Topic: The Slow Train to Waikouaiti by David Fahy

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David Fahy's entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition. In this piece the writer offers his recollections of a train journey made with his grandfather from Dunedin north to Waikouaiti in the early 1950s.

Archived version here/

Dunedin in May is brisk and chilly, but in the quiet of the siding behind the green trellis framed bill boards, the line of carriages warms up as they wait in the afternoon sun.

My Grand-dad meets us at the Octagon, Kipling-esque - though without the moustache - in his brown leather boots, tweed jacket and peaked cap. There is a richly-remembered moment as charge and custody of me is transferred from Mum to Grand-dad. I reach up for Grand-dad's hand, relinquishing my mother's in solemn acknowledgement of this change in authority.

Then we set off down Stuart Street to the Dunedin Railway Station there, first to marvel at the portrayal, in the floor of the echoing booking hall, of engines and wagons picked out in mosaic tiles. Then we make the quick march along the dusty platform, anxious to get on our carriage, to claim possession of it, for the train waits to be explored. There are red seats with red backs that swing over the red cushions, depending on which way you want to face as the train moves along. 

Do we want to go into the future facing forward or facing back?

There are the fitted blinds with blackened brass catches.  Most marvellous of all are the fittings in the carriage toilet – white porcelain, but almost a doll’s house scale miniature of the huge basin at home.  And a brass tap, which you press rather than turn, to let out a frighteningly brisk jet of water.

Outside on the platform inviting red trolleys with cast-iron wheels rest in the sun where often iridescent pigeons in wicker cages fret and speak to each other, eyes bead-bright and anxious.  The deep rich smell of chocolate from the Cadbury’s factory vies with the sea smells from the harbour.  The minutes click precisely away on platform clocks confusingly marked ‘Gents.’

Slowly a few more passengers board, their presence in our domain initially resented but then accepted – tired, dull people who had fought a war and who yearn for the oblivion of forgetfulness.  Soon the gathering dusk will envelope and enfold them.  They tender their tickets to the guard, asking only to be left alone.

Now the engine comes hissing and clanking down the line – the platform a-tremble as it advances - and there’s the thump and jolt as engine and carriage are coupled in a cascade of hissing from the brakes.

And now the rhythmic panting of the Westinghouse brake pump, the subdued whine of the generator and the scrape and clang of the shovel among the coals in the tender and the shocking heat of the maw exposed when the firebox door is swung open with a deft flick of the shovel.  The engine a-sizzle with steam – a juggernaut brimming with energy and about to take us to Waikouaiti.

The moment of departure is lost to me.  I know now that the train must have travelled out past LoganPark and, as the sun set, we approached Port Chalmers.

Now the train moves slowly, puffing steadily upwards and soon to enter the Mihiwaka tunnel.

Around the coast the grass’s green is muted now through the carriage windows, the yellow flowers of the gorse and broom dulled, the clouds steel-grey in the dusk and exhaust steam indistinguishable from mist, for the train has climbed high above the harbour, clinging to the hillside and far far below red and green lights wink in the roadstead and the heaving sea wears a ruff of white where it meets the black rocks.

Grand-dad sits fingering his stiff card board ticket, as we pass buff coloured stations,Warrington, Seacliff and St Leonards, looming up out of the dusk.  My sisters could recite these names in order, but it is all new to me.  Sometimes passengers alight and make their way into the gloom carrying parcels wrapped in brown paper or holding baskets containing the week's provisions.  From time to time we pass houses built close to the line, their interiors flashed suddenly as upon a screen to expose, perhaps, a woman with shingled hair wearing a faded apron, arms akimbo, in a wainscoted room with a high ceiling and blue walls lit by a single unshaded light bulb; or a man in need of a haircut in a grey sleeveless pullover, wrestling open a drawer – a tableau rich in portent –  and then as suddenly, gone.

By the time we pass Merton this train bound only for Palmerston is virtually empty.  The guard bursts through the carriage door, his green flag rolled in his pocket, his chrome cap badge glittering. He is thinking of his tea warming in an oven in a railway house in Palmerston twenty minutes away.

Swaying bowlegged along the aisle he exchanges a quick and cheery greeting with Grand-dad and I search Grand-dad's face when he has gone to confirm that the train will stop for us at Beach Street station as it train has gathered speed alarmingly across the river flats.  Night has drawn close around us but, yes, Grand-dad's wan smile confirms that the train is slowing down. 

Grand-dad gathers up his brown fibreboard suitcase as the carriage bucks and heaves against the brakes.  He puts on his cap and we alight atBeach Streetstation and pass through the gates onto grass as the train snakes away round Hawkesbury Lagoon until its single red tail light is lost around a curve.  Grand-dad’s torchlight picks out the peculiar orange gravel surface ofThomas Streetas we trudge together through the dark night toward the house a mile distant behind the macrocarpa hedge.

After the tumult of the train the silence is intense, broken only by the crunch of Grand-dad’s boots and my shoes and the far off cry of a bird.  The weather forecast for tomorrow is for fine weather.

Officially, the May holiday begins tomorrow.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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