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Sinead Moriarty: 'When I was growing up my mum knew about everything I did ...except that time I went to Spain'

In her new novel, Sinead Moriarty charts the changing relationship between a fiercely protective mother and her independent-minded children. Here, ahead of Mother's Day, the author confesses to the teenage transgressions that her own mum never knew about

Sinead Moriarty
Sinead Moriarty

What you don't know won't hurt you, right? Wrong - I want to know everything. If I could put a tracking device under my children's skin, I would. Before having children, I had no idea what anxiety really meant. Now I know, I have felt it every day since the day my eldest was born 13 years ago. Danger is everywhere.

I've worried about them choking on sausages or bits of Lego, crawling into a fire, being suffocated by a blanket, chasing a ball onto the road… The world that used to look so 'normal' now seems like an evil place full of danger and pitfalls.

I look at strangers with suspicion, the sight of a white van makes me break out in a sweat.

I now understand my mother. I get it, Mum, I finally understand why you were so protective. It's b***** scary.

As the youngest of three you'd think I would have got away with murder - I didn't. I was stupid, really stupid. There was nothing stealthy about me. I would never have been approached by secret agencies to spy for them. I was a lot more Mr Bean than 007.

No matter what I did, I always got caught. If I climbed out the window or drank too much or came home after curfew, my mother would be waiting for me. It was as if she had a sixth sense.

My mother knew about everything I did, except that time I went to Spain…

Having decided to study Spanish because I liked the sound of the rolling 'Rs', I soon found out that I wasn't actually very good at it. With my Leaving Cert looming, my parents very generously sent me to Spain to study for a month.

It was a big deal and they made sacrifices to send me to this Spanish language school, so I knew that the onus was on me to come back fluent. I'd study hard and come back speaking like a native. People would ask me if I was actually Spanish. My teacher would be in awe of my fluency and perfect accent. I'd ace the Leaving and get that elusive A.

And sure, I might get a tan while I was there, too. This was the 1980s when Irish teenagers thought that scorching themselves in the midday sun, lying on a sheet of tin foil while lathered in olive oil was a good idea.

We had no fears or worries about skin cancer. As I said to my pasty friends: "Sure isn't it better to be red than white?"

I certainly followed that rule. I was bright red with the body burnt off me every summer. If you were looking for red, I was your woman. Bright, throbbing red. Off I went to Spain where I was housed with a family. My mother thought that having me live with a Spanish family would keep me safe, put manners on me and help me learn even more Spanish. After attending classes all day long, I'd come home and sit with my Spanish family and we'd chat about our day.

I arrived at the apartment, with my mother's words, "You are an ambassador for your country", ringing in my ears. To be fair, even when I went on a school trip to an adventure centre in Donegal my mother told me I was an ambassador for my country, so it wasn't news to me.

I tried in my incomprehensible Spanish to chat to the mother of the house who just shook her head and shrugged. Clearly realising I was a lost cause she smiled, handed me the key to the front door and I never saw her again.

When I got up they had all gone to work and school, when I got home… well, more of that later.

On my first day in the language school I shuffled into the classroom feeling awkward and embarrassed and peered up from under my fringe to see if I could see anyone that might be a potential friend for the next month.

I spotted her fairly quickly. She was about my age and looked equally uncomfortable. When the teacher asked us to introduce ourselves she said her name was Charlie and she was from Manchester.

I smiled at her, hoping she'd smile back. She did. That was it, I had a friend. Charlie was great fun and up for a laugh. She was sharing an apartment with a bunch of older American students who had all brought locks for their individual kitchen cupboards. They stored their food inside and then locked it in. The fridge was a minefield of Post-It notes stuck to milk cartons, butter, yogurts… all stating who owned what. A scourge on anyone who dared to touch another's food!

Charlie and I thought this was hilarious and occasionally ate a yogurt and then stuck the top back on, just to wind them up.

One night Charlie and I, and a group of other non-cabinet-locking students, went out to a local bar. The owner was a round man with the biggest smile you've ever seen. Halfway through the night, he hopped over the bar, climbed up to a little DJ booth at the back, put on a gorilla mask (I never quite got to the bottom of that one) and started spinning discs. The bar turned into a mini nightclub.

We had a great night and went back there regularly. On the fourth night we were there the owner said he needed new staff, were Charlie and I interested?

Making money while hanging out in our favourite place? Sounded like a win-win. "Unfortunately, I can't actually pay you in cash," he said, "but you can drink as much as you like."

Charlie and I were 16, the notion that we could drink whatever we wanted and however much we wanted every night was like mana from heaven. "When do we start?" we shouted. "How about tomorrow night?" he said.

"Should we come in early for training? Get to know how to mix up the drinks, familiarise ourselves with the prices," I asked, trying to sound somewhat professional.

He roared laughing. "Training? Just charge what you think seems about right and stick it in the till."

That first night, for every drink Charlie and I served, we'd have one ourselves. After an hour, we were legless. After two, we were paralytic.

Charlie passed out drunk behind the bar at midnight and I went for a "snooze" in the storage room shortly thereafter.

The next day, I woke up with my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and the sun streaming in the through the curtains. Uh Oh. I squinted at my watch, it was one o'clock in the afternoon. I'd missed most of the day's lectures. I was too hungover to move so I just went back to sleep.

The next three weeks followed more or less the same pattern. Go to work, drink, serve, drink, serve. Go home, pass out, wake up after lunch and repeat.

Charlie and I tried to make it to the last lecture of the day, but more often than not, we missed it.

I came home after the month away speaking Spanish. My language skills had improved, a lot. My mother was delighted, although she looked slightly bemused when her Spanish friend said that my Spanish was very "colloquial". Laughing at my accent and quick-fire responses, he said: "It's strange, your daughter speaks Spanish like a drunk in a bar."

Sorry, Mum, for not attending the classes, but I did achieve my goal to learn Spanish, albeit in my own way.

Doesn't the end justify the means?

Our Secrets and Lies by Sinead Moriarty is published by Penguin Ireland, £7.99

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