The Tower: a new short story to follow FOR LIFE

Giving her right palm another coating of superglue, Manda wondered whether she’d overdone it. As she sat down inside the tower and placed her hand on the pale wood, her skin certainly stuck. It was a strange feeling, but not uncomfortable – although next to her Gem had spread her younger fingers, while Manda’s were tightly joined in a stop sign.

   She grinned at Gem: a smile of relief and triumph, but also surprise. Not so much because she found herself glued to a tall structure on the road by Trafalgar Square – that was rational, strategic – but because it was Gem partnering her. Gem, who might be thinking of Rob too, if her new life with Nick hadn’t erased him now. For Manda, he’d always connect them and no de-bonding team could change that.

   Gem looked as bedraggled as everyone else, her hair flattened by rain while Manda’s had turned to teased wool. Her smile was smaller and Manda hoped she hadn’t felt pressured by her own enthusiasm.

   “O.K.?” she checked.

   “Fine. I can’t believe how quickly they got this thing assembled.”

   “In seconds.”

   Some of the rebels who had surrounded the process remained in place; others stepped away as if to challenge the police to see what they’d missed. Manda shouted up to the women locked on above them, but they didn’t seem to hear. She hadn’t even seen their faces. But to the left of Gem an older man, a slight, churchy type with glasses, sat on a folded sleeping bag on the wet ground and glued a hand to the side of the structure. And there was a mature woman with her back to theirs, facing the ‘stage’ tent on the edge of the square. Another, who might be a student and wore so little clothing it made Manda shiver, attached herself on Manda’s right, with just a blanket between her skinny backside and the puddled tarmac.

   Manda realised that as the hours went by, she might need to engage these others. Gem was such a full-time Quaker, her face clear, still and pale as if in the silence in her head was the place she liked best. A serious face, it made Manda herself feel flighty, unstable, not as grown-up as she should be after all these decades. Taking it upon herself to organise introductions, Manda hoped she’d remember some of the names. She probably sounded heartier than she felt but she might be the most experienced activist in this tower, and with that CV came responsibilities she was glad to shoulder.

   Gem was being asked, “Have you done this sort of thing before?” and was shaking her head, pulling her mouth into a narrow smile.

   “Skye will be proud of you. Give her a couple of years,” Manda told her.

   This time Gem nodded. With her free hand she pulled out her phone.

   Gem had to leave a voicemail for Nick, which probably meant the day out was going well. It was astonishing, all of it: how instantly Skye had loved James, how abandoned her laugh became when he was around, the way she called him ‘Ganpa’ regardless. The way Nick accepted it all, with no reference to DNA tests, even though he was Daddy now. The noisy, boys-together matiness of the might-be father and the maybe-grandad. And Manda as could-be grandma, more careful and sensitive than the stereotype Gem had tried to fit her with, more patient and less wild.

   Even so, Gem wondered how long it would be, as they sat tightly together, before Manda asked questions of a personal kind. And how surprised Gem might be to find herself so intimately engaged with her never-mother-in-law.

   “Good day to be indoors looking at the stars,” Manda told her, apparently forgetting she’d called the Planetarium a rip-off. “They could come over afterwards and say hello, though – if you’d like that?”

   Gem wasn’t sure. Not to see the police confiscating tents and sleeping bags. Not if a one-armed hug was only half of what Skye counted on. She could imagine her now, sitting on her lap, the slightly wriggly warmth of her and the movement of the legs that would swing down. How long would it be before she understood, and was frightened? Gem knew there were teenagers, children too, seeing their GPs with climate anxiety, needing counselling or pills. It was cruel, and unfair, even if Nick turned out to be right and Skye grew into a climate striker using that powerful voice of hers on a microphone. By then, well, it would be too late. The chaos would make nightmares real, and no determined hope would save anyone or anything.

   Rebels were leaning in to offer lunch: bananas, biscuits from an open packet. “Coffee?”

   “Uhuh,” said Manda. “No drinks. We declined the nappies.”

   Apparently there was a contraption, a kind of tubing, but Manda had no intention of testing it. Already a few people had thanked them. She told herself not to enjoy the status; it wasn’t personal. A young woman took a photo on her phone and then put her hands together, Gandhi-style. Manda supposed she had no one to call, these days, except her new ‘family’ under the starry dome. It was good to be friends with James, and to see him alive for Skye, but she knew Libby felt aggrieved. Ousted, perhaps. She could be a half-hearted auntie, stiff, even detached, but Manda put that down to lack of confidence. Maybe when Skye was less sticky and more coherent…

   “What went wrong with Leo?” Libby had asked.

   “Oh, darling, I wish I knew,” she’d answered.

   “I don’t believe you.”

   Four months after she’d left him puzzled and hurt, she couldn’t say how much of what she felt, or used to feel, was love. His offer of a ‘place to crash’ during the occupation had come out of the blue and she’d had to tell herself to be pragmatic with a yes when her no anticipated the way it would feel in his bed without him, knowing she’d never have sex again, because that had peaked with Leo and she still remembered. She could call him now, on his little tour packed with flights he was rueful about, but why? Not knowing how much he’d care made her sad.

   The rain had thickened again and she felt sorry for the women on top, their bed the roof that sheltered her and Gem.

   “We got lucky here,” she said. “What will Nick say? That I led you astray?” Manda knew she should withdraw that because she didn’t think Gem was very leadable, and she didn’t mean to imply that only one of them was committed. Hard-core, James called her, almost amused. She suspected he had more respect for Gem’s less verbal conviction with fewer flourishes. And of course, for a young mum arrest was a different proposition. Well, this would be quite a showy debut.

   Gem shook her head. “He won’t be shocked.”

   Not as shocked as she felt herself, suddenly, because it had happened too fast to think hard the way she preferred. But sometimes an impulse felt deep and important, and she must see it as an opportunity – to hold the road and sustain the protest for longer. However the courts looked at it, it was necessary.

   “He’d be here with his camera if he knew.” Manda hoped that eventually she’d stop searching every XR film for a glimpse of her own face, and tell no one when she spotted herself on Channel 4 News. She supposed Gem was above such vanity – unless no one was, and her own honesty was the rare thing Leo used to say it was.

   Gem was talking to the woman behind and explaining that she’d “only just turned up today.” If people like her had been there from Monday, thought Manda, it might all have felt more secure. Ambitious as the whole plan was, the sites might have held, and it was hard not to feel disappointed, and a bit aggrieved. So many armchair supporters but not enough arrestables. She realised she was very, very tired. And the government wasn’t listening.

   But Gem was talking about colour and creativity, Red Rebels, giant skeletons, birds with enormous wingspans. Manda could see she’d been paying close attention from home, and was touched by the positivity, but had to butt in.

   “The police took disabled toilets, stage gear, kitchen equipment. They arrested lorry drivers. I saw them bullying drummers. They need to be challenged.” She knew she probably sounded bitter; Gem was more suited to no blame, no shame.

   “But there must be so many among them who hate harassing us,” Gem said. “Parents who are fearful for their children too.”

   Manda couldn’t deny it, and so far she’d been treated well after her two arrests. But Leo hadn’t been confident of the same respect and people like her needed to remember that. Now they were being asked by a Wellbeing rebel whether they wanted anything. Manda’s body was crying out for salad leaves, broccoli, spinach – not another cereal bar and no more vegan chocolate.

   Gem knew it would be a mistake to check the time so soon after ducking in and sticking herself in place, but she hoped they wouldn’t be there after midnight. If Nick thought her reckless she wouldn’t disagree, but she had needed to make a stand for so long, and this felt like the most rather than the least she could do – and had been doing for a year.

   She smiled at Manda giving in to chocolate and began to remove the backpack bulking uncomfortably behind her before realising that she should have slipped it off before she glued her hand.

   “Rookie error.”

   Manda, who had done the same, laughed loudly.

   Gem’s phone rang. Nick wanted to know if she was all right, although she’d already said she was fine.

   “We’ve only been glued for twenty minutes tops. Clock watching’s not the best idea.” She heard Skye say, “Mummy!” and checked, “How much have you told her?”

   “That you’re in London trying to save the earth and the animals and might be late home.”

   “That’ll cover it. Do you want to put her on?”

   Skye was loud. “Mummy, Ganpa bought me ice cream. And sweets. He’s naughty.” She giggled.

   “But kind,” said Gem, glancing at Manda and seeing her roll her eyes. “So did you see the planets and the stars?”

   “Bye Mummy.” And she’d gone. Nick was back, telling her to be careful and he hoped she wouldn’t be stuck in Trafalgar Square overnight with the drunks getting lairy. She told him she hoped they’d be home by then, because Manda had reported rebels only spending three or four hours in a police cell.

   “I love you,” he said.

   “Love you.” She remembered him saying the pronoun made all the difference and wished she could use it as freely as him. Manda would understand if she told her she wasn’t sure she’d ever love him the way she loved Rob, but however long they were glued in this tower she had no plans for that kind of sharing. Turning off her phone to save the battery which was negligently low, she remembered the writers who’d be reading later and told herself that if they were still there by then, at least they could celebrate their front row seats. Although she hoped Margaret Atwood wouldn’t do an Emma Thompson and fly over the Atlantic to rebel.

   “Hey,” said a guy, crouching down on Manda’s side of the tower. “I have chains?”

   “Sure, great,” said Manda. But Gem passed, and felt like the lightweight of the team.

   As the guy discreetly delivered the chain under a blanket, he said to let them know if they needed anything else, and to remember that if it got really late there was always acetone they could use but it would take a while.

   Gem thanked them. Chained around the waist, Manda gave her jailer the thumbs up. She was telling Gem about a piece of theatre involving landing crew in formation, and a friend who’d been arrested at City Airport, when a young rebel from XR Media got down on her haunches to ask if she could interview them both.

   “I’ll leave that to Manda,” said Gem.

*

“What time do you think it is?” Gem asked.

   It was a while since anyone had offered them anything and the hot water bottles provided by a rebel before he retired to his tent, with a wide smile and a high five, felt only warm. And although she’d tried, the so-called music from the open-mic ‘stage’ was too loud to sleep through. Surely it would stop soon, and the drunk droppers-by would find a night bus home.

   Manda checked her phone. “It’s nearly one a.m.” She made sure she sounded neutral but it was bravado. “Sorry, Gem.”

   “If the cherry picker had rolled up before dark we’d have missed the authors. That’d be something to cry about.” Gem smiled, referencing the tears they’d both shed listening to the readings. Considering the deluge that had beaten down on those listening without a wooden roof, and the spray the wind had dragged in on them, they were remarkably dry under their blanket and sleeping bag. But she was colder than she intended to admit.

   “I’m wondering how hard it might be to slip a nappy down inside my leggings,” said Manda, “with my left hand.” She added that she wished her bladder was as young as Gem’s.

   Hours ago she’d told Nick the police obviously wanted to clear the road. This might not be comfortable but this was privilege, choosing to make a statement knowing they wouldn’t be teargassed or beaten, and confident that London wouldn’t be underwater tomorrow. This was solidarity with those already suffering and dying because of climate change and she was tough, as tough as Manda in her own way.

   Manda wasn’t sure the homeless guy who sat on the ground beside her, with his hand below hers but not actually glued the way he’d been proudly claiming, was still awake, or how he’d react if she asked him to go and give her some privacy. He coughed, and lit a roll-up he seemed to have picked from his lap.

   “Excuse me,” she said, tentatively. “I was wondering whether you’d mind moving so I can…”

   “I’m glued on.”

   “I don’t think you are…”

   “Yeah! I’m glued like you.”

   “The thing is,” she said, and lifted the nappy from under the blanket, “I need a wee. So I’d be really grateful…” She didn’t know his name, she realised guiltily. But he lifted the hand in question in a whoah of a gesture and pulled himself up.

   “You’re all right,” he said. “You take care of yourselves.”

   “We will,” said Manda. “Thank you.”

   “If there’s anything at all I can get you, anything, you just say.”

   They both thanked him and he looked around unsteadily, then disappeared. By the time they’d managed to call for a couple of female rebels to screen her where he’d been, Manda was wriggling and shuffling and feeling the same sort of hysteria she’d felt at school when the stiff, male Biology teacher told them to underline Human Reproduction as a heading, then leave four empty pages the girls knew they’d never fill.

   “Mission accomplished, ish. But I don’t think I’d be able to use this unless I was at gunpoint,” she muttered, even though the tightness of the chain around her waist must be down to her ballooning bladder. If their homeless friend came back she’d give him money and a hug. Her two young modesty preservers said if there was nothing else they could do to help they’d be off now, but told them they were heroes, honestly.

   The woman behind them seemed to be asleep and all was quiet above. Manda wondered whether Gem regretted declining the nail varnish remover the church guy had welcomed a while back, in order to catch the last train with his wife. The bottle at her feet lay drained between banana skins.  

   “Does it help being a Quaker?” she asked.

   Gem took a while to think about that. With being glued on for twelve hours or more generally? “I’m better at waiting than I used to be and silence feels like home when I find some. People talk about being grounded or gathered and I sometimes feel a lot more scattered than that, not whole at all. And it doesn’t make the climate grief any easier. If it did, I wouldn’t trust it.”

   Manda said she didn’t trust much these days but she liked what people called the spirituality of rebellion. “That’ll be the hippy dippy side of me. A Gaia fan. I’m learning to meditate in my old age.” She wasn’t sure she wanted to talk about climate grief, not now, and she’d be missing the antidepressant she took these days with her breakfast. Like mother, like daughter after all. And that must be her fault, up to her point.

   Turning on her phone, she found a reply to: In case you should call I am glued to a tower in Trafalgar Square and conserving battery on my phone xx. Sent only a few minutes earlier, it read: Of course you are Mum x and was illustrated with an emoji full of teeth. Manda supposed Libby could be with some new guy she hadn’t mentioned or had only just met, and teetering around in something short and insubstantial like the girls that passed through, curious. Someone had said XR was cool now, but Libby might not have heard.

   “I’ve just understood,” she told Gem, “that Libby’s jealous of you.” Then she felt as if she’d betrayed a confidence. “Because she never connected with Rob, because she can’t be herself with children and we’re…” She didn’t want to presume. “You and I are in this together, and she’s outside.”

   Gem thought about that. “That’s sad,” she said.

   “Most things are,” Manda murmured.

   “Apart from Skye.”

   “Apart from Skye.”  Gem paused. “And trees. I love trees; we both do. As soon as Skye could reach out a hand to touch a trunk I showed her how different the bark can feel.” She knew Nick didn’t get it, not yet. He was too urban, but one day they’d have to move closer to a forest.

   Manda missed the garden James had neglected and then handed over to a gardener with no imagination, but Skye had brought it to life again, and that wasn’t sad.

   For a moment it seemed as if the live music, which she’d really like to put out of its misery, was over. Then it started again, more off-key than ever – even less musical than the slightly crazed laugh she let loose.

   “It’s a mad world,” she said.

*

As light broke, Manda was dismayed by the relief she felt to be surrounded by a ring of police at last. She hoped they enjoyed the improvised song in honour of the residents of the tower delivered by a bright-eyed young rebel with a ukulele and russet hair. Above, the women locked-on sounded remarkably lucid as they attempted to engage the officers in climate science.

   “No one does this stuff for the fun of it,” one added.

   “Oh I don’t know,” said the tallest. “Some people get off on this kind of thing.”

   Manda leaned out at that. “We don’t. We’re desperate. The science made us that way. But I’m too old and tired to string together the words, dates and numbers. They must be young up there!”

   Gem guessed the officer who bent down to look in on her side was no older than Libby.

   “You two must have been frozen all night,” he said, puffing out white breath.

   “We had these,” Gem told him, producing hers.

   He reached out. “They’ll need a nice hot refill.”

   Manda passed hers over too. “They should put you in charge,” she said, supposing the confiscations and bullying weren’t his fault. He said he wouldn’t be long.

   “They’re doing a brilliant job up there,” said Gem, listening to the women share with their captive audience the prognosis that had become so familiar: ice melt, London underwater, unliveable heat, disease, food shortages. “But it must sound incredible, you know? Fantasy.”

   Manda nodded. She realised she might cry. Gem laid her free hand on her shoulder, and just for a moment felt it shake as Manda refused to sob out loud.

   “Thanks for your company.”

   Manda laughed through her nose and had to fumble for her hankie. “All nineteen hours of it! That must be eighteen and a half too many.”

   Gem knew she hadn’t managed her fair share of the talking but there were things she’d only ever told Rob, things she must tell Nick first – about the day her parents died, the drugs that stopped her healing and the anorexia that even now she had to keep shrugging off in secret. She knew Manda considered her quietly together and approved of her parenting, but she wasn’t sure she was ready to be known so fully and unflinchingly, or why Manda wanted to know her that way.

   Manda supposed she had said too much throughout – but then, after all this living she’d somehow pulled off, she had too many stories. And this would be another. It had been Gem who cried, almost invisibly as well as inaudibly, when a young female panel following the authors had talked about Birth Strike and motherhood, and Manda had touched the cold hand that lay in her lap, given it a brief squeeze and dismissed as inadequate everything she could think to say.

   The rubber bottles were back, and hot again.

   “The crew should be here before long,” said the young constable with good skin and neat hair.

   “I would have liked to be home when my daughter wakes up,” Gem told him. “But I’d also like her to live…” Her voice frayed and she looked up above the rooftops at a chill, grubby sky.

   The young constable nodded once and withdrew to join the others in the black and yellow circle.

   “No comment, no caution, no duty solicitor,” Manda reminded her.

   Gem knew what to expect. She just wasn’t certain she was ready.

*

Outside the police station the rain bounced hard but arrestee support were there, two of them sharing an umbrella, offering smiles as they hurried across the road from a coffee shop and asked how she was doing.

   “Released under further investigation,” she told them, giving her name. “Manda Craig is still in there but it’s her fourth time now.”

   “She might be charged and bailed,” said the tall guy with the beard. “They’re trying to scare us into staying away. Have you got time for a coffee?”

   “I’d love one but I need to get back to my little girl.”

   They checked she had an Oyster card and thanked her, which felt embarrassing. Gem was tired but excited now, at the thought of opening her front door and being home.

   “If you see Manda, tell her I’m sorry I can’t wait.”

   The hand that held the umbrella still felt a little stiff with the last strips of glue she hadn’t peeled off and scattered on the cell floor. The torn skin at her wrist, where the cuff of her jumper had been caught, was sore, but she felt good and strong. Twenty-one hours! It was ridiculous, extreme – and over. No regrets.

   Somehow, as the rain beat her hair into threads and beaded her phone screen, she managed to message Nick as she walked.

   I’m very proud.  He added a green heart.

   But it was nothing. Amongst people heading out on a Saturday night, she felt other, alien, unknown. A ghost drifting through walls. But soon she’d be normal again, sealed off and warm, on a sofa with a TV, and trying to believe all this could be enough.

   Afraid to be afraid.

2 thoughts on “The Tower: a new short story to follow FOR LIFE”

  1. ‘Afraid to be afraid’ (but still being courageous and brave).
    I’m not afraid to be in tears reading this. Thank you for all that you gave.
    Putting this into intimate, accessible words which lengthens the experience and continues to give
    and encourages us minute by minute to be all we can be to help all forms live…

    [Excuse the rhyme – still engaged in the rhyming project].

  2. I feel humbled at what you have done for me/ for us in an effort to make people notice the seriousness of the situation regarding the future of our planet. You brave and courageous soul. Thank you and thank you for your story.

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