THE FIRST OF JULY
JULY 1st 1912 : CORBIE
Some day he would row all the way to the sea. He sat on the bank of the river, where willows trailed on the surface of the water and where carp sometimes basked - a flash of silver just under the surface - and he threw a stone into the the tiny scum of broken leaves and twigs, caught in the river’s slow bend. The stone made a single conical shape before sinking noiselessly but Jean-Batiste had already looked away, across the water to the rushes on the far side. In high summer everything here was green - the water, the trees, the bright duckweed - and the smell not of the fresh green of spring but the beginning of slightly rotten vegetation; the deep smell of mud and eels and everything mad with growing. He liked the river here where it broadened like man describing the hips of a shapely woman with his hands, and a small island was left in the middle, dense with trees.
It was Vignon’s boat that Jean-Batiste planned to row to the sea. Meanwhile he exercised to strengthen his arms and chest. His mother thought he was doing it to join the army and sometimes felt the muscle of his upper arms approvingly as she passed behind him as he chopped kindling. A strong son made a widow’s life easier. Jean-Batiste offered to take Vignon on his riverside rounds, so that he could learn to row better and better. Once he was sure the boy could master the currents and use the oars without splashing them both with water, Vignon sat back and smoked. After a while Jean-Batiste couldn’t resist asking if the doctor would like him to row him to the island on Thursdays for the fishing. Vignon’s eyes narrowed. He drew hard on his cigarette . ‘How old are you now?’
‘You need to see more of the world.’ Vignon had said and his gaze never left Jean-Batiste’s face ‘There’s more to life than Corbie.’
Jean-Batiste had come to like, even admire the doctor with his singing, his sweet-smelling tobacco, his neat glistening black beard, his hairy arse and possession of Madame de Pointcaré’s perfect, aristocratic thighs, even if he was from Paris, but couldn’t tell the doctor, of course, of his plans to do just that - to see the world by stealing the doctor’s boat. But he had made his plans. The river’s history was as long as the world’s and it could be relied upon to bear him north but no more: it had its own loyalties. When the curé was a boy two Englishmen had found mammoth bones and a huge flint axe in the river bank near Amiens and claimed these monsters and these fighting axe-men had been here before anyone had thought God created the earth. Then they had been taught at school that the Duke of Normandy had invaded the English from the harbour at St Valery, the river had played its part first in beating the English at Crécy but then helping them win at Agincourt.
What started as a muddy trickle in the the dense forest of Arrouaise wound its way north for many, many kilometres., past Abbeville, St Valery and Le Crotoy. Befitting its changeable nature, sometimes it was a pool, sometimes a lake, sometimes a marsh, sometimes, the schoolmaster had told them, a canal bringing water to the garden hortillages of Amiens, sometimes a peat fen rich in wildfowl, but still it kept going. It took in smaller rivers - Jean-Batiste had himself been born and lived all his life in the small town where the Ancre joined the greater river - and then there was the Avre and the Selle and the Hallue and with the burden of all this water it got wider and fuller and more streams rushed to join it in its rush to the sea and and then it opened into a vast mouth: half sand, half water. Jean-Batiste knew two men who had seen this. The curé said the mouth was known to be nearly as wide as the whole distance between Albert and Paris; and then, as if realising nobody could imagine such a distance, he explained it was so wide a man would need a horse to ride from one side to the other and it would take much more than a day. He said it was a wild, godforsaken place of screaming birds, knifing, briny winds and hills of sand and coarse grass. Vignon said it was an in-between place where the sky saw its reflection in the water, where the sea sometimes drew itself back so far that the seabed became shore, where the light turned the beach to mother of pearl and if you walked bare-foot the sand felt like carved ripples under your toes and as it returned the froth of breakers was like lace as the river fought a little before surrendering silently to the ocean.
The sea was salty and Jean-Batiste didn’t know at what point the fresh river water turned to salt, or at what point its greenness would be overwhelmed by the cold slate grey that sailors talked about, but when he rowed away he would find out these things. The boat would not be diverted into fens or lakes or canals; it would find the sea and if he kept rowing, he could reach England. Before then he would need to learn a few words in English and he had tried to get Vignon to tell him what might be useful - without giving him grounds for suspicion - but Vignon had been surprisingly vague for a man who had travelled. A man who had once lived in Paris. Had seen M. Eiffel’s tower. ‘Sausage’ the doctor had said and then, ‘how do you do.’ How do you do what, Jean-Batiste had wondered and considered whether he was more inclined to believe the curé or the doctor’s accounts of the meeting of the river and the sea.
Now Vignon sat back, lighting another cigarette.
‘How well named your river is’ he said, in the tone he sometimes used and that made Jean-Batiste feel less guilty about stealing the boat, and which made it clear that he had seen far bigger probably more patriotic rivers, including the Seine itself and that, in the scale of things, this small town, this Picardy backwater, his patients, even Madame de Pointcaré were a temporary amusement.
‘Tranquillity. That’s what the name Somme means.’ Vignon said. ‘In an ancient language.’ He waved an arm in the direction of the past. ‘And here we are tranquil in our boat. Or at least I’m tranquil and you are sweating like a bull - so we’d better tie her up for the night or your mother will be round to deal with me, fierce as a tigress.’ He gave another of his slow smiles, lines radiating outwards from his black eyes, pulled out a white handkerchief from his creased linen jacket, raised his hat and mopped his own brow.