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
“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.”
“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.
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
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.
“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
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.
“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
“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
“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.”
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
She stared and made an assenting sort of noise. Her smile felt
“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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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.
“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.
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
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
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.
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.
“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
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
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
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
Hope you and Skye are well. She
really loved you.
“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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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.”
“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
Gem stepped onto the platform but looked back. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
“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.
“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
“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’
“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
Hero! But yes I can imagine. You
take care of yourself. Skye needs you.
When do you go home? Have the doctors
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.
James realised he was nervous, which seemed amusing in its way. There’d been no actual dates with Leanne at the rock choir – just kisses in her car, or his, after a quick drink when rehearsal ended. Fumblings. And some talk too, the first two Tuesday evenings, because Leanne was so sad about Rob, so patiently sympathetic it made her tender. Not enough to end a healthy marriage, but when it came to relationships, health could be a subjective thing, no tests available. He imagined it would be different with Tanya, although what it would turn out to be was very much an open question. Maybe just a coffee and debrief after they’d been around the exhibition? Oceania at the RA was her choice but he’d been enthusiastic; he liked not really knowing what it would offer – although he’d like to know what she’d understood from his briefest of emails, because he’d hardly been open about his hopes and yes, a good few dreams.
Remembering Manda’s news that she’d ended her own relationship, almost before his source informed him it was happening, he couldn’t be sure how Libby would react if he began something with Tanya. Manda had a theory that their daughter’s development towards maturity had been stunted by grief and she was stuck at a flammable nineteen. But as far as James could see, everyone was still a kid at twenty-two; it was just that no one admitted it until they were heading for fifty. Manda’s family lunch had been about as relaxing as a cross-country run through sleet at boarding school.
“So if you’ve finished with this
Adam guy you’ll have time for me now?”
“I always had time for you, love.” Manda passed her the salad.
“Between the café and trying to
get arrested in your time off?”
“We all need to talk more. We’re
still a family. And that includes Rob – in the sense that he’s still part of us
and always will be.”
“He’s gone, Mum! Get hold of it!
I don’t want to talk about him. I want to talk about me. And you, and Dad, and…
stuff! Like life!”
It would have been funny, given Libby’s reluctance to talk about anything much at all, except the on-off feud with Bee that – like Brexit – he’d stopped trying to follow.
“Your dad agrees that it would be
worth investigating counsellors.”
Libby turned accusingly to him. Thanks, Manda.“Well yes, if you feel ready, sweetheart.”
Clearly she hated it when they agreed
about something for her supposed benefit.
“I don’t, thanks.”
Libby had perfect theatrical timing in these situations. Manda seemed to think progress had been made by the time they’d finished what was a surprisingly splendid vegan meal, but he couldn’t really see how or where. They were a family made to be four, not three. Rob had changed the dynamics; it was a fact. He was the superglue son, binding the three of them together for all their tugging. In fact, James understood the climate activists were using superglue now, in this rebellion Manda had embraced. Doubtless she’d stick herself somewhere soon; it made his skin creep to imagine it.
He was meant to be meeting Tanya outside which wasn’t the best idea
given the recent drop in temperature. Reliving his astonishment when she called
him back after he left a message with Nick, he wondered what colour her hair
was now, what she’d be wearing. And expecting. He didn’t even know her age.
It was foolish to be so early, he thought as he arrived in the courtyard and saw what seemed to be the house from Psycho parked there in a Tate Modern sort of way. He’d better not make any derogatory remarks about modern art to Tanya or he’d be showing more than his age. His conservatism, as Manda put it. “You’re part of the Establishment, James, and it’s not done humanity much good.” Since he didn’t ask his parents to send him to private school, or ask for the salary he commanded, it didn’t seem entirely fair – especially as these days he suspected his partners considered him something of a snowflake.
He ran a comb through his hair, aware that it was still good and that
Libby was glad she’d inherited it, given the wild alternative Manda passed on
“It’s fine,” he heard.
Tanya was behind him, and her own
hair was vivid blue. Her tights were purple and her coat a kind of patterned
artwork in itself. Her shiny Doc Martens looked too big for someone her height.
The exuberance of it all made him smile.
“Tanya! You caught me, banged to rights.” They exchanged cheek kisses,
double. “Tell me about this exhibition.”
“Oh, the captions will do that, and they’ll have audio to tell you all
you need to know.”
But headphones, he thought, would exclude the person he wanted to know, and block the space between them. They walked inside to join the queue.
Manda was surprised, during her late
lunchbreak, to see a message from Nick Gorski asking her to call him.
“Ah, Manda, thanks for getting back to me.”
She expressed curiosity and asked what she could do for him.
“It’s… um… a bit awkward. I got tipped off by a guy I know, an editor on
one of the less enlightened broadsheets. He’s a mate, what can I say? So he
knew I edited the film about Rob…” Manda waited. “There’s someone touting an
inside story about you and climate activism. Not much of a story. My mate
thinks he’s quite sad, you know? But he claims he’s been… in a relationship
with you, and you’re a reckless revolutionary.”
Manda’s throat made a noise that wasn’t quite a laugh. “Adam Browne.”
“No, that wasn’t it. Maybe he’s using another name. Been watching too
many spy movies. Anyway, my mate sent him packing but the tabloids might not be
so picky so he thought…”
“I should be pickier myself, about who I sleep with.” She knew she
sounded calmer than she felt. There was something ridiculous about it, about
her. It was a truth she could have understood if she’d been woke as the kids of America seemed to
say now. And it wasn’t a death.
“It’s a shitty, creepy thing to do.”
“So he’s not a teacher?”
“A writer, he calls himself. Ex-cop, he claims, but that might be
fiction too. I’m sorry.”
“I should know better at my age. And stupidly, part of me did.” She
thanked Nick and said she must get back to work.
“Don’t let him stop you. The rebellion… it’s necessary.”
Surprised, she told him it wouldn’t, and yes, she knew. So Nick was back on track and that, at least, was something to celebrate. Now, though, she needed a shower. She must wash her hair. But she couldn’t clean inside, where he’d been, where she’d let him into her world, her beliefs, her grief, and he’d ransacked it all for what he could sell.
James had had no idea. Ten
thousand islands on the map around the wall! Impatient to explore the artworks
he could see ahead in the next room, James would happily have skipped the poem
delivered on film by an earnest young woman from the Marshall Islands who was
labelled a climate change activist. I lived with one of those, he could have
told Tanya with a smile that was wry and worn.
“Did you hear?” Manda had
announced rather than asked on Sunday. “An island has just
gone under! East
Island in the French Frigate Shoals, washed
away by hurricane Walaka .”
He looked back to the cascading textile tsunami that fell to the floor
and dominated the octagonal hall, and supposed that it wasn’t simply beautiful,
but a warning. Was that the message here – not art but politics?
“Tell them about the water,” Kathy
Jetnil-Kijiner said, “how we have seen it rising flooding across our cemeteries
gushing over the sea walls and crashing against our homes. Tell them what it’s
like to see the entire ocean level with the land.”
seemed rapt. He might as well not be there. As the film finished ready to begin
again, she sighed.
“Shit,” she said. “This is real, isn’t it?”
artworks look wonderful,” he said, playing dumb really. “I had a Ladybird book
about Captain Cook when I was seven or eight but I suppose he’ll be the villain
more worried about the future than the past,” Tanya said.
had read that the two hundred works, small and huge, illustrated five hundred
years of history. “But what a past!” he cried.
was a soul canoe presumably rowing to the afterlife, and many paddles that
looked too heavy to lift. A Tahitian mourner’s costume that looked too heavy to
wear. Something seven metres long that reminded him of his university rowing
days but turned out to be a ceremonial feast bowl from the Solomon Islands.
Some of the ornaments were made of shell, some greenstone and some ceramics.
Tanya seemed fascinated, studying the captions and moving slowly and rather
independently. He felt surplus to requirements.
the only person here who knew nothing about all this?” he asked her as she looked
at him and smiled, as if remembering his existence.
this was your area?”
he given that impression? “Well, not really, but it’s good to learn.”
know much about anything,” she said. “But my great grandmother was Tahitian,
and ended up in California.”
looked at her afresh and in spite of the colours he thought he could see
something he might have called exotic. “Ah,” he said. “I understand. It’s
personal.” With women it seemed things always were.
like to go, but when you hear that poet… this is serious, isn’t it? Do you
think we really should be flying around the world?”
your heritage.” He imagined going with her to Tahiti. “I think you’re
“Yeah, but entitlement, you know? Isn’t that the cause of the trouble
moved into the next room, where some of the god images were tall and pretty
like this one,” said Tanya.
wooden figure of the Tahitian god Ti’i was smaller. He had two heads cocked at
right angles from his fat little body and was frankly gruesome but when James
suggested as much with a pulled face, she told him, “He’s serene though!” She
said she wished she knew whether Ti’i would mean anything at all to her great
grandmother. “I mean, I don’t know jack shit about archbishops or saints, but
this was really part of people’s lives.”
admired the Hawaian god Ku with his mother of pear eyes and razor-sharp teeth –
a gift to Cook when he first arrived. “That must have scared the shit out of
him. But what a gift! I mean, this was generous and respectful.”
wasn’t sure he could buy into the paradise
defiled narrative. Life wasn’t usually as black and white as that, and
these people weren’t all love and peace. No one was, in spite of Manda’s
dreams. They came to some drawings by a Tahitian priest who joined the Endeavour
and Tanya said she hoped Cook and crew gave him celebrity treatment.
“Meghan came to open this exhibition,” she told him. “I like her. A feminist
of colour, right? Did you see the wedding?”
he hadn’t, James feared he was disappointing her at every turn, but he hadn’t
expected her to be a royalist. Shouldn’t that be him?
hope she stops Harry hunting,” she murmured, bending to look closely at some
cloth, and James decided there was no need to mention that he used to ride with
the hounds, like his father, until he met Manda at university. “And she’s
didn’t disagree, although personally he found Tanya more attractive. Her purple
legs were very distracting. When they reached the panoramic video that shamed
Cook and co, she sat on the floor to watch, and soon muttered, “The world’s so
unfair. White men have done so much damage.”
Although this was hard to dispute, she did seem to be putting a negative
spin on a stunning exhibition.
there been no good white men in your life?” he asked with a smile, wishing he’d
kept up his RA membership so he could take her to the lounge. “Or good men,
full stop? Because that seems hard to believe.”
that she stood, with more speed and ease than he could manage. Had he said the
was giving you a clue with Meghan, in case. I thought you were excited about this
exhibition too but it’s not a date. I’m thirty-six. Plus I’m a lesbian, James.”
hoped his smile wasn’t awkward. “Cool.”
He could say he’d like to be friends while privately blaming Nick Gorski for passing her contact details over without as much as a hint. He could pretend he’d only wanted her to film something for the practice, and then say the other partners overruled. And he would very much like to advise everyone around them who had presumably heard her less-than-muted speech to focus on Captain Cook.
Chapter 11 will be posted on Friday 29th March at 5:30 UK time.
Gem’s wasn’t the only buggy and Skye
wasn’t the youngest member of the crowd. Parliament Square was colourful
already. Some of the home-made banners were arty; others were simple, their
messages penned or painted on cardboard cut from a box. She moved closer to the
lavender beds by the low wall, and the space where the PA indicated the
speakers would be.
A woman with a pile of cloth cuts was offering her a bright green rectangle printed with the Extinction Rebellion logo, complete with safety pin. She nodded towards Gem’s forehead, where she’d recreated the same symbol with an old kohl pencil she never used on her eyes anymore.
Gem smiled and attached the badge, which hung like a medieval favour from her jacket. The woman winked at Skye, crouched down and pinned a turquoise piece to her favourite red coat. Then she carried on working the crowd, while a couple of others sitting on the wall cut more cloth into sections.
A white-haired woman beside her asked Skye’s name and said her name was Gaynor. Chatting, they agreed the numbers were going to be impressive. A man weaving through gave them both a handout that said Declaration of Rebellion.
you seen this?” asked Gaynor. “I wept my way from beginning to end. I’ve been
waiting for this for twenty years.”
Gem hadn’t read it yet and couldn’t without her glasses, which she’d
left at home. “It looks inspiring,” she said.
“Talking of inspiring…”
Gaynor nodded towards a girl in plaits standing close to them with a
long-haired man who was obviously her father.
“Greta Thunberg!” Gem felt a frisson.
“I’m star-struck,” Gaynor admitted.
The girl, who was diminutive, looked serious. Gem had read that she’d travelled from Sweden without air miles. With her father she made way towards the ‘stage’, where a few faces Gem also recognised greeted her with enthusiasm.
“By next year there will be school strikes all over the world,” Gem told
Gaynor. Then she grinned wryly. “I’m not always so positive but I try to be,
“I have grandchildren,” said Gaynor. “So ditto. And it’s my generation that messed up.”
Gem found Skye’s cup. The sun was growing warm; she removed the woolly hat she’d pulled onto her daughter’s curls. Meanwhile Gaynor had been greeted by a group her age; much embracing began. Gem pushed the buggy a little closer to what would be the action and found herself hailed by Enid, who’d stayed in London overnight but said a coach was on its way from Blackpool. Gem felt touched to be remembered.
“How’s Pru?” she asked. “She says she’s doing fine but I’m not sure
that’s exactly true.”
Enid agreed. “She’s home but she’ll need help now and you know how
independent she is. We miss her at the gate.”
Gem almost said she missed her too but it would sound implausible, soft.
As an outsider she didn’t like to make that kind of claim. Enid said hello to
Skye, made her smile and hurried away in search of someone from a past life.
When Gem had booked her day off a couple of the others in the office had said they’d do the same, but she hadn’t spotted them yet. Working for a charity like hers meant she didn’t need to have the kind of conversation she found hard to begin. Here she was among friends and that felt comfortable, even to someone who mostly liked to keep a distance. “I can’t do parties,” she’d told Rob. He didn’t notice the difference, being equally and quietly at ease with one person or forty. She envied him, but more than that she liked the way he didn’t change, or even modify. He had one voice, one vocabulary and one self for all contexts. It made him seem strong as well as true. And he didn’t override her like other guys she’d known, as if her feelings were silly, a weakness or flaw. He listened, and that helped her know herself.
There were lots of film cameras around. The closest to Gem, with a clear view of the speakers, was a sleek guy so tall that she had to move or see nothing. The woman with him had magenta hair and peace earrings: a style Gem would choose if she valued style, or had a hope of achieving it. There were plenty of police about; they’d been informed. Maybe they’d be calling for back-up now the crowd in the square was so dense. Civil disobedience was the plan but she didn’t know exactly what form that would take, or how long Skye would stay happy.
She crouched down and asked, “Do you want to climb to the mountain top?”
Skye was definitely up for that and reached her arms up high. Gem was unstrapping her and lifting her onto her shoulders when one of the faces she’d recognised took the microphone. He was eloquent and emotional. The mood he created was silent, and intensified. This was humanity’s darkest hour. He cited the loss of 60% of the world’s species in his lifetime. Gem had grown up fighting tears but this was different; they were necessary, appropriate. Around her she saw the same response on other faces and she felt a kind of awe.
Could Skye tell, up there? Did she feel the urgency as well as the mourning? She was quiet, her body still. What if no one could protect her?
Applauded and spent, the speaker made way for others and sat, body and soul overwhelmed, on the wall. There were politicians, Green and red; a TV presenter Gem had always liked for not being girlie; speakers from different cultures at imminent risk.
When she clapped, Skye clapped too, and wobbled. Then Greta was introduced to loud applause. She began, clear and direct. When she was eight she’d learned about climate change and couldn’t understand why adults weren’t talking about it all day every day on her TV, in school and all around her. Why the governments weren’t acting to ensure a future for people on earth. And the crowd echoed her sentences, clause by clause.
There was a point when Gem glimpsed Manda Craig, just long enough to be sure she hadn’t been spotted herself. Then someone squeezed through, past Gem, and by the time her view settled Manda had moved, or someone taller had shifted in front of her. Gem wondered why a kind of panic undermined things, important things she wanted to give herself to, and not just in the moment. She couldn’t lose focus; that would be personal turned petty. But she’d set the film aside and held no grudge. Manda loved Rob too.
Now Skye wanted to come down. Clipping her into the buggy, Gem passed her a sandwich that for a moment she didn’t take. Skye was occupied, making eye contact with another child, a couple of years older and free standing. He was running around his father’s legs, using them as a slalom course. Skye was enthralled and the boy was putting on a show but Gem didn’t want to miss a word of this speech. Some of the clauses were so long and complex that repetition by chorus was a challenge, but she needed to get them right.
The tall guy turned his camera a moment to capture the reaction of the
cheering crowd as Greta ended her speech. Gem saw his face – or part of it –
before he left her staring at his well-groomed hair. After three years and two
months, it was Nick Gorski.
Gem told herself he hadn’t seen her. It was about scale and panorama,
not individuals. He was at work. She was probably more forgettable than she
realised. Motherhood had rounded a few spikes deep down and sometimes she
thought it showed. What she needed was that Quaker space where peace and
“Come on,” she told Skye, who was draining her cup. “Let’s go to the station for a wee.”
Everyone was singing as they moved into the road between Parliament and the square like a slow wave on a shore:
“If you want to know where the power lies, turn and look into each
Manda looked again and again, from face to face. Eyes looked back,
reflecting the same spirit. Of sadness, yes, and a rebellion, but also love.
She felt exhilarated. Assuming Adam was at her shoulder, she was about to sit
down on the tarmac in front of the halted traffic when she lost him. Then, sitting
anyway while the chant continued, she found him again, and saw on his face
something other, something less. He wasn’t part of this, not really. The song
wasn’t inside him. He’d joined in the Declaration of Rebellion, with its
demands of the government, like a guy who’d ended up at Midnight Mass on
Christmas Eve, not knowing the form, the words or tunes but trapped by
embarrassment. Now with a yard’s distance she saw that he would rather not be
He sat down too, awkwardly, as if concerned about the cost of dry
cleaning his coat. The road was blocked by a thousand people, maybe two. She
looked up at the cocooned tower where Big Ben should be, at the men at work on
the scaffolding and the blue sky beyond them. Such a beautiful day.
Someone was talking to the female driver of the nearest vehicle. Then he
shouted, “There’s a new-born baby in the car.” Everyone stood and backed away
just long enough to let the baby’s mother drive through with a smile and a
wave, then filled the space again.
“Are you OK?” Manda asked Adam. For someone who wasn’t comfortable he was taking a lot of photos.
“Sure.” He straightened his coat underneath him. “What happens now?”
“More speeches? More singing?” she guessed. “More cake?”
It was the first time he’d refused her baking. But he couldn’t spoil
this. As Caroline Lucas arrived from the Commons, Manda stood to whoop. A young
Muslim woman sang a prayer in Arabic; a Catholic priest offered another. Every
time police officers warned, “You’re obstructing the highway. I’ll have to ask
you to move,” there was a chorus of “Shh.”
A haunting tune with the chorus, This
is an emergency, was delivered by a young woman who must sing
professionally, her voice clear, pure and strong. From time to time someone thanked
the police, invited them to join the rebellion and asked the crowd to show with
raised hands whether they wanted to stay in the road another half hour. Each
time Manda was part of the consensus to stay; Adam wasn’t.
She leaned in as if to rest her head
on his shoulder, but turned towards him.
“I’m sorry my friend,” she
sang, not very well, “I didn’t mean to
trouble you… But this is an emergency.” She grimaced at the way the tune
Adam nodded, his mouth in a firm line. “This is cloud cuckoo land.
Religious fervour meets political fantasy.”
“Our connection to the earth and all living things is spiritual – how
can it be anything else? And no one’s playing politics except the mob over the
She nodded towards the heavily policed building and remembered the time
she’d got in to lobby her MP, had to turn her T-shirt inside out because of the
slogan, and shuddered at the machine guns. That was before she spoke to him and
found no connection at all with that particular living thing.
“They won’t change because people sit in a road.”
“The demands have to be met or it’s over. So no point pussy footing
around at the edges. Only radical will do. This is just the start, Adam!”
He smiled. “I’d like to see you pussy foot.”
Manda rolled her eyes, rather like Libby did with her. “Why are you
here? Are you serious about anything except your GCSE targets?”
“I’m serious about you.”
“Then leave me to drink this in, OK?”
“We agreed to leave at two. You know I have work to do…”
“You go. I’ll call you later and tell you what you missed.”
She saw him consider before kissing her cheek; he was warm and damp. “Don’t be angry with me. I have some catching up to do, that’s all.”
She said she understood, and waved when he looked back and found her in
the crowd where she belonged.
“You’ve been shagging some guy! On
a Saturday morning!” Manda had no idea how Libby knew, until she remembered
the state of the bed after Libby had gone up to the bathroom. And his
toothbrush! “I’ll get used to it. To a new mother. But don’t shove my face in it. I
don’t do that to you.” She was defiant but reasonable, mother to child. And
guilty. And now she wondered what any of it was for.
But it hardly mattered. She was here, with or without him, and it was happening at last, because it had to, and the cops could arrest her whenever they liked because this was unstoppable.
Somehow Nick had found her, and just when she was leaving. After an unexpectedly long nap, Skye was awake and dismayed.
“I thought you were filming?”
“I have an assistant. She’s finishing off. There are lock-ons now.”
“The first arrests of the rebellion I guess.” Nick looked down at Skye,
who didn’t smile. “Who’s this? Introductions please.”
“Skye. She’s had enough. I need to take her home.”
Nick talked to Skye, and somehow made her grin. He straightened up. “Her
father isn’t here? Gem, is Rob…?”
“I don’t talk about her father, not to anyone. She’s not the only child in the country being raised by a single mum and we do all right.”
He held up a hand. “Sure. I can see that.”
“I didn’t mean to be…”
“Fierce?” He grinned. “You were defensive. It’s not my business. But
it’s a lovely surprise to see you here – where Rob would be.”
Gem heard a hymn, thin behind them. Gem thought about telling him she
was a Quaker now but held back. Rob would have understood what that meant but
Nick was always different, some way behind. She used to think what united them
was good humour. Not the imbalance between Rob’s passion and Nick’s willingness
to back him up, without details or certainty.
His humour did seem good, better than hers could be. As if he really was
happy to see her. But she couldn’t deal with him and his pretty face and
advert-worthy hair, his long legs and boy band boots. He looked too successful.
He was everything Rob would never have been.
“Let me buy you coffee. A treat for Skye. Don’t say no.”
“I get a break. Boss’s perks. Tanya can join us if she packs up.”
He was on his phone, messaging fast while Gem talked to Skye, sounding
out her tolerance, doubting her own. Except that part of her was curious. And
part of her was unsure how to feel. Three years. There were memories she’d
shelved under Do Not Access and here he was, all joie de vivre and zero
complications, no clue.
They walked past Gandhi at the back of the square. Pick of the crop, she thought, but kept silent.
“I know a coffee shop that’s close but unlikely to be heaving with other
“So that’s what you are?” she checked as he led the way across the road
and she rebuffed his offer to push the buggy.
“A rebel?” asked Nick. “Two star, one – if Rob was five.”
She supposed he thought his honesty was endearing. “This is your job,
“Not really. I do commercial stuff for money. The enlightened press will
be interested in this.”
Gem said she wasn’t aware of any enlightened press but supposed
everything was relative and the BBC had to be woken fast. He let it go. Or lost
it in the traffic.
“Bus!” she cried for Skye, and told him she loved them. “Not tubes, though. She scowls at the tunnel when the darkness starts to shake. And when they arrive and stop she looks at me as if to check they’re safe.” The adjective seemed so sad; she thought he felt its power.
He asked about her own work, and seemed to approve although it meant
nothing to him.
“With charities, small is good,” she told him. “Agile is the word,
although I hate that business talk.”
“I bet Skye’s pretty agile now? Climbing? Into everything? Past the
stage of putting everything in her mouth, though, right?”
Maybe her look asked how he knew. He said he had a nephew now, a little
younger than Skye, and talked animatedly: how affectionate he was, how funny.
If he’d been trying to prove how nice he
was he couldn’t have done a lot better. But she remembered that anyway.
“Gem,” he said at the funeral,
touching her bare arm and looking at her empty glass. “I’ll get you another. No one should have to do this sober.”
But she was, and she wanted to hold
on to the clarity. Nothing blurred or smooth. Nothing lost. Not now she was
clean and everything was fresh again, as grief should be – like air at the top
of a mountain, so rich and full-bodied it was hard to stand.
“Manda’s on the edge,” he
said, returning with a large glass. “And
James is being affable enough for two. Libby’s pissed and a bit hostile. I
don’t blame any of them. There’s no way to be right now.”
Gem didn’t argue. He sat next to her at the side of the dining room where the table held the remains of the buffet. Some guests had left. Most were in the lounge where photos of Rob filled one wall she needed to ignore however it compelled her. She didn’t have the right, the history. Whether she featured – a last minute extra – or not.
“We’re allowed to be gutted too,” he
said. “We’re eligible.” He said they
appeared in one photo each. “He loved
He’d loved Nick too but she hadn’t
said, because the words were no use. She couldn’t find a way to make them real.
Now, the focus was on walking the busy pavement. Gem had hated the way the air tasted since she’d seen the data: one of the most polluted cities in Europe and no progress made. They were past Westminster Abbey, where tourists gathered, queued, took photos, but it was Westminster Hall Nick pointed out on the right.
“Mum’s a Methodist. She bought me lunch in the café a while back. Dad’s
an atheist – been to church once since they met, for their wedding.”
The café was down in the basement. In the lift the sudden quiet felt
like pressure to speak. Not that Nick needed prompting. He was down on his
haunches again, amusing Skye by speaking for her hedgehog in a dialogue.
“Good hedgehog,” he said, tried to stroke him and yelped. Skye chortled.
Upright again as they exited into the café, he asked, “Did you see the
film before Manda pulled it?”
“I edited it but I didn’t interfere. She knew what she wanted. I
couldn’t really say no.”
Gem knew she must be frowning. She had no idea he was still in touch with Manda. And no was what she should have said herself, thee years back.
“Stoke Spike!” cried Skye.
“I’m sorry if it… upset you, Gem.”
“I’ve been trying to heal.”
“I know. I mean, of course you have.”
“You have to swear you won’t say a word to Manda about Skye – or me. I
mean it, Nick.”
“Sure, sure! You can trust me, swear to God.”
They’d reached the front of the queue now and he asked what they wanted.
“Stoke Spike!” cried Skye.
Nick stroked the toy and looked up at Gem. She stared at the counter, the menu, and then Nick. His bright, open face: a blank canvas.
“We need to get back, Nick, really. I’m sorry.” She began to turn the
buggy round. “Don’t try to persuade me.”
“All right…” He followed as she pushed a complaining Skye towards the door. Gem was angry now, with herself, for being weak all over again.
“Here’s my card,” he told her. Gem took it, tucked it into the back
pocket of her jeans. “You don’t have one?”
“Not on me.”
“You won’t give me your number?”
The lift arrived. The door opened. “I can’t. Sorry.”
As she pushed Skye into the lift she kept her eyes ahead, her body
stiffening inside at the thought of his body tall behind her. The door closed,
and she turned. He’d let her go. But she hadn’t wanted to feel like this.
“It’s all right, sweetie,” she said, stroking Skye’s hot hair. We’re going home.”
Manda had turned off her phone.
Switching on she found three messages from Adam.
You’re angry with me. I’m sorry
for whatever I did. Remember I’m new to all this. Give me a chance. X
Are we still on for Sunday at
the café? I’m worried I’ve blown it. I want to make it up to you. And come with
you next time and keep my reservations to myself. I didn’t mean to spoil
Speak to me, Manda. I can’t work
for worrying. X
It wasn’t his fault. He never
pretended more than interest. He was just a passenger, an observer, his phone
capturing things he didn’t feel. And she’d snatched at something convention
declared she needed when she should have been rebuilding with Libby instead.
It’s me who should be sorry, she
told him. I’ll explain on Sunday. See you
She left a recorded message inviting
Libby to supper on Sunday. Six o’clock, after she’d ended it with Adam. She’d
have to tell him face to face, kindly, with respect. And then somehow she must
prise Libby open. She’d ask James along too, for family counselling of a
streamlined kind, minus the middle woman.
“Don’t expect Dad to keep up,
Mum,” Rob told her once. “He does too
well out of capitalism to fancy the idea of change. Just keep telling the
truth. Everyone will have to face it one day soon. And he loves you. He pays
more attention than you think.”
Had she loved James then, as much as
Rob? Nowhere near, James would say.
There were truths she couldn’t tell because she couldn’t keep hold of them. But
they were trivial, arguable, flotsam. She spread on the kitchen table the
Declaration the crowd had read together in Parliament Square.
This is our darkest hour.
Humanity finds itself embroiled in an
event unprecedented in its history. One which, unless immediately addressed,
will catapult us further into the destruction of all we hold dear: this nation,
its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come.
She leaned on the table, her hands on her hair, her eyes filling until she wailed.
Chapter Eleven will be posted on Friday 22nd March at 5:30 UK time.
Eager to watch the release of the prisoners, Manda had barely arrived home from the café when the messaging began on Twitter. Adam had seen the footage from outside the prison and wanted to know how she felt, so she told him, You can imagine because he sounded like an emotionally illiterate on-the-spot reporter with no actual news.
I’m imagining YOU. But I’d rather
see you. Shall I take you out to dinner to celebrate? x
On a Wednesday night? I thought
you were too overworked to go out to play on a school night.
Good point. I could get to you for ten, if that’d be
worth staying up for. A late takeaway?
Manda frowned, and not just about the
unnecessary foil – or worse still, Styrofoam. There was a teenage side to him
that was only appealing when she wasn’t exhausted. And since they hadn’t had
sex yet, she couldn’t really tell him that was really what he wanted. Besides,
she wasn’t sure she did, not at this point, when there was so much about him
she didn’t know or understand.
Not tonight, Adam. It’s a nice
thought. I’ll see you on Saturday.
Twitter seemed to Manda a strange way to conduct a relationship if that was what they were in together. She suspected that when anyone on Facebook announced that they were in a relationship it meant they’d just had sex, whereas up to this point all she’d enjoyed with Adam – and she really had enjoyed it – was kissing. Snogs: increasingly long and adventurous ways to say goodbye when really they were bed kisses now. So when she mentioned her day off on Saturday, she couldn’t blame him for assuming he could stay over, but she held the invitation back, reserving the right to choose.
For now, she was going to make a salad, catch up with emails and then
read in bed at a ridiculously early hour. She might even allow herself a gin
and tonic in honour of the country’s most celebrated lorry surfers.
While she ate she tried to call Libby, impatiently cutting off the answerphone because she hated to hear her sound so upbeat, like a kids’ presenter, when she could be so morose face to face. The day they met, Adam had asked how close they were, mother and daughter, and she’d felt so sad all of a sudden. He’d read it at once. “I don’t want to talk about it now,” she said, afraid of what she might verbalise. Not that he could object to that because he said so little about people or feelings. But he kissed her cheek instead – the first kiss, which felt kind.
Libby was a mystery but she couldn’t give up. Shouldn’t Rob’s death have
brought them closer? Mightn’t James’s infidelity have created some kind of
solidarity, regardless of differences?
It was almost six o’clock now and she must catch the TV News in case they saw fit to report an item related to climate breakdown – even if they only ever called it change: neutral and to be expected. She was extracting some rocket from her teeth when her phone rang. Libby.
“Mum, sorry I’ve been quiet but work’s shit. I can’t stand it any
longer. Can I see you at the weekend? You said on a message a while back that you
had a day off coming, on a Saturday?”
Ah. Yes she did. “Um, yes. But don’t do anything reckless, darling…”
“Coming from you that’s like a joke, right? Ironic? I’m off out soon but
I’ll come round on Saturday, yeah? About two?”
Manda said that would be lovely. Libby wouldn’t stay long; she’d have
plans for Saturday night. Like Adam.
On Friday she called as she left the
café to let him know.
“Sorry to mess you around,” she added at the end.
“She messes you around.”
“Sorry?” Sometimes he spoke quietly on the phone, and there was a fair
bit of rush hour traffic on the high street but he sounded cross.
“I’m talking about your daughter, Manda.” He might be talking to a
student with behaviour issues. “We had a date. And you haven’t told her about
me, have you?”
“Not yet. Look, Adam, I can see it’s not a good time. If you still want
to see me and the eco-house you were so fascinated to investigate, come at four
– no, four thirty. If you’re too annoyed with me to come at all, then you’re
probably not much of a father.” She’d suspected that anyway, because he hardly
mentioned his grown-up kids.
She waited as she unlocked her bike. It was starting to rain but she
didn’t want to cut him off or she’d be the unreasonable one.
“I’m sorry. Ignore me. End of the week grumps. See you at four thirty
But he’d gone with no goodbye so she didn’t really feel forgiven. As she
straddled her bike the phone rang.
“Why don’t I come at ten, and then disappear by two – I know a nice café
where I can hang out and do some marking – but come back when you call with the
all clear?” He sounded chirpy again. “I’m sorry, Manda. I’ve been looking
forward to spending time with you.”
“Mm, me too,” she said, more upbeat than she felt but relieved all the
same. It was just the sex getting in the way. Maybe he’d been celibate for even
longer than her; she’d have to ask. “Sounds like a plan.”
Now that made two of them who hadn’t been themselves.
She didn’t sleep well, and then spent too long next morning cleaning the bathroom and changing her sheets before walking to the market to search for veg with no air miles AND no plastic. Arriving back at the house with a bulky backpack she’d be glad to discard, she saw a substantial figure in a long black coat looking the place over and peering around the side.
“I’m not selling,” she called.
Adam turned and held up both hands, smiling. “I’m a bit early. I hope
that’s all right?”
He kissed both her cheeks and she told him it was. “I hope you noticed
the solar panels are oriented south.”
Once inside, he asked for the tour while the coffee brewed, and took dozens of photos: the condensing boiler “and TVRs on all radiators, I’ll have you know”, the sunpipe that served the landing where she made him stand , and the mechanical ventilation with heat recovery “which is way more exciting than it sounds.”
She barred the bathroom door. “Even though it’s ultra low flush,” she told him, “no need to photograph the loo.”
She added the solid wall insulation and censored a remark she almost made about how sexy this stuff was. Adam wanted explanations more detailed than she could manage with conviction. In the kitchen he viewed the glass jars full of nuts, seeds, pulses and grains like an art work to be captured from different angles. She smiled as he made notes on his phone, and said she was glad he approved.
“You live it,” he said.
“With plenty of compromises. And thanks to James’s money. What I earn in Peace would pay for diddly squat.”
“It’s impressive. You’re impressive.”
“I’m trying, that’s all.” She smiled. “And Libby would second that.”
She poured coffee and they sat on the sofa, a small space between them. Manda felt suddenly awkward. This was such a strange way to spend a Saturday morning, the pace both slow and rushed. People did this with alcohol inside them, in darkness.
Adam reached down to sit his mug on the carpet and as he leaned to kiss
her she had to do the same.
“Is there any reason,” he asked, almost like a Victorian with a marriage
proposal, “we can’t go to bed now?”
Manda was sure her mother would supply a few but if it was going to
happen, and the doubt seemed to be ebbing away now, then it might be easier…
The second kiss was deeper. Perhaps she should feel something else,
besides the panic that kept the elation at bay. Perhaps her body, cooperative
as it felt, should know better than this, because what was there to wait for?
Who? And maybe when it began, she would need it – in practice as well as theory.
Because she didn’t want to pretend.
“Let’s,” she said, and as he followed her upstairs she couldn’t quite
imagine his face.
She’d already determined not to apologise for her body, since she didn’t
suppose it would occur to him to do the same. Trying to banish memories of
James declaring love well before he saw her naked, she hurried under the duvet
before Adam Browne could lie. It was good to feel skin against hers. He was
warm, and he’d washed his hair for her, which was touching. Like the way he
found her so much more interesting than she felt.
“I want to know everything about you,” he murmured. “Afterwards.”
Not as much, she thought, as she wanted to know who he was. They kissed,
and touched, and quickly, quickly, he was heavy on top of her, big inside her.
So she let go and when she came, a moment after him, her smile overwhelmed her.
The last time she’d felt this was the evening Rob died, all those miles
away. James had wanted it unexpectedly, for the first time in weeks, and she
had been worried that it wasn’t love anymore – and he’d known, accused her of going through the motions. And Rob
crashed the car while she lay there wishing one of them was a different person,
There were things Adam wouldn’t want to hear, not now.
They laughed, disbelieving, at the
two hours that had passed before they returned to the kitchen and she found him
a knife to prepare salad.
“So you don’t actually know the people behind this Extinction
Rebellion?” He’d known about the rally in Parliament Square at the end of the
month; it was already in her diary.
“I know them to identify in a line up. They’re not my friends. And there
won’t be any leaders.”
He seemed doubtful about that. “And civil disobedience is built in? What
will that mean?”
Manda smiled. “I don’t know yet. But it will be non-violent.”
“To start with.”
She turned, shaking her head. “How can it be anything but peaceful? This
will be a movement of people who want a better world. And if it takes off, it
could be global by next year, massive. I’m trying not to get too excited…”
“You succeeded upstairs.”
His smile was a little too late and she hoped she didn’t sound wounded. “You like me for being authentic.”
“I do,” he protested. “And I don’t blame you. I worked until two a.m. to
get things out of the way. So I’m not at my best – in any department. And
you’re quite obviously way too good for me.” He put his arms around her. “I’ll
come with you to this declaration of rebellion. It’s Half Term.”
Pulling away, she said, “Great.”
“Rob would have been there.”
“But you won’t get Libby along?”
Manda shook her head. “Not even for Hollywood royalty.”
“I’d like to meet your Libby.”
“Brave man,” said Manda, and reached for the pasta as the water began to
Part 10 will be posted on Friday 15th March at 5:30 UK time.
Here is an article about this project: https://ecohustler.com/2019/02/16/writing-for-life-try-serialised-ecolit-for-yourself/
Pru was writing her third letter to the lads in jail. The Frack Free Three they called them, and she’d ordered her Free the Three T-shirt, which she’d wear with pride and outrage. Not that it was T-shirt weather anymore but she could layer up underneath and as winter drew in, they’d all have to. One of the men claimed to have worn seven up at the gates of hell but she wasn’t planning to beat that or she’d be too solid to jiggle when her leg allowed.
The letters had to be A5 for some reason and she supposed the lads wouldn’t
be the first to read them, in case she was sending details of the escape plan. She’d
emailed the details to people who’d be writing too – like young Gem in London
and Manda who lived somewhere expensive where they had vegan cafés. Chance
would be a fine thing in Lancs.
To the victims of a miscarriage of justice! She underlined her heading. I am no less angry as the days go by. You have a right to be angry too but I know you’ll be model prisoners, the three of you. You’ll be making the best of it. I hope knowing you did the right thing gives you peace. We’re all so proud of you. The crime is fracking and by jailing you so unjustly they’ve made a good few protestors out of people reading the news and crying, “What!” but it can’t be any fun and I’m sure you miss your loved ones like they miss you. What you did was brave and it inspired people. You’re still inspiring us now and they’ve got another think coming if they think we’ll give up now. Lots of love, Pru. (One of the old girls at PNR) x
She hoped that was legible because her handwriting wasn’t as neat as it used to be now her hand didn’t hold the pen as still as it should. They’d be getting hundreds of letters and quite right too. That was more than conscientious objectors like her Uncle Jim ever had in the war, unless you counted hate mail through his letterbox and the odd bit of saliva aimed his way in the street. Pru remembered growing up with him as her favourite, and a kind of stand-in dad after hers died of T.B. And how in the family people were proud of him – same as Uncle Ted who was in the Navy, same respect. There was a difference, though, because the Navy fired torpedoes and guns and Uncle Jim wouldn’t use a weapon against anyone, so she thought the biggest hero was him.
She’d like to think the young had learned from all the wars the West tangled with, and all the mess that followed. Gem was light years ahead of the mum she’d been at that age. The young joined everything up and it was heartening.
Pru didn’t dare dwell on the appeal against the sentence that had put
the lads behind bars when they should be on that spare plinth in Trafalgar
Square. There was always hope and she didn’t let it go but at the same time it
was a mistake to focus too hard on miracles or the law. She hadn’t believed
they’d actually start drilling but they said that would begin tomorrow in spite
of everything – the crowds, the celebs and the injunction on top of the
And she’d be there for the darkest day because they had to face that
together. No other way.
Looking around the living room with all its clutter – years of the Ecologist, books she started but didn’t always find time to finish, and letters she might as well keep now as a record of who she was and cared for – she supposed she should do some sorting, find some surfaces, neaten things up a bit and shake a duster round the place. That’d please Ed, who was always saying, “Isn’t it getting a bit much for you to manage?” when she could keep it spick and span if she wanted to. If she thought that was the best use of the time she had left.
She’d just finished her third letter when a message popped up on her new
ethical phone – from Gem, with a photo of Skye. Pru chuckled at the child’s
plaits, which stuck out at angles and were no tidier than her old writing desk.
What a hopeless mother! Does she look like a naughty girl in a
Pru’s fingers were a bit slow and stiff for messaging but it was quite
Cute as ninepence I’d say. I had
bendy ones too when I was a girl. Ma called them my pipe cleaners. X She
knew how to add a green heart; Gem had taught her all the tricks.
Are they really going to start
Until the first earthquake. I
give them two days.
I’ll write to the prison
tonight. Are you allowed to send in your ginger cake?
With a breakout kit baked
inside? A file for the bars and a rope to swing over the walls? Haha.
Gem told her to enjoy her day off because she had to have one now and
then. So she put a cassette on, of Vaughan Williams and his lark, which would
do nicely for her funeral. Good job she never switched to CDs in spite of Ed’s
remarks because they were all piled up on landfill now. It was funny that Gem
and Mia and the other young ones received her just as she was when her own
family wanted to update her relentlessly, every birthday and Christmas. The
latest this and handiest that. And it all became old hat in five minutes,
Gem could probably write her biography after all the chatting they’d done that summer but the lass kept her own story to herself. No mention of Skye’s father so Pru didn’t ask. She had resolved a while ago not to use her old age as an excuse for sticking her nose in where it wasn’t required.
While the lark ascended she found a
duster she hadn’t meant to bury, and started with the photos. In the black and
white wedding one she appeared to be laughing her head off at something Tom
said and she wish she could track it down, whatever it was, and laugh again,
because that would help her to bring back the sound of his laugh, which she
couldn’t hear anymore, not properly. Her mother didn’t think it was decent or
something; brides were meant to be demure. But the picture was her favourite.
It made her happy. And so had Tom, mostly. There had been moments when they scraped
against each other, but that was life. When young Mia brought her girlfriend
along, she couldn’t help wondering whether, on account of them both being
school teachers with nice manners, their garden would be all roses without the
thorns. Because for all her spirit as Tom called it, what he shared with her
wasn’t equality. These days young women like Gem expected that, and quite right
too. And thanks to social media they knew more about the world than she ever
had, which made living hard but at least they knew exactly what had to change.
She was still holding the photograph, lingering over it as if she’d
never seen it before. The truth was she didn’t really remember Tom at
twenty-two, with those boy’s cheeks that thinned and dropped in the end. Not
the way she remembered his hand on his stick: the shape of his fingers, his
nails cut straight across, the raised veins and brown spots, the yellow and
purple and thin white. Or the hang of his trousers, loose over the backside
that used to be so soft and firm she didn’t suppose a baby’s could be… what? More
“Tom, love,” she said, “I can’t recall much but I haven’t forgotten your
bum!” Not that she’d seen it before the wedding night. In the old days she
stuck to the rules!
She hadn’t talked to him for a long time – as if she’d decided he was
best off not knowing what was going on in the world, and up the road. “Still
miss you,” she told him, so quietly she didn’t hear it herself.
“Is it teatime?” he used to
ask on a Sunday afternoon, any time after half- three, however many roast
potatoes he’d eaten for lunch. She’d make him wait but now she didn’t put much
store by the kind of time the clock showed.
Her leg was being a nuisance today but it wouldn’t stop her swinging her
way into the kitchen to put the kettle on.
Three days later, she felt like the
most popular person on the ward. Everyone rang in case she hadn’t heard, but
Gem was first.
“Hey Pru, are you outside the prison? You must be so excited!”
She didn’t like to spoil things so she just said, “No, I couldn’t make
it. Are they out?”
“Any time now. I’m keeping an eye on Twitter. No one minds at work –
they all want to see. I can’t believe it – justice for a change! I feel like
standing up and telling everyone on the bus.”
“Wonderful!” said Pru, and she thought she might cry. “I shall imagine
you and Skye doing a freedom dance when you get home.”
Someone rattled in on a trolley and the loudest, breeziest nurse seemed
to be trying to make the place sound like a holiday camp. Pru preferred the shy
young Romanian who put a hand to his heart when he showed her his kids.
“Where are you?”
“Oh, in hospital. I had a silly fall on Sunday and they kept me in
because I live alone.” No point in mentioning the heart that wasn’t behaving
itself. “I’ll be home soon, like the Frack Free Three.” She heard in the
silence that Gem was worrying now. “We needed good news here.”
Gem knew what she meant.
“If the tremors get bigger, they’ll have to stop, won’t they? For good?”
“Or a quake can damage the well and then all those toxic substances they
use down there can leak into the water supply.” Pru had raised her voice in
case anyone needed educating.
“Don’t! How is this even legal?”
Pru heard Skye needing Mummy. “You go, love. I’ll let you know when I’m
freed like the lads!”
“I’ll call you tomorrow, Pru.”
She said there was no need. Soon Enid called, elated, and told her to
make sure she saw the six o’clock news. She promised not to miss it. And her
T-shirt hadn’t even arrived yet. She couldn’t waste it so she’d have to get a
fabric pen and edit the slogan from a demand to a cry of triumph.
It was lovely to think of families reunited. She felt a bit weepy, and tired. It didn’t suit her being out of action and if they didn’t discharge her tomorrow she’d vote out with her feet.
Part Nine will be posted on Friday 8th March at 5:30 UK time.