A few months into my first kindergarten year, my mum decided I was independent enough to go to school and come back on my own. Not an unreasonable assumption; the PCF kindergarten was just one HDB block away, and I’ve been there countless times already with my mum to buy sundries at the convenience store along the same stretch. Besides, given the exciting proposition of having that much freedom at 4 years of age, the last thing I’d do was protest against the instruction.
And so I left my house, white shirt wrapped in a red checked jumper (the de facto PAP kindergarten uniform at the time), a curly haired midget carrying a dinky school bag, riding the elevator down by his lonesome, excitable self for the first time.
The day’s 2-hour school stint came and went without incident. I remember walking out the classroom door, reminding myself not to expect my mother waiting outside to pick me up. I was a free man ? at least for the 2 minutes it took me to walk back to my own block, which I dutifully did.
As I entered the lift, I pressed the button to my floor, then the door closing button, and waited. The old lifts of that era had white walls filled with little brown flower prints, and in a point block, moved painfully slow. It would take almost a full minute to reach my floor, and when you’re a kid left alone in an enclosed space for such a long period of time, you start getting a little edgy.
The lift door opened, and as per habit, I climbed up one flight of stairs to the floor my house was in. I noticed outside our flat that my mother stocked up a lot more plants than usual, and the shoe rack was no longer there. Wow, the time she saved picking me up from school really did wonders for my Mum’s efficiency. I reached the door to my house and knocked, calling out to my mother at the same time (back then, I was too short to reach the doorbell).
There was no answer. I knocked on the door again and called out to my mother, louder this time.
Still no one. I knocked again, this time shouting obnoxiously at the door.
This time, the door opened. A Malay woman stood behind the gate, looking down at me quizzically.
I stood there, staring back at the strange woman with dark skin and brown batik frock that was supposed to be my mother. We both froze, eyes locked for a good 3 seconds. Then I started to cry.
The Malay woman panicked, opened her gate and stepped out of the house, crouching down to pat me on my shoulder in a vain effort to calm me down. “Adoi! Poor boy! Why are you crying? Are you lost? Where you stay?”
In between sobs, I told her she wasn’t my mother and where’s my mother and this isn’t my house and my house is on the 22nd floor and I’m on the 22nd floor and this isn’t my house and she wasn’t my mother and I wanted my mother.
“Alamak! Silly boy,” she said, “This is the 20th floor!”
She put on her slippers and led me up the 2 flights of stairs to the correct floor, where she helped me ring the doorbell and handed this sobbing little idiot back to his rightful owner.
Later on, I learnt that the 2 lifts in my block serve different floors. I also learnt to look at the wall sign indicating which floor I was on before proceeding. And finally, I learnt that if I notice a lot more plants than usual at my front entrance, it’s probably not because my mother was working harder than usual at her gardening skills, and it probably wasn’t my house in the first place.