Coastliners a novel, p.30
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.30

           Joanne Harris
 

  I caught a chill on the Marie Joseph, which turned overnight to pneumonia. Maybe that’s why I remember virtually nothing of what happened—a couple of stills, that’s all, in faded sepia. My father’s body being lifted in a blanket sling onto the quayside. The undemonstrative Guénolés hugging one another with a fierce and unrestrained passion. Père Alban waiting patiently, his soutane hitched up over his fishing waders. Flynn.

  It was almost a week before I was truly conscious of what was going on around me. Till then things had been blurry, colors heightened, sounds absent. My lungs were filled with concrete; my fever soared.

  I was moved to Les Immortelles at once, where the emergency doctor had remained. Gradually, as my fever ebbed, I became conscious of my room with its white walls, of flowers, of presents left like offerings at the door by a constant stream of visitors. At first I barely paid attention. I felt so sick and weak that it was an effort to keep my eyes open. Breathing required conscious effort. Even the memory of my father’s death was secondary to my body’s distress.

  Adrienne had been filled with panic at the thought of nursing me and had fled with Marin to the mainland as soon as the weather permitted. The doctor declared that I was on the mend, and left Capucine to watch over me, with the grumbling Hilaire to administer antibiotic injections. Toinette made herb infusions and forced me to drink them. Père Alban sat by me, Capucine said, night after night. Brismand kept his distance; no one had seen Flynn.

  It was perhaps good for him that they hadn’t; by the end of the week his role in events had been made clear to everyone, and the hostility against him in Les Salants was phenomenal. Surprisingly, there was less against Brismand; he was a true Houssin, when all was said. What could you expect? But Rouget had been one of us. Only the Guénolés dared defend him—after all he had gone out to the Eleanore 2 when no one else would. Toinette refused to take the matter seriously at all, but many Salannais spoke darkly of revenge. Capucine was convinced that Flynn had gone back to the mainland, and shook her head mournfully over the entire business.

  The plague of jellyfish was under control, with nets stretched across the sandbanks to prevent any more from entering the bay, and a coast guard boat to collect the ones that remained. The official explanation was that freak storms had brought them up the Gulf Stream, perhaps from as far away as Australia; village gossip preferred to take it as a warning from the Saint.

  “I always said it was going to be a Black Year,” affirmed Aristide with glum satisfaction. “See what happens when you don’t listen?”

  In spite of his anger against Brismand, the old man seemed resigned. Weddings cost money, he remarked, if his young fool of a grandson continued to persist in his stubbornness. . . . He shook his head. “Still, I won’t live forever. Good to think the boy may have something to inherit after all, other than quicksand and rot. Maybe the luck will turn at last.”

  Not everyone thought so. The Guénolés held fast against the Brismand project—as well they might. With five to support, one a schoolboy and one an old man of eighty-five, money had always been short. Now they were in crisis. No one knew exactly how much they had borrowed, but it was widely thought to be upward of a hundred thousand. The loss of the Eleanore 2 had been the final blow. Alain had spoken out fiercely after the meeting, saying that it wasn’t fair, that the community had a responsibility, that because of Damien’s disappearance he hadn’t been party to the discussion; but his objections went mostly unregarded. Our precarious sense of community had been ruptured; once again it was every Salannais for himself.

  Matthias Guénolé refused to go into Les Immortelles, of course. Alain supported his decision. There was talk of their leaving the island. The Guénolé-Bastonnet hostilities had resumed; Aristide, sensing weakness and the possible departure of their biggest fishing rival, had apparently done all he could to turn the rest of Les Salants against them.

  “They’ll wreck it all with their stubbornness, heh! Our one chance. It’s selfish, that’s what it is, and I won’t let Guénolé selfishness wreck my boy’s future. We’ve got to salvage something from this mess now, otherwise we all go under!”

  Many had to admit that he had a point. But Alain’s rage, when he learned what had been said, was explosive. “So that’s it?” he roared. “That’s how we look after our own in Les Salants? What about my boys? What about my father, who fought in the war? Are you going to give up on us now? And for what? Money? Rotten Houssin profit?”

  A year ago it might have been a more forceful argument. But now we had had a scent of that money. We knew it better. There was silence, and some red faces. But few were moved. What was a single family when a whole community was at stake? Better the Brismands’ ferry port than nothing, after all.

  My father was buried while I lay in Les Immortelles. Corpses don’t keep well in summer, and islanders have little to do with the mainland rituals of postmortem and embalming. We had a priest, didn’t we? Père Alban did his office out at La Bouche, as always, in his soutane and fishing waders.

  The gravestone is a lump of gray-pink grantite from Pointe Griznoz. They used my tractor trailer to drag it. Later, when the sand has settled, I will have an inscription carved onto it—Aristide might do it for me, if I ask him.

  “Why did he do it?” I found my anger was unchanged since the night on the Marie Joseph. “Why did he take the Eleanore 2 that day?”

  “Who knows?” said Matthias, lighting a Gitane. “All I know is that we found some damn funny things in her when we finally brought her back—”

  “Not when the girl’s sick, you idiot!” interrupted Capucine, intercepting the cigarette with a deft pinch of the fingers.

  “What things?” I demanded, sitting up in bed.

  “Ropes. Crampons. And half a box of dynamite.”

  “What?”

  The old man shrugged and heaved a sigh. “I don’t suppose we’ll ever be sure what he was doing. I only wish he hadn’t chosen the Eleanore to do it in.”

  The Eleanore. I tried to recall exactly what the nuns had said to me the night of the storm. “She was someone they knew,” I said. “Someone both he and P’titJean cared about. This Eleanore.”

  Matthias shook his head disapprovingly. “You don’t want to believe those magpies. They’ll say anything.” He glanced at my face, and I thought he blushed a little. “Nuns, heh! They’re the worst gossips there are. Besides that business—whatever it was—happened such a long time ago. How could that have anything to do with how GrosJean died?”

  Not how he died perhaps, but why. I couldn’t help thinking about it; the connection with his brother’s suicide thirty years ago; his suicide in the Eleanore. Had my father done the same? And why was he carrying dynamite?

  I fretted so long that Capucine decided it was affecting my recovery. She must have spoken about it to Père Alban, because the dry old priest turned up to see me two days later, looking as mournful as ever.

  “It’s over, Mado,” he said. “Your father’s at peace. You should let him rest now.”

  Physically, I was feeling much better by then, though still very tired; propped up against the pillows I could see the stark August sky behind him. It would be a fine day for fishing. “Père Alban, who was Eleanore? Did you know her?”

  He hesitated. “I knew her, but I can’t discuss her with you.”

  “Was she from Les Immortelles? Was she one of the nuns?”

  “Believe me, Mado, she’s best forgotten.”

  “But if he named a boat after her—” I tried to explain how important that had been to my father; how he had never done that again, not even for my mother. Surely it was no accident that he had chosen that particular boat. And what could be the significance of what Matthias had found in her?

  But Père Alban was even less talkative than usual. “It means nothing,” he repeated, for the third time. “Let GrosJean rest in peace.”

  11

  * * *

  By then I had been in Les Immortelles for over a week. H
ilaire recommended another week’s rest, but I was growing impatient. The skyscape through the high window taunted me; gilded motes filtered down to my bed. The month was almost at an end; in a few days the moon would be full and it would be time once more for Sainte-Marine’s festival on the Pointe. I felt as if all these familiar things were taking place for the last time; every second was a final farewell I could not bear to miss. I prepared to go home.

  Capucine protested, but I overrode her arguments ruthlessly. I’d been away too long. I had to face Les Salants at some time. I hadn’t even seen my father’s grave.

  La Puce gave way in the face of such determination. “Stay in my trailer for a while,” she suggested. “I’m not having you in that empty house alone.”

  “It’s all right,” I promised her. “I’m not going back there. But I do need to be on my own for a while.”

  I did not go back to GrosJean’s house that day. I was surprised to discover that I felt no curiosity about it, or any desire to look inside. Instead I went to the dunes above La Goulue and overlooked what remained of my world.

  Most of our summer people had gone. The sea was silk; the sky crude and blue as a child’s painting. Les Salants faded silently under the late-August sun as it had for so many years before: the window boxes and gardens, lately neglected, had withered and died; stunted fig trees gave up small, mean fruit; dogs loitered outside shuttered houses; rabbit-tail grasses went white and brittle. The people too had reverted to type: Omer now spent hours in Angélo’s, playing cards and drinking cup after cup of devinnoise; Charlotte Prossage, who had been so sweetened by the arrival of the summer children, once more hid her face behind earth-colored head scarves; Damien was sullen and argumentative. Within twenty-four hours of my return I could see for myself that the Brismands hadn’t simply broken Les Salants; they had eaten it whole.

  Few people spoke to me; it was enough that they had shown their concern with presents and cards. Now that I was well again I sensed a kind of inertia among them, a return to the old ways. Greetings were once more abbreviated to a single nod. Conversations flagged. At first I thought perhaps they resented me; after all, I was related to Brismand. But after a while I began to understand. I saw it in the way they watched the sea; one eye perpetually fixed on the floating thing out there in the bay, our Bouch’ou, our very own sword of Damocles. They weren’t even aware of doing it. But they did watch it, even the children, paler and more subdued than they had been all summer. It was all the more precious, we told ourselves, because sacrifices had been made. The greater the sacrifice, the more precious it became. We’d loved it once; we hated it now; but to lose it was unthinkable. Omer’s loan had compromised Toinette’s property, even though it had not been his to stake. Aristide had mortgaged his house far beyond its value. Alain was losing his son—perhaps both his sons, now that the business was in decline. The Prossages had lost their daughter. Xavier and Mercédès were talking about leaving Le Devin for good, of settling down somewhere like Pornic or Fromentine, where the baby could be born without scandal.

  Aristide was devastated by the news, though he was far too proud to say so. Pornic isn’t far, he would repeat to anyone who would listen. It’s a three-hour ferry ride twice a week. That isn’t what you’d call far, is it, heh?

  Rumors were still flying about GrosJean’s death. I heard them secondhand from Capucine—village protocol demanded that at this time I should be left alone—but speculation was rife. Many believed he had comitted suicide.

  There was some reason to believe it. GrosJean had always been unstable; maybe the realization of Brismand’s treachery had pushed him over the edge. And so close to the anniversary of P’titJean’s death and Sainte-Marine’s festival . . . History repeats itself, they said in lowered voices. Everything returns.

  But others were less easily convinced. The significance of the dynamite in the Eleanore 2 had not escaped notice; it was Alain’s belief that GrosJean had been trying to demolish the breakwater at Les Immortelles when he lost control of the boat and was thrown onto the rocks.

  “He sacrificed himself,” Alain had repeated to anyone who would listen. “He knew before any of us that it was the only way to stop Brismand’s takeover.”

  It was no more far-fetched than any of the other explanations. An accident; suicide; a heroic gesture . . . The truth was that nobody knew; GrosJean had told no one of his plans, and speculation was all we had. In death, as in life, my father kept his secrets.

  I went down to La Goulue the morning after my return. Lolo was sitting with Damien by the water’s edge, both of them silent and unmoving as rocks. They seemed to be waiting for something. The high tide was on the turn; dark commas of wet sand marked its passage. Damien had a new bruise on his cheek. He shrugged when I commented about it. “I fell over,” he said, not bothering to make it sound convincing.

  Lolo looked at me. “Damien was right,” he said glumly. “We should never have had this beach. It’s messed everything up. We were better off before.” He said it without resentment, but with a deep weariness, which I found even more disturbing. “We just didn’t know it then.”

  Damien nodded. “We would have survived. If the sea had come too close we’d just have rebuilt farther up.”

  “Or moved.”

  I nodded. Suddenly, moving didn’t seem like such a terrible alternative after all.

  “It’s just a place, after all, isn’t it, heh?”

  “Sure. There are other places.”

  I wondered if Capucine knew what her grandson was thinking. Damien, Xavier, Mercédès, Lolo . . . At this rate by next year there wouldn’t be a young face left in Les Salants.

  Both boys were looking out toward the Bouch’ou. Invisible now, it would begin to show in five hours or so, when the tide uncovered the oyster beds.

  “What if they took it, heh?” There was an edge to Lolo’s voice.

  Damien nodded. “They could have their sand back. We don’t need it.”

  “Neh. We didn’t want Houssin sand anyway.”

  I was shocked to find myself half-agreeing with them.

  In spite of that, since my return I found the Salannais spent more time on the beach than ever before. Not swimming or sunbathing—only tourists do that—or even in comfortable conversation, as we so often had earlier that summer. This time there were no cookouts or bonfires or drinking parties at La Goulue. Instead we crept there in secret, early in the mornings or at the turning tides, running the sand through our furtive fingers and not meeting one another’s eyes.

  The sand fascinated us. We saw it in a different way now; no longer gold dust but the debris of centuries: bones, shells, microscopic pieces of fossilized matter, pulverized glass, vanquished stone, fragments of unimaginable time. There were people in the sand; lovers, children, traitors, heroes. There were the tiles of long-demolished houses. There were warriors and fishermen, there were Nazi planes and broken crockery and shattered gods. There was rebellion and there was defeat. There was everything, and everything there was the same.

  We saw that now; how pointless it all was: our war against the tides, against the Houssins. We saw how it would be.

  12

  * * *

  It was two days before Sainte-Marine’s festival when I finally decided to visit my father’s grave. My absence at the funeral had been inevitable, but I was back now, and it was expected of me.

  The Houssins have their own neat, grassy churchyard, with a park keeper to tend all the graves. At La Bouche, we do our work ourselves. We have to. Our gravestones look pagan compared with theirs; monolithic. And we tend them with care. One very old one is the grave of a young couple, marked simply guénolé-bastonnet, 1861–1887. Someone still puts flowers on it, though surely no one is old enough to remember its occupants.

  They had placed him next to P’titJean. Their stones are almost twins in size and color, though P’titJean’s is older, its surface furred with lichen. As I came closer I saw that clean gravel had been raked around the two
graves, and that someone had already prepared the earth for planting.

  I had brought some lavender cuttings to plant around the stone, and a trowel to dig with. Père Alban appeared to have done the same; his hands were covered with earth, and there were red geraniums freshly planted under both stones.

  The old priest looked startled to see me, as if caught out. He rubbed his gritty hands together several times. “I’m glad to see you looking so well,” he said. “I’ll leave you to your farewells.”

  “Don’t go.” I took a step forward. “Père Alban, I’m glad you’re here. I wanted—”

  “I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I know what you want from me. You think I know something about your father’s death. But I can’t tell you anything. Let it go.”

  “Why? I demanded. “I need to understand! My father died for a reason, and I think you know what it is!”

  He looked at me severely. “Your father was lost at sea, Mado. He went out in the Eleanore 2 and was swept overboard. Just like his brother.”

  “But you do know something,” I said softly. “Don’t you?”

  “I have—suspicions. Just as you do.”

  “What suspicions?”

  Père Alban sighed. “Let it go, Madeleine. I can’t tell you anything. Whatever I may know is bound by the confessional, and I can’t speak to you about it.” But I thought I heard something in his voice, an odd intonation, as if the words he spoke were at variance with something else he was trying to convey.

  “But someone else can?” I said, taking his hand. “Is that what you’re saying?”

  “I can’t help you, Madeleine.” Was it my imagination, or was there something in the way he said “I can’t help you,” a little stress on the first syllable? “I’m going back now,” said the old priest, gently prying my hand from his. “I have to sort out some old records. Birth and death registers, you know the kind of thing. It’s a job I have been putting off for a long time. But I have a responsibility. It preys on my mind.” There it was again, that peculiar intonation.

 
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JOANNE HARRIS SERIES:

Chocolat
Loki
Runemarks

 

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