Monday, 31 March 2008

Spring Forward

a kick in the chessticles

Today was the first day of British Summertime.

Unusually, the sun was out.

In the morning, Team Monkey went to the coffee shop to do the Sunday Thing.

(Which is: five rounds of speed chess for BK and Flatmate, Sunday papers for me, and lattes all round. It’s the acme of contentment).

Then I celebrated the onset of summer by baring my pasty white flesh in our back garden.

BK celebrated by sitting in front of the TV and his computer in turns.

And Flatmate celebrated by floundering his way through a series of humiliating chess defeats.

He works so hard at his chess, he really does. He reads the chess books. He studies the grandmasters. He spends hours with his chess computer (it has a pet name – Strattie, short for Stratos - and even a birthday. It’s twenty next January). He plays week-long, month-long, tournaments against it and makes notes of every game.

A while back, he beat it for the first time at the highest level, and now has a modest string of victories under his belt about which he crows constantly. He can’t leave Strattie alone.

Flatmate is serious about chess.

BK, on the other hand, is not at all serious about chess, but still likes to win. He never plays other than the Sunday Thing, and never practises, and yet he can still beat Flatmate when he wants to. He just has a brilliant mind: so brilliant, in fact, I sometimes suspect him of floating somewhere at the ‘normal’ end of the Autistic Spectrum.

Watching these boys play is always entertaining.

BK, the elder sibling, sits in inscrutable silence. Not a flicker of emotion alters his expression. His ruthless competitive instinct, steelier than the Forth Road Bridge, hides behind doleful eyes. As time runs down on the chess clock his eyebrows may rise or fall slightly but win or lose, the big sad face never changes.

Flatmate, the young pretender, fidgets, tension forcing his muscles into constant readjustment. He shifts in his seat, grimaces, twists his hair, drums his fingers as he thinks. Veins throb in his temples. Pieces get slammed around with increasing urgency as the seconds tick away. A game won or lost results in a bodily eruption of energy. Limbs flail. Volubility increases. He literally cannot contain himself. Sometimes after a game, he has to go and jump around outside.

Flatmate's been rather smug on the chess front lately, due to a string of Sunday wins against BK and the recently achieved equality with Strattie.

But in today's games, BK comprehensively kicked Flatmate’s arse.

Reeling from the defeat, Flatmate came home to seek solace in Strattie, which only made things worse.

After five games lost to the indefatigable computer, he slumped back in his chair and howled.

“How did that happen? How did that happen?” he gasped, eyes and hair now even wilder than they'd been at the coffee shop.

“Your head's not in the right place," I said. "You're thinking too much. And I warned you about committing hubris. But you kept saying ‘Look at me I’m definitely going to win this one, ho ho, can't lose from here’ like a total hubristic idiot.”

"He's toying with me. Playing with my mind." He glared at Strattie. Strattie ignored him. "How could he kick me when I'm down? I thought he was my friend. What was he thinking?"

"Probably something along the lines of 'one one one zero one zero zero one zero one one zero one zero one'," I suggested.

“The bastard. That’s it: I’m giving up chess for a while. That'll show him. There’s more to life than chess, right? I've got other things on my mind. Remembering Derren Brown’s peg system, for example. And, ahem, my balls: that's your fault. And you shouldn’t play chess when you’re hungry and I'm hungry now and you know what, I think I was definitely hungry before. And there were lots of distractions in the coffee shop. You should never play facing the room. And that woman was talking really loudly. How on earth are you supposed to concentrate? And I think I’m coming down with flu.”

“More likely some hideous degenerative brain disease,” I offered. "You said it was AIDS when you lost yesterday."

“Yes. Anyway. I’ve decided I’m going to learn Spanish instead. Chess and I are taking a break.”

He took the batteries out of Strattie, his mouth screwed tight with disappointment and regret. “There is more to life than chess, isn’t there?”

“Of course there is, honey,” I said, although I wasn't sure what.

Two hours later he was back downstairs, Strattie on his lap and a furrow of concentration on his brow.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Don't Frighten The Horses

I'm taking all the time you need

Flatmate and I sat in the Quiet Room, listening to the next door neighbours screaming at each other.

It is all part of the fun of living in a terraced house.

“Did you hear that?” he asked, with wide, dark eyes. “I can hear every word they’re saying.”

“I hear the tone,” I said, “But not the words. I don’t want to.”

“I used to think it was him...”

(Our neighbours have these arguments on a monthly basis.)

“..what with the drinking and the drugs and all that. But now I think it’s her.” He grimaced.

“It’s more likely a beautiful medley of both,” I said. “If she likes feeling hard done by, then she’s got herself a perfect boyfriend.”

Flatmate considered this. “Women scare me,” he said.

No shit Sherlock! I’d kind of already worked that one out.

“They’re just as scared of you as you are of them,” I joked. “Like spiders, and mice, and tigers. But they’re all right when you get to know them.”

He smiled dolefully. “I don’t want to get to know them. Then there’s no mystique.”

“But there is no mystique. That’s the whole point. Women are just people too.”

He looked agonised. “But if there’s no mystique, then you get into the whole having kids thing and going to Homebase on a Saturday afternoon. Trapped.” He shuddered. “Who wants that? All I want is to play chess and have a lady sit on my face from time to time. Surely that’s not too much to ask?”

Since our exhilarating teenage fumblings on the sofa at the weekend, Flatmate has been acting like a half-broken-in horse. There have been outrageous, flippant 'dare you' sexual come-ons, which I've laughed off or ignored. He has grilled me on my stance on pregnancy, abortion, and commitment, to oh so casually find out what I think*. Warily, he’s approached me for sugar lumps and pats on the nose, then he remembers the whole bridle/saddle thing and skitters away.

Beyond mystique, I felt like saying, is where you actually get to know a person. When you know a person inside out, and every last scrap of mystique has been dispelled, comprehensively flushed down the toilet of life, and you still think they’re wonderful, then that’s where you find love.

Love still lets you play chess when you want to and it will also sit on your face from time to time (if you ask nicely and promise not to bite). It will do you like a slut AND make you a cup of tea afterwards. It's not the end of the world, you know. It's just hands-on mystique with bells on.

I felt like saying that, but I didn’t. He’s never been in love before; has barely even had a girlfriend, and needs to find these things out for himself.

I am honoured he now feels able to lower himself down on the sofa next to me to awkwardly put his arm round my shoulder and brush my cheek with his lips. It delights me that he comes and curls stiffly on my lap to have his hair stroked. These things, this level of 'intimacy', are clearly new to him and probably frightening and I'm glad he perceives me as being safe enough to take a risk with. I have all the patience in the world for this strange, flighty manchild.

Because, I think he’s wonderful.

*Not that half-broken-in horses, or any other kind of horse, pony or large odd-toed ungulate mammal would wantonly flirt with their stablebuddy or sit down and expound on these particular subjects: please, just run with the simile til the end of the paragraph. Thanks.