The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1945
I Have only to close my eyes and I am back in the old shop, with Papa Greffier cleaning his tumblers with a dirty cloth behind the counter, while Bertugris, the Belgian, an obscene grin on his toothless face, is coming in the back door, saying: "Bon soir, messieurs. Ca va, non?"
Yes, it seems but yesterday that I was in that small French village in New Caledonia-Five o'clock. I finish my work, lay the papers neatly away, and hasten out of our headquarters straight along the road to Greffier's, to drink perhaps one glass of Pernod (absinthe, we call it), perhaps two, three, four or more. Nearly always the same people are there. Greffier himself, lean, old, and hungry—famished for that food stamped in green on paper, with an inset head. Dollars are currency in New Caledonia. You can see the light in his eyes switch on when this food is laid upon the counter. You can see his fingers itch towards it, yet he is fearful of appearing too sudden. Always, after a round of drinks, he says: 'Whose round is it?" If two persons gamble he says: 'I'll hold the stakes and a dollar for light a room."
Then there's his son, Pierrot. Small, rat-like, with a rat's cunning. I like him and have done him some small services: in return, he gives me wine and absinthe at standard French prices. Next to him is Dure, a shopkeeper next door—a man ugly as a gargoyle, with a laugh that splits his face from ear to ear—and a violent temper. There is also Bulu Tarogne, driver of the Public Works truck, and often there are odd farmers. Last, there is Bertugris.
You have met Bertugris before in books. They describe him as a mean and filthy Jew, stooping to any infamy, ruthless in his prosecution of a deal, always haggling, trafficking, unearthing money. Yet always with some saving human grace: he gambles, or is making money for an infant son or a crippled mother. Our Bertugris is a Belgian—and he has made three fortunes, one for his parents, one for his children and one for himself. Behold him now:—
"Come on, now! Who's going to try a throw?" We sip our Pernod. No one wants to play with Bertugris. He might lose and refuse to pay up.
"Nobody wants to play, Bertugris," says Greffier, his glass to his lips. "They know you too well."
"Give me the dice," retorts the Belgian, "I'll wake 'em up—les salopris!" Papa Greffier handing down the dice in their little leather cup with a show of reluctance, but I know that it is a mere pose, because he is going to claim a dollar every time there is a stake.
Bertugris takes the cup and rolls the dice on the table. "Voila, messieurs-look, you're bound to win. Come'n Louis," he says to Dure, "play for five dollars." But the dour shopkeeper refuses, so the Belgian turns to Bulu, the truck driver, who has made "de gros sous" from selling liquor on the black market.
"You, then, Bulu—you'll play with Bertugris," and he makes the fatuous grimace of the habitual drunkard.page 58
"Alright," says Bulu, "but you pay up, vache, or I'll wring your neck."
Bertugris dives his hand into his pocket and extracts a handful of papers, invoice string and dollar bills. He separates the bills and lays five on the counter. Bulu takes a five-dollar bill from a neat roll, and all is handed to Papa Greffier, who puts one in the drawer with the comment: "un pour moi."
We all crowd round the two players and Papa pours a little Pernod into glasses and fills them up with water from an earthenware jar. The winner pays for the round," he says.
"How many quatres?" demands Bulu.
"Three," replies the Belgian.
"Okay. Yours, then. "Each man selects a dice from the five on the counter and Bertugris takes the cup and commences to throw. He throws a three, a six, a one, a five and another six, before he throws his first "quatre." We are busy counting, un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, and then Papa Greffier puts one dice on the counter, ace up.
Next time it takes Bertugris seven throws to land a four, and we have counted up to twelve.
"Quelle vache!" expostulates Bertugris. "This dice is bewitched."
"Don't blame the dice," growled Dure, "Get on with it!"
"He's always trying to start some sort of trouble," remarks Bulu complacently. "He won't want to pay now, if he loses. I take everybody to witness that he asked me to play, I didn't ask him."
"What does it matter who asks who?" demands the Belgian sullenly. "Next time a quatre." But the quatre does not come for another eight throws and we have counted up to vingt. Bertugris throws the cup down and exclaims:
Vingt—voila—see if you can beat that, tete de la!"
"No trouble," says Bulu. His first is a quatre, his fourth is a quatre and his seventh a quatre. Papa hands over the nine dollars and Bulu puts them back in his neat roll. Bulu then pays for a round, while Bertugris fishes in his pockets. From somewhere he produces two hundred-franc notes, a five-dollar bill, and a single dollar. All this goes plonk on the counter.
"Dix dollars, this time. Come'n Bulu."
"No, I'm not taking any more of your stinking money."
"Can't you let us drink in peace, Bertugris," growls old Greffier, but he is not brokenhearted by any means. Bulu peels off two five-dollar bills and lays them in Pap's itchy palms.They take dice and I realize that Bulu has taken the same dice as last time.
"How many?" says Bulu. Bertugris is too drunk to make a sudden decision.
"Two," he says finally. This time Bulu throws first and hits two fours in four throws. The Belgian curses.
"T'es mort avant de commencer," says old Greffier, and we all laugh for the Pernod is heady stuff.
"I can win all the same," grunts the Belgian. He throws one four first and then takes seven throws for another while we count him out:
"T'es mort—t'es mort!"
We drink another glass, while he hunts feverishly through his pockets. All he can fir is about twenty francs in French money. He lays this on the counter and Dure takes it up, peers at it, and says: "What've you been using this for—toilet paper?"page 59
"Donnerwetter!" shouts Bertugris, who occasionally breaks into vile German. "Lend me twenty dollars, M'sieur Greffier."
"No. You'll only lose it—an' how do I know you'll ever bring it back?" Old Greffier shakes his head, looking down on the Belgian as an old man looks pityingly at the follies and callowness of the young.
"Swear I'll give it back tomorrow," whines Bertugris. "You know me, M'sieur Greffier."
"Too well," responds the other. "Oh well, if you want to lose it. . . ."
He goes to his drawer and fetches two ten-dollar bills. Bulu puts down the same amount and they play again, for four quatres. Bulu wins again, and when the Belgian borrows another twenty dollars he wins yet again. I begin to think that there is some magical quality about the dice which Bulu takes every time he plays—perhaps not so magical, either. But I do not get the chance to experiment because even "Bertugris has been staggered by his losses—some fifty-five dollars—and is unwilling to gamble any further. Anyhow, it is getting late and the table behind us has been set and Madame Greffier has come in to cast a friendly eye over the gathering. She sits behind us with her golden-dyed hair, smiling benignly on the antics of Bertugris, and turning a deaf ear to the bawdy talk which flows in currents across the counter.
Now Papa Greffier looks up at the old clock on the top shelf—a sure sign that he has had enough Pernod and is thinking of "la soupe." Pierrot takes the leather cup. We'll play for who pays for the last round," says he and tosses out the five dice. The system by which we decide who shall have the honour of paying is a complicated one. It is necessary to throw "un ace" representing a "cocher" or coachman, a "quatre" for a carriage, and then other numbers for passengers. The player who takes longest to throw his driver, carriage and passengers, invests in drinks for the company. Pierrot throws a one and then a four, in three throws and passes the cup to Dure. Dure takes five. I am lucky and throw them both in my first cast. Thus to the others, Bertugris and Dure are last with five throws, and each throws again, Dure first. He gets his equipment in six throws. Then it is the Belgian's turn. He throws and throws again and cannot strike the ace. It eludes him like the source of a bad smell. Un, deux, trois, quatre, we count. Cinq—no ace.
T'es mort," cries Pierrot. "You pay!" The Belgian keeps on for three more throws and then crashes the cup on the counter.
"I'm not goin' to pay," he slobbers. "It's not my round."
Ciel! For a moment there is a breathless, incredulous quietness, then the storm bursts loose.
"You rotten toad," says Pierrot quietly.
"Bertugris again,"—Papa Greffier shakes his head, signifying something like commiseration.
"Stinking heap of filth," shouts Dure. "Make him pay or I'll strangle the dog with these hands."
Bertugris, the Belgian, turns his back and waves his hands carelessly, obviously drunk. He keeps repeating: "It wasn't my round. It wasn't my round—somebody else can pay."
This aggressive nonchalance on the part of the sinner infuriates, the drinkers even more.
'You'll never be seen in my shop again," cries old Greffier—"Never!"
"That's the sacres Belgas for you." Pierrot grimaces and utters a foul oath. Bertugris turns and spits on the floor. "That's for the French swine."page 60
Now there is real pandemonium. Dure, who has become more and more incensed, leaps round the counter to get at his opponent. 'I'll kill him—I'll kill him!" and to see him you would think he was attacking a child murderer.
"Come'n try," sings the Belgian, and simultaneously he skips behind Bulu, and holding this personage like a shield, exhorts the other to "try and touch me." Now we realize that the travesty has gone too far. Dure will kill the puny Belgian if he gets a hand on him. Pierrot and I bar his way and try to quiet him down, even as Bertugris taunts him from his vantage point. The whole happening is irresistibly comic—but Madame and I are the only persons who realize it. "Ah," she says, shaking her head, "Monsieur le Beige he's always acting the fool."
After a struggle we quieten them both. Monsieur le Beige lapses into offended mutterings and Dure hoicks a symbol of his disgust onto the floor and goes out. I am about to make my unsteady way after him—indeed I am half-way through the grimy kitchen where the Javanese servant girl is crashing pots, when I hear a yell: "Come back!" I poke my head into the shop again.
'What on earth's this? Can it be true?" Bertugris is standing at the counter with a five-dollar bill he has conjured from some pocket or other, saying: "A last drink for everybody—on me." He wears that smile which transfigures his face perhaps once a day, a smile which is winsome in a Christ, but hopelessly out of place in a Bertugris, and Papa Greffier, his spectacles at an acute angle on his forehead is saying:
"Ah—le sale Belge—will he never learn?" And these words are still ringing in my befuddled head as I go out beneath the stars.