Liza Cody has been a groundbreaker throughout her career as a mystery writer. Her debut novel, Dupe, brought her the 1980 John Creasey Award for best first novel, and it was especially notable for introducing the character Anna Lee, the first professional female P.I. in British mystery fiction. Anna Lee ended up featuring in a series that was later adapted for television. Another groundbreaking Cody series appeared in the 1990s, starring a female professional wrestler, Eva Wylie. For the past several years, Liza tells EQMM, she’s been interested in homelessness: “My latest book, Lady Bag, came out earlier this year and I’m working on a sequel. Lady Bag is indeed a bag lady and I’ve been interested in rough sleepers’ stories since homelessness became a common sight in the U.K. after the welfare system started to come unraveled in the 1980s.” The Anthony and Silver Dagger award-winning author’s last two stories for EQMM, December 2013’s “I Am Not Fluffy” and June 2014’s “A Hand,” also center around people left at the margins of society. But today Liza lets two such people speak for themselves, rather than through her fiction.—Janet Hutchings
Lately, I have spent quite a lot of time with homeless people, and I’ve learned, when they tell me a story, to neither believe nor disbelieve it. Because if they can be bothered to talk to me at all, probably, like me, they’ll be telling a story for money. And it won’t be a story of glamour or success. It will be about hardship, obviously—if you urgently need a few pounds from a stranger it won’t be because you’ve done well in life. It’s usually because, on top of a whole cocktail of problems, you’ve been handed a double scoop of bad luck.
What follows is Sick Hazel’s story—told to me in dribs and drabs over the five or six years I knew her before her death. You’d think that if she was street-tagged “Sick Hazel” it would be to distinguish her at least from a Healthy Hazel. Her boyfriend, for instance, is known as Scots Jacko in contrast to a couple of other Jacks who roam the same area. But as far as I know there wasn’t another Hazel of any description. She begins and ends with unanswered questions.
When I first met them, Hazel and Jacko were inseparable. They were trying to collect enough money for bus fares for the journey to the Casualty Department at our local hospital. They had a complicated day ahead of them. They needed money to go to the hospital, money to come back, money for another bus to their Benefit Office on the other side of town. There, they would have to summon enough energy to argue about having to register as job-seekers when they were both clearly too sick to work. And finally, they had to go home—yet another bus ride they would be forced to raise the money for. The reason they had to go to Casualty in the first place was because, having no permanent address, they couldn’t register with a local doctor.
It can be exhausting to be homeless—not a job for sick people.
They were an odd couple. Hazel was short, black-haired, and considerably older than Jacko. He was wiry, nervous, and red-headed. At first it seemed, because of her loud wet bronchitis, that he was looking after her. But in fact they looked after each other. It’s true that he was in better physical shape, but she was the one who could fill in the mountains of application forms required to claim social benefits. She was the one who could read the leaflets that were issued regularly to tell them the rules had been changed and that they no longer qualified for assistance in this or that category. She could read bus and train timetables. She remembered to say “Thank you” to contributors to their common cause. A very necessary talent because Jacko was better at demanding money than asking for it. His lack of social skills, coupled with his prison tattoos, meant that without Hazel he might have starved.
Obviously, at that first meeting, I wasn’t told that they both had AIDS. Which was why they both needed constant medical attention—a tricky prospect when you haven’t got a doctor, and when the nearest hospital is seven miles away. They were very bad at keeping appointments because, of course, they both drank “to keep out the cold.”
Hazel, the talker, was quite frank about Jacko’s illness—he’d been infected by a dirty tattoo needle—but it was a long time before she told me about hers. Her stories about the past featured a lot of campfires and guitars. She was a hippy and a festival drug-taker who seemed, almost without noticing, to have crossed the line from sleeping out under the stars by choice to sleeping rough in all weathers. But that was before she met Jacko. And here the story becomes slightly implausible. She told it to me in order to extract sympathy and money so it may be less than or more than true.
She was gang raped on the canal towpath by guys she’d been hanging out with and sharing bottles of cheap wine with earlier that afternoon. Scots Jacko was one of them. Three of the men ran away, but Jacko was so drunk he fell asleep in the weeds near where Hazel was lying.
When she woke up and saw him there she hauled him to his feet and pushed him into the canal. Then she had to jump in and save his life because, although the canal is quite shallow, he was too pissed to save himself.
When they’d both sobered up a bit he burst into tears and wept for two solid hours—out of remorse, she said. He swore that from that time on he’d look after her until the day one of them died. It was a romance, she told me.
Sometimes the stories I hear are so random and messy, so lacking in either reasons or consequences, that I simply have to accept what I’m told. It’s only novelists who string together causes and effects like bead necklaces, as if stories really need to be logical. We pick them apart, looking for flaws in logic, forgetting that, more often than not, real life isn’t like that.
Crime writers often feel they should think like the detectives or lawyers they’re writing about. Crimes, once committed, should start a chain of events that lead to a satisfying conclusion.
What should I have asked Hazel? Why didn’t you go to the police? All crime stories begin with help being sought after an offence. But if someone is too drunk, broke, degraded, and exhausted to seek help or justice, no cop, detective, or law is invoked and therefore there’s no story. Well, there is a story, but no satisfactory explanation or logical consequence.
Tough. I have now told you everything that Hazel told me. I had no right to prod or pry any further—I am not a detective. I didn’t even know if Jacko was the one who infected Hazel with AIDS, or if it was the other way round. The way she told the story, she was loved and cared for by her rapist and killer.
Then she died and Jacko has been alone ever since. Every time I see him in the street now he rolls up his trouser legs to show me the raw lesions. Every time I look there are more. Is he saying, “Look, this is what I deserve. This sickness is my redemption. Yes, I raped her but she’s still killing me”? Probably not, he’s not much of a talker or a thinker. He’s probably just saying, “I’m sick, give me money.” But when I give him money who am I supporting? Am I, a feminist, giving money to a rapist and a killer? Or am I just giving a sick man the bus fare to the hospital?
Nothing is clear and you would have to be more naive than I am to believe everything you hear and then to judge a man on that basis.
Jacko is even less satisfactory as a storyteller than Hazel was. I want far more shape, many more answers than I’ve been given. But I’ll just have to make them up for myself because I’m addicted to looking for meaning, to filling in gaps. However, more likely than not, if I’m trying to find my way towards some sort of truth, I will be proved wrong. Because, apart from random conversations and sometimes cooking at a homeless shelter, I simply don’t walk in that world. And Sick Hazel, as far as I know, didn’t read detective stories. So she didn’t shape her story to suit her audience. She just told it like it was. Or wasn’t. As I said at the beginning, I’ve taught myself to be neither a believer nor a disbeliever.
What a challenge to writers of fiction, from the creator of two of my favorite series characters.