Following my recent story, The Vigil, I’ve returned again to my characters from FOR LIFE, a novel about rebels available to download for a donation to Extinction Rebellion. For those who don’t know, Manda is a kind of mother-in-law, in spite of the death of her son Rob, to Gem.
Since Rob died, Manda had never quite adjusted to Mothers’ Day. Now with the Care Home closed to visitors she wasn’t sure she should have sent her own mum a card. Perhaps Hamadi would open it with surgical gloves, show her the picture from a distance that meant the pink shape could just as easily be a hippo as a camellia, and read the message on repeat, at increasing volume, with more patience than she could normally muster.
Such a lovely morning. But for once she was relieved to take direction from the Prime Minister and spend the day alone. It was just a day, one that mattered to girls in service who were graciously allowed home to their mothers for tea and cake but meant next to nothing in a health crisis that was a glimpse of a future no one wanted to think about now.
She sat on the sofa, drinking coffee and watching the daffodils outside her flat, remembering that they were really narcissi, which reminded her of Trump and Johnson in a way at least one of them would have no way of understanding. Would Libby ring? Her daughter had joked after the Prevent nonsense labelling rebels extremists that the cops had obviously been monitoring Manda and she was their evidence. Still, they were closer these days, thanks to Skye. Who would have predicted that Auntie Libby would rise to that role with such spirit and calm?
No Zoom meetings scheduled, so perhaps she’d download that novel set in Ethiopia that someone had recommended on Twitter, as a change from Jem Bendell, Rupert Read and Roger Hallam. She knew she shouldn’t be feeling so frustrated and grumpy already, with the possibility of weeks or months of isolation ahead.
Her phone rang, but told her it was not Libby but James. Only a fortnight earlier they’d all walked in St James’s Park, against the better judgement of all three women but reassured because nurseries, like schools, were still open, along with restaurants and pubs.
“Are you climbing the walls?” he asked.
“Guilty as charged,” she said. “I can’t get my head around the idea of not seeing Skye except on screen. How are you doing?”
“Bit bored I guess, but I’m running every evening, after dark.”
She supposed it wasn’t the best time for him to take a sabbatical to find himself. Now he’d be stuck with that self and the only possibilities of discovery online.
“I’m not that bored.”
“But no May rebellion to prepare for?”
“No. But no one is giving up. It’ll happen.” She wasn’t admitting to the emptiness or the attempts to come off the antidepressants, which had been too hard to contemplate trying again for a while. Not to James, who seemed to admire her so-called bravery almost as much as he regretted the part she’d played in clogging up what he called the system and wasting police and court time.
“I thought you might try to convince me that this virus will be the trigger for the kind of change you want…”
“Don’t you want it too? A safer, more just world back in touch with real human values? I mean it’s becoming clear who the key workers are in this society and it’s the NHS workers and supermarket staff…”
“I know. I’m not on the other side, Manda. Anyway, I rang to wish you a happy Mothering Sunday as our mums always called it, because I thought it might not be the best…”
“Or the worst,” she said, probably too quickly, because he wouldn’t have forgotten the first Christmas, the first birthdays, the first celebrations of any kind, however meaningless, without Rob.
There was a moment of silence while she tried to guess the way his face looked, where in the house he was sitting – but was glad it wasn’t a video call because he couldn’t see her uncombed hair, or the less than sexy dressing gown he’d never approved when they were together. Her own face looked older than his, when she wasn’t smiling – and dead serious was her default expression these days, except when being Grandma.
“What will you get up to today apart from your run?” she asked.
“Nothing much, I guess. I thought Libby might come round but she says she’s self-isolating…”
“A cough, apparently. But there must be those about too, and colds, and flu, and chest infections. It doesn’t mean…”
“I know, but without testing… And they can’t even get proper protective equipment to the frontline NHS staff.” Remembering that he’d bought a mask from Amazon, quick off the mark, she tried not to feel cross about that. “Are you shopping for anyone? Mrs B next-door? Libby, if she’s coughing? Because if not, I will.”
“Mm, good idea. I’ll offer.”
“There you are – your day has a purpose now. One that isn’t to do with abs or step counters.”
“Thanks! But don’t worry about Libby.”
He pointed out that she was young and healthy; Manda didn’t mention the amount of alcohol the healthy young had a habit of consuming. Then he said Libby had told him not to tell her because she’d freak. Ah, the same way she overreacted to climate change, Manda supposed.
“OK, take it easy,” he said. “Make a cake?”
“Not just for me!”
“You’re too thin, Manda.”
And a moment later he had gone, sounding so cheerful and normal – normality being her ex-husband’s speciality – that she felt rattled by contrast. Leo would have held her, stroked her hair and known she didn’t want to be reasoned with. And made baking worthwhile. She hoped he was with that elusive son of his, making music.
She called Libby but had to leave an answerphone message. Whichever idiot said there was nothing to fear but fear itself needed to do some serious editing in the light – or darkness – of a deadly virus and mass extinction.
In her head she heard Libby tease, “You don’t know what to do with yourself, do you?” and she wouldn’t be wrong. So many actions in her diary, leading up to May, all abandoned. Manda felt suddenly lost.
She was cleaning the kitchen surfaces – which had recently been getting a lot more care and attention – when her phone rang again.
“I thought I’d call to say Happy Mothers’ Day wherever you put the apostrophe.”
“Thank you, but Dad said you were ill…”
“Just coughing. I bet you had me on a ventilator.”
“People are, more every day, and there aren’t enough to go round!”
Libby’s cough was small but certainly dry. “But way more people just have slight symptoms or none. I hope Boris isn’t about to go full totalitarian; I want to go to Brighton for Easter. And you know me, I never get really ill. It’s your generation and Gran’s that have to be careful. Is she OK? She doesn’t know anything’s up?”
“Not a thing, I imagine.”
“I guess that’s good at this particular point. If you go and see her…”
“It’s closed to visitors.”
“Oh yes. But you could do a Love Actually with placards in the garden outside her room.”
“I think they’d set Security on me.”
“So! Glue yourself to a tree.”
That reminded Manda of rebels trying to stop HS2, and made her feel guilty. Would the felling stop in a lockdown or would that be classified essential? She had to admit her daughter didn’t sound ill.
“I’d better go,” said Libby, who rarely explained why. “Speak soon and don’t worry.”
“You’re the second person to tell me that this morning. Lots of love!”
Having made herself another coffee, Manda noticed a message on her phone. No! Her friend Farah was struggling to breathe and shut away from her own kids. In her little Oxfam diary she’d written, but later crossed out, their plan to meet at the café, now closed.
She sent a message which felt inadequate but added a green heart at the end. Was it psychosomatic that her throat felt sore? She had a vague memory of coughing in the night, between Prozac dreams too colourful to forget, but there was no one to confirm. “FFS!” she said, aloud. What about refugees? The homeless on British streets? Anyone in countries that could be themselves considered vulnerable?
An autopilot scroll through Twitter found a rebel friend up a tree and being illegally evicted with no regard for social distancing. And here she was, doing nothing for anyone. Further trawling offered a reminder of an online XR action for this particular day, and an email to send to Alok Sharma, minister at BEIS, about safeguarding the future of children and mothers-to-be. Welcoming the kind of activism she would normally dismiss in favour of something more physical, social and sacrificial, she rushed off an email, and attached two images, one of Skye and another of herself glued to that tower. Her tweet carried the same pictures until she realised Gem would not be happy, and deleted Skye’s wide-eyed smile on a swing. Thinking also of my daughter, who may choose not to bear children in an ecocidal and genocidal ‘civilisation’. Plus a picture of young Libby, pretty and neat from the start in her gran’s knitting.
Manda felt a sudden conviction that she must see her mother, and not just virtually but through sunlight and breeze. But how, with no lift from Libby and no overcrowded public transport? It must be walkable, given the serious lack of time pressures – although if she was going to get thrown off site before her mother had glanced out of the window, it might not be worth the many wrong turns she’d be bound to take regardless of an app that wouldn’t behave.
And it wasn’t fair to call in the hope of speaking to her favourite carer, but with luck he’d be on duty and swing it if necessary. “Thanks, Libby,” she muttered. It was like an action in a way, but she didn’t need chains this time, or padlocks, a banner or even a tube of quick-locking glue. Just one word typed per A4 card in the largest possible bold font. But before she began she hurried a small batch of muffins into the oven.
It was roughly tea and cake time when Manda finally found her way to the care home, breathing away the raggedness resulting from getting lost more times than she’d admit. Tucked discreetly around the corner from the gates, she surveyed the scene. The front garden looked immaculate as ever, with its potted plants and symmetry and perfect edges, but the car park was almost empty. She could guess the message on the A-board without approaching it. Yes, it was closed to visitors, but she wouldn’t exactly be visiting. No men in uniform on the prowl. So, as long as she could locate her mother’s room from the outside rather than a terracotta corridor… and the cherry tree would help. It should be flowering.
Probably best to scoot. The path led through tall photinia, well disciplined and mathematically placed but gleaming. Catkins swung playfully and the creamy camellia was riotous. Without a backward or sideways glance, Manda hurried on, apparently observed only by a squirrel, until she stopped, smiling, as she found the cherry tree and looked across the grass to an open window that she hoped was her mother’s.
But she could be asleep, or in the lounge. Only one way to find out. Manda approached the striped curtains that didn’t help because they hung at every window. But a familiar tartan dressing gown lay on the end of the bed. The figure sitting looking into the garden looked for a moment too small to be her mother. Manda unzipped her backpack, where CONSCIENTIOUS PROTECTOR was still pinned by two corners and flapped. Was she dozing? The sun made it hard to see.
She put the tub of cakes down on the grass with its note to staff taped to the lid. Then she pulled out the cards and checked the sequence. Ready. She must be two metres from the glass. As she swung her bag onto her back, she saw her mother stir. Manda leapt and waved her arms like a puppet pulled at every string.
Landing, she put her finger to her lips and began the reveal she preferred to attribute to Dylan while her mother stood, her face framed by curtains, her glasses in place. SHHHHH! was followed by HAPPY, MOTHERS and DAY. Then, LOVE, YOU, and MANDA, and finally P.S. I’M and CONTAGIOUS.
Her mother was clapping. Manda hadn’t felt this happy for so long. Not the last time she’d been there with Libby, and been more or less completely overlooked and overshadowed. Not the time before that when her mother had complained so repeatedly about Rob not visiting that she’d almost shouted, “He’s dead, Mum!” She hadn’t seen that smile for a while and maybe her mother hadn’t seen hers either, not a real one. She blew an extravagant kiss. Then to show that this supposed contagion wasn’t deadly – because her mother wouldn’t remember about the virus even if she’d been told – she did a little dance with her thumbs up and waved goodbye, hoping there’d be no bereft cry behind her as she walked away, like there used to be from Rob when he was in Nursery. Never from Libby.
Amused by her own excitement, not too far from elation, she headed briskly towards the gate. She had turned around the corner when her phone began to sing. Just a number, no name. No! Not Farah’s husband?
“Manda, it’s Hamadi.” Her favourite carer was talking quietly. “I found the cakes you kindly baked. I’ll have to check whether we’re allowed…”
“Sure! Your call. I wore latex at all times, unused. From a pack I had after surgery.” He was twenty-six – she’d asked him. He didn’t need to know that. “I know I broke the rules.” But he approved of her more typical XR rule-breaking – he’d told her.
“I saw you. Love Actually? Very nice. Very kind. Your mum is bouncing.”
“That makes two of us.” Manda remembered she wasn’t wearing a bra. “OK, thanks for everything, Hamadi. I won’t misbehave again.”
He’d gone before she could say she hoped no staff were isolating with symptoms, or swear about the government failing to provide them with masks. She put away her phone and wondered if she could remember the way back without too many mistakes. James would call her irresponsible. Even Libby would say, “It was a joke, Mum, not an action plan!” But she hadn’t endangered anyone. And her mother was bouncing.
By the time she’d walked a mile she was warm, her scalp sweating under hair she should really get cut before the summer. If any hairdressers were open. Passing a window, she glimpsed herself, serious face back in place. The comedown. There was no avoiding it, even without a cell at a police station. And if the virus got into that home…
If. What if. Gem had said on the phone that they mustn’t allow the worst of those in. “What if,” she’d said, “this is the turning point and we never revert to the same destructive stupidity?” Yeah, Gem, it wasn’t impossible. But mostly it seemed less plausible than a Richard Curtis rom-com. And worth believing in, all the same.
The little capsules at breakfast had stopped her informing her own walls that she wanted to die whenever the space inside felt too dark. And now the challenge was living even more differently, and staying alive. But what if Farah died, because some customer had shared the virus in exchange for pecan pie before Johnson got round to closing the cafés?
She’d saved herself one cake for tea.