Image: Jeff Dahl
On Tuesdays Bilkin and I meet for chess. During our game one evening last October, I sensed the onset of a curious triangularity that now characterizes and enhances our friendship. More than curious: hence this account.
Bilkin is a physician, one of the few intelligent men in this town and a splendid person in every respect. His wife died six years before the evening in question. She too was exceptional. Were I ever to contemplate matrimony, it would be with someone like her.
After her death Bilkin and I grew closer. I dealt with probate for him and did what little I could to succour him in his bereavement.
It was at this period that our weekly chess-evenings became a fixture. We use alternately his house and mine. Having taken a light supper, we bring the whisky decanter to the board and get down to play.
This particular evening we were at my place. During supper he had mentioned his niece, which was not unusual, saying that he had bought her rather an extravagant birthday present – again, not an especially unusual statement, for he is fond of the girl and has helped her and her husband with the purchase of a flat. When I asked what he had chosen, he said, “a big bottle of Chanel No. 5,” and glanced at me in what I can only describe as a peculiar way.
Now there are various shops in this town that sell perfume, but there is only one dedicated perfumery and it is owned and run by Mrs Clarice Peterson, the widow of the founder. Just as on Tuesdays I meet Bilkin for chess, so on Thursday evenings do I meet Clarice for diversion of another kind. Unfortunately she has no wish to speak of marriage; and, like me, she has no wish for our arrangement to become public.
I had of course never breathed a word of this to Bilkin. As far as I knew he was, like everyone else in our little town, ignorant of the liaison. His glance, possibly, suggested otherwise; but I dared not pursue the matter.
Once we were at the chess-table and had poured our first whiskies, I concealed a white pawn in one fist, a black in the other. He drew white. Outdoors the air was cold and fog had formed, but in my sitting-room everything was cosy. The time was a little before nine.
Bilkin is a strong and knowledgeable player. He once lent me his copy of Das Buch vom Opfer by Vukovic, which in its English translation is entitled The Chess Sacrifice. As you are no doubt aware, this is one of the classics of the middle game, a masterly account of the psychology of wrong-footing your opponent by making what seems to be a mistake. A piece is left at his mercy: he seizes it, only to find himself horribly disadvantaged a few moves later.
Until that evening in October, our chess had been little more than an excuse for two unattached, middle-aged men to spend an agreeable evening together, given our respective obligations not to discuss our daily work and our scant supply of other conversational topics, for we avoid religion and politics. Our play had produced only occasional flashes of aggression, and these were always followed by such questions as “do you want to put your rook back where it was?”
The offer was invariably declined, for we played, and still play, by the rules.
Before going on, I should perhaps explain, in parenthesis as it were, my relations with Clarice Peterson.
I have always admired her; indeed for several years I was senselessly in love with the lady whose pretty laugh was a redeeming feature of the gatherings – drinks parties and the like – one is obliged to attend in a provincial town and with a job like mine. To these gatherings Dr and Mrs Bilkin were also often invited.
Just after Mr Peterson’s death his widow sought my advice on a legal matter to do with the perfumery. I confess that her presence in my office, seated at the other side of my desk, had an effect on me such that I could barely understand her instructions. When she had gone, leaving only a delicious fragrance, I feverishly speculated as to how soon it would be proper for me to ask her out.
Imagine my reaction when, that evening, she telephoned me at home and informed me that she had been aware for a long time of my feelings for her; that our interview in the office had confirmed that these were unchanged; and that she wished to invite me to her house for supper the following day.
My surprise was tinged with disappointment, for I am something of a romantic. She had seemed my ideal woman. I had envied Peterson his luck in marrying virtue as well as beauty and had equated her with the irreproachable Mrs Bilkin; part of my speculation had indeed involved a distant possibility of wedlock.
A lawyer is no stranger to human behaviour, but even I was shaken by her frankness the following evening. When the meal was in its final stages she gave me to understand that she had certain appetites which, in the absence of her husband, were being left unfulfilled.
My disillusionment – after all, the poor chap had been in his box for less than a month – was soon eclipsed. My experience of women had not been extensive; Clarice showed me that night that there really is such a thing in the world as bliss. It would be quite wrong of me to expatiate, but take it from me that no normal man could resist her.
Long before dawn she woke me and said I should leave. She also said that she had enjoyed herself and asked why we shouldn’t repeat this weekly. I admit I felt sordid when sneaking out of the house unobserved; but, as I say, one cannot resist her.
Since then I have come round to her pragmatic point of view. I respect her honesty. She once asked me, in our dreamy post-coital state, whether I would be jealous if another man looked at her. I thought it best to give the expected answer and said that I should not. In fact her question raised a most unpleasant pang in my breast – till then I had been sure of her exclusive affection for me. I had viewed our arrangement as secure, satisfying our mutual needs, causing no harm to anyone else, and had regarded Thursday as the very zenith, the pinnacle, the apex of my week. The prospect of being forced to share her or, even worse, losing her altogether, was obnoxious in the extreme.
I seem to recollect that she asked me that question last September.
Now let us close this lengthy parenthesis and return to Bilkin and our October chess game. He began by moving his king’s pawn forward two squares to e4, a move which marks the beginning of the Giuco Piano, a mild enough opening, as the Italian name implies. I responded with the expected king’s pawn to e5.
I assumed he would proceed at once by moving his king’s knight to f3. Instead he hesitated. I noticed that he was studying the board with unusual intensity. His whisky remained untouched. He seemed to be in the throes of a debate with himself.
Bilkin’s remark about the perfume, and especially his odd glance, returned to my thoughts.
A moment later, without looking at me, he extended his forefinger and pushed his king’s bishop’s pawn two squares forward.
This of course is the second move of the King’s Gambit, which in the hands of a player like Bilkin can lead to an astoundingly brutal game, the chess equivalent of a fight with crowbars. The king’s bishop’s pawn has its throat cut, if Black is unwary enough to do the deed, on the altar of a positional advantage that can become not just decisive but overweening.
The theoretical part of me knew that I should decline the proffered pawn and instead parry with queen’s pawn to d5; or perhaps king’s bishop to c5, in order to thwart this attempt to dominate the centre. But his sudden deployment of the King’s Gambit – which rarely featured in our play – had not only unnerved me but piqued my curiosity.
To my further consternation, something now dropped into place. He said he had bought the perfume the previous day, Monday. Tuesdays were reserved for our chess. On Thursdays I saw Clarice. If she were to enter into a similar arrangement with another, Bilkin for example, would she not wish to space the appointments? Wednesdays and Fridays, on either side of my own visits, would be unlikely candidates. At the weekend Bilkin played golf, besides which, on Saturdays and Sundays Clarice was wont to catch up with her two children and their young families.
Had Bilkin been served his Chanel by the comely proprietor, from whom an invitation to supper had then issued with all the directness at her command?
Jealousy assailed me as I tried to decide how to respond, for once the green-eyed monster has been roused, the victim must know whether his fears have any basis. For a brief period I became a veritable Othello, appropriate enough given that Bilkin had picked White. My Moorish king, his footsoldier already in the fray, demanded blood at whatever cost. Pawn murdered pawn.
Bilkin looked up at me and I could not read his expression. He looked down again and placed his king’s knight on f3, the textbook response, blocking my queen from her putative dash to h4. Yes, he was using the King’s Gambit, all right: there was no longer any doubt of that.
I tried to tell myself that my suspicion was nothing more than a mare’s-nest ... albeit Bilkin is handsome fellow, and what female can resist a doctor? He had been devoted to his wife. Even so, it had been six years since her passing; had he remained true to her memory, or had he now found solace elsewhere? With Clarice, my own Clarice?
His peculiar glance had suggested that he knew about my trysts with her. If so, how? Had she told him?
My relationship to Clarice was such that I doubted she would confide such a thing to me ... which implied that, if she were the source of his knowledge, he was already closer to her than I was myself.
I answered Bilkin’s Nf3 according to the book, by moving my king’s knight’s pawn to g5. The expected reply, which would have pulled the rug from under my pawn structure, was pawn to h4. Instead, after more strenuous deliberation on Bilkin’s part, and mine, his king’s bishop lunged to c4. Thoroughly rattled, I answered with pawn to g4 – for that daring, obstreperous lunge is the precursor of the Muzio Gambit, which as I am sure you know is the subject of much controversy. White throws away his knight in hopes of strengthening his attack. And sure enough, at the next tempo he made the classical move and castled.
The Muzio is not for the faint-hearted. While I stared at the board, wondering whether to take the knight, I remembered his enthusiasm for Vukovician sacrifice. As his rival elsewhere, beyond chess, might I too be sacrificed? And what was chess but a sublimation of the struggle for supremacy between males?
And this particular game, it seemed to me in my jealousy, had become an argument about, even a contest for, Clarice.
Forcing myself to calm down, I took the knight, for it is a valuable piece and its loss so early handicaps one’s opponent, Muzio Gambit or no. I knew that I had to strive as I never had before. Our chess hitherto had been essentially recreational. No one really cared who won; sometimes we would play three half-serious games on the trot.
This one was quite different.
As it unfolded I drew on my deepest resources. The law is ultimately a matter of pure logic, while medicine combines science with the fuzziness of art. And at the fifteenth move Bilkin’s ferocious concentration faltered. This tiny error subsequently compounded itself and his domination of the central squares evaporated. We were level. There followed a ruthless exchange of pieces and we found ourselves, still evenly matched, in the sparse uplands of the end-game.
Until now neither of us had spoken – out loud, at least.
“Hmm,” he muttered. “Now what?”
I sat back and he did the same. We smiled. There was something thin and significant in his smile, ironic, amused, that only went to confirm my fears. It was almost a smirk.
Had he really been with Clarice last night? Short of asking either of them, there were certain lines of inquiry. I could ask her out, to a West End theatre, say, specifying a Monday performance. Her reaction would give me a clue. Equally I could try to make some sort of date with Bilkin for the same Monday and see what happened.
More practical would be a simple watch on her house. I would have to hire a car to sit in, since Bilkin would recognize mine. I would need to park well back and use binoculars.
I pictured myself lurking in the shadows. I saw the fog-shrouded streetlamps, the slivers of friendly light showing at Clarice’s curtains, Bilkin’s furtive arrival and his hasty admittance. I saw myself with the binoculars jammed to my eyes like a Peeping Tom; and I foresaw my feelings of betrayal and loss. How could I continue with Clarice after that? And how could I ever again have the pleasure of Bilkin’s company?
He took an appreciative sip of whisky and returned his attention to the board.
Which of the two did I value more, Bilkin or Clarice?
The question was moot. All I had to do was suppress this absurd jealousy and leave my suspicions unconfirmed.
In my youth I read Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. One of his dicta stuck in my mind: “Do that which consists in taking no action” (section 147). I cannot begin to tell you of what importance this has been in my career. It is the very foundation of my reputation. When another solicitor might encourage a client into foolhardy litigation, merely for the sake of the fees, I advise restraint. Only in cases where a grave injustice has been done, and only where there is a reasonable chance of winning, do I agree that my client should consider – merely consider, mind you – going to law. Or again, in all one’s dealings, professional or private, it can be of tremendous benefit to do nothing, to wait, to reject the rash, to eschew needless contention.
I contend at chess, for it is only a game, but in life I would rather not, especially when it comes to friendship.
Besides, was not Clarice entirely free? Bilkin likewise. Polygamy is seen as perfectly natural in some societies.
To cap this line of thought, I realized that my suspicions were in all likelihood ridiculous. Yet enough of them lingered in the end-game for me to sense that Bilkin was steering us towards a draw. He too may have been thinking how pleasant our Tuesdays were.
Anyhow, he contrived, with my assistance, to trap my king near a corner. The verdict: stalemate.
“Well played,” he said.
Whether or not he sees Clarice on Mondays now, she is subtly changed. Her effervescence has returned in full. She seems more contented, more independent, more the woman I originally fell for. I believe I adore her more than ever and, as a result, our time together has become yet more precious to me.
Bilkin too seems happier. He has visibly relaxed. I hear that he is less competitive on the fairway; but at the chess-table he has raised his game considerably, and so have I. My leisure reading consists of books of advanced theory. I study in depth and try to emulate the brilliance of Steinitz, Alekhine, Nimzovitch, Tarrasch, Capablanca, Fischer: because nowadays our Tuesday contests feel, to my mind at least, as if they are inspired by, and might conceivably be all about, the generous, passionate, and thoroughly delectable Mrs Peterson.
Anyone who writes is inured to having his or her work pirated; so it is nice once in a while to get one’s own back.
The idea for the preceding story was stolen some years ago from here.
Alas, its author passed away in 2012, or I would have emailed him the link to this page. I lifted a copy of his text because the idea amused me; I returned to it at the weekend.
Here it is, in case the late Mr Harter’s site ever disappears from the internet.
You may be thinking of the book entitled "Nabokov" which is not, of course, by the author named "Nabokov". The book is quite interesting. Nabokov is a small Russian village not far from Moscow - an invented village of course. The novel is set in 1830; it concerns itself with the doings of the widow Petrovsky who has lost both her husband and her lover in the Napoleonic wars. She is conducting what she supposes to be clandestine affairs with both the local doctor and the local priest. They in turn are aware that each other is receiving the favors of the lush and passionate widow but never admit it. The doctor and the priest, being the only intellectuals in the village, have an evening of playing chess once a week, these matches being a thematic element in the novel. At first one supposes that the chess games are a metaphor for their concealed competition for the widows favors. It is only upon close reading that one realizes that the situation is quite the reverse; that the weekly chess games are the core, the essential reality of their relationship. Neither can afford to defeat the other permanently at chess or in love, for that would destroy the basis of the relationship. Nor can they admit that they are not "playing to win". In turn, the widow Petrovsky senses this without realizing it consciously. She appears to be playing one against the other in an erotic competition. In reality she is maintaining a relationship with an ambiguous duality. As I say, it is an interesting book. Unfortunately it is not real.
I may have absorbed enough Turgenev, Gorky, etc. to be able to attempt such a pastiche, but it was easier to transpose things to a modern setting and make the priest a solicitor. And while the result is hardly a “book”, I do think it might have become “real”.