Tom held the door for Anna as they entered the robing room. There were two other barristers sitting at the long table, chatting to one another in their wigs, gowns, and masks. One of them looked up and said, ‘Morning,’ before resuming their conversation.
Tom smiled and waved his hand in reply, then—out of politeness—pulled up his mask.
Anna drifted over to her carrel in silence. Tom watched as she removed her wig: resting its edges on the tips of her fingers and lifting it slowly, as if it were a crown. She placed it in its tin with the kind of ritualistic care usually afforded to the sacred or the ancient; patting it into place, folding in its stray hairs, and rolling up the tassel at the back. She seemed to pause and consider it before closing the lid. A little genuflection wouldn’t be out of place, Tom thought.
He went to the far end of the table, by the full-length mirror, and started packing up his things. ‘So,’ he turned to face her, ‘what do you make of Denham’s reasoning?’
She looked over to him and shook her head: Not now.
‘Have you guys just come from Court One?’ one of the barristers asked.
‘Yeah,’ Tom nodded.
‘That’s Denham right? Is he in a good mood?’ the barrister laughed. ‘I’m trying to work out whether my guy’s got a run, or whether he should plead.’
Tom pulled his mask away from his mouth so that his voice would be clear: ‘What’ve you got?’
‘Assault. Domestic. Standard lockdown fare.’
‘No it’s not!’ the other barrister objected. ‘There’s nothing standard about it. He practically scalped her, for God’s sake!’
‘Well …,’ the first barrister shrugged.
The tannoy fizzed: All parties in the case McCabe to Court One.
The barristers stood, stretched, and gathered their things.
‘Good luck,’ Tom called out as they left.
The first barrister backed out of the door, jabbing his finger in Tom’s direction: ‘If Denham’s in a foul mood, I’ll know who to blame!’
They’d been gone for a matter of seconds when Anna dropped her wheelie case onto the floor, extended its handle, and announced: ‘Right, I’m off.’
‘That was quick!’ Tom replied. ‘Give me a minute and I’ll follow you out.’
She tutted: ‘Hurry up then.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. You got lunch plans?’ he quipped, stuffing his things away.
They went downstairs, through the empty lobby, past the soldiers on the door, and out of the main gates. When they reached the road, Tom suggested that he walk Anna home.
‘No, it’s OK,’ she gave her head a slight shake, ‘I’m fine.’
‘OK. Well … what’ve you got on the rest of the week? Are you back here at all?’
‘I’ve got a trial starting here next Monday, I think, but otherwise I’m at home doing bits and bobs: video cons, advices, whatever I can get.’
‘How about this: Sophie’s getting my test couriered over to me this afternoon, so once you know I’m safe, maybe we can arrange to meet up, somehow? I could see if the clerks can send me here on Monday.’
‘Let’s see,’ she said.
Tom felt a prick of indignation: he understood her disappointment, but it wasn’t fair to take it out on him. ‘Look, I’m sorry about Blake, but—’
‘It’s not…,’ she held her hand up to stop him, then closed her eyes. He could see that she was trying to formulate her thoughts. ‘Obviously I’m pissed off that I lost, and that Denham slapped me with five years, but it’s not just that. It’s …,’ she adjusted her mask, ‘it’s you.’
‘What? What have I done?’
She glared at him. ‘You baffle me. You’ve spent the best part of two days prosecuting someone for breaching the lockdown, but all you can think of is breaching it yourself—kissing me, holding me. I mean … what are you playing at?’
‘It’s not the same,’ he complained. ‘It’s not remotely comparable. You and I, we’re … we’re,’ he stuttered, trying to remember how it was different.
‘And how are you so cool with all of this?’ She waved her arm towards the soldiers on the gate. ‘You just turn up, do your job, then toddle off—as though nothing’s changed. Are you blind, or do you not care?’
‘What?’ Tom recoiled. ‘Of course I care,’ he said. ‘And of course I can see what’s happening. But maybe,’ she won’t like this, he thought: ‘maybe this is what we need right now.’
‘Really?’ she baulked. ‘You think this’—she pointed at the court—‘is the kind of justice we need? He didn’t even pretend to deliberate.’
Tom didn’t want to dig in, or push her, so he brought it back to the case: ‘What’ll you do?’ he asked. ‘Do you think you’ll appeal?’
She threw her hands up and gritted her teeth. ‘Aaaargh! You’re missing the point!’ She reached for the handle of her case and began to pivot away, then stopped: ‘But yes. Yes, I’ll probably appeal. I might even draft something tonight.’
‘OK, well why don’t I call you and we can discuss it?’
‘Don’t,’ she said, bluntly. ‘We can talk at the weekend.’
She set off up the road, the wheels of her case rumbling beside her.
As Tom wandered home, he replayed her comments in his mind. She was right: there had been a lot of change—but the law’s always in flux. Precedents, statutes, and procedures are constantly being written and revised, reforming our relationships with one another, and with the state. And we adapt, sometimes without even knowing it. In five years’ time, he predicted, law students will be amazed that we ever bothered with jury trials, and shocked to learn that there was once a time when you could infect your neighbour with impunity.
That’s not to say that change is never traumatic, but you survive—Tom reflected—by remaining steadfast in who you are; by cleaving to the things that make you You. For him, it was the palpitating thrill brought by Anna’s morning selfies, and the visceral memory of Bella’s chubby hugs; it was the strength of purpose that kept him working through the night, and the cerebral satisfaction he drew from plotting out a case. It was his timetable of calls (Bella, Anna, Mum), his schedule of meals (masala Mondays, Chinese Tuesdays), and his glass of Chablis on a Friday night. The things … he tried to distil his sentiments into a single, pithy phrase: It is the things that don’t change that allow us to deal with the things that do. No, things is crap.
As he searched for a better word, he left Elephant Square and started up Walworth Road. It was approaching one p.m., so he began to think about lunch—when his phone hummed in his pocket. It was a long, unbroken drone, unlike a call or a text. He took it out, glanced at the display, and froze. In bold orange lettering, it said: Contaxx update: your status has been altered to amber.
He stopped still, unlocked the screen, and read the message in full.
You must remain at home until contacted by a registered Health Administrator. In thirty minutes your phone’s curfew function will be activated in order to monitor compliance and assist in case of emergency.
And then at the bottom, in a different font: The future is ours. Let’s save it together.
Tom stood rigid. His pulse thumped in his ears, his mouth became dry. An amber alert meant that he’d had indirect contact with someone who was infected—but who? Explanations flashed through his mind like strobes. It couldn’t be Anna, because she’d tested green only yesterday. Could it be someone she’d encountered since then? What about the barristers in the robing room? Who were they, anyway? What about Denham? He coughed at least once during the trial, didn’t he? Or was Tom imagining that?
His phone whirred in his hand, making him jump. It was Sophie. He hesitated before answering. Should he tell her that his status had changed? No: she’d only panic, and there’s nothing she could do anyway. Besides, he needed to get home before the curfew kicked in. He decided to ring her back later, once he’d figured out what was going on.
He grabbed his case and started jogging—then running—to Camberwell. Its wheels rattled on the pavement and bashed against his heels. He felt his trousers rub and pull at his thighs, his shirt stick to his skin. When his flat came into view he slowed to a walk, then crumpled over, clutching his burning calves. After a few moments, he stood and hobbled to his door.
Once inside, Tom poured himself a glass of water and dropped onto the couch. He checked his phone and saw that he now had two missed calls from Sophie. A bright orange banner lined the top of his screen: his new Contaxx status, overlaying every text, email, and photo. He swiped to his contacts and called Anna. They’d spent the last two days together; surely she’d had the same update—the same blind panic. She didn’t answer, so he texted instead: You OK? I’ve just been given amber. Wondering if it’s a mistake. Give me a call.
He got up from his couch, slipped out of his jacket, and peeled off his sodden shirt. He took his laptop to his desk, sat down, and began searching online: Contaxx enquiries, Contaxx helpline, Contaxx information. There must be someone he could speak to who could explain his status update. The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced it was an error: he’d seen so few people in the last week that he couldn’t possibly have contracted the virus, and he’d had his temperature taken when arriving at court, so he knew that he was perfectly healthy.
As he scrolled through the search results for Contaxx enquiries, his phone began vibrating on the coffee table, whining against the wood like a dentist’s drill. He leapt up, expecting it to be Anna, but as he sprang towards it he saw that it was Sophie. Oh for Christ’s sake, he thought. Why’s she keep ringing? For all she knows I’m in court, on my feet.
‘Hi,’ he answered, ‘I can’t talk right no—’
‘Tom,’ she sounded breathless.
‘Sophie? You ok?’
‘It’s Bella,’ she wrung the name out.
‘What’s happened? What’s wrong?’
‘She had a temperature,’ the words shook. ‘The HomeScreen picked it up.’
‘What? Is she OK?’
‘I … I don’t know. They’re coming to collect her.’
‘Where are they gonna take her? Did they tell you?’
‘No,’ she said softly.
Tom’s mind emptied of everything but the image of Bella, sweating and shivering.
He felt the iron in his blood being wrenched out of his body.
He imagined cooling her with a flannel, his fingers enfolding her limp, clammy hand.
‘Can I …,’ the question caught in his throat. ‘Can I speak to her?’
‘She’s fallen asleep.’
‘Well wake her up!’ he yelled.
There was a pause before Sophie replied, her voice tight: ‘I can’t.’