The write stuff: The Hourglass Factory

"She pictured them all gathered in the newsroom, laughing like monkeys into their coffee cups." Picture: Contributed
"She pictured them all gathered in the newsroom, laughing like monkeys into their coffee cups." Picture: Contributed
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IT’S 1 November 1912, and in this exclusive extract from Lucy Ribchester’s debut novel, Frankie’s editor has just given her a new assignment – to interview a suffragette trapeze artist. And if you’re thinking that’s not much of a news story, the rest of the novel will prove you wrong…

The sun was beating down as Frankie George cycled along Fleet Street, trying to stop her notebook and calling cards from flapping out of her lower pockets, and her pencils from stabbing her in the chest. She had been distrustful of the warm weather when she’d got up at noon to receive her editor’s telegram summoning her to the Stonecutter Street offices. Now, as she dodged boys on motorcycles puffing out violet smoke, piles of horse muck and steaming horses dragging full omnibuses, she regretted her choice of clothing; a fetching pale brown tweed trouser suit, practical for bicycling, autumnal-hued and insulating as upholstery. The Fleet Street traffic was foul with noxious vapour and it felt like cycling through hot soup. A cart full of meat pies came wobbling towards her and she thought for a second about reaching out to pinch one, but changed her mind when she saw the horse on the wagon behind breathing over the crusts. She veered off onto Shoe Lane, dodging smashed jack-o’-lanterns left over from Hallowe’en the night before and it was only then that she remembered it was All Saints’ Day. And so hot. What next? Summer punch on Guy Fawkes night?

Stonecutter Street was mainly made up of magazine offices, all there for the cheaper rent. For the London Evening Gazette, that meant being crammed into a tall rambling half-townhouse, six times as high as it was wide, leaving only enough space for one room per floor. The brickwork was poor and there were always new leaks and splits in the wall, new buckets strategically placed, new wads of stuffing filling a whistling gap. Frankie leant the bicycle against the railings outside, where she’d last borrowed it from, and hopped up the steps.

The office was buzzing with its usual hysteria. Bundles of the early edition were being cut open, men in shirtsleeves and braces were flying up and down the stairs brandishing tissue-thin pieces of paper. Shouts of ‘copy’ came loud and fast from each of the floors, along with wafts of Turkish tobacco and occasionally the sound of a boy being boxed on the ears.

Frankie fished in her pocket for the telegram and gave it to the man on the front desk.

‘Know what he wants?’ The man cupped his ear for her response above the din.

Frankie looked down at the note. It read, ‘STONECUTTER STREET STARK’. She shrugged. The man shrugged back and waved her towards the stairs.

The higher up the building, the more important the resident was. In the cellar, printers were operated by men in aprons who had grown so deaf from the noise of machinery that they bellowed at each other even when they were sat across the same table in the Olde Cheshire Cheese. One floor up in the basement, skilled men with fingers as fine as a pianist’s sat at linotype machines, setting the letters in neat little rows.

The ground floor belonged to the sports reporters and the staffers, who could be dispatched to any part of London at a second’s notice to weasel out a story from the police, morgues, the divorce courts, loose-tongued pub landladies and vengeful servants. The obituary writers, the political correspondents and the features editor occupied the office above; theirs had the privilege of a red velvet couch that threw up dust whenever it was sat upon. Up again, the sub-editors worked at desks covered in blue pencils, bottles of paste and scissors, chopping and rearranging the text given to them by the office boys. And then, at the top sat Mr Stark himself, Editor-in-Chief, with a rickety wooden floor and a great oak desk covered in rival newspapers, scraps of flimsy, and a whisky glass with a permanent crust of the previous drink left fossilising in it.

Stark also had the prestige of housing the Reuters machine, four pillars topped by a glass box; a tangle of electromagnetic wires that ticked and tapped out a mile a day of news. Horse-race results, parliamentary speeches, overseas events, shipping news, all came spilling out onto a thin strip of paper which Nobby, Stark’s office boy, would cut with a pair of shears and pass for Stark’s perusal. Most of Nobby’s offerings ended up in the waste-paper basket under the desk. On her first visit to Stark, Frankie had eyed the basket warily, wondering how many lovingly typed and hand-addressed journalists’ efforts had been screwed up into a ball and tossed into it like old orange peel.

Just before she hit the landing on Stark’s floor she heard a voice calling out, ‘Oi, Georgie!’

‘It’s Frankie,’ she began to say, turning. She recognised Teddy Hawkins straight away; one of the reporters who had his own desk in the downstairs newsroom. He had a badly formed mouth, like it had been squashed at some point and never found its proper shape again. In his hands he carried a stack of news clippings. ‘Did you get our telegram?’

‘I got Mr Stark’s.’

Hawkins brushed the remark out of the air. ‘He wants you to do a portrait piece. Half, no three-quarter page.’ He grinned. Frankie’s pulse sped up a little.

‘There’s a suffragette performing at the Coliseum tomorrow night, an acrobat. Ebony Diamond. Know her?’

Instantly the little drizzle of excitement was replaced by a prickle of annoyance. She was on the verge of opening her mouth to say, ‘Now why would I know her?’ but Hawkins didn’t give her the chance.

‘None of us have a damned clue who she is. That’s why he wanted you in.’ He skimmed a glance down her trouser suit.

‘You’ll know a thing or two about suffragettes, won’t you? Anyway, deadline’s tomorrow. He’ll tell you the rest.’ He barged ahead of her into Stark’s office, leaving a reek of stale smoke in his wake.

Frankie heard a rustle of quick conversation then Hawkins re-emerged, winked at Frankie – a gesture that made her feel slightly soiled – and jogged back down the stairs. She was gratified to see, as he disappeared, that a long streamer of flimsy from the Reuters wires was flapping off his shoe.

She gave her suit a quick brush down and went in. Stark’s huge body was craning over a galley proof, with a single eyeglass wedged in his eye and a blue pencil behind his ear. He was an oval-shaped man, pointed at the top like an egg, with colossal features; ears, nose, blue bulging eyes that looked as if they had been stuck on with editing paste, and matched his unwieldy manner with words. He liked to call the lady journalists ‘treacle’, ‘pudding’ or sometimes ‘treacle pudding’.

He didn’t look up. Frankie walked closer, so that her shoes were within his eyeline.

‘Ebony Diamond,’ he said, still poring down the long piece of print. ‘Know her?’

Frankie shook her head, then realised he was waiting for her to speak. ‘No.’ She cleared her throat.

‘She’s a suffragette.’

‘I don’t know her,’ Frankie said, trying to keep her voice even.

‘Well, I want you to get to know her. She’s been in Holloway twice now so make it sharp. Get her to tell you about the matrons and force-feeding.’

She watched his head slide back and forth along the line of text while she waited for more. After a few seconds, he paused. ‘Still here?’

‘Well, it’s just that . . . Mr Stark, I’m not sure a suffragette piece, given my background. I mean there are some news stories I could think of to . . .’

‘This or quoits on Wimbledon Common. You want to cover the quoits on Wimbledon Common?’

Frankie made a quick calculation of the distance to Wimbledon in her head. It was almost worth it. ‘No, sir, thank you,’ she said.

‘Nobby’s got some notes for you, don’t you Nobby?’

Stark’s boy, who had been lurking in the corner, staring at the ticking Reuters machine, leant across the table and handed her a piece of paper. On the top was written in blue waxy editing pencil in Stark’s florid hand, ‘Olivier Smythe, Corsetier, 125 New Bond Street.’ The rest of the notes were Nobby’s uneven scrawl.

Frankie creased her brow. ‘I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand. This is the address of a Bond Street corset shop.’

‘Yes.’

Frankie hesitated.

‘Does her costumes, doesn’t he?’ Stark said as if the whole thing should have been quite plain. He went back to scrutinising his galley proof and Nobby shrugged at her and turned back to the Reuters machine. Frankie sighed, folded up the piece of paper and stuffed it in her pocket before heading back out into the hallway.

She was halfway down the stairs when a man in a brown factory coat came dashing out from one of the side rooms. ‘Hold it, hold it.’ She stopped in her tracks as he thrust towards her a leather cube. His fingers were grubby with ink and he stank of chemicals. ‘Make sure you get a good one. Get her waist in. Nice and close, mid-body, don’t let her close her eyes. Plates are already in, quarter plates.’ He pointed to a tube, half a triangular pipe tucked in the back. ‘Lose this and he’ll have your fingers for potted shrimp. If you need it, you can buy the powder at a chemist’s. Get the Muller’s stuff.’

It was only then that it dawned on her what the box was. ‘I have taken a photograph before, you know,’ she said. She hadn’t, but she had had her photograph taken, which was near enough the same thing. She carefully lifted the camera out of its box and stared at it. It had stiff red bellows and shiny brass tracks and a yellow enamel circle that said, ‘J. Lizars Challenge. Glasgow, London, Edinburgh’.

She tucked it away and slid the cracked leather strap of the case over her shoulder, then stepped back into the sunshine, letting the heat soak onto her face. She was trying to sedate the little prickle that had risen in her outside Stark’s office when Teddy Hawkins told her why she had been offered the job. Of course Teddy Hawkins didn’t interview suffragettes; he topped up peelers’ ale cups and greased politicians’ hands in the Savage Club.

Suffragette. She’d give him a suffragette. One look at her trousers and everyone just assumed she was a bloody suffragette. It wasn’t even a real word anyway, it was a name someone at the Daily Mail had made up to distinguish Mrs Pankhurst’s hammer-throwers from Mrs Fawcett’s tea-drinkers. There were suffragists and suffragettes and Nusses and Spankers and Wasps, and they all looked the same in their blouses and tailor-mades, hawking pamphlets on street corners in taxidermy hats.

And now she was supposed to just pirouette along to a corset shop on the look-out for a suffragette acrobat she had never set eyes on before. It was all a big joke to them, with their oiled hair and their Turkish tobacco. She pictured them all gathered in the newsroom, laughing like monkeys into their coffee cups.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucy Ribchester was born in Edinburgh in 1982. She studied English at the University of St Andrews and Shakespearean Studies at Kings College London. In 2013 she received a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award for the opening chapters of The Hourglass Factory. Her short fiction has been published in journals in the UK and US, and she writes about dance and circus for several magazines and websites including the List, Fest and Dance Tabs. Most recently she was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award 2015 for ‘The Glassblower’s Daughter’. The Hourglass Factory is her first novel (Simon & Schuster, £12.99).