London’s weather is horrible in February. The temperature is frigid and the city is covered in a cold fog. On that day the fog made everything look menacing, and what I could see of the storm clouds roiling above me made it even worse. I felt as if the weather was predicting that I would fail. Whenever a dark shape loomed close by I jumped, convinced that it was a policeman coming to arrest me or that my father or brother had noticed my absence and had come to find me.
Get a hold of yourself, Elizabeth, I admonished myself. I would be far more likely to get caught if I acted guiltily, jumping at every sound, and it was unlikely my father would actually care if he did notice I was gone.
Anyway, even I had to admit my disguise was rather good, especially after being giggled at by a group of girls shopping with their chaperones, stupid, vacuous creatures content with being herded around like cows and sold to the richest – and handsomest – bidder when they reached marriageable age. Me, I wasn’t going to be a cow. That was why I was dressed in Lawrence’s Sunday best – too big, but presentable – with my hair piled up under my father’s most expensive silk top hat on the way to the local polling station. On this occasion I was grateful for my brother being a lazy, no-good drunkard as it meant that there was no chance of him noticing my absence, or that of his clothes and passport. It was only fair that his previously unwanted vote got put to good use.
I turned the corner and almost ran into Miss Davison, a woman some years older than myself, who joined the cause a few years ago. I ducked my head as I passed her, pulling the brim of my hat lower over my face and speeding up. None of my friends or fellow campaigners knew yet what I was about to do, and I wanted to keep it that way until I had succeeded so that I could save myself the embarrassment if I did get caught.
“Votes for women!” I could hear ahead. “Votes for women.”
The chant got louder as I got closer to the polling station and sure enough, when I turned the corner into the street, I caught sight of a group of Suffragettes gathered around the polling station entrance wearing sashes over their dresses and holding signs which proclaimed ‘Votes For Women’. They were lobbying everyone who went into the station, and I recognised most of them. Helen and Ruth were there – my two friends who had spent the last few days trying to persuade me to join them today – and Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the WSPU, with her daughters.
By the time I reached them I had pulled my hat so far down that I could barely see where I was going, but I was sure I saw Ruth’s eyes narrow as I passed, almost as if she could sense that something wasn’t right about me – I just hoped she didn’t realise what.
Stepping through the door of the polling station was like stepping into another world. Dimly lit and smelling faintly of cigarettes, it was obviously male domain.
I squared my shoulders as I entered and lengthened my stride in what I hoped was a passable imitation of my brother. I had always been told that I wasn’t very pretty, that if I cut my hair and wore trousers I could pass for Lawrence, and I had always glared at anyone who said that, but as I approached the desk and the men behind it I hoped they were right.
Both men were old, their faces lined with age, and they smelt of smoke and mothballs. It was all I could do not to cough.
“Name?” one of them asked in a voice like the rustle of dead leaves.
“Law—” My voice was too high. I coughed. “Lawrence Gray, Sir.”
He peered up at me curiously from under wire-framed glasses and I had to fight to maintain a straight face. “Passport?” he asked eventually, holding out a wizened hand. I gave it to him.
He took a long time peering at the paper while I tried not to fidget, my nerves spiralling out of control as the other man, rather like a vulture in appearance, looked me up and down. Any second I expected him to jump up from his chair and sound the alarm, to call the police to remove me from the premises and throw me in prison, to destroy my entire scheme, but eventually the first man handed back my passport and a ballot paper and I made my escape to an empty booth.
My hands shook as I took the fountain pen from the table and used it to mark an X next to the Labour party’s candidate.
I was still listening for a shout of realisation as I posted the paper into the box and turned to leave the hall and as I left through the door and passed the suffragettes surrounding the entrance.
It wasn’t until I was nearing the end of the street and the sky released the tension of the storm in the first drops of rain that I let the relief and triumph wash over me in a tidal wave. I had done it. I, a woman, had voted in the general election. I couldn’t help the rather unladylike laugh which escaped once I had turned the corner into an empty street.
In the rather elaborate game of cat and mouse which was our campaign against parliament, the mouse had successfully stolen a little piece of cheese.