Family

“Ken’s all right,” Gina said, checking the oven.  

   She was wearing her old apron and dilapidated oven gloves, but he’d told her she rocked the charity shop dress. Jonathan was proud of her for making the pledge not to buy new clothes. She lived it all more naturally than he did but he was trying. The bike was getting more of an airing and he had just about stopped craving cheese. Ken, on the other hand, worked out devotedly and tended to glisten.

   “Would you say he’s attractive?” he asked Gina, attempting to find four unchipped plates that matched.

   She laughed. “Only in a business-as-usual way. You know how attracted I am to business-as-usual.”

   Jonathan grinned, guessing he was the proof of that.  In the three years he’d been with Gina, the four of them had mostly socialised in small or sizeable crowds, at Christmas and a couple of funerals. In between, the sisters met up in London, usually for a musical Caroline chose and Gina didn’t mind. The sisters messaged like teenagers.

   “I don’t know him,” he said. “We must have something in common but I haven’t found it.”

   As far as Jonathan could see, Ken saved his animation for ball sports. Jonathan had no intention of mentioning those in the wake of two English teams flying off to Russia to play each other. More utter madness.

   “You don’t have to bond, just let things go. It’s your favourite meal.”

   “Have you warned them it’ll be vegan?”

   “I mentioned to Caro that Veganuary had stuck. And she does fancy Chris Packham.”

   Jonathan kissed her cheek. “They probably think I’m a bad influence. After all, you were a normal consumer until I came along.”

   He laughed as she opened her mouth in good-humoured outrage. She was the driving force, if only people knew it: an action woman. But he was the one who could store the science facts Gina found too painful, and retrieve most of them at will.

   “I’m going to offer to lend them the Greta book,” she said.

   “Good idea. Do you think they know who she is?”

   “Funny.”

   But was it? Jonathan was conscious that their own inner circle, actual and virtual, excluded people like Caroline and Ken. Circles were deceptive. A young woman on a recent quiz show apparently suggested the ‘famous Thunberg’ might be a Sharon.

   “I want to hear all about Jake,” Gina said, adding, “Ellie’s fiancé,” in case he had forgotten. “And what Ellie’s up to. I haven’t heard from her for ages.”

   Ellie was as smiley as her mother and of classic placard-carrying, climbing and supergluing age, but since she’d been flying around the world for most of the time Jonathan had been with Gina, she presumably wasn’t too focused on reducing her carbon footprint. It didn’t seem to stop Gina adoring her. Apparently, Gina had been the kind of auntie to arrange flowers in the spare room, bake cookies and book a matinee. She would have been such a caring mum.

   “Bit provocative?” Gina asked, noticing the XR badge pinned to his jumper.

   “I thought we tell the truth. It’s really a lazy way of starting the conversation.”

   Gina nodded but sighed too. Jonathan wondered whether she’d mentioned to Caroline on WhatsApp that following their NVDA training they’d formed an affinity group, albeit one rather short of arrestables. He heard a couple of knocks on the front door and remembered the bell was still broken.

   Ken’s haircut looked new and expensive, like Caroline’s shiny heels. Once she’d released him from a scented hug, he held out a hand which Ken shook half-heartedly while handing over a bottle of wine in a plastic carrier bag. Jonathan told himself to shed the negativity. Had Ken put on weight – in spite of Caroline buying him some kind of treadmill for what they called their study even though it had more tech than books?

   “Good to see you,” Jonathan said, taking them through to the kitchen where the sisters embraced with enthusiasm and Caroline said the food smelled amazing.

   He poured wine and fruit juice; Caroline was obviously the designated driver. Ken could put away a fair bit of alcohol without visibly or audibly loosening up, which seemed to Jonathan a terrible waste. The sisters were already talking with affectionate concern about one of Caroline’s three cats, but Jonathan hadn’t learned which was which. Jonathan seemed to be inspecting the kitchen, but probably not for the lentil or kale crisps he declined when Jonathan offered them.

   “So how are things, Ken?”

   “Nothing much to report. Apart from a poor start to the season.”

   Jonathan tried to look vaguely sympathetic but was struggling to remember which team was letting Ken down, so he asked about retirement. Ken only said, rather bitterly, that he couldn’t afford to do that early. Jonathan supposed he’d considered but ruled out the option of reducing expenditure. Moving through to the lounge, he guessed that through Ken’s eyes everything they owned was probably overdue for all kinds of overhaul. Or in the case of Jonathan’s own artwork, a skip.

   Caroline and Gina were sharing the sofa. Jonathan and Ken took an armchair each and Ken focused on drinking.

   “We do have some news,” said Caroline, “about Ellie and Jake. They’re getting married on July 27th. One date for your diary!”

   Gina, eyes wide, said that was lovely and gave her sister another hug. Ken remarked that no one had told Ellie the days of the bride’s daddy footing the bill were over. When Gina’s questions established that the big celebration would be in a hotel in Surrey with a string quartet, Jonathan looked at Ken, but he seemed resigned. Jonathan had never considered how much money he might earn, except that it was enough to keep Caroline in yoga, massages and manicures, and long lunches with friends.

   “But the ceremony itself will be on a beach in Barbados!” Caroline’s excitement was child-like. “Just for immediate family and closest friends. Ellie says you’re her very special auntie and she’d love you to be there.” Caroline smiled at Jonathan. “Both of you, of course.”

   Jonathan looked across at Gina and could see her composing some kind of response, but that might take time, or care. Perhaps he should spare her.

   “That’s sweet of her,” Gina said.

   “But we don’t fly anymore,” said Jonathan. “This one hasn’t let me since we met.”

   Caroline opened her mouth in a quiet, “Ah…” as if piecing together clues. “For environmental reasons?”  

   “Because we’re in a climate crisis,” said Jonathan, knowing Gina found this kind of situation more challenging than occupying a road. “It’s the single most damaging thing an individual can do and we don’t need to do it. I’m sure Ellie would understand.”

   “Are you?” asked Ken.

   “Most young people are very aware…” Jonathan began, wishing his own grown-up kids would be less theoretical about it.

   “Is this what they call flight shaming?”

   “I’m not trying to shame anyone, just to tell the truth.”

   “Rather than make excuses,” said Gina. Jonathan knew she must be hating this. The silence felt extended.

   “There’s no crisis,” said Ken, ending it. “The whole business is alarmist nonsense, I’m afraid.”

   Jonathan stared. This exceeded expectations. “Have you been listening to Trump? He may not be the most reliable of climate scientists, I’m more afraid. And yes, the science is alarming.”

   “I’ve looked into this…”

   “On the same sites that claim no man ever walked on the moon and Elvis mops the floor in Burger King?”

   Gina stood. “The food should be ready. Let’s eat.”

   “Yes,” said Caroline. “I’m hungry.”

   “This is an important conversation,” Ken told her.

   “It is,” agreed Jonathan, wondering who would resume it first. “There’s nothing more important, never has been.” He was last to take a seat at the dining table he mostly used as a desk. “I suppose you’re going to tell me it’s a hoax or conspiracy.”

   “I’m sure he’s not…” said Caroline. “I think we’re all more aware these days. Did you see Blue Planet on plastic? So awful.”

   “The climate has always changed,” said Ken, as if she’d never spoken, “but I’m not convinced human activity is to blame.”

   “We’ll send you some links,” Jonathan offered. “From dodgy left wing sources like the IPCC, NASA, the Met Office…”

   “We’re facing catastrophe,” said Gina quietly but firmly, placing a casserole dish on the table and lifting the lid to a burst of steam. “The end of life on earth.” Her voice thickened. “But shallow as it sounds, I’d really like us to enjoy this food all the same, for now.”

   “Oh we will!” cried Caroline, placing a light hand on Gina’s arm. “The doom and gloom can wait.” She studied the dish. “What is it exactly?”

   She made a sisterly effort to sound excited when Gina told her.

   “Not too much for me,” said Ken. “I had a big lunch.”

   “Large for me then,” said Jonathan. “Please, love.” Was now a good time to mention the food shortages that might not be too far off the way things were heading? He could extol the many benefits of an allotment but he didn’t think Ken would be buying any wellies.

   Ken broke the silence as everyone began to eat.   “Caroline said you’ve joined Extinction Rebellion. I’m sorry to see you being conned by anarchists.” He glanced at Jonathan.

   “Ken…” objected Caroline, almost in a whisper.

   “I know the truth is hard to believe,” murmured Gina. “But it is the truth. No one’s made it up. Even the scientists are taking to the streets.”

   “I’m afraid I’ve lost my appetite, Gina,” said Ken, standing. For the first time his anger broke through his laconic delivery style. “I have a headache. Are you coming?”

   Caroline looked aghast. “We can’t leave! I just hate politics. We’re family…”

   “Which didn’t seem to count for much when we mentioned the wedding. Never mind Ellie’s feelings, or yours, when there’s virtue signalling to be done.”

   “Ken, please don’t go,” said Gina. “The food can’t be that bad!”

   Jonathan put his arm round her. He supposed he should be encouraging Ken to sit down and eat up, but it would be a relief to close the door behind him. Except that Gina was on the verge of tears, even though Caroline hadn’t moved.

   “Maybe we can disagree without accusing or insulting…” he began.

   “Or apologising for spoiling our daughter’s wedding?” added Ken.

    “Look,” said Caroline, “there’s obviously a big conversation we need to have sometime but we came with happy news – an invitation – looking forward to catching up. Could we maybe just chat about normal things?”

   Jonathan squeezed Gina’s hand.  Her sister wouldn’t understand that nothing was normal now.

   “I’m not staying to be lectured – or radicalised,” said Ken.

   “Ken…” said Gina, but Jonathan laughed. How could he help it?

   Ken reached out to Caroline, who stood. “I’m sorry… I didn’t realise…” How radicalised Gina was?! Or that life on earth was at risk of extinction without swift, radical change? “I’ll be in touch.”

   “Please! I want to know all about Ellie’s fiancé.”

   “Maybe you don’t,” suggested Caroline vaguely.

   “We have nothing to be ashamed of!” snapped Ken, leading the way to the front door. “You two have been brainwashed.”

   “I could say pot and kettle,” muttered Jonathan, hoping that somehow he still sounded good-natured. He wouldn’t put it past Ken to buy the Daily Mail.

   “How did this even happen?” cried Caroline, slipping on her shoes. “I’m in shock!”

   Gina embraced her. “Me too. I’ll call you soon.”

   Ken said nothing and was first to open the door.

   “Goodnight, Ken,” said Jonathan.

For the rest of the evening Jonathan tried to respect Gina’s wish not to talk about it anymore. He ate for two or three and drank some of what Ken had missed by throwing a tantrum. Then, after they’d washed up in almost-silence, Gina said she was going to bed. When she was upset she often crashed into sleep at top speed; tonight he couldn’t be sure for a while whether she only wished she had. Sometime in the early hours he turned to her with an erection and they made love – on her side, rather sleepy, but warm. It helped.

   “I don’t think Caroline realises how brave her sister is,” he murmured afterwards.

   “It would be easier to go to prison,” said Gina, and rolled over, holding his hand a moment when he placed it around her waist.

   “She’d visit you if you did.”

   Gina didn’t seem convinced. In fact, she seemed to be crying – not aloud, but her chest and shoulders shook.

   “Caroline will get it if you talk to her one to one,” he told her. “She’s an intelligent woman.”

   “But why are they resisting the science? How are we going to overwhelm the government with informed citizens demanding change – as in now – when people like them choose to reject the information? It makes it seem so hopeless. And what about Ellie’s kids?”

   “They’ll ask their parents why they didn’t rebel. And get married in their own community without sticking it to the planet.” He stroked Gina’s back. “It’s not hopeless. They’ll wake up. Everyone will…”

   “Once it’s too late. Maybe it’s already too late.”

   Maybe it was. He hadn’t seen her this way before and it made him realise he was still in love. She’d woken him, connecting him to everything that mattered, and he would do anything he could to spare her grief. Except the kind they lived with together.

   “We keep on keeping on,” he said, “regardless. No choice.”

   She nodded. “Right.” She turned to him and he kissed her forehead, both cheeks. “I love you,” she said. “Now I need to sleep this evening away.”

   “Good idea,” Jonathan said.

Jonathan was glad to see Gina messaging Caroline, until she used the words evasive and a bit empty and put a full stop after them. It was her decision to write to Ellie in the end – not an email but a letter in the post. That way she said she could be truthful but kind, and herself. The reply was an email:

Hi Auntie Gina. I’m sorry you can’t come. You and Jon have principles and make me feel guilty and superficial but it’s all arranged and it’s going to be beautiful. Mum will send you photos of course. My dress is just perfect. Did she tell you I’m marrying a policeman? He’s in the Met so don’t get yourself arrested please! See you on 15th if not before. XXXXX

  “Since when is preferring life on earth to survive a principle?” asked Jonathan, who didn’t seem convinced by the guilt claim.

   “It’s so terribly hard for the young,” said Gina. “So unfair.”

   Jonathan thought of Birth Strike, conscious that he stopped short of recommending it to his own children. “So are you glad we got together too late to have kids?”  

   “Not glad,” she said. “They’d have your thick hair and hyperactive hands, and they might be able to sing a bit.” She underestimated her voice; it was great that XR freed it. “And inherit my freckles. And they’d be activists, wouldn’t they?”

    He pictured them as musicians or therapists, or gardeners. He knew that in Gina’s first marriage she’d associated periods with tears of disappointment, and found it hard not to be envious, in spite of climate models, of friends boasting of grandchildren.

   “Never forget we’ve got each other,” Jonathan reminded her. “Whatever.”

Their hug was long. “It’s a hairline crack with Caro, not a breakdown.” The silence that followed was thick with doubt.

   “She hasn’t forgiven me for putting what she calls our beliefs ahead of family because that’s her religion.”

   Not good taste and good manners? Jonathan didn’t suppose Ken would manage forgiveness even when London proved them right by disappearing underwater.

   “And Ellie… No one loves people who disapprove of them. It’s not natural. Even though I don’t…”

   The no blame, no shame mantra might be hard with Cabinet ministers but Jonathan could see it was easier with an affectionate, all-smiles niece. Only now, assuming she ever saw that smile, Gina would worry what it hid.

Jonathan hadn’t foreseen the repercussions, not all of them. He wouldn’t have found out Ken’s sixtieth birthday bash was happening a few weeks later if Gina hadn’t spotted a post tagging Caroline on Facebook. He claimed relief that he’d been missed off the guest list, but Gina seemed sad and that made him angrier than he’d like. Jonathan really only used Facebook for XR news, but something made him check the next morning and find that Ken had unfriended him.

   “What! How ridiculous, childish and petty!” he cried from the computer in the study, and then wished Gina hadn’t heard because she didn’t really need to know. But she arrived and placed her hand on his shoulder. “Is he moonlighting as a lobbyist for fossil fuels or what?”

   “I’m just worried that Caro’s paying for this at home.”

   Jonathan didn’t think Caroline knew where she stood or drew her lines, but liked to think with a different bloke she could be sitting in the road carrying a placard. As long as she wasn’t wearing her white jeans.

   “Have you talked to her about fashion?” he asked. “The industry’s carbon footprint? Might be a way in…”

   “I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to talk to her, really talk.”

   He crossed his chest to place a hand over hers. “I’m sorry, love. This is painful for you.”

   “And her.”

   A couple of weeks later, over breakfast, Gina showed him a WhatsApp exchange on her phone. It hurts being out of touch and I’d love to see you. Would you like to meet for lunch one day? Xxx

   I don’t know Gina. Maybe if you promise not to talk about climate change? Please understand. Xxx

   “She’s the one who doesn’t understand!” he cried. “What will you say?”

   “I don’t know. I thought about suggesting total honesty and absolute mutual respect, but I don’t think I can manage both. Love, yes, but respect? For a head-in-sand strategy? And then I realised she’d be the same. Love, yes, but respect? For an extremist ready to break the law and obstruct working people?” She sighed.

   An hour later – and then a day later, two – her suggestion that they meet and be themselves had received no reply. By the end of the week, which she interspersed with more attempts to get together, Jonathan didn’t know how to console her in her silence. He emailed Caroline some links, from sources no rational person could disparage, with a friendly message that Gina really missed her. No response. So when Gina was at the allotment and told him to stay in and nurse his cold, he called Caroline’s number on his mobile.

   It rang for some time and he almost abandoned the idea. Then she answered, her tone suggesting she expected a voicemail about PPI.

   “Caroline, how are you?”

   “What can I do for you, Jonathan – apart from joining your rebellion?”

   “Be nice to Gina?”

   “Like you two were nice about Ellie’s wedding? She’d understand if she had children herself.”

   He almost asked her not to tell Gina that, after all the miscarriages she’d had with Brian before he bailed out. “You know Gina’s always nice. And she’s principled. Two reasons I fell in love with her.”

   “Most people can’t afford principles. And we can’t afford the wedding either, not any more. Ken’s firm is in administration and it’s hit him hard. Breadwinner’s pride, you know?”

   Jonathan wasn’t sure he’d ever known exactly how Ken won that bread. “Shit! I’m sorry, Caroline.”

   “I thought you wanted the fall of capitalism.”

   “Caroline, come on. I want climate justice.”

   “Well I want my old life back. And you two think we’re selfish, but I haven’t got emotional energy to spare for the world’s problems. Most people are busy dealing with their own.”

   “Like the people in the Maldives waiting for their world to go under…”

   She waited. Her voice was quieter, but crisp. “Don’t make out that’s my fault.”

   “It’s all our faults but now we know what we’re doing we have to stop, educate governments and force them to change direction.”

   “And clog up the courts and waste police time. Ellie’s Jake had to work double shifts in April. I can’t talk to you, Jonathan. I can’t deal with this now.”

   “Neither can the government, apparently. Look, I’m sorry about Ken…” It occurred to him that less stuff might allow in more light. A little freedom. Ken might flourish.

   “He won’t have you at the English wedding. I’m sorry.”

   What! “But Gina…”

   She had cut him off. Rerunning the conversation, he wondered how to report it to Gina. Or whether telling the truth was in this instance not the most helpful strategy. No wedding to miss after all, not on white sand anyway. He sent Caroline a message: Please, just meet Gina for lunch. She loves you. She would want to help, sympathise and mend. But Caroline didn’t reply. Seconds later Gina messaged him with: Ken’s firm is kaput and a sad face emoji. He hoped that however brief Caroline’s communication had been, it had ended with a kiss if not a heart.

   Gina’s stint at the allotment was way longer than Jonathan’s body would allow but he knew she loved what she called the green peace. Over supper they didn’t talk much about Ken’s crisis, although it seemed that Gina knew very little more about his company than Jonathan had ever wondered. Signal was busy with plans for the next rebellion and Labour’s Green New Deal was shaping into a possible reality. Surely no one trusted the Tories any more, unless they’d joined from Britain First or the EDL? Jonathan knew there were times when Gina would rather talk about Andy Murray, Judi Dench’s latest role or a friend’s flu, but that evening wasn’t one of them. And he did most of the talking, more carefully than usual, mindful that he didn’t know exactly what Caroline’s message had included or omitted.

   In bed she was quiet, her small smiles the kind he recognised as mere kindness. He hoped her excess of empathy would allow her to sleep.

   “I know you’re sad,” he murmured, stroking her hair, aware in the darkness of the shape of her, sensing the mouth he couldn’t see but would like to kiss.

   He could tell she was nodding. “Always,” she said, trying to lift and lighten the word as if something was funny.

   “I know. That’s rational…”

   “It’s the only responsible way to be! But I just want everything… to be all right. Everything! Life in the global South. Life for Ellie and her kids-to-come. Caro and me. Even Ken’s business, for Caro’s sake.”

   “You’re too close, you two, for this to hold. She’ll be holding an XR flag by Christmas.”

   She rolled over to face away from him. “I don’t even think she’s happy.”

   Jonathan hadn’t thought about that and nearly said happiness was overrated but he wanted it for Gina, Caroline too. He drew closer. Would she go to the wedding without him? Maybe she didn’t know yet that it would be an invitation for one.

   “Will you sleep?”

   “I hope so.”

   “Active hope. Ferocious love. Right?”

   “Mm,” she said. He hoped she was smiling now. “Goodnight.”

One thought on “Family”

  1. Thank you for tackling this important subject in such a creative way. I hope your work reaches millions and makes a difference.

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