Backgammon with the Witch
"Who is this charming hostess? Witch!"
Dave Villesent, glass of white wine in his hand, looked out of the rear window of the Dive Shop towards the river which glistened in the failing sun. Hard-rock superstar, just taking his time and some wine before crossing the road and playing a 3,000 year old game. Sixties and Seventies veteran of a thousand excessive festivals, immoralities, indiscretions and hotel trashings; now here in this quiet, still room in a shop on The Estate, waiting to play Backgammon with a witch. Silence surrounded him like a fog, but like a fog there were flaws in its intensity. Hardly audible, there was a low hum from the fridge and its occassional slight rattle of wine bottle against beer bottle, beer bottle against wine. Even these slight sounds seemed to contribute to the quiet. Birdsong was strangely and persistantly absent. He glanced at the Moon. Queen of the night. Sipping his wine, he turned from the door, shook himself slightly and moved silently towards the entrance of the shop. Dave held silence sacred, had even breathed his question silently.
He crossed the narrow street and knocked lightly on Lily's door, which was instantly thrown open with a loud laugh serving as welcome. He looked at Lily, as always, with a pleasure that was increasingly foreign to his soul. Lily was a bit younger than Dave - about 50 - but looked much younger. Women often do - men should try it more often: it is a social duty to others, he thought. She was dressed in reds and oranges, but it was difficult to distinguish between the various items of clothes: was it a dress; a skirt and a top; a skirt, a top and a long shawl? Her hair, loosley worn, shone.
Inside all was colour and noise, and there was again the blurring of the individual. A table was partly hidden by purple and yellow silk throws. The walls were partially eclipsed by a complicated screen, the borders of which were blurred by sprays of hops, daisys and dandelion flowers. Even the outline of Grim, the cat - and there is always a cat - was difficult to fully make out, squatting as he was on a lilac easy-chair, surrounded and part-buried in several red and yellow silk cushions. The noise was Miles Davis, very loud - too loud for Dave - and Lily, knowing this, waved her hand in what Dave could only imagine was the direction of the player and all noise ceased. For a moment Dave thought this might be a sudden manifestation of her rumoured powers, but then glimpsed the remote in her hand, and the questioning look in her eye. "I always take everything too fast."
She laughed loudly (she was never afraid to be loud), fizzed around the room and he was soon equipped with a glass of wine, a bottle in a chiller, and an ashtray. He sat at the table where Lily's backgammon board was already set up. It was a very beautiful board. Red and baby-blue points on midnight blue leather, over slate in a mahogany case. Dave's men were pale blue, Lily's yellow. They started to play. Shared harmony in random dice throws.
Then at midnight they reached the end - or rather Lily suddenly gripped Dave's hand before he could throw the deciding dice.
"Don't throw!" whispered Lily.
"Why?", Dave said, for once louder than Lily, "why delay?"
"Think - what are the odds?"
"You know I can't work those things out - I know I don't have much chance."
"The dice will trick you."
"Look" she continued, and gestured at the board, with a hand strangely bare of rings, leaning across the board urgently. "Double 5s - you win. And if you don't throw 5s, you lose. In a nut's shell. Agree?" Lily's demands are intense, alarming.
"Sure, of course," Dave said indulgently, an attempt to restore calm to - for him - too intense a situation. "No talking can alter the result. Let me throw." He playfully tried to extract his dice cup from her grasp. Her grip tightened. She now lifted her head.
"Thirty-five to one. After all our skill - and it is skill to make the best out of what chance gives us - it is down to this. You have 1 chance in 36 to win. If it had been sixes - the same. Any double - the same. You say no amount of talking can make a difference, but I say nobody knows. Chance is beyond us. I can do things...things with the physical world. Yes, things that amaze others that amaze me no longer. But chance? Even God bows to chance. Throw your dice. Throw away your individuality and your calm in your best ever throw."
She released her hand. Dave shook the dice cup and threw. Rolling round the board they finaly stopped. Three and a five. Silence deepened round them.
"See!" she shouted, after what seemed eternity. "Chance itself telling us the odds - 35 to one - laughing at us. We can do nothing. I win. You lose. We all lose. Had I not stayed your hand, who knows - you might have thrown 5s." She cried "what ignorance you witness here".
Intense, now, the moment unwound with a terrible silence. It seemed the moment, now, would last forever - they would always be at this table, staring at each other over the backgammon board. She shrugged strangely, and fixed him with her eye, and spoke in a new tone. "Dave, look out. All I can say is that events are unfolding out there: there will be some trouble in The Estate tonight. I understand some of it, but not ever enough. We are all caught up in this ... machine. Events tonight are partly known to me. I know how. Don't know what. It is slowly developing, and it will end in death".
"I'm sleeping over the shop tonight - not going home" he assured her. Best not to tell her he hardly ever went home nowadays. Feeling a need to reasure her, to steer things away from these terrifying prophecies towards more normal communications, he reinforced the point. "I'll be fine."
Soon the moment passed and the atmosphere returned to normal as the players became aware again of the room about them. Indigo night shone through the windows. Grim arose from his silken nest on the chair and stretched: front paws put carefully far in front of him, raising his hindquarters, then swaying forward as far as he could go - spine stretched deliciously. Lily, smiling now and relaxed, pointed at the vacated chair. "Sit, it grows late."
Dave took his last glass of wine to the chair and settled down for their nightly talk. She beamed at him across the hearth, her normal self. Between them Grim prepared to sleep. Dave smiled back.
He had rarely had so much peace as he had since he had started to come here, so much quiet. And it was all down to this woman, he was sure. They had met in Gateway Lane, outside the house, the residence of he-who-had-never-been-seen. (Although his shop was next door to this no-one, this phantom, he never heard noises from him, and was glad for this.) She was carrying fresh vegetables and fruit and, with her normal variegated clothing looked the empitome of fresh earthiness. Her agreeable tan a sign.
She had asked him to her house to play backgammon. He didn't play. She'd teach him. He hesitated, indoor games not his thing. She insisted, and now three months later, he could have said that he lived for these evenings. She had stilled his soul.
Her outburst today was unlike her. She was usually so cool (despite the Miles Davis, hers was not that kind of cool). Dave looked across the sleeping Grim. She looked recovered from her, as he thought, random views on chance. He was lucky to have this friend and lucky not to need a lover. With a pang he thought of Jenny and the children, unseen now for over a year. Feeling suddenly dreadful, his well-being left him. He slumped in his chair, unmanned. Returning his glass to his lips, he watched her closely. His sudden desperation shown, he waited for her response.
"What are you to do, Dave?" she immediately asked. Her sudden sympathy was sometimes shocking, but valuable to him. Her voice was as cool, level and bracing as a mountain lake. "Why hurt her?"
"We don't get on now. I've changed a lot. We married when we - the group - was huge. Now, I just don't feel that way anymore." Dave considered the enormity of the changes that had befallen him and quietly spoke. "We imagined wonderful new dimensions."
And now he had a sudden vision of a dark sea under dark, cloudy skies. Suddenly there comes a crack and the slow crawling track of a magnesium flare, as from an unseen ship in distress. Reaching its highest point, near the very top of the sky, the track explodes in a blinding burst of light, lighting the whole seascape. To north, east, west and south: all drenched in white light. Terrible light. Corneas should scorch in this sudden flame! Of the dark, all was forgotten. Then slowly, very slowly, but with horrible inevitability, the light fails, the flare falling seawards. Darkness flares as previously did the light. Still hope grows that all will not be returned to the way things were. Oh, foolish hope! Deserted by light, all will return. Writhing remnants of the flare's track dissipate slowly. All slowly returns to the calm of the dark skies over dark water.
"OK, you were young, but the young-you deserves respect of a kind." She moved, not irritably, in her chair, apparantly signifying a change of tack. "Do you still play? Or still dormant!"
"I live surrounded by guitars, the shop is full of them. Guitars made for me by masters. Six, twelve, fifteen strings. Plastic, wood, steel. Semi-accoustic, electric, accoustic. Haven't played one in months". Intrigued, Grim stirred, paws spreading happily.
"Why?" she shrieked. Lily, remembering, lowered her voice. "It meant something to you once". The still room was charged with the intensity of the heretofor unasked question that had lain between them. What latitude in trust!
"I grew up! We started very young - over 30 years ago" and he held his hand up to halt Lily's startled interuption. "Yes" - he smiled - "it might even have been 35 years ago. I was young"
He thought of the others. He'd seen none of them for at least five years. Ken dead. They all lived - or died - far from the West London homes where they were born and bought up. That was all so far away, and now forgotten. He had killed these thoughts.
"The fame was too much: recognised everywhere. I hated it, but it carried us all along like a train." He stopped suddenly. Totally drained of the ability to reminisce any more. Grim emitted a small cry in his sleep, woke, turned round, and went back to sleep. "Thanks; I have to go".
They both got out of their chairs and grinned at each other. Tonight had really been fine. All through the drama of the dice, the grim foretelling of trouble to come, it had been OK, really fine. She offered her cheek. Dave held her hand lightly as he bent slightly over to kiss his friend. Lily smiled and her eyes brightened as their faces stayed close. From her came a light waft of lemon. One hand in another is sometimes all it takes to calm sudden terrors. He smiled, and let go her hand. Thus troubles are simply, delightfuly, lifted from our hearts.
Lily showed Dave to the door. Light from the house made a golden slit across the kink in Gateway Lane. The quiet of the house was continued here onto the Lane. Silence wrapped them together almost compelling them to pause. They talked small talk concerning other dwellers in The Estate. Fresh breezes blew up, chilling the dawdlers, and as Dave was on the point of leaving, they heard cries and shouts from the direction of Bridge Street. A thin, high scream was suddenly, horribly cut short. Dave looked at Lily, a question obvious in his face. Lily looked troubled, saying "to foretell a death".
"What has happened?" said Dave, chilled still further. "Who was that?"
"A victim of anything but chance." Pathetic now, Lily turned, murmering as she closed the door "you'll come tomorrow?"
"We will always play."
He walked across the corner of the lane. There was a light on in the nameless-one's house, next to the Dive Shop. A light instantly extinguished as he approached. Glancing to his right, he looked towards Bridge Street and the still audible disturbance up there - it had taken
on the character of concerned activity, all anger gone. Of what was happening up there he found he cared nothing. Wincing at this thought, he entered his shop. (For the question "Why Dive Shop?" he had the ready reply "Where I was brought up, that was how people said my first name" - a joke, everything a joke.) The rear room was still as always. Bouyed up by his evening with Lily he went to the window, his mind racing. In what way should he spend tomorrow? Then he realised he was thinking about the future: OK, a small future, just tomorrow, but still a future. Relishing both this and the still room - and relish for him came harder and harder - he thought that for now, before he went upstairs to his mattress on the floor and perhaps a quiet read before sleeping, he would look out of the window and at the dark water of the river under dark skies. He took a glass of wine from the bottle in the refrigerator.
"Who died", he thought suddenly. Who?