Extract from The Sea Garden
The Crossing

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The island lay in wait, a smudge of land across the water. From the port at La Tour Fondue, the crossing to Porquerolles would take only fifteen minutes. Ellie Brooke put her face up to the sun, absorbing the heat. On the deck of the ferry, where she had a prime seat, there were few other passengers this late in the afternoon. The young man had his back to the curve of the deck rail, facing her. It was his T- shirt that drew her attention: the lead singer of a heavy metal band thrust a tongue out from the boy’s chest, an image that invited reaction but succeeded only in making its thin, blond bearer appear innocuous in comparison.

The engines thrummed and the boat nosed out into sea glitter and salt spray, then powered up to full speed. The island was already sharpening into focus when the young man climbed over the deck rail, spread both arms and then let himself slip down the side of the ferry, a silent movement so quick and so unexpected that Ellie was not the only passenger to admit that she had at first doubted her own eyes. No splash was heard in the churning water close to the hull.

Perhaps their shouts to the crew were seconds too late, the choking of the ferry’s engine not fast enough. The young man had gone over the edge too close to the bow to have had any chance of swimming away safely. As soon as he hit the water he would have been sucked under and pulled towards the propellers, it was said later.

In the moments immediately afterwards, though, in the calm as the engine noise died and the ferry drifted, it seemed quite possible that he would be fished out spluttering, shrinking with embarrassment at the gangling weakness of his limbs, the idiocy of his stunt. Someone threw a life belt. On deck, more passengers emerged from the cabin to lean over the rail, asking why the ferry had stopped. They were drawn to one another, wanting to help but frightened of getting in the way as the crew set about a rescue procedure. Ellie did not speak French well enough to understand much of what they were saying, but it was clear that the middle- aged couple with a small yappy dog, the man carrying a briefcase, and the elderly woman were united in their furious incomprehension of the young man’s actions. The man with the briefcase was particularly vocal, and his tirade sounded like condemnation. A man in a panama hat and loose white shirt hung slightly back, making no comment.

‘Did you see what happened?’ she asked him in English, hoping he would understand.


‘One moment he was fine. It didn’t look as if anything was wrong. The next he was gone.’

‘It’s terrible.’

‘Was it an accident, or—’

‘He climbed over.’

There were shouts from the water, but they were not cries for help.

‘Don’t look,’ said the man.

She turned away. Bright sunlit sails slid across the sapphire sea. A small aircraft cut across the sky.

Waves slapped against the port side of the ferry. A dinghy was quickly joined by a police launch. Shouting cut through the buzz of the crew’s electronic communications. Falling cadences of conversation on deck marked the transition from irritation with the delay to understanding. The fear felt by all was primitive: the oldest sea story of all, the soul lost overboard. A hundred years ago the ferry boat had been summoned to the mainland by smoke signal – the fire of resinous leaves and twigs lit in a brazier outside the café at the end of the Presqu’île de Giens, she remembered. It was the kind of detail she enjoyed, culled from the reading she had done in preparation for the trip. Now, within minutes, invisible modern signals brought the emergency services.

Ellie stood up and went over to the rail. Not for the first time, she wondered why she had come.


Deborah Lawrenson,author Deborah Lawrenson,author Deborah Lawrenson,author Deborah Lawrenson,author Deborah Lawrenson,author

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