A Game of Chess
Ian Stuart

Click....a tiny noise in the hubbub of the cafe...rattling teaspoons, voices, the rumbling  of the coffee machine.

Her fingers are long and thin, the nails varnished an opaque pearl .She takes the pawn and places it with the others on her side of the board.Her hair floats in front of her face like mist.She wears a soft chiffon scarf twisted round her neck.All her edges are blurred.She is a smudged  portrait of herself. Her grey eyes are fixed on the man sitting opposite.

And he is her opposite in every sense. He is three or four years younger  than her.Where she is indistinct, he is crisp and sharply defined.His appearance allows no colours.White face, black hair.White shirt, black trousers. His black eyes devour the squares and never even glance at her ; his pale fingers  brush pawns and bishops. He is a photograph come to life.

“Well ?”

I can see him thinking about a bishop move; his eyes slide along the diagonal.

“Good move” he says without looking at her.

She sits, straight backed, arms parallel to the table. He slumps in the chair, legs stretched out insolently. She is looking at him; he is looking at the chess board.

Sitting in the corner by the hissing coffee machine, I am watching them both. The scene is unreal . It is like watching a play, or being a voyeur.  Some kind of ritual, anyway. I have been coming to this cafe for months; no-one has ever set up a chessboard before. It is too busy, with waiters pirouetting like bullfighters round the crowded tables. There is talk, distracting chatter.

But they seem to take no notice. And I try to work out what the other game is, apart from chess.

He has decided on the bishop move, slides  it over the board and slumps back. For the first time he looks up at her and smiles uncertainly. She looks down and ponders the board, working the options. Unwillingly, she hopscotches a knight and takes his bishop.

She sits back in her chair. “Let’s take a break,” she says, “ Coffee ?”

He nods as she pours the coffee into small white cups. He pours milk into his; she takes hers black. “Is this ...is this a good move?" he asks.

“Its time,” she says, “Time to move on.”

He reaches out to take her hand, but  she moves it to her throat, fiddling with the scarf. “You have to be realistic, “ she says,  without looking at him, “People move on. We have nothing more to learn from one another.” The chess board is suddenly as wide as a desert.

He looks away, sips at his coffee. “You said there was no-one else.”

“That’s right.”
“Is it true ?” She looks down at the chess board, her finger touching the queen. “Of course.”

“You’ve found a place ?”

“Yes. I told you. All my stuff is packed in the car.”

“What shall I do if you’ve left something ?”

She puts down her coffee cup. “I’ve left nothing. Do you want to finish the game ?”

It takes them half an hour to reach the endgame. They are both trying to lose-he wants her to pity him; she wants to give him a victory, however insignificant.

 I cannot see all the board, but I can see from his face that he deliberately fluffs chances, makes  foolhardy dashes at her king.At last he is backed into a corner with only his king and a knight. She still has a bishop, as well as her queen. He mutters something fiercely. “Checkmate.”

He tips over his king and gets up from the table. He does not look at her, but I can see that his eyes are blurred with tears.He blunders past a waiter and out into the street.

She watches him walk away . A waiter brings her the bill, and a wooden box for the chess pieces. Slowly, carefully, she packs them away and closes the lid.

It is getting dark in the cafe. She lights a cigarette and the smoke twists and curls round her face. I pay my bill and head for the door.

It is a week later and I am sitting at the same table, sipping a cup of coffee and reading the paper. Outside, the spring sun is soaking into the pavements; the air smells somehow fresh and scrubbed. The coffee tastes better than usual.

She walks in with a friend. They are laden with  expensive shopping bags. Her hair is pulled in at the nape of her neck and tied with a green velvet ribbon. She is wearing a crisp white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. She has an air of purpose, decision.

They sit at the table by the window, chattering like sparrows. Her friend is younger, with short cropped, bleached hair. She is very brown, and her  fore-arms are covered in a fine down of  tiny golden  hairs.

I am too far away  to hear everything they are saying. Most of it is about shopping, and silly inconsequential things, and they often overlap each other, giggling and laughing. Their happiness seems to waft through the cafe. Other customers look at them and smile, and turn back to their business with the smile still on their faces. The waiters seem to look on with proprietorial

And as they talk, I notice that their hands move towards each other across the table, fingers touching, exploring, caressing.

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