The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 1

Kettle On, Then Wash The Cups

The first indication that this was going to be a difficult night for Peter Brophy was when he used his electronic pass card to open the door. Bear in mind, for a moment, the number of tiny decisions and memories his brain had had to sift through before his hand presented the card to the door for inspection.

Firstly, it had to remember that the card was in his wallet. Why was it in his wallet? Vanity and no other reason. It had been handed to him four years previously by Lydia Harris in HR, when it was mounted on a dangling red lanyard. He had stared at the piece of plastic, a passport-compliant photograph of his not-ready face set into its dully shiny surface, next to his full name, and an expiry date that was two years hence, and now two years out of date. It twisted as it dangled from the human resources woman’s hand, like a hypnotist’s watch. ‘Thank you’, he had said, as he took it, and he made the decision there and then that he would never wear this lanyard. ‘It could get stuck on a doorknob and garrote me,’ he told himself. ‘I refuse to let this job kill me.’ But it was really that he did not want to be the sort of person who wore a red lanyard, even though he was exactly the sort of person who would wear a red lanyard.

Secondly, his brain had to remember that his wallet was in his jacket pocket, which was not difficult, as it was always there, next to a half-consumed packet of spearmint chewing gum and a half-consumed black Biro on the verge of leaking.

Thirdly, it had to move his right arm up to his pocket, grab the wallet, and then proffer it to the lock. Thousands of synapses and nerve signals were firing, and not a single one of them had accessed the part of his brain which held the crucial piece of knowledge that you can’t use an electronic pass card from your place of work to open a Yale lock on your own front door.

Pete – nobody called him Peter, apparently too many syllables – shook his head, acknowledging his idiocy to any invisible observers. He pulled out the ear buds snaking to his phone, and felt in his pocket for his door key.

It was not there. A swift stab of panic was followed by waves of relief, as he remembered the hole in his pocket, and the fact that he had put his keys in his back pocket. He had just spent an uncomfortable train journey home as the key had dug into him so hard his right buttock could have been used as a mould. How could he have forgotten this? He pulled the unpleasantly warm key from his back pocket and opened the front door.

The second indication that this was going to be a difficult night for Peter Brophy was when he fell over the man bleeding to death in his hallway.

In truth, Pete did not fall over the man as much as he fell on him. He slipped on the blood liberally covering the laminate flooring as he was feeling for the hallway light switch, and landed on the expiring stranger, adding insult and further injury to injury. If the pre-corpse had cried out in pain, the sound was too feeble to be heard over Pete’s yelp.

He slithered to his feet and thrashed around for the light switch, his bearings lost, his muscles having lost their memory. The bulb flared for an instant, then dimmed and slowly brightened revealing a tidy hallway, marred only by a series of hand prints on one wall, red spatters on the six-slot pigeon holes on the opposite wall, and the man on the floor, his weakening heart pumping the blood out of his body in an act of betrayal.

Clashing courses of action roared into Pete’s overwhelmed brain, like a pantomime audience petitioned for suggestions.

  • ‘Call the police.’
  • ‘Leave him. Just go to your flat. This is so not your problem.’
  • ‘Stop the bleeding.’
  • ‘You can’t just go to your flat. You’ll leave a trail of bloody footprints to your door, you fucking idiot.’
  • ‘Call an ambulance.’

He narrowed it down to ‘call an ambulance’ and ‘stop the bleeding.’ Which first? Which first? Oh, God, if this had happened the following week, Pete would have been absolutely fine, he told himself. He had been nominated team first aider following the departure of Desiree Fletcher under a cloud, and he was due to do a day’s training the following Monday. ‘Why this week?’ he asked himself. ‘This is bloody typical.’

He dropped to his knees. Stop the bleeding, stop the bleeding. He pressed his hands to one of the wounds in the man’s abdomen, but it was like plugging a single hole in a colander. ‘Help!’ he finally remembered to cry. This was no good. ‘Put the kettle on, then wash the cups,’ he thought. When Pete was a boy and learning how to make the tea upon which his family depended as it depended upon oxygen, he used to wash the cups, put the milk and sugar in them, and then switch the kettle on. ‘You’ll do it quicker if you put the kettle on first,’ said his dad, who was bloody parched. ‘Kettle on, then wash the cups.’ That made sense – alert the ambulance, then stop the bleeding. He stood up and pulled the iPhone from his jacket pocket, and watched in horror as it slipped out of his blood-slicked hands, like a bar of soap in the shower, describing an arc in the air. Reflexively, his foot jerked forward to aid an unsuccessful lunge to catch it, kicking the prone man sharply in the groin. The phone continued, a split-second later hitting the man squarely on the forehead. The man groaned.

‘Sorry, sorry. I’m so sorry,’ said Pete, as he scrabbled for the phone and stabbed the number nine three times. ‘Ambulance,’ he replied to the operator. ‘Oh, and pol…’ It was too late.

‘Ambulance service. What’s the address of the emergency?’

‘There’s a man bleeding to death in my hall.’

‘All right, sir,’ replied the dispatcher, in a soft Barbardian voice which took Pete as close to being reassured as he could possibly have been, given the circumstances. ‘Can you please tell me the address?’

‘Flat 3, 12 Croft Road, Cricklewood. I mean the lettings agent called it West Hampstead, but officially…’

‘Sir,’ sighed the dispatcher – she still had three hours left on her shift and she did not need this – ‘Can you tell me what injuries the man has?’

‘I don’t know. He’s been stabbed, I think. God, he might have been shot. I don’t know. I don’t watch Casualty. Let me check.’

The dispatcher listened from the control room, as she alerted the police. When the transcript of the call was later read out in coroner’s court it went as follows:

BROPHY: Sorry, mate, what actually happ… [cry] Oh, God, not again. I’m so sorry, mate… I think he’s been stabbed. Looks like six or seven wounds. And [inaudible] some facial injuries. Two facial injuries. Oh, about bloody time! Get towels and bandages! Quick!’

DISPATCHER: Is there anybody with you?

BROPHY: Neighbour… at last.

DISPATCHER: Sir, we need to try to stop the bleeding.

BROPHY: No fucking shit. I knew it. I knew that… [shouting] No, bandages! Plasters are no good. Look at him!

DISPATCHER: You need to put pressure on the wounds until you can bind them.

BROPHY: Which one? I’ve only got two hands.

DISPATCHER: Is one wound bleeding more than the others? You might need to remove his clothing.

BROPHY: Hang on, I’ll put the phone down. [inaudible] I’ll just try to. Sorry. [cry] What, mate? What? [inaudible]

Pete leant in close to the stabbed man. ‘You’re going to be all right, mate. Ambulance is coming. Just let me open your shirt. Hang on. What?’ He was saying something. ‘Two packs. Score within,’ the man whispered. He sounded eastern European. Czech? Russian?

‘What, mate? What? What is it?’

The man fixed Pete with his stare. Tears rolled down his cheeks, mixing with the blood from a head wound Pete could never have seen. He repeated it. ‘Two packs. Score within.’

There’s a moment between life and death, like the green ray on the horizon which flashes at the instant when the sun has finally set, and marks the switch between day and night. Pete had seen it in the ward when his grandmother died. The family had sat around the bed and listened to her increasingly shallow breathing, as they waited for her to die. She had been unconscious since the day before, and the doctor had told the family that this was the end. The family whispered, as if they were worried they would wake her up. She wouldn’t want to be awake for this, Uncle Howard said during a break in the relatives’ room, she hadn’t had her hair done for days. Hard to believe one can be bored and fearful at the same time, but that was how Pete had felt. Maybe that was how they all felt, but they would never admit it. Perhaps they were lulled by the hypnotic throb of the indecipherable numbers on the monitors surrounding the bed, numbers which occasionally gave spikes of hope, but edged inexorably downwards.

Her breathing would stop for a few seconds, then start again. But when she had taken her last breath, Pete knew, even before the monitors did, that she would not take another. Dead flesh looks different from a living body, in perceptible if unquantifiable ways, even when it still has the bloom of oxygenated blood. The absence of the soul?

In the hallway, Pete looked down at the stabbed and stilled man in the spreading pool. The green ray had flashed.

Pete’s neighbour ran out of her flat in her mismatched pyjamas carrying, in direct contravention of the advice of her mother, scissors, and a white shirt. ‘I haven’t got any bandages. We can cut this into…’ She looked at the victim. That was what he was now. The victim. The deceased. This was not the first dead body she had seen either. And she knew just as Pete did. She dropped the scissors.

‘Sir,’ came a distant voice from the iPhone. ‘Sir? Is the patient still conscious?’ Pete picked up the phone. ‘No, I think he’s gone.’

‘Gone?’ asked the dispatcher.

‘No, not gone. I mean he’s dead. He’s not going anywhere. You know, I mean,’ Pete babbled. ‘…Shit.’

‘The paramedics will be with you in a moment, sir,’ said the dispatcher. ‘Can you leave a light on and the door open?’

‘Yeah, whatever,’ said Pete. He pulled himself to his feet and left another bloody hand print on the wall next to the neighbour’s door. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Do you want this?’ the neighbour asked, holding out the shirt. ‘Thanks, I’m OK,’ said Pete, wiping his hands on one of the few unsullied parts of his own. As he reached the front door, the blue glow of the ambulance poured through the transom above it, flooding the vestibule. He pulled it open in no great rush.

Two green-overalled paramedics stood outside. ‘Ambulance service,’ one of them said, presumably in case Pete was a complete moron. Perhaps the dispatcher had tipped them off. ‘He’s there,’ Pete said, equally pointlessly, indicating the dead man in his hallway. The paramedics bundled past, slipping on latex gloves, and setting to work in an attempt to raise the dead. Pete looked at his own hands, soaked in blood. ‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say!’ Funny how GCSE English stays with you. He should have been wearing gloves, shouldn’t he? He knew nobody had AIDS now, but you never know, do you? The paramedics were checking pathways were clear and pumping the dead man’s chest and prepping needles and God knows what else. Pete bet that if this had happened the following week, he would have known what was going on. There was a dead man in his hallway and Pete was thinking about the training room in HR. The Learning Pod and Macbeth. Strange how the brain works, how it automatically pulls out a pass card, how it distracts you from the dead man in your hallway. The neighbour was still standing there, watching over the paramedics, with the shirt in her hand, her scissors on the floor, kicked out of the way by the first paramedic to the body. Pete picked them up. ‘Somebody could get hurt,’ he thought, and nearly laughed.

More flashing blue lights appeared through the transom. ‘Yeah,’ thought Pete. ‘As if a couple more paramedics could help.’ He opened the front door.

And so the first thing the attending police officers on the other side of the threshold saw when the door was opened was a man with bloodied shirt and hands holding a pair of scissors. ‘He’s through here,’ Pete said.

Chapter 2 –>