The Notebook Thief
May-Ling checked under the cabinet that stood beside the front entrance and frowned. It was definitely missing. The second time in one month.
‘Don’t tell me you’ve lost it again?’ said her mother.
May-Ling was close to tears. ‘I don’t understand. I was so careful. I left it on my desk. I know I did.’
May-Ling’s notebook was among her most treasured possessions. It contained every piece of English she’d learned over the last six months; every new word and each and every wonderfully strange saying. All of them taught to her by Alison Madison, her middle school English teacher.
There was a low scrape and May-Ling whirled round. Her younger brother, Ping, was emerging from beneath a chair, a toy train clenched inside one tiny fist. At six years old, he still had the cute round face of an infant and May-Ling’s heart melted.
‘Smirking at your brother’s not going to help,’ snapped her mother.
‘I wasn’t smirking,’ began May-Ling then stopped. The look on her mother’s face was warning enough.
‘May I make a suggestion?’ continued her mother.
May-Ling stayed sensibly silent.
‘Look for it after school or you’re going to miss the school bus.’
During the short ride to school, May-Ling confided in Jiayi.
‘Again!’ laughed her best friend. ‘Goodness May-Ling you really are getting careless.’
‘But that’s what’s so odd,’ said May-Ling. ‘I’ve actually been really careful with it. I know I left it on my desk. I’m sure of it.’ Annoyed and worried, she turned to stare out of the window.
Outside, the first winter snow was floating out of a grey-white sky, the soft flakes lightly coating the office buildings that dominated May-Ling’s home town in North West China. May-Ling barely noticed, her eyes fixed on her own sorry reflection.
‘I don’t know why it bothers you so much,’ said Jiayi eventually. ‘It’s just a notebook.’
May-Ling bridled. ‘If I don’t find it, Jiayi, I won’t be able to study for my English test. And if I fail the test, I won’t be able to go to high school in Australia.’
When Jiayi didn’t reply, May-Ling turned to look at her.
‘I don’t see why you can’t go to high school here,’ mumbled Jiayi. ‘What’s so bad about China?’
‘Nothing’s bad about China, Jiayi. I love it here. It’s my home. I just want to …’ May-Ling struggled to put into words what had become a year-long dream. To study English, to make Australian friends, to swim with dolphins. How can you put a dream into words? she thought.
‘You want to leave,’ finished Jiayi, in a flat tone. ‘I get it.’
By the time they pulled up outside the school, the snow was beginning to deepen and drift, the paths slippery and white, the sound of winter a squeaky crunching underfoot.
‘Why so sad, May-Ling?’
Miss Madison was at May-Ling’s elbow and May-Ling switched from Chinese to English. ‘I’m sorry Miss Alison. I no can find my notebook again.’
‘Just keep looking,’ said Miss Madison with a smile. ‘It’ll probably turn up when you least expect it.’
May-Ling followed Miss Madison into the classroom and sat down at one of the forty two desks arranged one behind the other in long rows. The class was as silent as the icy cold that had frozen a shallow puddle of water just behind the teacher’s desk. Still early November, the heaters had yet to be turned on and it was clear that Miss Madison was struggling to stay warm.
‘You don’t have snow in Australia?’ said May-Ling as they stood in line in the school dining room.
Miss Madison held out a metal dish and received a ladle-full of noodles. ‘Not where I live. Not in Adelaide. No. Never.’
‘How boring,’ muttered Jiayi in Chinese, and May-Ling gave her friend a disapproving frown.
If Miss Madison noticed Jiayi’s rudeness, she didn’t show it. ‘There’s snow on some of our mountains, though.’
‘But no ice festival,’ stated Jiayi, haughtily. ‘Like we have in China.’
‘No,’ agreed Miss Madison. ‘We don’t have an ice festival.’
May-Ling and Jiayi didn’t speak on the way home.
‘I found it,’ announced May-Ling’s mother before May-Ling was even halfway through the front door. There was a large pink notebook in her hand.
‘Where was it?’ gasped May-Ling.
‘Under Aunty Lian’s bed.’
Which made no sense at all.
For the next five weeks nothing more happened and May-Ling was able to concentrate on her studies. Day by day the season grew colder until it was so icy that fruits froze and shattered like glass when they toppled out from under the blankets at the outdoor market. Tiny pieces of frozen watermelon glittered like pink diamonds in the snow and there was the constant scent of smoke in the air. Behind May-Ling, an elderly man was popping corn in an outdoor oven and selling it by the bag. The hot buttery grains were delicious.
‘Now how can anywhere be better than this? demanded Jiayi, her mouth crammed full.
May-Ling ignored the jibe. The two girls crossed the street to the shopping mall on the corner, pushing aside the heavy rubber curtains that kept the freezing wind from sneaking into the crowded centre. Inside, the mall was thick with heat and the smell of rich food.
‘Heaven,’ sighed Jiayi provocatively.
‘I’m not going forever,’ tutted May-Ling. ‘And I’ll be back for the long school holidays.’
‘Lucky me,’ muttered Jiayi.
May-Ling pretended not to hear the sarcasm and the friends finished the day by sharing a plate of steamed pork buns in front of the coal-burning stove in May-Ling’s kitchen. Her little brother, Ping, sat beside them, his eyes wide as they talked and laughed.
The following day, May-Ling’s notebook went missing for a third time and May-Ling was now certain she knew the cause.
‘You’ve been hiding my notebook,’ she said to Jiayi, as they bumped along in the school bus.
Jiayi looked genuinely confused. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘My notebook. It’s gone missing again. And now I know the reason why. You’ve been hiding it. It doesn’t matter,’ continued May-Ling. ‘I don’t need it anymore. I’ve studied enough.’
Jiayi pressed three fingers against her lower lip and May-Ling realised that her friend was desperately trying to hold back tears.
‘I did not take your stupid notebook,’ spat back Jiayi. ‘And you can go and get stuffed.’
May-Ling felt uneasy and sick for the rest of the day. Her friend’s reaction was completely out of character and not what she’d been expecting. Angry, hurt and confused, May-Ling suddenly wasn’t sure what she wanted anymore. When she thought about going to Australia it now made her feel ill. But when she considered not going she felt even worse.
‘You can’t concern yourself with Jiayi,’ said her mother firmly. ‘Of course she’s upset. You’ve been best friends forever. She’ll adjust. She must.’
The well-meant advice wasn’t much help and for the first time May-Ling wasn’t sure she actually wanted to go to Australia. Not if it meant losing her best friend.
‘You look sad,’ said Ping on finding May-Ling huddled in the window seat in her bedroom.
May-Ling made space for her little brother, and hugged him tightly. ‘Not anymore,’ she said. ‘Not now you’re here.’
Ping’s smile made her stomach ache with love and for a short while the thought of not going to Australia didn’t seem so bad after all.
‘How was Jiayi today?’ asked May-Ling’s mother the next day.
May-Ling’s throat closed around the answer and she shook her head.
Her mother tutted. ‘You mustn’t let it trouble you. Just focus on the test and the rest will follow.’
May-Ling wasn’t so sure. Since the argument with Jiayi, all the excitement she’d felt had curdled into a hard sickening knot.
On the morning of the test, May-Ling rose early and slid into her school uniform. ‘Have you seen my school shoes?’ she asked Aunty Lian who was busily preparing breakfast.
Aunty Lian shook her head, and May-Ling’s heart began to thud. ‘But I can’t go to school without them. I’ve got my test today. The English test.’
Aunty Lian and May-Ling searched the house, but the shoes were nowhere to be found.
May-Ling was stunned. ‘But I only get one chance at this. If I miss the test, I’ll fail. I may never get another chance.’ The sudden realisation was a pain worse than anything she’d felt so far, and May-Ling realised that her dream was as important to her as it always had been.
‘They have to be here somewhere,’ said Aunty Lian.
But they weren’t.
‘I can’t believe this,’ said May-Ling. ‘First, my notebook. Now my shoes?’
‘We’ll just have to look again,’ said Aunty Lian soothingly.
‘There’s no point!’ said May-Ling angrily and burst into tears. ‘The bus will have left by now.’
Ping clung to her legs, his face pale and afraid. ‘Don’t cry,’ he pleaded, but this time May-Ling couldn’t stop the emotions that were pouring out. She’d lost her best friend and seen her dream shatter within the space of one week. It was all too much.
‘Please,’ begged Ping. ‘Please May May. Don’t cry.’
May-Ling pulled Ping into a tight hug and felt something hit her in the base of her spine. A pair of school shoes. Dangling from Ping’s tiny hands.
May-Ling stared at Ping, the truth dawning slowly. ‘You hid them, Ping?’
Ping’s small head drooped.
‘And my notebook? Was that you, too?’
When Ping nodded, May-Ling swallowed every other thought that followed, shoved on her shoes, rocketed out of the house and made the bus with seconds to spare.
‘The bus got caught in the snow,’ said Jiayi, sitting down beside her. ‘I’m afraid we’re going to be very late.’
May-Ling looked up at her best friend in surprise, and Jiayi gave her a shy smile. ‘I’m sorry I’ve been so mean.’
May-Ling tried to speak but couldn’t.
Jiayi placed a hand on her shoulder. ‘I just wanted to say that I want you to do well today. I want you to pass the test. And I’ll miss you when you leave.’
‘I’m sorry too,’ said May-Ling quietly. ‘I shouldn’t have accused you of taking my notebook. It wasn’t fair.’
For the rest of the journey, the two friends watched the snow-white city slide past and chatted quietly.
‘You’ll be fine,’ said Jiayi, when they reached the school gates. ‘In the test, I mean.’
May-Ling gave her a grateful smile. ‘I’ll do my best,’ she said.
Back home, May-Ling side-stepped her mother’s questions and went looking for Ping. She found him crouched down behind a sofa in the upstairs living room. She sat down next to him and opened her arms. Ping glanced at her sideways and May-Ling pulled him into a hug.
‘I’ll always love you, you know,’ she whispered into his hair. Ping’s skinny body began to tremble. May-Ling hugged him tighter. ‘And if I do go to Australia, I promise to call you as often as I can.’ When Ping tried to wriggle free, she smoothed his hair. ‘And every long holiday I’ll come back home to see you.’
‘And Mum,’ muttered Ping.
‘And Mum,’ agreed May-Ling. ‘But especially you. And I promise to bring you back presents. Lots of them.’
The tightness in Ping’s small body relaxed slightly. ‘Presents?’
‘And you’ll visit every holiday?’
May-Ling looked into her little brother’s dark brown eyes. ‘Every holiday.’
Two weeks later and May-Ling was staring down at an official yellow envelope sitting on the kitchen table. Behind her stood her mother, Aunty Lian, and Jiayi. Beside her sat Ping.
‘Go on,’ urged Jiayi. ‘For goodness sake open it.’
Very slowly, May-Ling slid open the envelope containing her test results. What she saw made her heart soar.
‘I did it,’ she said quietly and the kitchen exploded into cheers.
The loudest came from Ping.