Donna hesitated a moment before going in; the voice behind the door had sounded formal, stuffy. It wasn’t in her nature to be nervous, but the new Chairman of the Sunshine Springs Retirement Complex was an unknown force.
“Ah Donna, good morning. My name is Professor McGowan, but you may call me Alistair. Please take a seat.”
Alistair coughed nervously. “I have some glowing reports from our residents, they say that you’re the best Activities Co-ordinator they’ve ever known.”
“Our residents have so much life in them; old age doesn’t have to be boring!”
“Indeed, everyone has mentioned the fun they have. I understand that you specialise in giant games – I have invoices here for giant crossword grids, giant scrabble, giant playing cards, giant everything!”
“It makes everyone feel young, playing without their reading glasses…”
“Ah yes, you certainly have a gift for keeping our residents happy. But is happy enough? Maybe we need something more educational?”
“Educational? Cindy named all 100 birds in the giant jigsaw puzzle. If she gets any more educated, we’ll have to invent new species!”
“Oh, I’m not criticising you.” Alistair said. “But in addition to your, ah, more jolly activities, I would like to start a daily chess club. Chess stimulates the brain and is valuable in preventing dement…”
Alistair hesitated. Donna was staring at him intently. The details in her personnel file – Donna Hawkins, aged 59, retired holiday camp entertainment officer – did nothing to encapsulate the diminutive woman standing opposite him. She was radiating more energy than any of the radioactive isotopes he used to research at the university.
“Pardon me, Prof. but Betty can add up the tea budget in her head faster than I can do it on a calculator. Ginny and Dottie can sing the whole soundtrack of Mary Poppins, the original film, and the sequel, from memory. There’ll be no dementia here if I can help it!”
“Our residents are certainly spirited.” Alistair agreed. “Look, I would like the first chess club meeting happen tomorrow, maybe you could make time after, ah, Chirpy Chairobics? You never know, you might like chess.”
“Why do I need to like it?”
“Well, you have such an affinity with the residents. I wondered whether you might help me to get started.”
“You, Professor, need help from little old me?”
Alistair leaned back in his chair, wondering what to say next. His vocation was pure science. He had once attempted to compute the number of different games that could be played with 32 chess pieces on a board of 64 squares. But it was impossible, haphazard human behaviours defied calculation.
Donna saw his shoulders slump, just a little, and relented. She wouldn’t let her pride risk the centre’s resources – Alistair’s chairmanship was accompanied by a very generous financial donation.
“What do you need to make it work tomorrow?”
Alistair smiled gratefully.
“I will need the recreation room set out with 20 small tables, 2 chairs and one complete chess set at each. Is that all right?”
“Right as rain, Prof.” Donna answered with a wink.
When Alistair walked in the following afternoon, the room was full. He felt forty pairs of eyes stare at him. He had dressed very carefully, wanting to create the right impression — tweed suit with leather patches at the elbows, shiny shoes, a red bow tie with a matching kerchief in his top jacket pocket. He blushed and fidgeted as he set up the Powerpoint projector. The audience’s concentrated silence was unnerving. He self-consciously smoothed his thick, curly grey hair as he turned to face them.
He heard a wolf-whistle.
“Carry on, Prof,” Donna whispered. “Don’t mind them. They can smell fresh blood in the water, but they don’t mean anything by it. Do you want me to introduce you?”
“No!” he replied brusquely. “I can introduce myself, thank you!”
Donna sat back and left him to it…
“My name is Professor McGowan, and I am a Chess Grand Master. I have spent a lifetime studying this noble game. I believe it has the power to transform our lives, your lives. Over a million copies of my books have been sold worldwide. Grand Masters across the globe use my revolutionary ‘Random Thought’ computer programme to perfect their game play. You will never be bored; there are more possible games than there are atoms in the universe…”
“O’ooh, la de dah!”
“Who said that? You’re being very immature; I’ve been playing this game since I was six years old. Show some respect.” Alistair was flustered, his university students had sometimes fallen asleep during his lectures, but they had never heckled.
“Show us why we should respect you and we’ll stop joshing.”
“Very well. Open your chess sets and place the pieces on the board as shown on slide 1.”
Five minutes later, the players were still chattering.
“Come along now. it’s not that difficult. I see that a few tables have their pieces set out satisfactorily. I will move on to Slide 2, the basic moves.”
“The king can move by one square in any direction…”
“Why is irrelevant; these are the rules,’ Alistair continued. ‘Bishops move along the diagonal…”
“So, the bishops move sideways?”
“That’s coz they’re too crooked to move in a straight line.” The players cackled.
“Please, we need to move on to the first game, which is scripted.”
“Scripted? Is that like acting?”
“No! You just do the moves that I tell you to, so that you get used to the game.”
“So, you know who wins?”
“Yes, white wins in the practice games.”
There was a flurry of movement as the players scrambled to turn their boards around.
“STOP! You can learn as much from losing as by winning. You can play proper matches after practice.”
The players grumbled. Alistair droned through his slides, proudly explaining the strategic significance of each move.
“I win!” A voice rang out.
“Impossible!” Alistair blustered. “We’re barely halfway through.”
“Look, she left me a gap, so my queen skipped all her pieces, reached the end, then skipped back to get the rest. I win.”
Alistair’s face flushed, “You’ve been playing checkers? With chess pieces? You…you heathens!”
The hecklers persisted, “Keep your hair on, Prof. It’s only a game.”
Two long hours later, Alistair displayed his last slide. The players hastily streamed towards the kitchen.
Donna started to clear up, rummaging under chairs and tables for the chess pieces. The players had taken Alistair’s words literally when he’d said chess was a battle game — the ensuing kerfuffle had rivalled the memorable food fight they’d had when they last made rock cakes.
“Did you understand the game, Donna?”
“Not really, Prof. but it kept them entertained.” She gestured to the queue at the tea urn.
“Maybe I was too ambitious. One needs a particular intelligence to play chess well.”
“Are you saying they’re stupid? Do you think that I’m stupid?”
“No! I’ve seen your evaluation reports. You obviously have emotional intelligence, which cannot be taught.”
“You’re saying I’m stupid and emotional?” Donna replied with a twinkle in her eye.
“You’re teasing me.”
“Just a little. You see, there’s something wrong with this game. Can you see it, Mr. Brainy?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the game. It’s been played for centuries. It’s the game of kings!”
“What happens when the king dies?”
“The game ends. But the king does not die; it is not alive. It’s that sort of fanciful thinking that holds players back.”
Donna ignored him. “How many men do you see here?”
Alistair looked around; the room was full of women.
“We’re all widows here; our kings are dead. Do you think our game should be over?”
Alistair looked confused. “You’re missing the point. Chess is not about people; it’s about logic and strategy.”
“Can I speak frankly, Professor?”
“You mean you weren’t already?” Alistair replied.
“I know these women. What they need is company and stories and to have a little win every day. You’re an important man. Your money is saving the activity programme, but if you want to be a part of their happiness, rather than just paying for it, then you’ll need to change your, ahem, strategy.”
Alistair sat down, defeated, “What do you suggest?”
“I have a challenge for you. Design a game that starts after the king is dead. Let the queens play on. Let them tell their story!”
“Story? There’s no story!” Alistair looked bewildered.
“There’s always a story.”
When he got home, Alistair poured himself a brandy and turned on his computer. His particular genius had been accepting the randomness of human behaviour and devising a computer programme that generated arbitrary chess moves. Random Thought didn’t play to win; it played to confuse. He found it a challenging and soothing opponent – although Random Thought created unexpected moves, it always played within the rules of the game. But Donna was beyond the rules.
Alistair persisted with chess club, but he ditched the powerpoint slides. Every day he set up the boards, but let the ladies play however they wanted, offering advice when asked. He started attending Donna’s giant game sessions, never participating, but always watching, listening…and learning.
Donna was worried. The activity programme depended on Alistair’s goodwill. She started to share her tea breaks with him. He was friendly enough, and her heart went out to him as she realised that he was just shy and lonely. The ladies were worried too. After all, he was a good-looking man — well, he had his own hair, and probably his own teeth. Spending time with him gave them a little thrill. The cheekiest hecklers wrote him a card full of contrite messages. The best bakers made him fresh cupcakes every day.
A month later, the women walked in to find four giant chess boards laid out on the floor; the game pieces were huge, the largest a metre tall.
Alistair greeted them. He was wearing dark denim jeans with sharp creases and a beatnik sweater.
“Ladies, please take your places. I think five or six per board should work.”
There was a buzz in the room. This was something different.
Alistair continued, “A wise person brought to my attention that, in this community, the king’s battle is irrelevant.’ Alistair looked towards Donna and nodded, ‘So I’ve devised a game of queens, just for you.”
The ladies cheered. “How does that work then?”
“I’m glad you asked.” Alistair allowed himself a smile. “You choose which pieces you need, decide what they mean, then use them to tell a story about your struggles.” He looked around the room. “Play to win, ladies.”
Alistair was surprised at how quickly the women started moving pieces.
“That king and queen can be my son and daughter-in-law, too hoity-toity to visit.”
“That bishop is the social services man that won’t give me funding for a mobility scooter.”
“These pawns, that’s us. We’re small, but there’s a lot of us. Let’s storm City Hall. Knock that castle over.”
The women were soon walking around the boards. The noise of their chatter was immense. They were getting more exercise than in any chairobics session.
A few women hung back from the mayhem. “Will you show us how to play?”
“I can try. It was actually Donna’s idea. Maybe she’d partner me?”
Alistair set the pieces out on a giant chess board using the standard layout.
“We start like a normal game, but we choose and move the pieces according to the story we want to tell. Donna, do you want the first move?”
“No, no, you start.”
“I don’t have a woman in my life; not since mother died. I looked after her for twenty years after father passed away.” Alistair removed his queen from the board.
“I couldn’t protect my husband from cancer. He died ten years ago.” Donna removed her king from the board.
“These pawns were my students. I know you think I’m pompous, but I was a good teacher once.” He removed his pawns from the board.
“My pawns are the people who live in this complex. They’re here because the outside world is cold and lonely. I can make a difference.” Donna pushed her pawns towards her opponent. ‘You can make a difference too.’
Alistair removed his bishops. “I stopped talking to God when I discovered the infinite beauty of mathematics.”
“I’ll keep mine. I don’t know if I really believe, but I like to hedge my bets.” Donna grinned.
“These rooks, my castles, are my family home. I’ve never lived anywhere else. It’s a very big house. I should rent out some rooms, but I’d have to let go of…things.” Alistair unconsciously pushed the rooks towards Donna.
“I live here, my job comes with a little apartment. Maybe I should get out more.” Donna inched her queen closer to Alistair’s king.
“I’ve always envied the knights; they can leap to new thoughts, new places, and everybody loves them.” Alistair moved his king away from his knights.
“I think they’re a bit flashy. I met enough of them when I sang on the cruise ships, a lifetime ago. You can’t trust a knight in shining armour, but a king has dignity.” Donna looked up.
Alistair was staring at her intently. She noticed how tall he was when he wasn’t hunched over a game table. His eyes were so very blue now that he wasn’t squinting over tiny chess pieces.
Donna moved her queen by four squares to stand next to Alistair’s king. “The king can only move one square at a time. No one knows why, so it’s up to the queen to make the big moves.” She smiled softly.
Alistair reached for Donna’s hand and kissed it tenderly.
“Checkmate…” he said.
Around them, the room erupted into cheers and wolf whistles. Alistair and Donna didn’t notice. Their game had just begun.