Short story

Max loathed games. He described them as “bourgeois timewasters”, in his hard-line way. So we were surprised when one evening, he appeared round the side of the house with a Scrabble board tucked under his arm and a six pack of VB.

Caught with mouths full of sausage and salad, Vivian and I made Max welcome by the barbecue, sat him down and popped a beer in his hand. After all, Max wasn’t just a neighbour from down the road, but a fellow teacher.

The evening was balmy. For the first time that year we’d emerged onto the deck because of the arrival of not just the spring evening but also our son, Joel, and his wispy thin girlfriend, Marianne. I’d cranked up the barbecue for an al fresco dinner. The air was warm enough for t-shirts and cold drinks.

Our truck driving neighbour Griffo was already munching cheezles and drinking beer on the couch, making his hamster-fat face even fatter.

While I turned the remaining snags onto their hissing tummies, Max didn’t waste time. Through his half-moon glasses and teacher’s beard, he loudly denounced Xbox and Playstation to be implacably capitalist, suggesting an alternative – a return to wholesome board games.

“I’m sick to death of electronica, and Big Brother and all those bourgeois timewasters,” he predictably declaimed. “I’ve decided to fight back. I challenge you all to a game of The People’s Scrabble!”

Max’s intrusion had come at the right time. Conversation had flagged badly since Griffo had vaulted the fence to say “Gidday”. Viv, who’d witnessed the leap, described it as “awe inspiring”.

She’d said: “it was amazing he didn’t trip over one of his chins.” A million hamburgers and beers in his busy trucking life had blessed Griffo with a huge stomach, and massive ham-like arms.

Immediately after the vault, Griffo had come face to face with Joel, who he’d known since whipper-snapperdom. Joel had just dyed his hair bright orange.

“You look like a carrot!” Griffo had bellowed.

I’d laughed, and much to Joel’s disgust, invited Griffo to join us. He’d provided an excellent backup opinion to my horror at the lurid hairstyle. I was hoping for further assistance. Joel’s choice – carrothood – was appalling. I could cope with his demure neo-hippy girlfriend with her bangles and black lipstick, and their bonging on. But carrot hair? Joel looked like a clown, and Griffo has validated my view.

Thus the insulted Joel, his groovy girlfriend and Griffo frosted up a warm spring evening and conversation fizzled like a wet firestarter. When Max breezed in with his new game of ideologically sound Scrabble, Viv and I quickly agreed. On the grounds that it would be an icebreaker and more importantly, we were suckers for Scrabble.

“The People’s Scrabble is devised to afford amusement to the Party faithful,” began Max, unwrapping the board and sorting out tiles.

No doubt he’d played the game at Marxist summer schools which the Socialist Alliance ran. Max was toned himself down around us. We understood each other’s foibles because we’d taught together for many years. Perhaps he didn’t feel so defensive because of our mutual history.

His usual state of being – in mixed company – was intense, laughing harshly at Government perfidies, belittling the apathetic. And he was hotly intense, this warm spring evening.

As Max recited the rules, I could see Griffo stiffen. Griffo was indubitably a small businessman. His truck was his life. He admired John Howard. He was not comfortable around names like MARX and LENIN (20 extra points for leading revolutionary figures) or key revolutionary words such as COMRADE or BARRICADE (5 points for revolutionary rhetoric and 20 extra if the word crosses a red square). Such words made Griffo’s “blood boil”. They were “unaustralian” and beyond his scope of things.  Griffo was a fan of small talk – “a good run in the truck”, “Nita’s crook at me”, “it’s turned out nice today”.

Max enjoyed the opposite – big talk, I suppose – “Globalisation is a declared war against the social democratic experiment…there’s only one answer and that’s to fight fire with fire!” he’d opine.

But Max, in his own way, could be entertaining, and The People’s Scrabble did sound entertaining.

Joel looked impassive. Marianne listened, brow knitted, nodding at each point of principle. Griffo squirmed.

“There’s a big 200 points for anyone who puts down TROTSKY,” Max said, rounding up.

Marianne wittily (for once) said: “Stalin got those 200 points years ago in Mexico City.”

Max waved his hands dismissively. “This rule has been designed because TROTSKY is a five million to one chance. I am not out to offend Maoists, but MAO is a dime a dozen.”

Griffo bristled again. He heaved himself out of the couch and began to make apologies. “See you later folks, thanks for the tea.” A half bitten sausage lay in a lake of tomato sauce. A full stubby sat beside the plate.

“Hey stay for one game,” Max said gently. “It’s not that difficult to play. Have a trial run. It’s fun.”

“Look I’m not really good with my spelling and anyway, I’ve got a run through to Wodonga at sparrows fart,” Griffo said.

Max persevered: “You can put normal non-revolutionary words down as well, like a normal scrabble game.”

“Max, I’ve got to organize some gear on my tray,” insisted Griffo.

“Come again?” said Max. Griffo looked pained.

“On my truck. For the run to Wodonga tomorrow. I have to sort out the stuff on my tray.”

“Look Griffo. You drive a truck…this is really a game for people such as yourself. It’s the People’s Scrabble.”

Viv, embarrassed at Max’s 1) radical evangelism and 2) his complete inability to understand where Griffo was coming from, shuffled some plates together and scuttled to the kitchen. Then Joel, my normally silent son broke in.

“I’ll tell you what, Griffo,” he said. “You still haven’t finished your meal or your beer. How’s about I forget about the carrot comment,” they both laughed, “and we team up to beat these pinkos?”.

Griffo laughed again and said okay. Marianne scowled at Joel. Max smiled benignly.  I went to the kitchen to tell Viv that Joel, the master diplomat had defused the situation, but I added: “Max doesn’t realize that Griffo is as right wing as they come. He voted for Hanson in ‘98.”

“Max wouldn’t comprehend we’d even break bread with people like Griffo,” said Viv. “Its awwwwkward.”

Viv hated awkward.

“Well he’s agreed to play with Joel’s assistance,” I said compiling a few more celery sticks with a knife.

Griffo was indeed a difficult neighbor on several counts, though he was genuine enough, and good humoured. He and his wife Anita would argue, voices floating through the garden gum trees, about his long absences on the driving runs, while she had to cope with the kids. Then shortly after the argument, he’d turn up on our back doorstep, extending the long absence. Cheerful, thick-skinned, he’d look to us for refuge. Us. A couple of middle-aged schoolteachers with essays to mark.

Then the following day, after Griffo’s departure for Darwin or Adelaide, we’d get Anita, face like fizz, left to cope for another week or so. Our house had become, over the years, their valve. Or perhaps their buffer zone. The kids – three of them – were generally invisible unless a cricket ball lobbed over the fence. Together, apart, Griffo and Anita would consume lots of our tea and beer.

Settling down with chips, dips and a disgusting old cask of Shiraz, we Scrabbled.

We manned the little people’s barricades (1848, 1968) with tiles, and commenced play. Viv and I teamed up as well, but Max and Marianne elected to go solo. Viv picked up ISHOBAT, but Max, who’d won first tile pick-up, had first go, throwing down the seven letter FERMENT (as in revolutionary) scoring an extra 10 for a revolutionary word. This was questioned by Marianne and defended by an apt quote from Che Guevara. 73 to Max.

“Something of a scholar, are we?” said Griffo, even more annoyed he’d decided to play. Joel whispered something in Griffo’s ear and he grinned. Marianne’s lip pouted further as she flicked her tiles around. Viv fought back with an easy MAO. 20 extra for a leading revolutionary figure.

“Told you MAO was as common as muck,” said Max.

Marianne opted for PROFITS. Max argued that this was the vocabulary of capitalism and not revolution.

“What’s wrong with bloody profits,” sneered Griffo. “Profits are what keeps the country going, gives us growth and jobs. Keeps the wheels of my truck turning.” There was an embarrassed pause. Marianne, with her quiet voice pointed out that PROFITS was, in fact, a favourite word of Marx and Lenin who used it in constructing their dialectic. I agreed. Max backed down.

The purpose of the game was becoming clear. This version of Scrabble was designed for arguments rather than fun. Big talk rather than small talk. One person’s slogan is another’s active verb, and Max’s full frontal attack on a player’s choice of word was not an easy way of getting points, but a means to score ideological triumphs without any responsibility.

No wonder Max liked it.

Griffo and Joel fought this grand plan by popping FOX on a triple letter and getting 39.

“Not very revolutionary,” Max snapped.

Griffo shrugged. “It’s profitable,” he said.

After a long period of shuffling, Max put PRAVDA across a pink square. Ten extra for a pinko word.

“It means Truth in Russian,” he said to Griffo, with a conspiratorial smile.

“It means bullshit in English,” Griffo replied, bluntly. Marianne laughed. Max gave us a look as if to say “where did this right-wing wacker come from?”

I amalgamated tiles and put BRITISH on the board though Viv wanted to shuffle up a slogan to match Max’s flow.

“Coalition of the Willing. Minus points for imperialists,” Max said.

“BRITISH is all right,” I said. “It’s not revolutionary but if we can put down proper nouns and adjectives, then its okay.”

“You never mentioned minusing anything,” Griffo added. Max grimaced, as if we’d sullied the People’s Scrabble.”

“Oh for God’s sake, let them have their points,” said Marianne with a world-weary sigh. “I was born in Huddersfield and I’m no imperialist.”

Marianne then put down ROSA creating SO and AX on the cross tiles.

“Come again,” said Max.

“ROSA. ROSA Luxemburg. A real revolutionary. That’s 38 points thanks.”

“How do you know about Rosa Luxemburg,” I asked?

“In Politics One. Then I read lots more about her. She took Lenin to task on his nationalistic version of communism,” Marianne started to explain, but Max, who looked slightly dazed, started to question Rosa Luxemburg’s credentials as a leading figure in the revolutionary movement, inciting Marianne to an unusual burst of passion.

In fact, she removed the cigarette from her mouth with some violence and said: “Rosa died for the cause, you dickhead. She was murdered by the German Freikorp and her corpse was thrown in a canal.”

“But, was it not a gratuitous death…not martyrdom…and her death gave Hitler his first burst of cred…” Max babbled. “She was peripheral.”

“Hell NO!” yelled Marianne vehemently, “She was the greatest!” They glared at one another. Max sniffed. Again.

I leant over to Viv and whispered in her ear: “Not only a funny haircut and a stoner, but he’s hanging out with Ulrike Meinhoff.”

“Shhhh,” said Viv. “Doesn’t matter. I wanted to be a martyred nun, once.”

Suddenly a violent roar rang out in the gloaming.

“Definite deductions here,” shouted Max.

“No bloody way,” said Griffo. “Big points! Big points!”

Joel was grinning like a Croc, as he did every time he’d been too tricky for his own boots. THATCHER was spread across the board with the use of a blank tile, from the triple word square at the top. I persuaded Max, in a blind ideological fury, to calm down, and listen to the opposing teams argument.

Joel started: “Margaret Thatcher was a serious world altering figure. Sure, she crushed the miners, but she changed the face of the British economy from one that was stagnant to one that is still booming. We claim 20 extra points for a leading revolutionary figure!”

Max was making gargling strangled noises. He took a deep breath: “She wrecked the place! She’s given John Howard all his rotten ideas. She wrecked the National health service. What about the Falklands?”

“Ahhh,” said Joel. “Falklands Shmalklands. It’s a British Labour Government that’s invaded Iraq!”

Marianne piped in: “There’s no revolution without force. Is it not the midwife to a new order…”

“Listen kid,” said Max “You can’t quote Marx in application to Thatcher. She’s not a left wing revolutionary.”

“When you spelt out the rules, Max, you never stated the revolution had to be left wing,” said my wife calmly. “And you can’t just assume that we’d assume that.”

There was a long pause while Max looked at us. “It’s the People’s Scrabble. It goes without saying. You’re not in agreement that THATCHER should go down? Are you? I mean, this game was designed for the enjoyment of the workers.”

He was clearly upset. I could see where Max was coming from. It galled me that Joel had found the loophole in the rules and was getting away with THATCHER.

I suggested we vote. Only Max and I voted against, and Griffo and Joel got their extra 20 points for a leading revolutionary figure. Max looked at me and said: “thanks for your support comrade”, and gazed at the rest sadly through his little half moon glasses.

I made sure everyone’s drink was topped up in a feeble attempt to relax the players.

Max then put BLOOD down in reference to “staining the wattle.” Viv and I popped DÉTENTE down and were called revisionists for our trouble, but we picked up R,K and Y on the rebound and Viv nudged me in a meaningful way, putting the letters to one end of the rack.

Marianne played AWARE and apologised sincerely that it wasn’t AWARENESS. I wasn’t sure if she was joking.

“No worries,” said Max as he chewed his fingernail. Joel got excited when he put OGPU down.

“That’s a kind of deer, isn’t it?” said Griffo.

We all looked at Max. “I’m not making excuses for the activities of the Soviet Secret police. Soviet industrialization would not have been possible without eliminating the enemies of the Government. It meant, in the forties, the USSR had the wherewithall to crush of the NAZI menace at Stalingrad. It’s a no brainer.”

“Is that a quote from Marx too?” asked Griffo puzzled.

Max turned to Marianne and Joel.

“You have to believe, whatever they tell you in Politics One, that Hitler’s defeat was only made a certainty with the rapid Soviet industrial advances. They had to get rid of the old order through ideological discipline. That’s what OGPU were about.”

“The secret police.” explained Joel to Griffo.

“Like ASIO?”

“A bit,” said Joel, uncertainly.

Max chewed his celery stick and put down GUM as “the people’s department store”, further identifying himself with the old Soviet Bloc. GUM lay on a pink square and he argued vociferously about its role as a tool of the Socialist state.

“How can a shop be a tool of anything except to make money?” Griffo said. “A shop’s a shop.”

Max looked so miserable we voted him the extra 5 points for a revolutionary word.

Our QUELL wasn’t interesting but Marianne continued to align herself with the Euro intellectual left by bunging YAGODA on the board stating he was a Bolshevik “purged by Uncle Joe”. Max had never heard of Yagoda. Neither had we, but no one had the moral fibre to question her word. She waited for the burst of animated questioning, received none, so to prove her point stated: “In 1934 when Yagoda was in charge of the NKVD he arrested Zinoviev for allegedly plotting with Trotsky. Four years later, Yagoda himself was arrested and executed in 1938 for the same crime – allegedly plotting with Trotsky. They were a great bunch of guys, Max….”

He went harrumph, and she raked in 33 points.

I wondered whether YAGODA was a figment of her scrabble tiles.

Marianne was beginning to irritate Max for some reason. Joel and Griffo’s ZEN landed on a red square and he argued on behalf of the revolution of love and peace in the 1960s. Max retorted that it had been a pseudo-revolution of 60’s American WASP teenagers; it had been an abject failure, and they were all voting for George W Bush at this very minute.

Marianne reminded Max that California, home of the flower children, had voted for Kerry, but we agreed with Max’s sentiments and Joel laughed and accused us of “not being groovers”. Marianne sat back, impassively, like an OGPU operative, staring at her tiles. We had a non-revolutionary round with SOME, ZEE and JAUNTY (which missed a double word by a hairsbreath). With pure blind luck our R,K and Y was joined by S, O  and a blank. From the top T in THATCHER we ran the 200 plus word TROTSKY (just missing out on the other triple word square).

TROTSKY catapulted us into the lead and Max conceded that the game was over, won by us.

“Bloody beauty,” said Griffo, heaving a sigh of relief.

“I’ve never seen TROTSKY been done before,” said Max. “Its like a hole-in-one.” He was beaming in admiration.

“Viv stashed the K,S and Y away when we thought we had the chance,” I replied proudly.

“Good tactics,” said Max relaxing. He scanned the board with his half-moon glasses and then his beard began to bristle. “what the…what the…” he started pointing. “What the hells going on??”

I looked and couldn’t see a thing. Marianne burst out: “there are three blanks on the board!” In Scrabble, there are only two blanks in the bag. Someone had cheated.

Viv picked up the blank in TROTSKY. It was a blank. She picked the blank up in FERMENT and turned it over. It was a blank. She picked the blank up in THATCHER and turned it over. It was the letter I. A faked up blank. The tone in Max’s voice rose exponentially in his anger… “THERE ARE RULES TO MAKE THIS GAME ENJOYABLE.”

“It was a tactic,” said Joel waving the issue away with his hand. “We couldn’t see anything else and we had all the rest of the tiles for THATCHER.”

“It was an opportunity,” added Griffo.

“Bugger that,” said Max. “You bloody opportunists…you come in here and put your right-wing shit on the Scrabble board and wreck it by cheating. What sort of attitude is that?” He was shaking in indignation. Griffo and Joel were shaking with laughter. And though I could see the funny side, I felt very sorry for Max. Marianne quietly lit another cigarette and tucked herself back into her chair, recoiling from the Storm and Drang.

“It’s only a game,” said Viv.

“It was a joke,” said Joel.

“No it wasn’t. It’s a game with rules and you’ve been dishonest,” said Max clearing everything up in record time and sticking the box under his arm. “You two should wake up to yourselves.” He left without another word. Griffo shook his head. “Silly bugger,” he muttered.

We sat quietly listening to the crickets. I thought about how serious Max was about the whole thing, in contrast to the dismissiveness and hilarity of Griffo and Joel. I decided Max the right to feel dudded. I also decided that Max, Joel and Griffo were Scrabbling in parallel universes.

We found the remainder of his six-pack beside the couch and passed them around. Marianne said she was disappointed at coming third but didn’t grudge us our TROTSKY. Griffo thanked Joel with a pat on his back and apologized for the “crack about the carrot.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Joel, “have a safe drive tomorrow.”

We didn’t see Max again until term began and it took several months before he could be coaxed over for a drink. I never worked out whether he’d stayed away because he was still angry, or because he thought our politics were suspect.

Marianne and Joel are still together, still doing Politics One, but my errant son got sick of the colour of his hair and shaved it all off.

Griffo looked over the fence the other day, saw him, and told him he looked like a lollipop.

First Published in Island Magazine, 2008