The Lobster by Neil Randall

It had been a quiet afternoon, the kind where the sun shines and holidaymakers spend most of the day lazing on the beach. A waiter looked at the clock on the wall again: in an hour and a half he’d only served a pot of tea, to a table of old women in floral print dresses. In croaky tones they’d gossiped, and wafted themselves with dog-eared magazines, complaining about the heat.

He continued to fold napkins for a lunch-time rush that didn’t look like it was going to happen. Occasionally he looked up and saw people in T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops pass the windows, carrying chill-boxes or inflatable rafts, their faces already a little red and sunburnt. He thought about other afternoons just like this one, where he’d watched sunlight reflect off the sea, and kids playing cricket or football on the wet sand; heard laughter, seen pretty girls in cut-off denims and bikini tops—and wondered why he was stuck inside in the stifling heat, feeling sweaty and miserable.

And he was still thinking about this when a family of four walked in and took one of the window-seats overlooking the sea. They looked like an ordinary mum, dad, and teenage son and daughter; in the same T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops he’d just a moment ago observed. They picked up menus and talked like other families he’d encountered many times that summer. When a suitable time had passed, he walked from the bottom end of the restaurant, past the till and the glass-fronted refrigerator that housed the desserts, and made his way over to their table.

The children were squabbling, the boy, who was a little older, hiding something under the table, just out of his sister’s reach; but it was difficult to tell if she were really annoyed or secretly liked his teasing, because at least he was taking notice of her. The waiter smiled, removed his pen and readied to take down their order.

When he looked across, however, he almost dropped his pad, for the woman, who sported short blonde hair, dyed and spiky on top, had, instead of fingers and thumbs, what could be described as pincers, like those of lobster claws. In an instant, the whole family noticed the look of shock and revulsion spreading across his face; in all likelihood, something they’d encountered many times before: during meals, on buses or trains, when buying things in shops. The boy looked at the waiter challengingly; the daughter, angrily and tearfully, while the father appeared more restrained, as though building himself up for a serious confrontation.

The waiter lowered his head, coughed, and cleared his throat, then asked for their order, which the father relayed to him, and in a tone of voice that caused the waiter to feel like he’d just been caught in an act of utmost cruelty. Just as he was about to turn away, he could’ve sworn the woman made a gesture with her pincersaws, but he was far too disconcerted to check.

In the kitchen, he handed the yawning, chubby-faced chef the order and noticed a stain on the man's brilliant-white trousers, wondering how he’d contrived to dirty them on a day when he hadn’t cooked a single meal yet. As the waiter set about pouring Coca Cola into four long glasses, he thought about how dreary the kitchen was, with its stone floors covered in grime, the smell of stale chip fat, grotty sink and cookers, and cheap metal work surfaces. He knew it wasn’t the kind of restaurant he’d ever want to visit.

As the first glass of coke went all frothy and nearly fizzed over, he thought of telling the chef about the woman’s hands, but something held him back. The impulse to gossip over them, only minutes after discovering them himself, felt even worse than the moments that passed when he took their order. He loaded the cokes onto a tray and carried it through to the restaurant.

When he reached the family's table, he tried to smile as he placed their drinks down. The woman, by this time, had her elbows resting on the tabletop, her lobster claws cradling her chin in an affected pose which the waiter knew was struck solely to heighten his discomfort. As he walked away, he heard a burst of laughter that made him feel guiltier than before. Already that summer, he’d dealt with many similar situations: an incontinent old drunk at one of the window-seats, refusing to pay his bill; a fat woman breast-feeding and offending other diners, kids smoking in the toilets.

He heard another burst of laughter, and this time couldn’t help lifting his head from the folding of napkins: the family had arranged the condiments on the table—the vinegar bottles, salt and pepper pots and sauce sachets—in a row, so the woman could pick each one up between her pincers and move it from one place on the table to another, like a kid with a toy crane and building blocks. Each time she picked up and deposited an item, she turned and stared at the waiter, who didn’t know where to look, what to think, or whether he should retreat to the safety of the kitchen, the children’s laughter ringing in his ears.

The chef called the waiter through to the kitchen for their food order. With plates balanced on each hand and forearm, each step towards their table filled him with dread: he daren’t look up for fear of his face betraying him again. He could hear them chatting, their words light and cheery, just like when they first walked in.

As he set their plates down and said he hoped they enjoyed their meal, the woman finally spoke to him direct: ‘You couldn’t get me a side order of chips, could you, please?’ Her voice was unusually deep and gravelly, something he hadn’t noticed before. ‘I like to have something I can pick away at with my fingers during a meal.’

He could feel his face redden. In the next half an hour, while the waiter folded yet more napkins, the woman had attached a knife and fork to her pincers with thick leather straps, and scrutinized each piece of food she cut into, holding it up for a few moments before popping it into her mouth, as if to say, look, how novel, someone with a disability can actually feed themself.

When finally they asked for their bill, the waiter, ringing everything into the till, ripping off the receipt and taking it over to their table, felt as if he’d been through a horrible ordeal. Over the plastic cloth, on the children’s side, he noticed a few splotches of ketchup and grains of salt, and in front of the man a damp napkin was spread out where it looked as if he’d spilt some coke, but the woman’s place was spotlessly clean.

He handed the man the bill. ‘No, no,’ said the man, smiling without a hint of cheer on his stubbly, evenly tanned face. ‘My wife takes care of all the finances,’ and with slow, precise movements, she raised one of her pincers and plucked the receipt from the waiter’s hand. The children chuckled.

From around her neck, she unfastened a money bag,—a purse modified with a piece of leather cord,—took out a twenty-pound note that had been neatly folded several times, and handed it to the waiter. ‘There you go.’ He offered his thanks and went to get their change. ‘No, don’t worry,’ she shouted after him. ‘It’s only fifty or so pence and we haven’t given you a tip yet.’ She delved into her purse again. ‘Here.’

He walked back over to their table. As he opened his hand to accept the gratuity, she dropped a pound coin into his palm, the tip of her pincer brushing against his fingers.

Neil Randall is the author of the novels, The Holy Drinker, The Butterfly and the Wheel (both to be published by Knox Robinson Publishing in 2014) and A Quiet Place to Die (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2013). His shorter fiction and poetry have been published in the US, UK, Australia and Canada. He has no fixed abode. Despite this he maintains a prodigious literary output and blogs at

Bio on Knox Robinson Publishing website.