Hour after hour the bullets hissed over the dead horses, which stiffened and stank more and more. Their decay attracted flies, biting furies that made lumpy red masks of the survivors’ faces.
“Mosquito nets,” sighed Kolk, who had finally reached his superiors, accompanied by twelve of his men, the rest dead in the square or between the white walls, or lying still to avoid being shot.
Theo, panting like a packhorse, had dropped down next to his brother.
“Took your time,” Hendrik grunted.
His brother didn’t respond.
The heat weighed down on them like a mattress, sweat streamed off their faces, even the imperturbable Kolk had drops on his forehead, giving his skin an unwashed appearance.
“Was jetzt?” Von Danzig asked loudly.
“Silence,” ordered Kolk, with a venom his men had never heard before.
Von Danzig ignored him. He was lying on his back, staring upwards. His hand moved slowly and pointed at the clouds. “Guck mal.” All eyes followed his finger to just under the grey of the clouds, where small dots were circling. “Vultures,” said the German.
The sun dispelled the clouds, tormenting the foot soldiers. Some of them pushed their helmets back for shade, straining to keep them balanced. Hendrik passed his canteen to Theo; his brother had lost his during the forced march. Most of the Dutch survivors in the puri had no water, their kit strewn across the beaten earth, in full view of the enemy marksmen and as unreachable as paradise.
Kolk heard the water slopping about in the canteen, grabbed it and handed it to Vetter. “Drink, General?” Vetter gulped it carelessly, water running down his chin.
Hendrik clenched his fists.
“Hungry,” said Kolk. He adjusted his kabaai in front of the mirror and meticulously combed his moustache, which was too thin to ever get tangled.
Theo shook his purse. It was dark enough to go out, but could they risk a meal at the Parisien? He’d had enough of rice for dinner, rice for breakfast and rice for lunch. They served a decent gruel in the Parisien and would even leave out the sambal if you asked. But it was quite popular with ex-soldiers, who might recognise him and would certainly recognise Kolk.
He didn’t have any idea if it was really that risky. His papers were in order, as long as they didn’t look too closely. No one would be able to tell he’d been discharged early thanks to a sizable sum slipped to a certain administrator known for his flexibility. But former comrades would know it wasn’t river blindness that had sent him on indefinite leave and a malicious word in the wrong ear could wake officials better left sleeping.
According to Hendrik he was worrying more than necessary, but why then had his brother withdrawn to an area so remote that only native officials could find it? Solitude it was called, and that said everything.
“Acquired after all,” Hendrik wrote in a jubilant letter. “First rejected as too expensive, but no heirs after Kriele died, and the price halved. The notary was in a rush.”
Perhaps they could go and live there, with Kolk as a bogeyman to scare the natives.
The Parisien was thick with smoke and full of people. Mardijkers, Belandas and natives were sitting on wooden leather-backed benches with high partitions between them. The smoke curled around the gas lamps, the day’s heat still brewing under the black beams. Sheets of heavy canvas had been stretched across the courtyard as protection from the first downpours of the rainy season. Sheltering under them were the lowest of the low of this utterly degenerate society: coolies and day labourers, opium smokers and rent boys who had come to the city to earn money, to escape the poverty and oppressiveness of their home villages.
Theo observed them from his table, just past the bar. Kolk was sitting next to him, ramrod straight as befitted an ex-soldier, a glass of iced tea in his hand. One more thing: Kolk smoked opium as if it were tobacco, but no longer touched alcohol.
A band of seamen pushed through the crowd to the back, dark-blue uniforms taut across squared shoulders, dress caps on their heads. Kolk’s interest was piqued. He sat up even straighter, if that were possible.
The sailors radiated a boisterous exuberance that soon made them the centre of attention. They got through glass after glass, emptying them into their own or their comrades’ gaping mouths. One launched into song, the others joined in, someone else belted out the song about the lonely Tonkinoise.
“Women!” bawled another, but that was for later.
In the darkness around their table, Kolk lit up like a candle.
Her name was Painem, and sometimes Dewi or Wulan. In the dark her skin was soft and dry, like his mother’s, or else oiled and smooth, or warm and moist; it came as a surprise every night. He made a point of leaving the lamps unlit when entering his bedroom, to increase the tension and heighten his desire so that when he lifted the invisible mosquito net, the darkness turned into skin and her scent betrayed her presence. Coconut, mace or musk, natural perfumes artfully applied, always accompanied by the deep, earthy, intoxicating smell of receptive womanhood. It was so dark he sometimes felt he was riding night itself, pushing into the dark-made-flesh, that would dissolve again in the morning light. But at sunrise, it was just a young woman lying beside him, sometimes Dewi, sometimes Painem, otherwise Wulan.
These three excerpts from Solitude were translated from Dutch at the 2015 International Creative Writing and Literary Translation Summer School, organised by the British Centre for Literary Translation in partnership with Writers’ Centre Norwich. The translators were Antoinette Fawcett, Fiona Graham, Alice Paul, Eileen Stevens and Eline Tuijn, with workshop leader David Colmer, and author Jeroen Thijssen.