As Kit de Waal was growing up, she and her siblings noticed that their mother Sheila collected milk bottles. Of the three delivered daily, she left two empty in front of the milkman’s door and the third in an old laundry basket. One Saturday after her father Arthur left for work, Sheila carried the basket of bottles into the backyard, picked them up one by one and threw them against the outhouse wall with all her strength. “It makes a kind of music, the bottles and the sound of their anger,” writes De Waal. “When the basket is empty, she goes in and gets the broom. Then she’ll be fine for a few days.”
In Without Warning & Only Sometimes, De Waal – née Mandy O’Loughlin – recalls her childhood in the 1960s in the Birmingham suburbs as one of five children born to an Irish mother and a West Indian father. Arthur was a bus driver while Sheila worked in various ways as a childminder, cleaner and auxiliary nurse. Despite the family’s financial struggles – the children often went to bed hungry – Arthur at times squandered his income on a pair of Chelsea boots or a smart suit. When not pursuing his fashion cravings, he put his wages aside, claiming he was saving to buy a home in his beloved St. Kitts. “I mean, what kind of fool would help her husband buy a house in another country?” Sheila would scold her kids. “What idiot would help him make a life somewhere else? Me, that’s who.”
The working-class education depicted is entirely out of its time: during the holidays, children are pushed outside from breakfast to teatime; women in cat-eye glasses and hair nets; men returning from work to find dinner on the table; Teachers called their mixed-race students names like “Little Miss Fuzzy-Wuzzy” to no effect. De Waal’s account is lucid and unsentimental, and what is left unsaid is poignant.
Sheila’s dissatisfaction led her to find solace and enlightenment from Jehovah’s Witnesses. She would drag her reluctant children to meetings where they would be taught the sanctity of blood and the evils of the Catholic Church. De Waal’s childlike descriptions of community meetings are delightfully evocative: ‘Time does not pass. The clock doesn’t move… I live with the fear that one day, when my young muscles will rebel, unable to bear the stillness and brutal confinement of my self, I’ll get up and strip naked and burst out of my skin. Not today, please not today.”
De Waal is a remarkable observer and her ability lies in elevating the everyday. Hers is a rich portrait of unremarkable lives. A die-hard daydreamer, she recalls the joy of sitting on her front yard wall and watching the world go by on her street, which “was like a movie at times, a very slow movie with no guns or fights.” Family members, friends and neighbors make colorful character studies. Her maternal grandmother, who is tiny “with a quickness about herself, a throaty laugh and a tongue of vinegar,” is particularly alive. De Waal observes Sheila’s interactions with her mother and observes “a push-me-pull-you dance, old as time, the kid who was never the favorite, the mother who couldn’t love enough.” They snap with awkward steps, not stepping with the music, everyone trying to lead, tiptoeing.” Rough childhoods are also intoxicatingly evoked as they move from one bedroom furniture to the next during a game jump, got bloody. De Waal hit his chin on the bed frame and bit his tongue so hard it had to be sewn up with six stitches. Her subsequent lisping pronunciation of the word “kiss” earned her the lifelong nickname Kit.
De Waal’s memoirs take her into early adulthood when, after a bout of depression, she takes a job as a clerk in the Chief Attorney’s Office. When she tells her boss that she’s struggling to sleep, he suggests that she read to counteract the swirling 4 AM thoughts and gives her a list of his favorite books. In doing so, he awakens a love of literature in De Waal and a new life begins.