Twelve: November 2018
It had been fun on Waterloo Bridge, a kind of party. But this was different and Gem told herself she should have known. And worn more layers. This strategy was meant to be swarming but that sounded warmer and wilder.
Banner first to block the road, they filed across. The guy with the old-fashioned kind of tannoy began to explain, “We are sorry to hold you up. We won’t be here long. We are Extinction Rebellion and we are here because this is an emergency. The IPCC report says we have twelve years left to make radical changes or…”
Gem had been asked to take flyers to the drivers they were delaying – not a role she would have volunteered for – but they weren’t winding down their windscreens. Most looked fiercely ahead, deleting her. Some shouted – and some got out of their vehicles to gesticulate, swear and yell. Just about all of them kept their engines running, as if poisoning protestors was an act of revenge.
No, she told herself. Not sides. Not enemies, however hostile. Something of God in everyone. No one was beyond reach. And most of these people simply didn’t understand what was at risk
“We’re sorry to inconvenience you,” she began, to a guy who’d wound his window down.
“Then fuck off!”
“Our leaders have left us no choice,” she continued as he wound up again as fast as he could, his face twisted. “Petitions are not going to save us. We face an existential threat.”
Gem walked on down to the next vehicle, and the next. Along with the flyers, she was carrying home-baked vegan cookies, but no one seemed to be hungry. Outside a white van ahead a guy stood far from still, his arms in the air. He jerked a fist towards her as she approached.
“What the fuck are you doing, you wankers?”
She began, trying to make eye contact, her voice low and reasonable. A mother’s voice, explaining. He interrupted but she didn’t stop. Then she used the phrase climate change.
“Oh!” He lowered his arms. “This is about climate change!”
“Yes… it’s a crisis we are facing….”
His shoulders dropped and he saw her now. “Right, yeah. I know.” He leaned in towards the two guys in his van. “Climate change,” he said.
“Good on you, love.”
Gem offered the tub of cookies and all three of them took one. There were smiles now. “Thanks, love,” they said, and one gave a thumbs up at the first mouthful. She could have hugged all three of them.
All around her, horns were honking. She walked back to the crossing and sat down on the ground, picking up the placard she’d left there. She mustn’t look at her watch and wish it all over, because it had to be done if London was going to be gridlocked, if a headline or two was to be made, and the politicians were going to wake up.
“Let’s go,” called the guy in charge.
They withdrew, huddled and waited for the next blockade, watched by police officers. Soon they’d step out again.
“You all right?” asked a student who’d come down to London from York to swarm for three days. “Do you want to give me the flyers for the next one?”
“I’ll keep going a bit,” she said, trying not to shiver. “Thanks.”
“You’re frozen! Want some coffee?” asked an older woman called Liz who’d brought a flask, but Gem declined. “What time have you got to be at work?”
“I said I’d be in by ten thirty.” Gem would make up the hours at home once Skye was asleep, and no one would disapprove exactly, but at the same time, it was harder to justify than holding the bridges on a Saturday afternoon because this was rush hour and ordinary people were stressed. But she told the others the story of the guys in the van because it made a difference. People cheered and the student gave her a high five.
Time ran out so fast. The lights changed and they moved into the road again.
Someone in Libby’s office was an hour late. Hearing about the climate hippies blocking one of the busiest roads into the centre of London, Libby shook her head, rolled her eyes and hoped her mother wasn’t one of them.
“Tell me about your childhood,” the counsellor had said. Predictably.
“I was happy. I think I was. Kids are, right?”
“Not necessarily. What made you happy? Did your brother make you happy?”
“He didn’t make me unhappy. He was nice. But he was the favourite. Mum’s favourite anyway.”
So it was about Rob again. He was still centre stage. She didn’t know how anyone talked about their childhood in any detail without photos as prompts. That Libby Craig who loved Busted didn’t feel like her, so how could she know how she felt? She wasn’t sure she’d bother to go back for a second session. The woman was so composed it made Libby feel a mess and she wasn’t. She had a good job and a healthy bank account. Her hair and figure were both… good. There were too many people trying to undermine everything, like these idiots sitting in the road, making life hard for ordinary people trying to get to work – and the counsellor was the same. She wanted her to dig up something really bad and admit she was damaged. But she wasn’t. She was doing fine and if only people would leave her alone she’d do better.
“What would you say if I told you the majority of people who have siblings believe that they were their parents’ favourite?”
“I’d say I don’t suppose their siblings are all dead.”
“What would you say to Rob if he walked into the room now?”
“Rob was a saint, not Jesus… Sorry. I’d say… I don’t know. I’d say,” She wasn’t expecting her voice to crack like that. “I missed you.”
Her mother would probably think the money was well spent if it made her cry. Now, looking out of the office window as if she might see London at a standstill, Libby would tell Rob something else. “I wanted to BE you.”
That was her jealousy – not of his politics but his freedom to be himself, to be heard, to be whole, and a fit. To be enough.
It couldn’t really be getting colder. Gem was sitting in the road, one hand holding a placard. Someone had said the traffic was backed up for miles. It wasn’t surprising that the drivers were more abusive. Her body stiff and her lips numb, she tried to screen out the noise, the fumes, the tension. All she had to do was find the place she arrived at on Sundays at Meeting, the place where only truth mattered, and beauty. Where peace filled the inside of everything until the world seemed held in it. I’m sorry my friends, I didn’t mean to trouble you… when you were having such a hard time… The movement’s anthem had been haunting her.
“We act out of love,” said the guy with the tannoy.
There’d been a motorcyclist at the last blockade who’d removed his helmet and shaken out long, glossy hair. “Bless you,” he said. So like Nick. She’d wondered whether he’d be here to film but the only footage was being transmitted live from people’s phones. Sooner or later, she’d be bound to see him again, wouldn’t she, if he cared enough to join the rebellion as well as document it on film?
“Get a fucking job!” she heard from one passer-by. But another came across the road to join them, and was embraced. She’d feel less guilty now, when she had to leave. But when they cleared the road again, a coffee break was agreed, and they all headed for the nearest café, shedding the police officers who moved off in another direction. Gem bought a coffee and sat quietly, while the others chatted, reporting on the other road blocks and making introductions. Sometimes she’d rather message someone she loved.
How are you doing Pru? x
Oh not too bad dear. Better for hearing from you.
I’m sitting in the road this morning with Extinction Rebellion and it’s pretty tough but not as tough as you! x
Hero! But yes I can imagine. You take care of yourself. Skye needs you.
When do you go home? Have the doctors said? X
Well they don’t seem sure I can manage on my own but I will get help an hour or two a day and I’ll be fine. I can’t give up my freedom just yet.
Don’t! Resist. x
“Have you thawed out?” one of the older guys asked. Answering, Gem found her lips were mobile again. She sent love to Pru and put her phone in her pocket.
They returned to the traffic in an even busier spot, only this time with no police escort. As Gem moved towards the island on her left, a large black saloon kept moving too, the wing mirror brushing her as it passed – but stopped when Liz stepped in front of it. Within seconds guys were out of their vehicles and marching towards them. Someone was shoved. The guy on the tannoy appealed for calm and reminded drivers that the protest was peaceful. A short middle-aged man in a woolly hat stride towards Gem and picked her up. All right, she thought, remaining still and silent until he deposited her at the side of the road, muttering, “Sorry love,” so quietly that she wondered whether she’d imagined it. Now the police were back and drivers argued but were sent back to their vehicles. One officer had words with saloon man.
“I never thought I’d feel grateful for police protection!” Liz told her as she sat down again. “When it comes to the arms trade they protect the dealers, not the protestors. Are you all right?”
Gem was fine. Years back she would have struggled, sworn. Rob had changed her, before and after he died. And now she lived up to her badge, Quakers for Peace – or tried, anyway. But perhaps, looking at the time, she’d make this her last blockade. She wouldn’t be sorry to stop. For the last time she tried to find that peace again, and remembered that phrase someone had quoted in Meeting on Sunday, so full of meaning it moved her, all of her: Put the centre of yourself outside.
Seven minutes up. Walking away with the others she saw a tall guy with hair caught by the cold wind, approaching them. Approaching her. No camera, just Nick.
“Gem,” he said, puffed. “I saw you on Twitter.”
“I’m going to work now, Nick.”
“On the tube? Can I come with you?”
“O.K.,” she said.
Chapter 13 will be posted on Friday 5th April at 5:30 UK time.