Looking for Love

From Whangarei to Whangamata, from Oban to Oamaru and even (for God’s sake) Germany, they came, looking for love in the Central Otago town of Middlemarch. Peter Malcouronne hitched a ride aboard the Love Train — and somehow returned to tell the story.

I’ve got a very big tractor,” drawls the leery, dreadlocked shaveling, slurping Bernadino straight from the bottle. “Can I come plough your field?”

This might just be the first pick-up line of the night, but the Tui marketing girls Samantha Heazlewood, 20, and Charlotte Neilson, 21, know there’ll be many more. As Dunedin Railway Station fills with dolled-up women, Heazlewood and Neilson greet the male contenders with fixed smiles and six-tagged necklaces that double as drink chits and mini Tui billboards: “I’m going home single,” says one. “I’ll call you,” says another. “Yeah right.”

“It starts the mating process,” explains Neilson, who knows time is of the essence. The Tui Love Train leaves Dunedin at 5pm sharp, its cargo 300 singletons on a two-and-a-half-hour journey to Middlemarch, the tiny town sharing its name with George Eliot’s novel about love, marriage and the folly of fairytale endings.

This is the fourth Middlemarch Singles Ball. The first, back in 2001, came about after local woman Kate Wilson, fearing for the future of a town with a skewed gender ratio of Alaskan proportions, hatched a plot to lure young lovelies into the area. She won over the local community board and the Dunedin City Council, which put its ebullient events team leader, Marilyn Anderson, on the job.

“The first year some of the local lads took to the hills. Simply disappeared. They were spooked at the thought of a horde of women converging on their town intent on marrying them.”

On the blower from Middlemarch, Anderson gives me the lowdown. For just $70, you get a return trip to a masquerade ball, six complimentary drinks on the train, a most peculiar sounding fashion show, all-you-can-eat meat, and a stonking DJ. It sounds a mighty deal, though Anderson admits the event took a while to catch on. “The first year some of the local lads took to the hills,” she says. “Simply disappeared. They were spooked at the thought of a horde of women converging on their town intent on marrying them.”

But the lads are now coming in their droves. “They’ve thought about their strategy,” Anderson says. “They’re driving to Dunedin from hundreds of miles away to get on the train and give themselves that two-and-a-half-hour chat-up advantage.”

Here they’ll meet women from as far north as Whangarei. Anderson pauses for emphasis: “These ladies are hunting as packs.”

And they’re not the only voracious ones: down the far end of the station, a clutch of old suits slug back cans of Evan Williams Kentucky Straight bourbon cola. Meet Dean ‘Where It’s At’ Wilson, Adam ‘Big Guns’ Houliston, Jeremy ‘Germ’ Pile, Jason ‘Smirky’ Mercer and Tasman ‘Big Sex’ McNall — the Man Herd.

Local lads in their early 20s who went to Kaikorai Valley College together and now work in the trades, they’ve emptied Dunedin’s op shops in recent weeks.

“The suits are gonna do it,” says Big Guns, a likeable rogue who’s already winning a few smiles from the other side. “Mine’s from the Salvation Army. Sweet pants and a nice tweed jacket. Cost: $8.50.” What? For the lot? “Ah, the tie was an extra $1.50. And the shirt — I’m running suede tonight — $2.50.”

Nevertheless, Guns doesn’t reckon he’s the Herd’s most eligible. Instead he points to the gangly Big Sex. “There’s the ladies’ man. Look at him — he’s tall. He sticks out. He’s a man beast!”

I watch Sex sidle off the train platform looking for a bush to water, watch as Guns opens his jacket to expose his “magazine” — four more cans of “eight per cent” Evan Williams — and wonder if the Herd’s peaking too early. Where will they be at midnight? “We’ll be dancing up a storm,” Guns insists. “We’ll see you here at 2.00am for the post-match interview,” adds Smirky Mercer.

Fighting words. Yet for all their swagger, I can’t help thinking the Man Herd’s bombast has confused them of their place in the food chain. These hunters are in fact the hunted, like the million-strong wall of wildebeest that blacken the Serengeti Plains as far as the eye can see: they look formidable, seem almost unstoppable — but there are packs of lionesses lying, slavering, in wait. Those panicked survivors who somehow get through will be picked off trying to cross thrashing croc-crammed rivers: only the strong — and the lucky — will survive.

Troubling thoughts indeed, but it’s time to board the Love Train.

The Man Herd (from left): Big Sex, Big Guns, Smirky, Where It’s At, and the Germ. All photos by Sharron Bennett.

She was the first to buy a ticket. “Yeah, I know what you’re thinking,” says Jenny Flain. “Desperado!” And with that the 35-year-old with the blonde mane and glorious shot­ taffeta gown cracks up.

A former vet nurse, now office administrator-cum-part-time hairdresser, Flain lives on a five-hectare block in West Melton, 20 minutes out of Christchurch, with two cows, a dog, two horses and four sheep. Until 2004 the menagerie included a partner of 11 years, but he was a townie and never truly belonged to the land.

Flain sold half the original block in the split to keep her five hectares — but then she badly injured her hip falling from a horse, lost her mother, and had her farm, well, “crap out”. She’s been doing it tough.

“Mum died nearly a year ago. While she was in the hospice she’d say to me, ‘Go to Middlemarch. Go to Middlemarch, Jenny.’

“And then one of my hairdressing clients said, ‘You’ve fought hard to keep that property. But you can’t do it all by yourself. You need to go get a farmer’.”

The client logged on to the Middlemarch website, printed off all the guff. “And so here I am.”

Each group has its joker — its wag, its motor-mouthed jester. As the person who makes the first foray towards another group, the joker’s importance can’t be overstated. He’s the poor sap who, in the Somme, was first up the ladder when the whistle blew — and would be shot right between the eyes.

The train crosses a black river lined with willows. “Look isn’t that beautiful?” she says, kneeling on her seat, gazing out the window. “I want a Man of the Land. Don’t care about looks, a man of few words who’s true to his word. I need someone quiet. Someone to control me and settle me down, cos I’m a goer.”

Perhaps so, but I tell her she looks like a princess. “Don’t be fooled by this,” she says. “This is a facade — this is not me. I love to work the soil. I love to be in my gumboots — I’m a female version of Fred Dagg.”

I wish her well and take a tour through the train, making some field notes:

  • Most people here are in single-sex groups of four or five. Each group has its joker — its wag, its motor-mouthed jester. As the person who makes the first foray towards another group, the joker’s importance can’t be overstated. He’s the poor sap who, in the Somme, was first up the ladder when the whistle blew — and would then be shot right between the eyes. Bad luck — but his selfless sacrifice opened the way for his comrades. Curiously, jokers tend to be shorter and plumper than their friends.
  • The joker is never Leader of the Pack and you often see him casting nervous glances, David Brent style, at the boss (to see how his jokes are faring). The Leader is invariably the best looking of a group and exudes the lazy confidence of the genetically blessed. Especially shrewd leaders surround themselves with frumps and journeymen: check out a video of Elvis sometime and you’ll note how the King looks nuclear-hot next to his google-eyed, buck-toothed bandmates.
  • There are none braver than the sole traders. One 40-something fellow with thick glasses, thinning hair and an unfortunate overbite wanders from carriage to carriage desperately trying to engage someone. And then there’s Ben Kebble — “like Pebble with a K” — an aspiring Dunedin chef who’s dressed up as the Phantom Of The Opera. He’s a sweet guy, he really is: no one passes his seat at the back of Carriage G without receiving a smile. He says he wants to meet “a well-rounded person… someone not blase about the world­ someone who cares.” Lovely. I wish him well, but fear these lone wolves stand little chance.

No, you’ve gotta have a posse behind you, like Jacqui Pritchard’s Kindergarten Krew. Pritchard, a 39-year-old, flaxen-haired Whangamata kindy teacher, is here with Tauranga kindy teacher Sophie Harding, 29, and Harding's old school mate Michelle Boyd.

The Middlemarch mission was Harding's initiative but just after she bought the tickets, she met a man. “Murphy’s Law,” she shrugs. But she was still determined to go for Jacqui.

Jacqui Pritchard: “I’d like to meet someone quite adventurous. Perhaps a surfer. He’ll be medium-sized, have some facial hair, a nice tight butt and well-kept abs.”

Pritchard takes up the story. “Now they’re committed, it’s all up to me. I’d like to meet someone quite adventurous. Perhaps a surfer.” He’ll be medium-sized (“around my height, 5ft 7in, otherwise you end up hurting your back when you’re kissing”), have some facial hair, a “nice tight butt” and “well kept abs”.

“Hey, this ain’t Cosmopolitan magazine!” Harding hoots. “And aren’t you worried there mightn’t be anyone who can surf in Middlemarch?”

Pritchard: “I’ll settle for a motocross man who likes to rip it up in the paddock.”

It’s all good fun, she laughs, though she says she’d move down here for the right bloke. “I don’t know if there’s a kindy in Middlemarch, but I might be able to adapt some of my talents towards sheep. If there’s a shortage of children in the area, I’ll take up the gumboots and march out there.”

Pritchard’s primed — she’s got the girls behind her and, up in Mt Maunganui, her parents’ unswerving support. Before she left, she gave the folks a full dress rehearsal. “I’ve got my mother’s wrap and the clutch purse she was given at 18 for her first ball. Which is rather auspicious really because this is my first. And Dad? He just said, ‘Good on ya, love. Get in there!’”

The last hour of the trip was on the Tui side of raucous, but tenseness sets in on reaching Middlemarch. It’s a disorienting feeling to step out into nothingness: the singletons stumble out, dazed, confused, dazzled by searchlights. As eyes adjust they see two stock-truck flat-trailers pushed together with a posse of local youths in behind — hammered and hollering. And then a voice from heaven: “Crikey. Crikey,” he says. “You look gorgeous. You do. Welcome. Thanks for coming. Kia ora. Beeeeaautiful.”

The voice belongs to More FM's Grant McLean, host of the Driza-Bone Hard Road Fashion Show, a half-hour pageant showcasing the best in rural wear. Standing atop the trailer, McLean heralds moleskin jackets, true-blue five-pocket jeans and quilted vests — modelled by some of Middlemarch’s finest.

The show’s so surreal the punters don’t know quite what to do — until a muscled Dean Cain Superman lookalike glides down the runway. Whooping women surge forward to the trailer, drumming their approbation on its deck. Jenny Flain seems particularly animated.

“Pretty handsome,” I proffer. “Nah, he’s a player,” replies Flain. “Don’t do players.

“I like this one,” she says, pointing at a strutting cockie who, on cue, uncorks a few line-dancing moves. “He’s older. He’s cheeky. And he’s got a really cute smile.”

By the time her man appears for his bare­-chest encore, Flain’s whistled herself silly. She’s not alone.

“Aaaaah… but you haven’t come here to listen to me,” McLean cries. “You’ve come along for the Singles Ball! Which way to the singles ball? they ask. It is that way — head towards the church, you’ll see the marquee, follow the noise, you’ll have so much fun tonight. Go forth, enjoy, wash your hands and good luck.”

As the throng clomps down Middlemarch’s main street, runway wide for the city that never was, I spot Big Guns. To my astonishment, he seems as fresh as February silage — and sufficiently sober to warn me of the perils of imperial overstretch. “There’s just too much mate. Too many tarts. You start chasing one over here, then you see there’s one over there. You just can’t handle them all at once.”

Yes, he says, he’ll just have to settle on one. “A girl who’s got a sense of humour. You know — likes a bit of a yarn. She doesn’t have to be too tidy: she can have a bit of a gut on her — I’ve got a bit of a gut meself!”

The Driza-Bone Hard Road fashion show.

Inside the marquee, to the Beatles Hard Day’s Night, Jenny Flain’s dancing like a dervish. Quite by chance, her posse have come across the Kindergarten Krew and the two groups have formed a tactical alliance. “We’ve been working on a plan,” Jacqui Pritchard says. “I’ve got a time limit with any man I start a conversation with.”

“She’s only got four hours to cover the whole tent,” Harding continues. “If they’re not doing it for her — move on.” Speed dating, Middlemarch style.

“You have five minutes to make your mark,” Pritchard says. “That’s enough time: I want to know what major hurdles you’ve overcome in your life. What adventures you’ve been on. What you’ve achieved, what you’re about, your aims for the future. Tell me what you do, where you want to go.”

It sounds well thought through as is Pritchard’s opening ruse. “When I see a likely lad, I’ll ask him if he can unscrew my screwtop bottle.” Only problem — there seems a distinct lack of likely lads.

There are so many players she sighs. “Half the men who hit on you are married. You always look for the wedding band and if you don’t see one, you look for the ‘tidal mark’, which shows they’ve taken it off. Quite a few do that.”

Already, after just 15 minutes, it’s clear most of the men here are, well, boys. And while this hasn’t fazed Flain — now lustily singing “Bay-bee, bay-bee, bay-bee… Wooooooooooooooh” — there’s a sense of disappointment spreading among the 30-something females here.

Outside, in the Port-a-Loo queue, I talk to two Hamilton women bemoaning the plight of the single woman. “It’s bloody hard,” says a mid-30s brunette who’s been single eight years. “And women are not fussy. All we want is a nice man, an honest man, and that’s nigh on impossible.”

There are so many players she sighs. “Half the men who hit on you are married. You always look for the wedding band and if you don’t see one, you look for the ‘tidal mark’, which shows they’ve taken it off. Quite a few do that. I met guy at a bar who seemed really nice until I learned he had his wedding ring in his pocket. He was a musician and reckoned he couldn’t play his guitar with it on. Like… whatever!”

But it’s not only the women who’re battling. Inside the buffet tent, Ben Kebble, the Phantom, is thoughtful over a pork sandwich. “I just want to get in there but it’s really hard to go straight into talking to a group of girls. You just feel overcome. You have to find a group you can go in with, otherwise you sorta feel a bit isolated.

But it’s not, he stresses, a hopeless situation. “You wait until they get a bit more drunk — the girls — and then approach them and they don’t reject you as much.”

Kebble, like the other ballgoers, says he’s here for fun, for a good time, for a bit of a laugh. It’s a necessary self-deception to minimise disappointment. And disappointment there will be — even more so for the women.

You have to wonder what chance there is of meeting a Southern Man of the Renaissance persuasion, said to be the finest on Earth. Someone like All Black Anton Oliver or poet Brian Turner — the rugged but gentle, smart yet humble, intellectual though still practical, type. They’re as rare as the takahe.

Instead, you’ll find another sort of Southern Man here. He’s not a Renaissance Antonian, or a Crump, or even an Ellis. He looks askance at the Man Herd. He has pink cheeks, hair like a freshly shorn sheep — “Won’t find me using that faggy mousse, mate” — and he wears his Hallensteins chambray tucked in. He’s dependable and decent enough — he never forgets Mother’s Day — but he’s deathly dull. Sometimes still rivers are simply stagnant.

Sadly the Ball’s also graced with a number of apprentice rednecks and baby bigots who become more banal with each beer. One, a skinhead in a white supremacist t-shirt, spends his night shoving his finger in people’s faces, asking them if they “want the duff?”, before someone breaks his nose. When I compliment another young man of the land on his striped blazer, he doesn’t take it well: “Whaddarya? A fag, a homo, a poof?”

The Man Herd notwithstanding, a few men stand out. Like ‘The Scottish Guy’, a kilted bloke, handsome in a bland boy-band way, but with a nice smile. Several women I talk to seem besotted with him, though they’re less enamoured of his lady friend.

“What’s he doing with her?”

“She’s a slut. Just look at her.”

“She’s nowhere near good enough for him.”

Middle marchers (from left): Big Guns and friend; ‘The Scottish Guy’ and amour; The Phantom, Ben Kebble, and wingman.

Who’d believe a Germanic goddess would come to the far side of the earth for this? But Sibylle Ott, a 24-year-old travel agent from Dortmund, Germany, has had Middlemarch men on the mind for three years.

“It was a Sunday. It was raining and so I started watching this documentary. On Middlemarch and the Singles Ball. And it was about James — and how he’s running the farm on his own after his father died and his mum moved to the city. How he’s looking for a girl.

“It was on television maybe four times. When I told my friends at school, they said they’d seen it too. And they’d all noticed James. He’s cute, really cute — he has blond curly hair and big muscles because of his farmwork.”

A friend of Ott’s wrote to the TV channel and was given the address of the Middlemarch Information Centre. A woman there gave them mixed news. “She said, ‘I grew up with James. He’s a really nice guy but I have to tell you, you’re not the only one sending an email’.

“There were heaps of girls from Germany writing to him. We were all in love with James. But I’m the only one to make it to Middlemarch.”

Time to check on Jacqui Pritchard. Sitting in the buffet tent, her “wingwomen” on her shoulder, she reflects on a night that’s wearing thin. “This is like my high school disco. I really don’t need to be dragged back there in my ball dress. I haven’t got my legwarmers for this.”

But the evening has had its moments. “I found a man,” she says. Really? “Well, for all of 15 minutes. I turned my back, went to the loo, and when I came back there were three or four others all over him. Like, where were my wingwomen?”

“They come in like bees to honey, man,” says Sophie Harding. “You’ve just got to be quick.”

Still, Pritchard’s not bothered. She had time for a nice chat with her sharemilker. “And time to go for a test drive very quickly,” she smiles. “Let me tell you — he’s a good kisser!”

“You test-drove him?” Harding guffaws.

“There’s only four hours — there’s no time to waste,” says Pritchard. “I was speaking to him but it just got to the point that his lips were moving and it… it had to be done.”

Sophie Harding: “They’re younger than I imagined,” adds Harding. “And what’s up with the dress sense here? I thought it was a ball. What are guys doing in jeans and rugby jerseys? It’s bad, very bad.”

So, an appraisal of the evening, please? “You know, I saw the funniest thing. A guy walked in wearing the Middlemarch tee shirt — ‘The odds are good but the goods are odd’. Well I’d rewrite that: if you went in there now and looked at the male/female ratio, the females outweigh the blokes, two, even three, to one.”

“They’re younger than I imagined,” adds Harding. “And what’s up with the dress sense here? I thought it was a ball. What are guys doing in jeans and rugby jerseys? It’s bad, very bad.”

Readying themselves for one more foray — “the sharemilker may have ditched the other floozies by now” — the Krew head back in, past Sibylle Ott, who had found the famous James (now involved with a girl he met before the ball) hiding behind a Scream mask. She’s got the photo to prove it.

Action from the last Middlemarch Singles Ball in 2015 starring Max Key and Carl Stott.

The frigid return to the railway station reminds me of organiser Marilyn Anderson’s risible claim that Middlemarch is blessed with a temperate micro-climate. Fortunately, the ancient fan heaters at the back of each carriage work well: “It’s warm here,” says a Nelsonian on mine, “it goes right up your skirt.”

“This is a message to the lovely ladies,” announces our train driver. “There’s a few more passengers going back than we had coming back. How many of you got luc-keeey?”

“Well, I’m going home alone,” answers Pritchard. “Depressing isn’t it?”

She’s tired and hungry. Her friend Sophie Harding brings the carriage down when she asks, “Have you got the midnight munchies after all that pork?”

“What goes on the train stays on the train,” Pritchard smiles.

Truth is, in this carriage at least, there’s not a lot of scandal to be suppressed. In fact, in my company of smart, warm women mostly in their 30s, just one, a smouldering brunette from Nelson, has got lucky. Perhaps to cheer up her comrades, she twice does the splits in the aisle and makes her meek and straight-as-a-furrow cockie conquest look even more uncomfortable.

And then a prankster pulls the emergency brake, forcing a half­ hour stop and giving me the chance to check out the rest of the train. One carriage is singing ‘Tutira Mai Nga Iwi’, one seems stuck in the chorus of Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, but most of the rest have the bonhomie of cattle wagons — their occupants shattered, broken, just waiting for it all to end.

Did Big Sex meet anyone special? “Met one…. but she’s religious, mate. I asked her to root me behind the barn and she wouldn’t.”

I search for the remnants of the Man Herd, curious to see how they’ve fared. I find Smirky first: “I told you we’d be the last ones standing,” he says, raising his arms aloft. “No one else can handle their piss.”

He takes me to find his comrades: Big Sex is in Carriage E and is still a man of few (mumbled) words. Did he meet anyone special?”

“Met one. But she’s religious, mate.”

“Really? What denomination?”


“What religion was she?”

“Dunno. She was just religious. I asked her to root me behind the barn and she wouldn’t.”

We pass Jenny Flain, who’d led the charge but hit the wall at midnight: she and a friend have conked out, their heads resting together. Bizarrely, she’s ditched her heels for gumboots: when I ask her how she is, she murmurs, “Berocca, Berocca”.

We find Big Guns near the front of the train, sans jacket, which cloaks Toni Stevens, a Dunedin caregiver and mother of two.

“How good looking is she!” exclaims Big Guns. “She’s beautiful. Eh?

“Thirty. You wouldn’t pick it, would you?

“Beautiful. Just beautiful.”

“What does a lovely lady like this see in a dirty old electrician?”

Ms Big Guns blushes at the compliments from her “gorgeous man” while Big Guns strokes her cheek with the back of his hand.

I wish them well and return to my carriage, someone excitedly pointing to shimmering lights out the window. Dunedin. So close. But the train will stop again — this time for an ambulance to tend to a poor girl with heart palpitations — and we’ll be stuck here for another half hour.

Finally, at 3.20am, an hour late, the Love Train rolls into Dunedin station. The chipper conductor makes his last announcement: “Hope some of you struck gold. You others? Come back next year.”

“I feel like I’ve been through the meat-grinder,” Pritchard groans.

“It’s something you had to do,” Harding says. “You’ve done it now, so you can tick it off. You’ve survived the Hell Train.”

First published in North & South magazine in 2008.

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