Chess and cigarettes and the blues. These are the things that remind me of her. Well, they remind of being in love with her, mostly. Which is odd, because we never played chess, neither of us smoked then, and I only started listening to the blues three weeks ago.
And yet, there’s something about the clink of a chess piece against a wooden board that reminds me of her. The way my opponent moves his bishops, decisively and without a second’s hesitation, is uncomfortably similar to the way her fingers would move across her piano. The aura she exuded, one of calculated intelligence, was endearing but also frightening. She wasn’t a queen, because queens don’t have time to stop and think. Neither was she a knight, because she never leapt to conclusions, and never leapt towards anything.
She was a bishop. She thought in lines that were straight and not straight; she kept to her rules and never broke them, but if you asked me now I could not name a one of them. Even as I sit here, contemplating the game that unfolds in front of me she haunts my thoughts (Pawn to e5, I hear myself say, and I regret that I didn’t say Bishop takes King’s Knight instead, though it would have been a risky move, and foolish too).
We play for ten more minutes, our moves clacking against the board. After a furious exchange of pieces, with more than one deft manoeuvre on both our parts, we are left with a stalemate: he has no move he can make. We shake hands, and I walk outside the dreary hall, the game had been more challenging that I’d expected. They have announced a break; it will be fifteen minutes before they start the next round, which is to be the penultimate one today.
I find myself in the company of some other chess players in this tournament, most of them nonchalant about the whole thing, as if it is a matter of course that they take part in this sort of event. Perhaps for them it is. There are four of them, standing in the heat of the summer afternoon. One is a tall, fat man with brown hair and a face like a ghost who merely nods at me; he is the favourite to win this competition. Beside him is a boy, barely into his teens, but I am not fooled by his youth. I have seen him play, and it is with a kind of intense calmness usually only found on the faces of tigers stalking their prey. I have learnt more than a few things from him today, but I hope to learn more. His brown eyes bore into mine like he is trying to divine my strategies, and for more than a few moments I think he will.
The third one is a woman, wiry and short, who is wearing glasses of a shade of purple I did not know existed. She is smiling, and seems to be the only one here excited about the prospect of advancing to the next stage, to the nationals. She is the one who has waved me over, even as she speaks to the last of the four she nods me a greeting. But it is this last man who interests me the most, for it is him that I have just played, and just drawn against. He greets me wordlessly, and offers me a cigarette before taking one himself. The woman wrinkles her face with part-disapproval and part-exasperation, before taking the boy with her and moving three steps back.
We light our cigarettes, him with his lighter, I with the matchbox that is my constant companion these days, and descend into a silence more deafening than the trumpeting of a thousand elephants. I have never known how to talk to strangers; in some ways this is comforting, to know that other people don’t, either. I am being pulled back into my reverie, my memories of her coming back to me as if she were standing in front of me (I can’t understand it, they kill you, they kill you and leave you to die, and he let them! They leave your lungs a black, heaving mess, your throat atrophies and your fingers shake and he just continued buying the damn things-)
‘Good game’, he says, in a gravelly voice. I am grateful for the interruption. This is one thing I can talk about, so I do.
‘Yeah, I was a bit careless with my rook towards the ending.’
‘No, I think you did what you had to. If it hadn’t been my knight, it would’ve been my bishop.’ I wonder if he notices me almost wince.
The tall man in front of us (I have never been sure of names) speaks with a jovial lilt to his voice that belies his stern demeanour.
‘Your strategy with the queen was terrific; I’ve never seen anything like it before! Where did you think of that?’
And with that, we descend into a discussion of chess, its theory and its practice, with our two companions advancing from their position one inch at a time. They are both of them too much in love with chess to let something like nicotine stop them from discussing it. They might not be interested in the competition, but they’re certainly enamoured with the game. Much as I have been, for the last too many years.
We’re called back, half an hour later, earlier than we’d expected since these things usually run much longer than anyone expects them to even with the timers and the stern warnings.
My last game is against an old man. He is wearing a hat that seems to be made of some sort of rubber; for the life of me I cannot figure out why. My every move is interrupted by contemplations as to its provenance, but nonetheless we get done in the time we are allotted. I have beaten him handily, once he gave up his queen in a rather silly move it was easy going. He smiles at me, and thanks me for an interesting match, and shakes my hand before joining what seems to be his family.
There is another break, a shorter one this time, during which I find my previous opponent and his friends discussing what they might do if they do happen to advance. As they see me approaching the tall one (whose name I still cannot recall) gives me a toothy grin, and continues his earnest interrogation of my queen tactics. It is refreshing to talk to someone who is able to keep up with my rather long-winded theories.
When they announce the winner of the day, and all the ones who have advanced, I am not surprised to find that all my comrades and I have placed in the top eight. Of the 128 people here, only we will go through to the national rounds, in three weeks’ time. The woman takes my number and my e-mail, and tells me she is planning on car pooling it there, and I assure her that I will be very glad to join her.
As I walk back towards the bus stand, past the shops and the cafes and the eateries, my mind cannot help but return to thoughts of her. I wonder what she would have thought, to see me doing so well. Then I forcefully throw that notion out of my mind, find my music player and stick my earphones into my ears.
Though I’ve not listened to Chopin in a while, and I have been given some music by a man called Jeff Buckley (who I’ve been assured was the greatest artist to die before his time in recent years), my fingers still choose to listen to the same people I have been hearing incessantly since I discovered them, the musicians of New Orleans. As the trumpets and the strings and the pianos envelop me, there is only one thought in my mind.
It has been a good day.