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Wednessday, Aug 23, 2006 - 5:56 a.m.

note: yes it's been a while. I was challenged to write a (quietly subversive) children's story.

A magic lift had appeared.

It was afternoon when Balestier Tan stood alone at the lift lobby. He counted the number of lift doors again. One, two. Three. There were only two sets of pink lift doors when he left for school in the morning. Now there was a blue lift door between them. Maybe his flat got upgraded today. Maybe the third lift was always there. Maybe ...

The blue doors of the magic lift slowly slid open.

Balestier Tan looked into the lift cautiously. It looked just like any other lift inside. There was even a ventilator fan and the air in the magic lift hummed. But there were no buttons for the floors. Should he get inside?

But it’s a magic lift! Balestier thought. And so he ran into the magic lift. The blue lift doors closed slowly behind him, erasing the scene of the void deck, the white rectangular pillars, the bicycles chained together, the stone table where old men played Chinese chess in the mornings.

Then the lift started to move. But it did not move upwards. It moved sideways. Balestier felt frightened. Excited. Fearless. He felt frightenedexcitedfearless. Where was this lift going?

The lift seemed to move faster and faster, and made terrible groaning noises, like metal being bent. And then it stopped so suddenly that Balestier fell into a corner of the lift.

The lift door opened and Balestier picked himself up. He walked out into his void deck again. But it was different. It was afternoon but everything was quiet. There was no one around. There were no cars or buses on the road, there was nobody walking to the market down the street. No children were playing at the playground. Even the sky, which was usually full of birds, was empty. The sky was blue and empty. It was as if everyone else in the world had disappeared.

But there was something watching Balestier Tan. A robotic eye scanned him. First in infra-red, then in laser-vision.

Balestier explored this strange new place, which looked exactly like his old neighbourhood. He walked across the void-deck, across the car-park, and sat down on the swing in the playground. He did not see a single person. Balestier was starting to get worried, but he also thought that maybe, he could live here alone for the rest of his life. He didn't really like his mother because she wouldn't buy him a dog. And he did not talk to his father much, who came home tired from work all the time. Balestier’s father always fell asleep in front of the TV while watching the news.

Since he was alone now, he would be able to get his own dog. Balestier imagined a bright yellow golden retriever. Yes, a golden retriever! Balestier kicked the sand while he sat on the swing.

"Woof! Woof!"

Balestier nearly fell off the swing. He turned around and right in front of him was a golden retriever! It was exactly as he had imagined. How did it get here? Did it take a magic lift to this strange place too? The dog ran up to him and licked Balestier's hands. Balestier patted its big head.

Then the dog sniffed the air. It smells something, or someone, Balestier thought. "Woof!" went the dog, and it ran towards a nearby tree. It went behind the tree, and chased a grey robot and a red crab out from behind it. A robot! thought Balestier.

The robot and the crab ran around the playground, with the dog in pursuit. "Tell him to stop!" yelled the crab. A talking crab! Balestier was amazed.

Balestier did not know the dog's name, so he just shouted,” Stop dog, stop!"
The dog looked at Balestier and stopped running. It then trotted over to Balestier's side. At the edge of the playground, the robot and the crab had stopped as well. Each was panting heavily. One of the robot's hands detached itself and floated in front of Balestier.

Before Balestier could do anything, the floating robot hand grabbed Balestier's right hand and moved it up and down a few times.
“Nice to meet you," said the robot, who was walking over with the crab. They were both still panting.
“Erm, nice to meet you too," said Balestier.

The robot stopped in front of Balestier and reattached its floating hand.
"Would have been nicer if you did not imaginify the dog here," said the crab. The crab and the dog eyed each other suspiciously.
"The dog's not mine," said Balestier.
"Yes it is," said the robot. "You imagini-fied it five minutes ago."
"Imaginify?" asked Balestier.
"Yes. You thought of the dog and it appeared. If you had imagined a cat, or a gorilla, it would have appeared too," said the crab.
"What is this place? And who are the two of you?" asked Balestier.

The robot and the crab looked at each other.
The robot spoke first. "I am Hal27, and this is my friend EC."
"That's me," said the crab. "And you, Balestier Tan, are on the Island of Free Imagination of Singapore."
"How do you know my name?" asked Balestier.
"We know everyone in Singapore. Every single man, woman and child," said EC.
"Then where is everyone?" asked Balestier.
"Well, this isn't exactly Singapore. This is the Island of Free Imagination of Singapore. It is like a mirror's reflection of Singapore," said Hal27.

EC nodded his head and said, “This island contains all the things that people in Singapore imagine. Once they imaginify it, it appears here."

Hal27 opened a door in his chest and took out a thick notebook and a pencil. He said, "And my job, is to record every single imagini-fied object that appears here. Other robots, are on other Islands of Free Imagination. I have an uncle in Johor Bahru, a niece in Ipoh, a grand-uncle in Bangkok. They are recording the imagini-fied things that appear in those places."

Hal27 opened the notebook and wrote in the latest entry: Balestier Tan, aged nine, imagini-fied a golden retriever at Block 9, Sembawang Rd. Hal27 looked at his watch, and then wrote down the date and the time.

"Wow. That's amazing. I never knew our imaginations were recorded all the time!" said Balestier.
EC nodded his red crab head and said," It's important to record them, because you humans are so forgetful. You imagini-fy something, and then quite often, you forget it almost immediately."
Hal27 said, "Yes. And we need to record everything because when you humans die, you each get your own list."
"A list?" asked Balestier.
And Hal27 replied, “Yes, you get a list that records every single thing that you imagined before. Then you get to compare what you imagined or dreamed of, with what you actually achieved in life. For example ... " Hal27 flipped a few pages in the notebook and read from it. " ... you wanted to become an astronaut two years ago. What happened?"
Balestier looked embarrassed and said, "My mother said that I had to be realistic."
Hal27 and EC laughed.
Hal27 said, "Ok. Then you wanted to be a cartoonist one year ago. What happened?"
Balestier repeated again, "My mother said that I had to be realistic."
Hal27 and EC laughed again.
"Why are you laughing?" asked Balestier.
"Because you said that your imaginations weren't realistic," said EC.
Balestier looked confused.
Hal27 said, "Tell me Balestier, is that dog real?"

The golden retriever looked up at Balestier and wagged its tail. It licked Balestier's hand again, leaving a thick, wet trail of saliva.
"Well... no...yes.. I don't know," said Balestier.
"Ok, come with me then. Follow me and I'll show you something," said Hal27.
"Yay! " said EC "Are we going to fly there? With your rocket thrusters Hal? Zoom around at the speed of sound?"
"No. Petrol is expensive. We're taking the bus," said Hal27.

And Balestier walked with the robot, the crab and the dog to a bus-stop that was just along the road. They waited for a bus and when it came, they boarded it.

The bus-driver did not greet them when they got on. Balestier looked more closely at the bus driver, and his heart jumped. "He's a statue!" said Balestier.

And sure enough, in the bus driver's seat was a grey stone statue, shaped like a human, and almost the same size. The statue held the steering wheel but he did not move. There was no expression on its face, and this made it look really scary.

"Look around, Balestier," said Hal27.

The bus was half full, and every single person who occupied the seats was a stone statue! Some statues were male, and some were female. The statues were dressed just like people who took the bus everyday. Except that they were all made of stone. There was a female statue in a stone sari, a stone man seated near the door in a stone shirt and stone office pants. Even his tie was made of stone!

"Who carved these statues?" asked Balestier.
And Hal27 replied," No one carved them. Each statue here represents a real Singaporean. Right now, these people are on a bus somewhere in the real Singapore, on the way home from the office, or from work."
"But why are they made of stone? And why don't they have expressions on their faces? It's really scary!" asked Balestier.
"This is what happens when you don't imagini-fy anymore," answered Hal27.

Balestier thought about it because he took the public bus home from school everyday. When he looked at all the other people on the bus, they all looked so dead and tired, as if their brains had given up thinking, dreaming and imagining. They did look a little like statues!

After a short while, they got off at a bus-stop, in a place that looked like Marina South. Balestier was about to ask what they were doing here when ...


A large, metal ball, broke through the bus-stop roof and nearly squashed EC. It was a rusty, black cannonball.
“I could have turned into crab-cake!” said EC.

A few seconds later, another one fell onto the large grassy field next to the bus-stop. It landed with a thud.
Soon, cannon-balls were raining onto the field.
"We're going to get killed standing here!" said Balestier. Cannon-balls were raining down from the sky, like large terrible raindrops.

In the sky above them, there was a tiny black dot floating among the clouds. Was it a hot-air balloon?
"Everyone grab onto me," said Hal27.
Balestier held onto the dog and grabbed Hal27's legs, while EC sat on top of Hal27's metal head. Hal27 extended his telescoping arms up a hundred metres till they reached the hot-air balloon. Then as Hal27 retracted his arms, he pulled everyone up into the air. As they got higher and higher, the dog let out a bark, and Balestier tried not to look down. And they had to dodge the falling cannon-balls.

They reached the side of the hot-air balloon and climbed onboard. But it wasn't just a hot air balloon, it was a floating wooden battleship! And they were in the middle of a raging battle, with another wooden battleship nearby! Men were running around the deck. Some were firing cannons. Others were pulling ropes to tighten the sails. The battleship had sails, like a regular sailing ship. But there was also a large white colored balloon tied to the central mast, keeping the battleship floating in the mid-air.

Hal27 called out to a group of officers huddled over a map at the quarter-deck. "Admiral! Good to see you again!"
The admiral looked up from the map and waved Hal27 over. Balestier, EC and the dog ran over as well. Cannonballs whistled past their heads. A few cannonballs hit the ship and sent wooden splinters flying everywhere.
"Admiral, these are my friends," said Hal27.
The admiral nodded gruffly and said, "If any of you have got ideas for taking out these pirates, I'd like to hear them."
Balestier looked around. And then he said, "Admiral, are these the pirates from Peepee Island?"
"Yes, how did you know?" asked the Admiral.
An officer next to the admiral said, "We were sailing on the waters near Peepee Island when we saw them. We attacked and they tried to escape by flying, so we flew after them. They're proving harder to shoot down than we thought."
"And are you low on cannon-balls?" asked Balestier.
All the officers looked at Balestier. He was right again.
"How do you know all this, young boy?" demanded the Admiral.
Just then, a cannon-ball landed nearby and broke a wooden railing. A small piece of wood cut Balestier's cheek.
Balestier smiled to himself and said, "Don't worry Admiral, you'll figure it out."
The admiral thought for a while and said, "We'll chase these pirates into Shenton way, and trap them between the skyscrapers!"
The officers set to work, ordering the crews to change the ship's direction.

As Balestier touched his own cut cheek, Hal27 said, "Still think your imagination's not real?"
Balestier smiled. "No. It's definitely real."

When Balestier wanted to be a cartoonist a year ago, he had drawn this comic of floating wooden battleships over the Singapore sky. But he did not finish the story. He stopped when his mother said that comics were a waste of time. It’s not realistic to be a cartoonist, she had said.

In the comic that he had drawn, the pirates were chased into Shenton Way, but they hadn't lost the battle yet. The comic lay unfinished under Balestier's bed, gathering dust.

"Your ride home is here," said EC. He pointed with a claw, to a set of lift doors that had appeared on the main deck of the battleship.
"Finish the story, Balestier," said Hal27. "You have to imagini-fy the rest."
Balestier dodged cannon-balls as he ran across the deck, and into the lift. He waved good-bye to Hal27, EC, and the dog.

The battleship turned and began to close in on the pirates. The pirates fired more and more cannon-balls. A lot of them landed on the main-deck, breaking wood everywhere. Below the deck, and right under Balestier, a barrel of gunpowder accidentally caught fire and began to smoke. It was going to explode.

The lift doors closed, and the lift started to move sideways again. Balestier thought about his journey. There was the robot and crab who recorded everything that humans imagined. The list that each person gets when he dies. The stone statues on the bus who are actually real people. And of course, the flying sailing ships and the battle with the pirates.

Soon, Balestier was home. He ran into his room, and looked under the bed. He pulled the comic out, and spread it out on his desk. In the last panel that he had drawn, the admiral had just ordered the ship to change direction. At the corner of the panel, where Balestier had scribbled an explosion, he could just make out three shapes. Maybe those shapes were part of the explosion. But they also looked strangely like a robot, a crab, and a dog.

Balestier took out a pencil and drew the next square. It was a blank square on white paper. There was nothing there. But it also meant that anything could be there.

Balestier could hear his mother calling him to come have dinner soon.
Then he touched the tip of his pencil to the paper, and began to imagine.


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