- Helen Dunmore - Orange Prize winner - Short stories - Whales and Seals
Helen Dunmore
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Whales and Seals
Shannon cuts the boat's engine, and here we are, drifting on the Pacific Ocean. Without the noise of the engine it's clear how fragile we are, just a speck of metal and flesh in a wilderness of water. But the thought doesn't trouble me.

'We're in US territorial waters now,' says Shannon. She's a tawny-skinned New Zealander with a beautiful smile and a passion for marine biology. The amount she's told us already would fill a guidebook, and I haven't listened to all of it. But I've kept a listening look on my face, because I like Shannon. She's working her way around the world, and then she'll do her Ph.D. on Baltic herring.
' Baltic herring, Shannon?'
' Yeah, crazy, isn't it? Maybe it's because my father's Estonian.'
Shannon gets up from her seat and beams at the rest of her passengers.
' We're in US waters now, guys! Got your passports handy?'
The man in front of me lifts his camcorder and begins to film the flat silvery US ocean.
' You can go out on deck if you like,' says Shannon.

Deck is tiny. If we're polite and not pushy there's room for the ten of us, and because of the big silence lapping round us it doesn't feel crowded. Everyone's mind is away out there on the ocean. We've seen sea-lions, and cormorants, and a school of Dall's porpoises that rushed the boat. I was afraid of the boat injuring them, but Shannon said it wouldn't happen. 'They like to ride the bow wave,' she said. 'They like the feeling of it. Sometimes they'll get onto the bow wave of one of those big freighters and ride it for hours. Maybe it conserves energy. Maybe they're just playing.'

We haven't seen whales yet. I look across the water at the Olympus mountain range. The mountains are snow-covered, and a breath of chill comes off the Pacific water. It's too cold for us to swim here. But the whales like it. The water is cold and rich, packed with chains of life that man hasn't broken. Not here, not yet. Shannon tells us that an orca can eat four hundred pounds of salmon in a day. The only way I can imagine that quantity of salmon is to build a tower of supermarket steaks in my mind. Three hundred, maybe? I used to buy four salmon steaks and they would weigh maybe a pound and a half. One for Luke, one for Jasmine, one for Don, one for me. I would ask the assistant to make sure the steaks were the same size. If one steak was bigger than the others I would cover it with sauce to hide the fact.

Maybe we aren't going to see any whales, not today. The man with the camcorder is asking Shannon if she thinks they'll come.

' Yes,' says Shannon. 'They're around. They were here this morning. This time of the day, they're feeding. I'll have a listen.'
She goes to the back of the boat and fiddles with the underwater acoustic device which she's already explained to us.
' Listen,' she says. All of us fall silent and listen obediently to noises which sound like music you'd turn off on Radio 3.
' They're hunting salmon. Hear that clicking? There's one quite close. Fifty metres off, maybe.'

We're all staring out at the bald silver sea, willing it to yield up a whale. I hold my breath. The boat twirls slowly on a current I can't see. Land is far off. Please, I say inside myself. Please. Our boat bobs like a little ark of prayer. All of us holding our breath, all of us wanting and waiting. Do the whales come at all? Is this whole trip a gigantic pretend, like putting your baby tooth in a glass of water by your bed so the tooth fairy can replace it with a coin, or staying awake on Christmas Eve to catch a glimpse of Father Christmas, even though you know he's really your Dad? I've been the fairy myself too many times. I've filled those stockings. Why am I holding my breath like a child?

Shannon scours the waters with her binoculars. I turn away. I'm not going to look any more. I'm not going to let those whales know that I'm desperate.

Suddenly, casually, on the other side of the boat, the whale is there. A black curve breaks the water. Much too big for a porpoise. Sleek and streaming and then it's gone. I pull at Shannon's arm.

' There. There. Over there. It's a whale. I saw a whale.'
' Hey, you did?' She acts thrilled and surprised, and I know she's never had any doubts. Of course the whales would come.
' Hey, guys, over here,' says Shannon, lifting her voice, and everyone stares at the water where the whale was. And then the water is live with whales. A back shows above the water again, a fin rises, a tail lifts in the perfect forked whale shape we all know from a thousand pictures.
' There's two of them.'
' Over there. Look. It's another. It dived, just there.'

No-one calls out or rushes to the side. Calm spreads over the boat and the water as the whales show themselves more and more. They are playing, I'm sure of it, not hunting. They are playing with us. I stare, trying to print it on my mind for ever. Whales in the grey, shining Pacific which turns dark in the distance. Their clicking sounds bubble through the acoustic device.

'There's Shaker,' says Shannon.
' Yeah, it's him, his mum'll be around here too.'
' Do you give them all names?'
I'm not sure I like the idea of this. They aren't pets. They're whales.
'Yeah, pretty much. Shaker's really playful.'
' Is he a baby whale?' I ask foolishly.
' Nah, he's twenty-five, twenty-six. But these whales stay with their mothers all their lives. He's got a sister in this pod too. If his mum dies he'll stay with her.'
' All their lives - really?'
' If you think of it, it makes sense,' says Shannon. 'Their home is the pod. They won't leave unless there's something seriously wrong.'
' Like what?'
' There was a big story last year about a whale that got separated from the pod. Boats were tracking it, people were wanting to reunite it. But it wasn't lost. It had something wrong, some genetic issue, and the pod rejected it. That can happen.'
' Oh.'
' That's tough,' says a young woman in a red jacket.
' No sentiment in the animal kingdom,' says the man with the camcorder.
' I don't know,' says Shannon surprisingly. 'Whales have deep feelings, I do know that.'

She lifts her binoculars again, and is silent. She's a sensitive girl. She wants this to be our experience, not hers.

The whale she called Shaker has disappeared. There are two more whales moving through the water in the distance, west to east, sometimes showing, sometimes not. They travel purposefully. Even though I can see them clearly, it doesn't make them any less mysterious.
Everyone in the boat is filming or taking photos. I take some photos myself and think of showing them to Luke. But they won't come out the way it was. My photos rarely do. I'm always having to explain what's in them.

' See that shape there, Luke? No, not there, there. That's part of a whale. Which part? Um, well, maybe it's the back. Or it could be the tail -'
The young woman in the red jacket taps my arm. 'You want me to take a photo of you with a whale in the background?'

Close up, I see how bright and eager she is. It would be churlish to turn her down.
She takes a long time, trying to get the best shot, waiting for a whale to rise behind me. At last it's done.

' He was distant, but it should come out OK.'
' Thanks a lot. Do you want me to take one of you?'
She hands me her camera. 'It'll be something to show my kids. They're back at the hotel. They're so jealous of me for taking this trip, but three and five, they're pretty young for it. And it's expensive -'
' You have every right to take a trip on your own,' I say firmly. 'That's what I'm doing, too.'
' You got kids?'
' Two.'
' I'm Julie, I'm from Moose Jaw. Yeah, I know. You're British, right? It's a real place, that's what it's called. I was born there.'

By the time we've all finished taking photos, a wind off the mountains is chopping up the water. The whales have hidden themselves. It's time to go back.
We settle ourselves in the cramped cabin. Shannon starts the engine and our boat bucks and slaps across the water. The engine noise makes me sleepy, but Shannon is telling us something above the racket.

' We'll be going by a seal colony on the way back. I'll cut the engine and take you as close as I can, but we don't want to scare them off the rocks.'
She tells us about seals. How the transient killer whales work in groups to scare seals off the rocks and wait for them on the other side once they hit the water. How the seal pups are independent at six weeks.

' Six weeks!' says Julie. 'Seal mums sure get a better deal than whale mums. Didn't you say that Shaker was still hanging out with his mother at twenty-three?'
' He'll still be hanging out with her at forty, if she's alive,' says Shannon.
' Oh my Lord. Forty years. Can you picture that?'

My answering smile is as quick as I can make it.
When Luke is forty I shall be sixty-six. Still able to take care of him, unless something happens. Luke will be forty and probably his hair will be grey. My child's hair will be grey.

' How old are your kids?' asks Julie.
' Jasmine is nineteen, Luke is twenty-three.'
' They've flown the nest, then.' Like most parents of small children, she still sees their upbringing as a finite task. They will get to the sunlit uplands of adulthood at eighteen and that will be it. Job done.
' Jasmine's at uni. Luke is at home with us.'
And as her expression changes slightly I decide to tell her.
' He was in an accident last year A car accident. He wasn't driving. He had head injuries.'
' I'm so sorry,' says Julie. 'How is he doing?'
' Better than we thought. Much better than we thought. But he won't be able to manage on his own. Not for a while.'

Luke's face rises in my mind. He is wearing the strange, lost look that comes over him sometimes. I am afraid that this look comes when he really remembers that it wasn't always like this. Most of the time the facts of his former life are like a story to him. He went to university, he shared a flat, he studied sports science and psychology and played in the university hockey team.

One day last month I found him standing by the washing machine with his cereal bowl and coffee mug.
' Mum,' he asked me. 'Do I know how to operate this article?'
I cannot get his frowning, pained look out of my head.
' It's great that you took this trip,' says Julie. For a moment her warm hand covers mine. 'You'll be able to tell Luke about the whales.'
' Yes.'

Yes, I will tell him. I will tell him about the cold, dark Pacific water, the American mountains, and the silence when our engine stopped. How fragile our boat was on the water. I'll tell Luke that I have been seven thousand miles away from him, on trains and boats and aeroplanes, and the whales were real.
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