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Mariantje and the old Couple

Nurhayat Indriyatno Mohamed is the managing editor of the Jakarta Globe, an English-language newspaper in Jakarta. He was born and raised in Tanzania, and has a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Natal, Durban, in South Africa. At age 24 Hayat decided to move to Indonesia, the land of his father’s birth, and was immediately smitten by the novelty of it all.
A chance encounter led to a newspaper job, and another presented him with the opportunity to translate into English a book by the award-winning author Okky Madasari. Hayat is the translator of Erni Aladjai’s award winning novel Kei.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

***

Mariantje and the old Couple
by
Erni Aladjai

It was a bright Wednesday morning and they woke up under the same blanket. Laura and Don were still together. Neither had gone first. God wanted to give them a new day. Every night, just before she closed her eyes, Laura laced her fingers with Don’s. It was her secret habit, only Mariantje knew about.

Laura got up slowly from the bed and looked at her reflection in the mirror. She studied her hair, every last strand was gray, her cheeks and chin sagged. Just three years earlier, she often sat before the mirror dyeing her hair while humming along to an old jazz number. She and Don loved jazz. They enjoyed it since the first time they came to Batavia.

She still remembered it well, that crowded night when groups of Filipino musicians came to town looking for work. From the entrances of hotels and in the streets, they introduced their instruments and their music: trumpet, saxophone, bolero, rumba. Ah, the memory was like a soothing afternoon breeze. Her memory of the first time she heard jazz in the city was one that would remain with her forever, because on that day something happened that made her happy.

Don, who was right now lying there behind her, had bought two tickets to a jazz show at the Hotel des Indes. He was seventeen at the time and he loved wearing bowler hats, the kind Charlie Chaplin often wore, with pantaloons and a jacket.
Laura was sixteen. She wore a chiffon dress with a lotus motif and took the tram with Don. It was the first electric tram, she overheard two Dutchmen saying inside the car. When the sounds of the saxophone played by Soleano, the Filipino musician, rose to the ceiling of the Hotel des Indes, Don slipped an engagement ring onto her finger.

***

Laura loved the morning. She never wanted to miss a single sunrise. And this morning, she didn’t dye her hair. It was as though Old Laura had made a deal with her hair, from today onward, she would no longer choke her hair in a thick coating of dye. There would be no more gloves, no more of the Tancho powdered dye on her dressing table.

She moved to the windowsill. She always saw the window as a movie screen. There, behind the glass, stood two kersen trees, their trunks intertwined. The birdcage where Don kept his parrot hung from one of the branches. The bird greeted Laura every morning when she opened the curtains.

“Good morning, my love!” the parrot would say. Don had taught the bird to greet Laura in the morning. It was almost as though he knew that one day he would be confined to the bed with a tube in his nose. The illness had paralyzed half of his body. Laura nodded and laughed as the parrot shook its tail.

Mariantje also greeted her every day. “Good morning! You look healthy and radiant today.”

Laura laughed.

Mariantje was a tall, large woman, with dark skin. She wore her hair tied up with a bandana. She came into Laura’s room holding a mop. She just finished boiling potatoes for Laura’s breakfast. She did all the chores around the house: she cooked, did the laundry, ironed, swept the yard and shopped. She came from Sanger in Manado and had worked for Laura for five years. Laura liked the way Mariantje worked.

Every Saturday Laura added a little something to Mariantje’s shopping list. She would ask her to go to Senen and buy the latest novel. Later, Laura would read the book to Don with a magnifying glass.

Mariantje liked Laura’s house. It was simple, it smelled of oranges, and always filled with jazz music. Every morning Mariantje wound up Laura’s old gramophone and put on the jazz record Laura wanted to listen to.

“Natalie Cole this morning, Mariantje!”

Mariantje experienced many touching moments in Laura’s house. Two nights ago, she came in to check on Laura and found the old woman sitting next to Don and reading to him from a book with a red cover. Laura believed that even though Don could no longer move, he could still hear. Her voice quivered like it usually did.

“Don, my love, this is a passage from Max Havelaar in which he quotes the poet Heine. I thought you’d enjoy it.” She cleared her throat and began to read. “‘And in the distance roars ever/ The holy river’s loud flood./ And there, while joyously sinking/ Beneath the palm by the stream,/ And love and repose while drinking,/ Of blissful visions we’ll dream.’ So be happy, my love!”

Mariantje quietly watched the scene from the doorway. She was touched. Laura read well. The book was Max Havelaar by Eduard Douwes Dekker, published in the 1977 edition. She had bought it on Jalan Kwitang. The seller had persuaded her to buy it. “It’s a good book. Pram and Kartini read it, you have to have it!” he said.

***

After reading to Don, Laura, as usual, looked for Mariantje. They talked in the kitchen. This time Laura talked about something serious. “Mariantje, I’m really sorry I haven’t been able to pay you these past few months. It saddens me, and you never complain about it.”

“There’s no need to be sorry. Letting me stay here is more than enough.” Mariantje clasped Laura’s hand.

“If one day I’m suddenly gone, the keys to my house are yours for good. That’s all I can pass on to you. Please take care of Don’s parrot. And when one day there’s a jazz museum in this city, give them the old records,” Laura said. “Thank you for taking care of Don and me,” she added in a half-whisper.

“There’s no need to keep thanking me, ma’am. I’m the one who should be thanking you.”

It had in fact been four months since Laura had last paid Mariantje. Don and Laura’s pension was only enough for Don’s medical care, simple meals, and a new book once a week.

Mariantje didn’t complain. To know Laura was a source of joy. She remembered her face was bruised and her lip split the first time she met Laura.

It was at a store. Laura had come in to buy mayonnaise and condensed milk. Mariantje was there to buy a pack of cookies to tide herself over. No one cared about her bruised face and her bleeding lip. People just looked at the shelves. Laura was the only person who asked whether she was alright.

“What happened to your face? Did you fall?” Laura asked as she came closer. Without bothering to wait for an answer, she took Mariantje by the hand and led her home. Laura made a compress of ice cubes and placed it on Mariantje’s chin, cheeks and lips.

“How come you brought me into your house?”

“You’re hurt.” That had been Laura’s answer. She gave Mariantje a house dress with a hibiscus motif. She also gave her a blanket and showed her to the guest room.

Meeting Laura had make Mariantje determined to leave Tigor. She couldn’t stand anything about him. He reeked of beer. He threw the phone at her and hid money. He slammed the table and broke the glass in the windows. Mariantje ran away in the middle of the night to Laura’s house. That was some five years ago.

***

On Sunday morning, Mariantje went to church. She prayed for Don and Laura to stay healthy. She was terrified that God might call both of them. If she could choose, Mariantje hoped that she would be the first to die. She had no one in Java except for Laura. Mariantje made a mental count: tomorrow would be 170 days since Don was bedridden. It was truly a trying time for Laura.

On her way home from church, Mariantje took a detour to buy some flowers. She bought a single red rose and a single white one.

She walked softly to Laura’s room with the roses pressed to her chest. The room was exceptionally quiet. Laura lay on her side on top of the white sheets, her right arm embraced Don, who lay on his back with his mouth open.

Mariantje went up to Laura. She gently placed her finger against Laura’s nostril. There was no movement of air. She grabbed Laura’s arm. It was cold. Mariantje began to cry. Her stomach hurt.

She placed her fingers on Don’s wrist. There was no a pulse. Don was free.

Perhaps it was their time to go. Mariantje cried. She remembered her talk with Laura the day before. “Mariantje, I’ve wanted for so long to go away with Don. To go away forever. It’s said that in that other world, we’ll be young again. Isn’t that beautiful, Mariantje?”

***

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