How an eight-armed creature became Rebecca's BFF during a lockdown spent in a remote coastal town - and a symbol of a uniquely personal kind of nostalgia.
The day before Aotearoa went into level four lockdown in March 2020 we found an octopus; living under a little ledge in a shallow rock pool. That first day we walked back there and it was still there. The following day; still there.
Don’t panic, dear community Facebook page: I promise we didn’t travel for lockdown. But as fate would have it, in some kind of midlife career crisis (or an attempt to reconnect myself with values away from the corporate grind of Auckland living) in early January I had quit my job, packed everything we owned into the garage, rented out our house, enrolled our children in a tiny country school and moved into a rental in a tiny coastal community in the Coromandel.
I’d discovered (as only those living a life of privilege, and with a husband who can work from anywhere are able) a yearning to live with nothing. A pared down, stripped back existence. Living out of a small bag of (non-designer) clothes in a place with no shops, patchy internet and a tiny rainwater tank for six months provided just that.
I lived my days barefoot, bare-faced and filthy (water being too precious a commodity for regular washing of self and clothes).
Lockdown meant packing away the surfboards and fishing rods but it also meant the bay was completely quiet. No forestry trucks or concrete mixers hurtling over the hills and, most eerily, no boats in sight. The peace that washed over the bay was extraordinary. Especially once we turned the notifications from the community Facebook pages off.
I was of course worried about friends overseas, family back in Auckland, small businesses I knew were struggling and how I’d find employment when life got back to ‘normal’. But once lockdown formally started, I made a conscious decision not to worry in the short-term, while things were outside our control. Away from reminders of home it was easy to pretend we were on an extended, rather odd, family holiday.
Eventually we named our octopus Wilson, after the volleyball in Castaway. Each day we would feed him a live crab (or many live crabs). Occasionally we fed him paua. For a short time we moved to oysters, until one day when he very politely handed it back to me. If the crabs were too small, he would do the same.
We went every day, as a family. Wilson would hear the dog’s toenails clicking over the rocks and come right out, waving at us with all his gangly arms in anticipation if he was in a good mood, literally taking the crabs from our hands.
Other days he’d sulk under his ledge, before we’d eventually coax him out by releasing crabs that would scuttle furiously past him, relishing their short-lived freedom. On these occasions he’d catch and store multiple crabs before slowly torturing them. This always cheered him up no end. We loved his little personality so so much.
He kept us active and engaged in the outside world.
I’ve never been one for schedules and I was hopeless at mandating schoolwork. Wilson was the routine we needed; he kept us all sane.
Sometimes the children would go home ahead of me and I would just sit with him; turning over seemingly every rock in the bay in order to find the giant crabs I knew would elicit his approval and validate my day.
One day, having seen footage on my husband's Instagram, a friend of his messaged to say he was editing a documentary about an octopus. My Octopus Teacher was released later that year but I haven’t watched it. I miss Wilson too much.
The day Aotearoa entered alert level one, nearly three months later, Wilson disappeared. I was devastated. I like to think he was a Covid-predicting octopus and his work with us was done. I hate to think he might’ve gotten too familiar with any of the multitude of visitors who had started pouring into the bay with newfound freedoms.
I visited daily until we moved home to Auckland in July, never without hope. The little hole he’d carved under the ledge is now filled in with sand and silt. Scattered crab carcasses are the only visible sign he was ever there.
I think we were the luckiest people in the world, to be locked down in paradise, with kids who at 10 and 12 were pretty much the most fun age to have an adventure with, and to be able to step away from the hustle and grind of city life in such a dramatic way.
Now we’re back in Auckland where I can no longer push my fear and anxiety about the future aside. We’re on a heavily reduced income which is much harder in the city, obviously. And I now have a 13-year-old high school student who would rather delete his SnapChat than walk the dog as a family.
I’m sad I didn’t journal my lockdown (this Vulture article on my husband is one of the clearest reminders we have), but I’m infinitely grateful I was able to recognise how lucky I was at the time and be present with that.
It’s not like looking back at photos from your thirties when you felt you looked old and being cross with yourself now for not appreciating it.
I’ll always have my beautiful moment in time. Now I need to figure out how to move into the future.