The Surprising Days of Isla Pembroke by Tamsin Keily


Light blinds her. For a moment all she can see is brightness. Then it’s gone, and she feels the dampness of stone pressing against her fingers. She realises her eyes have screwed themselves shut to try and defend themselves against the glare and so she opens them slowly, tentatively.

The beach lies in front of her, bathed in glorious and uninterrupted sunshine. The sea is a glassy pond, the sky could be its reflection. Isla sees a fishing boat bobbing in the distance, practically feels the gentle rhythm of its rocking. Everything is calm.

Then there’s that laugh again. Isla practically feels that laugh, skipping through her veins. Desperate to find its source, she peers out from behind the huge stone, into the sunlight. The beach is fully revealed to her now and immediately she spots her sister. She’s lying on one of the huge flat rocks, a good twenty metres away. But her laughter travels across the wind with ease.

It takes Isla less than a second to realise that the Morgan she’s looking at is not the Morgan she’s just stormed away from. This Morgan has short hair and braces, this Morgan is still shorter than her. This Morgan wears school uniform in her own unique way with a hint of pride at her own creativity. This Morgan laughs like she hasn’t yet learnt what the world can do.

This Morgan has not yet lost her mother.

Isla wonders if she should be more shocked. Maybe even panicked. Apparently she has just stepped from one time into the other. Such things should definitely cause distress. But she’s numb. Perhaps anaesthetised by her sister’s laughter. Or perhaps her mind is just far too well practised in protecting her from the unbelievable and the unthinkable.

Morgan’s laughter seems to be being caused by the book she’s reading. Isla remembers that; remembers how her sister would immerse herself entirely in the world of a story and revel shamelessly in its joy. Even at this age, with adolescence clearly on its way, she does not care about laughing loud enough for the beach to hear. Not that there’s anyone around to judge her; the beach is utterly deserted, which must mean it’s term time. A sunny day like this in the school holidays would bring the visitors down without question. Isla remembers how her father would chase unwitting tourists out of their garden with his fishing rod when they’d accidentally wandered down the wrong coastal path.


It takes Isla a second to recognise that voice. Of course it does, she hasn’t heard it in nine years. And, for a moment, Isla is terrified. Terrified to turn in case she’s wrong, in case after all these years she’s truly forgotten what she sounds like.

But she can’t resist for a second longer. She looks towards the cliffs and sees her mother for the first time in nine years.

Marina Pembroke is coming down the path from home, wrapped in a white cardigan. Isla remembers that cardigan, how its intricate tassels used to get caught on every splinter and every exposed nail in the house. How her mum would curse the house as she untangled herself, before patting the wood as if she was worried she’d offended it somehow. She walks confidently across the rocks, avoiding the foot-trapping trenches and slippery seaweed with an expertise that only comes from growing up by this beach.

‘Morgan!’ she calls again, finally drawing her daughter out of her book. Morgan sits up, closing the book once she’s folded over the corner of the page she’s on. Then she glances at her watch, winces to herself before standing up.

‘Sorry! Coming!’

‘I told you, back for five o’clock. You missed Isla.’ Marina’s words are only gently reprimanding and Isla knows that she’ll never really be cross at Morgan for getting lost in a book, not when her room is filled with haphazardly constructed skyscrapers of books, ready to tumble down every time she chooses one to read.

‘Shoot. Forgot she was going to call …’ Morgan’s reached her mother by now, book tucked under one arm as she automatically slips her other arm around her mother’s waist. ‘Was she mad?’

Marina tucks her daughter’s hair behind one ear, revealing her face a little more. Yes, Isla remembers, she did do that. Every time. ‘Oh yes, furious. She’s told me she might not come back at Christmas now, she was so offended by your absence.’

Morgan rolls her eyes, detangling herself from her mother so she can hop carelessly from one rock to the next. She never could stay still for long on the beach, unless she was immersed in a book or her painting. ‘What did she really say?’

‘She said that university is going great, freshers’ week almost broke her and that her lecturers range from dull to insane. Oh, and she’s not rescued any whales yet.’

Isla smiles to herself, because she remembers that phone call. Wrapped up in the cocoon of her blankets, battling a cold but feeling incredibly proud that she’d managed her first laundry wash without breaking anything. More distantly, Isla remembers how carefree, how light she felt back then. The world was opening up in front of her and potential was thick in the air.

For a few more weeks, anyway.

‘No whales? How disappointing.’ Morgan chuckles, pausing to crouch low and examine the innards of a rock pool. She’s twelve years old at this point, perfectly poised between childhood and adolescence. Still young enough to find wonder in a rock pool. ‘She might as well give up now, then.’

Marina rolls her eyes at the instinctive need for mockery, joining Morgan beside the rock pool. ‘She sent her love but maybe I should have just told her to send a mocking sentiment instead.’ She gives Morgan’s side a gentle prod and Isla finds her own hand drifting to her side; she’d forgotten the way their mother would do that when she was teasing them, how it always felt far more comforting than she was sure it was meant to.

Morgan ducks away from her mother’s reach. She traverses the rocks with the same confidence of her mother, a confidence that is miles away from the uncertain young woman Isla watched storm across the beach just last night – or rather years in the future. ‘If I didn’t mock her, she’d only worry that I was unwell or something. So really, I’m doing a service.’

Marina doesn’t get a chance to respond to that, though her grin would suggest she’s not bought her daughter’s reasoning in the slightest. Another person has joined them on the beach, striding across the sand and cursing loudly when he steps in a pile of kelp. Isla doesn’t recognise him for a moment and, when she does, she feels hot tears stinging in the corners of her eyes, until she brushes them away with her usual impatience.

Jasper Pembroke looks as different to his older self as this sunny beach looks to the storm-wracked world Isla has left behind. There’s no forest of frowns permanently rooted to his brow, there’s no haze of confusion wrapped around him like cotton wool. His shoulders are sturdy, not stooped.

Isla can’t help but feel as if she’s seeing two parents brought back from the grave.

‘What is the point of having that house if it’s never occupied?’ Jasper grumbles by way of greeting, as he finally makes it to the same cluster of rocks as his family. ‘Every time I come home, there’s never anybody bloody there.’

‘Shouldn’t have let us live by the beach then,’ Morgan replies, back to examining the rock pool. ‘Besides, when we are home you only complain about us leaving mess everywhere.’

From her spot half-hidden by the stone, Isla can see Marina’s poor attempt to hide her smile. Jasper clearly sees it too because he shoots his wife a mild look of accusation.

‘What? She does have a point …’ With a laugh (oh, how Isla remembers the melody of her laugh!), Marina wraps an arm around her husband’s waist. ‘How was Bobby?’

‘His trailer is rusty, he may need therapy. How was the post office?’

‘Busy. What my dad would have called a three-pint day.’

Morgan straightens up, eyebrows quirked. ‘Didn’t Grandpa call most days that?’

With a snort, Jasper nods. ‘Very true, Mogs.’

Marina gives her husband’s arm a smack, tutting slightly. ‘You can hardly talk. How many pints did you have last week with your fishing lot before you staggered home and woke the whole house with your inability to walk properly up the stairs?’

Sniggering, Morgan nods her agreement. ‘You were proper loud, Dad. Anyway, what’s for tea?’

Marina smiles and Isla feels herself sharing that smile. Morgan’s appetite was so all-consuming sometimes that all other conversation would be thrown unceremoniously away when she was hungry. That will go too, Isla knows. So many things will go from her family when her mother does.

‘Dad promised me fish pie this morning, and we all know your dad never breaks his promises when it comes to fish pie.’

‘Wouldn’t dare,’ Jasper mutters, before jerking his head in the direction of the house. ‘Home?’

Marina makes a noise of agreement, taking Morgan’s hand. They begin the journey back towards their coastal path, perfectly synchronised in their steps from one rock to the next. Isla feels her own feet shuffle forward a little as she feels the temptation to follow dragging at her ankles. But what if she gets seen? That would be so typical of her luck to find a time-travelling stone and then promptly rip apart the universe.

So she stays frozen, watching from behind the stone as her family cross the sand and then start down the path home. She feels their confidence at the unchanging nature of their world and she also feels how it makes her own heart seem to crumple with yearning.

Once they’re out of sight, Isla steps out from her hiding place. She comes forward until she’s out of the stone’s shadow, and can feel the sun against her skin. It feels a lot more comforting than usual, almost as if it will spend the next nine years collecting up all the sorrow from the Pembroke family, chilling its shine in the process.

Isla’s feet move of their own volition until she finds herself on the precipice of the footprints left behind by her family. She sees the imprints left behind by her mother’s sandals and wonders how long they will stay there before getting washed or blown away. Will they last beyond her mother’s death? Isla can’t quite remember how many more days are left; those heady, free, but limited days she got at university have blurred into one distant and hidden memory.

Suddenly, Isla finds herself on her knees. Kneeling on the ground with her fingers coming to press against the edges of one footprint, as though she might find some precious secret in the sand. But there’s nothing, and once more Isla feels the stinging of tears until she brushes them away with instinctive urgency.

Across the beach, the sound of screeching seagulls gets loud enough for Isla to pull herself away from the footprints. She looks up, frowning as she catches sight of one lone crab doing its best to avoid the beaks of three seagulls. Its tiny claws are doing a sterling job at defending but Isla knows it’s only a matter of time until the seagulls get their meal.

And perhaps it’s the effects of time travel or the feeling of the seconds ticking away for her mother, but Isla finds she cannot kneel there and watch this crab die.

‘Bloody pathetic,’ she mutters to herself, not quite believing that she’s just spent a day feeding various crustaceans to other aquatic animals and now can’t let one crab get eaten. But, again, her feet have made the decision for her and before rationality can catch her, she’s running towards the clump of squawking seagulls. ‘PISS OFF!’ she bellows, and the birds obligingly lift off into the sky. Which is a positive start, as Karrekoth seagulls are notoriously stubborn.

Isla grits her teeth and scoops up the still-outraged crab, hoping that the creature can’t sense how many of its relations she fed to the jellyfish just a few hours ago. Doing her best to avoid the claws, she hurries towards one of the deeper rock pools. The seagulls have taken off towards the cliffs but Isla doesn’t trust them to give up that easily.

She crouches down by the rock pool and carefully drops the crab into the water. It manages one sharp nip at her finger before it leaves, drawing a soft curse from Isla. The crab shoots towards the bottom of the pool before scuttling away into the shadows. Safe.

A warm feeling of satisfaction rushes over Isla as she sits back on the rock, catching her breath. She has no idea how she has ended up in this pocket of time (or if indeed this isn’t a symptom of some prolonged breakdown) but at least she’s managed to do something productive.

A drop of rain arrives, cool against the nape of her neck. Then another, and another. Isla glances up with a frown and sees only blue sky. Yet the rain is growing in ferocity. Her clothes rapidly become soaked again, her curls quickly return to being pressed against her cheeks and ears.

When Isla looks down from the sky, the crab-harbouring rock pool is gone, along with the sunshine. Instead she’s sprawled by the stone once again and surrounded by the night. Off in the distance she hears a rumble of thunder but right here, on this beach, there is now only rain.

She’s back. Her trip to the past is over. It takes her a moment to find the strength to stand up but she manages it, stumbling a little. Her hand grips onto the stone for balance and she feels heat under her fingers. Isla turns back towards the stone and sees that the lightning has left a permanent, twisted scar in its side.

As she’s staring at this scarred surface, Isla feels a slight stinging sensation in her finger. When she glances down, she spots the small cut that the crab’s claw has left.

‘It did happen then,’ she mutters aloud, deciding that talking to herself is really not her greatest concern right now.

This perturbing thought is suddenly interrupted by a soft glow that Isla realises after a moment is coming from the stone. Its scarred side spills this almost inviting light across the sand, a silent reassurance to Isla that it hasn’t finished its impossible work just yet.

And, as Isla looks back to her cut finger and thinks of the crab that she helped escape its fate, she can’t help but wonder what else the stone is inviting her to do.

She can’t help but wonder who else she can save.