The first games I played were games of memory. My English grandfather was full of them. Parlour games, mainly. There was one in which each chair in his living room became a station and his family became trains. He would stand in the middle of the room and direct the trains between the stations, and you had to remember which train you were and where the station you were headed to could be found. At five or six, I found it overwhelming, but also intoxicating. (At 39, I now look back and suspect my grandfather wished he hadn’t spent his life as clerk of the local magistrate’s court.) Then there was another game – I’ve since learned that it’s called Kim’s Game, but as a kid I assumed my grandfather had invented it – in which he arranged a tray with bits and pieces from around the house, gave us a minute to study them all and then covered the tray with a cloth and quietly removed one item. When he uncovered the tray again we all had to spot what was missing.
God, memory is just fascinating. At times – these times may be called “the speedy approach to being 40” – it feels like memory is the most human of topics. It’s where so much of what we are lays tangled together. Tangled and knotted. I think of Kim’s Game and I am instantly back in my grandfather’s living room. I can remember so many of the items that served time on the Kim’s Game trays – a silver toast rack, a plectrum, a music box with a clown printed on it, a bright purple brazil nut chocolate – and then these items bring their own memories along with them too. I remember looking at that plectrum and wondering what it was for. I think of the toast rack and I can almost smell the gas hob and the marmalade that scented the kitchen of that house. I remember that I was allowed to eat that brazil nut chocolate once that particular game was completed.
Games and memory belong together, I think. There is the way they are stored in the mind, for starters. I tend to remember games the way I remember architecture or poetry: fragments set adrift, occasionally bumping into view, distracting and sometimes faintly troubling. Just as I remember a warm tiled corridor with iron banisters rising at the turn, or a gentleman, clean favoured, and imperially slim, I will suddenly from nowhere recall a cathedral that hangs from chains, or a cavern where visitors are intermittently crushed between slabs of disco-pink quartz. I remember pieces, and the pieces are often more interesting than the games they force me to track down. A door that held an entire ocean behind it. A book that sent me back to the start.