A Time

10. Abomination

Sergeant Standedge, when Adrian went to tell him next afternoon, reacted very differently. They were sitting at the desk in the armoury which, because it was not a Corps day, they had to themselves.

“Your foot?” he demanded aggressively. “What’s wrong with your foot?”

“Broken bones, set wrong.”

“Ah. Come to think of it, I have seen you limping. How did it happen?”

“Got thumped with a rifle.” Adrian was not forthcoming.

The sergeant, having expected an everyday explanation such as an injury at rugby, blinked.

“What, with one of these?” he asked incredulously, nodding at the racks around the armoury.

“No. In the war. A Japanese rifle.”

The sergeant stared at him, working it out. “Interned, were you?” he said at last. “Never knew that. China?”

“Well, Hong Kong.”

“Ah. But you were only a kid. Why did they thump you?”

“I didn’t bow properly to the commandant.”

“Huh. Suppose that’s better than no reason. They thumped plenty of poor buggers for no reason at all. Or killed them. Christ, I hate the Japs.” The sergeant ostentatiously cleared his throat, but only as a gesture. He would never spit in his own armoury. Adrian did not answer, and the sergeant looked at him suspiciously. “Don’t you?”

“No, I don’t. I did then, but not now. I try to see their point of view. They’d been brought up with a totally different attitude from ours. As they saw it, no enemy of the emperor could be right. So brutality to the enemy was loyalty to the emperor. As they saw it, you dishonoured your country if you surrendered. So you deserved brutal treatment. And they were treated brutally by their own superiors. So it’s hardly surprising they passed it on to their prisoners. They didn’t value life the same way as us. Not even their own.”

“For Christ’s sake! If someone beats you up, it’s natural to hate him.”

“Natural at the time. But is it useful now? Isn’t it better to draw a line under the past? Forgive the Japanese and wish them well for the future?”

The sergeant struggled with unfamiliar concepts, and gave up. He was still angry.

“All I can say, Mr Longley, is I’m disappointed in you. You’re a softy. But then you civilians had a cushy time in your holiday camps.”

Adrian was stung out of his reticence. “It wasn’t a holiday camp,” he said hotly. “Half of us died.”

The sergeant gaped at him. “I’m sorry, Mr Longley. I’d no idea … Really half? What did they die of?”

“Really half. Of dysentery, mainly. Some of beriberi. Assisted by malnutrition.”

“Oh.” Anger returned. “But it’s still a pity you’ve been let off. If you ever had to fight someone, Jap or Commie — kill him or he kills you — you’d take a tougher line.”

“I have fought someone. A Japanese. And killed him.”

The sergeant gaped again, the wind totally out of his sails.

“But you were only a kid,” he repeated. “Who? How?”

“The commandant. I stabbed him. At liberation. I had to. He was on the point of throwing a grenade into a dormitory.”

There was a pause. “I’m sorry, Mr Longley,” the sergeant repeated. “I take it back. You do know what it’s like. You’ve got guts … and I like people who’ve got guts. But I can’t for the life of me see why you don’t still hate that Jap.”

“It’s too late to hate him now. He’s dead. But I admit I hated him then. More bitterly than any of them.”

“Why him in particular?”

“Because …” Adrian lowered his head “… because he’d raped me.”

Christ! How old were you?”


The sergeant looked at him aslant. “Were you frightened?”

“Not really. Just outraged. Then angry.”

“Did you cry?”


“You have got guts.”

There was another long pause.

“I was raped too,” said the sergeant quietly. “When I was thirteen. But not by a Jap. By a couple of queers, in Paulbury. Right bastards, they were. I didn’t cry either. Never got a chance to kill them, though. Wish I had. I hate queers as much as I hate Japs.”

Adrian was not listening. His eyes were unfocused and he was miles away.

“You all right, Mr Longley?”

Adrian shook his head to clear it, and returned to the present.

“Sorry. Will you excuse me for a few minutes, sergeant? I’ve just remembered something. But I’ll be back.”


Tom, meanwhile, had dropped in to Malcolm’s study. He found him alone — Charles being out on the rugby field — and sitting at his desk with tears on his cheeks. This was by now very unusual, for Malcolm, while still a mouse, had gained visibly in self-esteem. He was on excellent terms with Charles and beginning to make friends with others such as Alan Gregory.

“What’s up?” Tom asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.

Malcolm nodded dumbly at his desk. On it was Charles’s album, open at a page which bore a single red stamp. Why on earth should a stamp move him to tears? Tom looked more closely. The picture on the stamp was an outline map of the East Indies, and the writing was in English: ‘State of North Borneo, British Protectorate, eight cents.’ But overprinted on top of the red were black characters. Japanese characters. Tom had learned much from Russell Braddon about the war in south-east Asia, and now he recalled what Kim had told him about Malcolm’s parents. He began to understand.

“Japanese occupation?” he asked tentatively.

Malcolm nodded.

“Your father …? He died in North Borneo?”

Malcolm nodded again.

“I’m sorry,” said Tom.

Malcolm was pulling himself together. There was a small framed photograph on his desk, its back to the door and invisible to casual visitors, and he turned it round for Tom to see. It was of a young man in army uniform, his face Malcolm-like but confident, his arm round a young woman who was holding a baby.

“That was taken just before he went off to the war.”

“And that’s your mother and you? I hear she died in the blitz.”

“That’s right. A month after Daddy left. She was out shopping and didn’t have time to get to the shelter. I was all right because I wasn’t with her. I was with my Auntie.”

“So you don’t remember them?”

“No. I was too young. But I like looking at them.”

“Do you know … if you don’t mind me asking … how your father died?”

“Not really. He was taken prisoner in Malaya, at the Battle of Slim River — have you heard of that?” Tom nodded. Braddon had mentioned it. “He was put in Changi gaol. That’s in Singapore.” Tom nodded again. Braddon had a lot to say about Changi. “And then the Japanese sent him with loads of people to Borneo, to a place called Sandakan. He died there. And that’s all I know. I think Auntie knows more, but she won’t tell me.”

Tom could guess why, and agreed with Auntie — Malcolm was too young to be told the worst. Not too young in years. Too young in mind. Too immature. Too vulnerable.

“I’m terribly afraid,” Malcolm went on, “it’s because they killed him. You see, Auntie’s always going on about not hating the Japanese. She says that if you forgive and forget, you’re naive.” He was evidently quoting her word for word. “If you don’t forgive and don’t forget, you’re stupid. The only sensible thing to do is forgive but not forget. And even if they did kill him, I don’t hate them. Not like some people do.”

Good for Malcolm, and good for Auntie too. “I’d go along with her,” said Tom. “Even though I had my fill of Japanese in the war.”

“Oh yes, in that camp. With Longley. What was it like?”

“Well, I don’t remember all that much. I was only five when the war ended. But it wasn’t nice. Most of the time, there was nothing to eat except rice, and never enough of that.”

“Did lots of people die?”

“Yes. From disease, mainly. But shortage of food didn’t help.”

“Did you see them die?”

Answering general questions was easy enough, as it had been in the dorm last term. Answering morbid questions needed more care.

“Well, my parents and Kim tried to shield me from seeing the worst.”

But they didn’t always succeed. They couldn’t, not in those circumstances. A few scenes, far too harrowing for Malcolm’s ears, were etched sharp into his memory.

On his way to bed. It must have been in the first dysentery, when he was only four. Stopping outside a cubicle in the dormitory where old Mr Rishworth was lying in the final stage of dysentery, stark naked, his hand held by Kim beside him. The sudden gush of black blood from between his legs as his bowels burst. Kim putting a tender arm around the bony shoulders. Mr Rishworth’s look of surprise — or was it relief? — as he died. Kim pulling down the eyelids and covering the face with a cloth. “Don’t be unhappy for him, Tom,” he said, looking up. “Because he isn’t unhappy any more. Look, I mustn’t touch you till I’ve had a wash, but come with me.” So they went to the washing butt where Kim undressed and scrubbed himself. Then Kim led him gently to the family cubicle where he gave him a long hug and squeezed into bed beside him. He held him all night, and Tom had no bad dreams. Was that how things had started?

Sunday service in the open air. The parson stopping in mid-sentence, grimacing, clutching his chest, collapsing, smashing the flimsy bamboo table which served as an altar. Dad and Mum leaping up. Kim standing in front of Tom to block his view. Unnecessarily, because he already knew the face of death.

Liberation day. At the next window to Dad, watching Hashimoto limp towards them. Too transfixed to obey when Dad ordered everyone onto the floor. Seeing Kim stab Hashimoto in the arse. Recoiling as first the gun and then the grenade went off. Aware of a soft red blob that splatted wetly on the window frame and trickled down. Numb shock until his eyes refocused and registered that Kim was alive and on his feet. Then the urge to cry his heart out, suppressed because he could not seem weak when Kim was so strong. He had never told anyone about that episode, and he never would. Except Kim, maybe.

“I wouldn’t want to go through the war again,” was all he said.

Or would he? It had been tough at Tai Po, and he couldn’t wish a repeat of that suffering on anyone. But it was with affection that he recalled those years with Kim. Was that perverse?

“Yet it wasn’t all bad, you know.” Tom resolutely returned to the positive viewpoint. “People were surprisingly cheerful. They all pulled together. I think you do, when you’re in the same boat. There’s a companionship. And at least I was with my parents. At least I was with Kim. He was the best of friends …”

“You love him,” Malcolm said suddenly in his innocent treble. “Don’t you?”

Tom goggled. This infant was not so innocent after all. He prevaricated. “What do you mean by love?”

“Oh, not like loving your Mummy or Daddy. But like a man and woman love. Wanting to be with each other for ever. To go to bed together. To, um, do things.”

“What do you know about that, Malcolm?”

“Not much, really. But I’ve wanted to. For years.”

So much for sex raising its ugly head only at puberty.

“With a girl?”

“No, with a boy. Of course.” Malcolm was impatient, as if Tom was being thick. “I know you’re not supposed to, but you want to. If you’re queer. Well, I do. And so do you, don’t you?”

“What makes you think that?”

“Oh, I’ve seen you looking at Longley.”

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings — Tom forgot that this suckling was only a few months younger than himself. But he could not deny it. He could not deny Kim. He took the plunge.

“Yes, you’re right. We are in love. But we don’t do things. Not yet, though we hope we will. And my parents — Kim’s guardians — don’t mind. But for heaven’s sake keep all this under your hat. Please.”

“Oh, I will. I just wish I had someone strong, like Longley. To love, like you love Longley. And to love me.”

I just wish you loved me, he wanted to say, like I love you. But he couldn’t. Tom was spoken for. And even if he were available he could never love a runt like me. Tears were back on Malcolm’s cheeks, and Tom put his arm round his shoulder again.

“I hope you will. One day.” But not yet, he thought to himself. You’re nowhere near ready for that sort of love.

There was a knock on the door and, as Tom withdrew his arm, Kim himself looked in. He seemed less calm and collected than normal.

“Ah, there you are, Tom! Holmfirth said I might find you here. Could I have a word? It’s rather urgent.” He turned to Malcolm. “Sorry to interrupt …” He saw the tears. “Oh Lord! What’s up? Are you all right?”

Malcolm smiled bravely at him. “Yes, thanks.”

“We were talking about his father,” Tom explained, and Malcolm handed the photograph to Kim, who inspected it soberly.

“He looked remarkably like you. Did he have red hair too?”

“Yes, so I’m told. And he was called Malcolm too.”

“Anyway,” said Tom, wondering what Kim’s urgency was, “mind if I leave you now? You will find him, you know. Somewhere. Sooner or later. And when you do, it’ll be good. Believe me.”

“Thanks, Tom.”

“Any time.” He patted Malcolm on the back and went with Kim.

“What’s so urgent?” he asked once they were in the safety of Kim’s study.

“It isn’t really urgent, I suppose. I’m being selfish. It’s more urgent if a boy’s in tears. I thought Stones was over that now. What was it about? And what did you mean, ‘you’ll find him’? His father is dead, isn’t he?”

“Oh yes. When I went to Malcolm’s study I found him crying. Did you know his Dad fought in Malaya? He was captured at Slim River and taken to Changi, and then to Borneo, to somewhere called Sandakan, where he died. Malcolm’s Auntie clams up about that, so Malcolm thinks he died a nasty death. He’s probably right, too. Then he asked me about Tai Po, and about you. And it came out that he’s hankering for someone to love. A boy. A strong one, like Longley. To be with for ever. Like us.”

“Good grief! He’s only an infant! But what do you mean, ‘like us’? Did he say that?”

“Yes, he did. He knows about us, Kim. He’d seen me looking at you and put two and two together. He asked straight out if I loved you, and I couldn’t deny it.”

“Good God!” Kim’s eyebrows twisted beyond the ordinary. “Tom, are we that obvious?”

“No, I don’t think so. I think he’s a special case. No doubt his Auntie does her best, but he’s insecure. And lonely. Which makes him … what’s the word? Perceptive. And envious, too.”

“Well, there it is. There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. There isn’t anything we can do, is there?”

“No. Except be careful. I did tell him to keep it under his hat, and I think he will … So what was your urgent thing?”

“Ah. I’ve been talking about Tai Po as well. To Sergeant Standedge. He asked how my foot got damaged. He hates the Japanese …”

“Not like Malcolm, then. He forgives them.” Tom repeated Auntie’s mantra.

“Good lad. Well, I let out that Hashimoto had raped me. Which took me back … back to that storeroom, when he came in and pulled out his revolver and stared at me. And I found myself wondering why he stared at me for so long. I don’t think I’ve ever wondered about that before. And things came back … began to come back … the faintest of memories, a wisp of a memory. It was a memory of a soldier tearing me away from my mother. And then raping her. And then shooting her …”

“Oh, Kim!” This was emphatically a time to embrace, and Tom did so.

“I’m sure it was a soldier. A Japanese soldier. And I think it was Hashimoto. But why I think it was Hashimoto, blowed if I know.”

There followed a long silence as Tom, his heart bleeding, held him tight. There was nothing else he could do, or say.

“Thank you, Tom,” said Kim at last. “But I must get back to the sergeant, if he hasn’t knocked off for the day. I had to tell you about this straight away … to get it off my chest … and I left him very abruptly. I’ve got to apologise for that. And it’s dawning on me that he must have been a prisoner of the Japanese too. And been maltreated … War, war, bloody war! Will its repercussions never end?”

He went, leaving Tom looking anxiously after him.


Sergeant Standedge was still in the armoury, brooding, staring at nothing.

“Sorry I ran away,” said Adrian, sitting down at the other side of the desk. “I suddenly remembered something important, and had to tell someone. Anyway, we were talking about me. What about you in the war? You were captured too?”

“And how.” Words began to pour out. “Trying to defend Malaya. Trying. And it could’ve worked. We had the whole 11th Indian Division and more. Gurkhas, Indians, Aussies, Brits. The Jap spearhead was only a tank regiment and a motorised infantry battalion, but they rolled over us. Lieutenant-General fucking Percival, GOC Malaya, huh! The rawest rookie could’ve done better. The war staff back in Whitehall, huh! We didn’t have a single tank, the Japs had masses, huh! We had a few little planes that came out of the ark, the Japs had total air superiority, huh! Most of our field guns and vehicles were painted yellow — meant for the desert, fat use in Malaya, huh! Ordered to retreat, we were, a step at a time. Never allowed to make a stand. And at Slim River they overtook us. Seventh of January ’42, it was. Ever heard of the Battle of Slim River?”

“I’ve only heard of it. No detail.”

“I’ll spare you the detail. But they smashed us. It was a shambles. The whole loss of Malaya was a shambles. Biggest defeat ever suffered by the Empire, someone said. But how often do you hear about it? It’s being written out of history. A hundred thousand POWs got taken. How often do you hear about them? Plenty about Stalag this and Straflager that in Germany. Romantic, they are. Books and films about them. But they had it easy, there. Us poor buggers had it tough. Yet for all anyone cares we mightn’t have existed.”

The sergeant was getting more and more worked up. “There’s Russell Braddon’s book, though,” Adrian said appeasingly.

“There you are!” snorted the sergeant. “The only proper publicity we’ve ever been given. I met Braddon on the Railway, you know. Good bloke. Very good bloke. Even if he did call me a Pommie bastard.” He laughed mirthlessly.

“So you were on the Railway too?”

“God, yes. Me and some mates, we got away from Slim River. Spent a fortnight in the jungle before the Japs cornered us. Put us in Pudu first. Seven hundred in space designed for thirty. After months of that they pushed us — what was left of us — down to Changi. Already bursting at the seams, it was. Something like twenty thousand in a prison meant for six hundred. And after months of that they split us up all over the place — Japan, Borneo, Thailand. For me, the Burma Railway. You’ve read Braddon? Well, you don’t need telling any more. He got it right. Dead right. Quarter of us died. Too much hard labour on too little food. And cholera, typhoid, beriberi, dysentery, dengue, malaria, you name it. We didn’t whine. Just got on with trying to stay alive. Helping our mates stay alive. I got dengue and malaria, myself. And remember what he said about ulcers? I got ’em, in my legs and feet. Ate right through one foot, till you could see daylight through it. All the medics could do was scoop your dead flesh out, with a spoon. An ordinary kitchen spoon. While your mates held you down. No anaesthetics, see.”

“Oh God. So that’s why you limp.”

“Bloody marvellous, those medics were,” the sergeant went on, not hearing. “Wore themselves out looking after us, even if they’d only got spoons to do it with. Take Major Kevin Fagan — I wouldn’t be here now but for him, and what recognition did he get? Fuck all. What did any of the medics get? Weary Dunlop got an OBE, but he was the only one. What did anyone who slaved on the Railway get? Anyone who helped their mates out? Take Joe Soyland and Fred Whittaker. Carried my kit and lent me an arm on the march. Did my work for me when I was too weak. Gave me their food and water when I didn’t have any. They saved my life, and I wasn’t the only one. But you know what happened to Joe and Fred? Chap collapsed and fell down the embankment they were building. The Japs ordered them to empty a truck load of rock over him. They said no, and they were shot. But the chap survived. Wasn’t that as good as saving life in battle? I told the War Office about them after the war. But what recognition did they get? Fuck all.”

“God, I’m sorry.”

The sergeant was still red with anger. “Everyone got a Pacific Star.” He pointed to a ribbon on his tunic. “Don’t know why I wear it. Everyone got it, even if they only served out there for a day. But proper recognition for them that deserved it? Forget it. Makes me sick. That’s what our lords and masters think of what we sacrificed. Whitehall isn’t interested. It doesn’t fucking care. The Binchesters don’t care. Even people here at Yarborough don’t care. That good blokes died, that good blokes were broken for life. Took me a year to get over it. Plenty others killed themselves, after the war. Tried twice, myself.”

“Why did you want to kill yourself?” Adrian asked gently.

“I was a wreck.” The words now came out reluctantly. “Nightmares. Numb inside. Helpless. Feeling different from everyone else. I wanted to go back and kill people. Still do, sometimes. Anyone. Back to Malaya, maybe — bad place. Kill Commies — bad people. Get my own back on slant-eyed bastards. On anyone.” The sergeant sighed. “So are you surprised I hate the Japs, seeing what they did for us?”

“No. Oh no.”

“But you still don’t hate them yourself?”

“Not now. It’s history.” That earned him a venomous look. “But then you did have it worse than us. A lot worse. That’s obvious.”

This admission somewhat calmed the sergeant down. “All right. But even we didn’t have it the worst, mind. The poor buggers at Sandakan copped it even harder.”

“Sandakan?” asked Adrian. “In Borneo?”

“That’s right. How’ve you heard of it? Hardly anyone has.”

“There’s a new boy in MacNair’s whose Dad died there.”

“He’ll have been one of those poor buggers, then. If he was in F Force I might have known him. It left Changi while I was there. What’s his name?”

“Stones. Malcolm Stones, same as his Dad.”

“Christ! I did, then. Red hair?”


“Poor sod. Knew him twice over. He was in the Binchesters, like me. Lieutenant, and one of the best. And he was at Changi too. Lots of officers there were bastards, claiming privileges right and left. But not Mr Stones. He preferred to muck in with us. You know what happened at Sandakan?”

“No. Nor does young Stones.”

“Not surprised. Nobody here does. Well, the Japs sent thousands of Aussies and Brits there from Changi to build an airstrip. Non-stop brutality. Foul conditions, disease, starvation. It wasn’t long finished when the Aussie air force bombed it and liberation of Borneo began. So the Japs marched the survivors inland. All of them sick and starving, most of them barefoot. And most of them were finished off on the way. Anyone falling behind was shot, or left to die. A few made it through. But they had to live off three ounces of rice a day. Three ounces. Some of them were still alive when the Japs surrendered, and they were massacred. After the surrender. Six Aussies had escaped into the jungle. And they were the only ones who survived. Six. Out of two and a half thousand. Dunno how Mr Stones died, but I guarantee it was nasty.”

“Oh Christ! But don’t tell that to his son.”

“Why not? Everyone ought to know. Like everyone ought to know about the Railway.”

“He’s too young to take it. How do you know about Sandakan?”

“Mate of mine in Oz, he told me. He’s got access to the records. Debriefing of the survivors, and the official report. The Aussies sent a commission to Borneo after the war, see, to find out more from the natives who’d witnessed it all. Hanged the Jap commander, and quite right too. Rewarded the natives who’d helped the escapers, and quite right too. A posthumous George Cross for the Aussie CO, and quite right too. But no gongs for the ordinary blokes. No recognition. As before, fuck all …”

The sergeant sucked his teeth. “Any gongs for anyone at your place?


“Good. No offence, Mr Longley. But if civilians got gongs when serving men got fuck all, that’d be the last straw.”