The short walk to the tube was busy but it didn’t stop Nick trying to talk.
“You look cold.”
“Yeah. It wasn’t fun.”
“I’ve been wanting to see you since that day in Parliament Square. I kept thinking about you. And I know you’re going to work but I need to talk to you.”
Suddenly Gem would rather be sitting in the road. She walked on but the traffic lights were red.
“About Skye,” he said. “Is she Rob’s?”
“I don’t know.”
He was looking at her now in a way she’d dreaded. “You don’t know because there’s another possibility? Because you weren’t too drunk to remember what happened after the funeral?”
Gem bit her lip and shook her head. She hadn’t wanted to hold on to it but she’d never quite erased it all. Leaning her head against his in the taxi they’d shared to the hotel where they’d both booked rooms. His hand holding hers. Pressed together at his door. Stroking his hair, while his crying shook his chest.
“We made love, Gem.”
“We had sex.”
“It was loving. We both lost Rob.”
The light changed. They walked, in step now. He reached for her hand but she couldn’t let him take it, not this time.
“We were both drunk. Maybe you don’t remember as much as you imagine.”
“I didn’t… when I woke and you’d gone, I thought I’d dreamed it. How could it be real? And if it was, I thought you’d be sick with…. And blame me.”
“With guilt. Yeah. I blamed myself more.”
They stepped down into the tube station.
“We didn’t take precautions?” he asked, his voice low.
She swiped her Oyster Card. “I don’t know. Do you? But I’m guessing neither of us took condoms to Rob’s funeral.”
She was first on the escalator but he stood close and tall behind her. She gazed up at the ads without seeing them.
“But you and Rob…”
“Not the last time.” The pack had been empty; she’d been the one to insist they took a chance, not caring if she fell pregnant with his child because thanks to him she was ready now to be a mother, with or without a father around. Forgetting the world that wasn’t fit to give a child a future.
Stepping off the escalator, they entered the tunnel and saw a tube, its carriage doors opening. Instinctively, she rushed for it, and they both fitted in. Now they stood holding the same yellow rail. She looked at his hand above hers, just as smooth and pretty as his face.
“So it’s fifty-fifty?”
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
“And you didn’t need to know?”
“Nick, try to understand. I didn’t want to be smothered by the Craigs. And I didn’t want to ask anything of you. How could I? It wouldn’t have been fair.”
“On me, or you?” Still his voice was quiet, kind.
“Either?” Had it mattered, a few weeks after the funeral, when she took the kit straight from the counter at a department store into the Ladies, and the line was blue? She’d only known that she wanted her baby, and life after death. “I hadn’t seen you since. I didn’t expect to see you again.”
“I didn’t think you’d want me to call.”
“We hardly knew each other. Without Rob…”
“Yes. So the only thing that made any sense was raising Skye alone. And I am, and she’s happy.”
“She’s great.” His smile was sad. “And you left Bristol to be sure you didn’t bump into me…”
“I left Bristol because Rob would always be there.”
“You still love him?”
She nodded. It kept her alive.
“And you hope Skye is his?”
“I always have.”
Her stop had already been announced. He looked out as the tube slowed to a halt. “This is where you work.”
“Yes.” She reached up to kiss his cheek. “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
“Can I see you?” he called as the doors slid open. “One weekend? No claims.”
Gem stepped onto the platform but looked back. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
The doors closed. Gem walked towards the exit.
The café was quiet. Manda cut up her latest bake, thinking through the wording she would use at closing time, but beginning to hope she didn’t have to wait that long because the more she thought, the more decided she became. The three customers drinking coffee were all regulars and she usually enjoyed chatting with them, especially brave, quivery Viv, who walked with a stick and looked a generation older than she was, but today the only person she wanted to talk to was Farah.
She arranged the ginger cake with its label and looked into the kitchen where her boss was chopping carrots as if they’d offended her.
Farah turned and read her. “You’re going to tell me you’ve considered it carefully and you’re going to jump ship.”
“Yes. I thought maybe after Christmas.”
“What if this rebellion comes to a standstill?”
“It won’t. It will grow.”
“I dare say it could grow without you. But I know, you have to be there. You’d be blocking London right now if you weren’t trapped here.”
Manda nodded. She had to give everything to this movement or it wouldn’t be enough. She kept Farah up to date with developments, but not via Twitter, because she’d left that – in case some sleazy online news outfit ran Adam’s story, or in case he messaged her again, under that name or any other.
She was aware that Farah couldn’t quite believe she was in a position to manage without income, at least until the summer.
“I should be grateful to James,” she said, because he’d always been the serious earner, and a bit of a miser with it. Her Home Economics teaching, never more than part-time, was always a hobby in his eyes.
“The benefits of capitalism for the few,” teased Farah, and Manda held up her hands. “It won’t be the same without you here. That’s if I can keep afloat.”
Manda blew her a kiss; Farah was less huggable with a sharp knife in her hand. A group, probably from a nearby office, walked in together. They were loud and Manda thought she knew what they were complaining about, but she kept listening to be sure while they ordered drinks in turn.
“I think you’ll find,” she said, as they moved to sit down, “that these eco-warriors are motivated by the fact that the world is experiencing climate breakdown, as declared by experts from umpteen countries in zillions of scientific papers in the recent IPCC report. These people are bringing London to a standstill because signing another petition might not be enough to save our children.” She smiled. “I call them heroes myself. I’ll bring your drinks over in just a minute.”
She mouthed at Farah, “Sack me!” and smiled as her boss tried to copy the emoji that slaps a hand to one eye. Not that she had scored any points over the loudest guy in the group, who interrupted a woman who told him Manda had a point, insisting this kind of irresponsible activism was counter-productive. In spite of her irritation, Manda was afraid it might be, but she hoped Rob would approve – of her words, smile and delivery, but also her commitment. Because she loved this job, and Farah, and the feel they’d created together here. It was a place where Rob would have felt at home.
The youngest of the partners, who had seen images from the road blockades, joked with James, “I haven’t spotted your ex.”
The partner who wasn’t back from a meeting yet might not see any humour in the situation and James couldn’t blame him. Manda’s idea of giving up work for this rebellion was madness and Libby, who already called her mother an extremist, would be appalled – but what could he do?
He could do with a break himself, a sabbatical. Not for the purposes of civil disobedience but to broaden his horizons with some personal development. Perhaps some art history, or world religions. He’d been thinking a lot since the exhibition with Tanya, about how narrow one could become, and how much more there was to learn. “Ah, James, there are more ways to be human than you realised.”
His phone rang unexpectedly and he saw Libby on screen. Some personal emergency, he supposed, and hesitated before picking up.
“Dad, I saw Gem sitting in the road with those Extinction Rebellion nutters. She looks out of it, a mess. And… thing is, Dad, she’s got a child.”
“She’s sitting in the road with a child?”
“I mean she has a child. And I think it’s Rob’s. And she’s an irresponsible mother. She looks like she could be doing drugs. So you might want to claim your grandchild.”
James put a hand to his head. “Libby, you’re jumping way head of yourself.” He didn’t dare say he liked Gem. “We can’t talk about this now.”
“What if she gets arrested? If she goes to prison?”
“I don’t think obstructing a highway carries a custodial sentence, darling. Look, I have a meeting to go to,” he lied. “Let’s talk at the weekend.”
Libby sounded deflated. “Good luck getting there!”
James searched Twitter until he found her. Rob’s Gem, delicate-looking as ever, and yes, straggly and scruffy just the way Rob used to be. Her expression was sad, in fact. It reminded him of the face of the poet from the Marshall Islands. Suddenly he knew what Tanya would say, if he told her – which was hardly likely, given that he didn’t expect to see her again. She’d say, Leave her alone. And he wasn’t quite sure how Tanya became his touchstone, his new lens on the world. But he supposed that was in the pub, when he fell in love with her.
What Manda would say, for once he couldn’t guess.
Trying to listen hard, and watch carefully, Pru realised she had a lot to learn.
“It’s very sensible,” Mia said. “You’ll be a silver surfer.”
“I thought you’d be the person to teach me,” Pru said, thinking how ridiculously young Mia looked, for a teacher. “You must need a lot of patience in your job and you may need even more with me!”
Gem had offered to come and visit after Christmas, and bring Skye, but she couldn’t expect her to do that. Besides, now that Pru had decided to go online and keep up with things she’d miss, she couldn’t wait to start. It might be fun. Ed had warned her it could be addictive but she wasn’t going to allow that, and she wasn’t going to allow him to do the teaching because he’d make her feel like a fool.
“So I need to follow Twitter and Facebook and it would be nice to send some emails,” she told Mia, using the chair to make her a coffee like a proper hostess, and prove she was mobile and doing fine.
“Sure,” said Mia, “but maybe not all in one lesson.” She asked Pru how it was working out with the carers.
“Oh, we’ll get on like a house on fire once we get used to each other’s funny ways. I’m determined not to be a stickler or a whinger.”
“You’ll be their favourite!”
Pru was finding it hard being a burden to people, even though she paid them to put up with her, but she kept that to herself because she didn’t need people to feel sorry for her. And that included herself.
“I miss everyone,” she said. “So I need to keep an eye on what they’re up to. Any more earthquakes today?”
Mia nodded, and shook her head too, but couldn’t remember the frequency of the latest one.
“That’s why I need to be on that internet, to find these things out. But if they go on like this they’ll have to stop for good, surely? It’s madness.”
Mia said she hoped so but the dirty frackers, as Pru called them, wanted the government to relax the regulations so they didn’t have to stop at all, even for the rest of the day, after any tremor.
Pru was afraid the dirty frackers had the government in their pockets and she didn’t like to be cynical but the evidence was pretty strong. Apparently there were diagrams; she’d be able to find them now. She’d be more informed than ever, as long as she didn’t fall for any fake news.
“There’s been more civil disobedience in London,” Mia told her, fiddling with the wires at the back of Pru’s new computer. It was like waiting for the curtain to go up at the theatre. “And I think the school strikes are going to take off soon, maybe after Christmas. I need to talk to my Head about that.”
While she was setting up the computer, she passed Pru her flat little phone to look at. “Gem, see, in the green hat?”
The screen was so small, it could have been anyone sitting on the road with a placard that said, THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. But she felt proud anyway. And one day, Skye would be proud too, and grateful.
“Thank you so much for this, Mia,” she said. “It’s going to be an adventure.”
The final chapter of FOR LIFE will be posted on Friday 12th April, before the Global Rebellion.
Use this link to vote for ‘I am me’, Sue’s fundraising picture book for People not Borders, in the Finals of the People’s Book Prize.