‘What if ?’ must be the most useful phrase in a fiction writer’s toolkit. It can – and has – sparked all kinds of wonderful stories.
What if a young girl fell down a rabbit hole?
What if someone found a treasure map?
What if two lovers were kept apart by their families?
What if humans could travel to another planet?
But, in real life, it can be a very disturbing question.
We were planning a weekend visit to my 80-year-old aunt who lives in Wales (the other side of the country from us). I knew she wouldn’t be able to put us up overnight so, after checking she hadn’t made any other plans for that weekend, I told her I’d phone again after I’d arranged some accommodation, and tell her what time to expect us.
A few days later, I tried to call her in the early evening but she didn’t answer her phone. I assumed she must have gone out somewhere.
I tried again the next morning. No answer. Oh well, she was probably out shopping.
I called a couple of times in the afternoon. No answer. Perhaps she was in her garden or visiting a neighbour. But when she still wasn’t answering her phone that evening I began to feel uneasy.
I called my sister and asked if she’d heard anything from Auntie. She hadn’t, but said she would try phoning as well. Another day went by with neither of us being able to contact her.
My mind filled with 'what if ’s'
What if she was ill?
What if she’d had an accident?
What if something had happened to her while she was away from home and no one knew who she was?
What if she’d suffered some kind of memory loss?
What if I couldn’t find out where she was?
What if she’d been kidnapped? Or abducted by aliens? Or …?
NO! I had to ignore the ‘what if ’s’ and think logically!
The next morning, I called Auntie's doctor (in case she’d been taken into hospital), social services, and then the police. It was both a relief and a huge worry when they said they would send someone to her house straight away.
There were more ‘what if ’s’ while I waited for news.
What if she didn’t answer the door?
What if the police had to break in?
What if she wasn’t there?
What if they found …?
And then my phone rang. It was Auntie. She was perfectly okay, although she’d been rather shocked when she’d answered a knock on her door and found two police officers there. The reason she hadn’t answered her phone was that she’d accidentally turned down the volume on it, so she hadn’t heard all that frantic ringing. (I’ve made sure she can’t do it again!)
I suppose all those 'what if ’s' might come in useful for future stories, but sometimes I wish I had a switch to turn down the volume on my imagination!