the story behind the story: the summer of the whale

Last summer, I was over in the Lochinver area with a colleague. It was a beautiful clear, sunny day and the west coast was stunning as usual. On the drive home, a heather fire had gone out of control and the hillside was ablaze. Flames danced along the side of the road and I could feel the heat through the van door as we drove tentatively beside it. Twice we had to stop to let fire engines past. It was one of those weird days I’ll never forget.

I can’t remember the main purpose of our day out but one of our tasks had been to look for a dead whale reported as washed up on a small beach. The remote beach in question was just metres from the sand-covered single-track road, and the two crofthouses beside it had gardens full of drying nets, lobster pots and driftwood. We stumbled over the shingly foreshore then set of along the sand, no sign of any dead whale although thanks to the heat we could definitely smell it.

We had almost stood on the carcass before we realised. Some black lumps that had looked like rocks from a distance, but this was the decomposing, stinking remains of the whale’s flesh. It was huge! To see such a great, majestic creature reduced to rotting blubber on a beach was heartbreaking. Its not the first time I’ve encountered a dead whale – they’ve been washed up on the beach at home aswell; although this was the closest I’d ever been to one. And it wasn’t nice.

I knew straight away that I wanted to write a story about a dead whale and the title The Summer of the Whale came into my head. It needed to be a metaphor for something though, so that I could build some sort of plot line around it. I got to thinking about how different a dead whale looks like to the images we see of live whales, which gave me the idea of the whale as a metaphor for life; often things aren’t as great or as wonderful as we expect them to be.

Once I had this hook, the story emerged pretty quickly; I wrote it from the point of view of a pre-teen boy as I figured this disappointment would be more profound in that age group than in an adult. I was really pleased with the final piece and submitted it to a competition which unfortunately it never won. I’m not one to be defeated though, so I submitted it again, this time to the Ifanca Helene James short story competition. And it won third prize! If you’d like to read it, here it is in all its glory.

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