Chapter Eight

With all of the cafés in the area closed, Tom spent the lunch break sitting in an empty playground behind the Crown Court. He figured that, as long as he kept the main building in view, he’d be able to justify his presence to anyone he met. He had hoped to use the time to make peace with Anna, but she’d disappeared as soon as they left the courtroom, so he’d gone out alone.

The slide in the playground was cordoned off like a crime scene, the bins overflowing with bottles and cans. He perched on a bench and texted Sophie: Any post yet? And what does Dave say about tomorrow? Once he’d sent it, he took out a muesli bar that he’d brought from home and unwrapped it. A chunk broke off and tumbled through the slats in the bench, so he bent down to pick it up—then stopped himself. He thought of the surfaces smeared with children’s snot, the crannies encrusted with years of grime. No wonder the virus spread so quickly. 

As he looked at the swings, bound up with red and white tape, he remembered a video that Sophie had sent him months ago. He took out his phone, scrolled through his gallery, and found it. It showed Bella in a “big girl” swing for the first time, with no rubber rails to enclose her. She was clutching its chains and chuckling as her body flopped back and forth. Jesus, he’d thought when he first saw it: that’s taking a risk. It must’ve been one of her last visits to the park before lockdown, and he began to wonder whether she’d ever go back. He’d always assumed that she would, but maybe in the world that emerged from this, parks—like juries—would be viewed as relics of a careless and pestilent age.

At ten to two he headed back to court. He grabbed his wig and gown from the robing room and returned to his seat just as Anna was setting down her things.

‘Where’ve you been?’ he asked her, his voice hushed.

She shook her head and sighed. ‘I’ve spent my entire lunch break trying to get this stupid bundle of yours to my client. I haven’t eaten a thing and now I’m bloody starving.’

‘So did you manage it?’ 

‘No! And just so you don’t think I’m a complete idiot,’—Tom grinned—‘I did actually email everything over last week. The problem, it turns out, is that it’s digital, and of course, they won’t give him access to a computer—only a HomeScreen, for video calls.’

‘Can’t they print it?’

She spun round to face him, her eyes wide. ‘Now there’s an idea! Why didn’t I think of that?’

‘Is that a No?’

‘It’s a big No.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, who would pay for it, Mr Wells? We’re not all fat-cat lawyers like you! The prisons aren’t made of money!’

Denham cracked his door open and said, far louder than was necessary, ‘All rise.’ 

He climbed the steps to his chair. 

Tom sat, while Anna remained standing to explain the situation.

‘And what would you like me to do about it?’ Denham asked, as if the management of the trial fell outside of his remit. ‘I’m certainly not about to adjourn the case now. Is there a particular exhibit that he’d like to see?’

‘Not a particular one, Your Honour.’

‘So what’s he missing?’

‘Your Honour, he’s missing the opportunity meaningfully to participate in his own trial.’

‘Has he decided whether he’ll be giving evidence?’

‘Yes, Your Honour, he will.’

‘Well then he’ll be able to make a meaningful contribution then. Otherwise, if there’s something he’d like to see, we can hold it up to the camera.’

But Anna persevered: ‘With respect, Your Honour—’

‘Mr Wells?’ Denham cut her off and smiled at Tom. ‘Are you ready to conclude your case?’

‘Your Honour, yes,’ Tom said, meekly—embarrassed that he was enjoying Denham’s favour whilst Anna was not. Embarrassed, but pleased, too.

The court’s screens came on and Blake returned to his sterile cube of a room. Exchanging one cell for another, Tom thought.

Tom called his third and final witness, the rotund Sergeant Goode. He looked, to Tom, like a Dickensian workhouse owner: all cheeks and chins. He ran through the chronology of the investigation, providing the dates on which Blake was arrested and interviewed in relation to PC Shah’s infection and death. He confirmed that Blake spent his second interview, like his first, asking after his mother, and that it was during that interview that he admitted to visiting his neighbour’s flat the previous Saturday. Next, Goode gave details of Blake’s previous conviction, stating that he’d breached the lockdown early on, before prison was introduced as a penalty. He added that on that occasion, as on this one, Blake had told the police that he was going to his mother’s. 

Finally, Goode exhibited a copy of the notice that was posted on the walls and doors of Bromley House, warning that there had been a fatality in the building. It had a fluorescent yellow border and a bold black heading, which read: TO ALL TENANTS. Below that, it explained that the occupant of Flat 139 had died of the virus and directed residents to remain indoors whilst awaiting Contaxx updates.

Anna declined to cross-examine Sergeant Goode, which meant Tom could announce the close of the prosecution case. ‘Your Honour,’ he said, his tone flat and final, ‘that is the Crown’s case.’

As Anna rose, Tom sat, reclined, and rested his arm on the back of the adjacent seat. So far, he thought, she’s done well, but it’s all conjecture. Surely there’s enough to secure a conviction, and if I can do that—he told himself—it’ll really mean something. It’ll serve as a check on recklessness and arrogance, protecting the Bellas of the world by deterring others from acting like Blake. And of course, it’ll lead to a decent line of work, too. Briefly, he pictured his name in the news—Tom Wells, prosecuting…—before Anna’s voice filled the room. 

‘Mr Blake,’ she began. In response to her prompts, Blake explained that he was single, that he was thirty years old, and that he’d been working at a leisure centre until the start of the lockdown. He’d been furloughed initially, he said, but was then sacked when his manager learned of his arrest.

Tom was struck by how animated and articulate Blake was. He wore every thought on his face and crafted every word with his hands. His voice was steady and clear, never rushed. He showed no sign of being nervous, which made Tom wonder whether he’d grasped the enormity of what he’d done; whether he fully understood what was at stake. 

Anna asked Blake about his family. 

‘It was only me and my mum,’ he explained. ‘She raised me alone, and when I moved out I got a flat that was about ten minutes from hers—so I could check on her.’

‘Did she need checking on?’ Anna asked.

‘Well, not initially, no. When I first moved out we just wanted to be near each other. But then about five years ago she had to stop working because she had a stroke. She ended up losing some movement down her right side, so I started visiting every day.’

‘What work had she been doing?’

‘She’d been a carer. But obviously, once that happened, she was less mobile: couldn’t lift people, that sort of thing.’

‘Did you ever consider moving back in with her?’

He smiled. ‘I mentioned it once, I think, and she shot it down straightaway. Said she wanted to maintain her independence, so that was that.’

‘I want to ask you,’ Anna changed tack, ‘about an incident that has been raised by the Crown: do you recall being stopped by the police early on during the lockdown?’

‘I do, yes.’

‘Can you explain to the court what happened?’

‘Your Honour,’ Tom spoke as he stood, ‘I’m concerned that My Learned Friend may be seeking to re-litigate—’

‘I won’t be “re-litigating” anything, Your Honour,’ Anna bit back. ‘My client doesn’t seek to dispute the fine that he paid. But the prosecution have now placed considerable weight on this incident, and in my submission, Mr Blake is entitled to explain the circumstances surrounding it.’

Denham nodded to Anna. ‘Yes, Ms Hart.’

Blake told the court that his mother had always been terrified of the virus, even ‘back then’. ‘She thought it could come through the windows, or under the doors. She was going crazy: wrapping her hands in plastic bags, that sort of thing. I ordered her groceries online, then she left them to quarantine for so long that half the food went off. She was practically starving. So, yeah,’ he said, ‘I broke the rules. But she was losing her mind. I had to see her.’

‘I want to move on,’ Anna said, ‘to the night of your arrest.’

Blake nodded, slow and solemn. He explained that his mother had a fall and rang him from the kitchen floor, unable to get up. ‘She was scared,’ he said. ‘Really scared. She thought she’d hit her head because there was blood in her hair, and she couldn’t feel her right leg—her bad leg—at all. I told her to ring for an ambulance, so she hung up and did that, but then she called me back saying she couldn’t get through. That’s when I said I’d go round.’

‘Mr Blake, you’re not a doctor, so what did you think you’d achieve by going to see her?’

‘Well, I thought I’d … I’d be with her. I’d make sure she was OK. At the very least I’d wait with her for an ambulance.’

‘And what state—’

‘I was worried about the cut on her head, too,’ he carried on. ‘I didn’t know what it meant, but I wanted to make sure she got help.’

‘And what state was she in when you spoke to her?’

‘Like I said, she was scared. She wasn’t the kind of person who cried much. She was very … what’s the word? Stoic. But she cried then. Thing is, she didn’t know what had happened: she didn’t know why she’d fallen, or what to do next.’

Tom took his eyes off Blake and shifted in his seat. He tried to imagine how he’d feel if his mother were ill—or had a fall—during lockdown. How would he sleep? If he rang her and she didn’t answer, how would he not picture her collapsing and convulsing? He remembered how anxious he’d been when Sophie had suggested taking Bella to the cemetery, and he remembered, too, the discipline that Sophie had shown when her mother first fell ill: refusing to take any risks, even as her heart was breaking. He’d respected her immensely for that, and if she could do it, why couldn’t Blake?

Anna asked Blake about his encounter with the police that Tuesday evening. He admitted that he tried to trick them by walking off in the wrong direction, and that he didn’t mention his mother until after that.

‘Mr Blake,’ Anna’s tone became light, ‘given the concerns that you had about your mother’s wellbeing, I do have to ask: why didn’t you request the officers’ help the moment you saw them?’

‘Because I knew I’d never get to mum if I did. I knew that if they spoke to me and scanned me, they’d see my form and arrest me. I mean, I told them about my mum last time, and it didn’t stop them fining me. I just wanted to see her as soon as I could.’

Quite suddenly, Blake’s movements became jittery, his breath shaky. ‘I mean,’ he cleared his throat, ‘if I can’t be with my mum, and she can’t be with me, when she most needs me … What’s the point of all of this?’ He swept his hand around his barren booth. ‘What are we actually trying to save, here? What are we trying to protect? And what’s left to protect when someone you love is hurt and you’re not allowed to help them?’ 

Denham frowned at Anna, and then at Blake. ‘Mr Blake,’ he said, ‘I’d be grateful if you could limit yourself to answering questions, not asking them. Yes, Ms Hart?’

Anna took him through his arrest, the onset of his symptoms, and his interview in hospital. He recalled waking up to see three officers in full hazmat gear, their faces obscured by the reflections on their visors, their voices muffled inside their suits. He confirmed that—as he’d told the officers that day—he had visited his neighbour, Jean, on the Saturday before his arrest in order to drop off bread and milk. He explained that he’d used his spare key to enter her flat and had found her asleep on the couch, the TV blaring. But he insisted: ‘I can’t have got it then. I was fine for days. I didn’t start feeling ill until after they arrested me. I’m telling you,’ he squeezed out the words, ‘they gave it to me, not the other way round.’ 

Finally, Anna held up a copy of the notice that Sergeant Goode had exhibited.

‘One last question,’ she said. ‘The Crown claim that the medical authorities posted this within your building on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after Jean’s body was discovered. They argue that you must have been aware of it, so let me ask you this: Did you see this sign that day?’

He shook his head, almost violently: ‘No. No, I swear.’

***

It was past three p.m. when Tom stood and began his cross-examination of Blake. He hoisted his gown onto his shoulders and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the lectern. Most of the work had been done—but he needed to hammer home a few points, for Denham’s benefit.

‘Mr Blake,’ he began, ‘when your mother rang you from the kitchen floor …’

‘Yes?’

‘She said that she’d fallen over, yes?’

‘Yes.’

‘That she had blood in her hair?’

‘Yes.’

‘And that she couldn’t feel her right leg, correct?’

‘Yes.’

‘She called you on her own phone, did she?’

‘Yeah, of course.’

‘And after that, she phoned for an ambulance?’

‘Yeah—but she couldn’t get through.’

‘How long did she take to make that call?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe five minutes.’ 

‘So, to be clear: she was able to speak coherently about what had happened; able to use her phone; and had only called for an ambulance,’ he paused for maximum effect, ‘once, before you offered to go and see her, is that right?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Mr Blake, when you left your home, you didn’t believe that she was dying, did you?’

‘Well …,’ the display on the screen fragmented as he spoke. ‘She was obviously badly hurt.’

‘Hurt, yes; but given that she was conscious and communicative, you didn’t think she was dying, did you?’

‘No, I guess not.’

Tom moved on. ‘Now, you’ve confirmed that three days before your arrest you visited your neighbour’s flat to deliver bread and milk. Did you leave the milk in the fridge?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You mentioned that the TV was on. Did you switch it off?’

‘I did.’

‘Using a remote?’

‘Yeah, I think so.’

‘And the remote was … where? On a coffee table?’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘You’ve said that your neighbour was asleep on the couch. Did you leave her like that?’

‘Well …,’ Blake hesitated. ‘Yeah, kind of.’

‘Kind of?’ Tom asked, cocking his head to one side. ‘Mr Blake?’

‘I … I … I put a blanket over her. To keep her warm.’

Tom felt a surge of energy. That was it, surely.

‘Where did you find the blanket?’ he asked.

‘I dunno. On the back of the couch, I think.’ 

‘So at the very least, you touched the front door, fridge, remote, and a blanket—is that right?’

Blake blinked, then nodded slowly. ‘Yes,’ he said.

‘You’ve told this court that you “can’t have got” the virus that night, but you accept that she died of it three days later, don’t you?’

‘Course I do.’

‘So you’re not disputing her diagnosis?’

‘No.’ 

‘What are you suggesting, then?’

‘Erm …’

‘Are you suggesting that she only contracted the virus after you’d visited her?’

‘Yeah. I mean … yeah.’

‘Are you medically qualified, Mr Blake?’

‘No,’ he closed his eyes and shook his head wearily. ‘You know I’m not.’

‘Did you obtain and perform a test on yourself?’

‘No.’ For the first time, he sounded impatient. ‘Course not. How could I have done that?’

‘So you can’t say for sure that you weren’t infected by her on Saturday night, can you?’

Blake sighed, his eyes circling his booth before returning to the camera. ‘I know how I felt, and I didn’t feel ill until after they arrested me.’

Tom ended by brandishing the notice that Goode had exhibited, asking: ‘Are you telling this court that you walked straight past this—in the corridor, in the stairwell—without seeing it?’

‘Yeah. I was in a rush, I had to get to my mum. I wasn’t thinking of anything else.’

‘Mr Blake, I suggest that you did in fact see it; that you realised you’d been exposed to the virus and recognised you posed a threat to the public—’

‘No, I’m telling you—I had no idea.’

‘And I suggest that that’s the reason you sought to escape the police. It’s because you knew you were taking a risk, knew you represented a danger, and were desperate not to be caught.’ 

‘No!’ he shouted, his voice clanging out of the court’s speakers and ringing in the air. ‘That’s mad, it doesn’t make sense. If I’d thought for a second that I was infectious, I wouldn’t have gone to my mum’s, would I?’

Shit, Tom thought.

Go to Chapter Nine

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