For Life: a novella in progress 3

Three: Gem

Gem had been meaning to get up to the site for ages, and moving to London made it a bit more viable. Manda Craig had been; she’d seen her in a video live from the gate. And if Rob were still alive he would probably have been lorry surfing to stop the drilling equipment making it through. She remembered him saying, in that low voice of his, that fracking would never happen because the people wouldn’t stand for it. But now they planned to start in the autumn. So it was more important than ever to go. And it would recharge her more than the package holiday everyone else seemed to take each summer.

   Looking at the blank-faced child who joined the train in a buggy at Swindon, she felt sorry to be leaving Skye – even though she was so excited about staying with Auntie Iz that it might have been Christmas. Skye’s face was never blank, even in sleep. Part of Gem was dreading three whole nights apart, even though she could call each day before bedtime. Part of her felt guiltily elated. But when she came back they’d have the best time: green, forest time and field time, with mud and trees, and birdsong to listen for.

   The young mother unstrapped the child and sat her opposite Gem. With her dark red lipstick, pumps and brand new halter-neck dress, the woman reminded her of Rob’s sister Libby, and was about the same age.  Gem had never had that reality show celebrity style, and her own loose T-shirt had looked better before the peg marks from the line and the iron that caught the wording with a smear. The child was fixing her with a stare that might have noticed both, but remained empty.

   “Sorry,” said her mother. “She’s at that curious age. Three and a half. Don’t stare, Ellie.”

   “Don’t worry,” said Gem. “Hello, Ellie. I’m Gem.”

   Without reacting, Ellie pulled a Barbie by the hair from a little pink satchel. The plastic blonde, who couldn’t have stood on the tiny feet shaped for stilettos without falling flat on her cute little nose, had a belt around her preposterous waist, and the child was pointing at it, eyeing her mother with a secret message.

   “Gem like Barbie’s,” explained her mum. The gem in question was pink and in the middle of the buckle. “That’s right.”

   “Yes, my parents named me after Barbie’s belt,” said Gem, but she was the only one who grinned. She grimaced. “Deviant sense of humour.”

   The mother, who introduced herself as Carly, produced a pink-framed tablet for Ellie. “Why don’t you play that game Barbie likes too?”

   Gem wondered whether that related to shopping or shopping.

   “Too hot, isn’t it?” said Carly.

   “It really is,” said Gem. “Climate change. It’s happening all over Europe.” She noticed Carly was suddenly more interested in the game Ellie held. “It’s a wake-up call.”

   Carly made no comment, remarking to Ellie instead about the pink pig on screen. 

   “I have a daughter too,” said Gem. “She’s staying with my sister. She’s nearly two now. Skye.” She has no devices, I never dress her in pink and Barbies are banned. 

   She showed Carly a recent photo on her phone, proud of the green dungarees and vegan boots from the charity shop, and Skye’s unruly hair. Proud of the butterfly she’d crouched down to watch.

   “Aw,” said Carly. She picked up her own phone while Gem looked back to her paperback copy of This Changes Everything, and wondered whether Carly would have heard of Naomi Klein. “You’ll miss her.”

   Gem told her where she was heading, adding that it was “Not much of a playground.” Carly looked as blank as Ellie now. “The fracking site, you know?”

   “Sorry, you lost me.”

   Gem had supposed there might be a few people in the UK who hadn’t heard of fracking but never expected to meet one. She explained, remembering Rob’s way of keeping it simple. He’d have done this nicely; she hoped she wasn’t patronising.

   “Right,” said Carly when she’d finished. It wasn’t an invitation for more.

   “I’m going to support the protestors,” Gem told her. “They’re incredible. They’ve been climbing on lorries, locking on to the gates, doing whatever they can to stop the equipment getting on site.”

   “I don’t agree with wasting police time getting arrested like that, trying to stop people doing their job.”

   “Really?” Gem didn’t hide her surprise. People were extraordinary. “Not to safeguard the future of kids like Ellie and Skye?”

   “I leave it to the government to know what’s best.”

   At that point Carly asked Ellie if she needed a wee, but Ellie didn’t seem to hear.

   “I can’t,” said Gem. “Because I’m afraid they don’t.”

   “I steer clear of politics anyway,” muttered Carly. “Come on, Ellie, I’ll take you to the toilet.”

   Ellie didn’t want to break off from her game but Carly put it in her bag, which she slipped over her shoulder. Then she followed Ellie, who held Barbie upside down by the hair as if it was her fault, and wobbled down the carriage. Gem realised they weren’t going to come back. Carly would find seats opposite a Daily Mail reader who wouldn’t bother them with the question marks over Ellie’s future on Planet Earth.

   Gem wished she knew how she could have done better. Smiled more, maybe, like Rob would have done, and made her tone gentler? But wasn’t it strange that people could be more alarmed by someone like her and the information the media never provided than by climate breakdown? It reminded her of Libby Craig, who was probably earning a fat salary by now and spending it on crap. It struck her that it would be funny if she bumped into Manda. For someone who shared her world view, and had loved him too, Rob’s mum was oddly distant, but Gem supposed that might be a good thing, in a way – might allow them both to mend faster.

   Gem had often wondered whether Libby spied on her Twitter activity but left no trace. She didn’t trust her, even before the message out of nowhere.

   Was there a man, she wondered, in Carly and Ellie’s world, a smooth one with sharp shoes? People didn’t ask about Skye’s father and Gem never offered. Rob loved kids but he wouldn’t have been remotely ready. She knew that much about him, after two curry dates, at least six or seven walks, a film, a demo and six nights – two in her bed, two in his and one in a tent at Seed Festival. Who knew whether they’d be together now, in spite of everything? Not if Libby could have helped it. Gem wasn’t much of a romantic; he’d teased her about that but he made up for it in his not-very-verbal way. She liked it when he stopped to look at flowers, in a wood or a suburban garden. He enjoyed their nicknames – fox and cubs, love in a mist – and laughed when she accused him, in her ignorance, of making them up.

   “Was he your toy boy?” Libby had asked, at the funeral, after a few glasses of wine. Her shoes, which were ridiculous, were obviously painful too.

   “There are seven years between us,” Gem had said. Present tense. And now that she was thirty-two, the gap had grown and always would, until she was old enough to be his grandma.

   Gem wanted to say, “We were madly in love. It happened fast. I never expected it, or even believed in it.” But that day words were harder than usual to come by. And Rob was equally dead whether he was a commitment-free fling or the love of her life.

   Manda would have understood but it wasn’t fair when she was so much in love herself, her face grey and her eyes livid with mourning. “She’s got me on a bit of a pedestal,” Rob had said, the first time she saw a photo of mother and son together. “What about Libby?” Gem asked. “She hasn’t,” he said, with that crooked smile of his.

   Looking out of the carriage window, Gem imagined the landscape covered with fracking wells, and felt a chill inside. As if someone was walking on her grave! Such a strange phrase, but people had no idea how to handle death, or word it ether. And it turned out that in the case of Rob’s death, she was no exception.

   If she willed hard enough, she could just about see him in the glass with the fields behind him, as if he was sitting next to her right now. Which was where he would be, ready to risk arrest, giving her courage.

   Daddy died. That was what she’d tell Skye. But he still loves you. She’d show her pictures, wishing there were more. It was the best kind of truth.

   Soon Crewe had been and gone, offering up a group of students who could be heading for the same place as Gem, but they didn’t spot her and she didn’t mind the anonymity. Rob would have raised a hand, shown them a peace sign with his fingers and a little smile.

   The world was full of assumptions. She and Carly had made them about each other and so many of them would be wrong, like the Cabinet Minister who dissed fracking protestors and had cosy chats with the fracking CEOs.

   Libby Craig assumed it had been casual with Rob, because she wanted it to be. Gem supposed they were all remembering more than usual today. It had been Rob’s birthday a couple of weeks after they met and if anyone was fazed by age it was her. “Maturity’s a good thing, right?” He didn’t assume that because she’d been a user she’d never be clean for long, and he didn’t skirt around her orphan status and treat her like a waif and stray. Once he told her, as if he was complimenting her on her hair or shoes, that she was probably the most incredible human being he’d ever met and she told him not to be such a soppy arse. “See what I mean,” he said.

   For the first time that day, Gem turned on her phone and scrolled down Twitter. Yesterday’s crowd at the site looked vivid and creative, just what she needed. @mandalost had retweeted some pictures. And posted a film, a tribute, for his birthday…

   One Rob morphed into another – baby, child, teenager, student activist, hers. Like quotes from Martin Luther King, his words appeared, intercut with Rob and his home-made placards that used to be cardboard boxes: REFUGEES WELCOME made way for CLIMATE JUSTICE NOW and then, PEACE WILL COME. LET IT BEGIN WITH ME. Manda’s voice, narrating, was low and thick with emotion subdued, and accompanied by text on screen. The last image was a birthday cake with one candle, iced blue and green like Earth.

   Gem closed Twitter and almost shut down her phone. Then she returned, found it again, replayed and retweeted. There should be a law against resurrection. This was like a dog digging up a grave.

   Maybe for the first time, she’d be in synch with Libby, because she’d hate this, wouldn’t she? She’d hate Manda.

   “I love you,” she said, combing Rob’s hair one morning – their last morning. It was a jungle.

   “Be gentle with me,” he pleaded.

   “Aren’t I always?”

   “I should have said before – I love you too.”

   Looking at her own reflection, and her hair with its kinks and freedom, Gem thought she looked more like Manda than Libby ever would. And Skye looked like Rob, which was just as it should be. He was a rubbish driver; Nick was crazy to lend him the car. And all these thoughts she reran, all these feelings that never settled, were scooped up now like leaves in a gale. But how could she blame Manda when she herself was an obsessive mother now, leaving three pages of instructions pretending to be notes?

   A slick, scented man around her age boarded and took the seat next to hers without apparently seeing her, talking on his phone as he brushed against her backpack. No assumptions, she told herself. No judgement. He could be a human rights lawyer.

   “Get tough,” he said. “Don’t take any shit, all right? They’re trying it on, the wankers. I knew the manager was a fucking arsehole. We need to score on this one!”

   Her world was free of this now, and largely free of men. Would Libby Craig fancy this one, with his sexy suit and silky, styled hair? Gem felt glad of her own world, the one she was returning to, with its trees and silences, its banners and songs. The word LOVE stitched and chorused. Maybe even guys like this could be saved there.

   Gem thumbed her phone and imagined the film she didn’t want him to glimpse. Manda should have kept Rob safe from eyes like his. It told her that lying low had been wise after all because the Craigs were not to be trusted.

Chapter Four will follow on Friday 1st February, 5:30 UK time.

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