‘Houseboats at Milton Alongside a Quay with a Girl in Red’ (c.1946) painted by Edward King. Scroll down for Jacqueline Green’s story The Red Dress, inspired by this painting.
Houseboats at Milton Alongside a Quay with a Girl in Red by Edward King (image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©)
After the devastation of the bombing, many people were homeless. Some found refuge along the north shore of Eastney and round Milton Lake. Homes were made of houseboats, railway carriages and huts. They did not have electricity or piped water. Many thousands survived into the 1960s.
The Red Dress
by Jacqueline Green
I can still hear him. Even standing on the quay. Alfie was born yelling. I remember his raw mouth stretched wide and his angry little fists ready to fight the world. Only yesterday I had to pull him off another lad ‘cos he pinched his best bit of shrapnel.
It was bad enough listening to my brother kick off at home, but inside the boat his screams smack the cabin walls and bounce back twice as loud. Anyone would think mum’s murdering him not scrubbing him clean.
“Kath, stop staring into space like a half-wit and fetch another bucket. That brother of yours ‘as mud coming out of holes he shouldn’t.”
Why does she bother? That mud’s everywhere. When the tide’s out the smell hits you like a fishmonger’s fist. Alfie will be caked in the stuff again tomorrow. What’s so special about Sunday anyway? Some church lady gave me this rotten dress. Said I ‘ad to look respectable for service. Don’t she realise we never go? Ma took the red dress anyways, even though it don’t keep out the cold. Rather ‘ave the old jumper that Alfie’s wearing. Least that’s warm and still smells of Dad.
“Kath, get a move on, will yer.”
Ma’s face looks fit to burst and her mouth’s set in that no-nonsense line. I’d better get that water, although the tap weren’t working yesterday. Some old bloke said they’d cut it off. Probably hoping we’d move on. We’ve done enough of that and besides, where would we go?
Half our street’s gone. Houses sliced open. Bedrooms on show. It’s all jagged walls, torn paper and rubble now. Mrs Kelly crammed her family into the basement. They all got buried. S’pose they were together, that’s something. We were in the church hall till that got hit. Then someone told mum about the houseboats. Not sure why they call ‘em that. They ain’t nothing like a house.
Our one looks drunk and most of the windows are broken. The glass blew out the second day we were in. Alfie found some old sail sheet and we nailed it over the gaps. Makes it dark but keeps out the rain. We’ve got a few candles left but Ma’s real mean and won’t light them. She had to last night. Alfie screamed non-stop. Those rats are nearly as big as my brother’s head and they know how to use their teeth.
Alfie scrambles off the boat and drops the bucket at my feet. “Ma says we need more.” It looks like God ran out of bits and cobbled two kids together. His feet and legs are scrubbed red but his body’s shit brown. The mud cracks open as he smiles and now we’re both laughing like big Sheila from the end hut.
“Jesus, Kath, you’ll be laughing on the other side of yer face if you don’t get that water.” Ma’s leaning on the rails, waving her fist at us, so I’d better move sharp. I ain’t seen her smile for ages, let alone laugh, so she’s not one who’d join in.
Alfie shrugs, walks back to her and receives a slap across the ‘ead for his trouble. She never hits us hard. She don’t need to. Her voice is enough to scare us silly. She stares at me, all funny. Almost sad like. Which is weird, as I’ve never seen her cry either.
She pulls her plait up and pins it on her head. When we still had a house, I used to love combing her hair. Colour of conkers in winter it was. All wavy. Dad said it were the prettiest hair in Portsmouth. He wouldn’t say that now. The war’s blasted grey right through it.
I lug the bucket by old Patrick’s boat. He’s sitting there with his dog. The smoke from his pipe drifts up and mingles with the mist on the lake. He slumps, comfy in his old rocking chair and looks like there ain’t no trouble he can’t deal with. Blackie trots to the edge of the boat and lays her chin on the rim. I love stroking her curly head. The wrinkles of fur form patterns all over her face. I like feeling the ridges as I pats her between the ears. Patrick gives me a nod, draws on his pipe and goes back to staring across the water. Only heard him say one word since we been here. “Blackie.” That’s how I knows her name.
The walk to the water pipe takes me further up Milton Lake. I stops for a bit to watch the birds flying. They skim the water and then bomb a boat on the bend. Some lady’s chucking out slops. The birds won’t want that. But seems they do. They erupt in a storm of beaks and wings. Fighting over God knows what.
Mind you, we’ve eaten some strange things we ‘ave. That slippery eel Ma cooked last week was so chewy it made me gag. Alfie managed it so I wasn’t going to let it beat me. Ma told us to be grateful as there were some what didn’t have a crumb. I’d have rather swallowed a bag of mouldy crusts, than that smelly snake of a fish.
It’s that lairy John Osborn, from the huts. Thinks he’s special just ‘cos he’s got a proper front door. I walks right by, swinging my bucket hard. I can feel my face going as red as my stupid dress but keep my eyes on the path.
He shuffles alongside and pulls at my dress. “Look real smart for a boat girl. Where yer going? Off to the Castle?”
I snatch my dress away and stick out my tongue. “Piss off, will yer. You’re just jealous ‘cos your sister never covers her bum.”
His face crumples and I know I shouldn’t have said it. Repeating stuff I hear around the water pipe was bad. Ma would be cross if she knew. John’s eyes look hurt and I’d give anything to take it back but all I can do is stare and feel my chest tighten. He raises a fist and I step back. The bucket slips through my fingers and hits the tow path in a dull thud.
“Thought you were different,” he says, and drops his arm.
Before I can stop myself, I grab his hand and kiss it. Now it’s my turn to look shocked. I snatch up the bucket, splashing mud up my legs and make a dash for the boat sheds. Dodging the heap of bikes, I push through the gang of blokes smoking outside and run round the back.
My eyes shut, I lean against the rotten wooden panels. I’m panting and can feel my embarrassing breasts pushing against the dress. Silence. Think I got away with it. I open my eyes and smooth down the red dress leaving muddy streaks. Before I can move, a hand grabs mine.
“So, is that a sorry?” John’s face is flushed. He must have run like a water rat to catch me.
He is so close, I can feel his breath. The thin material that separates us feels like it’s on fire. He tilts my head up and his lips find mine. For a minute I think I’m going to explode, but he pulls back and smiles. “See ya,” he says and turns. His broad back marches away but all I can do is touch my lips. A burst of giggles erupts behind me and I swivel and glare at some kids making a show of kissing their grimy hands.
“Clear off.” I swing the bucket and watch them scatter.
At the water pipe I’m breathless in the queue. The untidy row shuffles forward but I’m floating. I can’t feel the dried mud or the cold as I stand in line, heat coursing through my body. What just happened?
I fill the bucket and walk back to the boat but still haven’t worked it out. Ma grabs the bucket moaning about the time it’s taken. Alfie’s stripped and she starts on the dirty half, shushing his cries as the hard brush rubs him raw.
After he is dry and clothed, she looks at me puzzled.
“Someone hit you over the head girl? You look dozier than normal.”
She’s right. I do feel puggled. Could one kiss do that? Alfie is staring like I’m crazy, maybe I am.
My heart’s thumping so I need to keep busy. It’s my job to empty the slops, not that there’s much. We eat everything. I lift the bucket and climb out looking for a bit of clear water in between ours and next door’s boat. The smell of the fish bones draws out the old cat from his sleeping spot on the coiled ropes. He’s thin but the strong odour forces his head up.
“There you go.” I tip the bundle of bones onto the tow path and chuck the rest into the lake. He sniffs at them. The fish skeleton looks like our street. Bones sticking out in all directions. Empty of anything that’s good. I put my hand out to stroke him but despite his hunger he pulls back, suspicious.
I know what that feels like. When John touched me, the electricity almost hurt. Excitement was dangerous. Bit like last week when I saw that bloke walking towards our boat with his navy trousers flapping. The heat raced through my whole body. But he just walked right by. It wasn’t Dad. Then the screaming hole I already had inside got bigger. I didn’t want to feel like that if John turned away. What if I bump into him again in the morning? What if he laughs and ignores me at the water pipe?
The cat was rubbing himself against my ankles and I risked a stroke. He seemed friendly enough now, maybe John would be tomorrow.
“Ok,” I say, rubbing his head. “Got a lot more chores before I can sleep like you.” If I can ever sleep again. I work hard so when I climb into my bunk my back’s hurting and my hands are sore. Trying to keep this boat clean was impossible but today even Ma had been pleased. Scrubbing was the only thing that kept John’s face out of my mind, but here in the dark with the lapping of the water against the sides, he was all I could think about.
In the morning, Alfie had to drag me out of bed, but I ate the tasteless porridge without a murmur. I was busy mopping when I heard his voice.
It’s him. I panic, drop the mop and scuttle under the bundle of covers nearby. “Ma,” I hiss. “Tell him I’m not ‘ere.”
She frowns, strides towards the step and heaves herself up. “Now, what d’yer want with my young Kath?”
“Fourteen’s not so young.”
I lift the tarpaulin what stinks like the damp cellar in our old house. I can see him.
“Gerroff boy. She’s too young for any of your nonsense. Got enough worries as it is. You come near her and I’ll take an oar to yer head.”
I can see Ma wouldn’t think twice about cracking the wood across his forehead so I drop the flap, shove Alfie out of the way and pull myself out of the boat.
“Don’t. I like him.” One look at his face and my heart’s banging in my chest like Ma’s old boiler. I drag my eyes away and turn to face her.
“Get back inside and I’ll talk to you later.” Ma’s voice is harsh but something in her eyes soften. Think he sees it too.
“Don’t take on Missus.” He smiles, gives Ma a nod and leaves.
The next day he stands outside our boat. First off he just smiles like a simpleton but then he starts bringing his tools and begins to fix things. The windows and the ladder. Every day for two weeks he brings up the fresh water. Ma says nothing but don’t stop him either. Then she starts giving him tea and a chunk of bread. It’s the third week when I wake up to him sitting at the table eating porridge with Alfie. He winks at me.
“Stop gawping and get some food down yer, Kath. Boys don’t like a skinny girl.” She fills my bowl and John pulls down another bucket for me to perch on. He smiles and touches my arm. Ma catches his eye.
“But, I like her, I do.” His voice drops to a whisper. “Can’t stop thinking ‘bout her.”
I’ve never heard a boy speak like that.
I watch Ma’s face lighten as she says, “Well, you’re not so bad.” She leans forward and faces him straight on. “You treat her right, John Osborn. Kath ain’t no boat girl. She weren’t dragged up alongside The Hard either. Her Dad’s not here to protect her. But don’t think I won’t.”
I know that glare. Christ, what’d she say that for? John stands up right quick. He’s not going to hang about now. But he don’t move, just pulls his shoulders back.
Special. And I feel it too. Ma smiles up at him.
“Got some fish, back at my hut.” He says. “Nice piece. Nothing like that eel Kath hasn’t stopped moaning about.”
Ma grins. “You’ll do”.
Sitting eating our fish supper that night, the boat feels different. Like a house, like a home. John’s showing Alfie how to pull the bones out in one go. Even Ma’s chatting. More like she did when Dad was around. I know Dad’s not coming back. His boat sank in the Atlantic. He never had a chance. But I know we’ve been given one. We’re alive. I know me Dad would be chuffed about that.
After supper I wash the day’s mud off my red dress and hang it over the bunk. Maybe I don’t hate it after all.
© Jacqueline Green (2017)
Jacqueline Green is a prize winning fiction writer. She won the Watford Council short story competition two years running, with her work subsequently being displayed in poster form in local bus shelters. She won the 2013 Chorleywood Lit-Fest Short Story Competition and placed third in the Town & Village National Short Story Competition, and has also been short-listed in numerous other writing competitions.
After my recent move to Portsmouth I was excited about exploring writing opportunities that could teach me more on local history, which attracted me to the Writing Edward King: Cityscapes of Portsmouth project.
Losing your home during the horrific bombing raids on Portsmouth and being forced into flimsy, often squalid houseboats must have been traumatic. Losing entire neighbourhoods and trying to rebuild lives interested me. The girl in red was a character I felt I could use to portray the struggle. I spent a long time studying the painting and imagining the characters and stories behind the images. It provided a great springboard for ideas. It was important to me to make these characters jump out of the canvas and tell their own story.
I discovered that imagery is a strong motivation to write. I found I wanted to climb into the painting and discover more about the scene and people living there.Jacqueline Green
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All Edward King images used on this website are courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©.