It was the DA that did it: the infamous Friday cryptic crossword. I was living at my dad’s place in coastal Victoria when a friend came to visit, towing a friend of hers she’d mentioned before but I hadn’t met – a Melbourne musician. I was in no state to be receiving new acquaintances; I was there to recover from a near-fatal accident in Paris, preceded by the fiery demise of an engagement to a Frenchman. The musician seemed nice. But it was when he noticed my pathetic attempt to complete a David Astle cryptic crossword and said he did them too – or tried – that something sparked. My mind said, “I love you.” I may have said it out loud. I think I did. It was a joke. But I’d never met anyone interested in the Friday cryptic other than my nan.
It was not the time or place for love. I was a mess of stitches and unwashed hair, partially incapacitated from a C2 fracture: robot-girl in an upper-body brace made of plastic and metal, complete with Velcro forehead strap detail. But the DA got us talking, and then it got him coming back – to drop off the clues he’d done, for me to add to. The crossword became the centrepoint of a slow, tracksuit-panted courtship – not that we had any idea at that point that was what it was. Cups of tea. Jam Fancies. The thesaurus. Medication schedules. I couldn’t understand why he had any interest in spending this swampy time with me.
But the DA removed any questions that threatened to get in the way, keeping us focused on the task at hand.
Like me, he had discovered the DA in his 20s and developed a obsession with it. The DA was different to other crosswords – hard enough in themselves. There was a level of artistry to it that pure logic would repel – it seemed you had to access a different field of consciousness; a plane where art, mathematics, history and general knowledge met. You had to become a ninja sleuth: crack through the matrix of closed doorways in your own mind, tame the passageways of your natural thought patterns, shift the balance of your brain. To solve a single clue was a victory.
It fascinated me that he was as fascinated with words as I was, how excited he’d get when he – or we – got a tough clue out. The crossword us kept us connected to something outside ourselves. We’d discuss translation, etymology, the pictures the clues would paint in our minds, the ideas they would ignite. His mind worked differently to mine yet somehow familiarly; his brain was wired more strategically, more linearly – though wild and surprising and unkempt in its own way. The way he approached a clue was unfathomable to me, and vice versa.
My process was to shake up my brain and let it fall off a cliff, and perhaps, just perhaps, catch something on the way down. He was more methodical. I would take wild stabs in the dark, he would justify my stabs. He would have logical hunches, I would sweep in off the ropes and nail them with a final random blow. It was as though we each had half a quite good brain, and neither of us had known its value until it met the other part. I liked his brain a lot. It entranced me, like observing a foreign animal. In some ways it was more foreign to me than the Frenchman’s.
With the lack of ability for a relationship to develop (due to my physical and emotional state and the knowledge that we would soon leave for different countries) the crossword took on its own erotic charge. We got one out! Dad put it on the fridge. Things went in a different direction than we expected: we both ended up living in Paris together. As the relationship bloomed, the DA kept us connected, and still does, to this day. Right now he is in Paris with this week’s DA, and I am working off a photocopy. Text messages are hot: 1 Down: Diatribes? What the hell’s a clarion?
We didn’t then know who DA was – some said Don’t Attempt. In my mind I called he/she/it a combination of other D and A expletives. There was no way it was a simulation, it was far too beautifully human. We learnt eventually about the artful brainiac David Astle. We took our daughter to a book event he was appearing at and introduced her at the signing table as a daughter of DA. He was touched and surprised to learn her story began with him. Nerds!
Jayne Tuttle’s second memoir, My Sweet Guillotine, is out 7 September through Hardie Grant