A Time

4. Liberation

He was his father, this man told Kim. He asked if he recognised him, and seemed disappointed to hear that he did not. He asked if he remembered anything of his pre-war life, and seemed relieved to hear that he did not. He told him to get into the car.

“But I want to go back to Sister Mary and Doctor John!”

“Who are they?”

“They look after me. I love them. I haven’t even said goodbye. Or thank you.”

“You can write to them, can’t you? I’m in a hurry. Get in!”

He had no choice. As the car rattled away they sat on the floor because, his father said, there were unruly gangs on the prowl who might take exception to Europeans. Kim was inspected again and told that his shorts were a disgrace, but he was not asked how they came to be a disgrace. When they passed a run-down shop the driver was sent in for replacement clothes which Kim recognised as having come, in the first place, from the Tai Po storeroom. Then they headed for the airfield. His father, Kim was told importantly, had been in the Hong Kong government and had spent the war in Stanley camp. The moment Stanley was liberated, he had been hand-picked by the Acting Governor to carry urgent dispatches to London on board a military plane, the very first plane since 1941 to leave for Britain. The Acting Governor, Kim cynically surmised when he looked back in later years, had grabbed the earliest possible opportunity to get rid of him.

Within two hours of last seeing Doctor John and Sister Mary, Kim was in the air. Like his father, he carried nothing material from his past, except for the scanty clothes which he himself had stolen. He was cold, frightened, wretched, and pining for the comfort and security of Tai Po. He had learned enough to know that its comfort and security had been relative, even illusory, but he remembered nothing better. He carried with him only two non-material things. One was the love he had known there, the only love he remembered. The other was the killing of Hashimoto, a heavy burden for a youngster now bereft of love. Kim had not cried at what Tai Po threw at him, but he cried now.

Matters did not improve. He was told, in dribs and drabs, a minimum of basic information. His name was Adrian George Longley. He had been born in London on the very day that old King George had died. Three years later the family had moved to Hong Kong where his father, it gradually emerged, had been nothing important in the government; nothing more than a junior administrator. At Stanley he had heard from a fellow-inmate that a nameless and unclaimed boy of five or six, dark-haired and with odd eyebrows, had been in a Kowloon brothel and had gone on to Tai Po. En route to the airfield, therefore, he had driven to Tai Po in search of him.

His mother? Nothing was said of her, beyond the fact that she was dead. Kim — and for years he thought of himself as Kim, not Adrian — came to deduce that she had been killed by the Japanese and that her death had unhinged his father’s mind. That was the most charitable interpretation; but it was only a guess. His father showed no interest in Kim’s experiences at Tai Po. He said nothing of his own experiences at Stanley, nothing of their former life, and parried all questions that were put to him. He was all too clearly obsessed with a desire to forget Hong Kong, the war, and the whole past. He showed no visible love, only a possessiveness and a bizarre sense of duty. But Kim’s heart was still with Doctor John and Sister Mary and Tom. He had heard how letters could miraculously be sent even to the uttermost ends of the earth, and as soon as he was in Britain he asked for assistance in writing to them. How do you expect me to help, his father replied, if you don’t know their name or address? But how a nine-year-old in an utterly strange land might find the necessary information, Kim had not the faintest idea.

“I’m sorry,” Adrian concluded starkly, “to be so negative about my father; but I can only tell you the truth. I’m sorry about my disappearance. And I’m sorry not to have found a way of making contact.”

“Oh Kim,” said Mary, back on the carpet beside him, her arm around him once more. “As if any of that was your fault!”

“But I’m still sorry. That it’s taken eight years to get in touch again, and only then because Tom happened to talk about eating seagulls. I did manage to get a personal advert into the Times, about six years ago. Something like ‘Tai Po Internment Camp. If anyone can put Doctor John and Sister Mary in touch with Kim, please contact …’ But nobody replied.”

“Aaah …” Mary groaned. “We read the Manchester Guardian, not the Times. And almost all the Tai Po veterans who’re still alive are still in Hong Kong. We advertised too, in the South China Morning Post. Nobody replied either.”

“So we were both advertising in the wrong place … What happened to you after liberation?”

“Oh, it was dreadful.” Mary put her face in her hands. “We were tied up with arrangements for moving the old dears back to Victoria and Kowloon, and thought you were still at the ambulance. The lieutenant thought you’d got tired of waiting and come back to us. He wasn’t worried because you seemed to be in good shape. It was hours before we began to ask questions, and hours more before we were sure you weren’t in the camp. The marines were very good, but not surprisingly they had a million things on their plate. We wondered if a rogue Japanese guard had taken you, but they were all accounted for. We wondered if the guerrillas had taken you, but we got in touch with them — highly unofficial touch — and they denied it. In fact they were obviously surprised and distressed, because they liked you.

“We stayed on at Tai Po for a couple of days, worried sick. And Tom was desolated. Then we went to Victoria and put the police on to it. They were good as well, but they too had a million things on their plate. There were umpteen people missing. They asked around, and we asked around, everywhere we could think of, but I’m sure nobody even thought of asking at the airfield. It was the least obvious of places. In the end they said that either you were dead or that you’d turn up sooner or later. Not very useful, they admitted; but sorry, there was nothing more they could do.

“Well, we chewed it over and over, and couldn’t see anything more we could do either. So in the end we came home. Back to Britain. We still hoped. But the very last place we expected to find you was at Yarborough … in MacNair’s … already reunited with Tom. Where were you between leaving Hong Kong and coming here?”

“In Yorkshire, mainly. But first in Slough — you know, that dump west of London. When we landed, a government car whisked us to the Colonial Office where my father handed over the papers. He’d intended to go on to his own parents, who lived in south London. But he couldn’t raise them on the phone, and when he rang his aunt in Slough he discovered that they’d been killed the year before by a flying bomb. So had my mother’s parents, who lived next door to his. That didn’t hit me particularly hard because I couldn’t remember them — it hit me much harder at Tai Po when old dears died who I did know. I was sorry for him, of course. Yet strangely it didn’t seem to worry him unduly either. I couldn’t be sure because he was as uncommunicative as ever, but I think he was still busy burying the past. They were dead. End of story, as far as he was concerned. Move on, forget them. Just as he tried to forget my mother. To this day he won’t even tell me her name.”

“But I can!” exclaimed Wally. “I never knew you didn’t know.” He went to a bureau. “When we accept new entrants, you see, we insist on seeing their birth certificates, and we note the details. We have to, in case anything goes wrong. Yes, here you are. It was a copy your father sent me — no doubt the original was lost in Hong Kong. Adrian George Longley. Born 20 January 1936 at 7 Battersea Church Road, London SW11. Father Edmund Longley. Mother Erica Longley, née Todd.”

“Erica.” Adrian toyed with the name. “Erica Todd. I like that. Thank you, sir, very much indeed. Where were we? Oh yes. Well, in default of anywhere better, my father and I stayed with this aunt of his in Slough. She’s a spinster, and a colourless woman. No warmth, no sparkle, no interest.” He laughed shortly. “I seem to make a habit of being negative about my family, don’t I? But that wasn’t a happy time at all. I was still agonising over Hashimoto’s death. My father was out all day and every day, tucked up with his solicitor or his bank manager or badgering his bosses for a new posting. He wouldn’t talk or listen. Nor would my great-aunt, and I desperately missed the friendliness of Tai Po and the sense of community there. I used to look out of the window at the drab garden and the dingy rows of houses and pine for our vegetable patch … for the view across the bay … for someone to talk to.

“You see, they couldn’t make out how to treat me. They’d give me books and toys which might have suited a five-year-old, and get cross when I took no interest. Probably they were the sort of things I’d had before the war. In the end I think they realised I was less of a child than they imagined, and they swung to the opposite extreme and left me to entertain myself. I wasn’t allowed out alone, so that meant reading my great-aunt’s books, not that there were many to choose from. Moralistic Victorian novels whose background I couldn’t understand. Dense theology which left me cold. But I did get to know the bible quite well …”

Adrian paused and scratched his nose.

“Don’t think I’m religious,” he said apologetically. “I’m not, in the ordinary sense, despite all the sermons at Tai Po and since. But I do feel very strongly that there’s some power above us. I think Hamlet got it right:

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

Call it a divinity if you like, or even God, but I prefer to call it destiny. All right, in most things we can make our own choices and direct our lives this way or that. But the major turning points are laid down for us, and we can do damn all to change them.”

“And you don’t mind saying that in the present company?” John asked with an amused glance at the Headmaster. “Surely Yarborough is built on Christian values?”

The Headmaster took it on himself to reply. “Yes, it is. But even if Adrian is not a Christian in the fullest sense, his day-to-day values do not in the least clash with ours. When last year he became a prefect and had to read lessons in Assembly, he raised his qualms with me. There is no difficulty. We simply make sure the passages he reads do not conflict with what he signs up to. We are a broad church here.”

“I’m sure you are,” said John. “But I’m sorry, Kim. I diverted you from your story. You were at your great-aunt’s.”

“Yes. Well, after a couple of months my father was given a new posting, to the Gambia. So he buzzed off there and put me in a prep school here in England. A small one, at Kirkby in the Yorkshire Dales. It was a very good place, exactly what I needed, and it went a fair way towards replacing the community I’d lost at Tai Po and the family I’d lost in you. I found happiness again there, of a sort. Then after nearly four years — when I was thirteen and just leaving Kirkby for Yarborough — my father was moved to Belize, which is the capital of British Honduras. He’s still there. And still only a junior administrator.”

“What do you do in the holidays?”

“Go out to join him. He expects it. To get to Belize these days it takes four or five days by air, changing at ever more one-horse airfields. So at Easter and Christmas I’m not there for long. But when he was in the Gambia you could only get there by sea, which took ten days each way, and there weren’t many ships that called in there. So I only went out for the summer holidays …”

“All by yourself?”

“Oh yes. He’d decided I was capable of looking after myself. But it was pointless to go for the Christmas and Easter holidays. I thought I’d have to spend them in Slough, which didn’t appeal. So when the Headmaster, dear Mr Cracoe, invited me to stay over with his family, I jumped at it. I owe the Cracoes a lot. You see, when I arrived in Britain I was nine and three quarters, but in the practical world I was as naïve as an infant. All I remembered was Tai Po, an internment camp, behind barbed wire, as basic as you could get. I didn’t have a clue about things kids normally grow up with. Baths, wash basins, hot water on tap, toilet paper. Gas and electricity. Cars and trains. Shops and money. Knives and forks. Everything like that.

“Well, I learnt a bit at my great-aunt’s. But even so, when first I went to Kirkby I was always making a fool of myself, and Mr and Mrs Cracoe saw it and took pity on me, and set about educating me in things that everyone else took for granted. How to tie a tie. How to polish shoes. How to work a wireless set. The rules of football and cricket. How to buy clothes. How to take the bus in to Skipton. When the summer holidays came, how to get to Southampton and onto the liner. How to put that advert in the Times. And so on. And after a while I could hold my own, especially at getting myself from A to B. But even now … well, I’ve lived so cloistered a life that I’m still not confident in the big wide world. I think I’m better at people than at things.”

“Are you? It seems to me you’re a pretty practical sort of person,” Mary observed. “You mentioned buying clothes — I’m speaking as a mother, you understand, who despairs of keeping her offspring neat and tidy.” She cast a humorously critical eye at her son. “Look at Tom. In need of a haircut. He’s only been in that uniform for a month, but his collar’s already frayed. Tie stained. Ink on his trousers. Shoes scuffed. I’d lay long odds that his socks have got holes in.” Tom nodded vigorously, grinning. “Whereas you, Kim …” She picked up one of Adrian’s shoes. “These have done fair service, but they’ve been properly looked after. Your socks are neatly darned. The rest of your clothes are immaculate, at least those that I can see. And I’d guess your holiday clothes are the same. But you haven’t got a mother to buy them for you or keep them in order. Do you do it all yourself?”

“Oh yes. My father gives me a very reasonable allowance, and I’ve stopped growing. But not having a base elsewhere, I have to buy all my clothes here, and keep them here, and look after them here. There’s no alternative. Well, Matron will mend clothes if it comes to it, but she’s so busy that I don’t like to ask her.”

“What a paragon!” Mary wondered why the Headmaster and Wally exchanged a smile. “But I’m sorry, Kim. Maternal instinct made me interrupt. You were talking about holidays in Belize. What do you do when you’re at your father’s?”

“Nothing much. He just wants me to be with him. Outside his work he’s a hermit, without any social life at all. But when I’m with him he talks non-stop about improving crops. That’s his job, in the colonial Directorate of Agriculture, and he’s immersed in it. He goes on about his pet projects, like upgrading the sugar industry and saving the banana plantations from the ravages of Panama Disease. And he’s always slanging his bosses. He thinks officialdom’s against him. He doesn’t seem to trust anyone except me, even though we’ve so little in common. To be honest, we’re still virtually strangers and, there’s no denying it, he isn’t easy to get on with. I’m sure it’s a hangover from the war when something terrible happened and affected his mind. But he simply refuses to discuss it.

“So the holidays aren’t exciting, I admit. But it’s my duty to go out to him, just as he sees it as his duty to educate me here. He isn’t a well man at all, and I’m all he’s got. And he’s all I’ve got. Except Yarborough.” He threw a warm smile at the Headmaster and Wally, and repeated it to the Wardles. “And now you again, at last.”

“So you’re going to Belize this Christmas?”

“I’m afraid so.” Adrian was clearly sad at having to turn down the implied invitation. “I’m duty-bound to go. I don’t think my father’s going to last for very much longer. He’s got cancer. Prostate cancer.”

He looked at his watch.

“If you’ll excuse me, I’d better get to Mr Needham’s. I shouldn’t be more than twenty minutes.”

But he could not resist, having put on his jacket and shoes, giving John and Mary a hug as if he would not see them for a year.

As the door closed, his audience let out a long collective breath.

“Well, I’m blessed!” the Headmaster said. “What a story! It verges on the incredible. Do you believe it? All of it?”

“Oh yes.” John was in no doubt. “Every word. Kim’s capable of suppressing the truth, as he did with us over the ammunition and Hashimoto. But I don’t think he’s got it in him to fib outright. And everything he says hangs together.”

“I am inclined to agree. I ask because” — the Headmaster cast a sideways glance at Wally — “I have something in mind which may well be in yours too.”

“That he deserves some recognition?” John replied. “Yes, it is. We felt at the time that he deserved a medal for thwarting Hashimoto and saving at least forty lives in that dormitory. But then he was nameless, and we’d lost him. Now we’ve found him, and know who he is. And we know more — that he also deserves recognition for saving virtually the whole camp from an ugly death by dysentery. And at what a sacrifice, and what a personal risk! Right, how do we set the ball rolling?”

“Write to the secretary of the Honours Committee at 10 Downing Street, with a statement and the names of witnesses.”

“That’s easily done,” said John. “Captain Cragg would be a good witness. His wife’s dead now, but he’s fit as a fiddle and I’m still in touch with him. And the surgeon-commander would be another — the marines couldn’t fire at Hashimoto for fear of hitting us, but he witnessed his death. I’m in touch with him too. But there’s no witness to the rape.”

“Not directly,” said Mary. “But Kim says he disposed of his bloodied shorts. Well, I found a pair of bloodied shorts beside Miss Wilshaw’s bed, after she died in the second dysentery. Do you remember her? That tiny little lady. They seemed very odd things for her to have worn. If we ask Kim where he put his shorts and he confirms it was there, it would be corroborative evidence that I could sign up to.”

“Good idea. We’ll do that. And Tom — not a word of all this to Kim. Promise?”

“Promise, Dad.”

“But oh dear,” John sighed. “This father of his sounds to be a sad case, doesn’t he? Have you met him, Mr MacNair?”

“Only once,” said Wally. “And he exactly fitted Adrian’s portrait. But, in his defence, I’ve heard that it’s not unknown for internees to be psychologically affected like that.”

“Yes, that’s true. And especially those who were separated from their children. Once they were reunited, they tried to pick up where they had left off, and continued to treat them as children. But the kids couldn’t ignore their experiences. They’d been utterly changed by them, and the parents found it very hard to accept that they weren’t really kids any more. And the result was a psychological clash. Even for you, Tom, it wasn’t easy to pick up your childhood, was it?”

“No … but I suppose I was young enough to.” Tom found himself looking at his past with new and wiser eyes. “After all, I was only five. And you’d been with me all the way through. But Kim was nearly ten, and his father was a stranger to him.”

“True. And not only a stranger, but already damaged mentally. And it’s obvious that Kim had been damaged too, just before we met him. His complete loss of memory … I’m no psychologist, but I do know that can be a natural reaction to a traumatic experience, rather like shell-shock but much worse. I think the jargon is psychogenic amnesia. The memory’s still there, but it’s suppressed. His inbuilt defence mechanism prevents him retrieving it. All right, he remembers his own trauma well enough … his rape … but he’s the least selfish person there is, and he makes relative light of it. I doubt there’s any lasting damage from that. But the tribulations of his nearest and dearest could be another matter. He suspects the Japanese killed his mother, and that it unhinged his father. If that happened in his presence, it might well have pulled a curtain across his young mind and blocked off everything that had gone before.”

“Might the curtain open?” the Headmaster asked.

“Possibly,” said John, “with psychiatric treatment. It might even open of its own accord. But I hope it doesn’t. It would hardly be helpful to resurrect dreadful details like that, would it?”

“Agreed. It would not. What he needs, it seems to me, is not past trauma revived, but present and future care assured. He evidently had good support from the Cracoes at Kirkby. He has it from us at Yarborough, I hope, and will do until he leaves in July. But his father … the prognosis there is not good, is it?”

“Not good at all. Without knowing any details, I’d hazard the guess that he’ll be dead within a year.”

“And when that happens, who becomes Adrian’s guardian? His colourless great-aunt? If so, it sounds as if for all practical purposes he will be on his own until he comes of age, and indeed beyond. Where then does he find the support he needs?”

“That’s easy,” declared Tom, entering this adult discussion with a boldness which surprised himself. “From us, of course.”

He almost said ‘from me’, but changed it in time. A glow of love and hope, almost of expectation, was spreading through him.

“I don’t think there’s anyone else,” he explained. “I don’t think he’s got any special chums, even among the prefects. They admire him, of course. Everyone does. But he treats everyone exactly the same. For real friends, there’s only us. We ought to be his guardians.”

The three Wardles looked at each other, communing without words.

“Hmmm,” said John in an approving tone. “Is Tom right, Mr MacNair, that Kim doesn’t have many friends? Close friends?”

“I think he’s absolutely right. Mind you, I’ve never been anywhere near to seeing inside Adrian’s head. But I can see that he’s a contradiction. He’s utterly outgoing and gets on well with everybody. But at the same time he seems too private a person, too self-contained, to have close friends. Maybe too private even to need close friends.”

Yes, Tom reflected, that’s partly true. Kim is too self-contained to have close friends. But he isn’t too self-contained to need them. He does need them. He needs us, and he needs me. He’s lonely, isn’t he? He’s got no one to share with. That’s why he’s a contradiction. At Tai Po, we were as close as brothers, and we ought to be again. More than brothers. There’s already a real warmth in his hugs. But I want more than just warmth, and he needs more than just warmth. He needs heat. He needs someone to share himself with, soul and body. He needs to get out of his shell. To let himself rip. On me, please God …

When he came back to earth he had lost track of the conversation.

“Well,” Mum was saying, “that’s another question to put to him, then, isn’t it?”

As if on cue, Adrian returned and reinstalled himself on the carpet.

“We were just thinking, Kim,” Mary said, “that you never really had a childhood, did you?”

“Not that I remember, no. You did your best for me, and we all did our best for Tom. But a proper childhood wasn’t on. Not at Tai Po.”

“Loss of childhood,” said the Headmaster. “That is what I find most disturbing of all.”

“But quite inevitable, sir,” Adrian pointed out. “Death. Brutality. Ever-present disease. Persistent hunger — maybe that’s why Tom and I are both short for our age.”

He looked a question at John, who nodded.

“And responsibilities,” Adrian went on, “which would never come the way of ordinary children. Cleaning up people who’d lost control of their bowels, people old enough to be my grandparents or great-grandparents, even Sister Mary and Doctor John. Helping to bury the dead. Losing my innocence to Hashimoto. Most western kids lead a sheltered and sanitised life. At Tai Po that was simply impossible. In circumstances like that, kids grow up fast. They have to, however young they are. Look at Tom.”

Tom squirmed, but the Headmaster did not let the subject drop. “And did your loss of childhood,” he asked Adrian, “create problems at prep school, when you were thrown in with boys your own age?”

“Oh Lord, yes. I was a fish out of water. I hadn’t a clue about larking around … chatter … playing the fool … mischief … simply being a kid. I had to learn it all, just like learning how to use money, or the lavatory.” He smiled ruefully. “I’m not sure I’ve ever really caught up.”

“While in other respects none of your contemporaries has ever caught up with you.”

Adrian was for once disconcerted. “Is it as obvious as that, sir? I mean … I know I’m …” He broke off, blushing.

The Headmaster smiled. “Have you never wondered why you are captain of the school?”

“Now, now, Headmaster,” said Mary. “We’re embarrassing the poor man.”

It did not cross her mind to say ‘the poor boy’; but everyone, even Tom, noticed her choice of words.

“Kim,” she went on, “there were a couple of other things we thought of while you were out. I was reminded of one of them by what you said about cleaning people up. You told us that after Hashimoto … abused you, you disposed of your bloodstained shorts. Where?”

“Where?” Adrian, unaware of what lay behind the question, was taken aback, but clearly grateful for the change of subject. “Oh, beside old Miss Wilshaw’s bed. She was so small she was about the only one they could’ve fitted. And she’d just died. Why?”

“Only that I found them later, and wondered why on earth she’d been wearing shorts. That explains it.”

“And our other question,” said John, resolutely changing the subject again, “concerns the future. Look, Kim, let’s not beat about the bush. Your father has prostate cancer. As you’re clearly aware, the prospects aren’t good. What treatment is he having?”

“None. The hospital in Belize — which isn’t up to much — says nothing can be done. The cancer’s too far advanced.”

“But something might be done here in Britain.”

“I know. So does he. But he refuses to come back. He says his job’s too important. That it’s his duty to stay out there.”

“And to die out there, it seems. But it’s more than three years before you reach twenty-one. If he does die before then, do you know who your guardian will be?”

“Oh yes. It’s in his will. He told me.” Adrian grimaced. “My great-aunt in Slough.”

“I take it the prospect doesn’t appeal to you?”

“Honestly, no. And it doesn’t to her, either. We’ve nothing in common, and she’s getting on. Father said she’d only agreed out of a sense of duty. But there’s nobody else. I just haven’t got any other relatives,”

“But if there were somebody more, um, congenial to you, would your father object?”

“Oh no, I’m sure he wouldn’t. I know I painted him as an oddball, which he is. But he isn’t an ogre. He does care for me, in his strange way. But there isn’t anyone else.”

“Oh, but there is. If it appeals to you. There’s us.”

Adrian gaped at him. “But … but …”

“Kim,” said Tom, sticking in his oar, “I told you, didn’t I? You’re part of the family.”

Adrian was in tears again. He climbed to his feet and hugged all three Wardles in turn.

“I take it that means yes,” said John. “Excellent. So you write to your father, Kim. Give me his address and I’ll write to him too. And we’ll both ask him to add a codicil to his will, naming us as your guardians. All right?”

Adrian was back on the floor, smiling up at them through his tears but still unable to speak. To gain time, he systematically rolled up his shirtsleeves and wiped his face with his handkerchief until he was under control.

John switched to what he assumed was a less emotive subject. “That’s a nasty scar!” he said casually, pointing to a puckered white mark which ran, long and broad, down Adrian’s smooth brown forearm. “Where did you get that?”

Adrian glanced at the scar, opened and shut his mouth, and stared at the carpet. He was blushing again. “Oh, at Kirkby,” he said at last.

“Come on, Adrian!” Wally was almost stern. “They’re your friends. They’re virtually your family. They may very well become your guardians. Shouldn’t you tell them more?”

Adrian threw him an appealing look.

“After all,” said Wally firmly, “you spoke freely of your deeds at Tai Po. Why should this one be any different?”

“But … well, all right, then,” Adrian reluctantly agreed. “You see,” he explained to the Wardles, “nobody at Yarborough knows this, apart from Mr MacNair and the Headmaster. Mr Cracoe told them when they gave me a place here. I wish he hadn’t. But I asked them to keep it under their hats because … well, it isn’t something to boast about.”