Tuesday, 4 October 2011

All the Fun of the Big Family

We had a few friends over for something to eat on Saturday night. There are those who would refer to this as a ‘dinner party’ but that’s a phrase that scares me more than the Childcatcher on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I love having people round. I always spend most of the evening laughing and one of my favourite topics inevitably comes up. Reminiscing about a 70s or 80s childhood and the differences between growing up then and growing up now.

Most of the people I know come from families that would be considered big these days, but were normal for the predominantly Irish Catholic communities we lived in. At the start of each school year, the teachers at my secondary school only had to amend the first names on their registers. They’d be guaranteed to have the next Duggan, Bell, Murphy or Fitzpatrick in their new class, the elder sibling having moved on.

I remember being a bit nonplussed once, when a classmate told me he had only one brother and one sister. One of the other lads overheard and said.

“That’s just weird, that!”

If you question someone from a big family, it never takes long for them to start revealing the arcane hilarity and one-upmanship that occurs due to competition for attention and finite resources.

One of the people who was sat with us on Saturday described a teatime rule at their house which decreed that as soon as you’d finished your tea, you were allowed to start poaching off the adjacent plate. This led to incredible levels of speed scoffing and fork puncture wounds to the back of hands.

There were quite a few kids that I knew that subscribed to the edict, ‘First up, best dressed.’
Our house was no different. We constantly vied to be top dog, or get a brother or sister in the shit.
My little sister had a brilliant way of sending me from 0 to 60 in no time flat. She’d select a small noise from her repertoire and start making it, irregularly. This would interrupt my enjoyment of Scooby Doo and I’d ask her to stop. It would go back and forth like this for a couple of minutes until I delivered the ultimatum.

“Stop making that noise, or I’ll lamp you.”

Peace would descend for a few seconds and then she’d do it again, so quietly that it was almost imperceptible, which just increased my level of fury. I’d jump off the sofa and she’d run in to the kitchen with me in hot pursuit. As soon as she reached my dad, she was safe. I’d get sent to my room and she’d get what she’d been after all along; the opportunity to have the tv to herself, because she hated Scooby Doo.

There were five of us and we were all terrible to each other, in sly, underhand ways. My mum and dad got the Manchester Evening News and I liked to have a crack at the crossword. If I didn’t complete it, I couldn’t stand the thought of my brother filling in the last couple, so I’d just go over them with a black, magic-marker.

When we took turns to wash and dry the dishes, it became apparent to the dryer that, if you allowed evaporation to weave its magic on the hot dishes, you could save yourself a bit of work. This also became apparent to the washer, who would counteract this bit of good fortune by intentionally dousing all the dishes with washing-up liquid suds, necessitating a rinse and dry.

My mum and dad were generally oblivious to our low-level tribute to Lord of the Flies.

In this bonkers world, the rules were often confusing. At the age of 8, I went swimming with my older brother. After we’d finished we were walking back to our cubicle. I was then pushed in to the deep end by another kid. I was a non-swimmer and would have promptly died because the ‘lifeguard’ was clearly disobeying his own ‘petting’ rules.

My brother dived in, pulled me off the bottom, got me out to the side, then battered the lad that had pushed me in. As we changed, I expressed my gratitude for his display of brotherly heroism, only to have him explain that he was the only one who was allowed to drown me.

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