For Valour by Zoe Kelly
This story is to remember Henria Williams whose Picea Pungens Glauca was planted by Annie Kenney on 15 January 1911 with a plaque reading: In memory of Henriette Williams, imprisoned after Black Friday (18 November 1910), died 2 January 1911.
The conditions in here are not good. I feel like a caged animal. I am alone, isolated. I wasn’t alone at the start but now, because of the food issue, I find myself in this small cell. The nights were bad at first. It’s all about the sounds really, the creak of doors and the clang of metal. Alone in the dark, every sound is magnified and your imagination tends to run riot. Was that a scuffling sound? Is it a mouse? Would they have mice in here? I don’t know but they certainly have spiders. There’s a big hairy one in the corner over there. It’s strange that with all I am facing now, an insect like that can still bother me. I wonder whether I will get fleas or lice in here. It’s claustrophobic in this small room. I long for fresh air and open spaces and for the company of my friends and sisters in the cause.
This isn’t fair. I am being treated like a common hooligan. They won’t even let us protest against their refusal to give us the vote. We are political prisoners and should be treated accordingly. We should be in the first division of the prison. Then we would be allowed more visits and be allowed to write books and articles.
They’ve bought me trays of food but they’re just not that appetising. It was harder to resist at first, when hunger kicked in, but now my stomach has shrunk and the thought of food makes me feel sick. I’m so weak now I can barely stand. I find myself sitting on this chair for hours at a time. My days are merging into one another.
When I’m feeling a bit down as I am now, I recall the words and phrases used by our leaders in speeches and leaflets to stir us into action and give us strength to carry on with the cause. We’ve had some heated debate about our tactics. We’ve marched, waved our banners, papered up our posters but our struggles are being ignored and abused. We can’t be half-hearted. We are determined that our voice will be heard. We will fight long and hard to get our point across and we need to be taken seriously. I am more than a pretty dress or a plaything to dangle on the arm of a man. I have a mind, thoughts and opinions. I have seen things, I have learnt from life experiences. I have opinions on how we can make this world, this country, a better place and who can help this country achieve this. I have joined the movement because I believe women should have the vote.
Will we sway public opinion? Our campaigning has moved on from peaceful protest. Peaceful, legal protest won’t work. It really didn’t work. I agree with Emmeline “Deeds not Words” is the way forward. We’ve got to stay passionate. We are right to take militant action to get our point across; chaining ourselves to railings, smashing windows, even the arson. We are like soldiers fighting a battle. It’s amazing how united we women are; middle class and working class fighting for the cause together. We are not criminals or women acting hysterically. The government needs to acknowledge that our acts of civil disobedience are political and treat us accordingly. Instead, this body has been bruised and battered. That policeman who arrested me: he punched, he touched, he groped. He’s not the only one. I’ve had rotten eggs and stones thrown at me. My friends have been disowned by their families, lost their husbands and children, left destitute. So we have to stick together and fight on. I’ve seen the pictures on postcards where we are portrayed in very unflattering, unfeminine ways. But I won’t stop.
I ask myself why I am here? What is going to happen next?
I know. I have heard them. I can hear them now. The screams and groans of others is agonizing. So it doesn’t sound as if they are drugging women to make them more docile. I had heard that might happen. Doors bang and footsteps come down the corridor. Each sound fills me with trepidation. What is it that I have signed up to? We are desperate: that is why we do this. We make this sacrifice to bring attention to our cause and embarrass the government. Some people describe us as childish, others think we are wicked or fanatical and many criticise our methods saying we are unreasonable. Some people are angry with us and feel we should be left to starve. Others are saying we are immoral because we are trying to commit suicide. So now the government have the choice between force feeding us or letting us die from starvation. They really don’t want us to die for our cause. They don’t want martyrs. The Government is even describing this as ‘ordinary hospital treatment’ and saying it is necessary to our health and to preserve our lives.
So now, it’s happening to me. I’m sitting on a wooden chair. It doesn’t feel secure. I think they have tilted it back at an angle that seems beyond the point of balance. The wood is pressing into my back. My head is being forced back. My neck seems at an awkward angle. My adrenaline kicks in. I am under attack and must escape. I keep trying to fight; kick out with my legs and I make contact with something hard; a leg perhaps. Then I hear a creak and the door opens; more footsteps and then I cannot move my legs anymore. They are firmly gripped, immobilized by what I can’t tell. Now the only way I can communicate is with my eyes. I think they have tied me to the chair. I’m trying to resist and struggle but what can I do? Nothing I do seems to be working. I feel powerless. They are using physical force to overpower me. It’s impossible. Faces loom over me, so close that I can smell their breath. I feel stale and bedraggled. I am losing control. My personal space is being invaded. People are touching me, pressing down on me. It feels like someone heavy is on me. I feel degraded, violated and humiliated. My eyes are going in and out of focus. I feel faint, nauseous and weak. I’ve seen the women return after this ordeal. We’ve discussed some strategies but these are blurring in my mind due to the sheer fright and anticipation of what they will do. Then I recall some say close your eyes. Some say stare at a fixed point on the ceiling.
The room is bare apart from a small window. It feels cold too. I try to find something to look at apart from bare walls; something to help me get through this. If I look straight at their eyes will they stop? No, there seems to be a determined look and a cold detachment about them now. I am no longer a person. I am an object. There is a task to be done and then they will move on to another object and perform that task again (another sister in another cell). I am a number and that is all. I am certainly an inconvenience to be dealt with. There is no mercy or sympathy here. Can’t they see what an appalling practice this is? How can they do this to another human being? I’m shaking inside. Now I can see a funnel and tube. I can’t look any more. I close my eyes. I clench my teeth together but that doesn’t stop them. They have forced something hard, cold and metal into my mouth and appear to be screwing it or something as my jaw seems wedged apart, far beyond which nature intended. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to close my mouth again.
There is a smell: rubber. They are forcing the tube into my mouth and down my throat .It smells and it feels hard and it’s surely much too wide. I can’t speak. I’m struggling to breath. Is this going to end up suffocating me? I’m gagging and retching. It’s not working. They are trying again. The tube appears endless. Just how far down is this tube going? I am terrified. Will I choke? This can’t be safe. I know it’s not safe. I’ve heard my sisters in the cause talk about complications. I know there have been accidents previously. Women left emotionally and physically scarred. They have suffered damage to teeth and mouth, it into the windpipe by mistake and food getting into the lungs and ending up with complications like pneumonia. Have they even lubricated the tube? It doesn’t feel like it because it’s irritating my throat. In fact, I now have an awful feeling not only in my throat but also my jaws and ears and even my chest. This is brutal and life threatening. This is torture. What are they going to put down the tube? I can’t see it or taste it. I want to be in control of what goes into my body. I’ve heard it’s often stuff like milk, bread and brandy. Whatever it is it’ll be some kind of liquid that they can pour down the funnel. I feel sick. Will I be sick? How much are they pouring down there? My stomach is small. I haven’t eaten for several days .It isn’t going to be able to cope. I’m going to be sick. I’ll be sick all over my dress. How will I get cleaned up?
Now I can feel a tugging and a wrenching. The tube is coming up. It’s dragging at my poor throat, which feels on fire. Some pressure is released but my arms are still pinned down. Now I can taste and smell something metallic. It’s blood in my mouth. Maybe my gums are bleeding. They are certainly throbbing. My teeth hurt. I can’t even bring my arms up to my face. They are waiting. Do they think I’ll make myself be sick if they let my arms go? I’m still in pain but I realize that it is beginning to subside. They have moved away from me.
There is another smell now: vomit. It’s down my dress and on my hair. The prison nurse comes towards me with a rag and wipes my mouth and do I see or am I imagining it - a single tear in the corner of her eye and a look pass between her and the doctor in the room. What pressures are they under? How much were they forced to do this? Is there doubt creeping into their face. That doubt is our hope. That doubt is a little seed that can grow to bring an end to this vile force -feeding and help our movement. That doubt I think I have seen and the knowledge that my sisters in the movement have been through this and continue to go through this for our cause, gives me the strength to carry on. I need to sleep now as I am so very tired but will sleep come through the pain of my battered body and the nightmare I am forced to relive in my mind and the knowledge this is just the beginning, that there is a long road ahead.
I remember that we have been told by our leaders to take courage and endure and that physical force will never triumph because our cause is just. Do they really think this ordeal will make us think twice about our cause or in the end deter us from it? I have heard the movement give out medals when we come through this to recognise that we are political warriors and the physical sacrifice we have made for our cause. The medals are attached with a ribbon in purple, white and green; the colours of our movement. I’ve seen the silver pin bar that is engraved with the words “For Valour”. I do wonder how many times I will have to face this. I am determined that they will not break my spirit. For me it is not a question of if the movement is successful, it is more one of when. I will wear my medal with pride.
Zoe Kelly has a background in nursing, midwifery and Childminding. Having retired from Childminding in September 2019, Zoe now has time to develop her interest in Family Histories. The UEA/ Norfolk Libraries Suffragette project caught her interest in this regard and she was inspired to submit this story even though she is new to creative writing. She has really enjoyed learning more about the lives of women in her Grandparents' era.