Hold it! It will ride you to peace. To the silence of darkness . . . and peace.
The rays of the early sun broke through the mists of the eastern sky, lending glitter to the calm waters of the Mediterranean. The skipper of the small fishing boat, his eyes bloodshot, his hands marked with rope burns, sat on the stern gunwale smoking a Gauloise, grateful for the sight of the smooth sea. He glanced over at the open wheelhouse; his younger brother was easing the throttle forward to make better time, the single other crewman checking a net several feet away. They were laughing at something and that was good; there had been nothing to laugh about last night. Where had the storm come from? The weather reports from Marseilles had indicated nothing; if they had he would have stayed in the shelter of the coastline. He wanted to reach the fishing grounds eighty kilometres south of La Seyne-sur-mer by daybreak, but not at the expense of costly repairs, and what repairs were not costly these days?
Or at the expense of his life, and there were moments last night when that was a distinct consideration.
'Tu es fatigue, monfrere? his brother shouted, grinning at him. 'Vas te coucher! Je suis tres capable!'
'Yes, you are,' he answered, throwing his cigarette over the side and sliding down to the deck on top of a net. 'A little sleep won't hurt. !
It was good to have a brother at the wheel. A member of the family should always be the pilot on a family boat; the eyes were sharper. Even a brother who spoke with the smooth tongue of a literate man as opposed to his own coarse words. Crazy! One year at the university and his brother wished to start a compagnie. With a single boat that had seen better days many years ago. Crazy. What good did his books do last night? When his compagnie was about to capsize.
He closed his eyes, letting his hands soak in the rolling water on the deck. The salt of the sea would be good for the rope burns. Burns received while lashing equipment that did not care to stay put in the storm.
'Look. 'Over there'
It was his brother; apparently sleep was to be denied by sharp family eyes.
'What is it?' he yelled.
'Port bow! There's a man in the water! He's holding on to something! A piece of debris, a plank of some sort. '
The skipper took the wheel, angling the boat to the right of the figure in the water, cutting the engines to reduce the wake. The man looked as though the slightest motion would send him sliding off the fragment of wood he clung to, his hands were white, gripped around the edge like claws, but the rest of his body was limp - as limp as a man fully drowned, passed from this world.
'Loop the ropes!' yelled the skipper to his brother and the crewman. 'Submerge them around his legs. Easy now move them up to his waist. Pull gently. '
'His hands won't let go of the plank!'
'Reach down! Pry them up! It may be the death lock. '
'No. He's alive . . . but barely, I think. His lips move, but there's no sound. His eyes also, though I doubt he sees us. '
'The hands are free!'
'Lift him up. Grab his shoulders and pull him over. Easy, now!'
'Mother of God, look at his head!' yelled the crewman. 'It's split open. '
'He must have crashed it against the plank In the storm,' said the brother.
'No,' disagreed the skipper, staring at the wound. 'It's a clean slice, razorlike. Caused by a bullet; he was shot. '
'You can't be suite of that. '
'In more than one place,' added the skipper, his eyes roving over the body. 'We'll head for lie de Port Noir; it's the nearest island. There's a doctor on the waterfront. '
'He practises. '
'When he can,' said the skipper's brother. 'When the wine lets him. He has more success with his patients' animals than with his patients. '
'It won't matter. This will be a corpse by the time we get there. If by chance he lives, I'll charge him for the extra petrol and whatever catch we miss. Get the kit; we'll bind his head for all the good it will do. '
'Look!' cried the crewman. 'Look at his eyes. '
'What about them?' asked the brother.
'A moment ago they were grey - as grey as steel cables. Now they're blue!'
'The sun's brighter,' said the skipper, shrugging. 'Or, it's playing tricks with your own eyes. No matter, there's no colour in the grave. '
Intermittent whistles of fishing boats clashed with the incessant screeching of the gulls; together they formed the universal sounds of the waterfront. It was late afternoon, the sun a fireball in the west, the air still and too damp, too hot, Above the piers and facing the harbour was a cobblestone street and several blemished white houses, separated by overgrown grass shooting up from dried earth and sand. What remained of the verandas were patched lattice-work and crumbling stucco supported by hasI'lly implanted piles. The residences had seen better days a number of decades ago when the residents mistakenly believed lie de Port Noir might become another Mediterranean playground. It never did.
All the houses had paths to the street, but the last house in the row had a path obviously more trampled than the others: It belonged to an Englishman who had come to Port Noir eight years before under circumstances no one understood or cared to; he was a doctor and the waterfront had need of a doctor. Hooks, needles, and knives were at once means of livelihood and instruments of incapacitation. If one saw le medecin on a good day, the sutures were not too bad. On the other hand, if the stench of wine or whisky was too pronounced, one took one's chances.
Ainsi SoiI'll. He was better than no one.
But not today; no one used the path today. It was Sunday and it was common knowledge that on any Saturday night the doctor was roaring drunk in the village, ending the evening with whatever whore was available. - Of course, it was also granted that during the past few Saturdays the doctor's routine had altered; he had not been seen in the village. But nothing ever changed that much; bottles of Scotch whisky were sent to the doctor on a regular basis. Me was simply staying in his house; he had been doing so since the fishing boat from La Ciotat had brought in the unknown man who was more corpse than man.
Dr Geoffrey Washburn awoke with a start, his chin, settled into his collar bone, causing the odour of his mouth to invade his nostrils; it was not pleasant. He blinked, orienting himself, and glanced at the open bedroom door. Had his nap been interrupted by another incoherent monologue from his patient? No, there was no sound. Even the gulls outside were mercifully quiet; it was lie de Port Noir's holy day, no boats coming in to taunt the birds with their catches.
Washburn looked at the empty glass and the half-empty bottle of whisky on the table beside his chair. It was an improvement. On a normal Sunday both would be empty by now, the pain of the previous night having been spiralled out by the Scotch. He smiled to himself, once again blessing an older sister in Coventry who made the Scotch possible with her monthly stipend. She was a good girl, Bess was, and God knew she could afford a hell of a lot more than she sent him, but he was grateful she did what she did. And one day she would stop, the money would stop, and then the oblivions would be achieved with the cheapest wine until there was no pain at all. Ever.
He had come to accept that eventuality . . . until three weeks and five days ago when the half-dead stranger had been dragged from the sea and brought to his door by fishermen who did not care to identify themselves. Their errand was one of mercy, not involvement. God would understand, the man had been shot.