Author's Note: I've been so impressed by all the incredible AUs posted here lately that this is my humble attempt at one of my own. Many of Jean's experiences are based on a book called "Three Came Home" by Agnes Newton Keith, which I read many years ago. I'm breaking my own rules by posting this before it's finished because I'd like some feedback as to whether it's worth continuing.
16 January, 1942
Jean Beazley opened up the morning newspaper. She had never used to read the paper while she ate breakfast, but the state of the world, and most particularly the inexorable advance of the Japanese military, had changed a lot of routines across the area surrounding her home in Sandakan on the island of Borneo.
In the six months since her husband Christopher had been killed in a training accident by an eager but careless recruit, Jean had considered many times that she ought to take her boys and leave, get out of the path of the oncoming menace, but the Australian consul, Patrick Tyneman, insisted they would be safe, the Brits would never allow Borneo to fall to the Japanese. It was too important to British economic interests. And, in truth, if she did leave, where would she go? There was little for her back in Australia, with her parents long gone, and her sister's family struggling to make ends meet. There was the farm in Ballarat that Christopher's parents had left to them, but what did she know about farming? The boys were too young to be of any help, and she couldn't afford to hire anyone to farm it for her.
No, she was pretty much stuck in Borneo. Patrick had promised she could remain in the tiny house in the diplomatic compound as long as she needed. Christopher had been highly regarded in his position as head of the consulate security detail, so Patrick felt it was the least he could do for the man's family. And with the work she took in as a seamstress, she made just enough to keep her small family fed and clothed.
She glanced over at her boys as they ate their breakfast. Christopher Jr. was almost seven years old now, while Jack had just turned four. Several of their playmates had already been sent back home as their parents thought it safer. Jean would surely have done so as well, if there was anyone she could send them to.
Patrick's wife Susan had wanted to pack their teenaged son off to Australia, but young Edward had insisted on staying. He said he'd "show the Japs a thing or two" if they tried to invade Borneo. Patrick only shook his head while Susan wrung her hands in dismay. At least they had a choice, Jean thought.
As she read about the inevitable approach of the enemy, she decided that she had better be as prepared as she could be, just in case. She would pack bags for herself and the boys, what they would need if the worst happened and they became internees of the Japanese. Despite what Patrick said, it couldn't hurt to be ready.
After washing up from the meal, she sent the boys out to play in the garden while she sat down to make a list. She had no idea of what would be allowed, so she decided to pack all the most necessary items in one case, keeping the weight manageable should she have to carry it herself for any distance. Clothes, first aid and medical supplies, powdered milk for the boys. She made a mental note to purchase some vitamins if she could still find them at the chemist's.
She gathered together all the money she had, along with the few pieces of jewellery. She would need to conceal them somehow. Then it came to her: Jack's teddy bear would make a perfect hiding place. She picked at the stitches that held its arm on, removed a bit of the stuffing from the back and replaced it with the valuables, then returned some of the stuffing and sewed the arm back on. Perfect, and undetectable. The teddy bear was a necessity in any case, since Jack refused to go to sleep without it. She would prepare small bags for each of the boys to carry with additional clothes for them and a few lightweight playthings, most importantly the teddy bear.
With her plan in mind, she set to work implementing it. Better too soon than too late.
The shelling had been going on for weeks now. As a result, everyone in Singapore was on edge from the harrowing days and sleepless nights. As he was every morning, Captain Lucien Blake was grateful he had sent his small daughter Li off on the last passenger ship out of the port. He only wished he had been able to convince Mei Lin to take the child away herself. Instead, his wife had been one of the first killed by bombs when the roof had collapsed on the market where she was shopping. But by now almost every resident trapped in Singapore had lost someone to the shelling.
With the death of his wife, Lucien had closed up the house and moved into the officers' quarters on base. He had posted a crate of small valuables to his father for safekeeping. Although he had not officially corresponded with the man for many years, he hoped the package would be accepted and stowed away for him. Surely the war hanging over all their heads would have softened the old man's heart at least a little.
The housekeeper, nanny, and gardener were given severance pay and released from service so they could be with their families. He suspected the Japanese would do them no favours if they were known to work in the British enclave.
Lucien snugged his tie into place, gave himself a glance in the mirror to be sure his uniform was impeccable, then headed off for the day. As he entered the door of HQ, he was met by a very young corporal who told him General Bennett wanted a word with him. Lucien lifted an eyebrow in surprise, but thanked the young man and turned toward the general's office.
Major-General Gordon Bennett commanded the Australian 8th division and was a veteran officer, having been highly decorated for his service in the Great War. Nonetheless, Lucien had little faith in the man as a leader in battle.
He composed himself to keep his feelings for the man at bay before following the order to "Enter". Standing at attention, he held his salute until Bennett finally looked up at him and returned it.
"Yes, yes, Blake, have a seat."
"Sir," he acknowledged, sitting where the general indicated.
"Yes, well, I've just received my orders for the defense of this bloody peninsula," Bennett announced. "We Australians are to hold the western sector, including the airfield."
"I want you to accompany the 22nd Infantry Brigade which will be defending the northwest corner - jungles and mangroves and the lot. You're to report directly to Brigadier Taylor."
"And Blake, need I remind you you're a doctor? Despite your training, I expect you to be a non-combatant, is that understood?"
All of Lucien's instincts screamed at him to protest. When the Japanese invaded, they would all be fighting for their lives. But Bennett's menacing glare made it clear that any disagreement would fall on deaf ears. Instead, he gritted his teeth and managed, "Understood, sir."
He suspected that before this was over, his agreement or disagreement would be of little consequence anyway.
"Right, then, Captain, you're dismissed."
Lucien stood and saluted again before exiting the office. War experience or no, he couldn't help but wonder if those running the show had any idea what they were about to face. Surely the ease with which the Japanese army had rolled through China must have made it clear they were an implacable foe. He hoped Brigadier Taylor might have a more practical view.
18 January, 1942
The ringing of the church bells woke Jean. Despite it being barely light outside, she was convinced they had all overslept and would be late for church. Pulling herself together quickly, she went towards the boys' bedroom to wake them, but a hurried pounding on the front door made her change direction.
She fastened the tie to her robe more securely and went to greet the early caller. It was her neighbor, Evelyn Touhey. "Good morning, Evelyn, I..."
"No, it's not a good morning, Jean," the older woman informed her. "The Japanese have landed in Sandakan. Mister Tyneman has requested that we all be present when he meets with them in the town center at 9:00. Sunday mass has been postponed until 11:00 in light of this."
"Oh!" said Jean. Her instincts had been correct. "Yes, we'll be there. Thank you for letting me know." She wanted to hear first hand what the Japanese intended for them, rather than relying on all the rumours that were certain to spread like wildfire.
Her first thought was to find a sitter for the boys, but then she decided she would keep them with her. From this point on they needed to be a single unit - it was their only chance to get through whatever lay ahead.
Christopher was already up and getting dressed, but Jack was not a fan of mornings. She tried to stay calm as she coaxed him out of bed and into his Sunday clothes. In her mind she was running through all the things she needed to do before they headed out to the meeting. Should they bring their belongings with them or would they be allowed to return home to prepare? She suspected the latter, but could she afford to take a chance?
She decided she would risk it. Why make the boys carry their bags all the way to the town center and back, when most likely there would be far more arduous journeys ahead? Life was about to get very difficult for them so she needed to ease their path wherever she could.
She dressed as she normally would for Sunday mass. Assuming the Japanese allowed it to proceed, she thought the tiny church would be full when it began. Jean herself was determined to look her best. They would all change into more comfortable clothing afterwards.
She allowed Jack to take the teddy bear with him as they headed out for the meeting. Christopher being very responsible despite his young age, Jean had told him about the secret in the bear's stuffing so that he could help her be sure the toy stayed in Jack's possession.
They arrived at the town center fifteen minutes early but the building was already filling up. Jean managed to find two seats together, pulling Jack onto her lap. She prayed he would behave himself. She had a feeling it might not be a good thing to be singled out for attention.
A small, trim Japanese officer (Jean couldn't identify the rank insignia) stepped up to address them. His command of the English language was sufficient, if heavily accented. She found herself leaning forward, as though that would make him easier to understand.
"I am Colonel Suga. You are now subject of the Imperial Japanese army," he began, as if they didn't already know that. "This city will house the officers of that army. You will be given new accommodations. One for men, one for women. Tomorrow morning trucks will be sent to each house to pick up the occupants. You will be allowed to take whatever you want as long as you can carry it."
He looked over the assemblage with his eyes narrowed as though wondering who would be making trouble.
"Until that time you will be expected to go home and pack. There will be no congregating together."
Father Emery stood up. "Colonel, today is Sunday. Surely you will allow me to conduct Sunday mass for my parishioners."
"No congregating," Suga repeated. "You can say mass, but they cannot attend."
The priest was about to protest further but a burly soldier stepped toward him menacingly, and Father Emery reluctantly resumed his seat.
Suga looked satisfied. "Are there other questions?" he asked.
Hesitantly Jean raised her hand and stood up, still holding Jack. "Sir, in these new accommodations, will children be allowed to remain with their mothers?"
Smiling at her, the colonel's voice took on a much friendlier tone. "Of course children remain with their mothers," he assured her. "We are not monsters. I have three children of my own. I do not allow anyone to mistreat children."
"Thank you, Colonel," she said, breathing a little easier. As long as her boys could stay with her, she would find a way to get them all through this.
A few others asked questions about the nature of their new accommodations and their location, but the colonel only assured them they would be adequate and offered little more information about them.
A well-to-do British woman that Jean didn't recognize asked about the shops there, at which point Suga dismissed her and then the entire assemblage. With a sigh, Jean stood up and set Jack on his feet, making sure his bear was safely in tow. She took both boys by the hand and started for the door, but had only gone a few steps when the burly soldier who had threatened Father Emery stopped her progress.
"Colonel, you," he said.
Jean frowned, her heart racing. "The colonel wants to see me?" she clarified.
The soldier merely pointed at her then toward the colonel, who was looking at her and nodding.
Knowing she had little choice, she started in that direction, gripping the boys' hands just a little tighter. Her mouth was suddenly so dry she wasn't sure she could speak.
When she stood in front of him and the soldier had moved away, Suga spoke first. "You are Mrs..."
She swallowed, but her voice was still tremulous. "Mrs. Beazley," she managed.
"Yes, Mrs. Beazley and her two beautiful sons, I presume."
"That's right," she said nodding.
"I like you, Mrs. Beazley, a mother who looks out for her children. If you need anything for your children, you come to see me, yes?"
Jean instinctively knew she would only take him up on that offer if she was desperate. There might be unsavory strings attached. Nevertheless, she remained polite. "Thank you, Colonel, that's very kind of you."
"I am a father. I love little children. You go now."
With alacrity, she guided the boys outside and headed for home. There was much to do.
Lucien decided that Brigadier Harold Taylor was an improvement over General Bennett, if only because he did not think quite so much of himself. And unlike Bennett, he seemed to realize just how serious their predicament was. He was trying his best to have the newest recruits, of which there were too many in the 22nd Infantry Brigade, brought up to snuff as quickly as possible.
When Lucien had reported to him the previous day, Taylor had told him his primary duty would be as a doctor, but since he had more military training and experience than the majority of the men, he shouldn't hesitate to take a more direct role in the fighting if it became necessary. They exchanged stories of atrocities they had heard from those fighting the Japanese in the northern part of the peninsula, and they agreed that his status as a doctor would do nothing to ensure his survival anyway.
The British Commander, General Percival, was convinced the invasion would be coming from the south or possibly the northeast, which is where he concentrated the more experienced British infantry and artillery forces, leaving the Australian and Indian divisions to guard the west side of the island. There were only a handful of aircraft left on Singapore to provide cover and reconnaissance for the ground troops. Many airplanes had been destroyed by bombings or prior air duels, and the bulk of the rest had been relocated to assist in the fighting in the British East Indies. It had been deemed that Singapore with its heavy fortifications along the most accessible landing area on the south coast was nearly impregnable. Brigadier Taylor (and Lucien) were not so sure.
The brigade was busy establishing their base of operations near where the jungle began. Trenches were being dug, sandbags piled high, machine gun nests fortified. Despite his rank and standing as a physician, Lucien was in the trenches beside the others, wielding a shovel and heaving sandbags into position. Having shed his uniform blouse with its rank insignia, only his trousers identified him as an officer.
The young corporal beside him handed Lucien another bag of sand, and he heaved it up to the top of the newly-formed embankment. He paused a moment to take out his handkerchief and wipe his brow, while the corporal used his own forearm to rub away the sweat.
"Excuse me, sir," said the baby-faced young man.
"It's just that you're the only officer I see here in the trenches."
Lucien smiled at him. "So either I'm the expendable one or I'm the one who most wants to survive, is that it?"
"Or...". The boy hesitated. "Or you know something the others don't know, sir."
"Maybe you think this is where the invasion is going to be."
"I'm not discounting that possibility," Lucien admitted.
"Sir, do you think we can hold Singapore if they do come?"
It was Lucien's turn to hesitate. This young man needed to know the seriousness of the situation, but telling him the whole of what Lucien suspected would happen might frighten him too much to act.
"They'll come," he said finally. "They're already moving down the peninsula. It's just a matter of time before they reach Singapore. Can we hold them? That I don't know. The Poms are convinced we're impregnable here. But it's going to take all of us working together when the invasion starts."
"Yes, sir." He stood straighter, ready to resume work.
Lucien took the next sandbag from him. He grunted as he heaved it into place. As he reached for the next one, he said, "What's your name, son?"
"I'm Mason, sir. Corporal Billy Mason."
"Captain Lucien Blake. A pleasure to work with you, Corporal Mason."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
19 January, 1942
Jean had been awake most of the night, reviewing the items she had packed to see if she'd forgotten anything, and trying to imagine what the future held for her and the boys. She had no illusions that it would be anything like they were used to. Like everyone else, she had heard the rumors about Japanese prison camps, although technically as non-combatants they would be internees, not prisoners. She wondered if their captors would recognize the difference.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, she abandoned any further pretense of sleep. She slid out of bed, then quickly washed and dressed. Not knowing what time they would be taken away, she started breakfast before rousing the boys. She could always turn it into sarnies that could be taken with them if necessary.
As usual, Christopher was already getting dressed when she entered their bedroom. She had put out their sturdiest clothes the night before, bearing in mind that they might have to last a long time. That reminded her that she should pack a sewing kit. The boys were growing at an alarming rate, and surely their clothes would need altering if the captivity lasted much more than a few weeks. And on impulse she decided to throw in Christopher Sr.'s army-issued survival manual and a few packets of quinine.
With the usual struggle, she managed to get Jack up and into his clothes. His willfulness concerned her deeply. She couldn't imagine what might happen if he acted in that manner when a Japanese soldier told him to do something. She prayed that Colonel Suga had been truthful when he said he didn't allow his men to mistreat children. Nevertheless, she needed to have a talk with Jack.
At the breakfast table she had no appetite, but she forced herself to eat anyway. She needed to set an example for the boys, and she suspected this might be the last familiar meal they would have for a good long while. She had heard the Japanese ate a lot of rice and fish, but she had no idea what else. Would she even recognize the food?
The boys were both quiet, Christopher because he understood something of the gravity of the situation facing them, Jack most likely because of the palpable tension all around him.
Christopher ate with the same solemn deliberation with which he did most things since his father's death. When he was finished, he put down his fork, looked up, and said, "Mum?"
Jean knew what he was asking. She placed her teacup carefully in her saucer before speaking. "Soon the Japanese soldiers will arrive with a large lorry," she began, looking from one boy to the other. "We will have to take our things and go with them. This won't be our home any more."
"Where will we go?" asked Christopher.
"I'm afraid I don't know. We'll have to go wherever they take us."
"Mum, I don't want to go. I like our house," said Jack.
"I know, sweetheart, but we don't have any choice. These soldiers will have guns, but as long as we do what they say we'll be all right."
"We'll still live with you, won't we?" Christopher's eyes were wide with apprehension.
"Of course we'll all be together," Jean was quick to assure him. She couldn't help but think of the other women who were explaining to their children that their fathers would no longer be with them. But unlike her children, theirs could hold onto the hope of being reunited in the future.
"Can I take Teddy?" asked Jack, his bottom lip quivering.
"Yes, you can, but you must hold onto him very tight. If he should get lost along the way, we won't be able to get him back, understood?"
The boy nodded solemnly. "Teddy is my best friend," he announced. "I won't let him get lost."
"That's my boy," said Jean. She stood up, intending to start the washing up, then sat down again. If the Japanese were going to commandeer her house, they could bloody well do the washing up. She would spend these last moments of peace with her boys.
It didn't last long. She could hear the lorry as it pulled up to Evelyn's house two doors down. Trying to remain calm, she led the boys to the tiny entryway where she had stacked the belongings they would take with them. Christopher and Jack each had a rucksack which she helped them slip onto their backs. She had a rucksack for herself, as well as another large case she would carry. She wanted one hand free to hold Jack's hand, and she trusted Christopher to hang onto one of the rucksack straps.
"We must stay together, no matter what," she said fiercely. "No matter what."
Lucien woke up sore: it had been a while since he'd done so much manual labor. It was some relief therefore when he was asked to use his medical skills for the morning. There were a number of men with minor injuries from the ongoing work, and it was imperative that all be in top form before the actual fighting began.
He treated sprains and blisters, for the most part, with the occasional cut or severe bruise. The line of patients was nearly completed when he heard a single gunshot, then a great deal of shouting. He emerged from his tent to see an older corporal holding his bloody hand up before him as a mate helped him toward where Lucien waited.
"What do have here?" he asked as he escorted the injured man to a seat and began to clear away some of the blood as gently as he could.
"Cleaning my revolver," the man said through gritted teeth.
Lucien was immediately skeptical. "I see. And you didn't think to be sure it was empty first?"
"Thought it was," the corporal mumbled, looking everywhere but at Lucien's face. "Must have been one in the chamber."
"Baker. Norm Baker."
"Yes, Corporal Baker." Lucien spoke very quietly. "None of us wants the battle ahead, but we have no choice. And if you thought this injury was going to buy your ticket home, l'm sorry to tell you that there are no more ships heading home now. So not only are you going to have to face the Japanese army, you're going to have to do it with only nine fingers and a very sore hand."
Finally Baker looked at him, the fear plain in his eyes. He knew he could be shot for cowardice.
"I'm not going to report this to Command," Lucien told him. "But you'll have to live with what you did for the rest of your life, however long that might be. Now, let's get this bandaged up, shall we?"
20 January 1942
Jean rolled over, trying yet again to get comfortable on the thin straw pallet. She was exhausted after the events of the day before. Leaving her home behind, worrying about her boys, trying to protect them from seeing when Mr. Kinnison was beaten for not following orders quickly enough, the long trip while packed tightly together in the back of the lorry, the trek from the gates of the internment camp to the women's compound at the very rear while struggling under the weight of their belongings and carrying the worn-out Jack on her hip. Then, once they arrived, trying to arrange the area assigned to them for maximum convenience. At least they had a corner area, which allowed them a modicum of privacy. And her upbringing in a rural area made her accustomed to the primitive toilet facilities. She could just imagine Susan Tyneman's reaction.
With all that upheaval, she should have had no trouble sleeping, but she had been tossing and turning for most of the night. She had pulled their two pallets together so that Jack was tucked up against her. She saw that he was sucking his thumb again, something he had abandoned long ago. She couldn't admonish him for something that gave him comfort in this situation. Lord knew, she could use some comfort herself.
She turned to the other side to see Christopher's solemn eyes watching her. Smiling at him, she softly ran her fingers through his brown hair.
"Mum?" he whispered.
"It's all right, love," she told him, just as quietly. "Try to get some sleep, sweetheart."
"You, too, Mum," he responded, but dutifully closed his eyes.
The day had been spent reinforcing their fortifications and setting up gun emplacements. As he sat down for what passed for dinner, Lucien felt sore and weary. He longed for a hot shower or bath, but admitted to himself it would probably be some time before he enjoyed such a luxury again. It was going to be a long battle, and even if the Japanese were repelled, the destruction they would leave behind would likely be devastating.
He was just finishing a rather unappetizing plate of beans when a hand clapped him on the shoulder. He looked up to see Derek Alderton grinning down at him. "So where's the officers' mess?"
"Very funny, Lieutenant," said Lucien. "When did you get here, and why?"
"It's 'Captain' now," said Alderton, tapping the pair of silver bars on his shirt collet.
"So it is. Congratulations, Captain Alderton."
"Thank you, Lucien. I just got here, as a matter of fact. Seems they're sending the bulk of the Australian forces over here." He leaned in close and lowered his voice. "Between you and me, I think they don't trust us as fighters."
"I suppose that's only fair, since we don't trust them as tacticians," Lucien replied in an equally soft tone.
Alderton laughed loudly. "It's nice to know you haven't lost your irreverence."
"Any news from HQ?"
"They're still convinced the main thrust of the assault will be from the south, through the harbour."
Lucien shook his head. "Of course they are."
"But you don't think so."
"The Japanese aircraft have been flying reconnaissance for weeks now. They know exactly where our main fortifications are. Why would they concentrate their forces there?"
"Because it's the easiest place to land."
"Not into the teeth of our big guns. They may try to land some craft there, but as a diversion. Their major thrust will be somewhere else, somewhere we're not expecting," Lucien insisted.
"Possibly. I'm going to suggest to the Brigadier that we send out advanced scouts."
"Well, I suppose it wouldn't hurt," Alderton drawled.
30 January 1942
The monotony of daily life at the camp quickly wore on Jean and the women like her who were used to days of work and care. It was Eve Neville who was the first to step forward and offer her services. She thought the children should be kept busy and said she would be willing to hold classes for them daily.
Eve's generous offer prompted several others to consider what they could do to make their little community run more comfortably. Jean decided she could use her gardening skills. They could certainly stand to see their diet supplemented, since what their captors provided left them all wanting. Using Christopher's survival manual she could identify which of the plants in the jungle around them would be useful and then cultivate them. She knew some had medicinal uses as well, and those might prove invaluable to them.
As more of the women began to offer their services, Susan Tyneman spoke up. "Ladies, we need to do this in an orderly fashion," she announced. "Now then, Miss Neville will be teaching the children, and Mrs. Beazley will tend a garden. Mrs. Connelly, what about you?"
"I can weave palm fronds into hats for all of us," Claire offered. "Especially those like Mrs. Beazley who will be spending time in the sun."
"That's a very good idea," said Jean. "Thank you."
Susan sniffed at the idea of wearing a homemade hat of palm but did not comment on the idea. "And you, Mrs. Turner?"
"I'd like to help with the children," said Dorothy. "Look after the ones too young for school."
"Yes, I suppose that would be helpful," said Susan.
Jean spoke up. "What about you, Susan? What skill will you be contributing?"
"Me?" Susan's hand went to the middle of her chest, totally taken aback at the thought of physical labor of any kind. "Well, my skills are more of the supervisory type. I thought I would..."
"Run things?" asked Eve. "We have plenty of Japanese guards to run things. We need practical contributions to make our life a little easier here, not someone else to order us around."
Susan opened and closed her mouth a few times, then tried to fade into the background. Jean finally took pity on her and turned attention in another direction. "Ruth Dempster, maybe you could help me with the gardening? If I can find all the plants I'm looking for there may be a fair bit of weeding to do."
"Of course I'll help," said Ruth.
And soon they had a veritable community organized.
Lucien had volunteered to take a shift leading the squad on the advance perimeter that had been set up to scout for the enemy. After seeing that everyone was alert and in the correct position, he found a spot on higher ground with a good view of the jungle in front of him. He settled in for the duration.
He was so focused on scanning the area in front of him that he almost missed the footsteps approaching him from behind. When he became aware, he spun quickly, sidearm at the ready, only to see Alderton walking toward him with a big grin on his face.
"Lucien," he cried.
"Keep your voice down!" Lucien whispered fiercely.
Alderton had always been impetuous; that was one of the reasons Lucien had been drawn to him - a kindred spirit. But that had been in a happier time, before his wife had died and his daughter had been sent away. The war had already cost him enough to sober his spirit. As yet Alderton had had no equivalent experience to make him more serious.
"The Japs aren't anywhere near here," Alderton scoffed, in a lower decibel range but still too loud for Lucien's liking.
"You sound very sure of that," Lucien noted quietly.
"I just came from HQ, remember?" Despite his certainty, Alderton's voice was now almost as soft as Lucien's. "They say the Japs aren't going to attack any time soon."
"The same 'they' who were sure Borneo would never fall?" Lucien queried wryly.
Alderton slowly shook his head. "Lucien, if you don't put your trust in HQ you'll never get anywhere in the Army."
"Yes, well, I think I'd rather stay alive than get promoted," Lucien said. "I'll trust my own instincts over HQ's."
Alderton was not swayed. "I'll prove it to you. Let's take a walk, out there." He pointed deeper into the mangroves. "I figure we can get ten miles out and still be back for the end of your shift, especially since we'll run into nothing more deadly than a snake or two."
"I have a job to do here," Lucien reminded him.
"A rather useless job, as you'll see if we go out there."
"And what if we should run into Japanese troops? What then, eh?"
Alderton smiled wolfishly. "Well, then, we'll take care of business, won't we?"
"Yes, and bring the lot of them down on us before we're fully dug in to defend."
"Lucien Blake, when did you get so timid?"
"I prefer to think of it as cautious. Careful." Lucien decided there was no use mentioning how much he'd already lost to this war.
"Don't go soft on me, Lucien," growled Alderton.
"And don't you be stupid, Derek. I intend to survive, and make sure you do as well."
"Oh, I'll survive. No need to worry about me."
15 February 1942
Jean looked over her small garden and nodded with satisfaction. Very soon she would be able to start harvesting. Letup and hairy passion fruit leaves would make for a lovely salad, something that would be a welcome change from their unrelenting diet of rice and seaweed in fish broth.
She had just crouched down to begin weeding when the shouting began. "Stop that!" she heard Eve Neville say sharply.
Brushing off her hands, she hurried inside where "school" was being held. She gasped as she saw the Tyneman boy leaning over Eve with his hand raised threateningly.
"Don't you dare," Jean warned him. He was only twelve years old but already the size of a full-grown man. She walked up to him, hands on her hips, fully prepared to face him down.
But she wasn't the only one who had heard the shouting. One of their guards, the one they called Sniffer because he was always snuffling and sniffling, came in brandishing his rifle. He pointed the weapon at Edward. "You come."
He grabbed the boy's arm and began to pull him towards the door.
"Where are you taking him?" Jean demanded. She didn't much care for the boy, but she had seen the punishment the guards meted out.
Sniffer pointed at Edward then in the direction of the men's compound. "Man, not child."
"No, he's only a child," Jean insisted. "He's only twelve."
"Man," Sniffer insisted. He dragged Edward out the door.
Someone must have alerted Susan, who came hurrying over to take Edward's other arm. "You can't take him," she cried. "He's my boy!"
The guard ignored her and continued on his path, Edward in tow.
Susan ran forward to step into their path. "I won't let you do this to my son," she insisted.
Sniffer stopped and aimed his gun at her. "Man," he said again, nodding at Edward, who was now crying.
When she didn't back away, he put his finger over the trigger of the gun, and from her position in the doorway, Jean had no doubt that he was prepared to shoot Susan. She rushed out to pull the other woman out of the way.
"Do you want Edward to see him kill you?" Jean cried. "Let him go, Susan. Patrick will look after him."
Susan wailed her despair, watching helplessly as Edward was dragged over to the men's camp. Jean knew the women as a whole would be better off with him gone, but that didn't mean she couldn't feel bad for Susan. She was thankful Christopher Jr. was slightly built and well-mannered. She couldn't bear to think of him being sent to the men's compound.
She sighed and moved Susan inside. "Let's make you a cuppa." Or what passes for it here, she thought.
Preparations had continued unabated, with most soldiers relying on benzedrine to keep working day and night beneath constant shelling. Finally, on the fourth day, the actual onslaught began at dawn. The perimeter scouts gave them only a few minutes advance notice, shouting and dragging the wounded into camp with them as they retreated. Lucien was immediately thrust into action as a doctor. He didn't even have time to strap on his sidearm, much less fire a weapon.
He quickly lost track of time, working with limited supplies, equipment and medics to assist him, but in the back of his mind he was aware that the weapons fire around him was growing closer and more intense.
He moved to yet another patient and grimaced to see it was young Corporal Mason, the one who had been working with him to build up their fortifications just a few days before. Now he was lying there screaming in pain with most of his lower left leg blown away.
Lucien had just given him a shot of morphine for the pain when Derek Alderton burst into the tent. "You were right, Lucien," Alderton admitted. "The whole damned Japanese army is coming down on us. Taylor has requested permission for us to fall back but General Bennett refused. It's damn Gallipoli all over again."
"Don't you have something better to do?" Lucien asked him, a definite anger in his voice. He turned back to his patient, trying to stop the bleeding from a torn femoral artery.
"We could get out of here, just you and me, Lucien," Alderton whispered fiercely. "I know a way..."
"Then go," sighed Lucien. "Let me get on with it." And he put all his attention on the young corporal before him.
Mason was slowly becoming aware of his surroundings as the morphine reduced his pain. He recognized Lucien and managed to catch hold of his shirtsleeve. Lucien leaned over him. "Just hang on, Corporal," he urged.
"No, Captain. Don't let the Japs take me, sir. Not like this. I'll never survive in a prison camp like this. I don't want to die a slow death that way. If they come, give me a shot of something to end it quick. Please, Captain!"
Before Lucien could formulate a response, the firing was right outside the medical tent and a moment later he was looking down the barrel of a Japanese rifle.
"Out!" soldier ordered.
"I'm a doctor," said Lucien. "These are my patients. Umm, isha," he said, pointing at himself.
"No walk, no live," barked the soldier, and to Lucien's horror, the man shot Mason in the head. A new reality had begun.
16 February 1942
Jean was satisfied. Her little garden was coming along nicely. It was regularly providing greens and fruit to supplement their communal diet, and so far no one in the women's camp had become seriously ill despite the limited amount of food their captors provided. She was considering ways she might be able to expand the crops, both in quantity and variety.
She went inside to discuss her ideas with Ruth Dempster, and they had just decided what crops they could add when three of the guards entered.
The one they called Bruiser spoke loudly. "All women and children must pack immediately." His English was good, if heavily accented. "In two hours we move to new camp."
There was a howl of collective outrage. They had just gotten things organized here so that they could survive; now they would have to start over again.
"Where are we going?" Susan Tyneman demanded.
"You must pack. Two hours," Bruiser warned. He and the others walked out, heading to the men's camp.
"Oh, what are we going to do?" wailed Susan, wringing her hands.
"What choice do we have?" said Jean. "We're going to pack up and take as much as we can. Now let's get busy."
As quickly as she could, she packed all of their belongings. Then she walked into her garden and began to harvest everything edible and take cuttings and seeds, anything that could be packed up. She might have to start over, but it wouldn't be from scratch.
Ruth came out to help her. Together they wrapped the cuttings in damp cloths, then put them all into a rucksack. Ruth offered to carry it, knowing Jean would have her hands full with her own belongings, those of the boys, plus the two lads themselves to manage. They just had to hope the new camp would have a suitable area for planting.
Lucien was still in a state of shock at seeing his patients executed in front of him. By rote he had packed up all the medical supplies and equipment he could fit in his rucksack, leaving room only for spare socks and undershorts for himself. His captors had confiscated the scalpels but allowed the rest. Now he plodded along with all the other prisoners, heading north through the swamps to God-knew-where. His pack was extremely heavy but he was almost heedless of the weight. From time to time Derek would appear at his side but Lucien was barely aware of his presence, lost in his own head.
They were given nothing to eat, and anyone who seemed to be lagging behind was threatened to be killed. A sergeant, Henry Denton, noticed Lucien's condition and reminded him to drink from his canteen every hour or so.
When night began to fall, the march was halted only because the Japanese were afraid of prisoners slipping away under cover of darkness. They were moved into a tight group with not enough room for anyone to stretch out. The prisoners only managed to sleep by leaning against each other. At daybreak they were ordered up onto their feet and the northward march resumed.
17 February 1942
They had traveled by boat for most of the night. Young Christopher and Jack had been violently seasick for much of the trip, and Jean herself had felt queasy for the latter part of it. All of the prisoners were glad to see the voyage end just before dawn, even if it culminated in a walk of several miles to the camp itself.
The new compound at Changi Prison was huge, comprised of separate camps for British POWs, Australian ones, Indian soldiers, male civilian internees, and the women. There was a large open area in the center, and high stockade-type fences between the camps. Tall watchtowers ringed the outer fence. The commandant's office and the guards' barracks were set off from the camps, but close enough to reach any of them upon a moment's notice.
As they entered the women's camp building, there were audible groans. It was a big, empty building with visible cracks in the walls and a dirt floor. Not even pallets for bedding or any kind of seating. Only a few scattered stones that had probably formed a fire pit for cooking. Jean took just a moment to lament what they had left behind before she turned her attention to how she could make their new circumstances bearable, especially for the boys.
"Right," she said. "First order of business is bedding. Mrs. Connelly, do you think you could show us all how to weave palm fronds so we can make sleeping mats? It may not be very comfortable but at least it will get us off the bare ground."
"Yes, of course," said Claire. "I suppose we could line them with spare clothing to cushion them a little."
"Maybe the children can go outside and start collecting fronds," Jean suggested, "while we unpack and arrange a cooking area."
"Claire and I can oversee the children, show them what we need and make sure they stay away from the fence," Eve Neville offered.
"That's an excellent idea," said Jean, and the women set to work.
By the end of their second full day of nonstop marching on empty stomachs, many of the Australian POWs were close to collapse. Only the certainty that falling behind meant execution kept them going. As the men around him grew weaker, Lucien began to come out of his lethargy and take notice of their plight. Rain overnight had allowed them to replenish their water supplies, so he regularly encouraged them to drink. When they trudged through an area of wild passion fruit vines, he pointed out the ripe orange ones, and the soldiers marching on that side managed to pick quite a few of them surreptitiously, enough for each man to have one, with the rest secreted away for later.
More men began to falter, only managing to keep going with the assistance of their mates. Lucien noted that Corporal Baker was practically being dragged by a burly sergeant. He was sure Baker was now regretting that he had shot his finger off. The pain and blood loss had to be making this nightmarish journey even more hellish.
The prisoners were just trying to hold on until their guards called a halt for the night. One foot in front of the other; ignore the gnawing hunger pains and the aching legs and feet; urge the sun to set more quickly.
Lucien was trying to distract himself by watching those around him to identify the ones in most distress. Baker, of course. Private Morrison, the oldest of them by several years. His musings were interrupted by a cry and then a curse from one of the Japanese soldiers. The one in charge ordered everyone to stop. The man who had cried out sank to the ground, clutching at his ankle.
The leader glanced at his injured man, then barked, "Isha!"
Lucien was immediately in a quandary. As a doctor he was compelled to treat those in need, but as a soldier, could he aid the enemy? He saw his fellow soldiers turn toward him, waiting to see what he would do. Alderton, in particular, stared intently at him. Lucien suspected the injury was nothing more than an ankle sprain so it would hardly impact the war effort, but it might well affect the morale of the men.
Suddenly the choice was removed entirely. The head guard pointed his rifle directly at Private Morrison, and the implication was clear. If Lucien did not comply immediately, prisoners would be killed until he did.
He took a deep breath and handed his pack to Henry Denton. He would assist the injured man, but he would not use any of the precious medical supplies on him. Those were reserved for prisoners.
Stepping forward, he went to examine the injury. As expected, it was a sprained ankle. He pantomimed wrapping it, indicating he needed a bandage. He actually knew more than a smattering of the Japanese language but preferred that his captors were not aware of that.
He was handed a wrap and used it to encase the injury, then stood up. He indicated that the man needed to rest, hoping that would mean a stop for the day. It did. The prisoners were herded into a tight circle again. They were not supposed to talk, but Lucien managed to ascertain who was doing most poorly and offer advice to help them. Baker seemed to have the worst of it, and although Lucien had little sympathy for his self-inflicted wound, he didn't want to see him executed for it. He slipped him some paracetamol to help him get some sleep at least.
Satisfied that he had done the best he could under the circumstances, he leaned against the man behind him and tried to sleep himself.
18 February 1942
After the first day in their new "home" and seeing the small rations that were supposed to sustain them, there was no shortage of volunteers to help Jean reestablish her garden. She and Ruth showed them how to till the soil, making it ready for replanting the shoots and cuttings they had managed to salvage. The dirt was rich, and Jean was hopeful that the frequent showers would provide sufficient water to encourage growth. On a whim she rescued some of the wild flowers that were being dug up. She would plant them along the far border of the garden, thinking they could all do with a little brightness in the days ahead.
She set to work on the plants they had salvaged, working carefully to make sure each one was settled firmly in the soil. She was nearly done when the boys came out to see her.
"Mum, I'm hungry," Jack moaned.
"I know, sweetheart," she said softly, brushing off her hands and reaching for him. "How about a piece of fruit?" She reached into the bag for one.
"No!" he said firmly, swatting it out of her hand. "I want a banana. Or a orange."
"We don't have any bananas or oranges," Jean told him. "It's the passion fruit or nothing, young man."
In a fit, Jack threw his teddy bear as far as he could. Jean gasped as it fell right at the feet of Bruiser the guard.
She froze for a moment, thinking how to get it back. Besides the valuables hidden inside that might be crucial to their survival in the future, Jack needed that bear as a link to normality.
The boy must have immediately regretted his action. He walked up to the guard and stared defiantly at him as he grabbed the stuffed toy. Before Jean could pull him back, Jack glared at Bruiser and shouted, "I don't like you. You're a bad man!"
Swiftly the Japanese soldier backhanded him in the face. Jean scooped her son into her arms, trying to ignore the guard and her own overwhelming fear. Jack howled in pain as she held him to her breast protectively. Her heart was racing as she grabbed Christopher's hand and hurried inside, trying to hear if the guard was following her.
Eve Neville and Dorothy Turner rushed over to her. Jean glanced over her shoulder, but there was no sign of Bruiser. She released Christopher's hand to check on Jack. The older boy darted out the door, but before Jean could go after him, he had returned with the teddy bear that Jack had dropped. "That man is gone, Mum," he assured her.
She pulled Christopher in for a quick hug before turning her attention to Jack, who was still crying and holding his hand up to his jaw, where the red mark stood out starkly. She wished she had some ice to reduce the swelling but then dismissed the wish as ridiculous. She might as well wish for a doctor to look at him, there was just as much chance of that coming true. She tried to think what she had in her tiny store of first aid supplies that might help the child.
Her musing was interrupted when Evelyn Touhey came hurrying in. "There's a new troop of POWs arriving," she announced, "and they're Australian."
"Can we see?" Christopher asked.
Jean thought it might distract Jack, and she did want to see if there might be anyone she knew, although she prayed there wasn't. "What do you think, Jack?" she asked. 'Do you want to see the soldiers?"
He nodded through his tears, still crying. Jean swept him up onto one hip and took Christopher's hand as they went outside. She glanced around to make sure Bruiser wasn't near, but he was off on the far side of the center parade ground, well away from the women's camp.
As she watched the exhausted soldiers shuffle past, Jean thought that at least her Christopher had been spared this. Nevertheless, she peered into each face she could see, looking for any of the men who had trained or served with her husband, or if there were any Ballarat boys she knew from back home. Not a one that she recognized. But one man caught her eye. A captain, tall, well-built, a head of blond curls, his strong arms practically dragging an even larger captain who appeared to be in worse shape than the rest, his tunic covered in blood.
At that moment Jack had spotted Bruiser across the way - he let out a scream and buried his face against her shoulder. Jean bent to kiss him and whisper meaningless reassurances. When she looked up again, the blond captain was looking at her, his startlingly blue eyes catching her gaze. Jack's cry must have caught his attention. She smiled softly at him as she again kissed the top of Jack's head. The soldier looked a question at her, nodding towards Jack, perhaps wondering if he was all right. Not sure herself, she shrugged slightly, and held the boy more tightly. The blond man gave her a soft smile of understanding. Was he a father, too, she wondered.
Then he was past her. She followed him with her eyes as they moved on into the Australian POW camp. As he entered the building, he glanced back over his shoulder, but he was too far away for Jean to tell if he was looking at her.
With nothing further to see, Jean took her boys back inside, but she couldn't help but wonder about the man who was in dire straits himself but still felt sympathy for a mother with a child in distress.
Dawn was approaching and soon the guards would order them to get on their feet to start marching once again. Lucien knew they would begin losing men today. The lack of food was making them all weak; they needed some incentive to keep going.
It was Derek Alderton that provided the incentive, although hardly intending that. He pointed into the jungle at a plant with orange plum-like fruit hanging from it. "Keranji. Tamarind plums," he whispered hoarsely, and before Lucien could stop him he darted off to pick some.
The sudden movement roused the guards who were still dozing. One of them shouted at him, but Derek paid no heed, grabbing as many plums as he could reach. Then, laughing, he started back towards the group.
As he reached them, though, the guard stabbed him with his bayoneted rifle directly in the abdomen. Derek cried out and slumped into the dirt.
Lucien rushed to catch him, ignoring the guard who threatened to do the same to him. Gently he edged the bloody tunic aside to look at the wound. There was a gaping hole, long but not particularly deep. Lucien had to hope no internal organs had been compromised - if they had been, peritonitis was a certainty, rather than just the probability it was otherwise.
Knowing he had to work quickly as the guards would soon be ordering them all to move, he grabbed a suturing needle and line from his pack and stitched it rapidly, looking only to close it as tightly and rapidly as he could. Cosmetic niceties were not an option.
Satisfied that the wound was no longer bleeding, he covered it with a sterile pad, taping it in place. Derek would be in tremendous pain when he regained consciousness. They would worry about that if and when it happened.
He had just finished doing what he could when the guards ordered everyone on their feet. The guard who had stabbed Derek approached, looking to finish the job, but Lucien stepped between them and hoisted the grievously wounded man to his feet, slinging Derek's arm around his shoulders to keep him upright. Henry Denton came forward to take the other side, and together they joined the rest of the prisoners. The lead guard said something to the one with the bayonet, and after an angry glare at Lucien, he moved back into position, and the march resumed.
Lucien and Henry were soon struggling under Derek's dead weight. The lack of food and proper sleep had taken its toll on their strength. "How much longer can they keep us marching do you think?" Henry asked under his breath.
"Wherever we're going, they expect us to get there today," Lucien told him. "I heard them talking earlier."
Henry raised an eyebrow. "In Japanese?"
Nodding, Lucien said quietly, "I can understand a little of it. Better that they don't know."
"Yes, of course," Henry whispered.
They continued on, and slowly Derek started to move his feet, shuffling them until he started to bear some of his own weight.
"I can handle him now," Lucien told Henry. "You take a break."
Henry nodded. "I can relieve you in a while," he promised.
"How are you going?" Lucien asked Derek, when he saw his eyes open, taking his bearings.
"Bloody awful," Derek snarled. "You should have left me to die."
"A long and painful death?"
"What do I have now?" Derek moaned. "Bloody doctors, what do they know? They say fruit is good for you. Yes, well, it hasn't been too good for me, has it? Fruit, healthy? Bugger that. Fruit is dangerous, mark my words."
Lucien chuckled. "Very funny. Making jokes is a good sign."
"You keep telling yourself that when I collapse and you have to drag me along. You'll wish you left me back there too."
And so they trudged on. In truth, Lucien himself was growing weaker by the mile. At one point Henry offered to take over, give him a break for a while, but Derek looked him up and down, and barked, "Dismissed, Sergeant."
Somewhat startled, Henry backed away, questioning Lucien with his eyes, but Lucien had no idea why Derek had reacted in that manner.
When Henry was out of earshot, Lucien remarked, "Was that really called for?"
Derek laughed harshly. "You know, Lucien, you're probably the smartest man I've ever known, and in some ways the most naive."
Thinking that Derek might be the most cynical he himself had ever known, Lucien kept it to himself.
When he got no response, Derek continued to prod him, perhaps hoping to make Lucien mad enough to abandon him to die in peace. He kept his voice low "So naive, in fact, that you couldn't even tell when your wife was sleeping around."
"If you're referring to your affair with her, I'm well aware of it," Lucien told him through gritted teeth.
"She told you?" Derek was taken aback.
"When I was trying to convince her to leave with our daughter, take her to safety. She used every weapon she had."
"So you let her stay and get killed, because she was cheating on you?"
If Derek hadn't been gravely injured, Lucien would have knocked him senseless. As it was, he merely took a deep breath to calm himself before responding. "I tried everything short of tying her up and putting her on that bloody boat by force, but she was an adult and entitled to make up her own mind, even though it meant entrusting my daughter's well-being to the care of some nuns I barely knew!"
Both men seemed embarrassed by Lucien's outburst. They went on in silence for some time.
Lucien was reaching the end of his physical reserves when the men at the front of the procession started chattering among themselves and pointing up ahead. Gradually the jungle growth began to thin out and their destination came into view: a huge prison compound. A sturdy gate reinforced with barbed wire swung aside to admit them. Their march was over, and now the reality of their new circumstances would begin.
Derek seemed to lose his remaining strength, forcing Lucien into dragging him along, with his feet barely moving beneath him. He was only peripherally aware that there were observers watching them, so focused was he on getting them into the building that was their target. He needed to see to Derek and the others.
His singular focus was broken by the cry of a young child. Like any parent, his first thought was that his daughter was in danger. Then he saw it was a young boy, clinging tightly to a woman, most likely his mother. Lucien's heart went out to the woman, who had to deal with two young children in this place of horror. He met her gaze and was immediately impressed with her dignity and composure despite her circumstances. He glanced toward the boy, hoping he was all right, or as all right as he could be at least. She shrugged slightly, and in that tiny movement reflected the uncertainty facing all of them. Lucien could only nod his understanding.
Then they had moved past her and were entering the building. He looked over his shoulder for a last sight of her, but at that moment Derek collapsed and it was all Lucien could do to keep from falling himself. Any thoughts of that lovely woman would have to wait.