THE CHESS GAME by Françoise Melville


No-one remembered how or when Christine came to St. Ives. So many people arrived daily on the Cornish Riviera Express from Paddington, or by car or by coach. Some stayed for fifteen days or fifteen months, others for a lifetime.
It was rumoured that she had been educated abroad, in Switzerland and France, and that she had been expelled from an exclusive Swiss finishing school before studying for a term at a French university. Her English was perfect, but people knew that she was really a foreigner, and that she wanted to paint.
Perhaps that was why she had come to Cornwall. In St. Ives during the late fifties, nearly everybody except the tourists and the fishermen seemed to be an artist of some kind or other. Christine must have been impressed after neat, clean Switzerland. The long, unkempt hair, ragged trousers, bare feet - were they beatniks, bums or artists, or a mixture of all three? So she went to the Loft School of Art, and started throwing paint at large expanses of cheap hardboard, primed with Wallpamur; spreading out the pure, bright colours over the whiteness with stiff bristle brushes, and blending them together with a flexible steel spatula.
There were about fifteen students at the Loft, all full of youthful illusions and aspiring to become one of the great.
The great actually took notice of them from time to time. Of course they were not really great, but just a step above mediocrity, and they exuded that magic aura produced by eccentricity and alcohol.
Christine's friend and fellow student, Ellen, remembered how one Sunday morning they had taken a stroll along Porthmeor, the long, white-sanded Atlantic beach to the north of the village. The wind blew fresh in their faces, and the surf spray dampened their hair. The beach was deserted at that hour, but about fifty yards further west, Ellen sighted a small dark mound, which, as they drew closer, appeared to be a bundle of old black clothes, half-buried in the sand. Christine poked the mound with her foot: it stirred a little and gave a grunt. It was not an inert mass, but one of the very greatest, sleeping off his hangover. She jabbed him again with her boot - how disrespectful, thought Ellen - and a deep croak rose from the mound. "I have reached the bottom of the well," it said.
But had he? thought Ellen. How far did one have to fall before reaching the very bottom of the pit? Christine just laughed.
"Come on, Ellen. He'll be okay in a couple of hours. Haven't you ever had a hangover?"
Ellen hadn't, but she knew that there was some truth in the rumours about Christine's expulsion from finishing school. Apparently she had taken a liking to Kirsch Vaudoise and foul, black Gauloises, while studying Goethe's Urfaust and Antigone by Jean Anhouil.
At the Loft the classes continued. Twice a week, there was a male model who disrobed on a wooden dais, and posed, poised in a lithe stance of dark-skinned, masculine beauty, his male attribute sad and slack from the cold, despite the fire of female eyes and frenetic fingers fumbling with long thin sticks of charcoal.
"That thigh-line is not right," said the maestro, peering over Christine's shoulder. Ellen glanced at the friend, and realized that the girl was absorbed in contemplation of the naked figure on the dais. Yes, Ellen thought, to Christine he must seem perfect. Those dark Jewish eyes were fathomless pools of romantic tragedy. The straight nose, not over-long, the full, sensual lips and the almost black, silky hair and beard completed the Christlike picture before their inexperienced eyes. Ellen could sense that Christine wanted him, not as a cold statue on a plinth, but as a warm-blooded body to touch and explore. Ellen was twenty-three, seven years older than Christine, and she became aware of her friend's ardent desire to possess and be possessed. The first move was about to take place.


Max first noticed her at the art school in the village. She was younger than the other students, slim and fair, with slightly prominent cheek-bones and deep-set, narrow blue eyes. She was not standing behind the first row of easels, but was half-hidden by the somewhat bulky hulk of Nancy, or was it Ellen? He wasn't really sure of all the students' names. After all, he only came to model on Tuesdays and Fridays, and to keep his mind off the cold and his stiffening joints, he would travel back to Capetown in his imagination, and visualize his family there, recalling how proud they had been of him when he had decided to study architecture. And then something had happened: he had met Connie and his world had changed. But Connie was married to a Dutch artist, and she was not even Jewish. His parents were of strict Orthodox belief.
Max started missing classes and failing exams. In the end all his studies and the affair with Connie came to nothing. She had returned to her husband, and Max decided he had to leave South Africa, although he did not really know why. He found himself in Europe, then in England (not really Europe), and finally in St. Ives, washing dishes every evening and modelling at the local art school two mornings a week. At least his good looks and well-proportioned muscular body could serve some purpose other than satisfying Connie's desires.
Max was only twenty-two when he decided to squat in the Old Smokehouse. With his earnings and savings he bought an ancient Lagonda limousine. The Smokehouse looked like a film set, more so when he pushed the yellow Lagonda through the rotten wooden doors.
The car, a mattress on the floor, an unstable bentwood chair and a paraffin stove-cum-cooker, were practically all Max's possessions. Apart from the old guitar and a carved wooden chess set which he had picked up cheaply enough in London's Portobello Market, he had nothing in the way of entertainment; no radio, no books. But sometimes he would sit precariously on the rickety chair, one foot raised on a brick, and play simple songs such as The Big Rock Candy Mountain. He played by ear, singing softly as he plucked the strings, and passers-by would hear the plaintive notes of the old guitar carried on the breeze towards Island Road, where many of the artists lodged. Then, on his second Tuesday morning of modelling at the loft, Max noticed Christine, and realized that she, too, had noticed him. She blushed: silly sixteen, he thought. She couldn't be much more, maybe less. Not like Connie. Connie was a mature, self-assured woman, twenty-nine years old, serene and beautiful, yet warm and passionate. Would he ever forget Connie? He stared into space, imagining her bronzed body lying on the sand at Strand, so like Porthmeor Beach, but on a more grandiose scale, and he forgot Christine for the rest of the morning. It was getting too cold for modelling, and the dish-washing job was really demoralizing. But, he thought, something better would turn up. And it did.
Max was sipping half a pint of bitter in the Sloop Inn. It was midday and his day off from both the Loft and the dishes. He did not gulp his beer like so many others. He couldn't afford it. He noticed a small, stout, rather ordinary little man approach the bar and order a double scotch. He wore a loud checked jacket with a somewhat garish red and green tie, but his trousers were a sober grey and well-cut. The small pudgy hands nursed the glass tenderly, while the man's foxy little eyes searched around the smoky room, settling at last on Max, who was half watching a game of ninepins between that girl Christine and a local character four times her age. Max had to admit that she played rather well. She had an eye for the kingpin. The wooden ball swung forward at the end of its fine chain, and barely stroked the skittle on its side. Eight of the nine fell in one sweep, while the ninth trembled to and fro before deciding to remain upright on the green baize table.
Max wondered whether Christine was eighteen after all, but no, she was drinking shandy, and he noticed that she was not alone. Her mother was sitting at one of the two long tables, talking in Russian to a dark-eyed, delicate-featured, middle-aged man in a red velvet waistcoat. A gold-rimmed monocle hung from a chain attached to one of the waistcoat buttons, and from time to time he plugged it into his eye and scrutinized a letter which Christine's mother had taken from a somewhat worn crocodile handbag. Max asked himself whether this rather exotic being was Christine's father, but really there was no resemblance between them. Her mother, Alya, was shapely and attractive. At forty-six, her honey-coloured hair still shone with deep golden tones, and her narrow blue eyes were enhanced by dark brows and lashes. Her nose was very short, perhaps too abrupt, giving Alya a faintly simian semblance, but on the whole she was a beautiful woman, thought Max, and at that moment someone tapped him on the shoulder.
"Are you free for a moment? I have a proposition for you to consider," said the short, fat man in the loud jacket.
And that was how Max changed his dish-washing job for something far more elegant and lucrative: curator of the James Gordon Art Gallery. Jim Gordon, it turned out, was the fat cockney, and the Art Gallery was a fine business for catching tourists from London and the north of England. There were no original paintings in the gallery; just full-scale, gaudily-framed reproductions. Vernon Ward, Tretchikoff and Lamorna Birch crammed the walls, and for those who could not afford the framed prints, there were postcards for sale at the desk where Max sat in splendour. He looked every inch an artist, knowledgeably advising the visitors on the most tasteful choice for that front room back in Birmingham. After the first week of Max's presence in the gallery, sales had risen considerably, and Jim Gordon rubbed his chubby hands together in delight. He decided that Max was well worth that extra two percent commission paid on every reproduction sold.
So Max, now almost prosperous, no longer went to model at the Loft. He was replaced by Iris. Pale and pregnant, a marbled network of tiny blue veins stretched across her swelling belly, giving it a death-like tinge. The maestro eventually brought in a one-bar electric fire, because poor Iris as she grew larger, suffered from the cold, and her hands and toes were blistering with chillblains. The maestro, a mediocre portrait painter whose name was Michael, eyed his students' interpretations of pregnant Iris, and thought that neither charcoal nor paint could improve upon the hideous hunk of flesh on the dais. Poor Iris had always been fat and puffy, with coarse features and wispy yellow hair. Her watery blue eyes showed no expression; no maternal splendour radiated from that blemished body - only squalour, privation, poverty, and the faint unpleasant odour of the unwashed.
Michael glanced at Christine's easel. She had given up the charcoal sketches and started on a fairly large oil-painting of Iris. It was quite repulsive, thought Michael. The flesh tones had been interpreted in hues of violet and yellowish green. The whole composition expressed not maternity, but putrefaction, somewhat reminiscent of Francis Bacon's cardinals. It was strange how one so young could paint something so corrupt. Christine looked so innocent, he mused. He knew little of her background. The family had not been in Cornwall for more than a few months - foreigners of course - the mother's Russian accent was really strong, and the man, who he suposed correctly, was not her husband or Christine's father, spoke English with just a shade too much perfection. In fact, Michael knew Sergei quite well, for they were both regular visitors to the Umfula Arms and various other pubs in the village. Sergei always drank whisky on the rocks, followed by a chaser, and he cracked rather un-funny jokes with the buxom barmaid at the Umfula Arms. He definitely drank too much, although Michael had not yet seen him under the table. But in St. Ives most people drank too much, including Michael. Sergei did not seem to have any other occupation apart from visiting the pubs and playing the occasional round of golf at the Tregenna Castle course. He and Alya appeared to belong to that class of people known as the idle rich. They lived in a house divided into two flats overlooking the harbour. Alya and Christine rented the first floor, whilst directly above lived Sergei and his elderly mother, Natalia, who spoke practically no English. The old lady devoted her time to her own peculiar brand of charity, which meant sharing out large boxes of chocolates and bottles of expensive wine between the postman, the dustman, the milkman and any other local who happened to wish her good-morning on the the street. No-one really knew Natalia's age. She hid her face behind a short, dark-mouched veil which hung from a cabbage-shaped navy blue hat. She shuffled along the narrow cobbled streets leaning heavily on an ivory-handled walking-stick. In one ear, just visible between hat and veil, she wore a large smoky-black pearl earring, and a fur cape sheltered her thin shoulders from the wind. Perhaps she was the one with the money, thought Michael, incorrectly. He glanced at Christine again. In a year or so he might paint her portrait. But not now. She was still too young and lacked expression.


It was past seven-thirty in the evening, and Max kept glancing at the electric clock on the wall behind him. Still half an hour to go before he could close the James Gordon Art Gallery and take refuge in the Sloop, he thought. Autumn was setting in. Soon it would be October and his job would end until April or May. Luckily there was the dole to look forward to in the winter. Few tourists visited the gallery in the evening, so he was surprised to hear the door swing open and light steps on the parquet floor. He looked up, prepared to give his usual 'welcome' chat, but no, this was no late season tourist looking for that 'so right' seascape for the hall. It was that art student, Christine. He wondered what she wanted. Surely she wasn't going to buy postcards.
"Hell Max," she said. "I've never been in here before. Isn't it ghastly!"
"Yes," he replied. "It is. But I prefer Tretchikoff to dirty dishes. Don't tell me you came here to criticize these works of art. Do you still go to the Loft?"
"No, I didn't, and yes, I do. I came to see you, Max. It's odd to see you with clothes on."
"Disappointed? It's usually the other way round."
"Oh no. I think I almost prefer you dressed. It makes things more interesting. I can imagine that I don't know what you're like underneath. Where do you come from, Max? I know you're not English."
"No, I'm not. I'm South African, from a place called Strand, near Capetown, but my parents were born in Tiflis."
"My mother was born in Russia," said Christine. "In Moscow, and Sergei is from St. Petersburg, now Leningrad."
"He's not your father, is he?" stated Max, for it was not really a question.
"Of course not, but he's known me since I was a baby. My parents are divorced. My father lives in France with his second wife. I hardly ever see him"
"My parents are still in Cape Province. South Africa is a beautiful country, but I don't think I'll ever go back," said Max, thinking of Connie lying beside him, golden brown, on the beach at Strand.
"Aren't you going to close now?" asked Christine. "We could go and have a drink together if you like."
"You're under age, aren't you? Surely you don't want to drink lemonade in the Sloop?"
"No, not really. You're right. I won't even be seventeen until February."
"We could go back to my place if you want, and drink green chartreuse. I'll play my guitar." Max was beginning to feel amused and slightly intrigued by the girl, despite the fact that she was little more than a child. Max at twenty-two, considered himself as being adult and experienced, especially after Connie.
At eight-o'-clock they turned off the fluorescent lights and Max locked the main door. They made their way slowly along the wharf towards the Island, which was really just a rocky hillock attached to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, and crowned with a small granite fishermen's chapel, now disused, but once dedicated to Saint Nicholas. As they passed the Sloop, Max asked Christine where her mother was.
"Don't worry. She won't miss me. She's gone to a party at the Western Hotel with Sergei. They won't be back for hours."
The Old Smokehouse was only a five-minute walk from the Sloop. Max carefully unlocked the new padlock on the garage-like doors. The first thing Christine saw was the bulk of the old Lagonda. Daylight was fading and Max lit a paraffin lamp. There was no electricity in the Smokehouse. Christine noticed that the Lagonda had been freshly painted in bright yellow. "Does it work?" she asked doubtfully. Max laughed.
"It will one day," he said. "How do you like the colour? And just look at the leather upholstery! Real luxury, my dear. Where do you prefer to sit? In the car or on the mattress? I need the chair if you want me to play the guitar"
Christine sat on the mattress and waited for Max to pour out a glass of green chartreuse. She didn't appear to enjoy the liqueur, Max noticed; too sweet and sticky, no doubt, but there was no choice.
He produced a somewhat battered guitar from the dark regions beyond the pool of light cast by the Aladdin lamp, and sat down on the rickety chair, his left foot raised on a brick. He stared to pick out a few soft notes while tuning the strings, and then he burst out into the Rock Candy Mountain, followed by the rest of his small repertoire of folk songs. His voice was pleasant and he sang in tune. Christine would soon be feeling warm and sleepy with the music and the chartreuse, he thought, but he was wrong.
"Is that a chess set over there?" she asked, pointing into the gloom. "Do you like playing chess? I do. Sergei taught me."
"Don't tell me you want to play chess now?"
"Why not? Just one game. We can put the board between us on the mattress."
So Max went for the chess box and they set up the game, trying to sit still so as not to move the pieces accidentally. Before they had finished placing them on their respective squares, three pawns fell off the board.
"This is no good," said Christine. "We'd better put the board on the floor."
They played in silence for over an hour, and to begin with she appeared to be winning. But her end game was weak and tailed off into a stalemate.
"Well, I'd better be going home," she said. "If you like, we can have another game tomorrow."
She started to get up from the mattress, and suddenly Max put his arm round her shoulders and forced her down.
"What do you want, little girl? Do you expect me to make love to you? You're much too young for that, and I don't like deflowering virgins."
"Yes," she answered, "but not yet. First you must beat me at chess. The best of five games. That way I'll have time to decide."
Max could not help laughing as he kissed her lightly on the forehead. "You are a strange little girl," he said, and wondered whether she were serious. The idea was crazy - or was it?
So one late October afternoon, after losing three-two to Max at chess, Christine lost her virginity. Max watched her lying so calm and still beside him on the dirty mattress. Was she in love with him? He thought she must be, but it was hard to be sure. She was still only sixteen and he did not want to hurt her, but he realized that she had forced him to sleep with her. However sweet and attractive she might be, he did not love her. He wasn't even certain that he liked her, or that she liked him. Her attitude was more one of curiosity and desire than love or affection. Somehow he felt that she had used him to deflower her, and that sooner or later she would discard him like an unwanted toy.
No-one ever saw them together. They never had any relationship beyond those secret afternoons in the Smokehouse.
"Play something on the guitar," she would order, while she undressed, not in a normal, feminine way, but in layers, and so quickly that before he could finish the Rock Candy Mountain, she was already under the two worn grey blankets, her blue jeans, shirt and two or more pullovers in a heap on the floor. He had never seen her in a skirt, he thought, and her face was completely bare of make-up, framed by boyishly cropped fair hair. But her narrow, almost lidless blue eyes gazed up at him with a rare expression of tenderness at times, when the almost animal desire had passed, and for a moment at least, he felt that she really loved him.


Max could not remember when he had started visiting Edith in her caravan, except that winter had set in with that damp Cornish drizzle, which seemed to penetrate his bones. The caravan was not far from Porthmeor Beach, but Max had at last got the Lagonda into working order, so he would drive up to the Ayr Caravan Site and spend most of the afternoon with Edith. She didn't play chess, but had a wireless set and a few quite recent magazines and newspapers. Max had scarcely read anything since he left South Africa. Edith was not pretty, just plain and rather ordinary; she was not even very intelligent. While Max thumbed through the magazines, she listened to the Light Programme and knitted an interminable fairisle pullover, her lips moving silently as she counted the stitches. She was older than Max, just thirty, the same age as Connie, he thought, but that was where the likeness ended.
Somehow their relationship progressed from coffee and knitting to food at midday and finally, bed. Some days Max did not even bother to return to the Smokehouse in the evening, but twice a week he went back to wait for Christine, who had spaced her visits. She no longer came to him daily because Alya was becoming suspicious, and Sergei more so. Max wondered whether Christine knew about Edith. She must have seen the yellow Lagonda rattling down the Stennack from the Ayr Caravan Site. Max had grown fond of Christine, but she was too young; his 'little girl' couldn't even cook. In fact she admitted that she loathed the very sight of the kitchen and never even tried to fry an egg. Edith, on the contrary, loved cooking. She could make all those typical English dishes such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, steak and kidney pie and apple crumble. She could knit, darn and sew. Christine could only paint and play Cornish skittles or a fair game of chess.
Then one winter morning, Edith told him she was pregnant. Max looked at her aghast. "But I thought you were taking precautions. Are you sure it's not just a false alarm?"
He repeated all the trite phrases that men have used before and since. And Edith assured him that she had visited the doctor: the analysis had been positive, and she had been sick every morning for the past week.
So Max repeated what most men in the same circumstances have been saying since time began: "Can't you get rid of it? Take a stilboestrol pill or whatever it's called? Drink a bottle of gin?"
"No," said Edith flatly. "I'm not going to have an abortion. If you don't want to share the responsibility, I'll manage on my own. I'm not Christine's age, Max. I'm nearly thirty-one and I want to have a baby before it's too late."
Max felt a little guilty. He liked Edith. She was really so out of place there in the caravan, knitting and cooking while listening to the Light Programme. She should have stayed at home in the midlands, and married the local bank manager or solicitor, and lived in a well-furnished semi-detached in the best residential area of her home town. And yet she had rebelled against her dreary background, and had escaped to St. Ives, where she had worked all summer as a waitress in a café on the sea-front. She never mentioned her family, her home, or what she had done before reaching the age of thirty.
"Let me think it over for a day or two, Edith," said Max at last. "But I'll have to tell Christine. She is so young, and I don't want to hurt her."
"Hurt Christine?" Edith laughed. "Don't you realize that she's just using you to satisfy her ego? No, you won't really hurt anything more than her pride. She'll soon find someone else to play chess with."
Edith appeared to have been right about Christine's reaction. Max told her about the baby and all she said was:
"So that's it. I suppose you'll marry her and settle down to being a humdrum, hard-working husband. But it was fun while it lasted, Max, and you'll never really understand how much you meant to me." Her eyes moistened with incipient tears. "Max, please play the guitar for me just once more."
He sat down on the bentwood chair, his foot raised on the brick, and started to play the Rock Candy Mountain, singing softly as his brown fingers stroked the strings of the old guitar. When he came to the last chords of the song, he realized that Christine was no longer there.


Copyright 1994 F. Melville

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