All posts by Sue Hampton

Photo by Gerda Arendt courtesy of Wikipedia - I didn't take my phone!

February woods: a poem

Photo by Gerda Arendt, courtesy of Wikipedia, because I left my phone at home

The Sunday morning woods are soft

with mud and mulch to hush our steps

and stroking shine of shooting green

Lichen’s sleeves glint crystalline

Moss smears trunks upward, reaches wide,

knits high and low

and beech leaves faired by morning light

smile the colour of my grandson’s hair.

The tenderness connects

like the lane-side hedge stripped bleak

and holding on

But when I touch, within bark’s jagged break

the newly-minted gold’s no sponge

And all around they merge –

resilience, fragility,

the man-made thorns that annexe and defy

caught up in life,

the then and now,

lightly threaded with song.

Quietly he says, “The trees are watching us.”

They’re wondering, I think, how we came to be so lost.

Getting Better: a short story

Wes didn’t get to say goodbye to his grandma, and that hurt. Neither did his dad, Daniel. His mum, Anita, couldn’t because she was in hospital too but it was her mind that was ill. Wes and Daniel didn’t talk about it, and hadn’t mentioned her since the funeral Wes had missed because he was “too young”. Daniel seemed to think Wes was too young for almost everything except school, and thanks to the virus he couldn’t go there either.

   When Wes’s granddad rang and asked to speak to him, Daniel whispered, “Be brave”, and Granddad turned on his chirpy voice so Wes mostly said yes and no and all right. Wes did his crying on his own, with the volume down.

   When lockdown first started, Wes’s dad had tried with Maths and understood most of it even though he said it had all changed since he was at school. The two of them had done a lot of P.E. in the back garden – mostly football, which was Daniel’s favourite. But when Grandma died, Daniel stopped talking about Wes’s education and mostly just wanted him to “be good”. That meant no noise, especially no crying. Wes gave up looking at the row of books on his shelf because he couldn’t read the words and Daniel was always too tired for a story. “Not now,” or “Maybe later,” he’d say. Wes remembered his mum saying Daniel wasn’t a very good reader but he was a grown-up so that made no sense.

   Wes hoped his mum wasn’t too ill to miss him but maybe she didn’t remember him at all. She called herself a bookworm and that was what Wes wanted to be. He had been in Reception last time he saw her and he was Year One now, but he had a photo in a frame beside his bed, of him standing on her lap, with one hand on her nose, when he was a baby. In the picture he was laughing and so were her eyes.

   He didn’t remember when she stopped smiling. All he knew was that she wasn’t well enoughyet but one dayshe’d come home from hospital and that would be the best day in his whole life. He’d stopped asking when, because that made his dad worse. Sometimes he was grumpy and Wes didn’t know what to be sorry for.

   At Christmas Daniel said they couldn’t afford a tree and Santa didn’t leave much in Wes’s stocking, just a little scratched car, a woolly hat and a big bag of crisps. The two of them watched more telly than usual and Daniel drank more beer and ate more chocolates.

   “I know Christmas has been a bit rubbish,” he told Wes at the end of Boxing Day, when he’d emptied his last can. “Apart from the card you made me. That was great, that card.”

   Wes smiled. He’d worked hard on it, secretly, with cotton wool that stuck to his fingers.

   “The year’s been rubbish,” said Daniel. “Maybe 2021 will be better. Can’t be any worse, right?”

   Wes shook his head. He didn’t see how. “Mum might come home, and you might get your job back.”

   “Yeah,” said Daniel, “but not till the Martians have landed.” Then he laughed, so Wes laughed too, until Daniel suddenly stopped and left no smile behind.

   2021 had a cold beginning and they had to put another layer on for indoors in case Daniel couldn’t pay the electricity bill. Wes was looking forward to going back to school even though his shoes were a bit tight.

   But after one day of new rules and feeling funny, school closed again.

   “Where’s this laptop the government promised?” asked Daniel, shaking his head. “You can’t learn online without one.”

   “Maybe they forgot,” said Wes. Sometimes Daniel forgot things he promised.

   “Yeah, they’re good at forgetting people like us.”

   “I’m good at remembering,” Wes told him. He’d never forget Grandma and when he looked at the picture of Mum laughing, he could add on the audio because her laugh was like doggy breaths.

   “Why aren’t you a key worker?” Wes asked his dad.

   “I’m not any kind of worker now.”

   The next day a little van parked next-door and Wes saw an old lady jump down. She had had short, stiff curls like Wes but hers were greyer.

   “Who’s that?” he asked.

   “New neighbour I suppose.” Daniel didn’t like the old neighbours, who had gone without saying goodbye, because they were noisy.

   Wes waved from the window and the old lady waved back.

   “I might make her a card,” he said, “and put it through her letterbox.”

   His dad looked serious. “That’s what your mother would do.”

   Then he shuffled off to the kitchen, leaving Wes to imagine the card his mum would make. He remembered what Anita looked like in sharpie. Because he had an idea that she’d draw flowers, he tried to do that too, on a piece of paper from his drawing book. The pen made the stems too fat and when his dad came back he said, “Lollipops? Nice.”

   Wes printed his name inside with a W that looked like it was falling over. His dad did a kind of squiggle and wrote 14 so she would know who sent it. Wes wanted to post it through her letterbox all on his own, so Daniel watched him run next-door, crouch down low to feed it through and then run back. Then he ruffled his curly hair but Wes didn’t know why.

   It rained all morning and Wes practised drawing flowers so he could show his mum when she came home. He could tell his dad was fed up from the way he huffed slowly in front of the telly and changed the channel a lot. Nothing really happened, apart from a white cat dashing across the garden so fast that Daniel missed it. But it was Wes’s favourite soup for lunch: creamed tomato. Daniel tried to wipe his mouth afterwards and Wes protested that he wasn’t a baby.

   When the rain finally stopped, Wes went into the garden where the grass was long but muddy. Suddenly he heard an upstairs window open next-door and saw a red sleeve lean out to shake a yellow duster.

   “Hello!” she called. “I’m Mrs Hall and you must be the artist called Wes. That was so kind. Please thank your mum and dad for me.”

   “Mm,” said Wes. It felt rude to shout.

   “I can tell we’ll be friends,” she told him, and waved goodbye as she closed the window.

   Wes missed friends and Daniel couldn’t afford a dog or a cat, but he couldn’t see how he could play with Mrs Hall, even if she was fit and fast, because of the virus.

   Over the next few days they exchanged a few waves. On a cold but dry morning he saw her hanging out her washing, so he put on his wellies and went outside. Because he knew she couldn’t see him through the fence, Wes went to the pound-sized hole in one section and squinted through it. He felt like a spy, but a friendly one.

   “Are you there, Wes?” she asked.

   “Yes! Have you got X-ray eyes?”

   She laughed. “Just good ears!” She wiggled hers.

   She asked him a few questions about school and learning but there wasn’t much to say about that so she wanted to know what he liked best.

   “Drawing,” he said, “and elephants and whales and chocolate cake.”

   “I call that excellent taste,” she said, before she shivered and went indoors.

   After dark that afternoon, Wes heard something come through the letter box. They never had proper post with handwriting on the envelope, and this handwriting was big and bright blue. He took it to his dad, who just stared at it before he put it on the kitchen worktop.

   “Aren’t you going to see who it’s from?”

   “Later,” said Daniel. “My eyes are tired.” It sounded as if all of him was tired but they hadn’t even had tea yet.

   At Wes’s bedtime, the letter was still where he’d left it. Wes didn’t like to mention it again or his dad would say he was nagging, but he thought he knew who it was from. Mrs Hall. That was why it had no stamp. He wished he knew what it said. He was just going upstairs when there was thud as a book landed on the doormat. It had whales all over the cover, and when he opened it up there were pages with tabs to pull and make them swim, or dive or leap out of the water. A little bit of paper dropped to the floor, with handwriting in the same blue pen. A present from Mrs Hall, and it wasn’t even Christmas! Wes took it up to bed and looked at it under his duvet with a torch.

   Suddenly his dad opened the door. “Hey! What are you doing?”

   Wes showed him the book but he didn’t seem very pleased. “I hope she’s not a busybody,” he said.

  “I think she’s very busy,” Wes told him, because she’d said she was going to bring her garden back to life.

   “Ha,” said Daniel, and ruffled his curls again. “Go to sleep now.”

   Wes imagined his mum getting excited and reading the book to him, whatever the time was.

   In the morning, Wes found Mrs Hall’s letter in the kitchen bin – the whole letter, still in its envelope. He took it out, unfolded the paper and tried to give it to Daniel when he came out of the bathroom in his dressing gown.

   “Leave it, Wes, all right?”

   “It might be important. Why don’t you see?”

   Daniel sighed. “I left that stuff to your mum.”

   “But she’s not here!” cried Wes, his voice rising and folding in.

   “I know that! You think I don’t know?” Daniel’s voice rose too, but then he muttered, “My reading’s not the best. You know that!”

   He looked to Wes as if he might cry and Wes wouldn’t know what to do if he did so he just said, “Never mind, Dad,” and took the letter to the recycling bag.

   A couple of days later, when he saw Mrs Hall washing her car, he hurried outside, leaving the front door open and hoping Daniel wouldn’t notice because he was watching football.

   He thanked her for the book and she said she hoped he liked it, and that she had a few more he might enjoy in a box she needed to unpack.

   “From my teaching days,” she said. “Did your dad find my letter?”

   Wes hesitated. “He doesn’t know what it says.”

   “Ah.” Mrs Hall nodded to herself and gave her car quite a fierce scrub. She didn’t say anything for a while. “I’m selling this and getting me a cargo bike.”

   “Cool,” said Wes. He had an idea. He knew Daniel’s phone number by heart so he told her what it was and she put it on her phone.

   “I’ll call him and explain,” she said.

   Wes hoped his dad wouldn’t mind. He ran back inside and waited for the sound of Daniel’s ring tone. It still hadn’t rung by the evening and he wondered whether his dad had paid the bill. Then, as he closed his eyes, he heard it over the telly. He crept out onto the landing to listen because Daniel was standing in the hall. But he wasn’t saying anything and he had one hand on his head.

   “We don’t need charity,” he said in the end. “Thank you very much.”

   Wes didn’t understand, but his dad went back to the telly so he couldn’t ask. Getting back into bed, he felt sad enough to cry but he didn’t want to start because sometimes it was hard to stop. Then there was a knock on the door because the doorbell didn’t work. Wes crept onto the landing again.

   “I’m sorry but I think there’s been a misunderstanding.” That was Mrs Hall’s voice. He tiptoed round to the top of the stairs, and saw Daniel opening the door and stepping outside. All Wes could do was lie in bed and guess what they were saying – until he heard the door close and his dad climbing the stairs.

   “I thought you were snooping,” Daniel said, but not crossly. “You’d better come downstairs and I’ll tell you what your friend Mrs Hall had to say.”

That was how the lessons began. Mrs Hall was a fun teacher. She lent him a laptop she didn’t need, and a tiny camera to clip on top of it, so that she could talk to him on screen from next-door, with the alphabet and songs and pictures. And mostly with her cat Snowflake on her lap, listening. Or sleeping. When she gave Wes more picture books sometimes he could nearly tell what some of the words said. And soon reading didn’t seem so hard.

   “You’re a superfast learner,” Mrs Hall told him.

   Wes thought how pleased his mum would be. He still did P.E. with Daniel, and sometimes he had a lesson from his old classroom, and spoke to his teacher, who said she was amazed at his reading and he was an absolute star. Mrs Hall didn’t believe in homework but she made him games to play and gave him a globe so he could find some of the countries in the world. She invited him to come and explore her garden, where she’d labelled the grass and a holly bush, and the bird feeder, the nest box and a sandpit. And he had to point to Snowflake’s head and tail and whiskers and paws. Mrs Hall stayed on the other side of the patio door, giving him directions like: “Two steps forward, one to the left… what do you see?”

   He scattered some wildflower seeds at the end of her garden and she gave him some to take home and plant in his own, to make the bees happy.  Sometimes, when it wasn’t too cold, he put on his coat and beanie hat and she taught him through the patio door, while he sat in a garden chair at a little garden table, and Snowflake watched as if he was learning too. One day Wes told her about Grandma, and another time he drew a picture of Anita and wrote Mum is illwith an arrow pointing to her head. Mrs Hall was always kind, but she said it was all right to be sad, and the important thing was to keep on loving.

   By the time it was safe to go back to school, Wes felt taller on the inside. It was good to have children to play with, and he took the white cat Mrs Hall had knitted for him so he didn’t miss Snowflake. Reading made it easy to find out things and every day he brought home a different story to read to Daniel, who didn’t seem to mind.

   One day when Daniel met him in the playground, he said he had a surprise for him.

   “Is it Mum?”

   Daniel looked sad for a moment. “Not Mum, but it’s a good surprise.”

   As soon as they arrived home, Daniel pulled Wes’s reading book out of his folder.

   “Make yourself comfortable then,” he said, patting the sofa and sitting down next to him. He opened the book and started to read it out loud, turning to Wes and grinning between sentences. Wes’s mouth fell open and he bounced on the sofa.

   “Dad!” cried Wes. “Your reading IS the best!”

  “Yes well,” said his dad. “We had a good teacher – your Mrs Hall. Not such a busybody after all.”

   Wes bounced again. “She’s been double busy!”

   “We’ll have to find a way to thank her,” said Daniel, “when this virus is over with.”

   “You could teach her to play football!”

   Daniel laughed so happily that it made Wes stare because he hadn’t really remembered what that laugh sounded like.

   “Yeah, if that’s what she wants. Anything we can do, we’ll do it, right?”

   “Make her a chocolate cake like Mum’s.”

   “Mm.”

   “And help her eat it.”

   Daniel laughed again and Wes laughed too. They agreed that after tea they’d do some more reading together and Daniel said there was a word game Mrs Hall had made that they could both play.

   “You won’t beat me!” cried Wes, even though he wouldn’t mind losing one bit.

   They headed into the kitchen. Wes thought his dad had a different walk as well as a different face.

   “Tell you what, Wes, when Mum comes home she’s going to be proud of us.”

   “Well, well, well proud,” said Wes.

   Tea was going to be curry. Daniel was stirring in the spices and singing, “Lean on me” when his phone rang and Wes passed it to him. He wiped his hand on his jeans.

   “Hello?” said Daniel. “Yes it is. Any news?”

   Listening, he sucked in his lips and his chest lifted. Doctor, he mouthed. He looked at Wes, reached for his hand and squeezed it hard.

“Yes! Yes!” Daniel smiled as if that was hard to do. Still he waited. Then Wes could hear that there was a different voice on the phone. His mouth opened in a question but he thought he knew the answer.

   “We can tell her now,” Daniel said.

Pangolins are special: a story

Pangolins are not party animals. They mostly live alone. But they’re always ready for creatures that might bother them, because they have their own armour and they wear it full-time. So pangolins aren’t easily scared. They grow up feeling tough.

   When Pinpan was born he was extra-small. He was no longer than an avocado, skinnier and not much heavier. His baby scales were white and soft, but they soon hardened. For a while his mother fed him in the burrow, and if she smelled or heard anything that worried her, she wrapped her body right around him and sealed it up like a spiky parcel. Pinpan clung to his mother’s tail when she moved around. He felt safe and snug, and he wasn’t ready to investigate the outside world, not yet.

   The first time Pinpan left the burrow he rode on his mother’s back. He liked the outside air: the smells in it, and the feel of it on his face. It made him frisky.

But when he waved his tail at a furry animal swinging from a vine, his mother shook her head at him.

   “Pinpan,” she said, “Pangolins are shy.”

   “Oh,” said Pinpan, disappointed.

   He was looking forward to making friends. Pinpan was still small but suddenly he felt brave as well as hungry. It was fun to catch wriggly ants on his long sticky tongue, and he felt very grown-up when he swallowed stones too, so that (conveniently) they could grind up the ants inside him. The world around him seemed enormous and exciting. Soon Pinpan didn’t need his mother anymore and he couldn’t wait to explore.

   “Pinpan,” said his mother, “You have a lot to learn.”

   “Yay!” cried Pinpan. He hurried off to start learning, but his mother called him back.

   “Not from me,” said his mother. “It’s time you visited Grandma Pangolin. She was once an adventurer. She can teach you what to fear.”

   “No she can’t,” said Pinpan, feeling bigger than a pangolin could ever be. “I’m not afraid of anything.”

   “That’s why you need to see Grandma Pangolin,” his mother told him. “Follow me.”

   When they reached her burrow, Pinpan’s mother told him to keep his senses wide open and pay attention, because it was “full of surprises!”

   She turned tail and left him to make his way in. The burrow was a deep one, and Pinpan sniffed new smells as he clawed and shuffled down and down… until he smelt Grandma Pangolin, and heard her call his name.

   “Pinpan,” she said. “Settle down. You’re very bouncy. I used to be eager to meet the world, just like you, but the world doesn’t always wear a smile, you know.”

   “I do,” said Pinpan, “on the inside. It might not show.”

   Grandma Pangolin nodded. She might be smiling but Pinpan couldn’t tell. “Pangolins are special,” she said. “Sadly, pangolins are not the only creatures that think so.”

   Pinpan was puzzling over that when Grandma Pangolin batted something towards him with her tail. It felt light and a bit squishy, and Pinpan could smell just a hint of sweetness. Just as his tongue shot out, Grandma swiped it out of reach.

   “Humans,” she said. “They carry things, empty them and dump them. I’ve seen a stream where hundreds of these squishy tubes bob and bump around each other so the water can’t flow, can’t breathe. And they don’t die into the earth like flowers. They live forever.”

   “Humans live forever?” asked Pinpan.

   “No, Pinpan, these things humans make. Not just tubes but all sorts.”

   “Why?” asked Pinpan. “Why do they make them, and dump them?”

   Grandma Pangolin shook her head and tapped it with a claw.

   “You mean humans are silly?”

   Grandma nodded slowly, as if her head felt heavy all of a sudden. “And they grind nasty, angry smells into the air when they ride around on wheels, and spill black poison on the ground.”

   That did seem silly. For the first time, Pinpan noticed that Grandma Pangolin was sitting comfortably inside a big black ring with a fiery smell. She told him it came from a wheel.

   “Yuk,” said Pinpan, because his tongue had accidentally stroked it and he didn’t like the taste.

   “Keep away from wheels,” said Grandma Pangolin.

   “But I’m tough,” said Pinpan, proud of his scales and showing her how quickly he could tuck his head under his front legs and make a ball.

   “Tough enough for lions, maybe. But not when it comes to humans,” she told him.

   Pinpan didn’t like the sound of humans, but he wasn’t scared of them all the same. Especially if they were so silly.

   “Can I go now, Grandma?” he asked, impatiently.

   “I’ve one more thing to show you,” said Grandma Pangolin, “and it isn’t pretty.”

   With her tail she pushed something towards him – something that clattered a little, and smelt familiar. Lots of things, in fact, piled up like an anthill. It was a heap of pangolin scales.

   “They’re so pretty,” said Pinpan. “Pangolins are beautiful.”

   “Indeed we are,” agreed Grandma Pangolin. “When we wear our scales. They belong to us and we need them.”

   Pinpan didn’t understand. No pangolin would take off its scales. That would hurt and it wouldn’t be at all safe. He couldn’t imagine what he’d look like without his but it made him feel quite ill when he tried.

   “Where’s the pangolin,” he asked, “without its scales? Is it alive?”

   Grandma Pangolin just sighed.

   “Humans?” he guessed. All the bounce had gone from his voice.

   “Humans,” said Grandma Pangolin.  

   “But why?”

    Grandma Pangolin tapped the side of her head with her claws and shook it sadly. “They think we’re special…”

   “When we’re dead?” mumbled Pinpan.

   “Exactly, little one. So now that you know the worst,” said Grandma Pangolin, “don’t forget it. Humans aren’t safe.”

   Pinpan thought, I’m not scared of humans. Whatever they are, wherever they are, whatever they do. But he didn’t say so. He just thanked Grandma Pangolin and left the burrow much more slowly than he’d arrived. Perhaps he wouldn’t start exploring just yet. It was snuggly in his mother’s burrow, after all. Maybe he would dig his own quite close by.

   For a few weeks Pinpan got used to being alone in the world above ground, and sniffing all the green growth. He got used to the smells and sounds of the creatures that flapped in the air and the bendy creatures without legs that slid along the ground like water. He kept himself to himself, except when there were ants to eat. Then, just as he was beginning to think maybe he was shy after all, and staying safe was a good plan for a sensible pangolin, everything changed.

   Pinpan had heard plenty of animal noises but not this one. It sounded sharp on the air, and fast. He could hear four feet running, and smell fur and a drippy tongue. And there were different noises, higher in the air, from other creatures that sounded bossy. Pinpan supposed he could hide in a hollow tree but his own burrow was best. Thinking about Pikpa, a fine young pangolin he’d sniffed around here not so long ago, he hoped the humans had useless noses. Maybe that was why they brought the furry animal with them, to trail pangolin scent.

   Pinpan was still heading home when he smelt something else, something bad. It was the bitterness of smoke. Then he heard a sound he knew well – not a pangolin grunt or snort but a huff that meant help. It burst out of the ground as if a pangolin had been dragged from its burrow. Next there was a thwack that made Pinpan shudder. Not far away, the earth shook with footsteps that pangolin feet couldn’t make. There was a rattling and clicking and he could tell from the huff that followed that a pangolin wasn’t safe in her burrow but trapped, and… swinging in the air? Hanging, but not from a tree? Where were they taking her?

   Humans! Grandma Pangolin had warned him, and she had been right. Pikpa was in danger, but what could Pinpan do?

   Now Pinpan recognised another smell. As he remembered the black bendy ring in Grandma Pangolin’s collection, he heard wheels spin and grind. Somewhere above them there was bumping and sliding, and rattling. If only pangolins had teeth, Pikpa could bite her way free. But they were taking her away, faster than a pangolin could run. Then dust sprayed up as the wheels stopped, as if stuck on a rock. The humans didn’t sound happy, but then neither did Pikpa.

   All the human noise was useful. It muffled the sound of Pinpan scampering at top pangolin speed towards the thing on wheels. He flung his scaly body up just high enough to cling on underneath. Wrapping his tail around it, he held tight just as a groaning became a roaring. The world began to rush past Pinpan, dust clouding and everything green streaking along as if all the trees and bushes were joined together in one. So many smells passed by his snout: water, sweetness, tasty ants scratching about below him, out of reach. And he had no idea where he was being taken, or what he could do when he arrived. He hoped the drippy, furry, noisy creature with the humans couldn’t tell the scent of one pangolin from another.

   He supposed this was an adventure.

The girl didn’t speak one word on the way to the market. Instead she pretended to be asleep, like her uncle’s dog. She hadn’t wanted to go with them, however much money her father said they could make, because pangolins were strange and wonderful, and people should leave them alone. Pangolin scales couldn’t be magic cures for anything. Her mother said they were just like fingernails and no one would pay big money for those.

   “It’s putting pangolins in the markets with bats and all sorts that made people ill,” her mother had told her, because she’d heard it on the radio from a scientist. “Your father will catch the virus and we’ll all die. Money won’t save us.”

   The girl didn’t want to die but she really didn’t want to help catch pangolins, for their scales or for their meat, virus or no virus.

   “Stop sulking,” said her father.

   No, thought the girl. Not until you stop this. It’s wrong and it’s a crime and what if we both end up in prison? But she said nothing, and made a little snoring sound as she turned her head away. She remembered her mother saying it wasn’t her father’s fault. She blamed the rich people in other countries, with their big houses, fancy clothes, fast cars and silly ideas. They were the ones who turned pangolin scales into treasure and poor men into criminals.

   The girl would never do this again. She didn’t want to go to the horrid market and see animals shut in little cages or hear them struggling and crying out. Part of her wanted to jump off the truck and run away.

   There was a jolt and the rattly old truck lurched. Her uncle’s dog barked. The truck stopped and her uncle began to shout. Her father shouted back.

   “Get out,” he told her, trying the engine.

   The girl jumped down. It was when she sat on scrubby grass at the foot of a tree that she saw something underneath the truck. It was something the two men mustn’t see, or the dog either. The little pangolin must have hung on all this way to try to rescue the others in the back of the truck. And he would need some help. But what if her father and uncle spotted the pangolin on their way round the side of the truck to lift the bonnet and look at the engine? They’d celebrate their luck! He would be one extra pangolin to beat into a ball and shut in a cage where it had no room to stretch.

   The girl sat down beside the truck, right in front of the clinging pangolin, hoping her body hid it completely. The men were too busy arguing to notice her. Once they had their heads under the bonnet, quarrelling over what was wrong with the engine and whose fault it was, she climbed as lightly as she could onto the back of the truck. She picked up a cage in each hand and carried them between trees. There she set them down and unfastened the lids so the scaly animals could squeeze out and scamper away.

Pinpan knew Pikpa was still above him in the back of the truck because he could smell her. Using his tail, he climbed up from underneath the truck until he was high up in the trailer. Carefully, firmly, he began to nudge the box with his snout. When it reached the side of the trailer all he had to do was tip it until it fell over the edge. As the cage fell onto the grass, the furry animal with the fat tongue yelped and jumped about on the car seat. But it was shut inside. Pinpan jumped down and nudged the cage further away towards the bushes. His snout was so low and so busy that it was a while before he realised he was looking at two smooth, furless feet.

   “What’s going on?” cried the girl’s father. “What’s all the noise?”

   “And what’s wrong with the dog?” asked her uncle.

   “I think I saw a lion!” the girl cried, standing in front of the pangolins – the brave one who had just landed and the one still trapped in a cage.

   “No!” said her father, as if it was a question.

   The dog was barking wildly. The girl held herself, arms crossed, and shook as if she was as terrified. She pointed in the other direction, away from the pangolins, where there were bushes tall and wide enough to hide a lion. Her uncle was still working under the bonnet but her father looked nervously for a glimpse of a golden brown mane or tail. The girl started to whimper as if she’d seen both.

   “Try the engine now!” her uncle told her father. “Let’s get out of here.”

   The moment her father hurried into the driver’s seat, the girl unfastened the catch on the lid of the cage. The scaly prisoner scrambled free. Beside the pangolin that had pushed her cage out of the truck, she scampered away. Their tails waved behind them as they ran, but the girl dared not watch, or smile. As her father pushed the truck from behind, the engine came to life at last.

   “Get in!” yelled her father, and she climbed up beside him.

   “She must be right about the lion,” said her uncle. His dog, still barking, was looking frantically into the forest.

   The girl looked back too. She was hoping the pangolins were far away, out of sight and out of danger. Before long, the dog settled as the truck trundled along, and the men relaxed, talking about the money they would make for the three pangolins they’d caught. Not far to the market now…

   The vehicle that blocked their way was as dangerous as a lion. Out of it stepped two men in uniform who said they needed to search the truck. The girl saw the panic in her father’s eyes, and her uncle’s too, in spite of their fake smiles. Another man in uniform stood tall beside the truck, guarding them with a gun at his waist. The girl saw sweat shine on her father’s forehead. She knew he thought they would soon be under arrest, and thrown into prison.

   “Not the girl,” he told the warden. Leaning his head out of the window he called back to the others. “It wasn’t my daughter’s fault.”

   “What wasn’t?” asked the warden, frowning as he walked back to the front of the truck. “There’s nothing in the back,” he told the others. “Not so much as a single pangolin scale.”

   “Pangolins?” cried the girl’s father, who really did sound surprised. “Of course not.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his wrist.

   “I love pangolins,” said the girl. “They’re magical.”

   Her father and uncle nodded as if they agreed.

Pinpan waved goodbye to Pikpa with his scaly tail. Perhaps they’d meet again one day.

   “Thank you!” she said, with a friendly grunt.

   Pinpan felt suddenly shy, and tired. He’d had an adventure but he was glad it was over. He’d learned so much since he left his burrow, and now he had something important to tell Grandma Pangolin.

   Humans weren’t all the same. They weren’t as special as pangolins but some of them were wise, and almost as brave.

On gratitude and keeping it real

I thought it was odd to talk about practising gratitude, as if it was an instrument or language, until I realised that it requires practice because it’s hard to learn. Now especially there must be millions of people in the UK whose capacity for gratitude has slackened for lack of practice, and I’m no exception. I also feel uncomfortable with gratitude along Band Aid lines, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.” I don’t want to be grateful if that means selfishness and othering, a kind of crowing or smugness. Gratitude isn’t worth practising unless it honours suffering, and stems from empathy. Unless it has a wide and generous embrace. It has to be a way to give as well as receive.

So if I’m grateful to be with someone I love dearly, both always and during a pandemic, I must be mindful of those who are alone, or betrayed, abused or diminished by a partner – and that they may not want my pity any more than my delight in my good fortune or blessing. I’m thankful for my children and grandchildren, but they’re a joy many haven’t known and joys can’t be cruel, careless or crass. And sometimes I fear I am. It’s not just about sensitivity towards others but about avoiding greed. I’m hungry for love, always have been. I crave the happiness love brings but it’s easy to forget what love demands of us. And when I’m grateful for all the friends that enrich my life, or used to, I’m aware that at times I’ve been a needy friend myself. Gratitude for friendship isn’t an excuse for victimhood that fails to offer the same support.

I’ve noticed an increasing number of people being thankful ‘to the universe’ rather than God. I think gratitude is a necessary and healing response either way. Although I’ve believed in God all my life, in the sense of living as if there is a God to illuminate how to do that best, with hope, and often with an emotional conviction that feels like love, I now walk with doubt and welcome mystery. Thanking God is a natural reflex for people like me, and yet speaking personally I probably spend more time appealing, if wordlessly, for help when things are painful or difficult than I spend on gratitude practice. I can feel sorry for myself in spite of everything that makes me fortunate, or blessed, and I remember the sadness and guilt forever while the contentment hazes over, indistinct and lack-lustre, often only loosely defined by time and place. I imagine that anyone from another planet would perceive us as a negative species with a negative impact. Through this year of Covid-19 Leslie and I have developed a habit at bedtime of recalling and wording ‘the good things’ of the day, however small, and it helps. Gratitude brings peace. You might call it positive spin, or an avoidance tactic. You might consider it an act of desperation in a dying world. But it renews the life wish. It’s a bond of gratitude that’s shared.

As humans on this planet we share so much, regardless of our differences – not least, the Earth itself and its intricate web of life. As well as deforesting relentlessly, we’ve been so busy with concrete and steel that we now out-build Nature. It’s all perverse in so many ways, and in our pressured, urban lives many of us fail to mourn what we’ve lost in the destruction: the one huge, vivid, breathing gift everyone used to share and appreciate. Sky. Branches lacing sky. The life of a tree trunk rooted below us. The music and patterns of water. Timeless rock, pulsing forest, birdsong and bird arcs and buds and berries and the eyes of a creature we didn’t expect to see as we explore its world with quietly absorbed respect and tenderness. The beauty and the power and the frailty. I believe they can save us, because they reorder our values as they remind us how small and ephemeral we are, how connected and how peaceful we can be if we let the natural world restore and inspire us. We just have to turn off our phones and clear inner space where we can meet. And anyone who doubts the truth of this hasn’t tried it. To be immersed in nature is to experience gratitude. And once you’ve tuned in, you feel it anytime.

This morning, during a suburban walk to check on Mum, I was grateful for the extraordinary colour of berries I haven’t identified, for a Red Kite overhead, for moss on stone and the fanned skeleton of a winter tree. Colours, shapes, textures and contrasts. Being grateful for all this is a very rational response given our mutual dependence as living beings. But it means nothing if it isn’t accompanied by a duty of care. It’s up to humans to mitigate the damage, end the ecocide and begin to live together very differently, treading lightly on this Earth, gratefully and lovingly. We need more gratitude as an expression of deep love and shared responsibility. That’s very often what we mean by the spirituality many of us claim, the spirituality at the heart of Extinction Rebellion’s campaign of non-violent civil disobedience. Gail Bradbrook speaks of the way loss, and fear of loss, intensify love of living things, and at a time when it’s natural to feel anger and despair, thankfulness can feel like hope. At the very least it can bring light and definition to a moment, and make us feel alive. It doesn’t make us Pollyannas without gravitas or recognition of the world’s pain; it doesn’t preclude sadness or grief. But we owe it – to God, Nature, the universe or the great mystery, to each other and to ourselves. I do know the human-made/political world has never in my sixty four years seemed more of a hellhole. And Christmas in the UK will be a painful reminder of those we miss. But I am grateful that I love them so much, grateful for their love, and grateful to NHS staff still striving to keep loved ones alive. Without disappointment and sadness perhaps we’d forget to be grateful at all. And yes, perhaps my depression calls it up from the depths as a survival strategy as well as a truth to embrace. As a relatively recent Quaker I welcome silence more than I used to, and although I’ll never stop yearning and grieving, and holding in the Light those in greatest need, I find that silence can swell and glow with wordless gratitude. Peace, trees, water, love and gratitude – surely they can only make us better humans, inspired to make a better world.

On arrest, from the inside

This is a personal perspective on getting arrested: what to expect and how to spend your time in a cell. There may be one or two light-hearted bits of advice but I want to make it clear that I’m not underestimating the seriousness of arrest and being processed through the courts. At the same time I’m very much aware that if you’re a white middle-class sextagenarian woman like me, the whole business is pretty much exempt from the kind of add-ons that deter others: police racism, physicality and provocation. I’ve only been treated with respect, friendliness and kindness during my times in custody and I like to think the bad cops are a small minority, but it’s undoubtedly true that in protest situations the police response on the ground is increasingly reactive and excessive. And when I see scores of officers advancing on peaceful rebels, or lining the road to the London Arms Fair to make sure the lorries can deliver their weapons of war and oppression, I wonder who they are serving and whether they question what their duty, according to their vows, might be. It’s my hope that the thoughtful and principled officers I’ve met, who’ve wished me luck, said I should be proud, or told me they share my fears about climate breakdown, will soon take a stand for truth, and that informed lawyers will also unite to wake the justice system to a new reality.

For the majority in Extinction Rebellion, personal circumstances or work considerations rule out arrest. Some give their time to arrestee support at police stations, or court support further down the line. There are many other ways activists can play an important part in XR, by livestreaming or filming, caring for people waiting for arrest or looking after their backpacks or phones, through creative contributions on the street (placards and banners, structures, music, dance, theatre), by phoning and emailing, collecting data, talking to passers-by during an action or Rebellion or supplying the activists with vegan cake, donating towards costs and sharing the truth with friends or colleagues. As you will be told if you do NVDA training (Non Violent Direct Action), it’s important to know your rights even if you have no intention of being arrested, because if you are at an arrestable action, although you can step away and should be given three warnings, no one can guarantee your own personal immunity. And many have found themselves committing emotionally to arrest when they only intended to check out or support a Rebellion. The solidarity and conviction of a mass movement is a powerful thing. But I must reiterate that in my local group, XR Dacorum, only a handful of us have been arrested. It’s not obligatory and it shouldn’t be a badge of honour. I am arrestable because I can be, because emotionally I need to do the most I can to serve climate justice, because arrests make headlines and because the impact ripples through my own circles as a story to tell. It’s a form of outreach for those of us who aren’t great at engaging the public and find giving out leaflets quite a challenge!

So now the tips, first pre-arrest:

  1. If you know you might be arrested, especially if locking on, I recommend drinking as little as possible that day. I’ve always refused nappies so far.
  2. Ideally give your phone to someone or leave it at home. I don’t do burner phones because I feel guilty enough about one phone but I gather that more full-time activists find them useful.
  3. Make sure you have a bust card with the phone numbers you will need and any medication you will want to take over the next 24 hours or more.
  4. You might want a great book in your bag (and glasses if you’re like me and it wouldn’t be much use without them) a pen and another layer to put on in the cell.
  5. Also pack a snack or two for when you are released, in case by any chance there is no arrestee support to greet you. You will need an Oyster card or bank card in case your train ticket has expired by the time you come out.
  6. If you haven’t done NVDA training and don’t know your rights, ask a steward or a legal observer or someone near you to fill you in.
  7. If there’s a legal observer, give them your name and contact details of a partner/parent/friend.
  8. Breathe deeply and tell yourself why you are a rebel.
  9. Decide whether you are going to walk to the van or go floppy and be carried.
  10.  Some rebels sing or talk to their neighbour while the arresting officer talks to them. I found singing, eyes down, helpful the first time.

There is no predicting whether you will be handcuffed unnecessarily, travel in a comfy van or be thrown around in a ‘meat wagon’ with bars. The advice is not to chat to the police officers if you get the comfy van, in case you reveal more than you intend, but I admired my friend when she asked her arresting officer whether his role troubled his conscience. You might be driven a long way during a Rebellion or big action, and if you’re in London progress through traffic might be painfully slow. On arrival at a police station you might have to wait outside for hours if you’re one of many arrests, so your book could come in handy even before you are admitted into custody – but you might have to ask for it if – most likely in my experience – your bag has already been taken on arrest.

At the custody desk the contents of your bag will be checked and listed and you’ll sign your name many times. You’ll be asked about health, physical and mental. When I admitted to having taken a couple of overdoses many decades ago, or to being depressed, I had to remove a hoodie with a cord and my Doc Martens with laces to don police regulation grey sweatshirt and plimsolls. If you don’t keep them afterwards they’ll go on landfill so accept them as souvenirs. You will be asked whether you want to speak to a solicitor so ask for one of the protest lawyers on the bust card, NOT a duty solicitor. And be careful, because once when I did that I later received a phone call which I assumed was from Hodge, Jones and Allan but which was in fact from a duty solicitor who didn’t name his firm.

Tips for your time in a cell:

  1. Cells have only a basic, lid-less toilet and no loo roll so you will need to ask for that. I’ve usually asked for a pencil and paper but as you will probably be given one sheet a book will occupy more hours. However, a sheet of paper will allow you to prepare a statement in case you are interviewed.
  2. Once I was allowed to eat the food in my backpack because I explained that I was unlikely to be able to eat the meals I’d be offered. In fact, the veggie chilli is vegan and gluten-free and not bad if you ask for rice too (and it’s delivered hot rather than warm) so I’ve been known to eat two during a spell in custody.
  3. There’s no vegan milk so the choice is black tea or coffee (usually no decaf available) and water, all of which comes in disposable (polystyrene?) cups which are single use.
  4. You could be released inside twelve hours, especially on a first arrest, but you might stay twice that long, so it may be a mistake to ask the time in case the answer disappoints.
  5. I was once arrested with a very clever activist in possession of a hardback analysis of dreams and the subconscious but I personally recommend your favourite novel, one that will absorb you entirely and make time fly. I’ve packed Matt Haig’s The Humans and Susan Fletcher’s Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew for this purpose because I love them with a passion.
  6. Even if your hands are not too arthritic to hold a book for long at a time, I recommend breaks so your eyes don’t tire and the book lasts the course.
  7. Dance – if you do. Sing even if you do it badly like me, because the acoustics are generous. Both raise the spirits.
  8. I tend to do some exercises too, just to mix things up and keep supple, but you don’t have a lot of room. I’ve even been known to run on the spot or in very short circuits around the space.
  9. Oh, and if you were glued on, picking off the residue will constitute another time-filling activity, but afterwards whoever cleans the cell may think you have very bad dandruff. Although not in my case.
  10.   Most importantly of all, pray or meditate, or if you don’t do either, talk to yourself about why you rebel.
  11.  I always picture and name those I love most and surround them with light and warmth. Sometimes I talk to some of them too, about how much they mean to me and how grateful I am for their love.
  12.  Gratitude is sustaining but don’t forget that, to quote Gail Bradbrook, “We can only protect those closest to us when we remember our love for those furthest away.” Hold in the light those you have never met who live with climate breakdown now.
  13.  You can ask for a blanket if you’re cold and no one offers one. In future I’d be tempted to ask for two!
  14.  Unless you can kip anywhere, don’t expect to sleep overnight. The mat and ‘pillow’ are hard and flat, and it’s noisy because someone rattles the flap every half hour to check on you.
  15.  If you wobble, that’s allowed. It’s not a toughness test. But remind yourself that you’re doing what love requires of you.

During your time at the police station you will be called out of your cell several times, for fingerprints and DNA, for mug shots and possibly to take a call from the solicitor or to make your one other call, although sometimes you can talk into a grid on your cell wall with a button to press. In a Rebellion if you call the back office number on the bust card, they should have details of your arrest and contact the person you identified. If you’re in an affinity group for an action, this process will be sorted beforehand. If you have health issues you can ask to see the doctor or may be invited to do so, and in theory you are entitled to any medication you don’t have with you but in practice I’ve asked in vain. You may get to talk to a solicitor in person but in my experience if there’s one handy it’s probably the duty solicitor so not a good idea. Should you be interviewed by a police officer – which is quite intimidating and will be recorded – you should have your solicitor with you. That’s only happened to me once in five arrests. A female officer who had been pleasant until the recording started suddenly transformed into a rather aggressive and dogged interrogator, firing off the same questions on a loop. “No comment” is the only advisable response, and it’s a bit wearing when you think you’ve said it fifty times.

Eventually an officer in plain clothes will appear to tell you you’re being released and escort you to the desk and then either out of the building or into a kind of waiting room. First you will sign for receipt of all your possessions, and you’ll be told that either you’re being released subject to investigation – most likely for a first offence – or being charged and bailed. There are variations but if you’re not charged on release then you will be contacted within six months if a charge materialises. Six months is a kind of expiry date. If you are charged and bailed, as I have been twice, you will be given a date in court for a plea hearing, which will probably be within a couple of weeks. Conditions could be specific or more general, prohibiting you from going to an area like the borough of Westminster or to a particular site such as a print works, or from attending any Extinction Rebellion protests, until your court date. I understand that if you break bail conditions, facial recognition software may identify you and you could then be held in custody until the hearing. I haven’t yet taken that risk.

It’s a wonderful feeling when on emerging you find rebels to support you, whether they are your fellow activists released before you or arrestee support rebels with chairs, food and drink and possibly blankets. You may be greeted with cheers. They will ask for details for XR records and you may be offered a taxi home if no one can pick you up, or you might be escorted back to a Rebellion site on a night bus. Your release could well be some hours before the tubes resume service.

Then you’ll need to sleep. Before you appear in court you can get legal advice through XR and/or free advice from your solicitor, and there are email groups and chats for arrestees which you may want to join. Tell as many people as you can what you did and why. It’s witness. Your plea hearing might be a year ahead; the courts are seriously backlogged. You might not be charged, even if you blocked a road for five hours with your arm through a lock-on tube inside a suitcase and were grilled at the station as I did and was with Roots of Resistance trying to stop the Arms Fair in Docklands.

I hope this might be helpful and/or interesting from my own personal experience. I admit I was in shock the first time. It seemed a surreal development in a law-abiding life, and initially traumatic because I had no idea what to expect. Some rebels take it all in their stride but if it feels challenging that’s normal too. You may be one rebel among thousands but you’re also you.

I firmly believe that only mass civil disobedience will bring about radical change rather than greenwash and concessions. See you on the streets.

Edna and the Polar Bear

Edna lived mostly in an armchair that used to be as red as a tomato. Now it was brown as her tea. Edna’s flat was on the top floor of a very tall old house. It was full of things that were at least as old as she was, and dustier. If she ever went out she needed a chair with wheels, but she was heavy to push and didn’t like to bother people.

   Sometimes Edna’s words and sentences didn’t really belong together but that didn’t matter because she was the only one to hear them. She had neighbours below but she only saw them out of the window, setting off somewhere she didn’t go, and coming back from somewhere she hadn’t been. She paid someone to do her shopping and ask, “How are you doing, Edna? All right?” so she could say, “Still here, surviving. Did you get my ice cream?”

   There was a cat that climbed the fire escape now and then and miaowed, so Edna let it in and called, “Coo-ee, come to Mummy!” If the cat padded over so she could stroke it, Edna purred too. But the cat didn’t stay long. It had places to go and things to do.

   Winters weren’t as cold as they used to be and Edna missed snow like she missed deep sleep. One day when the frost was melting and branches were dripping outside her window, Edna turned to the fire escape and saw it was full to bursting with whiteness. And the whiteness was furry, with legs. It looked heavy enough to make the metal steps creak – or snap – but it made no sound.

   “Oh my lollipops!” murmured Edna. “You’d better come in.”

   She shuffled over to turn the key. The door wasn’t really wide enough for a polar bear, but like a bird through a hedge, it squeezed softly in.

   “You’re as lost as a sock,” said Edna, back in the red armchair and trying to breathe the way the doctors liked.

   Eyes like black ice met Edna’s. The polar bear was more like a giant fluffy toy than a photo, and when he opened his jaws she could smell vanilla. Or was it butterscotch? His teeth were as clean as his coat and he didn’t scare her one bit.

   “What can I do for you, sonny boy?” Edna asked.

   But the polar bear said nothing. Instead he snuggled up to Edna, and leant his head on her lap. He was a mound of fur that rose and fell as his heart beat against her sore, wrinkled skin. That made Edna smile. Inside her was the stillness she used to feel when she sat on Mummy’s lap for a story.

   “Thank you,” said Edna. “I’m glad you dropped by.”

   The bear rose and stretched up towards Edna’s ceiling. Then he lowered himself onto all four paws, and as Edna began to feel sleepy, he drifted away like a cloud.

   When Edna woke she remembered the polar bear that needed somewhere to be. She felt excited, as if Christmas was coming and she had people to share it with. For the rest of that day the sky was milky and she could see through the window that the air clung with damp fingers, but Edna had her own sunshine. It made her tap old tunes on her knees. It helped her to imagine the girl she used to be, dancing around the room to be clapped.

   All the next day, Edna looked out for the polar bear. Her fingers and toes were too stiff to cross for luck but she hoped very hard, like she had when she wanted Daddy to forgive her for showing off. She talked to the bear, in case he was listening from inside her wardrobe or up on her roof. Surely he hadn’t gone for ever? As the darkness wrapped the trees and the grass began to frost again, a movement caught Edna’s eye.

   This time the polar bear was slow and thin, and his eyes didn’t shine. He looked as worn as Edna’s chair.

   “Oh my heart, sunny boy!” cried Edna. “Who turned off your light?”

   The bear’s head hung low. Stiffly Edna rose, shuffled to the freezer and opened the door on pistachio, chocolate fudge, caramel, raspberry ripple…

   “You can scoff the lot,” she told him. “Let’s call it your birthday.”

   She pulled off all the lids and arranged the tubs on the table like candles on a cake. The polar bear sniffed, lifted his head and let his big red tongue dip close enough to slurp the lemon surprise. He reached his right paw across to the toffee munch and his left paw scooped the coffee crunch. Soon he wasn’t very white any more, but it didn’t seem right to laugh at a polar bear so far from home. Especially when he was shrinking.   When he cuddled up beside her, she stroked his head and the back of his neck until he closed his eyes. His breath was as cool as snow in the air.

   “Dear boy,” she said. “I wish I wasn’t old and useless.”

   Edna remembered climbing trees and waving to the things the world forgot. She remembered pretending to be a dolphin in the sea. And she remembered being a nurse, stroking the forehead of a child who didn’t get better. Edna knew the polar bear didn’t really need the ice cream melting in the tubs. He needed more ice than any freezer could make. What if his world wasn’t cold enough to hold together and the water carried him away?

   The polar bear was very still and peaceful. Every time she stroked him, there was less of him to stroke. When he shut his eyes and curled up no bigger than a cat, she lifted him onto her lap and felt the rhythm of his heart against her floppy tummy.

   “I’m sorry, old boy,” said Edna. “Don’t go.”

    Still she stroked his fur until there was nothing to feel, and her eyes began to close. She felt her story drift quietly to an end.

   When Edna’s ice cream delivery arrived next day, she was still asleep, and her skin was cool. Her heartbeat was lost as a sock.

Edna waved goodbye to the old lady in the tea-coloured armchair. She couldn’t be sure whether she was everywhere or nowhere but she wasn’t shuffling any more. She wasn’t stiff or sore and she wasn’t alone. She could probably swim for ever, unless she stopped for a dance – or an ice cream. Wherever she was, Edna liked it better than that creaky old flat and its dusty old treasures. It was a place to belong.

Something white, sleek and strong swam through mist, paws paddling. The polar bear rippled like raspberry sauce through vanilla, and Edna swam after him, into the light.

Sue with Arctic Roar by Greenpeace, outside the Shell Building in London, 2015

When topsy turvy isn’t fun

We’re living in a world where so much is inverted that in a late night drama we’d relish the satire. For four years the President of the United States has lied habitually and often extravagantly, but been revered by followers who would rather believe him than check, or respect, the facts. A man little information, understanding and self-control claimed to know more about everything than anyone. A man who doesn’t go to church held a Bible (upside down) outside one, while on Twitter many of his devotees warned that the images of riots and fires on the streets showed what America would be like under Biden WHEN IT WAS HAPPENING UNDER TRUMP, who’d called in the National Guard and refused to condemn killings by the Police or to recognise the legitimacy of protest by BAME humans highlighting evidence of systemic injustice. He’s a man who scorns the expert consensus arrived at through fifty years of peer-reviewed climate science by deciding the world will cool soon: “I don’t think science knows” – and when it comes to Covid 19, knows better than his Chief Medical Officer and recommends drinking bleach to kill the virus. And I’ve only just started to itemise the ways he’s inverted reality, like a patient suffering from delusion or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Yet instead of praying to rid the White House of a sexual predator, before the recent elections the President’s spirital adviser Paula White conducted a kind of frenzied exorcism in order to keep a dark force out. It’s as hard to comprehend as it is to stomach.

Enough, more than enough, of Trump. But in the UK the picture is not very different, except that the Prime Minister’s vocabulary is wider. Johnson is equally unconcerned with facts and free with boasts, promises and fantasies. But while Trump left the Paris Accord and WHO, Johnson prefers to assume a leadership role in fighting climate change and a world-beating track and trace system to control the virus. Perhaps it’s the latter claim that is more transparently ridiculous as the UK exceeds 50,000 deaths ahead of Europe.  Yet when it comes to climate the claim is laughable too. Since the Paris Summit the UK government has led the EU only in the sense of the biggest fossil fuel subsidies. When the first lockdown provided a pause from which to begin differently, the UK bailed out airlines among industries with huge emissions. As Greta Thunberg pointed out, we massage the figures to reduce our carbon footprint by excluding aviation, shipping, and consumption and import emissions. Were these factored in, as the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill advocates, UK emissions would have fallen since 1990 by a mere 10%. This is nowhere near enough to avert catastrophe, just as the 2050 target for the UK to reach carbon neutrality is nowhere near soon enough – as the science makes terrifyingly clear.

I remember Greta saying that as she grew up she couldn’t believe that life on earth was really at risk as the science explained, because if that was true, it would be headlining the news every day, on the TV, radio and in the papers. I think many busy or optimistic people make that assumption, because the media avoids the truth as if it’s contagious. In the UK the press strategy used to be to promote climate denial; now it’s to tick a few of the right boxes on plastics and recycling and advocate veggies and electric cars, as if it’s the role of the public to address climate change because the government is already doing all it can. The five billionaires controlling our media are criminally culpable, misleading the people their papers exist to inform, but as Jonathan Fuller has illustrated again and again over the last few years, there’s more than enough evidence to convict the BBC of the same charge.

We have seen recently the way this misinformation allows the media to make villains of the truth tellers and exonerate the dangerous. So in September, when I was one of those who blockaded Newsprinters in Broxbourne (while other rebels did the same in Liverpool and Glasgow) with a message on a lorry calling on these papers to TELL THE TRUTH, we were condemned for attacking the freedom of the press – when the press in the UK languishes in 40th position on a chart assessing such freedom and is dominated by a mogul who regularly dines with the Prime Minister. A point was made. No harm was done unless you count trivial sums lost by the billionaires and some disgruntled readers having to source their lies online. Yet Keir Starmer and the estimable David Attenborough joined with the establishment at large in condemning us roundly, rather than considering that the target might be valid, or owning the dire consequences of the misinformation peddled in the papers we prevented from reaching shelves. Like all those arrested so far with Extinction Rebellion, we face trial for trying to illuminate a truth shrouded in darkness by government and media alike.

The same knee-jerk hysteria kicked in a few weeks ago, after a small number of rebels went quietly and respectfully to Attenborough’s house, with the gift of a plant and a deeply appreciative and non-confrontational letter honouring his work but inviting him to consider that mass civil disobedience might in fact be necessary if we are to effect swift, radical change. With no intention of harassing him or his family, they simply withdrew, leaving the letter and gift behind them. This week we have seen another jaw-dropping example of inversion, following an action at the Cenotaph decried as outrageous, as if it amounted to desecration of Remembrance and thus all Britain holds dear. But what happened? Three rebels, including a nurse and an ex-soldier in uniform, bowed their heads and silently laid a wreath, which read ACT NOW, among the others, and briefly held a banner drawing attention to the fear shared by the Ministry of Defence that climate change, which already kills, will inflame war. No, they didn’t trample on anything, literally or symbolically. There was absolutely zero disrespect. Yet even Julia Bradbury, who spoke at the launch of XR, condemened the statement. Watch the film featuring Donald Bell, the retired soldier, and read his statement, and XR’s, if you’re unsure. I honour those three rebels for their courage, anticipating the media reaction, and for the tone and design of the protest. Extinction Rebellion exists to serve life by sounding the alarm you won’t hear on TV or read in your newspaper. It clearly isn’t possible to make headlines by telling the truth, however boldly, creatively, lovingly or peacefully or with absolute dignity, without those headlines inverting it.

So do I despair? Of course; we all do. But is there hope? Might there be, before climate chaos becomes irreversible? Will Biden be able to change anything? Will the UK feel obliged by COP26 to abandon financial support for fossil fuels, given that they are no longer a viable investment, and act to restore biodiversity (having failed so far to meet 17 of 20 targets)? I don’t know, but I know that life, and truth, and justice and love are worth serving, so until governments, industry and media serve them too, I’ll keep rebelling. What else can we do?

Rebelling, and being bald

I might never have become an author if I hadn’t lost my hair. Alopecia Universalis gave me a story to write when I created Daisy in THE WATERHOUSE GIRL, which Michael Morpurgo told me was beautifully written… But now that I’m more of an activist than a novelist, I’m wondering whether alopecia played any part in enabling that, and I think it did. Daisy, is after all, a young pre-Greta activist (even more so in the sequel), and the person I wanted to be.

It’s a fact that I was brought up by Pacifist, anti-materialist parents who trod lightly on the earth, so yes, I might have found my way back even with hair! But although I rarely think about my alopecia or remember to explain my bare scalp – and no longer dream of waking with a head of hair – it’s part of me in the sense that it’s taught me a few important lessons. I’ve lived in a minority since 1981. I’ve got used to being perceived as different since I abandoned my wig, and it felt to me more honest, more authentic, my own personal decision arrived at after nearly three decades of pretence and fear. I don’t want to minimise the impact of hair loss on anyone, whatever age or gender, because I’ve met hundreds of people with alopecia and not one of them just shrugged it off with, oh, that’s funny, never mind. But in my cowed days it disturbed me that in spite of knowing hair loss was a very, small loss in the context  of war, hunger, poverty, racism and other bigotry, cancer and any number of life-limiting physical conditions, I let it assume huge emotional proportions and dominate me psychologically. And it always angered me that this shallow society of ours was to blame with its implicit expectations of women to prove that, with the right appearance and lifestyle, we’re “worth it”. I blamed the media for my failure to live by the values I tried to hold on to through years of consuming and desperately needing beautiful wigs that cost more than 3K. I wasn’t the person I wanted to be, and I was unhappy – until I met Leslie, who showed me that I must embrace the way I look in order to stop being undermined. That freed me to ditch the disguise and be myself again.

My activism, such as it is, is a recovery of my true self in a wider sense. When I wore a wig, terrified of discovery (wind, rain, headlice, sand and heat) I was trying to make myself normal, conventional and acceptable – in the world and to myself. When I stopped I was signalling that I was ready to be misread, ridiculed and othered.  So I had some practice, after trying to please all my life, of not caring what people thought of me and shrugging off comments like alien, baldy, skinhead and egghead. That helps when you take a stand that earns Rebels the even less appreciative labels weirdo, extremist, nutter, terrorist or criminal. The people who mocked my hair loss didn’t have the knowledge, understanding or empathy to respond differently. When people denigrate Extinction Rebellion they too lack knowledge, understanding and empathy, thanks to a government and media that withhold the truth about climate breakdown. As a woman with alopecia and author in school, I saw education as part of my role and purpose; now what XR aims to do, along with pressing government to act, is educate the public who’ve been misled. In assemblies I used to wake my listeners to the truth that we are so much more than the mirror shows us; that diversity is rich and respect, like compassion, our human right; that the identity that counts is who we are, inside, and the values that determine the way we live in this world. As an activist my message remains in some ways the same, but now I’m more explicit about those values of caring for the Earth and its living creatures, each other and those furthest away whose experience of climate change may be more devastating than ours.

I suppose as a bald woman I challenge norms, just as activists do. Bizarrely, our norms in the affluent West with our heavy carbon footprints are self-destructive and threaten the future of many species, including our own. I can’t claim that the norms women try to live up to, with the right hair, figure, clothes and accessories, are equally damaging, but I don’t think they help anyone except the fashion and beauty industry. Humans are quick to judge others and find them wanting; hence the bullying of some children with alopecia. In supporting those (typically wise, kind) children I appealed to the hairy to recognise our common humanity, feelings and needs. As an activist I’m appealing to nations to work together through differences to address a shared and overwhelmingly huge problem. XR embraces no blame, no shame and invites everyone into one endangered human family. In school assemblies as in my fiction and with XR, I’m calling on all of us to be – and do – better. Not at conforming, presenting, consuming or competing, earning or achieving status in society, but at loving.

People with alopecia of one kind or other often feel unlovable. I know I did. It was hard to love myself when I looked at my reflection. Now I don’t blink; I’m just me. One of the ways we delude ourselves is through tribal identification with those like us. As a Rebel I hold on to a truth shared by Gail Bradbrook in This is not a Drill: “We can only protect those closest to us when we remember our love for those furthest away.” People who think XR is political (and yes, demanding societal change could be seen by definition as political) fail to appreciate how fundamental love is to the movement, the motivation and vocabulary of Rebellion. I’ve always been spiritual, and I’m trying to follow Jesus because that’s the way of love. Talking and writing to young people with alopecia I talked about soul and spirit, not appearance or success.

When anyone in the world of alopecia called me brave I felt a fraud. I’d been so timid for so long, and let alopecia limit me. It’s the same now when people see me getting arrested or in court, or just protesting again, and mistake all this for courage. I was numbed by shock following my first arrest and I cried in my trial. I baulk at living in a tree to stop HS2 or even sleeping on a bridge. If I manage to do anything anyone considers brave in spite of being naturally fearful, it’s because the truth about the climate and ecological emergency overrides everything. Anyone who reads the science with heart as well as head engaged is overwhelmed, and the normal fears and concerns are swallowed whole. At the moment my activism feels like the very least I can do to serve peace, love, truth and justice, and I honour those who give so much more.

Yes, I’d probably be an activist with hair, because I am after all my father’s daughter and my brother’s sister. But I’m oddly thankful for alopecia for paving the way by undermining but eventually liberating the real me. As I like to write on placards and chalk on roads, and as it says in the Quaker booklet Advices and Queries, it boils down to what love requires.

Here’s RAVELLED: the title story from my first collection

N.B. This wasn’t quite the final, published version as I’m a zealous tweaker, especially at the last minute, and have a meticulous editor at TSL. Obviously I’d be delighted if anyone bought the book as a result of reading this, but if not, it’s good to share!

She was the only Marilyn in seven hundred and fifty girls. In her class there were four Susans, two Annes and some Janes, Janets and Janices, but her name set her apart. It was modern, with an aura of sophistication – even though she wondered why her parents had called her Marilyn at all, if they wanted to treat her like a Jane and insist that school rules about make-up and uniform were there to be obeyed.

   But when she came home at four o’clock each day, her mother would ignore the brown mascara she’d applied to her lashes in the Girls’ Toilets before registration, as if she only saw what she expected or wanted to see: a good girl who happened to be blonde. Marilyn made sure the school skirt with its rolled-over waistband was always lowered to skim her knees as she stepped off the bus, but she didn’t tell anyone at school just how old-fashioned her parents were – or even how old. In twin sets and pleated nylon skirts, her mother might as well have been a gran; even the younger teachers wore shifts that showed their knees. Marilyn would never waste herself like that. She was going to flaunt what she’d got.

   By the Lower Fifth, the status her name gave her had been raised by another accident: the size of her bra and the tightness of her white blouse across it, with a button or two undone. “Oops, popped again!” she’d tell the teachers on patrol, adding a helpless, “Sorry!” Over that year she grew taller than most of her peers. Her friend Lorraine said she could get served in a pub with lipstick and a casual cigarette, but for all her big ideas, Lorraine was five foot three and freckled. Marilyn had no one to go along with such Let’s Pretend, or make it real. Not even a boy.

   Everyone assumed she was well practised in French kissing, but that was because they didn’t know the way her parents imprisoned her in the name of protection. Most of her classmates lived close to the school and some went to the same Youth Club. Marilyn was the only one from Wickford, far enough away for her to keep the restrictions of her life a secret while everyone assumed she was out snogging in a dark corner with a Sixth Former in an ankle-length Afghan coat. And she had the vocabulary necessary to sustain the deception, including the word that made her parents shudder if they ever heard it in the street: ‘the F-word’ that spelt instant detention. She enjoyed the sound of it, and the frisson of disapproval that followed it.

   ‘Who likes fucking?’ she printed in a note she passed around in Latin, to see who blushed and who dared to answer ‘Me’.  She watched the progress of the folded note from one desk to another, noting who smiled, who was startled and who looked around hoping to identify the author. Marilyn just continued to stare at the clock above the teacher’s head, eyes dulled – even when she saw, in a sideways glance, a quiet girl (one of the Lindas) write something behind a curved hand. But the girl in the next row was an Anne who went to lunchtime C.U. and had apparently met her so-called boyfriend at church. This Anne scrunched up the little scrap of paper in her fist before she dropped it on the floor and kicked it towards the wall with the side of her lace-up shoe. All Marilyn could do was target the back of her head and hope that the front of it was crimson. If holy Anne had to wreck her research she could at least have told the teacher. That would have made an entertaining diversion, embarrassing Miss Needham, who was unmarried at something like fifty and wouldn’t know the answer.

   As it was, Marilyn stifled a disappointed yawn, slipped from her desk her copy of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and began to read when she could. The couple in bed on the cover were either post-coital or about to begin foreplay; the photograph was a furtive talking point. Marilyn’s mother had been appalled when she found it in her school bag, and even more shocked when Marilyn said, “It’s a set text,” and smiled because that was so close to the s word they didn’t say, not in her house. It was a funny story to tell the others, and her mother said she would write to the school to complain, but Marilyn didn’t suppose she had. She’d shy from the words she’d need to shape in her own handwriting on best Basildon Bond.

   Her teachers used those too: ‘An intelligent girl who could achieve a great deal more should she see fit to apply herself’, ‘quick-witted but less than industrious’, ‘Marilyn’s attitude to her studies leaves room for improvement’. When she was aiming, within limits, to be rude. To show that she didn’t care. That school was just petty and the teachers were so dried-up it was impossible to imagine them doing the deed – even though Caesar must have, in between fighting the Gallic Wars. Her parents always said, when the report book came home, “We were hoping for better this time,” so she always pointed out the percentages: nothing below 68, Division One for everything and sixth or seventh in class, all without trying. The numbers carried some weight with her father, who was a tax man, but all her mother wanted was nice manners, good behaviour – “You never smile, darling, and you have such a pretty smile.”

   Marilyn said she couldn’t help it if the teachers thought her mouth looked sulky. Sexy was what she meant. Too sexy for Miss DCHS (Derston Country High School) because all they wanted was a girl with lots of white teeth and a private school voice who could open the Summer Fair without wearing anything too far out for Princess Anne. Sometimes Marilyn practised pouting in the bathroom mirror, trying to look like Julie Christie with full, Nivea-creamed lips and thick hair falling on her naked shoulders. Maybe when she was fifteen she’d be allowed on the train to Carnaby Street and the Kings Road. She’d need clothes to fit in but by then she’d have a Saturday job. She wouldn’t mind working in the new Wimpy Bar, next to the record store with the listening booth. Then life would begin.

   But her parents didn’t want her working in the town. Her father said he’d pay her the going rate to clean his car, cut the grass and weed the borders. And she had to listen on Mondays to the stories Janice told, about her job on a beauty counter and the ‘dreamboat’ manager who told her she was a natural. 

   So Marilyn spent her so-called wages on cigarettes that she lit as soon as she turned out of the street. Standing by the bus stop with her skirt up to her thighs and a sour stare, she smoked where she could be seen by neighbours and reported. To serve them right.  

   But there was no scene, in spite of the smell that clung to her hair. She more or less gave up the fags, and bought albums instead, the kind her parents hated: Hunky Dory, Sticky Fingers, LA Woman. In her room she played them on her little deck and danced as if Jim Morrison was holding her, one hand on her bottom as she swayed.

   By the autumn of 71, when a boring summer came to an end and her parents pointed out how serious the Upper Fifth would be, with ‘O’ Levels at the end of it, Marilyn told her diary that she was in prison and if she didn’t find an escape route soon – like Lorraine, who was in Australia – she’d probably set the place on fire. At the bus stop on the first day back at school that September, she noticed, among the boys passing by on their way to St. Ignatius, one who’d transformed over the holiday from a boy to a dish. If he’d been Upper Sixth, she might have smiled at him when his friends called her ‘a Pan’s Person’ and he looked concerned about their manners. Marilyn just showed them a couple of Flick Colby swerves that sent them laughing on their way.

   Arriving at school, she heard the rumour that the new Head of English was a man. Someone had seen him with an old briefcase and mac, hurrying from the station and almost late on his first day. “Oh, at least forty” was the estimate, greeted with groans.

   “It says on the job ad,” said Marilyn, and switched to her Headmistress voice, “Applicants any sexier than the Prime Minister will not be considered.” A few people thought that meant Wilson but Marilyn knew better because her parents liked Heath and called him a gentleman.

    Still, it was disappointing to have no English timetabled for the first day, but in the dining room people said Mr Jones was ‘really funny’, ‘outasite!’ and ‘so sweet’. So as U5H class waited for him to arrive next morning, in the upstairs classroom overlooking the newly-mown field with the tennis courts beyond, Marilyn felt more interest than she showed.

   Using his pregnant-looking briefcase to hold the door open, he struggled in with a pile of books balanced on his other arm. Everyone stood but he as he said, “Oh, no need for any of that,” the pile broke up and tumbled; girls picked up the scattered paperbacks. Marilyn watched. The title on the black cover was The New Poetry. As the copies were passed around he introduced himself, spelling his Christian name in chalk (and very bad handwriting): Bysshe Jones.

   “Weird, you’re thinking?” Someone laughed. “My parents were Shelley fans,” he explained, “who believed in standing out from the crowd. I hated them for it – and at university I claimed to be Mike.”

   His shoulders went back, his chin up. People giggled. “You grow into yourself in the end. Names represent us out there, whatever identity we construct for ourselves in here.” A hand flicked the side of his head where the curls were glossy in spite of the only kind of haircut that would get him through an interview. “I need to know yours, and how you feel about that.”

   The girls looked at each other, smiling in surprise. He looked at the nearest Anne, inviting her to begin. She hesitated. Marilyn noticed the imperfect edges of his brown shirt collar and the woolly texture of his modern art tie.

   “Do we get an action replay, sir?” asked someone. People laughed. “I missed the question.”

   “Answer your own if you wish,” he said, “but bear in mind that this is only a double lesson and the idea is to dive into some poetry before break time.”

   Anne began mumbling about her name because she didn’t know what to say really, apart from how ordinary it was.

   “Are you ordinary?” It was a flicker of a question. Anne coloured, and pressed the spine of her glasses back. Barriers up.

   “Probably.”

   “I don’t believe it! And you mustn’t either. Nobody’s ordinary.” He picked up the poetry book. “This here proves the ecstasy of agony. How full emptiness can be. We come from the stars – nothing ordinary up there!”

   His finger pointed upwards and a couple of girls even looked at the slightly grubby ceiling. Marilyn felt the warmth of a grin on her face. He was loco and she loved it.

   Now he was naming famous Annes and asking Anne Clegg to pick one she connected with.

   “Boleyn,” she said, and blushed at the giggly gasps. Mr Jones reached out a hand that silenced it all. He was waiting. “It’s sad,” she said.

   “Tragic heroine or manipulative go-getter? Or both? We can never really know, and yes, that’s sad – and bottomless too. You’ve been reading Jean Plaidy.” The hand stopped her answering. “That wasn’t a charge. Confessions are best turned to poetry.” He waved the book, one finger pointing at the centre of the cover.

   Marilyn listened as Janet said she had no Janet to identify with at all, and Mr Jones said, “Ah. Rochester calls Jane Eyre ‘Janet’, in tenderness as I recall. Judge for yourself whether a victim can be a heroine. And whether like Darcy he’s a legitimate heartthrob. Who’s yours, Janet?”

   She shrugged, and her neighbour showed him her wooden ruler, decorated with the names of lead singers he was afraid he hadn’t heard of.

   “You don’t need to know,” Marilyn muttered, because their voices were weedy. And he heard, looking straight at her, just for a moment. She knew her turn would come. And some of the others had so little to say – even though it was so much more than they’d ever revealed in a classroom before.

   The cleverest but most silent of all the Susans said she wasn’t Susan at all, but Sue. “Only teachers call me Susan, because they don’t know me.” Her voice fractured. “It’s not me they’re talking to.”

   There was a thick pause of astonishment after that, while Susan reddened to the roots of her frizzy hair and Mr Jones smiled, nodding. “I shall try to earn the right to call you Sue,” he said, quietly, seriously, “because I’d like to know you.”

   His smile was boyish. Marilyn could imagine him at school, ‘full of beans’ like Jennings but knowing things without swotting. It made her feel the loss of a brother. He thanked Susan for her honesty, adding that without that there would be no poetry. He circled his forefinger and landed it on the register, looking up and asking, “Marilyn?”

   He wasn’t handsome; his eyes had a froggy bulge and his lips were thick, almost puffy. Marilyn didn’t need to raise her hand because all the others had turned; she was in focus.

   “Ah,” he said. She wanted him to know her, better than Susan, and she had an idea that if she just gazed straight back at him, he could see inside her. But what could she say? That her name made her cheap, a tart like the character in Crossroads?

   He began, “Norma Jean – a tragic heroine for our times? More innocent than Anne Boleyn and more vulnerable,” and had to explain what he meant. When he called Arthur Miller ‘a great playwright,’ and said Monroe must have been clever too, Marilyn had never felt more stupid, because she knew so little about this actress he seemed to admire, and her parents certainly didn’t like it hot (if at all).

   “I’m sorry,” said Mr Jones. “I jumped in. I shouldn’t have.”

   She shrugged. If she chose silence now, would that make her fascinating? “I’ve never known whether to live up to my name or down to it,” she said, and although her voice didn’t crack like Susan’s she felt suddenly sad. It was as if everything she’d counted on had vanished. She didn’t want to work in the Wimpy Bar, or lose her virginity to a Sixth Former, get spotted by a modelling agent or hitch-hike around the States in a mini skirt, with strings of beads around her neck and enough cash to buy some grass and see how it changed her. She just wanted Mr Jones to like her, but not the same way as the boys in the street. She wanted his respect, his understanding, his time.

   “What do you want your name to say?” he asked, his voice gentle, curious.

   “Confidence,” she said, afraid of losing it. “Independence. The opposite of tragic and vulnerable.” She remembered her mother’s sniffiness about ‘bra-burners’. “Liberated.”

   He nodded. “Bravo. I’m relying on women like you to demand your space and be heard.”

   Women like her. If she could hold his hand and walk in the woods she’d be real at last. Mr Jones said he didn’t want any of them living or dying like Sylvia Plath, whose work was in the collection, but that writing could give them a voice and that was power. Words, he told them, reshaped everything.

   Then he said he couldn’t resist poetry any longer. “A love poem by Adrian Henri,” he said. “A pop song without a tune.” He pulled a slim volume from the inside pocket of his olive green corduroy jacket, thumbed quickly and read: “Without you every morning would feel like…?” He slapped the book down on the nearest desk and held out a hand, cupped but with fingers wiggling.

   “A winter Monday.” Someone said, “A power cut,” and another girl said, “A train with no wheels,” which made everyone laugh, Mr Jones loudest of all. Marilyn wanted to offer a line he’d always remember, a line to make him forget the ones in the book. She thought furiously, impatient with her slowness. Then she raised her hand.

   “Marilyn?”

   “Without you every morning would feel like dancing on jelly.”

   Someone spluttered. She heard it echoed. But Bysshe Jones tilted his head to one side. “Wait…” he said, and she could see he was excited.

   “You know, you can’t balance,” she said. “And you’re a mess. You’re really only dancing because the jelly wobbles you around. You feel ridiculous.”

   “Ah yes, and it makes us think of childhood parties but this is the opposite, a kind of torture.”

   Marilyn nodded. She was in love.

At the end of the two hour lesson, the girls were slow to leave the room, but Marilyn didn’t want to hang around like a twelve-year-old at the stage door after a Donny Osmond concert. She just walked away, running her fingers through her hair, remembering that her line wasn’t wrapped in brown paper on anyone’s doorstep, like in the poem. It was in his head. He’d be going to the Staff Room now, to share it: “Is she gifted, Marilyn Green? She reminds me of Lara at the start of Zhivago.”

   The weather was still summery enough to sit on the grass, so she took out her copy of the anthology and saw there were only two women in it. But in the nearest conversation, the female in question was Mrs Jones – whether there was one, and what she might be like. Why she didn’t iron his shirt better! Irritably, Marilyn moved away. Weren’t they inspired?

   That night she spent four hours on the homework he’d set them: to find a poem they loved, and write as honestly and thoughtfully as possible about what it meant to them. She chose Larkin’s Wedding Wind, read it aloud in her room three times, four, and wrote: I love the wildness and the passion, the words like ‘thrashing’ and ‘bodying-forth’, the intensity of ‘the wind of joy’ that makes him ‘sad that any man or beast should lack the happiness’ he had. I love the idea of ‘perpetual morning shares my bed’. It makes me think of a couple lying, warm and sleepy, with the sun shining on them as they kiss. It makes me feel like the bride, waking to a new world because I’m in love. The cattle ending seemed strange at first but then I realised what he’s writing about is an animal instinct as well as romance, and love and sex are as natural and necessary as water. It’s romantic, because he hopes the love won’t ‘dry up’ even in death, but wind can dry lakes so maybe he’s afraid it might. We all feel the same about love, and we thread our beads on it knowing one snap and they spill everywhere. But when we find it we kneel, which for humans means worship, if you believe in God: someone to thank for the love and the loved one. If I could ever write anything as intense and beautiful as this poem I’d be glad I lived. As it is, I still feel ‘stupid in candlelight’ most of the time.

   Her parents were incredulous – not that she let them read it; they’d lock her up for the rest of her life – that she should work so hard, and that her eyes were so bright when she explained, “I love poetry. When you go deep into it, it’s the best thing ever. It’s everything.”

   Only one thing mattered more to her than the way he read poetry, talked about poetry, used his hands to accompany poetry, and the words that sang and shone, and darkened and remained mysterious. The following day it came, scrawled in ink under a vigorous A+.

   I applaud you for this genuine, well-expressed and open response, which is in itself as passionate and lyrical, but as honest too, as the poem. Even after a few hours of marking it made me return to Larkin’s words and appreciate them even more. Thank you.

   All, she thought, was ‘ravelled under the sun by the wind’s blowing’. Rereading the poem in bed that night, she could almost sense his hand under the sheet. Would she be ‘let to sleep’?

After half a term of poetry they switched to Shakespeare. “More poetry!” Mr Jones told them. “Everything’s poetry. Look out of the window at that field, and the sky above it. It’s poetry even while we struggle for words to recreate it.”

   Marilyn luxuriated in Macbeth: not just the text but the context he took them through with all their senses, the excitement and the shock of a new kind of love that fuelled murder. It made her daydream about ways of killing Mrs Jones to possess something more precious than a crown. If he were in love with her, that would be the only power she would ever need.

   All her other subjects came more easily now. It was as if a window had opened and the light shone all around. She was able to show her parents – casually of course – A after A in her exercise books. They were like children surprised with sweeties. Her father rewarded her with crisp new pound notes and her mother said, “You won’t smoke it away, will you darling?” but she had no intention of spending it on anything but books. Apart from eyeliner, which she wore to school unchallenged, and a red lipstick which she was saving…

   He was forty-two! He told them so, when someone asked. It made no difference; how could it? Every night, by torchlight, she added to a letter she was writing him – full of love, and struggling for words to recreate it – always remembering the importance of honesty, and of searching for deeper truths about her core self, and what it was to be alive. It was more obsessive than she had dreamed. Yet in spite of the closeness of him when she sat in the front row for the first time in her school career – “can’t see the board,” she explained, “but you can stuff specs” – they hadn’t touched. She knew, in her loneliest moments, that it would never happen, but she must long for it anyway.  

   Christmas came and went, and Marilyn couldn’t be sure whether he’d found the neatly-wrapped present she left on his desk in his Form Room – or recognised her writing even though she hadn’t signed it. On Christmas Eve she started work on a Without You… poem that began with the dancing in jelly but had grown twenty lines by morning. When her dad gave her tickets for Hamlet in the West End she burst into tears – and reviewed it afterwards for the school magazine Mr Jones now edited.

   “Really incisive,” he told her in January, stopping in the corridor an hour or so after she’d delivered it. “You gave such a rich, detailed sense of it, I might as well have been there.”

   “Wish you were,” she said, before she walked away.

   A couple of bitter mornings later, the Catholic boy she used to like came over to her at the bus stop where she was shivering, and asked whether she’d wanted to go to the pictures with him. She said, “Sorry, I’ve got a boyfriend,” and gave him a smile that was meant to be kind. Girls talked about ‘blokes’ but the word didn’t fit him yet. He looked disappointed but how could it be fair to snog with him in the cinema when her heart was taken – or at least, given?

   It was unsettling when Janice, who was pretty in a doll-like way, got pregnant and left school as soon as her bump began to show. There was no official version, just rumours that the father, who might or might not be the dreamboat, was twenty-three and wouldn’t marry her – so her dad chased him down the street, yelling. Marilyn felt sorry and envious at the same time. Anne Clegg got engaged and was planning to marry at a registry office in a long purple dress, so there was speculation that she was expecting too. Even the chubbiest, frizziest Susan had slow-danced with someone at a church youth club – although she didn’t want to talk about it, said she hoped he wouldn’t ring and refused to tell Marilyn why when she asked.

   The friendships Marilyn kept in school were even looser now that she loved Bysshe Jones too much to tell, and literature with a devotion that made reading – and her essays for him – a priority. But she preferred the company of the others aiming for the highest grade, so she could talk about love, betrayal and death on the page, and make warm, private connections they couldn’t guess.

   In the mocks she came top in English Lit: 88%. Lower in Lang but the teachers for that were mainly women, and she was fairly sure the youngest of them didn’t like her. Mr Jones was already busy starring in panel games like Just A Minute or Call My Bluff for the girls’ lunchtime entertainment, in rehearsing the Sixth Formers for an all-female production of King Lear and in playing vigorous piano for assembly, but she asked him to run a Writers’ Group and he said, “Yes, of course. Poets’ Corner. Thank you, Marilyn – great idea.” Now she could compose love poems and read them in the intimate environment of what was a kind of store cupboard for English text books, where the grouping of four or five chairs meant she could reach him, skin to skin – theoretically, if not realistically. The ecstasy of the agony.

   “He shone a searchlight into emptiness,” she wrote, and read aloud, “and filled it. In his eyes she found humanity. In his voice she heard music. In her bed she sensed him, lover-angel. And turned away, alone with tears.”

   In spite of the nervous fervour of her poetic exposure on Tuesdays, when she sometimes found herself troubled by the intellectual control of Susan’s poems-as-exercises, no one asked questions. He must know her now; how could he not? Sometimes the certainty seemed almost enough.

   Then in April, just before the Easter holidays began, her father interrupted her homework with an unexpected question. She looked up at the evening stubble that made her think of Fred Flintstone and realised he’d been sent. He was on a mission.

   “Marilyn,” he said, “we need to talk. Your mother and I…”

   “I’m not pregnant or on the pill,” she said. “I hardly ever smoke and I haven’t got legless yet. And I’m in the middle of an essay I need to finish before I draw up a revision timetable.”

   He flushed. She could see he was angry but she hadn’t time for this. Her mother appeared, shadowy behind him.

   “Darling,” she said. “You work too hard. We’d like to see you go out with your friends. If you still want to apply for a job at the Wimpy Bar…”

   “I can’t now. I’ve got exams in two months.”

   “It’s not healthy,” tried her mother, low volume.

   Love wasn’t, she thought, not love like hers, but she didn’t suppose they’d know about that.

   “You’re not happy,” her mother continued.

   Happy? Something she’d never been, not since the sandpit days of dress-up dolls and a teddy on the pillow. Only with him, and Shakespeare and Austen and Hughes and Plath. Happiest of all when she was most hopeless, in Poets’ Corner, his breath almost touching her cheek.

   “I’m happy in my studies,” she assured them, suddenly Oxbridge and worthy of respect. “I’ll celebrate my birthday when it’s all over.”

   As they left her, it crossed her mind that they were characters too, if she knew their story. Meeting her mother on the landing before bed, she gave her a hug and felt the fragility of bones against her own softness. She felt alive.

   The next day a rather dome-bellied Anne Clegg sat next to her in English and asked, almost in a whisper, “Will you come to the wedding? Not a bridesmaid but you know, for support? My parents won’t be there.”

   “Sure,” she said. She nodded to the door as Mr Jones stepped through it. “Invite him?”

   “I could,” smiled Anne. Everyone else loved him too, in their different way.

   She came home that afternoon to find her parents had bought her a second-hand bike: “For air and exercise.” She thanked them, because this was freedom too. Mr Jones lived in the next town and had mentioned a book shop there. She could cycle to the wedding – he’d approve of that – but would he turn up? No other teacher would consider such a thing but that was the point; he was a human being – “with brains and desires, ideals and shame,” he’d said – and he understood that they were too.

The wedding was a few days after Easter. Marilyn told herself something would happen: a twin would be ill or his wife would need him to do some job even though he’d called himself ‘a hopeless handyman’. She liked the way the hot pants looked with the loose flowery blouse tucked in, and her hair at its scented, blow-dried best. Managing to slip out of the house and avoid questions of unsuitability – not just of her outfit but a pregnant bride just turned sixteen – she cycled off in sunshine, glad it wasn’t hot enough to sweat.

   Apart from Anne in purple and her skinny groom in white, there was only the official in a cheap suit and Anne’s awkward-looking in-laws-to-be. So Marilyn wasn’t the only one who smiled when Bysshe Jones edged in, just as proceedings were about to begin. He was on the shoulders of the groom’s brother, who might have come straight from a building site.

   With the number of guests in single figures, Mr Jones looked around before sitting in the row behind Marilyn, a seat or two to her right. Marilyn didn’t turn her head once through the short business of the ceremony. It was enough to know that he was well placed to see the black bra straps through her top and the length of her legs in nude nylon, but she was sad to notice the absence, on Anne’s face, of the light that powered her now. The light she’d like him to see, and understand. Once it was over, he was the first to applaud. Then he followed her outside after the family. As Anne and her husband held hands for Polaroid photographs he murmured, “I need to go, Marilyn.”

   She walked with him a few steps to a bench, where she sat, crossing her legs. Smiling up at him, she shaded her eyes from the sun. There were yellow roses in a round bed behind him.

   He looked from the wooden slats to her, back at the newly-weds kissing for the camera and down on her again. “Such a shame,” he said. “Her parents, I mean. I had no idea. And what good can it do?”

   He sat down next to her. At once Marilyn felt almost stunned. “I know.” This might be the moment, the only one or the one that turned everything, and either way she couldn’t seem to begin. She couldn’t even lay a hand on his arm, or thigh. All those novels she had read, all that poetry of passionate being, and she had learned nothing. She might as well be a child. She was too afraid of his wholeness, the depth and breadth of him, his brain, his commitment, the life he’d already lived while she’d been posing.

   When she lifted her eyes from her lap and met his, she almost cried.

   “Marilyn,” he said, and sighed. Such tenderness in his voice! “I know you think you’re in love with me and how can I fail to be flattered? I’m honoured. You’re extraordinary. And I don’t mean this!” He smiled: a tribute to the physical reality of her next to him? “But it’s not me. It’s poetry you’ve fallen for.”

   Marilyn shook her head. Her voice was so small: “It’s you too.”

   “I’m not for you, I promise. Trust me. In another life… well, I’d be a lucky boy. But not this one. I’m sorry.”

   He stood and she knew she couldn’t stop him. Tears brimmed hot, and trickled. He was walking away and he hadn’t even kissed her cheek.

   “Marilyn?” called Anne. “Thanks so much for being here. Come to Den’s house for sandwiches…. Are you all right?”

   She nodded. “I can’t.”

   “Go on,” said the brother, lighting a cigarette and offering the packet. “You’d be welcome.”

   It did cross her mind that this could be when she found out whether she did like fucking. But she was extraordinary; Bysshe Jones was honoured; he might have loved her in a different life, romancing her with Keats. Theirs would have been Wedding Wind, not a quickie after nibbles once cheap booze smoothed the way. How had it happened for Anne – in the back of their dad’s van?

   She rose and smiled, made a kind excuse and thanked them, wishing them well.

   “Will you still sit the exams?” she called back from the steps onto the street.

   “Yeah! Lit anyway. Got to make him proud, haven’t I?”

   “Yeah,” said Marilyn, and waved.

Over the remainder of the holiday she began revising. Learning the poems by heart lifted her to a place where she could reach her own images; soon the letter in her bottom drawer was fifteen pages long. The new term began, and it was only when she arrived for the first double Lit that Mrs Farrell thumped in with a longer skirt than usual trailing over Scholl sandals, and said, “Mr Jones and I have done a timetable swap so I’ll be taking you through to the exams.” She sat, a little breathless. No one spoke.

   As soon as Mrs Farrell stretched a wobbly arm to the blackboard, Janet passed a note with no words but a face spilling tears. Marilyn pushed out her bottom lip. Whether he wanted to spare her or he couldn’t trust himself, it was her fault anyway. She thought of Zhivago clutching his heart on the tram, with Lara further beyond reach with each oblivious step. But this was different; she’d given him nowhere to go but away.

   Cycling home that afternoon, past the pond on the common, she wondered how deep it was. Without him every morning wouldn’t feel like dancing on jelly. It would be like winter fog, a wasteland, with always the same question: to die, to sleep? I love you love you love you, she wrote that night. Now there was nothing more. She folded the pages into a brick-like thickness and tied a ribbon around it.

At the end of her final paper some of the girls took her out to drink cider on the common. When the mother of the cleverest Susan parked her car to deliver a cake with sixteen candles, they hid the plastic bottles behind a bush. Then once the cake was cut and they’d sung a more drunken Happy Birthday than was strictly necessary, Susan said, “First love hurts but you’ll find someone else.”

   Marilyn swore, had to say, “Sorry, Sue,” and told her that she must be right but it was hard to believe in anything but poetry anymore. She almost added that he hadn’t touched her, in case they imagined it the way she had, but then Janet asked, “Anyone we know?” so she shook her head, and let the tears run.

   Two hours later she cycled home in a haze and was sick on the corner of her street.

   On the last day of term she hid the letter in her bag and at lunchtime asked an Upper Third who was on her way to the Staff Room to deliver it to Mr Jones.

   “All right,” she said. “He’s my favourite teacher. I wish he wasn’t leaving.”

   Marilyn didn’t stay to be officially dismissed in her Form Room. Not to be, not to be. The lessons were over.

She got eight As, including both kinds of English, and a C. Only Sue improved on that. Her parents couldn’t have been more moved if she’d just survived a car crash, and when she called on Anne and the baby, she noticed her friend’s results slip stuck to the fridge with A for English ringed three times in red.

   “It was Mr Jones,” she told Marilyn, feeding the baby from a bottle. “He made me care.” Marilyn said she knew what she meant.

   “How are things?” she asked Anne, because there were six of them in the house now, not counting a malicious-looking cat that caressed her bare legs.

   “Oh, you know…” Anne looked out of the window to the deckchair on concrete, where Den was bare-chested and smoking with his back to them. “It’s not poetry.” With a smile Marilyn thought was brave, she turned to her blue-eyed daughter and asked her, “Is it, poppet?”

When Marilyn’s first poem was published in a feminist magazine a year after university, she sent a copy to the school Bysshe Jones had moved on to, but it was returned ‘unknown at this address’. She hadn’t told her boyfriend; he’d see the humour but the pain would pass him by. But almost ten years later, when she won the Hartland Prize – only a small one – and was rewarded by a collection in print, she called it Ravelled. She was married then, with twins of her own, teaching full-time against her mother’s wishes and her husband’s too, drinking a little too much red wine and remembering each night and most days what Anne had told her baby.

   The dedication read: To Mr Jones with gratitude for immersing me in ‘all-generous waters’. Love always.

   She hoped he might think the work extraordinary.

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.

   “History.”

   “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.

Stop the Press: a poem

I’m straddling a tube.

Blanket-resistant, my legs

feel newborn and frosted.

On our web there’s a scrum,

a swollen mess of cross-stitch,

a stranded, tentacled creature

with secret mouths

and twenty eyes.

My left hand’s deep down steel,

where fingers that raced time to lock

rest stiffly now in peace.

Rain, like Security, gave up

and the dark’s grown generous

as lightly it wraps us, fifty-one of us,

while we sing like Hardy villagers

at a harvest supper

of small and sentimental tragedies

scented with roses.

Empty, I savour happiness,

feel strong and sure

and numb with love.

On high from bold bamboo

the crows’ nests swing,

and from the trucks a playlist quips.

But this is serious,

is everything.

For just one day

the lies are stalled, and in their place

the truth can rise.

As fireworks splinter scarlet,

a grinding churns the air

and metal melts pungent through morning,

we lift it to the light.

Not-that-great Britain: land of hope and cruelty

“If you don’t love it here, why don’t you leave?” someone suggested – not to me personally but to those like me who criticise, regret or deplore recent developments in our home country, and choose not to be patriots. Since the word packs so much heat that it’s often inflammatory, its connection with the war it fuels is inevitable. And this in itself begins to explain my aversion to it. As a Quaker and Pacifist, I don’t believe in violence and see war as a failure, crime against humanity and nature, and terrible human tragedy. But even if I set aside my faith, in love and in the God or Light in everyone, patriotism remains for me a problem rather than a virtue. And my rejection of it feels, for an emotional and instinctive person, coolly rational.

We don’t choose our country of birth, so pride in it because it’s ours seems less than objective. There’s a sense in which as humans we grow to love the familiar because it’s the context of our lives, and that’s natural and positive but simply a personal reality for each of us. I love the natural beauty of our hills, lakes, forests, rivers and coasts, but I don’t imagine this landscape to be superior to all others around the world. My allegiance is to Planet Earth. It just happens that I function within a small area of it that is, like the rest of it, both glorious and damaged. I don’t consider it world-beating. It’s true that I was pleased when Max Whitlock, who grew up a few miles away from me, won gold. I’m attached to Andy Murray, but if I’d been born in Spain I’d feel the same about Nadal and if I lived in Switzerland I’d know Federer better. Yes, I’m partisan when watching athletics, which adds to the excitement, but it’s a fleeting, surface tribalism: trivial, random and arbitrary. It doesn’t count for anything that matters.

Patriotism is a kind of pride, and whether I’m looking back at UK history or at the present appalling, dangerous and corrupt shambles of a government, I struggle to feel any such thing. Pride in the slave trade and colonialism? No, that would be shame. In our leading role in the industrial revolution? Well, with hindsight, looking at the carbon graph, sadly no. In our literary heritage? Yes! In Shakespeare, George Eliot, Dickens and others living and dead we have gifted wordsmiths with deep humanity and wisdom; their work enlightens, broadens and develops empathy through understanding beyond our own narrow individual perspectives. But I also recognise that there must be many, many wonderful writers in other languages from whose wisdom I will never learn. It’s not a competition.  In the campaigns that have brought about justice, yes – but what injustices Britain has perpetrated and continues to do so. Reading Why I No Longer Talk To White People About Race opened my eyes to the widespread and systemic nature of racism in this country. We have police officers who will take their cue from the US and kneel on a black man’s neck. Inequality in the UK has widened in my lifetime, as The Spirit Level showed (it’s updated regularly on the website) and in this country our deeply seedy press is controlled by five billionaires while child poverty and homelessness are on the rise.

Am I proud of our government’s silver medal position in the arms trade? How could anyone be anything but ashamed of our readiness to arm conflict and oppression? See Saudi Arabia, so valued a trading partner that we continue to sell them the weapons that kill schoolchildren, bomb weddings and year on year decimate Yemen, identified by the UN as the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster. Well, as our Prime Minister said as Foreign Secretary, if we don’t sell them someone else will. See Bahrain, Israel, the streets of America. See Belarus where a dictator’s forces have been trained here. Consider our record of military intervention – Iraq, Afghanistan – and the ongoing consequences. See 68 million refugees and displaced people and our reluctance to reunite children with family members here. See a media that whips up callousness and hostility when we take just 1% of the world’s asylum seekers. Shame on us.

And then, last but most important of all, there’s the issue that overwhelms all else: climate breakdown. Am I proud of our ‘leadership’ as we fail to meet Paris targets, score 1 out of 20 on our own identified objectives, continue to bail out and expand aviation, build roads, destroy ancient woodlands and subsidise fossil fuels abroad as well as failing to shut down coal, oil and gas when a just transition is both possible and necessary now? The UK’s record is one of inaction, massaged statistics (as Greta clearly explains) and greenwash. Neither my previous MP nor the current incumbent seems to have any understanding of the seriousness of the threat to life on earth, yet the science is clear, robust and terrifying. I have never voted Conservative but honestly, if the CEE bill is passed I will be overjoyed beyond imagining (and I admit it’s hard to imagine). If the Tories hand responsibility for climate action to a Citizens’ Assembly I will applaud them. Like Jonathan  Bartley, I don’t care who does the right thing as long as it’s done.

In the meantime, I can’t be patriotic. Not while the world abhors our toxic press, while the BBC remains largely silent on climate, while the government is found guilty of lies and corruption (endless examples of misinformation along with rampant cronyism). Not while leadership through the Coronavirus pandemic has been lamentable: death toll that could have been so much lower with early protection of Care Homes, a swifter lockdown, adequate PPE, airport testing, an efficient track and trace system in place sooner, clearer messaging, more compassionate and less profit-driven priorities, integrity in power…

When I see the patriotism of Trump’s MAGA supporters I’m horrified that love of country seems to involve surrendering all other love, compassion and respect for human rights. Nationalism involves an enemy and often means turning on compatriots too. Its narrow focus claims special status and ignores the big, human picture. Like a child who hasn’t yet learned to share or to see another perspective, it demands without giving, Me, Me. Yesterday Twitter was alive with opposing views on Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia. Like Roman porticos they have historical importance, offering an insight into outdated attitudes with no place in our global reality at risk. But do we want them to represent us now? Patriots – also traditionalists – clinging to that past when we saw ourselves as victorious and glorious, demand the right to sing and hear those sentiments. Butthese are records of a time we should recognise as indelible history but with deep regret – not sing them with gusto in crowds either complicit in their racist, colonialist jingoism or disengaging from the shocking truths they conceal. I hope at the Albert Hall many fall silent in compassionate acknowledgement of the victims behind the lyrics: the collateral damage of patriotism.