She was standing on the headland when the whale came into view. Dishrag white, a floating giant barnacle. The man was spread cross-like on its flank, caught in a cat’s cradle of harpoon hemp. There was no-one else to see it, only her. She had started running as soon as it left the harbour; she knew the way. The creature turned towards her, watching her from its one pig-eye; the man looked, too. And then it turned again, facing the open sea.
The man waved to her, as they disappeared into the mist, towards Ireland.
‘Goodbye,’ she said, waving back.
When she told, toothless gums nah-nahed at her, hands came together and trapped her in a corner of the school-yard. Names boxed her ears.
And yes, next day, at the harbour, the whale was there again, and the waving man was walking about, talking to the crowd.
‘There!’ her teacher told her. ‘You mustn’t make things up! That’s what films are for!’
‘Miss’ spent her Saturdays at the Palace in the big town. ‘We must visit the set as often as we can,’ she told the school. ‘It will be an educational experience.’ She brought movie magazines into class, and showed them pictures of the stars. One day, she brought the book, which had the same name as the film. ‘It’s too old for all of you, but I shall read you some.’
‘Call me Ishmael,’ she began. It was enough.
She told them how brave the whale-hunters were, how many useful things came from whales.
They lived in Wales, didn’t they? The children scratched their heads.
‘Margarine. So much better than butter, so much easier for cooking! Oil. Potions for your mothers’ lotions and make-up. Where would we be without them?’
They made models out of newspaper, water and flour. The boys put them in puddles and watched them sink.
Whenever they visited Lower Town, where the filming took place, teacher’s legs grew longer and shinier. Her lips were red against pale, pillowed cheeks, beneath coils of hair, stacked like lobster-pots. She edged the children towards the stars, careless of the water, the lens of the camera. The director motioned them away, the teacher’s cheeks reddened, even through their whale-oil glaze. Yet they still went back the next day.
Weeks later, after the film crew had gone, and the coast was quiet once more, she climbed to the headland again. Far below, pieces of rotting carcass were washed along the shore; caught amongst the jagged outcrops, floating in the rock pools, along with a pink hair-slide. Later still, she saw a group of seals playing with scraps of white flesh, passing them from nose to nose, smiling.
And there was blood, she was certain there was blood… spreading strands like dulse seaweed – on the seals, on the rocks. How could there be blood if it wasn’t real?
She knew what she had seen, and if she had seen it, it must be true.
Soon, the people of the town forgot, going back to their fishing and farming; waiting for holiday-makers who never came. In time, another film came along, with new actors. Brighter stars in even bigger cars, who stayed longer; who were Welsh, like them, and drank in the pub, rather than the big hotel; drank in the pub again and again. Other things were different, too. Cameras taking photos of cameras, televisions in every house, some of them in colour. (Marriage.) Phones in every house, to make gossiping easier; cars in every drive, making the world smaller. (Children.) Soon the old film was forgotten. Only she remembered. Remembering, as she dredged nappies through bleach-water, her hands as wizened as the whale. As her husband snored beside her. As she wrote her name in the dust on the shelf, where the book lay. She had bought it she didn’t know when… or perhaps when the librarian told her one too many times ‘you’ve borrowed this before!’
A heavy book, as heavy as the creature, full of weighty words, that she couldn’t understand, meanings she could never fathom. The Whale meant something. The Hunt meant something. But what? And the teacher had lied when she said it began with ‘Call me Ishmael’. Page after page must be got through before that, lines, paragraphs speaking of Leviathans, and Spermacetti, and Right and Orks. How they killed, or were killed. Of their bones and teeth decorating the land.
There was no Great White, the white came later, in the story proper. She drew the book out, from where it stood, amongst thinner, lighter tales of nurses and doctors in love, or Cowboys fighting Indians. She wanted to read it, but the alien words floundered in her head, ‘hypos/Manhattoes/circumambulate flailing against the children’s crying and squabbling, and her husband’s complaining. She put it back in its place.
And soon it didn’t matter that she couldn’t read it. The film came back to her, in a little plastic box she must post beneath the television. She could watch it again and again, while the family yakked and pulled and grew around her. All she had to do was press a button, and rewind.
When the famous actor died, the local paper printed his picture, writing about his visit to their little town. Scrunching her eyes over her glasses, the points of her scissors laboured around the article, with her thickened knuckles, her stiff thumb. She put the piece in her special box, with all her other cuttings, yellowed by the years.
‘I met him,’ she told anyone who would listen. ‘He put his hand on my head, tangling my hair.’ She was afraid for her new pink slide. Her mother had rowed her for losing the old one on the cliffs. The day she had seen the whale.
‘Call me Ahab,’ he said, his voice dragging his words, low. There was something wrong about that... If he was Ahab, there would be only one long black pleated leg facing her. There would be a white line cloven down his face. He wouldn’t smile, which he did, before moving back through the crowd.
Later, he appeared on the step of the trailer, his cheek forked like lightning. His wooden leg caught between the treads. She was glad. It made sense again.
‘The whale bit it off at the knee,’ someone in the crowd whispered. ‘It’s not wood,’ another voice added. ‘It’s the bone of a whale.’
‘It’s not bone… it’s…’
Whatever it was, he was as he should be… if he was Ahab. Until he smiled at her again.
Her teacher shot slit-eyes at her and pulled her away.
‘I know, now, that it was jealousy. I didn’t understand then.’ Perhaps she should have left her story there. But no, the words spilled out of her mouth, bubbling up, as she told how she had seen the whale, far out to sea, with the actor strapped to its side.
There was no name-calling any more, but faces turned away, hands lifted to stop sniggering breath. People in the market, her children. Not her husband; he, too, was dead by then.
‘You’re muddling what you think you saw with the ending of the film,’ Mari, her daughter, told her.
How did she know? She hadn’t been born then; she herself was only a child, a small child. Had she ever seen the film? ‘Only a million times, when we were growing up!’
‘Look!’ she said to no-one in particular; Mari, who had already walked away, her dead husband, an empty room, showing them another photo from her box, one she had cut from a film magazine, when her fingers moved more easily. ‘There! That’s me!’
And it was; a girl, of about five, with her fringe pulled back by a slide; pink, it would be if there was colour. A girl with a Peter Pan collar, and Mary Jane shoes. A pleated skirt, with a pin in it. She was standing at the front of the crowd, on the edge of the quay. That was the first day of filming, before the visits with school.
Her fisherman grandfather had gone there early, hearing they may want him – or his boat – and he had taken her. So she was there, at the very beginning, when the big, shiny cars arrived, when the ship with its three tall masts pulled into the harbour, when the hammering, shouting, dragging, lifting started, to make towers of wood for the cameras, to hide fronts of houses, to make new ones, which were old.
‘See,’ her grandfather said. ‘Those ships are just the kind that would have berthed here last century. See, that car… you’ll never see a tidier one round here.’ Time chopped and churned with the tide, in front of her eyes.
‘I went every day after that. Early, before school. Late, after. And then there were our visits with the teacher. That’s how I’m in the photo. I was there so much, always near the front.’
That’s how she was so quick to spot the whale heading out to sea. Why she was the first to run. Why only she saw it.
Time was like that now, rewinding, fast-forwarding like her video tapes. Soon, there were grandchildren to tell, to show the yellow pages. When they were small, they nodded and smiled, and said ‘yes, how wonderful, Nain.’ She hugged them and their words close. She put them in a different box. But they grew, too.
‘Tell us about Taid, Nain,’ they would say. ‘Shall we look at some photos of him?’ Perhaps there were some, somewhere, but she didn’t know where, and her film box was always at hand.
One of them, his name just beyond reach, took the faded picture from her, looked at it near his eyes.
‘This isn’t here, Nain. It’s in Ireland. See the signs in the street behind? And our harbour has the cliff rising above it. That can’t be you.’
She looked at the picture again. The boy didn’t know how the film men could change things, how they could change young men into old, and back again, legs into ivory stumps, rubbish bins into barrels, how they could paint a cliff in, or take one away.
It was her. She had been there.
The grandchildren came with the summer, sent for sun and fresh sea air. Yet they spent their days staring at screens, and flicked their thumbs up and down. They said you could find the whole world in a phone.
Still, if she asked, they would take her to the harbour. There was colour, now. Blue, red, yellow painted houses. An ice-cream van. Rainbow sun-shades.
‘Much better,’ people said.
The film people had taken the colour away – what little there was back then. They didn’t want it. Not here. They wanted drab stone, moulding wood, grimed window-panes. Cobbles. They could magic all these, as they had done with the cliff, and the signs. But it had been many years before the colour came, following the tourists, who had finally discovered the town, along with their ice-creams and crab sandwiches and boat-trips. Yes, they did that now, sleek, fast boats, out into the bay; bird-watching, dolphin-spotting, paying good money. ‘No sightings guaranteed…’ When they came back, she would hear their wonder. ‘I saw a fin!’ ‘It jumped out of the water!’ ‘They followed us for ages!’ A whale, sometimes, a small affair, and yet they made such a fuss.
What was so special about this, she asked herself? Dark curves, that could hardly be glimpsed, except through a glass. Camouflaged by the black troughs of the sea, except for those showy jumps.
Her whale moved on top of the water.
It was white, and huge.
‘I’ve seen a whale,’ she wanted to say, the words coming close to her mouth.
‘I’ve seen a whale,’ she said. ‘Here, just here, and then…’
The children, or children’s children, hurried her away.
On her good days, they would take her to the cliffs, where the farm had been.
‘I was born here, it was my home,’ she would tell them, waving towards the buildings behind her. Holiday cottages, now, ‘sought after, in sight of the sea.’ Yes, it was what she woke up to, every day. It was part of her. They had said the same about the story; the sea was part of it, too. The sea meant something, like those other things that were supposed to mean something.
This place, high up, looking both ways, was one of her favourites. The water did everything here, on different days, at different times. And it was where she had seen the whale disappear.
‘I ran, as soon as the mooring broke free. I knew which way it would go; I knew the currents. They – the film people – followed only the marked tracks, and stumbled at each outcrop. Have I told you this before?’
She followed the beast along the coast, running from cove to cove, over the cliff tops.
‘My pink hair-slide broke free and skittered down the cliff. I couldn’t see above the height of the gorse, but I knew where I was going – home. I was the one who got here first. I was the one to see the whale rounding the corner. I was the one to see it disappear, with the famous actor tied to the side.’
They always shuffled glances then, in time with their feet; their thumbs would start that fidgeting again, and they would say ‘No, no!’ ‘It wasn’t like that at all.’ ‘Look, it says here…’
They showed her things she didn’t want to see – a picture of a white cylinder, with wires and cogs behind, a man pulling levers inside.
‘Look!’ They were fond of that word. And she lowered her eyes to whatever was on the little screen. But she saw nothing, she didn’t have to see, unless she wanted to.
They told her things she didn’t want to hear.
There was no whole whale. Just bits – a tail, a head, sections that they moved around on a barge, putting them in the water when needed. Or… there were three models, but none of them whole…
Sixty feet, eighty-five feet, one whale, three. No whales, parts of whales, a model in a tank; a picture on a studio wall. Rubber; steel.
‘An internal engine to pump the spouting water!’
‘Dye in the latex skin, so that it could ‘bleed’!’
‘A publicity stunt, Nain! Just imagine the press coverage such a story would get. ‘Hollywood star nearly drowns, swept out to sea on the back of a whale!’’
‘A myth,’ another announced. ‘Built from half-truths, a muddle of events. Look, a section broke free; the actor nearly drowned being dunked in a tank in the studio. Then they all said different things. The coastguard sailed to the rescue! The R.A.F. was called! But none of it happened! The camera guy says this… the director says that… Gregory Peck something else entirely! But they all seem to settle on ‘no whale!’’
‘No,’ she said. ‘They must have forgotten. They had so much to do. They moved on quickly.’
They moved on to another film, another story. It became nothing to them.
The children leave with the summer. She is glad.
Soon, everything they’ve said is gone again. All the ‘looks’ bundled away, along with their forgotten names. And the whale drifts out of the harbour, great, white, whole, with the famous actor trapped in a web of twine. She runs along the cliff, her pink slide falls, and there it is again.
Soon, she sees the sea every day, just as in her childhood, in this place they’ve put her in, calling it ‘home’. Home again, sea again.
And there are new people who listen to her story, and say ‘How interesting!’ Or, ‘Good!’ no matter how many times she tells. She cannot see the film anymore – her eyes are too dim. Besides, none of the other ‘residents’ want to watch it. But the nice girls will read to her from the book, if she asks, when they have the time.
It is the ending she wants to hear. How Ahab raises his hand from the flank of the whale, beckoning his crew to carry on with the kill.
‘I saw it,’ she tells them. ‘I saw the whale disappear into the mist, with the famous actor tied to its side. He waved at me, so I said ‘Goodbye.’’
‘No,’ the girl who is reading to her that day, tells her; a girl who pays attention to the words on the page. ‘Ahab gets pulled into the water. It’s the Parsee who is caught on the whale. And he doesn’t wave. They changed it for the film. They changed the whole ending. It’s what they do, for dramatic effect.’
After the girl has gone, she puts the book in the bin.
And the whale turns towards the open sea, and the man raises his hand to her.
- end -