Man from the South Roald Dahl - chapter 2
‘How old? It is last year’s. Quite a new car. But I see you are not a betting man. Americans never are.’
The boy paused for a moment and he glanced first at the English girl, then at me. ‘Yes,’ he said suddenly. ‘I’ll bet you.’
‘Good!’ The old man clapped his hands together. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘We will do it now. And you, sir.’ He turned to me. ‘You would perhaps be good enough to, what do you call it, to – to referee.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I think it’s a crazy bet. I don’t like it very much.’
‘Neither do I,’ said the English girl. It was the first time she’d spoken. ‘I think it’s a stupid, ridiculous bet.’
‘Are you serious about cutting off this boy’s finger if he loses?’ I said.
‘Certainly I am. Also about giving him my Cadillac if he wins. Come now. We will go to my room. Would you like to put on some clothes first?’ he said to the boy.
‘No,’ the boy answered. ‘I’ll come like this.’ Then he turned to me. ‘I’d consider it a favour if you’d come along as a referee.’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I’ll come along but I don’t like the bet.’
‘You come, too,’ he said to the girl. ‘You come and watch.’
The old man led the way back through the garden to the hotel. He was excited now and that seemed to make him walk with more energy. ‘Would you like to see the car first? It’s just here.’ He took us to a pale-green Cadillac.
‘There it is. The green one. You like?’
‘That’s a nice car,’ the boy said.
‘All right. Now we will go up and see if you can win her.’
We all went up the stairs and into a large pleasant double bedroom. There was a woman’s dress lying across the bottom of one of the beds.
‘First,’ he said, ‘let’s have a little drink.’
The drinks were on a small table in the far corner, all ready to be poured, and there was ice and plenty of glasses. He began to pour the drinks, and then he rang the bell and a little later there was a knock at the door and a maid came in.
‘Ah!’ he said, putting down the bottle and giving her a pound note. ‘You will do something for me now please. We are going to play a little game in here and I want you to go off and find for me two – no, three things. I want some nails, I want a hammer, and I want a big knife, a butcher’s knife which you can borrow from the kitchen. You can get these, yes?’
‘A butcher’s knife!’ The maid opened her eyes wide. ‘You mean a real butcher’s knife?’
‘Yes, of course. Come on now, please. You can find those things surely for me.’
‘Yes, sir, I’ll try. I’ll try to get them.’ And she went.
The old man handed round the drinks. We stood there drinking: the boy; the English girl, who watched the boy over the top of her glass all the time; the little old man with the colourless eyes standing there in his elegant white suit, drinking and looking at the girl. I didn’t know what to think about it all. The man seemed serious about the bet and he seemed serious about the business of cutting off the finger. But what would we do if the boy lost? Then we’d have to rush him to hospital in the Cadillac that he hadn’t won. It would all be a stupid, unnecessary thing in my opinion.
‘Before we begin,’ the old man said, ‘I will present to the – to the referee the key of the car.’ He produced the key from his pocket and gave it to me. ‘The papers,’ he said, ‘and the insurance are in the pocket of the car.’
Then the maid came in again. In one hand she carried a butcher’s knife, and in the other a hammer and a bag of nails.
‘Good! You got them all. Thank you, thank you. Now you can go.’ He waited until she had gone, then he put the things on one of the beds and said, ‘Now we will prepare ourselves, yes?’ The old man moved the little hotel writing-desk away from the wall and removed the writing things. ‘And now,’ he said, ‘a chair.’ He picked up a chair and placed it beside the table. ‘And now the nails. I must put in the nails.’ He fetched the nails and began to hammer them into the top of the table.
We stood there, the boy, the girl and I, watching the man at work. We watched him hammer two nails into the table, about fifteen centimeters apart, allowing a small part of each one to stick up. Then he tested that they were firm with his fingers.
Anyone would think that he had done this before, I told myself. He never hesitated. Table, nails, hammer, knife. He knows exactly what he needs and how to arrange it.
‘And now,’ he said, ‘all we want is some string.’ He found some string. ‘All right, at last we are ready. Will you please sit here at the table?’ he said to the boy.
The boy sat down.
‘Now place the left hand between these two nails. The nails are only so that I can tie your hand in place. All right, good. Now I tie your hand securely to the table – like that.’
He tied the string around the boy’s wrist, then several times around the wide part of the hand, then he tied it tightly to the nails. When he finished it was impossible for the boy to pull his hand away. But he could move his fingers.
‘Now please, make a fist, all except for the little finger. You must leave the little finger sticking out, lying on the table. Excellent! Excellent! Now we are ready. With your right hand you light the lighter. But one moment, please.’
He hurried over to the bed and picked up the knife. He came back and stood beside the table with the knife in his hand.
‘We are all ready?’ he said. ‘Mr Referee, you must say when to begin.’
‘Are you ready?’ I asked the boy.
‘And you?’ to the old man.
‘Quite ready,’ he said and he lifted the knife up in the air and held it there about sixty centimeters above the boy’s finger, ready to cut. The boy watched it, but he didn’t react and his mouth didn’t move at all. He only raised his eyebrows and frowned.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘Go ahead.’
The boy said, ‘Will you please count aloud the number of times I light it.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’ll do that.’
With his thumb he raised the top of his lighter, and again with his thumb he turned the wheel sharply. There appeared a small yellow flame.
‘One!’ I called.
He didn’t blow the flame out; he closed the top of the lighter on it and waited for perhaps five seconds before opening it again. He turned the wheel very strongly and once more there was a small flame.
No one else said anything. The boy kept his eyes on the lighter. The man held the knife up in the air and he, too, was watching the lighter.
‘Seven!’ Obviously it was one of those lighters that worked. I watched the thumb closing the top down on to the flame. Then a pause. Then the thumb raising the top once more. The thumb did everything. I took a breath, ready to say eight. The thumb turned the wheel. The little flame appeared.
‘Eight!’ I said, and as I said it the door opened. We all turned and we saw a woman standing in the doorway, a small black haired woman, rather old, who stood there for about two seconds then rushed forward, shouting, ‘Carlos! Carlos!’ She grabbed his wrist, took the knife from him, threw it on the bed, took hold of the man by his jacket and began shaking him with great strength, talking to him fast and loud and fiercely all the time in some Spanish-sounding language. She pulled the old man across the room and pushed him backwards on to one of the beds.
‘I am sorry,’ the woman said. ‘I am so terribly sorry that this should happen.’ She spoke almost perfect English. ‘It is too bad,’ she went on. ‘I suppose it is really my fault. For ten minutes I left him alone to go and have my hair washed and I come back and he is doing it again.’
The boy was untying his hand from the table. The English girl and I stood there and said nothing.
‘He is a danger to others,’ the woman said. ‘Where we live at home, he has taken altogether forty-seven fingers from different people, and he has lost eleven cars. In the end they threatened to put him away somewhere. That’s why I brought him up here.’
‘We were only having a little bet,’ whispered the old man.
‘I suppose he bet you a car,’ the woman said.
‘Yes,’ the boy answered. ‘A Cadillac.’
‘He has no car. It’s mine. And that makes it worse,’ she said. ‘He has bet you when he has nothing to bet with. I am ashamed and very sorry about it all.’ She seemed a very nice woman.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘then here’s the key to your car.’ I put it on the table.
‘We were only having a little bet,’ whispered the old man again.
‘He hasn’t anything left to bet with,’ the woman said. ‘He hasn’t a thing in the world. Not a thing. In fact I myself won it all from him a long time ago. It was hard work, but I won it all in the end.’ She looked up at the boy and she smiled, a slow, sad smile, and she came over and put out a hand to take the key from the table.
I can see it now, that hand of hers; it had only one finger on it, and a thumb.
– THE END –
Hope you have enjoyed the reading!