Octopuses are hard to love. They kill almost anything you put in a tank with them, 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, 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 night–shift. 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 ‘uncooperative’. Our lab hadn’t officially named him, so ‘Gone Puss’ it was.
I 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 left arm on the feeding trolley and yelped. Zebra fish mobbed to the side of a tank to stare, nudging fins. My three-day-old bruise was no longer tender but the wounds that had been left on my psyche were another matter – bloody, raw and on the verge of turning gangrenous.
Normally I coped well with 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. Time lost with Harry on those four evenings was made up at the weekend when I went full-on super-mom.
A phone stood on an empty desk. I dialled ‘0’.
‘Hey, Shona.’ A yawn. The security guard on reception. The only other person in the building at night. I’d woken him.
‘Er… any – thing…?’
‘A lot of fish.’
‘There’s a new octopus here. I don’t think he’s happy.’
‘Maybe he needs a lady octopussy.’
‘Wouldn’t end well. Chances are he’d tear her into bits and eat her.’
‘Wo-oh, nightmare,’ said Leroy. I could tell he was already losing interest.
‘Most species of octopus die after sex. When they do mate, he ups and leaves. She has to care for the fry on her own. She stops eating. Either way he kills her. Males and females eh? Can’t live with each other, can’t live without.’
‘The issue isn’t that you make one another miserable, that’s manageable. The problem comes when one of you points that out; putting it out there, means you’ve got to deal with it.’
‘Shona? Er… you OK?
Would I be phoning if I was OK?
‘Only normally, you don’t –’
This Tuesday, I craved human conversation – even Leroy’s – rather than 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 workstation I checked the 50-gallon tank. Octopus: one, still all too present. Every centimetre of Gone Puss was in motion; every limb crept, spread, twisted and gyrated. 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 his tank, he spat out the pellet of thawed shrimp from the same feeder tube I had pushed it into two hours earlier.
Cephalopods often take time to adjust to the dead shrimp we substitute for the live prey they corner 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. Gone Puss was setting out the terms of our relationship. The pellet was a flaccid reminder that his ancestors developed in the world’s oceans 230 million years before my mammalian ones pitched up.
His hunting instinct 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 something he could prey upon.
‘Missed,’ I snarled back. 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? They’ve got a lobby group.
Normally, I didn’t mind the nights. Normally, I didn’t let rejected morsels of un-breaded scampi unhinge me.
I sat and typed with stabbing fingers.
My laptop keyboard beat out a word, but it was nothing to do with the experiment notes I was employed to make.
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 mobile.
It was a text. Anonymous, that was rare. It would be marketing; some clever scam; to click or n… I clicked.
‘Recognise this, Sho?’ read the sparse text. The words were followed by assorted emojis and a pared down link.
Another click, a video clip opened. The title read: ‘Doll Killer murder victim – police appeal for help’. It was dated 28th February, nearly three months ago.
I twisted the phone and hunted around to increase the volume. The footage 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. She had light-brown hair. Her hands were also missing, cut off at the wrist, displaying obvious similarities to The Doll Killer murder. Her only identifying mark is a 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, horribly familiar, only the one on the screen was rendered on something that bore no resemblance to living flesh.
I recalled the ‘headless handless woman’ case from earlier in the year. ‘Doll Killer’ headlines swirled.
I reviewed the emojis: three yellow Munch heads gaped their fear at me, a cool silver knife cut a fitting end to the trail.
Who sent this? Who even knew I had a bruise? I was too ashamed to have mentioned it, to have done anything but hide it away under long-sleeved tops. Too horrified by the memories it evoked.
Why would any…? I blocked the sender and dialled 0 from my office landline. After four rings I concluded Leroy 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. Behind me, things thrummed in the creepy pump room – domain of the sullen maintenance engineers – where I had yet to find a light-switch.
The two bruises were identical. I knew it because I had studied mine in the mirror for far too long, seething at its origins. Both bruises bore too close a similarity to a Celtic cross to be explained by coincidence. Not just any cross, but St Martin’s Cross on Iona. Both must surely have been inflicted the same way.
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 quarrel with a Saint. This was my ‘Madonna in the toast’ moment. It must be a sign. Convert or…
And there it was. A simple sickening logical step: there was only one other person who could tell – who would know – the two bruises were the same.
My bruise had been inflicted by the murderer. This text was from the Doll Killer. I must have been alone with him? Which begged the question: shouldn’t I already be dead?
Another thought: I was alone at night in a dark workspace with only a truculent, probably under-nourished octopus to protect me. I looked up. Like Leroy, Gone Puss had vanished.
Calm down. Think, Shona. Could there be any other explanation?
I retraced the steps that led to my bruise; a chain of events from a week ago, events that may have cost me my closest friend, events culminating in the word on my laptop.
It had started with ‘Bruise Night!’