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The Alcantara was moored side by side with the Oranje, but he was still a continent away. Seven months had passed since the liberation. The American jeeps had rolled into Japan like phantoms from a world beyond apprehension.
[private]They had been swept up, kidnapped out of their measly, calcified lives. Their survival instincts rudely breached. He had grasped the edge of the jeep as he had the raft at sea. Disbelief more than joy. With a mettle born of desperation they had driven out of the camp, the bandit island, the doomed empire, heads bowed. With their heads bowed, for God’s sake.
The night in Suez revived the flow of memories. The last months had passed as though under narcosis. It rolled by him, a caravan of events, parade after parade, with women and parties and recklessness. His photograph had been in Life, taken at the moment he went ashore at Manila.
The photographer shouted something that made him look up. In the background the aircraft carrier on which the Americans had spirited them away from Japan. Around him the surging crowd.
“You’re the first ones!” the man had said, as though it had been some sort of competition.
Looking at the picture, he could never believe it was him. The crew-cut hair, the gaunt face, his ashen skin. In his own eyes he could read the irrecoverable years. His was one of many pictures in the magazine, photographers in action everywhere. The latest fashions in New York, an article about a banker, an interview with a film star, a shower of diversions for the reader. Life goes on, frontlines shift, the world is a news machine. He would turn the pages of the magazine, to see his own face appear among so many others. On the same photograph was the girl who would spontaneously kiss him a few seconds later, and with whom he had wandered through the city for days. He had told this complete stranger about his years in the camps. She listened like no-one had before. Perhaps not even his mother. He talked, he forced himself to account for those terrible, all-devouring years. He was accountable because he was alive and because so many others were not.
He struggled with the words, afraid of driving her away, terrified of tumbling into the abyss that he himself had summoned. He toppled from one memory to the next. The fever of telling made him almost literally ill. His emotions, suppressed for so long, could barely survive someone who merely listened. She heard him, asked nothing, held him tight. They roamed Rizal Avenue together, endless hours in cafés and restaurants.
They danced, were taken in tow by other POWs, and only slept when morning was well underway. An ebb and flow of stories and an unthinking submersion in liberation parties. Manila was both the drunken binge and the detoxification. The nightmare might have been over, but there was still no dream. Time and again he came back to the river, the yellowish-brown one. Like a dirty, slow adder slithering through the jungle, shaping the course of his thoughts. He tried to find images the woman beside him would understand. There were so many gaps in his memory, he was ashamed of how little he remembered, or wanted to remember. The senseless fight to the finish, the floggings, the executions. He did not touch upon his bond with Guus; he avoided the loss. There were moments, with the girl so close, when his estrangement disappeared. She made him feel that he could take hold of his life once more, belong again some day. The unforgettable nights in Manila, the suspension of time, the wild dancing that broke like a storm over the mountains. Of course it could not last. She would go back to England, and he would be shipped through to Batavia and on. When he walked her to her ship he said nothing, could only look at her. The green of her eyes. After everything he had told her, he simply stood there, speechless.
Their parting kindled a sorrow without tears. He had turned around, aware once more of the loneliness he had contracted somewhere, recognizing it. There was something fathomless inside him, a void, an echo, the sound of a motorcycle turning around.[/private]
Written by Otto de Kat and translated by Sam Garrett.
Otto de Kat is the pen name of a Dutch publisher. His prize-winning previous work is published in Holland, Germany and France. Man on the Move is published by Maclehose Press.
Sam Garrett is the translator of Tim Krabbé, and won the Vondel Prize in 2003 for Krabbé’s The Rider.