A Matter of Taste
by Alex La Guma
The sun hung well towards the west now so that the thin clouds above the ragged horizon were rimmed with bright yellow like the spilt yolk of an egg. Chinaboy stood up from having blown the fire under the round tin and said, “She ought to boil now.” The tin stood precariously balanced on two half-bricks and a smooth stone. We had built the fire carefully in order to brew some coffee and now watched the water in the tin with the interest of women at a childbirth.
“There she is,” Chinaboy said as the surface broke into bubbles. He waited for the water to boil up and then drew a small crushed packet from the side pocket of his shredded wind-breaker, untwisted its mouth and carefully tapped raw coffee into the tin.
He was a short man with grey-flecked kinky hair, and a wide, quiet, heavy face that had a look of patience about it, as if he had grown accustomed to doing things slowly and carefully and correctly. But his eyes were dark oriental ovals, restless as a pair of cockroaches.
“We’ll let her draw a while,” he advised. He put the packet away and produced an old rag from another pocket, wrapped it around a hand and gingerly lifted the tin from the fire, placing it carefully in the sand near the bricks.
We had just finished a job for the railways and were camped out a few yards from the embankment and some distance from the ruins of a onetime siding. The corrugated iron of the office still stood, gaping in places and covered with rust and cobwebs. Passers had fouled the roofless interior and the platform was crumbled in places and overgrown with weeds. The cement curbing still stood, but cracked and covered with the disintegration like a welcome notice to a ghost town. Chinaboy got out the scoured condensed-milk tins we used for cups and set them up. I sat on an old sleeper and waited for the ceremony of pouring the coffee to commence.
It didn’t start right then because Chinaboy was crouching with his rag-wrapped hand poised over the can, about to pick it up, but he wasn’t making a move. Just sitting like that and watching something beyond us.
The portjackson bush and wattle crackled and rustled behind me and the long shadow of a man fell across the small clearing. I looked back and up. He had come out of the plantation and was thin and short and had a pale white face covered with a fine golden stubble. Dirt lay in dark lines in the creases around his mouth and under his eyes and in his neck, and his hair was ragged and thick and uncut, falling back to his neck and around his temples. He wore an old pair of jeans, faded and dirty and turned up at the bottoms, and a torn leather coat.
He stood on the edge of the clearing, waiting hesitantly, glancing from me to Chinaboy, and then back at me. He ran the back of a grimy hand across his mouth.
Then he said hesitantly: “I smelled the coffee. Hope you don’ min’.” “Well,” Chinaboy said with that quiet careful smile of his. “Seeing you’s here, I reckon I don’ min’ either.” He smiled at me, “you think we can take in a table boarder, pal?”
“Reckon we can spare some of the turkey and green peas.”
Chinaboy nodded at the stranger. “Sit, pally. We were just going to have supper.”
The white boy grinned a little embarrassedly and came around the sleeper and shoved a rock over with a scarred boot and straddled it. He didn’t say anything, but watched as Chinaboy set out another scoured milk-tin and lift the can from the fire and pour the coffee into the cups.
“Help yourself, man. Isn’t exactly the mayor’s garden party.” The boy took his cup carefully and blew at the steam. Chinaboy sipped noisily and said, “Should’ve had some bake bread. Nothing like a piece of bake bread with cawfee.”
“Hot dogs,” the white boy said.
“Hot dogs. Hot dogs go with coffee.”
“Ooh ja. I heard,” Chinaboy grinned. Then he asked: “You going somewhere, Whitey?”
“Cape Town. Maybe get a job on a ship an’ make the States.”
“Lots of people want to reach the States,” I said.
Whitey drank some coffee and said: “Yes, I heard there’s plenty of money and plenty to eat.”
“Talking about eating,” Chinaboy said: “I see a picture in a book, one time. ’Merican book. This picture was about food over there. A whole mess of fried chicken, mealies—what they call corn—with mushrooms an’ gravy, chips and new green peas. All done up in colors, too.”
“Pass me the roast lamb,” I said sarcastically.
“Man,” Whitey said warming up to the discussion “Just let me get to something like that and I’ll eat till I burst wide open.”
Chinaboy swallowed some coffee: “Worked as a waiter one time when I was a youngster. In one of that big caffies. You should’ve seen what all them bastards ate. Just sitting there shovelling it down. Some French stuff too, patty grass or something like that.”
I said: “Remember the time we went for drunk and got ten days? We ate mealies and beans till it came out of our ears!”
Chinaboy said, whimsically: “I’d like to sit down in a smart caffy one day and eat my way right out of a load of turkey, roast potatoes, beet-salad and angel’s food trifle. With port and cigars at the end.”
“Hell,” said Whitey, “it’s all a matter of taste. Some people like chicken and othe’s eat sheep’s heads and beans!”
“A matter of taste,” Chinaboy scowled. “Bull, it’s a matter of money, pal. I worked six months in that caffy and I never heard nobody order sheep’s head and beans!”
“You heard of the fellow who went into one of these big caffies?” Whitey asked, whirling the last of this coffee around in the tin cup. “He sits down at a table and takes out a packet of sandwiches and puts it down. Then he calls the waiter and orders a glass of water. When the waiter brings the water, this fellow says: ‘Why ain’t the band playing?’”
We chuckled over that and Chinaboy almost choked. He coughed and spluttered a little and then said, “Another John goes into a caffy and orders sausage and mash. When the waiter bring him the stuff he take a look and say: ‘My dear man, you’ve brought me a cracked plate.’ ‘Hell,’ says the waiter. ‘That’s no crack. That’s the sausage.’”
After we had laughed over that one Chinaboy looked westward at the sky. The sun was almost down and the clouds hung like bloodstained rags along the horizon. There was a breeze stirring the wattle and portjackson, and far beyond the railway line.
A dog barked with high yapping sounds.
Chinaboy said: “There’s a empty goods going through here around about seven. We’ll help Whitey, here, onto it, so’s he can get to Cape Town. Reckon there’s still time for some more pork chops and onions.” He grinned at Whitey. “Soon’s we’ve had dessert we’ll walk down the line a little. There’s a bend where it’s the best place to jump a train. We’ll show you.”
He waved elaborately towards me: “Serve the duck, John!”
I poured the last of the coffee into the tin cups. The fire had died to a small heap of embers. Whitey dug in the pocket of his leather coat and found a crumpled pack of cigarettes. There were just three left and he passed them round. We each took one and Chinaboy lifted the twig from the fire and we lighted up.
“Good cigar, this,” he said, examining the glowing tip of the cigarette.
When the coffee and cigarettes were finished, the sun had gone down altogether, and all over the land was swept with dark shadows of a purple hue. The silhouetted tops of the wattle and portjackson looked like massed dragons.
We walked along the embankment in the evening, past the ruined siding, the shell of the station-house like a huge desecrated tombstone against the sky. Far off we heard the whistle of a train.
“This is the place,” Chinaboy said to Whitey. “It’s a long goods and when she takes the turn the engine driver won’t see you, and neither the rooker in the guard’s van. You got to jump when the engine’s out of sight. She’ll take the hill slow likely, so you’ll have a good chance. Jus’ you wait till I say when. Hell, that sound like pouring a drink!” His teeth flashed in the gloom as he grinned. Then Whitey stuck out a hand and Chinaboy shook it, and then I shook it.
“Thanks for supper, boys,” Whitey said.
“Come again, anytime,” I said, “we’ll see we have a tablecloth.” We waited in the portjackson growth at the side of the embankment while the goods train wheezed and puffed up the grade, its headlamp cutting a big yellow hole in the dark. We ducked back out of sight as the locomotive went by, hissing and rumbling. The tender followed, then a couple of box-cars, then some coal-cars and a flat-car, another box-car. The locomotive was out of sight.
“Here it is,” Chinaboy said pushing the boy ahead. We stood near the train, hearing it click-clack past. “Take this coal box coming up,” Chinaboy instructed. “She’s low and empty. Don’t miss the grip, now. She’s slow. And good luck, pal!”
The coal-car came up and Whitey moved out, watching the iron grip on the far end of it. Then as it drew slowly level with him, he reached out, grabbed and hung on, then got a foothold, moving away from us slowly.
We watched him hanging there, reaching for the edge of the car and hauling himself up. Watching the train clicking away, we saw him straddling the edge of the truck, his hand raised in a salute. We raised our hands too.
“Why ain’t the band playing? Hell!” Chinaboy said.