An Excerpt from ‘The Courage Game’

This is an excerpt from The Courage Game, the moment where Gladys is involved in the mass window-breaking in central London organized by Christabel Pankhurst.

I approached cautiously, dodging vehicles – far more vans and smart cars than were yet evident in Birmingham. The vehicles screened me from view, so that I was able to lurk behind a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce and assess the situation. It was half past ten o’clock. Half an hour to go. Now my stomach tightened and I began to taste bile.

How could I do it? I couldn’t, morally or ethically, but I must for that is what I had agreed to do.

The pavement was colourful with women chattering and commenting on the displays in the windows, those very windows I’d been sent to break. I felt that everyone must see me for who I was, that I stood out like a signpost advertising my intentions. I could see my reflection in the windows. Nothing about me looked or felt normal. Compared with those wealthy women planning their wardrobe or searching for fine fabrics to decorate their homes, I looked dowdy, plain, clearly a misfit. Any minute now one of those women would expose me as a charlatan. There would be a tap on my shoulder. Any minute.

I made myself focus on a particular group of women and moved closer to them, trying to look as if I were one of their party. A laugh rang out from one and I smiled too, as if I shared the joke. Though I hovered on the edge, clearly invisible to them since no one gave me a second glance, I felt more visible than I’d ever felt in my life. Surely the bag of stones under my coat swelled and grew to giant proportions and the dangerous shape of the hammer deformed my pocket. And I could not make them more obvious, for again and again my fingers searched and found them – stones, hammer – stones, hammer – as if to reassure myself.

I checked my watch, as I’d been doing countless times since I arrived. At ten to eleven a smart woman, accompanied by a number of store lackeys carrying vast bags of goods, was ushered out of the main door by the commissionaire, a bull-like figure dressed in the Asprey’s uniform of lilac and gold. His wide legs, above small feet encased in shining black leather, turned this way and that as their owner scanned the street in both directions. I wanted to duck but made myself stand still. Together we watched the lady being absorbed into the vehicle and tucked in under a white rug, surrounded by her purchases. Another five minutes, as the chauffeur started the car and returned to his place behind the wheel. Majestically, the car purred away. It was five minutes to eleven.

The commissionaire eyed me haughtily. Perhaps I did not match the standards he had come to expect of Asprey’s customers. Defiantly I moved close to another of those great windows, a little further off. It was very clean, so that standing there I could see myself reflected, while admiring the display of shoes and clothes – for sporting weekends in the countryside – that was displayed there. Covertly I pulled my watch half out of its pocket, felt again for my arsenal.

We had strict instructions not to begin until eleven in the morning. Then Christabel, whose organisation this was, would have the satisfaction of knowing that everywhere in the capital, there would be destruction happening at the same time. As soon as the police received a report of damage from one source there would be other reports from elsewhere, from all over the West End. The idea was to overwhelm the police so that they would not know how to cope.

The pocketwatch felt slippery in my hand. Even my palms were damp and the sweat trickled cold down my back and under my arms, swathed in the bulky coat. No one else was wearing such a thick coat. It stood out in the light March sunshine. Was that man looking at me? He could be a police detective. Maybe word of our plans had leaked out after all.

I tried to look insouciant, as though I was just admiring the display and had all the time in the world. I concentrated on particular items, to focus my mind. There was a special hat which was tied under the chin by a scarf, for use in open automobiles. Dorothy and I could have done with that yesterday, on our trip to Boreham Wood. There were skirts, narrow at the bottom and leaving the ankles exposed, to make it easier to step up into a motorcar without dirtying the hem.

When I glanced up again the man had gone, but the shop commissionaire in his smart braided uniform eyed me suspiciously. His shoes were polished like a soldier’s. I made a greater play of pretending to admire a particular pair of narrow boots, with fur lining and fox fur rim. My acting, despite having to fight the inclination to check the whereabouts of the hammer and to ease the weight of the bag dragging on my shoulder, must have been convincing, because he flexed his feet a couple of times, so that the leather creaked, and strode purposefully off towards the next doorway along, several yards away. There a bunch of people, a man and two young women, carried their purchases out of the door and stepped out into the street to locate a hackney carriage.

At the same moment I heard a clock whirring, ready to strike, from a nearby church tower and took a quick glance at my own pocket watch. It was eleven o’clock. Now! It had to be now!

The commissionaire still had his back to me. He stepped out into the road to flag down a cab for the customers. He was tall and very broad with a neck like a tree-trunk. His braided hat sat on top of his head like an acorn. My heart pounded. He opened the cab door to help the two lady customers in and I acted.

Taking up a position at the edge of the pavement, a good distance from the shop-window, I released the hammer from its confinement, turned the waistband over so as not to trip over my skirt, and ran towards the window where I raised the hammer in my right hand, shielding my eyes with my left hand as we’d been told to do, and smashed it into the glass. A ripple shook the vast sheet and it shivered for an instant before it splintered into thousands of pieces. My hair and coat glistened with hard drops like diamonds, and the pavements crunched and glittered.

Having begun to run I kept going, hitting windows as I passed. Everywhere was shouting and screaming. Through the broken windows I could see people crawling about on the floor. Were they hurt? There wasn’t time to think.

All around I could hear vehicles grinding to a halt, the blaring of horns… men’s voices shouting… more screaming. I kept running. My face felt stiff, so shocked by what I was doing that the muscles had frozen. But the movement, the hitting of the glass, the feel of tiny splinters settling on my hands and face, built up inside me in a kind of whoop, half terror, half wonder. I bellowed aloud, drowning out all that was happening around me, all that noise that sought to halt the power of what I was about.

Close behind now were grunting breaths – the commissionaire – and suddenly his broad arms caught around my waist and his vast belly jostled my back. But my hand was still free and the momentum of my speed kept us both moving, so that I managed another window until he trapped that arm, but I was still moving in a kind of joyous desperation and succeeded in transferring the hammer to my left hand, with which I took out yet another window before, sliding on broken glass, the commissionaire, his breath bellowing out of his lungs, brought me to a stop.

‘That’s enough, you little bitch,’ he wheezed. ‘The police are on their way.’

Eyeing me warily he stepped back, taking the hammer and making sure that he held me still by the left arm. A grey-suited man with pursed feminine lips and a high collar emerged from the nearest door. Behind him were four or five others, holding in front of them absurd items as shields: a half-dressed mannequin, a chair, a picnic hamper. These surrounded me, holding their items in front of them as if to ward off the devil himself.

I felt a crazy desire to laugh.

‘Thank you, Streatham, you can let go now,’ said the grey suit. ‘You will have to bear witness against this young woman in court.’ He turned to me, his lips pursing into a point like the beak of a bird. His eyebrows had risen into his pomaded hairline. ‘What possesses you, Madam, to wreak such damage on our premises? Have you any idea of the cost of all this damage? You’ll answer for it I promise you. You will have the whole weight of the Law against you. Look how many witnesses there are.’

I did look, and saw heads raised from behind furniture in the devastated shop, mouths in round ‘O’s of shock. I saw that everywhere glass shone, as if the whole display had been scattered with glittering jewels. The shop floor was a lavish Aladdin’s cave, hit by a hurricane. Diamonds of glass sprinkled the hats of customers and the hair of shop-girls with frost. And I had caused it.

The laughter bubbling in my belly began to rise and surfaced as an astonished surge of joy, the kind of joy which arises from a task well completed against all odds and in the face of danger. ‘Votes for Women’ I shouted and heard, further down the street, the cry picked up by others and the far-off tinkling of glass.

The shop-manager, or whatever official of Asprey’s he was, took a step back and said with alarm, ‘You’re one of those mad suffragettes, aren’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I cried and reached into the bag under my coat. Both hands cradling a stone, I began to run again, letting fly with stones as I went. Too late the manager and his supporters started after me for I had wings today, the wings of rebellion and freedom which allowed the breaking, not just of windows, but of all the taboos of my upbringing. Yelling, I ran and threw and skidded round the corner into a quiet side-street where the store windows were as yet untouched. There I threw again and barely registered the satisfaction of that noise, that destruction, as I ran and threw until three policemen caught me and pinioned my arms.

I was still fizzing with excitement when I was taken to a police-station where I was bound over to appear at court the following week.