I published this short piece of Joel’s in New Horizons #6 which I edited for the British Fantasy Society in 2010. In many ways it’s indicative of his fiction: there’s the unyielding city, the victim, the confusion of reality and fantasy, and the downbeat ending; but there’s also a glimmer of Joel’s humour: “…it’ll be over soon. Because I’m going downhill. You’d think that was easy in a wheelchair, but it isn’t.”
For me, this was also one of the first of Joel’s stories that I read which could loosely be described as crime. He began to introduce more weird crime elements in his fiction towards the end of his life and they really appealed to me. Perhaps the juxtaposition of law and disorder added an extra frisson to the weirdness, emphasising the differences between what was solid and what was fluid. Either way, it’s a shame that now there is no longer the chance to read more of his work and how it might have further developed.
It was a Friday night in Acocks Green, a deteriorating suburb on the southern edge of the city. The pubs had closed. A young couple, rather drunk, were looking for a place to make love. The alley off the Warwick Road was blocked by overturned rubbish bins. Outside the garages at the top of Shirley Road, a stray cat was slowly dismembering a mouse. The teenagers, who were on their first date, crossed through the car park on the traffic island and looked around. To their left was a coin-operated toilet box. The boy pointed towards it. The girl pressed her face into his chest. They looked around. No-one was in sight. Quickly, they walked to the automatic toilet and the boy reached in his pocket for a coin. They’d have twenty minutes inside; that was long enough. The door slid open. A man was lying on the floor, twisted over, one arm flung out. His jeans were soaked with urine. They thought he was just unconscious until they saw his face.
That was in my first year at the Acocks Green office. I was in the incident room that night, and talked to both of the youngsters. They were sobering up fast, withdrawing into themselves. After tonight, I suspected, they wouldn’t see each other again. The man in the toilet box had lived locally. His bruises were compatible with his having had some kind of fit or seizure. He’d bitten through his tongue, and then dislocated his jaw. An X-ray established that he’d choked on his own blood. The girl’s comment was as much help as anything the hospital gave us: “His face looked like a scream had torn it apart.”
The next day, the dead man’s medical records failed to suggest any medical condition that could explain his death. And CCTV footage showed him going into the toilet box on his own. DC Monk told me the camera had been there for a year, since a man had been severely beaten in the same place. His two attackers had been charged, but there hadn’t been enough evidence to convict. Both men had since left the region. Their victim had survived, but was crippled by the attack.
The autopsy recorded no suspicious circumstances, so we filed a report and moved on. But echoes of the toilet box death kept recurring for me. I’ve always been claustrophobic, hated the idea of being locked in. A drunken friend of my wife once told me I’d joined the force to deny my fear by imprisoning others. I suppose my reaction to her could have been more polite, but I don’t like people who think cleverness is a substitute for experience.
That summer, there were a number of unexplained deaths in the streets among otherwise healthy men. None of them were suggestive of violence. Our pathologist called it ‘sudden death syndrome’ – which I can’t say shed a great deal of light on the problem. The other recurring theme was gangs beating people up for the usual reasons. Or no reason at all. I couldn’t shake off the conviction that the two things were linked in some way. No doubt being a persecutor of the innocent was affecting my state of mind.
The whole episode might have been forgotten if I hadn’t been on a night shift in the Green a few weeks later. I was in uniform, helping to keep an eye on a house whose front window had been shot out from a passing car. After three hours of nothing, I was desperate for a piss. DC Joiner arrived to take over, and rather than walk back to the station I decided to use the automatic toilet around the corner. It was nearly two a.m. and there was no-one about. The machine accepted my coin and the steel door opened silently. The room inside reeked of disinfectant.
While I was relieving myself, a voice jabbed in my ear: You fucking twisted scum. You vicious little prick. Don’t mind handing it out, but you don’t like getting it. Do you? The voice stank of sweat and rage. I felt a hand on my shoulder, a fist jabbing me in the kidneys. Panic gripped my throat. I couldn’t seem to breathe. Then I finished, zipped myself up, tried to get to the door. You won’t get away with it this time. Fucking piece of shit bastard lying scum. A hand gripped my hair, pulled my head back. I turned and struck out at nothing.
Rage moulded itself on me like a skin-tight costume. I fell to my knees, reached out blindly to the panel beside the door. Somehow I pressed the button, got the door to slide open, staggered out onto the empty street and knelt there for a few minutes, fighting for breath. The echo of a cry was trapped in my head.
Carl Bradmore lived on the nineteenth floor of one of the tower blocks on Holloway Head. The smell of disinfectant in the lift made me feel nauseous and close to panic. When I rang the bell, he opened the door almost at once; I’d phoned him to arrange the visit. He was a short, chubby man of thirty or so in an electric wheelchair. He’d been living here for nearly a year, since the attack. Presumably the better security compensated for the more difficult access.
Carl led me into his minimally-furnished living room and beckoned me to sit on the black sofa. “How can I help you?” he said.
“I need to ask you some questions about the attack on you last year. Can you please talk me through what happened?”
He closed his eyes. “Just walking home, near midnight. I was in Oxford Road, near the post office. Two young men approached me from either side. I felt a knife in my back. One of them told me to go to a cashpoint. I refused. They marched me to the automatic toilet. There was no-one else in sight. The other man asked me if I came here to get sucked off. I didn’t say anything. They started hitting me. I fell down, curled up, trying to cover my head. Something gave way at the base of my spine and I passed out. That didn’t stop them.”
Carl was trembling. “Can I get a drink?” he asked. I nodded and he poured himself a shot of brandy. “I suppose you want to know why I didn’t give in?” I said nothing. “I thought if they didn’t get what they wanted, they were more likely to let me live. I’m not like the brightest of people.”
“What happened after?” I asked. He sipped the brandy slowly, avoiding my eyes. Eventually he looked up at me.
“I was in hospital a long time. When I came out, I got this flat. Had to give up working. I used to be a record producer. My hearing isn’t right any more. But friends help me with stuff. I get along. Never saw those two again.”
“Last month, Carl, a man died in the toilet you were beaten up in. Something frightened him to death. I’ve been there and felt… a trapped rage. Something that went for me because I was there. Caught in its own past. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
A longer pause. He finished the glass and refilled it. Still looking away from me, he said: “I was in hospital a long time. So many voices echoing in the long corridors. So many dead people. Every night, I dreamt of fighting back. I still do.”
His dream hadn’t come true. It had just echoed, distorted. “An innocent man has been killed. It’s got to stop, Carl.”
He looked at me silently for a few minutes. His face was very pale. “I couldn’t stop it if I tried,” he said at last. “Can you hold your breath in your sleep? But it’ll be over soon. Because I’m going downhill. You’d think that was easy in a wheelchair, but it isn’t.
“It’s not just me. There are the others. The backing vocals. That’s where it really comes from. They’ve been waiting for a chance to come through. And they don’t care.”
“Can you hold them back?” I asked.
He tried to shake his head, winced with pain. “But I’ll be one of them. It’s harder on the other side.”
“It doesn’t seem too easy on this one.”
I stood up and shook his hand. “Goodbye, Carl. Take care. I hope you find your own voice again.”
“No chance.” He smiled. “Won’t be long now.”
I let myself out. As the door was closing I thought I heard him call after me: “Just keep your ears open.” I walked down the stairs, which took long enough for me to persuade myself that nothing out of the ordinary had been said.
Three days later, I was on a night shift in the jewellery quarter. The sky was written over with the blank message of autumn. It was a couple of hours before dawn. I’d been watching the streets, looking out for suspicious activity. But it had been a quiet night. I was looking down over the Victorian cemetery in Vyse Street and thinking about coffee when a faint cry echoed from the buildings. It rose to a scream of fear, then trailed off. I shivered. There was no-one in sight.
Another distant voice cut through the still air. Then two or three at once. The cries opened the night like wounds. They were all around me now, but not coming from the streets: they were in the sky, or else in the unlit tower blocks. They joined together in an atonal chorus that had disturbing power, but no harmony. Then, as suddenly as they had arisen, the voices faded to the restless static of cars on their way into the city.