For Life: a novella in progress 2

Two: Manda

Hearing that Libby was there with James, Manda asked after her.

   “Sun-worshipping in the garden,” he said. “Don’t quiz me about boyfriends. Subject closed, total shutdown.”

   Much like climate change, thought Manda. “Still drinking too much?”

   “Oh, you know, she’s young. They do.”

   Manda didn’t think Rob used alcohol to deaden reality, even though his grasp of that had been more detailed and harder to stomach. “I hope she’s all right but it’s difficult to tell. When I ask she always says, Yeah, fine as if she’s just run up an escalator.”

   James said she had a good job and a social life he called “prodigious”. Manda knew her sigh must be audible down the phone. Was he jealous?

   “Anyway, James, I rang because I want to do something in memory of Rob. For his twenty-fifth birthday.” She waited. “James, are you there?”

   “I’m here.” But she heard the doubt in his voice.

   “I thought of trees, planting twenty-five of them, to capture carbon. I thought of spending twenty-five days protesting somewhere…”

   “Don’t get arrested, Manda.”

   “I don’t know why not! But what I want to do is make a film. Use photos of him, and things he wrote – you know, in tweets and posts – and give him a voice again. Share the hell out of it on social media.”

   “I see.”

   She didn’t suppose he saw at all but she let that go. “I wondered whether you wanted to be in it at all, as narrator.” She waited, knowing he’d pause before he told her. “I couldn’t just do it and not include you.”

   “You go ahead, Manda. It’s your kind of thing.”

   He was using his ever-so-kind, patient voice. She knew what that meant, but why? People were hard to understand, and that included the man who’d shared a quarter of a century with her. This was what Rob would have wanted, to keep campaigning. Shining a light, she liked to call it, and God knew there was so much darkness. She didn’t know whether her boy was lost in it now or free of it forever.

   “Will you ask Libby? Or put her on so I can explain?”

   “I think we both know…”

   “Yes.” And denial was a kind of darkness too. “Give her my love and tell her I’ll call her later. I keep getting her answerphone.”

   “She’ll be all right, Manda. Libby’s stronger than you think.”

   Manda said she hoped so. Libby had always been a daddy’s girl.

   “Good luck with the film.”

   “No luck needed. Thanks,” she said, and almost mentioned her technical adviser – who was due soon – but decided there was no need to stir anything up. There didn’t seem much more to say, but she asked after his sciatica, which he said was giving him respite. For a long moment there was a silence that felt awkward, in spite of the many they’d shared in their marriage.

   “Are you sleeping, Manda?”

   “Not so you’d notice.” She winced at that, since that was something he was no longer in a position to do.

   “You should. You run too fast. Get some pills or Scotch or something.”

   She made a noise that wasn’t quite a laugh. “You should set up as a life coach.” Looking at the time, she hoped Nick wouldn’t let her down. Ending the call with a motherly, “Bye, James. Take care,” Manda thought about the roses in her old garden and tried to remember their different scents. For a moment she feared James would be abandoning them to the heat, although with talk of a water shortage, people must come first – people, who didn’t realise how many shortages there would be, before too long, if governments didn’t understand words like urgent and radical and systemic when applied to change. 

Now that Nick Gorski ran his own business, he might have less time for activism, but he wouldn’t have forgotten. Besides, the film would remind him. The two of them had been like brothers after all. Close enough to share a car.

   “But he cycles everywhere!” she’d yelled at him: a protest, an accusation, the skin on her face tight with tears.

   “He wanted to pick up something from Thornbury – a present for your silver wedding. From an artist guy with a workshop. Stained glass?” Poor Nick, usually so affable, so pretty. He hadn’t slept and his eyes were burning. Staring at him, she understood – remembering the last weekend with Rob in Bristol once finals were over, and a café where she’d overstated her love fora clock framed in a riot of coloured glass. Sometimes the stupid words waited below the surface like little land mines.

   A month later, as their silver wedding approached, James laid the Eurostar tickets on the kitchen table. “We can still go,” he told her. “Rob would want us to.”

   Manda stiffened and shook her head. “He wouldn’t. He knew me. He wouldn’t be that cruel.”

   Now Manda sliced the fruit loaf she’d baked specially. She’d made it when Rob brought his new mate home with him for the first time, term was a month old and they were already so much in synch it made her smile.  

   The doorbell rang and she realised what she felt was excitement.

Hours later, the air still too warm for pyjamas or even a sheet, Manda couldn’t sleep. Snatches from the conversation with Libby looped around her head: key quotes like, “You do know about Miss Havisham, right? Because honestly, Mum, this isn’t – like – healthy,” and “He’d be so embarrassed,” and, “You always do what you want whatever I say and however I feel.”

   Manda had refrained from pointing out that flying – to Malaysia because she deserved a break and Barcelona for a colleague’s hen night – wasn’t healthy either. Or that doing what she wanted regardless of anything climate scientists said and felt was Libby’s own M.O. She sometimes wondered why she held back for fear of fracturing what was already brittle between them. Manda supposed the film would be a way of waving a banner in her face – assuming Libby watched it. It would say, You break my heart too. There’s more than one way to grieve for a child.

   Maybe it would make a difference if Libby saw her weeping, or heard the soundtrack of that loss in darkness. But perhaps it would only confirm her status as the emotional obsessive of the family. Libby lived without the truth because the truth was a bullet that blew stuff away. And in the face of truth, stuff was such a comfort.

   “Oh, I lie low these days,” Nick had said, when she asked him about that truth and his relationship with it. So she’d told him she was glad to help him surface. She liked to think the film he’d edited would make a difference to him too. It was a shame he was so short of time, and not really hungry. Things changed, but she hadn’t expected him to be so… business-like. It turned her into the dense pupil who tried her own patience with the tricky bits. “Manda, do you mind if I finish this now?” His kindness felt like the cool, polite kind and that was disappointing after so long, but the result…

   “Happy?” he asked, and she assured him it was everything she’d imagined. He batted away her gratitude and when she hugged him at the door she had a sense of receiving less than she gave. It was only as he’d headed off to the station with the train ticket she’d bought at quite a price that she thought he might be crying after all.

   Eleven fifty-four. She rose out of bed to open the window wider, and kicked back the sheet as she lay down again. Still the images she’d chosen kept breaking in. Two days she’d given up to family albums. But Robert Liam Craig’s Facebook wall, still open, offered reminders of his understated outrage and equally low-key hope. She was just his curator, compiling and presenting. No need to speak when he, in his own quiet, hesitant way, had the eloquence of conviction. When he was so alive.

   There were other scenes that she imagined as much as remembered, but they were all the kind of time that was untraceable, unrecorded, with no substance or shape, no order and little colour. Rob crying for the turkeys at Christmas. Rob who tried to prove he could dance like a snowman or a road drill. Rob on his bike without a helmet, his hair like a plume of smoke around him.  Rob who hugged her when his granny had the first stroke.

   “I’ll go,” said James, when someone had to identify a body that was quite severely damaged.

   “I want to see him.”

   “You don’t, Manda. Stay here.”

   So she couldn’t say goodbye. It occurred to her that the film said it now.

   “No point in getting angry,” Rob told her, that last weekend in Bristol, when she was helping him with the shopping and some woman ahead of them loaded hers in plastic bags. And there she was thinking the rage she felt was secret and controlled. “Some people don’t change until legislation forces them, or the Sun tells them to.” “When hell freezes over, then,” she said, and he told her the day would come, sooner than she thought, when the young would rise up.

   They’d have to do it without him, but in the film he’d inspire them all the same, in the film. She might as well post it now. The minute hand was past midnight so his birthday had begun. What was there to wait for?

Chapter Three will be posted on Friday 25th January at 5:30 pm UK time.

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