I'm Turkey in the Ottoman twilight, past the era of pageantry, on my decline and fall into the era of common man and nationalism. Appropriately for the sick man of Europe my token's complexion is hot mustard, dark lemon—almost urinal. The game is new to me, as are the rules.
Lurking in the crotch of two continents, I teem with guns and garlic supposedly, my position strategically favourable provided I can get the Tsar on side, or at least that whiskered old Count. Across the map at Sarajevo, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary falls, a shot heard around the world. I don't smile. Have to take it seriously. Mustn't be ungracious to my hosts.
"Army from Sebastopol to Ankara," I say, "convoyed by fleet in the Black Sea."
"No way, mate. It's a stand-off…"
Though we've only made it as far as 1903, already the seven Great
Powers are on the move, led by Russia. Germany mobilises to take the offensive,
declaring war first on the white Tsar then on France.
"You and I can help each other a great deal at this point," I tell Caroline.
Bill's wife is an ice-cool blonde, square of shoulder and fringe: not a head of state to be trifled with. With her I make a pact not to hinder French interests in the Mediterranean, providing she assist me by needling our black-helmeted Kaiser. Standing with arms folded, she weighs tactics. Caroline knows how to hold her grog. If she has a soft bedside manner, only her patients are ever likely to see it, or her husband—though Bill is neglecting his Italian forces in favour of wine sampling.
Presently I confront Dave over his attempted invasion—a big swilling bearded Marxist from central casting.
"Mate…" he drawls, glass in hand, conference map in the other.
Our 15-minute diplomacy period is over already, and I haven't got a straight answer out of him.
"Invading Ankara," I say. "The cheek of it. What about our non-aggression pact?"
"Mate, I'm just trying to put Germany off guard..."
"Right now, I'm your best bet for an ally. One more move without telling me and our treaty is off."
"Okay," he says. "I gotta talk to England."
He saunters out, the old beret tipping to one side—his only remaining concession to the politics of his youth.
Once more as Sultan, I penetrate the defences of Bulgaria and Greece, ravaging the Serbs and Rumania, with Romanov support. I'm the imperial sunset. Shortly a civil dictatorship will flame, amid populist fervour. Abroad I conquer. At home I'm dying.
Meanwhile Great Britain combines with Germany for an Anglo-Saxon union. He spurts more claret into her glass. Joy swallows half of it, spilling a few drips to trickle down her chin, where Glen dabs a finger. I look away to hear Caroline's gallic troops attacking Munich with Bill's green-token reinforcements, though Nicolas II and Victor Emmanuel III are too engrossed in football debate to be of any use. Meanwhile Saxe-Coburg and the Kaiser have slipped out to one of the bedrooms. Over another wine bottle the football argument continues.
Wendy is on her own, in tight skirt and high heels, seated before a spread of fish and chip wrappers and the laminated map of Europe. Her mascara is thickly applied, blonde tips in her hair. It's pathetic how each of Glen's girls is younger than the last. This one only left school last year. She works at the estate agency. Her handling of Austria-Hungary this evening has been abysmal.
Dave and Bill hoot laughing. They pour fresh libations, directing their attention briefly to the game. Joy returns, touching me on the shoulder. Germany needs a favour.
"It's about Italy, isn't it?" I say, once we're alone.
She leans on me, giggling, as I shut the door. The first two buttons of her blouse are undone, and I glimpse the frill of a black bra. Her eyes are half-closed.
"Don't listen to Dave," she says, touching my thigh. "He's full of shit."
The last person I can possibly trust is the man's wife, telling me her side of things. Besides, she knows my continued success depends on Russian patronage. This is how I reason, keeping my hands off. Dave is a big bloke. If he were to find me in here with Joy's shirt half-open… I hardly know her. I hardly know Dave either. But I see he's changed under her domestic influence, his fire gone out. It all works in her favour, this open relationship of theirs. Dave believes the propaganda he's fed. These are strangers in whose company I find myself often drunk.
Murmurs filter from the kitchen, laughs from a bedroom. In the lounge Glen's voice and Wendy's trip between registers, inflections rising, left to hang. Each room has a distinct tone, a shared darkness.
The bell goes. Time up. Hastily I throw together an attack plan, holding onto Venice and marching on Vienna. I also support Russia's invasion of Berlin. Dave acknowledges my assistance with a wink, the silly bugger. And I've been in a room with his wife.
One more acrid coffee and my eyes are propped open. My watch says 2:30. Russia's onslaught disintegrates as old mates Dave and Bill drink each other to oblivion, leaving Italy wide open. The dwarf king curls up for a snooze. Outside in wintry conditions, Dave maintains his fire, smoking a joint as he waits for Joy to finish the game and drive him home.
Meanwhile I push into the Ukraine, but not before Caroline emerges as conqueror of Great Britain and Scandinavia, simultaneously mobilising forces through Africa and into strongholds of the second Reich. Not since Bonaparte have the French looked this dangerous.
For a while I try chatting to Wendy, though we have nothing in common. She's never heard of Keynes or Gramsci or Proust. She goes to tanning salons and clubs. Her disastrous visit to the en suite bathroom occurs just before three a.m. She departs the house in tears, shortly followed by Glen doing up his zipper, muttering oaths. In the master bedroom I discover Joy. Buttoning her blouse, she looks at me as if I'm something she has vomited.
The house rule is to play out the game. Caroline takes Budapest and Warsaw from me, the only player left standing, to achieve her quota of supply centres and assume control of Europe. Surveying the carnage of western civilization, we drain a glass of port and toast her success.
"Christ," she says. "I'm on duty on two hours."