Coastliners a novel, p.21
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.21

           Joanne Harris
 

  In the first week of June, school broke up for the summer holidays. This traditionally marked the beginning of the season, and we watched the arrival of the Brismand 1 with renewed interest. Lolo could always be counted upon to keep a lookout at the harbor, and he and Damien took turns to watch the esplanade with exaggerated nonchalance. If anyone noticed their scrutiny, they failed to comment. La Houssinière baked quietly under a sun grown scorching; the once-flooded Clos du Phare cracked fiercely underfoot, making walking painful and bicycles hazardous. Brismand 1 arrived daily with barely a handful of trippers at a time, and Les Salants fretted and fussed like a bride kept waiting too long at the church. We were ready, more than ready; at last we realized how much time and money we had invested in the rebuilding of Les Salants, and how much we had at stake. Tempers frayed.

  “You can’t have given out enough leaflets,” snapped Matthias to Aristide. “I knew we should have sent someone else!”

  Aristide snorted. “We gave out every one! We even went to Nantes—”

  “That’s right, taking in the bright lights instead of seeing to our business—”

  “You old goat, heh! I’ll show you where to put your leaflets—”

  Aristide stood up precipitously, stick at the ready. Matthias made as if to pick up a chair. It might have turned into the world’s most elderly brawl if Flynn had not stepped in, suggesting another trip to Fromentine.

  “Perhaps you’ll find out what’s going on there,” he said mildly. “Or maybe the tourists could use a little persuasion.”

  Matthias looked skeptical. “I’m not having those Bastonnets living it up in Fromentine at my expense,” he snapped. Clearly he imagined the harmless seaside town as a pit of vice and temptation.

  “You could both of you go,” suggested Flynn. “Keep an eye on each other.”

  The uneasy alliance was regained. It was decided that Matthias, Xavier, Ghislain, and Aristide would all take the Friday morning ferry to Fromentine together. Fridays were good days for tourists, said Aristide, because of the weekend crowd. Sandwich boards were well and good, but nothing could beat a caller on the gangplank. On Friday evening, they promised, all our problems would be over.

  That gave us almost a week to kill. We waited impatiently, the older ones over chess and beers in Angélo’s, the younger ones fishing over at La Goulue, where pickings were always richer than out on the Pointe.

  Mercédès took to sunbathing there on hot days, her generous curves encased in a leopard-print swimsuit. I caught Damien several times watching her through binoculars. I suspected he was not the only one.

  On Friday afternoon half the village was waiting at the quayside to welcome the Brismand 1 home. Désirée. Omer. Capucine. Toinette. Hilaire. Lolo and Damien. Flynn was there, slightly aloof as always, and winked at me as I caught his eye. Even Mercédès was there, ostensibly to welcome Xavier home, in a short orange dress and impossibly high-heeled sandals. Omer watched her closely with a mixture of alarm and approval. Mercédès pretended not to notice.

  Claude Brismand was watching too, sitting above us at the terrasse of Les Immortelles. I could see him from the jetty, monolithic in his white shirt and fisherman’s cap, a glass of something in one hand. His posture was relaxed, expectant. It was too far for me to see his face. Capucine saw me watching him and grinned jauntily.

  “He won’t know what’s hit him when the ferry comes in.”

  I wasn’t so sure. Brismand knows most things on the island, and though he might not be able to change anything, I was fairly certain that whatever happened, it wouldn’t take him by surprise. The thought made me uncomfortable, like a feeling of being watched—in fact the more I considered the stillness of that figure on the terrasse the more convinced I became that he was indeed observing me, with a peculiar, knowing intensity. I didn’t like it at all.

  Alain looked at his watch. “She’s late.”

  Fifteen minutes, that was all. But as we waited, sweating and blinking in the glare from the water, it felt like hours. Capucine reached in her pocket for a chocolate bar and ate it in three quick, nervous bites. Alain looked at his watch again.

  “I should have gone myself,” he grumbled. “Trust them to blow it on their own.”

  Omer scowled. “I didn’t hear you volunteering to go, heh?”

  “I see something!” yelled Lolo from the water’s edge.

  Everyone looked. Against the milky horizon, a trail of white.

  “The ferry!”

  “Don’t push like that, heh!”

  “It’s there! Just behind the balise.”

  It was another half hour before we could see well enough to make out details. Lolo had a pair of binoculars, which we took turns borrowing. The floating jetty rocked beneath our feet. The little ferry moved toward Les Immortelles in a wide arc, leaving a flume of white behind her. As she drew closer still we could see that the deck was busy with people.

  “Summer people!”

  “And so many—”

  “Our people—”

  Leaning out over the parapet, dangerously close to falling, was Xavier. His thin, distant voice reached out to us across the harbor as he waved madly from his precarious railing.

  “We did it, heh! We did it! Mercédès! We did it!”

  From the terrasse of Les Immortelles, Claude Brismand watched impassively, occasionally lifting the glass to his lips. Brismand 1 finally lowered its gangplank, and the tourists began to mill onto the jetty. Aristide, leaning heavily on his grandson but triumphant, stumped down the gangway to be lifted by Omer and Alain to shoulder height as they too joined the chorus. Capucine unfolded a sign that read this way to les salants. Lolo, never at a loss for a way of making money, pulled out a wooden bicycle-trailer from behind the wall and began to shout, “Luggage! Your luggage conveyed to Les Salants at a premium rate!”

  There must have been thirty people aboard the ferry, maybe more. Students, families, an old couple with a dog. Children. I could hear laughter from the jetty, raised voices, some in foreign languages. Between embraces and back slappings, the heroes explained the mysterious failure of our first attemps at publicity: the disappearance of our posters, the perfidy of the tourist information officer in Fromentine (now revealed as an Houssin collaborator) who, while appearing to take our side, had in fact reported every detail of our plans to Brismand and done his best to dissuade tourists from visiting Les Salants.

  From the street I could see Jojo-le-Goëland, openmouthed, a forgotten cigarette butt dropping from his fingers. Shop owners too had gathered to see what the fuss was about. I could see Mayor Pinoz standing in the doorway of the Chat Noir, and Joël Lacroix astride his red motorbike, both peering at our little crowd with growing amazement.

  “Cycles for hire!” announced Omer Prossage. “Just down the road, cycles for Les Salants!”

  Xavier, flushed with triumph, made his way down the gangplank toward Mercédès and spun her into his arms. If there was little warmth in her embrace, at least Xavier didn’t seem to notice. Both he and Aristide were brandishing double handfuls of papers.

  “Deposits!” yelled Aristide from Omer’s shoulders. “Your house, Prossage—and yours, Guénolé—and five campers for you, Toinette, and—”

  “Eleven deposits, heh! And more on the way!”

  “It worked,” said Capucine in awe.

  “They did it!” crowed Toinette, flinging her arms around Matthias Guénolé and giving him a resounding kiss.

  “We did it!” corrected Alain, spinning me into his arms with sudden exuberance. “Les Salants!”

  “Les Salants, heh!”

  “Les Salants!”

  I don’t know why I looked back then. Curiosity, perhaps, or the desire to preen a little. It was our triumph, our moment. Maybe I simply wanted to see his face.

  I was the only one. As my friends moved on, singing, shouting, calling, chanting, I turned back—just for a moment—to look up at the hotel terrasse, where Brismand was sitting. A trick of the light show
ed his face very clearly. He was standing now, holding out his glass in a silent, ironic toast.

  “Les Salants!”

  And he was looking straight at me.

  PART THREE

  Riding

  the Waves

  1

  * * *

  My sister and her family turned up three days later. The hangar (now referred to as “the studio”) was almost ready, and GrosJean was sitting on a bench in the yard, overseeing the final touches. Flynn was inside, looking at the wiring. The two Houssins who had been working on the conversion had already gone.

  The boatyard, now separated from the studio by a broom fence, had been cut in two. Half of it now served as a garden, and GrosJean had embellished it with a few benches, a table, and some pots of flowers. The rest of the boatyard was still taken up by building materials. I wondered how long it would be before GrosJean decided to clear out his old work space altogether.

  It should not have troubled me as much as it did. But I could not help myself; the boatyard had been our place, his and mine, the only place from which my mother and Adrienne had been excluded. There were ghosts there: myself, sitting cross-legged under the trestle; GrosJean shaping a piece of wood on the lathe; GrosJean humming along to the radio as he worked; GrosJean and I sharing a sandwich while he told one of his rare stories; GrosJean asking me, a long paintbrush in his hand, “What shall we call her? Odile or Odette?”; GrosJean laughing at my attempt at sail stitch; GrosJean standing back, admiring his work. . . . No one else had shared those things; not Adrienne, not Mother. They had never understood. Instead Mother had nagged him incessantly for jobs left undone, the half-finished projects, the shelves to be built, the gutter to be mended. At the end she had seen him as a bitter joke: a builder who began things but never completed them; a craftsman who managed only one boat a year; an idler who hid all day in a maze of clutter then emerged expecting to find his meal on the table. Adrienne was ashamed of his paint-marked clothes and lack of social graces, and avoided being seen with him in La Houssinière. I was the only one of us who saw him at work. Only I was proud of him. The ghost of myself lingered trustingly in the boatyard, secure in the knowledge that here, at least, we could both be what we dared not be elsewhere.

  The morning of my sister’s arrival, I was in the yard, painting my father’s portrait in gouache. It was one of those cloudless summer mornings when everything is still green and damp, and my father was mellow and ready to be pleased, smoking and drinking coffee in the sun, the peak of his fisherman’s cap pulled down over his eyes.

  Suddenly, there came the sound of a car in the road behind the house, and I knew, with a sinking certainty, who it was.

  My sister was wearing a white blouse and a flowing silk skirt, which made me feel grubby and underdressed. She kissed me on the cheek while the boys, identically clad in shorts and T-shirts, hung back, whispering, dark eyes wide. My father remained where he was, but his eyes were shining.

  Flynn was at the hangar door, still in his overalls. I hoped he would stay—for some reason the thought of him working close by cheered me a little—but at the sight of Adrienne and her family he stood very still, keeping almost instinctively to the shadow of the doorway. I made a small gesture with my hand, as if to keep him there, but by then he had already stepped forward into the yard and, bypassing the gate, vaulted over the wall and onto the road. He gave me a little wave without turning around, climbed to the top of the dune, then began to run lightly back along the path toward La Goulue.

  Marin followed the retreating figure with his eyes. “What’s he doing here?” he asked. I looked at him, surprised by the sharp note in his voice. “He’s been working for us. Why, do you know him?”

  “I’ve seen him in La Houssinière. My uncle—” He stopped, his mouth crimped to a tight little line. “No, I don’t know him,” he said, and turned away.

  They joined us for lunch. I’d made lamb stew, and GrosJean ate with his usual silent enthusiasm, chasing each large, sloppy spoonful with a piece of bread. Adrienne picked delicately at her food, but ate little.

  “It’s so nice to be home again,” she said, beaming at GrosJean. “My boys have been looking forward to it so much. They’ve been mad with excitement since Easter—”

  I glanced at the boys. Loïc was playing with a piece of bread, crumbling it into his plate. Franck was staring out of the window.

  “And you’ve made such a pretty holiday flat for them, Papa,” went on Adrienne. “They’ll have a wonderful time.”

  However, Adrienne and Marin, we soon learned, were to stay at Les Immortelles. The boys could stay at the studio with their nanny, but Marin had business with his uncle and was unsure how long their dealings would take. GrosJean seemed unmoved by the news and continued to eat in his slow, reflective way, his eyes fixed on the boys. Franck whispered something to his brother in Arabic, and both boys giggled.

  “I was surprised to see that red-haired Englishman here,” said Marin to GrosJean, helping himself to wine. “Is he a friend of yours?”

  “Why, what’s he done?” I asked, disliking his sour tone.

  Marin shrugged and said nothing. GrosJean seemed not to hear at all.

  “He’s made a good job of the holiday flat, anyway,” said Adrienne brightly. “What fun we can all have here!”

  We finished the meal in silence.

  With the arrival of the boys, GrosJean was in his element. He sat in the yard and watched their games in silence, or showed them how to make little boats out of oddments of wood and sailcloth, or walked with them to the dunes and played hide-and-seek in the long grass. Adrienne and Marin came by occasionally but rarely stayed long; Marin’s business, they said, was more complicated than they had expected, and likely to take time.

  Meanwhile, Les Salants had begun to blossom. Gardens had been tidied, with hollyhocks and lavender and rosemary shooting up from the sandy soil; newly painted shutters and doors, streets swept and borders raked, houses bright with their ocher roof tiles and freshly whitewashed walls. Already the spare rooms and hastily converted outhouses were filling up. A group of tourists had arrived at the campsite near La Houssinière but gravitated to Les Salants for the dunes and the scenery. Philippe Bastonnet and his young family were back for the summer and came to La Goulue almost every day. Though Aristide still kept his distance, Désirée met them there, and could often be seen in the shade of a big parasol while Laetitia splashed exuberantly in the rock pools.

  Toinette had opened up the land behind her little house as an unofficial campsite at half the Houssin prices, and a young couple from Paris had already pitched their tent there. The facilities were primitive—Toinette’s outside toilet and washhouse, plus a hose and tap for fresh water—but there was food from Omer’s farm, there was Angélo’s—and of course there was the beach, still a little thin on sand but building with every tide. With the stones covered over, the ground was smooth and flat. Rocks beyond the tide line provided relief and shelter. There were inlets and pools for the children to exclaim over. I found that Laetitia made friends quite easily with the Salannais children. There was a little suspicion at first—it was rare for them to see tourists, and they were wary—but her engaging manner soon thawed their reserve. Within a week it became a common sight to see them together, running barefoot through Les Salants, poking sticks at the étier, rolling and rollicking in the dunes with Pétrole in frenzied pursuit. Round, earnest Lolo was especially taken with her and amused me by adopting her city speech and mimicking her accent.

  My nephews didn’t join them. Instead, in spite of my father’s efforts to keep them close by, they spent most of their time in La Houssinière. There was a games arcade there, next to the cinema, where they liked to play. They were easily bored, said Adrienne apologetically.

  The only other child who seemed uninterested in the beach was Damien. The eldest of the Salannais youngsters, he was also the most reserved; I had seen him alone on more than one occasion, smoking cigarettes and hanging
about on the clifftop. When I asked him if he had quarreled with Lolo, he simply shrugged and shook his head. Kid’s stuff, he declared dismissively. Sometimes he just needed to be on his own.

  I half believed him. He had his father’s surliness and his resentful nature: not naturally sociable, he must have found it galling that Lolo, formerly his most loyal companion, should have switched allegiance so quickly, and to Laetitia, a mainlander barely eight years old. With some amusement I noticed Damien adopting increasingly adult mannerisms, affecting the nonchalant turned-collar slouch of Joël Lacroix and his Houssin cronies. Plus Charlotte commented that young Damien seemed to have more money than a boy of his age should. There were rumors in the village that the motorcycle gang had been seen with a new member riding pillion. A youngster, by all accounts.

  My suspicions were confirmed when I saw him in La Houssinière later that week, hanging around the Chat Noir café. I had gone to meet the Brismand 1 with some new paintings for my gallery in Fromentine, and I saw him with Joël and some other young Houssins, smoking in the sun by the esplanade. There were girls there too, leggy young things in short skirts. Once again, I recognized Mercédès.

  She caught my eye as I passed the little group, and bridled a little at my scrutiny. She was smoking—she never did at home—and I thought she looked a little pale in spite of her red lipstick, her dark eyes tired and smudgy. She laughed—too shrilly—as I went by, and dragged at her cigarette with a look of defiance. Damien looked away awkwardly. I did not speak to either of them.

  La Houssinière was quiet. Not dead, as some Salannais had gleefully predicted, but somnolent. Cafés and bars were open but mostly half empty; there were maybe a dozen people on the beach at Les Immortelles. Soeur Extase and Soeur Thérèse were sitting in the sun on the hotel steps, and waved as I went past.

  “Why, Mado!”

  “What have you got there?”

 
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JOANNE HARRIS SERIES:

Chocolat
Loki
Runemarks

 

Other author's books:


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