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.

https://www.stopecocide.earth/becomeThe 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.

FOR LIFE:25

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!”

   “Really?”

   “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.

FOR LIFE:24

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.

   “First?”

   “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.

   “Gem!”

   “Manda!”

   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.

FOR LIFE:23

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.  

FOR LIFE:22

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

FOR LIFE:21

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.

   “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?”

   “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: https://www.suehamptonauthor.co.uk/product/instead/

FOR LIFE:20

Chapter Twenty

April 18th 2019

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 reason.

   “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 tube.

   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. X

   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 him.

   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.

FOR LIFE:19

Chapter Nineteen

April 17th 2019

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 the system.

   “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.”

   Gem nodded.

   “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 observers please.”

   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.

   “Manda.”

   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.

FOR LIFE: 18

Chapter Eighteen

April 16th 2019

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 there.

   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. “Welcome back.”

    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 loos.

   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 lot.

   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.

FOR LIFE:17

Chapter Seventeen

April 15th 2019

Waterloo Bridge

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 with it.

   “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.”

   Gem agreed.

   “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.

   “Mama!”

   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 potted herbs.

   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.

   “Gem!”

   “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 right.

   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.

   “Great.”

   “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 enthusiastically.

   “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 world.”

   “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.”

   “Sure.”

   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 act.”

   She stared and made an assenting sort of noise. Her smile felt unconvincing.

   “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.

FOR LIFE:16

Chapter Sixteen

April 14th 2019

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 plant-based menu.

   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 classes.

   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 looks, squeezes…

   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 suggested.

   “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 beach.

   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 your bubble.”

   “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.

   She nodded.

   “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.

Children's Author

PROCESSING