The Queen of Holloway Castle by Katy Darby
This story is to remember Winnie Simmons who planted a Holly tree on 5 March 1910.
March 14th, 1912
It’s blue-cold tonight, but Winnie’s still singing, her wavering mezzo-soprano caught by the spring wind down Holloway Road and borne in gusts to Victoria’s cell. At least, that is what she fervently hopes; has been hoping all week.
“Deeds, not words!” she cries gamely, to end the song. She has been out there for an hour now, ever since lights-out at eight, and it’s no night for serenading on street-corners. She supposes the good folk of Holloway, trudging from work to public-house to home, must think her drunk as a Westminster Lord. She catches low male murmurs and the ghost of a leering laugh from across the ill-lit street, and swiftly strikes up again: this time La Marseillaise, for variety. Perhaps French will confound her admirers. She pounds at it with verve and vigour, as though to drive demons away, and is a little off-key. Victoria always had the stronger voice: still, Winnie sings as lustily as she can, for she knows – trusts – that her sister is listening.
“You’re halfway there, Victoria!” she calls into the silence. Seven more endless weeks. How will poor Vic bear it when Winnie hardly can? “Keep up your spirits! We are with you!”
There are no lights on in the whole forbidding fortress of Holloway save in the guards’ quarters: every prisoner’s cell went dark an hour back, and she cannot stand to think of Vic lying friendless, lightless, comfortless in her narrow barrel of a cell with half a window at best, too high and small even to see out of.
And so, every evening after helping to serve dinner to the recuperating prisoners at Dalmeny Avenue, she hurries the five minutes to the prison, where she marches up and down outside, and shouts encouragement: and, when it’s bitter like tonight, she sings to warm herself up. Does Vic hear? And if she does, why does she not reply? Even a word would warm her.
The locals sneeringly call it Holloway Castle – and no wonder: it is the Tower of London made farce, with its orange-brick battlements, and absurd turrets with crosses for windows, as though some Norman archer might poke his bow out at any minute. Winnie’s cold lips quirk as though a puppet-string has been pulled. Dear me! How she would laugh the pompous, puffed-up old place to scorn if it weren’t for the fact that it has swallowed her sister as the whale gulped down Jonah. She wonders whether she should sing Burlington Bertie next to cheer Vic up: too much militant music can be rather enervating.
A pair of drably-dressed clerkish types stroll by on the other side of the road, gaping more openly as they get nearer: of course, under the dim public lamps, they cannot distinguish the green and purple of her suffragette colours. They must think her a woman of the streets, if a well-dressed one – and with weary familiarity she watches them slow to a creep, heads drawing together. They are daring one another to cross to her and make an overture. She suspends the next tune in her repertoire, March of the Women, the WSPU’s new anthem, to watch them debate. (At the very least, forgetful Victoria will know all the words of this battle-song by the end of her sentence.)
Finally, one gathers the gossamer threads of his courage, turns and makes to step off the pavement. She plants her hands on her hips and smiles directly at him: he all but falls off the kerb. Then, just as a plodding draycart approaches, she thrusts up her fist and yells “VOTES FOR WOMEN!” so loudly her voice almost fails her.
Horrified, the young man starts, stares and stumbles back into his friend’s astonished arms just as the draycart grumbles past. Winnie folds in immoderate laughter, then straightens swiftly: suffragettes ought not to be frivolous, but oh! the look on the poor fellow’s face! A price above rubies, as Proverbs says. None of them learned very much at their Bristol Dame school, but she knows her Bible at least. By the time the cart is gone so are the clerks, hustled away as though a devil were after them begging for a petition signature. She fills her lungs:
“Shout, shout, up with your song
Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking,”
(Rather apt, that, tonight, as the wind seems to be trying to harmonise with her, keening through the great beech beneath which she stands.)
“March, march, swing you along
Wide blows our banner and hope is waking!”
It is the queerest thing not to have seen Victoria’s face for a week now. She finds herself trying to recall her sister’s tricks of expression and the nuances of her voice, which fall away fast as sand in a slackened fist. She cannot remember going more than a day in her life without Vic before this: they’d shared a room until Winnie was sixteen, attended the same evening classes in shorthand and bookkeeping, ridden their first bicycles together to Annie Kenney’s suffrage speech, wobbling daringly through the streets of Clifton. What a lark! After that, of course, they had both joined the Cause, going on every march, every protest together, except the last. Vic had fought shy of the window-breaking, but Winnie, ever more eager, had persuaded her. She cannot regret it now, but the guilt plucks at her nightly.
“Song with its story, dreams with their glory,
Lo! They call and glad is their word.
Forward! Hark how it swells
Thunder of freedom, the voice of the Lord.”
Winnie feels tears rise, and scolds them down: foolish to weep at what cannot be helped nor changed. But why did the migraine have to strike that day; and so badly she could not even see, let alone walk or throw stones? Providence, Mama had said, clutching Winnie hard to her as they sat in the court gallery and heard Victoria’s sentence. Two months – not so long, perhaps, though far in excess of what was merited – but you heard such things of what went on in there.
And the women at Dalmeny Avenue; grey and blasted like lightning-struck trees, so wrung out and rinsed of themselves. The little silver Holloway badge “for bravery” that they all wore was laughably inadequate for what they had faced, what they had lost.
Vicky had sworn to Mama she would not hunger-strike: it was the only promise their mother had ever exacted from her or that Vicky would ever have made. Mama has not visited Dalmeny, but she’s seen photographs of the women coming out of the gaol’s turreted gates in the news-papers, and that was enough. Winnie feels sickeningly glad that she is not in there, then sorry and ashamed at feeling so glad. The wind jostles her and the beech groans and she raises her voice, a fierce tremolo in it:
“Long, long, we in the past
Cower’d in dread from the light of Heaven;
Strong, strong, stand we at last;
Fearless in faith and with sight new given.”
As she sings, she stares at the window she believes to be her sister’s, looking for what, she has not a notion: she only knows that she must keep vigil. To be a witness is part of the struggle, too: she has learned that at Dalmeny. To be able to say; “I was there, and I remember.” So she will stay here, and sing, and remember.
During her break, Beatrice notices the mad girl is outside singing again. Like some lunatic bird she thinks, all swathed in green and purple with that too-fashionable feathered hat. Beatrice has seen her, when she comes off a day shift: the girl turns up about lockdown, and hangs about the big beech opposite the front entrance. Sometimes she shouts and sometimes she sings. Suffrage songs, mostly. The odd music-hall number, if she’s bored or stumped. Took Beatrice a few days to work out who the mad girl was singing for, or to: it’s Simmons, DX415 – one of the two hundred who came in a week back, after the Whitehall window-smashing. As though a few broken panes would make a blind bit of difference! Things happen at their own pace; wait long enough and the world changes around you, whether you like it or not – that’s what Beatrice has learned in twenty years as a prison wardress, but of course these WSPU girls are young, for the most part. Simmons’s card says she’s twenty-three, her little pal outside can hardly be out of her teens.
Beatrice stares across the common-room, tin tea-mug cooling rapidly in her hands. A fifteen -minute break every six hours, and the rest of the time tramping up and down iron stairs, getting scorned, slandered, slapped, bitten, spat on, called every name the sun never saw, and all for a pittance.
At least the prisoners, especially the new ones, get time to themselves, in their cells: hardly any have been put to labour, unlike the thieves and drunkards and whores Beatrice knows as a landlady knows her regulars. Give her an honest criminal any day over some over-educated clergyman’s daughter in need of a good fucking. Though half the new intake are girls of Beatrice’s own class: the sickness is spreading downwards from the Kensington drawing-rooms, it seems, and there are mill-hands and shopgirls and all sorts taking up the banners and the slogans and the colours. Foolishness, the lot of it. Nothing but a fashionable distraction for bored spinsters. The Bond Street shops are selling suffragette jewellery, for Gawd’s sake: she saw the advertisement in the Daily Sketch the other day. Anyway, half the women she knows would vote the way their husbands told them if they had the franchise, and the other half wouldn’t even bother.
She rises, rinses her mug, shakes out her skirts and counts off the keys on her chatelaine ring like abacus beads: she will never become accustomed to them, or the power they hold, or the anxiety about losing one. The other day one of the strikers nearly tore the whole girdle from round her waist during a feeding, she was flailing about so much. Beatrice couldn’t understand why they resisted: they knew the Governor couldn’t let them die, and the feeding was merely horrible if you didn’t fight it. The steps clang under her stout boots. Out in the atrium everything echoes: a pebble dropped from the third level would sound like a bomb going off.
Up she goes, musing idly on the folly of womankind, as she passes the doors of all the new inmates, the smashers and the strikers, the would-be electors. Political prisoners her eye; vandals is all they are. Respectable women ought to have nothing to do with that sort of thing. What was it they said? Prisoners, lunatics and women don’t have the vote – well, they are prisoners now, so what have they achieved? She smirks to herself in the prison gloom. She’ll say as much to the next one who cheeks her: see what their answer is to that!
All quiet, hypnotically so, except she thinks she can still hear the mad girl (or are her ears inventing it somehow?) singing faintly beyond the walls: a new song, about marching, with the insistent rhythm and swing of a hymn. Beatrice twitches her head violently as if jerking away a mosquito. It’s a kind of ringing in the ears, hearing things you’re not sure if you’re imagining. Singing in the ears. Another, broader smirk. It’s her day off tomorrow: she’ll tell Alf about the mad girl and they’ll have a good laugh down the Crown. Maybe walk past the prison around eight and watch the show. He’d been a bit of a crooner himself, when they were first courting, and fresh as paint: he’d sing her Daisy Bell, but change it for “Beattie, Beattie …” and waggle his eyebrows on the line about the bicycle built for two.
The iron-framed bed skews and squeaks as Victoria shifts beneath the musty blanket. The coverlet is coarse as a scouring-pad, a hopeless, nameless colour between brown and grey, and manages somehow to be at once thin and stiff. The bed, not to be outdone, is a charmless combination of bone-hard and treacherously soft, the thin mattress sagging beneath even her slight weight, so that her back aches fearsomely all morning. There are worse things in here, of course, Heaven knows, but the spine-throbbing twinges sap the strength from her – moral and physical – and this she needs above all else.
She tries to forget how the other women looked after serving their prison terms, just out of gaol and into the convalescent rooms of the house on Dalmeny Avenue: some too weak even to climb the stairs. The hunger-strikers are the hardest to look at: pallid, webbed skeletons in bath-chairs, eyes vast and dull in their wasted, wild-haired heads, caverns where their cheeks ought to be. The force-feeding tore the throats of some of them; broke others’ teeth.
A shudder clutches her as she stares at the whitewashed brick ceiling and imagines the thrashing, the shrieking. Hard hands throttling wrists, the rattle of shackles. The rubber reek of the feeding tube. Choking and vomiting. She is not as brave as they, and she tries not to reproach herself for it: this, surely, is hard enough? But one can always do more. And if one can, Mama used to say (although she had been referring to charitable works and not self-starvation) why then surely one should?
Yesterday there was a black beetle in her porridge; a horrid shining thing with fluttering feelers, She had stared at it, frozen: it seemed to shame her for eating when others refused. Then she had carried the bowl carefully to the farthest corner of the cell – let the creature eat its fill. She is speechless, here, her voice rusted in her throat, a horrible lassitude pinning her to the awful bed. She cannot even rouse herself to answer Winnie’s shouts and songs. She sleeps. She eats, sometimes. She endures.
But she regrets nothing, at least: not joining the WSPU, not flaunting the suffragette colours, and certainly not smashing the windows of the War Office that freezing night ten days ago. A two-month prison sentence for breaking a single pane of glass! It was absurd and punitive and disgraceful, and everybody, man and woman, knew it – there was that, at least. The Government’s shameful behaviour brought dishonour on every man in Parliament. And she had been but one of two hundred, all convicted and sentenced in a matter of days: the prison can only hold five hundred. Holloway had never seen an intake like it!
She had borrowed her mother’s best umbrella, the one with the ebony knob, expressly for the raid on Whitehall: she had not said what it was for, only that it might get damaged. Mama had handed it over wordlessly: a form of blessing. In the end, though, she had not been able to reach the glass even stood on tiptoe: she might have failed to discharge her violent duty had not a fellow-marcher with pinned blonde braids and splendid teeth passed her half a cobblestone. Feeling the dead drop of the thing, its sheer weight in her hand, emboldened her, and the next moment it flew from her fist as if by suction, vanishing through the window of the office before her, its palely glimmering pane now starred with darkness.
Heavens, the punch of joy it had given her! The taste of madness in her mouth, the barbaric yawp she had uttered as her stone sailed into the glass as though it were a still pool of water. She remembers it as clear as her first kiss, or as one day years hence she will recall handing Alexander a copy of Votes for Women and him smiling gratefully, not tossing it down or spitting at her like that clergyman back in Bristol. She will remember it, she thinks, if she lives to be a hundred (which she will) – not just the thrill of the discordant clanging shatter and the shocked stillness of the night air after, but of breaking something – a silence – that needed to be broken.
Beatrice pauses, puffing. Third level now, and it’s getting louder. Surely it should be fainter higher up? Perhaps the girl’s singing stronger than usual? And what is that tune? It wriggles through her memory, a darting fish, but she cannot flip it out. It’s a raw enough night to be abroad in, and the girl has plenty of competition from the blustering wind. But as she gets to the door of that smug little Simmons piece – DX415 – Beatrice stops.
They are meant to be in bed. That’s what lights out means. If she’s sneaked a candle in somehow, or a lamp … Sweating with anger, Beatrice stamps to the cell door and flips open the inspection hole: the girl stopped jamming it with paper when they gave her bread-and-water for two days. Couldn’t starve herself, that one – liked her grub too much, you could tell.
The bed is empty. The chair is gone. And at the window the silhouette of a tousled head outlined against the bars and the moon-grey sky beyond.
Victoria Simmons is standing on her chair on tip-toes: she is holding onto the bars of the window and lifting herself up with every ounce of her strength so that she can just, just see the street outside, and with every breath in her body she is singing.
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do …”
Her voice is tuneful, and surprisingly full. A week of silence has not wasted it; nor will a month, perhaps not even two. Beatrice watches for a moment. Listens. She lifts her knuckles to rap sharply on the doorplate. She grips her keys, telling through them for the one to the cell door. Then she flips the peephole shut again, and walks away.
Katy Darby’s work has appeared on BBC Radio 4 and in magazines including Stand, Mslexia and Slice. She has an MA in Creative Writing from UEA, where she received the David Higham Award. Her novel The Unpierced Heart is published by Penguin, and if you like her story, she has five more in the Arachne Press anthology Five by Five. She’s also an editor, teacher and Director of award-winning live literature event Liars’ League.