March 05, 2008

Memories in a box

I played chess on Saturday in the Athletic Club of Huesca: the sets were nice, polished pieces on wooden boards. I have seven or eight sets at home, most of them pocket size or small, portable sets though I do have one expensive set, a marble one, in need of repair. In truth it isn't mine in the first place, though I have forgotten whose it is: I have carried it about, with my books, from place to place for years longer than my meory can cope with. I only play very occasionally with a good quality set: sometimes they have them on the top boards in a tournament, so if I've won a couple of games in a row and find myself temporarily close to the leaders, I can enjoy the privilege of playing with more expensive equipment until it's time to return, the next round, to cheap plastic.

In truth the standard of the pieces doesn't matter, provided that they're clean, unbroken and recognisable in shape. If anything, they were a distraction: they reminded me of the set my father had. For a moment I thought I saw a red mark on the top of one of the white knights, not, in truth, because there was anything there, but because I remembered the red kings that were printed on top of the knights on my father's set. Not on all of them, but only two, one white, one black, indicating the knight that should be placed on the kingside, and, later in the game, identifying the original square of the knight. It seemed to me a pointless affectation - the rooks bore no such mark, nor the pawns, yet one might as well know their square of origin as that of the knight. But I remember it, and for a brief instant on Saturday, I thought I saw it again, like Orwell seeing O'Brien's missing extra finger.

The set had an expensive board, and an expensive lockable box, a veneer outside, green baize within. I was impressed, and coveted the set: my father said that I could have it one day, the day I beat him at chess. I did beat him eventually, winning a rook ending a pawn down, and asked for the set: but he had either forgotten, or never meant it in the first place, and said no, what he'd meant was that I could have it if I beat him, not in an individual game but in a match. It wasn't what he'd said the first time. It wasn't the last time he lied.


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