One of the practice exercises suggested in A Novel A Year is to start writing about a particular person experience from the past.
The idea is that most novels, while fictional, have elements of truth from the author’s life and it’s a good exercise to begin writing with, and to attempt to form a completely different story around the incident, to see where your imagination takes you when a story start to branch away from the truth to slowly seep into fantasy.
So, here it is.
The time I got lost.
The kindergarten bus was rerouted by road works. The young and inexperienced driver didn’t know the area very well and couldn’t get back on route after a false left turn. Distracted by the confusing signs and the busy traffic, he pulled over and dropped me off two streets too early, and before anyone had noticed his mistake, he sped off.
I didn’t want to cry, aware of the embarrassment that might be brought on. I stood on the street corner, surrounded by the shouts of market hawkers, and panicked. In this unfamiliar part of town, I soon became disoriented. There were too many sounds and movements, too many foreign faces.
I have been taught not to wander when I get lost, just stand still and wait and eventually someone will find me. But the little second hand on my Cinderella watch ticked away and no one came. I closed my eyes, counted to twenty. Still, nothing.
I couldn’t recognised where I was as I had never been around this part of the neighbourhood before. In my young mind, I had been abandoned and forever lost, the thought brought a silent tear to my eyes.
Fear crept in as time went on, and the drop of tear soon became a flooding stream. Discarding any previous concerns of self consciousness, I howled.
“Are you lost, little child?”
A hand, wrinkled hand rested on my shoulders. I looked up and was met with the gentle gaze of the beetle nut lady, her sleeve stained by the rusty red saps of the beetle nuts that she peels for men who likes to chew them, her posture stiff from sitting in her little selling booth for the whole day.
Talking to strangers is another thing my mother had told me not to do, but this beetle nut lady had looked so kind and her voice so soft that made me want to nestle right into her arms for protection. I nodded in reply.
She asked me to wait while she went back to close her booth before taking my hand in hers. We exited the market and crossed the main road towards a large, concrete building and entered its sliding doors. I took a quick breath and stiffened when I realised we were in a police station.
Police stations are where bad people are taken. Why was this aunty taking me to the police station when I hadn’t done anything wrong?
I began to wiggle, trying to pry my hand away from hers. I wanted to run, but she held tight, and told me to be patient she just needed to explain to the nice policeman that I was lost.
As she filled in some paperwork, a police lady came to kneel beside me to ask for my name. I should always listen to the police, so I told her. She then asked if I knew where I lived.
“No”, I said, “but mum says if I needed her I could call her.”
“Do you know her number?”
Surprisingly, I did. I have always found it easy to remember strings of numbers, and even at the age of three, I had memorised my mother’s office number off by heart.
Before she left, the beetle nut lady told me to be good and the nice police lady will take care of me now. She reached into her pockets and produced a small piece of chocolate, broke it in half and gave me one of the halves.
“It’s for my son, but I am sure he’ll be ok for you to have half today.”
While the policeman made the phone call to my mother, I sat in the waiting room watching a cartoon about a bee who had lost his way back to his hive. The police lady fed me spoonful of sweet congee and told me stories of young children being abducted and how lucky I was to be found by a nice lady.
I don’t remember much else from my early years as a child, but I can never forget the time I got lost.
It wasn’t until later in life when I found out that was the year when many young children were kidnapped off the streets, and sold off to the West as ‘orphans’. On the hindsight, my life might not have turned out that differently even if I was ‘sold’ but this small incident is now forever imprinted in my mind and I feel thankful for the beetle nut lady, whose heart reached out to me and for the small, tiny bit of chocolate she had shared.