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  • Mark Smith

The Cycling Fisherman

Social life in a Norman fishing village is no sitcom. First, there aren’t many people on hand. Second, two-thirds of those who are live in the nursing home or are on the waiting list. The last third is full of potential, but local culture is an intricate socio-linguistic thing that doesn’t spread its arms to the outsider.

Still, if you take an interest and keep your eyes open, the stage lights here do eventually come on and you are able to walk among the actors. They will talk to you, squinting only slightly as you unveil your curious person in their language, and many of them will make no effort to hide the inner workings of their relations with one another or how their world functions. On the contrary, they’ll tell you everything.

After 30 years of admittedly limited effort in this domain, I seem to have cracked the local code to a small degree—through an acquaintance and subsequent friendship with Dominique Odye, a 62-year-old fisherman who lives 50 meters down the waterfront above a restaurant called The Tomahawk.

I’d known of Dominique for years before our friendship began, mostly because he was good enough to come over and help my ageing father-in-law back to bed when he’d fallen down and couldn’t get up. My father-in-law’s live-in caretaker, a beautiful Sri Lankan woman named Darshani, would call Dominique for help at all hours of the day and night, and Dominique would always arrive. We later learned that he was in love with Darshani and would’ve done anything for her, but his credit in our eyes was none the less. Particularly as Darshani let herself be loved but could not return the favor.

My father-in-law finally died. Darshani left town, and bit by bit Dominique and I got to know each other, tied I think by intrigue at the considerable differences between us…and maybe a little by the one-time common figure in our lives—Darshani.

Dominique Odye left home and school at age 14 to work as a deck hand on a fishing boat. It was a grind, but he stuck to it, changing vessels as he climbed the trade’s ladder and saving his money until he was finally able to buy his own boat. With an indomitable work ethic and a fine nose for the richest fishing grounds, Dominique eventually made a name for himself as one of the savviest sea-going characters on the Cotentin peninsula.

Forty-odd years on, Dominique Odye sits atop a considerable pile—as owner of The Tomahawk restaurant, a commercial fishing boat of the same name, an apartment building overlooking the port, and a 46-foot sloop—while the bulk of his fishing contemporaries study their gnarled hands in social housing on the outskirts of town.

But as the sun sets on a proud career, Dominique’s priorities have changed. He has a new girlfriend, Sao, a Thai woman he calls his “créature de rêve” (dream creature), with whom he sees himself drifting pleasantly over the horizon, leaving the gray Norman shores behind. To realize this final fantasy in the best possible conditions, Dominique knows what he must do.

That’s where I come in, he says. He says he’ll buy a bike and we’ll ride all over the Cotentin losing weight so he can eat all the lavish victuals Sao lays before him. With every pedal stroke he’ll gain in vigor, the better to attend his eastern beauty.

It took a while, but Dominique and I eventually got out on the bikes—a sortie of reasonable ambition, 25 kilometers along the mostly flat coastal road, which Dominique covered with relative ease on my $6000 titanium loaner. But that was a month ago. Meanwhile Dominique’s fishing boat’s clutch broke and he’d like to have his lower teeth replaced with implants so he can finally chew on Sao’s delicious cooking. These things take money.

Dominique’s cycling career is in danger, I think. It was a nice idea while it lasted, but you can’t do everything in a single life. There just isn’t enough time.

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