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The bell on the door echoed as Arthur wandered in. I glanced up from my old black-and-white television set behind the counter; closed my eyes and sighed deeply when I realised it was him.
I let him wander among the aisles for a while. I could see him breathing in the old wood smell. He ran his fingertips across the chessboards; wood, glass, granite, marble. He picked up a rosewood knight and fondled its delicate bridle, lost in some well-worn recollection of his glory days on the grandmaster circuit.
"Hello Arthur," I said heavily. He was skinny and fragile, with an unnatural paunch at his stomach, and his giant white beard made his head look disproportionately large. He brought to mind a dandelion clock; if I blew at him hard enough all his hair would fly away.
He brought the rosewood knight to his face. I could see his nostrils flaring as he inhaled its essence. He brushed its felted base against his pale cheek and closed his eyes. I turned the television off, leaving no sound but the staccato ticking of the grandfather clock propped in the corner, obscured by stacks of frosted glass chess sets.
"How's your wife?"
He replaced the knight and looked at the floor. "She's leaving me."
"She's finally giving up on you."
He shrugged his shoulders and looked sideways at me.
"What are you going to do now?" I asked. His shoulders gently rose and fell as he wrestled some inner demon. I sagged, softening myself out of sympathy.
Suddenly, he straightened himself, bolt upright. He stomped to the back of the store, reached under the rack on the back wall and pulled out a large red leather case. He trembled as he lifted it. He carried it across to me and placed it smartly on the counter.
"I can't sell you that."
"My money's good."
"I don't care about the money, you can't have it."
He slammed his palm against the counter, glaring at me furiously. I met his stare. He started breathing more rapidly as his temper rose, but I did not flinch. He opened his mouth to say something, but held back. His eyes sparkled.
Then his chin puckered and his body slumped. He covered his face with his bony hands. When he spoke again his voice was full of phlegm.
"It's the only thing I have left. It's the only thing that's beautiful."
"You can't play chess anymore, Arthur."
He looked up at me like a wounded dog waiting to be put down. "I'll be better this time, I swear. I'll take breaks, I'll look after myself."
"You won't," I said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "You know you won't. You'll get so engrossed you'll forget, just like last time, and the time before... Without your wife to look after you you'll forget to eat. Or you'll have another breakdown."
He started sobbing. "So what? What else is there?"
"You need to forget about chess, Arthur. You need to get your life back."
"Chess is my life!"
"What about your wife? What about your children? You loved them once, and you've forgotten about them." His back was hot beneath my hand. "Listen. Listen, Arthur. Remember when you got married? Remember the honeymoon? You told me the story once. You and her, on the sand, watching the lightning in the distance. You had your arm around her, and you whispered to her. Remember what you said?"
He spoke so quietly I could barely hear. "I will always protect you." He looked at me. "But I can't do it. I'll look at her and I'll be thinking about chess."
"She's your queen. Without her, the game's lost."
He shook his head. "But it's too late."
"It's not too late, but it'll be a long game."
"If you like. You've got to start small. One move at a time. Push your pawns forward. Make some sacrifices."
He stared at me with glassy eyes. "Do you really think I can win her back?"
"You don't have to win her back, Arthur. You just need to protect her."
He rocked gently on his heels. "It's too hard."
"You're a grandmaster. No challenge is too hard."
He breathed in so deeply he seemed to double in size, then as he let the air out of his lungs he shrivelled down almost to nothing. He looked at the red leather case and chewed his lip.
He put his hand onto the red leather, hesitated a moment, then pushed it towards me. "I don't think I'll be buying this after all," he said. Then he turned around and marched out of the store, leaving the bell on the door to echo hollowly around the room.
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