by Michelle Adams
hot, strong tea with a splash of milk
He moved each wooden tile, worn smooth from years of use, from its place on his rack to its new position on the board, pausing for a second between each new letter, taking his time to let the word unfurl. He started with an ‘M’, placing it on the light blue space under the ‘E’ already played in an earlier turn. Three more tiles followed, O, N, I. The board rotated slightly, the turntable still gliding smoothly despite having sat unused in the attic for the last few years.
It had been gathering dust in the far corner, sticky and forgotten, and coated in a thick layer of grime. The cardboard box had absorbed gallons of grease over the years as it sat on top of the old Welsh dresser in his grandmother’s kitchen. Multiple ring stains covered the top, and it smelt musty, damp, and of stale smoke from the cigarettes she’d chain-smoked as they’d played. The lid corners were worn and torn slightly from the repetition of being lifted on and off, on and off, over and over again. This deluxe version of her favourite game had been a gift from him, an upgrade from the old foldable set they’d played on together since his childhood. He’d been so proud to present her with it, paid for from his very first pay-cheque, and she’d cherished it. Years of used scorecards and scraps of paper made the lid hard to close, as she’d never thrown a single one away, often looking through them at the start of each new session and commenting on his improvement. As the years had progressed, so had his vocabulary and his skill at placing the tiles. These scraps of paper told a story of their own.
He placed a ‘C’ beneath the ‘I’, clicking it into place on top of the red triple word score. The next letter, another ‘N’, he placed at the start of the word. NEMONIC. He grinned as he heard her voice in his memory, scolding him for his misspelling. His smile became rueful as he placed the last tile at the top of the word on another red space. He counted up the score. ‘Double letter on the M…… triple word….and again… fifty points for the scrabble… that’s seventeen, fifty-one…. Two hundred and three points.’ She’d have loved that score, may even have rewarded him with a chocolate biscuit from her old china jar. She hadn’t cared about winning, although she did, and often. She’d never let him win; he’d have to earn each victory, of which there had been few in his younger years. She always said that the best games were the ones where they both had the best possible scores by placing each tile in the best possible place every turn. When she’d first taught him to play, they would spend more time checking that they couldn’t have done better than they did playing. She said that the game was ‘as much about mathematics as it was about words.’ She taught him the value of teamwork and the importance of taking his time when making decisions, and how to both win and lose graciously. Her disappointment in him, if he ever placed a low scoring word to block her an opportunity of a high scoring one, still stung.
As he’d grown older, they hadn’t played as much, but whenever he visited, the game was brought down from the dresser as the kettle boiled. He hadn’t noticed at first that his grandmother was winning less often. It still filled him with shame that it had taken so long for him to realise that the time she spent shuffling her tiles and considering the board was becoming longer due to her confusion rather than her being strategic. It wasn’t until he’d visited and they were drinking tea and eating cake, and she’d made no move to retrieve the set from its shelf, that he realised there was something wrong. It was then he recognised just how old and frail his beloved grandmother had become. He sniffed back the tears that threatened at the memory, inhaling again that scent so familiar to him.
‘Jeez, Gramps! It’s a good score; you don’t have to cry about it!’ The teasing voice interrupted his reminiscence. His opponent asked, good-naturedly, ‘Is that even a word? And what’s the point in even trying to beat you?’ He looked across the board at his grand-daughter and smiled.
‘The point, Sweetheart,’ he replied, ‘Is not to try and beat me, but to get the best possible score in the best possible place every time.’
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