Little Rat Boy

A girl who attends one of my sessions told me the following story last week, when we were leaning against a tree and watching some of the other children chase each other with green-painted ‘alien hands’.

I am an only child but suspect that, as much as I liked it, people with siblings will identify with it more.

My Mum was a playworker too, you know.  She was the most funnest person in the whole world, she was in the newspaper and everything.  She got a big prize and she still has some of it left – she’s going to buy me a scooter and a skipping rope and a good game for the computer.

She used to have loads of money from the prize, she had a hundred pounds.  No, she had a million pounds!  But she’s so nice, she didn’t spend it on us.  She met a little man, a very poor man, and he had no mother and no father, he was so small and poor.  He didn’t have nothing.  He was only this big, so small, and she gave it to him.

Now we pretend he’s my brother.  That’s why he looks a little white but we’re nice to him and pretend that he’s Somali.  We’re nice to him and give him food and things, but we all know he’s not my brother.

He’s a little rat boy, really.

Lots of children pretend that their parents are not their own, fantasizing that they were found, or swapped by mistake, that one day their ‘true’ parents – no doubt beautiful, wealthy and famous – will come and claim them.  This may be a part of the individual’s forging of a route out of the parental network, towards a self-created sense of what it means to be themselves, to be as special as they suspect they are.  It is a way of placing oneself within a powerful narrative, of making fairy stories true.

This story is the inverse of that, though perhaps no less common in its desire.  This girl is the second-youngest in the family and her brother the only boy, two years her junior.  She is often charged with looking after him and, though she abandons him as soon as she reaches the site, she never fails to arrive and leave with his hand firmly in hers.  While there, however, they alternate between scrapping ferociously and ignoring one another entirely.

It would be easy to analyze this story from a psychological perspective, saying that it is expressive of her sense of displacement as the baby of the family, a situation perhaps compounded by his being a boy in a family of girls.  It is possible that he is valued for his boyishness and she wishes to dethrone him, hollow out this credential of worth by saying that he is ‘really’ something else entirely.  It’s possible he just winds her up.

The story itself is half-familiar, with a cast of archetypes – the Good Mother, the foundling.  Caught between these two is the narrator, the daughter.  She is generous enough ‘to pretend’ along with the rest of the family, but she does not forget that he is something different to them.  She can feel the power of the secret which is a by-product of her mother’s kindness, which in an important way functions as her reward for participating, her gift.

“Telling stories” can be seen as a creative lying about the world, or the telling of a secret truth or desire encoded in fiction, but these are adult ideas.  Play is concerned only with the moment, the process, the creative variation of iterative differences and the process of explaining oneself across barriers of age, background and individual differences.  She was playing with the ideas and words of her story, marshalling them into a game for her and for me.  In doing so she adjusted the story for her audience, an adult playworker who would feel connected to her mother’s work and impressed by the prize.  Spontaneous, particular, the game shaped to its participants and swelled around us, the words condensing as they moved like steam into water droplets.

How can we look at this through play?  How might we frame an analysis of her story-telling that begins and ends with her enjoyment?  She looked so pleased to be telling me, making the story bigger as she went along (“a hundred, no, a million pounds!).  She bounced on the balls of her feet as she talked and clenched her palms tight against the railing behind her.  She was thoroughly engaged in the work of her play-story, her face a shining gift of the ‘play face’ Bob Hughes described as she conjured up a verbal world, a transient, imaginative and evolving world that was elaborative, embroidering the obvious sibling relationship, and collaborative.  Asking only that I listen, she taught me about secrets, peeling back the world as it is seen, as it is taken-for-granted, to show me the underside – the intuited, the dreamed and the wished-for.  By the end both of us were excited, hearts racing, faces glossy in the sunshine.

Story-telling is an effort.  It marshals all our creative resources.

Story-telling is fun, it stretches our sense of possibility, puts us in control of an open narrative.

Story-telling is radical, because it makes the world different than it was, for a moment or forever.  It changes the world by changing our perception of it.  Stories change the teller and the audience.  By creating a new world of magical potential, stories invite others inside and ask only that they listen, that they suspend disbelief.  That they play along.

How many times do we tell the story of who we are to one another?  Of the ways in which we are connected?  Play stories demonstrate how these meanings shift, how they evolve and are continually made and re-made in and through dialogue.

Telling stories demonstrates the broad possibilities of truth.

That her brother was a rat was interesting, and that he looked ‘a little white’ in a Somali family.  I could picture him so clearly, a small hairy and common street animal masquerading as a boy.  His ambiguity of skin colour too (imperceptible to me, but that’s irrelevant) would, to a child, make his provenance all the more obscure.  But these concerns are sociological, and bring us back to the clumsy adult methods of understanding that we were trying to escape.  What matters is the story itself, its creation and its brief blooming for her and me alone.

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