The Retreat III

Sep 23rd, 2011, in News, by

‘The Retreat’ by J. Eijkelboom, Part III. Continued from parts 1 and 2.


I was just intending to order a second portion pisang goreng when an out of breath indigenous soldier came storming into the warong.

Sersan, your wife is back!

he shouted in an unnaturally high voice. –

What has happened?

I asked alarmed.

I don’t know, but she is quite upset, I think they have done bad things to her.

Who dammit, who?

I had jumped up and wildly shook the soldier. Without waiting for an answer I hurriedly left through the door.

When the worst fright had died down somewhat I still was worried enough to keep running, but yet to the end of the short distance I had to cover I was more urged on by desire than by fear. I would have the woman I loved (I was all of a sudden sure of this) in my embrace within two minutes. I went straight on to the outhouses at the school and stopped at the smoke-blackened kitchen. Happily none of the babus was there, only the old woman who took care of the food was fanning the fire with a piece of cardboard. A girl, whom I hadn’t seen earlier here, was cleaning vegetables with her back towards me. When she turned around I saw that it was Soemiati. She was barefoot, in a dirty dress, her hair entangled and lusterless, and she looked in almost nothing like the image that I had made of her. She looked at me for a moment. Then she threw herself at my breast with a muffled cry and with a violence as if she wanted to smash herself. I had to overcome a certain repugnance before I could put my arms around her. I took her with me to a little room beside the kitchen where I seated myself with her on a baleh-baleh, with an arm around her emaciated shoulders, not knowing what to say; she wouldn’t have heard anything anyway because of her spasmodic sobs. I noticed in her left temple a barely healed scar that went from her ear almost to her eye, like the part of a spectacle frame. I was not put out of countenance at all; I felt no other emotion than the pity that could have had to do with any other woman in her circumstances. My brain worked therefore rapidly and systematically:

  1. She had to be made presentable;
  2. I had to pump her for information;
  3. I had to take care that she got shelter.

When my plans were worked out Soemiati had sufficiently calmed down to be able to listen to me. I told her that she was safe here and that I would take care that everything else would be straightened out. Her answer hit me as a blow in the face and yet that answer consisted of nothing else than what any given member of domestic staff would have said to me in such a case:

Thank you, tuan …

The worst thing was that there was no note of sarcasm in this, only an infinite forlornness. In a desperate attempt to regain the past, I pulled her against me. I heard myself saying:

Hence forward we will stay together. I will never let you go again.

I regretted my words immediately after I said them. Soemiati kept quiet however, she seemed to have heard nothing, thank god. I told her to go and take a bath and put on a clean dress, at a tone that I tried to keep cheerful.

I have nothing left,

she answered.

I had to leave almost everything behind when I came fleeing here, and I have sold my last things to a Chinese in town.

But why?

I have to eat haven’t I?

But it is self evident that I will take care of you hence forward, isn’t it!

I shouted impatiently.

Where is that Chinese living?

Sulkily, she gave me the address: she started to look somewhat like herself already. We had gone outside meanwhile. When we came past the kitchen I still added:

And don’t forget to wash your hair

Soemiati tore herself away from my arm that I had still around her; she ran to the bathroom and slammed its door furiously behind her. Dismayed I looked at the closed door. The old woman near the fire looked at me reproachfully.

One has to be gentle with such people

she mumbled.

What do you mean?

I asked aggressively. But she had already turned around.

The Chinese to whom Soemiati had sold her clothes appeared to be aware of the political situation. At least he didn’t want to drop the absurdly high amount that he demanded for it. He only gave in when I pulled my pistol holster forward in the manner of a movie scoundrel. I received the bundle of clothes and went outside chuckling. When I jumped on my bike I was amazed about my own light-heartedness; because the difficulties were incalculable, weren’t they.

Half an hour later Soemiati looked much better than when she had just arrived. It was now vital, so I impressed upon myself, not to be dragged in again by her charms. However, it was clear from her remarks that she had really noticed my promise to stay with her. I cursed my lack of self-control but didn’t dare to come up with any corrections at that moment.

It seemed necessary to me (though I wouldn’t have been able to say why) that I would get to know exactly what had happened to Soemiati. A week after my departure from Surabaya she had written me that she had become a nurse in the city hospital. I had asked her to get a photograph made of her and to send this to me, and she had even thought of that as well. It had all been quite reassuring and even little less than miraculous if one took her habitual indolence into account. In the letters I wrote her I had dared to be openly in love again. But after that first letter I had heard nothing more of her. I assumed that she had forgotten me. My longing for her had steadily increased, perhaps from hurt vanity. At the same time however I was not dissatisfied that the matter had solved itself in this way, hence my attempts to go to Surabaya had lacked the conviction necessary to succeed in that.

I had to gauge the rest from the confused stories Soemiati told me. In the kampong people had got wind of the fact that she was maintaining a relation with a Dutchman. The lurah had probably opened my letters. Soon the covert terms in which she was threatened changed into open demonstrations of antipathy. She told me something of a hand that had been painted on her door, of men who had stuck a dagger into the table in front of her, of a woman who had taken a sarong of her

because that had been bought with blood money anyway.

Finally she had fled the kampong at night with the rest of her things in a small suitcase. The next morning an army truck had hit her.

The mud-guard hit my head but those boys were nice, they took me to the hospital

she continued.

Why didn’t you write me as soon as possible

I couldn’t; I was guarded night and day by a soldier of the tentara in civilian clothes. But I managed to escape after a week. I sold my last bracelet to get a train ticket to here. In the train was a woman who was very nice towards me, but that was of course a spy who wanted to pump me. I just acted as if I hadn’t got her number …

I looked searchingly at her. There was a clear glint in her eyes but it was not the flash that I knew so well; her merriment, rage or desire had sparkled in a different manner. The hard light that I saw in her eyes now meant hostility, madness, danger. A thought came up in me that nauseated me for a moment: would she have thrown herself in front of that car deliberately? I couldn’t get it over myself to ask her. Her nerves had been knocked to pieces now; within a week she would probably be normal again, I thought evasively.

I still had to prevail upon the lieutenant who had the command of the military in the school not to raise any disciplinary objections against a young woman staying overnight in the camp. I didn’t find this very difficult. Since the lieutenant had come to know that I had attended the ‘gymnasium’, just as he did, he had a certain respect for me (Note: the Dutch gymnasium is a prestigious grammar school that puts emphasis on the Latin and Greek classics A.B.). We came to agree that, for the time being, Soemiati would be given shelter with the old koki in a little room of the outbuildings. When I thanked the lieutenant I had to suddenly think back of a passage in the farewell speech of our rector:

You will more and more understand what an inestimable value classical training has for the rest of your life.

The man had been proved right, after all.

In my deliberate lightheartedness I had assumed that Soemiati wouldn’t need more than a week to come round, but next morning already she walked towards me radiant with a zest for living. I kissed her mouth without hesitation and started to talk in the old joking manner. No word was spoken about the misery endured. She only tore up her portrait with fierce gestures when she found it.

I don’t look nice enough on it

she said apologetically. The other much stronger impulse that induced her to destroy this aid to memory didn’t escape me. But nothing could worry us that day. Even when she asked me, casually and for the rest without anxiety, what further needed to be done I answered in the same tone that I was planning to stay with her in this country; I would demobilize there and look for a job. The words sounded so convincing by the self-evident way in which they were said that I believed in them myself. I even went as far as speaking Dutch with her, simple words that I pronounced slowly. She had tried to learn my language earlier, with two days of zeal and then dropping it again, but I had never encouraged these efforts. Now I started with it myself, she immediately participated in this new game full of abandon. She looked at me tensely and then tried to provide the right answer. When it was correct she clapped her hands with rapture; in the opposite case she hid her face in her hands laughing ashamed about the error she had made. It seemed as if her small round face became peakier when she was learning; she then half closed her eyes and loosely bared her upper teeth. Even her voice sounded differently, more eager than usual, more like the voice of a precocious girl than that of a young woman. I had noticed this earlier. For instance, in a letter I once wrote Indonisia instead of Indonesia; involuntary I then pronounced that word loudly as it was written, and I suddenly realized that my pen had written down phonetically what her special girl’s voice had dictated to me from my subconscious (note: the Dutch pronunciation of Indonesia is Indonazia A.B.). She now used that same voice again. Learning was for her an exciting sport at that moment, a sort of athletics for the brain. But she tired quickly and got bored even more quickly.


To be continued


9 Comments on “The Retreat III”

  1. avatar Arie Brand says:

    One of the things that I like in that splendid opera “Madame Butterfly”is that the fatal destiny of Pinkerton’s amour is already announced in the ominous tones of the final theme when things are still seemingly all right.

    In E’s story there is a similar arrangement. If one reads it hastily one can easily read over it. Here it is:

    Why didn’t you write me as soon as possible

    I couldn’t; I was guarded night and day by a soldier of the tentara in civilian clothes. But I managed to escape after a week. I sold my last bracelet to get a train ticket to here. In the train was a woman who was very nice towards me, but that was of course a spy who wanted to pump me. I just acted as if I hadn’t got her number …

    I looked searchingly at her. There was a clear glint in her eyes but it was not the flash that I knew so well; her merriment, rage or desire had sparkled in a different manner. The hard light that I saw in her eyes now meant hostility, madness, danger.

    After this the theme is dropped – for the moment. But it will get its awful development in Part IV.

  2. avatar bonni says:

    Dear Arie,

    Thanks. Waiting for the next part…

  3. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Bonni,

    The knowledge that you are waiting for it is spurring me on.

  4. avatar agan says:

    Arie, you’ve got yourself going a huge fan base now and curious here how do you handle the plot? Close to original or give your own personal touch and even throw in a little surprises or new twists here and there just to keep the new readers (especially women 🙂 ) suspend?

    I read brief articles in Indonesian news paper/magazines the account of :
    from less known soldiers (Maj. Visser, Poncke Princen) to a more famous Dutch scholar (Dr. Snouck Hurgronje?) war adventures in Indonesia tempo doeloe.
    Fascinating stories they have love, betrayal and deception.
    Read just like a mysterious spy novel for your next trending topics maybe?

  5. avatar bonni says:

    Arie,

    Aha, isn’t it good…..

  6. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Agan, no, I don’t introduce anything of my own (except in the comments of course). I try to stick as close to the original as possible even there where I would have phrased things differently.

  7. avatar bonni says:

    Agan,

    Post some and get some LOL

  8. avatar Hannah says:

    Hurry up with the next part already. I really really really want to read it!

  9. avatar David says:

    That’ll be tomorrow.

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