I never intended to get into an argument.
At thirteen years of age I found myself in a foreign land. It was strange, bewildering, exciting. I could not speak the language and they struggled with mine in this remote location where outsiders rarely went.
One thing the local café did have was a chess set. It was beautifully carved and it turned out it was hand made by the café owner who had done a lot of carving and was quite well known in the region.
I sat staring at the board while waiting for my little slice of pizza to turn up. It fascinated me. I was stunned by the level of detail on each of the pieces.
Little did I know that that just by sitting down at the table I was issuing an open challenge to a game a chess. At that age I knew the moves the pieces were allowed to take but then, like now, I was no grand chess strategist.
After a few minutes a local boy, only a few years older than me sat down and as he was sitting on the white side of the board, he made the first move.
OK, I thought. I’ll give it a go, expecting to be royally trounced.
A few moves in to the game and I was doing better than I thought. The boy opposite then tried to make an illegal move. “No, no, no” I said wagging my finger in a scolding fashion. I had hoped that was sufficiently international enough for him to understand. I moved his piece back and indicated he should retake his move. He muttered something and whilst I did know what he had said, the tone in his voice was not complimentary.
We went through the cycle of illegal moves three times, each time I said “No” and gently replaced his piece. Each time the volume of his voice increased and not wanting to be outdone, as I was now fighting for the chess honour of England (or so I felt at the time), I started to shout back. Neither of us could understand the other.
Eventually he pulled his position back and beat me in the final moves. We shook hands and having finished my pizza I left.
Walking down to the café the next day I heard someone shouting my name. It was him. I really wasn’t in the mood for chess today and still felt a little annoyed I had been beaten the previous day. He was looking over his shoulder and waving his arm for me to come over to him in the middle of the crossroads. Not the safest place to be considering how Italian people drive. So imagine my surprise when he turned and I saw a maching-gun strapped to his chest.
The red beret that was flopped beneath the epaulette on his shoulder was not to do with the local Scout group as I had assumed.
The local boy I had thought only a few years old than I was, was in fact a member of the Carabinieri, Italy’s militarised Police Force.
I did wonder how different things could have turned out, if I had won the chess match instead of him. I have heard it said they serve a lot of spaghetti in Italian jails.