We never seemed to get time to talk," said my Aunt Meg. "In one way or another every evening we were playing a game of some kind."
She was explaining why her marriage to my Uncle Alec broke up. He was, in fact, a witty, if not brilliant, talker when he chose, and he would have been horrified at any suggestion that his life was devoted to game-playing. Yet, as Aunt Meg complained, there did seem to be an awful lot of it.
Forty years ago it was poker, a pastime considered rather dashing and modern in Edinburgh at that time. He developed a devilish knack of filling inside straights. There were intervals of anything that became a national craze—mah-jongg, Diabolo, Monopoly or whatever—and then contract bridge came along and there was a good deal of that, and Uncle Alec soon became a keen and respected player, with a disarmingly hesitant tone of voice when doubling six no trump while holding a couple of aces. Cribbage and piquet and backgammon—it did not take him long to master such games for two. Aunt Meg, if she wanted to keep her man at home at night, had to learn them also, and learn to lose. For this must be made clear about the man: sports and games were to him no casual matter. He spent a lifetime of tinkering with accepted codes of play, and he invented some games of his own.
More years ago than I care to think about he collected and gave to his son—my cousin Roger—several hundred empty shotgun cartridges, goods as valuable to us as cowrie shells. Although they turned out to be unsatisfactory as playthings—you could not fit them inside each other since they were all of the same gauge—Uncle Alec noticed that we had just acquired the art of using an elastic band to catapult hard wedges of paper, and he suggested that the cartridge cases would make splendid soldiers. We built two forts of books at the opposite ends of the room, and soon you could not go in there without the risk of a severe sting on the cheek from ricocheting ammunition. But Roger had bagged the better half of the books, and he disposed his men in a monstrously unsporting fashion, so that only a tenth of an inch was showing to the enemy.
The affair ended in a fight, which brought my uncle to the scene.
"It's not fair," I complained. "I can't see his soldiers."
"Ah, yes," he replied, surveying the situation through his bifocals. "Quite. Now what we want are some simple rules. Let me see. Rule 1. At least half of each soldier shall be visible to the enemy."
"What about the generals?" I asked. A wildfowling friend had provided two huge 8-gauge empties. "Generals stay in the background, and they ought to be more difficult to hit, not easier."
"Yes, that's reasonable enough," Uncle Alec said. "Rule 2. Officers above field rank may be three-quarters hidden."
In this way it was not long before the game was formalized, and all the better for that. Shots were to be taken in turn, but if you scored a kill you were given an extra shot. Men were not to be supported by books or other objects wedged behind them. The maximum number, size and weight of books in the fort were prescribed. Uncle Alec acted as umpire for a few minutes, his keen gray eyes carefully scrutinizing the legality of every shot, but soon he could not bear to stand by and watch our terrible marksmanship. "Let me try," he said, as he retrieved a missile from the floor. Immediately my field marshal toppled to the table. Soon we were playing against him, with Roger and me taking two shots to his one, but we hadn't a chance. As usual, he was quickly the most proficient person in the room.