Some of the men were propping themselves up on their elbows, others rested their heads on crisp white pillows. Most were smiling. âThese brave young chaps have been reluctant guests of the Imperial Japanese Army,â the narratorâs voice said. âWhat an ordeal theyâve faced, but now at long last they can look forward to coming home to their loved ones. With the best care money can buy and the help of these lovely ladiesâ â here a couple of pretty nurses in white uniforms grinned bashfully at the camera â âthese fellows will soon be up and about and ready to head on home. Well done, chaps! Itâll be great to have you back!â
A man sitting behind us snorted. âDonât look all that crook to me,â he said to his friend. âI thought they were supposed to be starving.â
His friend agreed. âThey looked a bit thin, but other than that â¦â
Granddad looked down at me. I guess he must have sensed my fists clenching, because he said in a low voice, âSteady, Billy. They donât understand.â
âThen we should make them understand,â I said through tight lips.
âYou canât, mate,â Granddad said. âJust leave it.â
The men werenât quite finished. âGive them a couple of weeks off and theyâll be right.â
âYeah, well, like I said, they donât look too crook. The paper said they were all skin and bone, but look at them! I mean, they could use a couple more pounds, sure, but at the end of the day ââ
âAll right, thatâs it,â Granddad muttered, rising in his seat and turning to face the men. The black and white light of the projector flickered on his face, and he ignored the murmured complaints from the audience. âOh, I should have known. Morning, Darcy,â he said. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards the screen. âDid you think maybe theyâve had a few weeks to feed up? A few decent meals might make a difference when youâve had nothing but rice and cholera for years, what do you reckon?â
âSteady on, Tom, weâve all done it tough,â someone called out.
âDone it tough? You wouldnât know tough if it smacked you in the rear end, John Lowry,â Granddad retorted. âJust spare a thought for those blokes, eh? Thatâs all. Thatâs all.â
âWe are, mate,â yet another person said, his voice rising above the murmur in the theatre. âWe understand.â
Granddad shook his head. âIs that right? Well, I hope the rest of you understand a bit better than these two lugs when our Fred gets home. Heâll be here in a few days, and Iâd better not hear any talk about him and his mates bludging off while everyone else did the fighting.â
The noise had died away as Granddad spoke. He was a popular and powerful man in Evansbridge, and it took someone very brave or very stupid to stand up to Tom Carlyle.
âSorry, Tom, mate, we meant nothing by it,â Darcy said.
âYeah, Tom, nothing at all,â his friend added.
âCome on, Billy, letâs go,â Granddad said to me, reaching his hand towards me. âIâve lost interest.â
We stepped out into the sunshine, and Granddad squinted at the bank of clouds off to the west. âSorry about that, mate,â he said, taking out his pipe. âI donât want you to have to hear that kind of talk.â
âItâs all right,â I said. âI know thatâs what theyâre saying anyway.â
âOf course you do, but itâs still not on. Those boys on that newsreel have been having three meals a day for a couple of weeks now. They probably weigh a stone or two more than they did when the Japs scampered off.â
âIs my dad as thin as that?â I asked.
Iâd say so.â
The rest of that week was full of frantic activity, with my grandfather and
Jennifer Richard Jacobson