“He’s dead,” she said. There would have been a time when I would have been shocked, maybe even sad. Now it was so commonplace I didn’t feel anything. I just turned and began to look round for somewhere to dig the grave. At least he’d had the decency to die early, before it got too hot, and I felt grateful for that.
Digging the grave was always such a task, but they insisted on a “respectable burial”,
“What about here?” called out Mi Ling. She was standing where there was a great pile of leaf mould – a perfect spot, as we had no tools and would have to use either our hands or bits of wood. Of course I would have found it, had I been looking in that direction.
Mrs. Slater was already stripping the leaves off some vine, ending up with a long length of stalk. She would use it to bind two sticks together. She always made a cross for all the graves.
We had the usual bog-standard funeral, ending with us all muttering the Lord’s Prayer. I wondered if he was Christian, and decided he probably wasn’t, but it was too late to ask him now.
Afterwards, as it began to get really hot, Phyllis Smythe, who seemed to have taken over as leader since Judy Chatham had died a couple of weeks ago, said, “Of course, everything’s changed now.”
I wanted to scream, “No it hasn’t!” – we were still prisoners of war, even if our last Japanese guard had just died. I wanted it to be like it used to be, back in Singapore with Mummy, Daddy, Simon, and I all living in a large house painted white, and with Mi Ling’s family waiting on us hand and foot. And in the afternoon I wanted to go in a rickshaw to Raffles and eat strawberry ice cream.
But instead Phyllis was rattling on.
“There doesn’t seem any point in just continuing to march. I suggest we find somewhere suitable to settle, and just try and sit out this dreadful war. What does everyone think?”
“Excellent idea,” piped up Georgie McPherson. She was a little woman with straggly grey hair. She’d lost her glasses when our boat had been bombed and now peered at everything in the way of the short-sighted. “Lost quite enough of our number, I’d say.”
“Water – that’s the most important consideration.”
“What about staying near the sea, so we can catch fish?”
“But we can’t drink sea water. Fresh water’s what we need.”
I walked away. An argument was brewing, and anyway they wouldn’t be interested in the opinion of a ten-year old child.
I went over to the edge of the jungle and saw a brightly colored lizard. I kicked a stone, but missed, and it scurried away.
Mi Ling came over to where I was standing.
“It will be good not to march, don’t you think?”
I shrugged. I had made a point of not talking to her in all the months we’d been walking, but she seemed too dim to cotton on. Of course if you’re from the servant class it’s all that’s to be expected I suppose, but it was still wearing that she was so thick.
“Lawrence, we’re off,” called bossy Phyllis Smythe. She was one of the Australian nurses and I think must have been a Sister or something, because she always took control. Of course I should have felt better towards her than I did, because early on when we first started marching I’d stepped onto something – probably a scorpion or a snake. It had hurt unbelievably, and I can still remember how I’d screamed. Immediately, my leg swelled up, and I was in a right state, but still the Japanese guard shouted and screamed that it was time to move on.
“March – you march,” he kept bellowing, as he pointed his gun at us.
“How do you expect this poor child to walk on a leg like that?” I remember Norah Finch asking, but perhaps the guard just wanted to leave me behind. Anyway, Phyllis Smythe took control and told the other women to go into the jungle and find two strong branches, and then she took off her khaki shirt. When the women came back with the sticks she used them like poles and threaded them down the sleeves of her shirt, and along the sides, and then she did up all the buttons. It made a funny little stretcher, but I can remember lying on it, hanging on like mad, with my legs hanging over the sides of the poles. And off we went as usual, with the Japanese guard satisfied that we were at least moving, and the women taking it in turns to carry me and mopping my sweating forehead.
When we stopped in the evening Mrs. Slater, who was always busy making something or other, set to and found two strong straight branches with little forks on the top. She attached short sticks with vine stalks, and covered the sticks with a thick wad of leaves. They really made quite good crutches, and in a day or two I remember hoping along, first with two poles and later with just one.
Certainly I recovered alright, and Phyllis Smythe got her shirt back!
Now I strolled back to our little group to see what had been decided. I saw Little Joe come toddling up to Bridget Owen with his arms outstretched, and she reached down and picked him up. As I watched she straddled him on one hip like the women did, but then I’d remembered that sometimes my Dad had carried Simon on his shoulders. He had jogged up and down like some sort of crazy animal, and Simon had roared with laughter and shouted “more, more”. It seemed a very long time ago. I wondered vaguely why the women never carried the babies on their shoulders – perhaps it was just a father thing.
Then we set off struggling along the rough road for a bit, and looking for somewhere suitable to settle. Then someone pointed out that the vegetation looked a bit different over on the left – perhaps the land was cultivated there. At least that was the theory. It took quite a while to figure out how we were to get there, but eventually we found a sort of animal track through the jungle. The small children started to cry as the sharp thorns scratched their skin, and we were endless brushing past thick undergrowth that sprung back and whacked the person behind.
“Bit of a waste of time if there’s nothing there,” I remembered thinking, but in fact there was. It was a small fishing village with rough huts and lines of fishing nets strung out to dry. We were of course delighted to have found somewhere inhabited, but they were shocked out of their lives when we appeared from nowhere. Of course I don’t expect they had many visitors at the best of times, and to be honest we must have looked a right shambles. Some twenty odd scruffy women, plus an assortment of children, who’d survived being shipwrecked and walking for months with not enough food and virtually no medicine. Everyone was in rags and covered with cuts, bruises and septic insect bites.
It was hardly surprising that they drew back in horror, and called their children inside their huts.
If we’d expected the Welcome Mat we were sorely disappointed. But they were frightened more than hostile.
“Now who’s able to speak their language?” enquired Phyllis Smythe, and somewhat to my surprise Mi Ling stepped forward.
“Shall I try?” she asked, and then proceeded to try out different things – at least that’s what it sounded like. Eventually she got a response from one of the men, and some sort of communication started, while the rest of us just stood there getting hot.
“Tell them we don’t want to live here, but we would just like to be taught how to catch fish – things like that.”
Eventually they must have some to some agreement because Mi Ling, who seemed to have acquired a rather important role in our little group, informed us that this man had said he would teach just one or maybe two people, and that we must live away from them, or it would be dangerous.
So with much bowing and waving we turned and walked away from the little village and went along the coast until we found another, really quite similar bay.
“This looks fine,” said Mrs. Slater and everyone agreed, mainly because they didn’t want to go any further. Then it was the job of finding branches that we could bend over and make into shelters – which when you’re dead beat is a right task, but we’d done it before and it didn’t take too long. One group of women went into the jungle and found some edible fruit and there was water to drink from a little rivulet which ran down to the sea.
“Things could certainly be a lot worse,” beamed Georgie McPherson.
“And they could be a lot better,” retorted Norah Finch, “Like being at home in my own bed for starters.”
“Now ladies, how about we all settle down for a good night’s sleep? We need to reconnoitre properly tomorrow.”
And so, weary and as always, hungry we settled down. But before falling asleep I thought about the boy I had seen in the village. He looked about my age, but was just wearing a loin cloth, like in pictures in my old Bible, which rather made me smile. I wondered if he’d teach me how to fish, and then I wouldn’t be hungry all the time. Tomorrow I intended to go back to try and meet him.