The Orwell Youth Prize is about hearing voices from across the UK. The closure of schools under lockdown meant that some young people and some communities were harder to reach than usual. These pieces were the result of online workshops organised with the help of the Star Project community centre in Paisley. Though they aren’t prize winners, they sit alongside them as equals: responses to the reality of Covid.
‘My Today is Your Tomorrow’ by Ailsa Kay (18)
I want to talk about me. I want to write about me – because when I talk, no one listens. I am now, and always have been, the invisible girl. I smile when I am supposed to and always behave. My teachers told me I was a dream to teach, my peers ignored me or wished me harm – when they noticed I was even there.
The real world is not a good place for me. I am autistic. Diagnosis at 13 felt like a breakthrough. Suddenly I wasn’t the weirdo who didn’t like change and who couldn’t speak in groups. There was a reason I was different, and it helped, a little bit.
My imagination is a safe, comforting place. I see the world in cartoons, it makes me happy. I draw my emotions instead of experiencing them. I love developing my art skills, I feel proud of myself and people always compliment me on my drawings. I’m told I’m lucky.
In reality, I don’t feel that lucky. The bass beat of a song played in the next house is like a kick in my chest. It scares me, it makes me feel unsafe. I can’t eat in the same room as my family, their chewing and swallowing grates my eardrums and makes me want to cry.
The bright sunshine that people turn their face to, sears my eyes and gives me headaches. Landscapes whizzing by in the car make me dizzy. I sit in the back of the car, with my headphones on – that landscape isn’t for me – it doesn’t understand me.
I eat the same foods because it’s safe, not because I want to. I’m scared of chocking and any new taste that I’m not expecting stabs my tongue and makes me sick. I want to try new foods, I just can’t, it’s too much. Too much hassle, too much fear – too much.
I can’t have labels in my clothes, I rarely buy new clothes. They don’t feel right. It scratches and itches and makes me want to cry. I worry about what people went through to make the clothes. What animals died to make the clothes. Do people know that they are making animals more extinct?!? Every time I get something new, the thoughts go round and round my head. I’m so tired.
The smell of a nice cooked meal or a newly bought perfume brings tears to my eyes. It’s like someone has put a mask on me and is forcing me to only smell that. It’s sickly, I can taste it. It’s unbearable all the time.
So, I sit, self-imprisoned by my disability, in my safe, plain, clean, odourless, soundless room. An invisible girl who doesn’t fit in the world – or maybe the world doesn’t fit me. Ask me what I want the future to be? Safe. Accepting. Understanding.
I think about my disability a lot. My mum calls it my superpower. She says it makes me extraordinary and I can see, feel things that neurotypical people can’t. She thinks I’m a hybrid – the next generation of humans who base decisions on fact not on useless emotion. If she’s right, here’s my facts about what I suspect the future will be like for me.
My safe self-imprisonment won’t be safe anymore. Our world is burning. The apathy and ignorance shown towards the environment will continue to get worse. Celebrities preaching about ecology whilst flying in private jets and wearing a new fashion every day will continue to grow power. For a brief shining moment during the pandemic, their voices were muted, almost mocked, but they’re back. Singing songs from the comfort of their ivory towers about how WE (the little people) should live our lives. Sheeple nodding and smiling and agreeing with them. Massive environmental charities who spend more on their marketing budget than on solving problems are heralded like heroes. I feel despair and confusion. If, like my mum claims, I’m the hybrid, the one with the superpowers to make people see what their doing is wrong how do I change that? How do I change that from my tiny room?
The future I see has forest fires everywhere, no green spaces, the oceans are dried up with plastic, the animals are dead, more (unknown) medical crises will hit us. The air will be unbreathable and full of toxic carbon, the light density will be too bright because we won’t have an ozone layer.
With the trees gone, sound will travel further – you’ll hear it. You’ll hear it then the way I hear things now. You’ll hear the squeal of tyres on the road and honking of horns of angry, disillusioned, dying commuters who are too sick and tired to walk. Because, despite the planet dying, we still have to make money – because that’s what we’re told is important. The masks you hate wearing right now, will be mandatory, restricting your breath forever. Cotton will have failed so the clothes will be scratchy and bring you out in a rash. Your oh-so-special people with a disability will be locked in their house 24/7 as it’s too dangerous for them to be in the world.
Your future is my painful reality now. I am continually assaulted by my senses in a world that doesn’t understand me. But I understand it. I understand it so well that I’m confused why you’re not doing something to make it better. Maybe my only superpower is to beg you to think before using plastic – or buying that new ‘must-have’ leather bag. Maybe you don’t take the car today. Maybe you covet nature over materialism.
Autism may have imprisoned me, but you keep me there. Help me. Stop what you’re doing and protect me. I’m scared.
2020 Orwell Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils winner and freelance journalist Ian Birrell had this to say about Ailsa’s piece:
“This piece is a wonderful slice of writing. For a start, it is beautifully written with elegance and maturity. Yet it also gets across with immense power the feelings, the mood and the profound strength of a young woman adult with autism confronting the world. I have often heard these sentiments from teenagers with autism and their families, yet rarely seen them expressed with such honesty and clarity. I look forward to reading more from Ailsa in the future.”
‘The End’ by Ryan McFedries (14)
I awake from my sleep of never-ending pain, hoping that this nightmare will just end. I look out the window, take a glimpse of Alice Street, fearful, ready for the worst.
Many years ago, an infection threatened our society. It ruined the lives of so many. We tried to stop the spread by keeping our distance, staying clean, but the scientists knew that it wasn’t enough. They claimed they made a vaccine.
It’s hard to escape onto the streets. The only thing worth going outside for is the old abandoned Royal Alexander Infirmary which contains necessities – but the chances of getting supplies were lower than low. It’s a battle to get anything, never knowing what’s going to happen next. I don’t even think about the next day, I deal with one day at a time.
Whoever took the vaccine was never the same. One after another they were injected until the last handful of survivors noticed the effects it had. I thought I was the last person on earth.
I hear an alarm. I conjure my courage to face the dangers of the world in the hope of finding another soul. I made my decision to go out. I leap out of my house onto Alice Street. I see a glimpse of a shadow passing. A cold breeze rustles across my back. I can’t help thinking I’m being watched.
There is a person in front of me. Something is wrong. Covered in blood with pale skin he charges at me. I’m going to die. I run and I hear a scream from a tannoy – ‘help, come quickly, the STTC Test lab, come quickly, please.’ Then it cuts off.
I rush as fast as I can. All I can see is figures trying to break into the lab and there was the voice calling ‘over here.’
I look everywhere and notice a figure on the roof. I climb the fence, struggle up at the side and when I get up there’s a woman standing there saying, ‘they’ve mutated.’
She had been working on a solution. She nearly had it before they broke in and destroyed everything. The only thing left was a hard drive. All she needed was time to figure out what went wrong.
We walk and walk until it felt like forever. I’m not giving up on a chance to survive. We both freeze. Someone is watching us, the old familiar feeling. Something bad is about to happen. We run until we see a light flashing.
The electricity stopped working soon after the government collapsed. There was no power left. The hospitals were no use any more. People went home to die.
We hope for shelter and a way for the doctor to figure it out. We are getting hungry, starting to be vicious towards each other. The danger when too many people want and there’s nothing to be had.
I go in search of food, keeping alert. I notice a shop door, all locked up. I smash the window, scared by the noise. Am I safe? I wait, then look for food. My eyes light up when I see an old freezer and I grab as much as possible. The next thing I know I’m hit in the back of my head.
I awake in a cold room wondering where I am. An uninfected lies before me, ripped apart by something I’ve never seen. I wait it out till morning, As soon as the sun is up, I dash back with the food around my waist. I enter the shelter, dump the food at my feet and fall to the ground, wanting just for this all to end. Silence falls. “I need to get what I can from my lab,” she says.
We start back, past looted shops. There is no noise at all – not even the wind blowing. We get to the lab and, see the door is smashed. The place is destroyed, barely any thing left. We search through the rubble, see the testing facility. The door is wedged shut. There is something inside. I can hear it moving towards us. We run. Again. Forever.
The MSP for Edinburgh Central, Ruth Davidson, commented:
“Ryan McFedries’ lyrical and imaginative piece, ‘The End’, is a brilliantly bleak depiction of Paisley in an imagined future where a vaccine response to COVID results in a death sentence, is wonderfully evocative. The dystopia he draws shows the best and worst of humanity – feral destruction and selfless attempts to find a cure”.
‘Extinction’ by Christopher McFedries (12)
The year 2020 an infection spread across the globe putting us in lockdown, and we are not allowed out for even for a minute.
When I look out my bay window in Alice street not even a soul passes, Hope Hall Church and St Charles Church no more! There bells toll for sorrow and not rejoice anymore.
Shops are no more, so I need to scavenge for food.
I go to Morrisons, Aldi’s and the Co-op for food. Paisley is a complete ghost town. The Paisley Art centre and the Abby are empty. It’s usually full of people with joy in their hearts now sadness its overwhelming.
I keep thinking these lost souls are zombies, but they’re just abandoned. I fear for the oncoming generations kids born into despair and poverty; I wonder how we are going to survive.
How long can we cope?
If we can’t get access to essentials like pasta, beans and toilet roll because of silly panic buying how’s is a baby going to cope? Schools have stopped and they may never resume to full capacity.
How am I support my family? If I’m allowed to meet someone, could they carry the virus too?
The last time anything on this scale was the Spanish Flu – or maybe the time of the dinosaurs. Most people say it was an asteroid but what if it was a virus that killed the giant lizards?
And I wonder – could this be our time? The extinction of the humans?