Strange. Where is everyone tonight? The neck of the wine bottle slides as condensation meets the sudden sweat in my palm. I grab it, stabilising the bottle, my stomach clenching, my ears ready for the crash on the concrete. It survives, but my nerves now have jagged edges. I lock my BMW and search up and down for the other company cars that usually line the road. Outwardly, everything seems the same. Brian’s lights are on, and through the gap in the curtains I can see the games table set up and ready, next to the waiting, empty row of glasses. But a couple of the street lamps opposite flicker, casting shadows in front, then behind me, at will. And something about it makes me shudder.
Lizzy has already taken Brian’s Corsa, I see. She’s done her so-called duty – food on the sideboard, always with a cheeky note, like last week’s ‘Fancy a nibble?’ next to the nuts. She’s always gone by the time the lads arrive. She’s good at being discreet; we both have been, I think. Necessity dictates it. But as I ring the door-bell I can’t get her words out of my head, as she’d laid naked in the hotel bed with our crumpled sheets draped over her legs:
‘He’s acting very oddly this week. He keeps staring at me and starting to speak, then walking away. And his cheeks are all red. He’s never red.’
It had really bothered her. At the window, wound in the white duvet which made her look like a cousin of the marshmallow man, and standing there chewing her lip, she’d said, ‘This is fun, isn’t it?’ And I’d had the feeling that it hadn’t been a rhetorical question this week.
Why is Brian taking so long to answer? Where are the others’ cars? I plaster my face into a smooth, toothy grin as always, but my heart is thumping just a little more violently than I would like.
‘Hello, Mike.’ Brian’s smooth grey suit complements his hair, and I somehow feel rather inadequate, in my fake leather jacket and jeans. My smile grows wider, falser, as his hand grasps and shakes mine, and my eyes fix onto the corkscrew he’s holding. His left index finger presses against the tip until I wince, but he doesn’t seem to notice the near-hole he’s creating.
‘Am I the first one?’ As I look at him, his craggy face has an unfamiliar flush.
‘The others aren’t coming. It’s just us tonight.’ His smile sticks to his normally dead-pan face. I close the door behind me and the clunk makes me jump. Did he smirk?
‘We’re playing Scrabble this evening. I thought it was about time we played,’ he says, and I sit down and watch him force the corkscrew into my wine bottle. His knuckles turn white as he mutilates the cork. We haven’t played Scrabble together since we were twenty-three, and the odds were stacked in my favour – the English Literature graduate with the better game plan. We had played out our duel for the right to pursue Helen’s affections, and he’d been magnanimous in defeat, even when I married her. Poor Helen. Did I marry her just because I could, just because Brian wanted her?
I glance over at the sideboard. There’s the saucy little note next to the wine bottles, to make the lads laugh, because everyone knows how devoted Lizzy and Brian are to one another. ‘Fancy a quick one?’ it says – for my benefit.
‘Is the beautiful Helen still at home?’ Brian’s hand shakes as he holds my poured glass, and a splash of red wine stains the Scrabble board. It lays there, like a globule of blood on a paving slab, and my stomach develops involuntary pins and needles which spread down my legs and into my leaden feet. I’m in two minds whether to stay or leave, but my feet won’t move. So, I have to answer.
‘As far as I know. She does her own thing, most days.’ Is that a sneer on Brian’s lips?
‘Just like you, eh?’ He laughs, and I laugh, too, but it sounds hollow, and the air in the room feels cold. So I stare at the Scrabble board, shifting around on what is normally a very comfortable seat.
‘Cheese?’ The stench thrust right under my nose wrenches my lowered, uneasy head upright. Brian looms over me, a gargantuan cheese board between his palms. They’re all here – Camembert, Brie, Wensleydale with cranberries, blue Stilton – and surrounded by the most substantial garnish of fruit fripperies I can ever recall seeing. His mouth smiles, but his eyes dart to and fro, and he just seems to be trying a little too hard to please.
He sits down opposite me, in hunter pose, as I refuse the food, and the cheese mountain perches as uneasily as I do next to the Scrabble board, as we choose our letters and the game begins.
Brian smiles. Maybe it’s just an overactive imagination and too many horror films, but the thinness of his pale lips as they reveal his upper row of yellowing teeth makes me shiver. His word lays on the board: C-U-C-K-O-L-D. I daren’t catch his eye. He’s blinking fiercely and he downs his glass of red in a single mouthful. So, this is it, is it? The reason I’m facing him alone. Where did those letters come from? And nineteen points isn’t bad to start with. How will the game play out, I wonder?
My word goes down. H-A-N-G-E, to add to the C. That’s better – a twenty-four point, double word score retaliation. I suppose it was true that I’d wanted some kind of change in my life, instead of the same tired conversations over money with Helen. And there was Lizzy, all duty and show, secretly trying to escape the greying hair she slept next to every night. It seemed a good idea; a bit of fun, just like she said.
The beads of sweat begin to glimmer under Brian’s eye sockets. He necks his next full glass.
‘Refill?’ The veins in Brian’s eyes colour them pink as he thrusts the bottle neck towards my cheek. I flinch.
I hold up my hand in decline. Tonight isn’t a social evening. He lays down his next challenge to me. D-E-C-E-I-T. Was this just coincidence, or careful planning? He knows, doesn’t he? Has he told Helen, I wonder, or does he want to inflict his own secretive, private torture? Certainly, Helen’s not given me any indication that anything’s changed – although she’s hardly been in the house this week. Not if I’m around.
I have to retaliate, because he’s not going to let me concede. Not tonight. So I raise my heckles, too, using my appalling hand of letters as best I can, and snipe back with B-O-R-E-D. Sixteen points, and feeble. Not much justification, is it, for what we – I – have done to Brian? That’s all I am to Lizzy, though; a respite from the boredom of a ‘perfect’ lifestyle. It’s been clear from the beginning and we’ve never pretended otherwise to each other. She wanted relief from the computer analyst in the grey suit, and I never wanted to leave Helen. I know our marriage isn’t good at the moment – my fault – but with some effort…
W-R-O-N-G. Brian’s quivering hand buffs the letter up against each other. I make an effort on the score card, concentrating hard on the sheet as he cuts another piece of cheese. He holds the thick wooden knife handle close to his eyes, lining up my face down the length of the blade. His face is wet, his breath is heavy. What can I do, cornered here with my back to the wall? So, like the honourable friend I am, I lie – quickly. E-N-D-E-D. A pathetic eight points. He’s beating me; I chew the skin around my thumb until it bleeds. And I can’t take my eyes off the sweating, desperate face, and the sharp, gleaming blade, pointing at me as Brian screws his clammy fingers around the dark wood. I don’t think he cares now. I’m too late, months too late, to stop him. And there’s no one here but us.
Brian’s word shakes the very soul in my conniving body. R-E-V-E-N-G-E sits there on the board to terrify me. I don’t know how he’s fixed his letters, but he’s clever. Cleverer at the game than I ever remember. I face him, and his eyes are red as the wine he chucks down his throat. He holds the handle of the cheese knife to his mouth. It’s nearly invisible in the full force of his tightening hand. All I want is to get out of that room, but there’s nowhere to go. We’ve got to finish the game.
I lay down my final, feeble gambit: S-O-R-R-Y. My head hangs and the tears sit in pools in the corners of my eyes. Brian has the knife across the palm of his left hand and the repeated back and forth motion of the stubby handle forces the blade into the flesh below his thumb. I hear the hiss from his lips as the skin breaks. Still I can’t raise my head, but I feel the table rock as he stands.
The Scrabble board clatters to the floor with one fierce swipe of his hurt hand. I struggle to straighten my neck a little and face the knife in his fist as it hurtles down towards me. And I cower and whine like the desperate, pathetic creature that I am.
I can feel nothing. Why? I lift my shaking hands from my face and the sweat falls from my fingers. The knife is there, stuck up to the hilt, and the cheese has split in half with its force. Brian sits opposite me once again, his face motionless, and I avoid it, totting up the score instead. But I have to face up to him. Slowly, my eyes raise to meet his, but the noise stops me in my tracks. It shrieks like a dying pig and I feel sick, because when I look, Brian is crying, wailing. What have I done? He’s supposed to be my best friend.
I’m no good at this sort of thing. I creep round to Brian’s side of the table and gingerly put my hand on his shoulder, but I expect him to lay me out with his massive fists, rather than let me touch him. He whirls around and, for a moment, I think I’m actually going to throw up as he pins me with his arms. He clings to me, wailing, ‘Sorry? That doesn’t get even close to how I feel.’
Then he lets me have it, both barrels, through my shallow, pathetic heart. ‘Helen wanted to tell you about us, but she couldn’t. So I said I’d find a way, but I couldn’t find the words. She’s packed her things. I knew you’d understand – if we played the game – if I told you this way. Neither of us wants to make it worse for you than it is already.’
I’m speechless. I can picture Helen, as I left, watching me out of the bedroom window. Did she whip her packed cases out from under the bed before I’d even started the engine? Brian stands within reach, arms hung at his sides, submissive.
‘You want to get your own back, to take it out on me, I’m sure. Just hit me, mate. I’ll be glad if you do.’
What can I do? I pick up my jacket and walk silently past him, past the fripperies and the game, in pieces. As I leave, I give him a wry smile. Maybe he’ll remember it from the old days when I used to charm his prospective girlfriends into bed, and notch up the score. ‘You played well, tonight. Seventy-four points to fifty-seven. You won the game – in the end.’
I don’t leave my car up the driveway so I have an excuse to fetch it in the morning. Not this time. I’m as sober as they come, tonight. As I start the engine, all I can hear whirring round my head in a tortuous loop are Lizzy’s words that last time I saw her, before she walked out on me at the hotel. I think, at last, I can answer her question honestly.
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