Queenie and the Boxer

Brixton, South London, October 1922

QUEENIE'S VISIT to Bella for tea turned out rather differently than planned. Queenie had found Bella bound and gagged in her gymnasium. Once Bella was free and had been helped to a chair in her office, Queenie put the kettle on and began attending to her friend's injuries. There were deep and unpleasant marks on Bella's wrists where she had been struggling against the rope that had bound them but also due to the tension inherent in the way she had been tied up. The skin was unbroken but it was obvious that there would be some extensive bruising. There were also some more minor bruises on the backs of Bella's knees and the insides of her elbows where they had been in contact with the bar bell to which she had been tied.

     Bella directed Queenie to the cupboard where she kept lotions, liniments and first-aid supplies. After a short rummage, she found what she was looking for and set to work. She wrapped lint around each of Bella's wrists, soaked it in an evil-smelling liniment which Bella directed her to use and held it in place with gauze bandage pulled just tight enough to apply gentle pressure to the swollen areas.

     By this time, the tea was ready, so Queenie poured a mug and helped Bella grip it in both hands.

     "So, what happened?" Queenie asked, taking a seat.

     "I got here about eight o'clock as usual. I never have classes on a Thursday, but it's my sorting-out day," Bella explained. "I'd been here maybe an hour when the bell rang. I thought it might be the post, so I just pushed the button that releases the latch on the green door. Anyway, Mrs Hughes and two of her goons appeared up here."

     "Exactly who is this Mrs Hughes?" interrupted Queenie.

     "Mrs Hughes? She started out as a fighter then a trainer like me but she's some kind of promoter now. There must be some big money behind her but nothing seems quite straight with her." Bella wrinkled her nose in distaste.

     "You mean the fights aren't honest?" Queenie asked, intrigued.

     "Exactly. She told me she thought we had an agreement about that last fight and that she had been very disappointed. She said she would have made it all worth my while."

     "Worth your while for Daisy to lose?"

     Bella nodded. "I told her that my girl was the better fighter on the night and that I got my cut of the prize money and that was all I wanted."

     "So what did she say to that?" asked Queenie, deeply impressed at Bella's bravery.

     "She said I should sit down and think about it and then her hired muscle trussed me up the way you found me."

     "You mean you've been tied up all day?" said Queenie, horrified.

     Bella glanced at the clock. "About eight hours," she confirmed.

     Queenie could think of nothing to say in reply.

     "I'm starving," Bella announced, getting to her feet. "Let's go round to the Railway Arms and get a bite to eat. It's amazing how hungry you can get just sitting around doing nothing when you've been tied up."

     Queenie shook her head in astonishment at Bella's apparent resilience. "I thought you said you'd only been tied up once before and got free really quickly," she objected as she helped Bella out of her knickerbockers and sweater and into a skirt and blouse.

     "Well, maybe I understated things a wee bitty," Bella conceded. "Some of these people can play a might rough at times."

     Still shaking her head, Queenie switched the lights off and followed Bella down the stairs to join her for the promised meal.

     Queenie turned up early for her Friday exercise class at Bella's gymnasium. She was still concerned about Bella after her ordeal the previous day, but apparently need not have worried as Bella was her usual confident self. Queenie noticed that Bella still wore bandages on her wrists and that her hand movements were not as exuberant as usual.

     The weekly exercise session was Queenie's opportunity to measure her increasing fitness against the other regulars. She was pleased to discover that while her strength was only gradually increasing, her main progress was in stamina. Seemingly quite suddenly, she found that she could work hard for longer without fatigue.

     After the main session, once the other members of the class had departed, Queenie and Bella sat drinking the tea which was by now an indispensable part of their weekly routine.

     "I've been thinking on yon tie-up we tried last week," Bella began. "I think I ken a way tae make it a we bitty mair o' a challenge." Queenie was amused to notice that when Bella was approaching a subject tentatively, the Glasgow accent was often more distinct.

     "I think perhaps I would quite like a bit of a challenge," Queenie replied cautiously.

     "I thought that maybe we might think about that incentive you mentioned last week," Bella continued, still tentative.

     "You mean you won't untie me if I get stuck?" Queenie asked, laughing.

     "Not at all," Bella replied dismissively. "I'm aye here at eight o'clock in the mornin'. I'd surely set ye free then."

     Queenie stopped laughing abruptly. "I'm not sure I'm ready for a challenge like that," she replied quickly.

     "I thought maybe it would spur ye on like," Bella explained.

     "I suppose it's a sort of bet," Queenie replied thoughtfully. "My skills as an escaper against your skills as a tier-upper. The question is how confident am I that I can win and that you haven't thought of some fiendish plan since last week."

     "That I have," conceded Bella with a sinister smile. "It's a question of whether my plan is fiendish enough tae thwart ye. Are ye willin' tae gamble?"

     "So, if I can't get myself free, I have to wait until eight tomorrow morning for you to untie me. That's certainly a challenge and an incentive," Queenie mused. "Well, 'nothing ventured, nothing gained'," she concluded, taking refuge in a cliché.

     "I'm hopin' ye'll rise tae the challenge, Queenie," Bella replied, offering her hand. "May the best girl win!"

     Queenie took her hand and grasped it firmly. "I'll certainly try my hardest!"

     While Queenie quickly made use of the somewhat primitive toilet facilities in the gymnasium, Bella selected the ropes she planned to use. Privately, she doubted whether her rope-tying skills would defeat Queenie, particularly tying knots with her injured wrists, but she wanted to raise the stakes to put an edge on Queenie's performance. She had known many boxers who were fit and competent fighters but who often put up dull performances unless there was that frisson of uncertainty and tension in the air. She had often manufactured that for boxers she had trained by exaggerating the prowess of prospective opponents and the likely risks in fighting them. She hoped that providing an artificial risk for Queenie would raise her competent escape artistry into something with a little more sparkle and entertainment value.

     Queenie returned and Bella noted with satisfaction that there was a touch of tension in her body language. If Queenie could focus those nerves into her escape, it promised to be an interesting evening.

     "Where do you want me?" Queenie asked.

     "Sit on the chair please," Bella requested, in her businesslike voice. "You may want to be on the floor for escaping, so I've put some mats down, but it'll be easier to tie you up if you're sitting."

     Queenie perched on the edge of the chair.

     Bella started by tying Queenie's wrists. She wound the rope around and then cinched it as Queenie had taught her. This time, however, her actions were smooth and assured as she handled the rope.

     "Have you been practising on someone else?" Queenie asked, noticing the difference.

     "You make me sound like an unfaithful lover!" Bella protested. "What if I have?"

     "That means you have been," Queenie declared. "It wasn't Daisy, was it?" she added, suddenly inspired.

     "Well, yes," Bella admitted. "Maybe I did try out some ideas on her."

     "Did she escape, though?" Queenie countered.

     "No, but she did a lot of wriggling and rolling around," Bella replied with a laugh.

     "I'm glad that I don't have a rival for your attentions then," Queenie retorted.

     Bella turned her attention to Queenie's legs and bound them at the ankles and both above below her knees using the same method as she had used for Queenie's wrists.

     "You're getting good," Queenie mused. "This will be harder than last time."

     "I haven't got to the best bit yet," Bella promised her.

     As in their previous session, Belle tied a long length of rope around Queenie's arms and body so it formed a band of cord between her elbows and bust. She knotted it securely at the back.

     "I'd have put the knot at the front," Queenie commented.

     "There's a reason," Bella replied mysteriously.

     Bella selected another ten-foot length of rope and found its centre by folding it in half. She tied it around the band of rope securing Queenie's arms so that the knot on that rope would prevent the new rope from sliding to either side. She flipped the two long ends of the rope forwards over Queenie's shoulders then moved round to face Queenie.

     Carefully putting a little tension onto the ends of the rope, Bella crossed them in the middle of Queenie's chest, between her breasts.

     "Cheeky!" remarked Queenie.

     Bella just smiled as she fed the ropes under the chest binding, between Queenie's arms and body at both sides and took them round to the back again.

     Working from behind Queenie again, Bella secured the ends of the rope around the band holding Queenie's arms again. There was getting to be quite a large tangle of ropes developing there. There were two free ends left, each about two feet long. Bella led these down to Queenie's bound wrists and wrapped them around the binding before knotting them off. This last action pulled Queenie's wrists up towards her head slightly and also forced her elbows slightly apart, pressing against the ropes binding her arms.

     "How's that?" Bella asked, feeling pleased with herself.

     "Tricky," replied Queenie. "I'll have to experiment to see if I can work out the best way to tackle this."

     "You took five minutes last time," Bella reminded her.

     "Might be a lot slower this time," Queenie conceded.

     "Well, go for it, girl!" Bella encouraged, helping Queenie down onto the pile of mats on the floor. "And try to play to the gallery this time. Show everyone how hard you're working and make it look even harder if you can!"

     "Will do," Queenie promised and set to with extravagantly exaggerated twists and turns of her body, bucking and straining against the ropes, all the time trying to find a way to gain and use some slack.

     Bella sat and watched critically. "That's a fine performance," she declared after about fifteen minutes. "You'll have an audience really rooting for you, but they'll be beginning to wonder if you'll ever get loose."

     Queenie stopped struggling. "I'm beginning to wonder the same thing," she admitted sheepishly. "I'll need to work out a strategy for getting out of this and then turn it into a performance once I know how to do it."

     "Shall I let you do that and come back in ten minutes?" Bella offered.

     "Yes, please," Queenie agreed, "but make it fifteen; I need a breather!"

     Bella left the office to so some tidying and cleaning in the gymnasium while Queenie lay panting on the mats.

     Bella was preoccupied as she carried out her round of housekeeping tasks. She was worried that she had possibly inadvertently made Queenie's escape challenge just slightly too difficult. She realised that she did not actually know how good Queenie was and had simply assumed that if she could escape one tie-up then she must be able to escape from any. If she had set Queenie an impossible escape task, then it could be counter-productive and be a discouragement rather than an encouragement to her.

     Meanwhile, Queenie was coming to two conclusions. The first was that escape from an unfamiliar tie-up, even a variant of one she had managed before, required patient planning and exploration, rather than the headlong attack she had launched into. The second was that indiscriminate struggling had actually rendered the escape impossible. Her battle against the ropes, although picturesque, had merely served to rub her wrists so that they had swollen slightly and made the ropes completely inescapable.

     Bella returned to the office after the promised fifteen minutes. She found Queenie lying on her back staring at the ceiling with a glum expression on her face.

     "Ready to break free?" Bella asked hopefully.

     Queenie shook her head. "I think I'm stuck," she admitted. "If I was fresh and started from scratch, I think I might be able to do it now I've worked out some ideas, but I don't think I can get out of this now."

     Bella had a dilemma. Should she back down from the challenge she had set Queenie. She had no intention of seeing Queenie defeated like this but unless the challenge had real risk attached to it, where was the incentive for Queenie to excel? Bella had to decide one way or the other and had to decide immediately. She concluded that Queenie had accepted a risk of spending the night tied up when she accepted the challenge, so the only honest course of action was to take her at her word.

     "Well in that case, I'll just have to leave you till tomorrow morning and untie you then," Bella replied with an expressive shrug of the shoulders.

     "But that's not fair!" Queenie objected. "I wouldn't have got into this mess if I'd been careful."

     "You agreed to take the risk," Bella reminded her. "You knew you might lose."

     "Yes," agreed Queenie, "but you encouraged me to do all that kicking and squirming."

     "It was your choice, Queenie, and if you complain about it any more, I'm going to gag you too," Bella warned her.

     "I thought you wanted to help me!" Queenie protested, beginning to lose her temper.

     "Enough!" Bella scolded. She selected a suitable cotton cloth from Queenie's bag of supplies, folded it into a band, prised Queenie's teeth apart, jammed it in and knotted the ends behind her head.

     Queenie growled darkly through her gag.

     "At least I'll try to make you as comfortable as I can," Bella offered. She fetched a pile of blankets from the wardrobe in the office, folded one into a pillow and put it under Queenie's head and spread the other two over her to keep her warm through the night.

     "If you manage to get free, just pull the doors shut behind you as you go," Bella instructed. "Otherwise, I promise I'll be here at eight sharp."

     So saying, Bella quickly changed into her street clothes, switched off the lights and left the gymnasium.

     Alone with her thoughts, Queenie stared at the stove in Bella's office. The gentle glow and residual heat of the dying fire offered some comfort. Queenie was annoyed with herself for losing her temper. Bella had been quite right, it was a sort of wager and a bet is a bet; you don't try to back out when you lose.

     Queenie gently explored her wrist binding with her fingertips. She concluded that she had been right in her earlier assessment; her wrists had been rubbed by the ropes in her theatrical display of struggling and swollen just enough that any slack there might have been was irretrievably lost. It was possible that the swelling might die down enough over the course of a few hours but Queenie felt that she should not live in false hope but just resign herself to spending the night tied up.

     The gag was not excessively tight but still not comfortable. Queenie tried to push it out with her tongue and tried twisting her neck to work it down over her jaw, but it was just too deeply between her teeth for either approach to work.

     Queenie rolled over onto her stomach so that her weight would not be resting on her bound arms and attempted to find the least uncomfortable position to lie in, hoping at least to gain a little rest.

     Much later in the night Queenie awoke, only realising that she had been asleep as she woke up. She had no idea how long she had been asleep but sensed that several hours had passed. The fire in the stove was completely out now and quite dark. There did not yet seem to be any daylight visible through the gymnasium's skylights, but dawn came late in autumn.

     Queenie lay still, suddenly aware that she had been wakened by a sound. She quietened her breathing as much as she could and concentrated on listening. There were footsteps. It might of course be Bella, but in that case, why had the lights not been switched on? Queenie carried on listening. Two sets of footsteps, she thought. A long silence then more footsteps. Suddenly the rattle of the office door-handle and two figures entered. Both carried electric torches, but so small and dim as only to light a tiny area. Queenie froze, hoping not to be noticed.

     As Queenie watched, one of the figures retrieved the wickerwork waste-paper basket from under Bella's desk. The other grabbed a pile of paper from the desk and pushed it loosely into the basket. It was hard to see the next move, but Queenie thought they had slid the waste-paper basket back under the desk. But why?

     The office was suddenly illuminated by the flare of a match, dazzlingly bright to Queenie's dark-adapted eyes. Surely they would see her lying here just a few feet away? The two men (it was obvious now that they were men) were too intent on their task to notice Queenie. One of them used the match to light a cigarette then blew it out. His colleague held his torch steady on the waste-paper basket. Queenie watched fascinated to see what they were doing. The man with the cigarette drew on it so the tip glowed brightly then removed it from his mouth. He bent the cigarette slightly then balanced it on the lip of the basket with the glowing end outwards.

     The men exchanged a glance, stood up and left the office. A few seconds later, Queenie heard the door at the top of the stairs slam shut.

     Queenie stared in puzzlement at the tiny orange dot of the glowing cigarette. Suddenly everything became terrifyingly clear. As the cigarette burned down, ash would fall off the lit end, lightening it. Eventually, it would overbalance and fall into the basket, setting fire to the loose paper filling it. The paper and then the basket would burn fiercely. The flames from the burning waste-paper basket would in turn set fire to the wooden desk above it and then to the whole room.

     Terror seized Queenie as she pictured herself dying in the burning room, helplessly bound and gagged. Even as fear welled up inside her, Queenie's mind grasped the fact that she would most certainly die a very unpleasant death unless she could think straight and do something about the situation. She forced herself to calm down and to breathe steadily and slowly.

     On reflection, there wasn't much to it; all Queenie had to do was to prevent that cigarette tumbling into the waste-paper basket. Trivial, but for the fact of being tied up and gagged ten feet away from it and wrapped up in a blanket. However, every moment counted and could quite literally mean the difference between life and horrific death.

     Queenie started kicking herself free of the blanket. It was surprisingly difficult as her weight was resting on the parts tucked under her. After two or three minutes of struggling, she was abruptly free of the blanket and rolling off the pile of mats. She hit the floor with a resounding thud. Queenie looked round in panic but was relieved to see that the cigarette had not been dislodged by the thump on the floor.

     Trying hard not to hit anything inadvertently, Queenie wormed her way across the floor. In the darkness, it was difficult to judge exactly where she was, but there was no time for excessive caution. Crawling across a floor when tied up always seemed to be quite easy when the heroine in a detective story did it, but turned out to be much harder in reality. Eventually, she was convinced that her feet were positioned next to the waste-paper basket and just below the fateful cigarette. Her theory was that a good hard kick would slide the basket out from under the table without upsetting it and would also cause the cigarette to topple outwards rather than into the basket.

     Queenie took a deep breath and working up her courage, swung her feet back and then smartly against the waste-paper basket. She was delighted to see the streak of the cigarette falling almost straight down as the basket skittered away. A quick glance showed her where the cigarette was lying then she brought her heels down on top of it to crush it out. The slight pain as the cigarette burned through her stocking before going out was satisfactory proof of her victory rather than anything to trouble her.

     In the darkness, Queenie heaved a deep sigh, then as she lay on the floor, the delayed physical reaction to her panic set in. She shook uncontrollably and wept great racking sobs of relief. Eventually, utterly exhausted, she fell asleep where she lay.

     Queenie awoke, feeling cold and stiff. She was disorientated for a moment until she realised that she was still tied up on the floor of Bella's office. The first grey light of dawn was beginning to filter through the skylights in the gymnasium.

     The wastepaper basket and the squashed remains of a cigarette reminded Queenie of the terror of the night before. She shuddered at the memory. Just then, the sound of the office door opening broke into Queenie's reverie. She craned her neck round and saw Bella manoeuvring herself through the door while holding a tin tray. Queenie realised that she must have been woken by the sound of the door at the top of the stairs opening and closing.

     The delicious smell of bacon filled the office. "Breakfast!" announced Bella, with somewhat forced cheerfulness. She looked anxiously at Queenie, sensing that something was wrong. Bella set the tray down on her desk and knelt down beside Queenie. She lost no time in getting Queenie's gag off and then rolled her over to work on the ropes securing her. While Bella worked away at the knots, Queenie licked her lips and swallowed a few times to coax her parched mouth into a state where she could speak.

     With all the ropes off, Bella hoisted Queenie into a chair and looked at her in genuine concern.

     "I'm all right," Queenie assured her in defiance of all the evidence. "But somebody tried to set fire to the place last night."

     Bella looked round in horror as if arsonists might still be lurking in the shadows.

     Queenie explained the bare bones of the previous night's encounter then went over it again in more detail while wolfing down the bacon rolls and coffee that Bella had brought with her.

     "Is this your friend Mrs Hughes again?" Queenie asked, coming to the end of her narrative.

     "No friend of mine," Bella assured her, "but yes, probably."

     Queenie sat and thought about the situation and concluded that no matter what else might need doing, her first priority was to get washed and changed into some clean clothes, or at least into the clothes she had worn before the previous night's exercises. She heaved herself painfully to her feet, having apparently seized up completely while sitting in the chair. Mustering what dignity she could, she tottered unsteadily to the changing area.

     What Queenie really wanted was a long hot soak in a bath, but sponging herself down with cold water was better than nothing. She surveyed with dismay the livid red skin on her wrists. There seemed to be no serious grazes or cuts, but it they were still stiff and painful. There were lesser marks where other ropes had been pressed into her flesh. Queenie generally dressed warmly for returning home late at night after her sessions with Bella and the cosiness of winter underwear and thick stockings was very welcome. She put on her sensible black serge skirt but left her blouse off for the present.

     Queenie inspected herself critically in a mirror. Her hair was a disaster, but brushing now and washing later would repair the damage satisfactorily. Her eyes were dark and heavy from her restless night, but more coffee and the passage of a few hours should improve matters and a good night's sleep should work wonders. The incipient bruising either side of her mouth was more worrying; it was not generally socially acceptable to go around in public with obvious signs of having been gagged.

     When Queenie returned to Bella's office it was Bella's turn to minister to battered wrists. At Queenie's insistence, Bella applied witch hazel to the lint she wrapped around Queenie's wrists rather than the foul liniment she preferred to use. Firmly wrapped gauze bandages gave the injured wrists some support and the gentle pressure afforded welcome relief. Bella helped Queenie put on her blouse and sweater.

     "I'll call a cab to get you home," Bella offered.

     "Not bloody likely!" Queenie exclaimed, quite forgetting politeness. "I'm not going in a taxi!"

     "Whyever not?" Bella asked, taken aback.

     "If I arrive home at half past nine on a Saturday morning, in a taxi if you please, and barely able to balance, whatever will my neighbours think?"

     Bella considered some of the alternatives that the neighbours might think of and was inclined to agree with Queenie.

     Queenie decided that she should spend the morning with Bella, hoping that by the middle of the day she would be well enough to cycle home.

     While Bella did odd jobs around her office and the gymnasium, she and Queenie indulged in a wide-ranging conversation. They discussed professional boxing, magic and escape artistry, schoolteaching and many other topics.

     The conversation inevitable returned to the events of the previous night. Queenie expressed her disquiet and urged Bella to contact the police. Bella gently pointed out that the police regarded women's professional boxing as being on the shady side of respectability, so even with hard evidence they would not put much interest or effort into the case. As all the evidence they had was one squashed cigarette and an uncorroborated account from a witness who would have to explain why she was bound and gagged in a boxing trainer's office at dead of night.

     Queenie understood the point that Bella was making but was still worried for her friend's safety.

     Feeling somewhat recovered, Queenie decided it was time to return home. Her gloves and the sleeves of her coat hid the bandaging on her wrists. It was a cool morning, so it would not be too unreasonable for a cyclist to be wearing a scarf up over her mouth and that would hide the aftermath of her gag until she could apply a cold compress and perhaps she would use a little discreet makeup next time she went out.

     Queenie retrieved her bicycle from the space at the foot of the stone stairs where she generally parked it and pedalled off towards Clapham, the events of the previous night still troubling her deeply.

     Sunday was a crisp but pleasantly sunny autumn day. After Friday night's excitement, Queenie was determined to make it as uneventful as possible. Her wrists were stiff and just a little tender but no longer really painful. The skin had gone an interesting colour since the previous day but she had no intention of taking her gloves off in church.

     The faint bruising on Queenie's cheeks was more of a problem. Concealing make-up might be a possibility, but the foundation that Queenie used was not particularly concealing, so she would have to use rather a lot of it. As she rarely wore visible make-up at all, turning up for church looking like a painted lady would merely invite unwanted inspection. Suddenly inspired, Queenie turned to the small stock of stage make-up she had acquired. (So far it had only been used for school and church dramatics but one day she hoped it would be part of her professional equipment on stage.) A light touch of Leichner No 6 grease paint blended with 6A matched her skin tone quite accurately and obscured the bruising completely. The finished texture was faintly waxy even after powdering but would probably pass unnoticed.

     Pleased with herself, Queenie put on her coat, pinned her cloche hat in place and wound a concealing scarf around her face before trotting lightly down the stairs and out into the sunshine.

     As she pedalled her way to church, Queenie took a childish delight in riding through the deepest piles of fallen autumn leaves with a satisfying swish. Just occasionally a leaf would catch on the bicycle's forks and whirr noisily against the passing spokes before blowing away.

     Arriving at church, Queenie hoisted her bicycle up onto the pavement and through the gate into the churchyard. She wheeled it up the path to the church door and propped it up in its customary corner next to the porch. Only when she entered the gloom of the porch did Queenie pull down the scarf covering the lower part of her face. "Chilly, isn't it," she observed brightly to the sidesman who handed her a hymnbook.

     The sermon was about the biblical story of Ruth. Queenie didn't pay a lot of attention to the parson's words but instead skimmed through the story in her own Bible and reflected on Ruth's determination to go out and find her own way in the world. To be sure, it took a rather selective reading of the story to whittle it down to that single theme, but the same could equally well be said about the sermon that Sunday. "What a delightful, inspiring message," she remarked emphatically to the startled parson after the service, treating him to a beatific smile as she grasped his hand.

     The ride home was as enjoyable as the journey to church had been. Queenie was pleasurably anticipating the beef pie she had left in the oven earlier as she mounted the stairs to her attic flat and looking forward to an uncomplicated day in her own company when she spotted an unmistakable GPO telegram envelope wedged into the jamb of her door. Her heart lurched; telegrams were almost always bad news. Without a moment's hesitation, she ripped the envelope open. The message was slightly cryptic MEET 5PM GYM SUPPER AFTER PHONE IF CANT COME BELLA but thriftily used all of the ten-word minimum message length.

     Queenie was still pondering Bella's message as she sat down to her meal of pie and well-buttered boiled potatoes. Much as she liked Bella, she felt as though her life was being taken over. However, Bella was probably feeling the need to make amends, so Queenie thought that perhaps she ought to make the effort. She put the matter out of her mind for the present and propped up her latest library book behind her plate. It was The Secret Adversary, a thriller by quite a new author named Agatha Christie. Queenie ate her meal absentmindedly with her imagination captivated by Tommy and Tuppence's adventures in the world of espionage and Bolshevik plots.

     After lunch, Queenie washed her plate and reflected further on Bella's invitation. She stared at the signed photograph of Harry Houdini on her mantelpiece hoping for inspiration. None came, but she decided at length that she should probably accept. Queenie considered going to the telephone box to call anyway, but laziness won out. She need not leave until about 4:30pm and there were plenty of chores around the flat to keep her occupied until then. Besides, even spending some of Sunday with Bella, Queenie would still have the Monday to herself as it would be her school's half-term holiday that day.

     Queenie left her flat at 4:30 as she planned. It was almost dark by now, so it was no longer necessary for Queenie to go about looking as if she was about to cycle across Siberia. As she pedalled her way towards Brixton, Queenie wondered why Bella had invited her to the gymnasium rather than to her house. It seemed reasonable enough that Queenie had picked up her exercise things without thinking but now she regretted not telephoning Bella to find out her plans.

     Queenie unlocked the green door using the key that Bella had given her. She bumped her bicycle up over the step and into the bottom of the stairway, parking it in the now accustomed spot and closing the door behind her. She could hear movement above her as she mounted the stairs. She could hear plenty of sounds of feet on the floor, but it did not have the rhythmic quality of an exercise class in progress. There were also grunts and the occasional shout but nothing clear enough to tell what was going on. Bella's voice became more obvious as part of the tapestry of sound as Queenie reached the top although she could still not make out any words.

     After the misadventures of the previous few days, Queenie was worried about what might be happening. She cautiously opened the double doors by a fraction of an inch and put her eye to the crack. She was astonished to see that only two people were causing all the noise. Bella and another boxer whom Queenie had not met were sparring together. The boxer was dressed for fighting but was also wearing a padded leather head guard. Bella was in her usual tuition outfit with the addition of a similar head guard and a pair of oversized gloves which seemed to be intended to be used as targets by her pupil. Bella was shouting instructions from time to time while the boxer being trained contributed the grunts.

     Queenie stood fascinated for a moment then entered the room properly. "With you in a moment," Bella called out without turning round or pausing in the sparring session. Queenie was greatly impressed at Bella's speed and agility and also that she seemed to anticipate every move and therefore not have to work nearly as hard as her pupil. Bella must have been a formidable boxer in her day. Once again Queenie was a little uneasy at her own interest and growing enthusiasm. It was true that this was just practice and no-one was going to get badly hurt, but nevertheless this was one woman methodically teaching another to be as effective as possible at beating the living daylights out of her next opponent.

     After a few more minutes, Bella called a halt and trotted over to meet Queenie, still moving lightly on her toes as if she were in the ring. She peeled off her head guard and greeted Queenie. The other boxer said nothing but grinned broadly, exposing an expanse of orange rubber gumshield.

     "This is Jenny Ironside," Bella announced, "one of my most promising girls. I think she might be up to beating yon African lassie tomorrow night."

     "I'll take your word for it," Queenie replied. "Jenny looks very impressive to me, but I really can't tell."

     "She has the speed and stamina to wear the African girl down, even though she's probably a wee touch lighter," Bella explained.

     Queenie nodded agreement as if she too were a connoisseur of the noble art.

     "And," Bella added conspiratorially, "she's practically unknown so I should get verra good odds at the bookies too."

     "Won't that make Mrs Hughes unhappy again?" Queenie asked.

     "Utterly desolate, I should think," Bella replied with a laugh. "Awa' hame tae yer tea," she added to Jenny, giving her a dismissive slap on the rump. Jenny held out her hands for Bella to unlace the gloves then loped away to the curtained-off changing area.

     Queenie waited while Bella disappeared into her office to change, emerging a few minute later in her fur-collared black coat and exuberantly flowered hat. Jenny had meanwhile appeared in a modish mid-calf length blue coat which showed off a trim pair of ankles and neatly curved calves and a matching cloche hat that almost covered her eyes. No one would ever guess that Jenny was a boxer. On the other hand, even in her street clothes, Bella retained an air of eccentricity that suggested she was dressed up to play a part.

     The three women descended the stone staircase chattering animatedly about anything but boxing. On Bella's advice, Queenie left her bicycle where it was as it was only a short walk to her house. Jenny accompanied Bella and Queenie as they walked along the alleyway as far as Brixton High Street, then with a cheery "Goodnight" turned right as the other two turned left.

     Bella's home proved to be one of long terrace of identical narrow brick houses, each with a tiny bay window in its front room and an identical one upstairs beneath a small but jaunty gable.

     Queenie followed Bella into the front room. It was still lit by gas and as the mantle warmed up, driving the shadows back into the corners of the room, Queenie decided that she was rather taken with it. It was like a curious mixture of a gentleman's study and a lady's boudoir, but she recognised echoes of her own flat here. There was a capacious mahogany bureau stacked with letters and notes, which was clearly the administrative centre of Bella's life. Photographs and trophies on the mantelpiece and around the room reflected Bella's professional life, while a remarkable range of books suggested an impressive breadth of interest and learning.

     Bella poked the embers of a fire and added some more coal. "Make yourself at home," she invited, "while I see to our tea."

     "Can I help?" offered Queenie, anxious not to be waited upon like royalty.

     "Gladly," Bella replied with a smile. "It'll be quicker with the two of us. Come away into the kitchen."

     It turned out that there was not a great deal to do as Bella had already done all the preparations she could do beforehand. The meal was simple but delicious with a bowl of scotch broth followed by fried herrings in oatmeal with sauté potatoes. ("Those fish were still swimming in Loch Fyne yesterday," Bella boasted.) Scones and jam followed the main course, to Queenie's surprise. Bella explained that this was what they call a 'high tea' in Scotland.

     After tea, Bella led the way back into the front room, now quite cosy. Queenie was happily explaining how she planned to learn all she could about the art of escape and to develop an act of her own. Bella seemed to be genuinely interested and added some intelligent and thoughtful comments.

     Quite abruptly, there was a tremendous bang from the direction of the hallway. Bella and Queenie stared at each other for a fraction of a second then leapt to their feet to investigate. The window in the front door lay in fragments on the hallway floor and amid the wreckage was a rectangular package neatly wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Crunching her way across the broken glass, Bella retrieved the parcel and unwrapped it. It contained a house brick and nestling in the recess in the top of the brick was a folded piece of paper. Bella handed the brick to Queenie and unfolded the paper. It was a short note which enclosed a small gold locket on a chain.

     Bella's already grim expression hardened as she read. "They've got my daughter," she said flatly, handing the note to Queenie, who tucked the brick under her arm, not being sure what to do with it.

     The note was succinct to the point of being cryptic. Mrs Hughes expects a satisfactory result on Monday. Queenie looked at Bella in bafflement.

     "It's my daughter's locket," Bella explained.

     Queenie studied the engraving on the locket. "M.P.," she read aloud.

     "Margaret Parsons," Bella interpreted. "Daisy."

     "Daisy is your daughter?" Queenie exclaimed in astonishment. "But I thought you weren't married!"

     "I'm not," Bella replied in a tone that clearly brooked no further discussion on that topic.

     Queenie changed tack. "So Mrs Hughes wants Jenny to lose tomorrow?" Bella nodded. "And if she doesn't, it will be bad for Daisy?" Bella nodded again.

     After a long uncomfortable pause, Queenie asked the obvious question. "Would they kill her?"

     "I don't think so," Bella replied evenly. She drew a deep breath. "But she might not fight again," she added in a strained voice. "Or walk."

     Queenie's mouth dropped open in wordless horror while her brain frantically searched for something to say.

     "Let's go back into the front room and think," Bella suggested, ushering Queenie in ahead of her.

     Queenie and Bella sat in silence for some time. Queenie felt frightened and helpless. She had come across criminal behaviour before but never such undisguised malice as this.

     "Shouldn't we just call the police?" Queenie ventured.

     "If Mrs Hughes gets so much as a sniff of the police around her, we'll find Daisy floating in the Thames tomorrow," Bella replied wearily. They both lapsed back into silence.

     At length, Bella spoke again. "There aren't many places they can be holding Daisy," she said thoughtfully. "I don't think they will expect me to go looking for her, so that's what I am going to do. If I can at least find out where she is, I can make a plan. Perhaps if I get lucky, I can even rescue her."

     "I'll come too," Queenie responded, eager to do anything to help.

     "No you won't," Bella replied firmly. "These are dangerous people."

     "You're my friend and I want to help," Queenie countered. "Besides you can't really stop me."

     Bella said nothing for a long moment, but just looked at Queenie. "Very well," she said eventually. "Wait here while I get some things we might need."

     Queenie sat and waited. She was very apprehensive of what might happen when Bella and she went out in search of Daisy but nevertheless pleased to be able to help in a crisis. She just hoped that she would actually be of help and wouldn't just get in the way. On reflection, Bella seemed to trust her, so she decided she could trust herself.

     Bella returned carrying an assorted bundle of odds and ends under one arm and a small medicine glass in the other hand. The bundle seemed to include straps, stockings and a length of rope.

     "What's that for?" Queenie asked in alarm.

     "I'm going to tie you to that chair," Bella replied, confirming Queenie's fears. "But first, I want you to drink this."

     Bella handed the glass to Queenie who sniffed it suspiciously. "What is it?" she asked.

     "It's gin with a Mickey Finn in it," Bella replied. "Please drink it."

     "And if I don't?" Queenie ventured.

     "Then I'll just have to knock you out some other way," Bella answered darkly.

     Queenie hesitated, eyeing the drink warily.

     "Alcohol makes chloral hydrate work faster," Bella explained. "It won't do you any harm, but you'll be out cold in fifteen to twenty minutes. That way I know you won't break free and follow me as soon as I turn my back."

     Queenie immediately thought of Mrs Vandemeyer in The Secret Adversary and how she had been killed by an overdose of chloral. However, she could see no alternative but to comply, so she obediently drank the drugged gin. The shot of alcohol into her system steadied her nerves somewhat and made her feel a little less frightened.

     "Thank you," said Bella in a rather softer voice. "I really do appreciate your sentiments but I just can't trust you to stay safely out of this."

     Bella selected a much-darned black stocking from her bundle of binding materials. "Put your arms down on the arms of the chair, please, Queenie," she instructed.

     Queenie did as she was told and looked at the chair with interest for the first time. It was a small wooden-framed armchair with a padded back and seat. The arms and legs of the chair were in polished wood. The back of the chair was high enough to come up to her shoulders. With a sinking feeling she realised that it was close to an ideal shape of chair to tie someone to.

     Bella swiftly wound the stocking round Queenie's left wrist and the arm of the chair, cinching it snugly to shackle her arm to the chair and finally tying off the ends of the stocking safely out of reach beneath the arm of the chair. Another stocking bound Queenie's right wrist in the same way. "I know your poor wrists probably still hurt," Bella confided softly, "but I'm hoping it won't be too bad tied like that."

     Queenie caught herself shaking her head to reassure Bella that it wasn't too bad.

     A stout leather strap was next, such as one might use to secure a suitcase or a steamer trunk. It was wrapped around Queenie's waist and the back of the chair then buckled somewhere behind her. Another strap went across her lap and was buckled underneath the chair seat.

     Bella paused to survey her work so far, reviewed her stock of materials and then left the room briefly. She returned with Queenie's own long knitted scarf. "You don't mind if I use this, do you?" she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she knelt down in front of Queenie's chair. She bound Queenie's ankles together and tied off the ends of the scarf to the front legs of the chair.

     Bella finally used her bundle of rope to bind Queenie's chest and arms to the chair back, winding it around several times and then knotting it firmly.

     "I'm really sorry about this, but I don't want you raising the alarm," Bella explained as she stuffed a balled-up handkerchief into Queenie's mouth. She bound it in place with a short woollen scarf pulled tight across Queenie's mouth and knotted behind her head.

     Queenie had been feeling increasingly angry at Bella's cavalier treatment of her and under the influence of the gin she had drunk, her annoyance outweighed her fear of what else Bella might do. She twisted and turned her head vigourously in an effort to dislodge the scarf so she could eject the gag. It started to slip down towards her chin.

     Suddenly Queenie's vision was filled with Bella's face virtually nose-to-nose with her. "Stop fighting me," she demanded sharply. Instinctively Queenie froze.

     "That's better," Bella said as if correcting a recalcitrant child. She loosened the knot in the scarf. "I could just put this between your teeth," she continued, "and I will if I have to but I'm trying not to hurt those bruises any more." So saying, Bella pulled the scarf up over Queenie's nose and down over her chin then retied the knot more tightly. "I don't think that will slip now," she said with a degree of satisfaction.

     Queenie glared balefully at Bella over the top of her gag. It was beginning to be difficult to glare properly as Queenie's vision kept going double and she was feeling desperately sleepy.

     "You had better call the police if I'm not back in the morning," Bella advised Queenie, but it was as if her voice came from a great way off. Queenie's eyelids drooped shut. She heard the gentle pop of the gas light being turned off then no more as she sank helplessly into a deep sleep.

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© Copyright Gillian B 2003

The Adventures of Queenie Holkham

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