“We have an invitation!” Dad announces with a flourish at the arrival of the post one morning.
He passes the gold rimmed card to Mum with a small ceremonious bow.
‘The Mayor of Bandung requests the pleasure of the company of Tuan Bryan Power and his Family at an evening reception. . .’
On the back of the card is information about what to wear.
“Lounge suit. Thank goodness,” breathes Mum, “Not sure that we’re up for any ex-pat finery! and long sleeves and skirt for women – Oh that’s alright – you can wear your blue dress Chas and the boys can just wear their shorts and pants.”
“But they say long skirt,” I expect new clothes might be a possibility. Anything other than the hot old dress.
“I’m sure they don’t mean for children to wear long dresses,” Mum says offhandedly. She is already thinking about what she will wear.
Unhappy as I am about the dress code, the great day arrives and we wash in the mundi and dress and brush our hair until it is shiny and sleek on our round scalps.
The reception is in the grand white building in the Centre of Bandung. We arrive up the long drive in a slightly beaten old taxi like interlopers arriving at the wrong place. A fleet of light footed men run to open doors and greet the guests among the long line of dark official cars.
“See I was right not to let you turn up in a fleet of becaks,” Mum remarks.
“Now you are talking like a proper ex-pat,” he ribs her softly,”It would have been a much nicer ride in the evening instead of being in that sticky old taxi.”
I’m not sure what an ex-pat is exactly – Tony explains its something to do with being a weird stranger in another country.
“Dutch Colonial,” says Tony looking up at the enormous building – its wings stretch out from the central block which gapes open to swallow us up.
“Gedung Sate,” corrects Dad.
“It’s not a satay building Dad?” I laugh.
“It is called the Satay Building,” he walks us back across to the sweeping lawn to look at the stacked and layered roof in the centre of the building with a stump of a spire through its centre, “See it’s like a satay.”
I’m not sure that this isn’t just one of Dads’ jokes. Like when he asks Atung to buy danging tikus at the market which always makes him stamp around in laughter.
Young men and women dressed in exquisite traditional costume guide us through the tall heavy doors and into the vast interior of the Gedung Sate.
The white cavernous space is reflected in creamy polished marble floors with columns rising through to a gallery which surrounds the rectangular reception room.
The men are dressed in white shirts with black jackets and pants. Black peci caps top their shiny hair. The young women shimmer in Javanese dress with their hair curled and held by golden combs. Every detail of their costumes sits perfectly on their petite frames. Here and there older women in colourful kebayas move in a ripple of conversation – they laugh kindly with their eyes and make small bows toward us.
It is a Cinderella moment but without the necessary fairy godmother. I feel like one of those dull moths flapping senselessly against the verandah light on a hot night.
While I reflect on my lack of finery, Matt marks out his surroundings like a gunner in his turret.
“Can we go upstairs Dad?” Matt asks as soon as he is inside.
Dad is soon met by a handsome young gentleman and swept away. The Professor from the University wants him to meet the other guests. Tony tags along, quite at home in the cavernous space. With his hands behind his back he heads into the crowd like a small Don walking across a cloister.
Mum parks Matt and I on chairs near the wall in one of the side corridors. We can see through to the lights and laughing guests but otherwise sit out of sight.
“Is there any Seven Up?” Matt asks Mum.
“I don’t think so Matt.” She looks over her shoulder with a little frown as Dad disappears into the growing groups of guests which clump and separate and reform.
A young waitress floats by and Mum gratefully takes two glasses from her tray.
“It’s just tea,” Mum says squinting at a quick sip of sugary dark fluid.
“It’s hot tea,” says Matt.
“In a glass?” I ask.
“It’s special,” says Mum.
“Is there any milk?” I venture.
“Don’t be silly, now just have some tea and when you finish you can come and talk to some people.”
Just then Richard and Jane wind their way toward us. Jane looks pale and beautiful in a long cream gown with her blonde-red hair swept into a curl at her neck. Richard is large and slightly shiny with sweat, his jacket a little tight and gaping.
“Hello you two. That’s a good spot you’ve got there,” Richard calls out in his warm happy voice,”Well ladies, shall we mingle?”
Jane says a quick hello to us then Richards scoops her and Mum away, one on each elbow, chatting and laughing as they wind back into the thickening crowd.
Matt and I sit solemnly on our chairs, kicking them back every now and then against the wall. Occasionally a guest wanders past and smiles, “Selamat malam,” we say. “Selamat malam!” they exclaim back in delight.
After a little while it appears there is no sign of food arriving and the tea is too sweet to drink.
“Let’s go upstairs and take a look from up there,” says Matt,”we’ll be able to see everything. There’s no way we’ll get to see the Mayor anyhow.”
“Dad said not to go,” I remind Matt,”and it’s not as if we would get to specially see the Mayor.”
But I imagine an official calling out our names and ascending to the high dais at the end of the room to bow to the Mayor and get a present like those kids who get to see Father Christmas at Chadstone every year.
“But we won’t go too long, just to have a look and see if we can spot him.” Like always, it seems like a reasonable idea.
We leave the tea and the chairs and hunt around the edge of the room to an opening leading to stairs which climb up to the gallery.
Once upstairs we stalk along the length of the gallery. There are no lights on the long the corridor, the half-light shows a more faded and dusty side to the building than the sparkling reception room below. There is a makeshift area with desks and tables, some small dark rooms are curtained off with stacks of chairs behind them.
“Look Chas,” Matt has found a rubbish bin. “There’s loads of good paper in here.”
Dad calls Matt a fossicker because he always finds things that might have a use.
“We can’t do much with the paper – we haven’t got any pens or anything.”
“We can make planes.”
This is a great family craft. Dad spends hours helping us make different types of planes and Matt has a myriad of real model planes he puts together with glue and then paints.
So we sit and smooth out the paper and make a whole wing of airplanes to have at our command. Some square and flat – these are Matt’s specialty – others tapered and spearlike.
“They’re good Chas,” Matt commends my efforts.
“Let’s test them.” He scoops up his flight command and goes to the balcony.
Far below people glide and shimmer beneath the lights and music wafts up on the warm drafts of rising air.
“They’ll float like beauties,” Matt enthuses.
“There’s Tony – let’s go for him,” Matt points toward one of the many dark heads beneath us.
Before I can suggest this might not be the best idea, paper planes swirl and pitch and dive towards the unsuspecting guests. The planes make a slow glide, but the heat in the air makes their flight path entirely unpredictable. One sets itself in a woman’s high hairdo, another pitches into a glass of tea – one strikes the chest of a rather plump old man.
A bubble of laughter erupts and the guests look up to see the slow barrage of paper artillery from above.
Just then we spot a redhead in the crowd. He looks up to make us out and then strikes his way through the crowd like the little red minnow forming an angry eye in a great shoal of black fish. There is no escape – the gallery doesn’t go all the way around the building and squeezing under the stacks of chairs is probably not going to help our case. ‘There is no case for the defence sir’, I hear.
So we stand and take our admonishment and Dad leads us back down the stairs in shame and anger.
He is stopped with a gentle laugh just beyond the stairwell by a portly man – so round that his face looks like a polished stone.
“This is the great airman!” he exclaims. “Is this young Master Power?” He invites those around him to take notice of this small red nutty looking boy.
“You must come and command our airforce Master Power – I will keep this plane as a reminder of our meeting.”
He wrings Matt’s hand and laughs another warm laugh as Dad marches us back to the side corridor and sits us on our chairs.
“Well at least the Mayor will remember you!” Dad remarks, “Now don’t move.”
“That was grouse,” says Matt after we have sat for a moment to muse on our infamous introduction to Bandung society.
He kicks back on his chair with a broad smile,”Those planes went like beauties and we got to meet the Mayor.”