The evening when the hashtag first appeared, the sky over London was bright purple. Not in the way you might have described the sky before the Veil, when a purple sky meant a faint hint of lilac on the horizon, a violet hue to the edge of clouds at sunrise or sunset. Nowadays the skies were increasingly lurid, hyperreal, as if a giant invisible thumb was gradually dialling up the colour intensity on a photo filter. Some days there was nothing; just regular whites and greys – brighter than they used to be, of course – but almost a disappointment now, and never blue. Everyone waited for the sunset. Its colour was a conversation starter, a moment to anticipate every day, a hashtag in itself, obviously. Would it be a red day, an orange day? Purples made the best photos.
Grace was at her laptop sharing photos, scrolling through others’ photos, the purple images on her screen framed by the garish sky outside. Joel was out on the balcony, a glass of wine in one hand, phone in the other – even he couldn’t resist taking photos of the spectacular view tonight. London stretched out before them, a collage of verticals and horizontals decorated with twinkling lights. The soundtrack a muffled roar of evening traffic, punctuated by a Doppler siren squeal and a plane somewhere overhead.
Suddenly her whole screen turned purple – almost the same purple as the sky – and in black simple font some characters faded in.
She tried pressing escape, the space bar, anything. She tried the off button but that didn’t respond either. Her phone was nearby on the table, and when she looked over, it had the same purple screen with black letters. The letters were crammed together yet patient, silent, and gently animated so that they repeatedly faded in, insistently. Her phone refused to turn off too. She went out to the balcony where Joel held up his own phone – the same. They looked out across the city and a mile away they could see that all the illuminated signs covering Piccadilly Circus had turned purple. Through scores of apartment windows they could see purple television screens; they could even see scores of hands furiously pressing at remote controls. Although they hadn’t been able to hear any noise from these screens before, and the traffic hadn’t stopped, there was an eerie sensation that everything had gone quiet. Grace went back inside and turned on their own television. The same purple screen was there, calmly yet firmly announcing #youwillbejudged – on every channel.
Grace had a brief sensation of falling, as if the building was listing, the floor shifting slightly underfoot. And then it was gone. The television began blaring a music video, her phone returned to its welcome screen, laptop back to its open social media windows.
‘It was exactly the same colour as the sky.’
‘On every screen.’
‘What do you think it was?’
‘Some kind of hacker or virus? Something to do with the electrical storms? I would turn everything off, Grace, to be honest. Just to be sure.’
‘Yeah, I will.’ She turned off her phone and laptop, and he went back on the balcony with his wine. Then she turned them back on again immediately. She hated that she felt guilty, that she was almost doing it surreptitiously. Surely even Joel would be dying to follow some of the online discussion tonight. But he would stand firm, even to spite himself. They had staked their positions into opposing trenches.
Within one minute the hashtag was all over her platforms; within several minutes the memes had begun. Jokes, outrage, speculation, conspiracy theories, pop philosophy. It wouldn’t reach the news until later, and she was already thinking about calling in to change her column for tomorrow – there was still an hour until the newspaper went to print. She had begun to note down ideas when Joel came inside.
‘So – what’s the general take then?’ he asked. He tone was sarcastic, but I know you’re interested, she thought.
And now would come the usual tension. They had joked about it – he’s a luddite, she’s an addict – until the jokes had gradually soured into resentment and an unbridgeable gulf. She had plenty of potential comebacks – it was her job to be online, keep abreast of things, didn’t he think they should try to find out, wasn’t he even interested – but she found that she couldn’t be bothered any more.
And here it came. He stood in front of the dining table, silhouetted against the purple sky. ‘Can’t you see, this is exactly what they want?’
She sighed. ‘Who’s they?’
‘The whole world is online, right now. Lemmings, all of you. Lambs to the slaughter.’
‘So – who do you think it is? An internet company? Some sort of advertising campaign?’
He could be right. And maybe they could have a proper conversation about it. But they didn’t. He drained his wine glass and put it in the sink.
‘I’m going to bed, I’ve got an early ward round tomorrow.’
Another reminder that he was a doctor, and she was a pointless celebrity journalist. Sure, every other person you met was a doctor nowadays. But at least they could justify their existence. She scrolled around aimlessly for a while, watching as the hashtag began to trend, before eventually shutting the laptop and crawling to bed. She thought about shuffling over and clinging to his turned back. This should have been the time in their lives when they talked about getting married, having a baby. But they weren’t, and she didn’t. It was all part of the same lethargy that seemed to weigh them down, to weigh everyone down. They could tell themselves it was due to the uncertainty of the world right now. Say things like ‘Let’s see what happens with the Veil.’ That night, her dreams were tinted purple.
The next morning, everything went back to normal. Except it wasn’t. A new normal had begun, underwritten by a low-level ambient anxiety. And just maybe, a little excitement.