Coastliners a novel, p.7
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.7

           Joanne Harris
 

  “I don’t expect we’ll be going anywhere for a while.”

  Disappointment made my voice harsh; Alain looked up briefly at the sound, then looked away. The little group of Houssin onlookers broke into ironic applause. The Salannais looked grim. Aristide, who had been watching from the jetty, gave me a look of disapproval. Xavier, who had stayed with his grandfather throughout the attempted rescue, gave me an uncomfortable smile over the wire rims of his glasses.

  “I hope you think it was worth it,” said Aristide.

  “It could have worked,” I said in a low voice.

  “Because while you were busy proving you’re as tough as everyone else, Guénolé was losing his boat.”

  “At least I made the effort,” I said. “If one more person had joined us, we could have saved her.”

  The old man shrugged. “Why should we help a Guénolé?” And leaning heavily on his stick, he began the way back down the jetty, with Xavier following silent in his wake.

  It took another two hours to bring Eleanore to the beach, another half hour for us to maneuver her from the wet sand onto the trailer. By that time the tide was at its highest, and night was falling. Jojo smoked his cigarette ends and chewed the loose tobacco from the butts, occasionally blurting juice onto the sand between his feet. At Alain’s insistence, I watched the slow process of recovery from above the tide line and waited for the sensation to return to my bruised arm.

  Eventually the job was done, and everyone took a rest. Flynn sat down in the dry sand, his back against the tractor’s wheel. Capucine and Alain lit Gitanes. At this end of the island the mainland was clearly visible, backlit with an orange glow. Occasionally a balise—a warning beacon—blinked out its simple message. The cold sky was purple, milky at the rim and just beginning to show stars among the clouds. The wind from the sea knifed through my wet clothes, making me shake. Flynn’s hands were bleeding. Even in the dim light I could see where the wet ropes had cut into his palms. I felt a little sorry at having shouted at him.

  Ghislain came to stand beside me. I could hear his breathing close to my neck. “Are you okay? The boat hit you a hell of a bang back there.”

  “I’m fine.”

  “You’re cold. You’re shivering. Can I get—”

  “Leave it. I’m fine.”

  I suppose I shouldn’t have snapped at him. He meant well. But there was something in his voice—a kind of dreadful protectiveness. From the shadow of the tractor’s wheel I thought I heard Flynn give a low laugh.

  I’d been so certain that GrosJean would turn up eventually. Now, so late in the proceedings, I wondered why he’d stayed away. After all, he must have heard about the Eleanore. I wiped my eyes, feeling bleak.

  Ghislain was still watching me over his Gitane. In the semidarkness his luminous T-shirt gave out a sickly glow. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

  I gave him a wan smile. “I’m sorry. We should have saved the Eleanore. If only we’d had more people.” I rubbed at my arms for warmth. “I think Xavier might have helped if Aristide hadn’t been there. I could tell he wanted to.”

  Ghislain sighed. “Xavier and I used to get on okay,” he told me. “Obviously, he’s a Bastonnet. But it didn’t seem to matter as much then. But now Aristide won’t let him out of his sight and—”

  “That awful old man. What’s his problem?”

  “I think he’s afraid,” said Ghislain. “Xavier’s all he has left now. He wants him to stay on the island and marry Mercédès Prossage.”

  “Mercédès? She’s a pretty girl.”

  “She’s all right.” It was too dark to see, but from the tone of Ghislain’s voice I was sure he was blushing.

  We watched the sky darken. Ghislain finished his cigarette while Alain and Matthias looked over the damage to the Eleanore. It was worse than we’d feared. Like all oyster boats Eleanore was shallow-keeled, designed not for deep-sea fishing but for easy access to the beds. The rocks had peeled the bottom right off her. The rudder was in pieces—the lucky red bead that my father put onto each of his boats still dangling from the remains of the mast—the engine missing. I followed as the men hauled her up onto the road, feeling drained and sick. As I did, I noticed that the old breakwater at the far end of the beach had been reinforced with blocks of stone to form a broad dike that reached out toward La Jetée.

  “That’s new, isn’t it?” I said.

  Ghislain nodded. “Brismand had that done. Bad tides these past couple of years. They were washing away the sand. Those rocks give it some protection.”

  “It’s what you need in Les Salants,” I observed, thinking of the damage at La Goulue.

  Jojo grinned. “Go see Brismand about it. I’m sure he’d know what to do.”

  “As if we’d ask him,” muttered Ghislain.

  “You’re a stubborn lot,” said Jojo. “You’d rather see the whole place washed into the sea than pay a fair price for repairs.”

  Alain looked at him. Jojo’s grin widened momentarily, exposing his stubby teeth. “I always told your father he needed insurance,” he remarked. “He never would listen.” He glanced at the Eleanore. “Time that hulk was scrapped anyway. Get yourself something new. Modern.”

  “She’s all right,” said Alain, not rising to the bait. “These old boats are pretty much indestructible. It looks worse than it is. She needs a little patchwork, a new engine. . . .”

  Jojo laughed and shook his head. “Go on, patch her up. It’ll cost you ten times more than she’s worth. What then? Want to know what I make in just one day during the season, selling rides?”

  Ghislain gave him an ugly look. “You could have taken the engine yourself,” he challenged. “Sell it yourself on one of your trips to the coast. You’re always trading stuff. No one asks questions.”

  Jojo showed his teeth. “I can see you Guénolés still know how to run your mouth,” he said. “Your grandfather was just the same. Tell me, whatever came of that lawsuit against the Bastonnets? How much did you make out of that, heh? And how much did it cost you, d’you think? And your father? And your brother?”

  Ghislain dropped his gaze, abashed. It is a well-known fact in Les Salants that the Guénolé-Bastonnet lawsuit ran for twenty years and ruined both parties. Its cause—an almost-forgotten wrangle over oyster beds on La Jetée—became academic long before the end, as shifting sandbanks engulfed the disputed territory, but the hostilities never ceased, passing from generation to generation as if to compensate for the squandered inheritance.

  “Your engine probably washed out across the bay,” said Jojo, with a lazy gesture toward La Jetée. “That or you’ll find it down by La Goulue, if you dig deep enough.” He spat a wad of wet tobacco onto the sand. “I hear you lost the Saint last night too. Careless lot, aren’t you?

  Alain kept his calm with difficulty. “Easy for you to laugh, Jojo,” he said. “But luck turns, they say, even here. If you didn’t have this beach—”

  Matthias nodded. “That’s right,” he growled. The old man’s Devinnois accent was so thick that even I had difficulty following his words. “This beach makes your luck. Don’t forget that. It could have been ours.”

  Jojo cawed with laughter. “Yours!” he jeered. “If it had been yours you’d have pissed it away years ago, the way you piss away everything else—”

  Matthias took a step forward, his old hands shaking. Alain put his own hand warningly on his father’s arm. “Enough. I’m tired. And there’s work to do tomorrow.”

  But something in that phrase had stuck in my mind. Something to do with La Goulue, I thought, and La Bouche, and the scent of wild garlic on the dunes. It could have been ours. I tried to identify what it was, but I was too cold and exhausted to think clearly. And Alain was right; none of this had changed anything. I still had work to do in the morning.

  11

  * * *

  I arrived at the house to find my father in bed. In a way I felt relieved; I was in no state to begin a discussion then. I put my wet clothes by the
fireplace to dry, drank a glass of water, and went to my room. I noticed as I turned out the night-light that a little jar of wildflowers had been placed at my bedside; dune pinks and blue thistle and rabbit-tail grasses. It was an absurdly touching gesture from my undemonstrative father, and I spent some time lying awake trying to make sense of it, until eventually sleep overtook me, and a moment later it was morning.

  When I awoke, I found GrosJean had already gone out. Always an early riser, he would wake at four in the summertime and go for long walks along the shore; I dressed, had breakfast, and followed his example.

  When I reached La Goulue at about nine o’ clock, it was already crowded with Salannais. For a moment I wondered why; then I remembered the missing Sainte-Marine, briefly eclipsed the previous day by the loss of the Eleanore. This morning the search for her had begun again as soon as the tide permitted it, but so far there was no sign of the lost Saint.

  Half the village seemed to have joined the search. All four Guénolés were there, combing the lowtide flats, and a group of onlookers had gathered on the pebble strip below the path. My father had gone far out beyond the tide line; armed with a long wooden rake, he was sweeping the seabed with methodical slowness, occasionally stopping to remove a stone or a clump of weed from the tines.

  To one side of the pebble strip I saw Aristide and Xavier, watching the proceedings but not taking part. Behind them, Mercédès was sunbathing and reading a magazine while Charlotte looked on with her usual air of anxiety. I noticed that although Xavier’s eyes avoided most people, they avoided Mercédès most assiduously. Aristide looked grimly cheerful, as if someone else had received bad news.

  “Bad luck about the Eleanore, heh? Alain says they’re quoting six thousand francs to repair her, in La Houssinière.”

  “Six thousand?” It was more than the boat was worth; certainly more than the Guénolés could afford.

  “Heh.” Aristide smiled sourly. “Even Rouget says she’s not worth fixing.”

  I looked beyond him at the skyline; a yellow stripe between the clouds illuminated the bare flats with a sickly sheen. Across the mouth of the tidal creek, a few fishermen had spread out their nets and were laboriously picking them clean of seaweed. They had dragged the Eleanore farther up the banking and she lolled, her ribs showing like those of a dead whale, on the mud.

  Behind me, Mercédès rolled elegantly onto her side. “From what I heard,” she said in a clear voice, “it would have been better if she’d kept her nose out.”

  “Mercédès!” moaned her mother. “Such a thing to say!”

  The girl shrugged. “It’s true, isn’t it? If they hadn’t wasted so much time—”

  “Stop that right now!” Charlotte turned to me in agitation. “I’m sorry. She’s highly strung.”

  Xavier looked uncomfortable. “Bad luck,” he told me in a low voice. “She was a good boat.”

  “She was. My father built her.”

  I looked across the flats to where GrosJean was still at work. He must have been nearly a kilometer out, his tiny, dogged figure almost invisible against the haze.

  “How long have they been at it?”

  “Two hours, maybe. Since the tide started to go out.” Xavier shrugged, not meeting my eyes. “She could be anywhere by now.”

  The Guénolés, apparently, felt a responsibility. The loss of their Eleanore had delayed the search, and the crosscurrents from La Jetée had done the rest. It was Alain’s opinion that Sainte-Marine had been buried somewhere across the bay, and that only a miracle could bring her back.

  “La Bouche, the Eleanore, then this.” It was Aristide, still watching me with an expression of dangerous good cheer. “Tell me, have you told your father about Brismand yet? Or is that another surprise?”

  I looked at him, startled. “Brismand?”

  The old man showed his teeth. “I wondered how long it would be before he came sniffing round. A place in Les Immortelles, in exchange for the land? Is that what he offered you?”

  Xavier glanced at me, then at Mercédès and Charlotte. Both of them were listening attentively. Mercédès had abandoned all pretense of reading and was watching me over her magazine, her mouth slightly open.

  I held the old man’s gaze levelly, not wanting to be forced into a lie. “Whatever my business with Brismand, it’s my own. I won’t discuss it with you.”

  Aristide shrugged. “So I was right,” he said with bitter satisfaction. “It’s about what’s best for GrosJean. That’s what they say, isn’t it? That it’s all for the best?”

  I’ve always had a temper. Slow to rise, but banked and burning, it can be fierce. I could feel it rising now. “What would you know about it?” I said harshly. “No one ever came back to look after you, did they?”

  Aristide stiffened. “That’s nothing to do with it,” he said.

  But I couldn’t stop. “You’ve been sniping at me since I arrived,” I said. “What you can’t understand is that I love my father. You don’t love anyone!”

  Aristide flinched as if I had struck him, and at that moment I saw him as he was—no longer an evil troll, but a tired old man, bitter and afraid. I felt a sudden rush of pity and sorrow for him—for myself. I’d come home so full of good intentions, I thought helplessly. Why had they soured so fast?

  But there was spirit in Aristide still; he faced me with a challenge in his eyes, even though he knew I had won. “Why else would you come back?” he said in a low voice. “Why would anyone, unless they wanted something?”

  “Shame on you, Aristide, you old gannet.” It was Toinette, who had come up quietly from the path behind us. Beneath the flaps of her quichenotte, her face was almost invisible, but I could see her eyes, bright as a bird’s, shining. “Listening to silly gossip at your age? You should know better.”

  Aristide turned, startled. Toinette was, by her own account, nearly a hundred years old; he, at seventy, was a comparative youngster. I saw grudging respect in his face, and a kind of shame. “Toinette, Brismand was at the house—,” he began.

  “And why shouldn’t he be?” The old woman took a step forward. “The girl’s family. What? Do you expect her to care about your old feuds? Isn’t that what’s been tearing Les Salants apart for the last fifty years?”

  “I still say—”

  “You’ll say nothing.” Toinette’s eyes snapped like firecrackers. “And if I find you’ve been spreading any more of that nasty talk, heh—”

  Aristide looked sullen. “It’s an island, Toinette. You can’t help hearing things. It won’t be my fault if GrosJean finds out.”

  Toinette looked across at the flats, then at me. There was concern in her face, and I knew then that it was too late. Aristide’s poison was sown. I wondered who had told him about Brismand’s visit, how he had guessed so much.

  “Don’t you worry. I’ll put him right. He’ll listen to me.” Toinette took my hand between both of hers; they were dry and brown as driftwood. “Come along, then,” she said briskly, pulling me with her up the path. “You’ll do no good hanging around here. Come home with me.”

  Her home was a single-room cottage at the far end of the village. It was old-fashioned even by island standards, flint-walled and with a low roof of mossy tiles held up by smoke-blackened beams. Door and windows were tiny, almost child-size, and the toilet was a rickety shed at the side of the house, behind the woodpile. As we approached we could see a single goat cropping the grass that grew on the roof.

  “You’ve gone and done it now, heh,” said Toinette, pushing open the front door.

  I had to duck my head to avoid touching the lintel. “I haven’t done anything.”

  Toinette removed the quichenotte and gave me a stern look. “Don’t try that game with me, girl,” she said. “I know all about Brismand and his schemes. He tried the same thing with me, you know, a place in Les Immortelles in exchange for my house. He even promised to throw in funeral arrangements. Funeral arrangements!” She gave a cackle. “I told him I’m planning to live
forever!” She turned to me, sober again. “I know what he’s like. He’d charm the pants off a nun, if he had a buyer. And he has plans for Les Salants. Plans that don’t include any of us.”

  I’d heard that before at Angélo’s. “If he has, I can’t think what they are,” I said. “He’s been good to me, Toinette. Better than most Salannais.”

  “Aristide.” The old woman frowned. “Don’t judge him too harshly, Mado.”

  “Why not?”

  She prodded me with a sticklike finger. “Your father isn’t the only one who’s suffered here,” she told me sternly. “Aristide lost two sons, one to the sea, the other to his own stubbornness. It’s soured him.”

  His eldest son, Olivier, had died in a fishing accident in 1972. His youngest, Philippe, had spent the next ten years in a house that had become a silent shrine to Olivier. “Of course, he went off the rails.” Toinette shook her head. “He got involved with a girl—an Houssine—you can imagine what Aristide thought about that.”

  She had been sixteen. When Philippe had found out she was pregnant he had panicked and run away to the mainland, leaving Aristide and Désirée to face the girl’s angry parents. All mention of Philippe had been forbidden in the Bastonnet house after that. Olivier’s widow had died of meningitis a few years later, leaving Xavier, her only son, in the care of his grandparents.

  “Xavier’s their only hope now,” explained Toinette, echoing Ghislain’s words. “Anything Xavier wants, he gets. Anything, as long as he stays here.”

  I thought of Xavier’s pale, expressionless face, his restless eyes behind the glasses. If Xavier married, Ghislain had told me, he would be sure to stay. Toinette read my thoughts. “Oh yes, he’s been half-promised to Mercédès since they were children,” she said. “But my granddaughter’s a willful piece. She has ideas.”

  I thought of Mercédès; the note in Ghislain’s voice when he spoke of her.

 
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