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family rules


My little girl reaches into the Scrabble bag and pulls out a tile.

She opens her hand ever-so-slowly and her face beams with alphabetty-pleasure as she immediately starts laying out her next word on the board.

She puts down a H connected to an A from the word “SPADE” followed by a P,P,Y.

“Happy,” she says triumphantly “that’s triple points!”

“No, it’s not,” her big brother says, “happy, strictly speaking, is not a beach word.”

We’re playing family-rules Scrabble.  And as we’re sitting around the garden table in the backyard of the Rye coast cottage, the theme-of-the-day is “beach”.

By our rules that means triple score for any word that is beachy.

My daughter looks at her big brother. She academy-award-dramatically wrinkles her nose, as if she has suddenly sniffed a vile-smell, then she pushes back on her plastic chair, stands up and tells us that she is going in to get a drink.

“Mum,” she says pointedly, as she walks through the door “would you like one?”

Her brother looks miffed.

“What did you expect?” I say to him. He shrugs, tells me he doesn’t really care, and gets up to go get his own drink.

I know world-war-three-and-a-bit is highly likely to erupt within the kitchen, but I just sit there, looking at the board and all the words that we’ve laid out this evening.

I’ve got one of those fancy Scrabble games, the kind in a lovely hard green tin with a board that has plastic ridges so the tiles don’t move all over the place. It’s nothing like the first board I ever played on, which was flat and came in a purplish cardboard box with the word Scrabble stamped in gold on the front.

I put my hand into the green drawstring letter-bag. I swish the tiles around feeling their smooth planes and listening to them clinking softly together and I remember all the times I reached my little girl’s hand into a plastic floral toilet bag at my Grandmother’s house, silently pleading to the alphabet-gods for an E or an A or any other letter that would save me.

Gran and I’d sit together at the colonial wooden table and play Scrabble for hours.

It was our kitchen then, all quiet, just the two of us.

Words and tea and the smell of Bournville hot cocoa warming in a little pot on the stove.

We played strictly by the rules. There were never concessions made because I was a child. She rested her elbow on an old dictionary, tapping her cigarette into a little ceramic ashtray and sipping her cuppa-tea… strong, no sugar and the merest dash of milk. Barely enough to colour the brew.

I worked hard to impress her and I swelled when she’d nod her head with pride at a word I laid out.

“That’s a beauty.” she’d say.

But even better than that was any time when the scores were tallied and she’d utter those magic words…

 “Aha! You’re beating me.”

Come to think of it… I’m sure that was her favourite part of the game also.

The kids have come back now armed with drinks and snacks.

“Well?” my daughter says “Is it a triple score or not?”

It’s hardly a tough question but I look at the board and think about my Gran again.

Those games with her really taught me about the worth of rules. In treating me as an equal player there were lessons to be learnt about the old-fashioned-values of getting ahead by using your brains. She never praised falsely. So achievement was more precious.
I grew up knowing that she valued rules. But I knew she valued smarts even more.

I received an early morning phone call. You know the kind…the ‘better come soon’ kind.

Last chance to say goodbye kind.

I walked slowly down the green vinyl hall of the hospital. Dread weighed down my heels.

In the little white ward the family I rarely saw, her children and grandchildren, moved away from the bed to the edges of the room, watching quietly as the black sheep walked forwards, readying words for a last farewell.

But my Gran,

my Scrabble playing,

word loving Gran,

wasn’t in that room.

Yes, there was still breath in the body. Raggedy gasps strangled by pethadine. But no Gran. 

The being on the sterile hospital bed was only skin and flesh and hair and hot, hot bones.
Burning bones.

The sticks that were once her softly rounded arms moved instinctively, throwing off the bedclothes in a primal need to be cool.

And she was naked underneath.

It incensed me that not one person was doing anything to maintain her privacy.

I buzzed the nurse and insisted that they bring one of those contraptions, the kind that raise the sheets up high off the patient. A cradle? The nurse said. Yes. Whatever the fuck the damn thing is called, just bring it. Yes. Please bring a cradle urgently, thank you. Oh, the nurse said, we don’t use those in oncology.

I wanted her body to be comfortable.

I wanted her soul to have dignity.

I told the nurse that now there were new rules.
I told her to go. get. the. cradle. immediately.

Then I left without saying goodbye.

I realise my daughter is still waiting for my decision on the whole is-it-a-triple-word-score issue when I have a belated-epiphany. It was my Gran who inspired my love of words. I’m a bit dumbstruck as to why I’d never realised it before.

I can see her now, wading in the water’s edge with me. She’s wearing bathers, one piece, with a marvelous brown and green seventies print and an attached swim-skirt, for modesty, even though she has loads of bosomy cleavage on show.

We’re making up a poem together, about the seaside, and as we come up with a new line she sings it out in her lilting Irish tone.

And she’s holding my hand tight as we rush in and out of the water letting the tide chase us and laughing when it swishes up our ankles.

God she had the best laugh.

At the end of our day at the beach she drove us home. I stood on my tip-toes, kissed her salty cheek and said goodbye.

“Never say goodbye darlin’,” she said “you always say Cheerio …because that way we’ll always meet again.”

“Yes,” I say, watching my daughter strike a victory pose. “I declare happy is certainly a beachy word.”
I look back down at the board.

“It’s most definitely a triple word score… my love.”

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