I returned after ten years' absence, on a hot day in late August, on the eve of summer's first bad tides. As I stood watching the approach from the deck of Brismand 1, the old ferry into La Houssinière, it was almost as though I had never left. Nothing had changed: the sharp smell of the air; the deck beneath my feet; the sound of the gulls in the hot blue sky. Ten years, almost half my life, erased at a single stroke, like writing in the sand. Or almost.
I'd brought scarcely any luggage, and that reinforced the illusion. But I'd always traveled light. We both had, Mother and I; there had never been much to weigh us down. And at the end it had been I who paid the rent for our Paris flat, working in a dingy late-night café to supplement the income from the paintings Mother hated so much, while she struggled with her emphysema and pretended not to know she was dying.
All the same I should have liked to have returned wealthy, successful. To show my father how well we'd managed without his help. But my mother's small savings had run out long ago, and my own -- a few thousand francs in a Crédit Maritime; a folder of unsold paintings -- amounted to little more than we'd taken with us the day we left. Not that it mattered. I was not planning to stay. However potent the illusion of time suspended, I had another life now. I had changed.
No one looked at me twice as I stood slightly apart from the others on the deck of the Brismand 1. It was high season, and there were already a good number of tourists aboard. Some were even dressed as I was, in sailcloth trousers and fisherman's vareuse -- that shapeless garment halfway between a shirt and a jacket -- town people trying too hard not to look it. Tourists with rucksacks, suitcases, dogs, and children stood crammed together on the deck among crates of fruit and groceries, cages of chickens, mailbags, boxes. The noise was appalling. Beneath it, the hissshh of the sea against the ferry's hull and the screee of gulls. My heart was pounding with the surf.
As Brismand 1 neared the harbor I let my eyes travel across the water toward the esplanade. As a child I had liked it here; I'd often played on the beach, hiding under the fat bellies of the old beach huts while my father conducted whatever business he had at the harbor. I recognized the faded Choky parasols on the terrasse of the little café where my sister used to sit; the hot dog stand; the gift shop. It was perhaps busier than I remembered; a straggling row of fishermen with pots of crabs and lobsters lined the quay, selling their catch. I could hear music from the esplanade; below it, children played on a beach that, even at high tide, seemed smoother and more generous than I remembered. Things were looking good for La Houssinière.
I let my eyes roam along the Rue des Immortelles, the main street, which runs parallel to the seafront. I could see three people sitting there side by side in what had once been my favorite spot: the seawall below the esplanade overlooking the bay. I remembered sitting there as a child, watching the distant gray jawbone of the mainland, wondering what was there. I narrowed my eyes to see more clearly; even from halfway across the bay I could see that two of the figures were nuns.
I recognized them now as the ferry drew close -- Soeur Extase and Soeur Thérèse, Carmelite volunteers from the nursing home at Les Immortelles, were already old before I was born. I felt oddly reassured that they were still there. Both nuns were eating ice creams, their habits hitched up to their knees, bare feet dangling over the parapet. The man sitting beside them, face obscured by a wide-brimmed hat, could have been anyone.
The Brismand 1 drew alongside the jetty. A gangplank was raised into place, and I waited for the tourists to disembark. The jetty was as crowded as the boat; vendors stood by selling drinks and pastries; a taxi driver advertised his trade; children with trolleys vied for the attention of the tourists. Even for August, it was busy.
"Carry your bags, mademoiselle?" A round-faced boy of about fourteen, wearing a faded red T-shirt, tugged at my sleeve. "Carry your bags to the hotel?"
"I can manage, thanks." I showed him my tiny case.
The boy gave me a puzzled glance, as if trying to place my features. Then he shrugged and moved on to richer pickings.
The esplanade was crowded. Tourists leaving; tourists arriving; Houssins in between. I shook my head at an elderly man attempting to sell me a knot work key ring; it was Jojo-le-Goëland, who used to take us for boat rides in summer, and although he'd never been a friend -- he was an Houssin, after all -- I felt a pang that he hadn't recognized me.
"Are you staying here? Are you a tourist?" It was the round-faced boy again, now joined by a friend, a dark-eyed youth in a leather jacket who was smoking a cigarette with more bravado than pleasure. Both boys were carrying suitcases.
"I'm not a tourist. I was born in Les Salants."
"Yes. My father's Jean Prasteau. He's a boatbuilder. Or was, anyway."
"GrosJean Prasteau!" Both boys looked at me with open curiosity.
They might have said more, but just then three other teenagers joined us. The biggest addressed the round-faced boy with an air of authority.
"What are you Salannais doing here again, heh?" he demanded. "The seafront belongs to the Houssins, you know that. You're not allowed to take luggage to Les Immortelles!"