It was Sunday morning. I lay in bed, listening to Dad whistling happy songs as pans clinked & rattled and the aroma of sausages, bacon, and toast wafted up the stairs.
“Get up, lazybones,” he shouted. “Breakfast’s ready.”
I jumped from bed and ran downstairs, joining Mum at the table, both in our pyjamas.
“Who wants to see a whale today?” asked Dad, putting plates heaped with breakfast in front of us.
My hand shot up.
“Me,” I cried.
Giving Dad a stern look, Mum said, “And when did you come up with this idea?”
“This morning. The lady on the radio said there’s a whale in Norfolk we can see. How often do you get the chance to see a whale?”
“I really want to see a whale, Mum,” I said.
“Well, if you think it’s a good idea, young man,” she smiled, “I guess we can see the whale.”
“Great. And we can stop off for Fish & Chips on the way home,” said Dad.
We drove along a causeway surrounded by marsh, to a long line of tall sand dunes, and parked. Mum wrapped us in warm woolly coats and scarves, and we climbed the dunes, wobbling as our feet sank in the loose sand. I scampered to the top, expecting the sea to be below me on the other side, but it was a distant, hazy strip on the horizon with a wide barren sheet of sand stretching to meet it.
“I can’t see the whale,” I said.
As we came off the dune, a blustery wind blew ghostly waves of fine sand across the surface of the beach.
“The whale’s around the corner,” said Dad, quickening his pace.
I gazed at the ground as we walked, studying the shape of pebbles, the gleam of seaweed, the tiredness of driftwood, and the shame of ragged scraps of litter. I picked up a large, white seashell.
“Beautiful,” said Dad, “but there might be a crab inside—be careful it doesn’t snip off your fingers.”
I threw it down and he laughed.
“I think that’s it,” said Dad, pointing along the beach.
In the distance, tiny figures in brightly coloured coats surrounded a black shape like a large rock.
“That can’t be it,” I said. “It’s not in the sea.”
“The whale’s not in the sea today,” said Dad.
Mum gave Dad one of her stares. “Oh Peter, it’s beached. Why did you bring us to see this?”
“Sorry, I really wanted to see it.” Dad turned to me. “The whale has got lost, and it’s trapped on the beach.”
“Are those people carrying him back to the sea?” I asked.
“I don’t think they can. He’s heavy and he’d get hurt.”
“But whales live in the water.”
“Yes, normally, but the whale is probably sick, which is why he got lost.”
“Is he going to die?”
“I think so.”
“And no one can help?”
“That’s sad,” I said.
We walked towards the whale over sand imprinted with dozens of footprints that had travelled the same way.
The whale was sunk in the sand—the biggest creature I’d ever seen. Its dark grey skin was slicked with water. A large scar ran along its body—a healed wound from a deep-sea battle. Its eyes were closed, and every minute or so it rose, moaning as it breathed deeply, before sinking again. It smelt of the sea—of salt and seaweed. A lone bunch of yellow flowers lay by its head.
“It’s close to the end,” a woman said.
People carrying buckets were hurrying to a shallow channel of water that cut across the beach on its way out to sea. They filled the buckets with water, then gently poured them over the whale.
A bearded man in a fluorescent jacket nodded to us. Dad asked him if he could help.
“We’re trying to ease its suffering by keeping it cool,” he said.
A tired looking man, bent-over clutching his aching back, offered his bucket to Dad, who took it and ran towards the water.
Mum was quiet and stared at the whale. “Are you okay?” she asked me.
I thought I could see a tear welling in her eye.
“It’s very sad, poor thing. We don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. Are you cold?”
“I want to see Dad helping,” I said.
Dad stood on tip-toes, slowly pouring water over the whale’s head. When the bucket was empty, Dad stroked his hand over the whale, turned to look at us, waved and bounded away to fetch more water.
Mum and I sat. I picked up handfuls of sand and it tickled as I let it run through my fingers. Mum was shivering. I told her to get up and stamp her feet like Dad had taught me. Dad soon poured another bucket of water and came over.
“Can I touch it?” I asked him.
Dad took my hand and led me to the whale. “Be gentle,” he said.
We both reached out and touched it. The skin was smooth, like a football. It was warm. I could feel it pulsing with life. I could feel it struggling to breathe.
“Do you think it’s scared of us?” I asked.
“It knows we’re trying to help. Whales are smart creatures,” said Dad, and went off to fill another bucket.
I stood back. And just then, the whale’s eyelid flicked open, its wide, dark pupil like black glass. The eye moved slightly, just enough that I could tell the whale was looking at me. I smiled and took a step to the right. It followed me. I stepped back and it followed. It blinked.
“You’ll be okay whale,” I said, stroking it above the eye. “We’ll look after you.”
The eyelid closed.
I caught a ginger boy with see-through skin like a jellyfish looking at me and he ran over.
“When it dies, it’ll explode,” he said. “It blows up like a balloon and then… BOOM!” He exaggerated the explosion by making an arc with his arms. “And apparently, it stinks. Worst stink ever.”
I tugged the zip on my jacket up as far as it would go and put my hood up.
“Good idea,” said the jellyfish boy, “you don’t want bits of whale touching your skin. The smell never comes off.”
“How d’you know?” I asked.
“It was on TV,” he said, and ran back to his parents. His mum poured a steaming drink from a Thermos and handed him the cup. He sipped it and smiled smugly at me as I walked back to sit where Mum was huddled.
Soon, things went quiet and Dad stopped fetching the water. The crowd stood silently round the whale, patting each other’s shoulders, hugging.
“Is it dead, Mum?”
“I’m afraid so.”
The whale looked peaceful.
“We should go quickly, before it explodes,” I said, jumping to my feet.
She gave me a puzzled look, “I think we’ll be okay for a few minutes.”
I fidgeted on the spot, ready to run. Dad was standing quietly by the whale.
“I’m going to stand a bit further back,” I told Mum.
Mum got up and went to Dad, glancing sideways at me to let me know she was keeping an eye on me. Dad hugged Mum close and she rested her head on his shoulder.
The wind gusted, whipping up the sand so everyone turned to shield their eyes. Dad squeezed Mum and said something in her ear before they walked hand in hand towards me.
“Time to go,” said Dad.
We walked back to the car. I kept looking back at the whale, waiting for the explosion.
On the beach, I spotted a dark grey pebble with a white line running down the side. I picked it up. It was perfectly smooth. I pocketed it.
We said goodbye to the sea and drove slowly up the causeway back to the main road. I stared back through the rear window at the shrinking dunes.
In the next town, we parked the car and walked to the concrete sea front.
“Wait here,” said Dad.
Mum and I sat silently on a wooden bench looking out to the choppy, brown sea.
Dad came back with three parcels of white paper spotted with grease. He passed me one. It warmed my hands, and the smell of vinegar tingled my nose.
“A whale’s not a fish, is it Dad?” I asked.
“No, it’s a mammal, like you and me.”
“Okay,” I said, opened my parcel of fish & chips, and tucked in.