The first thing he can remember is the smell of dirty clothes. Their house is always full of dirty clothes; this is Leningrad, the city, so they’re never dirty in the traditional sense – well worn, pilly clothes and the smell of washing powder. This is in the days that true Russians will share out their houses with their comrades.
The Sergievskies have always been true Russians.
The first thing he remembers is the feel of the pieces in his hands, given over by some distant uncle on his father’s side. The smoothness of the plastic and the thin grooves of the horse’s mane, the bishop’s cassock. He will sleep beside them as children do tin soldiers and stuffed toys. Even before he knows how to speak he is in love with the symmetry of them, the order. It is a long time before he realizes that the checkered board the pieces came in is not a box, but a battleground.
All his life he has loved chess. All his life.
He has very few memories of his childhood in Leningrad. When he is nine his family has already moved into their winter home in Yaroslavl, which is an ugly, cold city. The house is secluded from the rest of town, perched high up on a rock-face overlooking the Volga River. He misses the noise of Leningrad, the clamor of their comrades from the municipal office and from his mother’s sewing circle.
Their house in Yaroslavl is quiet. Oftentimes his father will wake up screaming, haunted by whatever it is he saw during the war. Early mornings will be spent playing chess with his sister Polina in the drawing room, waiting for the sun to come up.
When it finally does, nothing has changed. The house is still Spartan and sterile. His father is still the same sorry man as ever. He prays for the day he can get out and away, back to Leningrad, back to his friends.
This is 1961. Still, nothing has changed. There is very little left of Leningrad now. At least, nothing that he would recognize.
He’s fourteen the first time he’s called a fag and actually starts to think about it. Up until now he’s been hearing the word but never considering it. The boy who calls him a fag is the captain of the drama club, which you would think would make him the bigger fag, but there are girls in the drama club and there are girls in choir and there are no girls in chess club.
Up until now he’s never considered that, either.
When he gets home he wants to ask his mother for her two cents on the situation but of course his mother isn’t there. He would be a little more sympathetic if he thought she was working, but he’s a smart boy, really. Smart enough to know a lie when he hears one and smart enough to know that his mother is not at the laundromat but out, once again, buying crack from Paul.
So he digs some of (Peter? Darren?) Paul’s porn out of the trash and settles down on the couch. The women are all dead eyed and beautiful. He feels his dick twitch.
(He’s not a fag. That’s fucking ridiculous.)
He meets Svetlana at the terminal in Moscow and ends up never catching his train to Leningrad. Svetlana Vodyanov is petite as anything with a thin mouth and knowing eyes. She is studying poetry at Lomonosov and knows nothing about board games of any kind. When he tells her that he is planning on playing chess for a living, she laughs in his face.
‘What?’ he says, and she shakes her head at him.
It is snowing outside the terminal and their feet crunch in the snow. He doesn’t even realize he is leaving until he is already gone.
He nearly misses his first state competition because his mother is passed out on the couch. He ends up bumming a ride from one of her nicer boyfriends which is all sorts of awkward but he can’t bring himself to care.
When they pull up at the town hall the guy shakes his head and mutters, ‘Jesus fucking Christ, Fred, y’sure about this?’
He nods, even though he isn’t. The parking lot is full to the brim with dark, expensive looking cars and children that look even more so. The boy takes one last look at his little magnetic chess set before folding it up and shoving it into his bag. The boyfriend watches him with interest.
‘What’re you playing for?’
‘Money, I guess.’
Boyfriend replaces his sunglasses.
‘Y’need me to hang around? Pick you up?’
He shakes his head.
‘I’ll buy a ticket back.’
He wins his first campus competition when he’s nineteen and Svetlana’s in the audience. Her applause is delayed; she doesn’t know what’s just happened, whether or not the cease of game is a bad sign or not. But the smile on her face is radiant.
The next day he’s called out of class to see a talent agent in the dean’s office. The man comes bearing promises of a national competition, of a seat at the WCC.
His posture and way of speaking screams of government, and when he smiles at the younger man, he smiles like a wolf.
With his first check he went out and bought a new pair of Keds. He was later forced to return them by his mother after a good hiding. Now he’s more careful with his money.
It’s as he’s counting his latest winnings that he receives a call from the FIDE – or rather, the US representative for the FIDE. She’s saying, ‘Have you ever considered playing on a national level?’
He sucks on the edge of one of his coins.
‘Sure, I mean – if I were old enough.’
The lady asks him how old he is.
She says, ‘That’s old enough.’
‘Oh,’ he replies, and then, after a pause, ‘Oh.’
‘So you’d consider it?’
He looks to the heap of dishes in the kitchen sink, still in need of washing. He looks to his magnetic chess set and the pile of money adjacent.
‘Sure,’ he says, ‘Sure, I’d consider it.’
The first time he snaps at Svetlana is on the eve of the one-year anniversary of their first meeting. Italy is hot and unforgiving in the summer and he is feeling claustrophobic, encaged. It’s two weeks until the competition but the only person he’s seen is Svetlana, Svetlana, Svetlana who doesn’t even know how to play chess.
‘Come back to bed,’ she tells him, but his mind is focused on the game. This won’t be the year he takes the championship, he knows that. It won’t even be the year is name makes it into a newspaper. (But if Svetlana could just shut up…)
Italy is the first time he snaps at Svetlana. It’s the beginning of a long of arduous betrayal.
Up until now he’s always thought of himself as an amateur chess player. “Amateur” meaning “for the love of,” not “inexperienced.” He is by no means inexperienced. But being in Chicago with all these other teenagers – these children of engineers and oil tycoons – is giving him pause.
He is provided with a coach who tells him that wealth is no match for experience but he’s not so sure. Coach says a lot of dubious things. “Always clear everything with me before you go through with it.” “Don’t ever look your opponent in the eye.” “Don’t speak with anybody.”
But he is always speaking to people. Here, he’s Freddie Trumper, playing for the whole of New Jersey, and girls fawn over him, even though he’s never been handsome or particularly muscular. Here he’s funny and charming and the son of a businessman too busy to come to competitions.
Here he can be anyone he wants to be. (Even if that means speaking more at people than with them.)
He gets the message during a game of chess in Presnenskiy park and has to halt the game. It’s not that he’s surprised (the soft swell of Svetlana’s stomach has been impossible to ignore) but that he is so discomforted by the word itself: “pregnant.”
“Pregnant” calls to mind words like “swollen” and “loaded.” “Pregnant” makes him think of things exploding, things bursting. It makes him think of his father awaking in the night, screaming.
It is a winter wedding, in the end, but he’s hot under the collar, and throughout the whole ceremony all he can imagine is the way her bellybutton will begin to protrude, as hard and as round as an acorn.
When they kiss her mouth tastes of black treacle and beet sugar molasses; of Borodinsky sourdough and Sobranie cigarettes. Her family’s applause is deafening in the tiny church, so much louder than his own.
And Polina, Polina is looking at him. She’s looking at him meanly. She’s looking at him like she knows.
He meets Florence the first day of the championship and immediately fires his coach. Florence Vassy is rough and tough and ready to rumble. She’s a working-class girl if he could ever spot one, and one with a difficult past. (That’s the easiest thing to spot, after all.)
He doesn’t immediately ask her to be his second, not outright. The question just sort of hangs there. They speak to each other before and after matches, compare notes, go out for lunch a couple of times.
With Florence is the first time he genuinely starts to hate the Russians, not just as an opposition but as an enemy. Picturing her wandering the streets of Budapest, alone and unguarded, makes something ache deep inside him. (There is no pain like the pain of the innocents, he’s found.)
That night, he turns on the TV set and the world is screaming for Afghanistan, screaming for the murder of Mohammed Daoud. He gets the strangest urge to call his mother, and does what he usually does in these situations: he sits in silence, and he waits.
The feeling passes without incident. It always does.
There are women in Europe. Women in Asia. Women in America and England and countries as far away as Africa. He had always thought that line about sailors having a girl in every port was a little cliché but it’s true. You’d be surprised how many women are after just a one-night stand.
He finds he cannot look Svetlana in the eye. Not because he is guilty but because of the complete lack of guilt he feels in her presence. They have only been married three years.
It feels like a lifetime.
He wins his thirtieth game in Reykjavik that year, making him World Champion for the first time in his career. When the score is announced he feels his heart stop for a moment, then start to beat. The look on his opponent’s face is one of grim resignation. The score had been zero to five in the last game. He had known what was coming.
He and Florence don’t sleep together that night. They never have. Freddie’s not even sure if she wants to.
They had kissed last year in Seoul while staying at the Hyatt. She had known the look in his eyes immediately.
‘Oh, Freddie,’ she’s whispered, and he’d scowled.
‘So what?’ He was twenty-seven and he’d never been kissed. He played chess for a living, for chrissakes, what did she expect?
But the look on Florence’s face had spoken of something else. She had reached up and touched him gently, just once, her fingers caliper-like at his chin. This was a woman who had probably kissed and been kissed a lot in her lifetime, not because she was beautiful but because she was sweet and kind and knew a lost cause when she saw one.
‘Let’s go get a drink,’ she’d said, and he’d nodded.
Without Florence, he’d probably still be in the US, puttering from national to national. Florence got him places. Florence knew just what to do.
It was at the Marco Polo Airport in Venice that he was first introduced to the black eyed American man they all called Freddie, and he was purposefully avoiding his glare all the while. The word “challenger” is still rattling around in his scull the same way the word “pregnant” had four years ago. Every other opponent he’s sat across from since that first campus competition has meant nothing to him. They were nothing but steppingstones in the road to success. But Freddie Trumper… could ruin him.
Trumper shook his hand the same way every American shook his hand: weak as a dead-fish. He’d rolled his eyes all the way through the Arbiter’s opening speech, smacking his gum. Trumper is small and thin, with the sort of wiry strength he often associates with the greyhounds at Ekaterinburg. He was at odds with the tall, well-proportioned woman at his side, who stood as silent and sure as a sentinel.
She’s not that pretty, he thinks, now. But the blunt sum of her face is pleasing and he’s tired, he’s so tired. The sex is almost an excuse to have a pillow under his head. (But it’s not. He knows it’s not. It’s just what he tells himself in order to feel better.
Most of his life is spent reasoning with himself this way.)
That morning, Florence lays her palm flat against his chest, her breath tickling his ear. He’s half expecting her to tell him all of Trumper’s secrets; what he plans to do during the game; his perfect, inscrutable strategies. Instead she says nothing, and they lay that way until his alarm goes off.
Partly, it’s why he thinks he might have fallen in love with her.
He’s angry for weeks after Merano and he can sense Walter’s amusement in this. He’s angry until Christmas and then he’s angry for most of 1978, at which point he can sense Walter’s amusement beginning to fade. He’s always had a time limit on how long he’s been allowed to hold his grudges.
The night he’d forfeited the competition he had called his mother for the first time in twelve years. She had answered late, so late he’d nearly hung up for fear of having to leave a voice message.
‘Who is this?’ she’d said. Sharp and abrupt, that was Helen Trumper.
He had sucked on his bottom lip, at a loss for words.
‘I can hear you breathing, fucker,’ his mother had snapped, and suddenly he couldn’t keep it in.
‘Mom?’ he’d squeaked, and the voice on the other end of the line had gone silent. ‘Mom, it’s me.’
He’d hung up then. Slammed the phone down on the receiver. She hadn’t sounded at all like he’d thought she might sound.
At the airport in Bangkok he sees Sergievsky and does not feel the urge to strangle him as he might have a year ago. He finds he cannot hate him. He cannot even hate the Russians. Instead he just has the urge to get to his hotel room as fast as possible, turn the lights off, and pretend he doesn’t exist for a few hours.
Svetlana’s mouth no longer tastes of beet sugar. In the quick peck he gives her upon their meeting, she tastes of peppermint toothpaste and of the cold. Her hair had been cut short around her ears, like a boy. He wonders if it was a conscious decision. She looks smaller now. More fragile.
‘Come back to Russia,’ she says, and the cameras, they are recording everything. ‘Вернись ко мне.’
He waits until Florence has left to approach the Russian. The park is blue in the cool evening light but muggy. He can hear a monkey screaming in the distance. Sergievsky is watching a group of street performers dancing across the lawn. He doesn’t notice his old opponent until he’s right up by him, old magnetic chess set in hand.
‘There are some things I need to talk with you about.’
He’s half expecting Sergievsky to tell him to fuck off, given the way he’s been acting, but the Russian is nothing if not polite. He offers him a seat on the bench beside him.
They’ve both aged since they’ve seen each other last, Sergievsky more so. The crow’s feet around his eyes are more prominent now. His mouth sags at the corners.
After he is finished explaining what he knows about Viigand, the Russian smiles weakly.
‘There is a story, Mr. Trumper, where I come from, about a fox who lives very comfortably in her hut that the villagers provide her with. Every day, Sister Fox goes out and she cheats the village people in many small ways. One day, a wolf comes along and he thinks that he can eat her if he tries hard enough, and that no one will be sorry. But the fox, she tricks him too. She tells Brother Wolf that if he goes to the lake and uses his tail to catch her some fish, she will let him accompany her on her walk home. But Brother Wolf’s tail is frozen to the ice, and he is left to be eaten by the villagers.’ Sergievsky looks at him with those doleful blue eyes. ‘Sometimes, you’re not clever enough, and it’s better just to leave things be. The wolf goes hungry. The fox is left alone. This is what we are taught.’
‘That’s a bullshit story, man.’
Sergievsky blinks at him.
‘Seriously, that’s fucking bullshit. Brother Wolf was fucking stupid, that’s why he gets eaten by the villagers.’ He waves a hand at the Russians’ hotel. ‘Brother Wolf should have just gone for the jugular the moment he saw that bitch coming. Jesus Christ.’ He shakes his head. ‘No wonder your country’s such a mess.’
When he looks back, he is surprised to find Sergievsky grinning at him, and he feels something stir in his stomach he hasn’t felt since he was in freshman year.
‘Mr. Trumper –’
‘Freddie,’ he corrects him, nearly tripping over his words, ‘It’s alright if you call me Freddie. Everybody else does anyway.’
Sergievsky’s grin fades a little, but he doesn’t stop smiling.
He never does find out what he was going to say.
The first thing he does when he wins the match is to look for Florence in the audience. He finds her almost immediately. She always draws the gaze, Florence, even if she is not remarkable. Even if she is not unique in her beauty.
Her smile is not radiant. She does not applaud.
She stares at him with a special kind of anger he’s only experienced once in his life: the day he called Polina to tell her that he would not be coming home. Her mouth is red and terrible and she is screaming his name, above the applause. Over and over.
‘Anatoly!’ she shouts, ‘Anatoly you bastard!’
He seeks Svetlana out and she is not there. He even seeks out Freddie Trumper but he is long gone, of course.
For the first time in his life Anatoly Sergievsky is well and truly alone.
He’s at a beginners tryout in Italy and the little Mexican player he’s been paid to coach is a maverick. She walks from table to table, a look of intense concentration on her face, and Freddie watches from the balcony. He hardly feels the need to correct her anymore. Sixty-four squares and Carla knows them better than he ever did. Knows them intrinsically. Or at least, that’s how Freddie feels.
He’s been coaching Carla for this day for two years. Her father is some kind of dignitary, Freddie doesn’t know what about. Her brothers are all in the military. Carla, she reminds him of Florence. Abandoned, but kind.
He knows that this will be his last day with her, and from now he will have to search for a new protégé. Someone younger. Kids are where it’s at, apparently. Kids are cute. Kids don’t argue.
(Freddie argued. He won his first national when he was sixteen. He was allowed to argue.)
He hasn’t seen Florence since she went searching for her father. There had been phone calls earlier on, and letters, and then all at once she had stopped. They had stopped. Pretending everything was normal was too exhausting.
He accompanied her to Russia. He figured it was the least he could do. The plane ride over was tense and uncomfortable. Svetlana kept the children close by her side, sheltering their gazes from the woman who had, inadvertently, destroyed their lives.
Walter and Molokov, they smiled and giggled like little schoolgirls. Viigand, he – well, Viigand never did much of anything.
No questions were asked when they went their separate ways in the hotel corridor. He and Florence shared a room, obviously. It’s not that he wanted to be alone with her – her rage was so mighty – but that Svetlana could not even look at him without aging ten years in hers. (He wanted back that carefree young girl he met in Moscow. The girl who laughed in his face and came to all of his competitions.
Somewhere along the line they had stopped trying. Perhaps that is what first pushed him in his infidelity. Her indifference.)
There had been no word from the KGB – or from Walter, for that matter – on the whereabouts of Gregor Vassy. The mood in the hotel was even worse than on the plane.
He does sleep with Carla after the final competition. She’s exactly the kind of woman Freddie has always slept with. Dark and exotic. Long-legged. Afterwards she runs her hand through his hair and apologizes. (Freddie’s not sure for what. Her losing or his being unable to get it up. Possibly both.)
But he’ll hear none of it. Instead he tells her to get out. ‘Get out of my life. Out of my country.’ There’s no emotion in his voice. He’s been doing this for years.
To Carla’s credit, she doesn’t cry. She knew what she was getting when she hired him on. She leaves quietly, her hair and coat immaculate. She leaves with a newfound hardness in her eyes.
Freddie rolls onto his side and fishes for the remote. He’s been catching glimpses of Molokov on international television these past few months. Freddie doesn’t know what for. He’s never been very politically savvy, despite his vehement feelings towards the Soviets, but the pictures are always dark, and they’ve always been taken from a distance, and they usually involve a lot of heavy artillery. Freddie can guess that Molokov has, at least, moved past the world of chess.
He tunes in to the US and Reagan’s there denouncing the Soviets. He returns to the European station and Leonid Brezhnev is shouting his response.
He lies in that near-dark room, sweaty and uncomfortable, and the air crackles with electricity. Freddie just wants something to jerk off to.
His children wouldn't look at him. He remembers when there was a time that he couldn’t look at them. Yana is their eldest, exceeding her sister Marya by a full ten minutes, so she had done most of the talking. He did not think she understood what divorce meant, but when he had explained to her how unhappy her mother was, and how badly he had acted, she rolled her eyes and said: ‘Отец , вы проповедуете хору.’
You are preaching to the choir, father.
He was watching Florence dress one evening when he asked her if she’d ever slept with Freddie. She looked at him quietly, intently.
‘He’s gay,’ she said, after a while. It’s was less of a statement and more of an accusation.
‘Did he tell you that?’
Florence shook her head.
‘No. He wouldn’t.’
He considered this. It certainly made a lot of sense. His outbursts. His odd relationship with Florence. His approach in Phra Nakhon had been unexpected but now he can see how the American might have…
‘I will be leaving tomorrow,’ he had murmured, and Florence glared at him.
‘Going home to England?’
‘There are things I have to face. Here.’
‘Things with her?’ Florence snapped, but there was no anger in it. She does not hate Svetlana. She’s not that kind of woman.
So he told her the truth. ‘I’m scared of what will happen to my children if I leave. And I need to find my family. I need to apologize.’
Florence examined the view of the Kremlin from their window. He examined the curve of her neck, the way her hair cascaded down her shoulders. He almost didn’t notice the way her chest rose, then fell, resigned. Almost.
‘Alright,’ she'd said, ‘Alright, Anatoly. Go.’
The kid he’s training is such a case. He hates him but there’s nothing he can do. He’s a paid tutor now, and he’s whittled away his money in the casinos of Rome, the restaurants in Palermo.
He’s back in New York when they arrest a Soviet defector in his hotel. The newspapers are stamped with pictures of a sorry looking man who will probably be spending a long time in jail. Dieter Gerhardt.
Still no sign of the Russian – his Russian – which is uniquely annoying because people are always asking if he’s seen him. If he’s spoken to him. What he was like.
What had Sergievsky been like? Mechanical. Ascetic. He was a fan of the Alekhine defense, which made a whole lot of sense with them both being expats and all. His defenses were lethal but his attacks left something to be desired. His openings would often be quite boring. Nothing to garner any praise, Freddie thought. But he would always be watching you, that Russian.
Yes, but what was he like?
Sergievsky? He had been quiet, stoic. He had been exactly how Freddie had imagined a Russian might be. He took his liquor hard and his tea with jam. He read thin books with tiny, close-spaced writing – boring. He was like that with most things – boring, cold – but bring up chess and he would at once become a little child, rubbing his hands together and listening to you – really listening to you. He had had a remarkably innocent face.
(Remarkable considering he was such a deceitful, lecherous little creep.)
But Sergievsky always looked you dead in the eye when you were making your move. It was the one thing that Freddie liked about him.
The first thing Polina did when she saw him was to beat his chest. She has little hands like her father so it didn't hurt him in the physical sense.
‘You bastard,’ she sobbed, ‘Tolya, you bastard.’
The snow was almost up to their knees. It has always been winter in Yaroslavl.
He tried to talk her down but there was no getting around it. So he let her tire herself out shouting at him, and then slip to the ground.
‘Papa’s dead,’ she murmured, and he tensed up.
‘He fell through the ice on the Volga. Fishing.’
‘He was always telling us not to go there. When?’
Polina looked up at him and it was like looking into their father’s face. She has his eyes, the same eyes he sees in his daughters.
‘During the competition. We tried to call you.’
‘I don’t take calls then, Lina, you know that.’
Polina nodded, her bottom lip trembling.
‘You’re a real rotten bastard, you know that Tolya?’
She looked over his shoulder, staring at Walter and at Walter’s car.
‘Where is your family?’ she asked, and he tried not to grimace.
‘Svetlana and the children have decided to stay in Moscow for the winter.’
She looked back to him, dark eyes flashing, wetly.
‘For the winter?’
He nodded again.
‘At the very least.’
The kid he’s training is a case and he’s seriously considering quitting. Chess has been in his life forever but he’s sure he could survive without it. He worships at the temple of the game, prostrates himself before the board, but he won’t allow himself to fall into destitution again. Freddie Trumper has other skills he can rely on – not like Sergievsky, who was so rich he could live on board games alone. Freddie doesn’t have any loving parents to provide him with his trust fund. He doesn’t have any loving anyone.
Long nights spent cross-legged before the chess set are now spent plotting and planning. Florence is gone. Walter is no longer available. The only two people left who will still speak to him. His greatest assets. (But he won’t go back to Global, that much is decided. He won’t be their pawn again.)
When he hears about Congressman McDonald’s death he thinks of Sergievsky, who is no doubt hearing of his country’s great victory and dancing with Florence in the Red Square. (He knows that’s not true. It’s just what he tells himself so that he can feel better.)
He is also in America for the year that the Soviet allies boycott the Summer Olympics in L.A., and for Mikhail Gorbachev’s swearing in ceremony 6000 miles away. Or whatever those Ruskies call it.
(6200 miles away, a reactor begins to overheat.)
When Chernobyl happens he is playing with his niece Klementina in the backyard. He’s not sure what alerts him to the accident, but when the sirens come wailing half-an-hour later he is ready and packed to leave.
He says to Polina, ‘Finally – finally – this country will look like how it acts.’
He’s played the circuits in Azerbaijan and Iceland. Even went to Norway once. He’s no desire to see any more of Europe but this German kid makes it impossible for them to stay in America. He’s on layby in Greenland when he hears about the power station, and the first thing he does is call the Russian. He’s still not sure why. (How he got his number, why he even bothered asking for his number in the first place.)
He calls the number and there is no pickup. The phone goes straight to voicemail. But by then they are already calling for his flight.
He tries again in Iceland. And again in Paris. And again, and again, and again.
Sergievsky meets with him in Calais and it’s been snowing; his mouth is swollen and chapped. Sergievsky might have a child’s face but he’s got a whore’s mouth. It makes for bad distraction. (Suddenly Freddie’s in Thailand again and he’s wanting to cross his legs or bang his head down on the table – he’s not sure which.)
Sergievsky says, ‘I need a place to stay.’
Sergievsky says, ‘My family has left me and I have nowhere else to go.’
He stubs out his cigarette, throws it off the dock and into the ocean.
‘Florence?’ he says, raising an eyebrow.
Sergievsky looks humbled. ‘My family,’ he repeats, quietly stressing the word, ‘has left me.’
He watches while the American pulls his couch apart to give him somewhere comfortable to sleep. Nine years ago he wouldn’t have lifted his little finger to help him.
‘I won’t be staying long,’ he says, because it feels like the right thing to say.
Freddie gives him an impassive look.
‘I wasn’t planning on becoming your roommate, Sergievsky.’
Being with the American does a lot for him in those few days. He didn’t realize how badly he needed someone to keep him on his toes, someone to challenge him, to argue with him. He had had Florence but she loved him, so it was different. He doesn’t know if Freddie loves him or not. He doesn’t know if it’s selfish for him to think that he might.
(Freddie Trumper has a thin, red mouth. It’s the mouth he first fell in love with in a railway terminal in Moscow. It’s the mouth of every woman in his life who’s ever called him a cheat or a liar. Only it belongs to a man.)
In the end he finds him somewhere to stay in the west, just south of Valence.
‘It’s not much, but a client of mine sometimes lends it out to friends of the family. When I explained the situation he was… more than eager to help.’
He discretely examines Freddie over his cup of cocoa. ‘“He”?’
Freddie smirks at him.
‘It’s France. France is a lot like Thailand, when you get down to it.’
He walks him to the train station, hands shoved down into his pockets. ‘It’s colder than a fucking witch’s tit out here,’ he complains. He complains a lot for a race of people who are supposedly meant to be tough and hardy.
Freddie tells him, ‘If you ever need anything, just call, okay?’ and hands him a folded piece of paper. ‘Don’t start any wars while you’re out there.’
He takes the paper and smiles.
He’s been to a lot of train stations in his life but he’s never left any feeling like this much of an asshole.
Paris is loud and crowded during the Christmas break and he finds that this is where he is most comfortable. Quiet cities always give him the impression that he is being followed, even though the KGB have long since lost interest in him and Walter de Courcy is probably still off trekking the Siberian Desert in search of his missing agents.
He gets pissed in one of the city’s many trendy hotels and stumbles back to his room like he might have nine years ago, the Russian’s face still fresh in his mind. In another world, he could have kissed him right there and then in the train station. Their hips would have slotted together like they were made for each other and Anatoly would moan – he’d make him moan.
He’s not queer. (Except for when he is.)
The German kid comes into the top ten in the European comp he’s been training him for and suddenly he begins to see something in him that isn’t laced with contempt. He starts to think: he might actually have a chance. The kind of chance Florence could have had if they ever let her into the WCC. The kind of chance he might have had if he hadn’t… If he hadn’t.
He writes to her but he never receives any reply. By now he has left Paris and is en route to Spain. They pass le Midi at a cruising altitude of nearly 3000 feet and he finds himself thinking of Sergievsky. He’s been thinking of him less as “Sergievsky” now and more as “Anatoly ” anyway. “Anatoly” means sunrise in Russian, he is told, and he thinks of it as ironic although he’s not sure why.
The Russian is always slipping into his mind. It’s one of his less likeable qualities.
Viigand didn’t leave the country during the Chernobyl meltdown. He stayed behind to help with the evacuation. A true Russian, Leonid Viigand. The kind of Russian he could have been had he not defected back in ’77.
He sees Viigand in the newspaper and wonders what Molokov is doing. Last he had heard from Walter, he had just earned himself a seat at Gorbachev’s council, although he’s not sure how reliable this information is.
True or not, he doesn’t think Molokov will be walking freely much longer. The people are growing restless. Reagan wants the Berlin wall to come down, and the Russians are agreeing with him. He can’t say he’s disappointed. He just wishes it had come ten years earlier.
Chances are, next year he will be a free man. He will no longer have to report his whereabouts to the KGB every two months. He will no longer be looking over his shoulder at every turn.
For the first time in years, Anatoly Sergievsky starts to think about chess.
When the Gulf War ends Freddie is slumped blackout drunk against a bar on 7th Avenue. It’s the warm hand on his shoulder that wakes him up. The familiar accent.
‘I hear they are lowering the Hammer and Sickle for the last time,’ Anatoly murmurs, ‘in the Red Square.’
Freddie tries to look at him but the bar lights are too bright, he can’t make out his face.
‘So what are you doing here?’
Anatoly takes a seat beside him and flags down the barman.
‘I was looking for you, actually.’
‘Oh?’ Freddie rests his chin on his forearms, ‘France not treating you too kindly?’
Anatoly crinkles his nose. ‘Cowpat.’
He can feel Anatoly’s eyes on him. ‘Well it’s not your fault.’ A pause. ‘Florence has found her father.’
‘He had been kept in the Lubyanka for many years under an assumed name. Beaten and tortured, but still he did not talk… He and Florence are leaving for Szeged in March.’
Freddie grunts and buries his face in his hands. Anatoly is quiet for a moment. Then he drops another bomb.
‘I want to play chess again.’
Freddie swallows dryly, his heart beginning to pound. ‘I thought you were done with that.’
‘So did I, but.’ Anatoly shrugs.
‘Recent events have caused me to reconsider.’ He laughs that dark black laugh known only to the Slavs. ‘… I want you to be my second.’
He reaches for his old opponent’s drink and takes a sip.
‘What makes you think I want to be your second, Ruskie?’
This time, Freddie is able to look him solidly in the eye as he’s speaking. ‘I haven’t played chess professionally in over a decade.’
‘You played very well in Calais.’
‘That was different – that was –’ He looks around the bar, which is nearly empty, and then back to Anatoly. ‘You don’t want me to be your second,’ he says, and Anatoly reaches forward and plucks his glass out of Freddie’s hand.
‘I know what I want.’
Freddie feels sweat begin to prickle across his forehead, at the back of his neck. Time hasn’t been kind to either of them, he knows that, but the Russian man is still darkly, exotically gorgeous – grey hairs or no. And for the first time since freshman year, Freddie thinks he might be comfortable with that.
Anatoly slides him a sheet of paper.
‘When I told them I was interested they were more than eager to have me.’
‘Where is it?’ He’s so drunk he can barely read.
‘Leningrad. Well,’ he frowns, ‘They’re calling it something different now.’
‘Yes,’ Anatoly smiles, ‘My home.’
The bar is quiet and dark, but outside there will always be more quiet, and more dark. For now, they are safe.
They are in the airport when they get the news. "All Soviet institutions are to cease operations as of this moment." Anatoly had been expecting to feel saddened by this but finds that he is not. Russia stopped being the country he knew a long, long time ago but now – now – he feels as if it is finally coming back to him.
Freddie is fiddling with his little magnetic chess set and almost misses the announcement. Almost. He turns to his old opponent.
‘I suppose you’ll want to go out and celebrate.’
Anatoly shakes his head and before he knows what he’s doing he’s kissing the American. He probably shouldn’t be – the airport is crowded and the press are no doubt waiting outside the arrivals hall – but Freddie has been with him for so long and for the first time in his life he doesn’t feel tired, he feels ready.
‘Fucking hell,’ Freddie croaks, and Anatoly buries his face in his shoulder.
‘Take me home, Freddie,’ he whispers, ‘Take me home.’