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Hermit Crabs
Lynette Washington (University of Adelaide, Australia)



You are different people, depending on who you are with. You know this and you even know when you are self-censoring; you have that awareness. It’s always with family and with work, never with friends. They are your three groups and your three personalities: family, friends and work. You expect it’s the same for everyone but maybe worse for you than others because you are prone to living inside your head more than most. It’s an occupational hazard, for at least one of your jobs. You work two jobs. The one that pays the soul is the sea shell job. The one that – surprisingly – pays the rent is the retail job.

In retail you are paid to agree with anything the customer says, unless they say that they look bad in a dress, or a pair of pants makes their bum look big. In that case, you are paid to lie.

You’re aware that the list of things you are agreeing with is getting longer and more disturbing. Last week, a woman came in to buy a dress and complain about her son’s teacher. Or maybe she came in to complain about her son’s teacher, and buy a dress. Either way, she did one and not the other . You found yourself agreeing that teachers are lazy for having days off to write reports. ‘Why should they be given a day off to do their jobs? If I asked for a day off to do my job, I’d be laughed at.’

You found yourself agreeing that chemists should sell bullets over the counter, made available free of charge to all the nut jobs who need anti-psychotic drugs to ‘save us all the trouble and expense of futile rehabilitation’.

You found yourself agreeing that climate change was hooey and the government just wanted to screw more money out of us. This lady bought a six hundred dollar sequinned gown, made in Italy.

You found yourself wishing for that bullet, for yourself, by the end of the day.

It’s hard to find complete shells these days. You have to go further and further out, away from metropolitan beaches, and you have to plan it with the tides. The waning of a high tide is the only time worth going now. Or after a storm. You find yourself increasingly drawn to the non-shell detritus and wonder if you can make something of it. You talk to your other boss, the man who owns the pet shop in the mall, and he laughs like you are joking until he realises you’re not and then he looks at you deliberately for a long moment before turning to a browsing customer.

‘Can I help you with anything?’

You decide to try the idea that’s forming in your mind. There are fewer shells, anyway. You know that the pet shop owner can import shells, painted with just as much skill as yours are, but he doesn’t. Yet. Maybe this kind of innovation might save your second job. Maybe once he sees something beautiful he will change his mind. You found a curl of broken glass the other day. Its edges were smoothed after years at sea and its frosted green skin was lovely, especially when held up to the light. You decide that if it was the neck of the bottle it would have been perfect. You keep your eyes out.

You decide to experiment with shell designs. Mostly people want beach scenes. They assume hermit crabs want to live in shells that look something like their natural habitats. But they’re wrong. You’ve had pet hermit crabs since you were thirteen and know that hermit crabs have no such scruples. They choose a house because it fits, because it is the right shape for them, at that moment in their lives. Because they can tuck themselves in and trot themselves out as they please. Not because it is blue like the ocean, yellow like the sand or some combination of the above. You discover, very quickly, that the shells you adorn with diamantes sell like cherries before Christmas. You discover, very quickly, that shells with skulls and crossbones sell – you assume to young boys with pirate fetishes. You discover that floral designs sit, unwanted, for a long time and eventually get handed back for you to ‘rework’. You add diamantes to the stamens. They sell very quickly. It’s not so hard to change people’s views on hermit crab shells, you discover. Now, no one wants ocean pictures. It’s like mobile phone covers: a hermit crab shell is an extension of personality. And you can change it. Every time your crab grows, you can change its personality like you are changing your dress. A crab can go from a semi-stormy beach scene (by far the most popular of all beach scenes) to wearing a schooner of beer or a necklace of pearls. Suddenly the possibilities of personality are endless. You like this idea.

You start to paint shells for yourself. You use them like idols. You line them up on your dresser like some women line up beauty products. You start with three, for your three personalities. The shell you take to the dress shop is painted black; it’s symbolic of the dark void you feel when you are there, the void that makes it easier to lie to your customers. The shell you take to the beach for collecting is painted pink, the colour of acceptance and calm. The shell you take when you visit your family is yellow, which you delightfully discover on The Meaning of Colour dot com means both joy and deception. You wonder if it’s strange that you don’t paint anything other than a solid colour, but then you remind yourself that these shells are just for you, and it’s ok .

And then you meet someone who you think you might like and occasionally find that you self-censor with them. You don’t know where this fits. You don’t self-censor all the time, like at work or with family, but there isn’t the same ease and complete lack of self-censoring. He fits somewhere in the middle. You go to The Meaning of Colour dot com and consult the charts, trying to find a colour that fits him, but there is no single colour. He’s a little bit red (because there is passion) and he’s a little bit orange (because he has energy that is never quite exhausted). There is brown (because he is stable, earth-like, reliable). You want to add green for harmony and family but you know it’s too early. There can’t be harmony when there is self-censoring.

You find yourself self-censoring when he asks about your shells one night.

‘What are these?’

‘Oh, that’s just for work.’

‘For the dress shop? Is it some kind of summer promotion? I hope they pay you for your out-of-hours.’

‘No, not for the dress shop.’

‘What then?’

‘I paint them, for hermit crabs. The pet shop sells them.’

He laughs. Like he’s never met a person who did such a ludicrous and useless thing.

You blush, but it’s a different red to the one you normally associate with him. This time it’s shame, not passion.

‘Oh, baby, I’m sorry. It’s just…I’ve never thought about who does that stuff. I assumed it was done overseas, you know, in sweatshops. Not here, not in our sweatshop.’

He leans in, suggestively. You want to tell him to leave, but you self-censor and let him kiss you.

After that you wonder if his true colour is white: the colour of mourning in Eastern cultures. His family came to Australia from Malaysia. With his eyes like rigidly frilled cone fish shells and his laconic Australian drawl, he exists in two worlds. That was why you liked him in the first place, but right now he makes you feel white.

You take your idea to the pet shop owner. Single colour shells. Sold with a colour chart next to the box, so people can select the meaning they want and then the shell they want. Simplicity in this complex, chaotic world.

‘I don’t think it will sell, but you can give it a go. On consignment.’

Consignment: the dirty word of hermit crab shell sales. You work, you commit, you buy paint and diamantes and you give it away in the hope you might get something back. You agree.

You still haven’t found a nice smooth bottle neck and you think that maybe that’s just a pipe dream. You laugh at your own half-joke. You decide to tell the multi-coloured man. It is a test.

‘I want to paint bottle necks, for the crabs. They’re beautiful when they’re worn down by the sea.’

‘It’s just junk, why d’you bother?’

He has failed the test, but you persist; you want him to pass. You think of all his colours: red, orange, brown, white and wonder if you could love someone who had those four colours.

‘Junk to you, treasure to some.’ You hope to sound fascinatingly philosophical, not oddball and loopy.

‘Babe, it’s junk, however you look at it. Why don’t you focus on the dress shop? I bet you could be manager if you tried.’

‘I don’t want to be manager. I’m a fraud in that job.’

‘We’re all frauds, if we want to get on in this world. No one gets on by painting shells.’

You self-censor and don’t speak at all. You tuck yourself into your bottle neck.



Lynette Washington is a PhD candidate in the Creative Writing program at the University of Adelaide where she is working on a collection of (mostly) flash fiction and an exegesis on digital publishing. Her story, ‘The Swarm’, will be published by Spineless Wonders in the Stoned Crows anthology of microfiction in early 2013. You can keep in touch with Lynette via her Facebook author page (search for Lynette Washington – Author) or her blog http://lynettewashington.wordpress.com/

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