Authors: Lizzie Lane
Will they meet again?
Frances Sweet can't really remember her real parents. Brought up by her uncle, her cousins Ruby and Mary have always treated her like their little sister.
As the war continues to keep her cousins separated from the men they love â Frances is growing up fast enough to catch the eye of dashing American soldier Declan. But she also has a greater longing â to find the mother who abandoned her years before â¦
Lizzie Lane was born and brought up in one of the toughest areas of Bristol, the eldest of three siblings who were all born before her parents got round to marrying. Her mother, who had endured both the Depression and war years, was a natural-born story teller, and it's from her telling of actual experiences of the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century that Lizzie gets her inspiration.
Lizzie put both city and rat race behind her in 2012 and moved on to a boat, preferring to lead the simple life where she can write and watch the sun go down without interruption.
A Christmas Wish
A Soldier's Valentine
A Wartime Wife
A Wartime Family
Home for Christmas
Sumatra, September 1942
John Smith eased over on to his side, wincing as he did so. Every bone in his body, every wasted muscle, cried out from the effort. Oh, for a bed with proper springs! Just a dream. Something he'd once enjoyed and nothing like he slept on in this hellhole!
A proper bed! Even a mattress! What he'd give for a feather bed or even a mound of moss in the middle of an English field. Or a Scottish, Irish or Welsh one. A place where the air was cool and his bed soft. Not like this bloody thing, no more than wooden slats banged together with iron nails. And only a few slats at that.
Thanks to burrowing insects and the skin-soaking humidity, the slats rotted quickly and needed frequent replacing. Where slats had not been replaced, only the iron nails remained on the struts sticking up to trap the slack skin of the man who lay on it. It took a great deal of effort to pull them out. Iron nails provided currency, a poor currency maybe, but anything one could barter or sell was like money in the bank. Taken out and hammered straight, they could be exchanged for food, a cigarette, or an extra ounce of rice. You needed a lot of nails to barter for anything like that.
Even here nails had a use: they were needed to form secret compartments in an inmate's bed, or used to form a box which was then buried deep in the dirt floor â anywhere hidden from the Nips â their slang for the Japanese and Korean guards. Everyone kept a little cache of something precious that could be bartered or merely treasured: jewellery, watches â anything that hadn't been taken off them.
Johnnie had originally been interned in Changi â heaven compared to this place, which was surrounded by hot, humid jungle, the air a perpetual swamp of sticky heat.
Leather boots fell to bits, the stitching that had fastened the uppers to the soles rotted away along with the rough bits of string that had long since replaced army issue boot laces.
Men rotted here too. Their uniforms, once proudly worn, were either a mass of ragged patches or completely gone, replaced by a sarong knotted at the waist and obtained in exchange for the last precious item a man might own â a cigarette lighter, a wedding ring, a lucky coin â not so lucky here.
Photographs were vulnerable to both insects and humidity. And photographs were the most precious of all: each photograph contained a memory, a reminder of a life once lived before ending up as a prisoner of war on the other side of the world.
After making sure nobody was watching, John eased the photograph of Ruby Sweet from the tobacco tin he kept it in. The sun was going down and there wasn't much light left. What with the stink of sweating men and the crowded surroundings, it was hardly the most romantic setting in the world. However, he'd made a habit of studying her photo before he fell asleep. In that moment he forgot his dire surroundings. Looking at her kept him sane, gave him hope. He'd received no letters from her since he'd become a POW, but then, he conceded, it wasn't her fault. None of the other blokes had received letters either. The only one he had was the one he'd received before Singapore had fallen. He'd read it until the folds broke, the paper softened with moisture. Still he kept it; and kept reading it, even though he could recite it almost word for word by now.
The letter contained a recipe. He'd read that recipe over and over again, salivating as he did so. In his mind's eye, he could see her giving one of her cooking demonstrations. Those memories always made him smile.
The photograph had been taken by an official of the Ministry of Food for propaganda purposes. He'd been lucky enough to persuade the photographer to make an extra copy for him. He'd forgotten to tell Ruby about it, but he was glad he had it.
Gazing at the photograph, he remembered everything about their time together. In fact, he went over each occasion in his mind as often as he could just so he wouldn't forget that he'd once known her in another life.
Another life. In this one, fear had become a tight band around his chest. Hopefully, he would return to that other life. He held on to the hope that he would survive his incarceration, that the war would end and Ruby would be waiting for him. He imagined her cooking an evening meal, just for the two of them, husband and wife. The future he imagined with her might be a leap too far, but a future in which they would be together was the only thing keeping him going.
What would she say about that? he wondered, and couldn't help smiling. They'd never expressed anything definite. They'd just flirted. Sometimes they'd argued, but they'd been slowly getting closer. And then there was that day in the field close to the railway station. I mean, you can't get much closer than that, he thought to himself.
He sighed, rolled on to his back and held the photograph to his chest with both hands. If it wasn't for his memories of Ruby, he would go mad. If he didn't cling to the hope of better things to come, he would give up and die.
Hope had surged in his chest a few days ago when the Japanese guards had come round with postcards for them to fill in. It was whispered that the cards would be passed to the Red Cross, who would in turn send them to their loved ones. The camp commandant confirmed it. The prisoners, starved, despondent and abused, had received such promises before. But then no cards had materialised. The conclusion had been that their captors had been playing with them, giving them hope in exchange for them behaving themselves.
But this time the cards had actually materialised. They dared to hope that it wasn't just a ruse. Hopefully, the postcards really would be handed over to the Red Cross and sent home.
Like the other blokes, John had avidly filled his in. There had been a fight over the few pencils they'd been handed and he'd made the mistake of getting involved. The butt of a Japanese rifle had connected with his forehead. His eye had been half-closed as a result of it, blood trickling down his cheek. It wasn't the first time he'd been beaten. Everyone had. Bleeding was a consequence of being a prisoner of the Japanese.
He'd ignored the blood and kept writing what they'd told him to write:
I am well. I am being well treated. The Japanese are winning the war.
Nobody dared deviate. It stuck in his craw that he had to write the lies dictated to them. He so wanted to tell Ruby the truth about how cruel their captors could be. But how?
In the past, early on in the war, he'd got round the army censors by adding a cryptic note in his letters that left her in no doubt of where he was and what was going on. That was what he wanted to do now, but it wasn't easy, not here. The guards were watching him closely. The camp commandant and his aides were carefully scrutinising each card. Those whose English was poor merely counted the words, comparing one card with another.
How to let Ruby know the truth?
A droplet of blood had fallen on to his hand from the cut above his eyebrow where the rifle butt had split the skin, and for a moment he had stared at it as though surprised there was any blood left in his body, he was that thin.
A number of flies began to buzz around the spilled blood. Another droplet fell on to the card as an idea formed in his mind.
He glanced swiftly around him. The coast was clear. The prisoners were concentrating on writing their cards, the guards on collecting the finished articles and reading what they had written.
Nobody saw him press his thumb into the droplet of blood that had fallen on to the card. Was it too obvious? He didn't think so. No more than a smudge, almost like mud â unless one looked very closely.
It was done! Now all he had to hope was that nobody would notice it.
His heart had been in his mouth as the postcards were snatched and flicked like a pack of cards by an officer who could read English. He might see the right number of words, but he was holding them at the corners. The imprint was hidden. After that they were placed into a box marked with the Red Cross insignia. The cards were taken away for despatch â at least he hoped they were.
Now John lay back on his hard bed. From outside the tent he heard the chattering of monkeys, the droning of insects; and inside there was the sobbing of a man a few beds down from his. Groans, murmured prayers and whispering voices were background noises he'd grown used to.
Despite everything, he still felt incredibly elated. His message was there on the postcard, printed in blood. Never mind the reassuring words that he was well and being taken care of. The bloodied fingerprint would tell the truth. But would Ruby see it and understand? He sorely hoped that she would.
On the day Mary Sweet finally left Oldland Common for good, the train journey to the east of England seemed to take for ever. It had been bad enough the first time round when she'd fled in haste to visit Michael in hospital. Fear and apprehension had travelled with her, and the dull weather had done nothing to raise her spirits. She had left early in the morning in autumnal darkness, a darkness that had only lightened to grey thanks to the gloomy sky and pouring rain.