Arriving in Smögen, I found out I had misread the transportation chart. I thought there was a regular boat going to Armand's island -- when there wasn't any. I'd have to depend on someone going that direction that day to be willing to take me along. The team at the small tourist office was very friendly and promptly engaged in finding someone heading that direction, yet, they still recommended that I do my own search at the port.
Smögen was a beautiful island, one of the most celebrated on the charming Swedish West Coast. But there was a general feeling of hangover after the high season had long withered away. I was able to find a lovely restaurant offering a gorgeous view, from where I watched the sky become a mass of grey clouds and the sea turn into liquid metal. It must have been fascinating shades of silver evolving right before my eyes, but as my own mood darkened, I missed the exquisite luminosity of the North Sea.
While I wandered at the port, not sure if I was just waiting for a message from the tourist information to arrive on my mobile or an actual boat to pick me up, I could not help but recall how my father had seen himself stranded on an island he did not know the name, all alone, wondering whether his friend would come to rescue him or not -- that same friend who had turned to be my uncle.
I was sure Armand wasn't coming for me, since I had agreed on reaching his island on my own. I knew my situation was not as precarious as Carlo's had been -- this was Sweden and everybody spoke better English than I did, instead of the native language my father had barely understood when he arrived in the Indian Ocean. And I could afford a neat hotel if I had to spend the night in Smögen, before heading to Armand's island -- unlike my father, who had slept rough, feeling cold and hungry and afraid of the rats.
Of course, I hadn't told my parents about my visit to Armand. It was weird to be hiding things from them like a five years old child when I was thirty five. Yet, it was not that simple.
First, I don't think they would have helped me reach my uncle. Catherine might even have complicated things. And trying on my own had been hard enough. It had taken me two years to get an appointment with him -- but somehow, I felt Armand had understood the personal nature of our meeting and had thus invited me as his guest to his private retreat, instead of scheduling me for a meeting at one of his offices around the world.
Second, my communication with my parents had never been very close, nor constant.
After a twenty years gap, Carlo and I had reconnected and our friendship had been revived, yes -- but that didn't mean we were now intimate confidants. I tried to imagine how the sound of the telephone ringing could disrupt Carlo's tranquil and silent routine in the high mountains in central Italy, where he lived all on his own. He hadn't been randomly nicknamed 'The Hermit of the Brushes' by art critics. And though he had never mentioned it, I realized he usually started our conversations with some level of anxiety. It was as if my calls represented an emergency.
Carlo had always deciphered and perceived me without the need for words. Like when we had visited the Apennines together, and he had sensed my sexuality as I was falling in love for Fabio -- though not quite understanding it myself. Carlo knew me, intuitively, without the need for further elaborations. Privileges of being a father, perhaps? It had been a grand opportunity for both of us to have that long and clarifying conversation in Vice City -- but since then, we had gone back to our mute mode.
Having reestablished a direct connection to my father seemed to suffice. I knew I could count on him. But after two decades, I had also learned to live without him. His presence on the planet, or just knowing that I again dwell in his heart and thoughts, brought me enough comfort. I did not need to press on him for proofs of his love.
What had naturally developed in the relationship with my father turned into a struggle when it came to my mother.
Catherine had been a constant presence in my life -- as much as she had been a constant absence in my life, too. Since she had left me at the age of six behind in Punaouilo without any news, my insecurity about her feelings towards me had risen to uncontrolled levels.
In France, during my adolescence, she was often going abroad to teach. She would leave me alone for days, knowing that I would diligently perform my duties at school and in our rural home. I don't think that, lawfully, Catherine could have left me alone at the age of thirteen and fourteen, and been gone abroad for weeks. But it became a routine for a couple of years. She had been doing that when Carlo was there -- he would take care of me. And she kept doing it when he no longer was with us, expecting that I would take care of myself.
I should have enjoyed that unprecedented level of independence, and the demonstration of faith from a mother towards her teenager son -- but the truth is I feared that she would also leave me, just like Carlo had. An outcast in my mother's intellectual life, I started surfing a wave of high anxiety the moment Catherine left for Belgium. I would even help her load the car with her luggage. One heavy bag contained mostly books, another lighter yet bigger one with designers clothes, a third one with shoes and accessories, and finally her oversize necessaire with creams and her signature perfume for that season. She must have been the best dressed teacher in Belgium, perhaps in whole Europe, I guessed, as I carried her luggage downstairs. She carried so much luggage that I always feared she was leaving home without telling me. She could spend months away, on her provision of books and clothes. Only when she returned home did I actually relax again, feeling I had once more crashed upon her shores.
Catherine would return each time with a dozen chocolate boxes for me. Belgians reputedly made the best chocolate, and once I had fought my bullies and did not have to 'share' it with them any longer, my problem became to have the correspondent best pimples ever.
Once, Catherine had phoned me to say she would stay an extra week away. Instead of returning home, she would go directly to some congress in the Netherlands, and try to buy new clothes there.
"Do you have enough food at home, Laurent?" Since she couldn't cook and did not really care for food, we had a freezer that was larger than our refrigerator. From loafs of bread to portions of steak tartar, all food at home was either frozen or canned. Even fruits only existed in our home as preserves. "You know you can always eat at the club, don't you, mon cher? And you know where to find money? You can call me in any emergency, do you understand?" Which meant I should never call her unless it was tremendously important, and instead wait until she checked on me every four or five days. "Are you going to be alright?"
I answered yes to all questions -- what else could I have said? She didn't allow me time to say anything else, firing her questions in a row. And I was thirteen years old -- just or already. No longer I was a child to beg "Maman, maman, please come home... I am afraid to stay alone in this isolated house, maman" But it was often true, specially in the evenings, when the fields around were utterly dark. Wouldn't it have been ridiculous of me, though, to wimp and implore for my mother's return?
When, after that phone call about her delay, I had found a couple of Belgian chocolate boxes in our mailbox, I immediately thought Catherine was saying goodbye to me. She seemed to love the academic environment she had found in Belgium. She had probably found a lover there, too, since in France she had calmed down regarding her love life.
One day after the other, I had sobbed while devouring the chocolate she had posted, watching my mother's last present to me disappear down my throat -- and it was no consolation to know that they would again surface as pimples. Yet, I was aware that the fear of losing my mother was not a serious and practical enough reason to call her abroad.
My desperation had only ceased when again Catherine came home. The moment I heard her car winding up the road that ended at our garden, my anxiety receded. If someone had shown me a movie of myself crying over the chocolate, sobbing before the television that I watched while devouring peach preserves, or the tears that were still falling as I masturbated -- I would have sworn to be someone else. I saluted her as if nothing had happened.
I was convinced my mother would have stopped me from searching for Armand. Thus I hadn't asked her for help. She must have all his contacts through her lawyers, but I did not want to use those channels. Just like I did not alert my father about my trip to Sweden to visit his former friend. I did not want to go as an emissary of my parents, though I knew I would probably be received like that by my uncle Armand.
The same reason why Catherine had forbid me to meet him, made me more curious to actually go and confront him.
If my uncle had known about my existence all along, why hadn't he tried to contact me? I could imagine how hurt he must have been with Catherine and Celeste in the whole De Montbelle judicial process. I understood that he could even blame them for his mother's death. But that guilt would extend and fall even upon me?
After a slow lunch, followed by a piece of lemon pie and linden infusion, I had strolled along the wharf until a cold wind started blowing. I made my way back to Smögen's tourist office where I had left my backpack. It was a really small piece of luggage; for after so many trips around the world I had learned better to always travel light.
As I made myself warmer, I received the good news -- the super helpful team at the office had found someone heading the same direction I was going. The man had agreed to take me on his boat until Armand's island. We were due in one hour or so.
"He is a very famous architect!" I tried to chat with the owner of the boat, "He was awarded the most important prize in Architecture!"
"I don't know anything about that, so I guess he is not famous for me. No." The man, who somehow reminded me of my great-grandfather Tarso, was very circumspect and after a while I realized I had to shut up in respect to my host, and simply enjoy and be thankful for the ride. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the mist brought in the wind and the sun on my face. The sky had cleared, and a bright light greeted me on my way to the reunion with my lost uncle.
Who must have heard the boat approaching, for Armand was on the deck when I disembarked. As I set foot on the weather beaten wooden floor, I felt Carlo was disembarking with me, like once he had on the Indian Ocean, carrying me as a seed.
I was happy and thrilled to be meeting my long lost uncle for the first time in my life -- but at once I also realized how embarrassing that meeting was, specially for him, and I was grateful to his generosity and openness.
The fact was I did not know what to expect. I had done the most thorough research on Armand de Montbelle that the internet had allowed -- considering that professionally he used the name of Armand Purlux Drurien, after his mother's family.
There were very few pictures of him on the web, compared to the countless images of the buildings he had created around the world. But nothing had prepared me to his... aura? I guess I can call it that, by the way he stood before me, looking solidly grounded to the earth, yet light and airy as if he were ever ready to depart. He had a presence that could not be described as strong, but perhaps as intense, in the sense of a wholeness that did not exclude a certain disembodiment, I thought. Like all things zen, he seemed hard to be grasped and reduced to a few distinct qualities. But there was a sense of calmness about him that was disarming, even the more in contrast to my own nervousness and expectancy.
"Bonjour, Laurent. Bienvenue." He saluted me as I left the boat. His voice was melodic and silky like Carlo had described, and I was still to marvel on his silvery pronunciation, that was effortlessly better than Catherine's even, she who had always strived to speak so correctly. His vocabulary, I'd find it richer and more poetical than anyone I had ever heard before.
He was dressed very simply, with a tunic, pants and slippers that made him look like a very elegant monastic -- because his simplicity was that of Kenzo or Miyake, judging by the quality and cut of the clothes in a beautiful shade of gray, that changed colors with the sunlight, as if it were mother of pearl. We couldn't be farther from France and the Chateau de Montbelle, but I could see how he always carried around him the echoes of the sophisticated ambients he had been raised in, like an exquisite shell.
I had fantasized about a welcome hug between the uncle and his never seen before nephew. Despite all the tragedies, deceit and vileness in the story that united us, we carried the same blood, at least partially, and that seemed to matter and stand above all to me.
Armand just shook my hand, from a polite distance, and though his expression was not tense nor serious, it did not demonstrate any happiness either. Nor was it neutral, because I sensed his curiosity. He must be trying to guess what had brought me to him -- and I wondered if I knew it clearly myself.
"Merci beaucoup, Armand." I didn't know how to proceed, and his silence and bland expression was not making it any easier for me. I pondered that the lovely scenery was an unemotional enough subject to start our communication. "This island is so..." I couldn't possibly say tiny, not even small, for it would sound like I was downgrading the place I had just arrived to, "--cozy." I tried.
Armand finally smiled, for a brief moment. I would soon realize he could be as reserved as my father, and given to long silences, too. No wonder they had been best friends, and their daily life as roommates had always been harmonious and peaceful -- at least, until lust had intruded into their relationship.
"I imagine this is..." I did not want to repeat 'cozy', yet I couldn't find any other word, "pretty much like the Île du Blanchomme?"
Armand stared at me, inquiringly. It was the first mention to the past that I made, only five minutes after having arrived, pointing to the story I had come to rescue. I think right there and then he started wondering how much I knew. But he didn't lift his shield of silence.
"I mean, this is a Northern version of the Île, I guess." I tried a little laugh and winked; again, to no reaction from my uncle. He seemed to be patiently waiting to see where I would lead the conversation to, and I decided to open up. "You know, I want to visit the Île du Blanchomme, where--"
And I stopped. I was about to say "where my life began", but I realized how inappropriate that was. My conception actually meant betrayal to my uncle. It was in his bed that Catherine and Carlo had made love repeatedly, and I suddenly realized how aggressive my simple existence -- and now my inconvenient presence -- in my uncle's life should be. As much as I intended a fresh start with him, I must have been the personification of old wounds. He might have reunited my father and mother, but that hadn't been his will, ever.
"The Île no longer exists." I heard Armand quietly say. At first, I thought he was metaphorically speaking, stating that the past was over.
"Oh... You mean they changed its name, right?" The last two years, as much as I had been chasing Armand, I had researched on the internet about the island of my conception. But I could find no information at all. Since the colonial government had left, many islands in that part of the world had changed their names back to their native denominations, and many records had been erased. Not even looking for Herr Weissmann had brought any results, since that was a fictitious name, given to him by the locals because he was German and so white, even whiter in that part of the world. I had no clue about his real name, that I intended to obtain from my uncle Armand. "I read that some of the islands are now open air museums, displaying the local culture--"
"The Île du Blanchomme no longer exists on this planet." Armand interrupted me. He wasn't being rude; it was more as if he wanted to end my agony. He spoke very calmly, and I realized he was being tactful, for he sensed I would be shocked. "A tsunami has washed it away. It has simply vanished."
"But... but..." Attutering, I felt my heart start to shrink, "Hadn't Herr Weissmann built the house on poles? Hadn't he predicted tidal waves? How come it...?"
"No one ever predicted a tidal wave of that magnitude. And it might not have been the wave at all. The Île stood right on the line where the Sunda Trench ruptured. The earthquake alone might have erased it."
"You mean..." I was dumbfounded, still trying to adapt to the fact that the Île du Blanchomme no longer existed, when one of the reasons I had come was to gather enough information to locate and visit it, "...that 2004 notorious tsunami?" I was now wondering if the island still existed when Carlo had first mentioned its existence to me, back in 2008 during our conversation at the Nirvana Lounge.
"No, it was later. It was a tsunami in 2006."
"The house was destroyed, then?" I mumbled.
"Not only the house, Laurent." My name sounded sweet in my uncle's voice, but everything else he communicated was bitter. "The entire island disappeared from the map! The Île du Blanchomme was merely a tiny blotch of sand topping a coral and perhaps a bed of lava, standing just few meters above the ocean. It was a single source of water that made it so special, and suitable for life. And Herr Weissmann's superior inventiveness and building skills, too. But it was all rather fragile. It might have existed for a couple centuries only, maybe not even that long. And in the dance of tectonic plates and the rising sea level, just like it once rose above the waters, the Île du Blanchomme again sank to the bottom of the ocean."
"You mean..." I felt tears welling up, "nothing remains of it?" I was trying to imagine the house I longed to visit wiped off and turned into floating debris.
"If anything remains, it is a tiny chunk of land mass beneath the waves." Armand's words, that he tonelessly uttered, without any display of emotion, astounded me. As if it was not about a place from his own past, from my own past, where an important event in our lives had taken place. I guess he realized my confusion and sadness, and he complemented, softly, most kindly. "And our memories of it shall remain, too."
And I finally understood. The tenuous geographical contours of my personal world had been forever altered and diminished. The piece that had recently fallen into place went missing again. It did not matter whether it had been the 2004 or a 2006 tsunami to erase the Île du Blanchomme from the surface of the Earth. Nothing was left of it -- and the irony was it already didn't exist when I had first heard of it. A delusion like a mirage -- my father must have been completely unaware of the island's extinction. And all the plans I had made to visit it, once I had found its exact location with my uncle's help, sank with the island, just like my heart sank, too.
"Shall we go home, Laurent?" Armand whispered to me, closing that subject, perhaps realizing my emotional state.
I recalled Carlo saying the Île du Blanchomme had the shape of a heart. No longer. And I let the tears flow freely, as I grabbed my backpack and followed my uncle on the path along the coast into this other island.
Not too close to him, in case I started sobbing. I wouldn't want to embarrass him, crying right on my arrival -- just like he had himself, I recalled, on that first night my father had spent with him on the extinct Île du Blanchomme.