(repost from Letterdash)
Train of thought (June 2009)
A lovely young friend comes to visit me the other day – over numerous cups of tea we speak of this and that. She tells me that she and her husband will be travelling deep into the Karoo to visit family, and that they’ve chosen to travel by train. She describes the package deal, and it all sounds wonderful. Thinking about it later, I’m transported back 25 years in time:
It’s 1981 and I’ve been living in Johannesburg for nearly a year.
I’ve just fallen pregnant (not unplanned – as crazy as that sounds, and was), and I’m coming home to Cape Town to figure out how I’m going to deal with the weirdness of my life. I don’t go to family this time – instead I stay with a friend.
The visit lasts for two weeks. During that time I spend many hours sitting at the kitchen table speaking, and listening, to my friend’s mother. She’s a nurse with a warm, huge heart – she swears like a sailor, bakes like an angel, and treats all who come across her threshold with easy warmth and kindness. She’s also a nurse who provides freaked out young women with abortions.
I know, it’s not rational, but I’m 18 and I feel all alone. By the end of my stay I make the decision I’d always known that I’d make – I’m keeping this baby. Not because I have an ounce of fuzzy maternal feeling, or any spiritual scruple – it just is what it is. I couldn’t explain it logically if I tried.
And so, I board the TransKaroo for my homeward journey. This time I share a compartment with a young British traveller name Blaire. She’s older than me, palpably a free-spirited creature, and we get on very well. Even when she calmly start rolling joints before we reach Worcester. Lips tight as she holds her first drag, Blaire holds it out to me, but I shake my head and pat my flat belly:
“I don’t know what it will do to this,” I say, and she nods. In the back of my mind, I’m wondering if Blaire knows that dope is right up there with communism and interracial dating as the three most deadly sins in 1981!
Later we decide to go and eat in the dining car – we’ve got the second sitting.
The carriage is full of young men, and we realise that we’re right in the middle of some or other army intake. We end up sharing our table with two of them, and they couldn’t have been more different. One is the son of a well-to-do farmer in Namibia. He’s been to see family in the Cape, and he’s going home with many cases of wine; he shares a clutch of bottles with us over dinner. Pinotage.
The other person at our table is an English-speaking Capetonian who has just completed his degree, and hence can no longer dodge some form of military duty. I can’t remember exactly, but I think he’s been excused from the most awful duty and gets to be a medic or something.
The meal passes, the wine goes round and by the time we get to De Aar things are pretty hilarious. Which is why we don’t notice that they have uncoupled the dining car (which is what happens in De Aar). The first clue we get is the sound of a train beginning to move – except that we’re staying dead still. I remember that Mr Pinotage hangs out the window and shouts: “Fuck – they’re leaving without us!”
Before we can move, he’s vaulted out of the window, and is running down the moonlit track waving a bottle of Pinotage and shouting: “Hey – come back!”
What’s really great is that we see the TransKaroo grind to a halt – in its tracks – and shunt back for us! Amid much muttering from the uniformed train guy, we climb aboard sheepishly and resume our journey.
That’s pretty much it. I remember that we all ended up in our compartment, talking nonsense, and then having those deep conversations you have with strangers when you’re tipsy and 18.
I remember telling the young Capetonian, who rightly felt as if he was going into hell, about my baby as we rolled through the silent Karoo.
I remember us admitting to each other that we hated the Apartheid regime, and him saying that it was only a matter of time before someone in the army figured it out, and had him locked up in DB as a communist. He asked me what I would name my child – I hadn’t thought about it yet. He put his hand on my stomach and said: “If it’s a boy, I think you should name him Boris.”
We drank to that.