Scrabble nights were a Montague family tradition. Played on a table, with an old-fashioned board and tiles, and not online. And when I became, as my other half Owen put it (and I told myself of course he was being ironic) part of the clan I was delighted to find that out. After all, I was a lover of words myself. I devoured them and played with them, and savoured them and felt something akin to panic if I didn’t have a crossword within access.
“You’ll learn, Janice,” Lana said. Lana wasn’t technically my sister- in- law, as Owen (who could be a tad pedantic) pointed out. She wasn’t his sister, but his brother Mike’s wife. Anyway, it didn’t matter. Sisters-in-law or not, we got on splendidly. But I still thought she could be a bit melodramatic. If it was that bad, I thought, then surely Lana, who was nobody’s patsy, would have withdrawn from the whole rigmarole long since. “Thing is” she also said, “Something keeps drawing you back. The next time will be fine, you think.”
Her prophesy was correct. I learnt. And I still kept coming back. Even though I could have thought of plenty less stressful ways of spending an evening, like trying to solve the diplomatic problems of the Middle East, or finding the next million digits of Pi, or giving a cat obedience training.
We were all competitive and tried to get away with things. There’s no point to playing scrabble if you’re not and you don’t. But my mother-in-law, Heather, had raised it to some kind of infernal art form.
Now let’s get this straight. Heather was most emphatically not the mother-in-law from hell. She was, for the most part, an absolute sweetheart, and though I feel vaguely disloyal saying it (even though Mum has frankly said she doesn’t blame me) I tend to get on better with her than with my own mother! She offered advice, generally good, but never forced it on us nor took offence if it wasn’t taken, was the soul of tact and patience, and no plaster saint either, but great company, with a wry and sometimes surprisingly earthy sense of humour.
I genuinely wanted to avoid making an allusion to Jekyll and Hyde. Heather (well, so far as I know!) never partook of any strange potions, nor did smoke come out of her ears, nor did she foam at the mouth let alone develop murderous urges. But once she sat down for a game of scrabble, oh, my word, did she undergo a transformation! And she expected dictionaries to undergo one, too.
Now I would be the last one to criticise anyone for adventurous use of language. And some of Heather’s neologisms were, in fact, decidedly expressive. But they were most definitely not on the official scrabble word list even after its expansion – and for what it might prove, she was definitely a traditionalist about whether proper nouns should be allowed!
It also did not escape my notice – or anyone else’s – that when she was playing scrabble, Heather’s Neologisms – which sounded a bit like the name of a rock band – lost a certain amount of their randomness and tended to be high-scoring. For instance a Wazzock was – well, basically a prat, but prat would garner a pitifully low score. She swore that Junquette was an acceptable alternative spelling of junket or alternatively a small Chinese boat. Yet she still, though very politely, had the cheek to point out that technically I couldn’t have mooses as moose was both singular and plural. Fair enough, she gave way on that one, and preceded to produce quinjy as meaning dingy in the extreme. Fivefold, presumably.
I approached that particular scrabble evening not in a particularly good mood to start with. I’d had a problematic day at work, though my colleague Amy pointed out that at least we’d got all the awkward customers over with at one go, but I had a nasty feeling life didn’t always work out like that. I also had a pulled muscle in my back, the kind of injury that you can’t call agonising but a non-stop ache that became enervating and seemed to think that it was too posh to be eased by ibuprofen. Oh, and it had been raining all day. The kind of rain that is neither refreshing nor pleasingly dramatic, and makes June (which it was) seem like November. I was most definitely out of sorts. Curious, I thought, you never refer to anyone being in sorts. The expression seemed decidedly anaemic and laboured and flabby. Scrabble evenings at the Montagues had their rituals. Before battle was engaged, we always sat down on the couch and had a cup of tea or coffee, according to our preferences, served, for this occasion, in cups with saucers instead of mugs. When the game was over we would often open a bottle of wine, but that seemed a very long way off. Heather really liked to draw her dusty pink velvet curtains before the game commenced, saying it made for a cosier atmosphere, but had to reluctantly concede that as it wouldn’t be dark until nearly ten at night, that would be a bit odd and might make folk ask if someone had died. I had my doubts about that as if it were so, the Montagues would suffer a string of summer bereavements that made the characters in a Shakespearean tragedy (even Romeo and Juliet, given their surname!) or Midsomer Murders seem to lead positively charmed lives in comparison. But I held my tongue as I much preferred the curtains to stay open. Even when there was a stream of drizzle reminding me of a runny nose constantly coursing down the window pane.
I eased myself up cautiously from the couch. Bad Back 101, the getting up and down is far worse than the sitting or standing or walking. And as I did I remembered that Mrs Morgan had said I had been most unhelpful and she would report me to the manager. In truth I had nothing to worry about. She’d been asking me to do something with her account that the bank simply didn’t allow, and Rick the manager (I was glad we had abandoned the formality of a bank manager having to be Mr or Ms whatever, but still thought Richard would have been more dignified!) would back me up. But I don’t think, no matter how old we are, we ever lose the indignation at things being not fair. I braced myself for the twinge, and it came on cue.
For a few moments, the game went fairly conventionally. Nobody drew especially high-scoring tiles from the bag, and we basically made the best of a bad job. Seeing a triple letter score going begging above a paltry it I lived in hope of a “z” but it wasn’t forthcoming. My back was aching more than ever. I kept thinking about Mrs Morgan and the unfairness of it all, and the rain was even more miserable and peevish. You and me both, I thought.
Though the “Qs” and “Zs” and “Xs” and “Js” were still unforthcoming, Heather finally drew two “Fs”. She thought for a minute or so, and then, putting one of them on a triple letter score, and also managing to put an “H” on a double letter score as a bonus, produced the word choffed.
“Er, what does that mean, Mum?” Owen asked.
“It’s clear to anyone, surely! It’s basically the opposite of chuffed.” (I should add at this point that there was no “U” going begging). “It’s a shortened form of Cheesed off.”
Well, I thought, never mind out of sorts. I smiled, okay, a somewhat pained smile, but sincere none the less, and said, “Heather, that’s a brilliant word!”
I was rewarded with the beatific smile of a missionary bestowed on one who has seen the light.
Once the game was over, and the wine was drunk, I took my raincoat (that was still wet) off the hook, ready to face the elements again. And as I put it on, the zip broke. A little thing, but I was even more choffed!