Crabbing, a short story by Paul Thwaites at
Felicia Montenegro



written by: Paul Thwaites


Distantly, as he moved towards sleep, the boy could hear the sea. It was a comforting sound that hushed and soothed him and he listened hard to hear it above the muffled mumbling of adults playing cards in the room below. As he drifted, the sea seemed to come closer until it lapped immediately outside the window of this strange bedroom filled with strange shadows. One by one the voices that came up from beneath him faded with the shadows, till all that was left was the sound of his breathing that mingled with the sound of the sea.
The sea came stronger then. Jack was back in the cave where he had been that morning. It was dark and cool. The sea scent surrounded him and he looked out from the aperture of the cave and saw the Blackhall beach stretching away in sunlight, strewn with its pebbles sea glass and shiny sea coal washed up from the nearby colliery. Beyond were the waves, rolling and hissing against the shingle and the sea coal rolled and turned bright and polished with the action of the sea.
The room that he slept in belonged to a distant uncle who they had come to visit and the bed that he slept in was also his uncle’s bed. It was the attic room with a sloping ceiling that made the shadows different and the room and the shadows lightened his slumber with their strangeness. When the uncle came in he was aware, in his dream, of his feet creaking across floorboards and of the blankets being pulled back and of the weight and warmth of him as he rolled onto the mattress.
The haze of waking was cut by the squeal of gulls. Jack opened his eyes. The sea had gone back and now could only be heard in the distance and far away beneath the sound of the gulls. The bed was cooled and seemed larger. Uncle Ray had already risen and gone downstairs. The salty aroma of bacon drifted across the landing and he felt that sudden rush of hunger that the smell of bacon brings. He sat on the edge of the bed in his pyjamas.
“Mornin’ Jack coom on get ready,’eres a bekon san’ wich for yoo.”
“What time is it?”
“Why it’s horf pas’ six, don’ you rimimber wha’ we suppose t’ be doin’ teday?”
“Is it crabbing Uncle Ray?”
“Aye crabbin’ an the’ll be gone if we leave it too late. We bes’ gan doon that beach afore the tide terns.”
Jack reached for his socks and his uncle’s face, fresh as a daisy disappeared behind the door. He heard the sound of his feet descending. It was good bacon, fried in lard and wrapped in a scuffler. When they walked out, into the terraced street where the seagulls swooped and screeched loudly, he could feel the warmth in his belly and the cold smack of the sea air. They walked down to the street end from where you could see the sea. Raymond walked briskly and the boy skipped beside to keep time with him. The sea rolled and whispered beyond the strand line with ancient insistence.
It was still blue dawn, but on the horizon a faint cream line had awoken, skimmed with pink. The faces of the cliffs were beginning to wake and thye dark caves, where he had played the day before, now seemed ominous and foreboding. The gulls were braver here, in their own environment. They swooped low above their heads, loud with racket. Raymond walked alongside the boy. He had brough his father’s Deputy Stick, which John, who was a Deputy at the pit used to lift the Davy Lamp into the roof voids to test for firedamp. The stick was like a badge of office.
Raymond made big strides, he swung the stick in time with them and the boy, much smaller had to keep a double pace.
“Where will we find the crabs, Uncle Ray?”
“Why doon in the rock pools, ‘eres plen’y ‘ere, some lef’ behin’ bonny lad, noo the tides gone oot.”
“What do we do with them then?”
Raymond threw back his head and laughed at the question, a loud silly laugh that seemed disproportionate, that when it subsided left behind, though more loudly the tide’s whispering and squawking of the gulls.
“Why we’ll eat ‘em man, ain’t ye ‘ad crab afoor?”
“No I never have.”
“Why ye don’t no what ye missin. Warm crab ‘n’ broon bread, why ‘s a mael fit fo’ a king!”
“How many will we need then?”
“Wun each at leas’, thi ma, thi da, my ma an’ da an yoo an me, then, oo many’s that?”
“Aye, six, well I recon on ate to be on the sefe side.”

He went to stand at the strand line. The light was in the sky now and the rocks and cliff blushed pink. The seagulls dipped and squealed pink winged over the fiery sea. Raymond spread his wellingtons and looked down, feet apart, a disgusted look on his face. Jack sidled up. He seemed serious and silent.
“What is it Uncle?”
“Jellyfish, a bluefire, wash’ doon fro Sun’erlan’ all bet!”
A blue dome beneath his straddled feet caught the pink light of morning. Looking up the shore he could see several of them, mounds of jelly stranded among the humps of seaweed and the flat orange stars. Each mound had its own centre, a nucleus like the pupil of an eye. Raymond aimed the point of the deputy stick and smashed it down. The creature contracted suddenly and Jack felt his own contraction, deep in his stomach. Raymond spat in the sand with satisfaction.
“Why they’re nothin’ but stingers, them man, I done right to kill it, you see!”
They continued along the strand, puncturing every jellyfish they found there, throwing every starfish back into the brine.
“There’s a rock pool, Jack.”
Raymond brought a small rolled up hessian sand bag from the pocket of his coat. The sun was risen, now, the bloody swathe drained back into the ocean and it cut a silver and gold path from the horizon to the shore. The water in the pool stood out, clear against the rock and the sand. Raymond lay down in the wet sand and turned on his side to throw his shadow across the surface and cut out the glare of sky and sun.
“Come doon, take a look,” he said.
The boy lowered to his belly and peered into the shady pool. He gave a little gasp, there was a new world in here. It was a world of shadow. Things were moving, flitting, living. Anemones stretched into the darkness like chrysanthemums, almost to catch the fleeting shadows.
“Can you see one, uncle?”
“Not yet, ‘ere might be one unner that lip, see?”
“Then how will you know it’s there?”
“Why I’m an expert crabber, I been crabbin’ doon ‘ere years!”
“How do you catch them, then?”
“Why, jus’ grab ‘em like, you got to watch de claws tho, the’re stong ‘nuf to break a finger.”
He reached down under the overhang, the boy curious, kneeling at his side, holding open the sack. He was quick.
“There you go!” he said.
Out came his hand, spanning the crabs back, its legs clawking at the empty air, the cruel black pincers opening and closing without purchase. He dropped the catch into the sack, its shell clattering on the pebbles of the beach though the hessian prison, Jack could feel it crawling about through the tightness of his clenched hand.
“There’s wun to start,” said Raymond.
They worked along the strandline from pool to pool, where limpets clung fast as pyramids and shrimps made fleet shadows across the sand and a silver sprat slipped like a blade among the green frond of dulse.
“Set a sprat t’ catch a mack’rel!” said Raymond.
He showed him the winkles, the black ones he said you could eat with a pin and the white ones which were no good and the ink blue mussels that hung from the weeds on the rocks like petrified tears.
“Me da broat some o dem up frum down th’ pit,” said Raymond, “they wus turn’ t’ stone. He ses they been doon there on a million yers.”
“Aye, mussels.”
“And what about them, can you eat them, too?”
“Aye, lovely if ye’ take oot the beard. Why a few mussels and a bit o’ sal an vin’ger, why there’s noth’n’ finer. Have you been coontn Jack how many we got noo?”
There were seven crabs. Jack could feel them crawling about at the bottom of the sack through the grip of his hand. He remembered what Raymond had told him about the claws.
The sun was full up. People were beginning to drift down to the beach, some with spades to dig for lugworms, beachcasters with their rods and gleaners and combers. Those who were lonely seeking their lonely places and their lonely occupations. They climbed the rise back to the street beyond the sand and the marram, up the cliff steps and the sand on the cobbles, which the easterlies had brought in. In through the back gate that set next door’s whippet barking. Everybody was up in the kitchen and the smell of the bacon lingered and there was his mother and father and Uncle John reading the Daily Star and May at the sink. John smiled at them and lowered the paper, looking over the top of his glasses.
“Have you broat crabs wee lad, so’s we can ‘ave ‘em fowar oor zuppa? Ma’ll be done st sink Raymond, jus’ drop ‘em in thar with a bit o’ woter an we’ll ‘ave ‘em toneet.”
When Mam had done at the butlers and washed away the suds, Ray put in the plug and topped the sink part up. Then he tipped in the crabs, sand and all. The seven crabs crawled about in the bottom climbing all over each other legs going like clockwork. The boy noticed their joints, mechanical, like clockwork, their black eyes lie beads on stalks peering around them and those great, serated black fingers, strong enough to break a finger.
“Have you been waitin’ all this time just so we could eat the crab?”
“Ay, why young Jack helped ‘im to catch ‘em, so’s it on’y seems right.”
It was early evening and jack’s mother and father had been out to visit relatives leaving the boy with his aunt and uncle.
“You shouldn’t have waited,” said his mother.
“’S oright we ‘ad a bit o’ tea, wha’ aboot you?”
“Aye, we ‘ad sarnies at Martha’s. I told her we was ‘aving crab.”
“Aye, what did Martha say?”
“Why envious man, says wisht she was comin’ too.”
John laughed.
“Put ‘em on Mother, we’re arll here noo.”
Aunt May took down a large aluminum jam pan which was hanging on the wall.
“’S big enough fo’ seven,” she said.
She laid it on the gas stove topping it up with water and casting a good pinch of salt on the surface.
“Get it to a rollin’ boil then ah’ll chuck ‘em in.”
Jack sidled across to the sink and looked over the rim. The crabs were in there clawing about, aimlessly. Something horrible suddenly dawned on him.
“They’re alive,” he said.
Raymond glanced at him mischievously, a glint in his eye.
“Aye, but not foor long!”
One by one May picked up the crabs holding them over the back of the shell as he had seen Raymond do earlier that morning. Their clockwork legs cycled hopelessly against the air. One by one she dropped them into the boiling water. A high pitched squealing filled the room. Jack felt hot, his heart began to quicken. He glanced towards the pot on the stove from which a grey foam of froth was beginning to rise. The sound of squealing began to quieten until all that could be heard was the background bubble of water and the whispering pages of the evening paper. Jack thought of the cartoons he had seen of missionaries being boiled alive.
May was buttering brown bread. Once she had plenty she lifted the crabs separately with a slotted spoon to let them drain. Jack went over to stand beside her.
“Would yoo like t’elp?” she asked.
The crabs were still now. They lay on their backs on the drainer, with their legs in the air. He had caught them that morning with Raymond, now they were dead, bright red and still as bone. She took a knife and trimmed down the carapace. The cartilage and tearing flesh sounded like wet cardboard. May hooked an expert finger.
“Dead men’s fingers, we don’ eat dem, gimme a han’ wi’ them legs.”
She grasped each leg in turn, twisting it from its anchor with a resistant, tearing sound, harder against the front legs with their big, black claws. Jack felt the elastic cartilage as he turned the legs in their sockets. She put each leg on the board and cracked them with her rolling pin, then she scooped out the white flesh with a skewer and the point of her knife. The flesh smelled aromatic, faintly fishy, sweet. She smashed the carapace and scooped out the brown, mealy flesh with a spoon, laying out a measure of each on six side plates. The broken shells, rendered limbs and crab cadavers, mounted up in a small heap beside her, contents of a charnel house.
“Come on noo, let’s ‘ave ye roon the table. Jack, you take your ma ‘n’ Da’s.”
It was warm, the crab, still warm from the boiling. The boy sat at the table with the adults, with Raymond, his aunt and uncle, his mother and father as if in some dark collusion. He looked from face to face, there was no recognition. Uncle John grinned.
“Come on noo bonny lad, get stuck in. Have ye nivver aten crab befoor?”
Jack shook his head.
“Why the, ye don’ ‘no wot ye missun. Go on now, try some.”
Jack took some of the crab on his fork, a white bit and then some brown. He mixed them both together, then took a piece of bread and dipped it in the juice. The crab tasted warm and rich and the butter melted on the bread and mingled with the warm, salty crab. The sound of the sea and the wailing of the crabs faded in his ears. All he could hear now was the clink of forks against porcelain, the sound of eating and enjoyment and all he could think was how good the crab was and whether they might go down again, tomorrow.

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