The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 18

Autumn 1997

Peter Anthony Brophy had stopped constantly thinking about the accident, but its waves were still determining the course of his life. In the months afterwards his grades had slipped along with his motivation. He spent most of his time in his room listening to Nine Inch Nails and secretly masturbating over real pictures of Joanne Guest and mental pictures of Ruth Fisher. When he did surface from his room he was surly, uncommunicative, sarcastic.

Mum was driven to distraction by him. She wanted to know what had happened to her sensitive little boy. ‘He’s a teenager, you soft moo,’ Dad had explained with the tact for which he was renowned at Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Social Club. ‘That’s what they do. Our Gerry was the same.’ But our Gerry had not been the same. Our Gerry had been a normal teenager. Peter was damaged, somehow. This was not a hormonal surge or an adolescent carving out of space in order to achieve independence. She knew that something was wrong.

Her only consolation was that he had not turned away from the church. How many of her friends could say that about their teenage sons? Even after the parents’ evenings of teachers shaking their heads and explanations that Peter was a bright lad but he had to apply himself, and no, he was not disruptive in class, but he was absent even when he was present, and it could not go on, Mum had the knowledge that whatever was going on inside his head, Peter still had that kernel of goodness, and if he were lost to her and lost even to himself, God still held him in His hands.

Peter had eaten his Sunday dinner in silence as usual among his family, which was wrapped around the television in the living room. His plate was piled with meat and vegetables and potatoes roasted in lard until they were fudgey. It was as if rationing had just ended. He hunched over the coffee table, trying not to get gravy on his black T-shirt.

‘What homework have you got?’ Mum asked our Becky. ‘Spellings,’ she replied, her mouth full of mashed carrot and swede. A fleck flew across the room, landing on the back of the dog. Peter became tense. Soon Mum would ask him, and he would have to explain the size of the task he was currently avoiding. ‘It’s not fair,’ said Dad. ‘They shouldn’t give them work to do when they’re at home. They do enough in school.’ Dad had always considered school, like work, to be an imposition bordering on the sadistic.

‘They’ve got to show they understand it, Tony,’ Mum explained, with the patience of St Simon, Our Lord’s own cousin.

‘Yeah, well, that’s why they give them tests, isn’t it?’

The conversation developed into an argument, and Peter took advantage. He speared the last spud and shoved it whole into his mouth, before standing up.

‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Mum demanded.

‘Out,’ said Peter.

‘Mum!’ said our Becky. ‘I’ve got gravy on the rug.’ The dog needed no more encouragement, and raced away from his berth in front of the gas fire to lap it up.

‘Gerraway, you dirty get!’ Mum cried as she raced over to clean the mess, while Dad continued to watch Highway To Heaven, unmoved.

Peter left the noise behind him as he slammed the front door. The cool October afternoon took him by surprise. It was the first properly cold weekend after the late summer, and his clothing choices had not yet caught up. By the time he had reached the end of his road he was shivering, but he could not go back into the chaos. He needed a walk, merely to think. And, if he walked fast enough, he might just warm up sufficiently to offset the stupidity of going outside on an October afternoon wearing just black jeans and T-shirt.

He decided to head towards Sefton Park. Only an idiot or a teenage boy would have chosen to walk through an exposed area on that blustery day, and Peter was both. He reached the periphery of the park and chose a path lined with trees through to Aigburth. The winds rustled the copper canopy above him as he walked, and his mind, as it often did, drifted, catching on the accident once again. He went over every detail: the fight, the flight, the screech of the tyres, and the thud, the awful, sickening thud. It was not his fault; the coroner had been at pains to point this out during the inquest. Even in the confessional Father O’Driscoll had told him again and again he should have nothing on his conscience. But it was his fault. It was always there. When he thought about it, it was a constant hum, like tinnitus. ‘You shouldn’t have run. You shouldn’t have run…’

It was at that point Peter had what he would have described at that moment as a religious experience. The wind dropped, and the trees became stilled and mute. Everything was silent. There was nobody around, not even a hardy dog walker. Peter was utterly alone in the midst of a symphony of gold and brown and red. He held his breath. He did not want to break the total silence at all. Then a single leaf fell from the oak to his left and trickled through the unmoving air, swinging gently back and forth until it landed, one of its points touching the toe of Peter’s boot. In that moment, Peter became overwhelmed, he would have told you, with God’s forgiveness and peace. And then the wind started again, the branches resumed their chatter, and the leaf was whipped away from Peter’s foot. He breathed again. He was at peace for the first time in who knew when? Maybe that time when he was off sick when he was 10? No, he was 11, and he had all of the sofa because everybody except Mum was at work or school, and Mum gave him Heinz Cream of Chicken Soup in a mug just because he was ill, and stroked his head till he fell asleep.

He started to walk with fresh purpose, liberated from guilt. He rounded the lake, passing the hardy anglers, and walked up along Lark Lane. Maybe he could catch a bus into town, and then get one home. That was a sensible idea. He was cold again.

It registered with him that there were people at the bus stop, but he was concentrating on crossing the road safely, as he had learnt to do, and so he did not realise who was at the stop until he was committed to his journey.

Ruth Fisher and Jade Woods were there. Jade was shivering, Ruth was not. Ruth was inhaling the face of a boy from, it later transpired, Calderstones Comp, and Peter was no longer at peace with the world.

‘Oh, my God, size of you now,’ said Jade, nipping into his jealous fug and pulling him out. Peter now towered over her. ‘God, I remember you when you were titchy. Now you’re like a proper man. Fucking hell, aren’t you cold? I’m like a witch’s tit, and I’ve got a coat on.’

‘Nah, I’m all right,’ boasted Peter. ‘Anyway, how do you know I’ve grown? You might have shrunk.’

‘Shurrup, you cheeky meff. Fucking hell, it’s coming. Ruthie!’ Ruth was otherwise occupied. Peter felt his guts twisting. ‘Ruthie. Bus,’ reiterated Jade. ‘Oh, sod you.’ The bus arrived. ‘Come ‘ed,’ she said to Peter. It was not Peter’s bus, but somehow he felt that the romance of his plan to catch the bus into the city centre and then get another one home would have been difficult to express. He followed her onto the bus and up the stairs.

Apart from an old Asian man by the stairs, Jade was the only person on the top deck. Peter sat in the seat in front. ‘What is it? Do I smell?’ said Jade. As it happened, she did. There was an overwhelming smell of patchouli oil radiating from her. ‘No, no! You smell lovely,’ replied Peter. He blushed.

‘Do I, Pete?’ She gave him a slow, almost shy smile. ‘You can actually sit next to me, y’know? I’m not going to jump you.’

Peter changed seats, sliding in next to Jade, suddenly feeling very tense. He had barely spoken to her for years. Even when they were both at Our Lady’s they had never really had a reason to speak to each other. And here he was, sitting next to Jade Woods on the bus, Jade Woods, who was fingered by Andrew Rooney in Formby pinewoods when they were 11. So they said.

‘Did you hear that Diana joke?’ Jade asked.

Peter had heard so many Diana jokes. There were two types of people in the world, he thought, the people who joked about Diana’s death, and the people who grieved ostentatiously. Mum had gone mad when Diana died. She lit a candle and put it in the window on the day of the funeral. She had not even done that when Uncle Tommy died. Two camps and Peter was in neither. He thought it was ridiculous to have a Royal Family, but did not have it in him these days to laugh at a road death. ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘Go on.’

‘What was the last thing that went through Princess Diana’s head before she died?’

The steering wheel, thought Peter. ‘I don’t know,’ he said.

‘The steering wheel,’ confirmed Jade. Peter laughed as if surprised by her sheer satirical audacity.

‘Ahh, no, don’t laugh. It’s arlarse,’ said Jade. Peter was disorientated. ‘No, you’re right,’ he said. ‘Erm…’

‘I can’t believe she got off with him. She knew I fancied him. God, she’s such a slag,’ said Jade.

‘Diana?’

‘Ruthie! Didn’t you see her at the bus stop? Fucking hell, Sherlock Holmes. Aw, I’m sorry.’

‘What?’

‘You’ve got a dead big crush on her, haven’t you?’

Peter felt his stomach fall away. ‘What? No! Who told you that?’

‘Everybody knows, you knobhead. She’s soft. She should go with you, you’re dead nice.’

Peter’s head was spinning. He tried to focus on the elderly Asian man sitting near the front of the top deck. ‘I mean,’ continued Jade, ‘you were a dead bad geek when you were a kid, but you’re not bad now.’

He looked at Jade. Jesus. Everybody knew about his crush on Ruth Fisher? Hang on. ‘Not bad now?’ Was it actually possible she fancied him a bit? She had unbuttoned her coat when she sat down, and her hippy chic cropped shirt was showing. Oh, God, she had a belly button ring. Oh, not now! He could feel himself hardening. He reassured himself. It would be OK. He was wearing black jeans, she would not notice. Oh, God, he was leaking. He had to calm down. It would be fine. Black jeans.

‘Do you ever hear from any of our class?’ Jade asked.

For once the reminder came as a relief. ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘not since Shaun.’

‘Poor Shaun… Are you looking at my tits?’

‘No! I can’t even see… I mean I was looking at your belly button.’

‘That isn’t much better, you dirty get’, she said. Peter suspected she was winding him up, but he did not have the wit to stop her. She was skating rings around him, flicking Vs in his face.

‘No! I mean your ring. Did it… Did it hurt, and…’

‘No, it didn’t. Oh, my God! You want to shag me.’

‘I don’t!’

‘You mean you don’t want to shag me?’

Peter was paralysed by the fear of saying the wrong thing. Jade Woods? Really?

And then Jade placed her right hand high up Peter’s thigh. Her palm rested on his bulge. She squeezed gently. It was the first time anybody else had touched it, clothed or otherwise. Stars were exploding behind his eyes. The haze which appeared when the blood was diverted from his brain to an area of greater need was descending. ‘Yeah, you do,’ said Jade. ‘You perv.’

Peter nodded. It was all he could do. He could not speak. His tongue had swelled. His throat was dry. Oh, God, was this it? Was this when it finally was going to happen?

‘Hard lines, soft lad,’ said Jade. ‘I’m not going to shag you on the 60 bus. Who do you think I am?’

‘I didn’t think…’

‘I’ll let you snog me, though,’ said Jade. Peter leant in. Her breath was hot and minty. Their lips touched and he began to draw her in, clamping himself onto her, his arms around her, their heads swaying, and juddering as the almost-empty bus hit pothole after pothole. Finally, after what felt like minutes, Peter pulled away.

‘Bloody hell, lad,’ said Jade, ‘who taught you how to kiss?’

June Chan, actually, Peter thought. They had gone out with each other for a couple of weeks when he was 15. ‘Was it OK?’

‘Well, I’ll give you points for enthusiasm, but, fucking hell, no. Just relax a bit. Jesus, I thought you were trying to eat my head. Look, I’ll show you.’ She kissed him again, soft and firm at the same time, her tongue gentle inside his mouth, not probing like a dental instrument as his had been, more like something making itself at home. There was hunger there, but it was controlled, hinting at more. Peter was a fast learner. He switched from Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire, taking the lead.

‘Better?’ Peter said, when they finally surfaced for air.

‘Yup,’ said Jade. ‘Come on, let’s get off.’ She pressed the bell.

‘Where are we going?’

When you are a 17-year-old boy it can be quite difficult to have sex. First you have to find a partner, which is not easy because 17-year-old boys are terrible human beings, and 17-year-old girls are understandably unimpressed by them. Second you have to find a place, which is not easy unless you are a pop star with an independent income, or somebody with parents who have a hippyish liberal approach to sex. Peter Anthony Brophy was neither of those people. Jade Woods, however, was resourceful.

‘Jade, where are we going?’ Peter said, as he trailed behind her along Smithdown Road.

‘We’re going to Greenbank Park. It’s your lucky day, Pete.’

‘Why?’ said Peter. He barely believed this was happening.

Jade rolled her eyes. ‘Cos we’re going to go on the swings, you knobhead.’

Oh, God, it was definitely going to happen. Today was the day. October 25, 1997. He would always remember the date. He picked up his pace, and Jade clutched his arm, drawing herself into him. Jade Woods, bloody hell.

He felt something cold on his other arm. And then again. And on his head. Spatters of rain were spotting the pavement on Greenbank Road. He was going to be foiled, by an act of God. They carried on walking, but the rain fell harder.

Jade stopped. ‘I’m not getting mud on this,’ she announced. ‘We’ll have to go back to the bus stop.’

‘No, wait. I’ve got an idea,’ said Peter.

It was a seven-minute walk to Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception Parish Church from Greenbank Park, and for the last three minutes of that walk the rain stopped. There was nowhere else to go. This would be the worst thing he had ever done, maybe the worst thing he would ever do, but he did not care. The blood that should have been in his brain had gone to his groin, and he was determined to divest himself of the tabard he constantly wore which said ‘virgin’. The constant clash between his ethics and his libido was being won easily by the latter. What was the difference, anyway, between wanking in his bedroom, and having sex in church? It was not as if God could see one and not the other. God would forgive him, as long as he was not caught. Frankly, he felt uncomfortable having a clean slate with God. And if the death of Shaun McGovern had taught him anything, it was that you had to grab your opportunities when you could.

‘Church?’ said Jade. ‘You’re fucking messing?’

He pulled the church door open quietly, and breathed in the smell of polish and incense. Without thinking, he dipped his right hand in holy water and crossed himself. There was not a soul in the church; there would not be for hours. He knew that. He often came, in the weeks and months after Shaun, at this time, to sit and think and pray. He led Jade past a few Stations of the Cross down the side aisle to the Lady Chapel. ‘You dirty sod,’ Jade whispered, and even the whisper echoed. She had not been inside the church since she was 11, and that was only with the school. Jade was an ethnic Catholic, good enough to be admitted to Our Lady’s school, to have a first confession and first communion, and nothing more, and even she knew it was Wrong.

‘Just wait here,’ Peter said. He went into the sacristy, and returned a minute later with a key, heavy and ostentatious, like the sort one would use to gain entry to a castle. ‘How did you know where that was?’ Jade asked. ‘Oh, my God, are you still an altar boy?’

Peter mumbled a yes.

‘Oh, my God, you’re going to go to Hell. Are you sure there’s nobody around?’

Peter sighed and looked at his watch. ‘Mass isn’t till 6.30. It’s just gone five. There won’t be anybody here for at least three quarters of an hour, and there’s nobody in the presbytery. Do you know anywhere else we can go?’

‘Yeah, all right, altar boy…’

‘Please don’t call me that.’

‘Three quarters of an hour, eh, lad?’

Peter led Jade up the stone spiral staircase to the choir loft. His half-bare arm scraped against the cold grey granite, but he ignored it. If he stopped to think, he would regain his senses and the moment would be lost.

They stepped into the choir loft. There was a residual warmth from the radiators in the main body of the church after Benediction, but it could not penetrate the marble and stone and polished wood of the choir loft, and Peter could see his breath curling into the air.

‘Oh, my God!’ said Jade, and she clambered over the choir benches to the organ. She pressed down hard on the top manual, but no sound came from the mighty pipes. ‘Is it broken?’

‘No, you need to turn it on,’ said Peter.

‘Where’s the switch, lad?’ demanded Jade, searching and pulling out stops.

‘You know we’re not meant to be drawing attention to ourselves?’

‘Oh, yeah,’ said Jade, ‘Good point. Fucking hell, it’s freezing up here. Come and warm us up.’ Peter joined her on the organist’s bench and they began to kiss again, gently, as he had just been taught, and then harder, more insistent. His erection was trying to escape, the hem of his boxer shorts cutting into it. He could feel the wetness on his thigh. They shuffled off the bench and stood near the stairs, hands everywhere, stroking, squeezing. He touched her waist as it curved down to her hip bones, breathing in that patchouli smell, as it mixed with the incense. Oh, God, she was groping his arse. She slipped her hands inside his jeans and under the waistband of his boxer shorts. He tensed, then relaxed. He followed her lead, cupping her rear underneath her jeans. It was cold, soft and firm at the same time. Don’t come, don’t come, he told himself.

They stumbled across into the mezzanine running along the main body of the church. Peter pushed her against the wall, next to the statue of Our Lady, and, as they kissed, tongues clashing, he ground his pelvis against hers. He touched her waist again, and this time he moved up, under her belly shirt, feeling her breasts for the first time – feeling anybody’s breasts for the first time – through her bra. His thumb pushed aside the fabric, and he could feel her nipple, hard, erect. Was it the excitement or the cold? He had no idea. He did not care. This was it, it was finally happening.

Jade touched his bulge, pressing it, then she plunged her hand inside his jeans and shorts, curling her fingers around him. The teasing had long gone. Now this was it, this was really it, Peter thought, insofar as he was capable of thinking anything. Jade unzipped his jeans and grazed his skin against the teeth of his fly. It hurt, but not enough.

She guided him away from the wall, and she knelt in front of him. He stared at her face as she set to work on him. He screwed up his face in concentration and looked up, straight into the plaster visage of Misery Mary.

When Father Martin O’Driscoll became parish priest of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, one of his first acts was to move ‘Misery Mary’ out of the Lady Chapel. The expression on the statue’s face was one of disapproval, and that was not the atmosphere he wanted in his church. He was a spiritual priest rather than a bureaucrat, he had spent time with the Taize community in France, and he wished for a Holy Mother of compassion and love, not one who looked as if she were disappointed that you had taken a dump on her carpet.

After a battle with the more conservative parishioners, he had succeeded in commissioning a new statue of Mary for the Lady Chapel, but, in the spirit of compromise, Misery Mary, as the altar boys had dubbed her, was relocated to the choir loft. ‘Closer to God,’ Father O’Driscoll had told his defeated opponents in an attempt to hand them a sort of victory. They were unconvinced.

Peter looked straight into Our Lady’s face, and then turned away, guiding Jade around until his back was to the statue. What he could not see could not harm him. He withdrew from Jade’s mouth, terrified that he would come too soon.

Jade lay herself down. ‘Fuck, this is hard,’ she said.

‘You’re telling me’, said Peter, regretting it immediately, because they both laughed. No, stop laughing, Peter thought, it will destroy everything. ‘Hang on, I’ve got an idea.’ He bent over the benches, and gathered up the choir’s kneeling cushions. Then he arranged them under Jade, making a rudimentary, if unstable, mattress.

‘You’ve done this before,’ said Jade. Peter flushed. ‘Oh, my God,’ she said, ‘this is your first time. Am I taking your cherry?’ She began to laugh again.

‘Just…’ began Peter, as he knelt beside her, and leant over to kiss her. ‘Watch you don’t get that on your T-shirt’, she said. ‘Come on.’ She undid her jeans, and pulled them down with her knickers. Peter took her in. God, Jade really was beautiful, wasn’t she? All those wasted years of pining after Ruth Fisher, and…

‘C’mere,’ said Jade. Peter crawled awkwardly on top of her, and she guided him with her hand. He pushed, and he was no longer a virgin.

It felt almost exactly as he thought it would, wet and hot and so soft. His heart was thumping, and he felt he was going to be sick. He needed to stop for a moment, to acclimatise.

Then Jade undid his belt and unbuttoned his jeans. He pulled out of her, so reluctantly, and dragged them down, then he entered her again. He did not need guidance the second time. She dug her nails into his backside, and he began, hard, fast thrusts, a blunt instrument. He had no idea what he was doing, he was lost in the moment, in the smells of musk and patchouli, in the warmth and the wetness. He had mislaid all sense of space and time.

Another person who had lost all sense of time that day was Miss Marie McCleary. She was not as sharp as she used to be, and she had overlooked the fact that it was the last Sunday of October, and that the clocks had gone back. And so she had turned up for 6.30 Mass a full hour and 15 minutes early. She realised her mistake as soon as she entered the deserted church, and would have just gone to their Kitty’s down the road for a cup of tea had she not heard the screams issuing from the choir loft. As quickly as her hip would allow, she raced to the presbytery to raise the alarm.

‘Fuck!’ said Jade.

‘Argh! I’m coming,’ said Peter.

‘Peter Brophy!’ said Father O’Driscoll.

The priest grabbed Peter by the shoulders and pulled him away with exquisite timing, as the teenager ejaculated over, in turn, Jade’s thigh, the choir’s kneeling cushions, and Father O’Driscoll’s shoes. Jade was hysterical, as Peter’s world crashed around him. ‘You dirty little bastard,’ said Father O’Driscoll, white with fury.

‘Aw, leave him’, said Jade, through tears of mirth as she pulled up her jeans. ‘At least he wasn’t wearing a condom.’

The repercussions lasted for months, the choir cushions were immediately replaced. And Peter Brophy would return to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception only twice more in his life.

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