Coastliners a novel, p.6
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.6

           Joanne Harris

  “GrosJean?” I whispered.

  He shook his head, his eyes wary. “Brismand.”


  * * *

  He hadn’t changed. He was older. Grayer. Broader around the waist but still wearing the espadrilles and fisherman’s cap I remembered as a child, his thick fingers heavy with rings, his shirt stained with sweat under the armpits, although the day was cool. He was standing at the window as I came in, a steaming mug in one hand. A strong scent of Armagnac coffee filled the room.

  “Ah, it’s little Mado.” His voice carried. It had a rich, rolling tone; his smile was frank and infectious. His mustache, though gray, now looked more bombastic than ever; that of a vaudeville comedian or a Communist dictator. He took three rapid steps forward and put his thickly freckled arms around me. “Mado, it’s good, good to see you again!” His embrace, like everything else about him, was massive. “I made coffee. I hope you don’t mind. And we’re family, aren’t we?” I nodded, halfstifled in his arms. “How is Adrienne? And the children? My nephew doesn’t write as often as he should.”

  “Neither does my sister.”

  He laughed at that, a sound as rich as the coffee. “Youngsters, heh! But you—you! Let me see you. You’ve grown! You make me feel a hundred years old—but it’s worth it to see your face, Mado. Your lovely face.”

  I’d almost forgotten that—his charm. It has a way of taking you by surprise, of leaving you without defenses. I could see the intelligence too behind the flamboyant exterior; his eyes were knowing, slaty, almost black. Yes, I’d liked him as a child. I still did.

  “Still flooded in the village, is it? Bad business.” He sighed hugely. “You must find it very different now. But it isn’t for everyone, is it? Island life? Young people want more gaiety than the poor old island can give them.”

  I was conscious of Flynn, still standing just outside the door with his lobster pots. He looked reluctant to come in, though at the same time I sensed his curiosity, and his unwillingness to leave me alone with Brismand.

  “Come inside,” I told him. “Have some coffee.”

  Flynn shook his head. “I’ll see you later.”

  Brismand barely glanced at Flynn as he left, then turned to me again, slinging an arm companionably over my shoulders. “I want to know all about you.”

  “Monsieur Brismand—”

  “Claude, Mado, please.” His enormous friendliness was slightly overwhelming, like that of a giant Santa Claus. “But why didn’t you tell me you were coming? I’d almost given up hope—”

  “I couldn’t come before. My mother was ill.”

  “I know.” He poured me a shot of coffee. “I’m sorry. And now this business with GrosJean—” He settled into a chair that creaked under his weight and patted the place next to him. “I’m glad you came, little Mado,” he said simply. “I’m glad you trusted me.”

  The first years after leaving Le Devin were the hardest. It was lucky we were strong. But my mother’s romantic nature had hardened to a tense, fearful practicality, which served us well. Unfit for any skilled job, she made a small income as a cleaner. Even so, we were poor.

  GrosJean sent no money. Mother accepted this with bitter satisfaction, feeling vindicated. At school, a big Paris lycée, my shabby clothes made me even more of an outsider.

  But Brismand had helped us in his way. We were family now, after all, even if we did not share his name. He sent no money, but there were parcels of clothes and books at Christmas, and boxes of paints for me when he discovered my interest. At school I had found refuge in the art department, which reminded me a little of my father’s workshop with its small, busy sounds and its scent of fresh sawdust. I began to look forward to the lessons. I had a talent for the subject. I drew pictures of beaches and fishing boats and low-roofed whitewashed houses with brooding skies overhead. Of course, my mother hated them. Later, they became our main source of income, but she disliked the subject matter no less. She suspected, though she never said, that it was my way of breaking our agreement.

  Throughout my college years Brismand continued to write. Not to my mother—she had embraced Paris in all its glitz and tawdriness and had no desire to be reminded of Le Devin—but to me. They were not long letters, but they were all I had, and I devoured every scrap of information. I concluded that his reputation in Les Salants was undeserved; the product of small-mindedness, prejudice, and jealousy. No one else had kept in touch with us; only he had shown any support. Sometimes I found myself wishing that he, not GrosJean, could have been my father.

  Then, twelve months ago, came the first hint that all was not well in Les Salants. A passing reference to begin with—he had not seen GrosJean for some time—then more. My father’s eccentricity, always present even during my childhood, was becoming more pronounced. There were rumors that he had been very ill, although he had refused to see the doctor. Brismand was concerned.

  I did not reply to these letters. My mother was already taking up all of my attention. Her emphysema—made worse by the city pollution—had taken a downturn, and the doctor had tried to persuade her to move. Somewhere by the sea, he suggested, where the air would be healthier. But Mother refused to listen. She adored Paris. She loved the shops, the cinemas, the cafés. She was peculiarly unenvious of the rich women whose apartments she cleaned, taking vicarious pleasure in their clothes, their furniture, their lives. I sensed that was what she wanted for me.

  Brismand’s letters continued to arrive. He was still concerned. He had written to Adrienne, but received no reply. I understood that; I’d phoned when Mother had gone into the hospital, only to be told by Marin that Adrienne was pregnant again and couldn’t possibly travel. Mother had died four days later, and a tearful Adrienne had told me on the phone that her doctor had forbidden her to exert herself.

  I took my time over the coffee. Brismand waited patiently, his big arm around my shoulder. “I know, Mado. It’s been hard for you.”

  I wiped my eyes. “I should have expected it.”

  “You should have come to me.” He looked around; I saw him taking in the dirty floor, the stacked plates, the unopened letters, the neglect.

  “I wanted to see for myself.”

  “I understand.” Brismand nodded. “He’s your father. Family is everything.”

  He stood up, suddenly seeming to fill the room, and dug his hands into his pockets. “I had a son, you know. My wife took him away when he was three months old. For thirty years I waited, hoping—knowing—one day he’d come home.”

  I nodded. I’d heard the story. In Les Salants, of course, people assumed Brismand was to blame.

  He shook his head, looking suddenly old, the theatrics put aside. “Foolish, isn’t it? The way we delude ourselves. The barbs we leave in each other.” He looked at me. “GrosJean loves you, Mado. In his way, he does.”

  I thought of my birthday photograph, and the way my father’s arm had rested on Adrienne’s shoulder. Gently, Brismand took my hand. “I could help you take care of your father,” he said.

  “I know.”

  “I could make arrangements. It’s a nice place, Mado. Les Immortelles. Hospital facilities; a mainland doctor; big rooms; and he could see his friends anytime he liked.”

  I hesitated. Soeur Thérèse and Soeur Extase had already told me about Brismand’s long-term residential care plan. It sounded expensive.

  He shook his head dismissively. “I’d handle that. The sale of the land would cover all his expenses. Maybe more. I understand how you feel, Mado. But it might be for the best.”

  I promised to think about it. It was an idea at which Brismand had hinted before in his letters, although never so openly as this. It seemed a good offer; unlike Mother, GrosJean had never believed in medical insurance, and I could not afford to pay for his care on my small income. He needed help, that was certain. And I had a life in Paris to which I could—to which I should—return. For ten years I had idealized Les Salants, making an exile of myself for the sake of a place that no
longer existed—if ever it had done so—except in memory. But whatever my dreams had once been, the reality was too bleak for me to retain them now. I didn’t belong there anymore. Too many things had changed.


  * * *

  As I was leaving the house I met Alain Guénolé and his son Ghislain, coming the other way from the village. Both were out of breath. They looked very alike, but though his father wore the traditional sailcloth vareuse, Ghislain was wearing a toxic yellow T-shirt that glowed like neon against his brown skin. On seeing me, he grinned and began to run choppily up the big dune.

  “Madame GrosJean,” he gasped, pausing to catch his breath. “We need to borrow the tractor trailer from the boatyard. It’s urgent.”

  For a moment I was sure he hadn’t recognized me. This was Ghislain Guénolé, who was two years older than I was; with whom I’d played as a child. Had he really called me Madame GrosJean?

  Alain nodded to me in greeting. He too was anxious, but it was clear that he considered no business urgent enough to make him run. “It’s the Eleanore,” he called over the dune. “We spotted her out at La Houssinière, just off Les Immortelles. We’re going out there to bring her in, but we need your father’s trailer. Is he home?”

  I shook my head. “I don’t know where he is.”

  Ghislain looked concerned. “It can’t wait,” he said. “We’ll have to take it now. Perhaps you—if you tell him what it was for—”

  “Of course you can take it,” I said. “I’ll come with you.”

  At this Alain, who had caught up, looked doubtful. “I don’t think—”

  “My father built that boat,” I said firmly. “Years ago, before I was born. He’d never forgive me if I didn’t help. You know how fond he is of her.”

  GrosJean was more than fond of her; I remembered that much. Eleanore had been the first of his “ladies,” not the most beautiful of his creations, but maybe the most dear. The thought that she might now be lost filled me with dismay.

  Alain shrugged. The boat was his livelihood. There was no place for sentiment when money was at stake. As Ghislain ran for the tractor I was conscious of a feeling of relief, as if this crisis were some kind of a reprieve.

  “Are you sure you want to bother?” said Alain as his son fastened the trailer onto the old machine. “It’s not exactly entertainment.”

  I was stung at his casual assumption. “I want to help,” I said.

  The Eleanore had bottomed on some rocks about five hundred meters out of La Houssinière. She had become wedged in place by the rising tide, and though the sea was still quite low, the wind was brisk, crunching the damaged hull farther against the rock at every wave. A small group of Salannais—including Aristide, his grandson, Xavier, Matthias, Capucine, and Lolo—were watching from the shore. I scanned the faces eagerly, but my father was not among them. I saw Flynn though, in his fishing boots and jersey, carrying his duffel bag over his shoulder. They were soon joined by Lolo’s friend Damien; now that I saw him next to Alain and Ghislain I could see he shared the Guénolé features.

  “Stay back, Damien,” said Alain, seeing him approach. “I don’t want you getting in the way.”

  Damien shot his father a sullen look and sat down on a rock. When I looked back a few moments later I saw that he had lit a cigarette and was smoking it, his back turned defiantly. Alain, his eyes fixed on the Eleanore, seemed not to notice.

  I sat down next to the boy. For a time he ignored me. Then, curiosity got the better of him and he turned to face me. “I’ve heard you were living in Paris,” he said in a low voice. “What’s it like?”

  “Like any other city,” I told him. “Big, noisy, crowded.”

  For a moment he looked downcast. Then, brightening; “European cities, maybe. American cities are different. My brother’s got an American shirt. He’s wearing it now.”

  I smiled, averting my eyes from Ghislain’s luminous torso.

  “They eat nothing but hamburgers in America,” said Alain, who had been listening, “and all the girls are fat.”

  The boy looked indignant. “How would you know? You’ve never been there.”

  “Neither have you.”

  On the nearby jetty, which shelters the little harbor, a number of Houssins were also watching the damaged boat. Jojo-le-Goëland, an old Houssin with a sailorly manner and a lubricious eye, greeted us with a wave. “Come to watch?” He grinned.

  “Out of the way, Jojo,” snapped Alain. “Men have work to do here.”

  Jojo laughed. “You’ll have your work cut out, trying to get to her from here,” he said. “The tide’s coming up, and there’s a wind from the sea. I wouldn’t be surprised if you ran into trouble.”

  “Ignore him,” advised Capucine. “He’s been talking like that ever since we arrived.”

  Jojo looked pained. “I could take her down to the beach for you,” he suggested. “Haul her off the rocks with my Marie Joseph. Easy to bring a tractor down onto the sand. Load her up easy.”

  “How much?” said Alain with suspicion.

  “Well, there’s the boat. The labor. Access . . . Call it a thousand.”

  “Access?” Alain was incensed. “To where?”

  Jojo smirked. “Les Immortelles, of course. Private beach. Monsieur Brismand’s instructions.”

  “Private beach!” Alain glanced at the Eleanore and scowled. “Since when?”

  Jojo carefully lit the stub of a Gitane. “Hotel patrons only,” he said. “Can’t have any old riffraff littering the place up.”

  It was a lie, and everyone knew it. I could see Alain measuring the possibilities of moving the Eleanore by hand.

  I glared at Jojo. “I know Monsieur Brismand very well,” I told him, “and I don’t think he’d want to charge access to this beach.”

  Jojo smirked. “Why don’t you go and ask him?” he suggested. “See what he tells you. Take your time; the Eleanore isn’t going anywhere.”

  Alain looked at the Eleanore again. “Can we do it?” he asked Ghislain.

  Ghislain shrugged. “Can we, Rouget?”

  Flynn, who during this interchange had disappeared with his duffel bag in the direction of the jetty, now reappeared without it. He looked at the boat and shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Not without the Marie Joseph. Better do as he says before the tide gets any higher.”

  The Eleanore was heavy, a typical island oyster boat with her low bow and leaded underside. With the tide at her back it would soon be almost impossible to lift her from the rocks. Waiting for the tide—a wait of ten hours or more—would only mean further damage. Jojo’s smirk widened.

  “I think we could do it,” I said. “We need to move the nose that way, toward the wind. We could use the trailer once we get it into the shallow water.”

  Alain looked at me, then at the other Salannais. I could see him measuring our endurance, calculating how many hands we needed for the task. I glanced back, hoping to see GrosJean’s face among the rest, but there was no sign of him.

  “I’m in,” said Capucine.

  “Me too,” said Damien.

  Alain frowned. “You boys stay clear,” he said. “I don’t want you getting hurt.” He glanced at me again, then at the others. Matthias was too old to take part, but with Flynn, Ghislain, Capucine, and myself we might be able to manage. Scornfully, Aristide kept his distance, though I noticed Xavier watching with a wistful look in his eyes.

  Jojo waited, grinning. “Well, what do you say?” The old sailor was obviously amused that Alain should consider a woman’s opinion.

  “Try it,” I urged. “What is there to lose?”

  Still, Alain hesitated.

  “She’s right,” said Ghislain impatiently. “What? Are you getting old or something? There’s more fight in Mado than there is in you!”

  “Okay,” decided Alain at last. “We’ll give it a go.”

  I saw Flynn looking at me. “I think you’ve got an admirer.” He grinned, jumping lightly down onto th
e wet sand.

  It was almost evening, and the tide was three-quarters high when we finally admitted defeat, and by then Jojo’s price had gone up by another thousand francs. We were freezing, numb, exhausted. Flynn had lost his jauntiness, and I’d come close to being crushed between the Eleanore and a rock during the struggle to shift her. At an unexpected surge from the rising tide, the nose veered sharply away with the wind, and Eleanore’s hull crunched sickly into my shoulder, knocking me sideways and sending a black flag of water into my face. I felt the rock behind me, and there was a moment of panic when I was sure I was going to be pinned, or worse. Fear—and relief at my narrow escape—made me belligerent. I turned on Flynn, who was just behind me.

  “You were supposed to be holding the nose! What the hell happened?”

  Flynn had dropped the ropes we were using to secure the boat. His face was a blur in the failing light. He was turned half away from me, and I could hear him cursing, very fluently for a foreigner.

  There was a long squealing sound as Eleanore’s hull shifted once more on the rocks, then a lurch as she settled back. From the jetty came a mocking cheer from the Houssins.

  Grimly, Alain called across the water to Jojo. “Okay. You win. Get the Marie Joseph.” I looked at him, and he shook his head at me. “It’s no good. We’ll never do it now. Might as well get this over with, heh?”

  Jojo grinned. He’d been watching the whole time, smoking a chain of cigarette ends, saying nothing. Disgusted, I began to make my way toward the shore. The others followed me, struggling in their wet clothes. Flynn was closest, head down and hands tucked under his armpits.

  “We nearly had her,” I told him. “It could have worked. If only we’d been able to keep the damn nose in place—”

  Flynn muttered something under his breath.

  “What was that?”

  He sighed. “Perhaps when you’ve finished having a go at me you might like to bring the tractor around. They’ll need it at Les Immortelles.”

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