Tuesday, January 20, 2009

3. Encounter

Photo Source: Documenten en Fotos Indie 47/50

The town's climate is typical of the tropics, sultry. Swimming is a favourite pastime, in the big pool of Tegalsari, almost every evening for a game of water polo or just swimming. Good sorts there, many of them in swimming gear which should be a full size larger, the clinging wet material accentuating their bodies. Ostensibly unaware of that, the girls hang about on the springboards or recline on the floor before the shower recesses. Sometimes with a boyfriend, sometimes alone with a quasi-forbidding allure about them. Yet if the right approach is made you might be lucky.

It is a beautiful April evening. There are quite a few swimmers about with the usual sounds of laughter, calling and splashing. At the head of the large, oblong space of water is a raised platform of tiles where occasionally Sunday dances are held. This platform runs from the upper landing of the entrance staircase to the edge of the wading pool. At the far end of the deep water section the boys are practising shots with a polo ball. "Wham!" slams the hard leather against the crossbar.

From the platform the water looks invitingly cool, reflecting the lights in dancing strings of flashes.

"Look, Dad, I can swim!" cries a small boy splashing about in a kapok girdle.

"Wham!" That ball again.

One of the good sorts, emerging from the water, pulls herself up the iron rungs, her hands high up on the railing. And she does it slowly. Heavy breasts beneath scanty wool, dark, dripping cowlicks in armpits. The fountain basin set in the wall of the wading pool gushes a blue, transparent veil of water.

"Daddy, Daddy, look now, I can swim!" But Daddy is all eyes for the girl.

Come, let's swim. I start walking toward the change rooms and I come by the wading pool. There, in the shallow water, is another girl, standing upright, ready to throw an orange coloured ball.

"Well now, that's good son. Keep close to the side," says Daddy finally.

A blonde. She is pretty, very pretty. Sixteen or seventeen, no more. Nothing fleshy and sexual about her. Just an attractive girl in a two-piece bathing suit. Plenty of blondes around, salesgirls in department stores or shopping with Mum, well guarded and warned against menacing males. So she's not for you, boy. But, oh, isn't she beautiful! The boys are calling me to join them but for some inexplicable reason I don't feel like swimming, not just yet. She is an eye-full in that two-piece suit but there is something different, something arresting about her. The lankiness and awkward grace of youth have just begun to bud into a warm femininity, but there is that other thing - a wholesomeness of bearing so refreshingly natural, without that studied pose commonly adopted by beautiful girls. But enough of it; she's definitely not for me. Bet her mother is around somewhere, watching her like a hawk.

Photo Source: Documenten en Fotos Indie 47/50

Let's join the boys - but then, who wants to throw around a stupid ball? Better get changed and get in the pool so you can see her real close. Among all the people I see only her face, already trusted and familiar. Again I try to reason, to withdraw, but I am helpless. Her features are flawless, a cream-rich complexion and a lovely figure. She's got that ball again, throwing it back and lifting her arms to set her bathing cap right. Fine young breasts press against the fabric. A droplet of water runs down from her ever so slightly tilted nose to parted lips, delicately formed, revealing even, white teeth. She smiles. A million dollar smile.

Then her eyes, blue, notice my helpless gaping. With a studied air of cool indifference she turns her head away, bends down in a brief posture of tenderly provocative curves and swims to the opposite edge of the pool. Staying where I am, I force myself to look elsewhere. But a minute later I hear a movement in the water, and to my surprise I see her now quite nearby, hanging on to the railing. With her is a little girl, clearly a younger sister. My heart beats faster. She is so excitingly close that a small birthmark on her arm is visible. Then I blurt out, "Is she your little sister?"

"Can't you see that for yourself?" is all she says before swimming away. She and her sister leave shortly after that, and the pool becomes terribly empty.

"What happened?" says Mum to me when I am home.

"What do you mean? Nothing, of course. I just had a swim, that's all."

"You seem to look different. I don't know, but anyway, different."

"Mum, I said I had a swim as I always do, almost every day!"

Before going to bed, I look sharply at myself in the mirror but can't see anything special.

Back at the pool, the following evening, I marvel at the sight of her stepping down the steps. What is it that she has, that makes my heart beat faster? Standing on the edge near the water, she pauses a moment to strap her cap on, turning her head slightly sideways. I drink it all in, openly and shamelessly. She must have noticed it, perhaps remembering my staring eyes, for a fleeting smile is on her sweet face before she dives into the water. Now for a careful approach. It is very important that she should not be offended by too bold an advance. Or worse, that she should become bored by silly talk like that of yesterday. But first, get her undivided attention.

Soon it becomes evident that all the display of fast swimming and fancy diving from the high board does not make the slightest impression on her, but it does draw the curiosity of my mates, who call out to each other with insinuating remarks aimed at me. At last, stopping the nonsense, I swim straight to her to say, without any preliminaries, "How are you? Isn't it a beautiful evening?" We start talking to each other.

An hour later we are still at it, leaning against the partition of the wading pool or hanging on to the railing with one hand while running softly through the water with the other. Then, of course, an exchange of names. Hers is Lisa, and that there is her little sister Christine. Instinct warns me that, to gain a favourable impression, none of the usual tricks will do with her. The smart innuendo, the slight nudge would have been incomprehensible to her young frankness, an insult to her genuine innocence.

Lisa is not quite seventeen, she will be that next month. With the same frankness in approach, typical of her, she asks how old I might be. Good heavens, twenty-four! That makes me seven years older, and a critical moment has arrived. She might withdraw now, for I am branded an "oldie." Indeed she calls me that, but with a twinkle in her eyes, for she does not care, really. Time has flown, she has to go, and then the offer is made to escort her home. Again a few critical seconds. The way is now clear for her to end it all with a friendly but positive "Rather not, Mum and Dad don't want me to go out with boys." Or worse still, "My boyfriend will be waiting for me to take me home." I hold my breath. Then, pushing herself from railing, she swims with easy strokes to the first rung of the ladder. Pulling herself halfway up and turning her head to look over one creamy white shoulder, she answers, with noticeable surprise in her tone, that this was a rather silly question. Of course she would want me to escort her home.

On the nape of her girlish neck tiny droplets cling to the golden locks curling from beneath the rim of her white bathing cap. There is a dimple on her back behind each shoulder tip. A little fullness in the flesh under her arms above the strap of her brassiere makes her soft and womanly. I feel like rushing the ladder to crush her in my arms.

The swimming pool has become the central point of thoughts around which the whole day revolves. She never arrives at the pool before half past seven, which gives me enough time to spare whenever I am invited to have a drink with the master or the mate of one of the ships we are agents for. "Oh, there you are. What'll you have?" And more often than not, the talk turns to that swastika banner-wielding Hitler again. Also Japan, of all countries, is brought into the conversation as another threat to world peace. Can't they talk about anything else? Germany is so far away, and who cares about Japan? Made-in-Japan is cheap, inferior stuff, and that'll be the same with her military power, no doubt.

The evenings consist mostly of the swimming pool and escorting her home on the bicycle. Not much variety, but very important. In parting, all I dare is to touch her hand on the steering handle and say, "See you tomorrow." That is how much I respect her, which is so different from the other girls I have met before. The thought how-far-can-I-go-now simply does not occur. Her charm and appeal to me is in a different note, which is a new experience, and a good one. For it makes the grass lusher, the trees greener and the sky more blue.

Photo Source: Netherlands Institute for War Documentation

I have been called up for military training at the First Infantry Battalion, in Bandung, right across to the other side of Java, for a month. The drill and coaching in handling firearms is more intensified than ever before. The sergeant says that we must prepare for war; who knows, perhaps we shall have to go to Holland to help fight that Hitler bastard, he says. Granted our machine guns, Vickers and Schwarzlose, date back to the Great War, but they are still effective. The evenings without Lisa are dreadfully lonesome.

The scissors click, deftly snipping off strands of hair, which he lifts with the comb. He is Japanese, like so many barbers in the Dutch East Indies, in his forties with a rotund face. Beaming at me through his glasses in the mirror, he looks very much like that vicar in Holland some years ago. They always smile, Japanese barbers, talking with a soft hissing and that cast-iron grin creasing the skin at the corners of their eyes. Very polite and friendly people. Finished with the job, he proceeds to massage my neck and shoulders, which is included in the price. Through the open window we hear the drone of the much advertised, newly acquired squadron of Curtis Hawk interceptor fighter planes. I cannot resist asking him whether Japan would ever attack us, to which he replies without hesitation that Nippon is a friend of the Dutch, with his whole face smiling, except for the eyes.

We will meet again under somewhat different circumstances.

Back in Surabaya, she says, "Have you been faithful to me?" So good to hear from her, because that could mean that she believes that we belong to each other. When I reply, "Of course, and you?" she just looks at me, but it's enough to make me warm all over, for I suddenly know that I love this girl. That I love her deeply.

Taking her home one evening, her little sister happens not to be with us, and by silent mutual consent a different road is used, leading to a grassy hillock with a broad, old tree on top. It stands at a little distance from the main traffic of Darmo Boulevard where she lives at number 159.

At the foot of the hill a pretext is found to alight and then...the first kiss. Her lips taste fresh and sweet, they tremble softly. I kiss her again, tenderly, and her hand moves up to rest on my shoulder, her breath sweet on my face. Withdrawing, she lightly brushes her lips on my cheek and whispers, "What took you so long?"

Photo Source: www.worldwar2today.com

Overhead, searchlights probe the night sky with pencil-slim beams, and a single plane drones steadily behind the clouds. Reassuring evidence of the always ready and efficient preparedness of our forces. "Look how high they can reach with those beams!" I say with a song inside of me, a tingling emotion. But what a stupid thing to say at a moment like this. I kiss her again, and feel that nothing can ever come between us.

(Many years later, this precious moment will be remembered and marveled at. In the world of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, long before all that which was going to happen to us took place, there was that first kiss at the foot of the hill, with the milky white beams slicing the darkness aloft. Thousands of other couples might well have been doing the same thing at that precise moment, but to me it is so important. For I realize now that right from the beginning, when she stood there in the wading pool, it must have been in my heart: that girl is the only one I want to marry, to have children by and to grow old together. But would she feel the same thing? And there is her answer, before that old tree, when she whispered, "What took you so long?")

Her Majesty's Cruiser De Ruyter
Photo Source: ww2incolor.com

The only diversion allowed to her without the company of her parents is the swimming pool and pictures on Sunday afternoon. She is rather fond of films, and usually goes to the matinees with a girlfriend. Naturally she would rather go with me, but it is better not to let her mother know. She might be considered too young to go with a man seven years older. Her father, a warrant officer on Her Majesty's cruiser De Ruyter, is often away at sea. So a meeting point is arranged, somewhere on Darmo Boulevard on her way to the cinema on the bicycle. It is on a Sunday afternoon that we have our first rendezvous. Cycling along the boulevard, I see people tending their front gardens. The weather is fine, a man is washing his car, another pushes a very noisy grass mower. It is about three o'clock. Any moment now she could appear on the opposite side of the two-way road across the double tram line. Beneath the let-down awning on a porch teenagers dance to the tune of a record player turned on full: the Andrew Sisters' Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. Next door a grey haired dog pokes its nose through a fence grating to bark at my bicycle. The tram clanks by. When it is gone I catch sight of her fine legs pushing the pedals and the red flare of lipstick. Daylight has enhanced the lovely colouring of her skin. What a lucky man I am.

Soon our surreptitious meetings at the pool and at the Maxim become unbearable, and an introduction to her parents is pressed through. Grudgingly at first, they finally consent to the fact that their daughter is growing up and should be allowed to have a boyfriend. Lisa and I feel that life now is really beginning.

The news from Germany is not so good. There is an angry, bellicose voice and unbelievably ugly reports about persecution and execution of Jews, and anyone who is found an enemy of the Nazi pestilence, the new Kraut philosophy.

"If I've said it once, I've said it a dozen times," goes the captain after a long swig from his beer mug. "They're all alike. Put them in uniform and they become bloody Huns, all of them Germans. We've seen it in the Great War and we'll see it again." Framed in the porthole is a disk of sky, pink in the setting sun. Lisa and I are going out tonight for our first dance. Let's finish our drink and go home. So he is mad, that Hitler. Who cares? Thanking them for the drinks, I bid them good night. But they don't hear me, deeply absorbed as they are in a discussion about Germany. Their voices are clearly audible at the foot of the gangway. "It will be England again to come to the rescue, you'll see!"

After the sultry day, the cool wind in the open car is medicine. Tonight she has her hair styled in a roll over her shoulders. She is simply smashing. I look at her face now and then, set in a gentle glow by the overhead passing street lights, while the car radio announces the arrival of a squadron of Glenn Martin bombers from America. A spokesman of the General Headquarters follows to say that this has brought our air force up to date, and henceforth we will be able to cope with any aggressor. A beautiful evening with a beautiful girl. What more can you wish? What aggressor?

Glenn Martin B-10 bombers