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Fragments of a Journey

A Fistful of Life

Fragments by Jose de Koster, Blog 6

Fragments of a journey

A Fistful of Life

Blog 6

Merry Christmas and a hapy New Year. Hope you all have an absolutely lovely Christmas day with friends and loved ones and may 2019 bring much joy, good health, peace and contentment. Here is the nexy instalment of  Fragments...


Chapter 2


Saidja and Rawi,

Chopin and homecoming.

A house, a car, a bird.




My father's new job necessitated a shift from my beloved Medan in Sumatra to Malang on the island of Java. As our ship shuddered its way to Tanjung Priok on Java, I remember my mother telling me with great happiness that we were emigrating to her homeland. She had been born in Blitar in the province of Kediri and we were destined to go to Malang, a city which held fragments of her life inside its walls. I remember the murderous heat when we arrived in Batavia (present day Jakarta ) but very little about the train trip to Malang. Later, we would make a reverse trip on the same train only this time, the wagons would be closed to all light as we trundled onto Semarang and our new prison (internment camp) during the Japanese occupation. Ach! Malang!The last memory of a youth spent rich in joy and wild with the rising sperm in my body.

At the train station we caught a taxi which took us to a hotel named The Hotel Splendid situated near a bridge which spanned a river. There we occupied a small unit at the back of building which afforded us privacy and self-containment of family life. It was here our first little grey angora cat joined us. Bomber was his name, a little grey bundle of fluff which was to become the terror of all future animals in our future homes. For such a small undle, he had huge claws and so we named him after the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, the boxer and our favourite sportsman – two-fisted Joe, lithe and fast with bombs in each hand, the fighter who fought almost continuously, it seemed. We would tune in to the radio to listen to the blow-by-blow descriptions of the fights provided by commentators of our Bomber proving victorious against other greats such as Billy Conn, Max Schmeling, Tony Calento.

We soon moved to a rented house in Werilang Street, a long snake-like street where later, I would drag, with others, the iron artillery cart loaded with drums of food for the kitchen of the internment camp where we were imprisoned and where, once, we organised a foot-race in those early months when we still had energy to run before the hardships of the camp took their toll on our bodies. Behind our house was the Mulo School, later to become the dreaded headquarters of the Kempetai (Japanese military/secret police).

Next door to us, lived the ex-colonel Geertsema Beckering, a hero of some battles fought against insurgents in Atjeh. He was a towering man, who must have cut an imposing figure to most people but for us children, whilst we regarded him with affection, he was a source of amusement together with his wife, he being so tall and she a tiny woman almost half his size so that when they were standing together, the contrast was comical. Every year at Easter, they would hide eggs in their garden, chocolate and painted natural eggs, for the children of the neighbourhood to find and gleefully take home.

Our third - and last home – was a house at the other end of town in Verlengde Sophia street, a street of older houses and marvellous lanes, tree-loaded and tree-lined. My father had purchased the house and had placed it in my mother's name, a gift and token of his love for his love. It was in a short cul de sac and to my mind then, when I initially wandered through its empty rooms, a very large house.It comprised four rooms in the main house and alongside it, a pavilion with rooms for guests and behind them, a long, open corridor from which opened out six rooms, stretching in length to the wall surrounding our property, a wall topped with cemented broken glass in order to deter thieves. The garden, in comparison to the property in Medan was comparatively small. It was a square piece of land on which, to one side, stood a well and behind it, the bathing facilities for the servants, two concrete tubs filled with water which was thrown over the bather by using a gagong (bucket). This section was enclosed to afford privacy with entry and egress through a door in the middle.Behind it, stood a huge stood a huge klengkleng tree in which we boys would sit in our platform house, eating the sweet fruit produced by the tree, a fruit closely related to the rambutan. A little further way, stood a two-roomed villa with a trellis verandah in the front over which wild bougainvillia climbed and scrambled,shading those people who sat there. On the other side of the house was a garage of sorts, not much more than a carport basically, with a door leading into a small annexe where we stored our bikes mainly. Behind that was a sandpit where our games with cars and soldiers were played to the full. We also had quite a few fruit trees: a djeruk bali ( a type of huge orange), a series of pawpaw trees, avocado, the klengkleng and a tjerme with its terribly sour star fruit which was good for pickling.

In her new house, my mother went searching for servants to replace the ones left behind in Medan. To her delight, she found her childhood babu (nanny), Saidja who became our cook. She was generally a jolly woman but given at times, to tempestuous moods and then, it was better to stay out of her way – unless it was my mother, the sight of which reignited the maternal and protective instincts of the old babu over her little charge. Saidja had looked after the children of my grandparents and especially my mother when the tiny grandma was otherwise occupied. My grandmother was a tiny charming woman whose mother had died giving birth to her but whose spirit and image lived within her daughter. She (my great grandmother) was of French-Vietnamese extraction, a tiny woman who married a towering German By the name of Pabst, now both buried next to each otherin the cemetery at Tuban, a small township on the coast above Surabaya,. Saidja also had a very soft spot for my older brother, Ed as he closely resembled my grandfather by whom she was employed. In addition to Saidja, my mother employed a tani ( gardener) who had had been a gardener for my grandfather. These two, old friends from her childhood, made my mother extremely happy. From the kampong situated at the end of our dead end street, she hired Rawai who cleaned the house together with her new djongos (man servant) whose name has escaped me. Rawai also became our babu. We also had a cuci (washerwoman)who would wash our clothes, sheets etc at the well. She would bash the clothes on the concrete edge of the well again and again and when she considered them clean enough, she would use a washing board to finish off the job.

This was the home in which my mother felt most at ease, where days would be spent organising her household and playing her beloved piano, where here, she could give her memories free reign and where she could re-establish herself. Prior to her marriage to my father ( her second marriage ) she had been a concert pianist,touring the European continent with her performances. She had been a pupil of Alfred Cortot, renowned French pianist whose special interests were the Romantic composers, in particular, Chopin and Schumann, with the consequence that these were my mother's preferred composers as well. Her dream of re-establishing her professional musicianship was, to a degree, realised in Malang where she secured a weekly radio spot playing Chopin on the NIROM (Nederlandsch-Indiessch Radio-omroepmaarschappij), accompanied by Dan Koletz and his orchestra. She continued playing and discussing Chopin's life and music on her weekly spot right until the time of the Japanese occupation when the station was shut down. Her love of Chopin was passed on to me and he became my favourite as well. Often in my younger days, I would imagine playing his music and he, looking down would smile at me. smiling at me.

Because I possessed slim, long fingers, (pianist's fingers, she claimed) she determined that I too should become a pianist and began the task of teaching me – to no avail. Despite my imaginings, the reality of the pianoforte bored me with its repetitions of scales, its study of theory and the banality of my first pieces. I was hopeless and did not enjoy it. My hands yearned to paint, to write poetry. (my slim, long fingers, in later life, served me in becoming an artist). She had more success with my younger brother, Guus, who throughout his adult life, forged a sideline career as a jazz pianist, playing in restaurants and clubs.

I see you seated in the cool of the piano room

Body swaying, fingers dancing on the ivory keys

outside, passing people pause, dream of the past,the future

street vendors set up shop and sell their wares

in silence, listening to the Chopin magic.

I always listened somewhere alone.

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It is the anniversary of Guus de Koster on Monday 13th September. I came across this page while trying to find videos of him acting. I am one of his Great Granddaughters -Hope. I remember Jose coming over from the Blue Mountains to Auckland to visit my Papa. I have fond memories of Jose teaching me how to paint. Thank you for creating this space where we can come and remember them.
Please keep in touch or share any photos you have.
Take care!


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