She, Tori, had suddenly loomed out of the muggy cafeteria, the steam that would bead on the bottles of soju, pause, and then, on some invisible signal, trickle perkily down their necks. I sat back in my seat, looking around for Toby. I somehow knew that he was here as well, but, for now, I could not make out his figure or even catch the distinct note of his voice. Self-consciously, I sat forward again, to tend to the strips of meat. It felt like it was a great effort for me to keep my head afloat above the meat’s hissing. This was a furious, heart-rending sound, as though some live animal was being slowly impaled.
“So there’s this app,” Tori told me. “You should download it, it’s really interesting.”
She stared at me with such frank appeal that I had the eerie impression that there was no other active thought remaining in her mind. For a second, I wanted to ask about her baby – where was he? – but with this I grew fearful that the scene was now dimming, that Tori would be obscured for good in the next bank of rising steam.
“There’s this app,” I repeated.
Tori smiled craftily. “I’ve sent you the link.”
I looked down and I was amazed to see that my phone was already out in my hand, with the app all ready to install.
“You’ve sent me the link.”
I initiated the installation process. I wanted to mop my face with something – the jungle humidity was boxing me in unbearably – but my hands were too wet to be put to this use. There were napkins on the table but I sensed that it was better to save them. When I had next looked at the screen of my phone, the new icon was fixed in place like a jewel.
Tapping on the icon, I looked up again at Tori. A waitress had stomped over and she was starting to hector me but I shook my head and continued to gaze at Tori. I knew that, for the moment, I could not afford to disengage my mind from anything other than this single item.
Tori had resolved to ignore the waitress too. “Don’t do anything. Just wait.”
“I’ll just wait.”
The steam tumbled away from Tori’s face, making itself busy elsewhere, and when she next spoke her words were strangely weighted and pellucid. “The app is making calculations.”
“It is making calculations.”
She nodded forcefully. “You will have never realised this before, but your phone keeps discreet records of every other phone that it has ever come into contact with, within a radius of two metres. The app is now coordinating these records with information from Track and Trace, or Test and Protect, or whatever it’s called…”
“Track and Trace, Test and Protect.”
“The data about when you had COVID or else when you have been in contact with a person who has had COVID. There are certain times when an individual might not realise that they are asymptomatic but when, nonetheless, they are the only link that can be determined between two cases.”
A second waitress, in identical pink hot pants, had stomped up with marching arms to learn about why the first waitress was hectoring me. After she had been filled in, she stood back wearing an expression of unsurprised sourness. Her face was lately as pink and rubbery as the strips of steaming meat but this was still nowhere on the same chart as the luminosity of her hot pants, which pierced the reality of this damp room like an intergalactic laser. I could not afford to become distracted by this though.
A glassy, syncopated melody struck up that, disconcertingly, I had never heard my phone produce before. It sounded alien and retro, like a doorbell that had been once briefly standard in, say, the 1970s, before a new cycle had been issued and this one had melted away. Next, “FIVE” was flashing on my screen. The flashes rippled in a discernible rainbow of colours that had met, crunching, in a synthetic white.
Tori looked at me. “So you have killed five people,” she confirmed. “The app has found that five people have died as a result of places that you, personally, have visited and contacts that you, personally, have made.”
She laughed. “It sounds a lot but my number came up as ninety-eight. I guess I must have been a tremendous load-bearing link somewhere, an inroad into a care home or something. Perhaps it is all to do with my cousin, Pippa, who is still living in our apartment. She was partying throughout the whole of last autumn. The next time that I see her, I shall make her install the app. If I am right, her number will be ninety-eight also.”
“She should install the app.”
A gallery of different headshots was now rotating on the screen of my phone. Those depicted had been photographed sombrely, in black and white, so that they together looked like the cast of some self-important play. I assumed that this must be the fateful five.
Face-to-face with the fateful five. I tried not to latch on to any detail of these passing faces, to keep them turning blankly, as if they were themselves as innocuous as cheap face masks.
I could not afford to become distracted but suddenly, helplessly, I had become distracted. Tori had withdrawn through the veils of steam, as though her chair had been all this time screwed onto a moving walkway. The first waitress had raked the dehydrated meat off my grill and, clucking with disapproval, she had loaded it onto a cool porcelain plate with tiny, feathery blue ferns roaming luxuriantly all around it. This she bore off to the next table along. Meanwhile, the food was ready at the table behind me and I heard a cheer as the second waitress scraped it together. This, the shattered ruins of some half-barbequed crab, had been dumped onto a mound of noodles and poached eggs and it was now planted reproachfully in front of me.
I began to eat.