Cinders for a good girl? A traumatic event my mother never forgot
My mother told the story of the cinders many times. Photograph: iStock
My mother, Kathleen Gaul, was a great storyteller and therefore a great influence on my writing career. She was born in tragic circumstances when her mother died two days after her birth at Christmas 1940. Her father, Ned Gaul, was a local character, from a well-known Naas family. Ned was a hard-drinking cab-driver – not while he was driving, of course – and was quite indisposed to rear a baby girl on his own. He was the favourite of his two married sisters, Ellen Mahon and Maggie Byrne, who helped their brother rear Kathleen, making sure she all the loving care needed.
Throat cancer claimed Ned in 1951 so Kathleen went to live with her aunt Ellen. Ellen had married widower Mickey Mahon, who had two grown-up children, Mickser and Sadie.
Mickser Mahon and his best friend Jackie Sheridan had joined the British army in 1939 after the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany. The two pals ended up in the Royal Sussex Regiment and saw action in North Africa and Italy. Jackie was killed by friendly fire at the battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, while Mickser continued fighting the Germans until the war ended in Italy in May 1945.
Mickser had near encounters with two infamous characters of the war – in North Africa he arrived in Rommel’s tent, shortly after the Desert Fox had evacuated it, while on a further occasion he drove into Milan’s Piazzale Loreto to see the fascist leader Mussolini hanging by a meat hook.
After the war, Mickser became a military policeman and transferred to the Royal East Kent Regiment. He remained with the Buffs, as they were known, for the next seven years, serving as far away as Hong Kong. On leave home one Christmas he decided to play a practical joke on young Kathleen. The custom at the time was for children to hang their stocking on the fireplace for Santa Claus to fill as he thought fit. However, children were warned that if they misbehaved leading up to the festive period Santa would fill their stocking with coal, or in the worst cases, cinders.
Mickser, of course, filled Kathleen’s stocking with cinders and when she awoke on Christmas Day she burst into floods of tears. He was waiting for this scenario and was quick on hand with presents he had brought home from overseas. However, my mother never forgot the ‘trauma’ of the cinders and retold the story many times.
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