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I saw the whale from the top of the cliff. Its fin was submerged, but the rest lay on sand. It was wrong. The sun was just visible and strata of ragged clouds hung on the horizon. The morning smelled mineral and sharp. Below, night drowsed about the dunes.
The steps were loose on the path down. I concentrated, thought about my breath and the cliff-face under my fingers – slick quartz and tufts of sodden grass.
At the foot of the cliff, dunes hide the water. Embryo dunes, they are called. Further along the coast they grow high and wind-swept, pitted with dune-slacks which flood in the winter. Here, though, modest ridges with tussocks of marram grass sway with the coming and going of the waves.
I listened, agitating the space my ring had left behind. After all these weeks, I was still not used to it.
The whale lay on the right. Water pushed against it, evanescent.
There was nobody else. I turned to check the cliff, ashen in the morning. At the top, for a second, I thought I saw something catch the sunlight, but it disappeared and I turned back.
I should have called someone. All the way down those steps, when I wasn’t thinking of anything at all, I was desperate to be the first. I think, too, that I was desperate to save it.
Its skin was the colour of twilit waves, damp and streaked with dried salt. Its head lay at a strange angle, the mouth acute to the sand. Barnacles were stuck on its wrinkles, patterned like the sea bed at low tide. The blowhole gasped.
One of the eyes was visible. I looked into it and saw grains of shell. I saw myself distorted in deep indigo. I saw all that I would never know. I saw sadness, wide and deep as the ocean.
They dug a trench under the whale and filled it with seawater to keep the body buoyant. Later, they draped it with rolls of wet tarpaulin. We were not allowed to help.
That morning, I walked down and watched from behind the police tape. It stuttered in the wind. They had moved the head, and I could no longer see the eye.
A man approached. His hair was tied in a ponytail, and it bulged behind a grey beanie. Under a high-vis he wore crumpled waterproofs. “Looking for something?” he said. I couldn’t reply, just smiled, shook my head, and fretted with my fingers.
“You must like it, then.” It was not a question.
“Like what?” I replied.
“Watching the creature die.”
I stared at him.
He widened his eyes like a head-teacher, expecting an answer.
“No,” I said.
He snorted and walked away, the ponytail shaking along behind him.
That evening there was a meeting in the village hall.
I found a chair near the back. Ponytail was up front, awkward in regular clothes. He stood behind Briggs from the Royal Oak.
P.E. apparatus hung on the walls – ladders with dusty ropes draped on the higher rungs. On the floor, court markings snarled back from the wood, red and green and blue. I thought how lonely the spaces between them looked. I thought about the eye.
A woman shook off her raincoat and sat down beside me. She smiled, “Hello, bey.” I didn’t recognise her. She wore a pink cardigan with yellow ducks swaying up the sleeves.
It was musty in the hall, and I shifted on the plastic chair, regretting that I had come.
Someone placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Ye’s the badger,” the man winked down at me. From below, his face was hollow and sharp. He had cut himself shaving – a morsel of pink tissue remained on his chin. I had never seen him before.
“Yes,” he said, “plashing about on the beach.” He stroked his jaw. “Why were ye a-sitting on the sand like that?” He was gone before I could answer.
“Oh dear,” the lady squeezed my arm. She smelled of sherry and stale biscuits. “Ye’re not quite up to our ways yet. Ye’ll get used to it.” She turned away and chuckled softly. You can’t hide, her laugh said.
Briggs clapped his hands and Ponytail stepped up.
“As you all know,” he began, “a female humpback whale was beached early yesterday morning. This really never happens, not with humpbacks, not so far from their migratory paths. We’ve done all we can to keep her buoyant and hydrated, and she’s stable for now. But,” he cleared his throat, “it seems she’s pregnant.”
I made a noise, and people turned to look.
He held up a hand, “She is still alive. We’re going to try and dig a channel back to sea and guide her out. If that doesn’t work then we’ll try and save the calf.”
He paused and sighed.
“If I’m honest, the chances are not that high.” He spoke quietly. People shuffled forwards on their seats. “It’s rare that they even survive this long, and even if we do succeed, the damage will be done. But,” he held out his hand again. Nobody was making any noise. “We have to try, no?
“That is where you can help. We need people to dig and to keep her hydrated. Time is crucial here – if everyone mucks in, there’s a chance we’ll be able to do it.”
He sat down.
We would begin the next morning. Someone would print out a rota and pin it on the damp cork-board, among the laminated adverts for cleaners and babysitters. By then it would be too late.
I rolled a cigarette. Beyond the fields, on the ocean, there was the shadow of day, as night bled into the sea. Dimply, they call it here. What sort of desperation had driven her here, to this bleak coast?
Inside, chairs scraped, and people began to come out.
I stubbed my cigarette and ground it into the damp paving. When I looked up, Ponytail was next to me. “Got a light?” he asked. I gave him my bic.
The man with the cut chin walked over. “Careful of that one,” he said, gesturing to me. He was smaller than I thought, angular as marram grass.
“Careful of your razor,” I said, and smiled at him until he left, muttering. “Dick.” I said to his back.
Ponytail passed my lighter. He held out his hand and I took it.
“We’ve met before,” I said.
“Down at the whale,” I said. “You asked me if I liked watching her die.”
He exhaled, paused, looked at me.
“Look, sorry about that. I’m stressed. Lots of people come down to gawk at these things.” He shrugged. “I don’t even remember seeing you there. I’m Mark.”
I told him my name. We shook hands again.
“See you down there?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, though I didn’t know where he meant.
I rolled another, crouched with my back against the pebbledash. The day had disappeared and she was down there, her and the calf, in the lonesome dark.
The village was built on the banks of what was, once, a river. Now, the road meandered down to the sea. On one side the land rose to a ridge, where a footpath followed the higher ground. My cottage was that way. On the other side, fields slipped down to the cliffs and beaches. The sea was everywhere, unless you turned your back on it.
Light spilled onto picnic benches in front of the Oak. There was nobody outside.
“Come on,” I said to myself. But I couldn’t.
It was obvious I wasn’t welcome there; something about me antagonised the locals – a reminder of what they were not, maybe. Of cities, of social media, of erosion and invasion and plastic thrills. I suppose in one way, I reminded them of children who no longer visited, of holiday tantrums and family rift. Mostly, I think they just didn’t want those things.
But I did want to be accepted, and my neediness made me seem haughty and aloof. All I had to do was talk, I understand that now. To tell them why I was there and how much I hoped it would help me. Theirs was a community of shared secrets and everyday sufferings; it’s a cruel sort of intimacy, but it binds.
I wasn’t ready to talk. At that point, everything was punishment. I think it was the reason I had come; to grieve, yes, but also to indulge in exile and self-pity. I recognised my conceit.
The wind picked up again.
I went in and took a pint to the corner. Mark was by the darts with some older ladies, one of them holding his sleeve. He smiled when I caught his eye and gestured to the door with his head. Yes, I mouthed, relieved.
At the bar, chin-cut grabbed my arm.
“Wasson, kiddie, leaving already?” His breath was sour.
“Just a smoke.” I smiled, but my heart was beating.
His fingers gripped my arm. “Ye’re a bit off-key, en’t ye?”
“Not really,” I replied.
One of his friends said something that he ignored.
“What were ye a-doing with the creature, fossicking about it? Why didn’t ye do something?” He prodded my chest, turned to his mates. “Having a moment with the whale afore ye-all got there, this one.”
I shook my head.
“What were ye up-to?” I could smell mildew on his coat. “Why are ye even here?”
People had turned to look now. “Leave off,” someone said.
“I don’t want trouble,” I stepped back.
“Tell us what ye were doing with that fish, then.” He raised his voice.
I shook my head.
“Grockle fucker,” he spat.
I forgot myself.
“She’s not a fucking fish,” I threw my pint on the floor.
There was silence. We stared at each other, his rheumy eyes, narrow and empty. Nothing behind them, I thought, nothing more than the refection of this pub, its downtrodden carpets and rigged slot machine.
He held up his hands as if he were the one being aggressed and someone pulled me outside. In the cold air, by the glittering pavement, I cried.
Mark passed me a cigarette and lit it. He exhaled. It was so quiet I could almost hear the sea lapping at the whale, away over the fields.
I sat on one of the damp benches. Talk had started up inside.
“So you’re not from here,” he said.
“No,” I replied.
“Why are you here in winter?”
I shrugged, wiped my eyes.
“Mark, why would she come ashore?”
He ignored me, “What was that man talking about?”
“I don’t know,” I answered.
His eyes narrowed in the dark.
“I don’t know,” I repeated.
He didn’t believe me.
“Why are you here?” he asked again.
I didn’t speak for a while. The wind whistled round the corners. We shivered.
“I thought it would help me sort out some things.”
I didn’t want to talk about it. “Can you save the calf?” I asked instead.
“I hope so.” He stubbed his cigarette and made to go in. “Whales drown on land you know.” He put his hand on the door.
“Oh,” he turned back, his ponytail flicking. “It’s mostly noise, why they beach, from propellers and engines. It’s a constant high wine, like endless drilling all around you. There’s nowhere to hide, and so they’re forced into shallower waters where its a bit better. But, then, if they go too far they end up stuck in places like this.”
The horizon was restive and uneasy, sultry with iodine, with great grey beasts of cloud quivering just beyond sight. The sea was mirrored and smooth as mercury.
Someone had buried me in a sandcastle, and I sensed the shell-studded crenellations and improbable battlements, all pocked from the rain and wanting to crumble. Water gurgled in the finger-striped moat.
The tide was still out.
When she emerged from the sea she was polished like mother of pearl. She lay beside me and my fingers found her skin, still clammy with salt. I turned my head and watched the movements under her taut pregnant skin; was that a foot? A hand?
Liquid flowed from her navel, iridescent droplets carried off by the wind. I knew what was going to happen, and I struggled in the sand, bringing down the castle about me, sucking me down as the sea reached up.
I watched as sea-water rushed over her and she drowned, as she turned to look at me and her face was one large eye, deep and dark and full of everything. I saw myself, distorted, crumbling, and helpless. I woke.
Dawn came, with the tight-lipped way it has by the sea. I drank tea in the kitchen and watched condensation catch the light on the windows.
When the time came, I dressed slowly and walked down the crumbling cliff-face to the beach.
The whale was taped-off, a mass of sheets and tarpaulins. People milled around, putting on their fluorescent vests and fiddling with zippers, blowing into styrofoams of tea. To one side people queued for a trestle table that was sinking into the sand. They looked at me. Chin-cut nudged his neighbour.
Mark smiled when our eyes met. I joined the back of the queue.
The whale died before they could remove the calf. Everything was ready; a steel tank for the newborn, a chinook to carry it off and fire engines on the cliff top, their lights lighting the low-hanging clouds.
She gurgled and we all knew that she was dead.
I looked for Mark – he was staring out to sea, where two coastguard ribs slipped on the swell.
Chin-cut was nearby. “Didn’t manage to save it, did ye?”
I punched him, the first punch I’d ever thrown. I don’t think I did much damage, but he stood very straight, holding his face and glaring before he turned and strode away.
The firemen led us all away and taped off the area.
I went to find Mark. He was still staring. The marram grass whispered behind us.
“What will they do with her?” I asked
“Cut her up and drop the bits out there, I suppose,” he gestured at the horizon. “You shouldn’t have hit that man,” he added.
I didn’t reply.
“Why was it so important?”
I sat on the wet sand.
“I don’t know.” I did.
The waves rolled in as the afternoon slipped to a sallow twilight.
I stayed long after Mark left, until the beach had emptied and it was just me and the carcass.
Darkness spilled over the cliffs. I felt a magnificent loneliness.
I saw Mark once more.
He was standing outside the pub, astride a scuffed North face duffel bag. He waved.
When I didn’t reply, he added, wistfully. “Home.”
He was relaxed, resigned. When he smiled it almost reached his bloodshot eyes. I think he had been crying.
“I will, too,” I said. To be here was impossible, so close to the bloodstained sand.
“Why did you come here?” he asked.
“I thought it would help.”
“Help with what?”
I didn’t answer. Instead, I said, “I don’t think she wanted to be saved. Not her or the calf. She knew that whatever had driven her ashore meant death, meant that the world was not right for her child, and there was nothing she do except never let it live. Don’t you think?”
He didn’t say anything, just put his hand on my shoulder. We stood and smoked until the bus came.