The future is ours. Let’s save it together.
The words appeared on the screen of Tom’s tablet the moment he switched it on. Beneath them, in smaller print, was the standard instruction to stay inside, and—naturally—the hashtag, #TeamUK. It was the same message every morning and every night.
He swiped it away, opened his contacts, and pressed on Sophie’s name. As it rang, he stood the tablet on the desk, got up from his chair, and packed his case for the day: wig, gown, laptop, and the printed exhibits for his new trial, R v Blake.
‘Morning,’ Sophie answered on the HomeScreen they’d installed about a month before Tom moved out. It was a large glass screen with an in-built camera, which they’d mounted on the wall of their kitchen-diner. Sophie used it for everything now: from shopping to voting; from phoning her mother to streaming Bella’s cartoons. Its sensors could even measure her heart rate as she exercised, or gauge her blood pressure when she rang her GP. And here was Tom, using it to parent.
The camera opened onto their empty dining table, before swinging round to find Sophie at the counter. She was wearing a black V-neck sweater and pouring cereal into a bowl. Her hair was up in a bun, its blonde ends poking out on either side. She looked pale, Tom thought. Perhaps it was just the light, or perhaps it was the effect of her dark top and dark roots—framing her face, throwing it into relief.
‘How are you guys doing?’ he asked.
As he talked, a banner scrolled along the bottom of the screen bearing the government’s messages: The future is ours …, Fight today to save tomorrow … He used to find them distracting, but not anymore.
‘Eugh,’ Sophie sighed. ‘Same old.’
‘Did she not sleep well?’
Sophie shook her head. ‘It’s my fault. I let her watch TV too late. Then she took forever to go down, and when she finally did, I was so fed up that I cracked open the wine. Four glasses later’—she turned and took the milk from the fridge—‘and it’s midnight, and I’ve left myself with five hours to sleep.’
Tom pictured her passed out on the couch—limp fingers curled around the stem of a glass—while he worked late, trying to keep the country safe. He said nothing.
‘Anyway,’ Sophie went on, ‘how about you? Slept like a baby, I imagine?’
‘I mean … y’know.’ He had, of course: undisturbed, yet again. But he would’ve given all the sleep in his life to be woken by Bella, crawling into bed next to him and nestling on his chest. ‘I miss her,’ he said, without thinking.
‘Yeah,’ Sophie made light of it, ‘I bet you’d love to be getting up at five, and—’
‘I would, actually.’
‘Well …,’ she peered into her bowl, ‘you should’ve thought of that. Because she misses you, too. We—,’ she stopped herself, looked up, and shrugged. ‘We, y’know … We miss you.’
Tom’s eyes settled on the collar of her sweater: an inverted peak pointing down her sternum. He remembered the smell of the cotton, fresh from the wash, and the warmth of her body as he slid his hand underneath.
‘Look,’ she straightened up, back to business, ‘let me get her for you.’
She called out—‘Bella, honey!’—and within seconds Tom could hear the drumming of the floorboards, the clicking of a tongue (clip-clop), and a squealed, emphatic ‘Dad-dy!’
The camera dipped down to catch Bella galloping into the room. She was straddling the hobby horse Tom had bought her for her third birthday six months earlier, the last time he’d seen her. A crown of ringlets bounced around her head and her vest rode up over her bulbous belly. Tom felt a kind of weightless urgency, as if the iron in his blood were being tugged towards a magnet. He wanted to squish her, to tickle her, to swing her up and onto his shoulders.
‘How’s my little sausage!?’ he beamed.
‘I’m a moonicorn,’ she shouted.
‘You mean a …,’ he wondered whether to correct her, then did. ‘A unicorn.’
‘No I don’t!’ she stopped in front of the HomeScreen and scowled. ‘I know what I mean, Daddy. I’m. A. Moooon-icorn.’
‘They’re nocturnal unicorns,’ Sophie said, out of shot. ‘They draw their powers from the moon, apparently—’
‘Yeah,’ Bella jiggled with excitement.
‘—rather than from rainbows, like your regular magical horse.’
‘I see. Right.’ Tom leaned in. ‘So what’s your name, moonicorn?’
Bella cackled: ‘It’s Bella, silly!’
‘Oh, of course.’
‘I need the loo!’ she yelped, then spun away and cantered out of the room.
‘I thought she’d be called, like, Starlight, or something,’ Tom explained.
‘Yeah,’ the camera followed Sophie as she walked back to the counter and placed her bowl in the sink. ‘That would’ve made sense.’
‘Is she OK?’ Tom asked. ‘She’s not … coughing or wheezing or anything?’
‘No, Tom. You saw her. She’s manic, she’s exhausting, but she’s fine.’
‘Good. And you’ll tell me if—’
‘Cool.’ He paused, then asked, idly: ‘So what are you up to today?’ He knew the answer, of course—and regretted the question as soon as it left his lips.
‘Oh, y’know. Thought I’d take her into town: stroll along the South Bank, lunch on the river.’
‘OK, OK. Sorry I asked.’
‘Actually, we’ve got a couple of things to look forward to: the shopping’s coming at lunchtime, and I got a text from the council giving me a slot to visit Mum’s grave tomorrow.’
Tom’s breathing became shallow, his shoulders tight. He imagined Bella in the cemetery: toddling past the groundsmen in their hazmat suits, winding between rows of flimsy wooden crosses, and fiddling with the ornaments adorning the graves—ceramic cherubs, miniature teddies, toy windmills. He knew that, in the absence of a funeral, Sophie needed to process her mother’s death and begin to mourn, but surely it was too soon.
He took a moment to formulate a response.
‘So …?’ Sophie said, her eyebrows raised.
‘Well,’ he paused, ‘are you sure—’
‘We’ve got a ten minute slot. Nobody else will be there. And we’ll drive, so we won’t see anyone on the way.’
‘What does Dr Dave think?’
Sophie smiled. ‘David, to you,’ she muttered under her breath. ‘I don’t know. We haven’t had the chance to discuss it. He’s ringing later, when he’s finished at the hospital, so I’ll ask him then.’
She was usually more cautious, more sensible than this. She’d watched her mother die on the HomeScreen, resisting the urge to visit her—so why risk this, now?
‘Can’t you wait,’ Tom said, ‘just a little longer? They’ll be expanding testing soon, and that’ll change everything.’
She gave a short, breathless laugh: ‘I wouldn’t pin your hopes on that. David says they’ve had patients who tested negative and then died of it days later.’
‘OK—OK, but please,’ he pressed her now, ‘don’t go tomorrow. Give it a few more weeks.’
She sighed. ‘Maybe you’re right: maybe I should wait. I just can’t see how things will be any different in a fortnight, or a month. I’ll talk to David and give it some thought.’
‘Sure. Let me know what he—’
‘Anyway,’ in an instant, she’d lightened her tone: ‘how are you? What’ve you got today?’
‘I’m starting a trial, actually. I’m leaving for court in a bit—just need to jump in the shower.’
‘OK, well … Stay safe. You prosecuting?’
‘What is it? Idiots faking test results? Getting caught without phones?’
‘No, no. It’s a biggie this time. A police officer, killed. I’m sure I told you about it.’
‘Did you?’ She looked puzzled and shook her head loosely. ‘Maybe. I dunno. I barely even know what day it is.’ Then she asked, quite casually: ‘Who are you up against?’
‘Oh, umm …,’ he glanced away, as if trying to remember his opponent’s name. He knew not to mention Anna; the friendship that he and Sophie were building—or re-building—seemed to depend on the pretence that she didn’t exist. And so he lied: ‘It’s, uh … no one you’d know.’
She frowned for a second, before Bella’s voice intruded, tinny and distant.
‘Mumm-yyy! I’ve done a pooooo!’
Sophie took a deep breath, pressing her fingers into her closed eyes and exhaling, slowly. ‘I’d better go. Good luck with the trial,’ she smiled, faintly. ‘And stay safe,’ she added, rolling up her sleeves and backing out of the room.