FICTION

The Crab and The Homeless Man

Sketch by author

That weekend Ella and I headed down to my uncle’s holiday house near the inlet and beach. Ella was in the passenger seat on her phone, and after telling her about the house being close to these bodies of water and her not responding, I said, ‘Did you hear that?’ She continued to text, so then I don’t know. I began lying about a homeless man. Okay, so I said, ‘I showered at the beach down there these two times and I saw a homeless man with a syringe in his arm.’

Now she looked up and said, ‘You serious? What did you do?’

‘Checked his pulse, called the Ambulance.’

‘Was he okay?’

‘Yeah, just super high. Poor thing.’

‘Shit, Duncan,’ she said and put her hand on my hand, which was on the gear stick. To draw out this, I remained still in third gear, even as the engine revved past 4000.

To clarify, I didn’t wholly fabricate the homeless man. The last time I was there at this beach, I spotted a guy on a park bench in an overcoat drinking out of a paper bag. Only at the sight of him, I abandoned my swim and jogged back to the house. I must have been on edge or something because on my way, a Bull Terrier barked at me, and I dropped to the pavement, curling up in fetal position. The dog’s owner, a Bull Terrier personified, he pointed at me, threw his head back and held his stomach on the front lawn, saying, ‘Did you see that! Ha. Did you see that?’ But I wasn’t going to tell Ella that story, was I?

‘So who’s house is this again?’ Ella shouted above the motor.

I changed gears. Ella moved her hand from mine.

‘My uncle’s,’ I said. ‘Uncle Billy.’

‘Must be generous, letting you stay here whenever you want.’

‘Mmm,’ I said. Uncle Billy had been generous. He let everyone stay there but then that financial crash happened and he put a stop to freeloaders, as he called them, and began charging $100 per night. You could stay anywhere down there for that. But I didn’t tell Ella this either. You see, we were on the ropes, Ella and I. She was seeing another guy. Maybe there were more. Whatever. Anyway. We had the chat. And by chat I mean she read lines of a book by a French sex therapist and said she wanted to have sex with other people. So that’s what we did. Well, she did. I never got anyone on the side. I was too busy working at the bar. On the other hand, when I asked Ella if she had — had someone on the side, that is — she brushed her hair back and said that was none of my business. But here’s the thing. Ella got kicked out of her share house, which was typical of her. Then she called to ask if she could just rent the other room in my apartment. So I said, ‘You can just move into my room for the time being.’ But she said, ‘No, no. I insist.’ So what could I say? She moved in, and soon she had this friend, Erik Chong, start to come over. ‘Erection,’ I said to her, and she went, ‘Oi, be nice, big ears.’ She was referring to my big lobes that poked out. She had a point. No one’s perfect. All I’m saying is I’d prefer chunky lobes and even my receding hairline than Erik’s stringy black ponytail and bright cotton pants with a drawstring. Plus he was a student who lived in the backpackers. Still, she started staying at his more and more. ‘Where are you going?’ I’d say as she packed her bag at the apartment and she’d go, ‘Erik’s.’ Sometimes she’d sneak in late at night and sleep in the other room, the one she was technically renting, and the following day when I asked her where she was, the answer was the same. So I stopped asking. Then one morning, she was leaving my apartment for her new job at the discount chemist. As she closed the door, she said, ‘Have a nice day.’ She waited and then said, ‘Okay, whatever.’ I said, ‘What? Does Erik wish you a nice day?’ And she said, ‘You’re unbelievable,’ and placed her palm on her forehead. ‘You know,’ she went on, ‘Erik teaches meditation on Friday nights. You should come.’ ‘Maybe,’ I said, and she left. Later I texted her. I said, Why don’t WE just do something together Friday. She replied, If you ask nicely. So I organised the weekend at Uncle Billy’s, for just us.

We turned into the new development, and I pointed to a big sign that said, WELCOME TO COASTAL PARADISE. I moved my eyebrows up and down and said, ‘You ready for paradise, Ella?’ She scoffed and fingered the Minty wrappers in the cupholder.

We passed the first roundabout and saw miles of empty blocks coated in dusty sand and the odd two-story house. I turned some corners, did a few U-Turns, and Ella said, ‘You know where you’re going?’

Now I jeered at her, but I had no idea. The streets were a maze. ‘The planner designed the road network to resemble a rose from a bird’s eye view,’ I said as we reached another cul-de-sac.

‘So dumb,’ Ella said.

‘Or a-MAZE-ing?’

‘Dumb.’

She was calling my joke dumb or just repeating herself. At any rate, I stopped talking and we spent the rest of the trip in silence. By the time we pulled in the driveway, Ella had pressed herself up against the window, as far away as she could get. ‘So, what do you think?’ I said, casting my hand over the two-story house.

She was facing the dead grass and a rusted For Sale sign staked over the old herb patch. ‘Is he selling?’ she said.

‘Yeah. Said he’s going to get the profits to buy a bigger one. I might chip in too, actually, as an investment.’

Ella craned around and raised her eyebrows. ‘Are you just?’

I carried our luggage in.

I only gave her a tour of the downstairs and then she got into her bathers and lay chest down beside the pool. Meanwhile, I lugged the rest of the stuff inside. I unloaded the shopping bags in the kitchen. I made my way upstairs and sorted out fresh sheets. I got two white bath towels and folded them neatly on the edge of the King-sized bed. Then I got on the mattress. ‘Ella, check out the bed,’ I called out, jumping up and down. ‘Hey, Ella!’ But when I looked out the window, she hadn’t moved. Her top was off and she just turned pages of her book while her feet moved back and forth in the air.

Outside, the wind had died down and the eucalyptus in the backyard had stopped swaying. I dangled my feet in the pool and said, ‘We should go to the beach. I’ve surfed down there quite a few times.’

‘Yeah?’ Her eyes were glued to the book.

‘Surfed a few sets into the beach,’ I said, moving the pool water back and forth with my foot.

‘I believe you,’ she said and turned another page.

‘I’ll push you onto a couple.’

‘I’m happy here,’ she said.

I pointed at the trees. ‘But look, no wind. Oh, I see,’ I said. ‘You’re scared of the homeless man.’

She looked up at the sky and breathed out heavily. ‘Okay, okay, fine,’ she said. ‘You win. Just let me finish this chapter.’

It was a long chapter. On the grass out the front, I waited on a pink towel, watching the clouds form and dissipate. The wax on my board had melted by the time she emerged from the house in her bikini, a two-piece that tightly cupped her breasts and disappeared up her cheeks.

‘Do you want a t-shirt or something?’ I said.

‘Why?’ she said.

‘You might be cold.’

She pulled her bra down and did a little dance so everyone in the neighbourhood could see her large breasts bouncing up and down.

‘What about now?’ she said. I threw a towel over her, and she laughed and said, ‘Duncan, Duncan.’

On the way to the beach, I fretted about the homeless man being there. After all, Ella would be the type who would go up to him in her two-piece, point to me and say, ‘Remember him? He saved your life.’ And I’d have to wave my hand casually and say, ‘He wouldn’t remember.’ The man would look at me like I was the crazy one, and I’d have to come up with an explanation about the mix-up.

Thankfully, there was no homeless man, as it turned out, but right at the end of the car park near the beach entrance, there was a group of young men huddling around three Land Cruisers. Around them were bodyboards and empty beer bottles. They shouted over loud electronica.

‘Let’s go this way,’ I said, pointing further up the beach to another entrance.

‘Why?’

I nodded at the group. One kid had his ear against the speaker, shaking his head. Meanwhile, another one with a neck tattoo sculled his beer and ditched it against a retaining wall.

‘You scared?’ she said and skipped along the edge of the pathway.

I followed and sshe began to point to birds she read about in her book and said something about flight paths. As we passed the bodyboarders, the guy with a neck tattoo slowly wolf-whistled at us. Well, Ella, presumably. We picked up our pace, and they thumped their cars and bodyboards like fans at a sports stadium. On the beach Ella was redfaced as she laid out her towel. She sat, repositioned her sunglasses, opened her book.

‘Do you want the umbrella?’ I said.

‘I don’t care,’ she said.

‘Okay,’ I said and picked up my board. ‘You sure you don’t want to come out?’ I patted the fibreglass.

‘Positive.’

‘Watch how it’s done,’ I said.

She mustered a grin, though something had changed in her, like she had retreated into herself or something.

The surf was much bigger than last time. For the first hour or so, I was less surfing, more half-drowning in the white water. To make matters worse, the group of bodyboarders arrived on the beach with their tiny flippers and wetsuits that came down to their knees. One of them pointed at Ella, who unsuspectingly read with her cheeks on display, and he started humping the ground. The others laughed and joined in, on the humping, and shortly after paddled out, which is about when I decided to go in. Okay, so I made my way into the impact zone, and I don’t know, I wasn’t focussing on what was behind me, a giant set wave. So as I headed in, the set wave picked me up and, get this, threw me onto a bodyboarder. He called out, ‘Oi, oi, oi,’ like he was making sure I could see him. I could, but I couldn’t overpower the mountain of water, which threw me onto him. Underwater, we became tangled, tumble-turning among the white wash and I began to feel my lungs burst. Upon finally surfacing, I gasped for air and lay on my back in the shallows. On the other hand, the bodyboarder brushed back his hair, pointed to the shore and said, ‘You stupid kook. Go in, never come back.’ I nodded.

‘That was quick,’ Ella said as I picked up my towel and umbrella.

‘I was at least an hour and a half.’

‘More like twenty minutes. Look.’ She held up her phone with the time.

‘Whatever. We need to go.’

‘Why?’

‘I’ll explain later,’ I said.

‘You look awful. What happened?’

I didn’t reply. I just paced up the beach to another path, in an attempt to avoid the bodyboarders. There was only one way to the house, though, which involved passing through that carpark. We did so inconspicuously, of course, but the neck tattoo guy still spotted us and said, ‘That’s him, the kook.’ Then he chucked an empty beer bottle at me, and I dropped, like that time I crossed the Bull Terrier.

While I was down Ella said, ‘C’mon. Get up. C’mon.’ Then she lightly kicked me, and I thought, New low-point. But there was more.

‘Listen to your missus,’ Neck Tattoo said.

Ella faced them and said, ‘I’m not his missus.’

He followed up with a comment about her being my hot sister, but Ella didn’t correct him. She didn’t say she wasn’t my sister. I got up, and Ella put her towel around her, covering her breasts and cheeks. On our way back I put my arm around her and stroked her shoulder. ‘Don’t mind them,’ I said. But she shrugged my hand off.

At the house Ella walked straight into the bathroom. She had a 45-minute shower. After, she went into the bedroom and closed the door. Meanwhile I fixed dinner. I laid out a packet of fresh pasta, and after realising I’d forgotten the mince, I ran up to Ella. She was cross-legged on the bed, watching something on her laptop with headphones. ‘Want to go crabbing?’ I said, through the cracks of the door. ‘We can make crab pasta.’

‘What?’ she pulled the headphone away from her ear.

‘Want to go crabbing?’

‘You serious?’ she said. ‘No.’

‘Crab pasta,’ I said.

‘I’m not going, Duncan. Why can’t you just go alone,’ she said, as more of a statement than quesiton.

‘I can,’ I said. ‘What? I can go.’

She let go of the headphone.

‘I’ll get fresh crabs,’ I said, although she didn’t seem to hear me.

I was about to close the door, but Ella chimed in. ‘Oh and, Duncan?’

I flung the door back open. ‘Yeah?’ I said.

‘We’re going home tomorrow, right?’

‘I booked two nights.’

‘There’s an art gallery on tomorrow night.’

She didn’t have to say. Erik invited her to an art gallery, I knew. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘No worries. We will head back tomorrow. Yep. Sure thing. Tomorrow.’

She smiled before returning to the screen.

I walked down to the shed, got the scoop net, a bucket, a six-pack of Draughts, and set off. I walked past the boardwalk, past the dirt track, and past the thickets until I got to a little bay. I used a long string of weed to tie the bucket to my waist and put the beer in the bucket, and walked out. I shuffled around in the shallows, near a group of pelicans that circled a tire half sticking out of the water. ‘Anything?’ I asked, holding out my scoop. They took no notice though, these pelicans. First I did loops of a figure-eight near the shore, but eventually I waded further out. The bank continued on and on. Soon I was halfway across the inlet. I was out here for a while, scouring the lifeless estuary bed, and then, no joke, I spotted a cloud in the shape of a crab. There was the oval-shaped body, little streaks of legs, and two long arms with claws on the end. Plus a few fine lines for the antenna things. Okay, so the sun began to set and the crab turned a soft pink. The wind picked up too, pushing the clouds toward the desert, and the crab began literally scurrying across the sky. Then, get this. I looked back into the water and right there next to my left foot was a crab the size of my forearm, just lying there. So I scooped it into the bucket, as easy as that. Curiously, there was no resistence. Even walking back with the bucket floating on an angle behind me, he chose not to escape. Don’t be mistaken either. When you’ve got claws as long as grown man’s hand, to escape or not to escape is a choice. Back on the boardwalk, I cracked open another beer and cheers-ed him for that, for not leaving. ‘Here’s to you,’ I said and he looked at me with his beady eyes. ‘Here’s to me too,’ I said and took a sip.

Who knows why but before I went back to the house, I stopped off at the car park. No one was there, of course. The street lights flickered and the waves crashed loudly. I put the net and bucket down. ‘Stay there,’ I said to the crab and grabbed an empty bottle. Shards from earlier on were still next to the retaining wall and I threw my bottle at the ground, watching glass shatter everywhere. Then I chucked another, and another. I would’ve grabbed the last empty one too, but a voice called out. ‘Oi!’ the voice said. Again, who knows why but instead of running I inspected, walking into the dark patch of the bitumen, my thongs crunching on the glass. Eventually, I spotted a mysterious man on the bench next to the outdoor showers. He was slouched, gazing out into the black abyss of the sea. ‘Sorry,’ I called out, and he lifted his beer up, as if to cheers me. After a moment I held my beer up too. We both sipped, nodded, then I hoiked my gear and the crab bucket over my shoulder and left.

Hi. I’m an author of one fun-sized book (Life’s a Batch), a freelance copywriter at Brew Copy, and sometimes I go on Twitter and Instagram. Oh, and I write a newsletter.

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Jayden O'Neil

Jayden O'Neil

Fiction, humor, essays, doodles. Author (Life’s a Batch), copywriter (Brew Copy), journalist (WA Today, SMH). Perth, Australia.