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 moves on with a 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. His heavy arm around me feels almost inanimate, like a stranger’s cool skin. 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.