My dystopian thriller Iz was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 17th June. Set in a late-21st-century Britain under 24-hour curfew it starred Sian Phillips, Sacha Dhawan and Jaimi Barbakoff.
It was a Today's Choice in Radio Times; was featured on Radio 4's Pick of the Week and was Drama of the Week in the BBC podcast of the same name.
The year is 2091. A bird-borne virus has decimated the British population. Fourteen years ago martial law was declared and the majority of the population started a new life under Curfew.
Lee (Sacha Dhawan) is a rising star of Level Seven, helping to reimagine a Britain after Curfew and in love with fellow student Iz (Jaimi Barbakoff). But when a past indiscretion is revealed Lee finds himself separated from everything he knows. In a desperate bid to reconnect with Iz he sets out on an epic journey: one on which he will encounter the mysterious and dangerous Sylvia (Sian Phillips).
In After Iz - a tweet novella - I started to explore the world and characters created for Iz. Iz and After Iz are currently finding a new form off the pages of the internet. But you can still read the opening of After Iz below.
Day 6 and the hunger was beginning to bite. He wondered what it was like to starve. Would he hallucinate? Would he achieve bliss? He washed himself every hour. His skin felt tight. He thought of his mother often. When the letter arrived he feared he had summoned her.
She did not ask him to come. It was more painful than any entreaty. Said only that she was dying. She was racing him towards death. He couldn’t even feel the pain of it. No pity. Just the sense of his last rebuke being smothered by the woman who had given him life.
He fished the end of a loaf out of the bin. Ate an ashy piece of toast. Packed a bag and hammered through the many locks.
He hadn’t been out of the house for 7 years. But since he was now determined to die there seemed little point in observing the rule of law. The pavement was cracked into pieces. Barley growing in the car park of a ruined Asda. A softly blackened body was curled inside a trolley.
Despite his revulsion his feet propelled him on. He curled his fingers around what had been her hand. Her flesh broke open at his touch. The first woman he had touched in fifteen years and he had arrived upon her like a curse. Why hadn’t he buried her?
Rats ran thick and fast on the floors of the supermarket: over a carpet of flour, droppings and the half-eaten bodies of ratlings. He screamed at their massing bodies and loaded his bag with tins: the only items to have survived their million teeth. Back out on the road the sunshine shocked him into cheerfulness. By the charred remains of his old school, birds sung in the trees.
He pulled off his clothes and stood naked in the road. The sun on his skin was better than sex. Better than love. Better than forgiveness. He wondered what he was going to do when he found her. He was travelling as an undecided angel. Love and vengeance balanced in his hand.
It was only when he woke from sleep on that cold second morning from home that it occurred to him: how had she written him a letter at all?
How had he received a letter from her? What were the mechanics of that in this odd new version of the world? He had received a court notice once. When he had attempted to force his way through an air flue and out into the world.
The flue had been far too small for a human body to pass through. But the damage had been spotted by a passing patrol. He had been denied 40% of his water and 30% of his food ration for two months. Two weeks into this punishment he got food poisoning.
All day long fluids left his body, accompanied by spasms of pain. He phoned central medical to ask for more water. They asked his reason.
“Because I think I’m going to die.”
“Can you elaborate?” the voice on the end of the phone asked him.
“Because I really think I’m going to die.”
“Can you elaborate?” the voice on the end of the phone asked him.
“Because I’m afraid of death? I don’t want it. I want to live. I need water.”
“Can you elaborate?” the voice asked him.
He hung up.
That night he hallucinated. Or perhaps he dreamt. He never was quite sure.
He dreamt that feathers were pushing through the skin on his arms. He could feel his bones splintering to make the spines. He was cold, shivering, feverish: but when the feathers came he wrapped his new-formed wings over his belly and fell into a peaceful sleep. When he woke, or dreamed he woke, his teeth had fused into a drill-shaped spike which grew from between his lips. He used the beak to scratch his dry and aching thighs, then fell into a dream about falling from the highest branches of a tree.
He pulled the letter from his bag and fingered his mother’s signature. It was her writing. He could see her making the loops. And yet she did not have it in her power to send it to him. Someone was calling him out of hiding.
If he had been called out of hiding it was surely with a purpose. More than that: they must have a destination in mind. How did they know where he was? He scanned the street lights for signs of watching apparatus and then the sky itself.
He imagined satellites floating above his head like planets in The Little Prince. One with a flower. Another with a map-maker. He imagined himself a little pulsing star – a human-shaped pin – against a satellite image of the blown world.
Isolation had brought him three gifts: narcissism, paranoia and access to a dislocated sense of the world as it really was. It went without saying that each of these gifts was simply another word for truth. He had been exposed to truth.
He was indeed the most important person in the world. Perhaps the cleverest as well. The machinery of the state had been turned against his person in an effort either to annihilate him or harness his abilities. He no longer needed the world to be explained to him because he could see it. He could bypass theory, evidence, even experience. He needed only the gift of his imagination to understand where all the pieces lay.
So delighted was he in the writing of his own small biography that he failed to notice the girl until she dropped from the tree above him.
She was a tall girl with sun-baked skin and green eyes. And she was naked.
He looked at her then looked away.
"Helo,” she said.
He stared away from her into the trees. Did she not understand how offensive her nudity was to him? What if he looked at her? And then someone saw him looking? And then assumed he wanted to look at naked children?
“Helo,” she said again. He judged her to be older than six but younger than ten. He backed away.
“Beth yook enoo key?” She closed the gap between them.
He had to cover her up.He opened his bag, pulled out a large, black T-shirt and pushed it into her proffered hand.
He didn’t like children. He didn’t like people who couldn’t speak English. He didn’t like nudity that was not under his control.
He was surrounded by women. His dying mother. The woman in the trolley. This girl. Sent to mock his frustrated sexuality. Behind this smokescreen of female unpleasantness he felt the work of other men. Men who had tasted power early and never let it go. Unlike him, who had thought it cool and edgy to bypass power and in doing so had cut himself adrift.
The counter culture only worked if other people were watching. There was no delight to be had in being anti-establishment in a vacuum.
He pulled the T-shirt over the girl’s head and left her to figure out the rest. He was now in no doubt at all that she’d been sent. She stood in the middle of the road, drowning in his shirt, owning all the space. He walked away from her. She followed him.
She walked silently in bare feet and so adept was he at ignoring other humans that he didn’t really feel her presence until they stopped to eat.
He had eaten his lunch walking: he refused to turn and face her. But as the afternoon cooled he began to look for shelter. They were on the outskirts of a new town. One of those great brick spirals they’d built in the 2040s, the roads swirling to a central park. On one of the spine roads there stood a mall disguised as a great glass pod. The panes were cracked and dirty. Birds roosting everywhere.
He levered open the sliding doors and stepped onto the cold tile court inside. It smelt terrible. The drains had overflowed somewhere. She stepped in a moment later - as he made for the shops to see what loot was left – and climbed the dead escalators towards the roof.
He found a pair of mismatched trainers – electric blue for a woman, spider black for a man – and forced his feet inside. As he hobbled from the shoe shop a pigeon landed with a splatter at his feet, flicking pigeon juice over his nice new shoes. A triumphant cry came from above. A gurgle of happiness. And the face of his pursuer beamed down at him from three floors up.
He kicked the pigeon out of his way and the girl let out a roar of fury, her running feet battering against the escalators. The sound of her fury seemed to come at him from all directions, echoing and crying round the space. Despite himself he feared her. Then she was on him, punching into the gut. He laughed when the first punch landed but her arms kept flying, her face a rictus of grief. He saw disappointment. Disappointment that had come from a place of trust. He closed his hands around her fists. She kept hitting but he held her fists tight, cycling his arms with her, waiting for her to wear herself out. When she stopped her poor tired head fell against him and he put one hand gingerly upon her crown.
They stood like that for a long time. And he watched the birds in the rafters and wondered how long it had been since he’d had a home.
© Miranda Emmerson 2014