prawn’s gambit

Gerry is on the floor when we arrive to do the assessment. He’d been there all night, and although he hasn’t hurt himself, he’s in pretty poor shape. We clean him up as best we can, then call an ambulance to take him to hospital. There’ll be a two hour wait, the call taker says. Exceptionally high demand. Like it’s ever any different.

In the meantime we try different ways to get Gerry off the floor, positioning chairs, encouraging him to roll over into an all-fours position that he might be able to progress into a kneel then a stand. But although he tries his best he’s just too weak; the chronic pain in his arm from a recent fracture means he’s got limited upper body strength to call on, and his legs won’t support him even if we physically boosted him up. In the end we admit defeat, and decide the best we can do is surround him with cushions and pillows, ply him with water and biscuits, and wait for the paramedics.

My colleague has to go to another call; I settle down on a kitchen chair to wait with Gerry.

Gerry has been smoking forty a day for the best part of thirty years, with the result that the whole flat – from the curtains to the carpets, the doors to the clock on the wall – is coated with a grungy patina of nicotine. It’s a hot day, so I open the windows for some fresh air. Even the flies that blunder in haul on the brakes and head straight back out again.

‘How long have you lived here, Gerry?’ I ask him, sitting back down on the chair.
‘Ooh – a long, long while. When they were built, pretty much.’
And it’s no doubt a consequence of sitting here with him for so long, but I imagine the builders laying the first course of bricks around us, Gerry on the floor, me on my chair, Gerry thoughtfully stroking his enormous Father Christmas beard, me checking my fob watch.

There’s a bookcase just behind him, filled with books on chess.
‘You like chess, then?’ I say, artlessly.
‘Oh yes!’ he says. ‘Yes, yes!’
‘When did you learn?’
‘When I was at Grammar school. I saw some kids playing and I thought hmm – what’s that? So I got a book out of the library. Then another book. Then another one. And I gradually taught myself all there was to know. I played in local leagues, bigger competitions. I was never international, but I got pretty good.’
‘I know how to play,’ I say. ‘Basic stuff. I don’t have any tactics, any strategies. You know? The prawn’s gambit and all that?’
‘Prawn’s gambit?’
‘I just made it up.’
‘Hmm – the prawn’s gambit,’ he says, stroking his beard. ‘You might have something…’
‘My problem is I just throw everything forward and hope for the best.’
‘Hmm,’ he says. ‘Yes.’
‘I don’t know who even invented chess. I know it’s pretty old. I remember seeing the Lewis chess pieces in the British Museum once. They were cute.’
‘There are lots of myths around the invention of it,’ he says. ‘My favourite is the one about the Indian king.’
‘What’s that?’
‘Well you see, a long time ago there was this great king. And he was bored with all the usual games, so he put out a proclamation. Invent a new game and the winner gets as much gold and silver as they desire.’
‘And the losers get killed.’
‘Quite possibly. Anyway, lots of people came forward, but the best was a wise old mathematician who offered the king chess. He told him he’d based it on court life, with soldiers, bishops, knights and so on. The mathematician taught the king how to play, and through playing the King learned his first important lesson, which is that everyone under his command has a role to play, from the most insignificant pawn to the grandest queen. And the king was very struck with this game, and told the mathematician that he’d won, and could help himself to as much gold and silver from the Treasury as he liked. But the mathematician said no thank you – what I’ll have is one grain of wheat on the first square of the chess board, doubled on the second, then again on the third, all the way to the last of the sixty-four squares. And although the king was put out, because he didn’t think a few grains of wheat were a satisfactory prize, he agreed. But of course he soon realised his mistake, because the number of wheat grains grew exponentially, until he owed him more wheat than his kingdom could ever produce. So that was the king’s second lesson – never underestimate the power of mathematics.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘I don’t know. He probably had him killed. Life’s not really like chess, is it?’

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