top of page

An excerpt from Trainsurfer

Chapter 1 A dangerous game



Jabu was furious with the world the day his Mama died. His reaction to pain was always to flee. He ran away from the weary physician, down the corridor lined with outpatients who like his mother had probably been there since daybreak. The Forgotten. His legs carried him to the taxi rank where labourers with stooped shoulders jostled to leave the city and return to the black townships before dark. He squirmed his way into a minibus, ignoring the tuts of disapproval from the queue. In the corner, sandwiched between women and men with vacant eyes, he whimpered, his shoulders shuddering.

“Where am I going?” he thought.

To the train station that will take me home? But it will be an empty shell without Mama. I have no place to call home and nobody left in the world. Such was his new reality. He glanced at a baby, swaddled to her rotund mother who was holding on tightly as the minibus taxi veered around a corner. She did not hold his gaze. I belong to nobody. I have nowhere to go.


Once the taxi stopped, Jabu wriggled his way out and ran from the driver without paying, as he didn’t have a cent to his name. He sprinted his way into the train station. He ducked under placards and dodged around protesters as they sang and did a toyi-toyi dance at yet another train workers’ strike. A commuter train was about to depart, and Jabu entered the carriage, wiping his wet cheeks with the back of his sleeve. It was bustling with boys from his township. Not friends, but familiar faces. They were chattering amongst themselves, hatching a plan. He had seen them before—the trainsurfers. No doubt they hadn’t bothered with school. Who could blame them? Nobody learned anything at Bantu schools anyway, except how to be a worker.


“Quickly, she’s coming,” a teenager in a red, fake leather jacket called out.

“Who’s coming?” asked Jabu.

“The conductor you idiot. Have you got fare?” Jabu’s wide eyes were the answer.

“Come this way if you want a ride,” he said grinning as he hoisted himself out of the window.


The boy scrambled upwards and out of sight, followed by his friends who scurried after him, whistling as they climbed. The toes of bare feet curled over windowsills, and skinny legs obscured Jabu’s view, rather like prison bars. The train pulled out of the station.


“Hey, you!” shouted the conductor, running down the passage of the next carriage towards them, waving her stubby arms and sweating with exertion. Without thinking, Jabu climbed on to the window sill and gripped on tightly.


“Quickly, climb up,” hollered the boy in the red jacket, looking distressed and pointing to a mass of people on the platform. He could either climb back in to face arrest, collide with the crowd who were standing precariously close to the train, or hoist himself up. The last option seemed to choose itself, and with a surge of adrenalin he reached up and grabbed the boy’s outstretched hand. Jabu was hauled up to the top of the train in one swift movement.


He lay on his stomach, his arms and legs spread out like a planking squirrel. The steel train was cooking in the African sun. Jabu’s nails scratched on metal as he attempted to grip the surface, the wind whistling past his ears. Above the roar of the train, he could hear whooping. Peering upwards from his inelegant position, he saw a row of boys doing what looked like a mesmerising dance across the carriages. The figures were silhouetted against the sky. They stood in line, moving in sync, first leaning to the left, then to the right, dodging current collectors and electrical paraphernalia. Then in unison, following the leader, they ducked backwards as if doing the limbo, bending from the waist down. The gang went low, then lower still, bending their knees as the deadly overhead lines sparked, inches above their heads.


They were mirroring the movements of their leader, the teenager who had lured Jabu to follow him out the window. He wore black leather pants and a once-shiny jacket. He moved like a dancer, his legs elastic as if he had no knee joints. The other boys wore their school uniforms untidily, with shirts hanging out underneath sweaters or faded blazers. The leader whistled. As if in a formation, as birds react to the flock on instinct, they jumped sideways and took a stance like wave surfers, knees bent and arms out for balance.


The horn tooted as the train slowed down at the next station. The trainsurfers lay on their stomachs to avoid being seen. They needn’t have worried as the railway was running at a threadbare staff due to the strike. A crowd of boys on the platform took advantage of this, and as the train pulled off again, they ran alongside it, whistling as they leapt on to the side—hanging on perilously to any handhold they could grasp. Some of them held on with both hands as their legs continued to run along the platform, leaping on at the last minute. Then they pulled themselves up on the windowsills and gyrated to an imaginary beat.


Jabu was still lying on his stomach on top of the train. He hadn’t moved. He felt a ripple of excitement surging through him as he watched their antics. He heard the leader calling to him, coaxing him up.

“Come on Zulu boy, show us what you’ve got,” he taunted.

Hearing a Xhosa boy throw down the gauntlet was enough to raise Jabu to his feet. He emulated the surfing stance he had seen: legs wide apart, knees bent, arms stretched out for balance. At that moment the world went quiet, and he couldn’t hear the boys cheering, nor did he remember that he was an orphan, utterly alone in the world. He felt fearless, as if he could be whoever he wanted to be. His tears were dry on his cheeks, and his mind empty of sorrow.


In this mental tunnel, Jabu felt indestructible. He was jolted back to reality by the sight of a catenary mast roaring into view, and he ducked down, narrowly missing decapitation. In an instant, he was flat on his stomach, back in his planking squirrel position, aware of everything, from his pounding heart to the sight of the gang leader crouching and sidestepping across the train to reach him.

bottom of page