Three-Day Summer

Out of the passenger window were four illuminated panels, flashing past. I walked up to the building, which was set back from the road, behind a wooden fence and thick uncut grass. A woman was sat on a bench in the dusk darkness, smoking a cigarette and looking at nothing, certainly not at me as I passed by. Night was sliding its mouth over the earth and only in the distance was there the faintest rim of blue, silhouetting the trees and muffling the birds.

I was late, nervous. The village hall had the smell of all village halls, old varnish, older wood, cleaning products, teastains, crumbs in crannies. Hand sanitiser and signing myself in. The main room was home to nine tables with a pair of men at each, sat in silence, a chessboard between them. There was a woman sat crosslegged on a stool, she did not look up but was colouring something in she had pinned to a clipboard, her scratching pencil was the only sound besides the ticks of nine timers tocking.

At the table was an old white man playing a little Chinese boy. Both looked up at me. ‘R—, I presume?’ I nodded. It was Lambert. He was taller than I imagined. ‘Please sign in there.’ I did so. He looked around. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for a game.’ I told him not to worry. I observed their game. Lambert had told me about this child before, his name was Felix, I remembered. Lambert told me he had talent. Felix looked at me nervously; he regarded the board and his opponent and teacher nervously. He moved confidently and he often gave Lambert cause for concern, however Lambert might occasionally interrupt his swiping hand with—‘Watch out for rook.’ Felix even stared at me as though to apologise. I smiled at Felix but he could not see it behind my mask.

Down the other end of the room a man arose, the game finished. Lambert indicated that I should go over. I was trembling when I sat opposite my opponent who was a very old man, the oldest there. His back was hunched, his liverspotted skull half concealed behind a pale blue disposable mask. Should I shake his hand? I picked up a white and black pawn, hid them behind my back then presented my clenched fists to him. The skin on his pointing hand was transparent; he would play white. In the first game I miscalculated an attack, missing the pin he had on my e-pawn. Not long later, with all his major pieces aimed at f7, I resigned.

Around the room, games continued with people changing boards. All the players were men, from ten-year-old Felix to the ninety-year-old in front of me. At Lambert’s table a few boys had gathered round to watch, and Lambert talked them through the tactics. They listened intensely, fixated. I smiled. At first all had been silent but now, after a few games, the men were loosening up and conversating. It was good.

In the second game I played white. My elderly opponent blundered his queen on move five; I offered a takeback, but he politely declined, shaking his head. ‘I’ve been out of practice,’ he told me. I tried to make conversation but he could not hear me, so we just played chess. Without his queen, he had no chance. I crushed him, overwhelmed his queenside, forced his king to the centre of the board and delivered checkmate.

I excused myself and went to the toilet. When I returned, he had assumed a more comfortable pose, crossed his legs and turned himself slightly away from the board. He was getting serious now, but I had psyched myself up in the toilet. I was calmer now. The sweat in my palms had dried, my fingers no longer shaking. I would play black again. It was the better game. My active queen unsettled him and he forced an exchange. We worked our way down to a knight vs bishop endgame. ‘I think this is a draw,’ he said, but I was greedy and wanted the win, certain that my bishop would save me. A few moves later, I made a mistake. ‘Do you want a draw?’ I asked. The old bastard ignored me. It was worth a try. I considered the position for ten minutes, before finally flicking my king on his side.

I am not dead. Things have changed. I met someone. It is busy and there was a three-day summer. Her grandfather called her the Polish word for ‘sweet poison’. When I have collected all my thoughts, I will put them down. Until then, I suppose I am living. Things have changed. I am enjoying them, the things.