Two blogs in 24 hours: I’m spoiling you! After lamenting my lack of short story productivity in recent weeks, I asked Twitter to suggest a one-word theme for a story. Thanks to Kerrin Shaw, I have spent all of today thinking of the word “tremulous“. (No, really, thanks, Kerrin.)
Below: the story (which doesn’t have a title, so you’ll just dive straight in).
“Is there any more wine?”
Wine. Grape. Vintage. Glass. Anna let the words roll around her mind, as if she were tasting them.
“I said… is there any..?”
“I heard.” Anna pushed her chair back from the table, let it scrape along the kitchen floor with a sound like a kitten’s squeal. Deliberately, she walked around the table, past Ben’s chair to the fridge. She opened the fridge door, let the bottle chink against the shelf as she retrieved it, let the door slam as she turned back. When she put the bottle on the table, the Scrabble board between them shivered.
“Your go.” Ben said.
Anna took her seat. My go, she thought. My. Might. Mighty. Migraine.
Words came to her again and, as she stared at the board, she saw the tiles falling into position like snow at Christmas, magical and out of her control. Words formed, expanded, merged, joined. She felt as if every word ever said or written or even dreamed was available to her. She breathed out slowly, and smiled.
“So?” Ben’s leg had started to jiggle under the table. “What have you got this time, then?”
Anna looked across the table at him. In the harsh light of the kitchen, he looked older, sharper, like he was splintered from a rock. Behind him, on the shelf, a different version of him stared back. A different version of her too. A photo from their wedding day. There was dust on the frame and a smear of something like tomato sauce across corner of the glass.
“Come on, will you?” Ben poured wine into his glass, put the cork back in, placed the bottle back down on the table.
Anna looked at the words she had put down before. She’d added ER to Ben’s LOOT. She’d expanded ANGER into STRANGER. CLAIM into CLAIMING. Always adding. Always following.
It was time to create a word that was all her own.
Ben folded his arms across his chest. “Tremolo? What’s that?”
“It’s something to do with music.” Anna started. Her belief in her word started to ebb. “I think.”
“It is. It’s a word.”
“Let’s look it up then,” Ben said, reaching for the dictionary. He riffled back and forth through the pages. The sound was like a bird’s wings and Anna felt as if all the words were flying away from her, scared sparrows.
Ben fell silent. He drank from his glass again.
“You don’t want to leave the wine out,” he said. “It should be in the fridge.”
Anna stood up. Another kitten’s squeal from her chair. She went to the fridge and placed the bottle back on the shelf. She moved faster now because she was starting to believe that she was right. And if she was right about this, she could be right about other things. She could make things happen, she could create something new. Something that did not exist before existed now, because of her. It was possible. Anything was possible.
“It’s in there, isn’t it?” she asked as she sat down.
Ben looked at the tiles in front of him. “My go.”
Anna looked at the word on the board. TREMOLO. Her word.
Ben gulped at his wine then waved his empty glass towards her.
“Hello?” he said.
She went back to the fridge for the bottle, brought it to the table. TREMOLO. It was still there. She poured Ben’s wine, looked at the board again. TREMOLO. She put the back in the fridge and came back to her seat.
It had gone.
Ben looked at her with a satisfied smile.
“Triple word,” he said. “Happy days.”
She looked closer.
“What’s that?” Anna asked.
“Tremulous,” Ben said. “You know, quivering. Bosoms. That sort of thing.”
Anna looked at him, looked past him at the photo behind him. She wondered if it was worth the fight. Her letters on the board seemed to glow up at her. Do it for us, they said.
She placed her palms flat on the table. “That’s not how you spell it. It’s a U in the middle.”
Ben reached for the bag of tiles, gave them a shake. “You’re just gutted you didn’t think of it.”
“It’s not spelt like that. You can’t have it.”
Ben reached into the bag. Anna stretched across the table and tried to grab it from him. The fabric was warm in her hands.
“Let go of that…” Ben said.
“Look it up. You looked up tremolo. Now look up how you spell tremulous.”
Ben snatched the bag out of her grasp, pulled it close to his chest. “I don’t need to look it up: I’m right. You didn’t even know yours was a word.”
“But you’re not right. That’s not how you spell it.” Anna could feel a strain in the back of her eyes, the first sign of tears. “You should look it up.”
“You’re telling me what I should do. You’re telling me?” Ben threw the bag of tiles onto the board. “That’s rich.”
He stood up and walked to the kitchen door. It always ended with someone walking out through a door. No, it always ended with Ben walking out through a door. Anna looked back at the board: TREMOLO. It sat, neat and straight. The U and the S had shifted when Ben threw the bag of tiles. Her word was there still, it was intact. The word that she had made.
“Ben.” Her voice was firmer now. He looked at her from the doorway, something like surprise in his eyes. “You think you’re right. I think you’re wrong. We should look it up and then we’ll know for sure.”
“You think I”m wrong?” He blazed at her. “You always think I’m wrong. Well, I’m right. And you have to believe that I’m right. I’m right about this just like I was right before.”
Before. A code word. In a movie, red lights would start to flash and people would be told to take cover. Before.
“We wouldn’t even be playing this bloody game,” Ben went on, “if you’d been able to have children.”
“If you and your stupid womb had worked, we could have been doing something interesting instead of playing bloody Scrabble, pretending we’ve got anything to talk about.”
“Ben, we don’t know that it was me… The doctor said…”
“Well, the doctor is wrong. I am right and the doctor is wrong. It’s all you, Anna. It’s all your fault.”
Ben walked out. The kitchen door swung gently behind him. Anna noticed a white feather of fluff drifting down beside the doorframe. She watched it all the way to the floor.
Fault. Faulty. Shame. Ashamed. Stupid. Stupidity. One more letter every time. Keep adding. Keep adding. That’s what you do when you can’t make anything of your own.
Anna turned back to the table. TREMOLO. She found the U and the S that Ben had laid on the board, then another U. She made TREMULOUS. It looked better, it looked right.
Slowly, she pulled all the tiles together and started, one by one, to place them back into their bag.