There are many reasons why Minty meets Kevin in a squid club:
Jessica’s new boyfriend bangs the drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band. He’s a whisky-slugging heavy metal mother with a spider’s web tattooed on his left temple. He’s got little red dots like flea bites from where he used to shut himself in a cubicle post-gig and shoot up junk. He’s reformed now but it’s always touch and go, Jessica says, her eyes glimmering with danger. Minty can’t remember his name.
Simone’s new boyfriend has four kids with his ex-wife. He’s got “hate” on one set of knuckles without the “love” to match. He chews tobacco and drinks cheap vodka from a plastic bottle in full view of the landlord. The night Minty met him, he fired off a rant about Oswald and Enoch, niggers and squids, then vomited liquid across the pub table. “Jesus,” Simone said, hauling him to his feet best she could. “See you later. He’s such a nightmare.” Grinning.
Minty, she will not be outdone.
Minty takes Nicola to the club by the railway station on the very wrong side of town, somewhere the nice girls just don’t go. Minty’s dressed like she’s not a nice girl, and she’s dancing with the squidheads like she doesn’t care. She feels a gloopy tentacle brush her backside once, twice, and she’s hot and fucking wet for it.
Nic wants to leave. “They’re weird,” she says. “I don’t feel safe here.” She points through the smoke, the secondhand clapped-out disco lights blinking yellow, purple, green; she points to the mass of bodies, tentacles, mandibles. She catches a beam of yellow light in her eyes and blinks it away. “We need to go, Minty.” Minty’s on her seventeenth vodka and coke and couldn’t really care what Nic’s bleating about. She needs to embrace the weirdness, the dirty pointlessness of it all. She turns to tell Nic this, sees her pushing her way through the exit.
“It’s adventure,” Minty says to her vodka and coke, watching her friend disappear. “Shut the fuck up.” Hopefully there’ll be a taxi waiting. Hopefully there won’t be any squid haters outside tonight. Maybe they’re just rumours. Minty carries on dancing to the boom and click of the drum, the rib-rattling bass. She’s hot, needs a break, but she won’t leave the floor until the music stops and that’s when she spins round, a little giddy from drink, bathed in the red, green, golden lights, and finds herself dancing with Kevin. Kevin the squidboy. A squidboy!, she thinks. Jessica, Simone. This is Kevin. Just you wait.
The squid people—squid heads, tentacles, human from the waist down—live in the poor places, by the station, by the sea, in high-rise ramshackle wooden buildings which tilt out towards the sea as if leaning blindly to the light. On quiet nights, they say, you can hear the wood creak and groan under the weight of all the many, many squid people. The squid people sing their songs to the sea, songs in slow, mournful, painful bellows. The sea doesn’t want them, and the city doesn’t want them either.
Like most of the squid people, Kevin works at the docks loading and unloading crates of cargo. His name isn’t Kevin, but you can’t draw wages (such as they are) without a name; it could be Joe or Tommy or Stan or Arnie, Colin or Sid. It’s just a name. He works by the brownish-grey water and listens to the taunts of the circling gulls. When he drops a fish, which he does on occasion, one slopping over the side of his pallet, the supervisor punches or kicks him. He gets by. He thinks of Minty.
Minty lets Kevin visit her, but only after work when it’s still light enough for everyone to see. She likes it when they go for walks together, through the park or down the high street. She likes the way the dogs bark, the way people stare at her, then Kevin, then her. She likes the muttering, the sneers, the yells of fish lover. She likes the feeling that, any minute now, something dark might happen with her right there in the middle. “Slow down,” she says to Kevin. “You walk too fast.”
The chases are best; when they have to run to escape a crowd of drunks, a few teenagers who walk quickly behind them yelling abuse. “Fish lover, dirty fucking fish fucker.” She feels so alive! “Oi. Foothead. Leave our women alone.”
She stops. “Headfoots, you thick fuck,” she says. “Cephalopod means head foot.”
“Whatever,” the teenage boy says. Kevin turns and pulls Minty away.
When Minty and Kevin get down to fucking, she only lets him do her with two condoms, from behind. She can’t bear to see his round, death-grey head thrusting up and down above her, his mandibles swaying from side to side like dancing snakes. She can’t climb on top and ride him because looking down on his knobbly torso and flailing tentacles makes her throat choke up with hot sour vomit.
After they make love, once she’s asleep, Kevin coils a tentacle around her and watches while the morning sun burns at the edges of the lowermost clouds. It is time he left, he knows, time to get back to the seafront before the locals awaken. An early morning lynching is still a lynching. He thinks about doing better, to provide for both of them. Maybe he could wash buses or floors, maybe. As long as he can see the soft bobbing ocean.
Despite years of experiments, nobody knows how the squid people came to be. Not for certain. There are the usual songs and jokes. There are big-budget films in which the squid people try to take over the world, always foiled by an unlikely alliance of ex-army men-turned-accountants and scientists-turned-barmaids. Sometimes there are documentaries about what the squid people’s lives are really like, but these are broadcast late when nobody’s watching. The squid people don’t have television. Minty, her mother and father, most of her street, all know the story about the horny old slag who, short of a good hard cock, gave herself a good hard ramming with the head of a squid and, during the following cold months, found her belly impossibly swollen and crept off to give birth and then to die of shame. Some versions have the squid child eating her eyes with envy.
Kevin doesn’t know the songs or jokes, or the grubby-sick stories, but he knows about mermaids. He knows about the mermaids and the squid, their brave fight in the sea battle against the monstrous whales, and the outcome: the whales became lords of the ocean, the mermaids were eaten, the squids, vanquished, good for little but dinner and ink. He knows it was his fate, as descendent of the broken warrior, to live on land. Under the sea somewhere in moss-thick caves, the story of the squid people is etched into the walls. He thinks sometimes of discovery, of diving down to the bottom of the ocean and finding the truth about his people, but the squid people can no longer breathe underwater; Kevin has been raised to believe it is part of the curse, and does not try. He unloads fish from the boats and piles them onto crates, suffers the kicks and punches, and thinks about Minty and how she may yet change his life, she may.
Minty brings Kevin to the pub to meet her friends, Simone and Jessica, and their boyfriends, the drummer and the puker. Jessica stays for a quick vodka, then has to go—her boyfriend needs to get to some party, she says. Simone sees someone, an old friend, staring over from another table and goes to say hello, taking Hate-No-Love with her. Minty notices he didn’t speak, didn’t uncurl his fists, even once.
Kevin drinks the lager they leave behind. He’s used to the staring and the swearing, the constant threat of violence, but there’s something in the atmosphere making him twitchier than usual. He wishes he could keep himself still when he gets this feeling, wishes his tentacles wouldn’t shudder this way.
It’s when they’re climbing the car park stairs that Minty hears the angry hisses and the weighty slap of footsteps behind them; they run to her car and she over-revs the engine, shooting backwards, then squealing down the ramp. She sees her eyes in the rear view mirror, white with fear; she sees the faces of the people chasing the car, tight with hate. Ugly. Hate-No-Love and Simone at the front of the crowd. Some fat bearded slug of a man hurls a bottle that shatters on their window.
The sound of shouting fades into the night as they speed off. Well, well, well, Minty thinks, brushing one of Kevin’s tentacles away from her shoulder and smiling to herself. Time for the big one.
“Relax, would you?” she says to Kevin. “Everything’s going to be fine, alright?” She’s standing on the doorstep, unicorn tattoo showing through her paper-thin shirt, watching the curtains and nets of the houses on the street twitch like alcoholics. She hears the muffled footsteps approach the door. This is going to be good.
“Daddy,” she says, smiling sweet as a brownie. “This is Kevin.”
Minty’s father opens his mouth in a perfect golf ball circle, grasps at his chest—heart?—with both hands, and keels over sideways, hitting the floor with a dull thud. Behind him, her mother drops the ovenproof glass dish, and white sauce from the lasagne oozes over the carpet. Minty’s old dog, Canasta, whirls around Kevin’s feet, barking urgently and leaping up to rake his legs with blunted claws.
“How do you do?” Kevin extends a tentacle to shake in the manner which he’s been taught. He’s a little uncertain, given the lasagne spillage and the hyperventilating father are both competing for floor space, but he tries to smile. Canasta whimpers and bolts into the cupboard under the stairs.
Kevin and Minty don’t stay.
Kevin brings Minty home two nights later, something he’s been dreaming of. Look, father, mother, be proud. He’s tidied his corner of the room as best he can, straightening the dirty blanket and propping the window open to let the sound and air of the sea inside. His parents agree to stay out of the way and move the seating to the opposite corner of the room.
Minty arrives dressed in polka-dot tights and a green floppy hat. She’s disgusted by the dirt, the rank rotten smell wafting through the room from the sea which slops at the shoreline. “Please forgive us for the state of our home,” Kevin says sadly. His parents bow their heads. Minty takes photographs on her camera phone, trying not to wrinkle her nose at the smell. She photographs the leaky roof, the slugs, the thin sheen of dirt as though everything has been rinsed in grease. Kevin’s dad presents her with a halibut; that’s so sweet, Minty says, unable to look at him, but I ate earlier, sorry.
After dinner, which Minty sits through silently, the mother and father go to the rooftop, to join the other families and sing to the sea. Kevin remains indoors with Minty. He wonders why she’s agitated—is that the word?—why she seems preoccupied. She doesn’t stay long.
Minty enjoys the last walk from the flat most of all; the shaded narrow streets filled with the cries and songs of the squid people, how they low gently like cattle. She doesn’t know why, doesn’t care. Past the wooden stilted buildings, some blackened and gnarled by failed firestarters, past the burnt-out cars and away from the brown sludgy sea. She doesn’t look round again until she’s beyond the train station and able to hail a taxi, this young bright girl in polka-dot tights and floppy, charming green hat.
Kevin goes to the roof to join his mother and father. When they see him dragging himself across the rooftop, slumped forward, they help him to the ledge, a tentacle around his waist, his back, and invite him into their slow, mournful song to the sea; pleading with the water, please let us come home.
In the pub, Minty shows her friends the photographs. She’s shocked to find how much things have changed in the four days since they met Kevin. Simone dumped Mr. Hate-No-Love and has started writing to a serial killer who she says she clicks with—definitely a soul connection, for sure—while Jessica’s had the name of drummer boy’s band, “FKU,” tattooed on her forehead.
Minty shows them the bowed walls of the dirty single room, the murky sea, the greening halibut with accusing stare. They want to know the rest, so she spills all about the sex, the being chased, about her father, how she can’t believe she never realised what a tosser Kevin was, what a loser, how unsuited they were for each other. “I suppose,” she says, grinning keenly, “I was just a bit caught up in how different he was.”
On her way to the toilets, someone grabs her elbow; it’s the fat bearded man from the crowd who chased her to the car. “Where’s your boyfriend, love?” he asks. He’s awesomely ugly, a hulk of pork scratchings and beer, and she twitches at the death’s head tattoo where his flabby arm meets his leather waistcoat. She opens her mouth to say no, actually we’ve split up, and closes her eyes on instinct as the warm lump of spit hits her cheek. He laughs and turns away; she runs to the toilets, through the swing door, trying not to cry.
While she cleans up, she thinks of Jessica, of Simone; she looks at her reflection, and wonders how she might look with a tattoo on her forehead. This is not her style, but she is resourceful. There are, after all, other ways.
On her way back she stops by the fat man’s table, and, leaning forward to gift him a flash of cleavage, asks if maybe—if he’s not meeting anyone—maybe she could buy him a drink.