© BM 2008
Chapter Thirteen – Episodes 19
All too soon they were on a Comet 4 of the fledgling Dan Air Airlines and heading east from Gatwick, on General Election Day 1970. Despite his suggestion that Anne and the children stay in England, she had decided to return to Malaysia. She snapped “You can’t get rid of us that easily,” and 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’s 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.
He was awakened abruptly, as the taxi braked hurriedly to a stop. The vehicle was surrounded by armed police, who indicated to the driver to lower his window. They spoke in Malay, and the driver, who had informed Alex just before he slept that his name was Arriffin, indicated to his passengers in the back, and to Alex in the front passenger seat. A police sergeant leaned in the window, on Alex’s side.
“Good morning, sir.” He spoke in English.
“Good morning, sergeant.”
“Do you know there is a curfew on?”
“Yes, I did know that, but I needed to get back to my unit.”
The sergeant looked in the back, where Anne was now awake, but the children were out like lights. “OK, you have no problems now.” He studied his watch by the light of his torch. “It is only one o’clock, but the curfew starts at two. You will need to be careful then. Watch the Army.”
He moved away, signalled to his men, and waved the driver on.
They were stopped three more times, by the police, all during the curfew period. All noted the white woman and sleeping children, and waved them on. The fifth time they were stopped by an Army patrol, led by a Malay second lieutenant, whom Alex estimated to be nineteen. The young lieutenant grabbed the front passenger door handle, and jerked open the door.
“Get out of the car” he ordered.
Alex’s mind went back to a film he had seen once, in which James Robertson Justice had played a Royal Naval officer in a German POW camp. Stanley Baxter, playing the Camp Commandant, had slapped Justice across the face during role call. The big man had replied in a way that delighted the young Alex Millar all those years before, and which he now determined to use.
“Certainly not. I’m a British officer.”
The effect was electric, and immediate.
The young Royal Malay Regiment officer snapped to attention, and saluted faultlessly. “I’m very sorry, sir. I did not know. Driver, carry on.” He closed the car door, and maintained his salute as the Austin drove off.
Alex whistled mentally to himself. “You lucky bastard, you got away with it that time.” He thought that the old Army maxim about ‘bullshit baffling brains’ had never been so true.
They reached the married quarters at around five, and the driver helped carry Kate upstairs while Anne and he struggled with Richard and the suitcases. Then came the difficult part.
“I have just got back from England, and I have no Malay dollars until I go to the bank.”
The problem was easily solved. “I will take a cheque, master. Make it out to cash, and I will have a sleep and go to the bank in Butterworth when it opens.”
Alex wrote his name and rank and unit on the back, and as an afterthought, the name of his CO. It obviously worked, as he never saw the man again, and his account at the Standard Bank was subsequently debited. A more immediate problem was that the local public utilities had switched off their water and electricity in his absence. The reason was later found to be unpaid bills. Alex had carefully informed both organisations of his intention to go to the UK on holiday, and had asked for the meters to be read before he left. They had been, on the day before departure. When the next accounts were not paid, the supplies were cut off. In the case of the electricity, he owed about two Malay dollars.
“Welcome back to paradise, darling,” he said as they put the children to bed, in the non air-conditioned house. His sweat rolled off his face and he could smell himself. The geckos skittered around the walls colliding with each other, and chattering. The house smelt foul, and the floor had a thick dusting of gecko droppings.
Anne glowered at him in the first glimmers of morning and turned away without speaking. He went to the telephone, which, mercifully, was an internal RAAF line. He phoned the guardhouse.
“Bluey, it’s Captain Millar. It’s a long story, so don’t ask. Can you send a car to pick me up, in an hour or so?”
“No worries, boss. Welcome back.”
Things swiftly got back to normal. The public utilities, full of apologies, sent their representatives later the same morning to reconnect power and water. The gas, fortunately, was not mains supplied, and with the help of bottled water, the family was able to make tea and survive till the men arrived. The electricity man graciously waived the bill for two Malay dollars, and foolishly remarked that if they had been informed, none of this would have occurred. He was forced to beat a hasty retreat when a furious Anne produced, not only Alex’s letter, but also the Electricity Board’s confirmatory reply.
“Obviously there has been a mistake, madam,” he threw over his shoulder, as he scuttled down the outside stairs.
“Yes, and you bloody made it!” she yelled at his retreating back.
The old familiar routines re established themselves very quickly, and in less than a fortnight, it seemed that they had never been on holiday. Anne appeared just as unhappy as before, and Alex spent more and more time at work. It was, to use an expression then fashionable, a ‘Catch 22’ situation so called after the film made a couple of years earlier. He took on the job as Soccer Officer, from the homewards-bound Church of England padre. Alex always called the game ‘football’, as did all the non-Australian personnel on the base. To the Aussies, however, ‘football’ meant either Australian Rules, for the Victorians and South Australians, or rugby, of either code, to those from New South Wales, or Queensland. They had been back from Britain a month, when Alex learned that he had to take the football team to Brunei, for what was apparently, an annual fixture against the Gurkhas.
His wife was, not unexpectedly, not impressed.
“Annual fixture, my arse. Annual booze up, more bloody likely.”
He knew in his heart that there was probably more than a grain of truth in this, and in vain did he argue that he was the officer responsible and must go. This led, as it increasingly did these days, to his wife refusing to make love. It was the seemingly inevitable ‘punishment’, and it lasted six weeks on this occasion.
They took off from Butterworth at 0600, in the cool of a Malaysian morning, and flew, in a rickety Douglas C-47, by way of Kuantan and Kuching to Seria, in the Sultanate of Brunei. The journey had not been a comfortable one, as the aircraft, in civilian terms a Dakota, was configured for soldiers, and not fare paying passengers. The seats were all arranged alongside the fuselage, and not facing forward, as in civilian airliners. They were made of canvas, and up the centre of the aircraft was piled the freight. This meant that it was not possible to see the men on the opposite side of the aircraft, and only the two on either side. The aircraft was boiling when on the ground, and freezing at 8,000 feet. Because of the continuing confrontation with Indonesia, it was necessary for everyone to wear uniform.
The aircraft captain had explained matters succinctly in his briefing.
“This is a very safe aircraft. However, it is also a very old aircraft, so, I suppose that there is a chance that it could crash. We will be flying close to Indonesian air space, and could put down in their territory. Those of you who survive will need to wear your nice Air Force uniforms, so Sukarno’s nasties will not think you are spies and do unspeakable things to you. Sorry,” he nodded to Alex, “in the case of our sporting policeman, our nice Army uniforms. However, gentlemen, please rest assured that my crew and I are as anxious as you are for the bastard to keep flying, and therefore we will do our best.”
Alex understood, too late, why many of the RAAF/RAF men were wearing flying suits. All were delighted to arrive at Seria. The crew, who had been here before, all disappeared very quickly. Alex and a RAAF flying officer, Dan Bentley were met by a British major in a Land Rover. He shook hands with the enthusiasm of a very large bear.
“How do you do, sir? Alex Millar.”
Daly shook his head vigorously. “None of that ‘sir’ stuff here. It is all first name terms, except for the Colonel and the PMC” (President of the Mess Committee.) Alex and Dan were soon to meet both of those worthies.
Flying Officer Bentley and Captain Millar were the only officers in the party of about thirty, except for the aircrew, and Major Daly had taken it on himself to provide their transport. He threw their bags into the back of the vehicle. “Get in the Landy, boys.”
Seria was home to the 9th Gurkha Rifles, who had been in Brunei since 1965, when the Sultan, fearing Indonesian inspired unrest among the ethnic Malays in his country, had called upon the United Kingdom for help. The Gurkhas had arrived from Hong Kong, so local legend had it, at nine in the morning, and by five the same afternoon, all signs of unrest had disappeared. Local legend also had it that once a Gurkha had drawn his kukuri, he could not sheath it without drawing blood. Whatever the truth of all this, a grateful Sultan had presented a spare ‘istana’, or palace, to the Regiment for use as an Officers’ Mess, and it was to there that Daly drove them. Built in the grounds of the istana were a number of houses, each with four bedrooms, all en suite, with communal lounges and kitchens. These were living quarters for single officers.
“Ok, boys, make yourselves comfortable, and wander over to the Mess when you are ready.” He got back into the Land Rover, and added, somewhat superfluously, “We’ll be in the bar.”
The two young officers showered and changed their uniforms. Feeling clean and fresh, they duly ‘wandered over’ to the Mess as instructed. It was truly a splendid building, full of glass and marble, and exquisite hard wood furniture, and a wooden floor so highly polished that it would have been easy to shave in, after eating one’s breakfast off it. To their complete astonishment, Dan and Alex were the only two people in the Mess in uniform, with the exception of the bar staff, who all appeared to be Gurkha. They were greeted by John Daly, who had changed from his Army ‘drabs’ into a appalling pair of Bermuda shorts, and a shirt which could only be described as a loud Hawaiian. His garb was not out of place, as most of the other officers were similarly attired.
“Alex, Dan, what’ll you have?”
“G and T?” Bentley spoke quizzically.
“Same, please, sir, John.”
Daly chuckled. “Yes, that’s what I’m aiming for; Sir John.”
He rumbled away to the bar, and Alex and Dan continued their disbelieving study of the denizens of this strange place, made stranger by the bizarre contrast of the magnificent room, and the scruffy inhabitants. In Army messes back in UK, dress had usually been bordering on the formal side, and even in the more relaxed surroundings at RAAF Butterworth, none of this would have been permitted.
Daly returned with their drinks, introduced them to two captains, who seemed to be in their forties, and ambled away again.
“Adrian Masters- Smythe.”
Handshakes were exchanged. Charles had a stoppage in his speech which Alex had determined was an affectation, adopted by many Englishmen from a certain section of British society.
Charles studied Bentley closely, and peered at the blue stripe on his shoulder. “Now, y, y, you are w, what r, rank?”
“Oh, I, I see. You are a p, p,pilot?”
“No, I’m an equipment officer. Flying officer is just a rank, same as lieutenant.”
“Yes, I see, how v,v, very interesting. How interesting, a l,l,lieutenant, Adrian.”
Adrian slurped his gin, and sucked on his pipe. “Extraordinary, Charles.”
Charles resumed his cross-examination. “And you h,h,have ‘A,Australia ‘on your shoulder.”
“Yes, I am in the Royal Australian Air Force.”
Charles repeated this slowly. “ Ah, yes. T,that’s n,not ours, is it? How very interesting, Adrian. Is, is it n,not?”
“Extraordinary, Charles,” Adrian agreed.
Charles turned his attention to Alex, who had, all the time, tried studiously not to look at him, knowing that to do so would invariably draw his fire. His attempts to look away were doomed to failure, as Charles suffered from one eye, his left, being apparently larger than the right, and also looking in a different direction.
“And you,” he made certain that Alex knew who he meant by tapping him on the chest with his glass of gin and tonic, “ now I can see you are a captain, but what is your outfit? And you don’t have ‘Australia’ anywhere.”
Alex sensed that this apparently silly individual was nowhere near as silly as he was playing, and while tempted to suggest what Charles could do with his glass, he determined to keep a straight face.
“I’m RMP, Royal Military Police.” He had an inkling that Charles had some quip to make on this, and decided to thwart him. He tried to avoid the eye. “However,” and he pointed to the wings, “I used to be a Para sergeant.”
Charles grinned back at him. “Royal Military Police. RMP. Oh, yes, you’re one of those Provost Johnny’s, and you, you are British, one of us. Isn’t that v,very interesting, A, Adrian?”
Adrian had an other slurp of gin, and regarded his empty glass. “Quite extraordinary, Charles.”
Bentley had had enough of the little game. “Can I get you blokes another drink?”
Charles Foster regarded him sadly, and spoke without any trace of an impediment.
“Unfortunately, old boy, no you can’t. Only members of the Mess can do that, but it would be my privilege to buy you one.” He turned back in the direction of the bar, and said to Alex over his shoulder, “And I was a sergeant in the gunners.”
Adrian watched his friend move off with some affection. He removed his pipe from his mouth. “Poor old Charles. Got blown up by a bomb in Aden, you know. They gave him the MC, but couldn’t do much about the eye. Extraordinary man.”
The extraordinary nature of the evening continued for the two bemused visitors to the Mess. At one stage a Gurkha orderly came into the dining room. He was dressed in shorts and long stockings, and a tiny pillbox hat perched at an angle on his head, with a strap under his chin. He carried a silver salver upon which lay what Alex recognised as a signal, or teleprinter message.
The Gurkha called out “Orderly Officer, please, gentlemen.”
A tall languid young man wearing shorts and sandals detached himself from his friends, and sauntered to the soldier. He studied the signal for a few seconds and held out his hand, into which the Gurkha placed a ball pen. The Orderly Officer signed and turned back to the bar.
“Christ”, thought Alex to himself, “at Butterworth they phone the OO and he has to trot off to the Coms. Centre and pick up the signal, irrespective of day or night.”
They were introduced to the Colonel and the PMC. The former was a charming man in his early fifties who apologised for his dress by explaining that only he and the Sultan owned horses in the Sultanate, and that he, the Colonel, had been ‘mucking out’ his six. He was wearing a polo shirt, riding jodhpurs with a split at the crotch, through which his blue underpants peeped, and no shoes at all. There were various brown stains over the jodhpurs, and Alex was prepared to accept without question that he had, indeed, been cleaning the horses. At seven, all the officers disappeared and at eight all reappeared splendidly attired. They were British officers, after all.
The weekend passed in a flash. Alex played a two-day game of cricket, opening the batting and scoring twenty-six out of an opening stand of sixty-seven. He attempted a few overs of off spin and got one wicket. He also picked up a catch. The cricket on each day was followed by a football match; the first pitted the RAAF against the garrison. The RAAF, with Alex at right back, won 2-1. In the first ten minutes of the game, he tackled the speedy Gurkha outside left, sending him spinning into touch. The winger was faster than Alex, but for the remainder of the game he preferred to pass from a distance.
The second game was played against the local sports club, which included a number of Dutchmen working for Shell in their offshore platforms. Alex played at left back, but the RAAF still won, 3-1. Each night they attended a party, given by someone or other, that on Sunday night being hosted by Shell.
Alex was wakened by a hand on his shoulder. “Good morning, sir. It is time to get up.”
“What time is it?” He squinted into the small brown face of a Gurkha.
“It’s 0545. Have you seen Mr Bentley?”
“Is he not in his room?”
“No, sir. Bed not sleep in.”
“Oh, shit! OK, thanks, he’ll be along presently.”
He rose heavily, with his eyes still closed, and dragged a razor across his face. He showered, at which time his eyes were just opening. He went to Bentley’s room, which was as described. He bundled all the RAAF man’s possessions into his bag and went outside. The morning was cool, and the golden promise of the sun’s arrival coloured the eastern sky. The Gurkha corporal waited at the side of a Land Rover.
“Where’s Mr Daly?”
“He in bed, sir.” The little man looked at his watch and tapped the face. “I have orders to leave at six thirty.”
Alex looked at him, sensing a small struggle. He tapped the three stars on his left shoulder. “And these say you stay where you are until I tell you to leave. Understand?”
The little man stiffened. “Yes, sir.”
Alex was immensely relieved when, at twenty to seven, he saw a figure running along the road, and recognised the agitated figure as Dan Bentley. As he got closer, gasping for breath, Alex saw that he was wearing shorts and a batik shirt, but no shoes
“Good morning, Flying Officer Bentley.”
The Australian gasped “G’day, mate. Jesus, am I glad to see you?”
“I’m pretty bloody pleased to see you too. Where the hell have you been?”
“Haven’t got a bloody clue.”
“And what happened to your shoes?”
Bentley looked at his feet, as if seeing them for the first time in his life. “I don’t remember.”
“The last I saw of you, you were chatting up the big blonde Dutch bird.”
“I think I remember where I left my shoes. Listen, Alex, I must pack. I….”
Alex interrupted him. “It’s all done. Your bag is in the Landy. You get in with it, and get dressed on the way to the strip.”
“Jeez, thanks mate. You’re not a bad bloke for a Pom, and a copper.”
Alex turned to the Gurkha corporal, who had remained impassive during this discussion between the two officers. The corporal spoke. “We go now, sir.”
“Yes, corporal, let’s go.” As the Gurkha turned away, his mahogany face broke into a smile, revealing a set of gold capped white teeth.
By the time they reached the landing strip, Bentley was nearly normally dressed, and he half jumped, half fell from the vehicle. Alex turned to the driver who was now standing to attention at the side of the car.
“What’s your name, corporal?”
“Corporal Bahadur, sir.”
“I think you are a very good soldier, Corporal Bahadur.”
The little man smiled with pleasure, and turned to look at the retreating figure of Bentley. “I think you very good soldier, too, captain.”
Alex Millar held out his hand, and shyly, the Gurkha grasped it. They looked at each other for several seconds, and released the handshake. Alex saluted him, impeccably, and the Gurkha returned the salute. In later life, Alex came to recognise the compliment from Corporal Bahadur as the most appreciated of his military life. He turned and boarded the Dakota.
Chapter Thirteen – Episodes 19