The Surprising Days of Isla Pembroke by Tamsin Keily

One

Isla Pembroke sometimes wonders what it’s like not to smell of fish. She can remember it, almost. That perfume she used to wear on nights out with her school friends; the sweet-smelling laundry detergent she always found oddly comforting. A distant memory now, replaced with the ever-present, ever-pervasive whiff of fish.

On the bright side, she’s probably not the only one. You can’t work at an aquarium and not smell of fish. She wasn’t sure she’d ever look at Finding Nemo in quite the same way, not after battling for three hours to clear out the coral reef tank with a load of gawping tourists watching from the other side of the glass.

Still, she has a job. She has to remind herself of that when the fiftieth visitor of the day asks her where the sharks are, despite the prominent maps stuck everywhere. She reminds herself that while it may not be the marine biology career she was quite imagining, it does at least give her means to survive.

And it could be worse. She could be serving the dead version of her aquarium companions at the local chippy.

Isla stands outside, squinting up at the building she has spent the last seven years practically living in, trying to find some sense of prestige about the place. It’s a struggle, as it has been since she first cast eyes on it. The ‘quirky’ fish sign is still wonky, the turquoise paint is still peeling. Nothing changes. Someone joked on her first day that once people worked here, they never left. Isla laughed back then, disbelieving. Why would anyone spend more than a few months here? She remembers how confidently she dismissed that idea. She wasn’t going to be sticking around. It was just a temporary job, just until her dad got back on his feet after … everything.

But here she is. Seven years later. Stuck. Employee photo starting to peel a little off the staffroom wall. Name tag practically implanted into her chest.

‘You off then, Isla?’

Dennis Baker, Isla’s boss and proud owner of the peeling aquarium she has been squinting at, is heading out of the staff entrance and heading directly towards her. Isla watches as he steps carelessly over a discarded lolly wrapper and she feels her lips purse instinctively. They have a whole bloody exhibition on ocean pollution, for Christ’s sake.

‘Yes, I’m off. The front’s all locked up,’ Isla replies, and does her best surreptitious dance around her boss until she can scoop up the discarded wrapper and deposit it in the bin.

‘Ah, you’re a saint.’ Dennis doesn’t bat an eyelid at Isla’s litter picking, already hoisting his keys from the depths of his pockets. ‘I tried to get Mitch to lock up on the weekend; total disaster. Thank God he’s temporary, Isla; not sure I’d have the patience otherwise …’

Isla feels herself holding back a wince. A grand total of three months; that’s how long Mitch will have worked here by the time he leaves. Wouldn’t that be nice.

‘Isla?’

Apparently expecting some sort of response for his rambling, Dennis is now staring at her with a frown. ‘Sorry,’ she says hastily, though she’s not quite sure what she’s apologising for. ‘Long day. Uh … I should get home. Dad’ll be waiting.’

Dennis gives Isla that sympathetic look that always makes her stomach flip. ‘Sure, sure. On your way.’ She’s halfway turned towards her car when he speaks again. ‘Oh, Isla – I meant to say …’

When Isla glances back, Dennis almost looks uncomfortable. That’s a new one. She frowns, feels that instinctive sense of foreboding that always seems to lurk nearby. ‘What is it?’

‘Look, I know you’ve got a lot on and everything … but there was an email I got this morning. Some local … ocean scientist—’

‘Marine biologist?’

‘That’s the one.’ Isla’s exasperation with his complete lack of knowledge is apparently not obvious on her face because Dennis goes on, unabashed. ‘This marine biologist, she’s doing a talk in London about …’ He snaps his fingers, searching for the words for a moment. Isla feels her teeth grit as she resists the urge to tell him that it’s most likely a lost cause. ‘I think it’s something to do with the ocean.’

‘Probably a fairly good chance.’ Isla’s sarcasm seems to waft right over Dennis’s head before disappearing out towards the nearby ocean.

‘You’re right. Anyway, it’s in London. Two-day thing; they provide a hotel and that. It costs a fair bit but I’m happy to subsidise it, what with you being such a reliable employee and all that.’

Isla feels a swooping sensation in her chest which she eventually identifies as hope. But she swiftly buries it before it can get too comfortable. ‘Oh. Wow. That does sound great.’ For a second, quick as a blink, she considers what would happen if she took up his offer. She tries to imagine herself standing in London, attending a conference with other people who actually cared about the ocean and not just how many stuffed whales sold in the gift shop. But then she shakes her head and chases the idea away. ‘But I can’t. It’s just … not a good time.’

Isla can sense Dennis’s unspoken words hovering around her ears. There hasn’t been a good time for nine years, Isla. But, to give him credit, he doesn’t say anything of the sort. Instead he nods slowly. ‘I get it, I do. Just give it some thought, though, eh? I’m putting up a sign-up sheet in the staffroom tomorrow. Plenty of time to think on it.’

Plenty of time, right. Just like she’s had plenty of time to move away from this tiny corner of the world. Just like she’s had plenty of time to fix the cracks wriggling through her life.

Plenty of time has a funny way of slipping past in the blink of an eye.

Isla watches Dennis stride off towards his car with the air of someone who is quite content with his lot in life. Must be great, she decides, to be settled with your life decisions. Even if they’re somewhat misguided.

Then she feels the breeze from the sea kick up the ends of her curls, smiles a little to herself as she allows it to soothe that tightening of her chest that she always feels when she’s leaving for home. She calls it instinct.

Her own car waits for her in its usual space. She knows she could be an hour late to work and nobody would park their car in that space instead, because that’s ‘her’ space. It makes her feel a little sick to think about it.

Time to get home; the lesser of two evils. She thinks. Isla wrestles with the stiff lock, then the creaking door, then the sticky ignition. The silent car park is filled with the sputtering of an engine past its best, then Isla sets off for home.

It’s a perfect early autumn evening, with the sunshine just dipping behind the far-off horizon and casting a hazy glow over the ocean. As Isla drives along the coast, she feels the usual temptation to just turn and stare at the glittering water. To get lost in its wonderful unpredictability.

But she can’t. There are hairpin turns to navigate every five seconds, as the road stubbornly tries to match the wild edges of the coastline. Her hometown, Karrekoth, gets its name from the unusual stone standing on its beach, but Isla has always wondered if perhaps it should be named after the heart-stopping route you have to take to get to it. ‘Car-Off-The-Bloody-Cliff’ feels more accurate but, then again, Cornwall is full of villages and towns that have heart-stopping routes to get to them.

As she feels the sunshine on her skin, feels the wind racing through the open window and agitating her curls, Isla lets the potential of Dennis’s offer weigh on her shoulders, just for a moment. Here in the car, away from his sympathetic gaze and still a few miles away from her home, she’s safe to consider it.

She doesn’t hate her job, not really. The days pass at a steady rate and the wages are enough to keep them afloat, which is the most important thing. But it’s hardly rescuing sea turtles or tracking blue whales. When she stood proudly in front of her class, aged seven, and told them that she wanted to be a marine biologist, this was not quite what she had in mind.

You’re only twenty-eight.That’s what her head keeps saying. There’s still time. But it has been nine years since she put everything on hold, left university to come home, and told herself that she’d get the future back on track one day. And that dream job still feels far, far beyond the horizon.

Isla hears the clanking of boat masts and the shouting of fishermen and it pulls her back to reality. The road has wound its way up one side of a cliff and then down the other, bringing Isla and her dusty car to the harbour of Karrekoth. It’s time to focus. She’ll be home in four minutes, unless she gets stuck behind Bobby Mercer’s bloody boat trailer, in which case it will be eight minutes. Bobby Mercer, who is far too paranoid to leave his prized boat in the harbour at night and so painstakingly and extremely cautiously drives it home at the end of every day.

Her phone rings just as she’s accelerating a little past the harbour ramp to beat said bloody trailer. The sound makes her jump, the buzzing coming angrily from the cupholder by her elbow. A quick glance and she can see it’s her father so she pulls into the bus stop, ignoring the dirty looks she gets from those waiting. Chances are that he wants something from the shops and Isla really doesn’t want to have to come back out to the village again once she’s home. And if it’s not that then it’s something worse and she really can’t miss it.

She snatches up the phone and balances it against her ear, keeping one eye on her wing mirror in case the bus changes the habit of a lifetime and arrives on time. ‘Dad?’

‘Hey, bud. Where are you?’

Isla lets a small sigh of relief rattle down the speakers at her father’s steady tone, though it’s paired with slight exasperation. It’s not like her routine changes. Ever. ‘About three minutes away. I’ve just pulled into the bus stop so obviously I’m Karrekoth’s Most Wanted right now. So what’s the matter?’

Jasper Pembroke has become a man of few words but even by his standards he seems hesitant to speak. Isla can almost hear the gears in his brain grinding to a halt. ‘Dad?’ Isla prompts again, trying her best not to sound irritated. Practice should make perfect but it hasn’t quite yet. ‘I’m literally three minutes away … so unless it’s something from town that you wanted, can it wait?’

‘It’s Morgan.’

The words spill down the speaker so rapidly that at first she doesn’t understand them. Maybe Jasper senses this because he repeats them a second later. ‘It’s Morgan, Isla.’

She can’t remember when she heard that name last. Maybe that’s why she finds the seconds ticking away in silence. Hearing her sister’s name has doubled her heart rate instantly. Isla feels it smacking painfully against her ribs, as if it’s trying to escape the pain that might be heading its way. And she’s not sure if the icy feeling coursing through her veins is anger or fear.

‘What about her?’ Isla finally asks, feeling her suddenly dry lips sticking together as she tries to speak.

‘She’s back, Isla. Morgan’s back.’