“We regret that due to an abandoned bed on the line, there will be no southbound trains until further notice.” The announcement over the speakers was greeted by a communal groan in the packed refreshment room, and there was a buttoning of coats and a brandishing of umbrellas as the crowd emptied out into the November rain to find alternative means of transport.
Emma didn’t move. She was in no hurry. There was no-one waiting for her and nothing to do when she got to the end of her journey. Home alone, she would just get depressed, and weak, and give in yet again. She was safer here, sitting at the battered table, sipping her can of Fanta.
The girl behind the refreshment counter looked round, realised her potential customers had now shrunk to two, and fished out her iPod from the pocket of her uniform overall. She pulled the headphones on over her spiky pink hair and crooned to herself in an off key whisper. “Ain’t no body love you, like I love you.” Eyes glazed over, she drifted off into her private world of music with Justin Timberlake.
Emma became aware of a social problem. The only other occupant of the room was a dark haired man sitting facing her at the other side of the table. This was embarrassingly close now that there were only the two of them. Also, it was hard to avoid looking at him, and the British do not look at or speak to strangers on public transport. On the other hand, moving to a different chair would obviously be impolite. She stared fixedly at a poster on the wall behind his left shoulder, which warned of the penalties for travelling without a valid ticket.
Time passed, marked by the loud ticking of the clock over by the refreshment counter. Finally the man opposite stirred and hesitantly tried the socially accepted method of offering conversation in these circumstances. “Wet, isn’t it?”
“Very wet.” Emma was now allowed to look at him. He seemed in his late twenties, perhaps three or four years older than her. He wasn’t exactly good looking, but he had a certain appealing shyness about him. Having politely replied, she could now look away indicating the conversation was over, or say something else to show she was willing to talk. She had no wish to continue alone with her thoughts. “It was quite nice earlier too.”
It was an uninspiring remark, but the man was visibly brightened by it. “I’m just heading home from a chess tournament.” He looked at her hopefully. “Do you play chess?”
“A bit. My father is very keen.”
Beaming the man fished a small pocket chess set out of his pocket, and put it on the table. “You play white.”
Six years ago Emma had left home and escaped her father’s obsession with chess, swearing never to touch another pawn again. That was six years ago, and since then she had discovered that other obsessions could be just as bad if not worse. Football for example. She moved a pawn and the game progressed in silence for a quarter of an hour with both sides heavily on the attack.
“I castle,” she said at last.
“Wow.” Her opponent leant back and studied the board in awe. “I over committed to my attack, you have checkmate in four moves. Will you marry me?”
“Pardon?” She stared at him.
“Will you marry me? I’m serious.” He looked serious. A man with a mission.
Emma wasn’t sure whether to panic or laugh. She laughed. “We’ve only just met and I don’t know a thing about you. You could be an axe murderer.”
“My only brush with the law was a parking ticket.” He put a hand into an inside pocket and sorted through a handful of documents. “My name is James Price. I’m twenty nine. This is my driver’s licence.”
Emma stared blankly at the driver’s licence and handed it back.
“If you want character references, I can offer my parents and my boss, and I’m still in touch with an old school teacher.”
“Let me guess. The teacher who ran the school chess club?”
James nodded. “I work at a bank. I do account transfers. This is my business card. If you want your current account transferring to us, I am the man to help.”
Emma looked at the business card. “My account is already at your bank.”
“I hope you are totally satisfied with our service.” He handed her another piece of paper. “My last payslip. Note that I have a respectable income. I have a house but currently no car. I live very close to a station so it’s an easy trip to work on the train.”
“Just a minute.” Emma firmly interrupted the flow of information and handed the payslip back. “Why do you want to marry me?”
“Because I like you, you play chess, and I am twenty nine. I always had this plan to be married by thirty. I haven’t had the chance until now.”
She looked him over. He wasn’t exactly repellent. “Why not?”
“Well, I suppose it’s the chess. It puts girls off, and I don’t meet that many to start with. The ones at work are married. I don’t go to clubs except the chess club, and the only single girl to show up there in the last three years was engaged to the club president inside a week. I hadn’t even plucked up courage to say hello and there she was, snaffled from right under my nose. I told myself that next time I had to move faster.” A nasty thought seemed to occur to him. “You aren’t wearing a ring but I suppose you already have a boyfriend.”
“But I think it would be a bad idea for me to get into a relationship right now. I’ve just split up with someone, and I shouldn’t do something on the rebound.”
“Don’t you feel you might be getting over him by now? When did you split up?”
Emma glanced at the clock. “Three hours ago.”
“Oh.” James collected his personal possessions and put them back in his pocket. “Was it, erm, serious? A long relationship?”
“I’ve been seeing him for four years.”
“Ah.” He thought for a moment. “Well I’d be prepared to wait a bit before we actually marry. I mean, the 26th of July next year would be fine for the wedding. That gives us eight months.”
“Why the 26th of July?”
“It’s the last Saturday before my thirtieth birthday.”
Emma laughed, and there was a warbling sound from her pocket. She gave James an apologetic glance, and took out her mobile phone. She looked at the display and then answered it with a grimace. “Yes.”
She listened to the masculine voice at the other end of the phone for a few minutes before replying. “No, its over.”
The phone protested at length, and Emma started getting angry. “I was not rushing anything. When we met, you said you wanted us to move in together in a few months time. I believed you. A year later, it was still a few months away. It’s four years now, and you still aren’t ready. I want a partner in life. I want someone who is there when I need them, ready to remove spiders from the bath. Someone to go home to at night. You want a girlfriend you meet twice a week when you can fit her in between football and going to the pub with your mates.”
The phone whined, but Emma was firm. “I know I’ve said this five times before, but this time I mean it. Every time you say it will be different, I try again, and it never is. Look at what happened today. You promised we could spend the whole day together, I turn up, and the first thing you say is you’ve only got three hours because you need to meet some mates at one. I’m tired of going round and round the same circle and wasting my life. It’s over.”
The phone pleaded and Emma hesitated. She was angry and hurt, but she had cared a lot and it was hard to make the final break.
“You tell him to get lost,” James hissed at her.
Emma looked at him, startled. Caught up in her emotions, she had almost forgotten he was there. She turned her attention back to the phone. “No, I won’t regret it, and I won’t change my mind. I’ve met someone else and we are getting married on the 26th of July.”
The phone erupted like Vesuvius and Emma held it a bit further away from her ear for a moment. “There is no need to shout. No, I have not been seeing someone behind your back. We split up at ten o’clock this morning and I met him at twelve. He has just proposed marriage.”
The phone jeered.
“No, I am not making it up just to trick you into marriage,” she said indignantly. “Some people don’t need four years to make a commitment.” She handed the phone to James. “You tell him!”
“Hello,” James said into the phone.
Emma could hear muffled shouts coming from the phone, and looked at James with a worried expression.
James grinned at her. “Now, now,” he told the phone, “that’s not polite. You had your chance for four years and you blew it. That’s your problem not mine.”
He listened for a moment as verbal steam came from the phone. “I’m sorry, but all’s fair in love and war. Now have a nice day.” James turned off the phone and handed it back to Emma. “So, the wedding is on the 26th of July. Did you want a church wedding? I think it might be nice. If so we need to allow three weeks to call the banns, but we’ll want to book the church a lot earlier than that anyway.” He took out a pocket diary and turned the pages. “Suppose I make a note for us to book the church and reception next February.”
Emma stared at him, fascinated.
He caught the look on her face. “I’m sorry. I like to plan several moves ahead. It’s the effect of the chess.”
Emma felt it was time to return to sanity. “I was a little annoyed back then. There’s no need to take what I said to him too seriously. I was just making sure I got rid of him this time.”
Another voice broke into the conversation. “If you don’t want him, I’ll have him. He can play draughts all he likes and I won’t mind.” The refreshment girl, cloth in hand, was cleaning the next table. She put down her cloth, took out a piece of paper and a stub of pencil and scribbled down a telephone number. She handed the paper to Emma. “Just let me know if he’s going spare. I think he’s soooo romantic proposing like that, and he looks just like Hugh Grant.” She went back behind her counter.
Emma and James, who had been under the illusion of being stranded alone on their desert island, stared after her in shock.
“Draughts,” muttered James, in the voice of one who has heard sacrilege. “What an awful girl.”
“No, she’s nice,” said Emma. “It was good of her to give the telephone number to me rather than you.”
“Alright,” he sighed, and opened his diary again to make a note. “We’ll invite her to the wedding. I’ll be inviting the chess club too, and with luck there’ll be one of them who can stand girls with pink hair and marries her.”
By then the girl’s hair was green, but there was, and he did.
© 2008 Janet Edwards. All rights reserved.
Checkmate is very different from my other writing, and a little rough around the edges, because it was my first short story. I wrote some more general fiction stories after Checkmate, and then moved on to writing full length science fiction.
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