Coastliners a novel, p.12
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.12

           Joanne Harris

  “She’s playing with fire,” she declared. “Xavier Bastonnet’s a good lad, but deep down he’s as stubborn as his grandfather. She’ll end up losing him—and knowing my Mercédès, that’ll be the moment she realizes he was the one she wanted all along.”

  Certainly, if she had expected her absence to provoke a reaction, Mercédès was disappointed. Ghislain and Xavier continued to eye each other from either side of the étier, as if they were the lovers. Small malicious incidents occurred, for which they blamed each other—a slashed sail on the Cécilia, a bucketful of angleworms that mysteriously found its way into one of Ghislain’s boots—although neither could prove anything. Young Damien had disappeared from Les Salants altogether, and now spent most of his time hanging around the esplanade, picking fights.

  I too was drawn to the place. Even out of season, there was a vitality there, a sense of potential. Les Salants was deader than ever, stagnant. It hurt me to look at it. Instead I went to Les Immortelles with a sketch pad and pencils, though my fingers were clumsy, and I could not draw. I waited; for what—for whom—I did not know.

  Flynn had given me little idea of what to expect. It was better, he said, for me not to know. My reactions would be more spontaneous. He had vanished from sight for several days after our conversation, and although I knew he was planning something, he refused to tell me what it was when I eventually tracked him down.

  “You’d only disapprove.” He seemed infused with energy today, his eyes like gunpowder, gray and glittering and volatile. Behind him the door of the blockhaus stood slightly ajar, and I could see something wrapped in a sheet standing inside, something large. A spade stood against the wall, still black with mud from the flats. Flynn saw me looking and kicked the door shut. “You’re so suspicious, Mado,” he complained. “I told you, I’m working on your project.”

  “How will I know it’s started?”

  “You’ll know.”

  I glanced again at the blockhaus door. “You haven’t stolen anything, have you?”

  “Of course not. There’s nothing in there but a few bits and pieces I found at low tide.”

  “Poaching again,” I said with disapproval.

  He grinned. “You’ll never let me forget those lobsters, will you? What’s a little poaching between friends?”

  “Someone’s going to catch you at that one day,” I told him, trying not to smile, “and it serves you right if they shoot you.”

  Flynn just laughed, but the next morning I found a large gift-wrapped parcel outside the back door, tied with a scarlet ribbon.

  Inside, a single lobster.

  It began not long after that, a hot and blustery night. On these windy nights GrosJean was often restless. He got up to check the shutters, or to sit drinking coffee in the kitchen while he listened to the sea. I wondered what he was listening for.

  That night, I too was restless. The wind had risen again from the south, and I could hear it scratching at the doors and squealing at the windows like a plague of rats. Around midnight I dozed and dreamed brokenly of my mother, dreams I forgot almost instantly, but which had to do with the sound of her breathing as we lay side by side in one of a series of cheap rented rooms; her breathing, and the way it would sometimes stop for half a minute or more before wheezing back into life. . . .

  At one I got up and made coffee. Through the shutters I could see the red light of the beacon on the far side of La Jetée, and beyond it, a sullen burnt orange skyline stitched with heat lightning. The sea was throaty, the wind not gale force but enough to make the cables on the moored boats sing, gusting occasional sprays of sand onto the glass. As I listened I thought I heard a single bell ring once—boom!—its note plaintive against the sound of the wind. It might have been my imagination, I told myself, a trick of the night, but then I heard it a second time, then a third, ringing out above wave and wind with increasing clarity.

  I shivered.

  The sound of the bell grew louder, brought from the Pointe by the gusting wind. It sounded eerie, unnaturally hollow, the bell of a sunken church tolling disaster. As I looked out toward the rocky Pointe I thought I could see something—a dancing, bluish glow—from the sea. It streaked upward from the ground—once, twice—breaking against the clouds in a sullen splurge of pale fire.

  Suddenly I became aware that GrosJean had left his bed and was standing behind me. He was fully dressed, even to his vareuse and boots.

  “It’s all right,” I said. “There’s nothing to worry about. It’s a storm, that’s all.”

  My father said nothing. He stood stiffly at my side, a wooden figure, like the toys he used to make for me in the old days with the scraps from his workshop. There was no sign in his manner that he had even heard me. I could feel some strong emotion coming from him, though; something that caught at me like a cat snagging nylon. His hands were trembling.

  “Everything is going to be fine,” I repeated foolishly.

  “La Marinette,” said my father.

  His voice sounded rusty and unused. For a moment the syllables chased one another in my mind, indecipherable.

  “La Marinette,” said GrosJean again, more insistently this time, putting one hand on my arm. His blue eyes pleaded.

  “It’s only the church bell,” I repeated reassuringly. “I can hear it too. It’s the wind bringing the sound from La Houssinière, that’s all.”

  GrosJean shook his head impatiently. “La—Marinette,” he said.

  Flynn—I was sure this was his doing—had chosen an apt symbol at an apt time. But my father’s reaction to the sound of the bell chilled me. There he stood, straining forward like a leashed dog, his hand gripping my arm hard enough to bruise. His face was white.

  “Please, what is it?” I asked, disengaging my arm gently. “What’s wrong?”

  But GrosJean was once again beyond speech. Only his eyes spoke, dark with emotion, like the eyes of a saint who has spent too long in the wilderness and finally lost his mind.

  “It’s all right,” I said again. “I’ll go and see what’s going on. I’ll be back soon.” And leaving him standing there with his face against the window, I pulled on my waterproof jacket and stepped out into the sullen night.


  * * *

  The sound of the waves was enormous, but the bell remained audible above it, a heavy, doom-ridden tolling that seemed to shiver through the ground. As I approached, another spray of light shot up from behind the dune. It scrawled across the sky, illuminating everything, then died just as quickly. I could see lights at windows, shutters opening, figures—barely recognizable in their overcoats and woollen caps—standing curiously at doors and leaning over fences. Already I could make out Omer’s bulky figure under the road sign, flanked by a fluttering, dressing-gowned person who could only be Charlotte. There was Mercédès at the window in her nightdress. There were Ghislain and Alain Guénolé, with Matthias close behind. A straggle of children—Lolo and Damien among them. Lolo was wearing a red cap and leaping exuberantly in the small light from the open doorway. His shadow capered. His voice reached me thinly over the doom-doom of the bell.

  “What the hell’s going on over there?” It was Angélo, muffled to the eyes in his fishing cape and balaclava. He was carrying a flashlight in one hand, and he shone it briefly into my face, as if to check for intruders. He seemed reassured when he recognized me.

  “Oh, it’s you, Mado. Have you been up to the Pointe? What’s going on there?”

  “I don’t know.” The wind snatched at my voice and made it small and uncertain. “I saw the lights—”

  “Heh, who could miss them?” The Guénolés had reached the dune by then, both carrying fishing lanterns and shotguns. “If some bastard’s playing tricks out on the Pointe . . .” Alain made a suggestive gesture with his shotgun. “I wouldn’t put it past those Bastonnets to pull a stunt like this. I’m going to the Pointe all right, to see what’s going on—but I’m leaving the boy to keep watch. They must think I was born yesterday if t
hey think I’d fall for a trick like that.”

  “Whoever’s behind it, it isn’t the Bastonnets,” declared Angélo, pointing. “I can see old Aristide back there with Xavier holding his arm. Looks in a hurry too.”

  Sure enough the old man was hobbling along the Rue de l’Atlantique as quickly as he could, using his stick for balance on one side and his grandson’s arm on the other. His long hair flapped wildly under the fisherman’s cap.

  “Guénolé!” he roared as soon as he came into earshot. “I should have known you bastards were behind this! What the hell do you think you’re playing at, waking everyone up at this time of night?”

  Matthias laughed. “Don’t think you can throw sand in my eyes,” he said. “Guilty conscience always crows the loudest. Don’t say you don’t know anything about this, heh? Why come out so quickly otherwise?”

  “My wife’s gone,” said Aristide. “I heard the door slam. Out on the cliffs in this weather—at her age—she’ll catch her death!” He raised his stick, his voice cracking with rage. “Can’t you leave her out of this?” he shouted hoarsely. “Isn’t it enough that your son—your son—” He lashed out at Matthias with his stick, and would have fallen over if Xavier hadn’t held him up. Ghislain lifted his shotgun. Aristide cackled. “Go on then!” he yelled. “Shoot me, see if I care! Shoot an old man with only one leg, go on, it’s all anyone would expect from a Guénolé, go on, I’ll stand closer if you like then even you won’t be able to miss—Santa Marina, won’t that bloody bell stop ringing?” He took a shaky step forward, but Xavier held him back.

  “My father says it’s La Marinette,” I said.

  For an instant Guénolés and Bastonnets looked at me. Then Aristide shook his head. “It’s not,” he said. “It’s just someone fooling about. No one’s heard La Marinette ring since—”

  Some instinct made me look back then, toward the dune. A man was standing there against the troubled sky. I recognized my father. Aristide saw him too, and bit off what he was about to say with a grunt.

  “Father,” I said gently. “Why don’t you go home?”

  But GrosJean did not move. I put my arm around him, and felt him trembling.

  “Look, everyone’s tired,” said Alain in a softer voice. “Let’s just go and see what’s going on, heh? I’ve got an early start in the morning.” Then, turning to his son with unexpected vehemence: “And you—for Christ’s sake put the bloody gun away. Where d’you think you are, the Wild West?”

  “It’s only rock salt—” began Ghislain.

  “I said put it away!”

  Ghislain lowered the gun, looking sullen. Off the Pointe two more flares went off, crackling blue fire into the troubled air. I felt GrosJean flinch at the sound.

  “Saint Elmo’s fire,” declared Angélo.

  Aristide looked unconvinced. We walked on toward Pointe Griznoz. Omer and Charlotte Prossage joined us, then Hilaire with his walking stick, Toinette, and a trail of others. Doom-doom went the drowned bell, the blue fire crackled, and voices were high in an excitement that could quite quickly turn to anger, fear, or worse. I scanned the crowd for Flynn, but there was no sign of him anywhere. I felt a prickle of anxiety; I hoped he knew what he was doing.

  I helped GrosJean up the dune while Xavier ran on ahead carrying the lantern, and Aristide followed us, dragging his wooden leg and leaning heavily on his stick. People overtook us rapidly, loping unevenly across the drifting sand. I saw Mercédès, her long hair loose and her coat buttoned over her white nightgown, and understood why Xavier had run on ahead.

  “Désirée,” muttered Aristide.

  “It’s all right,” I said. “She’ll be fine.”

  But the old man was not listening. “I heard it myself once, you know,” he said, speaking almost to himself. “La Marinette. Summer of the Black Year, the day Olivier drowned. Fooled myself it was the sound of the trawler’s hull then, popping and banging as the sea took it out. Later I understood. That was La Marinette I heard ringing that day. Ringing disaster, as she always does. And Alain Guénolé”—his voice changed tone abruptly—“Alain was his friend, you know. They were of an age, both of them. Went fishing together sometimes, even though we disapproved.”

  He was beginning to tire, still leaning heavily on his stick as we rounded the curve of the big dune. Beyond lay the rocks of Pointe Griznoz, the remaining wall of Sainte-Marine’s ruined chapel standing against the sky like a megalith.

  “He should have been there,” continued Aristide in a hectoring tone. “They’d arranged to meet at twelve to bring in any salvage from the old ship. If he’d come he could have saved my son. If he’d come. But instead he was in the dunes with his girl, wasn’t he? Evelyne Gaillard, as it was, Georges Gaillard’s girl from La Houssinière. He lost track of time. Lost track of time!” he repeated, almost gleefully. “Fucking his brains out—and with that Houssine—while his friend—my son—”

  He was panting by the time we topped the dune. A group of Salannais were already there, their faces illuminated by the light of their flashlights and lanterns. The Saint Elmo’s fire—if that’s what it had been—had disappeared. The bell too had ceased ringing.

  “It’s a sign,” cried someone—I think it was Matthias Guénolé.

  “It’s a trick,” muttered Aristide.

  More people were arriving even as we watched. I guessed that half the village was here already, and by the way they were coming, there would soon be more.

  The wind slashed at our faces with salt and sand. A child began to wail. Behind me, I could hear the sound of praying. Behind them Toinette was yelling something about Sainte-Marine, a prayer or a warning.

  “Where’s my wife?” Aristide was shouting above the noise. “What’s happened to Désirée?”

  “The Saint,” cried Toinette. “The Saint—”


  We looked. And there was the Saint, standing above us, in the little niche, high up against the chapel wall. A primitive figure, barely visible in the dim light, her blunt features etched in fire. The movement of the flashlights and lanterns made her shift on her impossible perch, as if she were considering flight. Her festival robes belled out around her, and on her head was Sainte-Marine’s gilded crown. Beneath her, the two old nuns, Soeur Thérèse and Soeur Extase, in attitudes of devotion. Behind them I saw that something had been scratched or drawn on the bare wall of the ruined chapel; some kind of graffiti.

  “How the hell did she get up there?” It was Alain, staring up at the teetering saint as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

  “And what are those two magpies here for?” growled Aristide, glaring at the nuns. But then he stopped. A figure in a nightgown was kneeling on the grass next to the two sisters, hands clasped. “Désirée!” Aristide limped as fast as he could toward the kneeling figure, who, seeing him approach, turned her wide eyes toward him. Her wan face was radiant. “Oh, Aristide, she’s come back!” she said. “It’s a miracle—”

  The old man was shaking. His mouth opened, but for a few seconds nothing came out. His voice was gruff as he held out his hand to his wife and said, “You’re freezing, you crazy old trout. What d’you want to come out here for without a coat, heh? I suppose I’ll have to give you mine.” And, removing his fishing jacket, he slung it around her shoulders.

  Désirée accepted it, almost without noticing. “I heard the Saint,” she said, still smiling. “She spoke—oh, Aristide, she spoke to me.”

  Little by little, the crowd was gathering around the foot of the wall.

  “My God,” said Capucine, forking the sign against malchance. “Is that really the Saint up there?”

  Angélo nodded. “Though God only knows how she got there—”

  “Sainte-Marine!” wailed someone from below the dune. Toinette dropped to her knees. A sigh went through the crowd—aiiii! The surf beat against the ground like a heart.

  “She’s ill,” said Aristide, trying to pull Désirée to her feet. “Somebody help me.”

/>   “Oh, no,” said Désirée. “I’m not ill. Not anymore.”

  “Heh! You!” Aristide addressed the two Carmelites, still standing beneath the Saint’s niche. “Are you going to help me with her, or what?”

  The two nuns stared at him, unmoving. “We had a message,” said Soeur Thérèse.

  “In the chapel. Like Joan of Arc.”

  “Nono, nothing like Joan of Arc, that was voices, ma soeur, not visions, and look where it got her in the end—” I strained to understand what they were saying above the sound of the wind.

  “Marine-de-la-Mer, dressed all in white with her—”

  “Crown and lantern, and a—”

  “Veil over her face.”

  “A veil?” I thought I was beginning to understand.

  The sisters nodded. “And she spoke to us, little Mado—”

  “Spoke. To us.”

  “You’re sure it was her?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking the question.

  The Carmelites looked at me as if I were simple. “Well of course it was, little Mado. Who—”

  “Else could it be? She said she’d come back tonight, heh—and—”

  “Here she is.”

  “Up there.”

  They spoke this last in unison, their eyes bright as birds’. Beside them, Désirée Bastonnet listened, rapt. GrosJean, who had been listening to this without moving, looked up, his eyes filled with stars.

  Aristide shook his head impatiently. “Dreams. Voices. None of that’s worth leaving a warm bed on a cold night. Come on, Désirée—”

  But Désirée shook her head. “She spoke to them, Aristide,” she said in a firm voice. “She told them to come. They came here—you were asleep—they knocked on the door—they showed me the sign on the chapel wall—”

  “I knew they were behind it!” exploded Aristide furiously. “Those magpies—”

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