First the war, then medicine, came between my father and myself. In my first years and his most receptive years, my father had more things to do than hang around attending to me. He went to the war, he went to the Royal College of Surgeons. I stayed behind. He had chosen his ground, and I wasn’t on it, then or ever.
So now, each from the safety of his own territory, my father and I circle round one another. We don’t have much time and the questions are pressing. My father wants desperately to be proud of his children. I have reservations about his criteria, but I cannot resent the wish. He is becoming less certain about this writing business. He has always thought it an amateur affair — an after-hours activity anyone should be able to do. He has been writing all his life, he says, dozens and dozens of articles in medical journals. But now I hear him say, ‘My son is a writer.’ Old friends and colleagues tell him when they read something I write and find it a little less incomprehensible. He offers no opinion himself. But he offers me subject matter. ‘Come and see this operation,’ he says. ‘You might like to write about it.’ He holds in his hand something I have written, and gestures with it. But he comments by way of something similar that happened to himself, or by recalling his presence at some event I have mentioned. He does not engage. Not that I demand he should. His feints are quite eloquent enough. He’ll come closer in his own good time, I think. He has his own approach, his own style.
He comes at me obliquely. I approach him more directly. My strongest pull is to what is most foreign to me. There are possibilities there, I tell myself. I accept his invitation to go into the operating theatre. I check with him on medical details. I quiz him on symptoms and diagnoses and prognoses.
And I ask him about the war. I have not been to war. So I wonder and wonder about it. And I badger my father terribly about his war. I envy him. Tell me about a medical war, I ask him. Make something of it, I want to tell him. It must be a great clarifier. So my endeavours converge; I probe at the man, and I stick my finger into the maelstrom.
I don’t want any of the cliches, ancient or modern, about war. I know all that, I don’t need a father for it. I keep prodding him on this event or that. I hope the individual will suddenly stand forth. But it’s not easy going, getting the apocalyptic story out of him. He is ready to be dry, laconic. I prompt him with a photo album, and he does his tour of duty round the South-West Pacific. In the Ramu Valley he peers at thousands of glass plates, trying to identify the malaria bacillus in swabs taken from sick troops carried out of the jungle. He is warned not to be fooled by the fly shit. In Singapore he leads Lord Louis Mountbatten on a tour of his wards in the Fourteenth Australian General Hospital, and he says, ‘I am just to the left outside the picture’, or ‘I am standing just beside the photographer’. So he is not recorded with royalty.
I try to nudge him further towards the centre of things. ‘Was most of the work with battle casualties?’ I ask.
‘No,’ he says, ‘mostly not.’ And I think he is going to leave it at that. But he begins again. ‘But the worst moment was…I suppose you could call it that…battle casualties. We were waiting in Moresby. The paratroopers had taken Nadzab. We were to fly there soon, but before we went more infantry had to follow up. They were waiting in a marshalling yard at the end of the runway. A Liberator, loaded with bombs and petrol, took off. It clipped a tree, staggered, and crashed beside a company of the waiting infrantrymen. They were doused in burning petrol. We worked frantically. We cleaned the skin, removed the blisters, covered with vaseline gauze. We had rows of starkly red, shiny bodies. It was a terrible thing to do in the light of what we now know.They were literally flayed alive. Every one of them died.’ My father is matter of fact. He can live with that. He has never had nightmares. Medicine has advanced. And medicine will never know very much. My father must have the perfect temperament for surgery. He has not a callous nerve in his body, but no amount of putrid or flayed or mashed flesh has ever dislocated him. All right, I say, a person can live with that. The images of the inferno are never likely to dull; they are not, God help us, uncommon. Nor even necessarily unsettling. They’re on vicarious offer far too readily.
So I see no alternative but to move towards the most dangerous topic. The nurses’ story is potentially his best one. But it’s islanded amid reefs of sentimentality. And I refuse to be taken in by the merely sentimental. It’s my father’s besetting sin, sentimentality. I’m determined it won’t be the final fruit we harvest from his war. But he’s wary too, and I wonder if it’s for the same reason. ‘How did you come to be involved with the nurses?’ I ask.
‘Oh, it’s in that book there,’ he says, with as much amusement as pride, and he points to the shelf. ‘You can read it all there.’ It’s Betty Jeffrie’s While Coolies. He gets two mentions. It says he was there ‘also’. And it says he told these POW nurses there was a ward ready. That’s all. But there’s more to it than that. The story absorbs me, and I can’t believe it’s meaningless to him. And I desperately hope that for both of us, its strength is not as a tear-jerker. I hear it again on the radio, Tim Bowden’s ‘Just an Ordinary Bunch of Women’, and I thank God I’m in a room by myself for I walk around trying to blink back the tears and biting my lip and barely able to restrain myself from sobbing. It’s terrible. And I think, is there any way we can end that story, any way we can climax it without making the likes of the pair of us cry?
I don’t want to let him build up the pathos of it. He’ll give me the sinking of the Vyner Brooke and the machine-gunning of the survivors. So I prompt him, ‘What was your part in it all at the end?’
‘Oh, it was hardly more than a formality really,’ he says. He seems unwilling to get started.
‘Well, how did you get mixed up in it?’ I try.
‘I was just told to. Sam Langford, our commanding officer, told me there’d been reports of these nurses somewhere in Sumatra, and I was to locate them.’ He is deliberately flat. It’s not that he can’t tell a story. He is simply dragging his feet, shying away from getting properly into motion.
‘All the sisters attached to our CCS. had been among the lucky ones to escape from Singapore on the Empire Star. They spoke almost daily of their colleagues who had embarked on the Vyner Brooke. I knew so many of the names, I knew so many of the personalities. And now I was told to locate them.’ My father thinks about that for a while, but doesn’t say anything more about it. I’m glad. It’s one of those points where the tears could well up very readily.
‘We flew to Palembang. We circled twice over the runway, with its Zeros lined up on either side. The Japanese were courteous, wanted to know our business, offered us Kool cigarettes. They showed us to staff cars and drove the seven miles into the town. On the way other staff cars met us coming in the opposite direction. The officers in each case would signal to one another by twirling a sheathed sword through the window. The other car would join in behind us. We entered Palembang in a procession of ten staff cars. Japanese troops by the roadside stood at the salute.’
‘It looks almost like a special disposition of providence,’ I suggest.
A tremor, part puzzlement, part frown, moves across my father’s face. I know he has no time for the intellectual gloss to his stories, but in his own way I think he’d agree with the point. I explain. ‘I mean it was a very fitting detail that the nurses could have been liberated in such style.’
‘I suppose so,’ mutters my father, but without any conviction, and as though he hasn’t really heard me. I wonder myself whether it isn’t a silly remark, and my father accepts it only because this is a pitfallen road he is travelling down, and he’ll latch on to anything to prevent him slipping into one of his own emotional holes. Hell, I rebuke myself, it’s not silly. It’s one feature of the story that’s as valid as any other. I could even argue that this wryly ironic climax forces itself on you.
‘The nurses weren’t in Palembang,’ says my father, as though he’s suddenly remembered why he takes exception to my gloss. ‘We sent out our co-pilot in one of the staff cars, south-west, further into southern Sumatra. He found them, sent word to me, and got them to Lahat where there was a small airstrip. I immediately signalled Matron Sage. She was Matron-in-Chief. She had flown up from Australia and was waiting in Singapore for word of the girls she had inducted into the army.’
My father pauses. This is one of the danger moments. He can’t help milking the emotion in the story. I want to hurry him on. But then I wonder whether I’m not just damming back the emotion for a spectacular finale, whether I’m not nervous that he’s going to dissipate it bit by bit along the way. Beneath that, I think, I must be wondering whether he realises the potential and proper shape of his story. No, I say to both of us, it doesn’t have to be a runaway tear-jerker. Let’s just stick to the barest facts, and see what emerges.
‘What did she do?’ I ask.
‘She decided to leave at once to meet them. She flew into Palembang and I was back there to meet her. She had a mishap which I’ll always remember.’
I seize on this. ‘Why? What happened?’
‘As her plane landed it blew a tyre. It had to be taken off, repaired, blown-up again, and replaced. I had with me a chap by the name of Chisholm, a sergeant, and an ex-POW. We’d picked him up in Palembang, and I don’t know whose, if anyone’s, orders he was under. But he took charge of this repair job. He lined up twenty of the Japs and got them to work on the hand pump. As each one tired, Chisholm gave him a push on the arse, and the next in the queue took over.’
Well, well, I think, here’s something to deflate the story.
My father is chuckling. It seems rather distasteful to me. I would like it to be a large comic moment, but it refuses to slip into that shape. The picture I see is of jackboots blasting, in a great shower of sparks and stars, wizened, malevolent, pear-shaped pygmies all over the sky. Stock figures, a stock picture. No, that won’t fit in with the dignity of this saga. But then maybe that’s all the story needs to save it from the gross sentimentality of the likes of my father and myself. The tears will get dried out pretty quickly once there’s this constant flicker of anthropoid little men lining up, bending over, and being punted, tapped and drop-kicked all over the field.
‘He was remarkably gentle,’ says my father. ‘I don’t know what sort of life he’d had as a POW, but this way of getting his own back was heckuva mild. He was a bit of an actor, Chisholm. Being nasty to the Japs didn’t seem to be in his mind at all. He only had the one old hand pump, and he just used the most efficient method he could. Nobody got hurt or worked too hard; that would have defeated the purpose of it. He just liked the experience once again, at long last, of being in charge and able to give orders. Getting his dignity back. So he posed and strutted a bit, and generally over-acted the part. But with a healthy twinkle in his eye the whole time.’ My father chuckles, remembering Chisholm.
If my father insists that’s the way it was, I don’t see how I can make anything else out of it. I don’t see how I can stop the acceleration at this point. My father seems quite happy now to go on. ‘We look off as soon as the tyre had been fixed. The flight took twenty-five minutes. As the plane landed we could see a group of people sitting under an awning on the edge of the strip.’
That’s good. He’s very matter of fact.
‘They didn’t stand up. They didn’t wave. There weren’t very many of them. It wasn’t one of those delirious, crowd-scene arrivals at all. They waited. We taxied through the long grass. We could hear it hissing against the undercarriage and over the roar of the engines and the rumble of the wheels. We wobbled to a halt. The co-pilot pushed open the door, and the ladder went down. I stepped out.’
‘You stepped out first?’
‘Why did you step out first?’ ‘Heavens boy, it was instinctive.’ ‘Yes, but why?’
‘Because that’s what you do in those sorts of circumstances. I wasn’t just going through any old sort of door. Damn it all, if it’s dangerous or difficult or a man can be of some use, he goes first. Doesn’t he?’ My father brushes aside the triviality of it.
‘Yes, I suppose so.’ I give up trying to direct him.
‘Matron Sage got out. I stood back. I thought she should go first. And she walked…’
My father stood back. He thought Matron Sage should go first. I am seized by the off-hand detail. But any man of any sensitivity would have done that, I tell myself. Oh yes! I am answered. Look at the pressures he resisted without any forethought, any tensing himself. So I look at them. He is keyed up. He is first off the plane and has a head’s start. He is the senior man. He has been in charge of locating and rescuing these women. He has now arrived to liberate them. He knows all the details of what to tell them, of what arrangements have been made for them. He is a doctor and they are nurses. He is a man and his instincts must prompt him to play the gallant deliverer. And he is a young man and these are young women. But my father stands back.
And Matron Sage walks towards her girls. They are wraiths, they are like the spirits in prison that Christ visited. And now at last they rise up. And the long grass opens and Matron Sage moves towards them, her daughters, and you can hear the sobs bursting through her outstretched arms. She stands there in her felt hat and her grey jacket and grey trousers and takes each of her daughters to her breast. And she asks the echoing question of those months, ‘And where are the others?’, and of course they give the echoing answer, ‘This is all of us. Matron’. And Matron Sage and the girls stare at the incomprehensible horror and joy of it all.
And my father stands back, and tries to stand further back, but he cannot. He is forced to watch and hear everything, and he cannot get away to any other spot. He is forced to hear these words and see these faces. He does not want these tears, but he cannot escape them. They have staked out his plot. It belongs to them alone. And willy-nilly I am tied to him and caught also. It’s no good, no good at all. My father and I sit there and cry away together. Other people falter on the edge of the room, and go away again.