A Time

3. Recuperation

“Kim!” cried Mary, throwing herself on the floor to put her arm round him. “Oh, Kim, my dear!”

“He was far stronger than me, of course. And I didn’t understand these things. Not then. I didn’t know what he was going to do, until he did it. Only then did I know how evil it was.”

Oh, Kim! Does it still haunt you?”

“No. I don’t often remember it now.”

“So you’ve managed to … to come to terms with it?”

“I don’t think it’s, um, warped me, if that’s what you mean. It was one of those nasty things that life throws at you. You just have to shrug and move on. And learn from it. You taught me what was good. Hashimoto taught me what was bad …”

But how, wondered Tom, appalled but growing up rapidly, did Kim read that lesson? That rape was bad, yes, no argument. Or that all sex was bad?

“… in the same sort of way that Mr Diggle’s whining taught me not to complain.”

“Oh, Kim! You’d learnt those lessons before we ever met you.”

“Well, if I had, they were reinforced.”

Hashimoto had finished. Outraged, on fire with pain, Kim put on his shorts and faced his abuser. Every detail of the dingy room was imprinted on his brain. The moonlight from the window. The lamplight from the shelf. The tree-shaped birthmark visible on Hashimoto’s thigh as he pulled his breeches up. The shelves with the pistol, the arrays of boxes, an old photograph of a football team propped incongruously behind them. Under the shelves the Red Cross parcels. The loose floorboards that creaked and wobbled when trodden on. The canvas stretcher in a corner …

“Bow!” said Hashimoto, picking up his pistol. And Kim bowed, his heart in turmoil. Hashimoto returned the gun to its holster. “Next time I will kill you. Get out!”

Kim got out, and heard the door being locked behind him. He shuffled away, aching, defeated, almost in despair. He felt wetness on his legs. God, he hadn’t peed, had he? No, there was darkness on the fingers he brought up. Blood. Anger took over again. No, he wasn’t defeated yet. He went to his dormitory. Everything was as it had been, the same stench, the same moans, old Mrs Lumb tottering into a cubicle with a makeshift bedpan. Sister Mary was fitfully asleep, and Kim rummaged among the belongings beside her bed. He found what he wanted: an old nappy of Tom’s, long unused but too valuable to discard, and still with a large safety pin in it. From his own pile he took a clean pair of shorts — one commodity of which, thanks to the school, they had plenty. He filled a bowl from the washing-water butt, swilled himself as best he could, and put on the nappy. It was small and therefore tight. Good. Then the clean shorts. The bloodied ones he disposed of. Then he planned his next move.

“But Kim!” gasped Mary. “Why on earth didn’t you tell someone?”

“But who? The only people who were still compos mentis were the four old dears. What could they do? You and John were too far sick to tell. And it was the same as before, with the ammunition. If I had told you, you’d have forbidden me to go back. Wouldn’t you?”

“Well … yes, I suppose we would.”

“And I’d have obeyed you, as before. And everyone would have died. I knew that. So,” he said flatly, “I didn’t tell.”

His next job was for himself alone. The old folk could not help. They might be almost skeletal with malnutrition, but they were not as slim as he was, or as lithe. He returned to the store, but not to the door. He knew the construction of these huts. They were all mounted on little pillars of brick, leaving space enough for a small body to wriggle underneath. Those wobbling floorboards had given him an idea. They had been opposite a window, so below the window he now eased himself in, on his back. He pushed up on a board, and it gave a little. A stronger push, a small screech as a nail pulled free, and it lifted. The next-door board, the same. He slid them aside, and he was in.

The moon was still shining. It was easy to find the items he was after, and there was so much of them that the theft might go unnoticed. It was easy to take four boxes of each and drop them through his hole. He spotted some disinfectant; Doctor John had said it was what was really needed for the washing water. He spotted some aspirin; he remembered Doctor John mentioning it as a painkiller. It was easy to take some of each. It was easy to climb down again and slide the boards back into place. It was easy to carry his loot, a few boxes at a time, to the kitchen.

There he examined it. Each box was full of smaller cartons. They had evidently been laid in by the school, for their labels were in English. Sulphaguanadine M&B 693: four tablets every four hours — that was the all-important stuff. Halazone: one tablet to a quart. Salt tablets: two to a quart. Glucose tablets: to be sucked. The drinking-water butt was almost empty because nobody had had time to boil up more. He filled it with buckets from the washing-water butt. How many quarts did that represent? No idea. He flung in two handfuls of halazone and four of salt. He stirred the water until everything, as far as he could see, had dissolved. He filled five buckets and swigged some himself, washing down a couple of aspirin.

Then he collected the four old nurses, who were flagging and in despair; but when they heard what he had got they revived enough to do the rounds with sulpha, water buckets, mugs, and glucose tablets. That first round took well over an hour. When all the patients had been dosed, except for five who had already died, Kim sent his helpers to bed. The pain in his backside was less insistent now, but he knew it would deny him sleep. He also knew that dysentery patients have to drink in quantity to stave off dehydration. So off he set once more with his bucket and glucose. That second round took him three hours. When he had finished, he found Captain Cragg up again, having slept the short sleep of the aged, and enlisted his help for another job. The old man, bless him, recognised who was in command, and asked no questions.

They collected the trolley which was used for carting the dead to the graveyard, and pushed it quietly to the medical store. Kim crawled underneath, reopened the hole and climbed in. The moon had set, but he knew exactly where the Red Cross parcels were. They were big and heavy, but he slid four across to his hole and dropped them through. He followed them, replaced the boards and pushed the parcels with his feet until the captain could reach them. Nerves stretched, but still unobserved, they trundled the laden trolley to the kitchen. Kim checked his legs for blood. None. Good. The nappy was doing its job. But dawn was beginning to break, and he was trembling with weariness and reaction.

“Whew!” said the captain, seeing that it was time to take over. “Great work, lad! Great work! Haven’t been so scared since I was attacked by pirates off Haiphong. What have we got in here? Chocolate — a bit early for that. Condensed milk — a bit too rich. Ah! Oatmeal. Raisins. Golden syrup. Evaporated milk. We’ll brew these into a porridge. Nice and easy to swallow. Perhaps some spam for the next meal. I’ll roust up Felicity and the others. We’ll do it, not you. This watch is ours, lad. You get to your bunk. You’ve done more than enough, and you’re dead on your feet.”

Kim nodded. Sleep was at last overcoming pain.

“Thank you, Captain Cragg,” he said. “But before you give people food, they need another dose of sulphaguanadine. And please hide these parcels and the medicines. We daren’t let the Japanese know we’ve got them.”

The sprightly greybeard in his weather-beaten seventies looked down at the drooping boy of nine, and solemnly shook his hand.

The listeners were mesmerised.

“Good God!” said John at last. “Good God above! I knew we owed you a lot, Kim, but I’d no idea how much. Most of that’s completely new to me. I managed to get up that evening,” he told Wally and the Headmaster, “pretty groggy still, but just about capable of thinking and tottering. And I found everything amazingly under control. You were back at work, Kim, and so were the four old ’uns. The butts were full, one with purified water, one with disinfected. Everyone had been cleaned up — and a foul job that must have been. Another five had died who’d been too far gone to retrieve. But a mortality of only ten out of a hundred and sixty five … it was unbelievable.”

“It shouldn’t have been as many as that,” said Adrian humbly. “If only I’d acted a day earlier, then more would have pulled through.”

“Oh Kim! Come on! You’ve nothing whatever to reproach yourself with. Quite the reverse — we now had a stock of drugs such as we’d never had before, and Red Cross food to supplement our rice. We were better off than we’d been since Goto’s time. Next day we managed to bury the dead, and Hashimoto came round to see how many of us were left. He was very surprised.

“Old Cragg told me it was all your doing, Kim. He’d seen where the Red Cross parcels came from, of course, but he didn’t know how you’d got hold of the drugs. Nor what Hashimoto had done to you. And you were … well, not exactly communicative. When I asked where you’d got the stuff, you simply said ‘I got it, Doctor John. That’s all.’ I guessed it had come from the guerrillas again, but you smiled your little smile as if challenging me to pry no further. And I didn’t. Because behind that little smile was a fierceness which positively scared me. I could see that you’d changed. Now I know why.”

“And so do I.” Mary’s arm was still round Adrian, and she squeezed him again. “In the face of Hashimoto’s threat to kill you, Kim, how on earth could you force yourself to go back to the storeroom? Twice?”

“I didn’t have to force myself. It wasn’t courage, if that’s what you mean. It was necessity. Call it duty, if you like. Somebody had to do it, and I was the only one who could. If Hashimoto caught me again, well,” — he shrugged — “what was the loss of a single young waif against the chance of saving a hundred and sixty five?”

There was no answer. The long silence was broken by Wally.

“This seems to be the moment,” he said mundanely, “for a cup of tea and a slice of cake. The kitchen should have it ready. And the story still has some way to run, hasn’t it? So would you like to dine with us, Adrian and Tom, rather than with the boys? At half past seven.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Adrian. “Though at five o’clock, please, you’ll have to excuse me for a short while. I never thought I’d be here so long, and arranged to have a word with Mr Needham about the library.”

“No problem,” said Wally. “Headmaster, can I press you to join us for dinner?”

“Thank you, but no. It is my wife’s birthday, and we are having a little party.”

Wally bustled out.

“Captaining the school keeps you busy, then?” asked Mary, steering the conversation into a siding until he should return.

“Only moderately. Captaining the house takes longer.”

“On top of music and drama,” the Headmaster observed. “He’s one of our best cellists and actors,” he explained to the Wardles. “Not to mention ordinary school work.”

“It’s not as bad as that, sir. At least I’ve got all my exams under my belt. And at least I don’t have to spend much time on games. I’m not nearly good enough for any team,” he told the Wardles. “I’m hopeless at running. It’s this foot.” He wriggled it. “Still, if that’s my worst reminder of Tai Po, I can’t complain.”

“What about your, er, backside?” asked John. “Did that give you any trouble?”

“No. It healed by itself. I kept washing it with disinfectant and kept changing my nappies.” He threw a sly glance at Tom, which emphasised the quirkiness of his eyebrows. “And within ten days it had cleared up.”

Tom liked the humour in the glance, but was diverted into thinking about Kim’s backside. He wandered off into a daydream and only returned when Wally came back with a tray and dispensed cake and tea.

“Where were we?” asked Mary, sipping. “Oh yes, the second dysentery.”

The next few months were, by comparison, easy. Kim spotted Hashimoto visiting the medical store with Nakayama in tow, and for a few days he was on tenterhooks, fearing that they had smelled a rat. But Nakayama was not shot, and remained as friendly as ever. They evidently lacked the intelligence to link the camp’s miraculous recovery with Kim’s trespass into the store. None the less, Kim was careful to keep well out of their way in case the sight of him put ideas into their heads.

After a couple of weeks, emboldened, he enlisted Captain Cragg’s help again to retrieve more loads of Red Cross parcels which, to avoid being too obvious, he took from the back of the piles. The Chinese supplied ever more cheering reports of the end of the war in Europe, of Allied advances in the east, and of Japanese retreats. American aeroplanes began to appear overhead. And at last, on 15 August 1945, the guerrillas brought the news that Japan had surrendered. Kim, as always, was the first to hear it. It was so important that he asked them to wait until he had found higher authority in the form of Mr Luddenden and taken him to the wire to hear it for himself.

“What a day that was!” said Mary. “The news went round like wildfire. Old Mr Clough had been brewing what he liked to call wine, and gave us all a thimbleful. Even the taste couldn’t spoil the day. But Mr Sowerby told us to be very careful and keep our heads down. Quite right too, because nobody knew what Hashimoto would do.”

“I remember that day,” said Tom unexpectedly. “Everyone was chattering about going home. And that evening as I was going to bed I was looking out of our window. I was watching you, Kim, as you weeded the flowerbed opposite. Remember?”

“Yes, I do.” Adrian smiled at him. “White carnations, weren’t they? Quite impressive by then, as good as they’d ever been. So were the weeds. It had been a wet summer.”

“Well, Hashimoto appeared, by himself, carrying a great big sword. And you stepped back and I expected you to bow. But you didn’t.”

“That’s right. I thought, why the heck should I? He isn’t our master any more.”

“And he looked daggers at you and took a great sideways swipe and slashed off the heads of the flowers” — Tom mimed the sword-stroke — “all except two which were smaller than the rest. One middling, one tiny. Then he spotted me goggling at the window, and with a little flick he cut off the tiny one. And he glared at you again and chopped off the middling one.”

“That’s right,” repeated Adrian. “But why do you remember all that detail?”

“Partly because it scared me stiff. It was obvious what he was getting at, and I was terrified he was going to chop you in half there and then. And partly because I was sort of saying goodbye to you. The war was over, and I thought your parents would come and take you away from me. I couldn’t face up to that.”

Adrian was visibly moved. “That was in my mind too,” he admitted. “I didn’t want to face up to it either.”

“But there was a single red lily growing off to one side,” Tom went on. “And you bent down and picked it, and dropped it on the path, and stamped on it.”

“Red for the Rising Sun of Japan,” said Adrian, and chuckled. “I was chancing my luck, wasn’t I?”

“A notable if risky act of defiance,” the Headmaster interrupted. “Did it reflect your attitude to the Japanese in general?”

Adrian hesitated before answering. “It certainly reflected my attitude to Hashimoto, sir, after what he’d done to me. As for the Japanese in general … well, they were our enemies, and they’d shown little consideration for their guests at Tai Po … elderly, helpless, non-combatant, harmless. I couldn’t respect them then, except for one or two who were decent enough. But what I’ve worked out since is that they lived by a different code from ours, a traditional code which they automatically accepted as right, just as we automatically accept ours as right. I can’t blame them for that. Not now. There’s a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

“Hmmm,” said the Headmaster. “I’ve spoken to someone else who was a prisoner of the Japanese. His views were markedly less generous.”

“Anyway,” Tom went on, determined to finish his story, “Hashimoto gobbled like a turkey, but he didn’t do anything. He just marched off, leaving the lily like a splot of blood on the path. But you’d seen me gawping at the window too, and you came in and gave me a big hug.”

“Yes. You needed it. So did I.”

Wally had been watching the interplay between the two boys; their tone, their expressions, their body language. Was there a touch of hero-worship on Tom’s part? Maybe, but it was two-way. A closeness. Almost a communion. Wally approved. Exactly what the solitary Adrian needed. Because Adrian was solitary …

It was two long days later that Major Hashimoto called an assembly and formally confirmed the news. His voice was bitter. He was under orders to hand over the camp to the inmates, but to continue the supply of food and to maintain the guards: no longer to keep the inmates in but to keep the Chinese out. He himself was likewise under orders to remain until — and he said this with utter distaste — he could personally surrender to a British officer. His orders, it was very clear, ran counter to his own inclination.

Nobody felt any desire to leave the camp, for conditions outside, according to the Chinese, were chaotic. Indeed Mr Sowerby, now in charge, decreed that everyone was to stay put and wait for order to be restored. At least the menu was better than it had ever been before. Kim could now tap the stockpiled Red Cross parcels without restraint, and vegetables from the garden no longer had to be eked out. On 30 August the news arrived that a task-force from the British Pacific fleet had landed, and next day a convoy of marines drove up to Tai Po and stopped outside the administration block.

But, as Mr Sowerby went forward to greet the liberators, gunfire broke out from the building. He yelled to the inmates to take refuge in their dormitories. The marines sheltered behind their vehicles and fired back. A truck took a bullet in the fuel tank and burst into flames.

“We were watching from a window of our dormitory,” said John. “The one nearest to the administration block. Desperately worried because you weren’t with us, Kim, and we didn’t know where you were. Mercifully the gunfire didn’t go on for long, and we saw the marines swarm into the building. But at the same time Hashimoto emerged from the back and came towards us. He was wounded, limping badly and bent almost double. In one hand he was holding a revolver and in the other a grenade. He put it to his mouth and pulled the pin out with his teeth. It was pretty clear he knew it was all up with him, and he was coming to take a last revenge on us. A grenade inside our dormitory, and it would be all up with us too. Why our dormitory in particular, I don’t know …”

“I do,” Tom interrupted. “Or I can guess. Because it was Kim’s.”

“Ah, of course! Anyway, I yelled for everyone to get on the floor. He was barely ten yards away when you appeared out of nowhere, Kim. And you had a knife. Hashimoto noticed you and half swung round, but you stabbed at him from behind. There was a gunshot which made me duck down, and then an almighty explosion.”

Tom remembered that, all too well, and shuddered. But nobody was looking at him. Nobody had been looking at him then, either.

“Well,” John continued, “I rushed out. Hashimoto had blown himself to smithereens. And you were lying flat on your back, plastered with blood and bits of Hashimoto. At least I hoped they were bits of Hashimoto, not of you. And suddenly, as I knelt over you, there were marines all round us.

“And you said, ‘Don’t worry, Doctor John. I’m all right,’ and climbed to your feet. I’ve never been so relieved in all my life.

“Thank heaven for that,” said a voice beside them. It was a surgeon-commander, and with him was a surgeon-lieutenant. “You’re a hero, lad! But the lieutenant here had better give you a check-up — we’ve got a couple of field ambulances with us.” He turned to John. “And you, sir, I take it you’re the camp doctor? May I suggest you come with me and check the people inside? You know them, we don’t.”

“Well, that made every sense,” said John, “so I agreed. The lieutenant led you away, and we went into the dormitories. There were no injuries there, but several old ladies were having hysterics and it took time to calm them down. And we never saw you again.”

Everyone’s eyes were on Adrian.

“That’s right,” he said sadly. “I was in the garden cutting the last of the cabbages — they were rather lanky by then — when I heard the gunfire. I crept back towards our dormitory, and was nearly there when I saw Hashimoto come out of the admin building and move towards you. So I hid behind a bush. And as he passed me he pulled the pin out of a grenade, and I knew what was going to happen if I didn’t do something about it, and do it fast. It was either him or you. Mercifully I still had the knife, so I jumped out behind him.

“He spotted me from the corner of his eye and tried to swing round, but I managed to stab him in the backside. He was bent over, and that was the most accessible place. His gun went off — I suppose the shock made him pull the trigger. And he staggered a step or two, and tripped, and dropped his grenade, and fell down. On top of it, thank goodness. The blast blew me backwards. But it didn’t feel as if I was hurt, only a bit winded.”

He went readily enough with the lieutenant, who led him past the administration building and the burning vehicle and the rest of the convoy. Japanese soldiers were being shepherded into a truck, and among them was Corporal Nakayama. He was not a bad man at all, and Kim bowed to him, not out of habit but with genuine respect; and Nakayama, once he had recognised the blood-spattered youngster, bowed back with concern on his face. Beyond the truck were two field ambulances. In the first, a marine was having a wound tended. The second was empty.

“Let’s get this muck off you, son,” the lieutenant said.

He laid Kim down, filled a bowl with water, and with a sponge he swabbed his face and hair clean.

“Good. Can’t see any damage up there. Let’s have your shirt off.”

He washed Kim’s arms and plied a stethoscope.

“Breathe in … Breathe out … Cough … Good, nothing obvious wrong there either. Now your legs.”

He washed them too.

“No problem with them.”

And at that moment someone called him.

“Won’t be a moment, son,” he said as he left. “Take off your shorts.”

“That was what got me,” said Adrian ruefully. “I was probably in shock. And I’m quite sure, in hindsight, that I did him a grave injustice. But it was exactly what Hashimoto had said … and I didn’t want any of that again. So I ran for it. Out of the ambulance. Through the gate. Down the road, barefoot, wearing nothing but bloody shorts. And nobody saw. I ran for several hundred yards. And then a battered car came the other way and stopped. The driver was Chinese, but the passenger was western. He wasn’t an old man, but his hair was grey. And he got out and came up to me and stared.

“‘Adrian!’ he said. ‘You are Adrian, aren’t you?’

“‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m Kim.’

“‘But you look like Adrian. I ought to know, and I can prove it. If you are Adrian, you’ve got five moles on your back, in the shape of a W.’ And he turned me round.”

“And of course they were there,” said Mary resignedly. “I’ve seen them often enough. Five little moles in a flat W, like the stars in Cassiopeia … So he was your father.”