My opponent had been sitting at the board for a good half hour, and still hadn’t moved. I shifted uneasily in my chair. There were only two or three moves from which he could sensibly choose, so what was he thinking about? He might do something with the Bishop that was staring down the long diagonal, or take the pawn, no, he wouldn’t do that, or try a pointless King move — how deeply was the man calculating? Mind you, if he didn’t take my pawn, I’d consider thrusting it forward like a rapier down his gullet.
I got up noisily, and paced the playing hall. Other competitors were hunched over their boards, or leaning back fiddling with scoresheets; one drank something from a paper cup through a straw. My immovable opponent had an untouched glass of water at his elbow. Would he notice if I put a flower in it?
He was a rugged, heavy man, skilled in the opening he had chosen, and he seemed to be searching for the knockout blow. I trembled at the thought of what might happen if I dared to beat him. These quiet types, you know, and then they flare up. But why didn’t he move? What had he seen?
Spectators lined the ropes at the edge of the playing area. Some were whispering urgently and staring at the display boards; there were grunts or gasps when a player moved. Two old stagers argued in vehement undertones over a position in one of the games in front of them, trying to predict White’s or Black’s next move, and exclaiming “What!” when it surprised both of them.
I paced self-consciously up and down the hall. Respectful eyes followed me. Or I liked to think they were respectful. Pitying, or amused, perhaps. It was the men at the top boards they were watching, awe-inspiring men who would have no mercy on players of lower rank who came up against them.
Ignore distractions. Concentrate. Suddenly a sequence occurred to me. Perhaps my opponent had found a combination I hadn’t thought of! I hurried anxiously back to the board. He still hadn’t moved, not a finger, let alone a piece. But would he risk a knight? I plumped down to study the consequences. Help! It looked as if it might work. But it seemed such a silly move, wriggling down deep into enemy territory, there must be a refutation.
“Your clock’s not running,” said the arbiter’s voice in my ear.
“It’s not my move.”
“His isn’t either. Both clocks have stopped.”
I stared dazedly round me. The playing hall had grown dim and misty. Other figures were shadowy, hardly noticeable. It was like being trapped in a photograph. The player on the other side of the chessboard loomed like the Rock of Gibraltar, motionless and only vaguely distinguishable. “Time’s running out for both of you: press the lever on your clock,” whispered the arbiter at my elbow. He was an old man, with a white beard down to his navel. He held up an hourglass. “The sand’s nearly run through.”
I twisted round with difficulty. Was that a scythe he held in his hand?
The stillness was eerie. I found myself staring uncomprehendingly at the position in front of me, waiting for I knew not what, some cataclysmic move that would blow my carefully constructed game to smithereens. And for all I could guess, blow me up with it.
There was no doubt about it. Time had frozen.
I remembered a cartoon, showing two ancient men at a table, with spiderwebs spun from their noses to the chessboard between them.
“I can’t reach my clock,” I said, or imagined, “neither of us can. What will happen? Anything at all? Permanent immobility, if we can’t start Time again. Or maybe we’ll just fizzle out while the millennia spin on until the cosmos runs down for ever.”
There came a creak, as of a chair shifting, or bones cracking in a too solid body. My opponent heaved himself onto his feet, his huge meaty hand hovering over a chess piece as if he intended to move it. I couldn’t remember when I’d last drawn breath. He’d found the knight move. Would he play it, or reject it?
He withdrew his hand, sat down, wiped his brow. A hubbub broke out in the hall, he scribbled on his score sheet, and he moved.
I blinked. He had taken the pawn.
Brian S. Lee, now retired in a suburb of Cape Town, doesn’t get much chance to play chess any more, but amuses himself in other ways.
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