Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Sicilian by Aidan Furey

Phil, Tom and Simon play chess together on the anniversary of the death of Phil's wife in Aidan Furey's Northern Irish tale.

We were at Phil's house, high above Belfast on Black Mountain. Up there it was quiet, calm and when I gazed down on the scattered city lights that blinked and pulsed with life, it was as if I was looking into the past.

We had needed something to keep us together after we'd grown tired of the bar-life. At first we tried poker but it wasn't really a game for three people and the interest in it had quickly waned. We began to play chess. In the beginning the game was almost an afterthought but it quickly became competitive. Within a few months we had each purchased a Teach Yourself Chess book and it wasn't long before we were buying The Times for its daily chess puzzle.

'I should have brought my clock,' said Tom, tapping his fingers rhythmically against the table.

Phil moved his thumb and finger across the head of his knight, stroking it fondly. Finally, he placed it down on the board and smiled.

'That's what we were waiting for?' asked Tom, looking towards me with an animated look of despair. He moved a piece in reply, barely stopping to analyse the board.

Tom got up from his seat and pulled his skintight black jeans upwards. He liked the rock look and had cherished it, unchanged from the mid-eighties. The black jeans were always teamed with black desert-boots and an obligatory rock band tee-shirt. He had never married and had chosen a celibate life, or so he said. After university, he had worked for various charities overseas until he had returned and landed a job with the Citizens Advice Bureau. Tom's specialty was the benefits system and he took great pleasure in spending hours on the phone, terrorising the poor civil servants on the other end. He shared his terraced house with a revolving door of lodgers, which was one reason why I preferred playing chess at Phil's.

'Is there any beer?' Tom asked.

'Did you bring any?' asked Phil.

'No.'

'Then there is no beer. Please, continue to enjoy my wine,' said Phil as he poured Tom another glass.

It was one of those familiar dialogues, almost like talking about the weather or the football. Phil was the opposite of Tom, he was well-spoken, well-mannered, well-dressed and it was... well, a pleasure to be in his company. Phil's life was not without pain though; Laura, his wife had passed away seven years earlier. She was beautiful and engaging. I liked her and I missed her.

Phil pushed his bishop towards the edge of the board and reviewed the pieces one last time before he confidently removed his grip.

Tom sat back down and examined the board. He moved a piece quickly, almost dismissively and then chuckled.

'I had a woman in today,' he said, already shaking his head in prelude to the coming story. 'She wanted to know about her rights to see her child.'

'What was she asking you for?' I asked.

'I was advising her about housing and then she asked about it.'

'Who's got her child?' asked Phil as he pushed a pawn forward.

'Well, that's what I'm going to tell you,' replied Tom, shaking his head once more. 'She gave me the usual victim story - how the social workers have it in for her. But after she'd left, Grainne told me that her boyfriend beats the crap out of her. She won't leave him, so they took the kid.'

'What sort of mental deficiency must you have to stay with someone like that?' I asked. 'And to choose him above her child - Jesus!'

'Who knows,' replied Tom. 'Some people will settle for anything.'

His story was finished and he returned his attention to the board. After a moment he moved his queen and said, 'Check.'

Phil's eyes were closed. When they reopened his right hand reached towards the board and pushed his king over. 'Your go,' he said, standing up and looking in my direction.

'What the hell?' asked Tom.

'You were winning,' replied Phil, rubbing his eyes.

'You could have tried,' said Tom crossing his arms and slumping back into his seat. 'What's wrong with you tonight?'

'Sorry to spoil your fun,' said Phil as he turned away from the table and walked towards the door. 'Simon, try to show a little more dignity when you play Tom.' With that he left the kitchen.

'What was that about?' asked Tom.

'You wind him up,' I said.

'Oh, it's my fault?' asked Tom. His eyes widened and his shoulders moved backwards. 'He's too much time on his hands if he gets annoyed at me.'

'Maybe he's just had enough of you drinking his wine and then complaining about it,' I said.

'No,' said Tom, frowning and staring upwards. 'It can't be that.' He began resetting his pieces on the board.

I sat down in Phil's vacant seat and poured us both some more wine. Tom pushed a white pawn to the center of the board, beginning the game. I immediately countered.

'The feckin' Sicilian,' said Tom. 'Always the feckin' Sicilian. Do you not know anything else?'

'I don't need to know anything else,' I said.

For the next five minutes we played in silence, concentrating on the game. It was rare that we had such an opportunity.

'Check,' I said.

'What?' asked Tom. 'Where?'

He stared at the board and tapped his index finger against the table. I smiled as he got up from his seat, lifted his glass and walked to the far end of the kitchen. The distance he placed between himself and the board, coupled with his silence contented me. I could see his gaze shifting around the room, until suddenly it froze.

'It's October!' he said.

'It has been for a while now.'

'Laura died in October.'

He was correct of course but if that was his reasoning for Phil's mood, I found it questionable. Seven years had passed and the full, harsh pain was long over. Any memories or conversations of Laura had become natural, almost nostalgic.

'Should we say something?' asked Tom.

I shook my head slowly. 'He'll talk about it if he wants to.'

'What do you think he's doing?'

'Maybe reading up on the Sicilian.'

Tom gave a smile that was more like a snarl. 'Any more wine?' he asked, moving towards the rack.

'I'll get it,' I said. 'You'd probably open something older than your tee-shirt.'

'Do you think he's coming back?'

'Wouldn't be the first time one of us went to bed and left the others to it. It's usually at your house though.'

'What's that supposed to mean?'

'You drink too much.'

'Everyone we know drinks too much.'

'You drink more than everyone we know.'

I immediately regretted saying it. Tom flinched noticeably, becoming rigid. I could feel his eyes upon me but I couldn't meet his stare. The silence after my remark choked the room as I concentrated on opening a mediocre bottle of Shiraz, while Tom stood motionless at the far end of the kitchen.

To the right the door opened and Phil entered, holding a bottle of Hennessy.

'I was just thinking,' he said smiling. 'Do you know that we have been friends for thirty years?'

Tom grinned, reviving, like balloon inflating. 'You're right,' he said.

He wasn't. We'd met Tom at Queen's in December of 1985, so we were two years off any anniversary. But I let it go. Phil took some glasses from a cupboard and poured us each a generous measure.

'To us,' he said.

'To us,' we replied.

Tom drained his glass instantly. Phil and I sipped ours.

'How is the game going?' asked Phil.

'All but over,' I replied.

'Is that why he was standing over there?'

I nodded. 'Are you going to move?' I asked, turning my attention back to Tom.

'I'm thinking,' said Tom.

'I wish I'd brought a clock.'

At that, he gripped the back of the chair and glared at the board. His eyes darted from piece to piece as his lips thinned and his breathing became heavy.

'Sod it, have it,' he said and moved his hand towards the cognac bottle. 'Do you mind?' he asked. Phil shrugged and Tom poured himself another glass before walking back to the far end of the kitchen.

Phil sat down in the chair opposite mine and we began to set up a new game.

'How is Molly?' he asked.

'She told me to ask you to dinner,' I said. 'Maybe next week?'

'Sounds great, are you going to be there?'

I smiled and pushed a pawn forward.

'What about Matthew?' I asked.

'Fine,' he said, pushing a pawn out to block mine. 'He phones less and less for advice, so I assume everything is good.'

'Do you remember how Laura used to love me singing Spancil Hill?' asked Tom from across the room.

I closed my eyes and exhaled with a quiet groan.

'She was a great woman Phil,' he said.

I moved a pawn and continued to stare at the board. I wanted Phil to ignore Tom too but he turned and stared, as if trying to work out a puzzle.

'You've an angel looking down on you at least,' said Tom.

Phil turned back to me. 'And that's from an atheist,' he said, before glaring at the board for a moment and then pushing another pawn forward. His mouth snarled and muttered a curse as he reached for his drink. Before he drank, he rubbed at the glass for a moment with his thumb, as if trying to remove a smear.

'That angel did not like you being in this house,' said Phil.

I looked agape at Phil, then quickly to Tom who was staring through his glass and on through the floor.

'Jesus Phil,' I said. 'Lay off, he didn't mean any harm.'

Phil raised his glass, sipped and then savoured the liquid with closed eyes. When they opened they were upon me.

'She liked you more,' he said. He held my gaze for a second, then sniffed loudly and moved his stare back to the board. He picked up his queen and placed it back down menacingly, beside my knight. 'Well, your job at least,' he continued. 'A teacher was a good addition to the portfolio; not as good as a doctor but pretty good. She never liked telling people what I did - too horrid.'

I remained silent.

Phil looked towards Tom again and his face slowly saddened. Then he returned his gaze to the board, perhaps anticipating my next move and calculating whether to defend or attack.

Across the room, Tom pushed himself quietly away from the work-top and began to slowly walk through the kitchen. His head was down and I noticed, perhaps for the first time, how old he looked. Flecks of grey peppered his black hair and the skin on his face drooped like wax running down a candle. He walked out through the door without saying a word.

Phil watched too and when the door closed, leaving an empty space behind, his eyes moved back, slowly tracing the contents of the room, perhaps remembering Laura in the utensils that she had chosen. 'She's not the sort of person I would ever fall for again.'

I remembered the dinner parties, I remembered the nights out together, the birthdays, the anniversaries, the times when we came together to celebrate the history of our friendship. I remembered his tears too and the lost look that he had in the years which followed Laura's death. 'You were in love,' I said.

His lips thinned and stifled a smile that was visible only in his eyes. 'I loved her, day and night, for eighteen years - incessantly - remorselessly.'

'Why are you talking like this?' I asked.

Phil shrugged and looked down at the board. It was nonchalant, dismissive even and I did not like it.

'Perhaps it's a survival instinct, a need for self-protection,' I offered. 'Maybe it's just time for you to move on.'

He smirked and shook his head.

'I spent years mourning her,' he said. 'And years mourning myself, disappointed at the version of me that put up with her.'

He lifted the bottle of cognac and then reached across the table to take my glass.

'No,' I said covering the top of it. 'I'll stick with the wine.'

He shook his head and poured anyway, the first drops from the bottle hitting my fingers.

'And what if she hadn't... died?' I asked.

He looked up, his eyes narrowing and fixing themselves on a point somewhere above my head.

'I really don't know. I suppose I would have kept on believing... that I was happy.'

I said nothing. There was no response to that.

'Now I'm tied to the myth,' he said. 'Tied to the dead in perpetual mourning and worship.'

I glared at him and bit my lip.

'Seven years,' I said. 'Seven.'

He moved in his seat and scratched the back of his neck with the keenness of a dog attempting to remove its collar.

'I'm sorry,' he said before looking up and grinning. 'I don't know what's gotten into me tonight. I really shouldn't have opened the brandy. I've not exactly been the best host.'

My fingers bunched into a fist as I watched him wring his hands together and sit forward in a penitent pose.

'I met Molly five years ago,' I said. My left thumb found my mouth and I began to pick at its nail with my front teeth.

'Do you think Tom will be alright?' he asked. 'I really was unkind to him wasn't I?'

'Tom will be fine,' I said. 'The one thing we can always rely on is Tom.'

Phil looked down at the board again, his fingers tapping a metronome-beat onto the table.

'What about this game?' he asked.

'You win,' I said, sitting back and raising my glass.

'I don't win,' he said, his eyes blinking as he examined the positions of the scattered pieces.

'Not if you don't try,' I replied.

4 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this examination of the underbelly of relationships, linked with the carefully realised characters. Suffocation of the self via persistent lack of awareness leads to toxic outcomes. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. fantastic dialogue, revealing fears and things unspoken. superbly drawn characters, totally convincing.
    thoroughly enjoyed this.

    Mike McC

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  3. This is an engaging tale, with the reader wanting to know more about the three men and more about Laura. Nicely done.

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  4. I think the thing I liked most about this is what is left unsaid. Each character seems full and real without pushing loads of information at me. Great dialogue and story.

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