Was there ever a time when I satisfied your expectations, I wonder? Was it from infancy that I disappointed you? If not, at what point did you begin to look at me and sigh, and shake your head and turn away, only to turn your mind quickly to other things?
A little child collides with my knee. I look down to see two large hazel eyes staring back up at me. Its mother follows quickly after, scooping the child into her shawl and apologising through a shy smile. They go back to their spot on the deck not so far from the rail. The mother scolds the child, but joyfully, as though she weren’t scolding him at all but in fact implicating herself in a joke with the child. In fact, anything it does, no matter how rascally, seems to produce nothing but joy in the mother’s face. A boy. There is wear and tear in the child’s smock, although the mother has tried to conceal it with some deft needlework. Mother and father are decently dressed, but something tells me they only have one, maybe two, sets of good clothes, which they have pressed carefully for the first day of the journey, probably to impress upon the other passengers early on that they are of a certain caste, whether they are of it or not. Father looks anxiously into the distance, perhaps imagining the way he will build their new life, brick by brick, in Australia, or wondering whether it will simply tumble down on them. One never knows.
They say that the women in Australia are far less militant than in England, and that they are happier for it. I can’t imagine such a thing – happiness and inactivity seem anathema to me. But they say a lot about Australia and it’s difficult to sort the truth from the rumours. When a rumour moves through London it morphs a thousand times over between boroughs. Imagine how much it must mutate between hemispheres.
How far you have cast me, Mother.
I wonder if I too will mutate between continents. It is said that you can reinvent yourself in a new place, enhance this or that part of your personality, your wit, your charm, your mysteriousness, as one enhances her eyes or lips with makeup depending on what becomes her most.
But I fear I lack the imagination for such a transformation. Which part of myself should I emphasise and which parts should I fold away and leave behind in England, or else toss into the sea? Unlike my sisters I always struggled to identify which aspects of myself appealed to people and which didn’t. When I was still a girl you once told me that I was developing a penchant for the written form, but that my oration left a lot to be desired, so I should focus on the first. Father said otherwise, said that my natural home was on the soapbox. But you know I always valued your opinion above Father’s. He always made a point of being equally complimentary of all of us, which surely helped me as a girl. But I always knew you were the more discerning and had no interest in flattery for flattery’s sake. A woman has no use for false confidence in this world.
On that occasion he was right though. Delivering a speech I feel invincible. The first time I did it, at fourteen, was the closest I came to a religious experience. The act of writing was always more of a strain, like a muscle that refused to grow strong.
Further along from the young family, a group of men are lined up along the balustrade, competing to see how far they can spit into the open ocean. The wind picks up suddenly as the third man in the row takes his turn. The spittle, instead of launching out into the sea, is whipped around and splattered on his cheek. His friends virtually keel over with laughter. I can’t help but laugh with them at the sight of the poor boy.
I’m tucked into a corner near the hull, semi-hidden from view, on a little fold-out stool that I suppose they fold away when it storms. I have never developed steady sea legs, or steady legs at all really, and it comforts me to be close to a solid wall. I suppose I will have to develop some steadiness on this long trip though. I can’t creep along the walls for six weeks.
I decide to brave a walk around to the other side of the ship, clutching the railing as I go. As I round the bend of the hull I’m greeted by an exquisite sunset. The bright pink clouds seem to expand and contract at once, as though desperately trying to rid themselves of the light that bursts from them at every angle; the skin of the flat, calm ocean beneath is seared golden-orange.
Evenings were always my favourite time of the day, when our house would fill with the people whose names I have since encountered many times in the papers, and which I am sure will ricochet through history. As a little girl I would hear snippets of conversation whose contents I knew even then were far more momentous than that of the titter tatter of other society ladies and gentlemen.
I recall Father and Signore Malatesta getting into a savage argument one night, one of the rare occasions on which Father’s unflappability failed him. On his way out the Signore patted me on the head and said tuo padre è un mingherlino, ma se una di voi è abbastanza intelligente come tua madre, il mondo potrebbe essere bene.I had only just started studying Italian so I understood only a little but looked up the words immediately after. Your father is a piss ant but if one of you girls is half as smart as your mother the world might be okay.
The lines between public and family life were so blurred as to be irrelevant in our household. The dinner table was like a many-sided lectern. I learned my behaviour from watching my sisters in those conversations, quietly observing and wishing I had been born several years earlier so as to be able to keep up. I would wait to get their attention, or yours, for so long that I often fell asleep at the table as a girl. More often than not Father would end up carrying me up to bed.
I often wonder if things would have turned out differently if I had carried Father’s voice more resoundingly inside me. We three daughters always claimed to be carrying through his wishes, all claiming to know them better than the other in our desperate, but increasingly distinct quests to right the many wrongs of the world. But I now believe that was a lie, and that each of us was shaped more fully by our relations with you – by your vision of the world. Even when we disagreed on things, our respect for you only made us more determined to show we were right. Respect and reverence were always so close to fear and resentment on the spectrum of human relations.
You were like a centrifugal force in our world, one that sent us flying out from you, slow, then fast, then slow, but that always kept us attached, somehow. Perhaps it was when we became our own women, with our own ideas, that we detached. At least Sylvia and I did. It remains to be seen when that filial cord that ties you to Cristobel will snap, if ever. For now she remains, in my view, merely an adjunct to you. What would become of her if you were to die?
I feel the absence of my family now. The sadness is like a fist clutched around my sternum. An orphan at thirty-four.
Though I hold out hope that this Goldstein woman, whose doorstep you have directed me to, will become a fast friend. You are not such a monster that you would cast me completely adrift in the world. It is not all gloom that lies before me. The weather, for another thing, is undoubtedly preferable in the antipodes.
I find another spot to settle for the closing moments of the day on the left cheek of the ship. I breathe the sea air in deeply. It’s an entirely different smell to that of England’s beaches, with their rotting seaweed and lingering smells of industry. I’ve been told it will be good for my damaged lungs.
I have often drawn unwanted sympathy for my ailments, even though I never allowed them to get in my way. There have been times when my vigour and willingness to throw myself at things surprised even me. It never occurred to me that I should be an object of sympathy. And yet it has saved my life at least once. I recall how the orderlies stood over me as I coughed wretchedly, gazing at my withered legs which barely touched the foot of the tiny bed, and decided that they would prefer not to have such a creature die on their watch. So the tube and funnel were packed away for use on some other poor soul. And a day or two later, I’m uncertain of the length of that stay, I was released. It is quite possible that as well as my wretchedness, my surname – that name of your husband that you made so famous – also won me my freedom. I often wonder whether I would have died that day if I had been from a lower order. I suppose I should thank you for that. Either way, looking back, I believe it was the beginning of the end of my time in England.
Until then I had thought, like you, that we needed to demonstrate our commitment to the cause by putting our bodies on the line. What could be more noble than that? Of course, it also fitted nicely into the image of the martyred woman. She who throws herself in the firing line, who volunteers herself to be jailed is irreproachable. Unaccountable. Now I look back I believe there was a creeping patriotism within those actions.
From the beginning I had my reservations. I mistakenly expressed them to Cristobel who told me to shut my mouth, that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that she doubted my commitment to the cause. Probably she doubted my commitment to you – a far more serious offence in her eyes. Perhaps I would have formulated my thoughts earlier on, those bourgeoning doubts that grew in my heart like black balloons, had it not been for my enduring respect for you. Instead I waited for Sylvia to say it first. After my last spell in prison though, I more or less made up my mind. How could it possibly be useful to endure such things over and over again? And who has the constitution for such a thing? Not I. Every time I emerged weaker. And despite the increased ferociousness of our actions, or desperation rather, our struggle moved further and further into political obscurity. The further some of us crawled out onto the shaky limbs of that particular tree, the further we also moved from those who might support us. And so your disdain for the common woman grew. There was only one type of woman that interested you it seemed, and that was women like yourself.
Facta non verba.‘Deeds, not words’. Deeds, violence, have a language of their own, you said. Broken windows and exploded post offices speak louder than any chant, no matter how many voices make up the chorus. And that these were the acts of women, ladies even, made them all the more startling.
But one can obfuscate the question so easily through deeds detached from words. Just as our actions moved out of reach for most of our sisters, so our question – that of the Vote – broke free of its moorings in the political maelstrom of the time. For you, it took on a life of its own, becoming an abstract, holy thing that had nothing to do with the monumental struggles of ordinary people.
Your single-mindedness was at once your most impressive and infuriating trait.
And yet in the end your apparent raison d’etrewas in fact subordinate to the needs of the Nation, the same nation that doggedly refused to recognise our humanity. It only became clear to me then that you saw the two as going hand-in-hand. Your plan was laid bare to me. You would prove yourself to be the fiercest of patriots and in demonstrating your indispensability to the Nation you would demonstrate your deservedness. How long must we grovel?
I remember seeing that Irish woman spit at you in Manchester after you made the announcement. The one with the scar on her forehead holding the wasted child on her hip – I’d heard her speak in meetings and she was as formidable as she was poor. She missed, but you were horrified just the same. I recall that our eyes met in the moment after and that I looked quickly away as though it would be an insult to you for me to have witnessed such an act. Worse was that you knew I would sympathise with her.
And so you sent me away. A part deep down inside of me thinks you were just waiting for an excuse, and finally it had come. Why did you not send Sylvia packing? I suppose you knew that she would not have gone. She herself had become a leader, and publicly denounced you. How that must have wounded you, Mother. You saw your brilliance reflected in her, despite your profound, and explosive, differences of opinion. I shouldn’t feel for you though. Even then in your diminished but still considerable influence over the female half of the population, what a difference it might have made if you’d stood firmly against the madness of war, the mass destruction that now stares the world in the face.
We are moving steadily now, gliding over calm waters. I hope that it stays like this. I am petrified by the thought of a storm at sea. I quickly push out of my mind an image of the little boy in his blue smock floating lifeless in amongst the debris of the ship.
The ship hums and shudders beneath me.Before boarding I saw a cross-section image of the ocean liner – I wanted to reassure myself of its sturdiness. It looked to me like a gigantic whale had swallowed a beehive, hundreds of rooms and halls stacked on top of each other like the cells of honey comb.
Soon I will have to go below deck to the dining hall. The seagulls have disappeared and the first glittering stars have appeared in the sky. There is now but a sliver of land to be seen on the horizon. Spain perhaps, or Portugal. Or it could be another whale, a traveling companion, also with a beehive deep in its belly.
As we move further and further from Europe I can still feel the rumblings of war in her loins. I can hear the clanking of weaponry being arranged, guns and cannons being pointed over borders, the names of boys being called out in village halls to be sent to the front. I wonder if she will devour herself completely while I am on the other end of the earth.
How far you have cast me, Mother.
A bell rings for dinner. I gather my skirts and walk down into the belly of the ship that will deliver me into my new life.