Authors: Martin Booth
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N WRITING THIS
novel, I am indebted to a number of people from whom I obtained much help, advice and encouragement. I am most grateful to Dr A.H.R. Coombes, MBE, and M.M. Swan, ISO, for their recollections of the fall of Hong Kong and Japan; to N.H. (‘Yagi’) Colley for his memories of the sinking of the
and his liberation; to G.P. Adams for his knowledge of prison camps in Japan and for his informative book
to the librarian of the Embassy of Japan in London; to J. Teicher, who researched details of the despatches of General MacArthur in the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.; to Harry Guest, for helping me through the complexities of Japanese maps; and to my parents, who provided jarring memories of the Hong Kong of my childhood throughout the writing of this book.
Finally, I owe considerable thanks to Miss Yasuko Fujiwara in Hiroshima who invaluably researched the year of the bomb for me, corrected my Japanese, sought out the most obscure details on Japanese wartime life and generally guided me through the web of detail. Without her, the story would have been infinitely poorer.
Hong Kong: Spring, 1952
ANDINGHAM WOKE WITH
a jerk, puppet-like, life surging through him as if he were in the hands of some impatient grand controller, someone who had snapped a switch that coursed a charge of electricity through him. His dream was already forgotten in the panic of coming round. His left hand was folded under his chest. It was numb, and this had been a part of the dream, although now he was unable to say how. His right hand was lying on the pillow next to his face and in the semi-darkness of the room it looked whitely ill. His entire body was damp with sweat and the cotton sheet that covered him stuck to his back and clung to his vertebrae where they showed through the skin.
Slowly, he reached for the battered alarm clock that rested on the glass top of the bedside table. Under its cracked leather case was arranged a set of hotel rules and a tariff card; between these he had lodged a tattered photograph of a young man in loose army drill shorts and a battle-dress blouse. The person in the photograph was wryly smiling, as if aware of what fate and the years held in readiness for him. Beneath his feet, across the dry grass of a lost Malayan summer, was scrawled in blue ink, ‘Bob: Penang, 1939’.
The night before, as on the nights before that, he had forgotten to wind the clock and it had run down at 2.09. Even after seven years he could not get used to turning the key before sleeping. He had forced himself to grow so much out of the habit of counting time. It was enough just to let the days slip past, unheeded and uncared for. Every so often, though, he found a deep need to time-keep, and this worried him. He knew he should not count the days and yet sometimes he did. To mark off a mental time-sheet was a sign of optimism, anticipation, a readying for a time to come; yet he knew he had nothing for which to prepare.
He shook the clock viciously and it started ticking again. As soon as he put it down, the mechanism stopped. The tips of the hands phosphoresced dully but the spot of luminous paint over the twelve had peeled off, to leave a grey spot, like a blind eye.
He turned on to his back, then sat up and rubbed his forearm to regain circulation. As he worked at the skin he noticed, as he so often did, its faint pallor and coarseness. His massage also caused tiny shards of tissue to flake off, as if his arm had dandruff. The minute jabbing pains that he felt as his hand passed over the flesh made him wince.
With his arm restored, he leaned over and tugged open the drawer of the bedside table. His fingers fumbled through the contents – an old army paybook, some dog-eared letters in airmail envelopes, nearly a dollar’s worth of change in ten-cent coins, a fountain pen with a cracked case, a comb with a thick conglomeration of grease accumulated at the base of the teeth, a used khaki handkerchief, a British passport and a cardboard pocket calendar for 1952 – until they found a half-empty packet of Lucky Strike and a box of matches with a yellow and red label decorated with two world globes illuminated by a single match and a pair of Chinese characters. He lit one of the cigarettes and lay back upon the pillow, concentrating only on blowing the smoke into the air. His fingers’ first joints were stained by nicotine and they quivered, almost imperceptibly.
Outside, the last of the night was close and warm. Although it was less than an hour to dawn the buildings still retained some of the heat of the previous day. The window of his second-floor room was open, but it faced only a bleak concrete wall which was punctuated, some yards off, by the vertical line of frosted glass panes to the stairwell of the next building. Somewhere above him he could hear the clatter of mah-jong tiles across a hardwood table top and the laughter of the players rising and falling. The game had lasted through the night and it too had played an indecipherable part in his dream.
With the cigarette smoked down as near to his fingers as he could stand, he pinched it out and, certain that the flame was extinguished, crushed the remaining quarter of an inch into a dented tobacco tin. This he placed at the rear of the bedside-table shelf, covering it with the Bible that came with the room. It was not that he was afraid that one of the hotel roomboys would steal it: he knew they wouldn’t. And it wasn’t because he was ashamed to hoard the fag-ends in order to roll remnants up later. It was just that he was used to doing this, had done it for many years. Like not winding the clock, it was something to which he was accustomed by training; perhaps even by instinct. He did not know and he could not tell.
Balancing on one elbow, he reached for the cord of the faintly blue venetian blind. He pulled firmly and the slats of the blind shuttled together loudly as he raised it. Dawn had come while he was smoking and daylight had already overpowered the glim of the neon street lamps.
The metal window-frames were warm to his touch. Gripping them he peered out of the window, craning his head sideways to catch a glimpse of the papaya tree at the end of the alleyway between the two buildings. He could just see it, the fruit hanging down pendulously from under the canopy of broad leaves. The tree reminded him of another papaya, one that had been so close to him for so long and had yet been wholly unobtainable. He had watched the fruit on that other tree grow and fill, turn from dark to light green and then to a peachy cream that developed into the soft, subtle yellow of maturity. From the present tree he had never seen any fruit drop. It was always picked by someone unseen. It was as if they came in the night and spirited the goodness away: often staring at the fruit in the mornings, he could actually taste the firm sweetness of the pinkish flesh in his mouth. Once he had even seen the debris of black pips just outside the wire, and had tried to reach them with his hand. They were too far off so he had gone to get a bamboo broom, but by the time he returned with it two speckle-breasted birds had pecked clean the spot in the dust. They had flown off guiltily as he approached.
It was while leaning out of the window that he made his decision. Today he would have a papaya fruit. The lowest was very nearly ripe. If he took it now and kept it on his windowsill it might just ripen. Of course, the roomboys might find it. But then he could hide it in the cupboard, under his dirty clothing, until they had finished cleaning the rooms on his corridor, and place it on the sill afterwards. They usually reached his room by half-past nine each morning.
The sunlight, reflected off the wall outside, should be sufficiently strong to ripen the fruit. After all, in nature they ripened under the shade of the leaves. If it did not ripen then he’d eat it however it was.
He dressed stealthily in a creased, off-white shirt without a collar and a pair of loose underpants. Over these he pulled a pair of dark trousers, with frayed turn-ups. They were old and slightly long for him – hardly surprising, as they had not been tailored to fit him. He put on unwashed grey socks and slipped his feet into scuffed brown brogues with rubber soles. He owned two pairs of shoes – the other pair was black with leather soles – but, at this moment, brogues seemed the more appropriate. He wouldn’t be heard walking in them and they would give him added grip.
He opened the door. The verandah corridor outside his room was deserted. It ran along to the left then, at a T-junction, joined the main corridor. Across the central courtyard he could see the pebble-glass window of the ground floor office where the night-duty porter would now be sitting, dozing. The strip light was still on over the desk.
Turning right, he came to a navy-blue painted door and slipped the catch. It clicked loudly and he glanced through it, shutting it gently but firmly behind him.
He was on a staircase that was never seen by ordinary guests of the hotel. It was made of bare concrete and its walls were whitewashed. Upon each step was piled cleaning equipment – mops, galvanised buckets, brooms, boxes of lavatory cleaner and Mansion floor polish.
By the head of the stairs, at a thin landing from which a door opened out to the flat roof of the hotel, lived the gardener. He slept there in a folding camp-bed, his belongings stored in two small apple crates and a cheap suitcase which he secured by parcelling it up with a length of chain and a brass padlock.
It was imperative not to awaken him for he was easily angered and his gaunt, tight-skinned face was quick to mirror his mercurial soul.
With the skill of long practice, Sandingham crept up the stairs to the last angle before the gardener’s bed. It was not an easy manoeuvre, for the equipment and stores that were kept there were, in places, precariously balanced. He had to be very careful not to touch anything. One object knocked over would be sure to domino into others below it. That would be disastrous. From overhead came a grunt and a volley of exhaled breaths: the gardener was soundly asleep.
As he went deeper into the well, Sandingham saw the articles change from cleaning materials to tins of soup, vegetables, fruit and meat products. These were new: they had not been there the last time he had edged his way down. The lower flights had held only bundles of newly-delivered laundry then. He was certain the food would remain there for a short time only, until the shelf space was found for it in some storeroom.
At the foot of the staircase was a metal door with a Yale lock. He opened this, being careful to put it on the latch, for he wanted to return this way.
A narrow passageway led off to the right from the door and he took it, careful not to disturb the lids of dustbins that stood alongside it, against the street wall of the hotel grounds. From over the wall he could hear footsteps moving along the pavement. They fell with slow deliberation and he visualised a Hong Kong police constable on his beat, black leather belt, revolver holster and peak cap glinting in the early light. Standing on an empty tea chest, Sandingham looked warily through strands of barbed wire strung on metal posts along the top of the wall. His fears were instantly soothed. Instead of a policeman walking the pavement an elderly man in a loose-fitting suit of black cloth was counting through a thin wad of dollar bills. He had come out of the back yard of the building next door.