Fiction

Winner winner (Part one)

The Emerald Queen was just beginning its second loop of the Tasman Peninsula when Phil, Ellen, John and Karen were seated for their standing 7 o’clock dinner reservation in the smaller of the two grand dining rooms.

“Isn’t it so much nicer in this one?” Ellen asked, leaning back a few degrees as a linen serviette was placed across her lap. She looked to Karen. “And I’m sure it’s easier for John to hear us all talking in here, without that music they keep so loud near the buffet upstairs.”

“Oh, John can hear fine,” Phil cut in, dismissing his wife’s jab. She was switched on, but sometimes a bit harsh.

“The doctor said that now, with his implant, he can hear better than most 50-year-olds,” Karen replied, firmly but smiling.

They picked up their menus and read as though it wasn’t the same laminated list they had been scanning every night for almost three weeks. The ship was in a holding pattern, waiting for permission to dock. They had booked the 10-day trip around the south coast “to celebrate Phil’s retirement”, though neither the retirement nor the trip was Phil’s idea. But he had been unable to communicate to Ellen that the trip didn’t fit into his calculations for their superannuation.

“How can John have kept three wives in such comfortable style, and you can’t even do right by your first and only?” she’d said to him, managing somehow to insult everyone involved with a single remark. He shuddered at the memory. And then it made him remember how he’d had to increase the rent on the apartments they had in the city, and how all the news reports were now talking about putting a freeze on evictions. He’d have to call their property manager, again, and see what was going on.

“Happy retirement,” Ellen said to him, bringing him back to the table, raising her glass. He said nothing but mustered a smile and raised his own. The situation was almost unbearable – first forced out of the company, and now this. He was supposed to be at the precise moment in his life where he had hit a maximum accumulation of wealth – the peak of amassment of assets and the endpoint of highest annual income he would ever earn – and still it wasn’t enough for her.

“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen.” A man in a polo shirt had appeared at the side of their table. “A special announcement from the captain. In gratitude for your patience and understanding during this difficult time, we have been able to secure some special entertainment for tomorrow evening. Ah, if you remember, the magician, Mr Gross, from your first night on board with us – he was very popular, he will be returning tomorrow for another show.”

The three others turned to look at Phil. Karen couldn’t hide the upturn at the edges of her mouth. Ellen seemed alarmed, if a little afraid.

John clapped his hands together, grinning. “Bock bock bock, eh, Phil?”

“Come on now,” Phil said, pretending to shrug it off, looking down at his glass.

“Oh, what was the line?” John turned to ask Karen.

Phil watched Karen put a finger to her lips, a pantomime of thinking-then-remembering: “Count to 10 and become the hen!”

Phil pretended to resume reading his menu. It was humiliating to have this brought up again. A man should be able to go to the theatre safely. His scepticism of Gross’s hypnosis abilities had proved futile, and the result was, if Phil was honest, destabilising. He couldn’t believe a man would do that to another man. Although he hadn’t foreseen the redundancy package the day after his 65th birthday, either. Or that his and Ellen’s room would be a deck below John and Karen’s. He ordered a medium-rare sirloin night after night, but each evening it came out cooked slightly differently. Nobody could tell him when they would be allowed back into Australia. His wife was unhappy, his investments were losing money and a man in a fedora had made him behave like a moron, scratching around like a chicken for the amusement of hundreds of people.

“I suppose you won’t be ordering the spatchcock tonight!” John said.

Ellen reached out and put a hand on Phil’s wrist, offering him an understanding smile, but Karen was really getting into it. She tipped her head back in exaggerated laughter and Phil watched his wife’s eyes shoot straight to Karen’s neck. Ellen couldn’t stand that Karen wouldn’t admit to having had a neck lift. Couldn’t stand the parade of new jewellery that appeared on Karen’s new neck night after night. Seeing the petty cogs of jealousy turn in his wife’s mind, right then, when he was suffering such indignity, made him furious, then immediately defeated. It would only lengthen his suffering if he got up and left the table now. No doubt he’d hear about this neck business again when they returned to their room after dinner anyway.

Karen pretended to wipe the corners of her eyes. John did actually wipe his nose. They ordered and the conversation moved on, as it did every night. Phil decided on the 10th day with these people that it had been too much. Now, on night 20, with no end in sight, he was truly being tested.

 

“She still hasn’t used the dyes,” Ellen started up, standing in the doorway of the en suite, struggling to reach the zip at the back of her dress.

“Do you need help?” Phil replied.

“I’ve been watching. She must have brought a tube with her, for her roots, because her colour hasn’t changed. We can’t get any bloody beauty appointments on board anymore because of the staff shortage either, so it can’t be that.”

She was getting more frustrated with the dress. “That reminds me,” she continued, “did you speak to the manager this afternoon?”

“Do you want me to help you unzip your dress?”

“… because we shouldn’t have to pay anything at all for these extra nights, especially now that there aren’t even enough staff to keep things running properly. They have our credit cards for the charges. I can just see them charging us, can’t you?”

On the afternoon the Emerald Queen was refused permission to dock in Sydney, there was a run on the on-board shops. Phil had been watching an old western when Ellen had returned to their room, smirking. She had run into Karen, who was carrying a plastic bag full of boxes of hair dye.

“What did she say?” Phil had asked his gleeful wife.

“Oh, I didn’t bring it up with her then,” Ellen replied, as though it was obvious this strategic piece of information was better saved for a later date, “but when I went into the pharmacy section I went to the place where the hair dyes were, and they were all gone.”

Ellen had kept talking, but Phil had resumed watching his movie, forgetting this information about the hair dyes almost immediately. He realised only now that this hair-dye business had become something of an obsession for his wife. But he was not really listening to her theories; he was grappling with whether to risk a second round in the audience of the “magician”.

This is part one of a three-part story.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2020 as "Winner winner (Part one)".

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Bri Lee
is a lawyer and the author of Eggshell Skull and Beauty.

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