It started off simply. Anonymous matching, no chat window – we just played. My first word was “frost” – not brilliant, only twenty-four points, but not bad for a first try. She hit back with “rough”.
It was the best game I’d ever played. Not just because it was my highest score to date, but because of the competition. Normally, in Scrabble, one person pulls ahead. By about half way through, you know who’s going to win. They hit a few triples early on, and then it’s hard to catch up. That wasn’t the case this time.
It was neck-and-neck, right up until the end. She was good – the best I’d ever played – but I was on fire as well. Word after word slammed down: “zeugma”, “entrails”, “basenji”. I ended up two points ahead, but didn’t celebrate. I just clicked “rematch”.
I’d enjoyed scrabble before, but now I was addicted. At home on the couch, on the metro, even surreptitiously at my desk, I was playing scrabble. I’d check the app obsessively, hoping she’d responded. While I was waiting, I’d doodle endlessly, trying to come up with the best possible combination. I didn’t want just to win, I wanted to impress her.
We played game after game, for months. Neither of us ever pulled ahead by more than a couple of victories in a row, and every game was close. I learnt new words every day, beautiful words that I would never use outside scrabble: “euoi”, or “cwm”. I learnt to say them, too, researching pronunciation while waiting for my next turn.
She was amazing. So knowledgeable, so creative with her words. And every time we interacted, there was that pulse-pounding, heart-racing buzz of competition, of challenge. It’s no wonder I became curious about her.
I used to picture her in my head, imagining my opponent. It changed all the time, flicking through a thousand possibilities with nothing concrete to fix on. It didn’t matter to me what she looked like, really, I just wanted to know more about her. Finally, I cracked. First round of a new game, I threw away a perfectly good “embark” to just write “name”.
The response was “apple”. Not the most auspicious start. Perhaps she’d misunderstood, or didn’t want to tell me, or just didn’t have the letters for her name – maybe it was “Tallulah”, or “Eustacia”.
Four turns later, I realised – “apple”, “not”, “never”, “else”: an acrostic.
From there, I asked more questions. Not enough to cost me the game, or stop it being challenging, but if I had the letters to ask something – “age” (within five years of mine) or “job” (nurse) or “pets” (dog) – then I would. It took a little imagination – there was always the worry that she lacked the relevant letters, or that a question was understood as a word, not an enquiry. Still, over the passing of further months, I was able to ask (and answer) each question several times. I thought of repeated, relevant words within a few turns of the question as confirmed answers, slowly building up my knowledge of her.
“Where” was a question I waited for a long time to ask. Partly because “w” and “h” didn’t come up together that often, and partly because I knew it would change things. If she was half the world away, then all we could ever do was play scrabble. I wanted to meet her, but I almost didn’t want to know if I couldn’t. It would be better to have the dream than no hope at all.
Her answer, when I finally asked, was an acrostic again. Luck was on my side, because she was able to name it straight away – no abbreviation, no waiting for a reply. “leg”, “oaf”, “newt”, “dig”, “oval”, “new”. London. The same city as me.
It was a shock. Not in a bad way, but a shock nevertheless. It suddenly all became real. She wasn’t just the anonymous person I played scrabble with, but Anne – a living, breathing person living not too far away. I didn’t respond for a while.
I just stared – stared at the words on the board, stared at the possibilities they conjured up. She was real, and close. The woman I’d been dreaming about, imagining for over a year now. She actually existed. We could actually meet.
My hands were shaking as I dragged each tile into place. “Meeting.”
It was her turn now not to respond. I checked it every minute, for two days. I was reprimanded at work for losing focus. I didn’t go swimming that week, because she might have responded, and I wouldn’t have known until I’d finished. Still no reply.
And then, after endless, agitated waiting, her word appeared: “absolutely”, building off my “lute” and hitting two triple word scores. 135 points.
She won the game. I didn’t mind.