Fiction

Winner winner (Part two)

They were reading in the lounge when a large helicopter landed on the helipad. Phil looked up from his paper, over the rim of his reading glasses, and could just make out the figures. The man hopping down held his fedora on top of his head, battling the pressure of the blades whipping everything around them. How stupid for a man to wear a hat on a helicopter, Phil thought. His own work had seen him take a helicopter on three occasions.

“That’s him, then,” he said to Ellen, staring out the window.

She followed Phil’s gaze and sat up abruptly. “Who are all those other people getting off?”

Two leggy assistants followed the man, themselves followed by five or six much shorter women, all clutching small bags, some helping others to step down off the helicopter.

“Excuse me,” Ellen said, raising an arm to summon a nearby staff member in a polo shirt, “who are these people coming onto the ship?”

“Oh, haven’t you heard? Mr Gross has been —”

“Yes, yes, I know about the magician. I mean those other people.”

“Emergency extra staff, ma’am,” the woman replied, “because we’ve been at sea much longer than anticipated. Normally we don’t work quite this long without —”

“But…” Phil watched his wife pause to collect the right words, “where do they come from?”

“There are cruise staff in all the cities,” the woman replied, smiling. “We’re a bit like flight attendants. I suppose these are the ones who wanted extra shifts.”

“But aren’t we worried about a new group of people who might expose us to extra risk?”

At this, the woman in the polo shirt opened her mouth, only to close it again and take a step back. Ellen made that motion of her head that she did when she was frustrated, sticking her chin out a bit, as if to say, Well? But the woman in the polo shirt said nothing.

Phil realised then that a new performance from this “magician” could be the perfect way to settle his stomach about their last run-in. Statistically speaking, there was no way in that theatre of hundreds of seats that Phil would be selected for audience participation a second time.

He pictured someone else, their eyes big and buggy, bock-bock-bocking, jerking their neck this way and that. He would pick the worst thing they did and put the anecdote in his pocket, so if anyone ever raised the incident of his own shaming, he could offer a diverting humiliation. Phil would point and laugh, and he would clap and shout at them. He would see them brought down, too.

 

Ellen was sitting at her dresser in their room, getting ready for the night’s entertainment. All of her things, the make-up and jewellery and perfume, were spread out in front of her, and she was bitching, again, calling out to Phil, who was shaving in front of the sink.

“I don’t know why you insisted we only bring the small cases. Now we’ve been here so long, and I’ve worn all these sets.”

Phil didn’t reply. His mouth was closed as he brought the razor up over the final strip of foam at his Adam’s apple. Then he turned on the tap and rinsed his things. His wife hadn’t noticed his nerves. He hadn’t wanted to consider the possibility before, but now he couldn’t think of anything else: maybe she had joined in last time, laughing at him.

“It’s pretty ridiculous, really, that she brought twice as much jewellery as she needed,” said Ellen. “I mean, it’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? Now we’re stuck here in purgatory, she can finally show it all off.”

Phil emerged from the bathroom and watched Ellen struggle with the clasp on her pearl necklace. “Do you want me to do that?” he asked.

“You know, when we said goodbye after I’d caught her with those dyes, she said to me, ‘I’ll be at Neptune’s.’ Ha! And she gave me this little wave, as though she needed me to know that where they are – where their suite is, I mean – is closer to that pool, whereas down on this deck we’re closer to the Calypso pool, the one with the slides for the kids.”

Phil was using the complimentary shoehorn to slip into his brogues. He’d always kind of thought a shoehorn was an admission of a certain age, but now he saw the use of it. He wondered if he took it with him, whether they would charge him for it.

After all this time stuck at sea, and with the pandemic, he felt it would be petty for the cruise operator to call him about a missing shoehorn. Perhaps it could be a happy accident that when they got home again, he just found it in his suitcase.

 

They came around the corner from the elevators and found John sitting by the bar outside the theatre on his own.

“What have I done here?” he grumbled, holding an iPad close to his face, then further away, squinting, pressing at the screen with a single finger.

“Hi, John,” Ellen said, all sugar.

“Dan tried to call me on this thing, but I’ve missed him. Karen’s off getting some drinks.”

“Oh,” Ellen cocked her head to one side, “Karen didn’t want to say hello to Dan?”

“Agh.” John dropped the device into his lap, giving up. “Isn’t it nice when your kids call you, though?” he smiled.

“We wouldn’t know,” Phil replied.

Karen appeared with two glasses of wine. “Oh, sorry, I would’ve grabbed something for you if I knew you were coming,” she said, and passed one glass to John, then stood up and looked at Phil. “To be honest, I thought you might chicken out.”

John and Karen laughed again, clinking their glasses, while Phil and Ellen just stood there.

“You’d better teach your husband how to use that iPad,” Ellen said calmly to Karen, “or he’ll keep missing calls from his son.”

Everyone stopped laughing, and Phil gazed at his wife. From where he stood, she was lit from behind by a giant chandelier that hung over the stairs to the lower stalls.

Phil knew his wife had pulled out her only trump card: she had mothered. It didn’t matter that Ellen mostly spoke about what it had cost her – in terms of career and body – it was a claim Karen, thanks to time, could never stake. He watched as John took Karen’s hand, and they shared a look he didn’t care to interpret. Phil reached out and took his own wife’s hand.

“Would you like a drink, darling?” he asked her.

“Thank you, darling, yes,” Ellen replied, glowing.

The bar wasn’t particularly crowded. Nor was the theatre when they entered. The thin crowd made Phil nervous. But the lights soon dimmed and some prerecorded classical music started playing. A voiceover reminded them to turn off their phones; Karen snatched the iPad from John, whose confused face was illuminated by the screen. In the dark, Phil heard his wife snigger. The strings in the music were high and consistent, like something from the beginning of a Hitchcock.

This is part two of a three-part story.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2020 as "Winner winner (Part two)".

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

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