Drugs and a fiery relationship can be enough to send someone off the rails in the tropics.
I was in Grenada in the southern Windward Islands, having sailed down from St Lucia in my 28-foot cutter “Pamela’. She was the finest yacht I ever owned – steel-hulled and with spruce spars and a teak deck and, in spite of her small size, she could cut effortlessly through the heavy swells whipped up by the fresh trade winds that gusted over the islands in the winter months.
I had anchored in the picturesque capital of St George’s which, with its re-tiled roofs and soaring church spires had the air of some small English village nestling amongst the lush green hills. Famous for its plantations of nutmeg and cinnamon, the island was known as The Spice Island.
It was early April and I was bound for Venezuela. I wanted to spend the summer well away from the hurricane belt to the north and also to explore something of that vast country which lay practically on my doorstep for so many years when I lived in St Lucia but which I had not visited in more than 15 years.
Finding myself quite penniless, I decided to sell a couple of sets of scuba equipment which I had on board. I placed an advertisement on the marina notice-board and, the following day, Didier passed by.
The Stoned French Couple
He was half French and half Algerian, tall, bronzed and with a thick mop of black hair, slightly curly. He had a long, thin face with an aquiline nose and full lips that were dry and cracked; his eyes were large, dark and alert with intelligence, his cheeks hollow, his expression gaunt. He was a good-looking fellow, but painfully thin, and I recognised the demeanour of one who has more than a passing interest in narcotics. He was 34.
In a heavy French accent, he introduced himself and his girl-friend, Laurence, who stood passively by his side. She was in the early twenties, small, slim and pretty, with short, brown hair and large, liquid eyes. She was waif-like and her doleful expression and frail physique reminded you of some urchin from a Dickens novel. She continually chewed away at the remnants of her finger nails and, although she appeared to be listening as Didier spoke, there was a melancholy remoteness about her.
Although Didier spoke good English, Laurence understood little and so we conversed in French, a language in which I am, apparently, able to make myself understood. The Frenchman explained that he owned a 40-foot sailing yacht and that he had seen my advertisement for the diving equipment and that he wished to buy it. I quoted my price and, rather to my surprised, he accepted without hesitation and went off to his boat, returning five minutes later with the money. It was a not insubstantial sum but my surprise was more at his failure to negotiate my price than at his ability to pay, for I knew of a good many sailing people whose exterior appearance suggested impoverishment, but who concealed gold credit cards in the back pockets of their sawn-off jeans.
I spent several more days in St George’s during which time I encountered Laurence and Didier on several occasions. Whilst it was evident that they both used drugs frequently, I nevertheless (rather than consequently) much enjoyed their company. They were affable and interesting and, Didier in particular, had an engaging candour so that you could not help but like him; he was an amiable rogue and he described his various exploits with a mischievous smile which, together with his almost poetic eloquence, rendered even more seductive on account of his Continental enunciation, made you laugh at incidents which, related by another, would have offended you.
He was marred and had a young daughter, but his wife and child remained in France and ran the family business – a restaurant, I believe, from which he received a sum of money each month. He had been with Laurence for about 18 months. He was a well-educated man, but he was a Bohemian, an itinerant who neither accepted nor was accepted by the conventional society that he had abandoned in France.
Of Laurence, I could learn very little. My inquiries regarding her family and background elicited the curt response “I have nothing in France!” I supposed that she was running away from something; perhaps from a family with whom she did not see eye to eye, or perhaps from the authorities of whom she had fallen foul. I never found out.
In mid April, I sailed out of Grenada, having bid farewell to my French acquaintances. They had told me that they too would be heading down to Venezuela soon and we made vague plans to meet up later that summer. I made my way down to the Testigos Islands and then to Margarita Island a couple of miles north of the Venezuelan mainland; and from there I spent a few days in the beautiful anchorage at Mochima National Park before finally arriving in Puerto La Cruz where I intended to base myself for the next few months.
Some time in August, Laurence and Didier sailed into Puerto La Cruz and dropped anchor a hundred yards or so from the marina where Pamela was berthed stern-to. I was pleased to see them again and we celebrated our reunion with several beers. They both seemed in high spirits, though more cadaverous than ever, their reddened, vacant eyes betraying their addiction.
Aware that Venezuela was one of the cheapest sources of cocaine and its chemical derivative, ‘crack’, I feared that their new environment would only aggravate their problem and so I tactfully advised Didier to take care of himself. But he laughed loudly, and pulled a phial out of his pocket, sprinkled a line of white powder on the table in front of him, closed one nostril with his index finger, and inhaled the line of powder through his other nostril. Laurence did the same. They were invincible and, as the weeks passed and Didier looked more and more like the swarthy victim of a Nazi concentration camp, so his conviction in his own immortality strengthened.
Throughout August and September, I saw Didier and Laurence but fleetingly. They spent most of the daylight hours sleeping on their yacht, recovering from the excesses of the previous night. Sometimes I would meet them in the marina coffee shop: Laurence, tearful and silent, haggard and drawn; Didier, emaciated, yet ebullient and jocular. They argued with each other a lot, usually about trivial matters, Didier smiling and goading his girl-friend who reacted nervously and irritably to his harmless banter. Once, Didier showed me a mass of deep red scars running the length of his back where Laurence had attacked him one evening. He laughed.
“See what my hell-cat has done?” and he would glance at Laurence who sat, furious and silent, lost in some intangible world of resentment.
Yes, as suddenly as their arguments ignited, so they equally suddenly gave way to embraces and kisses. Whilst Didier generally appeared impervious to her tacit surliness, Laurence often exhibited a sharp temper and a caustic tongue yet, almost schizophrenically, her expression would change from rage to joy with startling alacrity.
A Tragic End
It was on the occasion of one of their violent disagreements one evening early in October that I found myself with a group of friends at a bar in town. We were a group of half a dozen and were seated around a large table at which lay a great many empty beer bottles. I saw Laurence seated at a nearby table, talking to a German fellow. She seemed to be angry.
Around eight o’clock, there was a loud commotion by the entrance of the bar and the unmistakable, heavy French accent of Didier heaping abuse on an astonished waiter. He staggered towards our table and, ignoring Laurence, drew up a chair beside me.
I greeted him and he looked back with glazed eyes and rambled on unintelligibly about something or other. He was very drunk and very stoned, barely able to sit in his chair, let alone to talk coherently. At one point, he looked over towards Laurence, shouted something faintly unpleasant and then laughed as she turned towards him, pointed her index finger at her forehead, and fired an imaginary trigger.
We drank a few more beers and I tried hard to take little notice of Didier’s insensible ramblings. At length, we decided to leave and take dinner at a nearby restaurant. As we left, an English guy, slightly the worse for wear, planted a full kiss on Didier’s lips but the significance of this gesture escaped me at the time. The manager of the bar, disgusted by this apparent show of affection, closed the bar.
I enjoyed a long, slow meal with a friend and at around midnight we droved the ten miles or so back to the marina. I had by this time acquired a dilapidated jeep (later to become ‘Carlos Taxi’) and I parked it a few yards from my yacht. As I walked across the grass towards my yacht, I was astonished to see a figure emerge from the interior and stumble into the cockpit. It was Didier.
Tired and not especially amused to discover an uninvited guest on board my yacht, I sharply asked him what he was doing. He was in a considerably worse state than when I had seem him earlier in the evening but I was eventually able to deduce that he was unable to remember where he had tied up his dinghy and thus had no means of returning to his anchored yacht. He wanted to know if I could lend him a dinghy. Had I owned one, I would have taken him back to his vessel, but I did not and so I curtly told him to remove himself from my yacht and suggested that he could lie under the shelter of a nearby palm tree and sober up by dawn.
With difficult, and some assistance from me, Didier climbed over the stern of my yacht and onto the dock where he promptly tripped over a mooring line and fell flat on his face. I helped him to his feet. He was unsteady but seemed able to stand which I took as a positive sign and so, having once again instructed him to lie down on the grass and get some sleep, I boarded my yacht and very soon fell asleep. A few minutes later, Didier was dead.
The following morning, I rose late and ambled down to the coffee shop. Finishing my breakfast, I leaned back with a cigarette. “Bad news about the Frenchman, eh?” said a fat, bearded Canadian fellow at an adjacent table.
I asked him what he meant. “Oh,” he said casually, chewing on a greasy piece of meat, “they fished some guy’s body out of the water this morning”. He burped. I paid my bill and hurried out of the coffee shop. As I walked along the dock, the marina security guard passed me and shook his head sadly and asked if I had heard about the Frenchman.
As far as could be ascertained, Didier had left my yacht, had taken a few paces along the dock, had tripped over another dock line, fallen into the water, hitting his head on the concrete dock when he fell, and drowned. His body, bloated and partly eaten, had been discovered by a fisherman early that morning. The doctor’s estimate of the time of death indicated that the accident had occurred very shortly after leaving my yacht.
I felt devastated. I told myself that I was partially to blame – after all, I should never have allowed an intoxicated friend to drive his car home from a pub, yet, in a way, I had encouraged Didier to do just that. But my friends said that the analogy was a poor one and that Didier’s life-style would have resulted in his death in any case. He had been systematically killing himself.
When Laurence sauntered down the dock later that day, she merrily asked me where Didier was. It was one of the hardest things I had ever been obliged to do, as I placed my hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eyes and told her what had happened. For a day or two, she would not believe it. But, they (whoever they may be) say that time is a great healer and, after some weeks, she found work on a French yacht and sailed north to Guadeloupe.
Didier’s corpse lay for three days in a Venezuela morgue, a label strapped to his wrist. Claiming that he was an “unidentified drowning victim”. The police had forgotten to inform the hospital authorities of his name. It was more than a week before the French Consulate in Caracas was informed and another week before they confirmed that a member of his family had been contacted in France. His mother, intending to fly to Venezuela, had suffered a heart attack on hearing the news and had had to cancel her trip. Didier’s yacht was sold for a pittance to an Italian fellow.
I do not know what his wife and daughter were told. I can only hope that they retained their memories on the handsome, well-educated, 34 year-old man who had been the husband and the father, who had died one day in a strange and far-away land; and not of the drug-ravaged, rambling skeleton whose death wish was finally granted that October morning in Venezuela.