If you’re ever going to amount to anything, said Dad, you’d better
The phone rang and interrupted him, but Emma knew what he was going to say. Better learn to
Flaming Finish Something. Anything. Start with the beans on your plate, young lady. Get to the end of one blasted fish finger.
Emma looked at the end of the fish finger. Which was indeed blackened. She wondered what it would be like with flames coming out of it. Maybe the big finger of God coming down at her out of the clouds. It would be the end of the day and the sun would be huge and fiery and this giant finger would come out of a fish-shaped cloud and go, finish something can’t you. For God’s sake.
Emma wasn’t sure how God had got mixed up with this. But now that He had, there wasn’t much arguing with Him. Not that Emma was the argumentative type. She wasn’t the finishing type though either. She had a stammer when she talked on the outside so even finishing a word could be a chall-ll-l-l
Mostly she didn’t bother but left it for her sister who was good at finishing things. So that was teamwork. And if Natasha guessed the end of her sentences wrong, well it didn’t really
It was OK. She was Em so even her name usually ended halfway and it always sounded affectionate, or nearly always, so it was
Emma is a kind and caring girl, said her school report, and good with the guinea pigs. Also, she had brought the class goldfish back for the holidays and was very reliable with his feeding. A small pinch of flakes in the morning. Unless he wasn’t very hungry that day; if he didn’t finish the flakes straight away, don’t worry just
The fish was in fine shape at the beginning of term and everyone said she’d done an excellent job.
She mightn’t set the world on fire, Miss told her parents, but she’s a lovely
There must be something wrong, her father interrupted.
Is she scared of something? Her mother asked.
Things have a way of working out, said Miss. With a bit of encouragement. Try not to expect too much.
Her parents must have been listening. Years later, just before her GCSEs, she went down with a virus. She was too unwell to sit the exams and missed them all. Her mum sat on her bed and tried to console her. We’re not expecting you to set the world on fire, she said. We love you just
We want you well and healthy, said her father, smiling down at her. Concentrate on getting better.
But Emma could not get better; her nausea and tiredness seemed to go on and on. While her friends did their A levels and went off to uni or travelling, Emma’s world shrank around her, until some days there was barely room enough in her own body even to breathe.
Sometimes her friends came home. They bounced into her room (hair bleached by foreign sun), flung themselves onto her bed and talked
(overnight bus to
Built a shelter on
I met this really)
Until, inevitably, they got to the well enough about me, what about you? And then, suddenly, the air seemed to run out and everything felt
Laters, Em, they said. Getwellsoon.
A year or so passed and she did start getting better. Enough to get up and sit in the garden or walk to the park and watch the squirrels chasing each other up and down the tree trunks. Better enough to start living a bit but not quite
These days even her dad seemed scared to make suggestions. Like he’d run out of
Then, when she was twenty-one, two magical things happened. The first was that a distant great-aunt passed away and left her a thousand pounds. The second was that Maz, her pen-friend in Australia, invited her to visit.
Half-way round the world, Em, said her sister. It’s just your sort of trip.
From the plane, the clouds over Australia were little far-apart puffs stretching on and on and underneath them the reddish land sped and sped for a day
In Australia it was summer and they were having a heat-wave. 40 degrees in the shade. Some of the shops were still draped in tinsel which sparked and crackled in the blinding windows. Standing in the street while Maz pulled the shade across the windscreen and locked the car, Emma narrowed her eyes against the headache clawing her temples. Her blood felt oddly hotter than her skin. They went to the cinema just for the air-con but then it broke down and everybody fled, slowly, like dreamers. The night was full of them getting up for showers. They lay down wet and minutes later were dry and overheating again.
Let’s go fishing, Maz said. It’ll be cooler on the coast. She called up her friend Liss and got it all fixed.
Liss came the next morning in a white Cortina with flames painted down the sides. The boot was piled to the roof with surf boards and fishing rods and sporty sun-scorched clothing. Sticky-backed letters on the dashboard said, ‘Sick Bogan’. Whatever that was. All day they juddered along ridgy dirt roads, pausing sometimes for knobbly blue-tongued lizards and once a long black snake lording it on the road. Far from the city, there were emus with silvery, bush-shaped bodies stalking through the scrub and kangaroos with enormous legs and rudder-like tails lurking among the trees. Liss stopped at a shop and bought a lemon, some chilli oil and a bottle of white wine. Supper, she said, grinning. A giant grey spider jumped onto the door-frame. Repel boarders, she shrieked, knocking it off with a brush she kept for the purpose, and then slammed the door. While Liss and Maz chatted about fish lures and where the big waves might be, Emma slid about on the sweating back-seat and thought of the regulated comforts of her little vacuum-packed bedroom. She couldn’t see what use she’d be on a fishing trip; she’d no idea how to surf. Perhaps she could just sit in Sick Bogan and
We’re here, Maz said.
Here was a little tin-roofed hut with a small black range, a tiny table and a couple of bunks inside. A sign said, No Campfires November to May. All around it was bush bush bush as far as
Here you go, Em, Maz said and chucked over a baggy lycra top and a pair of rubbery shoes.
They smeared white cream thickly over their noses and ears and crammed tattered cotton hats onto their heads. Then, dividing the fishing gear between them, they headed for the beach.
Small simple word; even Emma could say ‘beach’ without a glitch. Bucket and plastic spade, stripy windbreak, sand in your witches ‘beach’. Only this ‘beach’ was several hundred miles of burning white gold, a wavering border of pale foam and the deep blue blue blue glittering into forever. Not a single house, not a single other person interrupted the vastness of it - Emma’s brain seemed to stretch and warp. She was minuscule in the face of infinity as she slipped and stumbled after her friends across the squeaking sand and up onto a vast slab of black rock that shouldered its way out into the sea. I’m not really the fishing – she started to say, but a huge wave flew up and atomised in their faces. You’re all right, they said, laughing with delight at being wet and cool. A fishing rod was thrust into her hand. On the end of the line hung a huge, jointed lure, shiny and many-coloured as a Chinese dragon, with a fan of ferocious spikes for a tongue.
What kind of creature would fall for that?
Squid, Liss said, love prawns. Can you think like a prawn, Em?
Emma’s prawns were pink and curled in mayo on a bed of wilting lettuce. Think?
Kind of jerkily, Maz said. They scuttle and then look back. Scuttle some more. They kind of stutter actually. She smiled with friendly mischief. The squid are going to love you.
They demonstrated, flinging the line right out in a huge swishing arc and then jerking it in, quite fast. Prawn fleeing for its life, Liss said. Sends the squid loopy. And before long, she and Maz each had a loopy squid, safe in a rock-pool at their feet.
Despite their encouragement, Emma didn’t have the touch. She couldn’t get the line out far enough; nor in fast enough nor jerk it prawnily enough. No squid went loopy for her. It was evening now, the sky a sore-looking red; time to go and cook up the catch.
But Maz and Liss were adamant. Everyone must catch one. We won’t stop until you do.
Just Flaming Finish Something for once in your
They took turns to hold her hands around the rod, all three of them madly thinking like prawns. Once she had one and lost it. Again and again and still again until she thought her heart would break with it or she wished the line would anyway, swishing and jerking and stammering like a terrified prawn like herself really actually sorry–I, so-er trying to explain herself caught between infinity and
With its big live body and giant green eye
Squirting black and splattering her clothes with it
A creature from another world hung heavy on the end of the line
The consequence Oh
of her prawny stutter.
Maz helped her land him and disengage him from the terrible barbs of his ecstasy.
All right, squiddy, she said and all of them breathed out with relief
Except maybe the squid for whom breath was no longer an option.
Such outlandish beauty. Brown and white stripes chasing themselves across his skin like sunlight rippling on the seabed; the tourmaline brilliance of his eye
Ever seen a squid die? Liss asked.
What could she do but shake her head (death being a stuffed bison with a sad glassy look and a great-aunt passing distantly)?
Liss raised her hand, edge on - watch - and brought it down
The squid’s body turned instantly white. Instantly dead. Not half a second’s transition from one state to another.
The most shocking and beautiful death on earth.
They gutted and cleaned him and put him with the others in the eski. Then they climbed down from the great black rock and headed back in the pinky dusk.
In the little tin-roofed hut three women sat down to a dinner of fresh squid. Hot-seared in chilli oil with a drizzle of lemon. A large glass of white. Cheers, said Maz. Here’s to Emma and her first squid. As they crammed their mouths with the sweet-salt flesh, the chilli ignited against the roofs of their mouths and the lemon sang on their tongues.
Outside, without the slightest effort and requiring no assistance from any quarter, the vast dome of the sky caught fire. It blazed, as it always did, in scarlet rose orange crimson and the clouds streamed out like brilliant vapour from a giant rocket. In the lilac glow that followed, the moon rose over the salt pans and the emu in the darkening scrub and the little tin-roofed hut in which three women slept content.