Life and Death
An excerpt from Kathryn Simmonds’ debut novel, Love and Fallout, set against the backdrop of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp protests of the early eighties, and published by Seren.
Life and Death
Mum sat on the settee peeling a saucepan of potatoes with the smallest, sharpest knife in the drawer, something she could do while barely taking her eyes off the six o’clock news. It was September, still warm, and outside a few kids were kicking a ball about before their mums called them in for tea. When a clip from Greenham came on, Dad mumbled to himself and turned his attention back to his Daily Express while I took a deep breath and said, ‘I was thinking, I might join them for a bit.’
Mum gave a quick little gasp as if she’d cut herself. ‘What?’ Her hands stopped in mid flow, a strip of peel drooping over her wet thumb.
‘The camp. I’ve decided to go and visit.’
Dad let out a snort, ‘We better get you some dungarees then.’
‘Don’t be daft, you can’t go and live on the roadside with that lot,’ said Mum.
‘They don’t live on the roadside.’
‘No they don’t. They live in tents.’
‘Pitched by the roadside.’ She looked at me closely, the way she did when she thought I was coming down with something. ‘What about your job, they’re not ten-a-penny these days.’ And, after a pause, because she was still harbouring hopes we’d get back together, ‘What about Tony?’
‘I’ve told you, me and Tony are finished, and anyway, I’m not hanging about just because of some bloke.’
‘She’ll fit right in,’ said Dad.
‘It’s not funny, Brian.’ Dad put down the paper then and pointed the new remote control to silence Moira Stewart, who was reading a story about the Iran-Iraq war and regarding us with her serious woman-in-a-man’s-world expression. I knew instinctively that in another life, Moira would be doing her bit to safeguard humanity.
‘What’s put this into your head?’ said Dad.
‘Nothing’s put this into my head. I’ve put this into my head.’
I reminded them about the dangers of cruise missiles, even though I’d gone through it with them all before; bits I’d got from the CND meeting at Knebworth village hall, bits I’d picked up from Tony, snippets I’d filleted from The Guardian. They exchanged a look that said Do you think she’s serious? I thought Dad was going to tell Mum it was just as well I didn’t go to university, the way I’d overheard him saying once when they were washing up. That was soon after I’d given them a lecture about the cruelty of factory farming and told them I was thinking of going vegetarian. ‘But you don’t like vegetables,’ Mum said. I didn’t have an answer for that one.
‘It’s that bloody leaflet isn’t it?’ said Dad.
‘The one with the bloke making a bunker under the stairs?’ asked Mum, still clasping her half-peeled potato. ‘Oh Tess, you don’t want to worry about that. Just because some little lad in the civil service is handing out leaflets, it doesn’t mean me and your dad will be panic-buying pineapple chunks.’
‘It’s not a joke.’
‘I know it’s not, you sleeping on the cold ground with that lot.’ She contemplated the murky saucepan.
‘That leaflet was written by the Ministry of Defence,’ I reminded her.
Protect and Survive advised, in illustrated steps, how best to cope before and after a nuclear strike. A shelter was vital. You and your family may need to live in this room for days after an attack, almost without leaving it at all. That alone sounded pretty awful, like Christmas Day and Boxing Day but without any decent food or telly, only the promise of a radioactive dust cloud if you tried to step outside. The leaflet said a pair of stout boots should be kept on standby for trips beyond the front door and that these trips should, if possible, only be conducted by people over thirty.
The problem was, we didn’t have a cellar or a bunker, our house was a new build and there was hardly enough room to keep the things we needed, let alone stock-pile things we didn’t. The people on Bishops Road would be all right because their houses had big cupboards under the staircases, I knew that from babysitting, but we couldn’t very well rush to Bishops Road and start knocking on doors with only four minutes warning. And anyway, who’d let us in? If you didn’t have the facilities, the leaflet suggested making a lean-to: there were drawings of a man carrying sandbags and looking busy with a hammer as if he were enjoying some Sunday DIY. He’d nailed three doors together but it didn’t say where he’d got them from. I couldn’t imagine Dad taking our doors off their hinges.
Mum seemed to have forgotten about the potatoes. ‘How long are you planning to go for?’ I told her I wasn’t sure yet, my visit was open. ‘How will you wash?’ She glanced at Dad whose eyes had slid back to the mute TV. ‘What about your monthlies?’ She mouthed. I made a shushing face. ‘Perhaps you should find another job, love. That place isn’t stretching you much, is it, and you could be earning a better wage too. You don’t have to stay in Stevenage now you’ve got your licence, you could go anywhere. Letchworth. Baldock. Or you could get something in London if you really wanted, couldn’t she Brian, go up on the train?’
Dad sighed. He was looking at me as if I were a map of somewhere foreign.
But I wasn’t bothered about getting on the train every day. I’d always known Hirshman & Luck was a temporary measure until I’d decided on the next step, and while I was going out with Tony, I didn’t care what the next step was. I loved clocking off and leaving it all behind, not having to think, let alone worry about anything until the next morning. Even when I was there I could use half my mind for the work and the other half for sifting through thoughts of our time together. But then Tony dumped me in the middle of a routine phone call about weekend plans. There’d been the slightest break in the conversation, and I knew it was coming, sure as an F16 out of a clear blue sky.
‘I was thinking, what if we put things on ice for a while?’ he said.
On ice? What did that mean? I wasn’t a polar bear. I didn’t want to be put on ice while he strode into the white wilderness and found himself a dozen Eskimo girls, giggling in their beaver skin dresses.
He stumbled something about really liking me but thinking it was best for both of us. There was a pause before he added that he thought we could be friends, but when it came down to it, he needed someone he could really talk to. I knew what he meant, he meant about current affairs and politics. He’d just finished his degree at the Polytechnic and was going to move to London. He said he was going to be busy, he had plans.
‘I have plans too. It’s not as if I want to hang around in Stevenage all my life.’ That’s what I said. Not bad. Not true either because actually, yes, I would have hung around in Stevenage, I would have hung around anywhere if Tony was there to hang around with. Instead we agreed it was a big world and he told me again how much he liked me and I just about maintained my dignity until we reached the end of the conversation and I was free to cry in the privacy of my bedroom with The Human League turned up loud to disguise the wailing.
After Tony dumped me, I carried on at work, soothed by the repetitive rhythm of the days: the post at nine-thirty, tea-break, minute-taking, the little tapes of dictation clattering onto my desk at intervals, each containing the slow drone of Mr Hirshman’s voice telling me where to put my full stops and when to start a new paragraph; the reassuring presence of Peggy, the senior secretary, the deliberate way she’d stop at exactly one o’clock every day and stretch up her arms to the ceiling saying, ‘Rest for the wicked, Tessa,’ then rise from her desk to retrieve her foil-wrapped sandwiches – chicken roll with piccalilli or tinned salmon and cress. Routine offers a modicum of comfort when your heart has been broken.
Mum and Dad knew I was suffering. Mum made me my favourite dinners for a week and I’d catch Dad giving a concerned sideways glance while we watched Nationwide, though he never said anything because he didn’t know what to say. He got all the information off Mum. They’d both liked Tony – Mum said he had lovely eyes and reminded her of a young Gene Pitney. But it didn’t matter what they thought about him anymore, it didn’t matter if they knew he’d sold The Socialist Worker in the student union bar, because I’d never be bringing him home again. Tony was in the past. There were no more phone calls late at night just when I was giving up hope. There were no more trips to his friends’ parties. Those parties belonged to a different chapter of my life, and if he wanted to start something with that girl Lisa the social sciences student – I’d heard them having a long, flirtatious argument about the monarchy – then that was up to him.
Without Tony I could see my life for what it was, and what I saw was small and disappointing. Stevenage was ugly: its endless mini roundabouts, its purpose-built breezeblock towers, the fountain where teenagers sat on summer evenings knocking back cider as the sun glinted orange off the Co-op, young mums smoking cigarettes with one hand and rocking a pram with the other. If I stayed it would be the death of me. And as the days went by, the true meaninglessness of my afternoons of copy typing began to scare rather than soothe me, and my walk home through the town centre became a journey through my own colourless future.
What I needed to do was make my life count for something. If I could expect any life at all. Day by day I thought more about what was happening in the world, and with Tony pushed to the side, I had time to dwell on the real issues, the life and death of it. I kept the Protect and Survive leaflet beside my bed and woke up worrying, or fell asleep and dreamed of the line-drawn man sheltering his family ineffectually in the homemade bunker. Four minutes, that’s all we’d have. And the weapons were real. They were coming.
On TV the Greenham women sang their songs, sisters under the skin, and it was suddenly obvious: here was a way to make a difference, a way to sacrifice my pathetic life for something noble, something meaningful and something I believed in. What’s more, now that I was no longer the object of someone else’s love, I could devote myself entirely. And the camp was a place Tony would never be part of, however many copies of The Socialist Worker he sold.
Every night at the tea table Mum tried a new angle on me, but like Margaret Thatcher, I wasn’t for turning. Dad ate his shepherd’s pie, disconsolate after another long day at the yard. Three years ago, after he damaged his back, they’d put him onto deliveries and supplies, and now when he came home he had a tired look around the edges and never talked about work. Not like when he was doing an extension or knocking through a living room. I hadn’t heard him say any of his builder’s words for ages – newel, or screed, or mitre. The money wasn’t so good either. Mum had taken a part-time cleaning job, and then two. I wondered if they’d miss my board money.
Late one night I heard them talking downstairs; our house was too small for secrets.
‘Let her get it out of her system,’ Dad said. ‘She won’t last long without central heating and a warm bed.’
‘D’you think?’ Mum had that note in her voice, the one when she allowed herself to defer to Dad even though she didn’t quite believe what he was saying. It was the same note that came out when she’d painted the kitchen walls a nasty yellow, and Dad told her it would dry two shades lighter.
‘She gets these ideas doesn’t she. Remember that time she was going to make her own clothes?’ he said.
‘Oh yes, I’d forgotten about that.’
‘And when she started learning the guitar, how long did that last?’
‘Or when she was going to be an au pair in Switzerland,’ said Mum, who was now taking comfort in her own memories of my failed attempts to define myself as someone interesting. But I’d heard enough and went to lie on my bed, turning over my greatest flops as I stared at the ceiling. This wasn’t the same, I said to the zigzag crack that ran like a fault-line from the light fitting to the curtain rail. This was important. This would be the beginning of something.