The Lost District was the first collection of Joel’s I ever read and the story ‘Like Shattered Stone”’broke my heart. It’s easy to make assumptions about a writer based on their writing (which are frequently wrong), but that particular story’s portrait of a man subconsciously sculpting the soul of a dying city told me something real about the person who’d written it. Joel was a man who knew pain. He knew loneliness and heartache and the healing power of art and music. It was simply too raw and honest to be anything but true.
I had already met him online, where we’d shared some forum chat and a few emails, but I was still intimidated to meet him in person. He’s one of those writers you envy, one of those whose prose seems effortlessly beautiful and yet so devastatingly fragile. But Joel himself never seemed fragile and he was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. He was a confident and knowledgeable speaker who helped me through my very first panel and he also inspired me to write my very first published story, for the anti-fascist anthology Never Again.
My most enduring image of Joel is from the World Horror convention in Brighton, where John Llewellyn Probert and I both danced with him to cheesy 80s pop. I had never seen Joel so happy. He seemed far, far away from the bleak and damaged characters of his fiction, from the grimy underworld he drew into the unflinching light and that’s how I’ll always remember him. ‘Like Shattered Stone’ is one of those stories you can return to like a painting, seeing something new each time. Joel often wrote about things or people coming apart, and the image of broken glass was ever-present. It’s a story about coldness and betrayal, of abandonment and discovery. Joel’s empathy runs throughout and the prose is scattered with poetic phrases that take my breath away. Snowflakes become “the dead skin of angels” and a snowy street resembles “a sea of broken glass”. Trees drip with light, “melting like chandeliers in a firestorm”. But it’s the emerging sculpture itself that holds the most potent image and it’s one I’ll leave you to discover for yourself.
Like Shattered Stone
It happened in the early hours of the morning. After he’d gone to bed. He’d spent a frustrating evening in his studio, chiselling nervously at a new block of granite. The shape he wanted was fairly well-defined in his head, but the stone wouldn’t listen to him. And it was too expensive to waste; so as usual he’d chipped away without committing himself. When his hands had begun to seem as strange and difficult as the stone, he’d given up and gone through to the next room, his bedsit. It was nearly midnight. Two or three hours later, he’d woken up in the dark. He was naked, and shivering with cold. There was a hammer in one of his hands, and a chisel in the other. His elbows were resting on the table in his studio. A vague light from the street outlined the curtained window on the far side of the room.
Peter hesitated, trying to remember where the door was. This was worse than being alone in bed. He rubbed his arms together, trying to warm himself. Then he stood up and walked away from the table, groping almost randomly for the light switch. There was a click, and the room became familiar again. He rubbed his eyes.The block of stone on the table had been intended to represent a collapsing building. But now, most of the top third of the block had been chipped away. Crude, jagged chippings were scattered on and around the table. And sticking out from the top of the stone was a perfect replica of a child’s forearm. The hand was half-closed, its muscles tense. Peter stepped towards it and, without thinking, took hold of the rigid fingers.
He couldn’t believe what a good likeness it was. Even when fully awake, he could never have carved something this convincing. Human figures weren’t his line. The arm ended between the wrist and elbow, in a rippled surface of granite. He knew there was no way he could develop the figure: the rest of it was lost, hiding inside the stone. That was a strange way to think about it. Wasn’t it Michelangelo who’d talked about finding the body in stone? Whatever. He’d just have to complete his distorted building, with the hand reaching up through the roof. The image disturbed him. He’d better get back to bed, before he died of exposure.
At dawn, he was still awake. He wished he could afford a place with central heating. Get a proper job, he told himself angrily as he drew the curtains and touched the thin crust of ice on the window-ledge. Across the narrow yard, which was littered with empty bottles, he could see part of the General Hospital: lighted windows and plastic signs beyond a grey wall that was mouldy with frost. The dawn chorus of city-centre traffic pressed in through the fragile glass. It was February. If there had been any trees, they might have shown the onset of spring. The green shoots of recovery, he thought grimly.
The morning post brought a cheque from the Ikon Gallery. They’d sold two of his wrecked-car sculptures (based on things he’d seen by the disused railway in Harborne when he was a child). Well, the money would help to keep him going until the end of the month. He was working part-time as a designer for a correspondence course publisher. The salary was more reliable than what he earned from his art, but it didn’t give him the little shock of joy that made him feel able to keep going. Some people got by on money alone. Or love. Or nothing at all except the will to survive.
He couldn’t face going back into the studio, after last night. Perhaps some exercise would help to wake him up. And he had to deposit his cheque in the bank; it wasn’t just an excuse for not working. Outside, the chill took him by surprise. The sky was as white as a freshly painted wall. His lack of sleep made the buildings seem insubstantial, like a stage set. The pavements were slippery with frost. Near the Salvation Army hostel, he was stopped three times by beggars. These days he couldn’t tell who was sleeping rough, who might be starving, who just wanted money for drink. The dividing like between “deserving” and “undeserving” cases was invisible on the street. He tried to give something to those who looked sick, or very old, or very young. The alcoholics never pushed their luck; it was the mothers with ragged children who took your coins and followed you, begging for more. They knew it was never the rich who gave. A few years ago, there hadn’t been anywhere near as many of them around here.
He was stopped twice more in the shopping precinct along New Street. Guilt made him hand three pounds to a young girl in white, whose staring, bloodshot eyes suggested heroin addiction. Her arm was so tense she almost dropped the coins. He didn’t want those eyes burning inside his head all day. By the time he reached the bank, Peter was in a foul mood. The new design of Victoria Square was still hard to believe. It had been grassy once, surrounded by trees that shaded benches from sunlight and rain. Now, an entirely redundant semicircle of steps led down from a bored-looking stone goddess in a fountain, attended by two Enid Blyton sphinxes. The entire square had been paved over. The effect was of a mass-produced artifact, like something found in a cereal packet. The restored statue of Queen Victoria looked on approvingly from the steps of the Town Hall. In the distance, the mirrored bulk of the new Hyatt hotel complex glittered above the stores and office blocks of a four-acre boom town.
If any city centre could get it together, Peter reflected, it wouldn’t be Birmingham. But was it possible anywhere, with public spending crippled and communities scarred by a decade of neglect? Only the owners of hotels and restaurants, catering to visitors from outside, were investing in the “new” city centre. While conditions in the poorer residential districts got steadily worse: Newtown, Aston, Shard End, Castle Vale, Smethwick, Nechells, Kingstanding, Castle Bromwich. As the circle of poverty widened, the inner city spread through the suburbs of Moseley and Edgbaston. There was nothing “inner” about it at all. Apart from cheap property rental, which was a vicious and exploitative racket. Still, as long as the Birmingham Post could go on printing pictures of the new Convention Centre and advocating moral crusades against lawlessness, all would surely be well.
Back at his flat, Peter worked carefully at the base of his collapsing tower block. The hand was real, and he avoided doing anything to it. After a while, fatigue began to overwhelm him; it felt as if tiny flakes of stone were lodged under his eyelids. But he was afraid of going to sleep. Eventually he gave up, made some coffee and put a record on. The Hüsker Dü album Candy Apple Grey seemed to echo his mood. Second post had brought him a letter from Rachel. It was relentlessly cheery, as usual. She hoped he was coping financially, was in good health and wasn’t drinking too much. He made a mental note to write to her when hell froze over. Though from the way this morning had felt, it already had.
The music was atonal, bare nerve-endings and fragments of bone without the skin of melody. He remembered the last evening he and Rachel had spent together. She’d come round for dinner; he’d asked her to stay the night, and she’d refused. A tense and bitter ending to a relationship that had lasted nearly two years – a year of which they’d spent living together in a house in Handsworth. She’d left him for someone who hardly seemed to want her, who had a lover already and would never commit himself to Rachel. She and Peter had been proud of the openness that allowed them both to sleep with other people. It was a measure of how much they trusted each other, and a freedom which they very rarely took advantage of.
Then Carl came along, passed through their lives and took Rachel with him. He’d told her that she was bound to leave Peter someday. No doubt that would make him feel better about himself when it no longer suited him to be with Rachel. I gave you all I had to offer a person, Peter thought, and it wasn’t enough. He felt like stone: cold and exposed. Carl didn’t even have to love you, did he? It’s just as well. The house where they’d lived probably had new tenants by now. You swore you wouldn’t leave me for him. Oh shit, drop it. Let it go. He punched the side of his face until his jaw felt numb. For months he’d been swinging between apathetic misery and a kind of frantic, wild joy that had nothing to do with happiness. The few women he’d tried to get close to since Rachel had sensed his lack of balance. They’d given him sympathy and affection, but been wary of anything more serious. So was he. Sex was a comfort, but love was a confusing threat. That was the worst thing of all: his own loss of depth, loss of need.
Now that he’d started thinking about Rachel, it was hard to stop. They’d split up nine months ago. The sensible thing to do was to put it behind you, get on with your life. But sometimes reality wasn’t sensible. There was something inside him that was waiting to tear its way out. Something as vacant and hungry as an infant. He shivered; it had suddenly turned cold, though nightfall was still an hour away. There were spots of frost on the window. No, not frost. Snowflakes. He’d never seen them so big. They drew whiteness from the sky, flocked together above the buildings, clung brightly to the glass. They were the dead skin of angels. Behind the falling snow, the view trembled and started to dissolve.
The phone rang; it was Graham, an old friend from the laboratory where he’d worked a few years ago. Was he coming out to the pub this evening? Peter said yes. It would help: he’d sleep better and have a more normal day tomorrow. By the time he left for the pub, it had stopped snowing. The roads were grey and tacky with slush; but fresh white scars marked the edges of pavement where no one walked. The trees by the cathedral dripped light, melting like chandeliers in a firestorm. Peter rubbed his arms and watched his breath making knots in the air. The snow gave way underfoot, too light to survive. But it was cold enough.
The White Lion on Bristol Street was crowded, though it was only mid-evening. Graham and his wife Jane were in the lounge at the back, away from the main bar. Peter recognised a few other faces, including three of his former colleagues. Stu the warehouse manager, whom Peter had never liked, was there with a much younger girlfriend. The sound of his jarring South-East London accent made Peter suddenly recall hours spent counting and sorting tiny bottles in the stock room, which was kept at sub-zero temperature and had no windows. You were only meant to stay there for up to ten minutes without a break; but it was easy to find yourself going in and out all day, looking for missing items as discrepancies arose between stock records and actual supplies. He remembered the quilted jackets and gloves they’d worn for that work, and how your face went numb after a few minutes among the metal shelves.
As he started getting drunk, Peter realised how tired he still was. People’s voices seemed to drift in and out of focus like wavebands on a car radio. Graham touched his shoulder. “Are you ok? You’re shivering.” Peter nodded. It wasn’t cold in here, was it? He smiled at Graham, who still looked worried. Jane was at the bar, and Stu was relating some loud and humorless anecdote to his other colleagues. “By the way,” Graham said quietly, “I’ve been made redundant. I’ve got three months left. They’ve dropped five people. I’m the oldest.” Most of the staff were young, because inexperienced workers could be paid less and were easier to dominate.
Peter stared at him. “God, I’m sorry. That’s dreadful.” He knew Graham detested the company; but he liked the job, and was good at it. “Did they give you a reason?”
“Falling sales figures. Need for restructuring, all that.” Graham shook his head. “They’d been going on all year about how the company was expanding. But they’ve taken on three new publicity and marketing guys. You know the type. Clean-cut boys in Armani suits, with floppy disks where their brains should be. If you pushed them against the office wall and fucked them they’d say, Hey, loved your input. The company’s paying them huge salaries to talk trash on the phone. Meanwhile, they’ll probably replace all the people they’ve sacked with kids on Youth Training Schemes or work experience.” He drained his pint angrily. “Don’t worry. It’s not the end of the world. If nothing else turns up, the redundancy money should keep me going until early autumn. I hope Jane won’t have to support me. Any more than she does already.”
Suddenly Graham looked puzzled. “What’s that? Outside.” His mouth formed the word shit as they listened. From behind the pub, on the corner with Thorpe Street, someone was shouting. Help. Help. Was it genuine or part of a drunken argument? Oh my God. Help. Please help. “Come on,” Graham said. A number of people at the back of the lounge area had heard it and were starting to head for the door, which was in the main bar. Graham and Peter followed them, moving as quickly as possible through the crowded space. Somebody shouted something to the barman. As they broke out into the frozen street, Peter felt a sudden tension deep in his chest. The screaming had stopped.
Two men were standing in a circle of yellow light, just out of view of the main road. One of them had backed against a high brick wall, his arms flung out. He was wearing a light grey suit; the jacket and shirt were torn into thin strips, held together by threads of blood. The other man was leaning towards, him, waving a broken bottle in a hazily deliberate way, as if trying to hypnotise his victim. Both men were about forty; the attacker had a crew-cut, bomber jacket and DMs. The sound of footsteps behind him made him pause and draw back. Still clutching the bottle, he began to stagger away, then to run. Nobody followed him.
A police car turned off the main road, its roof light flashing, and braked with a crunch of broken glass. The man against the wall didn’t move; but he was shaking. The sweat on his face seemed about to freeze. “Are you all right?” someone said. Peter thought he couldn’t be seriously hurt; there wasn’t enough blood. It looked as though the attacker had been trying to terrify him into giving up his money. Or else to cut away the pockets of his suit. There was no snow on the ground, or in the air. It had vanished as suddenly as the peace.
Two policewomen got out of the car. One took the injured man’s arm and helped him forward. After a few steps, he fell to his knees. “The wall held me,” he said clearly. “The wall. Holding me.” He was evidently in shock. The other police officer asked the group from the pub what they’d seen. By now, the attacker had disappeared into the backstreets of the Chinese quarter. “He followed me from the pub,” the injured man said. The policewomen exchanged looks. Helped to his feet, the victim stared as if wondering where he was. “My glasses,” he said, sounding confused. “In the road. They fell off.” A few people started looking. On a hunch, Peter examined the ground under the police car. Just behind the front right-hand wheel was a crushed wire frame and a few fragments of thick glass. He picked them up, feeling a painful and senseless urge to laugh. The car driver was apologising as Peter followed Graham back into the pub, where people were drinking and talking and playing pool as if nothing had happened.
At closing time, snow was falling thickly onto the roads; the sound of traffic was muffled. Jane and Graham gave Peter a lift home, their blue Metro crawling in a slow procession of cars and taxis. He remembered saying goodbye, blundering drunkenly through the flat, making coffee which he forgot to drink. It seemed only a moment later that he woke up in darkness, reached for the duvet and bruised his hand on the edge of the table. The smell of dusty floorboards and split stone told him he was back in the studio. At once, his mind filled with the images he’d planned to sculpt: smashed cars, burnt-out buildings. Nervously, he stood up and turned on the light. On the table, cut from a fresh block of stone, was the head of a child.
He sat looking at it until the morning, unable again to believe how perfect it was. He’d never been that good at representational sculpture, hadn’t really seen the point in an era when computer design and synthetic fibres made it possible to replicate any shape you wanted. His sculptures were symbolic in an obvious, external way. But this head was different. There was something within it that made it a symbol, not just an imitation of life. The eyes were shut. The short hair could belong to either a boy or a girl. Hair that looked soft, even though it was made of stone.
Outside, everything was white. It was like being still asleep. He walked to the office in Hockley where the correspondence course publisher was based, and spent a few hours designing the pages for a new booklet. The computer was an old IBM, and its software was both pirated and out of date. He left the proof pages on the production editor’s desk. One of the subscriptions people asked him how his sculptures were going. He said something noncommittal. How could he take credit for work done in his sleep? Or predict the outcome? It scared him to think about it. From the barred window of the production office, he could see the rippled surface of fresh snow covering the demolition site where, all summer, heaps of rubbish had been burning. How did the old men and women sleeping on the streets survive weather like this? Being drunk wouldn’t help; it only stopped you feeling the cold. It couldn’t protect you.
Partway through the afternoon, he ran out of things to do. There was a typical Friday atmosphere in the office: people were exchanging gossip, making plans for the weekend, scouring the job section of the local paper. The old storage heaters fixed to the walls filled each office with a stuffy barrier of heat; employees had long since moved their desks to the areas of more normal temperature. Peter was starting to fall asleep. Fear made him stand up, switch off his computer and say goodbye to the other workers. Outside, it was brighter than he had expected. The snow hoarded daylight, like a sea of broken glass.
Under the Hockley flyover, three drunks were sharing a bottle of gin. Their layers of clothing identified them as vagrants. Unwilling to go home, Peter headed up into the Asian part of Handsworth. Trays and boxes of frosty vegetables were displayed outside grocery stores. Most shops along the Soho Road had cars parked on the pavement to protect their windows. Peter remembered the ram-raiding in 1991, the jokes about the new drive-in branch of Visionhire. He’d been living here with Rachel up until last summer. A few more of the shops and large Victorian houses were boarded up now. On the steps of a Seventh-day Adventists church, an old woman crouched in a nest of plastic bags and newspapers.
Up ahead, the yellow lines of a box grid marked the crossroads close to where he and Rachel had lived. Peter reflected that you always noticed road markings when it was too late to act on them. Rather than turn left and pass the house, he crossed at the lights and walked along the number 11 route. One of the side roads, a cul-de-sac which ended in wasteground, was now wholly derelict. The narrow terraced houses had been exposed by vandals of squatters: the windowpanes and front doors were broken or missing. A grey blanket nailed across one doorway indicated a definite attempt at occupation. So many empty buildings. So many people without shelter. It wasn’t necessary for vagrants to die on the streets, any more than it was necessary for someone to get bottled because of his choice of pub. It just happened, and if you said it was inevitable you were helping it to go on.
The light was fading. Peter turned right, onto an oblique sidestreet that would take him back up the Soho Road. By now, traffic and pedestrians had left marks on the layer of snow: it was bruised with slush, crusted with broken ice. It wouldn’t last. Then he stopped. Across the road was a large, dark building he didn’t recognise. It was at least three stories high; the windows were all boarded up. The walls weren’t brick, but something like granite: huge grey blocks that were smeared with frost. Peter stared at the building; he felt sure that something had led him here. Was it a school? A church? A hostel? No insight came to him, apart from a sense of being used. After a few minutes, he walked on.
More snow fell before midnight. He slept badly, disturbed by the silence outside. Waking up in bed was both a relief and a disappointment. The flat was cold, but he couldn’t really feel it. He dressed, though it wasn’t yet daylight, and went into his studio. The child’s head was unchanged. From the other block by the wall, the hand was still reaching upward as though trapped in the process of birth. Was this as far as it went? Because there was nobody to witness these miracles, they were lost. He could feel the empty nights moving over him like a chisel. The need for contact screamed in him; he sat down and put his hands over the stone face. The slight texture of the surface mimicked the imperfection of skin. Falling asleep, he imagined that he could feel the eyes opening, biting into his palm.
When he woke, a colourless daylight had soaked through the curtains. His shoulders and arms ached from the position he’d slept in. His hands were numb. There was blood all over the stone face; it had run like a shadow onto the bench, around the dull chips of granite. The blood had dried on his hands, but he could see a whorl of tiny cuts in each palm, like a tattoo without ink. He got up and washed, then rubbed TCP into his hands. It was only then that they started to hurt.
The crowding in the White Lion made him feel more alone than ever. Newcomers shook fresh snow from the hoods and shoulders of their coats, their faces clouding in the sudden heat. Towards closing time, an inertia swept through the bar. The jukebox changed its tune, regressing from Madonna and Kylie Minogue to the Eagles, Chicago, the Walker Brothers. The scarred words of “No Regrets” were still falling through Peter’s head as he walked out onto the street. Just behind the dawn. A pack of late-night buses came up Bristol Street into town, all empty and staring white.
In the flat, he sat with a bottle of gin and watched the snow falling past the window. The drifting flakes seemed to cohere into a pattern just before they reached the glass. If the window-frame were an inch further out, would he be able to see properly? By now, he was beyond crying, beyond the compulsive emotion that came with being drunk. He felt – what was the phrase? – out there. Everything was new and irreversible. The bottle was empty, but he knew he wouldn’t sleep. Stumbling a little, he pulled his coat back on and went out into the night. Invisible lips brushed against his face.
On the Soho Road, most of the shops had metal shields. It was like a row of garage doors on a housing estate. Someone had sprayed YOUR DEAD on one of the grey screens. He wondered if it could be the end of a message: Bring out your dead. Outside a pub, a few aging drunks were slumped against the wall. The snow painted their faces. Two were fighting in a slow, confused way, pulling at each other’s coats. Peter carried on towards the crossroads. The image of his own footprints weaving from side to side occurred to him, making him smile. Lamplight glistened on boarded windows and edges of broken glass. But the snow had cleaned the district as easily as correction fluid. No more hedging of bets, he thought. No more going from winter to spring and back again. It was going to be winter.
When he reached the sealed building, his exhaustion caught up with him. The only movement was in the snow that made a blurred thumbprint across each streetlamp. And something on the steps, in the shadow of the doorway: a pile of rags and newspapers, shaking, trying to form. It was the same old woman he’d seen outside the church. Flakes of torn paper fell from her shoulders. She stood up, growing as she moved forward into the light. Rachel. The same pale skin, bruised eyes, long streak of dark hair. Or it wasn’t Rachel, but it was very like her, and that was enough. She recognised him. They embraced slowly; he gripped her arms and felt her breath on his face. By now there was no sensation in his hands at all.
Then she pulled away and began walking along the side of the house. Reaching up, she gestured at the boarded window. Her hand mimed the tearing out of nails. What did she want to get in for? Peter examined the wood; it was firmly secured. He needed tools. “Wait,” he said. She seemed to understand. It didn’t take him long to catch a taxi on the Soho Road. Entering his flat, he felt like a burglar. There wasn’t time for him to recognise the place. On the taxi back into Handsworth, he fought to stay awake. The taxi cost nearly all the change he had. The small hammer and chisel were in his coat pocket.
Working by sight alone wasn’t easy, especially in the poor light at the side of the building. He couldn’t risk being seen from the street. Rachel stood beside him, silently touching the window-frame with her thin hands. Eventually, the board shrieked as he worked it loose. There was no glass in the window. Inside, the room was cold and bare. Rachel felt their way along the blank walls to the bottom of a flight of stairs. There was some light here, though he couldn’t see where it was coming from. It seemed to float, like mist. He sat down on the stairs with Rachel and held her. When she kissed him, his lips went dead as if the nerves had been cut. Her arm was torn, the white flesh gaping open under a flap of cloth. As he watched, crystals formed in the wound and became opaque. There was no blood.
At the top of the stairs, they reached a hallway. The walls were covered with messages and drawings. Not sprayed: carved into the surface. People were sitting in corners, on steps, against the wall. They pressed themselves to the stone, as if for warmth. Nobody moved or spoke. The faint light from the walls shone through them and made their faces seem alive. Peter stopped and tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. He was thinking about the things people did to keep their feelings warm. How the senses came to life when imagination died. And vice versa, sometimes. Rachel stumbled and fell against him. They sat down together, holding each other as if unable to let go. Though he couldn’t feel it, Peter saw Rachel begin to come apart.
When all the flesh had melted, it refroze over his jacket and hands like a white skin. He looked upward, and saw more people huddled on the next staircase and landing. Briefly, he wondered why they had all come here. Perhaps they were just looking for shelter. Perhaps they believed this was a place where they could be looked after, where they would find comfort. Or perhaps (he thought with a growing sense of calm) it was the city itself, trying to restore the balance between flesh and stone.