Rosemary

DAVID WHIPPMAN 

 M or F?

I saw the question in the message box during an online game of chess. (My username – Knightpawn – was unintentionally unisex.) Hence, my opponent’s enquiry. But usually, concentrating on the game, I wouldn’t even reply to such a question.

This time I typed F. Sheer devilment, I suppose. The thrill of being able to deceive.

The next questions came immediately. How old r u? Where are u?

I was losing the game. I saw a diversionary tactic. I typed 24, f, Britain. The conversation continued. I was Rosemary, 24, a student of history at a minor British university.

That got a J smile icon from my unseen interrogator. But then what could have been a note of suspicion, albeit a chauvinist one:

 U play good chess 4 a girl Rosemary.

Not as good as him; as I said, I was losing. But I was also thinking on my feet.

 My dad is a good player and he taught me. Said I had to have a mind as well as a figureJ

I was getting into it by now, I won’t deny it. It was easier than you’d think. Rosemary (she hated being called Rose or Rosie!) was a likeable girl. Her character and background took shape easily. She was no bimbo, but approachable and fun. Intelligent, but not enough to frighten off your average guy. She was struggling to hold her place at uni, in fact, but her daddy, a lecturer himself, pulled some strings for her. She was his spoiled little girl, though he still despaired of her; she preferred sunbathing and hanging out with friends to her studies.

Sunbathing…that gave me an idea. One that wouldn’t have worked in the winter.

 Are u at work now? I asked him, thinking, rather sternly, that if he was, he shouldn’t be wasting his firm’s time playing online chess. By now I knew he worked in a bank, someplace out in the far East that I’d never heard of. His English was excellent, but no surprise there: these days, most people speak it better than the English themselves.

 Yes I am in the bank? U at college 2day?

I typed: Not 2day. No lectures till 2morrow. I am in the garden sunbathing.

 And playing chessJ I could sense the surprise in his words.

 Why not? I typed back. It’s easy on laptop.

It was his move at the chess. The wrong move would mean I got his queen with a discovered check. But he’d see it; so far, he’d been several moves ahead of me.

Except I had a gambit that wasn’t in any book of chess theory.

 Lol, feels sort of strange playing chess in a bikini

There was the text equivalent of silence for a few seconds. Then his question. U r in a bikini?

No, I grinned to myself, don’t you know British girls always sunbathe in suits of armour? What I actually wrote back was what else would I wear 2 sunbathe?

 I bet u r beautiful Rosemary. Wasn’t he the smoothie?

I gave him an electronic Mona Lisa smile, and the check that won his queen.

He resigned a few moves later: I think by then the game didn’t seem important to him.

 When will u play again Rosemary? His message looked eager.

 Same time 2 morrow. I answered, with a winner’s grace.

 I will b here

I hoped the bank didn’t get too busy.

*

It was harmless, after all. I wasn’t some sexual predator, surfing round to find victims I actually wanted to meet in person. Meeting him was the last thing I wanted! We would never even be on the same continent.

I wasn’t out to con money out of him either. I was really just a practical joker. And like most victims of practical jokes, when he found out the truth he would be annoyed and embarrassed, maybe, but that was all.

*

Sure enough, we talked online the next day, and learned more about each other. He was in his early 30s – always assuming he was more truthful than me – and engaged. (His society was obviously more staid than ours.) By now, I was really getting into the character of Rosemary. She was taking on a life of her own, flirtatious in a way, but also honest and principled.

 Would yr fiancée mind u talking with me? “she” asked him.

I knew he was considering the question. We are only talking, Rosemary. I cant even see u

Just as well. I pictured him as rather naïve, but the sight of a beer-bellied guy in his 40s with 5 o’clock shadow might arouse his suspicions just the same.

 I would like 2 cu so much Rosemary. U must b beautiful

She was modest as well. Lol I have done some modelling so I guess I look okJ

A chess-playing model who was available for online gossip? You’d think he’d smell a rat, but I suppose people believe what they want to believe. And Rosemary wasn’t claiming to be in the Kate Moss league. She had merely done some promotional work, advertising, that sort of thing.

 Can I c u? pls Rosemary!

Online, I found a holiday brochure, where the bikini-clad girls look spontaneous but are in fact posed models. So Rosemary acquired a face and body. She wasn’t some goddess: that would have been pushing my luck. Instead, she just looked vivacious and pretty, laughing with a group of friends, and as if there might be some character behind that smile.

I was curious by now to know just how far this would go. I opened an email account for Rosemary – the easiest thing in the world to do – and sent him the photo.

 I am the one in the red swimsuit, I told him. I am not tall enough 2 do real clothes modelling and my legs r too short. That had an authentic sound to it, I thought.

He was smitten. U r perfect Rosemary x

But then, it looked as if my cover was blown:

 U got skype? We can talk like that

I had to think fast.

 Maybe later. I am shyJ. It’s easier talking like this 4 now

He bought it. OKJ

*

Offline, unfortunately, things were less easy to arrange. First, at work, a few of us were told that the firm had to adapt to the economic climate, all businesses had to be streamlined, we should look on it as a challenge not a setback, the usual euphemisms for the bullet.

I wasn’t that concerned. My partner, Claire, had a good job, and I thought that with her income and my jobseekers allowance, we’d manage till I was back in work.

Cue second shock. That evening, before I had even told her about the redundancy, she said she we needed to talk. To be more precise, I needed to listen. She didn’t think we were going anywhere, she’d met someone else at work, nothing had actually happened yet but it was a question of time, and I should advertise for a flatmate because she was moving out at the end of the week.

I’d thought we were an item for good. But then, people believe what they want to believe.

*

So the next time I visited the chess site, I was in no mood for pretending. I didn’t want to talk at all, I just wanted a tough game that would take up all my concentration so I couldn’t think how so much had gone to rat shit for me.

But my admirer was on the site, the internet equivalent of a stage-door Johnnie. Hi Rosemary x

I could have told him there and then that it had all been a hoax. I didn’t, because I knew how it felt to be disillusioned. So I let him down gently.

 Sorry but no time to talk now. Exams coming up! Just 1 game then I must go.

As we played our game, he kept sending messages. U r a clever girl. I know u even tho we have never met. One day I hope I can fly to England 2cu, or u can come here.

A few days later, I dashed his hopes for good, by email. No text abbreviations this time; he deserved a “Dear John” that was written in a dignified fashion.

 You are a nice guy. But this can never be. I have my studies and my life in England. You have your fiancé and I don’t think it is healthy for you to think so much about me. I am so sorry to do this to you, but this will be the last message I send. Please understand why I am doing this and don’t hate me.

He could never imagine the real reason for the letter. I did it for my sake, not his. Rosemary had so much more going for her than me. Life was opening up before her: she had friends and a great relationship somewhere in her future. The contrast between her life and mine was too poignant.

Alone now in my one-room apartment – I’d had to downsize after Claire left – I drank more than was good for me, and more than I could afford. I made myself sober up, though, before I read his reply to my email.

 Rosemary,

 I understand. I will think of you always. You touched my life, which now seems empty. But your future will be wonderful, and I must make of mine what I can. In my sorrow and tears I ask that sometimes you think of me.

I never doubted that his grief was real. His tears in turn fleshed Rosemary out, made her a little more independent of me. I could have put him out of his misery, told him the truth, but would that have been better or worse?

*

I don’t miss Claire all that much, nowadays. I miss Rosemary though. By now, I expect that bank official has forgotten her. But I never will. Her life was not only more exciting than mine, but so much more plausible.

A little about DAVID: After a career spent mainly in healthcare, Dave Whippman is now retired. He writes poetry, stories, and articles.

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