The Sugar Quill
Author: Jennlee (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: The Chess Set  Chapter: Chapter 2
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Chapter 2

The days were so dreadfully dull, Teddy thought as he puttered about his shop, a shop he’d recently inherited from his father, who had inherited it from his father before him. The junk trade was a living, although not a lucrative one. He smiled, thinking of how his family had always scraped by, never enough money for holidays or automobiles. There had been barely enough for his father to pursue the hobby of stamp collecting. This was a trade for an old man, Teddy thought, older than his twenty years, anyway, although he didn’t mind so very much.

Teddy’s tiny space was filled with an odd assortment of inventory - everything from toasters, to diamonds, to a stuffed pelican. He was particularly fond of the pelican, which he remembered staring at as a young boy, when the shop had been his grandfather’s. Teddy kept the bird, hanging it prominently from the ceiling near the register. It led to much banter with customers inquisitive enough to wonder why on earth anyone had pawned a pelican.

Teddy had only had one customer all morning - a woman back to redeem her engagement ring for the second time. She’d been in earlier in the year, Teddy recalled. It was a real diamond - smallish, but of good quality. The woman with the ring had a narrow face and brightly colored eyes that Teddy thought looked a bit sad. He liked her. He liked everyone, mostly, except for the gang of young toughs that sometimes knocked about in his shop, until he threatened to call the police, or pulled out the axe handle he had stowed under the counter.

Sometimes Teddy invented stories about his customers. It passed the time in the quiet shop, and was like inventing friends. This morning he started making one up about his customer with the engagement ring, Clara. Clara was a shop girl, he decided, trying to guess in what sort of shop she worked. Perhaps a tobacconist? No, that wasn’t right, she’d carried no odor of cigarettes. A chemist’s? Yes, that was better, he thought. She was a counter girl at the chemist’s, working five days a week on her feet, ringing up antacids, breath mints, and plasters. Teddy could picture her tired face, smiling pleasantly while making change from the register.

She was alone and lonely, he imagined, living in a one-room flat a few streets away. At least, she had been lonely before the sandy-haired man had come into her shop for a packet of mints. Their eyes had met across the counter, and when handing him twenty-six pence in change, she’d touched his hand briefly. The man - Marcus, Teddy decided to call him - had asked her around to the local pub where they’d fallen in love over pints of Guinness and blaring music. In his mind, Teddy could see them holding hands in the dim pub, leaning close to talk together over the loud music.

Marcus had showed up one evening with the ring - a small, but real, diamond purchased with his regular wages as a bricklayer. Clara had answered yes immediately, and thrown herself into his arms. Teddy smiled at the particularly sweet image emerging in his mind.

The shopkeeper frowned as his story took a new turn. The unthinkable had happened. Marcus had been killed - struck down by a car, or perhaps a panel truck driven by a drunken tradesman. Perhaps it was only weeks before the wedding. He could picture Clara sobbing when she heard the news.

Times had somehow grown difficult for Clara. Teddy speculated that she had perhaps lost her job. Something had caused her to remove her engagement ring and bring it to Teddy’s shop. He remembered that the first time she’d pawned it, it had been very difficult for her. There had been tears in her eyes as he had taken the ring from her shaking, outstretched palm.

Clara had returned with the money to redeem her ring, repaying the loan plus the interest. He hadn’t been surprised she’d come back for it, and was pleased to see the relief in her eyes when her ring was safely returned.

The second time she had pawned the ring, only a few weeks ago, Teddy recalled that she’d had that same sad look, although this time there had been no tears. This morning, she’d returned with the money and her claim ticket. Teddy had once again been glad to see the relief in her eyes.

Teddy quite liked Clara. She was probably only a few years older than he was. The next time he saw her, he might ask her out, he decided - perhaps for a pint down the street. There was a pub that had a loud jukebox.

Teddy’s story about Clara was interrupted when a man, disheveled and swarthy looking, stumbled into his shop. He was breathing heavily, and had a wild look in his eye that Teddy didn’t like. Teddy was a small man himself, with a slight build, and he didn’t favor his chances if this stranger proved violent.

He felt underneath the counter to reassure himself that his axe handle was there. Dangers such as these were not uncommon in the life of a pawnshop owner, he knew.

“H-h-how much can I get for this?” The wild-eyed man held out a small wooden box, his hands shaking hard, causing whatever was inside to rattle loudly.

Teddy could see the box was made of wood with an intricate pattern of inlay. It was quite pretty. He reached out, and with calm hands took it from the shaking man. Teddy examined the box gingerly as the man paced in front of the counter. The box lid pivoted smoothly on hidden hinges. Lifting the top, Teddy saw that the box contained a chess set. It was quite a curious thing to pawn, he thought, although he had seen stranger things - his eyes strayed briefly to the pelican suspended overhead.

Teddy found the chess figures to be intricately carved and quite detailed. To his eye they looked almost human. The quality of the workmanship was quite brilliant. He’d never seen anything like it. Picking up his jeweler’s loop, he examined the pieces. Phenomenal, he thought, looking at the queen, her intricate facial features of such severe beauty as he had never before seen.

The dark haired man was still pacing and shaking. Teddy fought the urge to immerse himself in a study of the tiny carved figures, so as to keep on his guard with the stranger.

Tipping the pieces gently onto a soft cloth, Teddy started to arrange them in their proper order, surprised to find there was only one half of a full set. Where were the other pieces? These were only enough for one player. He wondered why had this set been divided. Shaking his head at the shame of it, he looked at the small stone carvings with a doubtful eye. Nobody would want to buy half of a set of chess players, would they?

However, something told him that this was special. Without knowing why, Teddy knew only that he wanted the chessmen. It was a bad business practice, to give cash loans on items that would probably never sell, but Teddy didn’t care in this instance.

He looked up at the pacing man. “Ten pound.”

The man stopped and was quickly back to the counter, his voice incredulous. “A tenner? That’s all? You’re crazy.” He obviously wasn’t pleased, his eyes as wild as they had been when he’d first entered the shop. Teddy again reassured himself that his axe handle was within easy reach, eyeing the man warily.

Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Teddy said, “Twenty then.” Before the wild-eyed man could protest, he added, “ ’At’s a gift, mate. This is only ‘alf a set. It’s probably worth noffing.”

The man was shaking more than ever. Teddy didn’t like him and wanted him out of the shop as quickly as possible. He pushed his final button, smiling a little, “You got proof of ownership, dontcha?” As the man’s expression changed, Teddy smiled. Obviously, the man didn’t have a receipt for the item. It was quite likely to have been stolen. Usually taking care not to deal in hot merchandise, this time Teddy didn’t mind. He wanted the chess set, and with an item like that, who would ever know?

“A pony then. A pony,” The man finally said, his dark eyes showing their desperation.

Teddy nodded. What was another fiver? It would be worth it just to get the man out of the shop. He counted out twenty-five pounds in five-pound notes and wrote out a ticket, knowing that the man would never redeem it. He placed the money on the counter, the ticket on top.

The man made no acknowledgement of the transaction other than grabbing the stack of bills and racing out.

Once his customer had gone, Teddy was able to examine the chess pieces at his leisure. He loved their perfect proportions and wise faces. He polished each meticulously with a soft cloth, finding something about them that was so intriguing and mysterious. He ended up polishing them all several times over, finally forcing himself to lay them aside. Teddy found his thoughts returning to the chess pieces constantly. Ultimately, he had to put them away in a storage cabinet so he could get on with his work.

When Teddy swept the front walk - something he bothered with only rarely - he found the pawn ticket crumpled and discarded near the door. His instincts had been correct; the wild-eyed man would never return for the chess set. This knowledge comforted him.

Teddy tried later to make up a story about the wild-eyed man, but he found that it disturbed him too much.

Over many years, Teddy kept the chess set in his cupboard, never displaying it for sale. He would take it out occasionally to look at it and polish it, but he never once thought of selling it. He liked to touch the carved stone and look closely at the tiny faces. He imagined they might someday spring to life in his hands. Sometimes he dreamed that they did. It was crazy, he knew. Chessmen didn’t move on their own. That was only in dreams, he told himself, looking sadly at the figures, still and silent in the light of day.

Teddy didn’t know why he finally put it on display in the window after so many years. It wasn’t something he had thought about or planned. One day shortly after his seventieth birthday, it just seemed the right thing to do. He removed the set from the storage cabinet and polished the pieces again. This time, however, instead of wrapping it back safely, he hobbled to the display window and set up the pieces on a small table, each in its proper position, as if on a chessboard. As he carefully aligned the pieces, Teddy could imagine them readying themselves for battle. Their stone bodies seemed to hold a tension that he couldn’t explain.

Many times that day, he regretted his actions, dreading that someone would want to purchase his prized possession. It wasn’t likely, he tried to reassure himself. Nobody would want to buy half a chess set. Teddy wondered why he didn’t just bring the thing back into the shop, but for some reason he didn’t.

After two weeks in the front window, Teddy brought the chess pieces back in to polish them. He decided not to put them back in the window, putting them instead in the display case near the counter. He didn’t know why he did this, either. It just seemed right, somehow.

When the young woman came into his shop that pleasant afternoon, he was quite surprised. She didn’t look like the usual sort of customer he had. She was dressed well and had a look of money about her. Slim and tall with thick, unruly red hair, Teddy decided that, while he wouldn’t call her pretty in a traditional English Rose manner, he would almost certainly call her striking. She looked around the shop frantically as he watched, noting her expensive clothes and fashionable handbag.

Teddy knew instantly why she had come, when he saw her eyes fall upon the display cabinet. She had come for the chess set. She must have seen it in the window, and now had returned for it. His intuition was proved correct when she asked him the cost of his most prized possession.

It was the moment that he had been dreading. He’d never considered selling it to anyone before, and he didn’t like the prospect now, but he crushed the urge to tell her it was not for sale.

As he looked at her closely, Teddy’s anxiety over losing his precious thing lessened somewhat. Something inside him told him that this woman was supposed to have it - that it was somehow right. Thoughts raced through his mind, still spry even in his advanced age. He must have put the chessmen on display for someone to find, even though he hadn’t really realized it. After fifty years, it had to mean something that he’d been driven to display the set in the shop window. He was an old man, he told himself, and didn’t have many years left. Why shouldn’t someone else enjoy what he had all these years?

He nodded, his decision made.

Teddy assuaged his feelings of loss by asking an outrageous price, which the young woman paid with barely a question. He wrapped the set carefully so the pieces wouldn’t knock together, saying goodbye in his head to each piece, saving the queen for last. It was a difficult thing, to hand the package to young woman. It was more difficult than anything Teddy had done in his seventy years, but somehow he knew it was right.

The shop felt different once she had gone - once it had gone. Teddy felt more alone. That was a silly thought, he told himself. He sighed and dusted the display case, inventing a story about a young, copper-haired woman - he named her Genevieve in his mind - who was desperately seeking half a chess set.

//
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