The Home Front

CHAPTER EIGHT - News from Hong Kong

AFTER a long winter’s wait for news, any news, of the defeated Grenadiers, we were startled awake at seven o’clock one morning in early May by the sound of the phone. Who could be calling so early? Jumping out of bed, Mother ran down the stairs to answer the persistent ringing, shivering in her light cotton nightgown and bare feet.

‘Oh no! Poor Jean!’ Her voice was almost a sob. Barbara and I hurried to our listening post at the top of the stairs.

‘We’ll have to go and visit her,’ Mother said. ‘You say that the rest of us will get news today? We must all stick together now and be brave. Let me know if you hear anything more.’

Mother had many friends among the wives of the Grenadiers. Some of them also had husbands in Hong Kong, and some of them were married to older men who had remained in Winnipeg to maintain the barracks. They all looked out for each other and spent much time together, and even more time talking to each other over the phone. Her closest friends whose husbands were in Hong Kong were May Baird, Amy Trist, and Gloria Queen-Hughes. May Baird had a daughter, Harvelyn, who was four years older than I was. The Holman and Hansell families, whose fathers had remained in Winnipeg, were also close friends, and invited us to dinners, and to picnics in the park.

The phone call on that May morning left Mother visibly upset.

‘Who was that?’ I asked, running down the stairs.

‘Mrs. Baird. There’s some bad news from Hong Kong.’

‘What bad news?’ asked Barbara.

‘Colonel Sutcliffe has died in the prison camp. But we must be brave. We must believe that your father is all right.’

‘What did he die from?’ asked Barbara.


‘What’s diferia? Is it like scarlet fever?’

‘It’s a terrible disease. When you have it, your throat swells up so you can’t breathe.’

‘Will I get it?’ Barbara asked.

‘No, you’ve been inoculated against it.’

My throat tightened.

‘How do you know that Colonel Sutcliffe is dead?’ I asked.

‘His wife received a telegram from Ottawa. We should all be getting telegrams today telling us how our husbands are getting along. Now you go and get dressed for school while I make breakfast.’

Shivering with fear, I stepped into my white cotton under-pants and put on my navy knee socks and my white blouse and navy tunic. What if Daddy was dead? I thought of the telegraph messengers in their blue shirts, jackets and caps, riding their bicycles along the streets. People stopped and watched them with solemn faces, knowing that something had happened. Only last week a telegraph boy came to the Campbells’ house across the street with the news that their son Duncan had been killed in action. He was just eighteen years old. He used to walk past me on his way home from high school, and he always said hello. I’d wanted to know what ‘killed in action’ meant, and Mother had said it meant killed while fighting the enemy.

When I came down to the kitchen I said that I didn’t want any breakfast. I often said this, but today Mother seemed firmer than usual.

‘You have to eat something,’ she said.

‘But I’m not hungry!’ My eyes filled with tears.

‘Well, you can’t go to school with an empty stomach. Have some corn flakes.’

I dutifully took a few sips of orange juice and swallowed a spoonful of cereal, then promptly ran to the sink and threw up.

‘I can’t go to school,’ I said. ‘I’m sick.’

‘Well, you seemed fine when you got up. I guess you can stay home this morning, but you’ll have to go after lunch.’

I went upstairs and lay on my bed, listening to the street noises through the open window. I heard the clop-clop of the bread man’s horse, and the chattering of the neighbourhood children on their way to school. Dead. Colonel Sutcliffe was dead.

He would never come back to Winnipeg. His family would never see him again. Never again. Not even one time. Daddy might be dead, too. I wondered what it felt like to die. Did it hurt? What happened to people after they died? Miss Wilson, the Sunday School teacher, said they went to heaven to live with God and Jesus. Heaven is a beautiful place, she said, but nobody has ever seen it. Jerry Stovel asked Miss Wilson how did she know it was beautiful then and she said the Bible said so.

Mother sat in her wicker chair on the veranda, waiting for the telegram, and after a while I came down and sat beside her.

The previous December, when we’d found out that the Grenadiers had surrendered in battle, seemed such a long time ago. Now it was May and the snow was all gone and the grass was turning green and there were buds on the trees and robins running across the lawns looking for worms to feed their babies.

The messenger arrived just before noon. He propped his bike against the elm tree on the boulevard and came whistling up the walk.

‘Dear God, he sounds cheerful,’ said Mother. ‘The news must be good.’ She signed for the telegram and tore it open. Daddy’s name was on the short list of Canadian officers reported as being held prisoner-of-war.

‘He’s safe!’ Mother cried, hugging me tightly.

‘Hurrah!’ I shouted, skipping across the veranda. Then I stopped abruptly. ‘Poor Mrs. Sutcliffe,’ I said. ‘She’s not saying hurrah.’

The neighbourhood women came running over, bringing with them Barbara and Roger who had been playing across the street.

‘We have to celebrate,’ said Mrs. Massey. ‘Why don’t you and the children come to our house for lunch? I found a jar of peanut butter at Waugh’s last week and I’ve been saving it for a special occasion!’

I thought that I had never tasted anything as good as those peanut butter sandwiches. After lunch I went back to school to tell all my classmates that Daddy was safe.

The next day Mother wrote him a letter:

You can imagine what a shock it was to hear about Colonel Sutcliffe. May Baird and I went to see Jean yesterday and took her some flowers. Her stepdaughter was with her, and they were both so brave. Four or five other wives were there too. We women have all shown wonderful patience and courage throughout the winter. We all just keep as busy as we can, and we get together when we are lonesome.

What a blessed relief it is to know that you are safe after all these months of dreadful suspense and anxiety. I don’t need to tell you what it means to us all to know for certain that we are going to have you with us again, and I feel that I can never be thankful enough, and only hope that I can be worthy of such a blessing.

Once I knew that Daddy was all right, I stopped worrying all the time and began to think about my coming birthday. On May 19, I would be eight years old. I’d have a party with games: Musical Chairs; London Bridge is Falling Down, Falling Down, Falling Down; The Farmer in the Dell; Blind Man’s Buff, and my favorite, Pin the Tail on the Donkey. There would be little white paper bags filled with jelly beans for each guest, and peanut butter and jam sandwiches, and lemonade with pink straws, and a birthday cake with pink icing and pink candles. Mother was sewing me a new party dress, stiff pink organdy with lace trim and something that she called a bolero to match. All the girls on the street would be there — Irene, Josephine, Marilyn, Patricia and Beverley, and of course Barbara and Roger.

I worried that it might rain on my birthday, but when the day arrived it was sunny and warm. I could hardly concentrate on my schoolwork, I was so busy watching the hands of the classroom clock slowly creep from one hour to the next. Finally the four o’clock bell signalled the end of the school day, and my guests and I ran giggling along the short block home.

The party was perfect, just as I had imagined it. After everyone had gone home, I sat down to write to Daddy.

Dear Daddy,

I have to do the dishes every day now, and I have to make my bed. For my birthday I got a little golden grenadier badge from Mother. From Barbara I got a cuckoo clock, and from Roger a purse. I had all the girls on the street to my party, and they had a lovely time. Mother made me a new pink party dress, and Barbara a blue one of the same pattern.

I had a pink cake with eight pink candles. I am eight now and going into grade three next year. We had our examinations last week. I am thinking I will pass.

Last Saturday Mummy took us downtown for lunch.

I get an allowance now. It is ten cents a week. I am going to save up all my money to buy a pram for my doll Marion that you gave me for Christmas. I will write and tell you when I get it.

I miss you and I hope you are keeping well and will be home soon.

Love, Margaret

Daddy really liked this letter. He did not believe in spoiling children, and thought that we should learn to be responsible members of society.

‘I am very glad to hear from Margaret,’ he wrote, ‘that she has to do the dishes and make her bed. Good stuff, Lucy!’

The cuckoo clock hung above my bed and kept me company during the long evenings as I lay there trying to make sense out of all the talk of war and death. Every hour and half hour the cheery little bird popped out of his house to announce the passing time. I thought of the cuckoo as a kind of angel, looking after me and talking to me when I was lonely.

A few days after my birthday, we received permission from the government to send Daddy a parcel. On May 23, 1942, Mother told him all about this in a letter.

I sent your parcel off yesterday, and Oh, what fun we had packing it for you, dear! It was just a million times better than Christmas or your birthday, and I can just picture the joy it will be to all of you when these boxes from home arrive. We were limited to 11 pounds, but I managed to get in a couple of summer outfits for you. Some of the other wives sent shorts, but I sent long pants in case you needed your legs covered, and if you like, you can cut them off or turn them up. I thought your old breeks might come in handy sometime, but I couldn’t put a belt in because of the weight. I would have liked to send more socks, too. The long socks are from my brother John, and the short ones are from Henrietta.

Edith in Medicine Hat sent a dollar to buy you something too. We can’t send food, but the Red Cross is doing that.

You can write me to tell me what you would like in the next parcel. I hope they will let us send cigarettes soon.

The kids kissed all the things about a dozen times as they went into the box, they were so excited. Oh, I just hope and pray that you will get it, dear.

One day that spring Mother had a visitor, a man named Benjamin Proulx. He was French Canadian and had grown up in Montreal, but he had lived in Hong Kong for twenty-one years before war broke out. He had been imprisoned with Daddy, but had daringly escaped from the prison camp through the sewer. He later wrote about this experience in a book entitled Underground from Hong Kong.

‘Daddy asked Mr. Proulx to get in touch with me if he got back to Canada safely,’ Mother said.

‘It must have been awfully smelly in the sewer,’ said Barbara.

‘He must have had to hold his nose all the way!’

Mr. Proulx had written to say he would be passing through Winnipeg on his way to Montreal, and wanted to see Mother. He arrived in a taxi and sat in Daddy’s chair in the living room, and Mother offered him sherry and cigarettes. He had a moustache and spoke with a French accent. He said that Daddy was fine, but very thin.

‘There are lots of cases of beriberi and dysentery. I was most happy to get out of there, let me tell you.’

‘Do you get beriberi from strawberries?’ asked Barbara.

‘Oh no! You get it from not having enough to eat.’ Mr. Proulx smiled at her.

‘Oh, poor Victor! I hope he doesn’t get sick!’ Mother looked as if she were going to cry.

‘Well, he’s a very strong man,’ said Mr. Proulx. ‘And he really wants to come back to you.’

‘That’s what I keep telling myself and the children,’ said Mother. “Don’t you worry,” I say. “He’s a strong man. He’ll be all right. Some day soon the war will be over and he’ll come back to us.” But I noticed that Mother’s hair was beginning to turn grey, and that her eyes had a sad look, even when her mouth was shaped in a smile.

Some evenings Mother had visitors, but often she’d sit alone, reading or sewing as she listened to the radio. Barbara and Roger would fall asleep, but I’d lie awake listening to the silence that was broken only by the ticking of my cuckoo clock. Was Mother all right? Except for the hum of the radio, there would be no sound from downstairs. Fear forming a cold stone in my chest, I’d panic.

Maybe Mother was dead, I thought. I had to find out.

‘Mother!’ I’d call.

Then I’d hear the familiar shuffling of her slippered feet across the downstairs hall to the bottom of the stairs.

‘What is it?’ She was always annoyed at being disturbed.

‘I can’t get to sleep.’

‘Well, turn over and close your eyes. Say a prayer.’

Comforted by the sound of her voice, and praying that some day the war would end and Daddy would come home, I’d whisper into my pillow.

‘Thank you, God, for Mother. And please keep Daddy safe.’

Dorchester Avenue: we skipped, played hide and seek and sang our way up and down this familiar sidewalk with its treed canopy overhead.