Our first meal in our new house is cold cans of corn and mashed pink meat.
“Spam, spam, spam,” the boys sing with great delight over their first sight of the famous Monty Python staple.
But when I wake up very early and very hungry with a dry, cakey throat, the joy of our new home seems to wane.
Matt jumps up suddenly on the other side of the ‘bantang peluk’ – a giant sausage shaped hugging pillow (or ‘Dutch wife’) which separates us in the wide timber bed. Matt can go from deep sleep to wide awake in a single movement.
The mosquito coil Dad lit last night has left a little spiral of ash in the dish. “It’s really soft Chas, come and look.”
Dad puts his head around the door.
“Don’t touch that Matt – you’ll get it everywhere. Now get dressed and go and sit at the table for breakfast.”
There is no kitchen inside the house. An uneven trail of concrete blocks interrupts the dusty yard that separates the simple white wash dining room from a small timber cookhouse.
Inside the apparent makeshift prop of raw timber and iron sheeting, Mum and Dad do battle with an odd giant rusty pot and a fist of cast iron which spews jets of gas and sparks.
A rough slab of wood does for a bench top and a tap sits askew against the back wall over a tin dish for the sink.
‘This is hopeless,’ Mum despairs.
Daughter of a pastry chef and mistress of every Christmas feast, ‘last food in the fridge’ stew, ham steak dinner sizzled in an electric frypan in the caravan and potatoes wrapped in foil and cooked to sticky, steamy perfection in a fire – it seems that here Mum has met her culinary limit.
The naked flame is fierce and the impossibly heavy, deep curved utensil will not obey her – no matter how much she wills it to sit on the gas ring.
The pale yellow eggs and the packaged milk turn into a horrible grey curdling mess in the base of the blackened vessel.
Bart wakes up and forces the light morning air through his lungs.
Mum pushes the long handle into Dad’s stomach, ‘Take this Bryan,’ she commands and walks straight past her mournful, hungry brood, a towel slung over her shoulder and her face set in a grim red scowl.
Matt bobs up at the table to see Dad wrestle the meal, still in its pan, across the yard.
“What’s that Dad?’ Matt asks in wonder at this great basin shaped saucepan.
“It’s a wok.”
“Do you know what else you can do with a wok?” he continues.
“Fwow it at a wabbit.”
While Tony explains this to Matt, Dad ends the joke with a firm bang of the wok onto the centre of the table.
He pulls it off just too late – the plastic table cover sears into a great melting mess and a sick acrid smell of burning spreads through the house.
Mum returns with Bart who clings like a hungry monkey to her dress.
“Bryan! Not the table-cloth – is the table all right?” Mum is aghast, “I think we’d better all go back to bed and start again.”
“Right you kids,” Dad diverts attention from himself, “Now all sit down.”
“We are all sitting down,” I suggest the obvious. We are too hungry to move anywhere.
Dad dishes out the shreds of scrambled eggs with shards from a packet of biscuits.
Mum and Dad sit down with us for another tasteless meal.
“Don’t start giving them biscuits for breakfast Bryan,” Mum says wearily.
“Well there isn’t anything else for them to eat,” even Dad has run out of banter.
“We’re all going to starve, like those people on shipwrecks.” Matt observes blankly.
“Spam, spam, eggs, spam, spam, bacon and spam,” Tony chimes into the gloom.
Our misery is broken by a light knock on the dining room window and the warm smile and wave of our landlord.
Dad jumps up to welcome him in, “Doctor, Selamat pagi, Sorry we didn’t hear you knock.”
“Good morning everyone. Look, I have brought some helpers for you!” he announces.
Mum quickly moves her plate to cover the hole in the tablecloth and we kids find energy enough to move as a single mass to peer out the window.
“No, no I won’t come in – but please Pak come and I will introduce you.”
His face twitches at the smell of burnt egg, plastic and metal, like a mouse finding cheese in a trap.
At some distance behind the Doctor stand two figures.
Like shadows, the figures seem to have no form or movement of their own.
Unless the Doctor bids them to move they are still and, as one stands slightly behind the other, it appears in the milky morning sun, that this may be one unusually shaped person, not two.
After a brief discussion with Dad, the Doctor calls the front shadow forward with a brisk downward wave of his hand.
“This is Atang.”
Atang presents himself with a straight back and arms held stiff at his side as he makes a short bow.
He is very tall and slim, his face looks so smooth he may be an oversized boy with his shirt and trousers too short for his angular frame.
He bows again toward Dad and takes his soft black cap (a peci) from his head to show a thick head of equally black hair which seems to be swept forward to almost cover his eyes.
Atang takes Dad’s hand and only lifts his head slightly when Dad starts to speak to him.
He looks to the Doctor, unsure what to say. The Doctor repeats the same words to Atang.
‘Ah Bahasa?’ A slow half smile creeps over Atang’s face as he realizes he can understand what this very white man has said to him, although the voice is strange and sharp.
The Doctor waves in the direction of the second shadow. ‘And the girl is Kiah,’ he says. He does not bid her come forward.
Atang twists towards her and smiles over his shoulder.
Kiah stands in worn down sandals and and holds onto her shapeless brown tunic, which is all that must separate her skin from the cool morning. There are two small bundles beside her of woks and other cooking implements and a small beaten brown suitcase.
The Doctor bids us Selamat Pagi and leaves us with Atang and Kiah who stand abandoned and awkward in the yard.
Mum is already in a cross mood. She suddenly hands Bart to me and starts to move her hands in agitation.
She mutters to Dad, “Just brings them to the back door – I don’t believe it.”
“It’s just the way things are darl.” Dad tries to calm her, but he too is uncomfortable.
“It’s like when the Chinese hawker came to the house when I was a kid. ‘Round the back’ Dad would say. Honestly.”
Atang shuffles the bags into the cookhouse and Kiah, left alone, looks around her slowly like a young cat tipped out of a box into a back street.
Dad invites Atang into the house but Kiah can only comes as far as the threshold, drawn by the sight of our heads popping along in unison over the window sill.
‘Silakan duduk,’ Dad indicates a chair to Atang.
Atang bows again and looks to Kiah. He is unsure what to do.
“Sarapan, Pak?” Atang surveys the pathetic remnants of the meal on the table and his shy smile becomes wider.
Kiah slips inside and stands behind Atang. She is so small, barely level with Atang’s shoulder. Her face, broad at the brow and unkindly set under a cruel cut of black hair, is almost blank of expression. Slowly a gentle thaw around Kiah’s tight set mouth punches out two small cheeks and her deep, very dark eyes shine a little.
After some short introductions, more bows, much marvelling at Johnny and ‘Yang putih’, Atang and Kiah retreat to the cookhouse where a great bustle of activity starts. Kiah directs Atang and commands her own silver wok to the task of omelettes.
In the time it takes for us to rearrange ourselves on seats – six fluffy piles of golden eggs magically arrive at the table.
After the meal, Atang collects the bare plates and cutlery and soon reappears at the doorway with two large woven bags.
“Pak, Saya harus pergi ke pasar,” he insists with much solemnity.
“Bagus, Atang,” Dad returns to the earnest matter of food, “Ya, kita harus pergi ke pasar segera!”
Silakan duduk – Please sit down / take a seat
Sarapan – breakfast
Saya/Kita harus pergi ke pasar pak/segara – I / we must go to the market Pak / immediately
Monty Python made their wonderful Spam sketch in 1970 and we had the record at home which was played constantly – we all knew every sketch by heart and Tony would imitate the characters perfectly.
I remember that Mum was quite incensed by the unceremonious arrival of Atang and Kiah as well as the way she was disregarded in discussing or making any decisions about the house as the landlord would only deal with Dad – but that was about to change.
Mum had a lady come in to help when Johnny was little and a cleaner always came in now and then, but we’d never had anyone live in and take complete care of us. But Mum had a lot to deal with with five children and it was tiring feeding Bart and keeping us in order, so she gradually relented her usual command of domestic arrangements. Dad was always very hands on with us and everything domestic and naturally jumped at the chance to go with Atang to the market – which Atang must have found completely bizarre – but these outings became great adventures.
Domestic servants continue to be a usual part of life for wealthier folk and ex-pats in Asia. Atang and Kiah were probably only teenagers and did really step in to make our lives so easy but it was clear even to me at the time just how poor and ill-treated they were in many respects. They seemed almost fearful on that first day of what they were arriving to find. Mind you – as Dad put it – meeting seven Australians at once isn’t easy, even for the most worldly of people.
When I was in Jakarta recently one of my relatives, who works in an international primary school, told me how she was making mother’s day cards with the kids and suggested that they put promises inside the cards to do things for their mum like ‘help with the washing up’ or ‘put the clothes on the line’ or ‘make their beds’ or ‘pick up their toys.’ as she did every year with her kids in Queensland. The kids all just looked at her oddly – their Mums don’t do any of that stuff – they have someone do it for them.
I loved this article ‘ Rich Indonesia paralysed as Servants go home for the weekend.‘
This was certainly how helpless we felt in the first couple of days fending for ourselves in Bandung. For one thing Mum had probably never seen, let alone used, a wok or an open gas burner until that day.