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Shamu Cam came live from Shamu’s tank at Sea World, Orlando, on the other side of the world, where the sun is an orange. Orcas are the most widespread mammal in the animal kingdom, found in all oceans, occasionally even a freshwater river, but most especially the empty spare room on that 3,000-home-estate north of the railway line in Didcot. It wasn’t the original Shamu – the real Shamu had been dead for 33 years by 2004 – but if it looks like Shamu, acts like Shamu, and we call it Shamu, etc.
“Are you coming to bed?”
I could sit for hours in that Hideaway Home Office Computer Cabinet, the erect motherboard and processor buzzing at my calves, waiting for the huge, silent shadow to flash directly in front of the camera. Waiting for the room to pitch suddenly into throbbing dark. I ate supper in front of Shamu Cam. I undressed and brushed my teeth, flicking through the different views – some above the surface, some below. You couldn’t take the internet wherever you wanted back then.
“Just finishing a bit of work.” There was no home button or touch-sensitive pad for ease of hiding; you had to flick the cable and send the mouse on an odyssey to reduce the image.
I dabbled in polar bear cam, penguin cam, otter cam, even a red panda cam once; slowly desensitised to conservancy objectives and critical endangerment. I could never get close enough to the screen to interpret long marks made by sausage fingers in the dust as a gorilla swung listless in a Goodyear. The keyboard was greasy beneath my fingers, but they always slid home to the dark heft of Shamu. Shamu Cam ran in the background from the moment I got in from work. Until I left in the morning. Always waiting, waiting for a glimpse of that half-mast of a sail: saluting, or bereaved.
We split up. The desktop was his.
No more black island sinking in slow circles of misty water. No more giant fish teleporting whenever the connection buffered. No more chance of a trainer’s body floating slowly, dragged by the hair, or arm, or whatever, while the scrim of the water hid abrasions and contusions. The computer was gone. The Hideaway Home Office Computer Cabinet was empty.
You read a lot about the cruelty of captivity and performance, but never the other side. It is theoretically possible some of the Shamus might have preferred the familiar tank – the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to recognise everything you see.
And isn’t life, after all, one long performance?
But the sheer relief of not having to be a killer.
Of not accidentally diving so deep that light cannot follow.
– of never knowing if it will end.
Charlotte Turnbull spent many years in production and development for UK film and television, and now lives on Dartmoor with her family. She has had work in Ms Lexia and at Crow and Cross Keys, and can be found in translation in Neutopia Magazine. She placed second in winter '20 Lunate 500.