‘Family Departed, Peace Again’ (16. Qd5)

There was a small crowd of old folk in the middle of the playing field. A warm draught of rainwater rose off the wet grass in the afternoon heat. Although the sky was grey and unpleasant to see, it was early summer, the air did not move; a smooth odour of sodden plants and flowers came in waves from the bottom up. The large playing field was uneven, scarred with the whitelines of football pitches and a cricket oval. It the distance were climbing frames and swings, slides, a seesaw, still, not speckled with children. The old folk were together near one of the garden fences that bordered the edge, where the grass grew uncut with ghostly flowertips unmoving. The old people were colourfully dressed and practicing tai chi. They all moved slow and measured as one, legs apart, arms flowing through the air, fingers together. In the still, one could hear morsels of conversation and chatter, laughing, but mostly their chests rose and fell with deep breaths. I paused on my walk and observed them. They could not see me seeing them, their backs to my gaze, their focus elsewhere of course, so I was able to watch them comfortably. I smoked the rest of my cigarette there, threw it on the ground, where it just lay upon the grass, its grey stream rising upwards in a straight line. Moving on my way, I thought that to be part of that kind of collective, not as with friends but strangers from the community, might be a wonderful thing that was missing from my life. Who knows, I thought, but it might make me feel good and perhaps, if I were lucky, like people were not all so bad or faraway.

Returning home, taking my trainers from my feet, I looked up ‘chess clubs near me’, and there were many, although the last time the websites had been updated – if not for covid – was two-thousand-sixteen or earlier. I was not discouraged and searched on until I found one for this small town, and it had been updated this very month. It had a list of the games, tournaments and rankings, members (few) and the e-mail address of the club secretary. Picturing a man who took his duties seriously, sat behind a grand desk he had squeezed into the study (former bedroom of his eldest son), swept up in a state of pleasant surprise at new correspondence, an enquiry; cracking his fingers, making he and his wife a cup of tea each, before apologising and rushing back to open the message, having delayed in anticipation long enough. I wrote him—

I hope you're well. / How would I go about joining the C—n chess club? Are you guys meeting at the moment or are OTB games postponed because of covid? / Let me know. I'm very interested in being able to play people in real life.’ It was most likely the e-mail address was poorly tended, rarely checked, never responded to, and my little grab for it would be in vain. But it was not four hours later when I received a response. I was overjoyed and replied straight away, telling him that really I was just looking for an opportunity to play over-the-board and meet new people. Divulging my chess account, saying it would be nice to play him and see where it goes in future. He replied immediately—‘I’ve put a challenge to you on [chess website]. I’m Cheaply1949. See how it goes.

Terror gripped me! I had best impress him, otherwise I would surely be told that I am not up to scratch, that I should go away and return when I had improved. Usually that might not be such an issue, except that it was Friday evening by now and I was alone so had been drinking a couple of hours and was a trifle drunk. We played a game; I blundered my knight, crumbled and then lost in embarrassing fashion. He wished me good-night. That was that, I thought. I have brought shame upon myself and would not be accepted by his chess club or any other in this town or elsewhere. No self-respecting secretary of a chess club would welcome a player of that calibre! After he had gone, I studied our game to determine where I went wrong and what I would not do again in future. It was sad that the opportunity had passed me by, but I had no one to blame except myself.

The next day he wrote me—‘See that you did an analysis on our game. Both had four inaccuracies, but you had a blunder, which made all the difference.’ Then he told me about an event on Wednesday night in a nearby town, that, if I wanted, I could attend. ‘Perhaps we can have another game some day next week. / Look forward to a face to face.’ We continued to write each other throughout the day, exchanging six e-mails, and as soon as one of his arrived in my inbox, I became excited as though it were from a young lady, stopped what I was doing and replied. The e-mails grew in length, and although we focused on chess, we began to intersperse them with details from our lives. He told me about highlights of his chess career. It was all very charming and filled me with an unfamiliar kind of joy. At the end of one mail on Saturday evening, I wrote—‘If you can’t tell, it’s so good to talk to someone about chess. I’ve been studying it alone and met a couple sound people online but it’s not the same.’ My brother and his girlfriend were in the house that night and I wished to tell them all about my new friend, but thought it might be terribly boring, so said nothing. That night I became very drunk, but thought that I was not drunk at all, and kept on drinking, making things much worse.

In the morning he had written me again, and sent an invitation to the chess event on Wednesday night. I wanted to respond but could barely pull my eyes in the same direction through an intense throbbing within my skull; instead, I lay there on the sofa, desperately attempting to find a comfortable position, weeping at the silliest thing on television or thought through my head. I did not like him to think that I was ignoring him, nor could I lift myself from the crippled form I had on the cushions.
The next day I wrote him. It was something I had been looking forward to, especially after my silence. I wished to thank him for inviting me to the event. I was sat in the middle of the office, and although my time there was drawing to a close, I did not wish – because of my noisy keyboard – to alert everyone to the fact that I was writing an extended personal correspondence. He had asked me what I did in London, and he told me to stay sober; only one of those I could satisfy. I told him that I had quit. I told him that I wish I had listened to his advice on staying sober. He replied quickly of all the IMs and FMs and WGMs in the county, then once again he regaled me with tales of his chess career. At the end, he wished me good luck with my new job and informed me that he was indeed seventy-two and retired, but that he would be around later that evening if I wanted ‘revenge.’ I did. When I got home, I ate dinner quickly and then sat down to play him. It was quiet in the house; it was perfectly quiet in the house, only my mother and I about. She read on the sofa behind me, and I played my new friend at chess. Often I would look up out of the window and everything was gold, it was peach, gulls shrieked, the trees did not move nor did they make the sound of faraway wind. Although he beat me twice over the hour, I was happy; afterwards, I would stand up and snap my fingers, realising – ‘Ah!’ – that is where I went wrong. When he went to bed, I wrote him again. I analysed his games and asked him questions. Before me was this new excitement of asking a better-player-than-I the reasons why he played certain moves, and – I apologise if it seems so dull! – why he sac’d his knight on d5 and he told me why, and then he scanned pages from one of his books to me, so that I could better understand the reason.

It was a real pleasure to write this older gentleman. His embrace of e-mail and online chess reminded me of my grandmother, who, in later life, welcomed the wonders of technology and would tell me about her games of scrabble against the computer or strangers on the internet; when I played her over-the-board and challenged her tiles, she would exclaim—‘The computer allows it!’ and I laughed so hard that I had no choice but to allow her ‘word’.

More and more, this man told me about his life. He would not be able to make Wednesday’s chess event because he had to ferry his daughter to and from the local brownies, which she ran. His daughter is a wheelchair user and teaches at the local university. He told me that, should he have the time, he would observe my games, and so I promised to myself that I make him proud, give a good account of myself; after all, he had introduced me to the event. He told me about his health problems and how he was doing better now, how he had lost a lot of weight, that mostly he was very chill and comfortable in life but he stared straight at those buzzing plates of metal the doctor waved before him.

Wednesday I was preparing for my last day, and, from nowhere, found myself in a grizzly conflict with one of the directors, from which a red mist perfumed about my vision and I struggled to find something that would calm me down. ‘What was the name of my chess teacher?’ I asked my mother. She could not remember. My new friend wrote me, but I held off reading it, because to open it would cheer me up, was really something I could barely wait to do, and so held it until I could no longer bear. And would you believe it, but in another moment of reflection he recalled fondly the name of an old gentleman who had mentored him. It struck me! Carefully the name was rolled upon my tongue till at last I could hold it no longer and ran to my mother—‘Was his name Keffler … Mr Keffler?!’ Yes, she said, it surely was, that sounded right. She could not understand as I went back outside, immensely smiling and squeezing my hands into fists, to finish my cigarette. I could not wait to tell him so, that this man who had mentored him had also taught me. Without provocation, I remembered to my new friend that Mr Keffler had taught me chess after school in the library – where I was already good friends with the librarian – and that Mr Keffler always brought along biscuits and orange squash for his students. ‘He was a very nice man, as I remember. Unfortunately I got bullied in chess class, too (imagine how low down the social hierarchy of school you have to be to get bullied by other chess nerds) and ended up quitting that, so never saw him again. … I did not realise he was so esteemed in the chess world, as you probably know he was very humble and modest.’ There were photographs on the internet of Mr Keffler, but he was older than when I knew him, and he had a cane, and there were photographs of his eighty-eighth and ninetieth birthdays, in which he crouched low over a chessboard cake, examining the position. He was a large man with a small bald head and a kind face. Then there were photographs of him in a wheelchair playing chess, kindly relaxed as his opponent furrowed over the pieces. Four months after that he went blind and became sad and angry using a braille set, then nine months later he died.

As we play chess, he tells me about the tennis.
As we play chess, I tell him about the football.

Because he is my friend now, I tell him about my day at work, things I might not tell anyone else. I warn him in advance that, on the following day, I will no longer be employed and will most likely be awfully drunk and then awfully hungover. It comes to pass. The next day, after my prolonged silence, he writes me again—‘I guess you are now a free man. Didn’t sound like a pleasant place to work. I’ve had another look at your game on Wednesday against JD C—. I thought you should’ve won that one. The mistake was move-sixteen. Qd5 was the best and winning move. / Family just arrived for lunch will follow up later.’ Then he wrote me a long message.

Between jobs, during my week off, I often picture – as though they were dreams of a better life – us playing chess in the sunshine and laughing quite. In spite of us talking so much to each other, it might be odd for me to make such an offer. I wrote him earlier and wait for a response, although I understand it has been a busy day with the tennis and the football and he has a family to attend to. He might write me tomorrow. I would like to encounter him sometime during the week, over a board, doing my best in absolute silence, as the breeze blows over the land and out to sea, where the pieces are contrasted precisely in the afternoon sun.