Craig and Jon were down on the beach early, taking samples from the massive corpse of the whale. A sea mist muffled sight and sound for the first hour or so, but gradually it began to clear, and as the sun came out, so did the people. A small group of spectators began to gather, most of them keeping their distance, probably because of the nauseating stench coming off the whale. Jon was experienced, and apparently able to ignore the onlookers, focussing only on his work. Craig found it more difficult.
This job in Cornwall was his first experience of the practical work of the Cetacean Stranding Investigation Programme. He had joined the organisation the previous week, and almost immediately a call from the Falmouth coastguard had brought him and his boss Jon down to Perranporth, where the sperm whale had been beached.
Tamping down his own emotions, Craig glanced at other people to see how they were reacting. A slight figure caught his attention. She stood apart from the others, a pale young woman in faded ripped jeans and a grey hoodie, a tiny baby clamped to her chest in a purple sling. She was very still, and watched what he and Jon were doing with an intensity which he sensed even from a distance of a hundred metres or more.
The two men worked quickly and effectively. They were turning out to be a good team, both quiet and meticulous with respect for each others’ work and for the animal they were working on. About mid-morning Jon’s phone rang. ‘Better get that’ he said, pulling his phone out of his pocket and walking over to the van to talk.
A tiny cry startled Craig, and he turned to see the young woman with the baby. She looked even younger close to, and her pallor highlighted the sharp, clear blue of her eyes. Her direct stare gave Craig a jolt as he straightened up to look at her.
‘Can I watch?’ Her voice was as clear as her eyes. ‘I’m going to study marine biology at uni. Plymouth. I wanted to go to Liverpool – get a bit further from home, but then this one’ – she pointed to the baby – ‘came along. I’m going to need my mum’s help to look after her.’
Craig looked at the tiny child who was just opening her eyes. ‘What’s her name?’
‘Sky. Because her eyes are so blue.’
‘Like yours’, said Craig before he could stop himself. ‘Sorry – that was rude of me. I’m Craig by the way. And you are...?’
‘Becky – not Bex, not Becca – Becky’. There was something childlike in the way she spoke. Everything was stated with certainty and no embellishments. Craig liked that.
‘Can I watch you work? We won’t disturb you.’
‘Of course’. Craig felt a little thrill that this pale, thin young woman was interested in his work. His mind drifted back to his ex-wife Rhona, who had always accused him of being obsessed with ‘sea creatures’. Their split had been painful, but necessary. He knew that now. Rhona was an interior designer, more interested in bathrooms than wildlife.
Soon Jon returned, a quizzical look in his eye.
‘Becky’s going to study marine biology. I said she could watch.’
‘As long as she doesn’t disturb us.’ Jon eyed Sky meaningfully.
Becky was true to her word. She stood and watched silently for at least an hour, until Sky began to grizzle.
‘I’ll be off. See you tomorrow.’
‘Are you sure? We’ll be doing horrible work tomorrow, cutting the whale into sections and having the carcass removed. Do you really want to see that?’
Already Craig knew the answer to his question. She might look vulnerable, but Becky was clearly a determined young woman.
Again that clear blue stare. ‘See you tomorrow.’
Work continued uneventfully, with spectators coming and going. Craig barely noticed the time passing.
‘OK, time for the pub’, said Jon. ‘Let’s clear up and go’.
The sun was already low in the sky, a pink glow heralding a more dramatic sunset to follow.
The local pub lacked atmosphere, but served a good pint of Doom Bar and excellent fish and chips. Craig and Jon chatted easily about the work they had done that day, and agreed that they should be ready to return to London the next evening, after the carcass had been removed.
The next day dawned damp and grey, with a sea fret starting to roll in. They devoured their full English breakfast and set off in the van to face the grisly task of the removal of the whale’s corpse.
The disposal team from the local authority arrived and the work began, brutal and mechanical.
Jon’s phone rang again, and he wandered towards the van to take the call. When Jon returned he said: ‘That was the office. They need me to stay down here for another couple of days to clear up the paperwork and do some general surveying. You drive the van back in the morning. I’ll get the train back.’
‘OK, fine by me’. Secretly Craig rather looked forward to the long drive home on his own.
An hour or so later a voice behind him said,
‘Hi Craig’. Those clear blue eyes again.
‘Hi Becky. No Sky today then?’
‘No, Mum’s looking after her. Only for an hour though.’
‘Why don’t you come to the pub tonight? Have a drink with me and Jon.’
‘I can’t. Mum won’t look after Sky again today, and the landlord doesn’t like me taking the baby in there.’
Craig tried to hide his disappointment. ‘That’s a shame. Hope you’re OK watching today.’
‘Yes. I’m learning.’ She gave a quick smile and turned away to watch what was going on.
The process was slow and difficult. The whale was hoisted in huge chunks onto waiting trucks ready to be hauled away to landfill in Redruth to be disposed of in accordance with the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
Becky watched silently, her eyes occasionally meeting Craig’s, and holding his gaze for seconds longer than he would have expected. He had to turn away several times, disconcerted and too interested, making the pretence of attending to some important detail or decision.
Suddenly Becky announced, ‘I’m going now. See you again.’
‘Well, I’m leaving at 8.00am tomorrow’ Craig replied, ‘so probably not’.
‘Oh. Bye then.’
She turned and walked purposefully back up the beach. Craig stared after her. ‘Can I have your phone number, Becky?’ he shouted out, but she walked on, apparently not hearing him.
The drizzle continued to fall, and Craig realised that he was cold and hungry. He dived into the van for a few minutes to eat his pasty and warm up. Jon was busy on the phone again, and Craig briefly felt adrift and lonely.
‘I’ll need the van tonight. Hope that’s OK with you. I’m going over to visit my cousin in Newquay.’ Jon’s voice pierced his loneliness.
‘Of course, no problem.’
Four hours later, their work was finished, and the beach looked eerily empty apart from a large black stain where the whale had been. Once the trucks had departed there was a silence broken only by the occasional screeching gull.
Craig was glad to be alone in the pub with his pint and his scampi that evening. He was not in the mood for making conversation.
He was woken early by the sun glinting through the flimsy curtains. He hadn’t slept well, his wakeful hours haunted by images of Becky. He took a long shower, ate his breakfast and drank plenty of coffee. He packed his small bag and was ready to go.
As he walked out to the van, there stood Becky, with Sky strapped to her chest, and carrying a small canvas backpack and a baby’s car seat.
‘What...’ began Craig.
‘Take us back to London with you. Me and Sky.’
‘I want to go to London with you.’
Craig’s excitement almost overwhelmed him. He hesitated for a few seconds.
‘No. You have to stay here. You’ll get your degree at Plymouth, your mum’ll look after Sky while you’re studying, and after that you’ll be free to do what you want. Don’t mess up your future. ‘
‘I thought you wanted to help me. I thought you actually cared!’
‘I do, and that’s why I can’t take you with me, Becky. No, just no.’
‘You’ll regret this!’ shouted Becky as she turned away and strode off, little Sky starting to wail.
‘You’ll never know how much’, thought Craig, as he stood shaking in the breezy car park.
As he drove back to London alone with his thoughts, Craig felt relief that Becky had not given him her phone number. He had made the right decision. He’d be back in the office soon, and his work of forgetting Becky could begin. And who knew, once she was qualified as a marine biologist, maybe their paths would cross again. And the time might be right.
(c) Maisie Bishop