Coastliners a novel, p.9
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.9

           Joanne Harris

  But I have my father’s stubbornness in me. She often remarked on it, on our evenings in the little Paris flat. Adrienne was more like her, she said; a loving, friendly girl. I had been a difficult child: withdrawn, sullen. If only Adrienne hadn’t been obliged to move to Tangiers . . .

  I did not respond to these complaints. There was no point in even trying. I had long since stopped pointing out the obvious: Adrienne hardly ever wrote or called, or even once invited us to stay. It was as if she and Marin wanted to put as much distance between themselves and Le Devin—and anything that reminded them of it—as possible. But to my mother, Adrienne’s silence was simply proof of her devotion to her new family. The few letters we received were hoarded greedily; a Polaroid of the children took pride of place above the fire. Adrienne’s new life in Tangiers—romanticized beyond recognition into a fairy tale of souks and temples—was the nirvana to which we should both aspire, and to which we would eventually be called.

  I returned to the house. It was the same alarming shambles as before, and for a moment I almost lost my courage. There was always room for me at Les Immortelles, Brismand had told me. All I had to do was ask. I imagined a clean bed, white sheets, hot water. I thought of my little flat in Paris with its parquet floor and reassuring smell of paint and polish. I thought of the café opposite, and moules-frites on a Friday night, and maybe the cinema later. What was I still doing here? I asked myself. Why was I putting myself through all this?

  I picked up one of my books, smoothing the crumpled pages. A picture story, lavishly illustrated, about a princess transformed by evil magic into a bird, and a hunter . . . As a child I’d had a keen imagination, my inner life compensating for the quiet rhythms of the island. I’d assumed my father was the same. Now I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what—if anything—lay behind his silence.

  I picked up some more books, hating to see them so carelessly spread, crack-spined on the broken glass. My clothes were less important—I’d brought so few with me in the first place, and I’d been planning to buy some in La Houssinière anyway—but I picked them up and put them into the machine to be washed. My few papers, the drawing materials I’d had as a girl—a slab of cracked watercolors, a paintbrush—I replaced in their cardboard box next to the bed. It was then that I saw something by the foot of the bed, something shiny and half-trodden into the piece of carpet that covered the stone floor. Too bright to be glass, it shone with a mellow gleam in a stray fleck of sunlight from between the shutters. I picked it up. It was my father’s locket, the one I’d noticed before, a little dented now and with the remains of its broken chain dangling from the catch. He must have lost it in his rampage, I thought; maybe dragging at his collar in an attempt to loosen it; releasing the chain and failing to notice it as it slithered from under his shirt. I looked at the object more closely. It was silver-gilt, about as large as a five-franc piece, and there was a little catch at the side to open and close it. A woman’s thing, really. For some reason I was reminded of Capucine. A keepsake. I opened it, feeling absurdly guilty, as if I were spying on my father’s secret business, and something fell out into my hand—a fluffy curl of hair. It was brown, like his had once been, and my first thought was that it might have been his brother’s. GrosJean seemed uninclined toward romance, had never, as far as I knew, even remembered my mother’s birthday or their wedding anniversary, and the thought that he might now be carrying a lock of my mother’s hair around with him was so far-fetched as to make me smile uneasily. Then I opened the locket wider and saw the photograph.

  It had been scissored from a larger one; a young face grinning toothily from the gilt frame, short hair spiked up at the front and big round eyes . . . I looked at it in disbelief, studying it, as if by so doing I could transform my own image into that of someone more deserving. But it was me all right; my own photograph from the birthday picture, one hand still frozen on the cake knife, the other reaching out of the frame toward my father’s shoulder. I pulled out the original from my pocket, where it had begun to scuff with repeated handling. In it my sister’s face looked sullen to me now, envious, her head turned away pettishly, like that of a child unused to being denied attention. . . .

  I felt a burst of some emotion that made my cheeks flare and my heart beat more wildly. It was me he’d chosen after all; my picture he’d worn around his neck with a tuft of my baby hair beside it. Not Mother. Not Adrienne. Me. I’d imagined myself forgotten, but all this time I’d been the one he remembered in this way, carried with him in secret, like a lucky charm. What did it matter that he hadn’t answered my letters? What did it matter that he wouldn’t speak?

  I stood up, holding the locket hard in my hand, my doubts forgotten. I knew now exactly what I had to do.

  I waited for nightfall. The tide was almost high then, a good time for what I had in mind. I put on my boots and vareuse and made my way out over the windy dunes. Off La Goulue I could see the dull glow of the mainland, with the beacon flicking out its red warning every few seconds; elsewhere the sea was luminous with that glaucous light peculiar to the Jade Coast, occasionally flaring into harder brilliance as the clouds cleared over a fragment of moon.

  On the roof of his blockhaus, I caught sight of Flynn, looking out into the bay; I could just see him outlined against the sky. I watched him for a moment, trying to make out what he was doing, but he was too far away. I hurried on toward La Goulue, where the tide would soon be turning.

  In the bag slung over my shoulder I had brought a number of the orange plastic floats that island fishermen use for their mackerel nets. As a child I had learned to swim with the help of a life belt made from these floats, and we had often used them to mark lobster pots and crab baskets out off La Goulue, collecting them up from the rocks at low tide, and stringing them together like giant beads. It had been a game then, but a serious one; any fisherman would pay a franc each for the recovered floats, and this was often the only pocket money we received. The game—and the floats—would help me again tonight.

  Standing on the rocks below the cliff, I threw them out to sea, thirty in all, making sure that I aimed past the swell line and into the open current. Once, not so long ago, at least half of the floats would have washed right back into the bay with the next tide. Now—But that was the experiment.

  I stayed watching for a few more minutes. It was warm in spite of the wind; a final breath of summer, and as the clouds dispersed above me, I could see the broad field of the Milky Way across the sky. Feeling suddenly very calm, I waited, under a sky wild and enormous with stars, for the tide to turn.


  * * *

  From the light at the kitchen window I knew GrosJean was back. I could see him outlined there, a cigarette to his lips, his hunched figure like a monolith against the yellow glow. I felt a stir of trepidation. Would he speak? Would he rage?

  He did not look around when I came in. I had not expected him to; instead he remained unmoving among the wreckage he had caused, a cup of coffee in one hand and a Gitane cupped between his yellowed fingers.

  “You dropped your locket,” I said, putting it down on the table beside him.

  I thought I sensed some change in his posture, but he did not look at me. Stolid and heavy as the statue of Sainte-Marine, he seemed unmovable.

  “I’ll make a start on the place tomorrow,” I said. “It needs a little work, but I’ll soon make it comfortable for you again.”

  Still, no answer. As a child I had known how to interpret the signs, reading his gestures like entrails. I’d expected this too; and instead of anger I felt a vast and sudden pity for him, for his sorry silence, his tired eyes.

  “It’s all right,” I said. “You’ll be all right.” And I went to him and put my arms around his neck, smelling his old scent of salt and sweat and paint and varnish, and we sat there like that for about a minute until the cigarette end had burned down to a stub and fell from his hand onto the stone floor in a gaudy splash of sparks.

  I got up early the next m
orning and went off in search of my fishing floats. There was no sign of them either at La Goulue or farther up the creek into Les Salants; not that I had expected any.

  I was in La Houssinière before six; the sky was clear and pale, and there were only a few people—fishermen, mostly—in sight. I thought I saw Jojo-le-Goëland digging out on the flats, and a couple of figures far out on the tide line with the big square nets Houssins use for shrimping. Apart from that, the place was deserted.

  I found the first of my orange floats under the jetty. I picked it up and moved on toward the breakwater, stopping occasionally to turn over a stone or a clump of seaweed. By the time I reached it I had picked up a dozen more of the floats, and spotted three more wedged between rocks, just out of reach.

  All told, sixteen floats. A good catch.

  “Is it a game?”

  I turned too quickly, and my bag dropped onto the wet sand, spilling its contents. Flynn looked at the floats curiously. His hair caught the wind like a warning flag.

  “Well, is it?”

  I remembered his previous day’s coolness. Today he looked relaxed, pleased with himself, the explosive look gone from his eyes.

  I did not reply at once. Instead, I forced myself to pick up the floats and return them, very slowly, to the bag. Sixteen of thirty. A little more than half. But it was enough to confirm what I had already known.

  “I didn’t see you as a beachcomber, somehow,” said Flynn, still watching me. “Found anything interesting?

  I wondered how he had seen me. A city girl on vacation? An interference? A threat?

  Sitting at the foot of the seawall, I told him what I had found, with the aid of drawings in the sand. I was still shaking—the morning wind was cold—but my mind was clear. The proof was there, so easy to spot once you began looking. Brismand would have to pay attention, now that I had found it. He would have to listen to me.

  Flynn took it all with a maddening lack of surprise.

  “Doesn’t it matter to you? Don’t you even care what’s happening here?”

  Flynn was watching me with a curious look. “This is a turnaround for you, isn’t it? Last time I heard you’d just about washed your hands of everybody in Les Salants. Including your father.”

  I felt my face grow hot. “That’s not true,” I said. “I’m trying to help.”

  “I know. But you’re wasting your time.”

  “Brismand will help me,” I said doggedly. “He’ll have to.”

  He smiled without humor. “You think so?”

  “If he won’t, then we’ll think of something ourselves. There’ll be plenty of people in the village wanting to help. Now I’ve got proof—”

  Flynn sighed. “You can’t prove anything to these people,” he said patiently. “Your logic’s beyond them. They’d rather just sit tight and pray and complain until the water goes over their heads. Can you really see any of them putting their differences aside to help the community? Do you think they’d listen to you if you suggested it?”

  I glared at him. He was right, of course. I’d seen as much myself. “I can try,” I said. “Someone has to.”

  He grinned. “You know what they’re calling you in the village? La Poule. Always clucking over something.”

  La Poule. For a moment I stood silently, too angry to speak. Angry at myself, for caring. At his cheery defeatism. At their stupid, bovine indifference.

  “Look on the bright side,” said Flynn maliciously. “At least you’ve got an island name now.”


  * * *

  I should never have spoken to him, I told myself. I didn’t trust him; I didn’t like him; why had I expected him to understand? As I marched across the deserted beach toward the big white house of the same name I felt alternate ripples of hot and cold move over me. Foolishly, I’d sought his approval because he was a stranger; a mainlander, a man who found solutions to technical problems. I’d wanted to impress him with my own conclusions; to prove to him that I wasn’t the busybody he thought me to be. And all he’d done was laugh. Sand slewed beneath my boots as I climbed up the steps toward the esplanade; there was sand under my fingernails. I should never have talked to Flynn, I told myself. I should have gone straight to Brismand.

  I found Brismand in the lobby of Les Immortelles, going through some records. He seemed delighted to see me, and for a moment my relief was such that I found myself dangerously close to tears. His arms engulfed me; his eau de cologne was overwhelming; his voice was a cheery roar. “Mado! I was just thinking about you. I bought you a present.” I had dropped my bag of floaters on the tiled floor. I tried to breathe in his giant embrace. “Just a moment. I’ll get it for you. I think it’s your size.”

  For a minute I was left alone in the lobby while Brismand vanished into one of the back rooms. Then he reemerged carrying something wrapped in tissue paper. “Go on, chérie, open it. Red’s your color. I can tell.”

  Mother had always assumed that, unlike Adrienne and herself, I simply wasn’t interested in pretty things. I’d led her to believe it with my scornful remarks and apparent unconcern for my appearance; but the truth was that I had despised my sister and her pinups and her beauty products and her giggling girlfriends because I’d known it was pointless to take an interest. Better to pretend I didn’t want those things. Better not to care. The tissue paper made small, brittle sounds beneath my fingers. For a moment I was unable to speak.

  “You don’t like it,” said Brismand, his mustache drooping like a sad dog’s.

  Surprise made me inarticulate. “I do,” I managed at last. “It’s lovely.”

  He had guessed my size with perfect accuracy. And the dress was beautiful; bright red crepe de chine that gleamed in the cool morning sunshine. I saw myself wearing it in Paris, perhaps with high-heeled sandals and my hair loose. . . .

  Brismand looked comically pleased with himself. “I thought it might take your mind off things. Give you a lift.” His eyes went to the bag of floaters at my feet. “What’s this, Little Mado? Beachcombing?”

  I shook my head. “Research.”

  I had found it easy to tell Flynn of my conclusions. I found it much less so with Brismand, although he listened with no trace of amusement, occasionally nodding in an interested way as I outlined my findings with the aid of many gestures.

  “This is Les Salants. You can see the direction of the main currents from La Jetée. This is the prevailing wind from the west. This is the Gulf Stream, here. We know La Jetée shelters the eastern side of the island, but the sandbank here”—punctuating the word with a tap of the finger—“diverts this current here, which goes past Pointe Griznoz and finishes up here at La Goulue.”

  Brismand nodded silent encouragement.

  “Or at least, it did once. But now that’s changed. Instead of stopping here it moves past La Goulue—and stops here—”

  “At Les Immortelles, yes.”

  “That’s why the Eleanore missed the cove and ended up on the other side of the island. That’s why the mackerel have moved on!”

  Again, he nodded.

  “But that isn’t all,” I continued. “Why are things changing now? What’s changed?” He seemed to consider that for a moment. His eyes drifted across the seafront, reflecting the sunlight. “Look.” I pointed across the beach toward the new defenses. From where we were sitting we could see them clearly—the snub nose of the dike poking out toward the east; the breakwater at either end.

  “You can see how it’s happened. You’ve extended the dike just enough to make a sheltered place here. The breakwater helps keep the sand from being washed away. And the dike protects the beach and moves the current just a bit this way, bringing sand from la Jetée—from our side of the island—toward Les Immortelles.”

  Brismand nodded again. I told myself he couldn’t have understood the full implications.

  “Well don’t you see what’s happened?” I demanded. “We have to do something. It has to be stopped before the damage goes any further.”<
br />
  “Stopped?” He raised an eyebrow.

  “Well yes. Les Salants—the flooding—”

  Brismand put his hands on my shoulders in a sympathetic way. “Little Mado. I know you’re trying to help. But Les Immortelles has to be protected. That’s why the breakwater was put there in the first place. I can hardly remove it now, just because some currents have shifted. For all we know, they might have shifted anyway.” He gave one of his monumental sighs. “Imagine a pair of Siamese twins,” he said. “Sometimes it’s necessary to separate them so that one may survive.” He peered at me to make sure I understood what he was saying. “And sometimes a difficult choice has to be made.”

  I stared at him, feeling suddenly numb. What was he saying? That Les Salants had to be sacrificed so that La Houssinière could survive? That what was happening was somehow inevitable?

  I thought of all the years he had remained in contact with us; the chatty letters, the parcels of books, the occasional presents. Keeping his options open; staying in touch. Protecting his investment.

  “You knew, didn’t you?” I said slowly. “You’ve known this was going to happen all along. And you never said a word.”

  His posture, shoulders bent and hands sunk into his pockets, managed to convey his deep feeling of hurt at the cruel accusation. “Little Mado. How could you say that? It’s a misfortune, certainly. But these things happen. And if I may say so, it merely goes to reinforce my concern for your father, and my firm belief that he will ultimately be happier somewhere else.”

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