Luc couldn’t read. He couldn’t possibly sleep. He got out of his bunk and left his cabin barefoot.
On deck, the yacht was moving slowly but steadily. The sea surface was still flat but now stippled with breeze. The wind was southerly and warm—from Morocco maybe. Luc walked forward, on the windward side of the taut staysail, the deck beneath him so stable that he didn’t need to hold on to anything.
He stopped at the very apex of the bow beside the long bowsprit that projected twelve feet over the water forward of the hull. It was an exposed position: the wire handrail that ran along the edge of the deck stopped six feet behind him for ease of sail handling at this concentrated spot; for security he held onto the staysail’s wire forestay that rose from the deck to the mast crosstrees. This was his favorite place on the boat. Here, on a small triangle of teak planking, the water below rushing past him on both sides, he seemed to be flying at bird height and speed over the sea. He was almost off the boat; Szabó and all his crappy ideas and his rude wife and sister-in-law were all behind him, in another world, encapsulated in their solipsistic bickering and holidaymaking, while he rode ahead of them, in the clear breeze, as detached as a ship’s figurehead.
Against the many small noises made by a yacht at sea—the tumbling, hissing, or burbling of water;; the high- or low-pitched whistle or moan of the wind through the almost countless ropes and wires that make up the complicated architecture of a sailing rig; the creak, stretch, hum of the warp and weft of so much mechanical gear; waves of vibration at the upper and lower range of human aural sensitivity, all of which becomes the quotidian ambient voice of the world afloat, in a very short time ignored and unheard by those used to it—against that, Luc now heard something else.
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It was rhythmic, irregular, escalating, not boat or sea—human . . . grunting. Luc leaned forward and craned his head around the forestay and saw, in the dim shadowless shade beneath the staysail, the message GO HIKE THE CANYON swaying astride a pair of long, pale, twitching legs—
Luc recoiled. Twisting awkwardly in an effort at noiseless retreat, his toe caught beneath the bowsprit. He exhaled sharply through a wide-open mouth to make no sound, his knee buckling and he squatted, spatial orientation thrown for a second, falling back until he knew they’d hear him when he hit the rail or the deck, but he hit nothing. He dropped with great surprise through the air into the gently curling bow wave.
His mouth, still open, filled with water—warm, salty. He exhaled sharply, coughing, clamping his lips closed against inhalation. He tumbled underwater, still disoriented, kicking, hands out. He couldn’t tell which way was up. Eyes open, he saw dim phosphorescence. He bumped against something hard, the hull. His hands found it, slick and moving fast. He pushed away, afraid of the propeller, then remembered about the engine. He came up, sucked air, and was pulled down again. Now he knew where the surface and the boat were. He clawed up, and away from the boat, so the propeller, even if it wasn’t moving, wouldn’t catch him, hold him down, or hit him in the head. But he had to shout and let them know. He came up again. He was still forward of Dolphin’s stern.
“Help!” he spluttered. It wasn’t loud enough. He sucked in air, getting water too, gagged, coughed. “Help!” he tried again.
The boat kept going, not fast it seemed, but the stern was passing him now. It was a perfect movie shot. The POV of someone in the water with a sailboat sliding past and leaving him behind.
“Help! Stop! I’ve fallen overboard! Hellllp!”
Now the yacht was past, moving away. Dolphin looked beautiful, heeled slightly, the sails filled out into pale parabolas—finally it looked like its brochure. No one coming to the stern rail though. The lights on in the aft cabin, where Szabó was right now. He couldn’t see if the windows were open.
“Help! Gáborr! He-e-e-lllp!”
It sounded loud enough.
A small wave from the wake slopped into his face and filled his mouth.
He shouted some more. Nobody came to the rail. Kicking hard, he tried to get his head up and cupped his hands around his mouth and screamed.
He went under. Flailing, he rose above the surface again. Heart beating, gasping for air, Luc turned all his attention to staying afloat and catching his breath. For a moment he could no longer see the yacht. Then he found it. By sleight of perspective—Luc’s eyes were at literal sea level, the horizon only ten or twenty feet distant—Dolphin was disappearing fast, already hull down from his fish-eye POV, the rig slipping below the waves. In less than a minute it was impossibly far away, diminished in perspective, its lights fading.
Luc dog-paddled, revolving slowly, to see what else might be around him. Only the foreshortened circle of small waves. No lights, but in one direction, the north he thought, the loom of Mallorca far away in the sky. Part of him was stunned, unable to think or imagine, refusing to grasp what had just happened.
In another part of himself, an inner voice said clearly: “You’re dead, pal.”
Luc had spent half his life in the water, around boats and swimming off rocks along the shore. He’d done a lot of snorkeling—he could hold his breath for maybe two minutes—he was completely at home and relaxed in the water. But he’d never been much of a swimmer. Swimming was the way you got from boat to shore or water-ski to the rocks, a couple of hundred yards. He could always manage that. He’d never tried for more.
He was about eight or ten miles south of the east end of Mallorca. There were no rocks or islands to head for.
Unless someone on board Dolphin missed him pretty soon and they came back and found him—but even then, Luc knew, there was only one way that could work. The way it had happened with the Clutterbucks, Malcolm and Pansy, friends of his mother’s, and their fifteen-year-old daughter, Cobina, sailing their yacht Vagabond years ago off the southern coast of Spain toward Gibraltar in a levante gale at night. Pansy had just come up into the cockpit, clutching two mugs of hot chocolate, prepared below with epic difficulty on a single paraffin burner, for herself and Malcolm. As she stepped aft toward Malcolm at the wheel, the boat lurched on a wave and Pansy, more mindful, she said later, of the hot chocolate than of herself, flew overboard into the sea, still carefully clutching both mugs. The yacht, tearing along under a press of sail, was instantly past her. There was nothing to be seen of Pansy in the frothing wake astern.
“Well, darling, if you’d been Malcolm, sitting there at the wheel waiting for your hot chockies, and suddenly there it goes, me with it, shot into the dark like one of those people out of a cannon at the circus, instantly buried in enormous waves, what would you have done?” Pansy liked to ask. “Well, thank God, he did the only sensible thing. He sat there for several minutes thinking it all through. Didn’t move a spoke of the wheel, let go a sheet, or in any way check the yacht’s progress. Off he went over the horizon, thinking jolly hard, with me already a quarter of a mile astern. Eventually he rang the bell we had there in the cockpit to wake Cobina. As you know, it can be difficult to wake a teenager, no matter where she is. Malcolm rang and rang the bell, and eventually Cobina appeared at the hatch. ‘Mum’s gone overboard, a little way back,’ he said to her. ‘Go below and pull on your oilskins, and come back up here and take the helm.’ Off she goes. Back up into the cockpit a few minutes later. Boat’s still cracking along on course. ‘Take the helm and keep her on this exact course, not a degree off,’ Malcolm told her. Cobina took the wheel and Malcolm then went below. Down at the chart table, he works it all out: the yacht’s course made good, allowing for set and drift made by the wind, current, what have you. Then my course made good, allowing for same, from the spot where I fell in, plotting both positions at a point another four minutes into the future—at that point a good fifteen minutes since I’d gone overboard. Where the yacht would be then, where I would be. Jolly clever. Then Malcolm draws a course from the yacht at that point to me at that point, adjusting again for wind, current, leeway made on the return course, and pencils it off on the compass rose. Comes back into the cockpit, takes the wheel from Cobina—who’s completely nonplussed, darling, because she’s still half asleep—and continues counting to himself until the four minutes have elapsed. Then he brings the yacht about—a jibe in that wind—and begins beating back, directly into the wind, along the new course he’s just worked out.
“Well, I was perfectly calm and content. I knew that was it. There was nothing to be done. Not a chance—not the slightest chance, darling—of being found and rescued in a gale, at sea, at night. I accepted it completely. I thought it a pity, but there it was. I thought about all sorts of things: growing up, summers in Cornwall, my old boarding school Benenden even—I can’t imagine why—that I loved, what an absolutely marvelous life Malcolm and I had had, what a glory Cobina had become, what a fabulous woman she would be. That sort of thing. I wasn’t in a hurry to end it. I wasn’t trying to swim anywhere. I was just going up and down on the waves, having fun thinking about it all. And I decided that’s what I would do: just go up and down and think about how marvelous everything had been, until I sort of fell asleep, or whatever it is that happens to one. I might as well have been plummeting to earth out of an airplane without a parachute for all that I had the remotest thought of coming out of it somehow. Tremendously peaceful.
“Well, about, I don’t know, twenty minutes later, I saw a light. I thought, hallo, what’s that? It didn’t occur me that it could possibly be Vagabond. I didn’t know what it was, how far off, nothing. A fishing boat or a ferry miles away was my first thought. Then I saw it going up and down, pitching with the sea and I realized it was Vagabond, and they were getting close. At that moment, I can tell you, I became scared to death—what if they didn’t find me? I now thought. I almost wished they’d go away! Then, in moments, the yacht was alongside, and Malcolm was on deck shining a ruddy great torch into my face, saying, “Ah, there you are,” as if I were a missing sock. Well, he got me aboard, and I went below and made some more hot chocolate.”
That wasn’t going to happen here. Dolphin had no Malcolm Clutterbuck, no one had seen Luc go overboard to mark a position and do all that clever navigation so they could go back and find him. No one had heard him go—the care he’d taken so Mireille and her lover wouldn’t hear anything.
Luc tried to remember what he had seen. Just her GO HIKE THE CANYON T-shirt on top of the white legs beneath her. Could have been Dominick, the presumptive ever-ready lech. But he’d been too absorbed by and quite far along with Sarah’s broiled poitrine to squander his energies elsewhere. Dominick had some unerring instinct that enabled him to detect and tumble the unlikeliest quarries. Luc had noticed his solicitous attention to Sarah in the aftermath of the engine failure. Undoubtedly, he’d soon find a cabin, if he hadn’t already, where he could look after her properly until repairs had been effected.
Not Tim or Ian or Roger. Mireille had been as determinedly unaware of their existence as she’d been of Luc’s.
Luc should have spotted that the moment he came aboard at noon and saw that Fergus, wittingly or otherwise, had ignited unsuspected responses to wit and male company in Mireille’s neurasthenic personality—
Cheating on Aegina, the fucker. Luc had always known Fergus wasn’t worthy of her. He felt vindicated, and angry. And now he couldn’t tell her. Well, he wouldn’t have told her;; she’d figure it out for herself if she hadn’t already. She’d get rid of Fergus someday. He’d always believed that.
But by then—well, by tomorrow morning probably—he, Luc, would be dead. No getting back together, then. He’d always wondered if she’d thought of that as much as he had. Not that he’d wanted to necessarily, but there had always been Aegina first and then everyone else. He compared all women to Aegina and he’d never been able to get past her or leave her behind. She had imprinted herself on him like a tattoo.
Had she really left him behind? Embraced Fergus as the future?
How funny to think that she now would live a long time without him;; in ten, twenty, thirty years she would remember (hopefully) the last time she’d seen him: on his motorcycle outside the tabacos. Thirty- three years old. What would she remember—the good stuff or the bad? He’d always thought there was more to come between them.
The water wasn’t so warm now. Vertical, Luc swept his hands before him in a faint breaststroke, his feet moving slowly beneath him, not going anywhere—pointless swimming—but treading water to stay afloat.
That’s all he’d ever done. He felt he hadn’t started his life yet. He hadn’t become successful, or made any money, or fallen in love with someone—else. It was always going to happen after he’d finished whatever he was doing and did the next thing. It was the next thing that was going to work.
He paddled in a circle, just looking around casually as you would anywhere you found yourself stuck for a while.
How do you drown? Do you get so tired that you just can’t stay up? Since he wasn’t swimming, he wasn’t exhausted, yet. He was sure he could float like this for another ten or twenty minutes, maybe longer . . . he had no idea. Maybe he could float until daylight and then some yacht would see him. It was always possible. Conserve heat and energy—or should he expend energy, swim a little, to stay warm? That would burn calories, and soon he’d run out of whatever energy he still had.
It didn’t matter. Nobody was going to find him. This was it. You’re dead, pal.