April 19th 2019
Good Friday. Gem remembered her mother calling it a day of tears and agony and getting through it with whisky. Although the office was closed, Gem needed to work from home, and make sure Skye was really well.
“I could do some editing here,” Nick said, making the coffee, “if that’s O.K.”
“Don’t you want to be on the bridge, in case?”
“They won’t be able to take it today. They’ll have officers on leave, won’t they? Wouldn’t you expect them to ease off for Easter, and then come in hard on Tuesday?”
Gem shook her head. “I’d like to think so.” She told him the Home Secretary was agitating for the force to use their full powers, whatever that meant.
“Boris’s water cannons?” Nick grinned, and added that things would be quiet for a few days. “With no one trying to get to work why would they bother?”
Gem expected the holiday weekend to bring a crowd of new people to the rebellion: some well-informed, some curious, some just looking for a place to hang out in the sun with free music and food. She was afraid something would change. The non-violence felt like a kind of dream, too pure for reality. Suppose it didn’t hold?
“Don’t worry,” Nick told her. “We’ll be there tomorrow, all three of us.”
Gem knew he misunderstood her faith, such as it was – a delicate and tenuous thing that labels wouldn’t fit – and thought trusting in the Light was meant to give Quakers peace. As if the world made that easy or even reasonable. All the same she wished she could, for Skye’s sake. She’d tried explaining that the Light could illuminate the darkness, flag it up, give it shape… only to run out of words, telling him that was the point: experience over doctrine or theory. But being part of this rebellion, in solidarity with those already living through climate chaos and defence of the children, was her certainty now. And she could live in the light of that, however much doubt swirled around it.
Beaches like this were overrated really. Seen one, seen them all. Same old white sand and palms, predictable cocktails and tuneless rhythms in the bars. Same litter and dog poo butting in on shots of paradise. The wind blew hot and gritty against his pale legs. James lit his first cigarette for more than thirty years and narrowed his eyes behind his sunglasses as he sat on a flat rock and wondered whether his body was fit for public scrutiny. Or whether the water would turn out to be flavoured with sewage or thick with plastic.
Once, before the kids came along and decades before Manda’s epiphany, they’d made love on a beach like this – her idea, one his flesh had given in to in spite of what she called his propriety – and he’d wondered why a girl like her, with so much energy and fire and appetite as well as hair, was with him at all. Well, now she had her exciting, guitar-playing dude with earrings and a flat brown belly. And they probably had sex in places and ways he’d never imagine.
“So what are you going to do with the rest of your life, James?” That was Tanya. A fair question but not one he could begin to answer. He stubbed out the unfinished cigarette, and kicking sand over the butt, brought others to the surface.
He was glad for Libby – as long as she wasn’t heading for tragic rejection. People didn’t seem to be very good at love, especially the kind that was meant to last a lifetime. He couldn’t have gone to Tanya’s birthday party, and met her lover Angelique, however beautiful Tanya claimed she might be. So many adjustments necessary, one after another. He was too old for it.
Looking around, James saw other white hedonists who didn’t know or care about carbon footprints, lying oiled on loungers and anonymous behind their shades. So Manda was with her tribe and he’d found his.
His phone took him by surprise.
“Dad, where are you?”
“Taking a break. Tell me about your new man.”
“He’s American but prefers it here. Funny thing is he’s kind of left-wing.” Libby laughed. “But not by Mum’s standards. He’s persuaded me to go to Waterloo Bridge to check it out. We’re on the way now. He wants to do some interviews for a blog. He says people are fascinating. Even me!”
“He sounds very bright.” James felt emotional picturing her face. “Enjoy. You’re breaking up a bit…” He raised his voice: “I’ll be home in a few days.”
James thought how terrible it must be to be young and believe the worst. What if his was the last generation to live a normal life? He’d seen the school kids on their Friday strikes with their placards: WE’LL BE LESS REBELLIOUS IF YOU’LL BE LESS SHIT. And they didn’t seem to be angry, just convinced they could save the world.
He wondered about a cocktail or two before lunch.
On the bridge the heat was building. Manda was glad she’d thought better of refusing a big, floppy-brimmed straw hat from the top shelf in Leo’s wardrobe. Nathan’s mother obviously had curls that would have filled it too. In a long, strappy dress without a bra to make her breasts sweat against her midriff, Manda felt younger than her arms looked. On the heart line someone was making boat-shaped paper hats and passing them along.
Leo had taken Manda’s place in the food tent, chopping veg for early supper. Some of the friends she’d made were heading back to the South West for family Easters so there were goodbye hugs that felt sad. Every time she saw a small child she wanted it to be Skye, but maybe she’d scared Gem by coming on too strong – offering, in so many words, to love the child if she couldn’t save her.
Many of the faces around Manda were unfamiliar but the mood was the same: chilled but resolute. In a way, the police seemed to share it – although their layered uniforms must be steaming. Now that it was clear there’d be no easing-off, it was just a matter of time. And here time felt new and still. No tension, just readiness. If they didn’t arrest her today she might sob. The sun’s intensity made the flowers blaze and the river flecked light like Van Gogh’s stars.
One of the Wellbeing women she’d come to love was offering to refill water bottles. Manda tried not to resent the single-use plastic one tipped back by a boy of around twenty who’d just sat down behind her.
“Are you arrestable?” she checked, because now at the end of the bridge the vans were discharging officers in a thick black stream.
“Uh… yeah, I guess.”
She told him her name. He was Stu from Hackney; he hadn’t known all this was happening until a few days ago but he’d been vegan for a while. His T-shirt, splashed with water and tight to his skinny chest, said, NO PLANET B. Finding that he’d only just arrived with no induction and no legal training, she talked him through what to expect and his choices. He listened intently, his eyes on the police line covering ground faster than she could. A legal observer, who seemed to be new herself, appeared with a note pad and pencil and crouched down, asking him if he was all right and sure he was arrestable. He nodded, his eyes on the officers now very close to the heart line. Laying a quick, motherly hand on his arm, Manda hoped her smile was encouraging. A new, wispy kind of song had begun behind them: “Police, we love you. We’re doing this for your children too.” Hesitantly, because the tune was hard as well as gentle, Manda tried to join in.
Not Stu, she told them silently. He wasn’t really ready. A female officer moved across to her space, chose her. Yes, she thought, because she had been moving towards this since Rob asked her after school one day, “Why are humans pumping carbon and methane into the atmosphere and destroying EVERYTHING?” and James wanted to complain about his earnest young class teacher scaring their son, but Manda only wanted to stop, immediately and forever, destroying anything.
“I’m hanging in there, Rob, darling, doing this for your little girl,” she imagined telling him. “You’d love her.” Talking to him, seeing him, made sure she didn’t listen to the policewoman, who wasn’t much older than Libby but sounded tired, as if she’d rather be anywhere else than here right now. Behind the arrestees the singing swelled. Someone started drumming. The policewoman reached for her but Manda wasn’t going to walk. Even though she’d been rubbish at it in training, she willed her body to flop, heavier than the scales said, with no give and no yield. Black-trousered legs were all around her. Their boots were so big, so robust. And she was small now, limbs spread but no weight at all, like flotsam to be cleared from the water – carried fast, her hat floating to the ground behind her.
“WE LOVE YOU! WE LOVE YOU!”
Manda smiled as her eyes brightened with tears. Closing them a moment, she imagined Rob’s hand on her shoulder. The police weren’t rough but business-like, and her body didn’t enjoy the long, awkward ride to the south end of the bridge, where they took her to a van and she stepped inside where the air was cooler. As her arresting officer took her backpack, she realised that she was off-grid now, and Leo wouldn’t know, hadn’t seen.
Sitting, she tried to relax her muscles with the kind of warm-up exercises she used to do at over-50 contemporary dance class – until Stu was brought to the door to the van and told to step inside. He looked disbelieving – as if he’d woken to a truth he’d forgotten – but stirred. She reached out for a high-five with young skin. He took the seat in front of her while four officers stood outside the van.
“They should have left you alone.”
“It’s worth it though,” he said. “I mean, someone’s got to do this, right?”
“Right. They showed David Attenborough’s climate change documentary at Marble Arch last night. I guess Cressida Dick wasn’t watching. Probably went to bed early with an XR-shaped headache.”
A tall older guy with a fulsome grey beard and loose jeans was next on board, nodding to Manda and Stu but saying nothing. A small silver cross swung from his neck as he stooped towards the seat opposite Manda. Not quite the spit of the ex-Archbishop now rebel, but he could fool a few in the robes. Saying nothing, he looked shaken, and probably ached. Then he crossed himself quickly and shared a small smile.
The last arrestee was a girl Manda ought to know by name, a beautiful Buddhist who stopped and breathed out with eyes closed before sitting.
“Hey,” she said quietly. “Love and rage.”
One of the police officers outside the van was using what probably wasn’t any longer referred to as a walkie-talkie. Manda remembered Leo’s account of a very long wait to find a police station with enough room for another four. The silence in the van felt delicate but maybe that was her, a step beyond bravado now.
“I’ve just realised,” said Stu, his distress breaking through. “My mum will think I’m messing about. She doesn’t get it.”
“She will,” said Manda. “Everyone will. But sooner’s way better than later.”
Glancing out of the window, she saw a couple walking onto the bridge with two small children. Watched them pause, understand, and look into the van. Manda read “Thank you” on the lips of the young mum who placed both hands on her heart and lifted them out towards her.
Moved and elated, Manda smiled. She hadn’t made a peace sign for decades.
The next chapter of FOR LIFE will be posted on Friday 28th June.