Madeline applies mascara and blinks. Leaning in to the mirror, her expressionless face upturned slightly, she checks her eyes for symmetry. Next to her a woman sits with her face close to the mirror, examining a zit at the corner of her mouth; she pouts at her reflection, sighs, then turns to the woman next to her and says something Madeline can’t quite hear.
The room has a clinical aspect, with white walls, lit by fluorescent tubes — hard, medical light. A bench runs along one wall at about desk height. Above that a single strip of mirror runs the length of the bench at head height, when sitting. There are perhaps a dozen women applying makeup, brushing their hair or painting their nails. Other women are changing out of elegant evening dresses into jeans and t-shirts.
Madeline’s evening dress is dark liquid blue with an embroidered gold dragon twisting from her calves, round her slight torso, to the shallow rise of her breast. She hitches the dress up an inch and slips on her shoes, kicks her foot up behind her, turns and looks at the frayed hem; it’s getting worse; she frowns; it will be ok, no-one will notice, in the half-light. Madeline smooths down the front of her dress and picks up her bag.
Two younger women enter the room giggling and talking loudly. They each take a bottle of water from the fridge. One of the women seated at the mirror turns sharply and tells them to calm down and reminds them that if Mommy were here there would be trouble. The two younger women don’t acknowledge her, but never the less bring their talk to a whisper. They begin to change out of their evening dresses into jeans and comfortable shoes.
Madeline puts a pack of cigarettes and a disposable lighter into her bag. She sprays her neck and wrists from a small perfume bottle, puts it in the bag too, spits her gum into a tissue. She walks over to the ceiling-to-floor windows, looks through her ghostly reflection at the apartment buildings and plazas of Xitun District as they rise into the night; their lights softened by the wet heat, like a city on the seabed, a sprawling underworld, unreal in the murky depths. The traffic, seventeen stories below, moves with silent fluidity. Cars and buses seem to float along, scooters and mopeds move in shoals.
A yellow taxi , van-style, has stopped at a red light. Inside are five men, two local, three not. The two local men and two of the others are talking and laughing. Marco doesn’t join in. He looks out of the window, through the rain, at a neon sign he cannot decipher, its light bleeding into the night. People dodge from doorway to doorway to alleyway trying to keep dry. Marco watches them walking, hurrying with big umbrellas, bare feet in flip flops. Some store keepers have boarded their shop fronts, the shopping arcades are closed. The uncanny city tightens itself against a rising storm.
The others in the taxi are talking, their stilted conversation punctuated by nervous laughter, hand gestures are more use than words. The two local men, one fat, the other older, are saying that it’s too early to go back to the hotel. Neither Marco nor his two colleagues understand. The taxi begins to move away from the traffic lights. The fat man says something to the driver and the taxi swings round and heads away from the hotel.
There’s a hush as Mommy enters the room. She is talking, hard faced, into a headset mouthpiece, an unlit cigarette wagging in the corner of her wide thin mouth. She gestures five women towards her; Madeline is one of them. Mommy pushes the mouthpiece away from her cheek and lights the cigarette. She orders the five to stand in line, looks each one up and down in turn. The first woman has over done her perfume; Mommy tells her to wash her wrists and neck. The second woman is told to change her ear rings; they’re too big, look cheap. Mommy stops in front of the third woman and tells her to lift up her dress; she snorts and wags a boney finger at pubic hair creeping from woman’s skimpy knickers, tells her to go and see Little Pang for a haircut. Mommy looks at the fourth woman, her eyes accusing. She tells her she is getting fat and she must lose weight — how can a fat girl make any money? Finally Mommy stops in front of Madeline. She takes her hands and steps back as though to see her better; she smiles in mock exasperation, tells Madeline she has over done the mascara. Mommy stays holding Madeline’s hands, and her face begins to soften, her gaze lingers at Madeline’s chest, at the curve of her hip, thick cigarette smoke curling up from her lizard’s mouth, inhaled back though her wide black nostrils.
The radio squawks. Twisting the cigarette into an ashtray, Mommy points to a replacement for number three, snaps her fingers, and beckons the five women to follow her.
The lobby is like one those hyperreal Chinese hotels: gaudy plaster figurines of dragons, lions and semi-nude geishas line the edge of a wide, soft-lit pond; three giant koi float motionless in the water, drifting, while smaller fish twitch and dart; glass chandeliers hang from the high ceiling, crystalline, like inverted tiered cakes of crushed ice; and there’s gold everywhere: the lift doors, the reception counter tops, the frames holding giant panes of smoky glass that run the building’s exterior height and breadth. A woman sits in the centre of the lobby behind a desk that is raised a metre or so above the fake marble floor; her makeup is doll-perfect. She’s dressed in a dark purple trouser-suit; her headset mouth-piece just visible from beneath her jaw-line bob. She watches taxis pull slowly up to the canopied entrance where doormen stand poised wearing mock military uniforms, decorated with over-sized epaulettes and thick gold braid. They are conspicuously tall, imposing even, a servile demeanour adding to their gentle menace. Marco and the others step out of the taxi into the stifling heat; a faint smell of the tide gone out hangs in the gelatinous air. Tall glass doors are held open and the two local men lead the way, closely followed by Marco’s colleagues. Marco lags behind.
Madeline waits in a dim corridor with the other four women. She gazes up idly at an air-conditioning vent on the opposite wall. Cool air agitates a piece of yellow ribbon tied to the grill. Behind the vent lie hundreds of metres of ophidian darkness, punctuated by light from grills elsewhere in the building: the lobby, the kitchens, a store room in which a group of men are playing cards around a table made from a beer barrel. A gangly man in a black t-shirt sits slouched, his uniform jacket hanging on the back of his chair. Another man, fat, in a dirty red vest, wearing shorts and flip flops, sits with his elbows on the table, cigar stub in his knuckles. He argues with the man in a grubby white apron sitting opposite. Voices lost in the ducting swirl and shimmer; metallic and ghostly, they float along in the cool darkness; reverberating, they fade in and out: fragments of laughter, argument and negotiation.
Madeline fidgets and glances down the red-draped corridor, which is lit by paper lanterns. And from nowhere in particular UV light covers everything with a weird phosphorescence. Two waiters emerge from room 1702 and behind them Mommy appears. She beckons the five women in while talking on her headset. Madeline is last to enter the room. Mommy grabs her arm and pulls the mouthpiece away from her face. She whispers to Madeline and smiles; Madeline, without making eye contact, nods once and continues past her into the room.
The other four women sit by four of the five men on a large horse shoe shaped sofa. On the low table in front of them are bottles of beer and whisky, and a selection of sliced fruit on a platter. Also on the table is a microphone with its long lead coiled. There’s a large TV screen mounted on the wall in front of the sofa. It’s running adverts in a loop with the sound off. Madeline sits by the last man; he smiles uncomfortably, glances sideways. Madeline doesn’t smile back. She asks him if he’s American. He says no and tells her that he is from Birmingham in the UK and that he is actually Scottish, with Italian roots. Madeline nods attentively, although she only understands ‘Scottish’ and ‘Italian’. She asks the man his name. He tells her, Marco, and he asks her name. He asks her why she chose ‘Madeline’. She doesn’t understand.
The fat local man picks up the microphone and, using a remote control, selects a number from a thick leather-bound menu. The number appears on the TV screen. The song begins, Mac the Knife. Two of the other women clap along out of time as the fat man sings off key. Marco and Madeline struggle to hear each other, to understand each other. But enough gets through. Marco tells Madeline about his wife, how she is the love of his life and how they have been together for nine years and how they have a young son and how sometime he can’t stand being in the same room with her. Marco pauses, swigs his beer and glances around the room. Madeline watches his face. Marco turns back to Madeline and smiles awkwardly. She begins to tell him about her son who is eight and is looked after by her mother when she is working. She tells Marco that her son’s father is not around, how he left them when her son was young, and how she works hard so she doesn’t need his money. Marco can barely hear Madeline. He leans in towards her to hear better — one of Marco’s colleagues is murdering Living on a Prayer. Marco turns his ear towards Madeline. As he does, he unconsciously looks down. The split in her dress reveals her thigh. He can smell her breath: cigarettes and juicy fruit, and something he can’t place. Marco breathes deeply through his nose, closes his eyes, and loses himself for a moment in her breath and the rhythm and strange cadence of her broken English.
Mommy removes the headset and wireless pack and places them on the desk. She takes off her t-shirt, kicks off her Schols and un-belts her jeans. She stands at the window of the shadowy office in her underwear; a corner lamp the only source of light. She lights a cigarette and looks out into the night. Rain blows hard against the glass. She leans a bare shoulder against the cold pane, all that separates her from the storm.
The office is simply furnished: a desk, high-back chair, small swivel chair, battered filing cabernet, six lockers and a safe. From one of the lockers she takes some clothes, wriggles into flared indigo jeans, buttons up a black fitted shirt and slips on a pair of square-toe heels. She stuffs her work clothes into a bag, puts it in the locker, and phones downstairs for a taxi. She lights another cigarette. Perched on the edge of the desk she scribbles a note for tomorrow’s shift supervisor, for tomorrow’s Mommy. She rummages through her handbag for her phone, checks her email: no new messages. The phone on the desk rings: taxi for Mei-ling.
The taxi eases down the ramp and under the building. It pulls up in front of a service lift. Tatty concertina doors are heaved open by a fat man, a spent cigar in his mouth, wearing shorts, vest and flip-flops. Mei-ling steps out of the lift into the murky light of the underground car park. The stink of kitchen waste and exhaust fumes hang in the stifling air. The taxi’s sliding door opens automatically. Mei-ling gets in and asks to be taken to the Red Velvet Bar. She sits back, rummaging through her bag, as the taxi bumps up the ramp and into the hot wet night.
The city is becoming a series of dead ends; drains overflow, water is forced up, loosening utility covers, turning some streets into stinking rivers. Mei-ling looks into a compact mirror, dabs a small puff over her nose and cheek bones. The taxi driver stops. A policeman in a gore-tex cape gestures with a torch to go left. The driver tells Mei-ling that it will cost more to get to the bar; many of the streets are closed off; the city has become a maze. Mei-ling tells him ok, and to please turn up the air conditioning.
One of Marco’s colleagues is doing a fair job of singing How Soon is Now? The heavy tremolo guitar makes Marco feel queasy. Madeline is talking to him, but he can barely hear her. Opposite, the woman sitting next to Marco’s other colleague is showing him how to play a game with dice and a china bowl; the loser has to finish their drink, to the much delighted roar of: kanpai! by the two local men. Marco notices that the woman never loses. The two local men sit in front of the couple, leaning in, cheering as each large whisky goes down: Kanpai! Marco sees this in slow-motion; his head thumps in time with Johnny Marr’s oscillating guitar; the juxtaposition of a Smiths song playing in a Taiwanese KTV makes him smile. Madeline asks, her face serious: What’s so funny?
Mei-ling pays the taxi driver and looks expectantly out into the rain. A girl dressed as a bellhop — blue-grey buttoned suit trimmed red, her chin-strapped pillbox hat at an angle — emerges from a doorway with a golf umbrella and holds it over Mei-ling as she steps from the taxi. Mei-ling’s toes and the hem of her jeans are drenched by dirty rainwater cascading down the pavement.
The Red Velvet is fitted out in the style of a Victorian pub. Brass chandeliers hang on chains, their spheroid glass shades emitting soft creamy light. A heavy oak bar curves around the saloon. The stained glass panels of its snob-screen are twisted open. The barmaids work nonchalantly, wearing long tan leather aprons and Dr Marten boots, hair cropped, their naked buttocks exposed.
Mei-ling stands at the bar, orders a double Black Label. She finds a seat in an alcove, sips her drink and lights a cigarette. She looks out at the gusting rain. Thunder rumbles low and distant. Debris blows around the street and up into the air. A ‘Give Way’ sign, parted from its position by a violent gust, skims against the bar window and is lifted into the night. It flaps and twists through rain, up between the tall buildings. It flies high over Taichung City, spinning and falling like a shot bird, before rising again on an updraft. The broken sign flies and flounders, like a moth in the darkness. And then it begins to fall, through the storm, gaining speed towards a light, a light in a window, a large smoked-glass window on the seventeenth floor. It thumps into the glass and then falls spinning to the ground.
Everyone in the room turns to the window, startled. There’s a moment of charged silence. The two local men continue talking. Marco asks Madeline what they are saying: it’s best to go now because the typhoon is coming. Hearing this, Marco excuses himself to piss. When he returns the main lights are on and Madeline and the other women have gone. Marco and his two colleagues look at each other across the room; the fat local man has gone out of the room too. The old local man sits smiling and nodding at them, his expression hazy and gormless. After a few moments the fat local man comes back into the room and talks to Marco’s colleagues. Marco can’t make out what they’re saying. He turns in a effort to hear but he cannot. As he turns back to his beer, he finds Madeline is sitting next to him in jeans, t-shirt and flat shoes. Her hair is tied back. She sits there in silence, her shoulder bag on her lap. There is some confusion with the local men and Marco’s colleagues as two of the other women come back into the room also dressed casually. The older local man gestures that it is time to leave. In the lift Marco and one of his colleagues exchange a what-the-fuck glance. The lift doors open and Madeline takes Marco’s hand. The uniformed doorman beckons them through the tall glass doors, out into the heat and the storm, to a waiting taxi.
Mei-ling takes her compact and a lipstick from her bag, applies pale pink to her broad thin mouth and puckers: the lines, the creeping sag. A facelift maybe, is that the answer? Or is it too late? Would it be an uneconomical repair? Mei-ling grimaces at herself and snaps the compact shut. A barmaid brings her another whiskey. She checks her watch again as she sips — 2:45am, that’s 45 minutes late. Mei-ling frowns and lights a cigarette.
The rain is getting worse. Mei-ling watches the bellhop through the window escort a couple to a waiting taxi, holding an umbrella tightly with both hands. The couple get in and the bellhop waits expectantly for a tip, but the taxi pulls away. The bellhop splashes back towards the bar door when a sudden gust takes the umbrella, flips it inside out, and sends it bouncing down the street at speed. The bellhop stands there, paralysed by indecision; should she try to retrieve the umbrella or leave it to the wind and the rain? The bell-hop stands there, water dripping off her hat, on to her shoulder, rainwater filling her spit-polished brogues.
At the hotel the night porter watches Marco and Madeline get out of a taxi. The muggy heat follows Madeline and Marco into the silent, fridge-cold lobby of the Hotel Dion, a narrow, tall building on the Port Road. It has the look of a mid-priced residential apartment building. The lit red sign running the building’s full height gives it, to Marco’s eye, a motel feel. Although, he has to admit, the rooms aren’t too bad and the service has been good.
The lift is slow. Pseudo-traditional Chinese muzak leaks from a small speaker behind a ceiling panel. Marco and Madeline look straight ahead, at their fragmented reflections in the lattice-mirror doors. Still jetlagged, Marco is lightheaded and clammy. He shoves his hands into his pockets and looks up at the ceiling panels. He thinks about his wife and son; about his three-bedroom semi in a decent part of town and how the cost of it nearly broke him. He thinks about the office where he works, his desk, the library hush of the place, the promotion that always seems to be just out of reach.
The lift doors open. The tinny music follows Marco and Madeline down the corridor. It all seems surreal. How did this happen? How did being taken out for dinner after work turn into this? He thinks back through the events of the evening and back through the long working day. He had made some worrying discoveries during the audit. It had at one point become confrontational and Marco had had to use all of his diplomatic skills to defuse the situation, which he felt he hadn’t done particularly well. Marco was sure that he sensed an undercurrent of bad feeling. Is this part of that? Is Madeline working for them? He makes a mental list: Don’t let your drink out of your site, don’t leave her alone in the room. And oh yeah, don’t fuck her.
The bar is empty; just Mei-ling and the haughty barmaids. She looks at her watch: 3:35am. She takes out her phone and places it on the table, looks at it hard-faced. Why so late? Something must be wrong. No, nothing is wrong; maybe the storm, no no taxis? Mei-ling stares at the phone. Mei-ling sneers and necks her drink. She raises the empty glass towards the bar without looking over. After a moment a barmaid brings her drink and as she places it down on the table the lights go up and Mei-ling is informed that the bar is about to close, news just in, the storm has been up rated to Typhoon.
The barmaids have changed out of their aprons and boots and are milling around the door waiting for the Red Velvet minibus to take them home. They glance over occasionally at Mei-ling, whispering to each other. Mei-ling finishes her drink and dials with her thumb. It’s ringing. It rings out for a moment before going to voicemail. She hangs up, exhales hard, and quickly brushes a tear from her cheek. The bar manager tells Mei-ling that she has called a taxi for her, but it might take some time to arrive, if at all, but before she can offer Mei-ling a lift in the minibus, Mei-ling smiles contemptible and shoves past the manager and staggers past the barmaids, out into the storm.
Marco and Madeline sit on a small sofa in his hotel room. She is explaining to him that she works not only to support her son but to be independent. She gropes around for the word ‘independence’. Frustrated she tries to explain to Marco that her last boyfriend, and the father of her son, were good-for-nothing and were, like most men, selfish and controlling. Marco takes out his phone and sets the translation feature, English to Chinese. He holds the phone up for Madeline to see: ‘独立’. Her face expressionless, she tells Marco that is exactly what she means, that her independence is the most precious thing. There is a moment of silence as they look at each other. She smiles and giggles. This is the first time Marco has seen Madeline smile.
They talk for a while, Marco not quite sure what he’s expected to do. Madeline is not used to making the first move. Their phones make communication easier. They type words that they don’t know into each other’s translation app and they talk with ease for more than an hour. Marco tells Madeline about his job and why he has come to Taichung. He tells her that in his heart he is a musician but has to support his wife and young son so he does what is necessary, whatever it takes to give them what they need. Madeline repeats: Whatever it takes, and asks what this means. Marco explains that it means sometimes you have to do things you don’t like or don’t want to do, for the greater good, especially for the good of those dear to you. Madeline nods, says she understands: Sometimes it is smart to let people with power take what they want from you to gain their favour, for an easier life, for a better life, for family. Marco listens and reads Madeline’s phone. He thinks she has misunderstood. She sees he doesn’t quite get what she is saying. Madeline looks around the room and tells Marco that: All of this – she points to herself and him – that this, hotel culture, is ‘whatever it takes’. She pauses, brings her mouth to his ear and whispers to Marco: Whatever it takes. Madeline smiles for a second time.
More comfortable now in Marco’s company, Madeline asks him what he would like to do. Still not quite sure what the deal is, Marco tells her he needs to take a shower and leaves her on the sofa. Madeline goes to the window and watches the Typhoon sweep rain down the deserted street below; trees are stripped, debris is flung against the window, the storm rages. Madeline pulls the curtains closed.
Marco, towel around his waist, sits on the edge of the bed and lights a cigarette as Madeline closes the bathroom door behind her. Marco’s fear of being setup has passed; he has sobered up a little. He thinks again of home, and its every predicable second. He stubs his cigarette into the ashtray on the bedside table and lies back on the cool white sheets.
Madeline appears from the bathroom. She walks towards the bed, lets her towel drop. She lies with Marco. He holds her tight, breathing in deeply through his nose. She can feel him hard against her belly. She asks him: Lights off? Marco shakes his head. Madeline smiles for a third time. She reaches down and begins working mechanically with one hand, her tongue like clockwork in his mouth. Marco grabs her wrist and moves her hand; he backs away from her kiss. Madeline is taken aback, confused, she thinks that Marco is not pleased with her. She sits up. Marco smiles and begins to gently kiss her puzzled face, then her neck. He moves slowly down her chest, down to her belly button, and from her belly button, with his tongue, to her pubis. Madeline, still sitting up, isn’t sure what to do. This has never happened to her before. She sits with her hands hovering above Marco’s head looking down in disbelief, her brow knitted, her breath short. Marco gently pushes his index and middle fingers up into her and she draws in a sudden audible breath, arches her back, screws up her eyes and begins to mutter what sounds to Marco like some kind of incantation. She pushes down hard onto his hand, and then with a shudder she exhales, her body becoming limp, her heart pounding.
Marco moves up from between Madeline’s knees and kisses her again gently on the lips. Kneeling in front of her he sees confusion in her face. He smiles, suddenly unsure of himself. Madeline’s breath is quick and shallow. She puts her arms around Marco and rests her head on his chest, runs her fingers up the back of his neck and through his hair. She lifts herself up awkwardly, reaches down and sits slowly on Marco. She begins to move her hips in a tight orbit, her eyes not leaving his. This man, this strange man from a strange county, this Marco, he must want me so bad. This is not fucking, this is something else; this is like Zuowang; this is like… Madeline stops breathing and pushes her pubis hard against his; a tremor moves through her; the pulse at her core spreading.
Mei-ling takes off her shoes and walks barefoot, barely able to see her way. The wind whips rain into her expressionless face and chest as she fights to stay on her feet. Lightening cracks the sky. She staggers into a covered alleyway, drops her shoes, and takes her cigarettes from her shirt pocket; they are soaked through; she discards them with a hiss of indignation. The rain hammering the corrugated plastic sheets covering the ally drowns out the thunder. Mei-ling looks at her phone. She wipes her nose with the back of her hand and dials. It’s ringing. Lightening illuminates the alleyway for a split second; a flash frame of bins, tarp-covered machinery and a dog sleeping safe from the storm. Mei-ling leans against the brickwork looking blankly at the deserted street. Voicemail again; there’s a flutter in her belly. Am I the last person in on Earth? Is it just me and the mutt? She turns to look but can’t see the dog through the darkness. Another flash of lightening. The dog has gone. The flutter in her belly becomes an ache. How could you be such a fool? She sniffs and wipes her face with the back of her hand, swipes the screen. She holds the phone over the back of her hand. In the wan light she stares at her leathery skin, wrinkled and puckered; the creeping veins; her mantis fingers. As Mei-ling dials again the street lights flicker and go out. Blackness. The ringtone pulses hot at her ear before going to voicemail. Mei-ling shuts her eyes and sobs. She drops slowly onto her haunches, her hands limp over her sodden knees, her head bowed. The phone falls to the ground. She covers her ears to the roar of the terminal rain.
Marco lies sleeping in the sticky darkness; the kind of sleep where dreams are lucid. He breathes slowly and deeply; he breathes in the sea: its salty tang, its dirty foam, its clam-shell breath. Madeline squints in the darkness, barely able to make out Marco’s face. She moves closer, puts her lips to his ear and whispers: Whatever it takes, Mr. Marco. She sighs and sinks into the pillows, lightly slaps her buttock. A mosquito spirals up from Madeline’s rump, full of hot blood. It flounders at its zenith and, in the darkness, begins to fall. It tail spins towards a faint light across the room. The mosquito settles on the lip of one of the glasses on the coffee table. The light dies away. A moment later the light appears again, illuminating the mosquito as it drops from the edge of the glass into the liquid. It flails, its movement only just breaking the surface tension. The light fades again. A moment later the glow returns. The mosquito floats, drowned in the dregs. The source of the light, Madeline’s phone, buzzes on the table near the glass. The phone’s display fades again, leaving Madeline and Marco asleep in the darkness, safe in the cradle of dilated time.
Originally published as ‘Hotel Culture’ in: Meanjin 4, 2014.
The people and events portrayed in this story are fictitious. Any resemblance to existing people or actual events is coincidental.
All rights reserved © MB Cahill, 2015.