The prisoner and the jailer
From the outside the building looked much like any other warehouse in Sidoni's Chinatown squatting amongst run-down terraces on the hilly streets of Surry Hills. Only the faded sign on the parapet reading 'Chinese Masonic Hall' indicated any use. And as anyone in the neighborhood could tell you, its real function as an 'office' of the Kempeitei bore no resemblance to its masonic origins. They averted their eyes when the passed by. They blocked their ears at the sounds they heard late at night. They pretended not to smell the stench that sometimes came from the basements. They had to live around it, with it, confined in their crowded quarter under the tight surveillance suffered by all Chinese.
John half stood, half sat inside the cage. There were three other men with him. They could neither stand nor sit not lie down. The dimensions of the iron-barred cage made any attempt at comfort impossible. The concrete floor beneath the bars was slippery with urine and shit. Already he could feel fungi growing on his damp feet. One of the other men had weeping, rancid sores on his ankles and knees. The stink of decaying flesh was unbearable. There were two other cages in the same cellar, also full of men only partly alive. The heat and moisture were made worse by several glaring fluorescent lights that had never been turned off in all the time he had been there. How many days was it now? He didn't know, had no way of trying to work it out. None of the others had any sense of time or of how long they had been there. The only time anyone came into the room was either to wrench someone from a cage and take them away for more questioning, or to occasionally throw a small box of stale rice and dried fish into the cages.
The first time they had questioned him, John had tried to remain true to his image of the resistance hero, silent, aloof, brave. Looking back, it seemed that they had been humouring him, knowing that he would break eventually but seeing just how long they could spin it out. He sensed that a quick confession would spoil their fun. They had slapped his face several times, but nothing else other than incessant screaming at him, never really giving him a chance to answer. It had been harrowing, but compared to some of the others in the cages he was relatively unharmed. It was this knowledge that made him see all to clearly the nature and length of his future. No-one, from what he could find out from the others, had ever been released. They just never came back to the fetid cellar. He wondered if anyone would know where he was.
The scraping of the cellar's iron doors across the concrete floor instinctively made all of the men cringe in their cages. A Kempeitei officer stepped into the room wearing rubber boots and sunglasses. A jailer followed him, rattling a bunch of brass keys. The officer came to the cage holding John. He peered through the iron bars, poking at the men with a long bamboo staff. John's shoulder recoiled as the pointed staff jabbed at his bony arm.
"Him, get him out" yelled the officer.
The jailer pushed the key into the cage door lock. The grinding of the lock and the screeching of the rusting hinges echoed around the room. John felt the rough, hard hands grab his arms tightly and felt himself pulled roughly towards the cage door. He fell out into the room and onto the filthy floor.
"Get up, get up" yelled the officer, kicking him in his calves and shins: "Get up now".
The jailer grabbed an iron manacle around his neck and yanked him up. John hadn't even realized the manacle was there. Had he just clamped it on to him then? Before he could gain his balance he was pushed forward and out of the room into a long passage. He stumbled along, continually being pushed and hit so that he could never properly gain his balance until he was again being yelled at.
"Stop. Stop here. No, here, in front of this door" he felt a sharp pain in his ear as he was punched in the side of the head. "Here".
The jailer opened the door, and John was pushed into a small room, tripping on the uneven floor and falling down. "Get up, get up" screamed the officer, again kicking him in the legs. "Get up and stand on the chair".
John struggled to stand up. As he did, he could see a wooden chair illuminated by a single bright light. He could sense the presence of others in the shadows. "Get up, get up on the chair". The jailer took hold of his arms and steered him to the chair, then lifted him up onto the chair seat and held him tightly in position. The officer then pulled his arms behind his back and handcuffed them. Thorough the haze John was dimly aware of a sound like a squeaky wheel above his head, and the itch of rope fibres falling across him. He felt the rope being tied to his handcuffs, and again heard the squeaking.
Without any warning he felt his arms wrenched upwards as daggers of pain began arcing from his shoulder sockets. Then he was trying to balance on his tip toes as he hung from the roof by his dislocating arms. His mind fled back, back to another day ...
...the green smoke of the little flares shrouded the Twenty. As he lost sight of the others he began to run....
...looking over his shoulder, seeing no-one behind him, just running anyway, running ...
...the greenness of Hyde Park, cool shade with sparkles of sunlight falling through the canopy, then the water of the fountain, splashing...
...green smoke again, more green smoke, hiding the sunshine...
"Just one name, the one who has mislead you" the voice simpered in his ear. John could feel the chair beneath his feet.
Before he could answer he was jerked upwards again, daggers stabbing in his shoulders, his chest tearing, his toes reaching for the chair. And again, and again.
Some days later, words fell from John's mouth, names, dates, they slipped from his tongue, sliding down his broken body, dripping onto the vile floor, and from there were stolen away by his torturers. A few days after that he was dragged from the cage for the last time, and began a long and hidden journey to the Yampi iron ore mines.
The liberation of Mrs Welsh
They came for her on the fifth day. By then she had already been outside. The scenes of devastation had shocked her at first. But her sense of the new possibilities that waited soon overcame her feelings. She had walked around most of the streets near her building. Trucks and cars, partly or completely burnt out, some at crazy angles where bombs had blown them, others still parked in marked bays spoke of the rapid transition from suburban road to momentary front line. Many of the windows in the buildings were broken and there was shattered glass everywhere she walked. A four story building along her own street had collapsed, and a huge pile of bricks and rubble sprawled over the block and out onto the street. Several times now she had seen people picking their way through the mound, looking for the possessions of a life that had already gone. The first time she had been out there had been several dead bodies, one in particular stuck in her mind. A boy, perhaps about fourteen or fifteen, lay on his back, sightless eye sockets staring at the sky, his arms stiffly stretching out, beseeching. The body had been burnt, and looked almost mummified except that the terror of his last moments was portrayed in every angle, every mark on the shrunken, twisted remains. Later that day she had seen a party of captured soldiers under the command of several Japanese guards collecting the bodies and piling them into a slow-moving truck. Others had also seen, but none asked where they were going. The shock of defeat was still too raw for anyone to have the luxury of questions.
She had also been down to the water's edge. The little ferry jetty was intact, but all around it she could see sunken boats in the water, some still tied to the piers. Pleasure boats, sad memories of a beautiful afternoon sailing or an evening out fishing, perhaps a lazy row around to a little cove to swim and picnic. Now forlorn debris, waiting for oarsmen and sailors and laughter that might never return.
Oil, petrol, grease of all kinds coagulated and coloured the wavelets. The sheen reflected back the pall of greyish-black smoke that still hung over the city. By the end of the fourth day it was finally beginning to break up.
At the same time some sounds also began to come back. After the constant noise of the bombardement it had been unnaturally quiet. No sounds of battle, No sounds of normal life, of buses and cars, of bells and ferries. Early on the fourth day she heard a seagull, and could hear people in the streets below as they began to venture out, looking for a something that might have opened or a way to get somewhere.
And then, on the fifth day, they came. It was about nine-thirty in the morning. She heard the knocking on the door and her heart leapt. She knew.
She opened the door. A Japanese Marine and a naval officer, a Captain she thought from his insignia, stood there, with a young woman, Formosan perhaps?
"Ohayoo Gozaimasu, Welsh San" said the officer.
"Good morning Mrs Welsh" translated the young woman.
"Ohayoo Gozaimasu Taisa" said Mrs Welsh as she bowed slowly. As she straightened up he acknowledged her knowledge of his rank by a small nod of his head. Mrs Welsh continued in her flawless Japanese "welcome to Sydney and welcome to my humble apartment". She bowed again as the other three bowed to her. She could sense her neighbors listening at their doors. 'Japan-minded' they had said about her before 'a bit soft in the head'. Well, now she would show them. She would be a women to respect in the New Order. She raised her voice, all the better for them to hear. Not that any of them would understand a word she said.
"I have no need of a translator" she said to the young woman. "Won't you all please come inside" she said to the Captain as she stepped back into the hallway to let them enter. "Please excuse the mess, all the fighting and so on". The Captain, his translator and the marine walked into the lounge room. The officer went to the balcony french doors, briefly looking out at the shattered view of the harbour before turning to face Mrs Welsh.
"Certain officers on the staff of Admiral Yamamoto have instructed me to find you Welsh San. They have instructed me to assure you that your many years of service to the Emperor have not gone unnoticed, and that in the days ahead as the remnants of the old regime are swept away and the New Order is built there will be an honoured place for you". He paused. Mrs Welsh was fanning her face.
"In the meantime you are asked to remain here in your flat. Some rice and groceries will be delivered to you this afternoon so that you do not need to go looking for food". He paused again.
"You may wish to visit the hospital and see your husband. This has been arranged, and I am to take you there now. You must not attempt this journey by yourself as yet. There is still much to be done before the streets can be travelled alone. I am to assure you this will be possible within a few more days, but not yet. You may bring some clothing and other things for your husband if you wish. Do not worry about food or medical supplies or such things. You husband has been transferred to a military hospital, where he is receiving the best care presently available". He paused again. Mrs Welsh looked composed, reassured.
"You have ten minutes to collect anything you wish to bring with you. I will return you here after your visit, and make an arrangement with you for meeting certain officers in the Admiral's headquarters during the next week. That is all". He bowed slightly, and then looked at Mrs Welsh.
"Thank you Taisa. Your professionalism and concern are sure to be rewarded" she said, then turned away to go and get the bag she already had packed for Tom. He would be pleased to see her.
A new worker joins the plantation.
"Miko, don't forget you need to go into town this morning and meet the train. The new man is coming".
"OK Aunty, I haven't forgotten. Can I look at the picture again, I don't want to miss him".
Aunty took the small photo from an envelope leaning against the radio and handed it to Miko.
"He says he is nearly two metres tall, so you shouldn't miss him. It might be good for Della to go with you, but make sure she covers up and wears a hat".
"Yes, I've been back over ten days now. I'll go and get my scarf and hat. What's his name?"
"Anderson, Sandy Anderson. Not sure if he has another first name or not. And he's a Westralian".
"OK, back in a minute Miko" said Della as the fly screen door banged behind her.
She had met Westralians before. Like Tasmanians. Melancholic, pining for their lost country, brought up on stories of The Exodus. Always playing the raw, windswept music by which they remembered their homeland. 'Oh well, at least we might get to hear some good blues' she thought. She needed some music, something to mourn with. John had not been heard of since the Action. She could only guess at his fate and at their own safety. At least he didn't know about the plantation, but who did he know that might? And it was risky taking in a Westralian to replace him. The authorities were always watchful of them. In the hierarchy of the displaced they ranked above the Chinese, but only just. 'Still, we can't just turn them away. Touch wood' she thought as she ran her hand over the timber door frame to her room. She picked up the cane hat and broad scarf, and went back up to the kitchen to meet Miko.
A bad dream or a premonition?
Thomas sat up suddenly in bed. He was sweating and his throat felt constricted. He gulped in mouthfulls of air as he could hear his heart beating in his ears. The room was dark, but he could make out its outlines and he could see his bedside clock. Four twenty in the morning. As he looked at the clock and began to feel the coolness of the night air he realized that he had been dreaming. Caught in a nightmare. He became aware of the warmth next to him under the quilt, and remembered that Peter Sabu was here. It was the second time that he had stayed the night. As Thomas began to waken and calm down he felt Peter Sabu moving to sit up.
"Thomas, are you OK?"
"Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you - I was having a nightmare, and it woke me up. At least, I think that's what was happening".
Peter Sabu put his arms around Thomas and pulled him back down under the quilt. "It's OK, it's over now. Do you want to tell me about it, it might help you get back to sleep".
Thomas hesitated. "I don't understand it, but it seemed so real".
"Describe it to me, get it out of your system, you'll feel better afterwards. I could make some hot chocolate if you like? I have to go soon anyway, back to my own room, so I can't go back to sleep. Come on, let it out".
Thomas felt his body relaxing in the warmth beneath the quilt, although he couldn't shake the unease that he was feeling.
"All right then", he said "here goes". He draw a breath, and shook his head.
"I was at the beach, the sky was blue and so was the sea. So I went for a swim, I was swimming along, the water was crystal clear. Then I saw something on the sea floor. The closer I swum to it the more I could see that it was a ruined town. Buildings, streets, all there but in ruins. I began swimming around it. Somehow I was breathing under the water, I don't know how. Then I saw that the ruined statues and carvings on the broken walls were alive. They were waving at me, smiling, inviting me into the town. Then I saw a sculptured spider, sitting on a large plinth in the centre of the town. As I looked at it, the spider also came to life. It seemed to be moving towards me, spinning threads and casting a web all over the town. I turned to swim away and found myself in a room, a bedroom. It was all red. A man was laying on the bed, I thought it was you but couldn't be sure. I began stroking his skin. It felt so textured and velvety, but his face was obscured, although I was sure it was you. Then I noticed that he was naked and I recoiled, horrified by his nudity. I tried to take off the mask that I then seemed to be wearing but couldn't. The more I tried to the tighter it became on my face. I began to suffocate and that's when I woke up".
Thomas stopped, panting from the story telling and still holding his throat.
"It's OK, you're not there now, you're here with me - no spiders or red rooms or ruins or velvet skin, although there are nude men". They both laughed a little. "I'll make that chocolate now, and then I must get going".
Thomas lay in the bed, still feeling anxious, feeling as though he wasn't properly in his body. He could hear Peter Sabu in the kitchen. He took a little note pad and a pencil from the bedside table and began to write down the nightmare. He wasn't sure why he was doing it, but he was still shaking a little. It seemed to have some importance. Perhaps only in the dreamworld, but how could he know? Peter Sabu came back into the bedroom with two mugs of hot cinnamoned chocolate.
"What are you doing?", he asked
"Just writing it down while I can still remember it. I'm not sure why. Perhaps I'll go and visit a dream weaver some time. I've heard that there are some psychics in Westralia Town".
"Be careful going down there, they're all thieves and opium-eaters. Same as Chinatown. Just let it go. We all have dreams and nightmares, sometimes not always in our sleep". He smiled wryly "but, if you still want to go in a few days time, I could come with you. There's safety in numbers if you want to go divining. Perhaps a few of us could come, make a party out of it, it could be fun".
"No, no, I don't want that. Look, I'll probably forget about it by the morning anyway. The chocolate is already washing it from my mind. You're right, we all have nightmares. I'll get over it".
"So, you're feeling better now?"
"Yes, yes I am. You should probably get back to your place anyway. I'll try and get a bit more sleep, my alarm won't go off for another hour".
"Are you sure you'll be OK?"
"Yes, please don't worry, I've been over reacting. I'll lie here and think about the early part of our evening, not the later part". They both laughed.
"Well, I won't forget that in a hurry" said Peter Sabu as he began to pull his pants on. Within a few minutes he was dressed, and after a lingering farewell kiss he was gone. Thomas lay in his bed, reading his dream description again. It seemed so real. Did it mean something? He wasn't sure. Perhaps it would be forgotten about by the time he was helping the Prince to get ready for day.
Waiting for the train.
Miko parked the truck at the back of the Blue Lotus Cafe. It was close to the station entrance, but no too close so as to be noticeable. He looked at the town hall clock over the cafe roof.
"We've got about twenty minutes before the train gets in" he said to Della "let's go in and get some tea while we wait".
They climbed out of the truck cabin. The day was still and warm, the sky clear and blue. A dragonfly zig-zagged around them, then abruptly disappeared into the privet hedge bounding the yard. They walked down the driveway and into the cafe. It was cool and darkish inside, with matchstick cane blinds screening the patrons from passers-by.
There were a few other people scattered around the tables and booths. Two Japanese men, dressed like businessmen, sat at one table near the front window, talking loudly in Japanese. Miko and Della walked to the back of the room and slid into a small booth. The waitress at the counter continued to polish the bench top, watching the two businessmen. Miko looked her intently, trying to gain her attention by force of will alone. She cast a glance at them, then looked back to the businessmen. One of them snapped his fingers, and she immediately poured some boiling water into a small tea pot that she had waiting. He snapped his fingers again as she came to their table. She removed the cold pot and replaced it with the hot one. The other man pointed at their empty cups, and she began to fill one.
"No, no, clean cups, clean" he ordered her in a voice that carried the length of the cafe. Some people looked sideways to the scene, but stayed silent.
"Of course, sir, my apologies" she said, gathering up the cups.
"White people. Still in the gutter" he said in the same penetrating voice. The other man laughed "Twenty years of civilizing them and still they know nothing" he said.
Miko could feel his ears burning. He could see Della's face flush. The waitress returned with clean cups. One of the men picked up his cup and peered into it, inspecting it for imagined dirt. As he put it back on the table and motioned for the waitress to fill them he looked around at the other patrons, lingering on the booth where Miko and Della sat.
"This place stinks, stinks of mice, white mice". His tone was coarse. "It needs a cat, a yellow cat, to clean it out". The coarseness was edged with cruelty. Della pulled her hat further over her face.
"Ignore them" whispered Miko as they both stared at the flimsy menu card.
A few minutes later the waitress came over to their booth. Her long hair, straightened and coloured a jet black, her deep orangey-tan, the kohl pencil lines almondising her eyes, all made an unconvincing attempt to escape her lowly white status.
"Kitchen's not open yet" she said to the wall above their heads "there's only counter service".
"A pot of tea for two ..." began Miko before she interrupted him.
"We only have green tea until the next order arrives, and it's reserved for special customers". She glanced in the direction of the businessmen in the front window. "Not for the likes of you, anyway" she sneered at the table top.
Della began to fidget with the edge of the menu card. "You'll have to pay for that if its wrecked" said the waitress.
"Just two glasses of water, then" said Miko.
"There's only tap, no ice" she snapped back.
"Forget it" said Della as she abruptly stood up. "Come on Miko, the train will be here soon".
As they walked towards the cafe door one of the businessmen began snapping his fingers again. The smirk vanished from the waitresses face as she hurried to their table.
"There's mouse shit in this rice" he shouted, pointing at the bowl on the table while watching Della and Miko heading for the door.
"It just fell in there then, one of them must have farted in their booth". Their laughter was crude. Miko pulled the door open and they quickly stepped out into the sunshine.
"Fucking passers, who does that cow think she is?" muttered Della.
"Forget it" said Miko "I think I can hear the train coming". Within a minute they were on the station platform, and the train whistle was announcing its imminent arrival.
Peter Sabu makes some arrangements.
He had been on the phone on and off all morning. In between working on papers from the last cabinet meeting he had called a few friends.
"Yes" they had each said "a night out in Westralia Town would be fun. Yes, I'm free this Friday. Yes, let's go. No, I won't say anything to Thomas. Is it his birthday? No, just a little surprise. He needs a night out. It would be good for him".
He looked at his watch. There was still a few minutes before lunch.
Sandy gets to Sunland.
About ten passengers had alighted from the train but Sandy Anderson was immediately recognisable. For a start he was taller than anyone else, and wore a large, old fashioned fedora of dark green felt that further increased his height. Long reddish-blonde hair hung down his back in a thick plait. Miko saw him straight away, and quickly introduced himself and Della. In only a few minutes that were cramped in the truck cabin and heading out of town. Della was the first to speak.
"Welcome to our little shire, Sandy. I hope that the train trip wasn't too long for you".
"Thanks ... aaah, Della, wasn't it, thanks for the welcome. The train was the usual, you know, hard seats and the stops not long enough, but we got here eventually. Got searched twice by police and once by Kempeitei looking for the Green Arrow, for terrorists they kept saying. What a joke!".
They all sat silently for a while, brooding over the though of police raids on the trains, especially involving Kempeitai. Images of John's face kept jumping up in Della's mind. Fear of the Kempeitei pervaded the cabin. This time Sandy was the one to break the silence.
"So, how far is to the plantation now?"
"About another hour and half" said Miko "depending on whether it starts to rain again".
"Doesn't look like rain" said Sandy.
"No" said Miko "grew up in the countryside, did you?"
"I was born in the country, in Western Australia. Had my tenth birthday by the side of a track across the Nullabor, during The Exodus. We were all over the place for a couple of years. My father was killed on the last day of the war by a Zero straffing a refugee column near Wagga Wagga. By the time I was fifteen Mum and me had ended up in the ghetto in western Sidoni. There's been a lot of ghetto life since then, but before that, well 'countryside' seems too gentle a word to describe it."
Again, they fell silent, Della and Miko absorbing Sandy's autobiography. The truck bumped and lurched along the rough dirt road. Sandy watched the country pass by. Gently hilly, little islands and long shoals of gum trees and sheokes bounded the broad farmscape, dividing and subdividing it into paddocks and runs. Flocks of white cockies suddenley rose or settled in the clearings. Above a far peak he saw a wedge-tailed eagle surfing the warm updraughts. It vaguely reminded him of his childhood, of a dream or maybe a memory, he couldn't be sure anymore. After a while the truck veered off the main road onto a smaller side road, almost a lane, heading further westwards. 'Sunland Road' read the fading wooden finger post. Sandy turned to Della.
"You don't look like a country girl" he said to her.
"No, I grew up in Sidoni, but I've been out here for about a year now". she said.
"And what's this plantation life like then?"
"You'll get all the details when we get there, from Aunty. Sunland Plantation's one of many out here on the plains. Its a leaf plantation, you know, the sort that grows tobacco and cannabis mainly. We don't go in for vineyards or poppies, although some other plantations in our shire do. The irrigated rice farms are away to the south. We also try and grow some hope, some faith in the future. That's why I'm here really. Aunty rescued me from Sidoni ...". Her voice trailed off as they all started through the dusty windscreen. They all shared that part of the story, rescue by Aunty.
"Got any family now?" asked Della, breaking their silence.
"Mum's still in the ghetto. She has twin girls, about your age. They're Creole, so they'll be gone from there soon. A couple of aunties also in the ghetto, and some Creole cousins, but I don't have much to do with them. That's all. What about you?"
"Mother and brother - well, step-mother and brother, we're both adopted. Creole outcomes of the Liberation. Dad died a while ago. Mum and Dad were both English, so no relatives here. I don't have anything to do with either of them. They serve their emperor well. I don't".
Sandy looked out the side window and then over his shoulder. "You should be careful talking like that" he said "you don't know who might be listening".
"Well", said Della, "out here it's usually safe to assume that it's no-one". They all laughed, and the tension began to ease a little.
"It's pretty quiet out here" said Miko at last "quiet and hidden away, which is how we like it. I knew some Andersons once, from the ghetto. What were their names ... Tim, I think, and a girl, Wendy".
"Tim was my Dad's name, but he was never in the ghetto, but one of my cousins has his name. Another cousin is named Wendy, and I don't know any other Wendys. They've left now, being Creole, no need to stick around in that hell hole. Tim's gone to Nanto, but I think Wendy is somewhere in Sidoni". He paused "And what about you Miko, what's your story?"
"Not much to tell really. My mother was from out this way, she was what they called a half-caste before the war. Early in the Occupation she had a fling with a Nippon soldier, and I'm the result. He didn't stick around, and I ended up in the orphanage in Bathurst. I never saw Mum again. They said that she went back to her tribe. I don't know".
Again they lapsed into silence. The undulating grange drew them further and further westwards, the trees becoming lower and sparser, the grassy paddocks broader, the washed blue sky bigger and framed by patches of white horizon clouds. Late in the afternoon, as the heat shimmer began to fade, the truck slowed down. As it came over the crest of a low ridge Miko turned in to a gateway obscured by a thicket of ti-trees. The gate was closed, but the sign hanging on the gate announced it as the entrance to 'Sunland Leaf Plantation - 'the pick of the crop' - Lic. No. 010655'. The truck stopped.
"Would you like to do the honours Sandy?" said Della. Sandy jumped down from the cabin and, unhooking the wire loop over the gate post, rode the gate as it swung open for the truck.
"Aunty will have some afternoon tea ready by the time we get to the house" she told Sandy as he climbed back in after shutting the gate.
"Good-o" said Sandy as he patted his stomach "I could do with something to eat".
5574 words at 15 January 2005
Text copyright Bruce Baskerville
leftCamellia hiemalis "Shishi Gashira", in McMinn, N., 'More New Camellias and all about them', Your Garden, Melbourne, February 1964: 11
centre'Japanese troops parade past the GPO in Singapore after its surrender', in Mayer, S.L., (Ed) The Japanese War Machine, Ure Smith, Sydney 1976: 158, photo source Robert Hunt Library
rightentrance to Chinese Masonic Hall, 18 Mary Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, photo by Bruce Baskerville 25 November 2004