Title: Learning Chess


In: Sport 31: Spring 2003

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, November 2003

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 31: Spring 2003

CLAIRE BAYLIS — Learning Chess

page 189


Learning Chess

‘I suppose you can cook?’ Isa asked her.

‘Macaroni cheese,’ said Kristin, and then, without looking again at Isa or Martin, she asked the children if they liked macaroni cheese. Alex nodded, while Lana twisted round her dad's legs, her head tilted down, fringe flopping forwards.

‘With bacon,’ said Alex, ‘and not broccoli.’

‘Yuk,’ said Kristin, leaning down to him, but keeping her voice loud enough for them all to hear, ‘broccoli in macaroni cheese!’

Alex beamed at her and moved a little closer; he started to tell her that he was much bigger than his sister who was only two and a half. Kristin nodded and glanced up at Isa. The woman was looking at her dubiously and Kristin knew why. It was Martin who'd arranged this as a favour to Kristin's dad. They'd taken her on, even though she had no experience, was seventeen and still walked with a limp. And on the way back from town she'd insisted on sitting in the back seat of the car, forcing Isa, with the empty front seat next to her, to conduct a conversation through the rear-vision mirror.

When they'd come up the gravel drive, Martin had been standing with the children on the tiled steps up to the house, as if he were waiting for her to arrive like in some period drama, and he'd kissed her hello as if he knew her, even though they'd only met once. She'd been surprised, too, by his trendy clothes; he was nearly as old as her dad, and she'd imagined him in one of those checked shirts that farmers wear.

‘Well,’ said Martin, ‘introductions made, let's get you settled.’

Alex started tapping her on the thigh, ‘You're gonna sleep in the shed.’

‘It's a sleep-out, Alex,’ said Isa, and then she took Lana's hand and went into the house.

The house and garden sat on the top of the hill with the lines of fruit trees falling away below it. Martin pointed out the boundaries of page 190 their land and the marker where the trees turned from apples to pears. He explained that they'd been there for two years, ever since they'd got back. Kristin didn't ask where they'd been. He showed her the track down to the estuary. From here, you could see farmland on the other side of the water, so that if you didn't know, you might not have realised it was the sea.

The sleep-out was under a rata in the back garden. It was painted a light grey-blue inside and out, and was made of sheets of particle board. The paint on the window frames was blistered and the wood warped so there were gaps through which you could see daylight when inside. It smelt of feijoas, which puzzled her only later, when she realised they weren't grown on the orchard.

Kristin dumped her pack against the bottom bunk, and put her wallet on the small painted table. She looked around, but there was no chair.

‘It's lovely,’ she said, because she'd dreaded sleeping in the house with these people and their children.

‘There's no bathroom, you'll have to come inside, but you can come in anytime—we don't lock it. There's a lock here,’ Martin continued, flicking the bolt on the back of the door, ‘but you won't need it.’

‘Uh huh,’ said Kristin, knowing that she was a city girl, that she would lock the door every night.

Alex had climbed on to the top bunk and was burrowing under the covers, his bottom in the air. ‘I'll show you the rest; come on Alex.’

‘I could sleep in here. With her.’

‘When you're older,’ said Martin, fishing him out, and as he turned, spinning the boy down to the floor between them, he winked at Kristin.

They walked down the hill to the cottages by the estuary; at this tide they looked out over mud flats and wading birds.

‘We're usually booked on weekends,’ said Martin, ‘but I have to admit that's about it for now.’

Kristin nodded because he was looking at her, smiling as if they were sharing a joke.

‘So you'll clean these in the mornings, whenever someone's stayed, page 191 and our house too, of course. In the afternoons you'll have the children while Isa paints. She'll work right up till they're in bed, ready for stories. Isa'll go through it with you properly.’

In fact Isa told Kristin nothing more than where the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine and the mop were. She operated on a retrospective basis; Kristin was instructed through omission.

‘You haven't cleaned the toilet by my studio.’

‘To keep up you should wash every weekday.’

‘The children won't eat that.’

The first night Martin listed the number of apple trees and pear trees and the varieties, the times of harvesting, spraying and pruning for each, the market rates and the names of the contract workers they currently employed.

Isa told Kristin that she took the children to playcentre or to meet up with her friends in the mornings, and in the afternoons she painted: watercolours, no oils or acrylics and only natural phenomena. She'd never, she explained, painted a man-made object.

‘Never?’ said Kristin, but Isa ignored her and Martin jumped in, asking Kristin about her car accident, and her boyfriend, and why her parents had been so keen for her to go away for a while. ‘We broke up,’ said Kristin.

There was a silence then, until Martin said, ‘There's no one of your age around here. Will you be lonely? You could borrow the car, I suppose.’

‘I don't drive.’

‘Well I'm sure we could give you a ride into town.’

‘I'm fine,’ said Kristin.

‘This is the book, for the children,’ said Isa. ‘You'll fill it in every day—what they've had for lunch and dinner and what activities you've done with them. I'd like you to write down any new words of Lana's. We did it for Alex till he was thirty months. And anything Alex says which is particularly interesting. You do like children, Kristin?’

The second day after lunch, Kristin put Lana to bed and took Alex down to the water. The tide was higher and they took their shoes and page 192 socks off and paddled, laughing at the plopping noises as they pulled their feet free of the mud. They collected pipi shells and made them into a sculpture with driftwood and smooth pebbles. Kristin let Alex see the scars on her legs and explained to him about the bone graft and the pins.

‘I don't think we should go any further,’ said Alex, when they were nearing the end of the headland.

‘It's all right; it's more sandy now, look.’

‘But my daddy's still waving at us.’ Alex turned and pointed back to the track, where Martin was standing, his arms swaying above his head.

‘I think it's semaphore,’ said Kristin. ‘That's a signal, for get your arses back here immediately.’

‘We'd better ride our horses fast then,’ said Alex and set off, gallomping across the mud. ‘You can't leave Lana in the house by herself,’ said Martin.

‘I didn't. Isa said she'd be working all afternoon.’

‘No, no, you can't expect her to look after them when she's working. She's furious. I'm sorry Kristin, you'll have to stay up at the house.’

‘Krissie showed me her holes,’ said Alex.

‘Did she?’ Martin said, peering at her.

‘He means the scars,’ said Kristin, feeling the blood flush through her face.

‘I didn't think he meant anything else.’

‘Show my dad, Krissie.’

‘I don't …’

‘We like scars don't we Alex. You'd better show me.’ He said it as if it were something new that had just happened.

‘I thought Isa was waiting?’

‘She is, come on, quickly,’ he indicated her legs, and as he showed no signs of moving Kristin bent down and lifted the material of her trousers so he could see the bottom of the scars, still shiny and pink.

‘Those are the holes, Dad,’ said Alex crouching, pointing with the stick he was holding, but then Kristin let the hems of her trousers drop back and set off up the hill, barefoot, leaving her sandals behind.

page 193

Isa was wearing white shorts and a pink singlet. She had turquoise paint on her fingers and her forearm and was standing in the garden, hands on her hips, a caricature—‘Angry Woman’.

‘Where's Lana?’ asked Kristin, her breathing fast from the climb. She looked across the lawn; the ride-on pony was lying on its side, the toys on the deck were packed away in the basket.

‘She's still asleep.’

Kristin stopped and stood still, staring at the woman.

‘I don't think you understand, Kristin. The constancy of it … I can't have the weight of her on my mind while I'm working. You're here to free me of it.’


Kristin could hear the uneven hum of a tractor or digger, and closer, the pitch of Alex's voice.

‘I'll show you my work now,’ said Isa.

Kristin shrugged. ‘What about Alex?’

‘He's with Martin, isn't he?’

Kristin didn't like the paintings. They were not representational in either form or colour. They were bright to the point of garish. With other people she'd have known she was missing the point, but with Isa she banished this thought completely and, saying little, she went back outside to find Alex.

As she learned their rules, and they hers, life settled. They stopped offering her the car and Martin found her an ancient bike with three gears, and from then on that was her mode of transport. For her part, she kept Alex around the house while Lana was sleeping and she enjoyed it, the childcare, although it was monotonous too. An afternoon could pass easily, lived only on the surface, making papier-mâcheé masks with balloons, or road systems and bridges in the sandpit, but she was impatient when they wouldn't eat fish fingers, when last week they'd eaten the lot, and ‘needed’ more, or when Lana forgot again that a wee was coming. It was October already, the summer here would be hot, and then in February she'd go home and start sixth form over again.

page 194

Both Isa and Kristin made sure their discussions stayed centred on the children, but Martin persisted in his friendliness. He persuaded her to play chess with him, but she didn't like him criticising her: ‘You're too defensive. Take more risks. Get your pieces out; if you lose some, so what.’ When she made excuses not to play any more, he suggested she eat with them rather than the children, but she refused, telling him she wanted to read in the sleep-out in the evenings. He offered her books and sometimes she took them, occasionally she read them.

In the third week, he started popping in when she and the children were having their dinner, and he'd stand behind her while they ate, his hand resting on her shoulder as he asked the children questions about her in the third person—Was Kristin fun today? Did she play dressing up with you? What did she wear?

After a few days, Kristin moved the chairs round so Lana sat at the head of the table and she on the bench seat, her back to the wall. When Martin asked her about the new seating arrangement, she explained that it made it easier to clean up Lana's mess.

The next day Kristin was cooking dinner, having settled the children in the sitting room, Alex in front of a Wiggles video and Lana playing with her farmyard animals. Kristin had just added butter and milk to the potatoes, when Martin appeared in the kitchen. He came up behind her and, resting his hand in the small of her back, he looked over her shoulder, his face close to her ear.

‘Mashed potatoes—mmmn mmmn.’

She slid away, closer to the sink, and started to mash. Martin placed his fingers around her tensed bicep. ‘You're pretty strong, aren't you?’ he said. ‘Wouldn't want to get into a fight with you.’

‘Is that Lana? Can you check?’

It became a routine. Him arriving while she cooked, cupping his hand around her neck, while she stirred spaghetti and sausages, or, while she grated cheese for an omelette, tussling her hair and joking about how hard it must be living on the orchard with no boys around.

Kristin invented elaborate meals with many ingredients, which she had to find and then put away, in the fridge, the pantry, on the spice rack, so that she was constantly moving.

page 195

After a day or two, Martin took to pouring them each a wine, and then pulling the stool up to the counter, so that she had to brush past him to open the fridge, or stand next to him to put the food on the plates.

Sunday was her day off. On the fourth Sunday, she biked down to the wharf and ate smoked fish and a scoop of chips, sitting on the grass so that she could see the people eating at the picnic table or down on the sand. There were families and elderly couples. There were younger couples, with cameras and guidebooks. There was no one her age. On the way home she stopped at the dairy for a Just Juice, and as she came out two guys in baseball caps were going in. She smiled at them and said hello, but they ignored her, so she got back on the bike and rode one-handed down the main street, sucking the juice as she pedalled.

That evening Kristin ran herself a bath, while Martin and Isa ate their organic chicken with apricot sauce downstairs. There was no lock on the bathroom door. She'd stepped into the bath and realised it was too hot; she was crouching, her breast squashed against her knee, running more cold in, when the door opened behind her.

Martin said, ‘Oh my goodness,’ and then there was a pause as if he expected her to say something. Then he said, ‘I'm so sorry Kristin,’ and he shut the door again.

In the morning she was stripping the bed of the cottage nearest the estuary when he turned up. She'd left the door open and he shut it behind him, and came through the small kitchen-living area into the bedroom. He leant against the wall, just inside the doorway.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘here we are.’

She turned and looked at him. Afterwards she would think this was the point when she should have weighed up her options, found a way to leave. Instead, it was a moment of non-thinking, a series of moments. There was a gap of response in both her body and mind, a gap that allowed him to stretch across the space between them, to cross it and to reach her. To touch her.

He put his hands on her shoulders, moved them, rubbing at the base of her neck.

‘It's okay, it's all right,’ he said and his voice was quiet and contained.

page 196

It was the voice he used when he was irritated by the children, but refusing to let it show. It was the voice he used when he was repeating an ignored instruction.

Kristin folded her arms over her breasts, making fists of her hands so he couldn't see that they were trembling.

Martin bent forwards and kissed her forehead, and again Kristin was reminded of him with the children. He stroked the side of her face, his hand surprisingly soft.

Her instincts were confused—as if no innate reactions presented themselves, because there was only calm gentleness. On one level her body knew danger—the trembling was spreading, her insides were tightening in imitation of her hands—but her instincts were waiting.

‘You have amazing cheekbones,’ he said, in a tone he might use to describe a blue sky.

He moved closer, and she stepped back but was against the beside table now, between the wall and the bed. ‘So thin,’ he said, stroking down a tendon in her neck, reaching her collar bone. He gently lifted her top arm, unfolded it from the other, and she let her arms fall away to her sides. His hand cupped her breast and he said, ‘And yet a woman.’ Part of her wanted to laugh but instead she could hear herself breathe in. She had to get out of this.

Now there were thoughts flying across her mind with a rapidity which prevented them from becoming distinguishable as a set of instructions to her body. To scream, push, run, shove the heel of her hand into his face, his nose.

But these seemed like an overreaction. He wasn't hurting her.

She didn't move.

She didn't move and he kneaded her breast. She didn't like it; it didn't hurt.

He wouldn't force himself on her, she didn't think. Not physically hurt her.

He let go of her breast and the back of his hand ran across her midriff. She could feel the hairs on the back of his knuckles, and then he was gently tugging up her T-shirt.

‘Isa?’ she said, as he lifted it over her head and helped her arms out of the sleeves.

page 197

‘Taken the children.’ He seemed out of breast. ‘Plenty of time.’

It was this that frightened her. Not that he had her top in his hand, was dropping it on the floor, was rubbing against her. Not even that she was alone here, but this reference to time. The possibilities he saw in the period of time between now, the now, with her standing there with no T-shirt on and him fiddling behind her back with the clasp to her bra, and the then, the time when Isa would come back with the children. It is the possibilities of how he might spend this time that allow her body its tigger, and she has her hand against his chest, which provokes a groan from him, she pushes him steadily backwards, perhaps he thought towards the bed, but she's stepped out to the side of him, the wall brushing her shoulder.

He catches her wrist, ‘What're you …?’

‘I'm sorry,’ she says, and steps closer to him for a second. ‘I have to go and …’ she lets the words trail away, picking up her shirt and, to tilt the world back into normality, the pile of sheets on the floor, and she walks out, letting the door click shut behind her. He doesn't follow.

Outside, she dropped the sheets on the deck thinking that one day she would laugh that she took them, pulled her T-shirt on as she trotted up the hill to the sleep-out. He didn't follow her, and for all she knew he was still standing there in the bedroom when she left on the bike, leaning her weight forwards to compensate for the pull of her backpack.

In town, when the West Coast bus arrived and the driver started to load the bike, she didn't stop him, even though she had meant to leave the bike at the shop.

She hadn't been paid for a week and she'd let her parents down, but she had enough money for the fare and her cousin who lived in Greymouth had said there might be a job going in the hotel where he worked. ‘Martin said you'd left, just like that. He couldn't understand what had gotten into you,’ her dad told her on the phone, and she mumbled about not being very happy there and listened to him explain that people aren't always happy. That one shouldn't necessarily expect it.