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Scrabble

 

1

Playing a game of Scrabble with my partner, I should perhaps have been wary of opening the box since it had been left in the flat by a girlfriend from several years earlier. This girlfriend, Amy, had left it alongside a few other items after a parting that was tense with the acrid air of ongoing dispute: there was no word order that could have returned the item without another argument coming out of the suggestion that I give back the things that were rightfully hers. So it gathered more dust than memory as the box settled above the wardrobe for a few years, and it was while looking up from the pillow that Becky said she didn’t know I had Scrabble, and perhaps we should play it some time.

The following evening we did, and, opening the box while Becky had her back turned as she put on the kettle, I noticed amongst the blank Scrabble score sheets were a number that had been already filled in. The names on the sheets were Amy and Richard. Down the margins were a series of love hearts, and as I looked more closely I noticed that they must have each drawn a number of them: the drawing of these hearts weren’t all done by the same hand. I took the remaining score sheets out of the box along with the board, the letter tiles and the tile holders. Becky poured the water into the pot, popped in a couple of teabags, and I asked if she was ready to play while I laid the board out on the kitchen table. The used score sheets I had placed back in the box.

At the end of the game I promptly placed the board on top of the used score sheets, and then put on top the tiles and the tile holders. She laughed and said once a couple starts playing Scrabble a relationship is entering its autumnal phase. She offered it both jokingly and indeterminately, as if the remark didn’t quite need to have a point; only to demand a response. I laughed, but thought also about the various permutations of the comment. It could have meant that after a year together we had lost interest in each other as bodies and minds and instead were reduced to board games. It perhaps indicated that she thought we were beginning to feel so suitably comfortable with each other that there was no need for the constant pleasures of the flesh and the musing over each other’s thoughts. There were other possibilities, and I wondered if when Amy and Richard played the game they did so aware they were not settling into their domestic lives, but awaiting the chaos of which I happened to be a part.  It was a game Amy and I never played, though there was one evening where she took it out and suggested we do so. As I saw her spread out the board, I agreed but said I was working on something first, and I would be free in around an hour. By the time I came through from the box room an hour and half later, the game had been put away and Amy was lying on the couch, listening to music and half asleep.

2

Becky and I met around eighteen months before her remark about the autumnal. She was new to the city but not unfamiliar with it, had several friends in Edinburgh, and two of them were hosting a party not long after she had moved over from Dublin. I knew these friends as well (they were a couple), and though I was unaware of Becky’s emotional back story, her emotional CV, I wondered if she knew much about mine. I supposed not, as we talked initially in the hallway. Leaning against opposite walls in the narrow corridor, as people would squeeze in between, we talked, as though the awkwardness of proposing we continue the conversation in another room was more problematic than the bodies continually pressing past us and interrupting the exchange. After about forty minutes though one of our hosts insisted we stop blocking up the hallway and give atmosphere and warmth to the living room. There were only two seats available and on different sides of the lounge. So we sat for a while no longer in close contact but at a distance ideal for observing traits that the earlier proximity and conversational engagement denied.

I watched her as she sat cross-legged, her emerald green dress just above her knee, her shoes with medium length heels the same colour, and her eye-liner a similar hue. Her hair was corn-coloured and matched the corn-leaf colouring of her attire. I’m not one for description, but sometimes I see people who demand it: their appearance forces upon us an awareness of visual symmetry and intention that makes it a recognizable colour and form amongst the blur of images. Becky made what we call an impression, and I wondered if this was an effortless approach to her appearance that was part of her character, or an exception to it. I knew from standing talking to her earlier that she wasn’t tall and that the dress’s cut had reminded me of a sixties style based on slender hips, narrow shoulders and small breasts. She was what I would call, in a compliment that could also easily be devoid of sexual assumption, compact.

I didn’t speak to her again that evening, but a couple of weeks later the friends who hosted the party invited me along to a vintage day at a cafe in the city centre. They had a stall selling vinyl; Becky had one selling period-clothing. Her dress I now assumed wasn’t only reminiscent of the period but probably belonged to it too. What she was wearing that day also indicated the same moment in time, and I wondered if she had parked outside a Mini Cooper with a mop-topped boyfriend sitting in the driving seat. The image made me slightly jealous; a mocking image that quickly rebounded back on me as I thought: why shouldn’t she have a boyfriend? She had left the party I noticed after tapping in a text message.

On this occasion Becky was wearing a poppy red dress, again matching shoes, and the emphasis this time was on the lipstick over the eye-liner. As I would wish her good night later that evening, when she refused me a kiss, she instead picked out of her purse a business card blank on the reverse side and pressed it to her lips, leaving an imprint on it. I had her number and a hint of affection, she said, and told me not to be too greedy. Earlier that evening I had helped her pack away her stuff not in a Mini Cooper but a hatchback she had borrowed from a friend. After doing so she insisted she owed me at least a drink and I insisted that she owed me it that very night.

3

We arranged to meet again the following weekend, and while I was of course excited to see her, there was also a visual suspense almost as great as the emotional anticipation. What would she be wearing this time I wondered? We had agreed to meet in the very place where the vintage day had been held. It was an unusual cafe because it didn’t quite know whether to be a place of casual eating and drinking or a restaurant for special occasions. The food was exceptionally good, with a careful chef choosing his produce well and cooking it with feeling and consideration. He would often himself come out of the kitchen and ask diners if everything was okay, looking less for approval or to offer intimidation; more to have as direct a relationship with the customers as he could. Becky had suggested the place and I concurred, even if it happened to be somewhere I had occasionally gone to with Amy, and where we had once managed to offer the chef a more personal relationship with his customers than he might have wished.

I arrived a few minutes early, and Becky arrived on time. She was wearing a royal blue dress of a similar cut to the others, with shoes a matching shade, and a necklace with a prominent blue stone. The lipstick was a muted red; the eyeliner a vague blue. I still hadn’t seen her eyes in daylight, and they seemed blue or green depending on the light, the clothing and the colour of her mascara. It was the next morning as we woke up together that I noticed they were green, and I asked her if she knew that the change of clothing and eye make-up appeared to change the colour of her eyes. Of course, she replied, as If I’d asked whether she knew that 2×2 equals four. Her self-awareness seemed the simplest of equations; yet for Amy it had been a complicated algebra.

4

I had also met Amy at a party, several years ago, about six months after her marriage collapsed, and I remember asking her a similar question to the one I asked Becky. Did she know, I wondered one afternoon while we were out walking, a few weeks after we first became close, that when she looked in the mirror she would suck in her cheeks. I expected her to say that she had obviously noticed and it was perceptive of me to observe her expression. But instead she reacted as though I had violated her, revealed not only what she would hide from the world, but what she hadn’t even been aware of herself. As we continued walking through the New Town, down into Stockbridge, picked up some items from a food market, so Amy remained less silent than quiet: my remark seemed to have pushed her into herself, and the thoughts weren’t for sharing.

A month or two after that I again made an observation which more than surprised her. Unlike Becky, Amy had auburn hair and cole-black eyes, a complexion that suited blacks, browns, olive greens and, when her skin tanned, white clothes too. I noticed that she never wore primary colours and after I noted this Amy said that she had never thought about it; what was I getting at? I said nothing at all; it was simply something I perceived. But after that I began to see that there was nothing that could be merely observational; for Amy it was a comment which appeared to be saying something critical about her, and that made her feel vulnerable. Even questions about her past were troublesome, and over time I came to know far more about her marriage to Richard speaking to others than I would discover through conversations amongst ourselves. She got married at twenty three, when both Richard and Amy graduated in psychology and both quickly found jobs in marketing firms. They bought a flat in Marchmont, which wouldn’t have been inexpensive, and one friend of hers I talked to thought she wanted to start a family not that long afterwards; another said that she didn’t want kids until she was in her thirties. The friends might have been contradicting each other only because Amy had been contradicting herself: that each friend was given a different story, and yet one of the reasons why I had gone to these friends to find out more about Amy’s life before me was that I couldn’t quite trust Amy’s perspective on events. When I asked why she left her husband she would reply that he left her long before she left him: he just didn’t know it. But I was aware also that she had cheated on Richard while they were still together, knew the person with whom she’d had an affair with at the end of the marriage and for a few months afterwards, and knew him well enough for him to warn me off starting a relationship with Amy.

Of course I ignored him, aware that he still possessed residual feelings for her, and had little moral authority as the lover who had broken up a marriage. But what of Amy’s moral authority? Shouldn’t I have avoided her as the married woman who had an affair? Yet of course I was not looking initially for a moral dimension from Amy: she was a sensuous presence and an object of desire; asking not to be admired for her values, but yearned for due to the pleasures of the flesh. Her ex-lover’s remarks were weak next to her skin, and ungrounded in the place from whence they came. Yet over the next two years that Amy and I were together, I would see him sometimes in a cafe where he’d teach privately, and where he would prepare his lessons; a place where I would occasionally go and read a book and take a coffee. Sometimes we would talk. I would ask him how the affair with Amy started, and whether he ever felt his comments, no matter how innocuously delivered, were received by Amy like wounds inflicted. He would ask me what I meant, or what examples I could give, and on the four or five occasions we talked about Amy during that period, I always had new examples to offer.

I said that not long after Amy and I started to go out together I remarked on her skin tone; that it possessed a light sheen as if constantly moisturised, yet didn’t at all give her complexion a greasy artificiality you would sometimes see in people with dry skin trying to keep it moist. I offered it as a compliment yet she received it as a rebuke, saying that it was the way her skin was. I said that was what I thought; that she was very lucky to have such a wonderful complexion, and she replied insisting that there was no reason to flatter her when it was obviously something I wasn’t happy about or I wouldn’t have noticed it at all. It was as though every comment that afternoon I then made to reassure her added to her feeling of insecurity. Tim said he recognized what I was saying, but that Amy was if anything inclined to self-aggrandize when they were together rather than receive praise as insult. I asked him to give me an example, and he remembered a few weeks after they had started seeing each other, while she was still staying with her husband, that they were eating in a restaurant in a part of the city where neither Tim nor Amy lived. She commented on how she thought a couple of waiters were flirting with her, and a customer at a nearby table kept looking over. She said she supposed it was inevitable; wasn’t she a beautiful woman? Where Tim thought she might have been worried that someone looking over was doing so because he recognized Amy with a man other than her husband, Amy simply thought he was doing so because he was yet another man attracted to her. Obviously, Tim added, as we know Amy is very lovely looking, but it was as though she thought everybody fancied her, and insisted also in expressing that assumption. Was it the same when he complimented her, I asked.

He nodded, and said that it was as if no flattery he could offer would match her capacity to praise herself. When he would say that she tanned beautifully she asked him what he meant by beautiful: who else that he knew tanned as well; what about actors, which ones looked good after getting colour? She would say nobody could tan as quickly and as well as she could: that it was thanks to her wonderful genes, to her Italian grandmother. He remembered that this was not long after she had left Richard and moved into his flat. They went off for a week to Lanzarote and after three days while he was pink and his skin smarting, she was going each day a deeper shade of olive brown. In the middle of applying sun cream to his sensitized shoulders she would get up and look at herself in the mirror, saying to him that she would have the best tan on the beach by the end of the week. He groaned back, asking her to apply the rest of the cream otherwise they wouldn’t be looking at her wonderful colouring, but at the victim of the self-same sun sitting next to her.

Of course just as I didn’t trust Tim when he initially told me that I should stay away from Amy at the beginning, so I believed that he wasn’t an entirely reliable narrator later either: wasn’t he looking back on their affair with the jaundiced memory of the spurned? Yet though he was describing a woman given to self-praise where I was going out with someone given to self-deprecation, what he offered to me appeared consistent with my own perception of Amy.

5

As I saw Becky a few times a week over the next few months after we first slept together, she seemed neither self-deprecating nor self-aggrandizing, and I knew of few people who had a clearer sense of themselves in the world. When I asked her while walking through the city a week after we had first become close whether she would live anywhere else, she said it wasn’t likely but far from impossible. She had been born in Dublin, went to school in the city, and left only because there was a course in London at Goldsmith’s that she wanted to do and couldn’t do it anywhere else. When she finished it she moved back to Dublin for a couple of years, and then to Edinburgh, saying she preferred the people and the geography here to the people and geography of London and Dublin, and had no intention of leaving. Yet she phrased this unemphatically – as if she had no intention of leaving, but no fixed idea about staying either. She was happy in Edinburgh and would leave it, I sensed, only if greater happiness, or greater opportunities, were elsewhere. She was here, she said, because she visited the city on several occasions and each time it grew in her mind and expanded her heart. It was a place in which she could live. I asked if she was unsatisfied with Dublin or London; she insisted she wasn’t – that she was happy to be brought up in the former and that she did her degree in the latter, but was happier still that she was now living in Edinburgh. As we walked, I asked her about past relationships and she told me one or two things, but as if I had asked her about what the weather was like in Istanbul: she didn’t feel violated; just that I was enquiring about the irrelevant. In the following months she mentioned the ex-boyfriend from Dublin and her ex from London, but without any sense that they were of any more relevance to her life than to the conversation at that given moment.

This suggested she was emotionally pragmatic which wouldn’t be fair, however. It was more that these thoughts appeared to occupy a harmonious place in her personality, without the need for regret or disdain. The only issue in which she admitted being dogmatic was over her father. When she was around eleven he had left her mother, her younger sister and herself and went away for a year. He was an offshore welder and would usually come back every couple of months, but for more than a year he didn’t return at all. Occasionally she would be lying in bed and heard her mother crying on the phone talking to him. When he eventually returned Becky asked where he had been. From the phone calls she knew that he had left her mother for another woman, but all he said was that he was working, that he had been very busy. Could he have told her the truth? Perhaps not, but the obvious lie she thought wasn’t so much protecting her feelings as suggesting she was stupid. She wanted him to accept that she wasn’t so ignorant and that she was no longer his little girl. Thereafter whenever he called her Becky she would correct him. It is Rebecca to you, she would say. He now wouldn’t dare call her Becky she said.

Becky was perhaps the first successful human being I had ever met, and this had nothing to do with the perfection of a body-shopped image on a magazine cover, though she could probably have looked perfectly acceptable on one of them. No, it was how she conducted her past, her present and her future, engaged with the people around her and her diligent approach to work commitments. She came to Edinburgh to start a jewellery business with a fellow Goldsmith’s graduate, Annie, who was from the Scottish capital, after Becky had worked on her own running a stall in Dublin. The shop she now had with her work colleague was in the Grassmarket at the bottom of Victoria Street, and within weeks of opening they were doing well. They made their own work but also sold that of others too, though only from independent jewellery makers.

6

After nine months staying with Annie, Becky moved into the flat I’ve been living in for the past decade, ever since I gained gainfully dull employment working at the university library. It is a job I have no desire to disparage; only to say that part of the pleasure of the post for me has been in its very dullness. It more than pays the rent; it helped me to get a mortgage just before house prices in the city bounced after devolution. It has also given me time to paint, and the box room I’ve always used as a small studio. After Becky moved in we shared the space, with a work desk in one corner for her, and my easel in another.

We were both I suppose miniaturists. Becky worked away on fiddly and intricate broaches and necklaces; I worked exclusively on portraits about the size of A4 sheets of paper with the canvas size always the same no matter if I offered simply the head or painted the whole body. I can’t easily explain why I’ve wanted to work exclusively with the same size of canvas, but I suggested once to a friend who only wrote sonnets that it was a way of containing the world. What interests me is the tension between the subject I am painting and the constraints placed upon it. I free myself in other ways. I never work with models but instead from memory: whether it is a person I see walking along the street or someone I’ve known for years, I paint them in their absence. I’m looking for the traces a person leaves when they’re gone. What interests me is not the details as perfectionism but perhaps more as fetishism. There are many things in the paintings that are hardly filled in at all; others that are pronounced. What do we see when we remember I’ve often thought, and that in this perhaps the writers ‘sees’ more clearly than the painter often does. The writer accepts the limitations of what they see and takes advantage of the freedom this gives them to describe eye colour but not skin tone; to mention the shade of the skirt someone wears but not her hair. The paintings I suppose are in this sense novelistic, and it always surprises me when someone wants to buy one, though I’ve never exhibited except occasionally in a cafe.

Amy wasn’t so much critical of the work as wary of it, as if aware that the observations I would make that caused her discomfort resembled the details to be found in the work, and she rarely looked at the paintings I did or enquired into the motivations behind them.  She also knew that there were plenty of occasions where I promised I wouldn’t be long whilst working on a painting, and then came through to the living room or the kitchen long after saying I would only be a minute, by which time she would have grown frustrated or tired, as on the one occasion where we almost played Scrabble. If that was a moment of tiredness overcoming her, the situation in the restaurant that I’ve earlier alluded to was no doubt an example of frustration. I had been working all week in the library and each evening on a painting which was based on Amy. It wasn’t the first but it was perhaps the one predicated most on her likeness. By working from memory I would often allow the person to morph into a combination of several people’s features so no existent person could be claimed as the subject. But this one of Amy was of Amy: she didn’t only instigate the painting she was also more vividly the subject than usual. As the work had come more and more to resemble her, so I took the painting off the easel each evening and tucked it behind several others, in fear that Amy would see that it was based on her, and be a visual equivalent of the comments I had made that causes her distress. It was a painting that emphasised her face and her vagina: two gaping holes that made the surrounding body small. In such an instance I couldn’t deny that her dismay would be entirely justified.

In the restaurant we were drinking wine before the starters arrived and Amy saw me looking between her and a person at a nearby table. I couldn’t help notice an expression on the woman’s face that resembled one on Amy’s, an expression that for some reason I had never noticed before. It was a particular frown that seemed to contain within it a disapproval towards the person in front of them, whilst containing within it a greater disapproval towards oneself. I wondered if the person, like Amy, had left her husband and felt contrite about her action and dissatisfied with the man she was now with. During the starter and the main course I would often glance across, and of course Amy finally asked me what I found so fascinating at the next table that it was distracting me from the company I happened to be in. Amy had never looked prettier than on that evening, and as I looked at her I suffered a very strange form of envy. I wished that I could have been someone else sitting there: the person who would have held her hand and told her how beautiful she happened to be and how lucky he was to be sitting there with her. I envied the man I wasn’t, not the man who sits looking on as he sees another with a woman he would like to be with. Of course I couldn’t express this to Amy and instead insisted it was nothing, with Amy then offering the very expression I had seen on several occasions on the other woman’s face, but not until that moment on Amy’s.

It was just then that the chef came out from the kitchen and asked how we happened to be finding the meal, and Amy said that it was lovely; though if she hadn’t a few minutes earlier finished it she would have wasted the fine, organic cuisine by pouring it over my head. The chef smiled as if she had offered a joke, but could see that it was made with the forcefulness that good manners can’t quite countenance. He walked away from the table saying that he hoped we enjoyed the rest of the evening.

7

When Amy and I got home she asked me what I was staring at during the meal and why the heck wasn’t I staring at her. She boasted that she was a beautiful woman, but offered the remark with an anxious tone that appeared to say less about her looks and more about the fragility of her identity. I went to hug her but she pushed me away with one hand, contemptibly telling me not to come a step nearer. She started packing her clothes into a small suitcase, and left. As she exited the front door she told me someone else would pick up the rest of her things if I would be kind enough to put them into the other two suitcases.

I did, and after talking briefly to Amy on the phone couple of days later someone came to pick them up. It was Richard, though I’d never met him before and didn’t know what he looked like. As I let him into the flat he looked at me without shaking my hand and announced that he was Amy’s husband. He was a big man who looked like he was used to occupying spaces with authority, and my small flat and the righteous tone he felt justified in offering made him assume a looming largeness probably still more conspicuous than usual. The suitcases were in the boxroom. As I went to get them he followed me in and stood by the doorway as I went to grab them. As I turned with one heavy case in each hand, I caught him glancing at the painting of Amy that I was just finishing off, and then caught a punch from his flying fist. That was for ruining his marriage, he said, as he took the suitcases off me as I lifted the back of my hand to my nose and saw blood trickling between my fingers. I shook my head and told him just to get out, adopting a tone of righteousness equal to his own, even if his tone was misguided and mine ambiguous. He had hit the wrong man, yet I couldn’t say for sure whether he hit me because he thought I was the man who had cuckolded him, or because I had the temerity to paint the woman he was still technically married to in what he would no doubt have found an appallingly vulgar way. He probably wouldn’t have hit me if he hadn’t seen the painting; wouldn’t have it me if he knew I wasn’t the man who broke up his marriage. It was it seemed a combination of painterly fact and incorrect assumption.

Over the next few weeks Amy and I spoke on the phone three times. I phoned her twice, telling her on the first call that Richard had punched me, on the second that she still had a few things in the flat, including the Scrabble. The third time she phoned me, saying that she wanted the painting destroyed.  But you have never seen it I said. Exactly, she replied, saying Richard’s description was enough.

Over the following few months I heard from others that Amy was living again with Richard, and then someone said they had moved to London – Amy’s husband had got a new job. I also heard it said once or twice that I had almost destroyed their marriage.

8

For almost a year after Becky had moved in we were in a condition of harmonious happiness exemplified by our ability to work in the same small space whilst never getting on each other’s nerves, and so it might seem odd that it was a game of Scrabble that would lead to our break up. A couple of nights after the game Becky and I were lying in bed as she looked up once again at the Scrabble and said that the other night I acted a little suspiciously. I asked what she meant, and she said that I seemed to be hiding something, the way I took the bits out of the box and put them in again afterwards. I said that it was nothing, but as she pressed me I admitted the box contained information to which she might have been a little sensitive, and explained to her that when I opened it I noticed there were score sheets with little love hearts scribbled by Amy and her husband. Was that all that worried me she asked. That was all, I insisted, feeling relieved that I had spoken honestly to Becky, but oblivious to a lie she would have thought I had just offered. Over the next couple of months Becky and I were not living so happily. She rarely worked in the box room anymore and stayed late in the shop.  She still dressed in a very deliberate, colour co-ordinated manner, but it was as though now the clothes were like a screen to a personality I couldn’t quite access. Where before they seemed to reflect who she was; now they appeared as a series of uniforms she was wearing. Of course I tried to talk to her on a few occasions about the distance between us, but she said she was just very busy, and perhaps in time things would settle down.

Within three months Becky had moved out. She said that work was so hectic she felt that she hadn’t the time for a relationship, and would move back temporarily to Annie’s place. Of course I believed the break-up contained a sub-text to which I wasn’t privy (that perhaps there had been another man, perhaps I’d been more insensitive to her needs than I realized; less interested in her work than I thought). It was probably around six months after she moved out that I was passing the shop in the Grassmarket when I looked in and saw Annie at the counter. I went in and asked if Becky was around. She said Becky was no longer in Edinburgh – her mother was ill and she had moved back to Dublin. I said I was sad to hear this (as I recalled the couple of occasions that I had met her mum when she visited Edinburgh), and asked about the business. She said Becky wanted to get out of the city, and perhaps she would start a branch over in Ireland. I felt even sadder hearing that she had moved away, as though the despondency I felt over the parting had been too much concerned with my own feelings, but the dolefulness I now felt was a feeling more for Becky.

When I got back to the flat I took down again the game of Scrabble. I looked through the score sheets without this time any sense of happy if surreptitious haste and instead with measured melancholy. I flicked through them all and further down the pile I saw some scribblings on the back in Amy’s handwriting. I assumed they were thoughts she offered on paper the night that we intended to play but where I kept working. On them she had written about how fragile she felt since leaving her husband, and that of course this feeling of vulnerability wasn’t self-pitying but more one of self-loathing. Sleeping with another man while she was still married had too often robbed her of sleep when lying next to me, she had said, and yet I didn’t seem to notice. I only saw what I needed to extract for my own painterly preoccupations, and I would deflect discussing her doubts about leaving her husband by suggesting it had nothing do with me. She finished by saying perhaps one day we would eventually play the game and I would find on the back of some of the sheets thoughts that she couldn’t quite offer, or that I didn’t allow her to express.

The remarks she made were ambiguous for those not aware of the facts of her break-up; it appeared as though I was the man with whom she had left her husband over, and thus looked in the writing like someone who refused to take responsibility for his role in the affair. Did Becky open up the box and notice these remarks, and make a decision perhaps a little like the one she had made about her father? I have no idea, but it seemed indeed our relationship had entered its autumnal phase playing the game of Scrabble that I never quite got round to playing with Amy. It felt odd and apt that as I put the game away this time there was no one to play it with, but much about it as an object of some importance in my life to mull over. I returned to my tiny studio and worked on another painting.

 

©Tony McKibbin