Parklife, June 2020

This is a short story and another postscript to the e-book, FOR LIFE (which you can download for a donation to XR) about rebels Manda and Gem. This original novel concluded in April 2019 but you can read about them locking on at the October Rebellion here, catch up with Gem taking part in the 40 day Vigil for Life here and read about Manda on Mothering Sunday 2020 here.

Manda looked changed. Gem suspected her of losing as much weight over lockdown as Nick had put on. Waving excitedly from across the road, Grandma Manda was looking only at Skye, who jiggled in her buggy and reached out her arms as if she’d never heard the words social and distancing paired around her. For a moment Gem thought Manda had forgotten their meaning as she began to hurry towards them, but she raised her hands as if to hit buffers just in time.

   “I have a bubble!” she cried, and blew them all kisses – Skye first.

   Aware of others liberated behind and ahead, Gem suggested moving into some space if the park allowed any.

   “I almost went back to James just for the garden,” said Manda, wishing she could unclip Skye, take her hand and lift up to sniff the roses. But maybe she’d be shocked how heavy a child could grow through Spring. “Sorry I can’t hug you, angel.”

   “Sorry our so-called garden won’t fit four of us two metres apart,” said Nick.   

   Manda watched as he freed Skye from restraint and flew her over his head and down onto his shoulders. Her legs, which had lost some of their baby roundness and gleam, looked longer but more vulnerable somehow. What a world for a child to live in. Sometimes she couldn’t think that thought without shaking inside.

   Gem was glad Nick was his usual chatty self and Skye was trying to compete with “Look, Gamma, high high!” and plenty of laughter. It left her free to make sure Skye held on tightly and no one else strayed too close. She was sure Manda remembered that just over a year ago they were occupying Waterloo Bridge and full of the brightest belief. With the May Rebellion cancelled, there was talk of July, August or September, but who knew when it would be safe to take to the streets. And the strange thing was how little she minded being a family of three squashed into a flat or fitting onto a postage-stamp space of grass with stories to read. But someone at work had lost her step-dad and there was unconfirmed news on the street’s WhatsApp group that a neighbour she couldn’t even picture was on a ventilator.

   “So, Manda,” Nick began, “are you champing at the bit?”

   Manda pointed out a sparrow for Skye before lowering her pitch and volume. “The mad activist, you mean? I should be up a tree stopping HS2. I disappoint myself.”

   Gem registered the change of tone and supposed Manda was still on the antidepressants she’d mentioned not long ago on video call.

   “You probably needed a break,” Nick told her.

   “Regen,” added Gem.

   “Not like this,” muttered Manda. “They’re destroying ancient woodland as we speak, and I struggle to get out of bed.”

   “Everyone does!” said Nick. “With some exceptions!” he added, grinning up at Skye.

   Manda told her she was a perfect pickle, managing to find a voice to make her laugh. She didn’t want to talk about XR, and the frustration and helplessness, or the divisions either. Sometimes she thought Rob would have found a safely brilliant way to keep the message out there through all this but she’d never felt so tired, alone or afraid. Ashamed, too, to ask her GP to double her daily dose of happy pill when she had so much: food, a roof and no funerals – not yet anyway – that she couldn’t attend.

   And now, Skye looking down on her and smiling as if the world was full of nothing but beauty and humour and love.

   “Do you think we’ll all learn anything from this?” Nick asked her.

   “I did hope – for a couple of stupid, naïve weeks.”

   “Not anymore?”

   “Not anymore. Boris can’t wait to get us back to business as usual.” Her anger at the sacrifice of nursing home residents gripped her chest a moment and she hoped Gem wouldn’t ask about her, because she didn’t want to admit how listless she’d become since Mothering Sunday resurrected something in both of them.

   A loose and barking dog trailing its lead raced towards them, its owner calling, “Banjo!” and “Sorry!” while she gave half-hearted chase. Gem, who usually had to calm Skye’s fears, noticed her laugh instead, as if invulnerable above them all.

   Gem stepped back, regretting her own anxiety. She must buy masks, whether or not they ever became compulsory. Manda seemed more inclined to befriend the animal than pursue what was usually her chosen subject of conversation.

   Licked by the dog when she attempted to stroke it, Manda heard Skye cry, “Kissy dog!” as she ruffled its ears – not unaware of Gem encouraging Nick to step back as if either she or Banjo would infect them all.

   Once dog and owner were reconnected and on their way, Manda regretted the tensing of her skin as the sun dried her face.

   “My only cuddle since winter,” she remarked, only to wish she could redact that rather than sound pitiful. It was true that until March she hadn’t longed to hug her mother for many decades, not with such ferocious desperation.

   Gem gave her a sympathetic smile, but this was a different Manda.

   “Ignore me,” Manda told her. “I’ve forgotten how to socialise. I stopped the XR Zooms – too disturbing. So much talk and no action. I think I’ve forgotten how to rebel too.”

   “We can’t, Manda.” Gem surprised herself. “Black Lives Matter won’t let a virus silence the call for justice.” She supposed Manda hadn’t been so disconnected as to miss the Colston statue being toppled and dragged into a harbour. “And it’s all the same. Climate justice is racial justice. We need to unite and demand change. We can’t let this opportunity go.”

   Was Nick surprised too? She couldn’t tell as he bounced his rider, which prompted appeals for, “More!”

   Manda didn’t respond at first. She’d cheered at the images of the statue being felled but the protesters would be blamed for any spikes in cases. “Each moment only has room for one movement,” she said in the end.

   “But it is all one!” Hadn’t Manda been listening? “Rob would have been so proud of Bristol but the climate crisis won’t wait.”

   Manda knew. Of course she knew. Somehow their roles had reversed and it made her feel small and old.

   “Nick thinks the brand became toxic after Canning Town,” Gem began, “but…”

   “He’s right. Bloody disaster. Sorry, Skye.”

   “XR used to be cool,” said Nick.

   “Oh come on! This isn’t a designer label we’re talking about.” Gem couldn’t believe she’d been cast in this role: the outlier and fanatic. “It’s way too huge and urgent to press pause.”

   Gem realised she’d offered Manda an unfortunate cue with that last word when she added, “And Heathrow was a disaster too.”

   No one spoke except Skye, who wanted them to listen to the birds, even though the songs they’d heard and tried to identify a few weeks earlier were lost now in human and engine noise.

   “Of course we’re discouraged after October, but we can’t give up.” Gem would have had to admit, if pressed, that the numbers on their local group’s weekly Zoom had fallen. It was no surprise that some rebels had lost faith and heart, but Manda?

   “Quakers are very positive,” Nick remarked to Manda. “They live in the Light.”

   “Quakers live in the real world,” Gem corrected him. He’d only been to a couple of Meetings for Worship since Covid struck, but she didn’t want to feel annoyed or even a little bit betrayed. She’d always known his commitment to rebellion was less than robust, but Manda’s had persuaded her into a wooden tower with superglue on her hands. That commitment had been Rob’s, and it made friends of them as well as family.

   “You’re not really saying that whenever the next rebellion happens you won’t be part of it?” asked Gem, quietly, realising she sounded as sad as she felt.

   Manda hurried towards an ash tree ahead as a couple vacated its shade. She sat, hugging her legs in her holey jeans. Nick told Skye she could come down and run around the tree as long as she didn’t get too close to Grandma. Gem half-expected Manda to reach out and grab Skye as she ran. It was a minute or two before the adult conversation resumed, with Manda’s arms behind her back like a prisoner.

   “Better no rebellion than a damp squib,” she said, throwing the line away but focused on Skye.

   “Better any rebellion than none,” Gem disagreed, but Manda was chatting with Skye as if she hadn’t heard. “Your conditional discharge will expire in July,” Gem told her. “My plea hearing has been postponed twice.” She felt guilty suddenly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your trial.”

   Manda shook her head. “Don’t be soft. I didn’t acquit myself as well as I hoped. I guess that’s why I didn’t convince the judge to acquit me!”

   Nick and Gem both told her, without evidence, that they were sure she was wrong.

   “It was more stressful than I expected.”

   Gem imagined it would be. “You were brave to plead not guilty and go through that.”

   Manda shook her head. “The brave ones were the rebels of colour who get stopped on the street by cops every week – whether or not they made themselves arrestable.”

   “Do you see Leo at all?” asked Nick, following Gem’s own line of thought.

   Manda just shook her head again. “Who needs a man when you’ve got a granddaughter?” Suddenly she rose and pretended to chase Skye around the tree, arms Dalek-like, hoping Gem trusted her not to catch her.

   Skye laughed delightedly, and stopped, crouched a little, as if waiting for her, only to run away as Manda supposed she’d have to trip.

   Gem couldn’t imagine life without Nick, who loved her whether or not Skye was his, and accepted Manda like a mother-in-law. She was pretty sure Manda was missing Leo as well as civil disobedience, and Libby, who’d turned into a great auntie but hadn’t quite got the hang of being a daughter.

   Wishing she understood Libby better – or rather, that Libby understood her, Gem asked how she was.

   “Steaming. She thinks lockdown’s an overreaction.”

   “Ah, like XR,” said Gem. She guessed that Libby on furlough would be bored and cross, and not much fun in her father’s bubble.

   Manda played peep-o around the tree trunk. “She’d be happy if I gave up activism.”

   “But you wouldn’t,” Nick told her, pulling out the aluminium water bottle Gem had bought for his birthday. She liked watching him tilt his long, lockdown hair back to drink, but sometimes she almost forgot that as Rob’s best friend he had known Manda, James and Libby – and Rob himself – longer than she had. She thought of the video Nick had helped Manda make on the anniversary of Rob’s death, a tribute that had gone viral until the trolling drove her off Twitter. Whatever, he was right about Manda. He must be. This would pass.

   “You know when we were at the police station in October,” Manda began, turning to Gem, “and I said I was depressed and they took my Doc Martens because of the laces, I asked the doctor where climate grief ends and depression begins, and he said he didn’t know. How can I tell why I feel the way I do, now, after surviving Rob’s death – somehow?” Then she grinned at Skye. “But I’m a happy Grandma now I’m hanging with the perfect pickle.”

   “We can do this again,” said Gem.

   “Before lockdown started I didn’t really want to go out of the door.” Manda laughed. “Now I could break it down!”

   That was true, in a way, but so was the opposite. Mass Zooms made her withdraw into distracted observation– and once or twice, turn off her camera – and as long as she could walk in twilight when the streets were empty enough to ignore the pavements at least now and then, isolation seemed safe, and London beautiful again. As if within the peace there was healing, but not within her, because the permafrost was melting and the Arctic was burning, and some rebels said it was too late to prevent catastrophe, that the only realistic approach was mitigation and adaptation. Such cold words for a world on fire.

   Suddenly Manda couldn’t do this anymore. It wasn’t fair on the young and she’d lost her smile.

   “I’m going to head off,” she said, “before I crash and poop the party.” Perhaps it was a good thing she couldn’t embrace anyone, because that would make her cry.

   “You’ve only just…” began Nick.

   “It’s an emotional time,” said Gem, fearing she’d mishandled something and hoping Manda knew she didn’t only mean this, now, in a pandemic, but the crisis that had fallen down the news agenda.

   “Oh yes.” Manda circled arms in a virtual hug. She reached into her bag, pulled out a picture book and dropped it on the grass. “Grown-ups might need tissues for that.”

   Gem thanked her, and persuaded Skye to do the same even though she clearly didn’t want Grandma to go.

   “Kissy Gamma!” she cried as Manda waved goodbye. Nick tried to explain why that wasn’t possible just now. Gem wished she could have found a way to stop her leaving.

   “She needs to watch that video again. Rob would convince her not to let go,” said Nick once she had scuttled away, doing occasional sidekicks and hops for Skye.

   Gem thought, she’s broken, but she would mend. She’d feel stronger once she took to the streets again, with banners and placards. All rebels would, and they must, as soon as they could.

   Nick squeezed her hand.

Since FOR LIFE, I have caught up with my characters in a few other short stories to be read on this website:

The Trial: a short story

Written before lockdown, this free short story is NOT strictly autobiographical. The characters are fictional, but I’ve adapted my own experience in court, both as a defendant and a supporter of other rebels, so much is drawn from life. I chose to take various different viewpoints, which was an act of imagination as my own is rather clear!

Marcus

Marcus Olorenshaw stood on the Central Line, pressed against his wife and pretending she was a stranger. Over breakfast she’d wanted an explanation for his grumpiness.

   “You’ve no idea how wearisome these trials are,” he’d told her, but that had been unguarded, a mistake.

   “Doctor, professor or vicar? Or are you hoping for a crusty this time? A barefoot hippy for a change?”

   “I don’t care as long as I’m spared the speeches. They have to be told these cases are not about climate change. Or morality, either.”

   “Just as well I’m not recording this for Channel 4 News,” she’d remarked, looking up at the kitchen clock. “Make them feel the full force of the law!”

   Up closer to her than he’d been for a while, he couldn’t be sure the purity of her white hair was natural. Marcus reflected that he didn’t always know how to read her, and suspected the menopause. Irritation prevented him kissing her cheek when the carriage doors opened, and unless he missed it, she didn’t wish him a good day. Suddenly it bothered him that he couldn’t remember what bright-eyed cultural business she would be enjoying while he endured five hours of gritted teeth and fake patience. Sometimes he thought she was less than grateful for the salary he deserved – rather like these activists who failed to appreciate their freedom to set up camp on bridges and glue themselves to government buildings in a country that allowed them a platform.

   So who had he got today?

Jenny

Emerging from the subway, Jenny Marsh saw from the curved and rather imposing building on the corner that they had arrived, albeit as early as Alice had warned they would.  The doors were still locked. Jenny put up her black umbrella and tried to share it with her daughter, who hadn’t spoken for a while.

   “Are you all right?” she checked, and Alice nodded.

   She’d ignored Jenny’s advice on dress code, although the jeans at least had two knees and her hair would look more presentable out of the rain as long as there was a brush in that old shoulder bag. Jenny looked at her phone: not one but two questions from staff who hadn’t read their emails. Sighing, she replied as briefly as possible. Maybe she should have told them all why she wouldn’t be in school. Tomorrow, perhaps, she could announce the verdict at morning briefing. She couldn’t quite imagine the response but the younger ones might be impressed.

   Now Alice was looking at her own phone. “Dad’s train was delayed,” she reported. “And he wants me to change my plea to guilty. But I can’t.”

   “Well, you could… in the sense that it’s not too late.”

   “But I won’t,” said Alice, quietly. “It’s important to tell the truth. Anyway, I’ve spent hours on my documents.”

   “I’m sure.”

   Jenny had offered to pay for a solicitor so Tony had done the same and they’d agreed to split it. But Alice was adamant that she wanted a voice, her own voice. This must mean her prep was at the expense of her coursework at the very start of her degree. Alice had been so studious before the Climate Strikes changed her. Tony had been convinced she’d fail her A Levels after the arrest in April – and she’d reminded him that a few weeks after he left them two years earlier, their daughter hadn’t exactly done badly at GCSE. Alice was turning out to be less delicate than she looked, even though they were both convinced that on a vegan diet she didn’t eat enough.

   Jenny watched her reply to a message, probably from that housemate who’d already clocked up three arrests. Alice had said none of her uni friends could afford the train to London; Jenny hoped Tony wouldn’t let her down again. She looked at her watch just as the heavy doors opened on some steps up to revolving doors and airport-style security.

   “It’s necessary,” said Alice, and led the way.

Greg

Greg Swift was hungover, which wasn’t ideal, and spoiled the bacon sandwich he ate as he walked underground to Exit 8. For some reason no one could explain, there was only one defendant on his list. Why hadn’t they batched her up like most of them? Such a waste of the court’s time and money. At nineteen she was the youngest he’d had to prosecute so far, and barely looked adult in the bodycam footage, with her denim shorts and baggy Choose Love T-shirt. With luck, and no police officer required, it could all be over by lunchtime. He hadn’t mentioned to Kristof what kind of case this was, not after that bedroom row about the last one with the Biology teacher, the architect, and the grandmother who used to play cello at the Royal Opera House. “I don’t know how you can live with yourself,” Kristof had told him. “In that case,” Greg had said, “I don’t know how you can live with me, so feel free to fuck right off.” As if he could pick and choose, or rewrite the laws of the land. And as if Kristof did any more to save the planet than any other smartass young Londoner who shopped and partied hard and flew to European capitals for stag weekends, football or Taylor Swift.

   Greg would rather spend the day with some petty criminal than a girl like Alice Marsh, but he knew the motions now. He would autopilot through them with the help of a couple of painkillers. He stepped over a surprisingly deep puddle, binned his disposable coffee cup and hurried inside.

Serena

Serena held her clipboard to her chest as she breezed in to Court Four waiting room and smelled the food. Those arrestee support people were marvellous the way they always turned up with their hummous and French bread, cookies and bananas – and filled the space with chat. The police superintendent was there again, poor chap. Hadn’t he got real work to do? They exchanged friendly greetings before she checked off the defendants’ names, all present. It seemed a shame that in Court Three a young girl was up on her own, with just her mother to support her, so she had a quiet word with a familiar woman wearing an Extinction Rebellion badge and sent her next-door. Serena knew by now how random the workings of the machine could be, how many embarrassing errors could turn up on the day. But it was always nice to see the climate protesters with their warm smiles and old-fashioned manners, some of them all loose with confidence and others, like the Alice girl, terribly shy. A bit traumatised already? It was a shame really but she always tried to make them feel at home, in a way.

   Perhaps she’d pop back to the Alice girl and make sure she hadn’t changed her mind.

Alice

Alice turned to see her father enter the courtroom and catch her eye with a look that probably meant sorry, although he hadn’t missed much. He looked out of his depth, as if he had no idea how he came to be here, too late to see her stand and give her name, address and date of birth, to hear her asked to speak up. Quiet, her teachers always said, hardworking and capable.  None of them ever knew who she was, so when her dad left no one knew how to help. Not that she could have told them. Now everything had changed, around and inside her, and like the criminal justice system, her parents weren’t keeping up, either of them.

   The judge was old, and looked as if he’d be more comfortable having drinks with the Prime Minister. He was crisp as toast, but every now and then slathered on a load of butter when he smiled. Alice didn’t suppose there was anything she could say that he’d really hear, but her notes sat piled beside her aluminium water bottle. She tucked stray hair behind her ear, knowing it wouldn’t stay there. She was aware of her father sitting down next to someone with a laptop who could be a law student or maybe a trainee police officer. The prosecution lawyer was delivering numbers. So many Londoners delayed and inconvenienced, so much disruption, takings lost, money spent on policing. Familiar, it still seemed strange that anyone would think it mattered, any of it, compared with climate catastrophe. But it was endless, and she had the feeling the lawyer was boring himself.

   Alice told herself she must delete it all, everything but the much, much bigger facts. She must sit straight and keep her voice together, but sometimes when she read the reports, saw the melting and burning, nothing held. As if she had nowhere to stand, to exist, to count on.

   She would tell both her parents afterwards, straight away, before they could forget the reasons.

Tony

Incredible, people said, about any old singer or goal, film or shoes. It was a joke, because this was incredible, thought Tony. This now, here: watching his girl on trial for trying to stop a madness that was even harder to believe in. Which was why he’d never really believed it, in spite of her, until he walked in to the courtroom and saw her looking so young and serious and incredibly brave.

   She’d tried to teach him. Now he didn’t need the science because she was enough. This was more than enough.

Greg

Greg had heard it all before. That Sixth IPCC report, Government adviser Sir David King, Attenborough, the John McDonnell statement that would needle Olorenshaw more than most, the claims that people were already dying that were never going to wash as imminence. The whole necessity argument was dead in the water before anyone got out of bed this morning or any other, but it didn’t matter to these activists. They were all so sure they were right – even this girl who could do with a microphone, and looked like she needed a large beefburger and a mountain of fries. He didn’t pay attention any more, not to what they were saying, just to whatever detail he could find to distinguish the individual from the whole crowd. Whether this one would cry – or rather, how soon. How much Olorenshaw would put up with and how much, with well-groomed parents like hers, he’d make her pay. Last time he’d clobbered a Biology teacher he accused of rhetoric with seven hundred and seventy, which was more than Greg planned to ask from Alice Marsh, unless he decided she’d be the type to make a habit of it without a deterrent. It was all right for Kristof to be woke but he didn’t understand. The establishment wasn’t ready to allow people like her to break the law for a pat on the head; government certainly wasn’t, and the Met was still reeling. The whole system was clogged up, like the traffic in London back in April when this girl was invited to leave but made four officers carry her off the bridge, arms out like a crucifix. If Kristof watched the bodycam footage the Catholic in him would see sacrifice, but that was just emotion. The law was something firmer, more rational and dependable. It was what had drawn Greg to it. That and the money. And the feeling of order, as long as there were no cock-ups.

   “The science…” she said, trying to project.

   How many times! Irrelevant. A waste of breath. He could see she was a good girl but Olorenshaw wouldn’t. “No reasonable people would have behaved as you did,” he’d told the last guilty group. Wallop! His honour was a pompous old headmaster and Greg wouldn’t want to see him lay into Alice Marsh like that, even though her intensity was no good for his headache.

Jenny

Jenny had told Alice more than once, face to face and on the phone but mostly in messaging, that she wasn’t arrogant enough to dispute the scientific consensus but the methods the rebels used were never going to win hearts and minds. That frankly, the way these activists presented the problem was a bit over the top, too apocalyptic to credit, a turn-off. Alice had a way of going silent, as if she was wounded, or winded, or despairing of her mother’s stupidity. But in the dock, she was as collected as a teenager could be.

   “We live in a democracy with freedom of speech. Why was it necessary to break the law to make your point?”

   “This is a climate emergency. The normal rules don’t apply. The petitions and marches didn’t change anything and we’re running out of time.”

   “How could your actions change anything?”

   “This is a climate emergency. We needed to get that message across so we had to grab the headlines, and tell people what’s happening so that they demand change too. We had to wake everyone up, governments, media, industry, even the legal system.”

   “By sitting in a road making people late for work, for medical appointments.”

   “This is a climate emergency. Nothing else is really… significant.”

   “Like the normal rules, apparently. Why didn’t you move when Police Officer Hartley asked you?”

   “This is a climate emergency.”

   The judge shifted in his chair but the prosecutor continued. “Why didn’t you walk when you were arrested? Was it necessary to be carried by four tired and overstretched officers?”

   In the video she’d looked so calm and certain. Now she looked tired and overstretched herself. The prosecution lawyer was pressing her hard and Jenny couldn’t ask to see him in her office at lunchtime for a quiet word.

   “This is a climate emergency.”

   The District Judge leaned forward a little, fingers clasped around his pen. “A court of law is not a place for mantras.” The way he said the word suggested that he could think of nothing more offensive. “You can wave your banners and chant your chants at your demonstrations, not here.”

   Alice was silent. The prosecution lawyer hesitated.

   “Have you any further questions, Mr Swift?” asked the judge, clearly hoping not.

   “No, sir.”

   “In May Parliament agreed that this is climate emergency,” said Alice.

   “You may stand down, Miss Marsh.”

   Jenny glanced across at Tony and saw him with both thumbs up and a mouth that bit back emotion, but Alice didn’t make eye contact with anyone as she crossed the courtroom. Honestly, Jenny didn’t know. Had she done wonderfully, or badly? Did it make any difference anyway, when the deal was done?

   Jenny had no idea how Tony did that heart thing with his fingers so quickly and effortlessly just as Alice looked in their direction, but she’d never done it in her life. He must be in practice. Alice said there was someone in his life. Of course there was…

Tony

Tony produced a plastic bottle of water and had drunk a few sips before Alice shamed him by unsealing her reusable one. And she’d given him one just like it last Christmas too. He didn’t want to fail her again. But this… she shouldn’t have to go through it. Let other activists bear the weight. He’d tried to explain that he’d lose his job in a blink if he were to do what she’d done. It was different for the young with their bright ideals, always had been.

   He hoped she knew how proud he was.

Marcus

Marcus always talked about respect for these people’s convictions but they thought they were above the law, and as good as said so. At least this girl didn’t waste more police time questioning a busy senior officer about human rights. He was pretty sick of hearing about people’s consciences, as though ordinary, law-abiding people didn’t possess such a thing. “So you think the government has it all under control?” he’d been asked at breakfast, and apparently his answer that no doubt they did, and after all Britain led the way in this, had not convinced his own wife. Now that she’d forgotten her outrage at being delayed for something less than consequential in April, she was rather taken with the little Swedish zealot with plaits and an accusing frown.

   He was rather relieved that his own son was too busy earning big bucks in the States to sign up to her kind of fervour. For all their eloquence and figures, most of these rebels must have mental health issues. But the father looked as starry-eyed as if she were five and just played Mary in the Nativity play. Did schools still do those, or just wiggle to Slade and Elton John?

   Marcus expected Alice Marsh had a speech to deliver before he withdrew for his verdict and he wasn’t going to allow more than two pages of it.

Greg

His case proved, Greg’s job was done until Olorenshaw consulted him on the fine. Greg didn’t normally pay attention to defendants’ last-ditch attempts to cram in as much death and doom as possible. But he hadn’t made up his mind about Alice Marsh, who was attractive in her own bare, otherworldly way, and obviously well outside her comfort zone – if she allowed herself one any more than a late-night kebab – but keeping her head above water, considering the melting Arctic. Not too quivery but not flat and boring either, in spite of all those reports from bodies with long names. He’d been half-expecting Olorenshaw to ban notes and would have been sorry to see the girl floundering. She wasn’t, not yet, in spite of Olorenshaw’s own brand of gentlemanly intimidation. This Ecocide Law stuff was quite interesting and Greg had been meaning to look it up. Now she was telling the court how she’d been inspired by that barrister Polly Higgins who’d died on Easter Sunday. Some people said Extinction Rebellion was a cult; Greg steered well clear of religion.

   “Three years ago I told my parents I wouldn’t go on any more family holidays that meant flying,” Alice said, and added, “Before they split up,” so quietly that Olorenshaw asked her to repeat it. Greg remembered his own parents’ divorce when he was about the same age and how long it had taken him to stop hating his mother.

   “Before my parents split up.”

   Greg heard the pain then, the fault line that hadn’t cracked open before. He would have liked to check their faces, the two of them. But Alice Marsh was back on track, except that she’d put the papers down and was winging it.

   Her generation. The right to life. The right to bring a child into a world worth inheriting. It was personal now and she was exposed, real. Damaged, of course; Olorenshaw would despise her for it. Part of Greg wanted the old fart to stop her and part of him would be livid if he did.

   Kristof would want to know about this but Greg really didn’t want to tell him.

Jenny

Jenny embraced Alice as soon as the door closed behind the judge. “You must be exhausted. I know I am.”

   Alice nodded. Tony held her for a longer, firmer hug, and kissed her forehead the way he used to, a decade ago.

   “Time for a coffee round the corner, do you think?”

   Alice shook her head. “I don’t suppose he’ll take long.”

   Jenny didn’t know what to say. Out came a teacherly, “Well done” but it was hard to feel as composed as she sounded. Because if Alice was right… how did she sleep?

   “Good luck.”

   It was the prosecution lawyer. Jenny smiled gratefully but Tony reacted as if an Everton fan had just sympathised over a Liverpool own goal.  Clearly surprised, Alice thanked him, and for a moment she became a self-conscious schoolgirl again.

   “He’s young too,” she told them as he returned to his laptop.

   Jenny had never thought to find out how many of her students were worried about climate change. Now she would be afraid to ask.

Tony

It’s so bloody unfair, Tony messaged outside the toilets. Not the money. Criminalising people like her. Tony hadn’t actually told Jess the figure, which was a joke. The judge wanted to punish Alice – or them, her liberal, divorced parents, for failing to keep her submissive. It made him so angry. The law was so far behind reality. Like him. That was where people chose to stay, out of the loop, because the truth the scientists were offering as a warning was too hot to handle. Easier to get on with life the way people had got used to living it.

   Jenny emerged from the Ladies first, her lipstick renewed, showing no trace of anything as she rummaged in her handbag rather than talk to him.

   “Do you think she can stay out of trouble for nine months?” she asked him as she zipped it shut again.

   “I doubt it.”

   “We have to persuade her. She’s done enough. Why can’t the adults do their bit?”

   “Like us?”

   He could see that made her cross. “I’m going to write to the Environment Minister. And no, I can’t say who that is just now. And yes, I know it’s probably a waste of time.”

   Alice appeared behind them.

   “What’s a waste of time? Was this? I hope not. I have to hope not.”

   Tony put his arm round her. “Come on, you need a decent lunch. I need a drink.”

   “I’m leaving uni. Maybe not for ever but for as long as it takes. Nobody’s listening yet so the alarm’s got to be louder. I need to be in London.”

   Tony hadn’t seen it coming but now he didn’t know why. He looked to Jenny. She was the one who bigged up education as the answer to everything.

   “No, Alice. That’s too much…” she tried.

   “It may not be enough.”

   “Look, let’s eat, all right?” he said, managing a kind of smile. “It’s been tough, especially for you, and we need to regroup, stay rational. Enough drama for one day.”

   He knew Jenny would agree with that. Alice nodded, and pulled on a woolly hat that made her look fourteen. The court support woman with the hourglass badge came hurrying after them as they approached the revolving doors, wanting to know how Alice was and telling her how brilliantly she’d done. She never liked accepting praise.

   “Thanks. I’m fine.”

   Jenny looked tense now. Tony didn’t know for sure how he felt, or what he could say, over a bottle of wine, that was rational, and avoided drama.

   Now the XR woman gave Alice a hug, gave her an email and headed for the Ladies.

   Alice thanked her again. “See you on the streets!”

Some real life rebels outside City of London Magistrates' Court

One grandma’s lockdown

Some of these experiences will be common to many; others are more individual. It’s possible that I had the virus mildly early on, but I haven’t lost anyone close to me and that makes me very, very lucky. I’m acutely aware that for some humans in other parts of the world with no health service and no savings, this year has been and remains both devastating and terrifying, so I know ‘white privilege’ is written all over my own perspective.

I’ve been both very emotional about the death toll and frustrated and angry that in Britain these figures have now become so hard to find. It disturbs me that while in many countries the cases continue to rise, the shock and grief of our collective response has dulled. I tell myself that even when only 11 UK deaths are recorded, each one counts for just as much as every individual in eight or nine hundred.

Several times I’ve cried watching interviews with survivors still battered and suffering, their stripped humanity raw and their gratitude deep.

A recent procedure of my own – a scare that proved unfounded – showed me the detail of the care taken in a hospital environment, reminding me of the ongoing vulnerability of medical staff and our duty to protect them as well as each other.

My anger at the government, initially because of the failure to provide these courageous people with PPE, peaked with deaths among NHS and care workers but has not abated as one failure has followed another.

I’ve learned to appreciate the work of the underpaid and undervalued in a shockingly unequal society that I hoped we could reconstitute more justly.

At People not Borders we were able at the height of the pandemic to contribute financially towards PPE etc for refugee camps. However, it’s been hugely frustrating being unable until recently to raise much money or collect donated items, so it feels great to begin sorting and boxing again for Greece, and to see shoes we’ve bought reach refugees in Dunkirk.

I chalked ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE on walls around town and yes, in the quiet I imagined I could “hear her breathing” (Arundhati Roy). I used to love walking in the middle of the road, the way strangers greeted and helped each other, hearing birdsong and having time to look, listen and think.

I actually believed for a while that the world might take the opportunity of lockdown to make the radical changes necessary to avert climate catastrophe – and have more recently raged as our government has prioritised bailing out polluting industries.

I’ve trusted Channel Four News to try to find the truth and care about it. It’s thanks to the team there that I have understood how differently the virus has impacted elsewhere, and how manageable for people like me the lockdown has been.

My reading, fairly prolific, and has broadened to include inspiring and/or educative non-fiction titles such as Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, The Hammer Blow by Andrea Needham, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd and Dear Life by Doctor Rachel Clarke. But I still feel a little self-indulgent reading before 6pm!

I’ve had time to read articles, mainly about climate change and racial injustice, online. I’ve even tried to retain some facts.

Of the novels I’ve read, my favourites were Annabel by Kathleen Winter, The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré and Notes from the Lost Property Department by Bridget Pitt. I also found Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo very powerful.

Having decided not to write any more fiction myself, I have – preposterously – completed an adult novel begun in, and because of, lockdown. My decision to focus on activism and family from now on had not factored in a global pandemic; I had to do something and writing is what I do. The novel, a sequel to my 37th title, INTACT, which was published in March, might or might not exist in the future as an e-book, depending largely on whether a few people buy INTACT! But I’m lucky that a pension and simple living spare me the financial problems most authors are facing.

My daily exercise has been a walk with Leslie and we have built up our fitness to manage four or five miles on occasions, but have struggled to avoid runners in particular but also, and increasingly, people who are neither wearing masks nor taking care to keep social distance.

Every day, even if restricted to street walks, we have looked for flowers and celebrated those seen for the first time (this year) as they’ve bloomed. Trying to bring back or discover their names and hold on to them until we are home again has been our alternative to learning a new language or, in the case of certain gifted young people, all Chopin’s Etudes.

Those talented siblings, the Kanneh-Masons, have brought me joy and elation with their weekly livestreams from their living room in Nottingham.

For weeks I cleaned more often and more intensively but that was a phase.

Zooming continues in spite of having lost some of its appeal. I often find myself even less likely to contribute on screen than I’d be in person. They’re a blessing for the shy, as is the Leave Meeting option.

My new concept of a busy day – applying objectively ridiculous pressure – would have made the busy, pre-lockdown me laugh out loud.

I abandoned bras with very few exceptions and with pleasure, but that leaves me feeling old and exposed when hanging loose on the street without a hoodie or XR jacket.

Every bedtime we have recalled the good things that have happened that day, some of them small but cherished all the same – like yesterday’s clear view of a Red Kite gliding directly and not far above us.

Early in lockdown I continued an inter-faith vigil for the climate that had begun in Westminster but had to regroup online. It was moving and heartening sitting in silence on my living room carpet with a candle and various texts: not just Quaker books but XR’s This Is Not A Drill, The Book of Joy by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama and I am Because You Are by Satish Kumar. I also developed my own little daily regenerative routine, which endures and never fails. (I make prayer hands and say “Peace,” then lift them for “Love” and raise one arm in a loose fist for “Justice”, head bowed.)

The May Rebellion couldn’t happen, which was a huge disappointment and at times deepened my despair.

But that month my first foray for any purpose other than exercise was with Extinction Rebellion, when a small group of local rebels began to witness safely, in masks and two metres apart, on the high street. Initially we made NO GOING BACK placards, with almost all the shops closed. Continuing every Sunday since, we have now changed the message to BUILD BACK BETTER, but I also chalk that Black Lives Matter. Climate justice and social and racial equality were always closely connected but from now on, in XR, they will go hand in hand.

In France the Citizens’ Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a referendum on Ecocide Law. I allow myself to hope that such a law could soon be passed, and that before long Ecocide will be declared an international crime – which would change everything fast.

My emails to my Tory MP have become even more frequent and on 25th June I was part of a socially distanced XR presence at his constituency office. When he voted against reuniting child refugees with family in the UK just recently, the emotional tone of my communications changed as I appealed to his humanity. So far I have received no reply.

I’ve been glad to be on antidepressants (since my XR trial in October) because for me they work and I’ve stopped feeling ashamed.

I won’t be alone in expressing the wish that I’d been born in New Zealand where one world leader shows integrity, compassion and wisdom.

The Royal Academy of Dance ran some weekly online ballet lessons which I took with some excitement, about sixty years after first planning to be a ballerina but never ever being taught. I did find the tuition more formal and less exciting than I’d hoped, and objected from a feminist perspective to being encouraged to flutter eyelashes – in my case non-existent – as part of the end-of-performance curtsey.

Like many, I’ve wished we had a garden, although in the shared space at the back of the flats neighbours who didn’t really interact have now bonded and it’s lovely to see children playing safely together.

Also like many, I’ve planted seeds for the kitchen window sill and have hopes for the little basil shoots that already have the appetising scent of a holiday in Italy back in 2005, the last time we flew anywhere.

I’ve pined for my favourite naughty vegan treat of chips in paper from the fish shop next to Berkhamsted station, where I’d been indulging 10 or 12 times a year in conjunction with getting the train to London. Tempted as I am, I’m not ready for a takeaway yet.

Today my 9 month conditional discharge from the court expired. We are planning the next rebellion but without knowing what will be possible or safe, and I can only hope we’ll wake up a government that for all its greenwash is still hell-bent on pushing us over the cliff as fast as possible.

More than anything I have missed hugs with family and friends, seeing family and friends in person, across a café table or our kitchen, and in particular I’ve felt the loss of my Grandma Mondays with my grandson. I’m lucky that he lives a few minutes’ drive away and in recent weeks we’ve enjoyed his garden with him and his parents. All the same, every time we’ve left I’ve cried because I just want to hold him, and sit him on my lap for a story, and play all day. And I’ve seen my daughter once since March.

I’ve felt for those shut in with someone abusive, grumpy or even just cold – just as I’ve felt for those who’ve had to risk their health to work, or who are in financial difficulty.

Since I stopped teaching to be a full-time author in 2008, Leslie and I have spent most of our waking and sleeping hours together, but the extremes of early lockdown confirmed for me how very much I love him, how happy we are together (almost all the time) and how fortunate that makes us.

I’m conscious that for many thousands of people in the UK alone this year has brought grief, loss and pain. I’m very, very angry with our government because it failed them – and the NHS, and care homes and care workers, and bus and taxi drivers too. I’m furious because of the government’s ever-flowing stream of ‘world-beating’ lies and because in so many ways they’ve prioritised profit over human life.

I’m more determined than ever to work for that better world.

Kids’ fiction matters

As a child I was frightened by the Wolf Grandmother, wicked witches and ogres, and didn’t like Beatrix Potter because animals sometimes became pies. Evil in fantastic form gave me nightmares even when I knew it was all ‘pretend’. Drawn to the sadness of love, I avoided darkness in my reading choices from the local library, and my sensitive father protected me from the real world as featured in his commuter’s newspaper long after I had the reading level to process it. Looking back as an adult depressed by that reality, I think he was right, but these decisions about reading and viewing content are for parents to make with intimate understanding of their own children. Nothing much has changed for me. I’m a Pacifist vegan and I’m terrified of climate chaos and the Far Right. But as an adult I see it as my responsibility to look into the darkness, name it, understand it – and work to dispel it. I don’t allow myself to live in a world of songbirds and rainbows. There are things – and public figures – that make me despair and sometimes leave me angry, because they normalise war or violence, prejudice in any form, lies or consumerist greed, so how do I respond? I can block, and believe me I do, because I don’t want hate on my feed. But it’s more useful to challenge it, and campaign for change. And fiction for psychologically healthy young readers is worth writing and campaigning for.

When a mother of young children, and a primary school teacher, I used to both monitor fiction and consider carefully how much dark reality to reveal. I remember parents complaining that having read The Suitcase Kid, their daughter was lying awake worrying that they’d divorce. I stood my ground because so many children in the class lived this already and benefited from fiction that understood and helped their peers to understand too. But the disillusionment that faces teens or pre-teens as they learn how many ways our leaders fail us, that we sell arms that kill children, that some adults mean them harm and some police officers should be arrested themselves, appals me. The end of innocence feels like a terribly sad loss – which is not to pretend that children are angels who don’t know how to be unkind.  Of course they do. But racism, like all prejudices, is learned. Nursery children really are oblivious to the differences that divide adults. How soon we introduce them to these divisions, and how we present them, may just determine the kind of adults they become. So children’s fiction matters, not just for aesthetic or literary reasons but in terms of child development. That lays on children’s authors – however famous, and regardless of adult material they may produce – a genuine and daunting responsibility.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is less damaging to young readers than the kind of fiction that dehumanises anyone, through racial or gender stereotypes, in pursuit of humour which is really ridicule. And since humour which is really sneery, jeery disrespect is everywhere, it’s not surprising to find it in children’s books. Laughs at other people’s expense are easy to come by and women like me with alopecia can provoke that kind of humour just by existing. I remember being shocked when, during an author visit to a primary school, I first read a passage from THE LINCOLN IMP in which the bully’s cruel jokes prompted laughter from my young audience. It can be a knee-jerk reaction of the kind that finds it funny, just in the moment, when someone falls on their face – until, sobering up, most of us feel guilty and reflect with concern. I remained confident, however, that amused readers would soon find themselves scorning such wit and empathising with the victim in my story. I’m conscious that it’s up to me to make sure of that. But if a narrator mocks other characters, without learning to stop like Freya in ALAS AND ALACK, the message absorbed by readers is very different. They’re being taught that mockery is a clever kind of wit and some people are fair game. And those of us who object to comedy because the context is too raw or the joke too callous are readily dismissed as over-sensitive. Where’s your sense of humour?

Of course children’s stories don’t have to be predominantly funny, and as a teacher I found that Story Time was most thrilling when the book I shared resonated with its audience at a profound emotional level. Kids can relate to fiction about the human condition as well as underpants. In fact I believe these are the stories that count. In my own writing my central characters might lose their hair, be overweight, or have special needs, uncool passions, a disability or an ethnicity that sets them apart – so that readers connect with them emotionally as they understand the experience they share with them. I was overwhelmed when a teenage boy told me that THE WATERHOUSE GIRL had made him a better person. Stories are excitingly powerful, but children’s authors abuse that power if they perpetuate in the next generation the problems that split and damage us.

As for death, climate breakdown and the plight of refugees, I believe they’re all important contexts for children’s fiction. Of course they’re distressing – that’s the point. Beth March dies; so, even does Michael Morpurgo’s Dancing Bear. We learn to live with loss and sympathise with others doing the same. My picture book for People not Borders, I AM ME, is an empathy-developer that helps children as young as three or four to understand emotionally what it must be like to be a young refugee. I don’t believe in shielding children from the kind of reality that’s too big to ignore, as long as the exposure is measured and positive. Life is full of sadness and that’s what makes the joy soar. Children introduced to injustice and suffering feel compassion, and a desire to help, to change the world for the better. That’s the richest kind of maturity. This stuff matters, and there’s nothing worse than the kind of fiction that implies nothing does. I’d go so far as to say, at this point in human history, that fiction that presents our current world while ignoring the climate and ecological emergency is a kind of lie. I’ve acknowledged it in many of my novels, but in different ways and genres. Just as adult cli-fi can be more terrifying than the IPCC report, children’s fiction built on the same truth can be gentler, inspiring, brave. It’s a heavy responsibility to bear and requires delicate judgement, kindness and hope.

I’m not naming names – I can’t, not having read a huge number of children’s books in the last ten years – but I’m making a case. It’s a case that explains why, for example, The Secret Garden has just been filmed again and will always retain its power for as long as there are stories. Call me soft, idealistic, old, but for me:

Sadness is important; superficiality sells kids short.

Unkindness is a reality but the author shouldn’t be guilty of it!

Fun and deep seriousness aren’t mutually exclusive. They can work together to make a story unforgettable.

If it’s lightweight, or even trivial, it lacks staying power.

If it’s jumped on a bandwagon with no real vision, it’ll soon fall off.

When a character is a stereotype the author denies their humanity, and by extension, the humanity of real people with whom the reader may associate them.

If the stereotype is racial, it’s particularly damaging, and always was, long before Black Lives Matter. Enough!

If white authors like me create black characters we’d better take loving, enlightened care.

Authors must not limit girls – or boys, either.

Disrespect is not a healthy attitude to foster in readers and society.

Humour is no excuse.

Young characters can/should be deep, rounded, complex and individual rather than cool or conventional. It’s the rebels that inspire us and change the world for the better.

Even fantasy needs values. If the story’s not about love and the human condition, however young the reader, why bother?

If the story teaches a child to sneer, judge, be shallow and careless, give it a swerve.

Love and understanding – or depression and climate grief

I’ve been suffering from depression and taking medication for eight months now and for me the antidepressants have really worked, so much so that I’ve swung from a kind of shame (prompting two rather disastrous failed attempts to prove I didn’t need them) to an acceptance that I am happier and more functional using them. I make no claims to any knowledge or understanding of depression – unlike the brilliant Matt Haig, whose tweets and whose book Reasons to Stay Alive I unreservedly recommend – but there are rare occasions when I understand my own emotional processes, and I’ve just experienced one.

Our feelings are so muddled, connected and conflicted that identifying them can be difficult to do, and when I recognised my depression I was confused. I knew I had always had the potential, always been romantically attracted to sadness in literature, music and film, as if I sensed from an early age that beauty and sadness are interdependent, like love and loss. So was there a chemical inevitability that as I grew older and experienced more loss in various forms, the sadness would overwhelm? Or was it something else that took me to my G.P.? Is my depression climate grief, a rational response to the facts as climate scientists explain them, because those facts equate to the most profound kind of loss that humans could fear, and experience: the end of humanity, and of life on earth? The timing fitted. After years of what I’d considered campaigning and then activism I had become not only committed to non-violent direct action as a rebel with XR, but emotionally immersed in the science, living its saddest of truths because I’d taken that truth, via the brain, into my heart – which then broke. Which remains fractured, and which I am afraid would break again if I came off the pills. Arrested for the third time last October – just before I visited my GP – I admitted to depression, and told the doctor at the police station, “I don’t know where depression ends and climate grief begins.” “No,” he said, “neither do I.” Do I know many rebels on medication too? Oh yes, more than I had imagined.

Yet, returning to the inextricable way in which feelings can be connected, it’s not so clear. We’re not as simple or as altruistic as I may have suggested. We’re selfish beings, and maybe we need to be to survive the world’s suffering. My need for medication coincided last October with two arrests in consecutive months and two court appearances over ten days, including my trial for my April arrest, at which I represented myself and pleaded not guilty at the end of months of stressful preparation and sheer anxiety. So was it really climate breakdown that crushed me, or something more personal and much less deep: fear of being criminalised (since I’ve always been a good girl and need people to recognise that) and a desperate need to acquit myself well, not just for ‘the cause’ but in the eyes of my fellow-rebels?

And what about the insight today brought? Well, yesterday, towards evening, I felt lower than I have for seven months or so. Not as unreachable as I was, back in October, because Leslie could make me smile and laugh, bless him, but nonetheless unable to meet a friend at my doorway to sign a card for my neighbour. I wondered why. Was it the science I’d read earlier in the day, warning that the temperature rise ahead of us could be sooner and higher than previously thought – up an unlivable 5 degrees – and the possibility that now we have six months to avoid the worst? Reasonably, plausibly, yes. To respond any other way would be madness! Was it disappointment and frustration that again an action I had committed to was postponed or cancelled and another reconsidered by my affinity group? Understandably, yes. There isn’t much time to delay and the pandemic has made the kind of protest XR planned impossible this year. And yet…

It was only today that I knew for sure what else was affecting my emotional balance. I was due, for the first time in a few weeks, to see my grandson, son and daughter-in-law, still socially distanced, in their garden this morning. That visit made me the happiest I’ve been for a long time, leaving me energised, smiley, positive, chirpy and at peace. This teaches me (setting aside the very obvious connection between climate grief and grandchildren) that yesterday I experienced a different kind of fear – that my small grandson might almost have forgotten me, might not take enough notice of me, might love me less than I want him to! I was dreading a kind of (relative) rejection; how needy and childlike is that? Rationally I am grown-up enough to handle the reality that he will never love me as much as I love him, because that’s the way it works. But I also recognise a deep-seated variation on loss that has been with me for some reason all my life. As an adult, in spite of feeling treasured as a child, I almost always expect to be loved less than I love, and almost always assume that I am. (I won’t name the exceptions in case I’m wrong about those!)  So there’s anxiety and inadequacy in the mix, a sense that I’m less lovable, or deserving, than the family and friends I love most. My depression last night was one expression of a desire to be loved more than I am! I could blame alopecia or never being pretty and all that jazz but regardless, it really does feel shameful! Especially as I am with a husband I love very much, whose love has sustained me through lockdown. This is some brain and heart divide.

Enough time on the couch. I share this only in the hope that it may help someone else, in the sense that understanding ourselves can help us to understand others, and that inevitably, it’s complicated so understanding will always be incomplete. And thinking about Black Lives Matters, as we all have been, I’ve made a jump. If I was brought low by the possibility of being loved less, I can just begin to imagine life for those fellow-humans who are, in a society that’s systemically racist, never valued as equals by that society and repeatedly rejected. It’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve recognised the difference between colour blindness (my M.O. all my life) and active anti-racism, a difference that is about the love I thought I lived by but also about a deeper, informed, listening and empathetic understanding. There’s blind, instinctive love and there’s love that accepts and honours the lived experience of someone else even though it isn’t mine, and even though my perception and assumptions might have been as different as my experience. Love in action accepts this experience I haven’t lived as reality, as truth. Love is the most powerful force I know, but without understanding, as 1, Corinthians 14 tells us, it’s not enough. From love and understanding, justice comes.

When writing isn’t enough: protest, behaviour and truth

It’s Sunday, so I was on my high street with a placard again, with XR friends – all of us in masks and socially distanced. When #nogoingbacksundays began we were deep in lockdown, George Floyd was still alive and there was hope that as a species and a nation we might learn from the last few months, and recognise that business as usual was already killing us before Covid-19. We’re a small group of regulars and we stand in silence, appealing for climate justice and connecting with the Black Lives Matter movement. After all, like coronavirus climate change affects people of colour both disproportionately and first.  If we look to the global south, to the Pacific Islanders and indigenous peoples, we see terrible climate injustice, and those suffering have done the least to create the crisis.

For Leslie and me, this Sunday protest falls when we would otherwise be ‘joining’ our fellow-Quakers for Meeting in our own homes, so we try to approach the hour meditatively or prayerfully as peaceful witness, a kind of vigil. Very few passers-by engage with us. A few hoot to show support from cars, or give us the thumbs-up – like a plaited girl of about twelve across the road, a mini-Greta – but most either ignore us or scrutinise our messaging before turning away. We’ve had no hostility, and it feels important as one of few actions currently available to us. But  however many times I take this kind of stand, it’s always a shock – that human beings are walking on past as if we and climate change don’t really exist, when in fact we’re acting on a scientific consensus and with love. When what’s at risk and already being lost and destroyed, is everything, is LIFE ON EARTH. When the normality the government aims to revive is deadlier than the virus. When the nutters going over the top and classified last year as terrorists are actually responding rationally to the evidence as the world’s experts present it. Or rather, we’re under-reacting, in our well-behaved way, because weeping and wailing would be more proportionate and trying to shut down government arguably quite reasonable since our leaders are the criminals. There’s usually a point when I sing internally, or remind myself to focus on the light that is both truth and love, in order to hold on to hope, because the alternative is the kind of grief that hollows out and immobilises. Then I realise that perhaps what most people are rejecting, or sidestepping, is that very grief that truth awakens and once faced can never sleep again. So I remember to understand.

Yesterday, when rebels talked to some sympathetic councillors on Zoom, everyone was very decent and polite, articulate and respectful. The meeting was seen by most as encouraging. But again there was a moment when I did weep and wail, inwardly and privately, not just with frustration at the snail’s pace of change at local government level (arguably speedy relative to national government) but at reality. Underpinning our low-key conversation was impending catastrophe, with rising temperature and sea levels, extreme weather, climate refugees, and millions of deaths right now: Greta’s world on fire, and at war too in more ways than one. Yet anyone overhearing without English might assume from the tone that we were debating the new colour scheme of the council chambers. We have to play this game, apparently, to avoid all the negative labels used by Cressida Dick and the Met, the Daily Mail, our Prime Minister and Pritti Patel. To seem mature and respectable rather than hysterical. Because right now, when people abandon democratic channels and peacefully shut down bridges, glue themselves to the Department of BSEI, sit down in airports or take down statues of men still honoured in spite of their crimes against humanity, those protesters are seen as a threat to society and decency – even though the goals of such protest are justice: climate, racial and social. The inversion is breathtaking. Yet such protesters are the modern equivalents of those radical reformers society learned in time to admire, to thank – in spite of their less than muted opposition to abhorrent norms we no longer attempt to justify. (Not even the far-right thugs do that, because they have and require no justification but ignorance and hate.)

Yes, I’m emotional, obsessed and often devastated by everything I challenge: not just climate inaction and systemic racism but the arms trade at which Britain excels along with the world’s betrayal of refugees fleeing from war and oppression facilitated by the rich white nations. Isn’t such emotion legitimate? I didn’t expect to persuade the courts that my actions when arrested were necessary, in the attempt to prevent a greater crime, because as magistrates are advised in XR cases, they’re “not about climate change or morality”. The law, like governments, still sleeps, adhering to rules outdated by the present reality fronted by activists but also by the United Nations and David Attenborough. As a shy person who prefers to let others do more of the talking, I sometimes conform to the low-key exterior that effectively denies that reality. I often duck the confrontation the truth would risk. But I have learned from my recent reading that racial injustice calls us to be actively anti-racist rather than just colour blind, and that only honouring the truth of lived BAME experience is enough. It’s the same with climate activism. We must honour the truth of lived BAME experience of climate breakdown and of evidence uncovered over decades of scientific research, study and modelling.

   Even if it makes us trouble-makers, law-breakers and extremists generally unwelcome at parties.

Another World Is Possible: a poem for #poets4theplanet #beginafresh

Words that never stop meaning

everything…

Frail and dusty

the dream still gnaws through sun and wine

as chance decays,

still alive

but critical

so hold her close

Breathe in each molecule that builds

the love of which you’re made

Then hope beyond belief

because the new beginning is a fine root through rubble,

Wind’s corps de ballet white on blue,

A chain of hands across a chasm of flame,

The teeming underside,

Fear honoured wide eyed

in grief’s communion

And every morning’s soaring cry

undimmed, unmasked

and bravely yearning

Sue Hampton

A poem for lockdown

I wrote this on Easter Sunday and in the few weeks since a good deal has changed. More deaths, more misjudgements, more lies – and less care being taken by some in response to the messages of relaxation. I think it’s important to remember how shocking everything was until we got used to those deaths, misjudgements and lies.

Will I remember
the runners hurtling past
like bandits with weapon breath,
the measured queues in masks,
time that swelled like baking,
the skin tech couldn’t touch?
Will my senses recall
the fresh taste of streets,
the unstained blue
and broadcast birds?
Will I forget
the daily final score,
graves like factory foundations,
white-cold lorries neatly tiled in wait,
end of shift faces grooved and raw
and tweets sharing loss from the void?
I want to remember the grid that grew
with quietly donated lives
honoured once weekly with saucepans and spoons.
Privilege vs exposure,
the space money makes,
the depth of the debt.
The angriest I’ve ever been.
What will I remember?
In separation, belonging.
In horror, courage.
In love learned,
a rainbow at the door.

Sue Hampton

Pride? At what price?

It nearly loses Darcy Elizabeth. It may explain the Union Jacks strewn around a doorway on my route down to the high street. Oh, and it comes before a fall. We have an ambivalent attitude to pride, explained in part by the two definitions the OED offers:

   1 a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from achievements, qualities or possessions that do one credit, and

   2 consciousness of one’s own dignity, the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself.

 To me 1 seems natural, an expression of the positivity most of us find helpful. We encourage each other to allow these feelings: “You should be proud of yourself.” In definition 2, on the other hand, pride becomes more of a character flaw than a quality. We judge and are alienated by such pride. We don’t like people like Darcy (unless he’s Colin Firth) until he’s redeemed by love and admits his pride was a failing of which he’s ashamed.

Apparently, then, pride is only acceptable up to a point, which is why the word excessive is key. At one end of its spectrum, pride is healthy self-esteem, a delight in a kind of validation that we all, to varying extents, need – and part of the ‘greatest’ love (uh-uh) Whitney sang about until I could reach for the off button. At the other it’s a synonym for arrogance, superiority, conceit and even contempt for others. We are comfortable with someone’s pride if it is simply personal pleasure, a reward for effort – the emotion on the medal rostrum, the Distinction certificate on the wall, the platinum disc or flush of applause. But not if the proud individual belittles others. If it spills over from the personal to the critical or superior, it’s offensive. Pride is merely self-respect until it disrespects other people. It’s the overspill that makes the difference by impacting on the self-respect of others. We like winners to be overwhelmed and grateful in their victories, to acknowledge debts to others and their achievements. I read a fine book by Satish Kumar called I Am Because You Are. As humans we are connected and interdependent. But when the proud set themselves apart, they are denying their need and their vulnerability, and claiming an elevated status that expects us to look up from a lowly position in life. Such pride is a loss of humanity to inflated ego. It’s an excess of individualism.

Here in the UK our society is highly individualistic. Those protesting against lockdown are demanding a kind of freedom that permits them to do what they want regardless of the consequences for anyone else. In America those with guns occupying state buildings and filling streets represent a more dangerous, less guarded form of individualism that refuses to be restricted in the interests of public health, and asserts the right to override the rights of others. What we read in their placards and flags is a pride known as nationalism, which sees America as independent rather than connected, with a power and identity greater than other nations. Here pride is a denial of need, a rejection of rules and a belief in exceptional status. It sets aside compassion for those who are in any way different, and shades into tribal hostility towards those who don’t share their identity as they define it. It can be expressed in vitriol and violence as, by losing touch with humanity, the nationalist denies the humanity of the other. So when I see the house with Union Jacks around the door, or the England flag on a roof, I feel a chill, and when I hear the word patriot I say, not me. That I was born in the UK was an accident over which I had no control. I feel no pride, definition 1, because my nationality was not my achievement or even my choice. I feel no pride, definition 2, because I do not consider that nationality a quality of any kind, let alone one that justifies an excessively high opinion of my country or its people. Indeed, whether I look back at history or to the present government, I see no justification for any such pride in my nation. There is much to celebrate but also a great deal to regret.

CBBC’s Horrible Histories debunked the greatness Britain has liked for many decades to claim by exposing the foreign origins of many symbols of Britishness (not just tea!) and faced an onslaught of outraged – patriotic – protest that ignored the factual accuracy of the programme. Reason makes way for emotion. Nationalism, like climate denial, requires no justification in the form of evidence. A patriot’s nationalism is in fact as personal as the pride of a girl who thinks herself prettier than the others. It’s a distorted perception stemming from inflated ego – or pride spilling into excess as it overlooks what we share as humans by disconnecting the ‘I’ from the ‘we’. In an age of fake news, patriotism exists in defiance of truth.

But surely pride in my country is important for wellbeing, happiness and self-respect? It might be, but I can’t feel it. The facts prevent it: the government’s inaction on climate change while pretending leadership, its punishment of the poor and disabled while guarding the interests of the rich, the moral bankruptcy of our arms trade and abandonment of the refugees it makes of those it does not kill. And the lies. If, however, I were a citizen of New Zealand, I would be profoundly thankful for a leader who by valuing life and health over business has kept her people alive. I would delight in that achievement, but also in the values that led it. I wouldn’t consider myself superior to the British because their government failed them – and the humanity test. I prefer to celebrate being a citizen of the world, and everything that unites rather than divides us.

What then am I proud of? Not my hair!! I needed to come top in English at school but I’m not proud of that need. Such pride is insecurity. Is what I feel about my writing pride? Well, by definition 1, yes, because I delight in it – the process itself and the sheer pleasure it gives me, quite separate from publication or rave reviews. And because there is satisfaction in feeling that what I have written is the best I can do. I see INTACT as my greatest achievement as a writer, but that’s where the pride ends. No spilling over into a deluded belief that I have achieved more in this novel than other writers in their greatest work. My pride in this latest and probably last book is tempered by my reader’s recognition of those I revere. But I can’t do more than my best and that, regardless of sales or approbation, is enough to sustain me. It’s also tempered by recognition of everything area of human achievement in which I fail: a seriously long list including driving, sewing, technology and sport.

Like any other mum I tell my children I’m proud of them. By that I mean I don’t just love them – love being unconditional – but appreciate their qualities and achievements, in particular the caring humans they are. I’m an adoring grandma, and take enormous pleasure in the small beloved’s company and filmed exploits, but aim to avoid definition 2 which would translate into an excessively high opinion of him in relation to other people’s grandchildren. Competition is built into the fabric of our society and I will celebrate anything he does well, but more importantly I hope I will celebrate his kindness and compassion, a sense of justice, honesty and warmth – values at odds with definition 2.  Am I proud of the human species? Not in the sense that I consider us more important than gorillas and whales, or even the biblical sparrows. But I acknowledge the power we have over other species, and feel ashamed of the many ways we abuse it. I am ashamed too of the inequality governments and people have allowed or even fostered, in unjust societies where some humans have power over others – and of the pride with which those who have much dismiss those who have little. I celebrate human achievements in art and music, words and architecture, but not in warfare, and not in ecocidal practices that destroy our shared home. And I think the kind of pride we see at Covid Daily Briefings, with Cabinet members and others unable to admit or discuss mistakes the government may have made in addressing (or not) the crisis, or put economics before human lives, not only fits definition 2 but carries a horrifying price – just like the price of inaction on climate. When world leaders behave as if they know better than experts, ignore evidence and can never be wrong, such pride can be terribly costly.

“But you’re proud of your activism? Of being arrested? Of XR?” Well… I’m not brave, but I can sometimes draw on the courage of conviction. Not just my own deeply-held Quaker convictions but the truth as set out by the scientific consensus, IPCC and UN. Sorry, Sinatra, but owning a ‘way’ with the prefix ‘my’ in another song I can’t endure does not make it right. That’s the mistake of the gun-toting white nationalists. I feel compelled to take whatever non-violent action might be necessary, when I can, because I have exhausted other methods of campaigning and by supporting fossil fuels around the world the government is hastening the end of life on earth. My mental health demands such action; the alternative would feel like complicity in extinction. I’m glad I didn’t duck arrest because of fear, and I’m glad I defended myself at my trial – at an emotional cost that will be reduced next time. And I’m heartened when my family tell me they’re proud of me because support always helps. I have huge respect for the fellow-rebels I know, and applaud most of the actions XR has taken, while disagreeing with a few. When I look back to Waterloo Bridge last April I am – YES – enormously proud of the way we lived together in our peaceful, loving, vegan and creative community, deeply conscious of how and why. It was beautiful and bright with hope. The love was practical and spiritual and tangible. Our rebellion changed public consciousness, pressuring the media as well as the government to tell the truth. But it wasn’t enough, and it’s hard, especially in lockdown, to find a new and irresistible way forward. Yet without change life on earth will become untenable. The death toll from climate change will dwarf the numbers lost to Covid 19.

Pride can be dangerous and divisive but maybe U2 were right. To be a quality rather than a mistake or failing, pride must be in the name of love.

A better dream

There was a land where people belonged to tribes that fought each other with words and sneaky plots. The richest people on the winning team got to rule, in law and in print. They learned to break the rules to stay in charge. That meant big lies to hide mistakes and why they made them.

   The other members of the tribe, the ones who didn’t have chauffeurs and second homes and free booze at work, kept clapping because they believed the lies. Or that lies were OK as long as they kept their tribe in charge.

   And the people in the other tribe were angry and pointed out the lies but the tribe in charge said they were lying. And tribe members quarrelled and sometimes forgot why they joined the tribe in the first place.

   There were people in that country that didn’t belong to a tribe, because they didn’t like the rules, or seeing them broken. Or their own life was terribly hard and they had no way to believe in change.

   There were people from other lands and different tribes and they weren’t always welcome. If they were escaping from bombs, the tribe in charge wouldn’t let them in. It didn’t make any difference if the bombs had been sold by the ruling tribe and made their land rich – while it left the bombed country poorer and sicker, as well as broken.

   The tribe’s leaders got richer because rich people paid them for help to get richer, and the people they didn’t care about got poorer.

   And all this time, something was happening around the world that most people in most tribes didn’t want to know. The whole planet was getting hotter, and living things were dying: creatures of the land and sea and skies. People far away were dying too but the tribe in charge didn’t go to school with them so they didn’t count. The air was thick with poison and the earth was burnt and drowned. A gang of storms terrorised and crushed lives. But nobody put it in print or told it in people’s living rooms. When the tribes met they talked about other things, like leaving the enormous tribe of friendly tribes across the ocean. Some of the leaders of the tribe in charge only really liked their own tribe. They only wanted their own rules. So they broke their own rules, and got rid of the tribe members who thought being in a big friendly tribe made things safer and fairer.

   The tribe in charge had won again, with sneaky plots and lies. Still they didn’t take the world’s temperature, even when children in their big cities died breathing the air. When people tried to make them listen with banners and trees and songs to stop traffic, the tribe in charge sent the police to drag them away, and called them criminals. Even when a little bit of truth told by children leaked into print and into homes, the tribe in charge told everyone to carry on as normal because they had everything under control.

   Even though normal life was deadly.

   The tribe who wanted that to change were thinking what to do next to open the leaders’ ears and hearts when something happened that no tribe had expected. An invisible killer was born. It crept inside faraway tribes and made them so sick that sometimes they died. But not before they’d breathed death into others. In the land of our story, the tribe in charge paid no attention even though the killer was on the way. They didn’t get ready and they didn’t make any new rules until the hospitals were full and there were too many bodies to store.

   Then everything changed. The ruling tribe had to make rules they didn’t think they could afford. Suddenly the land was quiet enough to think. The city skies shook off their poison veils. Some of the people in tribes were just humans now, alone in their homes, and as they recovered peace and colour and music and art and books, they started to love again. Not only those they had stopped touching, but those in other tribes, even those furthest away. Not just other humans but the trees and rivers and birds. And being alive. They wanted the dying to stop but they didn’t want to be normal anymore. Now that they could hear the earth whisper, they stopped shouting. They missed embraces, and before they crossed the road to avoid strangers, they smiled, whatever their tribe.

   The silent killer that got inside people scared everyone, but not everybody stayed safe at home. The healers had to go where the danger was, and some of them died. People whose jobs were not about making money had to keep feeding people and caring for the old. So they moved each day in the world of danger. They had no time to look up at the blue sky through pink blossom. And some of them died. So did some of the poor people taking the safe people the things they’d bought, or clearing away the waste.

   Meanwhile in sunlit woods, it was the ancient trees that were cleared, and the web of life broken, for money. And some of the rich people in the tribe in charge got rich as the poor grew poorer. The new poor, who couldn’t work at home, no longer slept at night. There was fear, and weeping, and anger too.

   But everything had started to change and it didn’t stop. Not even when the sickness was over and the healers could take off their armour and take time to grieve. Across the tribes people saw the mistakes and the lies and the courage and the pain and they said, “No more.”  Now they could see beyond their tribe, they joined the human family. A different membership to renew. They’d rather be humans together, living fairly and kindly and protecting everything and everyone that lived on the earth. Because they knew what mattered most and it wasn’t money.

   So when the leaders of the tribe said everything was all right now and it was time to get back to normal, the people said, “No.”

   No to lies and sneaky plots and blood money. No to war. No to poverty. Yes to truth, and love and justice. Yes to the beauty they had glimpsed, because once it shone, the darkness cleared.

   “Vote for us,” begged the leaders in charge, and the people said, “No. No more tribes. We are one.”

    “But we are the law. We make the rules!” the old leaders protested.

    “Not anymore,” the people said, and their cry echoed and gathered around the world. “We will make a new law, to protect all life on earth. To mend the web we tore.”

   They called it Ecocide Law. It was a new beginning. And everyone saw that it was good…

Fiction and reality: how close a connection?

A little more than a couple of years ago I began a novel for adults – only my second in over 30 titles – inspired in part by falling in love with, and marrying, a non-binary man who wears women’s clothes. And real life has twice now caught up on it.

Georgie is in many ways very different from my husband Leslie Tate; I’m not Mags, although we intersect now and then. And their unconventional love story, which is no romance, is not ours. The narrative draws at least as much on imagination as on my own ideas, passions and experiences, because very little that happens to Mags has happened to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t inhabit it along with the Britain and world around them. It’s always my intention as a writer to keep my fiction as real as possible, even with fantasy stories for children. By that I mean I aim for emotional authenticity: a humanity in my characters even if they are not human. INTACT is not autobiographical, but I hope it feels true.

When I began this book I considered myself a bit of an activist with Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and placed Georgie on the road to the London Arms Fair in 2017. But when it came to climate change, I relied on the written word – in my blogs, tweets and posts but also in my fiction – to qualify me as a kind of keyboard warrior. I was a concerned, even despairing Green Party member and a supporter of Stop Ecocide who marched at every opportunity and visited the fracking site at Preston New Road to support the protest there, but no one had heard of Greta Thunberg and I was living both with very little hope and a less than deep understanding of just how terrifying the climate science really was. By the time I finished my story, all that had begun to change.

I joined Extinction Rebellion in October 2018, when my novel now begins. Since then, I’ve been arrested three times and defended myself in court, because I’ve wised up to the future horror awaiting us if we can’t cut free from fossil fuels and live more consciously and caringly on this Earth, without consuming and destroying. There’s having a general awareness of the truth – like Mags in INTACT – and then there’s living and breathing it because it’s deep in the heart. Transforming from one to the other, as many have in the last eighteen months, is not a reversible process. And sharing the truth isn’t easy because those hearts and minds that haven’t absorbed it are spared the grief and sorrow that can be overwhelming. I decided to write a novel about rebel characters I created to experience variations on my own activism, thoughts and emotions. Now an e-book that can be downloaded for a donation to XR, FOR LIFE is closer to present reality than anything else I’ve written. Having finished it, I could no longer see any reason to continue as an author once it had become necessary for me to devote what energy remains to rebelling… for life. But what of INTACT, the manuscript I believed to be my best writing, now that it had been overtaken by more urgent issues?

Well, it may be my last book. But I had to update that manuscript, already underpinned by my values, by setting it in the autumn and winter of 2018 and adding references to the climate movement that swiftly became global. Georgie reads the IPCC report. Mags is trying to go ‘properly’ vegan. One of the younger characters has joined XR. The insertions fitted seamlessly, but don’t alter the fact that this is an intimate novel about relationships, fulfilment and the power of the past. It explores love of many kinds. And of course love inspires Extinction Rebellion and my Quaker peace activism. I’d find it hard to write about anything else.

As the publication of INTACT drew closer, reality broke in again, this time with the Covid-19 virus that has, as I write, killed nearly 70,000 of us globally, confined us to our homes and made many lucky enough not to be in mourning both frightened and angry. It is, of course, a kind of preview of an even more frightening future guaranteed if we don’t avert climate chaos. It requires change and adaptation, and exposes the shallow desires we mistook for needs, leaving us with the recognition of what really matters to us as humans – or what it means to be human. Which is to love and be loved. As Mags and Georgie both know, not least because more than fifty years ago as children they loved each other very much.

The crisis may allow some of us the freedom to read extensively but this not a good time to launch a book. I expect there will be fiction before long about lockdown and the loss of loved ones who died without family beside them, but I won’t be writing it, not unless I live it, because that would be cheap, inauthentic and insensitive. For now, at a time when it’s hard to have a socially distanced conversation about anything but the virus, some readers will choose escapism. But as a writer I can’t do that. I have to connect fiction to reality; that’s an emotional imperative for me. The lockdown has nudged me into writing the sequel towards which INTACT could be said to look. But I will have, as always, to let the characters lead. They are not for me to awaken, recruit or transform, and I never know exactly where they will lead the narrative. But I do know that 2019 was very different from 2018, and if Mags and Georgie live through that year it can only be, as context, the time it was. Maybe it will change their world too.

Click here you’d like a copy of INTACT, praised by my favourite living author, Susan Fletcher, delivered through your letterbox.

Mothering Sunday

Following my recent story, The Vigil, I’ve returned again to my characters from FOR LIFE, a novel about rebels available to download for a donation to Extinction Rebellion. For those who don’t know, Manda is a kind of mother-in-law, in spite of the death of her son Rob, to Gem.

Since Rob died, Manda had never quite adjusted to Mothers’ Day. Now with the Care Home closed to visitors she wasn’t sure she should have sent her own mum a card. Perhaps Hamadi would open it with surgical gloves, show her the picture from a distance that meant the pink shape could just as easily be a hippo as a camellia, and read the message on repeat, at increasing volume, with more patience than she could normally muster.

   Such a lovely morning. But for once she was relieved to take direction from the Prime Minister and spend the day alone. It was just a day, one that mattered to girls in service who were graciously allowed home to their mothers for tea and cake but meant next to nothing in a health crisis that was a glimpse of a future no one wanted to think about now.

   She sat on the sofa, drinking coffee and watching the daffodils outside her flat, remembering that they were really narcissi, which reminded her of Trump and Johnson in a way at least one of them would have no way of understanding.  Would Libby ring? Her daughter had joked after the Prevent nonsense labelling rebels extremists that the cops had obviously been monitoring Manda and she was their evidence. Still, they were closer these days, thanks to Skye. Who would have predicted that Auntie Libby would rise to that role with such spirit and calm?

   No Zoom meetings scheduled, so perhaps she’d download that novel set in Ethiopia that someone had recommended on Twitter, as a change from Jem Bendell, Rupert Read and Roger Hallam. She knew she shouldn’t be feeling so frustrated and grumpy already, with the possibility of weeks or months of isolation ahead.

   Her phone rang, but told her it was not Libby but James. Only a fortnight earlier they’d all walked in St James’s Park, against the better judgement of all three women but reassured because nurseries, like schools, were still open, along with restaurants and pubs.

   “Are you climbing the walls?” he asked.

   “Guilty as charged,” she said. “I can’t get my head around the idea of not seeing Skye except on screen. How are you doing?”

   “Bit bored I guess, but I’m running every evening, after dark.”

   She supposed it wasn’t the best time for him to take a sabbatical to find himself. Now he’d be stuck with that self and the only possibilities of discovery online.

   “I’m not that bored.”

   “But no May rebellion to prepare for?”

   “No. But no one is giving up. It’ll happen.” She wasn’t admitting to the emptiness or the attempts to come off the antidepressants, which had been too hard to contemplate trying again for a while. Not to James, who seemed to admire her so-called bravery almost as much as he regretted the part she’d played in clogging up what he called the system and wasting police and court time.

   “I thought you might try to convince me that this virus will be the trigger for the kind of change you want…”

   “Don’t you want it too? A safer, more just world back in touch with real human values? I mean it’s becoming clear who the key workers are in this society and it’s the NHS workers and supermarket staff…”

   “I know. I’m not on the other side, Manda. Anyway, I rang to wish you a happy Mothering Sunday as our mums always called it, because I thought it might not be the best…”

   “Or the worst,” she said, probably too quickly, because he wouldn’t have forgotten the first Christmas, the first birthdays, the first celebrations of any kind, however meaningless, without Rob.

   “No.”

   There was a moment of silence while she tried to guess the way his face looked, where in the house he was sitting – but was glad it wasn’t a video call because he couldn’t see her uncombed hair, or the less than sexy dressing gown he’d never approved when they were together. Her own face looked older than his, when she wasn’t smiling – and dead serious was her default expression these days, except when being Grandma.

   “What will you get up to today apart from your run?” she asked.

   “Nothing much, I guess. I thought Libby might come round but she says she’s self-isolating…”

   “With symptoms?”

   “A cough, apparently. But there must be those about too, and colds, and flu, and chest infections. It doesn’t mean…”

   “I know, but without testing… And they can’t even get proper protective equipment to the frontline NHS staff.” Remembering that he’d bought a mask from Amazon, quick off the mark, she tried not to feel cross about that. “Are you shopping for anyone? Mrs B next-door? Libby, if she’s coughing? Because if not, I will.”

   “Mm, good idea. I’ll offer.”

   “There you are – your day has a purpose now. One that isn’t to do with abs or step counters.”

   “Thanks! But don’t worry about Libby.”

   “How?!”

   He pointed out that she was young and healthy; Manda didn’t mention the amount of alcohol the healthy young had a habit of consuming. Then he said Libby had told him not to tell her because she’d freak. Ah, the same way she overreacted to climate change, Manda supposed.

   “OK, take it easy,” he said. “Make a cake?”

   “Not just for me!”

   “You’re too thin, Manda.”

   “Thanks.”

   And a moment later he had gone, sounding so cheerful and normal – normality being her ex-husband’s speciality – that she felt rattled by contrast. Leo would have held her, stroked her hair and known she didn’t want to be reasoned with. And made baking worthwhile. She hoped he was with that elusive son of his, making music.

    She called Libby but had to leave an answerphone message. Whichever idiot said there was nothing to fear but fear itself needed to do some serious editing in the light – or darkness – of a deadly virus and mass extinction.

   In her head she heard Libby tease, “You don’t know what to do with yourself, do you?” and she wouldn’t be wrong. So many actions in her diary, leading up to May, all abandoned. Manda felt suddenly lost.

   She was cleaning the kitchen surfaces – which had recently been getting a lot more care and attention – when her phone rang again.

   “Libby!”

   “I thought I’d call to say Happy Mothers’ Day wherever you put the apostrophe.”

   “Thank you, but Dad said you were ill…”

   “Just coughing. I bet you had me on a ventilator.”

   “People are, more every day, and there aren’t enough to go round!”

   Libby’s cough was small but certainly dry. “But way more people just have slight symptoms or none. I hope Boris isn’t about to go full totalitarian; I want to go to Brighton for Easter. And you know me, I never get really ill. It’s your generation and Gran’s that have to be careful. Is she OK? She doesn’t know anything’s up?”

   “Not a thing, I imagine.”

   “I guess that’s good at this particular point. If you go and see her…”

   “It’s closed to visitors.”

   “Oh yes. But you could do a Love Actually with placards in the garden outside her room.”

   “I think they’d set Security on me.”

   “So! Glue yourself to a tree.”

   That reminded Manda of rebels trying to stop HS2, and made her feel guilty. Would the felling stop in a lockdown or would that be classified essential? She had to admit her daughter didn’t sound ill.

   “I’d better go,” said Libby, who rarely explained why. “Speak soon and don’t worry.”

   “You’re the second person to tell me that this morning. Lots of love!”

   Having made herself another coffee, Manda noticed a message on her phone. No! Her friend Farah was struggling to breathe and shut away from her own kids. In her little Oxfam diary she’d written, but later crossed out, their plan to meet at the café, now closed.

   She sent a message which felt inadequate but added a green heart at the end. Was it psychosomatic that her throat felt sore? She had a vague memory of coughing in the night, between Prozac dreams too colourful to forget, but there was no one to confirm. “FFS!” she said, aloud. What about refugees? The homeless on British streets? Anyone in countries that could be themselves considered vulnerable?

   An autopilot scroll through Twitter found a rebel friend up a tree and being illegally evicted with no regard for social distancing. And here she was, doing nothing for anyone. Further trawling offered a reminder of an online XR action for this particular day, and an email to send to Alok Sharma, minister at BEIS, about safeguarding the future of children and mothers-to-be. Welcoming the kind of activism she would normally dismiss in favour of something more physical, social and sacrificial, she rushed off an email, and attached two images, one of Skye and another of herself glued to that tower. Her tweet carried the same pictures until she realised Gem would not be happy, and deleted Skye’s wide-eyed smile on a swing. Thinking also of my daughter, who may choose not to bear children in an ecocidal and genocidal ‘civilisation’. Plus a picture of young Libby, pretty and neat from the start in her gran’s knitting.

   Manda felt a sudden conviction that she must see her mother, and not just virtually but through sunlight and breeze. But how, with no lift from Libby and no overcrowded public transport? It must be walkable, given the serious lack of time pressures – although if she was going to get thrown off site before her mother had glanced out of the window, it might not be worth the many wrong turns she’d be bound to take regardless of an app that wouldn’t behave.

   And it wasn’t fair to call in the hope of speaking to her favourite carer, but with luck he’d be on duty and swing it if necessary. “Thanks, Libby,” she muttered. It was like an action in a way, but she didn’t need chains this time, or padlocks, a banner or even a tube of quick-locking glue. Just one word typed per A4 card in the largest possible bold font. But before she began she hurried a small batch of muffins into the oven.

It was roughly tea and cake time when Manda finally found her way to the care home, breathing away the raggedness resulting from getting lost more times than she’d admit. Tucked discreetly around the corner from the gates, she surveyed the scene. The front garden looked immaculate as ever, with its potted plants and symmetry and perfect edges, but the car park was almost empty. She could guess the message on the A-board without approaching it. Yes, it was closed to visitors, but she wouldn’t exactly be visiting. No men in uniform on the prowl. So, as long as she could locate her mother’s room from the outside rather than a terracotta corridor… and the cherry tree would help. It should be flowering.

   Probably best to scoot. The path led through tall photinia, well disciplined and mathematically placed but gleaming. Catkins swung playfully and the creamy camellia was riotous. Without a backward or sideways glance, Manda hurried on, apparently observed only by a squirrel, until she stopped, smiling, as she found the cherry tree and looked across the grass to an open window that she hoped was her mother’s.

   But she could be asleep, or in the lounge. Only one way to find out. Manda approached the striped curtains that didn’t help because they hung at every window. But a familiar tartan dressing gown lay on the end of the bed. The figure sitting looking into the garden looked for a moment too small to be her mother. Manda unzipped her backpack, where CONSCIENTIOUS PROTECTOR was still pinned by two corners and flapped. Was she dozing? The sun made it hard to see.

   She put the tub of cakes down on the grass with its note to staff taped to the lid. Then she pulled out the cards and checked the sequence. Ready. She must be two metres from the glass. As she swung her bag onto her back, she saw her mother stir. Manda leapt and waved her arms like a puppet pulled at every string.

   “Amanda!”

   Landing, she put her finger to her lips and began the reveal she preferred to attribute to Dylan while her mother stood, her face framed by curtains, her glasses in place. SHHHHH! was followed by HAPPY, MOTHERS and DAY. Then, LOVE, YOU, and MANDA, and finally P.S. I’M and CONTAGIOUS.

   Her mother was clapping. Manda hadn’t felt this happy for so long. Not the last time she’d been there with Libby, and been more or less completely overlooked and overshadowed. Not the time before that when her mother had complained so repeatedly about Rob not visiting that she’d almost shouted, “He’s dead, Mum!” She hadn’t seen that smile for a while and maybe her mother hadn’t seen hers either, not a real one. She blew an extravagant kiss. Then to show that this supposed contagion wasn’t deadly – because her mother wouldn’t remember about the virus even if she’d been told – she did a little dance with her thumbs up and waved goodbye, hoping there’d be no bereft cry behind her as she walked away, like there used to be from Rob when he was in Nursery. Never from Libby.

   Amused by her own excitement, not too far from elation, she headed briskly towards the gate. She had turned around the corner when her phone began to sing. Just a number, no name. No! Not Farah’s husband?

   “Hello?”

   “Manda, it’s Hamadi.” Her favourite carer was talking quietly. “I found the cakes you kindly baked. I’ll have to check whether we’re allowed…”

   “Sure! Your call. I wore latex at all times, unused. From a pack I had after surgery.” He was twenty-six – she’d asked him. He didn’t need to know that. “I know I broke the rules.” But he approved of her more typical XR rule-breaking – he’d told her.

   “I saw you. Love Actually? Very nice. Very kind. Your mum is bouncing.”

   “That makes two of us.” Manda remembered she wasn’t wearing a bra. “OK, thanks for everything, Hamadi. I won’t misbehave again.”

   He’d gone before she could say she hoped no staff were isolating with symptoms, or swear about the government failing to provide them with masks. She put away her phone and wondered if she could remember the way back without too many mistakes. James would call her irresponsible. Even Libby would say, “It was a joke, Mum, not an action plan!” But she hadn’t endangered anyone. And her mother was bouncing.

   By the time she’d walked a mile she was warm, her scalp sweating under hair she should really get cut before the summer. If any hairdressers were open. Passing a window, she glimpsed herself, serious face back in place. The comedown. There was no avoiding it, even without a cell at a police station. And if the virus got into that home…

   If. What if. Gem had said on the phone that they mustn’t allow the worst of those in. “What if,” she’d said, “this is the turning point and we never revert to the same destructive stupidity?”  Yeah, Gem, it wasn’t impossible. But mostly it seemed less plausible than a Richard Curtis rom-com. And worth believing in, all the same.

   The little capsules at breakfast had stopped her informing her own walls that she wanted to die whenever the space inside felt too dark. And now the challenge was living even more differently, and staying alive. But what if Farah died, because some customer had shared the virus in exchange for pecan pie before Johnson got round to closing the cafés?

   She’d saved herself one cake for tea.

PROCESSING