The waves had been brutal. The coastline was battered and torn, sand from the lowest fringes of the beach had blown up to Maude Bailey’s garden covering her newly planted daisies in a fine talc. The golf course was closed and the day was over, it was agreed, before it began.
The children had woken Tom early complaining of being bored.
‘Come on Daddy, it’s time to get up’ Saoirse had called still dressed in her pink pyjamas.
‘I’m hungry,’ Oisin had chimed.
‘Five more minutes guys.’
‘Come on Daddy,’ said Saoirse who now jumped on the bed and laughed. Oisin joined in this game and together they bounced upon their father.
‘Alright, alright I’m up ye terrors,’ Tom called and grabbed the two small figures in both his arms.
‘I’ll make us some nice porridge so.’
‘No way Daddy!’ said Saoirse.
‘Yuck,’ agreed Oisin simply.
‘Ye don’t want porridge? What about Weetabix?’
‘You know we don’t like Weetabix Daddy.’
‘Oh you don’t?’
‘Well let me see, hmm maybe I have some cocopops, maybe, but I’ll need to hear the magic words to find them’, he said cuddling them both.
‘Please,’ they both sang through baby-tooth grins.
Tom Heslin released his children and made his way up through the mobile home to the kitchenette. He boiled the kettle for tea, put on the toaster and fumbled through the overhead press looking for the sugary breakfast cereal.
He dished out the bowls and milk, helped the children to their seats and leaned standing now in his tee shirt and jocks against the sink, staring absentmindedly.
It was supposed to be a break for them. Mary, his friend, had kindly offered her holiday mobile-home for the week. To get away from the clamber of the city she had said, simply. His leave of absence from the school was nearly finished and they hadn’t left Dublin in that entire time. Everyone had been kind and understanding of course. But there was only so many times he could receive the neighbours sympathetic nods, he was glad of the leave and glad of the break.
Oisin had never swam in the sea before this week, he’d enjoyed it so much. Saorise had made friends with other children in the caravan park and he had in turn met their parents.
It was refreshing, Tom thought, there was no one prying into your life, into your grief, you could come and go as you please. Read a book on the beach, go for a run and no one to annoy you. He’d made great friends with Nana Reilly the local shopkeep, she’d taken to him instantly on their first morning. ‘Aren’t you a fine fella, a young Liam Neeson.’ she had said.
He’d enjoyed the compliment and smiled gracefully to her.
They talked each morning now as he wandered over to buy the paper or milk or some such breakfast morsel. Indeed he’d found himself going some mornings with no other reason but the chat.
Nana never enquired about the missing figure. She complimented his children, complimented him but didn’t ask. It was a gesture of maturity and kindness, he thought.
He’d grown more used to it now, he’d taken to sleeping finally in the middle of the double bed again. Her smell was gone, absent from the sheets, from the pillow, from their house. It had become a memory and in that there was the danger of forgetting.
But she wasn’t gone, not fully. He saw her now in Saoirse’s eyes, in Oisin’s mouth.
He sipped on the last of his tea and awoke from his thoughts.
‘Who wants toast?’
The children both raised their hands as they had learned at playschool, their lips were chocolate-stained from the cereal.
He cut the crusts off the toast and daubed two thick knifefuls of sticky jam upon them.
‘Daddy’s going to have a shower, Will ye be alright?’
They smiled and nodded.
The water was hot and inviting and woke the last remnants of sleep from him. His mind cleared as he soaped his muscular frame. He’d taken to the gym in a big way in the last few months. Another friend Charlie had suggested it to him as a good way to release some tension. It had become part of his day now, a ritual he had enjoyed. Perhaps he would do a marathon he thought or an iron man. He could raise some funds for the cause. It would, it could serve a purpose, she would have enjoyed that he thought, encouraged him even.
Drying himself he changed into some clean clothes and checked his phone.
‘Are ye ok?’ a text from Mary read.
He scrolled down and saw another from Charlie
‘Hope ur not flooded man 😉 ’
He scratched his head and turned on the radio in the kitchen. A storm had raged so the reporter told him along the Atlantic coast and flooded Strandhill and Bundoran.
‘Did ye hear a storm last night guys?’ he called to the children from the bedroom.
‘There was a lot of noise Daddy,’ said Saoirse.
He looked out the window and the day seemed calm. Perhaps it had not hit the caravan park.
He helped the children dress, and together the three of them made their way to the shop.
‘Hello Tom,’ said Nana Reilly from behind the counter.
‘Horrible storm wasn’t it?’ she said as she reached for the newspaper.
‘I didn’t hear it at all’ he admitted.
‘Worst in ten years’ said Nana confidently.
Oisin tugged upon his trouser leg interrupting their chat and pointed toward the crisp packets.
‘Its only the morning Oisin, you can’t be having sweets already.’
‘But Daddy its our last day,’ chimed Saoirse who had already grabbed a packet of jelly babies.
‘Is it the last day Tom?’ enquired Nana, ‘the ten days went quick.’
‘They did surely,’ he agreed.
He lifted Oisin in his arms and the child placed the crisps on the counter.
‘Will I take for these?’ said Nana.
He nodded and smiled.
‘We’ve a long drive back, I think the pair of galoots might as well have their way.’
Rolling up his newspaper he smiled to Nana, thanked her for their mornings together and brought the children back to the mobile home.
‘It was a nice break wasn’t it guys? he began, ‘but we have to go home now.’
The pandemonium ensued, as he knew it would.
‘No Daddy we don’t want to go, no Daddy we love it here,’ they began.
‘I know but this isn’t Daddy’s house and we have to go home, Daddy has to go back to work.’
The children were slow to pack their things. As he knew they would be. He had enjoyed it here too, it had been an escape but life was out there, outside the caravan walls and it must be resumed.
‘Daddy,’ Saoirse began ‘Oisin and I want to go to beach.’
‘Guys we have to leave today, I’m sorry.’
‘Please, please, please Daddy,’ Oisin sang.
‘One more walk,’ Saoirse said.
He hummed and hawed, checked his watched and relinquished. The walk might tire them and perhaps they would sleep on the drive back, he mused.
‘OK one walk.’
The children celebrated their victory and ran to change into their swimming clothes. Oisin emerged in his shorts, sand bucket and shovel in hand.
Walking to the beach he found it empty of people. Perhaps others had heard the news and stayed away this morning. He slipped his runners off and felt the sand cold and sticky beneath his feet.
The children broke from him as they rounded the dunes and darted towards the waves.
‘Don’t go in too deep Saoirse! Keep Oisin beside you.’
He watched them waddle towards the waves, laughing and singing. They danced now as they entered the water, stopping as its coldness hit their feet, then becoming braver they entered further, splashing one another.
He smiled and sat down, rolled himself a cigarette and looked toward the horizon. The sky was a perfect blue and the almost translucent form of the moon still shone.
He would text Mary and let her know everything was fine and that they were on their way home. That woman had been so wonderful in the last few months. How he’d grown to love their texts, it was funny how people come into our lives he thought. What had Mary been before this, only a work colleague, a bare minimum of courtesy in the staff room, a polite conversation here and there? And yet her first Facebook message that night months ago had opened a door, a true friendship and they had talked. Talked and talked of things she had not known at the time but had grown to know. He was protective of her, covetous even, he had kept her away from Charlie for some reason, it wasn’t a pub friendship it was something different, something he could not put his finger upon.
‘All grand ere, don’t think the storm hit us, didn’t even no it happened lol. We are driving back today. Back 2 work Monday L ’ he wrote.
He sipped on his cigarette, watched as the plume of smoke left his nostrils and glanced towards the children. He had become so vigilant over them now, mindful of every little thing, of noises, disturbances, it was overprotective he knew, but what could he do. It was inevitable.
His mobile vibrated and he looked toward the screen.
‘So glad 2 hear. Don’t worry work will be fine, I’ll be there, you will do great!’
She was right of course. It would be fine. He was happy to go back, to get back into a rhythm of life. The six months had been – well they had been hard he agreed, but they were over. The children had kept him going, they were a distraction and a strength. He felt the threaten of a tear in his eyes, a surge of emotion he could cry here on this beach but no, no he would hold it in. Not now not with the drive ahead. He sucked on the last of the cigarette and quenched the butt in the sand.
‘Daddy, Daddy’ the voice yelled.
Waking now he looked up to see the children running towards him.
‘What is it Saoirse?’
‘Daddy there’s an animal on the beach,’ the child shouted in distress.
‘Oh what is it? A crab? Did he nip you?’
Oisin shook his head.
‘No Daddy it’s a big animal, a big seal I think.’
‘A seal?’ roused now in interest he stood and let the children lead him across the sand.
‘A really, really big seal Daddy,’ said Saoirse.
‘It’s sick’ said Oisin quietly.
Holding his hands they lead him across the beach to the giant black figure. At first he thought it an old boat blown up from the depths of God knows where by the storm. And then he saw it move. Its giant frame rattled slowly upwards and then came the mighty gasp and release as air and water fell like rain from its back.
‘It’s, it’s a whale . . .’ he muttered to himself, rubbing his hands across his face in disbelief.
He told the children to stay put and walked towards the giant creature. He slowly ventured forward, hand outstretched, and touched its Trojan flank. It was wet and muscular. The animal stirred and he jumped back.
It calmed again and rasped once more and blew air and water from its blow hole, spraying him. He rubbed the water from his face and walked slowly towards its front, warning the children not to move.
Its giant black eye looked upon him.
‘Is it sick Daddy? ‘ asked Oisin.
‘I . . . don’t know son.’
He knelt low and looked eye to eye upon the beast.
‘You poor thing. It must have washed ashore after the storm.’
He stood transfixed upon the animal and all thoughts of Dublin or the drive back left his mind. What a strange thing this was, to find the animal stranded unable to move. He rubbed its head softly and clucked kindly words.
‘You poor thing, you poor thing.’
You poor thing, you poor thing Helen.
The words transported him back now to the hospital, to the sick bed, the weeks of waiting by her side. Watching her sleep, feeding her.
She had been stranded then too, unable to leave, too weak to come home anymore and her beautiful blonde hair gone, replaced with a loving deathly face.
‘Oh my God,’ and a dog began to bark wildly.
‘Down Benji,’ said the voice and Tom turned to find a small crowd now growing around them. An elderly man walking his dog, and a young couple looked back at him.
‘What? What happened? the man enquired as he attempted to restrain the hound.
‘I don’t know, the children found it here. It must have been blown off-course with the storm,’ said Tom.
‘I never thought I’d see the like,’ said the man.
‘Is it dead?’ the young couple enquired.
‘No . . . no it’s alive,’ said Tom and at that the animal produced a mighty blast from its blow hole.
‘But then, then we must do something’ said the young woman, coming closer releasing her boyfriends grip and touching the animal.
Standing up now he turned towards the children.
‘I’m supposed to go home today, I don’t know what I can do,’ he said.
‘We’ll call the guards,’ said the young woman.
‘And the search and rescue,’ added the elderly man.
The party broke now as its members each turned to their phones and began to place frantic calls.
‘Guys I think we should go now, there’s nothing we can do,’ said Tom to the children.
Saoirse nodded but Oisin remained steadfast. He ran to the waves, filled his bucket with sea water and gently threw it on the animals side.
‘It’s sick Daddy,’ the boy said simply, and he ran once more to the waves filling his bucket again.
He ran after the child now and gently took hold of him, looking into his blue eyes.
‘It is sick Oisin but what can Daddy do?’
‘We have to help the whale Daddy.’
‘But Daddy doesn’t know what to do and the guards are coming to help. There’s nothing more we can do.’
But the child refused. He ran from him now and back to the animal and hugged its head. The mighty whale did not move or flinch and accepted the child’s embrace.
‘We have to help Daddy,’ said the boy and tears fell from his eyes.
For the second time this morning Tom Heslin moved back and forth, checked his watch, his phone and deliberated. What, what could he do? And yet the way Oisin looked at him now, it was not pleading, it was with love. He could drag the child from here despite the cries and moans, put him into his booster seat and bring them home. But then the boy would remember this day, would remember the fear his father had shown.
‘Would, would you like to stay until the guards come?’
The boy nodded still holding the animals head in his small hands.
‘Saoirse, is that OK with you?’
The girl shrugged her shoulders, lifted her blouse and agreed.
St. James’s was a nice hospital. The staff had been warm and friendly and no one had ever pestered him about staying late into the night. He’d taken to reading Helen to sleep towards the end. At first, it had been simple books, thrillers and the like but as the pace of their relationship changed so too had the books. They had read everything from Murakami to Shakespeare. She had loved him putting on the voices of the characters.
‘Is this a dagger I see before me,’ he had began one evening with great gusto in his best English accent, brandishing a pen like a sword and cutting the air with it. Only to be told moments later to keep it down by the matron. Oh how she had laughed at him, her big eejit.
‘You’re some cod,’ she had said and made to give him a hug but had found her body stiff and sore and went into a bad coughing fit.
‘Easy love, easy,’ he had said discarding the play and turning all his attention towards her.
‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ she had said.
He gave her a small drink of water through the sippy cup and she relaxed and settled back into her bed.
‘Come on Shakespeare, I want to know how this finishes? No skiving off,’ she said and smiled gently.
He had picked up the play and read now in a quieter tone, keeping an eye out for the matron and the pair of them laughed with a mischievous wink.
‘Well this is a new one,’ said the local guard who stood arms crossed surveying the scene of the gathered onlookers and the kraken of the deep.
‘It’s a whale,’ said the elderly man.
‘I can see that Pat,’ replied the guard.
‘Well what are you going to do about it Jimmy?’ the man questioned further.
The guard scratched his head and looked around the company.
‘Well… well I mean to say, ah… I’ll have to take these other people’s names.’
The guard walked around the scene, looking from the whale to the children, the dog barking madly and the young couple who were on the phone to Search and Rescue.
‘You were the first to find it I understand?’ he said to Tom.
‘Yes my kids, they found her this morning.’
‘Right and it didn’t attack them or anything like that?’
‘No, no it’s just been lying here, I think it must have gotten blown ashore with the storm.’
‘I see,’ the guard said and made some notes.
‘Can you help?’ he enquired.
‘Well Mr Heslin, Tom, its going to be damn hard, the county was battered something awful last night, we haven’t a man to spare and the Search and Rescue are busy with a stranded fishing vessel. I don’t know . . .’
‘But surely we could get a helicopter, or men or…’
‘The whale is sick,’ said Oisin now tugging on the guard’s leg.
‘Aye it is lad,’ said the guard.
‘Look I’ll level with you, we’ve all manner of animals washing onto shore these days and we haven’t got the time nor money to save them all. There’s animal rescue groups but it might be too late by the time they get here.’
‘So what we just leave it?’
‘Well the tide is out if he makes it to the high tide he could live, course he’s faced the wrong way . . .’ and the guard trailed off.
‘Well can you radio the rescue group?’
‘Oh yeah, oh I will yeah surely,’ he said as if the idea had not occurred to him.
‘I have to go sonny, best to not let the children see the thing die,’ the guard confided and touched him upon the shoulder. The man turned, stuffed his notepad into his top pocket and walked back across the beach, a solitary quizzical figure upon the grey sands.
Faced now with the bleak prognosis he turned to tell the children but both had now begun to carry water to the animal.
He walked towards the elderly man and patted his dog.
‘There’s not much to be done he says’ and he gestured towards the guard.
‘No. But perhaps,’ the man began, ‘perhaps we could get a few lads to help, a tractor to pull it right ways round.’
Tom nodded, it was the right thing to do.
‘I’ve no numbers on this phone,’ the man said.
‘I know someone that might help,’ said Tom.
‘Can you mind my kids while I talk to them.’
He set off apace now across the beach and towards the local shop. Nana Reilly would surely know of someone, someone with a tractor, a local farmer. He took his stride with purpose now, moving quickly across the bay, the sand sticking to his bare feet and the coldness of the day beating across his back. He found he was not walking across the shore now but across the hospital wing, back to Helen, her breathing growing more shallow with every step.
The doctor had taken him aside that April morning.
‘Its getting close now, Tom,’ the doctor had said calmly.
He nodded and found he could not form the words.
‘Perhaps Helen might like to see the children,’ the doctor enquired.
‘Its always a great boost to people,’ he added.
Tom nodded again and try as he might his throat had been dry that morning. No words could emerge, save a sob or cry or anger. But what words could sorrow manifest.
He’d kissed her forehead as she slept and then drove back to Glasnevin to pick up the children from his mothers.
‘Its time,’ and his mother had known, had understood, the said unsaid.
‘Would you like? Would you like me to come with you son?’
‘Not now, let the children say goodbye and maybe you can come after?’
‘Of course, your father and I will wait for your call.’
‘Thanks’ he said and hugged her and a small tear had crept down his face.
‘Ok guys we’re going to see Mammy.’
The children had brightened at the sound of her name and raced towards the still running car.
Bundled into their seats he drove quickly towards the hospital.
‘We made Mammy a get well card at today,’ said Saoirse.
‘She’ll love that,’ he said and cast his eyes upon them in the rear view mirror.
The walk that day through the hospital had been so long, Oisin had fallen in the carpark and hurry as he might, he had to stop and soothe the child.
‘Ok now dry away those tears, we can’t be going to see Mammy crying can we?’
Saoirse hugged her brother and all was right again. But the feeling as he entered the ward was far from right, a bustle of doctors and nurses moved across the floor and he saw the curtains pulled.
Please, please don’t let this be her he repeated mantralike over and over again as they entered the ward.
He made to pull the curtains but a doctor emerged and blocked his way.
‘Tom, Tom . . . I’m sorry.’
‘No, no, no this can’t be it,’ he said stammering now, ‘I was here just a few minutes ago.’
‘I know, Tom you need to sit down.’
‘No,’ and he pushed the doctor aside and walked into the cubicle the children following after him.
‘Daddy! Daddy shush,’ said Saorise, ‘Mammy is asleep.’
He cried now at these simple words and try as he might the tears would not stop. Oisin raced to the bedside and rubbed his mothers pale white hand.
Tom sat on the bed and gathered the children beside him. ‘I need to tell you something guys, Mammy . . . Mammy is having a big sleep and she can’t wake up from it.’
Oisin understood immediately despite his age and began to cry, he broke from his father’s arms and climbed upon the bed, his small hands touching her face, crying, cajoling, pleading.
Nana Reilly’s shop was full of people as he knocked on the door somewhat out of breath. She and the other customers listened as he told them of the stranded whale, the useless guard and the need for help. The elderly woman moved towards her telephone and began to place a call before Tom had finished his story.
‘Mick, are you about today?’ she clucked.
‘Ok, well can you come down with the boys and the tractor to the beach,’ she continued. ‘Aye there’s a whale stuck on the shore. Can you ask Liam to come too?’
Nana Reilly walked from behind the shop counter and encouraged the customers to follow her.
‘Right we’ll do what we can,’ the old woman said and grabbed buckets and blankets from the shop’s shelves. She handed them to the group, smiled at Tom and lead the party back now towards the beach.
Nana walked with purpose across the wet sand, a blanket and shovel thrown across her small shoulders. Despite her age she was full of energy.
‘It’s happened before,’ she said as they neared the animal. ‘And we helped then too.’
The children smiled at the arrival of the group and began to tell of the noises the creature had made.
Nana calmly walked towards the animal and reached out her ring laden hands and rubbed its broad head.
‘Before we start, we’ll say a prayer,’ the woman began and blessed herself.
The party turned statuesque and quietly bowed their heads.
‘Lord give us strength and patience,’ the woman began, ‘and help us save this animal.’
With that Nana quickly began to order the party here and there, blankets were brought to the sea, soaked and placed upon the creature. A team of hands carried buckets of water and threw them haphazardly across its frame. It stirred and shrugged and somewhere in its vast mind Tom felt it knew the people had come to help not harm it.
With the chain in place and orders given she turned towards him.
‘We’ll wait for Mick and the lads to come with the tractor and slings,’ she began.
The young couple interrupted to say the rescue people were on their way.
‘Arra, we’ll be all day waiting, the animal could be dead by then,’ the old woman issued and put paid to all further questions.
‘She’s washed up on our beach, we’ll get her off it,’ she added and set to her work once again.
Oisin sat now by the giant’s head stroking it calmly.
‘She’s sick, Nana,’ he said simply.
‘She is Oisin but we’ll have her on the mend soon enough.’
The party worked with purpose and efficiency, and as the word spread more people appeared across the horizon.
‘It’s a humpback whale,’ said someone.
‘It’s fucken Moby Dick’ said another.
A tractor appeared and slowly trundled across the sands towards them.
‘Begod I didn’t expect this when I got up this morning, Nana,’ said Mick the farmer from the open tractor door.
‘All in a day’s farming,’ said Nana and the pair laughed.
The farmer turned off the engine which Tom could see was scaring the animal and walked towards the scene.
‘Well she’s the wrong way round anyway,’ said Mick.
Tom agreed and the party discussed the best possible plans. Mick’s sons walked towards the whale, touched it and agreed it was still mad alive.
‘Any word from Liam?’ Nana enquired.
Mick shook his head, and remarked he got one of the boys to send him a text message.
‘Right well we may get the slings on her and turn her round.’
The party moved back as the tractor reversed close to the animal. Mick and his sons walked around the creature and placed a large sling on her far flank.
‘We’ll have to go easy,’ Nana said astutely. ‘Remember the last one’
‘I do, I do,’ said Mick. He wiped his brow and directed his sons to place the ropes on her side.
‘We can’t get it under her, so we’ll try and pull it from the side and get her faced for off. But God . . . God this one is a lot bigger than the last one.’
Three times the tractor moved, trundled, bucked but the weight of the animal was too great. Sand shot up from under its wheels and struck the wet blankets.
The engine roared and echoed over the waves and the beach but despite their efforts the animal did not move.
Mick released the rope’s tension and turned off the motor.
‘She’s a fair weight, the massy isn’t able for her,’ Tom said and spat a silent fuck to the ground.
Tom walked towards the water now and cleaned the sand from his hands. The great rush of energy was collapsing as the enormity of the task dawned on the group.
Mick slowly repeated his mantra; ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’
‘Why won’t Mammy wake up Daddy?’ Oisin had asked tearfully from the hospital bed.
‘Mammy’s gone to heaven,’ Tom said and stroked his son’s hair.
‘Oisin doesn’t understand Daddy,’ Saoirse had simply said.
And looking towards his son hugging Helen’s now lifeless form, he knew her words were true.
‘Oisin, Oisin,’ he began softly pulling the boy slowly away from his mother.
‘Mammy had to go and see God, Mammy had to rest, she was so tired,’ he stammered as the tears flowed now from both their faces.
‘But, but she didn’t say goodbye,’ the child stammered incomprehensively.
‘Mammy had to go Oisin, God didn’t give her a chance to say goodbye as he needed her to help out in heaven today.’
The boy cried and hugged his mother again. It broke Tom’s heart to pull the boy away as the doctor and nurses entered.
‘We’ll break for the tea,’ said Mick the farmer, calling out now over the growing waves, breaking Tom from his memories.
‘We can’t help her if we’ve no energy left,’ Nana explained to the children.
The party stayed this way til dusk pushing and pulling hoping each time to move the animal inch by inch across the sand, carting buckets and water, praying, cooing, but try as they might the animal would not move, and with each failed attempt their spirits sank.
By four, the tide was slowly coming creeping up the beach.
‘We’ll have our best chance now, our only chance,’ Mick explained.
He looked across the beach and out to the waves. There was no sign of Liam, no sign of the rescue people.
The party agreed they would try once more, the slings were placed once again around the animal and the group pushed as the tractor pulled. Its great frame lifted slowly and fell and it appeared it had moved somewhat, but when the engine roar subsided no progress had been made.
‘Well fuck it anyway,’ said Mick.
Pat and his dog had thrown in the towel and excused themselves. It was getting cold and the old man had only a thin jacket upon his delicate frame. He apologised and turned for home.
With the breaking of the group, others too now left broken hearted. It was simply too big and the help not enough. Crestfallen Tom turned towards his children.
‘Guys,’ he said quietly crouching down beside them. I don’t think Daddy can do any more. The man in the tractor can’t move the whale.’
The children began to cry and Oisin ran for his small yellow sand bucket.
He alone now tended the animal, splashing water upon it, rubbing it, talking to it, the dispirited group watched the small boys actions dreamlike.
‘Daddy,’ said Saoirse, pulling him close.
‘Daddy, Oisin thinks the whale is Mammy.’
He found no words now and turned from his daughter to the boy and watched as his little legs ran back and forth from the sea to the animal. His intent so clear, his deeds so purposeful.
He walked slowly towards the boy and calmly tried to explain. To explain that the animal was too big, that there was not enough help but the words, the words seemed as lies now and he felt the same as that day in the hospital trying to grapple with terms his son could not understand.
‘Oisin, Oisin,’ he called but the boy would not listen and continued his silent vigil.
‘Oisin we can’t do anymore, we can’t save the animal.’
‘No Daddy,’ the boy said simply.
‘She’s gone Oisin,’ and he was not sure if he talked of his wife or the animal now.
‘She’s gone son.’
‘She’s not gone Daddy, she’s sick but she’s not gone to heaven yet.’ And at the boys words a giant jet of water erupted from the animals back.
‘See Daddy, see,’ the small boy explained and the tears welled in his eyes.
Oisin had not cried at the funeral not a tear, it seemed he had saved all those tears for this moment and they came now gushing forth, rattling his small frame and he hugged his father.
‘We can’t stop Daddy,’ he said simply. ‘We can’t, we can’t, we can’t.’
He let the boy down and took a step back, nodded his head and agreed. This child, his child had more feeling than any of the group now assembled.
‘We wont give up on her,’ he said.
Turning to the group he spoke now and encouraged them to give one last effort, one last attempt.
‘At least we can know we gave it our all, we wont go home with our tails between our legs.’
Nana Reilly threw him a look of solidarity and he spoke louder now.
‘Mick, lets try get the sling across her snout and pull towards the sea. Nana we need to get some big sticks to prop her and push her,’ Tom said
The elderly woman sent two people to the shop for lengths of timber.
At six p.m. the tide growing higher, the party made their last push. The sling now in its new position, the planks under the animal, the tractor roared to life. The group heaved and the engine thundered and slowly the creature stirred, as if knowing that this time it would move.
‘She’s coming,’ roared Nana.
‘She’s coming,’ answered Mick.
Suddenly a great horn sounded and the group looked across the animal towards the beach and the sea.
Liam Quigley had finally arrived in his fishing trawler.
‘Now ya boya,’ sounded Mick, ‘now we’re sucking diesel.’
The animal had indeed moved and the sight of the trawler had emboldened the party. Quigley released hauling lines and they were tied around the animals tail. Pulling, pushing, coaxing the mighty whale moved slowly.
By seven, the tractor and boat had finally moved the creature back to the shallows. The animal stirred wildly now sensing its freedom and the party cheered at the sight.
Releasing the slings Mick now directed Liam to slowly pull the animal out to deeper water.
‘Slow now mind, Liam, she has to get her bearings, it’ll all be for naught if you pull her too quick, she could drown.’
Nana blessed herself as the final line was released and the trawler began its slow move outward, its diesel engine chugging over the waves. The gathering heaved and pushed and slowly they felt the sand give way, they were moving deeper.
Oisin had walked out as far as the sea would allow and stood now transfixed by the mighty creature. Tom cast his eyes across his shoulder to his son as he heaved with all his might the sea up around his waist, then his breast. And suddenly the party could no longer feel the footing beneath their feet.
‘Quickly now, the line, the line, we have to get it off or she might take Liam down with her,’ directed Mick.
At the words no one moved.
‘Gimme that knife,’ Tom called.
And he was diving now, diving and swimming and lunging deeper and deeper until he felt the cold Atlantic waves crash over his back, sending an electric tingle of life to his very being, his very core. Below, the water was a blissful calm while above he knew the elements raged.
He emerged now and the shore seemed far away and he threaded the water as best he could. The animal had begun to thrash wildly in fear, fear that it would come stuck again, that these men would not release it, that it might yet die. It bellowed and the call was heard across the shoreline, its mighty tail finding a power it had not known in so long thundered through the surf and landed with a mighty whack again and again pulling the boat closer and the ropes tighter and tighter.
He knew he could not take the trawler line from around her tail, for he might be caught in the swarf and it take him under and so he swam now in fits and starts to the knot, holding his breath, trying to remain calm.
I’m going to die out here he thought, I’m going to die trying to save this beast in front of my boy.
Finally, building courage he lunged and caught the rope.
He could hear the crowd crying out now.
‘I’ve got it, I’ve got it,’ he yelled but what words they could hear he was no longer sure.
The boat had come to rest, the sea was calm for a moment and the sun shone a bright blinding light across the bay for the first time it seemed that day. As he cut the rope, a peace came over him he had not known. He cut and tore and sawed and with each movement the feeling grew.
You can let go, a voice seemed to say to him and he was not sure if it was his own mind. And as it had began it was over. The knot was broken.
All was still and then the animal sensed its freedom, thrashed and then slowly submerged, the waves covering its huge bulk, its body diving into the blue ocean. He dropped the knife in a moment of awe as the beautiful being sailed past him now and then suddenly was gone.
‘I love you,’ he said ‘I always will.’
Staggering back to shore the crowd hugged and cheered him. Mick and Nana slapped him on the back as he found his legs.
‘See I told you, Liam Neeson himself,’ she said gesturing to the crowd and gave him a warm kiss on the cheek.
Tom fell to the beach suddenly, panting, exhausted, spent of every ounce of strength he had. Oisin and Saoirse appeared and enveloped him in hugs and kisses.
‘She’s happy now,’ whispered Oisin.
‘She’s at peace son,’ he replied and was not sure what or who they spoke of.
Image © Harry Lawford