Posts tagged ‘Francesca’
June 22, 2018
KOB: Both of your novels are driven by strong female characters. Would you consider your work to be “Women’s Fiction” and if so, how do you feel your position as a male novelist impacts your female-centric writing?
DFM: I have noticed that women seem to respond well to my work, which I’m happy about because they buy far more books than men. However, I’m not sure about this notion of “Women’s Fiction”. There seems to be this idea in publishing that men write bang-bang-shoot-em-ups, while women pick apart dysfunctional relationships over the kitchen table with a large glass of red wine. Publishers like to categorise books into genres, I guess it makes it easier for them to target the audience they think they’re after, but so far as I’m concerned there’s only good fiction and bad fiction. I don’t really mind whether it’s packaged as crime, romance or a thriller, if it’s well written and captures my imagination I’ll read it, if it doesn’t I won’t. I think one of the most important traits you need as a writer of fiction is the ability to see the world from someone else’s point of view, whether that’s a politically engaged Irish woman, a Timorese teenager or a corrupt ageing Indonesian army officer. It’s the only way, in my view, you can create convincing characters that readers will relate to and care about.
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KOB: The recent Lush cosmetics campaign against Spycops has brought the issue tackled in The Insider’s Guide to Betrayal to light. Decades after these incidents took place, do you believe justice can eventually come from the public enquiry?
DFM: To me the Spycops scandal offers a perfect example of what can happen when a group of people in a position of power who aren’t publicly accountable to anyone for their actions lose sight of what they are there for in the first place. For those who aren’t familiar with the background, what happened was that in the 1970s a group was set up within the Metropolitan Police to infiltrate political organisations that were deemed a threat to society, and in doing so gain intelligence about their activities, plans and intentions. For obvious reasons no one knew about this group, and it didn’t seem to be answerable to anyone outside the Met. There was never any proper debate about what constituted a threat to society, or how far this group could go in order to counter it. As it turned out, the targets were typically peace campaigners, animal rights or environmental activists and other groups the government of the time didn’t particularly like, but who were engaged in legitimate political protest. Even if they did occasionally cross the line of the law, by comparison to the type of terrorism we see today, their activities were benign, almost charmingly quaint. We’re talking about people breaking into a laboratory and releasing a few rabbits destined for experiments, or tearing down some barbed wire outside a missile base, not some fanatic walking into a crowded concert hall and blowing up a hundred people. What has always staggered me about the Spycops scandal is how much effort, resources and moral compromise went into these deceptions when the stakes were so low and the threats to society so trivial. Over the years undercover officers infiltrated these groups and entered into intimate relationships with female members of them, sometimes going to far as to have children with them. At weekends they might go back to their real families; then there would come a time when they would be recalled and simply disappear from the lives of the women they had betrayed, leaving them to wonder what had happened. The collateral damage to the women and their families was mind-boggling, and no one in a position of power wanted to know or do anything about it.
The campaign to bring justice to these women seems to be pretty well organised and it’s certainly very determined. The Guardian newspaper has done and continues to do an excellent job keeping the story in the public eye, so I think despite all their prevaricating there’s a good chance the British Government will eventually be shamed into owning up and paying compensation where they haven’t already. Whether that constitutes justice or not is another question, as the real damage was done years ago and can’t be undone. There was no excuse for it in what’s meant to be an accountable democracy, and it was an absolute disgrace it was ever allowed to happen. What I was interested in pressing in The Insider’s Guide to Betrayal is whether it is ever possible to justify engaging in that level of deception, when the stakes are much higher, when innocent lives really are at risk, and what happens when you decide they are and go down that road.
KOB: Both Francesca and The Insider’s Guide to Betrayal are focused on divided societies. What draws you to explore stories of such societal division?
DFM: The divisions in society, both in Europe and America, are becoming more extreme each year, and it’s something I find very worrying. It’s one of the biggest issues we are currently facing, and in my view is behind a lot of the political turmoil we have experienced, such as Brexit and the election of Trump. History tells us that whenever societies start to experience severe inequalities on the scale we are currently seeing, when people feel they have lost a stake in their society and have nothing to lose by overturning it, it generally ends badly all round. Just ask the French or the Russian aristocracy. Can we achieve a more just society through peaceful means as opposed to violent ones? I’d like to think so, but right now I’m not overly optimistic.
The other thing about divided societies is that people often end up in situations they could never have imagined in a more stable, peaceful environment. I have always been fascinated in what happens when people are pushed to extremes, how moral lines can become blurred, how they will do things and behave in ways that would have astonished and horrified them but a short time ago. How does a football mad kid who likes collecting stickers become a soldier capable of murdering innocent civilians, and what was the process that paved the way for that to happen? It’s only by exploring these threads and understanding them that we have a chance of preventing the worst aspects of our history repeating itself. You only have to look at some of the appalling things people did to each other during the Northern Ireland troubles to realise we are deluding ourselves if we think we are too civilized or sophisticated to go down that road. Bosnia was the same. These things weren’t done by animals, they were done by people like us. That’s the frightening thing about it. We can go down that road any time we choose. The camps are closer than we think. If fiction can wave a red flag and alert us to some of the dangers, then in my view it’s serving a useful purpose.
KOB: While both novels explore divided societies, they also both examine issues of family and human connection. Would you say that this is a major preoccupation of your writing?
DFM: For most people their families – and that concept can be understood in the loosest sense – constitute the arena where they engage in their most intimate relationships, where they feel free to reveal the innermost parts of themselves. And that is certainly a rewarding seam for a writer to mine, so to speak. I am fascinated by our human connections, which interestingly enough is a theme that Forster grapples with in Howard’s End. As a writer, your topic is the human condition and how that plays itself out. Connections are an inescapable part of that. Fiction is all about conflict and collision, whether it’s between world views and wills of the characters involved, or people and their external circumstances. If there is no conflict there is no drama, if there is no drama there is nothing to keep the reader with you. So, yes, I would say that’s a fairly major preoccupation of mine.
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June 20, 2018
Kelly O’Brien: Both of your novels, Francesca and The Insider’s Guide to Betrayal are set in the 1970s and 1980s, is this period of time significant to you? What interests you in the writing of historical fiction?
Donald Finnaeus Mayo: Most decades have something interesting to offer, and if you have lived through them your recollections will obviously be coloured by your own experiences. Though to hear the 1970s and 1980s described as historical fiction makes me feel very old! I tend to be drawn to subjects or events as opposed to specific decades, but I also think you sometimes need a bit of time to elapse before you can gain a proper perspective of an era. If you’re too close to an event you can end up writing reportage rather than fiction. I remember a slew of novels about 9/11 came out a few years after the twin towers came down, and people didn’t seem ready for them. They had already digested all the documentary coverage they could take, and it begged the question as to what fiction could add. It takes me a long time to percolate ideas and work out what I really think. Possibly there’s an element of nostalgia to it as well. In writing about an era I get the chance to immerse myself back in it; what music people were listening to, what was happening in the world, what they were wearing, what they feared and where their hopes lay, recreating that world for people who weren’t there or may have forgotten what it was like. Right now I’m writing a novel about the impact of the 2008 financial crash on a small town in the American South.
KOB: Francesca follows the story of a young woman in East Timor during the Indonesian invasion of 1975, a moment of history that is potentially not very well-known, is this what inspired you to tell Francesca’s story?
DFM: It was more personal than that. My father worked in the oil business, and I spent a number of years as a child living in Indonesian Borneo. This period coincided with the invasion of East Timor, which ended up costing the lives of almost a third of that country’s population. Cocooned in our expat bubble, we were completely oblivious to what was happening. That was deliberate – journalists, human rights activists and anyone else who might cause trouble were kept well away from the place by the Indonesian government. With no social media, mobile phones or internet, it was possible for a military dictatorship to effectively shut a region off from the outside world in a way that seems inconceivable today. Western powers such as the United States and Australia, who did know what was going on despite what they may have said publicly to the contrary, were happy to sit by and let Suharto’s troops embark upon this genocide because he represented a bulwark against communism, which they were terrified of spreading throughout South East Asia. Saigon had only recently fallen, and there were worries revolutions could be sparked off through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and beyond. So poor old East Timor, who had never threatened anyone, was forgotten and left to suffer. It was only many years later, when I was working as a volunteer for Amnesty International in London, that I started coming across all these cases of human rights abuses from the region. When I examined them more closely, I was shocked to discover this mass murder had been taking place just a few hundred miles from our tennis courts and swimming pools. No one talked about it, no one wanted to upset the cosy relationship between the Suharto regime and the western oil companies. The genesis of the novel lay in the idea of what would happen if these parallel worlds jumped off their rails and collided.
KOB: You have worked previously as a radio journalist for the BBC. Do you bring any of your journalistic skills or knowledge to your fiction writing?
DFM: I’ve always been interested in politics, and in newsrooms you’re surrounded by people who live and breathe it, so you get some great conversations going with bright, witty, well-informed people. They are fairly cynical environments, and there’s a lot of cut-and-thrust between the reporters, peppered with a fair amount of black humour. It’s no place for shrinking violets. Journalism taught me discipline when it came to writing. You need to check your facts, and you need to get your point across quickly. A radio news story might be less than 100 words, so you have to make sure each one counts. On the other hand, it can be quite restrictive in what is deemed important and worthy of coverage. What’s not reported is often as significant as what is. You can end up thinking the entire human experience amounts to plane crashes, political clashes, sport and celebrity intrigue. Journalism is also very workaday and practical. There isn’t any of the mystique of the tortured writer struggling to come to grips with the essence of life as there is with fiction. Complain to a news editor you’re suffering from writer’s block and he or she will inform you the deadline’s less than an hour away and politely suggest you just get on with it. You learn very quickly to push through the barriers when the muse has taken the morning off. That helped me a lot when I was trying to juggle novel-writing with looking after young children.
KOB: You begin The Insider’s Guide to Betrayal with a quote by E.M. Forster. Was Forster a particular influence on the narrative of the novel?
DFM: Not especially, other than the quote, which came from one of Forster’s essays rather than his novels but seemed to sum up the essence of The Insider’s Guide to Betrayal. I read a lot of Forster as a teenager, but haven’t really returned to him much since they made all those Merchant Ivory films of his books. I suppose the main thing I have taken from Forster is his emphasis on creating three-dimensional characters, which is something I have always tried to do in my work. I don’t believe in goodies and baddies per se, even one of the most odious characters in Francesca, Benny Surikano, is partially redeemed by the love he has for his son. I suppose one of the most interesting things about Forster as a person is his struggle to live a double life as a gay man in an era when that could not only destroy your reputation and livelihood, but land you up in prison. You just need to think of what happened to Alan Turing to appreciate just how repressed certain aspects of people’s lives had to be for their very survival. Having made one of the most spectacular contributions to Britain’s effort to defeat the Nazis by cracking the Enigma code, he was subsequently hounded by the police for a gay indiscretion to the point where he committed suicide. How those forces played themselves out in Forster’s fiction is a matter of ongoing debate. I know some literary scholars get very irate when everything he wrote is viewed through this lens – others see it as the only way to understand him properly as an author.
To be followed on Friday, June 22nd, 2018
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March 8, 2016
FRANCESCA: Genesis of an idea
It’s easy to forget just how different the world was back in the mid-1970s. No mobile phones, no internet, no Starbucks on every street corner. Easier, too, for dictators to keep a lid on their shenanigans. You could take out a town, empty a region of its population without any fear of pesky demonstrators posting evidence of your atrocities on YouTube for all to see.
So it’s hardly surprising the Indonesian invasion of East Timor passed me by, even though I was living in the region at the time, an expat teenager whose father worked in the oil business. The local media was strictly censored, whilst foreign correspondents who might have kicked up a fuss were for the most part unable to access the place. Besides, who was interested in what was going on in a backwater most people had never heard of?
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that I encountered East Timor again. Doing some volunteer work for Amnesty International in London, I kept coming across cases from the conflict. The more I looked into it, the more shocking it became. Worse, I realised I had been in Indonesia when this tiny country was gobbled up by its neighbour and large parts of its population annihilated.
Several hundred miles away our lives continued in their cocooned luxury, oblivious to what Suharto’s soldiers were doing. No one mentioned it, no one spoke out, no one did anything that might upset the cosy relationship between the Indonesian government and the western oil companies. Everyone was making money, and besides Indonesia was on our side, a bulwark against communism.
Discovering these parallel worlds inspired me to write Francesca. In particular, I was interested in people who straddled both, the ones with the fullest picture. As they created their own dramas, sorrows, joys, tragedies and triumphs, a novel was born.
— Donald Finnaeus Mayo, March 2016
“A full-bodied tale of love and war set against the complex political and commercial landscape of Indonesia in the 70s. Its a moving and sensitively written story that draws you in from the start.”
“Francesca has all the ingredients of a great novel – a compelling and interesting story that engages you from the start, genuine characters with whom one can feel real sympathy and powerful descriptions that creates a real sense of atmosphere. If I have any criticism of the book it is that it could be longer – the character development is such that you’re left wanting to know what happened to them in more detail than there is in the book – but then maybe it’s always good to leave the reader wanting more. In any event, it’s a great story that will provide a powerful insight into a period of history that has only recently started to get the coverage it deserves.”
“The sense of location is sparkling. The tension is high. The author is an accomplished storyteller, with journalism experience, who captures the destruction of war in convincing detail. He demonstrates a beautiful way with language and a clever ear for dialogue.”
“Beautifully written, historically educational, sharp insights into human nature. Highly recommended as a Book Club read.”
“A fascinating story inter-weaving a cast of characters around one woman’s journey through life.”
May 2, 2015
“No one familiar with Indonesia’s history should be in the least surprised at the indifference its government displayed to world leaders and human rights activists pleading for the lives of the eight drug traffickers executed by firing squad earlier this week.
For all its exotic charm and hospitable people, there is a ruthless, vicious disregard for the sanctity of human life that runs through many of Indonesia’s institutions, in particular the army, who have kept its rulers in power for much of the modern state’s existence and remain a force to be reckoned with.
Two episodes in the country’s recent history stand out. The first are the purges of the mid 1960s, when gangs, supported by elements of the army, went on the rampage to eliminate undesirables ranging from communists, trades unionists, government officials and teachers to anyone suspected of leftist leanings, or simply someone the local gang warlord didn’t like the look of. By the time it ended, around half a million people had been slaughtered by these militias. The bloodbath, depicted in the recent Oscar nominated documentary “The Act of Killing”, attracted almost no attention from the outside world at the time.
The second episode, also largely ignored by the international community, was is the 1975 invasion by Indonesian forces of East Timor, which forms the jumping off point for my novel Francesca. This completely unprovoked annexation resulted in a quarter of a century of oppression before East Timor finally gained its independence in 2002, at an estimated cost of a third of the population.
Suharto may be gone, but with stuff like this in your country’s DNA, you’re not about to lose any sleep over machine-gunning a few coke dealers, however spurious the evidence against them or mitigating the circumstances.”
Continue reading here: Indonesian executions should have taken no one by surprise
Donald Finneaus Mayo is the author of FRANCESCA: http://viewbook.at/francesca
December 1, 2014
From “No Truce for Christmas” by Donald Finnaeus Mayo:
“She thought about how much easier it was to learn English if you’d grasped Portuguese first, about the badminton tournament in which she was currently a promising quarter finalist with a very good chance of going all the way, and, of course, about rehearsals for the Christmas Carol service which had the added attraction of involving boys from neighbouring St Michael’s. Then she allowed her thoughts to wander to Miguel; his long, sensuous fingers delicately wrapped around a pen as he wrestled with a mathematical problem.”
November 28, 2014
In many ways, it was born out of frustration. Frustration with editors who want the same formulaic junk that sold by the bucketload last year, frustration with editorial decisions being made by accountants, frustration with marketing departments who reserve their entire budget for the same half dozen or so big names, frustration with being constantly depressed by the gloomy state of the publishing industry.
People still like to read good books, don’t they? I know I do. They can’t all want the latest ghosted biography from some C-list celebrity or yet another Andy McNab knock-off.
So I was delighted to join the list of Betimes Books, a new imprint designed to retain the best elements of publishing (good taste, rigorous editing, high production values) whilst taking advantage of the digital revolution that, frankly, caught…
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October 20, 2014
About the Booker winner Richard Flanagan who highlighted the struggle writers face to make a living from their craft
There was something particularly heartening about Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize win for his novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”. Here is a writer at the top of his game, receiving one of the most coveted literary awards in the English speaking language, admitting that on completing the book he almost gave up writing to work in the mines of northern Australia so he could support his family.
Although I’ve never met Richard Flanagan, I’ve followed his career, not without a touch of envy, for a number of years. I first came across his work when I was in Tasmania back in the 1990s working on an early draft of a novel I was writing. I was out on some wilderness tracks in the far western part of the state bushwalking with my cousin and some friends, some of whom knew Flanagan from…
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September 12, 2014
“You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.” ―Richard Price
Read here an excerpt from FRANCESCA, when the heroine’s home town of Dili, capital of East Timor, was invaded by the Indonesian army:
You hear it everywhere as we approach this time of year – in the shopping malls, on the radio, the optimistic crooning from John and Yoko’s classic: “War is over, if you want it”. Seems like we don’t want it, or not enough anyway.
I don’t think there’s been a time in recorded history when someone, somewhere hasn’t been fighting, killing someone else. Some months ago the British Army thought 2015 might be the first year in a century when it wouldn’t be involved in a conflict somewhere. With events in Syria, Iraq and Iran unfolding as they are, that hope looks less likely by the day.
It’s easy to get war fatigue, to throw up one’s hands in despair and tune out of it all. For me, it’s the civilians caught up in war, especially the children, who haunt me most. Here’s an extract from…
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August 12, 2014
Why Mayo’s novel FRANCESCA is still relevant despite being set in 1970s
News that two French journalists have been arrested in West Papua should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the way the Indonesian government traditionally deals with threats to its authority.
Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat were arrested on August 6th, allegedly for working in the province without a proper journalist visa. The pair were shooting a documentary for the Franco-German TV channel Arte on the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM), which has for years waged a low level insurgency campaign against the Indonesian government.
Since it gained its independence from the Dutch after World War II, and certainly since the Suharto regime came to power in the 1960s, Indonesia has traditionally taken a firm stance against any internal dissent. The most well known example occurred in East Timor in the 1970s; only it wasn’t so well…
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August 7, 2014
Travel to Ireland, Indonesia and Greece with our books KILLARNEY BLUES, FRANCESCA and THE LAST ISLAND featured on www.TripFiction.com
January 11, 2014
The shooting finally stopped. It was a miracle she had not been struck by any of the bullets ricocheting around the house. Not that she believed in miracles any more. Chances were she had survived only to be saved for something worse around the corner. But she did know she wasn’t waiting for them to come back.
How long she remained as she was, tucked in a foetal ball, she wasn’t aware, but eventually she summoned up the strength to move. Her mother’s body had taken several bullets in and around her abdomen, and Francesca could feel the sticky warm blood trickling up against her back. It took her several minutes to raise herself to her hands and knees. Each movement sent stabs of agony through her wounded internal organs; combined with the pain was an overwhelming nausea. Part of her wanted to curl up and die, but a stronger, more elemental side to her was already planning what to do next. She managed to stagger to her feet and find a towel from the kitchen. There was some water in the kettle, and slowly she began cleaning herself off as best she could. It was painful, but she forced herself to concentrate on the single task ahead of her, willing herself oblivious to the corpses around her and the sound of sporadic gunfire from outside. When she had finished, she went over to the chest and picked out some clothes to wear. She chose the most shapeless garments she could find, an old pair of tracksuit trousers, a pair of tatty gym shoes and one of Marco’s football jerseys. She had to travel light, she knew.
Every movement hurt, but walking was particularly excruciating. If she thought about what had happened to her she became paralysed, reduced to a piece of meat that had been used, abused and spat out. So she didn’t think about it, relying instead on the irrational will to live driving her forward. She wanted to tend to the bodies of her family spread out in their gruesome death poses, only she lacked the strength to do so. A line from the Bible popped out at her, Jesus’ admonishment to the living to “let the dead bury the dead”, and she realised she didn’t want to touch the bodies at all. She simply felt she ought to. The imperative right now was to get out of the house before the soldiers realised they’d forgotten the TV and the radio and returned for their loot, or a fresh platoon appeared on the scene for another round of hell.
She stripped the beds of their sheets and covered each body, hoping that some neighbour would eventually come along and see to a decent burial before any dogs managed to break their way in. She was about to cross herself and pray for absolution of their souls when she checked herself. Instead, she piled her long hair on top of her head and stuffed it under one of Antonio’s baseball caps. If she stooped and shuffled along, not too difficult given her current physical condition, passing soldiers might mistake her for a harmless old peasant.
Finally, she packed half a loaf of bread, some bananas and a bottle of water into a canvas shoulder bag and prepared to set off. The last thing she felt like doing was eating, but she knew she would be hungry later. She was astonished at herself, at how the calculating, survival orientated part of her brain had muscled in to cauterise her emotions, forcing her to apply clear logic and animal cunning to her situation. She hobbled back into the main room, past the shrouds, already bloodstained, to the door. Amazingly, it was still on its hinges. She cracked it open and peeped outside, adjusting her eyes to the early morning light. She could hear machine gun fire from the harbour, and also from the direction of the town square, but her own street seemed deserted. Where was everybody? Were they huddled inside their houses, terrified to go out while this firestorm passed over them? Were they dead, butchered in their homes like her own kin, or had they been rounded up and taken somewhere? How many of them had escaped while they still could and made for the Falintil lines before the Indonesian paratroopers had dropped in? She doubted very many. Like her father, they probably hadn’t been able to conceive how awful things could get, or how barbaric the Indonesian soldiers would be. In their optimism they had set themselves up for their end, so all the Indonesians had to do was pull their triggers. Too late, she wished now that she had run off and joined a Falintil group. At least there was some dignity in going down fighting, taking some of the bastards with her instead of huddling down at home unable to resist as they pulled her from limb to limb, each mocking taunt degrading her yet another notch, until all vestige of humanity was torn from her. So, she was an animal now, and if she was an animal, she had to think like one to plan her own escape.
Her thoughts turned to Baby Angelica, now the sole surviving member of her family, if indeed she was still alive at all, and she felt a sharp wrench of grief. She wanted to chase after her, to track down this first aid tent the officer had ordered her to be taken to. She wondered how disciplined the Indonesian army was, and whether the soldiers would actually obey an order given by a junior officer. But she could hardly wander up to the Indonesian rear lines and ask if anyone had seen a baby she was looking to claim. She could only rely on the faint prospect that some spark of humanity still resided somewhere in an Indonesian heart. She certainly didn’t trust God to protect her baby sister. His existence was likely limited to the pathetic imaginations of the nuns who had indoctrinated her with their teachings.
Think like an animal. Where should she head? The obvious, natural answer was to run for the mountains like everyone else, and hope to hook up with a Fretilin or Falintil patrol. But would they be able to provide any shelter, or would their very presence attract the Indonesians in greater number, with correspondingly greater savagery? She knew, like she had never known before, the bitter fiction of safety in numbers. She had to be smarter, stay one step ahead. Quickly she padded down the same steps she had walked up without a care in the world less than twenty four hours earlier, crouched under the porch with her canvass bag, and examined her options.
The gunfire from the square and the harbour was intensifying, and it had an almost musical rhythm to it: silence, followed by a sharp burst, followed by silence, before another burst. It didn’t sound like an exchange between two positions, more the start stop start stop of a percussion solo. She very much doubted whether there were any Timorese forces remaining in the town centre. If she walked straight into it, there was every chance she too would be sucked into the grisly massacre again. On the other hand, it was the last move anyone would expect someone in her position to make, and hence it possibly became the right thing to do. It was also the last place anyone would think of looking for her. Everyone, from the Indonesian army to Fretilin, would assume any stragglers would run south. Now she had been left alone her best chance was to remain alone. So long as she could steer clear of marauding patrols, the safest place for her might well be behind Indonesian lines, where the soldiers weren’t expecting any resistance because they had crushed it all.
There was another, deeper reason why she was reluctant to follow the tide of refugees into the mountains. These were her people, and how could she look them in the eye after what had happened? Even if she said nothing they would know, they would know because similar things had most likely happened to many of them. They would become a stigmatised group of victims, untouchable objects of pity, but untouchable none the less. No Timorese man could possibly want her now, and whilst the thought of any man, Timorese or otherwise, being inside her ever again made her shudder, she had no wish to be an outcast amongst her own people. If she was to live, it would have to be somewhere else, some place where no one had seen or knew of what had just happened . Maybe then she, too, could wipe the slate clean, eradicate the nightmare of the past day. It was a long shot, she knew, but she also knew it was her only shot. Suddenly, she was filled with a sense of gratitude for the first time since the Indonesian artillery bombardment had begun; grateful for her passion for languages and the curiosity that had led her to learn not just the usual smattering of Portuguese, but conversational English on top of the Bahasa she’d picked up from the Chinese coffee traders over by the waterfront. She knew she’d never be able to pass herself off as an Indonesian, whatever that meant these days, but she knew enough of the dialect to understand what people were saying around her, and that alone might be sufficient to keep her alive.
She was decided. She would make for the waterfront, keeping in the shadows between and underneath the houses. She didn’t have a plan beyond that, although she was vaguely aware of the pull of the sea, as if somehow its purifying powers could cleanse the abomination her poor battered body had endured.
Checking for soldiers, she set off along the street. With her awkward gait and instinctive caution, progress was slow. She took the back streets, avoiding the main thoroughfares where troops were most likely to be combing through houses. Halfway down the street adjacent to hers a kampong dog, its curled tail high up in the air, stood in the middle of the road gorging on a corpse whose entrails had been ripped open by machine gun fire. Pieces of flesh flicked out from the dog’s greedy mouth and when it glanced up at her she saw its entire snout was covered in bright red gore. The dog stared her down, reluctant to abandon such a feast. Enraged, Francesca reached down, picked up a stone from the gutter and hurled it at the animal as hard as she could. The stone struck the beast square on the shoulders and it jumped with a sharp yelp, scurrying away from the corpse as Francesca reached for another stone. It was a futile symbolic gesture, she knew, the dog would return to finish off its grisly meal the moment she was gone, but she had needed to do something to take a stand against the horror unfolding all around her.
She continued her shuffle in a broad northerly direction through the routes she knew so well. There was an eerie quiet to these normally bustling back alley ways and side streets. Shops were either boarded up or spilt open, their contents looted by the invaders who could only carry so much and had discarded the rest. Where were all the inhabitants? The machine guns had kept up their sporadic firing ever since she had left her house, presumably shooting at someone. She wanted to bang on the shutters to see if anyone was inside, to find out what was going on, but she knew she couldn’t.
Eventually, she reached an alleyway that led out onto the harbour and she stopped, her heart racing in terror. An Indonesian platoon was directly in front of her, less than fifty yards away, marching at double time to the command of an NCO jogging along at the side. Rifles were shouldered, as the troops struggled to keep up the pace whilst hauling their bulky packs. Darting under a set of wooden steps, Francesca waited for the soldiers to pass, convinced she would be spotted. She tucked her head under her arms and crouched herself into a ball, desperately making herself as inconspicuous as possible, even though the stance was agony for her injured body. She heard the steady rhythm of the platoon as it pounded by almost on top of her, two dozen pairs of rubber soled boots slamming down on the dusty road overlaid by the metallic rattle of loose magazines and mess tins. So this was what invasion sounded like, this was what it meant to be embraced into the fold of mother Indonesia. Her thoughts turned to her own mother, and tears welled up from her heart. Perhaps she was looking over Francesca right now, guiding her hand, willing her to make good decisions, seeing her through to safety. Out of habit, she fingered the tiny silver crucifix around her neck, astonished now she thought of it that none of the soldiers had seen to rip it from her throat. She would keep it as a talisman, the only touchstone she had in a world gone crazy.
Think, girl, think, she admonished herself. They’ve all abandoned you now. She tucked the crucifix back inside her shirt and looked up through the slats of the stairs. The soldiers had moved on, for now there didn’t seem to be any more. She remained still for three or four minutes more, then darted out from under the steps to a house three doors down. She took up a similar hiding place under the steps, from where she could see the harbour.
Suddenly, the sporadic machine gun fire made sense, consistent with all she had witnessed so far during this excursion into hell. A heavy machine gun had been set up on the wharf pointing out to sea, a long ammunition belt snaking out of the side into a large tin below. Two soldiers were operating the weapon, one firing while the other fed the belt into the mechanism. For now they stood casually around the gun smoking and kicking the occasional spent cartridge into the sea. While they chatted, two other soldiers led a group of a dozen Timorese Chinese up along the jetty, occasionally prodding one with their rifles, until the men (she could see they were all men, from kids barely out of their teens to grandfathers) were standing in line at the end of the wharf, facing out towards the sea. The soldiers then withdrew to behind the machine gun, and the gun burst into life.
From her hiding place under the steps the condemned men looked like toy soldiers being knocked down at the end of a childish game. The bullets ripped through the bodies, each hit whipping its victim off his feet before continuing its trajectory to splash into the sparkling sea with a pop of white foam. The massacre was over in seconds. She watched the machine gunner don a pair of gloves and remove the barrel from the gun, replacing it with another he had resting at his feet. He turned to exchange a few words with his comrade, his face animated by the power temporarily handed to him.
Already, Francesca could see, more soldiers had a fresh group of victims waiting to be escorted to the execution point. Suddenly, she put her hand up to her mouth to suppress an involuntary cry of horror. Fourth from the left, stooped in silence, staring at his feet stood Miguel. He had lost his glasses, presumably not wanting to be identified as an intellectual, but it was definitely him.
She knew then that it really was all over. She couldn’t watch any more. Crouching into the darkest recesses of her hiding place, she tried to close her ears to the next burst of machine gun fire, then shut her eyes. This time there were no dreams of walking hand in hand with Miguel along the beach, just a blessed nothingness. Oblivion.
It seemed like she had closed her eyes no more than a minute or two, but it must have been hours for when she woke the sun was high in the sky. The steps, which had been in dark shadow when she crawled under them, were now exposed in bright daylight. She squinted against the glare and rubbed the dust from her eyes, looking up as she remembered with a dull sense of dread where she was. Oblivion had been a blessing, and for the first time she envied her fellow citizens who wouldn’t have to wake up again and face a fresh round of horror.
Because she had been discovered. Standing above her was a middle-aged man, smoking a cigarette and observing her as an object of curiosity. He wasn’t a local: he had that Javanese look to his eyes and his stance bore the casual confidence of the victorious invader. He wasn’t crouched in fear or bothering to hide himself from the soldiers, yet neither was he dressed in uniform. From her position on the ground she could see a pair of oil-stained training shoes, giving out to a pair of dark blue and equally besmirched trousers. On top he wore an open-necked white shirt and a pair of sunglasses.
“Good day, my little sleeping beauty,” he began with a smile.
She turned her head towards him and looked up suspiciously.
“Who are you?” she replied in Bahasa.
“Hasan Budiarko is my name. And you are?”
She looked at him guardedly. He seemed friendly enough, but she had learned never again to take a smile at face value. “I used to live here,” she said simply.
“Well, you don’t want to be walking around the streets now. It’s not safe.”
She gave him a look which he must have interpreted as contempt, for he softened his jovial façade and reached down, ignoring her flinch, which she realised was a type of movement you’d expect from a cornered dog used to beatings..
“Do you have a name?” he asked kindly.
“Why should I tell you?”
“Because I can help you.”
“I don’t need your help. Or anyone’s.”
To her surprise, he didn’t rise to her hostility. Instead, he reached a hand out to her to help her onto her feet. She felt wobbly, her bruises aching all the more for the rest she had given them.
Around them the firing had stopped, the wharf was clear of bodies and the machine gun crew were gone. Instead the harbour was now full of boats, boats of every size from large naval ships to small fishing boats and cargo tramps. There was still sporadic gunfire in the distance, while nearby soldiers oversaw motorcycles, TVs and bicycles being loaded on to other vessels.
“Come with me,” he said simply, and for some reason she didn’t understand, she took his hand. She stood up, holding her bag with her free hand, and gave him a closer look. His face, though weather-beaten, seemed kindly enough, certainly not the face of a murderer or a rapist.
“Who are you?” she asked again.
“I told you, my name is Hasan.”
“Yes, I know that, but what are you doing here?”
“I’m just a passing through on a job.”
“Are you with the Indonesian army?”
He let out a little laugh. “Do I look like a soldier?”
She looked at him guardedly. “Not especially,” she replied after a moment’s thought.
“I don’t think the Indonesian army would have much use for someone like me in their ranks.”
“Then is it safe for you to be out on these streets?” she asked. “They are killing everyone, you know.”
“I know,” he said quietly, and she could see the sorrow in his eyes. “But they won’t hurt me, and if you are with me, they won’t hurt you either.”
“Where are we going?”
“Away from here.”
“How far away?”
“Oh, a long way. Is that alright with you?”
“I have nothing left here,” she said, and hobbled alongside Hasan, trying to keep up with his jaunty pace as he sauntered towards the harbour.
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