this (remorseful) life
In the early 1960s I often played chess with Serge Rubinraut in a coffee shop called the Apollyon. It was a subterranean establishment, its clientele mostly from eastern Europe: older, taciturn, serious.
Serge quickly dispelled any pretensions I might have had to being good at the game. (In 1976 he won the Australian Chess title.) I remember beating him on only one or two occasions, of the very many that we played but, looking back, that may have been because he felt sorry for me.
I liked Serge even though he was difficult to talk to. He never spoke about his background although I understood his mother escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to China. He and his mother came to Australia from Shanghai. I knew nothing about his father.
He lived a very internal life and never seemed entirely happy. I read recently that in 2008 he suffered a heart attack, died and was buried in the Jewish section of the Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney.
He once told me of the time he won the Australian title. It was a hard-fought contest. To- wards the end he offered his opponent a draw; they would have been joint holders. His opponent rejected the offer and Serge went on to win on his own.
We often went to wine bars to talk. Serge was very game when it came to chatting up girls. He would approach them and make up improbable stories about himself.
I recall one such evening at a venue called the Basement, near Circular Quay in Sydney; a popular joint where the music was so loud that the conversation didn’t have to be of a particularly high standard.
Serge spied two nice-looking girls out together on their own and went over to talk to them. Serge told them that we were novices studying for the priesthood. He had not told me what he was going to say and I was caught on the hop but fell in with the ruse.
The girls were fascinated and could not wait to find out more. I admired Serge for such boldness — it was not something I could have done.
A few years before his death he rang me. I think I was in Canberra at the time. He wondered if I ever came to Sydney and, if I did, would I like to call on him. He was living in a room in a Redfern terrace. I took down his address but I never did call on him. He told me at the time he was not doing very well and in fact was suffering from severe depression.
Discovery of his death filled me with remorse. I see now that the phone call was probably a plea for help and l ignored it. I should have given him some of my time.
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