Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Tournament

(Extract from an abandoned novel, circa. late 1990s)

You can’t tell just by looking at someone if they’re, say, a martial arts expert. Likewise with sex. No matter how sexy someone looks, or how ugly, you have no idea what they’re really like in bed. And so it is with chess, sort of, mused Ralph.

Ralph was at a chess tournament in Alicante, Spain, down on his luck, pondering such things. More accurately, he was at the hotel bar. He said fuck it, got himself another straight vodka and thought about the twelve year-old girl who had just beaten him in twenty-nine moves. Bitch, he thought, downing the clear liquid, straight. He grimaced, for it tasted rank.

Her great grandfather had patented the gas lamp, she had just passed her 'A' levels in maths, physics and chemistry, she was going to study physics and maths at Imperial college, London, in September, and Ralph hated her. Ralph hated his poverty, his parents, his friends, in fact just about everything and everyone, except chess. And here was this girl, this child – her name was Rosie Jenkins – who had beaten him at chess, his game, his saviour. It wasn’t fair. He silently cursed his choice of opening: he’d opted for the Sicilian, but should have gone for the King’s Gambit. He cursed his middle game, he cursed his end game – which hadn’t lasted long – and he cursed the $10,000 he’d lost out on.

He thought about the twenty – twenty! – years between them. What had he done with the last twenty years? He remembered playing chess in Cairo in cafes with their sawdust-covered floors, and shisha pipes smelling of cherry and peach. No one beat him in Egypt. The fools. He'd played on a hill in Morocco, and Hyde park in Sydney, and on a pavement in Kuta, Bali at 3am where they tried to hustle him. He remembered the mental hospitals and vaguely looked at the ceiling. The fools. He’d even played chess with an Aboriginal girl in a prison in Sydney. He’d done nothing but play chess for the last nine years.

Twenty years is certainly a long time and Ralph doubted the girl would be playing chess in twenty years time. Look at Fisher. Look at all the greats. They all burn out early. Ralph had come late to the game. This was his advantage. He thought about all the things that could go wrong in twenty years. Lots. Fuck, lots and lots. Everything. You’re not going to have twenty years of things going right.

‘Ralph’ said a voice, like in a dream. At first he doesn’t recognise or hear it.

‘Ralph’, said the voice again. He looked down and Rosie looked up at him. He’s tempted to look away, to ignore her. Even hit her. But he catches her eyes, her face, and sees that she’s not smiling, or gloating, but she looks sad, and grown up, and wisdom flows from her face and he can’t help but look at it.

‘What?’ Abrupt, but not disinterested.
‘Ralph, I’m sorry.’
‘For what?’
‘For beating you. You’re good; you’re really good. You’re one of the best players I’ve ever played. Ever.’
Like that means anything, but secretly it does.
‘Where are your parents?’ Just for something to say.
‘My parents are dead. I have a chaperone looking after me but I hate him. He’s over there, watching me.’ She points at a large dull man, like someone from Eastenders and his eyes meet with Ralph’s.

He looked at her and wondered what she’d be like when she was his age. In another twenty years. He’d always wanted to meet a woman who played chess. There was Natasha, Russian – of course! – but she was mad, had nearly killed him, besides he’d hated Moscow. He projected a life with Rosie and deemed her probably to be the one if time and fate had been different. He laughed at her.
‘Are you laughing at me?’
‘No, no, no. I’m laughing at me.’
‘Oh. That’s all right then.’
‘I’ve read about you.’
‘I’ve read about you too.’
‘I mean I’ve read good stuff about you. About how you’re gifted and all.’
‘Oh that,’ she said, slightly embarrassed, slightly chuffed. ‘Yes, they say I am. It’s unfair really.’
‘On who?’
‘Both of us.’
Then, as naturally as a cup of tea and a cigarette in the morning, she asked him for a game of chess.
‘What?’ Almost a snarl this time.
She takes a little dark grey plastic box out of her pocket: a pocket chess computer.
Ralph’s obviously impressed. ‘9000 series.’
She looked up, suddenly, pleased that Ralph recognised a good pocket chess computer when he saw one.

Lindsey lay on her back on the grass on the slope of the park and didn’t say a word. ‘What’s wrong, Lindsey?’, asked Clare, when the silence between the four of them had lasted longer than it should. ‘Nothing’, she replied, nonchalantly. Half a mile away, Ralph, dressed all in black, including a black coat, was sweating like a pig, occasionally muttering ‘fuck’ to himself, and more than occasionally wondering to himself what the fuck he was doing in this coat and this park looking for a girl who might be called Lindsey or might be called Louise. He couldn’t remember.

He’d never had a head for names – except chess ones. Ralph remembered his pocket and took a crumpled bit of paper from the back of his black Levi’s. The paper was wet. Ralph muttered ‘Lindsey’ as he looked at the bit of paper, put the paper back in his pocket, and stopped. He turned to Johnny, dressed in shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops. Johnny continued walking. Johnny annoyed Ralph immensely. He had the look of someone permanently happy, like nothing ever bothered him. He looked like an idiot. He wasn’t, far from it, but his always smiling made him look a bit simple. Ralph laughed inwardly at the time in a restaurant when Johnny was handed the Braille menu. In fact, he was tempted to remind Johnny of the time, but thought twice about it. Last time Ralph had reminded Johnny, they’d got into a fight. It was too hot for a fight today. Today was going to be E-A-S-Y.

(I don't know, this was going to be some Lolita-like novel with the two main characters on the run, playing chess on the way, sort of Lolita meets Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The Lolita and chess link is no accident; Nabokov was a big chess player, but his interest in young girls highly suspect. Anyway, the novel never went further than what you've just read.)

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