Sunday, 24 October 1999
You know how this is supposed to end. They shoot you. Dead. That’s what they do, the Scrafia. No torture, no cloak, no dagger, no messing. In approximately one hour, maybe two, so their traditional narrative goes, that black airship will loom, its distinctive trademarked logo mysteriously absent, and from there will descend my assassins, the Scrafia goons, the many inbred offspring of the Gilbert Gilbert family, and open fire. And that will be that. And the most annoying thing—the thing that will really get my goat—will be that just as black death descends, I will look to my left, dumb with fear and this cheap whisky buzz, and see that Buenaventura Escobar, my onetime beautiful, flamante campeón mundial, has, true to style, slipped away into the water.
This is supposed to be my requiem. Missa pro defunctis. The accusative singular form of the Latin noun requies, “to rest.” I could certainly do with a rest right now. Give me Dvořák, give me Fauré. I have run aground off the coast of Mauritania, utterly devoid of rafts or medusas or Géricault to romanticize me, would that such things help. In their stead, the Scrafia and Escobar the Traitor. Woe is me, presumably. I have forsaken a simple life of lexicography for fortune and fancy. I have frittered away my future on games of chance. If I were the kind of submissive woman the Scrafia always wanted me to be, there would be nothing left for me now but to sit and await the slaughter.
But that isn’t going to happen.
How does one get from the Paraguayan capital, host city of the 1999 Scrabble World Cup (they dropped the “en español” part in ’97), to one’s estranged husband’s bolt-hole on the Tigre Delta, fifty-five miles north of Buenos Aires, when all conventional forms of transport are suddenly, though not surprisingly, rendered unavailable?
One gets here by boat, mostly. You get some idea of the Scrafia’s influence when they can close an international border within minutes of discovering they’ve been duped. It wasn’t like we intended to dupe them, inasmuch as either of us can ever be entirely sure of Buenaventura’s intentions. He says it was the letters. It’s always the letters. Win or lose, blame the letters. Says he couldn’t stop himself. Well. Granted, it was a thing of beauty. There it was: a pitiful rack of ABJLNNR and an unpromising-looking board, and he goes and sticks BERENJENAL through the three unconnected Es on row E for 126 points on the double-double and signs his, our, death sentence. An aubergine patch of our own making. Al-badinjan, brinjal, brown jolly. But it was worth it. Someone had to stick it to the Scrafia. This too shall be their downfall, an ominous dirigible in flames.
We didn’t hang around for the trophies, suspecting with some reason that the Scrafia would be forgoing the awards ceremony and pressing straight on with the summary executions. We exited through the less glamorous of the Asunción Excelsior’s two entrances and flagged a passing taxi, its hubcaps missing. No luggage, no money, just us and the laughter. My, what a grand old time. Through the suburbs of Asunción. Concrete, sunshine, anonymity. We came to a house: broken pavement, a dozing mutt.
Alonso, said Escobar. Fancy seeing you here.
Alonso Solano, 1993 Scrabble world champion en español, back when they added the “en español” clarification, last seen disappearing into the Peruvian Amazon. Not the last person I expected to encounter on our impromptu getaway through the suburbs of Asunción, but still pretty low on the list. Fancy seeing you here. Did he have all this planned, Buenaventura?
Tuvimos un . . . este . . . desprovisto, he said. A contretemps.
Is all this just an act for me? You think you know someone.
Tanto tiempo, Flopy, said Alonso.
We got in his car. Don’t call me Flopy.
We drove for an hour, hour and a half. It’s very much how you expect it to be, Paraguay. Very green, then very dusty, then very green again. A concrete almacén with a Pepsi sign from 1984. Boston in the tape deck, as usual. We sat, the three of us, in the front seat. It was one of those cars, the gear stick thing on the side of the wheel. Alonso, me, Escobar. Conversation in stereo. An animated discussion about the merits of the Don’t Look Back album. How could he be so relaxed? How could he not feel the overwhelming urge to talk to someone about what we just did? I could really do with talking to someone right now, get a few things off my mind. We just pulled off the greatest coup in sporting history (if you’re calling Scrabble a sport, and you certainly should be). The biggest scam in sporting history. And the people we scammed are absolutely the last people you would want to scam, if you had any sense. But circumstances. Circumstances, circumstances. Hey.You know how this is supposed to end. They shoot you. Dead. That’s what they do, the Scrafia. No torture, no cloak, no dagger, no messing.
We drove alongside the Paraguay river, or possibly the Paraná. We passed bait shops. Mojarra, lombriz, bagre. Then we stopped. Alonso got out, spoke to some men. Escobar tried to stretch out in his confined space, a little bit in the style of a teenage boy in a cinema on a first date. Was that a deliberate display of nonchalance? Was he really just as terrified as me? It didn’t show—I mean, if there’s one thing they used to say about me it’s that it never shows, old Steady Hands Satine—but I was, am, so terrified. I wasn’t made for this. I am a lexicographer. I have a modern languages degree. The whole point of a modern languages degree is you don’t end up soiling yourself in an old banger on a river bank in Paraguay. It’s basically what I became a lexicographer for—to avoid improvised escapes across international boundaries. I think I put that on the application form.
So there we were, the last seven years of Scrabble world champions and three campesinos, contemplating the most basic of boats, a narrow ten-foot hull and an outboard motor. Chipped blue paint, the colour of the bathroom tiles in a great-aunt’s house in Bury St. Edmunds. Is this thing watertight? I certainly hoped so. Escobar shrugged. The boatsman pulled the motor. It didn’t start. He pulled the motor. It didn’t start. He pulled the motor. It started. It’s always the third time with these things. It chugged to life. The sound of paradise. A quick hug for Alonso and we got in, sat side by side, our boatsman across from us holding the rudder on the outboard motor, glaring at the sun in the west, indifferent to us and our misadventure. Then we pushed off and put-putted downriver.
Funny, the things that come into your head unbidden. I thought about how Buenos Aires was founded for the second time by asuncenos—Asuncionites, if you like—who came back a thousand kilometres downriver, having previously fled the first Buenos Aires after it collapsed under the weight of Indian raids and syphilis. Old Westerns never mention the clap. Blame it all on the barbarians. Funny to think that the founders of Buenos Aires were Paraguayans, or not really Paraguayans but Spaniards who’d lived in Paraguay for a bit but not yet done the relevant paperwork. I bet it was hellish back then with no air-conditioning. Did people complain about the heat in the sixteenth century? Probably not. Probably too busy with the Indians and the impending syphilitic insanity. Such were my thoughts. Maybe I wasn’t so terrified after all. Maybe I knew something Buenaventura didn’t.
We were on the river for a while. The sun was about yea high when we set off and then brillando por su ausencia, so to speak, when we reached our safe port on the Argentine side. Two or three hours. Just the outboard motor and the breeze in our ears. The boatsman killed the lights, but there’s hardly any Prefectura round those pagos, he said. There’s nothing for leagues around. You could come and go between Paraguay and Formosa in contraband heaven, if you were that way inclined. I’m paraphrasing.
And so your 1997–98 Scrabble world champion made landfall in the dark on the Argentine side of the Paraná River, or possibly the Paraguay, just hours after finishing a surprise second in the 1999 World Cup, her hand grasped by the new but uncrowned and somewhat unexpected world champion—the aforementioned Buenaventura—their flimsy boat wobbling as they leapt to the bank and darkness. Now what, Buena? A pair of car lights flashed in the distance, approached us. I didn’t need to be here. Scrabble was going to be the death of me. But then Kantorowitz got out—bloodshot eyes, scraggly beard—impeccably dependable whenever Buena needs him, just happened to be hanging around this corner of northeast Argentine when he did. We travelled through the night, heading ever southwards in Kantorowitz’s beaten-up 1980 something-something (men and their cars), decidedly nonvintage Led Zep in the tape deck.
We clambered into the surprisingly accommodating boot for the three police road checks (if you wear a uniform in Argentina and you’re not in the Scrafia’s pockets, you’re doing it wrong) between Formosa and the southern tip of Entre Ríos. Eight hundred kilometres later, just as the sun came up, we stopped.
We sat in Kantorowitz’s car, sipping mate and chewing bizcochitos, waiting for the Interisleña chugging in the distance. The boat came and we jumped on. Chino, said Buenaventura to the piloto, with a peck on the cheek. Buenaventura knows the boatsman? Of course he knows the boatsman. Buenaventura knows everyone on the delta. That’s why he thinks we’ll be safe here.
The boat took another two hours, edging closer to Tiger City, but not too close, and dropped us at Melancó, the name of the jetty and the house. You see, as wonderfully unpredictable and outrageously risk-prone as Buenaventura is, he is also fundamentally unsurprising with certain things. And one thing you can be sure of, the one thing you can count on Buenaventura to do when forced into an improvised escape, is that he will head for the one safe place he knows. Mind you, if you ever have to hide out from the Scrabble mafia for a couple of weeks, months, with a husband you haven’t spoken to for ten months prior to last Tuesday, I highly recommend this place. Early settlers called it Tigre for the big cats they found here. They were actually jaguars. Don’t worry, they hunted them to kingdom come. Our purported killers will be human. There are few paradises as gorgeous to be massacred in. The most desamparado of hideouts. I like that word. Desamparado. “All shelter removed.” Probably wilfully. You do it to yourself. Only the smell of jasmine, the hummingbirds whirring. A wooden table with a river view. I wonder if there’s any whisky.
Buena comes out of the house, Scrabble set, bottle of Old Smuggler. God love him. Mis tres vicios, right there. They’ll be your ruin, every one of them. He pours one for me, then one for himself, smaller. I open out the board. This board! Alfred Butts himself might have played on this board. (Alfred Mosher Butts—Mosher was his mum’s maiden name—was born in 1899 like all the great men: Ellington, Borges, Nabokov, Hitchcock, Coward.) I pick up the bag. An incomplete tile set, with additions and subtractions over the years, but the right complement of consonants and vowels, that’s the main thing. We draw to see who starts. Escobar draws an A. Well, then. I rummage. I draw a blank. Just when you think you’ve got me beat, Buena.
But he gets up again, goes inside. ¿Qué haces? Música. (Mind games.) We’re delighted with that tumultuous ovation and boundless enthusiasm, Dizzy murmurs. He doesn’t even like jazz. He’s just doing this for me. Sells me down the river, but still plays my favourite tunes.
This is what I love: the whole ritual of the start of the game, the moment when everything is equal. Lining the letters up on alphabetical squares to check they’re all there, the 12 Es, the 2 Bs, Ps, and Ms, the Q, X, and Z, and two blanks to the side. Then delicately taking the two ends of the board, folding it down the middle with your two hands forming hatches at each end, in such a way that all the tiles slide into the trough you’ve formed, then with your left hand grabbing the bag, opening it out, and watching those one hundred tiles slide coolly in. I remember at my first tournament, sitting across the table from Henry Benjamin and watching him do that trick with the tiles, which wasn’t so much a trick as a way of life, and thinking, Oh yes. I want to be part of this. I found the whole thing strangely erotic.
And let me tell you, the adrenaline of escaping from the heist of the century is but nothing, ladies and gentlemen, compared to the buzz of Scrabble. And it doesn’t have to be the bright-lights, whispered-commentary, requisite-TV-ads kind of Scrabble we’ve all got so used to in the last five years. That kind won’t be around much longer. No, I got the same excitement out of playing, in that first year, the small-time tournaments of Oxford, Reading, Basingstoke, where at best you’d win a small trophy and the unwanted envy of your peers. That first year, from mid-’92 to late ’93, under Henry’s amused mentorship, when I went from absolute novice to British champion to world champion (in English), before Escobar, before I even heard about the Scrafia and their airship—that was the best time to be alive. A time when I’d fly through word lists, saying, Oh really? That’s a word? OK, and just somehow take it all in, putting it all to good use. I recognize this must be tremendously frustrating for those who might read the same list a hundred times and not remember half of it, and I don’t mean to boast. It was just a wonderful time.
Excerpted from Escapes by Daniel Tunnard. Excerpted with the permission of Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Tunnard.