Elizabeth looked up at her son with bleary eyes, red-rimmed. He wondered if she saw him at all. ‘What?’
‘I-I got a permission slip at school today,’ Freddie said, speaking slowly, clearly and concisely, as he’d learned to when talking to her. ‘A man wants me to play chess in Russia.’
Elizabeth stared at the lanky teenager. Then she let out a hoarse, scratchy bark of a laugh. ‘Russia? Stupid boy. They won’t let you in there.’
‘They want me to meet with a grandmaster,’ Freddie said, unable to stop the excitement creeping into his voice. ‘They think I have potential in chess-’
‘Chess, chess, chess,’ his mother snapped, taking a swig from the bottle in her hand. ‘This is the real world, Freddie. Now your father’s gone-’
‘-don’t bring him into this-’
‘-you need to be working a third job, and chess is never gonna make you a cent.’ She laughed again.
Freddie sighed resignedly, handing her the crumpled sheet of paper and a pen.
‘I can’t read this,’ she slurred.
‘You don’t have to,’ Freddie said. ‘Just sign on the dotted line.’
Freddie had loved chess all his life. He’d played against himself since he was a toddler (he never asked his parents, just in case they said no). When he discovered his school had a chess club at age fourteen, he didn’t think twice about joining (although in private – after all, he had a reputation to protect, and at an all-boys school, playing chess was clearly queer). He was sixteen now, and his chess club had been visited by two men in suits who had watched them play. Freddie had almost been too distracted to play to his best ability, but he’d still beaten his opponent. The men had nodded approvingly and Freddie caught the glance between them.
When they told him he was invited to play in Russia, chess capital, of all places, he’d nearly passed out.
Forty boys from America had been chosen to go to Leningrad to participate in a chess tournament. Another forty boys had been chosen from Russia. The boys would play against each other in seven three-hour sessions lasting a week. The two victors – one from Russia and one from America – would then be trained for another week before the final round: the two greatest chess-playing youths in the world.
Two days after he’d spoken to his mother, he was on a flight to Leningrad. The whole thing was practically paid for, and what wasn’t, he’d been able to fish out of his mother’s purse while she was in bed with some new guy.
She wouldn’t even notice he was gone.
Two weeks. That was all he had to make an impression. One week for the tournament, and one week for his training. And he knew he’d win; he was the best in his club, and he hadn’t lost a game in years.
Once at the airport, the first thing that struck Freddie was the cold. It was spring, but he still had to pull his old, scruffy jacket tighter around him. The other boys chattered to each other incessantly, but Freddie, who had never been one for conversation, kept his mouth shut.
From the airport, they caught a bus to a campus with two large sandstone buildings. One, they were told, was for the American boys, and the other was for the Russians. Freddie looked around, expecting to see a group of Russian boys also standing around awkwardly, but they were nowhere to be seen.
The Americans lined up single-file and were each sorted into a room with four other boys. Freddie, when told his room number, lifted his disappointingly light luggage and carried it to his room. His roommates were already waiting.
‘Great,’ the tallest one drawled. ‘We got the pretty boy.’ The others laughed.
Freddie froze. Pretty boy. His father used to call him that. No, don’t think of him-
Ten years old. His father slammed his son’s head against the desk. Angry, pained tears began to spill from Freddie’s eyes. His father took Freddie’s forefinger and bent it excruciatingly far back. ‘My son is not a fucking pretty boy!’
Freddie involuntarily glanced at his crooked finger before meeting the eye of the boy who had spoken. The boy was smirking, clearly hoping for a reaction.
Freddie knew that smirk all too well. Not in his father – in himself. And he knew how to cope. I know how to cope, he promised himself.
‘Freddie Trumper,’ he said quietly, nodding to the rest of the boys. He flung his luggage on the only free bed.
The other boys didn’t give him their names.
Sighing, Freddie checked the clock on the wall. It was only eight. The sun was still in the sky, but Freddie felt like he could sleep for a year. He threw off his jacket and flung himself down onto the bed.
He heard the other boys muttering about him, but tried to ignore it. He was used to people muttering about him.
Before he knew it, he was asleep.
He awoke the next morning to a supervisor with a brutally loud voice shouting for them to wake up. Head pounding, Freddie grudgingly clambered out of bed, as did the other boys. He was still in the clothes he was wearing yesterday.
Breakfast was served in a small area between the two buildings, and for the first time, they saw the Russians, who were already awake and collecting their food (something that vaguely resembled gruel, Freddie guessed). Most of them looked even more intimidating than the boys Freddie was bunked with. However, one or two seemed to look just as scared as Freddie felt. One of the Russians in the line, a tall but scrawny boy with brown curls and a long nose, caught Freddie’s eye. Freddie, who was completely unprepared for such an attack, looked away quickly.
After finishing his (disgusting) breakfast without speaking or looking at anyone, Freddie returned to his room before the others to take a shower. He placed a white shirt and jeans – his only good clothes – on his bed, undressed, and stepped into the shower. After three minutes of violent shivering, he realised there was no hot water. With another deep sigh, he wrapped a towel around his waist and stepped into his room.
His four roommates were back, and his clothes were nowhere to be seen.
Jesus, are they really this fucking immature?
‘Give me back my clothes,’ Freddie said, hoping the waver in his voice wasn’t noticeable.
‘Why?’ the tallest one sneered. ‘I thought you were a pretty boy and a fag-’
He didn’t finish the slur before Freddie’s fist collided with his face.
‘I’m not a fucking queer,’ Freddie snarled as the boy clutched at his bleeding nose.
Don’t think of him-
Twelve years old. His father, glancing at him one last time. ‘I can’t believe my son is a goddamn queer.’ Freddie had only heard the word a couple of times before, and it had never been used in a respectable sense. Freddie wouldn’t miss him.
One of the other boys rushed to the bleeding one’s side. ‘Are you okay? Is it broken?’
‘Of course it’s fucking broken!’ the taller one snapped. ‘We got roomed with a fucking psychopath!’
One of the boys reached under his bed and withdrew Freddie’s clothes, throwing them at him with wide eyes. Freddie wondered if they were afraid of him now.
Good, said his father’s voice.
After he’d dressed, the other boys ran to a bored-looking supervisor, who, to Freddie’s relief, let him off with a warning (‘That’s it?!’ the boy he’d punched shouted angrily. ‘A warning? He broke my goddamn nose!’).
It was nine in the morning at that point, and they were leaving for the tournament at ten. Desperate for some fresh air, he’d decided to explore the campus. He found a bench behind the building and sat down, closing his eyes. He was still freezing, but at least he could only just hear the hyperactive, shouting boys in the building.
He sat there for a few moments before he felt suspiciously like he was being watched. Ready to break another kid’s nose if it came to that, he opened his eyes wide.
Standing a few feet away and staring at him with large brown eyes was the Russian boy who had made eye contact with Freddie in the breakfast line. Freddie suddenly felt vulnerable. The Russian looked harmless, but he had an unnerving gaze.
The Russian just stared at him inquisitively.
‘Do you speak English?’ Freddie asked. ‘English?’
The Russian shook his head and said something in his own language. Freddie snorted. He’d never liked Russians (or anyone who wasn’t American, but especially communists), and for a moment he contemplated breaking this freak’s nose too, just for the hell of it. But the boy gestured to the space beside Freddie, and before he knew it, Freddie was making room for the boy to sit down.
‘Freddie Trumper,’ Freddie said, pointing to himself.
Freddie laughed and shrugged. ‘Good enough.’
The boy then said something that sounded like gibberish. Freddie looked at him. ‘What?’
‘A-na-to-ly,’ the boy said. ‘Ser-gi-ev-sky.’
Now it was the Russian’s turn to laugh. He repeated his name, and he and Freddie went back and forth before finally, it seemed Freddie had pronounced it correctly.
‘Anatoly Sergievsky?’ Freddie said uncertainly.
Anatoly nodded and smiled, and Freddie gradually felt all reproach seep away. Maybe this Russian was alright. He seemed better than his roommates, anyway.
‘Yes!’ Anatoly said, and Freddie blinked.
‘You do speak English?’
‘Yes,’ Anatoly said again.
‘Do you know any words other than yes?’
‘Is that it?'
Freddie laughed. ‘That’s what I thought.’
At that moment, a bell rang. The two boys looked around and saw the others were filing together. Anatoly, realising he had to leave, waved Freddie goodbye. Freddie, despite himself, waved back before joining the other American boys.
And he realised he was smiling.
I’m not a fucking queer.
To Freddie’s surprise, the Russians and Americans were both placed on the same buses this time around. Anatoly and Freddie ended up on the same bus, and they caught each other’s eyes again. Of course, they didn’t sit with each other – and American and a Russian sitting together would certainly be a source of torment for them both – but when Freddie’s roommate, now with a bloody, crooked nose walked onto the bus and glared daggers at Freddie, with an ‘I’ll get you for this, you son of a bitch’, Anatoly glanced at Freddie, and then at the boy’s nose, clearly with a questioning look.
Freddie nodded embarrassedly, and Anatoly gave a mischievous smile. He suddenly stood and shouted something in Russian for the whole bus to hear, pointing at the boy with the broken nose. One of the supervisors scolded him and he sat back down, but the Russian boys all began to laugh. Freddie and the Americans looked around, confused.
The Russian boys who didn’t have an occupied seat next to them began to hoist their legs up or stretch out so as to take up both seats. The boy with the broken nose looked around desperately for somewhere to sit. All the other boys now had seats except him.
‘Sorry,’ Freddie heard the blond boy in front of Anatoly say to the boy in Russian-accented English with a sly smile. ‘Looks like all the seats are taken.’
The boy glared at him and opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment, the bus jolted to a start and the boy fell backwards, just at the same time as Anatoly stuck his leg out into the aisle. The boy tripped and fell on his back, and the boys from both nations began to laugh. Anatoly, with a smug smile, looked down at his victim. ‘Sorry.’
The supervisors, only just noticing the disruption, yelled for quiet and helped the boy up, finding him a seat. Freddie, once he’d stopped laughing, looked at Anatoly, who smiled back. He had a nice smile, Freddie thought, not vindictive or cruel. It was kind, and it surprised Freddie. He wasn’t used to people smiling at him genuinely.
I’m not a fucking queer.
Once they arrived at the building where the tournament was to take place, a hush fell momentarily over the boys as they gazed up at the brilliant architecture. Intricate designs were carved on every wall and every step leading up to the even more intricately carved double doors. They were sorted back into their nationalities and ushered in single file into the building.
The interior was almost just as impressive. The windows were tall, glass arches, and the ceiling was supported by marble pillars. Perhaps the most enthralling to Freddie, however, was the seemingly endless rows of tables, each with a chess set and chess clock atop it. Freddie’s eyes gleamed, not at the prospect of chess, but at the prospect of victory.
Before they could begin, there was a short explanation of how the rotations would work: after each game, the victors would approach the front desk and give his name, and his win would be recorded. After the last game of the three hours, the game would end. The next day, the top twenty Americans with the most wins would play against the top twenty Russians. The day after that, the top ten. The day after that, the top five. The day after that, the top two (if two victors were of the same nationality, they would play against each other). Then, the two remaining players – one American, one Russian – would be trained for a week by various grandmasters before they would battle it out in the final round.
Freddie knew he could win. He knew he would.
They were each given badges with their names and then seated at a table. Freddie noticed Anatoly was just a couple of rows away from him.
The first round began. Freddie was playing the blond boy who had sat in front of Anatoly on the bus, whose nametag read Leonid Viigand. Viigand was good – brilliant, in fact, Freddie realised – but still not good enough. Freddie couldn’t help grinning as he delivered the fatal move and uttered ‘Checkmate’. Viigand scowled and Freddie told the woman at the desk his name. There was something remarkably satisfying about seeing her draw a stroke next to his name.
The next few games passed easily. No one he had played against had come close to beating him. Soon, his opponents became a blur. The strokes next to his name in black ink continued to increase. He didn’t see the faces of those he was playing anymore; it was only him and the chess board and his hand slamming against the clock.
That was, until round eight.
He looked up, ready to win, when his eyes caught glittering brown.
‘Anatoly,’ he said, unable to help smiling.
Anatoly nodded, also smiling shyly. He held up seven fingers, and Freddie assumed he was telling him how many wins he had so far. All of them.
Freddie did the same. They were tied.
The game began, and almost immediately, Freddie felt a difference. He felt the red flush creeping up his neck and into his cheeks. He felt the beads of sweat begin to form on his forehead. Sergievsky was good. Better than Viigand. Better than you, his father’s voice said.
Freddie realised too late he was being backed into a corner. He also realised he was shaking so violently his hand nearly knocked over his king. Pull yourself together, Trumper.
I’m not a fucking queer.
‘Sorry!’ Anatoly said suddenly, and Freddie stared at the board incredulously.
‘No, Anatoly,’ he said, and he realised he wasn’t even angry. ‘The word’s “checkmate”.’