THE WORDLE ARMS or BEER AND LOATHING IN KIRITIMATI

THE WORDLE ARMS or BEER AND LOATHING IN KIRITIMATI

I cracked open my fourth bottle and stared out at the dark sea. The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon only a minute ago and dusk was already gathering speed. Sunsets were quick here. Something to do with the island being very near the Equator, but I hadn’t found the natural quirks of this place thrilling in quite a while. As if to chastise me for such an irreverent thought, a grey bird with a green beak alighted nearby and began noisily investigating a clump of reeds. I sipped my drink and tried to concentrate on my own misery, but the damn bird was distracting me. I picked up a stone and was toying with the idea of lobbing it at the bird when a voice behind me made me jump.

‘Booby,’ the voice said.

I spun around to see Joseph, the local hotel owner, strolling down the beach: an affable, salt-and-pepper haired chap in a yellow polo shirt and blue shorts.

‘Excuse me?’ I frowned.

‘The bird,’ Joseph explained. ‘It’s called a booby. They nest here. Quite beautiful.’

‘Lovely,’ I replied. I didn’t mean it to sound sarcastic, but Joseph chuckled anyway. Then I heard the sound of another bottle being opened.

‘Cheers,’ Joseph said.

I’d been here five months and this was the first time I’d seen Joseph drinking. He usually cut a responsible, almost pious figure, acting as the unofficial mayor of the village. I predicted some ulterior motive was at play. Nonetheless, a drinking companion was a drinking companion, so I clanked bottles with him as he settled down, his brown legs stretching out on the white sand.

‘You know,’ he began, ‘you’ll enjoy life here more, if you enjoy the life here more.’

I couldn’t really think of an answer to that one.

‘Hmm,’ I eventually grunted.

‘Take me for an example,’ he continued. ‘Sometimes the hotel goes for days, weeks without a guest. What can I do about it? Nothing. I relax. I do a little fishing. I settle arguments between the neighbours.’

I listened to him while watching the booby bird. It was further towards the sea now, pecking disconsolately at a shell.

‘Then guests come, and life is good. Sometimes too good. I become… busy. No one on Kiritimati is ever busy. For a few weeks I don’t know how I’ll cope. Then suddenly… the guests go home again. All is quiet. Some days later, new guests arrive. And so life goes on.’

He was making sense of course. I was irritated all the same.

‘But Joseph,’ I insisted. ‘My business isn’t like yours. A bar must have customers… lots of customers. It needs life, it needs an atmosphere. Particularly my bar.’

Joseph chuckled again.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘with respect, my friend…’

‘I’ve picked the wrong island?’

Joseph grinned back at me, then took a few more gulps of his drink.

Except I hadn’t. I’d picked the right island. This was the only island on the planet where my idea would work. It was perfect… on paper, at least. Beautiful year-round weather. Spotless beaches. Unique wildlife. Daily flights to Hawaii, where one could connect to almost anywhere in the world. And that crucial ingredient: the time zone.

I remembered enthusing to my sister, back in London just a few months ago. I’d gone home to tie up some loose ends with the inheritance. My sister had received the same amount of money as me, but typically she’d chosen to stash hers in a couple of banks and proceed with life almost unchanged. I didn’t expect her to be impressed with my idea, and I wasn’t wrong.

‘It’s the first place in the world to get the new day,’ I told her. ‘The first place to get New Year, Christmas, everything. Nineteen hours ahead of New York. Twenty-four hours ahead of Hawaii.’

‘Okay, so it’s the same time of day as Hawaii,’ she sighed.

‘Yes,’ I gushed, ‘except in Hawaii it’s yesterday. It’s amazing. You could spend a whole day on Kiritimati, sleep the night… then take a three-hour flight to Hawaii in the morning and have the same day all over again. You could have two birthdays, one straight after the other.’

‘I hate birthdays,’ my sister replied, and that was the end of that.

*

Back on the beach, I sighed deeply and drained my bottle. A warm gust of evening air zipped across the sand.

‘What have I done?’ I asked, more to the sea and the darkening sky than to Joseph.

‘Did you expect everyone to just drop everything and come here for a holiday?’ he asked.

Quite a cutting comment for Joseph. Perhaps half a bottle of beer had made him a bit spiky. But he had a point.

‘I guess I did.’

‘Listen,’ he said, shifting round to face me. ‘Come and have some dinner. My wife… she made palusami. Enough for all of us. Come and eat something. Keep your spirits up.’

I felt my mood plummeting and the beers rumbling around in my digestive system, along with the hangover I already had from last night. And the night before.

‘Thanks, but no,’ I replied.

‘Please. It would be our pleasure. Give you some strength for a new day tomorrow.’

‘It’s very sweet of you. But I’d be rotten company.’

Joseph shrugged, rose to his feet and dusted himself off.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘if you change your mind you know where we are.’

I bade him farewell and continued to gaze out at the sea for a very long time. I’d brought another couple of bottles in my little rucksack which I proceeded to consume. The night soon became completely pitch-black and my London head began to worry that this was a decent place to get mugged, but then I remembered. Who the hell was here?

Eventually I tramped back to my pub, which I’d left in darkness. I dived behind the bar and flicked on the lights. And here it was: the headquarters of my grand folly. Beautiful wooden interior. Comfortably wide bar, with ample space on the inside (for when things got crazy and I had to hire more staff). An open doorway to a covered outdoor area, with little lanterns dotted around. And placed throughout: thirty-two specially designed terminals, attached firmly to fixed metal stands. Until midnight, these consoles were loaded with all sorts of activities: quizzes, fruit machines, vintage arcade games, plus a specially designed jukebox where one could add selections to the pub’s queue. But just before twelve, the real fun began.

I helped myself to a packet of peanuts and shuffled over to the nearest console: conveniently placed next to the shelf running around the room’s perimeter. This, I mused, would be the pub’s most sought-after terminal, as the user would not only have somewhere to park their drink but also enough space to rest their elbow: particularly useful if they’d been drinking in the pub all evening. And now I took advantage of precisely this feature. I plonked down my bottle of beer and let the the newly varnished shelf take my weight. I was certain it’d be strong enough. I’d drilled those holes myself.

I glanced at my watch and, bang on cue, each and every console in the room came to life, with a white screen bearing a digital clock. Ignoring a slight inability to focus, I took a moment to admire the clock’s cunning design, with the hour shown in a green square, the minutes in yellow, and the seconds counting down in grey: built by the same person who made my full-page adverts in the New York Times and the Guardian.

Now there was three hundred grand I’d never see again.

But never mind all that. The hour was approaching. I steadied myself and took a deep breath. Forget everything else. Forget family dramas. Forget the money. Forget the gradual stench of failure seeping through my every pore. Just concentrate on the words.

At precisely midnight, the clock vanished and the empty Wordle grid appeared.

I popped a peanut in my mouth and tapped out my secret starter word. Four vowels and one consonant. It wasn’t madly original and I was certain millions of other players used it, but I never told anyone what it was, partly out of superstition, but mainly because it was mine and mine alone. Some viewed Wordle as a team sport: something to be done in collaboration with friends, partners or children. I wasn’t one of them.

But then, that was the beauty of my idea. After a day’s sunbathing or fishing in the island’s clear blue waters, the Wordle Arms would be a happy, open-minded place to spend an evening. Chats could be had, games could be played, drinks could be drunk and food could be scoffed. But at three minutes to midnight, a reverent hush would descend upon the pub. The consoles would gently advise customers to finish whatever quiz or game they were currently enjoying, and the clock would appear. The bartender would stop serving drinks and the players would take up their positions. Those not lucky enough to bag a terminal would hook up to the Wordle Arms’ strong wifi signal on their phones, laptops or iPads, and await that midnight moment.

After that, the bar’s customers would temporarily cease to be a community, but a collection of individuals, bent on early victory. Sometimes it would take a minute. Sometimes two. Sometimes, depending on what sort of expert happened to be in town, it might take thirty seconds… twenty even. But, as per the Wordle Arms’ rules, silence would prevail until the winning player’s result flashed up on the giant monitor screen above the bar, along with their name.

I liked to ponder a wide variety of reactions to this announcement of victory. Impressed gasps, cries of frustration and shouted expletives, along with vicious glances around the pub to see where this smooth operator lurked. They’d be easy to spot, I was sure. The person in question wouldn’t be able hide their joy as they basked in the knowledge that they – in a bar on the island of Kiritimati, at a breathtaking fourteen hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time – were in all likelihood the first person on Earth to complete that day’s Wordle. The jubilant player would make their way through the throng of customers ­– most of whom would still be morosely completing their own attempt – and be presented with their prize: a sweet little pewter tankard (of which I had ordered around five hundred) with that day’s date and the words ‘WORDLE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD’ engraved on the side. At this point, just to spread the vibes and get the party started again, the winner would be given the cheerful task of announcing over the microphone that one drink on the house awaited each and every customer as soon as they’d finished their Wordle efforts.

The music would come back on and merriment would continue well into the small hours.

*

I shook my head and the dream evaporated. I glanced around the empty, silent pub with its rows of brand new, unused consoles, the lingering scent of paint and varnish a hurtful reminder that my pub had yet to experience any good times. The opening night had been a joke. A grand total of four people attended: Joseph, Joseph’s wife Dominique, her sister Hana and some old guy named Ty from the other side of the island, who Joseph quipped would go to the opening of a coconut. Everyone was perplexed as to why the event needed to start at 11pm. No matter how many times I explained, they still didn’t get it. Then at the stroke of midnight, the pub’s built-in screens all lit up with the Wordle homepage and five very haphazard games took place, with me leaping between the consoles showing people how to do it. Dominique got her word in five lines after about forty minutes, Joseph struck out, Hana did four lines then gave up. Ty got his in three, but I suspect he snuck a look at my own screen. I installed the privacy blinkers after that: probably the only useful thing to come out of the whole sorry evening. 

Then everyone yawned, said goodnight and left me to it.

I went to bed that night hoping the new day would miraculously bring me some customers. But of course it didn’t. I spent the next few weeks wondering what I’d done wrong. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t alerted the world: as well as the newspaper ads, I’d paid someone to blitz social media for me. I developed an unfortunate routine: each day at noon I’d drive along the coast to the tiny Cassidy International Airport, where I’d wait by the runway to see who was getting off the Hawaii flight. I pictured a happy band of weirdos – baseball caps, knee-length shorts and geeky T-shirts – excitedly descending the airstair, thirsty for a drink and eager to enter the Wordle record books. But there was never anyone like that. Just a clutch of locals returning home, the occasional salesperson and a few fishing enthusiasts. Even the handful of Danish birdwatchers who showed up on the island a few weeks ago didn’t pop in for a beer.

‘They looked inside,’ I told my sister on the phone, ‘saw all the screens and just buggered off. Maybe they thought it was an office.’

‘Where were you?’

‘In the toilet.’

‘Brilliant. Didn’t they see the massive sign saying “The World’s first Wordle Pub”?’

‘Um… there isn’t one.’

‘Why not?’

‘Er… it seemed a bit obvious?’

‘For goodness’ sake. You’ve opened a theme bar on one of the tiniest, most remote islands on the face of the planet. I should think obvious is what you need.’

God damn it. Was she right? Of course she was right.

*

I looked back at my screen. I realised I hadn’t even pressed ‘enter’ on my starter word. I took a glug of beer and tapped the button.

Wow. All greys. Great effort there. I belched and felt a pang of nausea. Better give the beers a rest. (After this one.) I’d ordered a vast pallet of Victoria Bitter and now I was getting high off my own supply… every single night.

My next attempt yielded just one yellow. Booorr-ing. My third go revealed one yellow again, this time in a different spot. I was having a shit night. But I never claimed to be that great at Wordle anyway. That wasn’t the point. It was all about the Big Idea.

Fourth go. One green and one yellow. God damn it! I wobbled a little. Too many damn beers. This had to stop. Fifth attempt. Two greens now, but still the same damn yellow.

I was struggling to see the screen. This wasn’t happening. One more go and I needed to make it a good one. But I no longer had the presence of mind to play properly. 

I hammered my best effort into the screen.

Three greens and a yellow. The game was up.

The word ‘SPENT’ appeared on my console.

The indignity of it all. My streak of seventy-four completed Wordles obliterated by this most basic of words. And yes, the bloody thing was correct: I was well and truly spent. Almost all my inheritance money: spent. Almost all my energy and enthusiasm: spent. And, with my kidneys aching and my beer gut threatening to flop over the top of my shorts, my health looked like it might soon be spent as well.

I downed the last of my drink and swayed back through the room. My sister was right. This was an extraordinarily shit idea. But that was me all over. Big ideas, with no rooting in real life. Seriously: a Wordle bar? On a distant tropical island that didn’t even have an established tourist trade? And all because of some administrative anomaly that gave this tiny place the dubious honour of receiving the new calendar day before anyone else? No one cared about that. The islanders didn’t care. Why would they? They were too busy struggling to feed and clothe themselves. The birds didn’t care, the fish didn’t care… not even the sun cared. Another day was another day. Who gave a shit if you were getting it before anyone else? It was still going to be full of disappointment and hardship.

I’d spent two million pounds. Two. Million. Pounds. There were so many reasonable things I could have done with that money. But instead here I was, on a stupid island with a stupid bar and zero friends. Oh, there was Joseph, but I wasn’t even sure Joseph would lower himself to be counted.

I flicked off the lights and stumbled outside. No need to lock anything up. Who’d want to steal any of my junk? As for all the beer… thieves were welcome to it. Might mean a bit less for me to consume, which could only be a good thing.

I barged through the door of my hut and flung myself down on the bed without taking off any clothes. My flip flops hung precariously on the end of my toes as my feet lolled over the mattress. The final thing to flash up on my mind’s desktop before I passed out was the stern face of my father.

‘Everything I wanted in life, I had to work for,’ he said.

Yeah, Dad. No shit.

*

I woke up feeling different. I can’t explain it. Energetic, perhaps, with a sense of purpose. The sky was overcast: not something that happens often here. Sand had blown through the pub’s outdoor area into the bar room and I spent half an hour sweeping up, which I quite enjoyed. Everything seemed, for once, not so perfect, and call me an English moron but that cheered me up. Even my hangover wasn’t enough to dent my mood. I ran to the sea for a quick swim and put some coffee on. I made myself some eggs, then prepared myself for the daily pilgrimage to the airport.

But in a slight change of routine, I took all the empty crates, pots of paint and assorted paraphernalia out the back of my Land Rover and gave the interior a once-over with the vacuum cleaner. If there were any likely-looking Wordle Arms candidates getting off the plane it seemed only fair I give them a lift. As I was stashing all the stuff in an outhouse, I spied the pot of yellow paint I’d used for the pub sign.

My sister’s voice echoed in my head. ‘Obvious is what you need.’

I looked at my watch. Half past eleven. The airport was ten minutes away.

I grabbed my stepladder, the yellow paint and a brush. There was a nice stretch of empty wood above the pub’s front door, so as carefully as I could, I painted ‘THE WORLD’S FIRST WORDLE PUB’. A little scruffy around the edges, but I could always redo it when I had more time. I stood back to admire my handiwork, then freshened up and jumped in the car.

There was a scattering of rain as I drove along the coast road, which made me even happier. I switched on the CD player: Bill Withers ‘Lovely Day’ came tumbling out of the speakers. Perhaps a little predictable, but hey, obvious seemed to be doing the trick right now.

I parked in the small airport car park and strolled along to the terminal building – essentially, a large shed – nodding at the pair of airport security guys as I passed. They knew where I was going. I continued walking along the perimeter fence until it curved off to the left, past a clutch of palm trees and then to a little grass-covered hump, from where I could sit and get a decent view. The seat was a little soggy, but even that was a welcome change.

I looked at my watch. Five past twelve. Late today. But there it was, the little plane, turning at the far end of the runway to taxi back to the terminal.

I felt a rare burst of confidence. Today, it was going to happen. Screw you, Dad: I had worked for this. They’d be there. Along with the usual big American dudes on their fishing trips and besuited businesspeople on their fact-finding missions would be a team of brainiacs who’d form the beginnings of my core regulars. My pub would be the success I’d dreamed of. Maybe its influence would be even wider. Perhaps it would help revitalise the island’s tourist trade. Maybe I could eventually extend my building to include a ‘quiet room’ where the International Wordle Championships could take place every year. Maybe… maybe…

The plane came to a stop. The door opened. Two chaps with hi-vis vests wandered over and pulled down the airstair. And now here they came, just as I’d pictured. Three burly fishing dudes in Hawaiian shirts and shorts. A couple of men and a lady in business attire. Some chap in a military uniform. A small family with a couple of kids, maybe here to visit a grandparent or something. Two nondescript guys who looked like commuting locals, home for the weekend. And… and…

And that was it.

Through suddenly gathering tears, I glared at the plane for a few more minutes in case someone had fallen asleep and was currently hurrying up the aisle. Nope. Instinctively I fingered my little rucksack, just to see if I’d accidentally-on-purpose brought a bottle of beer with me. Nope.

I remained sitting there for quite some time. It was as if all the useful thoughts had been vacuumed from my brain. To make matters worse, the clouds cleared, the sun came out and the day reverted to its usual irritating perfection.

Screw this place.

I finally rose to my feet and slunk back to the car, gnashing my teeth at the band of happy passengers now tumbling out of the terminal building with various coloured suitcases. Did I want to greet any of these people, saying if anyone fancied a drink with added word games, there was this great bar just along the coast…?

Did I fuck.

I shoved myself back in the Land Rover, slammed the door and crossly spun out of the car park. Bill Withers started up his merry croon so I ejected the CD and petulantly threw it out the window. Then I floored it back to the village.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. How could I be such a loser? Silly little trust-fund kid with his pointless pub and pointless life. My sister was right: I did have no concept of reality. I’d been handed on a plate the sort of money most families wouldn’t see in a lifetime, and I’d blown it on this. And then I’d ignored everyone when they tried to give me advice. Live on the island for a while before you take the plunge, said my sister. Maybe take tour groups out there first to see how it goes, said a couple of my friends. No, no, no, no, no, I said. I’m gonna do it my way, so neeerr. And now the dream had been squashed into a rancid pile of booby shit. I might as well raze the pub to the ground for all the good it’s going to do me. I won’t even sell the stock, or the screens, or anything. I’ll just leave it here as a tribute to my rampant idiocy. Future archeology students will examine the ruins of the building. ‘Ah yes,’ they’ll say. ‘This is where a daft rich man came to the island in the early 21st century to play word games… by himself, every night. Then one day he left, leaving eight hundred bottles of Victoria Bitter and some peanuts.’

By the time I roared into the village, I was convinced the whole thing was over. And I was okay with it. It made sense. My life was worthless, so it only followed that my ideas were worthless too. I wasn’t even particularly disappointed. I could limp back to Britain, camp in my sister’s spare room for a while until the next damn-fool idea occurred to me. It was fine. I didn’t care. I didn’t care about the sparkling sea over to my right. I didn’t care about the gently swaying palm trees. I didn’t care about Joseph’s hotel, devoid of customers as usual. And I didn’t even care about the group of people who seemed to have gathered outside my pub, standing around like a clutch of package holiday-makers who’d lost their tour guide.

I slowed down and the group came into focus. They seemed fairly young, late-twenties perhaps, dark hair, high-street T-shirts, sunglasses and wheelie suitcases. Three men and a couple of women. They looked lost.

Then I slammed on my brakes when I saw the fatherly figure of Joseph, in his usual uniform of polo shirt and shorts, striding out of my pub. He shrugged at the group of newcomers and looked like he was about to say something apologetic, but he spotted me fifty yards up the road and broke into a broad smile.

‘There he is,’ I heard him say.

I left the Land Rover idling in the middle of the road and staggered over to the gaggle of people like a starving man greeting a plate of food.

‘Hello!’ I yelped, raising one of my hands.

A smiling chap in a Superdry T-shirt approached me.

‘You’re the landlord?’

‘Er… yes! I am the landlord.’

‘Great to meet you, mate. I’m Will, this is Tan and this is Lynda, we’re from Fiji, and this is Taab and Frank, they’re from Samoa.’

‘We met on the flight,’ Taab said.

‘Oh!’ I stammered. ‘But I didn’t see you getting off the flight?’

‘Not the Hawaii flight,’ grinned Joseph. ‘The Fiji flight. They landed a few hours ago.’

‘I hope you’re hot shit at Wordle,’ Lynda said. ‘I get mine in two lines mostly.’

I gulped. ‘Two?’

‘Yeah,’ she nodded. ‘And usually within twenty seconds.’

‘But… I’m confused. How did you guys find out about this place?’

They all looked at Joseph, who smiled sheepishly back at me.

‘I might have done a little advertising of my own,’ he admitted.

‘Advertising?’

‘I belong to a little network of Polynesian hotels. We help each other out. I emailed them your advert a few weeks ago.’

‘You’re kidding me.’

‘He’s not,’ said Frank. ‘We saw your advert on the wall in our local bar in Apia.’

‘You did?’ I blinked.

‘Yeah,’ he laughed. ‘But only just. Why’d you only advertise in the New York Times?’

‘Oh, er… the Guardian too…’

Everyone laughed.

‘Mate,’ said Tan, ‘you should advertise in some Polynesian newspapers! They’d love it!’

‘Oh… really?’

‘Totally,’ chuckled Taab. ‘Right on your doorstep.’

‘Comparatively speaking,’ Lynda added.

I shuffled over to Joseph and put a hand on his shoulder.

‘I don’t know how to thank you.’

‘Come on,’ Joseph stage-whispered. ‘It’s going to be good for my business too.’

The penny dropped.

‘Hang on… they’re staying with you? You knew they were coming today?’

‘I might have done,’ he smiled.

Everyone burst into very gratifying laughter.

I felt like a fool. But a happy one. The sun was out. A group of eager Wordle nutcases were standing in front of me. Did I have enough drinks? Did the ice maker work? Could I confidently get the barbeque going?

It didn’t matter. In the the great Wordle game of life, I was on a solid four-line average. Next week? Who knew. I might move up to three, or down to five. Sometimes I might solve it in two. Perhaps I’d have one of those excruciating games where I wrack my brains all day and squeak through on six. Who knew? Just enjoy the ride.

‘Well,’ I said, clapping my hands. ‘Who’s for a beer?’

—————————————————————————————–

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