I came across a crab while surfing an empty beach break one afternoon. It was a real big one.
“Howdy, partner,” he said as I waited for a wave.
“G’day,” I said, in my friendliest voice. I didn’t want any trouble.
“How’s it going?” he said, just floating there on the surface of the water. He didn’t seem to mean any harm. His blue claws, both bulbous and sharp as a tack, remained closed.
“Pretty good, man. Say, I thought you guys sort of just scuttled along the sea floor?”
“Hehe,” he said, but it sounded forced. “Nah, mate.”
He showed me his back legs, shaped like paddles.
“I’m a swimmer crab, see?”
“Oh yeah. That’s cool.”
Then we were both silent for a bit. I’d let a few good-looking waves pass me by, but when a nice wedgy peak jacked up in front of me, I couldn’t help myself. The crab saw my body stiffen.
“Please,” he said.
“I’ll be back in a sec.”
I flew along the wave, the afternoon sun warming my face, and watched a mouth-watering section march towards me. I bent my knees in anticipation and was launched into the air, my arms and body following my head, until I’d landed a complete 360 into the flats, the wave now whimpering to shore. It was one of the best waves I’d ever surfed.
“Not bad,” the crab said when I returned to the takeoff zone. He was listing to and fro amid the building swell.
“Cheers,” I said, though I wondered whether he was just pumping my tyres. He must’ve seen dolphins launching from waves all the time.
“You come here often?” he said.
“Try to. I mean, when the wife’ll let me.”
“I hear that! It’s bloody hard getting away from the kids too.”
“Oh, mate. You’re tellin’ me. I just had my second. How many you got?”
“A few thousand, maybe.”
“Huh. So, you up to much today?”
“Nah, just chilling. Been better, to be honest.”
“Ah, that’s not good.”
“Yeah, mate, it’s the microplastics. Not to mention the heat and the water quality. These days I can barely tell my legs from my claws, the clarity’s that bad. And don’t get me started on overfishing. They’ve gotta stop those big trawlers and stretching bloody nets all over the place.”
“I’m a vegan, so…” I said feebly. Silence. He was right about the heat. I was still wearing board shorts, halfway through autumn.
“Say, have you seen any Asian paddle crabs?”
“Asian paddle crabs. Charybdis japonica. Dark guys, a bit smaller than me.”
“Isn’t that a bit racist?”
I realised I’d offended the guy. His beady eyes avoided mine, gazing up towards the headland.
“Well, you brought ’em here on your boats, not me. They’ve spotted a few around the place this year, so I was just seeing if you’d seen any. I just hope they don’t start killing us off with their diseases and eating all our food. Then you’ll be stuck with ’em, and they’re terrible eating for you blokes – toxic, actually.”
“Hey. I would never eat you, man,” I said. I thought about what else I might say, a compliment maybe – something positive about crabs. But all I could think about was the one from The Little Mermaid, and it reminded me that we always draw crabs red, but they’re mostly only that colour when they’ve been cooked.
“Nah, you’re all good, brother,” he said.
I wondered whether he could tell how the dunes on the beach were flatter than they were when I was a kid and what he thought of the garish new row of metallic streetlights, arced like swans’ necks, along the esplanade. I wondered how these observations might’ve made him feel. Then I remembered his life span was likely only a fraction of mine and so he probably wouldn’t have noticed these things, which made me sad.
“Ooh, this looks like a good one,” he said as a set approached.
“You sure you don’t mind?”
“Go ahead! See if you can do another one of those twirly-bird things.”
It was a crap one and I copped the next two waves on the head, but my muscles ached and the sun kept shining and I was happy to be alive.
When I made it back out, there was no sign of the crab. I kept an eye out for him whenever I went back to the beach break, but the waves never seemed as good and I never saw him again.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "The crab".
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