Winner winner (Part three)

The curtains parted to reveal the leggy assistants in their beaded corsetry and feathered headdresses, and, when the sparse audience applauded, the man in the fedora emerged. He took a bow, tipped his hat and then threw it out into the audience, and spotlights tracked it, then when they switched off the hat disappeared. A little ooh rippled through the audience and the clapping doubled. The “magician” made a big deal out of this, laughing as though he’d even surprised himself, and the show began. Phil could feel himself sweating. The man’s voice was enough to make him mad. It was so pathetic. Imagine dedicating your life to this grotesque pageantry, he thought, and the more cruel things he thought about the “magician” the better he felt, until he was barely listening to or watching the show, but instead was revelling in his own fury, his loathing and disgust letting loose in the dark. He found one of his wife’s hairs on his suit jacket and snapped it between his fingers, dropping the pieces onto the black carpet.

“Now I need a volunteer!” the magician pronounced, and Phil clenched his fists. He thought he saw John move to raise his arm, and Phil went to smack it down, but a group of young people in the front and second rows had started shouting someone’s name. Phil settled back into his seat, relieved, as a young woman reluctantly stood up. It was her birthday, apparently. Her friends thought this would be wildly funny. The girl was quite good-looking. Not as fit as the assistants, but still nice. About the age of his sons, Phil thought, and he watched as she took the seat on the stage, laughing along with everyone. This wouldn’t do. She was not going to be humiliated. Not like he had been. This wouldn’t be the bloodletting he’d come for.

“I’m going,” he whispered to Ellen.

“What?” She clamped a hand on his forearm.

“I’m going.”

“Don’t leave me with them.”

“So come with me.”

“But then they’ll think something’s wrong. What’s wrong?”

“I’m sick of this,” his voice became a touch louder then. He couldn’t help it.

“You’re sick of this?” she hissed. “I’m sick of this, just —”

Phil stood up, annoyed, and as he did, and as everyone in the seats nearby turned to look at this disturbance, the magician was counting down with the pretty girl onstage in the chair.

“…nine, 10, become a hen!”

Bock!” the noise jumped out of Phil’s mouth. People around them shifted and giggled, some confused, and Phil looked down to Ellen, panic and fury in his eyes. He was half-under, he could feel it. Ellen stood up with him, and took his arm, rushing him to the end of their row and towards the exit. The audience were split in their attention, laughter peeling out behind them, when the famous Mr Gross must have spotted them running and understood what was happening.

His voice boomed out, “What joy! Sir, have you returned to roost?” The audience truly erupted then, cackling. “Lay me an egg!” the magician said, and Phil’s brain scrambled itself. He went to turn back to the lights of the stage, but Ellen slammed her body against the doors to the foyer and yanked him through. She still had Phil by the arm as she stormed out, and as soon as they were a few metres clear she turned around and pushed him down into one of the plush chairs nearby. He tried to focus on her face.

“Sit down, now, here; I’ll get us a drink.”

She had just left for the bar when Phil heard the doors to the theatre open and close again behind him, more laughter filtering out into the quiet space.

“Phillip!” Karen’s shriek turned his stomach. She was laughing too hard, putting it on, and there was John’s stupid guffaw behind hers. The pair of them came up and stood in front of him, basking. They spoke to each other about him, there in front of him, rapidly, as though they were really making each other laugh. Phil looked up at the two of them and saw the little pinch-marks behind Karen’s earlobes that Ellen was always referring to as “proof”.

“Shut up,” Phil said.

“What?” John stopped laughing and straightened himself.

Phil stood up, pushing his chair back.

Ellen came back around the corner with what looked like two vodkas in hand. “What’s going on?”

“Your angry little husband can’t take a joke,” Karen said, smirking, putting her hands on her hips.

“Oh, fuck off, Karen,” Ellen said, exhaling loudly.


Phil watched Ellen’s gaze flick from Karen’s face to her neck. “You heard me,” she said. “Take your hunchback of a husband and fuck right off.”

“How dare —” John was arcing up but Karen cut him off.

“You are such a pathetic person, Ellen, do you know that?”

“Oh, am I? Am —”

“What kind of loser cannot be happy for a friend?” Karen’s own hand was at her neck now, her voice very loud, as she fingered her chunky diamond pendant.

“That bling gets bigger with every wife, hey John?” Phil said, loudly and patronisingly, as though John was hard of hearing.

Then John used one hand to shove Phil in the shoulder.

“Hey!” Ellen yelled, and Phil raised both arms and shoved John, hard, causing him to stumble. Karen yelled then too, swearing at Ellen, and Ellen threw one of the drinks in Karen’s face, and then Karen started screaming and slapped Ellen across the face. Someone in a polo shirt ran over but just hovered, not knowing which fight to break up. The men’s shoving had become a kind of grabbing at jackets. Ellen threw the second drink into John’s face, which made him break away and start coughing, then he lost his balance and fell down to his knees, and from above Ellen saw it – the smudges of brown hair dye behind his ears.

“Phil!” she screamed at her husband, victorious, manic. “The hair dye was for him!”

John was clutching his chest now, Karen’s cries going from fury to fear. The polo shirt ran towards them and crouched down beside John, loosening the old man’s bow tie as he continued to cough. The vodka had done a number on Karen’s face and she struggled to make herself useful, kneeling beside them awkwardly with her high heels uneven on the thick carpeting.

Ellen stood there, pointing at the two of them. “You bought it for him!” She laughed, with her feet planted firmly, and Phil saw her laughing this way, mad like Boadicea, and he joined in too, finally feeling the shift he’d been hoping for all night. Finally finishing on top.

This is the final part of a three-part story.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2020 as "Winner winner (Part three)".

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Bri Lee is a legal academic and the author of Who Gets to Be Smart.

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