12 Feb 2017

Patricia Langford: writing up a storm

From Standing Room Only, 2:40 pm on 12 February 2017
Patricia Langford and Johanna Emeney

Patricia Langford and Johanna Emeney Photo: Supplied

We tend to hear about young up and coming writers being discovered, but Patricia Langford was in her early 70s when she took up creative writing and caught the eye of her tutors. Award-winning poet and creative writing tutor Dr Johanna Emeney runs workshops for older people, as well as youth writing programmes. Johanna tells Lynn Freeman how impressed she was by the calibre of Patricia's writing and her speed at putting her thoughts on paper.

Going to Grandma by Patricia Langford

I stood still, as instructed, amid an unknown throng of prospective passengers for the overnight train journey from Auckland to Wellington. I was feeling bewildered and abandoned, then I caught sight of my mother, as our two battered brown suitcases were heaved onto a teetering trolley. She stuffed the proffered tickets into her purse and turned toward me; a sense of relief flooded my body, briefly. She veered toward a stand – PILLOWS FOR HIRE, took two and opened her purse for some coins.

People seethed suddenly toward the train carriages as giant jets of steam shot warningly from the big black engine. When urged to move forward, I scrambled up the high metal steps onto a swaying platform, then my mother pushed me into the carriage, which was filling rapidly with strangers stowing belongings and arranging pillows and rugs. We had opposite window seats, and I was soon tartan-tucked into my reassuring red rug and staring out the window into the dark sky behind the bright-lit station platform

The train swayed gently on its carriage couplings and we were in motion once more. I was already tired from the earlier train trip from Whangarei that same day, enlivened for me by counting haystacks and white horses, while gazing at the peaceful rural scenes. I snuggled into the plump pillow and closed my eyes, listening to the train talking to me. “Going to Grandma’s but I don’t know why. Going to Grandma’s but I don’t know why.”

I woke with a jerk and the squealing of brakes. People milled toward the doors and surged onto a station platform, queuing quickly at the refreshment counter. I was marched rapidly to another queue – outside the LADIES sign, and a line of knowing, nodding ladies smilingly waved my mother and me to the front, noticing, no doubt, my anxious five-year- old face, and my mother’s big balloon stomach, plump as the pillows.

A tantalizing aroma of hot meat pies greeted our passing at REFRESHMENTS, but we boarded again and opened our own sandwiches and some fruit cake, of which I begged a bite. Mother had a large, white cup and saucer with looping letters on the side. I jabbed them with a finger, and proudly, loudly, spelled out “NZR” as the cup settled sloppily back on its saucer. Arched eyebrows opposite warned me to say no more – some people were still asleep. I was thirsty too, and was given water in a wobbly waxed paper cup.

I clutched my tartan rug and was soon asleep once more. Yet, a loud clattering noise and frightening flashes at the window roused me in minutes. Bump, bump, bump, bounced the train, wood and metal girders loomed, with patches of moonlit water shining in between the sturdy bridge arches.

“Tangiwai, Tangiwai,” lamented the train, until all was peaceful again for a long time. A conductor, in uniform, bustled through the carriage and murmured softly to my mother. I heard the train say, “We’re nearly there, nearly there.”

We clambered wearily onto another dark platform. “Palmerston North,” said Mother, “watch out for Grandma, now.” It was freezing. Her breath echoed the huge puffs of steam from the train, roaring up into the sky. Big, black engine wheels were tapped with a hammer by a man walking by. That wasn’t Grandma. I saw our suitcases on another trolley, and Mother’s tickets were shown to another dark figure. I shivered in the unbearably chilly early morning hours. It was still as black as night.

Then a small, white face appeared beside me, bundled in a big, blue coat and hat, and my grandmother’s remembered voice reassured me that all would be well. Safe with my beloved Grandma, at last.