Florence is young when she moves to England and finds herself in the midst of a world already in motion. But even small children have their burgeoning friendships, playmates, in-jokes, and she rushes to pick it up in an unfamiliar language. Sometimes, when she feels as if she's left on the outside, she can't put her finger on a better reason beyond "everyone else already knows each other." This is impossible, of course; she is still growing, still discovering what she will become, and so are they. Even if a few paths have been walled off, there is no telling where she will land.
Anyway, her mother would have disabused that notion. "Your father was a hero," she says, and means it isn't his fault for leaving you, it's theirs, where them is a featureless blob even blurrier than her fading memories of Budapest. "Was" doesn't need stress, either; there is no question that Gregor is dead, no risk of building false hopes.
She's twelve, flat-chested and lanky, the first time she beats one of the smokers in the park. She could have done it earlier, she thinks, if she was brave enough to wave away the smoke and hold her own for an hour. Instead she stands, leaning against the chair as if she's about to head out but will make one more move as long as she's here. One more move, one more move. Avoid the obvious knight fork he's trying to set up. Give her king some space to flee so she doesn't lose a tempo escaping check. Set her rook up to trap the enemy king behind an empty file.
He gives a slow whistle through the smoke. "You a hustler, little girl?"
"I'm lucky we didn't put money on this, heh-heh." He extends a wrinkled hand, which she shakes.
She's proud of her own play, sure, but she doesn't find any particular humor in the situation. Make money from chess? The smokers are aged from lives of real work, or something like it, and chess is a game that just happens to have the same rules wherever you look. And if he underestimated her, that wasn't her fault. When I'm older, she tells herself, they won't act surprised that I can play. She tells herself the same thing the next year, and for several years after that.
She's nineteen when they bury her mother. The gravestone spells her name the English way, Gertrude Vassy, and Florence resents it; her mother had always introduced herself as Vassy Gertrúd and then gotten angry with the government workers and businessmen who were confused. Her family, her dead husband, had come first and foremost, and only later her personal identity with unfamiliar accents.
For all that Florence had felt lonely as a child and struggled to articulate why, she had grown up without an accent, without nostalgia for a life left behind. Gertrúd had not had the choice to be anything other than a refugee. At least, Florence thinks, she had relished telling her story; when others grew equivocal or wondered why there was so much fuss about the Soviets, Gertrúd had given a face and a name to abstractions, daring her neighbors to remain unconcerned. But Florence wonders how much of that is true and how much is her memory simplifying things.
She had come home from uni several months before, when it became clear her mother's illness was worsening. Gertrúd had laughed and told her to go back to school, it didn't make a difference. But Florence had stayed, had not wanted to be aloof and apart when the end came. Wanted to have someone to mourn properly, not at a distance. Her mother had always been mourning her father, body or no body, in a way that Florence could not.
One of the well-wishers says something trite and empty about how hopefully she's with her Gregor now, and Florence can't even muster the energy to tell him to sod off. In a world full of displacements and revisitations, why not miracles?
She's twenty-three when she meets Freddie Trumper. The surprise is not that he's scowling and drumming his fingers on the table as his opponent carefully considers his options—the American's reputation precedes him—but that he's dominating the London Open. Sore losers can be found everywhere; sore winners are special.
Trumper delivers checkmate with a flourish, his knight poised upright but looking ready to gallop somewhere more exciting. This, it transpires, is the problem. Not that Hanssen had lost, but that he had not conceded defeat a dozen moves prior.
"There's a break before the last round," Florence points out. "It isn't like you were in a rush."
"He was wasting my time," says Trumper, with just a hint of stress on the penultimate word.
"You can't blame the guy for hoping you'd make a mistake."
"I don't make mistakes." From someone else it might have been a scramble to cover up prior rudeness, but Trumper seems to genuinely believe his own assessment, and Florence can't help admire that kind of confidence.
"It's a good problem to have," she pushes. "Having to play a few winning chess moves at a chess tournament."
"He should know better," Trumper pouts, once Hanssen is out of earshot. Chess is guided by etiquette and conventions with as many loopholes and exceptions as the nuances of en passant; when you're learning to play, you announce check so your opponent doesn't waste time on illegal moves, and keep fighting to the end because there's always something to learn. When you play seriously, you don't dare offend your opponent by implying that he (or she, but mostly he) can't see check, nor make him go through the motions of checkmating if you could spare him the effort by resigning. Unless, apparently, your name is Petr Hanssen.
"Well," says Florence, with a smile, "not everyone can see as far ahead as you."
Trumper is a round away from winning the tournament, and so far he's made it look easy. He shouldn't be awed by praise. Yet he looks truly appreciative, and it's hard to reconcile the impatient finger-drummer with the picture of gratitude.
It doesn't get any easier, but Florence gets a lot more practice at seeing both faces.
She is thirty when Gregor's ghost is used against her, and it's not by the officious arbiter or their boisterous hosts in Merano or even Molokov, her counterpart who makes no effort at pretending he's a chess second. It's by Freddie.
"They see chess as a war," he says, and she doesn't know how to explain that he has it all backwards. He's the one that has no qualms about using anything and everything as a weapon over the board. He has used her, after all, and she has enjoyed it; enjoyed planning dozens of moves ahead without being the one whose name is on the scoresheet. Enjoyed travelling the world without facing the microphones. Enjoyed the mundane work of making a life for two, cleaning up Freddie's messes, without having to open her heart or read his. And she has made him a champion.
There cannot, she thinks, be more than this. And then she sees how Sergievsky carries himself, wide-eyed and looking younger than her. He has everything provided for him back home; a wife, a routine, a team of assistants ready to support him—or replace him. Freedom is a childish word, too fanciful to be true.
She doesn't know what her father would have done. But Gertrúd would not have cared who won or lost a game, so long as one person was seeking liberty. If there's a way out—whether it's through the back door of an embassy or in front of the blinding camera flashes—how can Florence not help?
Sergievsky keeps looking over his shoulder, not daring to believe he has been granted a new life. "I'll stay as long as you need," Florence promises.
"Only if you want to," he says. "But I would like that very much."
"You can find any second you want. I'm sure there would be dozens of people honored to work with you." Already she realizes, on some level, that Freddie will not try to reclaim his title right away or maybe ever. His pride wounds easily, and most people would not have Florence's patience with him, nor would he have much in return.
"I don't need…" He trails off, maybe because of the language barrier or maybe embarrassment. If he'd assumed she and Freddie had been partners off the board, he wouldn't be the first. "I do not care if you want to coach me or not. I want to be in your life because you are you. That is enough."
He's not the first man to tell her that, in more or less fluent ways. But he's the first one she believes, maybe because it comes from someone who's tasted everything but freedom.
Philidor claimed that the pawn is the soul of chess, and players have been quoting him for over two centuries. Maybe it's because there are so many of them that they can be traded recklessly. Maybe it's because they capture in a different way than they move. Or maybe it is because, alone among the pieces, pawns can never move backward. Whether two squares at the beginning, rushing forward, or one at a time, they only push forward—until, perhaps, they reach the eighth rank and are transformed into something new.
Florence is thirty-one when she lets go of Anatoly. Or maybe it's him who lets go of her, or finds one thing he can grasp hold of in the midst of a changing world and leaves everything else behind. It amounts to the same thing.
Freddie asks her to return—he does not understand that while it may have been a golden era for him, for her it was only one shade among many. She could not be the person he wants, even if she tried, not anymore.
Florence barely knows Svetlana except through Anatoly's stories, and she knows better than to trust them completely. But she sees the woman's tension and frustration with the championship match and knows that for her, the least bad option will be returning to a loveless marriage and avoiding any further ploys of Molokov's. She does not try to suppress a twinge of pity, nor the twinge of jealousy that follows close behind. Florence cannot share the victory, but at least she can appreciate Anatoly's brilliance as he, for once, leaves the world behind.
And then? Nothing is truly free, but here, on the last night in Bangkok, Florence can finally believe that the world is her oyster.