3 November 2014
This is a short piece of fiction I wrote recently, inspired by the experience of a friend.
Until James took the job in Malaysia, it never entered my head that I’d visit Uncle William’s grave. We were sitting around the barbecue on James’s last weekend in New Zealand, talking about his move to Ipoh, when I suddenly remembered Bill – Dad’s older brother who had never returned from the war in Vietnam.
All Dad knew was that Bill had left in 1967 with his RNZIR battalion. Then the terrible day they’d received the telegram saying that he was “missing in action”. He’d been missing ever since. Grandma never got over it, Dad said, but I don’t remember her ever talking about it. Dad didn’t even know where Bill was buried.
“I always thought I’d get out there and visit his grave” said Dad “but I can never get away from the farm.”
I smiled to myself. Dad hated leaving the farm and only went into town when there was some farm business to do. Mum had often hinted that she’d like a holiday but Dad’s reply was always “Why go away when we have paradise right here?” Now that she was buried on the hill overlooking the far paddock, he’d never leave. I knew he wanted to be buried there, right beside her.
On my Air New Zealand flight, the cabin attendants were serving dinner – a choice between tomato paprika beef and nasi lemak with prawns. I chose the Asian dish. Jen and the boys would laugh. They all love sushi but I usually have fish and chips those nights. But tonight I will try it – time to be adventurous on my first ever trip to Asia.
I found out that Uncle Bill is buried at Terendak Military Cemetery in Malacca. I googled Malacca – it is a fair distance from Ipoh where my mate James is. But he said, it was all good, we’d drive down and break the trip in KL. What I hadn’t expected was having to get permission to visit the cemetery from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They look after the graves and don’t just let any old body in – makes sense I suppose. But now I was on a mission.
* * * * * * * * * *
Malacca is magic – I like the little narrow streets around our hotel in the old town and the bright red buildings beside the river. There are temples everywhere. I think some are Chinese and some are Indian. Anyway, they all have amazing decorations: gods, dragons, all sorts of animals, flowers. I’m getting used to the smell of incense. We go into an old Chinese house – the guide tells us that the people who lived there were a mixture of Chinese and Malay. Awesome furniture, clothes and jewellery. The Portuguese built a fort in Malacca centuries ago. A gate house is all that’s left of it. Then there were the Dutch and then the British. I wish Jen and the kids could see it.
* * * * * * * * * *
James says he’ll wait outside for me. I walk up to the guard house and hand over my permission form. The guard takes me along a path between rows of graves, each with a grey headstone. Everything is very neat and very quiet. He points at a grave and walks away. I go closer and read the headstone:
W. S. Burroughs
Royal New Zealand
19 June 1969 Age 25
I stand there for a long time, staring at those few words. It doesn’t seem right that Dad’s brother is here, so far away from home. I realise that I’m sweating in the tropical sunshine. There is not a breath of air. I look around and see a white stone bench under a tree. I sink onto it.
He was a soldier following orders but how did he feel about it? Was he scared? Did he know he was going to die? I look up at the hazy sky – I’m not sure why. I don’t believe he’s up there in the clouds looking down on me. But I want to believe that he didn’t die for nothing. Dad told me about the protests. From some long ago school history lesson I know that South Vietnam lost the war. So what was it all for?
* * * * * * * * * *
James doesn’t say a word when I get back in the car.
“Thanks for bringing me, mate.”
I wouldn’t have come if James hadn’t taken the Ipoh job. Jen said it was serendipity.