The day I learnt my Mother didn’t care, my Father couldn’t count, but my baby brother could say my name.
It was a hot, lazy summer, full of blue skies, buzzing insects and inertia. That incessant heat, and our listless boredom, meant we spent a lot of time squabbling. And since there were eight children in the family, that was a lot of bored, squabbling kids for my mother to deal with.
So my parents decided we needed a change of scene to break the mood. They agreed to make a weekend of it, which to us was a full summer holiday, and so we were all thrown into the Datsun Sunny estate and headed off to Dublin. The fact that there were ten of us in a car that was a five-seater mattered not a jot in those days. There was no such thing as health and safety, or seatbelts, or even rules about how many children you could put in a car boot for that matter. It was more a case of sit there and shut up. And we did, because my mother was extremely agile, she could deliver a sharp slap on a bare knee without even having to turn around from her luxurious position in the front passenger seat.
After a fun-filled weekend in Dublin, which we spent mainly in the hotel swimming pool, it was time to head home. My parents decided that, rather than drive straight back home on the Sunday, we should visit somewhere on the way. It sounded pretty boring to us but, as it meant delaying the sardine-like trip home in the car, we gave in and agreed to spend some time touring the gardens and stately home of Powerscourt, just outside Dublin.
We all piled out of the car and hurtled off in different directions, with threats of grievous consequences ringing in our ears from Mum and Dad whose constant fear was us breaking something they couldn’t afford to pay for.
But after a while of wandering, I grew bored looking at flowerbeds, so spent most of my time throwing gravel into expensive fountains and counting the willies on the bronze statues of naked Greek men. I got to ten willies before getting bored with that too.
It was a relief when my parents, with the skill of experienced shepherds, started to round us up, count us in and channel us towards the car park and my father’s pride and joy, the bright orange Datsun Sunny estate.
As I was the first one to arrive I stood by the car, hanging onto the car door handle in the gesture which clearly signalled first come, first served, first choice is a window seat. As boredom overcame sibling rivalry, I looked idly around and saw that there was a tiny gift shop nearby. That was when I remembered I still had a ten-pence piece in my pocket, saved and not yet spent.
‘Mummy, can I go to the sweet shop please while we’re waiting?’ I begged. She was distracted, scanning the horizon for the rest of the tribe, while muttering under her breath. She always said they weren’t bad words, they were prayers. From what I could tell, her favourites – Jesus, Mary and St Joseph – always got a mention. So I promised to be quick, and scattered gravel under my feet as I sped off.
I blinked in the gloomy darkness of the shop which was in stark contrast to the bright summer’s day outside and, as my eyes adjusted, I saw some bags of sweets in amongst a dusty display of leather bookmarks, wind-up Virgin Marys and alcoholic-looking leprechauns.
So I grabbed my favourite Tiger Tots sweets, which I knew cost ten pence, and stuffed them into my jeans’ pocket while planning how I could secretly eat them in the car going home without anyone finding out and forcing me to share.
I came out into the bright sunshine and had to blink and cover my eyes from the cloud of gravel dust coming up from some car wheels that sped past. ‘They’re in a hurry,’ I thought. A few seconds later I opened my eyes again and blinked away the dust, just in time to see a bright orange Datsun exiting the main gates at the other side of the park.
‘Well,’ I thought. ‘Dad was right and Mum was wrong. Bright orange must be the new colour for cars, seems there’s a few of them about.”
It was only when I turned back into the now-empty car park that I realised it was our car and my family that I had seen drive out of the gates like a bat out of hell.
A quick stab of panic was quickly replaced by the quiet confidence that, any minute now, they would realise their mistake and come tearing back, full of anxiety and remorse, resulting in a tearful reunion and possibly me even getting to sit up front with Mum. So I sat on a fence where I could see the gates. Ah how my family’s faces would be filled with smiles of relief and hot tears of love on seeing me sitting there and knowing I was safe.
In fact it took them over two hours and a sharp U-turn in Dundalk on their part, with ten sets of the rosary and red eyes cried out of tears on my part, before they did eventually screech back in a spray of gravel.
They didn’t even get out of the car. Just the back door swung open and my Mum shouted to me to get in the car and that I’d already made them late. That’s when I realised I did have a few more tears left.
In between gasping sobs, I managed to stutter out what I thought were the key questions: “W-w-why did it take so l-l-long for you to realise I was l-l-lost? W-w-weren’t you worried? Did nobody notice I wasn’t there?’ I stammered, while smearing hot tears and snot around my face.
‘We didn’t realise you were lost. It was Baby David who noticed, asking where you were. We kept telling him to be quiet and go to sleep,’ came the tart reply from my mother. This resentment was echoed by the rest of the family, who muttered and grumbled darkly about the journey now taking twice as long as it should have.
‘W-w-w-what? You didn’t even notice I was missing? There’s nine of you in the car and only Baby David noticed?’ My relief at being found turned to shocked indignance that only Baby David had missed me.
My heart was broken by their cruel dismissal as I looked around at the disinterested faces turned away from me. Until I looked at Baby David, who smiled his little dimpled smile at me and reached out a chubby hand for his reward – a Tiger Tot sweet. He has always been my favourite ever since.