We were a gang. And a gang is a very great thing when you’re growing up. When you’re one of five children, there’s no shortage of co-conspirators for whatever trouble you happen to be planning. Brothers and sisters are an audience. They’re your biggest fans and your harshest critics. Sometimes simultaneously. And they’re always there – both when you want them and when you don’t. It’s non-negotiable.
I’m the eldest. Not by much, but in terms of family hierarchy, being the eldest really matters. When you’re the eldest, you’re the family icebreaker, that one that crashes into your parents and softens them up so that those who come after you can have an easier time of it. It was a role I took on less from a sense of duty and more as a matter of destiny. It was no easy thing. And although they benefited from me breaking down our parents’ spirit of resistance, I don’t think my brothers and sisters have ever bothered to thank me. Which, if I’m being totally honest, is fair enough.
I have four siblings – two sisters and two brothers and there’s only about six years between us from start to finish. Which is a lot of kids in a very small amount of time. We were close in every respect. To drive the point home, our parents dressed us in matching outfits. We looked like cult members. Technically, we could have formed a basketball team or a band but, instead, we specialised in getting on each other’s nerves. We were good at it.
Come to think of it, I bear most of the responsibility. As an adult, I’d like to think that I am thoughtful and kind to others, empathetic and a good listener. That may be or may not be true. But is most definitely true is that I didn’t start out that way. That’s because, as the eldest of five, I was the tormentor in chief. It’s not something I’m proud of.
There’s less than a year between one of my brothers and I. Indeed, we’re the same age every year for four days. When we were growing up, these four days were known as ‘the silly season’. It’s fair to say that we completely lost our minds as we tortured each other in a bid for supremacy. But aside from those four days, my brother is a remarkably relaxed and a (mostly) reasonable person. Which means that whatever I said to inspire him to anger and punch a hole in my bedroom door must have been pretty terrible. I don’t even remember what it was.
I wish that were the worst of it. When we were growing up, we had a wood heater. Essentially, it was a black metal box with a window at the front. It was located in the living room where (admittedly) we spent most of our time and was the only form of heating in a six-bedroom house.
The house was designed so that the master bedroom was at one end of the house, and all the other bedrooms were at the opposite end. Even better, the house was divided into two, with a door separating one half from the other. Closing the door meant that fifty per cent of the house was entirely deprived of heat. To make matters if not worse then definitely colder, my father insisted the door remained closed at all times to keep the cold out. In winter, those bedrooms were very, very chilly. You know you’re in trouble when the bottom bunk in your bedroom is occupied by a family of penguins.
The wood heater was an amazing thing. If you were on the right side of the door, it could really punch out a decent amount of heat. The golden rule in our house is that you could never stand on the hearth to be closer to the heater. Naturally, this meant that we all stood on the hearth whenever we could to defrost ourselves after emerging from our bedrooms. But then I took it a step further.
One day, I decided to put coins on top of the wood heater whilst it was in full flight. I then told my youngest brother that I’d found some spare change and he was welcome to it. He didn’t need to be asked twice. He raced in and scooped those coins into the palm of his hand, only to discover that they were nearly hot enough to melt. The sound of yelping and scent of sizzling flesh followed.
Sometimes I preferred psychological to physical torture. Meal times with five kids are a stampede. The call would go out and there would be the thundering of feet as various family members ran on the kitchen bench to get a plate. The task, then, was to assess which plate had the most food on it. My youngest brother – his hand still recovering from being scalded by a twenty-cent coin – would go to reach for a plate at which point I would express surprise that he hadn’t chosen the biggest meal. He’d pause, reassess, then reach for another one when I would, again, express surprise. This would go on for some time. Put simply, I was horrible.
That’s just the tip of a very ugly iceberg. I have no idea why I was so mean to them. They’re all great people and they made life infinitely better just by being themselves. When I think about Christmas, birthdays or long, languid summers, I think of them. There’s a point when you’re growing up, when things switch and your siblings go from being adversaries to friends. I can’t recall exactly when it happened, but I’m glad that it did. It’s a connection that, like family itself, is non-negotiable. To Cam, Beck, Sarah and Lachlan, I’m completely sorry and I promise to do better. Starting….now.