Chapter 15-Which Way Home?


Which Way Home?  

SCRABBLING AROUND FOR somewhere to play Magic at all in rural France, the Pro Tour passed me by. Tournaments were something I was only vaguely aware of and I had been told, in hushed tones, that if you didn’t have a Black Lotus, you may as well stay at home. Instead, my focus was on trying to create that place called home, with the game that had served me so well in New Zealand. At first, my parents drove the one sister I had coerced into playing and I, to a tiny video game store in a nearby town called St L6. But on its one small table, surrounded by soulless shelves of carts and discs, mumbling in schoolboy French to the local ringers, it was hard to recreate the Pendragon days. The shop changed hands. The table disappeared. And, with little love lost, we had to seek out a different town to play in.  

Au revoir St L6. Bonjour Avranches; a small, austere, hilltop commune. A Sherman tank lurked on an imposing roundabout in its middle. General Patton broke through the German lines in the battle of Normandy here and, well, that’s about it. Still, it was here, on the Wednesday afternoons France reserves for catechism, that we would come to game, in a tiny narrow room with ill- fitting furniture above a theatre that was a dull, dead building at that time of day. Sure, there were good people there. Guillaume. Christophe (whose copy of the Magic Encyclopedia 1 should probably return after 17 or so years). But it wasn’t a community of gamers with folders full of old cards and cool bands to tell us about, in the way the Pendragon elders had been. Instead, it was kids of the same age, quarantined in their awkwardness in that uncomfortable out-of-the-way room that was always, always the wrong temperature. It proved hard to get close. I couldn’t be myself in French yet and nor could my sister. We had little common. experience with the Magic club’s other players. And we weren’t sharing anything day-to-day that transcended our clumsy bi- lingual gaming; anything we could point to and laugh about, in the way we might have done with Simon Hope and his Magic- playing sister. It didn’t feel great. It wasn’t a scene. And without much engagement in whatever tournaments might have been happening nearby, my interest began to slip.  

It makes sense then that, looking back, my fondest memories of playing Magic in France are domestic. That the best times came not in a frustrating outside world, but in trying to create a safe, familiar one suspended in it. The high point really came one long, yawning summer holiday. It was a hot season, like all the best ones in memory are. The sun had baked the local mud into fine dust swirling on the breeze. The nearest anything was 15 minutes drive away. We couldn’t drive. The torpor that consumes teenage souls set in.  

To fight it, my sister and I hit upon a way of keeping ourselves amused. For hours on end we would mix the hundreds of unloved junk cards we owned together into big piles, from which we would randomly pluck components for a deck. First some creatures. Then some spells. Then some artifacts. It was a very primitive form of what today gets called ‘cube drafting’, where players assemble their own personal selection of cards to build decks from with their friends. We didn’t have any clever notions like that. Just stacks of duff cards that we wanted to rediscover in a private space carved out from the sighing stone house we called home. The simplicity of it all let us reclaim the game as something personal even as, in the outside world, it started to grow into something we weren’t able to get a handle on. That something was more structured and serious. It held no meaning for two deracinated kids looking for a calm centre to the universe in the gentle, repetitive rhythms of play. The sun poured in through an open window. We sat on a thin rug on uncomfortable floorboards, with the sound of BBC Radio Four and my dad’s footsteps coming through the ceiling from his studio above us. And somehow, with communication reduced to sibling code rather than a treacherous foreign language, we found peace.  

It took another 15 years or so, but my sister and I did play each other again, in the same house, one Christmas after she had rediscovered the game with her partner. Sitting up on Christmas Eve, chucking down cards on the dining room table, till long past the hour Santa should have visited, we found another moment’s peace. This time though, we were adults bringing our world home, using the game like a trail of breadcrumbs to lives that existed well beyond the length of the driveway, up to the road, leading away from the village we had once hated. Sitting up, with parents asleep, we were changing the meaning of home with every card we laid on the blue oilcloth, every crunching attack, every laugh and clink of glasses. This was our chance to express identities which had outgrown whatever that place had once been. No longer were we prisoners of its isolation, escaping it with a game as best as we could one long-lost, weary summer. We were there on our own terms. Grown up. Free. And for that reason, those Christmas Magic games are the most memorable I’ve played. I look forward to repeating them as the years tick by and we all make homes of our own.  

What we never repeated was our bedroom-floor, junk-drafting summer Magic marathon. We probably realised even then that we were saying goodbye to the game, eking out from it what pleasure we still could, having realised that the game no longer fit the world we found ourselves in. Soon, I was hitting 18 or 19 and the desire to explore beyond the driveway and beyond Magic was too strong for me. I had been returning to England in the summer holidays to work and see old friends, rather than playing card games. That taste of independence, of earning a little cash, meeting new people (including girls) confirmed to me that there was more out there. More than the confines of the local Lycée and staring across benches at break to the popular set I couldn’t quite belong to. More than the inevitable clashes with my parents about being a miserable adolescent with no ambition. More than half-heartedly swapping and playing cards in a cramped room above a sleeping theatre. A shoebox full of Magic and memories stared at me from the mess on my bedroom floor, asking me what I wanted out of life. I wasn’t sure. But I sensed I needed change. Reluctantly, I fired up the chirping modem that had made its way into our house and joined an online auction site. Underground Sea, Birds of Paradise, Shivan Dragon, Hypnotic Specter, Demonic Tutor; one by one, I sold my few valuable cards and left behind a hobby that I told myself was juvenile. The proceeds of my fire sale went towards driving lessons instead. I was about as skilled behind the wheel as I was at Magic; that is to say, not very skilled at all. My moustachioed instructor, with his bifocals, tracksuit and clipboard despaired. But after many, many laps of that tank in Avranches, I finally learned to pilot a car. The keys to the humble family Citroén were mine. Adulthood beckoned. And Magic was left trailing in the dust.