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The Cards

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They buried you alive, the Japanese. I saw this photograph in a library book. It was black and white and only about three centimetres square. In the foreground there's a deep rectangular pit dug in the earth. It's the size of a small swimming pool. Behind it and coming down the right-hand side towards the front, a line of British soldiers. They're queuing up politely to get into the pit. In the left-hand front corner there's a Japanese guard, just standing there with a rifle. It made me feel sick, to be honest. It wasn't gory, like that other stuff with the ropes and broken tin cans, but it was that image which preyed upon me. Black and white soldiers would queue across the mirror when I brushed my teeth in the mornings; they would descend into their grave in the dark corners of the bedroom when I closed my eyes at night. It took me months to shake them off.

I wanted to know what had happened: what it was that gave Bill his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He never talked about his prisoner of war days. He was such a gentleman; he always used my full name: "Nathaniel". Everyone else calls me "Nate". If he was yawning at work, he'd say, "Sorry, Nathaniel, they were biffing me on the head again last night," not "thrashing", or "torturing", but a cosy little word like "biffing". That was typical of Bill. I asked him once how he coped with it and he just shrugged and said, 'You have to play the cards you're dealt.'

He should have retired years ago, but he didn't want to, and the council didn't make him. He went part-time, and Angus and I did all the heavy work, anyway, although Bill was tall and still wiry. We couldn't have managed without him, to be honest. Bill knew everything about the park. Sometimes he'd stop and hold his finger to his lips, then whisper something to me like, 'Nathaniel, look - weasel!' There it would be in the distance, flying along the ground like some miniature furry skateboard. Other times he'd just stop and say, 'Nathaniel, look…' and then I'd really see the park: That autumn the shrubs around the lake were all citrus colours with the familiar green of the grass as a background. Bill used to say the St. John's Wort looked as if it was giggling.

Bill had his outbursts, of course. Well, I suppose he couldn't take any stress, so we had to be careful not to let him know if anything had gone wrong. It was ok, though, because you could forgive him before he even started, with what he'd been through.

In the mornings, before work, Angus used to do his tai chi in front of the lake. He was strong - more than strong - he was full of Chi: the life force. Angus had red hair and a beard all sculpted short, creating tantalising shapes around the nape of his neck and his cheekbones. His muscles were like rock. The contours of his body moving slowly in front of that shimmering water; well, I couldn't take my eyes off him. He came from the Isle of Skye, but he had trained with monks in Beijing. Angus told me that you build up even more chi if you don't ejaculate. We were alone in the gardeners' hut when he told me that.

Angus tried to teach Bill tai chi once, because it would be good for Bill's nerves. Bill was hopeless. Angus stepped to the right and Bill lurched to the left. Then Angus held up his left arm and Bill waved his right arm. Poor Bill, he looked like a scarecrow on speed. Sweat was starting to break out in front of his receding hairline. In the end, he basically crashed into Angus and Angus started to lose his temper. The mallards were cackling; the Canadian geese were honking. I was terrified Bill was going to go off on one and start rolling his eyes up inside his eyelids again, but it was so funny I couldn't help sniggering. Then - thank God - Bill started laughing, then Angus, too. It was brilliant. When the yummy mummies jogged past staring at us, I nearly wet myself.

I was given the job of choosing the colours for the ornamental garden area. I was proud of that. I designed a scheme inspired by Angus doing tai chi in the sunrise. I didn't tell anyone that, though. It was scarlet gerberas, orange peonies and marigolds for his hair and the russet flush of his cheeks. Then I had emerald green ornamental grasses for the colour of his eyes. Everyone loved it.

So those days - with Bill and Angus and me - were the happiest days of my life. Then along came Eve and the storm and that was the end of it.

I guess her husband didn't make much as a postman, so Eve wanted to work. She'd done a course in gardening. My girlfriend always asks me how she looks every morning before she goes to work, because I always give an honest answer (we love going clothes shopping together at the weekends). So, I was a bit anxious that Eve would ask me if she looked fat in her green overalls because I'd just have to tell her she looked like a big green upholstered settee. She had long fake blonde hair, udders you could feed a herd of calves with and an arse the size of Australia. She had a stupid squeaky voice as if she was talking to infant school children and she was always touching people when she spoke to them. She thought she was deeply spiritual; she was into 'therapies' and health foods. I used to cringe when she opened her mouth.

We had to warn Eve about Bill: not to upset him and that it wasn't his fault.

'Has he tried aromatherapy?' She asked, 'It's ever so good for stress, don't you know? I get lavender for my husband. He gets stressed sometimes. You wouldn't think it, would you, being a postman? You'd think all that walking would be good for him, but he gets so busy, especially with Christmas coming up. Actually, I must get him some more because he must have run out, so I can go down to the health food shop and get some for my husband and for Bill at the same time. It would only take half an hour. That would be good, wouldn't it? Do you think Bill would like that?' She rubbed her hand on Angus's shoulder and looked at him, all wide-eyed and excited. So, I just said, 'to be honest, Eve, you'd be pissing in the wind.'

That night the storm came. The sheer sound of it was overwhelming. It made you wince and shudder. Roaring around the town, it was as if it could prise off your roof with its bare hands, or flip your car over with one whack of its arm. My girlfriend just slept through it all. I've no idea how she managed that, especially when my neighbour's garage door went, and it sounded like fingernails down a blackboard. Then the power cut and you had to be frightened all in the dark, too.

The next morning, Angus and I had both arrived early with the same thought: Bill. As we walked through the entrance gates, there was an ash tree snapped in two, with milky-pink flesh wounds in its grey-green bark. In the distance, at the far side of the dog-walkers' field, we saw the oaks, but not as we were used to seeing them: five had been blown over, heaving out giant balls of earthy roots, taller than a man. Bill was crouching beside an oak, trying to push it back up again, then running to the next one and trying again, then to the next, then back to the first one.

As we walked towards Bill, past the children's play area with the climbing frame tossed on its side, I remembered when I was four and I found a dead starling in the back garden; I smeared cough medicine into its beak and made a little bed for it from a Cooks Matches box with pink Andrex toilet paper inside.

When Bill saw us, he cried out, 'We've got to put them back; we've got to put them back!' He was crouched down, not even trying to push now, just sort of hugging the trunk, trembling. Then his eyeballs began to flicker upwards and back into his head.

That was the first time Eve had seen him like that. She arrived, squealing, 'My husband's shirts are still up on the roof!' then she saw Bill and fell silent. Angus went over and put his arms around Bill's shoulders and got him to the gardeners' shed. We gave him tea and Eve found custard creams ('sugar is good for shock') and Bill calmed down.

The next day Eve came in with her Big Idea. 'We can get him his ex-gratia payment.' She waved The Telegraph at us.

'What's that, then?' Angus asked.

Like a child at show-and-tell, she shook back her peroxide locks, opened the newspaper and read, 'Up to sixteen thousand, seven hundred people would be eligible for ex gratia payments for the unique circumstances of their captivity...' Then she widened her eyes as big as she could and set them on us, 'It would be ten thousand pounds. It would help him. It would give him ac-know-ledge-ment. Let's face it, he's not getting any younger and he shouldn't die this sad. It would show him he's a hero. He might even be in The Courier.'

We thought about all the things Bill could do with the money. He could go and visit his son in New Zealand. I pictured him bringing his holiday photos into work, with all the joy in his eyes, showing us his grandkids.

I went up to the National Archives to get proof for the claim form. Japanese Index Cards of Second World War Allied Prisoners of War and Internees. You order them in advance. Fifty-eight small boxes made of thick tan-coloured board and inside each one, about a hundred little yellowed cards, each with a man's name, rank and army unit, with the name of the camp, all in that old manual typewriter print. I shed a tear, to be honest, looking at them. Bill's name wasn't there, but that was alright because the clerk explained to me the records were 'understandably incomplete' and I could get more information from Bill's regimental museum.

Back at work, I told the others we'd need fifty quid for the research fee. We had a whip round. It would be worth every penny. Eve said she'd give the letter to her husband for posting, although I'd rather have just shoved it in a post box, to be honest.

Anyway, the reply took two weeks to come back. Bill had gone off to the depot that morning and we were so grateful because I don't think we could have waited much longer to open it. When he saw the envelope, Angus grinned and rubbed his hands together. Eve did a little jig.

The letter said, 'Kent Regiment Museum' in large khaki type at the top and had a picture of some sort of fortress. I got Angus to read it out in his gorgeous Highlands accent. He could be a newsreader or something if he wanted to.

It referred to Bill as 'Private W.F. Johns' and then it went on about his regiment having left Burma before Bill joined up. Then it talked about Poona and a load of stuff that was boring, to be honest. We were waiting to get to the bit which said where he was imprisoned: the name of the camp. Angus kept reading, but that sentence never came.

At the end, it said, 'Therefore, I can shed no light on Mr Johns' incarceration at the hands of the Japanese.' Angus read that sentence again, slower. Then he read it louder.

We sat in silence. Then Eve asked, 'What does it mean?'

'It means,' Angus boomed, 'it means that it looks like Bill has made it all up.' Eve said, 'No, he can't have. There must be some mistake; some admin thing. Did you put the right army number?'

'It's the right number and the right name, Eve. It's here in black and white: he never got anywhere near the Japs.' Angus's veins were standing up on his neck. I was so relieved Bill wasn't there because I honestly think Angus might have throttled him. Eve burst into tears. I walked out of the hut and left them to it. I kept thinking that I'd had that black and white photo tearing around, causing havoc in my head all that time, all for nothing. Nobody said a word to Bill. I couldn't wait to get out of that park after that. It just seemed like endless hours scraping up sticky, decaying leaves and dog shit. Then of course there were all those fallen trees to dispose of and no one felt like deciding what to do with them.

About a week later, I walk into the Royal Oak and there are Angus and Eve, with their backs to me at the bar, drinking cider. Angus has his arm around her and he's copping a big handful of her marshmallow backside.

I am now past caring. They can all go to hell as far as I'm concerned. I was lucky, really, because two months ago I got a job in a gorgeous florist's. I'm marrying my girlfriend next spring. I'm going to do the flowers. We're going to have orange and fuchsia roses with peach spray roses and scarlet gerberas. I'm looking forward to it, to be honest. We've been together for three years and it seems the right thing to do. We have a quiet life, but that's good, really, isn't it? Like Bill says, you have to play the cards you're dealt.