Extract 2 from WIP No. 2

Vytis

Vytis. A knight in armour rides a white charger that rears up beneath him. On his left arm he carries a shield. In his right he wields a sword. Quite why this image should appear on the sign above the door of the café remains unclear.

The Kaffe Kleebob stands on the left hand corner of the street as you enter the square from the north, the route by which the tanks arrived on the last occasion. On cloudless mornings, the sun’s rays stream in through the tall windows on its eastern side, their intensity dimmed by the yellow cellophane glued to the inside of the panes. The old men sit at the table by the door that looks out onto the square. A display of sweet pastries occupies the window on the other side of the door. Cuboid and cylindrical, disc and star-shaped, the items on show are many and varied, glazed with sugar crystals or dusted with icing sugar, filled with cinnamon or chestnut paste, plum purée or quince jelly. There are a half dozen tables in the square outside the café. The old men do not sit at these. The bitter easterlies that swirl across the wide-open space of the square penetrate their bones and make them ache.

The taller of the two men is always first to arrive, a little after the bell of St Ludovic’s has struck for ten o’clock.  He orders Turkish coffee and a pastry (hexagonal with a date and almond filling) then settles down to read the morning newspapers, making his way through the mixture of trivia and propaganda masquerading there as news. Shortly before the No. 8 trolleybus makes its circuit of the square, the shorter man joins his companion. He orders his brandy and takes out a novel from the inside pocket of his coat. Having finished with the morning edition of the local paper, the taller man passes it across the table. The shorter man turns to the back of the newspaper where, amid reports of ice hockey and football matches (‘Vasas SC 5, Volyn Lutsk 0’), he finds that day’s puzzles. Ignoring for the moment the cryptic crossword puzzle (5 down, ‘Olive, material for curtain’), he concentrates instead on the symbols arranged on the grid of the problem. He is preparing himself intellectually. ‘Red to move, alchemist to capture sanatorium in three moves’ (convention dictates that the solution must always end to red’s advantage). The hands of the bell-tower clock crawl around toward twelve. Each man will eat his lunch of pork sausage, bread and cheese, washing it down with a glass of red wine. And now they are ready to commence the game.

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“Shortly before the No. 8 trolleybus makes its circuit of the square…”

Some say that it was brought here from the west by Roman legions. Others claim that it arrived from the east with the Mongol hordes.  Its antiquity is not in question. Each match takes a long time to complete, never taking less than several hours, frequently lasting for days or weeks. As players grow in skill and experience, it takes longer and longer for the game to reach its conclusion. For all that, it may end quite abruptly should one of the players make a false move, triggering a sequence of exchanges that will be over in a matter of minutes. This is one of the reasons why seasoned players deliberate so carefully on the possible consequences of every move they make and why a single turn at a critical stage in the game may take many hours. For them, the board is a minefield to be crossed with great caution. To the outsider, it may appear that no play is taking place at all.  t may even seem that one of the participants has died, mid-game, while in fact, he has merely been contemplating his next move*. This particular match has been going on for years, the positions of the pieces noted down at the end of each day’s session on one of those score pads readily available from presses across the city. And it takes many, many years to acquire knowledge of the game’s myriad complexities and subtleties.  Young men often believe themselves to have mastered the game, entering upon a phase of bravado and hubris in which they apparently defeat at will older players of the game.  This period always ends in disillusion, leading ultimately to despair.  Humbled, such players will begin their studies anew, making marginal improvements in technique throughout their thirties and forties, adding minute aspects of tactical play to their game until at last some semblance of competence may emerge as they approach late middle age.

Realisation is slow to arrive and thus all the more profound when it does. The point of the game is not to win at all. At the very moment that he believes victory to be his, the player finds the taste of ashes on his tongue.  In reality, he is clutching defeat. The true goal is to achieve a kind of stasis, merely to persist.  Stalemate constitutes victory.  New stand-offs, fresh impasses, novel forms of inertia… It is here that the real beauty of the game is revealed.

The old men sit across the table from each other and unfold the board. This comprises a grid, 23 squares by 23, in seven different colours arranged entirely at random. The squares resemble the tiny tiles with which the kitchen floor of the café has been laid and in which no pattern may be detected either. If the game’s origins are indeed Roman, this may explain why some players refer to it as a mosaic. No two boards are the same. The example at the Kleebob Café is held to be an especially challenging one. The old man on the left hand side of the table slides the lid from the wooden rectangular box containing the pieces and empties them out onto the board. Each player begins with 69 counters, arranged along the three rows closest to him. Although cast in semi-abstract forms, the phenomena they represent are concrete enough. The majority of the pieces are military in inspiration – cavalry, armada, legion… And then there are the arcana. These are more esoteric – library, pope, astronomer (called astrologer in some sets), mausoleum, lighthouse, poet (also known as seer), apothecary, lion, ass… In a further complication, the pieces each player possesses are not always the same.  Every set is unique. The counters used in this city are divided into red and black (influencing, no doubt, Stendhal’s masterpiece, Le Rouge et le Noir). As the game spread westward in the post-war period, the contest was generally white v red (as is the case with sets of a 1920s vintage and those from sixteenth century England, both of which contain many pieces not found in other sets). Originally, the pieces were white and black, called ‘gull’ and ‘daw’ (or ‘rook’ among players of a rival, less ancient game of strategy). This allowed, of course, for Manichean simplicities to be employed when referencing the game for rhetorical or allegorical purposes, alluding to the struggle between holy and evil empires, between the Kingdoms of Heaven and Hell.  To the old men, it represents nothing more than the passage of time.  And perhaps twenty minutes have elapsed as the shorter of the two men considers his move.  He lifts the white counter occupying square 7J (amber) and places it two rows up and three columns to the left on square 10H (jade), a move which he intends to be defensive but which his opponent construes as aggression. Though bad feeling is engendered, and may well turn to acrimony and rancour, the afternoon will invariably end in an uneasy truce of sorts.


* In any case, is not death merely the contemplation of eternity?

All text and image © PSR 2013

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