God knows our parents never cared what we did. So, partly to entertain ourselves and partly to scare each other, my brother, my sister and I would play The Favourite Game. It was a relatively simple game, but at the same time it could be complicated – and devastating.
So, there were three of us. Me – Lydia – I was the oldest at 17, but I felt much younger. There were so many things I should have been able to cope with at that age – but I just didn’t. I just wasn’t strong enough, and I hated it. Then there was my younger brother Mitchel, who was 15 but, infuriatingly, acted far older. I hated that he was the sensible one, felt patronised and ashamed by his cool head. Lastly there was Beatrice, our younger sister who was 11 at this time. She didn’t act older or younger than her age – she was just caught up in the middle of all this. She didn’t play The Favourite Game as viciously or as often as Mitch and I did: I don’t think she liked it. But then, it never occured to us to question who liked or didn’t like the Game.
This was how it worked. Basically, our parents spent so much time together and away from us that they barely got to see us. As a result, Mitch and I ended up having to look after ourselves, and becoming surrogate parents to Bea. The situation was at best strained, and at worst a simmering timebomb of tension. Of all the anger and the injustice that we felt, but never spoke of. We needed the love of our parents, but we had to substitute it for the love of one another.
And that’s where The Favourite Game came in.
It was stupid really, when you think about it. Basically, it involved all of us taking turns to perform grand gestures of affection toward one other person in an effort to be called their Favourite. To that person, it was the greatest reward imaginable, and those two people would swan off in a pair together for days, blanking the loser as an Outcast. For that person, that would be the ultimate punishment. Nobody wanted to be the Outcast – that meant we weren’t loved.
Let me give you an example. Once, when trying to have Bea claim him her Favourite, Mitch bunked off school one afternoon, came home and actually took the time to bake Bea’s favourite cakes – butterfly cakes. He’d even made the buttercream icing Bea loved so much – and for that, he was her Favourite for a fortnight. Those two weeks were torture to me – seeing Mitch and Bea sitting together on the sofa, hunched together in some whispered conversation I was purposely being left out of. I felt like getting babyish and throwing a temper tantrum: but instead, I decided to get even. By the time the fortnight was out, I was Bea’s Favourite once again – thanks to a brand-new book, a Roald Dahl I knew she loved, that I’d saved for weeks to buy. I was paid a pittance in my job at the cafe round the corner, and this little debacle meant we went without milk for almost half a week, but I didn’t care. The Game made me reckless, because if you won, the high was enough to keep you happy for days.
There seemed to be a pattern – it was often Mitch and I competing for Bea’s love. Bea very rarely made any attempts to win us over - partly because she disliked The Game, and partly because she had limited resources with which to impress us. I had my cafe job, and Mitch did a paper round at weekends – these jobs provided us with money, and money meant you could buy nice things for prospective Favourites. Bea had no job, and no money, so she had to rely on her own creative skills, which – she felt – paled in comparison with our shop-bought treasures. Occasionally, Mitch and I would compete for one another, but such Favouritism only lasted a few days at best – we argued too much to enjoy it. So, we stuck to Bea – who was far more easily impressed than us, and much more outwardly loving.
That was our life. Day after day of silly competition, all in an effort to feel just a little bit loved. What we couldn’t see – until one day – was that The Favourite Game wasn’t bringing us together, as we’d hoped. It was tearing us apart.
The day we came to our senses was the day Mum came home, for the first time in weeks. While we’d been scraping together every penny just to get by, and lying silent and scared on the floor when the bailiffs came knocking, Mum and Dad had been living it up in London, drinking themselves into oblivion and fighting like dogs. The day Mum came back, her dress was torn and dirty and you could smell the drink seeping out of her every pore. She stared at us – her scared, lonely children – through unfocused eyes, and told us through slurred speech that she’d left Dad (that useless, good-for-nothing ratbag). She’d left him drunk and alone on the streets of London – he’d have to beg for pennies like some homeless down-and-out, she said, cackling like an old hag before falling like a tree to the floor at our feet.
I looked over at Mitch, who looked at Bea, who stared back at me. I gave some kind of little nod, barely noticeable, and we knew what to do. Bea raced up the stairs to Mum and Dad’s room, while Mitch grabbed Mum’s legs and I took her arms. Slowly and carefully, we carried her up the stairs and across the landing to her room. Bea held open the door for us, and helped us lower Mum into the bed she’d hastily re-made.
Once we’d settled her, like some helpless infant, into her bed, we searched the room in silence and near-darkness, feeling around in the debris for the cold, hard neck of a glass bottle. Mitch struck gold, finding Mum and Dad’s secret hoard under a pile of junk in the corner of the room. Once we’d extracted every last bottle we took them downstairs between us, trying not to clink them together much, and once we reached the kitchen we opened them all one by one, and poured their eye-wateringly pungent contents down the sink. We did this silently and methodically, almost rhythmically, like this was some kind of sick dumping-the-alcohol dance. A dance we were sick and tired of performing, but that had become what we were best at.
Once all the alcohol was lost, and the bottles left by the front door for recycling, Bea and Mitch and I went into the front room. After a few moments of silence, Bea spoke in a whisper.
“No more favourites!” she said. “Mitch is my favourite brother and Lydia’s my favourite sister, OK? I need you both.”
Mitch and I looked at one another, and came to the earth-shattering realisation that she was right. Favouritism was stupid. We were in this together: children vs. parents, us against the world. It was times like these when we needed each other the most – and how could we pull together when we were distracted by petty arguments? Bea was absolutely right.
Mitch and I put an arm around Bea’s shoulders, and the three of us knotted our hands together on her knees.
“We’re sorry, Bea.” said Mitch. “Really and truly.”
“No more favourites.” I repeated.
And there never were. Just siblings. Just like it should be.