by Eva Ferry
I may have been a chess world champion. This was when I lived in London. The day I moved into the lower level of a converted two-floor house in Neasden, the Italian live-in landlady said:
“Don’t smoke in your room. Or in the garden. The man upstairs doesn’t like it,” and she pointed upwards.
“I don’t smoke.”
For four weeks, I didn’t see the man upstairs. I didn’t go out much. I spent most of my day bidding for freelance translation jobs, but never got any. After three weeks I signed up with a temping agency and stated to get office gigs. I was on my way to one of the gigs when I saw the man upstairs for the first time. He too was leaving the building.
“You’ve just moved in upstairs, yes?” he said.
“Yes,” I replied, and went on my way.
He came to my mind as I filed in reports in the architectural studio I had been sent to. He had a foreign accent – French or Eastern European. Then I forgot about him. A week later, I saw him in the station on my way to another gig. He didn’t acknowledge me at first. Once the train arrived, he sat next to me, a broad smile on his face.
“So what do you do?,” he asked as the train started to move.
“And you’re going to work?”
“No. I work from home. I’m now going – there’s something I need to buy.”
We remained silent.
“So where are you going?” I asked after a while.
“Nowhere too important.”
“What do you do?”
He got off at Swiss Cottage, while I stayed on the train for three more stops. In the office, I started a conversation with a girl. I wanted to be kind to her like the man from upstairs had been kind to me, but she gave me a blank look and went back to checking her phone.
The third time, I was queuing at the tube station for a cup of tea before work. I was getting many gigs now but it meant I couldn’t focus on what I wanted to do. He spotted me and asked:
“Would you like to go somewhere else for coffee?”
I said yes. I was running ahead of time and had never been for coffee with anyone in London. He didn’t take me to one of these little local jewels you would imagine discerning people would be regulars of. The place he took me was neither here nor there. A sticker on the window informed that the management had recently expanded to the neighbouring areas.
“I come here quite often,” he explained. “How is work?”
“Work is fine. And you? Did you come to London for work?”
“I suppose you can say I did.”
I hadn’t spoken to anyone for that long since my arrival in London. I felt untrained. The live-in landlady spent her days in her bedroom phoning her friends and the people in the offices had their own contacts.
“Would you like to come somewhere with me?” he said.
I looked at my watch. I was already late and there was no point in showing up, so I said yes. Going somewhere with the man from upstairs sounded more interesting than listening to gossip in the office. He said it was better to avoid the tube and take the bus, and I followed him. We took another bus, then a third. The landscape became indecipherable, and we changed bus again.
“Have we crossed the river yet?” I asked.
He didn’t answer but smiled. Still better than sitting at the office.
After the last bus we walked alongside a deserted street. The place was constellated by office blocks, and I saw some signs of activity behind some of the windows. The corners looked tired. We crossed a backyard covered in yellowing grass, then walked into a one-floor building invisible from the street. We walked quickly and I couldn’t properly read the plaque next to the door but it said something like “excellence” or “talent” or “elite.” The entrance, dark and moist, opened into a big hall which occupied all of the building.
There were portraits on the wall of people I didn’t recognize and posters of what seemed like propaganda, vividly colored letters making me want to do something about something, although I didn’t understand the words. Some of them were in Cyrillic. In tables in the middle of the hall, men played chess, against themselves or with others. Not one looked at me, although one or two seemed to shake inadvertently. But they quickly got back to what they were doing, their faces more serious. A few greeted the man from upstairs.
“It is a championship,” he explained.
“It is called the Annual Championship of the International Chess Federation. This time we hold it here.”
This didn’t look much like the competitions I had seen on television, but I didn’t say anything.
“Today is our free day,” he explained. “But tomorrow we start again. Quarter-finals already.”
“This is the International Centre for Excellence in Chess. You can have a look.”
I did. Was this – a morning at a centre for chess excellence – what I had dreamt my time in London would be like? It wasn’t. But it was better than the temping agency and better than looking for jobs online.
I walked round the chess players and studied their moves. This wasn’t helpful, because all I knew about chess was the moves of the pieces, and as soon as I had thought to identify a pattern or a winning strategy, the game moved in a different direction and I was left with nothing to make sense of. In the meanwhile, the man from upstairs greeted others with energetic handshakes, then moved on to study the games. Sometimes he spoke in a language I didn’t understand and sometimes he just looked. He finally took a seat himself and started a game with an ageing man. For a moment, he disappeared and I became impatient, but one minute later I saw him walk out from a door on the wall, followed by a short, skinny man of about fifty with glasses and graying, well-combed hair. They shook hands and the man from upstairs came towards me.
“We go now, yes?” he said.
At home, I found a note from the landlady asking me to throw away my expired foods – especially those stinking. It was not the first along those lines. I also had a voice message from a temping agency – not the one I was supposed to be working for that morning – offering me a job. I decided to ignore the voice message but take the note into account. I told myself that the visit to the Centre could only be a sign. I hadn’t moved to London to work in temping agencies. I spent the rest of the day tidying up my shelves and making plans for my translation career.
For a few days I tried to keep up. I considered affixing a plaque with my name and the words “Translation Services’” outside my building. Just like the Centre. Distinguished. But translation jobs didn’t arrive. A week later, the man from upstairs knocked on my door.
“Do you have time for a coffee?”
I said yes and he took me to the same place as last time. He asked how work was but I could see he wasn’t interested in my answer. We had been sitting for less than five minutes when he asked:
“We go now, yes? To the place.”
I felt flattered. As we made our way, he told me that the championship had been a great success and now the Centre was looking forward to, and preparing for, the next one.
“Maybe a tournament for youngsters. Or for citizens of countries underrepresented in chess.”
He frowned, and his eyes became small and fuzzy, like a cartoon’s.
“No, no, no, no,” he said. “India is the birthplace of chess. World champion comes from India.”
“Countries like Andorra or Zimbabwe. We have to do something soon. Otherwise, the media will stop paying attention. Our profile will drop. People will forget us.”
“But you’ve just organized a tournament.”
“True. But that’s how the media are like, how people are like. They need emotions, every day, successes, every day. Try to explain them about chess. The hard work, the thinking. They wouldn’t understand. They need the successes.”
I feared he was referring to me. In my first visit to the Centre, I hadn’t demonstrated much understanding of the minutiae of chess playing. But I hadn’t complained or demanded easy successes. Maybe he saw some hope.
The Centre seemed less populated than last time, games moving at a slower pace.
“That’s normal,” he said when I asked. “Many of the players are now back in their National Centres”.
“Each country has its own Centre for Excellence in Chess. We coordinate them all. Other colleagues are lecturing around the world or playing in tournaments elsewhere. This keeps our profile up.”
And yet, the walls seemed dirtier and the men shabbier, their beards and frowns a jumble of graying hairs. But I nodded. The Centre sounded like a place where talent mattered more than appearances and a crack on the wall or an un-ironed shirt wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. They did in the places I was sent to temp in. I had tried to copy the other girls’ styles, but those clothes never looked that well on me.
I chose a table and observed the game for three hours. Towards the end I could understand something. There were some patterns. I could only progress from there.
From then onward, I became a regular. I came to know each crack on the wall and I memorized, letter by letter, all the words on the posters, still as impenetrable to me as the first time. Sometimes I travelled with the man from upstairs, sometimes made my own way and met him in the Centre. Sometimes he was not there at all; not in his flat either when I knocked on his door to tell him about my day. It was implied that he was outside London with an assignment. No one told me overtly, but I overheard or inferred such things. In reality, no one spoke with me much.
“What have you told the others about me?” I asked him one day as we returned home on the bus.
“Not much. They’ll presume you just aspire to be a better chess player. That’s what we’re about.”
“And I’m the only woman.”
“That’s not true.”
He was right. I had seen another woman thus far – once. I would see her once again – or should I say twice. She wasn’t older than me, but wore perfectly cut suits, blond hair up, make up impeccable, and I felt very little next to her. Not next to her in a literal sense. When she walked to the door, the middle-aged bespectacled guy and a younger man with a beard rushed to greet her, shook her hand warmly, even leaning in to kiss it. With me, they barely raised their eyebrows. She played games with the high up guys and always won. Maybe they let her.
“You could tell them I’m your girlfriend,” I suggested.
“I don’t know. It would be the easiest explanation.”
And you could give me a kiss now and then so that it’s credible, I thought. And maybe you could stay over sometimes, to make sure we stay in character. Sometimes I wondered what those visits were doing to me. I suspected I was probably just quite lonely.
After four or five visits to the Centre, I started to sit on my own and play against myself. I had never played before but knew how to move the pieces and had observed the others. After a few days, a man with scruffy hair and a deep wrinkle between his eyebrows sat opposite me. We wasn’t as senior as the bespectacled man, but was always around and the others looked at him with fear. I was piling up black pieces next to the board and he started to put them back in their places. I cleared my own side of the board and set up the white pieces as well; then opened the game.
Of course he won. Not one muscle in his face twitched as his horse launched a fatal attack on my king. For the first time since we started, I let out a breath. I had lasted five minutes; with that man, most of the junior players didn’t last longer than three.
He was the first of several. I still spent most of my time playing against myself, but every morning someone would come. Most of them sat in front of me without talking, lined up the pieces, waited for me to open the game. They moved their pieces dismissively and grunted whenever I took too long. After ten minutes I was left alone at my table, bewildered and humiliated. I suppose I could have said no, but no one seemed to say no at the Centre. I could have said “Sorry, but I’d rather play on my own,” but that would have sounded out of place. That was way too polite. The Centre wasn’t a place for politeness. That wasn’t a bad thing; there were other things that mattered more than politeness did, but I wondered what they would have done to me if I had refused to play.
One day, the man from upstairs sat in front of me. He didn’t even look me in the eyes, and only spoke to point out that I had moved the horse wrong. But he let me correct it. I lasted for five minutes, and when he got up he inadvertently threw the pile of pieces on the floor. He didn’t even look back. On our way back home he spoke about plans to organize some tournament in the near future. He sometimes spoke about plans like that but, after my first, there had never been any other tournaments.
But things slowly started to change. Sometimes I could manage fifteen minutes before defeat. I won my first game against one of the youngest in the group – a pale, blue-eyed, suit-wearing boy. When my queen beheaded his king, I looked around and studied the faces around me for signs of disappointment – signs that the easy option they took when they wanted to win a game was maybe not as easy as it seemed. But not even my rival looked surprised, humiliated or defeated. He got up and went to play against someone else. From that day onward, I rarely found myself on my own. After I arrived and sat somewhere, I had company in less than five minutes. Even the younger guy with the beard played against me a couple of times. He won, of course, but that was already something. He didn’t play often. The middle-aged, bespectacled man never played, but he had been a world champion in his youth, or so the man from upstairs told me. It was a shame that he never played but it was fortunate to have someone of such intelligence leading the Centre. I even dared start games myself, and started looking at the notices which the young bearded guy hung on the wall. The first time, I was afraid someone would walk to me and tell me off. It was a list of two people to be sent to a tournament. I already knew that this happened regularly. The man from upstairs had been to a couple of them. Others came to read the list; some clicked their tongues in disappointment, others were congratulated and hugged. I thought of congratulating the lucky ones myself but something held me back.
Whenever someone came back from those tournaments they brought photos and press clips languages I didn’t understand. I never saw anything about them in the mainstream press, although I knew that the young bearded guy sent press releases regularly. But what could be done? Me and the man from upstairs talked about it. We always concluded we were doing everything we could to let people know we were there,. And the Centre’s profile was sufficiently high. Under constant threat, but still high. Some day, a story, a detail, would win the favor of the public. It was difficult to predict what. People were voluble.They would never fall for the intricacies. Never, I told myself as I practiced the Balandin defense against myself. The Balandin defense was one of these intricacies – something the man from upstairs talked about . On our way home, I asked him about it. My technique was starting to become solid but still rudimentary.
“Why would you want to know that?” he asked stridently.
“I want to improve. I don’t know anything about these defenses and things you guys talk about.”
“Why would you want to? You’re a newcomer.”
“Precisely because I am a newcomer.”
“I will teach you, but not now. Now you can hardly move the pieces.”
It wasn’t true. I was now winning about one in five games. At home, I researched the Balandin defense online, but didn’t find anything. I learned something, not much, by observing others. I asked a couple of people in the Centre but their English was patchy.
One afternoon, the man from upstairs came to me as I was perfecting my defense.
“This is not the way to learn,” he warned me.
“Books and websites. You haven’t grown up with chess. You cannot expect to learn everything from a bad copy of chess. You have to breathe it.”
“This is what I try to do,” I said, never ceasing to move my pieces. “But you guys don’t always make it easy.”
“I know,” he said after a while.
One morning, the bearded man I had played my first game against was playing against another regular -a long-nosed youngster. The bearded man stood up, knocked over the chess board and started to shout in a language I didn’t understand. The long-nosed one shouted back and brandished his finger. Others rushed in to separate them.
“What will happen to them?” I asked the man from upstairs after the two offenders had been sent to the office. The Centre’s members weren’t a model of good manners, but fighting was not their style either.
“Nothing much. They’ll get told off. Feelings are running high, these days. It always happens.”
“Around this time. Whenever there’s an international championship coming up. People wonder whether they’ll get on the list. They get nervous.”
The next championship was to be hosted in one of the National Centres, in a country yet to be determined. Games became quicker and more impatient, beards more entangled, even the paint cracks on the walls seemed deeper. The Centre had changed, but I liked the feeling that something was moving, happening.
One afternoon, the bearded young man walked out of the office and affixed a large piece of paper on the wall. Everybody stood up to look at it. I didn’t. I kept practicing my moves against myself. I was now winning nearly one game in four – better than some of the people who had been at the Centre for longer than I had been. It wasn’t until two days later that I checked and realized that my name was on the list. This was the international championship everyone was nervous about. Next to it was a Slavic-sounding name I didn’t recognize. I held my breath. I probably wouldn’t last very long, but it meant something. I had never been part of something – not something like that, not since I had moved to London.
I told the man from upstairs. He looked at me and dropped the piece he had in his hands. He then stood up and stormed into the office.
I overheard a heated discussion, but I didn’t want to walk too close to the office’s door. After half an our or so, the man from upstairs walked out again, face red.
“Was that because of me?” I asked.
“Of course not.”
We went back to our playing, me against someone else, he on his own. After less than half an hour he came to me and said:
“We have to talk. Now.”
I looked and my opponent; he nodded. In the Centre, no game was interrupted without a good reason. Even then, it was considered rude.
“What is it?” I asked the man after we’d walked a few steps.
“Not here. We go now, yes?”
“So?” I said as we hopped on the bus. He shook his head. We changed to the second bus and I asked again, but dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I didn’t ask again. We moved on to the third, then the fourth bus, he hopped off and I followed him to our usual cafe.
“You don’t go to that tournament, you understand?” he said after he came back with our coffees.
“You think you’re going to win anything? Nah. I’ll tell you what will happen. You’ll come back beaten and humiliated, that’s how you will come back.”
“I know. But it will be my first real game. Didn’t you come back beaten and humiliated after your first game?”
“Of course. And it was against someone ten times better than the guy you’re playing against. Do you think you’ll come back to the Centre and say that you’ve learned a lot from your defeat, like some stupid teenager?”
“No, of course not. Do you think I’ll cry? I’m used to being treated like that. Are you jealous? I didn’t see your name in the list.”
“It’s for your own good. This is dangerous.”
I stood up and looked him in the face, then left the cafe. He still was, in his own way, my friend. But I wasn’t going to let him talk to me as if I was easily scared.
“Look at this!” he shouted at me. I turned round – not so much because he had any authority over me, but rather because people were starting to look at us with suspicion.
He was holding a photo. I walked towards him and soon recognized the blond, glamorous woman I had seen a couple of times in the Centre. She was laying on the floor, eyes closed, blond hair tied in a messy bun. One side of her face was swollen and red, her mouth open in a grin.
She didn’t look very glamorous or beautiful anymore.
“She was sent too soon. And she was a woman. But she insisted. Just like you now.”
“Are you trying to scare me out of it?”
“You can go to tournaments. But not now. There’s a time for everything.”
“You will. I chose you, and I know you will.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve played chess all my life. That’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I didn’t catch many of the good years. I started playing in ’85 and am still playing. Under the conditions of the International Centre and the other Centres, but still. That’s more than what other people can say.”
“That’s more than you could say a few months ago.”
He left the photograph of the table; I looked at it again. It wasn’t a body, a person. Her beauty, her perfect skin. They had never seemed real. Death hadn’t transformed them so much The men in the Centre were saggy, they were not handsome by anyone’s standards. But the beauty of their effort, their perfect commitment was real.
I wanted to be real too. That’s why I told the man from upstairs that I would be going to the tournament, even if that was the last thing I did in my life.
Another note from the live-in landlady was waiting at home. Some of the words were in upper case and threatened to to kick me out of the flat. I hadn’t been the perfect flatmate. But I very much doubted that the men from the Centre were, and yet they lived, went to all those tournaments, had each other.
I had been sleeping for two hours when the earthquake happened. When I realized, it had finished already. By then, I didn’t know that it was one of the most intense ever to happen in Europe. That, and other things, I learned during the next few days.
The live-in landlady ran into my room.
“Are you okay?” she yelled, grabbing my shoulders. “Are you okay?”
I said I was. Next to me, my shelves and belongings had all fallen into the floor.
“Why don’t we get dressed and go outside?” she suggested.
We did. Many other people had had the same idea. The Pakistani family who lived next door came to us and introduced themselves. The man from upstairs was nowhere to be seen. The live-in landlady and me knocked on his door, but no one answered.
“Maybe he is spending the night elsewhere,” I ventured.
Then I forgot about him, because the father of the Pakistani family approached us and offered us some fruit, and someone else who lived on the other side of the road had baked cookies in the afternoon and was distributing them among people. Others forgot that their phones didn’t work, the Internet didn’t work either, there wasn’t even electricity. But most people still talked animatedly, introduced themselves, offered whatever little they had. When some of them managed to get through their friends and relatives, voices became softer and food flowed more slowly. We learned it had been a hard blow for London. There was talk about hundreds of deaths, neighbourhoods destroyed. I thought of the man from upstairs and the other men from the International Centre for Excellence in Chess. I didn’t have their numbers or e-mails, not even the phone number of the Centre.
The live-in landlady asked if I wanted to knock again on the door upstairs, and so we did. Still no answer.
“He might be spending the night somewhere else,” I repeated.
I rejoined the group, six or seven of us sitting on the pavement in front of the tube station sharing a bottle of wine. Someone told a joke and we all laughed. We drank some more, I heard the news on four or five different radios and went to sleep at seven as the first ambulances arrived. I experienced an enormous relief as I closed my eyes. When I woke up, it was dark again, and I slept until the morning.
The next day, I went back upstairs. Still no answer. It didn’t surprise me. I decided to visit the Centre. The people there were the only people I knew – at least before the earthquake. Now I knew the Pakistani family next door, the baker round the corner, other people from the neighbourhood. But what about the Centre’s obligations to the National Centres? What about the championship? I was needed; I had to go. There was so much to do. Public transport wasn’t still operative, so I started to walk. Neasden had come out relatively unharmed. In Willesden a few flats showed their entrails. A group of people distributed canned food under a marquee in front of the library.
In Kilburn I saw smoke as I approached the first estates. Not much, but I didn’t like it. I walked for about three or four hours, but never got to the Centre. I knew how to get there by bus, but not on foot. Other neighbourhoods had come out worse than Neasden, but this didn’t stop people from being outdoors. Many asked me if I was lost, if my house was still standing, if I remembered my name. When I realized I didn’t know where the Centre was, I returned home. The next day, the live-in landlady asked me if I wanted her to come with me whenever it was I needed to go. But I refused. I waited until the buses were running again, which took several days, but it finally happened.
The industrial estate where the Centre was had come out relatively well too. I didn’t see anyone on the streets, but this wasn’t so different from any regular day. I walked across the courtyard and pushed the door. It was locked. I knocked, then banged, on the door.
A woman came out of the building opposite us. She was about seventy and looked as if she wasn’t happy to answer questions.
“Do you know what happened to the International Centre for Excellence in Chess?”, I asked.
She looked at me as if she didn’t understand.
“The International Centre for Excellence in Chess. Just here, you don’t know them?”
“This building has been vacant for about five years. What do you want? Taking advantage of all of this mess, right? Don’t think I don’t know or the likes of you. If you’re still here one minute from now, I call the police”.
I never heard from the Centre again. Nor from the man from upstairs. After some time, I left London. Sometimes I still look for his name online. And he is there – always at tournaments. This gives me hope that he is still alive, but who knows? If they can invent centres, tournaments, scholarships, how can they not invent a name? If they can predict an earthquake to disappear without a trace, or even provoke it, what can they not do? I think less and less often about them. Maybe they never existed. Maybe. All I can say is that, today, I am unable to move one single piece from the chess set.