THE QUIET GAME by Oliver Dunne
The town lay amid good ground. On one side the barley grew higher than the other, but they were both a healthy size. Market day was always chaotic, the town’s thin streets squeezing the money out of the people. There was a pub on every street, and each pub had a neighbour.
James was prosperous, with the land bought with money earned abroad, but he still sometimes wondered why he had come back. The place wasn’t exactly a cultural centre. But there were his chess games with the barber on Saturdays, and for a chess player a good game, meaning a won game, was always a mighty antidote for the blues. He looked across at his opponent.
The barber’s face was flushed. The game was going against him again. His opponent drew on his cigar. It was not that he directed the smoke at the barber’s face, but you know how smoke is. He always said ‘You don’t mind?’ as he pulled out the box. There was something antiseptic about the barber’s house that annoyed him. Sometimes the ash would grow so long he’d forget and let it fall on the carpet. He’d rub it in, so it wouldn’t be so noticeable. He sighed.
The barber’s hand shook as he touched his king. It was a poor move. In reply James flashed out a move that was at best speculative, but he screwed it hard into the board. Another poor move from the barber followed, after much deliberation. The barber was rattled. His cheeks began to flush dark red. Another move. It wouldn’t be long now.
James looked at his watch. The barber’s wife would bring the tea in soon. How she figured it, she always brought it in with the game just over. She still had fine legs, was quite a beauty when younger, he remembered. He’d had his eye on her, and a few others, at the time. She was one for security though in the end. The barber was deep in thought, but there wasn’t much to think about now, the damage was done. He was thinking more over the last moves he’d made than the next. The regret was palpable. Still, it was always best to put off defeat for as long as possible, then try to be casual and make as if it meant nothing. The barber wasn’t good at that though, scattering a few more pieces as he toppled his king in resignation.
James chose not to take the barber’s damp hand on this occasion, concentrating instead on his watch. He sometimes did that. Then the barber would pull his hand back slowly or pass it through his hair, as if that’s what he’d meant to do in the first place. Chess was a war, after all. You couldn’t win, if you didn’t understand that.
It was almost cruel. James was the stronger player. But he’d look at his watch, or even read the paper, to signal both impatience and indifference. The barber moved no slower than him, but it seemed that way. A chess player never gives a game, even to a child. He’d never lost to the barber, and they’d been playing regular now for some years. You can’t cheat at chess, and there’s no luck. It was a game of pure intellect and will. James liked that. He always thought the barber a bit soft. You need to be aggressive in sport — and life. He’d say that sometimes. His friend the barber would smile. He couldn’t see it.
Sometimes the barber would get the advantage. But he always let it slip. The barber lacked that killer instinct. James’d say that to him too, ‘You’ve got to get that killer instinct.’ The barber would smile and say, ‘It was a good game, maybe next time.’ Then James might say, ‘With practice you’ll get better, you could take a draw off me.’ The barber would blush. ‘Now, do you think?’ ‘Yes, yes, maybe.’
The barber’s wife would bring the tea and biscuits in. Always the same commiserating smile, without inquiring after the result. They would be busy going over the game, and hardly look up, in any case.
James felt the warm reassuring hands of the barber on his head. The large mirror was covered over. It was being replaced. The barber was already telling one of his stories in a soft voice. To listen to him you’d think him a man of the world, but James knew the barber had hardly been outside the county.
Sometimes, when the barber mentioned a foreign capital, James would nod a little wearily to indicate he himself had been there many a time on his travels. James had left the town a number of years, and when he came back there was nothing to indicate the barber had moved as much as an inch from his position by the soft leather chair. The barber had heard the tales no doubt from the odd tourist who passed through for a cut. Or from his wife, who was a great gossip.
But there was something seductive in his voice would almost convince you his stories of women and adventure were true. Today it was like a spell, but it was often so. Till you looked up and saw his rosy face, eager to please, servile. ‘The same?’ ‘Yes.’
The sun bathed the shop in a limpid light. The touch on his head lulled him almost to sleep. He’d come more often, if his hair grew faster. James was like a boy getting a treat. And the barber was reasonable. James mentioned their last game, and that set the barber off on champions past and present. The barber’s knowledge of chess history and his collection of books were second to none in the town.
The barber expressed his admiration for that urbane past champion José Raoul Capablanca, and James for his part repeated the assertion that for sheer ruthlessness Bobby Fischer could not be matched. James thought their own play showed which one of them was right but, feeling benevolent amidst the warm smells of oils and the subdued murmur of the radio, he didn’t push the point home. ‘That’s it now,’ said the barber. James looked at his watch. The cut had taken about the same time as usual. ‘Thanks, feels great.’ He passed him the money. ‘Are you on for a game, next Saturday?’ asked the barber. ‘Should be able to fit it in.’ ‘See you so.’ ‘Right.’
James walked out into the balmy summer’s day feeling fresh and invigorated. Some way down the street though he noticed people were looking at him in an odd way. Or not looking at him. You could put it that way. A couple of young women he knew to nod to looked at him, as if at a stranger, then laughed and turned to each other with raised eyebrows. They moved off. In their light summer clothes they seemed more out of reach than ever. Before entering his local, as he did each day, though a bit earlier on the day of his cut, James looked in the window to check his tie. He liked to cut a dash. He fingered the tie. Then it hit him so he thought he was in another world. He touched his head, laughed at first. He was completely bald. He began to shake, but controlled himself. The street was busy. Busier than he’d ever seen it. And all eyes were on him. That much he wasn’t imagining. He went to run inside, but his legs wouldn’t move. His image had an awful fascination. What was that bump in the middle of his head? Who’d have guessed it? What would Sheila and the two boys say? All thoughts and sundry ran through his head at once. He checked his fly.
James breathed in and out. He thought of the barber. He’d never given him a look in the mirror. He hadn’t held it up to him. But that wasn’t unusual. It was so many years now. Always the same cut, always as he liked it. Maybe the first year he had. Then he’d said, ‘Oh, no need, you know how I like it.’ Then he hadn’t had to say even that. And the barber always gave him a good deal, because they’d known each other such a long time.
James realised he was still standing there. His head, his whole body, was flushed. How long? He broke into a sweat, found his legs, and ran inside. Suddenly he needed to piss so it was all he could think about. The barman nodded. He didn’t recognise him. After, he came to the bar, ordered a double. ‘Is it you?’ said the barman.
At first James was furious, but he couldn’t find any lasting anger in him. He skulked about the house, biting at everyone, saying, ‘I don’t wear a hat, I’ll not buy a hat,’ till his wife walked out one morning and came back with a passable flat cap. ‘You can’t just leave the business,’ she said. Still, he felt queer wearing a cap indoors, and in the pub or in the church. So he avoided those two buildings. His path didn’t cross with that of the barber’s till his hair had grown back some, and when they met, mid-afternoon one weekday on the high street, they were both curiously shy, like lovers who had fallen out. James laughed to himself, a little sourly. The barber had shown himself good at the endgame, after all. The next time, they exchanged a few words. They built up a conversation.
To the curious and rude he offered no explanation, or none that made much sense. ‘In Munich, amongst businessmen, it’s common,’ he’d say. ‘That’s Germany?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Queer folk the Germans.’ ‘But good businessmen.’ ‘Aye.’
It led to many odd exchanges. In the end they’d defer to his greater knowledge of the world. However, it was whispered that the barber had his scalp. This affected the barber’s trade not a jot, though it did bring in a few colourful types who hadn’t had a decent cut in some time. They’d spread thumb and forefinger and say ‘This much’, emphatically and with a wink. The barber would smile his usual gentle smile, and make no comment. The early buzz died away after a week or so, though trade remained brisk. The barber noted a new willingness in his listeners to believe his stories, spoke more in the first person, and spiced them up considerably. He became widely known as a raconteur, and as having been something of a lady’s man in his youth.
It took some time for his friend’s hair to grow back, and an imitation of his swagger to return. There aren’t that many good chess players in a small town, so after Christmas they resumed their games. One thing had changed. James began to lose the odd one. For a while he’d driven into Galway for his cut, but tired of that, and the prices there were vicious. By summer the barber was giving him his usual, and a bit off. They said no more about it.