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Culture, Reality

Station in Ruins

by Dudumalingani Mqombothi / 02.12.2013

The old Cape Town train station is being renovated or being prepared to be flattened to debris. A sign at the station simply says “construction underway” and is without any further details. Are they destroying the station to the ground or renovating it? Will I wake up tomorrow to nothing but debris? Will an office building begin to appear from behind all that concrete? There is always a need for an office building. Or will it, like the buildings that stood in front of parliament, be bulldozed to the ground for a parking lot?

All around the barricade, signs that warn of the renovation and also apologising for the inconvenience that will arise from it, helplessly flap in the wind. A man, who is dressed in white overalls and looks Japanese, walks lazily to the barricade and lights a cigarette. The taxi drives past before he puffs but I imagine that the smoke went up and drew opaque art in the sky before disappearing.

It is a Sunday afternoon; the city is more silent than it usually is. Above Signal Hill, there is an impression that the sun is setting but the sun set an hour ago, what remains now is a stubborn beauty that hangs on the mountain for all to see. The sliding land beneath Signal Hill, unlike the majestic place it is during the day, appears nothing but a landscape captured with a smudge on a big canvas. A lone car slowly makes its way across the mountain.

Station in Ruins

The windows from the station are dark and broken. Not completely broken, fragmented. From a distance the windows provide nothing to the eye, they are dark, almost as if someone has been starting fires inside and the smoke got caught on the window panes on its way out. The top of the station smells of urine and faeces.

The shops inside the station, at least what used to be shops, have been left unattended for a long time and have begun to appear haunted. I imagine that when there were operational, the smile of shopkeepers welcomed visitors and the noise of the customers and the voices of shopkeepers announcing their prices gave the place a sense of busyness. Not anymore, all that is left now is empty shops that stand there and waste away. I once walked through there because there is something beautiful about a place in ruin, a city in ruin or anything that is falling apart, becoming a ghost of what it used to be. There is something poetic about the memory of the ruined place, imagined or otherwise, when it continues to inhabit a place long after the physical bodies have left it and perhaps even forgotten about it. When the bodies move on, and even love something else, it holds on to their memory.

Station in Ruins

The new Cape Town train station is constantly busy. A thousand of people being swallowed and emerging from it daily. In the past, before the new station was build, the old station had that same life but now it is empty, the public is cordoned from it. Its veins are empty. In a few years to come or perhaps a million years, the new station will get old and the physical bodies will move from it and inhabit another newer one. Perhaps they will return to the old station and find their old memories waiting for them.

On one hot afternoon I sneaked into the old train station. From down there, I could hear the chaos of the taxi rank above it and the sound of the city. I stared at the old shops there, enchanted by their quiet, as if they had always been silent. In some shops, counters still stood, resilient to time, dust all over them. I spent a few minutes inside the station and then emerged into the noise and slowly the imagined conversations of the old station began to fade away until they went completely silent.

The Xhosa people believe that if one dies in an accident, they need to be fetched from the place they died and returned home. If not then they spend their entire lives roaming around their place of death and everywhere else. I wonder if the people that have been killed by trains have been fetched and taken to their resting areas. If not the sinister feeling of the old train station could be them roaming around their place of death or at least parts of their place of death.

Whatever becomes of the old train station, whether it is bulldozed to the ground, or slowly chipped away at until it is too thin to stand or be renovated and used again. The memory of the people that used it, bad or good, will roam there and in time, that is if the station is renovated, it will mix with the new memory. What it is now, is just the beautiful prose every place in ruins has.

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* Images © Dudumalingani Mqombothi

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