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Image: Charles Demuth 'Hotel' (1921, detail)

Image: Charles Demuth, ‘Hotel’ (detail), 1921

‘Is this what it looked like on the website?’

Elsa removed the bedspread and tossed it into the corner of the room.

‘You should’ve seen their reviews,’ Daniel said. ‘Five stars: they blitzed the other small budget hotels in the neighbourhood.’

‘Did the reviews mention a nightclub below us? Why is the floor vibrating?’

Daniel shrugged and continued to hang his pressed shirts in the wardrobe, stacking his pants, boxers and socks in the top drawer. He always took the top drawer but wasn’t that much taller than her – maybe seven centimetres?

Elsa decided not to bother unpacking her suitcase. She sniffed the pillow. Something that looked like dried blood was congealed on the side of the lampshade, but the sheets (definitely a polycotton blend) seemed clean.

‘If we get bedbugs, I’m going to be one very unhappy camper.’

‘We’re not going to get bedbugs. Now come on. Have a shower, get changed, and let’s grab something to eat. I’m starving.’

The shower cubicle was tiny, and the curtain looked as though it would be slimy to the touch. Elsa spent her entire shower ensuring that the quivering sheet of plastic did not cling to her skin. The water temperature went from scalding to freezing at the barest nudge of a knob.

The towel she dried with was threadbare and barely reached all the way around when she wrapped herself in it. Perhaps it was a hand towel, she thought, but then she found one, and it was even smaller. The toilet had one of those warped plastic seats so that when you actually sit on it the entire contraption shifts and your arse touches the gruesome chill of the toilet bowl rim. By the time she had finished, Elsa felt dirtier than before.

This was meant to be an extra night to give them time away together before her cousin’s wedding tomorrow. Her mother had taken their daughters, four and six, that morning with soothing words but a look of veiled panic in her eyes.

‘Enjoy your time away together. Have a nice dinner tonight. Don’t worry about us. We’ll be completely fine.’

Elsa and Daniel had kissed the girls quickly and left before their daughters had a chance to cling. They kept their voices falsely bright as they rolled down the car windows, calling goodbyes, watching the small figures standing beside the stooped one on the veranda, waving.

‘Think she’ll handle them?’

‘Better than we do, probably. She’s tougher than she looks.’

Daniel nodded.

‘Well then,’ Elsa said, patting him on the leg. ‘We’re free!’

And in the silence that followed, neither knew what to say to quell the sadness of the empty backseat.

★★

Daniel was lounging on the sheets in his boxers, flicking through television channels, muttering to himself. He’d sworn the place had Foxtel – there was something mentioned on the review site – but there appeared to be six channels of dubious quality on his screen. There was an ample amount of porn on the Pay per View channel, but all of it looked ‘90s vintage. Girls in high-cut bikini bottoms with blue eyeliner, glossy bubble-gum lips and spiral perms.

Daniel had become slightly addicted to consumer reviews. He couldn’t visit a restaurant, drop his shirts at a dry-cleaners or order a new part for his lawnmower online without reading the customer reviews. It fascinated him that people were actually wasting their time writing sentences, hell paragraphs, about their experience ordering a new Victa 2L two stroke kit from Bunnings Warehouse. But then there he was hunched over his laptop reading their blow-by-blow account. Not just reading it, enjoying it. Intentionally seeking it out.

Elsa came out of the bathroom flossing her teeth and he could hear the little click and squeak of the floss as it moved through her teeth and rubbed against her gums. It made his skin crawl. She looked tired, the tiny lines beside her eyes highlighted by the glare of the fluorescent overhead light, which tinged her skin a faint green.

‘Go and look in the bathroom,’ she said, grasping the floss between her thumbs and forefingers. ‘Look in the rubbish bin.’

Daniel groaned as he stood and shuffled in. He’d have a shower: airplanes always made him feel dirty, sitting in everyone’s stale breath and unventilated farts. He’d have to get a few drinks into Elsa so she would stop looking for reasons to be disappointed.

‘What, some crumpled-up tissues, or toilet paper? It’s not a bloody syringe.’

‘Someone else’s crumpled toilet paper, or tissues, or maybe their used tampons, or condoms. It’s disgusting. We should say something to the management.’

‘When we check out, okay? They’ve probably got one of those surveys we can fill in.’ He put on a funny voice. ‘From a scale of one to five, please rate the level of bathroom cleanliness, one being worse than a pit latrine in a refugee camp, five being clean enough to eat from.’

She didn’t laugh.

Daniel lifted the seat of the toilet and emptied his bladder while Elsa finished flossing. The toilet was stained and the bathroom light flickered like a train station toilet, where you’d imagine junkies go to shoot up. He could see her point. The place was definitely on the wrong side of three.

How did he consistently manage to fuck these things up? Simple things: booking a hotel room, putting hats in the girls’ schoolbags, remembering which night to take the bins out. He stood behind Elsa, waiting to wash his hands. She was trying to balance her makeup bag on the tiny rusted shelf above the taps of the sink.

‘How about I call and see if there’s rooms at the Marriott tomorrow night. We’ll see if we can get a refund for the second night.’

Elsa smiled at him in the mirror, and it was like the sun on his face in winter. ‘Now that, my dear,’ she said, ‘is your first good idea today.’

★★★

When they returned to the room after dinner Elsa found the number and Daniel called the Marriott, chinning the phone against his shoulder. He gave her the thumbs up and read out his credit card number in that smarmy voice he used when speaking to customer service people. Elsa had to remind herself to be glad he’d taken charge. Too many times she took the reins, and the counsellor said she needed to take a step back.

‘Let him do things his way, let him mess up sometimes. You have to make him feel useful too. You can’t be the one who does everything, and then complain that you’re the one who does it all. Get what I’m saying?’

She did, but Elsa also resented the woman for charging $200 an hour to say it, in her neutral-toned office with Georgia O’Keefe style floral prints on the walls. It was couples counselling, but the counsellor also met with each of them individually. The first time Daniel had gone he’d complained. ‘How can I expect her to be on my side when she has an office decorated with giant vulvas?’

‘They’re flowers, darling. And she’s not on anyone’s side. She’s neutral, that’s what counsellors are.’

Still, Elsa had started making an effort, suppressing her desire to snap things from his hands (the air conditioning controller, the girls’ lunches, the tweezers with which to pull a tick from the dog) and do them properly.

‘Now we’ve just got to cancel our second night at Chez Shithole,’ Daniel said, tossing his mobile down on the bed. ‘I’ll go talk to reception.’

He shuffled out of the room in his socks, his shirt untucked and wrinkled in the back. Elsa went to take off her makeup but ended up just examining the new lines on her forehead accentuated by the fluorescent light. Her makeup was still on when she heard the key in the door, and he walked in with fingers in the V-sign for victory.

‘They said no problem. We just need to check out by ten tomorrow. Our rooms won’t be ready at the Marriott but we can drop our bags.’

Elsa felt a rush of tenderness towards her husband, his big toe poking through a hole in his sock, his stubbled chin and small victory. She kissed his cheek, and in spite of the place, perhaps even because of it, pulled him back onto the mattress, the bedframe beneath it squeaking in protest. The sheets, at least, were clean.

★★★★

The next morning Daniel was woken at five by the sound of rubbish trucks emptying glass recycling bins into a vat of already smashed glass. Bin after bin was hydraulically lifted, thousands of bottles crushed beneath their window. The sun was not up. The last of the prostitutes in the laneways had not even shouldered their bags, and headed home.

‘What the fuck?’ he groaned.

Elsa went and stood in the window, wearing the lacy nightie she rarely wore because the girls came in their bedroom every morning and would ask why mummy wasn’t wearing her normal flannel plaid or cat-emblazoned pyjamas. When she pulled the curtain back Daniel saw the brick wall of another building across from them.

‘The truck is pulling away. Let’s try to get back to sleep. Thank Christ we won’t be here tomorrow.’

He tossed and turned in the slippery sheets, readjusting the lumpy pillow, drifting into the strange dreams of the half-woken.

When he opened his eyes again it was after nine, and they changed and packed quickly. At ten minutes to ten Daniel called reception, who said they would send the porter up to get their bags. They could have carried the bags themselves, but Elsa argued at least they would be getting some service for their money. She was friendly, though, with the porter when he arrived and chatted effortlessly about the weather, the forecast rain for that afternoon. Daniel stood by, watching silently, as the porter lifted their bags into the trolley.

They walked down the staircase to reception and waited while an elderly couple took their time settling the bill, quibbling over a charge for parking in the underground garage. Finally it was their turn and the manager – a sallow-skinned middle-aged man with a coffee stain on his white collared shirt – invited them to step into the office. He shut the door, turning to face them.

‘So,’ he said, rubbing the back of his neck. ‘You are leaving us early? You were going to stay two nights.’

Daniel grinned. ‘Plans changed, mate. Realised we were pretty far from the action – we’ve got a friend’s wedding on tonight.’

‘Actually,’ Elsa interjected, ‘this place was not nearly as nice as we thought it would be. The bathroom hadn’t been cleaned properly, there was some dodgy bloodstain on the lampshade, and the recycling trucks woke us at 5am. My husband said you had excellent consumer reviews, but maybe you’ve changed management? I can’t for the life of me see why.’

Daniel hated when she got this way with strangers. Why couldn’t she charm him like she did the porter? What was the point, really, of being rude? It wasn’t going to convince the guy to give them a discount. It just meant that all of them would have heartburn with their coffee later.

He was surprised when the manager, who’d been listening to all of this with his back to them, staring out the window, turned with a huge fucking grin on his face.

‘That’s the beauty of it,’ he said, grinning to show a gold incisor. ‘We do get the reviews, and you’ll see how. Because you’ll be writing one as well.’

‘Like hell we will,’ Daniel said, though it came out a little squeaky. ‘You’d be lucky to get two stars from us. Your Foxtel doesn’t even work.’

The manager sat down in his office chair then, leaning back and clasping his hands over his swollen belly. Beneath the cuff of his shirt Daniel glimpsed a plastic Swatch watch, aquamarine coloured.

‘You’ll be writing us a five-star review.’ The manager spun the monitor of his computer to face them, the most popular consumer review site already up on the screen. He slid the wireless keyboard towards them. ‘If you want to get your luggage, that is. If you really do want to leave.’ He drummed his fingers on the surface of the desk.

Daniel stared at the man, wondering if he were really hearing this. The manager didn’t alter his expression of delight.

‘That’s blackmail. That’s holding us hostage,’ Daniel said, studying the page. ‘That’s not even my profile, WORLDTRAVELLER!rad-dad. You make up fake profiles then? I hope you know that’s totally illegal.’

‘Of course it is, and of course it’s not your profile. Do you think I want you changing this once you’ve got your luggage and you’re gone? There are repercussions, of course, if you follow this up with the police or the website companies or if you review us negatively in the future through your own profile. We’re going through your luggage right this minute, recording information, tracking details. We’ll keep all of it on file in case we need to use it in the future. To exact retribution. To what do you call it…’ He tented his stubby fingers and leaned forward, his vile smelling breath in their faces. ‘Seek revenge.’

Daniel turned to stare open-mouthed at Elsa. She had been surprisingly silent through the ordeal, her eyes and lips narrowed into three straight lines.

She pulled the chair she was sitting in up to the desk. ‘This actually makes total sense,’ she said. ‘Pass me the keyboard, will you? I’ll write the review.’

‘But, El, we don’t have to–’

‘Does it matter? In the grand scheme? I just want to be out of this hovel and eating my poached eggs at a nice little café, forgetting this whole endeavour.’

Elsa began typing and for a little while the only sound was her fingers clicking the keys. She touch-typed, so it was probably good that she was the one doing this. Daniel still did the hunt and peck, though he was surprisingly effective at it these days.

He leaned towards the manager, whose breath of death was a little whistly. Like he needed to use his Ventolin and hadn’t. ‘So this is how you’ve got the top rating in your category? Unbelievable. Isn’t it suspicious? All the five-stars?’

The manager shrugged, looking at his watch, fiddling with the cap on his Fiji water. ‘Every once in a while we get someone to write a one or two-star review. The trick is, you’ve got to get them to write it in such a way that everyone reading it knows they’re the dickhead. They have to say something so unreasonable in their review that the customer ends up liking us more because of it. For example: “The nearest French restaurant was a 30 minute walk away, and I do not like to eat at Asian establishments.” or, “I only use Turkish bath towels and 1000-thread-count sheets at home, so I was disappointed this hotel thought their regular white towels and linens would suffice.”’

Daniel nodded. He had to admit it was pretty smart. He knew exactly the kind of reviews the manager referred to, and often chuckled to himself as he read them. He would do the exact opposite of what the person suggested and get a subversive sort of pleasure out of doing so.

Elsa leaned back in her chair and spun the monitor around so the manager could have a look. ‘There,’ she said. ‘Happy?’

He pulled a pair of rimless reading spectacles out of his shirt pocket and leaned in, reading aloud in an affected lisp.

‘The Village Inn was a spotlessly clean, totally affordable place to spend the night, and we couldn’t fault the friendliness of the staff or the level of hygiene. Old world charm combined with old-fashioned service in what might just be the best part of town. Almost reluctant to write this in case we can’t get a reservation next time we’re in the ‘hood! Regardless, they deserve the accolades for a job well done.’

‘Wow,’ the manager said, in his normal, nasal voice, folding the spectacles back up. ‘You’re good at this.’

‘Thanks,’ Elsa said, with that smile she tried to repress whenever someone complimented her.

Afterwards the manager walked them out, fetched their bags and called a taxi to take them to their next hotel.

‘Come back any time,’ he said, as the taxi driver helped them lift their bags into the trunk. ‘We’ve got lots of specials in the summertime, particularly mid-week.’

Elsa waved, but Daniel just shook his head.

★★★★★

That night, tipsy from the wedding festivities, Elsa sprawled on the king-sized Marriott Signature bed with mattress topper and sumptuous linens, plush pillows and cosy comforter. Daniel flipped through the endless choices of Foxtel while she perused the pillow menu.

‘Do I sleep mostly on my side or my back?’ she asked, furrowing her brow.

‘Your side,’ Daniel said, turning to cup her hip against his groin.

‘This place is nice.’ She nestled her body against him. She could hear her own voice slurring a little, and wondered if she could stay awake for five more minutes. ‘Are you going to write a review?’

‘Nah,’ he said. ‘Don’t trust them anymore.’

‘Did you ever write reviews?’

‘Nope.’

‘So who does then?’

His hand crept up the front of her thigh, beneath the hem of her nightie and she swallowed a gasp, remembering the load of washing she had forgotten to hang out before they left their house on Friday. It would be hard to get rid of the smell of mildew.

‘I dunno,’ Daniel replied. ‘People like you?’