Only trees

Sometimes love is something we learn. The Amazon is on fire and finally we understand what that means. The truth dawns, a truth we knew if we only stopped a moment to breathe, listen, look: that trees are the purest carbon capture technology, that they’ve been the lungs of the earth all along. That by planting more of them, trillions more, we could give ourselves an outside chance. Our dependence on trees is something we ingenious humans can be slow to grasp. Yet their beauty lies not only in their colours, textures, sounds, shape and strength, but in something deeper that seems to me now like tenderness. A tree has the power to transform the brutality of our concrete creation. Study after study confirms the nurturing impact on our wellbeing of walking through woods, or even a city park. Trees sustain and heal. Yet we ridicule tree huggers and Druids who revere the natural world over which, magnificently and beneficently, they preside. We destroy them to consume. We fell them for motorways. We overlook both the habitats they represent in all their magical complexity, and the extraordinarily intricate web of life we break at our own risk.

I’ve wised up but I’ve been no exception. I’ve lived an urban life, spending more time in art galleries, novels and cinemas than forests. But my father, whom I adored, had a deep, intuitive connection with the natural world. Writing about my childhood in the third person for my contribution to the triple autobiography, THE DREAM SPEAKS BACK, I didn’t know how Tardis-like the process would be. To a greater extent than I could have imagined, I became the little girl I used to be – and emerging into the present I was terribly moved, because my dad is gone and I am at that age where, setting aside climate breakdown just for a moment, loss is cumulative and tears are generally a blink away. I found myself supplementing memory (mine’s just too riddled with gaps where the details should be) to present a series of scenes that are essentially and emotionally truthful. Some are composites, such as a visit to Frinton, where my grandparents rented a beach hut and one scene represents many days, or rather how I felt about those days. Others are beacons in mist because of their emotional energy. Technicolour and multi-sensory, they retain their power over me. And the most vivid of them all seems to be the one I quote here. The one in which a tree has been cut down, my dad is weeping and I know, because he’s the wisest, most sensitive person in my world and the one I love most, he must know something profound that I’m too young to appreciate.

I feel it now.

The grinding noise was over now but the garden still smelt of wood. There was a fine dust of it around the sliced stump where the tree used to make shade. The girl thought of a painting she’d seen in The Tate Gallery, of the boy Jesus in the carpenter’s workshop. Dad would be proud that she remembered the artist’s name too: Sir John Everett Millais. But she wouldn’t mention it. She wouldn’t say anything in case the words were wrong. She just stood on the step down from the living room and watched.

   Dad wasn’t browning in the deckchair, or mowing the lawn, or looking at the red geraniums gathering in a crowd alongside her. “What a colour!” he’d said last year. “Scarlet, carmine or vermillion?” “Scarlet,” she’d decided. That would have been a more beautiful name than Susan, and fitted a heroine better.

   Now he sat on the grass, with splinters around him, and his knees up in front of his chest. His arms hugged his legs and his head was down, but not for long because a moment later he gazed up at the space the tree had filled, as if it was a scar that hurt. The girl knew he was crying even before a sound broke out. It wasn’t loud but deep and shaky. His body rattled softly, like the branches of the tree used to do when it was windy. Inside the girl the stiffness started, filling her. It was what happened to her breathing when it made no difference how much she loved him.

   Mum was behind her now. She laid a hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Daddy’s heartbroken, darling. He blames himself. But we had no choice.”

   The girl knew about the roots that had grown in secret, and webbed out towards the foundations. Dad had drawn the house on his board at the office so he called it a mistake building too close to the tree. But no one could have dreamed that it was creeping secretly towards them, day by day, week by week, while they ate and played and slept. She imagined the roots like arms with muscles and fists – breaking through the earth and shattering the concrete to lift up the house and tilt it like a ship on a wave. It wasn’t really frightening, because it was harder to believe in than the Ogre that used to give her bad dreams when she was small.

   She was too grown-up for a swing now anyway.

   Mum went slowly out across the grass and sat down beside Dad. He turned towards her and his face was wet, and creased out of shape. Mum reached her arm across his back and he leaned towards her. The girl couldn’t hear what she said to him but he kept on crying.

   She wished he’d stop now. He preferred the garden to other people. It was his place to breathe after London and the train. It was his painting. But his heart had more cracks than it should and that scared her more than roots could ever do. Why couldn’t he forgive himself? The sun was bright and the geraniums didn’t care.

   It was just a tree.

Featured image: words by Robert Macfarlane, artwork Nick Hayes

No Faith in War

a poem written in a police cell after my arrest at Stop the Arms Fair DSEI 3/9/2019

7 a.m.

My view is different now:

an open skyful, grubby white,

a flight path, torn with roaring.

I think I’m lying

on the road to hell.

Top left, the concrete’s dark, unyielding.

Right, leaves shift and shudder high.

Seagulls loop on the wind.

Magpies jut like chimneys from a roof.

And when I close my eyes, the darkness

is a scarlet weave.

I cross my legs to still the shaking.

Constrained by pain, my body’s resisting,

my hand caught tight around the lock

I hooked inside the tube

through a case that says Calvin Klein.

From the hotel, cars free to slide away

are low on my radar as cats.

Beside me leaves scud scratchy, close and wild.

Bound together in love, the three of us don’t talk.

The kit keeps us apart,

held in Quaker silence,

in hope, patience, conviction,

in the PEACE stitched vivid on a cloth without an altar.

9 a.m.

My scalp and shoulders are pillowed now.

Under a banner linking legs on tarmac

and a scarf from a skip,

I’m lifted.

Around us, small but focused, a Meeting’s gathered.

I have no needs to meet

but smiles, a little conversation,

my father’s hand reaching down with the rest

to hold on.

And an end to this,

but not yet.

In Yemen roads are bloodied and skies

rain merchandise from merchandise.

We’re stopping the Arms Fair.

No weapons pass.

Plush and vast, the showroom space awaits unfilled

and this road is to Emmaus.

We did it.

Grandma did it.

11 a.m.

I’m shielded under pressure.

A shower sparks firework red around my boots.

The cutters burn,

the air’s industrial.

The team in black crouch, sweat and struggle,

pass surgical tools for this theatre.

It’s tough, all of it,

their challenge, ours.

As an observer starts to cry,

I smile at Leslie so he knows I’m not afraid.

My fingers, trapped, arthritic, curl stiff at the core.

The drill rattles hard.

Heat circles my hand until I’m free,

escorted to the van.

My legs fold and sway

but I hear the cheers.

Handcuffed, I smile and make a peace sign

through closing doors.

And no, I’m not from Huddersfield!

Here’s a great short film of the day from Roots of Resistance, the Quaker group – and another from Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

WAGGLETAIL TED: a story that changed direction

Sometimes my stories surprise me. WAGGLETAIL TED began as a celebration of a small dog with a big personality, but it grew. Originally aimed at KS1, it developed and could now be enjoyed by Y3 – Y6, because the vocabulary and sentence structure became more sophisticated as the content shifted. It’s still the story of Ted – and yes, it was inspired by a real dog – but I realised a few hundred words in that it was also going to be the story of a young Syrian boy called Jamal, and his family, who come to live next-door.

Why? Well, because refugees are never far from my mind. I’m a Trustee of People not Borders, after all, and I’ve met small children like Jamal in a camp in Dunkirk. I’m also proud to know more than one family like Jamal’s because I’m a member of Herts Welcomes Syrian Families. My first fundraising picture book for People not Borders, I AM ME, explores in very simple rhyming text the mixed emotions of a child arriving in the UK where everything is different; I AM ME 2 is about a child in a camp in Greece and features photographs by young Syrian Abdulazez Dukhan, whom I was very glad to meet earlier this year and who is a hugely inspiring human. So if Ted was going to have neighbours – and a story about ‘man’s best friend’ needs some two-legged characters too – I soon realised who they would be. I also decided that my author share and royalties from this book must be donated to People not Borders, to support children whose lives are harder than Jamal’s. Not that his is easy…

WAGGLETAIL TED became a book about fear and loss as well as friendship. Bumptious Ted is afraid of water, cats and children. Jamal misses his cat Koo, left behind in Syria, but is very afraid of dogs. At this point I should confess that I have been scared of dogs for as long as I can remember, thanks to an encounter with a big, bounding, barking animal on a chain when I was two – so the theme of fear was almost bound to present itself. But of course, for Jamal, much more traumatic fear has run through his young life in a war zone. He’s not only lost his mother but also his big brother and hero Hassan, who played the piano so beautifully in the house that used to be home. And now the children in his British school are not all kind. There’s a deep sadness underlying his story but it’s positive too. It’s about adapting to change, finding courage and trusting. And love that doesn’t die.

Once I knew Ted wouldn’t be the only animal in this story, I deliberately kept the identity of the cat in question ambiguous. If some readers, like Jamal, want to believe it’s Koo, they can. Stories can break the rules of real-world probability; if they didn’t there would be no magic. But the story remains rooted in the real world, where young readers may meet children like Jamal or his big sister, and I hope they’ll have the empathy to imagine what it must be like to leave one world because it’s too dangerous and frightening to stay, and begin a new life in another where everything and everyone is different, and the bad dreams have followed them along with bad memories. If children’s stories have a deep purpose, it must be to develop empathy. That doesn’t mean they must be serious through and through. They must, though, be truthful in spirit. They must help children understand others who may not appear to be just like them.

Ted is a spirited dog and the source of the fun in my story – and much of the adventure and drama. Like most fiction for children of ten and under, this one has a resolution in which challenges are overcome. Its happy ending has to be made by both Ted and Jamal with the kind of magic we can all work, and which we all need.

Order a signed copy here.


My plea hearing is this Friday at the City of London Magistrates’ Court. I will plead NOT GUILTY, my defence being conscience and prevention of a crime: ecocide. My primary evidence at my trial will be a Trust Fund document showing that I am an Earth Protector.

According to Wikipedia: Ecocide describes attempts to criminalize human activities that cause extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystems of a given territory; and which diminish the health and well-being of species within these ecosystems, including humans. It involves transgressions that violate the principles of environmental justice, ecological justice and species justice. When this occurs as a result of human behaviour, advocates argue that a crime has occurred. However, this has not yet been accepted as an international crime by the United Nations.

I first heard of Polly Higgins in 2011 when my brother Dave, the Carbon Coach, accompanied her to the awards ceremony of the People’s Book Prize and her book, Eradicating Ecocide, won. Polly was an international barrister who gave up a lucrative career to pursue an idea that would transform the world: Ecocide Law. An Ecocide Law would prevent investors from backing ecocidal practices, and insurers from underwriting them. Persons of superior responsibility – CEOs and government ministers – would become individually criminally responsible for ecocide which they recklessly cause or contribute to (e.g. by engaging in ecocidal practices, or issuing permits for them). It would change everything.

I met Polly when she came to deliver her inspiring talk at Ashlyns School in Berkhamsted, and was so inspired that I formed B.Wel – Berkhamsted Wants Ecocide Law. After a mere two people turned up to the first meeting I abandoned the group but remained inspired, and dedicated my novel CRAZY DAISE to Polly because my young activist character Daisy takes up the campaign. Polly emailed to tell me she had read it ‘in one go’ and loved it. Last year I officially became an Earth Protector.

On April 18th I was arrested holding a sign that read STOP ECOCIDE. I soon found myself in a police van where I was joined by a luminous young gardener from Stroud who had worked with Polly, and like me was thinking of her daily. Polly was much loved. She died peacefully three days later, on Easter Sunday – the day Waterloo Bridge fell after six beautiful days. She was only fifty and cancer took her fast, but she died knowing that thanks to Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and the School Strikes, a powerful, loving movement had begun, and that her vision was closer to realisation. Legal campaigner Jojo Mehta continues her work, and on July 15th outside the Law Courts spoke with passion from a boat called Polly Higgins, addressing a crowd of rebels gathered in the road. Later that week I climbed up to speak from the deck of Polly Higgins too, on a street corner opposite the Old Vic.

A boat called Polly Higgins, July 15th
Jojo Mehta

In my trial this coming winter I will draw the court’s attention to the ecocide around us and the need, as we run out of time to prevent catastrophe, for it to STOP. The government’s failure to make necessary and radical changes is morally, if not yet legally, a crime. It’s up to all of us who recognise the truth to take whatever peaceful action we can to prevent an unimaginable ecocide: the end of life on earth.

Waterloo Bridge, April 17th

In the spirit of the Doctor

Since my arrest with Extinction Rebellion (for sitting on Waterloo Bridge) I have been astonished by the breadth of the support I’ve received, not just from rebels but people I’ve met in various contexts at different times in my life. It’s been heartening and moving, offering grounds for hope. I’m trying harder these days, as the Arctic burns and the permafrost melts, to tell the devastating but unavoidable truth – even though I’m a shy person who used to believe I hated parties. It’s easier on Facebook and Twitter, give or take the odd abusive jibe. In the spirit of truth telling I thought I should tell my publishers, Candy Jar, that I’m likely by the end of the year to have a criminal record. I gave them the opportunity by email to cancel my next contract…

When my phone rang in the supermarket it was the Head of Publishing, who was calling to tell me everyone in the office supports me and considers me ‘on the right side of history’ like the Suffragettes and Civil Rights movement. This was lovely enough, even before he made a request I didn’t see coming at all. He asked me to write a short story. He suggested that Lucy and Hobo, the characters I introduced to readers in Avatars of the Intelligence – the first of the Lucy Wilson Adventures – went to a climate protest…

I knew instantly that the answer was a definite yes. I knew I would take these two characters I love so much to Waterloo Bridge, which remains very vivid and beautiful in my mind. I would relive the rebellion I found so inspiring in a very different way from FOR LIFE, my free serialised novel for adults which concluded just before the April uprising began – different not just because this story would need to appeal to children as well as the adult Doctor Who fans who follow Lucy, but because I would have to bring in an element of sci-fi.

Over the next twenty-four hours, as I let ideas percolate, my uncertainty about whether such a blend would work – or was even appropriate – dissipated. I realised I didn’t have to sacrifice authenticity or my deeply serious intent. The Lucy I created is principled and courageous; Hobo is compassionate and deeply knowledgeable. He would know the science of climate breakdown better than most adults. They are both natural activists. The series grew out of Doctor Who, and Whovians are quite used to science fiction with real-world values. After all the last series, which I absolutely loved and which regularly made me cry, featured Rosa Parks. So my story follows something of a tradition. I’m in no doubt that Doctor Who would be a rebel for life trying to save life on earth from extinction. And the dark force trying to discredit the protestors by sci-fi means might remind readers of powerful and disturbing real-life forces with the same intention. For those who don’t need fantasy, my story can be seen as allegorical.

Having written the above, I received next day the edited version to accommodate details only Whovians would recognise, with a final sentence by Shaun Russell, Head of Publishing, which is chillingly clever. I thought at first that it hadn’t ended as I intended with the climate crisis – before I realised how cleverly it does. Thank you, Shaun. I then opened the press release, which made me cry.

I hope, whether or not you’re a rebel – and we’ll need thousands more this October, when the rebellion begins again on 7th – you enjoy it. It’s free.

On happiness and fulfilment

After four days with Extinction Rebellion at the Summer Uprising in London, we spent the weekend at Seed Festival and stayed with dear friends who are not rebels but sympathetic and interested. We talked a LOT about XR, the science, our personal experience as activists, being arrested and the legal consequences. Afterwards, their comment by email that it was lovely to see us ‘so happy and fulfilled’ struck, surprised and moved me. Of course that’s how I’d like to appear but Leslie, who sees me sink increasingly often into despair, could have presented a different Sue. They’d both be me.

At home we talk daily about climate breakdown and local or national activism. The calendar shows that we are increasingly committed to such action. And that takes a toll. Leslie is seventy with a body that can’t keep up with his brain or spirit, I cry a great deal – often inwardly and in silence – and both of us are frequently exhausted. In fact, before we set off for the festival I couldn’t face it; I only longed to bury all feeling in sleep. As a couple we recognise that we are highly sensitive to each other’s moods, which we have the power to change, and that like buckets in a well one can be up when the other is down – a situation that can be reversed surprisingly fast. There are times when one of us simply can’t deal with the latest horrifying news of climate events or the newest scientific data about the destruction of life on earth. I sometimes feel close to breaking and for me that means a closed and unreachable withdrawal into inner darkness where there are no words and I choose no thoughts. Usually it doesn’t last long and Leslie can love me out of it with tenderness or humour. I’m lucky. I’m not ill, just living with the fear of mass extinction and the compulsion to do everything I can to ring the alarm and demand action for radical change. And I’m one of millions.

So I could call myself broken-hearted and it would be true. I struggle to hold on to hope. I don’t always know how to live ‘normally’ – watching TV, reading a novel, eating, talking about anything else but the catastrophe we face along with all living things. Yet my friend wasn’t wrong. In fact she was deeply, fundamentally right about my happiness and fulfilment, because they come from the same source as the grief and pain. I’m in love with Leslie and although that makes me happy it’s a risk too, opening me up to hurt and anxiety. I’m also in love with my baby grandson, with Greta and the youth strikers she has led into exuberant resistance, with the earth and my fellow-rebels and this extraordinary movement that has given me a voice and a path and the peace that comes with knowing what is right and necessary. shy, fearful child in me is grateful for what little courage I’ve found. Once a teenager who adored my Conscientious Objector father and wanted to end war with my own hunger strike, I’ve finally reclaimed myself after decades of overwork and overconsumption. I was raised in the light of a truth I sidestepped, never rejecting it but failing to live by it. Now, when I’m sitting on the road peacefully risking arrest as an Earth Protector, I have a sense, deeper and more powerful than mere emotion, that I’m where and who I’m meant to be. At an inspiring Seed Festival talk, Shaun Chamberlin said that living in contradiction to the truth we recognise creates a cognitive dissonance that makes happiness impossible. As a novelist I connected with his call to choose what kind of story we want to tell with our lives, and make that story beautiful even if it is destined to be sad.

I think we often mistake pleasure for happiness. A wonderful review of my new short story collection begins, “Sue Hampton is an astounding writer” and brought me what I could call joy. But maybe I was just pleased in an egocentric way. Proud. Validation is lovely, and yes, the creative act of writing makes me happy. Because I value what great writing brings me as a reader, I want my own work to be a gift to others. So I’m not beating myself up for enjoying praise, but I do doubt whether it brings happiness – any more than a new dress from a charity shop that makes me look the way I like best. Feeling good is a human need but happiness is much more profound, and it doesn’t come only from finding one’s true or best self but from doing what love requires (my favourite Quaker phrase). I’m with XR quite simply because that’s what love demands. What I felt on Waterloo Bridge in April was a peaceful joy that came close to elation because of the love we shared: love of each other, Mother Earth and humanity born and unborn. It was a joy that, in the most serious way, inhabited my arrest and a police cell.

The truth scientists tell us is shocking and hard to bear but the only rational and loving response is clear. For me it’s the only way of finding fulfilment. In action I find inspiration, energy, the warm, open support of others, and solace for the grief we share – both at home, when we are just two rebels holding on to each other, and on the streets in a crowd with one soul. It’s a place of aching vulnerability as well as strength, but I couldn’t breathe anywhere else.


Chapter Twenty-Five

April 21st, 2019 Easter Sunday

Manda looked out of the window.

   “I knew she’d be late,” she muttered.

   “Chill,” Leo told her. “Nathan didn’t even give me a time. He could cancel. He could even forget again.”

   “I hope not. You guys have a lovely day.”

   It galled her really, that he’d been stood up while she was roasting in front of the lorry. That he hadn’t come and joined her. But Nathan was a sweetheart; they both were. As Leo had already remarked, she was grumpy, and she couldn’t say, “So would you be, after a week without sleep,” because he never slept well with that back of his, and he wasn’t.

   She looked back at the clock on the wall, the goofy wooden one Nathan had made him.

   “You can’t really be late for your mother,” he pointed out.

   She sighed. “I know. That’s what makes it pointless. She wouldn’t know the difference if I didn’t go. Or went next Sunday.” He was right. Time meant nothing. After all, in her world Rob was still alive.

   She supposed in the home it would be some kind of special family day and thanks to Libby she’d have a family of a kind to show for it. And Leo was right about the bridge too, because it was just a matter of time and maybe being there to see the end was more grieving than she could handle.

   Her phone rang.

   “Nowhere to park except Tesco’s. Sorry.”

   “No worries. I’ll run.”

   “You don’t have to!”

   Leo held her when she placed her lips quickly, lightly, on his. She felt his tenderness but he was free with that. Tenderness for Nathan. For the neighbours he liked to help, especially the women. Everyone on the bridge. Even the wife who’d left her hat behind in the wardrobe, never expecting it to be confiscated by police and listed on a custody inventory. Nathan was a tender guy – except when he was absent, the lone male following his own star and not looking back.

   “It’s good of Libby. Enjoy her.”

   She nodded, withdrew and hurried down the stairs. 


The sun shone in through the Meeting House windows. On Gem’s skin it felt not fierce but welcome, a gift. It made her smile inside. On the table in the centre of the creamy white room a small glass vase held three tulips, each one beginning to cup open, their red bleeding to warm yellow. Gem drew their outlines in her mind, felt the smoothness of their petals, and then recreated them with her eyes closed. Flowers only gave. No harm, no tooth and claw. Maybe ministry would come. Maybe she would talk about the tulips lying limp on the bridge, like the remnants of a wake. Was it God she waited for? She wasn’t sure it mattered.

   Gem remembered a song, Back to Life. It would be different now, because she might not be Manda, giving everything till she had nothing left, but she’d been there. It was home. And so was Nick, now. She should let him in where only Rob had been. No harm, no tooth and claw. He only gave.

      She picked up Advices and Queries from beside the tulips. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way. A pathway to walk. A way of being, inside where no one knew. A way to live out there in the world.

   She stood. “Friends.” She paused. “On Waterloo Bridge I found a different way to live. It’s what we all have to find if we are to live at all. In love, in communion, in peace. Serving the truth as we serve each other. As we worship the protest there may be over but I believe the awakening has just begun.”


“Nice to have a proper chat,” said Libby sardonically when her mother woke in the car park of the nursing home. Which was unfair on a mad sleepless activist but the traffic had been worse than expected and she could have done with a bit of stress relief. Not that Manda had ever supplied that.

   “I’m sorry,” Manda said, feeling guilty and barely awake. “I’m catching up.”

   “I thought we could do that.”

   Manda thought Libby should understand that she didn’t intend or foresee a nap and would have assumed that distress would keep her wired. She led the way along the familiar route up to her mother’s room, but at the lift her brain temporarily deleted the code, which provoked a swallowed sigh.

   “Shit! I know this!” Manda wasn’t sure which of them was more impatient. But in the end she had to ask a member of staff, and try not to feel embarrassed under Libby’s gaze.

   With Libby’s heels a step behind her on the corridor, it struck Manda that no one wished anyone Happy Easter except inside church walls. These days Hallowe’en was more visible and better for the economy. No inflatable bunnies swaying above doors or plastic chicks lighting up in shop windows, just chocolate by the ton and most of it packaged with abandon. She remembered Libby complaining when she bought her an egg at about thirteen, and then when she didn’t the following year.

   “Will she know who I am?” Libby asked, suddenly imagining the grandmother she hadn’t seen for six months or more, and feeling selfish.

   Manda shrugged. Libby’s offer had been generous but perhaps she shouldn’t have accepted it. “She might.”

   “But she remembers Rob, right?”

   Manda winced. I’m sorry. “She does.”

   Libby supposed everyone did – even, thanks to her mother, the Twitter followers who’d met him posthumously in a tribute she’d hated her for.

  “Manda,” said a member of staff approaching with a smile. Blanking, Manda tried to read her name badge without her glasses. “You were on the news!”


   “Good on you. This must be…?”

   Manda felt suddenly moved, astonished. “My daughter Libby.”

   “Your gran will be thrilled.”

   Manda could see that Libby shared her doubts about that. Her mum’s door was ajar so she peered round it as she knocked.

   “Mum! I’ve brought you an Easter present.”

   Libby felt set up and bound to disappoint but she smiled at both of them. “Hello, Nana.”

   Evelyn stared. “Where’s Rob?”

   “Mum, you remember Libby. Rob’s little sister.” Badly done, Manda.

   Libby stooped to kiss her grandmother, hoping she would never smell so old. She could hardly picture her when she was solid and brisk and full of plans for outings and sticky treats. Now she was… flimsy. Drained of everything that counted. Decaying. It was horrible and she’d rather die in a car crash at sixty.

   “Rob’ll be on the way,” said Evelyn. “You’ve put on weight.”

   “Mum, she has not!” interjected Manda. “Did you have a nice dinner today? Roast potatoes?”

   “You should eat meat, Manda,” Evelyn told her. “You’re all skin and bone. You promised to get that hair cut nicely too.”

   “I’m vegan for the animals and the planet, Mum, and I didn’t promise any such thing. You know what a rebel I am.”

   Smiling because her mother had always called her that, Manda moved magazines so Libby could sit down but she chose to look out onto the garden instead. And Manda couldn’t blame her. She realised she really wanted to tell Evelyn about the bridge and the police cell, and perhaps she could, because any anxiety it caused would be short-lived. But none of it would connect with the mother she used to know, who only ever approved of James, not her. She hadn’t dared bring Leo along, more than forty years after she rejected him for reasons she didn’t admit were racist, snobbish, and generally reactionary – in case the unsuitable boyfriend clung on in her brain cells while poor Libby was part of the clear-out.

   Libby picked up a trash newspaper lying on her grandmother’s tray and held it for Manda to see, with its front page about mass arrests and a picture of Emma Thompson at Oxford Circus.

   “Good woman,” murmured Manda.  

   Libby’s eyes rounded. “Just because you love her in Sense and Sensibility! She flew in from the States! Hypocrite.”

   “Who flew where?” asked Eleanor. “I’d like to go to Africa and see the elephants when they let me out.”

   “Mum doesn’t believe in flying, Nana.” Libby couldn’t resist.

   “Oh, she doesn’t believe in anything that’s fun,” said Eleanor. “No meat, no elephants, no cigars.”

   Libby looked at Manda and Manda looked back. They laughed together.

   “No cigars!” echoed Manda. Libby’s laugh was ending but hers was long and slightly out of control.

   “You never smoked did you, Nana?”

   “No but if I fancied starting it wouldn’t be up to her.”

   Libby nodded emphatically. “I feel the same, Nana. Shall I see if I can get us all some tea and cake?”


Over coffee the Quakers wanted to know all about Waterloo Bridge and Gem didn’t know where to start, but she tried. They were glad she hadn’t been arrested but some of them seemed to understand when she said she wasn’t, really.  The youngest attender apart from her, a motherly Buddhist called Sylvie, said she was going to Marble Arch tomorrow.

   “I don’t know how long the police will leave it alone,” Gem told her. Looking through the open door, she was happily surprised to glimpse Nick with the buggy. But what was he holding in the air? Something he wanted her to see? His phone?

  “Excuse me, everyone,” she said. “I need to go. See you next week I hope.”

   Hurrying out of the building, she saw Skye was asleep in her sunhat, shaded by the hood. But something was wrong. It was in Nick’s face, the way he stood, his shoulders down.

   He handed her the phone, its volume low but loud enough. A livestream. The end of the bridge – to the sound of Amazing Grace, pure as a church choir. Arrests among flowers. And people holding on to each other, not letting go.

   Nick reached for her hand with a squeeze. Gem had no idea why she felt so shocked, so emptied. As the film scanned the remaining rebels she looked for Manda but perhaps she’d been arrested again. Gem hoped so, because she’d choose that over not being there.

   She handed back Nick’s phone. “It’s not over.”

   “I know,” he said.

Sue Hampton on Waterloo Bridge

FOR LIFE ends here. It’s possible that with some editing that time hasn’t allowed it will surface again as an e-book with the money going to Extinction Rebellion if that can be arranged, so use the contact box if you can help.


Chapter Twenty-Four

still April 20th, 2019

As soon as she could after Skye woke her, Gem checked Twitter. She didn’t want to see the photographs from Oxford Circus of the pink boat surrounded. Of officers daring protestors to break their thick black chain. But at Waterloo Bridge the resistance continued after a day of more arrests.

   She smiled at Skye in her high chair. Was it safe for her at the bridge? Wouldn’t the strategy mean taking that too?

   Nick appeared, rosy from the shower, drying his hair with a towel. He kissed her cheek and Skye’s forehead.

   Tell the Truth has gone,” she told him, “and the police have finally found a strategy to deal with protestors according to the Telegraph.”

   He knew, and he’d seen a photo of Manda being arrested. Gem wasn’t sure she wanted him to find it for her on his phone.

   “It’ll be fine, don’t worry. There’ll be families picnicking. Easter Saturday! It’ll be the biggest crowd yet. We can keep out of trouble even if Manda can’t.”

   Gem wasn’t convinced. “I don’t want Skye traumatised.”

   He considered. “Then you go. We’ll chill in some shade at the park. We can meet up later. It’s going to be a scorcher.”

   Gem thanked him, sat him down and rubbed his hair dry.


Saying goodbye to Libby on the first tube of the day, Manda ignored her advice to stay away, rest, keep out of trouble. A few quick cheek kisses and she’d gone. Manda waved but she once out of the carriage she didn’t look back.

   “You’ll sleep first, won’t you?” Leo checked.


   “Before you head back.”

   “I’ll try, but…”

   “I know. You’re hard-core. I’m taking a break. I didn’t sleep either…”

   She stroked his hair. “I know.”

   “And I could say you’ve done enough but I’d be wasting my breath.”

   “You would.”

   “But sleep first.”

   Manda might do that right now, against his shoulder.


Gem hadn’t expected the heat to rage like this. It seemed to subdue everything yet the air felt tight, wary. Above, the sky was vivid, the blue unbroken. Was that a bird of prey oblivious up there, its arc fast and cool? The crowd picnicking behind the stage included families; maybe she’d been over-cautious. Checking her phone she found a message that Nick had taken Skye home out of the sun. If the temperature rose any higher Gem might have to join them.  Time to head for the church to refill her water bottle and breathe in some old-stone air while she was there.


Bee was always in a good mood when she could top up her tan; she wasn’t interested in the shade Libby suggested. Feeling pale and still less than wide-awake, Libby let her talk about the guy she’d dumped for being too serious, and held back her own storylines.

   “He wanted me to meet his parents. I know what that means and I’m not ready.”

   Libby nodded sympathetically. She was trying not to feel disappointed about Trey not coming with her to the police station but she supposed that would have been a pretty heavy way to introduce her mother after one date. Still, he’d cried off and even though she knew she shouldn’t expect too much, it was unsettling. Especially as all she’d heard from him since was Hope your mum is home OK. Enjoy the Easter break. X As if she was just another colleague and he was relishing the holiday when it meant she wouldn’t see him until Tuesday.

   Bee paused to drink, swearing at a fly that seemed to have the same idea.

   “So tell me about Trey. It’s funny cos I know a Trey Marshall who’s American and in your field. Blonde curls. My friend Amy was at uni with him; they dated for years but cheated on her. He’s got a live-in girlfriend and a two-year-old boy.”

   Libby narrowed her eyes behind her sunglasses. “Is that meant to be a joke?”

   Bee put down her drink. “Can there be two of them? Show me a picture.”

   Libby had been intending to show her the selfie she’d taken as they arrived at the bridge, before they found out where her mother was. She shook her head.

   “You had to know. I mean, a girlfriend’s one thing but a baby’s something else.”

   Libby drained her glass. “I’m going now. And I’m not sure I’m forgiving you.”

   “Me? What about Trey Marshall?”

   “Him either.” Libby stood. A group of guys at the next table laughed so loudly it almost hurt.

   “Libby, come on! Don’t shoot the messenger.”

   It was what her mother said about the climate. Libby didn’t want to leave; she’d rather drink herself into oblivion. But she’d need to look for jobs. Or make sure he did.

   “It’s his M.O. Tea and sympathy. I’ve done you a favour, Lib. You know I have.”

   “It might be years before I thank you.” Libby sat down. Sometimes anger was the only way through.

   “Shall I get us a bottle of Prosecco? Then you can tell me about Mad Manda and the rebels.”

   Libby nodded. As Bee made for the bar she worded a message: You too. Hope your little boy enjoys his Easter eggs!

   It was years since Manda had bought her one of those.


Gem stayed longer in the church than she’d intended but the space had never felt so airy and comforting. She was sitting facing the altar and lost to the peace when something made her turn. Noise outside? Stepping out onto the blazing street she saw more police than she’d seen in her life, a fleet of vans, and a couple of officers with tape, the kind they used to cordon off the site of a crime. And she supposed this was a crime…

   Approaching the bridge, she understood. The lorry was surrounded. The police were targeting the stage – circling it, thick and firm without a chink to break through. At their feet people were sitting, as if to guard something that was already lost, and all around her bodies were being lifted away. But what about the singer, and the others locked on underneath? Maybe they needed water.

   Gem made her way around to the front of the lorry where a flag still waved and the sound system pumped out Waterloo. Although no one was going to surrender! Rebels were presenting themselves for arrest on that side too, one of them lying down completely covered by a black umbrella, others sitting patiently absorbing the heat while the police facing them took no interest. Wasn’t this kettling? Trying to see through the black human barrier they made, Gem realised she could go no further. As the music ended she heard a shout.



   Rising from the ground next to the umbrella, Manda looked exhausted. With her eyes on Gem, she placed a hand on her heart. A hand that might be shaking.

   “Are you O.K.?”

   “As O.K. as it’s rational to be.”

   Gem tried to make eye contact with the officer in her way as she pressed forward. “Please let me in. That’s my mother in law.”

   He shook his head. “No one’s allowed in.”

  Gem stepped back, her heart tight. They were going to clear the bridge – and the stage was its heartbeat. It made such perfect sense; why hadn’t they tried before?

   She had no idea what to do. “Come home,” Nick would tell her. “It’s over.”

   The heat shouldn’t be this savage. She wandered slowly down the pavement. Behind the garden and the banners the arrests continued, and all she could do was witness and honour everyone taken, holding each of them in the light, face after face, in their silent resistance. Thankful, because they did it for Skye. She wanted to sit down with them, and trust – or not care – because after all she might not even be charged. But no, she could only watch, until the blonde singer from under the lorry was carried away to a surging swell: a kind of family pride, a deep respect.

   “WE LOVE YOU!” Gem cried, her stillness stirred.

   Picturing Manda, she wished her strength, peace, hope. She turned away and stepped up her pace to be gone, willing the breeze to come off the water and find her. She wanted to be with Skye now, and forget this. But never forget.

   As she walked she brought back the song from between the wheels of the lorry: I will stand for love. Even with a broken soul. Even with a heavy heart I stand for love.


Chapter Twenty-Three

April 20th 2019

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, beyond.

   “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 letter.

   “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 so tired.

   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 thin.

   “There’ll be food on the bridge,” said Leo. “But I brought you a banana.”

   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.  


Chapter Twenty-Two

April 19th 2019

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?”

   “Fine, thanks.”

   “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.”

   “Thanks.” 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


Chapter 21

April 19th 2019

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 O.K.”

   “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 meant.

   “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 us.”

   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 days.”

   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.


   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?”

   “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 headache.”

   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 later.”

   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.

What, MORE short stories?

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.

Some short 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.

To pre-order: