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Famous Reporter # 13
June 1996

                                            

JANE DOWNING

A Torrid Affair

Our lives crossed briefly in Jakarta in 1979. Within the year we had returned to the countries we called home, yet I remember Heather more clearly than I do anyone from my years in Indonesia, even Mary.

Mary introduced us. Heather was in none of my classes at the school and teenage worlds can be insular to a nonsensical degree. We passed without acknowledgment until Mary and Heather found support for each others ignorance in their maths class. Mary was my best friend; but then we were three.

Recess—still called Little Lunch by the less mature of our age from whom we pointedly distanced ourselves—was a major production in image creation and management, complete with a central stage. Much money had been spent designing and building the school for the children of the international community and the result was a sprawling network of hexagonal buildings revolving around a courtyard, which we too as students revolved around, awaiting the main show, which was not the classes.

Three steps up, in the middle of the courtyard, was the stage. It was instinctively known to even the most recent arrival that not everyone could wander up those steps to the slab seats beneath tropical foliage and park their bum. That privilege was reserved for the gods.

Us lesser mortals clustered as satellites on the outer fringe, ever hopeful of some inter-planetary gravitational pull to propel us legitimately to the centre. Mary and I had a designated spot on the edge of the walkway surrounding the courtyard. This year we’d carefully maneuvered to a more advantageous position slightly left of centre, for this was no theater in the round, and the young and gauche were relegated around the courtyard to the rear of the stage, without view of the display. It was only much later that I realized these were not the most underprivileged kids in the world. The children from the kampong never got past the barbed wire that guarded the school.

One morning in May I was perched in a most nonchalant manner, refraining from eating, which, at the advent of the teen years suddenly seemed an awkward and unattractive activity for public places, when Mary brought Heather over. Introductions made, Heather began to tuck into a huge donut dripping with chocolate icing. Her strong white teeth sunk into the doughy mass, muddy, sticky icing smeared her lips; my stomach gnawed in a hollow cavity of hunger. I had to turn my eyes away from envy and craving. And back to their normal focus.

The girls of the gods ate, and drank, and smoked, and did whatever they pleased.

"Her mother is Indonesian" commented Heather, following my gaze.

We were slightly shocked. Shocked that this was spoken aloud. We understood very little about race relations despite our country of temporary residence. We only knew what we saw: the servants at home, and the young people we legitimized as leaders of the school body. The boys were tall, strong, and very white; the women they chose were an exotic coterie of many hue with just one thing in common: they complemented those fine-young-men beautifully, never creating any doubt to the superiority of Thomas, Mark, Jimmy, Heinrich and Hans.

"She and Heinrich do it."

I never knew what to say in reply to many of Heather’s comments. Her pronouncements had the authoritative ring of someone who knew. She talked about boys with a fair whack of disdain which I was too naive to cultivate.

Mary too listened to Heather with awe. We were inexperienced colonials in the face of her agelessly sure (but somewhat dowdy I told myself) British presence. Her blond hair fell in a timeless page-boy, while Mary and I hid within the perms of the unsure; her skin was pale where we had yet to learn to avoid the sun; but mostly, she spoke out against adults, teachers, the gods, finding fault in things we had never thought to notice. As she became a regular at recess, and then lunch, she gained our confidences, if never quite my confidence.

I had a secret; a passion of the most predictable kind, but a secret nonetheless.

I was a realist. I knew Thomas was too high above, just too unattainable, to be brought into the realms of my fantasies. Thomas, the Dutch boy, taller, blonder, more charming, with that smile—yes, he smiled at me once. Thomas on his big black motorbike, Thomas who swayed the coldest heart to sympathy the semester of the accident when he bravely made his way from class to class on crutches. Thomas must be unsullied by anything as immature as an adolescent crush. But Jimmy; well he was Australian too, so I perhaps felt I had some kind of right. Jimmy, I discover in my School Annual of 1979, had a pointed ferret face and hair that wasn’t washed as often as it should have been. The trouble with truisms is that they do tend to be true, and love was most certainly blind. For Jimmy rode with the pack, on a yellow Yamaha. And I had a poster of a yellow motorcycle on my bedroom wall.

There was to be a party to celebrate the end of the school year. After that, three months of freedom: June, July and August—what the Americans called summer though the climate showed little change in temperature. I didn’t actually know the girl to talk to, but everyone was invited and my parents gave me permission to go because it was at a private home. Mary and Heather picked me up in a taxi. Arriving in a mass of girls was a bit gorky but the rooms were pretty dark and we found a corner. The motorbikes were parked out front, we passed them on the way in, though a discrete frantic search failed to find the unattainable deities in the room.

"There in the drug room" explained Heather, as if reading my mind.

"Drugs...?"

"Same at every party. The lucky ones get to smoke dope in a stuffy little room."

"That hardly seems like fun" Mary commented bravely.

I knew from then I wasn’t going to enjoy the party and when Mary started dancing with a boy our own age, and seemed to be enjoying it too, I wanted to cry. All the effort of dressing up to look understated and glamorous was wasted—wasted on young boys and boredom.

"I prefer older men myself" said Heather, still by my side, perhaps feeling as abandoned by Mary as I did.

"Like Thomas and Hans and..." Was she goading me, prompting the response she wanted? I was too dejected to think of protection.

"Like Jimmy" I said.

I didn’t see him that night; he must have emerged from that smoky little room after I’d given up and gone home. And I didn’t see Heather for three, entire, months.

School was not something I ever dreaded and the ‘summer’ months were rather slow, so it was good to get off the bus and walk toward our spot in the courtyard again.

The walkways were abuzz with noise: shouts of delight, groans of anticipated academic despair, the chatter of friends, the glee of reunions. Jakarta for all its seven million people, was to us a quiet old place when school was out. Mothers that could scooped up their offspring and headed home for holidays, abandoning businessman husbands to whatever comforts they could find. Even those left in the country were segregated by Company or Embassy. Mary and I spent every afternoon by the Australian Embassy pool (reading mostly), while Heather disappeared into some petroleum compound. Yet there she was, at our spot on the first day of term. She sat there grinning broadly.

Heather was the cat who’d swallowed the canary—ever so pleased with herself and just bursting to tell. The onset of the telling was almost immediate, though the chronicle went on for weeks.

My first reaction was incomprehension. How could he? What did she have? Was I not more special than she?

Apparently not, for Heather and Jimmy had met up during the holidays, and continued to meet every day in a series of torrid encounters that made our set English text "Sons and Lovers" read like "Little Women". The flames had engulfed them. It was over, but, oh what a summer. And we were to hear all about it.

Like a fairy story it took us into another world, a different dimension. Yet every story raises in me questions, of before the beginning, between the middle, after the end. My great need in life was to fill in the gaps, to find and follow a life-rope of logic. After many questions asked it was Mary who interrupted.

"Don’t you believe her?"

But I did believe her, as much as I didn’t want to, I believed every word. I spent sleepless nights. I tortured myself imagining the events, each discrete episode, the horrible whole. The meeting at an adults party, to which each set of parents dragged their reluctant teenagers. The first time she heard the roar of his motorbike on the gravel in the drive. The convenience of her mother’s daily tennis lessons that left the house free. The swimming pool. The near naked bodies. The...

But why did it have to be Jimmy, my Jimmy? When she knew how I felt.

Throughout, I held onto one shameless hope. Now he had to see me. I was with her, so now he must notice me. Yet week after week he never approached our group, and I never caught him glancing our way.

One afternoon it did seem as if my hope would be realized. Heather had casually mentioned more than once, that she had something to return to Jimmy. As the last bell rang she decided it was time to do so. Commodious bag with unimaginable male possessions under her arm, she strode away from us at the front of the school. She strode toward the motorbikes. Jimmy had his back to us. Now he would turn, see her, look beyond, see me.

The buses pulled between us. I could see nothing. ‘Till the motorbikes roared into view, and out of the carpark throwing dust over the banana fronds and frangipani trees. My last coin of optimism was spent. All I could do was content myself with the romance of a broken heart. And attempt a broken ear drum to the noise waves of Heather’s continued recollections.

My family returned to Australia before Christmas. I took the posters from my wall and threw them out, every one. Mary came back home soon after, and we heard Heather had left Indonesia also.

Inevitably, sadly, I got over Jimmy. I grew up, got married, had children, lost touch with Mary. Then I met another mother at pre-school who reminded me terribly of Heather. She told the biggest whoppers.

Self-knowledge flickered and could not be ignored. I realized in a wave of post-Jimmy objectivity and distress that I had been deceived. It was something anyone should have realized at the time. Heather’s story was so preposterous in its foundation, so outrageous in its details, and so blatantly unsubstantiated to the end. I had not only been young and innocent, I had been naive and hopelessly, laughably, gullible.

I could hear Heather laughing down the years. It hurt more than a broken heart.






 

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