How Thomas Lived in England, How He Prepared To Die, And How He Died

In early 1951 Thomas, Evelina and Brian returned to the United Kingdom, making the month-long journey by ship:

 

At first they lived with Thomas’s parents in Windsor, in a large Victorian semi partly bought with the proceeds of Thomas’s big 1940 win on a sweepstake at the Happy Valley race course. Then they moved to the naval town of Portsmouth. Thomas was of the generation in which most men expected to work to support their families. In Portsmouth he was a junior manager for the NAAFI (Navy Army and Air Force Institutes). He lived in a flat surrounded on three sides:  by the dark stand of Fratton Park Football Ground (home to Portsmouth FC), by the long, low building of the NAAFI Social Club and by the large, noisy factory itself. He must have longed for the light and the beauty of far-away Hong Kong, but he was never one to complain.

To keep the old days in his mind there was a slow but steady stream of visitors from across the world:

In 1952 his second son was born; now his family was complete. A couple of years later he left the NAAFI because he wanted to join his parents and his brothers and sisters, who all lived in or near Windsor.

 Some time before leaving Hong Kong Evelina and her boss – echoing Thomas’s pre-war good fortune on the horses – had a huge win on a lottery. She and Thomas hired a floor of the Hong Kong Hotel to celebrate, but most of the money was put aside, enabling them to buy a house in Windsor outright.  Thomas designed it himself, incorporating some of the principles of Feng Shui – as far as I know it’s the first house in Britain to consciously use ideas from this system! It’s also strangely reminiscent of the bungalow in Stanley where he spent the time between May 1943 and August 1945: Thomas and Evelina lived through the great consumer boom of the 1950s and 1960s in a bungalow that must have reminded them of the one in which they’d spent two years slowly starving, crowded into a small room and lacking everything beyond what was needed for immediate survival.

It was in this house that Thomas was to live until his death in January, 1985. They filled it with things from Hong Kong. Thomas had owned three trunks full before the war, all of them looted of course, and the objects that filled the house were brought back in the one trunk that he’d collected post-1945. For most of the rest of his life he worked in one factory or another on the Slough Trading Estate –  made famous in Ricky Gervais’s TV comedy, The Office. He wasn’t particularly happy in any of them. For many years he was a manager in a factory making sweet cigarettes, which his sons thought an excellent arrangement, but he didn’t like his boss and the work didn’t appeal to him much. His last job as canteen manager in a large engineering works probably suited him best. In any case, he never stopped wanting to work. He’d begun his life in Hong Kong by claiming to be older than he was in order to get a job with Lane Crawford, and ended up changing his age in the opposite direction in order to avoid being compulsorily retired.

I think he was really happiest using the skills as a master baker he’d learnt during a hard 1920s apprenticeship, but that wasn’t the kind of work he was offered. Eventually he was able to make some use of these talents by giving popular baking classes at a further education college close to Windsor, and he was in great demand as a judge for local baking and cooking competitions.

He went back to Hong Kong once, as a guest of his last employers, the Garden Company, who celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 1976:

Thomas, probably with T. F. Cheung, one of the founders of the Company and visitor to Windsor on at least one occasion

In late 1984, as the great miners’ strike was dividing the country, Thomas, by now as firmly conservative as he’d once been radical, was dying of bowel cancer. It was a situation reminiscent of that in Terrence Rattigan’s play In Praise Of Love: Thomas didn’t want to upset his family, so claimed that the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him, while Evelina and the boys knew exactly what was wrong, but pretended to believe Thomas so as not to cause him further distress.

One Saturday Brian was walking with his wife Jane up the bottom part of the hill that makes up Windsor’s main street when he came upon Thomas, dressed in his best suit and waistcoat and sporting one of the elaborate tie pins he’d always favoured. He looked embarrassed – Brian was obviously going to ask him what he’d been doing to need such a special outfit. Nothing in particular, he was just out for a walk…Brian ended the conversation quickly, as he knew he’d put on his best clothes to walk for one last time along the street that meant so much to him, the commercial and social centre of the town he’d grown up in, and to which he’d  returned to bring up his children.

The other place his mind went back to as he prepared for death was Hong Kong. In his last weeks he woke up early because of the discomfort he was in; he’d get out of bed, leaving Evelina asleep, and go around the house picking up the vases, the statues, all the objects he’d brought back in 1951  to remind him of his time in the Colony. As he held these things in his hands a thousand memories must have filled his mind – times, places, people, all drenched in the rich light of the Far East:

He never spoke about this but Evelina knew he was doing it because he never put anything back in the exact place he found it!

Brian sat behind him in the taxi that took him away for the last time. As the taxi left the close, Thomas didn’t look back – he was keeping up the pretence he was ‘going in for tests’, so he didn’t want to show he knew he would never see his bungalow again. Brian was amazed at his self control.

Thomas entered what was still at that time the town hospital:

Every day Brian woke up crying; later he’d visit the hospital.  There was nothing unusual about the way Thomas died; it happens like that to all strong men and women who are gradually weakened by the relentless action of cancer and of the morphine that makes the pain tolerable. Each time Brian touched him the cold had spread further as the heat and life retreated to the core. Eventually, the hands that had once pounded opponents in the boxing ring and effortlessly slipped baking trays in and out of ovens found it hard to lift a tea cup. It wasn’t long before the family got the inevitable phone call telling them to come and say goodbye.

Thomas had been asleep for almost the whole of the previous two days. Brian feared that the goodbyes would be all one sided. After an hour or so he left Evelina, his brother and Jane by the bed while he went to get a cup of tea. The moment he returned, one of the most amazing things he’s ever seen took place.

 Suddenly Thomas woke up. His eyes found Evelina, who was sitting by the left side of his bed, not too far from his head. He looked at her. There was not a trace of morphine induced stupor in his look; on the contrary, it was totally alert. Thomas’s two sons were also close to the bed, but he knew, with utmost clarity, that his final business was only with Evelina. He held her eyes for a few seconds. There was no fear, no regret, none of the emotions we might expect in someone about to die. It was a gaze of lucid impersonality. Brian, watching amazed, understood intuitively what was happening, but it took years of contemplation and research before he could even begin to put this understanding into words.

Thomas was summoning Evelina and inviting her for a final time into the relationship that had begun amidst the shells and bombs of the Hong Kong war. He spoke to her – completely without words, of course– of the strange courtship in the brutal confusion of the early Hong Kong occupation. Of the hot day in late June 1942 when the Americans started their journey home and the two scared but hopeful lovers were married at St. Joseph’s Church. Of their growing hunger, of the hope and terror brought by the fierce American air raids, of their fear of the Kempeitai and the horror beyond words when they were kept prisoner in the French Hospital in the days following the arrest of Dr. Selwyn-Clarke.

That look contained their relief at being sent to Stanley, instead of hauled off to a torture chamber, and the way that relief turned back to horror when, the day before their first wedding anniversary, the Kempeitai came into Camp and took away Frederick Hall, a fellow employee of Thomas’s, and four other internees. It spoke of the black day, October 29, 1943, when they’d been with Mrs. Eileen Hyde while her husband was beheaded on Stanley Beach, alongside Alexander Sinton, who they’d lived with in the French Hospital, and 31 others.  All the rest of Stanley life was there too, the grim companionship, the failing food supply, the cold, dark winters, the bombs, the defiance and determination that kept most of the internees alive… The exhilaration of the Japanese surrender and of the first glimpse of the ships that came to finally rescue them, the celebration and mourning as lovers and friends met, or did not meet, in liberated Hong Kong…all this and so much more was summoned up in a gaze lasting no more than a few seconds in a hospital in a small Berkshire town, brought into the present with the total openness of a dying man with no reason to cling to, deny or distort his experience.

It was not that Thomas didn’t love his children; he was, by any standards, an excellent father. But they were irrelevant to this, the deepest part of his life. His final leave-taking could only be with Evelina. Nor was it that their marriage had been full of love in its final decades. At that bedside Brian learnt that there was something deeper than love, although he still doesn’t know what it is.

It was with love, and sorrow, that Evelina responded. She hugged Thomas and stayed with him until she felt the dying begin. But as Thomas’s muscles began to let go, his false teeth came out and started to choke him. Luckily Jane, his daughter-in-law whom he’d loved from the start, understood what had happened, opened his mouth and skilfully extracted the teeth. Thomas could now die undisturbed, and in less than a minute it was over.

Lucid impersonality is not for those whose lives will continue. The tears began at once, continued for a long time, but concerned Thomas no more.

  

My spirit will not haunt the mound
Above my breast,
But travel, memory-possessed,
To where my tremulous being found
Life largest, best.

Thomas Hardy

One of the small islands that surround Hong Kong:  ‘Below was a drop of about 400 feet’

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  1. Pingback: What Strange Force? | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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