Short story collection


Miss Question Mark

“ Basil doesn’t see a future in Malaya. The communists will take over. The French have lost at Dien Bien Phu . Very soon, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaya will fall – the domino effect,” Clara de Brumellar said in between mouthfuls of large chunks of meat from the satay stick.

The conversation took place on the evening of Boxing Day at a large gathering of Eurasian families at the spacious garden of the mansion of the da Silvas at Marshall Road in Katong. The grass was still damp from the afternoon showers after which the sky had cleared.  The occasion was the sending-off for the de Brumellar family who were emigrating from Singapore. There was a generous spread of a variety of local dishes and cold meats on a large rectangular table, from which the guests scooped food onto their plates. The desserts- sugi cakes and pineapple tarts were laid out on another smaller table. Adjacent to the table stood a large metal drum filled to the brim with blocks of ice interspersed with bottles of Tiger beer and bottles  of Green Spot, Red Lion and Sinalco aerated drinks.

“ But this is our home, Clara,” countered Gloria Tasker.

“We have to think of our children. There’s also a push for Malayanisation of posts. Where does that put us?” asked Clara.

Malayanisation means replacing the British.”

“You really think so? The locals take us Eurasians as white- they call us “seranis”. When they get their chance, they’ll ditch us,” Clara said, making a gesture of cutting her throat with her forefinger, “even Miss Question Mark.”

They both laughed.

Miss Question Mark – that was Gloria Tasker, the receptionist at the Kallang aerodrome. When His Excellency the British Governor of Singapore returned from London after a briefing at the Colonial Office about a fortnight ago, Gloria who cut a winsome figure had caught his eye.  At the Terminal Building, he had stopped to ask her the local time to adjust his watch.  A reporter from Free Press had snapped a photograph of the brief encounter and pestered her for a story for the “people column”. Gloria blurted out that she felt like a question mark because she answered fifty queries daily from air passengers.  On the following day, there was a story about Miss Question Mark with an accompanying photograph on the front page. Miss Question Mark became an overnight sensation and many locals who visited the aerodrome to welcome or send off relatives stopped to complement her.

“ Will you be better off in England?”continued Gloria.

“Maybe not us, but our children.”

“You spent all you life here. Don’t you feel for it”, Gloria asked.

“Of course, we do. Basil was in the Volunteer Corps and fought the Japs trying to defend this country,” Clara retorted.

Gloria should not have asked that question. It was common knowledge that Basil would have been punished if not for the timely intervention of Dr Paglar, who was respected by the Japanese conquerors.

“ You should also start looking around,” advised Clara, “at least for Justin’s sake. By the way,where is your son?”

“He is working and could not come. You have relatives in England, we have no connections outside this country,” Gloria replied.

“Your sister’s in Australia, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” replied Gloria in a whisper.

Gloria did not like to talk publicly about Gertrude, her younger sister. Six years ago, Gertrude did not return home one day after her work at Balestier School, where she was the music teacher. Her job also involved her visiting all the five neighbouring schools in the Towner Road area to teach music. Mother who was ever protective of her two daughters was filled with trepidation when she had not showed up the next morning at home or in school. Gloria and Mother had run around calling on friends and acquaintances without any welcome news. Mother who had moved in with Gloria after the war, visited the Cathedral of Good Shepherd daily to pray for Gertrude’s safe return.  Gloria even paid for an advertisement in the missing person’s column in the local newspapers. The Police had been called in after four days. It was during the Police interviews that Gloria had her first shock – that Gertrude was very unpopular in the school because she despised Asians and that the school had just kept her because it was difficult to get another teacher of her qualifications. There was a definitely a trace of bigotry in Mother. But Mother’s bigotry was concealed unlike Gertrude’s. As for Gloria and her father, they had no ill-feelings towards other races other than for the Japanese who had mistreated their community.

When no news about Gertrude surfaced, everyone feared that the worst had happened to her in the crime-ridden city. Then Gloria received her second shock  three weeks later – a happier one at that. Sister Agnes a teacher from the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus paid a visit with a letter she had received from Gertrude in Brisbane, Australia after marrying Peter Boswell, an Australian soldier she had met during his posting to Malaya. She had eloped because she did not think that Mother would have consented to her marriage to Peter,  a divorcee. It was a civil ceremony, she assured them. She asked the good Sister Agnes to persuade Mother and Gloria to accept her and her husband because a spinster in her thirties had every right to make up her mind on the choice of husband.

Mother had found it difficult to live down this scandal of a respectable Catholic Eurasian girl running off with a common soldier and a divorcee. She would have preferred a gainfully employed Catholic Eurasian as a husband for Gertrude- or even one of English, Dutch or Portuguese origin provided they were Catholic – but definitely not an Australian divorcee.

“Why could she not be like you and marry a good Catholic that I selected? I had someone in mind for her- Catherine Woodford’s son, Rodney, who works at Raffles Library. A nice quiet boy who is in the church choir and who would suit Gertie’s musical talents, Instead she runs off to marry a soldier who divorces his wife. When will he divorce her?” Mother had asked.

Gloria had  tried to reason with Mother but to no avail. From then on until she passed away two years ago of pneumonia, Mother would have nothing further to do with Gertrude. Mother’s obduracy brought the two sisters who were born ten years apart, closer together and they corresponded regularly. Whenever Gloria read out Gertrude’s letters , Mother would just walk away. Gertrude was insistent that she would only return to visit when Mother accepted Peter as her son-in-law. So incensed was Mother at this request that even at her deathbed, Mother did not want Gertrude’s name mentioned. The couple had no children and although Gloria was not superstitious, she believed that this was because Mother had not blessed the marriage.

Gloria seldom mentioned Gertrude in circles outside the immediate family and had no wish to continue with the conversation with Clara. She excused herself on the pretext of wanting to mingle around. There was much vapid conversation at the evening party. There was nothing much to talk about because Gloria had met most of the ladies at the Christmas midnight mass two days ago. Now and then, the conversation switched to the best country to emigrate to. Although the Eurasians claimed their ancestry from British, Dutch or Portuguese, Britain came out at the top of the list because of their familiarity with the English Language. The Japanese Occupation had played havoc with the lives of Eurasians who were considered as the enemy because of their part-ancestry. The trauma of the ill-treatment and internment was bad, but what were worse were the shattered lives after the Occupation. Many found themselves as widowers and widows. The British Military Administration tried to redress some of their sufferings by reserving special posts for Eurasians in the government service. But the days of their special status would soon be over because the British Empire was already in its death throes. Britain had neither the capacity nor the desire to hold on to its colonies. The other colonial powers were faring no better. The Dutch had been expelled from Indonesia. The French were suffering humiliating losses in Indo-China.  The excesses of the two and a half year Japanese Occupation had made it a living hell for the inhabitants in South-east Asia, but it had blotted out the invincibility of the European colonial powers. The Korean War had seen the communists taking over in Northern Asia. The Malayan Communist Party was waging guerrilla warfare in the Malayan jungle. The communist juggernaut was on the move.

Gloria had intended to leave the party by ten-thirty to catch the last bus and then take a 5 min stroll to her two-storey terrace house at Hemmant Road. The skies opened up with a heavy downpour around that time and the guests had to flee indoors to the dining room with their food-laden plates.  Inside the house, a large Christmas tree stood next to an olive wood crib with clay figures of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus lying in a manger with the Bethlehem star overhead. There were “oohs and aahs” from some as everyone crowded around the crib to adore it. On the corner of the sitting room, stood a gramophone  playing Edith Piaf’s  ” La Vie en Rose” on a 78 rpm record. Gloria closed her eyes and let the peace of the moment engulf her for a few minutes. Now that Gloria had missed the last bus, she had no choice but to accept Basil’s offer to send her home in his car. She would have preferred not to, because Basil was clearly inebriated.

“Don’t worry, dear. Basil is steady ,” Clara assured her.

It was an uncomfortable twenty minute experience in their Ford Prefect car for Gloria because Basil drove erratically. At one point, the car ploughed into a clump of short bushes near Kampong Amber and came to a halt. On hearing the ruckus, a group of street urchins appeared from nowhere and assisted to push the car back onto the road for a small tip.

The car proceeded along Mountbatten Road until it came to the crossing with the Kallang Aerodrome runway. There were no flights on that day and hence the gates were open for the vehicle to pass. As they coasted along Mountbatten Road, Gloria could discern the distant lights of the Aerodrome terminal building.

When she was dropped off at her house around midnight , she heard the familiar twang of a guitar from the sitting room, which signaled that her teenage son Justin had returned home. She gave a sigh of relief.

Before bidding Gloria goodnight, Clara said again, “ Think about what I told you about emigrating. Don’t wait too long.”

What grandiose plans Gloria and Railway Station Master Ronald Tasker had for Justin- they would educate him to be the best doctor of the colony. That was one field that Eurasians excelled in and the medical service was one that did not have much discrimination by the whites. Ronald did not have the opportunity to study medicine at the  King Edward VII Medical College to qualify as a dresser, the term used for a person who assists a surgeon during the operation,  because his family could not afford it. In those earlier days, only whites could become medical officers; but things had changed . How the great war and the Japanese Occupation had cruelly thwarted all their best laid plans.  Ronald was interned by the Japanese because he had been active in the Volunteer Corps.  Gloria who had joined the Kallang Aerodrome as a guide when it opened in 1937, much to the chagrin of her parents was allowed to continue with her employment for a few months until the post was abolished by the Japanese Administration. After her retrenchment Gloria had managed to find work at a dispensary run by a Eurasian doctor to eke out a meager living for the family.

Other than Ronald, the rest of the family Father, Mother, Gloria, Gertrude and Justin were spared because Ronald’s friend Jayaram Menon took them under his protection. Jayaram had some influence because he was a sergeant in the Indian National Army, which the Japanese were courting in the hope of making inroads into India. He had managed to obtain and paste a large chit signed by a Japanese Colonel at the entrance of their house at Hemmant Road. Shortly afterwards, Jayaram had gone off to fight the British in Imphal and died in action. Although Gloria had been sent to the Nippon-go classes to learn Japanese, she never had the desire to pick up the language. Gloria did not know what the chit said, but no Japanese soldier entered their house. The family members had only to be careful not to offend Japanese soldiers when they were outdoors.

As food and jobs became scarcer, the Japanese had decided to transfer all Roman Catholics of Singapore to Bahau, an uninhabited region in the jungles of Pahang where they could live off the land. Japanese propaganda glorified Bahau as a place where the new inhabitants would till the fertile soil and send surplus food to Syonan (Japanese name for Singapore). When the Japanese agreed to release Ronald from his tribulations on the condition that he and the rest of the family agree to be transferred to Bahau, Gloria had agreed whole heartedly.  They had all taken part in the great exodus to Bahau from the Keppel Railway Station where Ronald had been the station master. The glowing picture of Bahau that had been painted to the settlers turned out to be a nightmare. The family was alloted a small plot of land in the secondary forest to clear, build a hut and till the land, all of which they had no experience in. Somehow they survived by their wits and the Straits dollar notes that Father had smuggled in together with drugs , medicines, antiseptics, cotton wool, lint and bandages that Gloria had managed to bring along with her, which they sold to others for services.  Wild elephants on the stampede and poisonous snakes were a constant menace. Conditions were appalling and the health situation deteriorated rapidly. Regular bouts of malaria weakened the family and it became almost a habit for them to fall ill every month. Typhoid and dysentery appeared soon. Beri Beri and scabies drained the energy out of the fittest of the settlers. Hunger was a constant companion. Father was the first to succumb  when he plucked and ate some wild poisonous mushrooms in the forest because of acute hunger. He was buried in a shallow grave at the little cemetery.

With liberation from the Japanese in 1945, the surviving members of the family returned with their meager belongings to Singapore. When they returned to their house, they found that an Indian family was occupying it. Fortunately, Father had carefully preserved many official documents and brought them with him to Bahau. The new occupants left without a fuss when Ronald produced the title deed . But he had never regained his health nor his spirit and death came as a salvation about five years ago. Miraculously, the others in the family – Mother, Gloria, Gertrude and Justin survived the ordeal. For a while, Mother and Gloria took on jobs as cooks and servers in the soup kitchens that had been set up by the British Military Administration to feed the undernourished population.  Their financial situation improved  when Mother bought a Singer Sewing Machine and started a small home business of tailoring clothes for Eurasian clients. Gloria was allowed to return to her old job at the Kallang Aerodrome when it started operating . Justin ended up as an over aged student in is his class when he started attending Mcnair Primary School .He showed great promise at first and gained admission to Beatty Secondary School after passing his Standard 6 examination, but after his father’s death,  lost all interest in his studies. He left school prematurely without completing his Senior Cambridge Examination against Gloria’s advice and started hanging around coffee shops where juke boxes blared out the latest pop music and where there were frequent fights between rival gangs. After a few months she was relieved when he joined a four-man guitar band of Eurasians , performing at small family functions . She bought the guitar and sent him for a 3 month guitar course at Foorman’s School of Music .  The band got a break when they were employed by the Singapura Hotel nightclub. Although this nightclub was a stone’s throw from home, Gloria disapproved his working there because of her fear  that he would develop a penchant for liquor. She was all too familiar with what liquor did to some families when the man took to binge drinking. Although Justin had promised not to become a drinker, she had smelt liquor in his breath a few times when he returned from playing at functions. She had taken the other members of the band to task  on this issue. Gloria had tried her level best to enroll him for a stenographers’ course at the Catholic Young Mens’ Association Secretarial School, but he had refused on the grounds that this was a ladies job.

On the next day, Gloria seated herself on an ornate wooden chair behind an equally ornate rosewood table with a sign plate, “INFORMATION” written in bold manuscript letters at the Kallang Aerodrome Terminal. The transit air passengers who dawdled in from the parked aero planes to the cafeteria at the passenger terminal for their meals could not easily miss the sign or the pleasant smile of Gloria. Kallang was a convenient stopover for the many weary passengers to stretch their legs, take a smoke or have a beer after spending many uncomfortable hours huddled within the Douglas Dakotas and Lockheed Constellations. The aerodrome boasted of a spacious passenger terminal with an impressive control tower with glass windows at the second level. It was reputed to house the latest air traffic control equipment. The terminal housed two cafeterias, a bar, a book –cum- stationery store and a souvenir shop in addition to the airline check-in counters.

There was also the Airport Hotel for those who broke their journeys for more than a day.

Many passengers, traveling between Britain and Australia broke the monotony of the flight by talking to Gloria, especially when they found her to be conversant in English. It was mainly small talk about how humid they found the weather or relief at being able to stretch their legs, but some stopped in to inquire whether there was a barbershop at the airport, and where they could purchase nylon stockings or Favre Leuba watches. She took great pride in answering these queries and extolling the virtues of the island. In fact, she felt that she did a better job than the Singapore Public Relations Office which promoted tourism in a half-hearted manner. She would advise the air travelers to take a break in Singapore and visit interesting places such as Change Alley at Collyer Quay, Satay Club near Alhambra Theatre and Haw Par Villa/ Tiger Balm Gardens at Pasir Panjang.

On that morning, she browsed the sports page for the progress of the Malayan badminton players who were preparing for the All-England Championships and the Thomas Cup competitions . She was an aficionado of the game having played many competitive matches at the Girls’ Sports Club in her younger days.

“Hello, Miss Question Mark”, a voice called out behind her.

She turned around to spot the balding lanky middle-aged man, looking smart in his khaki uniform. He carried a small gray cotton cloth sack in his hand.

“Gerard, what are you doing here? Your postmen collect the airmail- right?”

“I was in the postal van when we passed the aerodrome, so I thought I’d drop in to meet the celebrity.”

“ Oh, it was nothing,” Gloria gave him a smile.

“You really looked smashing in the newspaper photograph,” he said. Gloria blushed.

Calamity Jane’s showing at Capitol Theatre. Shall I buy two tickets for the midnight show on Saturday?” the affable postmaster continued.

“Not this Saturday. The Barkers are having a christening ceremony for their grandchild”

“The invitation’s always open- just let me know when you can make it. “

“By the way, how is the reorganisation at the General Post Office going on?” asked Gloria.

“We are starting shift duty at night and this will speed up mail delivery all over the colony. Also no more fear of lost mail, even those from overseas, ” said Gerard.

He waved goodbye and disappeared with the sack into the postal van which had driven right up to the entrance. Gerard de Rozario, a widower had been importuning her to tie the wedding knot after her husband Ronald died.

“ We’re both without partners. I can provide you the companionship in your old age,” she always remembered his plaintive remarks.

Gloria was sure that she could come to like the good-looking mild-mannered man. He might even make a good step-father for Justin who had become difficult to manage. Outwardly, Gerard and Justin seemed to like each other’s company. On some evenings,  both would go to watch the professional wrestling matches at the nearby Happy World Stadium. But things might turn out to be different if they had to stay under one roof. After all, Gerard had never raised any kids of his own. She intended to broach the subject with Justin one day.  But nowadays, it had become so difficult for mother and son to have a long conversation that did not end in an argument. He had even stopped accompanying her to church on Sundays.

She did not need Gerard for the money but only for the companionship. She would reach the mandatory retirement age of fifty-five in a few years’ time. She could expect a respectable pension. This would be supplemented by the monthly payments from the Widows and Orphan’s fund, thanks to the regular contributions of her late husband. She could ask for an extension of service, but did not intend to. The airport would soon move to Paya Lebar because Kallang was unable to cope with the increase in air passengers.  Her spacious terrace house where her family and Mother lived, and which Mother had willed to her after Gertrude left the family, was only a ten-minute bus ride from Kallang Aerodrome. Once in a while, she even strolled home along the tree-lined road for lunch with Justin.  Paya Lebar was  far away and the frequent bus employee strikes had made the bus services most unreliable.

Gloria attended the glittering New Year’s Eve Party with Justin at the Singapore Recreation Club, which was exclusively for Eurasians. She wore the special red gown bought from John Littles at Raffles Place. Gerard was to accompany them but could not because he had not fully recovered from a bout of food poisoning. The City Council was being taken to task for the red worms found in the water supply, which was suspected to have caused the recent spate of food poisonings. The master-of-ceremonies read out new-year greetings from those who had migrated and ended up by joking that the exodus will only accelerate because of the recent spate of food poisonings. He also mentioned that the party had special significance because SRC had defeated its rival the neighbouring, all –white club in soccer during the year. Looking around, Gloria could not help noticing the marked absence of many of her friends.

Gloria and Justin shared a table with the Boscos, Kenneth, Dixie and their teenage daughter Jennifer. Their son Brian was also down with food poisoning.  Gloria saw the party as an opportunity to get the two teenagers Justin and Jennifer to get to know each other better. As it was, Justin was hardly moving around with Eurasians, but more with teenagers of other races. Not that she was bigoted in any way, but it would be nice if he found a partner of his own kind. When the master of ceremonies volunteered to teach the younger crowd on how to dance to Mambo Italiano, she prodded both of them to the dance floor . She sensed that they liked each other.

Everyone sang with the band in the lively rendition of  the well-known “Jingkli nona” melody at the stroke of midnight heralding the year 1954 after “Auld Lang Syne” was played.  The party ended well past midnight with the singing of “God save the Queen. ” While the older members  belted out the anthem with gusto, Gloria noted that many of the younger crowd were muted.

The Boscos drove the Taskers home in their Baby Austin car.

“A bit of a squeeze,” Dixie giggled.

“We don’t mind. We shouldn’t wait until the next new year party to get together,” Gloria ventured.

“Gloria, you’re the first to know, but this’ll be our last New Year’s party here”, said Dixie.

“Why?” asked Gloria.

“We’re all leaving for Canada in about a month’s time”

“Looks like everyone’s leaving,” Gloria commented.

“ Governor John Nicoll has just announced a constitutional commisssion to accelerate self-government. The colony doesn’t have a future. The communists are already bin Malaya,” Kenneth said.

“Every day, the newspapers say that more and more bandits are surrendering in the Malayan jungles,” said Gloria.

“Do you really believe those stories?  A Chinese University is being proposed somewhere in the west in Jurong. After self-government, what is the future of the English language? Where does that put us?” asked Kenneth.

Dixie continued, “There’s also another reason.  Kenneth heard that the Governor’ll soon announce conscription for 18-year olds.”

“Is that so?” asked Justin, suddenly showing a keen interest in the conversation.

“Everyone between eighteen and twenty will be called up to serve in the military or civil defence”, Kenneth said.

“But why?” asked Justin.

“British conscripts are being sent here and it’s not popular in London. They need local conscripts,” Kenneth said.

“ I’ll be affected,” said Justin.

“Yes and my son Brian too,” said Dixie, “I don’t want my son to be sent to the Malayan jungles to fight the communist terrorists.”

“ I don’t want to fight the communists. I have no quarrels with them,” said Justin.

“Gloria, start making plans to leave,” said Dixie.

“Where to?” asked Gloria

“Your sister’s is in Australia. Get her to help.”

The words “I don’t want my son to be sent to fight the communists” reverberated in Gloria’s mind for the whole week. Justin was not the best of sons to manage since he left school. Many a time she had caught him smoking and reading the Weekender, which she considered as a trashy magazine with salacious articles. There were times when he drove her up the wall with his demand for money because he did not earn enough as a guitar band member. Maybe she was lax on him after the death of Ronald.  She had every reason to pamper her son because he had cheerfully accepted all his deprivations when they were in Bahau. He did not deserve to ‘be sent to fight the communists.” He was all what she had, for better or for worse.

She mentioned in her next letter to Gertrude about Justin’s possibility of going to Australia.

The air letter arrived on Friday afternoon when she was having lunch. It was a pleasure to read the neat handwriting with every i dotted and every t crossed. Gertrude was still as meticulous as ever.

Dearest Gloria,

We were thrilled when we heard about your plans to get Justin to Australia . At once, we wrote to the Federal Department of Immigration for permission to bring in a relative. They have politely replied that settlement in the Commonwealth is only for persons of European origin. This is ridiculous but that is how things are. Look at me.  I am only eligible to become a citizen after 15 years of stay because I am of mixed descent, whereas a white immigrant only needs two years. Those of us who speak English fit in much better here than the Southern Europeans who do not speak or intend to speak English. Yet, they are preferred merely because they are white. Peter says that things will change.

We would love to have Justin and also you to come over and settle in this wonderful country where life is much easier and where people are so helpful. Now that Mother is no more, what is there to hold both of you in Singapore?

Gloria, we will try very hard and look for other ways to get Justin here. Trust us.  Peter and I will never forget your encouraging words when everybody was against us after our marriage. Peter is not one who gives up easily and he has some bigwigs among his friends.

Peter is away as usual supervising workers in the canefields. This year, the rains have been good and there is much work for cutting canes. Nowadays they are using tractors and this makes the work easy. He will be away for 3 months. He does miss all of us, but the pay is good, especially the overtime work.

With lots of love from Peter and me. Do not lose heart.

Gertrude.”

Gloria noted the irony of the situation. Gertrude was getting a dose of her own medicine, but she did not want gloat over it. The letter was very business-like and unlike the normal letters with gossip that the sisters wrote to each other. Gloria had not mentioned about the possible conscription for Justin as the reason to send him to Australia because it had been told to her in confidence. But she doubted whether it would have made any difference. She trusted her sister Gertrude to exhaust all possible means before giving up.

Gloria had discussed the matter with Justin before she had written to Gertrude. They had both sat down and talked about it, surprisingly without any arguments. Justin was not sure whether he could continue his studies in Brisbane. But if he forsook the opportunity to leave now, he might live to regret it.  He could probably find a job there with the help of Uncle Peter, who he had never met before. Justin had suggested that Gloria could resign from her job and that both of them should get to Australia.

“Not at this time,” Gloria had told him, “ I don’t want the two of us scrounging off Gertrude. Maybe after you get a job, you can try to get me there. I would also have retired by then with a pension”

Now with this dolorous news from Gertrude, it did not matter any more. She sent a reply thanking Gertrude and Peter for their troubles and assuring them that all will be well with her and her son.

Two weeks later, she received another letter from Brisbane

“Dear Gloria,

I have some good news for you. Peter did not give up on you.  The Department will give permission for Justin to come for a visit for a month. We have agreed to sponsor his stay with us. It took a lot of effort by Peter to get them to agree. He asked for 3 months, but they would only give one month and we could ask for an extension after that. Once he is here, things would be brighter. My Anglo-Indian neighbour managed to get his brother here for a visit and after repeated appeals, he has landed a job.

No promises, but things are looking better. We will collect the letter from the Department and post it to you. You should get it within the next two weeks.  Start booking a berth for Justin to Brisbane and let us know the date of arrival. We are all looking forward to meeting him.

The rest in next

Yours affectionately

Gertrude”

P.S. Please send a latest photograph of the handsome young man for us to recognize him. It has been ages since I last saw him.

After the initial joy, Gloria felt sad that Justin would leave her. The house would not be the same without him. It would be the first time that they would be separated. The thought that Justin was deprived of a happy childhood by the great war brought tears to her eyes. To make up for lost time, she remembered how she used to take him weekly to the 10 cents open air cinema shows at the school fields.  It would end up with a  bottle of strawberry milk that they used to share. His eyes used to widen at the appearance of Tarzan, the ape man. The memory of Justin hugging the small teddy bear that was given to him by Santa Claus at her office  Christmas Party, after the end of the war made her weep uncontrollably.  He deserved something better and she would not stand in his way. She was sure that Ronald would have taken the same decision if he were alive. If things worked out well for Justin, it might turn out to be a permanent separation. If he settled there, what would happen to her? If Australia did not even welcome a young man with part-European ancestry, why would they want  a middle-aged lady past her prime? She managed to put aside all these feelings and started making arrangements with Justin for his voyage. After checking with the P&O Office on the ships bound for Australia, she persuaded Justin to write to his aunty Gertrude with a photograph and the details of his arrival.

Justin had to acquire a passport for travel and this took more than a week. With the passport and the expected fare, Gloria and Justin visited the P&O office in the afternoon to purchase the ticket to Brisbane on the “Chusan” which was sailing in two week’s time. During the bus journey, she kept up a conversation with him on how she should conduct himself when staying with Gertrude and Peter. She impressed on him the need to always have a place for Christ in his life. Justin was all apologetic about his giving Gloria incessant worries. He said that he was so proud to have shown Gloria’s photograph  in the newspaper  to all his friends. She could sense his excitement tinged with sadness and she was at a loss for words.

When Justin presented his passport and the letter from Gertrude, the ticketing clerk said that he could only issue the ticket when they brought the authorization letter from the Australian Department of Immigration.

“Sorry, Mrs Tasker. Without the letter, they might not let your son land and the shipping line will be blamed. I hope that you understand. You also have to buy a two-way ticket because they might ask for it. But I will reserve a seat for your son on the strength of this letter from his relative in Brisbane. I will not charge a reservation fee or ask for a deposit, ” the shipping clerk had said apologetically when she pointed out that he had issued the tickets to a European couple who were in front of her, without any question.

The unsuccessful venture had drained them of their energy and hope.  They caught one of the shared  taxis going towards the east.  It  drove into a traffic jam near  the Kallang Gas Works, which was unusual for that time of day. The taxi inched its way for about 15 minutes.

“The bus driver’s strike,” the taxi driver cursed, “maybe they are marching and blocking the road.”,

Justin pointed to the horizon said, “Not a strike, there’s a fire.”

Gloria saw a column of smoke from the direction of the aerodrome. She was no stranger to seeing smoke because fires that razed on the atap huts of whole villages in the vicinity were quite common during the hot months, but not during the monsoon season with the heavy rains. In fact, the Estate and Fire Brigade of the City Council had recently announced that about 20,000 were risking their lives by living in kampongs that were a fire hazard. Was the aerodrome also on fire, she started to get worried.

When the taxi neared the junction of Mountbatten Road, after a further fifteen minutes, it was already dark and they could see the bright spots of light from vehicles and hear wails of sirens. There was acrid smell of smoke and burnt metal. There was a policeman in his short khaki pants and blue shirt turning vehicles away from the access road to the terminal building.

“What has happened?” Gloria asked him when the taxi stopped next to him

“Plane crash, no entry,” he said.

She alighted and asked Justin to carry on with the journey, but he did not want her to walk alone on the roads at night. She paid their fare and the duo proceeded towards the terminal building. The smell of burnt petrol was getting stronger and there were search lights all over the runway. She was accosted by another policeman.

“Sorry, nobody is allowed to get any closer,” he said

“But I work here,”

“Any identification?”

She searched unsuccessfully in her handbag for the identity card. All she had was Justin’s passport, but the policeman was not impressed.

“They might need my help, ” she said plaintively.

“The Director is expecting her, “Justin added

“Sorry. The aerodrome is closed,” the policeman repeated.

“How do I contact my office, if I cannot get enter?” Gloria asked.

The policeman just shrugged his shoulders.

Justin and Gloria trekked home on foot , which took about thirty minutes because they had to fight through a crowd of on-lookers that had gathered on both sides of the roads near the aerodrome. The din of the vehicles caught in the traffic jam blowing their horns was deafening.

At home, she switched on to Radio Malaya for any news on the fire. She had just missed the news. She would have to wait for another hour while the disk jockey was answering requests for songs. After warming up dinner, she prepared to go to the nearest public telephone to call her office.  An announcement came over the radio

“We interrupt to announce that a BOAC Constellation plane en route from Sydney to London crashed during landing at Kallang Aerodrome this evening. The plane broke up into many pieces and caught fire. Rescue workers have so far recovered the charred bodies of 25 passengers. The rescue services comprising of the Fire Brigade and ambulances are being assisted by the RAF. Meanwhile Kallang Aerodrome has been closed and all flights diverted to Changi RAF airbase. The public are advised not to go to Kallang Aerodrome. They should check with the Airport office for news on diverted flights. All roads near the aerodrome are closed to help rescue operations. Some bus services have been diverted. We will update you when we have further news”

She decided to contact the office anyway and left home for the nearest public telephone booth. The first public telephone had no dialing tone. Some vandal had damaged it. She walked on bravely in the darkness for another 10 minutes to the next one, slotted in a 10 cents coin and dialed the Kallang Aerodrome number. All she got was an engaged tone for the next 10 minutes as she repeatedly tried to get information. She guessed that the switchboard should be flooded with calls from anxious relatives and with inquiries on other flights. There was nothing else she could do. She had tried to contact  the aerodrome without success. If they needed her they would call. She decided to wait for the next day. That night, she included those who had died in the air crash in her prayers.

When she switched on to listen to Radio Malaya the next morning, there was no further update on the air crash, other than what was reported on the day before. Despite Justin’s insistence that she only report for duty when contacted, she decided to walk to the aerodrome with the necessary documents to try to get in and help. Just as she was leaving, a private bus pulled up with a message for her to report to Kallang Aerodrome. The bus had been chartered to pick up employees because bus services had curtailed their services to the Aerodrome. Everyone spoke in hushed tones on their way to the aerodrome. They were all brought up to the control tower.

The runway which was littered with pieces of debris and tyre marks was a sorry sight. The huge fuselage of the aero plane which had nosedived was blocking the runway. The fires had all died down and the firemen were picking through the ruins. She counted four large pieces of wreckage. The scene reminded her of the carnage after the Japanese bombing of the railway station, which she had witnessed. When the war ended 9 years earlier, she had prayed that she would not be a witness to such calamities any more.

The Director arrived at 9 am and read out a prepared statement to the press reporters who had had been herded into the adjacent Pilot’s Club Building, next to the control tower.

This is the second bulletin on the air crash. Yesterday evening, a BOAC Lockheed Constellation Aero plane from Sydney-London landed short of the runway, hit a seawall, overturned and caught fire. 33 of the 40 passengers and crew have died. Their names will be released after the nearest-of-kin have been notified. The Chairman of BOAC is flying in from London to institute the board of inquiry. The aerodrome will be not be used while the runway is being cleared. All flights will be diverted to Changi RAF until further notice. However, the terminal will open in the afternoon for those who want to find out information. We at the aerodrome offer our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives. BOAC will make a press statement at 11 o’clock today. In the meantime, we will take you to the control tower from which you may take photos. We regret we are unable to let you take photos from the runway for your own safety. Please return to this building by 11 o’clock.”

Gloria stayed at the reception desk to answer inquiries from the public who would be allowed within the aerodrome in the afternoon. She would be assisted by two more clerks who would have information on missing relatives, delayed flights and alternative arrangements.  Miss Question Mark was busier than usual on that day. The chartered bus sent her home late at night.

On the following day, she sifted  the newspapers for more details on the crash. They were still full of headlines of the crash, but human stories were the main ones. Some of the identified charred bodies had been buried at Bidadari cemetery. A British passenger had been wrongly identified as an Indian businessman and cremated according to Hindu rights. Another businessman made a police report that a gold ring was missing from the finger of his wife who had perished, when he went to identify the body.

It was Justin who spotted the news in a small column.

“Look mom, there is some news about airmail being lost.”

Under the title Queen’s Mail Lost, it read – The Director of Posts announced that a fair quantity of civil mail might have been lost in the air crash. The postal department will sieve through and still deliver those that can be recovered.  The lost mail is also suspected to include some from the Queen with mementos from her recent trip to Australia

“Mom, what about that letter from Immigration Department from Aunt Gertrude?” Justin asked

“Yes, what about it? There are 2 flights from Sydney every week. It need not be with this flight.”

“It’s already two weeks since she wrote the last letter. The letter should have been here by now.”

“Let us wait and see” she said.

When she met Gerard later in the day, he confirmed their fears, that most of the civil mail had been destroyed. The post office could trace lost mail that had been registered in Australian post offices, but not those that had been merely mailed. Even that would take some time.

Gloria did not want to assume the worst. She was in two minds on whether to send a telegram to Gertrude. Against her better judgment, she posted another letter immediately to Gertrude about her fear that the authorization letter from the Department of Immigration might have been lost in the air crash. She importuned Peter to explain the circumstances to the Department to get them to issue a copy of the letter.

Mother and son spent six more anxious days and concluded that the authorization letter was indeed destroyed. The anxiety was heightened by the fact that there was no reply from Gertrude. Anyway, Gloria was too tied up with the recovery operations at the aerodrome to have free time on her hands to worry. She noticed that Justin was very jittery and morose. One  day before the Chusan was to leave for Brisbane, she persuaded him to make another trip to the P&O office to postpone the date of his trip by another month.

Justin returned in a cheerful mood with two packets of Hainanese pork chops from Koek Road and  a box of Angeline Orange tablets which Gloria took regularly in the belief that they improved her complexion. He said that the clerk had been very helpful with the change of date.  In the evening, Gloria uttered grace before she and Justin sat down for their relaxing evening meal. As usual, they had switched on to Radio Malaya to catch any news of the air crash. By now, the air crash news had receded into the background.

Gloria heard this news on Radio Malaya evening bulletin.

“The Governor has announced the first call-up for all male British or Federal Subjects between the ages of 18 to 20. They will serve in the Singapore Military or Civil Defence. Details will be announced on the location of the call-up centres soon.”

Gloria sat up and strained to hear the rest of the news. She watched the colour draining from Justin’s face.

The bulletin went on to give the government’s reasons for the call-up.

Gloria lost her appetite when she heard the rest of the bulletin.

“The Labour Department announced that all affected males between these ages will not be allowed to leave the country without valid reasons.

[All characters in the story other than historical figures are fictional and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. Names of streets, places and institutions have been mentioned only for authenticity and it should not be taken to mean that any of these events took place at these locations]

Advertisements

Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: