Ringo Starr: “I´d like to be under the sea in an octopus´garden in the shade.”
I´m from South Africa, and I have a little shack down on the beach on the west coast , where the cold Benguela current comes up from the Antarctic.There is a wonderful diversity of marine life in the sea,but one sea creature captured my heart and taught me to find a life again I thought I’d lost.This is its story.
My troubles began when my wonderful wife died of cancer 6 months before. I struggled to come to terms with her loss. My son and I would go down to the shack Lisa had loved and sit there,staring out to sea..
Then I turned to drink.I found that the pain of her loss was numbed by the whisky. But then I´d slump into bed in a drunken stupor only to find the pain would awake again as I did with the morning sun. So another round of different bottles was the order of the day.
My job at the shipping company began to suffer.I could hardly read the invoices and the bills of lading so blurred was my vision (helped by a bottle of voka hidden under rthe desk)
I began snapping at my colleagues.
One evening my son tried to pull the bottle away from me.I lashed out and laid him flat on the ground; with his head bleeding.It was then I was shocked into realizing this couldn´t go on. Abu would have to live with his aunt and I wouldn´t have to live.
Then I was sacked from my job.
“Your fucked-up reading of the invoice from the Diamond Trading Company has landed us in court with a 300,000 dollar fine.You´re fired” I was told by my boss.
I had lost my wife,my son.and my job.Bottle in hand, the next day I wandered down to the vast beach where our cabin was, not one of those ones you see on the Fish Hoek beach with bright colours.This one was put together by my dad from old bits of driftwood, with large wooden poles pushed down into the sand´. But it was sturdy enough to survive the winds and storms.I opened the creaking door and looked around.What fun Lisa and I had enjoyed here.The cabin was full of shells,dried out starfish, pebbles (collected by Abu) and
underwater stuff :wetsuits, oxygen tanks.masks,flippers….
I picked a mask up,it was Lisa´s.It all came flooding back, the diving together; playing with that octopus….and for the first time it seemed a dam of grief had burst through.I stumbled out of the cabin sobbing uncontrollably,knelt down and wept on the sea shore, the bottle clinking to the ground. The gentle waves washed up to me,as though they wanted to join my salty tears with their own.
Then I stood up.I wanted to visit the only friend I had left.And she would bring back happy memories for me.
I put on my scuba gear and gently eased myself into the freezing water.I quickly swam down through the kelp forest marvelling as always at the variety of life there:lobsters, clams,mussels ,brightly coloured fish, small sharks, and……there in a rocky crevice she had always been, my friend the octopus.Would she remember me? I swam up to her den and waggled my finger at her waving tentacles.At first touch she jolted back as if elecrocuted.Then very slowly she stretched out her arms and felt my fingers,slowly and lovingly.
After that I came back to see her every day. We found new things to do.She would chase and play with fish and then come back to me and wrap her arms round me in an affectionate embrace.Then we chase each other through the gloomy filtering light of the underwater forest.
I gave up drink and began to see light at the end of a long tunnel of loneliness.Soon I would invite my son Abu back to live with me.
Then one day my dreams were shattered by an event that happened to my underwater friend.
I had swum down to meet her as usual,looking forward to playing our games.
As I neared her den I felt something was wrong.There was an odd stiring in the water .What I then saw confirmed my worst fears. A pyjama shark had grabbed a tentacle and was twisting it round like someone wrestling with a corkscrew. Suddenly it broke off, and the shark,triumphant,swam off with a part of my friend in his mouth.
I don´t know why this hurt me so much.
But it did.
For the first time in weeks I picked up a bottle of whisky and looked at it.But then I had an idea .I went down to the cabin the next day, and I sat there .I thought:what do friends do? They help each other.
I gathered up some fresh mussels, and swam down to her den. She was very pale with none of her usual camouflage.I opened the shells and pushed them towards her. She ate with relish.
After that I visited her every day and watched her strength slowly return,as did her tentacle,starting off as a little bud and slowly returning to its former size.
I threw the bottle away and felt my self-confidence return .If my friend could recover from a disaster so could I.
Abu came back to me and together we enjoyed playing with her .
But I knew time was running out for her . Octopuses don´t live long and sure enough one day we caught her mating and 2 weeks later she was looking after her eggs .
She didn´t eat. All her energy was sapped out into protecting her family.
When the eggs hatched she was already wasted.Abu and I looked on sadly.
The end was near.
And her old enemy was quick to smell her out.
The last we saw of her was when she was carried away by the shark.
Abu and I opened the cabin for everyone to come and visit us.We started a Marine Protection Society, and made new friends.
But I can never forget my first true underwater friend.
My thanks to Craig Foster and his film The Octopus Teacher which inspired me.