The scheduled meeting on 23rd March 2018 was again a very informal meeting that took place at the house of one of the students. We presented our stories from the previous meeting and then tentatively assigned ourselves a homework subject for the next meeting. However a few days after that, our convenor came home from hospital and sent us all a very positive email which said:
Okay, let's get this train back on track. Let's tempt fate by assigning our next session to be held on Friday the 13th of April.
The homework topic is "the game". Footy, card sharking, ladies of the night, tv game shows, sly office politics,
loaded dice - the possibilities are endless.
As soon as you mention games, one of the first things that springs to my mind is the chess game with Death in Ingmar Bergman's 1957 film The Seventh Seal. That made me think about the personification of Death in Terry Pratchett's novels and the recent hospitalisation of our convenor gave me a handy setting to explore both these ideas...
Anyone who has read any novels by Terry Pratchett knows that Death dresses in black, carries an hourglass to time the length of a persons life, wields a scythe to sever the soul from the body and talks in HOLLOW CAPITALS. Consequently, after I died, I was quite surprised to see a pink-complexioned gentleman dressed in a tweed suit standing at the foot of my hospital bed.
"There now," he said soothingly in quite normal tones, "that wasnt so bad, was it?"
"No," I agreed. "It all seemed to be remarkably trouble free. But Im puzzled. Why arent you talking in HOLLOW CAPITALS and where is your hourglass and your scythe?"
"Bloody novelists!" said Death witheringly. "They really are a blasted nuisance. So full of misconceptions. No imagination at all. I dont use old fashioned equipment like that any more. Youve got to move with the times, you know." He pulled back the left sleeve of his jacket to reveal an elegant Rolex Oyster watch. He glanced at the dial and said, "This is so much more accurate than an hourglass. I can time your life to a tenth of a second with this. When I used an hourglass, the sand always kept sticking in the channel between the two reservoirs. I had enormous difficulty timing a life properly when that happened."
"What about your scythe?" I asked.
"I hate scythes," he said. "They really are the very devil to maintain. You wouldnt believe the hours and hours I had to spend with a whetstone just to keep the blade sharp enough to sever the soul without damaging it. Nowadays I use this." He reached down and picked up a chainsaw which he flourished at me. "Just let me turn this on," he said, "and Ill soon cut you free. Then we can be going."
"Just a minute," I protested. "Havent you missed something? Arent we supposed to play a game of chess to decide whether Im really dead or not? I thought it was a rule. Im sure I saw it in a film once..."
"Bloody Swedish movie directors!" said Death vehemently. "I hate them even more than I hate novelists. Ever since that ridiculously pretentious movie got voted as one of the best films ever made people always ask me that stupid question when I come for them."
"Well," I said, "what about it?"
"No," said Death firmly. "Anyway, Im absolutely rubbish at chess. I never could get to grips with it. Once I got caught in a fools mate. My opponent was only eight years old! Can you believe that? I cant tell you how humiliating it was!" He waved his chainsaw. "Come on, get up."
"So you do play games then?" I asked. "Not chess any more, obviously. But there must be another game we could play."
Death examined his Rolex and then put the chainsaw down. "OK," he said. "I do have a little bit of leeway here. So how about a game of cribbage?"
"Crib?" I said, surprised. That was the last game Id expected him to suggest. But I certainly wasnt averse to the idea. My mother had taught me to play crib when I was a little boy and Id played hundreds, possibly thousands of games with her throughout my childhood. "OK," I agreed. "Lets play crib for possession of my soul."
Death reached in to the inside pocket of his suit jacket and took out a crib board. He put it down on the tray table that stretched across my bed. The board was jet black, of course and it was inlaid with silver. Ivory pegs sat to attention in their home base holes. It was quite beautiful and I told him so.
"Do you really think it is?" he asked shyly. "I made it myself, you know, when I first started getting interested in the game."
"I think its a rite of passage," I said. "Just about everybody who plays the game makes themselves a crib board sooner or later. I certainly did, and so did my friends."
Death took a pack of cards from another pocket and we cut the cards to decide who got the first crib. I won the cut and I dealt six cards to each of us. I examined my hand carefully and chose two cards which I put face down in front of me to start my crib. Death chose two of his own cards and added them to my crib. He cut the pack, and I turned over the top card to reveal the starter. It was the jack of hearts. "Two for his heels," I said gleefully and moved my first peg on to the board. It was an auspicious start.
We took turns laying down our cards and adding their values, aiming to reach the magic total of thirty-one and hoping to make significant targets along the way
I got two points for scoring fifteen and he got two points for making a pair. Then the total reached twenty-eight and he played a three to reach thirty-one and pegged two more points. We were level pegging now, but I won the next sequence, which put me ahead.
Then we scored our individual hands. Since I had the crib, Death went first. "Fifteen-two," he said glumly, "and the rest wont do."
"Muggins!" I said triumphantly. "You forgot the starter card. You can total another fifteen with that." He pulled a face as I pegged the two points that he had missed.
Now it was my turn. "Fifteen two, fifteen four and the rest wont score," I said, moving my peg and jumping way ahead of him. Then I picked up my crib. He had discarded badly, from his point of view at least, and therefore my crib was worth ten points. The gap between us was getting larger
And so the game progressed. Death never made up his early losses and he fell further and further behind. "You seem to have all the luck," he said bitterly.
"It isnt luck," I said. "Its skill. When I played against my mother, I hardly ever won a single hand and I simply couldnt understand why. I thought she was extraordinarily lucky. But finally I realised that actually shed only taught me the rules. She hadnt taught me the strategies or the tactics, the implications of the rules. Once I came to grips with the subtleties of the game I finally started to win against her. The rules themselves are actually very simple, but applying them properly to each hand can be quite a complex task. Its a bit like chess in that regard."
"Perhaps Im just as rubbish at crib as I am at chess," said Death ruefully.
Finally the game reached its inevitable conclusion and I moved my peg into the end hole on the board that marked the grand total of a hundred and twenty one points. The game was over and Id won resoundingly.
"Bugger!" said Death. He put the cards and the crib board back in his pocket. Then he adjusted his Rolex watch. "There," he said. "Ive reset your life timer so youve got a reprieve. Ill come back and see you again in a few years. Have fun until the next time we meet." He picked up his chainsaw and walked away.
* * * *
When I opened my eyes, my favourite nurse was bending over me with a worried expression on her face. "Oh there you are," she said with some relief. "You had us quite concerned. We thought wed lost you."
"What happened?" I asked.
"The machine that goes ping went quite frantic," she said. "It was pinging so fast that it sounded like it was screaming. And then your heart stopped beating and of course the machine went silent. Fortunately the silence didnt last very long." She plumped up my pillow for me and made me comfortable. "Your heart started beating again a couple of seconds later and the machine started pinging normally. Crisis over, for the moment at least."
"Only a couple of seconds?" I asked. "It seemed to last much longer than that to me."
"Did it?" she said vaguely. "How odd. By the way, you had a visitor."
"Who was it?" I asked.
"I dont know," she said. "He was waiting just outside the door when I came in. I told him you were far too ill to have visitors, and I sent him on his way."
"What did he look like?" I asked.
"He was very nicely dressed in a tweed suit," she said. She frowned at the recollection. "And Im almost sure he was carrying a chainsaw. But that makes no sense. I must be imagining that bit. Nobody carries a chainsaw in a hospital."
"No," I said. "they dont."