A Towel and A Trike by Janet H Swinney
This story is to remember Mary Phillips who planted her tree on 4 July 1909.
Umbrellas of Old Man’s Baccy stood tall in the hedgerows as Enid jolted down the rutted track towards the river. The tools in the basket on her handlebars rattled and jumped as she tried to steer a steady course. She had told her father she was staying late in town for a rehearsal of Verdi’s Requiem, but in fact, she was on an entirely different mission. At the thought of which, her palms grew damp.
Of all the students who’d graduated from Skerry’s college the previous year, George Allardyce had not been one of the more accomplished. Yet, here he was flinging his hat on to the coat stand in the corner of the Examiner office, and unburdening himself of his overcoat in the manner of a seasoned reporter with too many places to go and not enough time to get between them.
He rubbed out a cigarette between his fingers and dropped his pad on to Enid’s desk. “There you go, En.” Enid examined the pad with distaste. There were signs that a beer glass had been parked on several of the pages.
“What do you call this?”
“Flick through, and you’ll see my report of this morning’s court proceedings. Mr. Peabody said…Tonight’s edition.”
“I know what Mr. Peabody said,” Enid snapped.
George shot off to the gents, and Enid rolled her eyes at Hattie. She adjusted the ribbon in her machine and started typing, her wrists held high like the fetlocks of a thoroughbred horse. George’s shorthand was atrocious, and his powers of analysis dim. “Fill out the blanks,” Enid sighed. Hattie cackled.
The case concerned a miner who was charged with persistent cruelty to his wife. Through the scrimmage of dots and dashes that constituted George’s shorthand, Enid managed to discern that things had come to a head on the night he had “started” on her with the poker, threatening to kill her. The miner’s defence was that his wife never had his tea ready when he came home from work. She disputed this wholeheartedly and pointed out that he had recently smashed a pot over her head.
George reappeared from the WC.
“So what was the verdict?”
“This case you’ve reported on in such eloquent detail: you haven’t provided the outcome.”
“Oh, case dismissed.”
“On what grounds?”
“The magistrate took the view that the chap had been subjected to an awful lot of provocation. He said that if he separated everyone who squabbled, there would be very few people left together.” George grabbed his hat and coat from the stand. “He had a point, I suppose,” he chortled, and slammed the door behind him.
Enid finished typing and looked thoughtfully at the completed report. “You know, Hattie,” she observed, “the few pleasurable moments in women’s lives blind us to the fact that, on the whole, the situation is grim. Our freedom is entirely circumscribed by the diktats of other people.”
“Meaning?” said Hattie.
The older woman laughed. “Oh,” she said. “Now there’s something new.”
They were a shoestring enterprise. In fact, Mr Peabody frequently referred to his bootstraps and their role in his advancement. There were other publications with far larger circulations in the city. They had reporters to send hither and yon. “Let them focus on the big news,” Mr Peabody said. “At the Examiner, we deal with the family, the community.” The last court case Enid had covered had been against a lad accused of stealing slippers, while Hattie appended her byline to wholesome recipes and novel designs for antimacassars. The paper did, however, provide some foreign news which they culled from the London papers and customised for belated consumption by their local readership.
The following morning, Mr Peabody allocated Enid the task of drafting something about an impending spat between the French and the British somewhere west of Calcutta. “Come on strong about the Empire quashing any interference from Johnny Foreigner,” he said. To Hattie, he allocated a feature about the history of milk puddings. “You can link it nicely to Enid’s piece about the Empire,” he said. “There’s nothing like a good rice pudding with the skin on and a sprinkle of nutmeg.” George, meanwhile, was given the job of covering the two-day visit of the President of the Board of Trade, Mr Winston Churchill, who would be speaking at the Assembly Rooms that very evening.
Enid was wearing her newest work blouse with starched cuffs and a clever collar. It made her feel determined and clear-sighted. She sat upright in her chair.
“Wouldn’t it be wise to send someone with really rapid shorthand to cover Mr Churchill’s visit? If he’s giving a speech about government policy, there’ll be a lot of detail to get to grips with.” Somehow, after a year of employment, the fact that Enid had graduated top of her Pitman’s class seemed to have been forgotten. Mr Peabody looked at her blankly.
“A fat lot of good you’ll do at the Assembly Rooms,” said George. “You won’t get in.”
“Why won’t she?” said Hattie. “It’s a public meeting.”
“Well, Mrs Barrett, I suggest you look at the small print. It’s organised by the Liberal Club and it’s a public meeting for men only.”
“Isn’t that a contradiction…?” Enid started, and then changed tack. “Well, why not send two of us? Maybe those people wanting votes for women will be there. I’ll look out for the women and George can cover the speech. Then we’d have both perspectives covered. In fact, we could do a whole spread. Hattie could postpone the puddings and do an in-depth interview with one of the suffrage leaders instead.”
Hattie looked startled at this proposal, but no sooner had the idea begun to gain some traction with her than Mr Peabody found his voice.
“I’m not having lasses traipsing the streets at night. It’s not right.”
Enid wrinkled her nose so that her spectacles approached her eyebrows. “Surely, it’s a reporter’s job to go where the news is?”
“Mind your lip, Enid. I’ve told you who’s doing what.”
Enid spun the tobacco-tinted globe in the corner of the office and when it stopped, pressed her finger on Calcutta. Who the hell knew where Chandernagore was? What’s more: who cared? She started on her piece: “Just as Hexham is about 20 miles up the Tyne from Newcastle, so is Chandernagore about 20 miles up the Hooghly from Calcutta.” She stopped. Even she thought it was pathetic.
“I’m going to try him again tomorrow,” she said. “I can’t sit here endlessly writing this drivel.”
“What makes you think he’ll give in?” Hattie asked.
“Don’t you want to do an interview with a leading suffragette? Someone who’s been in prison, maybe?”
“I’d like to, yes.”
“Then why don’t we both have a go at him?”
“Because he’ll get mad, and who knows where that’ll lead?”
“I thought you wanted a career as a journalist. Journalists don’t just sit indoors twiddling their typewriters.”
“I have a family to keep. I can’t be gadding about all the time.
I need money more than a punt on some high-flying career.”
“What I don’t understand,” fumed Enid, “is why he employs us at all if he’s not going to use our talents. It doesn’t make any business sense.”
“Because he’s a bone-headed bigot,” said Hattie. “You’re expecting logic from a man who isn’t capable of it. You can rame on at him as long as you like: it’s not going to do you any good.”
Enid suddenly felt colossally naïve. Bible study had led her to believe that merit would always prevail. Now, it was obvious, this was a fallacy. Hattie, applying native common sense, had a shrewder grasp of the situation than she had herself.
She struggled on a little longer with her task: “Chandernagore is a French town where the currency is British coinage. Not more than a handful of the residents actually speak the Gallic tongue”. And then she downed tools.
“I’m off,” she said. “See you tomorrow.”
The sun was already low in the winter sky as she turned into Neville Street, the nexus of the tramlines at the Westgate intersection glinting in the distance. She pulled up her coat collar, and kept one gloved hand at her throat to ward off the nip in the air.
Already, there was considerable bustle around the station. The place was thronged with women, women wearing sashes of purple, white and green and some wielding placards with the legend, “Votes for Women”. But the constabulary were in evidence too, a great wall of silent men with truncheons, patrolling the exit from platform eight where Mr Churchill’s arrival was expected.
Enid edged her way towards the ticket gate. “Excuse me! Examiner coming through!” she said. As the sense of anticipation increased, she pulled her pad from her bag and started jotting: “Tensions rising this evening, as women of all ages and from all classes assemble to greet the important Liberal politician…” She felt her heart lift in her chest. At last, she was doing the job she’d expected to do.
Finally, the locomotive trundled into the station, exhaled into the roof space and slid to a halt. Doors were flung open and passengers tumbled out on to the platform. The women craned their necks to catch sight of their quarry. And here, among the last, came a top-hatted gentleman. It was clear from the curve of his mouth and the keen look of self-regard in his eye, that this was Churchill. He was met by two local dignitaries who escorted him along the platform. The women began their chant: “Votes for Women!” He stalked on regardless, while the women’s jostling increased.
As the triumvirate passed the ticket gate, a woman thrust herself forward, waving a leaflet under Churchill’s nose. “Deeds not words!” she yelled. “Votes for women!” A scrum began as the police manhandled the woman away. “Who’s she?” gasped Enid. “That’s Miss Phillips, the new leader of the WSPU,” her neighbour replied. “As a reporter, I should’ve known that,” Enid chided herself, just before the elbow of a policeman caught her a massive blow on the side of her head and sent her to her knees.
That evening, she had a stroke of luck. After the President of the Board of Trade had descended from his motor car and made his entry to the Assembly Rooms, the police cordon holding back the crowd broke down. Enid seized her opportunity and, along with a few others, wormed her way into the vestibule. From there, she squeezed up the grand staircase and into the gallery.
Mr Churchill was welcomed to the podium and began his speech. From outside the roar of the women could still be heard, occasionally amplified by a megaphone. He started on trade tariffs. “Will women get the vote this session?” came a cry from the floor of the house. There was a kerfuffle while a woman was hustled out. He began on unemployment. “Will votes for women be in the King’s speech?” This time a voice from further back. More commotion, and another woman dispensed with. He moved on to the reform of the House of Lords. “No taxation without representation!” shouted a woman standing near Enid. She too, made to disappear. Enid scribbled frantically.
It was too late to get home, so she sat at a tram stop, the cold nibbling at her fingers, drafting her report till the early hours of the morning. At last, when the birds began to stir in the trees and a restless breeze presaged a grim dawn, she was able to get a mug of tea from the hackney drivers’ tea stall before tramping back to the office.
“My goodness!” said Hattie, settling herself at her desk, and casting an eye over Enid’s appearance. “What did you get up to last night?”
Mr Peabody summoned them into his office. “Right, George, let’s be havin’ it.”
“All there, Mr Peabody.” George slapped down an untidy sheaf of typing on to the desk.
“How did it go, then?”
“Champion. Nae bother. He said what he came to say.”
Enid looked at him in surprise.
“You mean there were no disruptions?”
“None that I saw.”
“You were there and you saw nothing?” Enid was scandalised. She put her own careful work down on the desk. “That’s a full report, Mr. Peabody, right from the moment Mr Churchill set foot on the platform till the moment the meeting disbanded. Either George wasn’t there, or he’s got a very partial view.”
Mr. Peabody stared at her for some time, his rheumy eyes congested with uncertainty and resentment. The pin of the county cricket club winked dully in his lapel. The air hung heavy in the office for a very long time.
“It’s George’s report, and that’s what we’ll be using,” he pronounced eventually. Where’s your piece on Chandernagore?”
“I haven’t finished it.”
She didn’t know where the words came from. No one had ever taught her to swear.
“Calcutta is the arsehole of Empire, Mr Peabody, and Chandernagore is 20 miles up it.”
She crossed the bridge, and parked her tricycle up against the wall of the cricket ground. Six months without work now, and her father still furious. If a job was worth doing, though but… She hitched up her skirts and climbed up and over. There, in front of her, the pitch, and even more invitingly, the wicket used by the club’s first 11. She took the trowel from her pocket and struck it deep into the sweet, fleshy turf. After 20 minutes, she sat back to admire her handiwork: “Work before play, boys. Votes for women!”
Janet has roots in the North East of England, Scotland and India, but lives in London.
Eleven of her stories have appeared in print anthologies, and others in online literary journals in India. 'The Map of Bihar' was published both in the UK and in the USA, where it was nominated for the Eric Hoffer prize for prose. 'The Work of Lesser-Known Artists' was a runner-up in the London Short Story Competition 2014 and appeared in 'Flamingo Land' (Flight Press, 2015). 'A Tadge to Your Left' was a runner-up in the Ilkley Literature Festival 2017 and appears on the website of 'The Word Factory'.
Her first collection of short stories, ‘The Map of Bihar and Other Stories’ will be published shortly by Circaidy Gregory Press. You can find her at www.janethswinney.com