It’s 1990, an ugly year, and that’s my brother Joss in the middle of the
picture, sitting on his creaking bed in a cell at Wormwood Scrubs prison, West
London. He’s shivering, caressing his arms – he’s his own baby. He’s in there
for breaking and entering a series of pharmacies, and for credit card fraud
– 18 months in all.
It could be halved for good behavior. With luck, he could be out for his
25th birthday, grow his hair, go to Paris with his girlfriend, Shareen, be quasi-normal
again. Joss’s Iranian friend, Naseej, is the one they really want, the crucial
link, the one with the contacts at Barclays’ and Lloyds’ banks. But there’s
not enough evidence to convict Naseej. He remains free. It’s a perfect mess.
Mother’s tired, livid, freaked, and I’m thinking: this is MY brother? Who could
be a rock star? Who could have so easily turned into a carbon copy of me?
It’s dingy in Cell 4501 – only 15 square feet. Lack of space alone can
compress frustration to a point, snapping, tense. He’s motionless; the occasional
shudder rippling down his pine, staring at the picture of the desert on his
wall which the previous occupant left behind. It’s a bleached carpet of undulating
dunes, dazzling honey shards of light, skin on sand, skin on stone, first hot,
then cold; fire and ice. He’s high on emptiness, interminable space, multiple
specks of and fired and fused under the kiln of sun, a sweeping vision. So it
rolls on, unfurls; it unravels him. All the fulminating anger chafes, itches,
but then subsides as he gazes into it, eyes pinned back, pupils widening like
a record on a turn-table, the mirages of wild boys dancing on his retina – dune
music, a dim echo of freedoms lost.
The other picture on the wall is Joss’s own: Iggy Pop stripped, that famous
Napoleonic menace that tiny people have: rage against the world, a skinny ragged
torso. The essence of RAW POWER. Joss has a thing about Iggy, whose real name,
James Jewell Osterberg, he can never pronounce. He wants to be a rock-n-roll
wild thing. This goes back to our teenage years back in the early seventies:
the ball-freezing, futureless pathos, up in the council estate in Darlington
– a gulag where people roamed freely. Joss does the words, guitar and bass lines:
Pretty Faces Going To Hell. I Wanna Be Your Dog. He has the sheet music, even
though he can’t read it, plays the chords over and over and over. Staying sane
and tough is what it’s all about in the clink. And he is neither.
Emptiness, at least that’s clean. Nihilism at least that’s something to
believe. Something ‘anti’ to live for. His eyes search for a place to rest.
Once settled on the dunes, the rest of him will follow like water down a plug
hole. The peace he knows is there, but is obscured. He sees things in it: an
ovoid ring of stones, a burial ground. He hears voices: ancestral, claiming
bliss is no figment. Familiar voices too: mother saying, ‘I told you this would
happen. You never listened to me;’ our great-grandfather – also called Joss
– died in 1918, in the so-called Great War, somewhere in Sinai. Joss wants to
go there. He never got to be in a war. He scratches ruined veins in his arm:
the sweats, the fever, the jaw-grinding tight-assedness, his bowels churning
like poisons in a cement mixer, spitting out scraps of tobacco laced with phlegm,
raking his lungs dry. Methadone treatment doesn’t get him UP, doesn’t do the
blasted trick. It’s not sufficient to go there; he needs the more that trampolines
beyond craving. That’s when he starts to call me, the useful one, the prisoner’s
messenger boy. I’m someone to be used. He wants me to help him. I don’t want
to but I do. Have to get a message to Naseej, bring him some real gear. Just
a little to get by.
Shareen said she loved Joss forever. Nice word ‘forever’. Joss said it
too. People do, until circumstances make it redundant. She’s heard that things
are not going well for Joss. A TV documentary has just done a devastating report
on conditions inside the prison. It is one of Europe’s largest, housing 1,300
prisoners: it’s overcrowded, HIV is spreading like a stinking bath-house smell,
officers are beating up the inmates systematically, there’s malnutrition, an
outbreak of suicide in custody, especially the young and black. Joss says it’s
all true, only worse. The authorities, flustered, have made an official statement
about the government’s plans: quick injections of money, like fixes that cannot
Shareen and Joss are having a stinking row. No stopping it. Turns out she’s
not pregnant after all; just missed a period, but that was due to other hormonal
irregularities. She’s been pumping herself with steroids. She says she’ll go
to France; she’s so sick and tired of London; he’s not to hold her back.
“You have no power over me. I’ve bought a Euro-rail pass. See?” She waves
it at him. “I’m going to Paris. I’ll be there next Thursday.”
“But that’s the day I see my probation officer. He can tell me if my sentence
is commuted. I could be out in a few weeks. We can be together.”
“No…I can’t. I don’t want to see you anymore. It’s over. I don’t want you following
me to the South of France either.”
“But that was our plan?” says Joss.
She gets this next move from watching soaps. “We are finished. I’ve got
a new man. Look at you. You were like some ostrich. You didn’t see this coming.
And I know what men do in prison. You can’t stop sticking it up each other.
Joss flattens his hand on the wired glass, unable to speak, fuming blood,
heart beat doing the wild thing. He can’t touch her. He can’t maul her face
or leave a nice scar to be remembered by. He struggles for a word: ‘bitch’ just
doesn’t even reach it. ‘Scum,’ maybe? But even scum behaves honorably sometimes.
She’s at soap operatic heights now, she stands up and screams, “You dirty fucking
This works: the security guard marches her out of the door, her mascara
running tarantulas down her cheeks. Joss has heard these tears before, seen
the Alice Cooper face. You didn’t need a lie detector with Shareen. The tone
tells all, cuts glass. Joss never cries himself…over anyone. She’s led him a
merry dance, only to dump him now.
That’s Shareen though. Anyone could have said so.
Mother phones me. “How is everything? Have you seen him? Is he all right?”
“One thing at once,” I say.
“Something’s wrong. I know. But I can’t see him. It would be too much for
To come all the way from Darlington when you’re on chemo-therapy is too
much, it’s true. Joss doesn’t know that. She gets nauseous just walking from
the kitchen to the bathroom.
But there are more ways than one to kill a person. She’s been reading the Tarot
cards. The skeleton, sickle and shadow: it’s all there.
“If Joss dies in prison, I don’t want anyone to see his face. It must be
kept covered, even in the mortuary. It won’t be a natural.”
The family blame her: where is the parental control? They crow. Is there
a wild gene in our family tree? That kind of stuff. Shaming, scape-goating.
I don’t mention any of this to Joss, but with me it’s sheer blind futility.
I feel myself sinking.
Tuesday afternoon session: Joss is sitting, glum and dejected, and I’m
thinking: how awful this is; how we’ve grown wildly apart, done the atomic splits.
I’m here because of what we once were, not what is now. He was always the cuckoo
in the nest. He doesn’t talk, he mumbles, shoulders slope in a dull curve: he
coughs all the time, his expression is of fixed hardness, let a feeling in and
it would shatter the resolve – like someone famished and soul-sick, a tortured
refugee in his own body. Asylum is elsewhere. He wanted all or nothing. The
nothing eats the all, devours it whole.
Joss makes demands. He’s tricky – the habit of mistrust- a cocky bastard.
Thinks he can still get out of it. It’s like talking to an extreme alter ego,
not the Joss I knew. That the light in his eyes is a reflection; it has no genuine
source of its own. I don’t want to contact Naseej – the guy’s a charmer. Joss
tells me it can all be done in Earl’s Court. Dr. Singh knows Naseej’s family
has already written several prescriptions for Mogodon, Tuinol, Ephedrine and
Diazepam, anything. He’s perfected the wall of indifference. Joss is in danger
of getting Hep B, or Septicemia. The tests for these are not available in the
The inmates like Joss out of simple logic: they want to be the dog of someone
who wants to be their dog. He writes songs, and they listen to them through
the walls. He has a vibrant voice, deliberate and bored at the same time. He
doesn’t need a front man. He can do it all. And Naseej believes he not only
sings like a fallen angel, but is one -a true rock-n-roll spirit, trashed in
self-created chains to the gutter.
I go to visit Naseej. He smiles at me; he’s slim, tall and debonair. “You
look just like your brother. Come in.”
He’s from Teheran. His family has lived in Hammersmith for fifteen years.
He speaks English like a blue-collar East End yuppie. He’s at home with the
Mafia culture. His father’s a pharmacologist; so he’s clued in to what to steal.
He and Joss memorized the names of all the sellable drugs. Joss met him in a
pub in Earl’s Court, better known as ‘Girls’ Court.’ Naseej holds my hand firmly,
looks me in the eye, and says, “I miss him man. I love him.You understand?”
Then he shoves a large Bible into my hand.
“Deliverance,” he says, smirking.
“Is this some kind of joke? You are a Zoroastrian.”
“Just get it to him.”
The picture enlarges if you look at it for a long time, total concentration.
And Joss is transfixed, so into the desert scene, he can’t come out of it. He
needs to do a deal with the specter of depression – the demons that are there.
Shareen is never mentioned; he knows what she is; he used her too, in a way.
She is of the blood-sucking variety of chick – she means no harm. She falls
in with those who pay for her drugs. Joss thinks more of Naseej, who helped
him out with money, almost like a brother, cooked him dinners, took him to the
cinema. They are classic ‘bloke’ buddies. You have to know loneliness to appreciate
such a friend: one who never judges, just looks on, looks after needs. I’m glad
for Joss that he has this friend. Naseej even knows one of the governors of
Her Majesties’ Inspectorate. A man who helps to prepare the reports that go
to cabinet ministers. He will never suffer what Joss is suffering.
The Bible set Joss free. The H was concealed inside the back binding –
oh so cleverly. And I delivered it. He straps his arm, presses up the bloated
brachial vein, taps the syringe, let’s his head blow off in slow motion. You
can almost hear John Cale’s rancid viola wailing – the only possible soundtrack
– but nothing velvet about Joss’s personal underground.
Joss’s body is found at 6.00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. It’s snowing outside,
there’s black ice on the roads. He is kneeling, head down, but smashed right
through the desert picture. It’s glossed paper becoming a ripped necklace. Head
in the ovoid stones. He’s wrapped in his chosen tomb. The Bible was opened at
the Songs of Solomon. I demand to see the body. The raw power bulging out is
all gone. All that fizz and fuss, has merged into something bigger, fused under
a kiln of sun, into repose, the face, smooth, angelic, unthreatening. He’s found
his personal desert, joined his great-grandfather. Joss was fully clothed so,
the coroner tells me, we can discount any snuff-rock type of sexual experimentation.
The verdict: a life of misadventure. The last person Joss wrote to was Naseej.
The note said: “Thanks. Goodbye. I love you.”
Naseej breaks down in tears in front of me when I give it to him. He has become
the true brother of my brother, and I, nothing but an onlooker, an instrument
of nemesis, incapable of mourning, not knowing who I am or what I’ve lost.