Honourable Mention – Time to Write – anthology 2012

Checkmate – Time to go.

Every weekday morning, except when the weather is inclement, two elderly men meet at a suburban bus stop and play chess. It is a fine, peaceful location at the edge of a park and there is plenty of birdsong to mitigate the occasional harsh noises generated by passing cars.
The old men like this spot because it is not on the main road and the sun is generally at such an angle that it provides appropriate warmth or light depending upon the time of year. The bus stop is also shaded by two magnificent old pepper trees. The green feathery leaves droop and contrast with the dark rough bark of the trunk. In some ways the trees are a mirror image of the old men. Each of the men is a widower. They live in separate well-maintained retirement homes at opposite ends of the street.
Ernest is 79 and tall with a fine thatch of grey hair. Apart from an irregular heart-beat and chronic arthritis he considers that he is in reasonable health for a man of his age. Ernest often describes himself as being, “In pretty good nick for an old bloke.”
Murray is 81. His ginger hair has retreated and now comprises just a few whisps. Murray regularly asserts his seniority whenever he sees it necessary to keep Ernest in his place, which is often. Murray has been described by his doctor as a medical marvel because he has so far managed not to succumb to an impressive range of threatening conditions. Murray describes himself as a wreck and jokes that he may have a future as a tourist attraction on the Great Barrier Reef.
Parked at one side of the bus stop, fluorescent flags fluttering, are two ride-on scooters. The men agree that the trip to the bus stop seems to have gotten just a bit longer these days.
Ernest and Murray have been friends for so long that neither recalls when or how they met. In years of playing there has not been a single victory for either of them. They know each other’s ploys too well. Both regard each new day as a blessing and a fresh opportunity to finally beat the other. Seasons come and go but their mutual ambition remains the same.
As befits mortal combat, Ernest and Murray trade blows for hours. A slash here, a riposte there. Across the width and breadth of the board the battle rages until the inevitable stalemate. A draw means honour has been served. However, over handshakes, each combatant silently vows to come back the next day and achieve the all-important win.
Harry the bus driver has been a bemused observer of the chess players for years. In Harry’s mind they have become a permanent fixture. They always wave when he passes by. Now and again, Harry pauses to offer greetings and advice. Ernest and Murray welcome the greetings and politely ignore Harry’s suggestions.
Harry’s schedule has not changed much over the years. He always has the morning shift. Harry’s working life is routine and that’s the way he likes it.
Today is a day much like any other. The bus stop is bathed in warm morning sunlight and the players are setting up for the contest. As the first moves are being made, Harry slows down to wave and then drives on but as he does so, something out of the ordinary happens. A beautiful girl appears, possibly from out of the park, and strides up to the bus stop. Ernest and Murray are distracted. She is certainly worth a look. For her part the girl simply smiles hello and begins to watch the duel. Ernest and Murray instantly begin to play up to their audience and the level of banter rises as each strives for an advantage. They both imagine that this fair damsel will be impressed by their dashing display.
Pieces are moved and some are taken as the players try to land a killer blow. Murray can feel the momentum shift to him as he takes Ernest’s bishop and knight in successive moves. “Check!” he yells, but Ernest moves out of danger and collects one of Murray’s rooks as a bonus. As the battle rages the players cease to wonder why such a girl would spend her time standing at a bus stop watching two old men play chess.
All too soon or so it seems the game reaches stalemate. All strategies have been exhausted and their shoulders sag. However, the girl retains a keen interest and without a word she steps forward and makes a move that swiftly determines the game in Murray’s favour. Ernest is incredulous. Murray is stunned.
“You can’t accept that,” whines Ernest. “The game was over and you had nothing left. Without her help it would have been another draw.”
“Settle down mate,” replies Murray soothingly, “You are right.”
Both men turn towards the girl who now stands closer. She smiles and laughs.
“Checkmate gentlemen. It’s time to go.”
“Go where?” they chorus.
“You know the answer to that. We have been waiting a long time for both of you but your drawn games have been holding things up, so I have been sent to clear the way.”
Suddenly each man realises that the girl is an angel and their time on earth is up. Looking into each other’s face they silently acknowledge the fact.
“Now?” they ask.
“Yes now. But don’t worry; we have plenty of chessboards so there is no reason why your games can’t continue. Forever, if you like. But, some other people may have something to say about that.”
Warm smiles appear on the faces of Murray and Ernest as they contemplate dealing with “some other people”; again.
Next morning, Harry slows down and sees that there is nobody at the bus stop.
“It’s a fine day. Something funny must have happened?” thinks Harry. He drives on, slightly puzzled.
Well that’s one way of looking at it.