Let me see now, if I can recall correctly, it was about quarter past four on a bright but slightly blustery Tuesday afternoon in May when the whale swallowed me whole.
Yes, that’s right, it must have been quarter past four because the matinee was at half past and I remember being glum that I’d missed it. We were all out lounging on the sun deck of the cruise ship, the H.M.S. Excpetional. No, that’s not a typo; that was the name of the ship. When it was first launched, the young Welshman employed to stencil the name onto the side of the ship was either breathtakingly dyslexic or blood vessel-burstingly drunk, and before any officers had glanced up from buffing the poop deck and had a chance to stop him, the Welsh boy had adorned the newly christened ship with fifteen exponentially more madcap spellings of the word ‘exceptionla’. Er, excreptoinal. Arse. Exceptio5nalE. Actually, that Welsh miscreant may have had a point.
But enough of Daffyd’s general inadequacy. The Excpetional set sail from Liverpool on the 5th of May, and my husband and I had a simply wonderful crossing until the second week, at which point we were somewhere in the middle of the North Atlantic and a nasty storm had blown in. We’d taken breakfast with the fine Captain Erdhkunt that morning, a terrific storyteller who dazzled us with tales of the Far East and taught us to throat sing like the hill tribes of rural Tibet. After we had dined to satisfaction and our throats were hoarse from the rhythmic, guttural chanting, my husband and I retired to our cabin for a spot of frantic buggering and a light nap.
I left my naked Herbert slumbering face down on the bed, and ascended the staircase to the top deck, where I lit a joint and contemplated existence as I watched the furious, churning sea, lazily contemplating which words I would use to describe it in my next postcard. For time immemorial, people (read: men) have primarily sought to personify and/or sexualize the sea when describing it. The sea is my lonesome brother, the sea is a fearsome mistress, the sea is a vengeful god, the sea is a total babe and a real handful in the sack, that sort of thing. I find it unimaginative and lazy. No, I declare the sea to be far more like a cup of tea: lovely enough, but I’d rather not drown in it.
As I toked on my doobie and my legs slowly turned to gravy, I flounced my way to the rear of the ship to see what I could see (see see). But, in a startling break from the nursery rhyme, all that I could see (see see) was two of the kitchen staff enjoying a secretive bonk on the deck below. I leaned over the rail to wave to them, and at that precise moment suffered a weed-induced lapse in my short term memory, and found myself oblivious as to why I was dangling over the side of a cruise ship watching two young people engage in impassioned coitus.
As I mused over this, I stroked my chin in thought and ran a hand through my hair. Unfortunately that meant letting go of the railing completely, and I plunged overboard, falling some fifty feet, screaming down past the shagging couple who didn’t even look up, the pair of gits, and I hit the grey water with a force that can only fairly be described as hilarious.
Falling from a great height into water is very painful, although from what I’ve heard, falling onto solid ground is somewhat worse. Regardless, the height was negated by how high I was. In fact, I quite forgot why I was even in the water until I’d already resurfaced and been bobbing around for three minutes, quietly watching the cruise ship grunt away from me towards the beckoning horizon.
The realisation gradually slithered from synapse to synapse, and a slow, grasping fear crept up my legs, over my buttocks, up my back and onto my shoulder. I glanced to my left and found that the creeping feeling was in fact not fear at all, but a small, happy octopus that was busy inking all over my clothes. I peeled him off and flung him into the distance, and thought carefully about my predicament.
And then a big whale gobbled me up.
I’m sorry, I wish I could have built some suspense there and given you a more well-balanced version of the story, but the truth is, in my experience at least, when you’re swallowed whole by a big whale you don’t tend to see it until you’re inside it. There I was, treading water happily, and the next moment I was clinging to a gargantuan tongue that was trying very very hard to toss me backwards down an unfathomable black gullet.
I punched and kicked at the tongue, and in retaliation it slammed me against the roof of the mouth, which dazed me, and my grip loosened, and I flopped backwards like an old dishcloth, straight down the whale’s unbearably fishy throat.
I was squeezed through a succession of fleshy valves, and finally unceremoniously birthed into a very large, very dark chamber that stretched away into the gloom. The walls were pulsating gently and quivered to the touch. Gigantic yellow-white bones seemed to be holding the whole affair together. Another momentary memory spasm left me perplexed as to where the hell I was. The memory blip passed, and I remembered I was in a big whale, but the realisation didn’t particularly cheer me up.
“Bollocks,” I said, to nobody in particular. From far back in the cave, a creaky old voice answered.
“Watch your language!” it cried.
Someone lit a match, and there I saw, across a lake of stomach acid, a sagging wooden pirate ship, its masts snapped completely off. I could just make out three tattered figures on deck, squinting at me with suspicion. I waded towards the ship, the acid dissolving the majority of my clothes as I went. When I reached the ship, I hammered against its wooden sides, and the strange figures lowered a ladder down to me and hauled aboard.
Once I was aboard and back on my feet, we stood in bewildered silence, staring blankly at each other. They were three old men, with big white beards. One of them had a wooden leg. One had an enormous cross slung around his neck. One of them was wearing overalls and spectacles.
“Who are you?” they enquired.
“If it’s all the same, I really must ask you that question first. I feel that your circumstances are rather more peculiar than mine, and mine are about as weird as it gets,” I replied.
“Very well, my son” said the cross-clad man, “my name is Jonah, and this is my whale. You may have heard of me, if you are familiar with the Good Book.”
“Er, no, I’m afraid I’ve not heard of you sir, but what’s this talk of a good book? I’ve not read in such a long time you know, although I’ve almost got ten stamps on my Waterstones gift card, so if you’ve any recommendations then I must say, I’m all ears.”
Jonah looked perplexed, and turned away twiddling his beard. The stumpy legged man hobbled toward me.
“Aye, you’ll have heard of me I’ll wager. I be Captain Ahab, the head of the infamous lost whaling ship, the indefatigable and the doomed, the famed sea dog brought to God’s ruin, forever hunting after that thrice damned elusive Moby Dick,” the Captain growled.
“Hoho, goodness! What a curious accent you have,” I chuckled, slapping him on the shoulder and ruffling his hair before turning to the third man. “And who are you?”
“I am Gepetto, famed carpenter and once father to a magical-”
“Great, great. So how do I get out?” I asked.
“Get out?” trilled Jonah. “There’s no getting out.”
“Oh,” I replied, incredulously. “So what do you guys do all day?”
“Read the Bible and beg the Lord for forgiveness.”
“Call down the wrath of vengeful angels on that blasted whale, and think on me lost boys all rent and be-drowned, poor loyal Queequeg, O, alas, sweet Fedallah! O how blasted I am, vainglorious proud fool wrought with hubris, that I did not listen to thee.”
“I mourn the loss of my beloved Pinocchio. And yoga.”
I was still brain-swellingly stoned, and the conversation was all a bit much, and I was very hungry. My pockets were full of krill, which I could only assume and found their way in there as I was swallowed. I chomped on a squirming fistful as I left the dull old men and explored the pirate ship.
Below deck the living quarters were quite comfortable, with three hammocks slung side by side. There was a small stove with a chimney that shot up through the ceiling, a cluster of mucky pots and pans, a knock-kneed table and chair set, a bookshelf strained full of dusty old tomes, and a yoga matt. I also found a jaunty tricorne hat and a sword, which I buckled around my waist for no real reason other than it made me feel like one of those old timey water gangsters who used to steal each others’ doubloons and bury them for shits and giggles.
Up on deck, a squabble had broken out between the three odd men. I sat on an upturned barrel and observed them as they pushed and tugged at each others’ beards.
The gist, I eventually surmised, was that they wanted to eat me for sustenance, however they couldn’t decide how best to cook me. Ahab was all for barbecuing me, Jonah fancied a kebab, and Gepetto was salivating over thoughts of stir fry, and had already begun searching through barrels n order to find a wok that would be large enough.
When they caught sight of me, they froze, and their entire demeanour changed. Ahab wasted no time in inviting me to clean all the whale saliva off myself by taking a refreshing dip in a large cauldron he was preparing. Jonah tentatively asked how much I had heard of the conversation.
“Oh, most of it. I’d really rather not be eaten, if it’s all the same.”
“Well you’ve already been eaten once today. What’s one more time?” said Gepetto, attempting to appeal to my sense of logic. I wasn’t swayed, despite the sense in his argument.
“I think there is a certain moral issue with the three of you eating me,” I explained.
Ahab took offence at this, and put forward the (slightly lengthy and convoluted) case that morals hardly came into it now that we had all been gobbled up by a big whale. I could see that there was no convincing them.
“It’s nothing personal,” said Jonah, “it’s just that there’s no way out of this whale, and every now and then someone else gets gobbled up, and we have to eat them or we’ll starve.”
“What about the blowhole?” I enquired.
“Plugged,” groaned Jonah.
“Robinson Crusoe,” he sighed.
I looked up and saw a pair of legs dangling from the ceiling, with a torso that disappeared up through the whale’s blowhole. The booted legs were kicking helplessly.
“He tried to escape and made a balls of it,” explained Gepetto, as he heated some oil in his giant wok. “A few too many coconuts for that one.”
I then realised, with a great and lethargic reluctance as I was still eyeball-reddeningly baked, that I was going to have to fight my way out. I drew the sword I had acquired on the lower deck. Ahab chuckled with glee at the promise of a fight.
“Avast, ye!” he cried, drawing his own cutlass. “I’ll be picking thy bones from my teeth before the hour is done. The Lord has decreed that ye shall make a bountiful lasagna.”
The old Captain leapt at me, but despite my glazed and bloodshot eyes I was too fast for him. I parried his thrust and ducked beneath him, wrenching his peg leg free as I went. He toppled to the floor, where he thrashed about like a wasp in an upturned pint glass while I bludgeoned him with his detached leg.
Gepetto leapt onto my back and bit into my shoulder causing me to cry out, and I clobbered him over the head with Ahab’s stump. Jonah was slowly advancing on me brandishing a large wooden cross. I shanked him with my cutlass, and he collapsed clutching his shoulder. I had beaten the three old men to the ground, but I had to be sure. I picked up Ahab by his good leg and swung him around like a mace, beating Gepetto as he attempted to crawl to safety.
I draped Ahab over a nearby railing in case I needed him later, and set about rolling Jonah slowly down the plank. He reached the end, and plopped overboard with a meek yelp. Turning, I saw Gepetto was back on his feet, and he had managed to draw a flintlock pistol from the Captain’s cabin. He aimed it at my chest. In a flash, I hurled Ahab at him, and they both crumpled to the floor.
While they were tangled up in one another, I scaled the broken mast as high as possible, until I was but feet from the blowhole. I reached out for Crusoe’s flailing legs in order to yank him free, but only succeeded in dragging his trousers down, at which point his legs kicked even harder. With no further choice, I leapt across the open air and clung to the sailor’s legs, which booted me hard in the face several times as I dangled.
My plan worked. Our combined weights were enough to dislodge Crusoe, and together we fell shrieking thirty feet into the acid lake. My clothes had already been quite dissolved, and now the last shreds of my garments fell away, revealing my fantastic physique. I hauled myself back up the ship’s ladder, kicking away Crusoe’s grasping hands, but as I reached the deck, I found myself staring down the barrel of a very big cannon.
The wounded, bearded trio of Gepetto, Ahab and Jonah stood at the cannon’s ignition, holding a flame and grinning wickedly. Crusoe clambered aboard the ship, looking understandably bewildered. Ahab had reattached his leg, but in his haste had fitted it upside down, and he was stood on a slant.
“Get in the cauldron,” the Captain growled.
“I hope I give you all indigestion, you absolute bastards,” I replied bravely, as I marched naked towards my doom. They turned the cannon as I walked, following me. Then I spotted something, and an idea struck.
“You’ll never take me alive, oiks!” I cried, quietly regretting using the word ‘oiks’, but nonetheless continuing with my plan. “Give me all you’ve got!”
“Very well,” warbled Jonah. “Cannon this swine to bits!”
I dove aside as Ahab lit the fuse, and when the cannonball exploded with in a belch of flame, it sailed straight past where I had been standing and decimated a large wooden barrel marked ‘pepper’. The grey-brown dust cloud that erupted looked like the smoke from a volcano; an impenetrable mushroom cloud of seasoning. The four bloodied old men gasped as one.
“Arse,” cried Jonah.
There was no time to waste. I scrambled to my feet and ran naked up the mast towards the blow hole. The whale began to convulse violently, drawing enormous intakes of breath. My timing had to be perfect. I jumped for all I was worth, and soared through the air towards the newly evacuated blowhole. My fingers fell just short, but it did not matter: the whale erupted into the most heinous sneezing fit I had ever heard, seen, or been inside.
The sheer force of it blasted me directly up and out of the blowhole, soaring straight and true like a human javelin, as naked as the day I was born, save for my jaunty pirate hat. I burst forth from the whale and into the sky, twatting a hapless seagull as I ascended. I careened into the cool afternoon air, and flew among the clouds. It was all very quiet and pleasant. My velocity soon petered out however, and sure enough gravity remembered me and yanked my twirling naked body back down towards the earth.
As the ocean rose to meet me, I saw a colossal shadow moving just beneath the water. I gasped as it broke through the surface; the big whale had come for me, its jaws wide and yawning, and standing there on its gigantic tongue, waving cutlasses, stood Ahab, Jonah, Gepetto, and a still very disorientated Crusoe. I flapped my arms in a desperate attempt to alter my course, but it was no use. I was going to be eaten for a second and possibly third time in the same afternoon.
At the last second, there was a blinding white flash, and a sudden searing heat. A large object came smashing down from the heavens like a meteorite. It roared past me, and I saw it was a circular object glowing red hot. It crashed straight into the whale, and both the monstrous beast and its on-board cannibal party were obliterated, blasted into a wee red paste that sprung high into the air and drifted away on the breeze. The skies rained chunks of blubber and turned the whole sea pink.
I plopped down into the ocean and bobbed around feeling really quite exhausted by all this excitement. The red hot orb popped back up alongside me, and floated atop the gentle waves. It was a re-entry pod. It said ‘NASA’ on the side. I treaded water and waited patiently as the top of the pod eased open with a hiss, and five nauseous looking astronauts emerged blinking into the sunlight.
“Sophie,” one of them said, “Christ, what did we hit?”
“I think… I think it was a big whale,” came the reply.
“Oh bloody hell, the press is going to have a field day with this.”
As the astronaut spoke, I realised that in all the excitement I hadn’t noticed the approach of a gargantuan aircraft carrier, which also bore the NASA logo. I looked up onto its deck, and could make out thousands of photographers, journalists, military personnel and scientists high above, all staring down at the pod with grave expressions. An eyeball the size of a Mini Cooper floated past me.
“Hello,” I waved up at astronauts, “would you mind giving me a hand?”
The astronauts, somewhat understandably, jumped out of their respective skins. They were too shocked to ask questions, and instead simply hauled me out of the water and into their pod, where I apologised for dripping water on the seats and for having my genitals all over the place. I sheathed my cutlass so as not to appear fearful, and doffed my pirate hat to my saviours.
Shortly after, the pod was winched out of the sea and up onto the aircraft carrier. Unfortunately, I was still very stoned and I tumbled out of it as it rose, due to my leaning out and waving a tad too enthusiastically at the baffled crowd. With a stroke of luck however, I snagged on the netting below, and so simply dangled beneath the pod, and together we were gracefully lowered onto the mercifully firm ground of the carrier. I was given a towel, my cutlass was gently taken from me, and I was led away for a lie down despite my insistence that I felt great.
That was 42 years ago today, and my lovely Herbert still laughs remembering how shocked he was when, in the middle of his mourning my tragic loss at sea, he switched on the television to witness my quivering arsecheeks being dredged out of the blood-soaked ocean, suspended in a tangle of ropes beneath Apollo 17.
Sadly, that was the beginning of the end for NASA, who were charged with one count of Unwarranted Whale Abuse, one count of Maximum Whale Exploding, four counts of Absolute Cannibal Murder, and one count of Mermaid Abduction, which was later dropped when the press deduced that I had legs.
My dear Herbert and I, however, completely sold out and monetised my harrowing experience by selling it to fifteen different news channels at once and, in each other’s loving company, we lived happily ever after.