If there was one thing that really annoyed Natalie, it was stepping on chewing gum. There was that unpleasantness of the sucking feeling on the sole of your shoe when you first stepped on it, the embarrassment of unwittingly picking up stray pieces of tissue paper (or other kinds of rubbish that accumulated on Malaysian roads) as you tried to find a convenient place to stop and then the difficulty of trying to scrape off every piece of gum off from your shoe without tearing a hole in your sole (and bleeding in your soul). She'd stopped chewing gum herself at age twelve just because of this unpleasant experience and found herself contemplating a move to Singapore, where chewing gum was banned, at the age of seventeen, after stepping on another piece of chewed gum for what seemed like the millionth time.
"Don't be such a fusspot, Nat," her boyfriend, Henry, had said. "It's just part of your OCD tendencies."
Natalie put it down as a black mark against him. "Let's see how you handle it when you step on gum," she muttered to herself.
It was with pleasure that she took a trip down to Singapore to stay with a distant relation while she applied for universities there. As she stepped through the immigration office with her passport freshly stamped, she couldn't help grinning and saying aloud to the milling crowd, "Welcome to gum-free Singapore!"
A few teenagers from her bus stared at her, plainly thinking that she was crazy, but she didn't care. She hopped and skipped her way back to the waiting bus to continue the journey into the city, where her (somehow related, she forgot how) aunt would pick her up. It was precisely because she was so happy and carefree that she tripped on the curb and fell sprawling, everything falling out of her handbag.
Like a slow-motion movie, she watched as her favourite earrings rolled out of her bag, continued onto the road and ended by dropping down the grate of the drain. Some kindly souls came by to help her up and to gather her scattered belongings. A little sad sob escaped her as she stared down the grate to where her earrings lay amidst the dust. The iron bars were too narrow to allow anything more than her fingers to pass through, and they were too far down to reach. She tugged at the grate, but found that it was too firmly fixed in place for her to move it even an inch.
Just as she had given up her earrings for lost, one of the teenagers approached her, looking surreptitiously around.
"I have gum," he said in a soft whisper.
She looked up sharply at him. "But -"
"I can help you."
"But you mustn't tell on me. Promise?"
She looked uncertainly at him, then looked down at her earrings. "Okay," she finally said grudgingly.
Peering around again, the boy casually pulled out a stick of chewing gum from his jacket pocket and slipped it into his mouth. He chewed furiously, pretending to be talking to Natalie, even as she looked at him suspiciously. Pulling out a long, thick string from his pocket, he stuck the wadded up gum on the end of it and tested it for sticking power. Satisfied, he slowly slid the string down into the drain, wiggling it until it touched the end of one of Natalie's earrings.
Within two minutes, the teen handed Natalie back her earrings, a little dusty and a little sticky, but whole and intact. He carefully wrapped the gum and the string back in its foil and disposed of it in a nearby dustbin.
"Maybe gum isn't so bad after all," she said as she thanked him profusely.
Also, reminder all: submission deadline for Love in Penang is on 30th April 2013. That's three weeks away!