8th June, 1913. Hurst Park Racecourse, Molesley, London
Emily has breathed her last in hospital. Kitty is attempting to scale the perimeter fence of the Hurst Park Racecourse with the aid of a piece of carpet.
“Hurry!” Clara hisses.
Kitty is perched on top of a tool shed on the edge of the cricket pitch. She brandishes the carpet above her head like a hunting trophy, swinging it wildly back and forth and hoping it will catch on the spikes on the double layer of barbed wire which crowns the Racecourse’s perimeter fence. She is alternately laughing and panting with the effort. Clara stands by the base of the shed, taking in the spectacle. From this angle, she can see up Kitty’s skirts. She realises that she’s never seen another woman from this angle before. She looks away, and then sees that her friend’s boots are in dire need of a polish.
Neither of them has much of an idea how they are going to scale the fence in their short skirts, coming in at just above the ankle. They should have gotten hold of some breeches, Clara thinks, and worn them under their clothes. But then what would they have done with their skirts? They would have been a gleaming beacon to any passers-by that something was amiss. Could they have hidden them in a bush? In the shed? The shed is locked, and there are no bushes for a hundred metres, at least. Too late now, anyway. We’ll manage.
All the while, Kitty has been busy beating the fence as if it had just torpedoed the Conciliation Bill. Then the carpet catches. They want to whoop with joy, but they manage to stifle it to a high-pitched whistle of air from their noses.
Kitty’s flushed face appears over the edge of the cricket shed. She looks every inch the warrior queen, coarse red hair tumbling from her loose bun. Her face is full yet well-formed, with a long, proud nose. Clara imagines her statue by Westminster Bridge, standing tall in her chariot and leading her tribe into battle. Their eyes are aglow with the first heady rush only risk can provide. Their faces are just inches apart.
“Bravo,” Clara giggles, “Bravo sister!”
The night is calm, sound carries.
“Hush, Betty. We can’t afford to forget ourselves.” Kitty feigns a stern countenance, but breaks into a grin.
Now they must scale it. Kitty is the stronger of the two. She has been blessed with deep lungs and the statuesque figure so esteemed on the stage. She has been kneeling, but now she lays down, belly down, on the cold corrugated iron roof of the shed. She stretches out her arms, and Clara grasps them, shoulder to hand, hand to shoulder. She hauls Clara up. Her shoe finds purchase on a windowpane, and the glass cracks. Even that small sound sends a whisper through the night.
It’s almost pitch black. They are surrounded on three sides, four including the track behind the fence, by a wide expanse of turf like a calm sea. The cricket shed is a lifeboat, and they are about to disembark. Far behind them, streetlamps form tiny pinpricks of light. They are completely alone. Kitty puts her hands on her hips, surveying her kingdom, elbows jutting. Luckily, Clara has thought to pass up their wicker suitcase of munitions before climbing onto the shed herself.
“Well then,” Kitty sighs, “up we go.”
Kitty bends her knees into a slight squat and braces her shoulders. She forms a cradle with her hands, lacing her fingers together. Getting Clara over is their first priority. How they will get the buxom Kitty over afterwards is anyone’s guess.
Kitty pushes up Clara’s damp boot with a resolute grunt. Clara grasps at the carpet. She’s past the halfway point, momentum tipping. Gingerly, she tries to turn her body to face back towards the fence from the other side, but soon she has worked herself into a breathless muddle.
A few seconds later, she hangs from the end of the carpet on the other side to shorten her fall, Kitty grasping it from the cricket pitch side of the fence so that Clara doesn’t take it with her. There’s still a good few feet to drop. The fence trembles dramatically, then Clara plops down onto the racecourse. Her skirt is rucked up around her thighs like a carelessly dropped china doll on a carpet of grass. She’s sitting in a cloud of white, lace-trimmed underskirts, boots sticking out at jaunty angles. She has survived, they are criminals once again. Clara looks back over her shoulder and giggles. It is catching.
Now it’s Kitty’s turn. She stares at the fence, willing it to bend, break or melt.
“Can I help?” Clara hisses.
“I don’t think so.”
Kitty hurls the suitcase over the fence like a champion shot putter. Then she jumps. Her hands miss the crest of the carpet. She slides back down, jumps again, and again. Just before she thinks her hands may start bleeding with the friction, she jumps high enough to grasp its peak. She can feel the fence’s barbs and spikes, menacing under the thick fabric. She hopes it holds. She’s not going to end this night in hospital, for Pem’s sake.
Kitty’s legs are scrambling, looking for toe-holds. She’s slowly managing to pull herself up. She thinks to herself, this would make an excellent film. A dramatic comedy. Two ladies versus an unscalable fence.
But seconds later, Kitty is clutching at Clara on the other side. They are indefatigable. No cuts, scrapes or bruises. A small miracle, sent by the Maid of Orleans.
They stuff their munitions back in their suitcase. They scurry over the long grass, wet with dew, before reaching the Grandstand.
“We’re here”, Clara whistles.
“What a marvelous beacon it will make,” Kitty winks.
They race up the steps, drunk on adrenaline. In a southwestern suburb of London, under a clear, starry sky, their grand tribute to a fallen comrade begins to take shape. They pour out a gallon of oil, spreading it behind seats, in front of doorways. The wood is tinderbox dry, it hasn’t rained in over a week. They converse, when necessary, in stage whispers, hearts leaping.
Clara lights the candle stub with a match and places it on the oil-soaked rag. It should give them an hour to make good their escape, but no man or woman can bend fire to their will. They hear a whoosh as they scamper away from the pavilion. They don’t turn back at first, desperate to put a safe distance between themselves and the blaze. The whoosh becomes a roar. The two women start fleeing for their lives, silhouetted starkly against the blistering inferno.
The whole Grandstand is aflame, crackling and chattering, and now the women are whooping with exhilaration and delight, skipping, driving themselves onwards. The clatter of falling roof beams muffles their cries. The stresses, strains and enforced silence of the previous hour find their release.
They are just a few hundred metres away from the conflagration when an ear-splitting boom tears the sky apart. The co-conspirators spin around, skirts billowing, flames in their eyes. Some of the Grandstand’s roof goes flying into the air. The building’s gas piping has exploded. Kitty and Clara turn to each other, brimming with emotion. Fear and euphoria. Words fail them.
They escape the same way they broke in, a suitcase lighter. Kitty hopes all trace of their kit will be destroyed in the flames. It’s more difficult to scale the fence from the racecourse side, but Kitty finds that, after giving Clara a push, she can find toe-holds in the metal fence.
A small grey purse drops from the folds of her dress. It lands silently in the thick grass, unnoticed.
Once they are clear of the fence, they embrace.
“We made it,” one of the women murmurs into the other’s hair.
“We did.” Kitty can offer no insight.