Coastliners a novel, p.8
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.8

           Joanne Harris
 
“And she’d never marry a poor man,” said Toinette. “The minute the Guénolés lost their boat, their boy lost his chance with her.”

  I considered that. “You’re not suggesting the Bastonnets had something to do with what happened to the Eleanore?”

  “I’m saying nothing. I don’t spread gossip. But whatever happened to her, you, of all people, shouldn’t get involved.”

  Again I thought of my father. “He loved that boat,” I said stubbornly.

  Toinette looked at me. “Maybe he did, heh. But it was the Eleanore P’titJean took out on that last trip of his, the Eleanore that was found drifting the day he was lost, and every time your father’s looked at her since he must have seen his brother there calling him. Believe me, he’s better off without her.”

  Toinette smiled and took my hand, her small fingers dry and light as dead leaves. “Don’t worry about your father, Mado,” she said. “He’ll be all right.”

  12

  * * *

  I arrived at the house half an hour later to find that GrosJean had been there before me. The door was ajar, and as soon as I approached I knew something was wrong. A strong smell of alcohol reached me from the kitchen, and as I stepped into the room my feet crunched on glass from a broken bottle of devinnoise.

  It was only the beginning.

  He had smashed every piece of crockery and glassware he could lay his hands on. Every cup, plate, bottle, had been broken. My mother’s Jean de Bretagne dishes, the tea service, the little row of liqueur glasses in the cabinet. The door to my room was open; my boxes of clothes and books scattered. The flower vase by my bedside had been trampled; the flowers trodden into the pulverized glass. The silence was eerie, still resonating with the force of his rage.

  This was not entirely new to me. My father’s frenzies had been infrequent but terrible and, always followed by a quietus that lasted days, sometimes weeks. My mother had always said that it was the silences that preyed on her most; the long intervals of blankness, the times when he seemed absent from everything but his rituals: his visits to La Bouche, his drinking sessions at Angélo’s bar, his solitary walks by the seashore.

  I sat down on the bed, my legs feeling suddenly weak. What had caused this new outburst? The loss of the Saint? The loss of the Eleanore? Something else?

  I considered what Toinette had told me about P’titJean and the Eleanore. I had never known. I tried to imagine what my father must have felt when she was lost. Sadness, perhaps, at the loss of his oldest creation? Relief that P’titJean had finally been laid to rest? I began to understand now why he hadn’t been at the rescue. He’d wanted her to be lost; and I, fool that I was, had tried to save her.

  I picked up a book—one of the ones I had left behind—and smoothed out its cover. His rage had seemed to target books especially; some had had pages torn out; others had been trampled. I had been the only one of us who enjoyed books; Mother and Adrienne had preferred magazines and the television. I could not help thinking that this destruction was a direct attack at me.

  It was only a few minutes later that I thought to try Adrienne’s room. Of course, it was untouched. GrosJean did not even appear to have looked in. I put my hand to my pocket, checking the birthday photo inside. It was still there. Adrienne smiled at me across the space where I had been, her long hair half hiding her face. I remembered how she had always been given a present on my birthday. That year it had been the dress she was wearing in the picture, a white shift with red embroidery. I’d had my first fishing rod. I’d liked it, of course; but I’d sometimes wondered why no one ever bought me a dress.

  I lay on Adrienne’s bed for a long time with the smell of devinnoise in my nostrils and the faded pink bedspread against my face. Then I stood up. I saw myself in her wardrobe mirror: pale, puffy-eyed, lank-haired. I took a good look. Then I left the house, walking carefully over the broken glass. Whatever was wrong with GrosJean, I told myself—whatever was wrong with Les Salants—I was not the one to mend it. He’d made that very clear. This was where my responsibility ended.

  I made for La Houssinière with more relief than I could admit to myself. I had tried, I repeated. I really had. If I had had any kind of support, but my father’s silence, the undisguised hostility of Aristide, even the equivocal kindness of Toinette, showed me I was alone. Even Capucine, when she discovered my intentions, would most likely take my father’s side. She’d always been fond of GrosJean. No, Brismand was right. Someone had to be reasonable. And the Salannais, clinging desperately to superstition and the old ways while the sea took more of them every year, were not likely to understand. It would have to be Brismand. If I could not make GrosJean see sense, then maybe Brismand’s doctors would.

  I took the long way round toward Les Immortelles, past La Bouche. I saw no one except Damien Guénolé, sitting alone on the rocks with his fishing bag and rods. I waved to him, and he nodded but said nothing. The tide was beginning to come back in with a distant rush of white noise. Beyond that, at the narrowest point of the island, you can watch the tide coming in from both sides at once. Someday, the waist that joins the two parts of Le Devin will be breached, cutting off Les Salants from La Houssinière for good. When that happens, I thought, it will be the end of the Salannais.

  I was halfway to Les Immortelles when I met Flynn coming the other way. I had not expected to see anyone else—the shoreline path was narrow and infrequently used—but he seemed unsurprised to see me. And his manner seemed altered this morning: the cheery carelessness of the man replaced by a cautious neutrality, his eyes almost without light. I wondered if it was because of what had happened the night of the Eleanore, and I felt a tightening around my heart.

  “No sign of the Saint, then?” Even to myself, my brightness rang false.

  “You’re going to La Houssinière.” It wasn’t a question, although I could see he expected a reply. “To see Brismand,” he went on, in the same neutral tone.

  “Everyone seems very interested in my movements,” I said.

  “They should be.”

  I heard the sharp note in my voice. “What does that mean?”

  “Nothing.” He seemed about to go on his way, stepping aside to give me space, his eyes already somewhere else. Suddenly it seemed very important to stop him from leaving. He, at least, should understand my point of view. “Please. You’re his friend,” I began. I knew he understood who I meant.

  He paused for a moment. “So?”

  “So maybe you can talk to him. Persuade him, somehow.”

  “What?” he said. “Persuade him to leave?”

  “He needs special care. I have to make him see that. Someone has to be responsible.” I thought about the house, the broken glass, the dismembered books. “He might harm himself,” I said at last.

  Flynn looked at me, and I was startled to see such a hard expression in his eyes. “It sounds reasonable,” he said softly. “But you and I know better, don’t we?” He smiled, not pleasantly. “It’s about you. This talk of responsibility—that’s all it comes to in the end. What suits you.”

  I tried to tell him it wasn’t like that. But words that had seemed so natural when Brismand said them merely sounded fake and helpless coming from my mouth. I could tell Flynn thought so; that I was doing it for myself, for my own security, or even as a kind of revenge on GrosJean for all those years of silence. . . . It wasn’t like that, I tried to tell him. I was sure it wasn’t.

  But Flynn was no longer interested. A shrug, a nod, and he was gone down the path as fast and as silent as a poacher, leaving me to stare after him in growing anger and bewilderment. Who the hell was he, anyway? What gave him the right to judge me?

  Arriving at Les Immortelles I found that my anger, instead of fading, had grown. I no longer trusted myself to speak with Brismand—half afraid that the first kind word might open the floodgates to the tears that had threatened since the day of my arrival. Instead I loitered by the jetty, enjoying the quiet sounds of the water and the little pleasure boats that winge
d across the bay. It was early yet for tourists; only a few lay at the top of the beach underneath the esplanade, where a row of freshly painted beach huts squatted on the white sand.

  On the other side of the street I became aware of a young man watching me from the saddle of a flashy Japanese motorbike. Long hair over his eyes, cigarette held loosely between the fingers, tight jeans, leather jacket, and motorcycle boots . . . It took a moment for me to recognize him. Joël Lacroix—the handsome and much-indulged son of the island’s only policeman. He left his bike standing by the curbside and made his way across the road toward me.

  “You’re not from here, are you?” he asked, taking a drag from his cigarette. It was clear he didn’t remember who I was. Why should he, after all? The last time I had spoken to him we were at school, and he was a couple of years older than I.

  He eyed me appreciatively, grinning. “I could show you around if you like,” he suggested. “See some sights, what there is, anyway. There’s not much.”

  “Some other time, thanks.”

  Joël flicked his cigarette across the road. “Where are you staying, heh? Les Immortelles? Or have you got relatives here?”

  For some reason—perhaps that speculative gaze—I was reluctant to reveal who I was. I nodded. “I’m in Les Salants.”

  “You must like roughing it, heh? Out west among the goats and the salt marshes? Half of them have got six fingers to each hand over there, you know. Clo-ose families.” He rolled his eyes, then looked at me more closely, with belated recognition. “I do know you,” he said at last. “You’re the Prasteau girl. Monique—Marie—”

  “Mado,” I said.

  “I heard you’d come back. I didn’t recognize you.”

  “Why should you?”

  Joël flicked his hair back self-consciously. “So you came back to Les Salants? It takes all kinds.” My indifference had cooled his interest. He lit up again, using a silver Harley-Davidson lighter almost as big as the packet of Gitanes. “Me, give me the city anytime. One day I’m just going to get on my bike and take off, heh. Anywhere but here. You won’t see me hanging around Le Devin for the rest of my life.” He pocketed his lighter and sauntered back across the street toward the waiting Honda, leaving me alone again in front of the beach huts.

  I had taken off my shoes, and beneath my toes the sand was already warm. Once more I was conscious of its thickness. Last night’s tractor tracks still marked it in one place; I remembered how the trailer’s wheels had caught in it as we labored to push the crippled Eleanore toward the road; how it had given beneath our combined weight; and the scent of wild garlic on the dunes. . . .

  I stopped. That scent. I’d thought of it then too. Somehow at the time I’d associated it with Flynn; and with something Matthias Guénolé had said, his hands shaking with rage at some comment by Jojo-leGoëland, something about a beach.

  That was it. It could have been ours.

  Why? Luck turns, he’d said. But why mention the beach? Still it eluded me; smelling of thyme and wild garlic and the salt scent of the dunes. Never mind; it wasn’t important. I walked as far as the water, coming in now but taking its time, trickling gently through the runnels in the sand, seeping up through the hollow places beneath the rocks. To the left of me, not far from the jetty, was the dike, newly reinforced with stone blocks to form a broad breakwater that reached over a distance of a hundred meters. Two children were already climbing there; I could hear their cries, so like those of the seagulls, in the clear air. I tried to imagine what a beach would have done for Les Salants: the trade it might have brought, the infusion of life. The beach makes your luck, Matthias had said. Lucky Brismand lived up to his name once again.

  The rocks that formed the breakwater were still smooth and unmarred by barnacles or seaweed. On the near side it was maybe two meters high, from the far side the drop was much shorter. Sand had accumulated there, deposited by the current. I could hear the two children playing there, throwing handfuls of weed at each other in shrill excitement. I looked back at the beach huts. The single surviving hut at La Goulue had been perched high above the ground; I remembered its long legs, like an insect’s, anchored into the rock. The huts at Les Immortelles were snug to the ground, with barely a space beneath in which to crawl.

  The beach had gained some sand, I told myself.

  Suddenly I had it; the scent of wild garlic intensified, and I heard Flynn saying a jetty and a beach and everything. He’d been talking about La Goulue; I’d been looking at the beach hut and wondering where all the sand had gone.

  The children were still throwing seaweed. There was a lot of seaweed on the far side of the breakwater; not as much as there had once been at La Goulue, but at Les Immortelles someone probably came to clear it every day. Moving closer I could see that there were dark red patches among the brown and green, a red that reminded me of something. I poked at it with my foot, removing the layer of seaweed that covered it.

  And then I saw it. It had been badly treated by the tide; the silk had frayed and the embroidery unraveled, and the whole thing was clotted with wet sand. But it was impossible to mistake. Sainte-Marine’s ceremonial skirt, torn from the statue on the night of the festival and washed up, not at the Greedy One, as we might have expected, but here, at Les Immortelles, the luck of La Houssinière. Washed up by the tide.

  The tide.

  Suddenly I found that I was shaking, but not with the cold. The Salannais had blamed the south wind for all their misfortunes, but in fact it was the tides that had changed; the tides, which had once brought the fish to La Goulue and which now stripped it of everything it had; the tides, which drove straight up the little creek into the village, where once Pointe Griznoz had protected us.

  I stared at the piece of rotten silk for a long time, hardly daring to breathe. I thought of the beach huts, the sand, the original breakwater. When had it first been built? When had the beach and the jetty at La Goulue been washed away? And now this new construction, built onto the old one so recently that even the barnacles had yet to settle?

  One thing leads to another; small connections, small changes. Tides and currents can change quickly on an island as small and sandy as Le Devin; and the effect of any such change can be devastating. Bad tides washing the sand away, Ghislain had told me the night of Eleanore’s rescue. Brismand was protecting his investment.

  Brismand had been kind to me, concerned about the flooding. And he had expressed interest in GrosJean’s land. He had offered to buy Toinette’s house too. How many others had he also approached?

  13

  * * *

  My first impulse was to go and see Brismand straightaway. On second thought, however, I decided against it. I could see his look of astonishment, the gleam of humor; I could hear the rich sound of his laughter as I tried to explain my suspicions. And he’d been kind to me, almost a father. I felt hateful for even suspecting him.

  Capucine and Toinette seemed less than interested when I tried to explain what I’d seen. There had been more flooding during the night, and there was even less good cheer than usual in Angélo’s as the Salannais drowned their new sorrows in gloomy silence.

  “Now if you’d found the Saint herself—” Toinette grinned, exposing peggy teeth. “She’s the luck of Les Salants, not some beach that might have been here thirty years ago. And you’re not saying Sainte-Marine made it all the way to Les Immortelles, are you? Now that would have been a miracle.”

  I tired to curb my exasperation. This talk of miracles and luck seemed only to reinforce their defeatism, their inactivity. It was as if they and I were speaking a completely different language.

  Of course there was still no sign of the missing Saint at the Pointe, or even at La Goulue. More likely she was buried, said Toinette, sunk in the low-tide mud off La Griznoz, to be rediscovered in twenty years’ time by some child digging for clams—that is, if she was discovered at all.

  The general feeling in the village was that the Saint had abandoned Les Salants. The
more superstitious ones spoke of a Black Year to come; even the younger villagers were dispirited by their loss. “The festival of Sainte-Marine was the only thing we did as a community,” explained Capucine, pouring a generous measure of devinnoise into her coffee cup. “It was the only time we ever tried to pull together. Now everything’s coming apart. And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

  She gestured toward the window, but I did not need to look outside to understand what she meant. Neither the weather nor the fishing had improved. The August high tides were coming to an end, but September would bring worse, and October would bring storms that would sweep off the Atlantic and across the island. The Rue de l’Océan was churned mud. As well as the Eleanore, several of the flat-bottomed platts had been washed out to sea, even though they had been dragged far beyond the tide line. Worst of all, the mackerel seemed now to have completely disappeared, and fishing was at a standstill. To make matters worse, fishermen in La Houssinière were going through a period of unrivaled prosperity.

  “I don’t understand you!” I exclaimed. “What’s happened to Les Salants? Everything’s a mess, the road’s half-flooded, boats washed away, houses falling down. Why isn’t someone doing something about it? Why are you people just sitting around, watching it happen?”

  Aristide replied over his shoulder, “What are we supposed to do, heh? Try to turn back the tide, like King Canute?”

  “There’s always something,” I said. “What about sea defenses, like those in La Houssinière? Sandbags, if nothing else, to protect the road?”

  “Useless,” spat the old man, shifting his wooden leg impatiently. “You can’t control the sea. Might as well spit in the wind as try.”

  The wind felt good on my face as I walked dispiritedly across the Rue de l’Océan. What was the point of trying to help? It is this stubborn stoicism that characterizes the Salannais, a trait born not of self-assurance but of fatalism, even superstition. I picked up a rock from the road and flung it as far as I could against the wind; it dropped into a clump of oyat and was lost. For a moment I thought of my mother, how all her warmth and her good intentions had been eroded away, leaving her dry and anxious and filled with bitter thoughts. She had loved the island too. For a time.

 
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JOANNE HARRIS SERIES:

Chocolat
Loki
Runemarks

 

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