Christian McCulloch is a prolific British writer with a colourful background. He's been an International teacher in British West Indies, Singapore (Principal), Japan and Hong Kong, also 10 years in Special Needs in UK. His artwork was well known in The Portal Gallery, Bond Street, London, also Amsterdam, China, USA, RA (Summer Show 1974) Author/illustrator of Children's stories (Graham Brash Publications). Head of English, Bank of China Training Center for many years, overseeing and writing material for their language courses. (Longmans HK) He now writes full time. He has written 10 novels, 12 novellas and many short stories.
'Unfolding The Origami Frog'
He'd read about the village hall auction in a local paper that someone had left behind on the Guildford train. It was small enough not to have been noticed by the bigger, wealthier collectors. It was always his hope that one day he'd be in the right place at the right time to discover The Find of the Century and make enough to restore the life that he and his beloved wife had touched but never been able to hold. All his life, he'd been drawn to miniaturism; dollhouses, in particular, made by master craftsmen, perfect in every detail. Dollhouses were his passion and professional area of expertise. He was only one of the thousands of equally qualified collectors who either had better luck or greater business acumen. He'd been forced out of the toy business by the big companies who saw profit and loss when he'd been watching the small faces light up with excitement. He'd been watching so closely that he'd missed them seduce his children with their garish colours and plastic parts. He was forced to take his treasures into the basement, the back bedroom, the attic, the garden shed – any space available to him and conduct his business online or from rented stalls at local Art Festivals. His wife had shared his passion at first, then encouraged him, then supported him until finally, he discovered, she was left only tolerating his worthy dreams. That was the man's sadness as he sat on the train. He tried to buoy up his enthusiasm but with each disappointing adventure, even his natural exuberance was beginning to wane. He was hoping to find a shell of a dollhouse, one where the occupants had moved out and he could renovate it for new tenants and for a new audience to enjoy. He'd still be poor but his dreams would maintain a heartbeat, however faint it might be. Perhaps, it would be the spark in their marriage that would rekindle that togetherness they'd once so enjoyed. He was sure that she too felt the same, although she'd not said so for many years. She'd made him sandwiches and kissed him on the cheek and told him that she hoped he'd find something that would excite him but he wasn't sure if she really meant it this time. The habit was better than any emptiness between them. He was grateful for the pretence. Who knew? Maybe, this time?
On the train home, he was wondering what she'd make of his acquisition; a jungle hut – a prison hospital to be precise, made of slivers of bamboo blown into the compound after a tropical storm, the hut roof thatched with split strips of banana leaves and coconut husks. Inside, the beds were nothing more than miniature palettes. There were tiny medical charts of patients who'd long since been discharged or buried or, the joy of joys, liberated when the Allies came to rescue them from starvation and the constant bouts of dysentery. How perfect were the windows open to the jungle noises at night, flies, heat and stench during the day. How perfect the floor appeared from the bare feet of the orderlies in their short pyjamas and sweat-stained jackets, cuffs rolled up or cut off at the elbows. The rafters were so well jointed that they could withstand the contents of a watering can to be poured over the roof, the patients would still cry out but, at least, they'd stay dry. There was a porch at the front of the hospital for those able to stand and smoke the cigarettes given to them by the sympathetic guards; not that they were necessary to keep the inmates confined or to repel invaders. The patients were physically, mentally, emotionally confined and the only invaders needed to be repelled were disease, discomfort and despair. There was even a miniature flagpole waiting for the Union Jack to be hoisted when the Allies marched through the compound gates. It wasn't the dollhouse he'd been looking for but it moved him. He hadn't felt touched and inspired for so long. It felt good. He felt alive when he thought about the lives of those who'd spent their captivity in this tiny perfect model – model? Model wasn't the word, neither was, replica, reproduction or copy – it was a magic portal to a world that once existed; a forgotten piece of history; a denied moment; an ignored place. It meant something to someone, enough for them faithfully to spend endless hours in sweltering heat to record what was, to him, his universe, his home, his existence, his sanity in a time of madness. Yes. She'd see all that. He was sure of it. He knew her heart. Yes. She'd see why he'd had to have it. He could never have left it on the auction table and turned his back on this hand-crafted hospital hut in the Singapore jungle. He just couldn't. She'd know that. The assistant auctioneer had found a shoebox for him in which to take away the hut. He was embarrassed but he'd carefully covered the roof with the lid and held it in position with string. He wasn't able to give any account about how the auction house had come by such a strange item. He thought it might've been from clearance of the contents of the old cottage next to the cemetery, south of St Leonard's Church but it also could've come from the elderly Chaplain who'd served in the war. The young assistant didn't know which war or where he'd served. There'd been sniggers when it was brought out from the storeroom out back. The Miniaturist had been offended. When the auctioneer halved the asking price and then halved it again, he'd put his hand up in defiance. He felt a hot flush of passion when he went to collect the miniature hospital hut. They thought he hadn't noticed the sniffy looks they'd given him. He knew who and what they were. They didn't impress him. He'd been doing this a very long time and he understood the feelings he was experiencing as he collected the drab looking construction.
At home, he'd dragged his wife away from her kitchen duties to see what he'd discovered. He was standing nervously over the dining room table. He'd found a square of green baize to transfer the hospital from the shoebox onto the flat surface that he'd cleared so that she'd have no distractions. She stood, drying her hands on a tea-towel, putting on that special face she reserved for such moments. It was a practised look to disguise her disappointment and hide her feelings that, yet again, the old man had spent money that they could ill afford on something that would gather more dust for her to flick away. He removed the white handkerchief that struck her as being a flag of surrender more than the prop of a proud conjurer that he'd intended. All she could see was a patch of coconut matting inside an old shoebox. She glanced up at his face. Whatever it was, excited him. She felt a glow of warmth towards him. Perhaps, it would prove to be another castle in the air but at least, it gave him joy and that meant a great deal to her. He carefully slipped his hands into the shoebox and asked her to hold the sides because the contents were a tight fit and he was afraid of damaging it. The first thing that struck her was the smell; musty but earthy. There was a hint of summer nights and rain; a storm, that's what she could smell. She liked storms. She liked the sense of being dormant and dry inside, listening for the grumble of thunder, watching for the flashes of lightning. A long time ago, she remembered, they liked to sit in the sun lounge together, the lights turned off and they'd count. 'Three ...four ...five ...six ...it's coming closer,' they'd agree. She placed the empty shoebox on the dining chair while he positioned the object on the baize. He wouldn't normally create such a drama. Most times, he'd be content to let her look over his shoulder to see on what he'd squandered their dwindling savings. This must be special, she thought. The Miniaturist backed carefully away from the hut on the table as if it were a cowering animal that mustn't be frightened. His hands were held up in surrender. She could tell he was holding his breath. She'd have to be especially diplomatic, she thought. 'What is it,' she whispered. 'I believe...' He spoke slowly with a catch in his voice. 'I believe it's a perfect scale of a POW medical unit, possibly from the occupation of Singapore.' 'Really?' She put her two hands on the edge of the dining room table and lowered herself to be at eye-level with the porch. He carefully moved the baize so that she could see inside through the windows. 'Can you see the detail of the eves?' he whispered. 'I can ...the bedside tables ...the chairs – it's inspiring. But who's going to buy it? At the end of the day, it's just a grass hut.' 'Oh!' Her husband was flapping his hands, frustrated with such mundane practicalities. 'Oh, I don't know. A museum perhaps. A collector of war memorabilia? A hobbyist who builds dioramas? I don't know.' He added excitedly. 'There's a miniature flagpole with a flag. Do you want to see it? There's a special hole that it goes into. I'll let you raise the flag. You can welcome the Allies. Go on.' 'Oh, really! Sometimes you can be such a...' They both froze. She'd accepted the flagpole and she'd inserted it into the corner of the base. She'd felt a click as if a spring had been released. The hut quivered (or was it her?). A cold wind had blown over a forgotten grave. 'It moved,' she exclaimed. 'Something moved,' agreed her husband. 'I saw the polished floor inside move – just a bit, mind, but it did move.' 'There!' She pointed. 'It's a false floor. There's a space under the floorboards ...like a trapdoor, d'you think?' 'More like a hidden drawer. You can see it sticking out of the back a little. Pull it out.' 'You pull it out. My fingers are too clumsy. I might break something.' 'Are you sure? Perhaps, we should remove the flagpole and push it back into position.' The wife laughed. 'Like you're going to do that!' she scorned. 'You won't sleep a wink until you've satisfied your curiosity. Just do it! You know you want to.' 'It's you who wants to know,' retorted the man. 'OK! OK! We both want to know.' The Miniaturist couldn't remember when they'd had such a childish argument over something he'd bought. He felt a shiver of delight. His stomach tightened. She nudged her husband and looked into his eyes. He was looking back at her. He could see that wicked look that he hadn't seen in who knew how long? 'Exciting, isn't it?' she giggled. He nodded feverishly. He didn't trust his voice for the moment. Together they slid the secret compartment open. Inside was a collection of origami creations; cranes, swans, birds, fish and on the top was a large sky-blue frog. 'The Japanese occupied Singapore in 1940-something. Everything tells me that a prisoner made this hut. Origami is Japanese. Where would a prisoner get paper to make origami?' The wife disappeared and returned with a pair of plastic tweezers. The old Miniaturist took out the origami pieces and placed them in a row from right to left, starting with the blue frog; the last to be placed into the secret compartment. The condition of the paper creatures appeared to have survived unaffected. 'Do you suppose,' asked the Miniaturist, 'that the person who created the hospital hut folded the origami?' His wife said she thought it was doubtful. She conceded both required great attention to detail but folding exotic animals seemed more in keeping with having been done by a female, possibly, a young female. 'But you'd say that the diversity of the designs would indicate a Japanese girl? I'm not really sure, but I'd say that the art of origami would be almost unknown to the average British soldier at the time.' 'That begs the question, what was a young Japanese girl doing around British prisoners of war? Would she have been one of the Comfort Women for the Japanese guards? Could she have been a nurse?' 'I know what you're doing,' said the Miniaturist, teasing her. 'You're trying to add a wartime romance to the authenticity of this miniature; forbidden love between a British Tommy and a Tokyo Tiger Lilly.' 'So long as there's a mystery, I shall put forward hypotheses.' The wife felt indignant. 'Don't tell me that you haven't come up with a few personal theories.' He coughed modestly, happy that they could share flights of fantasy together once more. 'Here's my best take on the matter. It lacks your penchant for romance but... whoever is the architect of this hut knows his onions when it comes to engineering; the secret lock, the precision and the time it would've taken. I reckon he must've been an officer and one directly involved with the medical side of the running of the camp.' 'How do you know it wasn't a Japanese engineer drafted to prison duties in a Singapore POW camp?' 'Because of the flag – British. Also, the miniature ended up in the UK. The auction house believes it could've belonged to a Chaplain in the war. It's possible he was a Conscientious Objector whose skill-sets and moral sensibilities put him in charge of the hospital hut but he was senior enough and, being a non-combatant, he would've been allowed a free rein to come and go almost as he pleased. In doing so, he met a young girl and she was sympathetic.' All the time he was speaking, his wife was carefully unfolding the origami frog. She was about to unfold the final corners when she grabbed her husband's arm. 'There's writing on it ...tiny letters, so carefully written that it looks like a pattern. Fetch the magnifying glass and let's have a closer look.' For the next forty minutes, the wife read aloud as much as she could decipher. Time and humidity had faded the ink but the message was crystal clear. It was a love letter of sorts. It was a farewell letter, full of tears, promises and treasured memories. The wife had to break off from time to time to dab her eyes. The old man listened and squeezed her hand when she found it difficult to continue. When the writer had run out of space and every tear had been spent, the couple sat back and sighed. They fell silent, lost in their own thoughts. 'I feel I've just read someone's private diary. I feel honoured to have shared her secrets,' said the wife. 'I think you've allowed your romantic heart to blind you. I think we need to unfold more of the origami creatures. What I suspect is, someone, is keeping her lover informed about the state of the war.'
Every day brought new discoveries which opened further avenues of interest for the couple. The realisation that the key to the coded messages between the young Japanese language teacher and the POW engineer was the origami constructions themselves. It came as a major breakthrough. Fish, whales, seahorses, penguins and turtles concerned events at sea, ship convoys, troop carriers, U-boats and submarines; dragons, elephants, horses, monkeys, rabbits and pandas dealt with land manoeuvres, first across Europe, later through the Pacific islands until they concentrated on Singapore itself; cranes, bats and butterflies pertained to aerial bombing raids. They discovered that each category could be further broken down. For example, monkeys meant it was simply a rumour, whereas, pandas dealt exclusively with Chinese matters. Foxes detailed the location of troops locally. Walruses focused on high-ranking enemy officers which always made the dollhouse collector's wife (now official record-keeper) laugh. All personal communications between the language teacher and her student were kept to frogs and were personally addressed to O Kairu-san and signed off, The Little Girl in The Bamboo Garden. They were the only names available to the elderly couple at the time. As the project grew so did the level of the young couple's intimacy. They'd started out as teacher/student so that the camp commandant and the guards could communicate with the prisoners through the hospital orderly. They became secret allies; two active Pacifists, two militant Conscientious Objectors, separated by their country's politics but joined in their idealism and need to serve their fellow man, irrespectively of nationally. Their liaison was fraught with untold dangers; the Japanese conducting Sook Ching, a cleansing of anyone who displayed anti-Japanese sentiments for her part, the treatment of the many hundreds of prisoners that passed through the camp for his. At first, it had started as a means to bolster morale. Soldiers can maintain themselves, thrive even when they know what's going on in the world, even if they are temporarily out of the game. Rapidly it became a vital link of communication and coordination when finally the Allies were able to re-establish a sense of stability where ethnic madness ran rampant. The dollhouse miniaturist and his wife had found a new intimacy over their research, recording and necessary visits to investigate further the messages and implications written inside the origami pieces. However, the further they delved into the project, the more attention they drew; not always of a positive nature. There were those in high positions who were afraid of the consequences of their discoveries. There were those who saw the couple's work as a means to line their pockets and establish great reputations for themselves. Together, the couple worked tirelessly to ensure the integrity of their mission. Each found a new tenderness and professional respect for the other. Like Elijah's jar of oil and flour, no matter how much they dipped into their vessel of love and friendship, it never became empty. They relished the strength of their rekindled harmony and rapport. They couldn't be dissuaded from their ambition even when financial matters weighed heavily and threateningly upon them. 'Do you think,' asked the wife one evening, 'that they had a physical relationship?' The man thought about the hardships the engineer must've had to endure. 'I honestly think it would've been a physical impossibility - the lack of rations, the hours of hard labour - the brutal attacks from their captors, not to mention the heat and the lack of privacy. But, you never know. Love is a very strong force, especially for the young. 'I have to confess that I've developed a remarkable empathy and connection with O Kairu-san. I'm more than a little in love with The Little Girl in The Bamboo Garden myself - her bravery, her commitment and downright honesty. She reminds me of you so very much.' His wife smiled and held his words to her heart. She wondered what might've happened to their relationship if she'd not unfolded the origami frog.
The curator of the museum had left with the two men wearing white gloves. They'd packed the hospital hut in a specially designed case. They'd placed the origami pieces into sealed plastic envelopes. He'd explained the events around the public viewing. It all sounded as if it had been arranged with frightening military precision. The couple had hidden their hands under the table like timid children afraid they'd been caught with sticky fingers. For a week or more, their lives felt bereft of purpose. They found themselves falling over each other trying to stay out of each other's way. Finally, out of desperation, the wife told her husband to find an auction – any auction, and bid for something – anything. When he left, she immediately wanted to go flying out of the door after him. She wondered whatever would she do if he was no longer with her. She thought back to the time when she'd read aloud the contents of the sky-blue frog, the farewell letter that had introduced them to a new lease of life and to each other once more. She cried then for the couple who'd soon be parted. She cried now for herself and her husband who'd also come to the end of the most intense time in their lives. She knew how The Little Girl in the Bamboo Garden must've felt to continue living with only half a heart. The foreseeable future would be like walking along the seashore where the waves were sucking back into the sea all the things she'd once held dear. Even the joy of being liberated by the Allied forces for O Kairu-san would never be enough to fill the void he must've felt when The Little Girl returned to her life in The Bamboo Garden. She wondered, for the hundredth time, what had become of the couple she now thought of as her children. Perhaps, the exhibition being prepared at The Imperial War Museum might throw some light on it. She could never find out, no matter how diligently she searched. There were so many questions unanswered. They'd suggested appropriate epilogues and resolutions but they could never settle on a single satisfying closure Perhaps, that's how Fairy Tales should end, she told herself – and they all lived happily ever after. She was afraid the wicked Ogre of How-Things-Were would suck them back to a time before she'd unfolded the origami frog. She couldn't bear that. Better, never to have been reborn than to live a half-life, knowing it was for the second time. She wondered what O Kairu-san, the Chaplain, would pray for her; what O Kairu-san, the Engineer would engineer for her; what O Kairu-san the hospital orderly would prescribe for her. Deep breaths, Old Girl, the hospital supplies are exhausted. The Little Girl in The Bamboo Garden would've created a silver origami unicorn for her to ride like the wind to be with her man and live happily ever after in a dollhouse he'd created for her. The Miniaturist's wife wept and wept until it was necessary to collect a glass of water from the kitchen to rid her of her hiccups.
As the chauffeur driven car pulled up outside the museum, the Miniaturist commented on the lines of visitors that flowed from the front doors, down the steps to the pavement and around the corner. 'There must be something going on they didn't tell us about,' he said to his wife. The chauffeur smiled to himself and held the door open for them. The curator hurried them forward. Once inside the exhibition, the sheer global scale and the extent of the ripples touching so many lives overwhelmed the Miniaturist's wife. 'Where did they find all these photographs and maps and testimonials?' she asked her husband, pointing to a handwritten memo from the desk of Winston Churchill. 'The backroom boys have done a fine job,' said her husband. There were photographs of the prisoners inside the camp, patients in the hospital hut; the orderly smiling out at them. There were photographs of students inside the language school, their teacher waving to them proudly. There was a picture of The Little Girl in The Bamboo Garden drinking tea in her kimono with her father, the Japanese General in their Singapore home. A photograph of O-Kairu-san wearing his newly awarded medal. There were maps. There were sailors saluting on deck after successfully running dangerous blockades to deliver troops and supplies. There were memorial photographs of those who'd not been so lucky. The couple remembered the ship names from the black origami swans. There were photographs and videos of the celebrations when the POW camp was liberated. The couple looked into the glass display case showing the hospital hut with the secret drawer open, the flagpole and the victory flag. The dollhouse miniaturist saw the fascinated faces of the young language teacher's grandchildren pressed against the glass. Fellow beribboned clergy was present in the prison Chaplain's honour. He'd never married. No reason was given. The dollhouse miniaturist and his wife understood. They shared a sympathetic smile. When the opening ceremony was complete, the public was invited inside. The couple were free to take in the scale of the exhibition and the effect it had on the visitors. It was a dream realised. The miniaturist had his recognition and reputation. The couple were secure from the book royalties and film rights that would soon be bestowed upon them. In a quiet corner, the couple stood hand in hand. 'It's funny, you know, finally knowing their names,' he said. 'Yes,' she replied. 'I'd always imagined that he'd be taller – like you.' 'I always imagined she'd be shorter – like you.'