The Solution to the Rook's Rider
The towers on the outskirts of our town were pretty from a distance, their criss-crossed white concrete and steel catching the sunlight in a way that highlighted them against the sky, whatever colour it happened to be. They channelled communications for the military, or so local environmental activists claimed, and weakened all our phone signals. The military didn’t deny it, just kept up a silence so polite it was full of disdain. If people needed to phone somebody for a proper old heart-to-heart, they got the train out of range of the towers to the next town, but sometimes decided simply to meet there, and enact their conversations live and in-situ. It was often good to have these impromptu face-to-face rendez-vous, but sometimes… it wasn’t.
Once, lured by an invitation to catch up, I met a friend who, he made it plain, was no longer a friend. His eyes blazing, he ranted his side of our conversation while my own vanished. “I’ve got no time for you,” he told me, “in both senses of those words,” and the pretentiousness of that made me laugh, which got him even more annoyed. I didn’t object to being reminded of my many shortcomings, but I was sorry I’d trekked to another town for it.
In the station hall I spied a woman in a long powder-blue coat with a fake fur collar, and sporting a fake fur hat, like something out of Doctor Zhivago. Like me, she had taken the speechless role in a one-sided conversation. I’d watched it disintegrate over my friend’s shoulder.
Thus abandoned, I shared what-can-you-do hands with her. It would have been absurd for us not to connect, so we strode over to one another, and shook hands. Together, we watched our one-time friends head for the trains, trying to see if they too would pair up. We confessed to being just a little disappointed that they didn’t. “Maybe they deserve each other,” we said, almost at the same. And maybe we did, too. I saw her wondering about the same thing.
It must have been on my mind that I’d earlier that day tried to buy a phone that only did talk, and texts, though I wasn’t awfully bothered about the texts. I told her that the phones I’d browsed had turned out to be antiques, drawing what I thought of as laughable praise. “Classics of the make, you see,” I’d been told, and I’d seen. I’d had to. I also got, “Like an old Ferrari.” Their ridiculous prices were something I could laugh at only faintly, speechlessly.
She looked at my phone with disinterest. She sparked up and put a hand on mine and said, “Wait. You have an old Ferrari?” She was joking, or had misheard.
The station announcements went silent, and the noise and bustle from the gates to the platforms died down. The trains had gone, whisking our lost friendships away with them. There would be no more trains, for a while. The concourse was suddenly empty.
I wondered if there would be any more friendships.
We went to the station bar, and cast our eyes over the drinks, the server’s disinterested eyes on us as we hummed and hawed over what we would have. I was going to have a coffee, then thought it might keep me awake. I hesitated long enough, perhaps, to let my companion assume that we were going to make an evening of it. She went for sparkling rosé. It probably wouldn’t have been my choice, though I know next to nothing about wine. The server bade us sit, and, with the whole place to choose from, we sat at the table in the window.
When the server brought the wine, he showed us the label on the bottle, and went into some spiel about the grape from which it was made, and the weather in the valley in which it flourished, and how the fermentation process differed slightly from that of some other wine made from some other grape in some nearby valley, a more famous but, in his opinion, inferior variety. Outside work situations, I find it kind of annoying to have to nod politely at something I’m fundamentally not interested in. Maybe I look like the kind of shallow wannabe gourmet who’s interested in all that kind of thing. Maybe that’s worse than actually being interested... I want to drink it, I nearly told the server. Not bond with it and send it fucking Christmas cards. I thanked him, instead. The wine was bearable, despite looking like a concoction for children.
We ran our eyes over the concourse occasionally, to give each other a break from our curious gazes. It was still empty of people. As if at a silent signal, the concourse shopkeepers emerged from their round-topped doorways, like allegorical figures from a ceremonial clock in a Baroque church on an old town square, got together to talk in short bursts, with quick nods and barely-seen gestures of heads and hands.
I forget how we got onto it, but my new friend said her family had been aristocrats, dispossessed of the von- and the und- in their name, and of lands and riches and rights, too, by communist regimes. She saw the look on my face, and said, “Oh, I know.”
I said, “You know… what?”
She said, “I understand.”
And again I said, “What?”
And she said, “Too many people tell this tale.” It was true: they had been telling it since 1917, all over the continent, wherever those vanquished aristos had fled and settled, clad only in their finest furs, reduced to one servant and one sob-story, the legend of their one-time opulence. “But mine is true.”
I didn’t care enough to doubt it. I said, “That was a hundred years ago. It’s who you are now that I’m interested in.” I wasn’t that interested, not really, or, at least, not yet, as far as I knew, but it just seemed the right thing to say. It brought a thoughtful look to her face.
We got slightly drunk on our pink fizz. She accused me of putting words into her mouth. I forget now what those words were, but it was easily done, as I tend to talk in a roundabout, sometimes cryptic way. Or so I’m told.
In our conversational lulls, we sensed the resumed comings-and-goings of the trains, travellers in to fill the concourse, home-comers out to refill it, then its emptiness peopled cautiously by the shopkeepers before they heard a distant crackle of reverb in the tannoy, sensed the first footfalls of people and the rumble of wheels on the tracks, and scattered back into their shops. I thought of the other lives we could have been living, and, tantalised with both their nearness and distance, I glimpsed, for seconds, parallel universes. On the concourse, in one of its empty phases, I caught sight of a shadow of myself – in much better shape, I noted, with a twinge of jealousy – peering at me in my own here-and-now, too slow or out-of-sync to communicate.
My companion began talking about a chess problem that had beguiled one of those exalted ancestors of hers, and continued to perplex her. “It’s an infinity gambit,” she said, and it occurred as a result of a contentious and risk-all manoeuvre called the Rooks’ Rider. I listened to her so long without interruption, and made at least one nod too many, that it would have looked foolish if I’d declared my absolute ignorance of how to play the game. We got to the inevitable point in the conversation at which she’d stopped, and was asking for my contribution to the solution.
She was staring with big, expectant eyes, when she looked startled, and exclaimed, “Look at that looming… fool.” We laughed, though I was slightly… offended; she’d spotted that version of me out there. Or so I thought. We resumed talking, and I tried to change the subject. I said how the server needn’t have told us all that information about the wine, and that, unless I got salmonella there, and died, I’d be giving him a ten per cent tip anyway. It was plain, though, that she still expected an answer from me about my opinion of her historical chess problem.
My heart jumped and raced a second later when a stranger leaned over to our table and said to me, “You took the words right out of my mouth.” He looked as if he might want them back, and at a high rate of interest. It was him, the man I’d seen out on the concourse; not a version of me, then. I was relieved. She was right: he was looming indeed. We wavered. He stared, inviting an answer, ready to answer an invitation. It was as if he’d been in our conversation in his head, in one of those parallel universes, and had gone into a trance, and awoken, come bursting back in. Even so, we weren’t going to let him come between us. We looked at each other without looking.
I’d forgotten what we were talking about, and about those words the interloper was claiming to have once owned – a bit like my new companion and her family’s one-time country estate in Königsberg, its once-upon-a-time town house in Kishinev, its long-built-over fields, and long-freed serfs, and the chess mystery it had invented, for all I knew, to occupy itself in its stagnant years of indolence until the Russian Revolution gave it some real problems to ponder.
“An infinity gambit,” I recalled. We discussed the Rooks’ Rider in great detail, and in low, secretive voices, looking intensely into each other’s eyes. Somehow, I babbled out its solution, just by throwing together terms recycled from her earlier monologue. She clapped her hands, and squealed. When we looked around, the man had gone.
He’d been right: the solution to the Rooks’ Rider was not in my words, but in his, and she too had been right, by way of a premonition, and I really had taken the words from his mouth and put them into hers. I clutched my phone in my hand, claimed its lack of a signal and went out into the station to draw deep breaths and look at its screen. I tried to catch those words in a spark of memory, and failed, but it didn’t matter; I looked back into the bar, and saw her busy writing them down.
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