The train to Fish Hoek

2008-03-11 00:00

It's about education, I told myself. It's going to be fun. Whatever the now distant motives, I landed up on a train to Fish Hoek with two children aged four and six, a childminder, who was suffering from a peptic ulcer, and a partner who insisted on disagreeing with everything I said. It was Sunday afternoon. The sky was blue. The sea was emerald and white. Cape Town was as beautiful as only Cape Town can be, when it wants to be.

Sometime before I thought I would dash into the station beforehand to get a timetable. I asked politely. The man looked bewildered. "A what?" he asked, as though I had inquired about a coelacanth or a spotted genet. "A timetable" - I pressed him - "you know, the thing that you use to tell when the trains are coming."

He looked as though he just might have remembered, momentarily, what a timetable might be. Then he pulled his bottom lip downwards from both sides of his mouth. "No," he said shaking his head slowly from side to side, "we don't have those." I was dumbstruck. I hadn't for one moment imagined that I might not be able to get a timetable in a train station.

"So how do people know when the train is coming?" "The whis- tle," he said. I stared into his eyes disbelievingly. Then I saw the glimmer of humour in his eye. "Got you hey," he said "It's up there on the wall." And so it was. The timetable. You either memorised the times the train came and went, with variations on weekdays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays - or you didn't. That's the way it is.

When the train arrived, to much squealing and whooping from the children, the doors opened and, timidly, we got in. The particular carriage we got into was so murky with years of unwashed grime that you could not see out of the window. So, to get any idea of the passing beauty, you had to stand up and peer sideways through a tiny slit of a window on the top.

The smell of a train is the same, whether it is in Johannesburg or Cape Town or Manchester or Zurich. That is something as universal and as precise as the recipe for Coca-Cola.

The signage on the stations we arrived at was sometimes obvious, and sometimes not. So you really had no idea where you were most of the time. And the windows did little to help matters.

On the train back, the carriage was clean and so were the windows. There were some rather fresh-looking teenagers on the train. The one opposite me, a 16 or 17-year-old girl, kept giving me milky smiles. She did that thing which seems to be a collective habit among teenagers these days, she stretched her pullover sleeves over her hands, so that the edges could be clutched, giving the whole outfit an Oliver Twist Victorian London kind of feel.

It seemed as though a few of them were friends by the way the milky smiles were being handed out. I was way out of my cultural comfort zone here. Then, to my utter surprise, the girl opposite me stood to give a middle-aged woman her seat. I thought this to be verging on peculiar, and to my horror, I noticed that two of her friends had done the same.

But then the motive became clear. They stood casually in a row and started, softly at first, then louder and louder, singing Christian choruses. I recognised them from my youth. And I looked at these children with seraphic glows breaking out on their faces and I remembered myself, long ago.

They sang and they sang. "Jesus" this, "Jesus" that. "My redeemer" this and "my redeemer" that. And the more they did, the more I wanted to stand up and slap them. With the most extraordinary effort, I restrained myself. I wanted to say to them, who the hell do you think you are? What makes you think you had some kind of God-given ordination to this sham of a testimony? I wanted to apologise to the rest of the carriage and tell them that not all Christians are this arrogant or this idiotic. I wanted to tell the Muslims and the atheists and the non-churchgoers in the carriage that I was hugely embarrassed that the passion and beauty of a 2 000-year-old religion had been reduced to the unpalatable ash.

But I didn't. I got off at my station and I went home. And I remembered again, that I too had done this once. Not in a carriage full of people. But when I was that young, I too had been brainwashed into thinking that there were souls out there who would benefit from hearing my brand of the "wordagaaad". The young are easy meat. That's why so many of them are suicide bombers.

* Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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