A Ride On The Sbhan
Giulia Mastrantoni (Monash University, Australia)
It took her some time to realise that she had put her feet on the seat in front of hers. Instead of putting them down and sitting upright, she looked at her boots. When she had bought them, she had been living in Berlin. At the time, her big goal in life had been to move to Paris, where she had been sure she would enjoy la vie bohémienne madly and find work in a museum. She thought life would somehow fly her to Paris. But instead, life had flown her to Melbourne. It had been supposed to be only for a year or so, but things had taken a different turn, and she had ended up staying. So there she was; on a train to Belgrave, sleepy, with the feet on the seat in front of hers.
She looked around; it wasn’t a busy train. Trains certainly weren’t the thing Franziska loved the most about Melbourne; they were always crowded, late and way too cold. She hated those carriages whose temperature felt like it was about to snow and there were lots of them. Overall, she felt entitled to miss the Sbhan and the Ubahn, and especially the first, on which she had kissed Giorgio for the first time. It had been a sunny spring afternoon in Berlin. Giorgio and Franziska had walked around Alexanderplatz, enjoying the crowd and the sense of hope that there was in the air. When they had hopped on the Sbhan, Giorgio had unexpectedly grabbed her and kissed her lips. He had tasted like the frozen yoghurt that they had shared earlier, slightly sweet and surely tempting. Remembering where she was, Franziska shook her head; she needed to get Giorgio out of her mind.
She gazed down and noticed a brown stripe that went all the way from the very front of the carriage to the back, where she was sitting. The smell of the hot drink that had poured out of the takeaway mug, and that was at present scattered all over the floor, was terrible. She hated coffee; she was a tea person. The takeaway drink running on the floor had attracted the attention of someone else as well. The homeless guy at the other end of the carriage was looking at the stripe. When was the last time he had had a chance to sip on a hot drink, Fraziska wondered. She drank a cup of camomile every night before going to sleep. It was a ritual she had learnt from Oma. Franziska’s grandmother had always told her that camomile helps you sleep; after years of severe camomile consumption, Franziska was fully convinced that it was just a myth. Still, that tiny ritual brought her back to Hamburg and to Oma’s beautiful house.
The baby kicked. Franziska’s thoughts came to a sudden stop. Every time the baby kicked, she found her mind going completely blank. She wasn’t sure if she should be terrified at the idea of giving birth, or grateful. She had given this question a great deal of thought, but she hadn’t been able to figure out what her feelings should be. She was excited, of course she was. But also… She wasn’t. Not in the way mothers-to-be should be. She touched the black sweater that covered her belly. She loved that piece of clothing, the fabric had felt so smooth between her fingers the first time she had touched it, but now she could only think of how much smoother, how much softer, how much more delicate the skin of the baby would feel.
It had been a shock to find out she had been pregnant, but she had never questioned whether she should keep the baby. Of course she should! She would. But there would be challenges, and she was confident that at some point she would look back and regret making the decision to keep the baby, if only for a second; she wasn’t naïve. Besides, that wasn’t how she had pictured having a baby. There was a time when she had thought that Berlin would become her home. She would marry Giorgio, have kids and adopt a rescue dog; she would go to see Oma in Hamburg over the weekend and plan the most typical European holidays in Italy. Yes, Berlin could have easily become home, had things worked out with Giorgio. But they hadn’t, had they?
It had been almost four years now since the first time she had landed in Melbourne. The flight, in spite of what everyone had told her, had been very quick. She had left a rainy Berlin and landed in a sunny (but very windy) Melbourne. Moving to Australia had made her happy at first, then deeply sad, and then sort of happy-ish again, and then depressed, and then sort of very unstable, but the truth was that she had always had issues with the instability and intensity of her emotions. When she had spoken to a counsellor in Berlin about her mood swings, he had told her that she had “emotional dysregulation,” or something like that. Franziska hadn’t cared much, but now she was worried that her baby would be just as emotionally unstable as she was, if not more. Oma would have helped her, of course, but she was so far away.
Franziska hadn’t wanted to know whether it would be a boy or a girl. She had barely bought a pram, a few onesies and some other small items for the baby. She had decided to take things one step at a time and “nesting” wasn’t a priority; there would be no painting the walls of the nursery according to the baby’s sex, no reading countless books on how to approach motherhood and definitely no fantasizing about the baby’s future life. Oma, however, had been nesting a great deal; during their last Skype videochat, Oma had showed to Franziska the room that she had turned into a nursery. “For when you come visit with the baby,” she had said. Then she had given Franziska a tour of the baby’s wardrobe. “Regardless of the baby’s sex, these onesies will do.” Franziska’s heart had melted. It was so easy for Oma to nest, it always had been; she could make anyone feel at home. Had she been with Franziska on the train, right now, it would have felt exactly like being on the Sbahn; they would have talked so much about all sorts of things.
The train came to a stop and a young man wearing sunglasses opened the doors and stepped in. He was tall, blonde, and well-dressed. This latter reminded Franziska of Giorgio, although he had black hair. Maybe the man with the sunglasses would make a great father for the baby, Franziska thought. She smiled at him when their eyes met. He smiled back, but a little hesitantly. He sat quite far from her, close to the homeless guy. He had a book in his hands and seemed to be on the point of opening it, but he changed his mind and put his left hand in the front pocket of the jacket. By then, Franziska, the homeless guy and the man with the sunglasses were the only passengers left on the carriage.
The man with the sunglasses was still looking for something in his pocket. Franziska assumed he was looking for his phone. But he wasn’t. Unaware of this, however, and pretty sure that her intuition was right, Franziska turned her head to look at the city running away from her. Funny, she thought, how Berlin had escaped her for good and how Melbourne was only pretending to run. It felt like a hide and seek game, but more painful. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend to be on her beloved Sbhan, going to see Giorgio at his workplace, like she had done countless times. Yes, she was on the Sbhan, running to meet her love, the buildings being left behind and Oma sitting next to her…
Franziska took some time to realise that the voice was talking to her. She looked at the guy’s reflection in the window, then turned the other way to speak to him.
“Is there any chance you might call 000?” His voice was low, as if he was whispering some secret.
The homeless guy was looking at her. All of a sudden, the baby kicked.
“I don’t want to alarm you, given your condition, but I think the man sitting next to me might need an ambulance… and perhaps the police.”
Franziska lifted her gaze to look for the young man with the sunglasses, while slowly caressing her belly.
“It’s best if you don’t, believe me.” The homeless guy was following Franziska’s eyes with his body, in an attempt to keep her from looking at the man with the sunglasses. The baby kicked again, this time more vehemently.
“What happened? Is he sick?” Franziska found herself whispering, while intensifying the massage.
“Not quite… Ehm… He has a knife and he is playing with it in his hands.”
There was a moment of silence, during which the baby kicked again.
“What do you mean a knife?” Franziska asked, somewhat in pain.
There was another second of silence, of which the baby took advantage, kicking as passionately as it could. Franziska felt herself holding her breath.
“And what is he doing exactly?” She said trying to breathe deeply, but discreetly.
“Just turning it in his hands, but he has a strange look on his face.”
“Is he planning to hurt us?” Franziska whispered while holding her baby bump. The baby was starting to kick less and less gently.
“I don’t think so, but I believe it would be best to call 000. He looks like he might need some support. And the ambulance, just in case he…”
“In case…” She slowly came to realise what the homeless guy was implying. Maybe the man with the sunglasses was planning to hurt himself. The baby kicked very vehemently, causing Franziska to close her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, she found herself looking once more for the man with the sunglasses, but the homeless guy was duly blocking her view.
The baby was rhythmically kicking, quickly increasing the intensity of the kicks. Franziska opened her bag and looked for her phone, trying to keep calm. She was hurting; moreover, her eyes and her hands were busy looking for the phone, so she didn’t notice that the homeless guy had turned once again to steal a glimpse of the young man’s actions.
“Shall I make the call?” The homeless guy seemed impatient.
“It’s okay, I can do it.” She dialled 000 and waited; the baby was kicking more harshly. Instead of a voice coming from the other line of the phone, she heard the voice of someone who had just walked up to her.
“I need to apologize to you.”
Franziska lifted her gaze, and there he was, the man with the sunglasses. She put away her phone and smiled tentatively, trying to conceal just how much in pain she was. She wanted to cry.
“Apologize for what?” While closing her bag, she wondered whether putting her phone away was a good decision. She could feel her heart rate increase; what if something was wrong?
“I am so very sorry for what I have done.”
The baby kicked so violently that Franziska wondered if she would need an ambulance soon. She decided to hold on to the phone. Breathe, she told herself.
“You haven’t done anything.” She put her hands on her lap, hiding the phone but firmly holding on to it. She was sweating.
The homeless guy decided it was time to join the conversation.
“Do you know this young lady here?”
The man with the sunglasses didn’t reply. He kept staring at Franziska, his eyes filling with tears. He was starting to look very lost, Franziska thought. She felt as if the baby was kicking her heart; her breath was becoming more irregular.
“It’s okay, nothing bad has happened. Would you like to sit?” She was trying to be as motherly as she could, while starting to panic for her own wellbeing. She put her feet on the floor, and made a gesture that meant that the man was welcome to sit where Franziska’s feet had been.
The man with the sunglasses shook his head, as if to say that he couldn’t possibly sit in front of her. He looked so fragile. Franziska felt her lungs running out of oxygen. She was holding her breath, worried that the baby would tear her chest open from the inside.
She abruptly remembered that the man standing in front of her was supposed to have a knife. She looked for it, but the man’s hands were hidden in the long sleeves of his leather jacket. There could have easily been a knife in his hands, or perhaps he had put it away; she breathed heavily. The man with the sunglasses was growing more and more distressed. His face was sweaty and he seemed to have troubles breathing at a normal pace. But so did she.
“We can help you, you know.” The homeless guy was clearly trying to calm the man down, while keeping an eye on Franziska. He had realised that she was breathing irregularly. Franziska noticed that the man with the sunglasses had taken his sunglasses off, he must have done it soon after getting into the carriage, she realised. She had missed that tiny, insignificant action. What if it had been the very last time he took his sunglasses off? What if he was really going to kill himself? The baby kicked more insistently; Franziska sighed noisily, then she gripped the sides of her seat.
“I am so very sorry for what I have done.” The man with the sunglasses’ voice was sweet, his tears sincere. He seemed to truly believe that he had done something wrong, and to seriously want to apologise.
What had he done? Surely nothing to Franziska, who was positive she had never seen him before. She just wanted to reach the closest hospital, she was in too much pain; this couldn’t be normal, could it? The best move, Franziska decided, was to get him to talk. That’s what people in distress needed to do, right? Talk. And then they needed to take the knife from him and put it away. At some point, they would most definitely need to call 000, she thought. The baby kicked again. And they would have to ask for an ambulance for her, she decided.
“It’s okay. Would you like to tell me what happened?” She whispered, her voice as steady as she could manage, while on her mind a chant was only just starting…
I am on the Sbhan. I am going to see Giorgio. Oma is coming. The Sbhan will take us home. We will all be alright. I am on the Sbhan and I am safe.
Currently enrolled as a PhD student in Creative Writing at Monash University, Giulia is investigating ways to represent experiences of sexual victimization. At present, she is co-editor-in-chief of Colloquy, she is one of the editors of Verge 2020, and she is a book reviewer for several Italian online literary communities. She always credits her endeavours to Topolino, the Italian Mickey Mouse comics that initiated her to the world of written stories.