Authors: Freda Lightfoot
Mercy and Livia left their next meal untouched. When the wardress returned they were given a stern lecture and informed that hunger striking was a misdemeanour that would lose them all their privileges.
‘By heck, and there was me thinking we’d lost them already when you locked us up in this place,’ was Mercy’s sharp response.
When they didn’t eat the next day either, all periods of exercise and knitting were withdrawn.
‘No more dropped stitches for you to pick up,’ chuckled Livia, although it was far from a laughing matter. She felt cold and weak, the pangs in her belly already growing more painful, and though she longed for night to come when she could try to blot out the discomfort and fall
into oblivion, sleep proved to be impossible. She’d walk about the cell desperately trying to tire herself, or lie on the hard bed staring
into the darkness.
‘The cramps do pass eventually,’ Mercy assured her, holding Livia’s shaking body as she vomited, a painful procedure with nothing left in her stomach to throw up. After almost a week of this regime, they felt seriously debilitated and stressed, and the weight was beginning to fall off them.
The wardress was keeping a careful eye on events and continued to bring them their morning skilly. In fact, the food improved. There was always bread and butter too, and one morning she brought a pot of tea to go with it. The smell of the hot steam emanating from the spout was almost Livia’s undoing. It reminded her of afternoon tea with her sisters at Angel House, of sitting with her mother when she was ill, tempting her to eat with tea and shortbread biscuits. Her craving for food was so bad she wanted to snatch up the slice of bread they’d brought and cram it into her mouth.
Instead she picked up the tea pot and poured the tea over it, weeping as the brown liquid soaked into the soft white crusty bread thickly spread with golden butter. Mercy quietly cheered, then they both lay back on their beds, exhausted, and sick at heart.
* * *
Livia felt as if she were floating outside of her body. She was burning and shivering all at the same time, haunted by dreams of her father, of darling Maggie trying to speak of her troubles and not quite managing it, of Ella stamping her foot and refusing to marry this unknown farmer who had been chosen for her. Livia could smell her own fear as her father hung her in the cage like meat on a butcher’s hook, feel the sting of the strap cut into her soft flesh. She would wake sweating with terror and relief, only to find Mercy, too, suffering from a nightmare, often crying and calling out.
This morning when the cell door banged open, instead of the tempting tray of food brought to plague them, in came a small, stocky man with side whiskers and a mole on his chin. The wardress shook Livia awake.
‘Get up, girl, the doctor needs to examine you. We can’t have you die on us for lack of food.’
There followed a humiliating examination in which she was again poked and prodded, a stethoscope held to her chest, her pulse taken. When he was done he turned to the wardress and gave a nod. The wardress smiled, as if he’d said something to please her.
‘If you will not eat of your own accord, then we must find a way to make you.’
There were four of them now crowding into the cell, huge Amazonian women with muscles
on them like all-in wrestlers, and they brought with them such a bewildering assortment of equipment that even Mercy paled.
‘Dear lord, they’re going to force-feed us.’
They dealt with Mercy first. She fought like a tiger while Livia cried and begged them to stop, and finally sobbed her heart out as her protests were ignored. The four women held Mercy down, shoved in the tube and poured the liquid mixture into her stomach. When they were done they dropped her limp body back onto the bed.
Then it was Livia’s turn.
She tried to run but there was no escape. They picked her up bodily and strapped her into a chair by her wrists, ankles and thighs, then tied a sheet under her chin. The sour breath and stale sweat of the women’s armpits made her want to vomit; their heavy breasts suffocating her as they held her down. The wardress was panting with the effort of trying to force open her mouth, while another woman held her nose closed. Livia did her utmost to resist, heart racing, teeth clenched, but she could scarcely breathe.
Then she felt the cold taste of metal slide between her lips. The implement, whatever it was, cut into her gums as the wardress attempted to prise them open. Livia tried to jerk her head away but it was held firmly by one of the women standing behind her. Once again pictures flashed
into her mind of the tower room at Angel House, the place where her father had carried out unspeakable tortures upon the three sisters, bullying one in order to control the other.
Livia hadn’t been able to escape then, and she couldn’t now.
The constant stabbing at her gums and teeth was every bit as painful as having one drawn. The steel probe scraped against her gums, and Livia tasted the iron saltiness of her own blood, felt it trickle down her throat. She heard the rasp of a screw, felt the inexorable pressure of a lever. Either she opened her teeth beneath the unrelenting pressure of the steel instrument, or they would shatter. That’s if she didn’t die of suffocation first.
As Livia snatched at a breath a tube was instantly shoved down into her stomach. ‘Gotcha!’ the woman cried in triumph.
It scraped down her dry throat, causing the muscles to convulse. Then the screw, or lever, whatever it was, jammed firmly between her teeth so that she could resist no more as a curdled mix of milk and egg was poured into her.
Livia felt as if she were choking, as if her entire body were filling up with the liquid and drowning her. When the tube was finally pulled out, the whole mess seemed to explode out of her, spraying the clean aprons and hard, unyielding
faces of her assailants. They were furious and flung her onto the hard bed, gathered up their equipment and left her blessedly in peace, stinking of sour milk and vomit.
This regime took place every morning. With nerves stretched taut as a wire, Livia and Mercy lived in fear of hearing the jangle of keys in the door. The sound would jerk them awake, a sick fear churning in Livia as she waited for them to come for her. She felt violated, as if she’d been raped. Afterwards, she would lie exhausted and bruised, gums and teeth bleeding, aching in every limb and able neither to think nor sleep. Yet somehow she endured it all, as did Mercy.
They were sustained by the sound of women’s voices singing suffragette songs. Supporters had gathered outside the prison as a measure of solidarity, and it was a great comfort to know that they were not alone in this battle, and that others too suffered in exactly the same way.
Some sort of peace had come upon her. An acceptance, and a calm determination not to give in. Livia did her best to disassociate herself from what they were doing to her, pretending her body belonged to someone else. But however hard the authorities fought the hunger strike, it wasn’t long before both Mercy and Livia were too ill to even sit in the chair. Even so, the force-feeding
continued while they lay on the hard planks of their bed.
Five days into this regime, Livia began to bleed.
She’d half forgotten about her baby, too engrossed in fighting the cause, and in staying alive. But the moment the cramps started, she guessed what was happening and cried out in anguish. Despite being barely able to move, so weak was she from starvation, Mercy dragged herself over to Livia’s bed and held her as what should have grown into a healthy child came away in a great pool of blood.
‘Oh, Mercy, what have I done?’
‘It wasn’t you who caused this, it were them devils who run this prison, not to mention Parliament who treat women with utter contempt.’
‘Try telling that to my husband,’ Livia whimpered, as she lay too exhausted and distraught even to cry. She felt as if her life was over, flushed away with the precious child she’d lost.
Mercy shouted for help, banging on the door and screaming as loud as she could. The trouble was that this kind of noise was so common in Strangeways, no one paid the slightest attention. By the time a wardress came, Livia had slipped into unconsciousness.
* * *
Livia spent more than a week in the prison hospital, and from the moment she regained consciousness it was made plain to her that if she didn’t call off her hunger strike the doctor wouldn’t be held responsible for her well-being. Being so ill and weak, Livia felt she had no choice but to take his advice. And since she could no longer digest anything solid, she was fed spoonfuls of raw egg flavoured with lemon, this latter addition perhaps to make it more palatable as the very feel of the stuff in her mouth made her want to gag.
Little by little she began to regain her strength, although her joints ached and she continued to bleed from the miscarriage. But Livia’s depression was such that she almost wished she hadn’t survived. Right now she could think of no reason why she would want to go on living. Livia had never really wanted a baby, yet once she’d found herself pregnant an unexpected joy had filled her. Without question, she would have given her life for her child.
After ten days of reasonably conscientious care, she was returned to the cell, and to Mercy, who hugged her with tears in her eyes.
‘I never thought I’d see you alive again,’ the other girl confessed. ‘I should never have suggested you join the hunger strike, knowing you were pregnant.’
‘You’re not responsible for my behaviour. The fault was entirely mine.’
Thankfully, Mercy had also called off her own hunger strike, as had the other women once they’d heard what had happened to Livia. But they hadn’t received the same care and nutrition as she had, and remained weak and debilitated. Dolly was in a particularly sorry state, her eyes sunken like dark pools in her small face.
The following morning at first light, they were all dragged from their beds, taken outside and, to their complete surprise, released. By a miracle, waiting to take them all home in the cart were Ella and Amos. Livia fell into her sister’s arms with cries of joy and relief.
‘How did you know we were to be released today?’
‘I’ve been writing to the prison every week, asking and asking for you to be let out. Amos even went into Kendal and used the telephone the other day,’ she proudly informed her sister.
Amos shrugged this off, as if using modern twentieth century communications was nothing to a man still farming by nineteen-century methods. ‘They told me what had happened, and that you were all to be released, so I thought it best to fetch the cart.’
‘Thank you, Amos, thank you! You don’t know how pleased we are to see you.’
He beamed with pleasure as his wife began to quietly weep.
‘Oh, Livia, I’m so sorry about the baby.’
The relief at seeing her beloved sister again, and the sympathy in her voice, reduced Livia to tears also. All the emotion she’d been bottling up inside came bubbling to the surface, spilling out in great gulping sobs. With great love and care, she was carefully settled on a mattress in the back of the cart and covered with a warm blanket. Mercy, Connie, Stella and Dolly were helped to climb aboard beside her, their weary faces wreathed in smiles.
Oh, but how she wished it had been Jack who’d come to collect her. Why hadn’t he come? Livia knew in her heart why. Jack had been against her becoming involved with the suffragette movement from the start, and events had served only to prove he was right. He would never forgive her for losing their child.
What had possessed her to take such a risk?
She’d somehow got so carried away by the cause that she hadn’t given the consequences of her actions a single thought. A fact she would now have to live with for the rest of her life. Worse, she’d married Jack because of the baby, and now she’d lost it. A bitter irony! Livia knew now, deep in her soul, that it was Matthew she truly loved, and not Jack at all. Her sacrifice had been for nothing.
The room was abuzz with noise and happy chatter. Livia sat on a chair at the back, watching with mixed emotions as Dolly and Mercy showed the ladies to their seats. These
represented the cream of the county, a kaleidoscope of colour almost as glamorous and fashionable as the models who would soon parade down the catwalk. Settling themselves comfortably, they fussed and fretted, rustled their programmes, and happily exchanged gossip as they waited for the fashion show to begin.
It had taken months of organisation to bring this event to fruition, and Livia had barely played any part in it. But then why would she? She’d sold the store to Matthew Grayson almost two years ago. Angel’s was no longer
her responsibility. Having lost her child in such dreadful circumstances, and with her marriage in trouble as a consequence, it had seemed the sensible thing to do at the time. Since then, Livia had concentrated on being a good wife to Jack. She felt she owed him that much at least. She could hardly bear to think what her recklessness had cost.
‘There you are, dearest, hiding away at the back.’ Ella appeared before her looking the picture of elegance in a belted jacket and
skirt, the deep cobalt blue a perfect foil for her eyes. A wide brimmed hat with a feather set off her pretty face, and she carried a matching parasol, although the sun was not strong on this cool summer’s day. Not for Ella the tweedy look generally associated with farmer’s wives, but then Amos liked his wife to dress well. The two sisters embraced and kissed cheeks.
‘The twins not with you?’ Livia asked with a smile.
‘Goodness, no, those rapscallions would bring havoc to any gathering. They are just at that age of being into everything. I left them safely at home in Mary’s care.’ Ella drew up a chair. ‘So, why aren’t you at the front with the other bigwigs?’
The eyes that now turned upon Ella were bleak with pain. ‘Because I can hardly bear to be
here at all. I know it was my idea to sell the store and give up on my dream. Jack didn’t force me, not really. But it’s as if a limb has been wrenched off me. You wouldn’t believe how much it hurts not to be a part of this.’
‘I only have to look at you to know how you feel.’ Ella gave her sister’s hand a little squeeze of compassion. ‘How are things generally? Did you see the doctor yesterday? What did he say? Is there any hope that—’
‘I’d rather not talk about all of that right now, Ella dear, if you don’t mind. I believe the show is about to begin.’
The fashion parade passed in something of a blur so far as Livia was concerned. A medley of summer frocks in pretty pastel shades, daring underwear with much lace in evidence about the knicker legs and petticoat necklines, and pink satin ribbons everywhere. Livia was glad to see that the days of be-frilled and frothy underwear were gone; the full-blown, blousy S-shaped figure giving way to a much straighter, neater line.
But what fun they must have had choosing it all, presumably under the shrewd eye of Mrs Dee. Livia swallowed a lump that rose in her throat as she recalled how much she’d enjoyed working with that dear lady. What an eccentric she was with her nips of gin and scarlet petticoats, and she had proved to be a stalwart friend, even
now. Whenever Livia visited the store, she would always make a point of coming over for a chat.
Oh dear, but where was the point in wallowing in nostalgia? Never look back, that’s what she told herself constantly. Easier to say than to do, unfortunately.
The show ended with a parade of evening gowns featuring boned bodices and wide cummerbunds, layered panels of gossamer fine chiffon, tassels and trains, draped skirts revealing a daring show of slender ankles, and long
sleeves. Graceful lines in luxurious fabrics: shimmering silk, cream chiffon, lace and velvet in a rainbow of delicate shades. Garments for the kind of life she would never lead. Nor would she ever be involved in selling them, which she would have found entirely satisfying and suited her better. If only things had turned out differently.
‘Are you all right, dearest? You look very pale,’ Ella whispered. ‘Really, I don’t think you should even be out—’
‘Ssh, I think Matthew is about to speak.’
Livia’s heart clenched with pain as she watched him mount the steps onto the catwalk. Smartly attired in a charcoal grey suit, pristine white shirt, and neat bow tie and waistcoat in a dashing pale grey silk, he looked what he was, a successful businessman whom any woman would
be happy to call her own. Yet she had rejected him.
He’d made it plain that he still wanted her, but to embark upon an adulterous affair was not Livia’s style. And having already devastated her husband with the loss of their child it would be too cruel, even for a liberal-minded ‘modern’ woman such as herself.
But that didn’t mean that she no longer held any feelings for him. His very smile reduced Livia’s insides to water as he now began to address the waiting audience. It was perfectly clear that they adored him. Charged with the excitement of a successful show, they drank in his every word as he explained how it had all come about, the hard work involved, the delightful new fashions they could now order and buy for themselves; and how he hoped this would become an annual event. He finished by thanking various members of Angel’s staff who had put in so many extra hours.
‘But before you partake of the wine and refreshments we have provided for your enjoyment, there is one more person I wish to thank: my predecessor, Miss Lavinia Angel - Mrs Jack Flint as I should rightly call her now, whose idea it was in the first place. Without her as the original motivator and consultant, there would have been no fashion show.’ He
lifted a hand to indicate where Livia was seated, and as heads swivelled in her direction, the swell of applause and smiling faces was almost overwhelming. Livia absolutely refused to stand but sat frozen in her seat, blushing to the roots of her titian hair and wishing the floor would open and swallow her up. She sighed with relief when the ladies began to collect their bags and wraps and drift away to check out the wine and canapés.
‘Forgive me, Ella, but I’m going to slip quietly away.’
‘But you can’t, I won’t let you.’ Ella sounded outraged at the very idea. ‘In any case, it would be most rude of you not to congratulate everyone. Come on, let’s go and mingle.’ And linking her arm very firmly in Livia’s, she led her sister to the refreshment room.
Angel’s Department Store now possessed its very own café, where ladies could meet their friends for coffee and a chat, just as Livia had once dreamt of them doing. Normally it served hot soup and rolls, salads and sandwiches, and glorious cream cakes which were immensely popular. Today it was awash with guests all sipping fine wine and nibbling locally produced ham and smoked salmon, and talking very loud. Ella had been waylaid by a whiskery lady who was extolling
the benefits of rubbing a concoction of honey and carrot juice onto the gums of fractious children who might be teething. Her sister didn’t look at all convinced, but Livia left her to it. Having been handed a glass of sparkling wine, she obediently made a beeline for Mrs Dee and the rest of the staff, to congratulate them on their success with genuine affection and sincerity.
‘It would have been much more fun if you’d been there too,’ that good lady pointed out, but Livia brushed the compliment aside.
‘I can’t recall anyone’s opinion on lingerie ever bettering your own, dear Mrs Dee. You are the expert, not I.’
Her erstwhile mentor’s cheeks turned rosy with pleasure. ‘It was certainly most satisfying. I enjoyed the challenge.’
Livia turned next to congratulate Mercy, who was now very much a part of this small empire. She worked in the sport’s department selling racquets and hockey sticks to budding enthusiasts, and boots to an army of eager fell walkers. Staff living conditions were much improved and she rented one of the rooms Matthew had purchased in the adjoining building. To Livia, it was simply a relief that the pair of them were no longer obliged to live under the same roof, which had proved to be quite a strain.
Kissing her on both cheeks, Livia said, ‘I
thought you all did a marvellous job. The whole thing was splendid. I loved those tennis frocks, Mercy. I’m sure they’ll sell like hot cakes.’
‘You should have brought Jack. Why didn’t you?’
Livia laughed. ‘You know my husband as well as I do. You’d never get Jack in a room full of women, particularly not when they’re parading about practically in their altogether, as he would describe it. Far too risqué.’
‘He would if you asked him properly.’
Livia didn’t pursue the argument. Relations with her half-sister had improved exponentially since the time they’d spent in prison together, but there was still the odd prickly moment. This was clearly one of them. The way Livia conducted her marriage was a constant source of acrimony between them. However much Livia did for him, however many sacrifices she made, it was never enough to suit Mercy. The girl adored Jack, worshipped and idolised him, as she had done ever since she was a child, and could see no wrong in him.
Fortunately, other guests were crowding round, eager to talk to the staff and ask about possible purchases, so Livia was able to slip away. She’d just found a quiet corner and taken a welcome sip of her wine when she heard a familiar voice in her ear.
‘I feared, for one terrible moment, that you’d run away again.’
Livia turned to face him, a resolute smile firmly in place. ‘I never run away.’
‘Yes you do. You run away all the time. From me, from this business, from life.’
Livia had heard this argument too many times to be cajoled into repeating it. Smiling, she said instead, ‘That was a splendid show, Matthew. You must be very proud. Everyone seemed to enjoy it.’
‘It was a nightmare to stage. I never needed you more, Livvy.’
‘Don’t. Please.’ She glanced desperately about her, seeking that escape she’d just denied she needed. ‘And how is your dear mother?’
He put back his head and laughed in that easy way he had that made her heart contract. ‘In the pink, as always. Mother frequently enquires after you too. “When is that very ‘modern’ girl going to call again?” she’ll ask. She actually accused me of ungentlemanly conduct when I told her you’d resigned and sold the store to me. I think she rather admired you on the quiet.’ There was a deep sadness in his eyes now as he gazed down upon her. ‘You can come back at any time, in any position you choose. You have only to say the word.’
Livia met his probing gaze with an open
frankness that always disarmed him. ‘And you know what would happen if I did.’
He grinned. ‘It might be fun. You can’t resist me for ever.’
‘I can resist you quite easily, Matthew, and it wouldn’t be fun at all. This isn’t a game. There was nothing between us but a few meaningless kisses. No commitment, no long-lasting promises of devotion, nothing serious at all.’
‘Is that how you describe that delicious cataclysm of desire that erupts inside me every time I set eyes on you?’
Livia ignored this remark with difficulty, doing her utmost to steady the tremor in her voice as she stoutly continued, ‘I have no intention of ruining my marriage for some silly fling. I’ve done enough damage to it already. Now I must go. Jack will be home soon and wanting his tea. Thank you for the invitation. It was a splendid show.’ If she didn’t escape soon, she might very well disgrace herself by falling into his arms and begging for more of those meaningless kisses.
Matthew caught her arm as she turned away, reluctant, as always, to let her go. ‘You know I don’t feel half as flippant as I sound. It’s my way of dealing with this awful situation. I want you. I need you, Livvy.’
‘I know.’ Livia ached to reach out and stroke his cheek, to smooth away that bleak pain from
his eyes, but aware of the bevy of gossiping ladies standing not too far away, she managed to hold herself firmly in check.
‘I wanted only to care for you. I would have married you like a shot, but you never gave me the chance.’ He was tenderly stroking each finger and for the life of her she couldn’t bring herself to withdraw her hand.
‘To take on another man’s child?’
Livia’s heart felt as if it were bleeding, as if little pieces of it were breaking apart and falling into an abyss. ‘We mustn’t talk like this, Matthew. I made my decision long ago, and it was the right one, in the circumstances. As things turned out … well, such is fate. Now you must forget all about me and get on with your life.’
‘How can I when you are so plainly unhappy?’
‘Now that’s where you’re wrong. I lead a very full life. I’m not at all unhappy.’
‘So what have you been doing with yourself since last I saw you, besides avoiding me, that is.’
‘I’m not avoiding you, I’ve been busy doing all manner of things. I’m working with the WSPU still, although no more rallies, I swear, and I’ve started a first aid course with the Red Cross.’
His expression sobered instantly. ‘You think this talk of war is serious then?’
‘Dear God, I pray the pundits are wrong, but it is looking increasingly likely. We’re all aware there’s been unrest in the Balkans for some time, and now with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, I fear for our future.’
‘And I fear that you are right. Russia will side with Serbia. The Austrian-Hungarian government will look to Germany for support, who could well snatch any opportunity to increase her power.’
‘And Britain will not like that.’
‘She will not. I agree these are dangerous times.’
‘So I mean to be as prepared as I can be to do my bit.’
Grey-green eyes softened with love for her. ‘I would expect nothing less from you, but don’t ask too much of yourself, Livvy. And don’t go on blaming yourself for what happened. You suffered a terrible tragedy, but you can’t allow it to dictate how you spend the rest of your life. You can’t tie yourself forever to a man you no longer like, let alone love.’
‘That’s unfair. Jack is a good man, even if he does have a few problems.’