Mah Jong, for the uninitiated, is a Chinese game which is roughly similar to gin rummy. Like wide collars, voluminous dresses and unkempt bikini lines, it was popular over here during the 1970s and then rather died out, to the point where it was really only played among the ex-pat Chinese community.
That community, of course, includes Helen’s parents. Although they were not the most fanatical of players, they were always keen to break out the game whenever there was a chance to do so, which usually amounted to religious holidays and the odd bank holiday.
For the uninitiated, the game is played using tiles which look rather like inch long pieces of meringue pie. There are various ‘suits’, like in card games, and the object of the game is to collect tiles in certain sequences. To complicate matters further, the sixteen rounds of the game are divided into four quarters, denoted by the four principal points of the compass.
And that, I have to confess, is pretty much as much as I ever understood. I never fathomed the scoring process, that is for sure. I wasn’t alone in that, as I don’t think Helen or her siblings grasped it, either. In fact, what would normally happen would be that the three or four of us would play, with Audrey acting as referee and scorer, and making up the numbers if needed. Which would lead to the odd highly amusing incident when William would walk in, hear her adding up the score at the end of a round, and then vigorously disagree with her way of calculating it.
Now, at the best of times two Chinese people talking sounds like they are having an argument. Two Chinese people having an argument sounds like about ten drunk Westerners having one. And two Chinese people having an argument about Mah Jong, well, that’s a whole new level altogether.
I still miss having the occasional game of Mah Jong. I suspect, though, that like some other things – golf, cooking, dressing myself – it is something that I am rather better at in my head than I am in reality.