© BM 2008
Chapter Fourteen – Episode 20
The C47 turned out over the island of Penang, and started its long approach to the runway at Butterworth. It was difficult to see out of the window, and, as he was starting to get a crick in his neck by trying, Alex stopped. In any case, he had seen the scene so often before, that he could easily imagine it; the long deceptive beaches on the mainland side, apparently of white sand, in reality of thick cloying earth, with crabs scuttling hither and thither, and the mud skippers plopping into the water.
The Dakota hit the runway, and expired, the sound of the engines being cut more reminiscent of a dying breath. The aircraft rumbled to a halt at what passed for a terminal building, and everyone piled off. Corporal Stewart, almost inevitably, was waiting at the bottom of the steps. He saluted casually.
“Welcome back, boss. Did you win?”
“G’day, Al. Yes, 2-1, and 3-1.”
“That’s very impressive, sir, especially without the divine assistance of the padre.”
“Well, I’m not sure whose side God was on, but in the case of the Shell guys, they were more pissed than we were.”
“Were they all Aussies, then?”
“No, most of them were Dutchmen. Don’t let national pride run away with you, Al. Other people can drink as well as the Australians.”
They walked to the Land Rover, and Alex threw his bag in the back.
“No, I’ll go to the office for a while, I think.”
The police corporal looked at the captain, and started the engine. “Righto, you’re the boss.”
As Alex sat in his office, checking through his mail, he realised that he was afraid to go home. No, that was not the right word. He was apprehensive, and wanted to postpone what he felt certain would be another argument. God, what was he becoming, and what was happening to them? It was after seven thirty when he walked over to the guardroom, and said. “Anyone able to give me a lift home?”
Corporal Stewart jumped up, and strapped on his Browning. He took the car keys from the hook on the keyboard, and said, “I’ll take you, boss.”
The car turned right from the main gate, and headed north in the gathering darkness.
“Sir, tell me to shut up, if I am speaking out of turn, but,” Stewart hesitated, “but have you got problems at home?”
“Yes, Al, I have a bucket of them. Is it that obvious then?”
“I’m afraid so. Women, well, not all of them, but a lot, don’t like it up here. Perhaps it is the heat, perhaps it is having too much time on their hands, I don’t know. But they are different. I mean, they are hard to work out at the best of times, but some of them go troppo in this godforsaken place. Some of the blokes do too.”
Alex turned to the other man, but in the darkened interior of the Land Rover, he could not identify any expression on Stewart’s face. “What are you saying? Will things be different at the end of this? Will she get back to normal?”
“Are you speaking from experience, Al?”
“Sure am, boss.”
“And what experience was that?”
“I was up here a couple of years ago, as a dog handler, before I remustered to the Service Police. My old lady loathed the place.”
“And what happened when you returned to Oz?”
“Well, she upped and left me. And she took the two kids with her.”
There was nothing to say in response to this, and Alex duly said nothing. They pulled up outside the married quarter. Alex noticed that the lights were on. At least she was at home. He started to get out of the car, paused to retrieve his bag from the back, and turned back to the open passenger door.
“Thanks, Corporal Stewart.”
“No worries, sir, it isn’t my vehicle anyway.”
“I didn’t just mean for the ride.”
“Sir,” Stewart hesitated again, and leaned across the cabin. “I hope you don’t think I was out of order, saying what I said. It’s just, well, it’s just that all the boys think you are a good boss, and we like you. We don’t like all officers, but you’re OK, and we all hope you and your missus can get things sorted out.”
Alex was glad it was dark, because he could feel his eyes smarting. “Thanks, Al. Now bugger off back to work.”
He stood and watched the rear lights on the Land Rover as it rumbled up the street, and turned right at the top. Reluctantly he opened the garden gate.
Nothing had changed at home, and nothing did change in the year or fifteen months left in their posting. Anne remained indefinably ill, and increasingly opposed to the military life her husband had chosen. Alex’s new-found resolution to try to help his wife evaporated like ice before the heat of her venom. He carried on playing sport, and working hard, and, more and more, took to going to functions on his own. This estrangement between their commander and his wife was not lost on his subordinates, who were as incapable of resolving the problem as the principal players were. The children seemed not to have noticed that anything was amiss, and Richard progressed at school, apart from coming home one day with some ‘ganga’ for which he had paid one Malaysian dollar.
His father examined it. “You were cheated, son. It’s not worth a dollar.” He gave the boy a dollar note to compensate his loss, and took the cigarette into the office for the SIB to follow up.
Alex’s work was full and interesting, and spiced by a series of remarkable incidents, such as the case of the rabid dog. One morning a Maori soldier of the Royal New Zealand Regiment was admitted to the Air Force Hospital, foaming at the mouth, and in a state of near collapse. From somewhere came the information that he had been bitten by a dog, and the dog was owned by the Harbourmaster at Prai Harbour. Alex and two of his policemen squeezed themselves into the cab of a Holden utility van and, armed with dog catching equipment, took off to apprehend the offending dog, whom the medical people believed was rabid.
The dog and its owner were easily located, and the Indian Harbourmaster was not pleased at the allegations made against his pet’s good name.
“My dog is not infected with anything, rabies or anything else. The soldier was annoying her and she bit him. He was asking for it.”
Alex tried to be diplomatic. “Mr Patel, I’m sure you are right, but the dog will have to be examined, to make sure, and I will need to take it back to the Base. OK?”
The little Indian pushed his cap to the back of his head, and waved an accusatory finger at the three policemen. “You hurt one hair of my dog’s head, and I will sue the Australian Government.”
Meanwhile, the object of these discussions was scratching itself in a corner of the Harbourmaster’s office, saliva dripping from its jaws.
“Do you want to catch her for us, Mr Patel?”
“No, I do not. If you want her, you bloody catch her.”
And they did, with much difficulty, succeed in slipping a running noose over the animal’s head, and carried it, snarling and kicking to the van, where it was put in the back, and the cover clipped down. Patel had watched all this with rising anger. It surprised Alex that he never challenged their right to take his dog. In the early 1970’s the military was pretty powerful in Penang.
“I want a receipt.”
“You want what?”
“A receipt. You are taking my dog, I want a receipt for it.”
So Alex duly ripped a page from his notebook, and wrote out a receipt, reading ‘Received from Mr Patel, one black and white dog.’
The Indian read the note and handed it back to Alex. “It’s a bitch, not a dog.”
Alex crossed out ‘dog’ and wrote in ‘bitch’. He handed the note back in silence.
Mr Patel read this and handed it back once more. “Put ‘in good order’.”
Alex amended his receipt once more by adding ‘in apparent good order, subject to examination.’
Patel was either satisfied with this, or bored with the game, because he checked the note again, and tucked it into the band of his once white cap.
They drove away, mightily relieved that it was all over, and inordinately pleased with themselves. Their euphoria did not last long. On arrival at Dog Section, they were met by the flight sergeant in charge, a man rejoicing in the name Fred Bassett, which, contrary to many people’s belief, was actually his name.
“G’day, sir. Got a problem?”
“G’day, flight. We have a potentially rabid dog. But it’s OK, we have it here under control.”
To demonstrate the point, Corporal Wayman pulled on the metal pole and the whole thing came free of the vehicle, pole, running noose, the lot. They looked in horror as the cover bulged where the potentially rabid dog was running around unfettered underneath.
“Christ” said Alex and Wayman added “Amen.”
Bassett seemed unperturbed. “Want me to get the little bastard for you?”
“Would you, flight? We’d be really obliged.”
Bassett carefully unclipped the rope holding the vehicle cover to the car body. He threw back the corner, and the dog thrust her head out. Bassett immediately hit the dog very hard on its nose with his right fist, and before the surprised animal could recover, he grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and slung it into a kennel, and slammed the door shut. He turned round, beaming widely, and saluted Alex. “Anything else, sir.”
Alex was tremendously impressed by this, and returned the flight sergeant’s salute. “Thanks, flight. I’m obliged. I don’t think I could have done that.”
The story finished anti climatically. The soldier did not have rabies, and recovered to such an extent that he was regarded as a danger to the nurses, and was discharged. The dog, a happy and popular member of the Dog Section, at the end of seven days, was returned to Mr Patel, who examined her minutely, even lifting up the tail. Alex had great pleasure in asking for, and getting a receipt. He saluted the little Indian politely and left.
At home, the steady deterioration in his relationship with Anne continued unchecked. Sometime, lying in bed at night, sleepless once again, he turned the problems over in his mind. He thought he could understand her. She wanted a home, a house of her own, where she could put down roots and bring up her children. She wanted to go to Sainsbury’s for her shopping, and to the cinema on a Friday night, while her mother babysat the kids. Most of all, she missed her mother. As an only child, and spending her early life at various RAF stations around the world, they had come to rely on each other a lot.
There was nothing wrong in any of that, although he did not seek to do those things. Women, as Nick Elliot might have said, were different. What she did not seem to realise was that he could not, at this particular time, do much for her. He was, after all, a serving officer, in the middle of an overseas posting, and he was committed to the Army. He was prepared for her and the children to return to England, or Australia, as she chose, but it was an option she would not entertain. More pragmatically, he thought sourly, the money I get up here is bloody essential to buying a house.
“Resign your commission” she told him.
“And do what?” he replied.
“It doesn’t bloody well matter what you do. Get out of the bloody Army.”
“Anne, it’s what I do. I am a good soldier, and a good officer. I have prospects, and I couldn’t earn a living in Civvie Street. In any event, we can’t bloody afford to do that.”
And so it continued, round and round, over and over, endlessly. He needed someone to talk to, but it was not easy. He was in charge of nearly one hundred and fifty people, all subordinate to him. He didn’t trust Short as far as he could throw him, and as a soldier, he felt different from the various RAF and RAAF officers. He spoke to Anne’s doctor, a young Australian flight lieutenant.
“Basil, I’m really concerned about Anne. There must be something you guys can do.” He placed two beers on the bar counter in the Officers’ Mess.
Basil picked up his beer, and took a pull at it before replying. “Cheers, mate. Alex, mate, we have been here before. There is nothing physically wrong with her. She does not want to be here, and consciously, or subconsciously, she makes herself the way she is. You’ll have to get her out of here, and then she will probably get better.”
“That’s right, just probably. An alternative view is that she has you by the balls, and she enjoys squeezing. And anyway, her problem might be you. Another beer?”
He considered talking matters over with the padre. There was only one, a C of E man, who was unaccompanied, and whom Alex had always considered to be more than a little mad. He had just about made up his mind to this course of action when an event occurred to stop him. One bright morning the padre, Phillips by name, stripped to his underpants on the beach on Penang Island, and plunged into the sea. When he was about one hundred yards out, he was noticed by a Malay fisherman repairing his nets on the beach, and the swimmer appeared to have no intention of turning around. The Malay appreciated that most ‘Europeans’ were pretty crazy, but this struck even him as going too far. He informed the civilian police, who immediately contacted the Service Police, and the ubiquitous Corporal Stewart turned up with Sergeant Bernie Smith. They commandeered a small motor boat and pursued the padre, who was by now almost three quarters of a mile off shore.
Stewart and Smith reached the swimmer.
“G’day, padre. Nice day for a swim.” Sergeant Smith decided a little light conversation was called for.
Padre Phillips looked over his shoulder while continuing to swim powerfully. “G’day, Sergeant Smith, Corporal Stewart. I’m not having a dip; I’m swimming back to Australia. I’ve had enough of this bloody place.”
The two policemen exchanged glances, and Stewart began stripping down to his underpants. “Mind if I join you, Padre?”
“No, get in, Al, the water’s great.”
A short swim and a sharp crack on Phillips’ jaw from Stewart followed, and the padre was in the boat, on the second stage of his trip out of Malaysia, and the RAAF.
Alex considered this as he read the report. “Jesus, and I was thinking of asking this bloke for advice.”
Many people at Butterworth formed the view that life in tropical Malaysia was not totally suitable for all Australians or Europeans. A number of people fell victim to what often seemed to be mysterious illnesses unknown in UK or Australia. A neighbour of Alex and Anne, an Australian squadron leader contracted and died from encephalitis. Nearer to home, and fortunately much less serious, their own son, Richard, was plagued by what the locals called ‘monsoon blisters.’ These were large liquid filled skin blisters that appeared, without apparent reason, on the little boy’s skin, and became very painful. He was treated at the local RAAF Hospital, and the form of treatment consisted solely of lancing the blisters and dressing them. This was tough going for a small boy, and nearly as tough for his parents, who had to hold him as he was lanced, and watch. The problem came to a head when Richard was found to have no less than forty of the blisters all over his body and face. He refused, in tears, to go to the hospital.
“I don’t blame him,” muttered Anne. “You can’t expect a child to go through this.”
Alex agreed, but felt that he was being blamed, and not the tropical climate. It was Choy who suggested a solution.
“You take little boy to Chinese doctor. Australian doctors know nothing.”
Alex was a western man, and his instincts rebelled at what might be quackery, but it was his son who was suffering, not him, and his principles had to take second place. After all, anything was worth trying. Anne agreed, and they obtained an address from Choy, of a Chinese doctor in Georgetown on Penang Island. They went together with Richard, who was pleased that at least he would get a day off school.
The doctor spoke excellent English, and carried out a thorough examination of Richard.
“Has he had these for a long time?”
“About six months.”
“And the doctors in the Air Force hospital, all they do is lance them?”
Anne agreed. “It’s caused by living here, isn’t it.”
“Yes, possibly, but many people who live here do not suffer these.”
“Can you do anything about them?”
“Oh, certainly, we can clear these up.”
He gave then a small round carton of a thick smelly ointment. “You put a little of this up his nose, twice a day. The blisters will go away.”
Alex looked at Anne, and then queried the doctor. “You say that we put the ointment up his nose, not on the blisters?”
“That’s right, up his nose. Just a little and they will go away in two or three weeks.”
The cost of the appointment and the ointment came to about twenty Malaysian dollars, or almost nothing in sterling terms.
“What do you think?” asked Alex as they left the doctor’s.
Anne shrugged. “We have nothing to lose, have we?”
Within a week the blisters were diminishing, and within a fortnight, they had gone, never to re appear.
However, physical illness was not the most worrying aspect of life in Malaysia. Perhaps it was because of the constant humidity, but a number of people, servicemen and civilians, men and women, became emotionally disturbed, sometimes seriously. Sexual affairs were common, perhaps through boredom. On one occasion, the wife of a junior NCO in the RAAF began an affair with her next door neighbour, also in the RAAF. It was not too long before her husband discovered what was going on, and a frightening row ensued, between the two couples, to which the Service Police were called to intervene. The following day, on his return from work, the wronged husband found that his twenty-five year old wife had committed suicide by hanging herself. Corporal East dealt with the matter, and later that evening was getting ready to play football for the Police team when Alex came into the dressing room to change.
“You did a good job, Easty. It must be a terrible experience for the husband.”
“Yes, boss. It’s always a shock to come home and find your missus just hanging about.”
Police humour was invariably black, and sometimes helped.
The emotional disturbances took many forms, and Alex prayed there would never be a war. “They’re all bloody crazy around here,” he told himself. “The Chinese could walk in any day they like and roll up this bloody place.” He was particularly worried about Anne, whose depression only seemed to lift to produce bursts of violent rage. He still wanted his career, and hoped it would be possible to see things out to the end of his posting. He was certain she would be back to normal when they returned to England. In the meanwhile, he had many matters to occupy his duty time.
There was a fatal traffic accident involving a young RAAF man whose car killed a Malay villager about ten miles from the Base. He had to be rescued by the civilian police when the villagers seemed to be intent on lynching him. Alex drove down to the kampong at one in the morning, and the airman was released into Air Force custody. Alex subsequently interviewed the man at Butterworth. He saw something shiny in the airman’s shirt pocket.
“What’s that?” He pointed to the shirt.
The airman took it out and laid it on the table. It was a piece of bloodstained glass. “It’s a piece of the windscreen, sir.”
Alex was puzzled. “Did that get into your pocket during the accident?”
“No, sir. I picked it up as a souvenir.”
“You just killed a man and you took that as a souvenir?”
“Stay there,” ordered Alex, who got up and went out into the cool night air. He was joined by Sergeant John Jamison, who had been sitting in on the interview. “Have you got a fag, John?”
“You don’t smoke, sir.”
“I need something to stop me going back and strangling that little fucker.”
Alex began to long for home again, not just to have Anne back as she used to be, which was not perfect, but which was infinitely better than here in Malaysia. It sometimes seemed that the world was crumbling around him. One of the final straws came with the dentist and the doctor, both of who treated him and his wife on occasion. The two men were great friends who enjoyed a drink, sometimes more than one drink. They frequently got drunk and half terrorised the Island. No one ever complained, or, if they did complain, they withdrew their statements later. The doctor, a flight lieutenant struck an airman, whom he accused of cheating at cards, something which was denied, and the airman subsequently withdrew the allegation. He also punched his dentist friend in the face, during an argument, causing a large cut, in which, full of remorse, he put six stitches. The resulting scar assumed a ‘W’ pattern, as the good medical officer was almost paralytic at the time of the sutures going in. Both men stated that the dentist had fallen over, and the latter was immensely grateful to the doctor for treating him.
His final mishap involved the doctor hijacking the Penang ferry and ordering the skipper to sail to Australia. The next trip he took was on the aircraft back to Australia, with the dentist following soon after.
Departure from Malaysia, at least for Anne and the children, was closer than any of them knew, and it eventuated in a very disturbing manner. Alex had been overseeing an investigation by his SIB police into alleged corrupt practices in the allocation of contracts. The RAAF spent millions of Australian dollars annually in buying goods and services locally. Penang was an overwhelmingly Chinese state, and a number of organised criminal groups were dominated by Chinese triads. Warrant Officer Billy Brown was in charge of the investigation and in the absence on leave of Squadron Leader Short, Brown was briefing Alex on progress.
“We have had great assistance from the civil police on this, sir. Perhaps I should say that we have been assisting them. Detective Superintendent Gurban Singh is the officer in charge, and he thinks they will be in a position, in about a week, to move in and make some arrests. We’ve copped statements from the service lads here, but we haven’t approached any of the local employees. Gurban thinks that that would be too risky. Someone might tip off his mates on the island.”
Alex was thoughtful. “He’s a good man, Gurban. He knows what he is doing. Is there anything you want me to do, warrant.”
“No, sir, just to stand by, in case we have to lift any of the RAAF lads.”
Several days after this conversation, Alex was in his office when a distraught Anne came on the phone. She was crying, and almost incoherent, but what he could understand involved Maggie.
“Anne, Anne, just listen to me. I will be right there. OK. I will be there.”
He ran to the Guardroom, and grabbed a set of car keys from the board. He yelled out to the duty sergeant, Bruce Freeman. “Sarge, I’m going home, there’s some kind of problem. Get on the radio to the patrol and get them to meet me at home.”
He raced out the door with the sergeant’s “Righto, boss” ringing in his ears.
The Land Rover was one of the oldest in the fleet, and reluctant to start.
“Come on, you bastard,” he screamed, “come on.” The vehicle coughed once or twice and stuttered into half-life. The barrier was up at the main gate, and he roared through, scattering a couple of Kiwi soldiers who were walking into the Base.
It was only a mile to the Married Quarters, but it seemed a very long mile to Alex. He swerved to avoid a cart pulled by a couple of bullocks, and roared up to the house, stopping with a shriek of brakes. He bounded up the stairs, two at a time. Anne was standing at the top, her arms folded around her sides, crying uncontrollably. Choy was standing behind her, almost cowering, as if she expected to be struck.
“What happened? Where’s Maggie?”
Anne continued to weep and point towards the beach, which was about two hundred yards away. “Oh, my God,” he thought, “she’s in the sea.” He turned to Choy.
“Choy, what has happened? Where’s Maggie.”
“Not my fault, master, not my fault.” She cowered further away.
He grasped her by the shoulders. “It’s all right, Choy. Just tell me slowly what has happened.”
“Man on beach, master. Took little girl.”
“What man? Did you know him? What did he say?”
“Chinese man, master. I not know him. He say nothing”
Alex ran to the phone, dropping the handset in his anxiety to use it. He phoned the police station. “I want to speak to Detective Superintendent Singh.”
“He’s in a meeting, sir.”
“Get him! Tell him it is Captain Millar, and it is extremely urgent. Get him now.”
He looked around as he waited impatiently for Gurban, his mind turning over the most appalling fears. Anne was slumped in a chair, her face in her hands. “Oh, please God, let my little girl be safe.”
“Alex, what is it, man?”
He explained in short rapid sentences.
“OK, wait there, we are on our way.”
He phoned the Guardroom. “Bruce, I want every available copper you can get, including the off duty guys, and the dog handlers. Get them round here, quick. Someone has taken my daughter. Oh, and see if you can get a medico to come to look after my wife.”
The whole operation swung into action, directed by Superintendent Singh, the Service and civilian Police co-operating as never before. Anne was sedated, and lay on the bed in a half conscious state. Alex, sorely tempted to go out searching, remained at home, next to the phone and radio. His mind was in turmoil, his stomach churned, and he paced around, unable to sit for more than a few seconds at a time. He tried to comfort Anne, but she screamed at him the moment he came near, so he left her and went back to pacing. At four thirty in the afternoon he got the call he had been praying for. The radio crackled. “Alex, it’s Gurban. We have Maggie, she’s safe.”
The demented anger, and frustrated energy drained out of Alex, like a burst balloon. He made the sign of the cross, something he had not done for years. “Thank you, Jesus, thank you.”
He told Anne, and they waited anxiously for ten minutes until Gurban came charging up the stairs, carrying Maggie. The little girl ran crying to her mother. The two men stared at each other.
The turbaned policeman looked from one to the other. “She hasn’t been touched in any way. The doctor has already examined her. She’s OK.”
“Want to tell me about it, Gurban.”
“Come outside, Alex.”
They walked onto the balcony and Alex closed the door behind him.
“It was a warning, Alex. Your friends with all the contracts. Someone must have told them we are getting close. Just to let you know that they can.”
“Where did you find her? Did you get any bastard?”
“It does not matter to you, my friend, where we found her. We did find her. She has not been hurt. Yes, we did get someone, and we have dealt with it in our way. In any case he is a nobody, not important. He was just hired to do a little job. You British were here a long time and you taught us a lot. But, some things we still do our way. Now go and comfort your wife.”
It took less than a week for Anne and the children to be repatriated to Australia, and another ten days to get a flight back to Britain, where they took up residence again with her mother and father. He flew down to Melbourne to see them off, and it was a very dry eyed Anne who said “I never want to see you again in my life.”
Alex had been offered the opportunity of going with them, and he realised that he should have taken it, but a deep burning anger within him would not allow this. He was determined to stay, and not be chased away by a bunch of crooks. It was some three months before the fraud matter was settled, and Alex felt that he could, with honour, leave. He handed over to a RAAF flight lieutenant, and attended a long farewell party.
He had not heard from his wife in all this time, and when he phoned her parents’ home, neither Molly or Bob answered. Anne was always doing something, they said, but he knew, and they knew that he knew, that they were lying. Both Richard and Maggie were well, and, they said, missing their daddy, but from Anne, never a word. He wrote, and she never replied, so after six weeks or so, he gave up. He got drunk at the farewell party, for the first time in many years, and some time early the following morning, found himself at the bar of the Mandarin Hotel in Georgetown with five or six of his NCO’s. Among them was Alan Stewart, who was also doing some celebrating of his own. One of Alex’s final acts at the OIC of the Police Unit was to approve Stewart’s promotion to sergeant.
“You’ve done well, Al. Have I told you that?”
Stewart grinned at him over the rim of his beer glass. “Yes, boss, you have.”
Alex wagged an admonishing finger, “No, I mean it. You’ve done bloody well. Are we the only ones left? Where have all the other bastards gone?”
Stewart grinned again. “No, there’s half a dozen of the boys over there.” He indicated behind Alex, who looked round and saw some other policemen chatting to two or three of the local hostesses.
“So, Al, tell me. Why are you here with me, when the other guys are chatting up the birds?”
“Someone has to keep an eye on you, sir.”
“And you got lumbered with the job?”
“No, mate. I volunteered for it.”
“You know something. You’re really not a bad bloke for a bloody Ocker.”
“And you are not a bad bloke for a fucking Pom, sorry, Ulsterman. I’d like to say that you are the best fucking officer I have ever met.”
“But I’m a lousy bloody husband, and father. My old lady has pissed off and left me, and taken my kids. And I’m drunk.”
“Sir, you are a smarter bloke than I am, but sometimes there are things you don’t understand. You make your own judgement on things between you and your missus. That’s to do with women. Things between men are entirely different, and whatever your old lady thinks, we all think you are OK. Yes, and you are drunk, and that’s why I volunteered to look after you.”
Alex stared at Stewart. “Thanks mate.” He rubbed his newly acquired moustache with the back of his right index finger, and took a reflective pull at his beer. “Do you remember the day the warrant officer fell into the river? I thought he would end up in the South China Sea.”
Stewart laughed. “He could have joined the padre swimming home to Oz.”
He was glad to be back in Britain, and pleased that he had been posted back to the Parachute Regiment in Aldershot. He visited his wife at her parents’ home. They talked a very long time. The result of their discussion boiled down to a fairly simple ultimatum.
“Buy a house, and I may come back. But I am not going anywhere on posting with you again. Please yourself if you stay in the Army, but if you want your children back, buy a house.”
He was sent on attachment to the Junior Command and Staff College course at Warminster. Alex had passed the promotion exam from captain to major even before they had left to go to Australia, and this was a necessary prerequisite for further promotion. On return, they found and bought a house in Guildford, which was convenient for Aldershot. Anne settled in, and seemed to be happy with her life, if not with her husband. Alex threw all his energies into the Army.
In 1974 he was promoted to major, and remained at Aldershot. He was rising thirty-six years of age, and had decided in his own mind that this would be his final promotion. Although it could happen, it was not very common for officers commissioned from the ranks to get any further than major. He decided to settle for that.
He and Anne had achieved a modus vivendi. She did more or less what she wanted to do, and he did the same. None of this involved other people, and although they resumed some form of married life, both knew that irreparable damage had been done in the last two and a half years. The next eight years passed without either of them realising where the days and months had gone. While remaining a Parachute Regiment soldier, he volunteered for, or was volunteered for a number of interesting postings. He spent a year in Germany, coming home by car every second or third weekend. He learned Spanish and became the Military Attaché at the British Embassy in Spain, where trips home were less frequent. He spent a year at the Ministry of Defence in London, and commuted to work by train, only very occasionally wearing uniform. And, as he was willing, he was sent of on strange little training assignments in places like Oman, Belize and Kenya. At least, in the first two, he experienced being under fire, from a distance, and of returning fire, also from a distance. To his total satisfaction, although he was petrified, at these times, he found that his training asserted itself, and he did not run away, or crap his trousers.
He also volunteered to go to Northern Ireland, at that time beset by ‘The Troubles’. He was not required to go, as the British Services did not make a practice of sending Ulstermen there on active service, particularly Catholics who were also officers in the Parachute Regiment. He got to see his parents, now living in Newcastle, County Down, a couple of times during his six months in the Province. His mother was deeply unhappy at these times, and persuaded him not to come again.
“We’ll come and see you all in Surrey. It’s too dangerous for you to come here, son.”
She was right.
Neither Alex nor Anne was happy, but neither was either of them particularly unhappy. Their marriage staggered along, without any passion, and more from force of habit than anything else. Anne enjoyed her home, and her children, and both believed that they loved the other, without it ever being put to the test. They had been married for twenty-four years, and seemed to be the sort of comfortable rut many of their friends were apparently satisfied to also occupy. Richard had just started at university and Maggie was a popular and bright pupil at the local Grammar school.
Alex was working in the Ministry of Defence, when, on 2nd April 1982, the Argentine Navy invaded the Falkland Islands.
Chapter Fourteen – Episode 20