Extract from Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff
We were woken early. Everyone rushed out of bed – I soon understood why: there was only one loo in the house and one basin, and a mad dash for both.
‘I wonder what happens now?’ my mother said to us as we waited in the line to wash. ‘Could you tell us, please?’ she asked the woman standing in front of us. She was about twenty-five, blonde, with a broad face, and hazel eyes that were flecked with gold.
‘What happens now?’ The woman laughed. ‘What happens now is what happens every morning – and evening – blooming tenko.’
‘Blooming tenko?’ Peter echoed. ‘What’s that?’
‘Roll-call,’ the woman replied wearily. ‘Tenko means “counting”. You’ll soon know your Japanese numbers, young man.’
We had some of the food that we’d brought with us for breakfast, then we followed everyone out of the house, down the street, onto a field where soldiers were harrying the women and children into rows and columns, five across, and about a hundred deep.
‘Now what?’ I asked my mother as we lined up on the pale, dry grass.
She bit her lip. ‘I don’t know.’ It was the first time I’d ever seen my mother look vulnerable and unsure. It scared me.
As I looked around, still exhausted and confused from yesterday’s journey, I spotted a classmate in the row behind me. Greta and I had never been especially close, but I was elated to see her and we grinned at each other. She had coppery hair and very pale freckled skin, except that her skin wasn’t pale, I now saw; it was brown, as though all her freckles had joined up. Standing next to her was her grandmother, Mrs Moonen, who was also her guardian, Greta’s parents having died of typhus when Greta was three.
My mother turned to Mrs Moonen. ‘What are we all waiting for?’ she asked.
‘We’re waiting for the commandant to come,’ Mrs Moonen whispered. ‘But don’t talk, or they’ll punish you.’ Punish. It was a word that we were to hear again and again.
We faced forwards, and now saw that at the front of the field was a platform on which a woman was standing. She was Belanda Indo – a person of Dutch and Indonesian parentage. Holding up a megaphone, this woman informed us, in Malay, that she was the camp’s translator. She told us that during tenko we must all face East towards Japan. She explained that the commandant would soon arrive, and that when he did, she would shout Kiotsuke! – ‘Attention!’, and then Keirei! which meant ‘Bow!’ It was important to bow in the correct way, she went on, because we were really bowing to the Japanese Emperor. To bow in a sloppy way would be to insult His Imperial Majesty, and we would be punished. She then explained that we had to bend from the waist at an angle of thirty degrees, and that we must stay like that until we heard Naore! – ‘At ease’, after which would come the command Yasume! – ‘Dismiss’. The translator added that we must also bow to any and every Japanese soldier, but must never look them in the eye since we were ‘not worthy’. Should we dare to do so we would be severely punished.
Peter looked stricken. ‘We’ll be punished?’
‘Yes. If we look the soldiers in the eye,’ my mother whispered, ‘or don’t bow correctly.’
‘Why do we have to bow?’ he demanded. ‘It’s silly. I won’t!’
‘You must,’ my mother hissed.
I remembered the promise that we’d made our dad. ‘I’ll bow,’ I whispered. ‘And you have to do it too, Pietje. No arguments, remember?’
Our mother sighed with relief. ‘Thank you, children.’ Her face shone with perspiration. ‘Let’s just hope the commandant comes soon.’
But he didn’t come, and the temperature was rising by the minute. We’d been standing there for three hours. Sweat trickled down our foreheads, stinging our eyes; it plastered our clothes to our backs. We had to brush ants off our feet and ankles and swat away flies. As the sun rose ever higher, I thought of Ferdi, and of how concerned my father had been to provide shade for that little animal; but here we were, women and children, exposed for hours to the sun’s rays with no hats permitted, even for children, and not even the elderly or infants allowed to sit down. Now I understood why Greta, normally so pale, was dark brown.
All around us babies wept and screamed; people sobbed and begged for water; a woman in front of us collapsed but was jerked onto her feet by two guards. Peter, exhausted, kept trying to lie on the ground, so Mum and I held him upright between us.
At last, the commandant arrived. He carried a whip, and his tall black boots shone in the sun. His sword hung from his waist. I couldn’t help staring at it, imagining it slicing and slashing . . .
‘Kerei!’ screamed the interpreter. We all bowed.
‘Lower,’ my mother whispered to Peter and me. ‘Get right down!’
‘Why?’ Peter asked.
‘Just do it!’ I said.
We all straightened up.
The interpreter jumped off the platform, and the commandant sprang onto it, like a fox. He planted his legs wide, folded his arms, then shouted that we were extremely fortunate to be guests of the Japanese Emperor, and to be under the benevolent protection of the Imperial Army of Nippon. In return for this benevolent protection, he went on, we had to behave well, never try to escape, keep ourselves clean and dress modestly. We weren’t to gamble, drink alcohol or brawl, and we had to speak only Japanese or Malay, not Dutch, which was forbidden. Most of all, we must do ‘useful work’.
‘Keirei!’ shouted the interpreter again. Everyone bowed as the commandant strode off.
‘Yasume!’ We were dismissed. I felt giddy with relief.
A childhood mistake. A lifetime of regrets.
Jenni is a ‘ghost’: she writes the lives of other people. It’s a job that suits her well: still haunted by a childhood tragedy, she finds it easier to take refuge in the memories of others rather than dwell on her own.
Jenni has an exciting new commission, and is delighted to start working on the memoirs of a Dutchwoman, Klara. As a child in the Second World War, Klara was interned in a camp on Java during the Japanese occupation – she has an extraordinary story of survival to tell.
But as Jenni and Klara begin to get to know each other, Jenni begins to do much more than shed light on a neglected part of history. She is being forced to examine her own devastating memories, too. But with Klara’s help, perhaps this is finally the moment where she will be able to lay the ghosts of her own past to rest?
Gripping, poignant and beautifully researched, Ghostwritten is a story of survival and love, of memory and hope.