Peter Brophy had been back to the Thai restaurant on Frith Street so many times the waitress asked him if he wanted ‘the usual’, and the kitchen staff had an actual nickname for him. ‘Peter Pad Thai’ sipped his Coke and stared out of the window onto the rain-washed street. A taxi slooshed past, its wheels shattering the orange reflection of its roof lamp into tiny pieces. Two men holding hands. An old woman with a tartan shopping trolley, lost in so many ways.
But not the woman in the picture. Not Marketa. At least Pete had a name now. The night after his inglorious date with Donna he had returned to Carny in a second attempt to speak to Marketa. He reached as far as the door before Omar the bouncer recognised him. His eyes met Marketa’s in the coat check booth for a second, and then Omar bundled him out. The doorman dragged him into the street and pushed him up against the scaffolding cladding the flats next to the club. He punched Pete in the stomach, and then explained colourfully and unambiguously what would happen were he to hassle Marketa again. The unlikely, if not impossible, nature of the anatomical modifications Omar suggested would take place failed to undercut the essential menace of the warning, and Pete decided, after he was able to breathe again, that a different approach would be wise.
And so every night afterwards, for the following nine days, Pete had returned to the Thai restaurant at 8.15pm. He would find a table near the window, ask for a glass of Coca-Cola and a bowl of pad Thai – the cheapest items on the menu – and watch for Marketa to arrive. His plan, such as it was, was to confront her out of the sight of Omar, in a discreet way, to plead his case calmly, and arrange to meet her. He had enough self-awareness to know that these hurdles were particularly high, and that his ankle was attached to a ball and chain.
But every night he had been disappointed. On five nights he had not seen her at all. One night she had arrived in a taxi, which pulled up outside the door of Carny. Another night he was prevented from leaving the premises by the arrival of what turned out to be London’s third-best gay men’s rugby union team.
And the previous night he had been blindsided. She had walked up Frith Street the other way, and he swore softly as he watched her walk past Omar the bouncer and into the club.
But this night, Pete told himself, was make or break. He could not afford to eat out forever. After this he would have to find her another way. How many Marketas could there be in London? He pulled out his phone and Googled ‘Marketa London’. Oh, he thought. Marketa – Polish for Margaret. Really? He had known a lot of Margarets in his time, all friends of his mother, probably still sitting in church every Sunday and polishing the cabinets in the sacristy. Margarets owned pinnies. Marketa was, by a long way, the least Margarety Margaret he had ever encountered. Stop looking at your phone, you idiot, he thought, you’ll miss her.
A middle-aged woman on the next table in her best top gave him a sympathetic smile. Poor man, her expression said. Awful to be stood up. Mind you, I’m not surprised if he’s only drinking Coke. Cheapskate.
The waitress arrived with his bowl of pad Thai. ‘Can I p…’ Pete began, but the waitress had already whipped out her wireless card machine, anticipating a repeat of the request he had made every single night for the past nine days. Pete had had visions of being prevented from leaving the restaurant owing to non-payment of the bill. He knew the routine. He would hand over his card. The waitress would slot it into the machine. Pete would punch in his PIN and give the machine back. They both would wait for the machine to print the receipt. Eventually the waitress would tear it off and hand it back with the card.
Unfortunately, Marketa did not know the routine. She appeared in view as the waitress took the card and machine from Pete, turning into Frith Street from Romilly Street. ‘No, I don’t need a receipt,’ Pete said, his hand darting out to retrieve his card.
‘Sorry, sir,’ said the waitress, instinctively snatching the machine out of his reach. ‘It has to go through to the… Oh, hang on.’ She pressed one of the buttons. The rackety scratch of the printer prickled Pete’s fuzzy nerves. Marketa was getting closer as the roll of receipt paper slowly unwound. ‘Please, just give…’ said Pete. Closer she came…
‘Sod it,’ said Pete, out loud. He swung his legs out from the bench and rushed out of the restaurant without his card, jostling the middle-aged woman and exhausting her last remnants of sympathy for him. He tore across the road and skidded to a halt in front of Marketa, his soles scattering spray from the pavement.
‘Don’t be scared, I…’ panted Pete.
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake! What is your problem?’ Marketa pushed past Pete, scratching his head with a spoke from her umbrella.
‘Just a second! I…’ He started to follow her, the rain soaking his white shirt.
‘What part of “I don’t want to speak to you” don’t you understand? Fucking men!’
Marketa stopped and turned to face Pete. She held up what looked like a small aerosol can. ‘If you don’t piss off in the next three seconds, I’m going to press this button and my friend on the door will come and kick the shit out of you. One…’
‘I’ve got a message from Jerzy!’
‘What?’ said Marketa. She lost her focus a little.
‘Just before he died, he gave me a message, and I think it was for you.’
Marketa swallowed. ‘OK… So… So tell me what it is.’
Pete looked at her, the rain bouncing off her umbrella. He caught a whiff of patchouli oil. Distracting. It was taking him somewhere. Stupid brain. The two men he had seen holding hands before were standing by them. ‘You all right, hon? Is this man being an arsehole?’ one of them asked Marketa. The other glared at Pete.
‘Yes, he’s an asshole, but it’s OK. Thank you,’
The men walked off, leaving Pete and Marketa alone.
‘So? Tell me what the message is,’ she said.
Pete took a deep breath.
‘No,’ he said.
‘I want five minutes with you. A five-minute conversation, no more than that…’
‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’
‘I’ll tell you who I am. I’m the man who came home one night and found your boyfriend dying and tried to save his life. I’m the man who’s been arrested twice and beaten up twice just because I wanted to work out why somebody would want to kill your boyfriend. I’m the man who wakes up every bloody night and sees his face staring at me in the darkness. And I’m the man who’s been carrying Jerzy’s last words for weeks and trying to find the right person to tell. I know he was your boyfriend – I can’t imagine what you’ve been through – but my life’s been totally derailed because of this, and the least… the very least… you can do is give me five minutes out of your life.’
He stopped. His heart was thumping. God, he hated being assertive. It never sounded convincing from him. This was why he never went into teaching. Along with all the other reasons.
‘All right,’ Marketa said, as if the words were being pulled out of her desperate grasp.
‘OK,’ said Pete, not entirely sure he could believe he had succeeded. ‘So, what? Pub…?’
‘Are you crazy?! I can’t be seen with you in public. This is a big enough risk.’ She waved her arms to indicate Frith Street.
‘So what? My flat? Your place…?’
‘Why don’t you just paint a target on us?’
‘What? I don’t understand.’
‘No, you fucking don’t.’ Marketa looked around, desperately, as if she would find a solution written on one of the restaurant windows.
‘What about the cinema?’
‘I don’t want to go on a date with you!’
‘No, really, listen. It’s dark. It’s somewhere people can go on their own. If you don’t want to be seen with me, it’s ideal.’
Marketa pondered this for a moment.
‘OK, I’m not working tomorrow night. Where?’ she said.
‘I dunno, where do you live?’
‘You are kidding me…’
‘I can’t be seen with you in Cricklewood.’
‘Sounds like everybody I’ve ever been on a date with. OK, um, the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road is nice. It’s got sofas and…’
‘I don’t care if it’s nice, you asshole. What do you think this is?’
‘I was going to say it’s quiet. And discreet.’ Pete pulled out his phone and held it under Marketa’s umbrella. ‘Look, film’s on about quarter past six. See you there about six?’
Marketa sighed heavily. ‘Fine,’ she said. She turned and walked towards the light blazing from the door at Carny. Pete stood on the pavement watching her go, taking in the street, the fading smell of patchouli oil, the cyclist tearing up the road wearing a rain cape, like a chess pawn on wheels. He felt the rainwater dripping from his hair and running down his face. I did it, he told himself. At last, I’ve done something right.
The cyclist’s front wheel hit a rain-filled pothole, spattering Pete with grimy water and speckling him with grains of dirt. He rubbed his eye with a knuckle, and crossed the road to retrieve his card and coat from the Thai restaurant.
‘Well, look at you with your social life, Khloe Kardashian,’ said Orlando.
‘One, I don’t know who that is,’ lied Pete. ‘And two, I’m just going to watch a film on my own.’
Pete sighed leadenly and tried once again to understand Orlando’s haircut.. Why on earth did he tell Orlando the reason he could not go out was because he was going out? The rain was battering the window at Beta Bee Solutions for the fourth straight day. Pete could not remember what it felt like during a London summer, when the heat rose from the pavements in Fitzrovia along with the smell of the tarmac. This? This was like being at home. The thought of that evening was consuming him. Questions would be answered, bodies laid to rest. God, that’s inappropriate. He was trying to concentrate on the Pagnall Products copy, taking out all the exclamation marks and the initial capitals from the job titles. But with his meeting with Marketa, and the bloody noise from the rain, Pete found it impossible to get a grip. So a nimble response to Orlando’s drinks invitation eluded him and he had accidentally told the truth.
‘You never come for a drink with us any more,’ said Orlando, in a tone of mock-offence intended to mask the fact he was actually offended. London was filled with people like Orlando, people who lived their lives entirely ironically. Not even they knew what they thought about things.
Enough. It was time to live outside himself again. This obsession had already ruined things with Donna. He wanted to feel like himself again. Everything would be sorted after that night. He could put Jerzy Gruszka behind him. Time to do something kind for somebody else.
‘Friday,’ Pete said. ‘Let’s go out on Friday. The Porterhouse. You, me, everybody.’
‘Even Jacquleen from credit control?’
‘Oh, God. Yeah, just keep her away from me,’ said Pete.
‘Well,’ said Orlando. ‘If you can bear to break bread with your colleagues, I suppose we must humbly acquiesce.’ He stood and gave an extravagant waist-height bow, his irony proportionate with his delight. ‘Tea, milord Brophy?’
‘I should think so.’
‘Good,’ said Orlando, picking up his mug. ‘Your turn.’
Marketa was waiting in the foyer at the Electric Cinema when Pete arrived, five minutes late, and drenched. ‘Sorry I’m late, my umbrella got trapped in the bus door, and the other end was hooked on my…’
‘Right. You do know I don’t want to be here, yes? Five minutes late is five less minutes.’
‘Five minutes fewer,’ Pete said.
‘Yeah, how about you correct my English and then I’ll test your Czech, and then I can get the fuck out of here?’
‘Sorry,’ said Pete, ‘Um, have you bought a ticket?’
‘No, you can do that,’ said Marketa.
‘I thought the point was we weren’t supposed to be together.’
‘I’m not paying £18 to watch a film I don’t want to see.’
This really isn’t a date, thought Pete, hating himself for thinking it. Marketa, the woman in the picture, was standing right in front of him, hair scraped back into a pony tail, no make-up as far as he could tell, slim, austere with it, jumper and jeans and DMs and an unexpectedly yellow raincoat, as sunny as she was sullen. She was a sculpture of This Is Not A Date, as literal minded as the lovers statue at St Pancras station. Hang on, eighteen quid?
He made a mental calculation based on when pay day was coming, paid for the tickets, and walked into the auditorium with Marketa. He could tell she was impressed, despite herself. The curved ceiling with its chandeliers and roses, and the gilded burgundy walls comprised a love letter to Edwardian opulence. They sat next to each other in leather armchairs as the lights dimmed and the British Board of Film Classification plate appeared.
‘What do you want to know?’ Marketa whispered.
‘I just want to know what sort of man Jerzy was,’ replied Pete.
‘You lived upstairs from him.’
‘I know! But I didn’t know him. I didn’t even recognise him when I found him.’
Marketa shook her head. ‘He was just a man, you know? Good and bad. Typical Pole, typical man. Made me laugh. Thought he knew everything.’
Pete could not imagine Marketa laughing. Even though he had seen her smile on the pictures in the police station, he could not imagine her throwing her head back and hooting, barking like Donna. Not even that sly chuckle Alice did when she knew she had teased him just enough.
‘So you’re not Polish? You’re Czech?’
‘Yes, why? You think I have to be Polish to have a Polish lover. You sound like his friends.’
‘Sorry, I just assumed…’
‘He wasn’t my lover. Not at the end.’
That explained a lot, Pete thought. He had seen bereavement, experienced it himself, and she did not have the hollow look of somebody whose beloved had been murdered just seven weeks before. Pissed off, yes. Inconsolable, no.
‘Why did you split up?’
‘Are you the police? Seriously, what are you getting out of this?’
‘I just want to know why somebody would want to kill him.’
‘Do you mind, mate?’ A man in the row in front turned around. ‘I’ve spent 40 quid to see this film and I don’t want to hear you yammering on.’
‘Sorry!’ said Pete. He had become the sort of man he hated. He would be making phone calls on the bus next.
‘So, what? You think you’re going to solve this murder like Miss Marple?’
‘How do you know Miss Marple?’
‘I’m Czech, not stupid.’
‘No,’ said Pete, ‘I don’t know. I just feel I owe him, somehow…’
‘Listen, mate,’ said the man in front. ‘If you two don’t fucking shut up, I’ll get you thrown out.’
Marketa leant forward. ‘No, you listen, shithead. If you don’t stop interrupting us I’ll shove that Coke bottle down your throat and you’ll be shitting glass for weeks.’
‘OK, let’s go,’ said Pete. ‘Bad idea to come here.’
‘Fine,’ said Marketa. ‘Place is a dump anyway.’
They stood up and swept out, Marketa in front. As they reached the foyer, Marketa turned to him. ‘You still haven’t told me what he said.’
‘Not here,’ Pete said. ‘There’s a pub down the road. Bit gastro-ey, but…’
‘Let’s just go and we can get on with our lives,’ she said. They stepped into the rain-blasted street, the drops flying horizontally in the wind. An umbrella would have been no use, Pete told himself, trying to look on the bright side. Dripping, they entered the Duke of Wellington pub, the steam rising from their bodies. Marketa found a quiet table with mismatched chairs while Pete bought the drinks. He brought them over, trying not to spill them. As he placed them on the table he jarred them, and a rivulet of beer ran down his knuckles. He sat down and picked up his pint. ‘Cheers,’ he said. Marketa shook her head.
‘So, go on,’ she said. ‘Tell me what he said.’
Pete looked around. ‘Look, the last time I told anybody this I nearly got a broken nose. Promise me you won’t hit me.’
‘I can’t promise that,’ said Marketa.
Pete considered this for a moment. ‘OK…’ he said. ‘It was just before he died. He said it to me twice. I leant over and he whispered it. And it must have been important to him?’
‘For Christ’s sake, just tell me!’
‘He said, “Two packs. Score within”.’
Marketa stared at Pete.
‘Two packs. Score within.’
‘Is that it?’
‘Yes!’ said Pete, defensive now.
‘I have no idea what that means. “Two packs. Score within?” I mean… Oh, God.’
‘What?’ said Pete.
‘How did he say it?’ she said, suddenly animated.
‘Just like that. Two packs. Score within.’
‘No, do the accent.’
Pete looked around at the bar. This was ridiculous.
‘All right.’ He coughed and cleared his throat, and tried to do an impression of a man he had met only once, under the most trying of circumstances. ‘Doo pecks. Score vizzin.’
Marketa threw her head back and barked. For the first time she revealed her cracked tooth. She barked and hooted and giggled and wailed.
‘What?! What is it?!’
‘He wasn’t speaking English, you moron. He was speaking Polish. Not “Two packs. Score within.” He said “Dupek. Skurwysyn”.’
‘God, really?! All this time! So, what does it mean?’
Marketa was laughing so hard the table shook. ‘It doesn’t really translate, but…’ She chortled and gibbered and wheezed.
‘What?! What did he say?!’
She tried to compose herself. ‘He called you… Oh, God, he called you a motherfucking asshole.’