Crimson splashed against ivory-white. Instinctively, I pressed my punctured thumb to my lips. Darn that needle. Limp and lifeless, the stained cloth crumpled on my lap. Could I, perhaps, embroider over the damage? I doubted it. The blood would still be seen under the layer of thread, like sunlight shining through a stained glass window. Reluctantly, I laid down the morning’s work and dragged myself out of the elegant wooden chair. Neatening my mop of mousy hair, I prepared to face my mistress and the head seamstress at Westminster Hall, Mrs. Byron.
A dominating, woman-of-the-world sat at the desk in front of me. If I could aspire to being as confident and sophisticated as she was, I would be content. Yet unfortunately, I was just a nervous, blundering apprentice. A lace ruff decorated the neckline of an exquisite hand-sewn dress, a deep blue colour, like the waves of the ocean. After a while, I realised I had simply been staring at my mistress’ outfit, and by the look she was giving me, I assumed she wished me to begin. "Well, Ma’am, you see, there was an incident with the needle, and the cloth I was using to make Madam Villier’s dress, yes, it got, well, it got damaged, and – " I stuttered.
“I see,” was the reply. “You shall be wanting more cloth, then?”
“Well, yes please Ma’am, if it would be possible.”
Mrs. Byron sighed, her eyes drifting off to the open window. Mine followed. Clustered like flies around a scent was a huge gaggle of animated women, protesting with white banners and chanting outside the Houses of Parliament. It was chaos. Blockading the main entrance, the petitioners were being invaded by a swarm of horse and foot soldiers, violently disrupting the riot with brutal weapons in hand. I didn’t need her to tell me. I knew what was going on. It was the war – this ghastly, formidable war. The war that ruined lives. The war that tore families apart. Brother against brother, friend against friend, father against son – just the imposing presence of it drenched my heart with fear. Our country was a macabre ghost-land, swallowed up by hate and hostility. I would know. It had changed my father. His eyes alone had told me. Before, the silvery blue glistened with a radiant joy, like the sun could never stop shining. Now, they were an ice cold grey, bitter, resentful, morose. One movement could make him snap. And truth be told, I was afraid of him. Afraid of my own father. That hurt. It hurt more than I knew hurt could hurt.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to pass through the turmoil outside if you wish to obtain more cloth. There is a selection of fabrics if you cross the Palace Yard and enter the building on your right. It appears we have run out of material, so you will need to take a large collection for future duties. Please be on your way, Miss Norman,” ordered Mrs. Byron. Obediently, I rose from where I was seated and began to make my way to confront the crowds. As I lingered on the doorstep, I felt a sudden sense of foreboding, as if an angelic voice was warning me of some dreadful event that would occur if I even dared to step into the cobbled yard. I pushed the premonition to the back of my mind, assuming it to be a childish fantasy, and advanced to greet the warm summer breeze.
White ribbons flittered past me like doves. The single ornament emerged from every hat as a symbol of peace, but peace was futile, merely a word. There never had been peace, and there never would be. Looking around at the populous convergence of daughters, mothers, wives, girlfriends, orphans, beggars, servants, apprentices and gentlewomen surrounding me, I caught the same glimmer of hope, of a wonderful dream, a relentless longing in every expression. So many women, persevering towards one beautiful, impossible ambition. Even a frail Irish lady, crouching bent double on the ground, feebly protested against this harrowing war. I wrenched myself away, unable to look at so many entranced under an illusion that would no doubt be destroyed.
Infiltrating the main commotion, I could now see the soldiers up close. Fear strangled me. For what reason, I did not know. I was on their side! But still, I felt the terror, like a snake, slithering up to its prey, was squeezing, stifling, smothering my scream, as he came closer, closer, closer. His chocolate brown eyes pierced my skin, as if he could see inside me, he knew me, he knew my thoughts, my fears, my hopes. And he raised the gun.
John Norman dusted absent-mindedly a pair of wide-rimmed spectacles. The day drew on into noon. He could still hear the voices, the shouts, the screams. Impatiently, he hurled the dusting cloth at the wall. “Peace,” he scoffed indignantly, “I would rather see the streets run with blood than that we should now have peace!” He thought of the King, the devilish scoundrel who had wasted the country’s wealth on ungodly pleasures. A King like him deserved no ‘divine rights’. He deserved the axe.
Clattering into the shop, a young, freckled man panted, “Sir, rumour has it that a woman has been shot!” John eyed his apprentice with amusement. “Do you honestly think I care?” he laughed unsympathetically, “It would not matter to me if a hundred of them were so served.”
Yet out of curiosity, and pleading from the apprentice, John Norman decided to leave his customer-forsaken spectacle shop and venture out into the commotion. Nothing could prepare him for what would come next. In the centre of a prying crowd lay a girl. Mousy curls framed her pale face. Spread out over stones coated in a spray of rubies was a deep red skirt, attached to a bodice the colour of snow.
Crimson splashed against ivory white.
Miss Norman, daughter of John Norman, was a real girl who was shot in the riot outside parliament in 1643. The soldier who fired the shot was investigated, but apparently let off when his defence that his pistol went off accidentally was accepted. However, some rumours at the time suggest that the soldier firing the shot bore a grudge against the old spectacle-seller and used the opportunity to kill his daughter. We do not know if the seamstress was unwittingly caught in the riot, or if she had decided to join in the unrest; nor if she was a victim of a tragic accident or an opportunistic murder.