THE INTERPRETER FROM JAVA
At the pictures
Out of the blue – I must’ve been about eighteen – you decided to take me out one night. A rare occurrence. Granted, it had been five years since we’d lived in the same house, since Child Services had taken me from you at the age of thirteen and – in your words – ‘deported’ me to the children’s home. Dutch grub was all they fed us there, but when it came time to leave, the authorities saw fit to lodge me and my brother Phil with a family steeped in the ways of the Indies. Our landlady swanned around as if the sun had never set on the empire. What the hell were Child Services playing at? Five years of knuckling under to a Dutch regime only to be handed over to a family stuck in the colonial past.
It was the same old battle cry every time you visited us at the children’s home. You insisted you wanted your kids back, that you were fighting one court case after another, that we were ‘your blood’, that we belonged with you… there was no end to it. Phil tried to warn me, but I ignored his brotherly advice. I fled our stifling Indo lodgings and headed straight for the place you told me I belonged. A tram to The Hague, a bus from Staatsspoor station via Voorburg and Leidschendam to a brand-new housing scheme in Voorschoten, where I stood and rang your bell in a bleak and spotless doorway less than a mile from my old children’s home. You opened the door with an unforgettable welcome:
‘Why did you forsake me?’
Jesus calling out to God the Father. Back then you were sleeping with the Bible under your pillow, you crazy bastard. The worst of it was, I honestly believed I had forsaken you. My photo pressed between the pages of your Bible – what was that about? Was I a bookmark in place of your dagger? You didn’t think I’d believe you were praying for me, did you? Later I became convinced you stuck pins in that photo. I told that to two girlfriends of mine after I fled your home once and for all, and it made them cry. They thought I had lost my mind, though by that time they knew you weren’t exactly sane yourself: I brought those sweet American hippies back to your
place one day and you took them for a couple of floozies, sent them packing without a second glance. You turfed out an American-Dutch friend of mine too. And all because he was black, racist loon that you are. That same friend later told me you were a madman, just like Ma had always said. I didn’t want to believe it then. I’m afraid I still don’t.
And so you took me out that Tuesday night. Who goes to the pictures on a Tuesday? We caught a bus in Voorschoten, got off at Staatsspoor station and walked to the Odeon on Herengracht. They were showing an American action flick: five death-row inmates offered one last chance at freedom if they rescued some military boffin from the clutches of the Vietnamese. Raising hell as they roared through the jungles of Vietnam on their motorbikes, the convicts were picked off one by one but against all odds the scientist was saved. You stared spellbound at the screen; you and a handful of other simple souls dotted about the cinema. You were forty-five, give or take – an age for contemplation, for self-reflection – yet you sat there like a little kid next to a son who loathed motorbikes, who squeezed his eyes shut when one of the heroes was shot to pieces, snared by a vine, strung upside down, impaled on a bed of bamboo spears. Those Viet Cong and their booby traps! Grisly tactics aside, I secretly cheered them on. To me they were the underdogs, my blood brothers on the silver screen. You rooted for the gung-ho Yanks. Unease was all I felt sitting there next to you; perhaps you felt uneasy next to me. On the bus back to Voorschoten not a word passed between us. I suppose you were trying to coax me out of my shell, stuck on my own in that suicide flat of yours listening to the radio all day while you were out at work, no clue what to do with my life. Puccini Crescent: what a grim corner of the commuter belt that was, a horseshoe of four-storey flats in a satellite town wedged between Leiden and The Hague, home to lonely men and women too timid to say hello when they passed on the street, office drones who spent their evenings watching TV alone.
Guess what, Pa, life in Holland hasn’t changed. Thanks for settling in this cold country where life is good as long as you have no need of warmth. Wise of you to live out your days in Spain. Or is
THE INTERPRETER FROM JAVA
it just cowardice? Fear we might come over and do you in? It’s still three against one, pal. Only we’re bigger now, stronger, a far cry from the little lads we once were. I’m a halfway decent jujitsuka. Phil is a killing machine with a handful of black belts. Arti is a streetfighter. Give it your best shot, old man. During your last year in Holland – South Haarlem, another desperate hole – I heard you slept with an axe under your bed, scared Arti would turn up one night and punch your lights out. I heard that from Ma and she heard it from one of your daughters, Mil most likely, your favourite, named after some old flame, an Aussie girl you picked up in your Java days. You can thank your lucky stars I only took up martial arts late in life. I’m not the killing kind, Pa, but even now you deserve a one-way trip to Intensive Care courtesy of my own bare hands. Twenty-five years of groaning under your iron fist, your paranoia, followed by twenty-five years writing it all down in an unfinished book might seem like a balance of sorts, but I’d rather have spent forty-nine years living life to the full and one year behind bars for inflicting grievous bodily harm on a former marine. No such luck: I am a noble being, a pen-wielding samurai who walks a gentler path, who strums his guitar and makes people smile. I have been cursed with an inquiring nature, naive enough to think I can fathom the inner workings of an unhinged fascist. Perhaps you deserve that too, if only because the pages that comprise your monument may yet expose Dutch history for the lie that it is. *
The movie is over. The director chisels his heroes’ faces in the clouds.
(complete with bombastic crescendo)
In your boyhood dreams, you must have pictured your own face up there. Forget it, Pa. The war-movie heaven those heroes fly off to only ever existed in Hollywood.