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The Persimmon Tree  - Bryce Courtenay

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Published: January 2009
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Published: 4th August 2008
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The persimmon tree is a symbol of life, a heartwood that will outlast everything man can make…

It is 1942 in the Dutch East Indies, and Nick Duncan is a young Australian butterfly collector in search of a single exotic butterfly. With invading Japanese forces coming closer by the day, Nick falls in love with the intoxicating Anna van Heerden.

Their time together is brief, as both are forced into separate, dangerous escapes. They plan to reunite and marry in Australia but it is several years before their paths cross again, scarred forever by the dark events of a long, cruel war.

In The Persimmon Tree, Bryce Courtenay gives us a story of love and friendship set against the dramatic backdrop of the Pacific during the Second World War.

'The Persimmon Tree is a sprawling wartime romance … You won't be disappointed by the generosity of his imagination.' The Age

'You can't keep a good story down when it's flowing from the pen of Bryce Courtenay.' Sunday Times

About the Author

Bryce Courtenay was born in South Africa and has lived in Sydney for the major part of his life. He is the bestselling author of The Power of One, April Fool's Day, The Potato Factory, Tommo & Hawk, Jessica, Smoky Joe's Cafe, Four Fires, Whitethorn and Brother Fish.

Extract taken from Chapter One

'If you want a hard time as a kid, decide to be a butterfly collector.'

Nicholas Duncan

The carly float approaching the beach through the pounding coral reef was making tough progress. I counted nine, no, ten men - four in the water clinging to the ropes on the sides of the cork and canvas float, while six others, one of them lying face down, huddled on the raft. All of them wore lifejackets, Mae Wests as the Yanks called them. From what I could make out through the glasses they were all black men.

The float was being pushed forward with each incoming wave, but then, as the wave crashed into the coral heads it sent plumes of spray into the air, drenching the men on board and causing the float to spin and skip, dip and careen, sending it several yards backwards again. With all the turbulence I was having difficulty framing them and holding focus long enough for a closer examination.

The poor bastards clinging to the side of the float would be copping heaps from the coral. Coral cuts untended are a nasty business. They are full of live polyps and algae and invariably fester and, unless treated carefully, cause a high fever and take months to heal. The best treatment is first to squeeze the juice of fresh limes into them to kill the polyps and only after that apply an antiseptic. I didn't have any fresh limes, but if I cleaned the cuts thoroughly and got them early enough I could use diluted iodine. I had a bottle on board the Vleermuis, probably not sufficient for four blokes, but it was all there was.

What was becoming increasingly clear to me was that everything had suddenly changed and, using an unpleasant metaphor, I was up to my eyebrows in excrement. On my own, I reckoned I had a slightly better-than-even chance of avoiding the invading Japanese ships and aircraft and sailing the twenty-nine-foot cutter Vleermuis from the Spice Islands across the Indian Ocean to Australia. But now, with what was taking place below me, I would have ten additional men on board, one seemingly unconscious or badly wounded.

'You're dead in the water, son,' I said aloud to myself.

The shipwrecked men had obviously come off a warship, which don't carry lifeboats for a good reason: in the heat of battle they usually get blown apart by the incoming shells and become a liability. These guys were lucky. Most warships don't carry enough Carley floats. Going down with the ship is, after all, an established naval tradition.

Ten black men off a warship suggested an American cruiser had sunk, which explained the fierce gunfire that had wakened me with a start shortly before midnight yesterday.

I'd come ashore the previous evening, a night and a day's sailing out of Batavia. While I could see no fires or smoke rising as a sign of a native village on or beyond the long crescent beach, it made sense to attempt to remain unobserved. It was after sunset and gathering dusk when I slid through the reef passage into the narrow channel made by a muddy creek and into the mangroves beyond. By moonrise I was safely moored, my gaff rig mast protruding only a few feet above the mangroves. Varnished brown, in the daylight it would blend perfectly with the surroundings. The only way I reckoned I could be spotted was by someone coming upstream and passing me directly.

While the Vleermuis was a beautiful boat to sail, the thirty-four hours out to sea had been a steep learning curve for me and, frankly, I was exhausted. I was an experienced sailor and familiar with a boat this size, but no two yachts are the same and all have their own personalities. Like any woman, they take a fair bit of understanding. Besides, a cutter this length was getting close to the capacity of a lone yachtsman to handle. My muscles, grown unaccustomed to the task, aching bones and general weariness were also part of the reason I'd pulled into shore, delaying any attempt to sail through the strait that night, the last day of February.

Considering the complete chaos of the Dutch evacuation from Batavia and the imminent arrival of the Japanese invading force, getting through the strait a few days earlier would have been the more sensible thing to do. But doing the sensible thing is not the strongest drive in a young bloke and there was, I admit, yet another reason for delaying my escape.

Piet Van Heerden, the Dutchman from whom I had acquired the Vleermuis, had warned me that a growing section of the native population was becoming increasingly assertive. Gangs of Javanese youths were patrolling the streets of the capital at night. Several 'whites' had been attacked, making it unsafe to be out after dark. He'd indicated the Smith & Wesson in a khaki canvas holster strapped to his waist. 'Everything, she is up the pot!' he'd exclaimed. I guess he meant 'up the spout' or 'gone to pot'. 'The servants, even they are now cheeky.' He'd emphatically recommended I get a gun immediately.

However, I'd ignored his advice. In the two months I'd been in Batavia some of the local Javanese had seemed a bit off-hand. But, if they were not over-friendly, I'd certainly never felt threatened. There was most certainly an air of restless anticipation among the island people who, after two-and-a-half centuries under the Dutch colonial thumb, knew their lives were about to change. Many saw the new invaders as liberators and it was hardly surprising that the mood on the streets had darkened somewhat.

Unlike the Dutch colonials, I didn't expect the locals to adopt a servile manner towards me. In New Guinea I'd always resisted the prevailing notion of white supremacy and, as a result, had been rewarded with a great many cherished local friends. Besides, carrying a gun strapped to my hip simply wasn't the kind of gung-ho behaviour appropriate to an itinerant butterfly collector.

The Dutchman Van Heerden was a large big-bellied man with the sanguine complexion of a big drinker. He was also bald, but with the bushiest eyebrows I'd ever seen. It was as if the ginger hair he'd lost on top had somehow gathered over his brow to form two untidy thickets above a pair of piercing blue eyes.

In the month I'd come to know him I'd learned that he was didactic, opinionated, confident, in all matters thought himself correct and was loud in everything he said and did. I'd taken a job as the afternoon barman at a small restaurant, a task I was far from qualified to do. The regular barman, a Javanese man named Ishmael, of long and apparently faithful service, had suddenly gone amok late one afternoon and attacked two white patrons with the knife he used for slicing limes. Piet Van Heerden had helped restrain the diminutive Ishmael and afterwards rather proudly carried a rapidly healing and superficial cut from the barman's knife that ran the length of his arm from elbow to wrist. The attack was always described by him as unprovoked, an extreme example of the developing recalcitrance of the local Javanese. But when I got to know him better, he'd admitted that the two men had set about teasing Ishmael, a devout Muslim, and in the process mocking the prophet Mohammed and profaning the name of Allah.

'It was only for fun. Ja, these men are a little drunk, they do not mean what they say, you understand,' he'd explained.

'Yeah, but obviously that's not how the barman took it,' I replied.

'Ach, no, he is a servant! He cannot say anything. Now we are going, they are getting cheeky.' I had discovered he loved the word 'cheeky' and used it at every opportunity to describe the growing insubordination of the locals towards the white colonials.

The owners of the restaurant, De Kost Kamer (The Food Room), were a Dutch couple who were in the process of closing it down. Due to the growing unrest, white people stayed home at night so that now the restaurant only opened for lunch. They were reluctant to hire another Javanese barman and, while inexperienced, I was prepared to take the small wages they offered in return for a room in the restaurant compound and a meal at noon. I daresay if times had been normal I wouldn't have lasted five minutes. I didn't speak the Dutch language and knew very little about the working side of a bar.

I was given the afternoon shift, from 2 p.m. to when the restaurant closed, about 6 p.m., which was usually after the tropical rainstorm that arrived for half an hour or so around five, the rain pelting down so fiercely you'd swear each drop could drive a six-inch nail into a solid block of teak. The late-afternoon storm cooled everything down for an hour or two before the humidity returned later in the evening. The afternoon boozers would always claim that they had to wait until after the downpour to go home. I dare say I couldn't do too much harm. Well-oiled from luncheon, they were, generally speaking, a fairly affable lot. I opened an occasional bottle of wine, dispensed gin and tonics to the ladies and lager beer, scotch, brandy or rum to the men. If I was asked for something more exotic such as a Manhattan, I pleaded ignorance and flattered the customer by asking to be taught how to mix the requested cocktail. The job suited me ideally. I could spend the mornings hunting butterflies when they were at their most prolific, the tucker was plentiful and good and I had an iron cot and a lumpy coir mattress to sleep on, an outside toilet, tub and washroom shared with the live-in staff and a few guilders to keep me in necessities such as toothpaste, toilet paper and soap, commodities that were already only available on the black market.

Piet Van Heerden was a regular luncheon patron and also usually the last to leave at six o'clock. With his overweening personality he was not the kind of man with whom I would normally associate. He prided himself on his knowledge of English and, Broome being the first point of arrival for evacuees from the Dutch East Indies, he was determined to practise it on me.

As the barman I was trapped, forced to partake in those infamous obligatory conversations between barmen and lone patrons, or to use a different expression, bartenders and melancholy drunks of whom the afternoon session had a fair few. Most of the patrons were longtime colonials who stood to lose everything they'd built up, often over generations. They had become accustomed to a way of life they couldn't possibly replicate anywhere else in the world. Like Piet Van Heerden, they were as much islanders, white Javanese, as the darker-skinned locals. Whatever you do and wherever you go, there's always one, a person who gets up your nose. It was my misfortune to have the big Dutchman as my nemesis.

Although I must admit, while he was constantly whingeing about his loss, like many big men who are seasoned drinkers, Piet Van Heerden never appeared to be inebriated. But as the afternoon wore on and he held his eighth or ninth stein of lager clenched in his big fist he'd become increasingly morose and frown so fiercely that his wildly exaggerated ginger eyebrows would meet, become entangled and in the process completely cover his eyes. After one such late-afternoon verbal barrage I rashly admitted to having done a fair bit of sailing in New Britain. From that day on his boat, the Vleermuis, became the leading subject of his ranting. He became determined to show me his boat, insisting no finer sailing boat existed in Batavia than his twenty-nine-foot gaff-rigged cutter.

'First I love mijn daughter, Anna, after this only Vleermuis!' he'd explained to me late one afternoon.

'What about your wife?' I'd teased.

'Ja, also,' he'd growled. 'But she is not goed.' He didn't explain any further, dismissing any affection he may have held for her with a flip of his large hand.

Eventually after two weeks of one-way badgering I'd reluctantly agreed to accompany him to the yacht basin to inspect his boat.

The Dutchman was so loud and full of braggadocio that I had expected to be disappointed, but the Vleermuis was everything he'd said it was and more. The beautiful teak yacht with its solid bronze fittings and cabin walls panelled with rare amboyna wood was more than simply a rich man's indulgence. It was a boat that could sail anywhere under virtually any conditions. It was equipped with a full suit of sails, plenty of cordage and, as far as I could ascertain, in seagoing condition.

We'd come back from inspecting the cabin below and stood on the deck when he turned to face me, bottom lip trembling, eyes suddenly misty. He indicated the yacht with a wave of the hand. 'Ja, zo, I leave this, I cannot take,' he said in what for him was a muted tone.

He'd never mentioned this possibility before, merely bragging about the cutter. 'Can't you load it onto a tramp steamer with the mast removed?' I asked.

He sighed heavily. 'Ja, ja, no, the authorities will not allow.' He sighed again. 'It is too bad this.' Without warning he reached out and wrapped his arm around the mast and sank to his knees on the deck, where he commenced to sob.

The Dutchman was well over six feet tall and must have weighed at least twenty-two stone and now he was blubbing at my feet like a small child. 'Steady on, sir,' was all I could think to say. I was acutely embarrassed and at a complete loss how to go about comforting him. I was not yet eighteen and a grown man sobbing at my feet was beyond my limited experience. Patting him on the shoulder, I kept repeating, 'Steady on . . . steady on, sir.'

After a while, utilising the mast to haul himself up, he stood somewhat unsteadily, looking confused, as if not certain in the gathering dark where he was. I guess the melancholy of losing his beautiful yacht combined with the twelve steins of lager he'd consumed during and after lunch wasn't helping his equilibrium. Then I realised, for the first time, that he was very drunk.

Piet Van Heerden turned and gave me a bleary-eyed look, then stabbed a fat forefinger at me. 'You come to my house!' he demanded.

'No, not tonight, sir.' Quickly I added, 'I have things to do.'

'Ja, you come. We eat. You see Anna. She want to meet you.'

'I have eaten, sir. Some other time, perhaps.'

'Ja, again you eat. You meet mijn Anna,' he demanded belligerently, any trace of cordiality gone from his voice.

Just then a trishaw, known locally as a becak, came up to the mooring and the Dutchman yelled out, 'Boy!' even though the man pedalling it was clearly an adult. The Vleermuis was tied to the side of the dock, cushioned by a couple of motorcar tyres, and I allowed Van Heerden to take me by the upper arm so as to make the small step up onto the dock. He continued to grip my arm as we walked towards the becak. I helped him into the small two-seater cabin and then realised that he was attempting to pull me in beside him.

I jerked my arm free. 'No!' I protested.

His watery blue eyes were bloodshot and it was now obvious that he was pretty pissed. He looked at me, his expression a mixture of surprise and confusion. 'But . . . but Anna, she is waiting!'

I signalled to the driver to go. He nodded.

'Next time maybe, sir!' I said, not really promising.

ISBN: 9780143007005
ISBN-10: 0143007009
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 714
Published: January 2009
Dimensions (cm): 19.7 x 12.9  x 4.3
Weight (kg): 0.53

Bryce Courtenay

Bryce: in his own words...

I was born illegitimately in 1933 in South Africa and spent my early childhood years in a small town deep in the heart of the Lebombo mountains.

It was a somewhat isolated community and I grew up among farm folk and the African people. At the age of five I was sent to a boarding school which might be better described as a combination orphanage and reform school, where I learned to box - though less as a sport and more as a means to stay alive.

But I survived to return to a small mountain town named Barberton in the North Eastern part of the country.

Here I met Doc, a drunken German music teacher who spent the next few years filling my young mind with the wonders of nature as we roamed the high mountains. His was the best education I was ever to receive, despite the scholarship I won to a prestigious boy's school and thereafter to a university in England where I studied Journalism.

I came to Australia because I was banned from returning to my own country.

This was due to the fact that I had started a weekend school for Africans in the school hall of the prestigious boy's school I attended.

One day the school hall was raided by the police who then branded me a Communist as they considered educating Africans a subversive act.

While studying journalism, I met a wonderful Australian girl.

"Come to my country!" Benita invited.

I did, and soon after arriving in Australia, married her. Benita gave me three splendid sons, Brett, Adam and Damon. Brett, who married Ann has given me three lovely grandsons, Ben now 14, Jake is about to turn 12 and Marcus is almost 6 years old.

I have lived all my Australian life in Sydney (the nicest place on earth) and, until I started writing fiction, made my career in advertising working as a copywriter and creative director.

At the age of 55 I decided to take the plunge. I had been telling stories since the age of five and had always known I would be a writer some day, though life kept getting in the way until I realised that it was either now or never.

Bryce Courtenay died at his home in Canberra, Australia. He was 79. Courtenay is survived by his second wife Christine Gee and his children Adam and Brett.

Visit Bryce Courtenay's Booktopia Author Page