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.


Deeds not Words: Scene 1

I’m calling these posts scenes rather than chapters because I want to focus on some specific vignettes in my writing, and I may pad it all out later. I’ve found out that Kitty Marion was speaking to Emily Wilding Davison the evening before that fateful Epsom Derby, at the W.S.P.U Bazaar in the Empress Rooms in Kensington. Davison had spoken to Marion about ‘making a protest’ at the Derby, but noone knew at the time exactly what she was up to. Maybe Davison didn’t even know herself. Anyway, I want to reconstruct that meeting and conversation. But I thought the best place to start in any story of the Suffragettes is with that fateful day, the most iconic moment of the movement. Then, I can delve into the lesser known aspects. See this as a kind of prologue. This is at drafting stage. It’s only my second draft (my first draft was handwritten). If you have any suggestions or feedback, please comment. And without any further ado:

4th June, 1913

A woman positions herself at Tattenham Corner. She is unaccompanied, unusual for one so conservatively dressed. Unlike other lone women who frequent such occasions, she has not rouged her face that morning, and stares resolutely into the middle distance. The crowd presses eagerly at her back. It swells and cheers in anticipation of the oncoming riders, only the woman isn’t cheering. She’s somewhere around middle age, not beautiful, yet striking. Her gaze is steady. It’s a beautiful early summer’s day, but she wears a long, dark coat over her dress. Next to the woman, a frightened little girl clutches her mother’s hand. It may well be her first derby, and there are a lot of animated men in the crowd. 

Oncoming hoofbeats reverberate the turf, thud-thud-thudding in time with her frantic heart. She clenches her fist, unclenches. Her hand is clammy, and perspiration is beading her brow. Sweating is unladylike, but how can she not? Her face is shaded by her straw hat. She is rapidly expending her last few seconds of anonymity. Does she know she will soon be made a martyr to the cause? Does she know how Emmeline’s hands will quiver as she reads the news? She will be relegated to that category of celebrity whose stardom is only achieved in death. Girls who never knew her will weep at her funeral, for the Supreme Sacrifice.

Her intentions will be picked over with a fine-toothed comb and then sieved. Some grains will be lost in the weaving of history, so we say. But we forget that our only private sphere is our mind. Nobody can peer in, there are no windows. Nobody can draw intention out like from a magician’s hat. She has written of sacrifice, but what does that mean? A return train ticket, hidden in the folds of her coat, is that proof? Many will hold it up and say here, here it is, it wasn’t suicide (that dirty word). But routes of enquiry must be exhausted.

She draws a breath, pulling a scarf out from under her coat, striped with purple, white and green. The horses are almost upon them, flanks gleaming, spit mixing with spittle. The crowd, goading, pushes her towards the barrier. But she looks calm. She picks her moment, picks her target. Anmar, the King’s horse. The onlookers have exactly four seconds to register the impending tragedy. Anmar snorts, rears up, tries to jump the interloper. He only manages to get his front hooves off the ground before the force of their combined momentum pushes jockey and rider into the collision with the force of a galloping steam train. But for the fraction of a second, horse and woman eye each other, and know they are captives. 

A sickening crunch. The woman’s body flips like a rag doll, like a puppet on strings, extremities splaying. The horse screams. The crowd wails. Chaos reigns. 

The woman still clutches a scarf balled into her left hand, forming a fist. When you electrocute yourself, instead of letting go, your hand forms vicelike grip. You could save yourself, but you are forced by instinct to clutch what will kill you even tighter. Perhaps it was supposed to unfurl over the King’s horse like a banner, the ultimate irony. But instead she has taken it to the Great Beyond. Her eyelids flutter. A slow ooze of crimson blood trickles down her forehead. She is breathing, but she is already dead. She lies on her back in the damp grass of the Epsom Derby. We will never know whether she succeeded or failed. 

A policeman, one of the first one the scene, notices the scarf. He is more composed than the others, more alert. This isn’t business as usual, but he has seen worse on the streets of Whitechapel. He looks around. Nobody is looking at him. Clusters of frantic onlookers: bookies, jockeys, spectators – the men trying to keep the women back. Not for your eyes, madam. You’ll go weak at the knees. The horse neighs pitifully. The fallen rider groans. Her eyelids flutter. A man proclaiming himself a doctor is already leaning over her prone body, listening to her laboured breathing and wiping the blood from her temple. 

The policeman prises the scarf from her clammy hand. He stuffs the fabric into his pocket with the facial expression of a guilty schoolboy. But he is helping her, really. So he thinks. No need for them to know that she’s one of those women, if women are what they are. No need for anyone to know that it might not have been an accident, at least not yet. Suicide is a sin. Add that to their mountain of sin. 

But it’s no use. She’s wearing the colours underneath her coat.