In 1944 Japanese forces occupy Burma, my father is jobless and Mum has sold all her jewellery to buy food. We are starving.
Dad’s non-Christian relatives are wealthy merchants. Despite the war they live comfortably, often enticing us to abandon our Christian faith by promising delicious meals and ice cream for dessert if we convert to Islam. With quivering limbs, we children listen, swallow hard and lick our lips. Already our legs and bellies are swollen with beri-beri. My eldest brother, Rupert, also shivers and shakes with bouts of malaria.
Although sorely tempted by their offers, we don’t abandon our faith. Mum is adamant she would rather die than give up her faith. She instils in us the strength to bear our sufferings and to believe that the Lord will come to our aid.
Our plight worsens when our young sister Rose burns with fever and her body breaks out in spots. We can’t afford a doctor, so Dad calls in a herbalist. He tells Mum to lick the rash on Rose’s face, especially around her eyes, to prevent sores and loss of sight. Then he orders them to remain isolated from the rest of us, as smallpox is highly contagious.
Mum follows all instructions.
The period of waiting wears on: long and monotonous. The hint of death drives me to despair. I creep to my bed like a wounded animal in its cave. My stomach growls. I hold my distended belly. My legs feel too weak to carry me. Sleep remains my only solace. Time drags on. I don’t see Dad except at nights. Perhaps he remains with his relatives during the day and has his meals with them.
Even though we haven’t abandoned our faith, every evening the relatives bring something for us to eat. I am only eight and am at home, almost alone, because I was kept at home for fear the Japanese would capture me for their brothels. Rupert is too ill to accompany Dad or to eat and Mum refuses to have a bite. She is praying in her room. I wait until my brother, Bertie, returns home from his wanderings. He shares the food between us and we eat in silence. Then he relates his exploits.
Bertie keeps me going during the terrible period when I live in fear of death. I’d always been fond of him, but from then on, he remained a rock I clung to.
As the weeks drag on, in an attempt to re-take the country from Japanese forces, Allied bombing increases in intensity. Dad and the boys dug a trench in the back yard, and every night when the sirens scream, Lancasters rumble overhead. We rise from our beds and race into the air-raid shelter. Mum and little Rose can’t shelter with us in the trench until the danger of contagion passes, so Mum grabs her and crawls beneath the bed whenever the sirens sound their shrill warning.
I huddle in fear and pray for them.
Late one night, bombers fly over in force. They come in waves, breaking the silence like rolls of thunder. The earth trembles from the roar of anti-aircraft guns and the crump of bombs, dislodging dirt from the sides of the trench.
Amid the noise and confusion I hear a dull thud from the direction of the house. I expect a blast to follow, and picture a bomb falling on my mother and Rose as they crouch beneath the bed. I imagine them buried below a pile of rubble and long to rush indoors to save them.
But no explosion follows.
I half-rise to my feet.
Bertie cries, ‘An unexploded bomb must have fallen on our house.’
Hands on the damp earthen sides, we feel our way and scramble out of the trench, now filled with dust and smoke.
Mum runs through the haze towards us with Rose in her arms. Tears streak down her dust-covered face like snail tracks. ‘The house is on fire,’ she screams, above the drone of the planes, explosion of bombs and pounding of anti-aircraft guns.
The full moon lights our way until we reach the house and race up the stairs. An odour, which I learn later is cordite, assails my nostrils. Flames leap and roar in the boys’ bedroom.
Mum stops me before I enter. She hands my sister to me. ‘God will protect you, Hazel, and not let you catch small-pox from Rose. Look after her. I’m going to help put out the fire.’
I extend my arms, and the toddler nestles there, looking angelic with her eyes shut. Fresh scars, from which scabs have already fallen, pit her face. To prevent her from scratching, Mum has tightly secured her hands. Rose is swathed in a soft, white sheet like a shroud, with only her face visible. I hold her close and enter the room. The incendiary bomb sizzles, letting out blue sparks and orange flames. The heat from the blaze warms my skinny limbs. Smoke stings my eyes. I sneeze.
The boys drench their beds with water and Mum and Dad douse the incendiary bomb with sand. Finally, the fire is extinguished.
I squeeze my little sister, happy that she and Mum have escaped injury.
Next morning Mum beckons us. ‘Sit down and let me tell you what happened last night.’
Her eyes glisten as she talks. ‘Last night, while the bombs rained down, Rose sang Father, We Thank Thee for the Night. Her eyes were shut as she trilled out the hymn. I placed my hand on her forehead. Her temperature had dropped. I knew the crisis had passed.
‘My heart beating wildly, I fell to my knees and said, “Thank you, God, for saving my child.”’
She shakes her head and goes on. ‘If my faith had wavered when I witnessed the family sick and starving, this sign from Heaven only served to strengthen me. I got up, my trust in the Lord restored. As the bombs exploded, I held Rose to my breast and hid in the bomb-shelter we’d made beneath the dining table. I used my body as a shield, and prayed as the planes roared above. The house shuddered with the vibration from their engines. A bomb whistled down. I heard a thud followed by a sizzling, like a fire, from the boys’ room. Still holding on to Rose, I rushed towards the sound. An incendiary bomb had burst into flames between the boys’ beds.’
Mum clasps her hands and looks heavenwards.
I grip the arms of my chair and gasp. Surely the Lord had performed three miracles for us that night. Not only had he saved my sister’s life from a deadly disease, but he had prevented my brothers’ death by ensuring they were in the trench before the bomb landed, and saved my mother and sister from the bomb too.
I thank God, grateful we hadn’t succumbed to the temptation to abandon Him for the sake of a full stomach and ice cream for dessert!