He was, quite simply, the biggest thing I had EVER seen.
It was my birthday treat, which happened whenever in the summer I wanted it to, as my birthday is so close to Christmas. I had just seen the movie, or rather had begged my Mum to be allowed to be taken to it, as my Dad said he didn’t trust himself not to keep laughing at the title. I was obsessed with whales. I had pictures of them on my wall- some posters, some drawings I had done. I had books about them from the town library and the school library. I knew all about them, at least I knew as much as any 7 year old can find out from library books and an encyclopaedia. I stood up during one infamous school assembly and corrected the headmaster about the size of the average ‘killer whale’. That didn’t get me into nearly as much trouble as getting into a fight with Stu Penney from Mr Arnott’s class about how whales don’t eat people.
When we got to the Aquarium, though, I started to waver on that one.
My Mum said it would be better if we saved the whales (yes, she really said it) until the end of the trip. I was on eggshells the whole day. I walked past the piranhas unfazed. The penguins, who enraptured my older brother, failed to move me. There were sharks, there were vibrantly coloured tropical fish, my Dad swore blind he saw a Babel Fish in one aquarium. None of it, I was sure, would compare to the Whales.
And then we got to the enclosure. 10m high, thick glass, murkily blue, sun-dappled water. And the biggest, giantest monsters I had ever seen in my young life. I stood. I stared. They were majestic, the keeper said, gentle creatures. I had a small camera, of my very own, which was my birthday present. I had saved up the film all day, so I could take a whole roll of photos of the whales. In the end, I only took two. Trembling, and hoping the glass was as thick and secure as the keeper and the signs said it was, I turned on the flash button, and lifted the camera, waiting for the whale to get a bit further away so I could get the whole of it in the shot. That was definitely why, I wasn’t scared. Not even a little bit.
I took my first picture. And then as the flash whirred back into life, an electric wheeeee at the edges of my hearing, the bigger of the two whales, George, swam right up to the glass, and opened its mouth and showed its teeth. Its terrifying, small-child-nibbling, teeth. I flinched back, but my brother put his arm around me- the first time, but not the last by a long chalk, that I remember his kindness.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “look- George is smiling for the camera!”
Click. Flash. And I didn’t need any more photos. I had the best one. Just a shame I had to wait until three months later, and returning from a camping holiday, to get it developed. Three months is a long time in childhood.