Coastliners a novel, p.15
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.15

           Joanne Harris

  I saw little of the work after that. My job was to deliver the pieces of the reef, then to bring the lifter and the trailer back to shore. Farther out I could just see their light, the shape of the Cécilia against the livid ring of the sandbank, and in the lull between the gusts of wind I could hear raised voices.

  The tide was coming in fast by now. Without a boat I could not join the rest of the volunteers, but I watched with binoculars from the dune. I knew that time was running out. On Le Devin the tide comes in quickly—not as quickly perhaps as under Mont-Saint-Michel, where the waves come in faster than a galloping horse, but certainly faster than a man can run. It’s easy to become stranded, and on that stretch of water between the Pointe and La Jetée the currents are fast and dangerous.

  I bit my lips. It was taking too long. There were six people out on La Jetée: the Bastonnets, the Guénolés, and Flynn. Too many, really, for a boat the size of the Cécilia. They would be out of their depth by now. I could see moving lights along the sandbanks, dangerously far from the shore. A prearranged signal. Blink-blink. Everything was going according to plan. But it was taking too long.

  Aristide told me about it later: the chain controlling the placement of one of the modules had caught under the boat, immobilizing the screw. The sea was rising; a job that would have been simple in shallow water had become next to impossible. Alain and Flynn struggled in the water with the trapped chain, using the still-unfinished reef for leverage. Aristide sat hunched in the bow of the Cécilia, watching.

  “Rouget!” he snapped as Flynn surfaced after another unsuccessful attempt to loosen the chain. Flynn looked at him inquiringly. He had shed his vareuse and cap for ease of movement. “It’s no good,” advised Aristide gruffly. “Not in this weather.”

  Alain looked up and caught a wave full in the face. Coughing and cursing, he went under.

  “You could get trapped under there,” insisted Aristide. “The wind could push Cécilia onto the reef and you—”

  Flynn simply took a breath and went under again. Alain hauled himself up into the boat. “We’ll have to get back soon, or we won’t have anything but rocks left to land the boats,” called Xavier above the wind.

  “Where’s Ghislain?” asked Alain, shaking himself like a dog.

  “Over here! Everyone’s back on board now—except for Rouget.”

  The waves were rising. A swell had begun from beyond La Jetée, and by the light of their lanterns they could see the current that crossed toward La Griznoz gaining momentum as the water rose. What had been shallows was becoming open sea, and the storm was moving closer. Even I could feel it. The air was furred with static. A lurch shook the Cécilia—a submerged piece of unsecured reef—and Matthias swore and sat down hard. Alain, peering into the dark water for a sign of Flynn, almost fell.

  “This isn’t working,” he said anxiously. “If we don’t get the last couple of cables into place this reef is going to pull itself to pieces.”

  “Rouget?” called Aristide. “Rouget, are you all right?”

  “The screw’s free,” called Ghislain from the stern. “Rouget must have got it after all.”

  “Then where the hell is he?” snarled Aristide.

  “Look, we have to go soon,” insisted Xavier. “It’s going to be bad enough getting back as it is. Pépé”—this to Aristide—“we really should get back now!”

  “No. We’ll wait.”

  “But Pépé—”

  “I said we’ll wait!” Aristide glanced across at Alain. “I’ll not have anyone saying a Bastonnet left a friend in trouble.”

  Alain held his gaze for a second, then turned to coil a length of rope at his feet.

  “Rouget!” called Ghislain at the top of his voice.

  Flynn surfaced a second later, on the wrong side of the Cécilia. Xavier saw him first. “There he is!” he shouted. “Pull him in!”

  He needed help. He had managed to free the chain from under the boat, but now the module needed to be fitted into place. Someone had to hold the modules together long enough for the fastenings to be snapped on, which was a dangerous job. You could easily be crushed between the modules if a strong wave brought them together. Also the reef was underwater now; a five-foot gap over black and rocking sea made it haphazard work at best.

  Alain took off his vareuse. “I’ll do it,” he volunteered. Ghislain would have taken his place, but his father stopped him. “No. Let me,” he said, and dropped feet first into the water. The remaining volunteers craned their necks to see, but already the Cécilia, freed of its restraint, was drifting away from the reef.

  The tide was gaining now; only a thin strip of mud flat was left on which to land. After that there would be nothing but rocks, and with the wind behind it, the boat would be trapped between them and the oncoming storm. I heard an eerie keening sound from the watchers aboard the Cécilia; the lantern blink-blinked in alarm, and through my binoculars I watched as two figures were hauled aboard. From this distance there was no way to know whether or not all was well. No signal followed the cry.

  Impatiently I watched from La Goulue as the Cécilia dragged shoreward. Behind it, lightning walked the skyline. The moon, only a few days off full, slid behind a wall of cloud.

  “They’ll not make it,” commented Capucine, with an eye to the dwindling flats.

  “They’re not trying for La Griznoz,” said Omer. “I know Aristide. He always said that if you ever get stranded you ought to make for La Goulue. It’s farther, but the currents aren’t as strong, and it’s a safer landing when you get there.”

  He was right. The Cécilia rounded the Pointe half an hour later, rocking a little but still steady enough, and turned her nose toward La Goulue. We raced her, still not knowing whether the reef had been completed or left to the elements.

  “Look! There she is!”

  The Cécilia had passed the ring of the bay. Beyond it the waves were high and pale-crested, reflecting the lurid sky. Inside the ring it was relatively calm. A beacon shone redly, illuminating them briefly in its light. In a lull of the wind we could hear voices raised and singing.

  A strange and eerie sound, there in the cold with the promise of the storm so close behind them. The light from Aristide’s lantern illuminated the six people in the boat, and now that they were closer I could see individual faces, flushed with a campfire glow. There was Alain and Ghislain in their long coats and Xavier standing at the stern with Aristide Bastonnet and Matthias Guénolé sitting beside him. They made a dramatic picture, something by John Martin, perhaps, with that apocalyptic sky: the two old men with their long hair and warlike mustaches, their profiles turned toward the land in grim triumph. Only later did I realize that this was the first time I had ever seen Matthias and Aristide together side by side in that way, or heard their voices raised in song. For an hour the two enemies had become—if not friends, then something like allies.

  As I waded out to meet the Cécilia they saw me coming. Several people jumped into the water to help bring the boat ashore. Flynn was among them. He gave me a rough hug as I dragged at Cécilia’s bow. In spite of his exhaustion, his eyes were alight. I flung my arms around him, shivering in the cold water.

  Flynn laughed. “What’s this?”

  “You did it then.” My voice was shaking.

  “Of course.”

  He was icy, and he smelled of wet wool. Relief made me weak; I clung to him wildly, and we almost fell together. His hair whipped at my face. His mouth tasted of salt, and was warm.

  In the bow of the boat Ghislain was telling anyone who would listen how Alain and Rouget had taken turns diving under the module to fasten the last set of cables. On the cliffside a number of villagers were waiting—I recognized Angélo, Charlotte, Toinette, Désirée, and my father among them. A group of children carrying flashlights started to cheer. Someone set off a distress flare, which skittered exuberantly across the stones toward the water. Angélo shouted down, “Free devinnoise for all the volunteers! Drink a toast to Sainte-Mari

  The distant cry was taken up. “Long live Les Salants!”

  “Down with La Houssinière!”

  “Three cheers for Rouget!”

  That was Omer, pushing past me toward the boat’s nose. With Omer on one side and Alain on the other, Flynn was hoisted above the water. Ghislain and Xavier joined them. Flynn rode on their shoulders, grinning.

  “The engineer!” yelled Aristide.

  “We don’t even know if this reef is going to work yet,” said Flynn, still laughing. Thunder drowned his protests. Someone called out something cheery and defiant at the sky. As if in answer, the rain began to fall.


  * * *

  Now came a time of uncertainty, for me as much as for the rest. Exhausted by intensive weeks of building we fell into an awkward respite, tired, too anxious for celebration. Weeks drifted by in the same disquieting way. We waited.

  Alain was talking about investing in another boat. The loss of the Korrigane had brought fishing to a standstill for the Guénolés, and although they put a brave face on their troubles, it was fairly well known in the village that the family was deeply in debt. Ghislain alone seemed optimistic; I caught sight of him several times in La Houssinière, hanging around the Chat Noir café in a variety of psychedelic T-shirts. If Mercédès was impressed, however, she gave no sign of it.

  No one mentioned the reef. So far it had held, finding its own position, as Flynn had predicted, but it was felt that it might be pushing our luck to speak of it outright. Few dared to hope too much. But flooding in La Bouche was down; Les Salants was clear to the lower marshland, and as the November tides came and went, there was no further damage either to La Bouche or to La Goulue.

  No one voiced their hopes too loudly. To an outsider Les Salants would have seemed quite unchanged. But Capucine got a card from her daughter on the mainland; Angélo began to repaint his bar; Omer and Charlotte salvaged the winter potatoes; and Désirée Bastonnet went to La Houssinière and spent over an hour on the phone long-distance to her son Philippe in Marseille.

  None of it was of great significance. But there was something in the air: a sense of possibility, the beginnings of momentum.

  GrosJean too was changed. For the first time since my arrival he took an interest in the long-disused boatyard, and I came home one day to find him in his overalls, listening to the radio and sorting through a box of rusty tools. Another day he began to tidy out the spare room. Once we both went out to P’titJean’s grave—the flooding had mostly subsided by then—and raked new gravel around the stone. GrosJean had brought some crocus bulbs in his pocket, and we planted them together. For a time it was almost like the old days, when I helped my father in the boatyard and Adrienne went to La Houssinière with Mother, leaving us alone. That was our time, stolen and therefore precious; and sometimes we would leave the boatyard and go fishing on La Goulue, or sail little boats down the étier, like the boys he should have had.

  Only Flynn seemed completely unchanged. He continued his routine as if the reef had nothing to do with him. And yet, I told myself, he’d risked his life for it that night on La Jetée. I didn’t understand him at all. There was an ambiguity in him, in spite of his easy ways, a place at the center of him to which I was never invited. It was unsettling, like a shadow under deep water. Nevertheless, like all deeps, it drew me.

  Our tide turned on the twenty-first of December, at eight-thirty in the morning. I heard the sudden lull as the wind changed, the last and highest of the month’s tides giving up finally on the reef by La Jetée. I had walked out alone to La Goulue, as I did every day, to look for signs of change. The weed-green cobbles lay uncovered in the pale dawn, with the flats just visible beyond as the sea ebbed. A few bouchots—the wooden stumps that marked the old oyster beds—that had survived the winter weather intact protruded from the water with their necklaces of rope trailing. As I came closer I could see the waterline littered with tide-borne debris: a piece of rope, a lobster pot, a discarded sneaker. In a pool at my feet clung a single green limpet.

  It was alive. That was unusual. The troubled tides at La Goulue rarely encouraged sea creatures to settle. Urchins, sometimes. Stranded jellyfish, like plastic bags left to dry on the shore. I bent to examine the stones at my feet. Embedded in the mud, they formed a broad cobbled stretch, treacherous to walk on. But today I could see something new. Something coarser than the silt of the flats, something lighter, which sprinkled the submerged heads of the cobbles with mica dust.


  Oh, hardly enough in all to cover my palm. But it was sand; the pale sand of La Jetée, which gleams from the bright ring of the bay. I’d know it anywhere.

  I told myself that it was nothing; a thin film washed in by the tide, that was all. It meant nothing.

  It meant everything.

  I scraped as much of it as I could into my hand—a pinch, just enough to close my fingers over—and ran up the cliffside path toward the old blockhaus. Flynn was the only person who would understand the significance of those few grains. Flynn, who was on my side. I found him half-dressed, drinking coffee, his beachcombing bag ready at the door. I thought he looked tired and unusually cheerless as I came in out of breath.

  “We did it! Look!” I began, holding out my open hand.

  He looked at it for a long time, then shrugged and began pulling on his boots.

  “A pinch of sand,” he said in a neutral voice. “You might notice if you got some in your eye.”

  My excitement died inside me as suddenly as if it had been doused. “But it shows it’s working,” I said. “It’s started.”

  He did not smile.

  “The sand proves it,” I insisted. “You’ve turned it around. You’ve saved Les Salants. You’ve turned back the tide.”

  Flynn gave a vicious crack of laughter. “For God’s sake, Mado!” he said. “Can’t you think of anything else? Is this really all you’ve ever wanted, to be a part of this—this drab little circle of losers and degenerates, no money, no life, growing old, hanging on, praying to the sea and sliding closer to extinction every year—I suppose you think I should be grateful to be stuck in this place, that it’s some kind of privilege—” He broke off, his anger falling away abruptly, and looked past me out of the window. The vicious look had gone as completely as if it had never been there.

  I felt numb, as if he had punched me. And yet hadn’t I always sensed that in him, that readiness, that threat of something about to explode? “I thought you liked it here,” I said. “Among the losers and degenerates.”

  He shrugged, looking ashamed now. “I do,” he said. “Maybe too much.”

  There was a silence, during which he looked past me again at the window, reflecting the dawn in his slaty eyes. Then he looked back at me, and opening my fingers, smoothed sand across my palm.

  “The grains are small,” he commented at last. “There’s a lot of mica in there.”


  “So it’s light. It won’t settle. A beach needs a firm base—stones, pebbles, things like that—to anchor it. Otherwise it just washes away. As this will.”

  “I see.”

  “The flooding’s over. Isn’t that what you wanted? Why are you pushing for more?”

  I said nothing, but he saw my expression.

  “It means that much to you, does it?” he said at last.

  Still I said nothing.

  “A beach won’t make this place into La Houssinière.”

  “I know that.”

  He sighed. “Okay. I’ll try.”

  He put his hands on my shoulders. For a moment I felt that sense of possibility intensify, like static in the air. I closed my eyes, smelling thyme on him, and old wool, and the smell of the dunes in the morning. A slightly musty smell, like the smell of the space beneath the beach huts in La Houssinière, where I used to hide and wait for my father. I saw Adrienne’s face then, watching me and grinning from her broad lipsticked mouth, and I opened my eyes in a hurry. But Flynn had alr
eady turned away.

  “I have to go.” He picked up his bag and began pulling on his coat.

  “Why? Did you think of something?” I could still feel the ghosts of his hands on my shoulders. They were warm ghosts, and something in the pit of my stomach seemed to respond to that heat, like flowers to the sun.

  “Maybe. I’ll think about it.” He moved quickly toward the door.

  “What is it? Why the hurry?”

  “I need to get to town. There’s something I want to order from Pornic before the ferry leaves.” He paused then and shot me his careless, sunny grin. “See you later, heh, Mado? I’ve got to run.”

  I followed him out, puzzled. His sudden shifts of mood—passing from one extreme to the other as fast as autumn weather—were nothing new. But something had troubled him, something more than my sudden arrival. There was little chance, however, that he would tell me what it was.

  Suddenly, as Flynn closed the door, a small movement caught my eye, a flash of white shirt some distance across the dunes. A figure on the path. His body obscured it almost at once, and when he stepped aside the figure was gone. However, even though I saw it only for a second, and only from the back, I thought I recognized him by his walk, his bulk, and by the angle of his fisherman’s cap.

  It made no sense; that way led to nowhere but the dunes. But later, going back along the same path, I found the tracks of his espadrilles on the hard sand, and I was sure I’d been right. Brismand had been there before me.


  * * *

  As soon as I reached the village I knew something had happened. Something in the air: a subtle charge, a whiff of elsewhere. I had run all the way from La Goulue with my handful of sand, clutching it so hard that it tattooed my palm with mica. As I came over the big dune toward GrosJean’s abandoned boatyard I felt something cold inside me clutch at my heart in the same way.

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