why don’t I go find a hotel room or something?”
“Because. Besides, I’m not sure how long she’ll be here. She could be gone by morning. Anyway, I’ve got to go now.”
“That’s my brother…up in the air, Junior Birdman.”
“You want to come with me?”
“No, my eyeballs are burning and I passed ‘Jetlag’ two exits ago. Time for me to hit the percales, little brother. Bon voyage and all that. Ask your friend not to wake me when she gets here.”
Sophie shrugged. “You have many difficulties, do you not?”
“C’est la vie.”
“Perhaps, but you seem very tired too. When do you rest?”
He shrugged. “I’ll sleep when I die.”
“Oui, and that may come sooner than you’d care to know.”
“Thanks. Well, I’m off – like a herd of turtles.”
She smiled at that, then returned to her notebook, filling out forms as he left, as confused as she had ever been in her life.
He found his way to the car and slipped through the city easily now; between the fog and the late hour there was almost no traffic at all, and he made it out to the airport in record time. He’d been sitting there perhaps five minutes when she came out, a huge suitcase rolling along behind her.
He got out and she ran into his arms, crying uncontrollably as she wrapped her arms around him.
He cupped his hands around her face, let her go ‘til she was spent.
“I suppose you’ll tell me someday what this was all about?”
“Guilt, insecurity, sheer stupidity.”
“Ah, the usual suspects.”
She laughed. “Not for me. Just hold me, will you?”
“I think I’m about to get a parking ticket…” he said, pointing at a police car pulling up behind his rental. He waved at the gendarme and picked up her suitcase – which had an ‘OVERWEIGHT’ sticker affixed to the grip – and he gasped as he manhandled the thing to the rear of the car. “My god…what’s in here? An artillery brigade?”
He helped her in then pulled away from the terminal, and he was still the only car on the road.
“So, why did I leave?”
“That’s a good place to start, I guess.”
“More about Rod, I think. I felt guilty about the way we ended, about not going to the services. His family understood, but one of his uncles was bonkers.”
“The girl? Sharon? How’s she?”
“Sarah. No, well, she’s paralyzed. Has some, well, partial use of one arm, but she’s incontinent, the works. Poor thing. Bad wreck…a lory hit them broadside, right in the driver’s door. Poor Rod.”
“You settled the estate, I take it? Are you happy with the way that worked out?”
“I guess. Didn’t much care one way the other. How’s Deb doing?”
He shook his head. “Going downhill, fast. We have a nurse staying nights now, and my sister arrived this morning.”
“Crowded, I take it?”
“Getting that way.”
“And here I pop up out of nowhere. Sorry. Should I not have come?”
“She’s your friend,” he said defensively.
“Oh dear. Have I lost you, too?”
“I’m very tired, been awake for almost two days.”
“I didn’t hear a ‘Gee Liz, sure is good to see you.’”
“You left, Liz. You wrote an obscure note and you left. How do you expect me to feel?”
She crossed her arms and looked out at the fog. “I’m sorry. Perhaps you should just take me back to the airport.”
He pulled up the menu on the GPS and hit the airport, and direction prompts began.
“What are you doing?” she asked as he prepared to exit the highway.
“You want to go to the airport. I’m taking you.”
“Sumner, I…that’s not what I want!”
“Then stop playing games.”
She resumed looking out the window. “I’d like to go see Deb now,” she said.
“You’ll be sharing the forward cabin with Phoebe.”
“I see. This is not quite how I expected our meeting to go.”
“I see. Well, I was not quite expecting you to leave me. I guess we’re even.”
They finished the ride in silence, and once he’d parked he opened the boot and looked at her bag. “I’m not sure there’s enough room below for this.”
“Here, let me have it.”
He pulled it out and set it on the pavement, and she took off across the street, heading for a hotel on the corner. He looked at her as she walked off and shook his head, then walked back to the boat. Sophie was in the aft cabin, checking vital signs and writing in her little green notebook, so he went forward and took Charley out for another walk. When she finished, he picked her up and carried her below to his cabin. The nurse was still sitting there, watching Deb sleep.
“How is she?”
“Still sleeping, but with morphine only, I’m afraid.” she said. “But there’s congestion in the lungs now, and much pain.”
“Too soon to tell, but I’ve left a call with one of our internists.” She looked at him, concern in her eyes. “You look so exhausted. Shouldn’t you lay down?”
“Uh-huh.” He slipped off his shoes and fell onto the bed, and didn’t feel the blanket the girl slipped over his shoulders, or Charley, as she curled up on the pillow beside his head.
He heard people moving around topsides and did his best to ignore their voices, hoping sleep would come back and carry him away again, then he heard Charley’s little claws scampering across overhead and he sat up, looked around the room. The sun was directly overhead, streaming through the overhead hatch and warming the room. His mouth felt stale, like he’d been out for far too long, and his bladder ached.
He went and stood in the shower, brushed his teeth as hot water ran down his neck, then he went to get dressed – and then noticed Deb wasn’t in bed. He found her in the main cabin, playing the piano with Phoebe again.
“Where’s Charley?” he asked.
“Your friend Liz has him,” Phoebe said, ignoring him but pointing up the companionway.
He went up into the cockpit, looked around the marina and saw them at the far end – by the river and the office. He jumped across to the grass and walked that way, stopping once when a leg cramp bit into him. Liz and Charley were walking his way by then, and Charley ran to him a moment later and jumped up on his shins. He picked her up and she was licking his face when Liz walked up.
“Feeling better, I hope.”
He shook his head. “Too soon to tell, but I still feel like roadkill. How’s the hotel?”
“Cheap, clean, not bad for the price.”
“I’ll go over with you and help move that bag over…”
“I think I’ll stay there. It’s awfully crowded onboard.”
“It is,” he said as he started walking back to the boat, yet looking at her carefully. “How was Deb this morning?”
“The piano? I didn’t know she played.”
“She didn’t, not before yesterday, anyway.”
“Mann said there’ve been a few other incidents like this, a middle aged woman in New York being the most famous to date. Seems this woman had never played anything before, wasn’t even particularly interested in music. She was struck by lightning and a week later was playing at an impossible level, concert skills, and yet two months later she couldn’t even remember a note. The gift left almost as quickly as it came.”
“Phoebe is a concert level pianist, and a teacher. But there’s one other feature of this: Deb doesn’t think she’s Deb any more.”
“What?” she said, grinding to a halt.
“Oh, seems her name is Marian Orgeron, a friend of Debussy’s, as it turns out.”
“It seems our Deb is time traveling, in her sleep anyway. Yesterday she came to us as this Orgeron, but with the extra-added benefit of being a composer, and pianist. Did Phoebe not mention this?”
“No, they’ve been preoccupied on that piano ever since I got here.”
“Ain’t that nice. Has Mann been by?”
“No, not that I know of.”
“Gee, are we having fun yet?” He picked up Charley and carried her across, then took Liz’s hand as she hopped onboard. They went to the companionway, found Deb ripping through a fantastically complex piece, Phoebe recording the performance on her phone; they sat and watched for almost twenty minutes, until Deb collapsed. He rushed below and scooped her up, asked Liz to get the IV stand and then carried her to the aft cabin. He laid her out, covered her with a blanket and sat next to her.
“My head hurts,” she moaned, and Collins hit the morphine button, sending another pulse of the stuff coursing into her bloodstream. Thirty seconds later her eyes rolled back and she fell into a deep sleep; he got on the bed and pulled her close as Charley came up and curled up on her chest. He looked up, saw Phoebe standing at the foot of the bed looking down at them, shaking her head.
“Whatever else may be going on here, she is for all intents and purposes Marian Orgeron. She just played the entire piece…from memory. I’m going to upload this and have my friend at Princeton look it over, but my guess is this simply wouldn’t be possible any other way. It’s just staggering, Sumner, to think what this might mean.”
“It doesn’t mean a goddamn thing, Phoebe. It’s all just a dream within a dream.”
“When she woke up this morning, she said something about a carnival. That’s she’d been at a carnival during the night. Do you know what she means? Has she mentioned it before?”
“No. Did she say anything else?” – but he thought about the music out there beyond the cliffs, the calliope playing in the wind.
Phoebe looked away, trying to remember. “No, just a carnival of some sort. She mentioned torchlight, and an ancient looking man, a wizard perhaps. Sounded like she was talking about Merlin and King Arthur and all that nonsense, but then she kept talking about someone named Claude, and there was a Timothy, too.”
“Timothy? That’s new too. Liz? The blue notebook on the chart table? Could you get that for me, please?”
He opened it up and wrote the date and time, and all Phoebe’s recollections. “Torchlight? And an old wizard? Anything else?”
“Timothy. Did you get that down?”
He kept writing, adding the information about Orgeron and the composition Deb had played, then he closed the book and looked at Phoebe. “What about the nurse? Sophie?”
“Deb was asleep when she left,” Phoebe said. “She also said you need rest. What happened, Sumner?”
“I’ve been tired, and I guess it really hit me last night.”
“How do you feel now?”
“Tired. Tired…like I’ve never felt before. You know, when Deb and I were out on the bluff above Brighton, I know I heard a calliope, one of those steam-powered organ type things.”
“Yes, so?” Phoebe said. “What about it?”
“Well, aren’t those things associated with carnivals?”
“Yes, that’s right, maybe there was one nearby?” Phoebe mused. “So, that might account for the carnival in her dream.”
“But what accounts for the calliope?” Liz asked.
“I don’t know, but I do know what I heard. I know it wasn’t the wind, but…” he chuckled, “that’s about all I remember – then Lennon appeared.”
And Mann appeared in the companionway. “So? What has happened now? More piano?”
“Yes. She was exhausted, collapsed when she finished a 20 minute performance.”
“Phoebe? Were you able to record it?”
“Yes, from start to finish.”
The old man smacked his lips as he came down the steps, then went aft to check on Deborah, and Sumner went with him. “She said her head hurt, so I gave her one click on the IV.”
Mann looked over her chart, his head swaying from side to side, his lips smacking as he read. “I have lab results now. Markers are increasing rapidly, Sumner. Just so you know, I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to keep her comfortable…I’d guess the tumor is now fifty percent larger than it was on diagnosis.”
“Have you thought about how you want to handle the situation when morphine no longer works?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, my concern is Miss Hill won’t be able to make a rational decision when that happens. If you are not prepared to act, let me know so I can assemble the necessary paperwork.”
“I’ll be prepared to act, doctor.”
“My guess would be very soon, perhaps later this week, or even tonight. Okay?” He turned to leave and Collins pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbed his eyes, then went over and kissed Deborah on the forehead.
“Don’t worry about it, Sumner,” he heard her say. “Just accept what comes.”
She had repeated Lennon’s last words to him almost exactly, and he was stunned – again. “John? Did you see him?”
She smiled. “I was with you then, by the river.”
“That night. When you sat by the river. I was with you.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“It’s hard to describe. But don’t be afraid, Sumner. Not about what’s going to happen next.”
“Do you want to play the piano some more?”
“What? I don’t play the piano…”
“Oh. Well, can you tell me about the carnival?”
“No, I have no idea what it is. I haven’t been there yet. Have you?”
“No, my love. How’s the pain?”
“Not too bad right now. I was thinking of baking something. Do we have cherries?”
She smiled. “I should have known. Help me up, would you?”
He hooked her catheter to the IV stand, then helped her stand. Once in the galley, Liz came over and together they started baking. The boat filled once again with the smells of Deb’s favorite recipes, leaving Sumner and Phoebe to drift along with new memories in the making.
“You know what this dump needs?” she finally said to her brother.
“A Christmas tree.”
“You got it, Chuck.”
“I’ll go get Snoopy,” he said with a smile, and they took off into the afternoon, finally finding a small tree a few blocks away. A nearby shop had lights and ornaments, and they carried the tree back to the boat and set it up on the chart table. He rigged the lights and each of them hung one ornament, leaving any more to be placed by guests, then he dimmed the cabin lights. Deborah sat in the glow of the little tree until Sophie arrived, then she went aft with the nurse, leaving the three of them in the eye of the hurricane.
“She doesn’t remember playing the piano,” he said, suddenly remembering their conversation earlier that afternoon.
“A minor miracle I recorded it, I suppose.”
“No recall? None at all?” Liz asked. “It’s like one person’s memory superimposed over another’s, like the layers of an onion.”
“You know,” Collins mused, “to us these personalities must seem randomly imposed, but I wonder? I wonder what the relationship is, if any?”
“You’re assuming there is a relationship,” Phoebe said. And, you’re also assuming the other personality is a real manifestation”
“Well, how do you account for this Orgeron thing?”
“I can’t,” Phoebe said, “but that doesn’t mean I have to buy into some supernatural force manipulating these events, or that there’s some purpose to all this.”
Liz shook her head. “I don’t know, Phoebe. How else can you explain…”
“I can’t, but that doesn’t mean there’s not an explanation.”
“Liz?” Sumner asked. “Are those scones cool enough to try yet?”
“I’ll check. Coffee? With rum, perhaps?”
“That sounds good.”
She came back a minute later with a plate of scones, and Phoebe went to help with the rum. They sat for a while and then watched Phoebe’s recording of Deb playing, then they thought about the more mundane implications of the event.
“I posted the recording to YouTube, sent a link to my buddy at Princeton. He knows some of the story; can’t wait to hear what he has to say after he watches it.”
“Other than to refer you to a good shrink, you mean?”
“And suppose it goes viral? You know, proof of life after death, all that nonsense?”
“Or it might simply be regarded as a prank. That’s usually the case with things of this nature.”
Sophie came back and sat with them then, and Phoebe asked if she was familiar with her great-grandmother’s work.
“Some, yes. My mother played the piano, but not good enough to play works of that force.”
“How about you? Do you play?”
“A little, yes.”
“Well, watch this.” Phoebe cued up the video and played it again; Sophia watched and grew increasingly agitated.
“Where did you get this music?”
“Deb played it from memory, with one little wrinkle. She claimed at the time she was Marian Orgeron.”
“She played this today, yet a few hours ago she had no memory of the event.”
“This is not possible!”
“Shall I play it for you again?”
“No! This is some sort of obscene forgery!”
“Well,” Sumner said, “there’s the answer to that question.”
“What question?!” Sophie asked, now quite angry.
“We all witnessed this, Sophie,” Phoebe said. “There’s no trick, no forgery. Even Dr Mann watched some of this yesterday.”
The girl sat down and shook her head. “This can’t be? It’s insane…”
“Oh, I agree completely,” Sumner said, “yet here we are, confronted with evidence of insanity all around this boat…”
“That woman,” she said, pointing, “claims to be my great-grandmother? That’s just not right!”
“Well, no one knew you were coming yesterday, Sophie, when she claimed to be Ms Orgeron.”
Liz looked excited then. “But she knew, didn’t she. Deb must have known, on some level. She had to, right?”
“Why?” Phoebe asked. “There’s no logical train of cause and effect…”
“Well, why else would Sophie show up?”
“I don’t follow,” Sumner said.
“You lost me…” Phoebe said.
“Well, somehow, someway, Deb must be connected to Orgeron, this Marian Orgeron, and as a result something manipulated Sophie into coming here.”
“I was assigned this case when I arrived at work yesterday, late in the afternoon.”
“And Deborah was…it all started when I brought that piano onboard. That was around two, wasn’t it?”
“Close to it, yeah,” Phoebe said.
Sophie cleared her throat. “You think this is possible, do you? This cause and effect between the piano and my great-grandmother emerging?”
“We’re only telling you what we’ve seen and heard, Sophie. There’s no proof, no logic…”
“Unbelievable is the word,” Phoebe added, “but, Sophie, maybe you could help us understand what’s going on.”
“It’s too late now,” Sumner said. “She’s…Marian…is gone now…”
“That doesn’t mean she won’t be back,” Liz said, hopefully.
“Sophie? Just be aware unusual things like this are happening. When you’re with her, take note of anything unusual.”
“Yes, the doctor has already asked me to record our conversations. You propose I ask who she is, where she has been?”
Sumner and Phoebe both nodded their heads, and he added: “Exactly. And let us know, so we can follow up.”
“Simple enough,” the nurse said, then she sat and began writing up her notes.
“Dinner?” Phoebe asked. “Anyone besides me hungry?”
“I am,” Liz added, and Sumner nodded his head.
“I saw an interesting place up the street, beyond the hotel…”
Sophie looked up and shook her head. “Dreadful. Go to this place,” she said, handing her a piece of paper with a name and address on it. “The atmosphere is impressive, and the food is interesting, too.”
“Okay,” Phoebe said. “Can we bring you something back?”
“Anything with, uh, yes, avocados. I can’t get enough of them!”
“We can do that,” Sumner said. “Better grab a coat…it’s getting cold outside now.” He ran Charley up for a quick piddle then back below, then they took off into the night.
“These blocks are really short,” Liz said. “How many did she say to go?”
“Ah, there it is,” Sumner said, just as a snowflake landed on his forehead.
The restaurant looked somewhat like a Mayan ruin in the middle of a rain forest and he shook his head when he looked over the menu. “Mexican food. That figures. Come to Paris, have a taco.”
They were led to a table by a small waterfall, and canned jungle sounds filled the air.
“Well, this is surreal,” Phoebe said, her eyes looking around the place.
“It sure ain’t Taco Bell…” he said as he opened the menu. “I wonder what ‘enchilada’ is in French?”
Liz laughed. “Well, at least guacamole is the same in any language.”
They ordered, laughed at the typically Parisian micro-portions that arrived and enjoyed too many potent margaritas while they talked. “You know,” Phoebe said, “I was thinking, about this place. How would someone from Mexico City, or even a little Tarahumara village react if transported here overnight. Would they see this as a joke, as some sort of parody of their lives?”
“What would Marian Orgeron think of this Paris? Today’s Paris?” Liz asked.
“My guess is she’d want to go back,” Sumner said, then he fell away, almost into a whisper…“Go back…go back…”
“What is it, Sumner?” Phoebe asked.
“I don’t know. Something…something about going back.”
“Back where?” Liz said. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know…” he sighed. “It was like I caught a fragment of a thought, just out of reach…passing by on the air…”
“What? Sumner? What are you seeing?”
He shook his head gently, slowly. “An idea.”
“An idea? Such as?” Phoebe asked.
“I don’t know. It’s time to go, I think.”
Phoebe looked at Liz and they shrugged at one another. “Okay. Let’s go.”
He seemed increasingly distracted, almost lost when they got out to the street, and he looked away from the river, from the Gemini; he walked up to a cross street and then down an alley. He stopped and looked around, like he was looking for something, or someone…then he took off further into the alley.
It was dark here, and snow was beginning to drift in corners, build on trash cans, but he stopped at a shadow between two industrial-sized waste dumpsters, then knelt down.
There was an old man sitting there, covered in trash bags, sitting on a pile a newspapers. When Phoebe got there she stopped and stepped back, not sure if the old man was alive or dead.
“Phoebe? Your French is better than mine. Ask him if he has someplace to stay?”
“What? Sumner, what are you doing?”
“Ask him, Phoebe.”
“Avez-vous un endroit pour dormir?
The man stared off into space, almost as if he hadn’t heard what she said.
“What’s his name, Phoebe?”
“Vieil homme, quel est votre nom?”
He shook his head. “Je ne sais pas, jeune fille.”
“He doesn’t know his own name?”
“That’s what he said.”
“Ask him if he knows where he is.”
“Savez-vous ou sont?”
“Ooh…je marchais, par ma maison, alors je suis venu ici. Cela est inexact, quelque chose ne va pas…quelque chose est tres mal…”
“What did he say?” Liz asked.
“He says he was walking near his home, but now something is wrong, very wrong.”
“Ask him what’s wrong? What’s different?”
“Qu’est-ce qui ne va pas? Qu’est ce qui a changé?”
“La vile a changé. Rien de tel qu’il était. Je ne comprends pas…”
“He says he doesn’t understand, the city’s different, that everything has changed.”
Sumner leaned in close. “Ask him if he knows Marian Orgeron?” The old man canted his head when he heard that name…
“Sumner? What? What are you…?”
“Ask him, Phoebe.”
“Monsieur, savez-vous une femme nommée Marian Orgeron?”
“Quelle! Qui est-tu? Comment savez-vous son nom?”
“He wants to know who we are, how we know her?”
“Tell him we can take him to her. Tonight. Right now. All he has to do is tell us his name.”
“Monsieur, nous pouvons vous prendre pour elle en ce moment, mais d’abord, vous devez nous dire votre nom.”
“Je ne vous crois pas.”
“He doesn’t believe you.”
“Show him the video.”
“Just play it.”
She took out her phone and found the file and began playing it. She held the phone out so the old man could see it…
“Ce n’est pas possible!” “This is not possible!”
He continued watching, his eyes now round, full of fear…
“Comment cela peut-il etre vrai?” “How can this be true?”
After a few minutes Phoebe stopped playback. “Monsieur, voulez-vous la voir? Ce soir?”
“Oui,” he moaned.
“Monsieur, dites-moi votre nom, s’il vous plait.
“Claude. Claude Debussy.”
“Si vous, voulez voir Mlle Orgeron, s’il vous plaît venir avec nous. Maintenant, s’il vous plaît, Monsieur Debussy.”
The old man stood and brushed the snow off his topcoat. “Je ne me sens pas bien…pourrais-tu m’aider s’il vous plait?”
“What’s going on,” Liz asked.
Phoebe seemed a bit unsteady on her feet now, and she looked at Sumner, then Liz. “He says he’s not feeling well,” she said, taking the old man’s arm in her own. “He says his name is Debussy. Claude Debussy.”
“And we’re sure he’s not a mad schizophrenic rapist, aren’t we?” Lis added.
“Sumner? How did you know he was here?”
He shrugged. “I have no idea. It felt like something was pushing me here, literally like something was pushing me on the back, forcing me to walk this way.”
“The unmoved mover,” Phoebe sighed. “Why is this happening to you? To us?”
They were out on the street soon enough, but Debussy recoiled from the cars and by the people he saw walking by. “Quel est cet endroit? Que s’est-il passé?”
“I don’t think he understands what he’s seeing, he’s confused.”
“How long was he sitting there, in the alley?”
“Monsieur, combien de temps aviez-vous étéassis dans l’allée?”
“Je ne suis pas certain. Peut-être minutes, peut-être des années. Rien ne semble faire sens dans le présent…”
“He says he’s unsure, maybe minutes, maybe years, only that the present doesn’t seem to make sense.”
“Depuis combien de temps Marian ici?”
“Elle est arrivée hier. He wanted to know when Marian arrived, and I told him yesterday.”
Collins saw a market just ahead and went in, bought a half dozen avocados, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and a lime, then he rejoined Liz on the street; he could see Phoebe and Debussy ahead, the old man still holding onto her arm. He smiled, wondered just what the old man could possibly be thinking about the things he was seeing right now. How shocked would he be if he suddenly found himself in Paris a hundred years from now…
Liz was silent now, but she moved close and brushed snow off his coat, then took his arm in hers. “Will you ever by able to forgive me for leaving?”
“I still don’t understand why you did.”
“Because I was afraid.”
“Afraid? Of what?”
“Losing you, I think.”
“So you left?”
“Before you could leave me.”
He shook his head. “You’re afraid I would leave you, so you left me first? You know, in the world I grew up in, when a girl leaves like that she either wants to end things or she wants you to follow and sign your life away.”
“No, I suppose not.” She pulled away from him, fell a little behind. “I guess that’s it, then. Easy come, easy go.”
“Liz, the world I deal with is all shades of gray, not simple blacks and whites. You’ve told me why you left, but it feels hollow to me, and I guess we have a trust issue now. And I think we will until we don’t. If you can’t handle that, if the easy way out is to shut down and walk away, well, you’re only proving my point. That’s what you’ll do whenever we hit a rough patch. You want the situation to change? Well then, you got some work to do.”
She walked along in silence for a while, but took his hand when he came to the boat. “Fair enough,” she said.
He helped her across, then Phoebe and Debussy hopped aboard. He led them below and found Sophie at the piano, playing a few tentative chords. She looked up when she saw them, but her eyes went wide when she saw Debussy.
“Non, non, cela ne peut pas être! Qu’est-ce que cela, ce qui se passe ici? Ceci est absurde!”
Phoebe came below, rushed to the girl’s side. “Sophie, relax, we found him on the street…”
Debussy began yelling – “Cela ne veut pas Marian! Ce n’est pas ce que vous avez promis! Ou est Mlle Orgeron?!”
Collins took the old man by the arm and led him aft, leaving Phoebe to calm down the girl, but when he opened the door and led Debussy into the aft cabin the old man looked at Deb sleeping – and burst into tears.
“Oh mon Dieu!” He hissed between clinched lips. “Ce qui est arrivé a mon Marian? Qu’avez-vous fait pour elle?”
“We haven’t done anything. She’s very ill…”
“Je ne comprends pas l’anglais? S’il vous plait, ou est la femme qui parle français?”
“Phoebe? Need a hand here!”
He turned, saw Deb looking at him from the bed, then she looked at Debussy…
“Claude? Mon dieu! Qu’est ce qui t’es arrivé? Vous avez grandi si grand? Est-ce que vous mangez tellement maintenant?”
“Uh-oh,” Phoebe said, now standing right behind her brother. “She just told him he looks fat.”
“Time to get the fuck out of Dodge…” He turned on the overhead light and shut the door behind them, then returned to the main cabin.
“Well?” Liz said.
“He recognized her, as Marian,” Sumner said.
“You mean,” Sophie said, “Claude Debussy just recognized that woman as my great-grandmother?”
“It would appear so.”
The girl stood and ran back to the cabin and listened at the door, just as Collins saw Dr Mann at the head of the companionway steps.
“Ooh, wonderful!” Mann said. “It looks like I got here just in time…”
“Indeed,” Phoebe said.
“What has happened?”
“We went out to dinner. And ran into Debussy.”
“Well said. Just so,” Collins sighed, then he walked to the cabinet and poured himself two fingers of rum.
“One for me, if you please,” Mann said. “You know, I never drank rum until I met you. Now I can’t seem to get enough. You are a shameful influence, Captain.”
“Thank you. We aim to please.”
The doctor shook his head. “I like you, Collins. In spite of your blusterings I think you must be a good man. Now, where is this imposter?”
Collins handed the doctor a tall glass of dark rum and pointed to the aft cabin, to Sophie, who was still standing, transfixed, at the door.
The doctor walked back to the door. “Have you heard anything interesting?”
“Cela est impossible, Docteur? C’est de la folie! Que se passe-t-il?”
“Nous sommes a l’intérieur d’un rêve dans un rêve, ma fille. Nous devons marcher avec précaution, can nous marchons a l’intérieur des rêves de Dieu maintenant…”
Mann opened the door and went in, found Debussy by Deborah’s side – the composer openly weeping now. Deborah lay very still and he went to her, took her wrist in his hand, then set it down gently.
“Would you find Mr Collins, please, and bring him to me,” Mann said gently, looking up at Sophie. She nodded and left; Sumner returned a moment later, looked at Deborah for a heartbeat – then his eyes filled with tears.
“Is she…” he managed to say.
“Oui,” the physician said – just as Debussy held out his hands and cried “Dieu, pas encore!” – and his form began to shimmer in the air. Within the space of a long sigh his body disappeared, leaving Deborah’s stillness once again the center of the universe. Sophie came in and sat on the bed, looking at this stranger who once might have been the center of her universe, once upon a time. She took her hand and kissed it. “Adieu, vielle mere. Adieu.”
Collins went forward just then, and he found Charley sitting on Elizabeth’s lap; he picked her up and carried her aft, let her walk and circle around the bed, come to terms with Deborah’s stillness, then the little pup walked up, and curled up, on Deborah’s chest – and then she began to lick her chin.
In this new silence she too lay in a great stillness, trying to understand the calm in the cooling body where she liked to rest her head.
“I am left,” Mann said, “trying to understand what has happened, but what I have seen is like a puzzle with too many of it’s vital pieces missing. A well so deep,” he said, think of Thomas Mann’s Joseph, “that we may never see the end of it.” He looked around at the bare trees and the graceful arc of the Trocadero that lay beyond, then down, at Debussy’s grave. “Pieces of a puzzle larger and more complex than any I have ever known, the passing of Miss Hill leaves us only clues, yet we remain in the here and now, left to carry on. Her passing gives us reason to pause and examine the very meaning of time, just as her life was a clue to this meaning. We may be tempted to view her life as a series of despairs, and we may be tempted to say her despairs were without meaning, but I do not believe that. With her passing I am left to struggle with the idea that our lives, our souls, perhaps, echo through time. That her despairs were echoes of earlier struggles, and that she will carry on fighting into the future until she finally can overcome the pain of her existence, and then perhaps we may all reach out to her at last, for understanding.”
He bent over and took a small scoop of ashes and spread them around Debussy’s grave, then he handed the scoop to Collins, who smiled for a moment, then did the same. When everyone who came had looked down and thought about her life in her presence one last time, the small group walked out to the street and scattered on the wind.
Collins went to the car and picked up Charley, then walked back to the grave. She circled a few times, then lay down for a bit, and he sat there beside her on the brown grass, stroking the top of her head while he thought about all that had happened the last few months.
Paul Whittington came by then and lay some roses on Debussy’s grave, then sat on the grass beside Collins and pulled out a pint of rum and handed it to him. Collins took a long pull from the little bottle, then handed it back to Whittington.
“It’s been a strange slice of life,” Whittington said. “Any plans yet?”
“No, not really. I think I have to get used to the way the world is right now before I think much about what might be. Does that make any sense?”
“Really? It does, but that doesn’t sound at all like you. Dwelling on the past and all.”
“Well, I planned to stay here through winter, ‘til March at least.”
“I could use a hand, you know. Getting Aphrodite up to Paris.”
“What’s with you and Liz? Did that fall apart?”
Collins shrugged, looked down at Charley. “Not sure what’s going on there. Have you met anyone yet?”
“Yes, oddly enough, I have.”
“Well, good for you. Is she a sailor?”
“Well, Sumner. No, he’s not.”
“Ah. So, life goes on then, eh?”
“I suppose it will, one way or another. I’d like to grab hold of my little bit of happiness before shuffling off the coil.”
“That’s the thing, I guess,” Collins sighed. “It’s just that every bit of happiness I’ve ever held seems to lead back to suffering.”
“You’re beginning to sound like a Buddhist, Sumner. Be careful or you’ll soon be ridding yourself of all worldly possessions and walking up some bloody mountain in Nepal.”
“The Razor’s Edge?”
“Precisely. If I were you, I’d keep to the path you’re on, see where that leads. But I think you should get back to the sea as soon as you can.”
“That dolphin. She holds the key to your existence, you know?”
“You think so?”
“So, when do you want to move Aphrodite?”
“Oh, any time.”
“Christmas is next week; do you want to be here before that?”
“I suppose so, if at all possible.”
“Well then, I reckon we ought to get with it. Tomorrow, don’t you think?”
“Would you like to drive down with me today?”
“No. I have a few things to tie up today. Pick me up at the train station, I guess the ten o’clock arrival.”
“Okay. See you then.” Whittington stood and held out his hand – and Collins took it.
Collins picked up Charley a few minutes later and walked back to the car; Liz and Phoebe were sitting in the back, arms crossed across their chests, eyes staring vacantly ahead. He put Charley in the seat beside his and slipped into the heavy, late morning traffic, struggling to find the riverside route back to the Arsenal. Once back on the boat, Liz pulled out Deb’s things and began baking a fresh batch of scones, while Phoebe went forward and began cleaning up the boat. Collins sat in the cockpit, his legs stretched out, Charley sitting there, looking up at him, waiting, always waiting, for the music to begin again.
(c) 31 october 2016 adrian leverkühn | abw