The Surprising Days of Isla Pembroke by Tamsin Keily

Two

The village of Karrekoth is located in a tiny inlet on the southern coast of Cornwall, far down enough to feel that you’re one step away from tipping off the country entirely. It is known for two things: the towering and oddly-shaped rock on one of its beaches, and the thunderstorms. Isla never really understood the hows and whys of it all, just that Karrekoth has more thunderstorms per year than any other place in the country. She knows the folklore behind it of course, but she long ago dismissed that as credible evidence. Lightning has no personal relation with the sea, for goodness’ sake.

But as Isla Pembroke completes the last part of her homeward journey, the sky looks calm. A few clouds loiter right off in the distance but they’re white and fluffy, not dark and menacing. Nothing, except for a possible storm brewing between two sisters. Which some meteorologists might call more dangerous.

As she squeezes her car through the typically narrow streets of the village, Isla tries to remember the last time she heard from her sister. Two months ago, she decides. The same message as always: Safe. M x, as if receiving that on a vaguely bi-monthly schedule makes her abandoned family feel any less worried. It’s been four years of those messages and they’re yet to make Isla feel anything but a tightening sensation in her chest. She feels her hands stiffen against the wheel, forces herself to focus on not driving into a building. She just needs to get home. Probably best not to think about her sister until she’s out of the moving vehicle. She just needs to get home.

She whizzes past the tiny line of shops that make up Karrekoth’s commercial centre; the gift shop, the off-licence, the post office. Isla feels her eyes linger on the post office like always, almost catches the familiar scent of envelope glue and sherbet lemons. But then she’s passed it, she’s leaving the main streets of the village and the sea is back to meandering along beside her. The memory slips away, settles back into the dark. Isla lets out the smallest breath that she never realised she was holding.

The car gives a little creak of complaint as Isla brakes abruptly to avoid hitting Cora Myrtle and her ridiculously minuscule terrier as they make their way back from their evening walk on the main beach. Usually, Isla would leap at the chance to stall her trip home by talking to one of the few friends from school who still lived in Karrekoth, but Isla knows there isn’t time. Still, Cora is waving at her in an impatient fashion and Isla knows she can’t ignore her completely. She brings the car to a shaky stop, winding down the window with a series of squeaks.

‘Hey, where’s the fire?’ Cora asks, once the barrier of glass is gone between them. ‘You’ll be all over the Karrekoth Watch Facebook page with driving like that.’

Isla suppresses a shudder at the thought. The sooner that particular Facebook page got banned the better. ‘Karrekoth’s Most Wanted, that’s me.’ Cora snorts at what both know to be a frankly ridiculous idea but gives Isla an expectant look. Apparently Isla is not giving off the casual attitude she’s aiming for.

‘Uh, Morgan’s home,’ Isla finally says, and is quietly proud at how she says each word without too much of a tremor.

‘Fuck,’ Cora’s eyes widen. ‘Are you serious?’

‘Afraid so.’

‘How long’s that been?’

Isla pauses, tries to pretend as if she doesn’t know the exact number of months and weeks. ‘Um, four years, give or take a few weeks.’

Cora shakes her head. ‘Shitting hell …’ she whispers, never one for particularly eloquent statements. ‘Well, you’d better get going then, girl! And give her hell from me, eh?’

Isla doesn’t need to be told twice, though of course she knows it’s not quite as simple as just giving Morgan ‘hell’, whatever that actually means. She shoots her friend a grateful smile, winds the window up, then starts off down the road again. In the rear-view mirror, Isla watches as Cora stands still for a moment, still apparently in shock. Well, at least Isla now knows she’s not the only one.

The road sharply veers down a slope to the right, further away from the main village. The surface becomes a little more uneven beneath the car and Isla wrestles fiercely with the steering wheel to keep it straight. The car half bounces past the beach café, past the slightly decrepit-looking public toilets, then takes a left turn with a sudden burst of speed. Her homeward road is heading back up a hill and Isla knows that you need a run-up if you’re going to make it.

The car lets out a groan of almost despair as it’s forced into the steep ascent and Isla half expects to see smoke billowing out of the bonnet (again). But by some miracle they make it; up the hill, over the top, and through an open wooden gate, into the scrubby patch of grass that serves as a front drive for the Pembroke home.

Technically speaking, the whitewashed house in front of them should be called the Birch home, as it belonged to Isla’s mother’s family. Konan Birch, Isla’s grandfather, stubbornly lived in it until the day before he died, and let it go slightly to ruin in the meantime. But then when Isla’s mother, Marina, inherited it she began to turn it into something resembling a functioning home, with toilets that flushed, ovens that didn’t pose a health risk, even internet access.

Isla remembers how she used to call it a castle. At the time, she’d never seen one in real life, and so her house, with its large windows, heavy doors, tight-cornered staircases, was close enough. Castles were always on hills, after all, and her house clung to the edge of the tallest one she knew back then. Castles had crumbling walls and her house definitely felt a little crumbly at times. Scruffy, that’s what her mother called it. A pain in the neck, that’s what her father calls it these days.

Isla finds something strangely comforting in the confident way her home presents itself directly to the elements of the sea, in the carefully arranged seashells cemented around the somewhat warped door frame. The grass that tickles around Isla’s ankles is the grass she learnt to walk on, the sound of the ocean that crashes against the beach below is the sound that has lulled her to sleep since birth.

But all castles have dungeons. And sometimes she hears the echo of a locked door, feels the walls closing in around her.

It’s with slight hesitation that Isla steps from the car and closes the door. The house looms over her and she can almost feel its incredulity at her stalling. She finds her shoulders stiffening at this imagined criticism. Why shouldn’t she stall? It’s perfectly reasonable, considering what’s waiting for her on the other side of the peeling front door.

Suddenly, said door opens. Isla feels her feet take an instinctive step back towards the car. Four years and nothing has changed. She’s still scared.

Except it’s her father, not her sister, who steps from the house. Isla feels a distant sense of relief to see that he has at least got dressed today. His jeans need a wash and his shirt is incredibly crinkled but it’s something. He may even have shaved.

Isla can tell from a few feet away that he’s stressed, though. Usually his eyes are hollow, apathetic caves but now there’s a frantic spark of panic instead. His shoulders seem more tense than usual and Isla feels her instinct to protect him rearing up inside her. Except there’s nothing to protect him from. A father shouldn’t need to be protected from his daughter. Especially not by his other daughter.

‘Hey, Dad,’ she says, keeping each word carefully level. ‘What’s going on then?’

By this time, she’s reached his side. He touches her shoulder briefly, perhaps hoping to find some comfort from this contact. ‘I just got back from fixing Paul’s boat for him, you know, like we talked about. Bloody fool keeps using duct tape so it was a right mess—’

‘Focus, Dad.’ She says it kindly, holding back the fluttering impatience in her stomach.

‘I came home and she was just there … in the kitchen. Didn’t even think she still had a key …’

‘Have you spoken to her?’ A strange question, sure. But she never quite knows with her father.

‘I tried to. A little. But she wouldn’t say much.’

Isla takes these words with a heavy pinch of salt. Her father won’t talk to her about the bills because he finds it ‘uncomfortable’; she can’t imagine him having much to say to the daughter who walked out on them four years ago.

‘Right. Okay.’ The heavy weight of responsibility sits on her shoulders. It should be familiar, almost comfortable by now. But it’s not. It still makes her muscles ache. ‘I’ll go find out what’s going on, okay? It’s going to be fine.’

Jasper takes a step to the side and Isla feels the shift, like when aeroplane pilots switch control. Her aircraft now. As if it isn’t always.

She pulls herself together then steps into the house. Leaving her bag by the door, she skirts around her father’s toolbox, steps instinctively over the wobbly floorboard, straightens the constantly askew photo frame. Just like always. Little rituals that make it feel like a normal evening when Isla has the distinct sensation that it’s not.

The kitchen is almost exactly how Isla left it this morning, right down to the abandoned bowl of cereal by the sink that she had to leave when she realised the clock on the wall had stopped and she was running late. The only difference now is that there’s somebody sitting in a seat that has stayed empty for the last four years.

She looks younger. That’s the first thing Isla notices about her sister. Morgan Pembroke has been gone for four years and yet somehow she looks younger than she did when she left. Though perhaps that memory has become muddied over the years. Isla can’t actually remember exactly how she looked before she left; she didn’t know it would be the last time for a while after all; she didn’t take notes.

Morgan has the dark brown hair of her father, in contrast to Isla’s – and their mother’s – ginger curls. It used to be chin length but she’s let it grow, judging by the size of the haphazard bun it’s been scraped back into. Though the fringe has stayed the same, Isla notices. Still skimming just above her eyes, as if it offers her sister a strange sense of refuge. She’s still hiding then. Isla feels that bitter thought lodge in her chest, burrowing down like a tick.

Morgan looks up from the table the moment she hears Isla enter. For a second, Isla is a little floored. Their father used to joke, long ago, that his daughters’ green eyes could stop the ocean with a glare. Isla is used to seeing that fierce look in her own reflection; now she remembers how different it is to see it in real life, staring back at you.

Isla is also struck by the hope she can see there. What exactly is Morgan hoping for? Isla tries not to let this thought linger too long; she doesn’t want to go into this interaction already irritated. She expertly fixes a smile in place, hesitates, then comes to sit across from her sister. ‘Well, this is a surprise.’

Morgan blinks; Isla sees the hope disappear instantly. Clearly she didn’t quite keep the irritation out of her voice, then. ‘Hey, Isla,’ she says, fingernails digging into the worn wood of the table. The scratching squeaks of the wood bring a wave of familiarity over Isla. Funny, the things she’s forgotten her sister took with her, right down to the smallest sounds. ‘Yeah. I came back.’

‘You … came back?’ Isla echoes, trying not to sound as if she’s picking apart her sister’s words.

Of course, Morgan narrows her eyes in a way that suggests that’s exactly what it sounds like. ‘Yes,’ she responds, voice stiff.

‘Mogs …’ Her old nickname. Isla hasn’t said that word in so long and it feels strange on her tongue, almost as though it doesn’t fit any more. Yet it has arrived, without her really thinking about it. ‘What’s going on? We’ve been worried sick. You walked out on us, without a word. And all this time we’ve had no idea where you were, what you were doing.’ Isla feels anger seeping into her words already and she grips her hands together tightly in a hopeless attempt to stall it.

‘You knew I was safe. I told you I was safe,’ Morgan says, but without much feeling.

Isla lets those words sit in silence for a moment, lets her sister feel how irrelevant they really are. Finally, she speaks again. ‘Yes. You did. Every once in a while, we knew you were safe. That makes it all fine, I guess?’

Morgan sighs, rests her forehead against one hand. ‘Isla, please.’

‘You come home after four years of basically radio silence; you leave us in the middle of the night with not one word? A seventeen-year-old kid disappearing on us, after all we’ve been through? After all Dad’s been through. And now you come back and … what? You expect me to drop it? Do you even know me?’ She tries to make it light-hearted, that she’s almost telling a joke. But she knows she’s failing. Of course she’s failing. Some things cannot be said without bitterness at their core.

Morgan lets out a small sound, almost like a groan, of frustration. Or maybe it’s fear. Those two feelings have always been entwined pretty closely within Isla’s sister. ‘I didn’t … I wasn’t saying drop it … Just …’ She trails off, each of those words seeming to have exhausted her beyond the point of continuing.

‘Why now?’ The question slams into the uneasy silence between the sisters and Isla almost considers whether she can still pull it back because she’s not actually sure she’s ready for the answer.

There’s the creak of scratched wood again, as Morgan’s fingernail digs deeper into the surface of the table. Isla watches how her eyes darken, how the green seems to become poisoned. Morgan shakes her head slowly, almost imperceptibly.

But Isla still spots it. ‘We don’t even get to know that?’

Something in those words, those seemingly innocent words, kick in that all-too-powerful Morgan instinct to run. She stands up, chair screeching loudly against the worn slate. Isla notices instantly that her sister straightens up with a certain delicateness, as if she’s expecting to fall apart at the simplest of movements. Over her leggings, Morgan’s wearing a man’s sweater that seems to almost cocoon her. It makes Isla uneasy for a reason she can’t quite find.

But then Morgan’s gone, heading for the back door. Business as usual.

Isla lets her go, gives her five seconds of space, then follows her. A tried-and-tested technique. Sometimes it even works.

Behind the Pembroke house is a path that leads directly to the second, more remote beach of Karrekoth. It’s narrow, steep and treacherous but the Pembroke girls could traverse it with their eyes closed. They know when to step around the exposed root, when to avoid the oddly slippery stone. They know which part will become a swamp after a storm, they know in May it will be swarming with mayflies and they know that it takes precisely three minutes to walk down when you’re striding off in a huff.

The path winds down the hill then suddenly opens up onto the beach. The sea waits directly ahead, tall cliffs tower behind and Karrekoth itself sits off to the right, a mile or so away behind a lower set of cliffs. Sand can be seen ahead but, before it can be reached, a craggy and somewhat intimidating line of rocks need traversing.

The wind is calm but there’s a chill in the air, causing Isla to tug her jacket a little tighter around her. Summer is most definitely on the way out. Morgan’s not really dressed for beach scrambling but it doesn’t seem to bother her, as she belligerently continues to ignore her sister’s shouts. She expertly walks across the larger, dryer rocks that are at the back of the beach, her head down. Isla gives the sea a brief glance, makes a mental calculation about the tide. They’ve got a little time.

‘Morgan! Will you just stop?’ It’s the third time she’s said that, or something similar. But Morgan does not listen. She picks her way over stone, heading for the towering column of rock that stands proudly at their end of the beach, the rock which gave their town its name.

Now, as she sees Morgan making a beeline for it, Isla lets out a groan. Morgan found a perfect ledge halfway up the rock when she was seven and has considered this her bolthole ever since. It seems that apparent adulthood has not changed that.

But Isla is not particularly in the mood for climbing, not after a day of telling sticky children to stop tapping fish tanks. So she decides to use her last bit of energy to close the distance between them, until she can reach out, grab her sister’s arm and tug her to a halt.

‘I know we’re all for dramatics, but can we not do the climbing thing? Just … sulk at the damn bottom for me.’

Morgan pulls herself free. For a moment, Isla wonders if she’s going to climb the rock anyway, just to spite her. It wouldn’t surprise her. But one hand drifts to her side, pairing with a small frown. She takes a few more steps towards the large rock, then slowly lowers herself down onto one slightly protruding edge. Suddenly, she seems exhausted once again.

Isla peels off her plimsolls, leaves them by a cluster of barnacles, then sits beside her sister. There’s not really room but somehow the two accommodate each other whilst also managing to avoid any direct contact. A temporary act of sisterly rebellion against the laws of physics.

Isla watches the way Morgan picks at the skin around her fingernails, the way she keeps her eyes fixed on the ground. She has a desire to snatch her sister’s hand away before she can peel off a whole damn nail. But she resists that urge. This isn’t her kid sister any more. She doesn’t need Isla; she made that very clear when she left.

‘We missed you.’ It feels like an easy place to start. The truth.

‘I missed you too.’

Isla can’t help it. ‘You could have come back. Nobody was stopping you.’

Morgan shoots her sister a weary look. ‘You know what I mean. I forgot how pedantic you were.’

‘And I forgot how dramatic you were.’

Morgan scowls. God, she could still be a child with that scowl, the same scowl she wore when she surveyed the subpar fifteenth-birthday tea Isla tried to make for her.

‘I had to leave.’

It’s a start. Isla presses her toes against the stone, feels the persisting stickiness of the leftover saltwater. Waits.

‘I had to leave; I couldn’t do it any more.’

Isla feels the memory sting, like saltwater, in her eyes. The open bedroom door, the neatly made bed, the ransacked chest of drawers. The flat dial tone on the other end of the phone. The blank expression her father wore when she tried to explain, in the gentlest possible way, that his seventeen-year-old daughter was nowhere to be found.

‘We … thought you were dead. There was no sign of you, anywhere. We thought … until you sent that first text … we thought you must have fallen into the sea or something.’

Morgan sniffs, scuffing her feet against the edge of the towering rock they’re sat on. ‘As if I’d be stupid enough to go walking on the cliffs at night.’

Isla decides it’s best not to say anything. She doesn’t trust her own mouth right now. She feels Morgan staring at her, waiting desperately for some response. Maybe waiting for her to make it all better. But Isla’s got nothing.

‘Isla …’

‘Four years.’ Isla winces immediately. Dammit. So much for keeping quiet. ‘Did you not think about us for a second? Do you know how terrifying it is to not know whether someone you love is dead or not?’

Morgan is silent. Then slowly nods. ‘I do know.’

Isla feels the heavy meaning in her words but she’s not having it, not now. ‘Yes, you do. So you should have known better.’

Morgan seems to withdraw within herself, sliding back against the rock and drawing her legs up to her chest. She does it slowly, carefully. Like she’s expecting to fall apart at any moment. It’s years away from the girl who once confidently scaled this rock as if she was on the school climbing frame. Isla can’t tell if it’s her words that have closed her up like this or something else. But she feels guilty anyway. Just in case.

She decides to move things on. For both their sakes. ‘If you won’t tell me why you’re back, will you at least tell me where you’ve been?’

Morgan drums her fingers against the rock. ‘Around and about. It’s not important.’

Isla wants to believe that, she really does. But Morgan has never been that simple. ‘I’d really rather you didn’t hide things from me. Not now. Not after everything.’

‘I’m not.’

‘I know what you avoiding the question looks like, Morgan. You’ve been doing it to me long enough.’

Morgan sighs, resting her head against the stone. Eyes closed. She looks so exhausted. Beneath all her anger, Isla is just so damn worried. She knows Morgan’s a grown-up, officially speaking. She’s twenty-one; she can look after herself (apparently she’s been looking after herself for four years after all). But she’s still her little sister. Isla still remembers when she held Morgan in her arms days after her birth, how her tiny fist clutched at a lock of her hair and refused to let go.

‘Did something … happen?’ Isla’s voice is gentler now. Morgan sniffs and Isla sees one solitary tear travel down her cheek. But she brushes it away, shakes her head as if she’s convincing herself against a course of action.

‘I forgot how much you sound like her.’

‘Like who?’ As if she doesn’t know.

‘Mum.’

Isla is silent. She’s not sure she remembers the last time she heard that word in relation to her own mother. She’s heard it at the aquarium, of course. Over-excited children shrieking the word when the octopus finally comes out of hiding. Or screaming it when they’re not allowed to buy a soft toy from the gift shop. But for her own mum? No, she’s not heard that in a very long time. Jasper won’t say it and Isla daren’t, not when those memories still cause her father such trouble.

‘Isla?’

Isla looks over to her sister as she speaks again and sees how she’s looking right at her. There’s desperation in her eyes. She’s not sure what for.

This time, it’s Isla who stands up first. ‘The tide’s coming in.’

Morgan glances out to sea and Isla knows that she’s not buying her deflection for one second. But it seems as though she’s willing to play along, for now. She stands up too.

‘I’ll have to make your bed up for you; we stripped it … after you left.’ Isla tries to find some solace in this normal sentence but finds very little. The words feel like they belong to someone else.

Morgan nods slowly. ‘I just … I need time, Isla. I’ll explain one day, I will. But I just need …’ She trails off, a little helplessly.

‘Yes, you said. Time.’

Isla knows that Morgan’s heard the disappointment in her voice. She doesn’t mean to sound disappointed; she’s not even sure why it’s there, not when she can usually hide her own feelings with such skill. Perhaps four years is too long to wait to hear the same sentence she’s heard her father say, over and over, and not let that disappointment free.

Morgan hesitates, then slowly begins to pick her way back along the beach, towards their path home. With the aim of giving her sister a little space, Isla takes her time to stuff her feet back into her shoes, glancing out across the sea.

Out along the horizon, the sky is darkening; the clouds are thickening. And she knows what that means.

A storm is coming.