A girl skips home from school. Her long, red hair- the colour of sin- is gathered in a thick braid down her back. As soon as she is home, a tall, proud man – her father- has her knitting and practising her handwriting. He has a good hand himself, and she must learn it perfectly. She often sits by the window and watches the other village children playing in the street. Sometimes, all she can hear is the gentle clack-clack of her needles slowing building row upon row of useful fabric, a warm weave of knots. Sometimes, her father sits next to her, reading the newspaper. Then, the soft rustle of the pages mingles with the clicks of her knitting. But it’s only that quiet when it’s raining or winter and the street is dark or cold and empty. Other times, her father teaches her how to hold a pen. She tries to keep her fingers straight, how he likes it, but her hands are clammy with the effort. Her father stands over her, long and lean, smelling of pipe smoke and lye. He leans forward, supporting his pipe in his right hand and himself on the back of her chair with his left. He chews on the mouthpiece, grinding it between his teeth. He has piercing green eyes and a strong nose. He is a handsome man, the villagers say. The spitting image of the Kronprinz Frederick.
Kitty’s hand slips. Her index finger crooks up. Her father grunts with displeasure and sends the bowl of his pipe cracking down onto the crest of her skull. Kitty feels faint. Waves of pain throb through her, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. She wants to cry, but that’s not allowed. Crying is weakness and girls are weak. Tears would prove it. She grits her teeth and carries on writing. A bead of sweat falls from her nose and onto the paper, blurring the ink. A shot of fear races straight to her heart. But this time she is lucky, very lucky. Her father hasn’t noticed because his eyesight is slowly failing him.
There’s another noise in the room. She looks up. A woman is curled in the corner furthest from the door. She hangs her head, arms hugged around her knees. Her nightshirt has ridden up, revealing a delicate, lacy network of bruises up her shins. She is crying softly. She knows this must be her mother- her long, auburn hair just a few shades darker than her own.
Kitty’s writing desk faces the window, so she has had to crane her neck around to see the sound’s source. She remembers her schoolwork and flinches, waiting for the pipe to come smacking down once more, this time for her insolence and unscholarly distraction. But her father is gone.
Her mother senses Kitty’s presence. She raises her head and must be seeing Kitty silhouetted in the soft, afternoon light which falls through the window and illuminates the dust motes hanging suspended in the air. The room is panelled in dark wood, and bare except for desk, mother and child. She opens her mouth, and Kitty wants to run to her, to rub warmth into her blue-white hands, but she stops dead and the blank fear returns. Her mother is looking at her with her father’s piercing green eyes, full of contempt. It’s not right, it doesn’t fit, because her mother’s eyes were blue, weren’t they?
The woman in the corner raises a long, pale finger and points at Kitty. She speaks with her father’s voice.
“Unnatural child, why don’t you love me?”
Kitty screams until a creak at the door cuts her off. Perhaps her father is back, or is he in the corner? She doesn’t know where to look.
A tall man strolls in, but he is not her father. Her little writing desk has become something larger, more stately, poised on polished mahogany legs. There’s now a low couch in the corner where her mother was crouched just moments ago. An ostentatious chandelier hangs low from the ceiling. Through the window, Kitty can see that she is a few floors up, and that the street below is busy. Women stroll past, clutching decorative parasols or unruly children. Men in tall hats huddle together, moustaches quivering.
Kitty turns away from the window, from a London both distant and familiar. The man has gotten closer, much closer. Why did she ever let him out of her sight? He has positioned his body between her and the door. His huge desk is behind her. She knows she is trapped, and he knows it too. He is so close she could count the crumbs in his beard and smell the day-old gin on his breath. Gin he keeps in the top left-hand drawer of his desk. She knows because she has seen him taking it out, pouring it and returning it with an almost clerical solemnity. She knows because he has offered her some, and she has seen the flash of indignation in his eyes as she declined.
“How about a kiss, my dear Kitty? Just a harmless kiss.”
She backs away until her hips collide with his monstrous desk. She makes to slide over it, lithe as a river eel, but he catches her around the waist in one sly, practised movement ill-fitting with either his paunch or his advancing age. Kitty should be terrified. She knows she was the last audition that day. She knows that the others have gone home by now. She did not notice whether his secretary has also left for the day or whether she lurks somewhere, complicit.
“I don’t understand you, Kitty,” he remonstrates, “young girls like you like to be made love to, they like to kiss. You’ll never be a success in the music halls if you don’t, my dear.” There is a malign glimmer in his watery, bloodshot eyes. Her so-called agent presses himself against her, trying to plant his lips on hers, scratching her chin with his wiry bristles. She squirms like a polecat, clawing him and screaming, drawing her knee up to the one place she knows men are vulnerable. He gasps, withdraws, his breath catches, his face contorted with pain, but he still has a vice like grip on her wrist. He’s not going to give it up, he’s not going to be bested. Not by her. He’s panting, a hairline scratch underneath his eye seeping blood, and still he tries to pull her towards him. Kitty feels herself losing her balance in slow motion. She pulls back, tips, falling towards the desk, her leg lifting, wading through treacle. Or is the desk falling upwards to meet her temple?
The last sensations Kitty remembers as she loses consciousness are the running of water, a gushing, rushing feeling, and the ringing of church bells somewhere far off in the distance.
Kitty wakes up on her narrow pallet bed. She’s glistening with sweat, and her cheap, off-white nightgown has gone almost translucent pressed against her legs and stomach. It’s cold in her cell, and already she starts to shiver. She draws her scratchy, prison-issue woollen shawl around her. Her escapades the previous day provoked the wardresses to force her into regulation clothes. She looks up at the small, grated window. Weak morning light filters through, and she feels dirty. She feels the same outrage and wounded pride, clenching her fists around the bed frame. They’ve escaped from their drawer again.
She’d come to her senses that day fully clothed. Either someone had heard the commotion, or his predilections didn’t stretch to the unconscious. Either way, she hadn’t stayed to discover which. She remembers the moments after fleeing, after extricating herself from that man’s office. Dazed and bewildered, she had burst out onto the streets of London. She was not yet twenty. She had felt ashamed of something she was in no way accountable for. All she had wanted was to stand under a stream of scalding hot water and scrub herself raw with carbolic soap, but instead she had stood at the railing of Westminster Bridge and gazed down into the sluggish brown waters of the Thames below. She had pulled herself back. That was the day she realised that courage had nothing to do with men.