After all the discussion about Karl, I decided I ought to go and see him myself. Or that's what I told Keaty and Gregorio. Really I was just interested in catching up with Françoise, whom I'd barely seen over the past few days. The main reasons were our different work details and the hectic circumstances, though I hadn't been very active in seeking her out. Following the misunderstood kiss, I'd been slightly wary of giving Étienne any reasons to be suspicious.
I found Françoise by Karl's hole, about four hundred metres further on from Keaty and Gregorio. Karl had dug the hole when he'd decamped to the beach. It wasn't much of a hole — thigh-high if he stood up, chest-deep if he sat down. More impressive was the shelter which Étienne and Keaty had rigged up. Because Karl refused to budge from his hole all through the day, they'd been worried about him getting sunstroke. They'd found three long palm branches and tied them against each other like a tepee. The gaps in the fronds wouldn't have stopped rain but they kept him in the shade.
I was expecting Françoise to be in a bad mood (as everyone else seemed to be) so I was happily surprised when she ran over and gave me a hug.
'Richard!' she said. 'Thank you! I have not thanked you yet! So, thank you!'
I paused.' ...What for?'
'For helping me when I was sick. Really, you were so kind. I wanted to tell you before, but there was never a good chance. Always so much to do. We have to catch all the extra fish now, and then I stay with Karl, and often you are not back until late.'
'Françoise, don't give it another thought. It was nothing. Anyway, you did the same for me once.'
'Yes, with your fever.' She smiled, then looked at me straight in the eyes and suddenly the smile turned into a sly chuckle. 'You kissed me!'
My eyes flicked away. 'I thought you were sleeping...'
'I was. Étienne told me the next day.'
'Oh,' I said, mentally unleashing a stream of curses at Étienne's big mouth. 'Well... I hope you don't mind... It was sort of complicated...'
'Of course I do not mind! You know, when you were ill I also
'...I was never completely sure if I dreamed that or not.'
'You did not dream it. And remember the next morning! You were so worried!'
I nodded, remembering my awkwardness and Françoise's Exocet-style questions extremely clearly.
'So tell me,' she said. 'Why do you say it was complicated?'
'Well... complicated is probably the wrong, uh... It wasn't like the kiss was... the kiss wasn't...' I stopped myself and started again. '...I'm not sure what Étienne told you, but he took the kiss the wrong way. I was kissing you because you were so sick, and there was so much other sickness around that once I'd started... it was kind of hard to stop.'
'How was Étienne taking it?'
'Whoosh,' I thought. 'Boom.'
'...Well, I guess he thought it was... you know...'
'A sexy kiss.'
Françoise laughed again. Then she leant over and planted a little kiss on my cheek. 'Was that a sexy kiss?'
'No,' I replied; only a small fib. 'Of course not.'
'So there is no problem. Not complicated.'
'I'm glad you understand.'
'Always,' she said. 'I always understand.'
For a moment we held each other's gaze, just long enough for it to acquire a mild resonance. It reminded me of other moments from months back, loaded exchanges on Ko Samui, our midnight conversation about the parallel worlds in the Milky Way. Then the moment was over, broken by Françoise as she turned to look at Karl.
'He does not push down the shelter any more,' she said a few seconds later.
'...Yeah. I saw it was up. Maybe it's a good sign. An improvement or something.'
She sighed. 'No. It means nothing. We discovered he only pushed the shelter down because of the leaves... He could not see the caves. He likes to watch them. When we left a space for him to watch through, he left the shelter alone.'
'But maybe he is improving... He eats the food I give him now.'
'That's something I guess. Not much though.'
Françoise nodded. 'Yes... Poor Karl... Not much.'
Sal cornered me a final time that day. I'd stayed with Françoise until long after the sun went down, and Sal got me just as I was about to enter the longhouse on my way to bed.
'Did you pass on my message?' she asked.
I slapped my forehead. 'Shit, Sal, it totally slipped my mind. I'm really sorry. I got distracted because people were talking about Karl and then...'
Sal shook her head dismissively. 'OK, OK. I know what happened because I had a chat with Étienne this evening. It seems there'll be a lot of ground to cover at the funeral tomorrow morning and... Please don't tell me you've forgotten about the funeral.'
'Sal!' I said, probably overdoing the outrage. 'Of course not!'
'Well, it's hard to tell with you... Anyway, following the talk with Étienne, I've had a slight change of plan. I've decided to be a bit blunter with the camp than I'd originally planned to be... Desperate times and desperate measures, or something like it...'
She hesitated. 'Funerals have a way of drawing people together, don't you think, Richard?'
'They can,' I said doubtfully.
'They can, yes... So the point is, don't lose any sleep over not passing on the message.'
I nodded. 'I won't.'
'Good. I'll see you tomorrow then.'
Moshe was the last to bed, so he blew out the last candle. The John-Boy game, obviously, was out of the question, but it crossed my mind to try it. I was interested to know what would happen. Probably we'd have laboured through it, only calling out the names of our friends until some poor sap was stuck and had to pass it over to the Bugs side. Probably via the Yugo girls, I imagined, or maybe Sal.
I moved on to thinking about Françoise, a train of thought that, once started, could occupy me almost indefinitely. Indefinitely turned out to be at least an hour. That was how long I'd been lying awake before I realized that everyone else in the longhouse was lying awake too. It was a revelation I found annoying. As there was no light in the longhouse for one's eyes to become accustomed to, normally one felt snugly cocooned by the insulating wall of blackness. Paradoxically, it was the snores and sounds of others sleeping that reinforced this cocoon, the sleepers distanced by their unconsciousness.
Once alerted by the lack of heavy breathing, the cocoon illusion was ruined. Ruined, and worst of all, replaced by a nagging puzzle. I was awake because I had Françoise to mull over, but why was everyone else awake? It took me another half-hour to deduce that it had to be because they were fretting about Sten's funeral.
Five minutes later, the puzzle solved, I fell fast asleep.