‘There are basking sharks in the upper layers of the water – prehistoric things, nightmare-mouthed and harmless.’
A first line is a threat, I think. It can be many other things – an establishment of tone and intent, a question, a statement of fact – but to me it is most consistently a way of alerting the reader to what is on the horizon. Bad weather, incoming trouble, a big shark.
In the opening scene of the movie Jaws, a boy follows a girl down to the water’s edge. It is late – bonfire smoke, first haze of early summer – and he is too drunk to swim, instead lying down to fall asleep in the surf. The girl carries on into the water without him and what follows, of course, is carnage. Jaws is a movie about a shark, but it is also a movie about summer. Set in the resort town of Amity – a place which relies on the months of July and August for its whole year’s economy – Jaws presents the threat of the shark that stalks the surrounding waters as synonymous with the threat of summer. Or rather, the threat of summer not going to plan.
More so than any other season, summer is a period of expectation – beach bodies, brief romances, life-changing experiences. It is the period of the coming-of-age novel, the heady childhood friendships of Stephen King. It is also a time vulnerable to disappointment, the way anything built on expectation has to be. Summer is the season of possibility, but some possibilities have teeth.
‘Longshore Drift’ is a story about disappointment: a girl in an ice cream truck at the mercy of poor weather, a frustrated crush, the typical failures of the season. The protagonist is a girl with bad skin and a bummer of a summer job. Her crush is not one she acknowledges, even to herself for the most part. At various points in the story, happy possibilities briefly crest the surface (an almost-kiss, a dance in a club), but the fact is that as teenagers, we very rarely get what we want.
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.
Stephen Spielberg once said that, in reading the source material for Jaws – Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name – he found the human characters so unlikeable that he ended up rooting for the shark. As a writer, I can appreciate this. Sharks can be more fun to write than people.
The sharks in ‘Longshore Drift’ are baskers and therefore technically harmless; rather like blue whales, they eat plankton and small invertebrates filtered via their gill rakers. That said, if you’ve ever googled an image of a basking shark filter feeding, you’ll know that they are an alarming prospect, regardless of actual threat. The protagonist of ‘Longshore Drift’ is not going to be eaten by a shark – at worst, one might simply bump into her – but that doesn’t mean that the shark isn’t there.
It’s the basking shark’s sheer mundanity that I was interested in. The threat here isn’t violent, so much as it is banal: a dull day on the beach, a boring shark. In writing this story, I had hoped to convey a little of the gloom of being a teenager in summer – that nagging fear that what we want won’t emerge, that this season will be as unremarkable as any other and that boredom is all we can ever hope to expect. I suppose that the shark, in this way, became a way of describing the lurk of something just beneath the surface; the anxious bob against your ankle, toothless but still worrisome, the fear you daren’t look directly in the mouth.
Read Julia Armfield’s ‘Longshore Drift’, published in Granta 148: Summer Fiction, in full here.
Photograph © Jidan Chaomian