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The Witch, the Turtle, the Painter’s Palette, the Chaos, the Skull. You didn’t have to be a Breton with particularly spectacular imagination to recognize them. The same went for the Devil’s Castle, the Shark’s Fin, the Bottle, the Upturned Boot, Napoleon’s Hat, which they had already seen. The Mushroom, the Hare.
All of that on just a single walk yesterday.
Today, by contrast, they were lying on the beach. Commissaire Georges Dupin and his girlfriend, chief cardiologist Claire Lannoy. Looking up from their towel at the fantastic pink granite formations. By late afternoon, and above all at sunset, the rocks would begin to acquire a supernatural glow and glimmer as if they didn’t belong to this world. A chaos of mighty, curiously shaped giant rose-colored granite formations, huge lumps of granite, singly or in scattered groups towering above them. All around them: in the sea, rising from the water, on the little island immediately in front of them, but also along the beach, behind them as well, on the solitary Renote peninsula, which was part of the vast strip of sand they were lying on.
All the way along the coast from Trébeurden to Paimpol, the cliffs of the world-famous Côte de Granit Rose were admired. “Rose granite” was the poetic name of the stone that had made this section of coast in northern Brittany famous. It had been used to build prominent national symbols, from the Hôtel de Ville in Paris to the great Charles de Gaulle Monument in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, and the famed Croix de Lorraine. Even in Los Angeles, Budapest, and Seville there were buildings made from the legendary stone. Even back in Neolithic times they had built impressive structures of this rare plutonic rock that apart from here was visible only in a few places in the world: Ontario, Canada; Corsica; Egypt; and China.
It looked as if the bizarre stones had literally fallen from the heavens. As if there had been a wildly scattered shower of extraordinary meteorites. Miraculous boulders, curious signs and symbols, massive, but at the same time seemingly weightless. As if the next gust of wind might blow them away. A magical background—immediately it became clear why great writers and painters, including many friends of Gauguin, had flocked madly to this little spot of land.
From way back the villages along the Rose Coast had been involved in a ferocious contest: Which of them was home to the most extraordinary piece of rock, the most spectacular shapes and tones of pink?
The beach on which they lay had its sensation: the Grève de Toul Drez was the most northerly of Trégastel’s twelve beaches, a “wild beach,” shaped like a sickle, framed with rocky tongues of land and comical stone shapes, from the Tête de Mort in the west, an outcrop in the form of a skull, from which you could also see one of the most amusing granite shapes of the region: the Tas de Crêpes, the Pile of Crêpes, which rather detracted from the horror of the skull. The pair of offshore islands—the Île du Grand Gouffre and the Île de Dé—were protected by all too blustery flood tides which at low tide left an enchanting lagoon, like a large natural swimming pool. Even the sand here was pink. Bright pink and fine grained, and only very gradually drifting into the water. Into a sea that was not just clear but completely transparent. A delicate turquoise green initially, it turned into a shining turquoise blue, strangely magnified by the pink seabed. Only far out in the Atlantic did it become a deep blue. Out there where you could see the larger of the Sept-Îles, the focus of legends, five miles from the coast.
Ever since Claire and Dupin had arrived, two days prior, it had been fabulous high-summer weather. All day long the temperature hovered around a standard thirty degrees Celsius, and there was a superb blue sky. No clouds, no haze. The air was crystal clear, thanks to the light breeze from the Atlantic. The dominant colors contrasted exquisitely: the shining blue of the sky, the greeny-blue turquoise of the sea, and the pink of the sand and rocks.
It was breathtakingly beautiful. Surreal even.
“La douceur de vivre.” That was the way one felt on carefree, balmy summer days like these, the “gentle sweetness of life.” Or as the locals said, La vie en roz—La vie en rose.
* * *
For Georges Dupin it was hell.
They were on vacation. A beach vacation. Nothing could be worse.
“Just lying on the beach” was how Claire had envisioned it. No obligations, no meetings, no work. She had insisted on one stipulation, that they would both promise one thing: that for these few days, they would “under no condition” have anything to do with the commissariat in Concarneau or the clinic in Quimper. No matter what.
“Just the heaven of relaxation and doing nothing,” she had said and sighed happily.
In fact it was not just for “a few days,” but two weeks, a full fourteen days.
It was the longest vacation Dupin had ever taken in his entire career. It had become a subject of conversation in Concarneau. There had even been a short report—wholly gratuitous and satirical—in the local edition of Ouest-France: “Georges Dupin in Trégastel; Monsieur le Commissaire on Vacation!”
Claire had been hoping for an “old-fashioned seaside vacation”: all arranged, lazy, laid-back. A “charming little hotel,” somewhere where you didn’t need a car, where you could get everywhere on foot. And most important of all, “a proper vacation rhythm.” For her that meant sleeping late—Dupin was an enthusiastic early riser—having a late, relaxed breakfast on the terrace—an extended breakfast was not Dupin’s thing—wandering along the beach in airy clothing—Dupin couldn’t stand short pants—grabbing a few sandwiches and drinks along the way—on that point there were no objections until it got to the end: making themselves comfortable on a big soft towel and staying there, apart from a few dips in the sea, until late afternoon.
There was nothing Dupin considered more insufferable than indolence. Nothing got on the commissaire’s nerves more than premeditated leisure. Dupin needed to be on his feet, needed to be busy. He was in his element when he was permanently busy; everything else was torture. Obviously Claire was aware of this. After all, she had known him long enough. And she took it seriously. Very seriously. When she had planned her ill-starred vacation she had in no way just been thinking of herself, she insisted, but “quite specifically” of him too. Claire had a theory, which Dupin considered disastrous, that his “dangerous need for action” had come about in the first place because he was always busy, because of the overkill in internal and external anxiety in recent years, including, as she preferred to put it, “all these mad criminal cases.” And that it had now reached crisis point and he needed a “proper break.”
“A radical break, get properly away from things!” The crazy thing was that Dupin’s doctor, Docteur Garreg, had exactly the same opinion. He had even recognized “prototype symptoms of pathological tension”: his stomach problems, his difficulty sleeping, his coffee addiction … to Dupin’s mind this was absurd.
It was when Nolwenn, Dupin’s irreplaceable assistant, too, had started talking about “absolutely essential time off”—just because Dupin might have of late been occasionally cranky—that he knew he had no hope left. The fact that all three believably insisted they wanted “only the best” for him didn’t make things easier. He had given in.
Then everything went ahead quickly. Nolwenn and her husband vacationed last year in Trégastel-Plage, in a “very pretty hotel.” They had even become friendly with the pair who owned it. Before Dupin knew what was happening, a room had been booked, “double deluxe” with sea view and balcony.
From then on his misfortune had taken its way, and now here they were lying on the big lilac towel.
Dupin had no doubt that this “recreational break” would have one effect only, and that was to leave him in a dire mental state. But it was Claire he was worried about. Ever since Claire had taken over as head of cardiology in Quimper, she had worked herself nearly to death. She was genuinely—unlike him—totally exhausted. In recent months it was not unusual for Claire to have fallen asleep on the sofa before they were both supposed to have supper. She needed a vacation. And for her, Dupin was regrettably convinced, a beach vacation was just the right thing. Ever since they’d been here she’d seemed more relaxed with every moment.
If being on a towel on the beach was already a nightmare in principle for Georges Dupin, there were other factors in play that made things even worse.
The sun was so strong it was impossible to come out without wearing a cap or a sun hat. Dupin hated both. And in any case didn’t have either. So on the way down to the beach yesterday Claire had taken it on herself to buy him a dark blue cap with “I love Brittany” on it, which he glumly pulled on his head. The other thing that was needed at all times was sunscreen. And Dupin couldn’t stand sunscreen either. It stuck to him, no matter what it said on the tube. And that meant that the sand stuck to his body, sand that mysteriously always got onto Dupin’s side of the towel. There was never a single grain on Claire’s side. No matter how Dupin applied the cream, no matter how careful he was, one way or another, sooner or later the cream got into his eye. Both eyes. Which burned like hell, meaning his vision was blurred and he could neither read nor watch the beach life. And apart from reading and watching there was nothing else to do from a towel.
The only relief was the dinner. The hotel restaurant was excellent, and specialized in good-quality local dishes. They had been starving when they arrived the evening before yesterday—Dupin loved it how hungry Claire could get—and within a few minutes they had been sitting out on the terrace with breathtaking views. They had eaten tartelettes de Saint-Jacques, scallops from Rade de Brest, definitely the best, after that cardinal artichokes with vinaigrette, a local pale lilac artichoke, mild and slightly sweet. Even the wine had been great, a young Pinot Noir from the Loire Valley, drunk chilled, one of Dupin’s new preferences for summer days. It had gone perfectly with the marinated salt meadow lamb, and the cocos de Paimpol, the tender white beans that Dupin particularly loved.
Amazing as the meal had been—and the second evening in the restaurant had confirmed the phenomenal impression of the first—a vacation day had more to it than just the dinner. There were still a lot more hours of the remaining twelve to get through.
* * *
Dupin had gone swimming six times. And he had even more frequently walked the length of the beach, from one end to the other. And back again.
Before he had gotten down to the beach—Claire had gone on ahead, she hadn’t wanted to “waste any time”—he had stopped into the newspaper store in the sedate little center of Trégastel and bought the weekend editions of the daily newspapers, taking his time. By now he had read them all cover to cover. Ouest-France had started running its “Summer Special,” on the theme “Does someone have to be born a Breton, or is it possible to become one?” One of the most frivolous and at the same time most popular and fiercely disputed local topics. The answer was simple, genial, and yet melodramatic (which comforted Dupin): “To be a Breton, you don’t need papers or documents, you just need to have made up your mind to be one!”
At the heart of it, according to the passionate summing up, was behavior, innate attitude toward life, the world, other people, and in particular oneself. Daily over the next four weeks, the paper would bring this to life in an amusing game: You know you’re a Breton if…, followed by a series of unmistakable indicators, undisguisable signs:
You believe apéritif time begins at 11:00 A.M., and from then on anything goes.
If you’re intending to commit suicide, you run into a packed bar in Finistère and shout out loud that you’re from Paris.
You think the sound of one bagpipe is more tolerable than that of another.
The date 1532 means something to you, and not something good (the year in which Brittany was annexed by France).
Claire had laid the towel in exactly the same place as yesterday. Which indicated that would be their territory for the rest of the vacation.
“I need to rinse my eyes with water,” Dupin said, and made a face, “with clean water. In the hotel.” He had already stood up.
He didn’t have any better idea for how to get up off the towel again for a while. In any case, it was more or less the truth.
“Then bring us back one of those pains bagnats.”
Dupin had found a little store not far from the hotel whose owner came from Nice and made the traditional southern French flat bread with tuna, tomatoes, olives, and mayonnaise. He had also bought a bottle of rosé wine from Provence that could be taken down to the beach in a portable cooler.
It was half past three.
Claire lay dozing on her stomach. She was wearing a modest black bikini that suited her extremely well. And an outsize straw hat, which Dupin wasn’t particularly fond of: it was ancient and had belonged to her grandmother.
Copyright © 2017 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch