The drive was 53 kilometres. We had covered 450m of it when Tallulah, 6, the oldest of the three children in the car, said, "I'm already bored."
We conceive grand family outings like this one, ideally, then we live them imperfectly. We conceive of them as platonic ideals of memory creation, ignoring the impending messiness and melodrama of applying sunscreen and finding shoes and hats and all the endless instances of micro-management required to keep our children from the life-endangering acts they find so attractive. We conceive of them as epics, then we live them as farce.
On arrival, we had to walk 100m or so through the death trap of the car park. I told the children to stay in the space between me and the line of parked cars, so they didn't get run over but every one of them proved incapable of that. Thirty times or more in the 100m or so between our car and the entrance, I had to grab them, steer them back to safety, yell at them to slow down or otherwise stop them getting run over. I was so deep in the intricacies of saving their lives, which they appeared to value so little, I had no time to indulge in fantasy about the golden times that lay ahead.
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From the moment they had woken me up, four and a half hours earlier, just after 6am, and begun asking when we were leaving, I had hardly had a moment to think about the outing, so busy was I preparing for it. Now I was on it, it was clear the chances to think about it were not going to be much greater.
But now I am beyond all that, I am able to view these logistical issues not as the major component of the day - which they were - but only as impediments to the development of rich, emotional familial connections, which they also were.
Casper has just turned 3. I never intended to get him interested in trains, because I was never much interested in them myself. Dad bought him a train set for his first birthday and he likes playing with it. I don't know why he likes it. I particularly don't know why he likes Thomas. As far as I know he's never watched it on TV. He has two Thomas T-shirts. Maybe that's it.
We were at Glenbrook mainly because of Dad, for whom trains were central in life and are now central in death, because he is buried next to the tracks at Purewa. For years, at the slightest hint of a train, he would tell the story of the time he took me to Glenbrook when I was a toddler and I spent the whole time screaming. As I got older, I became increasingly aware the reason he kept repeating the story was that he wanted us to go back. We never did.
Trains were everywhere in his life and he had attempted to pass them down as they had been passed down to him. His father - my grandfather - who I can't remember, as Casper won't remember his, had made his living driving steam trains. Where? When? What was that like? I will now never know.
For years in my childhood, Sunday afternoons were trips with Dad to the miniature steam train at Waipuna. Later in life, Dad took all the train journeys he could, both the great Australian multi-day journeys The Ghan and The Indian Pacific; and the great New Zealand journey: Auckland to Wellington. For his trip on the Indian Pacific, he shared a sleeping compartment with his elderly mother - my grandmother, my children's great-grandmother - only three or four years before her death, an epic act of late-life reconnection. I met them on arrival at Central Station in Sydney, where I was living at the time. Dad was pleased it was over. I think all his trips were nods to the approach of death.
For many years, I had thought about going with him to Glenbrook, a nostalgia trip that would, I assumed, have allowed us to access our shared history and reclaim the pure bond a small child has with its parents. After I'd had kids, I imagined it more as a connection between him and them, via an emotional tightening with me. With both those options now gone, the only possibility left was to do what could be done.
'You have only 18 summers with your kids': Is that really true?
Our first sighting of Thomas was from the car park. The engine was a good replica and Casper yelled "Thomas!" with a degree of joy that matched my expectations and lifted my spirits. Thomas was noisy though: there was the concussive burst of steam as he accelerated and the obnoxious hoot of his whistle. All my children covered their ears in panic, as they do at home whenever we turn on a blender or the waste disposal, or let the water out of the bath. Casper was obviously scared. He said: "I don't like the steam! Why Thomas keep pooping out steam?!" Tallulah didn't want to get on board but I couldn't leave her behind, so I had to bribe her with the promise of donuts.
The queue for Thomas was no joke. To accommodate the crowds, he ran only in short shuttles a few hundred metres down the track and back. Still, we waited for at least 20 minutes, during which time my children were mostly silent. It's rare for me to initiate conversation with them, because they leave so few spaces in which to do so but I was unsettled by their lack of noise, so eventually I said: "Do you guys know your great-grandfather used to drive a steam engine like that one?" They looked at me blankly. I said, "Just to break that down further, that's Daddy's granddad, Granddad Gavin's daddy.
Nobody made a sound. Complete silence.
I said, "Does anyone have any response to that? Or find it interesting?" After a while, Tallulah said: "I'm itchy from the moths."
Once we were on board, Casper said, excitedly, "I can't believe I'm in Thomas!" Neither he nor either of the girls cried, nor clung to me, terrified. Afterwards, while we ate our donuts, Casper, who had never before eaten donuts, said: "These donuts are pretty delicious!" and "It was a nice day on Thomas and finally we're having something to eat because we're pretty hungry."
We spent a lot of the day waiting. Had we been at home, where my children have endless access to the toys they once told us they would never get sick of, they would have been ignoring those toys in favour of hitting each other and crying and whining about how we had promised to bake muffins, even though we hadn't and never would. At Glenbrook, though, they didn't whine at all, not even after we'd been there five hours and were stuck in a half-hour queue for balloon animals in the hot, hot sun. I don't believe in miracles, magic, spiritual presences or even the mystical blokery of [psychic] Kelvin Cruickshank but something beyond my ken was definitely taking place.
The day's central attraction, for me at least, was the ride on the big steam train with its old carriages, with their smell of old wood and leather and their gaping windows letting in the nostalgia alongside the early autumn air. We waited on the platform for what was clearly forever. Time extended unto infinity. Still no one complained.
When the train pulled in, we took our seats in what I assume was once a first-class carriage, a luxurious old room filled with four-seater, leather-covered booths. Casper stood on my lap looking out the wide-open window, the girls sat in the booth across the aisle. As we rolled out into the countryside and I looked across at the girls, set against the rich afternoon sunlight and the rolling, golden fields, I felt an overwhelming sense of love and fatherliness. I made eye contact with Tallulah and she winked, which stunned me because, as far as I know, she hasn't yet learned to do that. A few seconds later, I looked back at her and she looked back at me. I tried to project the enormous love and warmth I felt. She seemed to absorb it and to reflect it, which is unlike her. Five or six times this happened, the same look, the same feeling. I was flooded with the sense that striving for more from life was futile. I was looking out on the same dry fields Dad presumably looked out on 40 years before while holding, on his lap, a screaming child who was me. We can't force emotions on ourselves and neither can we force them off ourselves.
While the kids were getting in the car at the end of the day, Clara told me I wasn't allowed to get in. I had to wait far enough away that I could no longer hear her shouting at me to go further away, which worked out to be about 30m. After a minute or two standing there in the hot, hot sun, I came back to the car, at which point she yelled at me to go away again, while Casper yelled at me not to. I ignored him, because Clara was more likely to have a long and difficult emotional meltdown. I said, "I'm going to do this one more time Clara, then I'm getting in." When I came back, I saw she was buckled into her car seat, which was a big deal, not because she can't do it, but because she so seldom does. I said: "Well done Clara! You got buckled in by yourse...."
Big mistake. She burst into tears and wailed at top volume: "NO DADDAAAAA! I DIDN'T WANT YOU TO SAY THAT!" which she followed up with more wailing and crying. I wanted to take back my comment more than anything I'd ever said, because it was nothing, had added nothing, and had led to this. it couldn't be taken back, but that didn't mean I shouldn't try.
"I didn't see!" I said, desperately. "I won't say anything!"
"NO DADDAAAAA! STOP!" she screamed. She wailed and wailed. There was nothing I could do but wait it out. This messy car - scene of so many prior wailings - was just a car and not a place of magic, which - again - is not something that's real.
I assumed everyone would go to sleep on the long drive home, since that is what they always do on long drives home. I would have been surprised had Casper stayed awake even five minutes. But no one went to sleep; no one even looked like going to sleep.
When Zanna put Casper to bed that night, I assumed he would fall asleep within minutes, if not faster, but that turned out to be quite wrong: He was still awake after nearly an hour.
Zanna, lying next to him, asked if he needed to go to the potty.
He told her he didn't.
"Why are you still awake?" she asked.
"I'm not," he said.
She told me this story later that night. I laughed, because I was reasonably sure he wasn't telling the truth.
Check out Glenbrook Vintage Railway on Facebook or www.gvr.org.nz for future Day Out With Thomas and other train-related events.