It was great year for our beloved chess team for, on the 13th of June, the four of us set off to London for the UK Schools' Chess quarter-finals. We were in high spirits as we waved goodbye to Miss Smith and boarded the plane, remembering to strap on our flak-jackets and seat-belts, for we were certain that this year, at long last, Methodist College Belfast would take home the colours.
However, after an unusually long flight of thirteen hours, not including a refuelling stop in Dubai, we thought that something was amiss. For a start, I didn't remember bullet-proof vests being worn during the last UK Schools' Chess competition. Our suspicions proved to be correct when our flight landed not in Heathrow, as we were expecting, but in Kabul. Obviously we had boarded the wrong plane, so I decided to try to contact a member of staff to get a taxi from Kabul International Airport to London. Imagine my surprise when a man in a balaclava immediately approached us and said that he had been waiting for "the four white boys". I tried to explain that we had got the wrong plane and were trying to find a manager, but he didn't know much English and was rather insistent that we accompany him.
I quickly consulted my regulation Prefect handbook and turned to Chapter 12: In Case of Emergency. The instructions within were clear. I immediately declaring myself Acting Scapegoat in the absence of anyone more expendable. Now empowered to take command of this challenging situation, I decided that it would be useful to get a good night's sleep before trying again to find a member of staff, so we got into the back of his heavily-armoured van and rode away into the night.
After a pleasant drive through the beautiful Afghan countryside, we arrived at what appeared to be a novelty village ingeniously fashioned purely from corrugated iron and sandbags. After hearing so many bad things about those shenanigans in Syria I was apprehensive when we first drove through the gates, which were guarded by more men in colourful balaclavas, but we received a typically warm welcome from the men inside the compound, who shouted merrily in the native language and fired machine guns into the air.
However, before we were able even to dust ourselves off from our long journey we were told by yet more men in balaclavas that we were to meet the leader of the group, who went by the wonderful name of Ahmed bin Omar Al Hassid. Thankfully he spoke English, and said that we were to go with a man called Jabhar and that we should meet him at the edge of the compound. When I tried to explain to Ahmed that we were there by mistake, he said that it hadn't been accident at all. It emerged that we had been chosen by Allah to destroy the decadent Western infidels. He then very kindly gave us all welcoming gifts of automatic weapons and yet more of those quaint native headscarves.
When we met Jabhar he was sitting in the back of another van with several other men. They waved to us merrily as we clambered aboard. Just before I could ask what was going on, the truck started and the MCB Chess team once again found itself facing a long drive. I'm happy to say that, despite appearances, our travelling companions all spoke English. We were soon chatting merrily about our last chess tourney (Thomas had cleverly disarmed a fiendish Russian Annexation with a screen of disposable pawns). This amused our new friends to no small degree. By the time we arrived at our destination, we were on nick-name terms with Angel of Death, Messenger of God, and Machine Gun Team.
By now it was near midnight, and we got out in some sort of shanty-town. My heart sang when Jabhar told me that the chess team and I were to find the American soldiers that he said would be inside a compound within the town, and that he and the others would circle around behind it. Cheered at the thought of meeting people who could help us find our way back home, I heartily agreed. The chess team thanked its new friends for a wonderful trip to this foreign paradise, which seemed to go down rather well with our peculiar but undeniably helpful compatriots.
As we dismounted and watched the truck leave and continue its drive to towards the compound, I was suddenly gripped by an uncharacteristic clarity of thought. Though our hosts were perfectly nice to us, I couldn't help but notice that they seemed to be involved in some sort of scuffle with our future American chums, who had taken rather badly to the appearance of our hosts. I realised that we had not simply arrived at the wrong chess competition. Suddenly everything made sense; the shooting, the secrecy, the antisocial behaviour - we must have arrived at the infamous annual Tiddlywinks Summer Open!
It did occur to me that the U.S. Army hadn't ever held such a competition before, but then again it would explain why it was being held in Afghanistan. Now, any other chess team would be a gibbering wreck by this point, but the MCB chess squad is made of sterner stuff. We refused to give up in the face of this trifling adversity, and set off down the cramped streets towards the compound.
As we came closer, we heard automatic gunfire and loud shouts. I must admit that we were all getting rather confused on the matter of who was shooting at whom and why. I know that tiddlywinks is seen as rather a rough game by those of us in the chess community, but surely mass extermination of tiddlywinkers was taking things a tad too far. We discussed it among ourselves for a while, and concluded that it may be time to extricate ourselves from these chess extremists, and try to contact Methody using a phone inside the tiddlywinks compound.
While passing through a house that was in some great state of disrepair I saw through an ex-window a burning truck, not dissimilar to the one we had arrived in, lifted into the air by an immense explosion. Realising that this was our chance to sneak into the compound without being seen and losing our credibility as chess players, we broke into a run through the streets towards it. Just as we turned a corner, and saw the chain-link fence of the compound not twenty feet away, a machine gun opened up at us, manned by Americans who had evidently mistaken us for members of the chess splinter group.
We dived behind a burned-out car, our heads spinning at this shocking turn of events, and we discussed our next move. It was at that point that our keen chess-players' minds sprang into action like well-oiled slinkies. We quickly decided that we should move our queenside bishop to C5 to pin down the forward pawns, and then support it by bringing up our knights mid-game to leave our opponent's king wide open to a clever checkmate with a rook. Without a moment's hesitation, we left cover. I ran to the right, to set up our knights, while the rest of the chess team sprinted down the street.
With hindsight I should have realised that this was not a board game. My friends died instantly, ripped to bloody rags in a hail of gunfire, but I was able to make use of their noble, albeit unexpected, sacrifice by making commandeering my t-shirt as an off-white flag. The gunfire from Jabhar and his chaps was dying down, and I assumed that they had decided that they would try to pull off their fiendish prank another day. Evidently my cries were heeded, for an American called out to me that I was to throw my gun away and put my hands on my head.
Strangely, in the confusion, I had quite forgotten that I would have seemed, to the casual observer, to be a member of the rebel chess players, what with my balaclava and the large gun that Ahmed had given me. I threw them both away and waved frantically. Eventually the gates were opened. Lots of American soldiers, but strangely no tiddlywinkers, ran out and began recovering the bodies of the pranksters and the mangled, charred remains of my three best friends. The chap who seemed to be in charge of the compound came out and told me that I was under arrest, and that if I tried to escape I would be shot.
I had dealt with a similar situation in my erstwhile youth when a prefect had taken down my name for running in the corridor, so I like to think that I held myself together as a burly grenadier fastened my ankles together with cable-ties.
That night, they tied me to a chair and asked me questions about who I was and what I was doing with the foreign chess team. They seemed to think that I was somehow involved with some sort of terrorist attack earlier in the day, and when I asked if they would mind telling me when I could get back home they chained me to a wall and attached a car battery to the soles of my feet. If that weren't enough, they then proceeded to flannel my face so vigorously that I nearly drowned. Never before have I been more certain that tiddlywinks is a game for brutes and scoundrels.
The next day they finally checked my pockets and found my British passport, so they said that they were going to hand me over to MI5 for further interrogation. I was hooded, handcuffed, and pushed onto a helicopter before they shut the door behind me, leaving me in total darkness. When I felt my pockets I realised that the soldiers had confiscated not only my passport and appendages, but also my travel chess set. That was when I broke down, weeping in the darkness as the engines ripped through the perfect stillness of the passenger bay, as I realised that I would never make it in time to the quarter finals.
Within twelve hours I was tied to another chair, this time in London and a man with a heavy Welsh accent was roaring at me to give up my secrets as he pushed red-hot needles under my fingernails. He too seemed to disbelieve my story about my getting on the wrong plane. If I'm being totally honest, I was starting to get the impression that I should ask for my phone call to straighten the whole thing out.
Thankfully, my luck changed. After an indeterminate length of time, he had taken off my hood to make the dental torture easier when he suddenly stopped, halfway through removing my upper left 3rd molar. He asked which school I claimed to attend. I used my one remaining finger to scrawl "MCB" in blood on the floor. He must have been mightily impressed with my attending Northern Ireland's premier grammar school, for he quickly turned to one of the other interrogators and professed to having seen me in a picture with the rest of the MCB Chess team in a newspaper article about my team's mysterious disappearance. That proved that I had been telling the truth all along! I gurgled with relief when they unlocked my handcuffs and offered to fly me back to MCB in first class for free if I promised not to press charges against them.
I heartily agreed, and the very next day a black car with tinted windows dropped the last surviving member of the MCB chess team outside reception- exactly a week after we had left on our adventure from that very spot; just in time for a celebratory garden party on the front lawn, with the headmaster, a strange man in a white coat, and lashings of ginger ale.
Despite the fact that I'm still vomiting blood, suffering from vivid nightmares, and am now banned from operating heavy machinery, I can't deny that it was a literally unforgettable experience that I'm glad to have had. Roll on UK Schools' Chess Competition 2015!
William Baker L6, 2014