Chess club’s an ingenuous way of escaping the rain. Every Tuesday lunchtime an array of battered old boards and scuffed playing pieces are laid out in Mrs. Brown’s classroom. It’s the oldest part of the school this: all peeling paintwork and patches of damp. The windows might rattle in their frames when the wind blows, but it’s still a lot warmer in here than out on the playgrounds.
Lana’s eyes light up the first time Michael finds his way into chess club. No-one else bothers with it you see; they’re all getting wet walking to the chip shop at the bottom of the lane or smashing a tattered football through puddles until their shoes let the water in. Lana’s in there alone. She’s been doing this for weeks, flicking a single pawn around a board, skim reading a dog-eared romance novel, but suddenly there’s someone to play with.
“You here for chess?” she asks. Michael nods and takes his coat off as she sets the board up all excited and enthusiastic. He’s never spoken to her before but he recognises her as being from the year above and someone who all the lads think is fit. Michael can’t play chess for shit, but he isn’t sporty enough for the football kids and he’s not hard enough for the chip shop gang; the poor little bastard just needs somewhere to hide from the loneliness. Lana wipes the floor with him in that first game. She’s a bit disappointed to face someone so inept after waiting weeks for an opponent to turn up, but they play a few more games and she teaches Michael how the pieces move and to stop calling the knight a horse for fuck’s sake.
“How come you’re so good at this?” he asks after the third thrashing.
“Dad was British champion a few years ago. I’ve been playing since I was four,” she replies. “But people think it’s weird when a girl plays chess.”
One o’clock approaches and they pack up the board. She laughs uncomfortably as he shakes hands with her. Shaking hands — Jesus Christ.
“You coming here next Tuesday then?” Lana asks.
“Definitely,” says Michael. Puppy dog Michael.
And he does. He puts up a better show this time, but he’s still trounced. Lana ruthlessly picks off his pieces one by one, and they make small talk like teenagers do: laughing about shit the teachers have said, the new Duran Duran single and stuff they do after school. Lana tells Michael about a nightclub that she and some of the other fifth-formers get into with fake ID on a Friday night. Michael only goes out to rent videos from the local garage, so he finds this very grown-up and exotic.
By the third week of chess club, Michael decides that he really, really likes Lana. He’s been looking out for her at break times in the corridors so he can say hello. She hasn’t been around much though- it’s a big school. There was that one time when he shouted and waved to her across the basketball courts, but she put her head down and her friends laughed at him. On the days when chess club hasn’t been on, Michael’s been going to the library and reading books about chess. He’s learnt the names of opening combinations and all sorts, and he’s practised them at home on his own using his Dad’s old board. He’s started to mention Lana’s name a little bit too often in front of his classmates too; they think he’s bullshitting about being mates with a fifth-form girl, especially one of the fit ones.
Lana is fit though. And now Michael’s decided that it’s his destiny to have sex with Lana. He’s spending whole lessons fantasising about it, not that he’s had any experience of actually doing it, and Mr Polanski the Geography teacher snaps his fingers loudly in front of Michael’s face whenever he spots him in one of his trances, which everyone else thinks is funny. When Michael’s golden time arrives — his sacred Tuesday lunchtime — he spends too long staring at the curve of Lana’s breasts under her school blazer as she ponders her moves. She almost catches him, but he pretends that he’s looking at her prefect badge instead and, to his credit, thinks of a quick question to ask about it. At this point, he’s only living for the hour he spends alone with her. His schoolwork is rapidly going down the toilet.
So a bit more time passes and Michael can bear it no longer. He has to get this thing off his chest before it eats him up from inside. It’s not a hopeless desire either- Lana seems to like him, she’s called him things like ‘sweet’ and ‘cute’ on a few occasions- and when she does so it feels like sunshine pouring into his soul. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly the phrase he wrote in the diary that he keeps under his bed. He spends evenings and weekends replaying these conversation in his head, rehearsing new things to say to her, imagining every possible response and planning three or four lines ahead. He’s going to ask her out now: this will be the week.
Tuesday lunchtime arrives and Michael sits down opposite Lana, his palms sweating as he set up his pieces. He begins the game all skittish and rushed like there’s an invisible audience watching him. Michael tries to be cool and funny, but his mouth’s dried up and all of the oxygen’s escaping out of the room through the gaps in the windows. Lana asks him what’s wrong.
“Nothing,” he says, all jumpy. “I… um… I just wondered whether you’d like to come round to my house after school, like, and play chess some more or something?” He’s staring straight at Lana’s forehead all through this.
Lana — she drops her eyes to the board and sits in silence, and each passing second’s becoming more uncomfortable than the last. All the while, she’s messing with the tiny plastic crown on the queen’s head, as if she’s pondering a move and not thinking about what Michael’s just said. “Um… yeah, maybe,” she says, eventually.
Michael waits after this. He waits and waits and he’s desperate for something else to be added, but there’s nothing forthcoming, no matter how much he’s willing it. Lana won’t even look at him now. Maybe she isn’t keen on playing more chess? It couldn’t be him she’s unsure about, surely? Not after all these weeks where she’d laughed at his jokes and called him ‘sweet’. And anyway, he’s already told most of the class that they’re practically an item. No, it’s definitely the chess- she’s so good already that she doesn’t need to practice any more- that’s it. Of course, how silly of him.
“Well, how about a movie instead? There’s the new Indiana Jones one and –”
“I can’t make it, I’m sorry.”
Michael feels the life being sucked out of him. His skin feels hot and prickly and he suddenly has the urge to get out of chess club. Anywhere will do, just not in this room feeling like he’s on fire. He makes an excuse about needing to hand in his Biology homework and bundles himself awkwardly out of the door, leaving the game half finished.
That night, he replays the day’s events in his head, hearing the conversation again and again. Lana hadn’t said ‘no’ had she? Just that she couldn’t make it to a movie. Perhaps she’d misunderstood his intentions and hadn’t really grasped that he was asking her out on a date?
Yeah, that was it.
She has to say yes to him, surely. She has to because, to be honest, Michael’s absolutely bricking it about telling the whole class that he and Lana are a couple. Lots of people have already laughed and said he must have been dreaming it. Craig Rawlins said the only way Lana would be going out with Michael was if he was paying her top escort rates, had hypnotised her, or possibly both of these things. Michael needs them to see. He needs to show Craig Rawlins and the rest of them that what he’s got with Lana is something special. How can he face going into school again if word gets out that he’s been making all this shit up and Lana’s never been his girl after all? It’s impossible and there’ll be no escape from it — he’ll be humiliated.
Michael walks into the bathroom, opens the cabinet and pulls out his Mum’s sleeping tablets, his Dad’s painkillers and his brother’s epilepsy medication. He empties some out of each container and takes them back to his room, lining them up on his desk like bullets. He’ll wait for Lana after class tomorrow and tell her that he loves her. Then she’ll be clear about it; she’ll know, and she’ll fall into his arms and tell him that she feels the same. And if she doesn’t say that, then fuck it — he knows what he needs to do.
When he wakes up the next morning, Michael feels calmer than ever. If the boys in his class taunt him today, he’ll tell them straight that he’s with Lana — that they’re even thinking of getting engaged. He’s ten-feet tall as he walks to school, ‘cos if events transpire as he thinks they will, everything he’s said up to that point will be true soon enough anyway. If things turns against him, well, he isn’t going to be around to face the consequences.
He’s got it all worked out, that Michael. He’s several moves ahead now. The game’s his.
Neil James lives in Stoke-on-Trent, England and writes a weekly column for The Oatcake football fanzine. Many years ago he was the winner of ITV’s Shoot the Writers comedy competition, but eventually stopped being funny and so started to write short stories. He can be found on Twitter @neil_james1