Read A Town Like Alice Online

Authors: Nevil Shute

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #General Interest

A Town Like Alice (10 page)

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Jean's care now was for Mrs Holland. After Freddie was buried she tried to get Eileen to care for the baby; for the last few weeks the baby had been left to Jean to feed and tend and carry, and she had grown very much attached to it. With both the older children dead Jean gave the baby, Robin, back to its mother, not so much because she wanted to get rid of it as because she felt that an interest must be found for Eileen Holland, and the baby would supply it. But the experiment was not a great success; Eileen by that time was so weak that she could not carry the baby on the march, and she could not summon the energy to play with it. Moreover, the baby obviously preferred the younger woman to its mother, having been carried by her for so long.

"Seems as if he doesn't really belong to me," Mrs Holland said once. "You take him, dear. He likes being with you." From that time on they shared the baby; it got its rice and soup from Eileen, but it got its fun from Jean.

They left four tiny graves behind the signal box at Bahau and went on down the line carrying two litters of bamboo poles; the weakest children took turns in these. As was common on the journey, they found the Japanese guards to be humane and reasonable men, uncouth in their habits and mentally far removed from western ideas, but tolerant to the weaknesses of women and deeply devoted to children. For hours the sergeant would plod along carrying one child piggyback and at the same time carrying one end of the stretcher, his rifle laid beside the resting child. There was the usual language difficulty. The women by that time were acquiring a few words of Japanese, but the only one who could talk Malay fluently was Jean, and it was she who made inquiries at the villages and sometimes acted as interpreter for the Japanese.

Mrs Frith surprised Jean very much. She was a faded, anaemic little woman of over fifty. In the early stages of the journey she had been very weak and something of a nuisance to them with her continued prognostications of evil; they had trouble enough in the daily round without looking forward and anticipating more. Since she had adopted Johnnie Horsefall Mrs Frith had taken on a new lease of life; her health had improved she now marched as strongly as any of them. She had lived in Malaya for about fifteen years; she could speak only a few words of the language but she had a considerable knowledge of the country and its diseases. She was quite happy that they were going to Kuantan. "Nice over there, it is," she said. "Much healthier than in the west, and nicer people. We'll be all right once we get over there. You see."

As time went on, Jean turned to Mrs Frith more and more for comfort and advice in their predicaments.

At Ayer Kring Mrs Holland came to the end of her strength. She had fallen twice on the march and they had taken turns in helping her along. It was impossible to put her on the litter; even in her emaciated state she weighed eight stone, and they were none of them strong enough by that time to carry such a load very far. Moreover, to put her on a litter meant turning a child off it, and she refused even to consider such a thing. She stumbled into the village on her own feet, but by the time she got there she was changing colour as Mrs Collard had before her, and that was a bad sign.

Ayer Kring is a small village at a railway station; there were no station buildings here, and by negotiation the headman turned the people out of one house for them, as had been done several times before. They laid Mrs Holland in a shady corner and made a pillow for her head and bathed her face; they had no brandy or any other stimulant to give her. She could not rest lying down and insisted on sitting up, so they put her in a corner where she could be supported by the walls. She took a little soup that evening but refused all food. She knew herself it was the end.

"I'm so sorry, my dear," she whispered late in the night. "Sorry to make so much trouble for you. Sorry for Bill. If you see Bill again, tell him not to fret. And tell him not to mind about marrying again, if he can find somebody nice. It's not as if he was an old man."

An hour or two later she said, "I do think it's lovely the way baby's taken to you. It
lucky, isn't it?"

In the morning she was still alive, but unconscious. They did what they could, which wasn't very much but her breathing got weaker and weaker, and at about midday she died. They buried her in the Moslem village cemetery that evening.

At Ayer Kring they entered the most unhealthy district they had passed through yet. The central mountains of Malaya were now on their left, to the west of them as they marched north, and they were coming to the head waters of the Pahang river, which runs down to the east coast. Here the river spreads out into numerous tributaries, the Menkuang, the Pertang, the Belengu, and many others, and these tributaries running through flat country make a marshy place of swamps and mangroves that stretched for forty miles along their route, a country full of snakes and crocodiles, and infested with mosquitoes. By day it was steamy and hot and breathless; at night a cold wet mist came up and chilled them unmercifully.

By the time they had been two days in this country several of them were suffering from fever, a fever that did not seen quite like the malaria that they were used to, in that the temperature did not rise so high; it may have been dengue. They had little by that time to treat it with, not so much because they were short of money as because there were no drugs at all in the jungly villages that they were passing through. Jean consulted with the sergeant, who advised them to press on, and get out of this bad country as soon as possible. Jean was running a fever herself at the time and everything was moving about her in a blur; she had a cracking headache and it was difficult to focus her eyes. She consulted with Mrs Frith, who was remarkably well.

"What he says is right, Jean," Mrs Frith declared. "We won't get any better staying in this swampy place. I think we ought to walk each day, if you ask me."

Jean forced herself to concentrate. "What about Mrs Simmonds?"

Maybe the soldiers would carry her, if she gets any worse. I don't know, I'm sure. It's cruel hard, but if we've got to go we'd better go and get it over. That's what I say. We shan't do any good hanging around here in this nasty place."

They marched each day after that, stumbling along in fever, weak, and ill. The baby, Robin Holland, that Jean carried, got the fever;
was the first ailment he had had. She showed him to the headman in the village of Mentri, and his wife produced a hot infusion of some bark in a dirty coconut shell; Jean tasted it and it was very bitter, so she judged it to be a form of quinine. She gave a little to the baby and took some herself; it seemed to do them both good during the night. Before the day's march began several of the women took it, and it helped.

It took them eleven days to get through the swamps to the higher ground past Temerloh. They left Mrs Simmonds and Mrs Fletcher behind them, and little Gillian Thomson. When they emerged into the higher, healthier country and dared to stay a day to rest, Jean was very weak but the fever had left her. The baby was still alive, though obviously ill; it cried almost incessantly during its waking hours.

It was Mrs Frith who now buoyed them up, as she had depressed them in the earlier days. "It should be getting better all the time from now on," she told them. "As we get nearer to the coast it should get better. It's lovely on the east coast, nice beaches to bathe on, and always a sea breeze. It's healthy, too.

They came presently to a very jungly village on a hilltop; they never learned its name. It stood above the river Jengka. By this time they had left the railway and were heading more or less eastwards on a jungle track that would at some time join a main road that led down to Kuantan. This village was cool and airy, and the people kind and hospitable; they gave the women a house to sleep in and provided food and fresh fruit, and the same bark infusion that was good for fever. They stayed there for six days revelling in the fresh, cool breeze and the clear, healthy nights, and when they finally marched on they were in better shape. They left a little gold brooch that had belonged to Mrs Fletcher with the headman as payment for the food and kindness that they had received, thinking that the dead woman would not have objected to that.

Four days later, in the evening, they came to Maran. A tarmac road runs through Maran crossing the Malay peninsula from Kuantan to Kerling. The road runs through the village, which has perhaps fifty houses, a school, and a few native shops. They came out upon the road half a mile or so to the north of the village; after five weeks upon the railway track and jungle paths it overjoyed than to see evidence of civilization in this road. They walked down to the village with a fresher step. And there, in front of them; they saw two trucks and two white men working on them while Japanese guards stood by.

They marched quickly towards the trucks, which were both heavily loaded with railway lines and sleepers; they stood pointing in the direction of Kuantan. One of them was jacked up on sleepers taken from the load, and both of the white men were underneath it working on the back axle. They wore shorts and army boots without socks; their bodies were brown with sunburn and very dirty with the muck from the back axle. But they were healthy and muscular men, lean, but in good physical condition. And they were white, the first white men that the women had seen for five months.

They crowded round the trucks; their guard began to talk in staccato Japanese with the truck guards. One of the men lying on his back under the axle, shifting spanner in hand, glanced at the bare feet and the sarongs within his range of vision and said slowly, "Tell the mucking Nip to get those mucking women shifted back so we can get some light."

Some of the women laughed, and Mrs Frith said, "Don't you go using that language to me, young man."

The men rolled out from under the truck and sat staring at the women and the children, at the brown skins, the sarongs, the bare feet. "Who said that?" asked the man with the spanner. "Which of you speaks English?" He spoke deliberately in a slow drawl, with something of a pause between each word.

Jean said laughing, "We're all English."

He stared at her, noting the black hair plaited in a pigtail, the brown arms and feet, the sarong, the brown baby on her hip. There was a line of white skin showing on her chest at the V of her tattered blouse. "'Straits-born?" he hazarded.

"No, real English-all of us," she said. "We're prisoners."

He got to his feet; he was a fair-haired powerfully built man about twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old. "Dinkie-die?" he said.

She did not understand that. "Are you prisoners?" she asked.

He smiled slowly. "Are we prisoners?" he repeated. "Oh my word."

There was something about the man that she had never met before. "Are you English?" she asked.

"No fear," he said in his deliberate way. "We're Aussies."

She said, "Are you in camp here?"

He shook his head "We come from Kuantan," he said. "But we're driving trucks all day, fetching this stuff down to the coast."

She said, "We're going to Kuantan, to the women's camp there."

He stared at her. "That's crook for a start," he said slowly. "There isn't any women's camp at Kuantan. There isn't any regular prisoner camp at all, just a little temporary camp for us because we're truck drivers. Who told you that there was a women's camp at Kuantan?"

"The Japanese told us. They're supposed to be sending us there." She sighed. "It's just another lie."

"The bloody Nips say anything." He smiled slowly. "I thought you were a lot of boongs," he said. "You say you're English, dinky-die? All the way from England?"

She nodded. "That's right. Some of us have been out here for ten or fifteen years, but we're all English."

"And the kiddies-they all English too?"

"All of them," she said.

He smiled slowly. "I never thought the first time that I spoke to an English lady she'd be looking like you."

"You aren't exactly an oil painting yourself," Jean said.

The other man was talking to a group of the women; Mrs Frith and Mrs Price were with Jean. The Australian turned to them. "Where do you come from?" he inquired.

Mrs Frith said, "We got took in Panong, over on the west coast, waiting for a boat to get away."

"But where did you come from now?"

Jean said, "We're being marched to Kuantan."

"Not all the way from Panong?"

She laughed shortly. "We've been everywhere-Port Swettenham, Port Dickson-everywhere. Nobody wants us. I reckon that we've walked nearly five hundred miles."

"Oh my word," he said. "That sounds a crook deal to me. How do you go on for tucker, if you aren't in a camp?"

She did not understand him. "Tucker?"

"What do you get to eat?"

"We stay each night in a village," she said. "We'll have somewhere to stay here. Probably in a place like this it'll be the school. We eat what we can get in the village."

"For Christ's sake," he said. "Wait while I tell my cobber." He swung round to the other. "You heard about the crook deal that they got?" he said. "Been walking all the time since they got taken. Never been inside a prison camp at all."

"They've been telling me," the other said. "The way these bloody Nips go on. Makes you chunda."

The first man turned back to Jean. "What happens if any of you get sick?"

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