The games we played were based on what we understood the world to be. They were intimate, imaginative, chaotic and timeless. With no boundaries, other than ending when there were more children crying than not.
Play offered us the gift of not being ourselves. We’d replay what we’d seen on TV— kidnappings where I was always the stolen kid. I was thrilled by it, delighted at the prospect of someone wanting me enough to steal me, honoured to have whatever siblings played my worried parents fighting to get me back. I’d sit in the pitch black darkness at the back of my brother’s wardrobe, hidden under his dirty clothes, blindfolded, wrists and ankles bound and absolutely beaming with an uncontained joy.
Six children and one labrador is enough for a full rounders game, three-aside football and rugby, cricket with five fielders. It’s too many for tennis and badminton, so we invented new versions. Dancing Dollies was our take on Tennis. The three girls would run up and down the wall outside our house while the boys kicked footballs to each other over the top of it, gaining points for each time they hit one of us or knocked us off. Shadow would act as a sort of referee, running between us, barking at everyone.
When it was raining, we’d pull piles of boardgames off our shelves and play each one until we knew the question cards off by heart, the numbers had worn from the dice and we were giggling with lack of sleep or crying with lack of winning. We played chess, backgammon, Monopoly, Goforbroke, Game of Life, Risk, bizarre strategy games, ones that had us flying around the world trying to source grain for the African countries we were in charge of feeding. As the youngest, I was equal parts destined to lose and to be helped out. Extra dollar bills would appear in front of me just as I was about to become bankrupt, a cough loud enough to knock the table and flip the dice would happen just as I rolled numbers that would have finished me. I never questioned it, no one protested it, it had been the same for each of them when they had been the youngest.
When we’d played out every eventuality of those games, we made up our own. We played Real Life – a game in which each child shook a dice to determine the career and salary they’d have for the next 30 minute ‘week’. We’d then head to our bedrooms as doctors, vets, carnival operators, hairdressers, bank managers, and wait for another sibling to come to us for our services. We’d delve into full character, relishing the opportunity to be anyone but ourselves. And when our mum eventually made it home, she’d wander around, fishing locks of hair from the bin, tripping over unfurled bandages and finding Monopoly money strewn across the floors of her house, and I would wonder if she wondered about the real life we lived without her.
Stuart once rolled to be a dentist and made Ciara’s gums bleed for hours. I came along to her veterinary clinic to have her wrap a toilet roll bandage around Shadow’s patient head. She grinned at me, deep dark peachy teeth, slurping her blood as she spoke, What can I do ya for missy?
Our back garden was home to every large kitchen item we’d ever owned. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood you could get rid of old things. That cars, ovens, washing machines didn’t need to be your responsibility for the rest of your life. That you could simply throw them away, like you would a used tissue, or bury them like a dead pet.
In one of our favourite games, we would pick a ‘Driver’—someone whose job was simply to cycle around the outside of the house in a full circle as many times as they could. Our house was detached, making the route possible, and every time the Driver would cycle past, the rest of us would grab something from the garden and put it in a space between the house and a wall that separated our garden from the road, a gap of about 10 feet. At first, the Driver would speed round the corner, easily dodging a bucket, spade, old tyre swing. But after a few rounds, we’d grow animalistic, whooping and cheering as we all swarmed around a rusted and broken down washing machine to drag it over into place, heaving all we could carry in the short slice of time we had each round. In time, the Driver would turn the corner to face a monstrous pile of chattels—the graveyard of our kitchen, old toys, bikes, the biggest rocks we could lift, baseball bats and footballs, old car parts, big bags of trash, old camp chairs, a door.
The only rule was No Stopping. If the Driver put their foot on the ground, it was game over, the speedway would be reset and it would be someone else’s turn. Stuart, the second born, always outlasted the rest. Being the youngest, I would drop a foot the moment I couldn’t see a clear path through the few small items they’d leniently put in my way. But Stuart never quit. He’d get this look in his eye as he came around the corner. Like there wasn’t a single doubt in his mind, like slowing down physically wasn’t an option, like he was going to fly. And he did, he’d hit anything remotely ramp-like at the highest speed his bike could reach, and he would soar over the pile below him, staying in the air for what felt like whole minutes. He’d land and skid and never drop his foot to the ground. We’d watch his leap, mouths gawped open and then scramble to find the next items to drag into his path. He’d bound around again in an instant, forgoing the opportunity most of us took to take a moment’s break on the other side of the house while hidden from the adjudicating siblings.
When there was nothing that looked remotely like a ramp for him to aim for, he’d somehow double down on his conviction and speed up. Head down, butt rising off the seat, he’d pound his way towards the carnage, everything our house had spat out that we’d insisted on making it swallow back. Full speed, he’d crash into the heap, sometimes bursting through it, managing to squash something soft, or crunch through a rusted corner of an appliance, breaking through it like papier-mâché, the red brown flakes blowing away in his wake. Sometimes, and always by the end, the front wheel of the bike would crash headlong into something stubborn enough to hold him off, the back of the bike bucking its wheel up to throw him.
He’d land hard and we’d rally around him, cheering and lifting him up to standing, brushing the gravel out of his scratches, ensuring we got to him before his tears did. We’d leave the mess, go inside to watch TV. The older kids would make pasta with cheese and ketchup, the younger ones would wait.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gráinne Patterson has spent 2023 joyfully completing a MA in Creative Writing at the IIML, working on a manuscript about growing up in Ireland, supporting her mother through addiction, and the bonds that are created in not-so-functional families.