Sveta Wonders Why Nic Plays With Her


The result of playing and practicing chess for so long was restless and ill-tempered tossing and turning in bed. Normally it would take Sveta just a few minutes to fall asleep; more and more her days were empty, and she was left with nothing more taxing than imaginings of the outside world as she embraced the freedom of dreams. A certain knowledge that she was safe from the outside world of drunks and hooligans, behind her sturdy two doors, and five floors and a concierge between the violence of the street, tended to envelope her at night. It was as if she was able to click off the anglepoise spotlighting and x-raying the horrors beyond her door, and the darkness was ignorance to the illumination before.

But there was no release from the game. Or rather there was no release from one problem the Nic had posed. She enjoyed the intellectual challenge of chess puzzles, and this was a recent one, from a game she should have been aware of. An advanced white rook, d7 was attacking the black king c8, and was meant to be able to go on to win, with a pawn to assist against black’s remaining bishop and pawn. The rook, more mobile than a solitary bishop, should make short shrift in the situation, but Sveta could not see it. The black pawn was diagonally adjacent to its bishop, offering only a rook gambit for a pawn at best, the poorest option available on the board. Over and over in her head she moved the white king and the rook, the pawn immobilised behind the black pawn. Her closed eyes drew light from somewhere, and the monochrome 2D pieces moved bottom to top, right to left and back.

Eventually she lay still, and accepted that sleep was a horizon, and she could remain stationary and take the moment without stride, or she could chase helplessly, never fatiguing to the point of collapse. With one realisation came another – her rigid routine mattered little. It had been weeks since she left the house, the university had all but given up on her (had she not been so senior in such a small department, it was almost certain that she would have been asked to stand down some time ago) and if she desired she could have spent all night solving and setting questions with Nic. In the three days that they had been playing, Sveta was yet to turn to the computer and be met without response from him. She sensed he either didn’t want to or had no reason to work. Sad that he should seem to spend so much time playing chess, but no sadder her than her life. She resolved to try to find out more about him tomorrow, rather than just the quiet online formalities that they were clearly well versed in.

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Arriving At Volgograd Station


Arriving Volgograd

Nic leaned out of the window feeling the air fresher on his face than he expected. The Baku “Express” was about halfway to its ultimate destination and he’d had none of the trouble warily predicted by those that had never used the train. The Azeri train guards, truly Caucasian with clipped moustaches, who had regarded him with amusement throughout the journey, grinned and nodded when he pointed to the floor and asked, “Volgograd?” He sought further confirmation with the childish Cyrillic scrawl that he had copied from his guidebook which made them laugh from their bellies. A little embarrassed that he had not just shown them the book, he stuffed the paper into his pocket and set about readying his backpack. The late morning sun was bright through the coupe window and Nic felt like a pioneer. There was a true sense of some inspiring adventure before him. It bathed him with new found peaceful anticipation instead of the bile that had leeched into him during much of the journey so far and he was surprised to note that he was not at all worried about finding the driver who was to take him directly south to Elista, the city home of City Chess.

The train slowed to oil tanker rate, and during the last 200 metres it was difficult to notice that it was moving at all. This served to maintain the calm, and with a surprising lightness Nic bounded from the train and onto Russian soil, the door held open for him. He reached up behind him and shook hands with the two still smiling guards leaning to meet him halfway. It had been a tiny education for all. He fished his cheap sunglasses from his pocket and threw his head back to take the sun on his face. Then he just stood. He didn’t know where to go and really didn’t care.

He dropped the ‘pack to the floor and perched on it, the weight of his body taken more on his haunches and flat feet. Ignoring the no smoking signs, he licked the microscopic holes on the speckled brown filter of a Marlboro Light to marginally increase the strength. Once the end was glowing he sucked in deeply, imagining the cloud filling his lungs and blew out with the satisfaction of a deep breath rather than a nicotine hit. In fact he gained satisfaction from expelling the noxious fumes, but that did not stop him from poisoning himself once more. He stared at the carriage, 3 metres from him. Looking at all the parts, he went back to the time when a friend of his, a train driver, took him on an illicit journey.

Kenton referred to himself as a “basher”, and as far as Nic could work out, he was essentially an extreme trainspotter. The extreme part was that to tick the engine from his list, Kenton had to ride up front. Nic wasn’t sure whether Kenton had become a driver because of this obsession or whether the obsession had overcome him once he had begun his career. In either event, Kenton had been travelling through Nic’s local station late one evening, and had promised to call to see whether he had wanted to make the three hour round trip with him. Nic decided to give it a go and he and another friend, Bruce, had jumped on the Class 38 train as Kenton slid it through the station at about the same pace as the Baku Express had docked minutes before. It was dark, sometime after midnight and once the diesel engine had got its full head of steam back up, or whatever it was that diesel engine’s had to do to get to a decent pace, Kenton had let Nic drive. There was nothing to it, the most demanding act was to sound the horn before entering the tunnel (against the rule book at that time of night, but this was once-in-a-lifetime stuff), an act which in itself elicited child-like excitement. The fun of the horn was replaced with the horror of an alarm ringing directly behind him. It was a full 1960s fire alarm and it wrenched Nic from reverie and planted him firmly in terror. Kenton responded by coolly stuffing a canvas glove between the bell and the hammer and explained that “this old thing is forever doing that.” The adrenalin breaking down in Nic’s system was making him nervous and after Bruce had declined taking the controls, muttering something about the Titanic, Kenton took over once more.

“Why don’t you two look at the engine?” he suggested above the roar, and with a nod the two of them had headed out of the door behind them and into the engine. Directly into the engine. The noise was incredible, really louder than anything either of them had heard. Bruce punched Nic on the shoulder to get his attention, and although he was clearly shouting from just a metre away, Nic could hear nothing but the din. He turned away from Nic and motioned to the other end of the roaring lump of iron, encouraging Nic to follow. He instinctively knew that this was because he knew he wouldn’t follow and now he felt compelled. With great cloaks of claustrophobia enveloping him, Nic made his way along the chamber, back pressed against the wall as if it offered some protection and arrived at the back where Bruce had already opened the back door. It was like a Bond movie, looking out over the roofless carriages that carried the cargo, a bright moon behind them slightly to the right. They just stood there for a while, appreciating the wind, the terrific feeling of movement and the receding countryside. It was exhilarating and calm all at once.

And that was what Nic felt now. The peace of just sitting and smoking belied the knots in his stomach. He was pinching the end of his smoke and flicked it at the gears and gauges underneath the carriage, and it landed perfectly still on some horizontal bracing between wheels. Pleased with this exceptional omen, the knot slipped straight and he got up, wrestling the backpack happily into place as he did. The driver that he had managed to arrange should be easy enough to spot, a Kalmyk with his distinctive Mongol features amongst a crowd of Russians. He could not make out the size or design of the place as he strode across the tracks, but walking through the building he was impressed by the high ceilings and marble walls. It was lighter than Lviv and less modern than Kyiv, but typically Russian. It seemed that everyone was travelling with a plastic, gingham, zip-up case, of the type used for laundry back home, but used for pretty much everything here. He kept up his determined pace to the front of the station and at the top of the stairs outside took some water from his bottle and settled on his haunches to have another cigarette and see if he could spot someone. Resting back against his pack, against the wall, Nic surveyed the crowd and judged that it should be simple. The sun was on his face and he thumbed the half smoked stick into a crack in the pavement before tossing the butt into the bin. As he stood up, someone was in front of him, speaking to him in Russian.

“Ya ne govoryu po-russkiĭ,” he spluttered under his breath. As it fell from his lips, he confused himself wondering whether he had just lied, by explaining he didn’t speak Russian in Russian. Before the thought could take hold the stranger was speaking English no better to him.

A Pint With Gavin James Bower


It would be easy and lazy to review Dazed & Aroused, by Gavin James Bower, as an easily written, lazy pastiche of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. And whilst the similarities are evident, and the author himself has spoken at great length about the influence the book has had on his novel, very few reviews of Orwell’s 1984 began by referencing the fact that it was a direct take on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. It simply isn’t an issue.

But let’s not get caught up in the name checking of the greats. Bower’s book is an accomplished, wry take on the world of modelling. For a debut novel, written in the first person, the simple assumption to make would be that this is more memoir than fiction. Not so, says Bower when we meet in a West End pub to discuss this book and his next, Made In Britain.

“Consciously, at the time of writing it, it wasn’t me. I took a lot of examples as an observer, of the photo shoots and scenarios that I found myself in and creating characters from there.” After two more sentences, and a draw on his pint of stout, Bower continues, “The disposition of Alex and how he views the world is very much a part of me…”

This isn’t as contradictory as it at first sounds. Bower modelled for “18 months, on and off” and never knew the success that Alex enjoys in Dazed. (“I was never a rich or successful model”). I use the term ‘enjoys’ advisedly. The arrogance and ennui that is so much of his character, the unquestioning acceptance of having a successful look always leaves the reader feeling that the best restaurants are not quite enough, and even partying hard after fashion week is an empty experience. Bower impresses on the point, “In all seriousness, Alex is an extension of me in many ways – a parody.” When discussing the limited amount of drug taking in the book, Bower is “making it up”, a charming reinforcement of the fact of the fiction here.

As we sit outside the pub, the day starts to close and the chilly spring evening takes hold. Royal Mail vans return to their nearby base, sirens wail and rubbish bins are seen to. Over Bower’s shoulder I can see a man pleading for a cigarette from one of the patrons that has ventured outside in the hope of an unmolested smoke. I am relieved when the beggar walks past, happily puffing away. This scene is startlingly similar to a repeating theme in Dazed;

“London is always about juxtapositions, always about that horrible clash – checking your Blackberry and emails on the way to work, whilst stepping over a beggar in a sleeping bag.” I mention that it felt close to being overdone. “Maybe remarking on that is not that clever to point out, but it is there.” Alex gets that there is the poverty there, he sees it, but “he refuses point blank to engage.”

And there it is. Graffiti, clothes, even the silent models are more interesting to Alex than people.

Bower started writing at university in 2002, which led to journalism jobs for Dazed & Confused amongst others. In 2007, suddenly unemployed, he set to paper the story that had been gathering momentum in his mind since his move to London, two years previously. He’s modest about the success of Dazed, and optimistic about writing the screenplay for it, and the forthcoming publication of Made In Britain, his second novel.

Made In Britain is the story of three 16 year olds set in Every Town. Charlie, Russell and Hayley are dealing with their issues, reacting to the world about them. Was it difficult writing about kids of this age? “I don’t know why I’m writing about 16 year olds, maybe it’s a fucking big mistake,” he laughs. There’s disarming honesty to this phrase, but clearly a confidence too. A sneak peak of Made In Britain is available here. Have a look around the rest of the blog; Bower is no Bret Easton Ellis, what he is, is a writer finding his own voice, in his own time.