by Alicia Anckorn
My grandfather Fergus Anckorn returned home to England on 9th November 1945, after three years of captivity in the Far East. When I was growing up, he often told me of his experiences as a FEPOW, and would conjure vivid imagery as he spoke – such was his command of language and his storytelling ability. After my grandfather’s passing in 2018, I found that writing about him was a good way to deal with my grief. Below are two such pieces – a poem about memory and homecoming, and a story about my grandfather’s many encounters with Death. He was a very special man, and I am proud to share his incredible story and help preserve the memory of his extraordinary life.
Alicia with her grandfather
My grandfather passed away in 2018 at the age of 99. He was a prisoner of war of the Japanese, but also a talented magician, who used his talent with sleight of hand to help himself and his comrades survive in the camp. He was not a religious man, and although those who heard his life story would often suggest that a divine power was protecting him, he shunned this notion. For him, a benevolent God would not have left his friends to die, and he could not imagine why he would have been chosen to survive in their place. In 2016, part of his incredible life story was included in the final, winning act of a young magician and soldier on Britain’s Got Talent. I have an enduring memory of my grandfather standing onstage surrounded by the Household Cavalry with his medals glinting under the lights. I am lucky enough to be able to watch that moment over and over again; thanks to his numerous appearances on television and radio I will never find myself struggling to remember the sound of his voice, and how he would laugh when people gasped in amazement at his conjuring tricks and the astonishing tales of his wartime experience.
I had a very close relationship with my grandfather, and he instilled in me a love of stories and language. He was always adamant that when he died, his body was to be left to medical science. I am fascinated by the idea of so much history contained in the body of one person. The institution which received his body noted that with his donation, he would continue on as a ‘silent teacher’. His body and mind, each with their own constellation of scars, have now both served as testimony to the horrors of war, the power of forgiveness and utter embracement of being alive.
If my grandfather held anything sacred, it was the power of the written word, and the ability that stories have to transport us to different times and places. He gifted to me my first Terry Pratchett book, offering up a world of magic to which it seemed that my grandfather had always been privy. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Death is given a character and personified. Death is not cruel or malicious, but simply an entity trying to do a good job. My grandfather had many brushes with mortality during the war, from being blown up and nearly losing his right hand in the Battle of Singapore, to being one of only a few survivors of the infamous Alexandra Hospital Massacre. Towards the end of his life, I joked with him that Death would be out of breath from trying to catch up with him for so long, an idea which he laughed at and seemed to relish. Many people have commented before that he cheated Death, but I prefer to think of it it as an old, enduring friendship.
Fergus Anckorn, 1918-2018
Fergus awoke to a figure standing by his bed. The room was black as an inkwell, but he recognised the figure looming in the darkness.
MR FERGUS ANCKORN, BORN ON THE TENTH OF DECEMBER, NINETEEN-EIGHTEEN?
Ah yes, there it was. The words appeared in Fergus’ head rather than through his ears. It was nice not to need his hearing aids.
“Yes, but I suspect you already knew that, didn’t you?” Fergus sat up in his bed. He suddenly felt as though a weight had been lifted from his entire being. The figure projected a noise which reminded Fergus of a soft, far away rumble of thunder on an August afternoon. The figure may or may not have been trying to laugh.
I CERTAINLY DID, MR ANCKORN. THE NAME THING IS MORE OF A FORMALITY, TO BE HONEST. IF I APPEAR WITH NO INTRODUCTION, PEOPLE SEEM TO GET SPOOKED.
Fergus regarded the figure, without noticing he didn’t need to reach for his glasses to see. It looked much the same as the last time he had seen it – tall, draped in a hooded cloak which was so black it seemed to call to you to fall into its abyss. As before, the cloak seemed to ripple as though touched gently by an underwater current. Below the hood was utter darkness, but two ice-blue sparks held Fergus’ gaze.
“Scared? Of you?” Fergus asked. “That’s ridiculous, when I go, I’m not going to be frightened at all. It’ll be just another Tuesday as far as I’m concerned.”
WELL… YES. THAT’S THE THING, MR ANCKORN. I BELIEVE TODAY IS A THURSDAY.
“Oh. Today’s the day, is it?”
YES, MR ANCKORN. EXCUSE ME, I’M NOT VERY USED TO THIS. PEOPLE DON’T USUALLY HAVE MULTIPLE APPOINTMENTS WITH ME.
“No, I suppose they don’t! It has been a while now, hasn’t it? And I think you can call me Fergus now we’ve known each for so long.”
THAT’S TRUE ENOUGH. I THOUGHT I HAD YOU BACK IN 1942.
Fergus remembered. He remembered being a young man, clammy with terror in the driver’s seat of a sweltering lorry, surrounded by explosions and gunfire. He could see himself curled up inside the shuddering metal leviathan when reality split open with a white-hot flash of light. He remembered a nebula of pain radiating from his right hand – and in the abject torrent of smog and dirt and blood, a presence, which regarded him for a moment and seemed to fade into the chaos. That was the first time.
The second time came shortly afterwards, in a hospital heaving with the wounded, where the walls seemed to crack under the weight of the tremendous suffering. Fergus was lying on a stretcher, ether-dizzy, drifting from consciousness to nothingness and back again. Then, through the thickness of sleep he heard the rough staccato of shouted orders and the sickly sound of blades invading flesh. “Poor Mum,” he whispered to himself as he tried in vain to stop the anguished screams of soldiers, doctors and nurses from reaching his ears. With Heraclean effort, Fergus dragged his head under his pillow and awaited his final visitor. Suddenly, he felt a slight pressure on his right hand, and blood erupted from the wound. It was as though his stitches had been loosened by the brush of ghostly fingertips.
NOT YET, MR ANCKORN, came a voice echoing inside his head.
WE WILL SEE EACH OTHER AGAIN.
The words rang in Fergus’ mind as he lost his grip on consciousness and fell back into the deep black trench of slumber. A Japanese soldier walked by the bed and saw a still, covered body, red blood advancing on the white sheet like the Imperial flag. Death had already visited here.
Fergus remembered the cruel assault of tropical heat and how the night would descend on the prisoners like an ambush. He remembered the ever-present background whine of hunger, like a badly-tuned wireless. He would perform magic tricks for his comrades in an effort to raise morale, in an attempt to forget that they felt like shadows of the men who had been captured. Every day another of his comrades fell, surrendering their lives to the heat, the starvation, the disease, and the brutality of their captors. Fergus felt himself vanishing in the wild indifference of the rainforest. He remembered standing in a line with other prisoners, a screaming guard in his face and a knife baring its teeth at his throat, when out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a hooded figure…
The figure was now facing Fergus dead-on.
“Is this it now?” asked Fergus, as his lungs wrenched in breath after breath, his body drenched in sweat and dirt.
IT CERTAINLY SEEMS THAT WAY, DOESN’T IT, MR ANCKORN, came the reply from under the midnight-black hood.
“Look at me,” said Fergus, gesturing to his own skeletal frame, “If you fancy a holiday, I could bloody well take over for you.”
I’M AFRAID IT DOESN’T QUITE WORK LIKE THAT, the figure responded.
“You’ve been here for a long time now,” said Fergus. “I’ve seen you. You took my friends.”
I KNOW. IT’S ALL PART OF THE JOB, MR ANCKORN.
“Oh yes? Well. Let me show you what I do for a living. If you can tell me how it’s done, I’ll go with you. What do you say to that?”
The figure seemed to think for a moment.
WELL… I SUPPOSE I COULD PUSH BACK MY NEXT APPOINTMENT. IT TAKES A WHILE TO GET TO POLAND FROM HERE ANYWAY.
The livid guard and the other prisoners were still trapped in a single moment of fury and desperate fear. Fergus was not afraid.
“Very good,” said Fergus, the echo of a grin on his face as he undid the canvas strap on his wrist, which held a minuscule photograph of himself next to a bespectacled young woman with a broad smile.
“Now,” Fergus held the figure’s gaze. “Watch my hands very carefully…”
Fergus let out a laugh which carried across the room from his bed.
”Oh yes, I got you there, didn’t I? Did you ever try to work out how I’d done it?”
SOMETHING TO DO WITH A RUBBER BAND?
“Well, I’m certainly not going to tell you now. But I ought to thank you. Your loss of that bet gave me seventy-five more years.”
I HAVE SINCE UPDATED THE RULES TO DISALLOW WAGERS OR CONJURING TRICKS OF ANY KIND.
Fergus grinned. He had never been a man to bow to authority. His reputation for audacity had led to some quite precarious situations during his time in the Royal Artillery. Anckorn, are you giving me a funny look? No sir, you’ve got one, but I didn’t give it you. It was worth the punishment to see his friends laugh. And then there was that night in the camp when he was performing magic for the commandant, when he had worked out that if he made food items disappear and reappear, the guards wouldn’t eat anything he had touched. Of course – the prisoners were vermin to their captors. A tin of fish here, a couple of bananas there… it was enough to feed himself for a week, maybe even two. Then he’d got ambitious, and wanted to help his comrades, so he had come up with a plan. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, that particular plan had led to a fifty-egg omelette and a narrow escape from a nasty beheading. Fergus could have sworn he’d seen a shadowy form in the corner of the tent that day, too…
REMINISCING, ARE YOU, FERGUS?
“A little. You and I have run into each other so often. It’s rather strange that this is the last time.” ALL THINGS MUST COME TO AN END.
“Yes, of course. That’s something of which I am certain.”
DON’T YOU WANT TO KNOW WHY YOU SURVIVED? ALL THOSE CLOSE CALLS? IT’S BASICALLY THE NUMBER ONE QUESTION I GET WHEN IT COMES TO PEOPLE WHO HAVE HAD NEAR-ME EXPERIENCES.
Fergus shook his head and shot back, “No. What does it matter? I don’t think about yesterday – nothing can change yesterday, it’s history. Don’t think about tomorrow – you might not wake up in the morning. When I woke up each morning in the camp, I would think to myself, I must get through today, whatever happens. Now I’m about to head off into the next world. I’m a little surprised that there is a next world, but I’m ready. There’s no point wasting time wondering about why I got to this moment. I’ve had the most wonderful happy life, since those days. I just want to keep moving forward, whatever that might mean now.”
THAT’S… INTERESTING, said Death, putting a cadaverous hand underneath the hood in what may or may not have been an attempt to scratch its chin (if there was a chin under there at all).
I THINK YOU’RE THE FIRST PERSON TO TURN THAT OFFER DOWN.
“I wouldn’t feel bad about it,” Fergus replied considerately. “There’s a first time for everything.” YOU’RE RIGHT, said Death. I’M LEARNING NEW THINGS ABOUT YOU HUMANS ALL THE TIME.
“Right, well, we ought to get on with it, then.” Fergus stepped out of his bed with ease. Behind the spectral figure, a black door had appeared as if from nowhere. It swung open to reveal what looked like crisp English woods after a light rainfall. Death stood beside him.
EXCUSE THE DOG HAIR ON THE CLOAK. WORD GOT AROUND THAT YOU WERE ARRIVING AND SEVERAL OF OUR CANINE INHABITANTS BECAME QUITE EXCITED. ALSO, A WOMAN SAID SOMETHING ABOUT A WATERING CAN? I DON’T GET HALF THE THINGS YOU PEOPLE SAY TO EACH OTHER THESE DAYS.
Fergus glanced at the time-worn photograph sitting on the dresser by his bed. A plump woman wearing round spectacles and a floral dress stood in a garden in a bout of joyful laughter, a labrador with a shining black coat sitting dutifully at her feet, both frozen in a monochromatic sliver of time and space. “They’re waiting for me, are they? Oh, excellent. Well, it looks like I shall have a wonderful time.” He gestured at the door with a hand wrinkled like the pages of a well-worn book. Permanent bruises had blossomed like sakura under the skin, a map of enemy strikes, but his hand was strong and did not tremble now. “Do I just walk straight through?”
YES, FERGUS. IT’S BEEN A PLEASURE TO SEE YOU AGAIN AFTER ALL THIS TIME.
Fergus nodded at the figure, rose from his bed, and took a step through the door without faltering. A twig snapped on the damp grass underfoot. It was warm, with a slight breeze, and the clouds were sailing lazily across the sky. He looked over to Death, still standing in the room, which seemed to be getting smaller and smaller as he looked on. Death seemed to be gazing at something, a photograph on the wall, a skeletal hand outstretched to touch the tip of the glass frame.
AH YES, said Death. I THOUGHT YOU WERE GREAT ON BRITAIN’S GOT TALENT.
i think of you
the stories you told me
the place and time a dimension and a continent away,
with nothing to anchor them to here and now but
and my small brain
buzzing with words and questions
it happened, you said.
you got through that day. and the next and the next
those three years are still out there somewhere
where you lost them
curled up on the forest floor
drenched in tropical rain, blistered from the sinful heat
crusted black with old blood
in your memory –
the smell of iron
and sepia-toned dust from the roads shaped by
your feather-light footprints
the sun bearing down on you, an inescapable commandant
the railroad stretching before you,
a cruel and toothy grin.
you took solace in the dark
the damp cold nights of england welcomed you home in silence
they did not judge
or try to understand
as the streetlamps softly lit your way
as you drew in each grateful breath
and exhaled wisps of gunmetal.
now we sit together
and you tell me how it was
the years between us as wide as a river
and your stories a bridge to cross them.
Poem by Alicia Anckorn