A Time

2. Incarceration

John Wardle and Mary Littleborough had first met while training at medical school in England. In 1938, newly qualified, they married and found jobs in Hong Kong, at the Alice Memorial Hospital in Victoria. There in March 1940 their son Tom was born. There in December 1941 they cowered from the Japanese bombardment across the strait. There on Christmas Day they heard the victors swarming through the streets, looting and raping as they went. Next day came the order, broadcast from loudspeakers and printed on posters stuck to walls, for all non-Chinese civilians to take the ferry and assemble on the waterfront at Kowloon, bringing no more than a suitcase apiece. They could only obey. John carried their cases and Mary carried the baby.

On board the jostling ferry they found themselves next to a western boy of five or six. He was clean and well-dressed; but he was silent, clearly in shock, and alone. They asked everyone within earshot, but nobody claimed him.

Mary, baby on hip, squatted down beside him.

“Hullo, dear. Are you all right?”

He did not reply.

“What’s your name, dear? Where do you live?”

This time he shook his head, but still did not reply.

“Do you know where your mother and father are?”

Another shake of the head.

“Where are you going?”

Yet another shake.

Mary sighed and looked up. “We can’t leave him, John. God knows what’ll happen to him if we do. We’ll have to take him with us till we find someone to hand him over to. Someone reliable.”

And John nodded.

“Would you like to come with us, dear?” asked Mary. “We’ll look after you until we find your parents.”

At last the boy opened his mouth. “Thank you. I’d like that.” He stroked the baby’s cheek and took Mary’s hand, and the Wardles’ hearts melted.

“Yes, that’s the earliest picture in my mind,” said Adrian. “Of you being kind.”

“So you still haven’t recovered your memory of who you were?”

“No. I found my father. Or he found me — we’ll come to that. So I know who I am. But earlier memories, no.”

On the waterfront at Kowloon the Japanese directed them to a variety of brothels and seedy hotels which the army had requisitioned, and there they stayed for days under guard. Hard as they tried, they never did find the boy’s parents. Nobody in their brothel knew him, and there was no chance to ask outside. An English-speaking Japanese officer who took their details was not interested, and insisted on putting put them down as John and Mary Wardle, doctor and nurse aged twenty-nine, and their two sons aged five and one.

“Oh well. I suppose we’ll be sent to a camp, and maybe we’ll find his parents there.”

It was not to be. Lists were posted of all the internees’ names, together with their ages and occupations. Mary went carefully through them with their waif, but none meant anything to him. The lists assigned the internees to two separate groups, the larger destined for Stanley Prison on Hong Kong Island, the smaller for Tai Po in the New Territories. The Wardles and their boys were allocated to Stanley. As they studied the columns of ages they saw that the Tai Po contingent was entirely composed of older people: of its three hundred-odd members, not one was under sixty, and most were well above.

“Looks as if the Japanese are hoping they’ll all die off quickly,” John observed cynically, “and save them the bother.”

He ran his eye down the columns of occupations. Retired, housewife, merchant, customs official, master mariner, minister of religion, teacher, golf club secretary …

“There are plenty of doctors and nurses down for Stanley,” he exclaimed angrily, “but not a single one for Tai Po! It’s criminal! Oughtn’t we to volunteer?”

Yes, professionally they ought. But there was a dilemma. Mary looked anxiously at their waif, who gazed solemnly back at her. They had come to love him. He might speak little, but when he did it was always politely and never to complain. They were busy caring for their companions, and he was already a huge help in taking care of Tom, gently playing with him till he chortled with delight, deftly — once she had shown him how — changing his nappies, and even painstakingly washing them. Mary and John had to set the possibility of finding this boy’s parents against the certainty of three hundred ageing people needing medical care.

No, it was not as simple even as that. They had to balance their duty as doctors against their duty as parents. At Stanley there would be plenty of other children. At Tai Po their boys would be on their own. But one of their boys was not really theirs. Those destined for Tai Po were surely all too old to be his parents, who would most likely be found at Stanley. Should they hand him over to someone else to take there? The waif, still nameless, had never taken his eyes off them. No, he begged when this was suggested, please let me stay with you. And after several hours of debate they agreed to opt for Tai Po.

“I remember that,” said Adrian. “I loved you already, and trusted you to do the best thing.”

“You were the deciding factor, Kim. If you hadn’t been in the equation, we’d have plumped for Stanley, because at Tai Po Tom would have been totally on his own. But we already knew you well enough to reckon that you’d be good company for him.”

It was a decision which none of the four ever came to regret.

John spoke persuasively to the officer who, having consulted a superior, transferred their names. Next day their group was marched to the station, put on a train, and deposited at Tai Po. Their destination turned out to be a large mission school whose proper occupants had been evicted. The main house held the Japanese administration and the guards. Beside it stood two rows of single-storey brick buildings — dormitories, dining rooms and kitchens — and behind it were a number of storerooms in wooden huts. The grounds were spacious, the view over the bay was impressive, and the place had all the makings of a not undesirable abode. Dampened spirits rose. The only visible fly in the ointment was the surrounding circuit of barbed wire and the raised sentry posts still under construction.

As they settled in, however, more drawbacks became apparent. With over three hundred inmates, the accommodation was very crowded. Sanitation was oriental-style and basic. Water had to be lifted from wells and, being of suspect quality, boiled before drinking. Food was supplied raw and had to be cooked. None the less, while its quantity left much to be desired — ten ounces of rice per head per day, plus a little fish and vegetables — it was not quite a starvation diet. After a while, Red Cross parcels began to trickle through, and helped immeasurably. Even a few drugs were supplied. There were some deaths, but not significantly more than John expected from an ageing population. The commandant, a Major Goto, was not unsympathetic. There was a visit from a dour Swiss, a representative of the Protecting Power, who professed himself reasonably satisfied. Life, at that time, was just tolerable, and the camp enjoyed fair harmony.

“Except for Mr Diggle,” said Mary. “He got on everyone’s nerves. Remember how he whined? That he wasn’t getting enough rice. That he’d been bitten by a bedbug. That so-and-so in the next bed was always coughing.”

“Yes, but later he mended his ways.”

A camp council was elected, led by a retired civil servant named Sowerby. It allocated tasks according to ability: cooks, water lifters, water boilers, laundrywomen, nurses, clergymen to conduct services and offer spiritual comfort, organisers of lectures and entertainments, keep-fit instructors, gardeners to keep the grounds tidy and cheerful, vermin specialists who fought a rearguard action against the ever-present rats and lice and bedbugs, and teachers for the only child of school age. Few of the guards had any English, few of the inmates any Japanese, and off his own bat Kim, as he was now known, also went to Mr Luddenden, a merchant who was fluent in Japanese and Chinese and acted as the camp interpreter, for lessons in both languages.

“How did you acquire the name of Kim?” asked Wally.

“By being friendly and helpful,” Mary said, answering for him. “You name it, he did it. He was always asking people if they were all right. Standing by when the doddery were trying to walk. Taking them their food if they were too doddery to collect it. Playing cards with them. Dishing out bedpans and emptying them. Lending a hand in the garden. Helping in the kitchen. Looking after Tom. In fact he virtually brought him up — John and I were stretched to the limit with doctoring and nursing, and Tom adored him. I don’t know where we’d have been without Kim. He did everything you’d expect of an elder son, or an elder brother. Far more, in fact. And he did it all without us even asking.”

Adrian raised a face red with embarrassment. “And so I should. Because in effect you were my parents. You gave me everything parents give their own kids, or ought to. The love, the comfort, the example. I relied on you as parents, and I relied on Tom as a brother … as a friend. I don’t know where I’d have been without all of you.”

“Well,” said Mary lightly. “You were asking, Mr MacNair, how he got his name. We tried calling him Victor, because he’d obviously lived in Victoria. But then someone started calling him Kim — after Kipling’s Little Friend of All the World — and it stuck. It was absolutely right. He was … well, not the camp mascot — mascots are really only decorative, aren’t they? — but the universal favourite. Everyone doted on him. They doted on Tom too. He was very sweet-natured … as of course he is still …”

She grinned at him and he made a face at her.

“… but he was too small then to reciprocate.”

“They doted on you as well,” Adrian protested. “You were so much younger than them. You were so hard-working and kind. They loved you and respected you. And it showed. They were all terribly formal and called each other Mrs Lumb or Mr Saddleworth or whatever, but they never called you anything but Doctor John and Sister Mary. I suppose that’s why I never even heard your surname.”

“Well, Mr Sowerby always used to say that Kim was the cement that bonded the camp together, even though he was so young … How old were you, Kim?”

“Five, when we got to Tai Po. Hitting six. My birthday’s on 20 January.”

“Almost exactly what we thought, then. We used to celebrate your birthday on Boxing Day, because that’s when we met you. Not that we had much to give you by way of presents, but everyone needs a birthday.”

After eighteen relatively easy months, however, everything changed. The tolerant Goto left and was replaced by Major Hashimoto, who was made of sterner stuff. His uncompromising address to the assembled inmates was translated by Mr Luddenden. To be a prisoner, the message ran, was the ultimate in humiliation. Loyal servants of the emperor killed themselves rather than be taken prisoner. To be in charge of prisoners rather than face the enemy in combat was almost equally humiliating. He said outright that he did not like being in command of Tai Po, that he held its inmates in contempt, and that they could expect no sympathy from him.

So it proved. Within a week a dozen people had been beaten with the flats of bayonets for not bowing respectfully enough to their new master. When Kim failed to bow adequately, Hashimoto barked an order to a soldier, who slammed his rifle butt down on Kim’s naked foot. Doctor John protested loudly, and for his pains was knocked to the ground.

“Kim didn’t cry,” said Mary, “but I’ve never seen anyone turn so white. Two of his metatarsals were broken. John did his best to set them, but …”

John pulled a face. “Can you imagine,” he asked the Headmaster and Wally, “what it feels like having broken bones manipulated without anaesthetic? We had no plaster either, and all I could do was rig up a makeshift pot and crutches. He was on them for weeks. Does it give you any trouble now, Kim? Presumably a specialist’s had a look at it?”

“Well, it’s not perfect, but the doctor at my prep school said that nothing more could be done.”

“So that’s why you limp!” cried Tom, enlightened. “Sometimes.”

“Bother!” Adrian was sheepish. “I’d hoped that nobody noticed. I usually remember to hide it. But occasionally I forget.”

“Show me,” John ordered. Pulling off his sock, Adrian extended his foot, which John felt. “I thought so. I didn’t do a very good job. The bones have knitted out of line. Your foot’s a bit misshapen as a result, and it’s been growing that way for ten years. Yes, it probably is too late to remedy. But it’s still worth asking a specialist. He might recommend an osteotomy, even though that’s quite major surgery.”

He looked a question at Wally, who nodded.

“But one good outcome of that episode,” said Mary, “was that it shut Mr Diggle up. When next he whined about something trivial, I asked him if he’d heard Kim complain when his foot was smashed. And he never whined again. But in fact, you know, we were lucky at Tai Po. Hashimoto may have been a bad lot, but they say that at Stanley the guards were worse. Quite a number of people there were killed outright.”

Harder still than the brutality was that the rice ration, rancid and weevil-ridden, was reduced to seven ounces a day, and fish and vegetables vanished. The trickle of Red Cross parcels dried up, intercepted no doubt by the Japanese, and there were no more visits from the Protecting Power. From then on it was a battle for survival. There was a crisis as malnutrition set in. The gardeners tried to grow vegetables. In an attempt to provide extra protein a snail farm was established. But it was Kim who was the most successful.

“Yes,” he said, amused. “I burgled a storeroom and found some bamboo rat traps. They were quite effective. But rats are vicious when cornered, and when first I caught one I could only stab at it with a bodkin through the gaps in the bamboo. That wasn’t nice, and the RSPCA would hardly have approved. Then I thought of sinking the trap in a bucket of water and drowning the thing. Either way I had to skin and gut it. And ten rats a day, which was about my best, didn’t go very far among — how many by then, John? Two hundred and fifty?”

“About that.”

“So I trained old Mr Saddleworth in rat-catching and tried my hand with seagulls instead. We were near the sea and there were plenty of them. A loop of thin wire through a long narrow tube. Some rat guts as bait, with the loop around them. When a gull came to feed, a quick twist and tug, and with luck it was garrotted.”

“They tasted foul,” said Tom.

“They did. But better than nothing. And there’s more meat on a gull than a rat. And after a bit I handed gull-catching over to old Mrs Marsden, who had a vindictive streak and the patience of Job. By then my foot was as good as it was going to be, and I took to stealing. From the guards, partly. I could talk to them in Japanese of a sort, and they’d hoot with laughter at my efforts. I’d nick their cigarettes and matches when they weren’t looking, and bits of food. Luckily nobody ever searched our dormitories. And I found my way into other storerooms. One was full of games gear left over from when the place was a school. Shorts, shirts, gym shoes, tennis rackets. And footballs. We kept what we needed. The rest I traded with the Gangjiu da dui.”

“What does that mean?” asked Wally.

“They were the Chinese communist guerrillas, sir,” Adrian explained. “There were a lot of them in the New Territories. Sometimes they’d mount an attack on the Japanese, and we’d hear the distant rattle of gunfire and the crump of grenades. At first I didn’t understand what was going on, but old Captain Cragg explained how guns and grenades work. So when I burgled another storeroom and found whole boxfuls of live cartridges, I knew what they were. The school had had its own range, you see, just like Yarborough does. The Japanese must have left the ammunition because it wasn’t their standard calibre. But the guerrillas were delighted with it.”

“Kim!” cried Mary, appalled. “You never told us! We knew about the clothes, of course. They were one thing. But if the Japanese had caught you stealing ammunition the fat really would have been in the fire.”

“Yes.” Adrian was evidently trying to sound apologetic. “I knew that. And I reckoned that if you knew, you’d forbid me to steal any more. And I’d have obeyed you. I loved you too much to disobey. But I also knew that whatever I could steal was the only currency we had — the only means of buying the things we had to have if we were going to stay alive. So I didn’t tell you. I’m sorry.”

“Good grief! But I’m not sure you really are sorry.”

Adrian merely smiled.

“At the risk of being wise after the event,” John mused, “I’m not sure I’m sorry either. I think I see what’s coming next. You’re right, we did have to have what you bought. It did save the day. You took a frightful risk, but it paid off.”

“That’s what risks are about, isn’t it? Weighing benefits against dangers. Anyway,” Adrian went on, forgiven, “I’d found a point on the fence which wasn’t overlooked by the sentries. The guards were pretty lackadaisical when Hashimoto wasn’t around. They didn’t expect trouble from a bunch of old folk, and they didn’t get it. So I used to meet the Chinese there and barter what I’d nicked, and occasionally what people had given me to sell — things like watches, pens, cigarette cases, jewellery. I traded it for food, sometimes, but mainly for medicines. Over to you, John. This is your department.”

“Yes. Well, under Hashimoto, the supply of fish and vegetables stopped. And of drugs too. We got a lot of cases of beriberi — gross swelling, muscular weakness, defective vision — because our rice was polished and therefore short on thiamine, which is vitamin B1. Kim bought rice polishings from the Chinese, and that solved it. We got a lot of pellagra too, which is niacin deficiency — vitamin B3. We called it Strawberry Balls.” He looked an apology at the Headmaster. “Genitals and scrotum red and weeping and desperately itchy. As unpleasant as the name. Kim bought yeast, which cured that.

“Then in the summer of ’44, dysentery arrived. I don’t know how. Maybe the aquifer got polluted, maybe the water wasn’t boiled properly. At one point about a hundred people were down with it.” He shuddered. “Kim got some herbal remedies from the guerrillas, which didn’t do much good. All that works with severe dysentery is sulphaguanadine. The patients were old, and we lost almost seventy of them, a good two thirds. Kim used to sit beside them and hold their hands as they died. The rest pulled through, I think, because we redoubled our efforts to sterilise the drinking water. But that was a dreadful time. We could barely dig graves fast enough. The only good outcome was the extra space the deaths gave us.”

There was a pause.

“But Kim …” Wally began and hesitated, realising what he had said. He respected his boys, and his policy was never to call them by their nicknames. Did Kim count as a nickname? Or a family name which it was impertinent for him to use? Better play safe. “But Adrian, how did you make contact with the Chinese?”

“They made contact with us, sir. Someone was near the wire when a couple of them called to him from a bush outside. Mr Luddenden was down with beriberi at the time, so I was whistled up.”

“And how did you know what to ask them for?”

“Oh, my Chinese didn’t run to words like vitamin. I doubt if theirs did either. I just described the symptoms and they came back with their remedies.”

“But why you, not one of the adults?”

“Oh, basically because I had some Chinese. It wasn’t very good. But it amused them.”

“There’s more to it than that,” John put in. “Much more. I tried once myself, with Mr Luddenden translating. That was later on, when he was back in circulation. But while we might be fellow-enemies of the Japanese, we were white capitalists; and the guerrillas, as good communists, were chary of us. I think they saw Kim differently. Western, yes, but too young to be infected with deviationism. Simply too nice to be refused. And above all — I hadn’t realised this till now — where we could only offer them paltry kids’ clothes, he offered them ammunition.

“What it boils down to, you know, is this. If under Goto Kim was the cement of the camp, under Hashimoto he was its salvation. I mean that quite literally. Without him, I doubt if any of us would have come out alive. Not just because he saved us from beriberi and pellagra. But … well … in April ’45, when we were down to a hundred and seventy, the dysentery came back, even more virulent than before. More and more people succumbed, and there were fewer and fewer left to nurse them. I pleaded with Hashimoto for drugs, but he refused point-blank. Mary went down with it, and Tom, and finally me. The first time round, all four of us had escaped. This time, in the whole camp, only five people didn’t get it. It was five, wasn’t it, Kim?”

“That’s right. Captain and Mrs Cragg …”

“A retired merchant skipper and his wife,” John explained. “Game old birds. I fancy their innards were so pickled with pink gin that no bug had a chance.”

“… and old Mr Saddleworth, and Mrs Lumb. I think they were pretty pickled too. And me. I’ve no idea why I didn’t get it.”

“Thank God you didn’t. But we never really understood what happened, you were so cagey about it. Can you enlighten us now?”

“I couldn’t then. As you’ll see. But I can now. At least …” he glanced uncertainly at Tom. “It’s not a pleasant story …”

Everyone divined the gist of his meaning. Mary sat up, her hands back on her mouth.

“Tom, perhaps you’d better …”

Oh Mum! No! You can’t send me out! I’m not a kid any more! I’ve a right to hear!”

“I think he has, Mary,” said John gently. “He saw all the unpleasantnesses of Tai Po. So long as Kim isn’t too graphic about this one, whatever it was.”

“Well … all right. On that condition.”

“I wouldn’t want to paint in too much detail anyway,” Adrian said. “Even now I don’t like thinking about it. Well … people were going down like flies. I’d heard you saying, John, that only sulphaguanadine could save them. I couldn’t have spelt it, but the name stuck in my head. Then you three went down with the dysentery and I was left alone with two old buffers and two old biddies, looking after a hundred and sixty five people with high fever and bloody diarrhoea. We did what we could, but it was blindingly obvious it was a losing battle. The old folk were absolutely marvellous, but they’d reached their limit. So I reckoned it was up to me to do something about it.”

Corporal Nakayama was, among other things, the medical orderly who attended to the ailments of the Japanese, and he had a soft spot for this quiet British boy. If Kim or Tom kicked a ball over the wire he was always willing to retrieve it for them. So the next time Kim saw him in the camp he went up and bowed, as he had to.

“Nakayama-san,” he said very respectfully, “we have much dysentery. Please, do you have any sulphaguanadine?”

The corporal, who was fond of his saki, was fairly drunk. He laughed.

“Plenty, plenty! Would you like to see, little boy Kimi?”

He led him to the wooden hut nearest the administration building. Kim had never seen inside, for it was always locked. He had found no way to burgle it, and the windows were of frosted glass. Nakayama produced a key and fumblingly opened the door to reveal a treasure house. The walls were lined with shelves, and the shelves were piled high with boxes and bottles. Under the shelves were stacks of large Red Cross parcels, scores of them, unopened.

“Here, sulpha.” Nakayama waved his arm. “Here, halazone to purify water. Here, salt and glucose tablets to replace what the body has lost.”

There was box upon box of all of them.

“Please, Nakayama-san, may we have some?”

The sergeant grinned tipsily.

“Kimi, I would like you to have some. But if I gave them, Major Hashimoto …”

He put two fingers together and pointed them at his own head. “Bang!”

He pushed Kim out and locked the door behind them. But Kim, through his bitter disappointment, noticed that the door was not fully shut and the bolt had not caught. There was hope yet. He went back to the stinking dormitories full of sweating and moaning humanity. As best he could, he cleaned up Mary and Tom and John and a few others. He scrupulously washed his hands. Night was falling, and he lit some candles. Then he returned to the store. The door was as it had been left, and he went in, pulling it to behind him. The moon shining through the window gave light enough to work by. He located the sulpha and was picking up a box when the door was flung open and Major Hashimoto came in with a lantern.

The audience was aghast.

“He was very angry,” said Adrian bleakly. “He pulled out his pistol and clicked the safety catch off. But he didn’t fire. He just stared at me for ages.

“‘Take off your shorts,’ he said at last. And I did. And he put down the lantern and his pistol. And then he grabbed me … and he … and he raped me.”