The first call of the day comes at 11 a.m. sharp. The girl sounds like she’s still sleep-fogged. She tells me she’s called Gala and asks me to bring a wheelbarrow. I raise an eyebrow at the phone, but don’t make a peep. I’ve had stranger requests.
I’m at her door within the half hour. Gala lets me in, blinking yesterday’s partially unstuck false lashes. I wonder if she knows desiccated kelp is knotted in her hair.
“Can’t you call him an Uber?” I ask. Part of my role is to help the girls become self-sufficient. “Is he really that legless?”
She shakes head. “The problem’s the opposite.” She points to the bathroom door. “In there.”
“What, passed out?”
The girl’s mouth purses so tightly it looks sewn onto her face
Curiosity overcomes me and I step inside.
At first, I don’t know where to look. Then a splash makes my heart jump and I turn.
The cephalopod eye that meets mine is vast and full of winter storms.
The towel rail bolsters my balance as I totter.
Limbs ridged with pearly suckers wave in greeting. Translucent skin flushes from the bathroom suite’s aquamarine to a coy blush shade.
I swallow once, and again. My throat is as dry as the strand at low tide. Inhaling, I expect to smell fish, but catch only hints of salt and stale amaretto.
As I stare, the octopus stretches sinuously until he almost fills the tub. The immense eye seems to expand until it’s all I see. My head fills with a blueness, a greenness, the drag of currents and tides. I grow fluid; weightless. The light dappling my skin is not from the sun.
The ocean recedes and I’m in the bathroom, aware of my one heart thudding out of rhythm with the octopus’s three.
With a curl of one limb, the octopus beckons, siphon frilling gently.
I take a step backwards, out of the bathroom, and close the door behind me.
“Where’d you pick that one up?”
“Don’t know.” Gala closes her eyes. “Don’t remember.”
“What’s the last thing you do recall?”
“A glass of something with one of those maraschino cherries… That stupid Justin Bieber song ‘What Do You Mean?’ playing way too loud.” She frowns. “Will you help, Hera? My mate Ari says you got rid of a half-bull for her last week. She reckons you’re the best.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
I drag the wheelbarrow up the steps into the house and through to the bathroom. “Look, I don’t know what your deal is, but you can’t stay here. I’ll leave the barrow and when I come back, I want you in it. Got that?”
Gala’s grinning when I rejoin her in the kitchen, but I fix her with my steeliest look.
“You are not off the hook, missus. What madness is this, not remembering? Time to slow down, take better care of yourself.”
Her smile withers. “I know that, Hera. Last night was just…” She pushes up her sleeve, showing me a round red welt on her inner arm. “They’re all over me. Reckon they’re from the suckers.”
I sigh and hug her. “Don’t fret. I’ll check he’s in the barrow, chuck a bath towel over him, then this is almost over. Ok?”
The wind is against us as we march down to the strand. The octopus peers out from under the towel occasionally, his massive eye looking at me rather than our surroundings.
What? I want to shout. What are you judging me for?
I wonder if we should have called the local aquarium, but vaguely remember that their last cephalopod died after laying ten thousand eggs.
The ocean vision I glimpsed makes me certain this cycloptic octopus has never been in captivity.
It’s harder going when we reach the sand. The wheel keeps sinking. I use all my strength to shove it onwards until we reach where the grains are packed dense and wet.
“Can you make it from here?” I ask, and the octopus makes a movement with one limb that I assume means yes.
I stand back and watch as he clambers out, entire body rippling as he flows into the surf.
He doesn’t look back.
Gala and I sit on the strand for a while despite the cold, watching the wind chase clouds over the sea. I run my fingers through her hair, picking out the seaweed. “You girls needs to look after yourselves better,” I tell her. “I was only able to offload your mate Ari’s half-bull thanks to the ring in its nose. On Thursday, Eury woke up next to a viper! Pure poison. If you don’t watch yourselves, one of these nights you’ll bring home some beast I can’t get shot off. Did Ari show you the self-defence mantra? Stay Alert, Expect the Worst…”
She snorts, bull-like herself for an instant, and spouts the next line: “If in doubt, LEAVE. Yeah, got it. No more pills, or booze. I’ll take up yoga instead.”
“Come to my self-defence class on Tuesday,” I urge her. “I promise you it’ll be at least as useful as yoga.” My mobile vibrates. I check the WhatsApp message.
“Emergency?” Gala asks.
I nod. “Lass called Atala’s accidentally brought home two half-horses she needs gone. Ok to get yourself home?”
She nods, and I hurry off, wheeling the barrow before me like a chariot.
Judy Darley is a British author who can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. Her short fiction and journalism have been published and performed in the UK, US, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand and India. She is Flash Fiction Editor at Reflex Press. Judy’s short story collection Sky Light Rain is out from Valley Press. Her debut collection Remember Me To The Bees is available from Tangent Books. Find Judy at skylightrain.com; @JudyDarley on Twitter.