An extract from Chapter One of the novel
A huge cockroach scurries past the narrow bunk on which Tommy is sitting. She can just discern the creature in the half-light that filters through the small high window and the chinks in the door. She waits for the dull thud that will signal its collision with the wall. Of course it turns just in time.
Tommy wraps her arms around her knees and looks up at the window. It is so dirty that light barely penetrates. Thick walls and a heavy door deaden the noises from the corridor beyond. The stench and gloom that pervade her cell make it seem she is sitting in the midst of a sewerage system.
If only she knew her way around as well as that cockroach does. It is lord of a vast network of passages, small thoroughfares and open spaces, thinks Tommy. For me there is no hole to crawl through, to be free to walk the streets again.
She shrugs her shoulders and hangs her head. She refuses to accept the fact that they have caught her after all.
Galeng and Tante Sri had warned her often enough. But somehow their words had never quite got through to her. She had always laughed merrily whenever they looked at her with concern. Gaols belonged with Galeng and Tante Sri, in a long ago past. Galeng had been arrested immediately in 1965. He had spent several years in a men’s prison before being transferred to the prison island of Buru. Whenever he spoke of those early years of his imprisonment, he would shake his head thoughtfully. The hunger, the torture had been unbearable. It was only when the Red Cross realised that a massacre of incredible proportions had taken place in Indonesia, and that the gaols were still full to overflowing, that their circumstances had improved marginally. So many had succumbed. Why not Galeng?
Tante Sri had been arrested later. For several years she had been in hiding, and initially had desperately been trying to defend Soekarno, who after all was still Indonesia’s lawful President. They had printed and distributed pamphlets in which she pleaded with people to get the facts straight. But nobody was interested in facts. The increasingly wilder inventions that were being circulated were much more exciting. Once Soekarno was rehabilitated, Tante Sri’s committee had hoped, the killings might cease, the persecutions would be halted, and they might be able to resume their normal lives. Hadn’t Soekarno always protected them? But his star had faded. Soeharto, the bloodthirsty young general, had not stopped until he had pushed Soekarno aside. He could not have humiliated his rival more deeply than by putting him under house arrest. Banished by his own people, just like the Dutch had done so many years ago. Soekarno, the hero of the freedom struggle, did not endure this treatment for long. It was only months later, in gaol, that Tante Sri heard of his death.
Gaols were just stories to Tommy. Galeng and Tante Sri had told her the facts in short, dry sentences. The rest she had surmised from Tante Sri’s staring gaze, or Galeng’s sudden silences midway in a conversation, or from the palpable tension whenever a group of ex-prisoners talked about those who had only just made it. The dead were always present.
Well, Tommy thinks bitterly, at least I can now gather some local colour for the article that I’m going to write - if I ever get out of here. She shakes her head. Now she herself was locked up. In the women’s section of the same prison where Tante Sri and her friends had spent the last years of their imprisonment. So had they smelt that same awful stench? Heard the same jangling of keys and the hollow sound of the stamping of soldiers’ boots? Could there still be women here who knew Tante Sri?
Only such a short time ago Tommy had been riding her light motorbike fearlessly through the chaotic Jakarta traffic. Now she would not be seeing Laras’ mocking smile for a while. Probably she would not be able to smell jasmine for a long time either, or the stink of the filthy exhaust gases from the buses. And the birds in Pak Tjipto’s garden, when would she hear them again?
‘Goddamit,’ she mumbles. ‘I walked into the trap with my eyes wide open.’
She squeezes her eyes closed. She bends her neck and folds her hands around her head. For a moment she can again feel the wind in her hair from that time when she rode behind Dede through the Jakarta night. It was cool, Dede had put up the collar of her leather jacket. First they had had to manoeuvre carefully through the narrow streets of the district where Laras, Dede’s lover, lived. Only when they were on the main street could they step on the gas.
Aghast, Tommy realises that it had only been the day before yesterday.
‘Will we go and get some sate?’ Dede had yelled, looking back over her shoulder. Tommy shook her head.
‘I need to get some sleep. I’ve got an appointment with Galeng early tomorrow morning’.
‘Fine. Are you coming home with me?’
‘No, can’t do that either. I’ll need to grab some things from my room. I’ll come and get you Saturday night,’ she shouted before turning into Jalan Thamrin. Dede raised her hand in confirmation and tore off into the night.
Saturday! That is tomorrow, or actually, later on today. She looks at her wrist and swears softly. ‘Damn, they took my watch too, before the hearing.’ She has no idea of the time. Would it be after midnight already? This afternoon Christiaan would be holding a reception that she had wanted to attend. She was intending to go early, so that she could finalize the latest notes and put them away in the cupboard in her room at Christiaan’s house.
Tommy inhales deeply. She purses her lips and sucks in the stuffy air of the cell. She feels just as anxious as she did when Opa had locked her up in the shed because she had ignored his order not to play near the excavation. During the hearing she had pretended indifference, but now her heart is thumping in her throat. Tensely she looks around. Can’t she hide somewhere until it’s all over? Her chest feels ready to burst. She holds her breath a moment longer before letting it out in a soft whistle. How is she ever going to get out of here? That cockroach buzzed like the motor of her motorbike. What she wouldn’t give to be able to just zoom out through the gates of the prison, shifting about on the seat, hair waving in the wind.
She rocks slowly from side to side. Her eyelids prickle. She does not want to go to sleep yet, she fears the dreams that are sure to come. But she cannot keep herself upright. Exhausted, she lets herself sink down on her side. Like that, in foetal position, her knees over the edge of the bunk, she falls asleep.
Opa is standing just behind me in the canoe. He towers high above me and peers with his hand shielding his eyes at a jetty in the bend of the river. With his loincloth and the eagle feathers that he has fastened to his elbows, he is a fearsome sight. He sits down again and resumes paddling.
‘Keep your back straight’ he snarls at me, because I had turned around towards him.
‘Always keep your back straight!’ His lips are set tight, his eyes darken with anger. Then he begins to sing his war song, in a deep sonorous drone. He drums the melody on the edge of our tree trunk canoe with his paddle. The river is as brown as our skin and flows rapidly. He has painted his face with white war stripes. I feel extremely happy. At last, after twenty years, Opa is teaching me his war song. I turn my head around again and look at him questioningly. Opa nods happily, yes, this is why I’ve come back. After all, twenty years ago when I died you were still too young, weren’t you? He winks at me.
We tie up at the rickety wooden jetty and walk up the shore to the community house. It is roomy and square, and virtually empty apart from a few benches that have been shoved to one side. Through the open shutters we see hordes of natives arriving from two directions. They are wearing headdresses made of beads, fur and feathers, and red loincloths. They are armed with spears and battle-axes. They dance towards us, two leaps forwards, one back.
Solemnly Opa hands over his sword to me. He gestures that I can use it to fend off the enemy tribes. Now from two sides the warriors press into the community house. While I attack the first onslaught, the others crowd closely around me. Why does Opa keep on nodding and laughing while it must be clear that I will never be able to manage by myself? The warriors utter various war cries that I can’t understand. I can’t hear Opa’s war song any more. I turn around just in time to see him disappearing through the wall, back to the river. A broad shouldered enemy lifts an enormous club above my head. I can’t ward him off any longer, my sword has become too heavy to lift.
Tommy scrabbles upright, sweating. She tries to hold on to Opa’s warlike look. Years ago, when she came home with her ears still buzzing from the hateful remarks and still feeling the effects of the bombardment of lumps of earth thrown at her by the Catholic boys who always attacked her, he had looked just like that. ‘No tears! Don’t give yourself away! No milksops in this house!’ The contempt in his voice cut into her soul. After that he turned back to his work. She continued to inhale deeply until her breathing returned to normal. Then, to show her self-control, she brought him his glass of aged gin that she had filled to the brim. Only after downing it in a single gulp did he nod briefly at her.
But tonight he had sung his war song, she thinks. Is that why he came back? She retains the image of her cheerful, bellicose Opa on her retina as she sits up stiffly. ‘My back is straighter than ever on this narrow bunk, Opa,’ she mutters grimly.
The cockroaches have calmed down somewhat now that it has become lighter. She can no longer hear them scurrying about. How would Opa react if he could see me now? Would he briefly stroke my hair, just as he did after I had broken my ankle? The son of the Catholic milkman had called Tommy and her Opa heretics. When she stormed up to him, the boy had hit her full in the face. She fell, but held on to his sleeve. He had lost his balance and had trodden on her calf. He was twice as big and heavy as Tommy, and her ankle had snapped. He fled when he saw her on the ground with her strangely twisted leg, moaning. A boy from the neighbourhood showed Opa where she was lying. Opa had lifted her up and wiped the blood off her face. Tommy screamed with pain when her leg was moved.
She must have lost consciousness because she had woken with Opa’s hand stroking her face and her leg in plaster. Did he look proud? She had not been a coward, that was the most important thing. She had defended their honour against a much stronger foe. His upbringing of her had not been for nothing.
Saskia Wieringa is an anthropologist at the University of Amsterdam. This is her second novel. She has also published more than 30 books of non-fiction, mostly on issues of gender and sexuality. An interview with Saskia is available for viewing on YouTube.
This extract has been reproduced with the permission of the publishers.