I've just realised that I don't know what a "gyratory system" is. I Googled it but the mystery remains unsolved. I'm reasonably certain it's not a pole-dancing move. The phrase has formed part of my lexicon since I was a child, when I lived close to The Largest Inhabited Roundabout in Europe except, as certain pedants were wont to tell me, "it's not a roundabout, it's a gyratory system". What's the difference? It is, though, award-winning, having previously held the title of Roundabout of the Year, bestowed by the "Roundabout Appreciation Society" - someone should tell them it's a gyratory system. I suspect they liked it because people live on it, and it's home to a pub. Although, maybe the pun-filled banners of the shed/outbuilding retailer opposite made them well-disposed towards it (think "Now is the Winter of our Discount Sheds" and "Rudolph the Shed Nose Reindeer").
When I was little, I passed many happy hours in the middle of the - I'm going to stick with "roundabout". My best friend, Benjamin Bunny, lived on it (a real boy). We baked rock cakes and learned about the Egyptians at the same tiny infant school up the road. Our single mums were both no-nonsense nurses and great friends. For a couple of years we were content to have only each other at our birthday celebrations, which fell in the same month. I don't think I really processed that he lived on the roundabout at the time. It was a short walk down the Slippery Hill, (barely navigable if there had been a frost), through the subway and up onto the island, but the geography of the place was obscured by our subterranean approach. His house was old and the grounds were heavily wooded. The house seemed full of life. Benjamin's brothers and sisters were quite a bit older than him and were some of the first teenagers I knew. They seemed exotic and unknowable. I enjoyed catching sight of them and delighted on the rare occasions they gave me their attention. When I was older, in the sultry, summer months I would meander down the stony lane outside his house. Follow it for long enough and you will arrive at a cave where once upon a time lived a witch. Local folklore would have us believe that she loaned utensils out to the townspeople, but one day the Devil arrived and stole her cauldron. She chased him and he leaped away from her, carving sandstone hills with his cloven feet as he fell back to earth.
All this was in contrast to the housing estate I lived on, which was a rather dull cul-de-sac. Our flat was blandly modern, but built before developers became stingy with square footage and window size. It was light and airy and our neighbours dressed up the common parts with potted plants and net curtains. We lived at the bottom of the "sac". Behind us was a beautiful 17th century mill. A spring fed the mill pond, and all around it grew a small, lush riperian wood. The trees ran alongside our estate and were known simply as "The Woods". We were all forbidden to go there by our parents, probably because of the large A-road that it backed on to, although we imagined more creative, disturbing reasons for the ban. I was fascinated with the place. I especially liked it in the winter when stagnant patches of bog formed. I pretended so hard that they were minor tributaries of the Swamp of Sadness*, that a cold lump of fear would rise in my throat as I navigated them. We rolled fallen logs across the swamps so we could move around without getting our shoes dirty (a sure sign that we had flouted the parental prohibition). The accessible parts of The Wood were young and the trees small with narrow, supple trunks - no good for climbing. It wasn't really a place we engaged with physically, except to stumble around in there. The attraction was the ambience of the place. A setting for the tall tales we told each other, fuelled by the swamps, gloom, pages torn from adult magazines (how delightfully retro!) and subtly shifting tree-scape.
There was a small buffer between our flats and the mill behind, a clearing occupied by a low brick and stone cottage with a slate roof. A couple lived there. They were younger than I am now, tall, kind and interesting. I struck up an unlikely friendship with them. I don't recall how we connected initially, but they lived very close by and I was quite happy and confident talking to adults. I imagine I spotted them doing something interesting on one of my hair-raising scurries down the Slippery Hill. I am quite sure the relationship wouldn't have developed if I hadn't been an only child.
I don't think anyone is surprised when they hear that I am an only child. I fit quite well into the typically described characteristics of "onlies". Socially self-conscious? Check. Self-critical? Check. Prefers the company of a few close friends? Yes. Strong-willed? Yes. Uncomfortable with conflict? Oh yes. I hope no one believes the stereotype of only children being brattish and spoilt these days. I think the much more interesting psychological phenomenon around only children is in relation to the impact it has on the underlying personality type. As an introvert, if I wanted friends and social interaction, which I did, I had to take on the mantle of an extrovert, inserting myself into groups. With children my own age, this often meant I lead things as that was simpler than engaging with the wider group social dynamic. I was quite practised at this. It probably explains why a few feathers were ruffled when I ascended the hierarchy so rapidly at Brownies and Guides (the glamour! The fame!). This was after overcoming my distaste at having to promise to "Love my God", as I was already a serial prayer refusenik at my C of E school. As an adult, I'm afraid I have found more satisfaction in being delegated to and doing that job well, which probably explains why I am not a Leader Among (Wo)men, despite my early aptitude. Getting back to my point, I imagine extroverts have the problem in reverse. Being only children, they have to learn to be alone when there is no one to play with.
Being with adults was less complicated. The couple in the cottage did not have children of their own, which I paid no mind to at the time. They had a lovely dog, though, and they were potterers, like me. Always busy with a little project, or looking after their house and garden. They brewed things, they made jam, they talked to me about the things which interested them. They lifted fallen leaves in the garden to show me a tawny, spiky hedgehog curled up beneath. Did I mention they had a sheep? It probably wasn't called "Dolly", although perhaps it was? It escaped regularly and I would charge down Piggy Lane after it and try and herd it back to the cottage. I was going through my awkward phase, a pre-teen. After several happy years in my own bubble, I was emerging from it and re-assessing my place in the world. My teeth were all over the shop. The girls around me were at peak cliqueness. The boys still only interested in boy pursuits, whatever they were. This would all change imminently, but this grown-up pair helped me over the hump.
As I entered my teen years, I ventured further away from home. My time was taken up with long, intense conversations with friends (on a stuck phone - imagine!) and hours listening to esoteric grunge bands in friends' bedrooms. I gradually stopped visiting the couple. I received occasional updates from my mum. They had babies! And then, very quickly, he was widowed - cancer, I think. I was sorry not to have been able to tell them both how much I enjoyed their company.
I didn't care two figs about not having brothers or sisters. I had good friendships and I was close to my mum. That was enough. Long hours playing by myself had resulted in a barely contained imagination. I would play intricate, episodic games of 'hospital' with my stuffed toys, or spend an entire day working on what can only be called an interpretive dance to Mike Oldfield's "Moonlight Shadow". I dreamt crazily vivid, epic dreams, sometimes having trouble distinguishing them from reality. Witches loomed particularly large in my imagination, as "Meg and Mog" primed and released me into the fantasy worlds of "The Worst Witch", "Carbonel", "Gobbolino the Witch's Cat", "Witch Week". Oh, the reading! I would read feverishly for hours and hours. My mum and I walked to the library each week and I would choose my allocation of six books. I would barely lift my eyes from the print until every book was finished, and then I would have to wait impatiently until the following week's visit rolled round**. The library's reading stock turned over fairly slowly, and before too long, I had read most of the children's section and was finding the adult section a little hit-and-miss.
Occasionally, I jeopardised my real world relationships as I tested the limits of what was socially acceptable. I found out the hard way that reading while walking blindly to school with a friend, constantly tripping and cutting her up was not appreciated. I stopped reading in the street entirely when I walked into a lamppost in the middle of town, knocking myself to the ground.
Although being an only child was probably very formative, it was never something I dwelt on. When people acquire this little nugget of personal data about me an interesting micro expression often flits across their faces. I'm never quite sure what it conveys. "So tragic!", "So weird!", "So lucky!", "I'm completely re-evaluating my opinion of you based on this tiny shred of information". I think about it more now, mainly because I married a fellow 'only'. We are raising brothers. Is there an evening class for this? How do we make them like each other? Is it even possible? When do we intervene? When one is narked at the other? When both are narked with each other? When one is standing on the other's head?
In the end, perhaps our lack of preconceived ideas about what siblinghood should look like saved us some stress, as Spike and Oscar's relationship evolved step by step. Oscar has been endlessly patient, accepting his limited access to his brother's internal world. The typical birth order dynamics have been turned upside down. I can trust that Oscar will stand safely out of harm's way, when his brother bolts in the street. When everything gets too much for Spike, Oscar will instinctively know to pull back and let Ben and I re-establish the equilibrium. He bears a weight of responsibility on his tiny shoulders. But his patience and gentle but tenacious approach have paid off. The boys' relationship has never been characterised by conflict, they accommodate and give way to each other like they do for no one else. Very gradually, companionship sprouted like a persistent plant on bare earth.
More recently, it has been apparent that the threads that connect them are knitting together, forming something warmer and more sustaining. When Oscar performs experiments with a flame, Spike is alarmed on his brother's behalf "I don't want Oscar to be on fire! I don't want only 3 people in our family!". When Oscar is upset, you can bet that Spike will be first in line to offer an enveloping hug. What started life as a practical means to diminish an unwanted racket, has developed into a demonstration of genuine concern and empathy. And when Spike is overwhelmed, Oscar will run silently to gather Spike's juice and bring it to him. They rough and tumble with each other and play chase. They laugh together at underage dog rescuers, saving the hopeless, hapless adult residents of a certain incident-strewn seaside town.
They will be friends, I know it.
* The deadly swamp which swallowed up Artax, Atreyu's horse, in "The Neverending Story"
** I have fond memories of collecting the badges that libraries used to hand out to children and was delighted to find this selection online.
Want to read more? Speak softly, but carry a stick of chalk