Author Archives: Judith Gunn

#Peace

This is a story I wrote a few years ago, it did well in Stroud Short Stories, but it seems that now is an appropriate time to re-publish it.

It’s been fifteen years, well, fifteen years and eleven days, 6 hours 32 minutes and 7…8…9 seconds to be exact; it took fifteen years and eleven days for world peace to happen. Mind you when I say world peace, it’s not what you think. It’s not eternal. It’s not the blissful harmony of the entire world in peaceful coexistence forever. I doubt this will last. It’s just one day, one day when no shots were fired. But you know what? I think it was worth it, I really do! Just for one day, we did it for just one day!

So how did all this start? Why no shots? Well, it was not just one thing, one event; don’t think that this is about North Korea letting off a nuclear bomb or that idiot president invading Mexico, or dictators, or revolutions, or Las Vegas or that school shooting in America, or that other school shooting, or the one in Florida, or the other one… or… you get the picture. No, it wasn’t like that, that’s not how it happened. It was more the drip- drip of water torture that did it, not a massive tsunami (so as not to mix my metaphors) event. It was event after event after event and then there was one last straw (now I have mixed my metaphors) and it began.

Well, like all good protest movements it started with immolation. First, it was the mother of one of those many US shootings. I honestly can’t remember which one, but she was clever this woman and desperate. She poured petrol in a shape on the ground. She went live on Facebook, TikTok, Twitter sent up a drone to stream it live, gathered a crowd and a pretty large audience online, most begging her not to, some being evil. She lit the match, went up like a torch and from above the cameras revealed the words written in flame “No more”.

That was it, that started a spate, a virus, a pandemic, if you like, of women and men from across the world who flung themselves into the flames. They did it in battle-torn areas, rural areas where quiet murder persisted. They did it in slums, they did it in high rise towers and then it happened, one tweet and a hashtag; @someoneorother tweeted “Women don’t have babies to be murdered by men how about #nomore #nomorebabies”.

And #nomorebabies went viral.

This wasn’t about no more sex, oh no, sex was still definitely on the cards. It was just about no more babies, not some kind of fertility fail because of pollution, not even a punishment, just rest, a rest from creating a population that murders itself. Why should women do that? They asked. Why should a woman, give over her body (and boy does a woman give over her body) to have a child, recover from having a child (or not) nurse that child, lose sleep, lose sex, lose sanity, lose her job, lose her career, all in order to raise a child for somebody else to shoot?

Of course, nobody thought it would take off, but you know social media, it got everywhere and suddenly Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Reddit even Google+, you name it, all were sporting women denouncing pregnancy and saying #nomorebabies. Initially, no one quite knew why, until one female prime minister of a West African country stepped forward and said “no more babies, until not one shot is fired across the world”.

And the violence got worse – of course. They, whoever “they” are thought intimidation would work. They were wrong.

After only one year it was clear that the birth rate was falling. The pledge was working. It was patchy at first, China’s birth rate plummeted, Italy, Germany, Australia were quick to follow with a 75% drop in two years. UK was 62% and the US 40%. Needless to say another mass shooting, this time in a children’s soccer championship, kicked their birth rate into the hills, once the soccer mums made the pledge, the birth rate in the US was doomed.

To some women it was a relief, a relief not to have children, children who would be sent to war to die, or worse than that, children sent to war to kill. Mothers who raised soldiers brought up not only victims but killers. They raised children not only to be killed themselves but to kill another child, and so some other mother suffered what no mother should. It was a relief then to some not to have to fear that – either way.

 Then #nomore went political and won! Political leaders who became #nomore won elections, but still, gangs, extremists, random idiots, border disputes and power struggles claimed victim after victim, although it was slowing down. In fact, it slowed down a lot, enough to give us hope. Hell, in America in one year the gun violence death toll dropped from 9,000 (and that was lower… for them) to 998, under a thousand, just. There was hope, real hope, but there was backlash too.

A militant wing of #nomore developed, which definitely defeated the purpose of the exercise, but they didn’t see that. They argued that if they could stop all pregnancy by fair means or foul, then the impulse to world peace (for a day, remember) would be stronger, it would happen quicker, it would be worth it. The mainstream wing of #nomore disagreed and after the murder of two pregnant women in the UK, the militant wing was disowned, the culprits handed over, and it was made quite clear that world peace meant world peace, and women and their supportive, their very, very supportive men, had to accept that.

But there were benefits (other than much quieter journeys on trains and planes). At first, there was panic on the stock market. If there were no young people, who would pay the tax that would pay our pensions when we got old? Financial institutions started spouting doom and gloom. There would be catastrophe; we would all die in squalor, living in a Mad Max dystopia! But then a strange thing happened. The economy improved. Well, I say the economy, it was productivity. It is a wonder what women can do when they have got the time! All of sudden there were millions of women in their twenties and thirties who didn’t have to find childcare, who didn’t have to dash back from work to relieve the nanny, who didn’t have to spend all their money on that nanny. They could push for that promotion because they were there doing the job. They were available and able. They could lean in and take the prize and then improve it. Women made huge scientific advances, now they could devote themselves to their academic work and make sure the supervisor didn’t pinch it. There’s an all-woman team preparing to go to set up a base on the moon. There has been significant progress in environmental care, you know how good we women are at cleaning! The upshot of all that is that our pensions are safe, our productivity, our stewardship, our environmental policies and the readjustment of wealth particularly with reference to guns, is better. We can afford the NHS, education and the emergency services, and we lowered the pension age for everyone! Think on that!

Peace does mean prosperity and now we have done it, now we are there! Almost. I‘m not counting any chickens yet. Nobody is, not after the last two times. Oh yes, three years ago we nearly did it. There was a countdown in Time Square, fireworks were made ready across the world. We got as far as number four in the countdown, and some asshole in Texas let rip on the party-goers in downtown Houston, go figure. The second time, nobody was counting, it was more mooted and at ten minutes to midnight, breaking news told us that a family dispute in somewhere, could have been anywhere, except it wasn’t, it was America again, a family dispute had ended in a shooting. For a minute we all hoped for life-changing injuries, but it wasn’t, it was death, so here we are again. Third time lucky and … Yes!  There it goes! Midnight! All we asked for was just one day, just one day with no shots fired, no killing, we didn’t think it would last forever, we know it’s not over yet, but we were making a point and I think it was a good one.

Anyway now it’s done, I’ve no regrets. I never got to have children. I missed the boat, but there have been compensations because now I’m off to oversee the final decommissioning of Trident, a big old party up in the north to finish nuclear weapons in the UK. Oh, did I not mention? I became Prime Minister. Well, I had all that time on my hands, what else was I going to do?                 

TREE POSE

Here is a non scary Halloween tale, for those who prefer gentle ghosts.

She could see the old tree from the kitchen window, it stood on the crest of the hill opposite. The lonely tree, braced against the wind and weather for hundreds of years… or maybe ten, she didn’t really know anything about trees. Trees communicated, or so she had read somewhere, although that tree was alone, perhaps it needed a hug. Hell! She needed a hug! Mind you she probably needed a walk more. Outside, blue sky haunted the clouds, a hint of warmth whispered on the window. There was the merest blush of green on some of the hedgerow and the telltale whisper of white on the blackthorn. She didn’t really have an excuse, she should go for a walk.

            She was a wimp walker, a fair weather wanderer, not even lockdown could tempt her out on a bitter day, but it was either that or have nothing to say to book club on Zoom. A brisk walk could provide a topic of conversation, more than just the frustrations of unread books, no shopping and no haircuts. They all obeyed the rules, they just did so loudly; she just waited. A walk then, there was bound to be a dog or two, some birds, more signs of spring. She put down her coffee and looked again at the tree, it seemed more distant now, but hey, she wasn’t that old, she could still do it, although she might take a stick.

            The wind was colder than she had expected, but the blue sky deepened as she headed out. She put on her mask. She liked it, it kept her warm, it hid her from the world, kept her safe, so she ignored the disdainful looks of the mask-less as they breathed past her. She would not be diverted from her walk. She was determined, her objective was to hug a tree… it was further than she thought and an uphill struggle. She arrived at the crest breathless, mask less and grateful for the bench, but the tree, the tree was not alone.

            A young man stood next to it, ill dressed for the weather, just a light hoody, cotton trousers and bare feet. Bare feet! Her well honed late middle age disapproval came to the fore, some half baked hippy perhaps, or a proper tree hugger. Although maybe she shouldn’t disapprove so much, after all she was there to hug a tree. She watched from the bench, a safe distance away, if he was aware of her he didn’t show it. He stood very still, very straight, and, as she watched, he raised his knee and stood on one leg. Then he positioned his foot against his thigh and lifted his arms to the sky.

            “Tree pose” he said. Clearly he was aware of her “You should try it.”

            “Oh I’m a bit old for all that.”

            He lowered his leg and turned to her. “You’re never too old.”

She had known he was going to say that. He was right of course, late middle age was precisely the time to exercise, especially in lockdown. He turned back to the view, repositioned himself and set the pose on the other leg. He was a cliché of all those yoga videos on YouTube. The ones that feature the beautiful young, standing in impossible poses against a magnificent sunset, by the sea, or in the mountains. She looked away and took in the view, time for an old lady to stop looking at a young man.

            That night she slept well and rose rested. The walk had done her good, so she resolved to go again that afternoon. This morning though, she would have a little go at tree pose. Well why not?

It was not a resounding success, more of a learning curve and far too much time was spent trying to find an instructor on YouTube who didn’t irritate her. There was talk of savasana, chaturunga, vinyasa, all of which sounded like food. At last, she found a smiley lady whose simple demonstrations and explanations of how this was a practice, always a practice, got her standing on one leg for a second or two without holding the chair, although she should have moved her coffee cup.

            He was there again, breathing deeply, on one leg, blocking the tree, so there was still no chance of a tree hug. A little dog shot up to the tree and started barking, it jumped and circled, keen to be heard. His owner called him, he responded, well trained, but trotted first to the bench where she was sitting, breathless. He growled intermittently and sniffed at her feet. “Sorry” said the owner as he passed. “I don’t know what’s got into him today.”

            Practice became her day. Her body tensed and centred, her naval drawn to her spine, to support the core… sort of. She pressed into all four corners of her foot, whatever that meant, and her focus (or her dishtri apparently) was on the distant tree, her now regular destination after lunch.

            She watched him as he changed his moves. “What’s that one?” She wasn’t going to pretend that she wasn’t interested, that she didn’t come any more to hug the tree, but to watch him stand. “Sun salute” he replied. “It’s warm today, seemed right. How’s your tree pose?” He asked.

            She was a little surprised, she could have denied it, but then she realised she had not sat down, that she stood straight, not breathless. “It’s coming on.”

            “You’ll have to show me” he said.

            “Oh I don’t know about that, I’ll fall down the hill.” He didn’t reply, but stood in tree pose, his stillness silenced them. A family wandered past, a toddler stopped to watch. She imitated, her hands raised above her head, her foot lifted. “She’s doing yoga” her father said.

            “Tree pose” said her mum.  “God knows why.”

            It had been three weeks and she had practiced every day. She was gratified that, even at her age, her muscles could respond, improve and strengthen. She could do this. She could be one of those still, strong humans, who could gaze at a view while strengthening their core.

            They didn’t know each other’s name, but she assumed that this moment in his day anchored his lockdown loneliness as it did hers. She took a deep breath, took off her walking shoes and her jacket and positioned herself in mountain pose. She shifted her weight, lifted her knee and guided her foot to her thigh. She didn’t raise her hands above her head, but to her heart and she stayed, still and silent in that view, in the sun, then, with control, she lowered her bare foot to the grass.

            “Well done!” He applauded. “Clearly my work here is done.”

            They laughed. She stayed a little longer than usual, to see the sun begin to set and then set off home, no longer struggling with breathlessness. “Have a nice life!” He called to her as she set off. She turned and watched as he stretched into a sun salute, gleaming.

            He wasn’t there the next day, somehow she had known he wouldn’t be, he was young and lockdown was lifting. This was her chance then, her chance to give the tree that surreptitious hug. She crept up to it as if she would make it jump. She looked up into its branches, leaves were springing green, new life, new hope was harboured in its breath. She pressed against it, her arms barely reached half way, but it was warm and somehow comforting to feel the solid stillness of this living thing. Contented she turned to go, but she was no longer alone. A young woman was standing on his spot. “My husband used to do that.” The stillness shivered and a cold wind whipped up from the valley. “He came here at least once a week for years, said it helped him with his work.”

            “It’s a lovely view.” She knew though, she knew he was in the past.

            “He was a paramedic, that’s how he got it.”

            “I’m so sorry” and when the woman spoke again she knew what voice she would hear, what figure she would see, what photos she would have.

            “He was delirious at the end.”

            They were sitting on the bench, at a distance. “He said he could see this view, the sun setting, a woman on this bench. He talked to her. I heard him talking to her. He told her to do tree pose.” The young woman paused; she knew what she was saying. “He was a strange soul, loved yoga, obsessed maybe.” Her face crumpled. “Astral projection, is that what they call it, or just madness?” They both paused and looked at the view, fields spread to the horizon, the shining river heading to the sea. “The last thing he said to me” she went on “was – ‘have a nice life’.”

© JUDITH GUNN ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2021