‘Oyster Street,’ (c.1942) painted by Edward King. Scroll down for Zella Compton’s story Underneath Oyster Street inspired by this painting.

Oyster Street by Edward King (image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©)

Oyster Street by Edward King (image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©)

Underneath Oyster Street

by Zella Compton

She looks deep into my eyes, holds my face in her sweaty palms. She needs me to know, to understand, to feel the weight of her words.

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”

I count the creases around her eyes, little ladders that lead to the warmth within. Her breath is bitter on my cheeks.

“You hear me? I love you, I love you, I love you.”

That’s me, her world. And where her words would mean everything to me, where they would hold me up in the world, where there has always been nothing else but my mum’s love, it’s not the same tonight. The soft cotton of her well-washed dress, pale blue in the small candlelight which flickers behind her, brushes my arm. I pull my cardigan tight around me.

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”

It’s not the same tonight.

Doesn’t mean eternity no more. Because that’s what he said too, as he slipped his hand under my dress, and I felt his passion climb my leg and I wanted it, and I wanted him, and he said ‘I love you Josephine’ as he cried inside me.

I don’t take it back, I don’t.

Now I have an ‘I love you’ of my own. In my belly, I know she’s deep in there, waiting for me to meet her, waiting to hear the words I have on my lips ready:  ‘I love you, I love you’.

My world’s shifted to her.

And my mum, my mum will keep telling me ‘I love you,’ she’ll keep holding my face, holding me tight, cos she don’t know yet. Mum don’t know the yarn’s been extended, and now I’m looking the other way, threading emotions down the next generation, while the pattern ‘tween me and mum changes, shifts in the riven darkness.

I’d give my life for this baby, just as Mum’d give hers for me.

I wouldn’t give my life for my mum mind, that’s not how the pattern works. But someone would. Her mum. Gran would give her life for her daughter if she realised she had that chance. We’re linked like that, forwards and backwards, the older ones giving life for the young. None of us have any choice tonight about giving a life or not, however much we want to, or don’t.

That’s why my mum says it so much, ‘I love you, I love you’, cos if it is tonight, when we die, she wants the last thing in my head, in my eyes, to be her and the love what she holds for me. ‘Cept I can’t listen no more. I got someone of my own to tell.

Aunt Etty scuffles in the darkness. Her fingernails drag through the dirt floor, she’s found a dry patch to pick – at. Rest of floor is damp, always the smell of wet wood, what I quite like, but Etty says it invites the rats in for dinner. I don’t think they eat wood. Etty says ‘they eat everythin’, the fuckers.’

Etty says most people are fuckers, and most animals too, and most weathers.

Germans are fuckers, bombs are fuckers, rain clouds are fuckers – dark moody fuckers –  rats are fuckers, foreigners are fuckers:  “ ‘cept them darkies cos they’s from Africa and no one from Africa is a fucker as they’ve had to fight ‘gainst tigers their whole lives, and that is hard work.” Tigers are fuckers. Etty’s sister, my gran, is a fucker.

“It’s the end of you tonight,”  Etty says to my gran. “What you wishing now? What you wishing you done today you fucker?” She grins, widely.

Etty did most everything she wanted everyday of her long-lived life.  That’s what she says anyways, but I ain’t seen no evidence of her travels round the world, nor of her being a pirate, nor of her naked moon dances with pygmies. Them’s little people.

I don’t rightly believe Etty and her stories, but she’s awful entertaining of a night when the fire crackles and we huddle under blankets by the stove and wait for the kettle to boil us up some warmth. Etty pauses her stories for me when I get wood out the cellar where the wood was kept, before it was a place to keep people who ain’t got time to get to a shelter and all.

“Fuckers’ bomb’ll kill us tonight.”

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“What you wishing now – ha?” Etty says to my gran. But Gran’s not listening. She’s listing. She’s listing bout her day, not wishing it different. That’s what she does in the dark, she lists.

“Light stove, scrub scullery, pump water. Wash, make bread, tea, bread tea, scrub scullery, light stove.”

She ain’t done none of that to be sure, she ain’t done nothing for years ‘cept sit in the corner by the stove and babble them lists. Since Etty come to live with us, when Grandad died. That was the great war. Weren’t great for my mum growing without a dad.

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“Fuckers’ bomb’ll get us tonight.”

“Light stove, scrub scullery, pump water.”

Sometimes Gran lists other stuff. One night, when we was packed in tighter than matches and people came like it was a party and we was all excited-scared and proud-scared cos it was the first time for the bombs, it was Grandad’s long-dead body that Gran listed.

Toes, arches, ankles, knees and the like.

We knew it must be him cos half way through the list come his willy and his pubic hair which we all learnt was wiry like a doorstep brush – and Etty says Gran never had no other sight of no other willies.

“She should be so lucky,” Etty said; she squeezed Gran’s hand and didn’t even ‘fucker’ her.

Mum didn’t care none, she had me in her sights, all firm and serious, saying it over and over and over so as I didn’t die thinking ‘bout a dead Grandad’s willy.

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“Fuckers’ bomb’ll get us tonight.”

“Light stove, scrub scullery, pump water.”

I don’t say nothing to no one. I listen, pinching my ears, to hear them planes coming round again. Sometimes they goes straight over and drops one bomb or two to say “Guten a-bend”. That is German for good evening. Sometimes their bombs push in like someone up the road was having  a party, uninvited guests, barging, even though there ain’t no room for them.

From the corner Joan moans loudly, and claps her hands over her ears. Her eyes shine big in the candles, like the moon got a twin. She ain’t got no one looking in her eyes, ain’t got no swear words to pray with, ain’t got no lists.

“Mmmmm.” That’s what she says, over and over. Etty calls Joan our ‘lucky fucking inheritance’. She came with the house, and was already 153 when Gran and Grandad with his wiry-pubic-willy moved in, before my mum was born and all. Joan was a pile of rags in a corner, a husk of a woman, already dead, but still breathing and moving. Considering how dehydrated she is, all dried up and smelling of dusty corners, she still manages to spill tears.

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“Fuckers’ bomb’ll get us tonight.”

“Light stove, scrub floor, change bedding.”

“Mmmmmm.”

Etty lifts her fingers from the dirt, scalded by the shaking.

“Fuckers nearly had us,” she shouts. She jumps up, gleefully, and pulls husking Joan to her feet, which is easy as she’s made of paper.

“Fuckers nearly had us,” she shouts and twirls Joan round. Joan claws blindly in the dark, her moon eyes glowing, scratching at Etty’s dance, moaning loudly, but I’m not sure if it’s Etty or the bombs what’s set her off.

The house groans as dust particles and fat splinters fall in our hair.

“That’s the rats fault,” Etty yells, “Chomping, big teethed fuckers!”

Mum pulls me to my feet, puts her arms tight around me, as my hands find my belly. Gran stands-up too, and puts her arms around Mum, and Etty dances Joan to us all and clings to her sister underneath Oyster Street.

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“Fuckers bomb’ll get us tonight.”

“Light stove, scrub scullery, pump water.”

“Mmmmm.”

The ground trembles. I tremble. My mum trembles. “I love you,” she says.

© Zella Compton (2017) 

Zella Compton

Zella Compton

Zella Compton is an associate artist at Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal where her plays, including ‘How to be a Girl!’ and ‘Genghis’, are regularly performed. Zella’s plays are used nationally and internationally by students for GCSE exam pieces and ‘How to Be a Girl!’ was performed at the Brighton Fringe. Zella is also a columnist for the Portsmouth News, and teaches creative writing to children, teenagers and adults.  She has recently finished writing her first musical, Ambition and her Young Adult novel, The Ten Rules of Skimming was published in 2012.

I was interested in this project because I have worked with some of the writers on previous projects and get a great deal from being involved with group work – it raises the bar for everyone and pushes you to complete work. It’s also really exciting to see / hear what other people have created with the same starting point as yourself. I am always amazed at the creative approaches which people take and brilliant different outcomes. Starting with a painting was a new challenge for me, I haven’t used a specific artist for a starting point before, so this meant I would gain a new experience. I also didn’t know anything – shamefully – about Edward King, and discovering work which is new to you is always a pleasure, particularly when you think about King’s really interesting life. It’s been a revelation.

I picked this painting because I had to make a decision, and the deadline had loomed and gone! I looked at the works several times and struggled to make an immediate connection with any of the paintings. I was looking for a story to jump out at me, and that simply didn’t happen. So I chose Oyster Street because I knew where it was, and that no one else had chosen it either! Lots of the King paintings are bleak and utilise a similar palette. And there aren’t many figures in them which didn’t help my process.

Writing a story based on a painting was really tough as I didn’t have an immediate connection with the painting. I spent a long time dithering about when to set a story, before anything else, and then how to write one as short stories are not my bread and butter. Then I spent a good while contemplating starts, middles and ends before realising that I needed to write something for the deadline. It was only when I was brutal with myself, and focused on what it would have been like for me if I was there, in Oyster Street, did the story come to me. If I was there, I’d be with my daughters. And that’s when I realised that I wanted to write about love between mothers and daughters and the daughters and mothers.
I’ve learnt not to be so nervous of writing in a different form – I am a playwright, novelist and columnist – and to trust my instincts more. I’ve gained an incredible amount of knowledge about King, and also about St James’, Portsmouth and my fellow writers. Working with a buddy-mentor was lots of fun (too much probably!). It’s been very interesting to think about the person who commissioned the post-war paintings in the first place. Little did he know the effect that would have all these years later. We must all be aware of what we do every day of our lives and the ripples our actions send through time. It’s been a pleasure to be involved.

 

Zella Compton

2 Comments

  1. charlotte

    Oh what a lovely story, well done.

    Reply
  2. Richard

    Raw, human, urgent, mad moments of mothers and daughters in blitz hell. Extraordinary writing, Zella.

    Reply

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All Edward King images used on this website are courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©.