The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 22

Thicker Than Water

Peter Brophy rang the doorbell and held his breath. If Dad had still been there, there would have been bloody murder. ‘Who’s calling at this time?’ he would have exploded from his armchair. ‘It’s tea time. People shouldn’t knock at tea time. Who’s calling now? It’s a bloody disgrace. Peter, get the door and tell them we’re having our tea.’ Through the leaded glass he could see light as the living room door opened, he could hear the sound of a toddler shouting, he could feel his heartbeat in his throat, as a shadow moved towards him. The door opened.

‘Hiya,’ Pete said, his voice cracking somehow between the first and second syllable. Amanda stood there, in jeans and a shirt and slippers shaped like cartoon bees, with bouncing antennae, her mouth describing a perfect circle. For a second or two they both took in each other, neither sure what to do. It was a moment they had both visualised over the years. They had run over the conversations they would have in their heads. They would start variously with an apology from Pete, an admonition from Amanda.

But in the reality of the moment the scripts they had crafted over the years dissolved, and, instead, Amanda acted first, flinging her arms around her little brother, and holding him tightly in case he tried to run away again. Pete felt tears on his cheek, and he had no idea if they were his or Amanda’s, as they sobbed on the front step of the house where they had grown up together.

Eventually, after what seemed like minutes, Amanda pulled away. She looked into his puffy, stubbly, tear-streaked face, so much like Dad’s. ‘And where the bloody hell have you been?’ she demanded.

‘Sorry,’ said Pete. And he was.

‘In,’ she commanded, and she pulled him into the house, pushing the door shut behind him. She led him through the hall to the kitchen. The smell of rendered lamb fat and caramelised onions wafted into his nostrils and straight into his memories. He wiped the tears away with his sleeve and touched the banister, the same banister down which he had slid, and from which he had fallen when he was eight. He stepped into the dining room, which opened onto the kitchen. Amanda had achieved something which Mum had been unable to do. The dining room was used as an actual dining room with Mum’s old dining table and everything. There was a little girl of maybe eight or nine sitting at the table doing her homework, filling in a sheet of sums. She was the very image of Our Becky. She gawped at the stranger her mother had brought into the kitchen. Pete felt his eyes prickle again.

‘Hello,’ he said, ‘I’m…’

Amanda cut him off. ‘Go and finish your homework in your room, Betty.’

‘But you said I can’t be trusted to do it in my room,’ the little girl replied, her eyes still fixed on the familiar looking stranger. ‘You said…’

‘Room. Now. And if I hear that telly on there’ll be murder.’

Amanda’s daughter gathered up her pencils and sheets and left the dining room slowly, keeping eye-contact with Pete. She knew him, somehow…

‘You’re making scouse?’ Pete eventually asked, when the little girl had gone. ‘It smells just like Mum’s.’

‘Yeah, there’s a Bommy Night thing up at school tomorrow. I’m on the PTA…’

‘And you have to make it the day before,’ they said simultaneously, and they smiled at their mother’s words pouring out of their own mouths. Amanda put the kettle on, and Pete sat down on one of the dining chairs. It buckled slightly.

‘Oh, my God!’ said Pete. ‘You’ve still got the wobbly chair.’

‘Why did you go, love?’ Amanda asked, dredging up the words.

‘You know why,’ Pete said. ‘I couldn’t stay, not after the funeral.’

‘But you didn’t even come back for Mum. Or Dad. How could you not come back?’ The tears were rolling down her face again.

‘She didn’t want me to come back. She told me to go. That’s what she said.’

‘She was your mother, you divvy!’ Amanda cried out. ‘She didn’t mean it. She’d have forgiven you anything. She died loving you, Peter. And you didn’t even come to the funeral.’

‘I couldn’t face Dad, all right?’

‘So at the worst time of his life, you jibbed him off because you were too scared to see him?’

Pete looked down at his shoes. ‘I couldn’t face him, all right? I didn’t have the strength.’

‘So when he was sick, you couldn’t even see him then?’

‘I was going to!’ cried Pete.

‘Oh, aye?’ said Amanda, a study in scepticism, as she poured the tea. ‘You still take sugar?’

‘No, I stopped about 10 years… Hello.’

The little boy – Pete’s nephew – toddled into the dining room and over to his mother. ‘Oo’s dat,’ he whispered to Amanda, a whisper that could be heard two streets away.

Amanda sighed. ‘That’s your Uncle Peter.’

The boy accepted the information without question. ‘Thomas stopped,’ he explained to his mother.

‘OK, come on,’ said Amanda. She turned to Pete. ‘Finish these, will you?’ Then she let the boy lead her towards the living room. Pete stood next to the sink in his own mother’s kitchen and finished pouring the tea. He looked out onto the yard, where Our Ben used to sit and bark and pant, over to the house which backed onto Mum’s… Amanda’s. The light was on in the bedroom and the bedroom curtains were still the same, a heavy burgundy velvet, made to last, from Waldman’s on Stafford Street, and run up on a Singer.

Amanda returned. ‘DVD,’ she said, by way of explanation. ‘You were going to, were you?’

‘I was!’ said Pete. ‘I knew he was ill. I just didn’t know he was that ill. I was going to come and see him. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I’d made with Mum. Honest, I’d booked the train tickets and everything…’

‘And?’

‘And he died two weeks before I was going to come.’

‘Oh, love…’ Amanda began. Then she stopped. Cold now. ‘So what’s your excuse for not coming to the funeral?’

Pete looked his big sister in the eyes. She was so like Mum. She stood like her, she had taken her place in the kitchen, feet planted firmly in the centre of the family, he supposed. The new matriarch. ‘You were better off without me,’ he said. ‘Can you imagine our Gerry if I’d come? He wouldn’t have been able to keep his gob shut. Would you have really wanted it to be a scouse funeral? A big fight over the buffet? Bacon ribs flying everywhere? Is that what you wanted for Dad?’

Amanda looked at him. Like Mum. ‘Peter,’ she said. She even sounded like Mum.

‘All right, I couldn’t, OK? I couldn’t face any of you. I couldn’t come back,’ said Pete. ‘Everything that had happened at Nan’s funeral, and then that? How could I? I was bad news.’

‘Always got to make it about you, haven’t you? You know what, Peter, not everything is about you.’ She handed him his tea. He sipped it. Too hot, of course, but he could not stay long. He could feel the roof of his mouth blistering already.

‘You called her Becky?’ Pete said. ‘She’s the image of…’

‘Betty. Elizabeth,’ replied Amanda.

Pete smiled. ‘Ah. She’d have gone mad, wouldn’t she?’

‘Probably.’

‘It’s not fair. She’d have loved having Betty and…?’

‘Lucas’, said Amanda.

‘Lucas. She’d have doted on them. And Dad. Well, maybe not Dad, but…’

‘No, he changed after Mum died. More involved, like he had to make up for the love that we didn’t get from her any more.’

Pete sipped his tea. ‘Wow. I’m sorry I missed it.’

‘Yeah…’

‘Are there any others?’

‘You’re joking, aren’t you? I’m shattered enough with the two of them. Our Gerry’s got one in Sunderland, a little girl, Neveah.’

‘Neveah?’

‘Heaven spelt backwards, apparently. Except it’s not. Anyway, he split up with his girlfriend when Neveah was two, and we never see her. Send her Christmas and birthday presents and Easter eggs, but we never hear back. Rude, if you ask me. And Our Becky’s pregnant.’

‘No!’

‘Six months. I know. Have you got any?’

‘No,’ said Pete, quickly.

‘Very wise. I mean, I love the bones of them, but I haven’t had a poo uninterrupted for nine years.’

She pulled up the chair next to Pete and sat down. ‘I shouldn’t sit down. I won’t get back up again… Why now?’

‘What?’

‘Why have you come back now? What’s changed?’

Pete took another sip. He put the mug down. ‘Oh, Manda, I’m in trouble. Like, really big trouble. I needed somewhere to lie low for a bit.’

‘With the police?! Fucking hell, Peter, what have you done?!’

‘No, not with the police! Well, not exactly. Look, the point is, somebody’s after me. Somebody really nasty. A gangster, all right? I know how that sounds. I haven’t done anything wrong, all right? They killed the man in the flat below me, and I found out why, and I went to the police, and it turns out they’re involved. Don’t look at me like that. Honest, the less you know about this the better. Anyway they sent someone after me, so I had to get out till I can work out who I can trust.’

‘Fucking hell, Peter… Oh, God, and you’ve brought them here? To my kids? What the fucking hell do you think you’re playing at?’

‘They were coming for you anyway! As soon as I went to the police, they were coming for you. It’s not my fault, all right? And I had to warn you, don’t you get it? And you’ve got to tell Gerry and Our Becky. Just to watch out till I can fix this, all right? You haven’t seen me, you haven’t heard from me. As far as I know, nobody knows I’m in Liverpool. I can fix this, I promise.’

‘Fix this? You? You can’t even wire a plug!’

‘I’ve changed, Amanda. I’m all grown-up now. I’ve got a responsible job. Well, I had a responsible job. It’s a long story. The point is I’ve learnt more about myself over the past two months than over the rest of my life. And I am not going to let anything happen to you or those lovely kids. Trust me.’

Amanda breathed hard. ‘Just go, you knobhead. The longer you stay here, the more danger my kids are in.’

‘I know, I’m sorry,’ said Pete, standing up. ‘I didn’t mean to drag you all into this. I was just trying to do the right thing.’

‘Makes a bloody change,’ said Amanda, rushing to her feet. ‘Change. Do you need money?’

‘I’m OK for the time being,’ said Pete. ‘Thanks.’

‘Phone me, all right,’ said Amanda. ‘So I know you’re safe.’

‘I can’t. If I use my phone they can track me.’

‘Hang on,’ said Amanda. She raced over to the Welsh dresser in the corner of the dining room, and pulled open a drawer, rifling through its contents. ‘Where’s the…? Oh, here y’are.’ She handed Pete an old phone and charger. ‘It’s still got a SIM in it. Get a pay as you go voucher and bloody phone me so I know you’re all right. I mean it.’

Pete took the phone gratefully. ‘Now sod off,’ said Amanda. She pulled him to her tightly, squeezing her fists behind his back till her rings pressed against her fingers and became painful. Pete found it hard to breathe. ‘Sort this out and then come back to us, or I’ll bloody murder you instead.’

And for the first time in what seemed like weeks Peter Brophy laughed.

***

Felipe Herrero checked his computer before leaving the house. Moran the coat carrier had demanded a status update, the prick, in person this time. The snowball set rolling by @allyleavesRbrown had grown bigger and bigger. Celebrities had now become involved, passing on the appeal for the knowledge of Pete Brophy’s safety to their hundreds of thousands of followers. Millions of eyeballs were now peeled, but so far they had not alighted upon the computer programmer, or whatever the fuck Brophy was. Felipe had faith, but he knew that as time elapsed it would become more and more difficult to justify that faith to Moran, and, by extension, his employer, and he could not help entertaining a little doubt of his own.

But what is faith without doubt, Felipe wondered? There is no point in trust if there is no fear that that trust might be misplaced. Where is the virtue?

He examined the responses to the appeal by @allyleavesRbrown, but none of them appeared to give a clue to the whereabouts of Brophy. Felipe Herrero sighed. Have faith, he told himself.

***

‘I told you it would be OK,’ Marketa reminded Pete. ‘Now are we going to go have dinner or what?’

‘Yeah, I suppose,’ Pete replied, the smell of his mum’s scouse recipe still wafting about his brain.

‘Where’s good?’ Marketa asked. The hotel room blinds were still open, though it had long since gone dark outside. Above the converted Ropewalks warehouses and shops, Pete could see the Wheel of Liverpool turning.

‘You mean, where’s cheap?’

‘Isn’t there anywhere good and cheap?’

‘I don’t know, I haven’t been here for 15 years.’

Marketa tutted. ‘We’ll just have to eat here.’

Pete shook his head. ‘There isn’t a restaurant in the hotel.’

‘What kind of hotel doesn’t have a restaurant?’

‘A cheap one.’

Half an hour later they were sitting in a corner of The Caledonia on Catharine Street with food and beer in front of them.

‘What is this?’ Marketa asked, watching glistening lumps of meat and vegetable drip from her spoon. It sent spatters across the table top.

‘It’s scouse,’ Pete replied.

‘What’s in it?’

‘Erm, beef or lamb. I think this is lamb. Erm, potatoes, carrots, onions, and it’s sort of…’

‘It’s stew, isn’t it?’

‘Well, no, it’s scouse. All our mums have their own recipes, and, erm… See you have it with beetroot or red cabbage, and…’

‘So wait, you call your stew “scouse”, and then people call you “scousers” because you eat this special stew, but the only thing that’s special about it is that you call it “scouse”?’

‘Well,’ said Pete, ‘when you put it like that it sounds silly.’

‘How would you put it?’

‘Like that.’

Marketa took a spoonful. ‘Well, at least it doesn’t taste like shit.’

‘What does it taste like?’

‘Stew,’ said Marketa.

When the barmaid cleared away their bowls, they were ready to talk. ‘Who do you think we can trust?’ Marketa asked Pete.

‘I have no idea,’ he replied. ‘Patterson – the detective sergeant – has always been a prick, but, y’know, I can’t help thinking he’d be more, I don’t know, clever about hiding his prickishness. Even if he’s not involved, he’s the sort of dickhead who would get Scouse Plod to arrest us. DI Holloway had CCTV pictures of the man they thought killed Jerzy and wouldn’t even show me. That’s a bit weird isn’t it? Maybe they’re both in on it. Jesus…’

‘There was a young police officer who came to see me after Jerzy was killed,’ said Marketa. ‘She seemed smart. Khan?’

‘Yeah, she interviewed me with Holloway. I reckon she’s the one who turned up the CCTV footage… video. You know, with the real… You think we can trust her?’

‘Well, she’s a woman, so yes.’

‘Oh, so women can’t be corrupt?’ Pete laughed.

‘I know Karl Chapman. I worked with him for years. He wouldn’t bother trying to pay off a woman. That would mean he would have to take a woman seriously.’

Pete supposed it made sense. ‘OK, if we don’t think of something else we’ll call Khan. That’s a sort of plan.’

Marketa took a sip of her pint and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. ‘So, Brophy, tell me. How did you find the files?’

Pete told her nearly everything, missing out the part where he found nude pictures of her between the pages of Jerzy’s book, hardly believing his own account, and when he finished Marketa whistled. ‘Well, Brophy,’ she said, ‘not just a pretty face.’ Pete started to ask her what she meant, but she yawned over him.

‘Somebody snored all night on the bus,’ she said. ‘I need sleep.’

***

Pete woke in the darkness, confused again. He had no idea where he was. He thrust out his hand towards the bedside cabinet and touched a body. He recoiled and froze. Marketa stirred briefly, then shifted position and descended back into a deep sleep. Pete waited, then he reached the other way, feeling for the phone Amanda had given him. He pressed the On button and the small LCD display gave the room a sickly yellow glow. It was 3.14am. Pi, he thought. He turned and saw Marketa. She had kicked the duvet off and was lying on her side with the cover between her legs. Her T-shirt had ridden up above her midriff, and he could see the concave curve of her waist, the way it flowed into her hips, the cleft of…

Stop it, you disgusting piece of shit, Pete told himself. He switched the display off and lay down again. Oh, God, he was in bed with a naked woman, how the fuck was he supposed to sleep? He could feel himself straining against his boxers.

Shit! The bed was moving. Marketa stirred again. This was just wrong. It was all wrong. He stopped and tried to make himself comfortable. He attempted to lie on his front, but that was impossible, so he moved as far away from Marketa as he could, and eventually, after an age, fell asleep…

A crack of light broke through the curtains, strong enough to penetrate the skin of Pete’s eyelids, rousing him. He felt cold; he must have pushed the duvet off in the night. ‘Oh, he wakes.’ A woman’s voice. Marketa. He had to open his eyes, but they felt glued shut. Why did he feel so cold?

‘Looks like something else woke up first,’ Marketa said. Oh, God. Pete’s eyes flicked open. Marketa was kneeling on the bed, a tea cup in her hand, smirking. He looked down his body. His morning glory stood proudly, parting the fly of his boxers.

‘Oh, fuck! I am so sorry!’ said Pete, scrambling for the duvet, covering himself like the old maid he quite evidently was not.

Marketa was still smirking. ‘No, really, I’m flattered,’ she said. ‘You disgusting beast.’

‘Oh, God, please don’t do this,’ said Pete, his palms pressed into his eyes.

‘Still,’ said Marketa, placing her cup on the bedside cabinet, ‘It seems a shame to waste it.’ And she pulled her T-shirt off over her head.

***

They spent most of the rest of the day talking and drinking tea and shagging and trying not to think about it. It was as if the knowledge of their mortality had given them the impetus to grab a small piece of happiness while they still could, before Chapman caught up with them. Or maybe they were just fed up, cooped up in a hotel room, demonstrating the human skill of boredom under pressure. It did not really matter.

The fireworks started just before 5pm. Marketa gazed out of the window, watching the trails of gold and green and red cascading through the sky, listening to the high-pitched whistles followed by ear-splitting cracks. ‘It’s a shame we can’t go to Sefton Park and see the big display,’ said Pete.

‘Why can’t we?’ asked Marketa.

‘There’ll be so many people there,’ said Pete. ‘I only need one person to see me and…’

‘But it’s dark,’ said Marketa. ‘Nobody will see you. I thought I was paranoid. Come on, let’s go see some fireworks.’

***

Pete and Marketa jumped off the bus and walked along Croxteth Drive to the park. Pete put out his hand to grasp Marketa’s, but she pulled it away. ‘I’m not your girlfriend, Brophy,’ she told him.

‘No, I know, but…’

‘Right place, right time, Brophy, that’s all it is. It’s just… too weird otherwise, you know?’

Pete did not know, but he kept it to himself as they joined the crowd, compressing soaked leaves beneath their feet. He watched the fireworks and they kept his interest for the first two or three minutes, before he remembered why it was he did not usually go to firework displays – he had a low tolerance for colourful explosions. He thought of Donna for the first time since that morning. What was he feeling? Guilt? No, it was worse than that. He was pining. He started to take in the crowd around him. So many children with bored-looking parents. A woman a few feet in front of him took her phone out and the screen lit up her face. He felt his stomach tighten. It was John Brady’s sister, John Brady with the caliper. Oh, God, what was her name? Samantha! Shit, was she looking at him? No, she would have said something. Surely? He looked down. No, he would look shifty. Look up! He stared at the fireworks again, the streaks across the night sky.

There was a flare in front of him. A little girl was playing with a sparkler. ‘They’re not meant to have sparklers, love,’ a man in his 60s told Samantha. Pete stepped back, pulling Marketa. ‘What the fuck?’ she said.

‘Shut up,’ whispered Pete, ‘We need to get out of here. I’ll explain in a minute.’

Samantha began to argue with the elderly man. How dared he tell her what she could and could not do in a public park? Who, indeed, the very fuck did he think he was? ‘Come on, love,’ she told the little girl. ‘Let’s get your piccy. Do a circle.’

The little girl complied, whirling the sparkler round and round, making a phosphorous ring in the air, as her mother took the picture. Within seconds, the picture was on Facebook, along with a caption written by the former Samantha Brady:

‘Look at our Chloe doin a boss circle lol and the arlarse behind her tryna stop her coz sparklers arnt aloud. Not doin any harm soft get lol told him to f**k off lol’

And over the next couple of hours, her friends and family weighed in, telling her she was right to tell the arlarse behind their Chloe to f**k off.

It was after 10pm when John Brady added his contribution: ‘Isnt that Peter Brophy behind the arl fella? Thought he went to London. Probably crawled back lol.’

Louise Molloy agreed: ‘God it is isnt it? Im sure I saw sumthin on twitter about him.’

Seconds later. ‘Yeah he’s gone missing. Fucking hell Sam how did you miss him lol’

And then Louise Molloy – @lousielou1984 – sent a tweet to a member of the cast of Coronation Street, one of the celebrities who had joined the virtual search for Pete Brophy of Cricklewood. ‘Av just seen #peteBrophy in Sefton Park. Definitely him,’ attaching the picture from Facebook.

And 185 miles away, the computer in the study of Felipe Herrero sounded an alert. Felipe himself was washing a glass in his kitchen when he heard the ping. He carefully dried the glass and replaced it in the cupboard. It was a delaying tactic. He did not want to be disappointed.

He walked into the study and hit the space bar on his computer keyboard. The screen flashed into life, and there, in its centre, was a picture of Brophy and the Jelinkova woman. A beatific smile spread across his face, lighting up the room. He knew where they were. And they were together too. How wonderfully convenient. Truly he had been correct to put his faith in human nature.

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