A loud cry turned the heads of many, including mine. I saw a man wearing a coat and neck tie running across a row of shops and passers-by. Our eyes met, a man with blonde hair, bright blue eyes and thin beard, collided into me and we both fell to the ground. He immediately got up while pulling me up along with him.
“Sorry… I am so sorry,” he said with a thick British accent and then continued running as he was being chased by two police officers.
I watched as the drama ensued. As soon as the blonde man was grabbed and handcuffed, people who gathered around to watch subsided.
I went on with my day without a care for what had happened during lunch, there were more important matters that needed my attention. I returned to my office which was in a state of dismal. In 1967, two years after independence, the British had announced that the British army will be retreating from Singapore in 1971. I worry for my job, in fact, twenty percent of the citizens of this country worry for their future after the British retreats from Singapore.
Last month, a parade took place to commemorate the British’s contributions and to signify the end of more than a decade of British army’s presence in this region.
I attended the parade ceremony and Chief Air Marshal Sir Brian Kenyon Burnett’s speech was still vivid in my memory. He spoke to hundreds of government officials. Although his speech was intended to reassure the crowd, it further intensified our confusion and anxiety towards our future predicaments. According to the Chief Air Marshal, as a compromise, the British side has agreed to postpone the retreatment date to the end of December 1971.
My thoughts were cut short when my name was called.
“Your report should have been on my table an hour ago!”
“I’m sorry, Sir. I will finish it now,” I said to the British man who is a retired Major. Hugh Black manages the office efficiently. Regardless of rank, every worker in the office is instructed like a soldier. I watch him limp with a walking stick. Words had it he sustained the injury while defending Singapore during World War II.
“Sir,” I knocked the door to his office before entering with a neatly-typed report in hand.
“Sit,” he said, pointing to an office chair.
Hugh Black looks through the report on his table while smoking cigar. The ceiling fan blew hot air into the office. Hugh Black’s face was turning red. He kept wiping his face with a handkerchief and then tucking it back into the pocket of his coat.
I was amazed of this chubby man. Despite the extreme hot weather, he still wore his coat and neck tie and every time he goes out, he will wear a fedora hat and brings along a walking stick. His thin hair was always neat. His crown was his thick beard that was well-groomed, like a farmer cutting away shrubs.
Hugh Black puts the report on his table to the side and looks straight at me, “are you worried about your job?”
“Not only me, Sir, I think everyone who are non-British citizens in this office.”
It was Hugh Black’s turn to nod in agreement. He started reminiscing.
“I will miss this place. London is too cold. The weather is not suitable for my beard. It will bristle easily.”
Hugh Black’s thoughts were cut short when I called his name… ”Mr Black, Sir…”
He looked through the reports that I handed to him with a smile. “Don’t worry Ahmad Zaidi. I will write letters of recommendation for all of you before we return.”
I finished the reports that had to be done that day. When I was done typing, I placed my hand into my pocket to search for the drawer key and felt the shape of a coin. Weird, as I rarely kept coins in my pocket. I pulled out a 50 cent British coin from my pocket.
I explored my memory. Weirdly, I have never had anything like this in my pocket. I did not think anything of it, swiftly kept it inside my pocket and hurried of to the drive-in cinema in Jurong.
Singapore National Gallery
Throughout the journey, the hair on my neck stood up. It felt as though someone is observing all of my movement. When I turned and look back, I did not realize anything suspicious, but the feeling lingers throughout my journey.
I was just standing along Eu Tong Sen Street when a lady stood beside me and held my arms and pulled me close towards her. I stared at her blond hair reaching to her shoulders, a part of her face covered by a hat. Before I managed to fight off, her hand was pointing a pistol to my left ribs and urging me to cross the road.
“I suggest you follow my instructions,” said the lady pointing the gun to my body. I did not ask much.
“Stop here and turn into the street!” instructed the mysterious woman.
I went into the street that she meant. The afternoon wind swept the corner of the street bringing the smell of rubbish. Now, she pointed to my head. “Where is the object that he gave you?”
From the corner of my eye, I tried looking at the blond. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
The tip of the pistol is pushed toward me. “I saw him giving it to you. Where is the object that he gave you?”
“I do not know what you mean!” I exclaimed.
The blonde lady looked at me, and in that moment I heard a puff behind her. She pulled her head back, her face creased in pain, I heard her breath shorten. The pistol in her hand dropped, her body became weak and she fell to the floor. Blood flowed from the wound on her back.
I looked up and saw a man walking off at the far corner of the street.
The Arts House at The Old Parliament
* * *
Once I returned to the office, I sat and took a long breath. My mind was in a clutter. It felt like I was in a Jefri Zain’s film. I rummaged through my mind, it realigned to the 50 cent British coin in my pocket.
The voice of the woman kept playing in my head… ‘I saw him giving it to you. Where is the object that he gave to you?’
My hands trembled when I slid my hands, throwing the contents of my pocket on the table. I rummaged through everything until I found the 50 cent British coin. Automatically I held it tight as though it was something so precious.
Now, the voice of the blond man was heard in my ears… ‘Sorry… I am so sorry.’
Maybe this is what he meant. He knocked me and put this in the pocket of my pants. It is like a curse being put on me. I open my tight gripped hands. The weight of the coin seemed weird. I held it and saw the words Malay and British Borneo 1961 surrounding the number 50. Even the width of the coin seemed off. I tried to peel the sides off with my nails. Inside the coin was a hollow part, containing a 4-sided object. I held it between my thumb and my index finger. It looked like a small film.
“What should I do?” I asked myself.
A few minutes passed sitting on my chair, I decided to see Hugh Black. I collected all my files. Outside his office, I heard the rough voice talking on the telephone. I knocked on the door of his office. Hugh Black motioned for me to enter.
Immediately, I saw the file that was spread wide on his table, attracting the attention of the retired Major. There was a photo of a blond man, blue pearly eyes with a thin moustache beside a woman with a blond hair. I managed a glance of the report.
-1945- / -Yamashita- / -Filipina-
Suddenly, my vision turned dark when I realize a cover was put over my head. Pain crept quickly through my back before I passed out.
Sir Stamford Raffles Statue
* * *
My vision was covered with a black cloth that covered my whole head. I felt the heat. Both hands and leg tied. The whole of me covered with fear, I started to struggle to breathe. The smell of a cigar became stronger engulfing the room.
My eyes were stinging when the cloth was pulled off, vision blurred, and a few moments passed before I saw Hugh Black sitting in front of me. A room with no windows contained the both of us.
He smiles, displaying his yellow teeth.
“It is such a shame that you are being dragged into this situation. You Ahmad Zaidi had a big potential.”
Hugh Black held his walking stick, walked slowly toward me. “Where is the object he gave to you?”
My mind automatically knew he was talking about the 50 cent coin in my pocket.
“Who was he sir? An MI-6 agent?”
Hugh Black smiled and swiftly answered my question. “Ex MI-6 agent. Someone of least importance. He and his girlfriend loved to poke their noses around!”
The head of the stick was used to poke my abdomen. Pain, glutted and nauseous until I threw up. Once again Hugh Black asked me.
“Where is the object he gave to you?”
I kept silent.
Hugh Black went up behind me and put his walking stick to my neck and pulled it slowly. My throat strangled, breaths were obstructed. My heart started to race in fear. I struggled trying to gasp for oxygen that was slowly being pulled out of my lungs.
“Where is the object that he gave you?” Hugh Black urged further with a stern voice.
I gasp enough courage to finally throw out the words. “In my pockets.”
Hugh Black released his stick. The air surged into my struggling lungs. Coughed and gasp for air. Hugh Black’s fingers were scouring my pockets until he found the 50 cent British coin.
Delight colored his face. He tried to pick the side of the coin like a peanut. Holding the 4-sided object inside the coin, Hugh Black carved out a huge smile on his lips.
“You shot the lady at Eu Tong Sen Street.”
“I had to eliminate the competition,” said Hugh Black without any emotion. He sat back on his seat.
“What about the man who gave me the coin?”
“Both of them helped me to get this. But their service is no longer needed,” Hugh Black joked.
“Do you believe in legends?” asked Hugh Black.
I tried to waste time and said the name that I saw in a flash earlier. “The Yamashita legend?”
Hugh Black went silent for a moment. “Do you know that for 30 years the existence of Yamashita’s treasure was pushed away by archeologists and history? Now, I get to proof that the captured treasure by the Malayan Tiger is kept in a cave and an underground complex in the Philippines by the Japanese military.”
Hugh Black came nearer, he showed me the small 4-sided object contained inside the coin. He started a monologue.
“In 1851, James Glaisher suggested the use of microphotography as a means to ensure the safety of important documents. It is compact, and the cost of maintaining it was far smaller than the paper system we have now.”
What’s is the relation to Yamashita’s treasure?” I asked.
“During World War Two, the American and Commonwealth militaries, launched Operation Musketeer to take over the control of the Philippines from the Japanese. When the Japs surrendered in 1945, the United States and Commonwealth countries captured all secret documents from the Japanese soldiers. One of it was the location of Yamashita’s treasures,” Hugh Black begin.
“However, in the hustle and bustle of winning the war, these documents were kept in an archive. Everyone forgot about it. In the late 60s, British and American military began microforming documents from the Second World War and my company was responsible for taking care of these document through microphotography. One of the clerks stumbled upon the location of Yamashita’s treasure. That is what I have in my hands for my retirement.”
Hugh Black stared at the contents of the coin.
“For 50 years I have been in the service as a soldier. For Queen and Country! In the end, what have they given me? An office and a desk. This is what will secure my future when I am thrown back to London.”
I wait for Hugh Black to come close to me. All the while, in his spirited monologue, I loosened the ropes. I held back the pain every time I twisted and turned the rope that bound my hand slowly, until I managed to release it.
I realized Hugh Black slid his hands into his pocket on his jacket and took out a pistol. He gleamed while pointing his pistol at me. He came close, so near, I could smell his breath. I jumped at the opportunity and released a right hook across his face, causing the pistol in his hand to drop and he passed out. I used whatever little time I had to release the bind on my legs. My view did not steer away from Hugh Black who was slowly crawling, his hand searching out for the pistol that he dropped. Without a further thought I raised the chair I was tied to and slammed it on his back. He passed out totally.
* * *
I softened the cloth given by the paramedics on the skin of my neck. After the police took statements, I was approached by a man wearing a blue, long-sleeved shirt. His short black hair combed neatly, not one hair was displaced.
He introduced himself as an officer from the British military and was concerned with what had happened. He asked me with his thick British mixed with Scottish accent.
“Have you seen the mentioned microfilm?”
I shook my head. He was unconvinced with my lie. He held out a card and with a smile said to me, “If you remember anything.”
I smiled, understanding what he meant by that. When I was allowed to return home, I walked along the Singapore River. I slid my hands in my pocket and held out a 50-cent British coin. Without thinking twice, I threw it into the river.
I whispered to myself as a reminder.
“Do not chase the legend that will not bear any fruit, let it be forged in memories as stories. Look forward. Chase dreams, not legends!”
Elgin Bridge at the Singapore River