VANDA Scott can't remember the name of her Indian ayah. This puzzles her, because her memories of that time in the house outside Calcutta remain vivid. ''I can still picture my ayah, but then how could I possibly forget? ''To me, she was my mother. She fed me, dressed me, went with me to the hospital when I became ill. Till I was five, I spoke mostly Tamil, hardly any English.'' She was like Mary in Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden: a troubled little girl with very social parents who left the business of child-rearing to the servants. Only this wasn't the British Raj and there was no catastrophic earthquake. Instead Vanda Scott's airline pilot father moved his family to Karachi, then back to Britain where his daughter later took a degree at the London School of Economics. ''I became a librarian, but would have preferred to major in psychology and social work. Unfortunately, it was too late to switch because I was half-way through my course,'' she recalls. It didn't stop her from helping out in soup kitchens for the down-and-outers. Or blind her to the misery she encountered on those West London streets. ''I definitely became aware of youth loneliness during my student days. You saw it in kids from both privileged and deprived backgrounds. ''Some were just kicked out of home and had absolutely nothing to do, so I got involved in street theatre. I also used to take books with me to public parks and read to kids who were hanging about.'' She could have mellowed into a community librarian with nothing much to distinguish her except for a sympathetic air and an unusual knowledge of the Indian sub-continent. And what a waste that would have been of Vanda Scott, Director General of Befrienders International - better known as the Samaritans. In Hong Kong this week, it was back-to-back meetings for the woman who has spent the bulk of her adult life working for the organisation dedicated to preventing suicide. ''In January we launched a five-year plan for Hong Kong and China and I'm here to check on its progress. ''At the moment, the emphasis is on Hong Kong and we're examining three key areas: where are we needed, which are the high-risk groups and what type of service is required? ''We offer help by telephone in both English and Cantonese, but that could change. For example, in Sri Lanka it's a 100 per cent face-to-face service. ''Chinese culture doesn't allow that easily, but on the other hand, telephones aren't suitable for the elderly - often they don't have access to them - and they are definitely high-risk here.'' It's her old stamping-ground. In July, 1975, Vanda Scott moved to Hong Kong with her engineer husband Stewart after his appointment as deputy project director for the Mass Transit Railway. A fortnight after her arrival, she learned the Samaritans were recruiting and applied to become a volunteer. An excellent candidate, decided the selection committee. Four years later she was appointed director of the Hong Kong Samaritans. ''I was uprooted in 1983 when Stewart was headhunted for Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit, but the experience I gained in Hong Kong was just perfect. ''There was no structure at that time, so I had to build up the centre from scratch and that gave me a tremendous foundation.'' Along with the uprooting came an elevation: the chairmanship of Befrienders International (''the umbrella organisation''), held until then by Dr Chad Varah, the charismatic Briton who founded the Samaritans in the UK in 1953. ''He wrote to me when he was looking for someone to take over from him and my reply was, 'Totally out of the question.' Then he asked me when I'd be coming back to England and when I told him, he said 'Jolly good.' ''I was just being conversational. He took it as my acceptance.'' Two years ago, the reluctant chairman became Director General of the charity which now operates in 29 countries. To many she remains an anonymous voice trained by years of experience to bring light to the blackest of tunnels. ''I'm still a volunteer and will be back on the phone at my local branch when I go home to London next week. ''We say 'befriending' as opposed to counselling, because that's what we do: reach out with an invisible hand to help people explore their despair and anxiety. ''We have a very precise structure in terms of selection, supervision and training, and irresponsibility isn't tolerated. Ours is a life-and-death organisation which deals with life-and-death issues. ''The question we hear over and over again is, 'Who cares whether I live or die?' Our message is: we do.'' The statistics are harrowing. According to the World Health Organisation, more than one million men, women and children take their own lives each year, while another 50 million attempt to do so. Last year, Hong Kong accounted for more than 700 of those suicides, while an estimated 35,000 attempted it. Particularly alarming was the high ratio in the under-21 age group. Vanda Scott believes the disintegration of the traditional extended family unit has wreaked emotional havoc and that political uncertainties are adding to the toll. ''Similarly, political and economic changes in countries like Russia and Poland are creating pressures that weren't an issue five years ago, while in the West, AIDS and the recession have become major factors. ''For all that, you can never generalise. A potential suicide could just as easily be someone with no apparent problems, though the signs are there if you know what to look for. ''When people say things like 'I could go to bed and sleep forever' they may mean they're physically exhausted - or mean it literally. ''Many give no signs at all until they reach breaking point. You have no idea how often people tell us they've been suicidal for two, three, four years, but have never been able to tell anyone.'' Saddest of all are the children who call the Samaritans - like the eight-year-old who got Vanda Scott on the line in Hong Kong back in the 1970s. ''He was in a flat with his Chinese amah and feeling miserable. His mum and dad were always out, he told me - and well, that's about all I can say. ''Who knows, he could still be living in Hong Kong and total confidentiality is the Samaritans' number one rule.'' Whoever that small boy was, he must have felt enormously cheered after talking to the lady who seemed to understand exactly how he felt. She did. ''As a child, I was never nurtured, though when I look back, I ask myself: did my parents have choices? ''I believe you should always keep the door open. Whatever has happened in your life, you should always allow that access.'' Wendy and Hannah Scott, aged 16 and 15 respectively, know their mother is a woman of her word.