Chapter 37

Batavia, Java.
Friday 17 October, 1924.

Clifford sits alone in the hallway, listening to Father pitch (through the walls) to the Principal. Batavia wouldn’t be his first school, no. The cheerful thirteen year old has learned in London, Hamburg and Nanking. The Principal hears tales of monasteries and warlords and the pirates of the Yangtze. They left China only days after Wu Peifu’s forces suffered a major loss to Zhang Zuolin in another fruitless Zhili–Fengtian conflict. He had warned Wu, and General Chi. Trebitsch hopes his youngest will become an entrepreneur or political advisor. With his back to the hall’s stained crème plaster, Clifford sits still while his father talks of investment.

Java was wild and wet, yet large and free. At Palabuhanratu, the rice paddies touch a black sand beach. Looking out to the shore, the green stretches are squared, hedged, serrated; a half dozen palm trees before the baby blue and periwinkle Indian Ocean which floats rafts by misty asparagus hills. Astride two black buffaloes, the males waddle in. Seven volcanic mountains rise over the bay. There are thirty-eight in total, snaking west to east. Clifford is a ray of light as they track the lush and scenic forests nearby. At Cipanas Hot Springs boiling water bubbles up from river rock pools and he sees his father smile.

Trebitsch lifts up a shoe at Pasar Baru market. He studies the sole from heel to toe and places it back on the rack. The great concentration of people in these narrow streets slow them to look at the china, the silver-ware and herbal remedies.

The Batavia school is English language and the children have been lifted from all parts of the globe. They are from Java and Sumatra, Vietnam, Indochina and China. They are British, Dutch, Hindi, Muslim and mixed sex. One of the boarders has heard Clifford’s father is famous. A spy, a criminal? The boy has been told not to answer these questions. Did he change his name like Mrs. Jamu?

He barely knows his father but is fixed to his side at every chance. Trebitsch wears a white linen suit with a high collar; a pith helmet plumped on the back of his head. Soon John wears one, and then Clifford. They will be a family of planters. From the Great Post Road they can see all of Java’s lush, rugged countryside. It is only weeks after John’s twentieth birthday. Spirits rise as they’re climbing Puncak Pass, fifteen hundred metres up. Clifford and his parents laugh at the sight of John on the rug, fallen asleep under Australian Eucalyptus. When he awakes they descend to fertile, cultivated fields.

This is unlike any place he’s known. The curtains seem to shine. Stray cows wander dusty and humid paths. This vision, of the Lincoln family future, won’t come cheap. The parents must travel to Europe in search of finance, a loan. The world takes them and Clifford thinks he understands his father’s sadness. Christmas days are just like any others. On New Years Eve, this youngest son dreams in snippets of his father visiting them in Bucharest with great news about oil. He was three years old at the time. The memory is happy and uncluttered.

There are twelve boys in bunk beds, farting and slinging and snoring; hanging out to dry sweaty vests and towels. The wet season gurgles at the windows. Concentration during lessons is strained. On the first weekend John takes him out past the tall Dutch country houses lining the Molenvliet Canal. The people who live there own shipping and trading companies in Weltevreden: to the south. They are in Weltevreden the next weekend. They re-trace the steps around the Pasar Baru markets. Containers of quinine bark from the old town storage centres of Kota trail, then pass them, bound for the shops.

Clifford makes friends, prized for his football skills. The pitch soil is wet and dark, and sticks to him like it is supposed to. He is not so good with the books. The temple bells, once a joy, now nag and he is distracted with gossip and capers. Mrs. Jamu scolds him. He is falling behind, and does not want to visit the Principal. When Clifford sees his brother he says he shouldn’t worry. They’ll not be here long. They trek again to Cibodas Gardens, where John fell asleep on the rug. He has a job there now, harvesting quinine from the cinchona trees. Quinine is a key anti-malaria remedy and an active ingredient in Indian tonic water. Lake-side, under European conifers, they talk of Ignatius: employed at Trowbridge Barracks, England. When asked why Ignatius changed his name to John, John quickly says it was so he can be more like him. Clifford doesn’t believe his brother. John talks about how he and Ignatius had travelled from school in London to visit their mother for Christmas in Bucharest ten years before. Ignatius had insisted on making all the travel arrangements. Lining up the timetables and buying the tickets, he led the pair of them across Europe. A black swan glides across Mandalawangi Lake in front of them. A gamekeeper’s shot startles it into flight, and it leaves ripples that slosh against the edges after they’ve gone.

Clifford would like to live with John at Cibodas Lodge and the whole dorm hear of it. He’s ingratiated himself with one of the popular gangs but isn’t smart enough to duck a beating. He plays hooky at Hindu temples, abandoned when Islam came, were rice is left out for gods and rats. He sees the protests for Jakarta independence, the martial artists and the shadow puppet theatre. The Principal had assumed Clifford was as trustworthy as his father and cannot understand why John is not as capable as him. Clifford’s behaviour, they say, is completely inappropriate. It flies in the face of everything he should be doing. John says all his work may as well be for nothing. Clifford leaves, sure in himself, that all their problems are his fault. He tries harder: at Maths; History; neatens his hand-writing and develops consistency of style. John works over-time the following two weeks. Clifford wonders if it’s because he isn’t important enough to be with. He buries this. He dreams of a pile of gold, fading, and his mother’s hair. A letter from her arrives from south-eastern France. They were in Marseilles, are now in Nice, and proceeding to Monte Carlo. Father has calculated a full proof method of winning at baccarat.

Mrs. Jamu takes the boys to feed and pet the horses. They are warm and firm and brave. Spring is here and with his parents return imminent, Clifford knuckles down. The geography teacher singles him out for best homework. He passes a test, then another.

Beyond the sports pitch, hanging cocoa pods are macheted and piled. Other labourers work the palm oil plantations: fields of green shrubs under a blue sky. Clifford runs track laps rain or shine, managing his pace and time. He no longer needs John or Mrs. Jamu to tell him he is doing well. He has enough.

Mother writes to John again. The youngest son is quietly angry with the elder’s demeanour; how he drags his feet along the road, and his tired eyes. Clifford, though, has the same bitterness associated with his parents. They had travelled to Rome to see the Pope, The Hague, then Cologne, where they met Julius and his new wife. Trebitsch has gone on to New York and Margarethe is in Hamburg. The boys are to come to her. They both expected it. John is off on a rant. Where will he find the money for the travel? What about Clifford’s school fees? His boss may let go of him at any moment if he doesn’t work more over-time.

Clifford’s fourteenth birthday is spent alone in the dorm. He thinks about how John is so sick: perhaps it is his fault. He is driving his brother away. They will take him; just like the Viennese police took his father three years before. With these things in mind it makes much more sense to fail his Summer tests.

John secures the travel permits. He finds no way around it but to explain that he cannot afford to go with his brother. It is the job. Their debts will be paid in no time. He hugs Clifford goodbye and the boy steps onto the heavy and lumbering boat. Fish swirl in a mud pond underneath. The engine whinges and purple bellows of smoke fail to surf the wave. The boat bounces and Clifford takes his seat on the wooden bench. They leave behind water buffaloes, a floating bamboo raft, fields of horses and the snaking volcano horizon. He moves away from Christmas Island, Sumatra, leaves Indonesia. Everywhere around are tiny tidal pools, little self-contained swirls. Swirl, swirl, swirl. Past the Bay of Bengal but before the Arabian Sea lies Colombo. Off its coast thunder strikes water and springs hard upon the vessel.

He spends many more weeks by train crossing Eurasia to find his mother. He thinks of Ignatius and John’s trip to Bucharest a decade before. He knows they will be proud. He is taking the long way back.

#

To read The Watch Thief  advance chapters, PDFs, and access a big bundle of awesome extras come spend a few bob on Patreon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s