By Mick Helson
“Hello, James,” said the elderly man as he walked into the familiar room.
James was sitting at a small table by the window, sunlight reflecting off his twinkling blue eyes.
As the elderly man walked closer, he took note of the quality of James’ skin. Yet again, it looked more youthful since his last visit. One of the little wrinkles that had run across the upper part of James’ nose appeared to have vanished. The elderly man was sure of it. He had run over the images of James’ face many times in his mind over the past weeks, noting and holding on to every small detail.
“Do you remember me, James?” the man asked as he took a seat at the small table, pulling out a small brown bag.
James smiled widely. “I’m afraid not. But, then again, most days I don’t remember who I am either.”
The elderly man winced while trying to force a small smile, as James laughed heartily.
The elderly man began to empty the contents of the bag onto the chessboard in front of them.
James ran the fingers of his right hand playfully over the items. “Are we going to play a game?” He asked excitedly.
The elderly man nodded seriously as he finished laying out the pieces on the chessboard. “One of your favorites.”
The elderly man watched James closely, while pulling one more item out of his bag. A large, ticking stopwatch.
Tick tick tick.
With satisfaction, the elderly man noted that James almost instinctively grabbed at the edge of his mustache—a tick (ha!) he had noted James doing in the past when he was feeling irritated or nervous.
However, James quickly returned to a smile as he moved one of the tiny pawns. “Shall I go first, old friend?” he asked.
“You always do.”
Pawn to d4.
As the elderly man pretended to be thinking about what opening to play, he placed all his focus on James and his reactions to the chess pieces and the ticking of the clock. He was frustrated not to notice any signs of recognition or distress.
“You know, this chess piece…it looks familiar,” James commented, giving the elderly man some hope.
“Yes,” the elderly man said, watching James closely for more signs of recognition. “It’s another old friend. An orphan boy. I molded and painted each of these pieces to look like people from our past.”
James looked down at the piece. “Really? All those little tiny details? The little slingshot and pockets and everything! What a memory you must have.”
The elderly man frowned. “I didn’t always. I once had a worse memory than even you. No need or care to hold on to anything. But it has since become important to me to remember,” he added, moving a pawn to d5.
“Why is that?” James asked, making another move without effort.
“Because, James, I have something in the past that I don’t want to lose. Something I fear may have already been lost…taken from me. But I’d like to find it again.”
“What’s that?” James asked, moving a bishop in a way that hinted at flawless intuition.
“Good form,” the elderly man muttered under his breath, trying to hold back the rattle of his contempt. He simply could not believe James didn’t remember.
Yes, the elderly man had lost something. In spite of remembering and obsessing over every tiny detail from his past, there was one thing lost to him, and he was sure—absolutely sure—that this seemingly impaired man in front of him knew what it was.
“Good form…I remember that,” James said. “From back in my school days. It was frustrating…focus on this or that they’d say…but then not too hard, or it can ruin even the best form.”
The elderly man squinted, trying to determine the best move and one that would allow him to capture one of James’ pirate-shaped knights with his crocodile-shaped rook.
He heard James laugh and looked up.
“Is that where we know each other? From Eton? I think I might remember you. Always working hard for mastery. You should relax, old friend…”
Always working hard for mastery. The elderly man felt his cheeks heat up. No, it was James that always had to work hard. As a young boy, the elderly man had been the paragon of good form. Back when he still had…he wasn’t sure what. But whatever it was that had been taken is precisely what had granted him that mastery, that “good form” and so much more.
James knew this and was taunting him. Surely.
“I am not your old friend, James,” the elderly man said, finally giving up on the game.
He picked up his king piece and slammed it in front of James. The king was in the shape of a young boy, wearing a Tyrolean hat and holding a sword.
“Surely you remember a young boy…an ageless boy…one with perfect form?” The elderly man growled.
James squinted at the tiny piece, his gaze a mix of amusement and confusion.
“Something important was taken from him, James. How?”
James was silent, almost serious for a moment, and the elderly man wondered if perhaps he had given up the facade and would finally reveal what he had done.
Instead, James laughed.
The door behind the two men opened as a nurse popped her head in. “Peter, I’m afraid that’s all the time we can allow for today,” she said.
Peter nodded, not taking his eyes off James, who was still laughing. He couldn’t tell if it was the laugh of a man who had lost his head or of a cunning strategist who had outwitted him for good.
Peter quickly packed up the tiny chess pieces and clock into his bag before turning his back on James, who was still smiling and waving a stump where his left hand had once been.