It snowed today
January 07, 2024
When I was younger, there was a railway line that ran past my school. You could see it, if you went to the very edge of the play area and stuck your face between the bars of the fence; distant, perhaps a hundred meters away, on the other side of a small valley, but no less interesting for its inaccessibility. Its existence would usually pass without comment, but there were two kinds of things that would make it stand out to me.
The first was a passenger train, which had a soft and steady rumbling, the repetitive clicking of passing souls. I didn’t usually watch them, because I knew what they looked like. They were long and doughy, with rounded corners, dressed in blue and yellow plastic that invited neither admiration nor scorn. I had not yet ridden on one (that is another story), but I knew from a young age what they looked like. They came often. For a long time, the open and goggle-eyed face of the Auckland Transport Metro train was my only conception of a Train.
The second happened only once. There was a tremendous noise, the thundering of a herd of horses. (My thought at the time was of the buffalo stampede in The Lion King.) And then, when I pressed my face against the bars, I saw it: an old, black train, moving placidly but steady, large and monstrous, as loud as the deep. Despite appearing to be long, far longer than any passenger train, it still seemed to me to disappear in an instant. Only the tracks stayed behind.
None of the other children saw the second train. I remember relaying the story, in the manner of a child demonstrating a passing interest, and then I lose the thread of the narrative, in the manner of the hazy and uncertain end of memories. I did not tell any adults. Perhaps I should have; but the thought of their alarm at its existence stayed my tongue. That is the first time I ever saw it.
I have seen this train many times throughout my life. It is an old and familiar friend.
We moved houses often, and two or three houses later we lived in a different part of the city, and very near that house was another part of the same rail network. I would often wander the surrounding streets, building a mental map of the area, thinking of music or life or (often) puzzles. I would listen to podcasts. There was a bridge over one track, that way, that led to a small passage behind an auto parts store; and that way, an underpass, with the line running overhead; and there, what we called a “level crossing”, where you could walk across the tracks as naturally as crossing the road. To get to the other side, you see.
At around this stage of my life I also picked my online handle. Purely by accident, it ended up being a reference to two things; puzzles (after a fashion), and trains. Neither of these associations were intentional. They have served me well.
And, at around this stage of my life, I saw the train again. This happened a few times, in a few different places. Once, I think, near my high school, because I would often take the commuter rail out there (I studied at a college south of the city, again a different story). Usually, though, it would be near my house. The train would pass in an instant, and I would get the sense of something great and terrible moving suddenly, swiftly but calmly, in a shuddering commotion of noise and metal. A few times more another student would mention that they had seen such a thing, and it would invite a strange camraderie between us: sprawled on the synthetic fabric of the Southern Line, swapping stories. Our top buttons would be open in the heat of the summer, and often we would talk quietly, as if threatening to give away a great and terrible secret.
When we moved again, this time to a nicer neighbourhood in the center of the city, I learned that I did not need to be near a railway line to see it.
I have since moved to Providence, a city on what Amtrak refers to as the Northeast Corridor, and once again rail transportation has become a steady and reliable partner in my life. I travel to Boston, often, due to its large airport and association with my hobbies. And thrice I have travelled to New York, with different friends, and had many adventures. (Those are more stories besides.) But it has also happened that I have seen this train, again and again, and I have wondered at it; wondered at what a strange train it must be, to come so far from New Zealand, and end up here in New England instead.
It has been very selective in its appearances. I returned home for the long summer break, and with a friend visited every station on the Auckland Rail network in a single day (including the Northern Busway!). We took pictures at every single one. I have looked through each of these photos, and have found no sign of it there.
I heard it, briefly, when I was exploring part of Brooklyn’s abandoned rail lines with a different friend; perched on a disused and wild overpass, watching commuter rails run underneath me. But perhaps that was another noise.
And I nearly boarded it, a few months ago, getting on a train south from Boston: it was early on a Monday morning, and I was very tired, and more than a little distracted. On the other side of the platform, there it was, motionless; not the first time I have ever seen it as such, yet the first time I have ever seen it so close. I was almost intentionally not watching where I was going. I remember that I stepped far onto the wrong side of the platform… but I did get on the right train. As anyone who has travelled before knows, boarding the wrong train is a silly and desperate mistake.
The thundering comes every now and again, too; watching the inkjet river pass under me in the small city, or in those quiet and dead hours of the mid-night, or that time we biked in the clawing cold to the watchtower in Collier Point Park, and left a secret there. I looked out at the boatlights reflecting off of the baywater, and felt cold, and heard the awful clattering, distant, but somehow still very loud and very close.
I am spending the winter break still in Providence, and so far it has been a cold and solitary affair. Today, though, in the midnight just gone, it snows. I go outside and am struck dumb. The entire world seems transformed… as if at last released from its usual mundanity, it presents in true and childlike form.
I am struck dumb, in particular, by a lamp-post. The kind that my campus has are black, and tall, with a ridged pole holding the light aloft, and the lamp itself hexagonal and thicker at the top, with misted glass panels. The electric light inside is yellow-warm. In short, then, it looks precisely like the lamp-post from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. With the snow falling around, I imagine I must be there, standing with Susan, marvelling at the new world that we must suddenly find ourselves in.
I text a few places about the snow. My parents, obviously, and the pirates, and the group that call themselves the 5am-ers, despite not recently earning that moniker. There is another place I want to text, too, but I cannot; instead I text a place of people I like, and respect, and am learning to perhaps feel comfortable around.
They all respond after their own kind. My parents with a photo of themselves in the summer, and the pirates as you’d imagine, and the 5am-ers with an expected and welcome glee.
The last group responds with a strange cynicism. Many of them live here, where snow is a frequent pest; more have not seen snow, and cannot imagine how they might respond, except perhaps to make light of the strangeness. I can hardly fault them for this. And yet…
And yet I cannot help but think of Susan: of no longer being a friend of Narnia, and that grim but certain choice. That long and lonely train ride she took, months ago. And the fact that, despite it all, I am still here, watching the snow fall.
The sound of that old, black train is so very distant now. And I think and say: the world is such a beautiful place, it would be a shame not to be happy now and again.
In case it is not obvious, this is a work of fiction. I have been turning over many of these phrases in my head for a long time; about an hour ago, something happened that made me want to put them all together. The thing that happened was: it started snowing.
If you see this: thank you for reading my blog. I suffer under no illusions that this is a popular or frequently visited source of writing, but I like putting things here, if only for my own amusement. I have several more pieces that I’m planning to publish in the near future, if only I get around to writing them.
Again, thank you. Very much. No matter who you are.