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.