by Graham Tugwell
The voice of the Crab is a melody pipe, high and clear in piccolo floats:
A terror presses the bulge of his neck, cold in lustre, a pellet in pewter; the sentences, shepherded during the endless walk here, break sporadic into bursts, forcing themselves out in fractured gasps, with years of infinite cold between:
"I was wondering."
A cough to clear goes on too long, sounds too loud, and viciously he admonishes, turning a beetroot burgundy. He stuffs words into the air, ill-fitting; they bang off each other with tangible clunks.
"What I was supposed to say was."
"If you were interested."
"If you've nothing better to be doing."
"I'd like to."
"I'd like to take you for."
And the word 'coffee' sits on the sharp of his tongue, ready to have itself flung kamikaze with the next gulp of air but she looks from the counter and gently pronounces: "Dinner?" and blushes and smiles.
A smile finds itself on Darren's face, almost gymnastic in its contortions, breath slowly recovered to say:
"Yeah. Dinner sounds good. Dinner'd be… wonderful."
He in the glow and the rictus of smile lets her assent clothe them both in cloth-of-gold and settle the moment in amber, the florist's become a pointillist pollen of yellow and green.
Later, it will last forever.
But for now the moment is passing, and there's the chill and the shiver of what to say next.
Stop fiddling, you stupid fingers.
"What time do you get out— off work, like?"
"Well," says the Crab, scuttling across the counter to lift and drop a rudely ringing phone, "The shop closes at six, so give me an hour to tidy up here and get myself all dolled up…" She smiles. "So shall we say eight? Would that work for you?"
He indulges in another grin, another almost painful stretch.
"That would be."
And what to say now?
Fingers fumble amongst begonia stems and lupin fronds, teasing unpleasantly waxy cambersennies— in horror a delicate petal detaches; so hard he stares at the sunder, guiltily eyed—Did she see?— that there's a failure, almost, to catch her words:
"Darren, you can pick me up."
For a red split-second he thinks she's being literal— he makes a move to lift the little crab from off the order book but he stops himself just in time, hands spidering at hip-height.
Unnoticing, she cleans her claws on her apron. "The ditch behind the housing estate. I have my little bucket there. Beside the gap in the fence. That's where I'll be waiting, okay?"
Another flower fondled, a leaf caressed and—
A spin on his heel and fleeing, the bing of the bell in the doorway a thumbs-up from Christ himself, and triumph taking the hardness from pavement and road.
Music in his mouth and lent to the air.
Romancing the Crab!
Hours ago the sun went down and took with it the winter day, leaving behind a hole in dark through which the last of the heat is leaking.
A breath of cold blows past; he pulls the long grey coat about and in that movement he looks down— the shoes he chose especially, now dirtied in slogging across the field, he grumbles wordless to himself.
The ditch by the estate, she said.
The fence post…
Is this even the right—?
"Darren?" is a voice from the depths of the hedge, "That you?" and she comes out, a little curve of red peeking between leaves. "Hey," and she smiles, "Wait for me here; I'll just be a few more minutes, Okay?" "Sure," he says, plastered with grin, "Sure."
She winks, "Thanks hun," and scuttles back into the darkness of hedge.
So he waits by the fence post, taking the opportunity to run the dirty shoe along the back of a trouser leg, to cup his breath and smell.
And what was she doing in there, anyway?
Not her hair, certainly.
She didn't have any…
In a waft of perfume she is there.
"Darren. I'm ready. Sorry to keep you waiting."
He mumbles something inconsequential, something just for saying.
On a slant of moonlit wood she crabs sidewise left, she crabs sidewise right. Her dress sparkles, like salt on velvet. "How do I look?" she whispers.
"You look… you look…"
Darren smiles, looks down and shakes his head.
"I'm sorry; I'm just a bit… lost for words."
Off she goes a crab around, in salty velvet swish—
There— He finds the words "You look… beautiful."
She curtsies, crabbishly, amongst the leaves and dirt. Her voice is low. "Thank you Darren. You're… not so bad yourself."
Such deep stirrings…
"Now, pick me up Darren."
And pulled back from his musings, unsure if she's being literal this time, he makes no move, just stands, looking at her, perched upon the lip of her ditch.
His uncertainty manifests as a thickened "Er."
She sigh. "Darren. We'll be late," and waves her polished claws to be taken. Gently, carefully he stoops and picks her up. She moves about his palm in pinpricks, making herself comfortable.
She nuzzles, purring "Oh. You've got lovely soft hands."
"Thank you," he says automatically, thrilled by the snuggle and pinch of the Crab.
They make their way over the dark field. "So," she says, "Can you tell me? Where are you taking me tonight?" He navigates around a crusty blancmange left by a cow. "Well," he says, "I hope it's okay. We're just going somewhere in the village."
He peeps between his fingers. "I hope that's okay."
She rolls a pair of eyes, glossy bright like silver dragées, "Darren, I'm not going on a date with the restaurant. Wherever you take me, I'll be going with you. That's all that matters. Okay?
He almost chirped "You're the boss!" but that would have been a bit strange.
"Okay," is the word that he settles for.
Across the fields they make their way and on towards the lights of town.
The laugh of the Crab is a piccolo flute.
They are shown to their table in the bay of the window. Decorously Darren sets the Crab at her place then takes his seat. They smile at each other, a little awkward.
Menus are brought by the waiter. Candles are lit. Darren and the Crab order drinks. He peruses his menu; she scuttles over hers, turning the pages with claws, scuttling out of the way as they unfold.
Darren looks up. "Just out of interest…"
"What do crabs normally eat?"
"I think I'll get the chicken wings to start," says the Crab.
(Darren plumps for lasagne while the Crab orders pappardelle con granchio, blushing as she mangles the pronunciation.)
While they wait for their food to arrive they talk.
And it's all a little stilted at first, studded with breathless apologies for slights unseen and with eye contact holding only to break, to slide away in nervous giggles.
But then, someone seems to press the button marked FUN.
Just like that, it all became easy.
Like they'd always known each other.
He peeks over the top of his menu.
Dispel the terror!
Deploy the opening gambit!
"That's a lovely shade of lipstick you have there."
She smacks her mouthparts together. "It's called Turkish Patio."
"Well," he says, "It really brings out the… colour… of your eyes."
They flash in the candlelight.
"And you've got gorgeous…"
"What's… what's that bit called?"
"Here?" she says, lifting one of her legs a little.
"No. Er. Further… under."
Her claws move, tapping her carapace underside lightly.
"This, Darren, is my… pleon."
He rolls the strange word in his mouth. "Pleon."
Her antennae quiver. "Ahuh."
"Well, whatever it's called, it's a lovely… one of them."
"And it suits you."
"It's a good…"
She watches him struggle, her mouthparts come together in slow gleeful purse.
She stays his torment with a smile. "Thank you, Darren. But, if you asked me, I'd say my best feature was my…" She turns a circle on the tabletop…"Pert little telson."
"Oh," he says.
Her voice is low. "You haven't gone out with many crabs, have you, Darren?"
"No," he says and he clears his throat. "As a matter of fact… I haven't gone out with…"
On pins she crosses the table, reaching out a smoothly jewelled and polished claw.
Cold and hard, it rests between his finger and thumb.
A beauty, happening before him.
"You're doing fine," she says.
And she strokes.
"You're doing just fine."
And he tries not to, but he winces with her words.
"Something wrong?" she whispers, taking her claw away.
"Just… please, don't call me that."
A napkin comes apart in his fingers.
His voice is shrinking. "I don't… like that word. Don't like to be called it."
She smiles, a little haphazardly, "I don't get you."
He fights the bitterness out of his voice. "It's a dismissive word. Makes me… tame."
But the bitter remains, like the shredded napkin between his fingers.
"Who wants sweet when you can have… have…"
His voice trails off, failing altogether.
"Darren," she says, "I'm not sure I—"
Pain in his eyes, old and undiminished. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be… but."
"Don't call me sweet."
Four short words that grow between them; looming, treacherous bergs.
He stares out across the table.
The main course comes.
The mood recovers.
But for a while there it is touch and go.
She peeks over the rim of her plate. "Darren, can you cut this for me? Claws, you know," and she grins, clicking them once, twice.
He comes round to her side of the table and, bending, fills his lungs with the scent of her.
Cutting pasta for the Crab he rubs against her outer shell.
He didn't mean to but—
Cutting, he rubs against her outer shell.
Her blush sends fire through him.
Conquering with cutlery, the cooked meat cleaves.
"How big do you want me to…"
"Small," she says, "Sure amn't I only a little thing?"
And so he cuts a piece and cuts it in half, in quarters.
"That okay? Is that the right size?"
"Find out," and slowly, oh slowly, she opens her mouth. The morsel poised on a fingertip, gently he guides it through her folds and hinges.
She takes it in.
And the fingertip—
She rolls that round the pinch of velvet wetness that is her mouth.
"Oh sorry," she says, and her voice has gained a little husk.
She grins and nips the withdrawing tip.
"I didn't mean to."
(But she meant to.
She meant to.)
She laps the last drop from her saucer of wine and catches the eye of her date. "Another half bottle?" she says, "Will you join me?"
He picks up his glass. "Yes," he replies, a little thickly, "Yes, ah certainly will."
And dessert then, with cr&eagrave;me brûlée a crunch between teeth. "Tell me more about yourself," Darren says.
She nibbles mint-chip ice-cream. "Well, I'm a Virgo—"
He grins, "Not a… Cancer, then?"
She drops her jaw, her carapace ashudder with withering condescension, "No-oo, I'm not, Darren."
"Heard that one before?"
"Oh," and she ran her claw round the rim of her mouth, "Once or twice."
Change of tack.
"So what's it like working in a florist?"
"Thrillllling," and her darks eyes sixty-nine on top of slanting stems. Stretching, she turns full circle. "I tell you, nothing in the world turns me on more than filling endless pots with compost or clipping and clipping and clipping the ends of tulips until every single one of them is even."
"Nothing?" he says.
"Well, not nothiiiing," and that last syllable growls, is a curl to catch and draw in and draw down.
She twitches both sets of antennae.
He coughs into his wine.
She watches it…
They gobble the last of dessert.
They leave, aslant and stumble in orange-lit streets and he a little worse for wine and words, words for them both a leetle slippery—
He giggles, stepping heavily off the pavement and into the gutter, "Do you wanna keep..? I mean, is there anywhere… or anything you fancy doing?"
"The night is young," she titters, and plants a little crabby kiss between his fingers.
A little thing, but ah the thrill of it
"Onwards!" he yells, a slurring and hoarse, and the wind is a jealously, curling between, trying to force them apart.
But it only makes them draw together close.
Down the town they wander, come by the bus stop, by the front of the builder's wholesalers, breath a haze of crystal in the air before their mouths.
And they hear it—
Music—a bodhrán beat, a fiddle shriek, the looping flute in swallow flight— they hear it, come from the door of Donovan's.
"Oh Darren," she whispers, excited, "Let's go in, good Lord, I'd love a dance."
He grins between his fingers. "Shall we, m'lady?"
And in they go, and the cold outside bulking doggish against the door and windows to watch.
(When will it find such love and warmth?)
Bodies, in their dozens pressing, hopping with the beat, lubricated with drink, and up by the bar is the band, lashing the music into the crowd:
Sit me in the bould chair Mammy,
Sweet Jaysus I'm a pup tonite.
I need a good clip round the ear,
An hour in the bould chair'll set me right!
And over the hollers of 'Yip!' and 'Yahoo!' Darren launches words for her: "The Regrets are in fine form altogether, aren't they?"
"Fierce!" cries the Crab, on the counter ajig amidst the pints.
And Darren sways with a Celtic thrum, extending a hand for fancy a dance? and she nips the skin between finger and thumb, "Oh Darren, I thought you'd never ask!"
Onto the boards and the music takes, sends them stamping steps in body jostle: she pirouettes on just two points, he Vulcans his fingers across his eyes.
"Darren," she shouts, beckoning "You don't have to dance so far away. Come close."
"Closer," she says, "You can hold me."
But he doesn't. "I'm worried people will step on you," he says. "Worried I might."
"Darren, you're swee—"
She stops, starts again:
"Darren, you're kind, you're good, but don't be silly, I can look after myself. Come on!"
Her feet are a tickle on floorboards, a rattatattat of autumn rain. and all the patrons gather round—
"Wow!" says a gent in indoor shades, "Choice moves! What do you call that dance?"
"I call it the Crab!" cries the Crab.
And everyone takes their cue from the Crab and everyone does the Crab.
"Wow!" says another someone, "These moves are ace! Wait until I tell everyone in Dunboyne, it'll be a smash!" And Darren, so proud to be here with her…
He comes in close and holds her.
Doing the Crab together.
And dance and fun and where does the time go?
They stand in the field, by the ditch, by the fencepost.
She nuzzles the ball of his thumb, "I don't normally do this," she whispers, "Not on the first date."
She turns a brighter shade of red.
"Would you like to come down into my ditch for coffee?"
Unsteady, he peers into the darkness beyond the hedge. "You have… like a kettle down there?
"No… just a tin of coffee and—" she laughs, "—actually now that I say it, it sounds revolting."
And she turns around on the flat of his hand—
"Sitting in dirt."
Pleon, telson rubbing.
"Eating raw coffee."
A great rush of courage thickens the struts of his neck and hollows the back of his head and makes him blush and bark "My place is nearby!"
He points at a distant smear of lights. "Over there," he says, unnecessarily. "It's got a kettle?" an upward-inflected addition of dubious need.
"Well then," she whispers, "That seals the deal, doesn't it?"
(The kettle boils.
And is left to cool—
"I'm a pup tonite…")
That was the first date.
That was the beauty.
He comes to meet her from work.
The sign in the window says CLOSED.
But the door to the florist is slightly ajar…
Going in gentle, smiling, he hears:
In the back room.
The clacking of her claws.
The thump and gasp of thrusting.
He opens the door.
Sees a man in reddened folds of ham ibent over a stack of mouldy wreaths, half-wrapped in a swathe of butcher's grass, grinding his teeth in the rhythm.
And under him the Crab.
She sees Darren in the doorway.
"I'm sorry!" she says.
"Guhve me a minute—"
And the man turns in a rear of meaty back, roaring from the hole in his glistening face: "Shut the door!" "Shut the fucking door!"
Flowers tumble from his hand, they break apart in petals.
He stands in the doorway.
Sees and hears.
The rocking belly.
Sweat slick shoulders flex mid-thrust.
The Crab underneath.
Her voice a melody pipe as she laughs:
He waits, his back to the doorjamb.
First the fat man shouldering past, buckling up his trousers.
Wordless red, he goes.
Then: she stands in the doorway, straightening her apron.
"Okay," she says, "Ready. Where are you taking me tonight?"
She sees all the petals curled on the carpet about her.
"Oh. You brought me… flowers."
The Crab smiles.
She rolls it in her mouth.
Graham Tugwell is a writer and performer of Irish distraction and the recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010. His work has appeared in over fifty journals, including Anobium, The Quotable, Pyrta, THIS Literary Magazine, L'Allure Des Mots and Poddle. He has lived his whole life in the village where all of his stories take place. He loves it with a very special kind of hate. His website is grahamtugwell.com.