Liz Lawler's new book Don't Wake Up is released today so we asked her to tell us a little bit more about herself to celebrate.
I was the eleventh child out of fourteen children born to my parents. Two of my siblings had already died before I was even born and in the final count of still living children, twelve in total, I think of myself as number nine in the long list. I envy my older siblings the memory they share of a sister, a living breathing small person who they all cared for, who made such an impact on their lives, and can only remember her through their memories.
I grew up with incredibly interesting parents. Both Irish and both good looking. My father went to school barefoot as too poor for shoes and my mother was sent to an orphanage when she was four after her mother died. My father was nearly fifty and my mother forty when I was born. I grew up listening to their stories and often feel that they lived ten lives with all that they saw and experienced. My older siblings, all born in Dublin, called our parents Ma and Da, a much cosier and intimate naming, I often felt, than the ones used by me and my younger siblings – the English kids, as my father fondly referred to us by – Mum and Dad sounded so English in this big Irish family.
I never saw my father read a single book, though he was a great story teller and a singer, and he would entertain me and my three younger siblings on a Sunday morning with songs and made up stories. We would sit on his bed, as soon as our mother got out of it, and eat the crusts of his left-over toast and keep him in his bed for as long as possible to keep the magic going, and in the hope that we would miss Sunday Mass. My mother, on the other hand, loved books. I would say that apart from her children, they were her passion. My father used to say she would go blind with all that reading, and sadly, though not from reading, she did.
I shared a large double bed with three of my sisters, the four us top and tailing like sardines under the blankets. To help us to sleep, we would take it in turns to draw with her our fingers imaginary pictures and words on each other’s backs. The idea of the game was that you had to guess the image of the picture or the letters of the word drawn. If you were crafty and wanted the pleasurable scratching to last, you would feign ignorance and ask for it to be drawn harder. Or, when it was your turn to roll over and reciprocate the pleasure, you would pretend to snore.
I have a shameful memory, one that I will always regret and one that I never confessed to a priest. I was aged ten and was standing on the school stage, preparing with my class mates to give our Christmas concert. The curtains on the stage were still drawn, but we could see the audience through a gap. My mother was sitting in the front row and beside her was a much younger woman. One of my class mates pointed out her mother to me; she was the young woman, perhaps about thirty, and she asked me which one was my mother. I told a lie and said my mother couldn’t come, that the woman sitting beside her mother was my gran. I never enjoyed that concert, because I felt so mean to my darling mum.
As a child I loved cemeteries. We lived near one, and I used to like walking around the graves reading the headstones. I played a game in my head for scoring points. If I found a headstone with my name on it, I would get one point. If I found a headstone with my first and second name another point. And if I found the year and month I was born along with my name, top marks. I was always drawn to the ages of young people when they died and often imagined how they died.
I stood out as a child, not because I was tall or short, or too shy or naughty, but because of my marron school jumper. While my class mates wore the regulation shop-bought V-neck jumper, my mother, to save on cost, knitted mine. But my mother was not an accomplished knitter, though she was great at many more things, and knitted me a round necked jumper instead, which I had to push my neck through and then bring out the collar of my school shirt, and because the neck was so high, my school tie was hidden. I spent most of my class time in just my shirt and tie until at a school jumble sale I managed to buy a second-hand one.
I loved counting my Christmas parents when I was a child. I would lay them at the end of my bed and count every single thing. If I got new socks I would count these as two presents. I loved returning to school in the new socks instead of wearing old ones held up with elastic bands. I remember the year I got roller skates and seeing my father on Christmas Eve, when I was meant to have been in bed asleep, putting in new laces. I didn’t care that they were second-hand; I was just excited that I had got the gift that I wanted.
I nearly killed my baby brother when I was nine. My mother had gone down to the shop on our street, leaving my older sister in charge, but my sister, I believe, wanted a sneaky cigarette and so left me holding the baby while she went upstairs to the top floor toilet to have her quick puff. I dropped him. I remember him screaming. Between the two of us we managed to soothe him and didn’t tell our mother. When I returned home from school the next day I was greeted by one of my grownup brothers who told me that my baby brother was in hospital with a fractured skull and that Ma needed to know how it happened. It was the longest week of my life, but I have no doubt it was far longer for our dear mother, who no doubt would have been questioned extensively on how such an injury occurred. Mercifully, he had no lasting damage and grew up to be my handsome baby brother.
I loved be scared in a safe way as a teenager. Sitting alone in a dark room, with the light off (as was always the case when the telly was on to save on the electric bill) watching Dracula or The Mummy or Frankenstein. I loved playing knock down ginger for the fear of being caught in the act of running away from a stranger’s door. And on Guy Fawkes’ night, when I was small enough, to being used and dressed as The Guy with a mask on my face and being warned by my older siblings to stay completely still so that the people didn’t know that I was real and give us more money. I loved growing up in a large family where there were so many adventures to share.