By three o’clock, at least twenty-five of us were gathered around the fire waiting for the meeting to start. Our numbers had been temporarily bolstered by members from Ruby gate, our nearest neighbours, who were camped half a mile away. Rori and I sat side by side on milk crates while Barbel, wearing a poncho made from a blanket, walked around the ragged circle handing out Common Good, the newsletter. Everyone accepted it keenly, even the couple with their arms slung around each other who seemed too deep in conversation to notice. I shared my copy with Rori and together we turned through the photocopied patchwork of handwritten articles, cartoons and announcements, pausing at the centre pages where a letter from a woman in prison had been reprinted. Dear Womyn, missing you all like mad, it began. ‘She’s incredibly up-beat,’ remarked Rori, ‘considering.’ It was impossible to imagine being that woman writing letters from a prison cell.
My first day had passed enjoyably in Rori’s company. After helping Jean unpack the shopping, we’d peeled potatoes together – well, me and Jean had done most of the peeling while Rori told stories about the month she’d spent hitchhiking in Andalucia. Since cooking in the dark was hopeless, the women usually prepared the vegetables by daylight and left them in pots of water ready for the evening meal.
My eye fell on another patch from the newsletter - Defending yourself in court? It asked Confused by the rules? Come and join in skills-sharing workshop with other ♀ at Main Gate. It was interesting to see what they did with that gender symbol. I was in the middle of an article about Gore-Tex, a wonder fabric which could both repel rain and let moisture escape, wondering if I could fit my fat sleeping bag inside a Gore-Tex sack, as suggested, when Jean raised her voice above the general chatter.
‘Shall we begin?’ The women hushed and Jean regarded the gathering over her half-moon specs. ‘Wonderful to see so many here.’
It might have been the opening of a WI meeting, but despite the fact that many of the women were indeed drinking tea, there were no twin-sets or pearls on display. Instead the general look was one of utilitarianism – waterproofs, hiking socks, thick-soled boots, army surplus ensembles and the occasional flash of rainbow wool.
‘Would any new women like to introduce themselves?’ said Jean, casting around. Rori gave me a playful nudge and Angela, sitting cross-legged on a roll of carpet, glanced over. I got up in a half-stand to give my name. A few heads nodded in my direction.
‘First of all,’ said Jean, ‘housekeeping. We do need to keep on top of the chores I’m afraid because it seems we’re facing pressure from LAWE.’ Jeers all around.
‘Newbury residents’ group,’ explained Rori. ‘Locals Against Women’s Encampment’
‘Or League of Absolute Wankers,’ Sam added, pulling on her bootlaces.
Jean continued. ‘I realise we’re all grown-ups, but we do need to be diligent about litter collection and attending to the shit pit.’ It was odd to hear the phrase on her lips. I thought fretfully of the peeing incident and Angela wheeling past with her barrow.
‘In addition, let’s be mindful about gifts. I know we’ve had this discussion before, but this collective must be about sharing rather than collecting.’ I looked again to Rori.
‘One of the women was stockpiling stuff we’d been given,’ she said. ‘Thermal socks, new sleeping bags. There was a scene.’
Jean ran through a few other points concerning camp life before getting on to what she called ‘the meat of the meeting’: the upcoming blockade. Conversations began about which groups could be approached for support, and someone suggested the Reading University Women’s Society, when Sam, still tugging her bootlaces, spoke up.
‘Blockading only gets us so far. The gravel trucks make it inside. They’re late, but they get in. We need to up the ante. Everyone’s used to seeing women sitting in the road, singing. Nothing’s changed,’ she said. ‘We need to make a statement.’
‘How?’ came another voice.
‘I’ve got an idea,’ said a woman in a red hat. She looked around the group meaningfully. ‘We should dress up as pigs.’
‘Satire?’ asked a young woman behind me. ‘Like in Animal Farm?’
‘No, PIGS. Police.’
A whoop of laughter. ‘Brilliant!’
More voices broke in. ‘Where are we supposed to get the uniforms?’
‘We can’t wear uniforms, we’ll be as bad as they are.’
‘But it’s subversion.’
Everyone was talking together. Rori balanced a cigarette paper on her palm and with pinched fingers began sowing a seam of loose tobacco along its centre, taking care to protect the paper from the wind.
‘What are the trucks for?’ I asked.
‘Building work on the silos. We blockade to stop them getting through.’ Manipulating the tobacco into a neat roll, she skimmed her tongue over the paper’s gummed edge, sealed the tube and then, tearing a small square from her Rizla packet, rolled and inserted a filter. Finally, she dipped a twig into the fire, lit her cigarette and inhaled. It was an operation of fluid beauty. She offered me the tin.
‘It’s all right thanks,’ I said, reaching for my new pouch of Golden Virginia. ‘Got my own.’
As the debate about costumes intensified, I made my first shaky attempt at a cigarette while Sam’s strong voice rose up.
‘Listen, this camp has been established for over a year, right? We’ve got to push forward. Surprise is our best weapon.’
‘We shouldn’t use language from the male lexicon,’ someone declared. A discussion started up about gender-neutral language, but Sam wasn’t distracted for long. ‘We’ve got to remember why we’re here.’
‘What about the diggers? This is common land, or at least it was,’ came another voice.
‘Are they sending in diggers?’ I asked Rori. I still didn’t know what a silo was.
‘No, she means the Diggers, you know, like the Levellers.’
I glanced back at Angela. She had such a pale, serious face. Under the hood of her parka, she reminded me of a daguerreotype I’d seen in a history O-level book, a little girl wearing a bonnet and looking out with an old woman’s stare.
I’d overfilled my cigarette paper and couldn’t get control of it, and had just decided to extract a fat lump of tobacco when a gust of wind got up and blew everything away, leaving me with an empty hand. I made a disbelieving face. Rori giggled. Angela’s eye landed on me briefly.
The red-hatted woman was speaking again. ‘But we could make authority look at itself. Think about it: pictures in the papers, photos of police dragging away other police.’
Sam cut in. ‘Stunts are well and good but I came here to do something.’ There was silence, only the fire and a bird disturbing the trees. And then she said, ‘It’s time we cut the fence.’
It was as if she’d suggested setting someone alight. A chorus started up immediately, but Sam wasn’t swayed and only raised her voice louder, ‘Look at the ANC. They could only use non-violence for so long.’
‘We’re not the ANC, their human rights are being violated.’
‘So are ours. The first human right is to live, isn’t it?’
‘Cutting the fence is an act of violence,’ said a middle-aged woman in a snood arranged so that only her face was visible, like a nun’s from her wimple.
‘They’re planning to put ninety-six nuclear missiles in there in a year’s time and we’re worried about cutting holes in some wire meshing. This is mad.’ Sam shook her head, confounded.
‘We’re non-violent witnesses,’ said the snood lady.
Everyone was talking over each other. The only one looking settled was Di, who sat knitting, the firelight playing on her round face.
Sam raised her voice. ‘This is a resistance camp, we’re involved in a struggle.’
‘Shouldn’t Jean do something?’ I said to Rori as the voices grew louder still.
‘She’s not the chairwoman, there’s no hierarchy.’
‘Cutting the fence is a criminal act,’ repeated the lady in the snood.
‘I’m not going back to Holloway,’ said a small woman, her black eyes darting fretfully around. ‘I can’t go there again.’
‘You don’t have to, Petra,’ said her neighbour, a big woman in an even bigger cardigan.
‘You don’t know what it’s like,’ Petra looked tearful. The woman wrapped an arm around her. I’d lit a new cigarette but it kept going out before I’d had a chance to inhale. Anyway I was taking in more smoke from the fire because somehow I’d managed to sit in the wrong place again. ‘It’s horrible,’ said Petra before disappearing back into the woman’s armpit, like a mouse into a woolly hole.
Angela raised her hand. ‘Shall we return to Monday’s action?’ she said, in her call a spade a spade accent.
A sort of calm descended and for a moment there was only the crackling of the fire. Angela produced a pencil and notebook.
‘We’ll need to be in place by 7am. According to information they’re expecting a mass delivery of building supplies, so our presence will be holding back its safe passage.’ All eyes were on her. ‘As ever, we can’t predict police response, and whoever volunteers for blockading may also be risking arrest.’
‘They make you wee on the floor if you can’t hold it in,’ came Petra’s voice from the big woman’s armpit. Angela ignored her.
‘Can we have a show of hands from volunteers?’
My cigarette had gone out for a third time but I didn’t bother trying to relight it: I wasn’t attending to anything apart from the word ‘arrest’ clanking with a cold echo in my head.
Sam’s hand was in the air. Beside me, Rori raised her arm. Angela began the count. She came to me and paused. This was my chance: this was when I had to stop thinking about Tony and our fantasy semi-detached, dog-walking life together and start acting for the future. Plus I wanted to prove to Rori I had backbone; that, above all else, was suddenly vital. I forced away the thought of prison and raised my hand. Angela counted me in.
Darkness had crept up behind our backs and the tea-making ritual was repeated. Some of the women from Ruby gate stayed for a cup while others trailed homewards towards their own bent teapots and muddy firesides.
‘At least this one didn’t end in a row,’ said Rori, yawning and raising her arms to the sky. As Sam stoked the fire, a wild flame leapt up and we whooped.
‘Hey, it’s Saturday night,’ said the girl behind me as if she’d just remembered, which she probably had. I’d almost forgotten myself.
‘They’ll be having their disco at the base,’ said Sam.
‘They have a disco in there?’ I asked, unable to imagine it.
‘Oh yeah. You see the taxis going in, girls from Newbury all tarted up,’ said Sam, poking the fire. ‘Fraternisers.’
‘They’re young, they don’t know any better,’ said Jean.
‘They should. Pathetic isn’t it, we’re out here trying to save their stupid arses, and they’re in there rolling over for the military.’ Sam pulled her jumper over her knees for warmth. ‘Never mind. We can have our own party. Let’s have a song, girls.’ She began in her loud voice and a few other women followed. The words had been fashioned to the tune of da-do-ron-ron:
Sitting in the White House with his Stetson on
They call him Ron with the Neutron Bomb
Barbel crossed the mud to fetch her guitar. Impromptu group singing would normally have made me want to leave a room, but there was no room to leave, and anyway, I was here to become a new person. We sang several verses and it wasn’t too bad because the song was upbeat, not the slow sort where someone wanted to do a solo with their eyes shut. After a slug from the circulating whisky, Rori broke off from singing and whispered, ‘You know, I haven’t had any action for nearly three months, which is positively sobering.’
I took my turn on the bottle. It was like taking a sip from the fire, but it made me forget my freezing earlobes at least.
‘You said you did a protest at the main gate last week.’ I passed the whisky on, my throat stripped bare.
She threw her head back in delight. ‘I mean the other sort of action,’ she said under her breath.
‘Oh, I see.’ Whatever face I was pulling made her smile and clutch my arm.
‘You’re not shocked are you?’
The women had reached the chorus of the song again, The neutron bomb, Ron, the neutron bomb.
‘Did you have a boyfriend back in… where was it?’
Tony, Tony, Tony. My heart lurched despite myself. I thought of how he’d squeeze me to his side as we walked. I thought of the night in The Volunteer when he’d told me he loved me. How I’d made him say it again the next day to be sure.
‘We broke up.’
‘Because you were coming here? That happens.’ She played with one of the silver peace earrings. ‘They’re afraid their girlfriends are going to turn into raving feminists.’
‘It was before I decided to come.’
‘I see. Is that why you came, broken heart – join the Foreign Legion?’
‘No, not exactly.’
‘Sorry, that was crass. Forgive me?’
She had a way of concentrating her attention on you, making you feel as if you were the most important person in the world. I shrugged, befuddled. ‘I thought I should, you know… I wanted to, do something meaningful,’ I said. ‘There was nothing for me at home anyway. It was very…’ I couldn’t think of the word.
‘Yes, that’s it.’
‘I know what you mean.’
How? People like her didn’t come from new towns made of concrete, they entertained, they had debates about foreign policy, they knew the plots to operas.
The nearly full moon was encircled by a fuzzy white halo. The women had moved on to a satirical song about being funded by the KGB and burning toast.
Rori nodded. ‘We are doing something meaningful.’ I smiled at her. ‘So what was he like, this boyfriend of yours?’ I told her a little about Tony and then we talked about relationships, though it was only Rori who spoke in the plural.
‘It’s so nice to have a girls’ chat,’ she said confidentially. ‘I miss that.’
I warmed at her remark and yet puzzled over it. Wasn’t the entire camp full of girls? ‘But you and Angela are good friends?’ I said, digging for clues; I’d seen the two of them talking before the meeting began but couldn’t tell how deep their friendship went.
‘Oh, I love her to bits but she’s not exactly one for gossip and frolic,’ said Rori. That much I’d guessed. ‘So, you’re over Tony?’
‘Yes, I was a bit cut up… but it’s fine now.’
I thought back to the wretched state of not belonging to the world, Mum and Dad moving around me as if they were behind glass. Rori fixed her attention on the fire.
‘Things were bad for me for a while in my second year at university. Too much Sylvia Plath I expect,’ said Rori. ‘I didn’t know how bad until a friend phoned my parents and they took me away.’
‘Nice country house for the posh nut jobs.’
Her way of speaking was so unselfconscious and direct. I didn’t know what to say.
‘Oh, don’t worry, I wasn’t in long, got myself out as quickly as I could. Worked out what they were looking for. Insight is key. Poor insight shows you have a lack of understanding about your condition – and you must acknowledge you have a condition, not merely a human condition like everyone else, but whatever condition it is they decide upon.’ She said there was something called group therapy where the residents sat in circles and discussed their families. ‘It’s a bore, isn’t it, listening to other people’s mental distress. There’ve been a few evenings here where it all gets unpacked, childhood trauma and abusive uncles and God knows what.’ She stopped abruptly and reached a hand to my arm, ‘Don’t listen to me. It can be dreary here sometimes but so can anywhere, and mostly it’s wonderful. What everyone is doing is wonderful. And it’s so liberating – you’ll see – like being a child again, an outlaw, living in the woods, playing, fending for yourself.’
She made it sound like Swallows & Amazons and I tried to recast the primitive settlement in her light. I wanted to know more, but Angela had risen from her carpet roll to join us. We shifted around to make room and conversation turned to the blockade. I told her I was looking forward to it, which wasn’t quite true, and she nodded, offering me a slight smile.
‘What’s on your pin?’ I asked, indicating the green and white button attached to her parka.
She glanced down, ‘Pax Christi. I represented them at university.’
‘Angela was working on a Masters in Political Science,’ said Rori, looping her scarf once more around her swan neck.
As she talked it was clear that Angela knew her ideological onions. Her sentences flowed together without ums or pauses, as if she’d written them down first. Listening to her reminded me of the time I’d seen Tony use the microfiche in his college library, that swoosh through swathes of information before the close-up seizure.
The bottle was coming our way. Rori took another swig, but Angela, who was talking about the glorification of the military, passed and the bottle was handed to me.
‘What’s disturbing,’ she said, ‘is the unquestioning acceptance of militarism and its promotion as a civilised and civilising force. War is bloody.’ I took my sip, re-experiencing the sour-dry heat. ‘The image of Margaret Thatcher riding on a tank draped with a union jack lends it a false credibility. After a while we become desensitised.’
Rori agreed. ‘Living here, exposed to the elements, it sharpens you up,’ she told me.
Militarism, said Angela, helped to give credence to a mode of thinking which took it for granted that whole nations should exist in fear of one another. She talked on in the firelight. Fetishising. Atavistic. Proliferation. ‘Ultimately, arms-selling is about power and profit,’ she said. The determination in her pale face was impressive. What would it be like to be as clever as Angela, to live in a building of so many rooms filled with fascinating things and with plenty of space for storage? I lived in a two-up two-down but was hoping to extend.
Barbel played her guitar, fingers skipping along the fretboard. I didn’t know any of the words, but when the song changed and slowed, I swayed left and right, picking up the general idea.
With our lovely feathers we shall fly
A dozen voices swelled around the fireside. Di gave me one of her smiles, then closed her eyes and continued knitting. I opened my mouth and, still cringing a bit despite myself, began to sing.