QUEENIE HOLKHAM'S footsteps echoed off the grimy brick walls either side of her. She looked nervously over her shoulder. There was no-one behind her, but a poorly-lit alleyway in Brixton on a damp autumn night did not entirely inspire confidence. She paused under a dim light to check her note of the address she sought. Green door with nameplate MacSween, she reminded herself.
The green door proved to be only a few yards further on. She opened it tentatively to find a stone stairway barely more brightly lit than the alley outside. Sounds of activity upstairs were audible. It seemed to be the right place so, feeling more confident, Queenie mounted the stairs.
The double doors at the top of the staircase opened into a large open room that had apparently once been the upper part of a factory or warehouse, with a skeleton of ironwork supporting a roof indistinctly visible above the strong electric lighting suspended from it. A group of women of various ages, but predominantly in their 20s and 30s, were performing physical exercises in unison in the centre of the lit area.
A small grey-haired woman in her 50s or possibly older was barking out instructions and encouragement to the class. "Take a break, ladies," she called out as she saw Queenie enter. The said ladies stopped immediately and adopted various postures of exhaustion, some of them sitting or lying on the floor, as they regained their breath.
Queenie waited at the door as the woman strode across to her. "Bella McSween," she announced in a robust Glasgow accent and extending a hand. Queenie offered hers and was rewarded with a bone-crushing handshake.
"Victoria Holkham," Queenie replied. "I wrote to you a few days ago about exercise classes?" she added tentatively.
"Nae need tae bother wi' that," Bella MacSween replied dismissively. "Ye could hae just turned up. We stand on nae ceremony here."
Queenie was intrigued. She recognised a Glasgow accent when she heard one, but she could also hear a carefully enunciated educated voice, as if the accent had been lost and then readopted as a sort of costume. Bella MacSween was a compactly-built woman, the top of her head, with its closely-cropped steel-grey hair, barely reaching Queenie's chin. She wore an old and comfortable-looking baggy grey sweater over a startlingly short black skirt and heavy black stockings. On her feet were flat-soled soft leather boots. Queenie wondered if they were boxer's boots. The firm curves of the legs and the square shoulders suggested a solidly-muscled frame. The slash of blood-red lipstick looked slightly out of place.
"D'ye hae somethin' tae change intae?" Miss MacSween asked. Queenie indicated the small carpet-bag she carried. "Well, ye can change behind there," she continued, pointing to a curtained-off area.
Queenie quickly made her way to the changing area and removed her outdoor clothes. It was cold in the gymnasium and she lost no time in getting her exercise outfit on. Queenie favoured practicality and warmth in her exercise clothing. She wore a pair of black alpaca knickerbockers, a matching thin round-necked sweater with three-quarter length sleeves and a pair of fine black wool stockings which she rolled down below her knees. She felt that her brand-new rubber soled black canvas plimsoles rather revealed her as a novice gymnast.
Bella MacSween had already restarted the class, with the ladies swinging Indian clubs as she shouted encouragement. Queenie picked up a pair of clubs and then joined in. The chilliness of the air in the gymnasium soon wore off as Queenie warmed up. Floor exercises followed, then rope climbing and lifts and swings on the parallel bars. A series of gentle bends and stretches allowed the ladies' bodies to cool down gently at the end. Queenie was relieved to see that her level of physical fitness, while not exceptional, was nothing to be ashamed of.
There was a great deal of chattering as the ladies of the class changed out of their costumes and back into their everyday clothes. They seemed to be from all walks of life and strata of society. It was clear to Queenie that the gymnastics class was as much a social event as it was an occasion for physical exercise.
Queenie still needed to pay for the course of classes she planned to take, so she stayed behind to see Bella MacSween after the others had left. She found Miss MacSween painstakingly chalking up dates and times of classes on a blackboard. She was having trouble making the lettering an even size and keeping the lines of text level. "Let me help," offered Queenie. "I'm a schoolteacher."
It took only a few minutes for Queenie's practised hand to draw up the timetable that Miss MacSween had written out on paper. The beautiful copperplate handwriting supported Queenie's assessment of the instructor as an educated woman.
"The kettle's on if you fancy a wee cuppie o' tea," Bella MacSween invited as Queenie dusted the chalk off her hands. Queenie followed Miss MacSween into a small brick box of an office, almost a separate building built against one wall inside the gymnasium, possibly a supervisor's office from its industrial past. It was much warmer inside the office which was heated by a small iron stove complete with hissing kettle. Queenie sat on the battered wooden chair indicated and took in her surroundings. There was a desk, a small bookcase, a wardrobe, a filing cabinet and a surprisingly large iron safe which made the small office seem quite crowded. The walls were decorated with an assortment of pictures, several of them women in athletic costumes and wearing boxing gloves. It took a moment for it to dawn on Queenie that they were all pictures of a younger Bella MacSween.
"My disreputable past," Miss MacSween confirmed with a grin, looking up from the teapot and noticing Queenie's fascinated gaze. "Women's boxing is not an entirely respectable sport, but it's how I made my name and made the money to open this place." The rough edge seemed to have disappeared from her accent. It was still unmistakably a voice from the west of Scotland but distinctly less working class.
Queenie accepted the big mug of strong tea that was thrust into her hands and sipped it while wondering where to take the conversation.
Bella MacSween saved Queenie the trouble of thinking up a fresh conversational gambit. She looked gravely at Queenie, who was still hiding behind the mug that she clutched in both hands. "Miss Holkham," she began, "most ladies join my classes because they know other people who attend them. You seem to have sought me out and unless I am mistaken, I sense in you some definite purpose in taking up gymnastics. It's terribly nosey of me to be so direct, but I would love to know what brings you here."
Queenie hesitated for a moment and decided that her secret ambition might not seem too ridiculous in these circumstances and might well receive a sympathetic ear. She began by explaining how she had been to see the great Harry Houdini when he visited London in 1908 and how she had been thrilled by his escape act. Since then (she explained) she had harboured an ambition to become an escape artist herself. It had been little more than idle fancy until a few months previously when a favourite aunt had passed away and left her an astonishingly large sum of money. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and she had seized the chance to make her dream a reality. She had handed in her required one term's notice to the primary school where she worked and would finish just before Christmas. She planned to see as many escape acts in as many theatres as possible and to work on her physical fitness to lay the foundations for developing her career.
"...so I came here," Queenie finished, a little lamely.
"A schoolteacher treading the boards as an escape artist," Miss MacSween mused, grinning and shaking her head. "No stranger than a Church of Scotland minister's daughter from Kelvinside in the boxing ring, perhaps."
Queenie sat quietly gauging the reaction. The grin, she decided, indicated amusement and a recognition of some common ground and was definitely not ridicule. She felt a little more secure having taken Bella MacSween into her confidence.
"Well, Miss Holkham," Miss MacSween announced, "I understand your determination to realise your ambition and I recognise someone a little like my younger self. I like that, so here's an idea. If you would care to subscribe to one of my gymnastics classes, I will also throw in some private coaching. I have put together training programmes for boxers, runners and rowers, both male and female, but never an escape artist. It should prove an interesting experience to try."
"I would be delighted," Queenie replied, beaming, "and please call me Queenie."
"Bella," replied Bella, confirming the deal with another knuckle-grinding handshake.
Queenie was in a buoyant mood during the week that followed her first visit to Bella's gymnasium. At last she had made a positive step towards her goal of becoming an escape artist. True, all that she had done was to enrol in exercise classes, but they were classes with a purpose and she had an ally in Bella MacSween.
Queenie's days at school passed quickly. Possibly because she was in such unassailably high spirits, her pupils were also in a good mood and seemed both interested and co-operative most of the time. Other than announcing her imminent departure, she had not let any of her colleagues in on the secret of her future plans. However, it was clear to them that Queenie had set her sights on something and was vitalised by it (if a little unfocussed on her immediate surroundings at times).
Evenings were Queenie's research time. She had taken to spending an hour or more after work each day at her local library in Clapham. Her interest was not in books; she had long ago read the few books on stage magic they had on the shelves and now had a far better and broader range at home. The selection of local and national newspapers available at the library were her main concern. She scoured each one methodically, notebook and pencil at the ready, looking for reports and reviews of relevant acts and also for advertisements for theatres or acts. She was progressively building up a list of theatres throughout London and the provinces and a list of performers she wished to see.
When Friday evening arrived, Queenie was one of the first to arrive for her exercise class. She had done a few exercises each day during the week and was getting in more walking than usual with her daily visits to the library. She applied herself to Bella MacSween's exercises with vigour and enthusiasm. Although she was tired and her limbs were protesting just a little, she took a real pleasure in putting her body through its paces.
After the session, Queenie stayed behind and joined Bella in her office, where the kettle was ready for tea. She shivered a little even in the comparative warmth of the office, now that the exercise was no longer keeping her warm. Bella looked at her sternly. "First rule of exercise, Queenie: warm up slowly and cool down slowly. Wear a sweater after the session, otherwise your muscles will tie themselves in knots when you try to do anything more. Got one with you?"
Queenie shook her head contritely.
"Borrow one of mine, it'll nae weel fit a lanky lass like yersel', but it'll just have tae do for the noo," Bella offered, reverting to her professional Glaswegian accent. She rummaged in the wardrobe and tossed Queenie a much-darned navy blue sweater. The width across the shoulders was ample for Queenie's slender frame, but it was too short for her in the arms and body. She made a mental note to add a suitable sweater to her costume before the following week's session.
"Now, let's get down to business," Bella said as she handed Queenie her tea. "I have never seen anyone escape from being tied up myself. Come to that I've never seen anyone being tied up, only pictures. What I think we should do is this: I'll tie you up and you see if you can get out and I'll watch to see which muscle groups are used, then we can try to work out some exercises."
Queenie agreed to the plan and opened the Gladstone bag she had with her. Bella was not surprised to see that it contained rope, but was taken aback by the sheer quantity and intrigued by the handcuffs and leather belts in there too.
Bella selected two of the smaller bundles of rope, both six-foot lengths of cotton sash cord about 3/8" in diameter. "I'll just tie your hands and feet and see how you get on," she explained.
Queenie stood up and offered her hands behind her back. She felt Bella wrap the rope around her crossed wrists as many times as it would go and then pull ferociously hard on the ends before knotting them. The final tug was so fierce that Queenie almost toppled over backwards.
Resuming her seat for the next stage, Queenie clamped her ankles together in readiness. Bella knelt on the floor in front of her and applied the same simple but vigourous approach of wrap, pull and tie. "How's that?" she inquired, looking up at Queenie.
"Well," replied Queenie thoughtfully, as she brought her arms round from behind her back and handed the rope back to Bella, "full marks for enthusiasm, but your technique could do with a little work."
Bella stared at the rope in disbelief, then at Queenie who was grinning down at her. She shook her head and roared with laughter. "I feel like I'm the victim of an elaborate practical joke."
"I suppose that in a way you are," Queenie replied after a pause. "And that's true of anyone who goes to see a magic show."
"It looks like I may have as much learning to do as you," Bella remarked ruefully. "Let's try again, but this time maybe you could wait until I'm watching?"
Queenie swivelled round on her chair, her ankles still bound, and put her hands behind her back again. Bella took the piece of rope once more and repeated the tying. She wrapped rope around Queenie's wrists as she had before and once again finished with a ferocious tug to jerk the rope tight before knotting the ends.
"Ready?" asked Queenie.
"Ready," confirmed Bella. "Do your stuff, Queenie."
Bella watched closely as Queenie twisted her wrists first one way then the other. The movements were small and precise rather than the violent struggling that Bella instinctively expected an escape attempt to be. After a surprisingly small number of twists and turns, Queenie simply wriggled one hand out of the coil of rope encircling her wrists. It was disappointingly anticlimactic in a way.
"However did you do that?" demanded Bella. "I pulled that rope really tight!"
"No," corrected Queenie, "you pulled the last turn tight. There's too much friction between the successive coils of rope for them all to tighten. All I had to do was to reorganise the slack in the rope to get one relatively loose turn. Once I get the base of my thumb past that, the rest follows automatically."
"So all that twisting was you undoing the tightening that I thought I had done?"
"Exactly. There is almost always slack to be found if you know where to look and how to get at it."
"There is much more to this than meets the eye," Bella commented philosophically. "I thought it would all be brute force stuff and that you would need to be like a strongwoman in the circus to get free."
"You do need to be fit to do this though," insisted Queenie. "That's why I'm here."
"Well, I'm still not quite sure what you're doing, so can we try again and this time I'll feel your arms to see which muscles are doing what?" suggested Bella.
Queenie agreed and let Bella tie her wrists again. While she repeated the escape in slow motion, Bella felt Queenie's arms for the contraction of muscles and the pull of tendons under the skin.
"There's as much pushing as pulling going on there," concluded Bella.
"That's right," Queenie agreed. "A lot of the work involves pulling with one arm while pushing with the other. Pushing is always more tiring."
"I'm not surprised at that. We tend to pull things with our arm muscles but push using our body weight, so the muscles don't get developed as much."
Bella watched until Queenie pulled her wrists free once more. "It looks like you are doing two things there," she ventured. "There is a lot of arm movement to pull against the ropes as well as movement to work your hands out."
"That's right," Queenie explained. "Unless you can pull your hands out, no amount of wriggling to loosen the ropes will get you free. And, of course, unless you wriggle the ropes loose, you can't pull free anyway."
"Ah!" Bella replied. "So if you'd been unable to move your elbows, you wouldn't have been able to get your hands free, even if they weren't as tightly tied?"
"Yes," agreed Queenie, "if my elbows were completely immobile, I would be stuck. Fortunately, there is almost always some freedom of movement left."
A knowing glint came into Bella's eye. "Can I try something then?" she asked.
Queenie had a good idea what was going on in Bella's mind and magnanimously invited her to go ahead. Bella immediately retied Queenie's wrists, but did not waste quite as much energy on pulling hard on the rope. Next she looked through Queenie's bag of supplies and selected another bundle of rope, a twenty foot length of the same type of rope that she had used to tie Queenie's wrists and ankles.
Bella wound the rope round Queenie's arms and body seven or eight times. The successive turns encircled Queenie at random angles between her waist and shoulders. Bella knotted the ends securely where they met in the vicinity of Queenie's left elbow.
Without another word, Queenie set to work to free herself. A series of twists, turns and shrugs of her arms and body encouraged the ropes surrounding her to gather together and to start to work their way upwards. At last, one of the strands rode up over her shoulder and, with the slack that contributed, the rest quickly followed. Queenie leaned forwards as far as she could without overbalancing, tucked her head down and shrugged her shoulders a few times. The rope fell in a tangle on the floor. Queenie then worked herself free of her wrist binding as she had before then leaned down and untied her ankles.
"This isn't much of a challenge to you is it?" Bella asked with a wry grin.
"It's still helpful, though," Queenie replied, trying to sound encouraging. "Trying to practise escape artistry on your own isn't easy, so I'm grateful for all assistance."
"I never thought of that. You must have to tie yourself up."
"That and I use handcuffs a lot. It's much better to have help though."
"I'm happy to help if you don't mind me learning on the job," Bella promised.
"I don't mind," Queenie assured her with a smile.
The following Friday, as before, Queenie stayed behind after the general class had finished to help Bella tidy up and then to have her personal coaching. Queenie had equipped herself with a neat black sweater which she wore over her exercise costume.
Bella announced that the first thing to deal with was the issue of pushing and pulling. She led Queenie to one end of the gymnasium where a punch-bag hung. She put on a pair of boxing gloves, not bothering to lace them, and then delivered a straight right-left-right combination in quick succession. The bag swung slowly away from Bella then back towards her. She caught and steadied it then handed the gloves to Queenie and laced them on for her.
Queenie delivered her best punch (insofar as she had one). The bag barely moved and it felt like punching a brick wall.
"Harder than it looks, isn't it?" Bella asked, not unkindly. "Now see how hard you can punch me."
"I can't do that!" Queenie protested.
"Yes you can," Bella assured her. "Go on. Anywhere you like. As hard as you like."
Queenie felt unsure of herself, but she decided that if Bella got hurt then it wouldn't be her fault. She decided that the top of Bella's chest, above the bust line but below her collar bone would be a suitable target area. Queenie took a deep breath, drew back her right arm and let fly with the hardest punch she could deliver. Bella made no move to protect herself and seemed completely unaffected by the impact. She leaned into the blow slightly, but otherwise did not change position in the slightest.
"Surprised?" asked Bella.
Queenie nodded, too astonished to say anything.
Bella took the gloves from Queenie and then fetched a padded wooden board with handles on the back. "Hold this in front of you like a shield," she instructed as she put the gloves on.
"Ready?" Bella asked.
Queenie nodded, peeping warily over the top of the board.
Bella drew her right arm back slightly and then delivered a single punch to the centre of the board. Despite bracing herself in readiness, Queenie was sent reeling backwards. When she regained her balance she stood staring in open-mouthed amazement at Bella. How could a woman as tiny as that pack such an enormous punch?
"Boxing uses those pushing muscles I was telling you about," Bella explained. "Some of the punching is technique, but there is a foundation of physical training there too. I'll give you some exercises to do, but I have to warn you it will be hard work."
Queenie and Bella returned to Bella's office for the tea which was fast becoming a traditional part of their sessions together.
"So, what do I have to do to give you more of a challenge?" asked Bella over their tea.
"It's still down to the two points we talked about last week: making it hard to pull my hands out of the ropes and stopping me getting my arms into a position where I can pull effectively," Queenie replied, sounding like a schoolteacher reviewing a lesson.
"I've only been tied up once myself," Bella remarked, "and that didn't take long to wriggle out of, so I have no personal experience to go on."
"Well, we could soon rectify that," Queenie offered with a mischievous grin. "Shall I tie you up and see if it helps."
Queenie had intended her offer at least partly as a joke, but Bella seemed to consider the proposition carefully and then replied with enthusiasm. "You know, I think it would help. Even if I can't get free, at least I ought to get a feel for what I would need to do to escape."
"All right," said Queenie, still grinning. "I'll try you out on the tie-up you nearly got right on me last week."
Bella turned sideways on her chair so that Queenie could reach her hands. Queenie selected a suitable length of rope from her supplies and knelt on the floor beside the chair. Bella had crossed her wrists behind her back as Queenie had done the previous week. Queenie gently uncrossed them and placed them palm to palm. She wrapped the rope several times around Bella's wrists, keeping the coils fairly loose. Next she twisted the ends of the rope round each other and wound them around the coils holding Bella's wrists, drawing the strands together and tightening them evenly. After four turns like this, she finished off with a neat reef knot well out of Bella's reach.
Bella twisted her wrists experimentally. "That feels very secure," she commented. "What did you do back there?"
"I'm going to do the same on your ankles," replied Queenie, "so just watch and see how it works."
Bella leaned forward and watched the proceedings with interest.
Queenie wrapped another length of rope around Bella's ankles four times, finishing with the free ends crossed in front. "Everything starts fairly slack," she explained. "That way it's easier to make sure there's exactly the same tension in each coil of rope."
Bella nodded to show she was paying attention.
"Now we twist the ends round each other like so," Queenie continued, "and wind them round the first lot of coils going between your ankles and pulling everything nice and snug." She demonstrated as she spoke and again finished off with a neat reef knot.
"That's very clever," Bella remarked appreciatively. "That thingy you just did pulls it all amazingly tight."
"It's called a seize or a cinch depending which books you read," Queenie informed her. "It's not completely escape-proof, but much harder than just a plain coil of rope."
"What comes next?" Bella asked, clearly fascinated with the process.
"We do the same thing to your knees," Queenie answered, selecting another piece of rope. Queenie repeated the wrapping and cinching process just below Bella's knees.
Bella kicked her legs experimentally insofar as she could. "I suppose might be able to get my feet out with enough work," Bella mused.
"With practice, yes", Queenie confirmed. "But I could always make sure you couldn't by tying your legs above the knee too. I won't bother with that for now, though."
Queenie rummaged in her bag of supplies and selected another length of rope. "Sit up straight, please, Bella," she instructed.
Bella straightened up, perching on the edge of the chair. Queenie wound a coil of rope around her arms and body and pulled it snug but not painfully tightly, then followed it with another four or five turns so that they formed a neat band of rope above Bella's elbows and below her bust. A firm reef knot in the middle of Bella's chest finished off the binding.
"Now," Queenie explained, "that rope will make it much harder for you to bend your elbows and pull your hands free. The way you tied my arms with rope going at all kinds of angles looks spectacular, but doesn't work too well. All I had to do was rearrange some ropes to go straight across my body and they automatically became slacker. Your ropes already are straight across, so if you try to work any of them up or down, they will get tighter."
Bella nodded thoughtfully. "And you could really get out of this, Queenie?" she asked doubtfully.
"Oh yes," replied Queenie confidently, "I'm sure I could. Why don't you have a go and see if you can make any progress?"
Bella dutifully twisted and turned and struggled for several minutes then stopped to catch her breath. "I don't believe I am making the least impression here, Queenie. Tell me what I should do."
"All right," Queenie agreed. "First, you have to find the slack. I'm sure that your wrists won't be tied equally tightly. Which one feels looser?"
Bella considered carefully. "The right, I think."
"Well, that's a start," Queenie declared brightly. "The coils of rope go round both wrists and are held together by the cinch. All you have to do is to persuade more rope to go through the cinch into the half of each coil that is round your right wrist. Naturally it will get tighter on your left wrist."
"Naturally," agreed Bella, with just a hint of sarcasm. "But how in the world do I make it do that?"
"Your hands are facing each other," Queenie pointed out. "Try rotating your right wrist by a quarter turn so it's edge-on the the left wrist. That should pull some slack out."
Bella's eyes bulged with the effort. "My God!" she exclaimed. "I'm hurting in places that I didn't know could hurt!"
"Not easy, is it?" Queenie replied with a knowing smile. "Once you've done it, turn your wrist back and you should find that the rope is a little looser."
"I do believe that it is," Bella announced, with pleasure. "But I think I'm still stuck."
Queenie felt Bella's wrist binding. "Yes, you've made quite a difference," she confirmed.
"I don't think I can get any further though," admitted Bella. "Can you get me out of this please?"
"It would be more of an incentive if I just left you like that for the night," Queenie countered with a wicked grin. She waited a moment or two until Bella's pop-eyed look of astonishment became desperate before setting to work to untie her.
Once she was untied, Bella sat rubbing her wrists and massaging her arms while Queenie made more tea. "All my instincts are to fight the ropes, but that doesn't seem to help," she remarked ruefully.
"Well," Queenie replied thoughtfully as she passed a mug of tea, "I've never tried to teach this to anyone before, so it's hard to explain. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that you have to work with the ropes instead of against them. You have to find out what the ropes want to do and use that to your advantage."
"I see. And if you are tied up so the ropes don't want to do anything helpful?"
"Then you're stuck!" Queenie concluded cheerfully.
Bella sat in silence until she had drained her mug then stood up. "Right, then, girl," she declared, "let's see how well you can do."
Bella painstakingly reproduced the series of bindings that Queenie had applied to her. Queenie prompted her and offered further coaching from time to time until at last, she was tied up to Bella's satisfaction. "That really does look much better than last week's effort," she congratulated herself.
"Start timing," Queenie requested and set to work.
Bella watched with interest as Queenie repeated the process that she had explained earlier. First, she rotated her right wrist through a right angle then tugged against the rope securing it. Next, she twisted the wrist to and fro. Now that Bella knew what to look for, she could see that Queenie was methodically working slack into the rope imprisoning her right wrist. She could also see that the rope on Quenie's left wrist was now so tight that it was digging into the flesh. Apparently satisfied with progress, Queenie changed to a different action involving repeated movements of wrist then elbow. Bella reasoned that she must be trying to pull her wrist free and had to manoeuvre her elbow inside the rope around her arms and body in order to do so. After a few minutes it was obvious that Queenie's right hand was well inside the coil of rope which had been around her wrists. It was also obvious that the rope was now very tight owing to the much greater thickness of Queenie's hand compared with her wrist. Nevertheless, although progress was slow, it was steady.
As soon as the bottom joint of Queenie's thumb was clear of the rope, she had effectively secured her freedom. She wriggled her hand completely free then reached round to the front of her body to untie the knot securing her chest rope. Once that was gone, she worked her left hand out of the remains of the wrist binding and bent forwards to release her legs.
Bella glanced at the clock. "That was just a whisker over five minutes," she said with a note of awe in her voice. Bella was genuinely impressed but, all the same, although the escape was a creditable athletic performance, it somehow failed to be as thrilling as it might be. Bella decided to consider this issue further before raising it with Queenie.
"Not a brilliant effort," Queenie replied dismissively. "It was a fairly basic rope tie and I need to be faster than that."
"I would be pleased just to get out!" Bella countered.
In the days that followed, Queenie worked diligently at the exercises that Bella had given her. Each morning and evening she performed a prescribed quota of press-ups which she disliked, but began to notice that they seemed to be getting just a shade easier after a few days. After the press-ups and a short breather, she lay on her back clutching a weighted leather medicine ball. Grimly, she worked her way through a series of lifts and swings, straight up and to the side, during which the ball seemed to get heavier and harder to grip with each repetition.
Queenie had read that swimming was particularly good exercise and was also an activity she enjoyed. Once a week, she took out her bicycle and pedalled her way to the public baths in Streatham (which were nicer than their counterpart in Clapham). An hour's swimming left her feeling tired but in a pleasant way and was far more soothing to the soul than Bella's exercises.
Queenie also made increasing use of her bicycle for other journeys. Rather than her usual walk across Clapham Common to get to school, she cycled and used quite roundabout routes to justify her use of the bicycle. The bicycle also proved quicker than the combination of underground and tram she had used to reach Bella MacSween's gymnasium as well as being better exercise.
On the Wednesday night of the following week, Queenie had arranged to meet Bella at a former church hall in New Cross, rather further afield in South East London than Queenie usually ventured. The evening was to be a new experience for Queenie as she was to witness a ladies' boxing match for the first time. (It would actually be the first time she had witnessed any boxing match.) Clearly this was quite a popular event from the number of other spectators, both men and women, converging on the venue. Queenie joined the queue at the door and paid her shilling to enter.
The air inside the hall was fractionally warmer than the night air outside, but Queenie suspected that the mass of humanity inside would soon improve the temperature. The crowd was just like the crowd at a horse race, Queenie noted. Most were working class people dressed up in their finery, often quite flamboyantly, and bent on enjoying themselves noisily.
Queenie was wandering aimlessly, just enjoying the spectacle of the occasion when she felt a hand close on her elbow. It was Bella. "I'm right glad ye could come," she declared in her professional Glasgow accent. "Come awa' an' meet my girl."
Bella threaded her way through the crowd expertly and Queenie followed. As she took note of Bella's smart black coat with its opulent fur collar and her astonishingly floral hat, Queenie realised that she had never before seen Bella dressed in anything but her gymnasium outfit. Bella led Queenie to a curtained-off area at the back of the hall. A stern matronly-looking woman nodded at Bella and drew the curtain aside for them to pass. The area was further curtained into smaller sections to act as dressing rooms. It was to one of these that Bella led Queenie. Inside, a robustly-built young woman in her late teens or early twenties was sitting on a stool reading an illustrated paper and sucking enthusiastically on a sweet.
"Queenie, meet Daisy Parsons, the Bermondsey Bombshell," invited Bella.
Miss Parsons folded her paper and stood up, offering her hand to Queenie. "Pleeztermeetcher," she mumbled around her sweet. She was not particularly tall but had an impressively solid presence. The black satin knickers and camisole she wore appeared to be her fighting costume. She wore the same soft boots that Queenie had seen Bella wearing and her mass of wavy blonde hair was pulled back and bound into a rough chignon.
"Keep those muscles warm," Bella admonished.
"Right you are," Daisy replied nonchalantly, shrugging on a dressing gown that was hanging nearby.
"The first bout will start soon," Bella observed to Queenie. "Let's get back to the ringside."
Bella led the way again. The benches nearest the ring were reserved for special members of the audience, which apparently included friends of trainers. The two women took their seats and Queenie studied her surroundings with interest.
The ring surprised Queenie. She had imagined it as circular as its name suggested, possibly influenced by having seen drawings of the bare-knuckle fighters of a hundred years before, and was not expecting a raised square platform surrounded by a rope barrier. Surrounding the ring were several rows of bench seats and beyond that a milling crowd of spectators. Around the edges of the hall, bookmakers plied their trade, setting odds and taking bets. Vendors selling meat rolls, hot pies and bottles of beer expertly threaded their way through the crowd with their trays of wares.
The first fight was disappointing. Queenie was not sure what to expect, but had anticipated some athleticism on the part of the contenders. Instead, two rather rough-looking women in their thirties simply stood in the middle of the ring exchanging blows for round after round until one of them sustained a cut eyebrow and the referee stopped the fight. Queenie felt faintly ill; how could these people just stand there and systematically hurt each other? And why did the crowd believe that this was worth watching?
"My lass is on next," Bella announced. "Must go and do my job."
Bella removed her hat and scarf then peeled off her coat which she left on the bench. Underneath, she was wearing a trim pair of black knickerbockers and black stockings and a neat grey sweater with MacSween embroidered across the back in red.
Queenie waited as Bella disappeared into the curtained-off dressing room area and returned with Daisy Parsons. They climbed the steps to the ring and ducked through the ropes. Bella plonked a small stool down in the corner of the ring and Daisy sat down. Queenie watched with interest as Bella helped Daisy on with her gloves and laced them up. She held up a small metal bowl and Queenie heard a distinct chink as Daisy ejected her current sweet. Bella helped her get an india-rubber mouth protector in place then ducked out of the ring, taking the stool with her.
Her attention had been on Daisy Parsons, but Queenie's gaze now shifted to her opponent. She suppressed a gasp as she took in one of the fiercest-looking women she had ever seen. African skin was still not often seen in London in those days and this woman had skin the intense, almost purplish, black of East Africa standing out in glossy highlights under the arc-lights overhead. The skin of her cheeks and upper arms was marked by a series of small scars, presumably as decoration, but distinctly unnerving to European eyes. Her black hair was a loose mass of short plaits, presumably to emphasise the 'wild woman' persona. Queenie studied the black woman, carefully ignoring the unfamiliar aspects. She concluded that although the woman was of a wiry build, she was clearly a natural athlete of considerable fitness.
The referee finished his introductions and the fight began. The African woman fought under the picturesque name of Princess Ashanti. Daisy Parsons was far more agile and quicker on her feet than Queenie expected. Even so, the alleged African princess was faster and had a slightly longer reach, often able to sneak past the English girl's defences. Daisy's punch, powered by her broad shoulders, seemed to be far harder than the African's. Queenie found herself becoming enthralled, almost against her will, by the skill and athleticism of the two fighters.
The first round was indecisive with a few exchanges of punches but seemed mainly to consist of the fighters getting the measure of each other. In the second round, Daisy came out fighting as soon as the bell rang. She appeared to be trying to break down her opponent's defences by mounting a withering non-stop assault. The African woman's superior agility kept her out of trouble most of that round and still enabled her to land several hard punches. In the third round, Daisy was more circumspect and a little slower. Queenie realised that Daisy's limitation would be her stamina. If the African could prolong the fight sufficiently, Daisy would tire and surely begin to make mistakes. Daisy seemed to be trying different strategies to find her opponent's weakness.
The fourth round of the fight proved to be decisive. Daisy had found her advantage; her smaller stature enabled her to get inside her opponent's reach and deliver hard blows from close range. Eventually, the African made just the tiniest mistake of timing and Daisy delivered a devastating right uppercut to the side of her face. The black woman fell to her hands and knees, not knocked cold but too stunned to get up. The referee started counting. The African was back on her feet by 'eight' but staggering too much to rejoin the fight. The count continued and the referee declared a technical knock-out.
Queenie found herself on the edge of her seat with excitement. She was more than a little shocked at herself; how could she possibly watch two women slugging it out in public until one of them could no longer stand and how could she call that sport?
As they left the hall together later, a burly man with a broken nose blocked their path. "Mrs Hughes ain't happy," he announced. "She wants ter see yer."
"She knows fine well where tae find me," Bella replied dismissively.
Queenie was disconcerted and a little frightened by this encounter. "What was that about?" she hissed.
"I think somebody lost a lot of money when Daisy won," Bella whispered back.
Queenie would normally not return to the gymnasium until Friday evening for her weekly class and personal coaching. However, Bella had invited her to join her for tea on Thursday (which was Bella's day off) as a purely social occasion. As if we don't drink enough tea together already, Queenie thought to herself.
The green door in the alleyway was locked. Queenie pressed the bell-push and waited. She tried again, then after what she judged to be a decent interval, she decided to use the latch-key that Bella had lent her. She let herself in and then clumped her way up the stone steps, going by memory, as she was not sure where to find the light switches for the stairs.
The door into the gymnasium was unlocked. Queenie pushed it open and walked in. There was some faint light from the twilight outside and from streetlights, but otherwise the place was in darkness. Where could Bella be? Surely she was expecting her? Queenie knew that the light switches in the gymnasium were all next to the door, so she felt for them and flipped them all on.
As the gymnasium was flooded with light, it became obvious where Bella was. In the middle of the room, a forlorn figure sat hunched over an exercise weight bar. For a horror-stricken moment, Queenie thought that Bella was dead, but after a seemingly interminable pause, Bella slowly raised her head, red-rimmed eyes staring at Queenie over the top of a gag.
Queenie shook off the paralysis of shock and rushed to her friend's aid. Bella was sitting on the floor with her knees hooked over the metal bar of a set of weights. Her arms went under the bar, so it passed over the crook of her elbows and her wrists were bound together in front of her shins with a skipping rope. Four massive cast iron weight discs were fitted to each end of the bar. A towel had been forced between Bella's teeth and knotted at the back of her head.
Queenie started to unpick the knot on the rope binding Bella's wrists but stopped immediately as Bella winced in obvious pain. She rushed to the office and retrieved a pair of scissors from the desk. With as little disturbance as possible to the rope itself, Queenie snipped her way through the knot then teased the binding away. Once Bella's wrists were free, Queenie supported her and helped her lie back on the floor. The bruising to Bella's wrists was immediately obvious and it was apparent that her back was very stiff from the posture she had been forced to adopt.
Once Bella was lying flat on the floor, Queenie used the scissors again to cut away the towel that was gagging her friend. Bella smiled weakly and attempted to say something, but no sound came out. Queenie stood up and returned to the office to fetch a mug of water, which she helped Bella drink.
"That man we saw last night was right," she croaked. "Mrs Hughes is very unhappy."
© Copyright Gillian B 2003
The Adventures of Queenie Holkham
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