Sarah Hilary has worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. Her debut, SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN, won Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2015 and was a World Book Night selection for 2016. The Observer’s Book of the Month (“superbly disturbing”) and a Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. NO OTHER DARKNESS, the second in the series was shortlisted for a Barry Award in the US. Her DI Marnie Rome series continued with TASTES LIKE FEAR and a fourth book, QUIETER THAN KILLING, is out in March 2017.
Follow Sarah on Twitter at @Sarah_Hilary
It’s 5 a.m. and the house is sleeping. My sister can’t find her Aran jumper because it’s hidden under sundresses and swimsuits, so my brother and I help her to search and then we’re creeping down the stairs so as not to wake our parents, wrestling buckets and spades from the porch and striding, down to the sea. Our grandmother leads the way, her black curls whipping in the breeze, armed with a Thermos of hot coffee and a Tupperware full of sardine sandwiches. The sea is different this early in the day, less friendly, more dangerous. Its waves are thick dark coils bringing a hard litter of pebbles. The empty beach is pitted with stones. We race, to get warm. It’s August, but this is North Wales and the sun won’t be up for another hour. It’s freezing. Our grandmother races with us, laughing when we laugh, tripping when we trip, sand in our shoes and hair. When it’s time for the coffee and sandwiches, we hunker down behind a windbreaker, glad of our Aran jumpers which were knitted by our grandmother, who wears an Aran of her own and whose black curls are like the sea coming in. We feel brave being here with her on the empty beach while everyone else is in bed. All of them waiting for the sun to come up and kiosks to open, thinking the seaside is sandcastles and beach balls, not knowing that there’s a whole other beach, a whole other sea. My grandmother has her eyes on the horizon. I don’t know, yet, what she’s thinking. I don’t know that she might be remembering another beach, in another country, years and years ago.
Berhala Island, in Malaysia, 1942. My grandmother is 25 with a small child (my mother). She’s a prisoner of the Japanese. Her mornings are spent gathering shells along Berhala’s shore with the sun beating down and armed men barking threats at her back. When she and her fellow prisoners have gathered all the shells brought in by the morning’s tide, the soldiers take the shells and toss them back into the sea to be collected again the following morning by the women they hope in this manner to break. Young women, and old. Single women, mothers, and grandmothers. English, Dutch, Malay, Chinese, Australian … My grandmother had led a sheltered life as the young wife of an Oxford-educated civil servant, part of Sandakan’s colonial set — garden parties, tennis parties — until the Japanese fleet came in 1942 and changed her life forever.
Was my grandmother a dangerous woman? Yes. Then—did she take up arms, plot escapes, fight back against her oppressors? No. What she did was more miraculous, and courageous. She adapted, and survived. She lived through a war of hunger and violence, abuse and terror. Nursing her child through pneumonia by bartering her engagement ring for medicine. Contracting pneumonia herself and very nearly dying from it. Through all this, she learnt to bow her head, and show respect to her torturers. More miraculously, she learnt to laugh and keep hopeful, making clothes and toys for the children, magicking meals from chicken bones, celebrating Christmas and Mother’s Day.
Many of the things she accomplished in those three years were the small, everyday domestic duties of any 1940s housewife, making do and mending, knowing her place. But she accomplished them in a prison camp surrounded by barbed wire and jungle, where boys dug graves daily for their fathers and where the men she’d once played tennis with were reduced to walking skeletons. It was the job of the women, their male captors insisted, to cook and clean and bow and scrape, to always be modest and obedient. On pain of punishment. Ultimately, on pain of death. (When the orders came at the end of the war to destroy all evidence of the camp, the men were to be marched to their deaths while the women and children were to be burnt in their huts.)
My grandmother survived. Her husband did not. For years, she did not know his fate and would answer knocks on the door with a mixture of hope and dread. Her child, my mother, survived. Because of my grandmother’s ingenuity, and endurance. In the years following the war, she took job after job — as a hairdresser, in an antiques shop — to make a better life for them both. Through it all she never lost her sense of humour, never faltered in her wit or style. When new-look Dior was all the rage, she was the first to be seen sporting it in North Wales (with a playful smile). I told her more than once that her courage humbled me, but she always shook her head. The most she would admit was that the experience made her stronger. I believe it did more than that. It made her a dangerous woman. One whom, despite everything, stayed true to her creed as a wife and mother. Roles which, you might argue, society presses on us as women. Roles with which, certainly, it can oppress us. But during a time and in a place where the easier option was to fall apart, or to rage against the injustice of captivity and cruelty, she bowed but she did not break.
The Japanese treated their prisoners with a calculated contempt. Their many war crimes were recorded by the imprisoned men in the camp. The women, by contrast, kept journals of cheer: small ways in which they were managing to survive with spirit intact. One woman wrote, ‘My last towel has now disintegrated so … I am obliged to shake myself like a dog to get dry.’ Their captors watched the men closely for signs of insurrection. They did not know that the women were waging a war of their own, against despair and bitterness, against defeat.
Some of the most extraordinary records of the war in the Far East are the Changai Quilts, made by female prisoners in Singapore. Each woman worked a separate square, embroidering a picture or a handful of words. This did more than alleviate the boredom of internment, it provided vital evidence that the women (and their children) were alive; the finished quilts were sent to the military hospital at Changi Barracks, where husbands and fathers were held. It’s no myth that, in wartime, morale saves more men than food and water. Finding them engaged in the demure industry of embroidery, their captors can hardly have considered these women dangerous and yet they were defying every expectation—not only by the fact of their own survival, but in playing such a crucial part in the survival of Changi’s most wretched prisoners.
Back in England, my grandmother secured a place on a teacher training course at Bletchley Park, the UK’s code breaking capital, where women had helped to crack the Enigma Code which precipitated the end of the war. My grandmother and hundreds like her had broken codes of their own, refusing to fit neatly into the boxes — literal and figurative — fate had allotted them. These women stayed cheerful, mischievous, generous and energetic. Nothing daunted them, not even the long shadow cast by the war through which they’d suffered and survived. I grew up watching my grandmother dodging shadows, always finding the sun, the first to see it rise over the cold beach as we’re sipping hot coffee and finishing off the sardine sandwiches.
‘Here it comes!’ My grandmother points and we scramble to our feet and run with her, racing to where to the sun is polishing the sea to silver.
Featured image shows Sarah Hilary’s grandparents with her mother. Sarah Hilary author photo by Linda Nylind. 31/1/2014. Both used with permission.