As a child, I was a huge Star Wars fan. It's easy enough to understand and excuse now - I was seven when I saw the film, and seven year-old boys are not known for their critical thinking skills. I loved the film, and all of the accoutrements that went with it: the action figures, the comics, and the cards... Oh yes, the cards.
I don't know what it was about those cards that obsessed me so. If I'd been just slightly more atheletic, or taken to more baseball games, I might have obsessively collected the great baseball cards of the day (I had some, but eventually traded them away to some nameless kid, a fact which I now regret). In the seventies, there was already the relentless commercialisation of childhood that there is today, only the packets were less shiny (mylar came later). Everything remotely popular had cards - televisions programmes, sports, films. But for me, more than anything, it was those Star Wars cards which lived in my dreams. I pored over them - unhealthily, no doubt - for hour upon hour. It was childhood, though. I was a smart, bright, if somewhat shy child, and I enjoyed it, so what was the real harm?
Feeding my interest, my father used to get a packet of the cards for my brother and myself, once or twice weekly. But rather than just give them to us directly, he would play a game with us. He used to be whimsical in that way, when we were still young. He would tell us that there was a magic cactus, which sat in a pot in the middle of a flower bed outside the door into the back garden, and that he would check it for buds, and that new packets of cards, complete with their crisp pink rectangles which masqueraded as chewing gum, would sprout from the cactus.
Every so often, he would call to us, and my brother and I would go outside to find that, sure enough, there were two packs of Star Wars cards leaning again the trunk of the cactus. I have one of those images of the scene so clear in my mind that it must have been filled in over time, because I doubt that my observations on any given day would have been so starkly real. It's a day in early September. The grass is brilliant green, the flowers (late zinnias and mums) are in a riotously colourful state of bloom, the bricks demarking the edges of the bed are a cool, dark terra cotta. Packets of yellow-wrapped cards lean against the belly of the short, spiny, pale green cactus with the warm sun still casting shadows overhead.
Children are unconcerned with the niceties, especially when it comes to getting what they want. We would take the packets, ritually thank the cactus, then rip the cards open, try to chew the gum, and see who got the coveted card of the week.
What our father didn't know - what he couldn't have known, as he was at work or away - was that we also examined the cactus during the week, trying to discern any of the "buds" that might lead to the formation of new packets of cards. Of course, we had seen that the cards were generally for sale in shops (they were everywhere, in those days - the grocery store, the chemists, the Seven-Elevens, dime stores, and corner shops). But we were convinced that here was a plant which subverted the natural order of things.
And, naturally, it wasn't true. Eventually, we caught him artfully leaning the packets against the cactus, and the game was over. And in a way, the end of the game was worse than anything else - because it was no longer as much fun. We knew that a trick had been played, and it hurt, as I remember it now, to realise that.
The danger of any game based upon a magical, unreal, or unsupportable premise is just that: when in the end you find out that it was a fiction, there is an emptiness in your life as a result. What is true of magic cacti is also true of Father Christmas, Easter Bunnies, Tooth Faeries, Great Pumpkins, angry sky gods and monsters in closets. Their absence leaves a scar. That scar is only healed with time, and with the realisation of the greater mysteries of the world and the cosmos at large, which are far more wonderful, beautiful, and intriguing than anything dreamt up by the marketing firms of the twentieth century, the saints of old, or by Bronze Age nomads three millennia ago.