Coastliners a novel, p.11
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.11

           Joanne Harris


  He nodded. “Can’t stay here forever,” he said. “Got to go where the money is. Everyone knows Les Salants is finished. Might as well take what’s offered before someone else does.”

  Over the water I heard Ghislain laughing, a little too loudly, at something Damien had said. A big string of mullet was slung negligently over the Eleanore’s bow.

  “He buys those fish from Jojo-le-Goëland,” remarked Xavier quietly. “He pretends he gets them from La Goulue. As if she cares how many fish he catches, anyway.”

  As if aware we had been discussing her, Mercédès took out a mirror and reapplied her lipstick.

  “If only my grandfather would see sense,” said Xavier. “The house is still worth something. The boat too. If only he wasn’t so dead set against selling to Houssins—” He looked awkward then, as if aware he had given himself away.

  “He’s an old man,” I said. “He doesn’t like change.”

  Xavier shook his head. “He’s been trying to drain La Bouche,” he said, lowering his voice a little. “He thinks nobody knows.”

  That’s how he had fallen ill, Xavier told me; a cold caught while digging trenches around his son’s memorial. Apparently the old man had dug ten meters of trench all along the cemetery path before collapsing. GrosJean had found him there and had fetched Xavier. “The old idiot,” he said, not without affection. “He really thought he could make a difference.”

  My surprise must have shown on my face, because Xavier laughed. “He’s not as tough as he pretends,” he said. “And he knows how Désirée feels about La Bouche.”

  That surprised me. I had always thought of Aristide as a patriarch who never considered anyone’s feelings. Xavier continued, “If he’d been alone, he would have gone into Les Immortelles years ago, when he could have got a decent price for the house. But he wouldn’t do that to my grandmother. He’s responsible for her too.”

  I thought about that as I made my way back home. Aristide, a protective husband? Aristide, a sentimentalist? I wondered whether my father had that too, whether, beneath his passivity, there had once been fire.

  During the past few days I had found Flynn more approachable, closer to the way he had been when I first met him in La Houssinière with the two sisters. Perhaps this was because of GrosJean; since my decision to refuse Brismand’s offer to place my father in Les Immortelles I had sensed a lessening of the hostility toward me in Les Salants, in spite of Aristide’s mockery. I realized that Flynn had been genuinely fond of my father, and felt slightly ashamed at having misjudged him. He had done a great deal of work to pay for the use of the blockhaus; even now he called round every few days with a fish he’d caught (or poached), or a few vegetables, or to do a job he’d promised GrosJean. I began to wonder how my father had coped at all before Flynn’s arrival.

  “Oh, he would have been all right,” said Flynn. “He’s tougher than you think.” I’d found him that evening at his blockhaus, working on his water supply. “The sand beneath the rock filters the water,” he explained. “Capillary action brings it to the surface. All I have to do then is to pump it up through this pipe.”

  It was a typically ingenious idea. I’d see signs of his work everywhere in the village: in the old windmill, which had been rebuilt to drain the water from the fields; in the generator in GrosJean’s house; in a dozen damaged or broken things that had been fixed, polished, oiled, adapted, rebuilt, and put back into working order using little but skill and a few spare parts.

  I explained about my talk with Xavier, and asked him if something similar could be built to drain water from La Bouche.

  “You might be able to drain it,” said Flynn, considering the suggestion, “but you couldn’t keep it clear. It floods every time there’s a high tide.”

  I thought about that. He was right; La Bouche needed something more than drainage. We needed something like the breakwater at La Houssinière—a solid barrier of rocks to protect the mouth of La Goulue and prevent the tides from attacking the creek. I said as much to Flynn.

  “If the Houssins can build a dike,” I said, “then so can we. We could build it from rocks taken off La Goulue. We could make it safe again.”

  Flynn shrugged. “Maybe. Assuming you can get the money somehow. And persuade enough people to help. And work out exactly where it has to go. A few meters wrong in either direction and the whole thing becomes a waste of time. You can’t just pile a hundred tons of rock off the end of the Pointe and hope that works. You’d need an engineer.”

  I was not discouraged. “But it could be done?” I insisted.

  “Probably not.” He peered at the mechanism of the pump and made an adjustment. “It would only send your problem elsewhere. And it wouldn’t reverse the erosion, either.”

  “No, but it might save La Bouche.”

  Flynn looked amused. “An old cemetery? What’s the point?”

  I reminded him of GrosJean. “All this has hit him hard,” I said. “The Saint, La Bouche, the Eleanore . . .” And, of course, I told myself silently: my own arrival and the upheavals it had brought.

  “He blames me,” I said at last.

  “No. He doesn’t.”

  “He dropped the Saint because of me. And now what’s happened to La Bouche—”

  “For God’s sake, Mado. Do you always have to take responsibility? Don’t you ever just let events take their course?” Flynn’s voice was dry, although he was still smiling. “He doesn’t blame you, Mado. He blames himself.”


  * * *

  Disappointed by my failure to persuade Flynn, I went straight to La Bouche. It was low tide, and the water level was down; but even so, many graves remained submerged, and there were deep puddles across the path. The damage ran deeper close to the creek; sea mud dribbling over the broken lip of the reinforced banking.

  That, I could see, was the vulnerable point, an area of no more than ten or fifteen meters in length. As the tide rushed up the creek, it spilled over, much as it did in Les Salants, before settling into the salt flats beyond. If only the banks could be raised a little, to give time for the water to clear—

  Someone had already tried, using sandbags stacked up against the rim of the creek. My father or Aristide, probably. But it was clear that sandbags alone were not enough; it would take hundreds of them to provide any kind of protection. Again I considered a barrier of rocks; not at La Goulue, but here; a temporary measure, perhaps, but a means of drawing attention; alerting the Salannais to the possibilities. . . .

  I thought of my father’s tractor and the trailer in the abandoned boatyard. There was a lifter too, if only I could get it to work: a winch designed to move boats into position for inspection or repairs. It was slow, but I knew it could take the weight of any fishing boat, even something like Jojo’s Marie Joseph. Using the lifter, I thought, I might even be able to drag loose rocks toward the creek to create a kind of barrier—one that might then be reinforced with dug earth and held in place with stones and sheets of tarpaulin. It might work, I told myself. In any case, it was worth a try.

  It took me nearly two hours to bring the tractor and the lifter to La Bouche. By that time, it was midafternoon, but the sun was ghostly behind a haze of clouds, and the wind had shifted once again, sharply to the south. I wore my fishing boots and vareuse, with a knitted cap and gloves, but even so it was getting cold, and there was moisture on the wind; not rain, but the kind of spray that comes off the rising tide. I checked the sun’s position; I guessed I had four or five hours. Little enough to do what needed to be done.

  I worked as fast as I could. I had already located a few big loose rocks, but they were not as loose as I had first thought, and I needed to dig them clear of the dune. Water welled up around them, and I used the tractor to pull them out of their sockets. The lifter moved with exasperating slowness, maneuvering the rocks into place with its stubby crane arm. I had to move them several times before I got the position right, each time fixing the big chains in
to place around the rock and returning to the lifter, then lowering the arm so that the rock touched the lip of the creek in the correct position for me to remove the chains. I was soaked early on, in spite of my fishing gear, but hardly noticed it. I could see the level of the water rising; the level on the damaged banking was already perilously high, and little cat’s-paws of wind ruffled the water. But the rocks were now in position, the piece of tarpaulin covering them, and all I needed to make that secure was a selection of smaller rocks and some earth to anchor the whole thing into place.

  It was at this point that the lifter broke down. I’m not sure whether it was the crane arm, which had been tried beyond its capacity, or something in the engine, or maybe even the shallow water through which I had taken it, but it froze and refused to move anymore. I wasted time trying to find the cause of the fault, then, when it proved impossible, began to move the stones by hand, choosing the largest I could manage and cementing them in with spadefuls of earth. The tide was rising gleefully, cheered by the south wind. From a distance I could hear the breakers coming in across the flats. I continued to dig, using the tractor trailer to bring the loose earth to the banking. I used all the tarpaulin I had brought, using more stones to anchor it down so that the earth would not be washed away.

  I had covered less than a quarter of the necessary distance. Even so, my makeshift defenses were holding; if only the lifter hadn’t broken down—

  It was getting dark now, though the clouds had dispersed a little. Toward Les Salants the sky was red and black and portentous. I stopped for a moment to stretch my aching back, and saw someone standing above me on the dune, outlined against the sky.

  GrosJean. I could not see his face, but I knew from his posture that he was watching me. For a second he continued to do so, then, as I began to move toward him, splashing clumsily through the muddy water, he simply turned and vanished over the brow of the dune. I followed, but exhausted, too slowly, knowing that when I reached the spot, he would be gone.

  Below me, I could see the current advancing up the creek. The tide was not yet high, but from my vantage point I could already make out the weak spots in my defenses; the places where sly fingerlings of brown water would work at the loose earth and stones, opening the way. The tractor was already belly deep in water; any more, and the engine would be flooded. I swore and ran back down toward the creek, started the tractor, stalled twice, then finally brought it around, noisy and protesting, in a cloud of oily fumes, to a safer spot.

  Damn the tide. Damn the luck. Angrily I threw a stone into the water. It fell against the sides of the banking with an ironic splash. I pulled up the remains of a dead azalea and threw that too. I was conscious of a sudden, apocalyptic rage ready to explode within me, and in seconds I was reaching for any missiles that I could throw, stones and dead wood and pieces of debris. The spade I had used was still lying on the trailer; I grabbed it and started digging furiously at the soggy ground, throwing up impossible showers of earth and water. My eyes were streaming; my throat sore. For a time, I lost myself.

  “Mado. Stop it. Mado.”

  I must have heard him, but I did not turn around until I felt his hand on my shoulder. My palms were blistered beneath my gloves. My breath was burning. My face was caked with mud. He was standing behind me, ankle deep in water. His usual ironic expression was absent; now he looked angry and concerned.

  “For God’s sake, Mado. Don’t you ever give up?”

  “Flynn.” I stared at him blankly. “What are you doing here?”

  “I was looking for GrosJean.” He frowned at me. “I found something washed up off La Goulue. Something I thought he might be interested in.”

  “More lobsters,” I suggested tartly, thinking of that first day at La Goulue.

  Flynn took a deep breath. “You’re as crazy as GrosJean,” he said. “You’ll kill yourself out here.”

  “Someone has to do something,” I said, picking up the spade, which I had dropped when he interrupted me. “Someone has to show them.”

  “Show who? Show what?” He was trying to keep his temper but managed it badly; there was a dangerous light in his eyes.

  “Show them how to fight back.” I glared at him. “How to pull together.”

  “Pull together?” He was scornful. “Haven’t you tried that already? Did you get anywhere?”

  “You know why I didn’t get anywhere,” I said. “If only you’d got involved—they would have listened to you—”

  He lowered his voice with an effort. “You don’t seem to understand. I don’t want to be involved. Why stick your hand in a basket of crabs? It won’t work, and it will probably make things worse in the long run.”

  “If Brismand could protect Les Immortelles,” I insisted between clenched teeth, “then we could do the same here. We could rebuild the old seawall, reinforce the cliffside at La Goulue—”

  “Sure,” said Flynn ironically. “You and two hundred tons of rock, an earthmover, a coastal engineer, and—oh, about half a million francs.”

  For a second I was shaken. “That much?” I said at last.

  “At least.”

  “You seem to know a lot about it.”

  “Yes, well. I take notice of these things. I saw the work at Les Immortelles. It wasn’t easy, I can tell you. And Brismand was building on foundations built over thirty years ago. You’re talking about starting this from scratch.”

  “You could think of something if you wanted to,” I repeated, shivering. “You understand how things work. You could find a way.”

  Flynn stared at the horizon as if there was something there to see. “You never give up, do you?”

  Flatly: “No.”

  He did not look at me. Behind him the low clouds were almost the same ocher color as his hair. The salt smell from the rising tide stung my eyes.

  “And you won’t leave it alone until you get results?”


  A pause. “Is it really worth it?” said Flynn at last.

  “It is to me.”

  “I mean. Give them a generation and they’ll all be gone. Look at them, for God’s sake. Anyone with any sense left years ago. Wouldn’t it be better just to let nature take its course?”

  I just looked at him and said nothing.

  “Communities die all the time.” His voice was quiet and persuasive. “You know that. It’s a part of life here. It might even be a good thing for people. Force them to think for themselves again. To build new lives for themselves. Look at them; interbreeding to death. They need new blood. They’re just clinging onto nothing here.”

  Stubbornly: “That isn’t true. They have a right. And too many of them are old. Too old to start again anywhere. Think about Matthias Guénolé or Aristide Bastonnet, or Toinette Prossage. The island is all they know. They’d never move to the mainland, even if their children did.”

  He shrugged. “There’s more to the island than Les Salants.”

  “What? To be second-class citizens in La Houssinière? To rent a house from Claude Brismand? And where would the money come from? None of these houses is insured, you know that. They’re all too close to the sea.”

  “There’s always Les Immortelles,” he reminded me gently.

  “No!” I suppose I was thinking about my father. “That’s not acceptable. This is home, it isn’t perfect, it isn’t easy but that’s the way it is. This is home,” I repeated. “And we’re not going to leave.”

  I waited. The rich smell of the rising sea was overwhelming. I could hear the waves like the sound of blood in my head, in my veins. I watched him and waited for him to speak, feeling suddenly very calm.

  He sighed. “Even if I could think of a way, you know, it might not work. It’s one thing rebuilding a windmill, but this is something else. There can be no guarantees. We’d have to make them pull together. We’d need everyone in Les Salants working flat out. It would take a miracle.”

  That we. It made my cheeks flame and my heart pitch madly.

“So it can be done?” I sounded breathless, absurd. “There’s a way to stop the flooding?”

  “I’ll need to think about it. But there is a way to make them pull together.”

  He was looking at me in that curious way again, as if I amused him. But now there was something else, an intent, arrested look, as if he were seeing me for the first time. I wasn’t sure I liked it. “You know,” he said finally, “it’s not certain anyone will thank you for this. Even if it works, they might resent it. You’ve already got a reputation.”

  I knew that. “I don’t care.”

  “Plus we’ll be breaking the law,” he continued. “You’re supposed to apply for permission, submit documents, plans. Obviously that won’t be possible.”

  “I told you. I don’t care.”

  “It would take a miracle,” he repeated, but I could tell he was close to laughter. His eyes, so cool a moment before, were full of lights and reflections.


  He laughed outright then, and I realized that although the Salannais often smile, snigger, or even chuckle under their breath, few of them ever laugh aloud. It sounded exotic to me, strange, a sound from a distant place.

  “All right,” said Flynn.


  Turning the



  * * *

  Omer’s house flooded overnight. The rains had swollen the creek, which, as high tide approached, had breached its defenses once again, and as Omer’s house was the closest, it had been the first to suffer.

  “Nowadays they don’t even bother moving the furniture anymore,” explained Toinette. “Charlotte just opens all the doors and lets the water run out the back. I’d have them here, but there’s no room. And besides, that girl of theirs runs me ragged. I’m too old for girls.”

  Mercédès was at her most difficult. No longer content with Ghislain and Xavier, she had begun to spend time at Le Chat Noir in La Houssinière instead, queening it over a number of Houssin admirers. Xavier blamed Aristide’s possessive behavior. Charlotte, who could have used the extra help, was at wits’ end. Toinette predicted disaster.

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