Coastliners a novel, p.14
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.14

           Joanne Harris
 

  Financing came from the unlikeliest quarters: Toinette revealed thirteen gold Louis sovereigns hidden in a stocking under her mattress, money of which even her family knew nothing. Aristide Bastonnet donated two thousand francs of his savings. Not to be outdone, Matthias Guénolé offered two and a half thousand francs. Others gave more modest sums: a couple of hundred francs from Omer, plus five sacks of cement; five hundred from Hilaire; another five hundred from Capucine. No money from Angélo, but a promise of free beer for all workers for the duration of the project. This ensured a steady increase in the workforce, though Omer had to be reprimanded several times for spending more time in the café than he did on the modules.

  I phoned my landlady in Paris, and told her that I would not be returning. She agreed to put my furniture into storage and to send the few things I might need—clothes, books, and artist’s materials—by rail into Nantes. I transferred the last of my funds from my savings account and closed it. I wouldn’t need an account in Les Salants.

  The reef, said Flynn, had to be built in pieces. Each piece comprised 150 car tires, secured together with airplane cables—ordered from the mainland—and stacked together. There were to be twelve of these modules in all, assembled on land, then erected at low tide by La Jetée. Concrete slabs very like those used as moorings for the island’s boats were to be sunk into the seabed as anchors, with more cable to secure the modules. With only the lifter from the boatyard to carry the heavy materials, the work was laborious, and several times progress had to be suspended because of failure to get hold of the right materials in time. But everyone did what he could.

  Toinette brought hot drinks to the workers on the Pointe. Charlotte made sandwiches. Capucine donned overalls and a knitted cap and joined the cement-mixing contingent, shaming several of the more reluctant menfolk into action. Mercédès sat for hours on the dune, supposedly as a message bearer, though in reality she seemed more interested in watching the men at work. I drove the lifter. Omer stacked tires while Ghislain Guénolé welded them into their crates. At low tide a contingent of children, women, and older men dug deep holes to house the anchor slabs, and we used the trailer to drag the slabs out onto La Jetée at low tide, marking the site with buoys. The Bastonnet boat—the Cécilia—went out at high tide to monitor the drift of the modules. And throughout it all Flynn moved among us with a sheaf of papers in his hands, measuring distances, calculating angles and wind speeds, frowning over the currents that crossed and curved toward La Goulue. The Saint watched over us from her niche on Pointe Griznoz, the rock below her splattered with white candle wax. Offerings—salt, flowers, cups of wine—littered the stones at her feet. Aristide and Matthias circled each other, their truce holding, each seeking to outdo the other in the race for completion. With his wooden leg, old Bastonnet was unable to do any of the heavy work, and instead urged his luckless grandson—already twice outnumbered by the Guénolés—to greater and greater efforts.

  As the job progressed, I saw my father’s condition improve beyond measure. He no longer spent so long at La Bouche; instead he watched the building work, although he rarely took active part. I often saw him, a boulderlike shape against the top of the dune, stolid and unmoving. At home he smiled more often and spoke to me several times in monosyllables. I sensed a change even in the nature of his silences, and there was less of a blankness in his eyes. Sometimes he stayed up in the evenings, listening to the radio or watching me as I drew quick little sketches in my notebook. Once or twice I thought I noticed a small disarray among my drawings, as if someone had looked through them. After that I left my sketch pad where he could look at it whenever he liked, although he never did so when I was there. It was a start, I told myself. Even with GrosJean, something seemed almost ready to resurface.

  And, of course, there was Flynn. It happened before I knew it, insidiously, little by little, a gradual erosion of my defenses, which found me baffled and unaware. I found myself watching him without knowing why, studying his expressions as if I were planning a portrait, looking for him in crowds. There had been little more said since the morning after the miracle, but all the same, things seemed changed between us. I thought so, anyway. It was a combination of circumstances. I noticed things I had never noticed before. We were thrown together by the task at hand; we sweated together stacking tires, were drenched together by the rising tide as we struggled to fix the modules into place. We drank together at Angélo’s. And we had a secret. It linked us. It made us conspirators, almost friends.

  Flynn was a good listener when it was required, and was himself a rich source of amusing anecdotes and tall stories, tales of England and India and Morocco. Much of it was nonsense, but he had traveled; knew places and people, dishes and customs, rivers and birds. Through him I too traveled the world. But I never felt that I had reached that hidden part of him, the closed section of him into which I was not invited. It should not have troubled me. If he’d asked what I wanted of him I might have been hard put to answer.

  The home he had made for himself in the old blockhaus was comfortable, but makeshift. A large inner chamber, cleaned and whitewashed, a window facing the sea, chairs, table, bed, everything built from shoreline bric-a-brac. The effect was gaudy but somehow pleasing, like the man himself. Shells stuck into the putty around the window. Chairs made from car tires covered in sailcloth. A hammock, once an old fishing net, hung from the ceiling. Outside, the generator hummed.

  “I can’t believe what you’ve done with this place,” I remarked when I saw it. “It used to be a concrete cube filled with sand.”

  “Well, I couldn’t stay with Capucine forever,” he said. “People were begining to talk.” Reflectively, he traced a pattern of seashells with his foot on the concrete floor. “I made a good castaway, though, didn’t I?” he remarked. “All the comforts of home.”

  I thought there was a wistful note in his voice as he said it. “Castaway? Is that how you see yourself?”

  Flynn laughed. “Forget it.”

  I didn’t forget it; but I knew it was impossible to make him talk when he didn’t want to. His silence did not prevent me from speculating, however. Had he come to Le Devin to escape some kind of trouble with the law? It was possible; people like Flynn always end up sailing a little too close to the wind, and I had often wondered why he had ended up on Le Devin in the first place, an island so small it barely shows up on maps.

  “Flynn,” I said at last.

  “Yes?”

  “Where were you born?”

  “A place like Les Salants,” he said carelessly. “A little village on the Irish coast. A place with a beach, and not much else.”

  So he wasn’t English after all. I wondered what other wrong assumptions I’d made about him. “Don’t you ever go back?” I suppose I still found it difficult to imagine not caring where my own birthplace was, imagined some counterpart in him to my homing instinct.

  “Go back? God, no! What’s to go back to?”

  I looked at him. “What’s to come here for?”

  “Pirate treasure,” Flynn told me in a mysterious voice. “Millions of francs—a fortune—in doubloons. Once I dig it up, I’ll be out of here—Pfft!—like that. Hello Las Vegas.” He grinned hugely. And yet again I thought I heard the note of wistfulness—almost of regret—in his voice.

  I glanced around the room once more, and for the first time I realized that in spite of its cheeriness there was not a single personal item to be seen; not a photograph, not a book, not a letter. He could walk out of there tomorrow, I told myself, and leave no trace of who he had been or where he was going.

  7

  * * *

  The next couple of weeks brought higher tides and stronger winds. Three days’ work was lost to the heightened weather. The moon ripened from a sliver to a slice. Full moon at the equinox brings the storms. We knew it, and we raced its turning profile without a word.

  Since my visit to him at Les Immortelles, Brismand had been unusually silent. I sensed his curiosity,
though; his watchfulness. He had sent me a little note with some flowers the week after my visit, and an open-ended invitation to stay at the hotel if things became too difficult in Les Salants. He seemed to know nothing about our work but assumed that I had been spending my time making the house more habitable for GrosJean. He commended my loyalty in this, while managing to convey his deep hurt and regret at my lack of trust in him. Finally, he hoped I was wearing his gift, and expressed his desire to see me in it sometime soon. In fact the red dress was lying unwrapped at the bottom of my wardrobe. I hadn’t dared try it on. Besides, now that the reef was approaching completion, there was far too much work to do.

  Flynn had thrown himself wholeheartedly into the project. However hard the rest of us worked, Flynn was always in the thick of things—shifting loads, running tests, studying his diagrams, haranguing recalcitrant workers. He never flagged; even when the tides began to swell almost a week early, he did not lose heart. He might have been a Salannais himself then, fighting the sea for his patch of land.

  “When did you get so enthusiastic about this, anyway?” I asked him late one evening as once again he stayed behind at the boat hangar to secure the couplings on the completed modules. “You once told me it was pointless.”

  We were alone in the hangar, the stuttering light of a single neon tube insufficient for the task in hand. The smell of grease and rubber from the tires was overwhelming.

  Flynn squinted down at me from the top of the module he was checking. “Is that a complaint?”

  “Of course not. I just wondered what made you change your mind.”

  Flynn shrugged and pushed his fringe away from his eyes. The neon illuminated him starkly, coloring his hair an impossible red and making his face even paler than usual. “You gave me an idea, that was all.”

  “I did?”

  He nodded. I felt ridiculously pleased at the thought that I had been the catalyst. “I realized that with a little direction, GrosJean and the others could manage in Les Salants for a long time,” he said, using a pair of industrial pliers to close the fastenings on a piece of airplane cable. “I just thought I’d give them a push.”

  Them. I noticed he never said we, even though he’d been accepted more readily than I had. “What about you?” I asked suddenly. “Will you stay?”

  “For a while.”

  “And then?”

  “Who knows?”

  I looked at him for a moment, trying to fathom his indifference. Places, people; nothing seemed to make much of an impression on him, as if he could move through life like a stone through water, clean and untouched. He climbed down from the module, wiped the pliers clean, and put them back into the toolbox.

  “You look tired.”

  “It’s the light.” He pushed his hair aside again, leaving a smudge of grease across his face. I wiped it off.

  “When we first met I had you down as a bit of a layabout. I was wrong.”

  “Nice of you to say so.”

  “I never really thanked you, either. Everything you did for my father—”

  He was beginning to look uncomfortable. “That was nothing. He let me live in the blockhaus. I owed him.” There was a note of finality in his voice that suggested that any further expressions of gratitude would not be welcome. And yet for some reason I felt unwilling to let him leave.

  “You don’t talk much about your family,” I said, pulling one end of the tarpaulin back over the completed module.

  “That’s because I don’t think about them much.”

  A pause. I wondered if his parents were dead; if he mourned them; if there was anyone else. He’d mentioned a brother once, with a casual dislike that had made me think of Adrienne. Maybe he liked it this way, I thought; to have no ties, no responsibilities. To be an island.

  “Why did you do it?” I repeated at last. “What made you change your mind?”

  He shrugged again, looking impatient. “Who knows? It was a job; it needed doing. Because it was there, I suppose. Because I could.”

  Because I could. It was a phrase that would return to haunt me, much later; at that moment I took it as a sign of his affiliation to Les Salants, and I felt a sudden surge of affection for him; for his apparent indifference, for his lack of temperament, for the methodical way he replaced the tools in the box even though he was half-dead with fatigue. Rouget, who never takes sides, was on ours.

  8

  * * *

  We finished the modules in the hangar, preparing to put them into place. The concrete anchorings were already there by La Jetée, along with six of the completed modules, and now all that was needed was to haul the remaining modules by trailer onto the flats, then by boat to the appointed positions to be chained onto the moorings. Some experimentation would then be necessary, some shortening and lengthening of cables, some shifting of the modules. It might take time to determine the best way of doing it. After that, however, said Flynn, the reef would find its own position according to the wind direction, and all we could do would be to wait and see if the experiment had succeeded.

  For almost a week the sea was too high to reach La Jetée, and the wind too strong to work. It tore at the dune, lifting sheets of sand into the air. It broke shutters and latches. It brought the tide almost into the streets of Les Salants and whipped the waves at Pointe Griznoz into a mad froth. Even the Brismand 1 did not set out to sea, and we began to wonder whether there would be enough of a lull to finish the half-assembled reef.

  “It’s starting early,” announced Alain pessimistically. “Full moon in eight days. The weather won’t lay off before then. Not now.”

  Flynn shook his head. “We don’t need more than one good day to finish,” he said. “Haul the stuff out at low tide. It’s all ready and waiting. After that the reef should look after itself.”

  “But the tides are all wrong,” protested Alain. “The water doesn’t go out far enough this time of year. And the sea wind doesn’t help, heh? It pushes the tide right back.”

  “We’ll manage,” declared Omer stoutly. “We’re not going to give up now, when we’re so close to the end.”

  “The work’s done,” agreed Xavier. “This is just the finishing off.”

  Matthias looked cynical. “Your Cécilia won’t take it,” he said shortly. “You saw what happened to the Eleanore and the Korrigane. These boats just aren’t up to this kind of sea. We should wait for a lull.”

  And so we waited in Angélo’s, glumly, like old mourners at a wake. A few of the older men played cards. Capucine sat in a corner with Toinette and feigned interest in a magazine. Someone put a franc into the jukebox. Angélo supplied beer, but few of us wanted to drink. Instead we watched the weather reports in gruesome fascination; cartoon thunderheads chased one another across a map of France while a cheery weather girl advised caution. Not so far away, on Île de Sein, the tide had already leveled houses. Outside the horizon growled and flashed. It was night: the tide was at its lowest. The wind smelled of gunsmoke.

  Flynn came away from the window, where he had been standing. “We should start work straightaway,” he said. “Soon it may be too late.”

  Alain looked at him. “You’re not saying we should do it tonight?”

  Matthias reached for his devinnoise and laughed, not pleasantly. “You’ve seen it out there, have you, Rouget?”

  Flynn shrugged and said nothing.

  “Well, you won’t get me out there tonight,” said the old man. “Out on La Jetée in the dark, with a storm coming and the tide nearly on the turn. A good way to get yourself killed, heh? Or do you think the Saint will save you?”

  “I think the Saint has done all the work she’s going to,” said Flynn. “From now on, it’s up to us. And I think if we’re going to finish the job at all, then it should be now. If we don’t secure those first modules soon, then we’ll lose the chance.”

  Alain shook his head. “Only a madman would go out tonight.”

  Aristide gave a dirty chuckle from his corner. “Too comforta
ble here, are you, heh? You Guénolés were always the same. Stay in the café making plans, while real life goes on outside. I’ll come,” he said, standing up with difficulty. “I’ll hold the lamp if I can’t do anything else.”

  Matthias was on his feet in an instant. “You’ll come with me,” he flung at Alain. “I won’t have a Bastonnet saying a Guénolé was afraid of a little work and water. Get ready, and quick! If only I had my Korrigane the job would be done in half the time, but it can’t be helped. Why—”

  “My Péoch made your Korrigane look like a beached whale,” challenged Aristide. “I remember a time when—”

  “Are we going?” interrupted Capucine, getting to her feet. “I remember a time when you two were good for something more than just talk!”

  Aristide glanced at her and flushed beneath his mustache.

  “Heh, La Puce, this is no job for you,” he said gruffly. “Me and my boy—”

  “It’s a job for all of us,” said Capucine, pulling on her vareuse.

  We must have made a strange procession as we made our way through the shallow water toward La Jetée. I drove the lifter on its caterpillar tracks, its single headlight fanning widely across the flats, making dancing shadows of the volunteers in their waders and vareuses. I drove as far as the water’s edge, bringing the Cécilia behind me on the trailer. The flat-bottomed oyster boat could float easily in the shallow water, making it simple to load from the sand. We used the lifter to position a module onto the boat. It sagged and dipped beneath the weight but bore the burden. A man positioned at each side kept the cargo stable. More volunteers helped drag and push the Cécilia into deeper water. Slowly, using the long oars to steer and the small engine for power, the oyster boat moved away toward La Jetée. We repeated the slow, painful process four times, and by then the tide had turned.

 
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JOANNE HARRIS SERIES:

Chocolat
Loki
Runemarks

 

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