After the aquarium had closed and it had been made sufficiently presentable again for the next day, we all gathered in the gift shop. It was time to hear the winner and the loser being announced.
Most of the staff were wearing their coats and they looked as if they were mentally already at the bus stop. Rolled cigarettes had appeared and they were now propped impatiently on lips like sprinters waiting for the starting pistol. I was not yet in my coat, however, and I was not averse to hanging back. I was very interested in all of this data that we were about to receive about ourselves.
You always see Ross’s eerily bald head, floating like a Buddha, before you notice the rest of him pattering behind. The aquarium’s manager started and he then scuttled guiltily when he saw that we were all waiting for him. He blushed shyly – “I’m sorry for keeping you, everyone. Right, I have the results from today’s Fitbits…” He looked down into the cavern of his enormous hands where a single, newly-printed sheet of paper was folded. There were only two names – it seemed inconceivable to me that he could have forgotten them.
But he didn’t open the paper and he now looked up purposefully, with that occasional authority that always makes everybody disagreeably surprised. “So the person who came first today was Kirsty. And last, was Biggy.”
I chuckled. There had been a mistake. He had read out the results the wrong way around.
“23,000 steps, Kirsty. This is very impressive – congratulations.”
No, was I really hearing this? Kirsty was gasping with disbelief and, after a prim pause, there was hearty, rigorous clapping.
It finally settled within me as a fact that I had come last. For a second I had to blaze with an expressionless face that would not register my dismay and indignation. I was suddenly horrified that everybody was going to boo and revile me. “Only 6000 steps Biggy,” Ross confirmed apologetically, but with a seriousness that I have never seen him direct at me before. “You’ll have to try harder tomorrow.”
I smiled thinly and nodded. The staff looked at me with curiosity. It was as though the aquarium’s mightiest shark had been placed on the scales and found to weigh less than a shrimp. Only Ana openly smirked, with her eyes dancing triumphantly on me. Attention then shifted – the doors were opening for us to go home – and the crushing load of my humiliation had risen for now.
I was so stunned that I walked past the station where I should have caught the train back to Edinburgh and I kept on wandering aimlessly around the lanes in the quieter part of the village. After running every aspect of the Fitbit contest over and over in my mind, I succeeded in convincing myself that I must be the victim of a conspiracy. Ross had surely hatched this whole enterprise to boost the self-confidence of some of the lowlier staff and to knock down some of the more complacent ones. Yes, I decided, circling the station again, I should try to take this in my stride.
I then realised that I was wasting half of my evening thinking about this and so I hurried to ascertain the whereabouts of the next available train.
Unfortunately, on the following day I came last again and I suffered an equally ignominious fate on the day after that. I and everything around me now seemed to have melted. I was constantly running around the aquarium in every direction, as if my hair was on fire. Other members of staff now hailed me with pitying encouragement. They sent me on irrelevant errands to help me out with my step count. I found that it was impossible to talk to my colleagues in anything but the most cringing strain. My usually relaxed and self-satisfied personality no longer functioned and I had nothing to replace it with.
After I came last for a fourth day, Ross announced gravely that there was a senior manager here from head office to interview me. I was walked out of the gift shop, with all of the staff watching me in aghast exhilaration. Once in the backroom corridors, I fell into plotting frantically. What should I do – should I dispute the technology? Threaten them with my union? Show them my bare feet, which were creased and frowsy with the hundreds of miles of walking that under any sane system of measurement they had surely done?
There was a sinister calm in the conference room where the senior manager was waiting for me. Ross trickled deftly in between us to introduce her. “Biggy, this is Betty from head office.” She wrinkled her nose sceptically, as though considering whether her own name sounded to her liking. I sat down directly opposite her and Ross fled to her side. Betty was a compact, rather wizened little lady, with thick, pink-framed spectacles and foaming blonde curls that tumbled down past her shoulders.
“Zbigniew?” she ventured cautiously. I nodded. She smiled at me again, her eyes glittering. She reminded me of a dentist who is contemplating their next extraction. I immediately began to relate my suspicions that our Fitbits were not properly synced with Ross’s central computer…
She looked at Ross in confusion and held up a hand to silence me. “Fitbits? What’s this?”
Ross recoiled slightly in his seat. “Oh something we’re doing amongst the staff,” he mumbled unimportantly.
Now I was bewildered. The Fitbits were meant to have been issued by head office, I thrilled.
“Zbigniew,” Betty addressed me with friendly impatience. “You work alongside a member of staff named Sandeep Munro. How well do you know this member of staff?”
About as well as any of the turbot, I thought. “We’ve worked together for several months,” I replied.
“Everything that I’m about to say is confidential, Zbigniew. This is a conversation so casual that once it finishes I cannot be expected to retain any memory of it.” She allowed herself a pleased, wicked smile. “We at head office have developed concerns about Sandeep’s performance and, moreover, about his mental wellbeing. Have you ever heard of D.H. Lawrence syndrome?”
Countless jokes came to my lips but I swallowed them all like a mouthful of hundreds and thousands. I managed to indicate a no.
“This condition can be devastating for aquarium workers. It’s not actually available as a medical diagnosis but within the industry we have come to treat it as such. Sufferers are haunted by their – as they see it – their inability to empathise with any of the fish around them. They get freaked out by – and again, this is as they see it – the fishes’ mindless, mechanical behaviour. Er, the impossibility for a human to make any connection with them?”
Yes, this sounded like Sandeep.
“You’ll be aware of the disaster several years ago at the Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. The young worker who was specifically responsible for that incident was retrospectively diagnosed with D.H. Lawrence syndrome. You’ll recall that he took a sledgehammer to the walls of a nine hundred thousand gallon tank. Several species with a Critical conservation status died and also, of course, many human children were drowned too.”
I struggled to picture the various organisms drowning and drying up side by side. “And the D.H. Lawrence is the D.H. Lawrence? He wrote a poem about fish, didn’t he?” I reeled in a flash that I had located beneath the waves and recited it for her:
“And my heart accused itself
Thinking: I am not the measure of creation.
This is beyond me, this fish.
His God stands outside my God.”
Betty’s lips pursed with disapproval, as if we were going egregiously off-topic, and it struck me that she was otherwise unconscious of D.H. Lawrence. “I assume that Mr Lawrence had discovered the condition,” she told me helpfully. “It appears that you are closest to Sandeep amongst the staff, so I’d like for you to monitor him. We have a hotline for you to a private security operative. If Sandeep looks as though he might become violent, to himself or to others, and particularly to our property, then don’t think – just call at once, without any further ado.”
I reflected to her that, with all of these new duties, I would be probably placed on a higher pay tier.
“This is off the record,” Betty said sharply. She hesitated, however, and then seemed to soften, making up her mind that, “well, yes, there might be a small present from us to you in your next pay packet.”
She looked around brightly, to signify that the meeting was finishing for her, and she began to tidy up papers in front of her that she had not even glanced at. “We’re going to have no end of trouble with his foolish plan to build a Starbucks. He wants to somehow bolt it on to the side of the aquarium, I hear.” For a moment I thought that she was gossiping fondly about a husband, but then Ross had blushed and he was hastening to assure her that the building work would be over in a matter of days. This was the first that I’d heard of his Starbucks.
“You young men don’t seem to understand,” Betty continued mirthfully, “that the building work might last a matter of days but it will take some of the exhibits months to get back into their regular routines. They get shaken up by all the vibrations in the water. In one of our aquariums, a workman was drilling holes in the wall, just to put up some silly certificate about some ethical award that we’d won, and the scorpion fish in the tank beside him ate their own children. I don’t see why you want a Starbucks; you have a perfectly adequate cafeteri…”
She had been backing away from the table and twisting her arms into her cardigan when suddenly she froze.
She gazed at us with her eyes widening and wandering. Ross and I both stared at her, before looking quickly at each other for an explanation.
Betty yelped and then her lip trembled and she was whimpering at us in a tiny, distressed voice, as though she had wet herself.
“There’s something alive in my cardigan…”
It was I who first saw a tentacle strung out across the floor. It looked like a slack piece of rubber but then amazingly it had begun to curl up by itself. A memory here returned to me of a story that I had once heard about a very innocent archbishop who had been attending a Lord Mayor’s banquet. After the main course had been presented to him, the archbishop had squealed at his fellow diners, “This octopus hasn’t been poached enough… It’s waving its testicles at me!”
“Get it out!,” she hissed. “Get it out!” Next she was crooning in an even tinier voice. “It’s pushing into my knickers!”
“Shall we phone 999?” I asked Ross drolly.
There were still two female cleaners on the premises and Ross got them to escort Betty to the ladies’ bathroom to extract the octopus. “This is seriously unacceptable, seriously unprofessional,” Betty scolded us, getting louder as she was being led away. “It’s such a cliché, the oldest trick in the book, that octopuses climb out their tanks – I can’t think how you didn’t have the most basic precauti… And, hey, where’s my handbag got to?”
It was duly discovered that as part of its escape plan the octopus had discreetly returned to its tank with Betty’s leather handbag. Here, it had arranged the handbag upside-down in the water to furnish a decoy octopus. The aquarium’s security guard had indeed passed the handbag twice without noticing that anything was amiss. Even the peppermints that were dropping out of the supposed octopus did not cause him to raise an eyebrow.
Eventually the frolicsome octopus was back in its tank, where it swung and capered around histrionically. Betty was still scolding Ross and myself on the way to her car. We scurried alongside her, blinking like two guilty schoolboys.
“It’s your bloody building work,” she was screeching at us. “I can well see what it’s doing to the exhibits and it’s barely even started yet!” Our hands guided her gently inside and shut the door but she promptly wound down the window. “Maybe you should get your useless security guard to frisk my vehicle for me,” she raged sarcastically. “There’s no doubt a seal pup hiding in the glove compartment and a lobster up my exhaust pipe.” Gears bit and clunked as the car wobbled angrily into motion. “You gentlemen have to get your act together pronto! I am very, very upset!” With this, the car lumbered off and, misjudging the first speed bump that it met, it seemed to bound ineptly over it like a drunken kangaroo. Betty from head office shook within her shuddering car and her face puckered with vexation.