Round Peg in A Square Hole

The station concourse is deserted. Outside, the afternoon streets are quiet – just the occasional car passing. The day is relaxing after the hurly-burly of Christmas. The heels of the party of four travellers and six of their family clatter a measured pace on the tiles on the way to Platform 15. A miasma of disinfectant overwhelms the senses. On the electronic board overhead, one line flashes – Cape Town to Victoria Falls, Departure 2.30. The station clock above it announces 2:25.

A shout. ‘Your train is leaving in five minutes, not at 3!’ Sharp-eyed Aunty Cissie, bringing up the rear. ‘You’re not going to make it!’

‘Let’s all get back to the cars,’ says Uncle Benny calmly. Valma has never seen him lose his equilibrium. ‘We could race the train to Bellville station and catch up with it there.’ She catches a hint of excitement in his voice. Maybe this is something he has been wanting to do all his life?

But Aunty Ethel is having none of that. She is committed to the present plan of action. Valma can almost hear her thoughts: ‘It’s now or never. In for a penny, in for a pound.’ She breaks into a run. Suitcases in hand, Aunty Murie and the two girls, Karen and Valma, follow; all kitted out for the journey. They fly across the concourse, down the last staircase and onto the platform. It feels like flying, but seems like forever.

Almost all of the party are on the rather large and heavy side. Aunty Murie can be described as traditionally built. Yet, somehow, she is ahead of the girls, just behind Aunty Ethel. So, here is this large woman on her smallish but wide feet stuffed into her kitten-heeled, sling-back shoes, wearing a somewhat fitting dress which shows all her bumps and lumps, and who appears not to be making any progress as she waddles from side to side, buttocks jiggling.

They hit the platform. The driver sounds the hooter of the diesel train. The wheels start slowly turning. Oh noo! We’re never going to make it onto the train! Disappointment starts to push past the adrenaline. Aunty Ethel, leading the charge, has other ideas. She runs along the edge of the platform, waving her free arm above the tracks in front of the train, suitcase in her other hand. She adds her voice in her attempts to get the driver to let them onto the train, ‘Mr Driver! Mr Driver! Please stop! My everything is in this trip!’

What must be going through the driver’s mind? He hits the brakes. The wheels screech to a halt.

All the other passengers turn their heads, which are sticking out of windows from greeting and seeing off, wondering why the train has stopped. When they see the beleaguered travellers rushing to find their coach, shouts of encouragement draw them in. ‘Come on! Come on! This is your coach! You’re nearly there!’

Breathlessly, the four almost trip up the steps with their suitcases in their hurry to board. The guard blows his whistle. The train once again starts to move, the driver tooting the horn. They drop their luggage in the corridor and rush to the window of their compartment. Crowding into that tight space, they stick out heads and wave goodbyes to the family on the platform; the people who had got them there – just in time. Joy and Caro, the two youngest, seem to be the only ones who have recovered from the 100-metre dash and they wave enthusiastically. The wilting elders gasp for breath. The aunts and cousins on the train are panting and heaving too. Faces glow uniformly red from the unusual exertion. Perspiration gleams.

‘Bye-ee! Bye-ee! Have a good trip! Have a great holiday! Take lots of photos!’

‘Bye! Bye! Bye!’ the travellers puff in short breaths to their waving family.

Finally, they collapse onto the seats, heads back, fighting to catch their breath. They are oblivious to the passing scene. But they are on their way. Relief floods through Valma. It would have been a huge tragedy if we had missed the train. Not to mention the disappointment! We have been looking forward to it all year. And Aunty Ethel and Aunty Murie would have lost all the money they paid for our tickets.