25. August 2020 · Comments Off on Another Snippet from The W-I-P · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(Which I am considering titling it “My Dear Cuz”)

(Peg, Little Tommy and their friend Ada Dawlish are about to leave Singapore)

At the appointed hour Ada and Peg waited impatiently in Arthur’s sitting room. Their suitcases were already outside under the port cochère. It was just before twilight, a twilight darkened by a pall of black oil smoke spewing from the refinery at Pulau Bukom. Rumor in the Dalvey Road had it that the Shell tanks and refinery had been deliberately set ablaze, Little Tommy sat on the steps to the house, engaged in a lively but imaginary talk with Teddy-Pooh, while Ang and Miss Hui lingered there, keeping watch and speaking quietly to each other. Ada didn’t understand a word of Chinese, but they sounded worried. Arthur, already clad in his ARP overall, was reading the Straits Times, by the light of a single light in the room.

There was little to say that hadn’t already been said, and the two women waited in silence. It was fairly quiet at the moment, only the distant grumble of airplane engines from the direction of the docks. Almost certainly Japanese – they had not seen an RAF aircraft in weeks. There was an amusing and slightly incredible story on the front page, concerning an Australian sniper who had ‘counted coup’ against the Japs by having a fellow soldier ventriloquist distract attention by throwing his voice. Peg was not sure if she believed it or not – it had the ring of a ‘tall tale’ such as the old ranch hands at the Becker place had often told.

Finally, Arthur set aside the Times, remarking, “I hear a car coming up the road – I suppose it’s young Gregory. Are you ready, my dears?”

“We are,” Ada replied, settling her hat on her head, and pulling on her light coat. “Thank you for everything, Art … I don’t know…” her voice caught, and then she recovered. “If Reg or Tommy comes here, looking for us. Well, you know … you really ought to think about getting away, yourself, you know.”

“Why should I?” Arthur replied, calmly. “Not the done thing to turn coward and run away, Ada my dear. Besides, women and children first.”

“Birkenhead drill,” Ada sounded as if she were caught between laughing and crying. “Silly old Art. Well, take care of yourself, old thing. I’ll try and send a wire when we get to Australia.”

“You do that,” Arthur replied comfortably, although Peg was thinking that such a message would be unlikely to be sent, if and when the Japs took Singapore. Arthur kissed his younger sister casually, as if she were departing for an afternoon at the Club. Silently, Peg donned her own hat and followed after.

The auto engine sounded louder, as it crept hesitantly along the road. To Peg and Ada’s mutual relief, the vehicle turned in, driving between the gateposts before Arthur’s bungalow; a small and battered Ford van with the Royal Dutch Shell company logo emblazoned on the doors.

Peter Gregory emerged from behind the driver’s side door.

“Your carriage awaits, milady, and milady and young lord,” he said, a reckless grin illuminating his face. He was lanky and angular, like Tommy, which was why Peg had noticed him among Arthur’s friends at the Tanglin, and unmistakably a Texan, which made in them kindred spirits in a relatively alien world.

“We were getting worried,” Ada confessed with a laugh. “But you are the hero of the hour, you know.”

“Always happy to come to the aid of ladies in distress, ma’am,” Peter Gregory drawled, so thick and country-Texan that one could slice it with a knife. “I’ll throw your traps in the back … hey, young fella, you an’ that ferocious critter of yours want to come for a ride?”

“We’re going to visit Granny in Brisbane,” Little Tommy announced. He came and stood between Ada and Peg, Teddy-Pooh clutched firmly in one hand. “Are you the syce, then?”

Peg dissolved in an agony of embarrassment. “No, he isn’t,” she reproved her son. “He’s a friend who is going to take is to the dock, to the ship we have to go on, to see Granny Morehouse. Now, come along – we’ll all have to sit on the one seat together, since there isn’t any room in the back, you see.”

“I’ll take him on my lap, then.” Ada said, as Peter Gregory opened the passenger door; and that was how they piled into the van; Peg in the middle, next to Peter Gregory, and Ada next to the door with Little Tommy in her lap, and Teddy-Pooh clutched firmly to him, all of them elbow to elbow.

“I had to avoid traffic on the Alexandra Road,” Peter Gregory announced, as he put the van in gear, and they set off, wedged thigh to thigh on the van’s narrow front seat. Overhead, the black cloud of smoke was edged with blood-red and fiery gold. “But I think I shall have to take side streets. To be safe, you see. Slower – but you should be in time for the Empire Star. They’re waiting on other parties, who must come from farther away.”

“Are you making plans for your own escape, then?” That was Ada, blunt as ever. “I don’t think that Singapore will last very much longer.”

“I sure am, ma’am,” Peter Gregory smiled, as cheery as if he were on a peacetime drive in the country. “Me and some other fellows have our eyes on a fine little thirty-footer, moored at an out-of-the-way anchorage. Another day or so, we’ll wrap up our business here, and be on our way. Don’t worry none about us, ma’am. We’ll be fine.”

“If you have a chance to convince my brother to leave,” Ada said, “Can you take him with you?”

“I’ll see what I can do, ma’am,” Peter Gregory replied, his eyes on the road ahead, as the little van bumped along. “But I can’t make any promises – we might have to leave in a hurry.”

“I understand,” Ada replied, and then she was silent, looking out of the van’s windows at the darkening streets. There were few people about, and even fewer lights, because of the air raids. The smoke-dark skies were almost entirely black, by the time they reached the harbor area, and there were many more vehicles of all sorts, as well as pedestrians along the sidewalks, many of them carrying suitcases, rucksacks and unwieldy bundles, moving along like silent and aimless automatons, returning to their houses at night, after taking shelter in fields and gardens from the constant Japanese air raids on the inhabited parts of the city. Eventually they were crowding into the road – many of them soldiers from their packs and flat helmets, straggling along. The little van slowed to a bare crawl.

“I’ll take you as far as I can,” Peter Gregory finally said. “They’re setting up sentry posts and road-blocks close in. You might have to walk after that.”

“We’ll be all right,” Ada assured him.

Peter, with one hand on the steering wheel, put his head out the window, shouting irritably, “Make a space, then – all right? Two women and a kid here for the Empire Star tonight, do you mind?”

Out of the darkness several irritated male voices – Australian by their accents – replied with unprintably obscene suggestions and Peter laid on the horn and continued shouting impatiently from the window. That at least got space in the road for the little van to move ahead, closer and closer to the docks.

Against the dark, shielded lamps shed a little light. Out to the west, sunset left a malign red glow against the horizon. Peter Gregory’s little van finally came to a halt at a barricade, where an armed sentry waved him to a halt, and an officer, the muted light reflecting on his gold pips,  shone a shielded battery torch into the van from the passenger side.

“Sorry, sir – further access in’t allowed,” the soldier said apologetically. “Passengers for the evacuation ships have to walk from here.”

“How far, then?” Peg was exhausted, at least as much from tension from the short drive from the Tanglin neighborhood as from the burden of being heavily pregnant.

“Not far,” the officer replied, as he helped Ada and Little Tommy down from their seat. Peg slid out, feeling awkward and clumsy. “Sorry, ma’am – I can’t let your driver go any farther. Do you have your exit papers and passport ready? Oh, jolly good. You’ll need them ready … will you need help with the baggage, ma’am? I’m certain that I can…”

“I would hate to put you to any further trouble,” Ada retorted grandly. “As you have already been so much help!” She had their pair of suitcases, which Peter Gregory handed to her from the back of the van,  one in either hand. It didn’t escape Peg that Peter grinned broadly at that sally, even as Ada thanked him for his care for them on the tension-ridden journey from Arthur’s house.

“I’ll see you soon, then!” He ruffled Little Tommy’s hair, nodded to Ada and shook Peg’s hand. “Safe journey, OK! See you in Australia, then.”

“I’m sure we will,” Peg replied, although she was altogether positive that she would never see Peter Gregory or Arthur Nicholl again, not this side of the grave. “Take care, Peter.”

He waved jauntily and got into the van – turning it with much care, among the fresh crowd, pressing against the guarded barrier. In a moment the van was out of sight. Peg took Little Tommy’s hand, and she and Ada walked along the crowded docks, following a crowd of other women, most of them trailing children and lugging suitcases as they were, although there was a bevy of Australian nurses ahead of them in the straggling column

There was an air raid alarm wailing near at hand. Hardly anyone paid attention, so hardened and accustomed had everyone came to these eventualities, and so urgent was everyone’s need to board that ship – the Empire Star, whose black hull now blocked the view of the harbor. She was a well-traveled and well-known steamship at Singapore and KL, mostly in the business of transporting cold-storage beef from Australia, in which enterprise she made frequent stops at ports all the length of the South China seas. An array of derricks and hoists sprouted from her top deck, all the better to shift cargo with. Not a particularly luxurious transport, but an accommodating one, which offered two-score of private cabins on the first deck for the convenience of travelers in no hurry or need of luxurious accommodation.

Exhausted beyond all but the most basic feelings, Peg took in their cabin, which they were told, they would share with several other woman evacuees and their children.

“I don’t care,” Peg said, crawling into the lowest of the four bunks. She was fully-clothed, sweating from the humid heat in the confines of the tiny cabin. “I just need to lie down. I’m spent, Ada. I need to sleep.” Without a word, Little Tommy joined her.

“There, there, Mummy,” her son said, with all seriousness. “Teddy-Pooh is here, now. Will you sleep well with Teddy-Pooh? I always do. Amah said that I am big and brave now, and Oldest Son. Do you need Teddy-Pooh, Mummy?”

“Not so much,” Peg answered. She hugged Little Tommy and his precious bear to her, lying comfortably at her side on the narrow bunk. “I have you now, sweetheart.”      

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