When the itch to play doesn’t abate as you grow up.
Here’s how I used to play.
Early in the morning, before anyone else was awake—or at least awake enough to pay me any attention—I would go downstairs and pull on a pair of wellies. In summer, I might not bother. In winter, I might drag a coat over my nightie, but rarely. Back then I was oblivious, as children are, to pretty much any weather but snow.
Out I would race, deep into the garden, already muttering under my breath. Some days, I’d settle for home turf; the worn circuit of grass around the gooseberry bush, or the dim pool of scrub curtained off by the old bent willow. Most often, I’d head right to the bottom of the orchard, where a quick clamber over a crumbling dry stone wall would take me into a proper field, with cows and thigh-high nettles and a shallow, muddy brook.
What I did, in my moist, mulchy kingdom, was a strange mish-mash of narration and action. I’d tell the stories urgently, hungrily, in a breathy undertone; now heroine, now villain, my gestures only sporadically connected to character and plot. All I knew was that I had to keep moving—propelling the tales forward with my legs, my heartbeat, my lungs. Angry, orphaned female pirates featured heavily, as did mercenary messengers roaming dangerous fantasylands. One scene would blend into the next with no regard for genre, gender or mealtimes. Eventually, my mother’s shouts would penetrate the veil and, freezing and dirty, I would scramble back through the failing light. Suddenly ravenous, deliciously exhausted, it was as if every cell of my body and brain had been renewed, uplifted, purged.
Sometimes, we’d visit relatives. They lived in the suburbs, in a beautiful, neat house with a small, elegant garden where kind, sociable people sat and talked. I would escape as soon as possible: pelting up the stairs, then racing back and forth along the first-floor corridor, keeping my feet as light as possible, my words whisper-faint. If someone came upstairs—to go to the loo or to see what was causing all the noise—I would skulk back down, find a corner to read in… and itch.
But what are you supposed to do with that itch, when you reach an age where ‘play’ turns into ‘work’?
Personally, I tried to cheat.
Exiled from my garden in the name of ‘growing up’, I headed to university to study literature, where at least I could still stay safe inside stories (no gap year, obviously; why would anyone waste time on Machu Picchu when you could race through fifteenth-century Venice with Dorothy Dunnett’s magnificent anti-hero, Niccolo?). Once that haven spewed me out, I adopted a rather literal strategy, and enrolled in drama school.
It took me a fair few years of half-heartedly trying to make it as an actress to realise the problem with plays, plural. Unlike play, plays need other people, to come to life.
As I temped (interrupted by the odd freak audition), I soon intuited that private Swiss banks do not welcome part-term employees racing, half-clothed and whispering, past their meeting rooms. So having completed all my assigned tasks within the first half-hour of the day, I would sit in my ergonomic chair and attempt to smother the itch by reading copyright-free classics on Project Gutenberg and mucking about online.
Now and then, when I was sent to do a whole glorious day of shredding in the deserted basement, I would mutter and run.
Eventually, the pressure to get a ‘proper job’ prevailed. I jacked in the non-acting and became a social media marketer. I achieved a small degree of success. I consulted inside Silicon Valley tech firms. I spoke at conferences across the world. I swapped the fields of my childhood for London pavements. I wore not wellies, but lanyards.
I was playing a role, of course. Most of us do, most of the time. But the itch for play, for proper play, wouldn’t abate. I tried to scratch it in all sorts of ineffective ways. I tried to work it into oblivion. I tried to starve it out. I tried to smother it with beautiful clothes.
All of which only made it worse.
At that point, I knew I had to take action. I had to be brave. So I decided that I would create one story so big and so fertile that it could become a garden—a garden I could access from anywhere. I settled on an idea that had been bothering me for, oh, about fifteen years; an idea about a secret library, that might exist somewhere remote in the world, right now, storing the unfolding story of every human being alive. I opened a document (ever since I got my hands on my mum’s marvel of a 1980s work laptop, I have found the click-clack of finger on key far more sensual than the over-sentimentalised pen-on-paper scritch-scratch). And then, once again, I started to play.
Here’s how I play.
Early-ish in the morning—on the one day a week I steal from the day job, once I’ve dropped my daughter off at nursery—I sit at the IKEA desk in my bedroom. Most often, I pull a pair of big socks on over my pyjama bottoms (my circulation isn’t what it used to be). Very occasionally, I brush my hair.
Then out I race, deep into my garden, already muttering under my breath. Beneath my feet, the ground shifts from the prickle of spring grass to the warm tarmac of an inner-city road to the damp crunch of shoreline sand. A muddy brook becomes the salty heave of the Atlantic, then pours itself into a glass and gets necked by an angry celtic boy in a Shoreditch co-working space. A woman pretends to celebrate her overnight success while wondering why her memories have sprung a leak. A man, trying to stop terrible things from happening, dies. Heroines become villains. Villains become allies. One scene blends into the next with no regard for genre or gender or mealtimes.
And when I’ve finished playing, I go and pick up my two-year-old. Exhausted, uplifted, wolfing down whatever I can find in the fridge, I watch her pelt around our tiny zone one flat: small arms waving, plump legs pumping, mad nonsense pouring out from under her breath.
Follow Molly on Twitter at @mollyflatt.
Her debut novel, The Charmed Life of Alex Moore—a grown-up adventure with a magical twist set between the Shoreditch startup scene and the wilds of Orkney—is available to buy now.