The second worst thing about finding a man bleeding to death in your hallway is that you can’t go home for days afterwards. Your hallway becomes a crime scene, separated from the rest of the world by yards of flimsy blue and white tape, and populated by men and women in white hooded onesies, like austere Teletubbies, as they photograph and scrape and swab your home, searching for evidence. In Peter Brophy’s case, the forensic officers were joined by the White Tent Of Death, set up outside the front door.
Pete had gone back to the three-storey Victorian house – four-storey if you counted the cellar, which his lettings agent did – he shared with seven people – eight people, if you counted a dead Pole, which, until the end of the month, one should. It was a couple of days after he had been released by DI Holloway, and a week before he found out why.
He stood on the street corner, next to a lamppost bearing a police notice appealing for witnesses to the murder. It obscured a second photocopied notice offering an unspecified reward for the safe return of Oscar, ‘a three-year-old dilute Tortoiseshell with green and gold eyes and brown Collar. About 9lbs.’ There was a black and white picture of the cat above it. To Pete it looked like a generic cat. He had never been a cat person. He was not a dog person either. ‘I don’t see the point of pets,’ he had once said after work in The Porterhouse. ‘I mean, I can see the point of kids. They grow up and find an adequate nursing home for you and you can make them feel guilty and whatever. But to a dog you’re just meat who provides more meat, aren’t you?’ Jacquleen from credit control with the four dogs and Facebook accounts for each of them had not spoken to him since. He examined the poster. It was set in Comic Sans and the owner had used capital letters for ‘tortoiseshell’ and ‘collar’. ‘You’re well off out of it, mate,’ he told the picture of the cat.
There was some movement over at the house, a rustling. He looked across the road and watched a forensic officer emerge from the tent. Instinctively he hid behind the lamppost, imagining for a moment that Looney Tunes cartoon physics worked in the real world. What was he doing? ‘The murderer always returns to the scene of the crime.’ Was that an actual thing or a cop show trope? Either way this looked bad, and it was not as if he could just march up to the PC guarding the fluttering blue and white tape – the thin blue line behind the thinner blue line – and ask him, ‘Look, mate, how long are you going to be? I’ve washing festering in my machine and I’ve got to do a meter read by Friday.’ He turned and walked back to the hotel, as the Indian summer sun set over ‘West Hampstead’, the blood red light turning the grey slate rooftops to rust.
Peter Brophy slipped the key card into the slot next to the light switch and a number of unexpected lights flared up. He had been there two nights, and he still had no idea which light switch affected which bulb. He tried four random combinations and happened upon a lighting configuration with which he could live. It was not really good enough, but he could not bring himself to ask reception how to operate light switches. You had to ration your calls to reception, his mother had told him, or you became one of Those People, and he had already asked for more tea bags.
He had had far more success with the miniature kettle provided as part of the ‘tea and coffee making facilities’, one of the long list of minor privileges for which he was paying £120 a night. £120 a night, he thought, not for the first time, to sleep half a mile from his own flat, his own bed. The first night he had struggled to fit the tiny kettle into the even tinier gap between the bathroom tap and sink, and he had watched frustrated as two thirds of the water he poured into the kettle cascaded out and gurgled down the plug hole. But that morning, while washing the mug in the sink, he crested a brainwave. It was too late to try it out then, but he told everybody in work about his idea, and everybody in work had smiled indulgently at him because they knew he had had ‘a trauma’, but actually they really didn’t understand how big this was. Now that he was back in his hotel room, it was time to try it out. He took his mug and filled it with water from the sink. Then he poured the water from his mug into the kettle. God, all the hotels he’d stayed in because of courses and special projects and ‘team-building’ time-wasters over the years, and this simple thing had never occurred to him. It was a triumph, and for one bright moment he forgot that three days before he had been thrashing about on top of a stabbed and dying man.
He made tea in the mug, using one of his extra tea bags, and stripped for the shower while it brewed. At least it wasn’t one of those wet rooms, he thought. Last time he’d forgotten and walked back in to brush his teeth in his stockinged feet. It was his last day and they were his last socks, and he had to squelch down to breakfast and sit next to Brian from Carlisle and pretend to care about when the next build was being rolled out when all he could think about was the prospect of athlete’s foot.
The water cascaded over his head and rolled off his body, as if it were filling a tiny kettle in a sink, while Pete attempted to find aquilibrium, the state he invented in which water in a hotel shower is neither scorching nor sleet and which involves microscopic adjustments of the heating dial. The curds of blood were surely gone from his scalp, but still he could smell the ferrous tang. He squeezed more shampoo from the wall-mounted dispenser and washed his hair a second time, and then a third. In the event he spent so much time in the shower that his fingertips were wrinkled and the bathroom was thick with fog. He was clothed in cloud as he stepped out, towelling his hair, and as the cool air of the hotel room hit his skin he shivered. And then, as he saw his naked body in the full-length mirror set into his balsa-thin wardrobe, he shivered again. How could he look like a dad when he had no children? He sucked in his belly and adjusted his posture, pulling his shoulders out of their habitual slump, and for a moment he looked like a man in his late twenties, or, at least, a 34-year-old man who looked after himself.
Then the need for oxygen became pressing, and he drooped again, losing height as he gained girth. He wrapped the towel around his waist and pulled the stringed tea bag out of his cup. It had been in a little too long, but, Pete reasoned, it needed the strength to overcome the taste of the miniature cartons of milk provided by the hotel. ‘Long life’ – the Chinese blessing and the tea drinker’s curse. On the tray were two packets of biscuits – one custard creams, the other rich tea. ‘Two packs’, thought Pete.
He should have told the police. Why didn’t he tell the police? What was he thinking? It was too late now. He could hardly go back and say, ‘Oh, you know what? I do remember the murder victim’s last words. I’m such a scatterbrain.’
He sat on the bed and watched the steam curl from his cup. What did it mean? What could it mean? Two packs… Two packs. Score within. Drugs? You score drugs, don’t you? Pete did not know. Pete had never exactly been part of the drugs scene. Pete followed the instructions on ibuprofen labels and felt nervous around Lemsips. Over and over he heard Gruszka whispering his final words, weak yet determined to be heard. And over and over he watched the spreading pool beneath him…
He picked up his phone. She said he could call any time. There was a crack on the screen from when it had hit the bridge of Jerzy Gruszka’s nose. Pete went straight to the top of his contacts list, scraping his finger against the crack.
‘Hi, it’s me,’ said Pete.
‘She’s not here,’ said a male voice.
‘Isn’t this her mobile…?’
‘She’s putting Daisy to bed.’
‘It’s half-seven. That’s actually quite late for a four-year-old.’
‘Ha ha! I suppose so. Sorry, Si.’
‘It’s all right,’ said Simon unconvincingly, as he heard the daughter he had just watched drifting off to sleep tell her mummy that her phone had been ringing. ‘Was there a message?’
‘No, it’s OK.’
‘So why did you phone?’
‘I’m not sure.’
Pete placed the phone on the bedside table. And suddenly, out of nowhere, but clearly somewhere, he started to cry. Big heaving sobs shook his body and he folded in on himself, forming the foetal position on the bed. He cried and cried, and at some point he must have fallen asleep, because the next time he looked at the bedside clock it was 11.13 and his tea was cold. He slipped under the covers, and flicked off the light switch by the side of the bed.
The bulb in the bathroom lit up.
Pete stayed at the hotel for three more nights, which was just as well. He had run out of the emergency socks and underpants he had bought at the beginning of his exile, he was wearing his last shirt, and he did not much fancy another night-time trip to the launderette. He had already seen some white powder changing hands in there and he was pretty certain it was not Daz Automatic. That morning he walked into the Balvenie Room for the final time, and assembled his own breakfast as usual from an assortment of troughs and trays. He picked some bacon out of a pool of white globules, selected some scrambled egg because the fried eggs were swimming in God knew what, used tongs to grab a couple of sausages, which experience told him would have a saltpetred interior of a pink rarely found in nature outside Australian reefs, and shunned the beans. He trickled some grapefruit juice from a dispenser into an ungenerous tumbler, and placed the whole miserable breakfast on a table next to his phone. Why he had brought his phone, he did not know. He could not get a signal in the Balvenie Room, which was set so deeply into the premises of the Cricklewood Goodnite Inn that it was virtually a Faraday cage. He knew this. Christ, there were more bars on the window of his first-floor hotel room than there were on his phone. But he had to have his phone with him because that is what people with phones do. He was going to phone the police later and see when he could go home. This was ridiculous. No, it was not ridiculous. They needed to take as long as they needed. He just wanted to go home.
Pete realised he was staring blankly and probably unnervingly at the waitress at the other side of the room – Pilar, wasn’t she? Spanish, he supposed. He had been there long enough to know the staff’s names. He had to get out soon. He gave her a 17% intensity smile, enough, he judged, to reassure her that he had not just been staring at her as a precursor to murder, but not so much that he would look like a beaming simpleton.
Oh, God, she was coming over, passing between the tables of a south-east Asian businessman and a couple in their sixties from County Durham, who had been down to see Billy Elliot the previous night, and were exactly the sort of people who, confronted by a boy in their street who wanted to be a ballet dancer, would have called him a fairy behind his back. ‘Can I help you, sir,’ asked Pilar? No, she couldn’t help him. How could she help him? It was a self-service breakfast buffet. His food was right in front of him. What was he going to say to her? ‘No, I’m all right. I was just smiling at you so you didn’t think I was going to kill you?’ Think! Think! he thought, instead of thinking.
‘I’ve dropped my fork,’ Pete said. It was the best he could have done given the limited resources. The waitress looked at the full compliment of forks currently on the table, one in front of Pete, the other at the unoccupied place opposite him. ‘Oh, I picked it up,’ he said. Without a word, Pilar pushed a lock of hair behind her ear, picked up Pete’s fork, replaced it with the fork from the phantom diner’s place setting, and walked away.
Pete pointlessly checked his phone – he was not paying £15 a day for wifi – and turned his head to watch the television, which was set above the single-serving boxes of cereal, just to the left of the mushroom trough. The TV was muted, so as not to affect the guests’ enjoyment of a Latin jazz-inflected instrumental of The Doors’ Light My Fire, which was being piped into the room, presumably in an attempt to clear it. It occurred to Pete that had Jim Morrison not died in 1971, he would probably be dead by now. And this cover version would have been noted as the cause of death.
The TV was tuned to Sky News, and Pete tried to glean what information he could from the constant ticker running across the bottom of the screen. The best he could work out was that the Prime Minister had made a speech in a factory and, given that he had seen the same footage of a train pulling into a commuter station three times, there was something happening on the railways. Beyond that, he had nothing. It was like trying to interpret the news on the television in a foreign country.
Jerzy Gruszka’s murder had not made the national TV news. Pete had seen reports on BBC London – quick flashes of the flats, a passport picture which DI Holloway and DS Patterson had not shown him during his interrogation, an appeal for witnesses from Holloway – but they had faded within a couple of days. The grave is permanent, but news moves on. And a knife murder needs something more interesting to retain traction. It needs to say something about the society in which we live, or it gets lost in the jumble, another death of somebody you never met, another ungoogled story, lost down the back of the internet. Jerzy Gruszka’s murder was heading that way.
Nevertheless, everything Pete knew about his deceased neighbour he had picked up from the media. The stabbing had been all over the front of the Brent & Kilburn Times. He had learned that Jerzy was a computer programmer from Gdansk, that he had lived in London since 2008, that he was an active member of St Agnes’s Roman Catholic parish, that he was unmarried, and that he was 33 when he died, a year younger than Pete. He also knew that a 34-year-old Cricklewood man had been held following the stabbing and later released on police bail, but he had not needed the newspaper to tell him that.
Pete spat a piece of gristle from the freakishly pink sausage into a paper napkin and resolved once again to call the police the minute he arrived at work.
‘Kilburn CID. DS Patterson speaking.’
Peter Brophy felt his throat tighten and dry up. He hated dealing with authority, probably because he had so little of his own.
‘Hello, erm, this is Pete Br… Peter Brophy. You and your colleague, DI…’ – Oh God, what was his surname? How could he forget the surname? – ‘DI…’
‘Yes, that’s the chap!’ – Chap? Who says “chap” in the 21st century? – ‘Anyway, yes, erm, you interviewed me after Jerzy Gruszka was stabbed.’
‘Yes,’ said DS Patterson. ‘Why? Do you have some information for us?’
Pete swallowed. ‘Um, no, I was hoping you’d have some information for me.’
‘It’s just… I was wondering when I can go back to my flat.’
Pete heard DS Patterson sigh. ‘Hang on.’ Then a muffled ‘Did you call Gruszka’s neighbours…? Brophy…? When?’ There was a pause. ‘Hello. We called you three days ago… What…? Yeah, we left a message on your phone.’
‘What? I’ve been checking every couple of hours! What number have you got?’
Patterson read out Pete’s number.
‘That’s my landline.’
‘Yeah, and we left a message.’
‘Hang on. Let me get this straight… you left a message on the phone in my flat to tell me that I could go back to my flat.’
‘I’ve just spent £360 to stay in a hotel half a mile down the road for three nights for fuck all?’
DS Patterson pondered this for a moment. ‘Look, mate, your neighbour’s been killed and you’re moaning about admin? I don’t have time to deal with you.’ And DS Patterson put the phone down.