By Les Hooper
Too many cooks spoil the broth – Proverb
Part I (A New Job)
People can be surprising. There’s me, for instance, a more friendly and generous person you could never wish to meet yet, for inexplicable reasons, I become involved in occasional scary incidents. The trouble is, I belong to a small and elite unit of the British Army where firmness and a decisive mind is required and where – oh, shut up and get on with it.
Right. . . . .
1956, and sweltering as the mercury climbed in the tropical heat. Even myna birds were walking in the shade of market stalls outside our offices.
That’s me and that’s Captain Robert Metcalfe, Officer Commanding of the Special Investigation Branch in Singapore, bawling from his office. He likes the sound of my name. The shout sent geckos scuttling for cover, ricocheted from a couple of plasterboard partitions and echoed round a clutch of ragged termite nests stuck to the ceiling. Then bounced off my aching head.
I sat in the big office, labouriously two-finger typing a report on a Malayan soldier with an unpronounceable name I nicked for flogging army petrol on one of the 63 islands that make up Singapore, a small and prosperous British colony in the Indian Ocean – somewhere south of China, I think. The poor soul. He said nobody told him it was wrong. Ignorance is bliss plus six months in the slammer.
The report wasn’t important – to me, a sergeant. Ask the captain, or his senior, Major Dickie Sexton, who remained permanently in hiding in an office at the end of the building, and you’ll get a different answer. For all I knew, the invisible major could’ve died behind his desk weeks ago. The higher the rank the more important everything becomes, including the colour of your underwear. And importance adjusts proportionately to how it may affect the livelihood of the person to whom it relates. This explains why officers always look worried and did nothing for my hangover. I tossed an aspirin down my throat and rushed – well, trudged – in the sticky heat to God’s office. I knew I was in the right place because screwed to the door was a wooden plaque reading OFFICER COMMANDING. It must be for the benefit of the mentally retarded.
Captain Bob sat behind an untidy desk, hoping he looked important, with sweat spreading dark patterns over his Olive Green uniform shirt, but sagging like a second-hand Buddha. The silver streaks he brushed into his temples look tired. His rugged face wore a puzzled expression. He gazed at me in silence from under thick, black eyebrows, which gave him an appearance of temper. He was probably debating whether I really was the peasant he wanted to speak to. I don’t know why. He’d seen me before. I waited.
Silence. I shuffled my feet. Were we having a minute’s silence in remembrance of his sanity? After an eternity, the captain’s brain clicked and he said, as if I were a sudden apparition, “Ah, you’re here.” That explains the silence. He’d forgotten he called me.
My jaw dropped. I cocked my head. I said, “Correct. The War Office decided Singapore needed me,” although what I really said was, “I thought you wanted me.”
“I did – I did.. I’ve got other things on my mind,” he flustered. “Stop trying to be clever.”
I could understand that. His mind behaved like an overflowing sink if he had too many thoughts at once. Most of them went down the drain. And I wanted to explain that being clever was a genetic malfunction in my favour. But I didn’t. I’d better mention that we had a good understanding between us. He gave the orders and I obeyed. Sometimes. He settled himself, mopped his brow with a green sweat scarf, changed his thoughts into first gear and I distinctly heard his brain whirring as he said, ”I’ve just had a phone call – a phone call from District.”
What should I do – applaud? Alexander Graham Bell will be delighted his invention’s working.
He continued, “The Staff Captain ‘A’ is up in arms over rumours circulating that homosexuals are corrupting our soldiers.” Surely not! He added, “The stories reached the brass at Tanglin and the C-in-C himself demands to know why we aren’t doing anything about it.”
I suggested, “Maybe because no one’s told us.”
“Well, they have now,” he snapped, which jarred my hangover. Oh boy, surprise, a sudden wit. Where did that come from? I picked myself up from the floor as he continued, “And we need to do something about it.” I had a sinking feeling that we meant me. I must be psychic for he continued, “I’m giving you the task of finding out what’s going on between our soldiers and local homosexuals.” If he didn’t know what was “going on” it’s time he learnt about the birds and bees. He said, “This job is right up your street.” He really meant back alley. Mmm! Might’ve worded that better.
Right. His suggestion didn’t need a lot of thought. I told him, “If you think I’m going to risk my neck sneaking around smelly backstreets of Singapore then you’re sadly mistaken. Besides, last night’s Tiger effect is still racing round my blood stream, so I’m not in a fit state for chasing shadows. Also, you’re bloody crazy, as it looks suspiciously like working in the dark.” Literally and metaphorically. Normally, the only real danger faced in the colony was a bad curry. Actually, I didn’t say any of that. I asked, “All on my own?”
He grinned. “I haven’t got anyone available to hold your hand.” He isn’t utterly crazy, just tottering a little.
He wasn’t finished yet. He continued, “I’d like to see the streets cleaned up.” Ring the City road-sweepers. “It’s part of our job here to shield our soldiers from evil.” Flannel. He must’ve been rummaging through his waste bin and idealism popped up and hit him, or he’s been reading Shakespeare. Somewhere in the distance a Salvation Army band struck up with Onward Christian Soldiers. Or was it only in my sore head? The captain droned on, “I’ll keep you off other jobs for the time being.” How kind! He continued, “Play within the rules.” Whatever did he mean? “Concentrate solely on this and get to the bottom of it.” Not a very clever choice of words either. I didn’t smile because it made my brain throb. I looked at my watch. Still talking, he added, “The quicker we get answers the better it will be for all of us. We don’t want pressure from the top. It makes us nervous. You’ll solve this.” Bla, bla, bla! And so forth. There’s the royal ‘We’ again, including everyone in his personal hang-ups.
Solve what? Sure, I‘ve been around long enough to know how the world works. I’ll try walking on water. Thank you for having faith in me. At least I can guess why he chose me for a case that wasn’t a case. Not yet, anyway. Someone told him I’m a whizz-kid at jigsaw puzzles.
He looked at me kind of strangely. It seemed he didn’t know how to say whatever he wanted to say. It came eventually. “By the way, we’ve been authorized 500 dollars extra in expenses.” He gave an evil grin. “But don’t think you can spend it on beer. I’m allocating it where needed.”
No prizes for guessing where it would be needed. I’ve always suspected that he’s related to Dick Turpin. As it was obvious I wouldn’t be sharing in the bonanza, I don’t know why he mentioned it. Perhaps it’s his way of saying I don’t feature in his plans. He’s as unpredictable as a British summer. I had a funny feeling that Big Bob would end up wishing he’d never started this dodgy business. His professional judgement always bothered me. I was being kind when I said he’s only partially nuts. He’s completely nuts. Okay, so I act stupidly at times – like refusing a drink – but I’m smart as well, so it balances out. One question seared my brain so I had to ask, “How do I identify a homosexual?”
The captain shook his head as if I were the one with mental problems, and his eyes ran over me like searchlights. In a surprising accusation he growled, “You always ask stupid questions.”
Humph! So I bravely persisted with another stupid question. “Do I nick every soldier I see with a male civilian?”
The captain frowned, leant back in his chair, clasped his hands behind his head and said, with exaggerated exasperation, “I chose you because you’re the best man for the job. Just get on with it.” He paused, then added, “And I don’t want a heart attack, which means no more complaints about cutting corners and not sticking to correct procedures.”
Cutting corners? Me? All that nonsense from a man who changes rules to suit whichever situation he finds himself in – especially if it impinges upon his career. I chose to ignore his ambiguous comments anyway as typical mumbo jumbo. I should mention that our captain was not averse to being economical with the truth and patronising played a big part in his armoury. He wasn’t finished with me yet. He said, “I think you’re usually on the ball, so stick to it.”
I replied, “Sadly, that’s true. Unfortunately, not everyone would agree with you.”
He ignored my comment. I suggested, “Why don’t we make a sign saying ‘Homosexuals Welcome’ and hang it outside the entrance?” For a moment I thought he would blow his top. Then he looked as if the idea amused him but he said nothing so I inquired, “Where should I begin?”
He sighed. “You’re the investigator. Begin wherever you like.” Which meant he didn’t know. “This is an opportunity to make a name for yourself. And remember, it’s confidential. We don’t want the people of Singapore to discover we’re probing into their activities.” Perish the thought. Then the security classification leapt up. “It’s secret.”
A secret? So damned secret I hadn’t a clear idea what he was talking about or, more to the point, how would I go about it? He must have seen doubt in my expression and there came a moment’s hesitation before he grunted, “If you don’t want this job, say so.”
I quickly seized on the escape clause and replied, “No, you can stick it up — ” I stopped before I scored an own goal. He suddenly switched off, ignoring me, picked up a folder from his desk and opened it. I stood there like a lemon, not knowing whether to twist or bust. To be honest, he hadn’t heard me because I only spoke under my breath.
Then he decided to be more congenial, looked up and asked apologetically, “Do you have any more questions?”
“Can I take a week’s leave?”
He chuckled and ordered, “Clear off and get on with it.” I can take a hint, so I vanished in case he thought of something else to blow my mind. I crossed over the central corridor and entered the shared office with maggots crawling through my brain. I didn’t close his door. Open doors was the only air conditioning we had. A disturbing thought crept into my aching head. Did the OC pick me really because I’m smart or did he want me out of the way for a few days? I gave up digging for the answer. He wouldn’t want to get rid of me, would he? Interesting. I know the SIB is top banana but this business is stretching fantasy too far. Think about it.
Little ol’ me, all on my own, given the job of ridding the Lion City of unwanted deviant males. Should be easy. The population is only near five million. No mention of the Singapore police being involved, although if the captain was genuine they should be. Just me. Ah well! Now I know how Wyatt Earp felt when he first rode into Tombstone, which had only a 14,000-strong population. Cushy. Of course it’s utterly and completely ridiculous. Where the hell does detective work come into it? As for making a name for myself, how could I if it was secret? I’ll go back and tell mad Captain Bob what I think. But I got cold feet. A big fault with this SIB lark is that you don’t get choices. As the old joke goes: it serves you right, you shouldn’t have joined.
Anyway, although devoid of a sensible plan, I began my new job full of boyish zeal. You’d better believe it. For instance, my first move was to park my feet on my desk and light a cigarette. A smart move, considering I hadn’t a clue what to do next. Where was the starting point? I could’ve got more help from the menu of Zam-Zam’s Curry House on Veerasamy Road, where the recipe’s so guarded that even the menu’s written in secret code. I’m thinking Metcalfe’s project is the biggest load of rubbish since a City dustcart overturned outside Raffles Hotel a few weeks ago. I wasn’t greatly concerned. I’d been looking for a hobby to pass the time. But how did I end up in this predicament? Answer – it’s your own fault for being so clever. The report on the stupid Malayan soldier could wait till I learnt to spell his name, let alone pronounce it. Okay?
A few other investigators sprawled around the office, serious, like fathers in a maternity unit. Some bashing Remingtons, some with heads stuck in smutty mags, some complaining, but all sweating in ninety degrees Fahrenheit – despite the squeaky ceiling fan – under the tin roof of the Black Hut on Bras Basah Road – a.k.a. Provost HQ – where we worked. Someone ought to hand out happy pills. The others watched my return to the shared office with inquisitive eyes, all wondering what dance steps the OC showed me. I sat at my desk and kept silent, and enjoyed deliberately pricking their curiosity. Tommo, with a permanently smouldering suicide stick hanging from his lips, a habit that finally finished him, eventually broke the deadlock and asked, “Well, what’s the big deal?” He was a seasoned exponent of the sharp word and sarcasm, and therefore an intelligent man after my own heart and a good friend.
I warned him, “Sssh! If I tell you, I have to kill you.”
Phil Raper chuckled. His main fault being he was better looking than me. Almost. The rest groaned. I’d stubbed out my cigarette before inspiration arrived. I asked the room, “What’s the name of that posh poofter from Orchard Road? You know, the one who hangs around in Raffles one night and any sleazy bar the next. I’m hot on the trail of homos.” Or something like that.
Tommo knew. He informed me, “Philip O’Leary. He lives in a flat above the Green Palm Club. He’s known all over town.” He took deep drag on his cigarette and blew a smoke ring. “Want his phone number?” Okay, Mr. O’Leary’s number one on my target list. I’m straining at the starting blocks already. According to Tommo O’Leary was an expat, which, according to me, meant he was a UK tax dodger.
“What shall we do if we find one?” That’s Bill “Ginger” Nash, Mister Know-all, sporting a sardonic grin. Good boy, Bill. Sit. Did my antenna detect a hint of rancour in his comment? He was one of those irritating persons who crop up occasionally and believe he’s God’s gift to the world. He even boasted behind my back that he surpassed my investigative skills. I hated him. I think I’ll strangle him.
I told him, “If it’s you, Ginger, sing All Things Bright And Beautiful and write it up as a miracle.” Everyone laughed, except Ginger. He wept. Never mind, Bill. Go and play with your Noddy toy. Where does the SIB recruit these comedians? In fact, Bill Nash enjoyed mixed fortunes when it came to work, which means he was pretty hopeless. The only puzzle he ever solved was a crossword in the Beano comic – with help from his five-year-old son.
Tommo, in mickey-taking mood, asked, “D’you think you’ll win?”
“Does water run uphill?” One bad joke deserves another. So, nothing happened except John Pang, the interpreter, made tea that tasted like stale cabbage water. And the Chinese invented tea, didn’t they? The swill did nothing to ease my aching head.
I once asked John, “What happened in a look-alike contest in China?”
“I don’t know.”
He didn’t burst into peals of laughter. He tapped a finger on his temple.
Apropos of nothing, my friend, Polly Parrot, said, “You should stop trying to wind up Ginger. He’s ok. Some people like him.”
I said, “Some people liked Rasputin.”
Back to gnawing the bone. I took the captain at his word and did nothing, other than wonder about weirdoes who fancied squaddies, which paints a clear picture of my dedication. On my way out later I stopped for a chat with the Provost Desk Sergeant near the entrance. We were good friends and not so long ago back in Japan had drunk hot saki and fought off geishas together. I said, “Pasha, if a civvie comes in and admits he’s a homosexual who chases British soldiers, take his name and address and let me know.” You’ve probably already noticed – flippant remarks roll easily off my tongue.
A wide grin split his tanned face. He said, “Homosexual – here? You do enjoy your little jokes, don’t you? Pigs might fly. If it happens, I’ll invite him to the next mess do.” As he spoke he made an exaggerated gesture of flapping a loose hand towards me.
I said, “They can be very fussy whom they associate with.”
Nice! Some people never listen to advice. I liked Pasha, a lot. I once suggested that he apply to transfer to the SIB, an idea that made him burst into laughter. “What’ so funny?” I asked.
“No way. You lot are all loonies.” Poor Pasha. He didn’t know he was as daft as a brush. Thereafter I spent most of the time home at Fort Canning for a while, supping cool beers, admiring tropical sunsets, awed by electric storms over the Singapore Strait and watching geckos playing tag on the ceiling. I didn’t have a lot of luck with my new investigation. Come to think of it, I had no luck, period.
I suppose the remote task kind Bob Metcalfe had dumped in my lap possessed some sort of rational goal – though beyond my understanding – accepting that whatever the C-in-C, Lt. Gen. Sir Francis Festing, happened to mention was translated into immediate action by crawling subordinates anxious to please. In this case suspect sexuality of unknown soldiers. A good mystery is hard to beat. I wish I had some worry beads. Eventually I decided to get off my backside and show willing, as they say. Not that I know who they are. I dressed in light slacks and a white shirt and as darkness came like drawing curtains I whispered to Margaret – in case a gecko was listening – “I’m off on a secret mission.”
“When will you be home?” she queried in that special tone employed by doubting wives. I loved her madly but she had her faults. For instance, she couldn’t whistle. Oh, and married me. She hadn’t been married before so she didn’t know how a husband should behave. Thankfully.
“Don’t wait up,” I said quietly and kissed her. “You can pass the time playing Scrabble with the lizards.”
“Keep out of trouble.” She advised. As if!
Singapore loves rain, so I collected my umbrella and walked out into a shower. To prove my utter devotion to duty I sat for hours –well, it seemed a long time – cramped at a small table outside the Evening Sun opposite the Green Palm, which Tommo had mentioned, on the famous Orchard Road. I wondered if palms came in any other hue. It’s never too early for a drink and alcohol-on-duty rules never held me back. Come to think of it, there weren’t any. When I arrived the place was packed and just as I decided to fetch my own drink an elegant turbanned waiter appeared wearing jungle green pyjamas. While admiring his sartorial choice, I ordered a beer and asked, “Did you arrive on a magic carpet?”
“No, sir,” he replied, roaring with laughter behind his black beard, “my wife carry me piggy-back.” When the laughter stopped, he said, “My name is Harpreet Singh. Are you soldier?” How could he tell? I wore three stripes on my pyjamas but not on my civilian shirts.
I answered, “No. My name is Bob Metcalfe and I work for mental health.”
I don’t think he believed me. I was treated to another laugh and he disappeared to fetch my order. I watched happy citizens enjoying the pleasures of Orchard Road. It was easy to separate locals from visitors. Tourist men wore sombreros and ties and the women light, low-cut dresses and waggled fans. No, not sombreros – Panamas.
After the shameful surrender of the British to the Japanese army on 15 February 1940, following the brief Battle of Singapore, jubilant and sadistic Japanese soldiers marched arrogantly along the very thoroughfare where I now sat in peace. Singapore was renamed Syonanto. There followed the Sook Ching massacre where between 25,000 and 50,000 ethnic Chinese were rounded up and slaughtered by the Kempeitai – Japanese Military Police. The last Japanese conquerors left ten years before – less those who got the chop for war crimes. I tried blending into the scene, which is tricky when you’re six-feet-four and dashed good looking, and sitting in public surrounded by people of more colours than Rembrandt’s palette. Even the languages were a mystery. I can’t tell the difference between Outer Mongolian and a Cairo tramcar. I’ve no idea what an undercover agent is supposed to look like either. How do you sit in a crowded bar and pretend you’re someone else? The SIB Manual I’m writing needs another chapter. I suspected that everyone around me knew my game. I think it’s called paranoia and I tried to pretend I was having fun. Then came another flash of intelligence – hang a card round my neck saying: PLEASE IGNORE – COVERT OBSERVER.
Daft comments aside, I spied nothing suspicious. I don’t suppose I’d recognize suspicion if it slapped me round the chops. No civilian male looked as if he lusted after British soldiers. No Panama pointed his Leica at me. Anyway, my time wasn’t a complete write-off, for my cognitive senses were titillated by gorgeous charmers giggling and squeaking amongst the passers-by, especially slinky goddesses exposing acres of flesh in cheongsams. Wow! I wished my namesake would drop by and witness how hard I was working, but no such luck. I had a feeling that I could sit there for a fortnight and nothing would happen, except being homesick. It was a typical mind-sapping observation job. I looked at my watch. I think it stopped. I should have asked one of the other investigators along, and then we could’ve passed the time playing snap. Not Nash. He would never grasp the rules. Eating’s a Singapore national pastime and Orchard Road has a hundred restaurants, bars, cafes and hotels where the cosmopolitan citizens can fill their bellies. Lightning crackled overhead and myriad food odours wafted and mingled among the buildings and the seething mass of assorted humanity. I couldn’t smell Lancashire hot pot.
A Military Police Landrover Patrol crawled along the crowded highway. When abreast of my table the Redcap corporal in the front seat spotted me trying to look invisible and gave a wide smile and a wave of recognition. Bloody fool! Many pairs of curious eyes swung towards me. I should’ve worn a blonde wig and a mask. Nothing changed. I survived the inevitable evening thunderstorm, heavy nimbostratus cloud drifted away, and I could no longer see it in the night sky, where one or two brighter stars, including Sirius, managed to penetrate the city’s glow. The refreshing smell of recent rain rose from the shiny road and lingered, mixing with the incredible medley of Orchard Road scents.
Well, I didn’t peel many potatoes and I grew tired of my own company. I suppered on a dish of hae mee, which must mean “tangled wool with sea snails.” I think it should be sent for analysis. I ordered it because I like surprises. I always get my chopsticks crossed and wish I’d brought haversack rations. I finished a beer and laughing Ali Baba materialised alongside me and politely queried if I had spotted any villains. No he didn’t. He asked if I wanted anything. I said, “A good night’s sleep,” thanked him and wandered home, having achieved precisely nothing, except a claim for expenses for which I had no hope of reimbursement, thereby living up to expectations. Mine anyway. In any case, no one was supposed to know. Remember, it was a secret mission.
I can’t speak for Margaret, but back indoors the lizards were pleased to see me. As I tumbled into bed, a tousled head poked above the covers and a tired voice murmured, “Oh, it’s you!” Who did Margaret hope it was – Elvis Presley?
A couple of days later I was briefing an unhappy captain on negative progress when out of the blue he asked, “Do you know the Evening Sun?”
As I endeavoured to hide my surprise I replied, “No sir. I read The Straits Times now and again.
“It’s not a bloody newspaper, you fool. It’s a bar or something on Orchard Road. I got a leaflet from them thanking me for my custom and inviting me to visit any time and receive a complimentary drink. What’s strange is, I’ve never been there.”
Coincidence? I grinned inwardly. It’s a good job I never mentioned the place. What could I say? I did say, “They’ve confused you with somebody with a similar name.”
“Must be,” he said, looked at me sideways and dropped the subject.
Part II (The Interrogation)
I spent most of the day at the Naval Base attending the court-martial of a British sailor whom I arrested for unnatural practices with a British army doctor. No, not dancing the hornpipe. The president, who looked like Horatio Pugwash, with uniform sleeves full of gold rings, kept playing with his sword. I heard his name was Horatio Nelson but I didn’t believe it. The not-so-jolly Jack Tar on trial was keelhauled or something nasty like that. After hours hanging around talking mostly to myself, I returned to the Black Hut late afternoon and found several investigators milling around, looking like lost sheep waiting for a collie to round them up. All eyes turned on me. “Hello,” I said, “Who’s died?” I quickly learnt that this suppressed anticipation was caused by the detention of a soldier nicked on suspicion of being involved in an unlawful sexual act with the mysterious O’Leary. Progress. Know-all – a.k.a. Ginger Nash – had picked him up outside O’Leary’s flat that morning. He must’ve tripped over him. “Where is he now?” I asked, assuming he’d been questioned and all was hunky-dory.
A man who looked very much like my friend the enemy – Sergeant Nash – elected himself spokesman. “In old Taffy’s office.”
That’s Taffy Davies, a Welshman prone to exaggeration. Few believed him when he said he greeted Sir Stamford Raffles when he hit Singapore’s beach in 1819. I did. Raffles was stepping into the unknown, which is how I felt when I began working with the SIB in 1947. Back to the nitty-gritty. Ginger continued, “The OC questioned him and we’ve had a go at him, but he’s saying nowt. He’s on leave and reckons he met O’Leary in the bar and stayed the night in his flat, sleeping on a sofa.” Ginger loosed a knowing smile. In other words, he didn’t believe him. I meant to ask him if he sang All Things Bright and Beautiful as I suggested, but I forgot.
The captive was Driver Tomkins from a transport company located 200 miles to the north in the Malayan capital of Kuala Lumpur.
I was niggled and could feel the bile rising inside me. I bluntly told Nash, “Being ambushed by a gang of idiots has probably upset him and he’s lost his tongue. It’s my case and he should’ve been left for me to sort out.” You see, I can also be an arrogant swine like him. Nash sneered, said nothing and stamped away. That left two of us with hurt feelings. Surprisingly, the captain never appeared at that juncture. I reckon his pride was pricked and he sulked in his office after failing in the interview with the suspect. I had expected him to make an appearance on hearing of my arrival and congratulate me on being available to close down the case of succoring the British Army in Singapore. I had no reason, nor wish, to speak to him. He won’t pay me expenses. On the other hand, perhaps he’d been working so hard at methods to boost his standing he needed a siesta. So be it.
I shrugged off my irritation and entered Taffy’s office. Tomkins, white-faced and sagging, irresolute and alone, perched on the edge of a chair alongside the desk. I judged he’d been incommunicado for something around an hour or so and was feeling isolated and concerned about what might happen to him in the foreign environment in which he found himself. Put simply – he was scared stiff. It wouldn’t be long before he cracked. Maybe.
Clutter messed up the scarred desk, including blank paper, a Quink ink bottle, a broken pencil, dog-eared statement forms and a soiled cardboard plate carrying soggy traces of noodles. There was also an overfilled ashtray spilling dog-ends on the desktop. Evidence that other people had preceded me. I grabbed Tomkins by his thin shoulders and gave him a friendly shake. Not too hard but with sufficient force to leave him in no doubt that I wasn’t there to play ludo. I said, “Hello! Just relax. I’m Sergeant Hooper and I have a couple of options for you. Take your pick. What do you prefer – dislocated fingers or cracked ribs?” No I didn’t. I announced, “No one’s going to harm you.” Except me if he played dumb.
I sat behind the desk and cleared a space in the litter and deposited my briefcase. A briefcase impresses suspects and helps persuade them to respect you. Tomkins stared at me, eyes bright with apprehension. I thought he wondered why he was there and it was only acute embarrassment that prevented him from opening up with grubby details of his overnight stay with Mister O’Leary. Perhaps he believed I belonged to a different race from those who had already bludgeoned him with questions. Like Ginger, for example. He looked ready to fold, yet bore no fresh bruising from earlier questioning. I can’t remember when we stopped beating suspect.
I bluntly told Tomkins that I knew what he’d been up to with his new friend Phil and denials could heap troubles upon his head. A little psychology always helps. He looked at me as if I were Attila The Hun. When I softly mentioned that I expected honest answers to honest questions, he quickly nodded agreement. So he saw the light and I switched to friendly mode and played Doctor Jekyll, the good guy. Also, I’m glad to say, he hadn’t been stricken dumb, as I feared. I sat, fountain pen poised, and our cosy little chat ended with Tomkins willingly signing a statement admitting buggery – a serious crime worth ten years in the pokey – without spilling blood. At one point I asked him, “How much money did Phil give you?”
He stared at me in wide-eyed disbelief and stammered, “Money – money – nothing! Why would he give me money?” I guessed he wasn’t too wise in the ways of the world and let it drop. I knew he was being truthful. By the way, it’s a myth that suspects sometimes readily volunteer information without prompting. They don’t know what you want to know until you ask the right questions. Think about it. Incidentally, here’s more useful information that may never appear in my forthcoming SIB manual – a knee in the goolies works wonders for loosening tongues. Ouch! It all went so smoothly, well oiled, that it was frightening. I knew that a mob of ne’re-do-wells had put him under the cosh and softened him up but I got a thrill from succeeding where others had failed. Hail Caesar!
Not that I would shoot my mouth off about my brilliance. I’ve always been curtailed by modesty. My overriding concern was that even our captain involved himself in the questioning when I’m certain it would be better if he kept his nose out of it and merely accepted a commendation – as usual – should one eventually be considered. There’s an answer to everything – I took an aspirin.
I left Tomkins to brood over the unpredicted end to his night out and went to brief Captain Metcalfe. His eyes popped and he jerked upright in his chair. He’s soon jumping up and down with delight, on the brink of pulling a muscle. He joyfully cried, “I knew you could do it.” He added, “You cut corners and you’re a bloody perfectionist but you come up with the goods.”
Cutting corners? Me? I didn’t know whether to cheer, pat him on the back or demand a larger cut of expenses. Instead I asked, “Could you translate that, sir?”
A half smile flitted across his lips. He said, “Stop acting like an upstart.” God, I realised my secret’s out, although there’s a bit of an anomaly in his praise. I was about to point out that being great came with drawbacks, but changed my mind. As for the perfectionist charge, he must’ve heard that I like a crumpled newspaper ironed before I read it. He hesitated before saying, “You bring something different to the Section.”
I said, “Like salami sandwiches.”
He ignored that and said, “You have a knack of succeeding where others fail, along with insolence.”
What does he mean – knack? It’s skill and dedication. Now you know why I admired Big Bob. At times somesthesia oozes through his foggy brain. All the same, I would be careful not to walk too close to a cliff edge in his company. It takes courage to be flavour of the month. At least it seemed he didn’t dislike me, which couldn’t be said for many bosses with whom I crossed swords. Mind you, I couldn’t be sure whether he liked me for myself or because I gave him bragging rights. I explained, “He couldn’t resist the lure of my magnetic personality.” Then described it as it was, saying, “I carried out a straight forward, no nonsense, standard interview and had no excuse to use knuckle dusters.” I paused and then joked, “Of course, for a few minutes he had one arm twisted up his back and the more it twisted the more painful it became before he realized that the more he talked the less painful it became.”
That was a convoluted mouthful. The captain chuckled, rolled his dark eyes and murmured something like ‘rule spit’. I could’ve been mistaken, but whatever he was thinking he kept close to his chest. He said, “I won’t go into detail about your methods.” Mmmm! Perhaps he thought I’d followed the Gestapo manual. I nearly told him that arm-twisting was on page two. I chuckled. He knew, of course, that I wasn’t being completely frank, and I knew that he knew I wasn’t being completely frank, but he wasn’t going to contest anything I said. He was geed up and didn’t want to stir the mud. Fired with embarrassing eagerness, he hurried to boast as if he’d conjured some sort of magic. He grabbed his phone and got District and was patched through to the Staff Captain “A”. Following a short exchange of information and personal views, interspersed with mutual backslapping, he replaced the handset and, remembering my presence, addressed me. “What’s Tomkins doing now?”
I answered, “He’s off. I thanked him and gave him fifty dollars reward.”
He almost fell off his chair, especially at the mention of money, and then smirked as the penny dropped. He said wearily, “Another of your jokes, I suppose?” But he wasn’t laughing.
I said, “He’s waiting to go.”
His eyes sharpened and bored into me like twin drills. He grated, “What d’you mean, ‘Waiting to go’ – go where?” He threw up his arms in a gesture of despair. “Place him in close arrest.” I started to speak, and then hesitated, not certain I was in the mood for an argument. There were a few seconds silence, then his eyes narrowed and he said aggressively, “If you’ve got something to say, spit it out.”
I swallowed hard and said, “ I don’t see. . . .I don’t see the need to arrest him. After all, the purpose of the exercise was, I believe, to identify civilians who are corrupting soldiers. Locking up Tomkins won’t help that target. Why not simply allow him to carry on and enjoy the rest of his leave?”
Why did I bother? The captain glared at me under twitching black eyebrows. I’d disturbed a sleeping pussycat. Worse, from his point of view, I’d criticised him. His voice raised an octave. “What the hell’s wrong with you – getting bloody soft?” For a brief instant he bared his fangs. His anger could flare like a Roman candle. One point I could make about our captain – he was a pretty tough cookie himself and certainly never wore women’s underwear. Hey, I don’t know why I even thought that. He continued, “Do as I say – stick him inside. I’ll think about civilians later.” But he never did. It was another of his lies.
He only wanted arrests so he could polish his medals and brag. Mind you, to be honest, I knew that from the start, and I still felt queasy. The captain was easy to like, but I’d never let him pack my parachute. All orders he gave were for the cause – the cause being Captain Robert Metcalfe’s greater glory. Right now he was in the business of creating credibility for himself. He had more chance of winning the Pools. I suspected that shortly he might need to dodge tons of something very smelly falling on his head. Salaam. Knowing that I could make the most profound statement since Winston Churchill and not cause a ripple, I shut up. Metcalfe had the last word. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
We are? I wondered where and didn’t like the answer. I believe we were on different journeys I departed his company with great relief, muttering, “One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” which meant I had the last word. Ha, ha! Oh, I forgot to ask him what happened to the extra 500 dollars in expenses. I think I knew. Any further exultation of success soon died. In truth I worried about the next installment. Trouble was brewing.
Oh, Ginger Nash, seething with envy and hate, buttonholed me and said, somewhat petulantly, “Damn you, Les. You’re a lucky devil.”
I said, “I know. My mum said I was a pretty baby when I was born.”
He mouthed something under his breath that I didn’t catch before saying, “Okay, clever dick. You know what I mean.”
I adopted my favourite nonchalant pose. “Oh, you’re talking about Tomkins.” My turn to smirk. “I gave him two choices. Make a statement or spend an evening with you.”
He snorted. I yawned. In any case, there’s no way I would tell him my secrets. I wouldn’t trust a man who plays hide-and-seek with himself. I just had to say it. “I’d like you as a friend, but only because it would give my enemy someone else to kill.”
His brow creased and he asked, “Who said that?”
”I just did.”
He said, “You think you’re Sherlock Holmes, don’t you?”
He said, “Just remember, I caught him.”
I grinned evilly. “Good. We know who to blame when it goes belly-up.”
He did not respond to that, but strode away in a huff. I think the truth is that by the time I had poor, browbeaten Tomkins in my clutches he was mentally washed up and, not wishing to prolong the pressure, would’ve even agreed that gargoyles are beautiful. Hello! I felt a headache coming on. I suffer from such a sensitive nature that the slightest unpleasantness brings tears to my eyes. Or so I thought. If I think of it often enough I might come to believe it. I took another aspirin.
Part III (The Court-Martial
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tomkins’s trial for buggery was held weeks later in a narrow, single-storey wooden hut in Kuala Lumpur and witnesses waited and sweated on the verandah, shaded somewhat from the strong tropical sunshine. This was as Blackie Williams describes in his yarn, “DCM – Singapore Style”, where those outside could listen to proceedings through open windows. We, the SIB crew, didn’t need to book our attendance in advance. Tickets were guaranteed. I felt a little shaky and didn’t know why. Or did I?
The trial was advised by a lawyer from the Judge Advocate General’s Department – Norman Blackwell-Wright Esq, which for health and safety reasons – mine – wasn’t his real name. Our paths had crossed a couple of times before and he always treated me as a hostile witness, which means he twisted my words. Probably because he knew I was smarter than him. Being smart is a certain method of making enemies. Like success can breed resentment. I often wondered why the legal profession, the JAG gang in particular, seemed to bear a grudge against the SIB. Is it because they consider our methods abhorrent to their formal sense of justice and we stick to our guns, or is it only me, ailing with a large dose of paranoia? On the other hand perhaps they thought we should play the game like Boy Scouts.
Anyway, as courts-martial go, I didn’t expect much in the way of change. These proceedings have a habit of being played out in a regular routine manner. A peaceful clash between prosecution and defence, the result usually cut and dried beforehand. Some are unique because they revolve around the personalities involved. Even so, from previous experience I assumed this court-martial would plod along and be just as boring as the rest. All the witnesses would try to remember their lines and trot them out ad nauseam and the pitiful soldier in chains would be shot at dawn. Wrong again. I stepped up to the scaffold first and the JAG rose majestically with noose – sorry, Bible in hand and solemnly announced, “I’ll swear in this witness.” His eyes were hard and bright and his personality came across like an avenging angel. Those glaring ice chips warned me that he intended to blow me out of the water. The trouble was, he held the trump cards. What?
Hold your horses, Mister Judge Advocate General. I’m not in the dock. The guilty soldier’s sitting over there. If I didn’t know before, I now knew I had to tread carefully. The JAG was after my hide. He loved me, but where was he hiding the dagger. Can I leave now? A bewildered Driver Tomkins sat rigidly behind the defence table looking as if he already wore a rope round his neck. I almost felt sorry for him. That’s wrong. I did feel sorry for him. My soft spot was getting a lot of airtime recently.
The defence barrister, Henry Butters Esq, took a back seat, leaving the JAG free to put me through the wringer, his main focus being the fact that Tomkins refused to admit anything to others, yet, miraculously, confessed to me. I denied making promises or threats and wasn’t particularly bothered. These are routine accusations when a defence is wriggling. And his wig was lopsided. My answer to the probing was simply that I asked Tomkins to confess, and he did. He then tried to snare me by asking, “You’re an experienced investigator, aren’t you?”
I wasn’t falling for that ruse and countered, “Not really, sir.”
We bandied a few more words between ourselves, then screwed up Norman, unable to dent my story, decided to hang a liar sign round my neck by implication, and his eyes told me he’d like to see me beheaded. Okay, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. He probably suffered a difficult childhood, but whatever. I’ll be voting Liberal next.
The JAG couldn’t resist trying one last thrust at my jugular. “I assume that you’re a firm believer in the saying, ‘The end justifies the means’?” By the manner in which he looked at me I tried to remember when I crawled out from under a rock.
I said, “I’m a firm believer that anyone who makes such a stupid comment is obviously a lawyer.” All right, I didn’t. Well, I felt like saying it. I shook my head. Did the man really expect me to answer that trick question? One false move on my part and Mr. Ice-cube would slap me in the freezer. So I said nothing. He obviously decided he’d squeezed me dry and with another sly dig said rhetorically, “I think we know the answer.”
“That’s all from this witness – for now,” Henry Butters Esq. piped up. For now? I gasped with relief and shouted, “Hooray!” No I didn’t. I staggered out heavily, exhausted, from the courtroom. If it had been a gladiatorial contest I was dead.
That reminds me. A small boy asked his mum, “What does daddy do?”
Mum answered, “He’s a lawyer.”
“Just the usual kind.”
I thought I might tell this to the JAG but decided he probably wouldn’t think it funny. Chuckle. On the instructions of the JAG, the Sergeant Orderly escorted me to a lonely hard chair on the verandah where I couldn’t contact other witnesses. I looked for a sun lounger but couldn’t see one. I wish I’d brought my bikini. I asked the sergeant, “What time’s NAAFI break?” He looked at me as if I had two heads, turned and marched off. I stretched my hands out in front of me. They were trembling. In fact, my court ordeal was a portent of what was to come for others, and I was panicking. I believed Tomkins had been wrongly treated, verbally roughed over by my colleagues, and had a strong platform from which to launch a defence. Whether or not he committed buggery no longer topped the agenda. The issue was his confession and whether it had been obtained fairly. Deep down I knew the answer, so I panicked, although I believe I did nothing improper. Of course. Excuse me a moment while I adjust my halo.
Three colleagues who interviewed Tomkins, including Nash, were called and I eavesdropped. Although they were put through the mill, they really had nothing significant to say, except that Tomkins kept his mouth shut. Which the next witness failed to do. Guess who? Correct. Already I sensed – was certain – that the trial wasn’t unfolding in our favour. And it was about to sink deeper in the manure. With a deplorable lack of fanfare, our hero, Captain Robert Metcalfe, entered the fray, and he made a right dog’s breakfast of his evidence and a fool of himself. Those who knew him could’ve expected nothing less. He’d struggle to audition for the local AMDRAM society’s tea boy. Bless him.
As he passed me on his way to Armageddon, he winked and a cocksure smile played around his lips. His rose-tinted spectacles prevented him from seeing storm clouds ahead. All the same you had to admire his confident chest- beating, though misplaced and due to be torn into shreds. In court, while I sat outside, all ears, he said he questioned Tomkins but met stubborn resistance. He and the defence lawyer played oral ping-pong for a few minutes before the JAG asked if Bob knew at the time that the accused suffered intense questioning – brow-beating, he also called it – by several of his men.
“Not really,” said Bob. Wrong answer.
This prompted the action to warm up. “Are you the Officer Commanding?” asked JAG.
“Yes,” said Bob. Right answer.
Careful, he’s leading you by the nose. “In that case you know what’s happening within your command, don’t you?” The question was more loaded than a squaddie in a NAAFI bar on a Friday night. I quietly groaned. An obvious trap was closing ominously.
Bob replied imperiously, “Yes, I’m the OC and responsible for what happens.”
Wrong answer. OMG. It’s amazing that he didn’t choke as the noose tightened. I imagined him throwing out his hairy chest proudly, as he dug his own grave by foolishly boasting, “I keep my finger on the pulse.” Wrong again. Humility stared him in the face but vanity blinded him. You have to feel some sympathy for sad Captain Metcalfe. He lived on a different planet and thought the three pips on his shoulder made him Superman. Oh dear! The trap sprang shut.
The JAG crowed, “You say you are in control but you didn’t know the accused was questioned several times by different interrogators, which you could’ve prevented if – as you say – your finger was on the pulse.” He must now be wearing a smug expression as he added, “And you didn’t know he later made certain doubtful admissions to Hooper.” Doubtful! Whatever could he mean? Cheeky…….! He paused for effect. “Let’s be honest about this. You were completely ignorant of what Driver Tomkins suffered that afternoon, right under your nose, weren’t you?” I was sweating rivers now, and it wasn’t just the heat.
Uncle Bob was drowning. He whined, “I can’t be everywhere at once.” Wow, Bob, now you’ve truly shot your bolt.
“No – you’ve proved that,” cried triumphant Norman Blackwell-Wright Esq. “Captain Metcalfe, you may have been the Officer Commanding but de facto your men were running around like headless chickens and seemingly out of control.” You could’ve heard a pin drop. Cruel words. Uncalled for, although he certainly got the measure of a sadly deflated Captain Metcalfe. I imagined a cocky expression on his face. Although he was supposed to be impartial, his words and demeanour showed otherwise. He still looked silly. His wig was lopsided. Have I said that before?
Bob sank without trace. I felt great disappointment that I wasn’t in a position to witness his discomfort directly. When he emerged from the Inquisition he looked pale beneath his tropical tan. Must be indigestion. A strong-minded man like him wouldn’t be cowed by a little rigorous questioning. Yes, he would. Anyway he was an oxymoron. Who would go down with him? My jangling nerves suggested that I would be first pick.
There wasn’t much more to be said. The prosecution’s case had hinged entirely upon Tomkins’s confession. Remember, Captain Metcalfe had forbidden further enquiries. Now, wasn’t he the man who advised me to play within the rules? The court retired and the JAG – no, the President – quickly returned a verdict – in big letters – NOT GUILTY. It may seem that the JAG ran all the show. The defence lawyer also had plenty to say but I’ve omitted his contribution because it didn’t really have any effect on the general tone and outcome of the court-martial. So, it was all over bar the shouting and I really looked forward to that. No, I didn’t. A bleak future threatened. I was about to suffer one of my special agonizing moments when I wish I’d never joined the SIB. Usually the pain is eased by an uplifting incident, like the captain buying me a beer.
Strike three and out.
I wondered if the stricken captain would still be our OC when the dust settled. I hoped so. Better the devil you know….. I could be wrong, thinking that Captain Robert Metcalfe was on the verge of having the rug pulled from under him. My heart sank as I realised – against my better judgement – that I loved the silly old goat. Now there’s a depressing thought. The wisecracks died. Goodness me! A slight feeling of nausea came over me for reasons I didn’t care to contemplate. Sunstroke? No, I was used to sunshine. My heart rate was rather sluggish. Had I reached the end of the line, or was I actually sympathetic, having listened to Captain “Almighty” Metcalfe being kicked around by the JAG? I lied. I did contemplate after all. He had accused me of being soft. Perhaps he was right. Hope the word doesn’t get out.
As we left the Courts-martial building a reluctant red-faced Royal Military Police Provost Lieutenant appeared like a genie and snapped handcuffs on us, saying we were under arrest for perjury. Just kidding. We crawled back to Singapore with heads hung low. Ginger, in a rare surge of intelligence, hit the nail on the head with piquant accuracy. He groaned, “We’re in the shit.” Blimey! If stupid Bill Nash had the aptitude to recognise our plight, the future looked grim.
I had to admit, he scored a valid point. Our fate lay in the hands of people far too remote from our tropical outpost for us to influence any control over decisions they may make. I imagined a colonel and cohorts sitting round a table at Great Scotland Yard in London, sipping G & Ts and comparing golf handicaps, and then signing transfers so we, the frontline jockeys, get shoved over to the Pioneer Corps and end up digging sewers. Cor, that’s just the fecal conclusion reached by Bighead.I tried to lighten the moment and unwillingly consoled him with a friendly pat on the shoulder. I said, “Don’t worry, Ginge. Life’s too short.” I learnt that from a fortune cookie on Orchard Road. I added for good measure, “In any case, you can always get a job with Bertram Mills. I hear they’ve vacancies for clowns.” He didn’t look any happier, but if we cling obstinately to our stories we’re safe from reprisals. If only that were true.
Okay, so my animus towards Sergeant William Benedict Nash was illogical. After all, there is a full ration of cocky, obnoxious, overbearing idiots in the world. But, despite such a favourable description, I still didn’t like him. With luck I’d never bump into him again. Fingers crossed. I may have been mouthing flippantly but I knew deep down that the time to face the music and dance raced towards us like the Flying Scotsman. At the time there was a lot of talk about independence for Singapore. I decided to submit an application for the same. The true God and I weren’t close pals, but sometimes He looked kindly upon me. At the time I felt very uncomfortable and began to reflect that, sadly, hypocrisy was creeping into my soul.
Which reminds me. That minor deity, Captain Metcalfe, displayed a bold front, pretending that he had no idea why the court allowed Driver Tomkins his freedom. His thick skin protected him from criticism, and I didn’t expose his prevarication – and so ruin a brittle friendship – by disclosing that I overheard him being torn to pieces like a rabbit caught by a fox. Did he not realise even his career was hanging by a thread? After all, as he bragged to the court, he was in charge. Ah well, let sleeping captains lie. The difference between the condemned and us was we weren’t behind bars – but hang on, as it happened, this turned out to be one of those rare occasions when I was wrong.
After all the arguing, sweat and bleeding hearts, the end was anticlimactic, for not long after the trial HQ SIB UK issued a directive stating, in essence, that, in future, suspects must not be tortured – whoops, questioned – by relays of interrogators. And so forth. No commendations for a job well done were scheduled. And that was it. As Benjamin Franklin said, nothing in life is certain except death and taxes, but of one thing I was absolutely sure. My life would never be the same again. I had a strange, inexplicable feeling, like seeing a lightning flash and waiting for thunder that never came.
Hey, a few of us were lucky we weren’t sent to the salt mines, but in the end the expected fireworks turned out to be a damp squib. How we escaped a Board of Inquiry into our clumsy behaviour I’ll never know. And what about this for a miracle switch? I was promoted to Acting Staff Sergeant. That’s something the fortune cookies missed. If I had the bad luck to meet Norman Blackwell-Wright Esq. again I could put two fingers up. I couldn’t decide which emotion gave me the greatest pleasure – Happiness or Relief. Just fancy. No cat-o-nine-tails, not even a slap on the wrist. The world is a wonderful place, except Nash is here. Ah well, nothing’s perfect, as another fortune cookie reminded me. Right?
Hey listen! The Sally Army band again, playing Colonel Bogey. . . . . . Whew! The fierce midday sun is bouncing off the roof of the Black Hut. My brain’s melting.
The shout clattered round the thin walls. Geckos vanished. Mating termites suddenly lost the urge. Drowsy Dickie Sexton jumped. Curious eyes swivelled towards me. OMG. Here we go again. Baddies beware – time to cut some more corners!