© Telegraph

Chinese Checkers









I make steady progress across the board.

‘Imperious’ is the word you use to describe it,

While mounting a nonchalant defence,

Against my hopeful, hopping pegs,

Pygmy soldiers in the Shanghai dusk.


In a moment of distraction, as I sip my tea,

Broken orange pekoe from Sri Lanka,

I venture to remark that China

Has given much to the West, and you reply,

‘Oh yes, but taken so much more.

You taught us all your rules of trade,

How to give and take. We gave, you took.

That habit will be hard for us to break.

And this game? Japan gave us this German game,

So now we make smart sets to send to you.’


While you say this, I strive to cross the board

And steal a victory through a pincer-like advance,

Hoping that your mind may be wandering to

Your husband who left you a year or two ago,

Or your lover, arrested for cheating at checkers

With the sharp-faced Russian ambassador,

Whose diplomatic immunity saved their skins.


‘Of course,’ you say, ‘The West has given too,

But let’s not talk about the Opium Wars.’

There’s little humour in your voice.

‘One way of avoiding that past

Is to put it in the margins of a longer,

Finer history of walls and warriors and woks.

Oh yes, we sent you woks too, didn’t we?’


The game looks to be moving towards stalemate,

As you pull backwards from the board,

Grating your chair-legs on the tiled floor.

I see a chance to win the day

And swiftly push my pegs towards your space.

You deftly thwart my move, not by ingenious defence,

But by rising to your feet. You whisper softly,

‘Our pandas seldom mate in Western zoos.’


John Thieme's most recent book, Postcolonial Literary Geographies: Out of Placehas just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Visit the ALR Bookshop for more featured authors and titles.

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