Parklife, June 2020

This is a short story and another postscript to the e-book, FOR LIFE (which you can download for a donation to XR) about rebels Manda and Gem. This original novel concluded in April 2019 but you can read about them locking on at the October Rebellion here, catch up with Gem taking part in the 40 day Vigil for Life here and read about Manda on Mothering Sunday 2020 here.

Manda looked changed. Gem suspected her of losing as much weight over lockdown as Nick had put on. Waving excitedly from across the road, Grandma Manda was looking only at Skye, who jiggled in her buggy and reached out her arms as if she’d never heard the words social and distancing paired around her. For a moment Gem thought Manda had forgotten their meaning as she began to hurry towards them, but she raised her hands as if to hit buffers just in time.

   “I have a bubble!” she cried, and blew them all kisses – Skye first.

   Aware of others liberated behind and ahead, Gem suggested moving into some space if the park allowed any.

   “I almost went back to James just for the garden,” said Manda, wishing she could unclip Skye, take her hand and lift up to sniff the roses. But maybe she’d be shocked how heavy a child could grow through Spring. “Sorry I can’t hug you, angel.”

   “Sorry our so-called garden won’t fit four of us two metres apart,” said Nick.   

   Manda watched as he freed Skye from restraint and flew her over his head and down onto his shoulders. Her legs, which had lost some of their baby roundness and gleam, looked longer but more vulnerable somehow. What a world for a child to live in. Sometimes she couldn’t think that thought without shaking inside.

   Gem was glad Nick was his usual chatty self and Skye was trying to compete with “Look, Gamma, high high!” and plenty of laughter. It left her free to make sure Skye held on tightly and no one else strayed too close. She was sure Manda remembered that just over a year ago they were occupying Waterloo Bridge and full of the brightest belief. With the May Rebellion cancelled, there was talk of July, August or September, but who knew when it would be safe to take to the streets. And the strange thing was how little she minded being a family of three squashed into a flat or fitting onto a postage-stamp space of grass with stories to read. But someone at work had lost her step-dad and there was unconfirmed news on the street’s WhatsApp group that a neighbour she couldn’t even picture was on a ventilator.

   “So, Manda,” Nick began, “are you champing at the bit?”

   Manda pointed out a sparrow for Skye before lowering her pitch and volume. “The mad activist, you mean? I should be up a tree stopping HS2. I disappoint myself.”

   Gem registered the change of tone and supposed Manda was still on the antidepressants she’d mentioned not long ago on video call.

   “You probably needed a break,” Nick told her.

   “Regen,” added Gem.

   “Not like this,” muttered Manda. “They’re destroying ancient woodland as we speak, and I struggle to get out of bed.”

   “Everyone does!” said Nick. “With some exceptions!” he added, grinning up at Skye.

   Manda told her she was a perfect pickle, managing to find a voice to make her laugh. She didn’t want to talk about XR, and the frustration and helplessness, or the divisions either. Sometimes she thought Rob would have found a safely brilliant way to keep the message out there through all this but she’d never felt so tired, alone or afraid. Ashamed, too, to ask her GP to double her daily dose of happy pill when she had so much: food, a roof and no funerals – not yet anyway – that she couldn’t attend.

   And now, Skye looking down on her and smiling as if the world was full of nothing but beauty and humour and love.

   “Do you think we’ll all learn anything from this?” Nick asked her.

   “I did hope – for a couple of stupid, naïve weeks.”

   “Not anymore?”

   “Not anymore. Boris can’t wait to get us back to business as usual.” Her anger at the sacrifice of nursing home residents gripped her chest a moment and she hoped Gem wouldn’t ask about her, because she didn’t want to admit how listless she’d become since Mothering Sunday resurrected something in both of them.

   A loose and barking dog trailing its lead raced towards them, its owner calling, “Banjo!” and “Sorry!” while she gave half-hearted chase. Gem, who usually had to calm Skye’s fears, noticed her laugh instead, as if invulnerable above them all.

   Gem stepped back, regretting her own anxiety. She must buy masks, whether or not they ever became compulsory. Manda seemed more inclined to befriend the animal than pursue what was usually her chosen subject of conversation.

   Licked by the dog when she attempted to stroke it, Manda heard Skye cry, “Kissy dog!” as she ruffled its ears – not unaware of Gem encouraging Nick to step back as if either she or Banjo would infect them all.

   Once dog and owner were reconnected and on their way, Manda regretted the tensing of her skin as the sun dried her face.

   “My only cuddle since winter,” she remarked, only to wish she could redact that rather than sound pitiful. It was true that until March she hadn’t longed to hug her mother for many decades, not with such ferocious desperation.

   Gem gave her a sympathetic smile, but this was a different Manda.

   “Ignore me,” Manda told her. “I’ve forgotten how to socialise. I stopped the XR Zooms – too disturbing. So much talk and no action. I think I’ve forgotten how to rebel too.”

   “We can’t, Manda.” Gem surprised herself. “Black Lives Matter won’t let a virus silence the call for justice.” She supposed Manda hadn’t been so disconnected as to miss the Colston statue being toppled and dragged into a harbour. “And it’s all the same. Climate justice is racial justice. We need to unite and demand change. We can’t let this opportunity go.”

   Was Nick surprised too? She couldn’t tell as he bounced his rider, which prompted appeals for, “More!”

   Manda didn’t respond at first. She’d cheered at the images of the statue being felled but the protesters would be blamed for any spikes in cases. “Each moment only has room for one movement,” she said in the end.

   “But it is all one!” Hadn’t Manda been listening? “Rob would have been so proud of Bristol but the climate crisis won’t wait.”

   Manda knew. Of course she knew. Somehow their roles had reversed and it made her feel small and old.

   “Nick thinks the brand became toxic after Canning Town,” Gem began, “but…”

   “He’s right. Bloody disaster. Sorry, Skye.”

   “XR used to be cool,” said Nick.

   “Oh come on! This isn’t a designer label we’re talking about.” Gem couldn’t believe she’d been cast in this role: the outlier and fanatic. “It’s way too huge and urgent to press pause.”

   Gem realised she’d offered Manda an unfortunate cue with that last word when she added, “And Heathrow was a disaster too.”

   No one spoke except Skye, who wanted them to listen to the birds, even though the songs they’d heard and tried to identify a few weeks earlier were lost now in human and engine noise.

   “Of course we’re discouraged after October, but we can’t give up.” Gem would have had to admit, if pressed, that the numbers on their local group’s weekly Zoom had fallen. It was no surprise that some rebels had lost faith and heart, but Manda?

   “Quakers are very positive,” Nick remarked to Manda. “They live in the Light.”

   “Quakers live in the real world,” Gem corrected him. He’d only been to a couple of Meetings for Worship since Covid struck, but she didn’t want to feel annoyed or even a little bit betrayed. She’d always known his commitment to rebellion was less than robust, but Manda’s had persuaded her into a wooden tower with superglue on her hands. That commitment had been Rob’s, and it made friends of them as well as family.

   “You’re not really saying that whenever the next rebellion happens you won’t be part of it?” asked Gem, quietly, realising she sounded as sad as she felt.

   Manda hurried towards an ash tree ahead as a couple vacated its shade. She sat, hugging her legs in her holey jeans. Nick told Skye she could come down and run around the tree as long as she didn’t get too close to Grandma. Gem half-expected Manda to reach out and grab Skye as she ran. It was a minute or two before the adult conversation resumed, with Manda’s arms behind her back like a prisoner.

   “Better no rebellion than a damp squib,” she said, throwing the line away but focused on Skye.

   “Better any rebellion than none,” Gem disagreed, but Manda was chatting with Skye as if she hadn’t heard. “Your conditional discharge will expire in July,” Gem told her. “My plea hearing has been postponed twice.” She felt guilty suddenly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your trial.”

   Manda shook her head. “Don’t be soft. I didn’t acquit myself as well as I hoped. I guess that’s why I didn’t convince the judge to acquit me!”

   Nick and Gem both told her, without evidence, that they were sure she was wrong.

   “It was more stressful than I expected.”

   Gem imagined it would be. “You were brave to plead not guilty and go through that.”

   Manda shook her head. “The brave ones were the rebels of colour who get stopped on the street by cops every week – whether or not they made themselves arrestable.”

   “Do you see Leo at all?” asked Nick, following Gem’s own line of thought.

   Manda just shook her head again. “Who needs a man when you’ve got a granddaughter?” Suddenly she rose and pretended to chase Skye around the tree, arms Dalek-like, hoping Gem trusted her not to catch her.

   Skye laughed delightedly, and stopped, crouched a little, as if waiting for her, only to run away as Manda supposed she’d have to trip.

   Gem couldn’t imagine life without Nick, who loved her whether or not Skye was his, and accepted Manda like a mother-in-law. She was pretty sure Manda was missing Leo as well as civil disobedience, and Libby, who’d turned into a great auntie but hadn’t quite got the hang of being a daughter.

   Wishing she understood Libby better – or rather, that Libby understood her, Gem asked how she was.

   “Steaming. She thinks lockdown’s an overreaction.”

   “Ah, like XR,” said Gem. She guessed that Libby on furlough would be bored and cross, and not much fun in her father’s bubble.

   Manda played peep-o around the tree trunk. “She’d be happy if I gave up activism.”

   “But you wouldn’t,” Nick told her, pulling out the aluminium water bottle Gem had bought for his birthday. She liked watching him tilt his long, lockdown hair back to drink, but sometimes she almost forgot that as Rob’s best friend he had known Manda, James and Libby – and Rob himself – longer than she had. She thought of the video Nick had helped Manda make on the anniversary of Rob’s death, a tribute that had gone viral until the trolling drove her off Twitter. Whatever, he was right about Manda. He must be. This would pass.

   “You know when we were at the police station in October,” Manda began, turning to Gem, “and I said I was depressed and they took my Doc Martens because of the laces, I asked the doctor where climate grief ends and depression begins, and he said he didn’t know. How can I tell why I feel the way I do, now, after surviving Rob’s death – somehow?” Then she grinned at Skye. “But I’m a happy Grandma now I’m hanging with the perfect pickle.”

   “We can do this again,” said Gem.

   “Before lockdown started I didn’t really want to go out of the door.” Manda laughed. “Now I could break it down!”

   That was true, in a way, but so was the opposite. Mass Zooms made her withdraw into distracted observation– and once or twice, turn off her camera – and as long as she could walk in twilight when the streets were empty enough to ignore the pavements at least now and then, isolation seemed safe, and London beautiful again. As if within the peace there was healing, but not within her, because the permafrost was melting and the Arctic was burning, and some rebels said it was too late to prevent catastrophe, that the only realistic approach was mitigation and adaptation. Such cold words for a world on fire.

   Suddenly Manda couldn’t do this anymore. It wasn’t fair on the young and she’d lost her smile.

   “I’m going to head off,” she said, “before I crash and poop the party.” Perhaps it was a good thing she couldn’t embrace anyone, because that would make her cry.

   “You’ve only just…” began Nick.

   “It’s an emotional time,” said Gem, fearing she’d mishandled something and hoping Manda knew she didn’t only mean this, now, in a pandemic, but the crisis that had fallen down the news agenda.

   “Oh yes.” Manda circled arms in a virtual hug. She reached into her bag, pulled out a picture book and dropped it on the grass. “Grown-ups might need tissues for that.”

   Gem thanked her, and persuaded Skye to do the same even though she clearly didn’t want Grandma to go.

   “Kissy Gamma!” she cried as Manda waved goodbye. Nick tried to explain why that wasn’t possible just now. Gem wished she could have found a way to stop her leaving.

   “She needs to watch that video again. Rob would convince her not to let go,” said Nick once she had scuttled away, doing occasional sidekicks and hops for Skye.

   Gem thought, she’s broken, but she would mend. She’d feel stronger once she took to the streets again, with banners and placards. All rebels would, and they must, as soon as they could.

   Nick squeezed her hand.

Since FOR LIFE, I have caught up with my characters in a few other short stories to be read on this website:

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