Categories
Prose

A View from the Window

We’ve seen a lot together, over the past few days. We’ve seen the way the light on the apartment building opposite slants from right to left in the morning, and from left to right in the afternoon. We’ve seen the queues outside the bakery in the morning and the hardy little huddles of customers braving the cold, determined to consume their coffees and pastries outside. Because sun is sun, and sun at this time of year needs to be sat in.

Or, actually, I’m more likely to have seen that than the Rider, because this is all going on behind the Rider’s head and the Rider doesn’t move. She’s more likely to have seen the little old ladies shuffling towards the pharmacy, stopping to draw an N95 mask out of their handbags with a wizened hand. But we’ve both seen the people stopping to brush their fingertips along the flowers outside the shop that makes up the third point of the triangle, and the dogs that lift their legs against the bedding plants and the owners who hope that no-one has seen.

At night, the Rider sees things that I can only hear. While my shutters are drawn down, she sees the teenagers and young men and women stumbling towards her, stopping to set their half-empty drinks on her wide, high base and to yell their goodbyes at each other. Goodbyes which, at 3am, I feel far too intimately involved in.

However, the Rider can also feel what I can’t. She can feel the sun and the breeze on her face.

Categories
Prose Translations

Fact and Fantasy in the Black Forest: An Interview with Alexander Pechmann

My interview with the author of my MA dissertation text has been published on the Asymptote blog this evening and you can read it here.

Categories
Book Reviews Prose

Book Review: Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

We’ve all seen the film. But have we all read the book?

Life Of Pi by Yann Martel | Waterstones

This is both an exceptional book and an exceptionally strange book. I know I’m late to the party again, but I don’t read in any logical way. Most of my reading material is loaned to me by friends or picked out of charity shop bookshelves. Most of what I read is years or decades old already. In fact, I’ve only read one new release this year, and that was because I had to write a review of it anyway. I know I sound like one of those beard-toting flannel-wearers who ‘liked Spotify before it was cool,’ but the real reason is I don’t want to pay through the nose for a hardback release. Last winter, I used a Waterstone’s voucher I’d won in a pub quiz towards Hilary Martel’s The Mirror and the Light. It was half price but still £15. Mind you, the amount of work she put into all three of her Early-Modern tomes is phenominal. Absolutely phenominal. She’s got a closer look at Cromwell than any dusty Cambridge lecturer. Go Hilary.

Most of the German books I read are handed to me by my boyfriend’s mum. Some of them are questionable, some of them are fantastic. In fact, I’m currently reading a YA book passed to me by her – Mädchenmeute – which is nothing short of fantastic, and will almost definitely be my next review. So, I guess 60-year-olds aren’t too old for YA fiction either.

Anyway, Life of Pi. I can remember exactly where I picked the book up: the Sutton Hoo National Trust site. And no, not because I have some kind of amazing memory. The sticker was still on the front cover. Most UK National Trust sites have an on-site secondhand bookshop where the books are still (thankfully) better value than the gift shop and on-site cafe. Sometimes, they’re the highlight of the whole trip. I can’t say my most recent visit to Sutton Hoo filled me with awe and wonder. The ship isn’t there, they’ve gotten rid of the replica, most of the stuff is on loan or at the British Museum, and my favourite room – the old English room, with illuminated copies of Beowulf and recording of people reading Beowulf in the original Old English – is no longer there! Maybe Old English isn’t hip enough for the 2020s?

Anyway, me and my grandpa were looking around the bookshop at Sutton Hoo and I found an absolute armful. Maybe someone with exactly the same literary tastes had donated their entire bookshelf the day before? One of the other titles, the Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, was one we’d just been talking about in our MA Historical Fiction module. In fact, we’d interviewed the author the week before, as the author was also a UEA graduate and had also done the same module a couple of years before us. Creepy.

I ordered a National Trust membership this spring because I knew I’d be going to Cornwall this summer in the age of Covid. I have to say my granddad was singularly impressed. Getting a National Trust membership is such a responsible thing to do, such a grown-up thing to do- caring about UK heritage and conservation and all that.

Anyway, Life of Pi. How can I describe Life of Pi? The premise is just about plausible, with a great leap of faith. An Indian boy, Pi, becomes stuck on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, Roger Parker, after their ship sinks in the ocean. Their ship was carrying most of the animals from the zoo his father owned, as they were trying to emigrate to Canada. In the book, there’s also a small menagerie of animals that quickly die after their lifeboat experience begins: An orangutan, a zebra and a hyena. Now, if my memory is serving me correctly, I don’t think they were featured in the film.

Pi eventually manages to semi-tame Roger Parker enough for them to share the lifeboat and the raft Pi builds to put some distance between himself and the tiger. Cue sort-of-standard survival story: fishing, drinking turtle blood, tins of water, catching rain water, sea-salt sores etc. Just when they’re both of the verge of starvation, they come across an island that’s not really an island and is covered with meerkats. This is where Life of Pi veers off into the fantastical. The island is actually carnivorous, turns acidic at night and catches fish by starving them of salt water. Okay.

Eventually, Pi is rescued when he washes up on the shores of Mexico. He offers his fantastical story to the Japanese investors whose ship sank, as well as a more mundane survival story involving four humans on a lifeboat and a lot of cannibalism. So was the tiger story true, or just a flight of imagination? A vision Pi invents to cope with the situation he found himself in? Does the survival instinct reduce us all to animals? Life of Pi is every inch as beautiful as it is baffling, as well as being deeply introspective and philosophical.

Categories
Book Reviews German Prose Translations

State of Emergency: Helene Bukowski’s Milk Teeth in Review – Asymptote Blog

I’ve been a little quiet here recently, mainly because I’ve been focusing on my MA dissertation (which I finally handed in on Friday, hooray!) and I’ve been really involved with lots of projects with Asymptote and finding my feet in Germany.

However, my review of Helene Bukowski’s Milk Teeth, translated from the German by Jen Calleja, has been released today on the Asymptote blog!

It was certainly a surreal experience to select a work to review that just happened to have been translated by Jen, someone who’s been a great mentor to all us Literary Translation folks over the MA course. Fate, perhaps?

Anyway, it was a great (dystopian) read, and you can read my take on it here

Categories
Prose

A Short Story Told in Fragments

This week I’ve been attending the BCLT Summer School (British College of Literary Translators). I’m privileged enough to have gotten a scholarship through doing the Literary Translation course at UEA. Non-stop talks and workshops on creative translation Monday to Saturday! And somehow I’m still managing to teach and work on my dissertation in between. And what a perfect week to pick to be constantly on Zoom in the bakingly hot spare room, sun glaring through the glass? A heatwave week with temperatures pushing thirty degrees every day. I am English. Thirty degrees is ten degrees too high, if you ask me. On a beach in Crete? Thirty is splendid. On Zoom in Stowmarket? No, thank you.

Anyway, the creative writing workshop this morning was on fragmented short stories: short stories that the reader pieces back together by reading several subjective accounts. We worked small groups and had to pick a situation, and then write four police testimonies from different people in different voices, each not telling the whole truth or with something to hide. We picked a situation: a protest, during which a shop burns to the ground. I was the shopkeeper. This is my testimony. What am I hiding? That’s the question:


Shop burns down in Greytown: Shopkeeper’s testimony 

I was watching the situation unfold out of the front window of my shop all morning. People were wearing dark clothes, balaclavas and waving clubs and knives. It was all quite terrifying, really. Of course, I didn’t open up the shop that day, I wasn’t going to invite trouble. I sell furniture, so nothing was going to spoil if I stayed closed for one day, if you know what I mean. Of course, I can understand why they were angry, why they wanted to go out onto the streets that day, but whatever happened to peaceful protest, no masks, out in the open? 

I was inside, with the lights off, making used of the shop being closed during the day to do an inventory in the back room when, all of a sudden, I heard a humongous thud and a crash from out front. I’d pulled the bars across the shop window, so the brick hadn’t been able to completely smash through, but it’d made sizeable fractures in the shatterproof glass, like a spider’s web.  

At that point, I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t call the police, no doubt they were all busy with what was going on across the city that day – and, anyway, even if I had called you at that point, how would you have gotten to me in time? The protestors, or rioters by this point, were thick outside my doors like sardines in a tin and moving so slowly it could have been the highway to Woodstock! 

That was about when I started to smell the smoke. Lightly at first, like someone had burned toast. Then more and more strongly, like a BBQ gone wrong, and then I knew that someone had set fire to my shop. My shop, full of flammable, priceless antique furniture! I couldn’t have been more devastated. The shop was my life’s work, my father’s life’s work, my pride and joy! 

The fire was set at the front of the shop, around the door and the wooden windowframes. That’s where the smoke started pouring from first. I immediately knew it had to be one of the rioters. I tried to keep it at bay with the fire extinguisher on the wall, I emptied its whole contents, but the fire was just too strong for it. It greedily devoured all of that tinder-dry, antique wood. I had to abandon my shop and escape through the back door before things got too dangerous for me in there.  

The alley behind the shop is quite quiet, but I could still hear the distant shouts and screams of the protestors from the Main Street in front of the shop, like a pack of wild hyenas. I called the emergency services, I tried to get through to the fire brigade, but of course the line was always engaged. It was chaos all over the city that day. I had to watch as my livelihood burned to the ground.  

By the time the fire brigade arrived hours later, there was nothing left to save. There’s nothing left for me now but to just pick up the pieces and move on, I guess. But I hope your catch the bastard that did it. 

Categories
Prose

Microfiction: Metamorphosis II

I watched it happening from afar. There was no other way around it, no way to stay close to her.

She would cook in the sun, unabashed, unhurried, turning the bright pink of a ripe lobster. Her thin blue veins turned green and bulged from her skin like the ropes of a ship, and she shuffled prison-inmate circles in the garden. She would shush me to listen to the bees when I took my newspaper outside and tried to make conversation. She would close her eyes, tip her head back and smile at their low, robotic drone. I kept leaving bowls of food at her feet like offerings to the gods, but she wouldn’t even look at them. They went cold, solidified and attracted flies until I gave in and took them away again to save myself the tragic sight.

She used to be beautiful. Her eyes were like downturned almonds, peppered at the edges with a blush of freckles. Her hair was the soft, dark brown of ground coffee, her smile like opening the tin. She’d always hated her visible her ears were when she put her hair up in a ponytail or a bun, so she hardly ever wore it up. But I always liked it because it made her look like a forest mouse.

Categories
Prose

Microfiction: Metamorphosis

Somehow things just started getting slower. I found myself spending more time in the garden, stretching my arms out towards the sun. Instead of drinking, I found it much more refreshing to soak my feet in cold water, especially on those hot summer days when the heat seems to echo all around you. I inhaled all day and exhaled all night. I didn’t sleep, or not exactly, but I liked to rest standing up and, by the first light of dawn, my fingertips were often wet with dew.

I stopped eating, but I’m not sure when. Food just slowly became a memory. My stomach turned at the thought of scrambled eggs or even a banana. At first, he would still cook for me and leave the bowls close to where I stood, but then whisk them away again, days later, untouched.

The lazy hum of bees filled my days. And the sunlight. I would bask in its glow. Small animals would shelter in my shade. The bees would throb their way through the blossoms slowly replacing my hair.

When it rained, small drops would filter through my fingers and gather into larger drops before falling to the ground. Sometimes they would land on an insect like divine intervention. When it rained, I could feel my roots shifting, spreading downwards, searching.

That was after I’d stopped moving. My roots stopped me moving, pulled me towards the earth. I was enmeshed, a sentinel. My arms, my branches, would tilt slightly. My leaves would unfurl in the East first. I was a sundial.

At some point, I must have closed my eyes, but when I closed them, I could only see the universe, stretched out before me like a carpet or a Torah roll. A vast nebula, a tight weave of knots. Some of them were burning, some were growing, some were dying.

Categories
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. 

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

WSPU Summer Festival, 1913

Contextual Note:

This work has grown from my research on the WSPU’s militant suffrage campaign in Britain, specifically the life of Kitty Marion‒ a crucial yet under-remembered figure in the movement. The main thrust of my novel will cover the years of heightened violence‒ 1912-1913 ‒however the first chapter in this submission goes back to Kitty Marion’s childhood, a time when she was still Katherina Maria Schäfer: a lone, 15-year-old German migrant on the ferry to Harwich. 

Between the years 1886 and 1913, Kitty builds up a moderately successful career on-stage in music halls and theatres all around Great Britain. Kitty wrote an autobiography which was only published in full in 2019. This has formed the backbone of my research. I have taken the events of her life and worked them into a narrative, rather than lifting description or dialogue verbatim.

Kitty comes from a middle-class family, yet never marries and becomes financially independent from a young age. She joins the WSPU in 1908 after attending a rally in Hyde Park on ‘Women’s Sunday’. Katherina had a traumatic childhood at the hands of her father. This, coupled with abuse and exploitation by her acting agents, forms the main impetus for her involvement in the campaign for the Vote, which she believed would be a means to fight issues such as sexual/child abuse and financial exploitation. As a militant WSPU campaigner, she instigated several arson attacks and was considered one of the most dangerous women in the country by Asquith’s government. These chapters depict Kitty as a militant, talking with fellow militants at the WSPU’s Summer Festival in Kensington, and then carrying out an arson attack on the Hurst Park Racecourse in Richmond. The arson chapter cuts off on a cliff-hanger at around the halfway point.

Aside from Kitty Marion, the characters of Emily Wilding Davison, Mary Leigh and Clara Giveen are all also real. I found out via Kitty’s autobiography that she spoke with Emily the day before her widely-renowned actions at the Epsom Derby, although Kitty does not go into detail. The arson attack was carried out four days later in Emily’s honour. Ilse Brightwell is, however, a figment of my imagination drawn from passages in the autobiography where other ferry passengers showed a concern for Kitty’s welfare.


3rd June, 1913 

“I’m thinking of making a protest.” Emily’s words land abruptly between the three of them.

Mary pauses, cup halfway to lips. 

Kitty arches an eyebrow. Making a protest, isn’t that all they ever do? 

In the hall, waitresses mill around with businesslike grace, carrying trays laden with tea sets and cakes to the eager customers. Their green high-necked dresses and white muslin aprons could look clinical if it weren’t for the purple ribbons fixed around their waists. A few have pinned pristine white flowers in their hair. The mood, aside from their little table, is buoyant. Most of the waitresses are smiling. 

Kitty’s attention turns back to the table. She looks Emily in the eye.

“My dear, you’ll have to be more specific,” Kitty lowers her teacup delicately onto its saucer. She’s had twenty-seven years to grow accustomed to these English habits.  

Above Kitty’s head, purple, white and green banners flutter from the rafters, streaming with ribbons. The colours are everywhere. She leans back and tunes in to the vibrant hustle and bustle of the bazaar. Laughter and chatter rise above more hushed and conspiratorial exchanges. To her left, a group of young women sit huddled around a map, heads almost touching. Towards the back of the tea-room, a group of upper class ladies’ pale necks groan under the weight of their extraordinary hats. At another table, a group of plainly-dressed women converse in the no-nonsense drawl of the East End. So many processions, depositions, marches, speeches, festivals; every time they gather, it’s astonishing. Over her friend’s heads, she can see clusters of schoolgirls pulling at each other’s sleeves so as not to lose each other in the throng. Maybe they’ve begged the entrance fee from their fathers that morning, claiming a forgotten field trip to Kew Gardens. They can’t have seen so many women in one place before, free of men. They must be overwhelmed.  

Emily has been quiet, but now her reply seems to burst from within. “Something dramatic. Something unforgettable. Something to make those bastards at Westminster really sit up and take notice.” 

“What are you planning?” Kitty asks. Her thoughts flash to the postboxes. To the severe burns up those postmen’s arms. It was all over the papers. An outrage, they said. That one wasn’t Emily’s work, it was up in Dundee. But the risks are the same every time.

Emily looks from her fingers to Mary, then Kitty, then back to her hands. They’re clutching her cup, knuckles turning the colour of aged plaster. Kitty wonders whether it will survive the assault. She imagines a brittle hairline fracture splitting and shattering. 

“I keep thinking about how the King will be there, and his wife. Standing in their box, surveying their fiefdom.” Emily’s lip curls, “We need a great tragedy. Every year, a new bill dies, and they do nothing. All the while, the Kaiser’s busy polishing his Dreadnoughts. We’re running out of time, and we have nothing to show for it. Nothing.” 

Her trembling threatens to swirl tea into her saucer like a Channel storm. Kitty sends a hand over the tablecloth in a rescue attempt. An awkward few seconds tick by. Mary looks at Kitty, cocks her head, eyes pleading say something. Kitty sighs.

“I know, Pem. We’re all tired of waiting,” Kitty uses her friend’s nickname to get her attention. Emily looks up. 

Kitty, encouraged, goes on. “We’re not young anymore. We can’t keep doing this forever,” she gives Emily’s hand a friendly squeeze, thinking back to her last great tragedy. A thirty-foot drop from the interior balcony of Holloway prison. A desperate protest, or a cry for help? They know, everyone knows, how she sometimes draws her curtains and doesn’t come out for days. She would never ask for help, but members still leave shopping at her door.  

Emily’s a ticking time bomb, Kitty thinks. She can see the headlines already: hysterical, crazed terrorist. But it doesn’t matter what they do, the words stay the same. 

“I have to disrupt the race.” 

That much Kitty could have guessed. So she asks another question. 

“How?” 

Emily doesn’t reply. Either she doesn’t know yet, or she doesn’t want to say… Kitty hopes it’s not the latter. And she doesn’t look well. Pale, worn. She’s left her head bare today. It’s better not to ask if she’s sold another of her summer hats. 

Mary, across the table, is hiding behind her teacup. Kitty tries and fails to catch her eye. She’s never been particularly tactful. But Kitty doesn’t know what to say, either. Didn’t they all swear to lay down their lives for the Cause? How far is too far? Kitty breathes out in frustration. 

“Pem, you’ve done enough.” Mary finds her voice.  

Emily shoots her a look. “It will never be enough. Not until the vote is ours.” 

“Nobody’s telling you to stop altogether. But you need some time to recover.” Mary’s warming to it now. 

Kitty nods in agreement. Militancy may unite them, but she’s not going to encourage her friend’s recklessness. Not this time, at least. The Cause is devouring Emily. Since Holloway, they can all see how her spine torments her. How she walks, hunched, like a woman twice her age. 

“I am as well as I need to be, Mary.” 

“They stopped paying you ages ago, Pem. They cut you off. They don’t listen to us. Why persist?”  

Kitty wonders who is meant by ‘us’.  

“You know I’m not doing it for the Pankhursts anymore,” comes Emily’s curt reply. 

“Neither am I. But who do you think will wade in afterwards? If you trust us, then you need to tell us what’s going on. Maybe we can help.” 

“I don’t think you can. Not this time, Mary. I’m sorry.” 

Kitty has been watching the exchange, eyes darting back and forth. But now she chooses her words carefully: “By all means, Pem, make a scene tomorrow. But we worry about you. We need you.” They need her alive.

A butter knife would be useless at cutting the atmosphere, it hangs so thickly. The women shift in their seats. A waitress comes to collect their empty teacups. Kitty and Mary look at Emily. Emily looks at nothing in particular. 

“I do not shrink from sacrifice,” Emily eventually replies. Her hands are in her lap now, wringing a handkerchief to death. 

Kitty can’t keep herself from thinking the word. Suicide. The mortal sin. A crime. None of them give a fig for legality, but this is something else entirely. Her heart clenches. Could she do it? Kitty has an image of Emily throwing herself from the grandstand, then one of a galloping horse. She squeezes her eyes shut. She doesn’t know if Emily could do it, and that scares her most of all. Not really knowing if she knows her friend.

Emily retreats back inside herself. She won’t broach the subject again. Kitty makes a few failed attempts at drawing her out. As usual, she has spoken so well yet said very little. Mary has her elbows on the table and is rubbing her temples.

 Talk slowly turns to innocent subjects, to the festival around them; they bury their misgivings under chit-chat. The Actresses’ Franchise League’s performance, the verdant setting. Kitty has been meaning to visit the haberdashery all day. Sweat has been pooling under her collar. She needs a new summer frock, but she hasn’t had work- paid work, not suffrage plays- in months. Earlier that day, Emily and Mary had laid a wreath in front of the statue of Joan of Arc. Emily brightens up at the memory, and proudly recants the words carved into its base: “Fight on, and God will give victory.”  

Eventually, Kitty makes her excuses and says her farewells. Mary pays for their tea. She used to be a schoolteacher, until the headmaster found out about her after-school activities. Luckily, her husband didn’t cast her out. Kitty wonders how they’re getting by. Her own savings are dwindling, and Emily’s threadbare dresses also tell a story.  

Mary excuses herself to go to the washroom. Kitty is passing Emily’s chair when she reaches out and grabs Kitty’s wrist. Emily presses a small, green purse into her friend’s palm. 

“For munitions,” Emily hisses. 

“Pem! What on ear-” 

“Take it.” 

“Where did you get this? Keep it!” What on earth is she up to? 

Take it.” She’s clearly not in the mood for dissent.  

Kitty relents and tucks the purse into her dress pockets just as Mary reappears, threading around the crowded tables. 

On her way out, Kitty almost walks past the haberdashery, but then a white silk scarf catches her eye. Someone has embroidered it with a border of delicate violets and Votes for Women. It costs more than she used to earn in a week, back when mainstream theatres did not baulk at employing her. Careful not to look into the little green purse, she reaches for her own, opens it, and finds a few pennies for some plain fabric she can transform. She’s tired of hoping they’ll make her a paid campaigner. Her mind turns to the women who stand at Whitechapel corners, barefoot and desperate.  

She pushes her way through the crowd. The Empress rooms have been transformed into a summer garden, with borders of pergolas and rambling pink roses. The scent is cloying. Noise echoes around the high-ceilinged hall, and she’s starting to feel dizzy. She impatiently passes stalls selling buttons, jewellery, hats, stationery, sweets, books, tea sets, even board games. There is nothing these women’s hands cannot shape.  

A minute later, she bursts out onto the street. The early summer sunshine feels dazzlingly bright. Kitty breathes deeply. For a woman who spends so much of her time locked in crowds, she wishes she minded it less.  

She touches the statue of Joan of Arc as she passes, for luck. God save the women with nothing to lose. 

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

An Opening: Ferry

Autumn 1886 

Get thee out of Thy country, and from Thy kinship and from Thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show Thee  

Genesis 12:1 

Katherina is standing at the bow of a ship. A ferry. Eine Fähre. It’s evening, and the sun is inching towards the horizon, bleeding crimson. The air is salty and still. She turns her head. Behind her, yellow fades to indigo as a thin crescent moon appears. The stars shine sharp and cold over the continent, but Germany is behind her now. That new country, knitted together by willpower alone. She’s leaving everything. Tante Lisette, Tante Mariechen, Onkel Heinrich, her school-friends and the ruins on the hill behind her grandfather’s house. Can she still call it her country, if she never goes back? 

Around her, a few passengers take quiet evening strolls along the deck. She can hear smatterings of German mixed in with the strange new tongue she’ll have to learn. To her, English sounds indistinct, like someone talking around a boiled sweet. 

She turns back to look out to sea. West, towards her new home. Tomorrow, they’ll be landing in Harwich. For now, all she can see is the sea stretching for miles all around, mirroring the sunset. It’s eerily calm. She tries to picture Tante Dora in her head, but it’s been years since they’ve laid eyes on each other, years since Dora moved to London. Will she even recognise me? Katherina thinks. It’s the same every time she ends up on another relative’s doorstep. Katherina is that you? If you carry on like this, you’ll be too tall to marry!  

Her hand slides into the pocket of her coat and clutches at the crumpled paper covered in her uncle’s scrawl. She’s been taking it out, smoothing it, studying the words for days; the paper is limp and worn from so much folding and unfolding. Katherina could recite the address, directions and names backwards by now. But she’s unsure how to say the English words. London Liverpool Street. It has a strange rhythm. Lon-don Liver-pool Street. The ‘r’ is all wrong, too soft and slurring. She practiced with Onkel Heinrich, but she’s convinced she’ll never get it right.  

A breeze quickens and pulls at the strands of hair escaping from her hat. She stands with her back straight in her first long dress. She is travelling alone; she even has her own cabin. Her uncle has organised everything. 

Get off the ferry at Harwich and find the train station. It should be down the main road towards the centre of town and off to the right. If you get lost, ask someone to help. It’s not unusual to find someone who speaks German in a port town. If you can’t find anyone who speaks German, they can point it out to you. Once you’re there, take the train to London Liverpool Street. Get off at the last stop. Aunt Dora will meet you there. She’ll take you to her home in Epp- 

“Guten Abend, Fräulein.” Good evening, miss. 

Katherina jumps, her hands gripping the railings. A woman is standing next to her, staring out to sea. She is small and slight and elegantly dressed in wine-coloured brocade with a large bustle. The woman’s German has a distinct accent. English, maybe, but Katherina’s not sure. The woman smiles at Katherina over her high-necked collar. Her hands are tucked into a fur muff. 

“Guten Abend,” Katherina’s greeting comes out as an embarrassing croak. She coughs to clear her throat.  

“Aren’t you afraid?” The woman continues. 

“Entschuldigung?” says Katherina. Excuse me?  

“I said, aren’t you afraid?” The woman repeats. Katherina understood her the first time, she just hadn’t a clue what to say. She gathers herself. 

“No. Should I be?”  

“You are travelling alone, aren’t you?”  

Katherina wonders if the woman has been watching her. A hot trickle of anxiety starts to pool in her gut. She decides there’s no point in lying. The ship is neither large nor full. 

“Yes, I am.” 

“I would be afraid.” The woman says, frowning. 

“I’m not sure I follow. And we haven’t been introduced.” Katherina is starting to feel stupid, and she hates feeling stupid. 

“I’m sorry, my dear. My name is Mrs Brightwell. But you can call me Ilse. A pleasure to meet you.” Ilse inclines her head. Her eyes are a deep brown, like the coffee her father used to sip in the mornings. It contrasts with the blonde hair sticking out from underneath her elaborate, feathered hat. The knots and braids are starting to pull loose ever so slightly.  

Katherina has no idea what to do now, doesn’t know if Ilse wants to be greeted as an equal, or be deferred to. Her clothes hint at wealth. Should she curtsey like a girl? Should she offer her a hand? Incline the head, or bow? To get it wrong could be an affront, but so could doing nothing. It’s already too late, she thinks. 

Ilse seems to sense her discomfort, and briefly puts a hand on her arm. It’s warm under her soft leather gloves. She looks to be in her mid-twenties, so she’s not old, just a good decade older than Katherina. 

“Ilse’s a German name.” Katherina blurts out, then grimaces. But if Ilse is bothered by Katherina’s bald observation, she doesn’t show it. She only lets out a short peal of laughter that carries over the quiet deck and the sea. 

“Indeed it is. My mother was German. She fought to name me. She said it wasn’t fair if my father got both names, and I suppose she was right.”  

Ilse pauses for a while, seemingly lost in a memory. 

Katherina shifts from foot to foot. How to continue the conversation? “And your surname?” the question is out of her mouth before she can shut it. Her father always told her to speak less and think more, especially around strangers. But her father is far away now, and this woman has a presence. The warm kind of presence that makes you say things. 

“My husband’s. I haven’t been Mrs James Brightwell for long.” 

“Congratulations. Did you move to England recently?” 

“No. I grew up in London, where my father grew up. So, I’m not quite one or the other. My mother’s family are always imitating my accent.” Her face darkens for a moment, like clouds over the sea. “Actually, I’ve just been visiting them in Kiel. With James,” she adds. 

Katherina is a little surprised at how Ilse seems to take everything in her stride. From the scant details she’s picked up about the English, they’re supposed to be reserved. But then again, having barely spoken to anyone outside her own family, she’s out of her depth. Finally, she remembers her manners.  

“I’m Katherina. Katherina Schäfer.”  

Ilse smiles. She has pretty white teeth. “You might want to re-think being Katherina. Or are you content with it being pronounced incorrectly from now until eternity? By the people over there, I mean.” Ilse tilts her head towards the West, towards the sunset. “Katherina,” Ilse says with an exaggerated English air, drawing out the th. There’s a mischievous twinkle in her eye. 

Katherina grins. She turns away slightly, thinking. Ilse reminds her of happier times long ago, times she spent with Tante Lisette amongst her mother’s friends, talking and singing songs. They would let her try on perfume and tell her stories about her mother before her lungs gave up. Until her father came to take her back. She remembers the flash of sorrow in Tante Lisette’s eyes. Then, home was quiet again. Fraught. 

A nickname. It’s something she’s never considered before. Maybe she’s right, Katherina thinks. A new beginning. 

“I’m only speaking from experience.” Ilse tips her head conspiratorially. “Half of my receipts still have Lisa on them. Part of me curses my mother for not calling me Jane, God rest her soul.” 

A comfortable silence settles between them. Katherina is curious about her new friend’s mother. She wants to tell her that she lost hers, too. That she can hardly remember her mother, not even if she closes her eyes really tight and thinks as hard as she can. But something is holding her back. She hasn’t breathed a word of it for years, not to anyone.  

Ilse looks at her sideways. Part of Katherina wonders if she’s reading her thoughts. Katherina shakes her head. No, that’s stupid. 

“Katherina,” Ilse turns to her now and looks her straight in the eyes again, “be careful. If I’ve noticed you’re travelling alone, so have others.” Ilse darts a look around the deck. Kitty follows her gaze. A few metres to their right, an old man coughs into a dirty napkin. A seagull is perched on top of one of the stacks, squawking. The sky has now faded to a dusky pink.  

“Lock your cabin to-night.” Ilse squeezes her arm. 

“Why?” Katherina asks, frowning. Her mind has been too caught up in other things to give the matter any thought. But Ilse has jolted a vague memory of her uncle telling her something similar. 

Ilse casts her eyes to Heaven and crosses herself and mutters an English prayer under her breath before replying. 

“Have you ever travelled before?” 

Katherina hesitates before replying. She knows that Ilse must look at her and see a child.

“No, I haven’t.”

“I thought as much. And alone at that. Trust me. Don’t talk to any men, lock your cabin to-night, and you’ll be fine.” She smiles again, this time reassuringly. “Which cabin are you in?” 

I’ve already told this woman so much, thinks Katherina. There’s no hiding on this ship, either. She takes a breath. 

“Number four.” 

Ilse smiles. “You’re only two doors down from me, then. I’m in number two. If there’s any trouble, anything at all worrying you, come and knock for me. Any time.” 

All Katherina can manage is a tentative nod. 

“So, I really must be off.” Ilse has turned brisk and smooths out her skirts. “James must be wondering where I am by now. I told him I was only going for a breath of air. He gets terribly sea-sick, you know. Awful company.” Katherina could swear Ilse winks before she walks back down the deck, skirts swinging behind her. After Ilse leaves, Katherina feels strangely lost. The breeze is pulling at her and the air now has a cold edge. It’s September, but the nights are already drawing in. She runs through the conversation in her head, once, twice over. Is she missing something? Katherina doesn’t know why she should be afraid. Strangers had only ever been kind to her. The man stamping her papers had given her a strange look and asked her some questions, but that could hardly be considered an emergency. 

Eventually, Katherina returns to her cabin and undresses, careful to lock the door. She hangs up her coat and hat. In her loose white nightgown, she sits on her bunk in front of the tiny mirror and starts to pull out her hairpins, then brushes through her hair. The same as her mother’s. Katherina remembers it tickling her face as she put her to bed at night. The soft murmur of her voice. 

 She stares at her reflection. Long nose, full lips, tired eyes. At some point, someone must’ve come in to leave a small pitcher of water in the basin below the mirror. It’s gone stone cold, but she pours some out and splashes her face with it regardless. 

Through her porthole, she can see that it’s pitch-black outside. She can hear the gentle creaking and swaying of the ship. Footsteps pass above her and, in the corridor, doors open and shut. The small cohort of passengers are settling themselves in for the night. She’s pleased she hasn’t gotten sea-sick like she’d feared. She opens the drawer in her narrow bedside cabinet. In it, there’s two Bibles: one written in what looks like Danish, and one in English.  

Katherina picks up the English one, leafing through the pages. They’re thin, yellow, and well-thumbed. She wonders how many other passengers have opened this book and looked for guidance. The church in Witten had been a safe haven for her, and her grandmother was devout in the best sense of the word, but Katherina doesn’t often pray.  

If she concentrates really hard, she can guess at one word in ten. After a few minutes, she gives up and lays back on the bed. A wave of fatigue blurs her eyes and a pang of homesickness twists her stomach. What is she doing here? Thoughts of Onkel Heinrich flood her mind. The smell of his pipe tobacco clinging to his scratchy tweed as he hugged her. His kind, crinkly eyes as he waved goodbye to her in Deutz. Don’t worry, my child. It’s for the best. Katherina had cried until her head hurt, but knew it was the truth. Grandfather wouldn’t provide for her. Father had kept showing up on Heinrich’s doorstep, hurling abuse and threatening to pull her back by the hair if they didn’t give her willingly. 

She lays awake, staring at the ceiling, for what feels like hours. Time moves strangely at night. Every now and again, she can hear a passenger coughing or turning over in their bunk. The walls are thin.  

Her last thoughts before finally falling asleep are of seagulls, pearly white teeth, and Onkel Heinrich, dressed as Moses, parting the Red Sea.