Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Taking the Train to Fish Hoek

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 Fishhoek with two children aged 4 and 6, 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 just dash into the station beforehand to get a timetable. I asked politely. The man looked bewildered. “A what?” he asked, as though I had enquired about a coelacanth or a spotted genet. “A timetable!” - I pressed him - “You know, the things 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 whistle!” 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 unwashed, 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, I noted, is the same, whether it is in Johannesburg, or Cape Town, or Manchester of Zurich. That is something as universal and as precise as the recipe for Coca-Cola. The carriage had been swept, that is true. But the grime on the windows was cultivated – and for a very long time.

The signage on the stations we came to 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 sixteen or seventeen year old girl kept giving me milky smiles – which I half returned. She did that thing which seems to be collective habit amongst 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 – but who could be sure? I was way out of my cultural comfort zone here. Then, to my utter surprise, the girl opposite me – she of the milky smiles and stretched sleeves – 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! It was too strange for words.

But then the motive became clear. They, all three of them, stretched sleeves and a tad too clean cut, stood casually in a row and started, softly at first, then lounder and louder, singing Christian choruses. I recognised them from my youth. And I looked at these kids with seraphic glows breaking out on their faces, and I remembered myself, long ago.

They sang and they sang. “Jesus” this, “Jesus” that. “My Reedeemer” this and “my Redeemer” that. And the more they did, the more I wanted to stand up and slap them. Or say something foul and uncouth. With the most extraordinary effort, I restrained myself. I wanted to say to them, who the hell did they think they were? What made them think they had some kind of God given ordination to this sham of a testimony? This imposition of their brain-numbing theology on hapless travellers. 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 church goers on the carriage (there must have been a few!) that I was hugely embarrassed that the passion and beauty of a two thousand year old religion had been reduced to the unpalatable ash of these ghastly evangelical choruses.

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 train, perhaps. 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 that would benefit from hearing my brand of the ‘Wordagaaad’. The young are easy meat. That's why so many of them are suicide bombers.

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