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The Whale's Brain

David Gaffney

He had a feeling when he saw it that there would be something he could do with it, something important. But he didn't yet know what that thing was. This often happened. He would see something lying around and he would take it for himself, without thinking about what it was, what it could be used for or whether he had a need for it. Everything had a use. If it existed, it had a function and a value to someone somewhere. And even if he found that in the end he had no use for whatever the object had been designed for, he could usually find some purpose for it, even if it wasn't the purpose it was designed for. If it was heavy, for example, he could hit someone with it. In his business heavy objects were always useful for that. In the same way if he saw that someone had left a door open – to a house or a business or a shop – he would always creep in regardless of where he was or what time it was or what he might find. You had to take opportunities when they presented themselves. Thinking first slowed you down. Think for too long and the opportunity passes.

This approach to life did get him into lots of trouble. But it also led him into adventures. Every day was a clean page on which to write a new story.

This is what had happened with the whale.

They had been cutting it up on Whitehaven beach and the brain had been taken out carefully and was hanging on some posts in a plastic tarpaulin ready, he imagined, for the scientists to take off to university to study. So he just walked up to it, nodded hello to the man in hi-vis who was standing nearby and began to undo the ties holding the tarpaulin to its posts. When the brain fell to the ground with a slurpy whump, he wrapped it up delicately and neatly, like he was swaddling a baby, and then carried it away in his arms, nodding again at the man in the hi-vis as he passed him en route.

They would think he was a marine biologist. He had been mistaken for all kinds of things in the past. He often wondered whether he could have actually become one of the professions he had impersonated, if he'd been recommended for the grammar school like some of his friends, but dismissed it. Why just be one thing your whole life? It would be so dull. Every day when he walked out of the door, he could end up being someone else.

Now he had the brain in his garage and its disappearance had been reported on Border News and Lookaround. It would take some explaining to Natasha. However he was used to explaining things to Natasha and she was used to not believing a word he said, but then sighing and shrugging and letting him get on with it. Some things paid off in spades. There were the tickets and passports they found in a handbag which took them to Ibiza for a week. There was the motorbike from down an alley. There was the young lad he found sleeping in the park who worked on their garden for a week before disappearing with a month's supply of Natasha's worry pills.

He got a beer out of the fridge and sat down next to the whale’s brain to look at it. He wondered what the difference was between the brain and the mind. Did the mind, the decision-making part, control the brain, or did the brain control the mind with its chemicals and electrical impulses? Was there a part of the brain where the whale’s personality had lived, the part that made this whale different to the other whales? Maybe he liked eating a certain type of plankton and avoided other types; maybe the other whales had a nickname for him. Purple-Plankton-Boy or something. Maybe they all laughed when they said this, with those weird whooping sounds that you heard whales make in wildlife programmes.

Here, on this sheet of plastic, was the physical material of a mind, curved and segmented, as ugly as an intestine, lying there in its own stink as it rotted. On the internet it said that the sperm whale had the largest brain known to the planet. It was in some ways very beautiful; broad, and noble looking, like he imaged a king’s brain would be, with large-spaced convolutions and many folds and twists. It made him think about his own brain and how his thought processes moved through it. Maybe the fact that he tended to act on impulses rather than think things through meant there were pathways in his brain that his mind had never trodden, unmade desire lines, secret lonins tangled up with weeds.

Later that evening he asked his wife to come into the garage with him and they sat there all evening drinking beer and staring at the whale’s brain. It was like they were sitting in a still pool of peacefulness. Next door's dog was barking as usual, motorbikes were tearing up and down the street, and bass was pounding from a nearby parked car, but all of these noises failed to penetrate the bubble of privacy they found themselves in.

'Maybe when we die we will come back as whales,' he said.

'Maybe,' Natasha said.

'I’d like that,' he said. 'I wouldn’t have to steal things any more. Everything is free in the sea, isn't it?'


David Gaffney is the author of the novels Never Never (2008),All The Places I’ve Ever Lived(2017) andOut Of The Dark(2021), and the flash fiction and short story collectionsSawn-Off Tales(2006),Aromabingo(2007),The Half-Life of Songs(2010) andMore Sawn-Off Tales(2013). He has published two graphic novels with Dan Berry –The Three Rooms In Valerie’s Head(2018) andRivers(2021) – and is working on a third. He has just published a chapbook,The Country Pub, with Nightjar Press, and this year publishes a new short story collection with Salt Publishing,Concrete Fields, and a pamphlet,Whale, with Osmosis Press.

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