Coastliners a novel, p.18
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.18

           Joanne Harris

  I knew I would have to be careful. “He’s fine. You wouldn’t believe the improvement.”

  “That’s not what your sister says.”

  I tried to smile. “Adrienne hasn’t been living here. I don’t see how she can know.”

  Brismand nodded sympathetically. “Of course. It’s so easy to be judgemental, isn’t it? But unless one is willing to stay there indefinitely—”

  I did not rise to the bait. Instead I looked away toward the deserted esplanade.

  “Things look a little slow at moment, don’t you think?”

  “Well, it’s a slow time of year. I have to admit I like the slow times better nowadays; I’m getting too old for the tourist business. I should be planning my retirement in a few years’ time.” He smiled benevolently. “But what about you? I’ve been hearing all kinds of things about Les Salants recently.”

  I shrugged. “We manage.”

  His eyes glittered. “I hear you’ve been doing more than that, though. Real enterprise in Les Salants, for a change. A lobster vivarium down on the old étier. Any more of this, and I might begin to think you were aiming at my own trade.” He chuckled. “Your sister’s looking well,” he remarked. “Life off the island must be good for her.”

  Silence. Across the sand, a string of gulls rose from the tide line, squalling.

  “And Marin, and the little ones! GrosJean must have been happy to see his grandchildren, after all this time.”


  “I sometimes wonder what kind of a grandfather I would have made.” He gave a giant sigh. “But I never really got the chance to be a father.”

  This talk of Adrienne and her children was making me uneasy, and I knew Brismand sensed it. “I hear you’re building a new ferry,” I said abruptly.

  For a moment I saw real surprise in his face. “Really? Who said that?”

  “Someone in the village,” I said, not wanting to reveal my visit to the boatyard. “Is it true?”

  Brismand lit a Gitane. “I’ve considered it,” he said. “I like the idea. But it’s hardly practical, is it? There’s little enough space here as it is.” He had recovered completely, his slate-colored eyes bright and amused. “I wouldn’t encourage these rumors,” he advised me. “You’ll only cause disappointment.”

  He left shortly afterward, with a gleam of a smile and a hearty exhortation to come and see him more often. I wondered whether I had imagined that moment of discomfort, of genuine surprise. If he was building a ferry, I wondered, why would he keep it secret?

  I was halfway back to Les Salants when I realized that neither he nor Jojo had made any mention of the eroded beach. Perhaps it was natural, after all, I told myself. Perhaps this always happened in winter.

  Perhaps not. Perhaps we had made it happen.

  The thought was nauseating, disquieting. There were no certainties in any case; my hours of study, my trials with the floaters, the days spent watching Les Immortelles meant nothing. Even the Bouch’ou, my mind protested, might have nothing to do with this. It takes more than a little amateur engineering to reshape a shoreline. More than a little envy to steal a beach.


  * * *

  Flynn was dismissive of my suspicions. “What else could it be but the tide?” he asked as we followed the coast from Pointe Griznoz. The wind was coming smack from the west, the way I like it, with a thousand kilometers of open sea as its runway. As we climbed down the coastal path I found I could already see the pale crescent of sand from the top of the little cliff, thirty meters long and maybe five across.

  “There’s a lot of new sand here,” I shouted over the wind.

  Flynn bent down to inspect a piece of driftwood sticking up between two rocks. “So? That’s good, isn’t it?”

  But as I left the path and went down onto the shore I was amazed to notice how the dry sand gave under my boots, as if there were not a skim of sand over packed stones, but a generous layer. I dug a hand in and found a depth of three or four centimeters—not a great deal, maybe, for a long-established beach, but in our circumstances almost miraculous. It had been raked too, from shore to dune, like a neat seedbed. Someone had been hard at work.

  “What’s the problem?” asked Flynn, seeing my surprise. “It’s just happened a little faster than we said, that’s all. Isn’t this what you wanted?”

  Of course it was. But I wanted to know how.

  “You’re too suspicious,” said Flynn. “You need to relax a little. Live for the moment. Smell the seaweed.” He laughed and gestured with the piece of driftwood, looking so like an absurd magician with his wild hair and flapping black coat that I felt a rush of affection for him, and found myself laughing too.

  “Look at it,” he shouted above the sound of the wind, and pulled me by the sleeve so that I was facing the bay, looking out toward the pale unbroken horizon. “A thousand miles of ocean; nothing else between here and America. And we beat it, Mado. Isn’t that fine? Isn’t that worth just a little celebration?”

  His enthusiasm was catching. I nodded, still breathless from laughter and the wind. His arm was around my shoulder now; his coat flapped against my thigh. The smell of the sea, that ozone smell spattered with salt mist, was overwhelming. The joyous wind swelled my lungs so that I felt like shouting. Instead I turned impulsively toward Flynn and kissed him; a long, breathless kiss that tasted of salt, my mouth clinging to his like a limpet. I was still laughing, although I no longer knew why. For a moment I was lost; I was someone else. My mouth burned; my skin prickled. I felt static in my hair. This is what it feels like, I thought, a second before being hit by lightning.

  A wave rushed up between us, soaking me to the knees, and I sprang back, gasping with surprise and cold. Flynn was looking at me curiously, apparently unaware of his soaked boots. For the first time in months I felt uncomfortable in his presence, as if the ground between us had shifted, revealing something I hadn’t even known about until this moment.

  Then, quite suddenly, he turned away.

  It was as if he’d struck me. Heat crawled all over me in a rush of embarrassment and mortification. How could I have been such a fool? How could I have misread him so badly?

  “I’m sorry,” I said, trying to laugh, though my face was burning. “I don’t know what came over me just now.”

  Flynn glanced back. The light seemed quite gone from his eyes. “It’s okay,” he said in a neutral voice. “Everything’s fine. We’ll just forget it, right?”

  I nodded, wishing I could shrivel up and blow away.

  Flynn seemed to relax a little. He gave me a brief, one-armed hug, the way my father sometimes did when I’d pleased him. “Right,” he said again. And the conversation returned to safer ground.

  As spring approached, I took to watching the beach every day again, to check for signs of damage or change. I was especially concerned as March began; the wind was veering south again, with the promise of bad tides to come. But the bad tides caused little harm in Les Salants. The creek held fast, La Bouche stayed dry, boats were for the most part stored securely away. Even La Goulue seemed unaffected, except for the mounds of unappealing black weed washed up by the tides, which Omer removed every morning to use on his fields. The Bouch’ou was stable. During a lull between high tides, Flynn went out to La Jetée in his boat and declared that the reef had suffered no serious damage. Our luck had held.

  Little by little, optimism continued to return to Les Salants. It wasn’t a simple matter of our improving fortunes. It was more than that. It was in the way the children no longer dragged their feet on their way to school, it was in Toinette’s jaunty new hat, in Charlotte’s pink lipstick and loosened hair. Mercédès no longer spent as much time in La Houssinière. Aristide’s diminished leg no longer ached as much on rainy nights. I worked on restoring the boatyard for GrosJean; clearing out the old hangar, putting aside any usable materials, digging up hulks half-buried in the sand. And in houses all over Les Salants beds were aired, gardens dug, spare rooms refurbished
in preparation for long hoped-for visitors. No one spoke of them—deserters are rarely mentioned in the village, less so even than the dead—but all the same, photographs were removed from drawers, letters reread, telephone numbers memorized. Capucine’s daughter Clo was planning to come over at Easter. Désirée and Aristide had received a card from their youngest son. It was as if spring had come early, bringing new shoots from dusty corners and salty cracks.

  My father too was caught up in it. The first I suspected was when I returned home from La Goulue to find a stack of bricks in front of the porch. There were breeze blocks behind them too, and sacks of concrete mix.

  “Your father’s planning to do a little building work,” said Alain, when I saw him in the village. “A shower block, I think, or some kind of extension.”

  The news did not surprise me; in the old days, GrosJean had always been absorbed in one building project or another. It was when Flynn turned up with a loader, a concrete mixer, and a new delivery of bricks and breeze blocks that I began to pay attention.

  “What’s this?” I demanded.

  “A job,” said Flynn. “You father wants a few things doing.”

  He seemed oddly reluctant to speak of it; a new bathhouse, he said, to replace the one at the back of the boat hangar. Perhaps a few other things. GrosJean had asked him to do the work according to his own plans.

  “But that’s good, isn’t it?” asked Flynn, seeing my expression. “It means he’s taking an interest.”

  I wondered. The Easter holidays would be on us in a couple of months, and there had been talk of a visit from Adrienne, to coincide with the boys’ school holidays. This might be a ploy to attract her. And there was the cost—materials, hire of machinery, labor. GrosJean had never given me any indication that he had money hidden away.

  “How much?” I asked.

  Flynn told me. It was a fair price, but higher, I was sure, than my father could afford. “I’ll pay,” I said.

  He shook his head. “You won’t. It’s been arranged. Besides,” he added, “you’re broke.” I shrugged. That wasn’t true; I still had some savings left. But Flynn was adamant. The supplies had been paid for. The work, he said, was free.

  The building supplies took up most of the space in the boatyard. Flynn was apologetic, but as he said, there really wasn’t anywhere else to put them, and it would be only for a week or two. So I abandoned my work there for the time, and went, sketchbook in hand, to La Houssinière. On arriving, however, I found Les Immortelles covered in scaffolding—a damp problem, perhaps, brought on by the high tides.

  The tide was coming in; I went down to the deserted beach and sat with my back to the seawall to watch it. I had been sitting there for a few minutes, allowing my pencil to move, almost idly, across the paper, when I noticed a sign hammered into the rock high above me—a white board lettered in black, which read:

  LES IMMORTELLES. Private beach.

  It is an OFFENSE to remove SAND from this beach. Anyone doing so will be liable to PROSECUTION.

  Order signed by P. Lacroix (Gendarmerie Nationale)

  G. Pinoz (Mayor)

  C. Brismand (Proprietor)

  I stood up and stared at the words. Of course, there had been instances of sand harvesting before: a few sacks here and there, usually for building, or for cleaning up the garden. Even Brismand turned a blind eye. Even so, the beach had lost a lot of sand. Far more than could be accounted for by the occasional theft.

  The beach huts that had survived the winter were teetering on their wooden supports, a meter or more above the level of the beach; in August their bellies had touched the sand. I began to sketch rapidly: the leggy beach huts, the curve of the tide line; the row of cobbles behind the breakwater; the rising tide with its vanguard of cloud.

  I was so absorbed in my work that it was some time before I became aware of Soeur Extase and Soeur Thérèse, sitting just above me on the seawall. No ice creams, this time; but Soeur Extase was carrying a bag of sweets, which she occasionally passed to Soeur Thérèse. Both sisters looked delighted to see me.

  “Why, it’s Mado GrosJean, ma soeur—”

  “Little Mado with her drawing book. Come to watch the sea, heh? Smell the south wind?” asked Soeur Thérèse.

  “That’s what did for our beach the first time. The south wind,” declared Soeur Extase. “That’s what Claude Brismand says.”

  “Clever man, Claude Brismand.”

  “Veryvery clever.”

  I was always entertained at the way their voices echoed each other, one carrying on seamlessly from the other like those of twittering birds.

  “Too clever by half, I’d say,” I said, smiling.

  The nuns laughed. “Or not clever enough,” said Soeur Thérèse. They got down from their perch on the seawall and began to make their way toward me, hitching up their habits as they reached the sand. “Are you watching for someone?”

  “There’s no one out there, Mado GrosJean, no one at all.”

  “Who’d be out there now, in all weathers? That’s what we used to say to your father—”

  “He was always looking out to sea, you know—”

  “But she never came back.”

  The old nuns settled on a flat rock nearby and peered down at me with their birdy eyes. I looked back at them, startled. I knew there was a vein of romance that ran through my father—the names of his boats proved it—but the thought that he might have waited here, watching the horizon for my mother’s return, was unexpected and oddly moving.

  “All the same, ma soeur,” said Soeur Extase, reaching for a sweet. “Little Mado came back, didn’t she—”

  “And things are looking better for Les Salants. Thanks to the Saint, of course.”

  “Ah yes. The Saint.” The nuns chuckled.

  “Not so good at our end, though,” said Soeur Extase, looking at the scaffolding at Les Immortelles. “Not so lucky here.”

  The tide was coming in fast. It always does on Le Devin, racing across the flats with deceptive speed. More than one fisher after oysters or shrimps has been obliged to abandon his catch and swim for it when caught out by that silent sweep of water. I could see a current, a strong one by the look of it, fingering its way toward the beach. Not an unusual feature on an island built on sandbanks: the smallest shift can divert a current, turning a sheltered inlet into bleak headland in the space of a winter, turning shallows to silt, to beach, and then to dunes in the space of only a few years.

  “What’s this for?” I asked the sisters, pointing at the sign.

  “Oh, that was Monsieur Brismand’s idea. He thinks—”

  “Someone’s been poaching sand.”

  “Poaching?” I thought of the new layer of sand at La Goulue.

  “By boat, maybe; or with a tractor.” Soeur Thérèse smiled happily from her perch. “He’s offered a reward.”

  “But that’s stupid,” I said, laughing. “He must know that no one could have moved so much sand. It’s the tides. The tides and the currents. That’s all.”

  Soeur Extase had returned to her bag of sweets. Seeing me watching her, she held it out. “Well, Brismand doesn’t think it’s stupid,” she said placidly. “Brismand thinks someone’s been stealing his beach.”

  Soeur Thérèse nodded. “Why not?” she chirped. “It’s been done before.”


  * * *

  March left us a gift of high tides but fair weather. Business was good: Omer had made an excellent profit on his winter vegetables and was planning a more ambitious crop for next year; Angélo, after some renovations to his bar, had reopened and was doing a brisk trade even with Houssins, with the Guénolé-Bastonnet alliance supplying his oysters; Xavier had begun repairs on a little abandoned cottage near La Bouche and had been seen several times hand in hand with Mercédès Prossage; even Toinette was turning a good profit from visits to the Saint’s shrine on La Griznoz, which had become popular with some of the older Houssins since the floods.

  The changes were
not all for the better, however. The Guénolé-Bastonnet alliance suffered a temporary setback when Xavier was waylaid on his way from La Houssinière with the money for a consignment of lobsters. Three men on motorbikes stopped him just outside the village, broke his glasses and his nose, and got away with a fortnight’s takings. Xavier had not recognized any of his attackers, as they had been wearing motorcycle helmets.

  “Thirty lobsters at fifty francs apiece,” moaned Matthias to Aristide. “And your grandson let them get away!”

  Aristide bristled. “Would your grandson have managed any better?”

  “At least my grandson would have put up a fight,” said Matthias.

  “There were three of them,” murmured Xavier, shyer than ever, looking odd and rabbity without his glasses.

  “So?” said Matthias. “You can run, can’t you?”

  “From a motorbike?”

  “It had to be Houssins,” said Omer peaceably, sensing a fight brewing. “Xavier, did they say anything to you? Anything that might help you recognize them?”

  Xavier shook his head.

  “What about the bikes? You’d recognize them, wouldn’t you?”

  Xavier shrugged. “Maybe.”


  At last Xavier, Ghislain, Aristide, and Matthias went into La Houssinière to talk to Pierre Lacroix, the only policeman, neither side trusting the other to tell the story correctly. The policeman appeared sympathetic but showed little optimism.

  “There are so many motorbikes on the island,” he said, with an avuncular pat on Xavier’s shoulder. “They might even have been mainlanders come over for the day on Brismand 1.”

  Aristide shook his head. “They were Houssins,” he said stubbornly. “They knew the boy was carrying cash.”

  “Anyone from Les Salants would have known that,” said Lacroix.

  “Yes, but in that case he would have recognized the bikes—”

  “I’m sorry.” The tone was final.

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