The Game, a new short story by Sarah Gilmartin

Two couples form a friendship over regular games of bridge but suspicion clouds it

 

We became friends with the Murrays through the Thursday game at the club. In the stuffy basement of a Georgian building on Pembroke Street, we took lessons for an hour at seven, then played cards upstairs in the grand reception rooms for the rest of the evening. After the game, some of us retreated to the basement, to the small members’ bar that did a fine trade in subsidised pints and miniature bottles of wine. It was always the same crowd, the bridge fanatics with their fervent arguments, the older players who could sleep late in the morning, some slack-eyed students sniffing about for free booze, or else people like us, in our forties, re-emerging into the world fresh and curious after a decade of dirty nappies and a PhD in chauffeuring.

The men hit it off first, bonding over an absurd ten-card heart suit and the stark fact that neither of them had a clue what to do with it. My husband Bill was a handsome and gregarious man who made friends easily. People were drawn to the arrogance of his gestures, the formidable jaw, the deep colour of his wide, intelligent eyes. His facility for swearing, which had initially threatened our membership chances, was now an accepted part of the camaraderie between players at the end of the night, and it was during one particularly long stream of curses that Gareth came over to where we were standing at the bar, put his bearish arm around Bill, looked at me with a deadpan demeanour and said, I’m sorry for your troubles. In the midst of the laughter, his wife Rachel appeared in a shimmer of grey silk and musk perfume.

We each had a copy of the hands and the conversation flowed, though personally I found it hard to visualise the cards from the tiny numbers and symbols on the sheet of paper. There was something inert about the way a hand looked when all four sides were revealed, no mystery or suspense, just the flat materiality of mistakes made, and lessons learnt – until the next time. It impressed me how invested the others were, Bill with his sardonic comments, Gareth grunting amiably at his own errors of judgement, and Rachel, studying the sheet with an intensity that was both manufactured and beautiful, her long maroon fingernails tracing the game.

‘But if you’d led the Jack, Bill?’ she said.

‘Fuck the Jack,’ said Bill. ‘Where does that get you?’

Rachel laughed and signalled to the barman with a solitary finger. She had honey-blonde hair, a delicate mouth in a fine-boned, brooding face. He came to take our order, skipping an elderly gentleman who was clearly before us. I tried to acknowledge the oversight, smiling weakly at the barman, before nodding at the poor old codger whose three no-trump I’d brutally knocked in the penultimate round. But the barman was already in some cheerful conversation with Gareth. I sat back on my stool with an apologetic shrug.

‘Will we get a big bottle?’ Rachel pointed to the empty miniatures.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Let’s split the hangover.’

She looked at me properly for the first time, tossed her hair to one side. “You’re a hoot,” she said. “Bill, your wife is a hoot.”

‘It depends on the time of day,’ said Bill.

I gave him a playful shove and the three of us laughed like old friends.

At some point the results were announced. We’d come nowhere but the Murrays were third and they generously put their winnings towards the drinks. A dentist from Rathgar went by and congratulated Rachel. ‘That was some hand,’ he said. ‘I’m still wondering how you made it to four spades.’ Rachel smiled shyly. Gareth coughed and said it was better to be born lucky than good. He gave a barrelling laugh that suited his pleasantly heavy-set stature; even his eyes were heavy-lidded, blinking in time to the joke.

After the third round of drinks, we dispensed with the cards. Questions that would have been awkward, nosy, just a short time before were suddenly vital: professions, children, addresses, we got through it all with the alarming speed of semi-inebriated Dubliners. It was established that Gareth and Bill were both in finance with companies that often did business together and once we’d accepted the fact that their paths had never crossed in almost twenty years of working around the corner from each other, the attention shifted to the wives.

Rachel was a sculptor who ran a gallery off the main street in Blackrock, where she sold mostly the work of other artists. I couldn’t tell if she was being modest, or if the gallery was the logical endpoint for someone who’d failed in her career and wanted to remain on the fringes of the arts. We were four or five glasses in at this stage and I knew I was projecting my own failures. I couldn’t help it – she was so sleekly dressed, fluid in her movements, with the most charming way of dipping her head when she talked about herself. Here is a woman who understands disappointment, I thought, here is a new friend.

‘What about yourself?’ said Gareth, excusing himself as he coughed.

‘Miriam?’ said Bill, who was starting to slur his words. ‘She’s a writer.’

‘I am not,’ I said. ‘I’ve written one or two stories, decades ago now.’

‘Why did you stop?’ said Rachel.

I looked at my glass. ‘I don’t know, life just – ’

‘She’s the best mother I know,’ said Bill.

I smiled placidly, but really I wanted to take the pen attached to Gareth’s scorecard and draw a large X over my husband’s face.

‘How many?” said Rachel.

“Four,’ I said. ‘For our sins.’

It was such an automatic phrase, like reeling off a licence plate or mobile phone. Usually the number was met with glee or suspicion or the kind of laced compliment that can stick in your gut for days – where do you get the patience? – but Gareth just said, ‘Very good,’ while Rachel smiled and got up to go for a cigarette.

‘You’re so lucky,’ she said baldly.

I liked her for that.

*

Over the course of the year, we became known as a foursome in the club. The Murrays were punctual people who always had a table ready as we snuck in the galley door a few minutes into the lesson. On a bad night we might only arrive in time for the game and Bill would be like a boar for the initial hands, huffing and puffing over any perceived mistake, making a show of us to our opponents with his ferociously superior nostrils and the petulant way he would toss down his cards as if the order of them didn’t matter a damn. In his head he thought he was some kind of superstar. He was the teenage version of himself, the gifted footballer who’d almost made it, the top goal scorer who would shout at his teammates for giving away a free. Back then, I used to cheer from the sideline in my uniform and knee-high socks, the envy of my friends. Because when you were fourteen years old, that kind of behaviour was cool.

Bill would apologise after the game if he’d been particularly obnoxious – he was good like that, able to climb down quickly from his heightened emotional states – and sometimes I’d accept his apology and sometimes I’d give him a look that said, Don’t come near me if you value your testicles. On such evenings, Rachel and I would take our Sauvignon Blanc and huddle in the only corner of the room that didn’t have a heater. Still, it would be roasting, for the senior members had an astounding ability to sit for hours in multiple layers of clothes in sauna-like conditions. It was a constant battle to get air into the club. Some of the seniors might not hear you when you were sitting beside them trying to explain a bid, but they could catch the creak of a sash window lifting two floors away. Looking back, that was one of the great joys of the bridge world, to get so many different generations in the same building week after week, like a vast, continually expanding family, whose strengths and foibles you came to know as well as your own.

In that way of teenage girls or sisters, or any women who become intimate friends, Rachel and I developed a shorthand when it came to the other players, including our own husbands. When Gareth drew the ire of the room for slow play, I’d grimace at her behind his head, watch her shoulders hunch as she tried not to laugh. If Bill’s gruff instructions were coming at me too quickly, one after the other like the pellets from a BB gun, I knew I could look around the room and find Rachel, her bemused half-smile, the way she could arch one perfectly shaped eyebrow in a quick, comical peak. I knew I could find her at the end of the night, sit into the musky comfort of her, let the tensions and triumphs of the game release. I would follow her to the shed in the back garden where she smoked thin white cigarettes that made her look European. If I was drunk enough I might have one myself, and the next morning, without fail, my eldest daughter Leah would sit across from me at the breakfast table and plead with me not to get cancer. Don’t you know how bad it is, Mum? And then the younger ones would join in and I would wish them all back to the age of toddlers, before they had the ability to reason, before myself and Bill had taught them the difference between right and wrong.

*

At the weekends we started to go to congresses that were held in the function rooms of identikit, mid-rate hotels the length of the country. Wexford, Sligo, Drogheda. I’d like to say we got to see some of Ireland in our travels, but generally we arrived on a Friday night just in time for the mixed and rarely left the hotel, except to squeeze in an early-bird Chinese before the final round on Saturday. Sticky ribs and edible nests and sizzling platters of beef in dimly-lit rooms where you had to watch what you were drinking if you were in contention for a prize. No matter how long the break, we were always tight for time, rushing back, playing the first few rounds in a speedy haze of cheap wine and monosodium glutamate before someone, usually Gareth, had the sense to order coffees. Things would get serious for a while, and if we were lucky, one of us would place and the drinks would flow freely into the early hours.

Bill and I rarely did well in the pairs – not disastrously, middle of the pack – but Rachel and Gareth often came in the top three and the more we travelled, the better they became. Outwardly I was happy for them, but I spent many a night in various hotel bedrooms, tossing and turning on saggy mattresses, wishing we could be as good. They had an ease in their partnership that extended beyond the game – the way Gareth had a pen ready before she went looking, the packet of antacids she kept for him in her purse, how he sometimes held a chair for her at the bridge table, while the rest of us scrambled like beetles to our seats. The Murrays had an enviable relationship and secretly I coveted their life. Bill was more direct about his feelings. He bought them rounds, marvelled over their scorecards, belittled our own partnership by highlighting our repeated mistakes. At such times, Rachel came to my defence, painfully excusing my errors, pinning all sorts of logic to decisions I’d made entirely off the cuff.

On the Sundays, the four of us would play together in the teams, a type of game I preferred as smaller mistakes went unpunished. We’d return to the Murrays at the end of the rounds with good scorecards, only to find them with better results. I couldn’t understand how they did it. They were decent players, I knew, but it was something more. The Murrays were lucky people – cats that could spring onto walls, hurtle up trees away from danger, and by comparison, Bill and I were slow, flea-riddled dogs, barking at our shadows on the ground. Nevertheless, we began to place in competitions, and it wasn’t long before other players took notice. For a while we basked in the congratulations, our four names called out together at the club on Thursdays before play – second in the Kilkenny congress, first in the invitational, top of the leader board in a ruthless competition up North. But winners who always win eventually lose the crowd. At some point, the air in the room changed. Voices dropped; laughter diminished. Mouths that said hello, eyes that said, look who’s back again.

Inevitably, it made the four of us closer. We started to see each other outside of bridge. Gareth and Bill played golf. Rachel would come over for coffee and end up staying half the day. She befriended our youngest daughter, Eve. She took her shopping for her first pair of rollerblades. She helped her with her art project. She bought her ice-cream from the kiosk on the pier.

We lived in Booterstown, only ten minutes from their house on Carysfort Avenue, and often we would carpool to the weekend competitions. The morning of the Limerick congress, Gareth’s silver Mercedes pulled into our drive, followed by a short, polite honk like the noise of a toy car.

Bill rushed me out the door as I was trying to explain to his mother the difference between PG and over 15s. It was futile, I knew, because Leah could convince her grandmother to let them watch porn if she wanted to, but I felt it was necessary to at least feign resistance.

‘They’re here,’ said Bill, from the hall. ‘Come on. They’re waiting.’

I kissed my children goodbye and turned for my bag, but he had the case gone into the car already and was sitting smugly in the back seat behind Rachel by the time I’d closed the door.

‘Sorry,’ I said, getting in. ‘The kids are a nightmare.’

‘Don’t blame the kids,’ said Bill. ‘She was at the hairdresser at eight this morning getting a blow-dry. For bridge!’

I felt a hot flush the length of my body, the sweat bursting in thousands of tiny droplets from my beautifully manicured crown.

‘Don’t mind him,’ said Rachel. ‘You look gorgeous.’

‘Miriam must have her eye on a sprightly septuagenarian,’ said Gareth.

I forced myself to join the laugher but when the talk turned to a recent slam hand, I closed my eyes for a few minutes, relieved. I regretted the blow-dry, a last-minute decision to mitigate a prolonged period of greasy skin and lank hair that I feared was the beginning of early menopause. And it was also, I realised now as their voices rose around me, a pathetic attempt to match Rachel’s easy glamour, the barely made-up beauty of her face, the musky uniqueness and grace that no amount of hair styling could emulate.

‘Then he practically accused us of cheating,’ Rachel’s voice cut across my depression.

‘Who did?’ I said, sitting forward.

‘Is your belt on?’ Bill said.

I hissed at him with my eyes and he held up his hands peaceably.

‘The couple from Stillorgan,’ said Rachel. ‘The ones who barely know their diamonds from their hearts.’

‘When was this?’

‘Last Thursday,’ said Rachel. ‘The five clubs hand.’

‘Where you should go down,’ said Bill. ‘Like everyone else.’

‘Can I help it if the opposition are useless?’

‘There’s no point getting worked up,’ said Gareth, who was driving at eighty kilometres in the fast lane, somehow blind to the flashing lights behind us.

‘Well, it’s happened before,’ said Bill. ‘At the Athlone congress.’

I kicked him just as Rachel turned in her seat. The faulty boiler inside me triggered again and the make-up on my forehead started to slide as she arched an eyebrow.

‘What do you mean by that, Bill?’ she said.

‘He doesn’t mean anything,’ said Gareth. ‘Isn’t that right, Bill? Do we have time to stop at Junction 14 for coffee?’

‘Not really,’ I said, though we probably did. I wanted to get to the hotel and check in. I’d call home, steady myself before the day ahead.

Rachel was still facing us with cool curiosity.

‘Bill just means –’ I said.

‘I mean that people get suspicious if you’re consistently beating the odds. Simple as that.’

There was silence for a few seconds, just the thrum of four wheels along the motorway. I pressed the window button but it was child-locked, a fact I would turn over in my mind in the coming months, as if the strangeness of it – this childless couple with their child-locked car – could provide some sort of answer to the rest of the debacle.

‘People like to jump on a thing,’ said Rachel. ‘Once someone complains, it starts to get wings. Completely unfair.’

‘No smoke,’ said Bill, but he was laughing now, we all were as Gareth finally pulled into the slow lane to take the exit for Junction 14.

*

That evening, after seven hours of bridge, we found a corner table in the residents’ bar. The place was packed with players dissecting the hands, white sheets flashing in the air. Rachel and Gareth had come second in the pairs, a fine result in a competitive field. As I sank into the comfortable leather chair, I felt dizzy on a few sips of wine. The weariness of poor play and the constant, low-level bickering with Bill had taken its toll. He was sitting opposite me now, his first pint already gone, the creamy insides of his glass left between us like a rebuke. I was angry too, though I couldn’t pinpoint the particular hand or slight, some unknown force guarding the mind, switching off what might hurt or trouble it.

A young brunette from Galway, a college student, stopped at our table on her way to the bar. ‘Congratulations,’ she said to Rachel. ‘Unreal result.’ She gave a twisty kind of smile, glossy lips puckering.

‘Thank you,’ said Rachel.

‘Good to see a woman in the money anyway,’ the girl said.

The four of us watched her go, the men returning quickly to their sheets, pretending they hadn’t noticed the pert bottom in the tight jeans.

‘I wonder if they’re painted on,’ said Rachel.

I guffawed into my wine and felt a hundred years old.

Rachel reached across the table for Bill’s roasted peanuts, unopened beside the pint glass. ‘It feels like ages since the Chinese.’

‘All that winning play,’ I said, ‘burns the calories.’

She patted her stomach and groaned. ‘I’m big as a house these days.’

I was starting to resent the way she did that, fishing for compliments she didn’t need, stealing my lines. ‘You are not.’ I went to ask her about her cashmere dress when a group from Waterford entered the bar with the tournament director and came straight for us, wielding the bridge sheets like pitchforks.

Their leader was a tall man in his sixties with prominent shoulders and a disarmingly loud voice. ‘You didn’t fill it in right,’ he said, directing his tirade about overtricks and points deducted and daylight robbery solely to Rachel. Gareth slouched in his chair, sipping his beer.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Rachel said meekly.

It seemed to deflate the man’s ire, or at least to cause doubt, because he looked at the small grey computing box he was holding in his hand and pressed a few buttons before resurfacing. ‘The Bridgemates don’t lie.’ He thrust the box in front of Rachel’s face. Quietness crept over the bar, so quiet you could hear the bleep of the card machine.

‘Now hold on a second.’ Bill stood up. ‘Who are you accusing of lying?’

‘It’s not an accusation.’ An older woman in a woollen twinset smiled nervously.

‘Yes,’ said the tournament director, stepping forward, his short, round stature somehow comical beside the tall accuser. ‘Nobody is saying that you lied.’ He glanced at Gareth. ‘A score was entered incorrectly.’

‘Twice!’ said the man.

The director looked at me for some reason, his eyes two bright bullets. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It was twice, but these things happen.’

‘Does it change the result?’ said Bill, who always had the endgame in sight.

‘Well, no,’ said the director. ‘That’s the thing. The Murrays were second by some margin.’

‘So what are you saying?’ Rachel said.

‘You’ll keep your prize,’ said the director. ‘But we’ll need to enter the correct scores now.’

Rachel looked at him as if he’d suggested a lap dance. ‘Do whatever you want,’ she said, before waving the group away with a flick of her hand.

I woke at eight with a drilling headache and the taste of dirt in my mouth. The extractor fan came on with the bathroom light and I could hear Bill cursing from bed as I looked in the mirror at the aging, grey-faced person who’d snuck into the room in the middle of the night and stolen my identity. My teeth were suspiciously purple for someone who drank white wine. I remembered then the fight I’d had with Bill as he ordered a new round at half two in the morning from the weary bartender despite the fact that Gareth was snoring in the chair and that I myself could barely finish a sentence. I’d left in a huff with the twinset lady and tournament director. A sharp, blasting memory – the persistent red light of the door lock, one of them taking the card from my hand and turning it the right way round. Indeed, I was still in yesterday’s outfit, a brown stain from sticky ribs on the lapel of my blouse. After brushing my teeth, I rang room service, pleaded for two bacon sandwiches, crawled back into bed and snuggled close to the fermented smell of my husband.

Later that morning, as the four of us found our table in the function room, only Gareth seemed vaguely like himself, coughing into his handkerchief as usual. Bill struck up a spiritless conversation with a couple at a neighbouring table. Against the bright pink polo shirt that the girls had bought for his birthday, he looked deathly pale, his fourth cup of coffee clattering on the saucer. Rachel propped her head in her hand and gazed into the distance at the tournament director rhythmically dropping boards onto rows of tables.

‘Miriam, would you like a Club Milk?’ said Gareth.

I smiled at the question and agreed to a Snack Bar upon further entreaty. As he shuffled off, Rachel groaned. She was all in black, layers of silky material, the kind of outfit that would look like rags on someone else. Her dangly emerald earrings gave a brilliant flash of colour. I tugged instinctively at my unadorned lobes.

‘We did the dog on it,’ I said.

‘At least you went to bed when you did.’

‘And had half a bottle of red from the minibar.’

Rachel laughed. ‘Seriously? What’s wrong with us? It’s like we’re teenagers again.’

She considered me for a second, leaned across the table with her familiar scent.

‘Are you ok?’ I said.

She dipped her head towards the lustrous black folds.

Gareth returned with four Club Milks. ‘There was a run on Snack Bars.’

‘The final straw,’ I said, somewhat inexplicably, causing myself and Rachel to laugh like schoolgirls, hysterically, infectiously, the quick tears running down my face. Bill turned back to the table and said we looked deranged.

Eventually they announced the movement for the game and we played four rounds without a break. In my hungover haze, I got into a semi-conscious run of luck where the right cards seemed to fall from my hand so that I made every contract I played, even the punts. Bill put his arm around me as we made our way back to the Murrays to score.

‘Miriam played a blinder,’ he said, sitting down.

‘Did you?’ Rachel said. ‘Thank Christ for that, because we were dire.’ She shot Gareth a look. ‘Worse than dire.’

Around the room, the noise of eighty tables reconvening to deliver to their partners the morning’s news. Five rounds tallied, we were third.

‘What did I tell you?’ Bill beamed. ‘Miriam’s on fire.’

‘Stop it,’ I said. ‘You know I’m rubbish under pressure.’

Well, I needn’t have worried. For the rest of the day the Murrays played like gods and we ended up winning the competition by a mile, one hundred euro for each of us and some cut crystal glasses that I would give to Bill’s mother on our return. We had our photo taken with the Munster president and his heavy brass chain. I slipped our brown envelopes into my handbag and shook hands with the local pairs who crowded around with congratulations. None of the Dublin crew came near us and I wondered if I was the only one to notice until Rachel said under her breath that she wanted to leave. She pointed at the tall man from the bar the previous evening who had a sizeable group around him in the centre of the function room and was pontificating loudly about some anomaly in the hands.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ said Rachel, emeralds flashing. ‘Leave these sore losers behind.’

Sarah Gilmartin is author of Dinner Party, which will be published in paperback next month.
Sarah Gilmartin is author of Dinner Party, which will be published in paperback next month.

*

In the months that followed, the whispers about cheating didn’t diminish, rather they seemed to spread like fungus through the club. It was making me fall out of love with the game and I decided, for once in my life, to do something about it. The last Friday of November, I invited the Murrays over for an evening of cards. To be clear, Bill thought I was insane. Minutes before they were due to arrive, my paella heating on the Aga, he was still protesting.

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘How are you planning to catch them?’

I put a stack of napkins on the table. ‘I’m not saying they definitely are.’

‘Are what?’ Bill swivelled on an island stool and reached for his Guinness.

‘Cheats!’ I said, blushing at the strangeness of the word, out loud in our kitchen with its homely cream palette and the girls’ belongings strewn about the place despite my attempts to tidy.

‘But if they are?’ he said.

‘Well, it will be obvious over four hours of play.’

‘Hmm.’ Bill tipped his stool. ‘How will it be obvious?’

A flash of light came in the front windows.

‘I have my theories.’ I stirred the paella. ‘Now stop it – they’re here.’

Bill laughed, smoothed his hair. ‘The Agatha Christie of bridge.’

The doorbell rang.

‘Not another word,’ I said. ‘Go and let them in.’

I watched his broad back recede down the hall in the stiff white shirt I’d ironed that morning. Suddenly I felt young again, like we were collaborators, us against the world.

There was a surge of hellos and compliments about the smell of the kitchen, a quick round of drinks, a buffet-style dinner where Rachel and I ate at the island and left the men to have theirs in front of the Leinster match. The girls were watching a movie in the den but every so often one of them would appear and ransack the treats press, taking full advantage of the fact we had visitors. At full-time, Bill appeared with empty plates, answering Rachel’s question about the rugby in one brief, profane utterance. I wondered where Gareth was until I heard the downstairs bathroom flush, the cough from the hallway. I looked at Bill and saw that he’d heard it too.

After dessert, I lit the scented candle by the picture window and the four of us sat down to play. I was as nervous as my first game, mesmerised by the speed of Rachel’s dealing, her shiny nails, the paisley design of the cards sliding into position on the tinted glass surface.

Gareth coughed as he picked up his hand and immediately Bill smirked at me. He was right, of course, that it was a theory of mine, one that seemed obvious the more I thought about it, the innocent infirmity of a cough in a genial fellow like Gareth. But I had other theories too. I had done my research. There were the basic cheats who touched their chests or ring fingers to alert their partners to their suits. More elaborate were the ones who spoke in code – talk of the weather was spades, room temperature meant clubs, that sort of thing. Some people used signals, leaving the cards slightly out of line while placing them on the table, or the wielding of a simple finger, perhaps, the pinkie resting in a certain way for a second longer than necessary.

To my dismay, I watched carefully all night and none of these patterns emerged. Even the coughing was sporadic and random, often at the end of a hand when there was no discernible advantage. Yes, the Murrays beat us when we counted the rubber at the end, but if I had to put it down to anything, it was my lack of concentration on the cards, too busy with my furtive detective work and upholding resolve when it came to the drinks.

‘You’ve barely had any wine,’ Rachel said at one point. And later, as she got drunk, in a way that was mildly catty, at least for her, nodding at my stomach and saying, ‘Is there something you’re not telling us?’

‘What?’ I said, the anxiety I’d felt all night releasing into laughter. ‘Don’t be mad. Bill is fifty next month.’

‘Is that right?’ said Rachel.

Bill shuffled the cards for the last deal. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’m an old man.’

The candle burnt out in a dark, vanilla-laced wisp.

As Gareth made his running joke about my penchant for septuagenarians, we picked up our cards for the final hand and became lost in the game.

*

I stopped playing bridge for good in early spring. I’d had the flu for the month of January and hadn’t made any games or classes in the club. Bill started to play with one of the older men, a shrewd lawyer from Wicklow who was a better match than me. When they featured in the prizes, which happened more frequently as their partnership developed, Bill stayed late in the bar and I’d usually be asleep by the time he turned in and wouldn’t find out the result till morning. I was still interested in the business of the club, in the inherent drama of weekly competition among the same group of people. I wanted to know who had won, lost, fought. I wanted to know who had been in trouble.

In March, an official complaint was made against the Murrays, but it was an opaque kind of accusation about misdirecting their opponents with false information, and nothing came of it in the end.

‘They’re not cheats,’ said Bill, who’d grown closer to Gareth even as myself and Rachel saw each other less and less. I’d called to her gallery a few times and she’d dropped around a present for Eve’s birthday at the start of the Easter holidays, but there was something dull and awkward about these meetings, without the parameters and comforts of the bridge world, and perhaps the wine.

Although I didn’t miss the hangovers, I missed the game, the singularity of focus, wherein all the suspect anxieties of a day or lifetime could be funnelled into a limited and therefore relatively solvable problem of thirteen tricks that followed, with friendly regularity, one after the other.

On a Thursday night towards the end of summer, Bill came home earlier than expected. He banged the front door even though he knew the girls were sleeping. I rushed from the living room to tell him to quieten down. In the kitchen, he opened a Guinness and drank quickly from the can.

‘What’s going on?’ I said.

‘Another accusation against the Murrays.’ He was furious, the tips of his ears pink. ‘It’s insulting to them. They’re not cheats.’

‘Who made it?’

‘That bloody dentist from Rathgar,’ he said. ‘He’s been out to get Rachel for years.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Total bollocks,’ said Bill. ‘About her finessing correctly in all three boards, when the more obvious play was to go the other way.’

‘What if she –’

‘It’s just bollocks,’ said Bill, wiping the froth from his mouth.

‘What if she doesn’t understand the obvious play?’ I said, remembering my own style of bridge.

But we both knew that wasn’t true. Rachel was a very together kind of a person.

Bill took off his tie, which was already loose to the nape of his neck. He left it on the island like a long blue snake and started to pace the kitchen, talking about ethics and the benefit of the doubt, in a curse-laden rant that reminded me of the old days.

‘What was the outcome?’ I said eventually.

‘Usual story.’ Bill drained his can into the sink, looking out the window at our dark garden. ‘Nobody could prove a thing. The Murrays are not cheats.’

The anger seemed to leave him as he said this. He slumped against the granite countertop. In the window, the featureless shape of his reflection, and beyond it, only the night. He looked so sorrowful in the pale yellow of the overhead light that I went to hug him, but like a man waking from a terrible dream, he held out a hand suddenly and pushed me away. A strange thing, to see in the swift jut of my husband’s jaw, my own brain switching on, back from the wilderness.

‘No,’ he said, as I came relentlessly towards him, certain now of something I’d just realised. ‘No,’ he said, again, but I was there upon him, my arms around his neck, swimming in the musky reality of his shirt.

Sarah Gilmartin is author of Dinner Party, which will be published in paperback next month. This story was first published in the Belfast literary magazine The Tangerine in December 2021.

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