The Spike or Victoria College Review 1946
An Evening at Peyrot's
An Evening at Peyrot's
Monsieur Peyrot's wife was querulous; Monsieur Peyrot's wife was unhappy.
"Sydney," she said. "I don't know how you can like this dreadful place. I hate it... I hate it."
Sydney smiled sympathetically and patted her hand, but she refused to be consoled.
"Five years in this place, and fourteen years on the island—I'll go mad... mad!" She clasped both hands on her knees and her face took on its almost permanent expression of soured disgust, which did not change as her husband saunted out onto the verandah, hands in his pockets, glaze over his eyes, and scraping moccasins on his feet. He held out a languid hand to Sydney.
"Bon soir, Sydney," he said, and—for he affected a little English—
"Ze weather is good to-night, eh?"
"Oui, Monsieur." Sydney stood up on the steps and shook hands. Monsieur Peyrot looked round and as his wife occupied the only chair, he called out brusquely:—
"Josette, bring me a chair."
"Oui, papa," Sydney heard from within, and then Josette, Monsieur Peyrot's daughter, appeared, carrying a brown, wicker-work chair. She smiled a greeting to Sydney and came forward to shake hands, languidly, like her father. Then she sat down beside him on the step. Her scanty form was dressed in a light blue frock which showed up the dark skin she inherited from her father. She had large and dark brown eyes, a pimply skin and oily, fuzzed hair, but she was not unattractive and she was the reverse of shy.
"Ah, this place," continued Madame Peyrot, and went no further, closing her lips over her pointed teeth in emphatic punctuation. This was the way she always greeted Sydney—this was her attitude to the world. "All I do is have children." True, she had had eleven children, eight surviving, but Sydney had seldom seen her working.
Monsieur stared at his wife with the appraising glance of a man whom a wife's complaints irritate but do not perturb.
"Josette," he said at length, "Go and bring an aperitif." His daughter made a little moue of annoyance, for it was obvious that he had already drunk heavily. Giving Sydney a quick touch on the hand in passing, she went into the house.
At that time of the evening the verandah was the pleasantest place in the village. Festoons of bignonia, in bright orange clusters fell over the railing and trailed in the bare, uncared-for garden. There was no wind (there never was, thought Sydney) and no stir from the tall, Caledonian pine growing out from one corner of the garden. Below was the road up and down which the people of the village promenaded, mothers and daughters, mostly, taking a leisurely stroll before the evening meal.
"Here it is, papa," Josette gave the tray containing a bottle of rum and three, small, greenish, crystal glasses to her father, and went back for a table, which she planted on the verandah.
"You'll take a drop, Sydney?" asked Monsieur Peyrot, he poured it out, with none too steady a hand, into two glasses. "And you, ma femme?" he asked ironically.
"Yes, give me some," she said carelessly, "It's all there is to do—drink, drink, drink."
"Better to leave that to me," said he, taunting her with the fact that he drank to excess. Sydney half expected an explosion, but she retained her calm, contenting herself with a dagger of silent scorn. Peyrot turned to Sydney with a wry laugh: "Drink," he said, holding up his glass—"The Saviour of mankind, the opiate of his troubles—which can release a man even from his—wife!" And he drank the rum at a gulp. Sydney smiled and sipped his glass slowly, his eyes on the road.
There girls were walking towards them, with a brazen nonchalance which was a caricature rather than a pose. Two had their feet bare, padding along. This couple wore plain, shapless dresses, which were badly soiled. Their hair lay upon their shoulders in scraggly wefts. The third, older than these, had more pretence: she wore old, white sandals with a red skirt and a rough blouse. Her blonde hair was brushed and parted impudently on one side. As the trio passed the gate they stared up at the people on the verandah. The youngest saw Sydney and turned quickly to her companions; they all cried: "Bon soir, M'sieur Sydney," and walked on giggling,
Sydney waved, and called "Good evening," back rather embarrassed at his acquaintances. Madame turned to him with a supercilious glance:
"You know the Tiran girls, then?" Sydney nodded:
"Un peu," he said.
He noticed that Josette wore a sneer, her face reflecting her mother's, who went on:
"That's what we have to put up with—girls like that. It's scandal! Josette, didn't onepage break page break page 9
of them—the big lump—have a child last year?"
"Oui, Maman—but she took it down to Noumea and it died." Her laugh sounded clear across the space in front of the verandah, where the air was heavy and dark with the swift onrush of the night. Her knee touched Sydney's hand and she held it there looking up at him coquettishly. Monsieur Peyrot became restless and shifted back his chair.
"Eh, bien," he said, "A table! Is everything ready?" he asked his wife; she seemed not to have heard, and then said to Josette, "Go and see if Marianne has laid the table properly."
Josette skipped inside and called: "Yes, Maman. It's all ready."
"Then we will eat," said Monsieur and lifted himself wearily out of his chair. Josette appeared on the verandah, listening. A jeep went by, a hand waving.
"Frankie. Frankie! Cried Josette, "He's coming!"
Sydney watched as the jeep turned into Monsieur Peyrot's gateway and came to a standstill in front of the garage. A tall, good-looking Negro officer in uniform climbed out. Josette rushed down the steps and led him up by the hand. Sydney knew him—he came to Monsieur Peyrot's often, bringing presents, a wireless, glasses, torches, articles which the French were unable to buy.
"'Evening, M'soo," he said, "'Evening, Madame." Sydney shook hands. Monsieur said:
"Just in time, Frankie—we were just sitting down to dinner."
Frankie smiled, showing his white teeth in two bright curves.
They all went into the dining room, Josette talking and laughing gaily. Madame took her place at the head of the table, an inward smile wreathing the fat bulges of her face. While Monsieur Peyrot took the foot. On his left was Frankie, then Josette, then the younger daughter. On his right sat Sydney and the two young boys. Monsieur called out to the Kitchen:
`Marianne, bring in the soup!" and a big Kanaka girl, in an old frock of Madame's carried in a steaming bowl which she placed beside Madame Peyrot. Madame made a little sound of annoyance.
"Marianne, I told you not to put so much bread in it. She's ruined it," she added peevishly and looked hopelessly round the table whilst serving herself. "It's always the same, Sydney. No matter what I tell the servants they do it wrong. I'll go mad—mad!—before I get out of this place."
The Kanaka girl waited dumbly and then passed the soup round the table.
Monsieur explained to Sydney and the negro: "She's just a new girl I got from a native tribe. We had to get rid of Untong, the Javanese girl... ."
"Untong!" exclaimed his wife, casting up the palms of her hands as if in despair. "The girl was incorrigible. Every night... . every night, Sydney, she was out in the streets... . for anyone at all... . my husband saw her one night down by the river with six negroes—six negroes!—" Her voice, never pleasant, had become a shrill scream, although she was articulating every word with an almost physical pleasure as if each syllable was a needle she plunged into the Javanese girl.
"I saw her too... ." Josette, gave a shy giggle, and played at feet with the negro lieutenant, under the table.
"And that's not all, Sydney," Madame went on, lapsing into a dramatic sotto voice. "That's not all... . She started to wear dresses... . most expensive dresses... . better than I've got myself. God alone knows where the money came from... . God alone knows... ." She shook her head in an assumption of weariness and self-negation, and for a moment the table was quiet.
"Marianne, bring les clovisses!"
The brutish kanaka girl, her eyes grey with fear, came in and took the soup plates, leaving a tureen of stewed shell-fish. Their taste was delicious. Sydney ate two platefuls and proceeded to the meat course. The meal ended with fresh pineapple.
"A cup of coffee?" asked Monsieur Peyrot.
"Please, Monsieur," answered the two visitors. Monsieur handed each of them a cigar and they went into the dark-papered sitting room, where Marianne brought the coffee in delightful cups, thin as egg shells. The rest of the family took no coffee but munched at the chocolates that Frankie had brought in a large box. Monsieur lounged back in his chair.
"Some music?" he exclaimed. "Josette, go and get the gramophone."
Josette, who had been sitting next to the negro, skipped away to return with a protable gramophone and a pile of small records. She wound it up and put on a disc. The harsh sounds of a French tango jarred the room, and Monsieur Peyrot jumped up and led Josette to a clear space by the door.
"I'll show you how the French dance," he said: "Not like you English." He hopped around like an animal shaken by electric shocks, holding his daughter close and puffing out cigar smoke. Sydney watched them for a while and then asked Madame Peyrot page 10 to dance. With an unexpectedly gracious smile and something of maiden shyness, she accompanied him to the "floor."
The record screeched to its end and Josette changed it for another. This time the negro said: "May I have this dance?" She followed him and danced with her hair brushing his dark face, her hips against his. Peyrot danced with his wife and Sydney found himself winding up the gramophone and watching the other gyrating swiftly across the small space at the end of the room.
"see," commented Monsieur Peyrot, "we French dance differently from you—much quicker. Our blood is quicker than that of the English who are fish.
He smiled as if to himself and his thick lips were drawn back over his tobacco-stained teeth. His smile was much more human and pleasant than his wife's.
"Josette," he said abruptly, "go and get some glasses and something to drink," Josette obeyed. Halfway across the room she turned and said:
"Come on, Frankie, come and help me."
The negro rose obediently and sauntered out after her. Madame Peyrot turned to Sydney.
"He's a very nice chap, Frankie. Monsieur Peyrot has known him a long time."
"I like him, too" replied Sydney.
"He's a dentist." Interrupted Monsieur Peyrot. "Finished his studies and everything." His wife looked at him mistrustfully.
"I suppose he will be staying the night?"
"He can sleep up at Grounier's," answered Peyrot shortly. "Send Josette up to see if they have that spare room ready,"
"Josette," called her mother. Josette came in carrying the tray with glasses and a bottle of anisette. Her hair was a little disheveled and she walked with a spring. "Josette, go up and tell Grounier to get the spare room ready for Frankie."
"Oui, Maman." Sydney saw her glance at the negro lovingly.
"In that case I'll go and lock the jeep for the night," he said, and they went out together.
Sydney played another record and he and Madame danced to it, her portly body wheeling with ease, her face with its creased rolls of fat turned up to his in invitation and derision. Monsieur Peyrot lay in his chair, his eyes closed, puffing at the stump of his cigar. At length he put the stump in the ashtray and announced:
"I'm going to bed."
"It's time I went," said Sydney, although the liquor he had drunk had put life into his veins and he was beginning to feel exuberant. But he knew that once Monsieur Peyrot was abed the party would die. Madame had no gaiety in her makeup.
"'Soir, M'sieur, 'Soir, Madame," and when the negro and Josette retuned he shook hands and left. Josette came with him to the gate, her warm hand in his, and he could smell the oily perfume of her skin and from her lips the faint aroma of the garlic which had flavoured the dinner.
"Goodnight, Sydney. See you to-morrow."
"Goodnight, Josette." She gave his hand a quick pressure and went back to the verandah where the negro was standing.
The road was washed in pools of white light from a lambent moon. The tall pine was like a scar across the face of the sky, blotting out a spear of stars. Sydney walked along slowly gathering his thoughts and sensations. He was at that state of intoxication when everything is alluring. Even the surface of the road seemed soft and for an instant the memorial cross on the corner was like the window in church. He decided not to go to bed but to go and see Paula, the school-teacher. He climbed quickly up the short road to where Paula had a small concrete dwelling with three rooms, one of them a kitchen, next to Grounier's, which in turn was next to Peyrot's. A light shone through the shutters of her little sitting room. He trod softly on the concrete verandah and went under the shutters. He could see nothing through them but the circle of light her lamp cast on the ceiling.
"Paula," he called softly. "Paula... . it's me—Sydney."
He heard her give a little gasp of astonishment, a paper rustled, and her shadow fell through the shutter.
"What do you want, Sydney? At this hour?"
"Nothing much—just a talk for a while—if you'll let me in."
The shadow vanished and he heard the turning of a key. The door opened.
"Come in quick," she whispered. "The Peyrots have a negro sleeping next door tonight."
"I know," he replied. "That's where I've been all evening."
She was dressed in a pink, soft dressing-gown and her long black hair had fallen over her shoulders. She had been reading. On the table under the lamp was a paper and several books. She looked at him quizzically a moment, and said:
"Won't you sit down? Have you had a good evening?"
He sat down in the comfortless armchair with its wooden arm-rests and Paula returnedpage 11
to her place at the table, turning up the lamp so that she could see his face.
"It's strange my letting you in here at night like this. I shouldn't do it. People will talk... ."
"And if they do?"
She changed the subject quickly as she did often.
"Well—What went on to-night? What's that I smelt on your breath?"
"The usual. Rum and some anisette."
"He's drinking more these days. He's going down-hill, don't you think?"
"And Madame? Just the same?"
"The usual tirade. You should have heard her! The Tiran girls went past before tea. The stupids called out to me. Paula, and there was Madame boiling over beside me. She hasn't much milk o' human kindness, that woman!"
Paula was silent as if listening. Then she said in a matter of fact tones, watching Sydney to observe his reaction:
"If she wants to criticize she doesn't need to go far."
"No" Sydney was mystified.
"I'm not blind—but they seem to be."
"What do you mean, Paula? Don't be so mysterious!"
"Come here and listen. Ssh! Quietly!"
She opened the door so that a thin sliver of moon-lit verandah was visible. From the annexe a few paces away came the sound of sliding feet on gravel and whispering. Then there was a laugh Sydney found unmistakable, and Josette's voice:
"Careful, Frankie, careful. Someone might hear."
"Night after night," Paula whispered.
"Anyone at all." She closed the door and the white pavement and the sounds were gone.