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A House of Cards

by Sandy Balfour

When remembering is all in the cards.

On the evening after Dad's funeral, I walk through the old house. The guests have all gone and darkness comes quickly. A couple of lamps are lit; outside, the garden is bathed in black ink and the neighborhood dogs are barking. Across the valley, the lights go on one by one. It is the night of the new moon and a light cloud covers the stars. The air is warm. In the garden, the silhouette of the flat-crown tree is swallowed by the black sky. There is no wind; the azalea bushes are still. I slip outside. I close the door carefully, so as not to wake my mother.

The garden has shrunk over the years. When my parents bought this house on the hill it came in three parts. There was the house and the surrounding lawns, together with the swimming pool, the tennis court, and the tree, which even then covered the entire lawn in its shaded embrace. On the western side of the house there were the driveway, some vegetable gardens, some old outbuildings, and, below a right-of-way through to the neighbor's property, another patch of land noted mostly for its shape. To the east, where the house looked out toward the distant Indian Ocean, the land fell away sharply into the valley. Beyond the crest of the hill, invisible from the sitting room, lay a wild and untended hinterland known as the paddock, which I assumed was because the previous occupants had kept horses. Three tall blue gum trees, some 100 yards distant, marked its bottom edge. The treetops were just visible from the sitting-room window.

But now the garden is smaller. Over the years, pieces have been sold off of knocked down. The triangle went first, followed by the paddock, and then the tennis court, on which somebody else's house now stands. The sales of the paddock and the court mean that driveways had to be built to either side of the house, so that the garden is shorter and narrower. The outbuildings too have been knocked down and replaced with yet another stretch of lawn. My father used this space to indulge his mild pyromania as he put a match to the piles of cuttings that seemed always to gather on this fertile and rich hilltop. It is hard to think of him now without also seeing the flickering flames, and the curls of sweet-scented smoke.

I return to the house and Jackie and I start looking through the mahogany chest of drawers in the alcove off the sitting room. It is here that the family memories are stored. There is one drawer for "photographs (new)" and another for "photographs (old)." There is one for school reports, another for old letters and forgotten diaries. There are insurance policies and car registration forms, passports and old ticket stubs, all the paraphernalia of life, the documents that tell us who we are and where we have been.

And there is an entire drawer for packs of cards that somehow have never been thrown away, but have sat for years, for all my life, and even longer. There are Rubber Bridge scoring pads too, the stubs of pencils, and a few scraps of paper with memorable hands scribbled in my father's illegible hand.

It comes as a shock now, perhaps 30 years after I first played with them, to see some of the cards and their designs, a shock of recognition for it is more than 25 years since I lived at home, and possibly that long since last I opened this particular drawer. There are the Bicycle cards of course, the staple product of our games and the world game, made by the American Playing Card Company and deeply ingrained in the psyche of any card player. But there are also ornamental cards and novelty cards, cards in ornate packs designed as bridge gifts, cards with photographs of places visited and places never seen, cards new and old, clean and dirty, cards with Greek gods and forgotten movie starts.

"This book could in theory begin with the invention of playing cards, probably in China a millennium ago," says Alan Truscott in The New York Times Bridge Book, his "anecdotal history" of the game. "The evidence is scanty, and it may have been India, or even farther west. There is a pleasant legend that they were invented by the Emperor S'eun-Ho to keep his concubines amused in the year 1120, but he was, it seems, at least 140 years too late to claim the honor." Others suggest that the invention worked the other way around — that it was the concubines of the imperial Chinese harem who invented cards. Another tale suggests that the earliest cards came from India, where the wife of a maharaja was irritated by her husband's habit of pulling at his beard. It is claimed she invented cards to alleviate her boredom — and to give her husband something to do with his hands. It seems more likely that cards were invented in China, where paper was invented. Even today, some of the packs used in China have suits of coins and strings of coins — which mah-jongg players know as circles and bamboos.

It is generally assumed that cards came to Europe from the Islamic empire (some blame Marco Polo). Records of the first European card manufacturers come from Nuremberg in the 14th century. German card makers produced a variety of suits, some based on hierarchical representations of medieval society, others using acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells. At some point these were replaced by representations of courtly human beings:  kings and their attendants — knights (on horseback) and foot-servants. To this day, packs of Italian playing cards do not have queens. Nor do packs in Spain, Germany, and Switzerland. There is evidence that Islamic cards also entered Spain, but it now seems likely that the modern cards, which we call Spanish, originated in France, ousting the early Arab-influenced designs.

Cards appeared in the United Kingdom later than in the rest of Europe. The earliest mention dates from 1463, when manufacturers of playing cards petitioned Edward IV for protection against foreign imports. John Clay, in his Tales from the Bridge Table, tells us that "Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII played cards and the costumes on today's British and American court cards are those of this period." In 1495, Henry VII issued an edict forbidding his servants and apprentices from playing cards except during the Christmas holidays, and amongst his private accounts at the time are several entries ascribed to "losses at cards." Elizabeth I took it further. She granted a monopoly in making cards (and protection from imports) to Ralph Bowles, and then charged him three shillings per gross for the privilege. By the early 18th century, cards had become popular, although the games played varied by class:  "The game of ombre was favored by the ladies, while the gentlemen preferred piquet. Clergymen and country squires played whist, and the laboring classes played all fours, cribbage, etc."

And the cards were taxed. The ace of spades became the card that was stamped to show that duty had been paid; in 1765 it became known as the duty card, and the Stamp Office would keep a stock of pre-stamped aces of spades. Manufacturers were required to print the packs without a spade ace. "When the tax for the pack was paid, the Office issued the ace of spaces to complete the pack, and the deck could then be sold. The tax was abolished in 1960, when duty was back to three pence per pack. Yet today, most packs still display the ornate ace of spaces for the manufacturer's design."

I pick through the miscellany of our card drawer, remembering some, discovering others. Some packs are unopened. Others are worn from use almost to destruction. Recently I was given one of the packs of cards used in a world championship. Nowadays, tournament cards have a regimental purity about them. They are strictly symmetrical about both axes. The colors are slightly differentiated — the diamonds are a different red from the hearts, and the spades and clubs are shades of gray and black. They have bar codes to enable the dealing machines to duplicate the hands. Every pack looks exactly the same. There is no story. But these cards in the drawer of our home in South Africa are different. I learned to play bridge with them.

From Vulnerable in Hearts by Sandy Balfour, to be published in April 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2006 by Sandy Balfour. All rights reserved.

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Articles in this Issue

A Daughter's Search for Her Phantom Father, by Sharon Estill Taylor, Ph.D.
Finding East, by J.D. Jahangir
A House of Cards, by Sandy Balfour
Biddy's Ruin, by Terry Glavin
The Verbs of Boro, by Mark Abley
Lexicography, by Grant Barrett
Tourism, by Benjamin Hart
Art History, by Peter Joseph
Oral Hygiene, by Megan Milks
Advertising, by Ian Phillips


Sandy Balfour is the author of two previous books, Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8) and, most recently, Nursing America. He has produced numerous documentaries, dramas, and educational programs for the BBC, Canal+, CNN, and Discovery. His travel writing, book reviews, and columns appear regularly in The Guardian, The Spectator, and other publications. He lives in London.

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