Words Without Friends
by Johanna Spiers
Your mind sniper-rifles in on the yellow tiles. Your heart thumps in the desert of your mouth. You’re killing it.
You’re a winner.
You put the Z on the triple letter, followed by I-N-E. Thirty-four points. And a new board flashes up.
That J can go on the double, for words both up and down. Forty-eight points for two letters. No idea what ‘je’ means, but no time to wonder, cos another new board arrives, and you’ve got a K and an X and a double letter adjacent to a triple word. Thirty points and 28 more points, which takes you to 140, so only 10 to go, but your opponent is at 142 so fuck it’s close but the tiles are in your favour and the words are all working for you and then – BAM! Yes! Sparkles fizzle through your fingers as YOU WON flashes on your phone screen. Of course you’ve won. You always win. You cannot be beaten.
You look up from the phone screen. Where are you? Wooden table, slightly sticky, under your hands. Feet wedged into the crossbars of a stool. The smell of lager lacing the air. You’re in the pub. Ok. Of course. In the pub with Maria and Tomas. And Tomas is in the toilet and Maria is at the bar, but they will be back soon so you’d better put your phone away. They said they had something to tell you.
But the screen pulls you in. No more tickets. If you want to play again, you’ll have to buy more coins.
And you do want to play again. Don’t you?
The pub is quiet for a Sunday. Sunlight softens the edges of the tables. Music bubbles in the background. The golden smell of perfect roast potatoes permeates the air as Maria walks back to the table, three pints balanced in her hands.
She sits down, hands the pints out. Tries again.
Still, Fiona doesn’t look up. Maria meets Tomas’ eye. The message that zips from her to him is clearer than a muddy boot print on a new cream carpet.
‘I told you,’ Maria is thinking, her eyes signalling earnest proof. ‘She never looks up from the damn thing anymore.’
‘Ah, give her a chance,’ he’s thinking back, his eyebrows oozing empathy. ‘It’s not like you’re not on your phone from time to time.’ And he squeezes her hand under the table.
For god’s sake, thinks Maria, although she tries to keep that particular thought hidden. This is DIFFERENT. Can’t he see that?
She tries again.
“Sorry, sorry, I was miles away.” At last, Fiona lays her phone on the table, but her hand stays cradling it, a lover’s caress. “Were you asking me something?”
Maria tries to rearrange her features into the right kind of smile. It should be easy – she’s been smiling all week, even in her sleep, ever since Tomas asked her. Her smile has bounded out, unbidden, while she’s marked first-year essays, attended budget meetings, overseen tutor groups. She grinned her way through that awkward dinner with his oh-so-Catholic parents, through last week’s brief bout of post-celebratory cystitis, through tedious traffic jams and noisy public transport.
But as she watches her old school friend trying so hard not to look back at her phone, Maria’s smile feels stapled to her face.
“Well,” she says, hating Fiona, just a little, for making this conversation seem like an imposition, “we’re getting married. And I wanted to ask… if you’d be my bridesmaid?”
You’re at work.
And sure, work is home now, like it is for almost everybody you know. But your computer is on and you’re typing up those notes, and this means you’re at work. Listen to the clacking of the keyboard under your fingers – such efficiency!
But oh… there’s that alluring chord, three notes, perfect in their canned syncopation. Someone has played their move.
You can ignore the chord. It’s fine. You’ll get to the end of this page before you look. Well, the end of the paragraph. Ok, the end of this sentence is fine.
And then you’re on the sofa, playing power-ups to make vowels more powerful, stacking syllables vertically and horizontally, moving from game to game, telling yourself you’ll only be five minutes. After all, you’re running low on tokens and you definitely won’t buy any more. Not today. You’re just having a little break. That’s fine. Right?
A message from Maria flashes at the top of the screen. She’s asking again if you’ve booked brunch for the hen do, and even as the guilt stabs, you swipe the message away. You’ll reply later. After all, you are at work.
You play all your Classic Game turns and you’ve spent all your tokens so you can’t do any solo challenges, and your work phone is ringing, so it really is time to stop.
But somehow, your fingers have found their way to that shiny yellow button and you’re pressing it, and you’re spending more money to buy more tokens, which buy another game or two. It’s only a tenner. It’s only Scrabble. It’s fine.
“I’m think I’m going to have to ban phones from the ceremony,” says Maria, holding a dress up to herself. Maria is, she reminds herself, a lecturer in gender studies at a Russell Group university. She reads Butler and Braithwaite and Davis. She and Tomas are hyphenating their names. Holding up a snowy white, full-length wedding dress and looking at herself in the kind of shop where they hand you glasses of champagne as if it were tap water should not be giving her this much of a thrill.
“Say what?” asks Zoe, sipping from her glass. And then, before Maria can reply, “That dress is boss, babes. You’ll look killer in it.”
“You think? It’s not a bit too sexy?”
“Too sexy? Is that a thing?”
Maria and Zoe laugh. “Well, not as far as Tomas as is concerned. But I don’t want to give his dad a heart attack.”
“I thought you hated his dad?”
Another swig of Moet.
“You’re right, I do. Fuck it, let’s try it.”
They get the nod from the expensively coiffed shop assistant whose lipstick clashes with her hair and disappear into the creamy dressing room. It feels bigger than Maria’s kitchen.
“What were you saying about phones?” Zoe folds Maria’s jeans and hoodie and stashes them in the corner.
“Oh, right, well, I’ve told you about Fiona, right?”
“The other bridesmaid? Your mate from school? Course.”
“No, I mean have I told you about her and her phone?”
“Don’t think so. Here, if I hold this bit out, you can step in this way.”
“Thanks. She’s – well – she seems to be addicted to this Words with Friends thing.”
“Words with what?”
“It’s like Scrabble, but on your phone. And it’s got all these extra levels and stuff.”
“Like Candy Crush or something?”
“I suppose so.”
Zoe snorts and starts fastening the silk-covered buttons that trace Maria’s spine. “Well, hard relate, mate. I can’t stop playing Mafia City, it’s chronic. Every time I go to the loo, Simon’s accusing me of taking a dump cos I’m in there so long.”
Maria laughs and groans at the same time, adjusting the cleavage of the maybe-too-sexy dress.
“Thanks for that image, Zoe. TMI. But, no, I think Fiona’s properly addicted. Like, crack cocaine, payday loan, up-all-night addicted.”
“Ok. But, come on babes, there are worse things to be addicted to. It’s not like she’s gambling, right?”
“Well, I guess so. But I think there’s a cash component to it – you can pay actual money for more games and stuff? It means she hardly ever puts her phone down, she never listens to you anymore. It was a bit of a joke at first, but it’s starting to worry me. She doesn’t seem to care about any of the wedding stuff. And one part of me is a bit pissed off, sure, but also – I miss my friend, you know?”
“That does sound pretty full on.” Zoe buttons the final button.
“I’ve tried to talk to her about it, but she just laughs or gets angry. The upshot is, I’m going to have to ban phones from the ceremony. Otherwise I’m scared she’ll be trying to get a triple word score in the middle of the vows.”
“Seems a bit drastic to me, babes, but it’s your wedding. If you say no phones, no phones it is. Now – what we saying about this dress? Instant heart attack material, or what?”
You’ve got 30 minutes to play. Thirty whole minutes. Awesome – you usually only allow yourself five. Ten, tops. Wiggling into the sofa cushions, you fire up the game.
You beat that creepy guy from Canada, fly through three solo challenges. You decide, on impulse, to buy some extra coins. You don’t spend real money playing very often – once, twice a month at most – but every now and then, you treat yourself. Thirty quid this time, since you’ve got those thirty minutes.
With the extra coins, you buy more power-ups, which mean more points, which mean more solo challenges. You win the first one, hands down. And the second – this is easy. But the third – shit, that was close. Ok, just buy a few more power ups, you’re sure to get it this time with all these shiny tokens.
All this stuff everyone says about how we’re all addicted to our phones these days. How Twitter and Tumblr and TikTok are ruining everyone’s attention spans or whatever the hell. Well, that doesn’t apply to you. You can’t remember the last time you looked at Facebook. You’ve never had an Instagram account. Sure, you spend a lot of time on your phone, but that’s different. It’s Scrabble, for god’s sake. You are cerebral, plying phonemes, stacking synonyms, making morphemes. You are putting the right letters together to make a better day. Playing Scrabble is GOOD for you. Everyone knows – shit.
Shit, shit, shit.
Could it be that your watch is wrong?
How is it 11.15 already?
The hen do is moving on. Brunch was drunken, as is traditional. And now they are THAT group of girls, a little too loud, a little too uncontained, a little too staggery, walking into town towards the next destination. Which Maria really hopes isn’t going to involve strippers or life drawing or penises of any sort. She gave Zoe strict instructions. But Zoe often sees instructions as challenges in disguise.
“I swear I’ll make it up to you, bestie. I swear.”
Mascara smudges around Fiona’s eyes. She’s gripping Maria’s hand as they walk, her fingers clammy. Maria has to fight the urge to prise those fingers off her, push Fiona away. This is her hen do, for god’s sake. She shouldn’t be spending it comforting someone else.
(And when, exactly, did Fiona – who had hunted monsters with Maria at midnight, helped her nick knickers from M&S, sent pages of emotion-laden letters when they were split up by separate unis – become just ‘someone’ in Maria’s mind? Maria doesn’t know – and doesn’t want to think about it. Not now.)
“Look, it’s OK. So you were an hour late. It could have been worse.”
Maria forces a smile and looks behind Fiona, searching the faces of her other friends to see if any are pointing this way. If any might be open to a rescue mission. But they’re all locked into their own conversations, agreeing emphatically with each other about who knows what.
“And I forgot your photo book. I had it by the door! I could go home and get it? If you want?”
There was going to be a photo book? This was the first Maria had heard of it. With pictures, of Maria and all her friends? That sounds nice. She would have liked to see that.
“No, look, don’t be daft, don’t go home. You’re here now. Just, you know, try to engage with the day. Maybe switch your phone off?”
Fiona lets go of Maria’s wrist, her face scarlet.
Maria’s step falters.
“Wow, Bridezilla. Controlling much?” Fiona’s snap to anger is instantaneous. “Have you told anyone else to turn their phones off? What if someone calls me? What if there’s an emergency?”
Maria stops and gapes. But then Zoe’s voice, always that little too loud, hen do or no, cuts through the chatter. “We’re here,” she yells, clapping her hands. Grateful for the interruption, Maria looks at the building Zoe is gesturing towards. The building which has a huge red sign on the front which reads DREAMBOYS.
“Zoe!” she shouts, turning away from Fiona, forcing the tremor out of her voice. “I said no willies!”
The department store is thick with irritation. Women with clothes hanging over their arms push past harried fathers, who run after sticky-fingered toddlers. Dresses glow on racks opposite shelves of socks in all sizes and mannequins with blank faces.
You’re heading for the back. For the sombre suits and colourful ties, poufy pink dresses and veils. Aha – there is it. Bridalwear.
You switched your phone off before you left the house and you haven’t turned it on since. You’re on time. Early, even. Thank god.
“Fiona!” Maria’s pleased to see you. Like, genuinely pleased. You breathe a little more easily.
“Where’s Zoe?” you ask. Maybe she’ll be the one who’s late today. But no – here she is, parting her way through shoppers and frocks.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry, got held up at work. So we’re looking for peach dresses, yeah babes?”
“Yeah, that’ll suit both of you, right?” says Maria.
“Peach is great,” you say. And all three of you smile at each other and start scouring the racks, and the fabric feels fine under your fingers, and you smile, because Maria is getting married, and that’s awesome, actually, isn’t it?
“OMG, ladies – how about this one?” Zoe’s holding out a dress that is both striking and elegant, and Maria is clapping her hands and you stroke the dress, so silky soft and pliable, and all three of you are in love. You look at the price tag and sure, it’s a little expensive, but hey, your best mate doesn’t get married every day.
“It’s beautiful,” you say to Maria, and you really mean it. “Perfect for your wedding.” And she hugs you, and you hug her back.
As you stand in the queue for the till, you check Monzo. And horror squeezes your throat.
Could it be that you’ve been robbed? Defrauded, somehow? But as you scroll down the payments, you see they are all to Google Play.
All those extra coins. All those extra games. You hadn’t thought it had been that much. But with sickening clarity, you remember that you stayed up till 4am for two nights playing last week, didn’t you? And this is the result.
The queue shuffles forward, Zoe and Maria still cooing over the dresses. You try to smile, but your face doesn’t work.
Could you use your credit card? No – the bank took it away last year after that mix-up with Mecca Bingo. Ask to borrow the money? No – that might make Maria angry again. And you can’t bear that.
Only one thing for it. You cough, try to speak, find you can’t. Try again.
“Shit, girls. I think I might need to put this on hold and come back after payday next week. I’ve checked Monzo and I haven’t got enough right now.”
“Oh no, really?” Maria turns to you. “I can lend you the extra if you’re short, Fi?”
“No, no,” you say, “It’s OK. I get paid on Friday. They’ll hold it till then – I’ll come back.”
“If you’re sure?”
And you nod. But you’re not sure of anything these days.
Tomas shuts his eyes and sighs. Sunday afternoons can be so sweet. This sun lounger is comfortable and his beer tastes good. The garden air smells of suntan lotion and gin. Maria has gone into the house to get ice cream. For a moment, Tomas is not thinking about guest lists or seating arrangements or suits, and by Christ, that feels good.
“So how are all the wedding plans? Getting excited?”
He opens his eyes and looks at Fiona, sat on another lounger, from over the top of his sunglasses.
“I’m not sure excited is the word,” he says, reaching for his can of IPA.
“You are marrying my best friend, you know that, right? Do I need do the whole if-you-hurt-her-there’ll-be-trouble thing?”
Tomas laughs. Fiona has always made him laugh. Not like Zoe who – if he’s honest – scares him.
“Ah, no, it’s nothing like that, you can stand the sisterhood down,” he says. “I can’t wait to be married to Maria. I mean, I wouldn’t have asked her if not, you know? But, like – the wedding itself. Jaysus. We told ourselves we’d be different, that we wouldn’t end up arguing about seating plans and starters, but I’m realising that it’s like new parents who think they won’t ever lose their temper with their kids. We’re on the wedding travelator, and there’s no turning back. There are just so many lists, Fiona. So many fecking lists.”
Fiona laughs, and Tomas is pleased. He can still remember a time when the only laughter his speech elicited from women was unkind.
“Yeah, I can imagine,” says Fiona, and their eyes meet. She’s not looking at her phone now, thinks Tomas. He knew Maria had been exaggerating. He loves his bride-to-be, but for the love of Pete – why do women always seem to have it in for their supposedly best friends?
“And let’s not even get started on the way the wedding industry fleeces you for every penny you’re worth,” she says. “Am I right?”
“Christ, it takes your breath away, doesn’t it?” Tomas replies. “Two thousand pounds we’re spending on the flowers. The flowers! I ask you! They won’t last till the end of the day!” And he does think that two thousand pounds for some flowers is insanity – but the words feel disingenuous in his mouth. His work pays him more than he knows what to do with, more than he thinks is moral. This is something he’s never felt comfortable admitting to anyone, never mind Maria’s best mate, who he thinks does some sort of secretarial work.
“It’s criminal,” agrees Fiona. “And you wouldn’t believe how much more John Lewis charge for the dresses that they’ve decreed are for bridesmaids. I mean, they don’t look any different to any other party dress, but they’ve got an extra £200 lobbed on top just because they’re for a wedding. It’s insane.”
Tomas looks at Fiona, who is drinking a Morrison’s own can of G&T, fiddling with her thumb ring. Hadn’t Maria said something to him a while back about Fiona having problems at work? Something about her being passed over for a promotion several times, so that she was still stuck doing grunt work? Maria had blamed it on Fiona’s supposed phone addiction, but Tomas wasn’t convinced. Fiona, he remembers, had thought her boss was a dinosaur who had it in for her. And that seems more likely to Tomas. Go on – getting in trouble at work for playing too much Scrabble? Surely not.
He opens his mouth to speak, but Maria is walking up the pathway, drinks and hotdogs wobbling on the tray she’s carrying.
“Grub’s up!” she calls. And Tomas smiles at his bride-to-be and at her best friend, and grabs himself a hot dog.
And as soon as you’ve got the money, you mean to go back to John Lewis.
You really do.
But somehow, the days turn into weeks, and you’re busy with work, or tired from the night before, and so it hasn’t happened yet.
You will go soon. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps today. Just as soon as you’ve finished this game.
Hairspray chokes the air. Eyelash curlers litter the surfaces. The pop of prosecco competes with the clicking of the camera. Everyone has commented, at least twice, on how great the weather is. The sun is kissing the carpets of this hotel room, where the atmosphere jitters and jives with excitement.
Everything feels bright and tight to Maria. She thinks this is good, but there isn’t time to examine her emotions any closer. But when she takes a breath and looks at her face and her dress and her hair – when she thinks about Tomas waiting for her, his brilliant smile lighting up his angled, funny face – she knows it’s all going to be OK.
Until she turns round. And clocks Fiona.
“What – what – where’s your dress?”
Fiona, hand clutched around her phone, smiles shakily. “What do you mean, where’s my dress? I’m wearing it!”
No. No, no, no. Fiona’s wearing a cheap pink thing that looks like it made its way here scrumpled at the bottom of her bag. That is not the right dress.
Come on, Maria. Take deep breaths. Don’t be THAT bride. You know you don’t want to be that bride.
“Um, babes, what’s going on here?” Thank Christ, Zoe materialises next to this unfolding disaster, all Angel perfume and clicky high heels and raised eyebrows. “Did you have a stroke when you went back to John Lewis? That one looks like it’s Primarni’s best, mate. Well, actually, not even its best. What happened?”
Fiona flushes a red so deep and dark, it makes Maria wince. Her old friend’s fingers are white around her phone. Maria wills Fiona to explain, to say something to make this OK. To laugh, say it was a joke, whisk the real dress out from behind a curtain.
“I, I… I’m sorry,” says Fiona, and Maria clenches her fists and takes a big, deep breath. There’s going to be a reasonable explanation. It will all be OK. Right?
Fiona looks at the floor and Maria’s fake fingernails are curling into her hands, cutting into the soft flesh.
“I couldn’t afford it,” mumbles Fiona, still not looking up. And Maria takes another of what feels like an infinite number of deep breaths. But she doesn’t explode. As much as she wants to. Because she is marrying Tomas and that’s what matters and she isn’t going to be THAT bride.
Much as she might want to be.
There’s only 9% left on your battery and your power pack is dead. Eyes are sore, wrist is hurting. This toilet smells of piss. You should stop. You have to stop. You have to stop and go back inside. You have to go back to your best friend’s wedding.
What the hell is wrong with you?
You are a bad, bad person. A terrible person. You hate yourself.
They are better off without you, let’s face it.
One more game and then you’ll go out. Just one more game.
“I love you, Mrs Murphy-Dias.”
“And I love you, Mr Murphy-Dias.”
Primary colour disco lights spin in the corners of the room. Africa by Toto is playing. Maria’s head is on her husband’s chest. The room is a sea of smiles and good cheer. Even Tomas’ Dad is attempting a dance, shuffling from one foot to the other.
“Well, my beautiful bride, that all went off without a hitch,” Tomas laughs. “Hitched without a hitch.”
Maria groans. “And this is what I married, this sense of humour?”
“That’s right,” he says, twirling her around. “Get used to it.”
She laughs, kisses him. Tries not to say it, tries not to spoil the moment. But the thought won’t stay inside. “Yes, it was all perfect. Apart from Fiona.”
Tomas frowns, looks around the room.
“Where even is Fiona? I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“She’ll be in the toilets, playing that goddamn game.”
Tomas frowns. “Are you sure, Mrs Murphy-Dias?”
The rich mixture of emotions tastes hard in Maria’s throat. “Yes, Mr Murphy-Dias, I’m afraid I am sure. I heard the notification noises coming from one of the stalls earlier.”
“Ah, baby, that is a bit shit. I mean, it’s our wedding day.”
“I’ve been trying to tell you.”
Africa ends and Hold On by En Vogue begins. A rush of drunk women in their 40s storms the dancefloor.
“And did you see her dress?” Maria asks as Tomas pulls her in close after another twirl.
“I did indeed,” he says, and there’s an odd pride in his voice which Maria can’t understand. “You can thank me for that,” he adds, spinning her around again.
“Um – what?”
“What do you mean, what?” He’s picked up on her confusion, and is now looking confused himself.
“That was not the dress she was meant to buy!” Maria says. “We chose dresses from Coast. Zoe was wearing hers. Fiona’s was some cheap bit of rubbish from Primark. She said she couldn’t afford the Coast one, and of course, I mean, I feel bad about that, but like – why didn’t she tell me? I’m not that scary, am I? Why did she just buy the crappy one and turn up in it? I mean, I don’t want to be a Bridezilla or whatever – although I do think that’s a sexist concept anyway – but all the photos where she and Zoe are next to each other are going to look like awful. Those colours clash like cymbals.”
Maria became aware that Tomas hasn’t laughed, which she had thought he would. Instead, he’s stopped dancing and is frowning an entirely new kind of frown.
“What’s up, Mr Murphy-Dias?”
Fuck it – fuck it – stupid piece of shit phone has finally died. Useless bit of tat! You don’t even want to touch it anymore, so you launch it at the wall.
Damn – perhaps that was a bit too hard. You’ve cracked the screen. And now, with your phone dead and the screen cracked and no watch, you have no idea what time it is. But you realise, with a sinking dread, that the only illumination in this toilet stall is coming from the strip lighting overhead. The sun has gone down.
This is madness. You’re going mad. What have you done?
Ok – well, this is a sign. That’s all it is. A sign that things have gone too far. Tomorrow, you’ll delete the app. This time, you won’t put it back on the phone. Tomorrow, everything will be different.
But for now, you’ll put your broken phone back in your borrowed bag, and you’ll go outside and dance with your best friend. Come on – it’s her wedding day! She won’t even have noticed that you’ve been missing. She’ll have been schmoozing family all day, right? Right.
So you go outside, into the hall. And you’re blinking at the disco lights. And then you see them, the newlyweds.
And they are looking at you.
And they are looking at each other.
And they are looking at your dress. The dress you got from Primark. Which is not the dress Tomas put £200 in your account for.
So you look away, unable to face them.
And your fingers are itching for a game.
Just one more game.