Coastliners a novel, p.19
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.19

           Joanne Harris
 

  Aristide looked at Lacroix. “One of the bikes was a red Honda,” he said.

  “A common make,” said Lacroix, without returning his gaze.

  “Doesn’t your son Joël have a red Honda?”

  There was a sudden, dangerous silence. “Are you suggesting, Bastonnet, that my son—that my son—” Lacroix’s face flared beneath his mustache. “That’s a malicious accusation,” he said. “If you weren’t an old man, Bastonnet, and if you hadn’t lost your own son—”

  Aristide leaped from his chair, clutching his stick. “My boy has nothing to do with this!”

  “Neither has mine!”

  They faced each other, Aristide white, Lacroix red, both shaking with rage.

  Xavier took the old man’s arm to stop him falling. “Pépé, it’s no use—”

  “Get off me, heh!”

  Gently, Ghislain took his other arm. “Please, Monsieur Bastonnet, we have to go.”

  Aristide glared at him. Ghislain held his gaze. There was a long, furious silence.

  “Well,” said Aristide at last. “It’s been a while since a Guénolé called me monsieur. The younger generation can’t have deteriorated as much as I thought.”

  They left La Houssinière with as much dignity a they could muster. Joël Lacroix watched them from the doorway of the Chat Noir café, a Gitane between his teeth and a little smile on his lips. The red Honda was parked outside. Aristide, Matthias, Ghislain, and Xavier walked past without a glance.

  Xavier looked longingly toward the café entrance, but Matthias gripped his arm and hissed in his ear, “Don’t you dare, son!”

  Xavier looked at Matthias in stupefaction. Perhaps it was being called “son” by his grandfather’s rival, or perhaps it was the expression on the old man’s face, but it stopped him for just long enough to bring him to his senses. None of them doubted now that Joël had been behind the attack and the theft, but now was certainly not the time to say so. They made their way slowly back to Les Salants, and by the time they finally got home the unthinkable had happened: for the first time in generations, Bastonnets and Guénolés were in wholehearted agreement over something.

  This time, they agreed, it was war.

  By the end of the week the village was buzzing with rumor and speculation; even the children had got to hear the story, and it had been passed from mouth to mouth, with many contradictions and embellishments, until it had reached epic proportions. On one thing everyone stood fast, however: enough was enough.

  “We would have let bygones be bygones,” said Matthias over a friendly game of belote in Angélo’s. “We were happy enough to trade with them. But they stacked the deck.”

  Omer nodded. “They’ve had it their way far too long,” he agreed. “It’s time we fought back.”

  18

  * * *

  There followed a rigorous campaign against the Houssins. Our newfound sense of community demanded it. The price of lobster and crabs rose sharply; Angélo began to charge extra whenever an Houssin dropped in at the café; the minimarket in La Houssinière received a consignment of moldy vegetables from the Prossage farm (Omer blamed the weather); and one night, someone broke into the hangar in which Joël Lacroix kept his precious Honda and put sand in his petrol tank. Everyone waited for the policeman to make an outraged appearance, but he never did. To an outsider such things might have seemed trivial, even childish; but to the Salannais, who have so little, it was deadly serious. I understood that, and although I didn’t always approve of their methods, I never said so aloud.

  “Those Houssins have had everything their way too long,” declared Omer. “They think just because they’ve been lucky for a while, nothing will ever change.”

  It was a measure of exactly how much progress we had made that no one contested this.

  “We should advertise to bring the tourists to our end,” suggested Capucine. “Set up on the quay at La Houssinière with a sandwich board when the tourists get here. That would bring the business in. And put one in the eye of those Houssins!”

  Six months ago such a far-fetched idea—and from a woman—would have provoked laughter and scorn. Now Aristide and Matthias looked interested. Others followed suit.

  “Why not, heh?”

  “It sounds good to me.”

  The rest considered it for a moment. It wasn’t the first time anyone had voiced that thought, but the idea of competing with the Houssins on any kind of equal footing had always seemed absurd. Now, for the first time, it seemed possible.

  Matthias spoke for us all. “Charging extra for fish is one thing,” he said slowly. “But what you’re suggesting would mean—”

  Aristide snorted. “La Houssinière isn’t somebody’s oyster bed, Guénolé,” he said with some of his old ire. “The tourists are fair game.”

  “And we deserve them,” added Toinette. “We owe it to ourselves to at least try.”

  Matthias shook his head. “I just wonder if we’re ready.”

  The old woman shrugged. “We could be ready. The season starts in four months’ time. Then there’ll be half a dozen trippers a day until September, just waiting to be pulled in.”

  “We’d need somewhere for the people to stay,” said Matthias. “We’ve got no hotel. No campsite to speak of.”

  “That’s just Guénolé cowardice talking, heh,” retorted Aristide. “Let a Bastonnet show you a bit of lateral thinking. You’ve got a spare room, haven’t you?”

  Toinette nodded. “Heh! Everyone has a room or two going begging. Most of us have a patch of land that can be used for camping. Add onto that a few breakfasts and dinner with the family, and you’re as good as anyplace on the coast. Better, even. Those city people would give good money to stay in a typical island house. Light a log fire, hang some copper pans on the walls—”

  “Make some devinnoiseries in a claybake oven—”

  “Bring the island costumes out of storage—”

  “Traditional music—I’ve got my biniou in the attic somewhere—”

  “Handcrafts, needlework, fishing trips—”

  Once begun, the ideas were difficult to stop. I tried to stop myself from laughing as the general excitement rose, although in spite of my amusement, something in me was moved. Even the skeptical Guénolés were getting carried away now, everyone shouting out suggestions, banging on the tabletops, rattling the glasses. The consensus was that summer people would buy anything they considered to be typical or artisan. For years we had deplored Les Salants’ lack of modern facilities, jealously watching La Houssinière with its hotel, its gaming arcade, and cinema. For the first time, we saw how our apparent weakness could be turned to good profit. All we needed was some initiative, and a little investment.

  As Easter approached, my father threw himself into his building project with renewed enthusiasm. He was not alone; all over the village there were signs of activity. Omer began to convert his disused barn; others planted flowers in bare yards or hung pretty curtains in windows. Les Salants was like a plain woman in love who, for the first time, begins to see in herself the potential for beauty.

  Since her departure in January we had heard no further news of Adrienne. I was relieved; her return had brought with it a flotilla of uncomfortable memories, and her parting comments still troubled me. If GrosJean was disappointed, he showed little sign of it. He seemed utterly absorbed in his new project, and for that I was grateful, although he remained aloof. For that I blamed my sister.

  Flynn too had seemed more remote in recent weeks. Part of it was because he was working hard: as well as GrosJean’s building job he had also helped out in the village; he had installed a washhouse at Toinette’s to be used by campers; and helped Omer convert his barn into a holiday flat. He made the same wisecracks, played cards and chess with the same killer accuracy, flattered Capucine, teased Mercédès, awed the children with unlikely tales of his travels abroad, and by turns charmed, cajoled, and perjured himself deeper into the heart of Les Salants. But to long-term plans and ch
anges he remained indifferent. He ventured no more ideas or inspirations. Perhaps, now that the Salannais had learned to think for themselves, he didn’t need to.

  I was still troubled by the memory of what had happened between us at La Goulue. Flynn, however, seemed to have forgotten it completely, and, having played and replayed the episode in the part of my mind reserved for such things, I finally decided to do the same. I found him attractive; yes. The realization had taken me by surprise, and I had made a fool of myself. But his value as a friend was of more importance to me, especially now. I would never have admitted it to anyone else, but since the transformation of Les Salants and the development of my father’s building plans, I had been feeling strangely left out.

  It was nothing I could put my finger on. People were friendly and kind. There was no house in the village—not even Aristide’s—where I would not immediately be made welcome. And yet in subtle ways I remained an outsider. There was a formality behind their dealings with me that I found strangely oppressive. If I called by for a cup of tea, it would be served in the best crockery. If I bought vegetables from Omer, he would always include a little more than I had paid for. It made me feel uncomfortable. It made me different. When I voiced this to Capucine, she only laughed. Flynn, I felt, was the only person who might understand.

  As a result I spent more time with him than ever. He was a good listener, and he had the ability to put my problems into perspective with nothing but a grin or a flippant comment. More important, he understood my other life, my years in Paris, and when I talked to him I never needed to search my vocabulary for a simpler word, or struggle to explain a difficult concept, as I often had to with some of the Salannais. I would never have admitted it, but sometimes my friends in the village made me feel like a schoolteacher with a boisterous class. They charmed and exasperated me by turns; they had moments of extreme childishness toward one another, and moments of peculiar wisdom. If only they could expand their horizons . . .

  “We’ve got a real beach now,” I said to Flynn one day at La Goulue. “We might even get some real tourists.”

  Flynn was lying on his back on the sand, looking up at the sky.

  “Who knows,” I persisted, “we might become a fashionable resort.” It was a lighthearted remark, but he didn’t even smile. “At least we get to give Brismand a bit of his own. After the run he’s had over the years it’s time Les Salants had its turn.”

  “You think that’s what’s happening, do you?” he said. “You’re having your turn?”

  I sat up. “What’s wrong? What haven’t you told me?”

  Flynn continued to stare at the sky. His eyes were filled with clouds.

  “Well?”

  “You’re all so pleased with yourselves. One or two small victories and you think you can do anything. We’ll have walking on water next.”

  “So?” I didn’t like his tone of voice. “What’s wrong with a little enterprise?”

  “What’s wrong, Mado, is that it’s all been a little too successful. Too much, too quick. How long before word gets out, do you think? How long before everyone wants a slice?”

  But we were too busy to waste time with that kind of pessimism. Three months until the beginning of the tourist season, and the whole village worked harder and more willingly than we had when we were building the Bouch’ou. Success had made us bold; besides, we had begun to enjoy the sense of possibility the project had created among us.

  Flynn, who could have lived on his triumph for the next year if he had chosen, calling in favors from everyone in Les Salants and never having to pay for a drink, kept his distance. The Saint took the credit in his place, and the shrine erected by Toinette was crammed with offerings. On April Fools’ Day Damien and Lolo caused a minor scandal by embellishing the altar with a dead fish, but on the whole there was real reverence toward the reinstated Sainte-Marine, and Toinette enjoyed her share.

  The previous year no Salannais would have even considered investing money, let alone borrowing any. There is no bank on Le Devin, and no collateral for a loan if there were. But now things were different. Savings could be brought out of boxes and wardrobes. We began to see possibilities where none had existed before. The phrase “short-term loan” was spoken for the first time by Omer, and was greeted with cautious approval. Alain revealed that he too had been thinking along the same lines. Someone had heard of an organization on the mainland—someone connected with the Ministry of Agriculture, perhaps—who might be approached for a grant.

  As momentum gained, preparations grew more ambitious. I was commissioned to make several signs out of clinkers and artistic pieces of driftwood:

  LOCAL SEA SALT(50F PER 5 KILO BAG)

  BASTONNET ISLAND ROPEWORK

  ANGȌO’S CAFǼ-RESTAURANT (PLAT DU JOUR 30F)

  CHAMBRE-D’HӔE—ROOMS TO LET—FRIENDLY

  FAMILY ATMOSPHERE

  SHRINE OF SAINTE-MARINE-DE-LA-MER

  (10F, GUIDED VISIT)

  I even painted one for myself—GALERIE PRASTEAU: LOCAL ARTIST—thinking uncomfortably about my dwindling savings. For a while I too was hard at work, preparing canvases to sell when finally the tourists arrived.

  For weeks the village was frenzied with hammering, weeding, shouting, raking, painting, whitewashing, drinking (thirsty work, this), and arguments.

  “We should send someone out to the mainland, to Fromentine, to publicize,” suggested Xavier. “Hand out leaflets, spread the word around.”

  Aristide agreed. “We’ll both go. I’ll stand on the quay and keep an eye to the ferry. You can do the rest of the town. Mado can make you a sandwich board, maybe some leaflets too, heh? We can stay at a bed-and-breakfast for few days. Easy as shooting hens in a barn!” He gave a cackle of satisfaction.

  Xavier was less enthusiastic. Perhaps it was the thought of leaving Mercédès, even for a few days. But Aristide’s enthusiasm, once fired, was unquenchable. He packed a few things, including the sandwich board, and spread rumors of family business to attend to.

  “It won’t do for those Houssins to know about things too early,” he remarked.

  I hand-lettered a hundred little posters, not having the facilities to print them off. Xavier was under instruction to put one in every shop window, every café in Fromentine.

  VISIT LES SALANTS

  UNCHANGED IN 100 YEARS

  OUR DELICIOUS LOCAL ISLAND COOKING

  OUR UNSPOILT GOLDEN BEACH

  OUR WARM AND FRIENDLY HOSPITALITY

  LES SALANTS—DISCOVER THE DIFFERENCE!

  The wording had been pondered and reworked by the Bastonnets, the Guénolés, and the Prossages until they were all satisfied. I corrected the spelling. We put it about that the Bastonnets were going to the coast to help out a struggling relative in Pornic, and made sure the information was overheard in the right place. Tell Jojo-le-Goëland anything, and it’s around La Houssinière quicker than you can blink. Opinion in Les Salants had it that the Houssins wouldn’t know what had hit them until it was too late.

  By summer, the war would be over.

  19

  * * *

  Easter came, and the Brismand 1 began to run twice weekly again. It was a good thing for Les Salants that it did, for all the rebuilding and redecorating work had left us short of supplies. Aristide and Xavier had met with an excellent reception in Fromentine, distributing all their leaflets and leaving details at the local tourist offices. A couple of weeks later they went back, traveling as far as Nantes this time, with twice as many leaflets to distribute.

  The rest of us waited anxiously for news, putting the finishing touches to our handiwork and keeping a close watch for Houssin spies. For there were spies; Jojo-le-Goëland had been spotted several times lurking around La Goulue, motorcycles had been heard around the village, and Joël Lacroix had taken to strolling around the dunes in the evenings—or at least until someone shot him with a double barrel of rock salt. A halfhearted investigation was begun, but—as Alain pointed out to Pierre Lacroix, wi
th an expression of deep sincerity—so many islanders have salt rifles that it would be impossible to find the culprit, even assuming it was a Salannais.

  “It could just as easily have been someone from the coast,” agreed Aristide. “Or even an Houssin—”

  Lacroix’s mouth thinned in displeasure. “Be careful, Bastonnet,” he warned.

  “Who, me?” said Aristide, shocked. “Surely you don’t think I had anything to do with the attack on your son?”

  There were no reprisals. Perhaps Lacroix had spoken to his son, or perhaps the Houssins were too busy preparing for their own season, but La Houssinière was eerily silent for the time of year. Even the motorcycle gang dropped momentarily out of sight.

  “Good thing, too, heh!” said Toinette, who had her own salt rifle tucked behind her front door, next to the woodpile. “Let any of those hoodlums come sniffing around here and I’ll give them both barrels of the best sea salt up the arse.”

  At this point Aristide’s triumph lacked only one thing: the official announcement of the engagement between his grandson and Mercédès. There was some reason to anticipate it: the two were always together, Xavier inarticulate with admiration, the object of his affection coolly flirtatious in a series of eye-catching outfits. This was in itself enough to fuel supposition in the village. More to the point, however, was the fact that Omer favored the match. A jealous parent, he made no secret of this. The boy had prospects, he declared complacently. A Salannais, with his heart in the right place. Respect for his elders. And enough money to start up on his own. Aristide had already given Xavier an unknown sum—rumor flew wildly, but it was rumored the old man must have had savings hidden away—to begin independently, and Xavier had made extraordinary progress in restoring the abandoned cottage—once little more than a shell—into which he was planning to move.

  “Time he got settled, heh,” said Aristide. “We’re none of us getting any younger, and I’d like to see some great-grandchildren before I die. Xavier’s all I have left of my poor Olivier’s blood. I’m counting on him to keep the name going. Without him—”

 
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