Archives For expat

There is a strident section of US society vehemently against abortion. They tend to be right leaning, conservative Christians. This piece though is not so much about the splutterings of people denouncing the right for women to choose whether to have a baby or not, no matter what the circumstances of conception. It is about those same people shaming teenage girls who have become pregnant.

To have or not to have a baby. Either choice is brave. More often than not the boy man involved has negligible responsibility for the outcome of their actions. His life will continue uninterrupted. But for the young woman it is a decision that will impact the rest of her life, regardless of which decision she makes.

There are of course many of those against abortion who do not fall into the category of sanctimonious prig. Who support their daughters, their nieces, their young congregants through a confused and difficult time. Who respond to a perceived shame, which can taunt and haunt the girl, with calm kindness. Who offer practical as well as spiritual guidance. I might not agree with their stance on abortion but I admire their compassion, resilience and continued beliefs.

No, my contempt is reserved for those, of any faith, who condemn a girl whether pregnant through carelessness or callousness, who decides to keep the baby then is rejected by those very same so-called believers. Adults who turn their back, who refuse to accept any responsibility for the situation. And many of these people, whether individually or through institutions and churches, do have a responsibility. I rarely advocate others taking the blame for circumstances in which we might find ourselves. But in instances like this, blame can almost certainly be spread around.

What has riled me into writing? It is the report in the New York Times about a young woman of 18 not allowed to graduate from her Christian academy with her peers, because she is pregnant. She has also been ejected from her role on the student council. She is being supported by her parents, one of whom was on the school board but has since resigned in disgust at their stand. She is also being supported by the anti-abortion group, Students for Life, whose president was quoted as saying, “There has got to be a way to treat a young woman who becomes pregnant in a graceful and loving way.”

I was curious about the syllabus of the Heritage Academy, the school in question, and so tried a number of times to get an answer to a simple question. “Does your school teach sex education?” An answer was not forthcoming and my calls and messages have not been returned, which can only lead me to believe the response would have been ‘no’.

The Heritage Academy website proudly trumpets, “Our intent is to honor Christ in every facet of our program.” They demand a signed pledge from parents to that very effect and, here’s the kicker, “….to resolve problems in accord with Scriptural principles (Matthew 18:15), avoiding gossip and contentiousness (Ephesians 4:31; Proverbs 17:14), to be forgiving (Colossians 3:13)….”

I had to look that up and in my bible it reads, “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also (do) ye.”

When will the communities who espouse such rigid strictures – that of ignorance and abstinence – and enmesh their children and charges in them, learn the world is not black and white? To recognize hypocrisy is an ugly and futile endeavour. There are no winners. Least of all the young women who might find themselves pregnant, and often alone and ostracized by the very people who are meant to be nurturing them.

Students of Heritage Academy also have to sign a pledge. It is a high-minded document – I have no idea if it is legally binding – which demands “guarding my mind against immorality, impurity, rebellion, selfishness, carnality and violence”. Do students entering in lower grades even know what half those words mean?

Demanding abstinence or, as some coyly call it, chastity, is an ineffective, idealistic form of birth control. It is a fact of teenage life – hormones rage. Missteps and mistakes are sometimes made. They are though less likely to be made if comprehensive sex education is given at the appropriate times, in the appropriate manner and to both boys and girls.

We all have a right to our own opinions, but if that view blinds us into turning our backs on pregnant girls, then shame on us all. As always there is a truth to axioms. It takes a village to raise a child.

It takes two to make a baby, it should take at least two to teach it to tango.

I Am Not Your Friend!

May 15, 2017 — 1 Comment

I did the recycle run yesterday. It involves a 15 minute drive up the freeway before reaching the outer limits of my comfort zone – I’m a Downtown kind of woman! Heading north on Main Street I passed Ebenezer United Methodist Church, whose billboard proclaimed “A Mother is Your First Best and Forever Friend”. It reminded me it was Mother’s Day in America.

I do not wish to take on the UMC or any other religious entity but I can’t quite swallow the sentiment. I am not my daughter or my son’s best friend. I never have been, nor will I ever be. I am their mother.

I am the woman who loves them unconditionally. Who will fight for them till the end of my sentient life. I know their faults – as they, as adults, know mine. I will disagree with them, and sometimes I will tell them. Sometimes I will sit back, as I have done all their lives, and allow them to make mistakes – often with my heart in my mouth. But we learn from those errors of judgement – whether on a climbing frame, with a college course or with the boy/girl friend. We have to trust our children, no matter how young, or old.

I loved my mother but she was not my best friend. I did not tell her everything – dear God, if I had it might well have sent her to an early grave. My withholding of all the facts kept her alive until she was 92. That does not imply I led, or lead, a secretive life – rather that I chose judiciously what to share.

In the same manner, I do not want to know every detail of my children’s lives. I am happy to be shielded from some of their missteps. To learn of them years later, often over a glass of wine when their sentence might start, “Do you remember when I did / fell / jumped ……?” I shake my head and say “No, you didn’t tell me that. Thank you!”

So who are our best friends, if not our mothers?

As I age I find myself glancing at the obituary pages – now cloyingly called in the Houston Chronicle, ‘Life Tributes’. Sometimes a name or a face jumps up at me and I read the announcement. In America they can run to many column inches. Every relation is listed. No British reserve here. But what strikes me often is when someone has written the deceased was the best friend of his/her spouse. And again I struggle.

I adore my husband – I have done for nearly 40 years, but he is not my best friend. He is my lover. I can understand when a husband and wife die within days or weeks of each other. There is an intangible thread that links two people after a long marriage or relationship. Serious and important issues are always discussed. But do I tell him everything? Absolutely not. That reticence is sometimes for his peace of mind, sometimes for mine. He never asks me the price of a pair of impossible-to-walk-in shoes I have bought, though he and I both know I will never wear them. Unless asked point blank I rarely disclose how much the latest vet’s bill has been. He would never demur on any cost for our pets but it might irk him, so what would be gained? I am equally sure he does not tell me everything, and for that I am grateful.

I would though tell my ‘best’ friend. Whether it is indignation over something, or fear, or pride or happiness. Over coffee. Over wine or if truly joyful or desperately worried, over the phone – sometimes in tears. A friend is a safe escape valve with whom one can vent, so, if necessary, a matter can later be discussed calmly with a spouse.

A friend listens to our wildest rants, to our closest fears, and keeps our deepest secrets – most of which do see the light of day, but long after any fallout or dismay can be felt. They see us at our worst, and still care. Close as they are, they are better able to forget seeing us ugly with bloodshot eyes from a crying jag because haemorrhoids are making life hell, or kids are driving us demented with rage or worry. They are better able to listen, sometimes advise, when a child or spouse is about do something utterly insane or inane.

I have a friend who tells me when I am being unreasonable – and I take it, but I wouldn’t from my spouse. Or my children. She sits on my shoulder, every now and then, as I am about to let rip with a viciousness more often than not wholly unjustified. She accepts my foibles without having to live with them. We tell our best friend things that are too awful to voice – our deepest fears, but which sometimes need a voice so we are able to move past them without embroiling those we love most in the world.

If there were ‘a day’ for friends I would celebrate the joy of having special friends around the world who have made my life so much easier, calmer, more fun with their non-judgmental acceptance of me, and honesty with me.

But as I reflect on Mother’s Day, I rejoice in having had the privilege of having children. I take great pleasure in the fact they both have special friends – but I am not her.

At the End of the Day

April 23, 2017 — 2 Comments

Clouds drifted through the sinking rays shimmering through palm fronds and across the bay. A magical end to an interesting day. I was sitting at the corner of a long bar at a pink hotel, my elbows resting on the brass rail held to the counter by ornate elephant heads. It was crowded and from the murmur around me I gleaned a plane load of tourists had recently arrived.

We like visitors on St Croix. Mostly. If they enjoy and respect this beguiling island which has so much to offer. We like them to help prop up the economy. Buy rum. Buy the famous hook bracelet, or the many variations thereof. Revel in the ever-changing colours of the sea as it filters through aquamarine, turquoise, lapis lazuli and occasionally grey when a storm scurries in from Africa. Hike the rain forest or down to the tide pools. Ride the beaches. Immerse themselves in the history of what was the Danish West Indies a hundred years ago.

People are friendly here. No conversation starts without a good morning, a good afternoon, and once the sun goes down – even if it has only just dipped – a good night.
And that was why I was so surprised. I have sat at many bars around the world. When traveling alone it is by far the most interesting place for conversations and the barman, if experienced, keeps an eye out for his solo female patrons.

It was busy but barmen are used to that. If they are good they acknowledge the person waiting – it is the polite thing to do and defuses any possible irritation. Not a nod came my way. I continued to wait and watched, piqued, the two white men dance around each other like mating praying mantis. Arms reaching and cocktails shaking. I listened to the patter of one, an aging Lothario, as he placed a chocolatey concoction in front of an older woman – a grandmother sitting with her granddaughters.

“A Bushwhacker, dear. It’s an adult MacDonald’s shake!”

His manner was unctuous and I expected him to wring his hands any moment, Uriah Heep style. Friends know how much I loathe being called ‘dear’ by anyone, particularly in a restaurant or bar, and even more so by those much younger. Familiarity really does breed contempt for me, though it did not appear to irk the customer. Fortunately I was served by the other barman, harried and not being particularly helped by his older cohort, he did apologise for the delay and promptly poured my wine.

My acquaintances arrived – we met at the VI Literary Festival and I had agreed to join them for a sundowner at their hotel. To some we may have appeared a motley crew: a white woman with an English accent – me; an African American writer from the mainland with numerous books and accolades to her name; a black man from Antigua known throughout the Caribbean for his calypsos; and a swarthy, though attractive, young man originally from Leamington Spa, England but sounding American, and who is a respected editor and publisher from New York.

I turned my barstool as more drinks were ordered and we formed a tight group. Banter and laughter were interrupted as a hotel guest, a white man of retirement age, pushed past us. With not a word of apology to our young companion whose rum he split, not once but twice, the tourist leant against me and signaled the barman.

Edging away, and about to admonish this rudeness, I caught the eye of my Middle Eastern-looking companion with an Arabic name, who shook his head. I learnt later that there had been a similar incident with the same man at the breakfast bar that morning, where words had been exchanged. I also learnt this erudite professional was regularly hauled out of lines and subjected to unpleasant grillings in airless little rooms at airports around the world.

The jostling of an ignorant man led to a discussion about the assumptions we all make. My writer acquaintance, invited to St Croix to be a speaker by the VI Literary Festival, commented on the whiteness of the pink establishment in which she was a guest. The Antiguan shrugged it off with a flashing, toothy laugh and the words, “Tourists are like that everywhere.” Perhaps lyrics will be borne from our conversation.

I wonder, as I sit at my desk and these new friends fly back to their homes, what sort of impression they have of this island I love. I hope it is positive because the pink hotel and its guests, were not a good indication of the friendliness of St Croix.

And I wonder why some people travel if they are unable to be polite and pleasant to fellow travellers, and I can only presume their hosts. But, at the end of the day, maybe I’m the one now making assumptions.

It was a good day. An easterly breeze ruffled whitecaps offshore and flowery hats onshore as men, women and a smattering of children watched marching bands and majorettes parade past the bedecked dais filled with local and international worthies.

Expectation hovered. Said dignitaries made their way to a large marquee under which islanders, long-time residents, newbies like me, tourists and a contingent of Danish visitors wafted programs back and forth moving air along the rows.

Would Denmark apologise for past indignities? For the human tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade? Would the mainland listen to entreaties by islanders for full US citizenship allowed a vote in presidential elections?

Chatter along the lines was hopeful. Cheerful. Who doesn’t like a parade, the promise of promises – even if they are later unfulfilled, the anticipation of revelry, jazz and fireworks? Meanwhile steel pans from a local elementary school and the Copenhagen Brass Ensemble took turns in keeping the masses entertained.

A wreath was floated off the Boardwalk in memory of ancestors and, in particular, Alberta Viola Roberts, a girl taken from her family and transported to Copenhagen at the age of four to be displayed in the Tivoli Gardens – an oddity to be ogled. As fate would have it, she was buried in that cold and distant land on 31st March, 1917 – the day Denmark sold the Danish West Indies to the United States of America for 25 million dollars in gold.

The brass band struck up Der er et Yndigtland and voices from the Danish contingent proudly sang their national anthem as the dannebrog slid down Fort Christiansvaern’s flagpole to be replaced by the fluttering Stars and Stripes. Then came the Star Spangled Banner, followed by the Virgin Islands March, written by Alton Adams in 1920. The lyrics, All hail the Virgin Islands, Em’ralds of the sea, filtering around the tent in a swirl of pride, and hope.

An invocation, then opening remarks by Sonia Jacobs Dow who commented that islanders were citizens of nowhere from 1917 – 1927 when the newly-acquired islands were under naval administration. We were exhorted to remember “blood, sweat and tears are inextricably mixed in this soil” and that, “this celebration is more than a moment”.

Each year, on Transfer Day, the proceedings are interspersed with a naturalization ceremony when new citizens swear allegiance to their new country. This year 20 men and women from eight countries became Americans to the sound of children’s laughter as they rolled down the slope from the fort – their frivolity lending an air of joyful abandon to the occasion. Further proof the US is founded on the willingness of foreigners to renounce their birth countries and apply their skills to enriching their new country.

After the temporary court was adjourned, politicians returned to the lectern. The Honorable Stacey E Plaskett carried on the theme of disenfranchisement, commenting that whilst the purchase of the Danish West Indies was the most costly land purchase in US history, no providence was made for the islanders in the document – ensuring they became essentially “a marooned people”.

Then came the speech of the day – spoken eloquently in a language not his own – by the Danish Prime Minister, The Honorable Lars Løkke Rasmussen. He began by saying a special bond of friendship existed between the Virgin Islands and Denmark, “a touch of common destiny that time cannot erase.”

While not apologizing for bygone atrocities, Prime Minister Rasmussen did acknowledge them saying, “There is no justification for the exploitation of men, women and children under the Danish flag.” He said the term ‘dreamer’ as David Hamilton Jackson was called by a Danish governor was in all likelihood meant as an insult, but that in today’s world it would considered an honour. We were reminded, “We must acknowledge what happened in the past but we can’t undo the past – what we can do is look to the future.”

It was a smooth transition to the announcement of a 5-year scholarship program to be given at the University of the Virgin Islands. It is students who “must take destiny into their own hands,” Rasmussen said.

The Prime Ministers’s words were in stark contrast, both in content and delivery, to those uttered by the senior US representative, Secretary of The Interior Ryan Zinke. His vacuous introduction to a letter from President Trump was a disgrace, made even worse by platitudes in the letter from the head of the free world. One got the impression the letter was a cut-and-paste job – you know the type, insert state and date, and sign here please, Mr President. No credence was given to the concerns of Virgin Islanders – that of full-voting rights for citizens. An unctuous attempt to appease the USVI, America’s Caribbean, without offering even a modicum of hope for improvement.

Kenneth E Mapp, Governor of the Virgin Islands, rounded out the official celebrations by commenting that, “Living in the past has little value on our future. But knowing our past is important to our future.”

Black limousines drove dignitaries away – the program to be repeated on St Thomas at 2pm. Meanwhile on St Croix the crowds dispersed along the Boardwalk, back to cars parked haphazardly on our street, or to local watering holes. To reconvene as the sun set in a tickle of pink and mauve over masts bobbing in Christiansted harbour, and the sounds of Eddie Russell and his jazz band.

And then the boom, the hiss, the thrill of the sky dissolving in a shower of sparkling colours as fireworks saluted 100 years of being American!

That’s Democracy

March 13, 2017 — 2 Comments

Tanks rumbled past our house in the predawn haze. An armed soldier, visible only from the waist up, surveyed the road ahead from each turret. It was Thailand in 1986. A failed coup.

An army truck, the canvas flaps rolled up, slewed to a halt on the unpaved and muddy road at our neighbour’s locked gate. Armed soldiers burst past the terrified guard as he opened the gate. Screams reverberated around the compound and over the wall into ours. From my bedroom window I saw women, Cameroonians, slapped, pistol-whipped and man-handled into the truck. Money was exchanged and some were allowed to stay. It was Equatorial Guinea in 2004. A failed coup.

I have lived in countries where governments are corrupt. I have lived in despotic countries where, whether power has been taken violently or elections have been mired in irregularities, the leader has ‘a direct line to God’. I have never, thankfully, lived in a war-torn country.

Countries and cultures not my own have sometimes fascinated me, sometimes horrified me. But I have been able to compartmentalism the differences, without necessarily accepting them. In all the counties I have called home – twelve of them – I have prided myself on my ability to adapt to different environments, different political tenets, even when I might not have been entirely on board with those elected, freely. That’s okay. That’s democracy.

Relocating to America the first time in 1997, the year after Fox News came into being, I was struck by the intense political partisanship – there seemed to be no shades of grey, but there was still a civility. We lived in the suburbs, in a Republican stronghold and I learnt, mostly, to keep my opinions to myself. To respect the people around me who might not have had the same exposure to global cultures or customs, and therefore found it harder to understand those from different backgrounds. But I spoke differently and so, for the most part, I was accepted as a foreign liberal.

After a nearly three-year stint back in Africa, we returned to the United States and moved to a more flexible part of Houston – Downtown. In 2010 we shed our resident alien status to become US citizens. Texas has had a Republican governor the entire time I have lived here. There have though been both Republican and Democratic presidents. Some I have liked, and agreed with on both sides of the political spectrum. Some I have not. That’s okay. That’s democracy.

But the tenor has changed.

Until the week before the presidential election in 2016, I believed the American people would see through the bombast, the lies and complete lack of humility, and would reject the misogny and coarseness of a man attempting to become leader of the free world.
I was wrong. That’s okay. That’s democracy.

After the initial utter dismay, and after a dear friend pointed out I was in danger of becoming one of those people I despise – an intractable woman, I stopped myself swinging from stunned torpor to hysterical rantings, and prepared to give the new president the benefit of the doubt.

52 long days later wherein we have seen a rash of crass tweets, the clumsy roll-out of an ill-conceived immigration ban, a pathetic attempt to appease those wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act – an act everyone on both sides of the political divide agrees needs repair, the craven signing of the anti-abortion executive order, a lack of cohesive governance and the blatant mistrust of the security services, I say, in good Anglo-Saxon English, sod that. There are citizens who feel they have been given free reign on their behaviour. Who shout racial epithets before murdering an innocent Indian sitting at a bar. Whose Confederate flags flutter freely on the backroads. Who have the confidence to push through with seeming impunity laws against the LGBT community.

People in America are not mysteriously disappearing, never to be seen again, but there appears to be little room for dialogue or diplomacy. Any president who hamstrings the people working for him is a person only wishing to surround himself with sycophants. With serfs so wary of their own position they are not prepared to question the master. Those who do, are dismissed – Sally Yates and on Friday, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara. An independent judiciary is obviously not high on our president’s list.

Neither is draining the swamp – that much touted praise. Washington is rich with millionaires new to government – with people singularly unable to understand, or who have forgotten, how a family struggles to put food on the table, struggles to get adequate healthcare, struggles with education. Washington is drowning in a mire of unelected nepotism – what was called in Papua New Guinea – the wantok system. That is not democracy.

There might not be tanks rolling past my front door, or thugs in uniform pistol-whipping my neighbours, but the current political climate in the United States is divisive, is unpleasant, is unwelcoming. We are a nation much of the world looks at with amazement, and fear, for all the wrong reasons.

Yet, We the People, elected this president so I guess it is democracy. And yes, in 52 days I have become that intractable woman.

The Demon Drink

March 7, 2017 — 3 Comments

Washington Post columnist, Esther J Cepeda wrote a piece, Teens exposed to more alcohol-related ads, decrying the preponderance of said marketing tactics particularly on less well-known sites which, as Dr David H Jernigan, lead author on a new study from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, noted are therefore “less regulated”. The article essentially said it was difficult to monitor and control what adolescents see online, but also that a lack of parental engagement must bear some of the responsibility for hazardous drinking practices.

One of my earliest memories has to do with olfaction. The faint hint of whisky on my mother’s breath as she bent to kiss me goodnight before she prepared for bed. I rarely remember stirring, so it was the sense of smell – the oldest sense – that was awakened. I don’t like the taste of whisky, but the smell is immediately comforting.

In my childhood, alcohol was all around me. On a hot day, my parents might have a beer at lunchtime on the weekends, or maybe a gin and tonic. Malarial prophylactic of the tastiest kind, and lime is of course good for scurvy! When the sun went down their chosen tipple was whisky. I would sometimes wake to little black and white plastic Scottie dogs, or a black horse, on my bedside table – testament a new bottle had been opened.

I am quite sure there were times when alcohol was over-imbibed. Why else would my father swing from a rotating fan in the mess at Poona? A decision which greatly increased his bar bill. But alcohol never adversely impacted my childhood, though I remember being soundly chastised for drinking the dregs from a glass littering the verandah after a curry lunch party. It tasted nasty and I didn’t do it again.

Fast forward a few years to my teens. I was thirteen or fourteen, when I was occasionally allowed a Dubonnet on ice – a drink my father considered suitable for “a young lady”. If we happened to be in Europe I was offered a small glass of wine.

As a result I grew up with a sense of perspective about alcohol – it was not demonised. Did I over-indulge sometimes? Absolutely. Why else would I dance on the bar at Brahms and Liszt? Though being young and with reasonably good legs in those days, I had no additions to my bar tab. Does it still happen? On rare occasions. Though I have given up dancing on bars. Can I stop drinking when I choose? Yes.

I am currently on a period of abstention. I have set no time limit. It is merely something I do every now and then, normally for a few months, to prove to myself that I can. Do I miss it? Not particularly. But I am sure I will have a glass of wine sometime in the future.

Did my children grow up with alcohol around them? I’m sure, if you’ve read this far, you know the answer. And yes, they too were allowed a drink before their majority.

The ages of majority, of license and of consent are three different things. Often, a moving number dependent on where one is living. For example, in the US the age of license for driving is 16, as is the age of consent (except in Delaware where it’s 18, with a proviso that sex is okay for 16 and 17 year olds if their partner is under 30!). The age of majority is 18, when young men and women can vote or ship off and fight for their country. But the age of license, which is essentially granting permission, as applied to alcohol is 21. It is a law which has been around in most states for about 25 years, but which has done little to reduce the number of teens drinking – breaking the law and risking a record.

The US shares that particular law with countries like Indonesia, Mongolia and a few others. Do I think it’s a ridiculous law? Yes. I am not advocating we encourage teens to drink excessively, but to simply demand abstention in either sex or alcohol is a short-sighted, unrealistic view, and one which does little to educate. The allure of the forbidden is strong, but the success of a drip-drip process of age-appropriate education is stronger.

Research by WHO (World Health Organization) has found that whilst “drinking occasions” amongst 15 and 16 year olds in Europe are greater, the levels of dangerous intoxication are less than in America. A startling US statistic reveals that “90% of all alcohol consumed by underage drinkers is consumed during binge drinking.” Aaron White of the Duke University psychiatry department reports, “teens who drink excessively can face long-term cognitive consequences”.

I would argue it is the word ‘excessive’ and not the word ‘alcohol’ on which we need to focus. Adolescents, and neurologically adolescence lasts until 25, are able to drink far greater amounts than their elders – one of life’s ironies. An immediate consequence of binge drinking can sadly be death – either by alcohol poisoning or drunk driving; another is blacking out which can mean advantages can be taken.

We, the parents and adults, are to blame. We are not doing our young people any favours. We send them off to university or into adult life ill equipped to deal with dangled temptations. Just Say No or banning alcohol, or sex, doesn’t work. Education does. We should be educating our teens that alcohol is a depressant which slows down the brain. That their reasoning capabilities disappear with each shot, each glass, each pint and, literally before they know it, they black out.

Whilst I don’t agree with targetting young people with advertisements for alcohol, perhaps we should use them to start the conversation. Like most things a sense of proportion, or perspective, is often only gained with age. We can though give that process a head start, through education and sensible laws.

And now it’s time for the demon drink – ginger beer!

White Feathers

February 20, 2017 — 3 Comments

p09909-005           Sister Ida Morse, my mother, back row, tall unhatted!

Over the years, I have been asked by those on the global trail how I have managed multiple relocations to multiple countries with a certain amount of sangfroid. This is how, and why.

I must have been about twelve. We were living in Kuala Lumpur so maybe that triggered the conversation about war, which prompted my mother’s comment, “Being shot in the stomach is a terrible way to die.”

This is Mum’s story.

75 years ago, on February 12th, 1942, 65 nurses from the Australian Army Nursing Service boarded the SS Vyner Brooke in Singapore. Not far offshore Sumatra the ship was bombed and sunk. 12 nurses drowned or were killed in the water. 53 staggered ashore at Banka Island having been in the sea for about three days. On Radji Beach, 22 of those women and one civilian, were lined up in the shallows and machine gunned. One, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, survived. Shot in the waist, she played possum in the waves until the Japanese soldiers moved on. She later surrendered and was interned in a POW camp. Of those 65 nurses only 24 survived to be rescued on 16th September, 1945.

Sister Bullwinkel and my mother, Sister Ida Arundel Morse (NX76286), were passing acquaintances. They met in the chaos of a Singapore under threat from the rapidly advancing bicycle brigade of the Imperial Japanese Army, which on December 8th, 1941 landed on the beaches of Kota Bharu on the north eastern shores of the Malay Peninisula.

An hour before the attack on Pearl Harbour began.

Fresh in people’s minds were stories filtering in from Hong Kong of the gang rape and massacre of nurses at St Stephen’s College, being used as a front line hospital, on Christmas Day 1941 just prior to the British surrender. As it became increasingly obvious the island citadel of Singapore would be breached, General Gordon Bennett ordered the evacuation of all Australian nurses.

Matron Irene Drummond called her nursing staff into the main hall, explaining there were two ships, the SS Vyner Brooke and the SS Empire Star, on which they could be evacuated. One to depart within the hour and the other the following morning. Volunteers were needed for the second departure. Every nurse stepped forward. The matron smiled,  nodded and raised her arm, unilaterally signaling one side of the room would leave immediately aboard the SS Empire Star. My mother was allocated the first ship. Each nurse was allowed one small case. Matron Drummond was shot on the beach at Banka Island.

The SS Empire Star, under the command of an irascible Brit named Captain Capon, not happy having women on board, had accommodation for 23 passengers and a crew. An air raid attack on the wharf delayed embarkation but eventually 2,160 people, of whom 59 were AANS or physiotherapists, were herded into the holds. They did not set sail until first light on the 12th February due to the darkness of the night, mines in the straits and the light buoy being shot out.

Japanese aircraft found them at 9am, bombarding and strafing the fleeing ship until about 3pm. It was due only to Captain Capon’s seamanship they survived with, at one point, bombs landing simultaneously on either side of the ship. If one of the bombs had disabled the ship completely they would have drowned, as most were in the hold. Two nurses were on deck, and threw themselves over the wounded. Both sisters, Victoria Torney and Margaret Anderson were awarded medals for their valour. There were three direct hits in which 37 men were badly wounded, and 13 men killed. It was one of these men my mother nursed until he died.

“What did you do during the attack?” I asked.

“No one panicked. We sang. Waltzing Mathilda mainly. Over and over.”

There was very little food on board. Mum remembers an empty tin of Players cigarettes being used as a tea cup, and someone had a bottle of whisky. The Empire Star eventually made it to Batavia (Jakarta) where everyone was moved to a Dutch vessel for 48 hours while repairs were made. “It was heaven. We had hot showers.”

It was overcast when they left Tanjong Priok and, feeling safe aircraft wouldn’t be able to find them, everyone slept on deck as they sailed for Perth. Disembarking, Captain Capon saluted the Australian nurses, saying it had been a privilege to know them. By the time the nurses arrived in their home states, about a month later, the fate was known of those aboard the SS Vyner Brooke.

Some of the nurses, including my mother, were met at train stations by people waving white feathers. Because these brave and selfless women had survived.
Sister Ida Morse was a pragmatic woman, not given to sugar-coating or dramas but was softness personified to babies, and those who were sick or injured, whether two or four legged.

After that initial telling, my mother rarely spoke of her wartime experiences, either in Singapore or later in New Guinea. She gave me a book, White Coolies, by Betty Jeffrey, a friend from the 2/10th Australian General Hospital, which told of the nurses internment in the camps in Indonesia.

Mum’s story unwittingly taught me a valuable lesson.

Those of us lucky enough not to be directly impacted by war or terror should, I sometimes think, emulate the courage of our parents and grandparents. Our relocations, or dislocations, pale in comparison and are, for the most part, merely inconveniences.