I never imagined I would someday work on a shellfish farm, but there I was, slogging around on the beach in December, an inch of the Atlantic Ocean in my rubber boots. It was three weeks before Christmas. We were gathering oysters, mussels, and clams that were then trucked to France for holiday meals. Apparently the French liked eating shellfish at Christmas. At first I thought this sounded like a good idea. I thought I might even try it myself for a change. That was before I almost froze in the sea seven or eight times.
I hated the job, but I knew it was only temporary, and I liked telling people I worked on a shellfish farm.
It was terrible work and I wasn’t used to terrible work. I wasn’t even used to work. The other guys had been hardened by one awful job after another and did their work without the slightest display of whininess. They cut their fingers and didn’t care about the saltwater in their wounds. Their feet froze in their boots but they were cheerful. Often they even seemed to be enjoying themselves. I hated the job, but I knew it was only temporary, and I liked telling people I worked on a shellfish farm. It was one of those jobs that surprised people, like being a lumberjack.
My housemate Carl was there, too, but he was only there for the money. It was not important to Carl for people to consider him interesting. If anything, he wanted people to think he was less interesting than they already thought he was. He wanted them to leave him alone. Unfortunately, strangers were attracted to him for precisely that reason. Rather than repelling people with his closed face, he intrigued them and drew them in. I found it unfathomable. All my life I had been invisible. Carl was the opposite of invisible. On the beach, however, in our yellow oilskins and leaky wellies, we were the same.
The other workers were a mixed bunch. There were two local Irish guys who had been there for years. They ran the place, drove the tractors, made sure everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing. There were a few wastrels and alcoholics like Carl and me who had been hired on for the season and were not even expected to last until Christmas. There were two Nigerians who never spoke and appeared in a continual flux of wonder at their strange predicament: what are we doing here on this beach in this country? Of course they were there to earn money and send it home, and they worked hard. There was a small Malaysian guy named Lim who wore headphones under his black knit hat. He looked about fifty years old and spoke almost no English. The headphones were attached to a Walkman that didn’t work (no batteries) other than to put some distance between him and the incomprehensible world. There was a tall, hostile Frenchman who swaggered around, cursing and complaining. And there was a Romanian who actually lived in one of the storage sheds at the farm.
Every morning a van came into town and we piled into the back of it and stared at one another, riding to the fish farm that, at that dim hour, was like the end of the world. No one ever spoke. The van quickly filled with alcohol fumes rising out of the pores of the drinkers (the driver being the most consistent offender). It was a kind of rotten banana peel smell. Sometimes it was very strong and, depending on what we had been doing the previous night, nauseating. The van bounced and swayed and the early morning talk radio was the most annoying din imaginable. It was in these times that I learned how much I hated the Irish, all of them, and vowed to leave their country. Usually, however, my bitterness dried up as soon as I escaped the radio.
On our way out of town, we picked up the Nigerians at an old convent that had been converted into a kind of refuge for asylum seekers. When they got in, they greeted us formally. Then they slumped against the wall, their tongues and the insides of their mouths profoundly red as they yawned. Both fell asleep and slept all the way to the farm. They worked in a fish-hook factory at night.
We hauled shellfish out of the December ocean. It was terrible for me, but I was lazy. I complained to Carl, who acknowledged that it was terrible, yes, but what was the point of complaining about it? It was an odd quirk of Carl’s personality that he almost immediately quit easy, well-paying jobs yet tenaciously hung onto punishing ones like this. It was as if he needed a job to punish him so that he wouldn’t feel guilty for eventually fucking up and getting fired or quitting. Sometimes he got angry at me for complaining or simply talking about the job in a grudging way. If I hated it so much, he’d say, then I should quit and stay home. But I didn’t quit. I couldn’t. There was something in me that prevented me from giving up, some awful mechanism that had been bred into me as an American. I would have been embarrassed to quit. Instead I complained ad nauseum into the night.
By day, as I froze and bled on the beach, I imagined French families with tiny French-speaking children sitting around their tables at Christmastime, slurping down oysters—our oysters. I despised these imaginary families, even the children, but especially the men, the fathers. Why were we gathering their holiday oysters for them? Oysters! Did they really need them? Did they know that Lim was fifty and spoke no English? Were destitute Frenchmen lost on beaches in Southeast Asia laboring to supply luxury foods for rich Malaysians who knew nothing about them, nor wanted to? And what of the Romanian guy who lived in the storage shed?
Of course the French were not to blame, not really, but I could not help but curse them. We worked like dogs and earned crap wages for something that distant people then paid a lot of money for.
At night we went home, smelling of oyster juice and the rotten cockles that exploded in our faces when we accidentally squeezed them, and we thawed our numb fingers over the elements on the electric stove in our kitchen. What was I doing here? But at least I could think of myself as some sort of tough guy. At least this wasn’t my desperate, inescapable life. I could go back to America. Unlike Lim I was privileged. I had a little blue passport back at my squalid little house.
Things went on like this for a couple of weeks. Morning after morning in the back of the van. Nausea. Wet feet, numb fingers. Fresh air. Blood. The ineradicable stench of rotten shellfish on my skin, inside my nose. I even smelled it in bed when I struggled awake before dawn and couldn’t remember where I was. The rush into the house at night to turn the stove on and crouch in front of it like a goon as the feeling crept back into my fingertips, and of course that first feeling was always pain—a hot, tingling zap like an electric current. Then a shower and off to the pub. The same routine the next day. That was it. That was the usual. The trouble didn’t happen till the cat showed up.
We always ate lunch in an abandoned house, the insides of which had been gutted by vandals, probably in some other era when people vandalized houses for profit rather than enjoyment. The glass was gone from the windows, the plaster was torn from the walls, and the wiring had been ripped out. We sat around the cold fireplace. Sometimes we got a little rubbish fire going, but it was never enough to heat the room. The whole oddball band of us hunkered around it in a parody of whatever life had once existed in that place. I wondered about the people who had lived there. How could they ever have imagined a pair of Nigerians in yellow oilskins, and the rest of us, hunched around their wrecked house, eating cheese sandwiches out of plastic bags and muttering in five languages? They would have gone bonkers at even a glimpse of us, the weird denizens of an impossible future.