He had heard it from the butcher’s boy who had heard it from the rag and bone man. The rag and bone man had been trying to convince the butcher’s boy to buy the wheels from a perambulator he had picked up in Blissford from a widow with a cleavage that heaved magnificently.
“You can build a go-cart, race it down Arnott Hill,” the rag and bone man had said, with a yellow grin, still thinking of that cleavage – two Arnott Hills in a blouse.
It was the most incredible news; the best, in fact, since he’d got word that a coven of witches made spells and danced naked in Savernake Forest. He’d gone straight to the pub to tell anyone who might not have heard and share in the excitement with all those that had. No one was interested. They thought it was another of his yarns, a tall tale.
It did not take them long to get bored of his outpouring of words and find an excuse to leave – a nagging wife, a broken gate post, a sickly calf – some left in such a hurry that they left some of their ale, brown and begging, in their tankards.
It did not bother him much, he was used to it. He gulped down the dregs and moved on to another disinterested party. They had heard his stories before, been pestered by his words so often that their tolerance was non-existent. His words were born in breathy shouted contractions, grown in the womb of untruth. A belly full of ideas, fancies, white lies and whims that danced and hugged and bumper-to-bumpered like microbes in a petri-dish. Nobody seemed to care that this was not his baby, this was really real.
Only in Boscombe too, just forty or so miles away from Frogham. It was obvious to him that he had to see it for himself. He had to embody the truth, live it, dance all over it with high kicks, thumbs in braces – the works. It was also obvious that he would be making the journey alone. Even the butcher’s boy didn’t believe it enough to leave his sausage-making duties behind.
He shoved some plums from Cyril’s yard into his overcoat pockets along with a dry hunk of bread from the larder and headed off. The dregs of beer adding fire to his belly and giddiness behind the eyes.
For the first few miles out of the village, he was angry and more than a little drunk. Why didn’t those dullards believe him? He kicked a stone into a hedgerow and sent a thrush to the grey skies above.
After an hour, he calmed down, somewhat sobered by the knowledge that a forty mile walk was a long one.
After fourteen hours, he was delirious. He was consumed with thoughts of how best to conquer, how to fully realise his encounter with the truth, giant and actual, that had eluded him for so long.
He was not the village idiot – that was Timpson – but he was, in polite circles, the village’s away-with-the-fairies, and bullshitter to most, and this in many ways was worse. He wanted the world to match the multi-colour brilliance of his dreams, not the daily monochrome drudge of village – who felt who up in the stable straw; who missed their bedpan and woke the cat with their drunken aim; who had flirted with pagan rituals to produce extra large marrows. This was his chance for the spectacular and this is what kept him going step after step through the darkness, the loneliness of the night’s deepest point and on through the dawn.
He could smell the change in the air as he approached the coast; a moisture that stripped the pollen and sleep-deprived snuffles from his nostrils. It cleansed him and reignited the sense of excitement that had dwindled over the course of the journey.
It was another nine hours until he saw the sea.
He had, of course, seen the sea before but this time he felt that he had earned the view, paid for it with each laboured step. The sky and sea were set in solid tones, post-storm blocks of bashful butter-wouldn’t-melt hues. All of those thousands of steps would soon pale when he walked the most significant 47 steps of his life. The 47 steps that took him from champion bullshitter to truth-sayer. A baptism, a rebirth, a purging, an epiphany – in every sense a religious experience.
He walked through the crowds, through the hoards of pressmen into the gentle lapping waves, further, then he was swimming, then up, sliding down the black, up further then 47 steps from head to tail along the great whale, back broken by a tramp steamer off the coast.
“I’ve come forty mile to see this ‘ere whale, and I’m going to walk from his head to his tale”
This short story is based on the true story of the Boscombe Whale. Header image of The whale, Boscombe Pier, Bournemouth by Alwyn Ladell via Flickr.
If you fancy another imagined story behind a real-life artefact, try The Weight – about a woman, a postcard with a bear and love.