This is a tale of which most of you will say "now how can that be true?" And if I was not the person to whom it had happened, I would be saying it right along with you, because I am a practical person who deals with reality and have little time for things of the imagination. I am a nursing sister and you can't get much more down to earth than that.
I am, and always have been, a plain person. When I was young, nursing had become one of the acceptable jobs for a woman. I and many of my school friends moved from school to hospital and became nurses. One by one the friends fell in love with doctors or patients, and married and left the profession. It was an truism that patients fell in love with nurses and married them, but it never happened to me.
While I have little time for things of the imagination, I did have the normal romantic yearnings of any young woman. I had ceased waiting for the love of my life to appear but I had not yet lost the desire to see surrounding rather more exotic than those of Sydney Hospital. When the opportunity arose to join the Nursing Service, and serve in Singapore and Malaya, I jumped at it. That was in 1940.
In 1942 I was in Singapore when the Japanese invaded. The men stayed, and became prisoners. The women and children, including the nursing corps, were evacuated at the last minute. We travelled on commandeered cruise ships, packed like sardines in the luxurious surroundings. South of Java the Japanese attacked.
The ship was holed and sank, and as many as possible took to the life rafts and headed for the coast of Java. I missed the lifeboats. I had been checking the far side of the ship for children when the ship suddenly listed and started to go under. Not knowing what else to do, I jumped and swam as fast as I could and luck came my way in the shape of a large piece of flotsam to which I was able to cling when I became too tired to swim any further. I never saw any of the people on the ship again.
This is not a tale about my sufferings, trials or tribulations. I clung to my flotsam, and headed east along the Java coast as best I could. I knew that when Java ended I would be near Bali, and then other islands until I reached Timor and Timor was near Australia. It was crazy, but the only thing I could think of was to try to get home. So I paddled my way along the Java coast, hiding from Japanese patrols and begging from the native villages. The Javanese always gave, but were happy to see me leave, for fear of the Japanese.
I continued this way until the monsoon hit. Life became impossible, and I contracted malaria. By this time I was far enough from Batavia that the Japanese were less feared, and some kindly villagers took me in and tended me. I stayed with them, helping with the chores, and putting my nursing and midwifery skills to good use. I lived like this for the rest of the wet season, gradually acquiring more and more native habits. The salt water and sun had rotted my clothing so I was given a sarong. I learned some Javanese, enough to get on around the village. I played with the children. I lived among them, but I never belonged.
I was as tall as the tallest man, fair haired, grey eyed. There was no way I could be mistaken for Javanese. Word was bound to get out. When the rains ended and the Japanese restarted their patrols it was only a matter of time before they heard of the stranger in the coastal village. When they came, the villagers hid me. The Japanese killed the headman, so I left. I went a little way along the coast, then gave myself up. The headman had been a gentle man, kind and loving.
None of the Japanese patrol spoke English or Javanese. Neither I nor the villagers spoke Japanese. The patrol beat me, bound my hands and dragged me to their camp. The interrogation achieved nothing. My Javanese was of the order of "This baby's nappy needs changing". I didn't understand the military interpreter. He didn't understand me. He wasn't interested in the rice water boiling over. They shut me in a hut. Occasionally they fed me. Sometimes they beat me. Sometimes they did other things. It's a long time ago now. A day came when I was dragged out of the hut into the sunshine. Near the camp entrance a small patrol unit was formed up; an NCO and half a dozen men. I was given a native hat and my hands were tied. The NCO in charge of the patrol took the end of the rope and we started walking. The patrol was in a bad mood, and they took it out on me.
We walked and we walked. Roads were scarce. When we could, we stayed in military camps or villages. Often we just slept by the side of the road. I had by this time totally lost track of time. I was beginning to lose hope, I was forgetting my former life. It was not long before we reached Batavia that we came into a larger than usual camp. A number of large tents and native shelters surrounded a fenced off sandy square. An old mission church stood to one side, with its associated buildings. We stopped in the shade at the entrance while one of the guards went for the commandant.
When the commandant arrived it took little time for the men of the patrol to be seen to. An NCO was summoned and the rankers in "my" patrol hurried off with him to be billeted and fed. "My" NCO remained, arguing with the commandant. That I was the subject of their argument was clear from the amount of gesticulating in my direction. Why they were arguing I had no idea. The result of the argument appalled me. The commandant summoned two men who took a stout stake and hammered it into the ground to one side of the sandy enclosure. I was chained to the stake!
I felt dreadfully exposed. Anybody in the camp who glanced across the central square looked at me! A guard stood at the entrance. He was kind, in his way. When I mimed drinking, he brought me a beaker of tepid water. When I, scarlet faced, mimed lavatory motions he laughed, called the sergeant and I was taken to the latrines. Everybody in the camp watched me drink. Everybody watched as I was taken to the latrine block. It was worse at sunset. The P.O.W. work detail marched back into camp. They marched right past the enclosure to the parade ground to be dismissed. Every one of them looked at me. They looked with unpleasant interest, they looked with horror, they looked with disgust. One or two looked with pity and I think that was the worst.
As the sound of their feet marched past me, I shrunk back against the stake. I curled myself up as if the stake were big enough to hide me. I curled myself around the stake, and hid my face, shamed by the simple fact that every one was looking at me. I heard the men being dismissed. I heard the tramp of their feet as they moved to their billets. I heard the hushed murmur of their voices with the occasional muted laugh, as they ate their evening ration. I heard the guard walk to the stake and say something. Then he put something down on the ground in front of me. I remained, curled about my post, willing myself to die. Something about being tied up there and stared at so intently had destroyed the part of me that believed in the future. I felt as if the rest of my life were to be spent tied to that post, as if the stares had pinned me there as a butterfly is pinned to a card.
The sounds of the camp died away. The air slowly cooled. Even the sounds of the guards moving around eased up. A full moon cast its silver light over the enclosure. I could see it in the cracks of my eyes. I was still alive, still willing my heart to stop beating when a deep soft voice spoke close behind me, "Are you all right?"
I started. I had heard no footsteps. "Who are you?" I said. "Pardon?" said the voice and I realised that I had automatically spoken in Javanese. I lifted my head and looked behind me. He was sitting there in the moonlight, his arms across his bent knees watching me with concern. His short-cropped hair was white in the pale light, and there was a gleam from his shadowed, deep-set eyes. Like all prisoners he was cadaverously thin. There was a wild, devil may care attitude about him; something in the twist of his mouth. I looked away as I pushed myself up to a sitting position. "I'm sorry." I said slowly, carefully, thinking the sentence through. "I haven't spoken English for ..." I shrugged my shoulders helplessly, "months? I don't know. Who are you? Should you be here?" I glanced towards the guard. He didn't seem to have noticed anything.
"I'm Jack. You're Australian, aren't you?" I nodded. "I fought with Australians in North Africa, I recognise the accent. You know, you ought to eat the rice. I think you need it more than the ants." I looked down. There, where the guard had left it, was a small bowl of rice with a thin trail of ants leading into it. He was right. I picked the bowl up and carefully brushed and picked the ants off. It was more than the Javanese villagers ate. It was more than I had become used to. I held the bowl out towards him. Still speaking carefully I said, "Would you like some?" He gave a soft laugh. "Thanks, I don't need any. You eat it - slowly."
I picked up some rice in my fingers and carefully put it in my mouth. As I chewed I watched him. He was looking at my feet. They were bare, scarred, hardened now after months of no shoes. He looked back up. "You've come a long way, Jenny Gibson" It didn't occur to me to wonder how he knew my name. It seemed so natural for him to be there, as if I'd known him a long time. I told him briefly of my travels, and he sighed and shook his head. "So many crazy things are happening, I wonder if the world will ever be straight again." I took another mouthful of rice. "Where are they taking you?"
I gazed into the bowl. It was nearly empty. "I don't know." I looked up at him, at the intense eyes staring into my soul. "The worse thing is that I'm beginning not to care. I feel as though I never existed." He stared at his thin hands, hanging between his knees and carefully rubbed his fingers together as if savouring the sensation. Then he glared at me. His voice was fierce, commanding as he said, "Remember the people close to you, Jenny, your husband, children, they care, hang on for them." I laughed mirthlessly.
"There isn't anybody. I've never even had a boyfriend and my parents died before the war. I'm even forgetting how to speak English. You saw that." The bowl was empty, Carefully I put it down. He reached down and touched the ground beside my hand, attracting my attention. "Ask to talk to Colonel Lawrence, the liaison officer. He'll find out where they're taking you. It'll be better to know." He smiled, a crooked teasing smile. "I always thought the Aussies were a canny lot, but now I'm not so sure. Why one earth would they miss a diamond like you?"
I snorted. "Come off it! I'm no gem, just a plain Jane and always have been." He leaned forward, his voice lowered becoming little more than a whisper, "That's rubbish. You have a beautiful soul. I know, I can see it." Then I felt the cool brush of a kiss. I must have appeared totally stunned for he laughed as he straightened. "Remember me, then, Jenny. Hang on for me. And if you think you're forgetting your English, sing."
"I've never been any good at singing. I don't know any songs, only a few hymns."
"I can't sing for nuts, but it's never stopped me! Come on, Jenny Wren, sing with me," and he launched into Cross of Ages with gusto. He was right. He was the worst singer I have ever heard and well aware of it. His eyes sparkled with devilment as he dared me to join in. He knew, the cunning bastard, he knew exactly what I was thinking. Bright scarlet, I looked away, opened my mouth and started singing. I wasn't much good, but I was miles better than him. His voice faded as the guard started shouting. I thought I heard a faint, whispered "Remember me" as I turned towards him, singing on.
He was gone. My voice cut out abruptly as a cane slashed down across my back. I huddled down. Another voice shouted across the square, not a Japanese voice, though it spoke Japanese. Cautiously I lifted my head and looked. A dark haired European officer was limping his way across to me, accompanied by a Japanese NCO. I searched around for Jack, but I could see no movement anywhere. I hoped he'd got away without being seen. I was damn sure he wasn't supposed to have been there. At a word from the NCO the guard went back to his post at the entrance to the enclosure. Painfully hobbling as fast as he could, the officer approached. Slowly I pushed myself back up to a sitting position and looked up at him.
"I wouldn't sing that particular song if I were you, the Japanese here have taken it in dislike. I don't blame you for singing. Keeps the heart up. But honestly, of all the songs you could have chosen why that one?" The voice was a kindly upper class English one. The question was rhetorical but after a quick peek to check where the Japanese were I whispered back, "It was Jack's idea." His face froze, his legs finally gave way beneath him, and he flopped to the ground in front of me in an untidy sitting position. Looking round at the NCO he gave a reassuring signal, then turned back to me.
"I'm Colonel Lawrence, liaison officer, translator. Which Jack was it?" I shrugged. "Thin, blond hair, army officer, sang like a cow in labour." His face seemed to pale in the early dawn light. "Jack Celliers," he whispered to himself. He seemed stunned. "It's ok, " I said, "He got away without being seen." Lawrence nodded and swallowed. "Look, let's get back to you. What's your name? Why are you here? Can I do anything?" I told him my name, and summarised my adventures as I had for Jack. I confessed that I didn't have the slightest idea of where I was going or what was happening. He looked down at the ground, thinking, massaging his knee. Coming to a decision he looked back up at me.
"Thank you, Miss Gibson. We don't get much news here. The men will be upset to hear about the refugee ships." He sighed. "I think the world has gone mad. But the reason the commandant had you put here was to prevent any trouble. There are about eight hundred men in this camp, counting the Japs, and most of them haven't seen a woman for a year or more. Having you in clear sight was the surest way to stop any trouble with rumours." I nodded. It was so obvious, but it didn't make the staring any easier to take. "I'll talk to the patrol NCO, see what he knows if you like." "Please" I almost begged.
Slowly he got to his feet, using my stake for support. I offered my hand for him to use, but he shook his head. When he finally stood looking down at me he winked. "If you want to sing, stick to The Lord's My Shepherd for now." He looked at the centre of the enclosure. "It's probably best if no one else knows Jack was here." I nodded. The fewer who knew, the less likely he was to get into trouble.
Slowly and painfully Colonel Lawrence hobbled away, the camp NCO following. The light grew stronger, and the tents slowly came to life. Every time a P.O.W. came into view I looked to see if it was Jack. It never was, but the funny thing was that, when I looked at them they looked away. So I carried on looking. The guard brought me water and another bowl of rice. I still felt full after the last one, but I thought of Jack and stuffed it in. I was likely to be back on the road on short rations in a few hours.
A squad of P.O.Ws was forming up and preparing to move out by the time the Colonel hobbled back. The NCO wasn't with him this time. Lawrence came straight over and plopped down beside me, using the stake for balance. "Well, it appears you're not the only European female on the island. The guard knows very little. Batavia apparently sent orders that you were to be brought in to be taken to the rest. I wouldn't know where that would be, I'm sorry." I smiled at him. "It sounds like I'll be with other women, at least," I said, encouraged. The work detail began to march past. I looked over Lawrence's shoulder to see if Jack was among them.
"If you're looking for Jack, Miss Gibson, he isn't there." He paused, drawing in the sand between his feet with his forefinger. With sudden determination he looked up. "Jack Celliers has been dead a month. He was executed just after Christmas, buried in the sand over there and left to die." He paused. Everything was suddenly over-bright and I shut my eyes. "I don't know what you saw or dreamed, Miss Gibson, or how. But the Japanese are a highly superstitious lot. I strongly recommend you not speak of this to anyone else."
The camp I ended up in wasn't found by the Allied forces until early 1946. The Japanese had kept careful records of the camps holding the male P.O.Ws, but nothing in writing about the female camps. There were only rumours, and tales about prisoners like me. When I asked the authorities in Java, before going home, they told me yes, Colonel Lawrence had indeed reported to them that an Australian nurse, Jenny Gibson, had passed through their camp being taken to an unknown destination. I was glad the Colonel had survived. When I asked about Jack Celliers they ummed and ah'd. Yes Jack Celliers had been captured on Java, but there was some confusion about his fate. The Japanese records had him shot by firing squad some months before a group of P.O.Ws claimed to have seen him executed in a camp. Bad show on the Japs part, recording someone as dead when he wasn't, eh? But unfortunately he was definitely dead, they thought. Privately I thought the confusion seemed typical of the man I'd met. He'd have enjoyed it.
Yes, I still remembered Jack. Every time I'd felt like giving up I had thought of him, sung and kept going. Still it was just my luck. The only man who ever appreciated me, the only man who ever kissed me, and he was a ghost. Or a dream. I'm a practical person, I don't believe in ghosts. Anyway, I've located Colonel Lawrence. He's in Japan, trying to sort out the mess left by the war. I don't think he'd mind if I wrote.
Story copyright Sue Law, 1997, based on character from the book "The Sower and the Seed" by Laurens Van der Post.