For Life: a novella in progress 11

Eleven: November 2018

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 to Rob.

   “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.”

   Tanya 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?”

   “The 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 here.”

   “I’m more worried about the future than the past,” Tanya said.

   James had read that the two hundred works, small and huge, illustrated five hundred years of history. “But what a past!” he cried.

   There 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.

   “Am I 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.

   “I thought this was your area?”

   Had he given that impression? “Well, not really, but it’s good to learn.”

   “I don’t know much about anything,” she said. “But my great grandmother was Tahitian, and ended up in California.”

   James 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.

   “I’d 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?”

   “It’s your heritage.” He imagined going with her to Tahiti. “I think you’re entitled…”

   “Yeah, but entitlement, you know? Isn’t that the cause of the trouble we’re in?”

   They moved into the next room, where some of the god images were tall and pretty ferocious.

   “I like this one,” said Tanya.

   The 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.”

   She 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.”

   James 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?”

   Since 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?

   “I 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 gorgeous too.”

   James 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.

   “Have 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.”

   At that she stood, with more speed and ease than he could manage. Had he said the wrong thing?

   “I 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.”

   He 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.

For Life: a novella in progress 10

Ten: October 31st 2018

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.

   “Like it!”

   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.

   “Have 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, for Skye.”

   “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 stillness held. 

   “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 other’s eyes.”

   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 here.

   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 had derailed.

   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 road!”    

   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.”

   “I heard.”

   “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.”

   “You’re working…”

   “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 rebels.”

   “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, filming protests?”

   “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 you.”

   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?”

   Gem nodded.

   “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 anything. X

   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 then. X

   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.

For Life: a novella in progress 9

Nine: mid-October

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 tomorrow.”

   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, maybe both.

   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.”

   “Oh yes.”

   “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 boil.

Part 10 will be posted on Friday 15th March at 5:30 UK time.

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For life: a novella in progress 8

Eight: October 2018

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 evidence.

   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 cartoon? x

   Pru’s fingers were a bit slow and stiff for messaging but it was quite fun.

   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 this week?

   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, obsolete, waste.

   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 charming.  

   “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.

For Life: a novella in progress 7

Seven: September

England had cooled and paled in her absence and no longer felt Mediterranean. Libby knew her own colour would soon drain too but for the moment the white dress made her look the kind of bronze she’d paid for on a sunbed in the past. Bee, who’d slept through most of the flight with a few murmured moans, was hungover and grumpy, but then she was back to work at the bar in a few hours. As they waited for their luggage, she muttered that she was desperate for a cigarette and would sneak one in the loo if her violet case didn’t appear on the conveyor belt soon.

   Like Lanzarote itself, Bee had been a lot less fun than Libby expected. When she’d told her she wouldn’t be repeating the experience, Bee had called her jealous, which provoked Libby into telling her that your average Cabinet minister was sexier than the guy she’d been shagging all fortnight. So Bee called her frigid.

   When Libby’s yellow suitcase bumped its way onto the conveyor belt she strode off to intercept it while Bee was occupied with her phone, and then carried on walking towards Customs. She wondered what her friend would do if she jumped into her dad’s saloon and told him to step on it like the getaway driver at a heist. On reflection she shouldn’t have abandoned him to a laptop that announced GRIEVING MUM DELETES VIRAL TRIBUTE TO ACTIVIST SON – even though it was a massive exaggeration. She could have got drunk with him instead, without lads in football shirts trying to grab her breasts to the sound of Ariana Grande. But three weeks later no one cared anymore. The only activists anyone talked about were the guys they called the Frack Free Four, who were apparently up in court soon: a date in her mother’s diary.

   She heard Bee running behind her, dragging her case behind until she caught her, swore and drew the glares of an elderly couple. Libby saw their point. But at the pick-up spot where James was waiting, he seemed relaxed and genial.

   “How was the holiday?”

   Libby had never felt lonelier but there was no one to tell. “Ask Bee.”

   “Great thanks, James. Sun, sea and sangria.” Bee was a nice girl now. She’d even got rid of her gum. Libby resented everything she said and did, the way she looked, her friendly smile.

   “You didn’t go near the sea.”

   “Not with you!” Bee winked at James but to give him credit, he either missed or ignored it.

   “How have you been, Dad?”

   “Oh, same old same old.”

   She hoped his sciatica hadn’t been giving him what he called gyp but he didn’t like to talk about it, preferring to keep the negatives to himself – for which Libby was grateful. She supposed there were loads of those at her parents’ age.

   “No more drama?” she asked with a wry smile. She wouldn’t have been surprised if Manda had posted an anniversary film that started with wedding pics and ended with Rob’s biodegradable pod being lowered into the ground. The music could be one of the rock choir hits James used to sing alongside his bit on the side.

   “None at all,” said James, eyes ahead as she fastened her seatbelt.

James could see the girls had fallen out again and opted for some classic BonJovi. As he drove away, Bee took a call that seemed to be from a boyfriend. He grinned at the fake Geordie accent she was using to tease him.

   “Don’t ask,” muttered Libby. “So have you seen Nick Gorski again?”

   “No.” He smiled. “Would you like to see him yourself?” he risked and gathered from her raised eyebrows that the answer was not as much as he’d like to see Tanya. He hadn’t been able to say, when the counsellor asked, what was so hard about calling Nick’s business number and asking for hers.

   “Dad, I’m not in the mood.” Pulling down the mirror, she noticed how tense she looked. “How’s Mum? Still at large?”

   “Oh, busy at the café I guess. They open on Sundays now.” He’d sent her flowers for their anniversary and she’d been touched; he could hear it in her voice. He wanted her to know things were all right, even if he’d never fully understand. He liked to think they were friends, or would be. “No Arms Fair this year so less chance of her calling from a police station to be rescued.”

  Libby said Manda’s singing was a crime whether she was sitting in the road or her bath. Her impression of her mother chanting Give Peace a Chance made him smile.

   “So, nothing you want to tell me?” he asked quietly, aware there was nothing he wanted to tell her. About one counselling session with a large, nervy woman in fringes that wouldn’t be followed by a second. Erotic dreams of Tanya interrupted by one of Manda. How he’d bunked off work one day to stand in the woodland where they buried Rob, and cried hard enough to scare himself into silence.

   In the back, Bee let loose a laugh he’d call extravagant. Libby began a lacklustre account of poolside novels and cocktails. It seemed the geology of the island had passed her by. There were times when James suspected Manda was right about flying. In fact he’d been considering a break in the Lake District or Cotswolds this autumn. Given how much fun Libby hadn’t had with booze by a pool, maybe she should do the same. But he’d let Manda be the one to suggest it.

   Maybe she was chilling out because the foot on the end of her crossed leg swung to the music. Behind them Bee lowered her voice as if she was saying something dirty but he couldn’t catch it.

   “Hi, Tanya. It’s James Craig.” Would she remember? “I was wondering whether you’d like to meet up for dinner/a show/ an exhibition.” He’d check the listings and make the call.

The Quaker women seemed disappointed that Skye was asleep in the buggy when she arrived at the Meeting House.

   “Gem! So glad you came back,” whispered the one who greeted her with a handshake, her eyes bright. She was elderly but looked pleased with her memory – which Gem couldn’t match. “You didn’t need to leave.” She looked down at Skye and smiled. “Bless her. Don’t worry at all if she wakes up and chatters. Just do what you need to do.”

   Gem thanked her and wheeled the buggy in, parking it behind the two concentric circles of dark red chairs. They were the only colour in the muted grey and white room. People who knew her ten years back would be shocked to see her in The Religious Society of Friends but she liked it last time – the welcome, the silence, the space to be herself without beliefs to sign up to.

   She left Skye sleeping and sat down in the larger circle within reach of the buggy. Already a dozen people sat still and quiet. Looking up at the arch-shaped window, she liked the way the view was different in every pane as it framed a gnarled old tree with young leaves. The blue of the sky was pale today but the light behind it felt strong.

   Some eyes were open, other closed; most hands rested on laps. A couple of people read from a fat red book called Faith and Practice but Gem just wanted to wait. To connect with something bigger than the days that came and went – something more hopeful than the world. Just for a while to feel whole. Or acceptably broken.

     A middle-aged woman in jeans and a plaid shirt rose, hands clasped in front of her. Gem wasn’t sure whether she was meant to look at her or keep her eyes down. The woman read about diversity and not judging others, about forgiveness and understanding. Gem repeated the last sentence in her head: “Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.”

    God was a strange idea Gem had never understood, but the trees changed everything. Along with sunsets and rainbows and clouds, they came from a place that was mysterious and wild but pure. And so had Skye. The luminous numinous, Rob called it. People met it here; you could see that. Without fuss. And she’d met too many Quakers at protests not to give it a try.

   The silence knitted back the moment the woman sat down. Gem thought most people never experienced its softness. A kind of expanse, full of promise. She didn’t know whether she was meant to think or clear everything so truth could break in, or even whether the people around her were praying or meditating. But it felt safe. Looking at Skye, who hadn’t moved – not even to close the mouth that hung just slightly open – she was glad she’d come.

   She didn’t need magic. She didn’t even need to stop missing Rob because love and sadness were the same under the skin. And she wasn’t sure whatever she needed had a name.

Farah told Manda to stop watching the door; it was early yet. Manda had shown her Adam Browne’s picture, warning her – and herself – that he might be using one a decade old for his profile. A glance at her watch suggested that Libby would be home from the airport by now but unlikely to call until the café closed at four – by which time this blind date she’d helped to engineer would be over. A safe bit of recklessness given the public setting and Farah’s new Mother Hen routine, but still… it felt out of character, frivolous. A diversion.

   The place would need to fill up quickly or Farah would rethink Sunday opening. Manda turned to see two very middle-class women who might be Anglicans straight out of a service; they chose the corner table with a street view and looked around at the décor as if it was all rather a change from the church hall. The family that followed was led by a boy who informed everyone in the café that he wanted a Mocha with cream and marshmallows, and wasn’t happy when his pony-tailed father had a few quiet words about veganism.

   Manda was making discreet what a brat eye contact with Farah when a bearded man pushed the door open and looked straight at her. Adam Browne was rather fuller in the figure than she’d imagined and his beard had more grey but his smile was the same. He recognised her too, and raised a hand. Now none of this seemed the reckless anymore, not in the least.

   “Do you want to serve this gentleman?” Farah suggested.

   “Hi, Adam. I’m Manda. And I’ve just realised you’re my anagram.”

   “I know.” He smiled. “It’s great to meet you at last. I’ll start with a black coffee if I may.” He chose a table facing the counter and took off his linen jacket, which was crumpled. That seemed endearing until she realised there was no other way for a linen jacket to be.

   While she served the church women, who said they’d live dangerously with almond milk in their coffees, she felt watched. But when she turned he seemed absorbed in his phone.

   “Excuse me,” said one of the women, “but are you vegan yourself?”

   “Yes. For a few years now.”

   “Why is that? Is it an animal rights issue?”

   “Well yes, they have the right to live, same as us.” She knew he’d be able to hear. “But even if I approved of slaughterhouses and factory farming” – which would make her a psychopath, in fact – “I’d still be a vegan. It’s better…” She hated that lame phrase the environment. “It would cut greenhouse gas emissions dramatically” – she never remembered figures – “if everyone ate less meat and dairy.”

   They were making ah faces as if this was new to them.

   “It’s one of the ways I’ve reduced my carbon footprint,” continued Manda. “And I recommend it.” They looked a little awkward now; for all her edits she was being evangelical again and Farah would shake her head.

   “Thank you, dear,” the older one said. Pulling the plug.

   Manda stopped at Adam’s table. He looked up from his phone and smiled. “I’ll never eat a hog roast again.”

   “I should hope not.” He’d said he was veggie but ate too much junk food she she’d boasted about their menu.

   “Can you sit with me a few minutes or do I really have to wait until your lunchbreak?”

   She looked back at Farah who nodded. Manda sat, smoothed her apron and felt slightly shy. Which was odd given that on the phone she’d already told him things Libby didn’t know.

   “You’re a long way from home,” she said.

   “Only twenty-odd miles. It’s good to get away on a Sunday – from the pile of books to mark.” He showed her with his hand how tall that was.

   “I suspect you of exaggeration.”

   “You don’t know many teachers.”

   Flirting now. Manda didn’t think she’d ever been any good at this, but after the best part of thirty years she really didn’t remember. She told him Geography was her worst subject.

   “You liked Art and English best.”

   “Am I that transparent?!”

   “No, you told me, in your second PM on Twitter.”

   “And you said you didn’t like Shakespeare. I nearly blocked you on the spot.”

   She turned towards the door as a couple walked in, along with teenage Ahmed who arrived for his lunch shift with headphones in. “I’d better go. Sorry.”

   “I’ll watch you work.”

   “You’ll get back to your phone.”

   He picked it up, the other hand making a fair cop gesture. And then, did he take a photo – of her?

  She hoped not.

The next chapter will be posted on Friday 1st March at 5:30 UK time.

For published titles with green themes explore Books on this website – for children, teens and adults – and see THE BIGGEST SPLASH, a pay-as-you-feel download.

For Life: a novella in progress 6

Six: Manda

Chocolate biscuits, sponge puddings in custard and steak and kidney pies couldn’t stop Manda’s mother wilting into six petite stones, but she was well presented, and always looked at Manda on arrival as if she let the side down. It was one of her phrases, most of which could be categorised under The Importance of Being Respectable.

Manda had felt cooler on her bike but now she wiped sweat from her top lip and forehead. Her mother wouldn’t like a damp kiss. To Manda, her small room, overheated in winter, felt stifling – but then she had a bit more flesh on her bones.

   “Hi, Mum.” She bent down and kissed her cheek. Her mother winced from the touch of her hair, as if it was the Brillo pad her dad used to call it. “It’s Manda,” she added, just in case.

   “Amanda,” said Evelyn. “Always in a rush.”

   “Cycling isn’t rushing, it’s leisure. Shall I open a window?” Stuffy would have been a euphemism for the atmosphere. She feared she needed changing, and told herself she could do that if she had to, roles reversed.

   Evelyn frowned. “No dear, don’t.” She shivered convincingly.

   Manda pulled her aluminium water bottle out of her backpack and drank. She felt watched.

   “They do tea and biscuits here, you know.”

   “Mm. I know you love your tea. How are things?” she asked her mother, not sure what things there were to evaluate, apart from tea, TV and colouring books. Evelyn didn’t like anything that involved joining in anymore and Manda knew she must feel self-conscious about the incontinence.

   “I lost all my things, the nice things. She probably sold them.” Manda didn’t ask who; she was the only suspect. “Can I go back to the house now?”

   “Not until you’re stronger, Mum. It’s nice here. Snug, you said.”

   “I did not! That’s a silly word. I have a perfectly good house – if she hasn’t sold it.”

   “This is comfy for now, though. You agreed it will do nicely. The people are kind.” Manda admired them; their pay was a scandal. No wonder they didn’t stay long.

   Her mother’s skin was thin on her face, her cheekbones too pronounced and her eyes always watery. The staff said she ate well, so what was consuming her? Something powerful inside. Was it just entropy, or a loss more emotional than physics?

   “Has Libby called you?” she checked, because she’d promised under duress.

   Evelyn squinted at her. “Who?”

   “Libby. Elizabeth. My daughter. Your granddaughter.” Manda had a photo in her purse; with a struggle she pulled it out from behind her library card and CND membership. Then she realised it was too small, apologised and put it back.

   “Rob came.”


   “Rob came to see me. Such nice manners. Needs a haircut though.”

   Manda smiled. “His dad kept telling him that. I never understood why.”

   “Well you wouldn’t. Tell him to come again.”

   Manda had told her more than once: “Rob died, Mum,” but it broke her every time – sometimes for fifteen minutes of repeating what she wouldn’t believe, sometimes ten, five. Don’t contradict, the doctor said. Manda smiled and agreed to tell Rob his gran would like to see him. It was funny the way she mostly deleted Libby but asked for Rob, with stories of his visits and what he’d brought her, all of it edible but sweet.

   “Rob’s a good boy,” Evelyn said, with a fond smile, as if he was all hers. “But you should get his hair cut.”

   “Rob wouldn’t be Rob with a short back and sides, Mum.”

   “It’s a wonder the teachers don’t send him home. It’ll be because he’s their favourite. Top of the class again!”

   Manda thought that would amuse James. Rob was more intuitive than academic, more creative than Libby but less of an achiever. He’d scraped by. “Do you remember when his painting was displayed in the school reception for a whole three years?” That was until the Sixth Form, when Rob organised a protest against a recruitment visit by British Aerospace and returned to school next day to find his artwork replaced at last. “He can quit now and do his exams privately if he still wants to,” she told James, who was appalled by the idea that school and exams were just options. And Rob stayed on, with a peace badge pinned to the label of his blazer.

   Her mother was repeating the fake news of Rob’s visit. “Next time he comes he can get his hair cut here in the hotel. They’ve got a salon, you know. Why don’t you ask them to give you a shampoo and set to calm yours down?”

   Manda laughed. “They’d need a steamroller.”

   “It makes him look like a tree hugger.” Evelyn always smiled with pleasure when she used a phrase she considered up-to-date.

   “We should all hug more trees, Mum. People too.” On impulse she put her arms around her mother, shocked again by the absence of her. So little left. Manda wondered what she would say if she produced her phone and showed her the film.  She could hardly be more confused, but wouldn’t it make her happy to see “good boy” Rob? On the other hand, what would she make of his message, given that she always turned the subject of climate crisis round to a dirty man who’d frightened her as a child with his sandwich board warning that the end of the world was nigh? “And here we all are!” she’d ended the story last time, triumphant enough to make a small fist.

   One of the nicest carers appeared at the open door to say it was bath day, hair wash too.

   “Oh good,” said Manda. “You enjoy your bubbles. Have you still got that zero waste shampoo bar I gave you for your birthday?”

   Her mother had no idea what she was talking about, so she said she hoped it would turn up because the sea was clogged up with the stuff and until the government forced manufacturers to think again everyone had to use consumer power to force their hand. Then she smiled, kissed her mother’s cheek and said goodbye, promising to be back soon.

   Once outside in the car park, she breathed deeply and sat on a low wall to check Twitter. The stats. There was the film, at the top of her page, because just for a day or two she wasn’t going to share any injustice – or even any good news, should she find it – and below… retweets 346, likes 2K. Feeling like a child greeted by a crowd at a surprise party, she put a hand to her mouth and began to read the comments. Sorry for your loss and RIP Rob and You must be so proud and, her favourite so far, If only the world’s leaders had your son’s integrity and commitment to the future of humanity! Hugs.  Manda soon stopped Liking for the protection of her arthritic fingers. There were good people in the world who understood.

   The only shade the clinically tropical front garden could offer was courtesy of a tall yucca. Manda moved into it and watched the film again before retweeting with thanks for all the kind comments. She looked back at the longest and most accurate tweet and saw that its writer had just retweeted again, with the text: Don’t miss this inspiring and moving tribute. In his photo Adam Browne was wearing a denim jacket and embracing a large dog. His profile info said, Fifty-something optimistic greenie. Love and peace man. Manda smiled, and followed him.

   The newly shared film was attracting more retweets. She was checking how many when she saw: So long hippy dupe, climate change is fake news wake up leftie bitch and move on. your precious son was probly a pothead anyway and whats with the hair black blood in this #snowflake

   Feeling the colour deepen in her cheeks, Manda breathed slowly and looked at the guy’s page, expecting a Texan Trump supporter, fat with a rifle. But @TruthTells had a Union Jack as his profile picture, with a clenched fist overlaid. Clearly she was one of many targets for his rage, most of them female. It wasn’t personal. So why did it feel like that fist of his had struck her stomach?

   “Well yeah Mum, surprise surprise” she heard Libby say. Rob had warned her long ago; she just hadn’t considered the possibility…

   She blocked @TruthTells and saw that Adam Browne had followed her back. A glance at her watch told her that even though her Twitter troll would tell her to get a job she’d better pedal back to hers fast or she’d lose it.

At the vegan café where she’d made the tablecloths and painted the walls she found Farah with an unlikely crowd of customers for a Monday morning.

   “Hey! I told you not to come in today,” Farah told her as Manda put on her apron and tied back her hair in a wild pony tail.

   “Hey! I said try and stop me.” And in a few days’ time she’d work on the anniversary of Rob’s death too. It was necessary, however Farah argued.

   “As long as you don’t expect to be paid,” muttered Farah with a grin.

   “Pay? What’s that?”

   “No good asking me.”

   Farah winked, and moved over to a couple of guys taking a break from a building site with large slices of Manda’s plum cake. However exhausted she was and however little money she’d actually earned so far from Peace Café, she never looked less than serene. Farah was tiny and graceful. Beside her Manda felt a mess.

   “More tea for the lads,” Farah muttered as she joined her behind the counter. “Are you OK? Manda, your film – you had me sobbing.”

   Manda apologised and told her she was fine. In fact she felt unsettled – not so much by @TruthTells but by Libby, who hadn’t retweeted, by the thousands who had and by the gaping silence from James. By the cakes she’d baked that weren’t for her birthday boy. By the heat, which was unnatural and frightening, and the way the phrase climate change was passed over in the media as if it might require gardeners and farmers to modify their practice and wildlife to adapt as wildlife does.

   That was even before a regular customer who always chose chai tea and baklava looked up from her phone screen and reached a hand out towards Manda, who was behind her – to ask, “This is you, Manda? I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

   Soon after half past two she had her lunch break at a corner table where she found that @CallMePowell and @BrexitBoy had taken exception to the reference to Rob’s work in Bristol with a charity supporting refugees. And @libbyjcraig96 no longer had a Twitter account.

   Manda took a series of breaths that could have been deeper. Then she deleted the film, not just from Twitter but Facebook too. All right, over, she told herself. She imagined Rob’s hug. Then she saw a message notification. Adam Browne: Take no notice of the shits. Your Rob’s worth a thousand of them. I hope we meet at a demo. I’d like to talk over coffee sometime. Call me.”

   On another day she would have shown a come-on like that to Farah with a Yeah, right. Today she re-read it, left it sitting unanswered and called Libby’s answerphone, her voice low.

   “Hi, darling. Look, I’m sorry you feel the way you do about the film. I’ve pulled it so if you want to go back into the jungle, well… up to you. I seem to have upset some fascists and climate deniers so that’s a plus.” She paused. “Seriously, Lib. I should have made it for us, not social media. Nick asked after you, by the way – he helped me. Nick Gorski.” Libby had been smitten the first time Rob brought him home. Maybe her anger would be muted by his involvement. “I promise next September to let the day pass quietly. And 7th too.”   She wasn’t absolutely sure whether Libby would remember the date Rob died, or had buried it like kids who’d been abused. “In fact, let me cook you dinner on 7th. Love you.”

For Life: a novella in progress 5

Five: James

James clicked off his phone in the lift before he left the building. Why the hell would he want to see Rob looking alive on a flat screen when he’d never be 3D again? It was Manda’s own variation on fake news and she was spreading it all over. Maybe he should have checked how many followers she had these days. Maybe he should have told her the blindingly obvious truth that it wasn’t what Rob would have wanted, not being egotistical or maudlin either. It was her tribute, and she needed it more than he needed any three-day weekend, but she might be better off with a flotation tank, jewel therapy, or even an averagely unhealthy intake of booze.

   Remembering the tender concern on Jacquie’s face, he wondered whether she might have consented to sex, however pitying, if she’d been single – instead of a still-happily-married grandma. Not that he’d been lusting after her for the twelve years she’d worked for him – not often anyway – but he’d dreamed it rather vividly, which was disconcerting. Libby thought he should sign up to a dating agency, but he wouldn’t know how to start, not after three years of celibacy. He must progress beyond up-market dinners in foil containers.

   People talked about being stunned by grief. And when he thought of animals in abattoirs – which Manda had done a lot, before she went vegan like Rob – that was how it still felt, sometimes: knocked cold and out of it. Except that sometimes he was much too awake and everything was too bright and real and normal, as if it never happened.

   James was heading for the coffee shop in the mews opposite when he rerouted, picturing too many customers on their phones, and Omar who would probably put a kind arm around him before he’d even ordered. Omar, who’d only run that café for a year or so but was an online friend of Manda’s for reasons no one had explained. Instead he crossed the road to the small park where bees buzzed around the lavender. Apart from a couple of teenage lads spread out on the grass and smoking what might be weed, and a slow old man walking an ever slower dog, it was quiet. James made for the recently installed water fountain and drank like a schoolboy, wiping his jacket and shirt collar with his hand before he realised it would dry in seconds under the sun.

   A young mum walked past, pushing a buggy where a child wailed. “I know, hun, it’s too hot,” she muttered, her tone tight.

   For some reason he thought of wispy Gem, who cried so silently at the funeral that he almost didn’t see the tears. He took off his jacket and slung it over his shoulder like a model from a TV ad, Sixties-style. Already his head seemed to be soaking up the heat, leaving his hair damp at the edges. Not the day for a walk after all. Squinting ahead at a pub he could already hear, he imagined a pint of lager, spilling foamy and cold from a tankard. Rob’s drink, when he wasn’t downing kale smoothies. There were people sitting outside under sunshades; the salty scent of fried food raised his hopes of chips, thick ones. The place would be heaving but no one would know him. If he chose, he could watch that film of Manda’s unnoticed.

   Once inside, waiting to get close to the bar, he started to watch the clock. He had a big client in the diary for two thirty. Even though he was only half a mile or so from the office, he didn’t normally venture this far and felt oddly out of his orbit as he tried not to assess the earning potential of the other suits, some of them half his age. Then he saw Nick. Rob’s Nick, his best mate and co-owner of the car that Rob wrote off…

   “James? Mr Craig?” Nick rose from a table beside an open window and beckoned him over. He was holding a beer, but looked longer and leaner than ever. No suit, just jeans and a loose, cream linen shirt. Nick was a photographer, a creative. His hair length proved it.

   “What are you doing here?”

   “I’m on a job.” Nick checked the time on his phone. “Good to see you, but weird that it should be today – you know, after Manda’s film.”

   “I think everyone’s watched that but me.”

   Nick didn’t hide his surprise – or was that incomprehension? Recovering, he said he gave Manda a bit of technical support. James made an “Ah” noise, feeling like the one boy in the class who wasn’t invited to the party.

   “You can’t face it?” Nick asked, not so hearty now.

   James shook his head and without warning his mouth wobbled. Nick laid a hand on his shoulder.

   “I know,” he said. “I still can’t believe he’s gone.”

   Soon James was in the seat Nick insisted on vacating in spite of his resistance. Then Nick was taking drinks orders. The short, curvy woman now looking straight at James with disconcerting openness said, “Pineapple juice for me, thanks,” and added, “I’m Tanya.”

   “Tanya, this is James Craig, the architect. Rob’s dad.”

   Her “Ah” had a softer edge. “I work with Nick, on and off,” she added as Nick joined a queue. He noticed the black varnish on her nails and the perfect shape of her long fingers. Safer, he thought, to look at those than her distracting chest with its sunburned freckled cleavage. Her hair was a colour he might call magenta and he couldn’t estimate her age with any confidence. “I’m sorry you lost your son,” she said.

   He pulled a straight sort of smile and nodded repeatedly. “Thank you.”

   “Nick showed me the film and told me all about him. He was a cool guy. Nick says he’d never have sold out like him.”

   James couldn’t imagine what that meant but he had to agree. “Rob never had any money,” he said, remembering how grubby he used to feel, towards the end, on account of being well off.

   “You must have been proud of him,” Tanya said. “I mean… everyone’s so focused on all that, and status and spending. Sounds like your Rob knew what really matters.”

   “He got all that from his mother,” he told her, and realised he sounded sad. Tanya looked more interested than pitying, and her mouth was full and red. “Look…  the thing is…”

   “You don’t want to talk about it. I get that. So what’s your favourite movie?”

   He didn’t answer exactly, but by the time Nick came back with drinks, they’d discussed Kubrick, Kieslowski’s trilogy, the Coen brothers and her own great love, Mary Poppins. He was laughing at her Dick Van Dyke impression when Nick, noticing a free table outside, led the way to it.

   The wall of heat sapped his spirit just when it had been reviving. He needed to drink up and make a getaway from Nick but he’d be sorry to part from Tanya. And suddenly, as the two colleagues’ bodies brushed together in the act of sitting at the wooden picnic table, he imagined them as lovers. Hoping he wasn’t sweating too visibly but afraid to check his underarm for a dark patch on his best shirt, he squinted into the urban distance.

   “James, I did ask Manda…” began Nick.

   James doubted whether he wanted to hear the rest. Tanya’s sunglasses, produced from a bulging denim handbag, made her look… stylish, yes, but also complete.

   “But she hadn’t heard from Gem. I don’t suppose you…?”

   James hadn’t expected that. “I’m afraid Gem didn’t keep in touch with any of us. Libby had her phone number but they didn’t really hit it off. Sorry. Did you need…?”

   “Ah, no, it’s O.K.” Nick pushed back his hair. “How is Libby?”

   James mentioned the job but not the boredom, the social life but not the boyfriends, the smartness of the new flat but not the emptiness of the fridge. Not the unhappiness he had just realised she felt, or how sad that made him. Needing firmer ground, he explained about his four-day-week in the rundown to retirement, and trying to keep his heart fit.

   “Happiness is more important for health than going to the gym,” said Tanya. “Or diet. I read that but it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

   James felt read. “I guess it is.” But he hadn’t really felt its absence before. This was an unsettling day. He wasn’t even sure that Rob had been happy when he died, but he hoped so, and if it was true then that was down, at least in part, to Gem. As a family they should have been more grateful. They should have made sure she was… what, O.K.? But she barely spoke. She gave them nothing, so how could they tell?

   Nick and Tanya talked work and debated when they should leave. James watched a dog apparently sleeping in the shade under the neighbouring table while its tail wagged slowly. Would Manda have been happy, if he’d lived? Would their marriage have held? He doubted it. Manda would still be grieving, for humanity, the earth, the lost species. He couldn’t imagine where she found the energy.

   Nick took a call. Tanya mouthed that they should be heading off. They began the “Nice to meet you” routine and he thought about kissing one or both cheeks but instead she hugged him. Not a perfunctory hug but no gapping, like a good waltz, and for a few very warm, slightly damp seconds. James felt moved. Then Nick shook his hand, explaining that he was “probably too sweaty for that”, and gave him his business card. They walked away in step, talking and purposeful but relaxed too.

   James looked at the lager tepid now in his glass. He checked the business card. Nick Gorski was based in Highbury so the chances of their paths crossing again were remote, there was no mention of Tanya and no one had used her surname. He remembered how the hug had felt and hoped someone had offered Manda the same kind of gift today. Libby too.

   He turned on his phone and found the film on Twitter. Environmental groups were sharing it. There was an arrow he could click on to begin viewing but he didn’t. Not yet.

   Instead he called Libby, more than half-expecting her answerphone.

   “Dad, I was going to call you. I mean, what the actual… how could she?”

   “It’s her way of remembering. A tribute. And we were told…”

   “She knew how I felt but she did it anyway. I mean, he wasn’t Bowie! The world didn’t have to be invited in on it. He was ours. The loss was ours, right? A private thing. She has no self-control.”

   James sighed. “That’s unfair, Lib. She’s made it public because she wants his life to inspire people.” No response. “Libby?”

   “You always defend her these days.”

   I wouldn’t have to if you didn’t attack. “I just met Nick. He was her technical adviser.”

   Libby wanted to know what Nick was doing and he wished he had a clearer idea. He remembered she used to have a crush on him at one time. At any rate, she seemed to have cooled down.

   “Have a good afternoon, poppet,” he said, but she’d gone with a quick “Bye”. He was certain she was good at what she did, whatever exactly that was. Manda thought market research was a way of propping up capitalism and when he’d suggested it was better than pole dancing Manda wasn’t sure.

   “You weren’t an eco-warrior at twenty-two,” he’d pointed out. “No,” Manda agreed. “Sadly. Shamefully. But we know better now.” She wouldn’t accept that the majority of people still didn’t look beyond their day to day realities, even though Libby was one of them and she probably included him in the same category.

   It was heartening that Tanya admired Rob; everyone should. But did that mean she was an activist too? Because he wouldn’t want her to make him feel bad. In the early days with Manda the way he’d felt was attractive. Suave was what she’d called him, her own Roger Moore. She’d been a bit of a hippy herself, declaring a hatred of shoes, but a well brought-up grammar school girl with manners to pass with his parents. And a sense of humour that meant a laugh he called dirty although it was really just abandoned.

   He supposed the world gave her little to laugh at now. But there were concerts and exhibitions and some good dramas on TV, and he hoped Tanya might want to experience some of them with him. Maybe he was still attractive for his age, as long as hers wasn’t unacceptably different. And she didn’t prefer Nick.

   What was selling out, really, and had he been doing it all his life?

Chapter Six will be posted on Friday 15th February at 5:30 UK time.

For Life: a novella in progress 4

Four: Pru

Pru had overslept. That happened now, after all those decades of jumping out of bed and scuttling out of the house twenty minutes later. Two hours it had taken her this morning, to get to the bus stop. But she was on her way. The others knew she wouldn’t miss, not without saying. Or dying! She couldn’t go on for ever but she mustn’t pass before they’d seen off the frackers. After that she could die happy.

   If she saw that so-called police officer who’d grabbed her arm hard last week she’d demand an apology, better late than never. Maybe the film footage had made him reflect. Pru’s long cotton skirt felt cool around her ankles but the forecast was threatening thirty degrees by the afternoon. It was grand having all the youngsters around, though. She liked the excitement, the energy in the air.

   “You’re famous,” some of them said. They called her an internet sensation. Well at ninety she didn’t mind being humoured now and then.

   The sky through the dirty glass was a fierce blue already and the sheep must be longing for a haircut. There were people who wouldn’t wear wool because the shearing wasn’t natural and the animals could get hurt or distressed, but she’d only just investigated the ethics of honey after decades of assuming the bees didn’t mind, and she had some lovely jumpers that had kept her warm outside the gates last winter – too good to throw away, especially as she’d knitted most of them herself before her fingers and eyes got together to put a stop to that. She wished she’d known things long ago. It seemed unfair on the youngsters that they’d grown up with the truth nobody told people like her.

   “You have the carbon footprint of a mouse,” her son Ed said at Christmas. Relative to his, that was, but she kept her lip buttoned. He knew why she came to the site most days, why she switched her energy supplier, bought her veg from the local farm, hadn’t flown for twenty years, fuelled her activities with a plant-based diet.Ed signed petitions when she sent them to him, or said he did to keep her happy. He was dead against fracking because of the films she’d tagged him in, from the US and Australia, and he loved Lancashire: the fields and hills and old villages as well as the cricket. But could she get him to use the train? “Too expensive!” he objected, with a mortgage to pay. And his idea of a good meal started life with four legs, chewing the cud – just like the cows the bus was passing now, a group of them looking hot and bothered.

   Pru was a bit jealous of the women with daughters who came along at weekends now and then and took a turn at holding their mams’ placards. She couldn’t see Ed joining her there unless she dropped dead at the next bit of police manhandling and he came to identify the body.

   “You know your dad would approve,” she’d told him, but he reckoned he knew better, said Tom was always law-abiding. It made her laugh! “What kind of law says you can destroy the countryside, poison the water and rattle the earth – but you can’t put your body in the way to stop them?!” Never mind the methane – more than any number of those cows could make.

   Some of the husbands moaned and groaned but Tom wouldn’t have tried to stop her any more than he stopped her running the W.I. or singing Gilbert and Sullivan. Most of all he liked to see her dancing – in the house, just for him or for herself when she didn’t know he was watching. The best memories she had were of the Tower Ballroom with Tom and the only fancy dress she ever wore, with the red flounces just right for Latin.

   Enid climbed on at the next stop, waved and paid without having to say where she was going. She sat next to her, lurching into her with a laugh as the bus moved off.

   “Oy, steady on!” she protested to the driver on Enid’s behalf.

   “I nearly bunked off today,” said Enid, fanning her face with a hand. “But I didn’t want to miss the party.”

   “Too right,” said Pru.

   “My neighbour says we’re fighting a losing battle,” said Enid, wearily.

   “Then get your neighbour to come along and help us win,” said Pru.

   Enid told her she was going away to Scarborough with her sister next week and asked Pru whether she ever had holiday.

   “Not for years,” said Pru, thinking that it might be hard, anyway, even if Ed asked her to tag along, to abandon ship. In case that was when it sank.

   Time to press the red button. As they made their way down the road towards the site, arms and placards waved. It looked like quite a crowd for ten forty but then lots of them would have slept overnight at the farm.

   Pru heard her name. It was nice to be welcome. As the bus rolled on past the gates it honked. So did the van behind, and from the next car a bare arm held up a thumb.

   They’d only just arrived when Mia introduced Pru to a young woman who’d come alone and seemed shy. It was embarrassing being called a legend and having to say she just kept showing up. And she didn’t catch the name.

   “Gem,” the girl repeated. Not a girl really but fragile-looking. She was older than Mia, who taught at a primary school – in Manchester, if Pru remembered rightly. “It’s good to be here at last.”

   The music was loud today, its rhythm thudding fast, but Pru wasn’t going to complain about that. Gem looked all around her at the fence, with its banners tied on, its rainbow colours threaded through.

   “Is it what you expected?”

   “It’s bigger – the site, but the protest too. More creative, more fun.” She grimaced. “More police.”

   “Most of them are human,” Pru told her, “with notable exceptions. My arm’s got quite a bruise.” She showed her. “Excuse the batwings!”

   Gem winced. “The police should be serving the community, not proving free security for the frackers.”

   “You tell them!” said Pru, but this Gem didn’t seem the type to cope with conflict. She had the look of someone who’d been on the receiving end of trouble.

   “I hear you’re a great-nana?”

   That had to be repeated after the bus had gone past. Nearly all the traffic seemed to be honking its support today. It gave Pru heart in spite of everything.

   “I am. The youngest is eighteen months.”

   When Gem asked to see a picture, her eagerness told Pru she was a mother herself. They both smiled at “Skye with an e.”

   “That’s why you’re here.”

   Gem nodded and her smile wavered.

   “Has anyone offered you food? There’ll be vegan hot dogs in the shed. You look like you could do with some. And there’s always tea.” Pru glanced towards the urn and mugs.

   “I have water, thanks.”

   “Good thinking.” She looked through the fence at the site that used to be calm and green. “They’re getting ready. But for now we have the numbers to stop them.” She turned back to the young people dancing in spite of the heat. “I’m a bit creaky for lorry surfing myself.” She remembered the child, Skye with an e. “No need to get arrested though. No one will judge you here. We’re just glad when people come.”

   Someone took the microphone and the music was chopped. The speeches were going to start. Pru tapped the road with her stick. It was obvious Gem had a story she wasn’t going to tell anyone; she reminded Pru of herself before she met Tom: a bit awkward, prickly at times but soft as putty underneath. Straight in the old sense of the word.

   It was hot already.

James wasn’t the only partner who hadn’t quite adjusted to his four-day-week. It always made Mondays a little strange but this morning he’d received one apology for contacting him on Friday and another for not checking with him. In both cases he said, “No problem”, because he hadn’t worked out yet whether he objected to the office butting in on his day off or enjoyed being needed in spite of it. James felt lucky. Fifty-five might be old enough to apply for a house in the retirement village near the golf course, but it was young enough to keep a respectable handicap – and, in the case of Evan, a semi-retired solicitor he sometimes outclassed, a girlfriend under thirty.

   That lunchtime he probably wouldn’t have left the building, or eaten more than a bag of crisps, if it hadn’t been for Manda’s film, and Jacquie saying how touching it was to find it on Twitter and how impressed she was with Manda’s IT skills.

   James told his PA that he avoided the whole worldwide web as much as possible, outside the context of work.

   “Oh, you’ve not seen it? You should, James. Rob looks so full of life it’s hard to imagine… Three years!”

   Jacquie had worked with him for twelve years and was a few years closer to sixty. She was also quite possibly closer to Manda than him. He remembered how upset she’d seemed at the funeral. In fairness to Manda he explained that he’d been told about the film, censoring the word warned.

   “Just going out for lunch,” he added briskly. “I won’t be more than an hour but I might turn my phone off.” 

Chapter Five will be posted on Friday 8th February at 5:30pm UK time.

For Life: a novella in progress 3

Three: Gem

Gem had been meaning to get up to the site for ages, and moving to London made it a bit more viable. Manda Craig had been; she’d seen her in a video live from the gate. And if Rob were still alive he would probably have been lorry surfing to stop the drilling equipment making it through. She remembered him saying, in that low voice of his, that fracking would never happen because the people wouldn’t stand for it. But now they planned to start in the autumn. So it was more important than ever to go. And it would recharge her more than the package holiday everyone else seemed to take each summer.

   Looking at the blank-faced child who joined the train in a buggy at Swindon, she felt sorry to be leaving Skye – even though she was so excited about staying with Auntie Iz that it might have been Christmas. Skye’s face was never blank, even in sleep. Part of Gem was dreading three whole nights apart, even though she could call each day before bedtime. Part of her felt guiltily elated. But when she came back they’d have the best time: green, forest time and field time, with mud and trees, and birdsong to listen for.

   The young mother unstrapped the child and sat her opposite Gem. With her dark red lipstick, pumps and brand new halter-neck dress, the woman reminded her of Rob’s sister Libby, and was about the same age.  Gem had never had that reality show celebrity style, and her own loose T-shirt had looked better before the peg marks from the line and the iron that caught the wording with a smear. The child was fixing her with a stare that might have noticed both, but remained empty.

   “Sorry,” said her mother. “She’s at that curious age. Three and a half. Don’t stare, Ellie.”

   “Don’t worry,” said Gem. “Hello, Ellie. I’m Gem.”

   Without reacting, Ellie pulled a Barbie by the hair from a little pink satchel. The plastic blonde, who couldn’t have stood on the tiny feet shaped for stilettos without falling flat on her cute little nose, had a belt around her preposterous waist, and the child was pointing at it, eyeing her mother with a secret message.

   “Gem like Barbie’s,” explained her mum. The gem in question was pink and in the middle of the buckle. “That’s right.”

   “Yes, my parents named me after Barbie’s belt,” said Gem, but she was the only one who grinned. She grimaced. “Deviant sense of humour.”

   The mother, who introduced herself as Carly, produced a pink-framed tablet for Ellie. “Why don’t you play that game Barbie likes too?”

   Gem wondered whether that related to shopping or shopping.

   “Too hot, isn’t it?” said Carly.

   “It really is,” said Gem. “Climate change. It’s happening all over Europe.” She noticed Carly was suddenly more interested in the game Ellie held. “It’s a wake-up call.”

   Carly made no comment, remarking to Ellie instead about the pink pig on screen. 

   “I have a daughter too,” said Gem. “She’s staying with my sister. She’s nearly two now. Skye.” She has no devices, I never dress her in pink and Barbies are banned. 

   She showed Carly a recent photo on her phone, proud of the green dungarees and vegan boots from the charity shop, and Skye’s unruly hair. Proud of the butterfly she’d crouched down to watch.

   “Aw,” said Carly. She picked up her own phone while Gem looked back to her paperback copy of This Changes Everything, and wondered whether Carly would have heard of Naomi Klein. “You’ll miss her.”

   Gem told her where she was heading, adding that it was “Not much of a playground.” Carly looked as blank as Ellie now. “The fracking site, you know?”

   “Sorry, you lost me.”

   Gem had supposed there might be a few people in the UK who hadn’t heard of fracking but never expected to meet one. She explained, remembering Rob’s way of keeping it simple. He’d have done this nicely; she hoped she wasn’t patronising.

   “Right,” said Carly when she’d finished. It wasn’t an invitation for more.

   “I’m going to support the protestors,” Gem told her. “They’re incredible. They’ve been climbing on lorries, locking on to the gates, doing whatever they can to stop the equipment getting on site.”

   “I don’t agree with wasting police time getting arrested like that, trying to stop people doing their job.”

   “Really?” Gem didn’t hide her surprise. People were extraordinary. “Not to safeguard the future of kids like Ellie and Skye?”

   “I leave it to the government to know what’s best.”

   At that point Carly asked Ellie if she needed a wee, but Ellie didn’t seem to hear.

   “I can’t,” said Gem. “Because I’m afraid they don’t.”

   “I steer clear of politics anyway,” muttered Carly. “Come on, Ellie, I’ll take you to the toilet.”

   Ellie didn’t want to break off from her game but Carly put it in her bag, which she slipped over her shoulder. Then she followed Ellie, who held Barbie upside down by the hair as if it was her fault, and wobbled down the carriage. Gem realised they weren’t going to come back. Carly would find seats opposite a Daily Mail reader who wouldn’t bother them with the question marks over Ellie’s future on Planet Earth.

   Gem wished she knew how she could have done better. Smiled more, maybe, like Rob would have done, and made her tone gentler? But wasn’t it strange that people could be more alarmed by someone like her and the information the media never provided than by climate breakdown? It reminded her of Libby Craig, who was probably earning a fat salary by now and spending it on crap. It struck her that it would be funny if she bumped into Manda. For someone who shared her world view, and had loved him too, Rob’s mum was oddly distant, but Gem supposed that might be a good thing, in a way – might allow them both to mend faster.

   Gem had often wondered whether Libby spied on her Twitter activity but left no trace. She didn’t trust her, even before the message out of nowhere.

   Was there a man, she wondered, in Carly and Ellie’s world, a smooth one with sharp shoes? People didn’t ask about Skye’s father and Gem never offered. Rob loved kids but he wouldn’t have been remotely ready. She knew that much about him, after two curry dates, at least six or seven walks, a film, a demo and six nights – two in her bed, two in his and one in a tent at Seed Festival. Who knew whether they’d be together now, in spite of everything? Not if Libby could have helped it. Gem wasn’t much of a romantic; he’d teased her about that but he made up for it in his not-very-verbal way. She liked it when he stopped to look at flowers, in a wood or a suburban garden. He enjoyed their nicknames – fox and cubs, love in a mist – and laughed when she accused him, in her ignorance, of making them up.

   “Was he your toy boy?” Libby had asked, at the funeral, after a few glasses of wine. Her shoes, which were ridiculous, were obviously painful too.

   “There are seven years between us,” Gem had said. Present tense. And now that she was thirty-two, the gap had grown and always would, until she was old enough to be his grandma.

   Gem wanted to say, “We were madly in love. It happened fast. I never expected it, or even believed in it.” But that day words were harder than usual to come by. And Rob was equally dead whether he was a commitment-free fling or the love of her life.

   Manda would have understood but it wasn’t fair when she was so much in love herself, her face grey and her eyes livid with mourning. “She’s got me on a bit of a pedestal,” Rob had said, the first time she saw a photo of mother and son together. “What about Libby?” Gem asked. “She hasn’t,” he said, with that crooked smile of his.

   Looking out of the carriage window, Gem imagined the landscape covered with fracking wells, and felt a chill inside. As if someone was walking on her grave! Such a strange phrase, but people had no idea how to handle death, or word it ether. And it turned out that in the case of Rob’s death, she was no exception.

   If she willed hard enough, she could just about see him in the glass with the fields behind him, as if he was sitting next to her right now. Which was where he would be, ready to risk arrest, giving her courage.

   Daddy died. That was what she’d tell Skye. But he still loves you. She’d show her pictures, wishing there were more. It was the best kind of truth.

   Soon Crewe had been and gone, offering up a group of students who could be heading for the same place as Gem, but they didn’t spot her and she didn’t mind the anonymity. Rob would have raised a hand, shown them a peace sign with his fingers and a little smile.

   The world was full of assumptions. She and Carly had made them about each other and so many of them would be wrong, like the Cabinet Minister who dissed fracking protestors and had cosy chats with the fracking CEOs.

   Libby Craig assumed it had been casual with Rob, because she wanted it to be. Gem supposed they were all remembering more than usual today. It had been Rob’s birthday a couple of weeks after they met and if anyone was fazed by age it was her. “Maturity’s a good thing, right?” He didn’t assume that because she’d been a user she’d never be clean for long, and he didn’t skirt around her orphan status and treat her like a waif and stray. Once he told her, as if he was complimenting her on her hair or shoes, that she was probably the most incredible human being he’d ever met and she told him not to be such a soppy arse. “See what I mean,” he said.

   For the first time that day, Gem turned on her phone and scrolled down Twitter. Yesterday’s crowd at the site looked vivid and creative, just what she needed. @mandalost had retweeted some pictures. And posted a film, a tribute, for his birthday…

   One Rob morphed into another – baby, child, teenager, student activist, hers. Like quotes from Martin Luther King, his words appeared, intercut with Rob and his home-made placards that used to be cardboard boxes: REFUGEES WELCOME made way for CLIMATE JUSTICE NOW and then, PEACE WILL COME. LET IT BEGIN WITH ME. Manda’s voice, narrating, was low and thick with emotion subdued, and accompanied by text on screen. The last image was a birthday cake with one candle, iced blue and green like Earth.

   Gem closed Twitter and almost shut down her phone. Then she returned, found it again, replayed and retweeted. There should be a law against resurrection. This was like a dog digging up a grave.

   Maybe for the first time, she’d be in synch with Libby, because she’d hate this, wouldn’t she? She’d hate Manda.

   “I love you,” she said, combing Rob’s hair one morning – their last morning. It was a jungle.

   “Be gentle with me,” he pleaded.

   “Aren’t I always?”

   “I should have said before – I love you too.”

   Looking at her own reflection, and her hair with its kinks and freedom, Gem thought she looked more like Manda than Libby ever would. And Skye looked like Rob, which was just as it should be. He was a rubbish driver; Nick was crazy to lend him the car. And all these thoughts she reran, all these feelings that never settled, were scooped up now like leaves in a gale. But how could she blame Manda when she herself was an obsessive mother now, leaving three pages of instructions pretending to be notes?

   A slick, scented man around her age boarded and took the seat next to hers without apparently seeing her, talking on his phone as he brushed against her backpack. No assumptions, she told herself. No judgement. He could be a human rights lawyer.

   “Get tough,” he said. “Don’t take any shit, all right? They’re trying it on, the wankers. I knew the manager was a fucking arsehole. We need to score on this one!”

   Her world was free of this now, and largely free of men. Would Libby Craig fancy this one, with his sexy suit and silky, styled hair? Gem felt glad of her own world, the one she was returning to, with its trees and silences, its banners and songs. The word LOVE stitched and chorused. Maybe even guys like this could be saved there.

   Gem thumbed her phone and imagined the film she didn’t want him to glimpse. Manda should have kept Rob safe from eyes like his. It told her that lying low had been wise after all because the Craigs were not to be trusted.

Chapter Four will follow on Friday 1st February, 5:30 UK time.

For Life: a novella in progress 2

Two: Manda

Hearing that Libby was there with James, Manda asked after her.

   “Sun-worshipping in the garden,” he said. “Don’t quiz me about boyfriends. Subject closed, total shutdown.”

   Much like climate change, thought Manda. “Still drinking too much?”

   “Oh, you know, she’s young. They do.”

   Manda didn’t think Rob used alcohol to deaden reality, even though his grasp of that had been more detailed and harder to stomach. “I hope she’s all right but it’s difficult to tell. When I ask she always says, Yeah, fine as if she’s just run up an escalator.”

   James said she had a good job and a social life he called “prodigious”. Manda knew her sigh must be audible down the phone. Was he jealous?

   “Anyway, James, I rang because I want to do something in memory of Rob. For his twenty-fifth birthday.” She waited. “James, are you there?”

   “I’m here.” But she heard the doubt in his voice.

   “I thought of trees, planting twenty-five of them, to capture carbon. I thought of spending twenty-five days protesting somewhere…”

   “Don’t get arrested, Manda.”

   “I don’t know why not! But what I want to do is make a film. Use photos of him, and things he wrote – you know, in tweets and posts – and give him a voice again. Share the hell out of it on social media.”

   “I see.”

   She didn’t suppose he saw at all but she let that go. “I wondered whether you wanted to be in it at all, as narrator.” She waited, knowing he’d pause before he told her. “I couldn’t just do it and not include you.”

   “You go ahead, Manda. It’s your kind of thing.”

   He was using his ever-so-kind, patient voice. She knew what that meant, but why? People were hard to understand, and that included the man who’d shared a quarter of a century with her. This was what Rob would have wanted, to keep campaigning. Shining a light, she liked to call it, and God knew there was so much darkness. She didn’t know whether her boy was lost in it now or free of it forever.

   “Will you ask Libby? Or put her on so I can explain?”

   “I think we both know…”

   “Yes.” And denial was a kind of darkness too. “Give her my love and tell her I’ll call her later. I keep getting her answerphone.”

   “She’ll be all right, Manda. Libby’s stronger than you think.”

   Manda said she hoped so. Libby had always been a daddy’s girl.

   “Good luck with the film.”

   “No luck needed. Thanks,” she said, and almost mentioned her technical adviser – who was due soon – but decided there was no need to stir anything up. There didn’t seem much more to say, but she asked after his sciatica, which he said was giving him respite. For a long moment there was a silence that felt awkward, in spite of the many they’d shared in their marriage.

   “Are you sleeping, Manda?”

   “Not so you’d notice.” She winced at that, since that was something he was no longer in a position to do.

   “You should. You run too fast. Get some pills or Scotch or something.”

   She made a noise that wasn’t quite a laugh. “You should set up as a life coach.” Looking at the time, she hoped Nick wouldn’t let her down. Ending the call with a motherly, “Bye, James. Take care,” Manda thought about the roses in her old garden and tried to remember their different scents. For a moment she feared James would be abandoning them to the heat, although with talk of a water shortage, people must come first – people, who didn’t realise how many shortages there would be, before too long, if governments didn’t understand words like urgent and radical and systemic when applied to change. 

Now that Nick Gorski ran his own business, he might have less time for activism, but he wouldn’t have forgotten. Besides, the film would remind him. The two of them had been like brothers after all. Close enough to share a car.

   “But he cycles everywhere!” she’d yelled at him: a protest, an accusation, the skin on her face tight with tears.

   “He wanted to pick up something from Thornbury – a present for your silver wedding. From an artist guy with a workshop. Stained glass?” Poor Nick, usually so affable, so pretty. He hadn’t slept and his eyes were burning. Staring at him, she understood – remembering the last weekend with Rob in Bristol once finals were over, and a café where she’d overstated her love fora clock framed in a riot of coloured glass. Sometimes the stupid words waited below the surface like little land mines.

   A month later, as their silver wedding approached, James laid the Eurostar tickets on the kitchen table. “We can still go,” he told her. “Rob would want us to.”

   Manda stiffened and shook her head. “He wouldn’t. He knew me. He wouldn’t be that cruel.”

   Now Manda sliced the fruit loaf she’d baked specially. She’d made it when Rob brought his new mate home with him for the first time, term was a month old and they were already so much in synch it made her smile.  

   The doorbell rang and she realised what she felt was excitement.

Hours later, the air still too warm for pyjamas or even a sheet, Manda couldn’t sleep. Snatches from the conversation with Libby looped around her head: key quotes like, “You do know about Miss Havisham, right? Because honestly, Mum, this isn’t – like – healthy,” and “He’d be so embarrassed,” and, “You always do what you want whatever I say and however I feel.”

   Manda had refrained from pointing out that flying – to Malaysia because she deserved a break and Barcelona for a colleague’s hen night – wasn’t healthy either. Or that doing what she wanted regardless of anything climate scientists said and felt was Libby’s own M.O. She sometimes wondered why she held back for fear of fracturing what was already brittle between them. Manda supposed the film would be a way of waving a banner in her face – assuming Libby watched it. It would say, You break my heart too. There’s more than one way to grieve for a child.

   Maybe it would make a difference if Libby saw her weeping, or heard the soundtrack of that loss in darkness. But perhaps it would only confirm her status as the emotional obsessive of the family. Libby lived without the truth because the truth was a bullet that blew stuff away. And in the face of truth, stuff was such a comfort.

   “Oh, I lie low these days,” Nick had said, when she asked him about that truth and his relationship with it. So she’d told him she was glad to help him surface. She liked to think the film he’d edited would make a difference to him too. It was a shame he was so short of time, and not really hungry. Things changed, but she hadn’t expected him to be so… business-like. It turned her into the dense pupil who tried her own patience with the tricky bits. “Manda, do you mind if I finish this now?” His kindness felt like the cool, polite kind and that was disappointing after so long, but the result…

   “Happy?” he asked, and she assured him it was everything she’d imagined. He batted away her gratitude and when she hugged him at the door she had a sense of receiving less than she gave. It was only as he’d headed off to the station with the train ticket she’d bought at quite a price that she thought he might be crying after all.

   Eleven fifty-four. She rose out of bed to open the window wider, and kicked back the sheet as she lay down again. Still the images she’d chosen kept breaking in. Two days she’d given up to family albums. But Robert Liam Craig’s Facebook wall, still open, offered reminders of his understated outrage and equally low-key hope. She was just his curator, compiling and presenting. No need to speak when he, in his own quiet, hesitant way, had the eloquence of conviction. When he was so alive.

   There were other scenes that she imagined as much as remembered, but they were all the kind of time that was untraceable, unrecorded, with no substance or shape, no order and little colour. Rob crying for the turkeys at Christmas. Rob who tried to prove he could dance like a snowman or a road drill. Rob on his bike without a helmet, his hair like a plume of smoke around him.  Rob who hugged her when his granny had the first stroke.

   “I’ll go,” said James, when someone had to identify a body that was quite severely damaged.

   “I want to see him.”

   “You don’t, Manda. Stay here.”

   So she couldn’t say goodbye. It occurred to her that the film said it now.

   “No point in getting angry,” Rob told her, that last weekend in Bristol, when she was helping him with the shopping and some woman ahead of them loaded hers in plastic bags. And there she was thinking the rage she felt was secret and controlled. “Some people don’t change until legislation forces them, or the Sun tells them to.” “When hell freezes over, then,” she said, and he told her the day would come, sooner than she thought, when the young would rise up.

   They’d have to do it without him, but in the film he’d inspire them all the same, in the film. She might as well post it now. The minute hand was past midnight so his birthday had begun. What was there to wait for?

Chapter Three will be posted on Friday 25th January at 5:30 pm UK time.

For Life: a novella in progress 1

One: August 2018, Libby

Libby just wanted to be normal. When she was still at school that meant embracing the make-up and fashion her mother rejected, and choosing heels her mother called silly. It meant clubs and pre-loading, magazines to flick through, diets, and acquiring all the things her mother didn’t want or need.    

   “I’m sick of hearing about climate change,” she told Manda at fourteen. “I don’t know why people like me have to have our faces rubbed in the shit because it’s not our fault. We only inherited this mess.”

   With her friends, and sometimes her father, she turned her mother into a running joke, one her big, easy brother never laughed at. Manda was the hippie, the tree-hugger and the Earth Warrior on wheels (two). At university Libby told her best friend Bee that her mother made her sick because even though she never went to any kind of church she was so full-time holy – and determined to lay guilt all over her, like concrete. So Libby tried to feel angry instead.

What did her mother expect? The world was in trouble whether or not she did a road trip across the States with Bee as soon as she passed her test. And sin of sins, flew there first. As a student, she thought of Manda every time she loaded her shopping into plastic bags in spite of the recycled sari and jute alternatives she’d given her. Even once she started work, her mother haunted her when she threw another takeaway coffee cup into a bin and pictured the thoughtful bamboo keep cup Manda had provided, sitting unused in her kitchen cupboard.

People always remarked on the likeness between the two of them. This grieved Libby given the time she spent on her own hair – cuts, straightening and focused conditioning regimes – while Manda just let hers grow until it weighed more than she did. It was the dark grey of a practical, flecked carpet, and looked almost as tough. Rob’s had been the same and sometimes Libby thought it was part of their connection, symbolised when two heads of hair became one in an embrace. But Libby was taller than her mother, even in flats, and curvier too. Her style was understated, pastel and discreetly coordinated; Manda’s was random, and crumpled. She informed Libby that she’d started to wear everything at least three or four times if possible, to reduce washing, so must be forgiven if she smelled a little riper than she used to.

Libby quoted that development to her dad one Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2018. He used to roll his grey eyes at what he called Manda’s fanaticism or excesses. But he had been quieter since the split over what he called a stupid fling at a rock choir he’d joined on Tuesday nights, and Manda’s hard-line response. Libby felt sorry for him, mostly – when he wasn’t being a sexist male less than fully aware of his white privilege.

That afternoon was Mediterranean again but Libby chose to sit in his small, untamed garden to top up her tan. Her father kept manoeuvring himself into the shade, which required regular shifting.

“So how is your love life, poppet?” he asked, once she’d closed her eyes under her sunglasses.

Could anyone be a poppet at twenty-two? Libby sighed, and drained her glass of Pimm’s. She knew he’d run out and bought the bottle after her call; he was sweet like that, and never preached – even in her smoking days.

“I’m tired of relationships,” she said. “Were you tired of Mum? Because she really is tiring. Which is not to excuse your behaviour.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to.”

“But you hoped Mum would.”

“I did, yes. I thought honesty… well, I thought she deserved that. And practises it, after all.”

“To doctorate level and beyond,” Libby muttered. “I would have kept quiet. Not that I would cheat.” There had been a boyfriend who was with his childhood sweetheart but that didn’t count, or last.

“Your mother is principled…”

“No kidding.”

“And it’s all about love. I just didn’t measure up.”

“Who could?”

Libby was thinking about her mother’s love – for all species, which made her vegan. For the earth, which made her sell the car and start pedalling – and protesting. For her brother Rob, who never really died but was there in her mother’s world and conversation. For humanity, apparently. So much love to withstand; it was hard to return.

“I’ve been wondering whether I… looked elsewhere… because of the grieving. Not that I’d shaken off my own grief – far from it – but I couldn’t live it like your mother. I needed some kind of distraction or light relief.”

Libby sat up straight and reached for the sunblock after all. “Dad, do we have to debate which of you was more to blame? I’m not sure any jury would acquit you.”

James removed his sunglasses and gave her a look that worried as it fixed her. “It’s the grief I’m talking about, sweetheart. And I think that as a family we got it wrong.” 

Libby felt everything tighten inside. This was why she wasn’t visiting Manda today, so she wouldn’t announce, “Rob’s birthday tomorrow,” as if she was pretty sure Libby had forgotten to send a card. She’d thought she and her dad would duck it together, as rational beings who knew dates changed nothing.   

“Manda needed to express hers and I shut it down,” he told her, his voice thinner, higher. Might it crack? “Because it shut me down. And I think yours is locked away too, with no words to name it and the lid bolted tight.”

“It didn’t go so well when Pandora opened the box,” mumbled Libby, but he didn’t hear and she declined to repeat it.

His hearing was no sharper than his eyesight and he was only fifty-five. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him look old before – and it shocked her that every day he’d be older again. She didn’t know how anyone bore being seventy, eighty. And she supposed it was time she visited Grandma in the home where she had to wear nappies, even though, frankly, dying would be the lesser of the two evils.

“Evasion’s never healthy, Libby. Nothing big and painful goes away. When Rob died I had no idea what to do.”

“No one does.” She still didn’t, after three years.

She’d been at university when he called. “It’s about your brother,” he’d said, his voice half worn away but also full of something she hadn’t heard before. Rob, killed in a car that wasn’t even his, and cut out of its old metal as it lay upside down. “Why does he have to be so downright irresponsible!” Manda had wailed, as if he was still alive and she’d give him a talking-to when he came home. Libby didn’t say so but that was what she liked best in him: that spontaneous, why-not side of him that breathed life into the easy, mostly-absent side. Five years younger, she didn’t really know who he was inside the loose walk and the “Sure, whatever” and the “Mm, maybe.”

   Now her father was looking ahead as if something beyond the hedge compelled him.

“Rob never liked me,” Libby said, and as she heard the words, believed them with conviction.

“That’s ridiculous, poppet,” her father told her. “He doted on you when you were little. He was so patient and caring…”

“Yeah, sure.”

Libby had seen the photos to prove it – Rob pushing her in a wooden truck, or holding her hand on a cold British beach – but it didn’t feel true. She must have been annoying; toddlers were. She didn’t want children of her own because she wouldn’t be patient or caring enough. That was just the truth and nothing to do with her mother’s grief for all the unborn children who would suffer climate chaos and were better off without living.

A blue tit flew into the box Manda had nailed to the tree long before she left. Libby poured herself more Pimm’s.

“Don’t say Rob didn’t like you, poppet. He’s not here to contradict.”

“Really?!” Libby looked around theatrically. “You sure?” She sipped her drink. Really he was everywhere Manda went, like a fellow-pedaller on a tandem. He was the hidden meaning in her words and the pauses between them.


Libby apologised to her father and said she was in a funny mood. He smiled and she wished she forgave so easily.

“Rob always defended you…”

“When I was bad?”

“When you were wilful.”

Libby supposed that was what she was being now. Without explaining, she rose to go inside to the bathroom where she’d discovered the first menstrual blood on her knickers, and six years later shared a risky post-coital shower with a boyfriend while her parents were out. The décor hadn’t changed. The loo roll holder still rattled to the floor unless she outwitted it – as she did this time, remembering the way Rob never bothered to slot it back into place, which made her swear from behind closed doors. Once she threw the whole roll and holder into his bedroom to make a point – which backfired when it was still there twenty-four hours later, and had to be shoved back into place while he slept in spite of her shouting.

Libby had always felt small beside him and now she would never be his equal. “One of the last things he did was campaign for the university to divest,” Manda had said at the funeral, adding, “from fossil fuels” for the benefit of the climate illiterate. Libby had recognised the patronising change of tone; she was used to it, being one of the apathetic mass who didn’t even try to keep up.

On the landing, Libby stopped at the door to his old bedroom. It was ajar, and as she stepped in she felt the temperature drop. In novels that meant a ghost but Rob would never go along with such things. “It’s just Mr Willis from the church,” he whispered, when she was afraid of Santa in the grotto James had thought would be fun.

Her brother’s room might have belonged in an old B and B, except that being minus a stainless steel tray with kettle, tea and coffee, it was even barer. No trace of Robert Liam Craig. But the curtains were the same ones he’d kept drawn half the day during uni holidays. The same ones they’d pushed aside after bedtime when they were small, to look out for James when he worked late. “I can’t sleep until Daddy’s home,” she would tell him, because of the creatures that filled her dreams. Rob tried to ward them off with robot dancing, which worked up to a point, but it was Daddy who made the difference. And now she had no idea why.

Sitting on Rob’s single bed, she thought of Gem, the girl he’d been seeing when he died, but never once mentioned. Gem who looked like a slightly rebellious Girl Guide but was really an older woman. “Oh, only a few weeks,” she’d said when Manda asked. So no one knew what it meant, what they meant to each other. Everyone cried but Gem seemed awkward through hers, like an interloper with no clearance. “They couldn’t be that serious or they’d have been together that night. Maybe he’d just ended it,” Libby reasoned, but part of her feared Gem had been closer to Rob, known him better in those few weeks than she had in a whole life. “Soulmates,” Manda had called them, when it came out that Gem was vegan and Rob had just made the same commitment.

Gem had vanished from all the platforms Libby used after the funeral and Libby hadn’t messaged her since. She stared at her phone screen, not sure why or how. The number was still there. She tapped in, Hi Gem. How are you doing? X

She waited but no reply came by return. Gem was probably tied up at some protest. Or married with a job and a baby and trying to think who Libby was. Maybe all she remembered about Rob was the shock. Libby realised his death had swallowed up his life and spat it out in a few messy, incomplete bits she called memories but the final scenes were so much bigger than the rest.

She hadn’t kept in touch with Gem because they had nothing in common except the dying, and – she supposed – because she was jealous. In case Rob loved skinny, straggly, earnest Gem more than her. Now she couldn’t delete what she’d sent. With luck Gem would think it confirmed what she thought of her – that she was crass, frivolous and unfeeling – and ignore it.

At the funeral, whenever Libby circulated with a tray of food vegans couldn’t eat, Gem had been with Rob’s longer-standing uni friends like Nick Gorski, but apart too, pale and silent in charity shop black. At the beginning and end, when they hugged, she felt model-thin, all bone and scentless. Maybe she was broken now, by grief for the doomed world and Rob too.

   Relieved by the absence of a reply, Libby pocketed her phone and smoothed Rob’s bed before she left it. She looked back into the room, trying to picture it plus teddies, trains or film posters, but the cool emptiness defeated her. A ray of sunlight illuminated the dust on the chest of drawers. She imagined Rob’s soul like a snake skin, tucked between his old underwear and socks, and drifting out thin as a cobweb. But if it hung around anywhere, perhaps it was at a fracking site, or in Gemma’s bed.

Her father opened his eyes as she returned to her garden chair. “I’m thinking of getting some bereavement counselling, Lib.”

“Good for you.” She pulled her sunglasses down from her forehead. “I mean, that will be good for you. It’s not what I want.”

“I know, poppet, but it might be what you need.”

Libby nearly said what she wanted was another drink but she knew her mother worried him about that, as if drinking away two nights at the end of the week wasn’t absolutely normal, and just an alternative response to the state of the world. 

“What do you think a soul looks like?” she asked James. “Don’t say a tea light.”

“Maybe it depends whose it is.”

It always depended with James, who practically lived on the fence as far as Libby could see. And from that vantage point he seemed to think Manda’s head was in a dream world, a Utopia, when Libby thought it was way too dark and scary to venture anywhere near.

“Tell me what Rob was like,” she challenged him.

“Libby, why don’t you tell me?”

“I’m asking, Dad. It’s not a test.”

Her father’s head tilted up as if he were listening for something he couldn’t quite identify. Libby waited, remembering how Manda used to complain if she used her phone during what she called conversations but feeling tempted to scroll through the silence he’d let in.

“He was a good person, I think. Kind. Well meaning. He thought the best of people but not so highly of himself. A bit chaotic and vague at times. Funny, in a wry, deadpan sort of way.”

Libby repeated key words in her head. “Thank you,” she said. “Wish I’d known him.” She saw her father look troubled, about to protest. “I’m not dissing him, Dad. I just have this yawning gap I want to fill, you know? Everything’s fuzzy. And I want to fill him in, seeing as he towers over the rest of us in his… deadness.”

“I understand.” But she could tell from his voice and the anxiety in his eyes that he didn’t. Perhaps she was a mystery too, but she didn’t dare ask for the same kind of character study.

“Death and birthdays don’t mix,” she told him instead. “And I have too much alcohol in my bloodstream.” She put down her glass, and watched next-door’s cat jump the fence and eye them defiantly.

That was when Gem’s message sounded on her phone. Libby, what a surprise. I’m heading north tomorrow but maybe we can arrange something when I get back. No kisses.

Libby didn’t want to arrange anything now. It would be painful. “Oh shit,” she muttered.

“Anything I can help with?” asked James.

“Thanks but I’ll have to do my own clearing up.”

“You were always good at that. You thought the brush and dustpan in the kitchen was a great toy. And you hated sand or dirt in your nails. Even when you were a teenager your CDs were stacked straight in alphabetical order.” He smiled. “I’ve never known anyone smell as good as you.”

“Fussy to the point of OCD but fragrant,” she summed up. “I’ll take that over good and kind any day.”

“I didn’t mean… Come on, Lib.”

“Yeah, prickly too. No wonder the love life flat-lined.”

She heard the landline ringing from the kitchen long before he did.

“That’ll be your mother.”

He hurried, almost eager. Libby decided not to reply to Gem, who would probably want to eat vegan sludge in a place with salvaged scrap for décor. Another impulse led her to check Gemma Lovelock’s profile picture, which must exist somewhere even though she’d be the kind to scorn Facebook. Finally she found her, with a straggly-haired child in her arms.

Not Rob’s?! Libby reasoned with the part of her that had absorbed the shock and gone into freeze-frame. Not old enough, surely. But conceived not long after the accident either, so Gem had moved on fast.

Then again, the photo could be an old favourite rather than the latest. She looked back at the child’s face. The hair was wild enough.

She would never contact Gem again.

The next chapter will be available from 5:30 pm on Friday 18th January.

Writing rules/no rules

I thought I’d raise the questions I’m asked whenever I address adults or visit schools. I don’t mean, “Are you rich?” or “How old are you?” or even “Where do your ideas come from?” but the questions people ask when they write themselves, or are thoughtful readers curious about the process and the choices authors make. Often on Twitter or Facebook I see writers asking for advice – and receiving more of it than they might have bargained for. Just as online reviews are unlikely to be unanimous in praise or criticism, the answers that pile up never seem to come close to consensus. So I am under no illusions that my own theories and convictions will be received with nods all around. Writing is, after all, a deeply personal kind of creativity, and many of us who work at it day after day are striving to find something individual: a voice that is ours alone.

When I’m asked about the connection between life and fiction – “Is it autobiographical?” or “Is that character based on someone you know?” – I make a distinction. The observable fact that like Daisy in THE WATERHOUSE GIRL, Rowan in CRAZY DAISE and Hobo in AVATARS OF THE INTELLIGENCE, I have alopecia universalis (no hair at all, anywhere), doesn’t make these novels autobiographies. They are, however, informed by my own experience, thoughts and feelings about living with the condition. Few of my characters are knowingly inspired by someone real but they develop, like the stories themselves, as the writing takes shape. The most obvious example is Paul Golding in TRACES, who is in some ways like the father I adored, but lives a different life, and presents to me a different face and voice, yet represents for me my dad’s ideals. Borrowing named characters from life works better – and is less likely to provoke law suits – when a story is set in the past, like In the Blink of an Eye by Ali Bacon. Whether it’s faction or simply a very well-informed and increasingly engrossing historical novel is a moot point. Certainly the author takes none of the liberties I took with a certain English king in HUE AND CRY, even while attempting painstaking accuracy with my context. The distant past is fair game when it comes to resuscitating and recreating the famous on the pages of a novel. I would add, however, that setting fiction in a past we remember makes for a much more challenging intersection with reality. I’ve just read an enormously exciting sci-fi novel that left me questioning the author’s decision to mess with the familiar recent past in the way that Doctor Who forbids. Anything can happen behind closed doors – a shared secret. But make it ‘news’ within the story and readers may be unable to suspend disbelief faced with a character they ‘know’ and an ending that makes them object, “But that didn’t happen!” Well, dear reader, this is fiction. But the power of stories over us depends in part on a different, deeper kind of truth, which is emotional or psychological. We care because we recognise in a construct we know to be imagined something we call humanity. It’s a delicate balance to maintain when we ask readers to connect with our non-truth, invest in it and yes, love it. Undermining their belief in our fiction – breaking the spell we’ve woven to hold them in our power – can not only disconnect but disturb.

What about pov (point of view)? Would I advise first or third person? I know as an ex-teacher that young children find it hard to sustain a narrative voice; the third person often shifts into first. Inexperienced writers often debate the merits of one point of view over another, and reader responses can be emphatic. Some simply don’t like first person fiction, which tends, they say, to tell rather than show, or is by definition narrow, or stylistically banal in an attempt to emulate conversation – and I’ve only used it a few times in my 32 titles, because I acknowledge those risks. Others, however, prefer it for its freshness, focus and drive, and the instant, detailed access it offers to the narrator. I chose it for these strengths in my two alopecia novels, and in JUST FOR ONE DAY – giving my two narrators different but intersecting stories to tell in contrasting voices. In my third short story collection, due out in 2019, my own favourite is told in a voice I revelled in finding, because like her life experience it’s some way from mine, and because the style itself illuminates the character, making the dreaded ‘telling’ unnecessary in a way that felt magical as I wrote.

So do I agree with ‘show don’t tell’? When writing for adults, generally yes. Yet, in first or third, when writing for young children I do sometimes make explicit. It’s not verboten. I’ve also found that in a short story for adults, a little telling at the start can, on rare occasions, cover the ground with necessary efficiency before the narrative opens out into less concrete territory. Personally, I like to mix it, to try different challenges. And a third person narrative can follow one or two characters more closely than the rest, presenting their perspective and feelings on others known less intimately. It can be God-like, all-seeing and all-knowing. Or it can allow the writer to keep a storyteller’s distance in recognition of the storyteller’s art and artifice. It can jump across time and place, but its sphere might be small. So many options! The truth is that my so-called decisions are often instinctive rather than reasoned – guided by a sense of best fit for my character and my story.

Where do I stand on the rather contentious matter of flashback? I’m a big fan. Read The English Patient! Although it’s not compulsory in every case, and a character’s memories can be integrated into the present just as for all of us they thread through life, scenes that take the reader back before the action started can enrich and add layers to a story. I like to use it to substantiate character by enhancing knowledge and understanding in the same way that in life someone’s history can explain their present. I relish it, and enjoy its variations of setting and register, but am mindful that it must expand the story, not constitute – as in radio’s Just a Minute – deviation. Some say that readers won’t wear it because it holds up the story, but that’s to assume that all novels are action-driven. While in many of my adventures for children or teens, exciting plots develop and build, my writing is always founded on – and directed by – my characters. So the decisions I make, whether instinctive or conscious, always serve them and their inner (and outer) story.

Sue’s first adult novel in print is about time and ignores the idea that readers don’t like flashback, just as an artist friend was told customers don’t like purple!

What about open endings? Of course, stories always conclude in a way that’s artificial, since we know as readers that these characters’ lives continue without us. The endings we crave may depend on our own personal experience and what we want or need from a story. An author I know was asked by her publisher to change her ending, to make it less happy, romantic or predictable – in fact to thwart readers’ hopes for a character who deserves the best outcome. Hollywood would change it back. Some of us like our fiction to end well in a way that reality often doesn’t; others only engage with novels that feel life-like in their lack of resolution or joy. Some of us require all ends to be tied up and no question left hanging. Other readers – and I’m one of them – hate that kind of wrapping up and prefer ambivalence. But in writing that statement I realise that, as always, it depends. Who was right about my friend’s ending? I suspect that it would have been a very fine novel either way – because while endings count, everything that leads up to them matters more.

Is writing for children different from writing for adults? Yes and no. As a children’s author, I generally right wrongs and leave my young characters stronger and wiser, more at peace with who they are – even if, like Lamb in VOICE OF THE ASPEN, their future is endangered when the story ends because history must not be re-written. When writing for adults I often choose an open ending as the only honest option, and yes, I like to imagine a book group debating what happens beyond the story along with what happened within it, and why. Children like a coherent plot and expect one that moves forward at a pace, but some adults require neither and at times I find experimenting without them rather thrilling. I enjoy the impact of imagery especially when I’m having fun writing for young children (THE LINCOLN IMP, ONGALONGING, HEADCASES) and remembering how similes can make them laugh. In the YA thriller HUE AND CRY the spider metaphor for my psychotic baddie works in a very different way, while in my adult writing the images may be sparser – and hard to justify unless they’re fresh. Whatever the audience, an eccentric character, or outsider, can be realised through an individual way of presenting the world, with surprisingly off-centre imagery that feels like theirs alone – as in THE JUDAS DEER.

So much depends, it seems, that perhaps there can be few rules. Do I, then, have any? Oh yes, I do. Read well. Write as well as you can, in the hope that readers will reread a sentence or paragraph because it feels so elegant, powerful, insightful or original. Honour and listen to your characters, because you understand them even if you don’t always like them; never manipulate them or your readers. Care passionately about them and what happens to them, or your readers may not. But at the same time, stay in control of this fiction you are constructing, mindful of pace, critically eliminating repetition, cliché and redundancies, and don’t assume that the reader will know what lives only in your head. On the other hand, don’t underestimate those powers of inference and deduction in which children are assessed at an early age; there’s something very satisfying about reading between the lines. In my case, I know I mustn’t forget, in my fascination with what my characters think and feel as well as do, where they are. And while little fiction would be written if we only began a story with a ‘unique selling point’ as they say in the book trade – I believe writers should ask themselves why this story should be told. For me, fame and fortune, or the existence of a market for the story, are poor reasons. The story should matter. And we’re back to the truth fiction can illuminate, those insights into the human condition, the development of empathy. Keats said truth is beauty, so tell it. “Beautifully written” is for me without question the most exhilarating phrase a review can deliver. My rule – or goal – is to write as beautifully as possible, with an awareness that beauty can be found not just in lyricism and nineteenth century elegance but in the lean and raw.

Just a few rules then! I’m conscious that nonetheless they add up to an order tall enough to deter the greatest genius from writing a single sentence. But if we don’t take writing seriously, if we let it slide into the morass that is celebrity culture, commerce, fashion and consumerism, then we’re not only betraying every genius whose novels will always matter, but selling stories short when we know they can change us. We’re disrespecting the language that shapes our lives and being. So that’s the big rule, the one that can’t be broken: DON’T.

Delivering a workshop at MKLitFest

Children's Author