“Triple word score.”
“Eats shoots and leaves,” Clair mutters.
I snicker. It’s a joke we have about her neighbour. Clair is old enough to be my mother but I could never be like this with mum. I think my mother is jealous that we have become such friends.
We soak up the sun. Me in a director’s chair and Clair propped up with pillows on the plastic banana lounge she loves so much. From the balcony we can see and hear waves breaking. The ocean churning on sandbanks like it has for centuries. Clair is arranging and rearranging her letters. She wears sunglasses so dark it’s impossible to know her mood. I wink at her and she smiles back.
“A perfect ten. Double letters on the S and E.”
Clair taught me to stand up.
“Eggbeater yourself around, then look back. When you see the wave: paddle, paddle, paddle! Then as you get the lift… Up! Don’t use your knees; jump straight up to your feet using your hands for push, like this.”
She demonstrated on the sand. Then she told me to do the same. I felt stupid being out of water but I did it anyway.
“That’s right, but keep your centre of gravity low and your legs wide. Then you’ve got less chance of falling over.”
“Looks good out there today,” I say. Clair nods. Her surfboard is leaning against the wall beside her, a silent observer to the game. Clair is a real surfer whereas I’m still a learner. We watch the perfect curls roll in, both wishing we were there, paddling back through the foam.
“I knew Wombat was good for something,” I add my letters to the M that’s already there.
Clair’s hair has fallen out. Now she wears bandanas and beanies whatever the weather. Wigs are for old ladies. She looks kind of funky, but I prefer her the way she was.
“I’m feeling a little cold.” She starts to get up.
“No, let me.”
“On the bed.”
I go inside and pull the throw from the end of her bed. It’s homemade, dizzy with colour. During her treatment, Clair became friends with a woman named Betty who is a breast cancer survivor. Betty has a sticker on her car: If Life Gives You Scraps, Make Quilts! I want to go to the hospital with Clair but she won’t let me. “Russ comes with me,” she says.
“No proper nouns!”
“It isn’t.” She taps the dictionary, our umpire. I check, only to prove how clever she is. We both like the music; these songs by a young woman who’s faced the same uncertainty. I think Clair finds her inspiring. Sometimes she’s playing the CD when I visit, rocking on her plastic chair, tapping her fingers to the beat. I’d like to follow up by adding PREDICT to the ABLE that’s already there, but I don’t have a C. So I just make it TABLE. It’s the easy option. I manage to claim a double word score for the T and feel like a bit of a cheat.
The tide is coming in. More surfers have arrived, waiting their turn out the back. Clair follows them in keenly as they take each wave. She doesn’t say much, rugged up in her patchwork. Once upon a time you couldn’t shut her up. She was always giving me tips.
“If you’re heading straight for something, don’t look at it, look away. Your board goes where your eyes go. Remember what I say. You’ll end up getting thumped if you don’t know the rules.”
I know she is not afraid of a hard landing.
“You did well with that. How come you get all the good letters?”
“Just luck I guess,” she says.
They found the tumour and cut it out. Clair was fine for a while and we thought things would get better. Then they found it in her bones. This is her life now. Caught by a rip. No one knows how long. Sometimes I think Clair does, but she’s not letting on.
My letters are duds. There’s not much else I can do. “You’re winning,” I tell her.
“I don’t know about that.”
“Sure you are, your words are longer and you manage to always get bonus squares.”
Russ sticks his head in. “Anyone for tea?”
He is a giant. Clair almost disappears beside him. Before I really knew them it was funny, absurd. I wondered what brought them together. Now I can’t imagine what it must be like for him. For them.
The tea is strong but not too hot, the way Clair likes it. She used to be feisty. She had an opinion on everything. Now I see how she lets him fuss over her, serve her. She is frail. She goes with the current. Russ leaves the tea and some cookies. Before he goes he kisses her on the cheek.
FRIENDS. Double word score.
“I want you to have it,” she says, looking at her surfboard. The words are definite, considered. She is reconciled and that makes me sad. I need to know why this has to happen. I’ve already accepted it will. But the meaning isn’t there. She knows the board is too short for me. I haven’t progressed that far yet.
“You might need it,” I say.
Behind her sunnies Clair raises her eyebrows. “I think it’s time you graduated.”
A simple word. Insufficient. It can never describe the magnitude of feeling. It’s the everyday things that matter. There are too many kinds of love and not enough of it.
“It’s time for my nap.”
I help her inside. Her hands are tiny. They always were, but now they feel much smaller. I hold her as if she might break, but so much about her is stronger than me.
I have to leave.
“I enjoyed the game. Can we play tomorrow, Clair?”
“Yes,” she says, “tomorrow.”
This story is about individuals who show strength, whether through struggle or acceptance, while enduring great uncertainty and pain. In drawing inspiration from the everyday; in making beauty from scraps of colour; in being, ironically, a rock for friends and family: they enable me to learn the preciousness of life.
A beautifully structured story. Written with great fluency from a friend to a much-loved mentor. The prose is economical, and suggests much between the lines. This piece cleverly interweaves a number of threads, but above all, the tone appears right, neither condescending, nor pitying. Judge: Arnold Zable.