The sky had cleared. I sat outside, on the platform formerly used for loading trucks, choosing a corner where the sun shone. Still, it was very cold, and Armand's letter, warming my hands and heart, seemed to me to arrive from paradise. In it, there was a telephone number with a long prefix, and the corresponding hours in France I was supposed to call him. So I did, the next day, after having wandered for one hour, searching for an intact public telephone. His letter had been sitting in my postal box for nearly two months, and I was not sure I could reach him still. Aware this was the miracle I had been praying for, I only hoped it was not too late.
My heart painfully banged in my chest as the phone rang and rang and there was no answer. I called him again and again, watching a cold wind carry the last leaves from the trees. Expectation and anticipation warmed me more than my clothes, but I endured the cold. I was in a square that looked more like a wasteland, almost a corridor between buildings. So small that, in winter, the nearby walls left it constantly in unwelcoming shadows. Even birds avoided visiting the frozen branches of its blackened trees. At least I had the new shoes on, given to me by a doctor. He had been an amateur Art collector, and I must have aroused his compassion saying I was an artist. Impoverished, famished, sick -- still, holding onto my ideal of becoming a professional painter.
When I did get an answer, it was from someone who spoke rudimentary French. "Armand? Please, I want to speak to Armand de Montbelle!" I almost begged. The only answer was "Attendre." Then, a series of ambient noises as I waited. A dog barked. Someone shouted to silence it. A radio playing music. Foreign vocals, a slow guitar. A door screen or a window shutter continually banging. Someone nervously clicking a nearby device -- they were trying for Armand.
The communication scheme was rather complicated. I was calling a commercial post in the Indian Ocean, where they would contact Armand over the radio -- that he turned on just for a few hours every day -- and get him through the telephone.
With a loud click, drenched in deep static came, "Mon ami! Finally!" I hadn't felt that happy, recently, as when I heard my ex-roommate's voice. It warmed my soul, and I no longer felt cold. "What took you so long to call? How could you leave me stranded for an eternity on this lonely island? Or did my letter take that long to get to you? Man, I need you here!" Armand said cheerfully, and then, despite the awful reverberation of the radio over the telephone, I could sense insecurity in his voice when he asked, "Can you hear me? Carlo? Please speak louder! Can you come? Or are you too busy in Paris?"
"Oh, no!" I laughed at the 'busy' part. "I'm coming..." I was practically shouting. The distance between us was greater than France and the Indian Ocean. The difference, greater than the broken garden I stood in, among bare trees, weeds and brambles, behind rows of ugly tenements -- while Armand spoke from a breezy veranda opening onto the sea. His voice was velvety, drenched with starry skies and palm leaves swaying under the moonlight. Mine was shivering. "Yes, of course I am! I mean..." I hesitated, embarrassed to say I was penniless. "I want to come... But I have no idea where this Île du Blanchomme should be..."
"I think I told you on the letter, didn't I? You will have to get to a sea port, mate. And from there, it shouldn't be hard to get to this part of the Indian Ocean." In his letter, he had mentioned that the island he inhabited wasn't far from some major ports for the region. 'There is always a cargo ship on the horizon', he wrote, as if trying to give a simple, casual appearance to a way of life that was rather unusual, and that sometimes would prove to be rather complex. "And once you know your port of destination, I can pick you there and we come together to the Île du Blanchomme... How does this seem to you?"
"Seems like I'll be working as a sailor soon... That should be fun!" I laughed at that prospect. The peasant turned into a sailor? Could a goat ever become a fish? "I'll go to a port within the next few days, and I'll see what I can find, and I'll let you know..." I still had money left from what my grandfather had sent me, and I could also hitchhike to the coast. The days spent in the infirmary with other patients, the short conversations with doctors and nurses, had made me more convivial. And Armand's invitation, that was quickly turning into travel plans, buried whatever expectations of returning to my solitary retreat in the factory. But the hermit in me wouldn't have died so rapidly, and he asked the next question. "I think you mentioned it's a deserted island. Does that mean... really no one around?"
"Mon cher Carlo, I think I included a few hot numbers and names in my letter. They are my father's contacts for the cargo companies. Just call them and let them know you need to travel to the Indian Ocean. Don't forget to mention my father's name. Everybody owes him a favor, or even money, and you should be treated as VIP. You won't travel first class on a cargo ship, but you won't have to work as a sailor either!" Armand sounded deliriously cheerful, and spoke swiftly, unlike his usual restrained manners. Maybe aware of my constant financial difficulties, which meant our call could drop at any moment, since I did not have many francs left with me. "Mate, I'm so glad you can come! I was afraid you'd say no, or remain silent, or procrastinate... Si, Carlo, you can rest assured. There's no one else on the island." I could imagine Armand smiling as he said this. He knew how I enjoyed quiet places. "It's so tiny, you'll see. There used to be some workers here, a few weeks ago, making the abandoned house again livable. But they have left, and now it's only me... and the sun... and the moon... and the mess. Will you call me again? Promise?"
As I walked back to the abandoned factory, the wind carrying old newspaper leaves seemed to me to be blowing in the direction of the Île du Blanchomme. I lifted my eyes to watch a plane emerge from the dark silver clouds and cross briefly the sky, before disappearing in their womb again -- and I wondered if it were headed to the Indian Ocean, too. There seemed to exist no other possible direction, once I had decided.
For a moment, I had to lay down on my humid mattress to calm my heart and sort my feelings out. I had done many things on an impulse, and some of them I'd later regret. But going to an unknown island on the far side of the world to reunite with my best friend seemed just like the right decision to make at the moment.
That same afternoon, I phoned the cargo companies, and with the name of Gaston de Montbelle -- Armand's high-powered father, one of the wealthiest men in France -- at the tip of my tongue, I found a ship bound to the Indian Ocean. Within a week. That did not allow me much time to pack and travel by train to the port.
I had been given a number where I reached the captain of the ship heading to the Indian Ocean, and I contacted him next. He had never heard of the Île du Blanchomme, nor had he heard about Monsieur de Montbelle -- but the owners of the ship had, and so he had to agree to have me on board.
The captain had also agreed that I could bring my easel and paintings on the ship.
"But you have to consider you don't know where you're going, son." he had pondered. "Nor how you gonna get there. Of course you can bring your stuff onto my ship, but maybe you won't be able to bear them until your final destination... Île du Blanchomme! You might have to build a raft out of your easel and canvases to get there, ha-ha." The captain had laughed at my lack of knowledge about the voyage I was about to start. "Be practical, son. The wise traveler always travels light." He seemed to be a nice man.
And so I painted the last canvas in that abandoned factory, that I had come to consider as being my 'Parisian atelier'.
But I wasn't ready to get rid of my paintings.
I was more attached to them than to my own health. I had already rolled quite a few of them, those I considered to be the best, because they were thus easier to carry, even if it damaged the paint a little... And since I could not simply abandon the rest, I decided to burn them.
It was the night before embarkation. I would be taking a train to the port before dawn, and I still had to walk all the way to the station, bearing my stuff.
In such a cold night, it was a bitter consolation that the fire warmed me.
The canvases cracked and fired off sparkles as they were consumed by the flames. Mere matter to everybody else, those paintings represented years of learning and dedication. But also my struggles, doubts, fears -- the flames seem to purify all. Suddenly, it occurred me I should have an indelible memory from that last evening in the factory. I took a piece of burning wood from one of the frames, and applied it to my hand. It sizzled.
"And it produced this little bruise that you can see here, Laurent. But big enough to help me recall, for the rest of my life, what probably was the most important period of my Parisian years..." Carlo paused, as he softly caressed his scar. He lifted his eyes from his hands, and it took him a few moments to finally focus them on me. He was arriving from Paris -- but so was I. The city I had visited just once in my childhood -- though not the industrial suburbs he described --, exploded like a bubble, and we were both back in The Nirvana Lounge. "Maybe you don't remember asking me about it when you were a small boy, do you, Laurent?" Carlo looked at me inquiringly, with a lovely smile brightening his features that had become a bit tense after the narration of his sickness. "We were still living in Punaouilo. You touched the bruise with your little fingers and asked me if it had hurt... and if I had cried... You touched it ever so lightly, as if you didn't want to make it hurt again... do you remember it, son?"
"No, I don't remember that..." Once Carlo had mentioned the name of the island where I had been born and spent the happiest years of my childhood, I felt my connection to him strengthening. "But I do remember being intrigued with your bruise. Especially after I had burnt myself for the first time with a candle..." That came out as a confession, an episode of my childhood I had hidden from both my parents. Insignificant as it was, it had remained a secret between me and the maid at Punaouilo who used to baysit me. "And I think I was afraid to ask how it had happened to you..." Though, apparently, according to my father, I did ask him. Still, I couldn't remember what his answer was. "When was that, Carlo?"
"Never mind, Laurent. This happened during the time your mother left us to travel back to France. Do you... remember that?" Carlo inquired tactfully, as he knew to be addressing sensitive matters.
"Of course I do! I mean," I gulped, and crossed my legs. Feel emotional was making me uncomfortable. "I remember her absence. That's what I remember most..." I shrugged, trying to dismiss the bad recollections from that period.
When Catherine returned on her own to France, we had lacked news from her for two months. For a six years old boy missing his mother, that equals eternity. But it wasn't so bad compared to the fact that she never returned to Punaouilo, and it took me almost two years to see her again.
Author's note: having been imported from a former version of the story, some of the comments below are dated previous to this post. Once the plot has not been altered, just the pagination, I am keeping them since they are very dear and precious to me.