Queenstown, located in the southwest of Singapore Island, was the first satellite town established by the Housing Development Board (HDB) around the 1960s. The apartment block where my Mum still lives is reported to have been built over a Chinese cemetery.
The HDB flat which was the family home was at the very end of the corridor on the 7th floor, partitioned off by a white security gate. Past this outer gate from the corridor was the collapsible, accordion-like inner metal gate, painted a matching white, which guarded the front door leading straight into the living/dining room. White-painted safety window grilles were fastened to the balcony wall to transform the section of corridor into a sort of anteroom. Wide bamboo blinds unfurled over the balcony wall to provide shelter when it pelted down with rain. On humid sticky-hot days, one of the coolest spots in the place to sit and catch the odd passing breeze was on the front doorstep leading out to the corridor.
This corridor space between the two gates was the general all-purpose area. A shoe-rack leaned against the wall nearest the outer gate, where we could deposit our footwear before entering the flat. A three-legged stool with a round seat waited at hand as a handy way to reach the laundry hung up on makeshift rafters to dry. Mum placed a cluster of cacti, succulents and "lucky" bamboo plants near the outer balcony wall bordered by the security gate. Her little plant collection softened the otherwise utilitarian look of the space.
It was mid-afternoon and I was taking down a few pieces of washing that had been hung up to dry the day before. In my rush to finish the chore so I could go out, I didn't secure the latch that propped the front door open. It was something we seldom felt required to do. The door usually stayed open with no problems and had to be shut with sufficient force to engage the self-locking mechanism.
As I was climbing down from the stool after finishing with the laundry, I heard a clattering sound, like something had fallen over from inside the flat. The next thing I knew, there was an unexpected gust of wind from the kitchen window, way out to the back of the flat and rushing out the door. It grabbed the heavy front door and slammed it shut.
The door locked immediately.
- I was trapped -
With the front door shut and the outer gate locked, I was stuck in "no-man's land". I couldn't go out, nor could I go back inside. It was really frustrating.
This was the early 1980s, decades before the advent of the mobile (cell phone). Even if I were to call out for neighbour to get a locksmith and he were to turn up promptly (very unlikely), I didn't have the money to pay him.
It was a Saturday, just past midday and the rest of the family were out on various errands. I knew that sooner or later someone would be home to free me. All I had to do was to be patient and wait for an hour or maybe more.
That was what I told myself as I perched on the edge of the stool. The seconds slowly ticked by, stretching into minutes. An hour must have passed.
Somewhere nearby, but just out of sight, a gecko lizard or "cicak" sounded a warning chirp from the balcony wall. I nearly fell off the stool at the unexpected sound.
It seemed to be getting quieter by the moment.
The world seemed to compress into the confines of the corridor space. Usually all the other flats would be teeming with activity being the weekend. Neighbours would be coming or going from their flats. Children's voices should be heard from downstairs in the playing areas between the apartment blocks. Or somewhere a baby would be crying.
All the sounds from the world outside now seemed to be coming from a distance. It was as if my ears were being stuffed with cotton wool. But I could hear ringing, particularly in my right ear.
The air was hot, stifling and very still. I fidgeted on my seat. The ringing in my ears was suddenly too loud. Time was dragging its heels. What was taking everybody so long to come home?
I felt an insidious prickle of unease. I started - what was that out of the corner of my eye? Was that something dark streaking into that corner? A sliver of shadow? What was it? There it was again. No, there can't be anything there. My eyes must be playing tricks on me.
Maybe it was a lizard. Or one of those big, nasty cockroaches. As long as there wasn't any flying vermin, there was nothing to worry about. Nothing at all. There was nothing to fear.
Deep breaths, deep breaths, I told myself. Don't panic.
The mini pep talk didn't help much. My heart rate began to pick up speed. I had felt relatively at ease a scant half hour ago, but now I felt inexplicably uneasy. I had no logical reason for it.
After all, it was daylight, a bit overcast but still plenty of light all around. The flat was in an apartment block surrounded by hundreds of people. The sectioned off corridor was fairly spacious, well-lit and airy, not likely to cause anyone to feel claustrophobic.
Yet "trapped" was what I felt. Trapped and helpless and soon to be at the mercy of - what on earth was I freaking out about?
But in another minute, I was about to start screaming in hysterics. It was fight or flight. I felt there was only one choice left for me: it was fight.
I pulled the stool over to the security window grille that was beside the front door and studied the logistics of unlocking the door from the outside. The window frame had metal louvers for ventilation; with the area closest to the door knob fortified by intricate metal filigree.
I looked around for a gadget or makeshift tool. My eyes spotted a wire coat hanger. That would do the trick. So I straightened out the wire hanger and reshaped it to suit my purpose, leaving the curved hook at one end.
Fortunately my hands were in proportion to my height of 5'1"; they were small and made nimble by growing desperation. I wriggled, wiggled and twisted my hand into an impossibly small and narrow space. Then I hit a snag, the metal louver.
By now, my disquiet had become full-blown terror. I didn't know how, what or why, but I was absolutely certain at that point that I had to get out of there.
Maybe it was an adrenaline rush; maybe I had a boost from an unexpected source, but I found the strength I needed. I forced my way past the metal slat of the bottom louver. That thick piece of metal buckled into a vee and allowed my right hand to slip through with my elongated wire hook.
After a few attempts, the wire hook caught the door latch and released the deadbolt. With my left hand, I caught the door before it could slam shut on me again.
I was back inside. But by then, I had enough of the place. Grabbing my bag and the all-important house keys, I unlocked the outer gate first (as a precaution) before shutting that dratted front door behind me and got out of there. I only heaved a sigh of relief when I stepped out of the building.
When I reluctantly returned back later that night, Mum wanted to know what had happened. Apparently I had bent the metal slat so badly that Dad couldn't even straighten it up again. The window louver had to be replaced.
I simply said I'd been caught in the corridor and had an urgent appointment to keep. I just couldn't explain how terrified I'd felt. I was already eighteen at the time, long grown out of the night terrors and weird episodes. Wasn't I?
I've not thought of this incident in years. I've told myself at the time it was just a sudden panic attack. But the thing is I'm not prone to panicking, particularly in familiar surroundings. I've been at the scene of an armed hold-up and have kept calm enough to get safely away and call the police. Another time, I have talked my way out of an attempted mugging. During those occasions, my mind has gone "Zen", my thoughts crystal-clear, assessing all options.
What I'm trying to say is that I do get frightened, but all-out terror isn't the norm for me. And this was sheer terror at a gut-instinct level.
I still don't feel comfortable in that flat at Queenstown. I could never think of it as "home" the way I did with my Grandma's house. Go figure.
Since then, I made sure never to be without my house keys again.