The Game

chess piece

Pale olive trees shaded the pavement – a place for sun-wrinkled men, a peaceful retreat. The boy stared at the three tables set outside the café in the square. Chess boards, populated by small familiar figures, stood alert, armies waiting for generals to command them. 

The trees were still and quiet, until a rare breeze rippled through them. An old man, sitting at one of the tables, was looking directly at the boy.

His parents had driven them down through France to the Spanish coast. It was less than twelve years since war had raged across the country, but the only armies still prepared to do battle and defend their monarchies were now poised, waiting patiently, outside that café. The small hotel in which they were staying was occupied predominantly by Germans. At breakfast and supper, they shared the same sausages. Those other guests were still portrayed as the enemy in his school playground. 

The boy’s father had presented him with a chess set on his seventh birthday and had spent many hours teaching him the rules of the game. He understood it as a conflict of two warring patriarchies, weak kings controlled and defended by flamboyant queens and their entourage. He only ever saw himself as a pawn, one hoping to achieve rank and be rewarded with higher status. More often, he would be sacrificed in exchange for small victories in the skirmishes between his parents. The game absorbed him in both its simplicity and complexity. It replaced a life in which he understood little, with one that was governed by clearly defined parameters.

The old man gestured for him to approach. He held an open palm towards the empty seat on the opposite side of the table. It was early evening, but the heat of the day lingered in the dust and stones of the dry buildings and weary streets. The chair was warm too, worn smooth by years of use. The man held out two clenched fists. The offer was understood, the challenge accepted. The boy touched one of the man’s wrinkled hands and was rewarded with a white pawn. Without a word, the board was turned, the pawns restored to their ranks. The armies were complete again.

The boy never looked up until the game was over. There was no need. The battle was tightly fought, but in the end, the black king lay diagonally across two squares, defeated. He heard the old man chuckle.

“Muy bueno.”

Looking up, the boy saw the man smiling, offering a hand across the table. Unused to being treated as an adult, an equal, he hesitated. The man nodded, smiled again. His teeth resembled a bombed city, reminding the boy of the jagged, shattered buildings he passed on his walk to school each day. They shook hands.

“Otro juego?”

The boy understood no Spanish, other than please and thank you – a lesson driven into him by his mother. But when the man picked up two pawns, the boy understood and nodded.

By the closing stages of the second game, they had drawn a small audience. Rather than watching in silence, as the boy would have expected, these onlookers made frequent groans, gasps, and even laughed aloud when a concealed attack unfolded. There was a small ripple of applause as the second game ended, this time a victory for the black army, commanded by the boy.

“Bien jugado.”

When the man held up three fingers, the boy understood. He looked at his new watch, bought for him by his father for this holiday. He stood, knowing that he should return to his hotel, that his parents might show concern over a longer absence.

“Tomorrow?” he asked.

One of the spectators said mañana, and they all nodded, patting the boy on his back, some reached out to also shake his hand. They spoke rapidly, in short bursts. None of it made any sense to the boy, but he nodded and smiled.

At the hotel, he found his parents in a small, dark lounge towards the back of the building. His sister was there too, refilling her tumbler from a large half-depleted jug of what he knew to be sangria. Despite the fruit floating in the red liquid and the slices of orange adorning the rims the tumblers, he knew he would not be permitted to share this glamorous drink.

A waiter appeared, unsummoned, and the boy’s father ordered a cola for him. It came with ice cubes and a slice of lemon, which the boy still thought of as exotic. Nobody asked where he had been or what he had been doing. He offered no explanation, for fear of disapproval, and being forbidden from returning to the square.

The family stayed in the small hotel for ten days, before they made the return journey through Spain and France. His parents became browner, more relaxed, but he was still tense whenever they turned towards him. His elder sister became attached to a young German, who was studying to become a doctor. 

The boy learned a few words of Spanish and the names of some of the men at the café. He did not win all his games, but from the second night, he kept a record of the moves on scraps of paper. During the day, on the beach, when the sand became too hot, or the sea too monotonous, he would ask his mother for a few pesetas to buy a cold drink. With the aid of a pocket chess set, he would sit in the shade of palm fronds at the beach café, replaying the games from the previous evening.

The family’s time in Spain ended too soon for the boy. His sister exchanged addresses with the young German, his mother almost wept over farewells to the waiter. The boy said goodbye, as best he could, to his new friends in the shady, quiet square. He had scoured his father’s phrase book for something suitable to offer them on that last night.

“Hasta el año que viene.”

He received more applause, more smiles and laughter, and a long speech from his original opponent of which he understood not a single word.

His family did not return to the same resort the following year, or on any subsequent holiday. Planes replaced roadmaps and their travels took them further afield. The boy kept the record of his games tucked into the back of a small book of chess openings. In later years, he would play through the games and smile at his errors. His friends’ names were mostly forgotten, but their smiles and laughter stayed with him.

Many years later, shortly before his eighteenth birthday, he returned to that same village on the Spanish coast, accompanied by a friend who claimed no interest in chess. The small book, and the records of those past games, were carefully stowed in his suitcase. One evening, while his friend sang in the shower, the boy retraced his steps to the small hotel where he had stayed as a child. From there, he took the familiar route to the leafy square he remembered so clearly.

The café was still there, but there were more tables outside, some in full sun where the trees had been pollarded. The three tables against the wall no longer supported chess sets, awaiting battles between friends. They had been replaced by menus, with pictures of burgers, chips and ice cream. 

Those men had survived a civil war, a European war, and a brutal dictatorship. But his childhood companions had finally fallen to an irresistible force. Tourism, in which he was an unwitting pawn, had changed the landscape forever. His friends had been lost in action from a new type of invasion.

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