Coastliners a novel, p.32
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.32

           Joanne Harris
 

  There was a silence. Then Flynn began to laugh softly in the darkness.

  “What now?”

  Still he laughed. It should not have been an unpleasant sound, but it was. “Ah, Mado,” he told me at last. “It was going to be so easy. So beautiful. The biggest trick anyone had ever pulled. It was all there; the old man, his money, his beach, his desperate need to find someone to inherit. . . .” He shook his head. “It was all in place. All it needed was a little time. More time than I’d expected, but hey, all I had to do was to let events take their course. Spending a year in a sink like Les Salants was no great price to pay.” He gave me one of his dangerous, sunlight-on-water smiles. “And then,” he said, “along you came.”

  “Me?”

  “You with your big ideas. Your island names. Your impossible plans. Stubborn, naive, utterly incorruptible you.” He touched the nape of my neck briefly; I felt static in his fingertips.

  I pushed him away. “Next you’ll be saying it was me you did it for.”

  He grinned. “Who did you think I was doing it for?” I could still feel his breath on my forehead. I closed my eyes, but his face seemed to be imprinted onto my retinas. “Oh, Mado. If only you knew how hard I tried to keep you away. But you’re like this place; slowly, insidiously, it gets to you. And before you know it, you’re getting involved.”

  I opened my eyes. “You can’t,” I said.

  “Too late.” He sighed. “It would have been great to have been Jean-Claude Brismand,” he said ruefully. “To have money, land, to do whatever I liked—”

  “You still can,” I told him. “Brismand need never know—”

  “But I’m not Jean-Claude.”

  “What do you mean? It’s there, on the birth certificate.”

  Flynn shook his head. His eyes were unreadable, almost black. Fireflies danced there. “Mado,” he said, “the guy on that birth certificate isn’t me.”

  I listened in growing confusion as he told his story. This was his secret, the space into which I had never been invited, flung wide open at last. A story of two brothers.

  They were born a thousand miles and a little less than two years apart. Though they were only half-brothers, they favored their mother, and as a result looked strikingly alike, although in every other way they were very different. Their mother had poor taste in men, and changed her mind often. As a result, John and Richard had had many fathers.

  But John’s father was a wealthy man. Although he lived abroad, he continued to support the boy and his mother, staying in touch, even though he never came in person. As a result the two brothers came to see him as a benevolent, if shadowy, figure; one to whom they might turn in time of need.

  “That was a joke,” said Flynn. “I learned that the hard way, the day I started school.” John had been sent, two years earlier, to a grammar school where he learned Latin and was in the cricket First Eleven; but Richard went to the local comprehensive, where differences—intelligence above all—were exposed without mercy and subjected to a number of ingenious and brutal persecutions.

  “Our mother never told him about me. She was afraid that if she told him about her other men, he might cut the support money.” As a result, Richard’s name was never mentioned, and Eleanore took pains to give Brismand the impression that she and John were living alone.

  Flynn went on. “When there was money, it was always for my brother. School trips, school uniform, sports kit. No one said why. John had a savings account at the post office. John had a bike. All I had was the stuff John was tired of, or had broken, or was too stupid to figure out how to use. No one ever thought I might want something of my own.” Briefly I thought of myself and Adrienne. Almost without knowing it, I nodded.

  After school John had been sent to university. Brismand had agreed to finance his studies providing he chose something that would prove useful to the business; but John had no skill in engineering or in management, and resented being told what to do. In fact, John resented the idea of having to work at all, having been indulged for so long, and dropped out of university in his second year, living on his savings and hanging around with a group of disreputable—and perpetually bankrupt—friends.

  Eleanore covered for him as long as she could. But John was beyond her influence now, making his money the easy way, selling stolen car radios and contraband cigarettes, and constantly boasting, after a few drinks, of his wealthy father.

  “It was always the same. Someday he’d get a job; the old man would fix him up; not to worry; plenty of time. Secretly I think he was hoping Brismand would die before he had to make a decision. John’s never been much good at sticking to anything, and the idea of moving to France, learning the language, giving up his mates and his easy life—” Flynn gave an ugly laugh. “As for me, I’d been working in dockyards and building sites for long enough, and the role of Jean-Claude was vacant. Golden Boy didn’t seem to be in any hurry.”

  It had seemed the perfect opportunity. Flynn had enough documentary and anecdotal evidence to pass for his brother, as well as more than a passing resemblance to John. He had left his job with a building company and used his few savings to get a ticket to Le Devin.

  At first his plan had simply been to take Brismand for whatever cash he could get his hands on before making his escape. “A gold card would have been nice to begin with, or maybe a trust fund. Not an unusual arrangement between father and son. But islands are different.”

  He was right; islanders have no trust in funds. Brismand wanted more commitment. He wanted help. First with Les Immortelles. Then with La Goulue. Then Les Salants. “Les Salants clinched it,” said Flynn with a touch of regret. “It would have made me. First the beach, then the village—then the whole island. I could have had it all. Brismand was ready to retire. He would have put me in charge of the bulk of the business. I would have had complete access to everything.” He sighed. “It would have been nice,” he said regretfully. “To have been wanted, for a change. To have somewhere of my own.”

  I stared at him. “But not now.”

  He grinned and touched my cheek with his fingertips. “No Mado. Not now.”

  From afar I could hear the hisshh of the incoming tide from La Goulue. Even farther away, a yarking of seagulls as someone disturbed a nest. But the sounds were distant, muffled by the huge beating of my blood. I struggled to understand Flynn’s story; but it was already slipping away from me. My temples throbbed; there seemed to be an obstacle in my throat that made breathing difficult. It was as if everything else had been overshadowed by one single, giant reality. Flynn was not my brother.

  “What’s that?” I pulled away almost without knowing I’d heard it. A warning sound, something deep and resonant, just audible above the sound of the sea.

  Flynn shot me a glance. “Now what?”

  “Shh!” I put my finger to my mouth. “Listen.”

  There it was again, barely a drone in the still evening air, the pulse of a drowned bell throbbing against our eardrums.

  “I can’t hear anything.” Impatiently, he made as if to put an arm around my shoulders. I stood up and pushed him away, more forcefully this time. “Can’t you hear what that is? Don’t you recognize it?”

  “I don’t care.”

  “Flynn, it’s La Marinette.”

  14

  * * *

  That’s how it ends, as it began. The bell—not the fabled Marinette, as it happened, but the church bell from La Houssinière, ringing the alarm for the second time that month, in a voice that carried its message clear across the marshes. At night a bell has a tone different from the one it has in daytime; dark urgency was in its ringing now, and I responded to it with an instinctive haste. Flynn tried to stop me, but I was in no mood for interference; I sensed a disaster maybe even worse than the loss of the Eleanore 2, and I was running down the dune toward Les Salants before Flynn realized where I was going.

  The village was the only place he couldn’t follow me, of course; he stopped at the brow of the dun
e and let me go. Angélo’s was open, and a group of drinkers had gathered outside, alerted by the sound of the bell. I saw Omer there, and Capucine, and the Bastonnets. “Thass the alarm, heh,” said Omer in a thick voice. He had already drunk enough devinnoise to slow him down considerably. “Thass the Houssin alarm.”

  Aristide shook his head. “It’s none of our business, then, is it, heh? Let the Houssins have the crisis for a change. It’s not as if the island’s sinking, is it?”

  “Someone ought to find out, all the same,” suggested Angélo uncomfortably.

  “Someone ride out onna bike, heh,” said Omer.

  Several people agreed with this, though no one volunteered. There were a number of wishful suggestions as to the nature of the emergency, ranging from more jellyfish warnings to Les Immortelles being carried away by a freak cyclone. This possibility found favor with the majority of the assembly, and Angélo suggested another round of drinks.

  It was then that Hilaire rounded the Rue de l’Atlantique, waving his arms and shouting. This was unusual enough, for the doctor was undemonstrative at the best of times, without his peculiar state of dress; in his haste he seemed to have thrown on his vareuse over his pajamas, and on his feet he wore only a pair of faded espadrilles. For Hilaire, usually very correct even in the hottest weather, this was beyond unusual. He was shouting something about a radio.

  Angélo had a drink set up for him when he arrived, and the first thing Hilaire did was swallow it quickly and with grim relish. “We’ll all need one,” he said tersely, “if what I’ve just heard is true.”

  He’d been listening to the radio. He liked to hear the international news program at ten o’ clock before going to bed, although islanders rarely follow the news. Papers on Le Devin usually arrive out-of-date, and only Mayor Pinoz really claims to take an interest in politics or current affairs; in his position it’s expected.

  “Well this time I heard something,” said Hilaire, “and it isn’t pretty!”

  Aristide nodded. “No surprises there,” he said. “I’ve told you, it’s a Black Year. It was due.”

  “A Black Year! Heh!” Hilaire grunted and reached for his second devinnoise. “And by the sound of it, it’s about to get a lot blacker.”

  You will have read about it, I imagine. A broken oil tanker off the coast of Brittany, disgorging hundreds of gallons of oil a minute. It’s the kind of thing that captures the public imagination for a few days, maybe for a week. The television stations show pictures of dead seabirds; indignant students protest against pollution; a few volunteers from the cities hone their social consciences by cleaning up a beach or two. Tourism suffers for a time, though the coastal authorities usually take measures to clean up the more profitable areas. Fishing, of course, suffers for longer.

  Oysters are sensitive; even a slight taint of pollution can wipe them out. Crabs and lobsters are the same; and as for mullet, it’s almost worse. Aristide remembers mullet in 1945 with bellies bloated with oil; all of us remember the spillage in the 1970s—much, much farther away than this one—which had us scraping great gouts of black tar from the rocks at Pointe Griznoz. By the time Hilaire had finished his explanations, a number of other people had arrived at Angélo’s bar with conflicting or corroborating information, and we were in a state of near panic; the ship was less than seventy kilometers away—no, make that fifty—she was carrying crude diesel, the worst possible thing; already the slick was kilometers long, and completely out of control. A few of us went to La Houssinière to see Pinoz, who might have more information. Many of the rest stayed to see if they could find out more details from the television channels, or pulled out old maps from their pockets to speculate on the eventual movements of the slick.

  “If it’s here,” said Hilaire glumly, indicating a spot on Aristide’s chart, “then I can’t see how it could miss us, heh? This is the Gulf Stream—”

  “There’s nothing to say whether the slick has reached the Gulf Stream,” said Angélo. “They might catch it before it does. Or it might go around here, around the nearside of Noirmoutier, and miss us altogether.”

  Aristide was unconvinced. “If it hits the Nid’Poule,” he intoned, “it could sink right down there and poison us for half a century.”

  “Well you’ve been doing that for nearly twice the time,” remarked Matthias Guénolé, “and we’ve still survived.”

  There was nervous laughter from everyone else. Angélo served another round of devinnoise. Then someone called for silence from inside the bar, and we joined the little group of drinkers clustered around the old television. “Shh, everyone! Here it is!”

  Some news can only be received in silence. We listened like children, eyes widening as the screen broadcast its message. Even Aristide was silent. We remained stunned, pinned to the television screen and the little red cross that marked the scene of the wreck. “How close is it?” asked Charlotte anxiously.

  “Close,” said Omer in a low voice, his face very white.

  “Bloody mainland news,” exploded Aristide. “Can’t they use a proper map, heh? That stupid diagram makes it look like it’s twenty kilometers away! And where are the details?”

  “What happens if it comes here?” whispered Charlotte.

  Matthias tried to sound unmoved. “We’ll think of something. We’ll pull together. We’ve done it before.”

  “Not like this!” said Aristide.

  Omer muttered something under his breath.

  “What was that?” demanded Matthias.

  “I said I wish Rouget was still here.”

  All of us looked at one another. No one contradicted him.

  15

  * * *

  That night, powered by devinnoise, we began what work we could. Volunteers were gathered to spend shifts in front of the television and the radio, to collect any new information about the spillage. Hilaire, who had a telephone, was nominated as our official mainland contact. His job was to liaise with the coast guard as well as the shipping services, so that we could be forewarned. Watchers were posted at three-hour intervals at La Goulue; if there was anything to be seen, said Aristide grimly, it would begin there. Moreover, the creek was being dredged and blocked off from the open sea, using rocks from La Griznoz and leftover cement from the Bouch’ou. “At least if we can keep the étier clean we’ll have something,” said Matthias. Aristide, for once, agreed without complaint.

  Xavier Bastonnet appeared at about midnight—apparently he and Ghislain had gone out twice in the Cécilia—with the news that the coast guard ship was still out beyond La Jetée. It seemed that the disabled tanker had been in danger for some time, but that the authorities had only released the news during the past few days. The projections, Xavier reported, were not optimistic. There was a south wind due, he said, which, if it held, would drive the oil straight toward us. If that happened, only a miracle could save us.

  The morning of Sainte-Marine’s festival found us in poor spirits. There had been some progress made along the étier, but not enough. Even with the proper materials, said Matthias, it would take at least a week to contain it properly. At ten in the morning, reports of a black residue spotted some kilometers off la Jetée had reached the village, and we were brittle and apprehensive. The sandbanks were black with it already, and although it had not yet reached the shore, it would surely do so within twenty-four hours.

  Nevertheless, as Toinette pointed out, it would not do to neglect the Saint on her festival day, and in the village the usual preparations were already under way: the repainting of the little shrine, flowers on the Pointe, the brazier lit next to the ruins of the church.

  Even with binoculars it was still not clear what the residue was, but Aristide reported that there was a hell of a lot of it, and with the tide coming back that night and the wind from the south, it was likely to wash up onto La Goulue at any time. The next high tide would be due at about ten that evening, and by afternoon a number of the villagers were already watching from Pointe Griznoz, with offerin
gs and flowers and effigies of the Saint. Toinette, Désirée, and many of the older villagers were inclined to believe that the only solution was prayer.

  “She’s done miracles before,” declared Toinette. “There’s always hope.”

  The Black Tide had been visible to the naked eye since late that afternoon. Glimpses under a wave, something rolling from the sandbanks, an unusual buoyancy in the shadows of a rock. There was as yet no sign of any oil on the water, however, not even a film, but as Omer said, this could be a special kind of oil, a bad kind, even worse than we’d had in the past. Instead of floating on the surface it clotted, sank, rolled to the bottom, poisoning everything. Technology could do terrible things, heh? Heads were shaken over this, but no one really knew. It was not our area of expertise, and by early evening tales of the Black Tide had proliferated. There would be two-headed fish, claimed Aristide, and poisonous crabs. Simply to touch it would be to risk dreadful infection. Birds would go mad, boats would be dragged under by the weight of the congealing sludge. For all we knew it could even have been the Black Tide that had brought the jellyfish plague. But in spite of all this—perhaps because of it—Les Salants stood fast.

  The Black Tide had brought us this, at least. We had a direction again, a common purpose. The spirit of Les Salants—the hard core at the heart of us, the thing that I had glimpsed in the pages of Père Alban’s books—was back again. I could feel it. Old grievances were once more forgotten. Xavier and Mercédès had abandoned their plan to leave—at least for the present—and had turned their attention to helping out. Philippe Bastonnet, who had been waiting in La Houssinière for the next ferry, returned with Gabi, Laetitia, and the baby to Les Salants, where, despite Aristide’s dwindling protests, he was determined to stay and help. Désirée had found room for them in the house, and this time, Aristide had not objected.

 
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JOANNE HARRIS SERIES:

Chocolat
Loki
Runemarks

 

Other author's books: