The words that came up in the dictionary were attract, absolutely, boast, evidence, carbon footprint, coat, crossing, display, flute and graffiti.
The living room in our house was designated the DMZ. Any arguments that took place in the house or outside the house had to stop once one of the ‘combatants’ entered the DMZ. Once you were in there you were safe and normal conversations could resume.
I guess that’s all the evidence you need that my family was very argumentative. I have four older sisters and two older brothers. Each only separated by a year or two (except my brothers who are twins and are separated by a few minutes) and there was no shortage of conflict between them.
My family could turn any conversation into a full blown debate that would spill over into an argument that would lead one of the combatants to flee to the DMZ. At first I believed that fleeing to the DMZ was a sign of defeat but as I got older I began to see that fleeing to the DMZ was strategy and it was a different strategy for each sibling.
For my eldest sister Felicity (Fill) it was a way to collect her thoughts. She would be on the back foot in the argument and then calmly rise and move to the DMZ where she would sit for five minutes before emerging full of new ideas and well-formed arguments.
For the twins, Peter and Paul, it was a time to plan their joint attack since arguing with one of them was tantamount to arguing with two and they used their DMZ time to make sure they were going to make different points and also they would know what to say to set up the other for a decisive attack.
The second eldest sister, Jayne, would use the DMZ to give her opponent time to cool off and lose their resolve before she would appear out of nowhere and carry on the argument with a disinterested, tired opponent sometimes up to four hours later.
The third sister, Cathy, who, oddly for our family, absolutely hated arguing would go to the DMZ to hide. She would go there and stay there until it would be awkward for the other person to try and rekindle the argument with her.
My fourth sister, Sadie, saw crossing into the DMZ as weakness. She said it didn’t matter if you were going in there to strategise or plan it just meant you couldn’t handle the heat and needed to go and cool off before continuing something she liked to boast that she didn’t need to do in order to destroy her opponent. When she first said this I think she had been nine years old.
My dad used the DMZ sometimes. He had the overall power over us to end an argument before it began simply by being dad so he didn’t worry about having to hide from arguments with his kids but sometimes when he said to his wife that he would be home by ten and he came in at four he would first try to open the front door which lead into the living room. Finding that locked would go around the back and creep inside and tip toe along the kitchen floor towards the arched entrance that lead from kitchen to living room and sat there in her favourite chair would be our mother, blocking the entrance to the DMZ and dooming him to explain right there and then where he had been and why he was so late. My dad wouldn’t have been up to no good and it was usually because he had been out drinking with the lads but he found honeyed words came easier to him when he wasn’t drunk and usually he would make a hash of the apology and then he would get to go to the DMZ anyway so he could sleep on the couch.
I remember years later he had told me the story of the first time this had happened and his first thought had been how much trouble he would get in for trying to tackle my mum out of the way.
‘I’d have had to live in the DMZ to avoid that argument,’ he had said and my mother had agreed.
As we got older it became easier to fall into a heated debate. I was once reading the paper and asked someone if they knew what their carbon footprint was. Five hours later the family had all retreated to the DMZ to cool off and global warming was never mentioned in the house again.
The DMZ had been used for evil a few times, most notably when Sadie starting learning the flute. Peter said it was a stupid instrument so Sadie took to practicing in the DMZ while Peter was at the kitchen table doing his homework. This led to a debate about DMZ rules. Peter said that what Sadie was doing was antagonistic but at the same time she was saying that she was just practicing the flute and if it annoyed Peter there were other rooms in the house. Peter argued that it was the same as standing in the DMZ and arguing to someone in the kitchen and complaining when they argued back. In the end Sadie woke up one day to find her flute broken and, after four days of vicious back and forth and accusations and denials between her and Peter, Sadie decided that the best course of action for her own peace of mind was to never speak to Peter again. She maintained silence for seven years and it only ended at our dad’s funeral when he admitted to breaking the flute and she called him a prick and they made up.
Boyfriends and girlfriends found trips to our house to be interesting affairs. Something about my sisters seemed to attract quiet, shy boys who were endlessly fascinated by our family and the idea of the DMZ. After a few weeks with my sisters these boys learnt that standing up for themselves was the only way to survive and quickly found themselves being embroiled in kitchen table debates about there being too much graffiti in town or not enough. My brothers (and, yes, me as well) seemed to go for girls who were like our sisters and we spent most of our time planning our eventual family homes and which rooms would be the DMZs.
The end of the DMZ in our house was brought about Jayne, Cathy and a boy called Grant.
The girls were seventeen and sixteen and Jayne was single and Cathy was with the aforementioned Grant. We were all sat around our massive kitchen table eating ice cream in silence (the safest volume when all nine of us were together). The only sound being the clink of spoons against bowls until Cathy spoke.
‘Jayne, do you still have that green coat?’
Jayne nodded and swallowed her ice cream, ‘With the fur, yeah, you can’t borrow it though.’
‘I wasn’t going to ask. It was just odd because I was at Grants and that coat was there. In his bedroom.,
Jayne slowly placed her spoon in her bowl, ‘Maybe your boyfriend likes wearing girls coats.’
‘I’m thinking maybe he likes whores.’
‘Insulting yourself there aren’t you?’
‘We split up. He told me about you two.’
Everyone turned to stare at Jayne. She licked her lips and blinked a few times.
‘Why would he lie?’
‘Because he asked me out and I turned him down.’
‘Why was your coat was in his room?’
‘He stole it?’ Jayne was slowly pushing her chair back.
‘You stole him. You took him from your own sister you bitch.’
‘So it’s his word against mine?’
Before Cathy could answer Jayne kicked her seat back and darted into the DMZ. She stood a few steps away from the entrance to the kitchen and took a deep breath. ‘Let’s take some time to think about this and when you’re ready to talk like adults I’ll come out and we can talk.’
Cathy pushed her chair back, stood up, calmly walked into the DMZ and slapped Jayne across the face. My family gasped at this display of violence within the DMZ and Jayne’s mouth fell open.
‘This is the DMZ, you can’t-’
Cathy slapped her again and again and again until Paul grabbed her and dragged her away. She struggled out of his grip and ran to her room.
After that the DMZ lost all its power and my parents realized that four of their seven kids weren’t talking to each other (technically five as Sadie stopped talking to Paul as well just in case she got the twins mixed up) and something needed to be fixed. It was proposed that the whole house would become a DMZ but my mum was wise enough to realize that the kids would just spend their time arguing outside and what would the neighbours think?
Then it was suggested that the whole town would be a DMZ but that seemed silly. The idea of a DMZ seemed to justify our lives of constant conflict and something healthier was needed.
In the end the solution was found by simply forcing the kids to take up hobbies. The twins took up yoga. Jayne took up boxing. Cathy started doing martial arts. Sadie joined a debate club and was running it within a week. Fill was off at university studying law and politics. And I joined the army.
Seemed like the only way I could get some peace and quiet.