A Fair Game
Beth O'BrienThe box the game had come in had long since been torn beyond use, so she carried the pieces in a carrier bag. The board was scuffed at the corners from too much travelling without a box, and he carried it tucked under one arm.
Climbing in single file up the three steps to the seating area, both of them gripped tightly onto the handrail with their free hand. They proceeded together into the far corner of the cafe and the man sat down at the end of a long table, nodding good morning to the coffee-sipping, early-starters already seated at the other end.
‘Tea?’ asked Tabitha, as she handed Albert the carrier bag. He had already unfolded the board and now began setting up the pieces in their proper places.
‘Yes please Tabs - two sugars?’ The last two words came out as a question because he knew Tabitha was better at following his doctor’s instructions than he was, and apparently having diabetes meant you shouldn’t have sugar in your tea.
‘One,’ she compromised with a smile and he chuckled over his minor victory as she went to order their drinks.
By the time Tabitha returned with a huge white teapot, one jug of milk and a pointedly solitary sachet of sugar, Albert had arranged the chess board perfectly, with the white pieces lined up in front of himself, and the black ones facing him across the table.
‘You’re always white,’ she said indignantly.
‘And you still always win,’ he rejoined, quite truthfully. She tried not to show her smile as she handed him an empty mug.
‘Go on then, Bertie,’ she said, nodding at the board.
A slow hand, trembling with nothing other than age, reached out, picked up a pawn at random and moved it forwards two spaces.
For several minutes the two played without exchanging a word, until Albert broke the quiet.
‘That’s probably enough, isn’t it Tabs?’ To anyone nearby, this might have been taken as a call to end the game, but Tabitha, knowing what he meant, peeked inside the teapot.
‘Looks it,’ she confirmed.
Albert took a napkin from the stack on the tray and placed his cup on it. Taking up the pot, he splashed about half a mugs full into it. He placed his half full mug back on his clean saucer and used the napkin, which had already caught much of the spillage, to wipe up the rest. He repeated this with Tabitha’s cup while she poured a little milk, first into his cup, and then her own. Their attention returned to the game.
‘Bertie, because you moved your knight there,’ she pointed, ‘I can take it, so you might want to redo that last move.’
His eyes scanned for the offending knight and its unnoticed attacker. Spotting them, he hastily moved his knight back to where it had been as if he were worried that if he was too slow, he might lose his knight before he got there.
Having found a less dangerous move, Albert began to fumble with his sugar sachet while Tabitha took her turn.
‘Where did you move?’ he was forced to ask, having not been watching the board.
‘Here,’ she said, pointing to her castle.
Laying the sachet down, he pondered the board with the tips of his fingers together in front of him - a mannerism he had unconsciously learned from the woman opposite.
‘But Tabs!’ he said, ‘What about my bishop?’ Tabitha’s eyes traced the diagonal line between her castle and Albert’s bishop.
‘Oh! You’re right!’ she said, taking her turn to move the offending piece and relocating it. ‘That’s better. Thanks,’ she smiled.
The cafe bustled with chat around them. People joined and left their table as the couple continued playing until the tea had been drunk, or spilt and wiped from the table.
‘If you go there, you’ll have me in checkmate, Bertie!’ exclaimed Tabitha.
‘Will I?’ laughed Bertie, as he followed her pointing finger. He moved his queen two squares to the right and proudly repeated the words, ‘Check... Mate...’ as if each word was its own sentence.
Knowing the drill, the players shook hands over the board before beginning to pack it away.
‘Next time,’ smiled Tabs, ‘I’m being white.’
As they got up to go, Bertie laughed and tried to explain why this wouldn’t be fair. The two departed from the cafe, climbing carefully back down the three steps; one with a carrier bag dangling from her wrist, one with a battered chess board under his arm, and both leaving the unopened sugar sachet lying forgotten on the table behind them.
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