What, MORE short stories?

Searching for wisdom on short stories, I discovered an article for Esquire that called them “the perfect alternative to staring at your iPhone for an hour before bed” because they come in “bite-sized chunks.” I can’t imagine Chekhov, Atwood, Greene and Carver pumping the air in triumph at this analysis. But it seems reasonable to assume that while for over-worked and over-stressed urban Brits, a novel might seem just too daunting and long-term a project, accommodating a short story on their commuter train home is doable. Flash fiction, a growing feature of online magazines, takes concision a good few steps further, and makes finishing the thing – the difficulty identified by so many inexperienced writers – an achievable goal. As a training exercise in genre, style or form it’s perfect for creative writing class and competitions. But I admit that I’m not terribly interested in brevity for tightness’s sake. I like short stories that feel like novels because they’re just as deeply satisfying, or stirring, or challenging. Because they allow their characters complex inner lives and eschew smartass in favour of soul. Because reading them feels like living. Like a great novel they make a powerful emotional connection.

Some short stories are intellectual games constructed around a startling USP, a variation on the set-up and punchline characterising classic humour. Some rely on clever twists. And I’m not averse to fun, or to the story as crossword puzzle. But I don’t want my stories to feel empty bar the concept. Personally that’s how I feel about magic realism – I just don’t feel enough. And I’m not a fan of author distance, whether from dysfunctional characters or the manipulated reader. Neither do I choose, as a rule, to be taken on a meandering ramble through a consciousness that leaves me wondering where I’ve been and why. Which is not to say that stories must be instantly accessible. I’m certainly open to the intriguing story that yields more second time round.

This may make me sound pretty hard to please, but I want a short story to matter as much as a longer narrative, to linger once finished, offer insights and generate conversation even if that’s internal. And I’m looking for style, hoping for a sentence so acute, so beautiful, original or witty that once is not enough and I want to commit it to memory. (No chance at almost sixty-three).  Some collections I’ve read are monotone, almost like a composer’s variations on a theme, and that’s one way to present stories, but it’s risky. Only for geniuses and/or devoted fans? Limited palettes don’t appeal to everyone and as a reader I enjoy diversity: different styles, voices and moods, different intentions.

My intentions and choices in INSTEAD, my third collection, are different from those that shaped RAVELLED (rampant diversity and transgressing boundaries) and the more contemporary WOKEN, which marked a step-change in my own activism on the page and the streets. I didn’t have an overall plan or linking theme – or at least, I didn’t know I did, until I realised that being an expectant grandma had made a difference. It’s a collection about birth as well as death, about sex and love, betrayal and sacrifice, family. I’ve dedicated it to my grandson, aware that by the time he is able and inclined to read my stories, I may be dead – and that’s an idea I rather like. If I’m still here I may no longer be the person who wrote them – but in my stories my real self will survive. Someone said on Radio Three recently that birth would be a tragedy without death and I’ve reached an age when love means so much more because of loss. But I hope INSTEAD isn’t predominantly sad. I hope, in an age of climate breakdown and fear, that it’s alive.

To pre-order: https://www.suehamptonauthor.co.uk/product/instead/

FOR LIFE:20

Chapter Twenty

April 18th 2019

Lots to tell you, show you and I’d like to see you both. How Skye is. Is it too late to come? x

No. Come. X

   And now they had, together, at 4:48: the start of another day. But before, until Skye’s temperature fell as fast as it had risen, Nick had given her what she wanted just as badly, more. His arm across her chest, his breath on her cheek, his feet joined to hers, the first and longest kiss. And the certainty that he cared now, about what he’d seen and why it had to happen – almost as much as he cared about her and Skye.

   He laid the same arm back across her breasts.

   “What are you thinking about?”

   “Oh, I can’t say. Thoughts aren’t like sentences in books. So much. A muddle of things.” Rob. Waterloo Bridge. An ambulance she thought she might have to call. The moment they came as one. Rob. Waterloo Bridge. The world on fire, the ice melting. Skye.

   “But you’re not sorry?”

   Gem smiled. “No. How can I be? But…”

   “You hope I understand what this means and doesn’t mean. I do.” He stroked her arm. “Today’s job should end by mid-afternoon. I’ll go back to the bridge. And on Saturday, if they’re still holding it and Skye’s bouncing again, we can go, the three of us. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

   Gem nodded. It was.

*

James looked down on the clouds that hid Britain now. It was probably thirty years since he’d done anything so… heedless. Manda used to laugh when his vocabulary relocated to a different age but she wouldn’t laugh at this. A package holiday, long haul: a V-sign to the hippies. She wouldn’t believe it was just a whim, a kind of medication, a bolthole, an ejector seat. She wouldn’t care that he hadn’t felt so guilty since he touched a breast that wasn’t hers that first time after rehearsals ended.

   Maybe this would be his last, frivolous, selfish impulse – or the last to involve a runway anyway. Manda didn’t take fun seriously enough. And it wasn’t as if he was going anywhere at the sharp end of climate change, like the Maldives. He’d seen a photo of people walling round a white-sand shore with rocks against a turquoise sea. Desperation. And someone should be doing something fast; Manda was right about that. Even if it was all a bit alarmist and OTT, it wasn’t worth taking risks with paradise.

   His own break would be cultural, increase his understanding more effectively than a study course. It was what they used to call a getaway without robbing any bank.

   A curvy hostess wondered whether he’d like anything to drink.

   “Whisky please,” said James. “And dry ginger.”

   He might get seriously drunk.

*

Waking up in Leo’s bed, Manda felt guilty, even though the mattress had never felt so perfect, nor her body so warmly and languidly clean. He slept on and she wouldn’t wake him, but she wouldn’t wait either. She was needed on the bridge.

   “You’re cross,” he’d said, on the way back to the flat. “Should it have been you? Did I steal your thunder?”

   As if she hadn’t held him tight at the police station! As if she hadn’t made a fool of herself, blubbing ridiculously, while he was playing it cool in a cell with a story ready for telling! He was teasing but it felt unfair, because he wouldn’t have been rebelling in any shape or form without her. And he’d done the male thing, independent and spontaneous, in spite of what they’d planned – and enjoyed it, apparently, while she lost her mind to a kind of grieving with precious little reason.

   “Of course not,” she’d denied, but he wore that half-smile that meant he knew better.

   His custody sheet said Released subject to further investigation, like a good few hundred others so far. Everyone at the station had been nice, he’d told her more than once. “I thought I might be the one they charged, or kept overnight,” he added. “You were lucky,” she told him, reluctant to believe that police racism was a thing of the past, any more than coal mining or fracking. Aware of her own negativity, she’d asked about his back but apparently an hour on a hard slab of a couch-bed had done him no harm.

   He was sorry she’d been worried and upset, but she could see he didn’t understand why. “It just happened. They needed arrestables and I sat down – like you did.”

   Manda couldn’t justify herself and hadn’t tried, but withheld the love she could have declared to make sense of it all. He looked so peaceful anyone might have guessed he’d spent the previous day on a beach. Or an Eden of a bridge.

   She dressed as quietly as she could, in a long summer dress. He didn’t stir. Her hair needed a whole lot of brushing but she could do that on the tube.

   You were sleeping like a baby, she wrote in the note. I’ve gone ahead but maybe take it easy today, hero. Call me. Xxx

   She’d like to be as careless of her phone as he was of his. It was odd how little communication there was, for days or weeks, between him and Nathan, but when they were together they were so easy, with their shared walk and gestures and the same grin, that she wondered whether she could ever be as close to Libby as Leo was, regardless, to his son. Whether, taking bed out of the equation, she could be as close to Leo himself.

   In the NT bar she’d almost called James – in fact, had tried, although now she couldn’t explain why. It was a faintly disturbing memory. But he hadn’t called back, so she didn’t need to tell him how long it took to find out which police station had housed Leo, and how alone she felt, away from the bridge, in the quiet of that soft red space where no one talked but only tapped away on keyboards. How out of place she felt in the church where she tried to charge her phone and a young, unfamiliar rebel somehow knew she needed a hug, even though it made her cry. How relieved she was to be back on the bridge, encouraged to talk, eat and breathe.

   She’d told Leo but her narrative was the thin, dull one laced with excess emotion while his had detail, characters, a kind of arc. His day, not hers. Well, today might be different.

   She was walking to the tube when a text landed. James.

   Just wondering whether you’ve been arrested yet? I hear the police are going to toughen up so look after yourself. X

   A thumbs-up seemed the obvious and most ambiguous response.

*

Looking at her reflection in the tube window made Libby smile. Anyone would think she’d had sex with Trey – literally rather than imaginatively – instead of just dinner in a Turkish restaurant. A long dinner. She must have talked more over that meal than through weeks plus nights with Marc.

   Hey Mum. I know you’re busy breaking the law but I have a new boyfriend. You won’t approve of him being American but he despises Trump so forgive him. He’s full of admiration for you but otherwise he’s quite normal. x

   Her smile widened again as she pictured her mother’s reactions, sentence by sentence. Her dad would like Trey’s suits, but be unsettled by attitudes he wouldn’t expect. And why was she even thinking like this, after one date?

   Because this must be what love felt like. And somehow she had to deserve him.

   She looked forward to a reply at some point but it didn’t matter much anymore. With Trey beside her she’d be able to listen. She’d feel loose and warm, without the snags and ladders that might unravel things. It was how she felt already, remembering her hand inside his.

   Hey Dad. You can ask about my love life if you like. I promise not to ask about yours. X

   For the first time, she realised she wanted him to be happy – him, Manda and Leo, Bee, everyone. Watching her mouth dance around in the glass, unable to hold any line or shape, she almost laughed.

The next chapter of FOR LIFE will be posted on 7th June at 5:30 UK time.

FOR LIFE:19

Chapter Nineteen

April 17th 2019

Gem’s hand felt the heat of Skye’s forehead. Everything was redder than it should be: her cheeks, her eyes and nose. Whimpering, she put her arms around Gem’s neck.

   “We’ll have a quiet day here, sweetheart,” Gem told her.

   “I like the bridge!”

   “So do I, my love, but we have to take care of you.”

   She could try to stop Nick coming but she didn’t want to. Maybe there’d be a livestream they could watch together. She was reading Skye a story when she heard him at the door and for a moment Skye looked too excited to be ill.

   He kissed Gem’s cheeks and, ignoring a health warning, leaned down to Skye’s too. Gem thought maybe, just so he knew, she should talk to him again, properly – about Birth Strike. In case he was hanging in there for something she couldn’t give.

   They shared what they knew between them: Piccadilly Circus lost, Marble Arch permitted for now, police officers caught on film dancing with rebels on the bridge. Arrests clogging up the system.

   “Go back if you want,” Nick told her. “I can stay with Skye.”

   “Oh, that’s… Thanks, but…”

   “She needs her mother.” Not a might-be father. It wasn’t fair on him. “You go, get some footage, and come back and tell me everything.”

   He hesitated, and made sure the hedgehog got a laugh before he left. Then he kissed her goodbye and Gem followed him into the hall.

   “There’s something I want to tell you,” he said. “You know I love you. You must know.”

   Gem nodded.

   “And Skye, whatever. Mine or Rob’s, why would it make any difference? We could be a family.”

   Gem tried to smile but it didn’t feel whole. “I shouldn’t have had a child. No one should, not now. It isn’t fair to bring kids into a world that’s dying.” Her voice faltered, fracturing.

   He took her hand. “You don’t want any more…”

   “It’s not about wanting.”

   He waited, but she had no more words.

   “Look, never say never. I love you. I know you still love Rob but hey, so do I. And we’re doing this the wrong way round.” It was Gem’s turn, puzzled, to wait. He still held her hand and she didn’t like to tug. “Talking about having kids together when we haven’t even kissed.”

   They must have done that too, after the funeral, but it seemed neither of them remembered. Now Nick kissed her mouth. Not a sex kiss, but warm.

   “Have a good day,” she told him. Like a wife.

   She smiled as he hurried to his van, because she didn’t know anyone with legs as long as his.

*

Today the afternoon sun felt seriously hot. Manda might have to remove her thermal vest in the crypt. With police numbers and raids on the increase, she intended to leave the cooking to someone who couldn’t put their job at risk, and sit on the heart line as an arrestable. But first she watered some of the plants gathered in a garden behind the banner, checking the soil with a finger in case another rebel had thought of it first. Most of them were thriving; a few needed T and C. She rubbed the herbs between her fingers and inhaled: mint, rosemary. There were forget-me-nots, begonias… So much colour and life she could cry. And she needed sunblock as much as sleep.

   Putting down the watering can, she squinted ahead, feeling a stirring around her. Police vans at the end of the bridge. “Could we have any arrestables to the heart line now!” she heard over the loudspeaker. “And legal observers please.”

   Manda made for the front row, where the banner was laid down so that everyone holding it could sit behind. Someone made way for her, a boy-faced young gardener who’d been drumming during the arrests the night before. Shuffling, she made herself as comfortable as her bones allowed.

   On her right, a woman with more muscles as well as flesh pushed a kind of kneeler towards her as cushion, saying someone had left it behind when they came for her. Manda thanked her, wondering whether she looked old as well as scrawny. A young tourist had given up his seat on the tube for her last week…

   She’d lost Leo again, hadn’t seen him since he arrived for late breakfast, and didn’t really expect to spot him now as she turned to look through the crowd. He was probably playing or waiting to go on stage. A number of police officers were advancing in a kind of formation that must be meant to intimidate but she couldn’t believe they’d signed up for this. Behind, someone from the Wellbeing team began a chant, the hushed, religious kind: “Peace, love respect”. The tune, such as it was, defeated Manda, but personally she knew she needed de-escalation. She liked to think her heart was healthy but this… now was the time and there’d never in human history been anything bigger. And she wasn’t scared, just overwhelmed by the truth and its demands.

  The first arrestee of the run walked, and made a peace sign with her free hand. Manda looked back again, and to both sides, in case Leo had gone to the church for a pee and arrived back in time. Because at breakfast they had agreed to sit together on the heart line this afternoon – although admittedly the idea was hers. “We could glue our hands together,” she’d said, “so if they take one, they’ll have to take both.” Leo hadn’t taken that seriously but he’d said he didn’t want her getting arrested without him.

   The young gardener whose name she’d lost gave her a smile as if he knew she was anxious now. She smiled back, grateful. This was the kind of guy Libby needed, not some slick suit with no ideas, never mind ideals.

   She could tell that on the other side of the bridge nearest the National Theatre, more arrests were happening. But with film crews following the departures it was hard, from the ground, to see who’d been taken. Joining in with the chant for Climate Justice Now, she realised she needed water and Leo had their aluminium bottle in his backpack. She asked the gardener, who was just unscrewing the lid on his own when a policeman targeted him. He passed her the bottle and she drank hastily, watching. As he zoned out his final warning with what seemed to be prayer or meditation, she offered the water back but he meant her to keep it, because he wasn’t going to need it for a while. It took four officers to carry him away.

   “WE LOVE YOU!!” shouted Manda, meaning it.

   Now Claire, the sporty woman on her right, was next. Manda sang as loudly as she could beside her. Soon Claire had been lifted too, carried rather awkwardly so that they had to put her down and try again. If only she could contact Leo, he could fill that space. On her left, a girl in sunglasses had already stepped in where the gardener’s water bottle stood glinting. The Wellbeing team passed sun cream round, but the police hadn’t finished yet. Manda pulled out her phone, remembering the legal training advice that it was best not to carry one when arrested because the cops could download the contents. And she didn’t want them looking through her gallery at Rob, Rob, Rob… But if the cops were apple picking, she was the one they left on the tree. Too many bruises, maybe.

   Where are you? No response. If he was on the bridge he’d know where to find her, so what had happened? Had he been tempted into the Diane Arbus exhibition at the Hayward like he’d teased he might be? There was something casual but impulsive about him that made him hard to know completely and she didn’t know how it had happened, this feeling that overcame her sometimes, because she should know better.

   Still her screen was blank. But she wasn’t going anywhere. Having removed a guy in a CHOOSE LOVE T-shirt two places away from Manda, the police seemed to have abandoned her end of the line.

   “Manda.”

   Nick Gorksi, plus camera. She was glad to see him. He said he was taking photos, portraits really, probably black and white, and would she mind?

   “Not right now, Nick.” She produced her phone and scrolled… “You haven’t seen my partner, have you?” She showed him an image from Monday, of Leo on the stage with guitar – and enlarged it as much as she could.

   Nick’s mouth opened. “He was over there.” He pointed towards the theatre side. “He was arrested.”

*

Manda’s boyfriend’s been taken. She’s a mess. She ran down to the vans looking for him and he just smiled and blew her a kiss. I filmed it. Maybe I shouldn’t have, it felt like intruding. x

Gem nearly replied, She must be in love. Instead she wrote, Manda holds on tight. X

I think she’s frustrated too, that it wasn’t her. She’s been trying hard. They say people are being taken as far as Luton and Brighton because cells are full. She’s gone to the NT bar to call the XR action line for news of him. X

It must be tough. X  And Manda wasn’t, not really.

I’m glad it’s not you. I’d be in bits too. X

He said these things. How did she know he meant them, or whether she wanted him to?

Poor Manda. X

Her turn will come. The Met are going to step up the pressure now.

He had a way of talking as if he knew the things he only supposed.

So’s XR. No let up, even once this is over. x

Did you mean what you said about Birth Strike? Xxxx

I think I did.

   He didn’t answer that. Gem pictured his face as he read it, and felt sad. But there was a difference between accepting the truth, with his intellect, as the experts told it, and knowing deep inside where he was wholly and purely himself – in what people always called the heart: the part of him that wanted to be a full-time lover and father and made no room for melting ice, forest fires and cities under water.

   Skye was asleep. Gem pushed back the hair from her forehead as she slept. She felt cooler now. Maybe at the weekend she could take her to Marble Arch, if that was still safe. But she’d rather be on the bridge; she missed it.

   She didn’t suppose Manda would ever want to leave.

FOR LIFE: 18

Chapter Eighteen

April 16th 2019

Glancing at the church at the south end of the bridge, Gem thought of Manda bedding down in the crypt. She felt guilty about her own good night’s sleep, but grateful for Skye’s and glad to be back. The press had no idea how much people were sacrificing but at least a Canon understood, which touched her somehow. “Such a blessing,” someone had said, “a real gift.”

   “I love the spiritual roots supporting us all,” she’d told Nick on the phone the night before. “The way differences don’t matter. And the hugs.”

   “I can do hugs,” he said. And he could: long ones that strengthened and understood. He’d fit in fine, but she couldn’t push. He had to choose to be there.

   One of the rebels sitting outside the faded old church greeted her with a raised hand, and she waved back. On days without Skye her body seemed so loose and spare and unsettlingly alone. “I can take her to nursery and pick her up too. Leave you free to be rebellious! I’d be there too if I could.” And had she wondered for more than a few seconds whether she knew Angel next-door well enough, after a few months of chat on adjacent doorsteps? Gem reminded herself how easily Skye had accepted the idea. She was independent, strong: a cause for celebration but unsettling in its way, because she was so small and the world so hostile, so terrifying, that without the protective cocoon of their mutual dependence she didn’t know how they’d come through.

   Approaching the banner behind the ROAD CLOSED sign, Gem smiled, returned a peace sign and looked for familiar faces.

   “Hey,” said a bearded guy with NON-VIOLENT printed on his jeans. “Welcome back.”

    Gem asked about arrests since she left.

   “They came in waves and picked people off. It was kind of random. Not sure anyone was charged though.”

   Gem nodded, imagining Manda being carried away, triumphant and defiant, thinking of Rob and his approval. Wondering how many hours people might spend in a police cell, she reminded herself she mustn’t allow time to swell and lose all shape and meaning just because here the living felt so new.

   Someone was watering the plants gathered behind the banner, in front of the bee sculpture with its big, firm wings. And someone in a woolly hat was being interviewed, possibly for TV. Manda! She was shivering and rubbing her hands, her nose a little red, her hair splaying out and whipped by wind across her face. No sign of her new man.

   Gem crossed to the right, alongside the National Theatre, and wished she’d brought a hat herself.

*

Manda was too tired to plan it. But the guy from a channel James had insisted he needed right at the start, complete with satellite dish – when she’d said BBC2 was the only one that didn’t disable her brain cells – was the pushy kind, so she’d better focus. The cold air should have been enough to clarify everything but her body felt stiff and old, like the crypt.

   “So what’s brought you here?” the reporter asked, furry mic thrust her way as if there was some kind of rush. The camera focused on her looked heavy duty.

   “Climate catastrophe,” she said. “An existential crisis according to the Secretary General of the UN.” She could never remember his name. “Governments aren’t listening so it’s a very gentle, non-violent way of waving the shocking truth in their faces. In everyone’s faces.”

   “I’m sure you’re aware that some of our viewers are angry…” He sounded as if he might be angry himself, all of a sudden.

   “Not as angry as they’ll be with our leaders when they realise their kids’ future is at risk and no one’s protecting them. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Someone next to Manda sat down with a bowl of thick porridge and a tin mug of coffee.

   “So you don’t consider yourself a criminal?”

   Manda’s eyes widened. I’d as soon call Farage a saint, she thought – briefly conscious that Jane Austen went everywhere with a woman like her. No wonder Rob used to tease her…

“I consider myself a grandmother,” she said, surprising herself. Oh yes, apparently she did. She tried to rerun inner footage of Skye’s face, and hear her strong, sudden voice. “That’s reason and justification enough. Have you read the IPCC report? Your viewers have a right to know what it says.”

   “But you’re breaking the law…”

   “The government’s inaction is criminal. They’re guilty of ecocide, along with BP and Shell…” The list was too long to begin. The reporter’s eyes wandered up over her head. Was she boring him?

   “And you’re willing to be arrested?”

   Determined. “Oh yes,” she said, and he lifted the mic, turning away.

   “You’re welcome,” she muttered to his back, and for the first time imagined Libby watching, jumping up from the sofa at the word grandmother. As if she expected her delinquent mother to cut her out of her will and leave every last piece of pre-loved hospice shop furniture to Skye.

   A police liaison officer arrived nearby, greeted by a woman who’d slept better than Manda and hadn’t stirred when she crept and stumbled her way to the loos.

   The channel wouldn’t show it anyway. They’d look for someone younger and prettier, or grungier and less coherent. No blaming and shaming was one of the XR principles and she knew she’d sounded angrier than she should, on two hours’ sleep. It was a good decision by Leo to safeguard his back in his own bed – their bed – but he’d said he was on his way.

   She hadn’t expected to miss him like this. And Rob would have loved him too.

*

Gem smiled up at the guy with the big hair on top of the lorry. Bypassing the porridge, she went round the other side to face the banner low along the chassis. ACT NOW, it said. From behind it, she heard singing, pure and sweet but with a fierce commitment: “I stand for love, even with a broken soul. Even with a heavy heart I stand for love.”

   There was no one on the stage but technicians setting up. The voice came from below. Gem remembered the young woman her age who had locked on underneath. Still there, in her sleeping bag, and attached to what? An axle?

   Wondering what, if the singer peered out, she could ask or say, Gem felt shy, not big enough to bother someone like her, someone brave. She could see from the empty plate and mug beside the banner that she had already been served breakfast. But did she need someone to take her place while she went for a wee, or did she have some kind of nappy? Gem supposed she’d sound like a child if she asked.

    The song ended. A couple of young guys sitting on a grassy sheet playing chess looked up and clapped. In Gem’s head the song continued. Her soul, her heart. Perhaps not quite the tune she’d heard but something kept soaring and she didn’t want it to stop. People were gathering by the steps up to the lorry stage. Someone emerged from a tent, hair in a top knot, and squinted into the light, which looked brighter than it felt. He smiled at Gem.

“Another great day,” he said, and padded off barefoot.

*

A flag with its egg timer logo beat itself in the wind. Stepping up from Oxford Circus tube, James heard the rhythms a moment before he saw the pink boat rising above human waves. The roundabout was occupied and surrounded by onlookers, some of them police. The energy felt young, and he saw as he approached that most of the protestors were exactly that. Plenty of hair around, making his seem thin. Some of it belonged to a slight youth dressed for summer, dancing on the deck as he led a chant: “Extinction!” which was met from below by an emphatic, “Rebellion!”

   James wondered whether his oldest brother Tim would tell him it was like 1969 all over again. Being a stockbroker hadn’t stopped him admitting when drunk that it was his favourite year. And towards the end he’d been drunk a lot.

   Edging through towards the centre he could see that a number of people were lying under the hull with its message TELL THE TRUTH. Glued, presumably. If he were Cressida Dick he’d issue orders to delay the solvent and let them stew. Although to be fair, they must be frozen as well as stiff.

   The boat is where the heat is, Tanya had told him when he messaged to ask if she was filming the protest – mainly to show he’d dealt with her own truth and could be friends of an occasional kind. And once he’d decided to observe what was going on he’d had to be prepared to see her there without taking a hit.

   Closest to the boat, people were sitting in an arc, not all of them hairy. One, balding and mature, might have been a chartered surveyor or a civil servant. There were girls as well as women, younger than Libby. Now the dancing dude led them in singing, “People gonna rise like water, gonna turn this system round. In the words of my great-granddaughter, climate justice now.”

   No sign of Tanya amongst the film crews. James had been standing for a few minutes, glad of his best wool coat and scarf and oddly conscious of the shine of his polished shoes, when the police who’d seemed as neutral as him up to that point began to move in – a dozen of them, twenty. Like defenders marking strikers they attached themselves, one on one, and began to issue what he took to be warnings while the singing continued, the same song again and again but the rhythm stronger. Then a boy with dreadlocks, probably a student, was lifted and carried out, and above the song he heard shouts of “WE LOVE YOU! WE LOVE YOU!” with whoops and cheers.

An older woman, grey and churchy, was escorted off, one blue plastic police glove light on her arm. Next to her, with an officer leaning down to her, sat a pink-haired girl looking so confused he wondered whether she spoke English. People he suspected were legal observers were scribbling on notepads and talking to the arrestees, but did she even understand? Maybe she’d only been curious like him. Either way he watched her taken, loudly assured of the crowd’s love. A tall man in a hooded Parka jacket was next, his body flopping to make the load harder to bear. As four officers carried him away James saw his eyes were closed, his face calm, almost beatific. James had had enough.

   A few more vanloads and they could clear the place, and that was their job, whether or not the tabloids told them to do it. But it was more disturbing than he’d imagined and he didn’t exactly know why.

*

As Libby and Trey left the office for the West End she hoped her elation at being on his team didn’t show. It was a biggish client, a show of faith in her.

   “If we’ve got time shall we stop off at Oxford Circus?”

   She was probably staring now. “Why?”

   “Just to see. Show respect. They’re making a load of arrests.”

   Libby shook her head. “Let’s not.”

   “You’re afraid your mum might be one of them?”

   She nodded. Trey looked at her as if he understood. Could he possibly understand what she didn’t? She nodded.

   “Do you want to have dinner when we finish?” he asked. “You choose where. I think you need to talk to me about your mother.”

Chapter 19 will be posted at 5:30 on Friday 7th June 2019, UK time.

FOR LIFE:17

Chapter Seventeen

April 15th 2019

Waterloo Bridge

Beyond the lorry and its emerging stage, the trees in their central avenue had to be sandbagged against the wind. While Leo helped with the lifting, Manda walked towards the north end, watching the potted plants and chalked artwork erase the blacks and greys. New tents billowed; flags flapped. Banners hung from metal and branches. Below, the Thames flowed on as if nothing had changed. The skyline remained as the tourists expected it. But Waterloo Bridge was a garden growing fast.

   In spite of the ROAD CLOSED sign and police lethargy, both ends had to be securely held. Behind the banner a big drum beat a rhythm through a chant. “What do we want?” someone called. “Climate justice!” Manda joined in. “When do we want it?” “Now!” she yelled. And again, and again.

   After some dancing, Manda offered to relieve one of the guys holding the banner. He thanked her and asked whether there was a skateboard park.

   “Not yet but give them half an hour! It’s like a top hat full of magic spilling out. We’ll have rabbits next.”

   Manda wished she’d been more involved in the strategic planning that left her awestruck. But there would be veg to chop any time now and this brand new community would need feeding. She couldn’t tell whether the police officers close enough to scrutinise were thrown by what had happened on their watch, unfazed or entertained, but they only stood, observing and unthreatening. Unless they had their own even more brilliantly strategic plan…

   Already cameras were busy but she hadn’t spotted Nick Gorski – just hundreds of guys his age, people who might have met Rob, young women who might have been glad to be Gem, all of them here for their future. And what had she done, really, all these years, with the truth? Not enough. Not nearly enough.

*

Gem could smell hot food and realised she hadn’t needed lunch at home before she set off. Crossing the bridge from the north side she smiled at the flowers, the messages, the faces that met hers. Coming to a kind of printing table with wood-cut letters, she chose the strip of cloth that read Conscientious Protector and picked up some safety pins with it.

   “Not so easy to do your own arm,” said someone around her age who apparently didn’t need a coat, just a stripy jumper that might have shrunk in the wash and a denim mini skirt. “Let me.” She introduced herself as Lois and admired Skye, who was watchful but quiet.

   “She’s mesmerised,” said Gem. “It’s beautiful here.”

   She looked up at the lorry stage where a cool guy old enough to be her father was playing guitar rather well.

“You know there’s a family area behind it, right?” Lois checked. “Past Inductions, before Wellbeing.”

   “Great. All this since ten?”

   “Not long after. And you know about the church, for toilets, and time out. Restores my faith in religion – or should that be people?” Lois looked around. “Feels like home.”

   Gem agreed.

   “You’re from the South West?”

   “No, but I used to live in Bristol.”

   Lois explained that most of the people who’d taken the bridge were in affinity groups from Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. “Totnes is punching above its weight. Stroud too. I just met a permaculture guy with the carbon footprint of a mouse. Don’t you love it here already?”

   Gem nodded. Lois swayed her hips to the guitar, which was funkier now. Then she said, “Did you write a Letter to Earth? I’m reading mine later – although I might be crying by the end. See you, Gem. See you, Skye.”

   Skye waved shyly. Lois left for a series of embraces. Gem wished she’d written that letter, joined an affinity group – rather than feeling like a part-timer, constrained too.

   “Don’t beat yourself up,” Nick would tell her. He insisted she was a great mother, but when she’d tried to tell him it would have been better for Skye if she hadn’t been born into this climate emergency, he’d asked her not to say that, not to even believe it. Of course she could argue that it was rationally, objectively true – as well as impossible to think at all when Skye raised her arms in love and trust because they belonged around her. As she was doing now.

   “Mama!”

   Gem unstrapped her, carried her with one arm and began, rather unsteadily, to park the buggy with her free hand, beside a wheelbarrow full of potted herbs.

   Someone reached for the handles and did the rest for her. In wind-tugged, harem pants and a knitted coat of many colours, she might have looked unconventional somewhere else – including Waterloo Bridge on any other morning. Her hair was tied with wool in a wide, heavy kind of pony tail.

   “Gem!”

   “Manda. I wondered if you’d be here.” Skye filling her arms made the question of a hug null and void. But it meant the gap between them felt tangible – until Manda leaned in with a kiss for her left cheek, then the right.

   Gem smiled. “This is Skye,” she said. She’d rehearsed this moment but still had no script.

   “Hello, Skye, gorgeous girl! What do you think of this wonderland?”

   Gem realised that since they had only spoken at the funeral, she had never seen Manda look or sound happy. And maybe this was a kind of wake for everything that was dying too. Skye was watching Manda’s painted beads.

   “Want to touch them, Skye?” She held them out for Skye to reach and feel. “They’re made of recycled paper,” she told Gem.

   “Great.”

   “Beautiful,” said Skye. Her new favourite word.

   “So are you, sweetheart.”

   Surprised by emotion, Manda looked from Gem to the child and wondered how to ask whether she was her grandma. “Gem…” she began.

   “I don’t know whether she’s Rob’s,” Gem told her, too quietly, as the music ended and the seated audience in front of the lorry clapped and cheered enthusiastically.

   “Sorry? I missed that.” Manda pressed because she had to know, didn’t she? Although suddenly she wasn’t certain she needed to…

   Gem raised her voice a little. “I don’t know who the father is. It could be Rob; I wanted that from the start. But there was someone else, someone kind who comforted me, soon after… So I don’t know for sure. I’m sorry.”

   Manda nodded. “I see. But if you want her to be Rob’s, and I do too…” Her voice broke without warning. “Well, if you’re willing to let me get to know her a little, babysit even, if you like… I’d love to. Just as often or occasionally as you like. The offer’s there but don’t see it as any kind of pressure or claim.” Manda was conscious that here, now and unexpectedly, she could be her best self. It was liberating. “It’s wonderful to see you here,” she added, her voice thickening. “Family anyway, all of us, all over the world.”

   “Thank you, Manda.” Gem was moved. It made words inadequate. “Thank you. That’s really… so kind.”

   “I’ll be here for as long as it holds – unless I’m in a police cell of course. And you’ve been listening to my partner, Leo.” Manda had sensed that he was close and turned to find him with his guitar on his back, smiling.

   Gem smiled too. “I enjoyed your set,” she said, because she had, although now it seemed a long way back in the past.

   “Leo, this is Gem,” Manda told him.

   “Ah,” he said. “Lovely to meet you. And this?” He held out a hand to Skye but she hadn’t got the hang of high fives yet, which made her laugh most.

   “Skye,” said Manda and Gem together.

   “Cool,” said Leo. “Like all this, yeah?”

   “Cool!” cried Skye.

   “I think I’ll take her to the children’s area…”

   “Good idea,” said Manda. “I’ll be cooking again so I’ll be easy to find. Don’t leave without saying goodbye.”

   “Sure.”

   Now Skye wanted to walk so Gem led her away by the hand, knowing they were watching. It was news she would have messaged Pru to share. As it was, the person she wanted to call and tell might not be the best audience for the story.

*

Libby hadn’t realised that Trey would be at a meeting until the afternoon. Wearing a new dress she expected him to notice, she hoped the climate protestors wouldn’t delay his arrival even longer. Since coffee time people in the office had been moaning about the disruption, calling it counterproductive and blaming hippies but she’d kept her head down. As her computer screen showed almost two thirty, she heard his voice in reception, crossed her legs and sat up straighter at the screen. Her lipstick still felt fresh.

   Making sure she didn’t turn her head as he spoke to a couple of the others, she waited until he was almost behind her before she looked up and smiled. She was sure he danced at weekends; the energy and grace were in his walk, his body.

   “Libby,” he said. “Any problems?”

   “No, all good,” she told him. “I hope the protest didn’t cause you any. Problems, I mean.”

   “Extinction Rebellion? They’ve brought London to its knees according to the press. The tubes are fine, though. I’m guessing your mother…”

   Libby felt the kind of flush she’d grown out of a decade ago. Who told him that? It wouldn’t surprise her if the video that went viral followed her everywhere and forever. She winced. “Probably, yes. Well, definitely in fact.”

   “Good on her.” Trey smiled, checked his phone and looked back up at Libby, running a hand through his fair curls. “Really. I mean someone’s got to bring government to its senses, right? All power to them. Screw the inconvenience; climate breakdown be a lot more disruptive if the world doesn’t act.”

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

   “You should be proud of your mum. I would be.”

   She made a faint, wordless noise Trey didn’t hear because he was answering a call on his mobile as he headed for his office.

Chapter 18 will be posted on May 31st at 5:30 UK time.

FOR LIFE:16

Chapter Sixteen

April 14th 2019

James realised he might have to invest in an apron.

   “Why don’t you bring Leo to Sunday lunch?” was so easily said, with a kind of bravado that declared maturity, generosity, confidence in his culinary skills as well as his single status. A sign that he was unintimidated by the flamboyance of Manda’s romance or plant-based menu.

   The hardback book he’d bought just before closing the day before was propped open with his phone and glasses case, and spattered with greasy smears. He wished Libby hadn’t declined but then she was probably spending Sunday in bed with this Marc she hadn’t mentioned to Manda. James knew he wasn’t good at secrets after half a bottle of wine, and as Leo didn’t drink and Manda might not be satisfied the Shiraz was vegan, he could be obliged to put away rather more. Especially if they banged on about the International Rebellion that according to the press was intended to wreak chaos in the capital tomorrow.

   Not that he cared the way he would have done, before the sabbatical. Maybe he should spend some of the time that stretched ahead of him on cookery classes.

   The sauce seemed too thin and oily. Perhaps he’d misread something. What would Manda add to thicken it, without lumps? He’d ask Libby but if she wasn’t eating out she took her meals home from M and S. Besides, he wouldn’t want to interrupt anything. And he hoped Manda and Leo… well, they weren’t teenagers, for God’s sake.

   Aware that he was feeling grumpy now, James searched online for ideas and tried ground almonds, hoping the result tasted better than it looked. He wondered whether Leo was a new or reluctant vegan and had allowed Manda to show him that Cowspiracy film he’d successfully refused to watch himself.

   He’d forgotten the salad! And the oranges the recipe claimed went so well with baby spinach!

   “So what?” he challenged aloud. Manda improvised; she called it ‘imagination’ and the secret of her success.

   Was that the doorbell? Were they early and what did that mean? Too much sex had made them hungry? James washed his hands too quickly and splashed his new jeans, anticipating Manda’s smile.

   He opened the door and saw that with his pale, torn jeans, single earring and patchwork sweater, Leo was shabby-cool. Was that a phrase? Manda would think it should be. His greying hair gleamed and his smile was wide.

   “Hey, James. Good to meet you.”

   And had he in fact heard so much about him? He didn’t like to guess at the exact words she’d use. No hug, thank goodness – just a hand to shake that caught him off guard a moment before he took it. Remembering that Leo was a musician, he hoped he wasn’t too good – at that or anything else. But Manda’s face suggested otherwise. Then she kissed both his cheeks and he felt the familiar texture of her hair flung against his skin. She was too warm for the weather.

   Behind them James saw two bikes with helmets over the handlebars. According to Libby, she lived mostly at Leo’s place now.

   “A good clean ride on a Sunday,” Leo said.

   “Relatively clean,” said Manda. “Did you know in London kids’ lungs are actually smaller now, as in shrinking?”

   “That’s pretty shocking,” he admitted. “If it’s true.”

   “Google it,” Manda suggested. “Do your own fact-check.” But he didn’t think she was irritated. She was losing weight, though. Leo took her hand.

   James suggested that they hid the bikes round the side into the back garden, even though their combined value didn’t really warrant such a precaution. Leo grinned but wheeled them both, one on each side. Manda watched him a minute, like a proud mother, then stepped inside.

   “How are you?”

   James wanted to ask her how anyone could answer that question meaningfully, but instead claimed, “Fine,” and echoed it back as revenge.

   “Me? Excited more than anything. You know we’re going to block London tomorrow, bring it to a standstill?”

   Kicking off her Doc Martens, she hadn’t made it further than the hall.

   “So I gather,” he said. “I’m glad I won’t be disrupted.”

   “Tell me a better way of achieving the goals, James. Seriously. Everyone would love to know how to make headlines and force the government to their senses without disrupting poorly paid workers at rush hour.”

   She ran her fingers through hair that had been crushed, and shook it out. It used to be more resilient, and vivid too. The thought made him feel old and rather sad.

   “Of course the well paid workers deserve all they get,” he deduced. There had been a time when she loved the character of this unnecessarily spacious house almost as much as the garden and its tulips.

   “Let’s not make it political,” she suggested brightly. “This is about the survival of humanity and everything else. In which context, a few delays…”

   “Good luck explaining that to Libby.”

   Leo returned in his young dude’s sneakers and shone a smile around. James noticed the way Manda touched him at once: just a quick, light hand on his thigh. Leo reached for her hand and they followed James together, their socked feet padding in unison behind him in a silence that left him imagining looks, squeezes…

   At least Leo hadn’t brought a guitar.

   “How’s the sabbatical, James?” he heard as he turned into the kitchen, which looked a lot messier than he’d thought he’d left it.

   “Oh, I’m adjusting,” he said. “I’d forgotten how to sleep. I’m reading a bit. Investigating classes. I did sign up to a gym.”

   He could tell Manda knew what that meant: more or less diddlysquat.

   “You could join us,” she said. “Rebel for life.”

   As he focused on pouring drinks, Leo asked him about the courses he was considering. James sounded vague, forgetting most of them. He thought better of apologising for the food before he had served it.

   “Smells good,” said Manda.

   She could still read him and now it made him awkward. All those years they were married, he cooked for her once a year maybe, on her birthday. What had he been trying to prove, playing host? Maybe he’d just tired of waiting for them to invite him to the love nest.

   “You two can go and canoodle on the sofa while I focus in here,” he suggested.

   “It’s a great garden,” said Leo.

   “I’m managing to fit weeding into my hectic schedule,” James told them. “The tulips seem to be thriving.”

   Still her favourite, he wondered, especially the straggle-topped ones? She didn’t say because they’d gone.

*

Regent’s Park was bright, its perfect grass a deep, slightly damp green, but in spite of the sun Gem felt shivery. She’d need more clothes on Waterloo Bridge. Nick never wore enough. She glanced at the snatch of bare skin between his jeans and hoodie as he pushed the buggy and imagined him as a stringy boy, his feet and chest bare on a bitter British beach.

   Gem preferred the park in the summer when the delphiniums rioted deep purple and cobalt blue, but Skye liked the ducks and geese and looking down on water. In fact she had nodded off, her head tilted and her hat slipping. Gem smiled with Nick at the small mouth hanging open and shiny with dribble. Sometimes the newness of it, of her skin and fingers, made her soft inside – a softness she’d resisted for years, to be alone.    

   Nick spread out the picnic blanket and they sat. She’d brought a flask of coffee and poured him a cupful.

   “I know you’re disappointed but I can’t turn down paid work,” he said.

   She wanted to ask why. Some rebels had given up jobs for this. He looked good in his sunglasses but she couldn’t tell whether he was disappointed too.

   “But you’ll come on Wednesday?”

   “Sure, if I can. I want to be with you.”

   “But you’re not sure about it, are you?”

   “It’s beyond ambitious. Four sites to hold all week! Do they think the police will just give them up?” He paused, retrieving hair brushed free by wind. “And do they really think there’s the remotest chance the government will meet those demands?” He touched her hand a moment. “I’m not trying to burst your bubble.”

   “I believe in this,” she told him. “Time’s running out, Nick. I know the whole thing is ridiculously big and bold but it has to be.”

   “What love requires of you?” He smiled at her favourite Quaker phrase.

   She nodded.

   “But don’t get arrested.”

   “How can I, with Skye?”

   “I’d cry if I had to watch them carry you off.”

   She looked at him, surprised. A pigeon landed in a flurry even before she had thought about the sandwiches in her backpack.

   “You won’t have to,” she said.

   “Ducks!” cried Skye, straining in the buggy.

The next chapter will be posted on Friday 24th April at 5:30 UK time.

FOR LIFE:15

Fifteen – early April 2019

the story resumes as the International Rebellion is about to begin

Telling people made all the difference. Until Libby heard herself, three drinks down, muttering to Bee that being with Marc was ‘getting boring’ after two whole months, she hadn’t labelled her feelings. And even then, the word she meant was hollow. That was how she felt it as she woke beside him, wondering what possessed her to allow him into her space and fill it – with his biceps and his smokiness, his toiletries and shoes. With underwear in her washing machine that counted on surfacing clean for his return.

   Libby watched him sleeping, his chin spiking with stubble and his chest model-tight. Bee had said she wouldn’t mind being bored out of her brains by him but that was a sex thing and for Libby that side had worn first, slipped into familiar choreography that was all placement and no flair.

   “Kew Gardens would be nice,” she’d said, wanting blue above and air with bite, but Saturdays meant football and lager and all the fags he couldn’t smoke in the week. And she hadn’t minded at first, because of the gifts that arrived at the office and the way the others gathered to see what he’d sent her this time. And because Bee had said ‘a regular guy’ was what she needed, someone to give her ‘a good seeing-to’. Which was what he thought he did, sometimes twice a night.

   Still, she thought, as she smelt the Marc-ness of his breath, he made her feel clever – which was a first. Told her she was too good for him. Was amused by jokes about her eco-extremist mother – who’d want to meet him, if she knew he existed, but not if she heard him laughing at her expense. And Libby might have called it enough, for now, if she’d stuck with the old job. Marc had lain in her bed, watching her dress for the interview, in a new and expensive little suit with leg room, and told her he’d employ her on sight – making the verb into innuendo.

   He didn’t guess what she thought about when he was on top of her. Or rather, who. And he didn’t ask. For Marc, questions were just foreplay. He didn’t need to know how she functioned, inside, any more than she needed to know what lifted an aeroplane off the ground. And he’d taken her for an expensive weekend in Barcelona, was talking now about hot white sand in Croatia for Easter.

   At that moment he woke quite suddenly, as if an alarm had sounded and a survival instinct kicked in hard. He reached out an arm soft with coppery hair, and smiled as if he thought, washed and dressed as she as, that she must be willing right now.

   “Don’t go.”

   It was her cue and she knew she had to work it somehow.

   “Thing is, in fact… I need you to go. As in, it’s over, you know, run its course?” He was staring, shocked, and making her feel cruel when it was just realism really. She softened her voice, hoped it transmitted to her face. “Just life, you know? Nothing lasts, right?” Somehow she held eye contact and wished it felt more powerful.

   His jaw clenched as if his teeth met hard inside. There was a furious reflex force in the way he exited her bed, sheets thrashed. He reached for his clothes, hanging in her wardrobe, knocking a dress of hers to the floor.

   “You’re a bitch, a fucking bitch.”

   She used to tell her mother that, in her teens, but it wasn’t true and she really hoped he was wrong too. “If I am, you’re best out of it.”

   Now she was glad she never told him anything, not about Rob or counselling. Not about anything that mattered, like the feelings she’d named for the counsellor. Part of her wanted to say she was sorry but that was a word that made her small. He’d been pestering her for a key but something in her always knew the narrative would work its way to this.

   “You’re welcome to breakfast before you go.”

   “Not hungry.” He made the two words sound like an accusation, or threat.

   Marc’s usual morning routine was careful and scented. Now he was heading for her door. She pictured him tying his red shoelaces before she heard him rattle the door shut with a final clash.

   “You deserve to be loved,” her mother had told her at Christmas.

   “Why?”

   “Because you’re human, darling.”

   It wasn’t the answer her mother would have given Rob. Because he was brave and principled, and funny and soft. Everything Libby wasn’t. How human was she, really? What if Rob got every bit of humanity that mattered and she was left with the dregs?

   Now her mother loved hip old Leo almost as much as she loved the planet, and sat with him like a conjoined twin on the sofa, their hands playing each other’s fingers like messages or tunes.

   “Of course it’s your choice when you stop,” said the counsellor. “But have you considered why you want to?”

   Wasn’t the wanting enough? Even love was just wanting, and needing to be wanted. And she was no good at loving, or hadn’t been up to now. She’d been waiting for the counsellor to tell her so.

   “Is it because we’re not making enough progress, or because the progress is real and challenging?”

   Libby liked to think she’d been challenging herself. “Isn’t that a loaded question?”

   Maybe she was better at asking questions than answering them. She knew she hadn’t told the truth, since she didn’t know what that was, but wasn’t she paying the counsellor to shine a light on it?

   Well this was the truth here, whether Marc could face it or not. Libby tugged the sheet from the bed and bundled it into the washing machine along with his pillow case.

   She didn’t know why she was crying.

*

Gem read the email from Mia a second time, as if the words would arrange themselves into a different meaning.

   Gem, I am very sorry to tell you that Pru died on Thursday night. It was sudden but peaceful. Her son has asked for an inquest but if she could she’d say she just wore out. I said that as the person who made her a silver surfer I’d go through her Contacts and let everyone know. It’s a short list and almost all what he would call troublemakers.

   I will let you know about the funeral but it’s a long way for you to come and she wouldn’t expect it. You know that.

   Hope you and Skye are well. She really loved you.

   Mia x

   “I really loved her too,” Gem told the screen.

   Looking at the time in the bottom right corner, she shut down the laptop and went to wake Skye. Her hair was wild around the cot, and warm on her forehead when she stroked it. Gem didn’t know anyone more alive.

   “Hey, sweetpea. Time for another day.”

   Skye pressed her lips to Gem’s cheek in a moist kiss as she lifted her. Gem thought there was a question in her eyes. Maybe she heard it in her voice: the loss, Pru gone. The cold space opening up around her.

   Would she have gone up to Preston at Christmas, if she and Nick hadn’t been… connecting? Pru had wanted to meet him. In the spring, she’d told Pru, before the International Rebellion.

   So are you and Nick what they call an item? Pru had asked, more than once.

   We’re friends, Gem had told her, and Skye loves him.

   It might be hard for a guy with a big, noisy family to understand what Pru was to her: a surrogate grandma, a role model, as open and giving as Gem had learned to be reticent and safe. But not with Pru, because Pru seemed to know straight away who she really was, the first time they met at the gates to the site where they hadn’t fracked now since December. Whoop whoop, her texts said, every time Cuadrilla took more equipment away. Perhaps Pru had died happy.

   Skye filled the potty, her eyes sleepy but curious. Then she followed Gem through to the kitchen and lifted her arms to be placed in her high chair. It seemed wrong to be reaching for a pan to make her porridge when the woman who doted on her from a distance was dead, and would never live for her, any more than Rob could.

   “See Daddy today?”

   Gem turned. It was a first and Nick would be… elated, moved. He didn’t press, didn’t talk tests, just enjoyed. Gem was grateful. But for her Rob did live, and always would, where it hurt most, not in the car upside down off the road but beside her, his hand in hers. And she wasn’t ready. It made her doubt…

   Taking her time, she stirred the oats into the rice milk as if she needed to concentrate. She couldn’t correct her; it wouldn’t be fair. Then she said, gently, “Nick’s working today.”

   They needed to talk about the Rebellion but no one could say how long it would last, or hold. She’d booked three days unpaid leave and wished she could take more; he didn’t seem sure whether he’d be there to film it. There’d be four key sites but she liked the idea of a garden bridge.

   She would see him tomorrow, after Meeting. He was interested in what being a Quaker meant. Gem knew he was in love – with Skye, with holding her high above his head and pushing her buggy. With her too, maybe. It was kindness and she couldn’t let it go. He was Rob’s best friend after all.

   “Porridge ready,” asked Skye as if it was an assumption, as Gem added some raisins and reached for the Tigger bowl.

The author as rebel

Part Sixteen will be posted at 5:30 UK time on Friday 17th April.

Letter to Earth


A picture from the Paris summit, before XR began

Letter to Earth

You are mother, home, life. We acknowledge your power, your beauty, your wildness and peace. With awe we remember the moments when truth broke in and held us still, bright, small. We reclaim the child in us who saw the detail and knew that it was fine, who watched and listened and felt the mystery. Your colours blaze and cool. Your sounds silence our clamour. We remember how to be, our place in the web, the rhythms and patterns beyond our busyness.

   Your life is intense, patient, unexplained. The world we share sings tunes we cannot learn and paints truths for which we have no words. It is your gift to us and we will treasure it, restore it, live simply and thankfully as love requires of us. Or we will die – and what then?

   Without us, you will heal in time. Our damage forgotten, you will roar and whisper on. The dance will not end, not yet. You will not mourn us. We will be unspoken in the silence that returns.

   Our loss, not yours, and our destruction. But we have no right – to let go of small hands, to cut the cord and the roots, to tear the roof from the sky, to smother the future’s breath. We will remember who we are and what we owe. We will live again.

Written for Extinction Rebellion Earth Speaks and read on Waterloo Bridge.

Under arrest: on being a rebel

I am officially a rebel. In fact I was arrested on Thursday 18th April for the first time in my sixty-two years. When a friend asked me why this was my answer: Everything that makes me an activist is deeply connected: peace and the arms trade, justice for refugees and this climate emergency which we face together as one human family. But if one issue is bigger than the rest it’s this threat to our existence and the challenge to live differently or die. I arrived at Waterloo Bridge on Monday 15th April prepared to be arrested, and once I had become part of a beautiful, loving community living that difference, I found hope and with it determination. I have taken part in protests where as a Quaker I have been uncomfortable with words if not actions around me. Here at Extinction Rebellion my soul has found deep peace in the non-violence that holds and unites regardless of diversity. There has been nowhere I would rather be, spiritually and physically. And being arrested after sitting on the ‘heart line’ (front line being a military term we didn’t want to use) for the best part of two days was a shock just for a couple of minutes before I felt that deep peace of knowing we serve the truth and all people and species, that others were grateful and that the first time would not and could not be the last.

It’s frightening to watch police vans arrive and officers advancing with purpose. Arrest is a profoundly serious matter and I think all of us taken into custody, some long-term climate activists and some who had just arrived at a place of support for XR’s aims, felt the weight of that seriousness. But nothing can be more serious than this climate emergency. We know we are privileged to be able to protest on behalf of those who are feeling the impact ahead of us. And while being on Waterloo Bridge for six days was joyous and beautiful, it was a profoundly conscious commitment, with induction into the principles of XR and the set-up of the community, with wellbeing support, de-escalation training, an ecological washing-up system after free vegan food, composting, and traditional wood-cut printing onto T-shirts instead of merchandise. We were very fortunate at the bridge to have use of St John’s Church at the south end, where some slept in the crypt and all of us visited the toilets. We were young and older, from various faiths and none, but love and respect were fundamental to every decision made. Everyone who stepped onto the lorry stage expressed the same hopes and fears, including thirteen-year-old Max, whose speech had a call and response: “It’s bonkers!” and “Shut it down!” Isn’t that exactly how the business as usual that Sadiq Khan wanted to see restored must seem to a child becoming aware of the course we are still taking towards the end of the human race?

I went across to Oxford Circus on Thursday on hearing they needed numbers as the police moved in. It was a very different space, pace and energy, but in spite of the heat, overcrowding and tension, the spirit was warm and strong, with songs and chants, and dancing on the pink boat labelled TELL THE TRUTH. But my heart was on Waterloo Bridge, and I returned to be arrested. I walked rather than being lifted, and as I took my seat in the van a kind of disbelief set in. I’m well-behaved! Within minutes, a mother with a young child looked in at me, touched her heart and then held out both hands, saying “Thank you.” There was bonding in the van with the other three ‘prisoners’; the police were friendly and courteous. My experience in the station was interesting and relatively brief and at no point did I ask myself what I was doing. When I was released there was arrestee support waiting – another XR system efficiently in place – and I felt glad and at peace. In a statement I never needed (I wasn’t charged but released subject to further investigation) I said that as a Quaker I had done what love required of me.

On Easter Saturday my husband Leslie Tate, also a Quaker, was arrested when the police kettled us on the bridge in order to dismantle the lorry which was our stage, while we sang, “Police, we love you. We’re doing this for your children too.” At this point I discovered that it’s very much more distressing to be the partner of an arrestee than to be taken into custody oneself. Both of us, in the holding cell and van, talked about climate breakdown, introducing officers there to the Birth Strike and details of the Sixth IPCC report. Then on Easter Sunday when we had a day off, I wept to watch live footage of people being arrested on the bridge to the sound of Amazing Grace. The next day there was only one site to go to, at Marble Arch. We took friends who were hugely impressed, and at one point I joined XR families in a die-in under the blue whale at the Natural History Museum. When we all stood up, it was to a great cheer from those observing from around and above. A couple of days later I was part of an impressive lobbying group in Parliament. Rebels have a depth of knowledge and understanding of climate change that would shame most politicians.

Developments are fast with XR and I have no doubt that imaginative actions lie ahead. Disrupting people’s lives is not something any of us would choose but it has had an enormous impact, airing a taboo subject and generating conversations everywhere, including TV and radio. Nothing is perfect and it’s not unreasonable to call the movement white and middle-class, although there’s more ethnic diversity than some suggest, and one could blame the media for the irresponsible silence and downright misinformation that has denied many people access to the facts. Women, many of them young, fill key roles and everyone is heard in an attempt to be hierarchy-free. And to those who say that it was inconvenient and stressful for those trying to get to work or the shops, I can only ask for a better idea that would grow the movement by 30,000 in a week by making headlines – and point out the completely different scale of the disruption ahead if we don’t address the crisis now. It seemed to all of us that the police had no wish to waste their time harassing “nice” peaceful people, and that it was the tabloids that nudged the Home Secretary to demand that they used the full force of the law. A Sky News reporter asked me if I saw myself as a criminal. No, I am a Quaker, and a grandma, and an author who writes mainly for children. I am a conscientious protector. I have been a follower of Jesus all my life and my week on Waterloo Bridge took me closer to paradise than any other experience I’ve lived.

The rebellion will not end until the demands are met, so even if the last site has been cleared by the time you read this, nothing is over. I am ready to be arrested again, because there are no peaceful lengths to which I will not go to protect the future for my children and grandchild, and yours.

R.I.P dear Polly Higgins, barrister who has worked for decades to get Ecocide recognized as a crime, and died during this rebellion.

For Life: a novella in progress 14

Fourteen: December 6th 2018

It was Manda’s last day off, not counting Christmas. Following signs to City Hall, Westminster, she reflected that so far, bar a few dozen mince pies, she’d been detached from the consumer bingefest. An achievement. And she intended to stay that way up to what they called the wire. Note to self, she thought: the language of war was everywhere and it was a kind of infiltration, like the way the forces had a hold in churches and schools. Everyday militarism.

   The curved glass building, swelling out by the river, was impressive. She couldn’t help thinking that assembly members might be forgiven if their sense of importance swelled too, breezing with lanyards past security. But history wouldn’t forgive them if they voted NO today.

   Was she too early? Pinning her XR logo on her coat, she gazed around for others and smiled at three police officers waiting too. She wondered how Libby’s counselling was going, or whether she’d secretly stopped. They hadn’t even discussed Christmas arrangements yet, and Manda suspected Libby of planning to fly away to escape it.

   Looking at the river to the inner tune of Waterloo Sunset, she found it oddly moving. Loss made everything so beautiful, even before it was lost. Would the assembly vote the right way and if they did, would they commit to action that was swift and radical? Frankly, Stroud, Totnes and Bristol were pushovers; this would be a coup.

   Hearing voices she turned to find a group, mostly young, advancing with kit. She recognised a few faces. Soon banners were unfurled, and Manda helped to hold the one that said TWELVE YEARS TO SAVE THE EARTH. Passers-by, mostly on their way to work, were offered flyers, and it was heartening to see how many accepted them and signalled or expressed support. Soon the singing had begun, thinner than in Parliament Square but affecting all the same. Manda tried to join in, but joked with the young woman one place along the banner that no one would hang around to find out more with her wailing in their ear. It turned out that Manda was double her age with half her qualifications. Manda found herself mentioning Libby.

   “Is she in the rebellion?” asked Shani, brightly. She was wearing enough clothes for August, her tight midriff and tattooed arms bare.

   Manda pulled a face Libby wouldn’t like. “I failed there. I seem to be a deterrent rather than an inspiration. But my son was an activist.” Her voice thickened with no warning. “He died…”

   Shani’s face was even brighter now. “You made that film! I saw it. You must be so proud. He’d be glad to see this, right? It’s only just beginning but we’re rising up at last.”

   Manda smiled gratefully. “Yes. He would, and we are.”

   As if on cue, a new song began: “We are the change, we are the ones we are waiting for. We are dawning, we are rising up.” Its rhythm was less daunting than the ethereal anthem’s harmonies. Manda sang enthusiastically, stamping her feet and moving her hips as much as the banner allowed.

   A young guy was preparing to talk with a basic PA, his back to the water. The chorus ended for the last time and Manda watched him looking at the script on his phone the way speakers could nowadays.

   She realised that a tall man with dense, tight curls had stopped to watch and seemed to be looking straight at her, but because of his sunglasses, she couldn’t be sure. He was dressed casually, like a creative – as colourful and free as James was neat and grey.

   He accepted a flyer, read it, nodded and gave them a thumbs-up. Then he took off his sunglasses, and headed towards her. Manda opened her mouth wide.

   “Leo?”

   “Manda!”

   She looked at Shani and explained, “I’m going to have to let go for a moment, just long enough to hug this man – who was my first serious boyfriend!” Close-up he glistened and smelled wonderful, spicy but citrus. He was lean but firm. And this was ridiculous!

   “You look just the same,” he said, and they covered where she lived and her divorce, his early retirement and songwriting. He was in a band when they started dating at school, and so much more interesting than anyone else in the town. “So his mother’s black and his father’s white?” her mother had asked, the same way she’d ask whether one was a prostitute and the other a vicar who’d strayed off the straight and narrow. 

   “Do you still worship Hendrix?” she checked.

   “Oh, man, who else?”

   “And you… do you have children?”

   “Sure, three. But we lost their mother to cancer.”

   “I’m so sorry.” She produced a picture of Rob and was explaining when they heard, “Good morning. We are Extinction Rebellion and we are here to encourage the London Assembly to declare a Climate Emergency…”

   “Look,” Leo told her, “I need to go. I’m meeting my son for breakfast – five minutes ago, in that café right over there.” He pointed, named it and gave her a card with an electric guitar on it. “I’ll be there until ten so if you finish, come on over. If you can. I mean, no pressure. You have important business here.”

   Manda felt the grin on her face; it had been there a while. He leaned down and kissed her cheeks. She watched him walking away, a kind of a loping walk with a swing. Why had they split up? She didn’t even know. Turning her attention to the speaker on the mic, she heard him finish the Declaration of Rebellion, and joined in the cheering.

   “Climate justice now!” he began.

   Manda echoed with the rest. Somewhere in an old notebook she had lyrics she’d scribbled a year or so ago, for a song about Rob.

*

Gem had been on the point of making contact so many times. Every time, in fact, that she’d done the tube journey he’d shared with her that day of the swarming. This morning she found Nick Gorski’s card in her wallet where she’d kept it, looked at her face in the carriage window and pictured his. A seriously nice guy. Rob’s best friend. Perhaps a rebel too. And Skye’s father, maybe. Maybe not.

   Hey Nick. It would be good to meet up and talk properly. Gem

   She checked her reflection. Did she look excited or nervous, or just like a single mum who’d left the flat in a rush and wasn’t bothered about reflections in train windows?

   Gem, hi. I’ve been thinking hard about everything and I think I’m awake at last. Do you have a lunch hour?

   Yes, in theory. Now she was alarmed. She thought of a coffee shop she couldn’t afford to use as a habit, and gave him the address. But didn’t he want to see Skye? Wasn’t that the point, just like it would be the Craigs’ point if they knew?

   If she could open the door on a hotel room in the same chain, with the same colours and layout, and the same smooth, wide bed, would she remember more than the panic that followed her home, and the shame? Rob would understand, if anyone would, but she hadn’t understood it herself – how loving and grieving and red wine could have led her, unsteady, to Nick’s bed.

   “I’ve never been in love before,” Rob told her, the first time. He never asked her how many guys she’d had so she didn’t have to count, or wish them away. And they didn’t count, when she was using. She wasn’t herself and she didn’t know herself.

   Gem didn’t kid herself that Nick was in love – except maybe with the idea of having a kid he could play with once a week. But what harm would that do her, or Skye? If it added something warm and smiley to Skye’s life, why would she reject it – as long as the truth was served? The truth might matter more than anything, and it wasn’t always easy to see – although Nick didn’t seem to need it. She guessed some people made up their own.

*

The Green members of the assembly who’d proposed the motion didn’t want the protest to move inside and jeopardise the vote, and no one was arguing. They’d been optimistic when they stopped to chat on their way in, and stood behind the banner for photos – and now, as the singing stopped, the mood felt flat but confident too.

   Manda said her goodbyes as the group broke up. Feeling the superglue in her pocket she wondered if she’d need it anytime soon, and whether next year when the movement spread all over the world there’d be a global shortage. Libby would be appalled but when it felt right, she’d do it for Rob, and the grandchildren she’d probably never have.

   “Gem would have told us. Forget it, Libby. It’s a wild goose chase.”

   “What kind of grandma doesn’t want to find her grandchild?”

   She looked at her watch. She used to be mad about Leo when she was sixteen, and not just to annoy her parents. They’d lasted until he went to university a year ahead of her, which made the relationship long and, given the sex they managed mostly in his car, grown-up.

   She imagined Farah telling her to be careful, found her bearings and set off for the café.

*

Hello Gem this is Pru on the worldwide web! I promise not to be a nuisance though and bombard you. Mia set all this up and taught me basics. She says hi. No news really but I follow what’s happening in the world and it’s very exciting. Change gonna come like Sam Cooke sang. Will you be protesting at the BBC who really should know better? You can email me pictures of Skye now, with attachments. I am fine and as Enid says, hell on wheels.

Pru x

*

James felt uneasy. If the crisis was as huge as the activists said – and Attenborough, and the Secretary General of the UN, and the scientists of course – then why wasn’t it everywhere, dominating all media all day all over the world? Why were the Tories talking Brexit, which was a disaster in itself but hardly on the same scale? No mention of climate change in the latest budget, never mind breakdown or emergency.

   Then again, hadn’t people always thought the end of the world was nigh? Simple folk, religious nuts, but not scientists, perhaps, with access to the most sophisticated technology. He couldn’t understand why he’d ignored Manda for so many years, or humoured her by taking the line of least resistance, when he could have found out for himself. He supposed that would be because he was busy at work (which he no longer wished to be) and because he was used to Manda’s passions, which were once more attractive and became more wearing. Because he liked travelling the world, and cars, and steak – but no more, apparently, than the world leaders at COP24. Which seemed rather hopeless.

   He used to have a head for science. Perhaps he should read the IPCC report.

*

Libby was feeling Christmassy now, and there were parties ahead, and drinks, and dinners, and she’d told Dad what she wanted, sending links. So it would be a slimmer’s milk shake for breakfast and lunch in between. Looking at the small pink can in her bag made her long for a MacDonald’s.

   She turned on her phone and found Bee sounding excited.

   Lib, what would you say to a weekend in Vienna for the Christmas market? Gluhwein by the bucket?

   Libby checked the dates, grinned and replied: Yeah baby! Book it. Bargain. It would be great for Christmas shopping by day and then they could drink the nights away. Manda would never need to know. After all she said she didn’t want a present.

*

Gem showed Nick the latest pictures of Skye, and filled him in on the kind of details only mothers usually asked, about birth weight and milestones like crawling.

   “There were nine days between…” She didn’t want to spell that out. “You and Rob. So the birth date doesn’t make it conclusive because she was a few days early. But if you want a paternity test…”

   “I don’t need that.” He touched her hand in the centre of the table, between their coffee cups.

   Gem stared. “You just want to be…”

   “In her life.”

   “She’d like that.”

   Gem thought she’d like it too. “Do you think it’s wrong to have children, knowing what we know? Because her generation will inherit…” Her voice cracked. “Chaos. I don’t want to think about it, but…”

   “It drives you.”

   “Yes. How can it not? But what if it’s too late?”

   “You love her. And you’re doing all you can.”

   “I want to…”

  Nick took her hand in both of his. “So do I.”

If you’ve enjoyed FOR LIFE, why not join the Global Rebellion from Monday 15th April?

For Life: a novella in progress 13

Thirteen


The short walk to the tube was busy but it didn’t stop Nick trying to talk.

   “You look cold.”

   “Yeah. It wasn’t fun.”

   “I’ve been wanting to see you since that day in Parliament Square. I kept thinking about you. And I know you’re going to work but I need to talk to you.”

   Suddenly Gem would rather be sitting in the road. She walked on but the traffic lights were red.

   “About Skye,” he said. “Is she Rob’s?”

   “I don’t know.”

   He was looking at her now in a way she’d dreaded. “You don’t know because there’s another possibility? Because you weren’t too drunk to remember what happened after the funeral?”

   Gem bit her lip and shook her head. She hadn’t wanted to hold on to it but she’d never quite erased it all. Leaning her head against his in the taxi they’d shared to the hotel where they’d both booked rooms. His hand holding hers. Pressed together at his door.  Stroking his hair, while his crying shook his chest.

   “We made love, Gem.”

   “We had sex.”

   “It was loving. We both lost Rob.”

   The light changed. They walked, in step now. He reached for her hand but she couldn’t let him take it, not this time.

   “We were both drunk. Maybe you don’t remember as much as you imagine.”

   “I didn’t… when I woke and you’d gone, I thought I’d dreamed it. How could it be real? And if it was, I thought you’d be sick with…. And blame me.”

   “With guilt. Yeah. I blamed myself more.”

   They stepped down into the tube station.

   “We didn’t take precautions?” he asked, his voice low.

   She swiped her Oyster Card. “I don’t know. Do you? But I’m guessing neither of us took condoms to Rob’s funeral.”

   She was first on the escalator but he stood close and tall behind her. She gazed up at the ads without seeing them.

   “But you and Rob…”

   “Not the last time.” The pack had been empty; she’d been the one to insist they took a chance, not caring if she fell pregnant with his child because thanks to him she was ready now to be a mother, with or without a father around. Forgetting the world that wasn’t fit to give a child a future.

   Stepping off the escalator, they entered the tunnel and saw a tube, its carriage doors opening. Instinctively, she rushed for it, and they both fitted in. Now they stood holding the same yellow rail. She looked at his hand above hers, just as smooth and pretty as his face.

   “So it’s fifty-fifty?”

   “Yeah. Pretty much.”

   “And you didn’t need to know?”

   “Nick, try to understand. I didn’t want to be smothered by the Craigs. And I didn’t want to ask anything of you. How could I? It wouldn’t have been fair.”

   “On me, or you?” Still his voice was quiet, kind.

   “Either?” Had it mattered, a few weeks after the funeral, when she took the kit straight from the counter at a department store into the Ladies, and the line was blue? She’d only known that she wanted her baby, and life after death. “I hadn’t seen you since. I didn’t expect to see you again.”

   “I didn’t think you’d want me to call.”

   “No.”

   “We hardly knew each other. Without Rob…”

   “Yes. So the only thing that made any sense was raising Skye alone. And I am, and she’s happy.”

   “She’s great.” His smile was sad. “And you left Bristol to be sure you didn’t bump into me…”

   “I left Bristol because Rob would always be there.”

   “You still love him?”

   She nodded. It kept her alive.

   “And you hope Skye is his?”

   “I always have.”

   Her stop had already been announced. He looked out as the tube slowed to a halt. “This is where you work.”

   “Yes.” She reached up to kiss his cheek. “I’m sorry. I have to go.”

   “Can I see you?” he called as the doors slid open. “One weekend? No claims.”

   Gem stepped onto the platform but looked back. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

   “Call me!”

   The doors closed. Gem walked towards the exit.

*

The café was quiet. Manda cut up her latest bake, thinking through the wording she would use at closing time, but beginning to hope she didn’t have to wait that long because the more she thought, the more decided she became. The three customers drinking coffee were all regulars and she usually enjoyed chatting with them, especially brave, quivery Viv, who walked with a stick and looked a generation older than she was, but today the only person she wanted to talk to was Farah.

   She arranged the ginger cake with its label and looked into the kitchen where her boss was chopping carrots as if they’d offended her.

   Farah turned and read her. “You’re going to tell me you’ve considered it carefully and you’re going to jump ship.”

   “Yes. I thought maybe after Christmas.”

   “What if this rebellion comes to a standstill?”

   “It won’t. It will grow.”

   “I dare say it could grow without you. But I know, you have to be there. You’d be blocking London right now if you weren’t trapped here.”

   Manda nodded. She had to give everything to this movement or it wouldn’t be enough. She kept Farah up to date with developments, but not via Twitter, because she’d left that – in case some sleazy online news outfit ran Adam’s story, or in case he messaged her again, under that name or any other.

   She was aware that Farah couldn’t quite believe she was in a position to manage without income, at least until the summer.

   “I should be grateful to James,” she said, because he’d always been the serious earner, and a bit of a miser with it. Her Home Economics teaching, never more than part-time, was always a hobby in his eyes.

   “The benefits of capitalism for the few,” teased Farah, and Manda held up her hands. “It won’t be the same without you here. That’s if I can keep afloat.”

   Manda blew her a kiss; Farah was less huggable with a sharp knife in her hand. A group, probably from a nearby office, walked in together. They were loud and Manda thought she knew what they were complaining about, but she kept listening to be sure while they ordered drinks in turn.

   “I think you’ll find,” she said, as they moved to sit down, “that these eco-warriors are motivated by the fact that the world is experiencing climate breakdown, as declared by experts from umpteen countries in zillions of scientific papers in the recent IPCC report. These people are bringing London to a standstill because signing another petition might not be enough to save our children.” She smiled. “I call them heroes myself. I’ll bring your drinks over in just a minute.”

   She mouthed at Farah, “Sack me!” and smiled as her boss tried to copy the emoji that slaps a hand to one eye. Not that she had scored any points over the loudest guy in the group, who interrupted a woman who told him Manda had a point, insisting this kind of irresponsible activism was counter-productive. In spite of her irritation, Manda was afraid it might be, but she hoped Rob would approve – of her words, smile and delivery, but also her commitment. Because she loved this job, and Farah, and the feel they’d created together here. It was a place where Rob would have felt at home.

*

The youngest of the partners, who had seen images from the road blockades, joked with James, “I haven’t spotted your ex.”

   The partner who wasn’t back from a meeting yet might not see any humour in the situation and James couldn’t blame him. Manda’s idea of giving up work for this rebellion was madness and Libby, who already called her mother an extremist, would be appalled – but what could he do?

   He could do with a break himself, a sabbatical. Not for the purposes of civil disobedience but to broaden his horizons with some personal development. Perhaps some art history, or world religions. He’d been thinking a lot since the exhibition with Tanya, about how narrow one could become, and how much more there was to learn. “Ah, James, there are more ways to be human than you realised.”

   His phone rang unexpectedly and he saw Libby on screen. Some personal emergency, he supposed, and hesitated before picking up.

   “Dad, I saw Gem sitting in the road with those Extinction Rebellion nutters. She looks out of it, a mess. And… thing is, Dad, she’s got a child.”

   “She’s sitting in the road with a child?”

   “I mean she has a child. And I think it’s Rob’s. And she’s an irresponsible mother. She looks like she could be doing drugs. So you might want to claim your grandchild.”

   James put a hand to his head. “Libby, you’re jumping way head of yourself.” He didn’t dare say he liked Gem. “We can’t talk about this now.”

   “What if she gets arrested? If she goes to prison?”

   “I don’t think obstructing a highway carries a custodial sentence, darling. Look, I have a meeting to go to,” he lied. “Let’s talk at the weekend.”

   Libby sounded deflated. “Good luck getting there!”

   James searched Twitter until he found her. Rob’s Gem, delicate-looking as ever, and yes, straggly and scruffy just the way Rob used to be. Her expression was sad, in fact. It reminded him of the face of the poet from the Marshall Islands. Suddenly he knew what Tanya would say, if he told her – which was hardly likely, given that he didn’t expect to see her again. She’d say, Leave her alone. And he wasn’t quite sure how Tanya became his touchstone, his new lens on the world. But he supposed that was in the pub, when he fell in love with her.

   What Manda would say, for once he couldn’t guess.

*

Trying to listen hard, and watch carefully, Pru realised she had a lot to learn.

   “It’s very sensible,” Mia said. “You’ll be a silver surfer.”

   “I thought you’d be the person to teach me,” Pru said, thinking how ridiculously young Mia looked, for a teacher. “You must need  a lot of patience in your job and you may need even more with me!”

   Gem had offered to come and visit after Christmas, and bring Skye, but she couldn’t expect her to do that. Besides, now that Pru had decided to go online and keep up with things she’d miss, she couldn’t wait to start. It might be fun. Ed had warned her it could be addictive but she wasn’t going to allow that, and she wasn’t going to allow him to do the teaching because he’d make her feel like a fool.

   “So I need to follow Twitter and Facebook and it would be nice to send some emails,” she told Mia, using the chair to make her a coffee like a proper hostess, and prove she was mobile and doing fine.

   “Sure,” said Mia, “but maybe not all in one lesson.” She asked Pru how it was working out with the carers.

   “Oh, we’ll get on like a house on fire once we get used to each other’s funny ways. I’m determined not to be a stickler or a whinger.”

   “You’ll be their favourite!”

   Pru was finding it hard being a burden to people, even though she paid them to put up with her, but she kept that to herself because she didn’t need people to feel sorry for her. And that included herself.

   “I miss everyone,” she said. “So I need to keep an eye on what they’re up to. Any more earthquakes today?”

   Mia nodded, and shook her head too, but couldn’t remember the frequency of the latest one.

   “That’s why I need to be on that internet, to find these things out. But if they go on like this they’ll have to stop for good, surely? It’s madness.”

   Mia said she hoped so but the dirty frackers, as Pru called them, wanted the government to relax the regulations so they didn’t have to stop at all, even for the rest of the day, after any tremor.

   Pru was afraid the dirty frackers had the government in their pockets and she didn’t like to be cynical but the evidence was pretty strong. Apparently there were diagrams; she’d be able to find them now. She’d be more informed than ever, as long as she didn’t fall for any fake news.

   “There’s been more civil disobedience in London,” Mia told her, fiddling with the wires at the back of Pru’s new computer. It was like waiting for the curtain to go up at the theatre. “And I think the school strikes are going to take off soon, maybe after Christmas. I need to talk to my Head about that.”

   While she was setting up the computer, she passed Pru her flat little phone to look at. “Gem, see, in the green hat?”

   The screen was so small, it could have been anyone sitting on the road with a placard that said, THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. But she felt proud anyway. And one day, Skye would be proud too, and grateful.

   “Thank you so much for this, Mia,” she said. “It’s going to be an adventure.”

The final chapter of FOR LIFE will be posted on Friday 12th April, before the Global Rebellion.

Use this link to vote for ‘I am me’, Sue’s fundraising picture book for People not Borders, in the Finals of the People’s Book Prize.

For Life: a novella in progress 12

Twelve: November 2018

It had been fun on Waterloo Bridge, a kind of party. But this was different and Gem told herself she should have known. And worn more layers. This strategy was meant to be swarming but that sounded warmer and wilder.

   Banner first to block the road, they filed across. The guy with the old-fashioned kind of tannoy began to explain, “We are sorry to hold you up. We won’t be here long. We are Extinction Rebellion and we are here because this is an emergency. The IPCC report says we have twelve years left to make radical changes or…”

   Gem had been asked to take flyers to the drivers they were delaying – not a role she would have volunteered for – but they weren’t winding down their windscreens. Most looked fiercely ahead, deleting her. Some shouted – and some got out of their vehicles to gesticulate, swear and yell. Just about all of them kept their engines running, as if poisoning protestors was an act of revenge.

   No, she told herself. Not sides. Not enemies, however hostile. Something of God in everyone. No one was beyond reach. And most of these people simply didn’t understand what was at risk

   “We’re sorry to inconvenience you,” she began, to a guy who’d wound his window down.

   “Then fuck off!”

   “Our leaders have left us no choice,” she continued as he wound up again as fast as he could, his face twisted. “Petitions are not going to save us. We face an existential threat.”

   Gem walked on down to the next vehicle, and the next. Along with the flyers, she was carrying home-baked vegan cookies, but no one seemed to be hungry. Outside a white van ahead a guy stood far from still, his arms in the air. He jerked a fist towards her as she approached.

   “What the fuck are you doing, you wankers?”

   She began, trying to make eye contact, her voice low and reasonable. A mother’s voice, explaining. He interrupted but she didn’t stop. Then she used the phrase climate change.

   “Oh!” He lowered his arms. “This is about climate change!”

   “Yes… it’s a crisis we are facing….”

   His shoulders dropped and he saw her now. “Right, yeah. I know.” He leaned in towards the two guys in his van. “Climate change,” he said.

   “Ah, OK.”

   “Good on you, love.”

   Gem offered the tub of cookies and all three of them took one. There were smiles now. “Thanks, love,” they said, and one gave a thumbs up at the first mouthful. She could have hugged all three of them. 

   All around her, horns were honking. She walked back to the crossing and sat down on the ground, picking up the placard she’d left there. She mustn’t look at her watch and wish it all over, because it had to be done if London was going to be gridlocked, if a headline or two was to be made, and the politicians were going to wake up.

   “Let’s go,” called the guy in charge.

   They withdrew, huddled and waited for the next blockade, watched by police officers. Soon they’d step out again.

   “You all right?” asked a student who’d come down to London from York to swarm for three days. “Do you want to give me the flyers for the next one?”

   “I’ll keep going a bit,” she said, trying not to shiver. “Thanks.”

   “You’re frozen! Want some coffee?” asked an older woman called Liz who’d brought a flask, but Gem declined. “What time have you got to be at work?”

   “I said I’d be in by ten thirty.” Gem would make up the hours at home once Skye was asleep, and no one would disapprove exactly, but at the same time, it was harder to justify than holding the bridges on a Saturday afternoon because this was rush hour and ordinary people were stressed. But she told the others the story of the guys in the van because it made a difference. People cheered and the student gave her a high five.

   Time ran out so fast. The lights changed and they moved into the road again.

*

Someone in Libby’s office was an hour late. Hearing about the climate hippies blocking one of the busiest roads into the centre of London, Libby shook her head, rolled her eyes and hoped her mother wasn’t one of them.

   “Tell me about your childhood,” the counsellor had said. Predictably.

   “I was happy. I think I was. Kids are, right?”

   “Not necessarily. What made you happy? Did your brother make you happy?”

   “He didn’t make me unhappy. He was nice. But he was the favourite. Mum’s favourite anyway.”

   So it was about Rob again. He was still centre stage. She didn’t know how anyone talked about their childhood in any detail without photos as prompts. That Libby Craig who loved Busted didn’t feel like her, so how could she know how she felt? She wasn’t sure she’d bother to go back for a second session. The woman was so composed it made Libby feel a mess and she wasn’t. She had a good job and a healthy bank account. Her hair and figure were both… good. There were too many people trying to undermine everything, like these idiots sitting in the road, making life hard for ordinary people trying to get to work – and the counsellor was the same. She wanted her to dig up something really bad and admit she was damaged. But she wasn’t. She was doing fine and if only people would leave her alone she’d do better.

   “What would you say if I told you the majority of people who have siblings believe that they were their parents’ favourite?”

   “I’d say I don’t suppose their siblings are all dead.”

   “What would you say to Rob if he walked into the room now?”

   “Rob was a saint, not Jesus… Sorry. I’d say… I don’t know. I’d say,” She wasn’t expecting her voice to crack like that. “I missed you.”

   Her mother would probably think the money was well spent if it made her cry. Now, looking out of the office window as if she might see London at a standstill, Libby would tell Rob something else. “I wanted to BE you.”

   That was her jealousy – not of his politics but his freedom to be himself, to be heard, to be whole, and a fit. To be enough.

*

It couldn’t really be getting colder. Gem was sitting in the road, one hand holding a placard. Someone had said the traffic was backed up for miles. It wasn’t surprising that the drivers were more abusive. Her body stiff and her lips numb, she tried to screen out the noise, the fumes, the tension. All she had to do was find the place she arrived at on Sundays at Meeting, the place where only truth mattered, and beauty. Where peace filled the inside of everything until the world seemed held in it. I’m sorry my friends, I didn’t mean to trouble you… when you were having such a hard time… The movement’s anthem had been haunting her.

   “We act out of love,” said the guy with the tannoy.

   There’d been a motorcyclist at the last blockade who’d removed his helmet and shaken out long, glossy hair. “Bless you,” he said. So like Nick. She’d wondered whether he’d be here to film but the only footage was being transmitted live from people’s phones. Sooner or later, she’d be bound to see him again, wouldn’t she, if he cared enough to join the rebellion as well as document it on film?

   “Get a fucking job!” she heard from one passer-by. But another came across the road to join them, and was embraced. She’d feel less guilty now, when she had to leave. But when they cleared the road again, a coffee break was agreed, and they all headed for the nearest café, shedding the police officers who moved off in another direction. Gem bought a coffee and sat quietly, while the others chatted, reporting on the other road blocks and making introductions. Sometimes she’d rather message someone she loved.

   How are you doing Pru? x

   Oh not too bad dear. Better for hearing from you.

   I’m sitting in the road this morning with Extinction Rebellion and it’s pretty tough but not as tough as you! x

   Hero! But yes I can imagine. You take care of yourself. Skye needs you.

   When do you go home? Have the doctors said? X

   Well they don’t seem sure I can manage on my own but I will get help an hour or two a day and I’ll be fine. I can’t give up my freedom just yet.

   Don’t! Resist. x

   “Have you thawed out?” one of the older guys asked. Answering, Gem found her lips were mobile again. She sent love to Pru and put her phone in her pocket.

   They returned to the traffic in an even busier spot, only this time with no police escort. As Gem moved towards the island on her left, a large black saloon kept moving too, the wing mirror brushing her as it passed – but stopped when Liz stepped in front of it. Within seconds guys were out of their vehicles and marching towards them. Someone was shoved. The guy on the tannoy appealed for calm and reminded drivers that the protest was peaceful. A short middle-aged man in a woolly hat stride towards Gem and picked her up. All right, she thought, remaining still and silent until he deposited her at the side of the road, muttering, “Sorry love,” so quietly that she wondered whether she’d imagined it. Now the police were back and drivers argued but were sent back to their vehicles. One officer had words with saloon man.

   “I never thought I’d feel grateful for police protection!” Liz told her as she sat down again. “When it comes to the arms trade they protect the dealers, not the protestors. Are you all right?”

   Gem was fine. Years back she would have struggled, sworn. Rob had changed her, before and after he died. And now she lived up to her badge, Quakers for Peace – or tried, anyway. But perhaps, looking at the time, she’d make this her last blockade. She wouldn’t be sorry to stop. For the last time she tried to find that peace again, and remembered that phrase someone had quoted in Meeting on Sunday, so full of meaning it moved her, all of her: Put the centre of yourself outside.

   Seven minutes up. Walking away with the others she saw a tall guy with hair caught by the cold wind, approaching them. Approaching her. No camera, just Nick.

   “Gem,” he said, puffed. “I saw you on Twitter.”

   “I’m going to work now, Nick.”

   “On the tube? Can I come with you?”

   “O.K.,” she said.

Chapter 13 will be posted on Friday 5th April at 5:30 UK time.

PROCESSING