‘Your move, Bill.’

‘What? Oh, I must’ve dozed off.’

‘I just took your man.’

‘Ah, well, let’s see now,’ Bill shuffled forward on his seat, rubbed his hands together, surveyed the board. He moved a piece one square diagonally, then settled back, fingertips together, considering.

Old Maurice retaliated, swooping like an eagle to the board to remove two of Bill’s men.

‘Ha, think you’ve got me, eh?’ Bill pushed a black piece towards the back line, aiming to crown a king.

‘Aha!’ Maurice rejoiced. ‘Huff. That’s a huff! You should’ve taken my man,’ he crowd. ‘Didn’t see that, did you?’

Bill grinned, fidgeted in his chair, twitched at his trouser legs. ‘Wasn’t concentrating, Maurie.’ His men were surrounded by white kings. He sighed. ‘You’re a hard man to beat, old son.’

‘Tell you what,’ he went on, ‘it’s this pain I get. Puts me right off.’

‘Still having problems there, Bill? Do you want to finish this game?’

‘Nah. You’ve got me. Yes, I get this pain when I can’t go. Damned nuisance.’ He aligned the black pieces across the back row of the board.

‘It’s the food.’ Maurice aligned the whites. ‘Not enough in it. It’d constipate a chook.’

‘I eat apples like they tell me,’ said Bill, his forehead puckered, ‘but it doesn’t go away. It’s ages since I went properly.’

‘Damned baby food,’ Maurice muttered, pushing a white piece into battle. ‘Doesn’t keep weight on a man either.’ He sat up straight, groped beneath his cardigan. ‘Look at this.’ With finger and thumb he dug into the marasmus of his aged body, drew up a drape of empty skin. ‘Damned nothing to me anymore. I used to be a big fella. Now I’ve faded right away. Nothing but a bag of bones.’ He put away his skin, rebuttoned his shirt.

‘So long since I had a good session.’ Bill attacked, taking a diagonal risk.

‘Builds up in you like a brick,’ his opponent diagnosed, ‘that’s why you feel pain.’

‘It sure takes the wind out of your sails, so to speak. They tell me to drink water. Water! Can you imagine drinking water?’

‘Well Bill, they could be right.’

‘Rubbish, mate. Unless I put a little drop of whiskey in it. Look, gotcha!’ He skipped over two white draughtsmen and landed as a king on the back row.’

Maurice pushed up his sleeve. ‘My arms have turned into little sticks. See? Little twigs.’ He rustled his fingers. ‘I had great big arms when I was a timber cutter. Whittled away, I have. My wife used to say, Show me your muscles, love. She wouldn’t want to see me now. He studied the board, tentatively moved a piece, withdrew, moved another. ‘Hmmm.’

‘I’d give anything…’ Bill said, huffing Maurice’s piece. ‘Now look who’s not concentrating.’

‘Maybe it’s just age?’ asked Maurice. ‘Perhaps we just fall apart by degrees.’ His face creased with laughter. ‘Old soldiers never die, remember? They just fade away.’

‘Let’s call it a draw,’ Bill suggested. ‘Let’s have a cup of tea. Made with water.’

‘Righto, mate!’
* * *
©  Julia Osborne
Published in The Australian, Literary Magazine, 1985
Ed. Geoffrey Dutton