Where to put the table?

The big question was – where to put the table? Jay had come round to play chess. There aren’t many people I like to play chess with. Just a handful, really, the only criterion being that neither one of us always wins and with Jay that wasn’t a problem. We were well matched.

We’d met up that evening at my house to play chess and the problem was we couldn’t work out where to put the table on which we’d play. It sounds like a silly detail to start with, but I like it because it reminds me of a certain quality Jay had. He noticed the way things were in a room – among people, visually – and he wanted things to be just right before he got started. I really liked that quality. It made everyday moments more considered and somehow more lively.

Anyway, once we’d sorted out the table – we put it in the kitchen in the end – we had to get the right drinks. By then I’d got into the spirit of things and had decided the lighting wasn’t quite right, and at last we could sit down. But then we stopped to talk about things, we touched on the position he was applying for and the programme he was going to be working on soon. We talked about a moment in history and books that neither of us had ever read and exchanged stories, information, questions, all of it piling up onto the heap of the conversation – and by now his face was doing that thing. Everyone who knew Jay will remember what his face did during a conversation once he’d got into it. He was doing his animated, super-alive face, the one that urged you on and told you that whatever you were saying was fascinating, even if it was clearly not.

Only after that conversation did we get on with the chess.

We played two games. We were both concentrating so neither one of us said very much. He won the first, I won the second.

It was the first game we’d played since I’d moved into our new place just over the common from where he had started to live with Livy. Later that night, after he’d gone home, I remember thinking about what a wonderful, regular thing this was going to become in the years ahead, how it would mark the passage of time. I thought about playing chess with Jay thirty years from now, perhaps on that same table, in the same room, about how our lives would have changed and what sorts of things we’d be talking about in that catch-up before the game. I thought about all of those things that night in a happy whirl of anticipation, I cast my mind far into the future without for once thinking that so soon I’d be forced to plunge into the past.

It’s not much of a moment, my moment with Jay, it’s verging on the mundane. But I’ve always thought that this is how to get the measure of anyone. To see how they are in an ordinary moment and what they bring to it. What I loved about Jay was the extraordinary energy, the momentum and the fun he’d bring to something as throwaway, as trivial and otherwise dry as a game of chess. I really miss that about him.

Henry Hemming