Little plastic shipwreck

Death of a crowd-pleaser
September 18, 2013

© De Agostini/ Getty Images

Cate Kennedy is an award-winning Australian novelist and poet, whose work has been published widely, including in the New Yorker. “Kennedy writes with the warm understanding and cold precision of a master,” says the novelist David Malouf.

The story below comes from her latest book, the short story collection Like A House On Fire. “I’m interested in characters who are knocked sideways unexpectedly,” says Kennedy, “and making them behave as credibly as real people in the various ways they cope. Usually by the time I’ve finished a short story I’ve somehow demonstrated to myself (again) my belief that just coping turns out to be pretty complex and heroic in small, unacknowledged ways. I want to do that ordinariness justice.”

Roley went down to say hi to Samson at the start of the shift, so he was the first to realise he’d died during the night. Samson was nearly 25, which is pretty old for a dolphin, and as soon as Roley put down his hose and bucket next to the pool and saw the grey familiar shape floating on the surface, he had a bad feeling. He leaned his mop against the slightly peeling paint of the Oceanworld mural and crouched there at the lip of the pool, gazing at Samson, faithful old crowd-pleaser. Hoping he died in his sleep, if dolphins even slept. Nobody was really sure, or so his boss Declan declared during his dolphin-show spiel at eleven o’clock each day.

“A popular theory,” he’d say in that golly-gee voice he put on, “is that only one side of their brains sleeps at a time! The other side stays awake and keeps them breathing!”

There used to be Samson and another dolphin, Jiff, in the show, but that was long before Roley’s time. If the Oceanworld mural was to be believed, once upon a time there’d actually been four fit and shining dolphins leaping into the air above the aqua sparkle of the divepool, two girls in bikinis holding rings outstretched. Roley didn’t think they’d bother to paint over the image now that Samson was gone. After all, it showed the stand jam-packed with summer tourists too, which was wishful thinking in anyone’s books. And if Lara and Kaz, the two women who worked at Oceanworld, ever togged up in outfits like the ones in the mural, there’d be a stampede for the exits, in his opinion.

He wondered if he should start draining the pool now, on the slim chance any tourists actually walked through the gate and had their day ruined, off the bat, by a dead dolphin. After all, people sued Disneyland for less. And Oceanworld, clearly, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy anyway; a sad cluster of concrete pools and enclosures surrounded on all sides by murals depicting a far bigger, shinier aquatic adventure park, like those billboards of sleek apartment blocks which were nailed up around the shabby prefab bunkers on building sites. It was only once you’d paid your money and clicked through the chrome turnstiles and properly looked around, scenting that whiff of rotten fish on the air, that you realised you’d been had.


When Roley’s wife, Liz, had come home from the hospital she’d walked cautiously, as if she was still hooked up to machines. She’d cast a fearful look behind her, or wait in a doorway before entering a room. They hadn’t taken any of her brain out, the doctors had explained to Roley; they were definite on that point. They’d put her in an induced coma until the brain swelling went down, then somehow pieced those sections of her skull back together. How did they do it? Riveting? Gluing? Roley had no idea. He imagined them with a tiny Black & Decker, a wisp of smoke rising, putting in a neat line of holes then stitching it with wire. His imagination used to run away with him, sitting there in the hospital chair beside her bed, everything toothpaste-coloured, everything smelling like Dettol. An induced coma.

Roley’s brain hadn’t been working too well itself, that day they sat him down in the Special Room to listen to the surgeon. That room set up an edgy little thrum in him, full of bad vibrations. The blonde wood veneer table all by itself in the bare room. A single box of tissues on it. The last thing you wanted to see when you came in. He’d been trying to listen to what they were saying while all the time he was imagining some lowly admin person there at the hospital, who handled purchasing and requisitions, making sure those tissues were always in stock. So that he found himself saying, “I’m sorry, can you just repeat that,” but unable to stop thinking of the meeting that decided a bare room provisioned with Kleenex was needed, somewhere you could close the door on and deliver the news then walk out of, busy, blameless, relieved, leaving the person inside to think about a head being wired together.

Funny what did you in, Roley thought. Not the shaved head and blanket stitch holding the edges of that tender scalp together, not Liz’s black eyes and the spreading bruise on her forehead, mulberry dark, radiating from the spot where the skin had split open like someone dropping a melon on concrete (Stop thinking like that, Roley had ordered himself savagely, just stop it now, forcing himself to look calmly into her eyes and not hear that wet thwack of impact), no, it was the hair that remained that killed him, poking through bandages, still with the dye on the ends, the blonde streaks she’d paid seventy bucks for back in a time when she looked in a mirror and still cared enough.

Six weeks before.

Once she got home she had a hard time even finding the word for mirror. Sometimes he’d catch her sitting looking out the window, half a cup of tea undrunk on the table in front of her, running her hand slowly over her face as if memorising its shape. Either marvelling, Roley thought, that it was all in one piece, or else unsure that she was all there, after being helpless in the hands of strangers who could put her in or out of a coma at will.


Declan swore long and low when he came over and looked into the pool.

“Use the chains,” he said dismissively. “I reckon that thing weighs 150 kilos. Haul it out and then drain the pool.”

“What will I do with him?” Roley couldn’t help the personal pronoun, wasn’t going to call Samson an “it”.

Declan, during his show spiel, always went on and on about the special bond between humans and dolphins, how he’d trained the dolphins here at Oceanworld, how they could divine his moods. Speaking in the plural as if nobody in the scattered audience noticed there was just Samson, cruising along the bottom waiting for the precise moment when Roley would drop his hand into the bucket for the fish that would bring him slaloming through the water to start his routine. Roley would crouch at the edge of the platform, following Declan’s repertoire of gestures and punchlines, the rhetorical questions (“And do you know WHY they breathe that way, kids? I’ll tell you why!”) until he reached the point in the script where he’d say, “Well, now, a dolphin can stay underwater for up to FIFTEEN MINUTES, but luckily for us here today Samson can’t wait to meet you!” and Roley would reach casually into the bucket and Samson would arc up like clockwork and break the surface, his calm, loving eye on Roley alone.

Roley had a theory that the reason visitors loved Samson so much was that he was the only creature at the aquarium who seemed to be able to create a facial expression, apart from the sea-lion Rex, whose eyes were so fogged over with milky-blue cataracts (“Here, ladies and gentlemen, is old Rex—he’s retired here at Oceanworld because as you can see he’s lost his EYESIGHT, which means he would never survive in the wild”) like something out of Village of the Damned, with breath that would knock you out. Poor Rex. He’d skim up on the slippery concrete and plop back into the water to turn himself around and do it again, back and forth compulsively, like a big fat kid alone on the slide. Calculating the far wall of his pool by memory. “What’s he doing?” kids would ask as they watched him, and their parents would look grimly for a few moments and then answer, “Playing.”

The turtles were totally vacant—they had the hateful, icy glare of an old drunk—and of course the fish had no expression whatsoever. Just looked at you as they cruised past, a vegetable with fins. No short-term memory, that’s what Kaz said when he told her his theory.

“That’s the cliché, right?” she said, tapping the glass of one of the tanks. “Nothing going on. You put one in a fishbowl, and they start swimming around in circles,and every time it’s like: Look, a little plastic shipwreck! Five seconds later: Look, a little plastic shipwreck!”

And the penguins, even the ones with the little tufty eyebrows, still had to quirk their whole heads even to convey a response. Mostly they just looked shifty. Gimlet-eyed, thought Roley, whatever that meant. Whatever gimlets were. Something ice-cold, anyway, that twisted in deep.

“Get the chains,” Declan said again, staring down at Samson and down the barrel of an even crappier Oceanworld.

“Don’t you have to notify the wildlife authority,” said Roley, “and fill out paperwork or something?”

“Yeah, thanks, I think I know how to manage my own regulations. Just get it into the freezer room so nobody sees it when we open the gates.”

“I’ll bury him,” said Roley, and Declan gave him a penguin look.

“Nah, cut it up,” he said, “once it’s frozen.”

And Roley nodded, keeping his face studiously neutral, thinking, No way in the world, buddy.


He got Kaz to help him roll Samson’s body onto a wheeled pallet to get him into the coolroom, the two of them staggering at the massive blubbery dead weight of him (“An average bottlenose dolphin in these waters can weigh up to 190 kilograms!”), with Kaz running for towels to cover the body, giving him a tearful smile.

“Remember that day in the school holidays? God, Roley, me and Lara were trying so hard not to laugh.”

Roley grinned, remembering the dolphin show, Declan hammering on about echo location.

“That’s how dolphins explore their watery world — locating objects by their ECHOES!” he’d declaimed. “Sound travels four-and-a-half times faster in water than it does in air, and the dolphin can send out a series of clicks that bounce back to it in SOUNDWAVES to find their prey!” He wiggled his hand through the air. “Now, kids! In a minute you will see on Samson’s head a kind of big FOREHEAD called a melon! That’s right! And Samson uses this melon like a special sort of LENS, to project the sound in a BEAM like a laser, which transmits clicks and receives ECHOES. And that’s why we call it ECHO LOCATION!”

Roley had watched Samson, slipping along under the water, waiting.

“Is a dolphin a FISH?” Declan demanded relentlessly to a few listless headshakes in the audience. “NO, it’s a MAMMAL, like you and me! A dolphin can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes, but luckily for us here today Samson can’t wait to meet you! Who’s ready to say hello to him?’

Like a game-show host, he’d flung out a hand towards the pool, but Roley—he couldn’t have said why, didn’t have an answer when he was carpeted about it later—didn’t reach for the fish on cue. Samson’s dark shape continued its underwater circuit and the ragged applause petered out.

“Well, Samson must be feeling a bit mischievous today!” Declan said with a tight smile. “Sometimes he doesn’t like obeying commands, and that does prove to us that dolphins are HIGHLY INTELLIGENT with a WILL OF THEIR OWN …”

Roley’s hand moved, and Samson exploded out of the water, curved suspended and effortless above the surface, before coming down with a mighty bellywhacker, which showered the first three rows of spectators. As Roley’s hand closed around a cold fish he heard real laughter and applause as Samson’s shining head appeared and he opened his ever-grinning mouth for it.

Roley had almost got the sack that day, the one day of work at the aquarium he’d actually enjoyed. But he’d apologised and submitted to being given a second chance. Where else was he going to find a part-time job that let him get home at three o’clock in the afternoon?

“Can you stop doing night shifts?” Liz’s rehab therapist had asked him in the second month. “She says it makes her really nervous, waking up when you’re not there.” This, when Roley still had the well-paying job at the munitions plant, managing the midnight shift. He thought about the induced coma, how it would feel waking up remembering that’s where you’d been, and put in his notice.

These days he gently woke her and got her sorted before driving down to Oceanworld to break shards of packed dead fish out of the freezer and get them into buckets, and wipe away the wriggling lines the catfish made as they sucked their way through algae on the insides of the big glass tanks.

Sometimes at night he’d feel Liz’s hand land uncertainly on him and graze back and forth. Like seagrass on a current, it felt to him, and just as random. He’d take her hand and imagine silvery bubbles escaping from their mouths, floating up towards the ceiling fan, him keeping his breaths measured and even.


A party, that’s where the accident had happened. Friends celebrating the installing of a jacuzzi. Except that the day was colder than expected, and people weren’t getting into the jacuzzi, and so had wandered, in that way groups of people unthinkingly do, out to the decking on the other side of the house, presently unfinished. They’d stepped through the sliding doors barred pointlessly with two chairs because the thing had no railing, and his lovely, witty wife, looking for a way to help out, had taken a heavy platter out there to pass around and, turning round to answer someone’s stupid question, had stepped straight off the edge of the deck, falling to the ground below. Only a metre and a half, but her head struck a rock, one of three artfully arranged boulders placed there for landscaping. He recalled the strange frozen look his friends who owned the house had when the ambulance arrived, as if they were rehearsing stories they would be telling their lawyers very soon. “Nobody’s fault,” Roley kept saying, breathing fast through his mouth, panting, he couldn’t help it. “It’s barely a metre and a half,” his host kept repeating, a friend of 18 years, while his wife picked assorted marinated olives off the grass, and the ambos immobilised Liz in a hard plastic body brace, buckling it tight, folding her arms across her chest like it was a sarcophagus, as Roley gasped oxygen, and every time he circled the stunned minute of what had happened, it hit him afresh, obliterating everything else so he had to learn it again, piece by piece.


Roley was thinking about this—he couldn’t help thinking about it—as he opened the coolroom doors and made his way to the pallet inside. He crouched down to rest his hand on Samson’s round, perfectly evolved head, and stroked his fingers across the blowhole that, if Samson were alive, would be too sensitive to touch.

With a jerk the doors were hauled open and Declan stood there. “I told you to freeze it and cut it up,” he said, as Roley looked at Samson’s grey flank, noticing the nicks and cuts on it, the marks and old scars. He thought, sick with grief, about the way his wife’s fingers sought out the small secret place under her hair where there was a tiny dent, still. He laid his hand on that flank, feeling its muscle, and he heard the moment waiting, and said into it, “You fucking do it.”

There was a short, boiling silence.

“I’m going to pay you till the end of the week,” spat Declan, “and then you’re out of here.”

“No problem. I’m going now,” and he stood up and shouldered his way back out into the sunshine. He’d write a card to Kaz, he thought, as he collected his jacket and headed through the kiosk and souvenir shop, a few tourists watching him blankly as he scooped up a bunch of made-in-China key rings and pens on his way through.

“What do you think you’re doing?” called Declan, who’d followed him in, and Roley called cheerfully, “Severance pay,” smiling at Declan’s wife standing mouth-open at the register as he added more worthless junk to the brimming fistful he’d shoved into his pockets and clutched in the crook of his arm—a t-shirt, a stuffed toy seal, a dolphin bath toy, a couple of snowdomes filled with penguins and igloos. Seeing Samson’s merry eye (“Dolphins are intelligent and playful!”), busting with some private joy as he slid himself onto the platform and expelled a hard breath through his blowhole, that eye holding Roley’s own before moving to his hand in the bucket, full of such understanding, and such forgiveness.


Liz turned her head from the window as he entered.

“I’m home early,” he said.

“Are you?” she replied.

“Can I get you anything?” he said, emptying his pockets onto the dining-room table, watching her stop and consider, slow as a tide turning.

“No,” she said finally, “there’s nothing I want,” and Roley thought, that’s right, there’s nothing: want was what they had taken out of her, back when they were assuring him nothing was removed.

She looked at him, the scar across her forehead giving her a permanently quizzical expression, as if she was raising her eyebrows knowingly, ironically; a look long gone.

“Here,” he said cheerfully, “I got you this.” He gave her one of the snowdomes, and as she held it he realised she was the first person he’d ever seen cradling one and not shaking it. She just held it obediently with that emptied, passive face, gazing at the plastic penguins inside.

What they should put in them, thought Roley, is a little brain, something to knock around uselessly in that bubble of fluid as snow swirled down ceaselessly and never stopped, while some big hand somewhere just kept on shaking.

© Cate Kennedy 2013. From “Like A House on Fire” (Scribe, £12.99)