Prologue: Come Together (13th October 1970)
No one wanted to be the first to speak. The room was illuminated by three harsh, white down-lighters casting shadows across the faces of eighteen men and one young woman. There was a sense of nervousness that had diffused around the room. It felt almost as if they were breaking some unspoken rule in being there together. It felt sordid. It felt strange. Rather than the usual dive bars and backstreet haunts in West London to which they were accustomed, they now convened in full illumination beneath the ground at the London School of Economics. There was no hiding here.
Bob and Aubrey had been sat quietly, watching the room slowly fill with some familiar faces and some unknown. Aubrey twisted his thumbs together. Bob took a few audibly deep breaths. They hadn’t known each other for long but they had met on the frontline of their movement. They did not fear the eclectic crowd before them, rather they feared they would not do justice to what they had become a part of that summer. They certainly were not in New York anymore. There were no Panthers here to stand with them, and the two men knew the battle they faced. Britain wasn’t ready for them, but they knew that waiting would not help them any longer.
Aubrey gave Bob’s shoulder a bracing grasp and nodded curtly. Bob stood, cleared his throat and smiled at his congregation. “Thank you all for coming.” The muttering ceased and Aubrey stood beside him. “This is Aubrey Walters,” Continued Bob, “And I am Bob Mellors, for those of you who I haven’t met.” A brief and tedious pause ensued.
Cutting in, Aubrey proceeded, “Most of you know why you’re here by now…”
“Well, I feel a bit out of bloody place.” Beverly laughed as she surveyed the faces around her. “How hard is it to find a few lesbians, Bob?”
“Anyway,” Bob again chimed in, disregarding the disruption, “Aubrey and I spent our summer doing something pretty exciting—”
“Didn’t realise the American boys were that good in bed.” Chuckled Beverly.
“Bev, please.” Aubrey sighed but couldn’t quite conceal his coy smile.
Bob cleared his throat once more, “We can make a difference here. Aubrey and I saw that it is possible to fight. We don’t need to live secretly anymore. That’s why you’re here.”
“Maybe the lesbians didn’t get the message…” Beverly muttered.
I: Double-Life Hellholes (23th November 1970)
The heavy layer of smoke loomed over the copywriters’ room of The Times. Though Flora did not smoke she always found herself thick with cigarette fumes when she left. It was impossible to be rid of the smell once she’d worked a full week and though she scrubbed her skirts and blouses until they were almost threadbare, she still smelled freshly of smoke on a Monday morning. That particular Monday was like any other. The work was coming through to her desk at a restful pace and she was able to make her rewrites and subtle edits before Charlie would reappear and check on her progress. There seemed to be endless trilling phones, heavy footsteps, clattering typewriters and the occasional shout across the room. It would be quiet at home.
Diana had been talking all morning but Flora’s eyes had barely moved from her fingers as they swept across the typewriter. She was talking about men and stockings and lipstick and her new hairstyle; it was cropped short and curled upwards into a pristine bonnet of hair. Flora cordially nodded but scarcely noticed the difference. She reached the end of another line and released the completed sheet as Diana took a drag on her Embassy. Taking up a bundle of papers and a clip, Flora neatly packaged the sheets and set them aside. Her desk was neat and orderly. She had a short stack of articles and letters and low-level correspondence to one side which she would carefully work through over the day. There was another pile to her right of completed bundles which would be checked by Charlie and his superiors somewhere upstairs. This office was mostly filled with women, most of whom were just like Diana.
Before she could take up a new letter, Charlie came marching over. He was wearing a checked shirt a few sizes too large for his slim frame beneath an aged tweed jacket. In his breast pocket there was a large bulge. “Cheers Flora.” He took a handful of the completed papers.
Diana called out before he could leave. She liked to play with him when he stopped by. “What you hiding, Charl?” She rested her elbows on the table and raised her eyebrows. She was married. Flora had been to the wedding. She didn’t enjoy it.
Without hesitation, Charlie dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out the day’s issue of The Sun. He sniggered. Diane rolled her eyes. “Pervert.” She huffed.
“What is it?” Flora looked between them both but neither spoke.
Charlie leafed through a few pages before throwing the paper onto Flora’s neat piles, opened to a double page spread. He rested a hand on Flora’s shoulder and squeezed. He smelled of stale cigar smoke and cheap scotch. “Market research.” He grinned.
Flora looked down with wide eyes. Before her was an image of a woman wearing an obscenely minimal amount of clothing. Apart from noticing the size of this woman’s breasts, she had little time to take in what had been laid out for her reluctant viewing. As quickly as he had opened the page, Charlie had slammed it closed again with his free hand. He gave Flora one last squeeze on the shoulder and returned the now folded newspaper to his pocket. “Only started printing them a week ago.” He muttered, eying Diane. “I think it’s rather artistic, don’t you Di?”
Diana carried on leafing through pages on her desk and did not look up when she answered. “Anyone can take their clothes off for money Charles.”
“No need to be bitter because they didn’t ask you, love.”
In the wake of what she had been shown, Flora didn’t notice as Victor approached. “Piss off and leave these nice ladies alone, will you Charlie? We’re meeting in my office in ten minutes.” Victor was Charlie’s superior. He was a personal selection by the people upstairs and still had a touch of a Birmingham accent from his previous life at the Daily Post. Flora had been fifteen when she had started at the Post. He had never remembered her but she certainly remembered him.
“Sure, Vic.” Charlie marched off through the office. Victor turned to Flora and winked with a casual air that made her blush slightly. He followed after Charlie. Flora sat silently for a moment a gazed around the office. It was open plan, sectioned off by partitions and desks. It was a mess but it functioned. She looked back down at her typewriter, a new Olympia. Her desk was a mess now too.
“I’ve started getting my stockings from Marks again. They last longer.” Diana purred.
II: Give Us a G (27th November 1970)
The rain beat down upon Flora’s navy blue umbrella which was slightly too small to keep her entirely dry. Flecks of muddy water were already latching onto the nude fabric of her stockings and she loathed the prospect of scrubbing them clean in the kitchen sink when she got home. Taxis and buses and endless streams of cars barrelled past. The normal symphony of smoky air, damp stacks of newspapers and rumbling sounds of the traffic dissipated the moment Flora stepped below ground. Somehow the tunnels beneath London retained their humid heat even in November. A mixture of poor ventilation and overcrowding kept the lines a fairly consistent temperature, only cooling when one ventured from the heart of London to the likes of High Barnet or Tooting Bec.
Flora shook off her umbrella and pulled it closed, falling in line with the rest of that day’s commuting masses. She allowed herself to be swallowed into the flow of the crowd, relieved at the anonymity of the tunnel after the scrutiny of the office. Diana had been in a foul mood all day and Charlie had hovered over the women incessantly. The indistinguishable chatter and footsteps took Flora away. Soon she would be home.
She rode the Circle line Westbound from Blackfriars to Oxford Circus, and again she was swept through more tunnels to her connection on the Victoria line Northbound. She was bound for Seven Sisters, and as her train rumbled through the darkness, the crowd thinned somewhat. Soon, there were few people left in the carriage and Flora fell into an empty seat. She rested her weathered leather handbag beside her and pulled out an equally distressed copy of Post Office by Charles Bukowski. Flora’s roommate had given it to her second-hand after she had finished with it. Though the text itself was so young, the dog eared pages aged the novel. She read happily and for a moment lost herself in another set of worries and trials.
The train pulled into King’s Cross/St. Pancras as Flora laid her book beside her and bent down to pull her nude stocking backup her calf. The doors shut as she sat back up and though her hand lay upon the book, she was too transfixed to flee to its pages once again. Opposite her were two people. She was fairly sure they were women. Their hair was slightly wild and one had her hair cropped short, above her ears. The other woman had bright red lipstick on and dark black smudged around the edge of her eyes. Their hands met on the pierced woman’s thigh and their fingers interlocked. Flora looked between the faces and the hands.
The woman with the short hair looked up and immediately dropped her partner’s hand, “You got a problem?” She barked. Flora was startled backwards and began to fumble through the book again. She didn’t dare look up at the women as they stood and vacated the carriage at Highbury & Islington.
Flora was almost glad to be back out on the street, despite the continuing rain. The corner shop below her flat was still vivid and alight against the darkening evening sky. The door to her apartment was right next to the entrance to the small shop. Her key in the door, she paused. She looked through the glass pane of the shop door and slid the key back into her pocket. The shop was empty.
Everything inside was neat. The shelves had been restocked since she passed that morning. Flora made tentative eye contact with the clerk who was framed behind his counter against a colourful backdrop of cigarette packets. She located the newspaper stand and cast another fleeting look at the clerk, who was now facing the other direction. Her hand dipped into one of the lowest stacks and she lifted the paper whilst turning her back to the counter. The Sun. Flora didn’t dare open it in the shop.
She turned to pay but hesitated. Without thinking, she collected up a small bundle of other publications and stumbled over to the counter with full arms. The clerk shot her a perplexed look as he punched the total into his till. Flora smiled awkwardly, “Market research.” She muttered. The clerk nodded indifferently.
The upstairs flat consisted of a small bathroom with a dull green suite, a kitchen-living area with an antique oven, a table and three chairs, a pull out sofa and a coffee table. From the kitchen stemmed two bedrooms. Jane wasn’t home when Flora came in, much to her relief. She dropped the stack of newspapers and magazines on the coffee table and discarded her handbag on the sofa. Sitting blot upright, she pulled the copy of The Sun from the bottom of the stack and held it in front of her. She sank back into the stained peach fabric and opened the paper, passing the first couple of pages with disinterest. Turning the page, she found what she was looking for. A woman with black hair and shining lips stared back at her. Flora watched her as if she might even move. She stayed sat like that for some time.
A key turned in the lock and Flora was startled to her feet. She looked down at the black haired woman and then back up at the empty room. She raced across the space, opened her bedroom door and threw the paper – and the woman – across the room. The paper separated and erupted into a shower of sheets which glided onto Flora’s bedroom floor.
“Hello!” Jane chimed as she stepped into the lounge. “Why on earth do we have so many papers?”
“Market research.” Flora retorted without missing a beat. She had spun around to see Jane staring at the pile of papers on the coffee table. “Charlie…” Flora stuttered. “He wanted me to do some… market research. You know… look at what the other papers are doing.”
Jane looked up at her. A wide smile spread across her face, “Oh Flora! Maybe they’re going to promote you?” She clapped her hands. “A girl at work said that they’re starting to let a couple of women do the ‘real’ newspaper stuff in America now. They always seem to be the first to do those sort of things. Such radicals!” Jane walked to her bedroom, swung the door open and flipped on the light. Flora watched from the doorway as Jane stooped to the level of her mirror, wiped under her eyes and applied a darker lipstick.
“Plans tonight?” Flora asked. Jane wasn’t the sort to go out late.
“Oh just dinner,” Jane purred. “He’s called Michael. Friend of a friend. He’s so handsome.”
Jane hadn’t been out with a man in some time. She was beautiful. Her skin was slightly tan and her cheeks were freckled. She wore her hair in a short bob and her nails were always painted. Flora was comparably plain. “That’s lovely, Jane.” Flora smiled.
“I didn’t want to bring him here just in case you stole him!” Jane laughed. She stood, brushed herself down and came back out into the kitchen. “I’ll see you later okay? No need to wait up.” Jane headed back out of the door and down the stairs to the street. Flora turned and peered into her bedroom. The paper had gone everywhere.
III: Bigger Egos (December 18th 1970)
The Christmas parties were always the same, no matter where one happened to work. Flora had put on her best silk blouse with a ruffle tie at the neck. Jane had insisted on rouging her cheeks, putting mascara on her and playing with her hair. The lipstick had been an active choice on Flora’s part for a change.
Flora mingled around the sticky floor of the pub near the office in Blackfriars. She knew many of the people there but not terribly well. They merely exchanged polite nods and moved along. For most of the evening, Flora had been chasing Diana. Once again though, Diana had disappeared. Through the heavy smoke and low beat of the band that had been hired to play for the occasion, Flora was growing tired. She hadn’t been there for long but she already wanted to leave. Diana had been gone for over half an hour, so Flora decided to visit the toilets and head home before it got too late. Jane was out with Michael anyway, so she wouldn’t have known that Flora had conceded before eleven o’clock. Flora bustled through a crowd to the nearest door and pushed through in search of the ladies.
The corridor was quiet aside from the soft thrum making it through the door. She wandered down a short corridor and turned a corner to find a stairwell. She also found Diana.
Diana had her skirt hitched up to her hip and her head thrown back against the wall. Charlie stood before her, holding her thigh up and exposing her torn stockings. His shirt was unbuttoned down to his chest. He had a lot of hair on his chest.
“I’m so sorry.” Flora, startled and unsure what to do, turned and ran back down the hallway, leaving the pair as they hurried to correct their clothing.
She bundled through the door, back into the main room and the raucous music erupted back into full volume. The door flung back so wildly that it managed to catch Victor, who was passing with a pint Guinness in each hand. He stumbled to the side, drowning his blue button down shirt and tie in the dark stout as the off white head melted into the ground around his feet. He glared upwards before noticing Flora stood in shock.
“Oh God.” She muttered and she fumbled for a stack of napkins on the nearby table, and Victor set down the empty glasses. Patting his chest dry with the napkins, she began to stutter. “I’m so sorry — accident— I should just leave— I’m so—”
Victor held a finger to her lips. “Nonsense.” He smiled.
“I’m going to go home.” Flora said whilst Victor’s finger still lingering about her lip.
Victor smiled coyly, “Well I must say I’m losing interest here—” At that moment, Diana and Charlie wandered out of the door. Diana’s small bouffant hairstyle was still slightly out of place and Victor chuckled to himself. “Shall we leave? I’d hate to send you off alone.” Flora’s jaw hung slack and she simply nodded her head a couple of times. Victor wrapped his fingers around her arm and led her outside, into an idling black cab.
They sailed through London to Victor’s apartment in Chelsea. It was a minimalist, single bedroom place on Paultons Square. Victor made a show of generously tipping the cab driver and escorting Flora upstairs. He flicked on the warm wall light and set down a dated jazz vinyl on his record player which Flora did not recognise. He had a long leather sofa which looked out of the tall, white-varnished windows and invited Flora to lounge while he poured two crystal glasses of whisky. Flora had never drunk whisky before.
Victor sat close beside her, leaving a stretch of vacant space on his left. He handed a glass to Flora and sipped his own. Flora lifted the crystal to her lips and tossed back enough of the potent spirit to make her cough. Victor chuckled. “Take it slow.” He wrapped his hand around hers over the glass and slowly lifted it back to her lips, tipping the smallest amount of whisky into her mouth. “Let it roll over your tongue. Savour it.” He watched as Flora did as she was told.
“So,” Flora set the glass on the ground to her right. “I loved that piece in yesterday’s issue – help for one-parent families? Very powerful.” Flora sat upright and folded her hands in her lap.
Victor chuckled yet again. “Don’t talk to me about work.” Flora sensed something stern in his tone. “Where are you from originally Flora?”
She stuttered slightly. “Well—” She caught herself; did he really not remember her? “Birmingham.”
“I thought you might have been.” He took anther sip of his whisky. “Lost your accent.” It should have been a question but it wasn’t. “You’re a beautiful woman, Flora.”
Flora had no response. Indeed there wasn’t time to respond. Victor set down his glass on a coffee table that filled the wide space between the sofa and the window. He looked at Flora, scanning her from her feet to her ears. He wrapped his fingers around her arm once more and pulled her towards him. He pressed his lips against hers and moved his hand to the back of her head, holding her mouth firmly against his own. Flora tried to speak but could only push out a fractured groan. She pushed her hand against his chest but his fingers just clenched harder into her hair. Flora pressed her eyelids shut. It would be over soon.
Victor’s free hand began to trace a line up Flora’s leg, catching the edge of her skirt and hitching it up her thigh until the top of her stocking was exposed. His nails caught the bare skin above the line of her stocking and she winced. Her spare hand had become caught beside her torso as Victor had contorted her body to the side. His hand suddenly gripped her flesh hard, catching her stocking and tearing runs in it. Flora kicked her heel backwards and caught the crystal glass which remained on the floor beside her. They both heard the shatter. Victor pulled away and dropped Flora, who panted and held her hand over her mouth.
“Fuck.” Victor stood and strode through a wide arch which Flora assumed led to the kitchen. She didn’t wait. He was speaking but she didn’t listen. She stood, pulled her skirt back down to her knees and snatched her coat from a rack near the door. She said nothing as she wrenched the door open and ran back down to the street.
IV: Gateways (19th December 1970)
The bells of some nearby church tolled for midnight as Flora hurried down King’s Road, chased by a white cloud of her own breath. Her arms were wrapped tight around her chest. She did not cry. The road still hummed with the occasional bus or car, but the pavements were all but abandoned. Flora couldn’t help but look up at the glowing windows around her and imagine the gatherings behind the nets and thick curtains. For the first time though, she relished the thought of going back to the small flat in Seven Sisters.
There was one issue which she couldn’t shake however. Flora had no idea how to get home. She just kept walking straight ahead; this was the direction which the black cab had come from so at least she wasn’t getting further from home.
A lull in the traffic on King’s Road left a rare moment of silence for the likes of a London street. Through the silence came another dull ruckus. Flora slowed as she reached the corner and the volume increased; the tinny voice of Dave Edmunds spilled onto the pavement between the chatter of a gathering of women, most holding glasses and cigarettes. Flora scanned the small crowd which gathered beneath a sign that simply said ‘Gateways’. They were a bizarre group, and they were certainly all women despite the confusing androgyny of a few. Though she tried to ignore them as she scuttled through the dark across the street, Flora was also highly aware that she hadn’t seen anyone else around and she still had little idea of where she was or where she was going.
Taking a deep breath, Flora walked forward towards the nearest woman. She had long auburn hair that grazed the bottom of her shoulder blades and wore black pinstriped trousers, maroon leather brogues, a white shirt and a pair of plain black, men’s suspenders. Flora tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “Excuse me—” She muttered.
“You don’t need to ask me if you can go inside, lady. They won’t bite.” The woman turned back to the group and chuckled.
“No, no.” Flora tapped her shoulder again, “I don’t want to go inside. I need help.” The woman turned and looked Flora up and down. Flora didn’t dare think what her makeup must have looked like at that point and she knew her hair was a ragged mess, not to mention the torn stocking.
“You’re on Bramerton Street.” The woman was not forthcoming with details.
“I need to get to the tube,” Flora pressed. “I have to get back to Seven Sisters.”
The woman thought for a moment and ran her hand through her hair. It was the first time that Flora managed to see her face in full. She was an attractive woman, freckled and pale-skinned. Her eyes looked to be grey or dull green but it was still too dark to tell. Her nose was slightly arched as if it had once been broken. She wore no makeup and her eyebrows grew out wildly. Her posture seemed distinctly masculine. “You’ll have to go to Sloane – you can get the Circle to Victoria. It’s just straight down King’s Road.”
“Thanks.” Flora briskly turned to walk away but the woman’s hand caught her arm. Flora flinched.
“No way I’m letting you walk that far on your own at this time.” The woman protested. She stepped ahead of Flora and walked to the curb of King’s Road.
“Honestly, I’m fine.” Flora felt her tone was too brusque but she wanted most to be left alone.
The woman was looking up and down the street as she spoke. “Shut up.” Flora was shocked but didn’t reply. Suddenly, the woman threw her arm outwards and yelled. “Over here!” A black taxi pulled up at the corner and idled as the woman leaned through the driver’s window. She handed over some change from her pocket and the driver slid her a pen, before turning back to Flora. “He’ll take you to Sloane.”
Flora didn’t question; she didn’t think she could argue. She stepped forward and opened the stiff door. She slipped into the warm interior and went to close the door, but it was caught by the woman’s hand. “Not so fast.” She laughed.
Another woman who was stood outside what Flora could only assume was a bar threw the end on her cigarette on the ground and shouted. “Hurry up with your girlfriend, Laura. We’re going back inside.” The driver shot Flora and the woman an aggravated look as Flora shook her head wildly.
“I can’t pay you back.” Flora looked at the woman who was still lingering with her hand on the door.
“Doesn’t matter.” The woman handed Flora a crumpled napkin with numbers scrawled on it. “I’m Laura. That’s my phone number. There’s a dance at Kensington Town Hall on the 22nd; you should come. Call and we’ll sort something out.” Laura leaned back and slammed the door shut, not waiting for a reply. The taxi eagerly sped off and Flora pushed the napkin into her coat pocket. She sank back into the seat and shut her eyes.
V: Lonely Closets (26th December 1970)
Flora was curled beneath a thick, woven blanket on the sofa. The radio hummed in the background; it seemed all that was being played that day was a selection of upbeat Christmas songs from The Jackson 5. Flora was indifferent to the music but it was better than silence. She had a book of crossword puzzles resting on her lap which she was trying to lose herself in. There was a full glass of Pomagne on the coffee table and a candle burning next to it. Jane was out with Michael and had been since Christmas Day. They were visiting his family for the break and Flora preferred it that way. If Jane had been in the flat, she would have insisted on putting up bunting and a tree with a plastic angel on top. Flora would be the one left to take it all down in the middle of January.
The phone on the table by the door trilled, cutting over the shrill children’s voices on the radio. Flora stumbled over her blanket which had become wrapped around her legs. When she reached the table, she fumbled with the tangled cord for a moment before picking up the stained, plastic receiver. “Hello?” Flora could smell the alcohol on her breath.
“Flora!” A voice erupted down the line. Flora sighed.
“Hello mum.” Flora rubbed her hand across her face. “Happy Christmas.”
“Happy Christmas, dear. I tried to call yesterday – were you out?”
“Yes.” Flora lied.
Flora’s mother sighed. “How are you?” She always went through the same formalities when she called; once a month and never more.
“I’m okay.” Flora looked at the floor. “How are you? Nice Christmas?”
“Wonderful, actually.” Her voice had calmed. “We spent Christmas Day with Nan and Grandad and Uncle James. Your dad misses you.” He didn’t miss her. Flora skirted over the comment. “And we saw Louise and Henry on Christmas Eve. They brought Peter with them. He was asking after you.”
Flora looked up. “What did you say?”
“Well, nothing much.” Flora’s mother rattled on. “He misses you, darling.” Flora remained silent. “Maybe you should call him?”
“Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know, darling. It’s just—”
“I’m not going to.”
Flora’s mother sighed. “Well you just disappeared. You owe him some explanation.”
“Because you can’t just cancel a wedding like that and never tell anyone why—”
Flora slammed the phone back onto the table. She padded back to the sofa and wrapped herself in the blanket. She lifted the glass of now-flat Pomagne and took a large sip. 2 down, 9 letters, ‘famous for something bad’.
VI: The Trendy London Scene (April 9th 1971)
It felt like the first warm day of the year. Flora was getting too hot sat at her desk and the day was drawing to a close. Diana had finally overcome her embarrassment and left her husband. Though she wasn’t open with Charlie at work, she had told Flora that she’d been sleeping with him since November. Flora didn’t tell her that she could do much better.
Diana turned to her, red lipstick now staining only the outer edge of her lips. “Come for a drink with me an Charlie after work.” Diana rarely wanted to spend time with Flora socially. In all of their two years working together, they had only gone for lunch together three times. However, since the incident at the Christmas party, Diana couldn’t have wanted to spend more time with Flora. It was a fairly transparent attempt to make sure no one else found out about the office romance scandal and Flora knew that. However it was still nice to have a friend aside from Jane. Flora didn’t get to see Jane often anymore, she was always with Michael.
Flora nodded. “Where do you want to go?”
“Charlie wants to walk down to Covent Garden – he knows a great pub there.” Diana was besotted and Flora knew it. Charlie could take her anywhere and she would be able to extract romantic perfection from the experience.
The walk to the pub was more pleasant than Flora could have expected. Much like Diana, Charlie was being overly nice to Flora. He was sickly saccharine with his pleasantries but it was an improvement on their past relationship.
As they walked down the Strand and the conversation lulled, they were all distracted by a loud group walking towards them. Two of the men were awkwardly draped over each other. To the rear of the group, Flora couldn’t help but notice a head of long, auburn hair. Laura.
Flora dropped her head down but this didn’t stop Laura from noticing her. She shouted above the din of the group as they passed. “Hey! You!” She waved and pointed at Flora, who caught her gaze with a frightened look. Laura’s hand dropped and she strode off after her friends.
“Do you know them?” Charlie looked at Flora quizzically.
Flora’s eyes darted to him and then she looked back at Laura one last time, her hair draped down the back of her navy blue blazer. “No, I don’t.”
The pub itself was so draped with hanging plants and ivy that Flora couldn’t even make out the name on the sign. In the lowering light it was a beautiful building to behold. The flowers had begun to open and the leaves were vivid green; it was as if the building was trying to conceal itself with foliage but it only stood out against the brick and concrete.
They settled in an old, wood-panelled booth and set down dripping pint glasses on paper coasters even though the table was already stained with plenty of condensation rings. Diana scooted closer to Charlie, who wrapped his arm across her shoulders. “You seeing anyone, Flora?” He asked.
Flora took a sip of her beer. “No, I’m not. But my flat mate is always with her partner—”
“I know someone perfect!” Diana slapped a palm on the table, startling Flora and Charlie. A group of businessmen who had just crowded through the door also turned to see what was happening. Flora sank into her seat. “Well he’s actually a cousin. But he’s a plumber and he’s really rising through the company – might even be in charge in a few years!” Diana looked at Charlie excitedly who was used to humouring her and patted her shoulder indifferently.
“I don’t think so…” Flora murmured. She took another sip of her beer.
“Why?” Diana looked disappointed.
Flora shrugged. “I’m just not interested really.”
“Is this about Vic?” Charlie leaned forward and put his elbow on the table, raising an eyebrow at Flora.
“What do you mean?” Flora said.
Charlie hesitated. “He just said something happened at Christmas, that’s all.”
“We’re not judging you for sleeping with him, Flora! He’s a good looking man.” Diana reached across the table to comfort her but Flora snatched her hand away.
“Nothing happened.” Flora laughed. “You are joking, aren’t you?”
The door swung open and all three turned to look. Flora sank even further into her chair as Victor smiled at them and waved, shrugging off his work jacket and hanging it on a rack by the door. “Sorry I’m late.” He slid into the seat next to Flora. She couldn’t get out.
“No worries.” Charlie smiled. Diana glanced at at Victor before winking at Flora.
The pub kept filling until there was only limited standing room left. Charlie and Victor chatted incessantly about sports and work. They both seemed to compete with each other as to who knew the names of the most rugby players and footballers and cricketers. Diana just absent-mindedly sipped her drink and watched Charlie’s lips. Flora was fairly certain that she had no idea what the men were actually talking about.
Charlie slid from his seat and Diana followed. “Another round?”
“Go on then.” Victor smiled. Diana put her arm around Charlie, latching onto him as they heaved through the crowd to the bar. Victor was silent for a moment as he lifted his pint glass and drained the final dregs. He looked up towards the bar but the others were now truly out of sight.
Flora nervously rapped her fingers together under the table. “Why did you tell them that?” Flora stuttered.
Victor glanced back at her casually. “What do you mean?”
“You know.” Flora’s voice was wavering.
“That we fucked?” Victor laughed. Flora felt a knot in the pit of her chest push bile up her throat. She coughed slightly and leaned forward, trying to catch Victor’s fleeting gaze.
“That did not happen, Victor.”
“Call me Vic.”
Flora paused again. “Victor.” She took a deep breath. “You tell them it didn’t happen.” Her voice had grown slightly louder to match the rumbling volume of the room.
Victor finally turned and stared at Flora. He lifted a hand and rested it on her shoulder before tightly gripping down with his fingertips. “You’re going to fuck me, Flora. Don’t worry about specifics.” His hand loosened and drifted down her collarbone, grazing past her breast and tightly grasping at her waist. Something snapped. Flora struck him across his cheek and pushed him backwards. He tumbled out of the booth and onto the floor. Flora leapt up, grabbing her handbag in one swift motion. People turned to stare. Victor groaned as he propped himself up to stand.
Flora didn’t wait to hear what else Victor had to say. She dashed out of the door, the warm air hitting her as she stumbled onto the street and into the last vestiges of light. She paused. Her heart was thrumming in her neck. Her eyes began to water. She turned to get her bearings before starting off towards the Strand. Flora decided that she would cry when she got home; this was no place for such a show.
VII: Beautiful Gay Days (July 10th 1971)
The sun beat down upon Flora’s pale face and her eyes were squeezed tightly shut. Her fingers glided over the grass and daisies, tugging at individual stems and then throwing them aside. She could hear people singing in the distance. Love, sister, it’s just a kiss away, it’s just a kiss away. War, children, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away. There were the sounds of guitars and tambourines that were still being brought out to Hyde Park a week after the festival was over. Everyone was enjoying the improvement in the weather.
Flora opened her eyes and sat up. She slid a pair of big, thick-rimmed sunglasses onto her face which she had borrowed from Jane. She watched as Michael’s young niece and nephew chased after Jane in their matching dungarees. Jane hopped back and forward, her linen skirt swaying and her embroidered cotton shirt billowing. Around her head was wrapped an orange sash and her arm was covered in bangles. Flora remembered when Jane had become obsessed with finding pictures of the Woodstock festival in ’69. She had gone out and bought clothes and accessories and materials to craft her own summer wardrobe. It was odd to Flora just how much Jane had changed in those two years, but it was always nice to see the Jane of peace and love reappear on hot summer days, even if Michael’s sister-in-law was quietly disapproving.
Michael lounged next to his brother, Richard, and his wife, Penny. Flora had arrived late and hadn’t bothered to ask the names of the children. She decided to just refer to them as Pink and Blue, owing to their appropriately gender-matched outfits. They all sat and ate sandwiches and nibbles which Penny had stuffed into her wicker basket. She then decanted some black coffee for the adults and gave bananas to Pink and Blue. Flora’s invite had been a last minute one. Jane had been seeing Michael for some time and Flora suspected it was something quite serious. Jane was always one to crave approval. Though she had other friends, she always wanted Flora’s opinion on men. Flora suspected that Jane also didn’t want her to be lonely. Since the incident at the pub, Diana had moved desks and Charlie barely spoke to her. It was better that way.
“So what do you do, Flora?” Penny sipped her coffee as the children stood and began chasing each other again.
“I’m a typist at The Times.” Flora smiled warmly but sensed Penny didn’t particularly care. She was a housewife and she was proud of it.
“Married?” Penny asked.
“No.” Flora hated that question.
“Ah, I see.” Penny paused, suddenly uncomfortable. “You’ll find the right man eventually. I was just lucky.”
Michael and Richard both stared in Flora’s direction. “What is it?” Flora quipped nervously.
“Not you.” Michael said bluntly, putting his hand to his face to block some of the glare of the sun. Flora turned to see what they were looking at and noticed a large crowd of people. Some onlookers but others who were dancing around and singing. The group was mostly formed of men but between them were women.
“Darling, what are they?” Penny tapped Richard.
Richard grumbled something beneath his breath so that the children couldn’t hear. Penny recoiled slightly.
A few members of the group broke off and started throwing a tennis ball back and forth, laughing and chattering as they did so. Flora’s heart sank as the group came close enough to properly make out individually. Though a bright blonde streak had been bleached into her hair, Laura was still vividly recognisable. One of the men threw the ball towards Laura in a high arch but she missed the catch. As she stooped to retrieve the ball, she looked up and caught Flora’s eye. She paused for a moment and Flora shot back round to face Michael and Richard.
“Hey!” The voice bellowed from behind her. Michael shot Flora a suspicious look as she turned to face Laura, who was making her way over to the family picnic. Flora jumped up and ran to meet Laura half way. Her bare feet sank into the grass.
“Laura, I’m so—”
“Shut it.” Laura said. “You never called. And you owe me for that cab.”
Flora looked back at the family. “I’m so sorry, Laura. I will call. I have your number. Okay? Please. You have to go.” Laura looked past her. Richard was fuming and Penny was trying to gather Pink and Blue.
“Fine.” Laura turned and went back to her group, leading them back towards their gathering.
Flora returned to Jane and Michael as Richard hastily packed away the basket and folded the blanket on which Penny had been sat. She was now leading the children away as Michael quietly muttered to his brother who said nothing. Flora looked at Jane. “What happened to the children?”
Jane stuttered. “She took them away—” She paused. “They wanted ice cream, that’s all. And Richard has to leave.” Flora didn’t have to ask why. She slipped her shoes back on.
VIII: The Question of Lesbianism (August 17th 1971)
The small kitchen was stacked with boxes when Flora came home from work. It was hot in the small apartment and things were scattered around, out of place.
“Jane?” Flora called, throwing down her bag and regarding the mess.
“Oh, you’re home early.” Jane called from beyond her bedroom door.
“No I’m not.” Flora slid past a pile of boxes and peered into Jane’s bedroom. “What are you doing?”
Jane shot upright from within her wardrobe. A large suitcase stood open to the side, full of her clothes. She sighed. “I didn’t want you to find out this way…”
“Find out what, Jane?” Flora could feel herself becoming defensive.
“Michael asked me to move in with him…” Jane looked back at her wardrobe and pulled out a few more hangers hosting coats and long dresses.
Flora smiled. “That’s great!” Jane didn’t look back up. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“It was quite last minute.” Jane was being very quiet. “He said I shouldn’t mention it.”
“So I was supposed to come home to an empty flat?” Flora gripped the doorframe.
Jane looked up. “I don’t really have a choice, Flora. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have a choice?”
“It’s just Michael…” Jane trailed off and turned to look at her room again.
“What did Michael say, Jane?” Flora wasn’t leaving the doorway.
Jane paused. Though she wasn’t facing towards her, Flora could sense her becoming upset. Jane wiped a hand across her face. “He said you’re a bad influence.”
“What?” Flora shouted. “Why?”
Jane turned. Her eyes were wet. She shook her head. “I love him.”
Flora’s arm dropped to her side. “I can’t believe you.” She didn’t wait to hear any more. She retreated to her bedroom, slamming the door shut and drawing the curtains over the nets. Flora slid into bed fully clothed and shut her eyes.
IX: The Big Actions (2nd September 1971)
The office was quiet that day. Flora typed listlessly, ignoring the presence of the woman on the next desk over. Diana passed every so often but the women didn’t even look at each other anymore. Flora found herself subject to endless dull whispers. People would mutter about her and stare, only looking away if she stared back at them. Jane had tried to call numerous times but Flora never answered. She slept and came into work. Eventually she had just begun to leave the phone off of the hook.
The work and the papers steadily flowed through Flora’s desk as the day ground on. She didn’t stop for lunch. She didn’t pause when Charlie walked over and silently picked up a stack of completed copy. She never lifted her head from her typewriter until she felt a hand on her shoulder. So startled as to the intrusion, Flora gasped. She turned to see Victor and shook his hand off.
“Come to my office please, Miss Allen.” Victor hinted no emotion.
Flora looked up at him vacantly. “Why?” She asked.
“I won’t discuss that out here, Miss Allen. Come to my office.” Victor turned to walk away but Flora caught him before he could leave.
“No.” She barked. “We will speak here.”
Victor turned, quietly furious. “Okay Miss Allen.” The surrounding rows of typists began to turn and look at the unfolding scene. “People have been talking—”
“About?” Flora folded her arms across her chest.
“—about you. About your private life.” Victor tried to muffle his words. “You will not bring that into this office, Miss Allen. I am not going to put up with it. Understand?”
Flora chuckled. “I’m afraid I don’t, Vic.”
Victor took one sharp breath before leaning towards Flora. “I will not have these people thinking I fucked a dyke. Understand?” He spat.
Flora pulled back. She made no attempt to lower her voice. “Maybe you shouldn’t lie about fucking people, Vic.” She stood. “Don’t worry. I quit. I’m sure your reputation will be fine.” Flora turned and dragged her hand across the desk, sending incomplete and finished papers tumbling to ground and pushing the Olympia dangerously close to the edge. A wave of muttering erupted around them as Flora took her bag and jacket. Victor stood silently, his jaw slack, as he watched her walk out of that smoke-filled room for the final time.
The entire journey home was riddled with dread. Flora hesitated on the street at her flat door. She left the key in the lock and pushed into the corner shop. The attendant looked up and smiled. She strode to the news stand, picked up the last, crumpled copy of The Sun and walked to the counter. “And a pack of Embassy.” She smiled and threw the last of her change before the attendant.
After lighting one of the cigarettes with the matches she kept by the hob, Flora pushed the living room window open. She paced back and forth for some time. Without an actual ash tray, she found herself stubbing the cigarette out on the plastic draining board next to the sink, burning a little circle into the off-white surface. The door to Jane’s room was open. There was a rectangle of light coming from the window, staining the bare carpet. Flora hadn’t moved anything into the room. She had considered it, but she didn’t like to go in there. The phone still sat off the hook by the door. Flora stared at it as she balanced another cigarette between her lips and lit it. While she took a few deep drags, she wandered into her bedroom and wrenched open the door to her wardrobe.
She dragged out articles of clothing and discarded them across the carpet with the debris that was already littered around her floor. At the very back, folded there neatly since early Spring of that year, she found her Winter coat. It’s thick, black fabric felt foreign in her hands, which were still accustomed to Summer cottons and linens. Gripping the cigarette with her lips, she turned the coat and dug her hand into one of the pockets. Nothing. She turned it again and pushed her hand into the other pocket, pulling out an old napkin. She smiled and some ash dropped onto the collar. Flora threw the coat aside and went back out to the kitchen.
The phone number was still just about visible after all of those months. Flora eagerly grappled with the phone and dialed the number. She lifted the receiver to her ear with one hand and took the cigarette from her mouth with the other. The line trilled.
“Laura?” Flora exhaled a small puff of smoke and coughed.
X: Operation Rupert (9th September 1971)
Laura had told her where to go. Even though Flora remained sceptical, she waited beneath the vaulted architecture of the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster for some time as the early evening rolled on. She eyed every face as hundreds of pious-looking people filtered in but she couldn’t see Laura. The crowds began to thin and the venue had mostly filled.
The doors would be closing soon, so she debating just leaving. She hesitated for a moment but decided that she owed it to Laura to at least stay a while and she walked inside, standing in a spot at the very back of the room. Flora couldn’t help but wonder whether Laura had been playing with her, or whether this was some sort of revenge. There didn’t seem to be any other reason that she should have been sent to the Festival of Light; a seemingly unimportant event in a seemingly bizarre location. A red cloaked choir rang out from before a colossal organ; it’s vast pipes climbing all the way up to the rafters. The congregation were dressed in hats and flowers, likely their usual Sunday church attire. Flora hadn’t been to a church since she had left Birmingham. She didn’t miss the spectacle.
Soon enough, the choir members took their seats and beamed out into the vast audience. The compère took to the stage and tapped on the microphone, introducing himself as Nigel. Flora wasn’t listening close enough to catch his surname, nor did she care to find out. He introduced a young man who began to talk about the moral pollution in India and how God had thus compelled him to set up this gathering. Flora didn’t listen. She just scanned the crowd, looking for that head of auburn hair but to no avail.
The first speech was followed by applause, some of which dragged out awkwardly. More talks followed about divorce and prostitution and pornography, and the interruptions became more rife. Shouts began spilling from the audience. Flora craned to look at who was calling out, but she couldn’t see them nor could she quite hear what they were saying. Then a voice broke out from the balcony shouting. “We’re homosexuals! What about us?” There were gasps and protests from the audience. Flora began to see stewards dragging members of the audience back through the doors. The speaker shouted out after them and Flora simply watched in awe.
Before the crowd could settle down again, a wave of shrieking came from the front of the auditorium and Flora saw women jumping onto their seats, looking at the ground in horror. Someone threw a bottle that shattered and sent a horrific smell through the rows of onlookers. The choir stood hastily and began to sing loudly over the ruckus that was spreading through the auditorium. All the time, members of the audience were being dragged out by stewards. A trail of bubbles floated across the crowd and Flora laughed when she saw a young woman in a girl guide uniform skipping by, blowing them about whilst being chased by a blushed, sweating steward. Another man took to the stage and started shouting into the microphone. When he wasn’t making loud comments about the uninvited guests, the choir could be heard, still trying to calm the scene with calls of Ave Maria!
Men started to kiss men. Other men emerged wearing dresses and calling out about how they had been saved. The man on stage was almost as red as the choir cloaks behind him. Flora smiled widely and laughed. The people around her were too shaken to care or even notice. Flora raised her hands and applauded; an enthralled drop in a sea of moral outrage. She had no idea how she fit into that scene but she no longer cared. She felt she was witnessing something incredible.
At that moment, a collection of what seemed to be nuns rushed to the stage in a raucous dance. They mounted the stage and crowded around the speaker, who had now taken to shouting everywhere but into the microphone. Flora watched as they spun around. One of the nuns shook herself with laughter and dance, tearing off her wimple to much applause from certain audience members. Flora stared as that long auburn hair with a bright flash of blonde fell across the robes. She stepped into the aisle and Laura looked her way. Flora was seized by a steward and pulled back towards the door just as Laura caught sight of her and took a deep, grandiose bow. Flora let herself fall limp into the arms of the steward as the door swung open behind him and someone cut the lights in the auditorium. Everything went black.