‘How do I kill it?’ I said. ‘Stab it in the mouth with a long knife,’ said the lad in the apron. ‘Push the knife in all the way and wiggle it about.’ ‘How long will it take to die?’ I said. ‘About 20 seconds,’ he replied.
My boy and his half-brother chose a victim from the shallow tank — a hen crab keeping a low profile in one of the corners. The lad in the apron whisked it out and put it upside down on some stainless-steel scales. We were going to kill it first, I boasted to the lad, because boiling it alive would be cruel. It’s best to kill them first anyway, said the lad, because if you boil them alive the legs come off in the pan. Then he said brightly, ‘Five pound fifty OK?’
We carried the crab back to the caravan in a cardboard box. The journey involved a ten-minute ride on a vibrating passenger ferry. The crab crouched stoically in its corner of the box. The ferryman said he’d have to charge us a dog’s rate for the crab, but then he said he was only joking. Was the crab afraid, my boys asked? I put on a wise, fatherly air. There was no way of knowing, I said. In the future, when science is more advanced, it may be discovered that the crustacean community is notable for its love of God or for its patriotism. But if you asked me, I said, even fear is too complicated an emotion for a brown crab. It was confused maybe, especially by the vibration of the ferry, but not frightened. ‘Let’s boil it alive,’ urged the boys.
After the ferry, a mile-long trek across sand dunes, which seemed endless. (When the tide’s out, Daymer Bay in north Cornwall is like the Arabian desert.) We became strung out. I was carrying the box with the crab, which was still backed into its corner. To pass the time I made a confession to it. ‘Boss,’ I said, ‘I’ve been depressed. I have suddenly realised that I have wasted my entire life reading books and newspapers, and that my head is full of nonsense.’ Apart from tilting an eyeball slightly upwards, the crab made no response.
‘I haven’t lived,’ I said to the crab. ‘I’ve nothing at all to show for all those locust reading years. I’m like a barren cow. I’ve no family life. I’m hopelessly in debt. I’m homeless. But, boss,’ I went on, ‘the drugs are beginning to work and I haven’t felt as good as this in months. Years even. I feel fantastic. And to confirm that I’m feeling more of a human being again, when we get back to the caravan I’m going to kill you without compunction, spread your insides on a piece of lightly buttered toast, and eat you.’
Again the crab gave no visible sign of having understood any of this. Though it might have gained an inkling of what was in store for it, because when we got back, it escaped from the box and hid under the caravan. (In retrieving it we found no fewer than four footballs, one without a puncture, too.) The boys urged me to boil the crab alive right up to the last minute: cogently arguing that its death agonies would provide more of an entertaining spectacle than a mere stabbing. Also, from a purely technical point of view, they wanted to see if it were true that crabs scream when placed in boiling water. I was having none of it, though. I wouldn’t wish death by boiling alive on anybody, even on Mr Blair.
We gathered round on our haunches in front of the caravan for the moment of truth. I put the tip of a serrated bread knife in the crab’s mouth then pushed it on through to the back of its shell. Its eyeballs shot out on stalks as if it was very surprised, and it gripped the blade desperately with all six legs and both claws. After 20 seconds it wasn’t the slightest bit dead. I removed the knife and reinserted it. wiggling it about this time, as if riddling a stove. That ought to do it, I thought. Watched now by an inquisitive robin, and with the plastic handle of the bread knife protruding from its face, the crab made a determined run for the underneath of the caravan. If anything, it had more life in it now than at any time during our brief acquaintance. After about five more minutes of this barbarity, we lobbed it in the pot of boiling water still alive. The crab didn’t scream and gave up the struggle after about a half a minute. And as the lad in the apron had predicted, some of the legs came off before it was cooked.