The Short Story
"Write it down. Short and to the point. Get your message across. Nobody wants to spend the effort to read through an interminable screed. Grab their attention and then don't let them go until they understand. Be brutal about it. It's the only way. But write it down now. Before you forget."
A pad of paper and a pen were shoved across the table towards her. She reached out automatically and gripped them, as if the feel of the physical objects could anchor her to reality. The paper was rough under her fingers, recycled she thought distractedly. The pen was a cheap biro, its case cracked and very little ink showing in the cartridge. But he was right. What she wrote didn’t need to be long, so the ink would probably last.
She focused hard on the blank page in front of her, placed the tip of the pen upon it, and started to write.
She wrote of a man in the darkness, of pain felt through horror, of blood on the kitchen tiles. She put her emotion aside and tried to be clinical about it, while still conveying the violence and lasting impact of what had happened. She concluded with his name. The letters of it were black and heavy on the white paper. She had been unable to divorce her feelings from that name and it was scored deeply into the page. She hoped it would not count against her, that it would look firm and definite rather than desperate.
She pushed the pad back across the table, her eyes on the grain of the wood, then folded her arms about herself, suddenly cold.
There was silence for a few moments, then he spoke again.
“Good. That’s good. It’s all there, but it’s not clouded by unnecessary emotion. It’s a good story.”
“It’s not a story,” she whispered, still not looking up. “It’s the truth.”
“Well, that’s not for me to decide. But I want you to know I do hope they believe it. There needs to be a reckoning. It’s been a long time coming and I think you might be the one to finally get it done. I’ll take this and get things started.”
A scrape of metal chair legs against concrete floor, and he was gone. She wondered how long he would be, and what would happen next. Would she have to stay here until it was all over? It wasn’t as if she had anywhere to go, but she didn’t like the feeling of helplessness that came with just being left alone.
She thought about what he had said. He didn’t seem to think it mattered what was real, only what would be believed. It mattered to her, though. Obviously, she wanted them to believe her, to act on her behalf and on behalf of all the nameless others, but she wouldn’t have lied about it, even to get the desired result. No matter how much retribution might have been deserved, it would have been wrong to fabricate. Besides, she didn’t think she could have written what she had written if it hadn’t been real. Her imagination either would have provided too little or too much to make it convincing. She hoped that meant they would be more likely to believe her.
“It’s not a story,” she said again, to the empty air. “It’s the truth.”
Both Nigel Short and Judit Polgár started playing chess as children. Polgár became a Grandmaster - the highest title a player can be awarded by the game's governing body - at the age of fifteen; Short at nineteen. This means that as teenagers they must have been devoting many hours of each day to the study of chess. Some, including Short, argue that boys are more likely to do this than girls. It certainly seems that girls are more attracted to social group activities (excluding sport) as they enter their teenage years. The work required to succeed at chess is intense and solitary. Nowadays parents understandably worry about their teenage children who shut themselves away in their rooms for hours on end, obsessed by and to all intents and purposes lost in the world of the internet. How will they get on in the real world, with real people? Will their expectations of everyday life be hopelessly distorted? Girls are less likely to isolate themselves like this, but any individual can be obsessive, and if a young person wants to succeed at chess at the highest level the tunnel vision that goes with an obsessive personality will certainly help them on that road.
Obsession will keep you going through the 10,000 hours of practice which it reputedly takes to get really good at anything, be it chess, or, for example, cycling or playing a musical instrument. But what is the concomitant cost? There are certainly those in the chess world who have fallen by the wayside in spectacular fashion. Take the story of the American Bobby Fischer, who started to learn to play chess at the age of six and dropped out of high school at sixteen to devote himself to the game. He was considered a genius, the greatest chess player of all time. However, when he took part in a match with the Russian Boris Spassky in (the then) Yugoslavia he was deemed to be violating US sanctions and found himself facing criminal charges. His obsession turned towards paranoia about the Jewish people and his own privacy, he spent the last years of his life in seclusion and died a bitter man.
It seems as if in the chess world at least, which requires solitary, celebral activity, obsession can lead to success in the game but there can be a high price to pay in terms of relationships, which generally offer a better chance of happiness in this life than isolation. Some develop a strong but unhealthy relationship with the bottle, such as the Russian Grandmaster Andrei Sokolov. So obsession has really got itself a bad name.
But if the drive which is part of the obsession is turned towards others it can be an immense force for good. Former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov has established an International School of Chess, which says on its website:
"Chess is not only a game, but a proven learning tool to help students with problem solving, which in turn leads to improved math and reading scores."
Nigel Short, too, is very involved with teaching and with the promotion of the game of chess, including as a commentator and broadcaster. Another of the all-time chess greats, Garry Kasparov, has become a political activist and is Chairman of the Human Rights Foundation. He has taken his obsession into an area where he is working with and for others.
One individual's obsession can get a lot done in the world where it moves other people to action. Bob Geldof’s burning concern about the world’s poor produced Band Aid, but he didn’t do it alone – his passion transmitted itself to forty of his fellow pop stars of the 1980s, who were inspired by him to join in making the first Band Aid single and all the hugely successful fundraising that followed to help the people of Ethiopia. Mind you, particularly in view of the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” debate, it's worth noting that it has since been reported that although Bob Geldof was the one in the limelight, his then wife Paula Yates was the real driving force. But sadly she's no longer around to tell us the whole story.
Interestingly enough there is another Nigel Short who is very successful in his field. He is a classical singer of the highest rank, an award-winning conductor, former member of the King’s Singers and founder of the virtuosic choir Tenebrae. In his field, even more than in the field of pop music, good relationships with others are essential for good music-making. Maybe what he, his namesake in the world of chess and many people who are successful in other areas of the arts, sport, politics, business have in common is what we might term a “fad” - focus, application and determination. And I’m sure that men and women alike have access to that. But if they are to be happy in their lives – and this applies to all of us, whatever work, cause or interest we choose to pursue – the essential is to seek out a balance. There are times when we all need to be able to switch off and, quite simply, take a little lie down with a good book and then fall asleep over it. And don’t even mention guilt – that’s just another unhealthy obsession!
Pregnant women with dogs walk more. I don’t know whether you knew that or not. I know because my laptop has been telling me so for years. It flashes up this message several times a day in a banner across the top of the screen. It does tell me other things, but none so frequently as this. It appears that this is the one that it really needed to get across to me.
So when my doctor told me I needed to do more exercise, naturally I thought it would be a good idea to get a dog and get pregnant so that I would walk more. The dog was easy. I stopped in the pet shop on the way home from the surgery and got myself the one and only puppy they had in there. He was looking folorn in a cage, poor thing. He’s a collie and I've called him Colin. He has a black face with one white patch on his right eye. Other people would probably have called him Patch, but not me.
The getting pregnant bit was harder. I've never had much success in relationships. In fact, I've never really had one. I don’t think you can count one night stands; and I've only ever had one of them anyway. It’s not that I'm ugly or anything but I can be a bit intense, impulsive. Weird, apparently. It puts people off.
But doctor’s orders were not to be ignored. So I joined an online dating service and practiced being more normal – a bit more lighthearted, frivolous, fun and girly. It worked as well and I went out on dates with four men a couple of weeks after joining who all wanted to meet me again. So I tracked my ovulation and arranged to see them when I was at my most fertile. It was hard work at first, keeping up this new persona, as despite the fact I slept with them all in the same week I didn’t get pregnant the first time.
So I had to keep on seeing them. I went on regular dates with them all, chatted on the phone with them all, slept them with them all again and again; and in the process I seem to have turned into a new person. One who laughs a lot more, who goes out and about and has four men who want to be with her. Now that I'm pregnant I do know I’ll have to pick just one of them to be with.
But do you know what the funniest thing is? After I’d done the test and finally went on my walk with Colin in the park down the road there were loads of people walking around there without dogs who weren’t pregnant. So I could have just gone for a walk on my own. But instead I have a cute puppy, I'm going to be a mother and I have several lovers. I wonder now what that message on my laptop was really trying to tell me.