Meeting

Joanna peered through the steamed up windows of the bus to see where she was; in the flash of passing headlights she saw little spikes of water leaping from the puddles as the rain struck. She thought she recognised the bus shelter outside the bank, which meant two stops to go. The bus was almost empty at this time of a winter night and felt pleasantly protected against the weather. It came to her that she was glad to be out on her own and she was looking forward to the meeting, despite its inevitable drawbacks.

She arrived at the hall in plenty of time but the seats were quite full already. As she walked across the room she saw Dan smiling at her from the other side of the committee table, discreetly indicating the empty chair next to him.

She stopped to say hello to various people but managed to manoeuvre herself round the table next to him easily enough before things began.

Dorothy Marshall, doing the attendance, paused when she got to her, silently mouthing “No Greg?”. Joanna shook her head and gave a rueful grimace. Beside her she was aware of Dan’s quick glance in her direction. _ '

The bus on the way back was almost crowded, carrying cinema and pub goers home and she found herself sharing a seat with a girl who was forever twisting round to take selfies of herself with the two girls in the seat behind in varying poses, all with a great deal of giggling.

The meeting had gone well, she thought. She and Dan had had their say and they got the vote they wanted — though the result was pretty much a foregone conclusion. A lot of members had come to the pub for a drink afterwards and there had been a good atmosphere, relaxing and cheerful.

Dan had insisted on walking her to the bus stop under the protection of his large umbrella and they had shared the satisfied glow of political victory. Just as the bus was coming he had bent towards her under the umbrella, but the movement of others and other umbrellas towards the doors had forced him to move back and she had climbed in hastily and waved from the window. Now she realised she was blushing. Had he really been trying to kiss her? Was she really surprised? At least nobody else from the school was involved with‘ the local party.

As she travelled towards home she realised her happy mood was beginning to dissipate. If things went their normal dreary way Greg would be gloomy, tired and remote. Alistair would be cloistered in his room or if downstairs glued to his phone. He seldom spoke these days, at least to anyone in the family. Beth would probably be out still, but when in she seemed to have only one mode, angry contempt for anything connected with her parents.

What had happened that going home produced something close to dread?

There was a forbidden space between her and Greg, a no-man’s land they dared not explore.

Who would have thought that politics of all things could have come between them? It had brought them together after all; they had met at a Labour Party conference — or at least a conference party. She had heard him give a short but heartfelt speech from the floor on human rights and immigration. He had made many of the other speakers sound mechanical or self-serving. He had seemed embarrassed by the applause. She had found his slightly clumsy earnest manner endearing and his speech had really moved her, perhaps partly because the issues touched her personally, at least as far as her family background went.

He had spoken of why socialism absolutely required the acceptance of immigrants and their treatment as full equals — because they were fellow workers who needed the same protections against exploitation and the same rights as citizens and as human beings. She remembered some of it word for word still. “They need us as we need them to fight together side by side for a fairer society.” lt was an important speech because there was a growing movement at conference in favour of stricter border controls and limiting immigrant numbers to protect jobs and it did a lot to show that up for what she was sure it was — divisive and mean-spirited.

At the evening party he had been surrounded by a large group of admirers and sympathisers but she had seen him escape after a while to the far end of the bar and had taken her opportunity and walked up next to him. He had waited politely for her to orders first and she had offered to buy him a drink in return. When he had resisted she had insisted, telling him off for his outmoded chivalry or male machismo in a playful and, she had to admit, decidedly flirty manner. He had looked confused for a moment but then laughed and accepted. He was clearly relieved that she wasn’t just cornering him to add her own compliments or start on a political sermon of her own.

They had sat down together with their drinks. After a few awkward pauses they were soon rattling happily away – about the conference, politics in general and their own backgrounds, what had brought them there and how they had got involved in political activism. He had more or less perfect working class socialist credentials, with his Liverpool slum childhood as the son of an immigrant docks worker, even if the family had risen to a measure of gentility after his father’s promotion. Sharing their experience of the rewards and frustrations of local party politics led to the realisation that they lived within half a mile of each other, just across the borders of adjoining boroughs. They had both laughed delightedly at the coincidence and then fallen silent, embarrassed by their obvious happiness at the discovery.

She peered past the selfie girl out of the window; it was still raining and she was surprised to see that they were not even half way to her home stop. She still had ten minutes to go. They had made quite a team when they started going to the same branch meetings, which they did as soon as they started living together. Greg had the working class roots and that disarmingly forthright manner, plus the accent of course; she had the confidence in public speaking of a successful teacher. They had been a force. Even the arrival of their kids hadn’t slowed them down much; her parents had been happy to babysit.

Now what had drawn them together was pulling them apart. She didn’t want to think their convictions had changed much or really that they themselves were so very different from the ardent young socialists who had met at the conference. How had they ended up on opposite sides?

“If your lot have their way there’ll never be real change. It’s just profits first as usual and a bit of window dressing. You’ve let yourself be taken in. The EU is a capitalist organisation — it will always exploit the poor, the really poor.”

It was said with a mixture of anger and defeat.

Of course, later, she couldn’t remember when, she had attacked in her turn, asking if he had forgotten what the war had done to their two families, what was more important than a future of peace and open borders? Was he deaf to the vast silent protest of the dead? She hadn’t actually asked that last question but it was in her head, a phrase her Polish grandfather had used in something he had written. She had been brought up surrounded by mementoes, even memorials, of the family that had been lost; the disaster of war was woven into her childhood.

Of course the vote was the moment. At least they were still arguing up to that. When they could find no way of resolving the difference between them, they both withdrew from argument in dismay and so from real communication. It wouldn’t have been so obvious if the children had been younger and occupied more of their time and energy but Alistair and Beth were now busy avoiding contact with their parents and any kind of interest, any attempt at support apart from money and food was oppression and interference

So they were left uncomfortably alone with each other. There didn’t seem to be any final way of breaking through. They had times when things seemed normal, even comfortable again, but such intervals were soon over and when she next looked round, there it was again, that unnavigable space between them.

He was being naive, stubbornly naive, in a way she had never expected of him. He had always had ideals and strong beliefs of course, but he’d never been rigidly doctrinaire or dreamily unrealistic. What was he dreaming of — a socialist revolution in the UK? He was in danger of becoming one of those embittered, ageing party hacks stuck in a previous century who religiously voted against every modernising change in policy or direction. Was she being unfair? He wasn’t really one of those, was he?

When she got in, the house was very quiet. She couldn’t tell from the hall, hanging up her wet coat, where anyone was. She found Greg in the front room asleep in the leather armchair, a book fallen open on the floor by his feet. She picked it up and put it on the low table between the chairs — the Tawney he’d been reading for weeks. She heard him stir behind her.

“All seems very quiet here,” she said. “Did Ali eat anything in the end?” ’

“He grabbed something from the fridge. Some old pizza bits I think.”

“Any idea what he’s been up to?” .

“The usual stuff — some long phone calls I heard – rest of the time on the laptop I imagine.”

“You were asleep.”

“Not Tawney’s fault. Chair’s too comfortable and it was very quiet here.” _ ~ ,

“At least Ali doesn’t blast us with heavy metal any more.”

“But now we don’t even know what he’s into, do we? Anyway I’m off to bed. No point sleeping in the chair when I've got a perfectly good bed to go to.” Greg heaved himself to his feet and collected his book from the table.

“You coming up now?” he asked. ,

“It’s only 10.30. I’ll make myself a drink and watch a bit of tele first - not that there’s ever anything to watch these days.”

She saw him disappear up the stairs. Neither of them had mentioned the meeting. Greg would have known about the vote and the probable result, she was sure. She couldn’t think of any way of talking about it safely and she couldn’t blame him for avoiding the subject, but it was a measure of how strained things were between them that he hadn't asked how the evening had gone and hadn’t risked mentioning that Dorothy and others had asked if he was coming. It made her feel guilty of course, his not coming; his directness and common sense were a real loss to the local party but it was more than that; she knew how important it had always been to him and how upset and angry he must be to keep away like this. But what was she supposed to do? '

As she was settling down resignedly to the last half of some far-fetched murder/mystery serial with a cup of peppermint tea she heard a key in the door.

“Hi Beth!” she called.

Beth came in dripping water all over the floor from a pink cagoule but at least she looked fairly cheerful.

“I thought you were at a meeting!” she said.

“All finished. I’ve been back a while.” said Joanna.

“Where’s Dad?”

“Gone to bed. He was asleep in the armchair.”

Beth stared goggle-eyed at the television. “You’re not actually watching that crap?”

“Just winding down before bed.”

“At least Dad has stopped wasting his time with those pathetic meetings. What made him see the light?”

“Politics is important to him, to both of us.”

“It never changes anything. It’s just a power game. Direct action is the only thing that works.”

“That’s just likely to get you arrested. ”

“Actually there’s a clear correlation between number of arrests and getting a result? We need the cameras.”

“Yes, but you have so much to lose. I can’t help worrying about you. You’re so young all of you. Don’t you have any faith in political methods?” .

“Why should we? Nothing is being done. Anyway I’m old enough to decide what risks I take. Is there any food?”

“I don’t know what’s left. I think there’s pasta bake in the oven but if not try the fridge!”

“Oh great! Thanks!”

Beth retired to her room with some microwaved stuff, against the rules, slamming the door when she had mildly protested.

She had lost all interest in the TV, if she ever had any, so she took her cup into the kitchen and tidied up a bit before heading to bed. She knocked on Ali’s door on her way up and reminded him to go to bed at a reasonable hour as he had school first thing. There was no reply, which could mean anything, even that he was already asleep, or just had his headphones in. She remembered she hadn’t checked the back door and had to go down again, turn various lights on and off again and walk up a second time in near darkness. The house felt eerily quiet behind her.

Greg was asleep lying on his back with his mouth sightly open, the same book lying open on the duvet, his bedside lamp still on. Even asleep he looked defeated and disapproving.

She went into the bathroom to get undressed to avoid waking him. She found herself looking at herself in the mirror, blushed and looked away. ‘Second time today!’ she thought.

She was brushing her teeth when her phone vibrated in her bag in the bedroom behind her. She half knew who it must be before she got there. It was 11.30 after all. She went back into the bathroom with the phone. The text read ‘Sorry if I startled you at the bus stop. I nearly poked some poor old lady’s eye out with the umbrella. Hope all quiet at home. See you tomorrow. xx’.

Late night texts now! She’d have to put the phone on silent - or tell him not to. Where was she heading?

She climbed carefully into bed next to Greg, not that she was likely to wake him She lay there for a while, trying not to think of anything, hoping sleep would come. When it eventually did, there was a slight upward curve on the lips of her sleeping face.

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