On Tuesday the 23rd of September, 2008, at precisely 10.45 in the morning, it happened. Every man on planet Earth went blind, and it all started with Dan. Daniel Tull, 27 years old, from Leeds, West Yorkshire. He was the first male to lose his eyesight completely – and then, in less time than it takes to butter a slice of toast, the blindness spread out from him like a shockwave. Like a bad CGI special effect, like the sudden blooming of a time-lapse stop-motion mushroom.
“Oh my god – this is like Day Of The Triffids, but for real, Keisha! What do you think’s gonna happen next?”
“Big tongued plants walking down the street zapping everyone with their evil phallic stamen, Jacs. Gotta be. Give it till nightfall, for the spores to start… sporing…”
Over in the corner of their Headingley flat, Lola sat shivering in that big, mouse-bitten sofa chair, the one they’d tried to throw out when they first got the place but even with the help of Jacqui’s ex, Ed, they hadn’t been able to lift down the stairs. She was used to ignoring her housemates when they talked geek, a language she’d never taken at high school and could quite happily have gone the rest of her life without even hearing… but right now, she needed the distraction. Anything to take her mind off what she’d done.
“What are you two… on about?” she asked, pausing to clear her throat mid-question and stop her voice breaking like a spotty fourteen year-old lad. Like the ones who hung out around outside the Washeteria, shouting comments about her knickers through the glass as she dropped them into the machine.
“Classic John Wyndham novel—“
“Made into superior 1970’s BBC drama—“
“About an invasion of walking plants from another planet,” Lola’s housemates explained, tripping over themselves in their eagerness to engeek their normally geekproof sister.
“Before the Triffids attack, there’s this spectacular meteor shower which virtually everyone on the planet stays up to watch—“
“Only radiation from the meteor shower makes them all go blind—“
“Well, all the ones who watch it – there are some people who were either too pissed to get up, or living underground, or in hospital with bandages over their eyes or—“
“Just plain lucky, I suppose—“
“And they can still see, see—“
“A raggle-taggle group of survivors who lead the resistance battle against the Triffids until…”
Keisha scratched the stud on her left nostril and gave Jacqui a puzzled look. “What happens at the end?”
“I can’t… do the Triffids all catch, like, a cold or something?”
“No, you’re thinking of War of the Worlds.”
Jacqui and Keisha stared at each other, each scrunching their mouth over to one side of their face as a desperate-yet-futile memory retrieval aid.
“I can’t remember!”
“We should check the book out of the uni library, they’re bound to have it.”
“Unless someone’s already got it out.”
“–who can’t even read it anymore…”
On the television: more crashed airliners, derailed trains, motorway pile-ups. Kate Adie interviewing a brave Sir Trevor McDonald about his first hours without sight. Deputy Labour Leader Harriet Harman, standing in for the PM, urging everyone to remain calm.
“But it wasn’t just the men?” said Lola, sitting forward now but still hugging herself, still shivering, still semi-paralysed by the guilt. “It wasn’t just the men who went blind?” She was wearing what had become her uniform in recent weeks: a chunky Arran cardigan (despite the early Autumnal heatwave), baggy cargo pants, and heelless grey shoes. Her hair was cut short and not a lick of make-up tasted her face: the shadows round her eyes were entirely natural.
“No,” said Keisha, “in that regard, this is more like Y.”
“Oh yeah,” said Jacs, “very Y.”
“Why?” said Lola.
“The Last Man,” Keisha explained. “Great comic—“
“Where all the men on earth are killed by this mysterious plague, except this one hot escape-artist bloke called Yorick, and his monkey—“
“Hot?” said Jacs. “You think Yorick’s hot?”
“Well, as pencil and ink cartoon drawings go—“
“Don’t you think that’s a little desperate, hon’?”
“What? Like you’ve never – little miss ‘I’ve Got A Puddle In My Pocket For John Constantine’!”
“Ahhh – get away from me – you said you’d never–! Not Keanu, let me make it quite clear, Lola – I never fantasised about Keanu!”
“Nobody fantasises about Keanu, Jacs. Even his fellow floorboards don’t get wood from Keanu—“
“How did it happen!?” said Lola, loud enough to make them both sit back in the collapsing sofa. On TV, George Bush was giving a speech about how Franklin Delano Roosevelt had served his country after being stricken with polio and Woodrow Wilson hadn’t let a series of severe strokes prevent him from seeing out his term in office, so nothing was going to stop him leading America in this time of international crisis. He did however question whether either of his potential successors were up to the job, and put it to the country that perhaps a change of leadership really wasn’t in the national interest at this time. ‘Perhaps this is a matter for the American people to decide,’ he concluded, before being led offstage by a disturbingly chipper Condoleezza Rice. The report cut to Hilary Clinton.
“The plague,” said Lola, when neither of her housemates seemed to understand the question, “in the story – what exactly caused all the men to die like that?”
“Oh,” said Keisha, “well, I reckon it was cloning. Once scientists had been able to successfully clone a human female, the entire male gender became obsolete – and in a Darwinian sense—“
“No way,” said Jacs, “it was the Culper Ring. Biological warfare gone way wrong, simple as that.”
“No, you see I prefer the interpretation that Gæa herself – the earth mother, who even in patriarchal Greek mythology is presented as a woman – chose to tackle head on the infection blighting her—“
“Bollocks!” said Jacs.
“Exactly!” said Keisha.
“Wait a minute,” said Lola, “do you mean they never properly explained… I mean, there wasn’t actually a definitive—“
“It’s open to interpretation,” said Jacs, “as so many things are in science and the natural…”
“So many of the theories on which we build our knowledge of the world are, in the end, unproven – it’s just, as yet, nobody’s been able to prove them wrong.”
Lola stared at them both for a very long time. It was the kind of stare that ruled out further conversation. Her eyes were tiny little bombs with the timers stuck on 00:01. The room held it’s breath.
Finally, Keisha broke. “Are you OK, Lol’? You look…”
“What about wishing?” said Lola, so quiet it was like listening to a mouse in another county. “Is there anything in any of your stories about wishing? Because that’s how it happened. They were always looking at me, you see, wherever I went, every day, any time I stepped outside the house… I covered up, I stopped wearing anything that could be considered even remotely provactive… but still they kept on looking at me. Sometimes they’d try and be subtle about it, stealing glances as I walked by, watching my reflection in shop windows, rubbing their eyes but spying through the cracks in their fingers… but I always knew. I couldn’t go anywhere, do anything without…”
“People… looking at you?” said Jacs, her glasses making the frown in her eyes even bigger.
“Not – people,” said Lola, “not people – men! Men! Some of them were subtle, others… others were just so blatant! Staring – like, goggle-eyed, drooling…”
“Lols… you’re a pretty girl.”
“You’re a babe is what you…”
“I’d give my eye teeth to look like… and I don’t even know what my eye teeth are…”
“You say that that, yeah… but you’ve no idea. Neither of you. You don’t know what it’s been like for me, you don’t—“
“Yeah, well, we may not be total Heathers like you, Lols, but we do still get blokes eying us up, you know. Hard as that may be to—“
“Blokes really aren’t all that – I mean, I think they’re pre-programmed to pretty much ogle anything.”
“It’s genetic – really it’s back to that whole Darwinian—“
“You don’t see what I’m saying,” said Lola, “you don’t… This isn’t about me being a… I didn’t mean to compare myself to… I just meant, I caused all this. Don’t you see? I was in town this morning, and there was this guy off our course… Dan, Daniel something… guy with the glasses and that weird little moustache and…”
“Oh yeah, I know him—“
“I think he’s cute, actually—“
“What? I do. I wouldn’t mind him staring at my—“
“I did it!” said Lola, shouting now to make them understand, standing up and using her hands and everything. “I caught him looking at me, even though I wasn’t even wearing anything remotely… He was watching me as I… Staring at me like I was an animal in the zoo or… and that’s when I did it. I wished. Don’t you see? I wished they’d all stop. Every single one of them. I closed my eyes and clicked my fucking heels and wished, harder than I’ve ever wished anything before in my whole fucking life… I wished they’d stop staring at me! And they did. All of them. At exactly quarter to eleven… they stopped. And now look what I’ve done…”