Problemski Hotel
by Dimitri Verhulst

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Our Sad Children Are the Future

The Prosineckis’ little boy came home from school today with a beaming smile. He was grinning ear to ear and it’s a shame he lost part of his face in a bombing raid because otherwise he would have been a beautiful child for as long as that smile lasted. Stipe is the little rascal’s name, he’s as old as his sorrow, and if I ever accidentally have a son myself, it would be a consolation if he turned out like Stipe. Preferably, of course, in a version with a whole face.

Stipe’s got talent, even if being suckled in hell increases your chances in that department, and that’s something I’m quite willing to believe. Talent is a dungflower. But still. He’s not the only kid here who, encouraged by the child psychologist, spends his evenings in the activity room confronting his brief past with a box of coloured pencils. They all draw the same gory scenes with bombs and knives and machetes – the predictable themes. Stipe’s no different from the others in that regard. He too reaches for the red pencil more easily than, say, the green. The wounds he draws, or rather, carves into the paper with his needle-sharp pencil are no more expressionistic than the little masterpieces of the other kids his age, but I always find his composition slightly more intelligent. The lad has a feel for perspective too. For someone his age he’s a good chess player, he’s not bad at table tennis and he’s a keen singer, even if he can’t hold a tune. And when he sings, he always misses the right notes. Actually, I’d rather he didn’t sing. Little brats who play the choirboy always make me cry; I’m a sucker for those artistic platitudes. Maybe later he’ll be able to afford an extra tin of dog food a day by playing tearjerkers on a fiddle in the high street; a busker with a stuffed-up face can still do quite well. Anyway, I like him, and it did me good to see him coming home from school with his mouth forming a broad bridge between the perfect half of his face and the caved-in half.

School attendance is compulsory for our children here in Belgium and as a result they’re more streetwise than their seniors and quicker to learn dirty words in Dutch. Stipe’s latest linguistic acquisition is ‘fuck you’ and he’s proud to see his vocabulary growing. Every weekday the children are dragged out of their beds a half-hour earlier than the adults so they can get their schoolbags ready before being carted off to the local council schools on public transport by a social worker. They all go to different schools because of the dispersal policy. Like everything else, this measure is for our own good. The reasoning is that if the children from the asylum seekers’ centre were all in the same class, they wouldn’t be so keen to integrate. It’s probably true.

Which leaves Stipe sitting somewhere at the back of the class chewing the end of a biro. Unless his classmates take the trouble to use simple words and speak very slowly in Standard Dutch, he doesn’t understand them. He doesn’t understand them. Playground football is the only language they have in common and the one thing he’s picked up from his education here is that Belgians can’t shoot. Stipe has a more graphic take on it, he claims that Belgians kick the ball as if it’s a person. I told you he has talent.

But he can’t read or write. The lessons go too fast for him and he really has nothing better to do than sink his teeth into his pen and pass the time until the bell rings gazing at his teacher. It’s too bad for Stipe, but if I was him I would have demanded another teacher if she’s only there to be stared at the whole day long. Mr. Prosinecki recently asked me to go to the school with him for some kind of parent-teacher evening and I got a look at her. If Stipe used his crayons the way she uses her lipstick, he’d fail art. If you ask me, her hobby is knitting in front of the telly. During this famous parent evening she didn’t have much to say about Stipe. What did she know, after all? The boy sat there in the last row under the map of coveted Europe sucking his pen and staring at her. Drawing, he was good at that. And gym as well. (‘It’s a shame the Eastern bloc’s been abolished, Mr. Prosinecki, otherwise I’m sure we would have seen your son shine at the Olympics. I love that, gymnastics. Especially the exercises on the horse.’) He always got an F for reading and writing, but could just manage the sums. She was sorry she couldn’t spend more time on him, but well, we had to realise – ‘…you see, you know, you understand, don’t you, Mr. Prosinecki?’ – there was no point in teaching the boy to conjugate verbs when it was quite possible, just to pluck a figure out of the air, that three weeks from now he’d be kicked out of the country and never hear a word of Dutch again. She had another thirty-four children in her class and although some of them might not have had the intellectual capacities of a guppy, she could see some point in pounding certain information into those tiny little heads of theirs.

We saw, we knew, we understood.

Stipe can really drag his feet after one of these days at school. Sometimes when I go to pick him up from the bus stop he gives the impression of being about to collapse under the weight of his own superfluousness. But not today. He was smiling. And that came as a relief because it was his birthday, his sorrow had just turned ten. He’s all his fingers old.
The displacement of air during the bombing attack in his drawings sucked the right eye out of his skull. Apparently that’s not too bad when it happens, the pain comes later. Stipe has, or had, brown eyes, but the only glass eyes in stock were blue. Although possibly fashionable, something like that does tend to spoil the appetite of table companions and makes dawdling in front of the mirror fairly uninviting. This morning at breakfast the management of the asylum centre presented him with a brown replacement eye. It doesn’t always have to be a comic book or a teddy bear. Stipe couldn’t have been more pleased and things only got better. At school his class made it into in the final of the football competition and he scored the winning goal. The other boys carried him round on their shoulders. And after that, after that, he celebrated a traditional Belgian birthday. I’m not that familiar with Belgian traditions, but Stipe told me about it: everyone gets to write a birthday wish on your body with a thick greasy felt-tip. Once they’ve all written their wishes on you, they stand around in a circle and applaud. He had wishes all over his stomach and all over his back, did I want to see them?

Stipe pulled up his jumper proudly and I read, ‘Go back to your own country you filthy wog.’

‘Well? Well? What’s it say?’ he asked. ‘Can you translate it for me?’

‘Stipe football champion!’ I said and his grin grew even wider. It was the best birthday he’d ever had. For he’s a jolly good fellow.

And so say all of us.