Historical Fiction Prose

Arson Attack on the Hurst Park Racecourse, 1913

8th June, 1913 

Kitty is perched on top of a tool shed. She looks down at Clara, her partner in crime, but her thoughts turn to their friend in Epsom Cottage hospital. Emily is breathing her last: ‘A comatose condition with a fractured skull, unlikely to make it through the night’. It’s been reported in Europe, even America, news reports say. Beamed along cables hidden under the Atlantic. And here they are, attempting to scale the perimeter fence of the Hurst Park Racecourse with the aid of a piece of carpet.  

“Hurry!” Clara keeps looking over her shoulder towards the road. 

The shed is at the edge of a cricket pitch adjacent to the race course. It backs onto the fence, halving their climb. Kitty brandishes the carpet above her head like a hunting trophy, swinging it back and forth and hoping it will catch on the double layer of barbed wire crowning the fence. She’s panting with the effort.  

Clara stands by the base of the shed, taking in the spectacle. Kitty realises that, from this perspective, her friend can see up her skirts. She’s never been seen from this angle before. She notices Clara noticing this too. Clara quickly looks away, but not before glancing at her boots. Kitty is well aware they need a polish. Clara, looking for something to do, hands up their wicker suitcase of munitions. 

Neither of them has much of an idea how they are going to scale the fence in their skirts, coming in at just above the ankle. They should have gotten hold of some breeches, Kitty thinks, and worn them under their clothes. But then what would they have done with their skirts? They would have been a beacon to any passers-by that something was amiss. Could they have hidden them in a bush? In the shed? Too late now, anyway. 

All the while, Kitty has been jumping up and down, swinging the carpet at the fence as if it had just torpedoed the Conciliation Bill. Then it catches, hanging evenly over each side. Kitty’s joy mingles with a creeping foreboding. They’re not new to militancy, but they’ve never done anything quite like this before.  

Kitty kneels down and leans her flushed face over the edge of the cricket shed. Their eyes are aglow with risk, their faces mere inches apart. 

“Bravo,” Clara giggles, “Bravo sister!” 

The night is calm, sound carries. Kitty shoots her friend a look. 

“We can’t afford to forget ourselves now,” she hisses. “You’ll bring the police down on our heads.” Clara looks chastised, and Kitty feels a short stab of guilt. 

Now they must scale it, and Kitty is the stronger of the two. She has been blessed with deep lungs and the statuesque figure so esteemed on the stage. She lays, belly down, on the cold corrugated 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 sea-like expanse of turf. The cricket shed is a lifeboat, and they are about to disembark. Far behind them, streetlamps form the only tiny pinpricks of light. They are completely alone. Kitty puts her hands on her hips and stares out into the dark expanse, elbows jutting.  

“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. As the smaller of the two, getting Clara over is their first priority. 

Kitty pushes up Clara’s damp boot with a grunt. Clara grasps at the carpet, pushes up through her elbows. She lifts one leg over, then the other. Kitty sees a flash of panic in Clara’s eyes as she surveys the drop. Gingerly, Clara tries to shift around to face the fence, but it won’t work unless she lets go of one of her hands. She starts to whimper. 

“Clara. Clara,” she whispers as loud as she dares. “Take a deep breath. Calm down. Look at me.” Clara looks over her shoulder and Kitty manages to catch her eye.  

“Now let go of one of your hands.” Kitty keeps her voice steady. 

“I won’t be able to hold my weight.” 

“Of course you will. It’s only for a second.” 

Clara manages a weak nod and slowly releases her left hand. 

“Good. Now swing round, Clara, quickly!” Please don’t fall, Kitty thinks, but Clara manages to shift herself around, before catching hold of the fence again in both hands and lowering herself down. Kitty shifts a step on the shed to get a better view. 

“Now, start working your way to the bottom of the carpet. I’ll hold the other end so it doesn’t slip.” 

A pause. Kitty can hear Clara trying to get control of her breathing.  

“I’m trying.”  

A few seconds later, Clara’s hanging from the end of the carpet on the other side to shorten her fall, but there’s still a good three feet to drop. She plops down onto the racecourse. She’s sitting in a cloud of white, lace-trimmed underskirts, boots sticking out at odd angles like a china doll. She has survived; they are criminals once again. Clara looks back over her shoulder, eyes glazed with shock. But then she grins, and it’s catching. She gets up.

“You did it!” Kitty reminds herself to whisper. 

Now it’s Kitty’s turn. She stares at the fence, willing it to bend, break or melt.  

“Can I help?” Clara calls slightly too loudly from the other side. 

“Come and grab the suitcase.” 

They manage to slide it between the fence railings. It’s a tight fit, even with Clara pulling. The momentum makes Clara stumble backwards as the suitcase comes free. 

Kitty gathers herself. Then, she jumps. Her hands miss the crest of the carpet. She slides back down, jumps again, and again. Her hands are rubbed raw when she finally jumps high enough to grip 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. This would make an excellent film, she thinks. A dramatic comedy. Two Ladies Versus an Unscalable Fence, so the title would say, overlaid with a jaunty piano tune. But it’s not a film, and anything could go wrong. 

Kitty manages to turn her body and shimmy to the bottom of the carpet. Rammed onto the spikes by the weight of two successive women, it holds. She drops onto the grass with a thud. Clara closes the few steps between them, and they clutch at each other, their success a small miracle. But for the first time, Kitty notices a long, thin scrape along the inside of her forearm, from wrist to elbow. It’s opened up the entire sleeve of her shirt. She doesn’t even remember how it happened. She stares at it oozing droplets of blood. Strange, she thinks, it doesn’t even hurt. 

They pause for a minute to catch their breath before scurrying over the long grass towards the grandstand.  

Clara whistles softly at the imposing structure. “We’re here,” she breathes. 

“We are,” Kitty replies. 

They race up the steps, drunk on adrenaline. In a southwestern borough of London, under a vast black sky, their grand tribute to a fallen comrade begins to take shape. Kitty tries the door. To their surprise, it’s unlocked. 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. Kitty almost forgets to spread out the papers, but then draws them from the suitcase. In the moonlight, she can just about make out the words Rebellion against Tyrants is Obedience to God. Emily’s favourite phrase. She makes a quick lap around the grandstand, dropping them on the grass at regular intervals. 

When Kitty returns, 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 it catches far too quickly, flames licking up the wooden columns. They hear a whoosh as they scamper away. The whoosh becomes a roar. The women’s sharp-edged silhouettes break into an urgent sprint. 

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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