Marin walks between the tanks, soft blue light pooling at her feet. Schools of fish flit back and forth to some unspoken rhythm. It’s early evening on a Wednesday, after the post-lunch rush. The aquarium is a welcome escape from the jostling and rudeness and ghastly chaos outside. Most families are probably having tea now or taking kids to clubs, or whatever it is families do.
Often, Marin has the place to herself at this time. Though of course he will be here today. There are a few stragglers as well; a harried woman with a pushchair and a trio of kids in a range of sizes. The kids are pressing hands and noses to the glass as clownfish drift serenely past. “Look,” the woman says, her voice brittle with forced enthusiasm. “Nemo!”
Marin passes them, her footsteps muffled by the carpet. She’s not interested in those gaudy tropical specimens. She prefers the shy fish that keep to themselves and coast like ghosts through the shadows, only a dark eye or a pale glint of scales giving them away.
Further down, near the seahorses, there’s a cushioned bench. Marin likes to sit there, take in the view, and eat a sandwich – and she’s a little early, so why not? Strictly speaking, food isn’t allowed in the aquarium. But there are few staff at this hour, and they don’t give her a second glance. She’s got one of those forgettable faces, her mum used to tell her so.
Marin pauses at the octopus tank and watches it lazily coil its alien features over a lichen-tufted rock. She traces its path with a fingernail. He’ll be here somewhere by now, admiring the fish. He likes the aquarium too, they said. It’s why they chose her: mutual interests. Marin nods to herself. Small talk is by no means her forte, but having rapport is important.
She focusses on the outline of her reflection in the glass. In the half-light she’s rendered vague and insubstantial, the starfish brooch she’s pinned to her cardigan twinkles feebly. Forgettable. The octopus descends to the bottom of the tank with a slow plume of sand; covers itself with its fluid arms. She turns away.
There’s no-one around and the bench beckons. Marin sits down with a sigh. It’s been a long walk from her flat and her feet ache despite the carpeted floor and her Clarks Airwalk soles. She unwraps her sandwich, tuna and cucumber with the crusts cut off, then flinches as a stray child barrels past her and faceplants the seahorse tank.
It stands on tiptoe and totters one way, then the other, leaving a trail of snot and condensation. They’re camouflaged, Marin thinks. Look at the fronds of seaweed, carefully, and you’ll see them. But it thunders off, back to the glamour of the tropicals. Marin shakes her head. No patience. Probably brought up that way.
Marin was brought up to have patience in spades. You keep getting ignored, you learn to wait and to observe. The strategy has served her well over the years, though her life has been nothing if not solitary. And sometimes, she’s come to realise, it’s necessary to put one’s self out there. To be seen.
She pulls back the sleeve of her cardigan, checks her watch. Time to find him. She puts the wrapper back in her bag and picks stray crumbs from the seat. She doesn’t want to leave a mess if she can avoid it; doesn’t want to make things harder for the staff. She’s heard them complain they don’t get paid enough.
Marin walks through the glass tunnel. Sharp-angled sharks and rippling stingrays cruise overhead. She glances up at them with a pang of envy. Theirs is a silent world; they get to prowl in peace, no small talk needed. He’s a little older than her, they said. Tall, with sandy hair. He’ll be wearing a navy suit and a red tie.
The ground dips. She’s near the exit now, it’s cooler down here. Darker, too. She wraps her cardigan around herself; carefully adjusts her brooch. This is her favourite section of the aquarium. Perhaps it’s his as well, because she sees the silhouette of a tall frame standing in front of a big Perspex pillar, one of several that rise to the ceiling.
There’s LED uplighting in the base of the pillars, cycling through different colours. Tacky. Marin doesn’t approve, but she must concede that without the light they would be almost invisible. Their opaque domes pulse gentle as languid hearts, trailing a hazy web of tentacles. “They’re beautiful,” Marin says.
He glances at her over his shoulder. She steps closer, stands beside him. He’s definitely the one: pale hair, dark suit, a neat blush stripe down his chest. He’s handsome, even as his face glows ghoulish in the pillar’s light. He grins. “You’re right: they’re rather strange, aren’t they? Fascinating how you can see right through them.” He turns back to the pillar. “They look so fragile.”
She’s established rapport; his defences are down. Her employers were right to match her with him. “I know exactly what you mean,” she says. “It’s as if there’s nothing to them. But these are box jellyfish. Actually, their sting is deadly.” It’s a shame, Marin reflects. She doesn’t mind making small talk with this man. Slowly, she reaches for her brooch and unpins it.
“Really? That’s–“ he gasps. Wincing, he snatches the brooch from his neck. “What the hell…?”
He stares at the brooch. Stares at her. Something clicks; his eyes widen. He sees her, for the first time; sees who she really is. Marin feels a flutter of gratification warm her stomach.
His free hand paws at the pillar; waves of shock, pain and desperation cross his face as he slides to the floor. He coughs, clutches at his throat. His limbs shuffle a manic dance, muffled by the carpet. His face, sweaty and swollen now, drifts from peach to purple in the pillar’s glow. The brooch has fallen to the carpet and Marin stoops to retrieve it.
She mustn’t leave a mess.
“The venom is fast-acting,” she says in what she hopes is a reassuring tone. “You won’t suffer for long.” Marin turns from the man crumpled at her feet; from the tentacles waving in their pillars.
She adjusts the collar of her cardigan and walks silently towards the exit.