In my early years in Athens, the best thing about my job was that students had lessons twice a week — Mondays and Wednesdays, or Tuesdays and Thursdays — which meant that Fridays were free. All we had to do was go in for a half-hour meeting at 1.00. Raymond, the director of studies, would write the syllabus for the following week on the board and we would copy it down. Then we would all go to a nearby cafe-bar for a few beers.
(The cafe-bar, photo taken at a much later time, after we had stopped being regulars.)
Sometimes I would bring a magnetic chess set and Raymond and I would play a game or two. I always had the advantage in the opening but Raymond almost always managed to turn things around late in the middle game and win. This frustrated me so much that I took to recording the moves as we played so I could analyse them afterwards with the help of my Fritz program and see exactly where and how I had gone wrong.
One Friday the group broke up earlier than usual and I stayed behind to look over the chess game on my own. While I moved the pieces around over and over at the crucial point where I had lost the upper hand, I had the unmistakable feeling that someone was watching me.
A boy of about seven or eight years, whom I’d often seen selling little packs of tissues, was leaning against a nearby table. He often came into this cafe-bar. He had large blue eyes, and a few freckles scattered across his cheeks and his round, slightly wide nose. His short blond hair had cowlicks, and would probably be curly if he grew it long enough.
Once I looked up I thought he would ask if I wanted to buy some, but he was too busy looking at the chessboard. He approached slowly to get a closer look at the board. Did he know the game? Or was he interested simply because he knew it was a game?
In Canada I’d seen a lot of homeless people, and many of them teenagers. They came from all over the country to find work in the big city. They would sit on the sidewalk with their belongings in bags and with dogs curled up next to them. Many were kids who had probably fallen out with their parents. I often had the feeling they chose to live like this, and would some day soon enough find their way back into the world of houses and warm rooms, go back to school, or get a job.
But in Athens, things were different. There were a lot of beggars, but they didn’t seem to be homeless. At night they always went off somewhere and disappeared. The main difference, however, was the kind of person on the street. They almost always came from some other Balkan state. If they were Serbs they would hold up a paper icon to appeal to our Christian sense of charity, and to remind us that, unlike our other neighbours, they were our Orthodox brothers and sisters. They would also hold up a piece of cardboard on which they had written I AM SERBIAN in misspelled Greek. Or they would say how many children they had and needed to feed.
And there were the children, playing the same songs on the accordion or harmonica or looking at you sadly as they held out their packs of tissues, lighters, or key chains. People said they didn’t get to keep the money you gave them, that they worked for somebody who took everything they made. Some people had even told me they’d seen the person, waiting up the street, take the money afterwards.
(This sort of thing seems to have become a big business here in Greece. Organised business. Here in Heraklion, amputees started showing up this summer, waiting at traffic lights to come out on their crutches and ask for change. Sometimes within a kilometre you would see four or five of them, sometimes a couple at one intersection. Then, on another day, they’d all be gone. I’m not suspicious by nature, but I can’t help but feel that someone’s actually shipping them in and picking them up again afterwards.)
“I feel so sorry for the kids,” people would say. “But I don’t give them any money any more. If I could be sure they would keep it or it would go to their family, I would give it to them. What’s 50 or 100 drachmas, after all?”
I had seen this blond boy many times around Pangrati, my old neighbourhood in Athens, often with other kids. A lot of immigrant children would hang around Mesolongi Square, usually playing football. I thought of him as belonging to the area.
He came and stood next to my table and leaned on the wooden armrest. I moved the pint glass away into the centre of the table and pushed the chessboard closer to him.
“Do you know how to play?” I said.
He shrugged. Did he understand the question? The shrug made me think that the question was somehow naive.
“What would you do next?” I said.
He laughed, very quietly. Just a breath of a laugh, little more than a smile and another shrug. Perhaps he laughed at the fact that I had asked him. He picked up the bishop. Almost embarrassed, though, he put it back down, careful to set it on the same square.
“Do you know what it’s called?” I said, but then I thought he might not know it in Greek. “Do you know how it moves?” Again he shrugged. He looked up at the door suddenly, as if remembering something. I had the sense that he was going to walk away.
Sometimes you see a dog or cat that are so hungry that they’re willing, despite their fear, to approach you. That’s what it felt like with this kid.
He pointed to the board and moved his finger back and forth diagonally.
“Right,” I said. “And how about this?” I showed him the knight. He frowned. Was it because he couldn’t remember it or because he couldn’t explain it? (Try explaining how a knight moves. It’s not easy. I know of some concise descriptions, but I’ve picked them up from good chess writers.) At last he pointed again and finally spoke.
“Like this,” he said. “A seven.”
I asked him if he wanted to play, but this time I lost him. He remembered the other tables, and the bar, and slowly went off to sell his tissues. Then he was gone.
The following Friday I took my chessboard with me even though Raymond and I were not going to play. I stayed behind when everyone had left and set up the pieces. I had taken a book with me, Alekhine‘s games, and played out the some of the annotation. But my mind wasn’t really on it. The truth is that I wasn’t good enough at chess to understand his annotations.
Soon enough, the boy came. I thought I saw him look for me when he came in. Or maybe it was the look of recognition when he saw me. I nodded to him. This time he made his round of the cafe. The Argentinean woman who worked there often gave coke or even a sandwich to these kids, which made the place popular with them. He came to the table, unwrapped his sandwich and started eating. He was intrigued by the book, especially by the tiny chess fonts. I set up the pieces to the initial position and turned the board so that the white pieces were in front of him.
“Go ahead,” I said. “Let’s play.”
He frowned. Was he thinking of his first move, or was he trying to decide if he should play or not? He seemed to have reservations. I waited. Finally, he picked up the King’s pawn and moved it forward two squares.
We only played part of a game. About ten to fifteen moves into it, he got restless and left. I don’t remember if he said why he was leaving so suddenly, or if we spoke at all. I wrote down the position so that we could continue the game from where left off the next time I saw him. But he didn’t come back.
I didn’t see him again until about a year later. M. and I went for a walk down to Zappeio and there was a photography exhibit there. We walked around looking at the large black and white photos, and there he was in a group of portraits, with the same serious, guarded expression. I asked M. if she remembered him, since she often came to the cafe-bar with us, but she had no recollection of him. I looked around at all the people strolling about looking at the photos. I wanted someone there to recognise him, to know who he was, so I could tell them that I used to see him often, and had even played a little bit of chess with him.
This was all about ten years ago.
* * * * *
One day I read in the newspaper that hundreds of children had disappeared from the streets of Athens, most likely sold by the child trafficking rings that had brought them down in the first place. Did it happen all at once, or slowly, child by child? Had anyone been paying attention? “Yeah, you’re right!” people said. “I hadn’t noticed it at first, but it’s true: you don’t see them around any more.”
According to Terre des Hommes and other organisations, up to 150,000 children of immigrants have been forced into child labour in Greece, usually selling tissues and trinkets. After years of pressure, the Greek government finally started doing something about the problem, but you still see a lot of children on the street, children even younger than the blond boy whose name I never learned.
Over the years, I tried to write a story about him. I made him Serbian and called him Mitar, a name I picked up from a friend years ago in Canada. I filled pages in notebooks about him, about his story. In all of the notes, he is at an intersection, at a crossroads; a change is coming, and it’s the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him next because I’ve never written beyond that point. I don’t know how the story ends. Everything is frozen, like the image of him that I saw at Zappeio long after he had disappeared.
All I have is my own image of him, of his interest in the game of chess and desire to play, but his hesitation, his fear of opening up, or perhaps his sense that, despite his youth, the desire to play was pointless, as if he had already learned that what the rest of us call childhood was nothing more than a delicate myth, which for him had long since shattered into a thousand little pieces.