1909 by Grace Maxwell Brown
This story is to remember Theresa Garnett who planted a Taxus Baccata Elegantissima on 7 November 1909
They were at the back of the Foreign and Commonwealth office.. The moon was full and low, close enough to see the ruff edge of Aristarchus, lighting the statue of Clive of India in silver.
‘And who am I to be again?’
‘My husband,’ Theresa replied.
The man, a Cambridge student, a friend of a friend from her Yorkshire school days, with a prickle of hair on his jaw and a paisley cravat tight on his neck, wrapped his arm around her waist. She nipped him in the ribs and spun out of his hold.
‘What? Am I not meant to act like a husband?’
‘Let’s pretend we’re one of those couples who hate each other,’ she said and stepped one foot onto the ornate iron gate. She bounced up and down to check the gate took her weight then lodged her other foot into a casted flower higher up. The gate rattled, and she looked below her to see the Cambridge student following, albeit more cautiously, the light from the moon now exposing the shake of his hands.
‘Not afraid of heights, are you?’ she said.
The Cambridge student grumbled in reply. She laughed to herself as she threw a leg over the top of the gate and began to descend the other side.
When she reached the cobbles of an interior courtyard, she freed the bag she’d wedged through the gate before starting the climb.
‘Here,’ she said and shoved a dinner jacket into the student’s face as he landed with a thud next to her.
Before them lay five floors of white stone, with high, arched windows running along the centre of the building. She peeked through the windows at a-a ballroom as high as a cathedral, and a crystal chandelier on each floor.
‘I thought you Cambridge lot were meant to be used to this type of thing?’ she teased when she saw the open O of his mouth.
He seemed to shake himself out of his daze. ‘S’not really my scene…’
‘Shut your eyes,’ she interrupted.
‘Pardon – ’
‘I need to change.’
And with that she unfolded a long gown from the stashed bag. It was of no stylish merit, a few seasons too old, with a scuffed hem and one moth bitten sleeve, but it was the best she could find on short notice, owning nothing black tie herself, a fact of which she was quite proud.
Shimmying the dress over her head and pulling the zipper up her side, she was pleased to find that the Cambridge student had kept his eyes sealed. As polite as Vera told me, she thought, or as petrified. She laughed again to herself.
‘It’s safe to look now.’
‘You look – ’
She waved off the remainder of his sentence with a flick of her wrist. ‘Shall we?’ and offered him her arm.
He took it and a rip of stitches could be heard when he raised his shoulder. The borrowed jacket was a shade too small for him, but it was good enough, she told herself. They walked into the building arm in arm, casually, as if they had every right to be there.
Twenty minutes later, she stood on a mahogany chair in the centre of the ballroom. Chandeliers glistened above her head. In one of her hands, a crystal champagne flute, the other a silver teaspoon. She clinked the silver to the glass.
The noise died in the vast space. She stood on the chair, a carousel of rich gowns and morning suits whirling around her. Statues of politicians seemed to frown at her. Could she do this? The chair was wobbling on the polished marble floor.
‘Excuse me, ladies, gentlemen…’ she bellowed.
The people, Cabinet Ministers and parliamentary aides, business folks and Fleet Street scribes, wives of the gentry, mistresses of the Lords, turned to look at her, a small, dark haired woman raising her glass in a toast.
‘I’d like to say a few words. Today is a day of celebration – ’A few of those present gave a polite cheer – ‘A day to celebrate His Majesty the King.’
‘God Save the King!’ came an inebriated shout from the back of the room.
‘Quite. However, before we do so, I wanted to celebrate something different.’
A few people exchanged suspicious glances as she began to pull the purple and green sash from the bodice of her dress. Some of the ladies gasped as she started to wave it above her head. She felt champagne tip out of the side of the flute onto her hand.
‘Votes for Women!’ She shouted. ‘All peoples are created equal and should be so under the eyes of the law!’
Many in the crowd booed, others laughed, but she wouldn’t be shamed or heckled into silence. She continued her protest. Even when the policeman managed to get a grip of her hair and pull her from the chair, she kept up her call. The scuffed hem of her loaned dress caught on the door on the way out.
The cell was the same size as the room in her boarding house in Bethnal Green, as cold as too but with a nicer view. She was on the fifth floor, her window was south facing, so the sun, when it peeped out from behind the Holloway smog, littered the rough brick walls and moulded cornices throughout the day.
Her imprisonment was long overdue. She’d been craving it, unknowingly, as if it proved her commitment, her dedication, to the Vote. Sentenced to a month inside, she thought it would be endured easily enough. She hadn’t accounted for the boredom. She became angsty within the first few hours. Developed nervous ticks she hadn’t had since childhood, like scratching at her arms to calm herself, and pulling on her eyebrows, which was something, her grandparents once said, frightfully, passing a look between them as they did so, her mother used to do. She never knew her mother.
She decided to hunger strike, as a way of opposing her oppression. Not much came of it in the first couple of weeks. She felt weaker, her head was clouded, but she didn’t feel unable to continue. On the thirteenth morning, she heard footsteps outside. A loud bang sounded on the door.
She rolled her eyes and waited. The formalities annoyed her.
The wardress entered. It was the third time she had come and Theresa knew it was to try and rile her out of her starvation. Hunger strikes didn’t make for good publicity, even if the prisoners did become more subdued and more easily manhandled.
‘Morning Garnett,’ the wardress addressed her.
‘Suppose it is.’
‘How are you feeling today?’
She clacked her dry tongue against the roof of her mouth.
‘In here, prisoners are required to look at their supervisor when they are being addressed.’
Theresa turned on to her side on the mattress. The morning sun struck her eyes and she had to squint to make out the wardress through the glare. Not like it was difficult, she was a broad woman, dressed in black from head to toe, and carrying a truncheon on her hip, which Theresa held both a fascination for and crippling fear of.
‘That’s better. We’ve brought you your breakfast.’
She rolled over onto her back again and began to count the spots of mould on the ceiling. ‘No thank you.’
The wardress stamped across her cell and loomed over her.
‘Hear that?’ the wardress said. ‘That is the rattle of the breakfast trolley, and when it gets here, you are going to take your portion with a smile, say thank you, and eat every last morsel.’
Theresa smiled. ‘Thank you…but no.’
The wardress grabbed her arm. Theresa tried to peer around the wardress’ bulk to call for help but there was no one else in the cell and the guard at the door had stepped away. You can’t admit to what you haven’t seen, she thought.
‘Let go of me.’
The wardress tightened her grip.
Theresa began to panic. The pain convinced her that her arm was being crushed, surely her bones would break, and did bones heal without food? She’d never broken a bone before. Without thinking, she lunged and sunk her teeth into the wardress’ hand.
‘You animal!’ the wardress cried but didn’t let go of Theresa’s arm.
Theresa tried to twist out of the wardress’ grip but that only exacerbated the pain. Instead, she curled towards it and brought her knees to her chest. She tried to make herself as small as possible, like she used to as a child, after one of her ‘episodes’.
‘Guards!’ the wardress shouted and two men entered the cell. ‘Prisoner Garnett has committed assault. She bit…and kicked…me.’
The wardress held up her hand. Theresa’s teeth had made a clear indent below the knuckles.
‘I never kicked you,’ she protested, but the wardress had backed out of the cell and the guards were hoisting her from the bed. Her feeble unfed legs jerked out in every direction to try and stop them, but it was useless.
‘I never kicked her. I never!’ she shouted at the hard, sun kissed walls.
Sun Hall had more stairs to the roof than she thought and by the time she was three quarters of the way to the top, a thick sheen of sweat had erupted under her arms and across her upper lip. She wiped at her face with the back of hand and hoped a cool breeze would greet them at the top.
‘Nearly there!’ Mary Leigh called to her.
Theresa responded with a gruff cough. Her lungs had never been the same since the damp of Holloway.
The final ascent of stairs ended with a locked door. But she and Mary had prepared for this and had brought with them, as well as their purple and green sashes, Votes for Women fliers, and fans to cool their faces, a crowbar. With a heave from Mary, the lock broke and the door flung open.
Theresa went first onto the roof. It was narrow, like a gangway, between the slopes of the pitched windows that ran the length of the building. At the centre was a red-bricked dome, looming two storeys above the rest of the building. From her place on the plank, she could make out the sounds of pigeons cooing to one another from nests along the windowsills. She wiped at her face again as the sun blazed upon her and tried not to look down.
‘You ready with the banner?’ Mary asked.
‘We should try and make it to the dome,’ she replied.
She watched Mary take a look to the door.
‘Better we hang the banner and make out before the peelers arrive,’ Mary said.
But Theresa didn’t want to hang the banner just anywhere. She knew as soon as they snuck into the Hall that they’d committed an offence likely to end with their imprisonment. The fact didn’t bother her.
Prison was all the same to her.
‘C’mon,’ she grabbed Mary’s hand with a grin, ‘best make the most of it.’
She chose her best bonnet for the occasion. Made from straw with a purple ribbon tied around, it had garnered many compliments in the past. It was a secure fit and kept her face shaded. She could be, if she wanted, quite invisible under its brim.
Bristol station was crowded. The people were rung tight like a coil and moved in strict lines up one side and down the other of the platforms. She had to use her elbows in order to cut across the jostle. Others’ outer coats dirtied her white cotton blouse, which she dusted when she finally made it out of the throng of commuters and onto the correct platform.
Ahead of her, a larger, static crowd assembled. The flash of bulbs from cameras pinged every ten seconds, journalists called friendly jibes to one another, and pedestrians craned their necks and spoke amongst themselves in anticipation. Winston Churchill was to arrive any minute. He, President of the Board of Trade, and mastermind behind the People's Budget, had become a household name in the outdoor toilets of the working classes. Theresa didn’t share the crowd’s enthusiasm.
From the inner pocket of her woollen skirt she pulled out a short riding crop. Man of the people I think not, she muttered to herself.
She kept the whip close to her side and smiled at people as she politely pushed past them. The train pulled in, steam billowed over the platform and Theresa, not wanting to risk a coughing fit, covered her mouth and nose with her handkerchief. Through the smoke, she made out men in suits disembarking the First Class carriage at the front of the train. Typical, she thought. Nearing the front of the crowd, she switched the whip into her right hand and waited for the men to approach. She knew Churchill never passed up the chance to come and greet his admirers. She gripped the crop tighter and watched Churchill brake off from the group of men. He raised his hand towards the waiting peoples as he approached. He was shorter than she expected, with a doubling chin, but she still took several breaths to calm her nerves and fought the urge to scratch at her eyebrows.
‘Mr Churchill! Mr Churchill. A question for you!’ cried one of the journalists.
‘Can you sign this Mr Churchill?’ came a call from the person beside her.
Churchill was no more than a few steps from her and the policemen patrolling the crowd were few – they obviously didn’t believe there would be any cause for trouble today.
Quick as a whippet, she nipped out in front of the policeman and raised her whip. She felt pride in the look of surprise on Churchill’s face as the short crop caught him on the upper arm. It was a minor strike – no harm was done – for that had not been her intention.
‘Take that in the name of the insulted women of England!’ she managed to shout before two heavy sets of uniformed arms pulled her away.
She was hauled out of the station, whip raised and voice calling Votes for Women. Her best hat firmly secured on her head.
Horfield Prison was similar to the other prisons she’d been incarcerated. The remit of a cell was rather unoriginal in her opinion, never going further than four bricked walls and a flea-infested lumpy mattress. The Churchill stunt had found her arrested for assault, despite, she pointed out, Mr Churchill suffering no injuries. They found her guilty of disturbing the peace, which, she liked to think, marked her little outing as a success. The ‘peace’, as they called it, should be disturbed.
As she had a habit of doing within prison walls, Theresa began hunger striking her first day inside. After the Sun Hall stunt she had been let out of Walton for her refusal to eat and didn’t believe Horfield would act any differently.
Two weeks passed and the server placed a meal in the pigeonhole of her cell door three times a day, every day. The meals remained untouched. It won’t be long, she thought, till my release. Hunger strikes made for bad publicity. But on the last day of the second week, her breakfast wasn’t placed in the pigeonhole. She didn’t hear the rattle of the trolley as it made its way between the cells. Instead, she heard the stamp of guards’ boots and the bolt of her door unlocking. She rose from her bed as two men, the wardress, and another two ladies she had not seen before entered her cell.
‘Theresa Garnett?’ the wardress stated.
She nodded hesitantly in response.
‘I’m here to ask if you are still refusing to eat?’
She nodded again, this time with more conviction.
‘Right. Bring in the equipment.’
A chair was wheeled in from behind the wardress and a table with a familiar instrument followed. Familiar not because Theresa had seen the device before, but she had heard descriptions of it from a small number of other suffragettes. The long plastic tube was inserted through the nose and pushed down the oesophagus into the stomach. The cylinder machine beside the tube blended the food into a liquid form. This liquidised mulch was then, with a funnel, fed into the tube, by-passing the need for the person to ingest the food themselves willing, without force.
Theresa felt bile rise in her throat, her gut constricted, and she feared she would faint.
The chair was pushed into the centre of the room. Guards grabbed her arms and she tried to pull out of their grasps. It was without success. They strapped her to the chair: one over each arm, another across her waist, her chest, and the final around her forehead. She felt sick. She clamped her lips shut then tried to bite the first hand that came near her. Sweat ran down the back of her knees. A loud boom pounded in her ears. It was her heart, scared and in shock. One of the ladies she didn’t know picked up the tube in their delicate white hand. Theresa remembered choking.
The next morning, she surfaced late. Her entire body felt carved out somehow, like a parasite had infested her organs, muscles and skin, and taken it as its own. She was a shell, as fragile as she had ever felt. She sat up in her bed, forehead resting against the cool wall of her cell, and stayed that way for a while, long enough for her legs to cramp and mouth to dry. It’s no longer my mouth, no longer my legs I feel, they’ve forced something new inside of me.
A moth fluttered past her ear. Its wings wisped softly to her. Her cell was dark without the daylight to light it, yet the moth stayed with her. She felt a heartening towards it that it should accompany her, surely it had better places to be, some light to seek.
Theresa removed her forehead from the wall. She could make that light. On the underside of her mattress was a small tear in the material. Within the tear, lay three things: a locket belonging to her mother, a small nail, and four matches. She picked up her book and began to tear out page after page, spreading them across the mattress as she did so. When the book was expunged, she struck a match against the brick wall. It sizzled spectacularly and cast a small glow. She held it to a page on one corner of the mattress and watched it begin to burn. She did the same with each of the other matches. Blowing gently, she garnered the fire and drew exuberant with the rising flames. The heat of the fire warmed her dirtied feet. She stood, mesmerised, by her protest. Let them try and extinguish me, she thought.
Grace Brown is a graduate of UEA's MFA in Creative Writing. Her fiction has featured in Dear Damsels and The Weekend Read, among others. Her short story, Bittersweet, was shortlisted for Synaesthesia's Flash Fiction Contest, and Hens was shortlisted for the V.S Pritchett Prize. While at UEA, she was the recipient of the Seth Donaldson Memorial Bursary. She is a parliamentary researcher and copy writer, whose work has been featured in The Scotsman, New Statesman, and The Times, among others