I thought I would add my piece to the growing Work In Progress Wednesday digital tradition. This is an excerpt from Hildamay Humphrey’s Incredibly Boring Life, a children’s story that I am editing in preparation to pitch this summer. The novel begins:
Hildamay Humphrey was nine years old, but I am sad to say that she was completely unaware of that fact.
This is a normal morning for our protagonist, Hildamay, who lives the boring life of an adult though she is only nine. Everyone in her world treats her like a normal adult, including her confused neighbour, Mrs. Cuesta, who asks Hildamay to pick up 142 pounds of cinnamon at the market.
Hildamay Humphrey absolutely loved going to the market, in much the same way as you might love going to the candy store or the beach or the dentist—well, perhaps not so much the last one. She loved it so much, she went almost every day, and always to Bella Italiano, a small Italian supermarket that, for as long as she could remember, was owned by a man with a thick French accent named Mr. Confrère.
“Ah, good morning, Mlle. Humphrey,” Mr. Confrère greeted her politely, but with a grand smile. “Mlle.” is actually pronounced “Mademoiselle” by French-speaking people. It means “my little lady,” but is a polite greeting for young women in general. Hildamay always appreciated that Mr. Confrère greeted her so pleasantly and formally, and returned the greeting by practicing her own French.
“Bonjour, M. Confrère. How are you this fine morning?” “M.” is Hildamay’s way of saying “Monsieur,” or “Mister,” in French.
“Ah, it is a lovely day, no?” he answered while polishing an apple, which he then placed carefully on a neatly stacked pile in a wooden bin. The sidewalk was filled with M. Confrère’s bins of apples, pears, sweet peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchinis, corn and squash. He had used fishing net to tie up bunches of cloves and ginger and greens around the doorway into the store, much like holly hangs in doorways at Christmastime—at least in houses with people who have better imaginations than Hildamay Humphrey, who though holly served no purpose whatsoever.
As incurious Hildamay entered the market, even she could not help but drink in the rich, delicious scents. Some smells were hot and spicy, and tickled her nose. Others were green and fresh, husky smells that reminded her of her second floor garden. She also thought she smelled cinnamon and thought briefly about her confused neighbour, Mrs. Cuesta.
Hildamay squeezed between the bins of fresh vegetables and fruit from around the world to get in line at the meat counter. She was annoyed at herself for dawdling along the way to the market: there were four people in front of her in line when Mario, her favourite butcher, began to serve the first customer.
“Ah, good morning, Hildamay,” Mario greeted her brightly when it was her turn, his thick Italian accent very much like a welcoming sigh. He tried his best to be grumpy to the customers, but he was often quite pleasant to Hildamay.
“Buon giorno, Mario,” Hildamay replied carefully, practicing her Italian. “I’ll have a pound of ground turkey, 150 grams of mild capicola, and a nice piece of liver on the small side—please make sure it’s a fresh piece, Mario,” she added politely with a little smile. While you and I may agree that liver is a vile, vicious meat, unfit for human consumption, it was one of Hildamay’s favourite foods, “full of iron and energy,” she liked to say. For all Hildamay knew, everyone in the world liked a lunch of liver and onions.
Mario smiled at her comment mischievously.
“Ah, Bella, you know I only serve the freshest meat. And I certainly would not give low quality produce to my most discerning customer, would I?” Mario winked at her as he began slicing and bagging the meat. Hildamay smiled at being called a “discerning customer,” proud that Mario knew she had good taste when it came to choosing her cuts.
“My, how cute!” a woman said brightly. She was standing behind Hildamay in the line for the meat counter. She was dressed in a smart business suit and had a small nose much like the beak of a little bird.
“Pardon me?” Hildamay replied, turning to see the smiling stranger behind her.
“Well, it’s just so darling how you did all that ordering!”
At this comment, activity in the entire store stopped. Every eyed turned to look at the woman. Mario stopped writing on the brown butcher paper with a black marker, and M. Confrère looked up from his pyramid of shiny, stacked apples. Several customers stopped tapping melons and picking potatoes to watch the scene. Even Mrs. Zhang, who made the Chinese take-out food and chattered away constantly throughout the day, stopped and stared.
“Excuse me?” Hildamay repeated in displeasure.
If you have ever said the wrong thing at the wrong time, you know almost precisely how this woman felt right then. The difference, though, is that this poor woman did not know the damage she had done. Once, in a state dinner with leaders from around the world, I greeted the High Ambassador from Tankalu, a small Pacific nation, by offering to shake his hand. Little did I know that in Tankalu culture a handshake does not mean “How do you do?” It means, “If I had the power to go back in time, I would give you a Wet Willie in Kindergarten.” Strange, I know, but Tankalu culture is quite sophisticated, and takes Kindergarten very seriously. I, however, did not know the great insult I had caused, and I tried desperately and unsuccessfully to apologize.
Likewise, the woman in line was suddenly unsure of herself. She caught a glimpse from Mario, the butcher, who only shook his head at her. She knew she had said the wrong thing, but she did not know why.
While it is generally true that most adults are far less observant than children, all of the people at the Bella Italiano market knew that Hildamay considered herself to be an adult. At first they pretended to go along with her, and over time they began to think of her as a little, old, elementary-aged adult. After all, they had never once seen her do any of the normal things that children do, like dance or skip or play or compare bruises with other children. They also knew, above all, that she detested being treated like a child. For Hildamay Humphrey, this was the worst insult, and all the regular customers and staff at the market were waiting to see what would happen next.
Hildamay stared at the confused woman for a minute, then turned back toward the meat counter.
“How condescending,” Hildamay said quietly, though loud enough that most everyone would hear her, including the offensive woman. I’m sure that at some time you’ve been treated like a little kid by some well-meaning adult or by a big brother or sister. So I know that you know what it feels like for someone to act condescendingly toward you. But what you may not know is that adults sometimes do this to each other. Why? I cannot tell you. Adult humans are a strange and mysterious kind of people that scientists are only beginning to understand. But Hildamay found it an ignorant way of treating another person. In this way, I tend to agree.
“Mario, have you finished my order.” She looked seriously at the butcher.
“Yes, of course,” Mario snapped back into action. He passed her three packages of meat with a tight smile. “Ciao, Bella.”
“Ciao, Mario,” she replied politely. She turned to walk out of the store, leaving the baffled woman behind. Everyone in the store breathed a sigh of relief. M. Confrère started shining and stacking apples, Mrs. Zhang started chatting with a customer about how to properly prepare roasted duck, and the regular Tuesday morning customers went back to finding their produce.
“What… What happened?” the woman asked to the others in the line.
But Hildamay did not hear her. She was somewhere else inside her mind. It was no longer a beautiful, sunny day. Instead, an ignorant woman had treated her as if she was a little kid. There was nothing worse in the world than being called “cute.” Even the prospect of having a delicious liver-and-onion lunch did not brighten her up as it usually did.