Coastliners a novel, p.23
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.23

           Joanne Harris

  “These little places,” he said gently. “Thirty houses and a beach. You think you can hold out against them. You’re careful. You’re clever. But it’s like getting your finger caught in one of those Chinese tubes, where pulling only squeezes tighter. Before you know it, you’re involved. At first it’s only little things. You think they’re not important. And then one day, you realize that the little things are all there is.”

  “I don’t understand,” I told him, moving closer. The smell of the dune was strong now—dune pinks and fennel and the apricot scent of broom warmed by the sun. Flynn’s expression was still half-hidden by that ridiculous floppy hat; I wanted to push it away and see his eyes, touch the spray of freckles across the bridge of his nose. . . . In the pocket of my dress my fingers tightened once more over the bead, then relaxed again. Flynn thought I was beautiful. The idea was astonishing, like a volley of fireworks.

  Flynn shook his head. “I’ve been here too long,” he said gently. “Mado, did you expect me to stay forever?”

  Perhaps I had; in spite of his restlessness I had never imagined him leaving. Besides, it was high season; Les Salants had never been as busy.

  “You call this busy?” said Flynn. “These seaside places, I’ve seen them before—lived in them before. Dead in winter, a handful of people in summer.” He sighed. “Little places. Little people. It’s depressing.”

  His mouth was all I could see now of his shadowed face. I was fascinated by its shape, its texture; the fullness of the top lip; the tiny smile lines at the corners. My astonishment still lingered like the imprint of the sun on my retinas; Flynn thought I was beautiful. In comparison the words he was speaking seemed insubstantial, bright nothings designed to decoy me from a larger truth. I reached out gently, firmly, and took his face between my hands.

  For a moment I felt him hesitate. But his skin was as warm as the sand at my feet; his eyes were the color of mica; and I felt different, somehow, as if Brismand’s gift had contained some vestige of the man’s charm, making me, for that moment, someone else.

  I sealed Flynn’s protest with my mouth. He tasted of peaches and wool and metal and wine. All my senses seemed suddenly heightened—the smell of the sea and the dunes; the sounds of the gulls and the water and the distant voices from the beach and the small popping sounds of grass growing; the light. It overwhelmed me. I was spinning, too fast for the center of me to hold. I felt that at any moment I might explode like a rocket, scrawling my name in stars across the dazzling sky.

  It should have been clumsy. Maybe it was; but to me it seemed effortless. The red dress slipped from me almost by itself. Flynn’s shirt joined it; beneath it his skin was pale, barely darker than the sand itself, and he was returning my kisses the way a man gulps water after days of being lost in the desert; avidly, without pausing to take breath until the moment at which consciousness founders. Neither of us spoke until our thirst was slaked, and from a kind of daze we emerged to find ourselves lying clothed in sand and sweat, with the dry dune grasses swaying over our heads and the hot white wall of the blockhaus and the shimmering sea beyond it like a mirage.

  Still entwined, we watched it in long, complicated silence. This changed everything. I knew it, and yet I wanted to retain the moment for as long as possible, lying with my head on Flynn’s stomach and one hand slung casually around his shoulders. There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask, but I knew that to ask them would be to admit the change, to confront the fact that he and I were no longer simply friends but something infinitely more dangerous. I sensed that he was waiting for me to break the tension, perhaps to take his cue from me; above us a gyre of gulls wheeled and protested.

  No one spoke.


  * * *

  The midmonth tides had brought heat storms, but since these were mostly limited to extravagant displays of sheet lightning and a few hard night showers, trade remained unaffected. We celebrated our success with a fireworks display arranged by Flynn and paid for by Aristide with the cooperation of Pinoz, the mayor. It wasn’t the kind of huge spectacle you might see on the coast, but it was certainly the first time Les Salants had ever had such a thing, and everyone came out to see it. Three giant Catherine wheels rode the Bouch’ou, accessible only by boat and designed to shimmer across the water. There were Bengal lights on the dune. Rockets garlanded the sky with fat fiery blossoms. The whole display lasted no more than a few minutes, but the children were enthralled. Lolo had never seen fireworks before, and while Laetitia and the other tourist children were less easily impressed, everyone agreed that it was the best fireworks display the island had ever seen. Capucine and Charlotte made celebration cakes to be handed around as a treat, little devinnoiseries and twisted rolls, fried pastries lathered in honey, and griddled pancakes dripping salt butter.

  My father was absent from the celebration. Adrienne came, and her boys with her, though they seemed bored by the treats, which delighted the other children. I saw them later by one of the bonfires. Damien was with them, looking dissatisfied and angry: I gathered from Lolo that there had been some kind of falling-out between them.

  “It’s about Mercédès,” confided Lolo forlornly. “He’d do anything to impress her. That’s all he cares about.”

  Certainly Damien had changed. His natural sullenness seemed to have taken over completely, and he now avoided his old friend altogether. Alain too was having trouble with him. He admitted as much, with a mixture of annoyance and reluctant pride.

  “We’ve always been like that, you know,” he told me. “The Guénolés. Head full of rocks.” Still, I could tell he was concerned. “I can’t do anything with the boy,” he said. “He doesn’t talk to me. He and his brother used to be close as crabs, but even Ghislain can’t get a smile out of him, or a word. Still, I was just the same at his age. He’ll grow out of it.”

  Alain thought that perhaps a new moped would take Damien’s mind off his troubles. “Might keep him away from those Houssins too,” he added. “Bring him back to the village. Give him something new to think about.”

  I hoped so. I’d always liked Damien in spite of his reserve. He reminded me a little of myself at his age—suspicious, resentful, brooding. And at fifteen, a first love is summer lightning; white-hot, fierce, and quickly over.

  Mercédès, too, was causing concern. Since her engagement had been announced, she had become more temperamental than ever; spending hours in her room; refusing to eat; in turns cajoling and berating her hapless betrothed so that Xavier no longer knew what to do to please her.

  Aristide put it down to nerves. But it was more than that; I thought the girl looked ill as well as nervous, smoking too much and ready to snap or cry at the most trivial thing. Toinette revealed that Mercédès and Charlotte had quarreled over a wedding dress and were now no longer speaking to each other.

  “It belongs to Désirée Bastonnet,” explained Toinette. “An old lace dress, nip-waisted, very fine. Xavier wanted Mercédès to wear it.” Désirée had kept the dress, lovingly stored away in lavender-scented sheets, since her own wedding. Xavier’s mother had worn it too, the day she married Olivier. But Mercédès had refused outright to wear it, and when Charlotte timidly persisted, had thrown an epic tantrum.

  Malicious rumors that Mercédès had only refused the dress because she was too fat to get into it did nothing to restore peace to the Prossage household.

  During that time, Flynn and I had settled into a kind of routine. We did not speak of the change that had occurred between us, as if to admit its existence might somehow compromise us more deeply than either of us wanted. As a result there was a deceptively carefree quality to our intimacy, like that of a holiday romance. We existed within a webwork of invisible lines that neither of us dared cross. We talked, we made love, we swam together at La Goulue, we went fishing, we grilled our catches over the little barbecue that Flynn had built in a hollow behind the dune. We respected the boundaries we had set ourselves. Sometimes I wondered whether it was my cowardice
that had set these limits, or his. But Flynn no longer spoke of leaving.

  No one had heard any more rumors about Claude Brismand. He had been seen a few times, with Pinoz and Jojo-le-Goëland, once on La Goulue and once in the village. Capucine said they had been hanging around near her trailer, and Alain saw them outside the blockhaus. But as far as anyone could tell, Brismand was still too busy damp-proofing Les Immortelles to be planning anything new. Certainly there had been no mention of a new ferry, and most people were inclined to believe that the Brismand 2 thing had been someone’s—maybe Ghislain’s—idea of a joke.

  “Brismand knows he’s lost the game,” said Aristide gleefully. “High time those Houssins got a taste of the underdog for a change. Their luck’s turned, and they know it.”

  Toinette nodded. “We’ve got the Saint our side.”

  Her optimism was premature. Only a few days later I came back from the village with some mackerel for GrosJean’s lunch and found Brismand sitting under the parasol in the yard, waiting for me. He was still wearing his fisherman’s cap but had chosen to dignify the occasion by wearing a linen jacket and a tie. His feet, as usual, were bare in faded espadrilles. There was a Gitane crooked between his fingers.

  My father was sitting opposite him, a bottle of Muscadet close at hand. There were three glasses waiting.

  “Why, Mado.” Brismand raised himself with difficulty from his chair. “I hoped you’d be along soon.”

  “What are you doing here?” Surprise made me abrupt, and he looked pained.

  “I came to see you, of course.” Behind the rueful expression, something like amusement. “I like to keep abreast of what’s going on.”

  “So I’ve heard.”

  He poured himself another glass of wine, then another for me. “You Salannais have had rather an unusual run of luck, haven’t you? You must be pleased with yourself.”

  I kept my tone neutral. “We manage.”

  Brismand grinned, his gangster’s mustache bristling. “I could use someone like you at the hotel. Someone young and energetic. You should think about it.”

  “Someone like me? What could I do?”

  “You’d be surprised.” His tone was encouraging. “An artist—a designer—could be very useful to me right now. We could sort something out. I think you’d find it profitable.”

  “I’m happy as I am.”

  “Maybe so. But circumstances change, heh? You might welcome a little independence. Safeguard the future.” He grinned widely and pushed the glass toward me. “Here. Have some wine.”

  “No thanks.” I indicated my packet of fish. “I need to get these in the oven. It’s getting late.”

  “Mackerel, heh?” said Brismand, getting up. “I know a wonderful way of doing them, with rosemary and salt. I’ll help you, and we can talk some more.”

  He followed me into the kitchen. He was more deft than his bulk suggested, slitting and gutting the fish in a single swift movement.

  “How’s business?” I asked, lighting the oven.

  “Not bad,” said Brismand, smiling. “In fact, your father and I were just celebrating.”

  “Celebrating what?”

  Brismand gave his enormous smile. “A sale.”

  They’d used the boys, of course. I knew my father would do anything to keep the boys close by. Marin and Adrienne had played on his fondness; spoken of investments; encouraged GrosJean to borrow beyond his capacity to repay. I wondered how much of the land he had already signed away.

  Patiently Brismand waited for me to speak. I could feel his huge and chilly amusement as he waited, his slate-colored eyes intent as a cat’s. Presently, without asking me, he began to prepare the marinade for the fish, with oil, balsamic and salt, and shoots of rosemary from the bushes beside the front door.

  “Madeleine. We should be friends, you know.” His look would be mournful, I knew—drooping jowls and sad mustache—but there was laughter in his voice. “We’re really not so different. Both fighters. Both businesspeople. You shouldn’t be so prejudiced about joining me. I’m sure you’d be a success. And I sincerely do want to help, you know. I always have.”

  I did not look at him as I salted the fish and wrapped them in foil papillotes, then slid them into the hot oven.

  “You forgot the marinade.”

  “That’s not the way I do it, Monsieur Brismand.”

  He sighed. “A pity. You would have enjoyed it.”

  “How much?” I said at last. “How much did he give it to you for?”

  Brismand tutted. “Give it to me?” he said reproachfully. “No one has given me anything. Why should they?”

  The legal papers had been drawn up on the mainland. My father was slightly in awe of the arcane business of seals and signatures. Legal terminology bewildered him. Though Brismand was vague with the details, I gathered he had accepted to take land as collateral on a loan. As usual. This was simply a variation on his old technique: short-term loans to be paid off in property at a later date.

  After all, as Adrienne would have said, the land was useless to my father. A few kilometers of dune between La Bouche and La Goulu, a derelict boatyard; useless, at least, until now.

  All my worst suspicions had been confirmed. The repairs to the house, the presents for the boys, the new bicycles, the computer games, the sailboards—

  “You paid for all that. You lent him the money.”

  Brismand shrugged. “Of course. Who else?” He dressed a green salad with vinaigrette and salicorne, the fleshy island herb often used in pickles, and put it into the wooden bowl as I began to slice tomatoes. “We should have shallots with these,” he observed in the same mild tone. “They bring out the flavor of a ripe tomato like nothing else. Tell me, where do you keep them?”

  I ignored him.

  “Ah, here they are, in the vegetable bin. Lovely fat ones too. I can see Omer must be doing good business down at the farm. It’s been a golden year all around for Les Salants, hasn’t it? Fish, vegetables, tourists—”

  “We’ve done all right.”

  “So modest. Heh. It’s almost a miracle.”

  He sliced shallots with a swift, practiced hand. The scent was pungent, like the sea. “And all thanks to that nice beach you’ve stolen. You and your clever friend, Rouget.”

  I put down the knife gently on the tabletop. My hand was shaking a little.

  “Careful. You don’t want to cut yourself.”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “I mean you should be more careful with that knife, Mado.” He chuckled. “Or are you trying to tell me you don’t know anything about the beach?”

  “Beaches move. Sand moves.”

  “Yes, it does, and sometimes it even moves of its own accord. But not this time, heh?” He held out his hands, still bloody from the fish, in a wide gesture. “Oh, don’t think I bear you any grudge. I’m full of admiration for what you’ve done. You’ve brought Les Salants out of the sea again. You’ve made it a success. All I’m doing is standing up for my own interests, Mado, making sure I get to enjoy my share. Call it compensation, if you like. You owe me that.”

  “You’re the one who started the flooding in the first place,” I told him angrily. “No one owes you anything.”

  “Oh, but they do.” Brismand shook his head. “Where did you think the money was coming from, heh? The money for Angélo’s café, Omer’s windmill, Xavier’s house? Who do you think provided the capital? Who laid the foundations for all this?” He gestured toward the window, sweeping La Goulue, the village, the sky, the sparkling sea into his grimy palm.

  “Maybe you did,” I said. “But that’s over now. We’re holding our own. Les Salants doesn’t need your money anymore.”

  “Shh.” With exaggerated concentration Brismand poured marinade over the tomatoes. It was tempting and aromatic. I could smell how it would be on the hot fish, how the rosemary vinegar would evaporate, the olive oil sizzle. “You’d be surprised at how things alter when there’s money to be ma
de,” he said. “Why be content with a couple of tourists in a back room when, with a little capital, you could convert a garage into a holiday flat, or build a row of chalets on some waste ground? You’ve had a taste of success, Mado. Do you really think people will be so easily satisfied?”

  I thought about it in silence for a while. “You may be right,” I said at last. “But I still don’t see what you’re going to get out of it. You can’t build much on my father’s bit of land.”

  “Madeleine.” Brismand’s shoulders slouched expressively, reproach etched into every line of his body. “Why must there always be an ulterior motive? Why not simply accept that I want to invest in Les Salants?” He spread his hands in appeal. “There’s been so little trust between our two communities. So much antagonism. Even you have been drawn into it. What have I ever done to earn your suspicion? I advance money to your father in exchange for land he doesn’t need—suspicion. I offer you a job at Les Immortelles—more suspicion. I try to mend the bridges between our communities for the sake of my family—greatest suspicion of all. Heh!” He threw up his arms dramatically. “Tell me. What do you suspect me of now?”

  I did not reply. His charm, fully unfurled, was palpable and immense. Even so, I still knew I was right to mistrust him. He had some plan—I thought of the Brismand 2, half-completed six months before, now ready to launch, and I wondered once again what it might be. Brismand sighed heavily and tugged at his collar to loosen it.

  “I’m an old man, Mado. And a lonely one. I had a wife. A little son. Both sacrificed to my ambition. I admit that once I valued money over everything else. But money gets old. It loses its shine. Now I want the things money can’t buy. A family. Friends. Peace.”


  “I am sixty-four years old, Madeleine. I sleep badly. I drink rather too well. The machine begins to run down. I ask myself whether it was worthwhile, whether the making of money has made me happy. I ask myself these things more and more often.” He glanced at the oven. The timer was on zero. “Madeleine, I think your fish are cooked.”

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