Coastliners a novel, p.2
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.2

           Joanne Harris
“Les Salants?”

  “Yes. My father’s Jean Prasteau. He’s a boatbuilder. Or was, anyway.”

  “GrosJean Prasteau!” Both boys looked at me with open curiosity.

  They might have said more, but just then three other teenagers joined us. The biggest addressed the round-faced boy with an air of authority.

  “What are you Salannais doing here again, heh?” he demanded. “The seafront belongs to the Houssins, you know that. You’re not allowed to take luggage to Les Immortelles!”

  “Who says?” demanded the round-faced boy. “It’s not your esplanade! They’re not your tourists!”

  “Lolo’s right,” said the boy with dark eyes. “We were first.”

  The two Salannais drew a little closer together. The Houssins outnumbered them, but I sensed they were willing to fight rather than give up the suitcases. For a moment I saw myself at their age, waiting for my father, ignoring the laughter from the pretty Houssin girls at the terrasse of the café until at last it grew too much and I fled to my hideout under the beach huts.

  “They were first,” I told the three. “Now scat.”

  For a moment the Houssins looked at me resentfully, then left, muttering, for the jetty. Lolo gave me a look of pure gratitude. His friend just shrugged.

  “I’ll walk with you,” I said. “Les Immortelles, was it?” The big white house stood only a few hundred meters down the esplanade. In the old days it had been a nursing home.

  “It’s a hotel now,” said Lolo. “It belongs to Monsieur Brismand.”

  “Yes, I know him.”

  Claude Brismand; a thickset Houssin with a bombastic mustache, who smelled of cologne, who wore espadrilles like a peasant, whose voice was rich and expensive as good wine. Foxy Brismand, they called him in the village. Lucky Brismand. For many years I had believed him to be a widower, although there were rumors that he had a wife and child somewhere on the mainland. I’d always liked him even though he was an Houssin; he was cheerful, talkative, his pockets bulging with sweets. My father had hated him. As if in defiance, my sister, Adrienne, had married his nephew.

  “It’s all right now.” We had reached the end of the esplanade. Through a pair of glass doors I could see the lobby of Les Immortelles—a desk, a vase of flowers, a big man sitting near the open window smoking a cigar. For a moment I considered going in, then decided against it. “I think you can manage from here. Go on in.”

  They did; the dark-eyed boy without a word, Lolo with a grimace of apology for his friend. “Don’t mind Damien,” he said in a low voice. “He always wants to fight.”

  I smiled. I’d been the same. My sister, four years older than I, with her pretty clothes and beauty parlor hair, had never had any trouble fitting in; at the terrasse of the café, her laughter had always been loudest.

  I made my way across the crowded street to where the two old Carmelites were sitting. I wasn’t sure whether they would recognize me—a Salannaise they hadn’t seen since she was a girl—but I’d always liked them in the old days. Coming closer I was unsurprised to notice that they had hardly changed at all: both bright-eyed, but brown and leathery like dried things on the beach. Soeur Thérèse wore a dark head scarf rather than the white quichenotte coif of the islands; otherwise I wasn’t sure whether I could have told them apart. The man beside them, with a coral bead around his neck and a floppy hat shading his eyes, was a stranger. Late twenties or early thirties, a pleasant face without being striking; he could have been a tourist but for the easy familiarity with which he greeted me, the silent nod of the islands.

  Soeur Extase and Soeur Thérèse looked at me keenly for a moment, then broke into identical beaming smiles. “Why, it’s GrosJean’s little girl.”

  Long companionship far from their convent had given them the same mannerisms. Their voices were similar too, quick and cracked as magpies. Like twins, they shared a peculiar empathy, carrying on sentences for each other and puncuating each other’s words with encouraging gestures. Eerily, they never used either of their names, one always referring to the other as “ma soeur,” although as far as I know they were not related.

  “It’s Mado, ma soeur, little Madeleine Prasteau. How she’s grown! Time passes—”

  “—So quickly here in the islands. It doesn’t seem more than—”

  “—A couple of years since we first came and now we’re—”

  “Old and cranky, ma soeur, old and cranky. But we’re pleased to see you again, Little Mado. So different you always were. So veryvery different from—”

  “Your sister.” They spoke the last words in unison. Their black eyes gleamed.

  “It’s good to be back.” Until I spoke the words I hadn’t known how good it was.

  “It hasn’t changed much, has it, ma soeur—”

  “No, nothing changes much. It gets—”

  “Older, that’s all. Like us.” Both nuns shook their heads matter-of-factly and returned to their ice creams.

  “I see they’ve converted Les Immortelles,” I said.

  “That’s right,” nodded Soeur Extase. “Most of it, anyway. There are still a few of us left on the top floor—”

  “Long-term guests, Brismand calls us—”

  “But not many. Georgette Loyon and Raoul Lacroix and Bette Plancpain. He bought their houses when they got too old to cope—”

  “Bought them cheap and fixed them up for the summer people—”

  The nuns exchanged glances. “Brismand only keeps them here because he gets charity money from the convent. He likes to keep in with the church. He knows what side his wafer’s buttered.”

  A thoughtful silence as the pair of them sucked at their ice creams.

  “And this is Rouget, Little Mado.” Soeur Thérèse indicated the stranger, who had been listening to their comments with a grin on his face.

  “Rouget, the Englishman—”

  “Come to lead us astray with ice cream and blandishments. And at our age too.”

  The Englishman shook his head. “Ignore them,” he advised, still grinning. “I only indulge them because otherwise they’d tell all my secrets.” His voice was pleasantly, if strongly, accented.

  The sisters cackled. “Secrets, heh! There isn’t much we don’t know, is there, ma soeur, we may be—”

  “—Old, but there’s nothing wrong with our ears.”

  “People forget about us—”

  “Because we’re—”


  The man they called Rouget looked at me and grinned. He had a clever, quirky face that lit up when he smiled. I could feel his eyes taking in every detail of my appearence, not unkindly, but with expectant curiosity.

  “Rouget?” Most names on Le Devin are nicknames. Only foreigners and mainlanders use anything else.

  He took off his hat with an ironic flourish. “Richard Flynn; philosopher, builder, sculptor, welder, fisherman, handyman, weatherman”—he gestured vaguely toward the sands at Les Immortelles—“and most important, student and comber of beaches.”

  Soeur Extase greeted his words with an apppreciative cackle suggesting that this was an old joke. “Trouble, to me and you,” she explained.

  Flynn laughed. I noticed that his hair was roughly the same color as the bead around his neck. Red hair, bad blood, my mother used to say, though it is an unusual color in the islands, generally held to be a sign of good luck. That explained it. Even so, a nickname confers a kind of status on Le Devin, unusual in a foreigner. It takes time to earn an island name.

  “Are you living here?” Somehow I thought it unlikely. There was something restless about him, I thought; something volatile.

  He shrugged. “It’s as good a place as any.”

  That startled me a little. As if all places were the same to him. I tried to imagine not caring where home was, not feeling its ceaseless drag on my heart. His terrible freedom. And yet they’d given him a name. All my life I had simply been la fille à GrosJean, like my sister.

  “So.” He grinned. “What do
you do?”

  “I’m a painter. I mean, I sell my paintings.”

  “What do you paint?”

  For a moment I thought of the little flat in Paris, and the room I used for my studio. A tiny space, too small for a guest room—and Mother had made even that concession with bad grace—my easel and folders and canvases propped up against the wall. I could have chosen any subject for my paintings, Mother was fond of saying. I had a gift. Why then did I always paint the same thing? Lack of imagination? Or was it to torment her?

  “The islands, mostly.”

  Flynn looked at me but said nothing more. His eyes were the same slaty color as the cloud line at the horizon’s edge. I found them curiously difficult to look at, as if they could see thoughts.

  Soeur Extase had finished her ice cream. “And how’s your mother, Little Mado? Did she come over with you today?”

  I hesitated. Flynn was still looking at me. “She died,” I said at last. “In Paris. My sister wasn’t there.”

  Both nuns crossed themselves. “That’s sad, Little Mado. So veryvery sad.” Soeur Thérèse took my hand between her withered fingers. Soeur Extase patted my knee. “Are you having a service in Les Salants?” asked Soeur Thérèse. “For your father’s sake?”

  “No.” I could still hear the harshness in my voice. “That’s over. And she always said she’d never come back. Not even as ashes.”

  “A pity. It would have been better for everyone.”

  Soeur Extase gave me a quick look from beneath her quichenotte. “It can’t have been easy for her, living here. Islands—”

  “I know.”

  Brismand 1 was leaving again. For a moment I felt utterly lost. “My father didn’t make things any easier,” I said, still watching the retreating ferry. “Still, he’s free of her now. It’s what he wanted. To be left alone.”


  * * *

  “Prasteau. That’s an island name.” The taxi driver—an Houssin I did not recognize—sounded accusing, as if I had used the name without permission.

  “Yes, it is. I was born here.”

  “Heh.” The driver glanced back at me, as if trying to place my features. “You still got family on the island, heh?”

  I nodded. “My father. In Les Salants.”

  “Oh.” The man shrugged, as if my mention of Les Salants had ended his curiosity. In my mind’s eye I saw GrosJean in his boatyard, saw myself watching him. A guilty stab of pride as I remembered my father’s craftsmanship. I forced myself to look at the back of the driver’s head until the feeling left me.

  “Right then. Les Salants.”

  The taxi smelled musty, and the suspension was shot. As we drove along the familiar road out of La Houssinière, my stomach was filled with tremors. I remembered everything too well now, too clearly; a patch of tamarisks, a rock, a glimpse of corrugated roof over a shoulder of dune made me feel raw with memories.

  “You know where you want to be, do you, heh?” The road was bad; as we turned a corner the taxi’s back wheels caught for a moment in a slough of sand; the driver swore and revved viciously to free them.

  “Yes. Rue de l’Océan. The far end.”

  “Are you sure? There’s nothing here but dunes.”

  “Yes. I’m sure.”

  Some instinct had made me stop a short distance outside the village; I wanted to arrive on foot. The taxi driver took my money and left, his wheels spraying sand, his exhaust blatting. As the silence reasserted itself around me, I was conscious of an alarming sensation, and I felt another lurch of guilt as I identified the feeling as joy.

  I had promised my mother I would never come back.

  That was my guilt; for a moment I felt dwarfed by it, a speck beneath the enormous sky. My very presence here was a betrayal of her, of our good years together, of the life we had made away from Le Devin.

  No one had written to us after we left. Once we had passed the boundaries of La Jetée we had become just so much more flotsam; ignored, forgotten. My mother had told me this often enough, on cold nights in our little Paris flat, with the unfamiliar sounds of traffic outside and the lights from the brasserie flicking from red to blue through the broken blinds. We owed nothing to Le Devin. Adrienne had done the right thing; married well; had children; moved to Tangiers with her husband, Marin, who dealt in antiques. She had two little boys, whom we had only seen in photographs. She rarely contacted us. Mother took this as proof of Adrienne’s devotion to her family, and held her up as an example to me. My sister had done well; I should be proud of her.

  But I was stubborn; though I had escaped, I was unable to completely grasp the bright opportunities offered by the world beyond the islands. I could have had anything I wanted—a good job, a rich husband, stability. Instead, two years of art school; two more of aimless traveling; then bar work; cleaning; makeshift jobs; my paintings sold on street corners to avoid paying gallery fees. Carrying Le Devin secretly inside me.

  “Everything returns.”

  It’s the beachcomber’s maxim. I said it aloud, as if in reply to an unspoken accusation. After all, it wasn’t as if I were planning to stay. I had paid a month’s rent in advance for the flat; what little I owned remained just as I had left it, suspended, awaiting my return. But for now the fantasy was too beguiling to ignore; Les Salants, unchanged, welcoming, and my father. . . .

  I began to run, clumsily, across the broken road toward the houses, toward home.


  * * *

  The village was deserted. Most of the houses had closed shutters—a precaution against the heat—and they looked makeshift and abandoned, like beach huts out of season. Some looked as if they had not been repainted since I left; walls that had once been freshly whitewashed each spring had been scoured colorless by the sand. A single geranium raised its head from a dry window box. Several houses were no more than timber shacks with corrugated roofs. I remembered them now, though they had never appeared in any of my paintings.

  A few flat-bottomed boats or platts had been dragged up the étier—the saltwater creek that led into the village from La Goulue—and were beached on the brown low-tide mud. A couple of fishing boats were moored in the deeper water. I recognized them both at once; the Guénolés’ Eleanore, which my father and his brother had built years before I was born, and on the far side the Cécilia, which belonged to their fishing rivals, the Bastonnets. Something high up on the mast of one of the boats tapped monotonously against metal—ting-ting-ting-ting—in the wind.

  There was barely a sign of anyone. For a moment I caught sight of a face peering out from a shuttered window; heard a door slam on the sound of voices. An old man was sitting under a parasol outside Angèlo’s bar, drinking devinnoise, the island liqueur flavored with herbs. I recognized him straightaway—it was Matthias Guénolé, eyes sharp and blue in a weathered face—but I saw no curiosity in his expression as I greeted him. Simply a flicker of acknowledgment, the brief nod that passes as courtesy in Les Salants.

  There was sand in my shoes. Sand too had piled against the walls of some of the houses, as if the dunes had mounted an attack on the village. Certainly the summer storms must have taken their toll; a wall had collapsed by Jean Grossel’s old house; several roofs were missing tiles; and behind the Rue de l’Océan, where Omer Prossage and his wife, Charlotte, had their farm and their little shop, the land looked waterlogged, broad patches of standing water reflecting the sky. A series of pipes at the side of the road gushed water into a ditch, which in turn drained into the creek. I could see some kind of a pump working by the side of the house, presumably to speed up the process, and heard the grind of a generator. Behind the farm, the sails of a small windmill revolved busily.

  At the end of the main street, I stopped beside the well at the shrine of Marine-de-la-Mer. There was a hand pump there, rusted but still workable, and I pumped a little water to wash my face. In an almost forgotten ritual gesture I splashed water into the stone bowl by the side of the shrine, and in so doing I noticed tha
t the Saint’s little niche had been freshly painted, and that candles, ribbons, beads, and flowers had been left on the stones. The Saint herself stood, heavy and inscrutable, among the offerings.

  “They say if you kiss her feet and spit three times, something you’ve lost will come back to you.”

  I turned so abruptly that I almost lost my balance. A large, pink, cheery woman was standing behind me, hands on hips, head slightly to one side. A pair of gilt hoops swung from her earlobes; her hair was the same exuberant shade.

  “Capucine!” She’d aged a little (she had been pushing forty when I left), but I recognized her instantly; nicknamed La Puce, she lived in a battered pink trailer on the edge of the dune with her unruly brood of children. She’d never been married—men are just far too tiresome to live with, sweetheart—but I remembered late-night music on the dunes, and furtive men trying too hard not to notice the little trailer with its frilly curtains and welcoming light at the door. My mother had disliked her, but Capucine had always been kind to me, feeding me chocolate-covered cherries and telling me all kinds of scandalous gossip. She had the dirtiest laugh on the island; in fact she was the only adult islander I knew who ever laughed aloud.

  “My Lolo saw you in La Houssinière. He said you were coming here!” She grinned. “I ought to kiss the Saint more often if this kind of thing is going to happen!”

  “It’s good to see you, Capucine.” I smiled. “I was beginning to think the village was deserted.”

  She shrugged. “Luck turns, they say.” Her expression darkened for a moment. “I was sorry to hear about your mother, Mado.”

  “How did you know?”

  “Heh! It’s an island. News and gossip are all we have.”

  I hesitated, conscious of my heart pounding. “And—and my father?”

  For a second her smile flickered. “As usual,” she said lightly. “It’s never easy, this time of year.” Then, regaining her cheery composure, she put her arm around my shoulders. “Come and have a devinnoise with me, Mado. You can stay with me. I’ve got a spare bed since the Englishman left—”

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