There were four playing.
The host, Adam, had made sure to sit with his back to the window, giving him a conveniently flattering glow around his head as the sun began to set behind the neighbouring rooftops. He had also placed an extra cushion on his chair, raising him slightly above the other three players.
To his right sat Alice. She was a secretary in the law firm where Adam was a partner. He called her “Wonderful Alice” at the office, attempting a play on “Alice in Wonderland” that didn’t quite work. But he did indeed think her quite wonderful and was hoping that this visit to his apartment would not be the last. Alice in turn felt a little uncomfortable — she’d thought it unwise to turn down Adam’s invitation, but was regretting that she hadn’t.
Next to Alice and opposite Adam was Henry, a kindly looking and indeed kind old gentleman with grey hair, one of the senior lawyers at the firm whom Adam had invited to lend the evening a touch of respectability and give Alice a sense of security.
Finally, to Adam’s left sat Danny, a trainee lawyer who was there merely to be a foil for Adam’s wit and intelligence. Danny had actually thought the invitation rather odd — he knew that the other trainees in the firm were all brighter than him. He wasn’t stupid, though, and was aware that any social relationship with the partners could gain him an advantage when the inevitable trainee cull came later in the year. So he’d accepted the invitation gladly, and even more so when he found out that Alice would be going too; Adam wasn’t the only one who thought her wonderful.
They were halfway through the game. Adam, as he’d fully expected, was sailing out in front, with Henry a close and deliberate second. He’d been a Scrabble champion when he was younger but was reining in his skills this evening in deference to Adam; he hadn’t survived so long in the firm by showing up his hierarchical superiors. Alice was trying her best and doing quite well, testament to the vocabulary she’d picked up solving word puzzles on the commute to and from work every day.
But Danny … Danny was having a torrid time of it. When Adam had suggested Scrabble after dinner, his heart sank. He hated it because he’d never been any good at it; he’d never widened his vocabulary much because he read little. As for spelling, computer spell-checks had often saved him from sending out e-mails with mistakes in them, but they hadn’t prepared him for evenings such as this.
The game was suspended while Adam regaled the others with a description of a recent trip.
“So yes, for all those reasons, Guernica is an absolute wonder.” He stressed the last word and added: “You really must visit Madrid, you know,” ostensibly addressing everyone but turning to Alice as he said it.
Alice fixed her eyes on her letters and pretended to be concentrating, but it was Danny’s turn. The last time he’d felt as dumb as he was feeling this evening was when he was at primary school. The letters on his rack swam about before his eyes.
Not getting a reaction from Alice, Adam huffed at Danny: “Come on Daniel, we haven’t got all night. I hope you’re quicker than this when you’re at work.”
There are moments in one’s life when a bolt of inspiration strikes. Adam’s comment — emphasizing his power in the office with what Danny took as a veiled threat to his future job security — triggered just such a moment in him.
A couple of turns before, Henry had placed a word on the board and it was still sitting there, intact. The letters on Danny’s rack suddenly stopped swimming about and arranged themselves in his mind into a perfect way to extend the existing word. He grinned, placed the letters on the board and sat back to wait for the compliments.
Only they didn’t come. After a brief, ominous silence, Adam burst out laughing and clapped his hands with glee. Alice shot Danny a sympathetic look. Henry, always one to avoid confrontation, excused himself to go to the bathroom.
“Priceless,” Adam hooted. “Ab-so-lute-ly price-less.”
A bemused Danny looked at the board. He’d extended Henry’s ‘ELECT’ with ‘INT’ at the beginning and ‘UAL’ at the end, making ‘INTELECTUAL’. He couldn’t see the problem.
Between guffaws, Adam managed to gasp: “Two. There are two ‘Ls’ in ‘intellectual’! Which …” — he paused for breath between laughs — “… which it seems, my dear boy, you definitely are not!” He leaned back in his chair and laughed some more.
Looking over at the crestfallen Danny, Alice seemed to make up her mind about something. She took a deep breath.
“But there are two in Danny’s word.” Alice caught Adam in mid-snort.
“What?” he said, the laughter replaced by an awkward smirk.
Alice winked conspiratorially at Danny. “There are two ‘Ls’. Look. One in the middle and one at the end.”
Adam laughed again, this time a little uncomfortably.
“Ah yes, very good, Alice. Very good.”
Alice smiled innocently at him. He was on the back foot now, his confidence momentarily jolted by the unexpected and, yes, effectively insubordinate nature of Alice’s observation.
“Ha ha, yes … well … perhaps it’s time for some coffee. I’ll just …”
He got up smartly and disappeared into the kitchen. Alice wasted no time.
“Danny, have you got your car?” she whispered urgently, and when he nodded, she stood up. “Let’s go then!”
“I don’t know. I …” There was his job to think about.
But then there was the humiliation. And there were other firms. And here was Alice, asking for a lift.
“To hell with it! Let’s go!”
Alice took his hand and they scurried out of the apartment, careful not to make a sound.
When Adam brought the coffees through on a tray, Henry was back at the table, putting the Scrabble pieces away.
“Game over, I think,” he said, with the faintest trace of a smile on his lips.