Ten: October 31st 2018
Gem’s wasn’t the only buggy and Skye wasn’t the youngest member of the crowd. Parliament Square was colourful already. Some of the home-made banners were arty; others were simple, their messages penned or painted on cardboard cut from a box. She moved closer to the lavender beds by the low wall, and the space where the PA indicated the speakers would be.
A woman with a pile of cloth cuts was offering her a bright green rectangle printed with the Extinction Rebellion logo, complete with safety pin. She nodded towards Gem’s forehead, where she’d recreated the same symbol with an old kohl pencil she never used on her eyes anymore.
Gem smiled and attached the badge, which hung like a medieval favour from her jacket. The woman winked at Skye, crouched down and pinned a turquoise piece to her favourite red coat. Then she carried on working the crowd, while a couple of others sitting on the wall cut more cloth into sections.
A white-haired woman beside her asked Skye’s name and said her name was Gaynor. Chatting, they agreed the numbers were going to be impressive. A man weaving through gave them both a handout that said Declaration of Rebellion.
“Have you seen this?” asked Gaynor. “I wept my way from beginning to end. I’ve been waiting for this for twenty years.”
Gem hadn’t read it yet and couldn’t without her glasses, which she’d left at home. “It looks inspiring,” she said.
“Talking of inspiring…”
Gaynor nodded towards a girl in plaits standing close to them with a long-haired man who was obviously her father.
“Greta Thunberg!” Gem felt a frisson.
“I’m star-struck,” Gaynor admitted.
The girl, who was diminutive, looked serious. Gem had read that she’d travelled from Sweden without air miles. With her father she made way towards the ‘stage’, where a few faces Gem also recognised greeted her with enthusiasm.
“By next year there will be school strikes all over the world,” Gem told Gaynor. Then she grinned wryly. “I’m not always so positive but I try to be, for Skye.”
“I have grandchildren,” said Gaynor. “So ditto. And it’s my generation that messed up.”
Gem found Skye’s cup. The sun was growing warm; she removed the woolly hat she’d pulled onto her daughter’s curls. Meanwhile Gaynor had been greeted by a group her age; much embracing began. Gem pushed the buggy a little closer to what would be the action and found herself hailed by Enid, who’d stayed in London overnight but said a coach was on its way from Blackpool. Gem felt touched to be remembered.
“How’s Pru?” she asked. “She says she’s doing fine but I’m not sure that’s exactly true.”
Enid agreed. “She’s home but she’ll need help now and you know how independent she is. We miss her at the gate.”
Gem almost said she missed her too but it would sound implausible, soft. As an outsider she didn’t like to make that kind of claim. Enid said hello to Skye, made her smile and hurried away in search of someone from a past life.
When Gem had booked her day off a couple of the others in the office had said they’d do the same, but she hadn’t spotted them yet. Working for a charity like hers meant she didn’t need to have the kind of conversation she found hard to begin. Here she was among friends and that felt comfortable, even to someone who mostly liked to keep a distance. “I can’t do parties,” she’d told Rob. He didn’t notice the difference, being equally and quietly at ease with one person or forty. She envied him, but more than that she liked the way he didn’t change, or even modify. He had one voice, one vocabulary and one self for all contexts. It made him seem strong as well as true. And he didn’t override her like other guys she’d known, as if her feelings were silly, a weakness or flaw. He listened, and that helped her know herself.
There were lots of film cameras around. The closest to Gem, with a clear view of the speakers, was a sleek guy so tall that she had to move or see nothing. The woman with him had magenta hair and peace earrings: a style Gem would choose if she valued style, or had a hope of achieving it. There were plenty of police about; they’d been informed. Maybe they’d be calling for back-up now the crowd in the square was so dense. Civil disobedience was the plan but she didn’t know exactly what form that would take, or how long Skye would stay happy.
She crouched down and asked, “Do you want to climb to the mountain top?”
Skye was definitely up for that and reached her arms up high. Gem was unstrapping her and lifting her onto her shoulders when one of the faces she’d recognised took the microphone. He was eloquent and emotional. The mood he created was silent, and intensified. This was humanity’s darkest hour. He cited the loss of 60% of the world’s species in his lifetime. Gem had grown up fighting tears but this was different; they were necessary, appropriate. Around her she saw the same response on other faces and she felt a kind of awe.
Could Skye tell, up there? Did she feel the urgency as well as the mourning? She was quiet, her body still. What if no one could protect her?
Applauded and spent, the speaker made way for others and sat, body and soul overwhelmed, on the wall. There were politicians, Green and red; a TV presenter Gem had always liked for not being girlie; speakers from different cultures at imminent risk.
When she clapped, Skye clapped too, and wobbled. Then Greta was introduced to loud applause. She began, clear and direct. When she was eight she’d learned about climate change and couldn’t understand why adults weren’t talking about it all day every day on her TV, in school and all around her. Why the governments weren’t acting to ensure a future for people on earth. And the crowd echoed her sentences, clause by clause.
There was a point when Gem glimpsed Manda Craig, just long enough to be sure she hadn’t been spotted herself. Then someone squeezed through, past Gem, and by the time her view settled Manda had moved, or someone taller had shifted in front of her. Gem wondered why a kind of panic undermined things, important things she wanted to give herself to, and not just in the moment. She couldn’t lose focus; that would be personal turned petty. But she’d set the film aside and held no grudge. Manda loved Rob too.
Now Skye wanted to come down. Clipping her into the buggy, Gem passed her a sandwich that for a moment she didn’t take. Skye was occupied, making eye contact with another child, a couple of years older and free standing. He was running around his father’s legs, using them as a slalom course. Skye was enthralled and the boy was putting on a show but Gem didn’t want to miss a word of this speech. Some of the clauses were so long and complex that repetition by chorus was a challenge, but she needed to get them right.
The tall guy turned his camera a moment to capture the reaction of the cheering crowd as Greta ended her speech. Gem saw his face – or part of it – before he left her staring at his well-groomed hair. After three years and two months, it was Nick Gorski.
Gem told herself he hadn’t seen her. It was about scale and panorama, not individuals. He was at work. She was probably more forgettable than she realised. Motherhood had rounded a few spikes deep down and sometimes she thought it showed. What she needed was that Quaker space where peace and stillness held.
“Come on,” she told Skye, who was draining her cup. “Let’s go to the station for a wee.”
Everyone was singing as they moved into the road between Parliament and the square like a slow wave on a shore:
“If you want to know where the power lies, turn and look into each other’s eyes.”
Manda looked again and again, from face to face. Eyes looked back, reflecting the same spirit. Of sadness, yes, and a rebellion, but also love. She felt exhilarated. Assuming Adam was at her shoulder, she was about to sit down on the tarmac in front of the halted traffic when she lost him. Then, sitting anyway while the chant continued, she found him again, and saw on his face something other, something less. He wasn’t part of this, not really. The song wasn’t inside him. He’d joined in the Declaration of Rebellion, with its demands of the government, like a guy who’d ended up at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, not knowing the form, the words or tunes but trapped by embarrassment. Now with a yard’s distance she saw that he would rather not be here.
He sat down too, awkwardly, as if concerned about the cost of dry cleaning his coat. The road was blocked by a thousand people, maybe two. She looked up at the cocooned tower where Big Ben should be, at the men at work on the scaffolding and the blue sky beyond them. Such a beautiful day.
Someone was talking to the female driver of the nearest vehicle. Then he shouted, “There’s a new-born baby in the car.” Everyone stood and backed away just long enough to let the baby’s mother drive through with a smile and a wave, then filled the space again.
“Are you OK?” Manda asked Adam. For someone who wasn’t comfortable he was taking a lot of photos.
“Sure.” He straightened his coat underneath him. “What happens now?”
“More speeches? More singing?” she guessed. “More cake?”
It was the first time he’d refused her baking. But he couldn’t spoil this. As Caroline Lucas arrived from the Commons, Manda stood to whoop. A young Muslim woman sang a prayer in Arabic; a Catholic priest offered another. Every time police officers warned, “You’re obstructing the highway. I’ll have to ask you to move,” there was a chorus of “Shh.”
A haunting tune with the chorus, This is an emergency, was delivered by a young woman who must sing professionally, her voice clear, pure and strong. From time to time someone thanked the police, invited them to join the rebellion and asked the crowd to show with raised hands whether they wanted to stay in the road another half hour. Each time Manda was part of the consensus to stay; Adam wasn’t.
She leaned in as if to rest her head on his shoulder, but turned towards him.
“I’m sorry my friend,” she sang, not very well, “I didn’t mean to trouble you… But this is an emergency.” She grimaced at the way the tune had derailed.
Adam nodded, his mouth in a firm line. “This is cloud cuckoo land. Religious fervour meets political fantasy.”
“Our connection to the earth and all living things is spiritual – how can it be anything else? And no one’s playing politics except the mob over the road!”
She nodded towards the heavily policed building and remembered the time she’d got in to lobby her MP, had to turn her T-shirt inside out because of the slogan, and shuddered at the machine guns. That was before she spoke to him and found no connection at all with that particular living thing.
“They won’t change because people sit in a road.”
“The demands have to be met or it’s over. So no point pussy footing around at the edges. Only radical will do. This is just the start, Adam!”
He smiled. “I’d like to see you pussy foot.”
Manda rolled her eyes, rather like Libby did with her. “Why are you here? Are you serious about anything except your GCSE targets?”
“I’m serious about you.”
“Then leave me to drink this in, OK?”
“We agreed to leave at two. You know I have work to do…”
“You go. I’ll call you later and tell you what you missed.”
She saw him consider before kissing her cheek; he was warm and damp. “Don’t be angry with me. I have some catching up to do, that’s all.”
She said she understood, and waved when he looked back and found her in the crowd where she belonged.
“You’ve been shagging some guy! On a Saturday morning!” Manda had no idea how Libby knew, until she remembered the state of the bed after Libby had gone up to the bathroom. And his toothbrush! “I’ll get used to it. To a new mother. But don’t shove my face in it. I don’t do that to you.” She was defiant but reasonable, mother to child. And guilty. And now she wondered what any of it was for.
But it hardly mattered. She was here, with or without him, and it was happening at last, because it had to, and the cops could arrest her whenever they liked because this was unstoppable.
Somehow Nick had found her, and just when she was leaving. After an unexpectedly long nap, Skye was awake and dismayed.
“I thought you were filming?”
“I have an assistant. She’s finishing off. There are lock-ons now.”
“The first arrests of the rebellion I guess.” Nick looked down at Skye, who didn’t smile. “Who’s this? Introductions please.”
“Skye. She’s had enough. I need to take her home.”
Nick talked to Skye, and somehow made her grin. He straightened up. “Her father isn’t here? Gem, is Rob…?”
“I don’t talk about her father, not to anyone. She’s not the only child in the country being raised by a single mum and we do all right.”
He held up a hand. “Sure. I can see that.”
“I didn’t mean to be…”
“Fierce?” He grinned. “You were defensive. It’s not my business. But it’s a lovely surprise to see you here – where Rob would be.”
Gem heard a hymn, thin behind them. Gem thought about telling him she was a Quaker now but held back. Rob would have understood what that meant but Nick was always different, some way behind. She used to think what united them was good humour. Not the imbalance between Rob’s passion and Nick’s willingness to back him up, without details or certainty.
His humour did seem good, better than hers could be. As if he really was happy to see her. But she couldn’t deal with him and his pretty face and advert-worthy hair, his long legs and boy band boots. He looked too successful. He was everything Rob would never have been.
“Let me buy you coffee. A treat for Skye. Don’t say no.”
“I get a break. Boss’s perks. Tanya can join us if she packs up.”
He was on his phone, messaging fast while Gem talked to Skye, sounding out her tolerance, doubting her own. Except that part of her was curious. And part of her was unsure how to feel. Three years. There were memories she’d shelved under Do Not Access and here he was, all joie de vivre and zero complications, no clue.
They walked past Gandhi at the back of the square. Pick of the crop, she thought, but kept silent.
“I know a coffee shop that’s close but unlikely to be heaving with other rebels.”
“So that’s what you are?” she checked as he led the way across the road and she rebuffed his offer to push the buggy.
“A rebel?” asked Nick. “Two star, one – if Rob was five.”
She supposed he thought his honesty was endearing. “This is your job, filming protests?”
“Not really. I do commercial stuff for money. The enlightened press will be interested in this.”
Gem said she wasn’t aware of any enlightened press but supposed everything was relative and the BBC had to be woken fast. He let it go. Or lost it in the traffic.
“Bus!” she cried for Skye, and told him she loved them. “Not tubes, though. She scowls at the tunnel when the darkness starts to shake. And when they arrive and stop she looks at me as if to check they’re safe.” The adjective seemed so sad; she thought he felt its power.
He asked about her own work, and seemed to approve although it meant nothing to him.
“With charities, small is good,” she told him. “Agile is the word, although I hate that business talk.”
“I bet Skye’s pretty agile now? Climbing? Into everything? Past the stage of putting everything in her mouth, though, right?”
Maybe her look asked how he knew. He said he had a nephew now, a little younger than Skye, and talked animatedly: how affectionate he was, how funny. If he’d been trying to prove how nice he was he couldn’t have done a lot better. But she remembered that anyway.
“Gem,” he said at the funeral, touching her bare arm and looking at her empty glass. “I’ll get you another. No one should have to do this sober.”
But she was, and she wanted to hold on to the clarity. Nothing blurred or smooth. Nothing lost. Not now she was clean and everything was fresh again, as grief should be – like air at the top of a mountain, so rich and full-bodied it was hard to stand.
“Manda’s on the edge,” he said, returning with a large glass. “And James is being affable enough for two. Libby’s pissed and a bit hostile. I don’t blame any of them. There’s no way to be right now.”
Gem didn’t argue. He sat next to her at the side of the dining room where the table held the remains of the buffet. Some guests had left. Most were in the lounge where photos of Rob filled one wall she needed to ignore however it compelled her. She didn’t have the right, the history. Whether she featured – a last minute extra – or not.
“We’re allowed to be gutted too,” he said. “We’re eligible.” He said they appeared in one photo each. “He loved you.”
He’d loved Nick too but she hadn’t said, because the words were no use. She couldn’t find a way to make them real.
Now, the focus was on walking the busy pavement. Gem had hated the way the air tasted since she’d seen the data: one of the most polluted cities in Europe and no progress made. They were past Westminster Abbey, where tourists gathered, queued, took photos, but it was Westminster Hall Nick pointed out on the right.
“Mum’s a Methodist. She bought me lunch in the café a while back. Dad’s an atheist – been to church once since they met, for their wedding.”
The café was down in the basement. In the lift the sudden quiet felt like pressure to speak. Not that Nick needed prompting. He was down on his haunches again, amusing Skye by speaking for her hedgehog in a dialogue.
“Good hedgehog,” he said, tried to stroke him and yelped. Skye chortled.
Upright again as they exited into the café, he asked, “Did you see the film before Manda pulled it?”
“I edited it but I didn’t interfere. She knew what she wanted. I couldn’t really say no.”
Gem knew she must be frowning. She had no idea he was still in touch with Manda. And no was what she should have said herself, thee years back.
“Stoke Spike!” cried Skye.
“I’m sorry if it… upset you, Gem.”
“I’ve been trying to heal.”
“I know. I mean, of course you have.”
“You have to swear you won’t say a word to Manda about Skye – or me. I mean it, Nick.”
“Sure, sure! You can trust me, swear to God.”
They’d reached the front of the queue now and he asked what they wanted.
“Stoke Spike!” cried Skye.
Nick stroked the toy and looked up at Gem. She stared at the counter, the menu, and then Nick. His bright, open face: a blank canvas.
“We need to get back, Nick, really. I’m sorry.” She began to turn the buggy round. “Don’t try to persuade me.”
“All right…” He followed as she pushed a complaining Skye towards the door. Gem was angry now, with herself, for being weak all over again.
“Here’s my card,” he told her. Gem took it, tucked it into the back pocket of her jeans. “You don’t have one?”
“Not on me.”
“You won’t give me your number?”
The lift arrived. The door opened. “I can’t. Sorry.”
As she pushed Skye into the lift she kept her eyes ahead, her body stiffening inside at the thought of his body tall behind her. The door closed, and she turned. He’d let her go. But she hadn’t wanted to feel like this.
“It’s all right, sweetie,” she said, stroking Skye’s hot hair. We’re going home.”
Manda had turned off her phone. Switching on she found three messages from Adam.
You’re angry with me. I’m sorry for whatever I did. Remember I’m new to all this. Give me a chance. X
Are we still on for Sunday at the café? I’m worried I’ve blown it. I want to make it up to you. And come with you next time and keep my reservations to myself. I didn’t mean to spoil anything. X
Speak to me, Manda. I can’t work for worrying. X
It wasn’t his fault. He never pretended more than interest. He was just a passenger, an observer, his phone capturing things he didn’t feel. And she’d snatched at something convention declared she needed when she should have been rebuilding with Libby instead.
It’s me who should be sorry, she told him. I’ll explain on Sunday. See you then. X
She left a recorded message inviting Libby to supper on Sunday. Six o’clock, after she’d ended it with Adam. She’d have to tell him face to face, kindly, with respect. And then somehow she must prise Libby open. She’d ask James along too, for family counselling of a streamlined kind, minus the middle woman.
“Don’t expect Dad to keep up, Mum,” Rob told her once. “He does too well out of capitalism to fancy the idea of change. Just keep telling the truth. Everyone will have to face it one day soon. And he loves you. He pays more attention than you think.”
Had she loved James then, as much as Rob? Nowhere near, James would say. There were truths she couldn’t tell because she couldn’t keep hold of them. But they were trivial, arguable, flotsam. She spread on the kitchen table the Declaration the crowd had read together in Parliament Square.
This is our darkest hour.
Humanity finds itself embroiled in an event unprecedented in its history. One which, unless immediately addressed, will catapult us further into the destruction of all we hold dear: this nation, its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come.
She leaned on the table, her hands on her hair, her eyes filling until she wailed.
Chapter Eleven will be posted on Friday 22nd March at 5:30 UK time.