Manda supposed she’d slept a little. Searing, the light on the ceiling reminded her of movie interrogations. Her stomach felt achingly empty and her head throbbed but she told herself they couldn’t keep her much longer now. The confinement was tough but the solitary part harder. It made nights in the crypt seem warmly appealing in their solidarity.
Was it morning yet? Her mouth was so dry it had new adhesive qualities.
She could do with a coffee. The sound of the cell door opening made her sit up,
run her fingers through her hair and wipe dust from her eyes.
Holding the door open stood a young man in jeans who might have fitted in fine on the bridge if he swapped his shirt and pullover for a block-printed T-shirt. She wondered whether it was true about one female cop going home from her shift, changing and joining the rebels – presumably at Marble Arch. She hoped so.
The plain clothes officer looked a lot fresher than her solicitor had in
the wee small hours. It was obvious everything was stretched to capacity,
“You can go now,” he said.
“Great,” she mumbled. She could do with a wee but not now, not here.
She followed him to the desk where she’d been processed on arrival and
stood silently, less than focused, as they told her that her release was
subject to further investigation and that if she didn’t hear anything in six
months then well, she’d hear nothing. That there might or might not be a
“If I were you I’d forget about it,” said the sergeant.
“I don’t think I can,” she said, but no more words came.
There was more electronic signing to do as she reclaimed her backpack
and was invited to check everything was intact. She wasn’t sure about that.
Something in her felt changed and she wasn’t sure what.
“There are people waiting outside for you,” the officer said.
XR were good at that. “What time is it?”
“Four fifteen, almost.”
Four fifteen! Leo would be home in bed and so he should be, with that back of his. Manda felt an end-of-term surge as she was escorted to the door – not the back where she’d been admitted but the front, where in a kind of lobby people were waiting. As one they turned and stood.
Leo held back behind Libby.
“Darling!” Manda didn’t mean to blub but self-control was impossible. She embraced Libby, felt how cold she was, under-dressed in summer office clothes. “You didn’t need…”
“Like you didn’t need to get arrested.”
“Don’t start that now,” said Leo over her shoulder as he held her. He sounded
Libby pretended she hadn’t heard that. Her mother looked pale, a mess.
With her eyes only slightly less wild than her hair, she could have auditioned
for one of Macbeth’s witches. “All right?” Libby asked her.
“Hungry and a bit sleepless but perfectly fine.”
Libby was never convinced by her mother’s breeziness. As a cover it was
“There’ll be food on the bridge,” said Leo. “But I brought you a
Manda grinned and hugged him again. When he broke its neck, peeling it back for her as if she was Skye, she took a greedy bite. Someone from the official arrestee support team, a guy called Harry with all his hair gathered in his beard, asked if she was treated well.
She nodded as she ate. “But what about the others? The lovely young Stu? He’d only just sat down when they took him, poor baby.”
Libby thought she sounded drunk as well as old.
“All out last night. You’re the last one released from here,” Harry told
her. “For a while, anyway.”
“They know a dangerous criminal when they see one,” joked Leo as the
four of them stepped outside into darkness.
Manda would have loved to give Stu a long, emotional hug. She hoped his
mother would surprise him with one.
“I wasn’t charged,” she said. “I made a written statement.”
“You go, girl,” murmured Leo.
The pavement wasn’t wide enough for Manda to walk arm in arm between them. In any case Libby had stepped ahead, following Harry. Calling back, he assured them all the buses would still be running even though the tubes wouldn’t come alive for a while.
Manda wanted to ask Libby, “So
tell me what you think,” but she’d need to feel stronger before she could
risk the answer.
Libby had questions that could wait until it was just the two of them, and life was normal again. She supposed Trey would be fast asleep but he’d told her to message so she did: She’s out. They kept her most of the night. It would have been nice if he’d stayed. But no need for him to get embroiled in this kind of drama after one date and a couple of nice-boy kisses.
Watching her daughter walk briskly but huddling against the cold, Manda
thought she should say sorry for the timing. Her arm tight in Leo’s, she
whispered, “What’s she even doing here?”
“Long story,” he said. “It can wait till morning.”
“I hope it’s a good one.” She stopped, gripped, and raised her voice: “I
know Oxford Circus is over but tell me they haven’t cleared the bridge?”
“We held the bridge,” Harry called.
Manda waved her free arm, and danced in the street.
“Food before jiggling,” Leo told her.
“They should have kept her in for psychiatric assessment,” Libby
muttered, just as Harry shouted that the bus was coming and if they crossed the
road fast they’d catch it.
Manda wasn’t sure how much running she could manage, but it turned out
to be enough.
Libby was quiet on the tube and didn’t mean to be. If she could, she would have oozed wit and intelligence – casually, without appearing to intend any such thing or even recognize how fascinating she must appear. Trey didn’t seem to mind. There were a few minutes when his hand was so close and pretty that she hoped he might hold hers, which would mean more than sex. If it was a choice between any position in the Karma Sutra and feeling understood, well, Bee might find her preference hard to believe.
Her mother would be disbelieving too, if she messaged, See you soon. Heading for Waterloo Bridge. Part
of her liked the idea of a surprise that would be close to shock, but then part
of her felt a panic she couldn’t exactly explain, because she didn’t want
anyone making assumptions. Putting in an appearance at a climate protest didn’t
make her Rob.
It was galling to find as they took the steps down from the station that Trey knew more about the whole occupation than she did, pointing out the church where protestors slept and referencing a newspaper quote from the Canon that they were like Jesus.
“That’s way over the top,” she said, withholding sackable.
“Some of the media does want to nail and spit on them,” Trey pointed out. “Wow. This is something up close.”
Libby thought he looked excited. “Will you interview Mum first? She’ll
love it. You might have no battery left by the time she’s finished.”
But she began to wonder, at her first sight of the crowd ahead, whether they’d even find her. Smiling, Trey took her hand.
Manda placed the wipe-down pillow at the end of the equally thin plastic mattress – on a long metal shelf that stood in for a bed. It ran all along one side of the cell, while on the other a bright panel of light would prevent anyone sleeping. She hoped not to return to the seat-less, lid-less pan of a toilet in the corner before she was released. The ceiling carried promos for a high-tech Met doubling as warnings to prisoners. And behind her head there was a wall that paid a kind of homage to a window with bars. Grim was the word Leo had used and she wouldn’t disagree. It was a space that assumed and declared that anyone spending time in it was unworthy of comfort or dignity.
With no phone Manda found it hard to judge how long she’d been gone, but tried to calculate. Maybe forty minutes stationary in the van awaiting a destination; the same again on the road through rush hour; an hour at least at the back of the nick, with the doors open while the police ate ice-creams and fetched the four of them disposable cups of water it was too hot to refuse. Another hour or so in a holding cell, talking amongst themselves about Greta, Attenborough, climate strike and the science: communication that was meant for the officers standing there with them. Not that they said much, apart from, “You’re all a lot nicer than our usual clients,” and “Not like the lot on the Brexit march.” “You’re all so polite.”
Just a few minutes to go through the items in her backpack, explain her rights and ask a few basic questions. She’d complied silently with the fingerprinting and the DNA swabs and rearranged herself obligingly for mugshots from three angles, minus smile. And she would have liked, in a way, to chat and be as affable as they allowed, as chirpy as Leo, because it wasn’t their fault, but she felt too serious for that. This felt big, heavy, memorable. More than an experience, it was a travesty, of course, because the criminals were in government and board meetings. And even though she wasn’t religious she felt a sense of something deeper than she usually recognised in the rightness of it. There was truth to serve.
The statement she’d written with the paper and pen she’d requested lay at her feet. Unable to lie down comfortably, she sat up and reached for it. An appalling scribble, it was almost as hard to reconnect as the jigsaw puzzles her mother used to like, but she tried, faltering, to deliver it quietly as a kind of rehearsal. Maybe she shouldn’t have mentioned losing Rob – they might see that as a plea for pity. She decided now to cross out for my granddaughter. All the personal stuff was irrelevant anyway; the science should be enough. But she’d called herself a Conscientious Protector, written it in capitals. It would be her mantra.
When she heard from a disembodied voice that she could take her phone call, she’d had to work out how to use the panel on the wall. The XR action line would have contacted Leo and whatever he felt it couldn’t be surprise. Did one person in each couple always love a little bit more than the other, and could that change? And had the intensity of her mother-love alarmed Rob almost as much as Libby?
Manda realised she never had this kind of thinking time, with no phone to hand, butting in with notifications. No kitchen tempting her to bake if not to eat. No emails to delete or save for later. How long since she’d been alone with trees and breeze and felt open as well as alone?
“Rob,” she murmured suddenly because that had been a grieving thing, finding him where he loved to be, in a forest or by a lake. “You know what this is like. I wish you’d been held here, in this station, in this cell. I’d love to feel you with me but I can’t.” Maybe the custody sergeant would be listening with the volume turned up but she didn’t care. “Whatever I do I feel as if I’m losing you all over again. Already my memory isn’t good enough and I’m scared that one day I’ll forget you completely, and then I won’t know how to live or why I should. Because right now I’d rather you walked through that door – literally, as a ghost – than anyone else.”
“Manda, love isn’t like a music
chart. It’s not a competition.” Leo said that, months ago. “You love Libby too – not less, just
differently.” And he didn’t seem to need the number one slot, which was
touching but hard to comprehend.
If he had managed to reach Libby with her news, how would she react? She imagined her rolling her eyes like she used to as a teen.
“Rob, sweetheart, I have to do better.”
The cell door opened noisily. Something smelt less than delicious and it
was in a plastic tray.
“We got you some vegetarian food. It’s not vegan.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I can’t.”
“I’ll leave it with you in case you get hungry.”
She’d been hungry for hours. The door closed again, and she hadn’t asked
what time it was or how long they would keep her.
Not that it mattered.
Trey was interviewing Leo, asking how he felt about his partner being arrested. Libby watched, heard this brand-new stepdad of hers talking about her mother’s fearlessness as if he loved her for that.
“She’s very passionate about the truth we need to tell. I’m here because of that passion. She woke me up and she’s counting on all this, and arrests like hers, waking others up.”
Libby wandered away. Passing another cardboard sign that warned DRUG and ALCOHOL-FREE ZONE, she thought she could do with a few drinks. The heat had ebbed away since they arrived and dusk would fall in the next hour or two. She untied the cardigan from her waist and pulled it on.
A woman smiled from a tent that seemed to be a quiet space with chairs
and cushions. “You’re Manda’s daughter?
How are you?”
“She’d be sorry to miss you but so glad you’re here.”
“It wasn’t my idea.”
“I’m Amelie. And you’re Libby.”
Libby could guess what she said about her. A climate denier, head in the
sand, a carbon footprint double hers. A party girl dancing on the Titanic.
“Would you like some herbal tea?”
“You’re all right, thanks.”
She tried to smile and walked on, reading the signs but avoiding eye contact. The stream of cyclists heading home from work had pretty much dried up but some families seemed to be leaving – after a day out at what felt to Libby like a festival for the sober. Amelie looked like a healer who’d dangle crystals over your belly and sing to the moon, but Libby had to admit that some of the people here seemed quite normal – or would do, if she saw them in a pub or on a tube platform on the way to work.
She noticed people washing plates in a series of bowls and draining them upside down on a tray.
“Still some curry left,” offered a thin lad from the so-called kitchen.
“I had some, thanks.” Manda would have done better but it was O.K.
considering. “You know when people are arrested, how long do they keep them?”
He shrugged. “They can be back in five or six hours but it could be twelve or more. Mostly they’re not being charged and they’re well treated, generally.”
Libby noticed something change around her. A stirring. People were looking in
the same direction and Leo was ending the interview.
“Talking of which,” said the boy in the apron, “they’re back.”
Libby stared, frowning incredulously at the numbers. Vanloads of them!
Around her people were making their way to the front as singing began.
“Let’s go.” Leo was playing protective stepdad and she didn’t mind. It
was scarier than she’d imagined. “Come on.”
Libby didn’t argue.
Sketch by one of the arrestees, shared with Extinction Rebellion
Good Friday. Gem remembered her
mother calling it a day of tears and
agony and getting through it with whisky. Although the office was closed,
Gem needed to work from home, and make sure Skye was really well.
“I could do some editing here,” Nick said, making the coffee, “if that’s
“Don’t you want to be on the bridge, in case?”
“They won’t be able to take it today. They’ll have officers on leave,
won’t they? Wouldn’t you expect them to ease off for Easter, and then come in
hard on Tuesday?”
Gem shook her head. “I’d like to think so.” She told him the Home
Secretary was agitating for the force to use their full powers, whatever that
“Boris’s water cannons?” Nick grinned, and added that things would be quiet for a few days. “With no one trying to get to work why would they bother?”
Gem expected the holiday weekend to bring a crowd of new people to the
rebellion: some well-informed, some curious, some just looking for a place to
hang out in the sun with free music and food. She was afraid something would
change. The non-violence felt like a kind of dream, too pure for reality.
Suppose it didn’t hold?
“Don’t worry,” Nick told her. “We’ll be there tomorrow, all three of
Gem knew he misunderstood her faith, such as it was – a delicate and tenuous thing that labels wouldn’t fit – and thought trusting in the Light was meant to give Quakers peace. As if the world made that easy or even reasonable. All the same she wished she could, for Skye’s sake. She’d tried explaining that the Light could illuminate the darkness, flag it up, give it shape… only to run out of words, telling him that was the point: experience over doctrine or theory. But being part of this rebellion, in solidarity with those already living through climate chaos and defence of the children, was her certainty now. And she could live in the light of that, however much doubt swirled around it.
Beaches like this were overrated really. Seen one, seen them all. Same old white sand and palms, predictable cocktails and tuneless rhythms in the bars. Same litter and dog poo butting in on shots of paradise. The wind blew hot and gritty against his pale legs. James lit his first cigarette for more than thirty years and narrowed his eyes behind his sunglasses as he sat on a flat rock and wondered whether his body was fit for public scrutiny. Or whether the water would turn out to be flavoured with sewage or thick with plastic.
Once, before the kids came along and decades before Manda’s epiphany, they’d made love on a beach like this – her idea, one his flesh had given in to in spite of what she called his propriety – and he’d wondered why a girl like her, with so much energy and fire and appetite as well as hair, was with him at all. Well, now she had her exciting, guitar-playing dude with earrings and a flat brown belly. And they probably had sex in places and ways he’d never imagine.
“So what are you going to do with the rest of your life, James?” That was Tanya. A fair question but not one he could begin to answer. He stubbed out the unfinished cigarette, and kicking sand over the butt, brought others to the surface.
He was glad for Libby – as long as she wasn’t heading for tragic rejection. People didn’t seem to be very good at love, especially the kind that was meant to last a lifetime. He couldn’t have gone to Tanya’s birthday party, and met her lover Angelique, however beautiful Tanya claimed she might be. So many adjustments necessary, one after another. He was too old for it.
Looking around, James saw other white hedonists who didn’t know or care
about carbon footprints, lying oiled on loungers and anonymous behind their
shades. So Manda was with her tribe and he’d found his.
His phone took him by surprise.
“Dad, where are you?”
“Taking a break. Tell me about your new man.”
“He’s American but prefers it here. Funny thing is he’s kind of
left-wing.” Libby laughed. “But not by Mum’s standards. He’s persuaded me to go
to Waterloo Bridge to check it out. We’re on the way now. He wants to do some
interviews for a blog. He says people are fascinating. Even me!”
“He sounds very bright.” James felt emotional picturing her face.
“Enjoy. You’re breaking up a bit…” He raised his voice: “I’ll be home in a few
James thought how terrible it must be to be young and believe the worst.
What if his was the last generation to live a normal life? He’d seen the school
kids on their Friday strikes with their placards: WE’LL BE LESS REBELLIOUS IF
YOU’LL BE LESS SHIT. And they didn’t seem to be angry, just convinced they
could save the world.
He wondered about a cocktail or two before lunch.
On the bridge the heat was building. Manda was glad she’d thought better of refusing a big, floppy-brimmed straw hat from the top shelf in Leo’s wardrobe. Nathan’s mother obviously had curls that would have filled it too. In a long, strappy dress without a bra to make her breasts sweat against her midriff, Manda felt younger than her arms looked. On the heart line someone was making boat-shaped paper hats and passing them along.
Leo had taken Manda’s place in the food tent, chopping veg for early supper. Some of the friends she’d made were heading back to the South West for family Easters so there were goodbye hugs that felt sad. Every time she saw a small child she wanted it to be Skye, but maybe she’d scared Gem by coming on too strong – offering, in so many words, to love the child if she couldn’t save her.
Many of the faces around Manda were unfamiliar but the mood was the same: chilled but resolute. In a way, the police seemed to share it – although their layered uniforms must be steaming. Now that it was clear there’d be no easing-off, it was just a matter of time. And here time felt new and still. No tension, just readiness. If they didn’t arrest her today she might sob. The sun’s intensity made the flowers blaze and the river flecked light like Van Gogh’s stars.
One of the Wellbeing women she’d come to love was offering to refill
water bottles. Manda tried not to resent the single-use plastic one tipped back
by a boy of around twenty who’d just sat down behind her.
“Are you arrestable?” she checked, because now at the end of the bridge the vans were discharging officers in a thick black stream.
“Uh… yeah, I guess.”
She told him her name. He was Stu from Hackney; he hadn’t known all this was happening until a few days ago but he’d been vegan for a while. His T-shirt, splashed with water and tight to his skinny chest, said, NO PLANET B. Finding that he’d only just arrived with no induction and no legal training, she talked him through what to expect and his choices. He listened intently, his eyes on the police line covering ground faster than she could. A legal observer, who seemed to be new herself, appeared with a note pad and pencil and crouched down, asking him if he was all right and sure he was arrestable. He nodded, his eyes on the officers now very close to the heart line. Laying a quick, motherly hand on his arm, Manda hoped her smile was encouraging. A new, wispy kind of song had begun behind them: “Police, we love you. We’re doing this for your children too.” Hesitantly, because the tune was hard as well as gentle, Manda tried to join in.
Not Stu, she told them silently. He wasn’t really ready. A female officer moved across to her space, chose her. Yes, she thought, because she had been moving towards this since Rob asked her after school one day, “Why are humans pumping carbon and methane into the atmosphere and destroying EVERYTHING?” and James wanted to complain about his earnest young class teacher scaring their son, but Manda only wanted to stop, immediately and forever, destroying anything.
“I’m hanging in there, Rob, darling, doing this for your little girl,” she imagined telling him. “You’d love her.” Talking to him, seeing him, made sure she didn’t listen to the policewoman, who wasn’t much older than Libby but sounded tired, as if she’d rather be anywhere else than here right now. Behind the arrestees the singing swelled. Someone started drumming. The policewoman reached for her but Manda wasn’t going to walk. Even though she’d been rubbish at it in training, she willed her body to flop, heavier than the scales said, with no give and no yield. Black-trousered legs were all around her. Their boots were so big, so robust. And she was small now, limbs spread but no weight at all, like flotsam to be cleared from the water – carried fast, her hat floating to the ground behind her.
“WE LOVE YOU! WE LOVE YOU!”
Manda smiled as her eyes brightened with tears. Closing them a moment, she imagined Rob’s hand on her shoulder. The police weren’t rough but business-like, and her body didn’t enjoy the long, awkward ride to the south end of the bridge, where they took her to a van and she stepped inside where the air was cooler. As her arresting officer took her backpack, she realised that she was off-grid now, and Leo wouldn’t know, hadn’t seen.
Sitting, she tried to relax her muscles with the kind of warm-up exercises she used to do at over-50 contemporary dance class – until Stu was brought to the door to the van and told to step inside. He looked disbelieving – as if he’d woken to a truth he’d forgotten – but stirred. She reached out for a high-five with young skin. He took the seat in front of her while four officers stood outside the van.
“They should have left you alone.”
“It’s worth it though,” he said. “I mean, someone’s got to do this,
“Right. They showed David
Attenborough’s climate change documentary at Marble Arch last night. I guess
Cressida Dick wasn’t watching. Probably went to bed early with an XR-shaped
A tall older guy with a fulsome grey beard and loose jeans was next on board, nodding to Manda and Stu but saying nothing. A small silver cross swung from his neck as he stooped towards the seat opposite Manda. Not quite the spit of the ex-Archbishop now rebel, but he could fool a few in the robes. Saying nothing, he looked shaken, and probably ached. Then he crossed himself quickly and shared a small smile.
The last arrestee was a girl Manda ought to know by name, a beautiful Buddhist
who stopped and breathed out with eyes closed before sitting.
“Hey,” she said quietly. “Love and rage.”
One of the police officers outside the van was using what probably wasn’t any longer referred to as a walkie-talkie. Manda remembered Leo’s account of a very long wait to find a police station with enough room for another four. The silence in the van felt delicate but maybe that was her, a step beyond bravado now.
“I’ve just realised,” said Stu, his distress breaking through. “My mum will think I’m messing about. She doesn’t get it.”
“She will,” said Manda. “Everyone will. But sooner’s way better than
Glancing out of the window, she saw a couple walking onto the bridge with two small children. Watched them pause, understand, and look into the van. Manda read “Thank you” on the lips of the young mum who placed both hands on her heart and lifted them out towards her.
Moved and elated, Manda smiled. She hadn’t made a peace sign for decades.
The next chapter of FOR LIFE will be posted on Friday 28th June.
Searching for wisdom on short stories, I discovered an article for Esquire that called them “the perfect alternative to staring at your iPhone for an hour before bed” because they come in “bite-sized chunks.” I can’t imagine Chekhov, Atwood, Greene and Carver pumping the air in triumph at this analysis. But it seems reasonable to assume that while for over-worked and over-stressed urban Brits, a novel might seem just too daunting and long-term a project, accommodating a short story on their commuter train home is doable. Flash fiction, a growing feature of online magazines, takes concision a good few steps further, and makes finishing the thing – the difficulty identified by so many inexperienced writers – an achievable goal. As a training exercise in genre, style or form it’s perfect for creative writing class and competitions. But I admit that I’m not terribly interested in brevity for tightness’s sake. I like short stories that feel like novels because they’re just as deeply satisfying, or stirring, or challenging. Because they allow their characters complex inner lives and eschew smartass in favour of soul. Because reading them feels like living. Like a great novel they make a powerful emotional connection.
stories are intellectual games constructed around a startling USP, a variation
on the set-up and punchline characterising classic humour. Some rely on clever
twists. And I’m not averse to fun, or to the story as crossword puzzle. But I
don’t want my stories to feel empty bar the concept. Personally that’s how I
feel about magic realism – I just don’t feel enough. And I’m not a fan of author
distance, whether from dysfunctional characters or the manipulated reader.
Neither do I choose, as a rule, to be taken on a meandering ramble through a consciousness
that leaves me wondering where I’ve been and why. Which is not to say that
stories must be instantly accessible. I’m certainly open to the intriguing
story that yields more second time round.
This may make me sound pretty hard to please, but I want a short story to matter as much as a longer narrative, to linger once finished, offer insights and generate conversation even if that’s internal. And I’m looking for style, hoping for a sentence so acute, so beautiful, original or witty that once is not enough and I want to commit it to memory. (No chance at almost sixty-three). Some collections I’ve read are monotone, almost like a composer’s variations on a theme, and that’s one way to present stories, but it’s risky. Only for geniuses and/or devoted fans? Limited palettes don’t appeal to everyone and as a reader I enjoy diversity: different styles, voices and moods, different intentions.
My intentions and choices in INSTEAD, my third collection, are different from those that shaped RAVELLED (rampant diversity and transgressing boundaries) and the more contemporary WOKEN, which marked a step-change in my own activism on the page and the streets. I didn’t have an overall plan or linking theme – or at least, I didn’t know I did, until I realised that being an expectant grandma had made a difference. It’s a collection about birth as well as death, about sex and love, betrayal and sacrifice, family. I’ve dedicated it to my grandson, aware that by the time he is able and inclined to read my stories, I may be dead – and that’s an idea I rather like. If I’m still here I may no longer be the person who wrote them – but in my stories my real self will survive. Someone said on Radio Three recently that birth would be a tragedy without death and I’ve reached an age when love means so much more because of loss. But I hope INSTEAD isn’t predominantly sad. I hope, in an age of climate breakdown and fear, that it’s alive.
Lots to tell you, show you and I’d like to see you both. How Skye is. Is it too late to come? x
No. Come. X
And now they had, together, at 4:48: the start of another day. But
before, until Skye’s temperature fell as fast as it had risen, Nick had given
her what she wanted just as badly, more. His arm across her chest, his breath
on her cheek, his feet joined to hers, the first and longest kiss. And the
certainty that he cared now, about what he’d seen and why it had to happen –
almost as much as he cared about her and Skye.
He laid the same arm back across her breasts.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, I can’t say. Thoughts aren’t like sentences in books. So much. A
muddle of things.” Rob. Waterloo Bridge. An ambulance she thought she might
have to call. The moment they came as one. Rob. Waterloo Bridge. The world on
fire, the ice melting. Skye.
“But you’re not sorry?”
Gem smiled. “No. How can I be? But…”
“You hope I understand what this means and doesn’t mean. I do.” He stroked her arm. “Today’s job should end by mid-afternoon. I’ll go back to the bridge. And on Saturday, if they’re still holding it and Skye’s bouncing again, we can go, the three of us. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
Gem nodded. It was.
James looked down on the clouds that hid Britain now. It was probably thirty years since he’d done anything so… heedless. Manda used to laugh when his vocabulary relocated to a different age but she wouldn’t laugh at this. A package holiday, long haul: a V-sign to the hippies. She wouldn’t believe it was just a whim, a kind of medication, a bolthole, an ejector seat. She wouldn’t care that he hadn’t felt so guilty since he touched a breast that wasn’t hers that first time after rehearsals ended.
Maybe this would be his last, frivolous, selfish impulse – or the last to involve a runway anyway. Manda didn’t take fun seriously enough. And it wasn’t as if he was going anywhere at the sharp end of climate change, like the Maldives. He’d seen a photo of people walling round a white-sand shore with rocks against a turquoise sea. Desperation. And someone should be doing something fast; Manda was right about that. Even if it was all a bit alarmist and OTT, it wasn’t worth taking risks with paradise.
His own break would be cultural, increase his understanding more
effectively than a study course. It was what they used to call a getaway
without robbing any bank.
A curvy hostess wondered whether he’d like anything to drink.
“Whisky please,” said James. “And dry ginger.”
He might get seriously drunk.
Waking up in Leo’s bed, Manda felt guilty, even though the mattress had never felt so perfect, nor her body so warmly and languidly clean. He slept on and she wouldn’t wake him, but she wouldn’t wait either. She was needed on the bridge.
“You’re cross,” he’d said, on
the way back to the flat. “Should it have
been you? Did I steal your thunder?”
As if she hadn’t held him tight at
the police station! As if she hadn’t made a fool of herself, blubbing
ridiculously, while he was playing it cool in a cell with a story ready for
telling! He was teasing but it felt unfair, because he wouldn’t have been
rebelling in any shape or form without her. And he’d done the male thing,
independent and spontaneous, in spite of what they’d planned – and enjoyed it,
apparently, while she lost her mind to a kind of grieving with precious little
“Of course not,” she’d denied,
but he wore that half-smile that meant he knew better.
His custody sheet said Released
subject to further investigation, like a good few hundred others so far.
Everyone at the station had been nice, he’d
told her more than once. “I thought I
might be the one they charged, or kept overnight,” he added. “You were lucky,” she told him,
reluctant to believe that police racism was a thing of the past, any more than
coal mining or fracking. Aware of her own negativity, she’d asked about his
back but apparently an hour on a hard slab of a couch-bed had done him no harm.
He was sorry she’d been worried and upset, but she could see he didn’t understand why. “It just happened. They needed arrestables and I sat down – like you did.”
Manda couldn’t justify herself and
hadn’t tried, but withheld the love she could have declared to make sense of it
all. He looked so peaceful anyone might have guessed he’d spent the previous
day on a beach. Or an Eden of a bridge.
She dressed as quietly as she could, in a long summer dress. He didn’t
stir. Her hair needed a whole lot of brushing but she could do that on the
You were sleeping like a baby, she
wrote in the note. I’ve gone ahead but
maybe take it easy today, hero. Call me. Xxx
She’d like to be as careless of her
phone as he was of his. It was odd how little communication there was, for days
or weeks, between him and Nathan, but when they were together they were so
easy, with their shared walk and gestures and the same grin, that she wondered
whether she could ever be as close to Libby as Leo was, regardless, to his son.
Whether, taking bed out of the equation, she could be as close to Leo himself.
In the NT bar she’d almost called James – in fact, had tried, although now she couldn’t explain why. It was a faintly disturbing memory. But he hadn’t called back, so she didn’t need to tell him how long it took to find out which police station had housed Leo, and how alone she felt, away from the bridge, in the quiet of that soft red space where no one talked but only tapped away on keyboards. How out of place she felt in the church where she tried to charge her phone and a young, unfamiliar rebel somehow knew she needed a hug, even though it made her cry. How relieved she was to be back on the bridge, encouraged to talk, eat and breathe.
She’d told Leo but her narrative was the thin, dull one laced with
excess emotion while his had detail, characters, a kind of arc. His day, not
hers. Well, today might be different.
She was walking to the tube when a text landed. James.
Just wondering whether you’ve been
arrested yet? I hear the police are going to toughen up so look after yourself.
A thumbs-up seemed the obvious and most ambiguous response.
Looking at her reflection in the tube
window made Libby smile. Anyone would think she’d had sex with Trey – literally
rather than imaginatively – instead of just dinner in a Turkish restaurant. A
long dinner. She must have talked more over that meal than through weeks plus
nights with Marc.
Hey Mum. I know you’re busy
breaking the law but I have a new boyfriend. You won’t approve of him being
American but he despises Trump so forgive him. He’s full of admiration for you
but otherwise he’s quite normal. x
Her smile widened again as she
pictured her mother’s reactions, sentence by sentence. Her dad would like
Trey’s suits, but be unsettled by attitudes he wouldn’t expect. And why was she
even thinking like this, after one date?
Because this must be what love felt like. And somehow she had to deserve
She looked forward to a reply at some point but it didn’t matter much
anymore. With Trey beside her she’d be able to listen. She’d feel loose and
warm, without the snags and ladders that might unravel things. It was how she
felt already, remembering her hand inside his.
Hey Dad. You can ask about my love
life if you like. I promise not to ask about yours. X
For the first time, she realised she wanted him to be happy – him, Manda and Leo, Bee, everyone. Watching her mouth dance around in the glass, unable to hold any line or shape, she almost laughed.
The next chapter of FOR LIFE will be posted on 7th June at 5:30 UK time.
Gem’s hand felt the heat of Skye’s forehead.
Everything was redder than it should be: her cheeks, her eyes and nose.
Whimpering, she put her arms around Gem’s neck.
“We’ll have a quiet day here, sweetheart,” Gem told her.
“I like the bridge!”
“So do I, my love, but we have to take care of you.”
She could try to stop Nick coming but she didn’t want to. Maybe there’d be a livestream they could watch together. She was reading Skye a story when she heard him at the door and for a moment Skye looked too excited to be ill.
He kissed Gem’s cheeks and, ignoring a health warning, leaned down to Skye’s too. Gem thought maybe, just so he knew, she should talk to him again, properly – about Birth Strike. In case he was hanging in there for something she couldn’t give.
They shared what they knew between them: Piccadilly Circus lost, Marble
Arch permitted for now, police
officers caught on film dancing with rebels on the bridge. Arrests clogging up
“Go back if you want,” Nick told her. “I can stay with Skye.”
“Oh, that’s… Thanks, but…”
“She needs her mother.” Not a might-be father. It wasn’t fair on
him. “You go, get some footage, and come back and tell me everything.”
He hesitated, and made sure the hedgehog got a laugh before he left. Then he kissed her goodbye and Gem followed him into the hall.
“There’s something I want to tell you,” he said. “You know I love you.
You must know.”
“And Skye, whatever. Mine or Rob’s, why would it make any difference? We
could be a family.”
Gem tried to smile but it didn’t feel whole. “I shouldn’t have had a child. No one should, not now. It isn’t fair to bring kids into a world that’s dying.” Her voice faltered, fracturing.
He took her hand. “You don’t want any more…”
“It’s not about wanting.”
He waited, but she had no more words.
“Look, never say never. I love you. I know you still love Rob but hey,
so do I. And we’re doing this the wrong way round.” It was Gem’s turn, puzzled,
to wait. He still held her hand and she didn’t like to tug. “Talking about
having kids together when we haven’t even kissed.”
They must have done that too, after the funeral, but it seemed neither
of them remembered. Now Nick kissed her mouth. Not a sex kiss, but warm.
“Have a good day,” she told him. Like a wife.
She smiled as he hurried to his van, because she didn’t know anyone with legs as long as his.
Today the afternoon sun felt
seriously hot. Manda might have to remove her thermal vest in the crypt. With
police numbers and raids on the increase, she intended to leave the cooking to
someone who couldn’t put their job at risk, and sit on the heart line as an
arrestable. But first she watered some of the plants gathered in a garden
behind the banner, checking the soil with a finger in case another rebel had
thought of it first. Most of them were thriving; a few needed T and C. She
rubbed the herbs between her fingers and inhaled: mint, rosemary. There were
forget-me-nots, begonias… So much colour and life she could cry. And she needed
sunblock as much as sleep.
Putting down the watering can, she squinted ahead, feeling a stirring
around her. Police vans at the end of the bridge. “Could we have any
arrestables to the heart line now!” she heard over the loudspeaker. “And legal
Manda made for the front row, where the banner was laid down so that
everyone holding it could sit behind. Someone made way for her, a boy-faced young
gardener who’d been drumming during the arrests the night before. Shuffling,
she made herself as comfortable as her bones allowed.
On her right, a woman with more muscles as well as flesh pushed a kind
of kneeler towards her as cushion, saying someone had left it behind when they
came for her. Manda thanked her, wondering whether she looked old as well as
scrawny. A young tourist had given up his seat on the tube for her last week…
She’d lost Leo again, hadn’t seen him since he arrived for late breakfast, and didn’t really expect to spot him now as she turned to look through the crowd. He was probably playing or waiting to go on stage. A number of police officers were advancing in a kind of formation that must be meant to intimidate but she couldn’t believe they’d signed up for this. Behind, someone from the Wellbeing team began a chant, the hushed, religious kind: “Peace, love respect”. The tune, such as it was, defeated Manda, but personally she knew she needed de-escalation. She liked to think her heart was healthy but this… now was the time and there’d never in human history been anything bigger. And she wasn’t scared, just overwhelmed by the truth and its demands.
The first arrestee of the run walked, and made a peace sign with her
free hand. Manda looked back again, and to both sides, in case Leo had gone to
the church for a pee and arrived back in time. Because at breakfast they had
agreed to sit together on the heart line this afternoon – although admittedly
the idea was hers. “We could glue our
hands together,” she’d said, “so if
they take one, they’ll have to take both.” Leo hadn’t taken that seriously
but he’d said he didn’t want her getting arrested without him.
The young gardener whose name she’d lost gave her a smile as if he knew
she was anxious now. She smiled back, grateful. This was the kind of guy Libby
needed, not some slick suit with no ideas, never mind ideals.
She could tell that on the other side of the bridge nearest the National Theatre, more arrests were happening. But with film crews following the departures it was hard, from the ground, to see who’d been taken. Joining in with the chant for Climate Justice Now, she realised she needed water and Leo had their aluminium bottle in his backpack. She asked the gardener, who was just unscrewing the lid on his own when a policeman targeted him. He passed her the bottle and she drank hastily, watching. As he zoned out his final warning with what seemed to be prayer or meditation, she offered the water back but he meant her to keep it, because he wasn’t going to need it for a while. It took four officers to carry him away.
“WE LOVE YOU!!” shouted Manda, meaning it.
Now Claire, the sporty woman on her right, was next. Manda sang as loudly as she could beside her. Soon Claire had been lifted too, carried rather awkwardly so that they had to put her down and try again. If only she could contact Leo, he could fill that space. On her left, a girl in sunglasses had already stepped in where the gardener’s water bottle stood glinting. The Wellbeing team passed sun cream round, but the police hadn’t finished yet. Manda pulled out her phone, remembering the legal training advice that it was best not to carry one when arrested because the cops could download the contents. And she didn’t want them looking through her gallery at Rob, Rob, Rob… But if the cops were apple picking, she was the one they left on the tree. Too many bruises, maybe.
Where are you? No response. If he was on the bridge he’d know where to find her, so what had happened? Had he been tempted into the Diane Arbus exhibition at the Hayward like he’d teased he might be? There was something casual but impulsive about him that made him hard to know completely and she didn’t know how it had happened, this feeling that overcame her sometimes, because she should know better.
Still her screen was blank. But she wasn’t going anywhere. Having
removed a guy in a CHOOSE LOVE T-shirt two places away from Manda, the police
seemed to have abandoned her end of the line.
Nick Gorksi, plus camera. She was glad to see him. He said he was taking photos, portraits really, probably black and white, and would she mind?
“Not right now, Nick.” She produced her phone and scrolled… “You haven’t
seen my partner, have you?” She showed him an image from Monday, of Leo on the
stage with guitar – and enlarged it as much as she could.
Nick’s mouth opened. “He was over there.” He pointed towards the theatre side. “He was arrested.”
Manda’s boyfriend’s been taken. She’s a mess. She ran down to the vans looking
for him and he just smiled and blew her a kiss. I filmed it. Maybe I shouldn’t
have, it felt like intruding. x
Gem nearly replied, She must be in love. Instead she wrote, Manda holds on tight. X
I think she’s frustrated too, that it wasn’t her. She’s been trying hard.
They say people are being taken as far as Luton and Brighton because cells are
full. She’s gone to the NT bar to call the XR action line for news of him. X
It must be tough. X And Manda wasn’t, not really.
I’m glad it’s not you. I’d be in bits too. X
He said these things. How did she
know he meant them, or whether she wanted him to?
Poor Manda. X
Her turn will come. The Met are going to step up the pressure now.
He had a way of talking as if he knew
the things he only supposed.
So’s XR. No let up, even once this is over. x
Did you mean what you said about Birth Strike? Xxxx
I think I did.
He didn’t answer that. Gem pictured his face as he read it, and felt
sad. But there was a difference between accepting the truth, with his
intellect, as the experts told it, and knowing deep inside where he was wholly
and purely himself – in what people always called the heart: the part of him
that wanted to be a full-time lover and father and made no room for melting ice,
forest fires and cities under water.
Skye was asleep. Gem pushed back the hair from her forehead as she
slept. She felt cooler now. Maybe at the weekend she could take her to Marble
Arch, if that was still safe. But she’d rather be on the bridge; she missed it.
She didn’t suppose Manda would ever want to leave.
Glancing at the church at the south end of the bridge, Gem thought of Manda bedding down in the crypt. She felt guilty about her own good night’s sleep, but grateful for Skye’s and glad to be back. The press had no idea how much people were sacrificing but at least a Canon understood, which touched her somehow. “Such a blessing,” someone had said, “a real gift.”
“I love the spiritual roots supporting us all,” she’d told Nick on the phone the night before. “The way differences don’t matter. And the hugs.”
“I can do hugs,” he said. And he could: long ones that strengthened and
understood. He’d fit in fine, but she couldn’t push. He had to choose to be
One of the rebels sitting outside the faded old church greeted her with a raised hand, and she waved back. On days without Skye her body seemed so loose and spare and unsettlingly alone. “I can take her to nursery and pick her up too. Leave you free to be rebellious! I’d be there too if I could.” And had she wondered for more than a few seconds whether she knew Angel next-door well enough, after a few months of chat on adjacent doorsteps? Gem reminded herself how easily Skye had accepted the idea. She was independent, strong: a cause for celebration but unsettling in its way, because she was so small and the world so hostile, so terrifying, that without the protective cocoon of their mutual dependence she didn’t know how they’d come through.
Approaching the banner behind the ROAD CLOSED sign, Gem smiled, returned
a peace sign and looked for familiar faces.
“Hey,” said a bearded guy with NON-VIOLENT printed on his jeans.
Gem asked about arrests since she left.
“They came in waves and picked people off. It was kind of random. Not
sure anyone was charged though.”
Gem nodded, imagining Manda being carried away, triumphant and defiant, thinking of Rob and his approval. Wondering how many hours people might spend in a police cell, she reminded herself she mustn’t allow time to swell and lose all shape and meaning just because here the living felt so new.
Someone was watering the plants gathered behind the banner, in front of the bee sculpture with its big, firm wings. And someone in a woolly hat was being interviewed, possibly for TV. Manda! She was shivering and rubbing her hands, her nose a little red, her hair splaying out and whipped by wind across her face. No sign of her new man.
Gem crossed to the right, alongside the National Theatre, and wished she’d brought a hat herself.
Manda was too tired to plan it. But the guy from a channel James had insisted he needed right at the start, complete with satellite dish – when she’d said BBC2 was the only one that didn’t disable her brain cells – was the pushy kind, so she’d better focus. The cold air should have been enough to clarify everything but her body felt stiff and old, like the crypt.
“So what’s brought you here?” the reporter asked, furry mic thrust her way as if there was some kind of rush. The camera focused on her looked heavy duty.
“Climate catastrophe,” she said. “An existential crisis according to the
Secretary General of the UN.” She could never remember his name. “Governments
aren’t listening so it’s a very gentle, non-violent way of waving the shocking
truth in their faces. In everyone’s faces.”
“I’m sure you’re aware that some of our viewers are angry…” He sounded
as if he might be angry himself, all of a sudden.
“Not as angry as they’ll be with our leaders when they realise their kids’ future is at risk and no one’s protecting them. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Someone next to Manda sat down with a bowl of thick porridge and a tin mug of coffee.
“So you don’t consider yourself a criminal?”
Manda’s eyes widened. I’d as soon call Farage a saint, she thought – briefly conscious that Jane Austen went everywhere with a woman like her. No wonder Rob used to tease her…
“I consider myself a grandmother,” she said, surprising herself. Oh yes, apparently she did. She tried to rerun inner footage of Skye’s face, and hear her strong, sudden voice. “That’s reason and justification enough. Have you read the IPCC report? Your viewers have a right to know what it says.”
“But you’re breaking the law…”
“The government’s inaction is criminal. They’re guilty of ecocide, along with BP and Shell…” The list was too long to begin. The reporter’s eyes wandered up over her head. Was she boring him?
“And you’re willing to be arrested?”
Determined. “Oh yes,” she
said, and he lifted the mic, turning away.
“You’re welcome,” she muttered to his back, and for the first time imagined Libby watching, jumping up from the sofa at the word grandmother. As if she expected her delinquent mother to cut her out of her will and leave every last piece of pre-loved hospice shop furniture to Skye.
A police liaison officer arrived nearby, greeted by a woman who’d slept
better than Manda and hadn’t stirred when she crept and stumbled her way to the
The channel wouldn’t show it anyway. They’d look for someone younger and prettier, or grungier and less coherent. No blaming and shaming was one of the XR principles and she knew she’d sounded angrier than she should, on two hours’ sleep. It was a good decision by Leo to safeguard his back in his own bed – their bed – but he’d said he was on his way.
She hadn’t expected to miss him like this. And Rob would have loved him too.
Gem smiled up at the guy with the big hair on top of the lorry. Bypassing the porridge, she went round the other side to face the banner low along the chassis. ACT NOW, it said. From behind it, she heard singing, pure and sweet but with a fierce commitment: “I stand for love, even with a broken soul. Even with a heavy heart I stand for love.”
There was no one on the stage but technicians setting up. The voice came
from below. Gem remembered the young woman her age who had locked on
underneath. Still there, in her sleeping bag, and attached to what? An axle?
Wondering what, if the singer peered out, she could ask or say, Gem felt shy, not big enough to bother someone like her, someone brave. She could see from the empty plate and mug beside the banner that she had already been served breakfast. But did she need someone to take her place while she went for a wee, or did she have some kind of nappy? Gem supposed she’d sound like a child if she asked.
The song ended. A couple of young guys sitting on a grassy sheet playing chess looked up and clapped. In Gem’s head the song continued. Her soul, her heart. Perhaps not quite the tune she’d heard but something kept soaring and she didn’t want it to stop. People were gathering by the steps up to the lorry stage. Someone emerged from a tent, hair in a top knot, and squinted into the light, which looked brighter than it felt. He smiled at Gem.
“Another great day,” he said, and padded off barefoot.
A flag with its egg timer logo beat itself in the wind. Stepping up from Oxford Circus tube, James heard the rhythms a moment before he saw the pink boat rising above human waves. The roundabout was occupied and surrounded by onlookers, some of them police. The energy felt young, and he saw as he approached that most of the protestors were exactly that. Plenty of hair around, making his seem thin. Some of it belonged to a slight youth dressed for summer, dancing on the deck as he led a chant: “Extinction!” which was met from below by an emphatic, “Rebellion!”
James wondered whether his oldest brother Tim would tell him it was like
1969 all over again. Being a stockbroker hadn’t stopped him admitting when
drunk that it was his favourite year. And towards the end he’d been drunk a
Edging through towards the centre he could see that a number of people
were lying under the hull with its message TELL THE TRUTH. Glued, presumably.
If he were Cressida Dick he’d issue orders to delay the solvent and let them
stew. Although to be fair, they must be frozen as well as stiff.
The boat is where the heat is, Tanya had told him when he messaged to ask if she was filming the protest – mainly to show he’d dealt with her own truth and could be friends of an occasional kind. And once he’d decided to observe what was going on he’d had to be prepared to see her there without taking a hit.
Closest to the boat, people were sitting in an arc, not all of them hairy. One, balding and mature, might have been a chartered surveyor or a civil servant. There were girls as well as women, younger than Libby. Now the dancing dude led them in singing, “People gonna rise like water, gonna turn this system round. In the words of my great-granddaughter, climate justice now.”
No sign of Tanya amongst the film crews. James had been standing for a few minutes, glad of his best wool coat and scarf and oddly conscious of the shine of his polished shoes, when the police who’d seemed as neutral as him up to that point began to move in – a dozen of them, twenty. Like defenders marking strikers they attached themselves, one on one, and began to issue what he took to be warnings while the singing continued, the same song again and again but the rhythm stronger. Then a boy with dreadlocks, probably a student, was lifted and carried out, and above the song he heard shouts of “WE LOVE YOU! WE LOVE YOU!” with whoops and cheers.
An older woman, grey and churchy, was escorted off, one blue plastic police glove light on her arm. Next to her, with an officer leaning down to her, sat a pink-haired girl looking so confused he wondered whether she spoke English. People he suspected were legal observers were scribbling on notepads and talking to the arrestees, but did she even understand? Maybe she’d only been curious like him. Either way he watched her taken, loudly assured of the crowd’s love. A tall man in a hooded Parka jacket was next, his body flopping to make the load harder to bear. As four officers carried him away James saw his eyes were closed, his face calm, almost beatific. James had had enough.
A few more vanloads and they could clear the place, and that was their job, whether or not the tabloids told them to do it. But it was more disturbing than he’d imagined and he didn’t exactly know why.
As Libby and Trey left the office for the West End she hoped her elation at being on his team didn’t show. It was a biggish client, a show of faith in her.
“If we’ve got time shall we stop off at Oxford Circus?”
She was probably staring now. “Why?”
“Just to see. Show respect. They’re making a load of arrests.”
Libby shook her head. “Let’s not.”
“You’re afraid your mum might be one of them?”
She nodded. Trey looked at her as if he understood. Could he possibly understand what she didn’t? She nodded.
“Do you want to have dinner when we finish?” he asked. “You choose where. I think you need to talk to me about your mother.”
Chapter 19 will be posted at 5:30 on Friday 7th June 2019, UK time.
Beyond the lorry and its emerging
stage, the trees in their central avenue had to be sandbagged against the wind.
While Leo helped with the lifting, Manda walked towards the north end, watching
the potted plants and chalked artwork erase the blacks and greys. New tents
billowed; flags flapped. Banners hung from metal and branches. Below, the
Thames flowed on as if nothing had changed. The skyline remained as the
tourists expected it. But Waterloo Bridge was a garden growing fast.
In spite of the ROAD CLOSED sign and police lethargy, both ends had to be securely held. Behind the banner a big drum beat a rhythm through a chant. “What do we want?” someone called. “Climate justice!” Manda joined in. “When do we want it?” “Now!” she yelled. And again, and again.
After some dancing, Manda offered to relieve one of the guys holding the
banner. He thanked her and asked whether there was a skateboard park.
“Not yet but give them half an hour! It’s like a top hat full of magic
spilling out. We’ll have rabbits next.”
Manda wished she’d been more involved in the strategic planning that left her awestruck. But there would be veg to chop any time now and this brand new community would need feeding. She couldn’t tell whether the police officers close enough to scrutinise were thrown by what had happened on their watch, unfazed or entertained, but they only stood, observing and unthreatening. Unless they had their own even more brilliantly strategic plan…
Already cameras were busy but she hadn’t spotted Nick Gorski – just hundreds of guys his age, people who might have met Rob, young women who might have been glad to be Gem, all of them here for their future. And what had she done, really, all these years, with the truth? Not enough. Not nearly enough.
Gem could smell hot food and realised
she hadn’t needed lunch at home before she set off. Crossing the bridge from
the north side she smiled at the flowers, the messages, the faces that met
hers. Coming to a kind of printing table with wood-cut letters, she chose the
strip of cloth that read Conscientious Protector and picked up some safety pins
“Not so easy to do your own arm,” said someone around her age who apparently didn’t need a coat, just a stripy jumper that might have shrunk in the wash and a denim mini skirt. “Let me.” She introduced herself as Lois and admired Skye, who was watchful but quiet.
“She’s mesmerised,” said Gem. “It’s beautiful here.”
She looked up at the lorry stage where a cool guy old enough to be her father was playing guitar rather well.
“You know there’s a family area behind it, right?” Lois checked. “Past Inductions, before Wellbeing.”
“Great. All this since ten?”
“Not long after. And you know about the church, for toilets, and time out. Restores my faith in religion – or should that be people?” Lois looked around. “Feels like home.”
“You’re from the South West?”
“No, but I used to live in Bristol.”
Lois explained that most of the people who’d taken the bridge were in affinity groups from Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. “Totnes is punching above its weight. Stroud too. I just met a permaculture guy with the carbon footprint of a mouse. Don’t you love it here already?”
Gem nodded. Lois swayed her hips to the guitar, which was funkier now. Then she said, “Did you write a Letter to Earth? I’m reading mine later – although I might be crying by the end. See you, Gem. See you, Skye.”
Skye waved shyly. Lois left for a series of embraces. Gem wished she’d written that letter, joined an affinity group – rather than feeling like a part-timer, constrained too.
“Don’t beat yourself up,” Nick
would tell her. He insisted she was a great mother, but when she’d tried to
tell him it would have been better for Skye if she hadn’t been born into this
climate emergency, he’d asked her not to say that, not to even believe it. Of
course she could argue that it was rationally, objectively true – as well as
impossible to think at all when Skye raised her arms in love and trust because
they belonged around her. As she was doing now.
Gem unstrapped her, carried her with one arm and began, rather
unsteadily, to park the buggy with her free hand, beside a wheelbarrow full of
Someone reached for the handles and did the rest for her. In wind-tugged,
harem pants and a knitted coat of many colours, she might have looked unconventional
somewhere else – including Waterloo Bridge on any other morning. Her hair was
tied with wool in a wide, heavy kind of pony tail.
“Manda. I wondered if you’d be here.” Skye filling her arms made the
question of a hug null and void. But it meant the gap between them felt
tangible – until Manda leaned in with a kiss for her left cheek, then the
Gem smiled. “This is Skye,” she said. She’d rehearsed this moment but
still had no script.
“Hello, Skye, gorgeous girl! What do you think of this wonderland?”
Gem realised that since they had only spoken at the funeral, she had
never seen Manda look or sound happy. And maybe this was a kind of wake for
everything that was dying too. Skye was watching Manda’s painted beads.
“Want to touch them, Skye?” She held them out for Skye to reach and
feel. “They’re made of recycled paper,” she told Gem.
“Beautiful,” said Skye. Her new favourite word.
“So are you, sweetheart.”
Surprised by emotion, Manda looked from Gem to the child and wondered
how to ask whether she was her grandma. “Gem…” she began.
“I don’t know whether she’s Rob’s,” Gem told her, too quietly, as the
music ended and the seated audience in front of the lorry clapped and cheered
“Sorry? I missed that.” Manda pressed because she had to know, didn’t
she? Although suddenly she wasn’t certain she needed to…
Gem raised her voice a little. “I don’t know who the father is. It could
be Rob; I wanted that from the start. But there was someone else, someone kind
who comforted me, soon after… So I don’t know for sure. I’m sorry.”
Manda nodded. “I see. But if you want her to be Rob’s, and I do too…”
Her voice broke without warning. “Well, if you’re willing to let me get to know
her a little, babysit even, if you like… I’d love to. Just as often or
occasionally as you like. The offer’s there but don’t see it as any kind of
pressure or claim.” Manda was conscious that here, now and unexpectedly, she
could be her best self. It was liberating. “It’s wonderful to see you here,”
she added, her voice thickening. “Family anyway, all of us, all over the
“Thank you, Manda.” Gem was moved. It made words inadequate. “Thank you.
That’s really… so kind.”
“I’ll be here for as long as it holds – unless I’m in a police cell of
course. And you’ve been listening to my partner, Leo.” Manda had sensed that he
was close and turned to find him with his guitar on his back, smiling.
Gem smiled too. “I enjoyed your set,” she said, because she had,
although now it seemed a long way back in the past.
“Leo, this is Gem,” Manda told him.
“Ah,” he said. “Lovely to meet you. And this?” He held out a hand to Skye but she hadn’t got the hang of high fives yet, which made her laugh most.
“Skye,” said Manda and Gem together.
“Cool,” said Leo. “Like all this, yeah?”
“Cool!” cried Skye.
“I think I’ll take her to the children’s area…”
“Good idea,” said Manda. “I’ll be cooking again so I’ll be easy to find.
Don’t leave without saying goodbye.”
Now Skye wanted to walk so Gem led her away by the hand, knowing they were watching. It was news she would have messaged Pru to share. As it was, the person she wanted to call and tell might not be the best audience for the story.
Libby hadn’t realised that Trey would
be at a meeting until the afternoon. Wearing a new dress she expected him to
notice, she hoped the climate protestors wouldn’t delay his arrival even
longer. Since coffee time people in the office had been moaning about the
disruption, calling it counterproductive and
blaming hippies but she’d kept her
head down. As her computer screen showed almost two thirty, she heard his voice
in reception, crossed her legs and sat up straighter at the screen. Her
lipstick still felt fresh.
Making sure she didn’t turn her head as he spoke to a couple of the others, she waited until he was almost behind her before she looked up and smiled. She was sure he danced at weekends; the energy and grace were in his walk, his body.
“Libby,” he said. “Any problems?”
“No, all good,” she told him. “I hope the protest didn’t cause you any.
Problems, I mean.”
“Extinction Rebellion? They’ve brought London to its knees according to the press. The tubes are fine, though. I’m guessing your mother…”
Libby felt the kind of flush she’d grown out of a decade ago. Who told
him that? It wouldn’t surprise her if the video that went viral followed her
everywhere and forever. She winced. “Probably, yes. Well, definitely in fact.”
“Good on her.” Trey smiled, checked his phone and looked back up at
Libby, running a hand through his fair curls. “Really. I mean someone’s got to
bring government to its senses, right? All power to them. Screw the
inconvenience; climate breakdown be a lot more disruptive if the world doesn’t
She stared and made an assenting sort of noise. Her smile felt
“You should be proud of your mum. I would be.”
She made a faint, wordless noise Trey didn’t hear because he was answering a call on his mobile as he headed for his office.
Chapter 18 will be posted on May 31st at 5:30 UK time.
James realised he might have to
invest in an apron.
“Why don’t you bring Leo to Sunday
lunch?” was so easily said, with a kind of bravado that declared maturity,
generosity, confidence in his culinary skills as well as his single status. A
sign that he was unintimidated by the flamboyance of Manda’s romance or
The hardback book he’d bought just before closing the day before was
propped open with his phone and glasses case, and spattered with greasy smears.
He wished Libby hadn’t declined but then she was probably spending Sunday in
bed with this Marc she hadn’t mentioned to Manda. James knew he wasn’t good at
secrets after half a bottle of wine, and as Leo didn’t drink and Manda might
not be satisfied the Shiraz was vegan, he could be obliged to put away rather
more. Especially if they banged on about the International Rebellion that
according to the press was intended to wreak chaos in the capital tomorrow.
Not that he cared the way he would have done, before the sabbatical.
Maybe he should spend some of the time that stretched ahead of him on cookery
The sauce seemed too thin and oily. Perhaps he’d misread something. What
would Manda add to thicken it, without lumps? He’d ask Libby but if she wasn’t
eating out she took her meals home from M and S. Besides, he wouldn’t want to
interrupt anything. And he hoped Manda and Leo… well, they weren’t teenagers,
for God’s sake.
Aware that he was feeling grumpy now, James searched online for ideas and
tried ground almonds, hoping the result tasted better than it looked. He
wondered whether Leo was a new or reluctant vegan and had allowed Manda to show
him that Cowspiracy film he’d successfully refused to watch himself.
He’d forgotten the salad! And the oranges the recipe claimed went so
well with baby spinach!
“So what?” he challenged aloud. Manda improvised; she called it
‘imagination’ and the secret of her success.
Was that the doorbell? Were they early and what did that mean? Too much
sex had made them hungry? James washed his hands too quickly and splashed his
new jeans, anticipating Manda’s smile.
He opened the door and saw that with his pale, torn jeans, single
earring and patchwork sweater, Leo was shabby-cool. Was that a phrase? Manda
would think it should be. His greying hair gleamed and his smile was wide.
“Hey, James. Good to meet you.”
And had he in fact heard so much about him? He didn’t like to guess at the exact words she’d use. No hug, thank goodness – just a hand to shake that caught him off guard a moment before he took it. Remembering that Leo was a musician, he hoped he wasn’t too good – at that or anything else. But Manda’s face suggested otherwise. Then she kissed both his cheeks and he felt the familiar texture of her hair flung against his skin. She was too warm for the weather.
Behind them James saw two bikes with helmets over the handlebars. According
to Libby, she lived mostly at Leo’s place now.
“A good clean ride on a Sunday,” Leo said.
“Relatively clean,” said Manda. “Did you know in London kids’ lungs are
actually smaller now, as in shrinking?”
“That’s pretty shocking,” he admitted. “If it’s true.”
“Google it,” Manda suggested. “Do your own fact-check.” But he didn’t
think she was irritated. She was losing weight, though. Leo took her hand.
James suggested that they hid the bikes round the side into the back garden, even though their combined value didn’t really warrant such a precaution. Leo grinned but wheeled them both, one on each side. Manda watched him a minute, like a proud mother, then stepped inside.
“How are you?”
James wanted to ask her how anyone could answer that question
meaningfully, but instead claimed, “Fine,” and echoed it back as revenge.
“Me? Excited more than anything. You know we’re going to block London
tomorrow, bring it to a standstill?”
Kicking off her Doc Martens, she hadn’t made it further than the hall.
“So I gather,” he said. “I’m glad I won’t be disrupted.”
“Tell me a better way of achieving the goals, James. Seriously. Everyone
would love to know how to make headlines and force the government to their
senses without disrupting poorly paid workers at rush hour.”
She ran her fingers through hair that had been crushed, and shook it out. It used to be more resilient, and vivid too. The thought made him feel old and rather sad.
“Of course the well paid workers deserve all they get,” he deduced.
There had been a time when she loved the character of this unnecessarily
spacious house almost as much as the garden and its tulips.
“Let’s not make it political,” she suggested brightly. “This is about
the survival of humanity and everything else. In which context, a few delays…”
“Good luck explaining that to Libby.”
Leo returned in his young dude’s sneakers and shone a smile around.
James noticed the way Manda touched him at once: just a quick, light hand on
his thigh. Leo reached for her hand and they followed James together, their
socked feet padding in unison behind him in a silence that left him imagining
At least Leo hadn’t brought a guitar.
“How’s the sabbatical, James?” he heard as he turned into the kitchen, which looked a lot messier than he’d thought he’d left it.
“Oh, I’m adjusting,” he said. “I’d forgotten how to sleep. I’m reading a
bit. Investigating classes. I did sign up to a gym.”
He could tell Manda knew what that meant: more or less diddlysquat.
“You could join us,” she said. “Rebel for life.”
As he focused on pouring drinks, Leo asked him about the courses he was
considering. James sounded vague, forgetting most of them. He thought better of
apologising for the food before he had served it.
“Smells good,” said Manda.
She could still read him and now it made him awkward. All those years
they were married, he cooked for her once a year maybe, on her birthday. What
had he been trying to prove, playing host? Maybe he’d just tired of waiting for
them to invite him to the love nest.
“You two can go and canoodle on the sofa while I focus in here,” he
“It’s a great garden,” said Leo.
“I’m managing to fit weeding into my hectic schedule,” James told them.
“The tulips seem to be thriving.”
Still her favourite, he wondered, especially the straggle-topped ones? She didn’t say because they’d gone.
Regent’s Park was bright, its perfect
grass a deep, slightly damp green, but in spite of the sun Gem felt shivery.
She’d need more clothes on Waterloo Bridge. Nick never wore enough. She glanced
at the snatch of bare skin between his jeans and hoodie as he pushed the buggy
and imagined him as a stringy boy, his feet and chest bare on a bitter British
Gem preferred the park in the summer when the delphiniums rioted deep purple and cobalt blue, but Skye liked the ducks and geese and looking down on water. In fact she had nodded off, her head tilted and her hat slipping. Gem smiled with Nick at the small mouth hanging open and shiny with dribble. Sometimes the newness of it, of her skin and fingers, made her soft inside – a softness she’d resisted for years, to be alone.
Nick spread out the picnic blanket and they sat. She’d brought a flask
of coffee and poured him a cupful.
“I know you’re disappointed but I can’t turn down paid work,” he said.
She wanted to ask why. Some rebels had given up jobs for this. He looked
good in his sunglasses but she couldn’t tell whether he was disappointed too.
“But you’ll come on Wednesday?”
“Sure, if I can. I want to be with you.”
“But you’re not sure about it, are you?”
“It’s beyond ambitious. Four sites to hold all week! Do they think the
police will just give them up?” He paused, retrieving hair brushed free by
wind. “And do they really think there’s the remotest chance the government will
meet those demands?” He touched her hand a moment. “I’m not trying to burst
“I believe in this,” she told him. “Time’s running out, Nick. I know the
whole thing is ridiculously big and bold but it has to be.”
“What love requires of you?” He smiled at her favourite Quaker phrase.
“But don’t get arrested.”
“How can I, with Skye?”
“I’d cry if I had to watch them carry you off.”
She looked at him, surprised. A pigeon landed in a flurry even before
she had thought about the sandwiches in her backpack.
“You won’t have to,” she said.
“Ducks!” cried Skye, straining in the buggy.
The next chapter will be posted on Friday 24th April at 5:30 UK time.
the story resumes as the International Rebellion is about to begin
Telling people made all the
difference. Until Libby heard herself, three drinks down, muttering to Bee that
being with Marc was ‘getting boring’ after two whole months, she hadn’t
labelled her feelings. And even then, the word she meant was hollow. That was how she felt it as she
woke beside him, wondering what possessed her to allow him into her space and
fill it – with his biceps and his smokiness, his toiletries and shoes. With
underwear in her washing machine that counted on surfacing clean for his
Libby watched him sleeping, his chin spiking with stubble and his chest
model-tight. Bee had said she wouldn’t mind being bored out of her brains by
him but that was a sex thing and for Libby that side had worn first, slipped
into familiar choreography that was all placement and no flair.
“Kew Gardens would be nice,” she’d said, wanting blue above and air with
bite, but Saturdays meant football and lager and all the fags he couldn’t smoke
in the week. And she hadn’t minded at first, because of the gifts that arrived
at the office and the way the others gathered to see what he’d sent her this
time. And because Bee had said ‘a regular guy’ was what she needed, someone to
give her ‘a good seeing-to’. Which was what he thought he did, sometimes twice
Still, she thought, as she smelt the Marc-ness of his breath, he made
her feel clever – which was a first. Told her she was too good for him. Was
amused by jokes about her eco-extremist mother – who’d want to meet him, if she
knew he existed, but not if she heard him laughing at her expense. And Libby
might have called it enough, for now, if she’d stuck with the old job. Marc had
lain in her bed, watching her dress for the interview, in a new and expensive
little suit with leg room, and told her he’d employ her on sight – making the
verb into innuendo.
He didn’t guess what she thought about when he was on top of her. Or
rather, who. And he didn’t ask. For Marc, questions were just foreplay. He didn’t
need to know how she functioned, inside, any more than she needed to know what
lifted an aeroplane off the ground. And he’d taken her for an expensive weekend
in Barcelona, was talking now about hot white sand in Croatia for Easter.
At that moment he woke quite suddenly, as if an alarm had sounded and a
survival instinct kicked in hard. He reached out an arm soft with coppery hair,
and smiled as if he thought, washed and dressed as she as, that she must be
willing right now.
It was her cue and she knew she had to work it somehow.
“Thing is, in fact… I need you
to go. As in, it’s over, you know, run its course?” He was staring, shocked,
and making her feel cruel when it was just realism really. She softened her voice,
hoped it transmitted to her face. “Just life, you know? Nothing lasts, right?”
Somehow she held eye contact and wished it felt more powerful.
His jaw clenched as if his teeth met hard inside. There was a furious
reflex force in the way he exited her bed, sheets thrashed. He reached for his
clothes, hanging in her wardrobe, knocking a dress of hers to the floor.
“You’re a bitch, a fucking bitch.”
She used to tell her mother that, in her teens, but it wasn’t true and
she really hoped he was wrong too. “If I am, you’re best out of it.”
Now she was glad she never told him anything, not about Rob or
counselling. Not about anything that mattered, like the feelings she’d named
for the counsellor. Part of her wanted to say she was sorry but that was a word
that made her small. He’d been pestering her for a key but something in her
always knew the narrative would work its way to this.
“You’re welcome to breakfast before you go.”
“Not hungry.” He made the two words sound like an accusation, or threat.
Marc’s usual morning routine was careful and scented. Now he was heading
for her door. She pictured him tying his red shoelaces before she heard him
rattle the door shut with a final clash.
“You deserve to be loved,” her
mother had told her at Christmas.
“Because you’re human, darling.”
It wasn’t the answer her mother would
have given Rob. Because he was brave and principled, and funny and soft.
Everything Libby wasn’t. How human was she, really? What if Rob got every bit
of humanity that mattered and she was left with the dregs?
Now her mother loved hip old Leo almost as much as she loved the planet,
and sat with him like a conjoined twin on the sofa, their hands playing each
other’s fingers like messages or tunes.
“Of course it’s your choice when
you stop,” said the counsellor. “But
have you considered why you want to?”
Wasn’t the wanting enough? Even love
was just wanting, and needing to be wanted. And she was no good at loving, or
hadn’t been up to now. She’d been waiting for the counsellor to tell her so.
“Is it because we’re not making
enough progress, or because the progress is real and challenging?”
Libby liked to think she’d been
challenging herself. “Isn’t that a loaded
Maybe she was better at asking questions than answering them. She knew
she hadn’t told the truth, since she didn’t know what that was, but wasn’t she
paying the counsellor to shine a light on it?
Well this was the truth here, whether Marc could face it or not. Libby tugged
the sheet from the bed and bundled it into the washing machine along with his
She didn’t know why she was crying.
Gem read the email from Mia a second
time, as if the words would arrange themselves into a different meaning.
Gem, I am very sorry to tell you
that Pru died on Thursday night. It was sudden but peaceful. Her son has asked
for an inquest but if she could she’d say she just wore out. I said that as the
person who made her a silver surfer I’d go through her Contacts and let
everyone know. It’s a short list and almost all what he would call
I will let you know about the
funeral but it’s a long way for you to come and she wouldn’t expect it. You
Hope you and Skye are well. She
really loved you.
“I really loved her too,” Gem told the screen.
Looking at the time in the bottom right corner, she shut down the laptop
and went to wake Skye. Her hair was wild around the cot, and warm on her
forehead when she stroked it. Gem didn’t know anyone more alive.
“Hey, sweetpea. Time for another day.”
Skye pressed her lips to Gem’s cheek in a moist kiss as she lifted her.
Gem thought there was a question in her eyes. Maybe she heard it in her voice:
the loss, Pru gone. The cold space opening up around her.
Would she have gone up to Preston at Christmas, if she and Nick hadn’t
been… connecting? Pru had wanted to meet him. In the spring, she’d told Pru, before
the International Rebellion.
So are you and Nick what they call
an item? Pru had asked, more than once.
We’re friends, Gem had told
her, and Skye loves him.
It might be hard for a guy with a
big, noisy family to understand what Pru was to her: a surrogate grandma, a
role model, as open and giving as Gem had learned to be reticent and safe. But
not with Pru, because Pru seemed to know straight away who she really was, the
first time they met at the gates to the site where they hadn’t fracked now
since December. Whoop whoop, her
texts said, every time Cuadrilla took more equipment away. Perhaps Pru had died
Skye filled the potty, her eyes sleepy but curious. Then she followed
Gem through to the kitchen and lifted her arms to be placed in her high chair.
It seemed wrong to be reaching for a pan to make her porridge when the woman
who doted on her from a distance was dead, and would never live for her, any
more than Rob could.
“See Daddy today?”
Gem turned. It was a first and Nick would be… elated, moved. He didn’t
press, didn’t talk tests, just enjoyed. Gem was grateful. But for her Rob did
live, and always would, where it hurt most, not in the car upside down off the
road but beside her, his hand in hers. And she wasn’t ready. It made her doubt…
Taking her time, she stirred the oats into the rice milk as if she
needed to concentrate. She couldn’t correct her; it wouldn’t be fair. Then she
said, gently, “Nick’s working today.”
They needed to talk about the Rebellion but no one could say how long it
would last, or hold. She’d booked three days unpaid leave and wished she could
take more; he didn’t seem sure whether he’d be there to film it. There’d be
four key sites but she liked the idea of a garden bridge.
She would see him tomorrow, after Meeting. He was interested in what
being a Quaker meant. Gem knew he was in love – with Skye, with holding her
high above his head and pushing her buggy. With her too, maybe. It was kindness
and she couldn’t let it go. He was Rob’s best friend after all.
“Porridge ready,” asked Skye as if it was an assumption, as Gem added some raisins and reached for the Tigger bowl.
The author as rebel
Part Sixteen will be posted at 5:30 UK time on Friday 17th April.
You are mother, home, life. We
acknowledge your power, your beauty, your wildness and peace. With awe we
remember the moments when truth broke in and held us still, bright, small. We
reclaim the child in us who saw the detail and knew that it was fine, who
watched and listened and felt the mystery. Your colours blaze and cool. Your
sounds silence our clamour. We remember how to be, our place in the web, the
rhythms and patterns beyond our busyness.
Your life is intense, patient, unexplained. The world we share sings
tunes we cannot learn and paints truths for which we have no words. It is your
gift to us and we will treasure it, restore it, live simply and thankfully as
love requires of us. Or we will die – and what then?
Without us, you will heal in time. Our damage forgotten, you will roar
and whisper on. The dance will not end, not yet. You will not mourn us. We will
be unspoken in the silence that returns.
Our loss, not yours, and our destruction. But we have no right – to let
go of small hands, to cut the cord and the roots, to tear the roof from the
sky, to smother the future’s breath. We will remember who we are and what we
owe. We will live again.
Written for Extinction Rebellion Earth Speaks and read on Waterloo Bridge.
I am officially a rebel. In fact I was arrested on Thursday 18th April for the first time in my sixty-two years. When a friend asked me why this was my answer: Everything that makes me an activist is deeply connected: peace and the arms trade, justice for refugees and this climate emergency which we face together as one human family. But if one issue is bigger than the rest it’s this threat to our existence and the challenge to live differently or die. I arrived at Waterloo Bridge on Monday 15th April prepared to be arrested, and once I had become part of a beautiful, loving community living that difference, I found hope and with it determination. I have taken part in protests where as a Quaker I have been uncomfortable with words if not actions around me. Here at Extinction Rebellion my soul has found deep peace in the non-violence that holds and unites regardless of diversity. There has been nowhere I would rather be, spiritually and physically. And being arrested after sitting on the ‘heart line’ (front line being a military term we didn’t want to use) for the best part of two days was a shock just for a couple of minutes before I felt that deep peace of knowing we serve the truth and all people and species, that others were grateful and that the first time would not and could not be the last.
to watch police vans arrive and officers advancing with purpose. Arrest is a
profoundly serious matter and I think all of us taken into custody, some
long-term climate activists and some who had just arrived at a place of support
for XR’s aims, felt the weight of that seriousness. But nothing can be more
serious than this climate emergency. We know we are privileged to be able to
protest on behalf of those who are feeling the impact ahead of us. And while
being on Waterloo Bridge for six days was joyous and beautiful, it was a
profoundly conscious commitment, with induction into the principles of XR and
the set-up of the community, with wellbeing support, de-escalation training, an
ecological washing-up system after free vegan food, composting, and traditional
wood-cut printing onto T-shirts instead of merchandise. We were very fortunate
at the bridge to have use of St John’s Church at the south end, where some
slept in the crypt and all of us visited the toilets. We were young and older,
from various faiths and none, but love and respect were fundamental to every
decision made. Everyone who stepped onto the lorry stage expressed the same
hopes and fears, including thirteen-year-old Max, whose speech had a call and
response: “It’s bonkers!” and “Shut it down!” Isn’t that exactly how the
business as usual that Sadiq Khan wanted to see restored must seem to a child
becoming aware of the course we are still taking towards the end of the human
I went across to Oxford Circus on Thursday on hearing they needed numbers as the police moved in. It was a very different space, pace and energy, but in spite of the heat, overcrowding and tension, the spirit was warm and strong, with songs and chants, and dancing on the pink boat labelled TELL THE TRUTH. But my heart was on Waterloo Bridge, and I returned to be arrested. I walked rather than being lifted, and as I took my seat in the van a kind of disbelief set in. I’m well-behaved! Within minutes, a mother with a young child looked in at me, touched her heart and then held out both hands, saying “Thank you.” There was bonding in the van with the other three ‘prisoners’; the police were friendly and courteous. My experience in the station was interesting and relatively brief and at no point did I ask myself what I was doing. When I was released there was arrestee support waiting – another XR system efficiently in place – and I felt glad and at peace. In a statement I never needed (I wasn’t charged but released subject to further investigation) I said that as a Quaker I had done what love required of me.
Saturday my husband Leslie Tate, also a Quaker, was arrested when the police
kettled us on the bridge in order to dismantle the lorry which was our stage,
while we sang, “Police, we love you. We’re doing this for your children too.” At
this point I discovered that it’s very much more distressing to be the partner
of an arrestee than to be taken into custody oneself. Both of us, in the
holding cell and van, talked about climate breakdown, introducing officers
there to the Birth Strike and details of the Sixth IPCC report. Then on Easter
Sunday when we had a day off, I wept to watch live footage of people being
arrested on the bridge to the sound of Amazing Grace. The next day there was
only one site to go to, at Marble Arch. We took friends who were hugely
impressed, and at one point I joined XR families in a die-in under the blue
whale at the Natural History Museum. When we all stood up, it was to a great
cheer from those observing from around and above. A couple of days later I was
part of an impressive lobbying group in Parliament. Rebels have a depth of
knowledge and understanding of climate change that would shame most
fast with XR and I have no doubt that imaginative actions lie ahead. Disrupting
people’s lives is not something any of us would choose but it has had an enormous
impact, airing a taboo subject and generating conversations everywhere,
including TV and radio. Nothing is perfect and it’s not unreasonable to call
the movement white and middle-class, although there’s more ethnic diversity
than some suggest, and one could blame the media for the irresponsible silence
and downright misinformation that has denied many people access to the facts.
Women, many of them young, fill key roles and everyone is heard in an attempt
to be hierarchy-free. And to those who say that it was inconvenient and
stressful for those trying to get to work or the shops, I can only ask for a
better idea that would grow the movement by 30,000 in a week by making
headlines – and point out the completely different scale of the disruption
ahead if we don’t address the crisis now. It seemed to all of us that the
police had no wish to waste their time harassing “nice” peaceful people, and
that it was the tabloids that nudged the Home Secretary to demand that they
used the full force of the law. A Sky News reporter asked me if I saw myself as
a criminal. No, I am a Quaker, and a grandma, and an author who writes mainly
for children. I am a conscientious protector. I have been a follower of Jesus
all my life and my week on Waterloo Bridge took me closer to paradise than any
other experience I’ve lived.
The rebellion will not end until the demands are met, so even if the last site has been cleared by the time you read this, nothing is over. I am ready to be arrested again, because there are no peaceful lengths to which I will not go to protect the future for my children and grandchild, and yours.