Fourteen: December 6th 2018
It was Manda’s last day off, not counting Christmas. Following signs to City Hall, Westminster, she reflected that so far, bar a few dozen mince pies, she’d been detached from the consumer bingefest. An achievement. And she intended to stay that way up to what they called the wire. Note to self, she thought: the language of war was everywhere and it was a kind of infiltration, like the way the forces had a hold in churches and schools. Everyday militarism.
The curved glass building, swelling out by the river, was impressive. She couldn’t help thinking that assembly members might be forgiven if their sense of importance swelled too, breezing with lanyards past security. But history wouldn’t forgive them if they voted NO today.
Was she too early? Pinning her XR logo on her coat, she gazed around for others and smiled at three police officers waiting too. She wondered how Libby’s counselling was going, or whether she’d secretly stopped. They hadn’t even discussed Christmas arrangements yet, and Manda suspected Libby of planning to fly away to escape it.
Looking at the river to the inner tune of Waterloo Sunset, she found it oddly moving. Loss made everything so beautiful, even before it was lost. Would the assembly vote the right way and if they did, would they commit to action that was swift and radical? Frankly, Stroud, Totnes and Bristol were pushovers; this would be a coup.
Hearing voices she turned to find a group, mostly young, advancing with kit. She recognised a few faces. Soon banners were unfurled, and Manda helped to hold the one that said TWELVE YEARS TO SAVE THE EARTH. Passers-by, mostly on their way to work, were offered flyers, and it was heartening to see how many accepted them and signalled or expressed support. Soon the singing had begun, thinner than in Parliament Square but affecting all the same. Manda tried to join in, but joked with the young woman one place along the banner that no one would hang around to find out more with her wailing in their ear. It turned out that Manda was double her age with half her qualifications. Manda found herself mentioning Libby.
“Is she in the rebellion?” asked Shani, brightly. She was wearing enough clothes for August, her tight midriff and tattooed arms bare.
Manda pulled a face Libby wouldn’t like. “I failed there. I seem to be a deterrent rather than an inspiration. But my son was an activist.” Her voice thickened with no warning. “He died…”
Shani’s face was even brighter now. “You made that film! I saw it. You must be so proud. He’d be glad to see this, right? It’s only just beginning but we’re rising up at last.”
Manda smiled gratefully. “Yes. He would, and we are.”
As if on cue, a new song began: “We are the change, we are the ones we are waiting for. We are dawning, we are rising up.” Its rhythm was less daunting than the ethereal anthem’s harmonies. Manda sang enthusiastically, stamping her feet and moving her hips as much as the banner allowed.
A young guy was preparing to talk with a basic PA, his back to the water. The chorus ended for the last time and Manda watched him looking at the script on his phone the way speakers could nowadays.
She realised that a tall man with dense, tight curls had stopped to watch and seemed to be looking straight at her, but because of his sunglasses, she couldn’t be sure. He was dressed casually, like a creative – as colourful and free as James was neat and grey.
He accepted a flyer, read it, nodded and gave them a thumbs-up. Then he took off his sunglasses, and headed towards her. Manda opened her mouth wide.
She looked at Shani and explained, “I’m going to have to let go for a moment, just long enough to hug this man – who was my first serious boyfriend!” Close-up he glistened and smelled wonderful, spicy but citrus. He was lean but firm. And this was ridiculous!
“You look just the same,” he said, and they covered where she lived and her divorce, his early retirement and songwriting. He was in a band when they started dating at school, and so much more interesting than anyone else in the town. “So his mother’s black and his father’s white?” her mother had asked, the same way she’d ask whether one was a prostitute and the other a vicar who’d strayed off the straight and narrow.
“Do you still worship Hendrix?” she checked.
“Oh, man, who else?”
“And you… do you have children?”
“Sure, three. But we lost their mother to cancer.”
“I’m so sorry.” She produced a picture of Rob and was explaining when they heard, “Good morning. We are Extinction Rebellion and we are here to encourage the London Assembly to declare a Climate Emergency…”
“Look,” Leo told her, “I need to go. I’m meeting my son for breakfast – five minutes ago, in that café right over there.” He pointed, named it and gave her a card with an electric guitar on it. “I’ll be there until ten so if you finish, come on over. If you can. I mean, no pressure. You have important business here.”
Manda felt the grin on her face; it had been there a while. He leaned down and kissed her cheeks. She watched him walking away, a kind of a loping walk with a swing. Why had they split up? She didn’t even know. Turning her attention to the speaker on the mic, she heard him finish the Declaration of Rebellion, and joined in the cheering.
“Climate justice now!” he began.
Manda echoed with the rest. Somewhere in an old notebook she had lyrics she’d scribbled a year or so ago, for a song about Rob.
Gem had been on the point of making contact so many times. Every time, in fact, that she’d done the tube journey he’d shared with her that day of the swarming. This morning she found Nick Gorski’s card in her wallet where she’d kept it, looked at her face in the carriage window and pictured his. A seriously nice guy. Rob’s best friend. Perhaps a rebel too. And Skye’s father, maybe. Maybe not.
Hey Nick. It would be good to meet up and talk properly. Gem
She checked her reflection. Did she look excited or nervous, or just like a single mum who’d left the flat in a rush and wasn’t bothered about reflections in train windows?
Gem, hi. I’ve been thinking hard about everything and I think I’m awake at last. Do you have a lunch hour?
Yes, in theory. Now she was alarmed. She thought of a coffee shop she couldn’t afford to use as a habit, and gave him the address. But didn’t he want to see Skye? Wasn’t that the point, just like it would be the Craigs’ point if they knew?
If she could open the door on a hotel room in the same chain, with the same colours and layout, and the same smooth, wide bed, would she remember more than the panic that followed her home, and the shame? Rob would understand, if anyone would, but she hadn’t understood it herself – how loving and grieving and red wine could have led her, unsteady, to Nick’s bed.
“I’ve never been in love before,” Rob told her, the first time. He never asked her how many guys she’d had so she didn’t have to count, or wish them away. And they didn’t count, when she was using. She wasn’t herself and she didn’t know herself.
Gem didn’t kid herself that Nick was in love – except maybe with the idea of having a kid he could play with once a week. But what harm would that do her, or Skye? If it added something warm and smiley to Skye’s life, why would she reject it – as long as the truth was served? The truth might matter more than anything, and it wasn’t always easy to see – although Nick didn’t seem to need it. She guessed some people made up their own.
The Green members of the assembly who’d proposed the motion didn’t want the protest to move inside and jeopardise the vote, and no one was arguing. They’d been optimistic when they stopped to chat on their way in, and stood behind the banner for photos – and now, as the singing stopped, the mood felt flat but confident too.
Manda said her goodbyes as the group broke up. Feeling the superglue in her pocket she wondered if she’d need it anytime soon, and whether next year when the movement spread all over the world there’d be a global shortage. Libby would be appalled but when it felt right, she’d do it for Rob, and the grandchildren she’d probably never have.
“Gem would have told us. Forget it, Libby. It’s a wild goose chase.”
“What kind of grandma doesn’t want to find her grandchild?”
She looked at her watch. She used to be mad about Leo when she was sixteen, and not just to annoy her parents. They’d lasted until he went to university a year ahead of her, which made the relationship long and, given the sex they managed mostly in his car, grown-up.
She imagined Farah telling her to be careful, found her bearings and set off for the café.
Hello Gem this is Pru on the worldwide web! I promise not to be a nuisance though and bombard you. Mia set all this up and taught me basics. She says hi. No news really but I follow what’s happening in the world and it’s very exciting. Change gonna come like Sam Cooke sang. Will you be protesting at the BBC who really should know better? You can email me pictures of Skye now, with attachments. I am fine and as Enid says, hell on wheels.
James felt uneasy. If the crisis was as huge as the activists said – and Attenborough, and the Secretary General of the UN, and the scientists of course – then why wasn’t it everywhere, dominating all media all day all over the world? Why were the Tories talking Brexit, which was a disaster in itself but hardly on the same scale? No mention of climate change in the latest budget, never mind breakdown or emergency.
Then again, hadn’t people always thought the end of the world was nigh? Simple folk, religious nuts, but not scientists, perhaps, with access to the most sophisticated technology. He couldn’t understand why he’d ignored Manda for so many years, or humoured her by taking the line of least resistance, when he could have found out for himself. He supposed that would be because he was busy at work (which he no longer wished to be) and because he was used to Manda’s passions, which were once more attractive and became more wearing. Because he liked travelling the world, and cars, and steak – but no more, apparently, than the world leaders at COP24. Which seemed rather hopeless.
He used to have a head for science. Perhaps he should read the IPCC report.
Libby was feeling Christmassy now, and there were parties ahead, and drinks, and dinners, and she’d told Dad what she wanted, sending links. So it would be a slimmer’s milk shake for breakfast and lunch in between. Looking at the small pink can in her bag made her long for a MacDonald’s.
She turned on her phone and found Bee sounding excited.
Lib, what would you say to a weekend in Vienna for the Christmas market? Gluhwein by the bucket?
Libby checked the dates, grinned and replied: Yeah baby! Book it. Bargain. It would be great for Christmas shopping by day and then they could drink the nights away. Manda would never need to know. After all she said she didn’t want a present.
Gem showed Nick the latest pictures of Skye, and filled him in on the kind of details only mothers usually asked, about birth weight and milestones like crawling.
“There were nine days between…” She didn’t want to spell that out. “You and Rob. So the birth date doesn’t make it conclusive because she was a few days early. But if you want a paternity test…”
“I don’t need that.” He touched her hand in the centre of the table, between their coffee cups.
Gem stared. “You just want to be…”
“In her life.”
“She’d like that.”
Gem thought she’d like it too. “Do you think it’s wrong to have children, knowing what we know? Because her generation will inherit…” Her voice cracked. “Chaos. I don’t want to think about it, but…”
“It drives you.”
“Yes. How can it not? But what if it’s too late?”
“You love her. And you’re doing all you can.”
“I want to…”
Nick took her hand in both of his. “So do I.”
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