Emily, when I think of you, I think of fairground rides, flat caps and coconut shies. Behind my closed eyes it is a wonderful day in a sepia June. People come, freed from work, with shillings, and perhaps some luck, crammed into their pockets. Crowds crush through the turnstiles, raise hands to shade eyes, and look out across the vast green slopes fringed with wild looking trees. There are caravans and children flying kites. Men buy drinks, place bets, push soft shreds of tobacco into pipes. The balconies are a sea of suit jackets, waistcoats, silk top-hats and bowlers, women breaking up the monotony in white lace up to their throats, down to their dainty ankles. I think of you, Emily, your skirts hitching up dust as you walked across the Downs from the train station that morning.
Sloped backs and bent elbows crowd the rail of the parade ring. Hooves shine as skittish fillies kick their out legs and strut, their coats gleaming in the sun, brushed clean by grubby stable boys. The crackling voices of commentators call numbers into oblivion, odds heard by eager ears. In between trouser legs, small faces, brown as berries, peep out, selling flowers or bags of chestnuts, whilst Pearly Kings and Queens burst through the bustle with tambourines, smiling faces and lungs full of song.
Finally, desperate bodies press up against the rails for the race of the day. The line of horses twitches in the distance, somewhere on The Hill, and the crowd let out a sudden yelp as the flag falls. I think of you, Emily, in the surging cacophony of sound, of hats and hope held tightly, damp finger tips pinching betting slips. The race dips behind the trees. There is a pause, barely perceptible, a breath. Your breath, Emily. The crowd is hot and heavy round you. You clutch the cool fabric of your sash and run a nail along the neat rows of backstitch, a school girl’s stitches.
In a blink, the horses appear, dark heads jutting, legs, long and lean and stretching. The roar almost deafens as it shakes in your throat. The ever-closer thunder of hooves sends tremors into your boots, up into your bones. When I think of you, Emily, I think of the twitching muscles of the horses’ flanks, water sluiced over coarse hair, damp with sweat. I think of perspiration on your own pallid brow.
The race pounds on, approaches the sweep of Tattenham Corner. You turn to your companion and offer a split second smile, stray wisps of dark hair flickering across your face, catching on your lashes. Then you duck. And run. Your hands stretch out, grasping at nothing for fragments of seconds.
When I think of you, I think of joy, of passion, of life. Of luck. And high stakes.
The world was there, Emily, all there watching, all breathing the same air, same sweet smell of warm grass and hot food, same smell of strength and competition, of leather and hay. The world was there, flat caps and top hats alike, all there sharing those moments of ecstasy and despair.
I imagine, had that day been a simpler one, the faces that would have fallen with the soft nose of a horse crossing the line at the winning post. I imagine the pale ales that would have been swigged disdainfully. I imagine the betting slips, once kissed, that would have been discarded like unfaithful lovers. I imagine the elation, the electricity that would have jolted through the lucky and the equine-savvy. I imagine how the winning jockey would have swung down from the saddle of his horse, carefree.
But that year the thrill, the despair, lay with you on the track.
The world was there, Emily. All there watching. All eyes on you and your sash that danced, caught under the hooves of His Majesty’s horse, like an answer to the question that rose up on the summer breeze. The world was watching as you bled.
And, as I mark my ‘X’ and fold the paper gently like a goodbye kiss, I am there too, on Derby Day 1913, thinking of democracy, Miss Davison, and of you.
In memory of Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913), the Suffragette who threw herself in front of the King’s Horse at the world’s greatest flat race, the Epsom Derby, on 5th June 1913.