On a recent visit to Venice, I stayed in a rental apartment. A pleasant one, with light filtering in from the canal outside the window, traditional arched windows and comfortable sofas (essential for good laptop sessions). Since this was an apartment used by its owners, and not one furnished from IKEA for visitors only, there were pictures and ornaments. And, on the large, low table in front of the sofas, a fine chess set.
I’m not a chess player. I used to play with my father, long ago, but not for years. But I can remember how the pieces are laid out. First off, the queens weren’t in their proper places, the white queen was sitting disconsolately on a dark square, while the red queen was on the wrong side of her king. Queens sit on squares of their own colour, so they had to be swapped round. Then another glance over the board revealed that a white knight was trespassing on a bishop’s territority. He was put back in his own square, and everything was in order: neat ranks of pawns in front with stately superior beings in the rows behind.
The next morning, the pawns weren’t so neat. In fact, not a single one was in its right place. It was clear the pawns were getting uppity. Maybe even planning some kind of demo. Why should pawns be dispensable? Why should it be so hard for a pawn to rise through the ranks and achieve the highest office? What happened to democracy here?
Perhaps they’d been watching scenes from Syntagma Square on TV and picking up some tips. One red pawn was on its side and, judging by the way a red knight had edged forward, it looked like authority was exerting itself. I set the pawns back on their squares, put on my sunglasses and went off to do a spot of research.
When I came back, more trouble was afoot. The red bishops were in a huddle with the red knight, and on the other side of the board, a white bishop was standing next to the queen. The white king, who looked haughty but dim, was off the board, gazing up at the beamed ceiling.
When bishops start plotting, you know there’s more trouble to come. Moreover, the pawns on both sides of the board had drawn closer together – and, for heaven’s sake, three of the red pawns were right across the board and standing shoulder to shoulder on the same squares as a couple of white pawns and a white knight.
A few quick moves, and order was restored – again. No more TV, and I’d keep an eye on them during the lazy, hot hours of a summer’s afternoon. Siesta time for them, they could snooze quietly on their squares. Absorbed in my work, I didn’t notice the shuffling going on in front of my eyes, until a pawn landed on my keyboard.
That was it.
They could repress and revolt on their board, but there’s no way I was going to let those pieces near the internet. Half an hour with Google, and the Venetian Republic could be in danger.
I needed a box. Preferably two boxes. But the apartment didn’t have these useful containers, so the white pieces went into a Billa supermarket bag, and the red pieces into the bag marked Venetian Biennale 2011. A firm knot in each case, and that was them dealt with.
What will the owners of the apartment think when they come back and find the chess pieces in bags at opposite ends of the table, and the chess board turned upside down?
If they do.
If those cunning chess pieces haven’t fought their way out of the paper bags.