The Chess Players
I am waiting for Bernard. He should have been here at 10:30, and it’s already 10:32. Something is wrong. Bernard is never late. When I’m even a tiny bit slow in getting to our daily game, Bernard has a field day taking me to task. He says to me, “Now then, Arab, are you trying to prove that the people who say you’re lazy are right?” But I don’t reply. I just smile, and that bothers him even more. Bernard is my friend; he’s the only one I’ve ever had. We’ve never really talked, but I think real friends don’t need to tell each other they’re friends...well, that’s what I think anyway.
We’ve been meeting here every day, or nearly, for two years, at our chess table. It’s not really ours, but as we’re the only ones who use it, it might as well be. Every morning, around 10:20, I call the local café and order two coffees to take away, one black with no sugar and one hazelnut-flavored with sugar, before joining Bernard at the table, where he has usually already set the pawns in place. We spend the morning playing and chatting. We talk about the weather, horse-racing, football; I support the Paris team and he supports Marseille, so we often argue. Bernard asks, “Why do you support a team of losers, Mahmoud? We’re in the south here, everyone should support Olympique de Marseille.” It’s the same question every time, and I have to explain to him all over again that I worked in the factories of Boulogne-Billancourt for thirty years and that everyone there supported Paris Saint-Germain. But he never listens to me; he says I haven’t got a clue. In any case, when you talk to Bernard, it‘s always him who has the last word. But I don’t mind, I let him win the argument. On the other hand, when it comes to chess, it’s always very close—each of us knows so well how the other plays that we can spend whole days on a single game.
Yet strangely, we hardly know anything about each other. I mean, about our past lives. I think he’s not really interested, and neither am I for that matter.
When I retired and came to live in the south, I didn’t know anybody. I missed the sun terribly, and even if the sun in the south of France is not quite the same as the sun in Algiers, I find that it’s good enough for me.
Retirement is a strange thing. I’m not saying I don’t like it, just that it’s strange. At the Renault factory, all my mates were glad to have finished work; they would tell me what they were going to do with their leisure: enjoy spending time with their wives and children. But I don’t have a wife or any children. It‘s not that I didn’t want any, it just didn’t happen. So, when I found myself retired, I didn’t really know what to do.
Nordine advised me to go back to Algeria. Nordine is my little brother; I’m very fond of him, and besides, he’s all the family I’ve got left. I tried explaining to him that for me Algeria was in the past, that it brought back too many bad memories. He doesn’t know, he was too young when our parents died. I never want to go back there again, never. I am French now.
But what is Bernard up to? It’s 10:37 now, the coffees will get cold. I’ll have to go back and get some more... I should drink mine right now so it doesn’t get wasted. But if I drink it and then Bernard comes, he might be cross with me. All the same, if he gets cross with me, I could tell him all he had to do was be on time. And anyway, it was me who paid for them. I swallow my coffee in one gulp...and then swallow his.
I hate waiting with nothing to do; people look at me and wonder what I’m doing. They are probably saying to themselves that I must be bored or that I’m an idiot. I don’t like people watching me. Parisians don’t like Arabs very much, but in the south it’s even worse. When I arrived in the village, I often heard people muttering behind my back. They were wondering what an Arab could possibly be doing where they lived. I felt ill at ease. After all, it’s true, I was in their home. And one day I met Bernard.
I remember that day very well. It was a day just like today, a lovely day, very hot. A group of old men were playing bowls in the square and I watched them, telling myself that they would eventually invite me to play with them. But they never did.
Then Bernard arrived and asked them if any of them knew how to play chess. They all answered no, and for a joke one of them said something to him like, “Ask the Arab. He should know.” Everybody laughed, except Bernard. He mustn’t have realized it was a joke and he came up to me.
“I hear you know how to play chess?” he said.
I said yes. I don’t know why, given that I had never played it in my life. It was the first time anybody in the village had invited me to do anything, and it might never happen again. He smiled and took me into the little park next to the bowling pitch. We sat down at the chess table, in the shade of the old oak tree. I was so happy to be there with him that I dared not tell him I didn’t know how to play.
“White or black?”
“I don’t mind, I like both.”
“Right, well I’ll take black, I prefer black.”
I nodded to give the impression I understood and watched him place the pieces. I was terrified; I told myself he would soon realize I had lied and would certainly not want to play with me anymore. He finished setting out the pawns and stared at me for a moment. I don’t know how, but I think he realized that I didn’t know how to play.
He picked up the pawns and stood up without a word. As I watched him leave, I felt like crying. The old men on the bowls pitch sniggered. I told myself I should have stayed in Paris.
The next day, as I had nothing else to do, I went back to the park. I was watching the old men play when Bernard arrived. He came up to me, without a word, and handed me a little book in poor condition. Before I had time to say anything, he was already gone. I looked at the book. It was all creased and its title was hardly legible: Chess for Beginners. It’s difficult to describe what I felt at that moment. Nobody had ever done anything like that for me before.
10:40 and still no Bernard in sight. Now I'm really starting to get worried. I go back up the path of the little park to the café and stick my forehead against the window to see if he’s inside...nothing. I would like to go to his home, but I don’t know where he lives. Something must have come up. I’ll come back tomorrow.
I learned of Bernard’s death three days later when I was reading the paper. In the obituaries section was written, “The Association of Algerian War Veterans in the Department of War is sorry to announce the death of Bernard Gillot at the age of seventy-eight.”
I wonder who will come and play chess with me now.