We became buddies while both of us were motor engineering apprentices in a company which imported a luxury German automobile. We found him to be a cool dude.
It was his birthday and he threw a huge party. It was held at one of the beach front restaurants that dotted the west coast from Colombo southwards. So the gang drove there in the evening in Seevali’s car.
So we were drinking and dancing and having a blast. Lights were low and the music was high. And all of us were high and some were becoming unruly too. Even a joint passed around making it an all time high. We were partying away into the small hours of the morning.
I remember the hotel security guards were trying their best to stop some of our dudes who were too high from grass, from getting into the sea to have a night dip. I also had downed so much liquor and the vigorous dancing kept me somewhat sober.
Finally the party was over and who had their own transports left with engines screaming reminding me of Mad Max. Seevali had already asked some of us to stay the night at his place in Nugegoda. And I also had informed my parents that I won’t be coming home that night. Then we were looking for the dude most sober to drive the car. Actually we had one dude appointed to stay sober only drinking Soda, but somehow he too had had a few drinks. Somehow he slid behind the wheel. All of us, believe me eight of us, piled into the small two door Volkswagen Derby that Seevali’s dad had brought with them from UK. Six of us got into the back after tilting the front passenger seat and three dudes were perched on our knees. So the car was jam packed.
So finally we set off into the night.
You might know that to get to the southbound Galle road that runs parallel to the sea, from any of the beach front guest houses or restaurants, you have to cross the Southern Coastal Railway. Most of these level crossings are unguarded and actually in a very bad state of repair especially where rails run through asphalt. So it was full of pot holes and you were supposed to be cautious. Sometimes the rails jut out of the washed off asphalt creating hazardous barriers in the middle of the road. So the ride was bumpy. We were crossing this mine field in our overloaded VW when right in the middle of the crossing the engine stalled.
The dude behind the wheel turned the ignition key. The starter motor was running vigorously but engine wouldn’t fire.
Then someone yelled, “Hey Dude, the train is coming!”
The driver dude turned the key furiously again, but with the same result. Only the driver and Seevali at the front had the chance to get the hell out and run but they didn’t do so. Us trapped at the back with no doors as this was a two door, were blocked by the front seats and dudes sitting on our knees. We were just sitting ducks for the southbound train that was now racing towards us menacingly.
Suddenly all of us were sober.
Dude at the wheel attempted to restart the engine. We listened with sinking hearts to the whine of the starter motor.
I couldn’t see much of the outside as the dudes perched on our knees were blocking the view, but the powerful headlights of the train engine lit up the inside of the car revealing terrified sweaty faces. Over the vibration of our started motor we felt rather than heard the vibration of the gigantic, menacing train engine, transmitted into the car through the steel rails. And the train’s horn blasted menacingly. I gritted my teeth expecting the inevitable crash, where there would hardly be any survivors. I visualized the front page of the next day’s newspapers with color pictures of mangled bodies in crumpled steel.
None of us know how it happened. Suddenly we felt the car lurch forward. The train with the horn blasting continuously rumbled just behind us, a few feet from Volkswagen’s rear bumper. The lighted train windows whizzing past us, lit up the inside of the car. The rattling of the rails added spice to the situation.
For some time nobody spoke. Then everybody started talking and swearing at the same time. And the car was in motion again.
It wasn’t clear whether the car engine changed its mind and started at the last moment. Or whether the dude behind the wheel, as a last ditch effort, rammed the gearshift into first and turned the ignition making the starter motor propel the car off the track. Everybody wanted to hug him and high five, he swore at us furiously because the car was swerving on the narrow beach road.
I don’t know which action saved us. Because everything said was contradictory.
Somehow we were saved. That was what really mattered.
Now if you’d ask me if I was scared, actually not really. Not because I was particularly brave. It was because there wasn’t enough time to get scared. My mind was numb and I felt rather detached.
And while we were speeding along the Highlevel Road, suddenly my knees turned into jelly and I heard my heart pounding a double beat in my head. My mouth turned dry and sweat tricked down my back. It’s a kind of delayed reaction – a slow release capsule of fear. Maybe some inbuilt safety mechanism had kicked in at the time of crisis.
Well the story should now end because I made my point and the climax of the story is reached.
That’s in fiction. And this is no fiction.
We arrived at Seevali’s rented house. The dude behind the wheel pulled up under the car porch. We all piled out. Would you believe the birthday boy was still passed out? He didn’t know anything that happened at the rail crossing. He would sleep through an earthquake in his drunken stupor. Some just helped him out because he was in the front passenger seat and blocking our exit.
The porch light came on. And the door burst open. Seevali’s Dad was standing there hands on his hips, and oh boy, wasn’t he furious!
“Everyone is pretty drunk, huh? I’m surprised you aren’t in Police lockup”
He went on saying more and more about, police, DUI, anti social behavior and so on. We were feeling pretty embarrassed under all the liquor, Feeling guiltier by the minute. The worst thing was the birthday boy was not there for our rescue. He just groaned and mumbled something incoherent.
Dad stepped back and we dragged Seevali in and dumped him in his bed. He instantly fell asleep again.
We were just standing in his room wondering what to do, when a bundle of rolled up bedding flew into the room and landed at our feet. More pillows and sheets followed and the location of the toilet was informed in a rough,formal tone.
We unrolled the bedding on the floor and gratefully stretched out in a row, hoping the dude next to you won’t throw up on you in the night.
Next morning when I woke up several dudes had already left. I was studying Seevali’s exotic, flat radio with Elvis Presley’s statuette on it when, dad walked in with steaming cups of coffee.
“Good Morning Mr.W….!”, I said
“Good Morning!” Grumpy but still good morning.
The silence that followed was embarrassing. The ice was still too thick. I risked some small talk.
“Nice statue, isn’t it?” I meant Elvis the King.
He looked at the statue with a disgusted look and said.
“Huh, that’s another dude who drank to his death.”
And to make his point he glanced disapprovingly at Seevali who was still sleeping like a baby most probably nursing a massive hangover.
I understood it was too early for peace talks.
At least he didn’t throw us out. And I just wondered how he would have reacted if he knew what happened the night before at that rail crossing. I can’t even imagine. I made a mental note never to tell this to my home folks and I never did.
WORD OF ADVICE:
IF YOU EVER GET STUCK IN A RAILWAY CROSSING IN A SIMILAR MANNER, AND IF THE ENGINE WON’T FIRE BUT THE STARTER MOTOR IS TURNING TRY ENGAGING THE FIRST GEAR AND TURNING THE STARTER MOTOR. PROBABLY THE STARTER MOTOR WILL MOVE YOU OFF THE TRACKS. IN CASE YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH PEOPLE TO PUSH THE CAR ALSO, THIS MIGHT HELP. BETTER RESULTS IF ONE AT THE WHEEL ATTEMPTING IT, WHILE OTHER IS PUSHING THE CAR. (This is with manual gearbox. With automatic gearbox I think trying in D will do the trick. I'm not sure. Someone please try this and comment.)
IF THE CRASH IS INEVITABLE, GET OUT OF THE CAR AND RUN. BUT NEVER RUN AWAY FROM THE TRAIN. RUN TOWARDS THE TRAIN ON THE SIDE OF THE TRACK. THIS MAY SOUND CRAZY, BUT WHEN THE TRAIN HITS THE CAR THE CAR WILL TURN INTO A PROJECTILE WHICH COULD HIT YOU IF YOU ARE ON THAT SIDE. AND FLYING DEBRIS IS FATAL.
AND I PRAY AND HOPE YOU WILL NEVER BE IN A SITUATION LIKE THAT.