A low, gravelly rumble, like a lioness’s purr, rolled down from the mountain top. Thunder. I hurried on, and reached the wayside shelter just as pebbles of hail pelted down, flattening the summer wildflowers.
Inside, another traveller sat at a rough-hewn table. He was playing patience. I unshouldered my rucksack and waited for his cards to come out right. The hail petered out, followed by soft steady rain. Thunder continued to growl and grumble at the corners of the sky.
He swept the cards together and I sat down at the table. ‘Looks like it might last a while,’ he said, shuffling the cards. He split the pack and fanned the two halves together. I noticed the top joint of his left index finger was missing. ‘Fancy a game?’ he asked.
As he dealt, he described a game I’d played since childhood. He called it Strip Jack Naked. I knew it as Spit. In my family it was vicious, a conduit for unspoken tensions.
He played fast. I matched him card for card. The momentum shifted back and forth between us. A scar that jagged through his right eyebrow became more prominent as I closed in to win the game. A fresh breeze blew through the shelter, bringing the scents of wet grass and crushed flowers. We sat back, grinning. ‘Best of three,’ he challenged.
He placed a bag of top grade Iranian pistachios on the table. I brought out the bottle of homemade lemon cordial my last host family had given me, and two tin cups. We drank the cordial neat, knocking it back like shots of tequila. Pistachio shells piled up on both sides of the table. Best of three became best of seven. Outside the weather battered, subsided, brewed up again.
We were tied at three games each and both a little woozy from the sharp kick of undiluted lemon cordial. Late afternoon sun lit up a passing rain squall. He straightened the cards in front of him into a tight stack and leant forward on his elbows. ‘Tell me about your rings,’ he said.
So I told him that I like rubies and garnets. I took off each ring one by one and described the island or small town where I’d bought it and what attracted me to the design; that the significance of each ring was that I’d chosen it for myself. Then I dug into my rucksack, took out my pack of cards and held it up to him. ‘Shall we go double?’
‘Why not? I’m not in a hurry.’
I drew his pack across the table and began to shuffle our cards together. ‘Tell me about your scars,’ I said, as lightning forked down into the valley below.
Hilaire is co-author with Joolz Sparkes of the poetry collection London Undercurrents, published by Holland Park Press. Her poetry and short stories have been published in several anthologies and various magazines, including Brittle Star, Under the Radar and ARTEMISpoetry. Her novel Hearts on Ice was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2000. You can find her on Twitter @Xilaire and Instagram @hilaireinlondon.