By Alistair Heather
Telt tae me by ma grandfaither, Andra Coogan. He haed been sent tae Malaya in Warld War II.
I haed escaped the Japanese at first wi a gang o Sikhs. It wis deep in the Malay jungle, an the British sodgers, o which I wis a memmer, haed been telt that it wis tae be “ivery man for hissel”. An here I am, a lad fae the Gorbals wi nae rifle, nae wappen at aa, nae map an juist ma sax weeks’ basic trainin, fechtin throu the jungle wi the Japs ahint us.
The Sikhs an masel war fashed wi the midgies soukin oor bluid, an skin infections sae sair that we raxed wirsels close tae the bane. Oor lives war pure hell. Ilka step wis haurd whan ye’re as howpless as I wis.
Muckle rivers cuttit throu the jungle, an blocked oor gate. They war a deil tae cross for maist o us. Aa the brigs haed been dinged doun tae stap the Japs.
Ane o the lads retreatin wi us wis a Scot wha didnae ken hou tae swim. We haed been helpin him ower the watter ae wey or anither, passin him fae haund tae haund like a bairn or white’er. But ae time we cam tae a river in spate that wis ower wide for us tae help him tae gang across it.
“Ah’m duin for, lads. Ah’ll hae tae gie masel up tae the Japs,” says Dumfy — his wis cryed Dumfy — sittin doun by the bank fit tae greet. I didnae ken whit tae dae wi him.
The Sikh lads spraffed amang theirsels for a mínit, than sterted takin aff their turbans. They snorlt aa the cloots thegither tae mak a rope. Ae Sikh swam the river an tied ae end o the turban rope ticht tae a tree. That gied us puir swimmers a chance tae pou wirsels ower the rushin burn an awa fae the Japanese. Dumfy wis weel frichtit by that hale occasion. He wad dee nae lang efter the Japs catcht us.
Somehou I wis separatit fae the main body o these lads. Suin I wis stravaigin the jungle on ma tod. I wis merchin for Singapore, an it wis easy tae ken whit wey tae gang. The lift wis stappit fou wi Jap planes breengin owerheid, makin for Singapore. Aa I haed tae dae wis follae them.
Efter a few mile I wis drouthy. Efter hauf a day I wis near deid wi thirst. I swat sae muckle that ma claes hummed an war as ticht tae us as ma ain skin. Aathing in that steamin jungle wis weet, but there wisnae a burn fit tae drink fae. Aa the watter wis clarty.
I wis fit tae faa whaur I stood whan I cam across an unco sicht.
In a clearin in this hellish jungle wis an ornamental fishpond. Twa-three dozen deuks paddled aboot in its clear, caller watter. A white pole rase fae the centre o it tae the hicht o aboot fower fit.
I near faintit wi relief. I hirpelt forrit an douked ma hale heid — plash! — richt intae the watter an gulpit deep an lang. I’v ne’er kent relief like it. Tae this day ye can keep yer lemonades an yer fancy juices. Ye cannae beat a glass o pure clean watter. I wis collapsed by the bank o this pond, wabbit fae ma days spent feart an tyned in a jungle.
I wis shakit awauk by an auld Chinese chiel wi wispy white hair. He wis the keeper o the deuks an the pond. He brocht us intae his wee widdin bothy in the clearin an gied us a pillae carvit fae wid. It didnae leuk ower comfy tae me, but as suin as ma heid wis on it I wis oot like a licht.
As I slept on the fluir o this auld Chinese lad’s bothy, he fillt ma watter bottle, an wrappit three muckle deuk’s eggs intae a hankerchief for us tae tak wi me. Whan I’d slept a guid few oors, I waukent up, an this auld Chinese lad wis makkin us a genuine pot o Chinese tea! I haed a swallae o this tea. It wis ayont braw. Whit rare, oot there in aa that horror, sic a dose o cívilisation atween twa strangers!
I wantit tae stey, but I kent fine that if the Japs caucht us they’d kill us baith. I got masel up, thankit him as best I coud, an than merchit aff sooth taewart Singapore.
Sic wis the unco heat oot there in the jungle that afore lang ma watter bottle wis tuim ance mair, an ma lips war parched. The rat-a-tat o gunfire ahint us kept us merchin, or else I wad hae thrown in the touel. Whit happened neist wis ane o the queerest ’hings I’v seen in ma hunner years on earth.
Staundin afore us in the middle o a jungle war a black-skinned midget couple. They war in the skud, completely naked except for a bittie bark tied aboot their waists tae hide their privates. They coudnae be bigger than bairns, but war as auld as me, aulder mebbe. They war whit’s cried ‘Pygmy’ fowk. They leuked feart o us, the lassie stertit cooryin intae her man’s shouder, an he leuked ready tae spring aff intae the trees. But I needit their help.
I poued oot ma ration biscuit fae ma pooch an bit a bit aff. The twa black bairnfowk stared, stamagastert. Efter chowin a wee bit biscuit, I haundit it ower tae them tae try. Nervously, the lad chowed a bit aff an swallaed it. Neist he passed it tae his wife wha took a bit in her mou. They baith broke oot in huge smiles. I smiled. It wis a great moment. I shawed them ma tuim watter bottle an mimed drinkin. Ah’m needin watter, I wis tellin them. The fella took us by the haund an led us throu the trees. They brocht us tae a burn o clear watter an we aa gluggit muckle gowpins fae it.
I fund oot much later that these wee fowk are sort o like stane-age people wha bade intae the jungle. Deid nice they war.
Nae lang efter I fund mair Scots lads heidit sooth in their ragged duds. Me an a lad cryed Ginger walked intae Singapore thegither. We maun hae leuked some state: a muckle ginger lad an his wee pal, droukit wi sweat an coatit wi mosquito plouks, hirplin intae the British Colony o Singapore.
The first hoose we seen wis a white colonial ane, wi perfect green gairdens. Mair nor thon: a sprinkler wis on, gushin pure watter ower the plants! Me an Ginger flew ower tae it, tore the hose aff the sprinkler an startit gluggin the watter, sprayin the bluid, sweat an clart aff wir claes, an lauchin!
A posh vyce fae the hoose cried oot “Get out of here, what on earth do you think you’re doing? This is private property!”
The posh wallahs wha we haed juist been fechtin the Japs for didnae want us in their gairden!
Ma pal Ginger gied them baith barrels. “Mind you be a bit mair fuckin polite tae the Japs! They’ll be here afore lang!”
The Chinese lad, the Pygmies fae the stane age haed helpit us. But the fowk we’d been sent tae protect? They wadnae lat us in their gairden tae drink the watter meant for their grass. Bastards.
Alistair Heather is the Scots Editor at Bella Caledonia. He studies History an French at Aiberdeen University, an wirks wi the Elphinstone Institute promotin the cultur o the North-East. Gie him yer chat @historic_ally on Twitter.