There are basking sharks in the upper layers of the water – prehistoric things, nightmare-mouthed and harmless. Plankton-eaters, the way all seeming monsters are. They fill the coastal waters in the summertime, rising up to trawl the krill blooms. Puckered with barnacles, blasé as window-shoppers, they can grow over a lifetime to twenty feet in length.
There are warning flags along the wrack line: SHARKS – SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK. The threat is actually minimal, basking sharks being liable to give you little more than a bump on the knee, but the effect of the signs is still an odd one. There are no barriers, the water is open, creating the sense of a curiously lackadaisical approach to public safety. Danger, but do what you want, we’re not the police.
I’d call this a quiet story. Not much happens – two teenage girls running an ice cream truck at the English shore on a cold, grey day have little luck until they run into a group of teenage boys – but there’s a lot of nuance in the depiction of the relationship between the girls. I’ve always said there’s a natural law that the person who cares less about the relationship has the most power. This story is all about that law. Alice, the POV-character and the less-desired friend, is confused about herself (though she has no interest in boys, she’s pretty sure she’s not gay; I was sure they were a gay couple, but no), about her friend Min (whose confidence tends to overwhelm any objections), about her future.
I’ve been the Alice in relationships with people like Min. In any disagreement, she feels wrong. A great example: she sees Min is about to throw some trash out of the truck window, and, given her uncle, whose truck it is, has put signs on it like “Litter Makes the Future Bitter,” asks her to stop.
‘Oh, don’t,’ Alice says, regretting it almost immediately – the mumsy tone. Min raises an eyebrow at her, though she does withdraw her hand from the open window, throwing the napkin instead in the cupholder beside the gearstick.
‘Fair enough,’ she nods, and while her tone is light Alice feels she can detect the faintest note of mockery. ‘Mustn’t be bitter with my litter.’
It can be like this, sometimes. A sudden quirk of the lip. Alice biting back the wrong words. Sitting together in History, passing notes until Alice writes something stupid or uncool, underlines the wrong thing, and Min crumples the note in her fist.
‘Fair enough’, this stock phrase, its cringing detachment. The sudden removal of camaraderie and Alice clawing after it.
The thing is, there are indications it’s Min who needs Alice more than Alice needs Min. Alice can drive, so they have access to the ice cream truck while Uncle is laid up. Min frequently gives out a phone number to boys who pester her, but it’s Alice’s number, and Alice has become a good mimic, able to discourage them on the first call. Strange how that works, isn’t it.
A group of boys waves to the truck. Since they haven’t sold much all day, this is a good sign. I love the description of the boys: “clutching preposterously at surfboards” since the sea is calm. But, like Min, they have confidence. So they get away with not paying for the ice cream, with a promise to pay when the girls join them later on in town for drinks.
Sharks open and close the story. But not Great Whites: no, these are basking sharks, harmless, though they look terrifying. Exaggerated stories abound, lies all. But Min finally earns her keep, and we know she understands perfectly well who needs whom more.
In her author discussion for Granta, Armfield explains her use of the shark:
The story starts with a shark, a choice I made predominantly because that is how Jaws starts, and I could think of no better way to establish that summer is not to be trusted. The shark sets the tone for the summer ahead – a pleasure beach with warning signs strung up along the wrack line.
Julia Armfield, First Sentence at Granta
Her own analysis of the story deepened my understanding, and is well worth a read.
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Story available online at Granta.
First Sentence contributor note available online at Granta: “It’s the basking shark’s sheer mundanity that I was interested in.”