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?"
YOU ARE READING
The Last CanvasSpiritual
A starving Italian painter flees Paris in the winter of 1974. His destination -- a tiny private island lost in the Indian Ocean. His destiny -- a soul-crushing love triangle with a French nobleman and a haughty Parisian intellectual. His fate -- inv...