The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 23

Winter 1999

Peter Anthony Brophy felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulder. He also felt the weight of weight on his shoulder. His right arm was braced across Uncle Howard’s back, while his left hand gripped the coffin, as they shuffled along the path to the church door. Later that night, after it had all happened, Peter would look in the mirror at the hostel, and wonder why his shoulder was so scratched, for Flo McCaffrey had been a scrap of a woman in life, especially in her final couple of decades, with hollow bones and paper skin, but a coffin is a coffin. A dead weight.

Peter was sure Father O’Driscoll had sneaked a dirty look at him as he had greeted the coffin at the hearse. It was the first time he had seen the parish priest since the choir loft and Father O’Driscoll was clearly struggling with the concept of forgiveness. Peter did not blame him. It was one thing to forgive Peter for smashing the portrait of his predecessor in an entirely avoidable thurible incident, but it would be difficult at best to get past the memory of cleaning his shoes that Sunday afternoon before evening Mass.

Slowly the coffin approached the threshold of the church. Peter forced himself to think of his grandmother, and the honour it was to carry her on her final journeys. He should have been grieving, and he was, but his memory of the previous funeral he had attended was pressing down on him. Is this what funerals were like? Was the grief cumulative? Did every funeral you attend remind you of the other funerals you have sat through, all of the losses you have suffered? No wonder old people look so defeated, so worn out. It was too late. The thought of Shaun’s funeral was washing over him, a tributary of guilt meeting all the others in a river which threatened to sweep Peter away. He forced himself to think of the hospital ward, his grandmother’s last lucid words, the kiss he had planted on her forehead, the moment he realised she had gone. In later years he would be able to think of her living, the trips to the park, the scouse recipe she had passed on to Mum, but right now all he could call upon was the memory of her death, and it was enough. Tears began to flow and he was where he should be.

And then, as the coffin turned up the aisle, he saw Shaun McGovern’s mother, diminished and hollowed, but still, somehow, there, sitting near the back of the church. He could not imagine the price she was paying to be there. The guilt came back, overwhelming, and he stumbled. ‘Careful, lad,’ said Uncle Howard, as the coffin jolted. She looked at him, her eyes clear, and he wondered what went through her head, what she saw. Could she possibly know?

He steadied himself and continued up the aisle, breathing in the polish and incense, past rows and rows of everybody he knew, faces he had not seen since the week before the choir loft incident, faces that looked away as he passed. If only they knew, he thought, they would have hated him long before then.

The coffin-bearers placed Nan gently on the trestles, and Peter took his place in the pew, next to Gerry. His arm was in a sling, hurt in a motorcycle accident, the crisis with which the Brophy family were contending when the call came that Nan had been taken to A&E at the Royal. It was why Peter was carrying the coffin, and not Gerry, the eldest. Gerry patted him on the arm as the first church service Peter had attended since the choir loft incident commenced. Father O’Driscoll’s dry Irish voice echoed through the church as he talked about Flo’s simple faith, her membership of the Union of Catholic Mothers, the pilgrimages to Lourdes and Walsingham she had organised.

And all Peter could think about was Shaun McGovern’s mum. He could feel her eyes on the back of his head, fixed with a laser-like intensity. Did she hate him for being alive when Shaun was not? Did she hate his mother for still having a son? Why was she even there? What on earth could force a woman who had lost a child in such awful circumstances to attend a funeral of somebody who was not even a family member? She knew. She had to know. Guilt turned to panic, bubbles rising from his stomach to his oesophagus, the tendons in his legs weakening. She couldn’t know. She wouldn’t have left it until then. He gripped the rail in front of him and Gerry patted him on the back again. He looked across the aisle. Mum was quietly sobbing and even Dad’s eyes were red. He could not remember the last time he had seen Dad crying, apart from when Tiffany was killed in EastEnders. That was the thing with Dad – barely a flicker when confronted by the sadness of the real world, but he sobbed that Boxing Day when they all watched ET and ate turkey and pickle Brevilles. Next to Mum were the girls, Amanda and Becky – the younger daughter clamped onto her mother’s arm, Amanda, the elder, strangely unmoved. It would be the last time that the six of them would ever be in the same room.

Peter stayed in his seat when it was time for Holy Communion, watching friends and family file up to the sanctuary past Nan’s coffin. He could not go up – partly because he was a lapsed Catholic now, and mostly because he did not want to stand before Father O’Driscoll. The organ was playing – rare for a requiem, but Flo was a Premier League parishioner. Everybody knew her as Flo, no surname required, like Madonna or Prince. The organist segued into the communion hymn, ‘Oh, The Love Of My Lord Is The Essence’, and Peter began to sing along, grateful for the opportunity to participate in the service. But his voice cracked when he reached the verse:

‘There’ve been times that I’ve turned from his presence
‘And I’ve walked other paths, other ways.
‘But I’ve called on His name, in the dark of my shame,
‘And his mercy was gentle as silence.’

The tears trickled again and he knew he wanted to be back in the arms of the church, he wanted to be the altar boy he once was, the good boy, the boy he was before the bus journey during which he punched Andrew Rooney, before everything went wrong. He wanted to feel safe again.

The requiem reached its final act, and the pallbearers raised Nan onto their shoulders again. Now Peter was at the front, dictating the pace as the coffin crept down the aisle. Shaun’s mother was looking at him, straight at him, focused on his face. Peter tried to look away but there was nowhere else to turn. He could not read her face, it was utterly blank, but her eyes were fixed on his own, her head turning as he passed her.

Family and friends and parishioners left the church, following the coffin to the hearse. The pallbearers smoothly slid Nan into the back of the vehicle, along the runners, and stepped away as Father O’Driscoll splashed her once again with the holy water. Peter shivered in the December chill. ‘You all right?’ Amanda whispered. Peter was looking across at Mrs McGovern, who was standing near the church’s threshold, still gazing at him. ‘Yeah,’ lied Peter.

***

Back at the parish hall, the cling film was being stripped from the sandwiches, and the Union of Catholic Mothers mainstays were pouring tea into duck egg-coloured cups. Flo was one of their own, and they always looked after their own. Peter was standing with Uncle Howard, neither of them speaking, wishing they could go and talk to somebody else. Mum came in with Dad and the sisters. Who knew where Gerry was? The hall filled up with people and laughter and tobacco smoke.

Peter felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and there was Mrs McGovern. ‘I’m sorry about your nan. She was a lovely woman,’ she said, her face impassive, as Peter felt everything inside him crumble. ‘I remember when she used to take your Gerry and Amanda to school for your mum, and you’d be in your pushchair, and my Shaun would be in his…’

‘I…’

‘And are you keeping well, are you?’ She had an even, almost monotonous voice, as if the intonation had been scraped out of it. ‘You have to look after yourself, don’t you?’

His head was rushing. This was wrong. Be cool. Calm down. What did she mean by that? Be cool. He couldn’t calm down. He began to cry, right in front of Mrs McGovern. Her face did not change; that numb empty expression remained.

‘I’m sorry he’s dead. I’m really sorry he’s dead. It really wasn’t my fault. ‘scuse me.’ And he stepped away from her and left the hall, his head down, trying to hide his distress from the other mourners. He pushed open the door to the men’s toilets and locked himself in the cubicle. He leant against the wall and sobbed, great heaving sobs, breathing in the sour stench of the urinals on the other side of the door. This was not, he told himself, exemplary cool behaviour. There was a knock on the door. ‘Pete, you all right, lad?’ It was Gerry.

Peter could not get the words out. He had not cried like this since he was eight and he had been stranded alone and terrified in the haberdashery section in George Henry Lee’s department store. When the John Lewis partner with the badge and the formidable starched bosom asked him if he was lost he tried to explain, and there was a sob after every syllable.

‘Leave me ‘lone, m’OK,’ he blurted out, staccato, through the toilet cubicle door.

‘What is it? Have you done a really big shit?’ asked Gerry.

‘Gerry, just fuck off, will you? I’m all right.’

‘Yeah, you sound it.’

Peter heard the modesty door into the toilets swing open, and then the exit door. Gerry had gone. He started breathing again, trying to calm down, to pull himself together. At some point he was going to have to emerge, wash his face, pretend he had just been upset about Nan. Yes, that was it. People would understand that. Of course he would be upset about his grandmother.

There was a knock on the cubicle door. ‘Peter,’ said Mum. ‘What’s wrong, love?’

‘Mum, you can’t be in here. It’s the men’s toilets.’

‘Oh, is it?’ she said. ‘I wondered what them funny-looking sinks were for. Peter, love, come on. What is it? You were talking to Sue McGovern, and then you got all upset.’

‘Did you see?’

‘Everybody saw, son.’

‘Everybody?’

‘Not everybody… Look, what’s going on? Nobody blames you for what happened with Shaun. She certainly doesn’t, or she wouldn’t be here, would she, eh? It wasn’t your fault, love. It was that little get, Andrew Rooney. If he hadn’t been chasing the pair of you, it wouldn’t have happened. Bloody hell, love, it could have been you hit by that lorry, and every day I thank God that it wasn’t. It wasn’t your fault.’

‘Oh, Mum, it was…’ Peter heard the words coming out of his mouth. He wanted to stop them, but Sue McGovern had delivered a sledgehammer blow to him, and there were too many cracks to prevent them from escaping. ‘It was all my fault.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I don’t want to tell you.’

‘Tell me.’

***

It was a month after Peter Brophy had knocked Andrew Rooney flat on the top deck of the bus when the two met again. Peter had seen him a couple of times while he was out during the summer holidays, and had managed to avoid him. But there was no room for evasion that day. As Peter left Woolworth’s, Rooney was there on the street, with his dickhead cronies. He walked right into the centre of them. Stupid. He had been reading the back of the video he had bought and was not paying attention. Peter felt a sickening adrenalin surge as he understood the position in which he had placed himself.

‘Here he is, the fucking queg,’ said Rooney. ‘Think you’re fucking hard, don’t you?’

‘Look, I just want to go home, Andy. I don’t want any trouble.’

‘You’re no fucking trouble to me, lad,’ said Rooney, and he punched Peter on his left cheekbone. The blow knocked him back into the window, and the pain blinded him for a moment.

‘Roo, mate, don’t,’ said Shaun McGovern.

Rooney whirled to face Shaun. ‘You fucking shut up, you queer. I’ll fucking murder you as well.’

‘No…’ said Shaun. ‘I mean, like, not here. There’s loads of people, aren’t there?’

Rooney stopped for a moment, his brain processing the information that Shaun had given him, carrying out a risk analysis. He’d already been cautioned, that was true, and…

Peter saw his chance. There was a gap between Rooney and Ryan Smith, and he darted through it. He sprinted along Allerton Road, past the estate agents and Boots the Chemist.

‘That’s your fucking fault,’ Rooney screamed at Shaun, as he and his crew of gobshites gave chase, tearing through the shoppers, and knocking over an elderly woman.

Peter ran towards the junction of Allerton Road and Queens Drive. His lungs were burning. He was a long-distance runner if he was anything, and there was no way he could keep up this pace for long. There was an 86 bus coming. Maybe he could jump on that before Rooney caught up to him…

Shit! They were gaining on him. Oh, God, there were too many pelican crossings, too many cars.

Change of plan. He turned onto Queens Drive and ran along the dual carriageway. As soon as there was a gap in the traffic he could dash through it and get to the other side, to buy himself some time.

Shaun McGovern had put some distance between himself and Rooney’s other henchmen. Maybe he was in trouble too. He had already stepped in to stop Peter getting a beating twice.

‘Come on,’ Peter shouted. There was a gap in the traffic. He flung himself into the road and across the central reservation to the other side, followed by Shaun, and accompanied by the sound of car horns.

‘Leg it this way,’ Peter told Shaun. But Shaun grabbed him. Faced with the choice of betraying his oldest friend or betraying a homicidal thug, Shaun chose pragmatism. ‘I’ve gorrim, Roo,’ he shouted back to Rooney, who was still on the other side of the dual carriageway, beaten back by the traffic.

It all happened so quickly. There was another surge of adrenalin, the fight or flight reflex, and Peter shoved Shaun away. He staggered backwards. Into the road.

He did not stand a chance. The lorry was slowing down before it reached the roundabout, but it was still travelling at 30 miles an hour. He probably did not even hear the screech of the brakes. The post mortem said he died instantly.

***

‘I killed him, Mum. I killed him.’

‘Open the door,’ Mum said.

Peter slid the latch, and pulled open the door. Mum was crying silently.

‘Andrew Rooney was done for manslaughter. He’s in jail, or wherever, and you didn’t say anything. You killed Shaun, and he’s in prison.’

It was true. There were so many witnesses that day. They saw Rooney punch Peter outside Woolworth’s. They saw Rooney threaten Shaun. They all saw the thugs chase Peter along Allerton Road. The drivers saw Peter and Shaun run through the traffic on Queens Drive. But nobody saw Peter push Shaun, not even the driver of the lorry.

‘I know I did it, but it was Andrew’s fault, Mum. Honest, Mum, if he hadn’t hit me, if he hadn’t tried to batter me, none of it would have happened. It was his fault, really, I…’

‘Shut up.’

‘What?’

‘I can’t believe you do this to me today, at my own mother’s funeral. My son, the killer.’

‘Mum, it wasn’t like that. Mum, please, Mum… I was scared. It wasn’t my fault, Mum. Please look at me.’

But Mum was turned away, her voice shaking with rage. ‘I can’t look at you. He’s innocent, Peter, and he’s in prison.’

‘He’s not innocent’, he cried. ‘It’s his fault. If he hadn’t…’

Mum cut him off. ‘He is innocent. He didn’t do it. That’s what innocent means. I know he’s a little shit, he’s always been a little shit, but he didn’t do it. You did it. I don’t care if it was an accident. Everything that happened with that Jade Woods, that disgusting business, and I still thought you were a good boy. I still defended you. But you did this, and you didn’t own up. My good boy didn’t own up. What else have you done?’

‘Mum, please…’

‘And now I’m in on it. I either put my son in prison or leave that innocent lad in prison. At my own mother’s funeral, for God’s sake, Peter.’

‘Mum, please. I’ve been living with this for two years. I know…’

‘Poor bloody you. It’s still better than being in bloody prison…’

Peter placed his hand on his mother’s arm. She recoiled, shrugging it away without looking at him. ‘Get out,’ she said.

‘What? Mum?’

She grabbed his arm and dragged him out of the toilets and into the entrance hall of the parish centre. ‘I don’t want to see you,’ she howled, in front of Becky and several cousins.

‘Mum, what’s going on?’ said Becky,

‘Mum, please…’ begged Peter.

‘Get out!’ she cried, and she pushed him out of the church hall, blocking the door behind him.

He looked back through the glass. Becky was in tears trying to talk to their mother. And, just by the entrance to the main hall, he could see Sue McGovern. He was almost sure she was smiling.

That night, Peter stayed in a hostel, and the next morning he boarded a coach to London.

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