HIGH FLAMES THE FIRE
Written by Bert Plomp
In the second grade of primary school, I met my first girl. Her name was Cecilia, and she came from former Dutch East Indies. Together with her father and a younger sister, Cecilia had come to the Netherlands. She had to leave her mother behind, who had passed away at a young age. Her father was a very kind, full-blooded Javanese, just like her deceased mother. Cecilia and her sister missed their mother a lot. It’s not easy when you are uprooted from a familiar, tropical environment to the other side of the earth without your mother, in a country with a cold climate, both in temperature and hospitality. It gets even worse when your father enters into a relationship with a real Dutch bitch, then you’re even worse off. Cecilia’s father must have been truly desperate when he decided to marry that hag.
In front of his two daughters, his new wife behaved like an old-fashioned stepmother, in the negative sense of the word. The heartless woman only cared about her own happiness. Even as a little boy, I could see that.
Once, when I was at Cecilia’s home, her new mother had just given birth to a boy. My father and I visited the family because the little one needed to be insured. At that time, my father was an insurance agent.
I noticed that the mother’s attention was completely focused on the boy. The little sister was entirely dependent on Cecilia’s care. When Cecilia was free, she was used as a maid at home. Her nasty stepmother was too lazy to see the daylight and made the poor child responsible for everything.
I had a relationship with Cecilia for five years. You could call it courtship. I saw her regularly outside of school hours. In his capacity as an insurance agent, my father visited her home on Adriaen van Ostadelaan almost every week, especially to collect due premiums. She lived there above a small supermarket, opposite the Diaconessen Hospital, on the corner with the Ferdinand Bolstreet.
When my father went in that direction, I gladly accompanied him on the back of the bike. In those days, it was not common to visit your beloved at home. However, as my father’s assistant, I had a rock-solid alibi. Besides, my dad acted as a sort of chaperone. Very proper, all in all.
I was quite proud to walk hand in hand on the street with such a lovely, dark, exotic girl. Cecilia had Javanese blood. She came from a completely different civilization, from a very warm culture where it was natural to have a cozy meal together. Very delicious food, that is.
What a difference compared to what we were served at home. At home, every Friday, I had to struggle through ’the haddock with beets and mustard sauce,’ a meal that made me nauseous. If I hadn’t choked earlier, it would have been because of a gigantic fishbone stuck in my throat.
Normally, I could only see my Cecilia briefly during the week. Just exchanging glances and touches between classes at school. However, at the end of the school week, it was a long wait until Monday when I would see her again. Especially summer vacations were a significant obstacle in that regard. The idea that I couldn’t meet her for six weeks almost made me feel gloomy. The start of the summer vacation did not bring a festive mood to me, as it did for others.
The privilege of frequently visiting Cecilia made us feel like we were courting each other. Our regular contact, however, was neither encouraged nor hindered by ’the wicked stepmother.’ She let us be. The lack of opposition probably stemmed from the fact that she found my father an interesting man. He couldn’t visit her often enough. At school, too, it did not go unnoticed that Cecilia and I had something together. When we were in the sixth grade, we were almost inseparable.
My friend Joop also had a crush on Cecilia. Our longing gazes were often simultaneously fixed on her. Our common interest was not limited to playing football and collecting stamps. Joop and I have always had a weakness for Indonesian girls since elementary school. Even to this day. We haven’t been collecting stamps for a long time.
The relationship my father maintained with Cecilia’s family eventually went much further. Beyond maintaining insurance policies and collecting premiums. My mother, with her eagle eye, made sure it all stayed within limits. After a few years, it was decided to set up our tents together for an entire summer vacation at Camping Het Grote Bos in Doorn. The tents were so close to each other that during a heavy rain, you could change tents without getting wet. Cecilia and I now had the opportunity to get to know each other much better. We were still very young then, just around twelve.
Although we increasingly touched each other intimately, unfortunately, we were still not familiar enough with what boys and girls could mean to each other. So, for a whole summer, we aimlessly strolled hand in hand around the campsite, always pondering about the next step.
The highlight of our time together was Sunday evening. Then we went to the campfire in the campfire pit. In the dark, near the warm, crackling fire, we sat pressed against each other, kissing each other. On the one hand, it gave a mature feeling, the feeling that we were one. But on the other hand, we felt like we were sinning.
Those campfire nights were fantastic. Primarily because of Cecilia’s presence. But also because of the wonderfully scented fire that pleasantly warmed a large group of people. During the campfire, campers and the recreation staff provided various performances. Ranging from diverse readings to musical interludes.
I remember a guitarist from Utrecht who was dressed as Elvis. Clad in a black leather suit and armed with an electric guitar, he performed ‘Kom van het dak af’ (Get off that roof) with a lot of decibels. The record had just come out, and the audience went wild.
The horror stories that a certain Mr. Bakker recited at the end of a campfire night were immensely popular too. Stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Like the tale of the man who was afraid of being buried alive. This man had a bell installed at his future grave so that, if necessary, he could pull the bell from his grave.
Bakker was a masterful storyteller. To emphasize his horror stories in the dark, he always held a burning flashlight under his chin during his recitals. It gave him a spooky appearance.
Every campfire was concluded with the timeless campfire song: ‘High Flames the Fire.’ The robust lyrics of this unparalleled song consisted of nothing more than an endless repetition of its title. However, the song had to be sung in canon and at different pitches. With the recreation leader in the role of conductor, this canon was executed. The pit was divided into quarters, and each quarter was encouraged to sing their hearts out.
Apart from the time I spent parading around the campsite with Cecilia, I spent the entire day playing cards with her. Always under the watchful eye of both sets of parents. One day, we were sitting in front of the tent, playing cards for hours. This was truly abhorrent in the eyes of Cecilia’s stepmother. Irritated, she suddenly exclaimed, “Can’t you finally do a healthy activity?” When I looked at my beautiful Cecilia at that moment, a light went on in my mind, but unfortunately, not bright enough yet.
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