The Prisoner

It had been part of the NVDA training but Em didn’t really know how to go floppy so she just lay down on the road with her eyes on the sky. Her uni friends called her a lightweight because three drinks fuzzed everything, but in a more literal sense that worried her mother, she was an easy load. Four officers had a few metres to carry her to the van, where they carefully settled her on the step. No handcuffs. No Black Maria. Could they tell it was her first time? Worrying for Carl, who’d been stopped and searched eight times in Brixton, she hoped he was back on the grass with the banners and speakers. She was ashamed now of all the things she hadn’t understood when colour blindness seemed enough and grades felt like everything.

   Her ragged home-made appeal to back the CEE Bill rested on her knees. Maybe these officers didn’t know what that meant. What if any of them had read the climate science and ingested it? Could they ask to be sent elsewhere, to prevent actual crime?

   “Are you OK?” asked the young woman who’d arrested her. She had painted nails that might glue on, French plaits and a small curve of studs in one ear. Em was curious. In a different world could they have been friends?

   She nodded dumbly. I was Head Girl. I think I’m in shock. She sat up straighter and widened her eyes to find Carl filming her, his spare hand making a peace sign until he was shooed away. Just a close friend, she kept telling her parents, pretending that was cool.

   Now her arresting officer wanted to know her details but wasn’t she supposed to stay silent until they reached the station? Next she was ushered into one of the seats, behind a guy with a cap, a tattoo that reached out from the V-neck of his loose jumper and a grin he offered as he turned.

   “Hey,” he said. “All right?”

   Maybe she needed a different slogan on her cardboard: NO REGRETS BUT STILL ADJUSTING. Or NOT SURE WHAT TO TELL MUM AND DAD. Of course she’d tried to explain the need for civil disobedience as opposed to emails, petitions and an allotment but they wanted someone else to save the Earth, not her.

   “Have either of you been arrested before?” asked an older male officer who might not be able to catch either of them if they ran.

   “Think I’ll keep that to myself, mate. No offence.” When the officer turned his back, he smiled and showed her five fingers spread on his shoulder. Tougher than Em’s, and browner, they suggested a gardener. “But I’ll tell you why we do this shit. It’s scary but everyone needs to hear it.”

   Uniformed backs were turned but he grinned at Em as if unfazed. “Plenty of time to bend their ears if they take us to the wilds of Essex.” Suddenly his face straightened and his rather bleary blue eyes looked sad, or afraid. A grey-haired woman was helped gallantly into the van even though she looked as if she walked Fells before breakfast. “Respect,” he told her, and his smile was back.

   One of the officers was reporting three prisoners and trying to find a police station with cell space. The woman who sat opposite Em adjusted her collar to reveal the white clerical kind. Her hair was cropped but thick, her jeans patched and her boots red. On her black T-shirt was the XR hourglass with a cross incorporated.

   “Nice to meet you both,” she said, as if she might belong to the Attenborough family. “Love and fierce love.”

   The gardener liked that. “Codename Seed,” he said, as if that gave him pleasure.

   This was how Em felt when she arrived at university: beige. Or even translucent, a shape people looked through in search of someone more interesting.

   “They’ll find me on the database once they’ve seen my bank card,” said the vicar.

   “What do your congregation make of this?” Seed asked cheerily.

   “Ah,” she said. “That’s what you call a long story.”

   Em wasn’t sure she had a story, herself, any more than a codename.

   “Are you always this quiet, Emma?” asked her arresting officer, sitting down behind her. So she’d investigated her backpack already.

   As if she was still fifteen, Em shrugged, with a tight smile, and Seed winked.

As they queued yet again, Seed told the driver he could do this in eight minutes by bike. Resisting his good humour, the officers talked mainly among themselves, ridiculing a superior they shared and comparing curries. Reverend Claire, whose mother was half-Indian and used to dance at Sadler’s Wells, pointed out a care home where she’d planned to visit her father later that afternoon, and sit outside cased in PPE.

   “You could de-arrest the vic,” Seed suggested, “and drop her off while we’re stuck here.”

   “Arrest was her choice.” That was the sturdily unfit-looking older male. He sounded fractious or worn.

   “It might have been God’s!” Seed pointed out.

   Rev Claire laughed heartily. “Indeed.”

   Seed said he was a pagan; Claire seemed quite happy to hear it. Apparently her father had dementia and little conversation but his eyes sometimes filled at the sight of her.

   “I wish my mum was like you,” Seed added, and looked out of the window at traffic that didn’t move.

When they arrived at the police station they had to wait in a chill grey space that was a cross between a carport and a warehouse. A chirpy sergeant ambled out with a temperature gun and Claire said, after they’d all been declared fit as fleas, that thanks to the virus she’d had a funeral-filled summer. Em realised she couldn’t in any case see her best gran for a fortnight after the Rebellion finished. Then she’d tell her all about it; she’d be the one who was proud of her.

   Even though Em still hadn’t managed any words apart from thank you, the silence once Seed was led inside felt instantly weightier. Claire began to ask the officers questions about where they were from, and apologised for their extra-long shifts. Apparently they’d get time and a half and the otherwise-weary guy became animated at the prospect.  Claire closed her eyes and smiled as if she’d fallen into a beautiful dream. Em wondered whether she was praying for her – asking God to make her stronger than she looked, perhaps, or to help her find her voice. I’m in shock, Em realised. How weedy is that?

   “What are you studying, Emma?” asked Claire, on opening her eyes.


   “The mistakes we should have learned from?”

   “Mm.” Suddenly Em wondered whether she’d quit. Focus on the present to secure the future.

   “How will your parents react to your arrest?”

   Em felt her expression of doubt morph into a grimace.

   “It’s hard to explain to those closest to us, isn’t it?” Claire acknowledged. “But you might be surprised how much impact your action has on those who know you.  I do believe public opinion is shifting. People are waking up.”

   Em smiled as if she believed that. Part of her did. Part of her wanted to tell Claire she was lucky to be old because hers could be the last generation in the UK to live a life unshaped and undamaged by climate chaos. It was different now. Even if Carl grew to feel the same way she did, they couldn’t make a family together, knowing what they knew. Could they?

   She could hear another van drawing up outside. If enough people joined XR, the system couldn’t handle the prisoners, the paperwork or the court appearances.

   It was her turn to go inside.

There was nothing in the cell, lit by starkly unnatural light, but a long, low shelf covered with a mat and pillow of thin plastic, and a stainless steel pan without a seat or paper. Plus the kind of tiled walls public toilets boasted if they’d never been refurbed, and buttons to press to call the desk or wash her hands. Em put down the textbook she’d asked to keep with her, with no hope of processing the words or caring what they were. Carl would put the mat on the floor and meditate, possibly upside down. Presumably Claire would pray, and sing hymns, and count on God keeping her company. Em realised she had never been so alone. Picturing Carl with his eyes bright on her and his phone recording her so-called courage, she murmured, “I hope we always stay friends so don’t let this faze you but it seems dishonest not to mention that I’m in love with you.” Reminded of old Hugh Grant sitcoms, she shook her head. As her school-friend Janna used to say when she had a crush on her curate, What are you like?

   Her dad said she’d changed, as if she was meant to conform like him, for money – and as if the world around her was the same as ever. But unless everything changed, there’d be no point any more.

   “Carl,” she whispered, “Stay safe.” But no one would, unless the madness stopped.

   Her door opened and someone different stood there in a mask.

   “We need to take your fingerprints and DNA,” he said flatly.

   Em almost forgot her mask before following him. The room at the end of the corridor was small, and packed with what Carl would call kit. The fingerprint machine seemed erratic, refusing most images before overruled. The officer apologised.

   “It never behaves.”

   But Em always had, up to now. Not a single cigarette, never mind a spliff.  Now she might end up with a record. Eventually she sat for the DNA swab, and then the mugshots. She supposed that for this camera, a smile would be inappropriate, and the point was to make everyone look like a criminal.

   “Thank you,” she said after each process.

   “We like XR,” the guy said at the end. “You’re all so polite.”

   That was a cue but she couldn’t take it. As she was escorted back to the cell she glimpsed the custody desk and the back of a T-shirt she recognised, long black curls in a topknot, a lean neck that almost made her cry. She willed him to turn before she passed unseen. Almost too late he glanced around as he leant on the counter, and she could tell from his eyebrows that he was smiling. His peace sign became a heart space between his hands, and something in Em’s chest tightened around her lungs. “Be just as nice to him,” she wanted to say, just as she’d almost told her parents before they met him, but they thought he was a radical influence, and asked her to stay away from any Black Lives Matter march in case there was trouble. It made her sad that so much of her life was secret now.

   Back in the cell she wondered how long she had been in custody but maybe it was best not to know. The love that mattered was the kind her old R.E. teacher called agape, the kind God would feel for humanity if God existed, which Carl thought likely – but Em was less persuaded than she’d been, on Sundays at least, before the IPCC report. There must be a word for love of Earth and everything that shared it. She realised that if she were in a wood right now she would be in no hurry to leave it. She would sit in shadows, touch the bark and name the textures, let the leaves pattern her face, breathe as if she’d just learned how, and imagine unseen lives above and below. Trees were what connected her with Carl, right at the start of that first term when they both looked up on campus at the same tracery etched by a Crimson King Maple through startling blue.

   Em sat down on the cell floor and imagined it soft and warm, moist with moss. That was a challenge, given the chill hardness through her long summer skirt. Closing her eyes, she looked up and tried to feel the sun and breeze, rejoice and be glad in it. Even though Carl would do it better, with belief.

   Giving up on herself, she stood and sang, quietly at first until the acoustics swelled her confidence. “People gonna rise like water, gonna turn this system round. In the words of my great-granddaughter, climate justice now.”

When someone in plain clothes with a ponytail told her she was being released she realised with surprise that she had finally fallen asleep over her book, but it could have been for two hours or two minutes.

   “What time is it?” she asked, feeling unsteady.

   “It’s four fifteen,” the woman said.

   Twelve hours, then, but with no interview and no solicitor. And what about Carl? At the custody desk there was a new, clean-shaven and unmasked face that reminded her of a less louche Ethan Hawke. The sergeant winced at a hyped, aggressive guy yelling and swearing behind him, and apologised for the noise.

   “Sorry to keep you so long, Emma. We’ve been busy.”

   “No worries.” Well, apart from rising seas, melting permafrost, disappearing glaciers, record temperatures, floods and forest fires. She saw her backpack sealed in large unnecessary plastic and regretted the polystyrene cups of water she couldn’t resist in her cell.

   “You’re being released subject to further investigation. We’ll contact you by post if you are going to be charged.”

   She nodded.

   “When Extinction Rebellion began I used to tell first offenders that they’d probably hear nothing, so they might as well go away and forget all about it, but I can’t promise that now.”

   “I can’t go away and forget about anything.” Em didn’t know where that had come from. Had relief finally ungagged her before she could despise herself? “This is a Climate and Ecological Emergency. There’s a bill we ask Parliament to pass and act on fast. We don’t do this for the fun of it. I’ve been a bit traumatised really but that’s nothing. I’m so privileged. People are dying in the Global South and the Prime Minister of the Maldives is begging for international Ecocide Law…”

   Ethan was looking patient, or perhaps resigned. Perhaps it had been a long shift.

   “It’s… unbelievably serious,” she finished. Her voice faltered. “And we don’t know what else to do to get people’s attention.”

   “I understand,” he said, and passed her some paperwork, lowering his eyes while hers burned.

   Em felt a surge of desperation. When she had checked her belongings and signed off, he asked if she’d be all right to get home.

   “Sure,” she said, wondering what that meant to her now. She put on her denim jacket, but felt no warmer.

   “Your friends are waiting outside,” he told her.

   “Carl…?” Her hand mimed a topknot and curls.

   “Not yet, I’m afraid. But there’s quite a crowd. You lot look after each other, don’t you?”

   Wide-awake now, Em turned to the woman with the pony tail who began to show her out.

   “Good luck,” said Ethan behind her.

   Through the darkness outside the glass-walled lobby she saw rebels gathered around a couple of folding chairs covered in blankets. As soon as she pressed the button to open a sliding door and stepped into a sharp morning, they began to cheer. Seed, blowing smoke from a roll-up, stamped both feet like a Flamenco dancer. Reverend Claire scuttled towards her, with her hands, clapping rapidly, held out towards her. Em felt the stretch of her smile as she pulled off her mask and smelled the coffee. There’d be vegan milk! Soon she was holding a steaming mug and answering questions as the others wanted to know whether she’d slept and whether the clatter of the half hourly check had woken her like a letterbox snapping. Whether she’d been offered the vegetable chilli or made a bad mistake with the baked beans and potato. An older couple from arrestee support wanted her details for XR records.

   Claire said she was getting the night bus back to Parliament Square for the vigil and invited the others to join her.

   “Sure,” said a tall American blonde who might be a model. Her perfect teeth showed bright when she smiled. “All faiths and none, right?”

   “I’ll pass,” said Seed. “I’m going to crash out on a mate’s sofa. Reckon I can walk it from here.” He elbowed farewells with the rest, his biggest smile for Em. Watching him walk away with a raised hand, Em pictured him at the next Rebellion, running to hug her and spin her round like a wild uncle. Unless, forgetting her completely, he walked straight on past.

   “Emma, are you sure you won’t come?” checked Claire.

   “Thanks, but I guess my friend Carl’s still in there. I’ll wait for him.”

   The blonde knew who she meant. “Say hi from Megan. Hope they don’t keep him long.”

   The five of them waved as they moved off, relaxed and chatting. No trace of sleep deprivation, dehydration or stress. It was shaming.

   Millie, the well-wrapped woman in the opposite chair, offered her vegan breakfast. Choosing an apple and a date and cashew bar, Em realised she was happy to be mothered.

   “First arrest, Emma?”

   “Yes.” She was glad of the sweetness. “But not my last.” Both hands around the warm mug, she drank. “This is the best coffee ever.”

   She’d read that after beef and co, coffee had the biggest carbon footprint, but she’d think about that another time. Asked about her course and her parents, where she came from and how long she’d been a rebel, she told a story only Carl knew. How disconnected she felt outside XR and how climate grief had sent her to the uni doctor for antidepressants she had to hide nervously between terms. The words came fast and firm and every now and then her laugh surprised her.

   Millie and Tom explained that they had small grandchildren they looked after twice a week and an A and E doctor for a daughter-in-law so they’d been shielding and could only support rebels this time round. 

   “Are you sure you want to wait for your friend?” asked Millie eventually. “We’ll hang on until he gets out. It’s after half-five now. The tube will be coming alive if you want to get home to bed.”

   Em smiled but shook her head. However long it took, she wasn’t going anywhere.

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