Rosemary Harris is an Australian/British writer, performer, director and producer. She is a NIDA graduate (National Institute of Dramatic Art, Sydney) and an MA (Distinction) in Creative and Life Writing, Goldsmiths, University of London. Her prize-winning writing has been widely published, including Poetry London, Index on Censorship, Magma, Staple, Chroma, and various anthologies. Rosemary’s readings and performances include the Southbank Centre, Bristol Poetry Festival, Soho Writers’ Festival, Glastonbury Festival, Radio 3’s The Verb, the Australia and NZ Festival of Arts and Literature, and many others. She was shortlisted for the 2014 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. Further information on her work may be found at: rosemaryharris.org
My mother would sooner have me brought home a corpse than a coward.
Rosa May Billinghurst, ‘The Cripple Suffragette’
Parliament Square, again, hours for no news, you at least have a seat, even if it is one you may not rise from
which also have other uses
the protestors push forward, you can see little from the level of your wheeled chair, the backs of others’ coats and shawls
you reach for the bricks nestled alongside your skirts
– here, you say to Edith – take these, you’ve a better chance of getting near the front
in a moment the missiles disappear into her coat, she cranes to see ahead then says excitedly – come on, looks like we’re going in
around you the crowd breaks into running, to cheers and catcalls from the bystanders surrounding the packed square
then the police
the sight of the first baton brought down makes you gasp, it lands on a young woman by the gate, she raises an arm to deflect the blows and cries out as the copper slams it down, over and over – HE WILL BREAK HER ARM, you shout but Edith is gone into the throng, darting in amongst the bodies towards the target
the young woman who was beaten has already vanished – how? – but the police have formed a line with truncheons raised, driving into the crowd, scything heads, ribs, spines, backs of legs, bringing women down although they try, the protestors, desperately, try to remain upright, to dodge the blows, to resist
two of the coppers tuck their truncheons into the armpits of their long coats then, looking around, one simply reaches out and plucks a young woman running past, swings her towards his mate, they clutch an arm each, then one grabs her, twists at her chest, her mouth drops open, he shifts his hand from bosom to sleeve and between them they lift her clear of the pavement before hurling her to the ground where her head bounces
behind you a voice is frantic – BE CAREFUL, THEY ARE DRAGGING WOMEN OFF INTO THE LANES
everyone knows what that means
bodies dodge and dance around you, you inch through the crowd, in all directions you see men in uniform grappling with women who shout and flail and still try to sprint for the gates
a copper blocks your way, lifts his truncheon before seeming to recognize you, another rears up over his shoulder, follows his sightline and laughs
– IT’S THE CRIPPLE SUFFRAGETTE, MIGHT HAVE KNOWN, then as he steps towards you – LEAVE HER, SHE GETS IN ALL THE PAPERS
he turns away so you take hold of the back of his coat, holding on fiercely with both fists, he twists himself to try to face you and you tug your arms in sharply, feeling your chair tipping sideways as he fumbles with his truncheon to land a blow on your arms, to get you to release him, but can’t strike backwards
Edith re-appears and she sets about the copper’s shins, kicking hard, he leans forward dancing his legs away from her and you haul yourself as hard as you can against his coat, he takes you with him in a prancing sidestep before the chair crashes to the ground, your fall broken by your grip on his coat and then you are down, beside your spinning wheels
you raise your arms to protect your head and bellow
– THEY THREW ME FROM MY CHAIR, THEY THREW ME, MY CHAIR
– Can Alice not go with you this time, at least?
The cry both women at once: Alice staring angrily out at the street, May perched on the piano stool, crutches by her side.
Father raises his eyebrows.
– Goodness, it’s a simple question. It might reassure your mother.
Alice says – It’s not fair to ask me. She doesn’t want me there anyway.
– Please don’t tell me what I want, says May. – I’d be happy for you to come, but I don’t need you to look after me.
Her father’s tone placatory – I’m not suggesting she…
Alice over him – We all know what happened last time. I am not willing to make myself a sitting duck for a crowd of murderous thugs. And May’s highly capable of taking care of herself. Anyway, why can’t Alfie be her bodyguard, if you’re so keen on her having one?
– I’ve already offered. I’m not taking sides.
Alfie from a corner by the bookcase.
May shakes her head. – Alfie will be there with the Men’s Union – Alfie looks up, mildly surprised – but we don’t want them up front with us, it defeats the whole point, he’s not barred from Parliament, is he? So what is the point of him trying to rush the place? It’s got to be the women.
– What did you mean, May can take care of herself? Mother asks Alice.
May, hotly – I am in the room, I can answer for myself.
– Be my guest, says Alice.
– I have my chair. My crutches. I have more to defend myself than most of the women who will be there.
Alice sighs – I’m not going anywhere near it. It achieves nothing, only puts more women in prison, or hospital. And I have no wish to go to either. Besides, she knows they won’t arrest her.
– They will if I make them. I can do my bit like anyone else. May’s voice rings bright with irritation.
– They won’t touch you, it would be terrible publicity. I believe there is some part of you that finds this all terribly exciting.
– Alice, that’s unkind, her father says.
May, at the floor – You do remember that at least one woman died from her wounds after Black Friday. Others will never fully recover. I watched the police beat women senseless. I didn’t find it exciting, and I find it repellant that my sister thinks that I could.
– Then why are you going back for more?
– Because we’ve tried everything, because there’s NOTHING ELSE TO TRY.
Alice, sliding from the arm of the chair – Oh, May, I am bored beyond reason with this. Can we speak of nothing else, think of nothing else, votes for women votes for women, can we not go to a concert or a play or a wretched picnic or can we please-please-PLEASE talk about something ELSE! I want to – Stops herself, raising her hands to either side of her head.
The others watch, she turns to march stiffly from the room.
May drives the feet of her crutches into the floor, twice, hard, her father moves to hold her arms.
– Rosa May, enough. You’ll hurt yourself.
your hands are slick with sweat inside your gloves as you crank your wheels to keep up, arms and lungs suffering, hundreds of women scud past along the pavement, but you see only skirts and coats, boots and backs
it will be done under your own steam, as always, the only way through is through, slogging with the dead weight of your legs, iron frame, wheels
flits through your mind, not today, you will not think it today, or you will roll to a standstill
the uproar is phenomenal, tidal, as you enter the Square, thousands of women besiege the police line that stretches the length of the House of Commons, spilling out from the railings and blocking the road entirely
it appears to be a monumental brawl, in the chaos gangs of men in street clothes, working men’s clothes and flat caps, strike and grapple with the women, fighting to keep them from reaching their target
are they coppers? where are their uniforms?
while others mill amongst the bystanders in the centre of the square, lobbing eggs and stones, aiming for the front of the mob
everywhere you look you see coppers batter and chop, truncheons held in front of their chests like foils, or high overhead before landing them
the slurry sky is grim as women are helped away, or fall back from the fray, clutching their bloody faces and bodies, beside you a man in a top hat and long coat bends to a slumped figure on the pavement who lies, limbs folded, broken
your cries fly out to join the din around you – no no no no, this is, how can they
you wheel diagonally across the wave of people running into the thickest part of the throng, your chair clouted and wrenched as you insist your way through
then a space clears ahead of you and you reach down to slide your crutches forward either side, wedging them in place like jousting sticks in one of your sister’s illustrated romances
the police are mobbed at the other end where the crowd is thickest, they don’t see you bearing down, your arms furious pistons, driving a frightening speed before you plough straight into the line up
crash into buckling limbs helmets bone, crutches tumble into fractured and backward angles – YOU BITCH Christ BITCH – blue sleeves in your face, ribs, bones splinter, whiskers wail wide, drop down
your breath driven out of you, your jaws knock together, neck taking the impact, grown men and iron, as coppers flap to seize hold of your chair, words spitting spilling
– BLOODY LUNATIC… CHRIST… back her up BACK HER UP
they try to extricate your chair from the pile of bodies, helmets and groans, their truncheons landing on your twisted back
unable to turn your chair around in the middle of the melee, a clutch of constables tries to hoist you, shoving others aside as they carry you, an alternative Pope on a bier, you, who is all the while shouting
– PUT ME DOWN YOU IDIOTS, IDIOTS, PUT ME DOWN, ARE YOU TRYING TO GET ME KILLED?
the chair swerves frighteningly as your bearers stumble around with no idea of what to do next now that they have you aloft, in hand, you cling on in terror of being tipped out, the ground leaping up to meet you, you would be unable to haul yourself upright unaided, trampled underfoot in the desperate crush
the police at the front try to turn one way while the ones behind frantically drag you the other, and you do an absurd rotation on your makeshift carousel
can’t help but laugh, whoop it is too absurd, this pell mell carnival attraction
an officer at the front enraged, shaking his jowls – YOU WON’T BE LAUGHING IN HOLLOWAY
they blast instructions to each other – TURN HER AROUND, MAN, FOR GOD’S SAKE, THIS WAY, THIS WAY – but the human squall is impenetrable, they cannot make themselves heard
then without warning one at the rear tries to raise his burden to get a better grip, and pitches the whole thing forward, you collide with your teeth on the shoulder of a constable who lurches under the sudden shift
surrounding them in a tight bundle your women strike out at the men where they can, punching, pummeling with umbrellas, to force them to put you down, while the coppers, hands full, can’t defend themselves, tuck their necks into their collars, drawing their heads in like tortoises
as the blows land on you
you can do nothing but cling on
sweating and swearing the police somehow convey you towards a wagon at the side of the action, a chorus of abuse and assault following every step
– PUT HER DOWN, YOU, YOU, SHE’S AN INVALID, INVALID, HOW DARE
while you weld yourself to your machine, arms and teeth aching, in terror or exultation you couldn’t say, the coppers cannot ignore you this time
– I WANT TO BE WITH THE OTHERS TAKE ME TO THE OTHERS DAMN YOU
cripple or no, you have hurt them
and you have their attention
– ARREST ME