The Whaleman - a Short Story by Colin Garrow
The Whaleman is a short story I wrote for a storytelling workshop with school groups in Hull.
In 2002, I facilitated storytelling workshops with young people, exploring ideas around trawling and whaling, as part of a season of work linked to the Children’s University Ambassador’s Scheme and Hull Truck Theatre’s production of Moby Dick. This story appeared in the Teachers Pack I produced, that also includes my story Shoal's o' Herrin.
I remember it as if it were yesterday - I was only about ten years old at the time and had never set eyes on owt bigger than a freshwater salmon before.
But I'm gettin ahead of myself. My mam and dad were going through a rough patch and needed some time to sort themselves out. They decided it'd be for the best to send me to stay with Gran and Granddad for the summer. Mam put me on the train at Hull with a bag of sandwiches and a bottle of pop. Dad slapped my arm and told me if I liked stories, I should ask Granddad about his whaling days. I didn't know what he meant and I soon forgot about it as I settled down with one of my 'Biggles' books. Before I knew it, the train was pulling into the station at Great Yarmouth and my journey was almost over.
Gran and Granddad were waiting on the platform holding a bit of cardboard with my name on it. "We were scared we might not recognise you," said Gran, giving me a hug. "Such a long time since we last saw you."
Granddad just winked at me and picked up my bag. He was a huge man with hands like shovels - all rough and grainy, and his feet were like two miniature boats on the end of massively long legs. My Gran wasn't exactly a small woman, but she looked funny walking alongside my Granddad, like a little girl - her tiny hand clasped in his.
They lived on the outskirts of the town in a white stone cottage overlooking the bay. I was so tired I went to bed as soon as I'd had me tea and slept right through til the next morning. When I woke up just after 8 o'clock, my nostrils were tingling with the smell of bacon and toast, and the squawking of seagulls outside my window really gave my senses something to think about. Peering through the bedroom curtains, I saw a sky so bright you could've whitewashed the room with it, and when I pushed open the window the fresh sea air almost knocked me over.
After breakfast, Granddad took me down to the shore. I couldn't believe my eyes - a fifty-foot Right Whale had been washed up on the beach. Of course, I'd seen pictures of them in books, but the real thing was amazing - huge and sprawling, the size of two double-decker buses laid end to end. We stood and watched as a group of men struggled with winches and ropes to haul its bulky carcass onto a lorry.
We walked back up to the house and as I helped Gran peel potatoes for dinner, I was thinking about the dead whale. I couldn't imagine how much food it would have to eat just to stay alive.
During dinner, Granddad noticed one of my Biggles books on the sofa. "Like an adventure, do you, lad?"
I nodded enthusiastically and was about to tell him all about 'Biggles in Africa' when I remembered the whale on the beach. "Granddad, do you know anything about whales?"
For a moment he carried on eating and I thought he hadn't heard me. Then he put his knife and fork down. From the expression on his face, I thought I'd said something wrong, but then he pushed his chair back and walked over to the black and white photographs of fishermen and whaling teams that were hung all across one wall.
"You can't capture summat like that in a snapshot, you know. It's more like a feeling: a way of life. Being at sea's like nothing else you'll ever experience. You've a freedom out on the water, a sense of adventure, and you can do whatever you want out there. It's like...well, it's like a different world."
I leaned forward, my head resting on my hands. "And you hunted for whales, did you?"
Grandma rolled her eyes. "Oh, here we go - he's off." She took a spare plate and covered Granddad's dinner so it wouldn't get cold.
"First time I ever saw one," said Granddad, leaning back against the mantelpiece, "we were aboard the Molly Clark, an oil-burning steamship off the coast of South Georgia, way up in the Antarctic. It was my first trip in a catcher - that's what whaling ships were called - and I was a bit the worse for wear." He covered his mouth and mimed being sick.
I laughed at his antics, but Grandma gave her husband a stern look. "We can do without the actions, thankyou!"
Granddad grinned and went on with the story. "What I meant was - I was feeling proper poorly. And d'you know what? Did they let me go down below? Give me something to settle my stomach? Not a chance! The captain called me a coward. Slapped me on the back and told me to pull myself together or I'd be swimming home. And that was when I heard the shout - I turned to look and there, off the starboard bow were three humpbacked whales cruising past us like they'd not a care in the world. They were a splendid sight, sleek and majestic." He closed his eyes and nodded slowly. "I'll always remember that."
Johnny Collins and the gang in a classic collection of traditional sea shanties, including 'Fire Marengo' and 'Down the Bay To Juliana'.
Granddad went very quiet then. So I got up and moved my chair closer to him. "But if you thought they were so majestic Granddad, why did you kill them?"
He looked at me and gave a heavy sigh. "It was my job, lad. When I weren't much older than you, I had to make a choice - go down the mine or sign on with a ship." He shook his head. "I could never see myself as a pitman, so there it was." He wiped a hand across his face and came back to the table to finish his meal.
I tried to get him to tell me more, and even though in the days that followed, he told me hundreds of stories about boats and fishing, foreign countries and all the things he'd seen and done, he never mentioned the whales again.
At the end of the summer, Gran and Granddad took me to a museum. There was an exhibition on about the world's most dangerous creatures, and there, taking pride of place in the vast entrance hall was the biggest exhibit of all: it was the skeleton of the whale that had been washed up on the beach at Yarmouth - all held together with bits of wire and string and suspended from the roof like a gigantic flying machine. Granddad was right - it was majestic. But I couldn't help feeling it was a shame it had to die just so people could see it close up.
Granddad stood and gazed up at it for ages. Me and Gran went all round the museum looking at the other exhibits, and when we got back to the entrance, Granddad hadn't moved an inch - he was still there, watching. Eventually, we had to get hold of him and drag him away so we could go to a cafe for something to eat.
Not long after that, it was time for me to go home. My parents had been able to spend lots of time together while I'd been away and seemed much happier than before. I visited Gran and Granddad regularly after that summer, but I've never seen another whale from that day to this. And in some ways, I'm glad.