In my own mind, I more or less reared my two sisters, who are six and eight years younger than me. It may say something for the trauma this caused that neither remembers the hours I spent changing their nappies, plaiting their wispy hair, and reading stories.
The one recollection I’ve been able to pull out of them is of a game I invented called Drunken Hanleys. When they were very small, this was far and away their favourite game. I would stand at the bottom of the double bed and play a scandalized biddy chatting to a neighbour:
“Well, I met those two Hanleys last week and do you know what I’m going to tell you? The minute I saw them walking down the street, I knew straight away by the looks of them…”
Claire and Caroline would stagger down the bed towards me, giggling and hiccuping. Claire usually managed a few belches.
“You’re not going to believe me, now, but they were drunk out of their minds! Could barely even stand up! They were stocious, I tell you…”
When they reached the end I’d give them a shove each, knocking them off their feet so that they bounced and shrieked while I continued the tale of outrage.
“So I says, hello, how are you, and they just fell right over onto their bottoms! I couldn’t believe it! Drunk as skunks, the pair of them. And the young one with her bottle of whiskey…”
Up they got, weaving dramatically and swigging milk. At that age, Caroline was still unsteady on the floor, and on a soft mattress she made a marvellously convincing drunk. As for the story, it could go on for hours. I had listened to plenty of gossip by the age of eleven.
I also considered myself an outstanding child psychologist, and carried out several experiments on the girls. In particular, I had solved the problem of getting Claire to sleep. We shared a bed, and at bedtime she acted her age—three. This was tedious, because I wanted to read my Enid Blytons. These English boarding school tales were very instructive, and I preferred to think about Midnight Feasts and Mamzelle the French teacher and lacrosse, whatever that was, than the immature blither that passed for conversation with Claire.
So I started to whisper stories of monsters and bogeymen and ghosts. Certain monsters spent their time looking for small girls. When they found them, they liked to pop out their eyeballs to play marbles with, and in the eyesockets they left spoonfuls of soggy cornflakes. Other were crying specialists. Snotty noses were a key ingredient in monster bubble bath, and they found crying children a particularly good source. If they smelled your tears from fifty miles away, they were liable to come and steal you—or maybe just your nose. The bogey man lived in the coal hole out the back, and lived on tea and toes. At night he crept around bedrooms, sooty enough to hide in the dark, and bit off people’s big toes with his green teeth. Then when you stepped out of bed in the morning you fell over with no toes to hold you up.
The only way she would be safe, I explained night after night, was to put her head under the blankets and lie very still. They were mean, but they were also relatively stupid and most were inexperienced child hunters. If they didn’t know she was there, they couldn’t get her. This sent her to sleep—rigid with fear, but asleep. Or at least, quiet enough not to bother me, which was the main requirement. I did wonder vaguely if she could breathe.
After a week or so I had refined the experiment enough that she fell asleep almost immediately, in a kind of panic-triggered narcolepsy, I suppose. I was so pleased with these results that I told my mother all about it on the way home from school, thinking that she could learn a few things from my approach. The next night, I got my own bedroom.
Recently, I started to worry about the effect this had on Claire, who now has her own pair of toddlers to warp. On her last visit I brought it up very casually over a glass of wine. Did she remember, I asked, that I used to tell her stories to send her to sleep when we shared a bedroom?
“When did we share a bedroom?” she asked.
I kept going. Did she have no memory at all of these stories, which might have been a little scary? She insisted that she did not.
I made one last try. Did she not remember having to pull the blankets over her head and lie very still so that the evil, savage, smelly bogey man wouldn’t get her and eat her up?
She stared at me.
To this day, she said, she cannot fall asleep unless the duvet is drawn over her head and she is perfectly still. If her face is exposed, she feels panicked. She had never known why. She is twenty-six years old, and her boyfriend insists she’s a freak.
Since I left Ireland I’d worried that I was running low on guilt. But it looks like I’m good for a few years yet.