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
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.’
‘Was it an accident, or—’
‘He climbed over.’
There were shouts from the water, but they were not cries
‘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.