The Voyage of Life Old Age by Thomas Cole, 1840
78 wasn't very different from 77, he found himself thinking, as he sat alone in the room, the day after his birthday. He barely knew what to do with his Tuesdays anymore. The lilies on the windowsill were wilting. The brown pollen spilt over the yellow petals. There was a waft of rot in the heady fragrance. Death was calling, even in the warm afternoon sun of his room.
His afternoons were reserved for chess with 77. In another world, she would have been the love of his life. The way she carefully moved her pieces across the chessboard. The way she secretly harboured a soft spot for her knight. The way her pieces danced to a tune only she could hear.
He spent more time looking at her eyes than at the movements on the board. His distractions cost him many games. To him, it was worth it. Her eyes narrated a story. He observed that 77 visualised endless possibilities before she finally moved her piece. Her coffee brown eyes lit up with each iteration. When she was satisfied, a small smirk spread across her face. She was slow to move and quick to calculate. But 78 didn't mind. It meant more time with her.
He never did ask her name. It seemed inconsequential at the moment. She was always 77 in his head. He was 78.
He remembered her by the details. Her hair was contained in a hasty bun. Her peach rimmed glasses made her anachronistic. They were perched precariously on her pointy nose. In the tensest moments, when she was lost in a thread of thought, they would remind her of their existence by sliding off. She would nonchalantly adjust them with a move of her left index finger. She almost always let her tea get cold and would make a face when she drank it. Her voice... he wondered what it sounded like when her eyes didn't dart around nervously to chant "Your move."
It struck him as odd, that they played such a violent game. Plotting to kill each other. Allowing pawns to dream of becoming queens, knowing that their fate was sacrifice. That they would swap bishops for rooks, calculating that one life was less than the other. A harsh and cruel world prospered in those sixty-four squares.
It felt like their dance would go on forever. She showed up every afternoon in a disarray. He pre-arranged the pieces. She picked a side with urgency. And the battle began. Often enough, he would sacrifice paying attention to her to win. He knew if he lost too often, she would lose interest. And the music would stop.
But one day, through no fault of his, the music stopped. The doorbell remained silent through the afternoon. Her messy bun didn't make an appearance. The glasses were nowhere to be seen. An aberration, he dismissed the anomaly. But it happened again the next day. And for every day after. There was plenty of time for anxiety and regret. How could 78 go after 77?
Yesterday, the silence broke. A faded yellow envelope made its way to his dining table. Anonymous. His address on the front and no address on the back. Intuitively he knew the chicken scrawl was hers. He had never seen her writing before, but it didn't matter.
I wanted to tell you sooner, but I never knew how.
I've languished at you, 77, for years now, despite knowing that I could achieve more. I worried that if I progressed, I'd leave you behind. For reasons I can't explain, the progress wasn't worth it. It amazes me how you always forget to protect your rook! Almost as if you don't care about its fate.
I spent endless minutes calculating how to let you win. Yet, somehow, you always managed to stomp down the one path that didn't lead to victory. You've made me forget why it is that we play chess. With you, for the first time, I felt a triumph in losing.
In other news, I'm unwell. Funny, as this day brings you life, I am drawn closer to death. Much like a game of chess. Every move seals the fate of a piece. One wins. The other loses.
It seems amiss to leave without saying goodbye. Without telling you that I cherished our afternoons more than anything else.
May you at least learn to protect your rook!"
For a day, he was paralysed. Unwilling to move. Processing. Processing. Processing. He thumbed the letter as a restlessness settled into his heart. He never read the letter again. She had known it was his birthday. She had wanted to stay too. The bittersweetness of the moment pierced him. How long had she been unwell? How long had she known? They were two peas in a pod. How could they be separated?
He shuffled up to the phone and dialled an oddly familiar number.
"77 hasn't shown up in weeks."
"I'm sorry sir, she resigned from the club for health reasons. We're still in the process of finding you a partner."
"Can you give me her address?"
"I'm afraid that's against our policy."
"What sort of policy is that? She knew where I lived! She's come here every day for over six years now." The edge in his voice was visible. "We were friends," 78 sighed.
"Sir, but you don't even know her name."
"I know her. That's enough."
The exasperated associate relented and reeled out an address.
78 rang the doorbell, chess set in his left arm, a bouquet of fresh lilies in his right. There she was, looking better than ever. Coffee brown eyes, pointy nose, messy bun, and sliding glasses.
"Took you long enough," she laughed. "I'm well, by the way."
He had been played. Again.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Samyuktha is an avid story collector. Given a chance, she'd spend all her time reading and writing. Of late, she's taken an interest in history, heritage, and art.