If you can wait and not get tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, or talk too wise
The story of my cigarettes soon found its way onto the grapevine and one lad came to me and asked for cigarettes. Let me first add that Eddie and Bill were also great fiddlers – one came from Lancashire and the other was a Cockney. They certainly did their share and that was without cigarettes to barter with. And so it was a case of share-and-share-alike. The lad wanted to exchange five cigarettes (the maximum aloud) for his wedding ring. I was disgusted at the thought and the very suggestion filled me with horror. I wasn’t even married but I didn’t care much for that idea. I told him that I would give him the maximum allowance but only on the promise that he would never ever again think of selling his wedding ring. He agreed and I forgot all about the incident.
It wasn’t until 1956 in Scarborough, on a boating lake with a girl whom I knew, that I heard someone shouting my name. The man was in another boat on the same lake. He was the very same person who had tried to exchange his wedding ring for cigarettes. The boats were handed back and we all sat on a park bench and exchanged stories. His wife told me that he had kept his promise about the wedding ring. He felt so ashamed and he had told her what he had tried to do. He didn’t smoke when he was with us.
The couple gave my friend and I a wonderful evening as they too were on holiday. His wife gave me a great big hug and kiss. It’s a nice feeling when people appreciate something you do for them.
Nursing and fiddling became my priorities, in that order. I was never mean with my cigarettes. I used most of the proceeds to keep my patients alive or maybe just give them a nicer death. I really did feel for those poor souls. The only way to survive was to fight with all the strength had left. However, it always seemed to be the married men who gave up and died before the single ones. There must have been a moral somewhere in that fact but I couldn't for the life of me work it out.
Apart from a severe rash around my genitals, the worst thing I suffered in Changi was sunburn. I must have peeled a hundred times. My mind was always preoccupied with the task of nursing and so I never had much time to worry about my relatively trivial complaint. Little did I know at the time that it was to cause me so much concern later.
We had our homosexuals too in the camp. I had been introduced to this slimy side of life when I started my nursing career. The hospitals are the places for that sort of thing. To see ‘courting couples’ was hilarious. Mostly married men they were, but maybe that was understandable. To me those ‘lovely fellows’ were something to behold, but by the end of P.O.W. life there were none left at all. I honestly believe that energy in the camp was at its lowest and anyone who didn’t keep himself clean and fit paid the extreme price. Anyone at all would be approached by the homosexuals. There was no shyness about that business. I dread to think that in this day and age, AIDS is the number one killer in some countries. How the world changes.
Going back to when we were first captured; the Japanese officers asked our officers if they wanted “Gucha Girls”. But, the stiff upper-lip always came up trumps and our officers did the honourable thing. It would’ve been a far different story had the same offer been made to the general rank and file.
‘Shanty Town’, as it was called, was really a horrific place to live. No-one can really describe it. I honestly believe that the first people to inhabit the Earth were as well off as we were – better off maybe, considering the terrible diseases and injuries that the prisoners suffered. Shanty Town should have been preserved and for sure – it would have been the eighth wonder of the world.
Every ‘house’ (or whatever one wished to call it) in Shanty Town was built up on only three sides, because we needed the space. Of course, we had literally nothing but our bare hands to build with. To see that place was really to appreciate the ingenuity of man. It was clean, because if nothing else, the army taught us cleanliness. Although it was aesthetically revolting, the insides were kept tidy. Everyone competed with each other to have the best shanty. I often wished that I had a camera at that time, just to show the outside world the way in which we had to survive.
Extract from poem ‘IF’ by Rudyard Kipling