‘The Ruins of St Thomas’ Street,’ painted by Edward King (c.1942). Scroll down to read Jacqui Pack’s story inspired by this painting.
The Ruins of St Thomas’ Street by Edward King (image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©)
The Ruins of St Thomas’ Street
by Jacqui Pack
Everyone has a bomb. Don’t waste your time listening to anyone who claims otherwise. At best, it’ll be down to ignorance but, more often than not, people who declare themselves bomb-proof are simply lying. To you and themselves. No one is bomb-proof. No one. Just because you can’t predict when it’ll happen, doesn’t mean it won’t. In fact, when it comes to bombs the only true uncertainty is what type you’ve got headed your way. There’s no knowing that until it hits.
Bombs fall into two categories. The first sort thunder towards you, as though pre-programmed to seek out your DNA. When there’s a rocket-fuelled warhead locked onto you, jets blazing and white-hot vapour in its wake, don’t even think about running. There’s nowhere to hide. No place of safety. You may as well face it head on, embrace your fate.
The second type are those you don’t hear coming. Silent bombs cause the most damage. Always. They’re the ones that really take you down.
Both kinds detonate on impact, but that’s all they have in common. The blast from a DNA-locked bomb blows you up and out, so the damage is clear straight-off. There’s a commotion, alarm bells sound, people rush to help. With the quiet ones, what’s happened isn’t obvious at first. Nobody notices the blast. Nobody reacts to the tremor. You think maybe you got away with it. You congratulate yourself on being strong, the last man standing. Then you implode.
An admission: my bomb’s depression. It’s a common belief that people get depressed because they’ve lost something. Or someone. But that wasn’t how it happened with me. The only thing I lost was myself. Bombs don’t come any more silent than mine. At the time, I thought I was doing OK. And then one morning I woke up and, BOOM, I wasn’t.
If you want to know what the aftermath of a bomb feels like, then you’re asking the wrong person. Most days I feel too much to describe, and on others, I feel nothing at all. The best I can offer is a metaphor. Your bomb won’t be the same as mine, and it won’t cause the same damage, but even so, try to imagine the ruins of a house on St Thomas’ Street.
From one angle the roof appears intact, the walls sound. It’s a normality too fragile to outlast more than a passing glance, though. A second look reveals the teetering chimney, the flaky cement, the brick-rubble. Step to one side and you’ll realise the building’s main roof has gone, the tiles fallen. Rafters, like a flesh-stripped rib-cage, offer no protection from the elements.
This house is you. The bomb’s left you shattered. The emotions that lived in you have fled, leaving only relics of your previous existence. Your front, the face you show other people, has partially collapsed, allowing you no way of hiding what’s inside. Everything within you is on display. Hopes, secrets, and fears, all as visible as the wallpaper on the ripped-open rooms; memories and associations, the soft furnishings of your mind, set out for every passer-by to inspect and judge. The network of electrical cables, running like nerves through your body, has been exposed. Raw, fraying wires spark and short, creating shocks of anxiety and self-doubt, which threaten even greater damage. Your vulnerability feels over-whelming.
Then there’s the rats. Negative, grey-furred, sharp-toothed, intrusive thoughts. With nothing left to obstruct their path, they infest every room. They gnaw at your reasoning, defecate on what’s left of your self-esteem. They seek out your darkest corners, then multiply.
The physical components that made the house are still there, but it no longer functions as a home. It’s been broken. It feels broken. Its unglazed windows open onto emptiness, like the eye sockets of a stove in skull. Nothing can be captured or held onto. No thoughts or emotions, no past, and no future. The bomb has removed everything.
Entropy reigns in St Thomas’ Street. Gateways lead nowhere, doorways and window frames exist without surrounding walls. Rooms bleed into one another, their purposes disturbed and confused. Well-meaning bystanders try to put things right. They attempt to separate the tangle, to work out how things were before and reassemble them. But your rooms are beyond reconstruction. They’ve taken on new shapes. Rebuilding, however thorough, would leave traces of the blast. Tell-tale signs where the new has filled in, where gaps have been plugged. Even if you could be made whole again, you wouldn’t be the same. Your identity would be altered forever. Unbearable shards of duplicity would be lodged within your core.
Of course, the paralysing intensity of those feelings can’t last. Given time, you’ll learn to cope with the bomb’s after-effects. One morning there might be a patch of blue sky. Then, a fresh day. The terrors of the night will fade, and although you’ll still feel shattered, you won’t be as numb. The sunrise will warm you. A voice in your head will say, ‘I’m going to be OK. Yes, the bomb happened, but not to worry, because this is how things are now. How I am, now. And, it’s fine.’
Or so they tell me.
I am the ruins of St Thomas’ Street. Once, life ran through me and I was normal, one of a thousand terraced houses. I had purpose. Today, I am a derelict and hollow cadaver. The people who called me home have turned elsewhere, eager for places that don’t bring to mind times they’d rather forget.
Call it what you like, blitz, epidemic, neurosis; blame it on the technological age. Every generation changes the label, but a label never stopped a bomb falling, and a label never re-built a life.
Everyone has a bomb, and yours will explode regardless of whether you believe in its existence. Young or old, have or have not: no one is bomb-proof. No one.
And here’s why. Dealing with your bomb is part of being alive.
© Jacqui Pack (2017)
Jacqui Pack holds an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) from the University of Chichester. She was awarded Long Story Short’s ‘Story of the Year 2009’, and was among the winners of The London Magazine’s 2013 ‘Southern Universities Short Story Competition’, later appearing in TLM’s ebook of the same name. In 2016, she received Highly Commended in the Winchester Writers’ Festival’s ‘First Three Pages of a Novel’ competition, and was shortlisted in the West Sussex Writers/Worthing WOW Festival’s Flash Fiction competition. Her work has featured in a variety of print and online publications.
The Writing Edward King project appealed to me for couple of reasons. I’d visited the City Museum’s exhibition and been intrigued by the views of Portsmouth and St James’ Hospital captured in King’s paintings. I’d been unaware of both the extent of the city’s war-time damage and the existence of farmland within the hospital before seeing them depicted by King. Having used art as a springboard to inspiration for both short stories and poetry in the past, I knew I’d enjoy the challenge of creating a literary response to one of the paintings. Added to which, I was interested in exploring the links between mental health and creativity.
I picked ‘The Ruins of St Thomas’ Street’ purely on instinct. Its shapes and colours caught my attention, in a way that none of the other ‘bomb damage’ paintings did. Probably the biggest challenge I faced was self-imposed. I wanted to write a piece directly inspired by the painting, but was equally keen to create something oblique, which didn’t rely on the painting to be enjoyed or understood. Free-writing, while looking at the painting in the gallery, proved a great way of generating ideas, many of which made their way into the final story.
For me, as a writer, the process reinforced the importance of editing, which I did repeatedly and ruthlessly, to achieve a voice that sounded natural.Jacqui Pack
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All Edward King images used on this website are courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©.