At the Portagee's
by Alex La Guma
“You can have the one in the green,” Banjo said.
“She’s got pimples.”
“But she’s got mos knobs, too. Don’t I say?”
“Well, all right, then.”
“You better talk to them when we go over,” Banjo reckoned. “You talk to them.”
“What’s the matter with you?” I asked. “Haven’t you picked up a goose yet?”
“You talk to them, man.”
We were sitting at a table in this cafe. Banjo had just finished a plate of steak and chips, and I had had an egg roll. Now we were finishing the coffee. There were other people in the cafe, too, and the two girls sat opposite each other at a table in one of the booths down the side of the room. There were empty Coca Cola bottles on the table between them, and one of the girls was looking at herself in a small mirror. The one in green.
There was a smell of cooking in the room, you know, oil and fried bacon and boiled vegetables and coffee. The ceiling was hung with streamers of fly-paper.
“What are you going to say to them?” Banjo asked.
“I don’t know. What must I say?”
“Ask them if they’d like a cold drink,” Banjo reckoned.
“They just had coke,” I told him, looking across at the girls.
“You think we’ll strike a luck?”
“I don’t know! You think every goose is going to give you that?”
“Don’t you want?” he grinned.
While I was thinking of how to go about it a man came into the cafe. He was thin and dirty and wore an old navy-blue suit that was shiny with wear and grease. His face was covered with a two-day beard. He hesitated for a moment, just inside the doorway, and then came over to us. Banjo was watching the girls.
When the man came up he was just like this: “Say, old pal, spare a sixpence for a bite, man.” He looked tired and his eyes were bloodshot, the eyelids rimmed with red. The cuffs of his jacket were torn and the threads dangled over his wrists.
“Who you bumming from?” Banjo asked, looking up. “From who do you bum?”
“Leave him alone,” I said. “What’s a sixpence?” I felt in my pockets and found a sixpence among my change and handed it to the man.
He said, “Thanks, old pally,” not looking at Banjo. “Gawd bless you, old pal.” He nodded at me and then went to another table and sat down.
“You rich,” Banjo reckoned to me. “Lord blerry Muck.”
“Ach, never mind, man.”
We looked at the girls again. One of them looked our way and I smiled at her. She looked away and said something to her friend. The other girl looked across at us.
“There’s our chance,” Banjo muttered, trying to look as if he wasn’t interested.
Some people brushed past our table on their way out of the cafe. Outside the sun was going down. The man in the navy-blue suit sat stiffly at his table waiting to be served.
“Come on,” Banjo pleaded. “Let’s go over, man.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
I got up and he did the same and we went over to the girls. Banjo kept behind me, and I could feel my heart beating with embarrassment. The girls didn’t look at us.
“Hullo,” I said. “Can we sit here?”
They still kept looking away, but smiled faintly. The one in the green was watching the other, and this one said, “Well, it’s not our cafe, and there’s no reserved seats.”
I winked at Banjo and slipped in beside the girl in the green dress and he sat down next to her friend.
“You like a cold drink?” Banjo asked.
They looked at each other again and the girl next to Banjo said, “well, we just had some cokes.”
“You can have another one mos,” I said.
“Do you want?” she asked the one in green.
“You get them,” I told Banjo.
While Banjo was getting the drinks over at the counter I told the girls our names. The one in the green was called Hilda, and her friend was Dolores.
“That’s a nice name,” I said to the one called Dolores. “Spanish mos.”
When Banjo came back with the bottles of mineral water I told him, “This is Hilda and Dolores.”
“That’s fine,” he reckoned and smiled at them. “You can call me Banjo.”
“His name is Edward Isaacs,” I told them. “But we just call him Banjo.”
“Does he play the banjo?” Hilda asked.
“I never heard him yet,” I replied, laughing at them. “He can play the fool all right.”
We sipped the drinks through the straws. While we were talking I heard somebody saying, “You can’t get sixpence food here, you bladdy fool,” and it was the fat Portagee who owned the cafe talking to the tired-looking man in the navy-blue suit. The Portagee was standing by his table and looking across. He was very fat and wore a greasy apron around his belly, and his face was red and sweaty. The waiter who worked there stood nearby.
The man in the tattered navy-blue suit looked at the Portagee and said clearly, “I only wanted sixpence fish.”
“No sixpence fish,” the Portagee said. “You better get out.”
He reached out to take the man by the shoulder, but the man moved back on his chair and said, “Don’t touch me. I have done nothing wrong.”
“Get out, you loafer.”
“All right, man,” the man said and got up. “There’s no need to get angry. I’ll go.” He spoke with contempt, looking at the Portagee, and then he turned about and walked out of the cafe, holding himself very straight. Some people in the place laughed.
“There goes your sixpence,” Banjo said.
“That poor man,” Hilda said. “That Greek could have but given him a sixpence fish.”
Banjo began to narrate: “I heard of a juba who went to a posh cafe in town but he never bought nothing. He was one of those cheap johns, see? He took his own sandwiches with him, and when the waiter come round he ask for a glass of water. Then when the waiter come back with the water, this juba look around and say, ‘And why ain’t the band playing?’ ”
They didn’t smile or say anything and Banjo grinned at me. Then he asked, “You want to hear the juke-box?’
“Yes,” Dolores said. “Play Beyond the Reef. They got the record in the machine.”
Banjo got up again and went over to the big juke-box and shoved a sixpence into the slot. The record dropped and the arm swung onto it, and we were listening to Bing.
“He sings real awake,” Hilda said, giggling a little.
“I like Tony Martin,” Banjo reckoned.
We didn’t say anything for a while, listening to the voice from the juke box . . . where the sea is dark and cold . . . shoving past the other sounds in the cafe. Banjo was singing, too, softly, trying to sound like Crosby, with the bub-bub-bub-boos thrown in. I put a hand under the table and on Hilda’s thigh. She didn’t move or say anything and I kept my hand there, feeling the long, smooth curved flesh under the dress.
“You girls doing anything tonight?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” Hilda reckoned, looking at Dolores for confirmation.
“No,” the girl called Dolores said. She had a dark, smooth skin and her lipstick was smeared a little. There were small plastic flowers attached to the lobes of her ears and her hair was black and shiny with oil.
“Let’s go to the Emperor,” Banjo said.
“What’s playing?” Dolores asked?
“A Alan Ladd piece,” Banjo said. “Real awake. You want to go?”
“Okay. But we don’t want you spend your money on us.”
Banjo laughed and said, “Don’t worry about us. We in the chips. Don’t I say, pally?”
“You telling me,” I said.
“Where you working?” Hilda asked.
“He works in a facktry,” I told her. “I’m a messenger.”
“My father is also a messenger,” Hilda said. “He worked forty years for the firm. Now he’s head messenger. Last year they gave him a silver tray with his name out on it, and ‘For service-something.’ ”
“For services rendered,” I said.
“You clever,” Hilda said, smiling at me.
“He went to high school,” Banjo told her.
“My ma put the tray on the sideboard,” Hilda said.
“Well,” Dolores announced, “We got to go home and get ourselves right for the bio.”
“Where are we going to get you?” Banjo asked.
“Get us outside the Emperor. Half past-seven.”
“I think that’s okay.”
“We better go now,” Hilda said.
I gave her thigh a squeeze to take the place of a kiss and we all got up. Dolores said thanks for the cold drinks and we went to the door of the cafe with them. Hilda was tall and not too bad, and the pimples didn’t matter much. The fat Portagee was behind the counter doing something, and he did not look up as we went out.