UNDERWATER RACE DAY by EW Farnsworth
Sponsorship for the Picklock Lane Aquarium’s Underwater Race Day was through a very private account owned by Sir Hudibras and his wife. The bookies did not care where the funding originated as their concern was odds making for the newest form of wagering.
The races were conducted by a skeleton crew of salt water piscatorial curators and broadcast nationwide and abroad to a growing number of international fans. Sheriff Fatty Millstone arranged for the races to be shown on the large screen displays at the Cracked Bell Pub. The tapster did not mind on account of the increase in traffic.
The lanes for the race course were specially designed for the largest of octopuses so each of the ten entrants could traverse the circuit without interfering with the others. From the start the runners set off at intervals staggered to account for the length of the courses. As any aficionado knew, two tentacles of the creatures were specialized for locomotion while the other six carried on a graceful ballet.
The first, second and third place winners were in the money, the same as for racing horses, win, place or show. No racing forms were yet published as the races were relatively new and course record data had not been possible till recently. Fatty seemed as well versed as any fan about the relative abilities of the contestants, and he held forth in the days before each race to whomever happened to be drinking at his table in the back of the pub.
The most intelligent bookies naturally gravitated to the sheriff’s table to get the gauge of the action. Paddy Islington, for example, leaned forward to catch the fat man’s every syllable, particularly when Millstone waxed eloquent about how the movements of the six non locomotive tentacles contributed to a creature’s speed and balance.
“Say, Fatty, does an octopus’s colour indicate anything about its disposition or readiness? In the last races, I noticed the winners included orange tinted and blue tinted specimens. In this week’s race I noticed one new entrant is entirely translucent. Does that have meaning for speed?”
The sheriff squinted across the table at the Irish bookie and shook his head. “As far as we know today, the runners have no differentiation as to colour or transparency to help you factor your odds. A horse may have a ruddy colour or a black gloss, but it rarely tells the likelihood of winning. I do not judge by any specific outward signs. I like the overall appearance of an entrant, or not.” Millstone tapped one of his printed handouts ranking each of this year’s octopuses, whose pictures were included along with any former racing data.
Paddy picked up one of the slim booklets and leafed through while Fatty turned to answer a lady bookie’s earnest question about the advantages of running in a particular lane of the course itself.
“Madame Russel, the octopus is a cunning animal. I do not doubt a runner who can see competitors ranged before him would have an edge over those blind to the competition ranged behind. Yet, in the last few races, placement has not been a chief discriminating factor. Study the beasts carefully as I am sure they will reveal more to the astute observer than hitherto.”
Russel picked up one of Fatty’s pamphlets. “Sheriff, may I take one of these so I can study it further?”
“Madame, be my guest and take one. I am flattered my untutored guesswork may be useful as you make your odds.”
Sir Hudibras and his Dame arrived to take their places at the sheriff’s table. “We wanted you to be the first to know the royal family will be watching this year’s races. The media will be covering their reactions as they witness the event in costumes designed for the occasion. I have been told that the queen will wear a bespoke Cthulhu brooch made from emeralds and sapphires.”
“Great news! Do you think Her Majesty would like copies of my little primer?”
“We were hoping you still had copies available. A half dozen should do nicely.” The knight and his wife each picked out the three nearest copies. Then they rose and left with a brief adieu. After they had scurried out, Russel leaned forward and whispered to the sheriff.
“The fact that the royals will be witnessing the races—is that confidential information, or may I use it in my column?”
“Madame, I cannot see harm in letting the public know the royal family’s interest in our underwater competition. I would not be surprised to find they had placed bets on the outcome.”
Russel nodded and wasted no time scampering for the exit to spread the news. Paddy, who was lost in the pamphlet, called for another pint as he lingered over each picture memorizing minute features as if he could match the patterns to the Rosetta Stone of his capacious mind.
For the next few days, the tabloids were full of reportage about the races. Millstone laughed about the capricious odds making the bookies used to ply their trade. He made a point to stop by the aquarium once a day to talk with the zoological staff about what the octopuses were eating and how active they were. One young man was amused how several of the octopuses seemed to wave at Fatty when he waved his hand at them. He did not let the young man see how he revealed his own tentacle surreptitiously.
By the time of the races, Fatty had placed his own bets, and those matched the wagers placed by Sir Hudibras and the royal family. Naturally, all proceeds from their winnings would be donated to the aquarium fund.
The Cracked Bell Pub was full to capacity, and all the electronic displays were showing the races as well as the royal family enjoying themselves. It was not a national holiday—yet, but the national interest was keen. Paddy and Madame Russel chose to come early to sit at the sheriff’s table, a pint with bitters in front of each. They argued about their respective odds, but they were flush with news about the numbers and amounts of bets their books had made.
When the flashing light started the race, the octopuses knew exactly what to do. As they gracefully pedalled forward in their lanes, Paddy and Madame Russel rose from their seats animatedly shouting for their favourites. Fatty noticed the royals were similarly excited, leaning forward with their eyes fixated on the specimens they favoured with their bets. The circuit took more than the horses, but the audience was flush with the energy of vicarious participation.
Into the winners’ circle sashayed the transparent newcomer. Place went to the bluish entrant, and show went to an orange complexioned beauty. The keepers sprinkled fresh viands for all contestants, and the competition for food began. The tapster at the pub kept pulling pints for the house, and the royals, who had naturally picked the winner, were smiling and sipping sherry. The queen’s Cthulhu brooch sparkled, sure to be the next fashion accoutrement.
The bookies finished their second rounds and left to pay what they owed others once they settled with the sheriff. He sat with his cash piled before him, smiling. His eyes continued watching the octopuses cavort and sport with their food. The transparent winner still lounged in the winners’ circle, recuperating from the strenuous exertions that had led to the blue ribbon. Fatty nodded contentedly as he drank his third pint with the others.
Sir Hudibras and his Dame arrived carrying wads of cash from their winnings. As they drank with Fatty, they congratulated themselves on their winnings. “Together with your winnings and those of the royal family, we will have the funding we need for the next three years of the aquarium. Tell me how you knew the transparent octopus would be first?”
“I will tell anyone else it was blind luck, but I know you will understand the transparent beauty and I communicated during my last visit to the aquarium. From that moment, I had no doubt of the outcome. My sense was confirmed by my seeing what it was digesting at the starting light.”
“Well, Sheriff,” Dame Hudibras said with a smile, “your secret will remain safe with us. We are most pleased the royals had such a good time today. That will be another step towards making our octopus races a national craze.”
Madame Russel approached the table looking haggard and pale. “I am getting lots of complaints about today’s race. Some sore losers are complaining the winner was not like all the others and should have been disqualified.”
The sheriff raised his hand to have a pint poured for the lady. “Please sit down, Madame Russel. Drink with us. I’m afraid, the transparent winner had—and has—nothing to hide. Clearly a member of the octopus family, it moves and acts like its kin. You have been a bookie long enough to know how the crowd detests a winning outsider.”
“I have sources who tell me the royals all bet on the winner.”
“That is true, but all their winnings went to the fund supporting the aquarium.”
“Is that so?” She sipped her pint and shook her head. “Well, the royals seem to have had special intelligence.”
“You could always ask the source?”
“What do you mean, Sheriff?”
“Go to the aquarium and ask the winner directly.”
The lady laughed and squinted at Fatty. “You are joking, aren’t you?”
“I have never been more serious in my life. It would be no different than examining a thoroughbred horse.”
Madame Russel brooded on that possibility until she had finished her drink. “I must be going now. Accounts must be paid, after all. Sir Hudibras and Dame Hudibras, I understand you two are behind the races. Congratulations on another successful annual event!”
The knight and his lady might not have heard the bookie as they kept nodding and sipping as she left the establishment.
Hudibras said, “What do you expect she will find out from communing with the transparent octopus?”
“That will depend on her receptivity and imagination. Some people favour transparency, others sense a trick. We shall see in this case.”
“Well, Fatty, we are pleased by your support. Your pamphlet was the perfect handout, but I frankly don’t know how you are going to top the cover of the transparent octopus next year?”
“Actually, I have been planning the future cover already—the nine tentacled octopus.”
“That would be fascinating, but it may pose a challenge for those thinking octopuses only have eight appendages.”
“I should explain that the specimen in question was injured early in life and grew a ninth tentacle out of the fissure in its eighth. Regeneration is a characteristic of the breed. You will see what I mean if you accompany me to the aquarium.”
“We will have to take a rain check on that visit, Fatty. My spouse and I must dine with royalty in honour of the races. We narrowly dissuaded their staff from preparing and serving the winner for dinner.”
“Oh, dear!” Fatty said. “What are the royals and you having for dinner?”
Fatty Millstone took a leisurely walk to the aquarium. There he met Madame Russel trying to communicate with the transparent octopus, the only contestant still lingering in the open water. The others had finished eating and retired to their sundry caves.
“Hello, Shariff. I am taking your advice, but the transparent octopus does not respond to me. What am I doing wrong?”
The sheriff smiled sympathetically. “It may be you are trying too hard. Be less effusive and show the creature you mean no harm. Earlier the retainers of the royal family were thinking of preparing this exquisite specimen for dinner.”
“I happen to agree. Think what people would think if a winning race horse were slain and barbecued to celebrate its own success. Why don’t you watch me for a moment?”
Fatty stood very still until the transparent octopod became curious. While the creature slowly approached the glass separating the saline domain from the humans, Fatty signalled with his index finger. The creature responded by raising a tentacle and imitating the motion of the man’s finger.
“You must have a way with the figure.”
“I try not to threaten. I let the octopus come to me as it is curious beyond human comprehension.”
“I am going to try. Please bear with me.”
“Madame Russel, raise your index finger slowly and touch it to mine. Then hold it up so the octopus can see it. Stand very still and wait.”
The bookie did as the sheriff suggested. She stood like a statue with her finger in the air. The octopus seemed to be assessing the situation. Finally, a tentacle imitated Russel’s gesture. Then the woman and the sea creature began to converse, slowly.
After half an hour, Russel was exhausted. The creature must have been exhausted too as it retreated to its cave and as it entered, it waved.
“That was a trip. Thank you for teaching me how to communicate with the octopus.”
“You have only just begun to make contact. Come back frequently. Move slowly. Repeat often, Sympathy will require you to learn as much as the creature, so watch for changes in your patterns required by the octopus. You won’t believe how intelligent this species is.”
“Thank you, Sheriff. I believe I have entered a whole dimension of existence. I will drop by the put from time to time to let you know how I am progressing.”
Fatty smiled as she walked off with a dreamy look in her eyes. The octopus had sensed the woman’s absence. It re-emerged from its cave. For another hour, Fatty and the octopus conversed. Then Fatty told the creature goodbye. He thought he discerned sadness in the creature’s farewell.
Once again Sheriff Fatty Millstone felt glad about what had happened that day. The outcome of the race had been a foregone conclusion for him, but two surprises made the day special. First, the transparent winner did not become a royal feast. And second, a female bookie had learned something about reticence in communication with an octopus. Out of such progress, much might be built—in time, with patience and mutual understanding.
As Fatty walked home in the evening, he thought Madame Russel required cultivation. She was not bad looking for a human, and her heart was sympathetic.
As he walked, he passed people euphoric after the octopus races. They shared their exhilaration with such absorption they did not notice the round faced man who passed them in the shadows. That was fine with the sheriff. For a public figure, he needed no fanfare or attention. He began to re compose the cover of next year’s pamphlet and became lost in his vision.