There were two of them. They were standing on the pavement by the court’s gated entrance, wearing camouflage fatigues, blue rubber gloves, and white facemasks. They had guns slung over their shoulders and one of them—the tallest—seemed to be speaking into his radio. As Tom approached, the shorter one stepped forward and held out a flattened palm. Tom heard him say ‘Contaxx’, so took out his phone, unlocked it, and opened the app. It presented him with a bright green code, telling him what he already knew: that he’d not come into contact with any diagnosed cases. The soldier glanced at the code before producing his own phone—a LandLine—and holding it up to Tom’s face. Tom pulled down his mask. There was a ping as the LandLine checked his temperature, then a swoosh as it confirmed his identity and Contaxx clearance. Only then did the soldier step aside and gesture for Tom to go through.
Tom walked up the driveway towards the court’s main building: a grey stone structure of rigid symmetry, with high windows and ornamental balconies. A flight of steps led up to the entrance, which was tucked within a central portico, and a group of five soldiers guarded the door. Their trucks were parked at the end of the driveway, making it look as though they’d commandeered the building—seizing and refitting it, like they might an old manor in the midst of war. As he reached the bottom step, Tom thought he’d double-check: ‘Court’s open, right?’
They nodded, summoned him up, then patted him down and rifled through his wheelie case. After that, they directed him into the foyer: an oak-paneled hall with a vaulted ceiling and a chequered floor. Tom counted ten barristers milling around—two for each of the courtrooms in use. They were all in masks, all on their phones, and all about six feet apart. He couldn’t see Anna among them, so he texted her—Just arrived. Can’t wait to see you. XXX—and felt a volt of excitement as it sent. Then he weaved his way through the barristers and towards the noticeboard on the far wall, where the listings were posted. There, he found the details of his case: R v Blake, Court One, ten fifteen, in front of His Honour Judge Denham.
Tom frowned. He’d not had Denham before. Was he the kind of judge who prioritized fairness over expedition, or the kind who rattled through trials as if he were taking orders at McDonald’s? All Tom knew was that he was young—early thirties?—and one of the first to be recruited under the emergency judicial appointments scheme, set up after scores of senior judges died.
As Tom climbed the stairs to the robing room his phone buzzed with a Contaxx notification, confirming that he’d been admitted to Inner London Crown Court at nine thirty-eight. He checked his messages to see if Anna had replied, but she hadn’t. Then the last text she’d sent him caught his eye and he grinned: it was a photo of Anna in the mirror, below the neck, with the words Just out of the shower x written underneath.
He’d left Sophie for Anna six weeks before the lockdown, but they hadn’t moved in together. That meant, of course, that when the restrictions were introduced their relationship became entirely virtual, fostered and sustained through emojis, texts, and video calls. It wasn’t until the courts reopened that they saw each other again—battling it out on opposing sides, as they had for years.
When he got to the landing, Tom headed straight to the robing room. He used the sleeve of his shirt to type in the code on the door, then pushed it open with his forearm. The room was empty except for Anna, standing at the corner of a long rectangular table and rummaging through her handbag. She had her gown on but no wig, and her dark bob hung down to obscure her face. Behind her there was a cluster of carrels, in which she’d dumped the rest of her things, and at the far end of the room there was a set of wooden lockers and a full-length mirror.
‘Hey,’ Tom said, closing the door.
‘Oh, hi.’ She looked up and her eyes—he thought—shone. They were a silvery blue, standing out sharply against her olive skin. They seemed to glint whenever she smiled, although he couldn’t actually see whether she was smiling because of her mask. ‘How are you doing?’ she asked.
‘I’m excellent,’ Tom replied, and he meant it. Her very presence quickened his pulse. He hadn’t expected to find her alone, so he decided to seize the opportunity. He strode towards her, thinking: she’s the only person in the world who can make a surgical mask look sexy—whilst dressed.
He dropped his wheelie case, slipped an arm around her waist, then pulled off his mask.
‘Tom!’ she said, from behind hers—before he yanked it down and kissed her lips. They were sticky with gloss, and as he drew away he caught a whiff of something sweet; cherry, perhaps.
‘Stop it!’ she snapped.
His phone was vibrating intermittently in his pocket; its short, sharp bursts warning him that he’d come within six feet of another Contaxx user. He could hear hers doing the same—in her coat or in her bag—so he took his out and slid it across the table to the other end of the room, where it stopped.
‘Get off!’ she shoved him backwards. ‘What would you do if somebody came in right now?’
‘Sorry,’ he said, retreating with his palms up in surrender. ‘It’s just,’ he tried to appease her with flattery, ‘you look amazing.’
‘Well,’ she scowled, ‘you need to rein it in. If we get caught …,’ she shook her head, then returned to searching her bag.
Tom went over to the lockers, placed his case on the table, and began to unpack.
‘How’s Bella doing?’ Anna asked—her tone soft, conciliatory.
He told her what Bella had been up to: painting rainbows, drawing unicorns, and baking cupcakes with her mother. He remembered that she’d even started learning phonics, and tried to recall her little ditties: A-a-ants on my arm … Her voice echoed in his head, light and lispy, when Anna said:
‘It sounds like Sophie’s doing a fantastic job. Make sure she knows that.’ And then: ‘Aha!’ She brandished a white plastic packet, about the size of a glasses case, and peeled off its cellophane wrapping.
‘What’s that?’ Tom asked.
‘Hang on.’ She took out her phone, typed something into it, and replied: ‘It’s a test.’
‘How come you’ve got one?’
She looked at him, her eyes narrowing. ‘How come you haven’t?’
‘Well … how did you get it?’
‘It came in the post this morning. If you responded to the Bar Council survey, you should’ve got one.’
‘I—I did respond …’
‘Maybe it’ll come tomorrow,’ Anna suggested.
And then Tom twigged: ‘No. It’ll have gone to Sophie’s. Shit.’
Anna’s phone rumbled in her hand. ‘Ah, here we go,’ she said, before explaining the routine. ‘So, they’re swab tests, but they’re digital. You send off a text with the packet’s ID number, then get a code in return, and use that to activate the test. Once you’ve done that, it’s paired with your phone and the result should upload automatically onto Contaxx, under your name. I mean, you’ve got to hand it to them: it’s impressive, right?’
She placed her phone on the table, opened the packet, and took out a device that resembled a thermometer, with a small digital panel at one end and a silver tip at the other. She typed something into the panel, peering at her phone, then ran the tip around her gums. When she’d finished, she slotted the tip back into the packet with a click.
‘Now I just wait,’ she said. ‘They reckon over half the country could have these by the end of the month. Should change everything.’
‘Yeah,’ Tom agreed, although he knew that whatever advances were made, normality would never be restored. Too many people had died for that to happen. He thought of Bella and his mother, like sitting ducks—then shook them from his mind and summoned his sense of purpose. ‘Anyway, let’s deal with Blake, shall we? We’re good to go. I’ve got my officer ready, and unless you’ve got any additional witnesses, I reckon we could have it all wrapped up today.’
Anna said nothing. She was staring at the test’s display with her mask hanging off her chin. ‘What … what do you think an orange light means? At least, I think it’s orange.’ She held it out for Tom to see.
He walked over and watched as a red light flashed—then went green.
‘It’s green,’ he smiled. ‘You’re fine!’
‘Is it?’ She checked it for herself, then gasped: ‘Thank God!’ She ran her hand through her hair and said: ‘Right, OK, sorry. Yes. Blake.’
‘Any chance he might plead guilty?’ Tom asked.
There was a pause. Anna pushed her tongue into the side of her cheek, the way she did when she was thinking something through. When she finally answered, her voice was hard. ‘No. No, I don’t think so.’ Her phone whirred on the table, so she picked it up and read aloud: ‘Please confirm the following; Contaxx update: user tested green. Wow.’ She put it down and returned to the case. ‘No: far from pleading, I wondered whether you might have some wiggle room. It’s count four that really shafts him. I could probably get him to plead to the others, but not that. Can you review it?’
Tom threw on his gown and unpacked his wig. ‘Nope, sorry. I spoke to the CPS last night, and there’s no way they’re dropping count four. That’s what the case is all about. They want to make a statement, y’know. Set a precedent.’
‘Oh come on,’ she pleaded. ‘You could do some good here. He’ll die in prison. Is that what you want?’
‘What?’ Tom spat back at her. ‘First of all, he won’t necessarily die. Second, it’s not about what I want. It’s not my choice to proceed; I’m just following instructions. And third, he should’ve thought about all that before he …’
‘Before he what?’
‘Before he killed someone who was just trying to help.’
‘You know it’s not as simple as that,’ she said. ‘You don’t honestly think’—her voice was strained—‘that it’s a fair law, do you?’
‘Fair?’ Tom came back at her. ‘Are you kidding? Thirty percent of children under ten die from this virus. Twenty-three percent of adults over seventy. Something’s got to be done. What would you prefer? That kids like Bella died? That we were wiped out?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’
‘The bottom line is your boy wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t been so selfish and irresponsible. He’s only got himself to blame. We’re all making sacrifices. All that was expected of him was that he did the same.’
Anna tutted—quick and derisive—then turned to her carrel and took out her wig.
They were silent.
Tom perched on the table and texted Sophie: Hi, has any post arrived for me? Then, as his anger subsided, he wondered how to patch things up with Anna. Should I ask her views on Denham, he thought, or change the subject altogether? She usually liked a gossip, so he opted for the former: ‘What do you make of—?’
And then the tannoy crackled to life: All parties in the case of Blake to Court One.