I tried preparing a rather simple, fresh lunch, again thinking on my grandfather's sensible recipes, and trying to add a touch of elegance and daring with Armand's spices.
It mustn't have been that bad, for Catherine ate as much as she could. She had an amazing appetite for a such a petite girl -- and I wondered if she had caught a worm that she was also feeding in her stomach, haha. At least some kind of food poisoning she must have had, because despite having thanked me and discreetly praised my lunch, she was again to vomit in the afternoon.
I thought we were having another remarkable conversation, for like Armand and me she had also been an habitué at the Cinématèque Française. We shared impressions about many movies, but after a while she stopped listening to me. She seemed to be shivering, and I started getting really worried, remembering my own illness, that had interrupted my self-imposed exile in the old factory and made me face the world again... And hadn't I just then found a letter from Armand in the mail... And because I had to go to the hospital was I now living on the Île du Blanchomme... Maybe I should thank the rats and rusty cans for my present good fortune? Had they led me to the lovely young woman before me? A sickness was a blessing in disguise?, I wondered.
I had had a good intuition the other night when I thought Catherine had been suffering from sunstroke. But my intuitions were to no avail when she began to actually feel ill.
During lunch I noticed how she had turned red from all those hours under the sun, and I realized that she was getting sick, though trying to keep her pretentious -- or true? -- friendly smile, listening with polite interest while I was discoursing passionately about... Art, of course.
"Are you feeling ill?" I finally asked, when I thought she might fall from the chair at any moment, from shivering so much. How could she have been cold under that tropical sun?
That question was the sign for her to get up and run to the bathroom... that she did not reach in time, puking on the veranda in front of Armand's room. She then moved on to the toilet, where again I heard her vomit.
I did not wish to interrupt Carlo's narrative, but I had been guessing something for some time now, and it was making me suffer.
"Was my mother bulimic, Carlo?" This was a night of revelations for me, old lies were falling down defeated, and perhaps Catherine's diet, that had kept her with a flawless body at fifty eight years old, had a different, more sinister nature.
"Oh no!" Carlo gave the shortest of laughs, since laughing was not very appropriate at that stage in the story. "That's a disturb no one talked about, back then... Your mother has always had a very delicate constitution. She was thoroughly urban, and life in that tropical part of the world... the food, the water, the sun, the temperature, the insects, the boats, the tides, the moon... and even I..." Carlo smiled sadly. "Everything harmed her health."
"I was monitoring her from outside the room, listening to her crying after she had stopped vomiting..." my worries dismissed, we drifted back to the Île du Blanchomme, "And since after some time she hadn't come out of the bathroom, and everything was so quiet, I decided to check how she was..."
I found her lying unconscious on the bathroom floor, next to the toilet. She was soaked in her vomit, and when I tried to clean it from her, I noticed how she shivered at the touch of a cloth dipped in cold water -- and if I had been still thinking of food poisoning, from that moment on I was convinced of a heatstroke.
But I had never taken care of anyone sick before. My grandfather had never been sick, apart from an occasional flu -- he used to say himself that he would die healthy. As for Armand, I had accompanied him once to a private clinic of a friend of his father, some famous doctor, where he was treated for an inflammation in the lungs.
I was nearly desperate as I tried to recall what cares I had received at the hospital in Paris, and that was when I remembered a first aids book and a box of medicines that Armand had shown me in his office. It was the one room in the house that I rarely entered, since the only thing in there for me was the radio, that I had been unable to use. I tried to turn it on again, randomly pressing this and that button, but I don't know if it had to warm up or what, and again I gave up. I resented being so inapt at technological stuff. But even if it had worked, what then? I would be screaming for help, hoping someone would send an helicopter to the Île? Grow up, Carlo, -- I remember telling to myself -- this is the time. Someone depends on you.
And only then, glancing around the room in dismay, did I realize that Catherine had been in the office already, leaving her notebooks, pens and two novels on my friend's desk. It seemed like another outrageous invasion to me -- but who cared, when there was an emergency going on? At that moment, I was more mad at myself than I could ever be at the sick girl.
There was a manual on tropical diseases provided by the Colonial government, dating from Herr Weissmann's time, but I figured that orientations on how to treat heatstroke should not have changed with the decades....
Removing Catherine from the bathroom was my first problem -- when I tried to lift her, she cried in pain. I felt like I was violating her when I nevertheless lifted her in my arms and carried her to bed, despite her painful groans. I felt genuine tenderness with her in my arms, like I had never felt before. Despite her smelling to vomit and the sweat on her skin, I wanted to keep on holding her in my arms. But it was the wrong moment for romantic impulses, I knew -- I had to read the manual, my only adviser in that situation.
Her skin was almost purple and she was sweating profusely -- which was a good sign according to the manual, because it meant her sweating had not been affected -- but what worried me were the chills that made her squirm, and her state of consciousness, semi-consciousness or unconsciousness, that I could not quite determine. According to the manual, if the person presented an altered state of consciousness, she should be taken urgently to the hospital... that lied nine hours away at least, had the boat been there.
I tried not to panic.
One of the recommendations was placing the affected person in a cold bath -- but I had just brought her from the bathroom, and I thought it would be cruel to move her again. I then adopted the second best recommended method, which was to put cool, wet rags on her skin, at the back of her neck, on her groin, and her armpits. And I was supposed to mist and fan her to promote evaporative cooling.
For hours, I moved between the bathroom sink and Armand's bed, drenching the floor along the way and also the mattress, while trying to cool Catherine's body. She struggled, and no matter how gently I placed a wet cloth on her skin, it seemed to cause her an unbearable pain and shock. I also gave her water to sip slowly, to counteract dehydration. And I started watching for the girl in her delirious state.
One of the recommended procedures, however, troubled me -- it was removing the clothes of the person with heatstroke, to help in the cooling process. I decided I would not do that, because no matter how much panic I felt in that situation, another bestial part of me still watched Catherine's exposed breasts. My criminal gaze kept falling repeatedly over the bikini tan lines on her burnt skin... Although there was nothing sensual about the situation, yet one continuous tingle seemed to live in my groin.
But night was falling, and Catherine still struggled in her delirious state, not showing much improvement in her condition. It seemed to me she was somehow trying to get rid of the clothes herself... So I decided to help her. Promising myself to behave like a monk, I undressed her. She had taken her bikini off before having lunch, and I found her completely naked under her fancy and now stained dress...
How utterly beautiful she were, I thought. Yet, it crossed my mind how helplessly weakened a sick person is, totally dependent and not able to defend oneself, and how in this situation someone with bad intentions might take advantage and abuse... Suddenly, I felt that, at that exact moment, the sick and helpless people around the world were being abused, so many of them at that very moment... at this very moment, for it is happening now, do you realize it, Laurent? All around the world indeed... as I watched Catherine's lovely naked body, bare before my eyes for the first time. At the same time that I was filled with compassion for the sick, I felt those demanding sensations in my groin...
"What is it Laurent? Why are you crying?" Carlo interrupted the story.
Those were tears I could not restrain nor explain, and I had been glad that my father was so engrossed in his story, imagining that he would not notice.
"It's nothing... It's just that... thinking about my mom so sick and in pain, and seeing you so lost and unprepared..." And while that actually sensitized me, there was something worse... a thought had entered my mind crawling from my darkest fears... it invaded me... the awful truth that my parents had hidden from me... "You were both so young..." I could see Carlo... taking advantage of Catherine, and I had been born... from an abuse! That would explain so many things in my life... my karma.
"That was just a training..." Carlo smiled tenderly, and in an instant his sincere sweetness liberated me from my fears, "...for the times when you got sick, my son. Caring for an adult is demanding and complicated, but caring for a sick baby, a baby crying in pain..." Carlo was sad again. "... it's heartbreaking!" He reached across the table and gently squeezed my hand. "Please do not cry, Laurent, or I'll cry too!"