Coastliners a novel, p.22
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.22

           Joanne Harris

  I sat down next to them and showed them my folder of paintings. The sisters nodded appreciatively. “You should try to sell some to Monsieur Brismand, little Mado.”

  “We could do with something nice to look at, couldn’t we, ma soeur—we’ve been staring at the same old—”

  “—Martyrdoms for far too long.” Soeur Thérèse ran her fingers over one of the paintings. It was a view of Pointe Griznoz, with the ruined church standing out against a late-evening sky.

  “Artist’s eyes,” she said, smiling. “You’ve got your father’s gift.”

  “Give him our love, Mado.”

  “And talk to Monsieur Brismand. He’s in a meeting now but—”

  “He’s always had a soft spot for you.”

  I considered the idea. It might well be true; but I did not like the idea of doing business with Claude Brismand. I’d been avoiding him since our last meeting; I already knew he was curious about the length of my stay, and I did not want to open myself up to his questioning. I already had an idea that he knew more about what was going on in Les Salants than we guessed, and although he had never managed to catch anyone stealing sand from Les Immortelles, he remained certain that it was going on. The beach at La Goulue was not a thing that could be kept secret from the Houssins, and I knew it was only a matter of time before someone let slip the secret of our floating reef. When that happened, I thought, I wanted to be as far away from Brismand as possible.

  I was about to go when suddenly I spotted a small object on the ground in front of me. It was a red coral bead like the ones my father put on his boats. Many islanders still wear them; someone must have lost his.

  “You’ve got sharp eyes,” observed Soeur Extase, seeing me pick it up.

  “Keep it, little Mado,” said Soeur Thérèse. “Wear it—it’ll bring you luck.”

  I said good-bye to the sisters and had stood up to go (the Brismand 1 had sounded its ten-minute warning call, and I did not want to miss it), when I caught the sound of a door slamming, and a sudden splurge of voices from the lobby of Les Immortelles. I could not make out what was being said; but I could hear anger in the tones, and a rising volume, as if someone were leaving in a temper. There were several voices, Brismand’s deep tones counterpointing the others. Then a man and a woman emerged from the lobby almost on top of us with identical expressions of stone-faced rage. The sisters moved aside to let them pass, then drew together like curtains, grinning.

  “Everything okay?” I said to Adrienne.

  But neither she nor Marin deigned to reply.


  * * *

  Summer sailed in. The weather stayed good as it usually does at this time in the islands, warm and sunny but with the sea breeze from the west keeping temperatures pleasant. Seven of us now had tourists—including four families—staying in spare rooms and converted buildings. Toinette had a full complement of campers. That made thirty-eight people so far, with more arriving every time Brismand 1 came in.

  Charlotte Prossage got into the habit of making paella once a week, using crabs and langoustines from the new vivarium. She would make it in a huge pot and carry it to Angélo’s, who would sell it in take-out foil containers. The tourists loved the idea, and soon she was having to enlist Capucine to help. She suggested a rotation where each of them prepared a dish once a week. Soon we had: paella on Sundays, gratin devinnois (baked red mullet, white wine, and sliced potatoes with goat’s cheese) on Tuesdays, and bouillabaisse on Thursdays. Other people in the village virtually stopped cooking altogether.

  On midsummer’s day, Aristide finally announced the engagement between his grandson and Mercédès Prossage, and took the Cécilia on a lap of honor around the Bouch’ou to celebrate. Charlotte sang a hymn while Mercédès sat in the bow in a white dress, complaining under her breath about the seaweed smell, and the way the spray splashed her every time the Cécilia pitched.

  The Eleanore 2 had exceeded expectations. Alain and Matthias were delighted; even Ghislain took the news of Mercédès’s engagement with surprising good grace and designed several elaborate and improbable plans of his own, most of which involved entering the Eleanore 2 in regattas up and down the coast, and winning a fortune in prize money.

  Toinette had started her own little business, selling dozens of little salt-scrub sachets (scented with wild lavender and rosemary) from her trailer. “It’s so simple,” she said, her black eyes gleaming. “Those tourists will buy anything. Wild herbs tied with ribbon. Sea mud, even.” She cackled, hardly believing it herself. “You just put it into little jars and write thalassotherapeutic skin food on the label. My mother put it on her face for years. It’s an old island beauty secret.”

  Omer La Patate found a mainland buyer for his surplus vegetables at a greatly increased price to what he had been used to in La Houssinière. He set some of his reclaimed land aside for autumn flowers, after having believed for years that such frivolous things were a waste of time.

  Mercédès often disappeared to La Houssinière for hours, ostensibly to the beauty parlor. “The time you spend in there,” Toinette told her, “you must fart perfume by now. Chanel Number Five.” She cackled.

  Mercédès tossed her hair pettishly. “You’re so coarse, Mémé.”

  Aristide stubbornly continued to ignore the presence of his son in La Houssinière and threw himself more deeply—and with a kind of desperation—into his plans for Xavier and Mercédès.

  Désirée was saddened, but unsurprised. “I don’t care,” she repeated, sitting under her parasol with Gabi and the baby. “We’ve all lived too long in the shadow of Olivier’s grave. What I want now is the company of the living.”

  Her eyes went to the top of the cliff, where Aristide often sat to watch the fishing boats come in. I noticed that his binoculars were pointing, not out to sea, but toward the tide line, where Laetitia and Lolo were building a fort.

  “He sits up there every day,” said Désirée. “He hardly says a word to me anymore.” She picked up the baby and straightened his sun hat. “I think I’ll go and have a stroll by the water,” she said brightly. “I could do with some air.”

  Still the tourists continued to come. An English family with their three children. An elderly couple with their dog. An elegant old lady, always in pink and white. A number of camping families with children.

  We had never seen so many children. The whole village was screaming with them, shouting, laughing, bright and brash as their beach toys, dressed in lime and turquoise and fuchsia pink, smelling of suntan lotion and coconut oil and cotton candy and life.

  Not all the visitors were tourists. I saw with some amusement that our own youngsters—Damien and Lolo, among others—had gained an unexpected status by association, and were even accepting bribes from the young Houssins in exchange for access to the beach.

  “Enterprising young things,” remarked Capucine, as I commented on this. “Nothing wrong with a bit of business. Specially when it means taking money off an Houssin.” She chuckled placidly. “It’s nice to have something they want, for a change, heh? Why shouldn’t we make them pay?”

  For a while, the black market flourished. Damien Guénolé collected filter-tipped cigarettes, which he smoked with, I suspected, secret distaste, but Lolo wisely took all his bribes in cash. He was saving up, he confided, to buy a moped.

  “You can make all sorts of money with a moped,” he told me seriously. “Odd jobs, errands, all kinds of stuff. You’ll never be short if you’ve got transport.”

  Amazing, the difference a dozen children can make. Suddenly Les Salants was alive. Old people were no longer in the majority.

  “I like it,” declared Toinette when I mentioned it to her. “It makes me feel young.”

  She was not the only one. I found gruff Aristide on the top of the cliff, teaching a couple of small boys how to tie knots. Alain, usually so stern with his own family, took Laetitia out fishing in his boat. Désirée handed out sweets in secret to eager, grubby hands. Everyone wanted the
summer people, of course. But the children fulfilled a more primal need. We bribed and spoiled them relentlessly. Dour old women were sweetened. Dour old men rediscovered boyhood pleasures.

  Flynn was the children’s favorite. He had always attracted our own children, of course, perhaps because he never made any attempt to do so. But with the summer people he was the Pied Piper; there were always children around him, talking to him, watching him as he built driftwood sculptures or sorted rubbish from the beach. They dogged him mercilessly, but he didn’t seem to mind. They brought him their trophies from La Goulue and their tales of one another. They vied shamelessly with one another for his attention. Flynn accepted their admiration with the casual cheeriness he showed to everyone.

  Since the arrival of the tourists, however, I thought Flynn seemed more withdrawn behind his good humor. He always had time for me, however, and we spent many hours sitting on the roof of the blockhaus or down by the water’s edge, talking. I was grateful for it; now that Les Salants was on the road to recovery I had begun to feel strangely superfluous, like a mother who sees her children begin to grow away from her. Of course it was absurd—no one could have been happier at the change in Les Salants—and yet several times I found myself almost wishing for some interruption to our tranquillity.

  Flynn laughed when I told him about it. “You were never made to live on an island,” he said cheerily. “You need to live in a state of perpetual crisis to survive.”

  It was a flip comment, and at the time it made me laugh. “That’s not true! I love the quiet life!”

  He grinned. “There’s no such thing when you’re around.”

  Later I thought about what Flynn had said. Could it be that he’d been right? That what I needed was a sense of danger, of crisis? Was this what had first drawn me to Le Devin? And to Flynn himself?

  That night at low tide I felt restless, and I went out on La Goulue to clear my head. There was a generous half moon; I could hear the muted hisshhh of the waves on the dark grève, and feel the mild turning wind. As I looked back from the edge of La Goulue I could see the blockhaus, a dark hulk against the starry sky, and for a moment I was sure I saw a figure detach itself from the block of darkness and slip away into the dunes. By the way he moved, I recognized Flynn.

  Perhaps he’d gone fishing, I told myself, though he had not been carrying a lantern. Sometimes, I knew, he still poached oysters from Guénolé’s beds, to keep his hand in. That was a job better suited to darkness.

  After that single glimpse I saw no more sign of him, and feeling chilly, I began to make my way back toward the house. In the distance I could still hear the sound of singing and shouting from the village, and see yellow light spilling out across the road from Angélo’s and beyond. Below me on the path, a couple of figures stood, almost invisible in the shadow of the dune. One was broad and round-shouldered, hands digging nonchalantly into the pockets of his vareuse, the other lighter on his feet, a whisker of light from the café just touching his hair into sudden flame.

  I only saw them for a moment. A blur of lowered voices, a raised hand; an embrace. Then they were gone, Brismand into the village, his shadow stretching immensely across the dune, and Flynn back up the path in long, smooth strides toward me. I had no time to avoid him; he was on me before I knew it, his face bleakly moonlit. I was glad mine was in shadow.

  “You’re out late,” he said cheerily. Evidently he didn’t realize I had seen him with Brismand.

  “So are you,” I said. My thoughts were scrambled; I didn’t trust myself with what I’d seen—or thought I’d seen. I needed to think about what it meant.

  He grinned. “Belote,” he said. “I left on a winning streak, for a change. Won a dozen bottles of wine from Omer. Charlotte’s going to kill him when he sobers up.” He ruffled my hair. “Sweet dreams, Mado.” And at that he was off, whistling between his teeth, back the way I had come.

  I found it unexpectedly difficult to challenge Flynn about his meeting with Brismand. I told myself that it could have been an entirely chance meeting; Les Salants was not out-of-bounds to Houssins, and Omer, Matthias, Aristide, and Alain all confirmed that Flynn had indeed played belote that evening at Angélo’s. He had not lied to me. Besides, as Capucine was fond of pointing out, Flynn wasn’t a Salannais. He didn’t take sides. Perhaps Brismand had simply asked him to do some work. All the same, a suspicion remained; a fragment in an oyster’s shell, a small unease.

  My mind kept returning to the lobby of Les Immortelles, to Brismand’s noisy meeting with Marin and Adrienne; to the coral bead I had found on the steps of the hotel. Many islanders still wear them; my father often carried one, as do many fishermen.

  I wondered whether Flynn still wore his.


  * * *

  As July ended I began to feel a growing concern for my father. With my sister and her family spending so much time in La Houssinière, GrosJean seemed more distracted than usual, and less communicative. I was used to that; but there was something new in his silence. A kind of vagueness. The studio was finished. The workmen’s litter had long since been cleared away. There was no longer any reason for GrosJean to be outside supervising affairs, and to my dismay he reverted once again to his usual apathy, worse now than ever before, sitting staring out of the window or drinking coffee in the kitchen, waiting for the boys to come home.

  Those boys. They were the only reason he ever left that somnolent, indifferent state. He came alive only when they were there, and it filled me with anger and pity. Pépère Gros Bide, they called him behind his back. Old Man Fat Belly. They aped him in secret, mimicking his dragging walk, sticking out their feet and their little round tummies in monkeyish glee. To his face they were prim and giggly, eyes downcast, hands outstretched for gifts of money or sweets. There were more costly gifts too. New sweatsuits—Franck’s red, Loïc’s blue—worn once and then left carelessly bundled up in the back garden among the thistles. Numerous toys—balls, buckets, and spades, electronic games that he must have sent for from the mainland, as none of our children could have afforded such things. It would be Loïc’s birthday in August, and there was talk of a boat.

  Partly to alleviate my anxiety, I painted faster and with more enthusiasm than ever before. I had never felt closer to my subject: I painted Les Salants and the Salannais; lovely Mercédès in her short skirts; Charlotte Prossage bringing in the washing against a blue-black bank of storm clouds; young men, stripped to the waist, working on the salt marshes, the cones of stark white salt rising around them like an alien landscape; Alain Guénolé, sitting at the prow of his Eleanore 2 like a Celtic chieftain; Omer with his earnest, comic face; Flynn with his collecting bag at the water’s edge, or with his little single-sailed boat, or lifting lobster pots out of the water, his hair tied back with a piece of sailcloth, one hand over his eyes to shield them from the sun. . . .

  I have a good eye for detail. My mother always said so. I painted mostly from memory—no one really had time to pose for me—and I piled the stretched canvases against the wall of my room to dry before framing. When she came over from La Houssinière, Adrienne watched me with a growing interest that, I felt, was not entirely benevolent.

  “You’re using a lot more color than you used to,” she remarked. “Some of those pictures look quite garish.”

  It was true. My earlier paintings were bleak in comparison, the colors often limited to the soft grays and browns of an island winter. But summer had come to my palette now as it had to the whole village, bringing with it the dusty pinks of the tamarisk, the chrome yellow of broom, gorse, and mimosa, the hot whites of salt and sand, the orange of the fishing buoys, the stark blue sky, and the red sails of the island boats. This new work too was bleak in its way, but it was a bleakness I loved. I felt I had never done better work.

  Flynn said as much, with a curt little nod of admiration that made me hot with pride. “You’re doing well,” he said. “You’ll soon be ready to set up on your own someday.”

  He was
sitting in profile to me, his back against the blockhaus wall, his face half-hidden beneath the brim of his floppy hat. Above his head, a small lizard flicked against the warm stone. I tried to capture his expression—the curve of his mouth, the shadow slanting down from his cheekbone. Behind us on the summer blue dune, came the chirr of crickets. Flynn saw me drawing him and sat up.

  “You moved,” I complained.

  “I’m superstitious. We Irish believe pencils steal away a portion of the soul.”

  I smiled. “I’m flattered you think I’m that good.”

  “Good enough to open up a gallery of your own. In Nantes, perhaps, or Paris. You’re wasted here.”

  “I don’t think so.”

  Flynn shrugged. “Things change. Anything might happen. And you can’t hide away here forever.”

  “I don’t know what you mean.” I was wearing the red dress Brismand had given me; the silk was almost weightless against my skin. It felt strange after so many months of trousers and sailcloth shirts, almost like being in Paris again. My bare feet were dusty from the dune.

  “Oh yes, you do. You’re talented, smart, beautiful—” He broke off, and for a moment he looked almost as nonplused as I was. “Well, you are,” he said finally, with a touch of defensiveness.

  Far below us, La Goulue was alive; dozens of little boats flecked the water. I recognized them by their sails: the Cécilia; the Papa Chico; the Eleanore 2; Jojo’s Marie Joseph. Beyond them, the vast blue sweep of the bay.

  “You’re not wearing your lucky bead,” I noticed suddenly.

  Flynn touched his throat in an automatic gesture. “No,” he said indifferently. “I make my own luck.” He looked back across the bay. “It looks so small from up here, doesn’t it?”

  I did not answer. Inside me something had begun to clench like a fist, leaving me breathless. I put my hand in my pocket. The bead I had picked up at Les Immortelles was there, no bigger than a cherry stone. Flynn put his hand in front of his face and closed his fingers over La Goulue.

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