Not sure what prompted this – maybe all the poppies and remembrance day events, standing in an entire city brought to silence on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour…
Anyway, this story is about another war – one that raged inside my father until almost the end of his life.
Tony was a young man in his twenties when the Second World War broke out. He joined the RAF. He serviced planes and was posted to some little island in the Far East – some little island that the Japanese army overran. He became a prisoner of war.
I don’t know much about the details of his detainment. He wouldn’t speak of the worst things to any of us. I know he saw all his close friends die. I know the camp staff would open sacks of mail, read out the names of the recipients, wave the envelopes before them, then toss them on the fire. I know he grubbed in the ground for peanuts to add to the meagre rations of rice they had. I know when he came home he looked more skeleton than man. That was where his war began.
It raged throughout my whole childhood. He was a sweet, kind, generous man as a rule, but if that button was pressed, heaven help anyone nearby. The fury was astonishing. Nothing made in Japan was allowed in our house. Any passing reference to the country on TV or radio was instantly turned off, amidst angry mutterings. When a neighbour mistakenly referred to my best friend (Chinese) as ‘that little Japanese girl she plays with’ they were shocked by the fury unleashed in Dad.
In my teens (oh, the foolhardiness of youth) I took him on one day. I tried, calmly and reasonably, to point out that one couldn’t hold an entire nation responsible for the behaviour of a single group of sadistic prison guards. I pointed out that a whole generation of Japanese had not even been alive during the war. My mother and younger brother cowered in the corner as he lashed me verbally – and very nearly physically. I came close to being disowned by him that day. It took weeks to reestablish a relationship with him and I didn’t try to raise the subject again.
Many years passed. Dad’s war continued unabated. He reached retirement, moved to a new area – Glastonbury – and developed the closest friendship he’d had since I’d known him, with a man of similar age. This man was sweet, wise and gentle. He invited Dad to visit his home regularly and taught him all about his new area, He told him legends. He showed him the wonders of ley lines on maps and walked them with him. He taught him about Bligh Bond and Wesley Tudor Pole and the heritage of Avalon. Every time I visited, Dad couldn’t wait to share his new discoveries with me. It was beautiful to see – like a flower, so long in the bud, finally unfurling. He was happier and more peaceful than I’d ever known him.
This friend, though, had one further gift for Dad – the greatest of all.
“Tony,” he said one day, “There’s going to be a change in this house. We’re going to be taking a young lodger.”
He went on to explain, very gently and patiently, that he and his wife had some dear friends abroad – people they’d known for many years. This couple had a daughter who was very keen to visit England and work here. Her English was good, but the culture would be very different to what she was used to. Her parents were worried and had asked if their English friends would take her into their home. Willingly, they had agreed.
“Well of course,” Dad said. “I’d have done the same. Good for you.”
“Yes,” his friend smiled, rather sadly, “But I don’t want this change to drive a wedge between our friendship, Tony. I value your companionship very deeply and I very much want you to continue to visit our house and spend time with me as usual.”
“Well of course-” Dad spluttered, but his friend interrupted him.
“The young lady is Japanese, Tony.”
It took more bravery than he had ever showed for Tony to make that choice. He, too, valued this friendship and determined, despite all, to continue visiting his dear friend.
I wasn’t there to see how the visits went. Perhaps he was cold and reserved towards the girl at first. Perhaps he ignored her. He was battling an entire lifetime of bitterness and hurt. All I know it that on my next visit, he described the young lady to me in the most glowing terms. He praised her gentle, sweet nature, her grace and charm, her kindness towards him, and he shook his head wonderingly.
I hugged him and felt such overwhelming gratitude towards the Universe – and his wise friend – for providing him with this wonderful opportunity to lay down his arms and finally experience peace.