The Imposter

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
A tale of discovery

Submitted: November 20, 2016

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Submitted: November 20, 2016

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The Imposter

I cut the twine on the package with a pair of nail scissors then unfolded the waterproof wrapping; my hands trembled. A layer of finely meshed net concealed the object within; my eyes widened as I lifted the net to reveal my Aunt Sophie’s diary and a deck of tarot cards. I recognised them immediately. When I was at home my aunt always kept them in her desk draw; wrapped in a red-velvet square. I remembered the tarot cards particularly; they seemed to play such a significant part in Aunt Sophie’s approach to life.  All the old fears came flooding back; was this the time when I would be exposed and this comfortable life snatched from my grasp. I’m never quite sure how I got here in the first place and why I was chosen to live such a privileged life. Somehow, fate had taken my hand and led me through a labyrinth; I’d arrived in England a stranger, not knowing anyone. When I look back, my life so far has been a dream. I’ve tried to piece things together but much of what I know has been gleaned from books and the fragile memories of a bewildered child.  

My story begins at an orphanage in Singapore, the year was 1942 and the month February; I was perhaps six years old and my name was Richard Lee. I remember little about life at the orphanage apart from beatings and the constant feeling of hunger. On the day that I escaped there was a violent explosion and the room in which I was sleeping suddenly disappeared and I was left in the middle of the assembly area. I learned much later that the orphanage was totally destroyed in the first Japanese bombardment at the start of the battle for Singapore. I remember making my way to the gate which led to the main road; I had often watched the traffic through the bars and wondered what the outside was like. The explosion that caused my room to disappear had blown the two gates from there hinges and they both lay shattered on the long grass. I stepped over the twisted ironwork and came immediately to the main road. The sight that met my eyes will stay with me forever hundreds of people vehicles and animals moving in the direction of the town. Some of the families were pushing hand carts piled high with furniture and household utensils; cars and lorries weighed down with all manner of merchandise. It seemed to me that the whole world was moving; I just walked with the crowd and no one noticed me dressed as I was in the orphanages green t-shirt and shorts. On my feet was a pair of sandals that I found in the corner of what was my bedroom; they were too big, but they did protect my feet from the rough road. I can remember that walk. I had no idea where I was going but I wasn’t afraid. For some reason I felt happy, perhaps it was just being free of the orphanage; or perhaps it was just the excitement that most young boys feel when they are faced with an unknown challenge.

I have no idea how long I walked but soon the light was fading and I wondered where I would sleep that night. In the gathering gloom I saw two white pillars marking the entrance to a fine house and for some reason I made towards the white markers thinking perhaps there was shelter. Beyond the entrance I could make out a large garden with lawns and flower beds. It struck me that sleeping on short grass would be better than any roadside site I may find. I was just about to step across the first narrow flower bed when the whole garden lit up; there seemed to be light everywhere. An English woman came striding down the drive and said to me, who are you and what are you doing here! My six year old brain told me to run but somehow the authority in her voice rooted me to the spot. My name is Richard Lee I said and I have nowhere to sleep. Where are your parents the women asked? I said nothing and looked at the ground; how old are you she demanded; six I think. The reply made her smile. Are you hungry she said, come with me. As we walked towards the house the lady said; all civilians have been told to evacuate Singapore as soon as possible; The Japanese army are likely to take over in a couple of days and anyone left behind will become a prisoner of war.  I had no idea what she was talking about.

I remember little of that night; except the taste of ham sandwiches and the scramble to pack. The two Wainwright children; (Wainwright was a name that would soon become very familiar to me) had been given the job of labelling all the boxes and suitcases. I discovered much later that the labels included the name and address of their property in England. Mummy, what shall I do with the “ragamuffin” said Charles the eldest Wainwright child; don’t be mean dear; pin a label to his t-shirt and we will hand him over to the Red Cross authorities when we get to the port. It was clear the family were booked to leave on a ship that evening. Our journey to the harbour seemed to take no time at all; I was squeezed into the back seat of a large car along with the two Wainwright children and a large suitcase. When we arrived people were dashing everywhere, at the time I didn’t recognise panic, but the crowd were all trying to get onto a gangway leading to the large ship anchored at the jetty. All the time the sound of gunfire which had been going on all day seemed to be getting closer. Mrs Wainwright led me towards a large dark building with a red cross over the entrance; inside things were a calmer. Mrs Wainwright said to a woman at the reception desk; another displaced child for you; can I leave him with you, we’re booked on the ship out there and we need to hurry! With that, she waved at me, wished me good luck and was gone. I never saw her again.

That night and the following morning I spent with a group of other children waiting for something to happen; I’m not really sure how I came to be on the ship that sailed at about three in the afternoon on that second day. I was told to share a cabin with three other boys and for the first time I felt safe, it reminded me of the orphanage; my home for as long as I could remember. I’d been given some new clothes and the label that was on my t-shirt had been pinned to my new grey jacket. Like all the other children I had also been given a plastic envelope on a string to hang round my neck. One of the older boys told me the paper inside the envelope contained all my details; I didn’t know what he meant.

I enjoyed the sea journey; most days the children played games and had lessons on the deck; our teacher was a nun who I first noticed in the Red Cross building; I remember her being very kind to me. After about three days I asked one of the older boys where the ship was going and he said England of course; I tried to tell him I didn’t know anyone in England but he told me not to be silly and that someone would meet me. How did he know?

Our arrival in England was as much of a surprise as the journey itself. I was made to stand with all the other children in a large area close to the gangway; I remember there were lots of soldiers around. As their names were read out, each child was taken through a door and we didn’t see them again. Suddenly the man in uniform calling out the names said Wainwright; no one moved; he called again Wainwright! One of the older boys said to me that’s you isn’t it. My names not Wainwright I thought, but as the boy spoke to me a woman took my hand and led me though the door.

The look of surprise on the woman’s face was recognisable even for a six year old; but as she began to speak, the surprise in her eyes melted into the softest smile I’d ever seen. So you’re Richard Wainwright she said, welcome to England; I was about to say my name was Richard Lee when she took my hand and led me to the car that was waiting outside. I could see she was happy and somehow I felt happy too. The lady told me I should call her aunt Sophie and that I would be living with her at her house in Norfolk. From that point on my childhood was idyllic; a woman from the village came and gave me lessons each morning; I learned there was a war on though we saw little of its effect in rural Norfolk and my aunt Sophie was the kindest person I had ever met. But I still didn’t understand why I was there; if they discovered I was not Richard Wainwright would I be sent back; would I lose all this. I tried to talk with Aunt Sophie but every time I raised the subject she would dismiss it with a wave of her hand and tell me that everyone deserves a decent childhood.

I spent three years with Aunt Sophie in Norfolk and at aged nine, after the war ended I was sent off to boarding school; where, I now find myself four years later.  I was called to the Headmasters Study this morning and told very gently by matron that Aunt Sophie had died unexpectedly and that arrangements were being made for me to attend her funeral. I was heartbroken; tears welled up in my eyes; the Headmaster seeing my distress told me that my school fees would continue to be paid by a family trust so my education would not be interrupted. It made no difference. I had lost the only person in the world that loved me and with Aunt Sophie gone there was no one to protect my secret; I would be unmasked as an imposter. It was at this point matron handed me the parcel and the nail scissors to cut the string. The headmaster told me that Aunt Sophie’s will was explicit; the contents of the parcel should be delivered to me as soon after her death as possible.

I put the tarot cards on the headmaster desk and opened the diary; tucked under the cover in a white envelope was a letter addressed to me. I read the letter twice and my heat leapt. It was a story almost as strange as my own. Aunt Sophie was the sister of Mary Wainwright who had been living in Singapore with her husband and two children for six years before the war started; apparently Aunt Sophie had not seen her sister for four years though they did correspond regularly. Mary Wainwright was Aunt Sophie’s only living relative and she felt very close to Mary’s children. On the 10th of February 1942 Aunt Sophie had received a telegram from her sister saying that they were being evacuated from Singapore on the 12th. War news from the Far East was bad and a Japanese invasion was imminent.  On the 18th of February Aunt Sophie received another telegram from the War Office this time with the sad news that the ship carrying Mary Wainwright and her family had been sunk by a German U-Boat; there were no survivors. Aunt Sophie’s letter explained her heartbreak at losing all her closest relatives. Two weeks later however, she received a letter from the Foreign Office explaining that Richard Wainwright had been evacuated from Singapore on the last vessel to leave before the Japanese invasion; apparently the letter apologised for the delay but pointed out the evacuation had been chaotic and information about personnel particularly displaced children had been difficult to collate. Aunt Sophie was obviously puzzled; she thought there was some mistake but she dared to hope! When she met me at Southampton she knew I wasn’t Mary’s child but apparently I looked like a little boy lost. Her letter explained; that had she told the authorities of the mistake there was every chance they would have taken me into care; she felt I could take the place of the son she never had. She apologised for not talking to me about it but felt that fate had thrown us together and fate should not be questioned; her experience with the tarot cards had taught her that. Aunt Sophie’s wonderful letter wished me well and confirmed she had secured my financial future. A great weight lifted from my shoulders and I offered up a silent prayer! 

 

 

 2198 Words


© Copyright 2017 Peter Piper. All rights reserved.

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