Portents were in the air. First, to be given a shilling was remarkable. We were both handed a piece of the silver and sent into the outdoors, to appreciate the sun, amuse ourselves, get out from under the adults’ feet.
As we walked towards the park our pace quickened. A new world lying before us, made possible by our unforeseen and unearned riches.
Jennifer, my younger sister, was single-minded in her policy. She was to spend sixpence on the trampolines and save the other for sweets to be eaten on the way home. While I saw the virtue of buying sweets, I wasn’t a devotee of bouncing. The dark gap between the canvas and the edge of the pit always put me off. It was big enough to swallow you whole and the metal springs were there to cause injury. I wondered how many children had been sucked under the trampoline in the past, never again to emerge into the daylight.
My money, literally, was on the ‘switchies’. The roar of the dodgems, air rifles, target shooting, candy floss. Greater choice, less risk.
Neither of us looked our gift horse in the mouth. Adults sometimes acted in inexplicable ways. To try and isolate the motives behind their more bizarre actions was to fritter away valuable time. We only knew that there was a clan gathering of sorts going on. Uncles, aunts and cousins had congregated from all over Scotland. Such get-togethers were not unknown, only rare. Usually someone had to be getting married before they happened.
The park was before us, a green sweep dotted with the white blobs of sea gulls. Beyond, the sea glowered below grey, blue clouds. Spurts of froth showed the crests of impatient waves.
We’d reached the point of decision. To our left, along the shore was the trampoline park, the putting greens and the sweetie booths. To our right on the edge of the beach was the fun fair, the ‘switchies’. We could see its grim lights flickering and winking, even in the daylight. The place looked empty, a desolation of neon and tinny music. To me it was the most alluring spot on the seafront.
I knew if we argued, the whole expedition would be in jeopardy. Such squabbles often ended in one or the other of us stomping off in a huff. I asked Jennifer what her final verdict was, but she gave no answer. This was too much. The huff surely couldn’t have taken her already. I repeated my question, rubbing the cool shilling against my leg, through the material of my pocket. ‘Come on’, I thought, ‘trampolines are boring, I’m not going to throw this money away on trampolines’.
Jennifer acted as if I didn’t exist. She had moved away towards the middle of the park. Now running, her long brown hair gathered in a pony tail whirred behind her, a propeller driving her on. There was nothing for it but to follow. I could now see the object of her dash. In the centre of the green was a circle of tents and lorries. I’d thought they were overspill from the fair across the road. They had the lived-in, semi-permanent look of carnival vehicles.
She was a good bit ahead of me, the engine of her hair powering her forward. She disappeared in the circle of trucks. I was breathing hard. This behaviour didn’t correspond to the familiar pattern. What had got into her? What had she seen? I felt slightly uneasy at this break from our traditional ritual. Our rows were not meant to be as sudden as this.
She was frozen like a statue in front of the trailers. I could hear an unfamiliar whistling and distant crying sounds. They seemed to be coming from large speakers on the grass.
Jennifer looked round at me for guidance but I was at a loss. These lorries should not have been here. Never before had this patch of the park been used for the fair. I’d played football with friends and in the school team here. This was always an open area of grass.
There was a barely legible sign, its paint chipped and peeling. All that we could make out was the line, ‘Entry: 2D’. Entry to what? There was no-one inside the circle of trucks and tents beyond the entry notice. It was like a defensive ring of wagons in the wild west, deserted after an attack — standing silent witness to the shooting and screaming of their owners’ last moments, all dead in a hail of arrows and whooping Indians.
Jennifer was peering beyond the limit of the painted sign. I could tell she had already decided to give up the pennies. She didn’t need to put it into words. I looked behind me at the familiar sight of the fun fair. The slow rotation of the big wheel. A woman sitting in the top creaking gondola waggled her foot over the edge of the carriage and I watched her shoe tumble, catching on metal struts as it fell. I saw her throw her head back and open her mouth but I was too far away to hear the peal of laughter. Instead the unearthly wailing from the speakers reverberated in my head.
Jennifer was tugging at me, pulling her shilling out of her pocket and going towards an old lady in a tiny ticket booth, we’d failed to notice before. I paid after Jennifer. The change sliding into my pocket much heavier than the single coin it was replacing.
I looked at the sea. Shavings of foam curled repeatedly off the water’s surface as if an invisible hand was pushing a gigantic plane across the water, away from the coast. I’d seen my grandfather planing wood in his shed. He spent hours buried to the knees in wood shavings, fashioning tables, lamps, wheelbarrows. The smell of newly sawn wood and machine oil reminded me of the times I’d watched him at work.
We walked further into the circle, the high-sided trucks blocking out all views of the beach and the fair and the sea. The wailing, screeching calls were louder and eerier.
Neither of us was sure what we’d paid to see. We walked to the first trailer. A long black mass rested on the elevated platform. Its side was tarry, like a skin of baked Tarmac. I could smell something like creosote when I stood close to the truck, straining on my toes for a more complete view of this thing. I didn’t like not recognising the truck’s enormous load. Jennifer was silent, clutching unconsciously at the hem of my T-shirt.
A voice came out of the speakers, describing life cycles, breeding habits, migration patterns. Then we had it. I pulled myself up over the lip of the trailer, gasping. From one end of the truck to the other, a good forty feet, a blackened expanse of bitumen-coated flesh weighed down on the planks of the trailer.
A complete, stuffed whale. Neither of us could quite believe it. I felt no exhilaration at this amazing feat, despite the knowledge that to stuff a whale is surely no easy undertaking. I could only register a growing sickness in the pit of my stomach. The voice from the speakers was telling us that the specimen on display was a young whale which would have grown further had it been allowed to live.
Jennifer said she felt sick and I nodded. But for some moments we were transfixed by the macabre spectacle. I reached up a ginger hand to the flank of the dead beast and stroked its artificially preserved skin. Flakes of the black coating fluttered down into my eyes.
I grabbed Jennifer’s arm and we ran. She led me up the path from the common. The sea I knew was behind us. I followed, stumbling, my eyes burning as I rubbed, trying to rid them of the pieces of dried whale.
We didn’t buy sweets. We had lost the carnival mood in which we’d left the house. We entered the front door silently, both now aware that something out of the ordinary had led to our gift of the shillings. The whole family in one place without an explanation. My eyes were stinging still, my stomach churning like waves at the sea’s edge, where they sucked back on themselves, tugging the sands, enticing pebbles to roll towards the deep ocean.
We stood in the centre of the room surrounded by our relatives; some were sobbing. My uncle put an arm round each of our heaving shoulders. Now we knew.
I walked to the back of the house where the shed stood. My eyes had been weeping since the whale dust had gritted up the lids. A fresh swell of briny tears broke. I took the handful of coppers from my pocket, this undeserved largesse. With a useless cry of defeat, I flung the cold coins at the wall of my grandfather’s shed.
Iain Marshall grew up in Scotland — first in the fishing town of Arbroath on the east coast and then in the Scottish borders. At Stirling University he studied English (specialising in my final year in the prose of Samuel Beckett. That sounds pretty pretentious some twenty years later). After leaving Stirling, he managed two months on the dole in Edinburgh, before answering an advert in the Guardian for a group looking for English speaking graduates to teach in Sudan. He then spent the next four years (1984-1988) in northern Sudanese villages teaching in local secondary schools. It remains the pinnacle of his working life to date. To explain how much it meant to him would require a book-length essay (and he is indeed currently trying to write one, albeit at a snail’s pace). After Sudan, he got work with Save the Children Fund in a project for Vietnamese refugees in London. That lasted for five years and is also notable for being the place where he met his wife, Jackie. Since his career seemed to lack any logical path, he next worked at BBC World Service Arabic TV news, which was an ill-fated but exciting venture. Ultimately it was closed down due to irreconcilable editorial differences between the Beeb and its (Saudi) commercial partners. Incidentally, the nascent al-Jazeera channel at the time benefited hugely from the demise of BBC Arabic TV. A stint of freelancing as a TV and radio news hack ensued and he is now on the staff of an established daily BBC news TV programme. The one thing he has neglected is his writing. Still fired up with the idealism of youth in Sudan, he wrote a lot of mediocre poetry and prose. But now back in London, life seems so hectic that writing is always at the foot of his to-do list. There will be time to change all that, hopefully.