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.