Last Sunday morning several of the participants in the Head On project met to read their short stories at the sites where their porcelain heads have been installed. It turned into a quite magical occasion. Sincere thanks to Nicola Atkinson/NADFLY for inviting me to take part.
This is a short story I wrote for the HEAD ON project.
HEAD ON – BRIDEWELL 1913
I can hear the tapping on the pipes, the other women using Morse code to talk. I tried to learn it but there wasn’t time before my first mission to pick up enough to hear what they are saying now. I like the rhythm, it helps me to block out the occasional scream. I’m still picking glass out of my dress from when we smashed the windows. I’d never felt so alive before and even when the police came I wasn’t frightened. My arms are sore now from where the officers grabbed me and pulled me away, fingertip shaped bruises starting to bloom. Men were jeering at us calling us unnatural and even whores. Some women stood there looking disgusted but some cheered us on our way into the Black Maria. We laughed and sang songs, so pleased with ourselves and our day’s work. We were suffragettes and we were changing the world.
At court I asked an officer where they would be taking us after sentence. Bridewell, he said, smiling. It sounded lovely, like the name of one of those fancy new villas being built just outside the city. When we arrived from the court I realised the officer was making fun of my ignorance and we were at Duke Street Prison. It is huge and blackened and smells like a sewer. I was put in a cell with an old woman who works the streets of the Trongate. She smells almost as bad as the prison and snores and grunts in her stupor. At least she isn’t bothering with me. The walls are damp and the mattress I’ve been given is stained. I’m sure I saw something move on it. There is a chipped brown potty under the bed that might once have been white. I know I will have to use it soon but for now I am trying to ignore the urgent messages my bladder is sending me.
My father wouldn’t come to court, said I had shamed him and my family. My husband didn’t even answer the message I sent to him. When I was being taken down I thought I saw my mother, huddled in a corner, her hat pulled low and a scarf up around her face but I could see her eyes, pinched and worried. I hesitated, smiled to let her know I was okay and an officer pushed me so hard down the steps I almost fell. One of the other women caught me and helped me get my balance back. It was then that I realised I wasn’t going back to my nice, comfortable home. I was going to prison.
We are all under strict instructions to refuse food. I don’t know if I can do that. I’ve heard such terrifying tales of women who’ve been brutally force fed and how it has broken their health. Am I that brave? I don’t know. I can see the dawn rising through the little window in the cell. In a few days time I may find out just how much courage I can muster.