I was fifteen and I had never kissed a boy. Of course, there
were no boys of my age to kiss, because I was living in a
dreadful internment camp, deep in the jungle, somewhere in
the mountains beyond Semarang. We were prisoners of the
Japanese army, which had occupied the island of Java a few
years before, forcing many of us Westerners into detention
camps, like this one at Ambarawa. It’s not a place I like to
think about, now, as life there was harsh and sometimes cruel.
We all prayed for the war to be over, so we could go back
home to our house in Jogjakarta. But then, not long after the
Japs surrendered, the day came when my aunt told me quietly,
‘Nell, we’re leaving, tomorrow. Make sure you pack everything
and you’re ready to go.’
You’d think I would have been excited and had all my stuff
packed in a flash. But no, I really didn’t want to go. You see, I
couldn’t abandon my mother, who lay all alone in a bamboo
coffin under the ground. She had been buried in the open field
beside the yard, where we used to stand in rows for hours
every morning to bow to the Japs. She’d been dead for three
months by then. But still, I found it hard to leave.
Aunt Karly explained to me that the allies had dropped
bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Japan, which had ended
the war. But the Japs were still there in the camp because they
had to protect us from the Indonesian people, who wanted
their independence from the Dutch. I hated politics. And all
the strife. It only led to war. And you lost the people you loved
‘Now that we can go, we’re leaving no matter what
happens,’ said Aunt Karly, firmly.
That’s why I’d woken up really early that morning. The sun
had just risen and was beginning to warm the field. The dreary
camp was quiet. Most people still lay under their mosquito
nets, but I’d gone outside in my underwear.
The building used to be a Catholic school, and this was
one of the classrooms. I was standing in the doorway of
classroom 4G. The Japs had very cleverly arranged wooden
bunks along the walls and even right in the middle of the
room. That way, they could cram as many people as possible
into one room. I had a small mattress on the bunk along the
left side where I slept under a mosquito net beside my aunt.
Our few belongings were stowed beneath our bunk. There
were even more people crammed onto the bunk next to us.
Alert to all the sounds, I leaned against the outer wall of
the classroom. All I could see was the steeple of the school
chapel and the peaks of the surrounding mountains. Some
days, the clouds completely covered them. The barbed wire
fence and the guards in their watch towers usually meant that
everyone stayed in their rooms. Today I wanted to absorb
everything. I wanted to be able to tell people what this place
was really like, and I didn’t want to forget a single thing. I
listened to the silence. The mountains, the camp buildings and
the watch towers still had to shake off the lingering darkness
and resume their usual place in the world. Ever since the day
my mother had ceased to be there beside me in the tiny bed in
classroom 4G, ever since she had been taken away to be laid in
the field, I often got up before dawn.
Because I was leaving, I wanted to remember every
detail of this place. How the first ray of sunlight tinged the
morning sky with shades of purple while the same light made
the mountains glow white. It was that time of the day when
everything seemed possible and the violet light softened
everything. It was as if my mother was still here, as if she
could touch me and I could feel her. We were very similar,
my mother and me. We both tended to be impatient – and to
be honest, I was much more impatient than my mother. We
had the same slender build, the same unruly mass of brownish
curls, the same amber-coloured eyes, the same crease between
our eyebrows that appeared when we were worrying about
Could I really leave this place? For years, I’d prayed to
be able to go. Away from the dirt and the unbearable stench,
away from the single cold water tap in the camp, which usually
wasn’t working. I was always thirsty. I was always hungry. There
was never enough food. Yes, of course Aunt Karly and I had
to get out of here. Now that the war was over, I wanted to
look for my father. I needed to know where he was. I wanted
to feel his arms around me. I wanted to hear his voice again,
gently teasing me ‘And how is my little Nelly today?’ I wanted
to go back to the time when everything was safe, and we were
all still living together. That was three years ago, three years
since I’d seen him. I had to hurry, pack my few things, and get
out. Mustn’t waste any time! I went inside and took my things
out from under the mosquito net. Of course, my father didn’t
know the worst thing of all − that on 26th April we’d carried
my mother out of the camp to lay her in the field beyond and
that I was now alone with my aunt. Mustn’t think about that now.
It would only make me cry and I didn’t want to cry anymore. I
had to get ready to leave.
I laid our little saucepan and our two cups out on a piece
of batik cloth. On top of that I laid my threadbare and now,
much too short, blue skirt together with a white vest. Then I
rolled up my mosquito net and placed it on top of the other
things. Lastly, I put my mother’s smart woollen coat on top
of the pile, and I tried to tie the corners of the cloth into
a bundle. Why was I having so much trouble? I was trying
to do it too fast, of course. I had to put everything together
again neatly and pull really hard on the corners of the cloth
to be able to tie them together. ‘A beautiful bungkusan,’ my
mother would have said. Mustn’t think about it. I pulled on my
green skirt and white blouse, slipped on my worn sandals, and
walked out of the room.
Outside, at the corner of the yard, a young Jap was standing
guard. It was the same young man who, three months ago, had
walked with my aunt and me behind the bamboo coffin. An
Indonesian had pushed the coffin on a cart over to the field.
There, the coffin had disappeared into a shallow hole. My eyes
searched once more for the right spot in the grassy field. I had
no choice but how could I leave my mother behind over there?
Why was everything so complicated? Staying here or
going. The young Jap soldier stood there exactly as he had
always stood there, but he wasn’t looking as severe as before.
Just now, I hadn’t bowed for him and I hadn’t been punished.
He hadn’t beaten me, but had just ignored me, pretended he
hadn’t seen me. Although his emperor had capitulated a week
ago, he couldn’t get away from here either. He had no choice
but to stay where he was.
Aunt Karly came to stand next to me. The dress she was
wearing with the frayed white collar was much too big for her,
but she still looked pretty. The faded blue dress matched the
colour of her eyes. She wore her hair in a plait down her back
and for the first time I noticed that she’d gone almost entirely
grey. When had that happened? She put an arm around me,
and we stood like that for a moment, as if frozen in time.
Then my aunt pulled away.
‘You know, you really are allowed to leave.’
I didn’t react.
‘I’m certain your mother would want us to get away from
‘How do you know that?’ I mumbled.
‘Because I know Elenore really well. We have to leave here
now that we have the chance. Believe me, going to Surabaya is
the best option.’
I was silent. Tears burned behind my eyes, but I willed
them away. It was true. I couldn’t stay. I had to get away from
here. My aunt always knew what was right. She never doubted
herself, or worried about the risk − she just did what she felt
I went inside and tried to muster my courage. I looked at
the mosquito nets, the mattresses, the shabby things stored
under the bunks. I listened to the sounds of the children
playing outside. I registered all those ordinary goings on and
pulled myself together.
‘Alright. Let’s get out of here,’ I said, with a croaky voice.
It sounded braver than I felt.
‘But I can’t leave without saying goodbye to Lisa, first.’ My
friend, Lisa, with her deep blue eyes, black plaits and gangly
body. We’d worked together in the camp kitchen and I was
really fond of her. I’d had a lot of laughs with Lisa de Vries.
She was an only child, too, and her father had died when she
was little. Her mother had never remarried. I couldn’t leave
without saying goodbye.
‘I’ll be right back,’ I said, and ran off.
Saying you are leaving is not the same thing as actually leaving!
I stood with my aunt in the yard and felt sick. I hadn’t been
able to find Lisa anywhere. ‘Please, can’t we wait just a little
longer?’ I asked. ‘Perhaps she’ll turn up somewhere.’
‘No, we really have to go now,’ she said. ‘We’re already late.’
I sighed. ‘So, can we just walk out of the gate now? Why
didn’t we do that before?’
‘You know that wasn’t possible before. You would have
been killed immediately. They would have beaten us to
death,’ she said with a determined look on her face. ‘Now
that it turns out that their emperor is not as invincible as
they thought he was, things have changed. They won’t stop
us. Not if they’re sensible. They’d rather make themselves
invisible and keep quiet.’
I grabbed hold of her hand. ‘Thank goodness you’re older
and braver than I am. And you know what to do.’
Aunt Karly laughed. ‘That remains to be seen, but I’m
doing my best. The first thing is to walk out of this camp
without being arrested. Come on, let’s go.’
Together we walked to the gate. I held on to my little
bundle tightly with one hand and clutched Aunt Karly’s arm
with the other. The watchtowers were placed in such a way
that no one could leave the camp unseen. The guards must
have been watching us all along, but they didn’t show it. They
didn’t react, didn’t protest, didn’t try to stop us. I looked at
Aunt Karly. She nodded at me. ‘Keep walking.’
She looked very determined. I thought she knew what she
was doing, but I sensed her nervousness in her footsteps as
we passed through the gate to the other side of the gedek, the
bamboo fencing around the camp. My heart was beating twice
as fast as normal and I felt the blood pounding in my temples.
Sweat trickled down my back. When we were finally on the
other side of the gate my aunt stopped and loosened my grip
on her arm. My fingers had left white marks.
‘Well done, Nell,’ she said, encouragingly.
I wanted to look back at the open field where my mother
lay, but I didn’t dare to. I put my bundle down and rubbed my
‘I’m sorry I squeezed you so hard. I was so scared that
we would be arrested, but there isn’t a single Jap who took
any notice!’ I looked at the people from the camp who had
gathered by the gedek. Even at this early hour, people were
busy bargaining with people from outside the camp, trading
their meagre belongings for food.
‘Look at that!’ I cried, excitedly. ‘Two eggs for a worn shirt.
A cup of rice for an old pair of shorts.’ Normally the Japs
punished bartering harshly, but now they looked away and
‘We have to keep going,’ said Aunt Karly. ‘Come on! Keep
walking! We’re the first to leave the camp today. We have to get
to Ambarawa station early. I want to catch the train as soon
I picked up my bundle and hurried on. I felt the eyes of
the guards boring into my back and I wanted to turn around,
but I didn’t dare to, in case they came after us.
‘Don’t worry about them,’ said Aunt Karly. She clenched
her hands into fists. ‘They’re not going to drag us back into the
camp and they’re not going to leave us standing in the middle
of that sweltering hot yard tied to a post all day as punishment
anymore. They’re not going to leave us doubled up in a crate
for a few days anymore either. Now that they’ve been beaten,
they’re not allowed to do that. Although, of course, you can
never be sure with those Japs. Just keep up with me, Nell, and
I did as she asked. I tried not to look back and to think
of other things. But it was difficult, because my whole being
was screaming that I had to look back one last time at the
grassy field where my mother lay. So as not to think about
that, I changed the subject: ‘It looks different to when we
‘There’s only one road from the station to the Ambarawa
camp. Three years ago, it was almost dark and a lot cooler
when we arrived.’
‘Yes, it’s sweltering now. Back then, I thought that the war
would be over soon and that I’d be home in a few weeks. I
didn’t know any better.’
‘We all thought that.’
I sighed. I was terribly hot and was finding it increasingly
difficult to keep on walking and to keep up with my aunt’s
pace. The sun was right overhead, and the sweat was running
down my back. My bundle felt even heavier. I moved it to my
other hand. On our way here, a long time ago now, my mother
had carried most of our belongings. My mother… Mustn’t
think about her. Mustn’t look round to try and catch a last glimpse of
the little field where she lay, abandoned.
I thought of Orpheus. My father liked telling me that
story. He told me that he loved my mother just as much as
Orpheus loved his wife Eurydice. ‘Do you know the story
about Orpheus, Auntie? It was mine and Dad’s favourite.’
‘Do tell!’ she said, sensing that I was looking for distraction
and glad that we could talk about something else.
‘Orpheus was inconsolable when his beloved bride,
Eurydice, died on the day of their wedding, and he cried so
much that eventually his tears softened the hearts of the gods.
He was allowed to bring her back from the underworld on
condition that he would come all the way back to the upper
world without once glancing back at Eurydice, who was
walking behind him out of Hades.’
‘But Orpheus looked back, didn’t he?’
‘Yes, he ruined everything by looking round and then his
beloved bride was gone. Disappeared forever.’
‘But you can look back at your mother’s grave, you know.’
I looked at my aunt, angrily. ‘I do know that my mother is
not going to come back to life whether I look back there or
not. I know perfectly well that people don’t rise from the dead.
Not Eurydice, and not my mother, but if I look around, the
Japs might see me and take me back.’
It was not until these last words came out that I realized
that I was shouting. I threw my bundle down into the road.
Two birds with blue feathers flapped out of a coconut palm.
I watched them go as the tears ran down my face. Two little
heads with a white spot and a black circle around the eyes, a
red bill and little red legs: paddy birds. My mother would have
called them glatiks. She never wanted me to use the Dutch
names for native birds.
‘Let’s swap over, you’re carrying too much.’ Aunt Karly
took off her rucksack and put it down next to my bundle. I
wanted to object, to say that I wanted to carry my own stuff,
but before I could say anything, she had already picked up my
‘What have you got in there?’
I didn’t answer but watched as my aunt pulled my bundle
apart. ‘No wonder this is so heavy. Why did you bring along
that woollen coat?’
I didn’t say anything, not even that that was a stupid
question. My mother had lugged that coat all the way to
Ambarawa. My father had given her that coat as a gift in
America and now it had to be taken back to him. Auntie
smoothed the coat with both hands. Her hands were trembling.
She bent over, put her face into the soft woollen material, just
like I often did, but without anyone noticing. Then Aunt Karly
pulled herself upright. ‘Silly of me. Of course, that coat has to
come with us.’ I saw that there were tears in her eyes. ‘Goodbye
Elenore, goodbye my dear friend,’ she whispered, so softly
that it was barely audible. Then she tied up the bundle, tighter
than necessary. ‘Let’s go.’
I picked up the rucksack and as I slung it over my shoulder,
a sudden urge made me look back. Ambarawa already lay far
behind us. In the distance, the top of the small white church
steeple was just visible, and my mother had disappeared