There are four of us on the boat. Jean-Luc and myself, and Belgian music manager Raoul Vidal and his Japanese soprano wife Mieko Inoue. Raoul, big as a cupboard, stands on the deck with arms folded, squinting back at the coast. After a few days he’s discarded his shirt. When Mieko comes on deck he bends over her like a poised wave and whatever they say is soundless. Jean-Luc has read up that she sang at Covent Garden twice, but he is pretty sure her career has flatlined. Jean-Luc has a nose for these things. He was the drummer from my old band in Marseilles.
They’ve booked for a week long cruise, emailed me strict diet instructions (no gluten, no sugar or cheese, preferably grilled seafood). Looking at Raoul, I’d say he was brought up on moules frites and tankards of beer. I once toured in Belgium with an all-female group and this is the truth: they fry pigs’ blood sausages in butter. This is something that should be explained.
Raoul has picked me up a few times when I am having a quick puff at the stern. They are just small criticisms or needs. Do you have sanitary napkins? Could you chop the cabbage in the salad a little finer for Mieko’s digestion? All over his body his skin has surrendered to the sharp summer sun and it explodes in blisters wishing to be pricked. His nose is peeling and he doesn’t care, which in turn means that Mieko doesn’t either. He asks, Do you have any copies of The New Yorker? I shake my head. I imagine he is used to long lunches.
Their suite at the bow of the boat must be agreeable to Mieko. She stays there a lot. On my way to the laundry cupboard I think I hear a sound – a voice ascending – but this ceases on its path. The boat continues its steady rolling. When I back into her with clean linen in the galley I hear a word that is released at great cost: Sorry. She looks at me at with my pile of clean towels and fresh sheets. It seems as though she wants to take this word back. I should ask if there is anything she needs or remind her to ask me for sea-sickness tablets if she feels unwell. She is carrying a big hat and a Japanese novel. Most probably because my ragged blue-painted nails are on show and Jean-Luc says I have feet like a platypus, I have made it my mission to see the opera singer’s toes. Mieko wears a pair of closed black espadrilles and her feet are pressed into their jute spirals.
Jean-Luc has given Raoul a Michel Houellebecq novel in French, the one where they massacre the tourists. Raoul sits on a bench and reads it through like a man on a train, his back in burning shreds. Mieko drapes herself on a deckchair fully clothed. For a long time she does not read. They sit far from each other on the deck. Before it’s time to prepare lunch I sit with Jean-Luc at the stern. We’ve just come through a rough patch. Jean-Luc misses the band life. He came to sailing late and has doubts on the water. He doesn’t like me second-calling him and stresses out when we anchor or come into port. Jean-Luc puts his hand on my thigh. As his fingers dig in I watch the fuzzy-edged scorpion inked into his skin. His nails are broken and black. The wind is high, higher than he’d like, and he has cleated both sails tightly as we cut as close as possible to the coast. We can see the point of Nonza now, the town stranded high above the pebbled black beach as though washed up in a storm. Once we are in the enclave I will set up lunch, the sole meunière Mieko just tolerates, with an avocado salad that perhaps she will not. Though initially she said she would eat prawns, her face dropped yesterday when I grilled a dozen scampi. Raoul removed the platter. There has been a misunderstanding, he said, after tilting the plate in the wash. Mieko does not eat prawns.
If the couple nap after lunch, and perhaps swim at the beach through the long afternoon, I will have time to borrow Marianne’s scooter in the village and do a quick shop at Saint-Florent. Our supplies are dwindling. Jean-Luc removes his hand, eases off the sheets, prepares to tack the vessel and veer in towards the coast. We don’t speak when we are at work, not even when we are anchored for the night in a star-swept bay. By day his arm around me feels like an arm, a man’s heavy wet arm. I watch his tattoos, some of them are busty women who seem to be feasting upon his physique.
Though Jean-Luc hasn’t entered me in a month we have laid bets on who will hear Mieko and Raoul at it first. People get frisky on boats, in confined spaces. Like Ralph Fiennes screwing the Qantas air hostess in a loo. I see it happen always. We have had a man and woman groaning and growling on deck for hours. In the morning they were sedate, reading books and newspapers. The woman had a dental issue and had to be taken ashore.
Mieko stretches up an arm and unfurling hand against the glare of the sail. Raoul looks over to her, watching the boom move across as the vessel turns. Jean-Luc’s orchestration is gentle. The sails rattle like stage curtains above the small soprano in her cocoon, then the leeward wind throws them into shape. Mieko’s hat falls back as she stares up into the grandeur of the mast. We are no longer shouldering against the open sea but are propelled to the land in the bellies of long blue-black waves without crests. These make a lulling washing sound. Mieko’s hand or appeal falls away and she raises her book in the glossy light. Raoul resumes rifling through his novel.
Jean-Luc tramps down the deck to see to the jib and I hold the tiller while watching his body. He was with another woman in his prime. I have seen the photographs of his thick hair and bright teeth and leather jackets. Jean-Luc came down here from Lille on a motorbike.
After lunch Jean-Luc untethers the dinghy and rows me to shore. Mieko and Raoul retire below deck, the meal has gone smoothly. There are two other boats at anchor but the vast beach is empty. It is the hottest hour of the day and the island looks wrought and faded, pressed to the distance even as it begins to loom. Bushfires will roar down these hills again. Beneath us the sea floor of black-green pebbles inks the water with cold tones and the waves are dark and sharp. It is an awkward, remote place that Jean-Luc likes. Guests enjoy viewing the hellishness of the land’s ascension, but few even make the climb to Nonza to have a gelato or see the sea stretching in a gauzy endless slate. Most want to move onto Ile Rousse or Calvi where there is a marina, they like to get dressed up and go ashore at night.
Jean-Luc pitches the dinghy onto the stones and when we kiss goodbye my tongue flicks into his mouth. The water withdraws, fizzing over wet black knuckles. I step out barefoot and push the boat off, holding up my sandals and shopping bag. There are a few sunbathers in the strip of shadow under the gouged cliff thrusting the village into the air. The pebbles shimmer all the way to the scrub where the path begins. Some are small oily gems, others grey lozenges the size of children’s feet. With Jean-Luc staring at me, rowing solidly, I strip down and wade into the water, diving under the bucking waves.
Two hours later I am back on the beach with my full shopping bag, grateful that Marianne’s brother Pietro took me into town in his van. We’ve had two local beers at the summit – red beer brewed with chestnuts – that spill through my head. I’ve hiked down the path at breakneck speed to save the groceries, and torn across the hot stones to the shore. I see Jean-Luc on deck and wave for him to row out. There is a man’s head in the water which I recognise as Raoul’s. The seabed carves away quickly and Raoul thrashes through the waves, letting them belt over his head which pushes out of the foam, his fair hair whipped around his cranium. His red face blares and he spews water out of his mouth, paddling as more waves crash upon him. For a minute, I worry he is in trouble and I will have to set down my bag and rescue him. But then his body bangs out of the water, lurches onto the rippling surface. He is naked. He throws himself face down in the shallows as water streams over his glowing back. His white bottom has a surprisingly round shape.
I look back out to the boat to see if Jean-Luc has registered me waving. I have fish and vegetables in my bag. He is speaking to Mieko, which hardly seems possible. Mieko, dressed in baggy black trousers and a long-sleeved ivory top, stands watching her husband in the water. Soon enough, Jean-Luc is yards away from me in the dinghy and I hand over the shopping. There is wine in there to chill for this evening. I am certain Raoul will succumb to white wine. I toss my sundress and sandals into the bag and push Jean-Luc off. He looks at my body as though it is an outline on the landscape.
Mieko appears for dinner in a floral dress that is not becoming. It is as though she is indulging Raoul, who may have Belgian floral leanings. Watching him in the surf may have invited her hands to hover over this dress. I prefer her in dramatic blacks and whites that denude her features. Mieko totters across the deck in a pair of low gold heels, an expensive mesh covering the fretwork and toes of both feet. There are contrasting copper and white threads woven through the sheer substance. It is a ravishing design. I peer hard, offering her compliments, but Mieko’s toes are invisible. I see the glint of her nail varnish but there is no sense of shape or proportions. Before the week is up I will see Mieko’s toes.
Mieko refuses a glass of wine and walks the length of the deck. I wonder when she will get cabin fever. After a few days they all do, they have to set foot on the ground. Today, she had no wish to go ashore. I suspect she’ll come back on board with shopping bags when we sail on to Calvi. The soprano likes to shop.
Jean-Luc has anchored a little further from the shore for the night and has gone down to have a shower. The lights of Nonza sway high above us. I wish I were up there with Pietro and Marianne in the piazza drinking beer. Strains of folk music cascade down from the bar a guy from Ajaccio has built on the cliffs. He has a jazz band on the weekends but tonight the bay is almost soundless. Waves hardly stir. The forecast is for more of this. Jean-Luc joins me after his shower and I know he is not relaxed. He too would like to go ashore, but he would sleep alone in the dunes. He kisses my cheek, takes Mieko’s glass over to her. She accepts it from him and they clink glasses. I watch them, the man I love and the tiny floral soprano. I haven’t asked Jean-Luc what roles she played in Covent Garden, whether she may have been allowed to stray from the confines of her race. The idea of Mieko in a kimono with a powdered visage seems crude. I see her collapsed in fabrics on the stage with a trickle of fake blood.
Raoul climbs the steps. He wears a loud shirt and is more red and blistered than yesterday, his washed hair feathery. He is exhausted. His face droops and he snatches up a glass of wine. Raoul asks me what is for dinner but doesn’t listen to my reply. He tells me he has just finished his book. He says, Did I already ask you if you had copies of The New Yorker?
I tell him he has, and I’m sorry I don’t. I ask him if he liked Houellebecq’s novel.
Not much, he said.
He puts out his glass for a refill, looks down the deck and notices Mieko’s floral dress. For a moment, his eyes dampen.
I ask him what he usually reads.
I don’t have time to read, he says.
At the table this evening I see Mieko’s face close up for the first time. We have passed the three-day marker, where people’s barriers soften and they remember our names. Raoul is satisfied my cooking is delicate enough for Mieko’s tricky digestion and Mieko no longer looks aghast at her plate. I watch food entering Mieko’s tiny mouth. The crepe has just started around her eyes though she has a young woman’s tight plump skin, well irrigated and radiant. Her face is a broad palette which I can see would transform in light, with song. Her eyes are exquisite marbles that reveal kindness in their spheres. When Mieko smiles at Raoul, he looks a better man. A third bottle of wine is opened, this one a local rosé from the burnished hills. Raoul raises a glass and makes a toast to his wife. Jean-Luc’s hand smoothes my thigh. I try to remember my bet with Jean-Luc and who wagered whether Day Three would be the night. I see Raoul’s eyes slide over Mieko, over her small breasts, into the cascade of flowers. Dishevelled, they spill with veneration.
I go below deck for our desserts, a crème caramel made with almond milk. I arrange my tray, putting a bottle of muscat under my arm. I stand there, smelling the wood varnish and the bleach in the cupboards, the whiff of diesel at this end of the boat. I listen to their voices above. I wonder if what Mieko and Raoul will rediscover tonight is any different from the clumsy relishing we have seen many times over, each couple so mortal, so afflicted by the feigned simplicity of sleeping on a powerful boat. When I reach the deck they are dancing. The folk music has an audible beat and Mieko is pressed into Raoul’s oversized embrace. Jean-Luc holds his glass. I distribute the desserts and slip under his arm. The geography of his body is weary. I worry what this costs him will make him ill one day. I nuzzle his rough cheek, his neck.
Raoul staggers back to the table with his wife tucked beside him. Mieko’s face is bright, new dimples have appeared in her vast cheeks. She takes a few spoonfuls of her dessert. Clearly, her doubts have come home. Raoul empties his dish, goes down to the stern where he pees into the soft water and Mieko can’t contain her laughs. Raoul brings up a bottle of Calvados from their suite and fills everybody’s tumblers. His wife lies down, nestles into his rowdy lap with her eyes open. I see it is a very long time since they have made love.
Our band had quite a following. There was a year that my voice was good and we’d taken a string of Cassandra Wilson songs and transposed them into higher keys. Jean-Luc and I were the only ones who had any music theory, so we worked on the songs together. He could play classical piano as well as drum like a god. He could also dance. After the gig we’d go to nightclubs in Marseilles, the darkest meanest ones with Algerian bouncers who would push a guy in the chest, knock him down on the street. There were absinthe cocktails in dirty glasses and Jean-Luc unrolled our magic pills from his trouser hem. There we would dance until we were raw and dawn spat on the harbour.
The boat cruises, they were my idea. I thought we were getting washed out. I thought that one day Jean-Luc would wake up and walk out the door, remembering he left a wife and kids somewhere. I thought the band was fading and it was seeping into the crowd. There was a fuzz in between songs and you knew they were waiting for something bigger. I started to get scared. In the end Sonia and Beaté brought in a half-Tunisian girl and it fed them.
I know Jean-Luc will want to sell up at the end of the season. And I’ll say yes, just to stop his soul from getting any harder, anything to the change the flavour of his eyes.
I wake on the cusp of dawn. Jean-Luc has pulled over the bed sheet and I am stiff from lying hours in the damp. I lift the sheet and trace a finger along his shoulder, down along the fold of his back, along the crevice of his arse, down his dry hairy thighs. He doesn’t feel a thing. I tuck him in and rise. I won’t make noise now, but I still have the dishes to do from last night. I’m uncertain where Raoul and Mieko finished up. I’m pretty sure Jean-Luc has won our bet.
I go up on deck. This is the time when the water is a silken mass you could glide into, never needing oxygen again. I have always known I would end my life in water. Of course they are up here, under a light grey blanket that doesn’t come from the boat. I can’t see how their bodies are entwined, whether Raoul simply cups her from behind, or if their faces are mirrored together, sharing breath. In a band, you see the way people sleep. I light up and I guess the smoke travels over to them. There is not an odour, not a sound written on the morning. Mieko pulls down the cover and her eyes flutter, she pulls it up again. I sit down and inhale. Sleeping out here can’t be good for a soprano’s voice.
I go down to start the dishes. Above, I hear moving limbs, speech. There’s not much you can’t hear on a ship. She speaks so quietly to him I still don’t know what language they use to communicate in intimacy. I hear them step down to their cabin and the door clicks shut. I hope we can make it to Ile Rousse today. There are friends I’d like to see in town. Jérome, who runs a bar now; Mélanie, who has a stall selling second-hand books. I doubt that Mieko and Raoul are browsing types but there is a sophisticated food market under an open-air structure just off the piazza. It has thick chalky columns and the grace of a temple.
I think of going back to stir Jean-Luc but instead I spray down the surfaces. A boat is always grimy so even this doesn’t help much. All metal develops green encrustations, all wood swells beneath its thick varnish. I bring a pot of coffee upstairs and the flan I bought yesterday at Saint-Florent, a basket of yesterday’s croissants. There is a splash from one of the other anchored boats. A man has dived in. I drink a coffee, remove my shirt and ease off the ladder, paddling softly, then arching over onto my back. The dry mountains are vastly purple while Nonza sits on her outcrop. I hear cars in the village, taking the tight turn before the little church to Sainte Julie, so beautiful that one of my deepest wishes has been to have that name, but I do not. Perhaps my life would not be so different if I did. I backstroke to the beach and lie out on small black pebbles that are a carpet of beads. I see Mieko on deck wearing a beige shift, then Jean-Luc who sits down to speak with her.
By the time I join them on board Raoul has surfaced. He is wearing a crushed striped business shirt. He looks a little cranky. His hand shakes before it lifts a glass. He dunks a croissant into his café au lait and eats slower than he did yesterday. Neither of them wears sunglasses. Mieko sips the tea she brought herself. Her kneecaps are just visible and they are finer than I had thought, encouraging me to imagine that her feet are sinuous sculptures. I see short strands on her almost hair-free legs. On her feet are the same espadrilles.
As he stares at a piece of flan on his plate Raoul announces that he and Mieko would like to go ashore. In fact, he says, this area pleases them a lot. Jean-Luc and I look at each other. The sun, bound to her course, already makes a blazing sweep of the bay. The sea here is windless and there is little shade on deck. Raoul says they’d like to spend less time at the other ports along the way and relax here, along the endless grey beach he now points to while Mieko nods. They’d like to investigate the bottom of the cliffs. They’re keen to ascend to the village. Raoul has heard about this place, he says. Perhaps he read something in a newspaper supplement.
I am already thinking of the long trips to Saint-Florent for supplies rather than the easy walk to the supermarkets at Ile Rousse and Calvi. But Jean-Luc seems mesmerised by the idea. I see him unlocking. He is pleased to anchor here because the pressure is off for him.
Mieko reappears in trousers and a navy long-sleeved top, wearing a hat and carrying a large bag woven of the finest white straw. Jean-Luc helps her into the dinghy. Raoul, wearing his open business shirt and a pair of baggy shorts, has trouble transferring his weight to the smaller vessel and Mieko grasps the gunwales as the boat rocks. They set off. I light up watching them, inhaling as sea gulls swoops for crumbs I have thrown into the sea. Raoul carries her to the land, sets her down and rights her. She takes a few ginger steps like a cat out of a cage, then advances to the cliffs, Raoul following. I turn away to take the breakfast things below deck. When I come up I see Jean-Luc has overturned the boat on the beach and walked a half-mile in the other direction. I see Mieko and Raoul as tiny figures beneath the grey mass of the cliff face, now treading over rocks to a placid beach I know is on the other side. They look like a pair of runaways.
When Jean-Luc returns I am asleep under the canopy I have set up under the boom. His hand runs along my thigh but then stops. He climbs over me, turning me face-up so our bodies fit together. He is aroused. He slides inside of me and pumps hard, gripping my body. He kneels back, his depleted genitals in a dark wet cleft. He leans over and kisses one of my platypus feet.
Mieko told Jean-Luc she lost her voice while performing in Paris a year ago. She was onstage singing when her vocal chords became two arrow shafts in her throat. She was taken away in an ambulance. She thinks the video is on YouTube. She asked Jean-Luc not to watch. We have no reception here, but I know that Jean-Luc never would. Mieko said that she and Raoul have been married for eight years. Normally, they go to Osaka in the summer, but her parents had recently died. Raoul had no family left in Leuven except a sister he didn’t get along with. They were childless. They lived in Paris in the fourteenth. Mieko taught singing to Japanese students at the international school, or the children of diplomats. She hoped to get her voice back, but the process had been long and disappointing so far. Doctors had been unable to diagnose a specific problem apart from the strain of major performances. Mieko herself said she suffered from nerves, but a Japanese doctor in Paris had been treating her. They were here because he had advised a week on a boat in the Mediterranean.
Jean-Luc tells me that they won’t be coming back until late. He showed them the steep path to Nonza and told them to order pizza at the bar, to get a cool table by the fountain. He said Raoul should tell them they were from the boat. They’d get treated better that way.
But the morning passes and we do not see them cross the stones. The shade has been stripped from the inlet and I see their heads bobbing on the water for a long time. Mieko comes out and she is wearing a white one-piece costume. She sits down, opening a small umbrella, covering her legs with a towel. Raoul thrashes in the calm sea. He backstrokes out a fair way, then frog-kicks to the shore where he floats with his ruddy stomach in the air. He lurches out of the water, throws himself on the stones.
There is a cusp of shade growing in the rocks and they transfer there, no longer visible. I open a bottle of white wine and prepare a salad. Jean-Luc dives into the water. He takes a mask and removes seaweed from the propeller. We finish the bottle and he lazes on deck. I start rereading the Houellebecq Raoul has left on the table, but my mind drifts to a tourist pamphlet I picked up at the bar yesterday. It said that the breasts of the young Sainte Julie were cut off by Romans stationed at Nonza. She was tortured and her breasts cast against a rock where a small spring later appeared. Expectant women now go to the fontaine aux mamelles to secure their supply of milk. Sainte Julie’s body was draped on a fig tree and a dove supposedly flew from her mouth at the moment of her death.
It is quiet at first, a vocalise more than a song. Mieko stands on the shore in her white swimsuit, a sarong around her legs. Raoul crouches there letting the waves slap his side. Mieko bends over her body and stays down for a long time. She rises, begins the vocalise again, a heartbreaking ascension. Raoul takes up a handful of stones and clutches them. Jean-Luc grows aware of the sound and sits up on deck. We listen to the clean spiral of her voice.
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and ran away to Paris at 21 to write. She lived in West Africa for many years where she ran a bar and traditional art gallery. She is the author of the erotic comedy The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy and the short story collection Pelt and Other Stories. Catherine lives in Italy.