Coastliners a novel, p.20
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.20

           Joanne Harris

  Mercédès was a pretty girl, and a Salannaise. Omer and the Bastonnets had been friends for years. And Xavier was stem over stern in love with her, said Aristide with a lascivious gleam in his eye: there would be grandchildren.

  “I’m counting on a dozen,” he would say complacently, making an hourglass gesture with his hands. Broad hips, good hocks; Aristide knew his livestock as well as any islander. Devinnois, he was fond of saying, should choose their wives like broodmares. And if she was pretty too—all the better.

  “A dozen,” he repeated happily, rubbing his hands. “Maybe more.”

  In spite of everything, however, there was a kind of desperation to our high spirits. It takes more than fighting talk to sustain a war, and our opponents in La Houssinière seemed too cool, too disinterested for comfort. Claude Brismand was seen on a number of occasions out by La Goulue, with Jojo-le-Goëland and Mayor Pinoz. If he was disturbed by what he had seen, he certainly gave no indication of it. He remained unconcerned, meeting all comers with the usual benevolent, fatherly smile. All the same, a number of rumors had already reached us. Business, it seemed, was not wonderful in La Houssinière. “I’ve heard Les Immortelles has had to cancel some bookings.” said Omer. “Damp in the walls.”

  By the end of the week my curiosity about Les Immortelles got the better of me. I went over there on an excuse—art supplies to order from the mainland—but mostly to check out the rumors—now increasingly wild—about the purported damage to the hotel.

  They had, of course, been exaggerated. All the same, Les Immortelles had deteriorated since my last visit. The hotel itself looked unchanged, except for the scaffolding on one side, but the sand layer had thinned still farther, with a steep drop to the stony shore.

  I could see how it had happened. The chain of events that had led us to this point, all our work in Les Salants, the combination of inertia and arrogance in the Houssins, which obscured the truth, even though they were looking right at it. The scale—the audacity—of our deception made it impossible to envisage. Even Brismand, in spite of his probing, still failed to see what was beneath his nose.

  Once begun, the deterioration would be fast, and final. The waves against the seawall would drag the remaining sand far into the slipstream, exposing rocks and cobbles until nothing but the smooth incline of the ancient dike was left. A few years might finish it altogether. A couple of summers, if the winds obliged.

  I looked around for Jojo, Brismand, or anyone else who might give me news, but there was no one in sight. The Rue des Immortelles was almost deserted. I saw a couple of tourists buying ice creams from a stand where a bored-looking girl chewed gum under a faded Choky parasol.

  As I moved closer to the seawall I noticed a single group of early tourists on the meager beach, a family by the look of it, with a tiny baby and a dog, all huddled and shivery beneath a flapping parasol. April is an uncertain month in the islands, and that day there was a scouring sea wind that stripped the warmth from the air. A small girl of about eight, all curls and round pansy eyes, was climbing rocks at the far end of the beach. She saw me watching and waved. “Are you on holiday here?” she called.

  I shook my head. “No. I live here.”

  “Have you been on holiday, then? Do you go to the city for your holiday when we come here? Do you swim in the sea on weekends and go to the piscine for special?”

  “Laetitia,” chided the father, twisting around to see what was going on. “Don’t ask rude questions.”

  Laetitia looked at me appraisingly. I winked at her. She needed no further encouragement; in a second she had clambered up the path onto the esplanade and was sitting precariously next to me on the seawall, one foot drawn up beneath her.

  “Have you got a beach near your house? Is it bigger than this one? Can you go onto the beach anytime you want to? Can you build a sand castle on Christmas Day?”

  I smiled. “If you like.”


  Gabi was her mother, I learned. Philippe was her father. Pétrole was the dog. He was always sick on boats. Laetitia had a big brother, Tim, at university in Rennes. She had another brother, Stéphane, but he was only a baby. She made a little moue of disapproval.

  “He never does anything. Sometimes he sleeps. He’s so bo-oring. I’m going to go to the beach every day,” she announced, brightening. “I’m going to dig down till I find clay. Then I’m going to make things with it. We did that last year in Nice,” she explained. “It was zen. Superzen.”

  “Laetitia!” A distant voice called from the beach. “Laetitia, what did I say?”

  Laetitia gave a theatrical sigh. “Bof. Maman doesn’t like me climbing this far. I’d better go back.”

  She slid down the seawall with blithe unconcern for the drift of broken glass that had accumulated at its foot.

  “Bye!” A moment later she was at the water’s edge, throwing seaweed at the seagulls.

  I waved back and continued my investigation of the esplanade. Since my last visit a few of the shops had reopened along the Rue des Immortelles, but apart from Laetitia and her family, there seemed to be no likely takers. Soeur Thérèse and Soeur Extase, severe in their ancient black habits, were sitting on a bench overlooking the sea. Joël Lacroix’s motorbike was parked carelessly opposite, but there was no sign of its owner. I waved at the two nuns and came to sit beside them.

  “Why it’s little Mado again,” said one of the sisters—they were both wearing their white coiffes today, and I found I could barely tell them apart. “No sketching today?”

  I shook my head. “Too windy.”

  “Bad winds, heh, for Les Immortelles,” said Soeur Thérèse, swinging her feet.

  “Not so bad for Les Salants,” added Soeur Extase. “We get to hear—”

  “—All kinds of things. You’d be surprised at—”

  “The things we get to hear about.”

  “They think we’re like the poor old residents here, too old and dotty to know what’s going on. And we are, of couse, soeur, old as the hills, that is if there—”

  “—Were any hills here but there aren’t here, only dunes—”

  “Though not as much sand as there used to be, ma soeur, no, not nearly as much.”

  A silence while the two nuns peered at me, birdlike, from beneath their white coiffes. “I heard Brismand was having to cancel bookings this year,” I said carefully. “Is that true?”

  The sisters nodded in unison. “Not all the bookings. But some—”

  “Yes, some. He was veryvery annoyed. There was a flood, wasn’t there, ma soeur, must have been just after the—”

  “—Spring tides. Flooded the cellars and through into the front. The architect says there’s damp in the wall, because of the—”

  “Sea wind. There’ll be work to be done on that come winter. Till then—”

  “There’ll only be back rooms for the tourists now, no sea view, no beach. It’s—”

  “Veryvery sad.”

  Rather uncomfortably, I agreed.

  “Still, if the Saint wills it—”

  “Oh yes. If the Saint wills it—”

  I left them waving after me, even more birdlike at a distance, their coiffes transformed into a pair of gulls riding the patient wave.

  As I crossed the road I caught sight of Joël Lacroix watching me from the doorway of the Chat Noir. He was smoking a Gitane, its tip cupped fisherman-style into the palm of his hand. Our eyes met, and he acknowledged me curtly—heh—but said nothing. Just behind him in the café doorway I could make out the smoke-obscured form of a girl—long black hair, red dress, coltish legs in high-heeled sandals—whose outline seemed vaguely familiar. But even as I watched, Joël stepped away from the door, and the girl with him. I thought at the time there was something furtive about the way he turned away, shielding the girl from view.

  It was only later, as I walked back toward Les Salants, that I remembered why the girl had seemed so familiar.

  It was—I was almost certain of it—
Mercédès Prossage.


  * * *

  Of course I said nothing to anyone about it. Mercédès was free to go where she pleased. But I felt uneasy; Joël Lacroix was no friend of Les Salants, and I didn’t like to think of how much Mercédès might innocently be giving away.

  I returned from La Houssinière to find my father at the kitchen table with Flynn, looking at some drawings on sheets of butcher’s paper. For a moment I caught their faces unguarded—my father’s alight with excitement, Flynn’s with that look of absorption, like a boy with an ant farm—before they looked up and saw me watching them.

  “It’s another job,” explained Flynn “Your father wants me to help with a conversion. The boat hangar.”

  “Really?” GrosJean must have sensed my disapproval, because he made a gesture of impatience. My interference, it seemed, was not appreciated. I turned to Flynn, who shrugged his shoulders.

  “What can I do?” he said. “It’s his house. I didn’t encourage him.”

  It was true, of course. GrosJean could do what he liked with his own house. But I wondered where the money was coming from. And the boatyard, derelict as it was, was still a link with the past. I hated to lose it.

  I looked more closely at the drawings. They were good; my father had a keen eye for detail, and I could see quite clearly what he intended; a summerhouse or a studio perhaps, with a living space, a small kitchen, and a bathroom. The hangar was large; put in a floor, a trapdoor, and a ladder to reach it, and there could be a pleasant bedroom under the eaves.

  “It’s for Adrienne, isn’t it?” I said, knowing it was true. That bedroom with the trapdoor; the kitchen; the broad living room with its long window. “Adrienne and the boys.”

  GrosJean just looked at me, his eyes as flat as blue china, then returned to his drawings. I turned stiffly and went back outside, feeling sick. A moment later I sensed Flynn standing behind me.

  “Who’s going to pay for all this?” I asked, without looking at him. “GrosJean doesn’t have any money.”

  “He might have savings you don’t know about.”

  “You used to be a better liar than that, Flynn.”

  Silence. I could still feel him at my back, watching me. From the dune a volley of gulls rose in a great clap of wings.

  “Perhaps he’s borrowed the money,” he said at last. “Mado, he’s an adult. You can’t run his life.”

  “I know.”

  “You’ve done everything you could. You’ve helped him—”

  “And what for?” I turned around angrily. “What use was any of it? All he cares about is playing house with Adrienne and those boys.”

  “Welcome to the world, Mado,” said Flynn.

  Silence. With my foot I traced a line in the hard sand. “Who lent him the money, Flynn? Was it Brismand?”

  Flynn looked impatient. “How should I know?”

  “Was it Brismand?”

  He sighed. “Probably. Does it matter?”

  I walked away without looking at him.

  I expressed no further interest in the work to the hangar. It began nevertheless; Flynn brought a truckload of supplies from La Houssinière and spent a weekend stripping out the hangar; GrosJean was with him all the time, watching and consulting diagrams. In spite of myself I began to feel envious of all the time he spent with Flynn; it was as if, sensing my disapproval, my father had begun to avoid me.

  I learned that Adrienne planned to return for the summer holidays, bringing the boys with her. The news caused excitement in the village, where several families were expecting long-delayed visitors of their own.

  “I really think she’ll hold to it this time,” said Capucine. “She’s not a bad girl, my Clo. Not a thinker, but a good heart.”

  Désirée Bastonnet too was looking hopeful; I saw her on the road to La Houssinière with a new green coat and a hat with flowers on the band. I thought she looked younger in her spring clothes, her back straight, her face unaccustomedly rosy, and she smiled at me as I passed. It was so surprising that I turned and caught up with her again, just to make sure I hadn’t mistaken her for someone else.

  “I’m going to meet my son Philippe,” she told me in her quiet voice. “He’s been visiting La Houssinière with his family.”

  For a moment I thought of Flynn, and wondered whether he too had a mother like Désirée, waiting for him to return. “I’m glad you’re meeting him,” I told her. “And I hope he can make peace with his father.”

  Désirée shook her head. “You know how stubborn my husband is,” she said. “He pretends he doesn’t know I’ve been in touch with Philippe; he thinks the only reason Philippe would want to come back after all these years is because he’s after money.” She sighed. “Still,” she said in a determined tone, “if Aristide wants to waste this chance, that’s his business. I heard the Saint speak, that night on the Pointe. From now on, she said, we make our own luck. And I intend to.”

  I smiled. Fake miracle or not, it had certainly transformed Désirée. Flynn’s deception had at least accomplished this, and I felt a sudden warmth for him, in spite of my anger at the work he was doing for my father. Despite his pretended cynicism, I thought, Flynn was not indifferent.

  I wished I could feel more positive about my sister’s arrival. As the conversion of the hangar progressed, I could feel GrosJean gaining momentum with every day. It was in everything he did—his renewed energy, his alertness, the way he no longer sat in the kitchen staring dully out to sea. He began to speak more often too, although much of it was about Adrienne’s return, and it did not cheer me as much as it might otherwise have done. It was as if someone had hit a switch in him, bringing him to life. I tried to feel happy for him, but found I could not.

  Instead I flung myself with fierce enthusiasm into my painting. I painted the beach at La Goulue, the whitewashed houses with their red tiled roofs, the blockhaus at Pointe Griznoz with the pink tamarisks shaking flossily in the sea wind, the dunes bobbing with rabbit-tail grassses, the boats at low tide, sheets of birds riding the waves, long-haired fishermen in their pink-faded vareuses, Toinette Prossage in her white coiffe and widow’s blacks, looking for snails under the woodpile. I told myself that when the tourists arrived there would be buyers for my work, and that my expenses—canvas, paints, and other materials—represented an investment. I hoped so; my savings were running dangerously short, and although GrosJean and I had relatively few household expenses, the cost of the building work made me anxious. I made inquiries locally and contacted a small gallery in Fromentine, where the owner agreed to sell some of my paintings for a percentage. I would have preferred something closer to home, but it was a start. I waited cautiously for the season to begin.

  It was not long before I spotted the tourist family again. I was out at La Goulue with my sketchbook, trying to capture the look of the water at low tide, and they came up on me out of nowhere, Laetitia running on ahead with the dog Pétrole, her parents Gabi and Philippe a little farther behind with the baby in a carrier. Philippe was carrying a picnic basket and a beach bag full of toys.

  Laetitia waved at me madly. “Salut! We’ve found a beach!” She ran to me breathlessly, her face shining. “A beach, and there’s nobody here at all! It’s just like a desert island. It’s the zen-est desert-island beach ever!”

  Smiling, I had to admit that it was.

  Gabi greeted me with a friendly wave. She was a short, plump, brown woman, wearing a yellow paréo over her swimsuit. “Is it safe here?” she asked. “For swimming, I mean? There isn’t a green flag or anything.”

  I laughed. “Oh, it’s safe,” I told her. “It’s just that we don’t usually get many visitors around this side of the island.”

  “We like this side best,” announced Laetitia. “We like it best for swimming. And I can swim,” she added with dignity, “but I have to keep my foot on the floor.”

  “Les Immortelles isn’t safe for children,” explained Gabi. “There’s a steep drop and a current—”
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  “This is better, though,” said Laetitia, beginning to scramble down the cliffside path. “There are rocks and everything. Come on, Pétrole!”

  The dog followed her, barking excitedly. La Goulue rang with the unaccustomed sounds of childish exuberance.

  “The water’s a little cold,” I said, looking at Laetitia, who had now reached the tide line and was poking around at the sand with a stick.

  “She’ll be all right,” said Philippe. “I know this place.”

  “Really?” Now that I could see him more closely, I saw that he looked almost Devinnois, with the black hair and blue eyes of the islands. “I’m sorry, but do I know you? You look—familiar.”

  Philippe shook his head. “You don’t know me,” he said. “But maybe you know my mother.” His eyes moved to a point behind me, and he smiled—a very familiar smile. Automatically I turned round.

  “Mamie!” yelled Laetitia from the water’s edge, and began to run toward the beach. Water sprayed everywhere. Pétrole began to bark.

  “Mado,” said Désirée Bastonnet, her eyes shining. “I see you’ve met my son.”

  He had come back for the Easter holidays. He, Gabi, and the children had been staying at a holiday cottage behind the Clos du Phare, and since our meeting on the road to La Houssinière, Désirée had called several times.

  “It’s zen,” declared Laetitia, comfortably biting into a pain au chocolat from the picnic basket. “All this time I had a mamie and I didn’t even know about her! I’ve got a papi too, but I haven’t seen him yet. We’ll see him later.”

  Désirée looked at me and gave a little shake of her head. “Stubborn old fool,” she said, not without affection. “He still hasn’t forgotten that old business. But we won’t give up.”


  * * *

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