At the start of a shift at Oceanworld, Roley goes to “say hi” to Samson. He sees a “grey familiar shape” floating on the surface of the pool: Samson, a dolphin, has died. Roley leans his mop against “the slightly peeling paint of the Oceanworld mural” and sits by the side of the pool staring at Samson. He hopes that Samson—a “faithful old crowd pleaser”—died in his sleep.
From the way Kennedy introduces Samson into the story, the reader assumes he is a human. It is only when Roley finds him dead, floating in the pool, that we learn he is a dolphin. This sets the tone for the characterization of Samson throughout the story, which blurs the boundaries between human and animal.
Samson, the star of the daily dolphin show, is the last remaining dolphin at Oceanworld. The peeling mural depicts four “fit and shining” dolphins leaping in the air beside two bikini-clad women. Roley doubts that, with Samson gone, they’ll “bother to paint over” this mural. The mural’s depiction of stands “jam-packed with summer tourists” is “wishful thinking”: Oceanworld seems nearly bankrupt. It’s just a “sad cluster of concrete pools” flanked by these murals that depict a “far bigger, shinier” place. Once the tourists have paid their money and “properly looked around,” they realize “that they’ve been had.”
Kennedy sets up early on in the story the fact that Roley does not think highly of Oceanworld or his job there. Samson’s death causes Roley to reflect on the disjunction between the way Oceanworld presents itself, as a glamorous and glittering entertainment venue, and its actual decrepit state. Here, the theme of artifice vs. reality is introduced, as Roley begins to think of Oceanworld as a giant ruse that tricks visitors into paying for entry.
Roley recalls the moment when his wife, Liz, returned from the hospital after the accident she suffered. She seemed “cautious” and “fearful,” walking “as if she were still hooked up to machines.” The doctors assured him they hadn’t taken any of her brain out; they’d put her in an induced coma to reduce the brain swelling and then “somehow pieced those sections of her skull back together.” Roley has no idea how they did this, and he imagines them using tiny power tools or glue.
The seemingly random and violent ways in which Roley’s brain returns to the memory of the traumatic period of time after his wife’s accident shows that he is still very much grieving. The memory of the doctor’s reassurance that that they hadn’t “taken any of her brain out,” and the graphic nature of this image, suggest that Roley’s experience of living with his wife has led him to feel there is something fundamentally missing from her since the accident and operation.
When Roley went to the “Special Room” to meet with the surgeon, his own brain “hadn’t been working too well.” The room put him on edge: it was “full of bad vibrations” and the only thing on the table was a box of tissues, which was “the last thing you wanted to see.” Roley had trouble paying attention to the surgeon because he kept imagining “some lowly admin person” whose job was to keep the tissues stocked. He imagined the meeting in which the hospital decided to make a bare room stocked with tissues—a room to deliver bad news and then “walk out of, busy, blameless, relieved” while the person inside has to think about “a head being wired together.”
Roley recalls his dissociative experience of the hospital, again giving us an intimate portrait of his grief and shock following the accident. Kennedy creates the sense that Roley is still trying to come to terms with what has happened; his anger and grief here becomes channeled into the absurdity of the hospital’s detachment from the bad news that its employees have to deliver. As with the previous passage, the technical and gory imagery used by Roley to describe the operation suggest that he is beginning to think in a nihilistic ways about human bodies and the crude ways in which they break and are repaired.
“Funny what did you in,” Roley thinks. The worst part wasn’t the “shaved head,” the “blanket stitch,” Liz’s “black eyes,” or even the “spreading bruise on her forehead” by the “spot where the skin had split open like someone dropping a melon on concrete.” (He has to force himself not to think these thoughts when he looks at her). What truly “killed him” was her remaining hair, which still had dyed blonde streaks on the ends, remnants of “a time when she still looked in the mirror and cared enough.”
The violent imagery continues, this time gruesomely describing Liz’s injuries, only to assert that the most disturbing thing for Roley was the sight of her recently dyed hair. Again, by showing how Roley’s attention is drawn to absurd details, Kennedy shows the unpredictable ways in which grief works. The allusion to “dropping a melon on concrete” also foreshadows the moment in the text when Declan references the “melon” on Samson’s forehead, establishing the ways in which Roley’s grief about Samson’s death brings up his complex feelings about his wife’s accident. The straightforward, sentimental grief that Roley feels for Samson is contrasted with the more complex and unpredictable grief he feels for his wife, who is still alive, though a significant part of her has been lost.
Upon arriving home, Liz “had a hard time even finding the word for mirror.” Roley occasionally catches her running a hand over her face slowly “as if memorising its shape,” either marvelling “that it was all in one piece,” or “unsure that she was all there.”
Rather than detailing in a straightforward way the extent to which Liz’s brain has been damaged by the accident, Kennedy reveals her current state through small details, mirroring Roley’s own experience of trying to figure out, through observation, how much of his previous wife is “still there.” With her lack of words and mysterious physical gestures, Kennedy suggests that Roley may now perceive her as being more animal than human.
Declan arrives at the side of the pool where Roley is still standing beside the dead body of Samson. Declan “dismissively” tells Roley to use the chains to “haul it out,” and to drain the pool. Roley replies “what will I do with him?” silently refusing to call Samson “it” as Declan had done.
Declan’s use of the impersonal pronoun “it” here, which is highlighted by Roley’s refusal to do the same, sets up the antagonism between the two characters and the difference between their perceptions of and relationships with Samson the dolphin. Whereas Declan views the animals at the park as inferior to him and ultimately disposable, Declan feels a sense of kinship with Samson.
During the dolphin shows, Declan often goes on about “the special bond between humans and dolphins” and how “he’d trained the dolphins at Oceanworld, how they could divine his moods,” using the plural as if “nobody in the scattered audience noticed” that there was only one dolphin. Roley would follow Declan’s rehearsed spiel and wait for his cue to reach for the fish in the bucket, at which point Samson would jump out of the water with his “calm, loving eye on Roley alone.”
Declan’s objectification of Samson clashes with the persona he puts on during the dolphin show, creating the impression that he is a shallow and deceitful character. Kennedy further emphasizes this by highlighting, through Roley’s observation, the way he tries to pretend there is more than one dolphin. Declan is painted as rather pathetic, performing to a ‘scattered audience’ and ignorant to the fact that they can clearly see through his deception. By contrast, Roley sees himself as the silent hero, who has the real ‘special bond’ with Samson and can communicate with him with just a slight move of the hand. However, the reader can perhaps infer a touch of irony from Kennedy: does Samson really give Roley a “calm, loving” look, or is Roley perhaps just deluding himself, wanting to see love in Samson’s expression when really the dolphin only wants the fish from the bucket?
Roley speculates that the reason visitors loved Samson so much was because “he was the only creature at the aquarium who seemed to be able to create a facial expression,” with the exception of the old sea-lion, Rex, whose eyes were “so fogged over with milky-blue cataracts” that he looked “like something out of Village of the Damned.” Rex would compulsively skim up on the concrete and then “plop back into the water,” “like a big fat kid alone on a slide.” Children would ask their parents what he was doing, and the parents would “look grimly for a few moments and then answer, ‘Playing.’”
Kennedy draws attention to the ambiguity of Samson’s look in the previous scene through Roley’s theory that he’s loved because he’s “able to create a facial expression.” This foreshadows a moment later in the story when Roley reflects on the fact that his wife’s scars give her a ‘permanently quizzical expression’, raising the question of what makes a facial expression genuine. Following the theme of artifice vs. reality, he contrasts the charismatic Samson with Rex, the old, blind sea-lion, whose abnormal compulsive behavior (grimly suggestive of mental illness) is deliberately misinterpreted by parents, to please their children, as “playing.” Kennedy thus shows that even the visitors to Oceanworld are complicit in upholding its façade as a joyful and entertaining place.
Then there were the turtles, who were “totally vacant—they had the hateful, icy glare of an old drunk,” while the fish had “no expression whatsoever” and just “cruised past, a vegetable with fins.” When Roley voices this to Kaz, she recalls the cliché that goldfish are known for their short-term memory: “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!” To Roley, the penguins look “shifty,” or “gimleteyed,” a word that makes him think of something “ice-cold, anyway, that twisted in the deep.”
Roley now begins to analyze, almost obsessively, the facial expressions of the different animals in the zoo, drawing anthropomorphic connections to familiar human expressions. Given the earlier allusions to his wife’s vacant behavior, Kennedy shows that Roley is grappling with the change in his wife’s personality, as if trying to situate her on a scale of animal intelligence in order to understand exactly what of her, or how much of her, has been lost. The fact that the story takes its title, “Little Plastic Shipwreck,” from an anecdote describing the capacities of a goldfish’s short-term memory, suggests that Roley holds a bleak opinion of his wife’s current state. The reference to the “gimleteyed” penguins is particularly strange, set apart from the other descriptions in that it is more eerie and mysterious than straightforwardly satirical. Through the way Roley recalls the word almost subconsciously, Kennedy creates an aura of mystery around the deep sea, which will recur later in reference to Roley’s wife’s coma.
Roley’s reverie is broken by Declan telling him to “get the chains” once again. Roley suggests that Declan needs to notify the wildlife authority and “fill out paperwork or something.” Declan replies tartly, “yeah, thanks, I think I know how to manage my own regulations.” Roley suggests that he’ll bury Samson, and Declan, after giving him “a penguin look,” commands him instead to move the body to the cool room and cut it up once the body is frozen. Roley nods but silently vows not to do this
Roley’s meditations are interrupted by another confrontational scene with Declan, in which Roley passively asserts his authority by reminding Declan of his duties, implying that he is incapable as a boss and somewhat dishonest. Roley’s suggestion that he’ll ‘bury Samson’ again presents him as a hero compared to Declan, who callously commands him to cut up the body. Through these small moments of tension, Kennedy create a sense of a slow escalation of conflict and Roley’s gradual rebellion against the unfair hierarchy of Oceanworld. The violence of the image of ‘cutting up’ a body also reminds us of the violent ways in which Roley had reflected on his wife’s accident earlier in the story, reinforcing the idea that Samson’s death is bound up with Roley’s grief about his wife.
Kaz comes to help him move the body to the cool room, giving Roley a “tearful smile” as she goes to get towels to cover the body. She asks him if he remembers “that day in the school holidays.” Roley smiles, recalling Declan “hammering on about echolocation.” He’d pointed out on Samson’s head “a kind of big FOREHEAD called a melon” which transmits clicks and receives echoes.
Roley shares an emotional moment with Kaz, his coworker, who is the only living character in the story with whom he seems to have something resembling a functional relationship. They both think back affectionately to a moment when Roley had defied Declan, suggesting that he is an unpopular boss. The allusion to Samson’s “melon” recalls the earlier image of Liz’s head being like “a melon on concrete,” further reinforcing the connection between Liz and Samson in Roley’s view.
When Declan reached the point in his speech that was Roley’s cue to reach for the fish (“Who’s ready to say hello to him?”), he flung a hand out towards the pool “like a game-show host.” But Roley, who “couldn’t have said why,” didn’t reach for the fish, and Samson didn’t surface. Declan, with a “tight smile,” explained to the audience that “Samson must be feeling a bit mischievous today,” and that dolphins are “HIGHLY INTELLIGENT with a WILL OF THEIR OWN.” Then Roley had moved his hand and Samson leapt out of the water to “real laughter and applause.”
Roley’s decision not to reach for the fish becomes a subtle act of revolt against Declan’s tyranny. Declan, aware that Roley is the one who is responsible for the disruption, again shows himself to be deceitful by pretending to the audience that it is Samson who is asserting his will. The fact that the audience here responds with “real laughter and applause” when Samson finally exists the water emphasizes the fact that their enthusiasm is perhaps usually inauthentic, and that they have sensed a moment of real drama unfolding behind the scenes in this instance.
Despite that being the one day of work he had actually enjoyed, Roley was almost been fired. He asked for a second chance, wondering where else he would find a job that would let him off at 3:00 in the afternoon. Previously, he’d had a well-paid job working night shifts at a munitions plant, but Liz’s rehab therapist said that it made Liz anxious to wake up at night to find herself alone. Roley had “thought about the induced coma, how it would feel waking up remembering that’s where you’d been, and put in his notice.”
Kennedy reveals to us here that Roley truly dislikes his work – the only day he’d enjoyed was the one where he’d defied Declan – but holds onto it for financial reasons. This adds another layer of tragedy to his story and foreshadows the bleakness to come at the end when he eventually quits. Through describing the fact that he had quit another well-paid job due to his wife’s nighttime anxiety, Kennedy gives us a glimpse in to the day to day struggle of supporting an incapacitated loved one financially and emotionally. Furthermore, the reference to Liz’s coma, which here Roley describes as akin to a physical place (“that’s where you’d been”) recalls the eerie mystery inherent in his description of the “gimleteyed” penguins. Kennedy may thus be hinting at the fact that Roley imagines his wife’s experience of a coma was something similar to how he imagines the deep ocean.
These days, Roley “gently [wakes] [Liz] and [gets] her sorted” before work. At Oceanworld, his duties include breaking “shards of packed dead fish out of the freezer” and “wiping away the wriggling lines the catfish made” in the algae on the sides of the tanks. At night he’ll sometimes feel Liz’s hand “land uncertainly on him and graze back and forth.” It feels to him “like seagrass on a current” and “just as random.” Lying beside her, he “take[s] her hand and imagine[s] silvery bubbles escaping from their mouths”, as if the two of them are under the ocean.
The grim reality of working at Oceanworld is conjured up through a series of gruesome and grueling tasks, but the emphasis in this passage lies more strongly on his Roley’s life, where he cares for his wife in a way that is not dissimilar from how he cares for the animals at Oceanworld. The connection between his wife and his work takes a more abstract turn here, as he lies awake and imagines them both underwater at night. Through this dreamlike image, Kennedy uses the metaphor of the ocean and the idea of going under its surface to explore the mysteries of the brain and the subconscious mind.
Liz’s accident occurred at a friend’s party where they were celebrating the installation of a new Jacuzzi. Roley’s “lovely, witty wife” had been handing around a platter of food on the unfinished deck when she’d turned around to “answer someone’s stupid question” and fell off the edge. The fall was only a metre and a half, but she’d hit her head on a rock, one of “three artfully arranged boulders placed there for landscaping.” He recalls the moment of shock when it happened, and the sight of her, once the EMTs came, in a full body brace, with her arms folded across her chest “like it was a sarcophagus.” Every time he recalls this “stunned minute […] it hit him afresh, obliterating everything else, so he had to learn it again, piece by piece.”
Finally, relatively late in the story, the reader learns what has happened to Liz. This accident is described with an almost absurd detachment, which calls to mind his earlier musings on how they’d repaired her broken head. The fact that she hits her head on a boulder which had been “artfully arranged” has a strong level of grim irony to it, through which Roley appears to be criticizing the way in which something as meaningful as the personality of a loved one can be lost to something as shallow as a landscape garden and a party celebrating a Jacuzzi. The shallowness of the situation in which Liz’s accident happened recalls the disjunction between Oceanworld’s joyful façade and the grim reality underneath. Furthermore, the image of Liz in “a sarcophagus” emphasizes the fact that for Roley, though Liz survived the accident, a part of her has died.
Roley is thinking about the accident as he goes into the cool room with Samson’s body. He rests his hand on Samson’s “round, perfectly evolved head,” and strokes his blowhole. At that moment Declan walks in and commands him again to cut it up. Roley has his hand on Samson’s flank and is thinking about “the way his wife’s fingers sought out the small secret place under her hair where there was a tiny dent, still.” He says to Declan, “you fucking do it.” Declan tells Roley that he’s got until the end of the week, then he’s fired. Roley walks out on the spot.
This scene is colored by the grief inherent in the previous description of Liz’s accident. The link between Samson and Liz is explicit this time, as he strokes Samson’s body and thinks of Liz’s scars. Kennedy creates the sense that for Roley, who is here confronting the fragility of bodies in general, it is as if he is being asked to cut up the part of his wife that has died. In this highly emotional scene, Roley channels his grief into anger towards Declan, walking out on the spot in what seems, at first, to be a moment of triumph.
On his way out, Roley grabs several plastic trinkets (“worthless junk”) from the gift shop, calling it his “severance pay,” including a couple of snowdomes. He thinks again about Samson’s “merry eye,” and his gaze “holding Roley’s own” during the dolphin show, that eye “full of such understanding, and such forgiveness.”
Roley grabs things from the gift shop on the way out, almost as an afterthought, as a means of asserting himself over Declan. Given that they are only “worthless junk”, this is a feeble gesture, and Kennedy creates the impression that Roley’s moment of revolt has not caused any real disturbance to Oceanworld. Furthermore, his reflection on Samson’s eye being full of ‘understanding’ and ‘forgiveness’ suggests that perhaps Roley has been more complicit than he would like to admit in maintaining the hierarchical structure at Oceanworld, in which he – though subordinate to Declan – ultimately had power over Samson.
As he enters into the house, Roley announces that he’s home early, and Liz responds, “are you?” He asks her if he can get her anything and she says, “there’s nothing I want.” Roley reflects that “want” was what was taken out of her, “back when they were assuring him nothing was removed.” She looks at him and he notices that the scar on her forehead “gives her a permanently quizzical expression, as if she was raising her eyebrows knowingly, ironically; a look long gone.” Cheerfully, he presents her with one of the snowdomes, saying “I got you this.” She is the “first person he’[s] ever seen cradling one and not shaking it.” Grimly, Roley thinks that they should put a little brain there instead, something to “knock around uselessly” as “some big hand somewhere just kept on shaking.”
When Roley walks in the door, Liz’s strange response to him announcing his arrival at home (“are you?”), as well as her eerily conclusive statement, “there’s nothing that I want,” further emphasizes the degree to which her previous mental function has been impaired. Having circled the question throughout the story of exactly what Liz lost in the accident, Roley concludes that it was her desire, through which Kennedy implies that it is our desires that makes us human. He presents her with a gift that is “worthless” and casually stolen, which seems less a genuine gesture of affection than a sort of charade, as if he is testing her. When she fails this test, holding the snowdome instead of shaking it, Roley’s cheerful mood collapses, as if he is finally confronting the full extent of his loss. Kennedy uses the snowdome—a cheap, mass-produced and breakable object—as a symbol for the brain, illustrating that Roley’s grief has led him to speculate that humans too are breakable, cheaply-made, and essentially “worthless”. The object is, in this sense, a representation of the manmade illusion of Oceanworld, as well as a reflection of the easily-disrupted illusion of human consciousness. The fact that Liz’s scars have given her an ironic expression seem to grimly emphasize this point, suggesting that perhaps the very idea of the “intelligent brain,” human or animal, is a myth. Behind every seemingly expressive face, even that of Samson, is just a useless machine-like brain floating in a bubble of fluid, waiting to be broken.