I tell myself today is not the day to write a love story, a story about a great painting or a tale of the coast, panel vans, waves and zinc. I am not going to write about Skyhooks playing at Tom Katz in Sorrento or Noosa and living on bananas and milkshakes. Or my little boys in their Cats jumpers taking screamers at dogshit park. Those days are not today.
Today is the hum of the traffic on Punt Road filtering across a bare tree I am gazing at. It is winter 2012. I am lying on a couch. Tell me about death says the voice behind me. Images and still moments come to mind. The man dying on the beach at Portsea as I try to resuscitate him, the family drowning in the ocean at Pearces Road, friends killed in motor cars, heroin overdoses, victims at work, Sergeant Hatfield and Penrod’s nightmares. How has this affected your view of life, the voice asks. The bare tree shifts against the cold grey Melbourne sky.
This question comes to me sitting on the couch in autumn 2020 in Lorne watching the devastation in Italy, the Ice Skating rink turned into a morgue in Madrid and the mass graves in New York. I am on leave and my house in the city is in lock down. I wonder how growing up with parents affected by the Depression and the War that followed it has coloured my view. The lines of people at Centrelink shocks me. Will my own children face what my parents faced ?
And I am reading my Aunty Sylvia’s diary kept during those dark years when my father was missing and she and my mother shared a house in Perth. Is there an answer among her words ? She describes my sister’s fear of the military planes flying over their house, my Uncle based on Rottnest Island and my brother’s infancy without his father. In a way it all seems so close now. Yet her simple words are optimistic, not coloured by consumerism or the opinions of the mainstream media now clothed in the legacy of Menzies. Does the answer lie in my aunt’s simple humanity I ask myself. Is the past suddenly with us again?
In July 2018 on my way home from walking the Camino Primitivo, I stopped in Singapore to visit the museum that commemorates the battle of Pasir Panjang where my father Penrod fought in 1942, and to locate Outram Road prison where he served two years solitary confinement. I hadn’t been to Singapore since February 2002 when I travelled with him to the opening of the museum and the memorial services to mark the 60th anniversary of the fall of the island. On that visit he refused to even drive along Outram Road, let alone try to locate the prison. No doubt he could have told us where it was. On the way to the opening of the museum with my mother, partner and our two young sons he told us about his platoon Sergeant who was shot dead as they drove along the very road we were traveling on. He saw that moment and was silent until we arrived at the opening.
There is some conjecture about the exact location of Outram Road prison. Following discussions with a friend attached to the Australian embassy, a taxi driver and some very helpful staff in a hotel in that part of Singapore, I was able to locate the site. On Outram Road a new underground station is under construction. Behind that site is what is now called Outram Park and it is where the prison stood. There is no memorial or marker of any kind to signify the location. It is an open park.
The prison was built by the British in the 19th century and closed in 1920. When the Japanese took control of Singapore in 1942 the decrepit building was reopened and run by the Kenpeitai, the Japanese military police. Prisoners were those who had breached prisoner of war regulations, civilians and other people seen as threats to the occupying forces. In my father’s case, he had escaped from Changi and following his recapture in Malaya, was sentenced to two years’ solitary confinement. He was tortured, starved and very fortunate to survive.
It is estimated by Dr Jim Taylor, a civilian internee in the prison and historian, that 1400 prisoners died in Outram Road during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. Many were executed by beheading. One victim was Eric Hatfield who was captured by the Japanese in Malaya also having escaped from Changi. He had been carrying out guerrilla operations prior to his capture. The night before his execution my father spent some time with him and agreed to ensure that after the war his family in New Zealand knew how he had died and that he wanted his partner to receive his military entitlements.
And so I walked in the Singapore heat across the park and under the trees, conscious that I was walking in an unmarked cemetery. One can never be truly certain of such things in a site like the Outram Road park, yet cemeteries for me have a sense of a beginning. I don’t know why, but they speak of life; a silent hymn from the grave. I sat under a tree wondering how many bodies lay beneath. I walked across the park to Pearl Hill and looked down on that place and contemplated the years my father had spent there. He learnt of my brother’s birth when he was in the prison.
I sat on Pearl Hill thinking about the story I had come to know from a man who didn’t want to remember. This was an unknown story for me as I grew up. He never spoke of it. But sitting in his cupboard for many years was a manuscript and the story of Outram Road. It was not until 1996 aged 82 that he wrote the final words, the words he had not been able to utter for over 50 years, and the story unfolded—Singapore Samurai.
An Azure Kingfisher sat on a park bench nearby. It gazed intently at me. Its ivory coloured beak and neck swiveled as I walked past looking at the site of the prison. It followed me, its blue wings reflecting the Singapore light. It flew ahead, again and again. It stopped on an ornate park light, looked at me finally and was gone.
I often think of Sergeant Hatfield. He was beheaded in Outram Road and may be buried in the park. What did Penrod say that night ? The night before his execution. In that place of my father’s survival I saw the past as an immediate moment—a time not long ago, a time when there is no time, a will to live and redemption. And today as I write this story the past is upon us all again.
The body counts mount in Madrid and New York so I return to Sylv’s diary. It is February 1942. She is 26 and Mum is 24. Mum is pregnant and my father is missing in Singapore. Sylv writes that she doesn’t know if she likes her new haircut and they have a kitten. She adds that my mother is very worried and the war news is very grave. The diary then falls silent for six months. The next entry is August 1942. She records that my brother was born in June. There is no mention of my father.
What did that six months hold for them I wonder. There were no daily briefings, Zoom meetings and Instagram music festivals. Sylv is silent until Christmas. She gives my cousin a toy gun and writes that ‘He said he shot God up in the sky and then the sun.’ The American bombers keep flying over the house. The children are often sick. A neighbour, Mrs Thompson, offers to help. A letter arrives from Aunty Marj in Melbourne. My mother, sister and brother move to a flat in South Perth. The diary records day to day events but little else. The steady rhythm of a life clouded in fear and uncertainty bleeds from the pages. Finally, the news comes that my father is alive. Slyv records that my mother has had very good news and ‘we are all so glad for her’. And then she is silent once more. Here in my own isolation, distancing myself from the world, I write daily, read and watch the news in comfort. I am silent too.
The walk to the beach today down the hill and through the trees reveals the Southern Ocean before me. A ship moves slowly across the horizon. Fallen branches from last night’s storm offer some firewood and I make a note to collect them on the way home. The man in the corner house is in his vegetable garden and orchard. He lives alone. Yesterday I saw him coming back from the supermarket carrying only a tin of beetroot and a packet of crisps. He gave me some plums last summer. I’m not sure what his name is. The beach is empty apart from the woman who lives up the hill and her two dogs. I wonder which way to walk. A police car slowly drives south along the road above the beach. I decide to walk north.
On the path above the Erskine River mouth is a single grave. In it lies William Firth Lindsay and Joseph Southwell Lindsay aged eight and four respectively. They drowned in the river on 28 January 1850. A stone by the grave records that their father was a wood splitter who lived in a cottage on the hillside nearby. I have walked past their grave many times but stop today in the silence.
I think about fishing with Penrod at Moggs Creek when I was young. We would drive from Melbourne in his two-tone green Chevrolet Biscayne. I can still remember the rego—GWP 500. He had clips that fitted to the rails on the roof that would hold our cane rods. We also had a cane fishing basket for the reels and tackle. Dad bought the bait from a man in Geelong near Kardinia Park that he knew somehow, maybe from the war. He lived in a weatherboard cottage. I sat in the car and watched them chat as he handed over the blue bait that Penrod preferred. I see him sitting on the beach smoking and looking at his rod. I didn’t understand what troubled him then, but I do now. When we got home Mum would ask him if he caught anything, ‘Only a cold,’ he’d say and laugh, before showing her a good bag of salmon.
I leave the path and walk down to the beach. The heavy swell and high tide from the night before has dislodged thousands of tiny mussels that form a deep purple line along the sand. The swell has dropped. The wind is from the south. Occasionally I pass someone else. The sea lifts my mood. I look at the rockpools and ocean debris on the sand. I get a text from AusGov telling me to stay at home and help save lives. I decide to walk to Stony Creek. On the way home I collect the fallen wood and use a bush saw to cut it. A flock of finches appears. The setting sun lights parts of the trees and I can hear the sea beyond.
I return again to Sylv’s diary and her entries of the days she and my mother spent with the children during the war in Perth. My brother, sister and cousins all feature prominently. I read of my cousin Edward’s baby teeth, my sister teasing my mother, my brother becoming very talkative. There is little mention of the war itself. The days fold into one another, birthdays come and go, the school fate is a highlight.
August 15 1945 ‘A great day. The end of the war. Thank God. Bun will now have Pen home, and now the children will have Dad.’ With these simple words Sylv records the end of years of sacrifice for her and my mother. My parents were reunited and had three more children. We moved to Victoria and began a new life.
I gaze at the trees and out to the ocean as night rolls in. It is autumn 2020. Our global community is gripped by a pandemic. We do not how this will end or even if it has truly begun. We live in isolation from one another. Yet all around me there is the pure simplicity of life. I walk with a friend who tells me of her son’s disability and how he excels in his life. Another tells me how she is enjoying her own company for the first time in many years. My son emerges from quarantine a chastened millennial. My neighbour is baking scones. Her quiet son walks their blue heeler past our house every day. The Lorne football club will host a party on the oval when the restrictions are lifted and we are all to wear our fave ‘iso’ outfits. I buy some new trackies. The staff at the supermarket could not be braver; and with such grace. I will swim alone tomorrow in Louttit Bay.
There are events in life that change us forever and we cannot forget the pain of the past. But we can also hold the joy of the present. Then the past and the present will merge and the way ahead will draw us together.
The eucalypts shift across the pink autumnal sky. There is a kookaburra sitting in the crook of a tree. It gazes at me for a while and flies away.
Mark E. Dean is a Melbourne writer.