Tuesday, January 20, 2009

14. Who is the Thief?

Photo Source: flickr.com

That Barry is indeed a remarkable character. For an ex-thief and jailbird he is pretty well-mannered, with a good general knowledge at his fingertips. It would be interesting to hear his personal history, but all he lets out is that he had been released from a jail sentence because of his willingness to volunteer for active service in the Far East. Fond of Kipling's poetry, particularly "Mad Carew", he will recite the whole poem by heart to anyone wishing to hear it. Though angry at him at first for having used me as a decoy, I finally had to admit that it had all resulted in a fine chicken dinner, so he is to be forgiven. [1]

One afternoon after work, I set up my barber stool and who comes for a shave - Barry. While being lathered he suddenly holds my brush-hand again as on that other day. What now? He asks me whether I would care to join him on a little exploration trip down the river. No, no, not for an escape attempt, but it could last till deep in the night. And of course no fishing this time, just lying low and watching.

"Oops, easy with that knife, cockie! What the 'ell are you blushing for?"

"Sorry, it's only a nick. Here, I'll fix it for you. What do you mean blushing? I'm not blushing." He'll be guessing a long time before he will hear from me about that night with Harry, watching the girls in the boat.

"Anyway, what do you mean by exploration trip?"

Barry tells me. We've all heard about the quinine thefts. Our officers are pretty certain that it is an inside job, inasmuch as someone completely unsuspected is helping himself to it, to sell to the Thai natives, who pay handsomely for the little white pills. And we all know about the scarcity of quinine, don't we? Why, the other day Doc himself had said that if he only had more quinine, fewer malaria patients would be dying. And now some lousy bastard coolly steals the precious stuff to fatten his money belt. How low can you sink!

A member of the camp's POW MP force, who is a friend of Harry, together with that work detail officer for hut building, Mister Tom (nice fellow, isn't he?), have been sweating it out night after night, lying in wait to catch the thief. But the thief never turns up. The pinching is done on nights when they aren't waiting for him, so the bastard is pretty smart too. Anyway, Barry has this idea of sneaking to the river jetty after dark to see who of ours is getting in touch with the natives of those riverboats. There is always one moored along the jetty. It will be a cert that the bird who is talking to the natives is the culprit. The spotting has to be done late at night, for whoever is the one, he wants to be sure that nobody catches him communicating with the boat crew. It is a long shot, Barry admits, but you never know, long shots sometimes hit the mark, and tonight his pal the MP man is on an off-night. Want to come along? Barry will have a witness then.

"All right," I say. "Tell me where and when, and keep that in your pocket - it's on the house."

On our stomachs we lie, eyes glued to the dark outline of the barge. The gangplank and a small section of the deck with a gaping black hatchway are set in a feeble orange glow from the kerosene jetty lamp. The rest of the boat is concealed in the night. Perfect scenery for a Robert Louis Stevenson tale of pirates and smugglers. Only, nothing stirs, nothing at all. No bearded, swarthy hombres, brandishing sabres, carrying a blindfolded victim over the gangplank. Barry whispers, "No good, cockie. Light's too weak. Can't pick 'im out, that is, if he comes. We got to get closer. Hush! What's that?"

A couple of Nip soldiers appear from nowhere and make for the gangplank. They step on board, bending low to get through the hatchway. The barge resumes its appearance of abandonment.

"Why don't they have a light on in that barge?"

"Dunno, cockie. Maybe they got one below deck."

Suddenly a short burst of laughter comes from inside the hatch, followed by hoarse, unintelligible babble from the soldiers. The laughter is definitely from females.

"Dammit, them's Thai whores. It's a brothel barge. Don't need no quinine, what you reckon?"

"Who knows, Barry? A floozie can handle merchandise as well as anybody."

"Maybe we can wait some more then."

A minute or two pass in silence. Oddly, no further sound is heard. Then, a loud cry from the women. We cannot make out what is said but it sounds like they are quarreling with their guests.

One or two seconds pass. Now there is shouting by the men, followed by what sounds like a smack and a frightened shriek.

Again a moment's pause. Another cry, much louder. An order barked by one of the soldiers.

"Look!" says Barry. There is no need for his warning; I have seen it too. A shape has detached itself from the darkness and is approaching the barge. It is a man, a Thai, cautiously stepping nearer and nearer, until he reaches the gangplank. From inside the hatch a long moan wells up, rising to a high, piercing whine, followed by a lightning chain of events, almost too fast to comprehend.

The Thai takes the jetty lamp from the post, jumps swiftly with one leap on board and throws it with great force down into the dark hatch opening. Then, wheeling about, he runs back onshore and is swallowed up by the night as suddenly as he came. A great flash roars up the hatchway, then a muffled explosion and an ear-splitting scream. In a matter of seconds the middle of the barge is set on fire by the combusting kerosene. Then, before our unbelieving eyes, naked men and women with violently shaking nipples and genitals come leaping out of the inferno to make for the boat side. Without uttering a single sound they throw themselves with great splashes into the river.

"Let's get the hell out of here, Barry! If we're caught now, we'll have a big job on our hands to prove that we didn't start it!"

The whole barge is on fire, casting a red glow on the overhanging foliage. A tall bamboo stalk caught in the licking flame tongues is, in a few seconds, into a twisted, smoking cinder.

"Oh, for cripes sake, don't stand there watching it like that! We've got to move, but fast. Come on!"

As quickly as we can, we run away from the river, stumbling and falling, keeping our heads well down in the tall grass, away from the all-revealing glare.

"Hold it, Barry!" But he has heard it too, for he halts abruptly. Quick footsteps sound on the path leading from the cookhouse to the jetty. That could be the guard rushing to the scene. As soon as it is still again we step onto the path and jog trot uphill, Barry in front. We are just about to turn round a curve when he stops suddenly, a warning finger put up to his lips. A man, his back halfway towards us, is gazing at the river, standing right in the middle of the path. One, two seconds, then he is swallowed up in the night. Though I could not recognise him, something in his bearing looked familiar.

"I'll trail 'im. You go to the latrines, where I'll meet you. But whatever you do, don't let yourself be seen by anyone, right?" And without the slightest sound he is dissolved in darkness. How does he do it?

A meeting at the latrines is wisely chosen. People are always there at any time of day or night, so it will not appear suspicious when two men are seen talking. Right this minute Joop and Harry will be sleeping peacefully, and look what an ant's nest I've got myself into!

There is Barry, but who is with him? Mister Tom, the work detail officer! Barry had caught up to him a little further down the path. He says that he had the same idea: see who is getting in touch with the natives and "you've got your man."

"But look here," says Mister Tom. "You men shouldn't do this sort of thing on your own, you know. After all, this business is of the highest importance to everyone concerned. This sleuthing by you two - which is a good thing, don't get me wrong - well, might get out of hand. You know what I mean, don't you? It would attain a more official if the thief would be discovered by the military police. Let's all turn in now. Tomorrow's another day. But for goodness sake, keep this under your hat, won't you. The thief might get tipped off. " And with that we are off to bed.

Joop is speechless, but not for long. Angrily he declares he's never met a greater fool than a certain palooka and another busybody who had taken it upon themselves to deliver the thief to justice. What would happen if the Kempeitai hears of it? They'll say: Who is stealing the quinine? Don't know, eh? Okay, boys, let's line them up, and every tenth man...bang, bang! Very simple. So by all the living whales, stop these idiotic night excursions and go to bed like everyone else. Only after a solemn promise not to be involved in any further "stupid landlubber pipedreams" is the dear old salt willing to forgive, and he hands out a tailor-made cigarette.

Weeks pass without investigations or threats by the enemy in connection with the burning of the boat. Barry reckons it was an act of revenge. Perhaps the girls were not whores, and who knows what those monkeys did to them? Maybe he was a husband, that chap who threw the lamp. Maybe the Nips want to keep it hushed up?

Newcomers from other camps bring vague rumours about a trip overseas, but nobody knows what it is all about.

The hut building is still going on. The Japs make it known that detailed plans are being made to improve general conditions and, of all things, promote sporting events! Indeed, one day "horse races" are organised by the Australians, who have small chaps as "jockeys" mounted on tall men. The races are held complete with bookies and tote.

Many among us are beginning to believe that Chungkai might just be the last POW camp of the war. Did we not hear yesterday that the Americans had landed on the Marshall Islands on the 30th of January, and that sometime in February the enemy had lost a great number of aircraft and ships at Truk? It is now drawing towards the end of March, a reasonable "safety gap" between the happenings and the circulation of the news among us, which should indicate the genuineness of the report. There was also a hint of Allied airborne troops landed behind the Jap lines in Burma. But that could well be one of those silly inventions by the indestructible breed of rumour makers.

The quinine thefts have ceased, but Barry is still on the warpath, maintaining a private "looksee" after dark.

"One of these days I'll catch me bird, no bloody fear!"

During our usual bedtime pow-wow, Harry comes up with the latest camp news. Did we hear about the duck-charmer? No? Well, Harry has it from someone working in the Jap cookhouse, so it's not just a rumour. Remember the "Duckoo Farm?" That got going at last. The baby ducks, tired of dying, had decided to grow into fat, waddling mummy and daddy ducks, laying lots and lots of eggs. A small hut was raised over the pond for the "Duckoo Man", a Jap corporal. This fellow, however, had thought it below his standing to sleep and eat surrounded by nothing else but swimming and quacking birds. He asked permission to appoint two Dutchmen for the job, which was granted. Why Dutchmen? Typical of Jap reasoning, they took it that people from a watery country like Holland would be naturals for nursing ducklings, feeding duck-parents and gathering eggs which were to be delivered to the Jap cook. This man would count them while making a quick calculation to see if the quantity of eggs more or less agreed with the number of female ducks. If this were found to be in order, the Dutchies would be given two eggs each.

In the beginning, receipt and counting was formally carried out, but later attention began to slacken. So one day a brainstorm occurred in the little hut over the pond. Before you could say "quack quack" a regular black market in eggs, and even an occasional daddy-duck (on no account a mummy-duck; those were too well recorded), had sprung to life. An eager clientele was found among the extremely jealous passers-by who would stop to ogle with watering mouths at the swimming delicacies. The hospital, of course, was not overlooked and was given free shares. Everybody was happy, especially the two operators in the little villa on the pond, who had a whale of a time. Then disaster struck one morning, when that so-and-so Jap cook, with typical Nipponese unpredictability, insisted on counting the eggs. Naturally, this had to happen after a night when the two knights of the pond had really gone to town, with a full-scale sale of eggs all around. Needless to say, the next day's tally aroused the strongest suspicions via the cook's arithmetic.

"Nanda kaneiro (abuse) duckoo man number one, you pinchie-pinchie ka?"

"No, hancho (polite address), me number one. Number one never pinchie-pinchie."

"Where egoo? How many duckoo ka? Kugeiro! (strong abuse)"

"Duckoo many tired every day eggoo eggoo for Nippon, plenty make tired. But, hancho, tonight me talkie-talkie with duckoo, me tell that duckoo-man get pintu-pintu (belting) from Nippon if no more eggoo, OK ka?"

"Ho-kay, you speedo talkie-talkie and tomorrow plenty eggoo or plenty pintu!" [2]

In the protective darkness of that night the two Dutchmen called on every single buyer of the day to persuade them to return the eggs, where possible. The customers understandingly played ball, knowing that an outcome favourable to the Dutch duck wardens would mean a continuation of the egg supply, albeit on a smaller scale.

The following morning a large basket full of eggs was presented to the cook, who in speechless amazement handed four eggs to the duck-charmers. After due observance of a safety period, the egg market was resumed, though not in great quantities. A couple of Nips visited the duck farm, demanding that the Dutchies show their ability in talking the eggs out of the birds. The Jap cook had circulated the news of the Dutch-loving ducks, willingly laying more eggs when spoken to by their masters. Only after a lengthy discussion did the alarmed duck operators succeed in convincing the Nips that such feats could only be performed in strict privacy between the ducks and their beloved caretakers, at certain times deep in the night.

Well, I'll be!" says Joop. "I jus' wonder if what they say about the giant omelet is true too."

"What giant omelet?"

"This here Kakabu sometimes orders them two cookhands to make him an omelet of forty eggs - forty eggs, mind you - and I dunno why. Well, they'd be sorry if Kakabu finds an eggshell in the dish. Anyways, he inspects it, cuts off a little piece for himself an' gives the rest to them."

It is chow time. Slowly we step forward in the queue line.

"What the hell is that there, bein' dished out?"

"Food, I hope."

"Look, everybody's gettin' somethin' extra. Ah, blast it! We're gettin' them doovers again!"

Doovers are a British culinary invention, an attempt to break the monotony of the rice diet. They are blobs of cooked rice in the shape of a sausage or a doughnut, with a sweetish flavour to them. When our Dutch cook began to introduce doovers a few weeks ago, the men in our section had unanimously rejected them. They did not like the taste and it also meant less rice with the stew. This, they felt, was always bad. The verdict was passed on to the proper quarters in no obscure terms. Apparently the cook had thought differently, so immediate action was needed. After the meal a delegation of six men, headed by Joop, had called on the mess-sergeant, whose advice had been to take the matter up with the cook himself, in a tactful manner of course. After all, the man had only the best of intentions.

"Natcherly, Sarge, natcherly," said Joop.

At the cookhouse Joop does not waste any time in making the opening move.

"Hey, you mug. Git outside."

"Wot for?" says the cook suspiciously, grabbing an iron ladle.

"Coz I wanna tell ye tactfully what we think of them doover misfits ye muckin' up our dinner with."

"No need to git uncivilised, we can talk about it."

"Talk, me ass! We told ye not to start on them doovers agin, an' now ye dunnit agin. Kindly step outside so I can bust yer nose."

The cook, who is no coward, calls his two mates in, who arm themselves with shovels. The three of them are about to step outside when there is a sudden cry.

"Hey, boys, look! FIRE!"

Black smoke rises and the fierce, licking flames burst through the attap roof of a nearby hospital hut, just across the yard. At once all of us run forward to help. We have to be quick. There are plenty of people in that hut who cannot walk at all!

An hour later all patients have been safely laid outside on the grass. Nobody is hurt but there were a few frightening moments when part of the flaming roof had caved in. Thanks to Mister Tom, the work detail officer, who had flung himself bodily through the flames, the boys could be saved by his swift action. He had thrown wet blankets over them and, with the help of others, carried them out to safety, getting his eyebrows almost scorched off in the process.

"Shows ye wot a bloody nice feller that Mister Tom is," says the cook when, after the fire had been put out, we are gathered in the cookhouse, tired but contentedly sipping hot-sweet-and-filthy, the doover incident for the moment forgotten.

"Yeah," says Joop. "There's a man for ye, who'd do anything for his boys. There ain't many of them officers like him. Say, Cook, bein' kind of hungry an' all after carrying the buckets with water, I wonder if ye've got some food left over, maybe?"

"Yeah, sure," replies our host. "Doovers."

People like us will seize upon every opportunity for a laugh, even in the midst of all the squalor and sordidness which makes up our world.

Chungkai Theatre
Image Source: www.fepow-community.org.uk

Entertainment by the "concerts" after the evening meal has become an important factor. A state of rivalry exists between the British and Dutch stage groups performing in the camp's amphitheatre, both of them having set as their goal not only to entertain the men but also to outdo the opponent by presenting a better show. The musical accompaniment is impartially provided by Norman Smith and his orchestra, whilst some actors take part in both ensembles. But the line is drawn where playing the part of "females" is concerned. Bobby and Johnny, respectively the British and Dutch impersonators of the "woman" in the show, are under no circumstances interchangeable.

There is too much bad blood between the "girls". Some say it is because of an instant mutual dislike. Others say jealousy over their personal wardrobes has been the cause for the feud. To make matters worse, the Dutch have recently gained a decisive advantage over the British by staging a master coup, with the support of the camp's MP force, and winning undisputed acclaim from friend and foe. It happened as follows: Dutchie-girl Johnny had been making his debut on the stage, playing the part of a "lush" doing a tango dance in a cabaret scene. The artificial bust, made to the last detail, the wig of shoulder-long wavy hair, the distinctive feminine sway of his hips in the dance - it all looked disturbingly real. Then, at a certain prearranged moment, members of the MP force jumped on the stage, loudly demanding the surrender of that Thai girl in the play who had slipped past the guard. The Japs among the audience, never missing a show, obligingly fell for it. Stopping the performance, they rushed backstage, angrily ordering on-the-spot evidence which would leave no room for doubt as to Johnny's sex. Shaking their heads, the Japs returned, convinced and impressed, to their seats, ordering the continuance of the "Ollanda Number One Show."

Today a British concert is on. To uphold their prestige as the group who, after all, had started to entertain their fellow prisoners before anyone else had done so, a greater feat had to be presented. This morning the British artists' leaders had made it known that they were going to do just that. The theatre ground is filled to capacity. The regular Nip spectators are in their reserved seats. The music begins, the curtain rises, and soon the new stunt is revealed to everybody except, hopefully, the Japanese. Breaking the previously held rule never to include the enemy in the script, the compere delivers one smart, ambiguous jest after another about the whole menagerie of Hitler, Mussolini and, daringly indeed, even the Japanese general Tojo! His quipping is cleverly performed. In order to appreciate the innuendo one must understand English better than the average Korean or Jap guard does. It is really good - but alas not good enough. One among the Japs finally catches on, or perhaps the roar of laughter after each sentence has made him suspicious. Who knows? Anyhow, this Jap jumps up and, speaking rapidly to his mates, runs forward shouting, "Stoppo! Buggero! Stoppo!"

Together with his mates, he lines all the actors up on the stage and then, before our astonished eyes, they are subjected to a solid one minute belting! Immediately afterwards the producer is ordered to continue the show, but no laughing will be permitted. A certain strain is detectable among the performers. The play has lost its soul. The Dutch are still one in front.


[1] Mad Carew is the protagonist of The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God, a poem by J. Milton Hayes. This work, influenced by Rudyard Kipling's ballad style, is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Kipling.

[2] An example of "Japlish", the Japanese/English/Malay pidgin the guards and POWs devised to communicate with each other in the Railway camps.

Click Here to Advance to Chapter 15

Return to Home Page