Fiction

The magnificent Amberson

The toilet was not what I had expected. Still less the porn.

The pedestal in the bathroom of our executive suite at the Roumei Beauty Hotel looked like something built for astronauts, or a movie prop, or a tangent that design had taken in the near future. It had a console with covered buttons and symbols that suggested heat and jets of water and perhaps vibration. It appeared to have a function that might keep it steady in an earthquake. Useful, up to a point – but the writing was all in Chinese.

There was a single deep-red rose petal in the pristine bowl. I got the camera and took a photograph of that.

Gillian was on the bed in our room, watching Jon Stewart on the widescreen TV on the opposite wall. She saw me pick up the camera and take it into the bathroom.

'Do I want to see what you're taking a photo of?' she said. 'It's okay for some things to stay private.'

'Twice around the bowl and pointy at both ends,' I told her as I centred the petal in the shot. It looked like a daub of blood against the dazzling white of the bowl.

'You know I don't think that's funny,' she said. 'You know only Tom thinks that's funny, and that's only because he's nine.'

I set the camera on the green glass bench top next to the basin and shut the door. I sat down on the toilet and the seat fired up to greet me, supporting my thighs like a feverish hand. I had never been on a heated toilet seat before, and it felt as if someone else had crept into the room and my business was no longer my own.

There was a spa in front of me, and a small TV recessed into the wall beyond it. I could hear the fuzzy sounds of The Daily Show through the closed door, and Gillian laughing.

The TV remote sat on the edge of the spa. I pressed the power button. Channel four came on, just a small green number in the corner of the black screen at first, and then eye-popping girl-on-girl porn. The girl on the receiving end was moaning pretty hard. I fumbled the remote, and it clattered into the spa.

'Are you all right in there?' I had been heard above The Daily Show. The moaning, the clattering.

'Yeah.' I bent forward and reached for the remote, but it had slid all the way to the outlet. I could reach it when I got on my knees. 'But not the kind of all right I'd expected.' I hit the off button. 'I think I now know why we don't get channel four in the room.'

'Oh, really?' The studio audience laughed. Jon Stewart was monologuing, saying something wry about Obama and Biden and an order for hamburgers. 'So there's toilet porn?'

'Could be spa porn. But yeah, it does happen to be directly in front of the toilet.'

'The Daily Show's channel five.'

I left the TV off. There were about a hundred channels and I had missed by one. When we first got to the room, Gillian had flicked through them in her usual high-speed way. Half of them were home shopping, featuring trinkety chains and bracelets that may or may not have healing powers, and presenters with the fashion sense of Imelda Marcos. The other half were game shows in the style that I had thought was Japanese, with primary-colour sets, degrading contests and raucous punishing laughter. We had passed through a few movies too, and CNN, and the local version of Idol. I wondered if we had any chance of selling wine here, if it had been the right choice to come.

'We're keeping these pencils,' Gillian said when I walked out of the bathroom. She was holding two yellow plastic pencils in her hand. 'Have you seen them? We're definitely keeping them. Do you think if I take these two they'll give us more in the morning?'

We had arrived at twilight and Taipei had been covered in cloud. By the time we left the terminal building at the airport it was dark. I felt I hadn't seen Taipei yet. We were still in a holding pattern, eight floors above the city, circling with leftover plane motion, a giant hundred-channel TV, and free bottled water and yellow plastic pencils.

On the TV, Obama was indeed ordering a burger. It was a hundred days into his presidency, or close to it, and we were all in awe of him. Even his burger ordering seemed majestic, despite the crush of the media pack or perhaps because of it. It was a fast-food order made oratory. He was the first president my own age. He could order a burger, just like us.

'I like the Roumei,' Gillian said. 'I like it already.' She was sitting on the bed with three pillows behind her, her legs crossed at the ankles and a novel splayed open on the bedspread.

She threw a pencil my way. It had six leads in the chamber, fitted tip to tail, and a curly B for Beauty stamped on the outside, next to the reservations number and web address.

 

'I'M LOVING THIS,' she said at breakfast, analysing her life in the present tense, as usual. 'Who'd go for the western buffet? I mean, really.'

The Roumei's breakfast room was in the basement, with walls clad in strips of rough stone and several TVs set well above head height, all showing the same game of baseball. The western buffet had a toaster and some unconvincing bread that was bright white and fluffy and had a crust that seemed to glisten. There were tiny yoghurts, mini pastries and a bowl of green apples.

It was the rest of the serving area that had Gillian's attention. There was a bank of bains-marie with omelettes and fish and noodle dishes, and all conceivable trimmings: sliced lotus root, candied chilli, little twisty chewy sweet things, pickles. There were fritters, a pot of congee and steamer baskets full of buns. Gillian was loving all of it but the congee.

'Do you think it'll always be like this?' she said. 'Everywhere we go?'

'I don't know. I haven't been there yet.' We had a short tour of the island booked, following our meetings.

'Play the game,' she said. She had a piece of something in her chopsticks. It was battered and mysterious. 'Humour me.' She was a great anticipator of experiences, and I had forgotten how to be good about it.

'It'll be just like this. Maybe better. This is only the start. After this it gets regional.' I tried to remember our itinerary. I hadn't heard of any of the places on it before we booked. 'Buffet after buffet and always something different. Occasional pieces of animal we'll run scared from, but more amazing options than we could ever eat.'

'What do you think'll be the best thing on the tour?'

'The quiet.'

'You're such a dick,' she said, pointing her battered thing at me in lieu of hand-talking.

'I meant sharing it. Sharing the quiet. With you. No cellar door buses, no jobs needing to be done, no negotiations with people we owe money to.'

She pretended to think about it. 'I suppose you think you've saved it.'

'To the extent that it needed saving.'

She laughed. She ate the battered thing. We had been together fifteen years, and the trip was a kind of celebration. We'd had the winery for five years, and it was creeping slowly towards profitability, in a low-key way. But we were making good wine, finally making wine of the kind that I had always wanted to put my name to. It was my dream, not hers, the winery.

She looked at her watch. 'I wonder how they're going?'

'Tom will have tried fifteen ways to get out of school, all of which, I hope, will have failed. It's your mother he's pitching them to, so they'll definitely have failed. Chloe will have shed hairclips in the car and will now be doing her best to violate the no-hat-no-play rule. It must be about lunchtime.'

We were the last guests at breakfast, and two time zones west of Stanthorpe. There was one remaining staff member near the entrance, waiting with the patience of a terracotta warrior for us to leave. He was standing with hands clasped, looking straight ahead at the western buffet and at nothing. 'There's half a day gone already back there, at home.'

'You're about to say that's half a day's worth of emails you haven't read yet.'

'I should probably take a look.' Half a day's worth of emails – I had been going to put it exactly that way. 'At least the phone hasn't been ringing.'

'Maybe they're coping without you.'

'Maybe the international roaming's not working.'

A batter slugged the ball into right field and made it to second base. The coverage cut to a crowd shot, people cheering, but the TVs were all muted. In the kitchen, behind swinging doors, something clanged into a metal sink. Gillian finished her orange juice.

They were coping without me. It was a Thursday in May, a weekday between seasons and after vintage. There were not many tours booked and most tours were no good for us anyway. Too many of the under-stimulated elderly with palates like shoe leather and a preference for sweet artless wine I didn't want to make. Just about every winery I knew was kept afloat by a cheap line of reds and whites called Serenade or Fiesta or Passionata, sold by the single bottle to people who didn't like wine but who wanted a day out in a bus and a change of scenery.

'Put the brakes on the fermentation and look away when you throw the sugar in,' our winemaker, Terry, said to me when we consigned an early vat of merlot to the day-trippers. It had been our first vintage and I was marking it hard before it even had a chance. The shiraz would be okay, the merlot would not and the rest were in between. 'Tell them it's perfect for summer barbecues. Tell them they can even chill it.'

We shifted it all, at fifteen dollars a bottle. Twelve if you bought a dozen. No one bought a dozen, not that I ever saw. I wanted to call it Sucrosia but Gillian wouldn't let me. We called it Arpeggio. I looked away for that, too.

There were still omelette remnants on Gillian's plate, and a few uncoiled noodles, but she put her chopsticks down.

'Well, Mr Indispensable,' she said, 'what are you waiting for? Go and check your email and save the planet, and I'll talk to the front desk about how to get to the Trade office.'

She was already standing, folding her napkin and setting it on the table. She led the way out, xie-xieing the waiting staff member and giving him something between a nod and a small bow.

'I loved that breakfast,' she said on the stairs. 'I think the lotus root was my favourite new thing.'

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