Secret E-Diary

Eerie reminders of the first lockdown

Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today!
Phil Connors in ‘Groundhog Day’ – January 12, 2021

 

Back in March, there was a moment when what had been just alarming became something else. I had been sitting as a Recorder in a normally cheery crown court. As the middle week in March 2020 BC wore on, something was changing. People looked at each anxiously on the Underground, the streets started to clear, hotels began to empty although some came out for one last meeting before the net of an inevitable lockdown covered us. It wasn’t really ‘Before COVID’ because the virus was already upon us, but BC was that final period of innocence before our liberties were constrained to frustrate a hidden enemy. As Hetty Briar-Pitt put it in a recent Zoom call from her stables where even the horses sounded rather low: ‘I see it in a little green cloak with a large hat standing in a doorway, drawing on a cigarillo and smiling. You see, William, it’s waiting. Waiting. Waiting until we tiptoe out again.’

Anyway, back in March, the court carried on to stirring messages from High Command invoking the spirit of the Blitz and ‘business as usual’. It was obvious, however, even over my five days, that things were far from normal. I was making a note of an excellent legal submission by defence counsel in a minor theft, only to find when I looked up that he had disappeared. ‘Has Mr Bentos left court?’ I enquired, sensing a rather strained atmosphere. His opponent was one James Ffitch-Ellis. He was older than I and we had often been against one another over the years. He had never applied for Silk and was now an increasingly elderly junior, prosecuting for the most part. I had always been impressed with him when I was younger, not particularly for his skills as a lawyer or an advocate, but because he had splendid silk handkerchiefs which he wore in his top pocket and because he sailed through every crisis with a cynical calm that made one feel nothing could ever cause a single hair on his head to be disturbed.

This appeared still to be the case. Clutching a red silk handkerchief he gestured to his right. ‘He’s there,’ he said, ‘on the floor.’ ‘On the floor?’ ‘I think he may have fainted.’ The rest of us leapt, actually or metaphorically, into action. Directly Bentos had been restored to consciousness, however, there was a silence. I imagined the same thing happened in the 14th century when, on tending someone, a black pustule was discovered. ‘I’ll rise,’ I said. Ffitch-Ellis alone seemed unperturbed. I encountered him half an hour later in the court carpark. ‘Is he all right?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said, in languid tones. ‘He’ll be known as Frayed Bentos after this.’

Next day, two judges on my corridor had disappeared and Brenda, my usher, said counsel in my next case would not be coming in as he felt ill. ‘Did he phone you?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘He spoke to me outside the court.’ A thought struck me. ‘How far away from you was he when you spoke?’ ‘’Bout as far away as I am from you, your Honour,’ she replied. I had no idea what two metres represented but, anyway, I already knew… I was lucky and had the thing relatively mildly.

Now, here I am again, in a different court, as Variant Two is hitting the country. Again, the streets are beginning to look deserted, perhaps a little less so than in March. Barristers and solicitors are back in the mess: moaning about jurors getting their congestion and parking charges paid when we do not, rather than panicking about contracting the virus. You always know lawyers are healthy when they are complaining about fees. The jurors looked rather glum as we played the usual pre-trial game of Find the Right Excuse. I noticed the game’s most effective answer, ‘I have a pre-booked holiday,’ still features in the written list of winning reasons, although Dame Cressida and the Home Secretary might want further and better particulars if anyone chances his or her arm with it.

So, is it Groundhog Day? Are the lights about to go out again all over Europe? Will the sirens sound and troops roll onto the streets? Will live court hearings have to end? Or are blue skies coming over the White Cliffs of Dover? And as I left the court yesterday, did I glimpse in a side street a little green man in a large hat giving me a smile and a wink as he drew on his cigar? 

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