Thursday, March 27, 2014

Duck Deliberations

(Friends with my duck book and binoculars)

Ducking reality is not really a problem. We needs only immerse ourselves in an opera to enjoy its obvious affectations. Garb truth. Suspend our disbelief. We also dress ourselves up for special occasions, wear makeup, put on certain manners, and display certain graces. Being natural, really truly natural, is perhaps most realized first thing in the morning, arising from bed, dishevelled, untidy, unmade, unfocused, and needing to pee. But then we attend to the routines of necessary grooming (and perhaps even preening) and we go about the busy-ness of attending to our business. Such is the reality of our day to day. We certainly would not appear at the opera in our gaudiest of pyjamas! Well, unless we had a performance role that called for it.

Unlike ducks, we make meaning from everything. Or do they too? After all, in their ranks it is clear who chases whom, who leads which, and why there is a gathering on the sea-edged grass or at the wet-slip of fresh water run-off from the local pub above the cliff-high rocks. And like us, the ducks make up several species. Some are quite discernibly different from each other. Many are distinct. But most appear as ducks, just ducks. And though I keep a booklet on ducks and have my binoculars at my window overlooking the bay, I cannot say that I can tell you easily quite which duck is which. I've not bothered to learn names. I am content to see them as they are. But even birds fall into categories. There is the lonely heron who frequents the arbutus tree overlooking the bay, and there are the gulls, the crows, the geese, and even a big white swan once visited, and of course there are humming birds and sparrows and... Well, lots of birds. The mall downtown is like that too. Lots of different people from all over, coming and going.

Thing is, ducks are ducks. They appear gregarious and congregate congenially, at large, and all appears well with their world, as difficult as it must be to contend with the variants of nature and the necessity to have sufficient food. But they do not build bridges and erect skyscrapers and drive under the influence nor do they accept credit. They are not ontological. Ornithological maybe, but not ontological. No, they do not make meaning of their quackery. It is mankind that perpetuates the mythology of its species, gives significance to some more than to others, and creates a reality of words and symbols and places and events that goes well beyond that with which ducks can identify. When the harlequin in all its splendour enters the confines of the bay do the drab amongst the birds duck their heads in a collective inadequacy? But certainly, seeing the sudden arrival of the pair of Harlequins, my focus was riveted to their 'otherness'. We are given to observing the bright and the beautiful and the significant and the special and the other and the different. It's in our natures. It's in our genes. It's in our learning it from Ma and Pa. And it's in our hopes that we too may be provoked beyond the usual, the obvious, and the mundane.

Thing is, people are people. We cannot but take on the history of our lot and perpetuate the thoughts and meanings and contentions and even the feelings we've acquired as a result of being brought up on a given shore, by a given colony, by a given parental pair, in a given paradigm. And we accept these realities as though they are biblical. We take on the accent of those we hear as we grow up, we adopt the attitudes of those we watch the most influence us as we mature, and we even make duck-face at the camera because, because, well, everybody else is doing it. Ha! How to be content just to be?

Being entirely individual is a most difficult thing to be. What part of oneself is not a composite of all of history that went before? And standing out is not as easy as one might like, unless one is a harlequin, especially the only male harlequin, there among the multiples of ducks in the bay. But bring on a whole flock of harlequins, such that there be a group of like-mindedness, same-voice, similar-plumage, and equality of habits and practice, and where then the claim to individuality?  

(Harlequin pair. Photo by Tim Zurowski)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Far Flung Friends

The huge compass at my feet shows great distances between us. (Very many of my friends live a long-long way away.) From my perch above the compass in the Victoria Mall, on Vancouver Island, I've watched the direction finder grow, the marble tiles being cemented in by workers who likely also came from other countries. Canada is a very cosmopolitan place. Furthest from here is South Africa's Johannesburg, at 16,534 kilometres, to be precise. Brisbane is 11,797 km away, while London is a mere 7,673. But the distance to be journeyed is never a straight string.

There are some friends who may as well be millions of miles away, though they actually live quite close. It matters not the geographical proximity. One of my dear friends travels extensively, roaming the globe, but though I be affixed to one spot we retain communicative connection such that time and miles does not diminish the sense of camaraderie. Then there are others I've not seen or heard from in years, yet I know a moment's glance will suffice to reconnect the essence of who we are, and why we like each other.

But what is it that so divides people from liking each other, that makes of our world such a thorny nest of contentions? Why do we bicker so among political parties? Why do we fragment and divide and marginalize and negatively judge and dismissively evaluate and feel so caustic and abrasive and even hateful toward others? As the song goes, "Why can't we be friends?"

It's a naive question. The shame-based and the fear-based and the needy and the care-worn, and the underprivileged and the envious and the jealous and the vulgar and the filthy and the unappreciative and the... Whew! There are a lot of negatives one can bring to the fore. We are so quick to see any feathers differing from our own. Habits of speech and dress and style of comportment and levels of education are all complicit in our adjustments. It is natural not to feel comfortable when someone opposite us has crumbs trembling on their chin. It takes a great sense of caring integration just to allow something to remain to be. Ever shaken a leper's hand?  

Among the many Models of Mankind there is a striking similarity in their divisions of the human condition. At large we fall into hierarchical tiers or rungs of development. We tend to operate from all tiers (some rungs minimally), but we predominantly operate from a single Set of Habits. Within a given tier or rung of a Habit Set we each have different personalities and proclivities. For instance, a person may be a level five and be a square who is diametrically opposed to a triangle at the same Habit tier. What of a squiggle in level six being opposed to a circle in level two? All shapes and styles apply. Added to such a divisive perception of mankind is that there is tension and contention betwixt all big and small layers, ranging in severity from an outright declaration of racism to subtle distinctions of disparagement of all things not quite acceptable.

Ease and facility with friendship, genuine unconditional friendship, is a treasured thing. So very much of conditions are determined by longevity, proximity, and circumstance. Being stuck in an elevator with a colleague over 36 hours, where there was even dislike to begin with, might just bring about real compassion once the stories have been swapped, and the unavoidable body functions are accepted, but it also can go the other way round. There be a certain magic in a friendship that is based on ephemeral qualities of commensurate recognition; some things are list-able; some, as Sancho sings, are simply that "I like him! I really like him!" There are friends I now have that I know I would not have liked as a boy. And there are friends I once had that I no longer can have. One has only so many opportunities to keep in touch before there is an end.

Time and distance divides us, "but in our hearts the dreams still stay the same. Those were the days, my friends, we thought they'd never end; and now..." we've gone and thrown it all away?  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Stoker's Aside (Mason's Mill to Franklin, 1974)

I am still uncertain. How possibly to know what’s right? But first, there’s a job to do.
            In the dawn light the row upon row of train sheds down below, like great grey bullfrogs, grow more and more raucous. With each bellowing and belching from gaping galvanized throats steam billows out in great gusts of sun-tinged saffron, purples, and ambers. One by one, monstrous locomotives emerge along the rails of silver and gold, chuffing and huffing and squealing before screeching to a wailing stop to bask in the buttery light. Their drivers pop out to scuttle about the bulks, like ants tending to gigantic aphids. They poke and prod, tap with wheel irons, squirt from oilcans, and pump from grease guns, while within the slot-eyed cabs the sweat-soaked stokers scrape with forever-hungry scoop-shovels. And the stench of hot oil and fresh grease and scorched coal simmers up from the lines upon lines of steel to saturate the senses.
            Resolutely, I pass through the gate at the sign that reads, ‘Masons Mill, Employees Only’, and descend the path to the busy cacophony and steam-bleached belching of cotton-floss below.
            “You’re late! Catch!”
            I just manage to snare the white cake of flaky lye as the friendly voice of Bill, the engine driver, startles me. Usually we team up on the giant 16-ton auger-fed #1373 ‘Gammat,’ or Garratt, 
 (#4074 in Masons's Mill shed)

but Bill is now leaning cheerfully from the elbow-rest of a smaller 15-AR, or Bongol, the donkey-maid of all work. I remember. We’ve been assigned this old short shunting engine because we’re today to take freight on the torturous mountain track to Franklin. A pity, the little old Bongol will require my constant coaling into the heat-hell of its throat, shovel-full by shovel-full. Well, stoking, that’s what I’m being paid for.
 (15AR 4-8-2)

            I take three quick steps, and swing up into the dark cab.
            Good, I decide with a nod at Bill. If we have to have this cursed old donkey on the 37-hour return trip, then sweating like one will help me work off my own steam too. I make a quick stokehole check, clean all the dials, the armor-plated glass of the cab, check the sandbag containers, and then hose down the steel floor-plate. I sense that Bill, though a big gruff gorilla of a man, is alert to my mood, but…
            “Army Call-Up, again!?” he eventually shouts over the noise. 
            I nod. “The border. Again. Been four years back and forth already. Five weeks to three months at a time. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it,” I add, as I coil and stack the hose, wipe stray water-spots off the brass pipes and glass gauges, clean the regulator quadrant, check the pressure gauge, grab up the scoop, open the stookgat, and begin feeding the already glowing grate. “Just wish it didn’t have to be me!”
            Stadig daar, ou seun! Steady, old son. Keep the steam down.”
            “Sorry Bill. More used to the Garratt.”
            “Ja. But our Gammat’s already gone. These old donkeys are all that’s left.”
            “They’re shutting down that quickly?”
            Bill nods. “Beginning of the end. For all of us. You see the paper?” He turns away, clears his throat. “End of the year. 1974. Closed. No more steam. All gone. Forever! Draadkarre! Wire trains! Whole century of steam! Whole century! Gone up... ha!” He points. “Gone up in smoke!”
            I grimace. “Then let’s enjoy the ride, Bill. Anyways, this might just be my last stoke!”
            “So? Gonna go AWOL?”
            I try a smile. “Winds o’ change a-coming, Bill. Winds of change.”
            “Right then! Here comes our Stompie!”
            The wiry man who now runs beside us raises a thumb-less hand. The freight cars had been shunted so expertly onto the O-car that there was no jolt and shudder of the coupling.
            “We’re loaded!” Bill announces unnecessarily as our train jerks slightly, gathering the load, then pulls away. “Gonna do a full day’s work vandag, jong!”
            I shovel steadily.
            “Hey! Keep it white, ou! Smoke’s black! Need every lump o’ the stuff if we’re ever gonna get there. Every lump. You paying the ten-Rand fine to the yard inspector?”
            And then we’re finally out of the cluttered yard, taking along with us the twelve heavily loaded freight carriages, as well as the O-shaped water car, and the fully loaded coal tender.
Earlier that week I’d grunted out loud in realizing that the graph between Mason’s Mill and Franklin actually resembles a literary Classical Mountain Diagram. An infamous 140 miles long (yet only 74 miles by the proverbial crow’s flight) the 3-foot 6-inch gauge rail-line climbs three successive heights through the spectacular Valley of a Thousand Hills. But instead of ‘inciting force, rising action, foreshadowing,’ and ‘crisis,’ there’s this admixture of endemic African sounds, like the Zulu that flutes off the tongue with its long lovely vowels, like Kwa-Guzu, M’bongwenzi, Songonzima, and Singizi. Then there’s Afrikaans, with its guttural consonants, like Pietermaritzburg, Elandskop, and the rattlesnake hissing of Plessislaar. And good old English, of course, has the crusty sound of Creighton, Henley, and then, the last stop, Franklin. But at the highest point, the climax before the descent of the dénouement, is the lovely Welsh cadence of Llewellyn. Tracing the path with my forefinger I marveled at how the railroad yoked such diverse stations into a co-dependency. But after Llewellyn, the very short descent to a sudden stop at Franklin looked a bit like an anti-climax.
“No need for it to go past Franklin,” the Dispatch Master had explained. “No one lives way up there. Mountain’s too steep. Too rugged! So they tell me. Why do you want to know?”
But I’d just shrugged my shoulders and...
“Here we go!” Bill brings me back to the present as we come out of the Edendale siding and the engine begins a climb that slopes at the cab floor. “Gather steam! Gather steam!”
            “To coal, or not to coal. Your call!” I grin, and stoke more quickly.
            “So? How you gonna get out of going on the call-up?” Bill bellows above the climbing tempo of the chuffing engine-roar.
            “Ha! I dunno. Swim away to some other shore, or something. Just gotta go!”
            “Not that easy! In Double-U-Double-U-Two, me!” Bill thumbs at his chest. “Memory stays! Wasn’t that bad, though!” he laughs, his dentures gleaming white against the permanent sootiness of his big face. “You get over it!”
            Ja! I’ll get over it. Someday. Ha!” I hope.
            Our short but heavy trainload keeps chugging up the sheer grade of 1 in 40, and ever so slowly begins leaving behind the glinting rapid-strewn shallows of the sprawling Umsunduze River. We’re steeply grinding up the ascent now, all 2,500 feet of it, climbing alongside a tributary stream, and winding our way up 37 miles of twisting track.
            Upwards and onwards. But you never really forget the past, I think.
            “Whoa-ha there!” Bill suddenly shouts, jamming on the throttle. “We’ve got to keep her cool!”  But the squealing engine, its weary valve rings taking too much pressure from the intense heat of the firebox, grinds to a halt. My fault. I’ve not watched the gauge and I’ve fed the flames too quickly. Escaping steam hisses and belches as the boiling water tank slops within the innards of the iron hulk.
            “Time for a blow anyway,” Bill mutters as he jerks back on the massive brake-lever, securing ourselves against the incipient threat of a sudden backwards sliding as the heavy train changes its inertia on the 1 in 40 slope. Bill hates stopping.
            We make tea from a quickly boiling wire-handled can that Bill, in the deep and timeworn-grooves of his banana-sized fingers, plucks off the long-iron thrust into the stoke-hole.
            Twenty minutes later we try to start off again, and the six steel drivers beneath us squeal and squeal. The water level is at the top of the glass and the bouncing red needle of the pressure gauge steadies, but Bill finally shoves a wedge of wood into the regulator-quadrant, holding the vibrating lever open against the engine’s incessant shuddering.
            “Go sand!” he shouts, plucking the coal scoop from me.
            I grab up two 10-lb. sandbags, jump to earth, and run up the gradient past the shrill squeals of the belabouring locomotive to where the lines gleam like polished silver from the years of slithering drivers. Striding ahead of the angrily chuffing train, I dribble the coarse red sand.
            “Run! Hardloop!” Bill shouts, startling me into new awareness as the chugging engine huffs up in its threat to overrun me.
            I sidestep, wait for the iron-ladder to come alongside, take three quick strides, vault up and into the darkness of the cab, and commence scooping coal.
            “Oi! Wait a bit!” Bill yells once more, and puts a restraining hand on the shaft of the shovel. “Keep her at low water! Smoke-white! Also, watch the pressure! If it gets too hot, keep your body out of line!” He points unnecessarily at the lead plugs in the great crown sheet that wraps the boiler-end. “Remember! One of those shoots out, it goes right through you! So wait a bit more. Wait. ... O.K! Now!”
            I resume shoveling. The image of shooting another, and being shot at, shivers at me.
            “Get more! Lean in there,” he indicates at the coal-tender. “Get that coal coming!”
            Inside the mouth of the rattling coal-tender I use my grapple-hook to pull the bearing plates out from under the mountain of coal. As the black sludge slides down the ‘V’ shaped walls toward me the engine takes a tight curve and rock-sized chunks fall past me off the shovel-plate, skittering over the steel stubs at my feet. Below deck the flanges of the driver wheels squeal. I pick up the larger clogs and hurl them back into the coal-feed, but yet more big lumps slip off the shovel-plate, blackly rolling about.
            “Go for irons! Irons!” Bill yells. “Bring three or four! Gotta breathe! Keep her going!”
            Transported, I stagger away from the dream-like rhythm of my shoveling.
            The old engine has slowed to a crawl of three miles per hour as the grade skews to a 1 in 30. She sucks for air and noisily rumbles with indigestion from deep within her grate. She's needing her range-ribs cleared of the solid clinkers coagulating like red-rimmed black-islands in the white-hot sea of molten coal.
Leaning out and hanging wildly from the rocking cab’s grab-handle I reach as far as I can alongside the length of the clattering coal tender, and slide from the U-bracket holders four of the heavy fire-rods, each longer than the other, and thicker than spear-shafts. Then Bill and I use our combined strength to ream back on the giant lever that opens the grate-plates against the massive load of spent coal. It finally cracks apart and the loose clinkers scatter and splash below, red and sparkling onto the rushing creosote ties, while the constantly complaining rails gnash and clack. Sweating, and reaching for yet another fresh iron, I prod at the bigger chunks with whitening rod after rod. The coarse cotton-batten that I use by the handful singes beneath my grip. My knuckle and forearm hair I’d burnt off in the first ten minutes, which also was why I never wear a watch. But at last I pull out the final white-hot and wobbly iron, walk backwards while Bill leans as far away as possible, and then slide the steaming thing back into its receptacle. The engine, breathing freely again, needs to gobble more coal to keep her fire hot and her water pressure up. But at least the whole train keeps moving up the slowly shelving gradient, and then even begins to gain speed as I square up to the shovel-plate and transfer coal, my right hip locked into its rhythmic swivel…
            “Watch it!” Bill cautions as coal spews off the end of the arc of the scoop, “Mooi loop! Mooi loop! Go carefully!”
            More cautiously, I settle back into the rhythm.
            “Hey! Look sharp! Here’s the post! Quickly now!” Bill shouts as the guttural sounds of the heavily labouring engine assails us. “Check the gradient post, man! Quick! What’s it say?”
            Leaning dangerously down from the cab I hunker low enough to eyeball the declination marker. At an approach of a steep and slow five miles an hour the scarred black on white inscription reads: 1:30 – 1:50. I swing back, deliberately check the water gauge, adjust the valve-tap a smidgen, and strew a fresh layer of coal over the bed.
            “So?” Bill yells, unable to contain his impatience.
            “Steep! Very steep! No choice but up!” I grin. “Good thing this ‘Enjun’ can’t read!”
            “Ha!” Bill laughs back at the old joke. “Good! Or we’d never climb outta here!”
            Yes, but I gotta get outta this Call Up, I think.
            The train’s belaboured noises at last abate, and then the engine slowly chuffs into a siding and comes to a squealing stop.
            ‘Elandskop, Elev. 2,500 ft.’, reads the battered sign.
“Well, that’s only the first of the three big climbs,” Bill exclaims. “May as well catch forty winks until the passenger train goes by.”
I try to sleep, but eventually, with only the engine’s breathing to hear, Bill asks, “So, just what is keeping you so bedondered this time round man? You’ve been regtig verstroid, straw-minded, ever since we left! When must you report?”
I swallow. “Six days.”
Bill shrugs. “So? You’ve been up there before. What’s so bad about it this time?”
“I have... I’ve some things to sort out now. Ethical things.”
Bill nods. “Like?”
“Like, just who’s right, and who’s wrong? Why must this country have its apartheid; apart-hate? Why can’t we all just string along, just like all these different names do on this insane track they call a railway? And why am I legally not allowed to speak out against conscription?”
            A long ‘Hoo-oo-oot!’ in the far distance intrudes.
            “Here she comes!” Bill announces unnecessarily, and soon enough the passenger-daily sidles along, squeals to a stop. Scarcely five minutes later it pulls out, its articulated Garratt, the regular # 1213, chuffing and huffing its way back down and into the valley. It covers the distance to Franklin in a little over ten hours, compared to our twenty four, and averages almost fourteen miles an hour, compared to our seven. But then, it doesn’t have heavy freight, nor waits.
            The Bongol’s grates cleaned, fire re-stoked, wheel bearings greased, and the water tank filled, we resume the decline toward Deepdale, twenty two miles away, dropping 1,785 feet.
            “I was thinking!” shouts Bill, “`bout blacks, and people’s rights. Well, it’s what you mean when you do things that matters! Do the best for all. That’s all. Intention. Isn’t that the word?”
            I smile. “Bill! You are truly a wise man!”
            His shoulders go up. “Me? Ne-hev-ah! Ha!”
            “Serendipity,” I mumble aside, under the huffing of the labouring train.
            But Bill doesn’t hear over the sudden squeal of the wheel-flanges scraping on steel as we tilt into the precarious lean of a steep curve. The crashing waves of the engine’s reverberating exhaust-retard, its valves belching steam, echo rudely off the faces of the disturbed and brooding cliffs, and the rail cars clatter and clamor as the train descends round and down, past the scarred and stonily resounding crags. And then we’re at last into the groove of the green valley and more quietly trundling along the broad and meandering path of the Umkomaas river, a clickety-click-click-clacking until we reach the Deepdale siding, and stop for water.
            I stand at the man-hole on the platform atop the O-car while it slowly fills from the wetly gushing overhead pipe, and shiver. Around me the valley is a gnarly giant’s scooping hands.
            Escape the clutch of Africa? Is there no recourse but to move on?
            But now the waiting engine hoots me once again into the present.
            I signal the level of the water in the tank, and eventually shut off the stream, clang shut the manhole, clamber down the ladder, and run to catch up with the already grunting and heavily chugging train.
            Soon enough were clitter-clacking quickly along.
            At first sight of the antiquated arches of the picturesque stone bridge that spans the tributary near Sizanenjana, I feel desperately nostalgic. Africa! But then we’re scurrying over it, the wailing rails twisting up and around the slopes of the valley. And at last we reach the shoulder from where I look back towards the distant Umkomaas River, way down there, stretched out on the lush valley like a strand of silvered hair on a dark green blanket.
            I settle into a steady rhythm of scooping, stepping into the twist to gather coal behind me, then spinning and scattering from the tip of the shovel. The engine keeps climbing, the gradient getting steeper as we head towards Inglenook. Bill gives a thumbs up for making good time.
            But suddenly we’re shuddering.
            “Sand! Go sand! Go sand!” he hollers. So I haul out of the cab with two sandbags and run ahead. A 1:40 slope is again holding us down to a crawl as the engine chomps at her bit in great guffs of suddenly let-out steam as she painstakingly draws in each breath. At a climb of nearly seventeen thousand feet that stretches and winds cruelly upwards on some twenty miles of track, the train is now belabouring with each stride. I keep ahead of the groaning engine as I quickly sprinkle the sand. I really need to be back in the cab, helping Bill. He one-handedly will be shoveling coal while opening and closing the regulator with the other. The old Bongol has yet to build up steam for the last incline.
            But soon I’m back at the shovel-plate again, carefully feeding the coal and monitoring the valve-release needle, desperately trying to keep the temperature as even as a baking oven.
            Still, I have my mind on my own problems.
            The whole train comes to a shuddering halt. Bill checks his watch, and grimaces. It’s no use. We’ve done all we can to coax the old mare along, but she now needs time to simmer down and build up another head of steam. He pulls the brake and pats the regulator. “There-there, my ou skattebol, my old darling. We can spare you just half an hour to get yourself together, but then you’d better be ready to crest that horizon with us, OK?”
            Then the two of us climb down from the cab, stretch weary limbs, and lay down in the slant of the shade beside the wheezing train.
            “Wakey-wakey! Time to go!”
            The Bongol climbs more steadily now, and just past Inglenook we crest the hill and begin clipping along at a good eight miles an hour, despite the gradual ascent.
            “Have to wait here at Donnybrook,” Bill interrupts as the train slows down for the switch point of the track. “The daily’s due back soon.”
            And once we’ve stopped, and after tending to clinkers, and refilling with water, and making late evening tea, I again put my body down to…
            The sudden thundering past of the #1213 next wakes me up. It’s just crawled up the twenty or so miles of cruel slopes from Centocow, the curling track system looping in on itself so closely that even after twelve miles the huffing engine would only be a mile from where it’d just been before. But now, without any passengers to pick up, the train keeps rushing past, back on its way home.
            Home. How badly I want to have a home, somewhere, free.
            “We’re off! Gonna do some work tonight, jong!” Bill spurs me.
We descend into the dark of the clouded moonlight, clattering past steeply eroded gullies where their great falling banks, catching our front light, look like starkly scratching fingers in waving black velvet. Occasionally our headlight picks out an old weather-beaten signboard, Creighton, and then, Ingangwana. And after another two hours of swaying and squealing down precipitous slopes, we gradually slow up for the silvery inverted U`s of the towering water-columns that feed from the Umzimkhulu River, just past Centocow.
“We’ve got over 2,300 feet of climb to go,” Bill shouts, and jerks a thumb at the sky. “It goes twisting up ahead. Thirty-three miles. Feels like a storm coming. Got to get the O-tank filled right to the top, eh! This stubborn old thing will slip-slide and drink as though its belly is a sieve if we don’t watch her! Ha! Ready?”
I nod, and while the Bongol is still coasting into the siding, lower myself over the side of the cab, let my left foot bounce off the gravel bank, just twice, then let go and sprint forward with the train’s momentum. I keep running, let the O-car catch up, clutch at its rusty ladder and scramble up to the wooden platform. Then I straddle the cover of the man-hole and signal into the glare of Bill’s hand-held lantern.
The groaning train eases to a wheezing but precise halt. I grin. Much of the rapport between Bill and me depends on how directly the O-car stops right under the nozzle at water-depots. I swing up the heavy iron flaps over the gaping round of the tanker’s dark mouth, and then peer down into the sheer blackness of it.
But at a stroke of brilliant lightening, I look up.
There’s just enough moonlight to make out where we are. The railroad slicks away from under us like a silvered python, slinking forever upwards, and twists past variously huddled Zulu kraals whose fat round mud and wattle huts, like so many dark mushrooms, are here and there loosely clumped and scattered along the steep sides of the scoured kranse.
Above me the ponderous dark masses rumble. At a distance a rain song gathers its frilly skirts, taps lightly, and waltzes down from the mountain slopes. It swirls away from the heavy bumble of thunder, clicks fancifully to the brilliant baton-strokes of the lightning, and then pauses at the valley fringe, a moody wallflower. Sad. Solemn. Sulky.
“Ha!” I give a dispelling laugh.
The waning glimmer of Bill’s spotlight plays along the eighteen-inch diameter of the horizontal pipe, and finds me at the tap-wheel. I give the thumbs up. The light goes out.
I yank. The wheel doesn’t budge. I keep my eyes closed against rust flakes and wrench at the spokes again. It stays jammed.
My eyes open to the moon, beaming from a keyhole in the sky. It silvers the paper-smooth roll of the tanker. Then, in sudden black cicatrices, like caricatures of medieval calligraphy, the rain, sharp and stinging, etches the metal surface ahead of me, begging to be deciphered. Like flicked ink drops from a graffiti pen, blistering the flat land below, water splatters. And then the storm bursts into discarded sheet upon sheet of smudged writings ripped rapidly from a forever tap-tap-tap-tap tap-ping typewriter.
Ha! What rubbish! I’m too old for these imaginings!
With both hands on the slippery surface of the wheel, I use all my weight, and tug.                      Nothing.
Rain sluices at me with heavy bucketfuls. I grow desperate. I yank. I growl. But I feel impotent, wrestling there with a welded water-tap in the freezing rain.
            Desperate to get the job done, I grab with both hands at the large wheel, coil up like a hanging foetus, and wrench down with my whole weight.
It frees so suddenly that a thick torrent of cold water shoots from the nozzle, catches me in the belly, jettisons me through the manhole, and plunges me into the gurgling contents of darkly reverberating tank.
Within the dark womb of echoing steel the black maelstrom of ice-cold water is up to my waist, swirling around me. Thousands of gallons per minute shoot from above in a never-ending thick shaft of white froth.
But I’m unharmed!
“Wha-hoo!” I shout, as the deluge buoys me. My feet lose purchase. Try as I might, I cannot reach up past the tank’s slippery innards to get at the scant light from the manhole. My toes slip off the cant of the steel, and the side-ribs provide no finger-hold. But I’ll float, and I’ll wait. Safe. But freezing within the huge cylinder.
I’ll wait.
Suddenly I can wait no longer. I must make my own way!
I dive to the bottom, then, feet on the hull and flexing my knees, I shoot myself upward and grab for purchase at the manhole. But the water pressure drives me back, and dumps me under. I try again. On my third try I make it, and feeling slippery as a long-legged frog, clamber out against the deluge. Then I reach up and turn off the tap. And the rain seems to stop too.
            “Ha!” I laugh. “Oh to have such power!”
            I back-foot down the ladder, shiver my way toward the huff and chuff of the steaming engine, haul myself into the orange warmth of the cab, and hunker in front of the firebox.
            Bill, pouring tea into the billycan, clucks, “Soaking out there, eh!”
            “And then some,” I respond. “Fell right inside. Ha! But, I tell you, it was a bit like being reborn.” And then, my tea gulped down, I pick up the coal-scoop, go over to the shovel-plate, and declare, “We’re off! Let’s head her right on outta here. Into Free-ee-dom!”
            “Hey! Them’s my words!” chortles Bill.
            Yet after yet another three hours of shoveling the coal sticks in the tender and I cannot pull the slide-plates out from under the weight. “It’s no use, Bill! I can’t budge it!”
            “Clear back the muck! Go in there. Watch yourself! Eh? Get the grit out!”
            I squeeze down on my elbows, my belly, and then knee my way through the opening of the small iron square over the shovel-plate, until I’m into the glistening black V of the rumbling and rain-wet coal tender. Above me sway the clouds, feather-brushed by gold. Below me, like empty cafeteria trays in the grooves, are four out of the six heavy iron plates that hold back the great weight of the coal from being deposited all at once and jamming up the auger’s forever rotating screw. But now, with the cementing of the coal-dust, the next load-bearing plate refuses to budge. I shake my head and cluck my tongue. We won’t have enough coal to make it if I can’t free it, and at this gradient no train should have to stop. So, sitting on my backside and trying to get enough purchase on the dangerously sloped and slippery surface of the empty plates, I haul away at the end of the tug-rod inserted into the grab-hole, but to no avail. Neither can I slide the empty plates beneath me back over the trench of the auger in order to provide a platform from which I might then shovel. I scrape with the rod at the thumb-thick tray-grooves, careful that I don’t slip into the perpetually garbling giant cork-screw of the auger, but still the coal is too wet and heavy to be dislodged. And to risk a fall into that churning auger by bravely straddling the V of the swaying tender-walls, I decide, would be suicidal.
            At last I pop my head back and yell, “Needs both of us!” and back up.
            Bill’s thick arm shoves through. His huge paw gropes blindly. I put the tug-iron into his palm, ensure that the hook is through the eye of the loaded tray, and together we haul with all our might. And a sudden heavy slither of coal gets us whooping in triumph!
            I wriggle back into the cab, take up the coal-scoop, square myself before the fresh mounds, and work away until we crest the highest point, at 2,300 feet. 
            “Bill? I’ve made a decision.”
            “I know already.”
            “You know?”
            Ja. You’re gonna leave. You’re gonna get away from this country and you’re gonna make yourself a new life out there, somewhere, far across the seas, right?”
            “Right! From here on it’s all a denouement.”
            “The interpretation of this journey, Bill. Look back! There’s Llewellyn siding. We’ve just passed the highest point! In Welch it’s, Hch-loo-wych-chlyn.”
            “Ha! How’d you know?”
            “In Wales once. Long time ago. Wanted to stay in Britain, back then, when I still had my whole life ahead of me.” I smile. “Hell, I still have my whole life ahead of me, still, right now!”
            We’re rushing now on the downhill: Clickety-click, click, clack, clack!
            That is it! The decision is done. But first, the train pulls into Franklin.
            Impatiently, I head toward the Railwayman’s Hotel.
            The filthy place is a practical affair of dirty brick, iron beds in small rooms, and a communal shower block. I find my room number, go clean up, go down, buy a cheese sandwich, and go back to lie down on the squeaky bed. But in the broad daylight, with the noise and bustle of the station yard just outside the drawn curtains of the window, sleep will not come. I get up, go down to the hotel bar, borrow some old Panorama magazines, and go back upstairs to read. The articles, with their colorful overviews of South Africa’s nature reserves and scenic routes keep me somewhat occupied. But it is a country in which I no longer can take interest; I know I’m rejecting it. But then again, do I go kill for it, again, or be killed? I’ve got to get away!
            Ten long hours later Bill and I are again in the old Bongol. He looks rested and ready to go. Despite my lack of sleep, I feel vibrant with anticipation. The engine also seems to champ at the bit, as if aware it’s going home.
            “We’re off! Gonna go get some free-ee-dom!” Bill yells, and winks. He opens the throttle and the growling engine steadily chuff-chuffs off, great white clouds of steam billowing upwards. Behind us the empty carriages easily clip along, averaging almost 11 miles an hour now. At the shovel-plate I keep stepping and scooping and swiveling and flicking, and swiveling, and stepping and scooping and swiveling and flicking, over and over as we chug along the reams and reams of steel that click, click, clack! Click, click, clickity, click, clack, clack! Click, click ... all the way back over the late afternoon and long night-time hours through to the early gold that glints off the distant sheds of Mason’s Mill, 1974.
            Never to serve again.