It’s only a five-minute walk from poverty to wealth

An Extract from Frans Pointl’s The Rich Have Awkward Sizes

A critic once wrote that Frans Pointl’s short stories are populated with people like himself: ‘they hover between the social and the antisocial’. The Amsterdam Soup Kitchen, grimy coffee tables, his ‘dingy, dead-end street’, the comforting companionship of ‘ex-stray cats’, Pointl’s Jewish mother and a peculiar uncle who is subject to severe depressions ‘in which he is sup- ported by King Alcohol’: that is the setting for the stories in his collection ‘The Rich Have Awkward Sizes’ (Rijke mensen hebben moeilijke maten).

The only pupils still stuck in the second class at secondary school at the age of sixteen were Hugo and me.
Hugo was tall and slightly-built. I was jealous of his straight nose and his almond eyes that gave him an Oriental look. Whenever he couldn’t grasp something properly – which was quite often – he ruined that elegant appearance with a sheepish expression. He had told me that his mother had been seriously ill for a year and a half. His father was a businessman, which meant nothing to me. They had a housekeeper, and one of her jobs was to nurse the patient.
They lived in the impressive ‘skyscraper’ in Deltastraat, five minutes’ walk from our back room three floors up in Stalinstraat. Hugo had everything I dreamed of: an electric train set, a steam engine, a gramophone, a radio, a box of Meccano, a bike, a watch and a room of his own.
One Tuesday afternoon he asked if I felt like coming over to see his things the following Wednesday afternoon. I could go with him straight from school and have sandwiches at his place.
My mother made a fuss as usual. ‘What kind of people are they?’
‘How am I supposed to know if I’ve never seen them? Why don’t you go over and check them out first?’
With the trace of a smile she shook her head. ‘You cheeky little sod.’

We whizzed up to the seventh floor in the lift. There was so much glass! There was a huge room – ours could have fitted into it ten times over – full of modern steel furniture. On the walls there were large, multi-coloured paintings into which you could read anything you liked. Or were they just practice pieces painters had done?

I stood at one of the big windows as if enchanted. ‘What a view! Look, four different colours of tiles. You’re higher than the trees!’
Hugo observed me with a look of boredom. ‘I know the view,’ he whined.
I was in awe of his father. His manner was severe and he spoke in clipped tones, like someone used to giving orders.
The housekeeper, a lady about the same age as my mother, with grey hair, sounded just as if she were a speaking doll. She spoke really posh as if playing a part in a play. It was an effort not to laugh in her face.
Hugo told me she came from a very good family.
‘We come from a very good family too but we don’t talk weird,’ I said.
There was lots to eat. The housekeeper asked me why I didn’t take a slice of ham.
‘I’m not allowed to eat that, ma’am.’
‘Well, well.’ She looked insulted. ‘Is that what the doctor says?’

The sick mother proffered a dry, bony hand. She had shiny chestnut-coloured hair that fanned out over the light-blue pillow. Her intense blue eyes were beautiful. She was thin as a rake. On one of her cheekbones there was a distasteful brown scab. Her nose, which was red, stuck up like a beak. She lay in an over-sized cradle.
‘What a funny bed.’
‘That’s a four poster,’ said Hugo.
She asked me if I was doing my best at school. What did I want to be when I grew up? I replied ‘yes’ to the first question, and ‘rich’ to the second.
She breathed rapidly and laboriously. I found the sweet sickly smell that surrounded me alarmed me; it was almost as oppressive as the patient.
‘I’m an optimist to my last breath!’ she cried, and started laughing oddly. Then she raised a hand and waved us out of the room.

While Hugo kept the steam engine running, he asked me if I really understood how Magdeburg hemispheres worked. That morning we had had physics, a subject that fascinated me. It was a mystery to him that ten horses could not pull apart the two halves of the sphere with a vacuum inside.
I told him about the power and force of the vacuum. In my enthusiasm I even started drawing it for him.
‘What’s the point of all that nonsense? What good will it be to me later when I’m a businessman.’ He gave me a dissatisfied look.
I realised that he was not driven to learn like me. For a moment I envied him.
Half of his enormous room was taken up with rails, stations, barriers, piles of rock and tunnels. Only now did I realise how childish my wish to have a wind-up train was (my mother couldn’t even afford one of those).
I came back down to earth with a jolt when the trains stopped and the room fell silent.
He looked at me darkly. ‘I’m alone a lot, it’s no fun. My father is usually away.’
I nodded.
‘Your mother’s healthy.’ I detected a hint of jealousy in the tone.
‘My mother’s sixty.’
He said his was only thirty-seven. With great conviction he maintained that mine would die first.
‘What make of car does your father drive?’
He looked at me in alarm. ‘A Standard Vanguard.’
I asked him what model. Shrugging his shoulders and looking sheepish he replied that he didn’t know.
‘If there’s a car in the family you ought to know these things.’
He started the trains up again.
When I looked at his watch I had a shock; it had turned five o’clock in no time. ‘I’ve got to home right away or my mother will get worried.’
He asked if I wanted to ring her, it was fine if I stayed for supper at six.
‘We haven’t got a telephone. We’re a respectable family but have no money.’
‘So you’re not staying for supper.’ For a moment I thought he was going to burst into tears.

Back home I had to give a full report. It was always a nice opportunity to give my fantasy free rein.
Hugo’s father was the director of Woolworth’s, they employed two housekeepers and a nurse. My mother was very unimpressed by this.
‘So you had a good nosh there, and on the Fast of Gedaliah too.’
‘It’s only a five-minute walk from poverty to wealth,’ I concluded my account. ‘God, if I had wonderful things like that I’d be singing all day long.’

Mr Flentrop decided to move all the pupils around. I wondered why. For months I had had the desk all to myself. Now Hugo came and sat next to me. He was ridiculously pleased about it. All the time he sat next to me he got good marks.
One odd coincidence was that we were only one day apart in age. He had been born on the second, I on the first of August 1933.
In dress, however, there was a big contrast; me with my odds and ends gathered together from the clothing warehouse for the needy, he dressed to kill. I thought his gold monogrammed signet ring was the last word in wealth.
I asked him how much pocket money he got.
‘I get six guilders every Sunday.’
‘I only get one.’ I begrudged him all that money. I pressured him to give me a guilder a week ‘copying money’. For a moment he gave me a hurt look, then he nodded subserviently in agreement.

Mr Flentrop realised that Hugo was copying from me. From then on he had to sit alone.
Oddly enough I continued to get my weekly guilder. I realised I no longer had any right to it.
As he handed over the silver piece he glanced sadly at me. For a brief moment the look haunted me, but then I said to myself aloud, ‘There’s no need to feel pity for rich people.’
His next report was dismal.
‘My father says I’ll never make a businessman with a report like that.’
I suggested that he might as well become a furniture maker.

From The Rich Have Awkward Sizes (Rijke mensen hebben moeilijke maten, 1993)
By Frans Pointl
Translated by Paul Vincent

First published in The Low Countries, 2007