Short Story #08: Whales

On the first morning we stepped outside our bungalow and took a seat at the two wooden chairs that faced out to the water. I poured us each a cup of the fresh coffee from the pot on the small glass-topped table between us. Breakfast wasn’t due to be served until seven thirty but we had arisen earlier partly because the jet lag had left us wide awake at six but mostly because we’d been told we’d have more luck seeing whales at this hour.

The sand, the colour of pale khaki and as fine as bread flour, grew flat and hard as it reached under the turquoise ocean that slid over it with a gentle hush. I took a deep breath and opened my book—my wife already deep into reading hers.

Reading is a luxury that my job back in England rarely affords me—at best I can carve out an hour or two at the weekends—so we had chosen somewhere that required us to do almost nothing; where the most pressing decision is what novel to read next.

We sat in silence until eight, glancing up from our books now and then in response to any unusual break in the regular rhythm of the waves. A shoal of flying fish dared each other to jump higher and further, bouncing along the surface of the water, and a couple of seagulls dived in to pick up their morning meal. The whales, however, remained elusive.

The heat was already building as we made our way down the beach to the hotel bar, an open-sided structure with wooden columns stained black holding up a thatched roof. One side—the side with the bar—was attached to a concrete structure that led to the kitchen. In one corner of the the wooden deck underneath the thatch were a couple of wicker couches, the rest of the space filled with a haphazardly arranged group of dining tables, laid out for breakfast.

We had arrived early in the season and had our pick of the tables. We seated ourselves at one nearest the beach, at the edge of the deck, so we could continue our search but by the end of our meal the only life we had seen was an older gentleman in a white fedora.

He was tall and broad, with a leathery face, tanned and well worn. His countenance was calm and distinguished and radiated a reliable confidence. I quickly decided that he was honourable and trustworthy, a decision helped in no small measure by his magnificent moustache; thick, dark, and bristly but neat and well tended, like a much-loved hedge.

His perfectly fitted cream suit and white shirt made me feel momentarily underdressed in my monochrome flowery board shorts and purple tee until I remembered that we were at the beach and I was attired entirely appropriately for the circumstances. On the other hand, his only concession to the location was the lack of a tie and an open top button.

We nodded our hellos to each other and he continued out past the deck to the single storey building behind the bar that served as the hotel lobby. After a pause, my wife looking around to make sure that he was past earshot, leaned in conspiratorially, and whispered: “Do you think that’s the owner?”

I allowed that this was a possibility, then suggested that perhaps he was simply a rich businessman on holiday. Clearly his appearance had already put his wealth beyond doubt in both our minds.

“Perhaps he’s looking to buy the hotel,” my wife suggested.

“Maybe he’s on his way to a meeting right now,” I offered. “That would explain why he wasn’t in shorts, despite this heat.”

“He looks like he’s from the American South. I bet he’d be a tough negotiator. But fair. Charming, rather than aggressive, where you’d be disarmed into giving away your hand before you even realised it.”

I nodded, thinking about my own reaction to his appearance. “I already fear for the people he’s on his way to meet.”

The rest of the day was spent on sun loungers, reading and enjoying drinks topped with tiny umbrellas, and swimming in the clear ocean.

The wind, coming in from the South, was unrelenting but generally benign, providing a welcome coolness against the heat of the tropical sun. The palm trees lining the beach leaned in against it, their rugged, stepped trunks leading up to large fronds that allowed the gentle breeze to run leisurely through their long green fingers, every so often nosily rustling their displeasure if it dared blow too hard.

Although we had been told that the best chances of seeing whales was early in the morning and around sunset, we spent the whole day in hopeful anticipation anyway, regularly glancing up from our books for another quick scan of the waves.

By dinner, watching as the distant horizon disappeared with the fading light, we were left unrewarded.

“Not to worry,” I said. “We’re bound to see them tomorrow.”

We didn’t, nor did we the next day or the day after. By the Wednesday (we had arrived on a Saturday), hope was turning to mild desperation.

“What if we don’t see any?” My wife asked at breakfast (we were seated at the same table as the first morning as it had quickly become ‘our’ table). “It’s one of the main reasons we’re here!”

“True,” I said, between bites of a freshly baked croissant smothered in homemade marmalade. “But there’s not much we can do. It’s hardly the hotel’s fault that the whales don’t want to greet us.”

“I suppose. I feel like we’re running out of time, though.”

“There’s still half the week left,” I said. I reached over and put my hand on hers. “Don’t worry, we’ll see them.”

“I bet our man sees them all the time. Maybe once he’s bought the island he should fence off a large part of the ocean and keep some out in front—enough that they’re comfortable, of course.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think it’d be the same. It’s always more exciting to see things that are truly in the wild. The unreliable nature of the event is part of what makes it so special.”

“I know, but I want it to be special for me,” she said, smiling as she put on her best impression of a teenage whine.

“Besides, he couldn’t buy and install a large ocean fence without attracting some serious attention.”

“That’s true.” She considered this for a moment. “Do you think his former colleagues in the CIA would give him a heads up if they knew the agency was coming for him?”

“Absolutely. They know what’s happened to him is an injustice.”

Disappointingly, we had detected no trace of a Southern accent on the second day when he had wished us a good morning, just as smartly dressed and again not stopping for breakfast. We had guessed that he was actually from the West Coast but, both of us being from England, our chances of correctly identifying the true origin of a given North American accent were slim.

He never appeared hurried, but he always looked like he had somewhere important to be so, although his greeting was repeated on subsequent days, we never had a chance to get beyond this. Breakfast was the only time we saw him around the hotel. In fact, apart from the staff, it was the only time we saw anyone else at all.

In his absence, however, we had invented an elaborate story for him and his morning purpose. He had gone from being a rich, Southern businessman to an ex-CIA operative who had discovered agency corruption and, after reporting it to a corrupt superior, our man had suddenly found himself with a new identity—that of a serial killer’s—and had needed to flee the US.

It was the kind of exotic tale that fitted in neatly with our exotic surroundings.

We had decided that some of his colleagues, appalled at the injustice, helped him escape to this island in South East Asia. They set him up with a significant amount of seized money which had been on its way to the compromised department officials but which they had managed to re-route to him here.

His plan now was not to just buy the hotel but the whole island, providing him with a distant location where he could remain hidden and set up a series of early warning defences. This discreet but luxurious hotel on the far side, away from the small town where the only port stood, was where negotiations with the local government were taking place.

This, we had decided, also explained the absence of other guests. All of the rooms must have been taken by government representatives who were obviously too busy to spend any time relaxing by the sea after their long morning meetings.

“I think there’s a woman involved,” said my wife.

“Really?” I asked, interested by this sudden interpretation. “On what basis?”

“He looks content and calm despite his situation. If he was on his own the whole time, it would be easy to wind himself up into a frenzy. Being by yourself late at night, feeling like the world’s coming to get you—it’s not paranoia if they’re actually after you—but he seems to me to be relatively happy.”

I allowed this, satisfied that the high bar for inclusion had been met.

One of the unspoken rules that had come about during our morning speculations was that any additional detail needed to be backed up with some evidence. Evidence, of course, in the loosest possible sense, as the entirety of our knowledge of him and his business affairs came from either a) his manner and appearance; or b) the emptiness of the hotel.

Still, it helped distract us from the lack of whales.

The following day a boat trip sailed into our bay, bringing with it a group of revellers that set up further down the beach, past where the hotel boundary lay.

We watched from our loungers as the boat arrived and the crew pulled off plastic tables and chairs, umbrellas, sun loungers, volleyball nets, and giant coolers. There were about twenty or so passengers and, for the next few hours, they swam, played volleyball, and sunbathed. The crew attached a banana boat to the boat they had arrived in and pulled small groups of screaming nearly-naked bodies around the bay.

We were lying at the end of the beach closest to these new arrivals. I was underneath a beach umbrella, which flapped continuously in the persistent wind. My wife had pulled her lounger a little further out, eager to escape the influence of the shade and enjoy the embrace of the fierce sun.

“All that stupid noise will scare the whales away,” my wife complained, returning to her Gabriel García Márquez novel.

I nodded and continued to watch this inflatable raft being yanked around the water, every so often stopping when someone fell off (or, in one case, was pushed off) or to change riders.

A few minutes later a group of three males broke off from the group and walked over.

“‘Scuse us, mate!” One of them called. He was wearing a sleeveless white shirt and a red baseball cap.

I looked up, shading my eyes with my forearm.

“There a toilet ‘round ‘ere?” He asked.

“It’s back behind the bar. Just to the right, there.” I said, pointing him in the right direction.

“Cheers mate,” he looked around, taking in the padded beach loungers, thick white towels and well-tended garden that surrounded the bar. “Nice place.”

He walked off to find the bathroom.

“Why did you have to be so friendly?” Asked my wife, without looking up from her book. “They’re the enemy, remember?”

By our last evening we had still not had any luck. The sun painted a spectacular range of evolving oranges, yellows, reds, then finally purples and dark blues on its way down over the horizon. Our hopes of a sighting disappeared with it as we were due to leave the hotel at four thirty the following morning.

The light faded and was replaced by the softer fairy lights and tiki torches that surrounded the dining area and flickered continually in the unending breeze. We were back at our table enjoying our last dinner and, for the first time that week, one of the other tables was occupied by a young couple, drinking bright, primary-coloured cocktails.

“I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to see any whales,” she said, sighing.

“Me too,” I said. “I guess we’ll just have to come back.”

I’m not sure those words have ever made a departing regret any better but my wife smiled indulgently anyway.

It was a moonless night and, looking out at the beach, I could only see a wall of blackness past the edge of the last torch’s weak light, as if the universe ended just a few metres from where we were currently sitting. I could still hear that constant shushing, like the world was reassuring me that I shouldn’t worry that the edge of existence was but a short walk away.

We looked over as we heard the young man raise his voice in animated storytelling; her loud and carefree laughter filling the night as he reached his conclusion.

“I bet they get to see the whales,” said my wife begrudgingly, scraping up the last of her homemade vanilla ice cream and fresh apple and cinnamon tart.

I finished my glass of Italian pinot grigo—a little sweet, but not too bad for a small Asian island—and looked at her now well-tanned face disapprovingly. “Now, don’t be like that. It was just not meant to be for us this time. It’s still been a wonderful week.”

She sighed again. “I suppose. I just really wanted to see them.”

“I know.”

I picked the wine bottle out of the ice in the bucket stand next to me and offered it to her.

“No, thanks. I think I’m going to go back to the room and read for a bit. You stay here and finish it,” she said.

“Are you sure? Is everything OK?”

“Yes, I’m fine. I just want to go and read.”

I nodded and watched her go. She turned and waved at me before heading down a side path that lit the way to the bungalows with little foot lanterns. I poured myself another glass, emptying the bottle.

It had been a pleasant week but the constant anticipation had added a mild tension to our time here, like a tiny irritating splinter in the palm of one’s hand. Not painful. Not even noticeable most of the time but reminding you that it was there whenever you leaned on it.

It felt like as if we’d failed somehow, even though the situation was entirely out of our control.

We had both been so excited when preparing for our trip. We had pored over pictures of the bay and the hotel, the brochure filled with photographs of these magnificent humpback whales breaching the surface, surrounded in a halo of white spray, captured in their magnificence. So much of our talk leading up to our departure had been about what it would be like to see these creatures, how interesting our stories and photos would be to our colleagues upon our return. The promise of the week had been broken.

I tried to rationalise away these feelings. It was clearly preposterous to feel even remotely sad about this, given that the behaviour and habits of ocean mammals who have a near-infinite playground was so far beyond anything we could affect. The idea that they would perform on cue for us was an example of the kind of special arrogance that only humans were capable of. Feeling sad about it was ridiculous; everything else about the week had been entirely perfect.

And yet, annoyingly, these feelings continued, logic be damned.

I sipped my wine, deep in thought, when the wind stopped. It’s sudden absence added an unexpected stillness to the night, the mild pressure that it had exerted against my left side immediately noticeable by its absence, as if I had been lightly pressed up against someone and they had gotten up and left.

The young girl shrieked loudly again and I looked over at the couple. They seemed so excited to be here. Right then, they weren’t thinking about whales at all.

For a moment, the wind gone, the laughter filling the night air, my feelings suddenly changed. My eyes welled up slightly as a feeling of immense calm swept up through my body, my chest swelling, the infinite blackness ahead of me pulling away regrets and sadness with every fading swoosh. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and smiled.

“Nice to be young,” said a voice behind me.

My eyes snapped open. The voice was deep an American. I turned to see Fedora Man standing there with a warm smile, the ends disappearing underneath his impressive moustache.

“I think the cocktails help,” I said, then offered the empty chair. “Care to join me?”

He sat down opposite me and leaned back.

“Thank you. Now let’s see how much those cocktails really help, shall we?” He said, waving over the barman. “Kim San, send two more of whatever they’re drinking over and something for my friend here. What would you like?”

“I’m OK with this, thanks,” I said, indicating the wine.

“Of course you are, but only because you haven’t tried this. Two glasses of the fifteen year old.”

The barman nodded and went to fetch the drinks.

“You like Scotch?” He asked me.

“I’ve visited a few small distilleries and I’ve liked what I’ve tried, but I don’t claim to be anywhere near an expert.”

“I think you’ll like this. It’s from a tiny distillery in Speyside. I was more than pleasantly surprised to find it behind the bar here, I can tell you.”

“Well, thank you. That’s awfully generous of you to buy everyone a drink.”

“It’s easy to buy a round when everyone consists of four people. Besides,” he smiled, revealing his perfectly straight and brilliantly white teeth again and winked. “Not everyone gets the adult drinks.”

The barman returned with our drinks, then headed over to the couple’s table. After a brief explanation and indications to our direction, the couple turned and we raised our glasses to each other. I took a sip—the whisky was smooth and warm, caramel and vanilla notes contrasted with a peaty earthiness, with a long, pleasant finish.

“A good start to their holiday,” I said.

“I think they’re all good starts, when you start somewhere like this,” said the Fedora Man. He reached out a thick hand. I took it and his handshake was, as expected, strong and confident. “Bill’s the name. Sorry I’ve been so busy, lots of meetings that I couldn’t get away from. I meant to come and say a proper hello sooner but it seems I’ve run out of time.”

“No problem. So you’re busy at the moment?”

“Exceedingly, although I’m pretty sure that it’s finally coming to an end soon and in my favour. Soon I’ll be able to pull up a sun lounger and relax for a bit like you.”

“I highly recommend it.”

“So you’re from England?”

“London. You?”

“Los Angeles—” I performed a mental fist pump—“Although I won’t be going back there any time soon. What do you do back in England?”

We continued to sip at our whiskies as I explained that I owned a small design studio of three employees and that this was our first holiday in the three years since I started it. I confessed that a lot of this was due to feeling like the whole enterprise—that had only recently become profitable—would come crashing down without me.

“Don’t get me wrong, I trust the guy I left in charge completely,” I explained. “He’s been with me almost since the beginning but it’s sometimes hard to shake those feelings, you know? Eventually, he and my wife conspired together to practically force me to go.”

Bill smiled. “I know how that goes. It’s good to have people looking out for you.”

“It is. Are you married?”

“No, not yet. I was married to the job for a long time, but I’ve recently started seeing someone here so there’s hope for me yet.”

I was about to ask him what work he was in when he looked at his watch and said: “Wow, it got late. I’m sorry to cut this short, but I should really get going. I have another early start, as usual. I understand you’re leaving tomorrow?”

“Sadly, yes. It’s been a great week, although no whales. I think my wife’s a little disappointed. She thinks the bay needs a large sea wall to keep them in so we’re guaranteed to see them.”

He chuckled, a warm, throaty laugh. “Interesting idea. I’ll have to consider it.”

“Excuse me?” I said, puzzled. “Do you own the hotel?”

“Not yet,” he paused, and looked at me for a moment. “I don’t suppose it matters seeing as you’re leaving tomorrow, but between you and me, I’ve just closed a deal to buy the whole island.”

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