Authors: Felicity Young
The Necropolis Railway, railway of the dead. Surely, Florence McCleland thought, there was no better place to plant a bomb.
Daphne glanced at the words above the well-lit station arch and snorted. ‘Why they need a sign up there, Lord knows. One can smell it from here.’
Was her co-conspirator teasing? Florence inhaled. All she could smell was the usual aroma of the London streets: lingering motorcar exhausts, horse dung, soot, and the pungency of blocked drains from a nearby public convenience. Now an image of malodorous corpses filled her mind, stacked in layers, waiting patiently for their final journey to the country cemetery.
Florence tightened her fists around the handlebars of her bicycle. The splashes of dried white paint over its seat and frame were an amusing reminder of the night they’d daubed their slogans across the Prime Minister’s motorcar — she hadn’t had so much fun in months. Thoughts of that escapade bolstered her spirits somewhat, though not enough to keep her from sticking like a limpet to Daphne’s tail. It was ridiculous really, her revulsion and her fear. With an autopsy surgeon as a sister, and her friend Daphne a nurse, she should be used to such earthy talk. But truth be told, the demystifying of death seemed to have made the process all the more horrific to her. Florence wondered, not for the first time, why she had volunteered for this mission.
Daphne came to a sudden halt causing Florence to drive her front wheel into her friend’s calf. ‘Sorry,’ she murmured.
Unperturbed, Daphne stopped, nodding towards some spearheaded railings. ‘Over there should do.’
They wheeled their bicycles over, propping them up with a racket sufficient to wake the station’s occupants. Florence held her breath and peered about. Nothing stirred, nor was there any sudden light from the windows of the funeral office. Given the hour there was little traffic about. The headlamps of the occasional motorcar pierced the sooty darkness. The lantern of a delivery cart swung to the rhythm of the lumbering horse, its driver hunched half asleep over the reins.
Florence hefted a small but heavy leather attaché case from her bicycle’s basket and followed Daphne to the station entrance. The double wrought iron gate to the station was wide enough for a hearse or funeral carriage to pass through with plenty of space on each side. Beyond the gate she glimpsed a passage lined with clean white bricks. The hands of an illuminated ceiling clock pointed to five minutes after one. To the left of the gate the funeral offices loomed, to the right, a blackened blank wall. They almost stumbled across a vagrant woman slumped asleep against it. Daphne paused to lift the brim of the woman’s floppy straw hat.
‘Don’t wake her, for goodness sake.’ Florence took hold of Daphne’s arm and pulled her away.
‘She might be someone from the Women’s Clinic.’ Like Florence’s sister Dody, Daphne’s mind never strayed far from her work.
Florence sighed. ‘There’s nothing you can do for her now. We’ll just have to shoo her away after we’ve planted the bomb.’
‘Yes, of course. And we must make sure to cover our faces so we can’t be identified.’
Florence nodded. They’d both looped scarves around their necks to pull over their faces should circumstances warrant it.
Daphne turned the handle of the gate. It was locked, as expected. At least the place did not employ a night watchman — or so their intelligence team had assured them.
‘Who in their right mind would want to break into
place?’ Christabel Pankhurst, the suffragette leader, had said during their final briefing.
Daphne linked her hands and hoisted Florence up as if into a saddle. Florence grabbed at the gate’s top curlicues, her free foot nudging at the decorative wrought iron for a toehold. Withdrawing her foot from Daphne’s hands, she spread herself against the eight-foot-high gate like a four-legged spider. In a bruising manoeuvre, she hooked her knee over the top curlicue and hauled her stomach and thigh over the gate. Positioned thus, she grabbed hold of the attaché case that Daphne, standing on tiptoes, held out to her. Florence let gravity do the rest. Allowing her body to slide down the other side she landed gracefully on her feet, with only a slight thunk of the case.
As she unravelled her bunched up skirt, renewed confidence overtook her earlier feelings of trepidation. All that jujitsu training seemed to be paying off. And didn’t Christabel say that Daphne and she had been chosen from the ranks of volunteers for their lithe bodies and athleticism? ‘Young, fit and passionate — just the ticket,’ were their leader’s very words.
‘Nothing to it,’ Florence whispered, adjusting her hat. She’d selected a sensible toque for the mission. It wouldn’t do to wear a big flapping hat likely to fall off at the critical moment.
She thrust her hands through the gate to make a stirrup for Daphne and within seconds Daphne was over the gate, too, and standing beside her in the first and second class entrance of the Necropolis Railway.
Florence had not attended a funeral here since she was a child, yet she could still remember the place with almost photographic detail. The ceiling was made of glass, the passageway paved with white tiles and bordered with potted palms and beech trees to lift a mourner’s gloom. Gilt-adorned doors protected the plush first-class waiting rooms. The not-quite-so-plush doors of the second-class rooms were adorned with silvery-coloured tracery. The third-class hall was situated out of sight further down the railway track.
Deliveries for the undertakers rested against the passage wall: crates, a heavy stack of memorial leaflets, a wooden barrel — sherry for the mourners, perhaps? Embalming fluid?
Don’t be silly
. Florence attempted to rein in her galloping imagination. The mortuary rooms were much further down the passage, conveniently located in the arches of the old viaduct, where the bomb’s impact would not reach. Those rooms would have their own delivery entrance. Mortuary supplies would not be kept here.
The women glanced at one another. Without words they edged the barrel towards the gate. When their mission was accomplished they could use it to climb back over the gate and make a speedy getaway.
Florence squatted on the ground and clicked the case open. Daphne removed the newspaper wrapping around their lantern and lit the wick. They closed the bag leaving the wired and similarly wrapped dynamite in situ and set off down the passageway. Their footsteps echoed off the tiled floor as they passed the waiting rooms. They stopped when they reached the room they were looking for, the main Brookwood Cemetery administration office. While Daphne shone the lantern on the door lock, Florence unsheathed her hatpin and prodded at the keyhole. One of their members had learned the technique when she was last imprisoned and had passed her skills on to the rest of the Bloomsbury Suffragette Division. The tumbler gave way and the door opened with a satisfying groan.
At first glance the room looked no different to any other office: shelves bulging with files and books, a partner’s desk, and visitors’ chairs. The photographs on the walls, however, marked the place as unusual, depicting row after row of regimented graves and decorative mausoleums; mournful angels and weeping cherubs; eerie glades and shady bowers; oversized urns and weighty crosses.
Daphne put the lantern on the desk. Even the robust nurse seemed to have paled beneath its rosy glow. ‘Simply ghastly,’ she murmured as she looked around. ‘Who could work in such a place? All those graves look so wrong massed together in the countryside like that — industrial even. And where’s the church? No pictures of a church at all.’
‘Almost like the new housing estates,’ Florence agreed. ‘But I suppose they have to put the bodies somewhere, and there’s no room left in London for them. Come on, old girl …’ She encouraged her friend, hoping her voice sounded stronger than it felt. ‘Let’s keep our minds on the job. Put the bomb there on the visitor’s chair. It doesn’t have to be hidden. It’s not as if anyone’s going to see it.’
Florence held out the attaché case and Daphne removed the bomb — sticks of dynamite wired by their by their Irish explosives expert to an alarm clock She glanced at the fob on her coat, set the alarm clock for one thirty, gave it a wind and placed it back in the case on the chair.
Florence could not help herself — she shot Daphne a schoolgirl smile. ‘Just a minute,’ she said, removing some colourful ribbons from her pocket and tying them to the handle of the case.
Daphne laughed. ‘What’s the point? The ribbons will be blown to smithereens anyway.’
‘Symbolism, my dear Daphne, symbolism.’
Daphne grinned and grabbed the lantern. They rushed from the office and closed the door, both leaning against it as if to contain a wild beast. Upon meeting one another’s eyes, they erupted into peals of nervous laughter — they’d done it!
‘Oi, what the ’ell do you fink you’re doin’?’
The women gasped and whirled towards the voice, trying to make out the face behind the raised lantern. The man seemed a long way up.
Their intelligence team had got it wrong. There
a night watchman, and he was a burly fellow to boot.
‘My dog, sir, I came for my dog,’ she said shakily. ‘We were taking her for a walk and she squeezed under the gate. She’s very small — no bigger than a rabbit. Have you seen her?’
The women began to edge back down the passage towards the main entrance. At a fast sprint they might make it to the gate before him. But that would mean leaving the man behind to the mercy of the bomb, and they couldn’t do that.
‘A likely story,’ he said. ‘You was in that office, I saw you leave. You’re some of ’em pesky suffragettes. I’ll stake my life on it.’
Lord, Florence thought, you might well have to. Bloody hell, they had less than ten minutes — what to do?
‘Just stay where you are, right there.’ The man moved towards them and raised his arm as if to clamp Florence on the shoulder. Before he could connect, though, her training kicked in. With snake-like speed she grabbed his arm and twisted her body under his. His lantern shattered as it hit the floor. For the briefest of moments, he lay across her shoulder like a sack of coal. Then, with an arch of her back and a kick of her hip, she sent him tumbling through the air to land on the tiled floor like a slab of dead mutton.
Daphne clapped her hands. ‘Bravo, Florence! Bravo!’
Florence dropped to her knees and examined the unconscious man. Her sense of elation trickled away with the blood that streamed from his head and bloomed red upon the white tiles.
‘He must have cracked his head when he fell,’ Daphne said as she felt the man’s pulse. She lifted his eyelids and shone the lantern into his eyes. ‘Alive, thank God, but concussed. What are we going to do?’
‘Do you know how to turn the bomb off?’ Florence asked.
Daphne looked stunned. ‘No, I thought
A frozen patch in Florence’s stomach began to spread through her body. ‘They only … they only taught me how to set the alarm clock, not turn it off.’ She put her hands to her mouth and chewed on her glove, eyes fixed on the ceiling clock as if she could will time to stand still. In five minutes the office would be blown to bits.
‘We can’t carry him over the gate …’
Think, think, think
, Florence murmured to herself. She took a deep breath, roused herself from her numbed state of panic and patted the watchman down. A bulge in his waistcoat revealed a heavy iron key.
‘To the gate?’ Daphne asked.
‘I sincerely hope so.’
To their relief the key turned in the lock and the gate swung open. They grabbed an arm each and dragged the man into the street, leaving a slippery red trail in their wake. Florence felt sick. There was not supposed to have been anyone in the building at this time of night – that was one of the main reasons the Necropolis Railway had been chosen for the attack. An explosion here would provoke shock and horror and draw tremendous attention to their cause, but would do little damage. ‘Not a cat or a canary’ was to be injured during their battle for the vote. They had just broken one of the suffragettes’ most rigorously enforced rules.
They dragged the unconscious man to safety behind the gas-lit public convenience. The old woman had left her spot by the railings and there was no one in the vicinity of the station entrance.
Fear for the watchman had erased Florence’s sense of time. When the station exploded, it struck with the surprise of a thunderclap, knocking her to the ground. She curled into a foetal position while everything happened at once. Overwhelming pressure built up in her body and threatened to burst her apart. A sucking motion, like the force of a retreating wave, tore at her clothes. The office windows erupted; shattered glass cascaded down, ricocheting off the ground like hail. Smoke and flames spewed from the blown gate.
The women huddled behind the convenience, shielding the injured man as best they could. The small building shook as heavy objects landed on its roof. Ornate gas lamps popped and sputtered. Putrid fumes scoured their lungs. The women gasped for air and retched.
When at last the racket began to diminish and the air to settle, Florence peered tentatively around the corner, her ears ringing. Then there was the pop of another, smaller explosion. Something cannonballed through the air towards her. She darted back behind the wall and watched as the object rolled for a few feet before coming to a halt.
A woman’s head.
Two dull blue human eyes, fixed and unwavering, gazed back into her own.