© BM 2008
Chapter Eleven – Episode 15
Alex sat on the Sun Deck, and watched Richard swimming in the pool. Well, perhaps swimming was not exactly an accurate description, but splashing around with the other children. They had had their swimming lesson a little time previously, and Richard seemed to be learning very quickly. Both his mother and father were very pleased with their son’s progress, and believed that by the time they reached Australia, he would be proficient. The main thing, to Alex’s mind was that Richard was happy and apparently suffering no ill effects from being uprooted from home. Anne had told him that seven was a critical age for a child and that being taken away from his school and friends could have a detrimental effect on Richard. Fortunately, no one had mentioned this to the boy himself, and he seemed to have no problems of any kind. Three weeks into the voyage, he was as happy as he had ever been, and was benefiting greatly from the best holiday any of the three had ever taken.
Anne was asleep beside him in a deckchair. She was wearing a wide brimmed sun hat, and a black bikini, which suited her. Although she was now three months pregnant, it was not yet showing. Alex had thought it was strange that she had not told him that she believed she was expecting when they discussed and agreed the posting to Australia. Subsequently she had claimed that she had not been sure, and wanted to keep it to herself until she could be certain, but Alex was not entirely convinced by this. He had somehow believed that pregnancy was something to be shared between a father and a mother.
He had mentioned it to former soldier, turned car salesman, Nick Elliot, while having a drink in London. Nick’s explanation was simplicity itself, “She’s a woman.” To Nick, this explained everything, and Alex had agreed that it was a philosophy which had much to recommend it. To Alex’s surprise, Anne seemed to have no qualms about having the baby in Australia, although he had been sure that such an event would have been sound reason for having the posting cancelled. He had been quite pleased himself, after the initial shock. They had not been trying for another child, but then, they had not exactly been trying to avoid one. A month later, when the news had sunk in, he was now very pleased by the prospect. Both wanted a girl, and Richard, who had been told, kept referring to his ‘baby sister’, and patting his mother’s stomach.
Anne’s pregnancy had been a blessing, once she had decided to go to Australia, and it was the reason they were now on the SS Australis heading in a very civilised fashion for the other side of the world. Her doctor, Major John Cooper, a rugby playing friend of Alex’s, from Ballymena, had recommended that the expectant mother should not fly. The Army had flinched at this, but had eventually agreed that the entire family should go by sea, provided that Captain Millar should take three weeks leave. This Captain Millar had agreed with alacrity.
Anne stirred and opened her eyes. “Hi? Richard OK?”
He smiled back. “He’s as happy as a pig in…….”
She interrupted him. “Yes, I know the rest.” She closed her eyes again and Alex returned to half reading his book, and half watching his son. Life seemed to have taken a turn for the better, and the trip to Australia was a symptom of this change. He could scarcely believe his luck when the Army had agreed to the sea voyage, and had feared for a while that it would insist on his going on by air, with the family following by sea. John Cooper had seen to that. He had stated that, in his medical view, Mrs Millar’s condition would be immeasurably strengthened by her husband’s presence. Good old John! The Ulster Mafia strikes again! John Cooper was a Protestant, but Alex reflected that all that nonsense seemed to matter a good deal less when Ulstermen, and women, found themselves outside their native province.
He was happy that Anne seemed to have calmed down and accepted not only the posting, but also the trip. She had enjoyed it all so far, with stops at Valetta, Alexandria, Port Said, and Ceylon. Alex regretted that the ‘rebels’ now controlled Aden, as he would have dearly loved to visit it again. Aden, and his week there seemed like a million miles, and several life times ago. How long was it? 1957. Only thirteen years. He marvelled at where the time had gone. He was also regretful that he could not have been in Aden in the last desperate days, with ‘Mad Mitch’ leading his Scots for one last time in Crater. He had a small and harmless fantasy that he would walk into the Indian trader’s photographic shop, and ask him whether he should take the film out of the camera yet.
It was time for the children to vacate the pool for the adults, and they all climbed out with varying degrees of reluctance, with Richard last.
“OK, mate? Did you enjoy that?”
Richard grinned at his father, and nodded his head. “Yeah.”
“All right, then. Time to get changed. I’ll take you down to the cabin.”
“Dad, I know the way.”
“Nevertheless, young man, I’ll take you. We do not want any girls running off with my son, do we?”
Richard made a face. “Girls? Horrible!”
Alex gave his son a towel, and thought to himself, “You won’t always feel that way, old lad.”
He touched Anne gently on the shoulder. “I am taking Tarzan here to the cabin. I’ll be about twenty minutes.”
She waved without opening her eyes. “All right, boys. Be good.”
All too soon, it seemed, the voyage ended, by way of Freemantle and Perth. Soon they were steaming majestically up Port Philip Bay, which, after negotiating the narrow
Heads, seemed to open out into another sea. They docked in Port Melbourne, and the Millar family liked everything they saw. They were met by a lieutenant in the Royal Australian Army Provost Corps.
“G’day, I’m Bill O’Reilly. Most people call me ‘Tiger’.”
Alex shook hands. “Like the cricketer?”
Tiger grinned, “Yeah, like him. He took you Poms apart once or twice.”
Alex corrected him. “The Poms are English, I’m an Ulsterman.”
Anne shook hands with the Australian, who touched the peak of his cap in a casual but respectful way. “Don’t even ask, Tiger, what he is on about. He could bore for Britain in the Olympics on the subject. Good to meet you, and thanks for being here.”
O’Reilly solemnly shook hands with Richard. “G’day, mate. How yer goin’?”
“All right, mate,” replied Richard, who had been taking lessons from some Australian children on the ship. They all laughed, and Richard was delighted with himself.
They settled quickly into life in Australia, delighted by such simple things as a common language, and driving on the left. They were also often puzzled by a common, or not so common, language, and driving in such a way as to avoid Melbourne’s trams. Richard, in particular, adopted Australian slang and idiom with ease. He was full of ‘g’day’, ‘how yer goin’, ‘fair dinkum’, and ‘she’ll be right’. His parents, at first, tried to correct these habits, but very quickly abandoned their efforts as a waste of time.
Alex enjoyed his job, based in St Kilda Road, only a mile or so from their flat in Brighton, and Anne, too, enjoyed the outdoor lifestyle, and the proximity of the beach. She was unhappy when Alex was required to travel to various parts of Australia, to work in Army units, in other States, but generally, the baby’s expected arrival kept her busy.
Melbourne was a rather staid, respectable city, which had not long gone over to ‘ten o’clock closing’. When this was first mentioned to Alex, by Tiger O’Reilly, he had no idea what his colleague was talking about.
“What do you mean, ‘ten o’clock closing’?”
“Like it says, mate. The hotels shut at ten in the evening now.”
Alex at least knew that a ‘hotel’ was not only a place to stay, but was a pub. “So, when did they used to shut?”
“Six o’clock, mate.”
“What, in the morning?”
“No, in the evening.”
“No, fair dinkum, it was six.”
“Christ! How did people get their drinking done?”
“Good question. However, Aussies are fairly resourceful people, so there was a fifteen minute drinking up time, until a quarter past.”
“That didn’t help much, did it?”
“Like I said, Alex, we are pretty resourceful. Just before six, the barman would call last orders, and everyone bought five or six glasses to polish off before throwing out time. It was called ‘the six o’clock swill’.”
“No. Come on, Tiger, you’re having me on. Five or six of these in fifteen minutes? They are so bloody cold to start with that your mouth freezes, and you wouldn’t be able to stand up afterwards. No one can do that. You wouldn’t be talking about throwing out time so much as throwing up time.”
“No, mate, fair dinks. You see, the Aussies are tougher than you Poms, so we can do it.”
“Listen, you Ocker mug. I keep telling you, I’m not a Pom.”
“But you support the Poms at cricket.”
“Simply because we do not have a Northern Ireland cricket team. In any case, when Illy and the boys get out here later in the year, they will stuff you bastards.”
Conversations like this were commonplace, and good-natured.
The Millars bought a car, a Holden, on Tiger’s advice. Alex asked why he should get a Holden.
“Well, they are ubiquitous, mate.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means there are like arseholes. Everyone has one.”
So, a Holden it was, and it served them well at the weekends, when it seemed the Australian Government never expected a war to start, as it appeared the entire military establishment of the country was on weekend leave. They explored the Dandenongs, and the Port Philip Bay area, and one long weekend drove along the Great Ocean Road to South Australia. Anne had never learned to drive in Britain, and showed little interest in doing so here. This did not bother Alex at all, as he enjoyed driving. Life went along without incident, until the baby was born in the Royal Melbourne Hospital. The delivery was comparatively easy and over in less than an hour. Both mother and baby were fine. Anne and Alex were both delighted at the birth of their daughter, whom they christened Margaret, soon, and permanently, to be abbreviated to Maggie. Richard was also very pleased and protective toward his new sister.
Maggie was a month old when life changed even more, and radically.
Alex was working in his office in the old Victorian building in St Kilda Road, when his Colonel walked into the office. Alex got to his feet, but Bob Spencer waved him to sit down again. Colonel Spencer propped himself in a chair on the other side of the room, and started lighting his pipe. Jesus, thought Alex, do all colonels smoke bloody pipes or cigarettes?
“Alex, I have had a request, and I wonder if you can help me?”
“I’ll try, sir, what’s the problem?”
“Well, it’s the bloody RAAF. They have a base in Butterworth, in Penang, and the Provosts staff it with a flight lieutenant, which, as you know, is a captain in our money.”
Millar grinned. “Yes, I know that. I was briefed by one of them in 1957, when I was up there as a soldier.”
Spencer removed his pipe from his mouth, and shook it in Alex’s direction in a gesture of agreement. “Exactly, you know the bloody place, that’s what I told the Air Force Provost Marshal. Now the boys in blue have only got twenty-one officers in their Branch, and three of them have just had an accident in a car up in the Northern Territory. One guy is pretty seriously hurt, and the other two are in hospital, and will be away from duty for quite a while.”
He paused to re light the pipe. “Now,” he said, puffing furiously, “they have asked us if we could lend them a bloke for a while, to replace their guy in Butterworth, as he’s due to go to Vietnam. I’ve checked with your people back in the old dart, and they have no problems. What do you say?”
“How long for, sir?”
“About a month.”
“I’d be delighted, sir.”
“Good on you, Alex. I thought you would.”
It did not quite work out that way, of course. Things rarely did in the Army.
Anne had been pretty displeased at her husband going off, leaving her to cope with a seven year old boy, and a month old baby. He knew that she was right, and knew also that his defence of having to obey orders cut no ice. Alex was gone within the week, leaving a furious wife, who would not even speak to him. He flew to Singapore in a Qantas 707, and stepped out into the overpowering humidity of Paya Lebar Airport. The airport had changed out of recognition since his days with 28 Commonwealth Infantry Brigade, but the passengers still had to walk across the tarmac to reach the air-conditioned sanctuary of the terminal building. The stopover was brief, About ninety minutes, and after just over an hour’s flight, he was looking out at the once familiar shape of Pulau Pinang, as the aircraft banked on it’s final approach to Butterworth. He was met at the aircraft steps by Flight Lieutenant Bill Turpin, the Base Provost Officer, and an Englishman. They shook hands, and climbed into a battered RAF Land Rover.
“Yes” said Turpin, “before you ask. Most people call me ‘Dick’.”
They had a very short time for a handover, as Turpin was due to fly to Vung Tau the next day on a chartered Qantas Boeing. So, on the following day, Millar drove the Land Rover with Turpin as his passenger, a complete reversal of roles in less than twenty-four hours. He watched the aircraft take off with mixed feelings. He was pleased to have his own command, but concerned at his lack of preparation for the job. A few visits as a private soldier thirteen years earlier did not qualify him to provide the security for this Air Force station, or base, as he reminded himself he should refer to it from now on.
Butterworth had, like Singapore, changed from anything his memory told him. Gone were the lumbering Belvedere, and noisy Whirlwind helicopters that he had known so well in his jungle hopping days. They had been replaced by the nimble, but much smaller Sioux, which the RAAF guys flew. The strike aircraft were now Australian Mirages, Malaysian Sabres, and the occasional flight of RAF Lightnings. He took over a section of one hundred and forty seven men from Dick Turpin. One hundred and one of these were RAF Police Auxiliaries, of whom eighty-seven were Malays. The remaining fourteen were a mixture of Chinese, Indian or Eurasian, and these men were dog handlers, a job the Malays, as Muslims, would not do. The remainder of his policemen were a mixture of RAAF and RAF, the latter being in a minority of roughly two to one. He had three warrant officers reporting to him and a gaggle of senior NCO’s, reporting to the warrant officers.
Alex reported to the CO of what the Air Force called Base Squadron, for all matters within the perimeter, and to the Assistant Provost Marshal, a Squadron Leader in the RAAF, for all activities outside it. After the first three weeks, he was just getting to grips with the complexities of his job, when he was called to his CO’s office. Group Captain Snow was smoking a pipe when Alex rapped on his office door.
Alex regarded this as an unfortunate omen. “Christ, another pipe smoker. This must be bad news.”
“Come in, Alex and grab a chair.”
He did so.
“Dick Turpin has picked up some Godawful virus in Vietnam. He has been medevaced back to Australia. I have asked if we can keep you. You have fitted in pretty well here. I nearly said for a Pom, and for a soldier, but I didn’t, and I won’t. You have done a good job, and I think you can be more useful up here doing a proper job, than sitting or your arse in Melbourne. Perhaps one day those bastards in the Provost Unit will learn to drive, and we will not need to fuck around like this. Anyway, your home unit has Okayed it.”
He looked and Alex and removed his pipe from his mouth, where it had been all the time he had been speaking. “That all right with you, Alex?”
“Fine with me, sir.”
“Righto, you’d better make arrangements to get back to Melbourne and pick up your missus. I guess she’ll be pleased.”
She was not, and was still not on speaking terms with her husband. Despite this disadvantage, the Millars were packed up and on their way to Malaysia inside a week. They were allocated a married quarter about a mile from the base, on a purpose built housing estate, where all the residents were either service people, or civilian employees of the Air Force. The house itself stood in its own garden with papaya and banana trees growing. There were three bedrooms, from two of which it was possible to pick the papaya and bananas. All the living accommodation was situated on the first floor. The ground floor contained a laundry, and the servants’ quarters.
They had three servants; a Chinese cook called Choy; an ‘amah’ called Sharon, also Chinese, and an Indian gardener with an impossible name, but who cheerfully responded to Sam. All three had been inherited from Dick Turpin, and it was not too long before Anne made some changes, sacking Sharon and leaving Choy to handle the cooking and cleaning, for which she was paid extra. Anne also took up a job working voluntarily for the Base newspaper, but overall, Butterworth began a long decline in their marriage. The children were taken off her hands, more or less, with Richard at school and Choy caring for little Maggie. Anne grew to hate the heat, humidity and smell of Malaysia, and even more to resent very deeply the power that the Army held over their lives.
Alex could do little to arrest this decline. He was kept very busy, and enjoyed his work immensely, particularly as an Army officer working among Air Force personnel. He had always found the Air Force to be more relaxed about life than the Army, and the Australians were pretty well totally laid back. He established a good rapport with his men, and realised early that he was popular. His para’s wings were a little responsible for part of this, but much was to do with his having come up from being a private soldier. He played football and cricket and developed a much deeper interest in rugby. He conceded to himself that he spent more time at work than he should, or was strictly necessary, and he understood that much of the reason for this was Anne’s behaviour. She rarely stopped complaining about either Malaysia, or the Armed Forces, as her hatred of the Army had now migrated to the Air Force as well. She was constantly ill, although the RAAF doctors could not diagnose the problems. She lost weight, and became painfully thin. They stopped making love. He did wonder if she was suffering from some post birth disorder, but the RAAF hospital had a fine gynaecological unit, and no one there seemed to pick up a problem. Alex could not seem to assist in any of her difficulties, and while he was successful at his work, his home life was exacting on both of them. He offered to send her back to the UK, either for a holiday, or to stay there, but she declined both offers.
He was sitting in his office one morning, contemplating his personal problems, and idly watching the main gate, and the daily activity of the base, when the telephone rang.
“Alex, Dan Snow.”
“G’day, sir.” He realised that he, too, was slipping into an Australian way of speech.
“And g’day to you. There is a little problem outside on the Alor Star Road. The CEO says his guys will not go into the jungle because someone has seen a tiger.”
“I didn’t think there were any tigers down here on the coast,” Alex spoke hesitantly.
“Don’t tell me. Go and tell the LEPs.”
Alex gathered up two of his corporals, Stewart and Crompton, and Warrant Officer Venison, and they all clambered into the Land Rover to drive the mile up the road to the north. The two junior NCO’s carried 9mm Brownings as a matter of course, but the two senior men each drew a pistol from the Armoury. ‘Just in case’, Millar told himself. The Civilian Employment Officer (CEO) was an Australian civil servant, and he was present when they arrived, arguing heatedly with a group of about fifteen Locally Employed Personnel (LEPs).
Alex got out of the Land Rover. “Hi Chris, you been frightening the work force again?”
“G’day, Alex. This guy, Jarasammy, reckons he saw a tiger slope off into the jungle about an hour ago, and none of them are prepared to go in to work until someone assures them it’s clear.”
“And that means the Police, I suppose. Do you have an interpreter?”
“Yeah, Linga here will do the job.”
Alex smiled at the little Indian interpreter, and shook hands. “OK, Linga, please ask Jarasammy what he saw.”
The conversation between the three of them was difficult, involving Linga doing a double dose of translating.
“He says he saw a tiger, sir.”
“I know that. Where was this tiger?”
“Just there, sir.” Linga pointed a piece of jungle about ten yards away, which looked much the same as any other piece of jungle.
“What did it look like?”
“It was a tiger, sir.”
“Yes, I know that, but what did it look like? Ask him to describe this tiger”
“It was about this size.” Linga indicated with his hand about two feet from the ground. “And it had spots.”
“It had what?”
“Come on, Linga. Tigers don’t have bloody spots, they have stripes.”
“Oh, yes, sir, I know that.”
“Well tell him, for Christ’s sake.”
Linga turned back to Jarasammy, and commenced a long conversation in Tamil. “Well, sir, I am very sorry to be the one to tell you this, but this man, here,” he indicated Jarasammy, “says he doesn’t give a fuck what you say, it was a tiger, and he isn’t going in there until the jungle has been searched. He says the bloody RAAF pays him to cut grass, and not to be eaten by a tiger. And furthermore, sir, you have the guns, and he does not.”
Warrant Officer Venison stared into the far distance, apparently fascinated by a tree, and Corporals Stewart and Crompton were having the utmost difficulty in not laughing.
“Shut up, you two.” Millar then spoke to Venison. “Mr Venison, it appears we have to go on a tiger hunt. I’ll lead, and I told you pair of bastards to shut up.”
They all trooped into the jungle, which at this point was about two miles thick, between the Alor Star Road, and the sea. It was the monsoon season, and the trees were streaming, the ground underfoot soaked and slimy, and the trickles had turned to streams and the streams to rivers. It reminded Alex of other times, in the same State of Penang, being frightened out of his life at the prospect of meeting the CT’s.
Many of the streams could be stepped over, and some had small bridges traversing their gushing torrents. In one case the ‘bridge’ was merely a log. Crompton nimbly scrambled over, followed by the warrant officer, who was somewhat corpulent. Millar felt very uneasy at the purchase given by his ‘shoes, black, service issue’, and watched anxiously as the fat warrant officer staggered unsurely over the log. The inevitable happened, he slipped and fell into the fast flowing stream, where he sat, fortunately with the water only up to his waist, as his dark blue RAAF ‘cap, service dress’ floated gracefully towards the South China Sea.
Millar sensed Stewart stiffening beside him, and hissed out of the side of his mouth, “Corporal Stewart, just one giggle from you and you’re on a charge.” Louder he said “Corporal Stewart, help the warrant officer. Corporal Crompton, fetch the warrant officer’s cap. We don’t want the damm thing ending up at sea.”
Mr Venison was assisted from the water, and, with many expressions of sympathy, sent to the Sergeants’ Mess to change. Millar, Stewart and Crompton dissolved into laughter.
After an hour, and no tiger sightings, they came out and reported their findings to the CEO, whereupon all the locals tripped off, apparently happily, back into the jungle.
Much of Alex’s work was administrative, taken up with commanding a very large contingent of men, but, to his delight, he found more police involvement than he had anticipated. He conducted investigations when necessary, and managed many others. On one occasion, one of his Criminal Investigation sergeants, Peter Jeffries, brought before him a sixteen year old youth, the son of a flight sergeant, who had been arrested by the Service Police for a series of burglaries in the married quarters. The officer’s job was merely to ask the prisoner if he had any complaints about his treatment.
“Well, Derek, have you told Sergeant Jeffries everything?” He tried to sound hard and tough, because that was what was expected, and anticipated only that the suspect would agree with the question.
Alex almost fell out of his seat when Derek said “ No, sir, there are two others. I broke into the sports club, and the church.”
“Jesus,” thought Alex, “that was easy.” He called out “Sarge, Derek has a couple of other matters he would like to discuss.”
This victory, achieved at so little effort on his own part, was sufficient to raise his status in the eyes of the section, which credited him with investigative powers he knew he did not possess.
Alex firmly believed in understanding everything that his men were called upon to perform. He arranged to go out one night, to Anne’s dismay, on ‘Vice Patrol’. This was just a fancy name for checking the out of bounds brothels, where the young soldiers and airmen believed that the quality of the services provided was somehow superior to that available at the regulated brothels. It was about two in the morning when the Land Rover pulled up outside premises on the outskirts of Georgetown. The madam greeted the captain and two corporals.
“Hello, master Alex, no Australian boys in here.”
Millar touched the peak of his cap with two fingers in a little salute. “What about British boys, mamasan?”
“Oh, no, sir. No British, or Kiwis or Yankee boys either.”
He smiled at her words. “If it is all the same to you, mama, we’ll have a look anyway.”
They entered the dimly lit lounge, and went up the stairs, to the little rooms on either side of the corridor. The first room contained a very fat and sweaty Indian. “Sorry, mate,” he said, quickly closing the door. The next two had a couple of hard working Chinese men, whose attention was not diverted from the job in hand by the momentary appearance of a military policeman. Room four had something different, a vaguely familiar backside, and obviously the property of a Caucasian. It belonged to the APM, Squadron Leader Short.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Fuck off, Alex.”
Millar considered for a few seconds whether this constituted a lawful command, and decided that it did. “Very good, sir.” He went to leave, and as an after thought, he turned back and saluted, saying to himself, “I have been saluting that arsehole for six months. One more time will make no difference.”
The two corporals had found nothing, and their commander decided to keep his discovery to himself. Mama saw them off.
“I told you, master, no Aussie boys here.”
“You were right, mama, no boys at all, but some very unpleasant customers.”
The following morning, as was his habit, Captain Millar went into the office of Squadron Leader Short to report on the activities of the night.
“Good night, Alex?”
“Very quiet, sir.”
“Nothing on the Vice Patrol?”
“Not a thing, sir. The lads must have all run out of money.”
“Good, thanks, Alex.”
The two men were sharing lunch in the Officers’ Mess later the same day, when the Squadron Leader suddenly keeled over, said, “Oh, my God,” and his face became buried in his curry. Alex grabbed the older man by the shirt collar, and heaved his head out of the food, but noticed that underneath the curry his face was tuning blue.
“Get a doctor” he yelled, “this man is ill.”
There was a flight lieutenant doctor in the Mess, and in very quick order Short was in an ambulance on way to hospital, bound for three months recuperation from a heart attack. As he watched the ambulance speeding away from the front of the Mess, on a short journey to the RAAF hospital, Alex had the very non-Christian thought that he would become acting Major for a period, and could claim Higher Duty Allowance.
He enjoyed his period of acting rank and taking command of those activities that had hitherto been closed to him. Nothing had changed at home, and to his shame, he found more and more reasons to work late. Twice a year all the Provost officers in Far East Air Force gathered in Singapore, at Changi, for a conference. Many of the officers brought their wives along, but Alex was pleased to get a break. He knew that he was not helping Anne, but still he had no idea how to do so. His efforts were usually rejected, he would become angry, and arguments followed. He decided to try for some leave, and suggested that they go back to the UK, for four weeks. She agreed, and after the Squadron Leader returned from sick leave, they got a relatively cheap charter flight from Singapore to the newly opened Gatwick.
Anne’s parents met them, fussed over the children and were genuinely shocked at the emaciated figure of their daughter. It would not be very long before Alex was made to feel that it was all his fault that Anne was ill. The doctors could not find any specific problem physically, although, undoubtedly, they had their own views about her mental state. Despite that, he was held responsible by Bob and Molly. Alex did not blame them, as he felt sufficiently guilty, himself, without anyone having to point it out. If only any of them had been able to tell him what the hell he was doing wrong. In his heart, he was pretty sure that he already understood the answer to that one. It was the Army. He loved the Army, she hated it, probably because he did love it so much. Somehow, in a way he was just beginning to understand, she saw the Army as a rival to her, to the survival of her marriage. He realised, dimly to commence with, that one day there would have to be a choice made, between his wife and his beloved Army.
They had a month and in that time there did not seem to be any noticeable improvement in his wife’s health. She hadn’t wanted to go to Belfast to see his parents, and he didn’t insist, simply saying he would go on his own with the children.
“You are trying to take my children away,” she had screamed.
“No, I am not. I want to take them to see their grandparents, and in any case, they are my children too.”
“You did not to have them. You did not have the pain of childbirth.”
What answer could he give to that? “Don’t be so bloody silly. You’re a woman, I can’t have children. You wanted them too.” In later years he would learn not to rise to this type of no win situation. It did not work either. Then he was a ‘coward’ who ‘could never discuss anything’.
In the end she went to Belfast, in a very noisy Vanguard of British European Airways. He left his uniform behind, because of the ‘Troubles’ then breaking out in Ulster. He was briefed by Army Intelligence, and the RMP, and carried a 9mm Browning. He did not feel comfortable with that, especially with the children about, but felt he had no other option. His parents were delighted to see Richard and, particularly Maggie, whom they had never seen before, and made a huge fuss of the children. It gave Alex and Anne a chance to get away on their own in his father’s Vauxhall Victor. They drove down into County Down and through the Mournes, stopping at the Silent Valley Reservoir, only days before the IRA attempted to blow up the pumping station to disrupt Belfast’s water supply.
Alex was very nervous, continually jumpy. Anne, conversely, was more relaxed than she had been for almost a year.
“It’s lovely out here.” She gazed across the still dark waters of the lake.
“Isn’t it?” He agreed, looking all around him, his hand seeking the comfort of the cold steel inside his jacket pocket. He put his arm around her, not having felt so close to his wife in a long time, not, in fact, since they had left England for Australia. She felt the hardness of the pistol and stiffened.
“You still got that bloody gun, even out here, in this beauty. You sicken me.” She pulled away from him.
“Anne, I’m a bloody officer in the British Army. I can’t walk around like I’m a bloody tourist. This is where I come from. I know what some of the bastards are like here.”
“Well, it’s bloody time you stopped being a bloody officer in the bloody Army. You need to decide, mister, what you want to be, an officer, or a married man.”
The following day they took the children along the Antrim Coast Road, but the time had gone and it was not a success. He was glad to kiss his parents farewell, and take the return flight to London. He was pleased when he and his father hugged on departure. It was hard on the older man. His eldest son was an officer, not just in the Army, but his home regiment was still the Parachute Regiment. Alex wondered if he would ever see his parents again.
All too soon they were on a Comet 4 of the fledgling Dan Air Airlines and heading east from Gatwick. Despite his suggestion that Anne and the children stay in England, she had decided to return to Malaysia. Her snapped “You can’t get rid of us that easily, “ seemed incapable of rational response. They stopped at Istanbul and Abu Dhabi, where the aircraft was out of service for four hours while the passengers stood in a dirty, smelly and non air conditioned lounge and drank lukewarm beer or flat ‘Coke’. Anne declared the toilets to be ‘unspeakable’, and he had to agree with her. They finally reached Singapore to find they had missed the connecting flight to Penang.
“When’s the next flight to Penang” he demanded of a harassed MSA official.
“That is two days away. I’m supposed to be back on duty tomorrow.”
The man shrugged. “You could try the Royal Air force.”
The Air Movements Officer was a stocky RAF flight lieutenant, with a greying crew cut and a bristling moustache. He wore an armband with a large wheel on it.
Alex produced his identity card. “Alex Millar. RMP”
“Dick West, how are you, Alex?”
“Pretty pissed off. I have a near hysterical wife, and two tired children and I need to get to Butterworth by tomorrow.”
“I can get you to KL, but no further. Don’t forget there is a curfew between 0200 and 0500.”
”Thanks, Dick. I accept. I will just have to take my chances from KL.”
“OK. Gather your clan and we will get organised. I’ll send a signal to the AMO at KL to see if he can help you. Just got back from leave?”
Alex smiled. “Yes.”
“How was England?”
“It’s still there. And still raining when we left.”
“I guess it will always be, there, and raining. Welcome to paradise.”
Dimly Alex remembered another RAF officer, a squadron leader, wishing the Green Howards the same thing, all those years before when he first arrived in Singapore. He had been a private soldier then, and now he was a captain, late acting major.
It was a tired and dispirited little group that tumbled out of the aircraft at Kuala Lumpur. The AMO was unable to help apart from offering to secure a hotel. Alex decided to push on. He approached the Malay driver of an Austin A55 Cambridge taxi.
“Would you like a long drive?”
The man was cautious. “Drive where?”
“Pinang”, he said it in the Malay style.
The driver considered. “It’s a long way, “ he ventured.
“Will you do it?”
The man rubbed his lips with his forefinger. “Where you go, exactly?”
“The Air Force Base at Butterworth.”
“You in Air Force?”
“You an officer?”
“Yes, a captain. Why?”
“You know about curfew? We will be stopped “
“It will be OK. Do they look like terrorists?” He indicated Anne and the two children, all drooping with tiredness.
“No. The terrorists are Chinese.”
“Will you do it?”
The Malay opened the back door of the car. “OK.”
Anne and the children climbed into the back of the cab, and within five minutes all three were asleep. Alex had been to Kuala Lumpur before, to deliver ‘safe hand’ mail to the Australian High Commission, but none of that was much help to him now, as the driver took a succession of side roads to get out onto the main road to the north. The cab driver was not unfriendly, and had a fair command of English, and for twenty minutes or so, they maintained a desultory conversation. After that, and although the A55 was not the most comfortable car he had occupied in his entire life, Alex fell asleep. The last thing he remembered doing was trying, and failing, to remember what the time gap was with the UK.