The Surprising Days of Isla Pembroke by Tamsin Keily

Three

But the storm doesn’t come after all. Isla keeps expecting to hear the wind whistling through the gaps around the kitchen windows or to hear the rain pounding against the glass. But there’s nothing.

Just a stony silence that settles over the house like a thick fog. Isla’s not sure which is worse.

Morgan manages to wait downstairs long enough for Isla to find her some clean bedding and a towel, then disappears into her bedroom with nothing else to say except an awkward thank you. Isla makes dinner, and tries to tempt Morgan down with her favourite pasta dish. But when she comes downstairs, she sits in such unmoving silence that it might as well have been just Isla and Jasper as usual. Except now her father is even more withdrawn, barely answering Isla’s borderline desperate questions about his day.

She feels as if she’s taken a leap back in time and it scares the hell out of her. How hard has she worked to tug her father into some sort of normality? And one evening with her sister back in the house has sent everything tumbling back to square one.

Once Morgan makes her quietly murmured excuses and disappears upstairs, Isla finds it hard to stay up for much longer. She clears up the kitchen, reminds her father to take his medication before bed, then leaves him in front of the news. Then she goes upstairs, sits on her bed and stares at the opposite wall, which separates her room from Morgan’s. Wills herself to somehow develop the ability to see through walls (and into sisters’ brains). But it remains resolutely solid and all she can see is the whale painting her mother made for her fifth birthday.

At some point, she finds the energy to get ready for bed. Sleep comes patchily, for she keeps waking to what she assumes (or hopes) are imagined sounds from next door. Doors opening and closing, objects crashing, even hastily smothered crying.

When morning light begins to filter through her curtains, along with the persistent screeches of seagulls, Isla feels that she hasn’t really slept at all. Bleariness drags at her eyes but she’s determined to get somewhere with her sister today.

However, when she steps out of her bedroom, she finds Morgan’s door open and the room empty. For a terrible moment, she thinks she’s gone again. But then she sees her suitcase on the floor, open and spewing clothes out. She’s not run away again, then. Yet.

It soon becomes apparent, though, that Morgan has not just left her room but has also left the house. In fact, the house is empty. All Isla has for company is a note from her father stuck to the fridge: Gone to paint the beach loos, be back for dinner.

Helpful. So all Isla can do is head to work and hope that she finds a solution there. For once.

South Cornwall Aquarium is unsurprisingly quiet when Isla finally gets to work. A few pensioners are sampling the questionable selection of fish-themed food in the cafe, a toddler is being wrestled back into his buggy to avoid him putting another toy starfish near his mouth and there’s a lacklustre-looking Mitch sitting at the admissions desk.

‘Shouldn’t have bothered, Isla,’ he comments with a grin as she comes barrelling in. Isla hoped there would be a sufficient aura of stress around her to ensure she would be left alone today but apparently that’s not the case. ‘Nobody here but the guppies …’

Mitch clearly thinks the fact that he’s used an alternative word for ‘fish’ is worthy of applause, but Isla is certainly not the one to give it. She barely manages a smile, brushing past him. ‘It is an aquarium, Mitch. The “guppies” are sort of the point!’ she calls back, not quite able to help herself.

It’s not until Isla is on her fourth round of feeding that she realises she’s not concentrating at all. Her hand hesitates over the top of the octopus tank, as she suddenly becomes aware of the fact that she has no idea if she’s actually putting the right food in.

A quick check and she confirms that, yes, it is a bucket of whelks and clams she’s about to tip into the tank. The octopus is squirming irritably just under the surface and Isla hurriedly completes the job, before she’s rewarded with an impatient slap of a tentacle (it’s happened before).

The tank’s lid is back on a moment later and the octopus is merrily crushing shells against a rock, a sadistic glee seeming to radiate from the creature. Isla knows she should move on, that she’s got work to do, but she can’t quite find the motivation required. All she can do is stand, staring at the octopus and wondering what it must be like to only need to worry about breaking clam shells.

‘Does he always smash them like that?’

‘It’s a she,’ Isla corrects instinctively, before actually registering the fact that someone has spoken to her, in a voice she barely recognises.

When she turns around, there’s a man by the door. He’s hovering a little uncertainly on the threshold, as if he doesn’t quite want to intrude. Isla takes a second to examine his face and feels herself jolted, as if hit by lightning.

‘Dylan?’ she splutters. For a moment she wonders if she missed the damn memo about this being the officially designated week for long-lost people to return. She’s sure she hasn’t seen him since they both left school to pursue their similar marine biology dreams. And now here he is, mere hours after her sister reappeared, wearing the tan of someone who has not been in the depths of another disappointing British summer, and a slightly crinkled visitor sticker which he’s somehow failed to stick properly to his polo shirt. Immediately, Isla resists the urge to fix it for him.

Dylan appears to notice Isla’s bewilderment and steps forward, holding out a hand with a slightly lopsided grin. ‘Dylan Burroughs. I’m with Professor Sawyer.’

It almost seems as if he’s speaking another language and Isla has to really concentrate to make sure she’s understood his sentence. The hand is still waiting in front of her, so she hurriedly puts down her now empty bucket, wipes her hand on her trousers, and shakes it, slowly. ‘Yeah, I know. It’s me – Isla. Isla Pembroke?’ she manages to say.

‘Oh, no way! Shit, I didn’t recognise you at all.’

Isla feels her eyebrow raising. She’s not entirely sure she believes that; they were in the same class for the entirety of secondary school after all and it’s not like Isla’s wild red curls have ever allowed her to blend into the background. No matter how much she’s wanted to. Still, she decides to play along for the moment. ‘Professor Sawyer? As in … jellyfish expert Professor Sawyer?’

Dylan nods rather proudly. ‘Yes, that one … though I think she prefers just Professor Sawyer …’

‘She’s here?’

He nods slowly and Isla notices a sense of slight confusion in his expression. Well, at least she’s not the only one. ‘About the internship? The, uh, owner … Dennis? He said you all knew about it.’

‘Oh. Right.’ Isla sniffs, turning back towards the octopus tank. ‘Dennis doesn’t really have a clue about anything, in particular running an aquarium. I would assume from now on that anything he says in regards to this place is nonsense.’

‘I’ll bear that in mind.’ Dylan doesn’t seem able to say anything without that crooked grin of his, which Isla is swiftly recalling from their time at school together. She seems to remember it distracting her back then as well, though perhaps she’s currently more bothered by the way he confidently steps around her and approaches the tank. This is her domain after all; not Dylan bloody Burroughs’s with his world-traveller tan and casual reference to a top marine biologist he’s talking about as if she’s his best friend. ‘So … is she a fan of smashing up her food?’ he asks with a nod at the tank’s solitary occupant.

Isla watches as the octopus curls one tentacle around a stone and hurls it at the final, apparently strongest shell. ‘Uh, yes, she is. I mean, she never seems to do it another way. And sometimes she seems to do it even when she doesn’t need to. Like it’s entertainment, rather than a means to food.’

‘Interesting. Have you tried feeding her without the shells?’

Isla feels as though she’s being assessed. The thought makes her shoulders stiffen somewhat; this might be a tiny, seedy-looking aquarium but she’s not a disinterested employee looking for an easy job. She knows what she’s doing. ‘Yes. She didn’t eat it. She just sat waiting for me to do it properly.’

Dylan laughs at that, eyes fixed on the tank. Isla can see intense fascination in his gaze and she wonders if she looks this wired when watching sea creatures. Almost like he’s trying to melt the glass away and be immersed in the water. ‘What is she, then?’

Isla is almost tempted to just say ‘octopus’, just to make up for Dylan apparently not recognising his classmate of seven years. But there’s that incessant desire to prove herself, still buzzing away in her ears. ‘Giant Pacific,’ she says. ‘Though she’s not that giant at the moment. She came from some idiot’s basement a few months ago; we were amazed she made it.’

‘A survivor. Nice.’

Isla thinks of her sister ignoring her questions, pushing her away, running off for four years. Being a survivor is all very well, unless your surviving only succeeds at the expense of everything else.

The thought makes Isla shiver. She doesn’t know if Dylan notices it but she certainly doesn’t want to hang around to find out.

‘I, uh, should get on. I’ve still got a lot of feeding to do.’

‘Of course, sorry for bothering you.’

‘You weren’t,’ Isla lies immediately, as her instinctive need to please everyone kicks in. She grits her teeth with slight frustration. ‘I mean … it’s fine, it wasn’t that much of a bother.’

Again, there’s the crooked smile. As if everything she says is amusing. But perhaps he notices how it seems to rile her up because he turns a little more serious a second later, as he stands aside to let her leave. ‘Dennis said you knew your stuff. Are you thinking of going for the internship?’

‘I didn’t realise it was anyone else’s business.’ The words are out before Isla can stop them. Clearly her own exhaustion and stress (and that stupid smile) has got the better of her. She feels her cheeks flushing because since when has she spoken to people like this? That’s Morgan’s remit, not hers.

For a moment, Isla is so shocked with her own words that she finds it impossible to say anything else. Then, as Dylan’s expression drops a little, she drags herself back. ‘I’m sorry. I just meant … it’s complicated.’

Isla feels like even the octopus is staring at her now. Her cheeks are definitely flushing so she decides that the time has come to leave. Hastily picking up her bucket of slushy ice, Isla hurries from the room before he can say anything else.

It’s the end of the day before Isla finds herself encountering Dylan again. She’s successfully avoided most people by dealing with as many minor fish issues as she can. She cleans the filters in four tanks, checks the fin condition of as many tropical fish as she can manage and does a somewhat excessively careful stocktake of food supplies.

Isla knows she’s hiding away and she knows that Morgan probably learnt her instinct of flight from her, but she can’t stop herself. The world seems to be throbbing around her; people’s voices seem to be on an entirely different, painful frequency. And her mind keeps drifting across the coastal winds back home to the bedroom that has suddenly found itself occupied once again. Back to the sister whose eyes are hollow with sadness and yet full of determination to not share one ounce of it.

Even with all that worry, Isla’s not exactly rushing home. Hidden amongst the merrily bubbling tanks, she can almost pretend nothing has changed and there’s something comforting about that. Something calming about knowing there’s only fish to care for. They don’t tend to come with quite the same complications.

But eventually, there’s no more procrastinating she can get away with without feeling guilty. It’s fifteen minutes past the official end of her shift and she knows her father will worry if she’s too late, and that’s something she can never feel settled with. After all, she knows what her father’s worry can cause.

It’s as she’s stepping outside that she sees him. Dylan’s standing to one side of the entrance doors, nursing a Thermos flask which is billowing steam into the rather sharp chill of the evening, and he’s thoroughly immersed in his phone. Isla thinks she can perhaps get away with sneaking past him but no such luck; she’s halfway down the path to the car park when she hears him call her name.

She turns slowly on her heel, finds him hurriedly snapping his Thermos shut so he can follow after her. ‘Hey, I just wanted to say … about earlier—’

‘It’s fine, really,’ she interrupts. He sounds as though he’s going to apologise and Isla doesn’t want him to, not really. ‘You were just being politely curious, I’m sure. I really don’t know what came over me.’

Dylan pauses, eyebrows quirked. ‘Do you often skip through people’s apologies?’ he asks, grin back in place.

‘Only if they’re unnecessary.’ Isla finds her retort snapping back immediately, which surprises her. Usually she’s not one for quick retorts, unless it’s her sister she’s arguing with.

‘And … do you often deem apologies unnecessary?’

Isla feels a small smile tickling at the corners of her own mouth now. The truth is the truth after all. ‘Probably.’ She shrugs, and tries not to think about how many pointless apologies she’s sifted through over the years (I’m sorry to hear the news about your mother; I’m sorry I can’t go to Morgan’s parents’ evening; I’m sorry I stormed out of dinner last night).

Dylan’s surveying her with the same piercing, almost scientific gaze he had with the octopus. Isla’s not sure she likes it particularly. It reminds her of Morgan’s teacher when she had to go to that parents’ evening in place of her father. The memory is cold against her back and Isla is keen to move on.

‘Um, I should be going … Unless there was something else?’

‘Not particularly, I just wanted to catch you and check things were okay. And …’ Dylan pauses and Isla gets the distinct sense that Dylan is trying to say something quite important. ‘I just wanted to say that I did recognise you, before. I don’t know why I pretended not to. It was stupid …’

A rumble of thunder rolls lazily across the sky above her. It makes Isla’s somewhat frazzled brain struggle even more to focus. ‘Oh. Right.’ What else is there to say? She can’t disagree; it was stupid. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ she finally manages.

All around her the clouds are darkening, whirling around each other with increasing agitation. The wind picks up, causing Isla’s curls to throw themselves into her face until she wrestles them behind her ears.

Just as lightning flashes out across the distant horizon, Isla feels her phone buzz in her hand. She glances down, sees the message from her dad: Morgan’s back again, what should I do? The world blurs around her as reality sneaks back and demands her attention.

‘Dylan,’ she blurts out, not really sure if she’s cut him off or not but finding it hard to be too concerned, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve really got to go.’

Dylan looks a little nonplussed. She had cut him off, then. ‘Oh, right. Sorry, look at me rambling on. Anyway, I’m here for the next few months or so. Professor Sawyer asked me to do some research from here while she’s visiting different aquariums around the country … so I’ll see you around?’

‘Sure,’ Isla says, without really thinking. She’s heard the inflection of speech that generally means a question and so has given what she hopes is the correct answer, but she’s not really listening. Now her father needs her, she can’t think of much else. Before Dylan can say anything else, she hurries off towards her car.

A moment later, as she drives out of the car park, she catches sight of Dylan shuffling back inside. Distantly, she can’t help but wonder why he was standing outside in a gathering storm in the first place.