I never once saw Sandy when he wasn’t steamin’, out-of-his-skull drunk, weaving anarchically along the pavement between the harbour and the Rowan Bar; our shared surrogate home seven nights a week.
Being a fisherman probably didn’t help with the unsteadiness of his land legs but, without a doubt, whisky was his main dance partner in this routine.
He was the ruddiest-coloured man I’ve ever set eyes upon. Every aspect of him was a shade of burnt copper. The mop of tousled hair fashioned by the northern breeze; a caramel complexion – oddly more Mediterranean fisherman than West of Scotland peely-walliness; ginger stubble on his chin which never grew beyond designer length, as though he had a broken internal clock whose arm was stuck on five o’clock shadow. Even his clothes were various shades of coppery ginger; from his ribbed corduroy trousers and scuffed oxblood brogues to a weather-weary Aran sweater which presumably was once cream but had been assimilated into the pale, faded ruddiness of his aura. As this outfit never changed, you might have expected him to reek like old cheese. But the scent which cloaked him wasn’t unpleasant – more essence of damp sheep grazing on a hillside by the sea. When he staggered by there were hints of heather and ozone mingled with pipe tobacco and good whisky. No, not unpleasant at all.
Despite his inability to move forward in anything even closely resembling a straight line, he didn’t slur his words. That’s probably because he rarely spoke. I can’t recall ever hearing him utter one word, maybe a couple of grunts one time.
Sandy was a perpetually drunk fisherman who had a prodigious talent. He was an accomplished chess player, no matter how inebriated he was.
The Rowan was a cosy wee pub …
… and a haven for an eclectic bunch of veteran and trainee alcoholics; ranging from defeated schoolteachers and teuchter farmers to council scheme sages, and a poet who worked on the midgie motor; generally people who didn’t quite fit comfortably in any other pub in town. As well as having a pool table, dart board, and table space invader machine whose invaders you couldn’t see because they were obscured by ancient, ingrained beer rings, there was a chess board which was always set out on the same table; its opposing armies waiting patiently for their generals to show up.
Around nine every night, Sandy staggered through the front door and careened toward the bar where Tam the owner welcomed him with glass of single malt whisky – no words exchanged. Sandy accepted it lovingly with both hands, before carefully negotiating the few feet between the bar and his customary pew behind his waiting ebony soldiers. He’d collapse onto the faux emerald leather, take a glug of whisky, place the glass on the table, and then his head would slump forward onto his chest as though he’d fallen into a deep sleep, or died. He’d sit there quietly getting more and more pissed, disinterested in anything else going on in the bar … until someone sat opposite.
It was usually unwitting strangers who took up the challenge …
… as most of us had given up trying to beat Sandy at chess. He’d demolish opponents without batting an eye, literally as he still appeared to be asleep/dead even when he was playing. Mostly his tousled head would remain slumped against his chess; the only sign of life when a wavering hand would reach out and hover above a piece until it was sure it had locked-on, before moving it to a killer of a position.
One attempt had been enough for me. I thought I was decent enough, fooled by being able to checkmate mates relatively easily. Any misguided belief that I knew how to play the game was shredded by Sandy. He hunted down my king with the ferocity of a rabid pack of hounds. Before I knew it, my royal hope was cowering pathetically in a corner.
Nobody proved a match for the Rowan’s sloshed grand master …
… until the day a frigate docked in the bay and three young Royal Navy lieutenants chose to spend their one night on the town in the bar.
Whereas the enlisted men tended to head to the The Swan’s Heid in the centre of town – because, according to my maw, the girls who drank there had prices on the soles of their shoes – the younger officers traditionally frequented The Rowan. It had been this way since the town had been a naval base during WWII.
The three officers took up position at the wooden bar and sat chatting, drinking, and generally ignoring the other punters as there was an absence of potential local ‘conquests’ in the Rowan. Then one of them spotted the chess board. He tapped another on the shoulder and nodded toward Sandy. This officer swung around and stared at the inebriated fisherman.
“Is he okay?” he asked Tam.
“Oh, aye,” Tam smiled. “He’s hunky dory. He just sits there daein’ nuthin’ till somebody takes up the gauntlet.”
“So he actually plays?”
“Is he any good?”
“He’s thrashed everyone in this bar.”
The three officers put their heads together for a quick conflab, before turning back to Tam.
“Do you think he’d accept a wager?”
“One hundred pounds?”
“Nae bother,” Tam didn’t even bother consulting with Sandy, instead he took a wad of notes from the till and slapped them on the bar on the fisherman’s behalf.
The Navy officers pulled out their wallets and matched the amount.
“By the way,” one smiled as he laid crisp fivers on the bar. “James was the winner of the Nato Chess Championship in Denmark last year. We probably should have mentioned that first.”
The officer called James sat down opposite Rab …
“Ready?” he asked.
When no reply was forthcoming, he moved his pawn forward causing a slumbering volcano to rumble into life. An unsteady hand reached out.
For thirty minutes we watched as the lieutenant’s chess pieces pursued Sandy’s, slowly capturing one after another. It was too easy, the officer should have known that. Whether it was as a result of the three pints he’d downed, or he simply underestimated his opponent because he was facing a small-town fisherman who was in a drunken stupor, who knows? But Sandy drew the young officer into a carefully crafted web move by move. Within a few more exchanges, Lieutenant James went from being in complete control to finding his queen slain and himself on the ropes. After another few desperate skirmishes, Sandy’s black knight herded the lost-at-sea sailor’s bemused king into a chequered cul-de-sac before his bishop flew across the board to land the fatal blow with a flash of his sceptre. The lieutenant’s king toppled to the ground, defeated.
It turned out to be Sandy’s swansong. He left The Rowan clutching a bottle of whisky in each hand, a reward for his victory, took to the sea in his wee fishing boat, and was never seen alive again.
Forty eight hours passed before Sandy’s body was found. His bloated corpse was finally spotted floating face down in the water in Skelpie Bay.
“He was engulfed in a sea of sargassum,” the fisherman who found him told the local rag. “Sandy just blended into the mass of seaweed, he was totally camouflaged. In a way he looked as though he belonged there.”
To many of those who read the newspaper he was just another fisherman who lost his life at sea. But a chess board permanently laid out on a table in a cosy pub in a wee Scottish town still reminds us of our undefeated drunken chess master called … ? Called … ? You know, I don’t actually have a clue what his real name was. We just knew him as Sandy because that was how he always looked.