I had caught an early train and the day was still barely a glimmer around the rim of the city when I arrived at work. I was crossing the car park towards the staff entrance when Ross passed me. He is one of these tall men you meet from time to time who drives an amazingly miniature car. Ross’s vehicle would have been claustrophobic for a normal-sized person – on him, it resembled one of those torture chests that people were locked in during the Middle Ages. He had folded himself up inside it so carefully that there seemed to be no room left for him to even wiggle an eyebrow. But he managed to somehow extract a palm and raise it solemnly at me in greeting.
With little else to roll around in my mind at this hour of the morning, it occurred to me once again that, beneath Ross’s familiar blandness, I knew next to nothing about him. I have this saying – you have probably heard me say it before – that you never really know somebody until you have met their partner. I didn’t know whether Ross was gay or straight. I didn’t know whether he lived in a flat or a house, or in the city or out in the countryside. I didn’t know why he was so scrupulously bald – he would have looked perfectly valid, and perhaps even a bit less severe, with some hair. The mystery of his soul was that his mild, unforthcoming personality had not precluded him from occupying a role of constant centrality and importance. It was as though in him an introvert and an extrovert had cancelled each other out.
And this scheme that he had hatched with the Fitbits (for I knew now that head office bore no responsibility for it) was increasingly unsettling me. Was it some prank or private experiment that he was conducting solely for his own obscure gratification? I was inclined to categorise it almost in that dungeon of social behaviour, where men, who are rather too slipperily innocuous in person, will send anonymous, abusive messages to Jewish MPs, or scuttle into supermarkets to hide infected needles in the lettuces. In the daylight, when challenged, Ross would be unable to explain why he had devised the Fitbit game. He would find it just as baffling as the rest of us; he would see it as merely an accident that he was nearer to the levers of the enigma than we were.
There were some workmen, all of them Polish, who were sprawling around the staff entrance with their boots off and bags of tools lying across the ground. A couple of them gazed up at me, steadily and insolently. The rest looked away.
I tried some Polish on them and it still ran off my tongue. Yes, they told me, they were doing more drilling today. They were sarcastic when I pointed out that this would distress the exhibits. Would the octopus tie itself in a knot? Would the shark lose its taste for blood? They began to cackle excitedly, venturing ever triter and baggier jokes. They were sniggering about which of the exhibits they were going to fry up for supper when I left them.
I encountered Ross again outside the changing rooms. He gave me a head’s up about a hen party that was due to take place in the undersea tunnel over lunch. Of course, the tunnel would have to be closed to the public during this time. Irritated by the workmen’s jokes, I was not in the mood to become facetious myself about the hen party, as I usually would have done. Yet I was also conscious, as perhaps I had never been before, that it made no difference to Ross whether I agreed with him or mocked his decisions. His eyes drank me in unappraisingly, without any regard for what I personally thought was a tremendous uniqueness that he should value.
As the morning proceeded, I was bemused about how to lately participate in his Fitbit challenge. I felt much more relaxed about the contest now that I knew that the organisation’s officialdom was unaware of it. There would be no consequences, aside from the social embarrassment, to the leper-like status that it had accorded me at the aquarium. If I directly accused Ross of inventing the challenge himself and fabricating the results, he could crisply dismiss me, with a rueful smile on his face, as a bad loser. Tomorrow I resolved to bring my own Fitbit to work and wear it alongside Ross’s one. I would see whether their results matched and, if they didn’t, this would embolden me to query his figures.
By mid-morning the rumbling and wailing of construction equipment was piercing into the innermost sections of the aquarium’s maze. As vibrations radiated through the tanks, some of the exhibits began to grow significantly perturbed. I witnessed a manta ray that appeared to be swimming backwards, concertinaing into its own tail. I trotted over to the building site to speak to the workers.
A yellow excavator was bumbling about on caterpillar tracks in front of a partially demolished wall, with its single claw swiping listlessly at the rubble. I waved to the young operator to stop and then jumped up, wrenching open the cabin’s hatch, to relate the news to him about the manta ray. He at once became boisterously jocular. Oh yes, he nodded, he would tiptoe about considerately in his JCB. All of the fish would hardly hear him.
I climbed down again without answering. What could I do? If the workmen took more breaks, the project would be delayed and the period in which the fish were tormented would be only prolonged.
Half an hour later and a crab – one that was quite a celebrity in the children’s rockpool handling zone – had raised a pincer and it was starting to pull chunks out of its own face. This time, Ross went across to bargain with the men.
At midday the hen do waddled into the aquarium. All of these ladies were identically stout and roly-poly, and dressed identically in shiny new clothes, so that they looked faintly like a collection of walking Easter eggs. They flocked into the tunnel, with the clattering of their heels crescendoing nightmarishly, and Sandeep was soon following them with a trolley of the inevitable champagne flutes.
“The stripper is waiting in the car park,” Kirsty reported to me. “Me and Ana can’t go and speak to him.”
“It’s against our rights in the workplace,” she explained sadly. “For us to see his bum and bits. So you’ll have to help him prepare.”
“Am I helping him to take his clothes off or put them back on?”
“I think that you have to trickle olive oil over his torso.”
“Hmph, is that not against my rights in the workplace?”
“He doesn’t want Ross to do it. Apparently he finds our employer creepy.” Kirsty chortled derisively as she contemplated this. “He had also expected to receive a dressing room and some free champagne, so he’s in quite a huff.”
“And his dressing room is in the car park, you say?”
“You won’t miss him. He’s dressed as the King of the Sea. Because – you know…” she gave a playful dip of the head to indicate our surroundings.
“Yes,” Kirsty agreed uncertainly. “He has a pitchfork…”
“You probably mean a trident.”
“And a tiara.”
Outside in the car park, I was immediately distracted by the workmen. They had been all sitting on a wall together, like schoolboys in a row, with lunch boxes in their laps. They were presently in a clamour, hollering at what I assumed to be the stripper. At first, I believed that they were merely jeering at him and so I couldn’t understand why their shouts were so urgent. The stripper – a bare-chested man with a Santa Claus beard rather wonkily affixed – equally seemed to have concluded that he was being disrespected. He had flung his trident on the floor and he was marching across the car park towards me, with his fists clenched, his stride quickening and his eyes blazing. A long complaint was evidently queued up on his lips.
The incident happened so quickly that I did not think that my body had even flexed ever so slightly in response during it. The yellow excavator, which had been left unattended beside the building site, began to prickle. All at once, its arm swung around and around, sawing thickly into the air. The vehicle was rocking so violently that I thought it would unbalance. Next, it had pounced backwards and reversed to an incredible speed, ripping clean over the body of the stripper who had been striding towards me.
I stared in amazement at the place where the man had taken his last step. Searching around for him, I looked down automatically but then my gaze bobbed up again, like a buoy tossed gaily on a wave, before it could properly take in the blood and mess across the tarmac. There was a shrill piping in my ears. I began to dumbly walk after the JCB, as if to collect it.
Distantly, I saw it butting parked cars out of its way, before it reached the entrance of the aquarium and crashed through into the foyer. Moments later it swerved back out of the hole that it had made in the wall, clearly having learned how to go forwards. One of its caterpillar tracks might have been shredded, for it had acquired a perceptible hobble.
Some of the workmen had wandered stupefied up to the stripper’s body and they began to film it on their phones. One of them tore away a hand that he had recognised and he held up this plump item, grinning and patting it gingerly. The remainder of the workmen were loosely trying to circle the recalcitrant excavator but they were wary of how it was still taking swings at the air. The machine came shuddering to a stop, with a loss of clutch control, and then it unexpectedly jerked forwards again with a renewed, fiery roar.
Sandeep was running towards me. He was mouthing the same word repeatedly and I gazed at his familiar face in wonder, as though it was the most breath-taking sun-drenched palace. At last, the word that he was saying connected with a thought that was waiting for me in my brain.
“Octopus! Octopus! It’s the octopus. It’s escaped!”
The workmen had congregated to lob bricks into the cabin of the excavator. On the machine ploughed, but slower now, and with longer gaps between its spikes of activity. I couldn’t make out the octopus silhouetted inside the cabin – the vehicle’s controls appeared to be shifting about of their own accord.
“Let’s not look at the body,” I warned Sandeep. “It will take us months to recover if we do.”
I ducked. The arm had sliced sharply over my head like a comet and its claw seemed to clip Sandeep’s. I tasted bile in my mouth and I had to swallow hard and press down. For a dire second, I presumed that Sandeep had been decapitated but he then jumped up and showed his face to me. He was beaming so foolishly that I scarcely recognised him. Blood was flowing liberally down over his amazedly blinking eyes from the wide gash where the claw had caught him.
Fortunately, the JCB had left us behind. At the wall that adjoined the car park, it abruptly toppled over with a smack and its engine cut out. The workmen were now swarming triumphantly over it.
“I was wrong about the fish,” Sandeep was gibbering happily. “About them having no consciousness, no mental world… about there being nothing that we can connect with. There is, man, there is. There’s such an incredible finesse…”
I let him prattle away. I had hauled him out of his polo shirt and I was now pushing it against the wound in his head. There seemed to be an alarming gap where the firmness should have been – was his skull broken?
“They have such intelligence. You know that they have brains over their entire bodies, brain cells inside every tentacle. Their entire body, man, is a brain.”
Despite the horror of my surroundings, there was a clear pause as the memory briefly came to me of a joke that my friend Pablo had once made. He had been extolling the cuisine of Galicia, where octopuses are poached as a speciality. “The flesh is so light – it is like you have the sunbeam on your fork. And you know the octopuses are the most intelligent of the animals and how is it that they taste the best also? Perhaps they are, how you say, a gateway?”
“A gateway drug, Pablo?”
“A gateway to being the cannibal.”
Sandeep was peering rather too keenly into my face and so I was forced to look away, down into the normality of his bare chest, his perfectly sleek pot belly, moving across to his wrists… where my gaze now settled. Suddenly I was studying his wrists and the significance of what I was seeing galloped in a rush over my mind.
“Sandeep, you’re not wearing your Fitbit.”
“What’s that?” He looked itchy and restless. Sweat was shiny on his chest and I sensed that he was going to imminently faint.
“Your Fitbit… you know, these things that they make us wear?”
His face stretched with a yawn and I had to shake him to rattle consciousness back into him. “Stay with me please Sandeep. It’s not wise to fall asleep now.”
He smiled sleepily, nodding at me with satisfaction. “They’re on the shark, man.”
I heard myself yelp. “How? On the shark?”
“We’ve attached them to its tail. It was Kirsty’s idea. Stick ‘em to the shark… oh [he yawned again, at a worrying length and trailing away so that I had to rattle him even more furiously]… oh… and then put white tack over to hide them. We didn’t… oh…”
“Please Sandeep, stay with me.” I was disconcerted that amongst the blood on the ground it looked as though there were dotted tiny, inconsequential shards of eggshell. I was tentatively identifying these as particles of Sandeep’s skull.
“So all the time the shark was swimming around, not taking a single step, because it has no feet you know,” Sandeep was explaining carefully. “You know how they look like marshmallow?” he giggled. “Oh but,” he suddenly sounded fearful, “we didn’t tell you. It was Kirsty, she thought that it would be funny… [a mightier yawn now than any that had come before, one that seemed to consume Sandeep’s whole head]… I’m sorry Biggy, we thought that it would be funnier if you didn’t know…”
I shook him impatiently in my arms. “Ross, curse him. Did Ross know? Was he in on this conspiracy against me?”
The following yawn was so vast that when Sandeep’s face finally went slack again, he was alone.
He was far out in the turquoise waters of an immense bay. The sunlight seemed to chime on the waves all around him, clustering on their crests like synchronised lasers. Sandeep did not know whether he was swimming in towards the shore, or out into the sea again, and so he padded lazily whilst he made up his mind. He felt happy and refreshed in the warm sunshine.
An octopus was approaching, drifting purposefully, but without any particular hurry, as if wandering on the tips of its tentacles. Sandeep could see its tentacles kink as it strolled. He slowed and lifted his head out of the water to watch it. He felt wonderfully privileged to be within the vicinity of such a miraculous creature, as though he was swimming alongside a vision of the Virgin Mary.
“I am the octopus.”
Confusingly, the words had rung within Sandeep’s own head and he did not know whether to speak his reply out loud. “You can address me telepathically,” the octopus confirmed. “This was how I had communicated with the silly young workman who had lifted me out of my tank for me.”
The octopus’s voice was calm and airy. It also had a definite Greek accent, with that dry precision that makes the Greeks sound uniquely grave for Mediterranean people.
“It was you who took me out of my life?” Sandeep demanded. “Out of my office and out of my apartment and into the aquarium?”
“Some men live and other men die,” the octopus reflected simply. “The universe has millions of tentacles, lifting some men and lowering others. But there is naturally a single centre. You had harboured doubts about me?”
Sandeep smiled. “Maybe… but not now.”
“I once heard you say that if a man could empathise with anything in the aquarium, he must have no imagination. But this is in the past. Would you like to know where I am currently?”
“All of these silly little men were running around hither and thither out of their minds. They phoned the police and for an ambulance. But they couldn’t find the octopus, the octopus who has generated all of this mayhem for them.”
“So tell me, please, where is the octopus?”
“I hid for a time underneath the JCB, but I would be soon discovered there and so I had to move on. I needed somewhere snug and damp. It caught my eye that nobody was looking at the man who had died. Everybody was bustling around him, trying not to register the details of his smashed body.”
“I thought that I caught a glimpse,” Sandeep admitted guiltily. “It looked like when you stand on a snail and all of its organs spurt out in a pile.”
“Precisely,” the octopus congratulated Sandeep. “They were exposed – his liver, his kidneys, etcetera. They were nicely wet as well. I duly made some room for myself amongst them, scrunched up my tentacles, and hid there. I was pretending to be – oh, I don’t know – a bladder. Everything was eventually scraped up into a body bag and stowed in an ambulance. At the morgue, I snuck out once things were quiet and I was here able to escape, capering down the mechanism of an available lavatory.”
“And here we are,” Sandeep laughed happily in conclusion.
“Yes, here we are.”
The coastline was nearing. The octopus fell away as Sandeep began to barge determinedly through the water towards it.