Suffragette Stories

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For Winston by Justine Mann

This story is to remember Jessie Kenney who planted a tree on 10 May 1910. 

13 October, 1972

Lottie lays her outfit on the sun dappled bedspread: purple hat, green dress, cream jacket, its lapel with two distinct pin holes from the year before. She traces them with fingers that are steadier than usual.
   For the first time in sixty years, she will mark this anniversary alone. She swallows hard as she looks across the room to the sunlight growing stronger against the orange curtains.

Outside is the world she used to belong to.

   Mountview Lodge has shrunk her life. However nice and clean her room, however kindly the staff, she can feel herself descending. In her first week she tidied this room, took an old hanky and cleaned her own sink, the way she did in Holloway. After meals she would offer to help in the kitchen. She was met with a polite ‘no, you sit down, Love’ at every turn.
Olive, her favourite staff member, knocks and puts her head around the door. Her grey hair is pulled back from her face and her cheeks are red with the effort of the trolley.
   ‘You’re up, then?’ Her green eyes are lit by the sun, streaming at the curtain. ‘Goodo. Need any help to wash and dress?’
   ‘It’s just the tights,’ Lottie nods towards the bed. ‘Houdini would have a job getting into those tights.’
Olive smiles.
   ‘Let me get the trolley done and I’ll be with you.’
Morning trolley is their way of checking the residents haven’t gone in the night. The trade off is a cup of tea in a pale green china cup and saucer, her tablets in a plastic dish. At home she would always warm the pot with boiling water to keep the heat. Here it’s already lukewarm from the journey and has too much milk. Still, her parched mouth is grateful.

She always thought it would be her mind failing that put her in a nursing home. Instead her body is crumbling, while her mind is pin sharp and all too aware.
   She resisted it for as long as she could. Stubborn as an old boot, the doctor said at one of her appointments, cheerfully, stroking his right side burn and trying not to see his watch, ticking the appointment on.
   ‘We can’t have you lying all night on a cold floor now, can we? Not without a means to call for help.’
Not an hour passed after her fall that she didn’t try to raise herself up, or bang her stick against the wall for help. She hated being found that way.

She uses her new claw stick to get to the window, still bristling at the noise it makes as it slaps onto the floor. There is a view of the road, and the children will be walking to school, in a while. Olive tells her she will need to share her room, soon, but for now, in these few hours before lunch, it’s as if she has her own front door again. 
   She could still take a taxi and go out alone and has held tightly to that possibility, these past weeks. But with her walking, they’d insist on a chaperone.

On this day, last year, she was preparing to meet Betty. The memory tugs inside her. They splashed out on afternoon tea at the Waldorf, shared a taxi no less. They chose Aldwych because it gave them a kick to be near to the windows they smashed more than five decades before. It was the tobacconist’s windows that got them arrested. They were chased onto Waterloo Bridge, almost wet themselves laughing when they were grabbed.

They sat reminiscing at the edge of the Waldorf’s Palm Court, observing the dance. They wrapped leftover sandwiches and cakes into the crisp white napkins with the embroidered W, hid them in their handbags for later, giggling like their younger selves. The waiter, who thought he was a cut above, passed and would have seen two benign old ladies in their hats, black court shoes and best hand bags.
   ‘Well, he’s not seen two world wars, has he?’ Betty said, eyebrow raised towards her widow’s peak.
   Lottie raised her glass of champagne.
   ‘Here’s to Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst shaming    Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey at the Free Trade Hall.’
   ‘Sixty six years ago. Bloody hell. And here’s to all that followed in their footsteps.’ Betty clinked glass to glass, with a wink that reminded Lottie of younger Betty: raven headed and full of fight, full of verbal when the police caught her hands and prised the hammers from her fingers. ‘Twenty two smashed, Lottie!’ She yelled over her shoulder as two policemen bundled her off. ‘No surrender!’

Back on the Palm Court dance floor, a couple, on what might be their Ruby wedding anniversary, danced a waltz and they joked about getting up themselves, cheek to cheek.
   ‘Strange that you can live a long life and just a few years becomes what you dwell on most,’ Lottie said, drawing circles with her glass on the cloth.
   ‘Two Lyons Corner House girls, waiting for romance.’ Betty said.
   ‘Speak for yourself.’ Lottie laughed.
   ‘And then dismissed on Black Friday and out on our ear and into the glorious fight.’


Through her Mountview window, Lottie watches the lollipop lady take up position at the pelican crossing.
   She and Betty planned to have tea in Fortnum and Mason this year. Betty’s grandson, Ted, was going to drive them. Now that Betty’s gone, she’s lost touch with the surviving WSPU ladies: Jessie Kenney, Lilian Lenton, Grace Roe. Letter writing was always Betty’s specialty.

Just after lunch, she sits in the empty dining room. Moira, the mobile hairdresser she forgot to cancel, is making what is left of her hair glamorous for a trip she can no longer make. Moira’s conversation is as light as the whipped cream on a Birds’ trifle.       That is when she isn’t hacking with a smoker’s cough. She uses a comb that brushes against the scar on Lottie’s scalp and asks if it’s from her fall.
   ‘No, it’s from years ago. I was pushed to the ground by a policeman and cracked my head on the pavement.’
   ‘Oh my God,’ her eyes are round. ‘Why did he do that?’
   ‘We disagreed on a matter of principle.’ Lottie says, with a wink. Moira seems horrified and sceptical and settles on a change of subject.
   ‘I’ve these rollers,’ she holds one up to Lottie: it’s pink with black tentacles. ‘Give the appearance of a full thick head of hair when it’s combed out. Bounce? Marilyn Monroe would be jealous.’ Her laugh is like Barbara Windsor’s. Lottie chuckles despite herself, imagining Betty’s raised eyebrow.
   ‘Cut it yourself, usually?’ Moira’s gentle reprimand is loud, drifting over to the ‘in crowd’ in the corner, playing dominoes for matchsticks and waiting for Pebble Mill at One to come on the box.
   ‘And why not?’ Lottie says, defiantly. She won’t be pushed around.
   ‘So what’s the occasion, someone’s birthday?’
   Lottie looks longingly at the mobile hairdryer on wheels. One thing about getting old, you can pretend not to hear what you don’t want to answer, especially under there.
   ‘An important anniversary. Though I daresay it’s not remembered much these days.’ Lottie smiles.
   There’s really no point in elaborating. Moira let slip a few weeks ago, while working on someone else, that she never votes. Lottie overheard her say ‘politicians are a bunch of liars, all of them’, but in a way that suggested she was repeating someone else’s opinion.
   Moira frowns, ‘What anniversary is that, Dear?’
   ‘The beginning of the militant struggle for the Women’s Vote.’
   There, she has said it. She has never told anyone in Mountview, only Olive. It silences Moira and the silence is laden, either with disapproval or ignorance, she can’t be sure. After a while Moira clears her throat and asks.
   ‘Are you pulling my leg? You were never a suffragette?’
   ‘Still am,’ Lottie says, nodding. ‘We don’t switch off like a light.’
   Moira’s nervous smile flickers. ‘I’ve never met a real suffragette.’
   ‘Oh you will have,’ Lottie nods. ‘We’re everywhere. Just don’t misbehave anymore.’

She comes to, under the mobile drier as Moira switches it off. One of Mountview’s few male residents, Reg, is at the next table, keeping Moira company, always an immaculate shirt, neatly pressed, braces to hold up his trousers.
   ‘Smells like a tart’s handbag in here’, he says, cheerfully. His back looks more hunched today, his head drooping, like he’s slept in a ball and needs straightening out.
   ‘You the only man in Mountview, Reg?’
   ‘One other, George. Not all there, though.’ Reg taps his temple.
   ‘Oh I bet these old girls fuss you rotten, don’t they, make you nice cups of tea, save you their desert?’
Reg winces.
   ‘Please. Some of them forget to put their teeth in of a morning and sit in their chairs snoring like my old Dad. Gives me bloody nightmares just thinking about it.’ His breaths are heavy as he talks, like his lungs can no longer do the work of breathing and talking at the same time. He winks at Moira. ‘Believe me, if I was twenty years younger it’s you I’d be chasing round that table.’
   ‘Reggie, what are you like? You can’t say things like that,’ Moira dissolves into a gale of laughter and gestures Lottie to come and sit in front of the mirror.
   Lottie’s return smile is frozen as she takes her seat. Reg shakes out his Daily Express and Moira combs out the curls and clouds Lottie with hairspray. Lottie takes the hand mirror Moira offers and checks her head at the back and sides. It is puffed out into a lampshade. Still, no point in hurting Moira’s feelings.
   ‘Will I put your hat on for you, Dear, or will you do that yourself?’ Moira lifts the purple Marks and Spencer hat with its tiny triangle of net.
   ‘I’ll see to it later.’
   ‘You up for a trim today, Reg?’ Moira asks.
   His pale blue eyes widen, more watery than usual. He runs a hand through his hair. It is fluffy and yellow, like a newborn chick. His fingers are still nicotine stained, even though he hasn’t smoked in months.
   ‘Spent too long in a helmet, that’s the trouble.’
   ‘Did you know Reg was a policeman, Lottie?’ Moira asks, with a glint in her eye.
   ‘I thought he was in the forces,’ Lottie says, quietly.
   ‘I worked in Bow before the First World War, always wanted to be in the Met but they kept turning down my transfer. We were rougher but they’d pull us in to help out in the West end when it suited them.’
   ‘Bow?’ Lottie stiffens in her seat.
   ‘Retired after thirty years and finally got into the Met when they were desperate for men during the Second World War.’
Bow police. Those rough fingers. Black Friday. Reg sees her reaction.
   ‘You from there?’ he asks.
   She shakes her head. ‘No, Crystal Palace.’
   Moira is moving from foot to foot, like a child bursting to tell.
   ‘Don’t see many suffragettes with a head of hair like this, Reg.’
   Now it’s Reg’s turn to stiffen.
   ‘Get out of here, right now,’ he says, eyes wide.
   Lottie wonders if he’s always known. He’s caught her sniffing the clean plates at mealtimes, like she used to in Holloway. But maybe it’s a policeman’s habit to stare like that.

Back in her room her heart is thumping inside the dress. She breathes slowly, trying to forget the sight of Reg’s nicotine stained fingers.
   In the mirror above the sink, she smiles to calm herself. With a wet comb she flattens her hair, then places the hat over it. She takes the beautiful ceramic WSPU brooch from the box in her drawer and pins it to her jacket lapel, as close as her eyes can get to the two original pin holes. Its colours are still true, the gold lettering of Votes for Women, still visible.
   Even with Olive’s help, the tights feel twisted. She stuffs her feet into her court shoes. They pinch now. Strange how you can lose weight everywhere else but gain on the feet.
   Olive sneaks her a glass of leftover Sunday wine to toast. ‘No surrender,’ she says as raises it to the window. By God they could shout it when they needed to.
   In the chair beside her window she watches the afternoon fade. The wine is sour on her tongue but it warms her, too. How she would love to take the bus to the West End just one more time: top deck, looking down on all of London. That bit from Parliament Square in Westminster, up Whitehall and then right at Charing Cross and onto The Strand. All those memories playing out in her mind’s eye, the sound of the speeches, the crowds marching.
  She closes her eyes but doesn’t sleep.

Instead Black Friday plays again in her head, its loop of raucous yelling.
   The men beyond the cordon in Whitehall, chanting, spitting, jeering. When she yells into the red ugly face of one, the policeman furthest away launches himself forward and takes her by the throat, pressing the airway hard. Four finger prints in red that she will later finger in the mirror in disbelief, that will last for gone three weeks. She loses her balance and falls, her head smacking hard against the ground. ‘Here’s the first death,’ someone shouts. For a while she lies, imagining they will kick her to death and from the corner of her eye other women go down, tossed like stones.
   A young woman to her left is carried, feet off the ground down a side street, shrieking, trying to move policemen’s hands as they slip around her bodice and pull on her. The crowds of men, and some boys her own age, yell with hatred and spit into Lottie’s face as she rises and stumbles away, ‘and you’re next, miss,’ one of them says. She screams at him and it’s like covering herself in honey to fend off a swarm of bees.


Later, with hat askew and crumpled jacket, she finds Reg alone in the lobby of Mountview. He is a large man, large hands, all the better to push women over, to twist their breasts.
‘Meet up with your old gang, did you?’ Reg asks with a gentle sneer. He must know she’s been here all afternoon. Nothing much gets past anyone in Mountview.
   ‘Were you working on Black Friday, Reg, were you one of those Bow police drafted in to boost the Met, who did those awful things?’
   His eyes are suddenly rounder.
   She leans over until her face is uncomfortably close to his.
   ‘One put a knee into me from behind. Squeezed my breasts, like he wanted to push them back inside me. Put his mouth against my ear and told me ‘anything goes today’. My friend Betty says one of them pressed on her heart so hard she thought it would stop. ‘
   He flushes red. ‘I didn’t lay my hands on any woman in that way. I just moved them on.’
   ‘But you saw your fellow officers, didn’t you? And you said nothing. Let Churchill convince the world those assaults never happened. I had a crack in my head I could have shown him.’      She feels her heart trip, feels the blood pounding inside her head.
   ‘It’s more than sixty years ago you daft old bat. What you doing getting all dressed up like that, eh? You got the bloody vote, didn’t you? You’re just making a show of yourself, now.’
   ‘One woman died,’ she hisses from between clenched teeth.
   ‘Says, who?’ He shrugs.
   And then her right hand reaches out and grabs his ear, folds it and twists it hard as she can.
   ‘What the…you’re bloody mad, get off me. Help! She’s off her bloody rocker.’
   She hears running footsteps in the corridor and quickly pulls away and folds her arms. Olive is beside them now, taking his arm. She looking questioningly at Lottie. Lottie shrugs her shoulders but when Reg releases his cupped hand the ear is livid red.
   She walks on, her stupid stick tapping to her exit.
   She will pay for this, no more wine that’s for sure, a stern disciplinary chat, maybe worse. But she is picturing Betty’s smile and the bruise that will swell his ear and which he will see in the mirror tomorrow and the next day.