Umbrellas of cow parsley 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 maestro Verdi’s Requiem – for which she had specifically joined the choral union – 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 onto 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 to and not enough time to get between them.
He rubbed out a cigarette between his fingers and dropped his pad onto 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 thorough-bred 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, and that his language was never less than foul.
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, or where the man was inclined to cuss, there would be very few couples 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 whims and 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 auspicious 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 significant detail, the family, the community.’ The last court case Enid had covered had been against a lad accused of maiming a pit pony with an axe. ‘If his employer had provided him with a proper whip,’ the defence lawyer argued, the injury would not have occurred. What a significant detail that had been, Enid thought. Meanwhile Hattie appended her byline to wholesome recipes for kidney pies and onion dumplings as well as 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. ‘We can’t have these Frenchies getting above themselves.’ 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, topped with a sprinkle of nutmeg.’ George, on the other hand, 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, scalloped collar. It made her feel determined and clear-sighted. She sat upright in her chair:
‘Wouldn’t it be wise to send someone to cover Mr. Churchill’s visit who has really rapid shorthand?’ she said. ‘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 entirely 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 on the posters. It’s organised by the Liberal Club and it’s a public meeting for men only.’
‘Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?’ Enid started, and then changed tack. ‘Well, why not send two of us? Maybe those people campaigning for votes for women will be there. I’ll look out for them and George can cover the speech. Then we’d have taken account of both male and female perspectives. 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. Her life, her upbringing, her aspirations and so on. It would be a good read.’
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 around 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 River Tyne from Newcastle, so is Chandernagore about 20 miles up the Hooghly from Calcutta.’ She stopped. Even she thought it was pathetic. She had no information about the Hooghly river, but she was pretty sure it would be nothing like the Tyne.
‘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? Wouldn’t it be exciting to get the “inside” story, as it were?’
‘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, the way you single women can. I need cash in hand more than I need 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 was struck by her own naïveté. An aeon of Bible study had led her to believe that merit would always prevail over favour. But now that she’d entered the adult world, it seemed this was a fallacy. Hattie, applying native common sense, had a shrewder grasp of the situation than she had arrived at herself for all her studies.
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. Her feet ached in her stiff, leather shoes.
Already, there was considerable bustle around the station. The place was thronged with women, many of them 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 meaty 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! Excuse me! Examinercoming through!’ she proclaimed, finally securing herself a place just leeward of a hefty police sergeant. 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, from all classes and from all walks of life 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 of them, 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 po-faced local dignitaries who escorted him, in close formation, along the platform. The women began their choral chant: ‘Votes for Women!’ ‘Votes for Women!’ It surged round the great gallery of the vaulted roof in waves. Churchill 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 the sergeant caught her a massive blow on the side of her head and sent her to her knees.
It was a bitter evening, and the gaslights flared like daggers along the street. Outside the Assembly Rooms, the crowd from the station had reformed and augmented itself, and was fidgeting and manoeuvring impatiently. A dogged determination prevailed but, in some quarters, a note of anger had been minted in the cold. ‘Let the dog see the rabbit, Billy!’ yelled a woman in a squashed black hat. ‘We’ll tell the bastard what’s what.’
‘You’ll clap eyes on him soon enough,’ a constable on duty replied, shoving her well back into the crowd.
The guests began to arrive, some in horse-drawn vehicles and others in motor cars. The horses, unsettled by the ruckus, snorted and blew out mighty cones of steam that almost touched the pavement. The motor cars coughed fumes from their exhausts. As each man ascended the steps into the hall, he adopted what he considered to be a suitable expression for the occasion, some opting for a dismissive and stony-faced demeanour, others assuming the casual air of a socialite attending a high-class ball. Still no sign of Churchill.
After a long wait in which feet went numb, and tonsils stiffened, a motor car finally slid up to the curb. Churchill! The women immediately began their agitation, their single, shouted demand filling the night air. Churchill, aloof as ever, was hustled with as much dignity as could be mustered up the steps and into the hall, but something in the imperviousness of that gaze triggered outrage. The desire to wrest justice from him, to bend an unfair system into one that accommodated present needs, gave rise to pandemonium. The crowd surged forward, the police cordon broke, and that was when Enid’s luck changed.
Along with a few others, she was swept up the steps, from where it seemed only logical that she should worm her way into the vestibule. After that, she had no problem squeezing between the elbows of gentlemen, up the grand staircase and into the gallery.
The crowd in the auditorium was eventually settled. A hush fell, broken only by one or two bouts of coughing. Mr. Churchill was welcomed to the podium by the president of the Liberal club. He gathered himself, stuck a forefinger in his waistcoat pocket 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 in green gabardine was hustled out. He began on unemployment. ‘Will votes for women be in the King’s speech, Mr. Churchill?’ This time a voice from further back. More commotion, and another woman dispensed with, her hat rolling away among the feet of her neighbours as she was hauled off. He moved on to 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, and drafted her report.
‘My goodness!’ said Hattie, settling herself at her desk first thing the following morning, 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. All about free trade an’ that.’
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, the pin from the county cricket club winking dully in his tweedy lapel. The air hung heavy in the office.
‘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 twenty miles up it.’
She crossed the bridge over the river, and parked her bike against the wall of the cricket ground. Six months without work now, and her father’s anger with her unabated. Still. If a job was worth doing… She hitched up her skirts and climbed up and over the stone wall. There, in front of her, the pitch and, even more invitingly, the wicket used by the club’s first eleven. She took the trowel from her pocket and struck it deep into the sweet, fleshy turf. After twenty minutes, she sat back on her hunkers to admire her handiwork: ‘Work before play, boys. Votes for women!’
* * *