This article titled “All aboard the Love Train: young, single New Zealanders on a romantic quest” was written by Eleanor Ainge Roy in Middlemarch, for theguardian.com on Friday 29th December 2017 06.33 Asia/Kolkata
As the train chugs across the Taieri Plains, female hips clad in sequins press against male thighs in polyester suits. The carriages sway unpredictably, flinging young revellers randomly together in the narrow aisles.
The men are drunk, but not yet in full casanova mode, and the women – giggly, peacocky, beautiful – scamper out of their reach, smiles stirring faintly with attraction.
It is Saturday night on a long weekend and out the windows the custardy sunset is sinking fast, bathing muddy paddocks of unshorn sheep with a romantic golden hue.
Welcome aboard New Zealand’s Love Train – eight carriages full of single millennials on the lookout for love, journeying from all over the country to a tiny rural town in the hope of meeting a mate.
That destination is Middlemarch and a singles ball which, inspired by the matchmaking dances of the 1950s, has been bringing together thousands of young, mostly unattached, people every two years for the past decade and a half.
The ball has taken on a mythical status in New Zealand, becoming infamous for its debauchery, heavy drinking and occasional, long-lasting love matches.
With a well-documented man drought in the South Pacific country of 4.7 million people, the event has become especially appealing to single women. That in turn has attracted rural men – shepherds, stock agents and farmers in the high country of the underpopulated South Island. Isolated and time-poor, they are often ignored on dating apps such as Tinder because the GPS pinpoints their location as hundreds of kilometres from the nearest cocktail bar.
So for many the singles ball at Middlemarch (normal population 186) is a significant calendar event, a genuine opportunity to meet a partner, a companion, a husband or wife.
But first they have to get to the ball, and that’s where the Love Train – a 154km, two-hour ride from Dunedin – comes in. Some 300 hopeful singles ride the train to Middlemarch. A further 300 wait at the other end of the line.
There’s a fire starting in my heart
As the evening blooms the booze flows and the sound system pumps out Adele, Fleetwood Mac and Dave Dobbyn, men fling fistfuls of cash at the train bar for screw-tops of cheap white wine.
“There’s a fire starting in my heart,” croon a carriageload of strangers, singing along to Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, as empty cans of Speights and Coruba are crushed beneath six-inch stilettos and polished riding boots, stomping in time to the beat.
“Reaching a fever pitch and it’s bringing me out the dark.”
Latasha Logan, 30, works in a call centre and is travelling from Christchurch to attend the ball, a round-trip of nearly 1,000km. She has accentuated her pale blue eyes with aqua eye-shadow and a contrasting slick of bright, fuchsia lipstick.
To nail the “Black and Bling” theme of the ball, Logan’s wrists jingle with sparkly bracelets, hoops of green, blue and silver that catch the light as she talks.
“My grandparents met at a dance, and the ball is a different way to meet people that doesn’t involve the internet or the pub,” says Logan, who once learned Portuguese for an internet date who turned out to be Fijian-Indian.
Chatty, gregarious and confident, Logan employs a single word to describe her dating life – “disastrous”.
“There are a lot of options here tonight … my type has a beard and drives a Hilux [a van]. A lot of guys are really shy and I am not, so I don’t mind making the first move, asking a guy to dance. It is a modern world.”
At the other end of the train, drinking canned Smirnoff, truck driver and pig hunter Ethan Hippolite is on the lookout for a woman he can share a spa with by candlelight.
Having got lucky at the ball two years ago, Hippolite encouraged his mates to join him this time, saying there’s a lady here “for everyone”.
Year after year, many more women than men board the Love Train bound for Middlemarch.
“I am definitely single … I guess I am looking for a bit of companionship,” says Hippolite, cherubically handsome and moderately sober in a snug-fitting navy suit.
“The best woman is the ones that don’t talk, otherwise someone that gets on real well …I just need my Juliet.”
As the Love Train pulls into Middlemarch, shyness and reserve are discarded.
Girls trip down the steep carriage steps in their ballgowns and howls emanate from the men as they stride down the main street towards a marquee, erected in a sodden paddock beside the town’s rugby grounds.
Lit up with orange streetlamps, Middlemarch feels like a lovers’ wonderland, with new couples beginning to peel off into the shadows, their breath misting in the cold autumn night.
On the dancefloor, heels are cast aside as the heady crowd grind against one another, the live country band belting out Jimmy Barnes anthems and swoony, upbeat love songs.
Sliced hot meats and buttered bread are served in the makeshift kitchen, and two worn sofas placed beside the bain-marie groan under the weight of courting lovers.
“That’s where the real love happens,” says a local woman serving up roasted pork in the kitchen, pointing towards the decrepit sofas. “The couples that really like each other sit there and talk all night.”
At the first-aid tent, a young woman has been found in the car park with a bloodied face, the first casualty of the night. Whether she was pushed or fell, no one is quite sure, so she’s put to sleep on the concrete floor of the rugby changing rooms, her intricate up-do collapsing into a mass of sweaty, blood-stained curls against her bruised face. With exceptional quantities of alcohol consumed at the ball, accidents and injuries have become standard.
Alice Lowe, 28, is sitting on a plastic chair on the edge of the dancefloor. Her ankle hurts, sort of, but she’s shy too, and the mass of limber bodies groping one another to the beat of Working Class Man intimidates her. No one has asked her to dance.
“This is way out of my comfort zone,” says Lowe, who has been single for four and a half years. “I was excited about it, but now I am absolutely terrified. But I really struggle to meet new people, so this was something I thought I should try.”
Coming to the ball with her confident friend, Latasha Logan, has helped.
“We’re total opposites,” says Lowe, clutching her purse firmly in her lap, her red shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders. “She can talk to anyone. I should have brought a pack of cards, that would have got people to sit down and talk to me.”
At the corner shop 100 metres up the road, Margaret O’Brien is doing a swift trade in mince and cheese pies. She’ll stay open till after midnight, then tomorrow morning will help clean up the town, usually awash with forgotten shoes, mobile phones, dresses and people who have missed the train back to Dunedin.
“The ball is bloody good for the town,” she says. “We need some young blood coming through. It started as a real upmarket event; it’s gone a bit wild now. But you can still see how much people are trying, how much effort they’ve gone to for one single night.”
As midnight draws closer, the night’s potential begins to fade. Those who’ve drunk too much spew their hopes into the bushes, and the girl with the bleeding face is put into a carriage with an ice pack and a container of takeaway food.
On the return to Dunedin, the carriages are quiet and subdued. The health inspector and the liquor inspector – who spent the journey up crocheting and reading novels – have fallen asleep, their heads nestled in their crossed arms.
Hippolite, spotted cosying up to at least two different girls, has disappeared, and may have found his Juliet, for tonight anyway.
Staring out the window in carriage M, Lowe and Logan are downcast, eyeing the bleak southern sky whose stars have been obscured by gathering rain clouds.
“We got hangry,” says Logan, with a weak laugh, gesturing at the pile of chocolate bar wrappers heaped between them on the wooden table.
Did you meet anyone? Did you like anyone?
No, they say in unison. But they’re looking forward to hitting up the museums in the morning.
“I don’t really know what I like,” Lowe says. “And I feel exhausted now.”
As the Love Train pulls into the Dunedin railway station at 3am, 250 people make their way to taxis and motels in the frigid rain. The bloodied girl is taken to the hospital to be assessed for concussion, perhaps a broken jaw and perhaps a broken nose. Her friend accompanies her, distracted and fuming that she lost her new shoes at the ball.
As usual, about 50 people missed the return train, either loved-up or forgetful, maybe both. They’ll be forced to hitchhike home, or jump on the “Shame Train” which returns at midday on Sunday.
The checklists of the singletons have grown shorter as the train empties out. Earlier in the night, people were specific and aspirational about what they were looking for. A good dancer. Determined. Passionate about life. Loyal. Rich. Likes fishing.
Now, as dawn nudges closer, the scramble for a partner has simplified. A nice person. A warm body. Someone to talk to in the dark.
Lowe, crossing the road to her backpacker hostel, is tired, but she doesn’t regret coming one bit. She pulls her shawl tightly across her shoulders as the slimy rain soaks through her gown.
“I don’t really do the dating scene much … but tonight, I tried. I did try. I wanted to come.”
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