Story of the Month

Often my stories are published in the UK and that means readers in Australia, New Zealand and the US don’t get to see them. Or they might be published in Australia or New Zealand and readers in the UK and US miss out. So, every few months, I’ll be posting one of my published stories for readers everywhere. Hope you enjoy them.

“A Night on the Tiles” by Jacqueline Winn received an Honorable Mention and was published in the Momaya Press Review (UK) in 2008.

***

A Night on the Tiles

Tonight we will break up but first we must play a game of Scrabble. It was Freddy’s idea, to end the way we began. Part chance, part strategy, battling word for word.

The beginning was a mutual friend’s party. We’d been eyeing each other all night and both jumped at the crazy chance to joust over a game of Scrabble after midnight. Neither of us can ever agree as to who won that game. It simply ended on our friend’s couch in a euphoric stupor of grappling arms and tangling legs, until we woke the next morning knowing that we’d crossed over. Single to double.

Freddy fetches wine and fills the glasses while I hunt for the dictionary. Wine to soften the blows and the dictionary to settle the more trivial disputes. I lay out the board and arrange the tiles face down to the left, the dictionary to the right. A bit of familiar order is something that Freddy barely even notices but I need it far more than I need him.

We sit at opposite sides of the table. Then, even though he knows I’ve mixed them thoroughly, he gives the tiles another swirl. It’s a mutual mistrust. Clittering, clattering, while he stares straight through me.

‘Rude words?’ Freddy asks up front.

‘Yes, if you must.’

‘Foreign words?’

‘No.’

This is indeed how we began, on that first morning at least, clarifying the boundaries, making sure we knew what we were in for. But wine and sex shifted all that. The fence lines forever changing the minute we were in bed. I said I’d never put up with this and he said he couldn’t live with that, but between the sheets we tolerated everything for the sake of the grand finale.

We each pick up a tile to determine who goes first. Freddy wins and we both set to selecting our seven. Freddy grunts a lot during Scrabble. Freddy grunts a lot full stop. At first, I used to laugh about it when we were having sex and he’d say he couldn’t help it. But after a while it didn’t seem so funny and I just wanted him to keep it to himself. He’d say over and over again he couldn’t help it. Like everything. On the fourth grunt, Freddy lays down all seven tiles to spell forever. Then he smirks at me.

I smirk back. ‘Dream on.’

I don’t usually comment. I prefer to play it with silence. It keeps Freddy in the dark and that’s the way I like it. That way he never knows whether he’s in trouble or not. Keeps him on the back foot, where I want him.

He scoffs at my unexpected lapse and then scribbles down his score with a great flourish of his stubby little pencil. I take his second e and add expire, allowing myself a small hint of a smile at the double scored x. He fixes me with goggling eyes, hands clamped around his neck and making ridiculous choking noises. An attempt at humour, I assume. I might have laughed once but instead I turn my attention to selecting five tiles before looking up and holding him fast with a gaze that leaves no room for doubt. Just play the game. His eyes move back to his own tiles and he rubs his nose for a few seconds then adds swings to the end of my word. He whoops at his triple letter and double word score then scribbles it down with so much unnecessary enthusiasm the pencil flies out of his hand and clatters to the floor.

‘And roundabouts.’ I add. ‘All great fun at the start but there’s nothing like the light of day to dull the gloss of the carnival.’

Freddy lets it pass. Perhaps he’s on another track altogether. He bends over to retrieve his pencil and I steal a glance at the scorecard. I’m trusting him to write it down accurately, against my better judgment. He’s a cheat at heart and it’s one of the reasons we can’t stay together. Not as far as I’m concerned, anyway. He says I’m hardly the one to talk. It’s not as if I’m as pure as the driven. That’s true, up to a point, but I’ve never let it get quite so out of hand as Freddy. Once he’s crossed a certain line, there’s no turning back for him. It’s not just the betrayal. It’s the weakness I can’t stand.

I lay down fraud over the top of forever and he curses. Not at the accusation, necessarily. He’s had his eye on that f. He’s so transparent. He still thinks one rude word is worth far more than the final score. Right from the start, he’s been hanging for three more letters just so he can throw the silly word at me, just so he can laugh as if it’s the funniest thing on the board. It’s part of his refusal to ever grow up and he’s not happy if he can’t fit it in somewhere. But not tonight, I swear, not tonight.

Freddy takes the bottle of wine and reaches for my half empty glass. I put my hand over it.

‘I’m driving.’

‘You don’t have to.’

‘Yes, I do.’

Freddy tilts the bottle at me and grins. ‘Your loss.’

‘We’ll see.’

Then he tops up his empty glass and takes a few decent sips before turning his attention back to his tiles. He’s slow tonight. Uncertain. As if there’s something nibbling away at the edges of his concentration. So I give him a verbal prod.

‘Quick game’s a good game.’

‘That’s my line.’

‘Not anymore.’

He takes a few more sips of wine. He’s rattled, I can tell. Maybe it’s all the talk. He’s more used to my silence. But tonight’s different. Tonight is the last game and nothing has to be the way it was. He starts to tap his foot and I raise my eyebrows at him. He sneaks a quick look at me and then goes back to fiddling with his tiles, swapping them back and forth on the rack. Rattled for sure. Then he puts down three piddly tiles on top of a spare e. It’s not even a high score and when I read the word, I know he’s losing it. I say it aloud, a subtle mocking lift at the end.

Love? It’s not enough.’

He winces just a tad and lifts his glass to cover the slip. But he knows I’ve seen it. He’s exposed a bit of soft underbelly and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to make the most of it. I add a d to the end of his love and claim a couple of double letters.

‘Point plus score, I believe.’

He checks under the letters then writes it down. Slowly. Carefully. He’s buying time, I can tell, trying to figure out how to play the next move. Trying to figure out how to turn the game. He bites his lip, a slight shake of the head and I’m caught by it, for a moment. It’s not something I’ve seen before. It’s almost as if there’s been someone different in there all this time but he’s never let me see it. For a couple of seconds, I feel the hardness of my resolve fraying, just a little.

Then he places be in front of loved. It’s way over the top. Way outside the boundary. I push the two tiles back towards him. ‘Try again.’

Freddy gulps down the rest of his wine and tops up the glass. The bottle’s empty and he stands to fetch another.

‘No.’ I stop him, gripping his wrist as he passes. ‘You’re stalling for time. Or else trying to sneak a peek at my letters.’

He slams the empty bottle on the table and wrenches his arm free.

‘For chrissake! I don’t care about your stupid letters.’

‘Sit down. Play the game,’ I order.

He sweeps his hand across in front of me and flips the corner of the board, scattering words off the table, crashing tiles onto the floor, yelling, ‘I don’t want to play Scrabble any more.’

He stares me down, every muscle rigid, daring me to fight. This is more like it. This is the Freddy I know. This is the Freddy I can walk away from. I stand quickly and move to the door, pulling on my coat and reaching for the keys.

‘Angela!’

It’s a plea, a heartfelt, emotional, damned plea. I quickly open the door and slam it behind me. The last move. Game over.

Jacqueline Winn, 2008

***

Now for something a little more lighthearted. The Raw Prawn was Highly Commended in the Henry Lawson Grenfell Awards in 2007 and in the same year it was published in the anthology Slippery When Wet.

The Raw Prawn

He stinks as bad as he looks.  It’s the grog as much as the fish.  So she sits apart, out of old habit.  If she doesn’t have to smell him, she doesn’t have to listen either.  It’s not as if she can’t hear from that distance.  She’s just not interested in anything he has to say.

“Bait?” he yells.

She gives him a bare nod of the head and he chucks a raw prawn her way.  She scoops it up, threads it on her hook and tosses it in the glassy black water.  There’s nothing better than a quiet bit of fishing.  But out of the corner of her eye, she can see him fiddling with his gear, changing hooks, mucking around with the sinkers.  He can’t leave the thing alone and just fish. The annoyance niggles away at her and she shifts around on her ample bottom.  Uncomfortable.  Not with the splintery old boards of the jetty.  Uncomfortable with him.  After more than forty years.  Still uncomfortable.

He opens another beer, tosses his line in and she settles down.  The late summer call of a butcher bird pierces the stillness and pulls her gaze across the bay to the thin strip of sand edging the bush.  As kids they used to spend the entire summer there, it seemed.  Fishing with bits of line.  Building rough cubbies in the bush.  Fighting with the kids from the next beach.  From breakfast to dinner they’d be gone.  Every day.  Her mum used to make her take a thick slice of bread and butter for lunch and that was about all the mothering she got in those days.  Not that she ever felt hard done by.  None of the other kids had it any better.  Small fishing town, no money for anything other than the necessities.  Mums working as hard at home as dads did at sea.  Everyone the same.  Just keeping the seams of life together, no more, no less.  She squints against the sun and peers at the beach.  Empty.

“Kids today,” she mutters to herself, “don’ know what freedom is.”

“What?” he yells from his end of the jetty. “What d’yer say?”

She turns a sharp face on him.  “Nothin’.  Weren’t talkin’ to you.”

“Never are,” he yells back.

“Good reason for that,” she mumbles.

She knows he didn’t hear her but he’s got the gist.  She’s said her piece and that’s how it always goes.  If she pushes herself to think about it, she can’t remember them ever talking much.  Even as kids.  When she pictures how he was, she can only see those skinny legs and that lanky, suntanned body.  Always on the move.  Even when he’d take her to the movies, he’d be fidgeting right the way through, spoiling the whole thing for her.  What she saw in him, she can’t for the life of her remember.  Small town, small choice.  That’s what she tells her daughters when they ask.  But if she’s honest, she knows they’re both just like her mum and dad.  And his, for that matter.  Makes her wonder whether it really was a matter of choice.

They both settle back down to watching their lines.  The occasional tug sets up little ripples that widen and disappear over the surface of the water.  It’s been an awful long time since she’s been in that water.  Her dad used to swear she was a dolphin when she was young.  Spent more time under the water than on top of it.  She wouldn’t mind jumping in right now, except there’s dignity to consider.  She’s not the lithe little thing she used to be.  Like he always says, she’s twice the woman she was when he married her and she can’t quite come at the thought of hauling herself, sopping wet, up the old jetty steps.  Could be a nasty sight for the tourists sipping their coffee at the beach café.  And anyway, there’s signs up nowadays.  Warnings about sharks, dangerous currents, stormwater drain pollution.  Maybe that’s the problem with the fish.  Used to be she’d have a bucket full by now.  Big ones.  Not the tiddlers she takes home for their dinner these days.  Not that it’s a problem.  She’s got a freezer full of stuff she can pull out for dinner.  Back then, if they didn’t catch anything, they didn’t have a decent dinner.

She’s miles away when he clears his throat.  Loudly.  Twice.  She calls out, without turning her head.  “What?”

“Yer bait’s gone.”  He chuckles at that.  Loves to catch her out.

She tugs at the line.  Slack.  “Yeah, yeah.” And she reels it in.

He tosses her another prawn and this time it glances across the side of her head. She turns around.  “Ya did that on purpose!”  He’s grinning like he’s enjoying every bit of the accusation.  Like he doesn’t even care whether he’s innocent or not.  He picks up another prawn and tosses it.  Right on target, just above her left eye.  And that sets him giggling.  A silly beery old rasping sound.

“You do that once more…” she yells at him.

He picks up another prawn and flings it her way.  It falls well short, but it’s enough to get her going.  “Right!  That was one too many.”  She lays down her rod and struggles to her feet.

“Ya reckon?” he yells.  He shoves his hand into the bait bucket and comes up with an over-brimming fistful of prawns.

She starts closing the distance between them and he starts pulling prawns out of his fist, tossing them one after the other.  The closer she gets, the more they hit the target.  By the time she’s right on top of him, he’s throwing them two or three at time, laughing so much he can hardly keep his balance.  The barrage stops only when she’s inches away.

“Toss one more prawn…” she threatens.  He’s making an effort to control his giggling and she repeats the threat.  “One more prawn…”

He takes a deep breath and slips a large prawn from his fist.  He dangles it by its feelers for a second then flicks it right in her face.  He’s barely let the thing go before she lifts her hands and shoves him hard in the chest.  His already precarious balance vanishes and he trips foot over foot.  She could easily grab him, but instead puts her hands on her hips and watches him disappear over the edge of the jetty.  She hears him hit the water and then his yelling cuts short.  He’s gone under for sure and she lets out a satisfying snort.

Then it’s quiet for a bit.  A bit too long.   A bit too quiet.  She shivers, like something just walked over her grave.  Or his.  She takes a step and peers over the edge.  He’s taking his time down there and she holds her breath, wondering for a split second if she’s gone too far.  But then suddenly he surges up gasping and cursing and she breathes again, knowing he’ll be right.  His long skinny arms flail around, dragging him slowly towards the jetty steps.  He pulls himself up, his wet clothes dripping and dragging him down.  He’s on the halfway mark when he takes a breather and looks up at her.  He starts a wheezy laugh and she finds herself chuckling back at him. In no time, they’re both laughing so hard, it’s all he can do to hang on and all she can do to stay upright.  They’ve always loved the fishing, but it’s been a while since they enjoyed themselves this much.

By the time he’s reached the top of the steps, she’s started to walk back to her spot, but then she stops and picks up a stray prawn.  She turns back to him and grins, then tosses it at him with the last word.

“At least that little dip might fix the bloody smell.”

Jacqueline Winn, 2007

***

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