Taihape Railway Station was lit up by a massive headlight through the mist as the steam KA locomotive thundered in. Smoke belched into the night air and steam hissed from the driving wheels as it flashed by the platform. It slowed and the dark red carriages followed. Some windows showed a yellow light but most remained dark as the passengers inside attempted to sleep. Brakes beneath the carriages hissed and the mighty, if somewhat antiquated Limited Express stopped.
"The Limited Express from Wellington will remain in Taihape for fifteen minutes while the engine replenishes its water supply, Refreshments are available at the refreshment room. Passengers are reminded that they may take their cups back onto the train..."
The loudspeaker announcement continued but Alan stopped listening. Instead, he stood on the platform and watched as passengers dismounted. There was a surge of bodies as everyone jostled for space in front of the counter. Nancy and three other assistants filled cups with tea, handed out pies and sausage rolls, collected money and went on to the next customer. People, carrying hot tea and plates of food slipped between those who had not yet been served and headed back to their carriage. It was one mad scramble akin to the refreshment room at a racecourse.
Alan glanced through the horde but could see nobody vaguely resembling a young pregnant girl. He gave up and turned to watch the railway employees unhitch the engine. It puffed out a cloud of smoke and chugged away up line. Here, Alan knew, its boiler would be topped up from a high wooden tank. By the time the engine returned and was hitched up to the carriages again a guard would have blown his whistle and everyone would be back aboard.
He grinned as the inevitable late passengers balanced their food and drinks and clamoured up the steel steps. A guard walked along, slammed every carriage door until he reached the end guard's van. There he turned, shouted at one last passenger who climbed aboard, blew a whistle and waved a grubby green flag. As the train pulled out, he swung himself up to the guard's van and disappeared.
The crowd had gone, as had the train that headed north with its destination at Auckland rescheduled to arrive mid morning, over three hours late. All that remained was the smell of smoke and an empty platform.
A girl stood at the far end of the refreshment room, almost beyond the platform itself. Alan walked closer and wondered if this was the one he’d been sent to meet.
She wore clothes that were far too light for the harsh weather but they were of high quality, a long blue cardigan and dark floral dress that, in modern style, barely reached her knees. She had no hat and the modern high-heeled shoes shone in the light. Her slim body showed no sign of any pregnancy.
Alan hesitated and studied the young woman. This couldn't be her. He expected someone with a swollen stomach stretched beneath a tatty high school raincoat, tartan skirt and flat-heeled shoes. He turned and glanced in the refreshment room. It was empty.
He turned back and, for the first time, noticed the girl's face. She looked utterly forlorn. Perhaps this was her! She certainly looked lost. Alan walked up to her and coughed.
She gasped and swung around.
"Claire?" he asked
"Why yes," she replied, biting on her bottom lip. "I'm Claire Woodham."
Alan held his hand out. "Alan Sloane." He took her cold, somewhat limp hand.