John King cast an eye around The Bunch of Grapes, a place he knew as well as his own back yard. Why on earth had he
arranged to meet a girl like Elena in this dump? Date suicide. What with its long featureless bar, patronised by a mostly
middle-aged male clientele, not to mention its fake leather sofas and melamine tables, it had to be about the most boring
boozer in the universe. John realised he had long stopped seeing the place warts and all. He resigned himself to its lack of
aesthetic charms—become blind to them even. Now though he attempted to see it as a stranger might, as Elena might.
All the usual suspects were in tonight. Old Ted, by the door, stared into his pint, oblivious to the droplets of beer on his
walrus moustache; tow-haired Ricky cut a deal with someone John didn’t recognise over by the slot machines, a deal
which would no doubt land him another six months inside; while Mike, primed about Elena’s arrival, played chess by
himself, a forlorn look on his face. It was no fun being able to guess your next move.
“So what time’s your lady friend turning up?” asked Brenda, from behind the bar.
Sod’s law she was on duty tonight, thought John. Why couldn’t she clear off and dust her artificial flower arrangements?
“Oh, soon-ish,” John said, trying to sound relaxed.
He glanced at his watch for about the hundredth time that night.
“Don’t let her see you nervous,” Brenda went on. “It’ll scare her away. Knock back your drink; Dutch courage.”
“I’m not nervous!”
Was it really that obvious?
Meeting Elena here in his local had been a strategy, or so he’d thought. When she rang him out of the blue saying she
wanted to get an insight into British culture, his scrambled brain told him it would be impossible to feel anxious here in
the Grapes. After all, this was his turf; his second home. He knew its every beer stain and carpet burn.
He also wanted to show Elena he had mates, that he was normal (popular even) and that he belonged somewhere. But
seeing the regulars all here together as if for the first time, he realized they were more a hindrance than a help. Wouldn’t
Elena take one look at them and figure out they were losers, like John? Wouldn’t she take one peek through the Grapes’
grimy windows and run a mile? And who would blame her? This was about as much an entrée into the British way of life
as the corner kebab shop.
John took another swig of Guinness. Eight minutes to go before she was due to arrive. Bottle-blonde Brenda might be gin-
soaked, but she would never let John live it down if Elena blew him out. Spivvy Ricky might have the brain cells of one
of the pub’s steak and kidney puddings but he knew how to push your buttons. Out of your league, Johnny boy, he would
josh if Elena put in a fleeting appearance and then left. Let’s face it, John thought, most of them were.
People no longer asked him whether there was anyone on the horizon because there never was—the horizon was always
empty. John was thirty years old and never had a girlfriend. Not a proper one anyway. Miss Lloyd, his ex-piano teacher,
who he’d lost his virginity to, aged eighteen, didn’t count. Afterwards, she’d told him to go and see a prostitute before he
came back to her. He hadn’t done either.
When he had met Elena on Lake Garda during the summer, they shared in common that they were both there on holiday
with their mothers, something not considered so extraordinary in Italy where mamas were held in high esteem. They
were also the only two people in the hotel under forty. John started chatting to Elena about chess, a subject never far
from his thoughts, and to his surprise her face had lit up. Her late father played chess with her whenever he could, her
grandfather before that. When she was over in the UK with her work during the autumn, maybe they could meet up and
discuss opening gambits? John hadn’t met a girl who liked chess before. Chess club was full of cobwebby blokes like
Mike who wore an anorak and smelled of old clothes. Elena even laughed at John’s jokes, something Mike rarely did.
Maybe they gained in translation? Three minutes left.
He thought about Elena so much in the interim that it caused a strange blocking-out effect and now he couldn’t even
remember what she looked like. All he could bring to mind was the colour of her hair, auburn. Sunlight made it glint like
The door half-opened and then a crack more, John could feel sweat prickling the back of his collar. Was it her? It had to
be. No regular would make a pussyfoot entrance into the Grapes like this. They would just stride in. John felt Brenda’s
eyes darting between him and the door as if she was watching match point of a tennis game. She was enjoying this. Mike
glanced his way too, looking as if he was off to a funeral. John knew he was already writing his chess partner’s obituary.
Then the door fully opened. John could feel every muscle in his body tensing. Was it possible to turn grey overnight?
The theory was being put to the test, but it was Ricky who bounded in. He must have popped out for a quick fag. Now he’
d deliberately made this theatrical entrance, John felt sure of it.
“Bet you thought it was her, didn’t you?’ asked Ricky, confirming John’s suspicions.
John wasn’t going to give Ricky the pleasure. Anyway, comparing Ricky to Elena was like comparing Beauty to the
Beast. Platinum to brass.
“Doesn’t look like she’s going to show,” said Ricky, sidling up to John, a leer on his ugly mug and nicotine on his breath.
“The Swiss get places on the dot, you know. There’s a reason for all those clocks!”
“Plenty of time yet,” John said, through gritted teeth. “And she’s German…not Swiss.”
Alcatraz was too good for someone like Ricky, thought John. He surreptitiously looked at his watch again. Make or
break time. One minute remained before she was officially meant to be here.
“John King, you’re in checkmate. Get it?” Ricky went on.
John sighed. “Hilarious.”
Over the years, he’d heard all the jokes. Some people (especially those with the IQ of a hedge) were amused that a person
called King played chess. It was as good as a Robin enjoying bird watching or a Rosemary turning out to be a great cook.
But right now, John admitted, his situation was rather like being in checkmate. It looked as though the game was lost,
just like in chess when the king was in checkmate. Elena was the one thing that could have saved him.
Yet again John asked himself why he hadn’t met Elena somewhere anonymous. Then when she didn’t turn up, only he
would have had to live with the pain. Eventually he would have been able to rationalize the evening, explain away her
behaviour. After all, he reasoned, you had to in order to live with yourself, didn’t you? The stakes were too high in here.
He faced public humiliation. A public flogging. He felt as if he was in the village stocks. This toe-curling wait was worse
than waiting for exam results. Worse than biding one’s time before giving a public speech. To try and put things in
perspective, he forced himself to think of Mary Queen of Scots. Now her ordeal had to be worse. Every second felt like a
minute, every minute like an hour. It was one way of slowing down time, John reflected, but was the agony really worth
He propped his elbows on the edge of the sticky table and put his head in his hands. Anything to avoid Brenda’s pitying
glances. Nor did he want words of commiseration from Mike, who would be secretly pleased to get his chess partner
back again. A roar went up from around the plasma TV in the neighbouring sports bar. Someone, somewhere had scored
a goal. John would wait for the next outburst and then quietly slip away. He would make something up—feign illness, his
or Elena’s—which of course no-one would buy. Not for one moment.
“Hi John,” said a voice that sounded as sweet to him as birdsong. “Sorry I’m late…”