From: The House Of Rest
A History of Josephine Butler, feminist and social reformer, 1828-1906
The matron shoves me into one of the ramshackle huts
outwith the workhouse and locks me in,
her hands trembling as she rattles the keys at the heavy door.
I expect to find a pride of lions inside, or perhaps wolves,
but the hollow eyes watching
me belong to women – filthy, yes, filmed in soot and lice
and sadness, but women nonetheless, a dozen clasped
by the foul shed with only two windows,
a leaky roof, and reams of old rope coiled on the floor
like black serpents. My hands are clasped, I know not
where to sit, but at last I make do with the spot
on the floor that’s haloed by thin noon-light, fanning out
my dress and sitting lower than my audience – this causes
murmurs, which I ignore. Now, I say,
as brightly as I can muster, who will show me what to do?
An old woman gestures, a loop of rope already in both
hands. You pick it, ma’am. Take all the fibres apart.
Like this, see? She pulls the strands, adds them to the cloud
by her feet. The women stir when I mimic the action,
observing that my hands were not made
for this sort of work, that I’d best not ruin my fingers or I’ll
be sneered at by friends. Not friends at all if they mock me, I joke,
and gradually the mood of the room
and the strangeness of the task is lightened by laughter. This
is how they cope, I think, for there is sisterhood
in this terrible prison, palpable as the
wet brick walls and scattering rats. What brought you here, then?
a pregnant girl asks, and I say that I want to help them
in any way I can, even if only to assist
in reaching their daily four-pounds of oakum required
by the matron. But then my mind floods with Eva, each
woman’s face a palimpsest of hers in reefs
of shade, and the true purpose of my visit unfolds: if born
under a different star my daughter might have found her way
into this shed, into these lives, these pathways,
these tendrils of too-used rope. I tell them about her,
and I say that I undo this rope because I cannot undo her death,
as I will undo all injustices that are within my reach.
And we are all crying and silent, and I pick the umbilical shape
in my lap
as though this black rope might lead me
back to her, as though I’ll find her at the end.
Carolyn Jess-Cooke is an award-winning poet and novelist from Northern Ireland. Her fiction is published in 22 languages, and her most recent poetry collection is BOOM! (Seen, 2014).