‘High Street, Old Portsmouth,’ painted by Edward King.
Scroll down for Lucy Flannery’s story, Sorry, inspired by this painting.
High Street, Old Portsmouth by Edward King (image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©)
by Lucy Flannery
“Want a good time, lover?”
The seaman’s head jerked round. He hadn’t even noticed her there, she realised, perched on the window sill of the ravaged building.
“Go on. All the nice girls love a sailor. Ain’t that right?”
The sailor blushed. He was young, she saw now. Out of his depth in this situation. You might say, all at sea.
“I’m sorry, I – ”
“Come on. I bet you’re lonely, aren’t you? I can help with that.”
“No! Sorry, but no.”
He spoke with surprising firmness and walked away without quickening his step, in the direction of the Cathedral and the Hot Walls beyond. Elsie had expected a frightened scuttle. She had also expected to follow him, coax him, change his mind. That clearly wasn’t an option now. She leaned back, exhausted suddenly. Closing her eyes, she drank in the warmth of the morning sunshine. Working in the day was no picnic, but it was almost impossible at night. What with the raids and the black-out and the rubble from the bombed-out buildings, you were taking your life into your hands wandering around in the dark. And she never liked going with someone whose face she couldn’t see clearly. You needed to be able to look them in the eye, get their measure. She might not have been in this line of work long, but her instincts were sound. Elsie could take care of herself; there wasn’t much in her life of which she could be proud but this was one thing she gave herself credit for.
Someone was looking at her. She could feel their eyes on her flesh. She kept her own eyes closed for a few seconds longer, a tiny hiatus before once again plastering on the smile. Sure enough, an old man was watching her from the other side of the road. Not a customer, she saw at once.
“Ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
“I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?”
“This is a respectable neighbourhood.”
“In that case, should you be shouting across the street?”
“Go on, clear off.” He spat into the gutter. “Go up the Guildhall, make the lions roar. We don’t want your sort round ‘ere.”
“I live round here, thank you very much. And I’ve a right to walk around my own neighbourhood. This is a free country, last time I looked. The Nazis aren’t in charge yet, I think you’ll find.”
The man had turned, was actually walking away, but he paused and looked back. “No thanks to you. What would your ‘usband say?”
“He wouldn’t say nothing ‘cos he’s dead!”
The words weren’t even out of her mouth before she regretted them. She bit her lip. The old man turned on his heel and walked off, muttering. “Poor bloke . . . fighting for his country . . . just as well he never found out what his wife was like . . . “
He didn’t die fighting for his country, she thought, that’s the trouble.
If Ron had drowned in the mountainous waves of the Atlantic, the hapless victim of a German torpedo, there would be a pension. And there would be a telegram confirming his service to his country that she could keep in the cigar box on the mantelpiece, next to his photograph – a source of legitimate sorrow and pride. But Ron drowned in the black waters of the Solent. On a moonless night he walked the length of South Parade Pier, where the demons that tormented him on a daily basis prodded and poked at him until finally he stepped over the rail and into blank space. His body was washed up the next day at Hayling. He never set foot on that island in life. In death, it witnessed his disgrace. And hers. The wife who couldn’t keep her husband happy. Who couldn’t keep him safe. Who wasn’t enough to keep him here.
The last thing she said to him was ‘pull yourself together’. The last thing he said to her was ‘sorry’.
She shook herself, turned to her left. Best get home, check on those two little curly heads under the steel table that served as both air raid shelter and make-believe tent. She stopped short. Another old man was watching her. She’d seen him before, with his sketch book and his pencils. She strode towards him, her mouth contorted in fury, about to demand by what right he observed her, drew her, judged her – when he stopped her dead in her tracks.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
Elsie felt tears prick the back of her eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time she cried. Nor could she remember the last time anyone spoke so gently to her.
“My wife died too. Seventeen years ago. Seventeen years, eight months and four days,” he added.
Elsie nodded, not knowing what to say. Her head bowed, she swerved to walk round him and continue homeward but again he stopped her.
“Perhaps,” he hesitated, then drew out a ten shilling note from inside his jacket. It was folded over repeatedly, the edges flecked with paint. He proffered it to her, shyly.
“I can’t take you back to mine,” said Elsie. “There’s an alley round the back of the Cathedral – ”
“No! No, please!” He shoved the ten bob at her, embarrassed, not meeting her gaze now. His face had turned brick red, echoing the paper money. She took it, puzzled. “Well . . . thanks.”
“Are you sure you need to do this kind of thing?” He forced himself to look at her. “There are factories you know and, and the trams, all kinds of things . . .”
“I can’t work at any of them places.”
“But surely – ”
“I can’t do it.” No need to mention the two little curly heads. Better to let him think her bone idle. She was not about to explain that she couldn’t be gone too long, couldn’t do the punishing hours of the factory shifts, that she had to be able to pop home every hour, without fail, that she wouldn’t resort to feeding them milk laced with gin to ensure they slept through her prolonged absences. Her neighbour maintained that it never did anyone any harm, but Elsie was taking no chances. They were all she had. She was going to take care of them, raise them right, no matter what it cost her. She may have made a poor show of being a wife, but no one would accuse her of being a bad mother.
The elderly man bowed slightly. Elsie almost laughed at this old-fashioned display of courtesy. “Of course,” he said, “forgive me. It’s none of my business.”
“No, well, no, it’s not,” Elsie tucked the note in her pocket then stood awkwardly. She felt she should conclude their encounter formally, perhaps by shaking hands, but that was patently ridiculous. She nodded at him, then nodded a second time and started to walk away. Glancing back she saw him raise his hat to her and yet again she paused.
“She was a lucky woman, your wife.”
For the first time the man smiled. It transformed him. Like the sunshine that spread over the ruined terrain of the bomb site, it softened the contours of his grizzled features, vouchsafing a glimpse of former splendours. “Oh no,” he said, “I was the lucky one.”
And then he turned and walked away.
© Lucy Flannery (2017)
Lucy Flannery is an award-winning writer with credits in radio, TV, film and theatre, including Rent, Like A Daughter and A Business Affair. She is the University of Chichester Royal Literary Fund Fellow 2014-17. Lucy was a core writer on the 2013 Arts Council funded project You, Me and Everyone in Portsmouth, the largest ever crowd-sourced story in England.
Her short story Calm Down, Dear won the Brighton Prize in 2015.
I was interested in the Writing Edward King: Cityscapes of Portsmouth project for several reasons. Foremost, the quality of the paintings, but I was also very drawn by Edward King’s own personal history. And as I work primarily as a dramatist, it was good to be challenged to create in another form.
I originally chose another painting when I viewed the exhibition on line. Seeing it in reality, in the Museum gallery, was a revelation. I loved the palette Edward King used and the fact that all the subjects seemed to be in dazzling sunshine. ‘High Street, Old Portsmouth’, was almost the last painting in the display and I was impressed by its scale and by the minute detail of the human figures.
I found Edward King’s life story so affecting that I wanted to include him and find a way to convey the strength of his love for his deceased wife, while at the same time touching on the agony of mental health turmoil. The way the figures were arranged in the composition was so compelling, they almost wrote their own story. The juxtaposition of the tiny humans and the huge mass of the ruined buildings said something so poignant about the human spirit under adversityLucy Flannery
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All Edward King images used on this website are courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©.