‘Penny Street, Portsmouth,’ (1941) painted by Edward King. Scroll down for Margaret Jennings’s story, Penny Street, One Monday, inspired by this painting
Penny Street, Portsmouth by Edward King. Image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©
Penny Street, One Monday
by Margaret Jennings
Susan jumped every time her father laughed at the radio. Boom, boom, boom, went his laugh, so like the bombs. Susan covered her ears. Workers Playtime, Arthur Askey was Dad’s favourite.
She pulled back the skirt under the sink and pulled out a saucepan. Mum was at work so she had lunch to prepare. Ordinary things to do in an extraordinary world; a new world of barrage balloons and criss-crossed windows and waiting for the wail of the air raid siren.
She could smell the sea but she would no longer walk down there. The beach was scarred with barbed wire. It brought home the reality, a reality she lived in every beat of her heart. There was no way to get away from it. Others might walk to the hill at the north, or hide in specially built, public shelters, but she had tried both and felt unable to do either.
‘Never mind,’ her dad would say, ‘I’ll always be with you.’
Now he was guffawing at Mr Askey who only had to say ‘Ay Thang yaw,’ in that silly way he had, for her dad to almost fall out of the chair, and that was difficult because it had two high arms and a high back and was pointed straight at the wireless.
Even though Susan remained in the kitchen with her eyes squeezed closed against the sight and her hand clasped over her ears, she could see her dad with his hanky drooping in his right hand ready to wipe the tears of laughter away. Susan kept repeating to herself that he was not the thing that she was afraid of, that the noise was only similar because she was frightened already. That’s what her mother had said. It’s just Dad, it’s just Dad, her mother’s words rattled round in her head and made the confusion even more severe.
The whistle of the kettle made her fall to the floor, scramble under the table. This is where they said to go wasn’t it. Wasn’t it? She could feel the sweat pricking through her skin, her heart jamming so hard against her ribs that it was painful. She felt as if she was going to die. Her breath was going too fast and she couldn’t make it slow down.
Her father had a fine baritone singing voice. Now his laughter fell from the skies and banged like a bomb, he was glugging and sputtering with the fun of it all.
‘Before your very eyes,’ said Arthur. The joke made no sense to Susan. Nothing made any sense any more. She could not feel the coldness of the lino against her skin, she could not smell the burning of the egg as it ran out of water.
‘Susan! Susan,’ her dad shouted,’ what are you doing in there?’ He walked into the kitchen to find his daughter huddled under the table, gasping for air, trembling like the earpiece of the phone at work sometimes did when it rang.
He climbed under the table, noticing for the first time how truly small it was, this new table roof squashed him downward so his head was at a wrong angle but he had to hold his daughter. Then he noticed that despite her fifteen years, she was truly small too, a bag of quaking bones. He started to sing, first quietly as he held her tight.
I may be right, I may be wrong,
But I’m perfectly willing to swear
That when you turned and smiled at me
A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.
Then he started talking to her gently about the times they had spent at the beach, when they had walked Lady’s Mile on the Common and how she had expected to meet Henry the eighth when they got to the Southsea Castle. He could feel her relax, her breath quieten, and he was glad because he could feel his head being flattened by the table top.
‘Dad, you had better rescue the egg or it will explode.’ Susan said, and he scrabbled out as quickly as his old bones would allow, grabbed a tea cloth and threw the saucepan into the sink where he could douse it in water. The water hissed angrily, caught the rim and splashed back into his face. This time his loud shout made her laugh. He took her by the hand.
He had been looking forward to that egg, his one egg a week, but he moved the kettle off the hob, turned off the gas, and started doing a waltz with her in this tiny cramped kitchen.
‘You are safe,’ he whispered in her ear, ‘you will always be safe with me.’
Her tears were a wet stain on her face which he wiped away. He did not know how much more of this she would be able to endure. How much he would be able to either.
So he sat her on a chair and went to get her a cup of tea. He thought about the way the house had closed down on his daughter. The way the precautionary early evening bus ride to the safety of the hill behind the city had made her quake with fear, the way the closeness of all those other people, the smell of their bodies and the stink of the latrines had made her want to vomit. How she had come away convinced that people had been making rude remarks about her red hair, they had been laughing at her she said. Once was enough and no persuasion would make her go back there.
He stroked her hair as he set the tea cup in front of her, heard the cup rattle slightly in the saucer. In truth, her hair was a beautiful shade of auburn and he kissed her forehead without thinking.
‘What was that for?’ she asked.
‘Just because, you are so beautiful,’
‘Ay thang yew,’ she said imitating Arthur.
He smiled at this glimmer of the daughter he felt as if he had lost the night the first bombs fell. The one who had joy in her fingertips and buzzed with the excitement of life. The one who counted the ships going into the harbour and the ships going out, who shouted over to her friend in Gosport as if there were any chance of her hearing. His happy, madcap daughter had been stolen by fear and here was the replacement, fragile as china.
She had worked at a local café, made friends, settled in. Now she would not leave the house. She would not go to the air raid shelters nor take the walk to safety up the hill. Would not walk to those communal shelters dug into the chalk of the hill, tightly packed with bunk beds. Secretly he worried about bombers dumping their payload before returning home. He knew she would not go there because he had tried to drag her and found that she had the strength of a lion when she was terrified. These attacks of hysteria too – that’s what the doctor called them – what to do? what to do?
He and Susan’s mother had talked about it. She worked at Saint James’, the local lunatic asylum, as a nurse, but they had agreed that Susan would never go there. His wife had seen such things, such things as she never could tell, and to go to that hospital would be such a stain on Susan’s character, people would always think she had a screw lose forever after. ‘Things will go back to normal once the war is over, you’ll see.’
He didn’t let his mind dwell on the ‘what ifs’, he had to stay in the here and now and make Susan feel safe.
Trouble was, the war was so close at hand here even on an ordinary day, with the window dressings of diagonal tape and a clear view of the barrage balloons. He thought of the Hot Walls where they sat in deck chairs in summers that seemed a million years ago, saw them in his mind’s eye skirted with barbed wire to keep the enemy out. He knew his daughter held an enemy called fear tight within, and wondered how the ending of the war, however that came about, would solve the problem.
When she had finished the cup of tea, they danced again. Susan’s hair smelled of rainwater with a hint of carbolic soap he noticed, touched now with a hint of burnt egg. Normality even in these times full of fear.
The sound of anti-aircraft fire started in the harbour. Then the sirens sounded and she tightened every muscle of her body. He held her and they continued to dance stiffly as the wailing continued, as they heard the bombers finding the gap between the barrage balloons that would let them in to drop their load. He kissed the top of Susan’s head, recalled kissing her head when she was newly born and carried to him as he waited outside the door. He…
On the twelfth of August 1940, thirty five tons of high explosive were dropped on Portsmouth. The anti- aircraft fire was of an intensity never seen before, the sky was filled with black puffs and criss-crossing tracer.
It is recorded that sixty seven raids took place over Portsmouth. Eight hundred people died and over two thousand were injured between 11th of July 1940 and 17th of October 1943. There are no statistics available for the final four raids. The air raid siren sounded 1,581 times during the war. It became the sound of terror for many people.
Susan’s mother came home from work to find tape blocking her path and fire where her house should be. This was no barrier to a frantic mother. She rushed past faces covered in dust and soot toward the ruin of her home. She found her husband’s body lying in the street. There was no sign of Susan. For a while she hoped. For the shortest while. Then body parts were discovered. They could have been anybody but she knew she had lost both her husband and her Susan that fateful day. She left her job and the place she had lived for many years and returned home to her parents who lived in the countryside. They buried her husband in the family vault.
They had some-one collect Susan’s things, they could not bear to say body parts, and buried her next to her father. There was no death certificate because Susan was listed as missing and a special licence was granted.
A gardenia was planted not far away, in moist and fertile soil with just the right balance of light and shade.
On a summer night, the scent drifts through the quiet skies.
© Margaret Jennings (2017)
Margaret Jennings was long listed for the Bare Fiction Literary short story prize 2014 and was also short listed for the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize in 2016. She earned an MA in creative writing at the University of Chichester in 2001.
Margaret has had success with competitive story telling and poetry reading. She has read regularly at Tongues and Grooves, and has performed at local events including the Alver Festival, the Umbrella Festival and the Southsea Show. Two stories were chosen to be performed by the White Rabbit Theatre Company in Winchester. She also runs a writing retreat in the South of France.
I wanted to be part of the project because I love writing from paintings. They are both evocative and unknowable at the same time. I knew nothing about Edward King and was also woefully ignorant about the blitz in Portsmouth – this would be an opportunity to learn and I love learning.
The painting of Penny Street was chosen because I was fascinated by the crater caused by the bomb and the way it filled with water. I don’t know why that attracted my attention but I have learned as a writer that it is best to go with these hunches.
That said, the most difficult thing in writing is waiting for one of the characters to start to talk; to tell you their story. This voice will only begin when you have sufficient information about the world that surrounded that person.
So I set about researching the blitz and Portsmouth. Both my parents lived through it but I knew nothing. Some research details demand attention, those that stamp their metaphorical feet should not be ignored. Workers Playtime (which I had previously never heard of) needed to be included. A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square warbled tunefully in my mind. Many other pieces of research gave the story a believable backbone.
Finally, a girl called Susan walked into my mind and started talking. This is her story. She is imagined, but represents an attempt to reflect the real suffering of the people of Portsmouth, both physical and psychological, during World War Two.Margaret Jennings
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All Edward King images used on this website are courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©.