An award winning story
By John Lord
‘The red rose whispers of passion
And the white rose breaths of love
O, the red rose is a falcon
And the white rose is a dove’.
John Boyle O’Reilly
I first met Doctor David Gillespie in the hellish confines of Changi Prison. I was his commanding officer and we were friends for a little over two years. He was the most selfless altruistic man I ever met. His unselfish devotion to the men of our battalion often went beyond human capability. I think even some of the Japanese guards noticed his decency. In front of the men, he would address me as Colonel Matheson and in private it was simply Peter. All the men called him Doc Doogood in the Australian manner dispersing nicknames.
Changi was built by the British in 1936 as a civilian prison to hold 600 inmates and in 1942 following the fall of Singapore the Japanese interned 3000 prisoners of war. Of these 650 souls died in wretched circumstances including Lieutenant Gillespie. He died in my arms at 10am on Sunday the tenth day of October 1944 following yet another severe beating by the Japanese. His demands for better conditions and medical supplies for the men had reached a point of no return. Two days previous, he had had an argument with the camp superintendent about medical supplies. It developed into a shouting match.
There they were standing face to face at morning roster shouting at each other in Japanese. The commandant in pressed uniform and David with only a pair of tattered thin kaki shorts hanging loosely from a body that displayed nothing more than skin and bones. I must say he took it up to the bastard though. He had acquired the Japanese language in a very short time and conversed with the guards fluently. When the commandant hit him, across the face with his baton, the entire assembled battalion took a step forward and I quickly issued an order for the men to fall back in line. David slowly raised his arm, touched his face with the tips of his fingers, looked directly into the commandant’s eyes and spat in his face. Three guards dragged him away and he appeared four hours later staggering across the assembly ground carrying two cardboard boxes with Red Cross signs printed on them. I rushed out to meet him and caught him just as he was about to fall.
‘Medical supplies sir. I think I won the argument.’ He said.
‘That’s debatable, and at what cost?’ I whispered in his ear.
‘Some will live but the dead are many.’ he replied and then through swollen bloodied lips caked with dried blood, he said ‘There is only what you do or don’t do.’
He was barley recognizable from the beating he had taken. His head appeared to be twice its size. He spoke in short bursts of heavy breath indicating broken ribs and his left arm was obviously broken at the elbow. Two men helped me carry him to his quarters where we placed him on his cot. I asked one of the men, a sergeant who assisted David to see what was in the boxes. There was some morphine and I asked him to give David a shot. He did this and then set about the task of cleaning him up.
‘I will have to set the arm.’ said Sergeant Harry Dunfeld.
‘Yes, do it Harry’. I said adding ‘What do you think?’
‘If I may say so Sir, I don’t think he will make it beyond today. He’s taken some beatings before but this is by far the worst. Is it all right to let the men know? Some will want to pray’.
‘I will do it Harry.’ I replied, and I went to address the assembled throng at the entry to the hut.
I returned to my quarters and sat on my cot, closed my eyes and recalled the first time I met David. What a truly impressive man he was. Not just his physical characteristics, which were exceptional, but also his intellect and strength of character. He was twenty-five going on fifty with a well-rounded worldly attitude. He had a presence about him that lifted the spirit of anyone he met. His enormous mental capacity enabled him to complete his studies two years ahead of his class and graduate from Melbourne University with honors .He had also attained blues for both cricket and football in which he excelled.
He was sitting on an upturned crate when I caught his eye. He was holding fast to a tourniquet around the arm of a man whose arm was badly bleeding.
‘Sorry Sir. I’d salute if I could.’
‘Not to worry Lieutenant. Got a bit of work ahead of you.’ I said looking at the line of men seeking medical attention.
And so it was for the next two years that I would daily watch him treat the men for various illnesses without medication and instruments. On the occasions that he was able to procure medicine or even vitamin tablets, he usually had to suffer for it. It became a sort of a game with the camp commandant. They would argue. David would be given a beating and then return with whatever he was given. Often after spending days in solitary confinement. At first, he coped physically but as his health deteriorated each bashing left him just a little weaker. I implored him not to give his rations away but he declined saying that the Lord would provide. He said he had sufficient and others were worse off.
He witnessed the death of many of his patients but he never allowed tragedy to penetrate the need to assist suffering. Although we were prisoners, the horror of war was present in its absence.
When we each had completed our day’s ministrations, we would meet for a chat. We would talk of politics, theology, philosophy, the arts and anything that expanded our minds. We spoke of loves won and lost and children remembered or yet to be loved. Often other officers and enlisted men would join in and our conversation was always lively and satisfying. Over a period, I concluded that often our opinions are based on our values rather than our understanding and the difficulty was in separating the two.
However, it was when we were alone that we were able to share our aspirations beliefs and innermost secrets. I valued those conversations as if they were gold. He was the sort of person who wore his heart on his sleeve and no discussion with him was ever inhibited by unnecessary virtuous secrecy. He told me that the month before he was to leave for Singapore he had fallen in love. It was at the St Kilda town hall that he first saw her and when he asked, for a dance and she accepted he knew that he was in love. The intimacy of touch sought only to confirm his feelings. When he looked upon her face, he saw not just beauty but integrity and she wore lipstick the color of his favorite rose. She was studying at the nurse’s college in nearby Commercial Road and intended joining the military when she completed her course. His eyes would light up when he spoke of the love they shared in the days prior to departure. They were both of Christian up bringing. Her family were dairy farmers from southern Victoria and he lived in Melbourne with his parents who were well respected in social circles and the medical profession.
When the physical passion of their relationship demanded consummation, they decided to marry. He told me that both sets of parents gave their consent after observing their happiness and they were married in the St Kilda Methodist church in Fitzroy Street. It was the week before he left for Singapore. The few days before departure, they spent making love.
‘We couldn’t get enough of each other.’ He told me. Then it ended. He bordered a ship at Port Melbourne with the whole family witnessing a farewell embrace that lasted all of ten minutes.
‘I swear we would have made love on the pier had the opportunity arose.’ He added with a twinkle in his eye. Every week a box of twelve long stemmed roses arrived for her at her flat. One week there would be red and the next white.
The love of roses was but one of the many things they shared. He conveyed to me that he had entrusted his mother to have a box of roses delivered to her every Friday regardless of where she lived and for as long as she lived and that this arrangement was to continue if he didn’t return from the war. Added to that his mother was to see that the arrangement continue after her death. In our conversation, he always referred to his young wife as ‘Petal.’ He never mentioned her real name. I remember one clear night when we were sitting on the parade ground. The stars were high and bright in the night sky. He looked at me and then at the sky for what seemed an eternity. When he lowered his face, he said.
‘You know Peter. The fascinating thing about love is that we can experience it without needing to know anything about it. It controls us and we have no control over it.’
On another occasion, he spoke about the meaning of roses in a Biblical metaphorical sense.
‘You see the blue rose is symbolic of the impossible the unattainable and the red represents the passion of Christ and its thorns the blood of the cross. The white rose speaks of innocence, purity, exquisiteness and virtue. The faded rose reminds us that beauty is only fleeting. The rose garden is paradise and the single rose is in essence, a sign of completion, two coming together to consummate perfect love.’
Then he handed me a small piece of paper with a poem written on it.
‘Peter I want you to do something for me. If I don’t get out of this hellhole would you see that Petal gets this?’
‘Yes of course David.’ I replied. ‘I will even put it to memory so as I can retain its meaning’.
First blush of spring
Life’s passion red awakens
Roses touched by clear sky
Sun of day
Son on cross
Crimson drops forgive
Pure white awakens
Roses touched by innocence
Grow from virgin seed
Son of God
In love forgiveness blooms
‘I think you had better come Sir.’
‘What is it Harry.’ I replied.
‘The Doc Sir, he’s taken a turn for the worse.’
When I arrived at his quarters, some soldiers were trying to prevent two Japanese officers from taking David with them. He was repeatedly mumbling.
‘Enough, enough Kagen ni shinasai, please no more no more’.
I began pushing them away and shouting at the same time.
‘He’s dying you fools. Can’t you see he’s dying?’
In the confusion, an officer unknown to me came in shouting orders at the others.
‘Choudai sakini dekata.’
They stepped aside allowing him space to examine David. Then he looked at me with his back to the others, crossed himself in the manner of a Catholic and said in perfect English. ‘Please forgive us. War is an abomination.’ And with that, he turned and exited the hut with his subordinates in tow.
With the help of the others, we managed to prop David back up on his cot. I sat down next to him trying to keep him erect but I could see it was hopeless. He fell down with his head in my lap and it was in that position that he died. I read his poem to the men as I stood above his grave but I don’t think many of them understood its meaning. The day after we buried him, I was summoned to appear before the officer who spoke English. He introduced himself as Major Hitoshi and asked for David’s poem. When I explained that I had promised to send the original copy to his wife, he agreed to make a copy. ‘
‘It is very beautiful. ’He commented. ‘From what I hear he was an extraordinarily brave man.’
After the war, I joined the Australian diplomatic service and spent many years in England. I also made frequent trips to Japan and often visited Major Hitoshi. We became good friends discussing world issues and he always wanted to know more about David.
When I returned home, I obtained David’s parents address, wrote a long letter detailing his bravery at Changi and requested that at their convenience I would like to visit some time. I explained that I was being relocated to Brisbane and asked if they would forward the poem onto Petal. I never heard back from any of them and assumed that they were too distraught to communicate. I was later to find out that for whatever reason they never received my correspondence.
Some years later when I retired my wife and I purchased a property in the inner Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. We quickly fell in love with the Edwardian style house. Our neighbors were pleasant folk and eager to see that we settled in without fuss. I noticed that the woman who lived next door delighted in growing roses. She had a row of red and white standards along her front garden just inside a picket fence and I often saw her pruning and spraying. One day I was walking our dog and stopped to compliment her on their appearance. She thanked me and said that she grew them in memory of her husband who had died in the war. We exchanged further pleasantries and I went on my way.
Some days later, my wife commented on the fact that every Friday at 10am an Interflora van delivered a box of flowers to her doorstop.
‘Roses I think, and long stemmed judging by the size of the box.’ She said.
My mind went into a spin. It couldn’t be I thought to myself and dismissed the idea as a flight of fancy. On the Sunday, we decided to go to church and choose the Methodist church in Fitzroy Street. We sat in one of the side pews and when I looked around, I saw the woman from next door. I couldn’t help notice how distinguished she looked with her greying hair pulled back and knotted in a bun. Her lipstick was of a passionate red hue and for some reason an image of David Gillespie vividly entered my mind. She noticed us smiled and gave us a wave of recognition. A young man walked down the isle past me and I jumped when he sat next to our neighbor.
‘You all right darling, you’re as white as a ghost.’
‘Bit of indigestion. It will pass.’
At the end of the service, I said that we should formally introduce ourselves to our neighbor.
‘Well certainly Peter but you look like you’re about to meet royalty. Why the nerves?’
We spent some time in small talk chatting to different people and moved closer to where our neighbor and her companion were standing with their backs to us. When they turned I involuntarily said.
‘You know me.’
‘Well I Think…perhaps, I mumbled without completing the sentence.
‘Allow me to introduce my son Doctor David Gillespie Junior. Our neighbor said.
‘I can’t believe it, you’re the spitting image of him.’
And you must be ‘Petal.’ I said.
‘Only one man has ever called me that. You must have known him. She answered with the inquisitiveness of lost love.
‘Yes indeed I did. I think he was the finest man I ever met. My name is Peter Matheson. I was your husband’s commanding officer in Changi. He died in my arms. Did you not receive my letter?’
‘No, I did not.’
‘Then you have never read his poem’
I took a small piece of paper from my wallet and handed it to her.
‘This is a copy.’
When she looked up, her eyes were moist and sanguine. She placed her hand gently on my arm.
‘Would you care to join us for lunch? Today is David’s twenty fifth birthday. There is much I would like to ask you.’
‘Good God’ I said softly. ‘Your husband died on this day twenty-five years ago.
She turned to her son and said.
‘We may need a bottle of red and a bottle of white, David.’
‘But mother you don’t normally partake before dinner.’
‘Today we make an exception.’
‘By the way’ I said. ‘What is you name?’
‘Rose.’ she answered. ‘Rose Gillespie.’
(Lieutenant) Doctor David Gillespie
‘His life was measured not by the shortness of it’s duration but by the compassion of its depth.’
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The stories of those who lived and died behind the walls of Changi must never be forgotten. My uncle survived.
I had the privilege of visiting the memorial early this year while on holiday on Singapore.
It is impossible to describe the experience, it will never be forgotten.
Dear John, I have read your story before and as then, my eyes filled with tears as i remembered the words that moved me so much. I could read this story over and over again and i am sure experience the same emotion. Thank you so much for sharing it again.
Thanks Hilde. I am repeating some because we now have a much larger audience.
Thanks John, LOVE and DEATH HAVE NO BOUNDARIES
YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE
Just out of curiosity, what award did this story win?
Thank you sir. We pray ‘never again’
Tragic, uplifting, beautiful.
Thank you, Mr John Lord.
I can reveal that the awards I won at The Yarram Writing Festival were for best local entry in both poetry and short stories. In fact I am only the second person in eight years to win a prize in both sections.
For my poem “Anniversary” the judges said. A very short, but nevertheless effective poem . It shows how a whole relationship can be caught in just a few words as a couple celebrate their forty-third anniversary.
For my short story “Petal” the judges commented. Petal is a love story that spans many years, including the second world war. The descriptive passages take the reader into the situations with the characters and are well written. We especially liked the beautiful, moving ending.
In the Churchill competition I came third in the adult short story competition with my work ” The Boy Who Lived In Botany Boulevard ” and I also picked up a a commendation for the poem “Anniversary
Further proof can be provided.
Hands across the table
Touching fingers reveal
Lingering sensitivity to
Memories distant others fresh of the moment
Cherished thoughts of her feminine graces
A love those forty-three years embraces
Effervescent pink the champagne bubbles
With tinted illusions
She glistens with age well carried
He listens with aged wisdom
Both drink in the possibilities
Our challenge as thinking Australians, is to read that and embrace the changes that have become us, as Australians, without, at the same time, embracing hatred.
Think about the nature of war, be thankful you aren’t directly involved, then go out to a backpacker hostel or a University, or anywhere else you may find them, and locate a young Japanese person, and remember they are not their grandfathers, and their grandfathers were not the criminals who were executed at the end of the war. http://goo.gl/zwuwmf
Offer to share some space with them. Perhaps a shared meal.
Then, move on. We are better than our hatred.
Again, John – my deep thanks.
I live in Yarram, it’s a small world hey 🙂
And it’s bloody freezing here right now,
But I love winter now, after black Saturday
Never want to live through that again..
” . . . the meaning of roses in a Biblical metaphorical sense . . . ‘
I like this very much and I like the ending, brought tears to my eyes.
Major Hitoshi, the officer who spoke English, the Colonel was able to visit him in Japan after the war and they became friends. What was it the Major had said? ‘Please forgive us. War is an abomination.’ How true this is!
A story very well told, John. Thank you so much for sharing and congratulations on receiving awards for it. 🙂
This made my heart squeeze. Thank you for that and it should never be forgotten what our men did and what their families lost.