The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 10

Spring 1993

Peter Anthony Brophy was not what you could call a natural athlete. Poor depth perception and a clumsiness that was always two steps away from a trip or a slip prevented him from troubling any of his school’s sports teams. Back in Our Lady’s he was second from last to be picked in playground football. He would have been last, but John Brady had a calliper on his left leg from second year juniors. And even he was better at heading the ball than Peter.

Consequently, Peter was usually forced to go in goal, a tactical decision on a par with marching on Russia in the winter. Of course, his team mates castigated him for the eight out of ten balls he failed to stop, and did not congratulate him for the 20% of shots he managed to save, which seemed unfair to Peter.

‘I can’t catch,’ Peter announced one Wednesday evening in the living room as the Brophys were having their tea. They did not have a dining room as such. Had they sold their house, the estate agent would have called The Other Room a dining room. And once Mum had moved the kitchen table into The Other Room in an aspirational attempt to become lower middle class. But Dad liked to watch Granada Tonight while he had his tea, and, in any case, he had brought a pool table home with him one night after he’d been to the Aiggy Arms and you couldn’t put that up in the living room could you, because your mum wouldn’t be able to see the telly. Besides, one of those chairs had a wobbly leg, said Dad.

‘I know. You’re shit at catching. You couldn’t catch AIDS,’ said Our Gerry.

Dad reached across and clouted Gerry on the back of the head with an open palm. ‘There will be no bloody swearing in this house,’ said Dad, and he looked across at Mum for approval. She nodded.

‘What’s wrong, Gerry… ‘Manda… Peter?’ Dad always had to go through his children’s names until he landed on the correct one. Peter up to the age of three was convinced his name was Gerrymander Peter.

Peter pushed a dumpling boulder around the mincemeat on his plate. Mum had made mincemeat and dumplings with boiled potatoes and peas, one of her standbys. She had put Worcestershire sauce in the mincemeat once, but Dad looked as if he had been shot, so she did not repeat the experiment. ‘That’s just it, I can’t catch. I’m useless.’

‘Why do you need to catch, love… lad?’ asked Dad. Sons were ‘lad’, daughters were ‘love’, that was how he addressed them if he did not trust himself to get a name right, and he got even that wrong. It was all right for Mum. She got to call everybody ‘love’.

‘We’re going to play rounders next week at youth group and I’m going to be rubbish,’ said Peter, as he chased the last few peas.

‘Peter and Ruthie up the tree, K.I. K.I….’ chanted Gerry and Our Becky.

‘Leave him alone,’ said Mum.

‘Yeah, leave him, you’re dead sly,’ said Our Amanda, from behind a copy of Just Seventeen, and she tapped him on the back.

‘Shurrup, I don’t even like her,’ said Peter, denying Ruth Fisher like the saint after whom he was named denied Our Lord. It was true, in a way. He didn’t like her. He loved her, in block capitals and underlined and highlighted with a neon yellow flat-nibbed pen. It all dated back to the day after the thurible moment. He had gone into school the next day and Mrs Barnett had told him off in front of the whole class, which seemed unfair given that he had already been hauled over the charcoals by Boyley and Father O’Driscoll, and then had the mother of all tellings-off by his actual mother, who was not angry but disappointed, although it seemed to Peter that she was doing a pretty good impersonation of an angry person.

After Mrs Barnett had told the class that Peter’s conduct in the sacristy the previous day was not what she expected of a pupil of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception, he slumped back to his table. But it turned out to be one of the best days of his life. Andrew Rooney had nodded approvingly as he passed him. At play time he was picked early, was not the goalie, and nearly scored. As it turned out, he did just enough to prove to the other boys that they were right to put him in goal, but on that day it felt so good.

But the most lasting effect of that day was the smile Ruth Fisher had given him as he sat down. Ruth was an altar server too, but in a different group, occupying a different part of the rota. She had been at the back of the church the previous day, when Peter smashed the picture, and she heard the crash, watched Mr Boyle stride across the sanctuary, and strained to hear the muffled cries from the sacristy.

The growth from child to adult is not a gradual and smooth process. It is a series of jerky changes over a period of time – stepping stones rather than milestones. One day a baby cannot walk, the next it is toddling across the room, and there is no going back. Ruth Fisher’s sympathetic smile tripped a switch in Peter. Before that point his interest in girls was rooted in rivalry. After that it was very different. Ruth Fisher had introduced him to his constant companion throughout his teenage years: unrequited love.

Imagine the frustration of being a 10-year-old, soon to be 11, happening upon the love of your life, and knowing that soon you would be separated, with you being sent to St Vincent de Paul RC Boys’ School, while she goes to St Mary Magdalene RC High School for Girls. Imagine the bitter-sweet pain of sitting at the same table as your beloved between 9am and 3.30pm every day, apart from play time and lunch, and never being able to say more than two words to her because you know her friends would ostracise her for talking to you. Even though they apparently paid no attention to the football game going on in the middle of their playground dance routines, it was clear the girls had a pecking order roughly equivalent to the picking order.

He pined over the summer between primary and secondary school, and the feelings faded during his first year. Occasionally he would see Ruth at church, and his stomach would drop, but overall it was manageable and mostly overwhelmed by the move to a much bigger school. The pressure to play football at lunchtime had gone, and he joined the school Dungeons & Dragons club, partly because it was such a relief to find boys like himself, who did not think that knowing the name of the capital of Japan was a sign of latent homosexuality or also that that was necessarily a bad thing, and mostly because it was indoors.

But in his second year it became time for Peter’s confirmation, the sacrament during which he would endorse the decision made by his parents to bring him up in the holy Roman Catholic faith now that he had reached man’s estate. This involved six weeks of classes in the parish hall and brought him face to face, on a weekly basis, with Ruth bloody Fisher again, six weeks of never knowing where to look or what to do with his hands, all because she smiled at him that day.

And, following the confirmation, the students were invited to join Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Youth Group, which met every Wednesday evening. Ruth Fisher was going, and so that meant Peter was going too, sitting and nodding and pining and avoiding playing ping-pong.

But as the light evenings came in May, Berni McEvoy, the parish youth worker, with her hoop earrings and her Doc Martens and her shredded nerves, announced that the group would be meeting in Sefton Park the following week to play rounders and it would be Fun, and Peter could not have disagreed more. Sport was not Fun, sport was humiliation. And worse, sport was humiliation in front of Ruth Fisher.

‘Look, lad, you just need to practise,’ said Dad, his mouth full of dumpling.

‘Are you going to help me, Dad?’ asked Peter.

Dad nearly choked on his dumpling. ‘I can’t, lad,’ he spluttered. ‘Me arm’s beggared.’ Mum rolled her eyes.

‘Can you help us, Gerry?’ Peter asked his big brother.

‘Sod off, soft lad,’ said Gerry. ‘I’ve got better things to do with my… OW!’

Dad leaned back in his chair after clouting Gerry again with his beggared arm. ‘I bloody told you. No swearing in this house.’

‘Do you know what I used to do, love?’ said Mum. ‘I had a tennis ball and I just used to throw it against the wall as hard as I could and catch it on the bounce. That’s how I practised catching. And I was dead good at rounders.’

‘Were you, Mum?’ asked Becky, without guile. ‘Did they have rounders then?’

‘I was, love. I was in the rounders team, and then I met your dad, and all that stopped. Never meet a man, love. D’you hear that, Tony?’

Dad did not meet her gaze. ‘Nah, I was watching the telly. What was that, love?’ On the television, a reporter was talking to the manager of a pebbledashed Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Burnley.

‘Have a go at that,’ Mum said to Peter. ‘It doesn’t half help.’

And so, every early evening for the next week, Peter Anthony Brophy was to be found in the wide alley at the end of Brotherswater Road, where it met Garmoyle Road, throwing a dirty yellow tennis ball against the end terrace wall of number 65 as hard as he could, and attempting to catch it. On Day One, he caught one in ten balls, by Day Four he was catching seven out of ten. By Day Six he was using his left hand to catch the balls, plucking them out of the air as if they were juicy apples hanging from a tree…

***

Wednesday evening came around, and the youth group had convened in a sun-soaked field in Sefton Park, opposite the cricket club, where men in white were scattered like cherry blossom. If Berni McAvoy with her jangling bangles and nerves had wanted specifically to design a situation in which Peter would feel most intimidated, then she could not have done better than placing him within sight of actual men hitting and catching balls, and six feet away from Ruth Fisher.

Berni divided the group into two teams, and Peter was not sure if he was pleased or disappointed not to be in the same team as Ruth. No, on the same team he might have had to talk to her, and that would have been terrible.

The game began, and his parents were right. All he had needed was practice. He actually caught a ball. June Chan blasted one so hard the cricketers could hear the impact of bat on ball, and Peter dived – actually dived – to catch it. He did not have to dive, he just wanted to make it look good. And he succeeded. Even Andrew Rooney nodded approvingly, Andrew Rooney for whom everything had dropped a year ago, from his voice downwards. The puberty fairy had been good to Andrew Rooney, who was there because his mother made him go. Nobody stood up to Margi Rooney. Andrew Rooney was now five foot eight, and there were rumours he had been served in the Brook House. In two years’ time everything would have soured for Andrew Rooney, but for now he was visibly enjoying being Cock of Year Eight.

‘Fuckin’ ‘ell, Pete’, said Shaun McGovern. ‘Who taught you how to do that?’

‘Taught myself’, said Peter. He felt that admitting to his mother’s influence on his sporting development might have been counterproductive.

‘Nice one,’ said Shaun. ‘Have you been working on batting too?’

It became apparent reasonably quickly that Peter had not. He missed the first two underarm balls aimed at him, swatting the air in pursuit of a fly which did not exist, and the third caught his bat by accident, a glancing blow which sent the ball spinning straight into the hands of Louise Molloy. His good work was mostly undone.

The second innings was better. And by the time Ruth Fisher’s team were down to three players they were only four runs behind. So it was tight when Ruth came up to bat. Jade Woods swung her arm and lobbed the ball at Ruth. Ruth took a swing of her own and made contact, and the ball arced through the setting sun sky.

And Peter was perfectly placed to pluck it. Time slowed down, as it does at times like these, and Peter was thinking at super-speed, like Wally West, The Flash, The Fastest Man Alive. Peter had a choice, he realised, one of the few significant choices he had been able to make in his life thus far. He could catch this ball – of that he had no doubt – and improve his standing among people he wished, despite everything, were his peers. Or he could tell a big fat lie, miss the ball, and make Ruth Fisher happy. And a happy Ruth Fisher might like him, mightn’t she? Because she would know. She would know he had done it on purpose to make her look good.

It was no choice really…

The ball hit Peter’s palm and he forced himself not to close his fingers. It bounced over his head, and he chased after it as it bobbled along the grass. By the time he had reached it Ruth and her remaining team mates were home. The rest of the game was a formality.

After they had been defeated, Peter’s own team mates walked over to him and explained to him in a clear and unvarnished way that they had diagnosed him with, variously, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

And Ruth Fisher? Ruth could not look at him. He was right that she would know he had done it on purpose to make her look good. Because it was obvious, so obvious, that he should have caught that ball. A week before and his fumble would have been convincing, because it would have been a real fumble. All that practice really had paid off. And though he had learnt a valuable lesson that day, it was a pity he would never heed it.

Of course, Berni McEvoy made a contractual attempt at cheering him up. Not everybody can catch, and that was a difficult ball to catch anyway, and he did really well, and the important thing was that they had all had a really good time, she explained to him. But Peter just stared at her hoop earrings, swinging in the May breeze. He was nearly 13 and that sort of nonsense was not helpful at that point in his life. He walked back to the parish hall accompanied, for old times’ sake, by Shaun McGovern, as dusk drew in. Ruth Fisher walked back with Andrew Rooney.

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