The woman in the plane seat next to me looks uncomfortable. She has the kind of short, sparse hairstyle I associate with those receiving chemotherapy, or living in a concentration camp. I can see the paleness of her barely-protected scalp. She is wearing orthopaedic shoes and has a large, well-filled handbag.
As the other passengers get on, hoist their luggage into the overhead compartment and settle in, my unfamiliar companion fossicks in her large bag. She takes out a book of word puzzles, a pencil and eraser, touches a range of other things but decides to leave them where they are: glasses, a purse, a packet of disposable tissues. She finds a fine, white handkerchief and, with both hands inside her handbag, surreptitiously fills it with sweets, then tucks the handkerchief into her lap.
As we taxi out onto the runway, the stewardess lowers my companion’s tray and smiles at her. Says she needs her help to do her demonstration. She lays a lap-belt, a life jacket, and an oxygen mask on the tray which will not go flat. Which sits at an angle over my companion’s distended belly.
Throughout the flight my companion sneaks sweets into her mouth from the handkerchief, and works on the word-search puzzles. When all the sweets in her handkerchief are eaten, she retrieves her handbag and replenishes her supply. When the trolley comes along and the stewardess asks if she would like anything she shakes her head and says she never eats between meals.
I doze and wake. We are nearly home. I glance over at my companion. At the open page of her book of puzzles. The object of the puzzle is to find words from a list at the bottom of the page within the grid of scrambled letters, and draw long, flat lozenges around them. My companion is working through the word list from beginning to end. Half of the words are crossed out (found!). As I watch, she circles a four letter word – spat – and crosses a word off the list at the bottom of the page – wizard. I try not to stare.
All of the words she has circled are four-letter words, or shorter ones. Some are not even words, or at least, they are misspelled ones that I am unfamiliar with.
She catches me looking, snaps the book closed and looks away up the aisle.
‘I like word puzzles,’ I say.
She glares at me. ‘I don’t,’ she says, ‘my daughter makes me do them. To improve my memory. I hate them.’ She snorts, and raises the sugary handkerchief to her face, blots at the sweat on her pale brow. ‘I really hate them,’ she says.