Alone, a Train Journey from Hell

I stood there, at the window of my coupe, watching them turn into 5 little specks on the platform. The tears turned into torrents as we all blew kisses into the air and waved goodbye.  The last time we would be together, this beautiful little family who cared for me, a little immigrant dropped at boarding school for months on end as her parents were farmers finding their feet in a foreign country far away from their children. 

I HAD LONGED for the LAST DAY OF SCHOOL and visualised RUNNING in dog circles around the long boarding school passages,SHOUTING WITH GLEE, after the last word was scribbled on the last exam of my last year.

What a letdown. Funny how often things turn out to feel differently to what we expect. It just felt like the end of a chapter of a badly written story.  Lowveld High was the only English-speaking school in the north & near Swaziland and some live-in boarders, such as me, were more than 500km from their parents. Kind day scholars “adopted” us Rhodesians, and some weekly kids also took us out for weekends. Angels in fact.

Sadly, not all stories are fresh, fun and happy – but they are adventures, nonetheless and many things you will identify with.

As the electric diesel engines purred past the station into the unknown future I gazed out the window watching the city of Nelspruit turn into sprawling farmland – fields of orange Christmas-balled citrus trees & green orchards under irrigation, banana plantations boasted blue bags protecting huge hands of unripened fruit nestled amongst their leaves.

Clickety clack, Calcutta clack – cutting through the daylight into hazy blue hills, passing under granite rocks and suddenly whooshing inside dark tunnels breaking into a new world of flat maize fields on the other side.

STEAMY PURPLE JACARANDA TREES

After a few hours the horn sounded, woo hoo, Pretoria station heralds a stopover.  Pretoria is the executive capital of South Africa. With a lot of time to kill I left my rucksack with someone to watch and sauntered up the paved and cobbled pathways, under the shade and late blooming steamy purple jacaranda tree archways.

There are between 40 000 – 70 000 Jacaranda trees flowing through the avenues of this stunning modern city, turning it into a bee buzzing lilac haze wherever the feet may wander.  So many of the tree trunks are red & crumbly with the nests and trails of muddy white-ant (termites) pathways as they eat these magnificent giants to death.

Happening upon arcades with quaint bread shops, pastry dens, old-fashioned pharmacies, ladies’ boutique shops and stunning milliners.  Hats of every colour, shape and design on stands, models & shelves called me to come in and browse.

Not a person would serve me in any shop – be it food or clothing as I was an immigrant who could not speak their home tongue, Afrikaans.  They despised the English in those days, pre-1990’s, and treated me like a leper.  Rejected and lost I wandered back to the train station, confused, hungry and heartsore – in buckets of tears all over again. 

Wise and more mature nowadays, I’d just say …. Well, I won’t be honest and tell you the real terminology … but you get my drift what I’d just say!!

UNFORTUNATELY, they too now have NO COUNTRY TO CALL THEIR OWN – although they live on the same soil as before, South Africa, which has been replaced by thieving murdering rulers (we won’t ‘go there’ today).

I just have to be fair here and tell you that 90 % of all the Afrikaans folk I have met & befriended in this country have been the most warm, amusing, kind and lovely people.

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Back at the station, I sat on a bench watching a mish mash of railway lines & the trains coming and going – and, my heavens what an education!!!!!  Women walking around with curlers in their hair, men without teeth, children being dragged on and off carriages throwing temper tantrums. Little boys wailing desperately for a wee holding their privates & lovers kissing unashamedly at departures (nearly eating each other).

HOW WAS I TO KNOW HOW BLEAK THE NIGHT AHEAD WOULD BE! I was so alone, on a train journey from hell

Whistles toot, we drift away from the station into a rosy dusted sunset, having found our carriages for the journey to the Eastern Cape. I’m going home – to a new home – near the coast 

As we shunted around the first few bends, I noticed every window of the slithering snake had a head lolling in it, peering out into the never never

Relieved, a coupe all to mysef – let the railroad soundtrack begin – I think I can, I think I can – woo hoo – I thought I could, I thought I could choof choof

In the night shattering glass, shouting men and fighting echoed down the corridor outside my haven.  A drunken brawl had broken out.  Inebriated men of every age group staggered & crashed around.  Oh my word, what a mess.  The conductor and porter were dragging cursing & vomiting drunks by whatever piece of clothing they could hang on to, through the passageways back to their compartments.  It was a dogfight of note 

Sheepishly, I snuck back into my space after peeping through a sliver in the door, chaining it for extra security.  On and on the commotion went, then silence!

FROZEN – WHO COULD IT BE?

Oh no, a knock at the door. Breathless, I waited, frozen in time. Who could this be? I didn’t answer until two desperate voices called covertly for me to please open the door. There stood a shell-shocked young dad travelling with his small son

Seemed the 3 of us were the only sober ones on board! Humbly the father begged me to help them, to hide them in my safe coupe. They had been sharing a compartment with strangers, wild broken bottle brandishing men

I trusted my gut, and all was good. We sheltered in room 12, observing the train draw into stations, depositing grown men staggering mindlessly down the steep steps onto platforms nearly every hour

It transpired that outside Pretoria an alcoholic’s & drug medical centre had sent reformed patients home, unattended, by train after many weeks of rehabilitation

THE AIR GREW COLD & UNFRIENDLY – the clock ticked past 3am

Dawn broke, the journey had quietened and only a few passengers remained.  The train pulled into a dark station in the middle of nowhere and a little family stood waiting for papa.  A new, happy, sober papa.

He had been one of the men sharing my new friend and his son’s compartment, so we helped gather his belonging and led him to the stairway to disembark.

His wife was young and pretty, wearing an ankle length floral dress with fresh lipstick and a smile.  In her arms she swaddled a baby and at her side was a 4-year-old little boy, waving hello.

Suddenly a tear ran down mama’s cheek, she looked towards her son who had now snuck behind her leaving only a tiny hand visible to u on her thigh.  The scene was utterly heartbreaking.  A shaky young mama absorbed the situation, then she withdrew into herself, hugged her tiny baby-in-arms tightly, reached out her hand searching for the little boy’s hand – turned and started to move away.  Sounds of her sobs echoed into the silent orangey-pink sunrise.

THE FATHER WAS A MONSTER

The father of her children was still the monster who was sent away, all hopes and promises drifted into the unfriendly gloom of the station. He called out to them and tried to wave but it was too late…. She walked on and the train began to clickety clack , creeping along the steel rails onto the next destination.

You know, 35 years have since passed and I could paint that picture as it is so clearly etched into my memory.  What happened to all of them? How could the rehabilitation centre have left those sick men unattended – surely they knew this had happened before and would again?!

Finally, an empty train deposited us onto the East London station platform where lovely mum & dad stood waiting to collect me and my new friends’ wife to meet them.

My school trunk had gone missing en route!!!! Whilst the railways searched for it dad, mum and I went to a nearby café for a happy reunion breakfast as I was starving having been hidden in my cabin all night.

Just a little further now ….. an hour by road, and I’d ‘meet’ my new home, cuddle the doggies & hear kitty purr followed by a healing walk along the beach where I closed one chapter of life and waited for a new one to begin……

To read another of my train stories head over to https://anelephantinmysuitcase.com/journey-on-a-steamtrain/