Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds Not Words: Scene 3 Part 2

8th June, 1913. Kew, London

Clara is still clutching the carpet. They have no idea what to do with it. Kitty slings it over her shoulder, and they run hand in hand towards the nearby towpath. There’s a ditch and a copse of trees lining the furthest edge of the cricket pitch. They hurl it in and cover it with some hastily kicked earth and twigs. Luckily, it’s not a garish colour, but, sooner or later, it will be found. Their backs are now to the racecourse, but even from here they can feel an echo of its immense heat. Their cheeks are still flushed.

As they near the gas lighting, they stop to rearrange their hair and dress. 

“Do I look respectable?” Clara asks, plaintive. She’s brushing dirt from her sleeves and rearranging her hairpins. 

“Never!” Kitty beams. For practical reasons, they have opted to go hatless tonight. It only serves to make them more conspicuous. 

They set out along the towpath, being the natural choice and much quieter than the streets around Hampton Court Palace, although it is now after midnight – too late for respectable ladies to be out unaccompanied. Too late, even, for respectable ladies to be out at all. Aside from some figures in the distance, the path is empty. 

They finally have the time and inclination to talk freely.

“Did you see that! It went up like a Christmass tree! We barely made it out in time,” Clara squeaks, her voice tight. 

“Well, you know Betty, the best laid plans of mice and men…how could we know the fire would take so quickly?” Kitty’s rush is already beginning to fade, leaving an empty fatigue in its wake. She pinches the bridge of her nose and rubs her eyes. They sting with smoke.

“I wish Pem could see this. It’s spectacular.”

“Yes, but I wish that old turncoat would stop forcing our hand like this. Despite all appearances, I’m not a born criminal.” Deep down, she hates this whole business.  

“We’ll get our way, one day, for everyone’s sake. Until then, this is our duty. Pem may be gone now, but her words live on. Her beautiful words.”

Their boots crunch over the gravel. They are forcing themselves to take slow, measured steps. Clara’s eyes shine with tears. Kitty looks thoughtful. The river is on their right. It reflects the warm orange glow of the blaze, dancing and sparkling on its inky surface. By this point, clusters of onlookers are beginning to gather, men and women. Apparently, there’s no such thing as being out too late when there’s a jolly good spectacle. At first, Kitty can’t decide whether that raises or lowers their chances of getting caught. They may have a chance to blend in, but then she reflects on their hatless, dishevelled, manless condition. Tries to see themselves through a stranger’s eyes. There are now far more witnesses, far more people who could report having seen them, sticking out like sore thumbs along the Molesley towpath. The place is probably already swarming with police. A few men are already running towards the fire, eager to prove themselves. 

Kitty has been putting on a show her whole adult life. Feigning nonchalance is no great strain for her. She dawdles, gazing at the blaze, tipping her head to passers-by. Clara’s jaw, on the other hand, is clenched firmly. Her hair is plastered to her forehead with sweat. One of her sleeves is torn, revealing a flash of milky skin on her upper arm. They are a sight to behold.

As they begin to turn right over the bridge across the Thames, a fire engine screams around the corner, cartwheels screeching over the cobblestones, horses frothed and lathering. The ladies stroll over the bridge arm in arm. It would be easy to miss the conspiratorial gleam in their eyes. They walk in the direction of Richmond and Kew, ducking into sidestreets whenever policemen come dashing along on motorcycles. There really is something eternally enticing about fugitive status, about not quite legally existing in the world. Clara’s dark blonde hair threatens to spill down her back. She’s from a well-to-do family. Kitty effectively has no family at all, nobody to shame.

They meander through the streets of Fulwell, Twickenham and Kew for hours. They desperately try to remember Eileen’s instructions and not to look lost. By the early hours of the morning, they have covered almost eight miles from the scene of the crime, although the women have lost all sense of time. They are looking for the safe house, but London is huge, and neither of them have been to this area before. The suburban streets are quiet as the grave, and had Jesus rode in on a silver bicycle, he would have been less conspicuous than these two. 

“Excuse me ladies, are you lost?”

Kitty and Clara jump out of their skins, and then immediately go about disguising the fact. Kitty’s hand flies to her hair, as if checking it, although it now more resembles mistletoe growing on a tree branch. Clara places her raised hand demurely on her breastbone and looks up at the policeman through her eyelashes. 

“Why yes, sergeant, in matter of fact, we are a little bit lost.” For once, Clara is quicker off the mark. 

He doesn’t look like a sergeant, Kitty thinks. Far too young. He’s puffing up his narrow chest as we speak, and his chin strap doesn’t hide his acne. But there’s no harm in buttering him up. Clever Betty.

“Why are you two ladies out at a time like this?” 

He narrows his eyes. He knows they don’t look like fallen women. He shifts his weight uneasily from foot to foot. His boots look new, too stiff and shiny. Is he afraid of us? Kitty thinks. She almost laughs. Perhaps he thinks we’re going to pull out a horsewhip and start clobbering him with it, like plucky little Theresa and that oaf Winston Churchill a few years back. Unforgettable. Kitty pulls her thoughts back to the question at hand. 

“Sir, we’re music hall performers, you see. We’re often out late, it doesn’t bother us.” She flashes her most winning smile. 

The policeman begins to look mollified, but then clearly decides to put his extremely recent training to good use. 

“Which music hall?”

“The Prince of Wales on Tottenham Street, sir.”

You can see him calculating the distance in his head. 

“You’ve come a long way, then, girls.” Him calling us girls. The tenacity.

“We took the tram.”

“The trams are still running this late?”

The trams are still fairly new to London. Kitty desperately hopes that this green lad isn’t familiar with the timetables.

“It was still rather a long walk from the stop.”

“And why, after your shift, have you come this far?”

“We’d organised lodgings here. A much fairer price than in the City, you see. On West Park Road. But we couldn’t find them, and now we’re lost.”

The policeman nods, seems satisfied. He gives them directions to West Park Road, but the women know they have been rumbled. They hurry off in the direction of his pointed finger. He stares after them. For a few breaths, Kitty hears nothing but their heels clicking. Her feet throb, they’ve been on them all night. 

“We’re finished”, Clara groans once they assume he’s out of earshot. 

“I know.” Kitty grits her teeth. They’re both exhausted. They will be arrested the next morning at the latest. But the police want to see where they will lead them first. They want to know where these dangerous, violent women go to roost. 

They can feel their tail. The faint creak of a bicycle chain drifts on the still air. She wonders if he thinks he’s being subtle. They don’t really have a choice now but to lead them back to Eileen’s. Hopefully, she and her parents will be able to claim ignorance of the women’s actions. But for now, they have finally reached their safe harbour. Clara pulls at the latch key hanging on a chain around her neck, and it rises up from under her dress. They are now before a looming redbrick townhouse, framed by two pruned hedges. Its bay windows ape an unknowing stare. It’s a picture of solid, middle class English life, and here they stand, two free radicals. 

A low, wrought iron gate lets out a reedy creak of discontent as they push their way through. Clara fumbles with the lock before they can let themselves in. All is quiet. A grandfather clock ticks softly in the hallway. Kitty is shocked by her reflection in the hall mirror. She looks sallow, bedraggled. Maybe they are getting too old for this. The excitement of the last few hours has snuck off, taking her complexion with it. 

Kitty thinks of the policeman watching the house. He’s probably throwing himself into the saddle of his bicycle at this very moment, speeding off to the Kenley police station to deliver his prize nugget of intelligence, desperate to make a name for himself as a small fish in a big pond. I’ve got them! I know where they are! The Hurst Park Arsonists. Although, she does admit the title has a nice ring to it. 

She collapses into the soft white cotton sheets of the guest bedroom. As far as they are aware, they’ve slunk in without rousing Eileen, her parents or either of the maids. Kitty doesn’t even bother to undress. All she removes are her boots, still plastered with damp grass. She tries not to think of the ordeal ahead of her, to no use. Arrest, trial, imprisonment. Playing Cat and Mouse at His Majesty’s pleasure. 

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds not Words Scene 3 Part 1

8th June, 1913. Hurst Park Racecourse, Molesley, London

Image result for hurst park racecourse

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.

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds Not Words Scene 2

3rd June, 1913. The Empress Tea Rooms, Kensington

“I’m thinking of making a protest.”

Kitty arches a full eyebrow. Isn’t that all we ever do?

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

Emily, clear eyes flashing: “Something dramatic. Something unforgettable. Something to make those bastards at Westminster really sit up and take notice.”

Kitty smiles. She loves hearing profanities dropping like black pearls from her friend’s educated lips. 

“How so this time?”

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

“I haven’t yet reached a decision. But I keep thinking about how the King will be there, and his wife. Standing in their box, surveying their fiefdom.” She curls a narrow lip, “A great tragedy would capture their attention. I simply can’t abide this waiting and postponing and waiting again. Who do they think we are? All the while, the Kaiser’s busy polishing his Dreadnoughts over the channel.”

Her hand is shaking so drastically it’s threatening to send tea swirling into her saucer. Kitty snakes a sympathetic hand across the muslin tablecloth, in an attempt to rescue cup, saucer and woman. Emily seems to be looking through them, rather than at them. An awkward few seconds pass, Kitty’s hand splayed, snubbed. Finally, she puts the cup down and reciprocates. 

“I know, Pem. We’re all sick of waiting. We’re not young anymore. We can’t keep doing this forever.” 

Kitty gives her hand a friendly squeeze, thinking back to Emily’s 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. They leave shopping at her door. 

A long pause. A clearing of throats. Emily was a loose cannon, even by their standards. 

“How are you going to…get the King’s attention?” Kitty wishes she had her friend’s way with words. 

Emily’s has left her head bare today, red curls rolled into a simple bun. Kitty won’t dare ask if she’s sold another of her summer hats.

“I need to disrupt the race.”

Her thin lips are set hard. Mary is hiding her anxiety behind her teacup. Kitty can feel her doe eyes pleading. But Kitty can’t save her, she doesn’t know what to say.

In the hall, waitresses mill around with businesslike grace. Their high-necked green cotton dresses and white muslin aprons are reminiscent of nurses’ uniforms, aside from the purple ribbons fixed around their waists. But a few have pinned pristine white flowers in their hair. They are smiling, no indecent advances today, and generous tips. No one will comment on the shape of their neck or the tint of their lip. Kitty leans back and tunes in to the pleasant hustle and bustle of the bazaar. Laughter and chatter rise above more hushed and conspiratorial exchanges. A group to her left huddles around a map, heads almost touching. And over her friend’s heads, she can see clusters of schoolgirls pulling animatedly on each other’s sleeves. They probably begged the entrance fee from their fathers that morning, claiming a forgotten field trip to Kew Gardens. They’ve clearly never seen so many women in one place before. It’s still overwhelming. Purple, white and green banners flutter from the rafters, aloof from the hordes below.

“Pem, you’ve done enough.”  

Kitty jumps. So, the quiet one has found her voice. “We’re all grateful for your commitment, but you still need some time to recover. You’ve put yourself in harm’s way for the Cause too many times. And they’re not even paying you for the pleasure,” Mary sniffs.

Kitty nods resolutely. She couldn’t have put it better herself. They are joined by the invisible thread of militancy. But this time, she’s not going to encourage her friend’s reckless streak.

“By all means, make a scene, my dear. Yet remember what we’re here for. We need you, Pem. We need your strength and wisdom.” Kitty stares straight into her friend’s eyes with the intensity of a roadside fortune teller.

A butter knife would be useless at cutting the atmosphere, it hangs so thickly. The unsaid word. The mortal sin. It hovers somewhere overhead, its mere presence illegal. The women do not care much for legality, but the rules of polite conversation still hold sway.

“I do not shrink from sacrifice.”

Emily clasps her hands together in front of her breast, almost as if in prayer. Kitty presses, but she retreats back behind her steely gaze. She’s dug a moat and pulled up the drawbridge. As usual, Emily has spoken so well yet said very little.

 Talk turns to more innocent subjects. Kitty has been meaning to visit the dress stand all morning. Sweat has been pooling under her collar and trickling down her back. She needs a new summer frock, but she barely has enough. Emily and Mary had had their photo taken in front of their patron Saint, Joan of Arc, earlier that day. 

Kitty rises, makes her excuses, and says her farewells. Luckily, Mary is still married not even estranged from her husband, and he allowed her enough to live. She pays for their tea. The other two women barely have two shillings to rub together. Despite her misgivings, Kitty has no idea she will never see her fellow militant again. 

On her way out, Kitty lovingly fingers the folds of a white silk number at the dressmaker’s stand. She orders the cheapest instead, a plain cotton one, delivered to her lodgings. She hasn’t done a proper show in weeks. Not in a mainstream theatre. They don’t want her. But she finds enough in her purse for the downpayment, and has enough stashed under her pillow for the rest. All for the Cause. She hopes she will be made a paid member before she has to run the streets of Whitechapel in rags.

She pushes her way through the crowd. The noise ricochets around the high-ceilinged hall. It is a warm day, and she is now starting to sweat profusely. She impatiently passes stalls selling buttons, jewellery, hats, stationery, sweets, books, tea sets, even board games. There is nothing 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.