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Ferdinand Bordewijk


It was not difficult for the bailiff, A. B. Dreverhaven, to follow the mother’s movements. Tracking down people went with the profession, and he knew his profession inside out. He learnt, after a few days, that the mother was living in one of the poorest streets near the slaughter-house. She was no longer Joba, she was juffrouw Katadreuffe.

A letter came for her. On the envelope was the printed address of Dreverhaven’s office. Inside the envelope was just a half sheet of paper with Memorandum printed at the top in large letters, together with the address. The letter consisted of a date and five words:

‘When are we going to marry?’

It was unsigned. The writing was black, angular, gigantic. She tore it into little bits. The same day, the postman handed he a money order for a hundred guilders. The slip bore the same address in the same writing. She stood for a moment irresolute, bus she was not one to remain irresolute for long. She had considered tearing up the money order, but she merely crossed out the address. ‘Return to sender,’ she wrote, and put it in the letter-box.

Dreverhaven was a man without heart, in the sense of a man without finer feelings. That he received no answer and that his money was just returned did not bother him in the least. He calmly cashed his money order. But he was not without some notion of responsibility; he possessed both a sense of duty, in a limited way, and the wish to do it. After a month, Mrs. Katadreuffe received another letter: ‘When are we going to marry?’ Also a money order, this time for fifty guilders. She treated these in the same way as before.

Punctually every month, Dreverhaven wrote altogether six of these memoranda. He never received an answer. The duel with the money orders lasted a whole year. The twelfth time she wrote across it: ‘Will always be refused.’ Whether that was the cause or not–the duel, anyhow, was over. Now she had conquered, but she had little satisfaction from it. All her life she retained a certain contempt for herself, not a feeling of inferiority but a defiant hatred of her sex in general. She was actually more angry with herself than with him for having given in to him; she was angry at being a woman. However well she got on with the neighbours, in the reserved manner of the respectable poor, she was not very popular with the local women as she was so often running down her sex. Her ruthless judgement on feminine weakness was known and aroused surprise. She lived modestly, but at times she could air her contempt with crudity.

‘We women are only good for producing children, otherwise nix.’

The men liked her. She had aged and was wrinkled, with two lines of grim embitterment at the corners of her mouth; the once strong teeth, through the birth, deteriorated; small and upright, she gave the impression of fragility. But her eyes like coals appeared to attract the men; they did not notice the lines, the withered skin, the hair, neatly done but turning a dingy grey.

Once, at some friends, she met a bokschipper, in charge of a gigantic floating crane, hauled on its steel hawser from one dock to the other: he lived in the engine-room. He was a tough, robust, hard-working man; a deep, booming voice and movements in keeping with his character, just such a fellow as is only produced by Holland and the water. He was a little older than she was; he must, she thought, be about Dreverhaven’s age. His name was Harm Knol Hein.

He wanted her to go and live with him, and they had hardly left the house when he asked her whether she had no wish to marry. He had been telling the company about his life aboard the crane. She loved the water. Here, in the big town, she was so far away from the huge network of docks; where she lived there was often a stench of bones and entrails, and of boiling blood from the slaughter-house. Yes, she did miss the water, and the fresh breeze coming from it.

He went on talking. She could live on the crane, and if the boss objected then he would take a room for her ashore, still near the docks, naturally. No, that wouldn’t be any difficulty; he would fix it.

I’ll think it over,’ she said on parting.

She only said it out of friendliness towards the crane-driver. She liked him and did not want to turn him down flat. But she had already made up her mind; it wouldn’t work. She, such an old corpse, and that healthy chap–what did he see in her? No, it wouldn’t do. She asked an acquaintance for his address and wrote her refusal in a few words. In this refusal lay a subconscious contempt for herself, for the whole female species.

She looked after he son well; she was a taciturn, stern, unyielding, strict mother, but she was good. She was not able to go out to work anything like as much as before. And the child made demands on her time; he was not strong, he had chicken-pox and measles, and with it all became temperamental and impatient. She had to leave him with neighbours for half the day, where he was brought up amongst the riff-raff; he did not get the training she considered right and therefore – believing in a firm hand – on coming home she was even stricter that really lay in her nature.

The first years gradually became more difficult, she had to move to a dilapidated little court where she found herself amongst the poorest of the poor. In the summer, the hovels were not clean; that, as yet, was her greatest vexation. Then the world war broke out with its rising prices and shortage of food. 1917 and 1918 were very black years for her.

But the child must not suffer from it, she said to herself, he has got to have the very best. But that best had far less food-value than the normal in peace-time.

During these years she, now and again, got a little into dept. She could not always pay the rent every Monday, but she always managed to get square again through her extreme economy. She possessed no clothes for going out. As long as her working dress and aprons were absolutely clean, she was satisfied.

Young Katadreuffe also remembered these years as pitch-black. He sat with the smallest rascals in the lowest class of the poor people’s school, a building in a dingy side street, such a street as gives the impression that it can never be warm there. One felt the same about the school. The building was frighteningly large, hollow ad gloomy, but neither that nor his class-mates gave him so much fear as the rabble of the higher classes. Boys of the kind that lived in their court, who smashed street-lamps, cursed like grown-up drunkards; who, on leaving school, waited around the corner for the little ones and bullied them.

Once little Katadreuffe came home with his mouth all bloody. A lot of his top teeth had been knocked out, but fortunately they were his first teeth and were already loose.

In the Spring of 1918, when he was in the top class, two helmeted policemen came to put fear into the court, including him. But they were not after him. They searched all the houses and took four big boys, ringleaders, who had plundered a bread-cart the day before, in broad daylight. In a gunny-sack they found five whole loaves which they had not been able to dispose of.

His mother had kept him, as far as she could, away from the riff-raff, and for the reason he was naturally bullied and punched whenever possible. Now, with deep satisfaction, he saw four of the louts taken in charge.

His small, frail mother was treated with respect by the neighbours. She realized that she owed this to her eyes which could emit flashes of lightning, and the seldom had to make use of he razor-sharp tongue. Young Katadreuffe also learnt gradually to master his fears and to use his fists. He felt himself at one with his mother, on the defensive against the riff-raff. He had her eyes, which could likewise flash, and he had a quick temper. Once he went for a bigger boy. Like lightning, he landed a kick in the softest spot in his stomach. The attacker lay flat out on the ground, unconscious, in the middle of the court, for everyone to look at.

Mrs Katadreuffe saw it. She did not punish him, but she understood they would have to move. And the worked out all right. They moved that night. A hand-cart outside the entrance of the court was waiting for their few poor belongings. The remover , himself, carried the stuff out of the house. It often happened that tenants flitted overnight. It would then be a case of a woman leaving her husband, letting him come back to an empty room, or simply a matter of owing the rent.

Mrs Katadreuffe left without owing anything. She had wrapped up the rent neatly in a piece of newspaper, laid it in the window-seat on top of the rent-card in which the signature of the rent-collector was not once missing. A lovely rent-card it was, almost full, without a gap; a rent-card such as not many in the court could have produced.

Translation by Peter Owen, Appears by permission of Em. Querido’s Uitgeverij B.V. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.