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.