Lighting a Lamp by Harriet Avery
This story was inspired by suffragettes like Mary and Elsie Howie, who spoiled or evaded the 1911 census in an act of protest against the disenfranchisement of women.
The door bangs; Elsie has come back at last. And she’s not alone – she’s with the others. My heart sinks, just a little. Here they come, clattering and whispering and laughing down the hall. And upstairs the ominous creak as Mrs Malleson hears the noise at this late hour and disapproves.
I barely have time to stand up before they flood into the kitchen, setting the saucepans ringing.
“I’m just too thrilled, darling…”
“Your sister must have gone to bed, Els –”
“Ah, no, here she is! Hallo, Mary!”
“Goodness, Mary, why are you sitting here in the dark?” I hear the tone of slight peevishness in Elsie’s voice, just as it was when we were at school and I had collected chestnuts instead of bone-china buttons – “I can hardly see a thing!”
I hear my voice excusing weakly: “It’s economical…”
“Well, you might light the lamp at least – and I’ll make us some cocoa and crumpets, shall I, girls?”
“Plenty!” says Connie – I recognise her voice – “we need plenty of sustenance tonight!”
“Do light the lamp, Mary.”
Yes, I must light the lamp, and do it quickly, laughingly, so they will notice nothing, so it will not be strange. It’s Mrs Malleson’s big table lamp, and she keeps the matches next to it on the little etched brass tray. I remember that. Yes, there is the tray, there is its cold hard edge. But the sudden lift of light from the ring on the gas stove throws shadows which muddle me – and now my hand has knocked into something – and something small and papery lands on the floor by my foot.
“Come on, Mary.” From across the kitchen, Elsie’s voice is impatient now.
I swallow. “There don’t seem to be any matches.”
“There must be – I saw a full pack before I left –”
“I’ve some, if that helps – here.” That’s Vita’s voice – and now she is taking over – presses the slippery glass chimney into my hands to hold for an instant – and all at once, the lamp is lit. They all cheer merrily. (Mrs Malleson creaks upstairs again.) As I turn away and look about the room, the fat white blob of light obscures all their faces. They might be strangers to me.
“So how was the meeting?” I ask.
“But we needed you there to take the minutes – Sarah just isn’t as good as you, Mary…”
“Yes, you simply must be at the next one!”
“Of course she will be, won’t you, Mary?”
“Well, if I’ve got rid of this headache…” Easier, to pretend to be ill, than to explain how the letters sometimes – increasingly now – grow and shrink on the page, and twist themselves about, and multiply into dozens of ghostly images of themselves. They don’t need to know.
They will eat crumpets oozing with honey, and drink the cocoa steaming-hot, and they will sit around the table and talk about how we are going to get the vote, how we are going to petition the government, how we are going to frustrate the schemes of men. How close we all have grown over these last two years – as close as any soldier platoon in the army. Oh, when it all started – those times we talked, long into the early hours – about the news from Bristol, where there were women breaking windows and throwing stones and attacking politicians – and about how each of us had suffered men laying their hands upon us – and that harrowing night when Connie spoke with tears in her eyes about her husband walking out, leaving her alone, so that she found she could not raise her infant daughter and make enough income for them both, not when that meant 14 hours every day in Clark’s, and even then, for only half the wages of a man.
What else could I do? She’s with my cousin in Bath now, and I send my money to her, though she hardly knows who I am, Connie said, staring out of the window with an expression which struck me not sad, but ferocious, and hungry, like that of a wild animal, a wolf. And I and Elsie could not sleep that night – not out of horror, but out of elation. It cannot go on like this forever, Connie had said, my daughter will know a different world. Yes, we all said, yes, yes, yes. Anything seemed possible.
But – oh – they are not sitting, as they normally do, and cupping their hands around their cocoa. They are walking around and around, and still wearing their coats and hats, and eating as they walk, with exuberant hurried bites – something is different.
“Kitty’s idea to book it at the last minute…”
“She agreed it yesterday with Mrs Berritt – Mrs Berritt is on our side –”
“Good old Sunday-school-ma’am!”
“She even said she would pay the five pound fine for one of us, if it helped…”
“Ah ha – the offending article!” Now Connie is brandishing something in the air. It’s a brown flapping rectangle – I recognise it. The census form arrived yesterday. Now I remember. It must be filled in tonight.
“Are you going to despoil it?” I ask, with a stab of horror. Over supper yesterday, Elsie was talking about scribbling NO VOTE NO CENSUS across it. Over the washing-up, Mrs Malleson said that if she found that perfectly good form ruined, I and that sister of mine would be out on our ears.
“No, we have a much better plan.” Connie’s tone is triumphant. “The census is supposed to record everyone who is sleeping in each house tonight – but we won’t be sleeping in any house. We’re going to spend the night at the church hall.”
“Kitty’s booked it for us for the night,” says Liz, who is almost the same age as Mrs Malleson, and has worked at Clark’s her whole life, since she was 12 – “it means no one anywhere will be able to record our whereabouts.”
“We’re all going,” says Vita. “The government wants a record of everyone – well, they shan’t have it! They’re quite happy to pretend we don’t exist every other day of the year.”
“We won’t exist just to suit them…”
“Come on – it’s 11, nearly – we ought to go,” says Connie – “have you got a thermos, Elsie, Mary? We might take the cocoa with us…”
“Oh, yes – where is it, Mary? Under the sink, isn’t it?”
“I think – I rather think that it might be upstairs,” I say, clearly. I am aware of Elsie looking at me. We both know that she is right, and it is under the sink.
In the narrow crook of the hall, she grasps my arm pincer-like, hisses at me. “What do you mean? You’re not going to come? You must come!”
I stare at the floor, which seems to me to be a dark molasses sea. “I – I have such a headache…”
She lets go of my arm with a little shove, as though she is disgusted to find it suddenly in her hand. “You think that I don’t understand your reasons, don’t you? You think I don’t think of Mother?”
Might she have guessed? Perhaps I have been more transparent than I thought – I am overwhelmed with a tangle of feelings suddenly – fear, yes – and shame – but also a certain relief, that we might talk about it now, more openly, and be again as we once were, so close in our sisterhood…
“For myself,” she says, coldly, specifically, bitterly, “I would not allow myself to marry any man whose views would be so utterly opposed to mine – who would believe that women must be always beneath men. No matter if he were as well-off as Father. I would be ashamed to even think it.”
I stare at her – and I can see her face in fragments, rather than the whole – a fringe of her pale eyelashes – a pattern of old freckles across a curve of her cheek – the coral-like inner bones of her ear – familiar to me from when we used to share a bed.
“I’d rather be alone,” she says, “my whole life.”
“It’s not that,” I say, with difficulty. “I don’t – I don’t look to marry…”
“Then what? What, Mary? A year ago – a year ago, you would have never dreamed of staying behind.”
I can see one of her eyes – brown with green flecks – looking at me intensely. It is like a stone, her eye, a round polished stone – a stone which might be made into a necklace to hang around the neck of a duchess or a lady or a queen.
“This is a chance,” she says, “to do something which the government must notice. The news from Bristol is that women all over the country are going to join in. The movement is growing. Why would you want to abandon it now?”
It’s on the tip of my tongue to tell her – to tell her it’s not what she thinks – that I want desperately, passionately, to join her and the others – but before I can answer, suddenly the rest are there – all tumbling around us out of the kitchen, pulling and shoving and eager with whispered excitement – “come on, girls! We’ve got to go! Come on, Mary! Fetch your shawl and scarf!”
“Yes, come on, Mary.” Elsie’s eye challenges me, begs me.
I can only hang my head, whisper: “I’m not coming.”
They are cajoling, then disbelieving – and then they turn away with shrugs. Clearly there have been other conversations about me. Linking arms, they march away together, down the front path. The door slams. Left behind, the house shudders with silence.
The little room which I share with Elsie is cold. The spring warmth does not yet last into the night. I press my hands into my throat, under my chin. My fingers are ice.
On my bed, the census. A bald, pale square.
It is six steps to the window. I feel for the quilted fabric of the curtain, with its lines of stitches – the pattern (I remember it, of course) diamonds of interlocking purple, and green, and white. I sewed and hung it myself. I lift, and peer at the window. I see nothing but a black formless rectangle. Feel the exhale of cold.
I could go now, on my own, quickly, to the church hall. It is not far from Mrs Malleson’s house. It is not too late. Mary! You came! They would all welcome me cheerfully, drawing me into their arms, readily forgiving me my tardiness, happy to see me as a member of the troops again. Elsie would grab my hands and whirl me around as if we were girls in the schoolyard again. I imagine that Kitty has organised a slap-up feast, and Liz will have brought her gramophone perhaps, which will blare out music all night long. And it would be my hand which would write the letter to parliament, under dictation, declaring our act, sounding the war cry, demanding attention. Perhaps we would include, in the envelope, pieces of census, torn up into shreds. There it is, on the bed. Available to be spoiled.
The cold ribbons of air streaming from the window brush over my hand. I cannot do it. I cannot go. I cannot. Though it is only 20 minutes’ walk to the church hall, and the street lamps have not yet been extinguished – but the idea terrifies me. Alone – when I must feel with my hand for the walls and fences – test the ground with my feet so that I might not fall from the edges of the kerbs – barely able, now, to distinguish what is real and what is not from the throbbing, moving shadows. If I were to take a wrong turn, I might never find my way back. Mother got lost once…
Because I am the same as Mother, and the same as her mother before her. I cannot deny it anymore. There is a dim, unclear memory in my head – in the kitchen of the old terrace where we lived – late at night, with grumbling red embers in the grate. I saw the gleam of tear tracks on her face. It’s coming for me, she said – I hoped so very hard that you and Elsie would not be girls…
Mama? I said, and because she was frightening me, and because I was a child, I wanted to get away from her and run back to bed, where Elsie was sleeping soundly.
And I remember her arms around me, rocking me back and forth, her cheek pressed to the top of my head, nursery rhymes murmured into my hair… although on the fringes of consciousness, I heard her voice change tone, as if she were talking to someone whom I could not see – but I thought I would have longer… who will watch over them both now, as they grow… I mustn’t be sent away… daughters need their mothers… When I woke, I was back in bed, and I still wonder if it was all a dream. I said nothing to Elsie.
Now I am remembering again. Not long after, we began to find teacups smashed on the floor, for which Mother would blame our cat, Theo, who was then sold. She said the curtains had become weak at the hooks, and so they must remain closed all day, the rooms maintained at a pallid grey dimness. Countless old friends and neighbours were abandoned, having become apparently haughty and spiteful, according to her. She insisted that our cook, Mrs Brown, had stolen her mending threads and needles, and so she gave up her sewing, and Mrs Brown was fired.
She became furtive and frail. Sometimes she would stare strangely at me for a while, before speaking. She did not, I realised, recognise me. She always recognised Father, or claimed to, reaching pleadingly, timidly, for his sleeve. It was more and more difficult to be with her, upsetting to see her unfocused, uncertain smile. By the end, it was normal to leave her sitting by the fire, staring at nothing, in the morning, and come back late from school to find her in the same place, the grate burned out, the room cold.
She died after Elsie and I had begun at the secretarial college. Father wrote us: Your mother has passed on. I opened the letter in the touch-typing class, read it, and passed it to Elsie. I sat there feeling nothing. Expecting to feel something. But there was truly nothing at all, except maybe a distant pang of relief. I was horrified at myself. She was my mother.
Now I stand here, feeling this thin, fragile paper in my hand. Now I am struggling to read what Mrs Malleson has written. Focus hard. Force the letters to stay still. If I hold the paper just here, slightly to the side, quite close – there, now I can see it better. Name and Surname. Relationship to Head of Family. Age. Particulars as to Marriage. For each Married Woman, the number of Children Born Alive.
Mrs Malleson has told me to finish filling it in, and then to leave it out on the mat for Mr Lingate in the morning.
I am faced with the task. I feel for the pen, which I brought up with me. Mrs Malleson will certainly check in the morning. She doesn’t trust us, doesn’t believe in the women’s cause. Elsie has escaped – but what shall I do? The government wants a record of everyone – well, they shan’t have it! We won’t exist just to suit them… Yet Elsie and I cannot afford to be evicted. I am only managing now because I know this house, these rooms – and what if we were to be separated? It is certainly easier to find rooms for one than for two… What if she were to go away, to Bristol perhaps, and leave me?
Guiltily, shamefully, painfully, I write, feeling the letters forming on the page. I do it hurriedly, before my conscience becomes unbearable.
Mary Finningley. Lodger. 25. Single. None.
There. It is done. I have failed them, Elsie, and Connie, and all the rest. And perhaps now she will go to Bristol anyway, and leave me behind, because I have failed, because I am too wretchedly afraid to tell her that I am indeed useless, helpless, that I am facing the darkness, just like Mother.
The last column has been left blank by Mrs Malleson. I bend close to read it. It is headed Infirmity. If any person included in this schedule is totally deaf or deaf and dumb, totally blind, lunatic, imbecile, or feeble-minded, state the infirmity opposite that person’s name, and the age at which he or she became inflicted.
For a second, I see Mother in my mind’s eye. That blank stare as I stood in the doorway. Her wavering head, protruding from hunched, defensive shoulders. The birdlike bones of her fingers, constantly gripping and re-gripping the arm of the chair, as if for reassurance.
And I see Elsie’s face, Elsie’s brown eye, staring at me, sharp and furious and bewildered. Elsie will see the census on the mat when she returns in the morning. She will see what I have written.
Perhaps I am not done with this census yet.
I hesitate – and then I write it, filling in the last column opposite my name, the one headed Infirmity. My pen-nib lost in the fog. But I feel the shape of the ink flowing. Two words. Now it is done. I cannot read the letters, but it is there: my infirmity, declared.