14. August 2020 · Comments Off on A Bit From the New Book… · Categories: Uncategorized

(For which I am accepting suggestions for a title. The basic premise is the WWII experience of two women – cousins and descendants from the Adelsverein Trilogy characters: one is married to an English planter in Malaya, and the other a nurse in the US Army.)

The road to the south, to Kuala Lumpur was crowded, automobiles full of English families crawling slowly along in the afternoon heat. When they passed through a kampong, the pungent smell of garbage on the heavy air; that smoke and stagnant water in the ditches, privies and ponds surrounding the attap houses on stilts made Peg want to vomit. Ada Dawlish drove expertly, her hands clamped onto the wheel of the Dawlish’s Austin sedan, her eyes fixed on the road, and the dusty bumper of the car just ahead, while the sun burned in a pitiless blue sky.  

“Where are we to stay, once we get to KL?” Now that Peg was fully awake, she could think of practical things.

From the front seat, Ada Dawlish answered steely and determined, “I think we should go on to Singapore, just as Reg and Tommy said. We can go to my brother’s place. He’s certain to have room enough. He has a house in the Dalvey Road, near to the Tanglin Club – and if he can’t put us up, he’ll know of a place for you to stay. And when Tommy and Reg get to Singapore, they’ll know where to find us.” The steely resolve cracked, just a bit. “Thank god the girls are in England! Safe enough from all this. I’d have stayed with them there, if we had the slightest hint that something like this would happen! Why can’t we stop those yellow bastards! Isn’t the British Army and Navy good for anything?”

In Miss Hui’s arms, little Tommy stirred from sleep, and murmured something – good heavens, was it in Chinese? Whatever it was, Miss Hui produced a bottle of water from her own bundle of possessions. Little Tommy drank from it, thirstily, and Miss Hui met Peg’s gaze.

“He thirsty, Mem,” was all that she said, and Peg thought guiltily that she should have thought of all that. At the very least, considered that they all should have brought along something cool to drink for the long slow drive to KL. It was a nerve-wracking journey and seemed to take two or three times as long as normal, this slow, dust-clogged journey. More than once, Peg was horrified at the sight of airplanes swooping low over the road, the blood-red ball clear and plain on their wings. She remembered the newsreels, of refugee-clogged roads in France, machine-gunned by German Stuka dive-bombers. The very first time that it happened, Ada saw them coming, a line like the dark wings of gulls in the cloudless sky to the south. Fortune had it that they were at a point in the winding road towards KL where Ada had space to pull the Austin off on the side of the road, a roadside thickly grown with tall trees and rustling stands of cane. Ada set the brake and snapped,

“Everyone out!” Ada flung herself out of the driver side door, and Peg, half-asleep from the heat, tumbled out from the passenger door, Miss Hui and little Tommy on her heels. They crouched among the stands of cane, as the roar of engines overhead blotted out all sound. There a moment, and in another gone, lifting up into the hot blue afternoon sky to the north. Peg picked herself up, comforted her son, who was fractious and frightened. They resumed their seats in the Dawlish’s Austin, seats now hot and sticky from the enervating heat, and continued on.

Sometime in early evening, well after sunset and black-out time (which would have made the roads nearly as perilous as an overt air raid), they finally arrived in the forecourt of the splendors of KL’s enormous and sprawling main station, with the Mughal-style pavilions perched atop the grand staircase columns. Ada Dawlish parked the Austin as close as she could and looked at the keys in her hand.

“I don’t know what I am supposed to do with the car,” she said. “Although – I wish that I could blow it up, to keep the Japs from using it. From what Tommy said, they might be here in a couple of days, maybe as much as a week.”

“Those bastards,” Peg replied, with feeling. “How could this all be happening so fast, Ada? Barely two weeks ago, everything was peaceful … well, not everywhere, but here in Malaya. But everything was calm, ordinary … we had meals on the veranda, went for walks in the garden, played tennis and had stengahs with our friends at the Club … and between one week and the next …”

“I’ll carry your suitcase,” Ada replied, grimly, as if she had not heard a single word. “You shouldn’t be lifting anything heavy in your condition, and damn if I can see any porters around.” She took out the two suitcases, already having her handbag slung like a satchel over her shoulder. “We’re on the run, and running thin, as little as we like facing that reality, Peg. Ever since they sank the Repulse and the Prince of Wales… we’ve been at a disadvantage. Hate to say admit it but we are, and nothing broadcast over the wireless or published in the Straits Times will convince me otherwise. And nothing good will come from giving up Penang and running like cowards. We underestimated the Japs, and now we’re paying the price for arrogance. But Singapore will hold out. It’s a fortress, like Gibraltar, you know. Our chaps will be able to hold – we’re being reinforced from India and Australia. And I wouldn’t count out the Volunteers, no, not by any chalk.”

Peg took Little Tommy’s small hand; Miss Hui had his other hand. Miss Hui had her shapeless rucksack slung over her shoulder. She found Ada’s comment rather bracing; brutal but realistic. At a time like this, brutally realistic had it all over unrealistic hopes, and soothing announcements on the radio. Meanwhile, Ada put the keys to the Austin under the driver seat, and left the door unlocked, saying, “If Reg comes for it, he’ll know where to find them. And if he doesn’t – it means nothing. Let’s go get our tickets, Peg – or if not, get a room at the station hotel or at the Majestic until morning.” She sent a searching look over her shoulder at Peg. “You look exhausted, Peg. You ought to get a good rest, if there isn’t a train tonight. If you lose the sprog to a miscarriage, Tommy will never forgive us.”

“I’m fine,” Peg insisted, for she didn’t feel nearly as frail as everyone insisted that a visibly pregnant woman ought to be. She had bursts of energy, where she honestly felt that she could climb mountains – albeit rather small mountains. They walked into the station together, into the chaos in the main hall. The main hall was filled with women and children, British mostly, or Australian and loudly querulous. The few station staff present looked baffled and defensive. The roar of voices in the railway hall, amplified by the space, was nearly as overwhelming as the racket from the Jap airplanes, buzzing the road from Ipoh.

“Dear God,” Ada breathed. “It’s been the usual cock-up on all sides, Peg. It looks like no one in KL had the faintest clue about an organized evacuation. About typical for this bloody war, I’d say.”

“Shouldn’t we do something?” Peg suggested, hesitantly, but Ada shook her head, and since her hands were full of suitcases, merely jerked her head in the direction of a cluster of women. Two of them at the center of it seemed to be making lists and directing the rest of them here and there.

“I’d say that lot have got it sorted, but I’ll check and see if they need anything else,” Ada set down the suitcases close to the nearest bench, and went to speak to the other women, all of whom appeared as rattled and exhausted as Peg felt. Only Miss Hui seemed impervious to the enervating heat, the sense of subdued panic in the air, and the sheer unpredictability of it all. For this, Peg was grateful; Miss Hui’s calm kept little Tommy on an even keel. She couldn’t think how she would have managed a frightened, tantrum-prone toddler on this horrific day. Now Miss Hui made a seat for herself on the suitcases, with little Tommy half-asleep in her lap. Peg sank onto the bench, her handbag in her lap, a handbag bulging with all the unaccustomed items crammed into it at the last minute.

So many things, all left behind in that frantic few minutes. Nearly three years of her life – her married life with Tommy, all the little bits and pieces of a settled, happy existence, the easy routine of things in the sprawling bungalow – all swept away, but for a few bits in her suitcase. She had been half-asleep, and harried; she would have made a better and more sensible choice of things to take with her, had she been fully awake and thinking more rationally.

The baby turned over and kicked within her. Peg gasped, at once startled and relieved. No hurt taken to what Ada called ‘the sprog’ on this awful, draining day. Now it was Ada returning, with a somewhat lightened expression on her perfect English Rose of a face.

“Not to worry, Peg – they are all mining people, from up-country. Their husbands all work for Anglo-Oriental, and they’re being taken care of – parceled out to the houses of Anglo-Oriental employees here in KL for the term of evacuation. I think we should get a room – I could murder a stengah, or two, and you and the sprog ought to have something to eat, and a good meal. Then,” and Ada’s expression hardened. “I think we should go on to Singapore in the morning. As soon as we can.”

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