Read A Town Like Alice Online

Authors: Nevil Shute

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #General Interest

A Town Like Alice (6 page)

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They reached home in the first heat of the day, utterly exhausted. After cold drinks from the refrigerator, they all lay down for a little to recover. An hour later they were roused by a truck stopping at the bungalow; a young officer came hurrying into the house.

"You've got to leave this place," he said. "I'll take you in the truck. How many of there are you?"

Jean said, "Six, counting the children. Can you take us into Kuala Lumpur? Our car broke down."

The officer laughed shortly. "No I can't. The Japs are at Kerling, or they were when I last heard. They may be further south by now." Kerling was only twenty miles away. "I'm taking you to Panong. You'll get a boat from there to get you down to Singapore." He refused to take the truck back for their luggage, probably rightly; it was already loaded with a number of families who had messed up their evacuation, and the Austin was five miles in the direction of the enemy.

Kuala means the mouth of a river, and Kuala Panong is a small town at the entrance to the Panong River. There is a District Commissioner stationed there. By the time the truck reached his office it was loaded with about forty men, women, and children picked up for forcible evacuation from the surrounding estates. Most of these were Englishwomen of relatively humble birth, the wives of foreman engineers at the tin mines or gangers on the railway. Few of them had been able to appreciate the swiftness and the danger of the Japanese advance. Plantation managers and those in the Secretariat and other Government positions had had better sources of information and more money to spend, and these had got their families away to Singapore in good time. Those who were left to be picked up by truck at the last moment were the least competent.

The truck halted at the DC's office and the subaltern went inside; the DC came out presently, a very worried man, and looked at the crowded women and children, and the few men amongst them. "Christ," he said quietly as he realized the extent of the new responsibility. "Well, drive them to the accounts office over there; they must sit in the veranda for an hour or two and I'll try and get something fixed up for them. Tell them not to wander about too much." He turned back into the office. "I can send them down in fishing-boats, I think," he said. "There are some of those left. That's the best I can do. I haven't got a launch."

The party were unloaded on to the veranda of the accounts office, and here they were able to stretch and sort themselves out a little. There were chatties of cold water in the office and the veranda was shady and cool. Jean and Bill Holland left Eileen sitting on the veranda with her back against the wall with the children about her, and walked into the village to buy what they could to replace the luggage they had lost. They were able to get a feeding-bottle for the baby, a little quinine, some salts for dysentery, and two tins of biscuits and three of tinned meat; they tried for mosquito nets, but they were all sold out. Jean got herself a few needles and thread, and seeing a large canvas haversack she bought that, too. She carried that haversack for the next three years.

They went back to the veranda about teatime and displayed their purchases, and had a little meal of biscuits and lemon squash.

Towards sunset the lighthouse-keepers at the river mouth telephoned to the DC that the
was coming into the river. The
was the customs launch that ran up and down the coast looking for smugglers from Sumatra across the Malacca Strait; she was a large Diesel-engined vessel about a hundred and thirty feet long, normally stationed at Penang; a powerful, seagoing ship. The DC's face lit up; here was the solution to his problems. Whatever was the mission of the
she must take his evacuees on board, and run them down the coast out of harm's way. Presently he left his office, and walked down to the quay to meet the vessel as she berthed, to interview the captain.

She came round the bend in the river, and he saw that she was loaded with troops, small stocky men in grey-green uniforms with rifles and fixed bayonets taller than themselves. With a sick heart he watched her as she came alongside, realizing that this was the end of all his endeavour.

The Japanese came rushing ashore and arrested him immediately, and walked him back up the jetty to his office with guns at his back, ready to shoot him at the slightest show of resistance. But there were no troops there to resist; even the officer with the truck had driven off in an attempt to join his unit. The soldiers spread out and occupied the place without a shot; they came to the evacuees sitting numbly in the veranda of the accounts office. Immediately, with rifles and bayonets levelled, they were ordered to give up all fountain-pens and wristwatches and rings. Advised by their men folk, the women did so silently, and suffered no other molestation. Jean lost her watch and had her bag searched for a fountain-pen, but she had packed it in her luggage.

An officer came presently, when night had fallen, and inspected the crowd on the veranda in the light of a hurricane lamp; he walked down the veranda thrusting his lamp forward at each group, a couple of soldiers hard on his heels with rifles at the ready and bayonets fixed. Most of the children started crying. The inspection finished, he made a little speech in broken English. "Now you are prisoners," he said. "You stay here tonight. Tomorrow you go to prisoner camp perhaps. You do good things, obedience to orders, you will receive good from Japanese soldiers. You do bad things, you will be shot directly. So, do good things always. When officer come, you stand up and bow, always. That is good thing. Now you sleep."

One of the men asked, "May we have beds and mosquito nets?"

"Japanese soldiers have no beds, no mosquito nets. Perhaps tomorrow you have beds and nets."

Another said, "Can we have some supper?" This had to be explained. "Food."

"Tomorrow you have food." The officer walked away, leaving two sentries on guard at each end of the veranda.

Kuala Panong lies in a marshy district of mangrove swamps at the entrance to a muddy river; the mosquitoes are intense. All night the children moaned and wailed fretfully, preventing what sleep might have been possible for the adults. The night passed slowly, wearily on the hard floor of the veranda; between the crushing misery of captivity and defeat and the torment of the mosquitoes few of the prisoners slept at all. Jean dozed a little in the early hours and woke stiff and aching and with swollen face and arms as a fresh outburst from the children heralded the more intense attack from the mosquitoes that comes in the hour before the dawn. When the first light came the prisoners were in a very unhappy state.

There was a latrine behind the accounts office, inadequate for the numbers that had to use it. They made the best of that, and there was nothing then to do but to sit and wait for what would happen. Holland and Eileen made sandwiches for the children of tinned meat and sweet biscuits, and after this small breakfast they felt better. Many of the others had some small supplies of food, and those that had none were fed by those who had. Nothing was provided for the prisoners that morning by the Japanese.

In the middle of the morning an interrogation began. The prisoners were taken by families to the DC's office, where a Japanese captain, whom Jean was to know later as Captain Yoniata, sat with a lieutenant at his side, who made notes in a child's penny exercise book. Jean went in with the Hollands; when the captain enquired who she was she explained that she was a friend of the family travelling with them, and told him what her job was in Kuala Lumpur. It did not take very long. At the end the captain said, "Men go to prisoner camp today, womans and childs stay here. Men leave in afternoon, so you will now say farewell till this afternoon. Thank you."

They had feared this, and had discussed it in the veranda, but they had not expected it would come so soon. Holland asked, "May we know where the women and children will be sent to? Where will their camp be?"

The officer said, "The Imperial Japanese Army do not make war on womans and on childs. Perhaps not go to camp at all, if they do good things, perhaps live in homes. Japanese soldiers always kind to womans and to childs."

They went back to the veranda and discussed the position with the other families. There was nothing to be done about it, for it is usual in war for men to be interned in separate camps from women and children, but none the less it was hard to bear. Jean felt her presence was unwanted with the Holland family, and went and sat alone on the edge of the veranda, feeling hungry and wondering, with gloom tempered by the buoyancy of youth, what lay ahead of her. One thing was certain; if they were to spend another night upon the veranda she must get hold of some mosquito repellent. There was a chemist's shop just up the village that they had visited the afternoon before; it was probable that in such a district he had some repellent.

As an experiment she attracted the attention of the sentry and pointed to her mosquito bites; then she pointed to the village and got down from the veranda on to the ground. Immediately he brought his bayonet to the ready and advanced towards her; she got back on to the veranda in a hurry. That evidently wouldn't do. He scowled at her suspiciously, and went back to his position.

There was another way. The latrine was behind the building up against the wall; there was no sentry there because the wall prevented any exit from the accounts office except by going round the building to the front. She moved after a time and went out of the back door. Sheltered from the view of the sentries by the building, she looked around. There were some children playing in the middle distance.

She called softly in Malay, "Girl. You, you girl. Come here."

The child came towards her; she was about twelve years old. Jean asked, "What is your name?"

She giggled shyly, "Halijah."

Jean said, "Do you know the shop that sells medicine? Where a Chinese sells medicine?"

She nodded. "Chan Kok Fuan."

Jean said, "Go to Chan Kok Fuan, and if you give my message to him so that he comes to me, I will give you ten cents. Say that the Mem has Nyamok bites"-she showed her bites-"and he should bring ointments to the veranda, and he will sell many to the Mems. Do this, and if he comes with ointments, I will give you ten cents."

The child nodded and went off. Jean went back to the veranda and waited; presently the Chinaman appeared carrying a tray loaded with little tubes and pots. He approached the sentry and spoke to him, indicating his wish to sell his wares; after some hesitation the sentry agreed. Jean got six tubes of repellent and the rest was swiftly taken by the other women. Halijah got ten cents.

Presently a Japanese orderly brought two buckets of a thin fish soup and another half full of boiled rice, dirty and unappetizing. There were no bowls or utensils to eat with. There was nothing to be done but to eat as best they could; at that time they had not fallen into the prisoner's mode of life in which all food is strictly shared out and divided scrupulously, so that some got much more than others, who got little or none. There were still food supplies, however, so they fell back on the biscuits and the private stocks to supplement the ration.

That afternoon the men were separated from their families, and marched off under guard. Bill Holland turned from his fat, motherly wife, his eyes moist. "Goodbye, Jean," he said heavily. "Good luck." And then he said, "Stick with them, if you can, won't you?"

She nodded. "I'll do that. We'll all be in the same camp together."

The men were formed up together, seven of them, and marched off under guard.

The party then consisted of eleven married women, and two girls, Jean and an anaemic girl called Ellen Forbes who had been living with one of the families; she had come out to be married, but it hadn't worked out. Besides these there were nineteen children varying in age from a girl of fourteen to babies in arms; thirty-two persons in all. Most of the women could speak no language but their own; a few of them, including Eileen Holland, could speak enough Malay to control their servants, but no more.

They stayed in the accounts office for forty-one days.

The second night was similar to the first, except that the doors of the offices were opened for them and they were allowed to use the rooms. A second meal of fish soup was given to them in the evening, but nothing else whatever was provided for their use - no beds, no blankets, and no nets. Some of the women had their luggage with them and had blankets, but there were far too few to go round. A stern-faced woman, Mrs Horsefall, asked to see the officer; when Captain Yoniata came she protested at the conditions and asked for beds and nets.

"No nets, no beds," he said. "Very sorry for you. Japanese womans sleep on mat on floor. All Japanese sleep on mat. You put away proud thoughts, very bad thing. You sleep on mat like Japanese womans."

"But we're English," she said indignantly. "We don't sleep on the floor like animals!"

His eyes hardened; he motioned to the sentries, who gripped her by each arm. Then he hit her four stinging blows upon the face with the flat of his hand. "Very bad thoughts," he said, and turned upon his heel, and left them. No more was said about beds.

He came to inspect them the next morning and Mrs Horsefall, undaunted, asked for a water supply; she pointed out that washing was necessary for the babies and desirable for everyone. A barrel was brought into the smallest office that afternoon and was kept filled by coolies; they turned this room into a bathroom and washhouse. In those early days most of the women had money, and following the example of Chan Kok Fuan the shopkeepers of the village came to sell to the prisoners, so they accumulated the bare essentials for existence.

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