Written before lockdown, this free short story is NOT strictly autobiographical. The characters are fictional, but I’ve adapted my own experience in court, both as a defendant and a supporter of other rebels, so much is drawn from life. I chose to take various different viewpoints, which was an act of imagination as my own is rather clear!
Marcus Olorenshaw stood on the Central Line, pressed against his wife and pretending she was a stranger. Over breakfast she’d wanted an explanation for his grumpiness.
“You’ve no idea how wearisome these trials are,” he’d told her, but that had been unguarded, a mistake.
“Doctor, professor or vicar? Or are you hoping for a crusty this time? A barefoot hippy for a change?”
“I don’t care as long as I’m spared the speeches. They have to be told these cases are not about climate change. Or morality, either.”
“Just as well I’m not recording this for Channel 4 News,” she’d remarked, looking up at the kitchen clock. “Make them feel the full force of the law!”
Up closer to her than he’d been for a while, he couldn’t be sure the purity of her white hair was natural. Marcus reflected that he didn’t always know how to read her, and suspected the menopause. Irritation prevented him kissing her cheek when the carriage doors opened, and unless he missed it, she didn’t wish him a good day. Suddenly it bothered him that he couldn’t remember what bright-eyed cultural business she would be enjoying while he endured five hours of gritted teeth and fake patience. Sometimes he thought she was less than grateful for the salary he deserved – rather like these activists who failed to appreciate their freedom to set up camp on bridges and glue themselves to government buildings in a country that allowed them a platform.
So who had he got today?
Emerging from the subway, Jenny Marsh saw from the curved and rather imposing building on the corner that they had arrived, albeit as early as Alice had warned they would. The doors were still locked. Jenny put up her black umbrella and tried to share it with her daughter, who hadn’t spoken for a while.
“Are you all right?” she checked, and Alice nodded.
She’d ignored Jenny’s advice on dress code, although the jeans at least had two knees and her hair would look more presentable out of the rain as long as there was a brush in that old shoulder bag. Jenny looked at her phone: not one but two questions from staff who hadn’t read their emails. Sighing, she replied as briefly as possible. Maybe she should have told them all why she wouldn’t be in school. Tomorrow, perhaps, she could announce the verdict at morning briefing. She couldn’t quite imagine the response but the younger ones might be impressed.
Now Alice was looking at her own phone. “Dad’s train was delayed,” she reported. “And he wants me to change my plea to guilty. But I can’t.”
“Well, you could… in the sense that it’s not too late.”
“But I won’t,” said Alice, quietly. “It’s important to tell the truth. Anyway, I’ve spent hours on my documents.”
Jenny had offered to pay for a solicitor so Tony had done the same and they’d agreed to split it. But Alice was adamant that she wanted a voice, her own voice. This must mean her prep was at the expense of her coursework at the very start of her degree. Alice had been so studious before the Climate Strikes changed her. Tony had been convinced she’d fail her A Levels after the arrest in April – and she’d reminded him that a few weeks after he left them two years earlier, their daughter hadn’t exactly done badly at GCSE. Alice was turning out to be less delicate than she looked, even though they were both convinced that on a vegan diet she didn’t eat enough.
Jenny watched her reply to a message, probably from that housemate who’d already clocked up three arrests. Alice had said none of her uni friends could afford the train to London; Jenny hoped Tony wouldn’t let her down again. She looked at her watch just as the heavy doors opened on some steps up to revolving doors and airport-style security.
“It’s necessary,” said Alice, and led the way.
Greg Swift was hungover, which wasn’t ideal, and spoiled the bacon sandwich he ate as he walked underground to Exit 8. For some reason no one could explain, there was only one defendant on his list. Why hadn’t they batched her up like most of them? Such a waste of the court’s time and money. At nineteen she was the youngest he’d had to prosecute so far, and barely looked adult in the bodycam footage, with her denim shorts and baggy Choose Love T-shirt. With luck, and no police officer required, it could all be over by lunchtime. He hadn’t mentioned to Kristof what kind of case this was, not after that bedroom row about the last one with the Biology teacher, the architect, and the grandmother who used to play cello at the Royal Opera House. “I don’t know how you can live with yourself,” Kristof had told him. “In that case,” Greg had said, “I don’t know how you can live with me, so feel free to fuck right off.” As if he could pick and choose, or rewrite the laws of the land. And as if Kristof did any more to save the planet than any other smartass young Londoner who shopped and partied hard and flew to European capitals for stag weekends, football or Taylor Swift.
Greg would rather spend the day with some petty criminal than a girl like Alice Marsh, but he knew the motions now. He would autopilot through them with the help of a couple of painkillers. He stepped over a surprisingly deep puddle, binned his disposable coffee cup and hurried inside.
Serena held her clipboard to her chest as she breezed in to Court Four waiting room and smelled the food. Those arrestee support people were marvellous the way they always turned up with their hummous and French bread, cookies and bananas – and filled the space with chat. The police superintendent was there again, poor chap. Hadn’t he got real work to do? They exchanged friendly greetings before she checked off the defendants’ names, all present. It seemed a shame that in Court Three a young girl was up on her own, with just her mother to support her, so she had a quiet word with a familiar woman wearing an Extinction Rebellion badge and sent her next-door. Serena knew by now how random the workings of the machine could be, how many embarrassing errors could turn up on the day. But it was always nice to see the climate protesters with their warm smiles and old-fashioned manners, some of them all loose with confidence and others, like the Alice girl, terribly shy. A bit traumatised already? It was a shame really but she always tried to make them feel at home, in a way.
Perhaps she’d pop back to the Alice girl and make sure she hadn’t changed her mind.
Alice turned to see her father enter the courtroom and catch her eye with a look that probably meant sorry, although he hadn’t missed much. He looked out of his depth, as if he had no idea how he came to be here, too late to see her stand and give her name, address and date of birth, to hear her asked to speak up. Quiet, her teachers always said, hardworking and capable. None of them ever knew who she was, so when her dad left no one knew how to help. Not that she could have told them. Now everything had changed, around and inside her, and like the criminal justice system, her parents weren’t keeping up, either of them.
The judge was old, and looked as if he’d be more comfortable having drinks with the Prime Minister. He was crisp as toast, but every now and then slathered on a load of butter when he smiled. Alice didn’t suppose there was anything she could say that he’d really hear, but her notes sat piled beside her aluminium water bottle. She tucked stray hair behind her ear, knowing it wouldn’t stay there. She was aware of her father sitting down next to someone with a laptop who could be a law student or maybe a trainee police officer. The prosecution lawyer was delivering numbers. So many Londoners delayed and inconvenienced, so much disruption, takings lost, money spent on policing. Familiar, it still seemed strange that anyone would think it mattered, any of it, compared with climate catastrophe. But it was endless, and she had the feeling the lawyer was boring himself.
Alice told herself she must delete it all, everything but the much, much bigger facts. She must sit straight and keep her voice together, but sometimes when she read the reports, saw the melting and burning, nothing held. As if she had nowhere to stand, to exist, to count on.
She would tell both her parents afterwards, straight away, before they could forget the reasons.
Incredible, people said, about any old singer or goal, film or shoes. It was a joke, because this was incredible, thought Tony. This now, here: watching his girl on trial for trying to stop a madness that was even harder to believe in. Which was why he’d never really believed it, in spite of her, until he walked in to the courtroom and saw her looking so young and serious and incredibly brave.
She’d tried to teach him. Now he didn’t need the science because she was enough. This was more than enough.
Greg had heard it all before. That Sixth IPCC report, Government adviser Sir David King, Attenborough, the John McDonnell statement that would needle Olorenshaw more than most, the claims that people were already dying that were never going to wash as imminence. The whole necessity argument was dead in the water before anyone got out of bed this morning or any other, but it didn’t matter to these activists. They were all so sure they were right – even this girl who could do with a microphone, and looked like she needed a large beefburger and a mountain of fries. He didn’t pay attention any more, not to what they were saying, just to whatever detail he could find to distinguish the individual from the whole crowd. Whether this one would cry – or rather, how soon. How much Olorenshaw would put up with and how much, with well-groomed parents like hers, he’d make her pay. Last time he’d clobbered a Biology teacher he accused of rhetoric with seven hundred and seventy, which was more than Greg planned to ask from Alice Marsh, unless he decided she’d be the type to make a habit of it without a deterrent. It was all right for Kristof to be woke but he didn’t understand. The establishment wasn’t ready to allow people like her to break the law for a pat on the head; government certainly wasn’t, and the Met was still reeling. The whole system was clogged up, like the traffic in London back in April when this girl was invited to leave but made four officers carry her off the bridge, arms out like a crucifix. If Kristof watched the bodycam footage the Catholic in him would see sacrifice, but that was just emotion. The law was something firmer, more rational and dependable. It was what had drawn Greg to it. That and the money. And the feeling of order, as long as there were no cock-ups.
“The science…” she said, trying to project.
How many times! Irrelevant. A waste of breath. He could see she was a good girl but Olorenshaw wouldn’t. “No reasonable people would have behaved as you did,” he’d told the last guilty group. Wallop! His honour was a pompous old headmaster and Greg wouldn’t want to see him lay into Alice Marsh like that, even though her intensity was no good for his headache.
Jenny had told Alice more than once, face to face and on the phone but mostly in messaging, that she wasn’t arrogant enough to dispute the scientific consensus but the methods the rebels used were never going to win hearts and minds. That frankly, the way these activists presented the problem was a bit over the top, too apocalyptic to credit, a turn-off. Alice had a way of going silent, as if she was wounded, or winded, or despairing of her mother’s stupidity. But in the dock, she was as collected as a teenager could be.
“We live in a democracy with freedom of speech. Why was it necessary to break the law to make your point?”
“This is a climate emergency. The normal rules don’t apply. The petitions and marches didn’t change anything and we’re running out of time.”
“How could your actions change anything?”
“This is a climate emergency. We needed to get that message across so we had to grab the headlines, and tell people what’s happening so that they demand change too. We had to wake everyone up, governments, media, industry, even the legal system.”
“By sitting in a road making people late for work, for medical appointments.”
“This is a climate emergency. Nothing else is really… significant.”
“Like the normal rules, apparently. Why didn’t you move when Police Officer Hartley asked you?”
“This is a climate emergency.”
The judge shifted in his chair but the prosecutor continued. “Why didn’t you walk when you were arrested? Was it necessary to be carried by four tired and overstretched officers?”
In the video she’d looked so calm and certain. Now she looked tired and overstretched herself. The prosecution lawyer was pressing her hard and Jenny couldn’t ask to see him in her office at lunchtime for a quiet word.
“This is a climate emergency.”
The District Judge leaned forward a little, fingers clasped around his pen. “A court of law is not a place for mantras.” The way he said the word suggested that he could think of nothing more offensive. “You can wave your banners and chant your chants at your demonstrations, not here.”
Alice was silent. The prosecution lawyer hesitated.
“Have you any further questions, Mr Swift?” asked the judge, clearly hoping not.
“In May Parliament agreed that this is climate emergency,” said Alice.
“You may stand down, Miss Marsh.”
Jenny glanced across at Tony and saw him with both thumbs up and a mouth that bit back emotion, but Alice didn’t make eye contact with anyone as she crossed the courtroom. Honestly, Jenny didn’t know. Had she done wonderfully, or badly? Did it make any difference anyway, when the deal was done?
Jenny had no idea how Tony did that heart thing with his fingers so quickly and effortlessly just as Alice looked in their direction, but she’d never done it in her life. He must be in practice. Alice said there was someone in his life. Of course there was…
Tony produced a plastic bottle of water and had drunk a few sips before Alice shamed him by unsealing her reusable one. And she’d given him one just like it last Christmas too. He didn’t want to fail her again. But this… she shouldn’t have to go through it. Let other activists bear the weight. He’d tried to explain that he’d lose his job in a blink if he were to do what she’d done. It was different for the young with their bright ideals, always had been.
He hoped she knew how proud he was.
Marcus always talked about respect for these people’s convictions but they thought they were above the law, and as good as said so. At least this girl didn’t waste more police time questioning a busy senior officer about human rights. He was pretty sick of hearing about people’s consciences, as though ordinary, law-abiding people didn’t possess such a thing. “So you think the government has it all under control?” he’d been asked at breakfast, and apparently his answer that no doubt they did, and after all Britain led the way in this, had not convinced his own wife. Now that she’d forgotten her outrage at being delayed for something less than consequential in April, she was rather taken with the little Swedish zealot with plaits and an accusing frown.
He was rather relieved that his own son was too busy earning big bucks in the States to sign up to her kind of fervour. For all their eloquence and figures, most of these rebels must have mental health issues. But the father looked as starry-eyed as if she were five and just played Mary in the Nativity play. Did schools still do those, or just wiggle to Slade and Elton John?
Marcus expected Alice Marsh had a speech to deliver before he withdrew for his verdict and he wasn’t going to allow more than two pages of it.
His case proved, Greg’s job was done until Olorenshaw consulted him on the fine. Greg didn’t normally pay attention to defendants’ last-ditch attempts to cram in as much death and doom as possible. But he hadn’t made up his mind about Alice Marsh, who was attractive in her own bare, otherworldly way, and obviously well outside her comfort zone – if she allowed herself one any more than a late-night kebab – but keeping her head above water, considering the melting Arctic. Not too quivery but not flat and boring either, in spite of all those reports from bodies with long names. He’d been half-expecting Olorenshaw to ban notes and would have been sorry to see the girl floundering. She wasn’t, not yet, in spite of Olorenshaw’s own brand of gentlemanly intimidation. This Ecocide Law stuff was quite interesting and Greg had been meaning to look it up. Now she was telling the court how she’d been inspired by that barrister Polly Higgins who’d died on Easter Sunday. Some people said Extinction Rebellion was a cult; Greg steered well clear of religion.
“Three years ago I told my parents I wouldn’t go on any more family holidays that meant flying,” Alice said, and added, “Before they split up,” so quietly that Olorenshaw asked her to repeat it. Greg remembered his own parents’ divorce when he was about the same age and how long it had taken him to stop hating his mother.
“Before my parents split up.”
Greg heard the pain then, the fault line that hadn’t cracked open before. He would have liked to check their faces, the two of them. But Alice Marsh was back on track, except that she’d put the papers down and was winging it.
Her generation. The right to life. The right to bring a child into a world worth inheriting. It was personal now and she was exposed, real. Damaged, of course; Olorenshaw would despise her for it. Part of Greg wanted the old fart to stop her and part of him would be livid if he did.
Kristof would want to know about this but Greg really didn’t want to tell him.
Jenny embraced Alice as soon as the door closed behind the judge. “You must be exhausted. I know I am.”
Alice nodded. Tony held her for a longer, firmer hug, and kissed her forehead the way he used to, a decade ago.
“Time for a coffee round the corner, do you think?”
Alice shook her head. “I don’t suppose he’ll take long.”
Jenny didn’t know what to say. Out came a teacherly, “Well done” but it was hard to feel as composed as she sounded. Because if Alice was right… how did she sleep?
It was the prosecution lawyer. Jenny smiled gratefully but Tony reacted as if an Everton fan had just sympathised over a Liverpool own goal. Clearly surprised, Alice thanked him, and for a moment she became a self-conscious schoolgirl again.
“He’s young too,” she told them as he returned to his laptop.
Jenny had never thought to find out how many of her students were worried about climate change. Now she would be afraid to ask.
It’s so bloody unfair, Tony messaged outside the toilets. Not the money. Criminalising people like her. Tony hadn’t actually told Jess the figure, which was a joke. The judge wanted to punish Alice – or them, her liberal, divorced parents, for failing to keep her submissive. It made him so angry. The law was so far behind reality. Like him. That was where people chose to stay, out of the loop, because the truth the scientists were offering as a warning was too hot to handle. Easier to get on with life the way people had got used to living it.
Jenny emerged from the Ladies first, her lipstick renewed, showing no trace of anything as she rummaged in her handbag rather than talk to him.
“Do you think she can stay out of trouble for nine months?” she asked him as she zipped it shut again.
“I doubt it.”
“We have to persuade her. She’s done enough. Why can’t the adults do their bit?”
He could see that made her cross. “I’m going to write to the Environment Minister. And no, I can’t say who that is just now. And yes, I know it’s probably a waste of time.”
Alice appeared behind them.
“What’s a waste of time? Was this? I hope not. I have to hope not.”
Tony put his arm round her. “Come on, you need a decent lunch. I need a drink.”
“I’m leaving uni. Maybe not for ever but for as long as it takes. Nobody’s listening yet so the alarm’s got to be louder. I need to be in London.”
Tony hadn’t seen it coming but now he didn’t know why. He looked to Jenny. She was the one who bigged up education as the answer to everything.
“No, Alice. That’s too much…” she tried.
“It may not be enough.”
“Look, let’s eat, all right?” he said, managing a kind of smile. “It’s been tough, especially for you, and we need to regroup, stay rational. Enough drama for one day.”
He knew Jenny would agree with that. Alice nodded, and pulled on a woolly hat that made her look fourteen. The court support woman with the hourglass badge came hurrying after them as they approached the revolving doors, wanting to know how Alice was and telling her how brilliantly she’d done. She never liked accepting praise.
“Thanks. I’m fine.”
Jenny looked tense now. Tony didn’t know for sure how he felt, or what he could say, over a bottle of wine, that was rational, and avoided drama.
Now the XR woman gave Alice a hug, gave her an email and headed for the Ladies.
Alice thanked her again. “See you on the streets!”