A sort-of-spoken word about explaining what ‘rich’ means.
“Who does that belong to?” she says,
Pointing in the uninhibited way that kids and tourists do towards a really enormous boat that shares a name with a billionaire
And screams ‘I’m loaded, me!’ in a way that the boat next to it, which is small, covered in algae and has a yellowing ‘For Sale!’ sign stuck forlornly to the window, doesn’t.
This boat isn’t the kind of inflatable boat you can pick up for seventy quid in Costco,
Or the kind of boat that people hire for a holiday on the Norfolk Broads,
Or even the kind of boat that churns up and down the river on summer evenings, playing endless rounds of YMCA to parties of pissed insurance agents on a works do –
No, this boat has staff.
“Someone rich,” I say, for that much I know.
“So how do people get rich?” she asks. I don’t expect this.
Now, there are plenty of questions I do expect.
Where do I come from?
How are babies made?
Why isn’t everyone nice to each other?
What happens when people die?
You know it’s coming sometime, so you’ve got yourself prepared, carefully filed it in the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section and got the answer down.
But this is not in the Frequently Asked Questions section in my head.
How do people get rich?
I do the classic trick I picked up in my academic-wannabe years and say:
“Well… it all depends on what you mean by rich…”
Part of me is worried of the implications of this. Is she a Gordon-Gecko in waiting? Will I find out some thirty years hence that she’s screwed millions of workers out of their pension funds in order to buy an island somewhere on a whim?
I wince. I must tread carefully.
There is the obvious dodge – “You don’t need money to be rich, you’re rich already because you have so many friends!” –
But even that seems too woolly, too patronising, like a really inept talk at a school by a visiting curate, and it doesn’t answer the question.
I could be relational – “Compared to many people in the world, you’re rich beyond measure. Do you know that many people don’t have enough food to eat tonight?” Too sermonising, too joyless, even if true – and it doesn’t answer the question.
The militant side of me pops up as it often does, probably in the black beret and German army shirt of my teens, and suggests – “Oppressing the workers, of course, in the great class struggle that has repeated itself over centuries! You’re doomed already because I’m not rich and connected – better get used to it!” Too fatalistic for a five-year old, I think.
Perhaps I should be aspirational. “Work hard and you can get a boat like that someday!” The doctrine that my generation heard every day – that work, and more work, brought reward.
Except they never mentioned the burnout, the casualties you looked up to once that are still on the dole, the flip of the coin that sends your industry spiralling into oblivion when it had once been the surest ticket of the lot, the sleepless nights and the nagging feeling that maybe nice guys do finish last after all…
No, she deserves a much better answer – but I don’t have one.
“If I knew the answer,” I say honestly, “maybe we’d be in that boat now. But rich isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I don’t suppose.”
“I guess not,” she says. “If you were really rich and had lots of boats like that, you’d forget where you left them, wouldn’t you?”
And I can’t argue with that.