The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 2

Café Culture

‘So what happened then?’ asked Alice. Pete fished the tea bag out of his cup with the wooden stick provided. ‘Why don’t they give us spoons? This is ridiculous,’ he said. He lifted it out of the cup, but it was a fruitless endeavour, a close relation to trying to pick up a cushion with a wooden ruler. It slipped off the lolly stick and back into the cup, splashing tea over the distressed table top. ‘Where are the…?’

Alice slid a paper napkin across the table. ‘Thanks. Seriously, though,’ said Pete, ‘how are you supposed to get it out? And where are you supposed to put it afterwards?’ Alice pushed more napkins across, and Pete flipped the bag onto them. He watched the tea blot into the absorbent paper, like blood soaks into a white shirt, spreading out slowly, branches growing into twigs growing into leaves.

‘Pete?’

‘What?’

‘It’s just a tea bag. Honestly, if you ever want to borrow one I have some at home. For visitors.’ Alice took a sip of her cappuccino. It left a thin film of foamy milk along her top lip. Pete had all the napkins now. She scanned the coffee shop to make sure nobody was looking and discreetly licked it off.

‘Sorry.’ Pete looked up. ‘It’s just this is about the sixth time I’ve been through this today, and I just…’

‘It’s OK,’ said Alice. ‘You don’t have to say. We can just sit here and have our drinks… Oh! I can tell you what Daisy’s nursery said. You know there’s that boy in her…’

‘So they grab my wrist,’ said Pete, ‘and before I know it I’m face down on the laminate. I mean, I get it. It didn’t look great. Me standing there dripping with blood and holding a pair of scissors. But, honestly, what sort of killer calls an ambulance and then answers the door to the police carrying the murder weapon?’

‘A psycho killer?’

‘Oh, yeah,’ said Pete. ‘That genuinely hadn’t occurred to me. Fair play to the police, eh? They did a really good job at overpowering me. Christ, do I look like a killer?’

‘A little. How have you been sleeping?’

‘When I sleep, really well. Getting to sleep…’ Pete made a comme-ci-comme-ca gesture with his left hand. ‘I turn the light off and I’m lying on top of him again.’

‘Go on, they had you on the floor…’

‘Yeah, and then it was the full hit. Arrested me, read me my rights. CID took me to Kilburn. They took my clothes. For evidence. My jeans.’

‘You’ve only got one pair of jeans?’

‘No. I had two pairs, but one of them’s frayed at the crotch.’

‘Right.’

‘I mean, I can wear them. But if there’s a strong light I might as well have my tackle out on the tube.’

‘I preferred it when you were talking about all the blood. Tell me about the police station.

***

The strip lighting in the interview room flickered at precisely the wrong frequency for Pete. He was going to develop a headache, he knew it. He ran his hand through his prematurely greying hair and stopped with a shudder. It was matted, with clots, all from the man in the hallway. They had let him wash his face but he needed a proper shower, and they had given him some – for want of a better word – scrubs when they took his clothes. He really liked that jacket. He’d been swabbed and poked and fingerprinted and prodded and the only way he was going to get through this was by treating it as preparation for a top-notch anecdote. This was going to trump any gap yah shit from the toddlers in marketing. ‘Oh, you missed your coach in Marrakech? Yeah, well, a man was stabbed to death in my hallway and the police arrested me.’

The door opened and in walked two detectives. They sat at the table opposite Pete. The elder of the two had steel grey hair and a top lip that cried out for a moustache. Twenty years ago it would been covered with more steel grey hair, but even its owner realised he had to move with the times. The younger was shaved bald, with just enough stubble on his scalp to show that this was a ruse to hide a naturally balding pate.

They were, by some distance, the most coppery coppers that Pete had ever seen, so coppery they would have stood out as police officers on a naturist beach, so coppery their blood was probably green. Pete had to stop thinking about blood, he told himself. A third man followed them. He was wearing sharp but ill-fitting pinstripes, as if a beautifully tailored suit had chosen an off-the-peg man badly. He shambled into the room, and looked as if he had been awake for as long as Pete had. What was his excuse? He sat next to Pete.

The younger officer pressed record on the tape machine attached to the end of the table. The last time Pete had seen one of those, he was about nine, recording the charts on a Sunday evening, back in his mum’s living room, doing his best to edit out the enthusiasm of the DJ. He had spent most of his life editing out enthusiasm.

The one who should have had a moustache spoke first. ‘This interview is being tape recorded. The time is 9.45am on Tuesday, September the eighth, 2015. The interview is being conducted at Kilburn Police Station…’ In a strange way, the tedious bureaucracy of it all comforted Pete. This was just something they had to do, to eliminate him from their enquiries. A box-ticking exercise. He had seen it all before.

‘I am Detective Inspector Glyn Holloway. Also present is Detective Sergeant Jason Patterson…’ The script wafted in and out of Pete’s sleep-deprived head. At some point he was made aware of the man in the pinstripes – Roseman – the duty solicitor he had been promised. Some blather about evidence and court he’d heard a million times on American cop shows. He told himself to concentrate and that he was an idiot.

‘We’re here to discuss your arrest on suspicion of the murder of Jerzy Gruszka.’

So that was his name? Jerzy’s Polish, wasn’t it? He remembered the Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko, murdered for his links to Solidarity. They did him in school. They weren’t supposed to, but O’Leary loved all that stuff. Must be an unlucky name. Jerzy Dudek, too. Liverpool goalie. Wait, murder?

‘I didn’t do it!’

‘Mr Brophy… Peter… Why don’t you start by telling us about the relationship between yourself and Mr Gruszka.’

‘I tried to save his life,’ said Pete. Even in his own head he didn’t sound convincing. Could he have done more? If it had only been this time next week…

‘Hmm, before the incident,’ said DI Holloway. ‘How would you describe your relationship? Friends, business partners, lovers?’

‘Strangers,’ said Pete. ‘We didn’t have a relationship. I’ve never seen him before in my life. I just came home and there he was.’

DS Patterson snorted.

‘You’ve never seen him before?’ went on DI Holloway. ‘Let’s see if we can jog your memory.’ He pulled out some sheets of inkjet-printed A4. ‘For the benefit of the tape, I am showing Mr Brophy pictures of the deceased at the scene.’

Pete looked away. He didn’t need to look at the pictures of Gruszka’s contorted features. Every time he closed his eyes he could see them. ‘What are you trying to prove? I don’t know him. I didn’t know him then and I don’t know him now.’

DS Patterson snorted again.

‘How about these pictures?’ asked DI Holloway. ‘For the benefit of the tape I am showing Mr Brophy pictures of the deceased retrieved from the deceased’s property.’ Pete looked at the photographs. They were standard issue family snaps, half a dozen poorly framed tableaux featuring the man in the hallway with, presumably, his extended family, a stern-looking grandmother dressed in black, some nieces, maybe? One picture of him with a boy of about 12 years. He looked like a younger version of Gruszka.

And there were two pictures of him with a woman in a yellow raincoat. She was late 20s, perhaps? A bit younger than Pete? He was awful with faces. She could be any age. She had blonde, edging towards mousy, hair, and a chipped front tooth, and despite Pete’s usual inability to remember a face he knew somehow he would never forget this one. Whatever it was about her, Gruszka was clearly smitten too. Out of all the pictures Holloway was showing Pete, Gruszka was only smiling on the two taken with this woman.

‘Oh, well, now you’ve shown me these that makes all the difference… No, I still don’t recognise him.’

DS Patterson snorted a third time.

‘Look,’ said Pete to Roseman, ‘Why’s he doing that?’

DI Holloway sighed. ‘How long have you lived at your current address?’

‘Um, two years next month.’

‘Let’s stop playing games, shall we?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Mr Brophy… Peter… are you seriously trying to tell us that you don’t know Mr Gruszka…’

‘I don’t…’

‘… the man who has been living in the flat below your own for the past 18 months?’

Pete felt every part of his body clench. ‘Oh,’ he said.

‘You don’t need to answer this,’ Roseman said.

Pete ignored him. ‘Look, it’s London. I have no idea who lives in the other flats. It’s not a crime not to know your neighbours. Christ, you’d have to lock up half of London. You must understand…’

DI Holloway did not understand. DI Holloway was one of those men who spent all weekend and most of the rest of his spare time in his front garden watching for weeds. His window cleaner called every Wednesday, and every Saturday, DI Holloway would give the panes an extra clean. He knew all of his neighbours, their names, their faces, their shift patterns, and he was loathed – God, he was loathed – by most of the other men in his street, for the effect he had on their wives’ expectations.

‘What I don’t understand, is why you would try to conceal your relationship with Mr Gruszka. Did you think we wouldn’t find out where he lived when you killed him outside his own door? What were you trying to achieve?’

‘I wasn’t trying anything… I… I…’ Pete stopped and stared at the table, fixating on the woman’s face and her chipped-tooth smile. This was less a box ticking and more a box kicking. He was going down. He was definitely going down.

‘Interview suspended at 9.51am,’ said DI Holloway. Pete looked up. A young Asian officer had entered the room. ‘Guv?’ she said. Holloway and Patterson met her at the door. She whispered something to them, and the three left the interview room quickly.

‘I’m going to advise that you amend your statement,’ said Roseman.

‘I didn’t do it.’

Roseman winced and sucked his teeth. ‘I have to say, you’re taking a hell of a risk… One hell of a risk…’

DI Holloway and DS Patterson swept back into the room. What was going on? Something had changed. They switched on the tape. ‘Interview resumes at 9.53am. Did Mr Gruszka say anything to you before he died?’ Holloway asked.

Finally, something Pete could actually help them with. He looked Holloway in the eye and thought hard.

‘No.’

‘Nothing? Are you sure?’

‘Well, he groaned a bit, but no, nothing.’

‘Thank you for your time. You’re free to go. Interview terminated at 9.54am.’ Patterson clicked off the tape.

‘What?’

‘Oh, you want to stay, do you?’

***

‘And that was it?’ asked Alice. The cappuccino had given her a moustache about which DI Holloway’s top lip could only dream. Pete did not even mention it.

‘Yep.’

‘What happened?’

‘Dunno,’ said Pete. ‘Maybe somebody else saw something, who knows? I was released on police bail, and here I am.’

‘Will you have to go to court?’

‘I reckon. I’m a witness to something, I suppose. They said they’d be in touch.’

‘Fucking hell. What a week.’

‘Yeah… You’ve got a moustache.’ He drained the mug, and a drop of tea ran down his chin. He caught it with the back of his hand. ‘Shall we go?’

They said goodbye outside the coffee shop. A middle-aged woman was seated nearby, shivering at a pavement table as she smoked, the grim truth of Parisian café culture in a British climate. A plume of tobacco blew between the pair as she scraped the metal chair on the concrete. ‘If you need to talk, I’m always here,’ said Alice, as she hugged him. ‘Actually, not tonight. I’ve got my last yoga and then we’re all going out to get pissed.’

‘Your body’s a temple.’

‘Yeah, the Parthenon.’

They hugged again and separated. Pete headed back to the office, Alice headed to wherever it was Alice headed. Once again, Pete played the events of that day, flickering images in the fleapit cinema of his mind. But three words kept appearing on the screen, overlaying the events like intrusive subtitles. You failed him. You failed him. You failed him. You fell on him and you kicked him and you threw your fucking phone at him. Twice. You didn’t save his life. You failed him. He was your neighbour and you didn’t even know his name. You couldn’t even say his name to him as he lay dying in front of you. You couldn’t even give him the comfort of dying in front of somebody who knew him. You failed him.

And that is why Peter Brophy did not tell the CID officers what Jerzy Gruszka said to him, moments before he died.

‘Two packs. Score within.’

Despite his many failures, Pete was still the recipient of a dying man’s last message, words which meant something so important to Jerzy Gruszka that he spent his last breath on them. And it was Peter Brophy’s responsibility to find out what those words meant, no matter where it took him, and nobody else’s. He was never going to fail Jerzy Gruszka again. And maybe, just maybe, it would make up for what he did on Queens Drive.

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