Vint Bridge At Shiskine

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One

It is said on Arran the wind has a soul, & that this soul has a voice, & that sometimes it sings. A seasonal soul, that is, for thro’ the darker months of the year the wind certainly found something to sing about. Wagnerian, some Arranites would fondly recall when visiting some sultrier clime.

The empty spaces of an Arran winter are a complete antithesis to its tourist-teeming summer acres, for during the shorter days only 5000 happy residents compete for over two hundred square miles. The island of Malta, by contrast, despite being the same physical size as Arran, is home to half a million. Lots of fun to be had at the ‘navel of the world,’ whatever time of year. “But one must keep oneself occupied,” mused Beatrice, or Betty MacKinley, to herself, at the other European extreme, one January evening which offer’d nothing but extreme boredom. Exactly one week later she had formally enroll’d in the Arran Bridge Club. 

By the following winter she was playing vint three times a week – on Tuesdays, Thursdays, & Saturdays. Sunday was of course the most suitable day for cardplay, but had to be set aside for island duties, such as family visits, church services & other religious misdemeanours. They were playing vint, a  kind of auction bridge, because the Arran Bridge Club had voted against allowing such an exotic variant into their dusty old cloisters, & thus a schisming splinter-group had form’d in the Shiskine valley.

They play’d as follows; the corpulent & hot-temper’d Robert, or Bobby Mentieth play’d with Archibald, or Archie Alexander; while Betty partner’d her brother, the morose John, or Jock, as this forename rolls throughout the Scots. The reason Betty gave was that, to play against her brother gave her no sort of interest, for if one lost, the other won, & although the stakes were insignificant, the money would still be going to the family. She never could understand the use of playing a game for playing’s sake.

The players always assembl’d in Jock’s house – he had a lovely conservatory overlooking Machrie Moor, the sea & the ever-changing Atlantic weather systems. He lived alone, so there was perfect silence for the games, except for an occasional piece of classical music on Saturdays, which sometimes revolv’d under the soft spike of a gramophone needle. Jock was a widower; he lost his wife in the second year of their marriage, & for almost six months lay sick in an Edinburgh hospital for mental afflictions. His sister was five years younger, & the veritable baby of the party, at a not so tender forty-three years of age. She was also unmarried, but like her brother she had been wedded once, with the divorce being catalyzed like so. ‘Tata,’ a Russian prima donna who was living & working in Glasgow at the same time as Betty & her husband, had call’d upon the marital home quite spontaneously. Her husband was a painter of scenery at the city opera house, while Tata was supposed to be a soprano, but whose pitch wilted into mezzo from time to time. Nobody ever dared mention it, however, else incur the wrath of a corner’d, glorious Muscovite. 

Betty had been washing vegetables in anticipation of a fine broth, when there had been a knocking on the door. 

“Announce me,” said Tata, spreading out her train, & Betty, who never gave herself airs, announc’d her. Betty’s husband soon arrived, enslav’d in an aura of awe as Tata put forth all her arts to dazzle the poor man into a certain sensual servility. It was at the very moment she was flicking a long rivulet of flowing auburn hair from one of her large & partially exposed breasts that a powerful groan of thunder, like Poseidon waking from slumber, erupted in the sky-chambers over Glasgow. With almost immediate effect there began to hurtle down one of those showers which had been recently spoiling so many hats, & bringing so many roses into bloom.

“Good gracious! How it’s coming down,” said Tata. “May I trouble you to let your maid fetch a taxi?”

This was the perfect moment for Betty’s husband to prove himself worthy of her adulation, for an honest man would have here said, “I haven’t a maid, this lovely vision is my wife.” Alas, the man, or half a man, was a coward, & replied, “certainly.” Twirling his thumbs, he went into the kitchen where Betty was now slicing her vegetables, with a rather sharp looking knife which her husband clearly couldn’t see, so blinded by the attractions of Tata had he become.

“Madame Tata,” he utter’d, “is wearing a satin gown & satin shoes. It is raining cats & dogs & it would be wonderful if you could…”

“Fetch her a cab,” ask’d Betty, giving her husband a flaming glance that ought to have made him sink directly into the earth. “Fetch a cab! Well I never ! Hold on a minute.”

Betty went outside, getting her only pair of boots soak’d right through to her stockings. Her eyes, once bright as the stars, were now dark as doom itself. Her husband had never even waited at the door with a towel or anything, the wake of which was a month-long pantomime of cold soups & warm beer. No more rosy slices of smok’d salmon, sausages, bacon, roast potatoes, pies & butter’d sprouts, all wash’d down with a fine whiskey & a bottle of Irish stout. Just cold soup & warm beer. Betty, who used to rise with the lark to attend the marital home, could now only be awoken with difficulty after eleven o’clock, murmuring, “surely its not daylight, yet.” The house, formerly so spotless that you could have sought a grain of dust in vain, resembl’d the aftermath of an errant tsunami as it pull’d back from some unsuspecting coastal village. 

“Betty, its such a mess,” tutted her husband one day. “But I fetch’d the cab,” she replied, which pretty much form’d the refrain of all their future verbal engagements. 

“You don’t love me anymore; you never kiss me.” “No, my dear, but I fetch’d the cab.”

Betty left her husband after a month, spent a year at her brothers at Shiskine, then got her own place not far away. Two decades of life later they were still in each other’s orbit & had evolv’d into fine bridge partners. Of this particular arrangement of players at the AVC – the Arran Vint Club as they quite proudly call’d themselves – Bobby Mentieth was, at first, especially displeas’d. He was annoy’d at always having to play with Archie Alexander, that is, in other words, to lose all hope of ever making a gand slam no trumps. In every way he & his partner were entirely unsuited. Archie was a weary, dried-up fellow, dress’d summer & winter in dark coat & trousers, & was always silent & severe. Without fail he would appear punctually at eight o clock, not a moment before or after, & straightwise take a pack of cards up in his fingers, one of which appendages was crown’d by an over-large diamond, set in a circlet of pure gold. What annoy’d Bobby the most in his partner, however, was that he refused to make a higher contract than four tricks, even if his hand was certainly worth more. 

Polar oppositely Bobby always took risks, was a bad card holder & consequently a serial loser, but never losing heart, invariably hoping to win the very next time. Eventually, & relievingly for the siblings, the two mens’ styles soon melded efficiently enough, & they began to play rather well together, a reconciliation all who have felt the spirit of the tao could have easily predicted. 


Two

The seasons pass’d on Arran as they always do – pleasurably. Meanwhile, in that ornate conservatory at Shiskine, the games of vint continued with the same enthusiasm as the very first hands they’d play’d. Outside, the doddering old world pursued its varied career; now red with blood, now drench’d with tears, now wrestling with worry; leaving in its track the groans of the sick, the naked & the wrong’d. Fascism was rising in Europe, while over in Manchuria the Japanese were running a deadly riot. Some faint suggestion of all this was sometimes brought in by Bobby Mentieth, but only as a distraction when he was late & came in to see the others already seated at table, fifty-two pink cards laid fanwise on the green cloth, & the tick-tock of the old clocks the loudest they’d ever tell the time. 

Bobby, red-cheek’d & carrying the fresh air with him, hurriedly occupied his place across from Archie & said;

“It seems Hitler is about to enter the Rhineland.” 

Betty consider’d it her duty as a co-hostess of sorts to notice the idiosyncrasies of her guests. Thus, while Archie gather’d in & shuffl’d the pack in grim silence, she alone answer’d.

“I’m sure the League of Nations will sort it out, but hadn’t we better start?” & so they began, slowly stepping into the silence of an undiscover’d Sumerian tomb, their conjoin’d breathing becoming the monetary equivalent of a fraction of a fraction of a farthing.

On & on they play’d. Twice a week in the spring, summer, autumn; thrice a week in winter. There were incidents, but chiefly of an amusing character. Sometimes Jock would forget altogether what his sister had said, & once, having contracted for five tricks, fail’d to make one. Bobby laugh’d loudly & magnified his loss, while Archie remark’d drily: “If you’d only gone four you’d have been nearer getting it.” Betty laugh’d, for it seem’d just for a moment Jock’s everfriendly grin, aflash with white even teeth, had spontaneously transmorph’d into a set of crooked ladders lying awkwardly against a wall.

Betty conceal’d her feelings best, but always display’d intense excitement when she contracted for slam. She grew a trembling red, not knowing which card to play, looking piteously at her taciturn brother, while her two opponents, with knightly courtesy for her womanhood & helplessness, encouraged her with condescending smiles, then waited patiently. 

Generally speaking, however, they took the game very seriously. To this renegade, musketeering quartet the cards had long ceas’d to be mere inanimate objects. Each hand, & every card in that hand, had its own particular individuality, & lived its own life full of wishes, tastes, sympathies, & caprice. The cards always combined differently, & when commingling with each player’s personality added even more mind-boggling combinations to the possible procession of play. Forget Go, forget Chess, it was thro’ vint bridge at Shiskine that the mathematical universe could really unfurl its infinite tapestry. 

Hearts usually went to Archie – Archie’s hearts they call’d them – while Betty’s hand was usually full of spades, tho’ she never lik’d them at all. Bobby always held bad hands. At times, for several evenings in succession, he could hold nothing but twos & threes, for which reason he was firmly convinced he would never make a grand slam, as the cards knew of his great aim & thwarted him on purpose. In the night-times following such desperately unlucky evenings, Bobby would fall asleep dreaming of winning a grand slam no trumps. So many times did this dream-desire manifest itself that it became the strongest wish of his life.

Other incidents happen’d, not immediately connected with cards. Archie crash’d his car into a deer on one occasion, leaving the bonnet thoroughly damaged, forcing his son to drive him to Shiskine. Then, Bobby disappear’d for two whole weeks, & the AVC didn’t know what to do at all; three-handed vint was contrary to their habit & turn’d out to be rather boring indeed. When Bobby return’d safely, his red face, which had shown up so vividly against his scanty white locks, had grown pale, & he seem’d to have shrunk. He inform’d them that his son had been arrested for some offence & was currently in prison in Fife. All were astonish’d, for they never even knew he had a son: perhaps he had mention’d it some time or other, but they had forgotten all about it. Soon afterwards he again fail’d to appear, & upon the Saturday when they were accustom’d to play for longer. They were also astonish’d to discover that Bobby had suffer’d from angina thro’ all these seasons of serious cardplay, & that he had suffer’d a severe attack that Saturday morning. But afterwards all went on as before, & the game became even more serious & interesting as Bobby regal’d them less & less with topics of the outside world.

Last Thursday, however, there was a startling change!


Three

As soon as the game began last Thursday, Bobby Mentieth made a contract of five, & won not only his contract but a small slam, as Archie had an ace & kept quiet about it. For some time after Bobby held his usual cards, but then started a series of good cards in suits, as if the cards themselves wish’d to see how pleas’d he would be. Then he bid to play for the game, & all were astonish’d, even the phlegmatic Archibald Alexander. The excitement of seeing the furious tremblings of his partner’s chubby fingers infected him & all the other players.

“What’s up with you today?” huff’d the gloomy Jock MacKinley, who fear’d somebody else’s good luck was the precursor of the next level of his own life’s misfortunes. On the other hand his sister was delighted to think that Bobby was doing rather well for once, & curtly responded, “the cards must give everyone a turn!”

After Jock dealt the next hand, Bobby pick’d up his thirteen cards. Fanning them out slowly, his heart almost stopp’d beating & a sylvan mist rose before his eyes – he held twelve certain tricks in his hand: the clubs & hearts from ace to ten, the ace & king of diamonds. If only he could pick up the ace of spades in the exchange he had the grand slam no trumps.

“Two no trumps,” he began, controlling his voice with difficulty.

“Three spades,” said Betty, who was almost as excited, having nearly all the spades from the king downwards.

“Four hearts,” retorted Archie with a queer curl of an upper right lip never seen before at that most traditionally sedate of tables. He could sense something was brewing. Bobby promptly declar’d small slam, but Betty, carried away on a lavaburst of Vesuvian enthusiasm, bid grand slam in spades, despite seeing she could not make it. Bobby reflected for a moment, & affecting an air of triumph to conceal his agitation, declar’d, “Grand slam no trumps.”

Bobby Montieth declaring grand slam no trumps ! All were astonish’d, with Jock MacKinley exclaiming a loud & almost caterwauling:

“OH!”

Bobby stretch’d out his hand to draw the clinching, cosmic card, but sway’d at the final fingerstretch, paus’d a moment, lay his cards on the table, fell slowly to the left & sprawl’d in a heap across an oriental rug.

When the doctor arriv’d he found that Bobby had died from heart failure, &, by way of comforting the living, added a few words on the painlessness of his death. They placed the cold, dead, dumb man on a sofa in the conservatory, the one Jock would sit on with a book & the wireless, watching black stormclouds burst over Kintyre. Bobby was cover’d by a sheet & look’d large, fearful & unlov’d. Close by, the card table had not been yet clear’d, & Bobby’s cards lay face down in the same neat pile that he had assembl’d during the last ever act of his energized being. 

Archie walk’d round the room with small uncertain steps, trying not to look at the corpse, or go off the rug onto the polish’d floorboards, where his heels made a nerve-racking noise. After passing the card table several times he at last gave in to the gods of curiosity & studied his partner’s final hand. Then, placing them down in almost the exact neat pile as he had found them, he overturn’d the card Bobby would have drawn. It was the ace of spades, which would have made the grand slam. Archie sped off, heavy heels now clattering over hardwood, & in the next room sat down & wept, because this dead man’s fate appear’d to him the most pitiable of kinds. 

Just as in many of those similar moments of extreme pathos experienc’d throughout Humanity’s tragic existence, Archie remember’d a classical quote to somehow make sense of things. A leaf from the Odyssey issued forth from his mind’s internal library, exclaiming, ‘all deaths are hateful to miserable mortals, but the most pitiable death of all is to starve.’ But Homer had existed long before Bridge had been invented, & shutting his eyes Archie began to picture the sheer delight glowing & growing over Bobby’s face as he saw that ace of spades. That he never did so far outwoes a starving being, who would have at least at some point in their lives gorged with all their mortal senses upon the colours, aromas & flavours of multiple different foods. 

On a seat by the window, the events of the evening pass’d in review before Betty, beginning with the five diamonds which the deceas’d had won & ending with a series of good cards so exceptional as to be ominous. Now here, just a few feet away, lay Bobby Mentieth, dead on the very verge of an incredible grand slam. ‘How irrational, how terrible, & ultimately how unavoidable, is deathk,’ she thought. ‘Just one more moment of life & he would have seen the ace of spades, but he was dead without ever knowing.’

“Ne-ver,” she whisper’d out loud, pronouncing each syllable slowly, which allow’d the word to to be laced with a taste of bitter regret.

Archie shuffl’d back into the conservatory, aware once more of his clattering heels, & had decided to play his partner’s final hand, picking up the tricks one by one until he reach’d thirteen. It was the first & last time that he ever went more than his contract of four, & won the grand slam in the name of friendship.

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