The Hot Seat: Read An Extract From Kit de Waal's New Memoir - The Gloss Magazine

The Hot Seat: Read An Extract From Kit de Waal’s New Memoir

Literary star Kit de Waal grew up in an eccentric, mixed race family. Her Irish grandmother, a devout disciplinarian, never discussed the facts of life, leading to a misunderstanding as recounted by Waal’s mother in this touching extract from her new memoir …

My mother was the second of nine children and had to help with looking after the others, doing jobs around the house to keep it from falling apart. Nan took in lodgers, Irishmen from the building sites and factories, who got two meals a day and a bed in a shared bedroom in a cavernous two-storey flat above an old shop that spanned a whole corner of Stratford Road. Nine children, two parents and as many working men as you could squeeze in the gaps. There was always cooking and cleaning and bed-changing to be done and those were the children’s jobs, boys as well as girls, though it was only the girls who had to be kept safe from the homesick, sex-starved young men from the fields of Munster.

I’m pegging out the washing with my mother one day and she starts telling me about Nan’s savage eye.

“Oh, she would watch you and make sure you were decent or in bed before they came back from the pub. She’d shoo you out of the way if the lodgers were around and if you were helping in the kitchen she had her eyes on everyone. Not that we knew why. You couldn’t know about the birds and the bees in those days,” she tells me. “It was practically a sin to know about sex, you’d be condemned.”

She passes me one end of a candy-striped sheet. It’s so worn in the middle that it’s almost transparent and won’t last another round with the twin tub.

“We had this one lodger,” she continues, staring off into the distance, leaving me to tangle with the sheet on my own, trying to keep it from dragging on the dusty garden path. “Oh, he was a looker. You get these Irish sometimes with black hair and blue eyes, something to do with the Spanish Armada …”

Nothing then while she clomps down memory lane, up the backstairs to the flat above 516 Stratford Road, through the heavy wooden doors and into the steaming kitchen.

“Logan something,” she says. “Or something Logan. Your grandmother used to have all the men sit on a bench for breakfast, all squashed up together so she could get more round the table. She’d put the rashers and bread down and they’d need to be quick. Tea and sugar and milk. Half past seven in the morning and we girls would have to be up, helping and clearing away. We’d walk in between them, putting down plates and collecting them and never saying a word unless it was to Mom. She had her eyes on us, one baby on her hip, Kevin round her feet and all the rest of us to look after on her own. Your grandfather would be sitting at the table himself.”

She smiles. “One day, Logan is sitting on the end of the bench and he looks up and catches my eye and smiles. No one else sees. And that was me in love. Ah, he’s just a boy when you think about it, probably 18 or something, and if he was going to have the eye for anyone it would have been my sister Mary with the looks, not me with my broken nose.”

She sniffs. There’s a detour she could take here, an easy slip down the bitter lanes of her childhood where she’s the runt of the litter, not as pretty as one sister, not as clever as another, where Mary has all the boys wanting her and Mom has only her piety and good nature to recommend her which, when you are 16, counts for less than nothing – in truth, counts against you. But, for a change, she resists and puts her foot back on the story.

“You couldn’t know about the birds and the bees in those days. It was practically a sin to know about sex, you’d be condemned.”

“Anyway, we had to clear up, me and Greta. She must have been 16 at the time, so I’m 15ish. Anyway, he was always last out of the door, Logan was. All of the men would tramp down the stairs to wait outside The Bear where they’d get picked up by the vans taking them to the building sites. So, there’s Logan stuffing some bread down and gulping at his tea. There’s no one else around. Mom’s gone and Greta’s gone, and it’s just me and him, and he stands up. “Grand,” he says and winks as he leaves the room. At me. He winks at me. I must have gone red, I don’t remember. Anyway, quick as a flash I sat down on his bit of the bench and I felt the warmth of Logan’s backside seep right through my dressing gown, right through my nightdress, and into mine. I felt him on my body as though he was still there, like I was sitting on his lap, and I sat and sat until my mother came into the room and told me to get up and wash the dishes.”

She starts laughing then and dips into the washing basket, picking up three things at a time and pegging them on the line like a machine, a fistful of pegs and an armful of knickers.

“Well, I was sobbing by the time I got to our bedroom. Greta was there getting ready for school and I told her. “I’m pregnant,” I said. She shook my shoulders and hissed into my face. “Who was it? How do you know? Which one was it?” I was beside myself. “Logan,” I said. She threw me down on the bed we shared. “Logan! What a dirty pig! When? How do you know? Where did you do it? Who have you told?” But I’m crying into my hands. Then she sits down and puts her arms around me. “What happened?” she said. “I sat on the bench.” “Go on,” she said. “And it was warm.”

“Yes?” “And I could feel him on my arse.” Greta took my hands from my face and looked hard at me. “What did he do then?” “He went to work.” Silence from Greta and a slow nod of her head. “You sat on his seat? That’s it?” she asks. “Yes,” I answered. “And I felt the warmth off him.” I was beside myself now. Weeping for Ireland. It was beginning to sink in. The shame and the unwanted baby and, worst of all, my mother and the beating I would get. “I stayed there till it went cold,” I added, to make sure she knew it was serious. Well, Greta got up and threw my clothes at me. “Get dressed, you bloody idiot. And stop crying. You’re not pregnant.”

The washing sags on the long, long plastic washing line that runs the length of the garden path. We take one wooden prop each and, on her count, raise the line high until our skirts and jumpers, shirts and socks, the tea towels and nappies are all dancing in the wind, the sleeves of Dad’s shirts filling and making him beckon us to him as he would never do in real life.

“It took me a while to believe her,” Mom continues as we gather the baskets and walk back inside, “but Greta wouldn’t lie. And anyway, as the months came and went I didn’t get any fatter and I still got my periods. They were God’s guarantee of goodness. That’s what we thought. God gave us periods to guard the virgins against violation. Not quite sure how that worked but you never questioned it in those days. The priest was God himself.”

I marvelled at her ignorance – even I, at 15, knew that it took more than a hot seat to get you up the duff.

“Anyhow,” she said as she stuffed the next load of washing into the machine, “you girls be careful. That’s all I’m saying.”

From: Without Warning and Only Sometimes by Kit de Waal, published by Tinder Press, €17.88.



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