'Out of Book' by Judi Walsh

The reply is there. He considers the board. It is decisive: maybe too strong. It reminds him of the war games. Moves between manoeuvres and flat pieces that don't topple.

He didn’t play for a long time. Then on his walk, he saw the boards outside. Cherry blossoms pillowed above, sunlight spilt onto the pieces. He could not stop himself. Flickering fingers opened a game.

After his first win there was sixpence by the board. He was surprised no-one else had picked it up. Even now, he wins more often than he loses. Five pounds is high stakes on a pension.

When he was young he expected extraordinary things to happen. Now, he longs for the ordinary. He didn’t marry, not like his opponent. He met that family once or twice, nodding in acknowledgement. He sees them going into the home, where the boys take turns to sit, recounting stories, hoping to ignite a spark. He is sure they don’t see him.

It’s a fate worse than death, they decided in the war. Shoot me before that happens. Their mouths spewed bluster and bravado, eyes glassed in fear. Does his opponent still play inside, where everything is possible? He hopes, but he knows it isn’t true.

He considers the board. Above, the canopy has blown itself out, leaving them both exposed. The move leaves a path open for mate. He does not want to make the play, but he knows he must.

The next day the king is horizontal on the slab. He picks up the money, and places it beside a yellowed and crumbling photograph. He has not felt alone until now. He walks back along the river listening to the cracks and fire of the city.  

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