Xs and Os

There is a board on the wall of some local supermarket, near the sliding doors beyond the registers. It is a place for community advertisements. A stack of index cards sits on a small shelf next to a few chipped and broken biros. Anyone is free to take a card, fill it out and slide it into one of the slots on the whiteboard. Old lawnmowers, baby rabbits, soffit replacements are sold or given away. Community theatre is advertised. Lost dogs are sought and offered.

The board upon which the plastic rails are mounted is a whiteboard. In the spaces between the index cards people have begun playing exes and ohs. Noughts and crosses. Tic-tac-toe. A black marker has been left on the shelf for this purpose, although many of the marks are in red or green or blue, suggesting some players are bringing their own.

There are dozens of completed games on the board, and the smudges of many more long wiped away. Perhaps twenty of the games are still active. Unfinished, more accurately, as there is no way to tell which have been forgotten or abandoned. The individual games are unmarked and uncommented. There is no way to tell who is playing whom. There is no way to tell who has won, who has lost, but usually no one has done either.

Nobody wins when adults play noughts and crosses. The patterns are recognised within a few dozen goes, and given familiar participants the second player will stymie the first until a draw is achieved. This can be seen in the dead games scattered across the whiteboard. Victories are few and far between. A few players have attempted to play on four or five-square grids, but the game is ruined by these expansions. It loses its balance, its flow. Experienced players play a three-by-three game, never winning, never losing.

Stop and watch for a few hours and you might see a mark made on the board. An individual will pull up on their way out of the shop, barely pausing to read the game before taking the marker from the shelf and making their move. The connections here are impossible to read. It would take days and months to map all these slow-turning games to their participants. The matches play out again and again, filling the gaps on the board, eventually to be rubbed away and replaced. Each grid, with the possibility of victory almost wholly absent, passes back and forth with all the weight of a conversation about the weather. What the board represents to the individual players is difficult to say. A social nod from an anonymous neighbour. Perhaps real competition would upset this casual exchange. What the board represents to the town is perhaps clearer. Like any passing exchange in the street,the game is trivial in isolation, significant in aggregate.

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