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book cover for Dream Train Dream Train
a novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen

The night before she was to leave Vancouver, Joanna dreamed again of the fire. She was back in the bathroom, the only place in the apartment she'd been able to get to, with foul-smelling oily black smoke snaking in through the gap between the bottom of the door and the frame; she was back in that little room soaking towels in water before pushing them up against that dangerous gap, all the while screaming for help, hoping the neighbors above or below would hear and call the fire department. Over and over, she'd screamed, "I don't want to die in here!" while pounding with her fists on the ceiling, the walls, the floor, praying to be heard and rescued. No one came. Minutes were hugely elastic, ballooning into immeasurable portions of time. She kept on screaming and pounding on the ceiling and walls; there was nothing else to do. When she dared put her hand to the bathroom door, it had grown hot. The fire was eating away at it on the other side. Mouth dry, throat raw from screaming, heart racing, she turned on the shower and aimed the spray at the door, then with her toothbrush glass began splashing water around the room while her voice, automatically now, pleaded with Sally who lived upstairs, and with Jean and Barry who lived downstairs, to call the fire department, to get people to come and save her. Her life had been reduced to a small, highly flammable package she wanted to keep intact.

Forcing herself awake, she sat up in the dark hotel room, her body slick with the sweat of fear, shattered anew at the near loss of her life, and at the actual loss of years of work. The destruction of her clothes, keepsakes, furniture had been upsetting of course. But the ruin of her files of prints and negatives and slides had been a permanent injury. She'd lost moments of time; corners, fragments, features of faces, scenes and events. Her personal vision up to that point had been wiped out by the fire. It was a monumental loss. In some ways what she'd produced in the eight years since the fire was better - more clearly perceived, more profoundly graphic; yet she knew she'd never be able to duplicate the innocence and enthusiasm that had given those early efforts their uniqueness. She often wished - if for nothing else than comparison - she could review those lost photographs, lay them down beside her present efforts and try to track her personal passage in life through the people and scenes she'd chosen to represent a particular day, a time, a mood, or a feeling. The odd print turned up now and then: someone had admired a picture, so she'd made an extra print; the someone called up out of the blue and in the course of conversation mentioned the print; elderly magazines in the waiting rooms of various members of the medical profession upon whom she had occasion to call - she'd come across a piece of her own work and gasp with pleasure at the discovery. She had no qualms whatever about stuffing the magazine into her handbag and taking away retrieved bits of her life.

After a time she switched on the bedside light. Almost eight. There was no point in trying to go back to sleep for the twenty-five minutes left before the alarm went off. She sat back against the headboard, thinking about what had preceded the fire: those four years with Greg. It had been a game, more or less, with both of them playing out pre-assigned roles. He was the one meant to garner laurels, to harvest crops of success. He was the one who was supposed to shinny up the corporate ladder in a dazzling, spotlit climb. And she was supposed to have been entirely supportive and nurturing during his ascent. It gradually drove her crazy. She refused to accede blindly to his wishes or to surrender her right to her ambition, so they kept their separate apartments, even though it was accepted that they were a couple. There had been times when she'd disliked being known as the other half of Greg. Yet because she'd always been uneasy about her personal attributes, she'd stumbled along with him through the retrospectively clichéd ups and downs of their time together, until the fire.

He'd always had a casual disregard for the things her growing success provided. He'd put his shoes on the furniture; he'd broken a vase she'd carried on her lap all the way from Hong Kong, and couldn't understand her being upset at its destruction; he'd even tapped his cigarette ash onto the floor of her new BMW rather than using the ashtray; after the first year he'd eaten her food without comment; he'd slept in her bed and used her body, also without comment. He'd infuriated her. When they'd argued about his transgression of the moment, he'd invariably pretended innocence, claiming not to understand what it was that had set her off "this time." And the implication that she was someone too readily set off heightened her anger with him. By the time of the fire she'd actively loathed not only Greg but herself for continuing to be involved with him. It was something she simply couldn't understand about herself - her remaining for so long with someone who, once past the initial stages of the romance, had displayed so little approval of any aspect of her.

All it took to end the whole affair was a spark, some ashes from one of his cigarettes fallen down the side of the sofa - he'd had the ashtray perched on the arm, another of his habits that had maddened her. The spark had smoldered for hours, long after he'd gone home, before erupting into flames that had gutted the apartment and reduced to ashes all evidence of her flourishing career, as well as every memento of her past. It was pure luck that she'd been too tired that day, after shooting a cover feature for Connecticut Magazine, to lug her equipment up from the garage. So she'd left it locked in the trunk of her car. Those items, and the film from that day's shoot, were all that remained of her equipment. Everything else had been incinerated.

When the fire chief came to talk with her at the hospital, where she was well into the process of detoxification, and he'd revealed to her his findings - that the fire had, without question, started in the sofa - she'd refused to see Greg again. Yes, it had been an accident. But it was one caused by his seemingly permanent disregard for her, and so she couldn't forgive or absolve him. She hadn't even been able to speak to him because had she said anything at all, considering her years of accumulated anger and her ultimate outrage at his being responsible for the fire, she might well have killed him. She'd had repeated visions of strangling him, or running him down with her car; she'd stabbed him, shot him, poisoned him; she'd humiliated him publicly and then stabbed, shot, or poisoned him. She wanted him dead and gone, as dead and gone as all the work of her life to that point.

When he'd telephoned, she'd said, "Stay away from me! I don't want to see you or hear one word from you ever again!" Her voice had been low and foreign and tremulous with rage. She'd put down the receiver with a shaking hand and stared for a long time at the ceiling, wondering if she was being unfair, deciding maybe she was, but any more of Greg and there'd be nothing left of her to salvage.

The fact that he took her at her word and made no further attempt to make contact proved once and for all his lack of feeling for her, which only further depressed her. If she could spend four years with a fool like Greg, what was she? No matter how many times she went back over the time with Greg, she failed to find any satisfactory explanation for her involvement. She'd been sifting through the clues to her own identity ever since, but still hadn't any viable answers. Her inability to come up with answers in the matter of Greg no longer bothered her to the degree it had in the immediate aftermath of the fire. But every so often - late at night or en route to some assignment - she couldn't help looking back and speculating on the subject. All she knew for certain was that the fire stood as one of the two milestones in her life.

The second was the death of her mother two years ago. She had no nightmares about Lily. And when she thought of her, it was as she'd always been and not as the shrunken cadaver she'd become at the last. Her father and her younger brother Ben - always called Beamer by the family for reasons long since forgotten - and she had all prayed, near the end, that Lily would go soon.

It was, however, one thing to crave an end to someone's suffering and quite another to have a life without that someone in it. With Lily's death, it seemed Jo lost still more fragments, corners, exposure-tested strips of her own past. There were also new questions for which she periodically struggled to find answers. Lily had been her mother, after all, and the most influential person in Jo's life. Lily's absence, the silencing of her voice, left Jo feeling oddly empty-handed. She'd always thought a time would come when she and Lily would sit down together and review their history and, in the process, at last enable Jo to make sense of all sorts of things that continued to bewilder her.

She looked again at the clock. Eight-twenty. She got up and went to the bathroom to shower, leaving the door open as she always did now. Her flight wasn't until eleven, but it took her at least an hour and a half of a morning to assemble herself for the day. She liked to linger over coffee while reading the local newspaper, dipping toast points into her coffee cup, eating mechanically as she absorbed details of the latest front-page disasters, scandals, atrocities, and weather predictions. The news was eternally so bad that, by comparison, she felt quite well. Her health was good, her career hummed along; she was free of having constantly to consider the moods and preferences of anyone else. She set her own pace, often made her own travel arrangements, worked out her articles according to the degree of interest a project aroused in her. She'd left Manhattan after the fire and bought the condominium in Rowayton (on the garden level so she could escape either through the front or the rear patio door in the event of a fire. And when traveling, she refused to stay above the fourth floor in hotels; upon arrival she at once checked the location of the fire exits). She had a home, yet she rarely lived in it.

For six to eight months of the year, for two weeks here or a month there, she made nests of hotel rooms, setting out her coffee and portable one-cup coffee maker, the family portrait she'd taken while still in college, her notebooks and pens, her stock of film, the heavy camera bag, the books and research materials needed for the assignment, her Walkman and the detachable micro-speakers. She'd check in, take a few minutes to distribute her bits and pieces, and at once the hotel room would seem less sterile, more familiar. She'd recently begun to dislike hotels, and it took more and more effort to rid them of their sterility.

She'd been in Vancouver for four days doing a feature on Expo 86 for Worldview, a trade travel magazine that featured her work two or three times a year. She was considered a dependable source of high-quality photographs and clean prose that didn't suffer from too arch a personal viewpoint. She approached every project with an open mind, prepared to be pleased and enlightened. The result was an increasing number of plum assignments: covers for U.S. Travel, for Gourmet; features with photographs for everything from People to Architectural Digest. There were jobs that were strictly photographic, and some were purely journalistic, but the majority required both photos and text, and these were the ones she most enjoyed.

Expo had been one of the really good assignments. The pavilions were clever, even exciting; the grounds were immaculate, the employees friendly, the color-coding of areas well-designed and effective, as were the trains and monorail; the nightly fireworks display complete with laser light show and music had turned her into an eight-year-old, open-mouthed with delight as, through the lens of the tripod-mounted Nikon, she'd watched the bursting flares in the night sky reflected in the water below. She had a hunch that one of her time-exposure fireworks shots might make the cover, although it was often impossible to predict what might make an editor's heart tick over. There were shots she'd been positive would be snapped up for covers that were passed over in favor of less tricky or less exciting exposures.

Anyway, this job was done, and she was looking forward to going home, to eating food she prepared herself, to going upstate to the place in Kent where her parents had moved after her father's retirement, to see her dad and Beamer. She'd been on the road longer than usual, having come to Vancouver directly from a job in San Francisco and, before that, one in Nashville. The last year or so, her assignments had been one on top of another, which meant she had to do her writing in hotel rooms on rented typewriters. She couldn't seem to bring herself to say no, to turn down offers of work. The result was the feeling that she was somewhat less than real, like some arcane form of processing machine, something that absorbed information, captured the visuals on film, then assembled everything into a readily digestible format and sent it off by courier either to her agent or to the publication in question, depending upon the particular protocol. Time off, time to herself, had become, at age thirty-six, vital and elusive.

A number of times of late she'd referred to herself as the mobile cipher, the invisible eye, the sponge in the corner soaking up details and bits of trivia. It sounded amusing, people laughed; but Sally, who was still a close friend, had a couple of months earlier said, "I'm beginning to think you have no idea who or what you are anymore, Joey. You talk as if you're middle-aged and ugly, as if no one in his right mind would find you interesting or attractive. I'd like to remind you that you're still young, and very goddamned attractive. I hate it when you talk about yourself that way." With an encouraging smile, Sally had gone on to say, "People do see you, you know. Whatever you may think, you're definitely not invisible."

Sally's remarks had made an impact, because she'd begun to feel vaguely uneasy, even afraid. There were moments when it seemed as if she were actually fading, like a color negative left on a sunny window sill. She felt out of step with people's attitudes and values. She also felt something of a fraud, because most of the people she met encountered her professional self. This was the Jo who, with confidence bred of experience and technical skill, could keep conversations afloat and be sincerely engaging. But without an assignment backing her up, without the camera, the personal self seemed to be in trouble. Her presence anywhere seemed validated by her career, and without her professional credentials to back her up, she not only lost confidence, she also feared she had nothing of interest to say to anyone. She'd arrived at a juncture where she better than halfway believed the Jo who wore the professional hat had taken precedence over the Jo who didn't. And the only consolation she found nowadays was in the small rewards she gave herself at the conclusion of each assignment: clothes, a piece of jewelry, cassettes or books or videocassettes. Things just didn't feel right.

As usual she was too early for her flight, and settled into a phone booth to check in with her agent in New York.

"Did you get my message already?" Grace asked.

"What message?"

"Are you home? Where are you?"

"I'm at the airport in Vancouver. I fly out in an hour."

"Well, listen, kiddo! I've got some great news."

"What?" Jo asked warily. Great news usually translated into another job, and all she wanted was to go home.

"It's the assignment of a lifetime, Jo. They're all set to go. The guy they had lined up to do it rolled his car day before yesterday on the Jersey Turnpike. Nothing major, but he's not going to be going anywhere for a while. I just happened to be over talking to Harry Harris at Travelogue, and he was in a total panic, asking did I have anyone who could jump in at the eleventh hour. Of course, I told him you'd be free, and he was ecstatic."

"Oh, God! What is it this time? Bora Bora, or down-home cooking?"

"If I knew how to work a camera, kiddo, I'd do this one myself." Grace took a breath, then said, "It's the Orient-Express."

"The Orient-Express? I thought that shut down years ago. Does it still run?"

"Sweetheart, it runs and then some. You'll catch the train Sunday morning at Victoria Station in London, and ride it to Venice. Then five days at only the most sensational hotel in Venice, the Cipriani. Then a return ride to London. The Italian Tourist Bureau's involved, too, and they'll be laying on a couple of things for you. The hotel's PR director will have all the info. The hook is a great ride followed by a stay at a great hotel. Say yes, and let me call Harry back."

"Wait a minute! First of all, how long is the train ride? And what do I need? Give me a little something more here, Gracie! I can't just change my plans and agree to this without a bit more input."

"I'll telex Henry in London and tell him to air out the guest room. You know he loves having you stay with him. So that's no problem. When can you get over there?"

"I've got to go home, Grace! I mean it. I've been on the road for the last hundred years. I want to see if my place is still there; I want to see my dad and my brother; I want to do my laundry." She paused, then said, "You already said yes, didn't you?"

"Uh-huh. You can't turn this down, sweetheart. Cover feature, plus whatever material Harry doesn't use, he says we can shop elsewhere and that includes all the foreign rights. This could be good for half a dozen markets. Top-dollar fee. And, come on, Jo! The Orient-Express! I know people who'd kill to ride that train, me included. Black-tie dinner, the Alps, fascinating people. Then, there's only the most gorgeous city on earth waiting for you at the other end."

"I never have been to Venice," Jo said consideringly.

"Go catch your plane. I'll talk to you tonight, with the details."

"What about the airfare to London?"

"Prepaid executive-class ticket's waiting at Kennedy. Call me the minute you get home. There's a lot of stuff to go over before you leave."

"I love having about ten minutes' notice that I'm heading off to Europe. What kind of kill fee?"

"Fifty percent. Think about it on the flight back. You're perfect for this one. I'll bet by the time you call me later you'll be out of your mind with excitement. Gotta go, another call. Think about it!" she said again, and hung up.

Think about it! Jo looked at her watch. She had plenty of time to walk through the terminal to the bookstore, just to see if they had anything on Venice or the Orient-Express. Nothing on the train, but a Berlitz guide to Venice she paid for, then popped into her handbag before making her way to the departure gate. The nonslip strap of the heavy Lowe-pro camera bag bore down into her shoulder, and she thought longingly of the visits she'd planned to her chiropractor. Now she'd be lucky to see him once before she left. If she decided to go. Mentally, she went through her wardrobe trying to think which clothes might be right.

Oh hell! she thought, starting to smile. Of course she was going to go. How could she possibly turn down anything as intriguing and exciting as a ride on the Orient-Express?

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