Working through the pile that never diminished, Ian Evans read yet another letter, formal and brief introducing another manuscript. This one was in a plain red ring binder, the author couldn't think up a title so hadn't bothered to label it. Evans delayed the inevitable by getting a coffee, selecting a pencil, losing it, sharpening a second then discovering the original. He practised regularly to make the operation appear natural. He was building his act up to a double note pad finish; starting in one, deciding half way through to switch to a cleaner book which he happened to have placed in a drawer. Examining the contents of every drawer could perhaps add five minutes to the routine, he wasn't getting any pleasure from this variation. The actions didn't have the required believability necessary to carry it off. Eventually he opened the binder.* * *
His company published mainly non-fiction on the entertainments and game playing side of literature. Titles ranging from; A Pack of Cards and What to do with Them to Mountain Climbing for the Novice. They were looking for a new angle on chess. The marketing analyst had written a report - he did a lot of that - it said: all the yuppies and want-to-be yuppies who had obtained stylish and, of course, expensive chess sets to complete the decor, had realised that unlike the picture books on their coffee tables it did have a purpose. The plan was for a large format book with big colour pictures of various types of chess sets in intricate and brilliant game positions for the owner to layout. Thus proving that he or she didn't just look at the miniature statutes and wonder how to get the dust out of the crevices of the Duke of Wellington or Napoleon; or the silver twisted spires so artistically formed that it was impossible to avoid slicing your hand when attempting to pick them up.
He leafed through the manuscript; it wasn't what they were looking for but, it could be a replacement for their previous guide to the game. It hadn't been successful; the style had been too rigid, not relaxed enough to reach the reader without making them feel stupid. Evans preferred the manuscript with its chatty style and the notes with the set piece positions were quite clear. It required more pictures, and much of it was given to pages and pages of chess shorthand - that would have to go. With some surgery it just might be the book they were looking for; possibly informative, as well as thick enough to rest a hot coffee cup on. He put it to one side. He had a friend, a budding grandmaster, who had volunteered to check out any text Evans felt was a 'possible'. Evans hadn't intended using his friend but the manuscript needed an expert. He delved into a drawer to find a cleaner notebook to remind him to pop in next weekend. After systematically rummaging through his desk he remembered he hadn't yet obtained it from the stationery cupboard. No, it wasn't natural enough. He mentally debated swopping notebooks for those clever multicoloured sticky labels. He had got a book of them - somewhere - it was going to demand a further exploration of his desk.
Plucking the telephone of its feathers of those clever multicoloured sticky labels, Evans dialled again, the engaged tone bleeped in his ear. A month had past and he hadn't heard anything from his friend. For two days he rung him and failed to get further than the infuriating repeating note. He had come to the conclusion that the telephone was deliberately off the hook. No way would his obsessively tidy friend miss the fact the handset was not resting correctly on its cradle. As tomorrow was Saturday, Evans decided he would visit to find the reason for this rude behaviour. Philip Crack wouldn't mind, so organised was this man that he was always prepared to welcome guests; the house was always neat: nothing was ever left in the open to be scooped away in a rush when someone arrived unannounced.* * *
Crack lived alone in a two bedroom terrace house on the approaches to Central London. Not expecting much of a lag between pressing the doorbell and Crack's speedy response, Evans wasted time he could have spent studying the uPVC replacement double glazing with the matching surgical white door. He did observe, however, that the lawn had escaped cutting for several Sundays and, that some of the flowers were breaking ranks directly against principals Crack had instilled into them over years of dedicated formalising. Crack swung the door wide as Evans self-consciously pressed the button for a fourth time.* * *
"Sorry, didn't hear you," Crack apologised bowing away to cover his embarrassment.
"That's okay Phil," Evans said, staring at Crack to give his eyes something to do while the smell lingered in his nose associating with the correct type of receptors. Lino and cat food, that was it. Crack had a cat, a moggy that had adopted him; Crack was always careful to keep its food apart from the house and his own food. With that sorted out his eyes which had been buffering data regained their position as the prime sense. Crack was a state and a half; he had an Arctic explorer's beard, rimmed eyes shone from dense hair, the wear on the collar of his shirt was grimier than a washing power commercial. The jeans he wore had specks of food like his beard and stains obtained by hands wiping dirt onto them.
"Are your all right?" Evans asked having not crossed into the house.
"Perfectly," Crack replied, running fingers thoughtfully through greasy hair. "Well not quite, I'm all right...it's just your book's taken up most of my time. I'm glad you're here, I was intending to call, but I've never had the time. I think I can explain now." He moved through the hall into his front room.
Doubtful whether he wanted to proceed, Evans pulled the front door closed behind him and entered the lounge. A bedrock of orderliness and control had been coated with a snug fitting layer of filth and chaos. The room contained a small drinks cabinet which had an irregular stack of used microwave meal pallets on top of it; his trophy display was dusty, with the top most prizes pushed aside to give room for an automatic kettle, teapot, box of tea-bags (open and almost exhausted), packet of sugar and one huge soiled mug. In the bay window he had a desk with computer. He used it for practice and strategy building; a game was displayed. The printer next to it had a tail of fanfold paper covered with chess shorthand. Crack rarely watched television except for videos of the great modern chess masters. The television was hidden in an imitation teak sideboard, on top of which was usually a chessboard with a postal game Crack had been playing against a Russian for the last year or so. Evans found it a bit old fashioned, but Crack and the Russian got great pleasure exchanging moves once a month. The board was missing. The cat, which wasn't allowed anywhere near his games in-progress, was curled up and asleep in its place.
Crack had forgone the easy chairs to sit on the floor next to the coffee table which had a chessboard on it. Another, the one he had been playing the Russian on, with a handful of pieces left on it, was on the floor next to a microwave meal tray, can opener and cat food tins some opened and others still sealed. A third board on the low table was bare, players scattered to the confines of the room. An instant camera lay on the board, photographs of the chessboard rested on it, some had toppled onto a two day pile of cat food on Moggy's bowl. Sheets of A4 paper in four roughly arranged zones, thick with emotion charged chess shorthand were behind him. The only points of calm - ignoring the cat - were the central chessboard and the chessbook manuscript beside it.
"It's your book," Crack said.
"What about it?" Evans sat down on the edge of an easy chair close to Crack.
"It's impossible," stated Crack scratching.
Evans scratched wondering if he had picked up something the cat brought in. "Could you explain."
"Did you read it?"
"Of course, but I haven't your expertise."
"Right," he picked up a collection of paper. "Section 1: A guide to the rules and moves in chess, straight forward, technically correct. After what happened I went through it again, but it's still the same as the first time. I've got photos to prove it."
"After what happened?" Evans asked.
"Section 2: A beginner's game. Section 3: An average player's game. Section 4: An expert's game. I started on Section 2." He dropped the first fistful of paper and held up another, photographs of the manuscript pages and game positions slipped to the floor. "You decide whether you're black or white; then with each move you make, you read off a move from the book. Move one for the first, move twenty-eight for the twenty-eighth. I thought, 'This is stupid' but I had a go; an honest review was what you wanted, so an honest review you'd get. It was an easy game I beat it." He stopped as if that meant something.
"Of course you did, it was a beginner's game." Evans couldn't see the point of the explanation, he had seen all this when he read the book.
"How does a book play chess!" Crack jumped up shouting. "How come it never moved a piece into a space occupied by one of my pieces except when it was taking? How did it know
it was taking?" He thrust some meaningless notes at Evans. "I played it again, I chose white. It played the same moves; I played different ones. Once, in the middle game, I saw it had played different moves. Different moves! How did it do that?"
Delving into the papers he clutched, he selected two sheets from different games. He joined Evans on the same seat showing him his notes, certain moves were underlined in red.
Evans moved away from Crack. Crack sidled closer pushing the chess notes under his nose. Evans reached the end of the chair, he couldn't escape without standing up showing he thought Crack had gone mad.
"I made notes from then on," Crack said as Evans politely showed interest. "Here," he said pointing at the marks in red, "this is where the moves change. Most of it is the same, then it slips in a change. I thought I was going mad so I took pictures." Crack slipped off the chair to find them on the carpet.
Evans stood backing slowly to the door.
Crack spun. Evans froze an awkward guilty smile stuck on his face. Crack didn't notice, he brought the pictures up to his friend. "Usually the pages are like they are now." He handed over a picture.
Fingers felt meat jelly on its back, Evans felt sick, the glossy photograph of the page was not on his mind.
"I caught it though, in the fifteenth game I snapped this:" - Crack showed him further pictures. - "look at the same page this whole section of moves is different. And here the twenty-third game, just look: the page had changed almost totally. I got to that by playing a fool's game. It thought it had me, but I sacrificed my king for this picture, don't think anybody's done that before!"
Evans took the pictures, a cover for a back step into the hall. Crack breathing hard, pumping cat food vapour all over Evans as he moved close, was unaware of his friend's retreat. There was a greasy fingerprint on the page in both of the pictures. Evans saw the page numbers were identical but that the first moves on each page were different. In the first picture it was now obvious: in the list of moves, parts were different, but the grease print and numbering was constant. Evans stepped into the room, in a shaky voice he said, "What did you do next?"
"I worked through Section 3; I took the 'phone off the hook to get some peace and quiet. I played a dozen games I would judge to be pretty average." Crack was back on his hands and knees collecting the third pile. "I've photos of the changes. In the third section it has additional notes to sharpen a player's skills. Somewhere," - he tossed a sheath of papers out of his way - "somewhere, I've pictures showing a note change, I swear I have."
"Don't bother," Evans slumped back into the chair. "What about Section 4?"
Crack whirled like he had been stung.
"It beat me. It beat me twice! I played two hugely different games and it countered like it used my notes. I set the computer on it; it let me study the style, watch how it changed printed characters. I played it fast and slow but the next line never changed while I watched it. I really thought I'd gone mad. I haven't have I?"
"No," Evans sighed contemplating the differing frames in his hand. "Could you show me a game?"
"Easy," Crack began setting up pieces.
The alarm on his watch woke him, Evans stretched and fell off the easy chair. His tongue was coated with cat food odour. Crack and the cat were curled up by the coffee table. This ranked as one of the worst Monday mornings he had ever woken into. He staggered up. About two o'clock in the morning he and Crack had finally decided what to do with the chessbook. Allowing his friend to catch up on a month's sleep, he went out into the bright sunlight to see if his car had been stolen. It felt like the kind of day.* * *
At work, saving procrastination for later, he personally wrapped the binder including a standard rejection letter.
Six months later he received another manuscript from the same author entitled: Solitaire Bridge. Evans didn't look at it before he sent it back.
© Copyright Roderick Gladwish 1999 All Rights Reserved