Octopuses are hard to love. They kill almost anything you put with them in a tank, including other octopuses. They’re notorious escape artists, they’re smart and they rip lives apart. I don’t make them happy. I think of them as male, perhaps because they remind me of my time with Boy. Except that I lived with Boy for over 15 years – octopuses aren’t that long-lived – and he managed not to kill me in all that time.
We successfully procreated and then he escaped. See, I told you; smart!
I work with a lot of cephalopods; octopuses, cuttlefish and squid make up 30% of the population of our laboratory aquarium. Our lab’s newest resident was already housed when I started my week on nights. He was an algae octopus (Abdopus aculeatus). He came with a reputation for escaping – earning the nickname ‘Gone Puss’ in his previous aquarium – and for being hard to love. As far as I knew our lab hadn’t officially named him, so ‘Gone Puss’ it was.
I really tried to make him happy, even feeding him first on my rounds. There were 28 live experiments I had to note and report on. and over 50 of the 130 tanks required me to feed their occupants at night, including most of the cephalopods.
Two hours into my rounds, I caught my arm on the feeding trolley and flinched. The bruise was no longer tender, but it was a conduit to emotional wounds, still raw and starting to turn gangrenous. Zebra fish mobbed to the side of a tank to stare, nudging fins.
Normally I didn’t mind the night-shift – four nights a month – that gave me time alone; time to think in the low blue light and watery soundscape of the six long rooms. The routine was cathartic and the specimens fascinating. I was fortunate to do a job that made use of my biology degree and challenged me. Four nights a month were worth that. I went full-on super-mom. Time lost with Harry, 11, on those four evenings was made up at the weekend.
I passed a phone on a desk and dialled.
‘Hey, Shona.’ A yawn.
‘Hey, Leroy.’ The security guard on reception. The one other person in the building at night. I’d woken him.
‘A lot of fish.’
‘Great.’ Would I be phoning if I was OK?
Normally, I didn’t mind the nights. This Tuesday was different. I needed soothing TV drama; comfort foods stacked beside me, human conversation – even Leroy’s. What I didn’t need was to be left alone with my own thoughts. They had a disturbing habit of stomping around my head, as though they owned the place.
As I returned to my desk I checked the 50-gallon tank. Octopus: one, still present.
But Gone Puss was about to set out the terms of our relationship.
His hunting instincts had discerned that my life signs were edging to the wussy side of wimpy – octopuses, inanimate objects and children have an unerring sixth sense about these things. Even from within his tank, he had correctly identified me as someone he could prey upon.
Every centimetre of Gone Puss was in motion, every limb crept, spread, twisted and sawed. His sac of a body heaved against the glass trying to force a way through. Everything moved apart from his coin-slot eye. As I drew level with it, he spat out the pellet of thawed shrimp from the same feeder tube I had pushed it into two hours earlier.
Cephalopods often took time to adjust to the dead shrimp we substitute for the live prey they cornered in their reefs, but Gone Puss was a seasoned aquarium inmate. He had no excuses. No, he was determined to register his animosity towards me personally. The pellet was a flaccid reminder that his ancestors developed in the world’s oceans 230 million years before my mammalian ones pitched up.
‘Missed,’ I snarled back, ‘you suckerous beastie!’ I let the pellet lie.
I couldn’t even retaliate. Octopuses are the only invertebrates given special protection by the Government under the licensing of animal experiments. Smart enough to have a lobby group.
Normally I didn’t mind the nights. Normally I didn’t let rejected morsels of un-breaded scampi unhinge me, but tonight it wasn’t a seafood lump, it was a reminder of my recent demotion in status: to prey. My laptop keyboard beat out a word, but it was nothing to do with the experiment notes I was employed to make.
I typed with stabbing fingers.
‘S U C K E R!!!?!’
Three goes to spell it correctly. I stared through it.
A burst of ‘Flower of Scotland’ burbled from my phone. I heaved my mind out of its stramash of re-lived humiliation and futile rage.
It was a text. It was anonymous. That was rare. It would be marketing; some clever scam. To click or… I clicked.
‘It’s your bruise, Sho. You better watch out!’ read the text; words followed by a pared down ‘tinyurl’ link.
Another click and a video clip opened. The headline read: ‘Murder victim: police appeal for help’. It was dated from 28th February, nearly three months ago.
I twisted the phone and hunted around to increase the volume. A circle was zeroing down onto a map of fields, waterways and scrubland. A presenter’s voice was speaking…
‘Police are appealing for help in identifying the headless woman found dead yesterday morning in a drainage ditch in fenland close to Whittlesey. They believe the murdered woman was in her mid-30s with light-brown hair. Her hands were also cut off, displaying obvious similarities to “The Doll Killer” murder. Her only identifying mark is this distinctive bruise on her upper left arm…’
A graphic flashed up on screen. I dropped the phone on the desk. My hand clutched at my left bicep. It was my bruise. Similarly faded. Both bore a more than superficial resemblance to the St Martins Cross on Iona. No-one else would have noticed this, but I did – instantly.
I recalled the ‘headless handless woman’ case from earlier in the year. ‘Doll Killer’ headlines swirled. Why would I share a bruise with a corpse? And why, on God’s good Earth, was it shaped like an iconic Eighth Century Celtic cross from a sheep-bitten isle.
It had seemed a mad coincidence when I first discovered my bruise. Now it smacked of sinister cultural branding. It was as if St Columba himself had sailed up the Cam to label me a sinner. No argument here; even a Glaswegian ‘Proddie’, knows better than to squabble with a Saint. This was my ‘Madonna in the toast’ moment. It must be a sign. Convert or…
Pointy questions pierced the miasma of my floundering logic. Had my bruise been inflicted by the murderer? Was this text from the killer? Could I be next? Was I marked for death?
Another thought: I was alone at night in a dark workspace with only a truculent, probably under-nourished octopus to protect me.
I blocked the sender and called Leroy. After four rings I concluded he wasn’t at his post; maybe in the loo, more likely outside snatching a fag. The rush of water refreshing a tank (through the jumble of pipes criss-crossing the ceiling) made me jump.