It was about 10:25pm local time. The Tangiwai disaster happened at 10:21. The carriage was dark and everybody was settling down for the night, much like what Grandpa described in Tangiwai's second carriage. Outside, it was pelting with rain and lightning illuminated the landscape with vivid sheets of blue; back in 1953, miserable wet weather spoiled Grandpa's intentions to photograph Mount Ruapehu at night. I felt as if we were racing through the middle of nowhere; perhaps not quite as barren as the central North Island in the vicinity of Waiouru, but still, there had been nothing for miles. The occasional light of a level crossing flickering in the train window for half a second, and that was it. There were of course differences - the second carriage in Tangiwai was loaded with women and children, while I was by far the youngest last night; it was obviously in another bloody country; it was not in fact the 24th yet, even though we were about to race into it. But in my sensation of eeriness, these pedantic facts are immaterial - in this moment that came upon me, they were not at all the details my mind chose to recall. It honed in on the similarities.
I was sitting in the seat closest to the vestibule. The carriage was dark, but the vestibule remained lit so that people could use the toilet and water fountain. I suddenly became conscious of two young women standing in the light. I think one was in her late teens and the other in her twenties, but I was too far away to be sure. They were waiting to disembark at the next stop. The teenaged one seemed excited; Christmas decorations adorned her hair and she'd hop or twirl around eagerly every so often. It was at this point that I suppose the atmosphere around me combined with her Yuletide enthusiasm brought memories flooding back to me of Tangiwai descriptions; of young passengers looking forward to Christmas, only to end up in a fucking lahar and die in the filth and muck.
I suppose it probably loses something in the telling, but 2008 and 1953 started to blur. Out the window, how was I to see if it was northern New South Wales or the central North Island? All I knew was that the weather had packed in and we were hurtling northwards in darkened carriages, unaware of what may be along the line. These two women made me think of Waiouru, the last stop of the express before it reached Tangiwai. My memory, without certainty, informed me that eight disembarked at Waiouru and one boarded. Here I was, looking at two of the eight. I tried to shake myself out of 1953, and then we pulled into the station. I thought I read the station board's first three letters as WAI, just like Waiouru. I got chills.
It was Wauchope. Ten kilometres later, we passed where Wauchope's Tangiwai would theoretically be located without incident and rumbled off in the direction of Queensland. 1953 grasdually faded and I was back in 2008, dry and well, just with perhaps a heightened sense of awareness that you can't live life like you may be the one who boards at the last station, or bail in the hope you're one of the eight. But at least be ready to fight that goddamned whirlpool, smash your way out, and do the seemingly impossible if it ever comes to that.
55 years on, 24 December 1953, a day I never lived, is not dead to me. I am forever conscious that I live purely because another man somehow borrowed more time.