(Or Nihon no yugi)
By Les Hooper
- Kure, Japan.
Beautiful Susie threw back her head and gazed into my eyes. Her ivory skin glistened in the autumn sunshine. “I will miss you, Res-san,” she said simply without tears. I thought about it equally simply. I might miss her, too, but Susie-san and Japan would have to cope without me. Japs take a lot of understanding. I never managed it.
Also I needed to get away before her eyes became even rounder. I was sailing on the next troopship and returning to a familiar culture. Mine. Also without tears. Definitely. Don’t groan. This isn’t a love story.
Excluding me, one of the nicest men you could ever wish to meet – Major Bill Butcher, the OC of the SIB Section of the British and Commonwealth Forces in Korea, located in Kure, Japan. As he pops up here and there in this story like Susie-san he deserves a mention. He was the army library’s best customer and spent most of his office time with his head stuck in a book. I think he was learning to read.
By the way, Kure was the base of the infamous Kamikaze pilots of World War II, the only wartime unit I know that never held reunion parties. How about that?
The place was struggling to keep up with the times. A horse and cart and a bicycle constituted a traffic jam and the town planners hadn’t yet heard of tarmac. The largest building the population had ever seen was a rice mill.
The bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion of Hondas, Nissans and Toyotas had yet to arrive. I half expected to see tumbleweeds bowling along the dusty streets and John Wayne shooting rustlers. If you break a window you screw it up and toss it in a waste paper bin. If Japan began a paper-free system they’d have nowhere to live.
Anyway, I was banging away at a typewriter, composing a report about a soldier who decided cameras on display outside a shop were free gifts when the major invited – well, ordered me to his office. His name was on a nameplate on his desk, which stirred me optimistically about his intelligence. You can have confidence in a man who knows his own name.
He carefully marked the page in his latest read, closed it, and slipped it into a drawer. I caught a glimpse of the title and wondered who Fanny Hill was. He inclined his greying head towards a chair. I deduced he wanted me to sit. So I sat. As for his grey hair, it can’t be easy running a bunch of misfits with egos like barrage balloons. Anyway, I liked his grey hair; it made me feel young.
You may remember from another story – MUTINY (In Archives) – that Bill seldom left the snugness of his office. When he did he blinked like a rabbit leaving its burrow. The last time the miracle happened all the Section members present stood up, waved their arms and cheered wildly, although they stopped short of having a whip-round.
To continue, he told me, “The hospital is concerned about the loss of drugs. They reluctantly asked me to investigate.” It didn’t take a mind reader to know that me meant me. Yes?
Asking him personally to investigate was a laugh. Our major was duller than used dishwater to those who didn’t know him and his wonderful philosophy was the envy of all who did know him – if you never do anything you can’t make mistakes. He continued, “This is a very important investigation and I want you to devote all your energy to solving the thefts. Failure is out of the question, which is why I’m giving you the job. Don’t let me down and it’ll be a feather in your cap. As you know, I always give credit where credit is due.”
I looked curiously around. Mmmm! No one else was present. He must be talking to me. Run up the flags. So I was the chosen one. Well, he wanted guarantee of success.
You will conclude that our shogun was also a card and a very astute and observant fellow, yet I knew in my swollen head that if l pulled it off he would take the biggest slice of the cake and brush me off with the crumbs. Hallelujah!
I did suffer a painful moment of introspection querying where I could find energy to devote. That’s a design fault with officers. They take strange things for granted.
At last I squeezed a word in. “Thank you for your justified faith in me. Like Robin Hood, I’ve always yearned for a feather in my cap. You talk a load of bull, but I’ll try my best to get you a medal.” No, I didn’t. What I really said was, “Yes, sir!”
He awarded me a friendly smile, the one that says don’t take what I say too literally, and said, “Don’t stray from the straight and narrow. I want a neat package without flaws.” He hesitated then added, “I don’t want to see you in trouble.”
I queried, “Do you really mean that, sir?” to which he made no response.
I interpreted his vagueness as meaning I shouldn’t break the rules. As if I would! Every officer I’ve served with has made similar esoteric remarks. There must be something in my character that worries them. It’s the penalty of success I suppose.
Also, the major remembered the old days when uncooperative people were pushed around a little. I tried to remember whether the ‘old days’ were finished. I think we‘re in a transitional period and learning to be nice to nasties. Maybe I’ll apply to rejoin the Boy Scouts instead.
As it happened, just a couple of weeks earlier my dear friend Jack Coombes and I, feeling full of mischief, carried out an undercover patrol one night and amongst others coincidentally arrested two Medical Corps privates flogging stolen penicillin on the street. I like Jack because he knows I’m brilliant. A coincidental arrest is much the same as a normal one. The two men were currently confined where the sun doesn’t shine so couldn’t be tagged with the present losses. I only mention this to boast.
You may be puzzled, hearing that Jack ventured out at night. He usually stayed in, giving private English lessons to Kay-san. Well, that’s his story. Kay-san’s the skinny Mess waitress with honey-bucket legs, bandiness being common among Jap sho-jos. Don’t ask me why. I know that Jack took a sudden liking to ginseng.
She often squealed and spilled tea when hovering close to some of the frisky men. That’s a bit of a mystery. She sometimes accosted me with, “You number ten, Resrie-san,” whatever that meant. I suspect it wasn’t comprimentaly. I got a clue from the way Kay-san spoke of Jack. She would boast, “Jack number one boy-san.” There must be something in teaching English that escaped me. At the same time I began to get a glimmer of how to graduate to number one boy-san.
When we felt flush a few of us descended upon the town. We usually stopped off at a café where we squatted on the floor to scoff chirashi-zushi, a weird rice and seafood concoction. It wasn’t culinary perfection but an improvement on the mysteries dished up in the Mess. We then visited drinking dens where we also sat on the floor. The Japanese had yet to discover furniture. Being military police we used our supposed power to the full, forking out as little as possible. Small-time corruption.
Geishas circled beyond our orbit but one different and magnetic establishment in Kure was No.12 Chome. We were lured there by a variety of lovely girls who always greeted us warmly with a chorus of “Irashimase” (welcome), usually in skimpy clothes. Them, not us.
The premises were meticulously clean, smart and smelling of lotus blossom. Well, it may or may not have been lotus blossom. Sounds better than daisies. The place hovered on the verge of clinical. A surgeon could remove your tonsils there without fear of infection. Our visits weren’t a waste of time either. I learnt to use chopsticks and the only food I didn’t master was soup. The old jokes are still the best.
I fondly remember those rare luscious occasions as if they were only tomorrow. I doubt they were mentioned in letters home. Happy days! My, my!
Jack once asked Jock Marnoch, the WOII, what he thought of the place. “Well,” came the reply, “I don’t suppose they get up to the same antics in the British Embassy.” The name stuck and henceforth the place was always known as ‘The Embassy’. Bizarre.
Back to the grind. I’ll remind you here that the world is populated with both normal people and idiots. I’m a normal, of course, but later you’ll read of one or two idiots. Hold your breath.
Anyway, off I tore to the hospital, fired by my usual enthusiasm but supported by little hope. My motivation was fuelled by pride and ego and I thrive on this crazy SIB work. With that flash of propaganda out of my system, I had one big factor in my favour. I’m a smart-ass. A previous OC told me that. Humph!
The British Commonwealth Hospital was staffed by about 150 British, Canadian and Australian personnel and held around 600 beds. A big place.
The drugs that kept disappearing weren’t illegal ones, like heroin and cocaine, but prescription and off-the shelf stuff like penicillin, Valium, codeine, etc. It’s a long list. If you’re really interested, have a sniff round your local chemists. They’re all stocked there.
You must’ve known me laud the Hooper luck before. Mind you, it isn’t always good luck. In my early years I once, in a mad moment, asked a girl to marry me and she actually said, “Yes.” I wriggled out of that solecism with great difficulty amid buckets of tears. Mine, not hers. Back to business. The harder I work the luckier I become.
Inside the hospital a sure-fire cure for impotence wearing a starched uniform sat behind a counter. This goddess had one of those silly upside down watches pinned to her magnificent bosom. I leant on the counter, glanced at a sign hanging above her head, gazed into clear blue pools and said, “Good morning, Miss Reception.”
She smiled and I smiled back. “What can I do for you?’ she asked in a drawl, presumably Canadian.
I didn’t tell her. Instead I explained, “I need an ambulance.”
“Why do you need an ambulance?”
“To go to hospital.”
Her smile fractured. “This is a hospital,” she coldly informed me and I think her finger hovered over an alarm button under the counter. I suspect the beauty was sister to muscles. I bet she was a hockey player.
I said, “Oh, I thought it was paradise. Cancel the ambulance.”
She said, “I don’t like smart alecks.”
“I like girls,” I said, but the bridge had collapsed.
She pointed over my shoulder. I looked round. Halfway along a corridor another sign promised: PSYCHIATRIC DEPT. I can take a hint. I walked away, thinking that the Urological Clinic might be more appropriate.
Soon after that encounter I met a stocky Canadian officer whose name was an unpronounceable mouthful. Major Wojciechowski introduced himself as the Medical Administrator, which meant nothing to me. Well, I knew he wasn’t the kitchen porter. He was a very pleasant man who came from Halifax, Canada’s finest city. So he told me, although I suspect with that name he really originated from somewhere way east of the Rhine where pierogi equals a Sunday roast.
He seemed to wear a permanent smile, a man who enjoyed life despite working amongst the sick and those who attended the sick. As we wandered happily along the long hospital corridors I noticed that staff we encountered were very friendly with the major. I’m going to change my name to something nobody can pronounce.
Who had opportunity to steal the drugs? Well, the hospital was staffed with about 150 so there were 150 suspects. Okay! I told the major, “That includes you.” He laughed and offered me a nominal roll of the staff. I declined. The only gain from reading it would be a headache. I knew I could eliminate 149 of them. The problem was discovering who was the odd one I needed.
Up to 20 worked in Pharmacy, including a specialist captain, a warrant officer and a couple of sergeants. The major assured me that none of those could be the thief. But he would say that. He also said, “It could take some time sorting through all the names.”
Perhaps he wanted to be an investigator. I answered, “It’s not a problem. I finish work at lunchtime anyway.”
He gave me a sideways look that said he was confused. Then a smile spread across his square face. “Oh, a joke! I should’ve known from what Corporal Chickasawhatchee on Reception told me.” He added proudly, “She’s the captain of our hockey team.”
I knew it. And that name! I bet she comes from Mooselookmeguntic. Don’t ask.
The major continued with a small laugh, “Also your Major Catcher mentioned I might find you a little odd.” Everyone’s a comedian.
“If you like, you’re welcome to lunch with us.”
“What’s on the menu – kidneys or fried appendixes?”
More laughs. In fact it was mutton stew. What else? The rations were supplied by Australia. I declined seconds. At my table were a couple of anonymous characters wearing green gowns and drooping surgical masks. I didn’t mind, although they were slicing their mutton with scalpels. Just kidding.
Of more interest to me was the fact that two British National Servicemen of the department were AWOL. They had proper names. Nobody at the hospital had connected missing drugs with missing soldiers. I did. Clues are often quite mysterious but I suppose I could call the AWOL soldiers a clue. In an investigation you can only work with what you’ve got. All else is guesswork – not the kind of stuff you can rely on although a good guess can be helpful.
Absent soldiers need money to exist, especially in a foreign country. And drugs were worth a lot in Japan. Two AWOL soldiers worked in the hospital pharmacy. My incredible sixth sense told me that these men held the answer. Cherchez la homme.
All right, so even Goofy could’ve reached the same conclusion. He had Mickey Mouse to advise and comfort him whereas I only had Major Butcher and lovely Susie-san, a dark-haired co-operative House-girl with beautiful almond eyes who tended my welfare with selfless devotion and exceptional care and drank gin. Steady on, Les! Ooh la la. Susie-san was 25 years old, going on 20. She looked Japanese, just like her 120 million compatriots. I observe these details.
I adopted my usual plan when investigating a case. I follow the lead of Wilkins Micawber in Dickens’s ‘David Copperfield’. Be patient. Something will turn up. So I paced my cage and waited for someone to open the door.
In the interval I poked around the hospital for a couple of days, making a nuisance of myself, talking to anyone who would listen, asked a hundred pointless questions and received answers in kind. Recorded a few routine statements covering the thefts. No one put their hands up. That’s the nature of the game.
The hospital was one of the military establishments that had started to wear name tabs. As usual following in the Americans’ footsteps. I failed to spot one that read Drug Thief. Even so, I wasn’t disappointed. I knew that before the end I would be taking the final curtain call. No point in having a big head if you don’t use it.
I was a fish out of water. For instance, I felt like a navvy compared to the well-scrubbed people around me. My body odour was honest sweat. They smelt like an operating theatre. Everyone except the inmates wore fixed bedside smiles. I should’ve got myself a white coat and melted into the scene. While there I just avoided anti-malaria injections twice and once dodged a nose job by insisting I liked my large hooter.
Somebody’s jiving me, as our Yankee friends would say. I later discovered there isn’t any malaria in Japan. A theatre nurse, a bubbly young Aussie Sheila who looked like Grace Kelly, made a mouth-watering proposition but I didn’t relish life with sheep. She owned a dog that looked like a cross between a St. Bernard and a dachshund. It had long fur, short legs and she called him Darling. I questioned Darling closely before crossing him off my list of suspects.
I was pleased to discover that everyone I spoke to was eager to do my bidding. Unfortunately, excluding a couple of nurses, I didn’t know what to bid.
The attractive Corporal What’s-her-name made no attempt to mask her hostility. I think she must have already been promised. Her smile locker was certainly empty. I thought I might ask her if there were any doctors available but decided against getting up her nose again.
I was standing outside Major W’s office when a young thickset Royal Marine approached me, stood smartly to attention and asked, “Can you direct me to Pathology, please?” He looked healthy but you can never tell.
“Sorry,” I explained. “I’m Gynecology.”
He said, “Never mind. It’s probably not your fault,” and marched off, shaking his head. Had he escaped or out on day release? I shook my head, too, and wished him well in his world.
Despite all these distractions, I fooled everyone into thinking I was making an effort and the SIB angels smiled kindly upon me. When I had exhausted all the avenues that investigators like to report, I fastened my briefcase, slipped out of the hospital and returned to a familiar nut farm where I felt at home.
No rest for the wicked. A few days later the shogun summoned me to his bakufu again. By the time I shuffled through his door Fanny Hill had slid out of sight. He told me the Australian OC of the provost company informed him one of the AWOL privates of the Medical Corps had been apprehended. “He thinks the detained soldier might be involved in the drug thefts.” Captain MacDonald, the Aussie OC, a likeable, curly-haired youth, jumped around so much I swear his mum was frightened by a kangaroo. Really.
I was quick of the mark with a snort and, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Naturally it wasn’t plain sailing. It never is. I knew by the twitching around the major’s mouth that he was hiding something. He couldn’t hold back for long and said, “No need to be sarcastic. He’s been picked up in Tokyo.”
Quelle surprise. I didn’t need a kangaroo to make me jump around. Tokyo, Japan’s capital city. How and why did he get there? It had to be by train. Why had I not checked in the first place? My pride had taken a whack. I’d been certain the missing soldiers were still in the Kure area. That they could’ve moved elsewhere hadn’t entered my calculations. And Tokyo of all places! A smart-ass indeed! A self-reassessment was needed.
I chewed over the news a while and told the major, “If one absentee’s in Tokyo, then the other one’s likely to be there as well, considering the two are friends.” My brain was back in action. There are no fries on me, as Paul Kawasaki, our interpreter, would say. When I first heard his name I thought he was a motorbike.
The major looked at me as if I’d forgotten to shave. I think he knew I had a selfish motive lingering. He asked, “Are you putting all your eggs in one basket? There’s no evidence that the other absentee’s also in Tokyo, or they stole the drugs.”
For the major’s benefit I clarified my thoughts. “These two jokers are the only lead we have. And that’s like Japanese tea – weak. Okay, there’s no evidence that they’re involved in stealing pills, so I might be clutching at straws. What puzzles me is why Tokyo? I don’t think he just wanted to go shopping in The Ginza. Maybe the Tokyo drug market is more lucrative than here. I believe this is the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for.” The major looked pleased that I included him in my theory.
There was a long silence before the major chuckled and said, “So you want to go to Tokyo?” I guess there are no fries on Bill Butcher either. At least he didn’t question my sanity and tell me to report sick. I’m good at crazy.
He said, “With only guesswork to go on, we’ll need voluntary statements.”
I grinned and with a little encouragement kind Bill decided that I would forthwith travel to the capital and interview the man in custody. Whoopee! I was sticking my neck out and if my idea went ballistic my reputation could follow suit. I’ll worry about that if it happens. Hey, what reputation?
Mind you, despite all the rhetoric, no one became hysterical about the drug thefts. There was a lot of shoulder shrugging and that’s all. Only I really cared. A trip to Tokyo! Wow!
I stood up to leave. At that moment cute Susie-san bounced lightly past the window in her flip-flops juggling a tray of teacups. I just managed to choke a sigh. The major caught my eyes following her and must have seen a glint in them.
More silence. Then he said, “She’s a good girl, isn’t she?” Good? I nearly blurted out, “I hope not.”
By then I had finally achieved an exalted position equal to the one held by Jack Coombes with Kay-san. Whee! How did that happen?
Well, one evening Susie-san sneaked into my room and plumped her curves on my bed with tears in her almond eyes. I had a sudden ridiculous thought that the Japanese must view life like peering through a letterbox.
She said she felt lost. She said “rost” but I knew what she meant. There’s a sign on my door saying “Girls Welcome”. I’ll have to add ‘Rost’. I decided that now she’s rumpled my bed she could make it again. Later. Why she chose me as an expert on counselling lost little maids who knew where they were I do not know. But you gotta make hay while the sun shines.
I gazed at her and considered that even squat, thick-legged Orientals can produce gold medal bodies. What I did know is that if I tossed her out we would no longer be friends. If she stayed we would also no longer be friends. I was in a tight corner. I needed to watch my step. I was on a downward spiral to pleasure, and everyone knows where that leads. Misery. How do you cheer up a lost coy Japanese cutie?
Susie nervously punched a pillow. An act that made my toes curl. Speaking slowly so as not to get her l’s and r’s confused she said, “I have not been with a man for a rong time.” Speaking slowly failed.
I said, “Nor have I,” at which she dissolved into peals of laughter, bucking the national trend. The tears vanished.
She stayed. I found the gin bottle and henceforth she called me Number One Boy-san. The other result was that the green-eyed monster ran amok amongst the other house-girls.
Did the major suspect something? He knew when to keep quiet. Like now. I kept a straight face, not even blushing. In answer to his question I did say, however, “I think so, ma’am.”
His eyes widened. “What did you say?”
“She is a good girl.”
I don’t think he believed me. He sniffed. “I thought you said. . .er. . .never mind.”
I nodded politely and dashed out, feeling that Major William Butcher was quietly gnashing his teeth behind my back. Just then a mild earth tremor rippled across the land. Mmmm!
A sudden idea hit me. Did the major fancy Susie-san? Then kicked myself. Every red-blooded male fancied Susie-san.
One night in The Embassy I was undergoing a pedicure – well, everybody’s got to have a fetish – when Jock Marnoch said, “You’re mad.”
I responded, “I can’t be mad. Mad people don’t know they’re mad and deny it anyway. I know I’m mad so that means I’m not mad.” I don’t think my profundity made an impression. Jock racked his Scottish brain, said nothing, and Hotaru, a dark-haired girl with a beauty spot on her creamy left cheek resumed fussing with his hair. She must’ve been broody. Funny. I never saw a Jap with yellow skin.
Jock, by the way, came from a place near the Arctic Circle called Aberdeen, where they live in igloos and greet each other by rubbing noses. I think. But despite these drawbacks he was nice bloke to know.
So I packed my toothbrush. Tokyo lay 700 miles north from Kure, presumably towards Alaska and I didn’t own any snowshoes. Leaving behind jeers, cat-calls and other jealousy-spawned remarks of colleagues, I galloped off, eagerly looking forward to a couple of nights indulging the rumoured fleshpots of the big city. I’m always craving things my pocket can’t support.
I travelled on the JNR (Japanese National Railways) night sleeper and it was one of the most uncomfortable train journeys I’ve ever undertaken. The train was long and low. It looked small and it was small. I curled up like a contortionist in compartment 15 which followed 14. Logical. The journey didn’t overly concern me. The St. Christopher medal hanging round my neck kept me safe.
Before I boarded a policeman stared at my navel and asked my name, I think, so he could check with a clipboard he carried. I said, “Jack Coombes,” and he did his duty and ticked off a name. I think.
I must have looked like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput. For goodness’ sake, if I weren’t me I wouldn’t be travelling. I had a random thought that he may be a ticket inspector or stationmaster or even the train’s chef taking dinner orders. In Japan everyone wearing uniform looks like a policeman. This explains why the population is so law-abiding.
He turned to a similarly uniformed companion and said, “After this, Akako, I’ve got to find the key and wind up the engine.” Perhaps I imagined it. I can’t understand Japanese babble. We left promptly on time. Hey, Akako, I found the key.
In a way it was worse than my overnight winter trip on the MEDLOC route down the length of France from Calais to Toulon back in ’46, when the carriage windows were broken and the train was icier than Corporal Long-name at the hospital.
That journey was so miserable that even a pretty girl with legs to die for selling croissants on Plate-forme de cinq at Gare de Lyon failed to raise spirits and most of the rude British soldiery surprisingly ignored her. But that’s another story.
No one appeared with a menu so I guess the policeman on the platform wasn’t taking dinner orders after all.
Anyway, Japanese people are born to be height deficient. In other words, short. Everything in the country is designed accordingly. An example is the first Japanese car exports to arrive in the UK in the ‘60s. They were so small that Corgi complained they were unfairly monopolising the toy car market.
The Japanese trains of the ‘50s were also constructed to fit the physique of the population so there was I, six foot plus, trying to sleep in a bunk half the size of a park bench. I would’ve been more at ease in a Hornby Dublo carriage.
On the subject of Japanese trains, not long before this episode a couple of squaddies of the Royal Artillery travelling on the Kure-Tokyo night express were larking about with a pistol and inevitably fired a shot. Accidental? The round penetrated a thin partition and struck Kiyoko Fukazawa, a beautiful 19-year-old Japanese girl sleeping on a bunk in the next compartment.
Despite the agony of being shot, embarrassment caused her more distress, for the bullet lodged in her shapely bottom. Then her parents would rather commit hari-kari than allow me to examine and photograph the wound and the girl herself tried hard to keep it a secret. Don’t know why. But that’s another story.
Surprise, surprise, there was no snow in Tokyo. I assume Alaska must be much farther north than I imagined.
I billeted at the combined Provost and SIB building. I had a ride around the city. Brash and noisy. The over-riding smells were noodles, bodies and exhausts. All the drivers were escapees from lunatic asylums. Cars without dents sold for ten times their value. Tokyo’s Ginza seemed more chaotic than a Harrods sale.
That night Sid Bailey, the SIB sergeant, joined me on an after-dark tour of the biggest city in the world. Pimps and hustlers plied their trades on the neon lit and busy streets. Although tourists were scarce back then plenty of goggle-eyed American servicemen loaded with more dollars than sense were pushovers.
We visited a couple of bawdy clubs where Asahi beer was almost affordable. They actually provided tables and chairs, which came from a doll’s house, probably purchased from a Japanese equivalent of Hamleys. The closest I got to fleshpots was a topless dancer gyrating to a madman who looked like Hideki Tojo, the Jap wartime prime minister, producing an unidentifiable racket on an agitated saxophone.
I don’t know what fascinated me most, the excruciating music or the bouncing bosom of the girl, who looked liked a pearl fisherwoman. The patrons were mostly whiskery men with eyes like organ stops and saliva running down their chins. Sid’s conscience suddenly remembered his wife back in the UK and we returned to our billet with our guilt. That night I had a pleasant dream of home but a half-naked girl with swinging breasts kept intruding.
Ah well, what a pity. Duty calls. The following morning two burly Redcaps brought a downcast Private John Caldwell, RAMC, arrested for AWOL, to the SIB office. He wasn’t wearing a kimono so hadn’t gone native. We lit cigarettes and had a cosy chat about the beautiful warm weather, which seemed to leave him a little bewildered. He expected thumbscrews. I remembered the major’s warning about keeping to the straight and narrow so I didn’t extract his fingernails either.
I eased the conversation around to stolen drugs. By now I’d convinced myself, despite the lack of evidence, that the soldier quivering in front of me was responsible for stealing drugs in Kure. Utterly convinced. When you’ve been in this work a good few years you know these things.
I said, “You’re a very clever man. All these months you’ve been helping yourself to drugs and no one suspected you. I wish I were as clever. I don’t know how you got away with it for so long.”
I smiled to myself as I watched him swell with pride at the praise lavished on him. I knew he was hooked and I would soon haul him in. I asked, “Now, John, what brought you all the way to Tokyo? The beer’s no different.“
He didn’t smile. He nodded. He stubbed out his cigarette and replied, “My girl lives here now. She was in Kure and her family moved to Tokyo. Since the Redcaps picked me up at her place, I’ve missed her. I hope she’s all right.”
“How did they find you?”
I already knew the answer. Jap police reported his presence but I wondered what he knew. “I don’t know,” he said. “Someone ratted on me.”
I thought the rats would be his girl’s parents. Respectable Japanese disliked daughters being friendly with British soldiers. I think they disliked them being friendly with any foreign males. Hey, maybe even Jap males.
I took statement paper from my briefcase, uncapped my fountain pen, opened my bottle of Quink and said, “Well, let’s get your story down on paper. That way no one will be able to twist your words and you’ll be safe from false accusations.”
“I’d like to see my girlfriend first. I love her.’
Did I look like flamin’ Cupid? I shook my head. “You play ball, then perhaps I’ll arrange for you to see her.”
He hesitated for a while and asked for a drink. It was a hot day and the provost canteen only had cold beers. That suited me so we both enjoyed a cool glass of Coopers Sparkling Ale. This had significance at his court-martial.
Eventually, after I persuaded him that confession was good for the soul, he admitted stealing drugs from the British Commonwealth Hospital, Kure, Japan. He was a clown. He dug himself deeper and deeper into a dirty big hole as he eagerly bragged about his conjectural shrewdness. And when the curtain came down he still thought he’d pulled the wool over my eyes. Stupid man!
I couldn’t drag the whereabouts of his co-clown, Private Peter Armstrong, RAMC, out of him although he admitted he was in Tokyo. That would be treachery. I didn’t twist his arm too much because I had a plan to catch Armstrong.
With Caldwell’s statement safely stashed away, I had lunch in a glass and the provost boys collected his girlfriend, who I had strip-searched for weapons. No, I didn’t. I’m getting carried away again.
Soon I was chatting with cosmetically enhanced Miss Aiko Takahashi of Tokyo, which doesn’t have street names. Buildings have chome or block numbers. Too complicated for me to understand and I don’t intend to be a naturalised Jap. In a charming sing-song voice, Aiko spoke better English than I spoke Japanese and was more attractive. The only people I know who speak Japanese are the Japanese. Who else needs it?
She said, “Herro,” and asked who I was. Who I was? Cheek! I’m a six-foot plus Englishman with round eyes, good looking, wearing a British army uniform with three stripes on the sleeves and this snotty little Nippon sho-jo engulfed in Eau de Cologne asks who I am. Five out of ten. It may not have been Eau de Cologne but it’s the only scent I know. And I don’t wear that very often.
I swallowed a wish to smack her tight bottom, drew myself up, looked down at her and retorted, “I am Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.”
Her red mouth fell open. “You no rook Chinee.”
“It’s amazing what cosmetic surgery can do.”
Then she caught on. “Ah so, you funny, eh?” She wasn’t laughing. I think it’s against the law in Japan.
I said, “Yes, me velly funny. Me have your kareshi rocked up. Ha, ha. He no think me bruddy funny.” Hold it! Why am I talking gibberish?
Strangely, she seemed to like my silly humour and even managed a small smile, although she looked at me as if I was round the bend. Perhaps she didn’t have much fun in her life. I might make a suggestion to Caldwell, then realized that would be futile. He won’t be around much longer.
I unscrambled my brain and came back to Earth. I told her that John was anxious to see her and a meeting could be arranged. She didn’t go gaga at my offer, but that didn’t mean a lot because the stoical Japanese seldom climb up the walls. It’s understandable. They’re assailed by typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, American soldiers, sushi and the odd atom bomb. They don’t get excited for anything less.
Terry Melia, the self-appointed Section psychiatrist, believed a different diagnosis. He once drily observed, “It’s all that bloody rice they eat.” They even grew rice in window boxes.
Aiko wanted to know if John-san was going to jail. I told her that would be up to me. After all she knew nothing about our justice system and in Japan even the police station’s cleaning lady made decisions on life and death.
Anyway, I carefully explained that to free John-san I needed her to betray the whereabouts of his friend, Peter-san. The ruse failed. She didn’t know and Peter-san remained at large. I still allowed her five minutes kiss-and-cuddle with John-san. Big-hearted, that’s me.
Excuse all this ‘san’ nonsense. It’s how they talk. Japanese are exceptionally polite. Aiko-san bowed and said, “Arigato gozaimasu,” (thank you) before she floated away in a cloud of perfume. Having caught some of the culture, I also bowed and strained my back.
I decided to investigate the bawdy underworld of the city for a bit longer, then checked my wallet. Another plan shattered. Those salacious Tokyo nights would remain on ice. I sank into despair and chugged back to Kure on the next toy express. Strange. No policeman or chef wanted to tick off my name. As I departed the city, in the distance a white-capped Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain, rose magnificently into a clear azure sky. It’s the poet in me, you know!
Nothing popped and a couple of days later I sat at my desk, head in hands, nursing my aching back and wondering what fate was brewing. How the hell did I end up in this tatty God-forsaken country a million miles from my English turf and populated by pigmies who lived on rice and seaweed? Even the delightful thought of Susie-san’s pert behind failed to spark a revival. She ate seaweed. Then I remembered – I joined the army. That was my first mistake.
Someone said, “You don’t look too bright.”
I swallowed hard and my Adam’s apple danced a samba. The voice belonged to Major Butcher. I lifted my head and before me stood a man who looked the spitting image of the major. I shuddered. It must be an apparition. He never left his office.
I blinked but he didn’t vanish and spoke again. “You’re doing well. We’re making progress on the drugs enquiry.”
I was so pleased to know he was on my side but I had to ask, “Where will you be helping, please?”
I suddenly knew what looking daggers meant. “I’m always here to support you,” he snapped. Of course, he never left his office. I thought of suggesting he pay me extra expenses but perhaps that wasn’t a good idea.
Ah, his words held the clue. Although I couldn’t smell alcohol on his breath, he must be drunk. He added, “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?”
Boy, I’ll never get a better chance to speak my mind, then chickened out. I said, “Sir, I love the SIB. I love my work. I love my officers. I love China.”
I waited for the earth tremor, but nothing happened. The sun shone brightly on Kure’s paddy fields.
The major added, “Don’t overdo it. Be yourself, insubordinate and insolent. That way I understand you better. What would you like to do?”
He chuckled and I told him, “I’ve been reading the Daily Mirror, which is three days old. This means three whole days of my life have gone down the pan and I don’t know if I’ll ever get them back.”
He rolled his eyes and muttered something that sounded like “You crick.” I think his opinion of me dropped a couple of notches. I should’ve said I read The Times. He then continued, “Er. . . um. . . yes. . . I see. Keep at it. I’m always available.” Mmm! The major was acting like a human. Probably my influence. Or drink.
I sniffed, smiled politely, nodded agreement and kept my big mouth shut. He hadn’t quite finished or suddenly something hit him that he hadn’t considered previously. His eyes narrowed. “Tell me, Hooper, you knew all along that the two AWOL types were responsible for the thefts from the hospital. How did you know?”
Because I’m lucky and brilliant and there wasn’t anything else to go on. But if the major thought I was an extremely clever investigator who am I to disagree with him? Anyway, hadn’t we already discussed this?
I said, “Remember, I spoke to many people at the hospital, checked approximate times of the thefts and studied the known movements of those with access to the drugs to see if there were any coincidences. In the end all I had were the AWOLs. As we’ve already mentioned, it was mostly guesswork.”
Let’s face it – many investigations rely on playing your luck. It wasn’t all good luck. My charm offensive on unpronounceable Miss World behind the hospital reception desk ran out of steam. I didn’t add that no drugs were missing after the two men went AWOL. That slipped my mind. Besides, retain some aura of mystery. Why should I water down the chance of a little bit of glory? Play the music.
“Oh, I see,” said the major, but I don’t think he did. I didn’t.
Luck stayed with me. A week after my return from Tokyo, disappointed, Armstrong surrendered there and was brought back to Kure. The major had a funny turn and decided that the army couldn’t afford to send me on another jaunt to Tokyo. My mood had improved by then with the help of Susie-san. I might get to like Japan. I might get to like Marmite.
I hauled Armstrong from his cell and interviewed him in an office at the Military Corrective Establishment – a euphemism for prison – and squeezed him dry. Being some sort of medical person he knew the frail parts of the human body and soon expressed a willingness to confess his sins. It helped loosen his tongue when I threatened he could be hanged for drug dealing. Oh dear! I forgot the major’s warning not to be heavy-handed.
Also, had Armstrong proved to be stubborn, we were in the right place to persuade him otherwise. The MPSC lads knew a trick or two when prisoners refused to heed good advice.
So we come to the comic opera – whoops, court-martial of the pair of rogues. On the day I saw sweet smelling Aiko of Tokyo and sweaty Sergeant Bill Jones of the Military Prison Staff Corps, whom I knew well, in the waiting room. It didn’t need rocket science to explain their presence. I waited for Aiko-san to blow me a kiss. Fat chance! Bill-san did.
The prosecution crawled along in the usual dull manner and I gave my evidence and produced the statements of Caldwell and Armstrong. Then it was the opposition’s turn.
The defending officer, a young RAMC captain without a stethoscope, stood up with a confident smirk on his face. I think he wanted to stick a thermometer somewhere to make my eyes water. He was probably top dog as a pill-pusher but as a lawyer he made a good bedpan.
He began, “Did you promise the accused Private Caldwell that if he made a statement you would permit him to see his girlfriend?”
Remember me saying that the world suffers idiots? Was I going to deny it? Did the defence really think I wouldn’t know why perfumed Aiko sat in the waiting room? Big mistake. It might have been wiser to keep her under wraps so I would be unaware of her presence.
I answered, “I promised he could see her because I needed to question her to discover the whereabouts of his companion, Private Armstrong, who was AWOL.”
The court’s Permanent President, a red-nosed major with whom I chatted many times on army crime, nodded discreet approval but said, “That’s hearsay. The court will ignore it.” I mentally shrugged and knew I was on firm ground. The defending officer’s confidence began to ebb. My points.
Next the captain probed, “You said that you first saw the accused, Private Armstrong, in a cell at the MCE and he immediately agreed to make a statement. Are you telling the court that he freely confessed virtually within seconds of your arrival?” He almost sneered.
“Yes, sir.” He couldn’t argue with such a blunt reply. The confident smirk was transformed to a worried frown. I was enjoying this.
As was the case with Aiko, did he really think I didn’t know the reason why Sergeant Jones was being called to give evidence? Bill had escorted me to the cell and knew I spent only a couple of minutes inside. That was 60 years ago and I still can’t understand why he was at the trial. Stupidity?
Of course, only I knew what transpired in those first seconds. It was Armstrong’s nightmare. His mind was in turmoil.
The captain studied his notes. He had one arrow left in his bow. “I understand that you also plied the accused, Caldwell, with alcoholic drink. Is that normal practice to extract confessions?”
Once again the president intervened. He warned, “Be careful how you word your questions, Captain Fitzjohn.” He turned to me with a smile. “You may answer, sergeant.”
I said, “He wanted a cool drink and only cold beer was available. One glass.”
The President gave another small understanding nod and said to the captain something like, “I suspect your questioning would have adopted a different approach if the accused had been refused a drink.” It was one of the most prosecution-friendly courts-martial I ever attended.
As it happened, neither Aiko nor Sergeant Jones was called to give evidence. My frankness paid off and after a few more petty exchanges the defence fell to pieces. Captain Fitzjohn pulled on a white coat and disappeared to his day job, tending the sick, lame and lazy. Just like Susie-san, victory was mine.
Afterwards a happy Permanent President told me that whatever happened both accused were going to be sentenced to two year’s imprisonment, the maximum sentence possible in a District Court Martial. And they were. How’s that for justice, army style?
Aiko Takahashi returned to Tokyo in tears. Bang goes my theory that Japs never showed emotion. No doubt mum and dad were happy daughter’s affair with an immoral British soldier had nosedived.
No doubt I was also chuffed when I returned to the Mess and celebrated with a refreshing glass of Aussie Fosters beer. It was so smooth I hung around and drank a few more. Major Bill was happy and came close to embarrassing me with scant praise. The Embassy girls were delighted to see my smiling face (and yen) again. Not all the best things in life are free.
Susie-san was no longer rost. Kay-san wore a contented expression, which suggested Jack’s English lessons were fantastic. Funny. Her legs looked straighter. Clever Major Wojciechowski , who could spell his own name, wrote a letter to Major Butcher thanking me. He said no one else could’ve done a better job. Where did I go wrong? I’ll need to check my notebook to see if I actually visited the hospital.
I told Major Butcher, “Take note. I’ve got a fan club.” No response.
Everyone wanted a slice of the cake. And I thought no one cared. There were smiles all round, except scent-drenched Miss Takahashi and a couple of grieving squaddies facing two years behind bars.
I sound cocky but a bit scared really in case Susie-san was shopping at the local Mothercare store.
That’s it. Will I ever return to Japan? You never know. Susie-san would love to hear from me so I’ll put a letter in a bottle and drop it in the English Channel. Oh, and somebody please tell me who Fanny Hill was.