Every Christmas Eve my father polished the silver.  It was an annual ritual he appeared to relish, though it was hard to be certain, since my father was an undemonstrative man. 

He always followed the same routine.  First he would prepare by covering the kitchen table with newspaper and then donning an apron and a pair of rubber gloves. Next, one by one, he’d retrieve the tureens, platters and candelabra from the depths of the dining room sideboard, place them on a tray and carry them to the kitchen to begin his sacred task. 

Once he’d polished all the pieces, he’d carefully arrange them in a display on top of the sideboard.  They were never used, they just sat there catching the light.  Then, on Twelfth Night, before going to bed, my father would put all the silver back in the cupboard, where it would languish until its next appearance on Christmas Eve the following year.

We lived in a modest Victorian semi.  Apart from the silver, there was nothing about it that was in the least ostentatious.  When I was a toddler I took the silver’s annual outing for granted, standing on tiptoe and giggling at my distorted reflection.  Once my mother found me at full stretch trying to lift a piece down.  Panic-stricken, she’d shouted, ‘Don’t touch that!  Your father will be furious’.

I was an only child — my mother was 39 and my father 43 when I was born — and my father clearly resented the fact that I was a girl.  Throughout my childhood he was always short- tempered, leaving me in no doubt that I was an unwelcome complication in his life.  He was never a tactile man, no hugs or kisses, always spurning any displays of emotion.  After my mother died and he was left to fend for himself, I sometimes plucked up the courage to ask him how he was feeling.  It seemed impertinent to ask him something so intrusively personal, with its implication that he might not be coping.  His stock reply was always the same: ‘Mustn’t grumble’.

So, I have never been close to my father though, over the years, he has slowly mellowed and gradually he has become more tolerant and less critical of me.  

It was only when I became a teenager, experimenting with red lipstick and wearing skirts my father considered too short, that I became really curious about the mysterious silver that appeared like clockwork every Christmas, was never used and, it seemed, could only be handled by my father.  Not only was the silver off limits, it slowly dawned on me that it was incongruous, totally out of keeping with everything else in our utilitarian home.  

Whenever I questioned my father about the silver he’d snap, ‘None of your business, young lady’.  It was as if I was asking something outrageously risqué.  My mother was a little more forthcoming, telling me in hushed tones, as if sharing an intimate secret, that she believed the silver was a family heirloom, having once belonged to my paternal grandfather.

My father has always walked with a limp and my mother once told me he’d been a young officer in Singapore when the Japanese were advancing down through the Malayan jungle.  She said he’d been wounded in the fierce fighting before the surrender in 1942.  Intrigued, I asked my father about his wartime exploits.  What had happened to him?  Had he been a prisoner of war?  Or had he evaded capture and, if so, how?   But he was never forthcoming, shrugging his shoulders dismissively: ‘A long time ago.  Never you mind.’  The only information he once grudgingly imparted was that he had stayed on in the army after the war, rising to the rank of major, and leaving in 1956 before meeting and marrying my mother.

My father has been a widower for eight years now, and during the last two he has become increasingly confused and frail.  It’s been sad to see.  He has always been proud and fiercely independent, but gradually the problems escalated beyond control when he started to have accidents: cutting himself with a saw, scalding his hand with boiling water while making a cup of tea, having one fall after another.  Grudgingly, he eventually agreed to go into a care home but, he insisted, only to give him time to recuperate and regain his strength.  In the meantime, I am keeping the house ticking over since he still remains obstinately convinced that he’ll be able to return to independent living. 

However, once incarcerated in the bosom of the nursing home, his energy deserted him and he became inactive – just sitting and gazing out of the window.  When I make my weekly visits, often he says nothing or, if he does speak, it is just to complain that the staff bully him.  He claims that they delight in placing his cups of tea just out of reach and that they make him take showers that are much too hot, chuckling when he protests.

Gradually he has become thinner and weaker and, a few months ago, he took to his bed.  Sides have now been fitted, like a cot, to prevent him falling out. 

With no normal chitchat possible, and feeling desperately bored, I have taken to reading aloud to him from whatever book is near to hand.  He never gives any indication of appreciating this, but neither does it seem to irritate him.  Often I think he just dozes off.  When it’s time for me to leave, he’ll stir himself just enough to whisper accusingly, ‘Don’t leave me like this!’  Ignoring my guilty feelings, I tiptoe out anyway, tell the nurses I’m off and step outside with a sigh of relief, relishing the fresh air and freedom.  

After my dutiful visits, I usually call in at my father’s house to check that all is well and to continue sorting through his belongings.  Not an easy task.  After my mother died, my father let things go.  He became an avid reader, never bothering to tidy up or do any routine maintenance.  I don’t remember him reading books when my mother was alive but, once he was alone, he bought books from the nearby Oxfam shop for a pound or two and he’d sit for hours engrossed in one book after another.  As a consequence, discarded books clutter the whole house, heaped in ungainly piles on every available surface.

I intended to pack the books into cardboard boxes and return them to the charity shop, but I have discovered they have all been defaced.  My father has scrupulously underlined words and passages in every book, often with a red biro, and written numerous comments in the margins and on the inside covers.  ‘Too slow, skipped lots of it’, ‘Gripping stuff, read it twice’, ‘Crap’, ‘Definitely a woman’s book’, ‘A bugger’s muddle, should never have been published’, ‘Hard going, print’s too small’.  

Naturally, safe in the knowledge that I had the house to myself, one of the first things I did was to take a good look at the forbidden silver.  As I lifted each piece out of the sideboard, it felt as if I were doing something outrageously wicked, like breaking into a reliquary and fondling the bones of a saint.  Absurdly, I imagined my father suddenly entering the room and catching me red-handed. 

I was surprised to discover that many of the pieces were damaged.  I hadn’t noticed this before — on its annual outings my father had clearly arranged the silver so that the damage faced the wall.  I wondered what trauma had caused the silver to get bent and dented and what, even in its damaged state, it might be worth.  Had my father ever had it valued?  Was it insured?   Should I get it insured?  Uncertain about the best way forward, I carefully wrapped the pieces in newspaper, returned them to the cupboard and closed the doors.   

Most of the books in my father’s collection are adventure stories, he was particularly fond of books by Wilbur Smith.  But there are also books about WW2, and some about the war in the Far East.  Conspicuous amongst the paperbacks, is a solitary hardback: The Defence and Fall of Singapore, 1940 – 1942 by Brian P. Farrell.  I flicked through it looking at the passages my father had underlined and reading various comments he’d written in the margins.  The chapter describing the fall of Singapore and the ignominious surrender to the Japanese was particularly well thumbed, with whole paragraphs underlined.  On the inside flyleaf my father, in his neat but pinched handwriting, had written:

1SRRA, B Mati, Xmas ‘50

Found myself back in the old officers’ mess.  Apparently, the Japs had used it as a comfort station. 

Regiment in the process of disbanding.  Handing over to the Gurkhas.

My mission: to locate the regimental silver.  Drunk when we dumped it in the jungle so only a vague idea of where to search.  Bonkers, but had to pretend to take it seriously. 

Fortunately, the Colonel knew it was a longshot.  Never let on about our 50/50 arrangement.

Intrigued, I decided to have another look at the silver.  I unwrapped each piece in turn, examining them carefully under the light cast by my father’s Anglepoise lamp.  On some I could just make out an engraving — 1SRRA — nearly erased by my father’s rigorous polishing over many Christmas Eves.  What might 1SRRA mean?   Might it be some sort of obscure silver mark?  I looked online and was astonished to be taken to a website about Sentosa, a resort in Singapore.  There I read that Sentosa, now a small pleasure island, had previously been a British garrison called Blakang Mati, home to the 1st Singapore Regiment, Royal Artillery, and that, in 1942, after fierce fighting, the island had been overrun by the Japanese.

One paragraph in particular jumped out at me.  It read:

‘There’s an intriguing story among soldiers who had served on the island after the Second World War. In the last days before the British surrendered to the Japanese, British officers, fleeing the Officer’s Mess, hid the regimental silver to prevent it from being captured by the Japanese. Some of the silver was recovered in Malaysia, while the rest might still be buried somewhere on the island.’ 

When next I visited my father, I opted to read him the chapter in Farrell’s book about the Japanese entering Singapore.  My father lay in his cot, his eyes closed as usual, giving no indication of whether he was listening or not.  Undaunted, I finished the chapter, turned to the flyleaf and read aloud the note my father had written. 

I put the book aside, leaving the words ‘never let on about our 50/50 arrangement’ hanging in the air.  

After a pause, my father stirred and did something I’d hardly ever seen him do:  he smiled.

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