I started the fire the way Dad had taught me. First I set light to the dried pingao I’d collected, my hands cupped round the grass as a makeshift windbreak protecting the baby flames. Then small twigs, which I carefully placed one by one, gradually adding larger and larger pieces as the fire took hold. Once there was a solid base with flames that danced and laughed at the wind, I added pieces of driftwood from the stack. Dry and white like old bones, it crackled with an orange flame.
“Hey Jackson! Is it going yet? Can you gimme a hand?”
I looked up. Alex was knee deep in the ocean, his arms wrapped around the top of the old yellow net. I ran down to help him drag it out of the shallows onto the sand.
Crabs don’t like much. They didn’t like being pulled out from the ocean. They didn’t like being caught up amongst the old net. They didn’t like me disentangling them, no matter how careful I was. I plopped them in the bucket, where the first couple scuttled round the edges looking for somewhere to hide. They didn’t like being there either. The only things they seemed to like was a chicken carcass and being under water.
When I got back to the fire, Dad was sitting beside it. He looked at me with hooded bloodshot eyes; the familiar sweet smell of alcohol on his breath.
“Crabs,” Dad said.
“Yup, crabs.” I put my shirt over the bucket to keep them shaded.
“Overfishing,” he muttered as he dragged on his cigarette. “No snapper to keep them down. Nasty little fuckers.”
He flicked his cigarette butt into the fire as I went back to the sea to fill the boil-up pot. When I got back he was gone.
It was hard to keep the pot steady on the fire. I laid a couple of big, straight-ish pieces of wood over the coals to rest it on, but it was still pretty wobbly. Especially when we dropped the crabs in. The crabs didn’t like the boiling water either. They jumped around like crazy when we dropped them in. After our feed, we returned to the sea, diving under to wash our hands and mouths. We dropped the shells back amongst where the crabs been pulled from. I wondered if crabs liked eating the scraps of their friends and family. Did they even know it was them?
Dad and I lived in the house he’d grown up in. My room was Dad’s old room and I slept in Dad’s old bed. At night, salty and dry, I ran my fingers over the Hans Solo sticker on the edge of the top bunk. As the sound of the waves lulled me to sleep, I thought about Dad when he was a kid. The sticker made me feel close to him.
I was woken by the heavy drumming of rain on the roof. Flashes of light came through the crack in the curtains. I reached down and pulled the blankets around my neck - up high, safe and dry in the dark. Is this how the crabs felt, before we pulled them out into the heat and light?
The storm bought welcome relief from the heat, and from Alex. It was a good excuse to stay in bed and play on my phone. We had rituals when Alex came to stay over the summer. Crabs was one of them. Getting some respite from him when the storms came was another. I wasn’t used to being around people. Dad didn’t come home for the days it was stormy. I didn’t miss him - he was probably holed up at mate’s place, on the piss. The weather was too filthy for anyone to go anywhere.
My mattress jerked upwards, startling me.
“Stop kicking or I’m gonna come down there and beat your ass,” I hissed to Alex.
“Shut up, dick! It’s stopped raining.” He shoved his feet into my mattress again. “Get up, we need to look for ambergris.”
Ambergris hunting was another of our annual rituals. When we were younger we thought we would find enough to make us millionaires. Now we both knew there was about zero chance of finding any, but we didn’t want to admit it.
The bay curved wide in front of us, the clouds retreating from the whitecaps. We walked along the high tide mark looking at the treasures the sea had brought in. More driftwood, seaweed of different colours and shapes, scallops dredged up by the storm and dying in the sun. A cast of hermit crabs moved slowly in a shallow puddle. Some had lost their shells and were challenging those who still had their homes on their back. They were vulnerable with their soft curled bodies on display.
“Come on.” Alex thrust his hands deep into his hoodie pockets as he walked off.
“In a minute.” I collected a few whelk shells and carefully placed them near the naked crabs.
“Nah, something could come and eat them.” I waited, watching the crabs test the fit of the shells with their claws, then try them on for size. I wanted to be sure they were safe.
Our shadows disappeared under us as the sun drove the moisture from the air. We stopped for a break sitting on our hoodies, enjoying the heat on our arms and back. It was our usual place to stop, near the remains of our fire from a few days ago. I looked at the charred wood contrasting against the white sand, and smiled at the memory. It was pretty good having Alex here.
We were nearly the rocks at the end of the bay when Alex spotted it.
“Shit! What’s that?”
Something big rested where the tide had retreated.
“A seal, maybe.” I strained my eyes to make out what it was. “Or a massive pile of ambergris.”
“You’re such a dick.” Alex punched me on the arm.
We made our way towards it, its form becoming clearer, and then broke into a run.
“Shit.” Alex and I stood together, trying to comprehend what was in front of us. There were heaps of crabs. Big ones. More than I had ever seen at once. They surrounded a body – the face buried in the damp sand. The skin was grey-white and swollen tight with gas. It was tempting to poke it with a stick, but I knew enough not to let the hot air and guts spew over us. Across the bloated shoulder was a pattern of black swirls. I stared at the familiar design, feeling a tightness in my stomach and fists.
“Shit,” repeated Alex.
I turned and stared out at sea, and thought about the tattoo, and the Star Wars sticker on the bunk, and the crabs.
Nasty little fuckers.