South China Sea September 1944
The old ship shuddered and lurched, listing to one side. The prisoners who had fought their way out of the hold hurtled along the deck and landed in a heap against the rail. Tom shouldered his way between the sweating bodies and struggled over the slippery bars. Like dozens of others he flung himself clear as the ship pitched. For a few seconds everything was a blur as he fell. Then he smacked down on the waves and was instantly sucked under with the drag of the vessel as it slipped beneath the surface. His ears were filled with the rush and pressure of the sea, and the metallic creaks and groans of the huge hull as water rushed into the holds.
The force of the sinking ship dragged Tom deeper and deeper. Powerless, he held his breath until his lungs were bursting. He began to panic and struggle.
“This is it,” he thought, “the end..”
He opened his mouth and gulped a belly full of salt water. Suddenly the downward pressure eased, and he was shooting upwards. He kicked furiously, sensing a chance to save himself. Peering upwards, he searched for the light; but nothing was visible through the shadowy water but the flailing legs of other prisoners.
He burst clear of the surface, gasping and spluttering for air, choking up salty bile. As he rubbed the water from his eyes, the blurred images of other men came into view; some were beating around in panic, others yelling for help. Where the hell was Walt? He scanned the sea around him, trying to glimpse his friend’s face in the chaos.
He was there, clinging to a broken beam a few yards away. Tom gathered his strength and swam towards Walt with clumsy strokes. Walt’s face was sickly pale; his skin almost transparent; the white bones of his cheeks and nose visible. Tom stared at Walt’s eyes. That expression. He’d seen it on so many faces. A look of hopelessness. A look of surrender.
“I can’t bloody swim, mate,” Walt said, his teeth chattering.
“Just hang on. We’re going to be all right. We can’t be far from the shore.”
Above the yells of men and the lapping of the waves came the buzz of an aircraft. It circled the area. As it banked overhead, Tom caught sight of the stars and stripes on the tailfin. Then suddenly the aircraft dived, swooping towards them out of the clear blue sky. The hammering of machine gun fire filled the air. Bullets slapped the water like tropical rain. Men screamed as they were hit.
“What the hell are they doing?” yelled Walt.
“Duck,” Tom shouted.
Tom took a gulp of air and forced his head back under. Again he held his breath until his chest was nearly collapsing. When he returned choking and spluttering to the surface, the plane still circled above them but had stopped firing.
The water frothed and eddied where the ship had gone down. All around, bodies floated on the surface amongst debris from the wreckage; shattered planks of wood, hatch covers, rubber life preservers, a cooking pot, a couple of broken latrines. Desperate prisoners clung to some of these. Other men thrashed around looking for something to grab onto, shouting in vain for the help that would not come.
The aircraft moved on to join a swarm of planes attacking the next ship in the convoy. As Tom struggled to keep afloat, treading water next to Walt’s beam, he had a clear view of dozens of planes strafing the bulky vessel, their fuselage flashing in the sun as they dived. Anti-aircraft guns blazed from the deck. Within seconds the horizon lit up with the orange shock of an explosion as the fuel tanks caught. The ship blew up in a ball of fire. A giant wall of flame coursed over the water towards the survivors. Oil drums bobbing on the surface caught and started to burn. Amid the chaos of the explosions, the agonised yells of burning men.
A lifeboat from Tom’s ship nosed its way through the fires and the wreckage. Perilously low in the water and lopsided, the boat was crammed with Japanese guards and soldiers from the ship. Some prisoners swam towards it, pleading to be taken on board. Tom watched in horror as one by one they were pushed back into the water; their knuckles beaten off the side with oars and bamboo poles. One man clung to the bow of the boat refusing to let go. A guard stood up and opened fire with his machine gun. The prisoner slipped below the surface, a pool of blood spreading and dispersing in the waves.
“Bastards,” choked Walt.
Tom tried to lie low, waiting until the boat had disappeared. His teeth were chattering now despite the tropical sun overhead. He needed to find a way of getting Walt to shore. He tried dragging the beam with one hand and swimming with the other, but he was too weak to make any progress.
“Just go, Tom. You might make it without me,” Walt spluttered. “I’ve had it anyway.”
“Don’t be stupid. I’m not leaving you.”
Tom searched around for something to float on. He couldn’t tread water any more. There was plenty of debris from the ship and when a sizeable plank floated by he grabbed it with both hands. He hoisted his emaciated body onto it front first, forcing splinters into his stomach and thighs on the rough wood. It was then he realised his left leg was throbbing. Looking down he saw there was an open gash on his shin. The flesh had peeled right back to the bone.
He lay on the plank panting, trying to regain some strength. The sea was rougher now, and it was taking all his energy to keep afloat. His stomach gnawed from lack of food and every bone and muscle in his body felt weak. Would he have the strength to paddle both floats? He glanced around. In those few moments Walt’s beam had drifted several yards away.
“Hold on, Walt, hold on!”
No reply. Tom paddled back towards him. The beam was moving up and down with the swell and Walt’s head with it. As he got closer the beam disappeared from view behind a wave. It reappeared after a second or two, but Walt was no longer there.
“Walt!” he screamed, taking frantic strokes towards to spot. He slid off his own plank and dived under the surface, beating around in the cloudy water. He could see nothing. He came up for air and dived again.
It was hopeless. Tears of anger and pity pricked his eyes. He had seen so many men die it had become commonplace, but with each death he experienced an unexpected and unwelcome surge of rage and frustration. That would soon pass, and he would retreat to that bleak emptiness that was necessary for his own survival. He dragged himself back onto the plank and shut his eyes, trying to blank it out, to gather enough strength to save himself.
He lost track of time. Each time he lifted his head there were fewer and fewer men around him. After a while nobody shouted for help any more. He would have to push himself to the edge to get out of this. He wasn’t going to be one of those who slipped silently beneath the surface.
Each time he rose on the swell, he could just about see the dark smudge of land on the horizon but there was no way of telling how far away it was. He made an effort to paddle in that direction, but for every yard he struggled to advance, he was washed back another by the tow. The cramp in his arms sometimes made it impossible to keep going. This forced him to lie still on the plank until he could move again, his jaws clamped together, rigid with cold, even though the skin on his arms and legs was scorching and peeling in the tropical sun.
More than once he drifted out of consciousness. The last time he came round the sky was growing dark and the sun slipping beneath the Western horizon. Tom was now so thirsty he could barely swallow, his blistered lips and mouth coated in crusted sea salt.
With the sun gone, a breeze got up and it was icy cold on the water. He paddled on whenever he could find the strength, but without the sun to guide him he couldn’t tell whether he was heading further out to sea or towards the land.
He must have been paddling for hours. Suddenly a he felt a sharp pain as his injured leg brushed against a rock. He made a last supreme effort to haul himself forward and after a few more strokes the plank ground to a halt on gritty sand. Tom lay there panting, face down in the breakers, allowing his body to be dragged back and forth by the waves. He could not muster the energy to haul himself onto the beach.
A shout. The splash of footsteps in the shallow water. Tom struggled to sit up. About a dozen men in shabby uniforms surrounded him on the moonlit beach. Several of them were holding guns. The leader yelled something at him and shoved his rifle into the back of Tom’s head. Slowly he raised his hands in surrender and waited for the shot that would end it all.
London February 1986
Hurrying out of the tube station on to Highbury Corner with other stragglers from the train, Laura shivered in the chill drizzle of the winter afternoon. She glanced at the darkening sky and pulled her coat tightly around her. Hovering on the edge of the pavement, she scanned the lanes of stationery traffic for a cab, but seeing none, stepped into the road, nimbly threaded her way through the cars and headed east.
She cursed her tight work skirt and high heels, and the lack of umbrella. Her ankle turned as her left heel snagged between two uneven paving stones. A goods lorry splashed past with a hiss of air brakes, spattering her legs and the hem of her skirt with filthy water.
Ducking her head against the rain, she carried on, past the assortment of dusty charity shops, ethnic grocers and empty cafes towards St. Paul’s road.
She knew these streets. The shapes of the buildings were mapped on her mind. The facades of London brick blackened with years of pollution, the shop signs, even the road markings were familiar. Yet each time she came back it was as if she was viewing everything through a different lens. Today the streets felt cramped; the buildings huddled together against the biting cold.
Soon she was away from the heavy traffic, hurrying along the broad pavements of Highbury New Park in the grey-green light filtering through the plane trees. There was an air of change here. Several of the crumbling villas that had been boarded up since her childhood were being renovated; their front walls covered in scaffolding. The street reverberated to the sound of hammers and drills. Builders’ vans and skips vied for space along the kerb.
As she rounded the final sweep in the road and the old house came into view, she quickened her pace. There it was; still stately despite its shabby paint work. In years gone by it had not looked out of place, but now it stooped apologetically between its two smarter neighbours, recently gentrified, with their white windows and scrubbed brickwork.
Today there was something different. Someone was standing under the shade of the tree in front of the house. She slowed down, panting from the effort of running. It was an old man. Dressed in a battered hat and grey overcoat, he was almost indistinguishable from the colour of the tree trunk. He seemed to be watching the house. Laura hesitated, puzzled. Then taking a deep breath to steady her thumping heart, she ventured a few steps towards him. He turned away and began to move in the opposite direction. Stooped into his coat, he shuffled rather than walked.
“Hey!” she called, but he didn’t turn.
She watched his retreating form for a second, then shrugged. Probably one of the tramps who slept rough around Finsbury Park station straying from his normal patch.
She paused before lifting the latch to the front gate. How overgrown the garden was. The scent of damp grass conjured a memory of pottering around behind Dad as a toddler, helping him weed the flowerbeds and prune the honeysuckle that still smothered the front wall.
She glanced up at the house. The curtains on the second floor sagged across the windows. A few greying socks hung from a clothes horse on the balcony, soaking in the rain. She frowned. Ken, the lodger, would be snoring on the mattress in the corner of the studio, amongst his paint pallets and whisky bottles, where he had been staying since he turned up for a brief visit in the summer of 1962.
There were no curtains on the top floor. It had been empty since the Chaudhry family moved out. A couple of pigeons nested under the broken guttering, white droppings streaking the front wall.
The windows of Dad’s study were shut today. Normally he had them open to let the smoke out as he sat puffing away on roll-ups, reading, or working at his desk in the window.
Letting the gate slam behind her, Laura rushed up the path. As she clattered up the front steps, the door to the basement clicked.
“Is that you Laura, love?”
She hesitated. She’d wanted to avoid this.
The old woman appeared beneath the parapet. She was dressed in the same nylon overall and slippers she’d been wearing for decades. Her hair was hennaed but grey roots were showing through. A tabby cat rubbed itself against her legs. Laura caught the bitter tang of cat-piss that wafted up from the alley.
“Thank goodness you’ve come, my love! Your Dad’s in the back sitting room. Ken brought his bed down for him when he came home from hospital.”
“How is he? You really freaked me when you phoned this morning.”
The old lady’s gaze slid away from Laura’s. Her lips quivered.
“Not so good, my love. He’s had an awful shock. Poor old Tom.”
“I’d better see how he is,” Laura took another step. Why didn’t the old bat just go back to her cats and let her get in out of the rain?
“Coming down for a cuppa later, love?” Marge called.
“Yes sure,” Laura answered atuomatically, fumbling in her bag for the key.
She let herself into the front door. Nothing had changed. The familiar smell of tobacco and stale cooking lingered. Ken’s pushbike leaned against the wall. She stood still for a second, taking in the atmosphere and silence of the old house.
Then she kicked off her shoes and threw her coat on the hall table. The door to the back sitting room was shut. She pressed her ear to the panel. There was no sound so she opened the door. The curtains were closed and she had to pause to let her eyes adjust to the gloom. The familiar room had a cluttered feel. Furniture had been shoved together to make space for Tom’s bed.
His portable radio chattered softly from the corner of the room.
Dad’s tremulous voice came from the far wall beneath the window. She crossed the room and knelt down beside the bed.
He raised himself onto one elbow. His blue striped pyjamas sagged on bony shoulders. A crepe bandage was wrapped round his forehead.
“Come here. I wasn’t expecting to see you. Thought you were in Paris.”
He held out his arms. He was smiling, but his face was pale and drawn with pain. She leaned forward to hug him. She could feel the fragility of the bones in his arms and ribs.
“Marge called me this morning,” she said. “I came straight away.”
“You shouldn’t have come all that way. What a fuss about nothing. What on earth did they say at work?”
“Nothing much. They couldn’t object really could they? Anyway, what happened to you?”
“Only fell down the damned steps to the bloody library. That ridiculous sodding stick gave way. The rubber bottom had worn down so it slipped ...”
He paused for a coughing fit.
“Ruddy leg broken in two places. Not that it was up to much anyway. Banged my head too.”
“I hope they dosed you up with painkillers.”
“Of course. Morphine, codeine, the works. I’m rattling like a tube of Smarties.”
She straightened up and smiled fondly down at him.
“Why don’t you go and change?” he asked “You don’t want to spoil that lovely suit.”
“Don’t fuss Dad. I’ll go up and change in a bit.”
“I’ll tell you what then,” he looked up at her craftily, “I could do with a beer.”
“You sure? It’s a bit early.”
“Nonsense. It’s nearly dark. There are some in the fridge in the study.”
She padded through to his study at the front of the house. Her feet were still wet from the walk.
“Can I turn on the heating?” she called “It’s a bit bloody cold in here Dad.”
“Boiler’s broken down. I’ve been meaning to get it fixed.”
“Jesus. What a state...”
She stopped in the door way to the study. Stacks of books, newspapers and journals covered every surface. On the desk, ringed with coffee stains, were dirty cups and glasses, and an ash tray over-flowing with cigarette ends.
She glanced briefly at the portrait on the mantelpiece of her mother and herself as a baby. Then holding her breath to avoid the smell, she pulled up both the sash windows, and began to collect the dirty crockery. There was a book open on the desk. She flipped through the pages. What he had been reading?
Just the usual stuff; “A History of the British Empire.”
She was about to move away, but her eye was caught by something poking out from between the pages. It looked like a photograph.
She slipped it out and stared at it. A faded sepia portrait, battered and creased. One of the corners had been torn away. It was someone she’d never seen before. A young woman with a sheen of black hair drawn back severely from her face. Although her complexion was pale, she had oriental features. Dark eyes the shape of almonds slightly tilted at the edges, and a full mouth. She had a serious, demure expression, betraying a trace of surprise at the flash of the camera bulb. Laura turned it over and glanced at the back. The ink was so faded it was almost colourless. It looked as though it had been in water, but she could just make out the words written neatly in flowing script.
“To my dear Thomas. Good luck. Joy de Souza. Penang, November 1941”.
Her mouth fell open. With a pang of guilt she remembered the day she had found the letter with the Penang post mark; the one that had been scuffed by the letter box. She must have been about fourteen at the time. The exotic stamp had caught her eye, and when she pulled the letter free from the box, she’d noticed that the writing was legible through the torn envelope. It was a small step to tear it a little further and ease the letter out. Shame washed over her now as she remembered how she’d heard Dad come in through the front door before she got beyond the first paragraph. Panicking, she’d thrown the letter on the sitting room fire and watched the flames devour it.
“Laura. You still there?” Dad called from the other room.
She slipped the photo back inside the book and went to the fridge in the corner for the beers.
“Won’t be a minute,” she called, steadying her voice.
In the small kitchen at the back of the house she rinsed one of the dirty glasses, and filled it with beer.
Dad was coughing and wheezing again when she came into the room. He held out his hand for the glass. After a few sips the cough subsided and he dabbed his eyes with a crumpled handkerchief.
“Roll up a cigarette for me, will you? There’s a good girl.”
“Your cough sounds dreadful Dad. You should really give it a rest.”
“I don’t think it’s going to make that much difference at this stage do you?” He winked at her. “An old man deserves some pleasures in life.”
Sighing, she went to the sideboard and found the green tin of Golden Virginia, the cigarette papers and matches in the desk drawer. Folding the paper, measuring just the right amount of tobacco and packing it into the fold, she rolled him a cigarette, just as he had taught her to do as a child.
After he had taken a couple of puffs he lay back on the pillows.
“Pull that chair up, there’s a good girl. Come and sit with me. I’ve been so damned bored.”
She dragged an armchair over to the bed, and sat down beside him.
“I didn’t notice at first,” he said, peering at her “You’ve had your hair cut.”
She pushed her hands back through her damp hair. She felt colour creeping into her cheeks.
“It must look frightful. I forgot to bring an umbrella. I came straight from the office. It wasn’t raining in Paris when I set off. ”
“It suits you short like that. Very gamine, I think they say. What brought that on?”
She hesitated, glancing away, hoping he wouldn’t notice her blushing. Was this the opportunity she’d been waiting for to tell him about Luke?
“Nothing really,” she replied, “I just fancied a change.”
“How’s it all going in Paris?”
“Fine, Dad. I told you on the phone last week. It’s all going really well.”
“When is it you’re coming back to London?”
“Next month. The posting ends then. I told you on the phone.”
“Met anyone out there?”
“Anyone? What do you mean?” but she knew what he meant. She avoided his eyes. She wasn’t going to get into all that now.
“And the work? Enjoying it still?”
“Of course. Who wouldn’t? It’s a fantastic opportunity.” It was the answer she knew he wanted.
He reached out and squeezed her hand. “I’m so proud of you Laura. You know that don’t you?” She shrugged weakly and looked away. If only he knew how much she loathed her job.
“Marge asked me down for a cup of tea later,” she said, to change the subject.
He let out a wheezy laugh, which ended in another bout of coughing.
“Her old ginger cat’s had another litter, you know. There must be at least ten of them down there now. The alleyway stinks. So does the flat, but I haven’t been in there in years.”
“I noticed. She’s even more batty than ever, Dad. Why don’t you do something about it?”
“After all these years? You’ve forgotten how good she was to us when you were little.”
But she hadn’t forgotten. The endless hours in that gloomy basement, staring up from the window through the bars of the front gate waiting for the moment when his shoes and legs would appear and he would be home from the office. The portable TV flickering in the corner; Peyton Place, Crown Court, the Flowerpot Men ; Marge making peanut butter sandwiches on Mother’s Pride, and milky tea in chipped mugs.
“Of course I haven’t,” she felt her irritation rise, but tried to hide it in her voice. “I’ll go down later.”
The pips on the radio struck the hour and they both fell silent and listened to the news headlines.
“Eight police officers have been injured and 58 people arrested in the worst outbreak of violence yet outside the News International printing plant in Wapping, east London. Police estimated 5,000 demonstrators gathered near the plant that prints the Sun newspaper for a mass demonstration...”
Luke would be there, she realised with a shock.
“One officer, a 27-year-old sergeant, was taken to hospital with head injuries...” the report went on. “For the first time since picketing began, police riot shields during today's fighting, and mounted police were brought in to break up sections of the crowd.”
“Bloody Government. Over-stepping the mark again,” Dad was saying, but she was barely listening. “First it was the miners, now the print-workers. Where on earth will it stop?”
Her mind was racing. Was Luke one of the fifty eight arrested? Had he been hurt? She could hear his voice now, his mocking laugh, teasing her for being anxious for him.
“It’s got to be done, Loz. Those bastards. They’re out to break the workers. We’ve got to fight back.”
Her mind swam back to the present. The news had finished and the announcer was introducing a new programme.
“Today in 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese. This was a turning point in the war for Britain and for the British Empire ...”
“Laura! Could you switch off the radio?”
She fiddled with the dial. There was silence. Dad was watching her face. His clear blue eyes missed nothing.
“Are you OK? You looked miles away.”
“Look, Dad. I came here to see how you are. Could you stop worrying about me?”
“Well, you can see how I am. On my last legs. Or leg I should say.” He smiled at the feeble joke, displaying his missing teeth.
“Has anyone else been to see you?” she asked.
“Only Marge and Ken. No-one else knows I’ve had a fall. Why do you ask?”
“Nothing really. It’s just that there was someone standing outside the house when I arrived.”
“An old guy,” she went on, “looked like a tramp. Grey hat and coat.”
His face changed. The humour and twinkle vanished. For a moment she didn’t recognise him. His face was drained of colour and in his eyes a look of despair.
“Are you all right, Dad?”
He looked away. He took some deep breaths and drew deeply on his cigarette. Then he turned back towards her, still pale, but his features were now composed. The look of anguish had gone, but his face still wore a grave expression.
“Was it someone you know?”
Slowly he nodded his head.
“Leech.” He almost spat the word. He took the cigarette out of his mouth. Laura could see that he was shaking. He turned to her, gripped her hand and looked her in the eyes.
“He’s been pestering me. Promise me this. If he comes to the door, don’t let him in.”
“You’re frightening me now. How do you know him? Was he ... one of your criminals?”
He loosened his grip on her hand.
“No. No, he wasn’t a client.”
She waited for him to go on, but he seemed lost in his own thoughts again. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed quarter past the hour.
“I knew him in the war, Laura,” he said at last.“ He was ...”
Then he whispered something. His voice was so hoarse that she had to lean forward to catch the words.
“He was ... in my camp.”
A chill went through her. In her twenty six years she had never heard him speak seriously of what he had endured during the war. He had often made joking reference to his lame leg; “My old war wound,” he would say, and after a few beers he would break into bawdy songs he had learned as a soldier. But it had never occurred to her to ask him what he had really been through.
His fist was cold and clenched so hard that she could feel the bones of his knuckles under the stretched flesh. They sat in silence, listening to the ticking clock, the sound of drills in the house opposite, the rumble of a tube train deep beneath the house.
Finally she said in a small voice;
“You’ve never really talked about it, Dad.”
He shook his head.
“No. I’ve never talked about it.”
The words were said with an air of finality. She had the urge to ask him to tell her. Sensing that if she didn’t it might be too late. She opened her mouth to speak but he patted her hand and smiled. His old smile.
“Roll me another one, there’s a good girl.”
And the moment passed.