Extract from: The Whale
The morning after the storm word reached the Marine Stores of a dead whale on the beach by Carra Point. News spread from harbour to town but it didn’t find Tommy Nolan, his ears not inclined for listening. At five to nine he cycled past the back of the school, blue railings bright in the sun.
The boy raced downhill, sending a loud whoop through O’Driscoll’s door to rouse his father at the bar. Near the junction he slowed the bike with toe leather on tarmac. The river was in spate, Mad Feeney picking through the spoils on the bank for a matching boot.
Tommy took a last look at the straggle of houses. There was a drop of milk and a slice of bread for when Mother woke. He’d taken the heel for his dinner as she never liked the crust, not even when Maeve was alive.
Knees busy he pedalled west, the wind tugging his clothes. Between him and the sea was a hopscotch of fields, brimful of green that he stored in his head for the days when Mrs Riordan was mauling the chalkboard with long division. There was one bit of maths she’d learned him. Fractions. Widow Riordan said if he kept his absences to once a week then the school inspector would leave him alone. Mother used to call her a lazy old so-and-so when it still seemed to matter.
As he climbed the steep rise Tommy panted a tune like the notes huffed from necks of bottles. On his right was the ruin begging a roof. He’d made a castle of it, before another birthday came and the smell of cow shite killed his games. You’re such a dreamer, Father would say, ruffling his hair. He felt a tingle on his scalp. That same hand was better shaped now for lifting a pint, Father’s thirst a long one.
Tommy knew growing up was like sinking into that bog below Fallon Mount. Once your legs were in you’d had it. A fence had been put around on account of the cattle but they still found a way. If you fell in that bog you had to Pray to God there were the bones of a great big heifer to help you out.
The road passed a huddle of trees, then came Tiller’s cottage, white walls low to the ground. Gentle on the brakes, not wanting a screech, Tommy stopped by the gate. Two windows in front and two behind, you could look straight through to the water. He ducked to his old height, splitting the glass into halves of sky and sea. Tommy waited for the old man to cross the horizon from one window to the next, a black shape. One time he saw him pull up a cabbage from a mess of weeds by the front door.
The boy liked Tiller’s but not without a nip of fear. At home he’d go looking in the mirror, staring into his eyes, proving to himself it wasn’t his fault, because see, nothing’s there. But a shadow was caught in his head and it wouldn’t leave.
Chin on the handlebars Tommy set off again, stoking up a rush. On his left was the path to the Strand but he’d another beach in mind beyond the Point. He saved the Strand for the wettest days, when he walked the length in search of a drenching, thinking the rain an unnatural thing to fall here. The sea didn’t need more water. It had always been too full.
The wind behind him now Tommy freewheeled all the way to the spring. He laid his bike by the ditch and climbed to the crack of rock, frilled with ferns. After taking a drink he splashed his face, a sting in the breeze as he straightened up.
The day had been softer that time he came with Maeve. Mother was needed to do extra at the Grange, and Father off in Galway. Seeing as you’re ten now, she said, giving him a look like he was the boy from next door. Mother had been shocked he took Maeve along the coast, but she hadn’t told him not to.
When they got there his legs had ached from pedalling stood-up, with Maeve on the saddle behind, sliding about in her Sunday knickers and gripping his back with hands like pincers. She’d loved their outing, talking about it afterwards, on and on till Mother said to hold her tongue. But if Maeve hadn’t had that day her life would have been smaller still, only Main Street, Infants’ School and the paved back yard, playing princess and ghosts with the washday sheets.
We’ll do it again, Tommy told her. Never mind about Mammie, we’ll go there again. Promise.
Mother had been offered Mondays and glad to take it. She said he could make himself useful minding Maeve after school. But an hour wouldn't get them to Carra beach and back.
Opening his eyes the boy found himself on the ground, mare’s tail scratching his face and a black beetle picking its way over wet moss. With all his heart he wished he could be that beetle. It would take him a lifetime to get home from here if wishing worked. Not even God’s wishes came true.
The complete story can be found in our UEA Special Edition Volume Three
Elspeth Latimer is originally from Edinburgh. She studied Architecture at Cambridge University and ran an architectural firm, before moving to Norfolk to write full-time. In 2014 she graduated with Distinction from the Creative Writing MA in Prose Fiction at UEA. Elspeth is currently writing Dog, the first in a series of darkly comic crime novels, set in Edinburgh, about an ageing hitman and his adopted stray.