It’s that happy space midway between sober and plastered, the peak of the emotional bell curve. I could go either way but right now I can see for miles and everything has a golden tint, a change in perception. Smiles are bigger, sounds brighter.
For the first time in weeks I feel happy.
The world is spread on the table before me, forty-two territories across six continents. There are cards in neat stacks and plastic armies in rowdy piles. Someone is about to roll the dice and the table is hushed. I grin as the result of the roll ripples round the table. Unsuccessful.
I wonder how this has happened, where the lightness has come from. It’s like a storm has passed, everyone emerging from their shelters in relief. The tension has frittered away, the pressure has gone. Soon it’ll be as if the rain never happened. Nothing has really changed and yet everything has changed.
I’m jostled out of my glazed contemplation as my arm moves. I didn’t ask it to. Looking down I see the handcuffs, the freckled wrist linked to mine.
It’s my first week at university. Fresher’s week, day two, around 5pm. I’m sat in the Edinburgh student halls cafeteria across from Martin, a German engineering student with an American accent who I met on a campus tour that morning. He’s tall, intelligent and good looking and, despite unintentionally making me feel like I am none of these things, he’s the closest thing I have to a friend in about 300 miles.
Someone asks to join us, placing a tray of food on the table next to Martin and sitting down. Long orange hair and the distinct impression of brown woollens despite his clothes being neither brown nor woolly. He introduces himself with a thick Northern Irish accent that makes it hard to tell whether his name is Roy or Ron. It’s 3 days before we know for sure.
That evening we watch ‘Hugh Lennon and Hypnodog’ hypnotise some idiots on stage. We drink, eat chips-and-cheese and try deep-fried Mars Bars. After this first year in student halls the three of us will share a flat for 3 years. One day they’ll stand next to me on my wedding day.
There are sunny days on The Meadows, walks up Arthur’s Seat, Saturday afternoons in town buying fudge on the Royal Mile and browsing music in Avalanche Records. There are pubs, bars, clubs and house parties. The noble sport of ping-a-ling, a failed jelly castle, the girl in pink. There’s a monstrous green sofa with a fake fire safety sticker taped to its underside to fool the landlords. It’s the perfect place to sit and mock idiots on TV. We form a band with our friend Kaz, play gigs of varying quality and record an EP with an inadvisable name: ‘Nibula Nebula’s Sex Omelette (with real duck)’. I don’t remember why it was called that, alcohol was involved.
Occasionally a board game makes an appearance but the resurgence of tabletop is only in its infancy, Carcassonne still a toddler. We’re oblivious to the advancing boom in cardboard, instead playing a lot of video games. They get used to my unfailing knack of turning left when instructed to turn right in Need for Speed.
There are highs, lows and the middling plains between. There’s absolute tragedy and we support and rebuild.
Martin is on an exchange year in San Diego; in a few years’ time he’ll move to the States for good and we’ll rarely see him. My girlfriend introduces Roy to her best friend and after a while they hit it off. They’re friends and then all of a sudden they’re more than friends. I find out by text message: Roy simply sends me a smiley face emoji and I just know. I’m thrilled.
The cruellest thing about being in a new relationship is that the rest of the world keeps turning.
It starts in the same way that all disagreements between flatmates start: the housework.
There are exams I should be studying for and coursework I need to submit but it feels like I’m doing everything in the flat. Roy is enjoying the honeymoon period of his new relationship and understandably things like the washing up and cooking are not at the forefront of his mind.
It would be churlish to bring it up but it’s hard to completely ignore too. Over the coming weeks one hundred tiny moments and miscommunications mean that mild frustration slides insidiously into resentment.
I’m being petty, childish and possibly even a little bit jealous, missing my friend. It’s stupid but I feel it all the same. In turn, Roy resents me for bringing him down over something so trivial. His girlfriend will turn out to be the love of his life, what are chores compared to that?
The tension is a shadow, inescapable. It builds over the weeks, lengthening like the sun setting on our friendship, neither of us socially aware enough to know how to fix it.
Not fighting is more corrosive than fighting.
Martin returns from the States to find the flat isn’t quite as harmonious as when he left it. He can’t put his finger on what the issue is but there’s something amiss, a fracture in the friendship he left behind.
Our girlfriends stage an intervention. They cook dinner, ply us with drink and set up RisiKo! – Martin’s copy of Risk brought over from Germany. There are shot glasses and bottles of sticky liquids with colourful labels. Roy and I are cuffed together. I don’t know where the handcuffs come from or what happens to them afterwards. It’s ridiculous and embarrassing, much like the previous months of tension.
We start playing.
Armies shuffle back and forwards, dice are rolled, shots are tossed back, bottles emptied. There are great wars of attrition, lightning fast skirmishes and farcical fracases. Unexpected victories precede shocking defeats. Plastic pieces flood the map and then recede, a tide of attacking troops waxing and waning. There are threats and bargains, pleas and jibes, smiles and laughter.
Sometimes, when you know someone really well, there’s no need to talk.
As the game progresses we form an unspoken alliance and wipe the others from the map before declaring a draw (although in truth Roy would likely have won had we continued). That’ll teach them for meddling, we think, feeling smug. We don’t realise that we’ve done exactly what they intended.
Resentment to resolution via cardboard, plastic and dice.
It’s that happy space midway between sober and plastered, the peak of the emotional bell curve. Somehow we’ve ridden the crest for hours. The handcuffs are off, the game is over and the girls have gone to bed. It’s tempting to go out for some chips-and-cheese and a deep-fried Mars Bar but four flights of stairs put us off. So instead we’re on the sofa, drinking, eating sweets and watching rubbish television. Every now and then one of us mocks the idiots on the screen. It’s as if the rain never happened. It won’t come back.
Nothing has really changed and yet everything has changed.
Epilogue – Summer 2020
I could win this. The Americas are mine, two decent continental bonuses await and I’ve a set of cards to trade in as well. Next turn I’ll wipe the others from the map.
I click ‘End Turn’.
We’re chatting over Zoom and playing a Risk variant on WarGear.net. The map is Invention Second Edition by Ozyman – Risk with capital cities and technology trees. It’s remarkably satisfying, even if I do need to upgrade my spying technology to see what’s going on globally.
Roy is over in Europe, he keeps butting in via Iceland whilst Kaz is based in Africa and occasionally makes a foray across the Atlantic into Brazil. I think our friend Paul is in Asia but the Bering Strait route is quiet and Siberia is obscured by fog due to my poor spying ability. He could be poised to strike or just faffing about in Eastern Europe for all I know.
The pandemic rages on.
We’re in different countries, on screen and off, but we’re all at the same virtual table, united by a simple game from 1957 and the wonders of modern connectivity. Lockdown feels stifling in the summer heat, the isolation oppressive. These virtual gaming nights are a much-needed social boost for us all.
The game continues as the sky darkens. We’ve all got work in the morning and toddlers likely to wake at any moment, but here we all are – four idiots playing Risk late into the night and feeling like we aren’t alone.
The power of board games.