FOR LIFE:15

Fifteen – early April 2019

the story resumes as the International Rebellion is about to begin

Telling people made all the difference. Until Libby heard herself, three drinks down, muttering to Bee that being with Marc was ‘getting boring’ after two whole months, she hadn’t labelled her feelings. And even then, the word she meant was hollow. That was how she felt it as she woke beside him, wondering what possessed her to allow him into her space and fill it – with his biceps and his smokiness, his toiletries and shoes. With underwear in her washing machine that counted on surfacing clean for his return.

   Libby watched him sleeping, his chin spiking with stubble and his chest model-tight. Bee had said she wouldn’t mind being bored out of her brains by him but that was a sex thing and for Libby that side had worn first, slipped into familiar choreography that was all placement and no flair.

   “Kew Gardens would be nice,” she’d said, wanting blue above and air with bite, but Saturdays meant football and lager and all the fags he couldn’t smoke in the week. And she hadn’t minded at first, because of the gifts that arrived at the office and the way the others gathered to see what he’d sent her this time. And because Bee had said ‘a regular guy’ was what she needed, someone to give her ‘a good seeing-to’. Which was what he thought he did, sometimes twice a night.

   Still, she thought, as she smelt the Marc-ness of his breath, he made her feel clever – which was a first. Told her she was too good for him. Was amused by jokes about her eco-extremist mother – who’d want to meet him, if she knew he existed, but not if she heard him laughing at her expense. And Libby might have called it enough, for now, if she’d stuck with the old job. Marc had lain in her bed, watching her dress for the interview, in a new and expensive little suit with leg room, and told her he’d employ her on sight – making the verb into innuendo.

   He didn’t guess what she thought about when he was on top of her. Or rather, who. And he didn’t ask. For Marc, questions were just foreplay. He didn’t need to know how she functioned, inside, any more than she needed to know what lifted an aeroplane off the ground. And he’d taken her for an expensive weekend in Barcelona, was talking now about hot white sand in Croatia for Easter.

   At that moment he woke quite suddenly, as if an alarm had sounded and a survival instinct kicked in hard. He reached out an arm soft with coppery hair, and smiled as if he thought, washed and dressed as she as, that she must be willing right now.

   “Don’t go.”

   It was her cue and she knew she had to work it somehow.

   “Thing is, in fact… I need you to go. As in, it’s over, you know, run its course?” He was staring, shocked, and making her feel cruel when it was just realism really. She softened her voice, hoped it transmitted to her face. “Just life, you know? Nothing lasts, right?” Somehow she held eye contact and wished it felt more powerful.

   His jaw clenched as if his teeth met hard inside. There was a furious reflex force in the way he exited her bed, sheets thrashed. He reached for his clothes, hanging in her wardrobe, knocking a dress of hers to the floor.

   “You’re a bitch, a fucking bitch.”

   She used to tell her mother that, in her teens, but it wasn’t true and she really hoped he was wrong too. “If I am, you’re best out of it.”

   Now she was glad she never told him anything, not about Rob or counselling. Not about anything that mattered, like the feelings she’d named for the counsellor. Part of her wanted to say she was sorry but that was a word that made her small. He’d been pestering her for a key but something in her always knew the narrative would work its way to this.

   “You’re welcome to breakfast before you go.”

   “Not hungry.” He made the two words sound like an accusation, or threat.

   Marc’s usual morning routine was careful and scented. Now he was heading for her door. She pictured him tying his red shoelaces before she heard him rattle the door shut with a final clash.

   “You deserve to be loved,” her mother had told her at Christmas.

   “Why?”

   “Because you’re human, darling.”

   It wasn’t the answer her mother would have given Rob. Because he was brave and principled, and funny and soft. Everything Libby wasn’t. How human was she, really? What if Rob got every bit of humanity that mattered and she was left with the dregs?

   Now her mother loved hip old Leo almost as much as she loved the planet, and sat with him like a conjoined twin on the sofa, their hands playing each other’s fingers like messages or tunes.

   “Of course it’s your choice when you stop,” said the counsellor. “But have you considered why you want to?”

   Wasn’t the wanting enough? Even love was just wanting, and needing to be wanted. And she was no good at loving, or hadn’t been up to now. She’d been waiting for the counsellor to tell her so.

   “Is it because we’re not making enough progress, or because the progress is real and challenging?”

   Libby liked to think she’d been challenging herself. “Isn’t that a loaded question?”

   Maybe she was better at asking questions than answering them. She knew she hadn’t told the truth, since she didn’t know what that was, but wasn’t she paying the counsellor to shine a light on it?

   Well this was the truth here, whether Marc could face it or not. Libby tugged the sheet from the bed and bundled it into the washing machine along with his pillow case.

   She didn’t know why she was crying.

*

Gem read the email from Mia a second time, as if the words would arrange themselves into a different meaning.

   Gem, I am very sorry to tell you that Pru died on Thursday night. It was sudden but peaceful. Her son has asked for an inquest but if she could she’d say she just wore out. I said that as the person who made her a silver surfer I’d go through her Contacts and let everyone know. It’s a short list and almost all what he would call troublemakers.

   I will let you know about the funeral but it’s a long way for you to come and she wouldn’t expect it. You know that.

   Hope you and Skye are well. She really loved you.

   Mia x

   “I really loved her too,” Gem told the screen.

   Looking at the time in the bottom right corner, she shut down the laptop and went to wake Skye. Her hair was wild around the cot, and warm on her forehead when she stroked it. Gem didn’t know anyone more alive.

   “Hey, sweetpea. Time for another day.”

   Skye pressed her lips to Gem’s cheek in a moist kiss as she lifted her. Gem thought there was a question in her eyes. Maybe she heard it in her voice: the loss, Pru gone. The cold space opening up around her.

   Would she have gone up to Preston at Christmas, if she and Nick hadn’t been… connecting? Pru had wanted to meet him. In the spring, she’d told Pru, before the International Rebellion.

   So are you and Nick what they call an item? Pru had asked, more than once.

   We’re friends, Gem had told her, and Skye loves him.

   It might be hard for a guy with a big, noisy family to understand what Pru was to her: a surrogate grandma, a role model, as open and giving as Gem had learned to be reticent and safe. But not with Pru, because Pru seemed to know straight away who she really was, the first time they met at the gates to the site where they hadn’t fracked now since December. Whoop whoop, her texts said, every time Cuadrilla took more equipment away. Perhaps Pru had died happy.

   Skye filled the potty, her eyes sleepy but curious. Then she followed Gem through to the kitchen and lifted her arms to be placed in her high chair. It seemed wrong to be reaching for a pan to make her porridge when the woman who doted on her from a distance was dead, and would never live for her, any more than Rob could.

   “See Daddy today?”

   Gem turned. It was a first and Nick would be… elated, moved. He didn’t press, didn’t talk tests, just enjoyed. Gem was grateful. But for her Rob did live, and always would, where it hurt most, not in the car upside down off the road but beside her, his hand in hers. And she wasn’t ready. It made her doubt…

   Taking her time, she stirred the oats into the rice milk as if she needed to concentrate. She couldn’t correct her; it wouldn’t be fair. Then she said, gently, “Nick’s working today.”

   They needed to talk about the Rebellion but no one could say how long it would last, or hold. She’d booked three days unpaid leave and wished she could take more; he didn’t seem sure whether he’d be there to film it. There’d be four key sites but she liked the idea of a garden bridge.

   She would see him tomorrow, after Meeting. He was interested in what being a Quaker meant. Gem knew he was in love – with Skye, with holding her high above his head and pushing her buggy. With her too, maybe. It was kindness and she couldn’t let it go. He was Rob’s best friend after all.

   “Porridge ready,” asked Skye as if it was an assumption, as Gem added some raisins and reached for the Tigger bowl.

The author as rebel

Part Sixteen will be posted at 5:30 UK time on Friday 17th April.

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