The Scent of Tiny Flowers

Pamella Laird

2021 General Nonfiction Story Contest Runner-Up
© Copyright 2021 by Pamella Laird

Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash
                                                 Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash
This story was told to me in the 1950’s by an aunt and uncle who lived in Chertsey, Surrey, UK.  I did actually meet the couple who were close friends of my relatives.  Apart from the horrors and romance of their story I remember particularly how anxious they were that they would care for the dinner dishes to make sure nothing was broken of their now treasured possessions.

October 1945. 

Forty-two-year-old Laycie’s whole body stiffened when two arms suddenly enveloped her from behind. But to her joy and total relief when she twisted around, she found the arms holding her so ardently, were those of her beloved husband.

In an instant, three and a half unspeakable years had gone forever. Without his all-encompassing embrace her legs would have folded beneath her. A disbelieving but radiant smile lit her face as she held Richard’s head between her trembling hands. For so many years she’d no idea whether he was dead or alive and longed only, that for the rest of their lives, they be together.

At Southampton two hours before, her skeletal legs almost useless, she’d turned to thank the Red Cross nurse who had helped her onto the train. The nurse’s snowy veil floated like the wings of an angel in the chilly breeze. Even then, Laycie’s knees fluttered like Aspen leaves in a breeze as she settled into the compartment to face the weary journey to Waterloo.

Remembering her school days, Laycie braced herself for the last sixty-five miles. Today, on the tail end of wartime conditions and erratic timetables, most likely she was facing a journey of well over two hours. Would a nurse be on board to keep an eye on her and Laycie’s hundreds of fellow travellers? Each with their own re-running nightmare thoughts of their despairing past and fears for the future?

Wrapped in a coarse khaki blanket that she guessed once belonged to a UK soldier, she shivered among others in the unheated compartment of the corridor coach. Only because of their pitiful thinness were the other seven emaciated women able to fit in around her. She instantly felt safe, no more barked orders from males or challenges in a language that made no sense and for so many years, had only meant fear.

In her lap she gripped a small drawstring canvas bag holding a comb, a hairbrush, a small mirror, a toilet bag, a tin pannikin, a metal spoon, a meagre cotton coverlet and a shapeless nightgown. After the surrender, the Red Cross in Singapore had distributed basic items to the pitiable prisoners they’d found in such deplorable conditions. That day was imbedded in Laycie’s brain and she knew, would always be with her. A day of weeping, almost hysterical laughter and profound gratitude that at last, someone however remote, cared. 

Fingers trembling, she pulled at the cords of the bag, groping for the comb to settle her dry, colourless hair. Once chestnut, it was now faded and thin, and months ago had lost any thought of a wave. Previously she’d only seen herself in the lid of a tobacco tin discarded by one of the prison guards; even now , despite some early care with the Red Cross and a local hospital, the mirror reflected yellowed eye whites and sunken cheeks.

As the train moved further into the country-side she saw hawthorn trees close to the tracks. They dripped with the filmy tears of a damp, drizzly day. But it was all so green! So unbelievably green! A woman wearing a heavy overcoat and a scarf tied under her chin pushed a deep-bodied, small-wheeled pram along a lane near the railway line. She moved with such vigour, had she, Laycie, ever walked with such purpose in her stride? And she’d forgotten about coats, they were for England, not for muggy Singapore. She hadn’t seen a coat for as long as her troubled mind could recall.

Three and a half years of incarceration on Singapore had left her senses both fragile and hard-edged. First by the grim necessity of staying alive and secondly by the brutality of despair so cruelly thrust upon her and so many other women and children. In the daily challenge of prison camp awfulness, she’d never dreamed conditions back in England might be desperate too.

Today she’d wrapped her gaunt shape in the clothing of an unknown Singapore woman who could have been any size or height. Although faded and worn, the two-piece sarong kebaya of tropical cotton was clean, but miserably inadequate for an English Autumn. Laycie pulled the ill-fitting top closer around her chest.

Glancing at the women beside her, she saw only mirror images of herself. All seven clutched similar cotton bags, she smiled to those who caught her eye. Opposite, a young ashen-faced lass half hidden in her blanket, plucked fretfully at a stitched edge. Her face also had that hollow, yellow look, even her nose was pinched giving away to any bystander, the blemish of near starvation. Tormented eyes peered from her swaddling cocoon.

As she settled back into her seat Laycie’s most troubled thought, ‘will I be strong enough to walk from this train to my school-day meeting place on the Waterloo concourse?’ She pictured stumbling alone to her ‘private island of golden light’ near Platform 12. It seemed an impossible challenge.
Beside her, a young woman crooned Brahm’s Lullaby to herself. Tears ran unchecked down her cheeks; had she lost a child, perhaps a young baby? The little song whimpered on and on and on. Laycie reached for her hand.

A few weeks earlier, when released from the women’s prison by sickened and disbelieving British authorities, Laycie had weighed a little over five stone. For two months she’d been hospitalised in Singapore, partly to help her regain her health, but also to wait for a flight or ship’s berth to get her back to England. With meticulous medical care she’d gained almost a stone; huge progress from her skeletal arrival at the hospital, but not nearly enough to restore wasted leg muscles so that once more she would be free and independent. 

For nearly fifteen months Laycie and husband Richard had been incarcerated in Changi prison, but from the first day, husbands and wives were callously separated. However, worse was to come, in May 1944, women and children were moved 15 miles west to Sime Road prison. For the remaining eighteen months in separate prisons, the women heard nothing of their men. If their husbands were in similar or worse conditions than their own, they had to live with no information whatsoever as to who of them might still be alive.

Even after the Surrender in September 1945, due to the chaos and lack of records neither men nor women had any knowledge of the other’s well-being. Would they ever meet again? Had the other survived the cruelty and starvation they had been subjected to for so many months? And even more pressing, what would happen to them, now they were back in England? Were they even able to imagine a life of freedom and where would that be?

During her years of imprisonment, Laycie had spent the time supporting the  women around her, especially those with children, as she had none of her own. Her eyes ranged over the weeping fields; here a steeple, there a tower. Through eyes conditioned to the malice of a plant-free, beaten earth compound, the soft colours were balm to her hungry eyes and soul. She watched as they passed each station, some with name plates replaced, others anonymously waiting for the fitting of new ones.

Was this really her homeland? She’d forgotten the gentleness of the rounded fields now stark in their autumn stubble and the impact of cold in contrast to the Island humidity. Had her family been informed of her return? With Britain reeling from five years of deprivation and war destruction, communication would be difficult. As a result, informing relatives in the UK of their missing family members arrival would be extremely difficult if not impossible.

Despite her years in Singapore, Laycie as a teenager had boarded at school in England. At the end of term her mother’s sister would meet and transfer her to and from the boat train. Then, she’d claimed a sunny place by Platform 12 where shafts of sun broke through a hole in the hugely curved glass roof of the iconic station. In those school breaks she waited in a puddle of golden light for her Aunt Janet to find her.

This arrangement solved the worry of meeting up in the hustle and bustle of porters, the hissing of steam engines, plus the general commotion of farewells, greetings and the whereabouts of one’s suitcase. Now totally exhausted, she’d given no thought as to who might meet her; what she would do? Maybe the repatriated women would briefly remain in the care of the Red Cross? With the back of her hand smudged away a tear. What a booby!

After two hours travelling, she stood at last, in her sunny spot, once more back on her familiar patch of safety. She sighed, was it enough to be home?

A rush of cold air swept towards her as a second train pulled into the adjacent platform. Old memories stirred with the soot smell, the rush of steam and theBarra Boys’ yelling of their wares to those bustling, unhearing around them.

Laycie’s knees had folded at the moment she’d been gripped from behind. Then came the over-whelming joy when she’d recognised Richard. Only his instinctive grasp saved her from collapsing. They stood supporting one another; speechless for the long minutes it took for both to realise they’d unbelievably been on the same train and were reunited at last.

Laycie leaned back to stroke his cheeks and look into Richard’s eyes. Her horrified gaze noted a condition undoubtedly worse than her own. Jaundiced flesh hung loosely from his cheeks. Every angle from his nose to his jaw was sharply defined. In raw and anguished moments, she learned in the years that followed, of Richard’s own wretched months on the Burma Railway.

Through her tears of fatigue Richard slung their blankets over one shoulder and grasped her pathetic little bundle along with his. With an arm around her waist, he tenderly supported her towards a nearby flower barrow packed with violets. Laycie sighed with relief to have her reassuring husband right back beside her. That someone else, her own man, was taking care of all the decisions that for three years had been laid at her own feet.

The ‘Barra’ boy stood beside his rugged hard-worn old cart. The barrow-—a deep wooden box stood on two wooden legs—its two large wheels reminded Laycie of stylish prams she’d seen on London streets when a young girl. Richard chose a posy and handed it to her. She dipped her face into the charming scent of sweetness and love.

Richard called, “How much for the lot—the barrow too?” Laycie giggled. Surely not!

The boy removed his soft cap, saluted and replied “Sir, Ya can ‘av the lot for ‘arf the usual.” Paper money changed hands and following Richard’s instructions; the young barrow owner wheeled the contrivance towards the guard’s van on Platform 11. Step by step alongside the boy and his barrow, the radiant couple were enveloped in the delicate scent of the tiny flowers. An engine close by discharged a convincing burst of steam; home at last.

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