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      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

A short story by Will Harwood

Earlier, the rain had driven urgently; later, it stalled on his shoulders and head. Sunlight appeared and disappeared like promises broken.

The traffic ground in city-long queues, patiently, moving with weight. He walked with his right hand pressed to his side through his coat, holding his papers there. He looked like he had a stitch. His long grey coat was dark with rainwater that gently permeated through to his skin. He did not wear a hat.

At the city’s end, where it gave itself to gardens and space that did not end until one reached another city, he unbuttoned his long grey coat and walked more briskly with his papers in his hand, sweating then, so the pure water from the sky in the damp of his coat met in his shirt and trousers the salt water of his body. The imbalance generated a small electric field. His papers were blotted and tatty besides. He had made no copy of them.

Symphonie nummer Seben, sublime movements of a vaulting melancholy: Allegretto, this gallows cheerfulness. Dance’s apotheosis. Adventures that cannot end well. On a stool next to his hook, the brass one on which he hung his coat every Saturday, an antique Apple Mac played chess. He touched the screen for its static fuzz but there was none; it was cold and smooth and blank to his fingertip. A knight took a pawn: unanimated, the graphics familiar stylised tiles, the sound effect but a tiny squeak: an adventure that had not ended well. The music stopped, not the end but ended. His opponent put on something modern. He proceeded to the frontroom, his footsteps loud on the soundingbox floor, his hair slicked wet by the rain of earlier.

Chessmen, anonymous.

They do not develop character.

A pawn is not brave no nor a Rook steadfast.

Lines of threat like lines of force like the game as architecture.

King’s Knight is missing its ear is blind in one eye is stained red its long mane is advancing at leap is menacing the fine Bishop and established for a fork on his Rooks, or so he had thought.

It was not a special set, but good, well played.

It was laid on the window’s table. A reverse snobbery was involved. There was a plastic set in his opponent’s bedroom on which a game by post was played, one move emailed across the world per day: four letters, coordinates plucked from a tiny algebra.

His opponent made revelatory moves.

The small charcoal television in the corner on a diagonal from the radio and hi-fi silently played datelined images from another desert war.

Rumours of travel chess.

His opponent pulled the most amazing moves. Revelatory, for his position to be so revealed: every skirmishing move he thought he had defended so well turned out to be of a single plan, the game that was give-and-take was exposed as his long retreat. His retreat on Saturdays, even when it rained.

His opponent did not express it that way, of a Plan. His opponent called this the Conspiracy View, and said that conspiracies are hardly ever real and rarely ever succeed. His opponent loved to quote Karl Popper. I play stronger moves than you, it is just that; it is not that I think further ahead – not even the greatest players do – it is just that I play better moves than you. Looking at the board, its arrangements, you no longer think I hope of making an illegal move. You do not think to move your Bishops as if they were crabs or pawns as if they could, routed, retreat. What you see, what you have to decide between, are all of the legal moves, good and bad, brave and stupid. But me, when I look at a chessboard, I don’t see the bad moves. So it is not that I see more than you – no, quite the opposite, I see less! I look at a chessboard and I see only the best. That is the beauty of chess: the more you know of it, the more you train yourself, train your eyes, the more beautiful it becomes.

His opponent said, We should, don’t you think? We should train ourselves to see only beauty.

From the small mute television in the corner there streamed visible lines of force that held the entire room, that threatened to capture him. Clap of the gods beyond sound – rage made incandescent. A million scarlet fountains. Lithe materiel. Massed figures dealt with from high above as if they were ants. In the desert, an army turned to glass.

Black ink given blue coronae by the waterdrops. Play the Giuoco Piano. Pawn to King four. Ditto. A very usual beginning, develop Knights then Bishops but now here is black’s mistake. The importance of a Knight on King’s Bishop three, exercised. To King two is fatal. I’d no more see that, his opponent said, than the shit on the streets.

His opponent pronounced "shit" lavishly.

Chess is finite and discrete.

There are more paths through it than have ever been played.

Chess is a trap. A labyrinth eight squares by eight.

Their arrangements on his paper, annotated.

The Arrangement.

Politics in the ranks, the ranks themselves: that each Bishop may visit only thirty-two squares, that one cannot checkmate with Knights, that a pawn may become a Queen, that the King is impotent. It was once important.

At the city’s end, where estates mocked Mad King George and one could choose whether to meet people or walk in solitude, he closed the front door behind him.

Copyright © Will Harwood 2003

Will Harwood is 23, recently returned to UW Swansea. Smartish

This short story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of Chessman is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author. For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance


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