You did not apply for this job. You applied for another job, but they are offering you this one. You can’t imagine that they would ever have advertised this job, though it is described simply enough. They do not give you time to think. You take it.
At home later, over dinner warmed from a can, you wonder what skills you possess that made them choose you. You decide that it is probably best not to ask.
This is what they have said you are to do. When there is a summary execution, they said, anywhere in the world, you tell us what you think. You advise.
All right, you said.
The first day, there are no summary executions.
You do not have to track them down yourself; there is a staff to do that. You attempt to make conversation with one of them. Hello, you say. She does not turn away from her screen.
The remainder of the first week, there are also no summary executions. You explore the building. You locate the fifth floor’s kitchen, toilets, smoking balcony. You make coffee. You tidy your desk. You ask for stationery. Rubber bands. Paper clips. You make more coffee.
You receive your door plate. Special Advisor, it says, on Summary Executions. You wonder what you will tell your mother. This is not a title she can use to boast to her friends. My son the . . . You do not call her.
You meet another Special Advisor on the Monday morning of your second week. He is advising on something else. Every now and then, we’ll overlap, he says without going into details. You are the only one on Summary Executions, he tells you, as he stirs sugar into his coffee. You really want to ask what happened to the previous advisor, but you are somehow afraid. You tell yourself that this is foolish, that it is not as if he or she might have been . . .
You smile. You want to appear pleasant, approachable. You feel that with your job title you will have to make an effort. With your job title there might be assumptions.
At last: an execution! In a lawless country known for these things. You are provided with an outline of events; you must do research. A quick memo within twelve hours, your friend the other Special Advisor tells you, eating a chocolate digestive. Then a more detailed report within twenty-four. You thank him. You take your coffee and start to scour the online news sources. You find out how old the victim was, how many children he had. You find out that he had been in hiding after numerous incarcerations. That he was beheaded. You read that he was a poet. You look at a picture of him. You enlarge it and stare into his eyes for too long. You get up and pour more coffee.
That night, you order pizza and as you ask for extra mushrooms you imagine a large man with a large knife. When the pizza comes, you remove the mushrooms.
Your brief memo appears to have been sufficient enough not to warrant a response. Your boss’s secretary smiles at you and you take this to be a good sign. You work on your longer report. You include translations of some of the victim’s poems. You are pleased with this. You describe all the details you have found on the manner of the execution: the type of blade, where and how it has been manufactured throughout history. You are pleased with this, too. You insert the names of the murdered man’s children, their ages. You give advice, with wording lifted from the directives you have been given.
Unstable nation . . . no indication of pattern . . . strongly worded condemnation . . . keeping a watchful eye . . .
You send the document to print but then you find it difficult to stand up and walk over to the printer. Your knees are uncooperative. It takes more than fifteen minutes.
In bed that night, you see the man’s eyes. A line from one of his poems, Never done and we are never done, rings through your dreams.
You happen to read an article about octopuses. They are very intelligent, you say to your friend the other Special Advisor as you pour coffee. You tell him the story about the octopus whose brain the scientists were trying to research. They put him to sleep, inserted a probe, you say, and the octopus just pulled it out. Really? says the other Special Advisor. Just pulled it out? Wow! Yes, you say. Then he asks if you’d like to have dinner sometime. You are surprised but you agree. Special Advisors should stick together, you think, as you look for a biscuit.
That night you have a date. Friends fixed you up with her. You are wary. You are nervous. She is a financial analyst. When she smiles and says, So, what do you do? you gulp wine, and then you tell her. Soon after, she goes to the bathroom. Soon after that, there is an emergency phone call, she simply must . . . and soon after that, you are alone with half a bottle of house red.
You finish it. You think of the octopus. You imagine his tentacle, gripping the wine bottle, pouring himself a glass. You are grinning to yourself as you pay the bill and walk out into the rain.
There is another one. The information is on your desk. An underworld kingpin, it seems. There is a picture of the kingpin’s body. You understand for the first time the phrase riddled with bullets. You enlarge the picture but you cannot see his eyes. He has a wife. He has children. He doesn’t write poetry. Another country in which such executions are the norm although not a frequent occurrence. You write your brief memo. You work on your report.
Your friend the other Special Advisor has chosen the restaurant. You meet him there. You are surprised when he orders wine without asking you. You did not do this the other night, with the failed date. You would not presume. But it is good wine. Very good wine. Tell me more about cephalopods, says your friend. He leans in closer and you tell him what you remember: how an octopus has been known to carry a large shell around with him or her all day in case, at some point, shelter is needed. Forward planning, grins your friend.
Later, after several bottles of the excellent wine, your new friend the other Special Advisor puts his hand over yours. Shock is not the right word to describe your reaction. You cannot move your arm. You don’t know where to look. It’s okay, says your friend. No rush. He withdraws his hand. Pays the bill.
There are no more summary executions for the rest of the week. You do some general research. You wander around the building. You occasionally bump into your friend the other Special Advisor in the coffee room. You are not as embarrassed as you thought you would be.
On Friday morning, you sit at your desk, close your eyes and wonder if octopuses kill. Yes, for food, but each other? You try and picture an octopus wrapping all its tentacles around its enemy. And squeezing. It doesn’t feel right. Your imaginary octopus lets go.
Later that day, your friend the other Special Advisor comes to your cubicle. I have a surprise, he says. He hands you a biscuit and tells you he will pick you up tomorrow. He won’t reveal any more.
Sixty-five million years ago, says the researcher, standing in front of her tanks. You are staring at the octopus. The octopus might be staring at you, you aren’t sure. That’s when their brains really started to develop, she says. Your friend the other Special Advisor asks more questions and you hear them talk about nautiluses. You hear the researcher describe one of her octopuses who, if the light in his tank is left on at night, will short-circuit it. You smile at this octopus. You move your hand in an almost-wave. One of the octopus’s tentacles moves too. It may just be coincidence.
You turn to your friend. You touch his elbow. You smile.
That night is the first time you go to bed together. He just holds you. You have never been held like this. You listen to him breathe. You feel his heart pumping into you. You slowly slide your hands underneath his chest until it is as if you are just one four-armed and four-legged Special Advisor, holding on and on. There is another execution. Three women. All have children. None are poets. But none are warriors either. You find their pictures, you look at their faces, you put the pictures under a pile on your desk, you get the pictures out from under the pile, you look at their faces again.
You try to get up and go for coffee. Your knees are unobliging. It takes over fifteen minutes. The other Special Advisor, who is now more than a friend, pours for you, says nothing, hands you chocolate digestives. When the others finally leave the kitchen, the other Special Advisor puts a hand on your shoulder. You take the coffee and the chocolate digestives back to your desk but when your hand moves towards the pictures of the three women, the shaking returns.
When you are in bed together, you and your lover, the other Special Advisor, do not talk about work. You compete with each other to unearth the funniest news items, the oddest things humans are doing. Siamese twins who make their fortunes from online trading. A two-year-old girl who has composed twelve symphonies. A space umbrella designed to shift rainstorms. There is rarely a time when you do not both have something fantastical to share, and when you have laughed, when you have made love – which you are astonished to find never makes you uncomfortable, inhibited, shy – you sometimes jointly wonder at the world in which this can be so. Where is the normal? you ask each other. Where is the still?
After a month, you are summoned for review. Your boss tells you that they are impressed with your thoroughness. Your boss begins to say something about your predecessor but stops himself. He looks towards the large windows of his office and out over the city. Then your boss turns back to you, a false smile on his face. He thanks you again, sees no need for further review until the completion of the three-month probationary period. You understand that you are doing well.
You had questions. You had the words of a poem under your tongue. You had many pairs of eyes inside your head, looking out through your eyes towards your boss as if he held answers. As you reach your desk, you hold on to your chair and take a long deep breath. Then you move your computer mouse and watch the screensaver disintegrate.
There is a morning where you wake up and decide not to go to work. You do not call your boss. You do not call your lover, who has not spent the night because of working late. You do not phone anyone.
You leave your home and stand out in the street a while. You turn right and that is when you choose where you will go.
The researcher is surprised but friendly. The octopus does not seem surprised. You sit by the octopus’s tank with the cup of tea the researcher made for you. You wonder about the octopus. You wonder if the octopus wonders about you. You try not to think of the poet, the kingpin, the three mothers.
You and the octopus have been there for several hours when you hear someone else come round the tanks towards you. You expect the researcher. Or perhaps your lover, worrying about you. But you do not know the woman. She is not wearing a lab coat. She looks at you as if you are who she has come to see. She does not look at the octopus.
I think we should talk, she says. I think you want to meet me.
You are confused. Is she an expert in cephalopods? Had you mentioned you wanted to learn more?
And then, as if you are slapped hard, you know exactly who she is.
You . . . you say. You are my . . . You did my . . .
She blinks twice, clears her throat. She looks away and then she looks right at you. You see their faces, she says. You hear them. Their eyes are in you. They look out through your eyes. You have trouble with your knees. You find it hard to get out of the chair.
Yes, you whisper. You can’t look at her because she sees too much of you, so you stare at the octopus. Your chest is filled with something liquid. Your heart is swimming. Nothing is said out loud at all.
And then you open your mouth. And then you say: I see them all the time I hear them I feel like they are watching me he wrote poems the body was full of holes they all had children so many children I don’t understand how someone can how someone does what did they do the mothers the others he was just a poet well maybe one of them was criminal but the women the women they whisper in my ear how is it that one person can do and to another and what if I could what if we could what if it’s just pretending not to what if underneath the suits I go into the coffee room and everyone’s polite and on my desk on my desk there is this pile there are pictures and they stare at me and then my legs don’t work my knees don’t work I can’t slice food without thinking and is this going on and it just comes at me comes at me why is it coming at me as if they are doing it for me doing it to me for me his eyes his poems I can’t I can’t I can’t.
And when you are gasping too much to carry on you feel a chaos and you turn and the octopus is thrashing, whirling round its tank, tentacles whacking and slashing at the walls, at each other, at the octopus’s head and your heart is paddling as you bend towards the tank, as you whisper Shhhh, shhh. Your new friend, the former Special Advisor, kneels down too and you both put your palms on to the tank’s cool glass, you press your cheek there, and right then you cannot remember who is in the tank and who is outside. The octopus begins to slow down, its tentacles sliding around the tank, slipping towards its floor. Through your cheek you feel the violence as it ebbs away.
You hear voices and two researchers wander into your section of the lab. When they see you, they giggle and stare. Your new friend lifts herself up and then she holds out her hand to you. You let her pull you to standing then you lean on the top of the tank, your body still unsolid. Sorry, you say.
Don’t be, she says.
You leave the lab together. You take the lift down and then you are in the street, facing one another. You do not know how this will end. You have no idea how this will end.
Then she says what she says to you and, like another slap, you know it all.
You don’t have to, she says, and walks away.
You watch her reach the end of the street, then vanish. You think of open landscapes, of the sea filled with every type of life. You breathe in. You breathe out. Your heart is sad but still. Your heart is you. You think about your mother. You realize it has been a long long time. You turn and walk the other way, thinking of what you will tell her about your day.