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Playing ‘Ghost’ by Penny Boxall

When I was young my mother liked to play Halma, gleefully hopping her yolk-yellow pieces over my blues and huddling them like plastic chicks in their corner opposite. We both liked it. One day my brother suddenly refused to play, and Mum realised it is! It is very boring! and sold the set at a car-boot sale. She hadn’t much patience for Scrabble or Bananagrams (Stop menacing me! Stop grabbing!). Her new distraction (on car journeys, on twilit platforms) was ‘Ghost’: a spelling game in which the aim is to avoid finishing words. She’d pick an opening letter and pronounce it firmly, as if already certain she would win. ‘B!’ R, I’d counter. ‘A! Oh no,’ she’d cry, curling in one of the fingers that signified her remaining lives. I was a crafty opponent, forcing her into spelling corners until the only way was to bring the word home. I know it wasn’t sporting. Some words you can twist unexpectedly, while for others there’s an inevitability. It’s about how many moves ahead you are able, or predisposed, to calculate. She was a believer in fate. Recently I tried to play against myself, starting off decidedly as she did, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to finish.


Penny Boxall’s collections are Ship of the Line (which won the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award), Who Goes There? and, with Naoko Matsubara, In Praise of Hands. She’s held fellowships at Hawthornden Castle and Merton College, Oxford. She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of York.


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