Allan Drew

Scholar's Mate

We’re at it again this morning. Chess. Old Walter always grabs the white set. Says you don’t get ahead by starting second.

‘You’re at it again,’ I say. He does it every time. He’s trying to checkmate me in four moves—the Scholar’s Mate.

‘Huh?’ he says. His hearing aid is off.

‘Turn your bloody hearing aid on.’

‘Eh?’

I tap my ear, and Walter reaches to his hip and flicks the switch. He winces from the squeal of feedback. He points a finger at me, holds it there, and looks back down to the board.

‘You’re at it again, aren’t you?’

‘Can’t say.’ He’s a joker.

‘You’re a panic and a half.’

‘You never know,’ he says. He means that I’m an old bugger too, and one day I won’t be paying attention and bam—he’ll nail me in those four moves. He’s right, too. He’s 93, but I’m not far behind, lurching through my 76th year, bung knees, no teeth, and strandy hair with iffy threads.

‘Try it on someone else,’ I say, but he’s turned his hearing aid off. ‘Walter?’ He doesn’t look up. ‘Walter?’ I lob a captured pawn at him. It bounces off his bony shoulder and rolls under the chair. Might as well have evaporated.

‘Huh?’ he says, rubbing his shoulder.

‘I’ve been wondering.’

‘Huh?’

‘How long since you had an erection worth a damn?’

‘Eh?’

‘How long since you had a stiffy to write home about?’ I straighten my right arm, place my left hand on my inner elbow, and bring my right fist up and say ‘boing’.

‘What?’

‘Forget about it,’ I say. He stares at the board for maybe a week or two. ‘How long do I have to wait?’ I ask.

He holds up his left index finger and then checkmates me.

 

Another week slopes by, all sloppy and damp. The weather is lumpy, like my hands. Like my tongue.

It’s the Lotto draw, Saturday night in the rest home. We sit around gripping our tickets like they’ve got wings and are desperate for freedom. Walter’s got his ticket half-crumpled in his right fist. He snores lightly.

Walter’s 25-year anniversary in the home is coming up in a few months. I’m going to get him a present. For his 25-year anniversary, I’m getting him a 25-year-old. That’s why I was asking him about whether he’d had a stiffy, whether he’d had a hot log any time in the last, say, couple of decades. The girl’s name is Mercedes.

‘He’s old,’ I’d said to her on the phone.

‘Okay.’

‘Really old.’

‘How old, exactly?’

‘Ninety-one.’ I was throwing Old Walter a bone, shaving a couple of years off.

‘That’s sweet,’ she said. I think she meant that it was fine. 

‘One other thing,’ I said.

‘Yeah?’ She sounded hesitant. Probably par for the course. The chap makes it all sound straightforward and then—by the way …

 ‘It’s his twenty-fifth anniversary in the rest home. Can you be twenty-five? Makes it a bit fun. Razz his berries.’

‘Twenty-five? Easy.’ She said she would call to confirm on the day before. Thoughtful, professional. Prudent, given Walter’s age.

The Lotto draw is over and, just as the music starts, Walter wakes up. He passes his ticket to me.

‘You’ve got three and the bonus,’ I say.

‘Eh?’

‘You’ve won maybe twenty bucks.’

‘Right you are,’ he says and falls asleep. I tuck the ticket into the top pocket of his shirt and fasten the button.

 

I’m on the way to the doctor’s. This business with my tongue isn’t getting any better. Last week they removed a piece, just a snippet. They wanted a look-see.

Walter drives me to my appointments. He drives a yellow 1984 Toyota Corona, in mint condition. The Corona shines like God’s golden sun in Heaven as Walter pitches it down the road. He drives it like it’s a sewing machine. Like it’s a goddam vacuum cleaner. His driving is rebellious, single-minded, subversive—almost a political act. Today he’s just slowing down for everything, for shadows and gusts of wind.

‘Walter?’ The needle is dropping—40 … 30 kilometres per hour.

‘Hello?—hold it,’ he says. He squints at the road and squeezes the steering wheel with his knotty, mottled fingers.

‘Nothing there.’ I gesture to the clear road ahead. Twenty kilometres per hour.

‘But that,’ he says, pointing at a rubbish bin on the footpath. The needle moves to 10.

‘A bin.’

‘Roger that,’ he says, and we surge forward violently.

We arrive at the doctor’s, who’s running 40 minutes late. Always was an arsehole.

‘The lesion is advanced, Frank.’ That’s the doc.

‘Lesion?’

‘The cancer.’

‘Oh. Tongue cancer, is it?’ Said like I had been expecting it, like it was bad weather arriving as forecast.

‘Curable?’ I ask. The doc says a lot of things, all variations on ‘no’.

Walter asks what the plan is.

‘Partial glossectomy,’ says the doc. Arsehole. ‘We’ll remove part of the tongue.’

My tongue feels like it’s being pumped full of hot gas. Its shape is foreign. I’m conscious of the smooth hard red patch. That pesky patch. I’m conscious of being old. I’m conscious of the risk of losing consciousness.

The doc says other things. How long passes? Half an hour?

I’m walking out, and I have to ask Walter to stop. We sit for a spell. Walter puts his hand on my shoulder. I unleash tears and snot and gagging and the whole works. I guess I thought I would live forever.

He’s saying, ‘Jesus Frank, Jesus Christ Frank, I’m sorry,’ over and over. After a while he relaxes, puts his hand in his shirt pocket, and pulls out a small bag of boiled sweets. I take one.

‘What do you want to do?’ he asks.

‘Go home.’

‘How about a cup of tea first?’ Walter believes tea has magical properties.

‘I don’t know.’

‘There’s a tea room just along the way,’ he says, closing the discussion. 

 

I still have my tongue, for now. We’re in the lounge. Chess. I move my pawn and immediately regret it.

The weather at the moment: hardened, shall we say? Galvanised with frost. Resiliently cold.

The mood in the lounge is sombre. Beatrice has died. Nurse Mitchell—Pam, to us long-termers—told us at breakfast. She’s nice, Pam. She was preparing us for when the undertaker arrived. She told us so we didn’t think the hearse was coming for us.

Beatrice only arrived last week. She shuffled in, and now she shuffles off. Beatrice was a Sudden. There are two types around here: the Expected and the Sudden. In the autumn just gone, Harry died peacefully, surrounded by his family, after a long battle with illness. Expected. Beatrice, I’m afraid, will have Died suddenly of a heart attack and will be dearly missed. Expecteds and Suddens. I look at the chessboard. Do I feel better about my horse being taken because I can see it coming? Would I be happier if it took me by surprise?

Today’s visit to the doctor is to get me prepared for the op. To get me orientated. These words.

Trying to get Walter sorted is about more than I can take. He’s trying to get into the car. God help me. He needs to start climbing into the driver’s seat before he gets up in the morning.

‘I drank too much, Walter,’ I say.

‘That a fact?’ He turns his hearing aid on when he drives.

‘Yes.’ I’m thinking about my tongue. About it being gone.

‘When do you mean?’ he asks.

‘Back then.’

‘You mean, as a young man?’

The phrase irritates me. But I was a young man, once. Had a wife. She left. I went onwards and downwards and wound up cancerous in a car with Walter. ‘I suppose,’ I say.

I was a butcher, back then. I took animals and turned them from bodies to bits. I ground them into sausages, sliced them into steaks. Did I work drunk? Of course. Why not? One day, drunk in charge of a cleaver, I cut the tip of my left thumb off. Thwack. I felt so little that I kept on working. I don’t remember the blood, after I cut it off, but there must have been some—there must have been lots.

I never found the tip of my thumb that day. Someone probably ate it. Life’s like that. Sometimes you eat some drunk’s fingertip in a sausage without knowing it. I now have a lump of scar tissue that has no sensation at all, not a dickie bird. I started biting the tip of that thumb—a nervous habit—and I still do it, biting, expecting one day for the feeling to return.

 

It’s the day before the surgery, a month before Walter’s anniversary. We’re sitting here playing chess again. In honour of my outgoing tongue, Old Walter has given me two concessions. He’s turned his hearing aid on, and he’s letting me win.

‘Walter?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you like carrots?’

‘Yes,’ he says.

‘I don’t. I think they’re orange turds.’

We play on. He lets me capture his rook.

He says, ‘What’ll you have for tea tonight?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘It’ll be hard to eat, after.’

I hadn’t thought of it as my last meal. ‘What’s on the menu?’ I ask.

‘Sausages and roast veg.’

‘That’ll do.’

 

We’re sitting in the lounge watching telly, 10 days after my op. Old Walter must be gagging to play chess, but he hasn’t asked me yet—out of respect for my lopped-off tongue.

The doc said the operation went well. I’ll have to take his word for it, because I feel like I’ve been fed through a sausage machine. Repackaged offcuts. Repurposed waste.

Pam comes into the lounge and walks over to me. She kneels down and starts opening a box, taking out what looks like a small telly.

‘It’s a tablet,’ she tells me and then realises that makes it sound like a pill. ‘An Android device. You can use it instead of the pencil and paper, for talking—communication.’ She’s speaking too loudly. What in God’s shitting creation is an Android device?

I reach for my notepad. Walter gave me this notepad when I got back from the hospital. It’s a big spiral-bound thing with an embossed cover. Quite heavy. A two-dollar job from the corner shop would’ve done, but now I have to tote this thing around so I don’t hurt Old Walter’s feelings. I look at Pam then write, No thank you. I erase the Android device’s existence from my vinegared brain.

 

Walter suggested chess this morning—the tongue mourning has passed. He’s still looking after me though: he’s given me the white set. What a hero. I tried the old Scholar’s Mate. A bit of fun. We’re now in the end-game, chasing each other around the board with two pieces each.

Pam calls to me. ‘There’s a phone call for you.’ I grunt at her and point at my mouth. I don’t have a tongue, so what is the point of calling me on the phone?

‘I know,’ she says, ‘I can do the talking for you if you write it down.’

I shrug.

Pam says, ‘Hello, I have Frank here. He’s just had an operation and can’t talk. I’ll relay what he says.’

‘Okay,’ comes the reply. ‘This is Mercedes, confirming our appointment for tomorrow afternoon.’

Christ. What, with the op and my tongue, I’d forgotten about that. Pam is an understanding person, but I suspect that she would not approve of smuggling in a hooker. I write Thanks on my notepad.

‘He says, thanks,’ says Pam.

‘Thank you,’ Mercedes says and hangs up.

Pam raises her eyebrows. I write Tongue on my notepad and point to my mouth again. It seems to satisfy her.

 

We’re watching some documentary about the war. Walter’s just beaten me at chess, in a way. He bored me into resigning my king.

Hitler is on the screen, yapping away in German about something or other. The footage is old, of course, and everything seems to be moving just a tad too fast. Walter leans over to me and says, quite loudly, ‘Now, was he ever a fucker, that Hitler?’ and then laughs till he coughs.

Walter was in the war. He was in the merchant navy, shipping booze and cigarettes to the troops, until he got captured by the Japanese and spent three years in a prisoner-of-war camp. Just think of Old Walter, getting plucked out of the rolling ocean like an anonymous turd from a swimming pool, rotting for years in a muddy hole Christ knows where, and then having the energy to live to 93. He never even fired a shot, in the war I mean. They never even gave him a gun.

He would play chess in the dirt, against himself, there in that POW camp. He would etch out a board with his finger, draw the pieces on it, make a move, rub the whole thing out with his hand, redraw it from the opponent’s point of view, make the opponent’s move, and so on. That’s how he got so good. That might be how he got so bloody serene.

It was his kids who told me this. They visit, his kids and his grandkids. And his grandkids’ kids, for that matter. He introduced me to some of them one day—Christ, all the names—and they just told me, just like that. Walter didn’t take part in the conversation. His hearing aid was off, most likely.

I bawled in my room that night, after I met his family and heard about those years of Walter’s life. I was bloody sorry for him, that’s the thing. And, I tell you what, I was bloody sorry for myself, too.

I’m standing outside the front gate, smoking a cigarette. The poisons are probably worming their way into the ragged hole the doc left in my tongue, giving me a brand-spanking-new cancer, all shiny and modern looking. Glossectomy. What a word. You need all parts of your tongue intact just to spit out all the syllables.

 

I’m waiting for Mercedes to arrive. I’m cold—the sort that will take a season to thaw from my bones. The weather? Sharp, maybe, this evening. Reflective and flat, like the edge of a cleaver.

To pass the time I keep recalculating my age, counting the years from my birth to today’s date. I don’t always get the same answer. I need to know—need to know the number of years. I need to be able to say it, to drop the number into conversations like cubes of sugar into cups of tea.

Mercedes is young. She steps out of her car—a sensible modern-looking machine with a badge I don’t recognise—and walks over to the front gate. I stub out my cigarette under the heel of my slipper.

 Mercedes isn’t beautiful, but she has a beauty—a grace. She wears a blue dress, black stockings, flat shoes. She’s small, and from a distance she could be a child—but no, not with that movement. Mercedes sails through the atmosphere carving a perfect wake, leaving ripples in the air that gently fade. She turns her head directly into the wind, and her hair streams out like comet’s tail. I look down at my feet and close my eyes tightly. Beauty is a virtue. It serves a purpose only beauty can serve: it’s the reason your eyeballs exist in your skull.

Mercedes was going to walk right past me. Makes sense. I must look like nobody, banished outside to smoke his cigarette and hopefully die of exposure and save everyone the trouble of having to puree his sprouts. I hold up my notebook. Hello Mercedes, I’m Frank. This makes her stop. She looks around as if she might be being watched.

I flick over to the next page: My tongue, can’t talk. She nods and says, ‘That’s a drag.’ I shrug and flick the page. Round the back.

The concrete path narrows as we approach the rear door. I shuffle slowly on numb feet. Mercedes follows me patiently. This gives me the necessary time to think, to worry: my panic starts to sizzle and spit. I mean: Christ. Walter’s 93! Horsing around with a young girl, surely that’s not good for him. What about his ticker? He’ll shit himself when he opens his door and sees her on his bed.

I stop her before we reach the door. My fingers are blue and white, and I fumble with my notebook. I flick over to the next page: You are my grand-daughter. ‘Sure,’ she says. The door opens onto a corridor with bedrooms on either side. We walk in.

Pam appears at the far end of the hall, her white uniform glowing in the gloom. She’s reading something from a clipboard and hasn’t seen us yet. I turn to Mercedes, and she nods to urge me on. I feel my fortitude failing. My feet are still numb; it’s like walking on stumps. Walter.

Pam looks up and stares at Mercedes.

‘Hello,’ says Mercedes, ‘I’m Constance, Frank’s grand-niece.’ She smiles widely and puts out her hand towards Pam.

‘Nice to meet you. I don’t think I’ve ever met a relative of yours before, Frank.’

I shrug, and Pam looks to Mercedes.

‘Sounds about right. We all live in Melbourne. Don’t get over here much.’ I look at Mercedes. She’s wearing make-up, but not a lot. Her eyes are brown—dark, a shade similar to her hair. She’s still smiling; her teeth are very white, and one of her incisors sits ever so slightly in front of the other.

‘I think I see a family resemblance,’ Pam says.

‘Thanks,’ says Mercedes. I look at her. How is it I can feel so suddenly sad, so grateful for an indirect compliment from a stranger?

In my room, I sit on the edge of the bed and raise my eyebrows at Mercedes.

‘Nobody believes grand-daughter,’ she says. ‘Grand-niece is complicated, and that makes it simpler. No-one can work it out.’

I hold up the next page on my notepad. Will take you to Walter’s room shortly.

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Can I get ready in here?’ She takes her bag into the en suite and closes the door. I again have time to think.

I think about Walter checking into this place 25 years ago. About him being well past it even then. And I think about Mercedes, or Constance—would she have reflexively used her true name?—who must have been a baby at the time or not even born. I feel dizzy and ill. This is going to kill him. I’m going to turn him into a Sudden­­. Can you be a Sudden at 93? Or does death-at-any-moment become the Expected? I thump heavily on the en-suite door and raise an urgent noise from my throat.

‘Hi?’ says Mercedes, opening the door. She’s changed into a black dress and patent leather shoes, bright pink with sharp heels. She’s brushing her hair. I grab my notebook and flick past the prepared pages. I write, I’ve changed my mind in shaky letters. She stops brushing her hair.

‘Are you sure?’

Yes.

She shrugs and says, ‘It happens. I’ll get changed again.’ She closes the door, and I sit on the bed, breathing heavily. A couple of minutes later she comes out. I stand and give her the money. She puts it in her handbag and in the same movement pulls out a business card. She places it in my hand, and as she pulls away she runs her pink-painted fingernails gently across my palm. I look down at the skin she has just stroked, and what I see is not what I expect—the deep creases, the thick calluses, the missing tip of my thumb, they all come as a surprise. It was only for a second, but I had forgotten.

The card has Mercedes written on it, a phone number, and a black-and-red floral design in the corner. I nod to say thank you, we shake hands, and I walk her to the back door.

In the lounge I stand next to the potbelly stove. I watch the fire through the open cast-iron door, try to absorb the warmth, and feed Mercedes’ card to the flames.

 

I doodle on the notepad while I wait for Walter to decide which pawn to sacrifice. Sometimes he has a nap between moves.

It’s a couple of weeks since his anniversary. In the end I got him a chess book. The book is called Dynamic Openings. It was a joke, but not as potentially lethal as Mercedes. He said thanks, put it in his room, and either hasn’t opened it or has read it cover to cover but chosen to ignore every word. He just tried the Scholar’s Mate again.

I stop doodling on the notepad and turn the pencil over in my fingers. For some reason I snap the lead at the tip, and it breaks beneath the tapered wood. I pull the tube of lead out and look down the hole at the top, black and hollow.

 

We’re at breakfast. These days I eat, or more accurately drink, thin sloppy muesli, or sometimes a bowl of watery porridge. I sound like I’m complaining, but it’s not too bad, really. Beats eating worms from a wooden box six-feet below; beats turning from flesh and thought into fertiliser for the gluggy earth.

I scrawl a question mark on my notepad and point at Old Walter’s hat. He’s wearing one of those tweed hats, like he’s off to meet the Queen.

‘Harry and Bee are coming today, picking me up after breakfast.’ Harry is his kid, and Bee is Harry’s wife. ‘Going to theirs for lunch.’

I give him the thumbs up.

‘They asked about you,’ he says. I point to the question mark again.

‘About how you’re going, after your operation.’ I nod.

‘They like you,’ he says after another few seconds. I write Who on my notepad.

‘Harry and Bee. They say it’s nice that I have someone to talk to.’ I make a laughing face but without noise—it hurts too much to laugh out loud, what with my tongue the way it is. It’s ridiculous, firstly to think that Walter ever bloody talks that much, and secondly that he chooses to talk to someone who can’t talk back.

Old Walter, he’s watching his food as he eats, concentrating on it the way he does, focused on his plate, and he doesn’t see my silent laugh. Sometimes he goes cross-eyed watching his fork approach his mouth. Why watch your food so intently, so suspiciously? Where’s it going to go?

 

I can eat some normal food now, if I cut it into very small pieces; or, with things like potatoes and greens, I can get them mashed or minced. With meat, I just suck the juice out. Walter and I are at the servery. I’ve got my slices of roast lamb, my potatoes, my beans and peas.

The woman with the tongs says, ‘Carrots?’ and loads up my plate. Christ.

Then Old Walter says, ‘Frank doesn’t want carrots.’

‘What?’ she says. She’s wearing a name badge, but the name is something I can’t even be bothered thinking about how to pronounce. The consonants are all fucked up. And the vowels.

‘Frank doesn’t like carrots.’

‘Who’s Frank?’ she says. She huffs and puffs but picks them off my plate, one by one.

I prepare myself to utter a word. They’ve assigned me a speech therapist—whoever they are. The therapist is a tiny woman named Andrea. I make efforts with my exercises mainly for her benefit. She doesn’t say much, but she’s so earnest.

‘Hank,’ I say. This is as close as I can get to Thanks. It’s the tip and part of the front side of my tongue that are gone, and those sounds at the back of the mouth are the easiest.

‘No problem,’ the server says back to me. But I had been talking to Walter.

 

We are watching telly, Walter and me. Or rather we were. He’s fallen asleep.

It’s only us in the lounge, which happens sometimes in the later evening. Going to bed has lost its appeal. And Old Walter usually falls asleep in his chair and only goes to bed when he wakes up.

I’m watching some movie without the sound on. This girl is angry at this really tall bloke. She tries to hit him and he grabs her wrists. They wrestle, then kiss, then she runs out the door. It’s entirely ridiculous.

I’m biting at the missing bit of my thumb, as if there were a proper fingernail there. With my other hand I grip the arm of the chair, tightly. I feel a constant sense of movement now—in the air and the earth. In my mind.

Walter just twitched. He’s probably still half asleep, but I figure that if I’m going to say something, now is as good a time as any.

‘Orrer?’ This is Walter, in my new vernacular. He wakes with a jolt because his hearing aid is still on from watching telly.

‘Huh?’

‘Horry.’ Sorry.

‘What?’

‘Horry, I oke you.’ Woke you.

‘Good as gold,’ he says and snorts for some reason, like a horse.

Out of my mouth comes, ‘Orrer, I’m hired.’ Tired. ‘And horry.’

‘Pardon?’ He’s closed his eyes again, but is awake.

‘I’m horry.’

‘What about?

‘Mose hings.’ Most things.  

‘No need,’ he says and shifts in his chair. ‘You did the right thing, not going through with it. With that girl.’

‘Hok?’ What. I smack the arm of my chair, and he opens his eyes.

‘For my anniversary. We all knew about it. You can’t keep that sort of thing secret, not around here.’

‘Hucking hell.’ I think about it for a few seconds. ‘Pam ow?’ Pam know?

‘Everyone knew,’ he says. He closes his eyes. ‘I’m 93. She could have killed me,’ and he goes back to sleep within seconds.

I think Walter just might live forever, and so he should.

I am dissolving, becoming black liquid, turning into a river running foul.

‘Frank?’ Here’s Old Walter, starting a conversation. He’s doing this more often these days. Must be getting his second wind.

‘Hok?’

‘Christmas is just round the corner.’

‘Ho?’ So.

‘My kids are picking me up, on Christmas morning, taking me to theirs for the day. Come with me?’

This sorrow of mine, how does it come so suddenly, and from where? I don’t think Walter even noticed—I always have my hanky at my face these days, mopping up the dribble. And besides, he was too busy staring at my rook. He has plans for my rook. As an answer to his question, I give him the thumbs up.

‘Frank,’ he says.

‘Hok?’

‘I think I agree with you. I don’t like carrots either.’ Christ. He’s taken about six months to get back to me with his revised thoughts on carrots. I pick up my notepad and write on it, You’re a bloody hero, and tear off the page and hand it to him. He folds it in half and slips it into his shirt pocket.

Then he checkmates me.

 

I’m in hospital, alone. The guy I was sharing this room with died yesterday. His name was Charlie. Christ, what a scene.

I’ve got pneumonia. To be honest, I don’t care for it. I feel like I’ve been turned inside out. I had a fever that lifted me right off the bed, and I floated around the room like a twisted, malevolent ghoul.

The nurse gave me a pill to knock me out, but perhaps it was the wrong one because I’m bug-eyed awake. Perhaps it was a painkiller, but if so, that’s not working either. The pneumonia isn’t too bad now, but it made the pain grow. I squirm to try to find a position, a physical attitude, that’s more comfortable. But—the pain is always there, rising and falling, like an oven dial being turned to every notch but off. If this is my punishment, I wish I could handle it better. But it’s how things go. You need your strength the most just when you have none of it left.

It’s Christmas Eve. I made it through that winter. The weather is warm, but it hasn’t thawed out my frozen core yet. It might take more than a season. It might take a crematorium’s furnace.

I haven’t seen Walter for two weeks, not since I came to hospital. He tried to visit once, but they said he couldn’t because there was a norovirus outbreak in my ward. Norovirus. There cannot be such words. I no longer believe in such things.

On the phone, Walter said he would come again, on Christmas day. For Christmas, I’m giving him my notebook—the one he gave me—with all my old notes still in it, all those pencil scratchings and diagrams and makeshift shorthand rambles about chess, his car, things on telly, carrots. He can do with it what he wants.

Walter said he’ll come and take me to his kids’ place in that yellow Corona of his, and we’ll have Christmas. He said he’ll just walk in, and if they stop him, I should just walk out. That’s our grand plan: slow, determined walking. The thing is, I think it just might work. I can feel the yards left in my legs. I can almost count the twitches remaining in my muscles. I believe there are just enough.





Allan Drew

Allan Drew is a PhD student at Victoria University Wellington, where he studies creative writing and English literature. His short stories and poems have been published in a number of journals and magazines, and he has won or been short-listed in several writing competitions.