10 June 2022
To the Marketing Director,
Thank you for sending your travel brochure. I appreciated that it landed promptly in my email box upon request.
I planned to surprise my mother on her 40th birthday, with a holiday to travel through the heart of Australia on board The Ghan. It is an experience she has been dreaming and talking about since I was a child. However, after flipping through your brochure, my excitement quickly dwindled and my heart sank.
In every photograph, including an entire crowd scene on a train station platform, your brochure features blonde-haired, blue-eyed men and women. My mother and I have brown skin, dark eyes and black curly hair. It made me wonder if she would be welcome aboard your exclusive, all-white train experience.
I want to be clear: your publicity material made me feel excluded. I am writing to remind you that we live in a diverse, multicultural society, and it’s important that it be reflected in your marketing material.
Rest assured, there is no need to be afraid of people of colour. We really are a friendly bunch.
On 1 November 2022, at 12:17 pm, Steven Wright Beyond Rail Group wrote:
It has been six months since we began the search for your limited edition Louis Vuitton Keepall Bandouliere travel bag.
Thank you for sending the multiple photographs identifying the natural leather, iconic name monogrammed tag. We agree that it certainly does give it a casual yet sophisticated look.
We also thank you for the detailed explanations comparing taurillion to other types of leather. However, despite searching for the taurillion denim blue skin, not the sky blue as first thought, (thank you for this correction), we have not been able to locate it.
Beyond Rail would like to thank you for the updates regarding your travel itinerary and for continuing to advise us on your location, in case the bag should appear. We understand that you are currently in Alice Springs on your way to Darwin where you will set sail on a private yacht to Indonesia. Whilst we certainly appreciate that travel without your light luxury bag has been a difficult experience for you, unfortunately we are unable to replace it. However, we can offer you (to the same value of the bag) an overnight stay on board The Ghan Platinum Cabin.
If you accept this invitation – and please there is no need to reply to this email, simply print out the attached ticket below – you must agree that Beyond Rail is no longer required to search for your bag, nor are we obligated to return any of your calls, letters or emails.
Please present the attached ticket to the cabin crew on the day. On arrival you will be shown to your elegant, expansive suite to enjoy a glass of Bollinger champagne. From there you will be welcomed into our exclusive dining cart to experience world-class food and wine, all of which is complimentary and complemented by our discreet, personalised service.
The train leaves Monday 7th November at 3.00 pm from Alice Springs Station.
All of the teams that you have communicated with at Beyond Rail sincerely wish you a safe train travel and an eventual bon voyage.
CEO Beyond Rail
Shalka stopped reading the emails and felt a surge of electricity run through her body. It ripped through the sludge of grief and left her feeling recharged for the first time in a long while.
She went over the emails again, beginning with the one she wrote in June – the one Beyond Rail ignored. As she read each word, her intentions for writing that first letter came back to her. Yes, she had been slighted by the marketing material. But the exorbitant price for a ticket on the Ghan had offended her even more. No wonder her mother had talked about it and done nothing about it. Never imagining she would be able to afford it, Shalka secretly hoped that the good white people at Beyond Rail might see the errors of their ways and send her mother a complimentary trip. Now they had – albeit in error – except her mother wasn’t alive to receive it. And technically the holiday wasn’t really for her.
Shalka thought of going on the trip instead – the idea sent another rush of joy through her. At twenty three years of age, the farthest she had gone was a day excursion to a bayside beach, with her mother.
The anguish inside of her began to loosen. She could take the ticket and no one would know. But could she dare do such an outrageous thing? She focused on her breath in an attempt to regulate her mounting excitement. The shift made her body feel light. She could feel a space open up inside of her again.
Shalka scrolled to the top of the page and noticed her hand was shaking. She was eager to re-read the letter to this Barbra person.
Her lips trembled as she read the words slowly and cautiously. She heard her heart beat and felt that feelings of loss and despair about her mother’s passing were now in the shadows. She felt that if she could hold on to the exhilaration long enough it would dissolve the loneliness in her body.
It’s true Shalka had felt pleasures in the last few months. But they were fleeting. When she received a letter from Cadbury, a week after she wrote to complain that the Caramello Koalas had shrunk, the company replied, mentioning her astute awareness to size, and sent her a complimentary box of limited edition giant Caramellos, which became her sole diet for a full week. But the feeling of triumph did not last beyond that one sugary week.
Similarly, when Nintendo replied to her from Japan, they had agreed that Princes Peaches being held captive in a dungeon by Bowser could be a feminist issue. They thanked her for her input and agreed that they would do better with their female characters in the future. Yet another evanescent, though no doubt impactful, triumph.
Then, when the restaurant of the motel where she worked refused to accept her resignation, stating that her mother had been a loyal employee for twenty years, and of course there would be a job for Shalka if she wanted to come back, adding that a good kitchen hand was hard to find, she relished the compliment.
Upon receiving these communications, Shalka realised these moments of delight she felt after her mother died only sat alongside the sorrow, never independent of it.
She put her hand on her chest and imagined the blood pumping through the four chambers of her heart. Rejuvenated she said, ‘Hold on to the feeling. Don’t stop.’ She tried hard to push away the memory of opening the front door of her flat and seeing two police officers standing on the other side of the screen. ‘Stop chasing the sadness,’ she said aloud.
Steven Wright’s email was sent five months ago, a week after her mother was struck by a car. They were replying to it now, but it was the wrong email address. She couldn’t help but flash to the policewoman saying, ‘If it helps, she died instantly, on the scene.’ Her only thought at the time was, If I was her son, would the male officer break the news, or is it always the female?
Shalka put her fingers to her cheeks. She was flushed. She laughed with the realisation that every thought since that day had been banal. She had to move fast. Act on this moment.
Her mind began to analyse and guesstimate what she needed to do, as she re-read the last few lines: ‘Simply print out the attached ticket’ and ‘Please don’t reply.’
Only once did she berate herself for not opening her emails sooner. She would need to leave immediately. Book a ticket. Get to the airport. Checking flights, then her credit card, she had just enough time to catch an Uber to the airport and make the morning flight. She would be on time to meet the train at Alice Springs Station.
Her body was moving, placing clothes in a canvas overnight bag. It calmed Shalka to think that if Beyond Rail had rectified the mistake, if Barbra was waiting in the carriage, she would just turn around and say she had made a mistake. She dismissed the question of how she would get home. She was spending her last hundreds on this trip.
‘Don’t chase the sadness.’ she repeated.
And in the back of her mind, a voice of compassion. Of course you didn’t want to check your emails. You’re tired of the eviction threats and red letters, better to avoid them altogether.
The Uber arrived within minutes, the plane landed on time and Shalka was on the Alice Springs platform in time for a four-piece band to farewell the crowd with a jazz rendition of Midnight Train to Georgia. She knew the words because Grady, the owner of the restaurant where she worked, had seen Gladys Knight & the Pips perform live, and when they played this song the auditorium swayed to the tune, shoulder to shoulder, singing along with the band. Although she had heard this story a hundred times, the united image of one tribe under one roof in that moment, gave her a sense of what it meant to belong.
As she watched the crowd lining up to board the Ghan, she smiled to herself for the second time that day. The heat was unexpected. As she began a slow long walk to the end of the platform where she assumed the first-class Platinum cabin would be, she counted thirty-four carriages along the way. Anything to take her mind off the heat. Her khaki cargo pants were laden with small water bottles, collected from the Uber and plane. And she hoped they weren’t crushing the portion pack of Arnott’s biscuits stuffed alongside them.
As she took in the sun blasted town beyond the train lines, she thought her mother would be proud that she was abiding by her primary rule. If it’s free take it.
‘You must be Barbra?’
Shalka looked down at a young staffer. He had polished black shoes, popping biceps under a short-sleeved red polo shirt and an overly expressive welcome smile. He was short and holding an iPad. A black shiny fringe flicked across his high forehead, just above thick shaped eyebrows.
She nodded twice, looking straight at him, desperately wanting to turn around in case the real Barbra stood behind her.
He held out his hand. ‘I’m Jo-Jo.’
Shalka shook his hand. ‘As in wake me up before you go-go?’
He laughed and tilted his head to one side. ‘You’re not the first to say that. But you are the youngest. How do you know that song?’
Shalka placed her hands in her side pockets. ‘I work—’ then quickly correcting herself, ‘I own a restaurant, and my older staff enjoy that song.’
Jo-Jo swivelled on his heels and gestured for her to keep moving with a swing of his arm. ‘Your restaurant sounds fabulous.’
As he walked, he talked. ‘Do you have your ticket? First time in Alice? Meg will look after you. She’s great.’
They walked along the platform the length of two more carriages. Shalka handed him the ticket and she noticed he barely glanced at it, before referring to his iPad to swipe and tap.
They stopped in front of a gold step to board the Platinum cabin. A stocky but tall woman wearing tight brown pants, tan belt with a large silver buckle and a button-down navy-blue shirt stood at the entrance to the carriage.
‘Hi, I’m Meg.’
‘This is Barbra.’ Jo-Jo said, pointing to Shalka.
Shalka looked up to Meg. The woman’s black hair was pulled back off her face in a high ponytail – not a strand out of place. Shalka noticed her pink blush had a few sparkles that reflected off her cheeks and long thick eyelashes, that made Shalka wonder how she might get hers to look like that one day. The sleeves of Meg’s shirt were rolled up revealing smooth solid forearms and when she placed her hand on her hip, Shalka noticed that one button across her chest pulled away from its hole, ever so slightly, revealing a fragment of red satin.
With her beanpole like figure she didn’t have enough breast to require a bra, and she was only accustomed to seeing her mother in flesh-coloured undergarments. Shalka patted her forehead where she felt sweat building. A wave of embarrassment swept through her. It should have made her turn away. Instead, it had the opposite effect. She hoped that Meg would put her other hand on her hip to stretch the buttonhole even further.
‘Barbra, you’re the last to board. They should have told you that you didn’t have to wait on the platform. This is Platinum after all. I’ll take you to your compartment, where you can settle in and relax before dinner.’
Shalka noted Meg’s red lips were the same colour as her bra.
She stepped into the Ghan and turned to Jo-Jo. ‘How long before we leave?’
‘Any moment now.’
Shalka looked right across the platform, as if to confirm. Empty of passengers. Only a few buggies that had been carrying luggage whizzed away towards an exit.
‘You don’t need to look so worried. Our trains are fully air-conditioned,’ Jo-Jo said yelling to be heard above the engine.
The doors slid shut. Shalka smiled and waved goodbye to Jo-Jo, wondering if her black T-shirt was showing sweat patches under her arms. She dismissed the impulse to check, in case Meg saw.
Meg smiled and said, ‘Come on, Barbra, follow me.’
Shalka walked behind Meg along the wood panelled passageway, through glass doors that opened upon approach and could be heard sliding shut behind them.
Meg swiped the card to open the door to Shalka’s room and gestured for her to enter.
The first thing Shalka noticed was the view outside the window. The platform was gone and a mix of lush, thick shrub zipped past. She couldn’t believe it. She was on the Ghan.
‘Where’s the bed?’ she asked Meg.
Meg stepped in. ‘These sofas convert to a double bed. We arrange that for you, when you’re dining. The long panels by the side open up for you to hang your clothes and underneath is safe for your valuables. You don’t have to worry about anything.’
Meg poured Shalka a glass of champagne and placed the bottle back in the ice bucket. ‘For you.’
Shalka took the champagne and held it up, the glass so refreshingly cold it was dripping beads of water on the outside. She held the glass in both hands and felt the chill between her palms. Meg smiled as she watched her take a sip, then another and another.
Shalka only ever had alcohol when her mother brought it home. It was always an open bottle and it was always what guests left behind in their hotel rooms. As a result, Shalka had developed a high tolerance for spirits. Whisky, vodka and sometimes tequila. But this was the first time she had a sparkling drink that wasn’t flat. Her mother often told her that she had a wonderful job, and it would be a waste of time for Shalka to study to be chef. After all, you can’t really take home what customers don’t eat. But being in the kitchen, watching Grady prepare meals, was all Shalka wanted to do.
‘I’m sure you’re familiar with all this.’ Meg opened another door and pointed to the towels and shower. Shalka spotted full size bottles of hand creams, soaps and shower gels. Not the tiny size ones she had seen at the motel.
‘Are they for free as well?’
Meg nodded. ‘They are, Barbra.’
Shalka flopped down into a comfy chair and bounced slightly in her seat. She took off her sandals to feel the luxurious royal blue carpet beneath her feet and lifted her long brown curls off the back of her neck, angling her face to the cool breeze coming from the air-conditioner.
Shalka let her hair fall onto her back, looked up and saw Meg smiling at her from the doorway of the ensuite.
‘What is it?’ Shalka said, suddenly self-conscious.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…it’s just that…’ Meg rested her thumb on her silver belt buckle glanced around the room before meeting Shalka’s eyes, then said hurriedly. ‘In the ten years on the Ghan, I’ve never seen anyone appreciate their surroundings as much as you are.’
Shalka gave Meg a courtesy smile, not entirely sure what Meg she was saying, but thought it sounded like a compliment. She leaned over, picked up her glass and extended her arm, offering it to Meg.
Meg reached for the glass out of Shalka’s hands and took a large sip. Shalka traced her stare and looked out the window behind her. The train was in full motion and the scenery suddenly a blur. She looked back at Meg and wondered what she was seeing.
Meg handed back the glass stood in the doorway to leave.
Without thinking, Shalka stood up to face Meg and said, ‘Before you go, I’ve got something to tell you.’
Meg smiled and slowly placed both hands on her hips tilted her head to one side and said, ‘You know Barbra, I have to get back to work, but how about you wait until we get to Darwin and then you can tell me all about it.’
Shalka smiled and then nodded. As soon as Meg was gone, Shalka unzipped her canvas bag and started to unpack her belongings.