Short Story 01 – The Queen’s Gambit
“Do you play chess my friends?” the boy asked.
Two men joined the boy for company. On that perfect Thursday afternoon, all three relaxed alongside the river Thames. Deep in conversation they were subjected to a striking view of the QE2 Bridge curling away to the north river bank. Traffic rumbled across the bridge returning from a day of labour in the city. The elder man, a younger man and boy were completely unknown to one another. Thrown together through various commitments at the hotel with a view. They were outside to enjoy the afternoon sunshine. The elder man sat mellow opposite the boy. Their ambling conversation continued.
“I can’t say that I seek the opportunity. It is however an enjoyable sport,” the elder man responded. He sat opposite the boy. Both cheeks raised in a smile of patience; after a long blink and a breath he turned to show his unrelentingly kind eyes.
The second man was younger and stood disengaged. Obvious discomfort was shown at the flippant reference to him as a friend. He had just met. A sharp sideways look of disdain was ceded. After taking a drag of his cigarette, he turned to view the QE2 Bridge over the Thames. Whilst continuing to smoke he stared at the bridge. Interest was feigned in the featureless continual traffic. He could not be assessed any longer for his current stake in the conversation. He remained stood with his back to the others. It is guessed that he also winced when the game of chess was called a sport by the elder man.
A hazed background white-noise filled the air; a sporadic boom echoed across the river from lorries traversing bumps in the road. Although the afternoon had come, the evening was still bright.
“I learnt from one of the best,” exclaimed the boy. His tone of voice reflected unrelenting self-pride. The boy was allowed this claim without contest.
The younger man who was standing took another drag of his cigarette however blew slower as if distracted. The other two faced each other on a rough wooden bench shaded by a silver birch tree. The cool wind circulated fresh air into their place of rest. Small rounded leaves on the tree flittered and partially shaded the sunlight.
The elder man continued to smile at the boy and the gaze was held long enough to invite further conversation. His face was held up to the falling sunshine. Both arms lay flat on the table in a defenceless position. The elder man invited conversation.
“Are you content?” asked the boy.
“That entirely depends upon what regard,” the elder man lied. It was a poor lie revealed by a sudden but brief change of emotion in his eyes. A poorly buried memory stung like a cracked wound.
“It is said that chess originated when a Persian king, after becoming deeply dissatisfied with life, ordered his people to heal that injustice. Chess was presented by Zarathustra. The rules differed however the premise was the same. It created direct competition through intellect. Within chess-based competition, financial circumstances become immaterial. The king asked the reward to be named. Zarathustra requested grains of rice to be counted out on a chessboard; one grain on the first square, two on the second, four on the third and so forth doubling each square.” The boy paused to catch his breath, smiling, anticipating the punch line. “This of course amounts to an impossible amount of grain!”
The younger man turned to catch a quick glance of the other two and then turned back. A brief survey of his cigarette filter granted an excuse to re-detach himself from conversation. Sharp features resembled a bird of prey with grey forward facing eyes and a strong nose. Stiff lips would part and close erratically whilst ruminating. Dressed in a charcoal suit he seemed impersonal. Stood rigid in a posture of defence, the stance was at least an acknowledgement of the other two. The charcoal outfit had not changed since the morning, undisturbed from the daily activity of which he had engaged. The dark suit and emblembed cufflink were devised as armament against others. Whatever his daily toil he didn’t belong within an industry of hospitality.
The elder man sat had a round friendly face. Life had been kind to him and this was sought to be repaid at any opportunity. An off-white shirt and grey suit reflected a humble attitude and demeanour. Always sat with open posture, both hands were at rest and able to perform sympathising gestures. He was a listener and sympathiser. Sweat come easy to his wide brow. Long cheeks framed a portly liver spotted face. For the most part his eyes stayed happy, deeply content with something he had found dear. Amiable eyes were at the limit of contentedness whilst remaining present in the moment. Not a muscle was riled to defence as he sat at the bench with both feet faced forward, discipline instilled from a respectable education. A red auburn tie was loosened and shirt buttons were undone. The dress would seem out of place in a professional setting. With rolled up sleeves, two bare arms lay on the table catching the dwindling sunlight. Black stranded hair covered each arm. He took up space on the table breeding a calm presence.
The young man smoking asked a quick question, “Who was the King?” He remained stood, facing the bridge on the horizon. The question was abruptly asked in a manner that expressed deep disbelief in a story presented as fact.
The boy looked confused at first however was quick to respond, “The King plays no part in this story, and he was a King of some forgotten land and people. Zarathustra is the true King here.”
“… – ,” unconvinced the young man did not like this.
The old man added with enthusiasm, “Plato’s compromise!” And sighed in a way that indicated both significant excitement and investment in the boy’s passion. “Plato’s utopia was a society ruled by philosopher-kings. Plato’s compromise was to make do with what is available: Kings that have been taught philosophy. The early origins of finishing school. Here within chess it seems that philosophers can become kings!”
The boy liked this thought but the young man mumbled and turned further away. There was a long silence.
The three continued to be at rest beside the tree. Sunlight warmed the fresh spring air. The sun hung in a near clear sky, laced with wisps of cloud. It showed little sign of movement. A whole hour could tick by without stirring the moment. A heat haze shimmered across the river. The lurid scent of cut grass and opportunity hung in the breezy air.
“You seem sad my boy … ,” the elder man ventured.
After this acknowledgment it appeared as though some thorn was twisted and pulled from the boy’s shoulders. A cold trickle of sadness spread throughout his chest and fell once more into equilibrium. “Yes” he spoke and exhaled. “You see I won … when I should have lost.”
“In a way, yes – I won at chess but lost some faith.”
It seemed as though the mention of ‘losing faith’ perturbed again some deep repression in the old man.
“I won a great competition. In the final I keenly sacrificed my queen to gain the upper hand directly.”
The elder man sat now confused, thoughts out of balance. Unable to sympathise he had invested little time in his life to learning the infinite subtleties of chess tactics. He looked confused and dismayed that no further discussion may be offered on the subject. A further enquiry followed a pause – carefully worded to avoid alienating the boy – “… You were sad that you needed to sacrifice your queen?” The old man was the model of naïveté, treading in a murky pool of knowledge blackened with depth.
“I – “
“I read about you in the paper today.” the young man interjected suddenly. “They say that when you sacrificed the queen a win was inevitable.” The young man sounded awed suddenly. The boy possessed some conventional value. Only one day before that fine Thursday afternoon the boy, a child prodigy, won an international competition. In the last game he sacrificed his queen in a novel tactic that meant a win was inevitable. Twenty three moves after the queen was sacrificed the boy won. It was however the method of winning that was commendable.
The young man turned around to face the others. He now seemed intrigued by the boy. The remainder of his cigarette was thrown without a care for its landing; steadfast eyes set upon the bench. After joining the others he was tense with some surprising amount of energy. This could be recognised from some distance. Casual exchanges took place between the three. The younger man rested his elbows on the table eager to hear more.
The two men listened to the boy in silence as he discussed the sacrificial method. The elder man cocked his head sideways obviously listening – with little understanding of chess.
The boy concluded the description of the triumphant win but sighed. “Alas, I have lost faith. I won for just winning’s sake.”
“…-” This repeat mention of faith caused a stir in the old man’s brow.
“But that is the point of a game, to win.” The young man was impressed by the boy’s skill but applied a hard-pressed dogmatic tone. He could now see the cause of the boy’s troubles.
The boy protagonist discussed his move further. Sacrificing the queen. The move is not extraordinary in its makeup. The boy explained. On this occasion the move had an outcome greater than the sum of its parts. Frustration hung in the air from the other two. He went on, “I am unsure of my previous testament. My love of chess. It’s based upon adopting a purer reality … Have I forever been fighting a plastic futile battle?”
“All war is futile. It is responsive and the height of futility”, the elder man chimed in.
The young man repeated in sharp mockery, “War is responsive, what does that even mean?”. The young man suddenly changed in tone.
A pressure hub of rage was building. Some repression the old man was holding close to his chest was being confronted. War had caused tension in his life, removed something or someone that he held dear. The old man was close to disregarding this comment. He was about to turn back to the boy however he could not let this comment slide.
“Why war? What of it? What is it to you?”
The younger man’s industry was war. He was an intelligence analyst. This Thursday was the first day of his reprieve. Due to intelligence he provided, a drone attack successfully took out a terrorist suspect. A three story building and many civilians were collateral damage; a child included. This occurred the night before that Thursday afternoon. He had taken some reprieve as advised by his company in this event. He could not talk about his job.
“… War is to me, what war is to many, a necessary triumph required to establish social order.”
“Triumph … phh, strong word weak thought.”
The conversation continued between the men abandoning the consolation of the boy. The boy chess player sat calmer almost expecting this conflict. Both men were distracted and did not note the boy’s interest in their current discussion.
The elder man needed to regroup. He casually offered some life experience that was actually the cause of his deep woe. “I think chess may draw upon a parallel of reality. Chess seems a lot like war. War harbours the illusion of importance. A smoke shroud descends of which the fuel is dedication. My daughter has opted to go to Syria to provide medical aid to the victims of war. They left last week along with my grandson. Alas … I struggle to rest at night.”
The young man suddenly become rigid. The elder man had struck a nerve. The foundations of his moral framework were presently weak. He clearly respected the boy’s dedication to chess and entered the conversation to admire only this. The boy and he were now both in an open land of uncertainty. The younger man drew his morality from nation states, the boy’s from chess. He asked, “What need had she to go? Most are trying to leave.”
The elder man sighed, “Faith … she feels as though she was called one night. I had always done my best to provide my family with a deeply held faith. I suspect it is now my faith that is being tested.”
“You sure she is out there to heal and not harm?”
The effect of the comment was delayed. It felt like a cold sharpened knife in the old man’s side. Suddenly the old man turned, “She is out there to help. To heal.”
“One can’t be sure.”
“One can be sure of one thing, war is no triumph.”
“The triumph of war is to end further war.”
“You seek to do nothing but destroy,” the elder man hands pushed apart as if highlighting something very clear.
“I do not seek destruction, quite the opposite, I seek to eliminate a group whose sole motive is destruction.”
The elder man waved his index finger, “Their motive is quite the same, retaliation for prior conflict.”
“But one must defend their nation state, it is the duty of all nation states to maintain their border, stand their ground and sustain a society within.” The young man paused momentarily. “That is even a religious mantra.”
The portly man started to look beleaguered. He pressed and rubbed his hands to his liver spotted olive skin face. He sighed in the knowledge that nothing would be gained from persisting with this conversation. Silence fell whilst the three sought to regather.
The tree’s shadow drew long across the dry ground. The breeze warmer grew gradually in strength. Leopard-spotted leaf shadows drifted in and out from under the tree, rolling like waves on a beach.
“I see it this way,” the boy said, “this tension has purely arose from competition. One other aspect about chess is the lack of an output beyond the win of the game. In fact my motive is to seek the result of winning. If there was in fact a direct incentive to lose a chess game then I would in fact seek to perform the opposite to tasks that would have led to a win.”
The other two looked puzzled suddenly pulling attention to the boy as they now had a seemingly more worthy use of their attention. He offered an irresistible distraction to their woes and sore wounds within their moral fabric.
“It must be a change of want or resolve for you both. It is a bitter resolve when war is the outcome.”
After a long lack of interaction the chess player actually started to console the other two. He was surprisingly successful in his consolation. The boy’s genuine naïveté strengthened his new found position as a mediator. Adopting chess for a moral framework highlighted the arbitrary nature of moral frameworks.
The boy thought deeply. The two men remained self-absorbed. “Nietzsche once remarked that without music, life would be a mistake. Chess is my music. Can one honestly argue that religion and war equate to such importance?” … “I am happy and content, my resolve is that chess still offers a purer form of reality. It’s just simpler!” The boy smiled, his oily black hair had thin spiralling curls that reached past his ears. His smile persisted in his resolve and this brought warmth to the two men.
A chess board lay flat on a dusty ground. Two children played in silence, knelt down. Stooped over they hung like giants about the small polished chess pieces. Two armies in still, they await the next direction. The bishop stared clumsily upwards; the face appeared slightly morose as a giant hand reached down to advance him along the board. There was a rap of wood on wood before it was placed in the desired position. The young boy had olive skin and curled black hair. He had always tried to teach his grandpa back in the UK.
“Check mate”. The boys smile was abruptly interrupted by the screech of a drone missile.