A creative writing piece by Tanya Jones.
I wake to the sound of the rain filtering into the greywater tank. I love that sound. Or maybe I just love thinking of the bath I’ll have tonight, all pipingly solared and scented with thyme and rose petals. Mum mutters a bit, but I say that if she didn’t want me to be an aqua-fiend, she shouldn’t have named me after a mermaid. Only then she’s likely to remind me I was conceived during the tightest water rationing, which is too much information on every level. The water situation is good these days anyway, even for Mum’s family back in Nepal, now that the glaciers are melting at the right speed and the last of the profiteers are long gone.
‘Ariel!’ calls Mum along the passage, ‘Breakfast!’
We live in a ‘bagend’, so at least there aren’t any stairs to trudge down. My best friend Phoebe’s family has an old two-storey, so she’s always finding excuses to come here and do her homework. Their house has had all the secondary insulation the community co-op could fit in, but it’s a late 20cent develobox, so it’ll never be as warm as ours.
‘A hobbit hole, and that means comfort,’ Grandad used to say.
Ours was one of the first bagends built by the co-op here, so he was always hugely proud of it. I do miss Grandad. He was so happy, pottering about in the allotment and writing his stories about the old days. ‘The not-so-good old days,’ as he called them. They did everything they could at the hospital – according to Dad, saving the NHS was one of the unsung achievements of the Shift – but Granny says the bad start he had weakened his body for the rest of his life.
‘What do you mean, bad start?’ I asked, thinking of the half-marathon Gran was in training for.
‘As a little boy he never really got enough to eat. Not the kind of food he needed, anyway. And the house where he lived was cold and damp; that took its toll. His mum did her best, worked long hours when she could get them – those bloody zero hours contracts – but it was never enough for a decent life.’
Even without knowing what a zero hours contract was, I was confused. ‘But I thought you and Grandad came from the same town?’
‘We did, but that didn’t mean we had the same chances.’
‘Ariel?’ calls Mum again now.
‘I’m on my way.’ I get dressed quickly, tempted by my new jumper, but it’s not cold enough yet. Phoebe’s mum knitted it for me with wool sent on the slowboat by Mum’s Nepalese cousins. Phoebe’s a bit smaller than me, so she took over the jumper I’d had before, the one Granny made from the co-op sheepwool. Gran says that when she was young people had gigantic cupboards full of clothes, more than they could wear out in a lifetime, but I bet they didn’t like them more than I do my six hangers’ worth. I bury my nose in the Nepalese jumper and promise to wear it soon. Then I put in my ring pull earrings, bracing myself for what Gran will say.
‘What have you got those things in your ears for? When I was a girl, you’d see them all over the pavements, with all the chewing gum and other things I won’t mention here. That’s when people still drank out of those ridiculous single-use cans.’
‘I know, Granny,’ I always say. ‘It’s ironic,’ but she just sniffs and talks about the 2023 Containers Act, and how lucky we are to have drinks that taste of something except metal.
But this morning she’s too busy to notice what I’m wearing. She’s making drop pancakes, my favourite, and there’s lots of hot blackberry compote to go with it. I sit down and start eating, wondering whether, if I say how delicious it is, she’ll start telling me about breakfast cereals again. I don’t really understand what they were, except that that they came in boxes with plastic bags inside, wasted loads of land and water in getting grown, got ‘processed’ to take out most of the actual food, then oil-transported thousands of miles between factories, warehouses, supermarkets and houses. And then no one really liked them at the end of all that, and they got thrown into landfill for being soggy. Sometimes I wonder whether Gran’s going a bit fossil – some of her stories make no sense at all.
It’s still raining when I finish, so I decide to take the recumbent to school. I like Mum’s old vintage when the weather’s good; you can see more of the trackside allotments, but the recumbent has a nice closefitting rainshield.
‘Want to tandem?’ I ask my little brother Leo, but he’s going to the surgery with Dad for the first aid bit of his resilience training. Ever since all the disasters of the 2020s, it’s on the curriculum for all kids over seven – just basic keeping your neighbours alive stuff. It’s days out of school, and the trainers are good fun, even when you get to my age and have to do basic plumbing, wiring and mental health awareness.
‘We didn’t have those in my day,’ says Granny.
‘What, recumbents? I think you did, Gran; they were invented in the 1890s.’
She snorts. We’ve had this conversation before. ‘That may be so, but ordinary people like us never got to ride on one.’
‘How did you get around then?’ asks Leo. ‘On vintages all the time?’
‘Too dangerous,’ says Granny. ‘Or at least we thought so. It seemed as though cyclists were always being killed by lorry drivers who couldn’t see them. Or choked by air pollution. No, we mostly went in cars.’
‘Electrocars? What, even if it wasn’t an emergency?’
‘Some electric, yes. But mostly petrol or diesel.’
‘What – hydrocarbons?’ Leo’s mouth stays open and his eyes widen. ‘Didn’t people know about climate change then?’
‘Don’t be cheeky; I’m not that old. Yes, people knew about climate change, but it wasn’t so easy to change the way you did things, not alone. Transport systems were based on oil, just like energy systems were based on fossil fuels and economic systems on theories of endless growth.’
‘Growth of what?’
‘Anything, really. As long as somebody sold it, and somebody else bought it, it was supposed to benefit us all.’
‘Like at the market?’ Leo loves the market. He’d stay there all Saturday, if it wasn’t for football, turning over the old books and toys. I’m pretty fond of it myself, but it’s mostly the freshly baked cakes I’m interested in.
‘Kind of like the market. But this stuff was all newly made, and most of it got thrown away pretty quickly.’
‘Thrown away? You mean reused?’ Leo is looking confused again.
‘Don’t worry, Leo,’ I say. ‘You’ll learn all about it in Economic History in a year or two. It’s really ghoulish stuff. Tonnes of plastic in the sea, people surviving ….’
‘That’s enough for now,’ says Mum briskly, coming in from the garden. She doesn’t like us to talk too lightly about the old days, with her parents being climate refugees. They nearly didn’t make it, which of course would have made her not exist, nor me and Leo. ‘We’ve got spare apples – will you take them for your classes?’
‘Cor, yes!’ says Leo. ‘Pun intended.’ He got a Beano annual at the market a few weeks ago, and has been regaling us with 20cent humour ever since.
‘That reminds me,’ I say. ‘We’re doing a project on memories of the economic shift for next week. Have you got any downloads, Granny, from the work you did?’
‘I didn’t do anything in the Shift, Ariel love. I wasn’t an economist or a politician. I’d just left uni when it all got going and had a part-time job flipping burgers at McDonald’s.’
‘What’s McDonald’s?’ asks Leo.
‘I’ll explain later,’ I say. ‘But you were telling me, Gran, you went to a church that did that programme. Wasn’t that a part of it all?’
She puts down the bottle of cleaning vinegar and bites thoughtfully on her lower lip. ‘It was, I suppose. I never really thought of it like that. For me, it all came out of buying fair trade stuff. You know, coffee, tea, cocoa. Things we can’t grow here.’
I nod. Worldtrade, we still have it. I don’t much like the taste of coffee, but I love the smell of the beans, especially the big sacks in the market. Jules who runs the stall lets me open one up and take a deep rich breath.
‘But why was it called fair trade?’ asks Leo. ‘Was there an unfair kind?’
‘Oh yes. Like Ariel says, you’ll learn about that soon enough. But it was so good, that mug of morning coffee, knowing you were a part of someone else’s wellbeing instead of making life worse for them. I just wished that more of what I did could be like that. You know, making human connections, not trampling on the earth or on other people. Building a fairer system that would give your generations the chance of a decent life.
‘Other people came to it differently, some through their concerns about climate change or inequality, some through thinking about all the banking crashes we had. And lots just through their sheer frustration at spending the best days of their lives sitting in front of a screen to accumulate more stuff and add to some multinational bottom line. But we shared – well, vision’s a highfaluting word for breakfast time, but that’s what it was, I suppose. A glimpse of a different sort of story. One that could go on for a lot longer, and include a lot more people than the one we seemed to be a part of.’
‘Was it only Christians thinking like that?’
‘Oh no. Once I started to look, I found loads of people, from all kinds of faith or no faith, with the same kind of ideas, and plenty of practical ways of bringing them about. But for me those ideas had a special resonance.’
‘What’s resonance?’ asks Leo.
‘Sorry, love, I’m getting carried back there. They rang true, I suppose you might say. They sounded the same notes as Jesus in the Gospels. You know, when he talked about giving to those who ask, about not storing up treasures, about God taking care of us and the sparrows and the lilies. And about doing his father’s will on earth as well as in heaven. It struck me that the systems we’d inherited weren’t doing much to help us do any of those.’
‘So you changed the systems?’ I ask.
‘Well, it wasn’t quite that simple. There was a lot about ourselves we needed to change too. Or to let God change. There was a lot of thinking, a lot of praying, a lot of talking and a lot of listening. I’m not sure I was very good, especially at the last one. But yes, I suppose we played a small part in the change that happened, even if all we did was light up some of the connections.’
She smiles, running her palm over the old wooden table. ‘Looking back, it was so much more important than I realised at the time. That new way of doing economics, putting people and the natural world at the centre, that’s the framework for what you have now.’
‘Like the sticks that Mum grows the beans up?’
‘Human beans.’ Leo gives one of his Dennis the Menace guffaws.
‘And if it hadn’t happened,’ continues Granny, stroking the grain of the wood, ‘if we’d stayed in the old story …’
‘Then you’d not have these Egremont Russets to share with your friends,’ says Mum at the doorway, her arms laden. ‘Off you go now, or you’ll miss your dad.’
‘Granny,’ I say, when Leo’s run off and Mum’s spooning the rest of the blackberries into a bowl for tomorrow.
She quickly wipes her eyes, ‘Bothersome flour, it gets everywhere. Don’t thank me, Ariel. It was a pleasure. No, it was a joy.’