You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
Joe, a small, slight boy with blue eyes, who was never seen without his baseball cap, was spending the afternoon in his bedroom, engrossed in his Marvel comics. He loved his superheroes, so what else was there to do on a rainy day but escape to another world? At thirteen, he had already decided that he would leave Derry and emigrate to America when he finished school at sixteen. He loved the cities portrayed in these comic books. He liked to imagine the long, straight streets, filled with cars, whose drivers cruised along with their elbows stuck out through the windows, their hands clutching bottles of ice-cold Coke. The pedestrians gathered impatiently at traffic crossings, the “Don’t Walk” message flashing its bright amber light and would eventually change to a light blue and read “Walk”; then, crowds of people would cross the street, as car horns hooted, the heat of the day rising off the surface of the tarmac. And then there were the tall buildings that pierced the clouds and shot up into the sky, with their luxury apartments inhabited by people who would sit watching an afternoon movie on the tube while they gobbled popcorn. And amidst all this, in the shadows of this vast metropolis, evil villains would gather with sinister plans to take over the world and enslave all its inhabitants. The ideas hatched by these wicked men would always go as designed, the citizens of the world terrified by their smooth-running plots: then, just at the last minute, when the world was faced by the looming shadow of doom, out of nowhere, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, or the Hulk would appear with their extraordinary powers, swiftly destroying the supremacy of evil and saving the world. Joe was sitting lost in his adventure, in which Thor threw his mighty hammer across the sky, when suddenly his fantasy was interrupted by the loud voice of his father shouting up the stairs. “Come down, Joe. Your dinner’s on the table!”
Joe’s dinner was always the same – potatoes, diced carrots, and Doherty’s sausages. He never got fed up with this. He loved his meals, particularly dinner time, when he would sit at the table with his father while the radio, resting on top of the fridge, played in the background. Joe reached for the Heinz ketchup bottle and generously squirted the sauce over his food. Around this time, the local news bulletin, aired by Radio Foyle, came on the radio. Joe heard the musical intro and immediately prepared for more news about people being shot or blown up. Today, however, there was nothing like that. Today’s headline was about a killer whale which had swum up the River Foyle from the Atlantic Ocean, searching for salmon, and had now managed to get itself lost. Joe listened on in amusement, then looked at his father, who sat with one eyebrow raised, a bewildered expression spreading over his face. He lifted his glass, put it to his thin lips and swallowed a few gulps of milk.
“For fuck’s sake!” he swore, staring at Joe through the thick lenses of his glasses. “That’s all we need. A bloody whale takes up people’s time when a war is to be fought against the occupying forces!”
This remark made Joe burst into laughter. He knew that his father was only joking and that he was fed up with the Troubles, just like everyone else. During the past week, there had been five deaths, so Joe knew that the sighting of the whale was like a breath of fresh air for the majority of the city’s inhabitants. The newscaster continued with his report, saying that crowds had gathered along the riverbank and across the Craigavon Bridge to catch a glimpse of the whale, which had already been given the nickname of “Dopey Dick” by a well-known Derry docker.
Joe’s father stood up. “Dopey Dick,” he giggled as he walked quickly towards the living room, his long arms swinging. “Let’s put on the telly and see what this is all about.”
Joe sat on his favourite chair, just beside the fireplace, and scratched his freckled face. He had been holding his red baseball cap in his hand, and he stuck it back on his head now that he had eaten. His father turned on the UTV news and then lay stretched out on the worn, brown settee, his long legs propped up at one end. The newscaster stood on the banks of the Foyle while the camera swept over the river, the pale, blue water flowing along as crowds gathered on the Craigavon Bridge to catch a glimpse of the whale; but it was nowhere to be seen. Later, the presenter announced that if there were any new footage of the whale, it would be shown on the next bulletin. A gardening programme started after the news had ended.
Joe’s father yawned and stretched his arms. “How’s the swimming coming on, son?” he asked.
Joe took off his cap again, ran his fingers through his long, dark hair and bit on his lip. “Fine, Dad. I’m going once a week with Aidan.”
“You need to be going more than once a week,” his father said, shaking his head and looking over at him. “You just about made the team. You need as much practice as you can get. Why don’t you go tomorrow?”
Joe shrugged his thin shoulders. “I always go with Aidan to the picture house on Saturday.”
His father pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. “It’s the holidays, Joe. You have plenty of time. Don’t make excuses.”
Joe sat in silence.
“Well?” his father added. “It’s up to you. Look at Liam Ball from over the town. He swam at the Olympics on two occasions. I bet he didn’t get there by spending most of his time at the pictures.”
Joe smirked. “By the way, Dad. You wouldn’t give me two bob so that I can buy some sweets at the Spar?”
Dad jangled a few coins around his pocket. He pulled out a ten-pence coin and threw it over to Joe.
“There you go, son.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Joe replied, his face lighting up as he caught the coin in his hand.
“No problem, son.”
The next day Joe walked briskly through the red-bricked estate; his baseball cap stuck firmly on his head. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his black bomber jacket as he approached two kids messing around with a football. One of the boys passed the ball in Joe’s direction. Joe flipped the ball up with his foot, then shot it over to the yellow net that had been roughly painted on a gable wall, before walking past Lawrence’s public house and towards the Spar. The two kids cheered his effort as he walked on. Once he was inside the shop, Mr Adair, who always wore a cap and was never without a pencil stub stuck behind his ear, greeted him.
“How’s it going, Popcorn?”
“Fine,” Joe said, shyly walking up an aisle stacked with food, and then stopping when he got to the snacks section. Below packets of Tayto crisps and KP nuts lay several “Jolly Time” American popcorn bags. Joe grabbed one, the plastic rustling as he gripped it between his fingers, and made his way towards the counter, where he pulled a can of cola from the fridge, then handed Mr Adair a shiny ten-pence piece.
“What film are you going to see today, Popcorn?” Mr Adair asked jovially.
“Aidan and I will see Smokey and the Bandit,” Joe replied, staring at all the cigarette brands stacked along the wall.
“Ah, that sounds like fun,” said Mr Adair.
He rang up the till, threw the coin inside the tray, and handed a few pence back to Joe. “Enjoy the film,” he added, “And remember the staff at the Palace frown upon children who bring in their treats.”
Joe nodded and looked back at the cigarettes, suddenly remembering that it was these that had taken his mother’s life. Deep inside, he still missed her every day. Mr Adair gave Joe a cheeky wink as he left the shop.
Ten minutes later, Joe arrived at his friend Aidan’s house. He rang the front-door bell and, looking along the street, saw a coal lorry splutter up the hill, black smoke streaming out of its exhaust.
Aidan’s mum, wearing a flowered apron, opened the door. “What’s that racket?” she said, staring at the lorry as it turned a corner and disappeared.
“How are you, Joe?”
Behind her Aidan appeared, wearing a sleeveless denim Wrangler jacket, and with his hair freshly combed.
Aidan walked to the door, grabbed his scuffed trainers off a shelf, then sat on the porch step and put them on.
“How’s it going, Aidan?” Joe asked cheerfully.
“The best!” Aidan replied, scratching his round jaw. He finished lacing up his trainers and stood up to leave.
Aidan’s mother called out. “Mind yourselves out that town today in case there are any shootings or bombings.”
“OK, Ma!” Aidan answered confidently. “We’ll be fine.”
The two boys walked down the road until they came to Simpson’s Brae, where a one-way traffic system was in place; cars were speeding down the hill and going around the roundabout. They then walked up to Duke Street and passed through the subway, where there was paint sprayed on the tiled walls, spelling out political graffiti from both sides of the community: “Up the IRA” on one side and “UVF” on the other. The tunnel stank of urine and was littered with old newspapers and broken beer bottles. Leaving the tunnel, they raced each other up the ramp, and there in front of them was the pier which had stood there for years, most of it now dilapidated, ravaged by the elements, apart from a small section that was still intact and from which kids fished for eels. Joe and Aidan said a quick hello to the two Dunlop brothers, who were standing there fishing.
“Make sure you’ve got a good grip on your rod if you catch that bloody whale!” Aidan joked.
The two brothers looked back and smiled. Joe gazed at the top deck of the bridge and rubbed his brow. The bridge was crowded with people. Some were holding binoculars to their eyes. Others clutched cameras in the hope of catching a photo of the stranded whale. Joe had never seen so many people gathered on the bridge, except for the Twelfth of July when the Orangemen marched, but today was different. There was no tension in the air. Joe and Aidan raced up the steps which led to the top deck.
“Jesus!” Joe said, breathlessly. “There’s a great buzz around here today.”
Aidan nodded in agreement. Parents were standing with wide-eyed children on their shoulders, looking out over the Foyle, taking in the festival atmosphere. An ice-cream van had pulled up, the server scooping ice creams into cornets and between wafers for the long queue of people that had quickly formed. As they walked along, Joe overheard a man saying that the whale had swum further up the river. This worried Joe. The river ended a few miles further down, where the water was shallower. He looked at Aidan, who was marching beside him.
“Dopey Dick will be in big trouble if he swims too close to the shore.”
Aidan looked up at the clear blue sky; sunlight was drenching the city.
“Whales are brilliant,” he replied. “They have a device in their brain. It’s like a kind of compass, so they usually know where they’re going.”
“You mean they can never get lost, “Joe said, excitedly.
Aidan shook his head. “According to Jacques Cousteau, they always know where they’re going.”
Joe nodded. They kept walking, but then stopped to peer through the railings and down at the river.
“Nope! No sign of him,” Joe said, screwing up his face in the sunlight.
“Not even a glimpse,” Aidan replied. They walked across the bridge, pausing from time to time to look through the railings, and on into town, until they finally arrived at the Palace picture house.
Joe sat beside Aidan in the back row of the cinema while a piece of light music played through speakers. The auditorium was quite busy, and the music was accompanied by the sound of people chewing on snacks and talking in the background. Joe and Aidan chatted away, with not a care, until the music suddenly stopped. The lights were dimmed, and then there were those few seconds of silence before the curtains were pulled back. Joe was in seventh heaven. This was what life was all about. There were a few advertisements and some trailers for forthcoming features, and then Smokey and the Bandit began. Joe sat back in his seat, cracked open a can of cola, and tore open his popcorn bag. Eyes glued to the screen, he stuffed his face, wholly transfixed by the movie. It was a comedy starring Burt Reynolds as a fun-loving, fast-talking truck driver who must deliver a haul of bootleg beer across several states within a 24-hour period, with Sheriff Buford T. Justice hot on his tail. The many exciting chase scenes delighted Joe, who was blissful – until a beam of light from the torch of Bridie Porter, the cinema usher, swept across his face. A cold, hard hand gripped his shoulder, making Joe almost jump out of his seat.
“What have I told you about bringing your snacks in here?” Bridie said in a raised voice, with contempt woven across her face.
Joe looked at Aidan, the colour draining from his cheeks. Bridie then shone the torch on Aidan, who sheepishly looked to one side.
“This is the last time, Joe! I’m telling you now! If I catch you again, I’m throwing you out!”
The woman went to pull the bag of popcorn off him, but Joe bent over, clenching the packet to his chest. Bridie shook her head and walked off. Joe slowly looked up, raised an eyebrow, turned to Aidan, and both boys began to giggle.
Aidan slapped Joe on the arm. “You’re some boy, Popcorn!”
Joe nodded, and then they both turned their heads back towards the screen to continue watching the movie.
Joe couldn’t stop talking about the movie on their way back from the cinema. The film was a big Hollywood production. Joe’s mum had once bought him a book about the history of that faraway place as a Christmas present.
“Hollywood is where dreams come true,” Joe told Aidan. “It’s probably the biggest film studio in all of America. Someone once told me that it’s probably the size of Northern Ireland.”
“You’re off again.” Aidan laughed as he strolled along beside him.
Joe gave Aidan a look of conviction. “When I finish school, first stop New York, then L.A.”
“What do you want to go to New York for?” Aidan replied. “They don’t have enough homes for all the people there. Some must sleep on the streets.”
Joe shrugged his shoulders. “So, what! There are so many wonderful things about the Big Apple. The Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, where the shops are open all night, not like that bloody Spar that closes at seven.”
Aidan tightened and then slowly loosened his lips. “A lot of people get murdered there. I’ve seen it on Kojak!”
Joe thought about this for a second as a helicopter zoomed over their heads. Both boys gazed up as the machine flew off into the distance and disappeared.
Joe’s face stiffened. There had to be something going on in town.
He looked at the ground, deep in thought. Aidan slapped him on the back. “Come on!” he shouted. “I’ll race you to the bridge.” Aidan darted off up the street, with Joe running on behind.
Crowds of people still lined both sides of the bridge as the boys walked back from town on their way home. Cars were driving along slowly, the passengers staring out through the wound-down windows, amazed at what was happening in their small city. The two boys walked along, still stopping from time to time to peek through the railings as they made their way to the steps, which would lead them down and away from the bridge. When they got to the old pier, the two Dunlop boys had gone but had left some empty Fanta cans and crisp packets on the wooden beams. As Joe and Aidan stood there, a light wind blew Joe’s hair around the side of his face. He looked up and down the river and caught a glimpse of the cathedral high up on the hill as its bells began to ring. Just down from him was the railway station, where a train that had just arrived from Belfast had come to a stop, and people were streaming from the platforms. Aidan stood beside Joe, fidgeting in his pockets. Joe closed his eyes and thought of the great whale submerged underwater, where ancient shipwrecks lay on the riverbed. He imagined the whale swimming below in the darkness and then surfacing through the water, the sun glistening on its skin. What a sight that would be; but not today.
He opened his eyes and saw Aidan’s large brown eyes resting on him.
“You’re not daydreaming again, are you?”
Joe sucked in his cheeks, then shook his head.
“No, Aidan, but I’ll tell you one thing. I’d love to catch a glimpse of that whale. Just think of the stories you could tell about it when you grow older.”
Aidan gave Joe a bemused look and then checked the time on his watch. “It’s almost six. I need to get home for my dinner.”
Joe didn’t seem to hear him. Aidan waved his hand in front of Joe’s face. “Are we receiving?”
Joe finally came out of his trance and shifted his gaze towards his friend. “OK, Aidan,” he said, taking one final look at the river. “Let’s go.” Both boys walked in the direction of the subway and then back to the estate.
No matter how Joe tried, he could not keep up with Aidan at the pool the next morning. He threw his arms forward and kicked his legs as fast as possible, but it was no use. Aidan was the better swimmer. Joe reached the side of the pool, which was thick with chlorine, the water resting just below his chest. Catching his breath, he decided to have a rest. He rubbed his eyes, cleared the water from his nose, and looked around the building. The pool was busy. In another lane, parents were teaching their children how to swim, the sound of splashing water and the echo of excited voices filling the air. Suddenly, a shrill whistle broke through the noise. One of the lifeguards pointed at two kids who were mucking about. “Behave yourselves!” he shouted across to them, before walking off. Eventually, Joe got his breath back and watched as Aidan swam towards him, flipped over, and headed back across the pool. He began to think of the whale again. If there had been a recent sighting, it would have been on the news, but there had been no reports of its whereabouts. Maybe the whale had swum home when it was dark so no one would see; or perhaps it had died, its body resting on the riverbed. Joe tried not to think about it. He returned to the moment, and saw Aidan come to an abrupt stop in front of him, the top half of his body shooting out of the water.
“Come on! You’re not trying hard enough!” Aidan shouted, spinning around and swimming off.
These words played on Joe’s mind. His swimming teacher had said this when he just about made it into the school team. Another pupil had had to pull out, and somehow Joe had been asked to join the team even though he fell far behind the other swimmers. ‘Not Trying Hard Enough.’: he heard the words solemnly repeating in his head. Voices echoed around the pool. Joe took a deep breath, kicked his legs back and began to swim.
Joe and Aidan chatted away as they walked to the picture house. They had just earned some money helping Mr Adair with his bottled gas delivery service. They had worked for him for a few hours that morning, and at the end of it he had given both of them a few bob, saying that he would contact them if he needed them again. As they walked down Shipquay Street, which was bustling with noisy shoppers, Joe noticed the tall trees blowing in the wind. He glanced apprehensively over at Aidan, waiting for the right moment.
“I’ve been thinking about something, Aidan,” he said rapidly.
“And what would that be?” Aidan answered, looking over at him.
“I will spend some extra time swimming at the pool. I don’t want to let the team down.”
Aidan listened attentively. “If Mr James picked you for the team, he did so because he saw that you had potential.”
Joe nodded proudly. He might have to miss Happy Days and The Dukes of Hazzard, but it would be worth it. If he put his mind to it, he could do anything.
The picture house was packed by the time they got inside. It was showing Where Eagles Dare again, starring Clint Eastwood. Joe loved Clint. He was not only an American, but he was also Joe’s favourite actor. Joe and Aidan excitedly stepped into the dimly lit building and found their usual seats. Having sat down, they chatted away. Joe looked cautiously around him to see if Bridie Porter was about. He spotted her. Face caked with makeup, down near the front, she slowly walked along, seeking out people who had sneaked in treats. She suddenly stopped, grabbed a bottle of lemonade and some buns from two girls sitting in the front row and muttered some angry words before pointing towards the exit. She walked quickly up the aisle, arms swinging, and disappeared in the darkness. Joe felt uneasy inside. He’d have to be extra careful today. Eventually, the background music stopped, the lights dimmed, and there was that moment of silence again just before the curtains were pulled back. Joe grinned and looked over at Aidan, who sat eating a Marathon chocolate bar. Joe had a final look around, slipped the bag of popcorn out of his inside pocket, popped it open, and began to stuff his face. He sat back in his seat, lost in the movie, and was watching Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton parachute into unknown enemy territory when a beam of light fell across his face. The light moved to Aidan, who was now sitting innocently watching the film, having scoffed all of his chocolate bar. The light then fell back onto Joe’s bag of popcorn. Joe pretended not to notice Bridie. He sat and kept shoving handfuls of sugary coated popcorn in his mouth, acting as if she wasn’t there.
“Right, son,” Bridie said, grabbing his bag of popcorn and pointing a long bony finger at him. “Get out!”
Joe didn’t move. He was so engrossed in the film that he continued to ignore her. Bridie grabbed him by the sleeve of his jacket and hauled him off his seat. Joe stood there, his legs trembling. The usher then pointed at Aidan. “All right, you too, sunshine!”
Aidan stood up and threw his hands open. “I’m not eating anything.” He looked at Joe. “He’s the one that’s eating.”
Joe shifted from foot to foot.
Bridie turned to Joe and stared furiously back at Aidan.
“It makes no difference. You’re his friend, so you’re going too!”
Joe looked up at the projector beam, which was shooting down through the auditorium, blue cigarette smoke swirling through the light, the projector’s sound humming in the background. Joe took one final glimpse at the screen – on which Clint was narrowing his eyes – and then swallowed hard, a lump forming in his throat. The two boys were marched out of the building, both of their faces burning with shame. They came to the exit, where Bridie pushed the doors open. “OK. Out! Out!”
Aidan stepped outside. As Joe followed on, the fury he felt inside seeped out through his mouth.
“You’re nothing but a cow!” he roared at Bridie.
The woman’s face tightened, her cheeks protruding behind her make-up. She slowly shook her head and glared at Joe. “I’ll see your father at mass, and by God, I’m going to give him a mouthful about you, you little brat.”
Aidan began to walk up the street. Head full of anger, Joe stuck two fingers up at Bridie and slowly followed on.
On their journey back home, Aidan was annoyed with Joe.
“Now you’ve got us barred from the picture house,” he said, crossly, “and all because of you and your stupid popcorn. Bridie will now tell my parents. I’m in trouble too, and all because of you!”
Aidan quickened his pace. Joe ran faster to catch up with him, making a vain attempt to appease him. Aidan wasn’t having it. He didn’t say another word to Joe. The bridge was still packed with people as they walked back across, a blaring siren coming up off the river. Curiosity getting the better of him, Joe came to a halt and pushed his way between a couple who were standing there to watch an army speedboat zig-zag up and down the river. He glanced up at the man, who wore a neat moustache, and asked him what was happening.
The man scratched his head. “The Brits are trying to scare the whale back out to sea with the noise from the sirens.”
Joe looked down at the river, and the streams of foaming water forming on its surface, then back up at the man. “Do you think that will work, mister?”
The man shook his head. “I don’t know. The whale was spotted further up the river this morning. If it doesn’t get back up, it will probably drown.”
Joe grabbed the railings and pushed his head against the cold metal. If only he could get to see him. He had never seen a whale before. He had never ever been outside Derry. Joe turned to ask Aidan what he thought. Aidan wasn’t there. Joe looked towards the end of the bridge and saw Aidan’s tiny figure disappearing in the distance. His mouth dried up. He knew he was in trouble. He was barred from the cinema. His best friend wasn’t speaking to him, and he was sure that his dad would hear all about the incident at mass later as bitter tongues wagged.
Joe went to his room when he got home. At eight o’clock, he heard the key turn in the front door. The door was pushed open and then closed loudly. His heartbeat quickened. He knew that Bridie Porter would have painted an abysmal picture of the incident at the cinema. His father moved around downstairs, and then the sound of the TV came up through the ceiling. Joe decided to spend the rest of the evening alone in his bedroom. There was no way that he was going to go downstairs now. He’d rather stay in his room reading; hopefully, by the following morning, his father would be that little bit calmer. Joe was aware of his temper, so staying put seemed the best thing. After reading for a few hours, he got into bed. That was when the phone rang in the hallway. Joe knew that it would be his aunt. She always called from England once a week to see how things were. He crawled out of bed, tiptoed across the room, and pulled the door ajar, so that he heard his father’s every word as he talked about him swearing at Ms Porter. Joe felt his stomach tighten. He quietly closed the door and got back into bed, where he tossed and turned long into the night.
Joe sat in front of the TV, his eyes glued to the screen; it was filled with a grainy shot of the whale swimming along the river. The camera wobbled from side to side, and then after a minute, the whale disappeared under the water. Joe’s heart pumped. He just couldn’t believe it. The size of it! At least the whale was still alive. The reporter was talking enthusiastically about several sightings that had been made of the whale swimming back up the river and out towards the ocean. “I hope he makes it back out there,” Joe thought, gazing out through the window at the sun shining down on the great oak tree which stood tall in the playing fields.
“Your breakfast is on the table,” his father shouted.
Joe got up and timidly walked to the kitchen, where the smell of bacon filled the air. He pulled up a chair and sat down at the table, his head down, to evade what he imagined would be his father’s accusing stare.
His father sat and chewed on his food. “What happened between Ms Porter and you yesterday?” he asked sternly.
Joe lifted his knife and fork and began to cut up his bacon. “She threw Aidan and me out of the picture house.”
“And why did she do that?” his father asked.
Joe put some food in his mouth and looked up. “Because I bought some treats from the Spar and sneaked them inside.”
Joe’s father shook his head.” And why did you do that?”
Joe wiped his mouth with a tissue. “Because the sweets at the Palace are too expensive.” He paused for a second and looked around him. “Nobody buys stuff in there. Most people sneak in their treats.”
A look of despair suffused his father’s face. He took off his glasses and rubbed his forehead, the lines showing on his face. Joe knew that they were poor. He’d received nothing but a card for his birthday the previous month.
His father sighed and clasped his hands together. “Now that you’ve got yourself barred from the cinema, things will change. There are three picture houses in this city, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re barred from all of them.”
“What?” Joe shrieked in panic.
“No more films,” his father said, firmly.” I want you at that pool every other day.”
Joe folded his arms across his chest and stared down at the table. No more movies. This disappointed him. What was he going to do now? They sat in silence for a few minutes, which seemed like hours. That was when Joe’s mood changed a little. If he were to get to the pool more frequently, at least he could still prove to his father that he was a good swimmer. If his team won the swimming competition, his father might change his mind. Maybe things weren’t so bad after all.
Joe’s father put his glasses back on and took a sip of tea. “Let that be the end of it. Finish your breakfast and get out with your friends. It’s a lovely day.”
Joe went up to his room, where he sat reading for a while. His father told him that he was going to sign on, and he left Joe alone in the house. After a time, Joe put on his trunks and got dressed. Maybe Aidan would join him for a swim at the pool. He grabbed a towel, shoved it in his duffle bag, stuck on his cap and left home. There was a high army presence around the estate this morning. This was in no way unusual. It was part of life. He passed two British soldiers standing at the corner, who appeared twitchy.
“They aren’t much older than some of the kids on the estate,” Joe thought, as he walked by. He made his way to Aidan’s, the scream of the sirens still coming from the river. Reaching Aidan’s house, he rang the bell and stepped back. A few moments later, Aidan’s mother came to the door. She looked at him unkindly, a cigarette resting between her thin, rose-coloured lips.
“Is Aidan in?” Joe asked.
“No, son, he is not. He went out with one of those wee Dunlop fellows earlier. I don’t know where he’s gone.” The door was then closed without another word being said.
A feeling of despair struck Joe. Aidan never went off anywhere without him. He walked off and down past the Spar, where Mr Adair was noisily loading gas bottles onto his van.
“How’s it going, Popcorn?” he shouted over to Joe as he passed.
Joe looked up but didn’t say a word. He dropped his head down and walked on.
“Cheer up, son!” Mr Adair shouted after him.
Joe walked quickly towards the pier. When he came up the ramp, he heard voices and saw Aidan fishing with one of the Dunlop boys. The sun was beating down as an army boat zoomed from side to side across the river, its siren blaring. Joe approached the pier and climbed over a wire fence, his feet landing heavily on the wooden beams; then, out of nowhere, the whale surfaced a little further up the river, and disappeared below the water. Joe’s blue eyes blazed with excitement. He turned and looked at Aidan, who was wearing a red T shirt and had bruises on both arms. His guilt-ridden face reddened as he gave Joe a faint smile.
“There you are, Joe. It’s going back out into the ocean,” he said; he then looked slyly at the boy beside him and whispered, “Maybe it’s going to America.” The other boy glanced back at Joe and began to snigger. Inside, Joe felt a pang of rejection, but it subsided when the whale surfaced again, its enormous black-and-white body glistening in the sunshine as its head rose in the air. The mammal’s body arched, then disappeared, its vast tail slapping against the water’s surface. Joe stared at the river, his mouth hanging open. He had never seen anything like it. From a distance, he heard someone calling his name. He looked back to see his father walking towards the pier on his way back from the town; when he reached the fence he stood there, exhilarated.
“Did you see the bloody size of the bleeding thing!” Joe’s father spluttered in astonishment. Joe looked at him, held his gaze for a few seconds, and then rested his eyes on Aidan, who was now winding in his line. Joe waited for a few moments, threw his duffle bag and a baseball cap onto the beams, got quickly undressed, and stood there in his swimming trunks. Aidan turned his head in surprise. Pale-faced, he anxiously said something to the boy beside him. The boy’s legs began to tremble.
“What are you doing, son?” Joe’s father roared in alarm, trying to climb over the fence towards him.
Joe slowly walked to the edge of the pier, his head held high, and the whale surfaced again. This time it looked like it was in slow motion. Joe saw its massive jaw with razor-sharp teeth, a black eye, two gigantic fins, and then the extended tail smashing against the water once more. He got into the diving position. Cries of alarm came from the people on the bridge looking on. Joe turned around and glanced at his father and Aidan one last time. He tried to speak; his lips moved, but the words wouldn’t leave his mouth.
“You don’t have to …” Aidan cried, but it was too late.
Joe dived off the pier and into the water, smashing through the surface with a mighty splash. The water formed a foaming circle, and half a minute later, Joe’s head and shoulders could be seen flying up through the surface, his eyes looking around him as he gasped for air. He began to swim after the whale, slowly at first but finally reaching an incredible speed; the mammal surfaced once more and then was submerged back under the water. His father and Aidan watched Joe’s tiny figure growing smaller and smaller in the distance. He followed the mighty whale along the river and towards the Atlantic Ocean, leaving his small city far behind, as its people gazed on in astonishment.