Coastliners a novel, p.17
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.17

           Joanne Harris

  “You’re not here to live up to GrosJean’s expectations, or anyone else’s. If he can’t see that what he’s got is worth a thousand times more than—” He broke off, shrugging. “You have nothing to prove,” he said with unusual gruffness. “He’s lucky to have you.”

  It was what Brismand had said. But my sister had accused me of selfishness, of using my father. I wondered now whether she had been right, whether my presence might not be doing more harm than good. What if all he wanted was to be near Adrienne and see the boys every day?

  “You’ve got a brother, haven’t you?”

  “A half-brother.” He was pinning down a piece of netting that had come loose from the dune. I tried to imagine Flynn as someone’s brother; to me, he seemed the epitome of the only child.

  “You don’t like him much.”

  “He should have been an only child.”

  I thought of myself and Adrienne. She should have been an only daughter. Everything I tried to do, my sister had done it first, and done it better.

  Flynn was inspecting the new growth of oyat grass on the dune. To anyone else he might have looked expressionless, but I could see the strain around his mouth. I suppressed the urge to ask him what had happened to his brother; to his mother. It had hurt him, whatever it was. Maybe almost as much as Adrienne and I had hurt each other. I felt a tremor run through me, something deeper than tenderness. I reached down and touched his hair.

  “So we do have something in common,” I said lightly. “Tragic families.”

  “No way,” said Flynn, looking up at me with his sudden brash and brilliant smile. “You came back. I escaped.”

  In Les Salants few people seemed particularly interested in the growth of the beach. As winter drew to its end they were too busy noticing other things; how the changed current was bringing back the mullet, even more numerous than before; how nets were more often full than empty; how lobsters and sea spiders and the fat dormeur crabs loved the sheltered bay and virtually fought to crawl into the pots. The winter tides had brought no floods, and even Omer’s flooded back fields had begun to recover, after almost three years underwater. The Guénolés finally put into operation their plan to buy a new boat. The Eleanore 2 was built on the mainland, at a boatyard near Pornic, and for several weeks we heard nothing from them but reports on her progress. She was to be an island boat, like her predecessor; fast and high-keeled, with two masts and the quadrangular sail of the islands. Alain did not reveal how much she would cost, but with the changing currents he seemed optimistic that she would quickly earn her way. Ghislain seemed less enthusiastic—apparently they’d had to drag him away from the displays of speedboats and Zodiacs—but remained cheered by the prospect of money to be made. I hoped this new boat would have no nostalgic associations for my father, in spite of its name; secretly I had been hoping that the Guénolés would choose something different. GrosJean, however, seemed unmoved by reports of the Eleanore 2’s progress, and I began to think I was being too sensitive about the matter.

  The reef had gained a name of its own: Le Bouch’ou, and two lighted beacons, one at either end, to show its position at night.

  The Bastonnets, still flying the white flag with the Guénolés but watching their backs, made record catches. Aristide announced triumphantly that Xavier had taken sixteen lobsters that week and sold them to an Houssin—the mayor’s cousin and owner of La Marée, a seafood restaurant by the beach—for fifty francs apiece.

  “They’ll be expecting the big rush of holiday people by July,” he told me with grim satisfaction. “Soon that restaurant of his will be heaving. He can shift half a dozen lobsters in one evening during the season—thinks he can buy them up now, put them in his vivier and just wait until the prices rocket.” Aristide chuckled. “Well, two can play that game. I’m having the boy build one of our own, up there on the creek. It’s cheaper than tanks, and with the right kind of mesh the lobsters won’t get out. We can keep them in there alive, even the little ones—that way we don’t have to throw any of them back—and sell them at top prices when the time comes. Peg them so they don’t fight. The tide brings their food right up the étier for us. Good thinking, heh?” The old man rubbed his hands together.

  “It is,” I said in surprise. “Why, this is downright enterprising of you, Monsieur Bastonnet.”

  “Isn’t it, heh?” Aristide looked pleased. “Thought it was time we started to think for ourselves for a change. Make a little money for the boy. You can’t expect a boy like that to live on nothing, especially if he’s thinking about settling down.”

  I thought of Mercédès, and smiled.

  “And that isn’t the only thing,” said Aristide. “You’ll not guess who’s going into business with me when his boat’s ready.” I looked at him expectantly. “Matthias Guénolé.” He grinned at my surprise, his old blue eyes gleaming. “I thought that might give you a start,” he said, reaching for a cigarette and lighting it. “I’ll bet there aren’t many people on the island who’d have thought they’d see Bastonnets and Guénolés working together in my lifetime. But this is business. Working together—two boats, five men—we could clean up on mullet, oysters, and lobsters. Make a fortune. Working alone all we do is steal the wind from one another, and give a good laugh to the Houssins at our expense.” Aristide took a drag from his cigarette and leaned back, shifting his wooden leg to a more comfortable position. “Surprised you, heh?” he said.

  More than that. To abandon the feud the families had waged for years, as well as radically altering the way he did business—six months ago I would not have believed either of these things possible.

  That, if anything, was what finally covinced me that the Bastonnets had had nothing to do with the loss of the Eleanore. Toinette had suggested it; Flynn had reinforced my suspicions—though I had never for a moment believed that GrosJean could have colluded in any way—and it had remained an uncertain area in my mind ever since. But now I could put it to rest at last. I did so with pleasure and a sense of deep relief. Whatever had caused the loss of the Eleanore, it had not been Aristide. I felt a sudden liking for the gruff old man, and slapped him affectionately on the shoulder. “You deserve a devinnoise,” I told him. “I’ll buy.”

  Aristide stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray. “I’ll not say no.”

  My sister’s visit over Christmas had caused some excitement. Not least because of the boys, who had been duly admired from Pointe Griznoz to Les Immortelles, but mostly because it gave hope to those—like Désirée and Capucine—who were still waiting for long-lost relatives to make contact. Whereas my own return had brought suspicion, hers—coming when it did, with her boys and the promise of better things—brought only approval. Even her marriage to an Houssin was approved; Marin Brismand was rich—at least his uncle was, and in the absence of any other family, Marin was set to inherit everything. It was generally held that Adrienne had done very well for herself.

  “You could do worse than follow her example,” advised Capucine, over cakes in her trailer. “Do you good to settle down. That’s what keeps the island going, marriage and children, never mind fishing and trade.”

  I shrugged. Though I had not heard from my sister again, ever since the conversation on the gangplank of the Brismand 1 I had felt uneasy, questioning my own motives and hers. Was I using my father as an excuse to hide myself away? Was Adrienne’s way the best?

  “You’re a good girl,” said Capucine, lolling comfortably on her chair. “You’ve already helped your father a lot. Les Salants too. Now it’s time to do something for yourself.” She sat up and looked at me critically. “You’re a nice-looking girl, Mado. I’ve seen the way Ghislain Guénolé looks at you, and some of the others—” I tried to interrupt her, but she flapped her hands at me in good-humored irritation. “You don’t snap at people the way you used to,” she continued. “You don’t walk around with your chin stuck out, like you expected someone to pick a fight. People don’t call you La Poule anymore.”

t was true enough, even I’d noticed that.

  “Plus, you’ve started your paintings again. Haven’t you?”

  I looked at the crescents of ocher paint beneath my fingernails, feeling absurdly guilty. It wasn’t a great matter, after all; a few bits and pieces, a half-finished larger canvas in my room. Flynn is an unexpectedly good subject to paint. I find I remember his features better than others. Of course that was natural; I had spent rather a long time in his company.

  Capucine smiled. “Well, it’s doing you good,” she declared. “Think of yourself, for a change. Stop carrying the whole world on your shoulders. The tide turns without your permission.”


  * * *

  By February the changes at La Goulue were beginning to be visible to all of us. The diverted current from La Jetée continued to bring sand from there, a gentle process that only the children and I followed with any degree of interest. A thin layer of it now covered much of the rubble and grit that Flynn had brought in from the dunes, and the oyat and rabbit-tail grasses he had planted were doing a good job of keeping the sand from being blown or washed away. One morning I went down to La Goulue to find Lolo and Damien Guénolé trying gamely to build a castle. Not an easy business; the sand layer was too thin, with nothing but mud below it, but with a little ingenuity it could be done. They had built a kind of dam from driftwood and were pushing wet sand from it through a channel dug into the mud.

  Lolo grinned at me. “We’re going to have a proper beach,” he said. “Bringing sand from the dunes and everything. Rouget said so.”

  I smiled. “You’d like that, would you? A beach?”

  The children nodded. “There’s nowhere to play, ‘cept here,” said Lolo. “Even the étier’s out of bounds now, with the new lobster thing.”

  Damien kicked at a stone. “That wasn’t my dad’s idea. It was those Bastonnets.” He gave me a challenging look from beneath his dark lashes. “My dad might have forgotten what they did to our family, but I haven’t.”

  Lolo made a face. “You don’t care about that,” she said. “You’re just jealous because Xavier’s going out with Mercédès.”

  “She is not!”

  Certainly, it was not official. Mercédès still spent much of her time in La Houssinière, where, as she said, the action was. But Xavier had been seen with her at the cinema and in the Chat Noir, and Aristide was decidedly more cheerful, and spoke freely of investments, and of building for the future.

  The dour Guénolés too were unusually optimistic. At the end of the month, the long-awaited Eleanore 2 was finally completed and ready for collection. Alain, Matthias, and Ghislain went to Pornic by ferry to collect her, planning to sail her back to Les Salants from there. I went along for the ride, and to collect a trunk of my things—mostly art materials and clothes—which my landlady had sent me from Paris. I told myself I was curious to see the new boat; in fact, I had been feeling rather oppressed in Les Salants. Since Adrienne’s departure GrosJean had reverted to an earlier, less responsive self; the weather had been dull; even the prospect of sand at La Goulue had lost some of its novelty. I needed a change of scene.

  Alain had chosen the Pornic boatyard because it was closest to Le Devin. He knew the owner slightly, who was a distant relative of Jojo-le-Goëland, though as a mainlander he was not included in the Houssin-Salannais feud. His place was by the sea, next to the little marina, and as we entered, I was struck by the unforgettable, nostalgic smell of a working boatyard: the paint, the sawdust, the reek of burned plastic and welding and clinkers soaked in chemicals.

  It was a family place; nowhere near as small as GrosJean’s business had been, but small enough for Alain not to be overwhelmed. As he and Matthias went off with the owner to discuss payment, Ghislain and I remained in the boatyard, looking at the dry dock and the jobs in progress. The Eleanore 2 was easy to spot, the only wooden boat in a line of plastic-hulled craft over which Ghislain lingered enviously. She was slightly bigger than the original Eleanore; but Alain had had her built in the same style, and though this builder lacked my father’s careful craftsmanship, I could see that she was a fine boat. I looked all around her while Ghislain wandered off toward the water, and I was just looking underneath the Eleanore 2 to inspect the keel when he came running back, a little breathless, his face alight.

  “Over there!” he said, pointing behind him into the main storage area. Here parts were stored in the secure hangar, as well as lifting and welding machinery. Ghislain pulled at my hand. “Come and see!”

  Rounding the corner of the hangar I could see that something large was under construction. It was not half-finished, but even so I could tell that it was the largest thing by far in the yard. The smell of oil and metal was sharp in the air.

  “What d’you think it is? A ferry? A trawler?”

  It was about twenty meters long, with two decks, surrounded by scaffolding. A blunt nose, a square stern; when I was a child GrosJean had called boats like this “metal pigs” and had despised them thoroughly. The small ferry we had taken to Pornic was just such a metal pig: square, ugly, and very functional.

  “It’s a ferry.” Ghislain grinned at me, pleased with himself. “Want to know how I know? Look around the other side.”

  The other side was incomplete; large panels of metal had been riveted together to form the outer hull, but many of them were missing, like an incomplete and very dull jigsaw. The panels were dark gray, but on one of them someone had written the metal pig’s name in yellow chalk; the Brismand 2.

  I looked at it for a moment without speaking.

  “Well?” said Ghislain impatiently. “What d’you think?”

  I frowned. “I think if he can afford this,” I said, “then Brismand must be doing even better than we thought.”


  * * *

  I returned alone, having detoured via Nantes to pick up my trunk. Perhaps it was because it had been some time since I really gave any attention to La Houssinière, but when I looked around I thought there seemed to be something unusual about the place. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, but the town seemed unfamiliar, oddly out of tune with itself. The streets shone with a different light. The air smelled different, more salty somehow, like La Goulue at low tide. People stared at me as I walked by, some nodding briefly in recognition, some averting their eyes, as if too busy to talk.

  Winter on the island is always the dead season. Many of the younger people move to the mainland out of season to find work, only returning in June. But this year La Houssinière looked different, its sleep somehow unhealthy, closer to death. Most of the shops on the street were closed and shuttered. The Rue des Immortelles was deserted. The tide was low, the flats white with gulls. Whereas on a day like this there would normally have been dozens of fishermen digging for cockles and clams, a single figure with a long-handled net stood at the water’s edge, poking aimlessly at a clump of seaweed.

  It was Jojo-le-Goëland. I climbed over the wall and made my way across the grève. There was a brisk wind blowing across the flats that blurred my hair around my face and made me shiver. The ground was pebbly, and walking was painful. I wished that, like Jojo, I was wearing boots instead of thin-soled espadrilles.

  From across the sand I could see Les Immortelles, a white cube on the seawall a few hundred meters away. Below it, the slim wedge of the beach. More rocks farther in. I hadn’t remembered so many rocks, but from where I was standing it looked different, smaller and more remote, the beach foreshortened by the angle so that it seemed barely a beach at all, the breakwater standing out starkly against the sand. A lettered sign, too far away to read, stood under the wall.

  “Hello, Jojo.”

  He turned at the sound of my voice, net in hand. At his feet his wooden collecting bucket contained only a clump of weed and a few angleworms. “Oh. It’s you.” He gave me a toothy grin around the wet stub of a cigarette.

  “How’s the fishing?”

  “All right, I suppose. What are
you doing so far out, heh? Digging worms?”

  “I just wanted a walk. It’s pretty out here, isn’t it?”


  I could feel him watching me as I made my way across the flats toward Les Immortelles. The wind was mild, the shore pebbly underfoot. As I came closer to the beach I found it more stony than I had remembered, and in some places I could see the exposed patches of a cobbled area where the sand had been swept away, revealing the foundations of an ancient dike.

  Les Immortelles had lost some sand.

  This became more apparent to me as I reached the tide line: here I could see how the wooden posts of the beach huts had been left bare, standing out like bad teeth. How much sand? I couldn’t begin to guess.

  “Well, hello again!”

  The voice came from behind me. In spite of his bulk his footsteps were barely audible on the sand. I turned, hoping he hadn’t seen me flinch.

  “Monsieur Brismand?”

  Brismand tutted and lifted a finger in reproach. “Claude, please.” He smiled, apparently delighted to see me. “Enjoying the view?”

  That charm of his. I found myself responding to it without even meaning to. “It’s very nice. Your residents must appreciate it.”

  Brismand sighed. “Inasmuch as they appreciate anything, I’m sure they do. Sadly, heh, we all have to age. Georgette Loyon grows especially frail. Still, one does one’s best. After all, she is over eighty.” He clapped an arm over my shoulders. “How’s GrosJean?”

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