Conflict. I, Mr Black, have a key. Mr White has a key. I want his key and he wants mine. Neither of us is prepared to give the other what they want.
These are not our real names. They were given to us on the envelopes that contained the keys, to replace whatever names we had before, names we have forgotten, though we have been here barely eight weeks.
I glance down at the chess set in front of me. I am being beaten once again, but I don’t want Mr White to know that I know that. I look up, and briefly meet his impassive gaze. “You’re up to something.” I mutter, and tentatively move my bishop onto the one square that my king could have escaped to, six moves hence. “There.”
There’s a faint smile now that the trap has been sprung. He leans forward and absently twists his unkempt moustache between his thick, blunt fingertips. “Very good,” he says as he reaches out and centres the ceramic piece I have just moved. Fastidious on the chess board, a slob in person. “Have you given any more thought to my proposition?”
Just like me, his thoughts are never very far from the way out of this place, and the impasse that keeps it locked.
I glance towards the door. The shiny metal surface is broken only by a plain handle. It opens freely to reveal another door, but this one is locked, and has no handle, so we assume it must open outwards. It has two keyholes; they match the keys Mr White and I have. When the outer door is open the keyholes are blocked. When the outer door is closed, and a key is inserted, the outer door locks shut, until that key is removed. We know all of this because we have both stood in the gap between the doors. But not together. There isn’t room for the two of us. We don’t know what will happen to the other when one of us holds both keys in our possession and opens that inner door, but neither of us want to be the one that finds out.
It is day fifty-four. Tomorrow morning we will awaken and find that the food stocks in the kitchenette have been replenished. Tomorrow there will be a fresh pack of seven cotton jumpsuits, white, with “Mr Black” embroidered in black thread over the heart. Mr White has been changing his black outfits only once every 5 days or so and still has a number left. Tomorrow there will also be a fresh set of bed sheets, for both of us. And tomorrow a new gift will arrive.
The chess set came at the start of the second week. Nothing arrived the third week, when we took turns to watch the cupboards through the night to see how they were restocked. We went hungry and tonight we will retire early to our rooms to make sure the food, the clothes, but most importantly the gift, are delivered.
I look back to Mr White. “I’m still not convinced.” I shrug. “Maybe after we’ve seen what they bring us tomorrow?”
“As you wish.” He reaches down and shifts his rook one square to the right, an innocent looking move that only tightens the noose, and then he slumps back into his chair.
Mr White’s proposition is simple. A game of chance, to decide who should have both keys. But I can’t trust him. The fourth week we received letters - fan mail. Someone out there is watching us, and someone out there is my guardian angel. “Watch out for Mr White! He has been keeping open containers of food under his bed until it rots – I think he plans to poison you!”
Mr White laughed when I confronted him. I hadn’t been in his room for a while. There were paper plates, plastic cups, plastic cutlery and empty food containers scattered over the floor. He picked up a half-eaten tub of salmon from under his bed, sniffed it and screwed up his face. “Well. Perhaps I should clean up occasionally.”
From then onwards we stopped cooking for each other.
I take my time over my next move. His passive rook move looks like it has given me the initiative. I sit with my elbows on the edge of the small, folding table we play chess on. But I’m not thinking about the game. I’m wondering how to encourage him to play for higher stakes. Something more than putting up with his smug glee when he wins, or his childish petulance over the scant few draws I have engineered to prevent him having it all his way. I’m thinking of how I can get him to play black; so far, I’ve played marginally worse when I’m white, quickly ceding the first move advantage. I’m wondering too, not for the first time, how it is that I know the names of every obscure opening and variant that Mr White throws against me, but I don’t know my name, or when it was that I learnt to play chess. I wonder if this forgetfulness was enforced, or did we somehow volunteer? Are we prisoners, or contestants?
The game reaches its inevitable conclusion and Mr White yawns extravagantly, his hand failing to hide his smile. “Well, goodnight, and better luck tomorrow. I think you almost had me there, I’m going to have to up my game.”
I scowl, but it isn’t any more real than the game we have just played, and retire to my room.
I’m awake and dressed before the lights reach their full morning brightness, before the gentle buzz that indicates it’s time to get up – “Show Time” as Mr White calls it. I head to the kitchen, meeting Mr White on the way. He gives me a cheery smile, and a hearty “Good Morning”, but I don’t respond, and together we swing open the door to the little store room. The gift lies on the third shelf in a plain brown cardboard box, and is surprisingly heavy. We both stick our hands through the polystyrene packing material, searching for whatever lies within. I feel it first; hard, cold metal, a tube or some kind, and I quickly pull it out before Mr White can grab it.
It’s a gun. Or more accurately, a revolver, and I’m holding it by the wrong end. I see Mr White’s eyes do a quick calculation and I quickly seize the handle with my other hand. But I’ve already seen daylight through the chambers and I break the gun open to show him. “It’s not loaded.”
Mr White picks up the cardboard box and turns it upside down, a cloud of white figure-of-eights flutter to the floor and I step sharply back. “No bullets.” He says.
“No,” I agree, promising myself that it won’t be me who cleans up the mess. “Maybe they’ll arrive next week. But why?”
“Well. We have been a little boring of late. They obviously want to up the ante.”
“Maybe. Breakfast first though...”
His hand clamps on my arm. “Not so fast. Maybe you’re right, and those bullets will arrive next week. Or maybe you get one free with each pack of cereal. Unless you want to hand over the gun, I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
I’m hungry, and tired, I never sleep well the night before a gift. “Fine. Let’s get this over with. A single game of chess, winner takes all.” I snap.
He pauses. “You mean play for the gun?”
I wave my hand. “The gun, the keys, whatever it takes to satisfy whoever it is who’s watching us. Now that the spectre of violence has been raised, I’d rather not give them that satisfaction.”
“O-kay.” He says, slowly. “You’re sure you wouldn’t rather flip a coin?”
“Quite sure, thank you. I’d rather not have my life ruled by the capricious hand of fate. Not that you have a coin, anyway.”
And so we play. He offers me black, thinking he is doing me a favour, but I reject his pitying kindness. He palms one pawn of each colour, I choose his right hand, and fake disappointment when he opens it to reveal the milky white piece.
I open conservatively, pawn to King four. He responds with pawn to Queen six, an attempt to unsettle the novice player. In a couple of moves we are in the relatively uncharted territory of the Pirc Defence. I have firm control of the centre – without appearing to have done much work, while black is ready to pounce when I make a mistake.
“You know,” he says, not looking up from the board “the gun really doesn’t change anything. Violence was always a possibility.”
I shrug. “But the outcome would be unclear. There would be no distinct advantage.”
He laughs. “No? I’ve thought of a dozen ways to incapacitate you. And most of them involve no more risk than using a gun.”
A dozen? I think to myself. Food poisoning, for one. What else? I can’t imagine. I shudder. “So why didn’t you?”
He looks up towards the corner of the room. There is no camera visible there, but there are obviously cameras somewhere, and the shorthand gesture is easily interpreted. “What happens when one of us leaves? If one of us wins, but is viewed as having done so by cheating? What sort of reception would they get? No, it has to be fair. That’s why I suggested a simple game of chance. I’m disappointed you didn’t agree.”
“Well. Here we are instead. And it’s your move.” We play on. Mr White proceeds to set up an elaborate trap that, as usual, requires my cooperation to be sprung. But on this occasion, I delicately side-step his forks and pins, whilst sniping at his exposed pieces. By not fully negating the danger he threatens, I’m able to orchestrate his next moves; if I move here, and his plan is still to work, he has to move there, and in short order, I’m two pawns up, and yet he still thinks he is winning.
Then suddenly, unexpectedly, he pulls out the foundations of his trap. In two decisive moves my rook is exposed and then taken. I take back, though it weakens my defence to do so, and a cold bead of sweat trickles down my back. He reaches across the board to straighten the knight I have just taken, and I bat his hand away in annoyance. The black piece spirals to the floor and from its shattered remains a round cylinder with a pointed end rolls under the table.
Mr White is quick, much quicker than his stolid girth belies. In an instant his meaty fist seizes both the bullet and the gun, which had been resting next to the board. I lunge at his arm to stop him bringing the two together and a firm push sends me and my chair tumbling backwards. By the time I’ve pulled myself up the gun is levelled in my direction.
“We can play this one of two ways,” he pants. “I can shoot you, and take the key from you, or you can willingly hand it over. Either way I’m leaving here.”
I wonder if I should call his bluff. Or if I should throw the key short, or at him, and wait for his gaze to leave me and swiftly kick out at his gun arm. But I daren’t. I suspect that that only works in movies. So I toss him my key, and though he fails to catch it I don’t move while he gropes for it on the floor.
“Stand against that wall.” He orders, and then he opens the steel door. He pauses in the doorway, and gestures once more to the imaginary camera in the corner of the room. “For them.” he says, and there’s a boom so much louder than I could have imagined, and I feel the sting of small pieces of masonry against my cheek as the bullet smacks into the wall a foot away from my head. By the time I look back, my heart pounding and my ears ringing, the door is closed and he is gone.
I pick up the folding table and start replacing the chess pieces on the board from memory. Do any of the other pieces contain a bullet? Perhaps it was just the black knight. Or perhaps all of them do – even the pawns are big enough, and heavy enough.
The board restored, I study the position. Were Mr White’s final moves pure luck, or had he been playing me, the way that I thought I’d been playing him?
I’m trying to work out if the rook-knight exchange was decisive - would it have been enough to win him the game? – when there’s an embarrassed cough from behind me. I look up to see a man garbed in black. He isn’t much to look at - so thin and pale he looks decidedly unhealthy, an impression not helped by his wispy gray hair and his gormless expression. But he’s holding a pair of keys, and a black chess piece.
I smile engagingly, and nod towards the game set out before me, and ask - “Do you play?”
And for the merest instant, his eyes light up and a predatory half smile curls his lips, before he nonchalantly shrugs and takes his place on the other side of the board.
Stalemate by Liam Hogan was ready by Freddie Machin at the Liars' League Black & White event at The Wheatsheaf, London on Tuesday 11 August 2009