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Historical Fiction Friendship Inspirational

Content warning: mild swearing, mention of death

The Thief and The Fighter


Wednesday 4th June, 1913


Anyone with sense and an empty stomach knows the races aren't for watching horses. They’re for watching pockets - bulging ones, specifically. And there’s no better place in the world for wallet-spotting than here, the Epsom Derby, where the crowd is bloated with booze, and purses are bloated with coins. Well, at least that’s what Benny says.

My older brother was born for thieving; he boasts his fingers are like smoke, his reactions faster than lightning. And rightfully so. I can tell by the smugness plastered on Benny's face as he weaves through the crowd, that he’s struck gold again. Or silver, or copper, or anything that’s worth a quid. 

“Es’cuse me, Miss”

“Don’t mind me, Sir”

“Comin’ through, ‘ere"

He winks as he reaches me, and I notice his hand is gripping something tight.

“What you got, now, Benny?” I have to shout over the hubbub of the crowd and the low rumble of horses galloping past.

He shakes a small box in my face. “Fourth one I’ve found today.” Flipping open the lid, he pulls out a cigarette. “Don’t tell Pa that I’m smokin’ the stock, alright? Still got that match?”

I hand it to him and he strikes the head against the sole of his shoe. Sandwiched between his lips, the paper cylinder sizzles as it meets the flame and he inhales deeply.

“Any luck?”

Swallowing my grimace, I show him my modest bounty, minus the matchstick that’s now smouldering on the grass. A wooden thimble, an empty snuff-box and a bent copper button rests in my palm.

“That's it?” My brother asks. “Jesus, we’ve been here for an hour. I could have fetched more with my eyes closed."

“No one’s got anything worth nicking!” I protest.

Benny almost coughs on the smoke. “Nothing worth nickin’, eh?” He drops his satchel to the floor and unfastens the buckles. Huddled at the bottom sits five silver shillings, an ornate pocket watch, a heap of silk handkerchiefs and the other three cigarette cartons. It’s impressive, even for Benny. I sigh and drop my knick-knacks into the bag, too.

“Look, maybe this just ain’t for you, Lou. Thieving ain’t really a woman's job, anyway. To be honest, a young girl like you, shouldn’t even be at the races.” He tucks a strand of my hair under my flat-cap. “Pa will understand. What else can you see yourself doin’?”

I shrug. I’d never thought about it before.

He flicks the cigarette over the sea of heads. “Well, I think the cotton mill is looking for girls."

I pull a face. “On Hook Street? With Buck Teeth Beatrice? Pffft. I’d rather dig graves with Pa.”

At that moment, the crowd erupts as a dark stallion whips across the track. Murmurs ripple around us, but I only catch fragments.  

“That’s Anmer,”

“He’s the King’s horse,”

“I bet a crown on him,”

The animal’s mane lashes in the air, and Anmer’s four legs seem to blur as he quickens. The jockey, hunched forward and clinging to the reins, bobs in rhythm with the horse, and although I can’t see his face, I’m sure he’s smiling. How could you not, being so high up and free? 

“A jockey.” The words slip from my tongue as I track the stallion, who's now a speck on the other side of the course. 

“What?”

“A jockey, Benny,” I reply louder. “You asked what I could see myself doing.”

His face cracks into a grin that he fails to wipe away with his hand. “You can’t be a jockey, Lou.”

Irritation prickles me and I cross my arms. “And why not?”

“Well, for starters, you ain’t ever ridden a horse.” Benny fiddles with the cigarette packet and pries out another roll-up. 

“Well, I’m only eleven -”

“No offence, Lou,” he interrupts, “but have you seen a girl jockey before?” 

Silence confirms that I haven’t. 

“It’s like girls thievin’’, ” he continues. “Same with fightin’ or bettin’, you’re just not built for it.” 

The only other thing Benny excels in, other than pick-pocketing, is getting under my skin. He’s like a bruise - harmless, until you prod it too hard. 

“I am built for thieving, gibface.”

“Well, go on then. Prove it.” 

Prove it. These two simple words have dropped me in trouble countless times. Like last summer, when I convinced Benny that swimming four laps of Marble's pond would be easy, or the time that I said I could drink six pints in an hour. In both cases, I ended up collapsed on the floor, spewing fluid over myself.

But, despite better judgement, it’s an invite I can’t refuse. What’s worse is my brother knows it, too. 

We spit and shake hands.

 “Just don’t act suspicious, okay? Oh, and sort your hat out, will you?”

The school boy disguise is Benny’s idea, in case I'm spotted wrist-deep in someone's bag. Apparently he doesn’t need one. Fingers like smoke - remember?  

I cram my plaits under the hat, and with a last nod toward Benny, I start elbowing through the crowd. 

A trail of muttering and disgruntled glances follow me. More than once, I knock into someone mid-sip, resulting in beer spraying in the air. Still, after an awkward apology, I continue to push forward. Coins clink temptingly in pockets, an occasional hand-mirror peeks out from an open purse, but it’s too easy. Too ordinary. I need to discover something that makes my brother’s pocket-watch look like a mound of scrap metal with an irritating tick.

Soon, a wall of bodies blocks my path. Peering between their shoulders, I see the barrier which marks the edge of the race course, meaning, this is as far as I can go. The people in front are, strangely, all women, and dressed very fancy, too, in whites and purples and greens. Some are waving placards, and although I can’t read the writing, I assume it's encouragement for the king and his marvellous horse.

And that’s when I spot it - something glinting in the sun. I duck into the crowd, veiling myself under shadow, to survey the object closer. It’s circular, the same size as a penny, and in the centre a mauve gemstone glistens. Etched around the golden circumference are the same three words written on the women’s signs and banners. Despite being oblivious to the meaning, it remains the most beautiful brooch I’ve ever seen. And perhaps, the most expensive. The only problem: it’s fastened to a lady’s sash. 

My brother’s voice worms into my mind. 

Well, go on then. Prove it.

Drawing a big breath, I will my hands to steady. Be like Benny, I remind myself. Fingers like smoke, reactions like lightning. And carefully, I untether the pin.

Only when my fist is clenched around the detached brooch, do I allow my lungs to exhale. 

Who’s built for thieving, now, ay, Benn-

My stomach flips as I’m knocked backwards. The air whistles past my ears, and in an attempt to regain balance, my arms whirl in circles. It’s hopeless, and my bottom hits the ground with a thump. 

The lady wearing the sash whips around, face scrunched in concern. “I am so sorry. I didn’t see you down there.”

Bugger, bugger, bugger. 

“Are you hurt?” She extends her hand out to me, but I can’t take it, as her pin - well, my pin, now - is, thankfully, still secure in my grip.  

I haul myself up and shake my head.

She sighs with relief. “Good. What’s your name, girl?” 

Girl? I look down at the ground. My flat-cap is crushed under my boot and my two braids are dangling free.

Again, bugger. 

Heart hammering in my chest, I scan my surroundings, looking for somewhere to flee; an opening in the crowd to escape to, but I’m stuck. There’s no way out except pushing through the mob again. Besides, if I run, when she realises her brooch is missing, she’ll know exactly who has stolen it. What would Benny do?

Stay calm, make polite conversation, and ‘just don’t act suspicious, okay?'

“It depends who you ask,” I reply, as flatly as I can. “My family calls me Lou, but to everyone else, I’m Louise.”

Maybe I should have given a false name.

Although it’s difficult to see under her wide-brim hat, it looks like her eyes are smiling. "Now, tell me, Louise, what is a young girl like yourself doing dressed like a boy?”

I scrunch my fist tighter. A reminder that all of this chit-chat will be worth it once I show Benny the pin.

“My brother says girls don’t belong at the races, so I don’t dress like one.”

It’s a partial lie, but what’s another sin added to the list?

“Well, tell your brother that he’s wrong about that.”

My attention is drawn back to her friends with the placards. Curiosity nips me, and I can’t help but ask: “What are you doing with the banners?”

The woman glances up at the signs, and when her eyes return to me, she seems taller, somehow. “We’re fighting.”

“But women ain’t built for fighting,” I respond, sounding more like Benny than ever.

“Women are especially built for fighting." She says it as though it's a simple fact. And although my brows knit together in confusion, she explains no further.

"Now, you better get back to your family before they start worrying. Goodbye, Louise. Look after yourself,” 

I take a step backwards, but before I can disappear into the crowd, she adds: “And look after my brooch, too. It’s very special to me.”

My body freezes. All the moisture seems to evaporate from my mouth. But she doesn't look angry, in fact, quite the opposite.

“I understand, Louise, that sometimes, it’s necessary for a woman to do bad things, even illegal things, if it's for the right reason. Like stealing jewellery to buy food." She gestures vaguely at her friends. “Like fighting to be heard.” 

I nod, although I don’t fully understand. Is she saying I can keep it? Hesitantly, I unravel my palm. In the daylight, the gemstone shines even brighter and I attempt to read the engraving. 

Votes For Women 

“What do the words mean?” 

She looks down at her purple sash proudly which, without the pin, is starting to slip from her shoulder. “It means you can be whatever and whoever you want to be. Even if others, like your brother, say otherwise.”

The thunder of hooves grows louder, and with a tip of her hat, the lady turns away. I don’t even have time to say thank you.


***


When I find Benny, I’m out of breath. He removes his third cigarette from his mouth - preparing to ask where my hat is, most likely - but before he can speak, gasps gush from the crowd.

“What’s happened?” I ask Benny.

“Not sure. Think there’s been an incident on the track.” Even on tip-toes, my brother's not tall enough to see, so he crouches down and gestures for me to hop on his shoulders.

"What's goin' on, Lou?"

First, I notice the jockey and his horse. Not just any horse - the King's stallion, Anmer - I can tell by the warm hues intertwined in its mane. It stands calmly on the course, pawing the turf, but unlike earlier, the jockey isn't straddling the animal. No, the man is sprawled out on the grass, cradling his arm to his chest.

"Well, the jocky's alive," I report to Benny.

But there’s something else on the circuit, too, or rather, someone else. An open sash billows in the wind and a wide-brim hat is blown into the third lane. 

My heart sinks. The world blurs.

My new friend, the lady with the smiling eyes, lays motionless on the grass.

I wipe my nose with my sleeve. 

“And there's a woman, too." I'm purposely vague. It feels right to keep her, and the brooch, a secret. "I think she’s been hit.” 

“What did I say, eh?” My brother lowers me to the ground. “Girls just aren’t meant for the races. Now, let's get out of 'ere. ”


***


We wander down Hook Street with only the clanging and chinking from Benny's satchel keeping us company. He doesn't bother asking if I found anything worth adding to his stash.

A few Bobbies plod by, making their way towards the Derby. As they pass, I hear them spouting different theories as to how the woman ended up on the track. Suicide, freak accident, stupidity.

But they're wrong. I know that, whatever the reason, it had purpose. She was fighting to be heard.

I stop outside the mill and imagine Buck Teeth Beatrice inside, wisps of cotton in her hair.

"Hey, Benny?"

“Yeah?” My brother halts, too.

“I meant what I said.”

His eyebrow cocks. “About what?” 

“About being a jockey.”

"Even after today?" He asks.

I nod.

“I told you, there’s no such thing as girl jockeys.”

The golden brooch is comforting in my grasp, and I trace the three words with my thumb.

It means you can be whatever and whoever you want to be.

I take a deep breath. “Well, I’ll be the first, then."

Benny scans me and a grin creeps onto his lips. But it's different this time. It's not a sarcastic smirk. It’s genuine.

“You know, you might be right, Lou.” He resumes strolling down the street. “But you know what you gotta do?"

“What?” I ask, catching up with him.

He spits in his hand. “Prove it.”


Historic Notes & Writer Ramblings

On 4th June 1913, the Epsom Derby took place - one of the UK's largest horse racing events. It was attended by Emily Wilding Davidson, a Suffragette and WSPU member. Prior to 4th June, Emily had been arrested a total of 9 times in relation to campaigning and protesting on behalf of the suffragettes. Her tactics included breaking windows, throwing rocks, even planting bombs.


Emily decided to use the Epsom Derby as a platform for protest. When the King's horse, Anmer, was racing, she ran out in front of it and unfortunately, the impact injured her so badly that she died in hospital four days later.


There was a lot of speculation as to why Emily ran out onto the track. Some said it was a suiside attempt, others said she wasn't aware the horse was there. But recent analysis of the old video footage indicates that Emily was trying to attach either a flag or a sash to the King's horse which read 'Votes for Women.'


Her death was a huge moment in suffragette history. It brought masses of media and news coverage to the cause. At her funeral, on the 13th, a procession of 5,000 suffragettes and their supporters accompanied her coffin, and 50,000 people lined the route through London.


I used to live near Epsom, and whenever I would drive past the race track, I would think of Emily. Just like Lou, I'm inspired by her and her story, but also saddened that her life ended so tragically, fighting to be heard.

September 16, 2022 18:58

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5 comments

Shirley Medhurst
10:01 May 13, 2023

I LOVED your story,L! A really clever way of recounting that tragic event, 👏 BRAVO! It was very well written. I especially enjoyed the realistic dialogue between the siblings - very appropriate for that time. Lovely imagery too when Benny lights his cigarette (“paper cylinder sizzles…..” & “….brother’s voice worms into my mind”) I too am really fascinated by the Suffragette struggle & have done lots of research into that era. Emily’s devotion to her cause was exceptional, without a doubt. If you’re interested in the subject, please check ou...

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L.M. Lydon
19:21 Sep 18, 2022

Thank you for bringing a less well-known moment in women's history into the light and with a strong female narrator. On a technical note, dialect is HARD. I'm impressed.

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L Key
16:13 Sep 19, 2022

Hi L.M. Thank you so much for reading. Yes, there were so many heroes in the suffragette movement and the majority aren't remembered sadly. If even a couple of people have learned of Emily now, I'm very happy about that. Regarding the dialect, I must confess, having a cockney Grandma helps a lot, haha!! Thanks again for your feedback. Really appreciate you taking the time to write.

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Daniel Allen
15:23 Sep 18, 2022

I really enjoyed this story. You created some great characters and the protagonist, in particular, was perfect for bringing home the importance of this moment. Keep up the great work!

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L Key
16:08 Sep 19, 2022

Thanks so much for reading Daniel. Really appreciate the kind words.

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