Coastliners a novel, p.3
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.3

           Joanne Harris

  I must have looked surprised, because Capucine gave her rich and dirty laugh.

  “Don’t go getting any ideas. I’m a respectable woman now—well, nearly.” Her dark eyes were bright with amusement. “But you’ll like Rouget. He came to us in May, and caused such a stir! We’d not seen anything like it since that time Aristide Bastonnet caught a fish with a head at both ends. That Englishman!” She chuckled softly to herself, shaking her head.

  “Last May?” That meant he’d only been there three months. In three months, they’d given him a name.

  “Heh.” Capucine lit a Gitane and inhaled the smoke with satisfaction. “Turned up here one day, stone broke, but already doing deals. Talked himself into a job with Omer and Charlotte, till that girl of theirs started giving him the eye. I put him up in the trailer until he could fix up his own place. Seems he had a run-in with old Brismand, among others, back in La Houssinière.” She gave me a curious look. “Your sister married Marin Brismand, didn’t she? How are they doing?”

  “They live in Tangiers. I don’t often hear from them.”

  “Tangiers, heh? Well, she always said—”

  “You were talking about your friend,” I interrupted. “What does he do?”

  “He has ideas. He builds things.” Capucine gestured vaguely over her shoulder at the Rue de l’Océan. “Omer’s windmill, for instance. He fixed that.”

  We had rounded the curve of the dune and I could see the pink trailer now, as I remembered it but slightly more battered and sunk deeper into the sand. Beyond that, I knew, was my father’s house, though a thick hedge of tamarisks hid it from view. Capucine saw me looking.

  “Oh no you don’t,” she said firmly, taking my arm and guiding me into the hollow toward the trailer. “We’ve got gossip to catch up on. Give your father a little time. Let the grapevine reach him before you do.”

  On Le Devin, gossip is a kind of currency. The place runs on it: feuds between rival fishermen, illegitimate children, tall stories, rumor and revelation. I could appreciate my value in Capucine’s eyes; for the moment, I was an asset.

  “Why?” I was still staring at the tamarisk hedge. “Why shouldn’t I see him now?”

  “It’s been a long time, heh?” said Capucine. “He’s got used to being alone.” She pushed the trailer door, which was unlocked. “Come on in, sweetheart, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

  Her trailer was oddly homelike, with its cramped, rose-painted interior, its clothes draped over every surface, its smell of smoke and cheap perfume. In spite of its obvious sluttishness, it invited confidences.

  People seem to confide in Capucine as they never do with Père Alban, the island’s only priest. The boudoir, it seems, even such an elderly one, has more appeal than the confessional. Age had failed to increase her respectability, but all the same there was a healthy regard for her in the village. Like the nuns, she knows too many secrets.

  We talked over coffee and cakes. Capucine seemed to have an unlimited capacity for the little sugar pastries called devinnoiseries, supplementing them with frequent Gitanes, coffee, and chocolate cherries, which she took from an enormous heart-shaped box.

  “I’ve been going over there to see GrosJean a couple of times a week,” she told me, pouring more coffee into the doll-size cups. “Sometimes I bring a cake, or stick some clothes into the machine.”

  She was watching my reaction and looked pleased when I thanked her.

  “He’s all right, isn’t he? I mean, can he manage on his own?”

  “You know what he’s like. He doesn’t give much away.”

  “He never did.”

  “Right. People who know him understand. But he isn’t good with strangers. Not that you—” She corrected herself at once. “He just doesn’t like change, that’s all. He has his habits. Comes to Angélo’s every Friday night, has his devinnoise with Omer, regular as anything. He doesn’t talk much, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with his mind.”

  Insanity is a real fear in the islands. Some families carry it like a rogue gene, like the higher incidences of polydactyly and hemophilia that occur in these stagnant communities. Too many kissing cousins, say the Houssins. My mother always said that was why GrosJean chose a girl from the mainland.

  Capucine shook her head. “He has his ways, that’s all. And it’s not easy, this time of year. Give him a little space.”

  Of course. The Saint’s day. When I was a child my father and I had often helped repaint the Saint’s niche—coral, with the traditional pattern of stars—in preparation for the annual ceremony. The Salannais are a superstitious lot. We have to be; though in La Houssinière, such beliefs and traditions are considered slightly ridiculous. But La Houssinière is sheltered by La Jetée. La Houssinière is not at the mercy of the tides. Here in Les Salants the sea is closer to home and needs to be pacified.

  “Of course,” said Capucine, interrupting my thoughts, “GrosJean’s lost more than most to the sea. And on the Saint’s day, the anniversary, so to speak . . . Well. You have to make allowances, Mado.”

  I nodded. I knew the story, although it was an old one, dating back to before my parents married. Two brothers, close as twins; island-fashion, they even shared the same name. But P’titJean had drowned himself at the age of twenty-three, needlessly, over some girl. Apparently they had managed to convince Père Alban that it had been a fishing accident. Time and frequent retelling had softened the harshness of the tale; now I found it difficult to believe that, thirty years later, my father still blamed himself. But I’d seen the gravestone, a single piece of island granite, in La Bouche, the Salannais cemetery beyond La Goulue.




  My father had worked the inscription himself, a finger’s length deep in the massive stone. It had taken him six months.

  “Anyway, Mado,” said Capucine, biting into another pastry. “You stay with me for now, just until the Sainte-Marine is over. You don’t have to rush back straightaway, do you? You can spare a day or two?”

  I nodded.

  “There’s more room in here than you think,” said La Puce optimistically, indicating a curtain dividing the main compartment from the sleeping area. “You’d be comfortable back there, and my Lolo’s a good lad, he wouldn’t be poking his nose around the curtain every couple of minutes.” Capucine took a chocolate cherry from her apparently endless supply. “He should be back by now. Can’t think what he does all day. Hanging around with that Guénolé boy.” Lolo, I understood, was Capucine’s grandson; her daughter Clothilde had left him in her care while she looked for work on the mainland.

  “Everything returns, so they say. Heh! My Clo doesn’t seem in any big hurry to come back. She’s having too much of a good time.” Capucine’s eyes darkened a little. “No, there’s no point kissing the Saint for her. She keeps promising to come back for the holidays, but there’s always some excuse. In ten years’ time, perhaps—” She broke off, seeing my expression. “I’m sorry, Mado. I didn’t mean you—”

  “That’s all right.” I finished my coffee and stood up. “Thanks for your offer.”

  “You’re going there now? Today?” Capucine frowned at me for a moment, hands on hips, her pink wrap half falling from her shoulders. “All right,” she said at last. “But don’t expect too much.”


  * * *

  My mother was from the mainland. That makes me only half an islander. She was from Nantes, a romantic who fell out of love with Le Devin almost as quickly as she did with my father’s bleak good looks.

  She was ill-equipped for life in Les Salants. She was a talker, a singer, a woman who wept, ranted, laughed, externalized everything. My father had little to say even at the start. He was incapable of small talk. Most of his utterances were monosyllabic; his greeting was a nod. What affection he showed was given to the fishing boats that he built and sold from the yard at the back of our house. He worked outside in summer, moving his
equipment into the hangar for winter, and I liked to sit close by, watching as he shaped the wood, soaking the clinkers to give them elasticity, turning the graceful lines of bow and keel, stitching the sails. These were always white or red, the island colors. A coral bead decorated the prow. Each boat was polished and varnished, never painted except for the name flying across the bow in black and white. My father favored romantic names, Belle Ysolde, Sage Héloïse or Blanche de Coëtquen, names from old books, although as far as I knew, he never read anything. His work was his conversation—he spent more time with his “ladies” than with anyone else, but he never named a boat after any of us, not even my mother, though I know she would have liked him to.

  As I rounded the curve of the dune I could see that the boatyard was deserted. The hangar doors were closed, and from the height of the parched grasses that had grown up against them, appeared not to have been opened for months. A couple of hulks lolled, half buried in sand, by the gate. The tractor and its trailer were parked under a corrugated-plastic shelter and seemed to be in working condition, but the lifter, which my father had once used to winch boats onto the trailer, looked rusty and unused.

  The house was no better. It had been untidy enough in the old days, littered with the remains of hopeful projects that my father had begun, and then abandoned. Now it looked derelict. The whitewash had faded; a pane of glass had been boarded up; the paint on doors and shutters was cracked and peeling. I could see a cable running across the sand to the outhouse where a generator hummed; it was the only sign of life.

  The mailbox had been left unemptied. I removed the wedge of letters and brochures that protruded from the box and carried them through into the deserted kitchen. The door had been left unlocked. There was a pile of dirty dishes next to the sink. A pot of cold coffee on the stove. A sickroom smell. My mother’s things—a dresser, a chest, a square of tapestry—were still in place, but now there was dust on everything and sand on the concrete floor.

  And yet there were signs that someone had been at work. There were pieces of pipe and wire and wood in a toolbox at the corner of the room, and I noticed that the water heater, which GrosJean had always been about to repair, had been replaced by a copper-bellied contraption connected to a bottle of butane. Loose wiring had been tucked neatly behind a panel; repairs had been made to the fireplace and the chimney, which always used to smoke. These signs of activity contrasted with the dereliction of the rest of the house, as if GrosJean had been so absorbed in his other work that he had had no time for dusting or washing clothes.

  I dropped the letters onto the kitchen table. To my annoyance I found I was shaking. I looked through the mail—there must have been six months’ or a year’s worth of it—and found my last letter to him in the pile, unopened. I looked at it for a long time, seeing the Paris address on the reverse, remembering. I’d carried it around for weeks before finally mailing it, feeling dazed and strangely free. My friend Luc from the café had asked me what I was waiting for. “Where’s the problem? You want to see him, don’t you? You want to help?”

  It wasn’t that easy. In ten years, GrosJean had not written to me. I had sent him drawings, photographs, school reports, letters, without ever receiving a reply. And yet I had continued to send them, year after year. Of course I never told Mother. I know exactly what she would have said.

  I put down the letter, my hand trembling a little. Then I put in into my pocket. Perhaps, after all, it was better this way. It gave me time to think again. To consider the options.

  As I had first thought, there was no one home. I tried not to feel like a trespasser as I opened the door into my old room, then into Adrienne’s. Little had been moved. Our things were still there; my model boats, my sister’s film posters. Beyond them was my parents’ room.

  I pushed the door into semidarkness; the shutters were drawn. The smell of neglect closed around me. The bed was unmade, showing striped ticking under a crumpled sheet. There was an overflowing ashtray to one side; dirty clothes were piled on the floor. A niche by the side of the door with a plaster statue of Sainte-Marine; a cardboard box containing oddments. Inside this box I spotted a photograph—I recognized it at once, although it had lost its frame. My mother had taken it on my seventh birthday, and it had shown the three of us—GrosJean, Adrienne, and myself—grinning at a big cake shaped like a fish.

  Now, my face had been cut out of the picture—clumsily, with scissors—so that only GrosJean and Adrienne remained; she with her arm resting lightly on his. My father was smiling at her over the space where I had been.

  Suddenly I heard a sound outside the house. I crumpled the picture quickly into my pocket and stopped to listen, my throat tightening. Someone passed softly under the bedroom window, so lightly that I almost missed it against the pounding of my heart; someone barefoot, or wearing espadrilles.

  Wasting no time I ran into the kitchen. Nervously I pushed back my hair, wondering what he would say—what I would say—whether he would even recognize me. In ten years I had changed; my puppy fat vanished; my short hair grown to shoulder length. I’m not the beauty my mother was, although some people used to say we looked alike. I’m too tall, without her grace of movement, and my hair is an unremarkable brown. But my eyes are hers, heavy-browed and of the curious, chilly shade of gray-green which some people find ugly. Suddenly I wished that I had made more of an effort with my appearance. I could at least have worn a dress.

  The door opened. Someone was standing on the threshold, wearing a heavy fisherman’s jacket and carrying a paper sack in his arms. I knew him at once, even with a knitted cap hiding his hair; his quick, precise movements were nothing like my father’s bearlike shamble. He was past me and into the room almost before I knew it, closing the door behind him.

  The Englishman. Rouget. Flynn.

  “I thought you might need some bits and pieces,” he said as he dropped the paper bag on the kitchen table. Then, seeing my expression: “Anything wrong?”

  “I wasn’t expecting you.” I managed at last. “You took me by surprise.” My heart was still lurching. I clutched at the photograph in my pocket, feeling hot and cold, not knowing how much of it he could read in my face.

  “Nervous, aren’t you?” Flynn opened the bag on the table and began to take out the contents. “There’s bread, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, breakfast stuff. Don’t worry about paying me back; it’s all on his account.” He put the loaf in the linen bread bag hanging from the back of the door.

  “Thanks.” I couldn’t help noticing how very much at home he seemed in my father’s house, opening cupboards without hesitation, putting the groceries away. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble.”

  “No trouble.” He grinned. “I live two minutes away, in the old blockhaus. I sometimes drop by.”

  The blockhaus stood on the dunes above La Goulue. Like the strip of land upon which it stood, it belonged officially to my father. I remembered it, a German bunker left over from the war, an ugly square of rusty concrete half swallowed by the sand. For years I’d believed it was haunted.

  “I wouldn’t have thought anyone could live in that place,” I said.

  “I fixed it up,” said Flynn cheerily, putting the milk away in the fridge. “The worst part was getting rid of all the sand. Of course, it isn’t finished yet; I need to dig a well, and put in some proper plumbing, but it’s comfortable, it’s solid, and it didn’t cost me anything but time and the price of a few things I couldn’t find or make for myself.”

  I thought of GrosJean, with his perpetual works in progress. No wonder he liked this man. Some kind of a builder, Capucine had said. I understood now who had carried out the repairs to my father’s house. I felt a sudden pang in my heart.

  “You know, you probably won’t see him tonight,” Flynn told me. “He’s been restless these past few days. Hardly anyone’s seen him.”

  “Thanks.” I turned away to avoid meeting his eyes. “I know my father.”

  That much was true; after the processio
n on the night of the Sainte-Marine, GrosJean would always vanish in the direction of La Bouche, burning candles beside P’titJean’s grave. The yearly ritual was sacrosanct. Nothing disturbed it.

  “He won’t even know you’re back yet,” continued Flynn. “When he finds out, he’ll think the Saint answered all his prayers at once.”

  “That’s nice of you,” I said coolly. “But GrosJean never kissed the Saint for anyone.”


  * * *

  The festival of Sainte-Marine-de-la-Mer occurs once a year, on the night of August’s full moon. That night, the Saint is carried from her place in the village to the ruins of her church at Pointe Griznoz. It is a difficult task—the Saint is three feet tall, and heavy, for she is made of solid basalt—and it takes four men to carry her on a plinth to the water’s edge. There, the villagers file past her one by one; some stop to kiss her head in the old ritual gesture, in the hope that something lost—or more likely someone—may return. Children decorate her with flowers. Little offerings—food, flowers, packets of rock salt tied with ribbon—even money—are thrown to the rising tide. Cedar and pinewood chips are burned in braziers on either side. Sometimes there are fireworks, bursting defiantly over the indifferent sea.

  I waited until after dark before I left the house. The wind, always strongest on this part of the island, had veered southward, and rattled its danse macabre at the doors and windows. As I set off, my coat wrapped tightly around me, I could already see the glow from the braziers on the edge of the Pointe. A church once stood here, though it has been ruined and unused for almost a hundred years. Since then the sea has taken it, bite by bite, until now only a single piece stands—a piece of the north wall. The niche where once Sainte-Marine had her place is still visible against the weathered stones. In the little tower above the niche, a bell once hung—La Marinette, Sainte-Marine’s own bell—but that has long since disappeared. One legend says it fell into the sea; others tell the story of how La Marinette was stolen and melted down for scrap by an unscrupulous Houssin, who was cursed by Sainte-Marine and driven mad by its ghostly ringing. It still rings sometimes; always on windy nights, always a herald of disaster. Cynics attribute the booming sound to the rush of the south wind through the rocks and crevices of Pointe Griznoz, but the Salannais know better; it is La Marinette, still ringing out her warnings, still watching Les Salants from below.

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