The Woman who loved IslandsBy Denise BOMBARDIER Sofitel Bora Bora Marara Beach Resort
Marie-Louise had met all the men in her life on islands. The on exception was Louis, the first of them, whom she had married in lightning-quick fashion. Their paths had crossed on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, or to be to be more exact in Hyannis Port where both had come just to catch a glimpse of the Kennedy Compound. After initially getting to know each other over a drink and some
lobster rolls that they downed as ravenously as they desired each other, they had boarded the ferry for Nantucket, the mythical island of Melville’s Moby Dick. And in a bedroom decorated in floral fabric, they consummated their relationship. Marie-Louise was twenty-two and had long imagined herself married. At that time, she felt that the only thing that justify moving out of the parental home was to get married. In her eyes, freedom meant being married and that was all the present could possibly offer. As for the future, that was all in the mind. Three years later, in Guadalajara, she sat nursing a margarita in a sun-drenched square while her husband was off somewhere in search of a cheap guesthouse. As per usual, he was keeping her waiting. Her impatience gave way to anger. Life with him had been an endless succession of one delay after another, their lives now being totally out of sync. The slow drip, drip, drip effect of her husband’s inertia had in the end left her numb to all feeling.
Life in the slow lane with him was stripping her of passion, stimulation and excitement and the vapidity of it all was eating away at her heart. Louis was sweet but that was what blunted Marie-Louise’s senses. He was considerate, but his very thoughtfulness had quickly bored her to tears. His meticulousness, his pathological attention to detail and his obsession with precision caused her to give vent to uncontrollable bouts of anger that left her feeling shameful. It had happened time and time again during that interminably long drive down from Montreal to Mexico. Marie-Louise looked about her at the couples sitting at other tables and in an instant she knew exactly what had to be done. “I’m feeling smothered, I’ve made a mess of my marriage, but I’m not going to let it ruin my life,” she thought. Her habit of thinking aloud gave her away. Two women sitting nearby gave her a strange look. She didn’t give a hoot, for she felt that the weight she had long refused to acknowledge was suddenly lifted from her.
There was still no sign of Louis. A surge of sadness she had not known before completely overwhelmed her. She began to feel apprehensive at the thought of his coming back. Finally, there he was. Afraid her courage would desert her, she spoke up before he had a chance to utter a word, “I’ve thought hard and long while you were gone. It’s finished between us – we can’t go on living together.” His eyes remained fixed on her and she understood that he too felt relieved. “Okay, okay. I’ll catch a plane tomorrow. You can drive the car back yourself,” he said. She could not utter a word but she was determined there would be no tears. All she felt was the rage that had built up in her over the years while waiting for him with never a single word of protest. The insensitive way he had just reacted made her understand more clearly that the real reason they had fallen out of love was the lack of symmetry between them as a couple. And so, for the first time in their life together, she begged him not to leave her to make that long journey back across the United States. He agreed but it took some persuading.
Over the five days of that improbable journey, they reverted to being two complete strangers to one another, as in fact they had always been without their knowing it. Nantucket had been love at first sight for Marie-Louise and it was still waiting to be discovered, she thought to herself. She would go back there one day when she was really in love. The Îles de la Madeleine or Magdalen Islands, lying at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, as majestic and mighty as a sea, was where Marie-Louise, several years later, met the sort of man who leaves a permanent mark on a woman’s body, mind and heart. She had come on assignment to those wind-swept islands where the sand freezes in winter. The islanders, the Madelinots, who hunt seal and fish for lobster and crab, hardly endear themselves to animal lovers. Her newspaper had sent her and she intended to allow them have their say. But she had not anticipated the suspicion and hostility with which they greeted journalists who turned up on their doorsteps requiring them to justify what some described as their barbaric practices. Not surprisingly, she was as welcome as a bull in a china shop.
Her natural inclination, therefore, to attack whenever she found herself in a hostile environment got the better of her. The members of the Sealhunters Association who had agreed to speak to her expressed some surprise at first and even a little amusement at such an aggressive reaction. “You’re all prejudiced. Open your eyes for once. The reason I’m here is so you can defend yourselves. Instead you treat me as I’m out to attack you. You’re not much better than your critics,” she blurted out to all and sundry. She then got to her feet and left the assembly room. As she did so, she bumped into two or three men who had been drawn there by the sound of her raised voice. Out in the street, Marie-Louise got a grip of herself. “How could I be so stupid?” Since when did a journalist lose control of the situation? What on earth had got into her? She told herself it was time for her to take that vacation she kept putting off because of her dread of taking a pleasure trip alone. She often made her female friends laugh when she described herself as suffering from emotional deprivation despite her toughened disposition and obvious independence.
The guesthouse where she was staying was practically next door to the assembly room. In the village, everywhere was within walking distance. But she headed instead in the direction of the harbour. She had a pressing need to clear her mind and to stop fretting so much. The temperature was hovering around freezing point and the northeast wind was whipping up the sea, just what she needed to calm herself down. And she would wait until she was back in Montreal before she subjected herself to a necessary bout of self-introspection. The cold wind was growing more intense. In the distance, she could make out the steep coastline beyond which stretched beaches of fine sand so popular in the summer despite the temperature of the sea that turned legs numb with cold. “Nothing like the sea to calm you down,” said a voice behind her. She swung round. She recognized one of the men she had bumped into. He was of average height and with weather-beaten features the result of long exposure to the sea air and cold. There was something serious about him except when he smiled.
“The name’s François Lapierre. That’s some temper you have there, young lady.”
“I’m sorry. I really don’t know what got into me,” she said. He shrugged.
“You know, you are too touchy with people who are offering you the chance to give your side of the story, as I am.”
“I believe you,” he replied, “but don’t forget that the journalists who come up here to the Islands all say the same thing. The problem is that when they’re back home in their big cities, they tear us to pieces in articles that are unjust and designed to tug at their readers’ heartstrings.” The more he spoke, the less she listened. Or rather, she had the odd feeling that he was communicating a different message behind the words he was uttering. He chatted away even though it was now bitterly cold and the wind was forcing him to raise his voice as though to prevent Marie-Louise from leaving the harbour where they stood open to the elements. His conversation became a sort of monologue as he described how he was making a living, following a tradition handed down by the Inuit and managing the surplus in the seal population. But it was his eyes that pierced her much more than the cold. She held his gaze, unable to divert her own eyes from his.
“People down south are such namby-pambies. Come on, I’ll take you back to your guesthouse. Too much of this fresh air will knock you out.” He went to take her by the elbow but then thought better of it.
“I’ll arrange another meeting with my people. Shall we say in one hour? And can I vouch for you this time?” he added. There was something in his voice that told her he was smiling.
“You can count on it. You won’t catch me behaving like that again,” she said.
“The islands have a strange effect on outsiders. You’re proof of that.” “Is there a cure?” she asked. He refrained from answering. It was then she experienced a troublesome nagging feeling, the warning sign of an impending surrender. The next flight for Montreal wasn’t for another two days.
“I’m going off my head,” she thought to herself. She went into her room and ran herself a bath. She looked at herself in the mirror and there was that half-feverish look in her eyes that was all too familiar to her.
“Oh no,” she murmured in a voice that sounded like a groan.
“Everyone gets annoyed sometime,” said the man acting as the seal hunters’ spokesman by way of welcome as Marie-Louise glanced around the room looking for François Lapierre. There was no sign of him. This time the meeting was conducted in a cordial manner: Marie-Louise made a constant effort to remain focused.
Unlike her usual practice, she listened to everybody’s comments without adopting the required critical stance of someone who wished to provoke the person sitting opposite her into coming up with some pithy comments, the essential ingredients of a hard-hitting article. She couldn’t prevent herself from stealing a glance at the door leading into the room in the hope of seeing the
one absent person suddenly appear. After an hour and a half of discussion, the dozen or so Madelinots started to get fidgety and Marie-Louise understood that she couldn’t prolong the meeting indefinitely. They would take her on a tour of the islands the following day to give her the opportunity of meeting the people who lived in the other villages. Someone would come and collect
her at the guesthouse. Who that someone would be was not made clear. At that time of the year, a single restaurant remained open, but they had lobster on the menu, “prefrozen but still mouth-watering,” they assured her. She thanked everyone and left the building, apprehensive at the prospect of the long lonely night that lay ahead of her. She looked at her watch. It showed 5pm. November had barely begun and the street was pitch black with not a soul about. She pulled up the collar of her anorak and took a few steps before deciding to head back down to the harbour despite the cold. Marie-Louise walked with her head down fighting against the wind and the snow that swirled in gusts about her. She was making little headway and was feeling tempted at any moment to turn back. She still had that all too familiar nagging feeling and she distrusted herself and that ability of hers to project her own desires onto a complete stranger. She was on the point of retracing her steps when François suddenly appeared from nowhere. Where had he been, where was he going? She was careful not to ask. He took her gently by the arm and said, “Everyone sees everyone here. The easiest thing is for you to meet up with me at my place. My house is the yellow one at the top of the slope. You can’t miss it. Is 7 o’clock all right for you?
We’ll have a bite to eat and I have an old bottle of vodka.” She’d not had time to say a word before he was off, striding confidently ahead of her as though he were impervious to the wind and the snow that was falling thick and wet around him.
For more than a year, Marie-Louise’s love life revolved around the Magdelen Islands. She began to miss the islands the moment her plane took off for Montreal. François would always be waiting for her at the airport when she came back, but refused to return there with her when it was time for her to leave. He never came south, his way of referring to Montreal.
During those long months, both consumed each other. Their love was killing them slowly but surely. Marie-Louise’s body had lost all memory of the caresses of earlier days, of pleasure tinged with pain and of supreme states of bliss. Her body had gradually moulded itself to become as one with François’s body. And they gave up their souls to each other. For fifteen months, fever engulfed them. On some nights, they were sent into raptures by tremors that ran through their bodies and it frightened them.
Marie-Louise never learned why François suddenly vanished from her life. She flew in one day in February and he was not there at the airport. She spent several hours wandering around the village and then locked herself away in her motel room utterly drained of all emotion. It was three days before a storm lifted to allow her flight to leave.
For many years after, Marie-Louise even doubted the existence of the Magdelen Islands. Only the burning sensation that lodged near her heart reminded her of the indelible man.
Other love affairs had swept her off to unlikely islands. To the Caribbean, to Aran off the coast of Ireland, that island country that had such an alluring effect on her. Had she foreseen that awaiting her in Dublin was the one true man of her life, the man with whom all future islands would become mere stopovers? Tom came into her life as she was about to turn fifty. With him at her side, she developed a craving for travel. Together they intended to discover continents where they had never set foot and even those countries they had visited separately so as to establish a shared memory of them in future. One evening in winter, deep in the Quebec forest, as they stood watching the aurora borealis light up the sky with fluorescent ribbons, he said,
“How would you like if we headed off to the South Pacific and compared the sky?” Marie-Louise replied yes, without so much as a second thought. Since he had come into her life, she gave in to his every desire.