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Java, December 1941

Stars of light explode against the night sky. A shower of purple, plumes of pink. Smoke lifts into the air. Another burst of white. The fireworks’ cinders drift to earth, singeing the tips of the nut grass, scorching the leaves of the kamari tree until a branch catches alight, and men run, shouting, beating out the flames that lap at the leaves. Mattijs tilts his head back to watch a silver spray spin high above, reminding him of the diamond ring nestled in his coat pocket. He wonders if the stifling humidity is a prelude to more rain.

He’s glad to be standing outside, on the verandah, even if it seems the rest of the revellers have now joined him to watch the fireworks display. He steps down to the grass to avoid being hemmed in and to escape the heavy scent of stale perfume, cigar smoke, hair oil.

He bows and smiles at two sisters who are seated on the lawn. ‘Anke, Lynn,’ he says, bowing again to their brother, who brings them glasses of orangeade. He recently met the Jansens at the club. Indeed, he recognises most of the party guests from the club and, although he has the privilege of staying with the van Hoorns at their tea plantation, Serehwangi, he’s aware that most of the other guests have travelled for hours by car, carriage or horseback to attend their famous Sinterklaas party.

Mattijs tilts his head back to watch a silver spray spin high above, reminding him of the diamond ring nestled in his coat pocket.

Mattijs only arrived earlier that afternoon from Tjiandjoer and, by the time the trim sandalwoods clopped their way along the tea plantation’s long gravel driveway, he’d felt in sore need of a bath. What had started out as a bit of a lark—hopping in the back of the dokar at the train station, instead of hiring a car—had turned into an arduous journey several hours longer than necessary, what with two post changes of horse and one change of driver. He’d mistakenly thought it would be charming to breathe in the fresh air of such verdant pastures and to take in the picturesque sight of the natives at home, but he’d only swapped the fumes of gasoline and belching smoke for the fug of horse sweat and manure, all while enduring hours of staring pedlars and village women.

As they trundled towards the manor, bushy tjamara trees rustled by the side of the stone gates, and he caught a whiff of something like jasmine. He was gladdened by the appearance of the van Hoorns’ magnificent home—plastered pillars, louvred doors— with its roof tiled in a neatly symmetrical version of the mountain that rose darkly behind. Serehwangi’s famous tea plantation spread to the far south, an undulating sea of hedges and the occasional tea picker, bamboo hat tilted low over the leaves. A late afternoon breeze was picking up and he knew siesta time must be over. Hopefully he was in time for tea.

The dokar halted in front of the house and Willem—looking as boyish and mischievous as he had during their university days—ran down the front steps. ‘You should’ve called ahead, Mattijs. We would’ve sent the car!’

Mattijs grinned, taking his bag from the back of the buggy and paying the driver. ‘It’s fine. I only found out I could make it at the very last minute. Turns out I have a few days’ leave; a slight hitch in flight plans.’

Willem’s face became serious. ‘Still talk of combining forces with Australia?’

Mattijs nodded, wiping his palms on a handkerchief, black with soot from the train. He rubbed the handkerchief down each side of his nose, which stung from mingled sweat and dirt. ‘I’ll tell you about it soon. But, first, look at me. I am in dire need of a bath, and this white suit is merely a shadow of itself.’

He followed Willem up the steps and out of the sunlight. The verandah was cool, rocking chairs and potted palms arranged artfully along its length. Inside the house, it was even cooler, the marble floors so smooth they reminded him of the frozen lake he used to skate on when he was a child. He’d felt a sudden urge to peel off his shoes and socks to enjoy the floor’s cold surface against the soles of his feet.

A crackle of fireworks brings Mattijs back to the party. Sparks dot the heavens like a swarm of angry bees, their buzz interspersed with the strains of jazz music coming from the ballroom. Mattijs turns to contemplate the house, its wide verandahs, its tall arched windows. Chandeliers blaze from within, illuminating couples dancing and servant boys flitting here and there, offering trays of champagne or canapés. A room above is alight, a refuge for some of the more sober guests playing cards. He catches sight of Anna by the French doors and smiles. She looks radiant in a gown of black silk with gold spangles along the neckline. She beckons to him before disappearing among the crowd and dazzle of the drawing room. As he follows, he drains the last of his whisky split and places the glass on the tray of a passing servant.

Sparks dot the heavens like a swarm of angry bees, their buzz interspersed with the strains of jazz music coming from the ballroom.


In the hallway stands a single fir, nearly as tall as Mattijs, resplendent with tinsel and shortbread hanging from string. Red wax drips from the twinkling candles onto the white floor. The Christmas tree is a fine touch, but it doesn’t feel anything like Christmas or Sinterklaas to Mattijs. It’s far too hot, for one thing— he takes up a chill glass of champagne from a table and swallows down half—and much too merry. Not that he minds the cheer. It’s just that in Breda the strains of a hymn or two might be heard, not the sound of a saxophone blasting out a dance tune. And perhaps the smell of roasting venison with plenty of potatoes and carrot would linger in the air, instead of the richer aromas of spice and smoke.

Mattijs remembers the excitement he felt as a young boy, waiting for the end of his father’s homily after morning mass, for his mother to finish baking a batch of speculaas—when he could open his presents. He thinks of the lichen-covered tombstones behind the church, the crust of snow clinging to the elm’s naked branches, and for a moment he wonders again if he’s made the right decision. He throws down the rest of the champagne. It’s too late for regrets, in any case, now that the damned Germans have overrun Holland. This is where he lives now. This is where he needs to forge a life.

This is an edited extract from Sunbirds by Mirandi Riwoe (UQP),  available now at your local independent bookseller.