Grandma’s tree

The boy’s grandma loved trees. When he was just a baby she carried him through the forest, and took him close to one trunk, then another. She placed her hand on the bark and felt it. Some trees were smooth. Others were soft with moss. Some were rough, ridged or bumpy. There were trunks as pale as frost but others were darker than coffee grains. Every time Grandma touched a tree, the baby boy touched it too. They both smiled. Every time, Grandma felt the tree’s heart beating silently. And every time, the baby boy reached out for the next tree.

As he grew, the boy began to love the big tree in Grandma’s garden. Taller than her house, it looked down over the hedge to the railway. Its branches were strong and wide and its trunk was thicker than a castle wall. Even when Grandma and the boy joined hands to hug the tree they couldn’t reach all the way around it.

   Grandma put her ear to the bark and a finger to her lips. She seemed to be listening. So the boy put his ear against the bark too, much lower down towards the roots.

   “What can you hear, Grandma?”

   “Same as you,” said Grandma. “A heartbeat.” She paused, listening hard. “And a song.” She smiled at the boy. “And a story.”

   The boy listened hard but he told Grandma he could only hear the birds and the wind.

   “It’s a secret heart and a secret song,” said Grandma. “And a secret story.”

   “Will it tell?” asked the boy.

   “Maybe one day,” said Grandma, “if you keep listening.”

   “I will,” said the boy.

By the time he was nine the boy could climb Grandma’s tree and wave down at her from a branch above her head. He watched the trains speed past and tried to read their names. Grandma took photos of him, up the tree and beneath it. He raced himself around the tree and back, and made leaf prints in autumn. One Christmas he asked Grandma if they could decorate the special tree, but she thought it was beautiful enough already.

   “Like you!” she said. “No one needs to hang a bauble round your neck to make you look gorgeous.”

   In the summer he sat with Grandma in the shade of the tree and they read stories to each other, or made them up as they told them.

   Even when it was too soggy outside to climb the tree, the boy always waved at it when he arrived at Grandma’s house, and if it was windy it waved back.

   “Is the tree still growing?” he asked her one wet day. “Or has it stopped, like you?”

   “Oh yes. It will live a lot longer than humans can.”

   “How long?” asked the boy.

   “Some trees can live a thousand years,” Grandma told him.   

   The boy was amazed. “How long will you live?”

   “No one can answer that,” said Grandma.

   “A hundred years!” said the boy, but Grandma only smiled, and said they should plant acorns next autumn, to help the Earth keep breathing.

   “Cool,” said the boy.

By the time the boy was fourteen things had changed. Grandma was seventy-six and her hair was very white. She wasn’t as bendy as she used to be. But the boy had changed too. He was taller and stronger but quieter, and didn’t laugh as often. He was busy too, with sport and school work and friends, so he didn’t spend as much time at Grandma’s, but now and then he called round after school if he could, and she was happy to see him. Only he didn’t like having his photo taken any more, not even under the tree.

   One afternoon, when he arrived for a surprise visit, she seemed sad.

   “What’s wrong, Grandma?” he asked. He knew she still missed Grandad, who’d died before he was born.

   “It’s the tree, love,” she said.

   “Is it dying?”

   She shook her head. “But it has to be cut down. The roots are too close to the house. The expert says it’s not safe. And I’d rather lose the house than the tree…”

    “But you can’t live in the tree.”

    “No, but no one can live without trees. We need them now, more than ever.”

    “But you need a home.”

    “I’m not the only one,” she said. “That tree is a habitat.”

  She’d taught him that; she’d shown him all the life in it, from the squirrel eating its acorns to the caterpillars to the fungi no one saw underground. He gave her a hug.

   “Next time you come,” she said, “if the tree has gone, forgive me.”

   “I will!”

   “I hope I can forgive myself.”

A week or two later she sent him a text that read, The tree is down. x She had added an emoji with a tear. The boy went round to see her after football practice, even though he had lots of homework, but she didn’t seem to hear the doorbell, or his knock, or the phone. So he climbed into the back garden over the side gate, and found her sitting where the tree used to be, in the dark. When she turned towards him her face shone in the light from the living room because it was wet.

   The boy could smell the sliced wood. Under his shoes he felt sawdust clogging the grass. Then he realised that she was sitting on the stump. It was all that was left of the tree she loved. Now she stroked it with one hand.

   The boy crouched down and put his arms round her. Her body shook but her crying was quiet. It might have made him cry too, but he didn’t do that anymore. He pulled away.

    “No heartbeat,” she said, “and no song. The story has the kind of ending I never want to read.” She squeezed his hand. “I’ve been saying sorry.”

   The boy wished she would stop crying, and blaming herself. He didn’t know what to say. And the thought that came into his head was too silly to come out: The tree knows you loved it. Because he knew trees didn’t really have hearts to love with.

   But he did. He just didn’t have the words to make a difference.

When the young man was at university he called Grandma sometimes, but she couldn’t always hear him very well. She told him she’d paid for a hundred trees to be planted in Kenya.

   “That’s good,” he said, remembering how he’d told his mates, “My gran’s obsessed with trees.”

   “When will I see you?” she asked. “I want to show you something special.”

   “Not sure yet,” he said. It was a long way and he was busy. “Soon.”

   His parents weren’t sure she could stay in the house much longer but that was too sad to think about. When he came back he would cut her grass for her and weed her flower beds.

   But his dad called him a few days later.

   “It’s Grandma,” he said. “She died last night, in her sleep.”

She was buried in a pod in woodland, with young trees growing up around her. A few weeks later he went to Grandma’s house with his dad, to help sort things out. She didn’t have many clothes so bagging them up for the charity shop didn’t take long. The boy looked at the books about trees, flowers, birds and animals, and remembered so many of the pictures from the days when he sat on her lap and turned the big pages. But what had she wanted to show him? Not knowing made it hard not to cry.

   “I’ll make us some tea,” said his dad.

   Then the young man found a ragged shoebox under Grandma’s bed. Lifting off the dusty lid, he found a wodge of photos, thick as a hardback book, wrapped in tissue paper tied with rainbow wool. Pencilled on the paper was his name.

   Carefully he unwrapped a stack of photographs, all the same size. The image on top was of the tree, leafy against a grey sky. On the back of it Grandma had written the last day and a date, a recent one. She had taken the photo before the tree surgeon came to chop it down. Underneath it was the tree again, in sunshine, on your eighteenth birthday. He flicked through the pile to be sure but every photo showed the tree, bright and shady. Like the book he’d made as a boy, with a ball he’d drawn to rise and fall as he turned its pages, it was alive. The tree’s shape shifted as it filled and thinned with the seasons. And the clouds behind it moved as if chased by wind. The grass beneath it grew and neatened and grew again. Acorns scattered and disappeared from its roots. And the boy shrank, but his smile grew bigger.

   The young man knew he was going back in time, as fast as a Tardis. He almost missed the photo of himself as a baby wriggling in Dad’s arms. Hello you. x

   Soon, like a summer evening, the colour drained away to black and white. Page after page the tree breathed. A squirrel nibbled an acorn. Branches tugged and tussled and settled into stillness in snow. And then there was a young woman beneath them, with a mass of thick hair, wearing a long flowery skirt and smiling: the day your grandad asked me to marry him.

   The young man stopped flicking and smiled back at Grandma. But there were still dozens of photos underneath her. Skimming through them he reached a girl, not more than eleven, in dungarees, standing high up in the tree and waving when she probably should hold on tight. The tree was the reason I moved back to the house when your great grandparents died. I grew up with it, see. X

   He’d never seen his great-grandparents before but there they were, with baby Grandma in a heavy-looking pram. The date on the back said 1954. Before Kennedy was shot, or Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Before people really understood how trees communicated – like people holding hands but feeding, warning, protecting each other. Was that what Grandma meant about the song?

    He was still watching the tree breathe when he realised he was reaching the bottom of the pile. No one knows for sure how old the tree is but it was tall in 1939 when your great, great grandfather built the house.

   Before that it had a different story to tell, and that might stay a secret. He straightened up the stack of photos and looked again at the tree’s last day. Suddenly he could have cried like Grandma had when he found her surrounded by sawdust, her hand on a wide, fresh stump. He remembered its living smell in the cool evening air, and the way her face had shone.

   He turned to see his dad carrying two of Grandma’s mugs. She’d know how to plant a tree. She must have told him. He seemed to remember something about collecting acorns and putting them in the fridge. Why had he let her do that without him? Had he been too busy growing up?

   “Ah,” said his dad. “The oak. I never really understood what it meant to her until it had gone.”

   “Dad,” he asked, “how do you plant a tree?”

    Passing the photos to his father he saw Grandma’s handwriting on the bottom of the tissue paper package.

   With love, it said, and hope. xx

The Tower: a new short story to follow FOR LIFE

Giving her right palm another coating of superglue, Manda wondered whether she’d overdone it. As she sat down inside the tower and placed her hand on the pale wood, her skin certainly stuck. It was a strange feeling, but not uncomfortable – although next to her Gem had spread her younger fingers, while Manda’s were tightly joined in a stop sign.

   She grinned at Gem: a smile of relief and triumph, but also surprise. Not so much because she found herself glued to a tall structure on the road by Trafalgar Square – that was rational, strategic – but because it was Gem partnering her. Gem, who might be thinking of Rob too, if her new life with Nick hadn’t erased him now. For Manda, he’d always connect them and no de-bonding team could change that.

   Gem looked as bedraggled as everyone else, her hair flattened by rain while Manda’s had turned to teased wool. Her smile was smaller and Manda hoped she hadn’t felt pressured by her own enthusiasm.

   “O.K.?” she checked.

   “Fine. I can’t believe how quickly they got this thing assembled.”

   “In seconds.”

   Some of the rebels who had surrounded the process remained in place; others stepped away as if to challenge the police to see what they’d missed. Manda shouted up to the women locked on above them, but they didn’t seem to hear. She hadn’t even seen their faces. But to the left of Gem an older man, a slight, churchy type with glasses, sat on a folded sleeping bag on the wet ground and glued a hand to the side of the structure. And there was a mature woman with her back to theirs, facing the ‘stage’ tent on the edge of the square. Another, who might be a student and wore so little clothing it made Manda shiver, attached herself on Manda’s right, with just a blanket between her skinny backside and the puddled tarmac.

   Manda realised that as the hours went by, she might need to engage these others. Gem was such a full-time Quaker, her face clear, still and pale as if in the silence in her head was the place she liked best. A serious face, it made Manda herself feel flighty, unstable, not as grown-up as she should be after all these decades. Taking it upon herself to organise introductions, Manda hoped she’d remember some of the names. She probably sounded heartier than she felt but she might be the most experienced activist in this tower, and with that CV came responsibilities she was glad to shoulder.

   Gem was being asked, “Have you done this sort of thing before?” and was shaking her head, pulling her mouth into a narrow smile.

   “Skye will be proud of you. Give her a couple of years,” Manda told her.

   This time Gem nodded. With her free hand she pulled out her phone.

   Gem had to leave a voicemail for Nick, which probably meant the day out was going well. It was astonishing, all of it: how instantly Skye had loved James, how abandoned her laugh became when he was around, the way she called him ‘Ganpa’ regardless. The way Nick accepted it all, with no reference to DNA tests, even though he was Daddy now. The noisy, boys-together matiness of the might-be father and the maybe-grandad. And Manda as could-be grandma, more careful and sensitive than the stereotype Gem had tried to fit her with, more patient and less wild.

   Even so, Gem wondered how long it would be, as they sat tightly together, before Manda asked questions of a personal kind. And how surprised Gem might be to find herself so intimately engaged with her never-mother-in-law.

   “Good day to be indoors looking at the stars,” Manda told her, apparently forgetting she’d called the Planetarium a rip-off. “They could come over afterwards and say hello, though – if you’d like that?”

   Gem wasn’t sure. Not to see the police confiscating tents and sleeping bags. Not if a one-armed hug was only half of what Skye counted on. She could imagine her now, sitting on her lap, the slightly wriggly warmth of her and the movement of the legs that would swing down. How long would it be before she understood, and was frightened? Gem knew there were teenagers, children too, seeing their GPs with climate anxiety, needing counselling or pills. It was cruel, and unfair, even if Nick turned out to be right and Skye grew into a climate striker using that powerful voice of hers on a microphone. By then, well, it would be too late. The chaos would make nightmares real, and no determined hope would save anyone or anything.

   Rebels were leaning in to offer lunch: bananas, biscuits from an open packet. “Coffee?”

   “Uhuh,” said Manda. “No drinks. We declined the nappies.”

   Apparently there was a contraption, a kind of tubing, but Manda had no intention of testing it. Already a few people had thanked them. She told herself not to enjoy the status; it wasn’t personal. A young woman took a photo on her phone and then put her hands together, Gandhi-style. Manda supposed she had no one to call, these days, except her new ‘family’ under the starry dome. It was good to be friends with James, and to see him alive for Skye, but she knew Libby felt aggrieved. Ousted, perhaps. She could be a half-hearted auntie, stiff, even detached, but Manda put that down to lack of confidence. Maybe when Skye was less sticky and more coherent…

   “What went wrong with Leo?” Libby had asked.

   “Oh, darling, I wish I knew,” she’d answered.

   “I don’t believe you.”

   Four months after she’d left him puzzled and hurt, she couldn’t say how much of what she felt, or used to feel, was love. His offer of a ‘place to crash’ during the occupation had come out of the blue and she’d had to tell herself to be pragmatic with a yes when her no anticipated the way it would feel in his bed without him, knowing she’d never have sex again, because that had peaked with Leo and she still remembered. She could call him now, on his little tour packed with flights he was rueful about, but why? Not knowing how much he’d care made her sad.

   The rain had thickened again and she felt sorry for the women on top, their bed the roof that sheltered her and Gem.

   “We got lucky here,” she said. “What will Nick say? That I led you astray?” Manda knew she should withdraw that because she didn’t think Gem was very leadable, and she didn’t mean to imply that only one of them was committed. Hard-core, James called her, almost amused. She suspected he had more respect for Gem’s less verbal conviction with fewer flourishes. And of course, for a young mum arrest was a different proposition. Well, this would be quite a showy debut.

   Gem shook her head. “He won’t be shocked.”

   Not as shocked as she felt herself, suddenly, because it had happened too fast to think hard the way she preferred. But sometimes an impulse felt deep and important, and she must see it as an opportunity – to hold the road and sustain the protest for longer. However the courts looked at it, it was necessary.

   “He’d be here with his camera if he knew.” Manda hoped that eventually she’d stop searching every XR film for a glimpse of her own face, and tell no one when she spotted herself on Channel 4 News. She supposed Gem was above such vanity – unless no one was, and her own honesty was the rare thing Leo used to say it was.

   Gem was talking to the woman behind and explaining that she’d “only just turned up today.” If people like her had been there from Monday, thought Manda, it might all have felt more secure. Ambitious as the whole plan was, the sites might have held, and it was hard not to feel disappointed, and a bit aggrieved. So many armchair supporters but not enough arrestables. She realised she was very, very tired. And the government wasn’t listening.

   But Gem was talking about colour and creativity, Red Rebels, giant skeletons, birds with enormous wingspans. Manda could see she’d been paying close attention from home, and was touched by the positivity, but had to butt in.

   “The police took disabled toilets, stage gear, kitchen equipment. They arrested lorry drivers. I saw them bullying drummers. They need to be challenged.” She knew she probably sounded bitter; Gem was more suited to no blame, no shame.

   “But there must be so many among them who hate harassing us,” Gem said. “Parents who are fearful for their children too.”

   Manda couldn’t deny it, and so far she’d been treated well after her two arrests. But Leo hadn’t been confident of the same respect and people like her needed to remember that. Now they were being asked by a Wellbeing rebel whether they wanted anything. Manda’s body was crying out for salad leaves, broccoli, spinach – not another cereal bar and no more vegan chocolate.

   Gem knew it would be a mistake to check the time so soon after ducking in and sticking herself in place, but she hoped they wouldn’t be there after midnight. If Nick thought her reckless she wouldn’t disagree, but she had needed to make a stand for so long, and this felt like the most rather than the least she could do – and had been doing for a year.

   She smiled at Manda giving in to chocolate and began to remove the backpack bulking uncomfortably behind her before realising that she should have slipped it off before she glued her hand.

   “Rookie error.”

   Manda, who had done the same, laughed loudly.

   Gem’s phone rang. Nick wanted to know if she was all right, although she’d already said she was fine.

   “We’ve only been glued for twenty minutes tops. Clock watching’s not the best idea.” She heard Skye say, “Mummy!” and checked, “How much have you told her?”

   “That you’re in London trying to save the earth and the animals and might be late home.”

   “That’ll cover it. Do you want to put her on?”

   Skye was loud. “Mummy, Ganpa bought me ice cream. And sweets. He’s naughty.” She giggled.

   “But kind,” said Gem, glancing at Manda and seeing her roll her eyes. “So did you see the planets and the stars?”

   “Bye Mummy.” And she’d gone. Nick was back, telling her to be careful and he hoped she wouldn’t be stuck in Trafalgar Square overnight with the drunks getting lairy. She told him she hoped they’d be home by then, because Manda had reported rebels only spending three or four hours in a police cell.

   “I love you,” he said.

   “Love you.” She remembered him saying the pronoun made all the difference and wished she could use it as freely as him. Manda would understand if she told her she wasn’t sure she’d ever love him the way she loved Rob, but however long they were glued in this tower she had no plans for that kind of sharing. Turning off her phone to save the battery which was negligently low, she remembered the writers who’d be reading later and told herself that if they were still there by then, at least they could celebrate their front row seats. Although she hoped Margaret Atwood wouldn’t do an Emma Thompson and fly over the Atlantic to rebel.

   “Hey,” said a guy, crouching down on Manda’s side of the tower. “I have chains?”

   “Sure, great,” said Manda. But Gem passed, and felt like the lightweight of the team.

   As the guy discreetly delivered the chain under a blanket, he said to let them know if they needed anything else, and to remember that if it got really late there was always acetone they could use but it would take a while.

   Gem thanked them. Chained around the waist, Manda gave her jailer the thumbs up. She was telling Gem about a piece of theatre involving landing crew in formation, and a friend who’d been arrested at City Airport, when a young rebel from XR Media got down on her haunches to ask if she could interview them both.

   “I’ll leave that to Manda,” said Gem.


“What time do you think it is?” Gem asked.

   It was a while since anyone had offered them anything and the hot water bottles provided by a rebel before he retired to his tent, with a wide smile and a high five, felt only warm. And although she’d tried, the so-called music from the open-mic ‘stage’ was too loud to sleep through. Surely it would stop soon, and the drunk droppers-by would find a night bus home.

   Manda checked her phone. “It’s nearly one a.m.” She made sure she sounded neutral but it was bravado. “Sorry, Gem.”

   “If the cherry picker had rolled up before dark we’d have missed the authors. That’d be something to cry about.” Gem smiled, referencing the tears they’d both shed listening to the readings. Considering the deluge that had beaten down on those listening without a wooden roof, and the spray the wind had dragged in on them, they were remarkably dry under their blanket and sleeping bag. But she was colder than she intended to admit.

   “I’m wondering how hard it might be to slip a nappy down inside my leggings,” said Manda, “with my left hand.” She added that she wished her bladder was as young as Gem’s.

   Hours ago she’d told Nick the police obviously wanted to clear the road. This might not be comfortable but this was privilege, choosing to make a statement knowing they wouldn’t be teargassed or beaten, and confident that London wouldn’t be underwater tomorrow. This was solidarity with those already suffering and dying because of climate change and she was tough, as tough as Manda in her own way.

   Manda wasn’t sure the homeless guy who sat on the ground beside her, with his hand below hers but not actually glued the way he’d been proudly claiming, was still awake, or how he’d react if she asked him to go and give her some privacy. He coughed, and lit a roll-up he seemed to have picked from his lap.

   “Excuse me,” she said, tentatively. “I was wondering whether you’d mind moving so I can…”

   “I’m glued on.”

   “I don’t think you are…”

   “Yeah! I’m glued like you.”

   “The thing is,” she said, and lifted the nappy from under the blanket, “I need a wee. So I’d be really grateful…” She didn’t know his name, she realised guiltily. But he lifted the hand in question in a whoah of a gesture and pulled himself up.

   “You’re all right,” he said. “You take care of yourselves.”

   “We will,” said Manda. “Thank you.”

   “If there’s anything at all I can get you, anything, you just say.”

   They both thanked him and he looked around unsteadily, then disappeared. By the time they’d managed to call for a couple of female rebels to screen her where he’d been, Manda was wriggling and shuffling and feeling the same sort of hysteria she’d felt at school when the stiff, male Biology teacher told them to underline Human Reproduction as a heading, then leave four empty pages the girls knew they’d never fill.

   “Mission accomplished, ish. But I don’t think I’d be able to use this unless I was at gunpoint,” she muttered, even though the tightness of the chain around her waist must be down to her ballooning bladder. If their homeless friend came back she’d give him money and a hug. Her two young modesty preservers said if there was nothing else they could do to help they’d be off now, but told them they were heroes, honestly.

   The woman behind them seemed to be asleep and all was quiet above. Manda wondered whether Gem regretted declining the nail varnish remover the church guy had welcomed a while back, in order to catch the last train with his wife. The bottle at her feet lay drained between banana skins.  

   “Does it help being a Quaker?” she asked.

   Gem took a while to think about that. With being glued on for twelve hours or more generally? “I’m better at waiting than I used to be and silence feels like home when I find some. People talk about being grounded or gathered and I sometimes feel a lot more scattered than that, not whole at all. And it doesn’t make the climate grief any easier. If it did, I wouldn’t trust it.”

   Manda said she didn’t trust much these days but she liked what people called the spirituality of rebellion. “That’ll be the hippy dippy side of me. A Gaia fan. I’m learning to meditate in my old age.” She wasn’t sure she wanted to talk about climate grief, not now, and she’d be missing the antidepressant she took these days with her breakfast. Like mother, like daughter after all. And that must be her fault, up to her point.

   Turning on her phone, she found a reply to: In case you should call I am glued to a tower in Trafalgar Square and conserving battery on my phone xx. Sent only a few minutes earlier, it read: Of course you are Mum x and was illustrated with an emoji full of teeth. Manda supposed Libby could be with some new guy she hadn’t mentioned or had only just met, and teetering around in something short and insubstantial like the girls that passed through, curious. Someone had said XR was cool now, but Libby might not have heard.

   “I’ve just understood,” she told Gem, “that Libby’s jealous of you.” Then she felt as if she’d betrayed a confidence. “Because she never connected with Rob, because she can’t be herself with children and we’re…” She didn’t want to presume. “You and I are in this together, and she’s outside.”

   Gem thought about that. “That’s sad,” she said.

   “Most things are,” Manda murmured.

   “Apart from Skye.”

   “Apart from Skye.”  Gem paused. “And trees. I love trees; we both do. As soon as Skye could reach out a hand to touch a trunk I showed her how different the bark can feel.” She knew Nick didn’t get it, not yet. He was too urban, but one day they’d have to move closer to a forest.

   Manda missed the garden James had neglected and then handed over to a gardener with no imagination, but Skye had brought it to life again, and that wasn’t sad.

   For a moment it seemed as if the live music, which she’d really like to put out of its misery, was over. Then it started again, more off-key than ever – even less musical than the slightly crazed laugh she let loose.

   “It’s a mad world,” she said.


As light broke, Manda was dismayed by the relief she felt to be surrounded by a ring of police at last. She hoped they enjoyed the improvised song in honour of the residents of the tower delivered by a bright-eyed young rebel with a ukulele and russet hair. Above, the women locked-on sounded remarkably lucid as they attempted to engage the officers in climate science.

   “No one does this stuff for the fun of it,” one added.

   “Oh I don’t know,” said the tallest. “Some people get off on this kind of thing.”

   Manda leaned out at that. “We don’t. We’re desperate. The science made us that way. But I’m too old and tired to string together the words, dates and numbers. They must be young up there!”

   Gem guessed the officer who bent down to look in on her side was no older than Libby.

   “You two must have been frozen all night,” he said, puffing out white breath.

   “We had these,” Gem told him, producing hers.

   He reached out. “They’ll need a nice hot refill.”

   Manda passed hers over too. “They should put you in charge,” she said, supposing the confiscations and bullying weren’t his fault. He said he wouldn’t be long.

   “They’re doing a brilliant job up there,” said Gem, listening to the women share with their captive audience the prognosis that had become so familiar: ice melt, London underwater, unliveable heat, disease, food shortages. “But it must sound incredible, you know? Fantasy.”

   Manda nodded. She realised she might cry. Gem laid her free hand on her shoulder, and just for a moment felt it shake as Manda refused to sob out loud.

   “Thanks for your company.”

   Manda laughed through her nose and had to fumble for her hankie. “All nineteen hours of it! That must be eighteen and a half too many.”

   Gem knew she hadn’t managed her fair share of the talking but there were things she’d only ever told Rob, things she must tell Nick first – about the day her parents died, the drugs that stopped her healing and the anorexia that even now she had to keep shrugging off in secret. She knew Manda considered her quietly together and approved of her parenting, but she wasn’t sure she was ready to be known so fully and unflinchingly, or why Manda wanted to know her that way.

   Manda supposed she had said too much throughout – but then, after all this living she’d somehow pulled off, she had too many stories. And this would be another. It had been Gem who cried, almost invisibly as well as inaudibly, when a young female panel following the authors had talked about Birth Strike and motherhood, and Manda had touched the cold hand that lay in her lap, given it a brief squeeze and dismissed as inadequate everything she could think to say.

   The rubber bottles were back, and hot again.

   “The crew should be here before long,” said the young constable with good skin and neat hair.

   “I would have liked to be home when my daughter wakes up,” Gem told him. “But I’d also like her to live…” Her voice frayed and she looked up above the rooftops at a chill, grubby sky.

   The young constable nodded once and withdrew to join the others in the black and yellow circle.

   “No comment, no caution, no duty solicitor,” Manda reminded her.

   Gem knew what to expect. She just wasn’t certain she was ready.


Outside the police station the rain bounced hard but arrestee support were there, two of them sharing an umbrella, offering smiles as they hurried across the road from a coffee shop and asked how she was doing.

   “Released under further investigation,” she told them, giving her name. “Manda Craig is still in there but it’s her fourth time now.”

   “She might be charged and bailed,” said the tall guy with the beard. “They’re trying to scare us into staying away. Have you got time for a coffee?”

   “I’d love one but I need to get back to my little girl.”

   They checked she had an Oyster card and thanked her, which felt embarrassing. Gem was tired but excited now, at the thought of opening her front door and being home.

   “If you see Manda, tell her I’m sorry I can’t wait.”

   The hand that held the umbrella still felt a little stiff with the last strips of glue she hadn’t peeled off and scattered on the cell floor. The torn skin at her wrist, where the cuff of her jumper had been caught, was sore, but she felt good and strong. Twenty-one hours! It was ridiculous, extreme – and over. No regrets.

   Somehow, as the rain beat her hair into threads and beaded her phone screen, she managed to message Nick as she walked.

   I’m very proud.  He added a green heart.

   But it was nothing. Amongst people heading out on a Saturday night, she felt other, alien, unknown. A ghost drifting through walls. But soon she’d be normal again, sealed off and warm, on a sofa with a TV, and trying to believe all this could be enough.

   Afraid to be afraid.

Rebellion: a change of identity

“Yes, I’m an author,” I say at the police station when they check me in and ask whether I work. Each time (three so far) the officer looks down at the next question and makes the same joke about me probably not needing help with reading or writing then. I’m not used to this yet and after 21 hours glued to a tower for Extinction Rebellion last weekend I was more muted than usual – so quiet, in fact, that students who know me as the lively author who came to their school would be shocked. During those school visits, explaining alopecia and the power of stories, I’ve always talked about identity, and it’s struck me that mine has shifted again. I went from teacher to author in 2008, having longed to write for ‘a living’ for fifty-two years, but now, in spite of my answer at the custody desk, I’m probably known more for my activism (climate, but peace too; my second arrest was at the Arms Fair) than for my 36 books – which, being full of my values, used to be my activism. Having achieved my author status I clung to it, writing hard, fulfilling school bookings to lead writing workshops, landing the odd festival and speaking to writers’ groups and book groups, often with my writer husband Leslie Tate. I have small publishers that can only offer a small readership but I let go of the frustrations and the ambition, and focused on delivering my best writing, on creating stories that felt important. I was never in it for the money, but the joy. I learned some years ago that when I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t happy. But that was before the climate crisis changed the way I look at the world, the way I live and who I am.

With parents who trod lightly on the earth and a brother who became the world’s first Carbon Coach, I always thought I knew and cared about ‘the environment’ but in fact as a teacher I was an overworking, conforming consumer. Even once I became an author and created a young eco activist in THE WATERHOUSE GIRL, I didn’t really get it. Knowing the truth at some level, and engaging with it emotionally so that it’s embedded in the core of that identity I was talking about, are two very different ways to be. The first allows us to live the ‘business as usual’ model while feeling and expressing guilt. The second transforms our feelings, priorities and therefore our actions and conversations. In my case, once I took climate breakdown into my soul – and that really is where it lies – I committed to writing more overtly about the crisis in my novels and to keyboard activism on social media. And I wanted that to be enough. If I’d had a readership of millions, I might have believed it was.

Last September I gained a new identity that’s proved even more moving and more joyous than I expected, after nine exciting months, it would be. I’m a grandma now as well as a mum and it’s emotionally overwhelming, an entirely new kind of love. Weeks later I joined Extinction Rebellion and wept for sheer hope – as well as desperate grief for all that’s already been lost or is under threat. I was used to my minority status as a Quaker, a Green, a non-flyer (since 06), a vegan. Now I found myself with people who wept too. I became a rebel. But even then I didn’t foresee how rebelling would change me. It’s made me braver, far braver than I would ever, as a naturally fearful wuss, have believed possible. It’s made me very, very sad – so sad that I don’t know where climate heartbreak ends and depression begins. It’s exhilaratingly intense and beautiful. And it’s left very little room for concerns like how many books I’m selling, or mailing out to schools. Since FOR LIFE, my novel that ends with the April rebellion – now an e-book for a donation to XR – I haven’t written anything but blogs and posts, and I miss it. But I haven’t had any author bookings either, all this term – which has always been my busiest. When I decided I was arrestable in April I knew schools might steer clear, and I was prepared to give up on that income and those sales. No one looking at my website can be in any doubt of my activism, although with a famous name I suspect I’d scare schools a lot less. I’m not the author who engages in activism any more, just an activist with a ton of stock to keep dusting on my bedroom shelves. The book launch for THE DREAM SPEAKS BACK is now also the day of my trial for my April ‘offence’ so if that runs late I may not even make it! But there’s no choice and that means no regrets. After all, there are rebels who have given up jobs to dedicate themselves to making change happen. And being a grandma is hugely empowering. In fact, although I could credit my mum with the physical courage I’ve found lately, it’s also courtesy of my favourite baby. You could say what I’ve shed, along with fantasies of eventual, possibly posthumous national acclaim, is the ridiculous vanity of believing that my writing mattered when set against a climate emergency that dwarfs or eradicates everything else.

I’d like to write again and perhaps I’ll find I must. But maybe next time I’m asked at a police station whether I work, I’ll swallow my pride and say, “Yes, at this. For climate justice.”

Like the sweatshirt I accepted from the Met, I don’t want unsold books going on landfill, so I’m offering any title (apart from the People not Borders charity books and the joint memoir, THE DREAM SPEAKS BACK) for £5. Message me.

Daisy is an eco-activist, aged 11
And here she’s 16 in this novel dedicated to Polly Higgins.
a fracking allegory
“A bucket of iced water over the head” to quote one reader, but mow the future looks a lot more frightening.
for adults

These are just a few of my climate novels.

Only trees

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

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

I feel it now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   It was just a tree.

Featured image: words by Robert Macfarlane, artwork Nick Hayes

No Faith in War

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

7 a.m.

My view is different now:

an open skyful, grubby white,

a flight path, torn with roaring.

I think I’m lying

on the road to hell.

Top left, the concrete’s dark, unyielding.

Right, leaves shift and shudder high.

Seagulls loop on the wind.

Magpies jut like chimneys from a roof.

And when I close my eyes, the darkness

is a scarlet weave.

I cross my legs to still the shaking.

Constrained by pain, my body’s resisting,

my hand caught tight around the lock

I hooked inside the tube

through a case that says Calvin Klein.

From the hotel, cars free to slide away

are low on my radar as cats.

Beside me leaves scud scratchy, close and wild.

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

The kit keeps us apart,

held in Quaker silence,

in hope, patience, conviction,

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

9 a.m.

My scalp and shoulders are pillowed now.

Under a banner linking legs on tarmac

and a scarf from a skip,

I’m lifted.

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

I have no needs to meet

but smiles, a little conversation,

my father’s hand reaching down with the rest

to hold on.

And an end to this,

but not yet.

In Yemen roads are bloodied and skies

rain merchandise from merchandise.

We’re stopping the Arms Fair.

No weapons pass.

Plush and vast, the showroom space awaits unfilled

and this road is to Emmaus.

We did it.

Grandma did it.

11 a.m.

I’m shielded under pressure.

A shower sparks firework red around my boots.

The cutters burn,

the air’s industrial.

The team in black crouch, sweat and struggle,

pass surgical tools for this theatre.

It’s tough, all of it,

their challenge, ours.

As an observer starts to cry,

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

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

The drill rattles hard.

Heat circles my hand until I’m free,

escorted to the van.

My legs fold and sway

but I hear the cheers.

Handcuffed, I smile and make a peace sign

through closing doors.

And no, I’m not from Huddersfield!

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

WAGGLETAIL TED: a story that changed direction

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

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

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

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

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

Order a signed copy here.


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

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

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

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

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

A boat called Polly Higgins, July 15th
Jojo Mehta

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

Waterloo Bridge, April 17th

In the spirit of the Doctor

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

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

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

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

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

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

On happiness and fulfilment

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Twenty-Five

April 21st, 2019 Easter Sunday

Manda looked out of the window.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Her phone rang.

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

   “No worries. I’ll run.”

   “You don’t have to!”

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

   “It’s good of Libby. Enjoy her.”

   She nodded, withdrew and hurried down the stairs. 


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

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

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

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


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

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

   “I thought we could do that.”

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

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

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

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

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

   “But she remembers Rob, right?”

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

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

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


   “Good on you. This must be…?”

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

   “Your gran will be thrilled.”

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

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

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

   Evelyn stared. “Where’s Rob?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “Good woman,” murmured Manda.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “You never smoked did you, Nana?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “I know,” he said.

Sue Hampton on Waterloo Bridge

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


Chapter Twenty-Four

still April 20th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


   “Before you head back.”

   “I’ll try, but…”

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

   She stroked his hair. “I know.”

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

   “You would.”

   “But sleep first.”

   Manda might do that right now, against his shoulder.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “Me? What about Trey Marshall?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

   “Are you O.K.?”

   “As O.K. as it’s rational to be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Twenty-Three

April 20th 2019

Manda supposed she’d slept a little. Searing, the light on the ceiling reminded her of movie interrogations. Her stomach felt achingly empty and her head throbbed but she told herself they couldn’t keep her much longer now. The confinement was tough but the solitary part harder. It made nights in the crypt seem warmly appealing in their solidarity.

   Was it morning yet? Her mouth was so dry it had new adhesive qualities. She could do with a coffee. The sound of the cell door opening made her sit up, run her fingers through her hair and wipe dust from her eyes.

   Holding the door open stood a young man in jeans who might have fitted in fine on the bridge if he swapped his shirt and pullover for a block-printed T-shirt. She wondered whether it was true about one female cop going home from her shift, changing and joining the rebels – presumably at Marble Arch. She hoped so.

   The plain clothes officer looked a lot fresher than her solicitor had in the wee small hours. It was obvious everything was stretched to capacity, beyond.

   “You can go now,” he said.

   “Great,” she mumbled. She could do with a wee but not now, not here.

   She followed him to the desk where she’d been processed on arrival and stood silently, less than focused, as they told her that her release was subject to further investigation and that if she didn’t hear anything in six months then well, she’d hear nothing. That there might or might not be a letter.

   “If I were you I’d forget about it,” said the sergeant.

   “I don’t think I can,” she said, but no more words came.

   There was more electronic signing to do as she reclaimed her backpack and was invited to check everything was intact. She wasn’t sure about that. Something in her felt changed and she wasn’t sure what.

   “There are people waiting outside for you,” the officer said.

   XR were good at that. “What time is it?”

   “Four fifteen, almost.”

   Four fifteen! Leo would be home in bed and so he should be, with that back of his. Manda felt an end-of-term surge as she was escorted to the door – not the back where she’d been admitted but the front, where in a kind of lobby people were waiting. As one they turned and stood.

   Leo held back behind Libby.

   “Darling!” Manda didn’t mean to blub but self-control was impossible. She embraced Libby, felt how cold she was, under-dressed in summer office clothes. “You didn’t need…”

   “Like you didn’t need to get arrested.”

   “Don’t start that now,” said Leo over her shoulder as he held her. He sounded so tired.

   Libby pretended she hadn’t heard that. Her mother looked pale, a mess. With her eyes only slightly less wild than her hair, she could have auditioned for one of Macbeth’s witches. “All right?” Libby asked her.

   “Hungry and a bit sleepless but perfectly fine.”

   Libby was never convinced by her mother’s breeziness. As a cover it was thin.

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

   Manda grinned and hugged him again. When he broke its neck, peeling it back for her as if she was Skye, she took a greedy bite. Someone from the official arrestee support team, a guy called Harry with all his hair gathered in his beard, asked if she was treated well.

   She nodded as she ate. “But what about the others? The lovely young Stu? He’d only just sat down when they took him, poor baby.”

   Libby thought she sounded drunk as well as old.

   “All out last night. You’re the last one released from here,” Harry told her. “For a while, anyway.”

   “They know a dangerous criminal when they see one,” joked Leo as the four of them stepped outside into darkness.

   Manda would have loved to give Stu a long, emotional hug. She hoped his mother would surprise him with one.

   “I wasn’t charged,” she said. “I made a written statement.”

   “You go, girl,” murmured Leo.

   The pavement wasn’t wide enough for Manda to walk arm in arm between them. In any case Libby had stepped ahead, following Harry. Calling back, he assured them all the buses would still be running even though the tubes wouldn’t come alive for a while.

   Manda wanted to ask Libby, “So tell me what you think,” but she’d need to feel stronger before she could risk the answer.

   Libby had questions that could wait until it was just the two of them, and life was normal again. She supposed Trey would be fast asleep but he’d told her to message so she did: She’s out. They kept her most of the night. It would have been nice if he’d stayed. But no need for him to get embroiled in this kind of drama after one date and a couple of nice-boy kisses.

   Watching her daughter walk briskly but huddling against the cold, Manda thought she should say sorry for the timing. Her arm tight in Leo’s, she whispered, “What’s she even doing here?”

   “Long story,” he said. “It can wait till morning.”

   “I hope it’s a good one.” She stopped, gripped, and raised her voice: “I know Oxford Circus is over but tell me they haven’t cleared the bridge?”

   “We held the bridge,” Harry called.

   Manda waved her free arm, and danced in the street.

   “Food before jiggling,” Leo told her.

   “They should have kept her in for psychiatric assessment,” Libby muttered, just as Harry shouted that the bus was coming and if they crossed the road fast they’d catch it.

   Manda wasn’t sure how much running she could manage, but it turned out to be enough.