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Crazy Ladies On Trains

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Crazy Ladies On Trains
by Alicia Bruzzone

It’s an unwritten rule of public transport that on at least one seat in every carriage sits an insane person. You know the one: dark eyes, wild hair, sometimes the scrumptious body odour that suggests they like to marinate monthly before showering to build character. Today, I find myself the nominated crazy lady.
Not that I smell particularly offensive or I’m harbouring a hidden bag of feral cats, but the sections of my hair I haven’t shaved off are currently purple, and the pins in my eyebrow are longer than the ones for your credit card. Not the initial life goal I set for myself, but we work with what we get. Currently, I also appear to be talking to myself in a made up language. I need to start sticking my Bluetooth in the ear away from the window, but I’m worried one of the crazies will steal it. I know, me a victim, when most of the train keeps a good metre radius from my body. If you’ve ever headed to the city in rush hour, you know that’s a quarantine space in case I’m catching. It’s as if they are already envisioning the title on the front page of this evening’s paper: The Case of the Contagious Crazy Lady; Could She Have Infected You?
“Nəḥna ʾi-nəkl ḥawira,” I insist into the tiny microphone, wishing for the thousandth time my sister could have chosen to speak a normal language like Spanish. Yes, it sounded cooler than ‘we cannot go,’ and prevented eavesdroppers, but I had enough insane lady going for me as it was.
As I say goodbye and hang up, a man in an over-starched grey suit sits next to me. He looks too young to wear a suit everyday to work. Then again, I think they should be exclusively relegated to the over seventies so they can prep how to look in their casket.
“Your pronunciation is wrong,” he informs me as he unfolds his newspaper and spreads himself into every spare millimetre of space between us like a caterpillar settling in a cocoon. “I know the glottal consonant phoneme is controversial, but it is widely established now to be similar to the modern day s.”
I stare at the side of his head, waiting for it to explode. I’m the only one supposed to be speaking a made up language.
He turns to look at me, brown eyes like warm caramel slotted into skin that looks like chocolate cake batter. “You were speaking Ge’ez? I don’t think there’s many of us around, what with it being extinct and all.” He goes back to his paper after producing a smile for me that suggests he thinks we’re in some sort of secret club. “I can tutor you if you need it.”
I roll my eyes, catching a glimpse of my eyebrow piercing in the process. “Take it up with my sister. She refused to play with me unless I spoke her secret language, but she wanted a real one. Coptic was too common.” I’m used to snide. Combined with narcissism, it usually keeps me a free seat on the train.
Not today.
He actually smiles at me and folds up his paper, ready to engage in real conversation. “She must be older.”
“No, twin. She wanted us to have cryptonphasia, but couldn’t subject herself to making up gibberish.” I smile involuntarily, thinking of my sister. She is the reason my hair is purple right now. We no longer look identical.
“Interesting concept, did she try and imitate your actions?”
“No, I was supposed to do hers so she didn’t get dirty.” I shake my head. I don’t want to share this with a random stranger. My stop is coming up, so I stand and head for the door. Unfortunately, Grey Suit joins me.
“I’ve seen you all week. New job?” He’s still staring at me like a science project.
“Sort of.” My phone silently buzzes in my ear, and I answer as he continues talking, unaware my mind is elsewhere. “I’ll be in soon. Can’t it wait? Okay, pass the phone.” I hear the greeting in the extinct language of Ge’ez when the phone is passed. The odds of finding someone else dumb enough to know it are astronomical. I continue the babbled conversation I hung up from earlier, and with repeated assurance that I am coming, I am allowed respite from the conversation.
Grey Suit is staring at me, and I think if I were a lollipop he’d already be licking.
“I only speak it because I have to. No linguistic conversations are welcome.” I push the button and the doors open with staggered exaggeration at the effort.
“Is coffee welcome?” he asks, edging past an elderly couple who glare under a face full of wrinkles as only the geriatric can. It’s as if all the skin of the friends they loose over the years gets re-rationed to their comrades.
My mind flits to the cafeteria sludge I will be forced to consume later on in the day, and I check my watch. I have twenty minutes to distract myself, and I’ve covered the no Ge’ez speech. Like I had one of those rehearsed. It’s happened all of never. “As long as it’s made from actual coffee beans, then yes.”
Grey Suit smiles at me, white teeth perfectly aligned as if they were planted by a mouth landscaper. I’m in trouble.
*
He’s still smiling as he looks over a cup of cappuccino froth towards me where we share a table. I feel my insides glow as I take a sip.
“Is your neck alright?” he asks, and I automatically reach to touch the tender part just below my scalp.
I thought the marks had faded; I guess not. “It’s nothing,” I suggest as I take another mouthful to hide half my face behind the cardboard cup. It’s too much and I burn my tongue, but I don’t want him to ask.
He doesn’t with his mouth, but his eyes do. I ignore them. They may look like honey, but I am not a bee or any other winged insect variety likely to head towards them with reckless abandon.
I flick a packet of sugar between my fingers, weaving it in and out like a loom where I can crochet confectionary.
“Are you running late?” he asks me, catching me checking my watch. “I’m not holding you from anything?”
I shake my head and gulp more scalding coffee. They won’t admit me in for another ten minutes, but I should probably start walking. “I have time, I just know I have someone desperate for me to get there.”
“Boyfriend?” he asks politely before he dunks his head into his coffee, and I laugh, as I know he’s copying exactly what I’ve been doing every time he asks me a question. His eyes seem to liquefy, and I’m not sure if it’s the happiness I exude or my definitive no.
“Very smooth. The coffee, of course,” I tell him with a raised eyebrow, pulling the piercing with it.
“Well, if you ever want to practice your Ge’ez, I’m always looking for a chat,” he offers with his hands wide as if he might be trying to catch the sky.
I’ve never understood that one; how it is placating to fake amateur juggling hour. Still, his words have given me thought for consideration. “Anytime?”
Those eyes again. I take that as a yes.
“You busy now?”
He chokes on the mouthful of coffee he hides behind, and I blush as I laugh and hand him a napkin. I’m not trying to be forward, but he doesn’t know that. “I’m free for a little while,” he hesitantly admits, as if he’s already rearranging a mental planner with phone numbers and times in red brain ink that highlight his activities of the day. There’s probably an expensive device in his pocket that has everything recorded, but he doesn’t want to seem too eager. After stalking me from a train station and buying me coffee, one can never be too careful.
I still think Grey Suit is using me as a social study, but if that’s the case I’m really going to make his day. “It’ll be about six hours if you’re interested,” I call, and start to wander off, knowing if he wants to follow I’m fairly easy to spot. Not a lot of purple half-haired women on the street today.
I can hear him scurry behind me and murmur into his phone, trying to prevent me from hearing his conversation. Because I’m not creative enough to fill in the gaps. Perhaps I need to start overdoing my make up to suggest artistic tendencies. Drag queen could do it.
“I’m all yours,” he announces slightly breathlessly when he catches up, the conversation and long strides too much in a suit and the morning sun.
“No,” I correct him. “We’re sharing.”
*
His face turns the colour of his suit as he stares up at the building before us and I march in. St Margaret’s hospital isn’t my favourite place in the world either, but it’s not like I’m checking him in to die. That spot has already been reserved.
“You’re coming in for treatment,” he says slowly, and I can imagine his inner brain flurry as all of his witty Ge’ez comments go sailing for condolences and appropriate comments for the terminally ill. I walk into the oncology ward, and I can feel his eyes staring at my half shaved head, mentally cataloguing how much treatment I must have to go.
I leave him to fester for a while, even though he did just buy me coffee, because I need some entertainment today, and I nominated him. Hell, maybe I just need some therapy.
*
“Ḳāla barakat,” calls out the figure in the bed, and I return with a ‘word of blessing,’ of my own.
Grey Suit is stuck in the doorway like a poorly built damn, blocking the nurses, but filtering through light. “You taught a four year old Ge’ez,” he remarks, something between awe and dumbstruck resonating through his voice.
“Decklin is six. And remember the over achieving sister I mentioned? This is her son.” I sit on the end of the bed, and Decklin begins to speak with me in Ge’ez, the only language he has spoken since my sister died. No one understands him except me, but I have a plan. And it involves Grey Suit.
“Hi, Decklin,” Grey Suit mentions nervously.
Decklin replies in Ge’ez, as he usually does, and bursts into tears when Grey Suit replies in turn.
“You told!” he wails in Ge’ez, pitching a fit into the pillow. “It was our secret!” He’s stuck in Ge’ez, and I don’t know if what I’ve decided can be classified as helping. Decklin’s little body is wracked with sobs, every rib making its presence known through his t-shirt that once fit and he now wears like a hand me down from an older sibling. The drip that is constantly plugged into his arm sustains him, but does little to offset the weight loss side effects. Still, he’s alive, which is more than I can say of his mother.
I gather him in my arms and cradle him, kissing his bald little head. The chemotherapy has been hard, but losing his mother was worse. “Decklin, remember how your mummy told you it was something people used a long, long time ago? I found us a friend who knows it too. He’s going to keep you company for me while I have a nap. Come on, buddy.” I nudge his pointy chin, and he nuzzles in further like a mole burrowing to the safety of the dark.
Grey Suit stares at me, and I realise we used one of our made up words. There was no Ge’ez translation for buddy.
Decklin calms down eventually, and I leave him on the bed to get the nurse and have a word with Grey Suit. He’s uneasy, so I give him an out. He doesn’t take it, which makes me wonder what the hell is wrong with him.
“What do you need me for?” he asks, not showing any disappointment if he thought this was a date and now feels rejected.
“He needs another bone marrow transplant. Usually parents aren’t a match, but his mother was. Funny thing about identical twins, I can donate too. I’m not good with blood” I mention nervously, poking the path on my neck where the needle will be inserted. It was usually done in the arm, but with me that didn’t work so well. It had to go somewhere I couldn’t see it. “He just needs someone to talk to. Ask him questions; don’t bring up his mother unless he does. She died three months ago, and he hasn’t spoken English since. The nurses don’t know what to do with him.” I didn’t really either. Aunty to mother was a jump, and he’d been admitted in here for most of it. He was six. He needed family with him when he was sick and it killed me to have him in here.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Beyond leukaemia? He misses his mum.” So much so I’d dyed my hair purple and gotten myself pierced so I no longer resembled her. His eyes used to light up every time he saw me walk through the doorway, and he’d burst into tears whenever I corrected him and had to remind him gently that his mother was gone, and it was only me. It broke both our hearts. I would undertake any manner of drastic hairstyle or experimental cosmetic procedure to not have to see that look on his face ever again. “She taught him Ge’ez as a way to annoy her ex, but it turned into something more with him. I’ve tried, but he won’t speak English, and I can’t be here with him all the time. He needs to communicate with the nurses so he’s less miserable.” I also need to be stabbed in the neck for several hours, and he got scared when I stopped talking. I told him I fell asleep, but really I just passed out.

Grey Suit nods and heads back into Decklin’s room while I round up a nurse. They know me here well, and my arrival signals a giant burden off their shoulders. My nephew can’t be the easiest of patients, and I can tell they want to reach out to him and help, but he just doesn’t let them. He’s shrunk into himself the last three months, and with his emancipated figure it’s not hard to see why Grey Suit thought he was four. He’s a shadow in a boy’s skin, as much as I don’t want to see it. I’m his guardian now, and it pains me to visit every day and watch him try and leave me too. I take a deep breath, warn the nurse to watch Grey Suit as I don’t really know him, and set myself up for the pain that might just save my nephew.
*
The needles and tubes in my neck don’t bother Decklin, he’s been stuffed into so many lines for the last part of his life they seem normal, which just makes it so much worse. He’s supposed to be learning how to swim, and lying about eating all his broccoli, and kicking a ball around the yard until it’s too dark to see and the mosquitoes have feasted on his blood. I don’t think they’d even want it at the moment.
I hand him some homework and make him read to me to begin with, supressing a smile as he first reads the text internally, then announces it in Ge’ez. Any word he can’t think of a translation for, he skips. He’s too clever for his own good, exactly like my sister.
Only his maths work when completed can be handed in, his reading comprehension is also completed in the exclusive language, each letter delicately scrawled into a sheet of code his teacher will never appreciate. Grey Suit is watching in fascination. Decklin is pretty impressive if I say so myself, but it’s nice to see someone else appreciate it too.
I prompt Decklin to talk to Grey Suit about dinosaurs, since I know he loves them and the kid has so many words cooped up inside him waiting to spill he’s like pot set to simmer that started boiling ten minutes ago. I start to fade out, the blood removal and recirculation always effects me, but I’d go through so much worse. The past five days I’ve had injections to prepare me, not wanting to go under for surgery to have my bone marrow removed from my hip in case something goes wrong and Decklin is left with nobody.
Decklin prattles on, and gets to a point where he’s using a word we created to fill in gaps where none exist. Sematic languages from the fifth century had surprisingly little use for the word ‘Pteranodon.’ Grey Suit asks what Decklin means, and there’s a pause as he withdraws back into himself. I can imagine him throwing startled looks my way, and as much as I want to interject and it pains me to stay silent, I do, feigning the sleep he is so accustomed to when I undergo the procedure.
It seems like forever, maybe it is just half a heartbeat, but a small voice gently adds, “Pteranodon. It’s a flying dinosaur,” in perfect English, and I allow myself to drift off for real this time. Everything isn’t going to be okay, but if we get past these hurdles one at a time, the road ahead doesn’t seem quite so terrifying. We fixed two problems today. Decklin can now communicate with the nursing staff, and I didn’t have to subject myself to cafeteria coffee. It felt like a win to me.

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