Port Elizabeth-20140727-00583

The Great Train Race

While hundreds of runners pounded the road between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage in relays, racing a train carrying 600-odd passengers, the virtuous ladies of the Redhouse Benevolent Society – an organization which goes back in time to the Dark Ages – set up their muffin and coffee stalls on the platform at our railway station.

The train was due to stop for just fifteen minutes; ten dozen muffins had been produced; so only one fifth of the passengers stood a chance of buying one; given the time constraints, that’s one muffin moving every seven and a half seconds; not to mention the coffee and hot chocolate on order.

The night before, the former Sunday school teachers – two ladies of impeccable virtue and strong views on their husbands’ general behaviour – had set up a muffin factory in the kitchen; the male half of the labour force was judged incompetent and summarily dismissed to a place of safety, where they carried out research into the cause of alcohol-induced headaches.

The first test involved a draught beer from Namibia, which has a delightful taste and is made in the finest German tradition; a couple of those laid a firm foundation.

This was followed by a single malt whisky; breaking with Scottish tradition,  we enjoyed it “on the rocks” with just a smidgeon of good water to bring out the taste; any chance of more than a brace was shot down by the arrival of supper, which appeared miraculously from the muffin-strewn galley.

However, all was not lost, because a bottle of really good red wine had been breathing away in the background; this formed the third layer.

Finally, a small bottle of delectable dessert wine was discovered – not too sweet and just the ticket to round off a splendid evening of muffin spotting.

Back to the station; well before the train was due, a cabal of bossy females organised their slaves into setting up trestle tables, urns, chairs, money boxes, tickets and much else.

Muffin sellers waited to pounce at two points on the platform; the pipe band arrived in all its finery; in the distance a light was eventually spotted; it was a bloody great orange diesel engine, dragging along its tail of grey and yellow coaches.

It grew larger and louder as it approached the station; the pipe band began to march and counter-march up and down the platform, and most beautifully did they play the martial airs required to raise the ardour of muffin sellers.

The lone vuvuzela making its dreadful noise – the rutting call of the lesser spotted orc – out of a carriage window did not detract from the martial scene.

The train ground to a halt; the occupants poured out like refugees escaping to freedom – no doubt most of the scenery on the way from Port Elizabeth had been industrial in nature and the only plant life to be seen would have been the ubiquitous Transkei daisies – for foreign readers, this flower is derived from a plastic packet and is to be found all over South Africa except in litter bins.

A bright young man, recently injured on the football field, had been captured by the old witches while trying to escape on his crutches, and stationed in the front line to take the money and hand out change – luckily he studies accounting.

Each customer was given a ticket which they could exchange for a muffin or a coffee or even a cup of hot chocolate; what a hungry and thirsty lot they were! Sheer numbers soon scuppered the ticket idea; remember, they only had fifteen minutes to get some sustenance; and of course, to find a loo, not a simple task on a country railway station.

A crisis arose after about eight and a half minutes; one urn was found to be connected to a dud plug point; its water was decidedly tepid; the reputation of the Benevolent Society hung on a thread, or more specifically, an electric cable.

Observing the resultant female panic, I was unluckily spotted chortling into my hip flask; soon I was scurrying about filling up flasks of water, barging my way through the throng to get to the muffin tables, and managing to keep another black mark off my score sheet.

At about eleven and a half minutes they ran out of cups; Oh Horrors!  I don’t know how they saved the honour of the ancient organization; I suspect they grabbed half empty cups from the numerous children and reused them.

The engine driver wailed his horrible klaxon – how I long for the sound of an old fashioned steam engine whistle; clouds of steam and smoke and black coal smuts all over mother’s washing, ha ha!

The crowd gradually rejoined the train, full of muffins, coffee and hot chocolate, and departed happily as the pipe band played the Road to the Isles, a beautiful lilting tune with truly wicked lyrics, which I can sing, but only after two o’clock in the morning.

And, I am pleased to say, the alcohol headache researchers survived the melee with not a trace of a hangover; the lesson from all this is that when your good lady makes muffins, be sure to drink the best grog available!

Categories: Close to Home


  • Sue

    Lol…thanks Frank…..loved it…had me chortling heartily this Friday morning despite a tad too much Chenin Blanc last night together with much rugby revelry during the braai at Grey last night.
    Nice to recognize the “thinly disguised” characters in your narrative.
    Peace and over and out

  • Alan

    You Sir area rare beast – not quite as rare as the Narrow Gauge Iron Monster that used to crush the spirit of wannabe Chariots of Fire emulators, but close enough!

  • Keith Wattrus

    Your best yet, Frank! I left a stain when I read about the ubiquitous plastic daisies being found all over SA, except in litter bins. A truly classic South Africanism. By the way, is the female version of the Puffing Billy now to be called the Muffin Milly, I wonder? And do the Muffin Millys do more justice to the spread of benevolence around Redhouse, than do the Puffing Billys for the spread of bonhomie in their places of safety? I rate the Redhouse Puffers the more putative, whilst the Muffers are certainly the more mutative! Ouch, I’m going to be klapped for that one!

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