The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 4

Curds In The Cup

London’s underground rail network is a miraculous system, taken for granted by the city’s population until there is a strike, whereupon hundreds of thousands of commuters find themselves wandering through a metropolis built to a scale they rarely comprehend, and reach their homes by chance, as flies eventually find their way out of an open window, seemingly randomly. It employs 23,000 people, runs 535 trains per hour during peak times, and stretches across 250 miles of track. Not all of the Tube actually runs under the ground – only 45% of the network is through tunnels – but at heart it represents one of the most impressive and ambitious engineering feats of not only the Victorian era, but of any era. And while private investment built the railway, it is the public sector which maintains it – a non-profit making state company ploughing all monies made back into the running and maintenance and improvement of the system. It is socialism in action and not even the most Thatcherite of free-market zealots would dare touch it, because it works so well and so cheaply for the 3,465,687 people who use it every day.

Peter Brophy was not one of those people. Peter Brophy lived in Cricklewood, one of the pockets of London untouched by the Tube. He had previously lived in Peckham, another part of tubeless London. Large parts of south London were unsuited to underground railway construction because of the subterranean rivers which flow through the area, secret waterways which nobody ever sees.

But Cricklewood is north west London, so Pete had no idea what its bloody excuse was. His best guess was that he was a jinx, and very little in the past week had moved him away from that theory. He stepped onto the platform at the mainline station at Cricklewood, clutching a crumpled copy of the Standard, pressed upon him by a Sri Lankan vendor outside Great Portland Street tube, and he joined the knot of other commuters forced through fear to ‘pull a late one’ heading under the bridge and up the hill to Cricklewood Broadway. He walked past the KFC-alike chicken shops and piss-taking estate agents and eastern European grocers, and he stopped for a moment as the sun set to look at the Cricklewood sign high up above Cricklewood Broadway, the white-painted badge which combined self-aggrandisement with self-mockery. ‘Look,’ it said, ‘we too, like Hollywood, have a name ending in -wood. Rejoice in having a name ending in -wood.’ And Peter Brophy did indeed rejoice a little because he was finally going home. There is something piquantly frustrating about being so close to home, but unable to go home. It is like arriving at your house and realising that you have left your front-door key in your other trousers, draped over the chair in your bedroom, entitlement and yearning and self-hatred mixed up and concentrated into one bitter gristly morsel you are forced to chew over and over until you swallow it.

‘If only I’d checked,’ thought Pete. But he had trusted the police, the same police who had wrestled him to the ground, and locked him up, and interrogated him because they imagined him capable of murder. Him! Peter Brophy! A man who ran from fights not necessarily because he was afraid of being hurt but because it seemed so damned rude to hit somebody. Well, apart from that one time, but… Idiot. He carried on down the high street and turned left into his road, one of the many side streets running off the main road.

Croft Road was lined with terraced houses on either side, and punctuated with trees, bin bags, and the occasional item of discarded furniture. Each of the houses had been converted, more or less effectively, into flats, family homes now mostly occupied by people without families, people who had dreamt of living in London and now dreamt of living anywhere else. It was grimy and green and grey and it was the most beautiful sight Pete could imagine seeing. He had held his front-door key in his hand since leaving the station, because he was not taking any chances, and it was warm as a Sayers sausage roll.

But when he hopped up to the front door he paused before slotting the key into its lock. He was caught up with a sort of dread. The last time he had opened this front door he had stumbled – literally stumbled – upon a man bleeding to death. And while he was fairly sure – 97%, maybe even 98% sure – there would not be a victim of a knife murder across the threshold, he could not be certain. Of course, nobody can be certain that there will not be a man rapidly expiring from stab wounds on the other side of one’s front door, but the point was that Pete had lived his life up to that night as if he were so sure that eventuality was so remote that he did not need to think about it. This was no longer the case. For the rest of his life, when opening his front door, Pete was at least receptive to the possibility that a stabbed man would be behind it.

Pete took a breath and pushed the door open. The setting sun flooded the hallway with a bloody light, revealing the reassuring absence of a dying computer programmer. He exhaled and closed the door behind himself. Flicking on the light, he examined the hallway. It was clean now, cleaner than it had been before. The stains were gone from the walls and the laminate flooring. He checked his pigeon hole for his mail. He had a missive from his ‘local hardworking Team of Labour Councillors’ in the form of a poorly-designed four-page newspaper, and filled with pictures of the local hardworking Team of Labour Councillors standing next to potholes and handing over trophies to junior football teams, along with the euphemistically described “local community leader and builders supplier” Karl Chapman. The rest was junk mail, evenly split between advertising sent to him, envelopes addressed to previous occupants of Pete’s flat, and envelopes addressed to Jake, Pete’s old flatmate, who still owed him a month’s rent. There was nothing in Jerzy Gruszka’s pigeon hole, not even a piece of junk mail. He cast the mail not intended for him into the communal pile designated for such items and unwanted pizza leaflets.

‘How are you?’

Pete turned. In her doorway stood the neighbour who had offered him a white shirt.

‘Fine… Well, y’know…’

‘I was worried about you.’

Pete raised his eyebrows. He could not remember the last time anybody had worried about him. Apart from Alice, of course, but Alice didn’t count.

‘Well, they took you away. And then you didn’t come back when everybody else did.’

‘Oh! Don’t get me started!’ said Pete, starting. ‘They phoned my land line, you know? To tell me I could go back to my flat?’

‘What?’

‘I know!’

‘How were you supposed to get that message?’

‘I know!’

‘I mean, how? It’s ridiculous.’

‘I know! Fucking idiots.’

She looked at Pete, who in turn took her in. He had only vaguely been aware of her before the night of the stabbing, which, to be fair, made them virtually married compared with his previous acquaintanceship with the victim. She was mixed race, one of London’s coffee people, at the latte end of the spectrum. Actually, she was freckled, which made her, what? Cappuccino? Pete was 90% sure that wasn’t a racist observation, but just to be on the safe side he decided he would never ever say it out loud. And she was about Pete’s age. Probably. She could have been ten years older or younger. If anything brought the Afro-Caribbean communities of London together, it was their shared faith in the importance of moisturising.

‘Sorry for swearing,’ Pete said.

‘S’all right,’ replied his neighbour. ‘Totally called for. Twats.’

They both smiled. They had skipped a few rungs on the Ladder of Friendship, reaching Rung 8: Swearing Freely already. Oh, God, he fancied her a bit. Oh, how distressingly predictable, he thought.

‘So, are you all right,’ she asked?

‘I’ve had better weeks,’ replied Pete. ‘Glad to be home, to be honest.’

‘I bet. How much was…?’

‘A hundred and twenty quid a night! To live half a mile down the road.’

‘Shit.’

‘I mean, it’s not the money, it’s the… No, it is. It definitely is the money.’

His neighbour laughed. It was a surprising noise, like a sea lion’s bark. ‘You should go up,’ she said, ‘before they arrest you again.’

‘Good idea.’ Pete started to walk up the stairs. ‘Sorry,’ he said, as he stopped and turned back. ‘I meant to ask, how are you getting on? I mean, I was a bit rude on the night.’

‘Oh, we were just panicking, weren’t we? It’s fine. I’m fine.’

‘Is that real fine or girlfriend fine?’ Pete had finished the question before he could stop his stupid mouth.

Her eyes flashed. ‘Well, I’m not your girlfriend, so we’ll just have to assume I’m ‘real fine”, won’t we?’

‘No, I know… I mean, I don’t even know your name…’

‘No, you don’t. Night,’ said his neighbour, and she closed her door.

Pete decided he really should know her name. If the past few days had taught him anything, it had taught him that. He walked down the stairs and back to the pigeon holes. This was not stalking, was it? He did not want to be racist and a stalker. If he did not touch her mail, that would be fine. After all, he could have seen it any time passing by, could he not? This absolutely was not a weird thing to do.

He peered into his neighbour’s pigeon hole. There was an envelope addressed to Ms D. McKenzie, and another behind it, the addressee of which he could not see. This was not the only gap in his knowledge. For example, had he been better acquainted with his neighbour, say, to the point of having had a cup of tea in her flat, he would have known that every time somebody walked up or down the stairs she could hear it through the wall. He would also have known that the spy hole in her door was directly opposite the pigeon holes.

And so what he would not have done is to have pursed his lips and blown the envelopes in an attempt to dislodge the first and reveal the address on the second, for that would have made him look ridiculous. He puffed hard, rippling the envelopes, and heard the barking laugh through his neighbour’s door.

She pulled the door open.

‘You know, Peter, if you really want to know my name, you only have to ask.’

Pete looked at her. He was flushed.

‘It’s Donna, you weirdo,’ she said.

‘Hang on, how do you know my name?!’

She smirked at him. ‘Because I’ve looked in your pigeon hole.’

‘It’s nice to meet you, Donna,’ said Pete, extending a hand. ‘And it’s Pete. Nobody calls me Peter unless they’re angry with me.’

Donna shook the proffered hand. ‘Well, we’ve kind of already met, haven’t we?’

‘I suppose. We were a bit distracted, what with…’

Donna nodded. ‘Have you been sleeping? I haven’t slept properly for days. I just keep seeing… y’know?’

Pete shook his head. ‘Tried some over the counter sleeping pills, but they don’t work… Nobody in work gets it,’ he said. ‘I can’t really talk to anybody about it. ‘

‘Look, do you fancy a coffee?’ Donna indicated her flat with her thumb.

‘Um, yeah, OK, thanks,’ said Pete, and he followed her inside. He sat on the sofa while Donna disappeared into the kitchen.

‘Instant OK?’ Donna popped her head out of the kitchen door. ‘We’ve run out of pods.’

‘Actually, do you have tea? I’m not really a coffee, erm…’ Pete looked around the living room. It was comfortable. Lots of soft furnishings and books. Candlesticks with actual candles in them. Photographs of real people on the mantelpiece. Photographs of real places on the walls. He rested his head on the back of the sofa. God, he could actually fall asleep right here. He felt calm for the first time in days. Donna’s flat felt like somewhere somebody might live, unlike his own flat, which felt like somewhere somebody might sleep. He had been there two years and it still appeared sparse, temporary, as if he dare not turn it into a home because he might have to leave in a hurry.

Donna came in, with teas on a tray, and set them down on the coffee table. She sat not quite next to Pete on the sofa. ‘I didn’t know him that well,’ said Donna, ‘but he always said hello in the morning. And when I went on holiday last year, I left my number with him in case anything happened. He was just this normal man, y’know? Did you know him well?’

‘Um, not really,’ said Pete.

‘I must have been in the bath when he was stabbed, ‘cos I’d have heard. You hear all the comings and goings in here. I just keep thinking of opening the door and seeing him there, you on top of him trying to keep him alive. And I just think, if I’d only heard something, y’know? I might have got help sooner. It might have made the difference. If the ambulance had got here five minutes…’ She broke down.

“Hey, come on!” Pete said. He put his arm on her shoulder, and she nestled into him sobbing harder. ‘It’s not your fault, OK? You didn’t bloody stab him. How on earth were you supposed to know, eh? How?’ He kissed the top of her head, the same way he’d kissed Daisy when she lost that bloody doll the first time. The curls tickled his lips. He could smell… jasmine, was it? Stop this.

She moved her head to face him, the sobs subsiding a little. ‘It’s not your fault,’ he said. And he kissed her on the forehead. “It’s not your fault.” He kissed her on the temple. “Um,” said Pete. He moved his head away. He was getting sucked in. He could feel it. Donna placed her palm on his cheek. It was cool and soft and… He kissed her on the mouth, just for a second. And then she kissed him back, firm and soft at the same time, her tongue falling into his mouth. Within seconds they were lying next to each other, kissing, stroking, his hand sliding under her T-shirt, feeling the curve of her waist and hips… and…

Her left breast vibrated. Then it rang. ‘Shit,’ said Pete. ‘That’s me. Sorry. I’ll just…’ He took the phone out of his jacket pocket and looked at the caller display. It was work. ‘Sorry, I’ve got to take this.’

He clambered off Donna and stood up. ‘Hello, Toby…’ he said. “Is everything… No, I emailed it to you. Yeah, like you said… It’s… Have you got it? No, it’s fine. Yeah, see y’… Gone.’

The spell was broken. Donna was sitting now, her knees up below her chin. ‘Sorry,’ said Pete. ‘That was out of order. I’m really sorry. Feelings are a bit… aren’t they?’

‘Not a good idea,’ Donna agreed.

‘I mean, we hardly know… Sorry.’

‘S’OK, I’m an adult too.’

‘I’ll go,’ said Pete.

Donna nodded.

***

The first thing that struck Peter Brophy when he opened the door into his flat was the smell. On the morning of the day he last left his flat, Pete had thrown away an open packet of cooked chicken. He had planned to empty the bin on his return home that evening, and had he known that he would be detained after discovering a dying man in his hallway later that day he would have emptied it before he left. Prescience had never really been Pete’s great strength, as the HD-DVD player living under his bed would have told a dogged intruder. He dragged the bin bag out of its flip-top holder and took it on a tour of the flat, wafting the decaying bird scent around as he disposed of plants, dead owing to a combination of previous neglect and the Metropolitan Police. Pete pulled together the yellow tags on the bin bag, tying a double knot, emptied a quarter-can of air freshener into his flat, and opened the windows in the living room. He breathed in, and wondered what ylang-ylang actually was.

He took the bag back downstairs and out to the bins, and returned to the flat. Oh, God, he thought, as he scrubbed his hands in the bathroom sink. Oh, God, please let them be all right. He dried his hands on his trousers, because he had no towel. All his towels were in one place, with his white shirts, in the washing machine, where they had been for a week. He walked slowly to the machine in the corner of the kitchen. He remembered the time his mother had left damp washing in the machine for a couple of days when his grandmother had died, and the maggots they found when they finally opened the door, incubated in the wet warmth.

And for the first time in a week, something went right for Peter Brophy. If he had made this discovery the week before he would have been angry with himself, his wasteful stupidity. But that night he clasped his forgetfulness to himself like a comfort blanket. He had forgotten to switch the washing machine on. For the first time in a week, maybe even the first time ever, his inability to come to terms with life as a functioning adult had paid off. He pressed the ON button, and picked up the kettle. His first cup of tea at home for a week! He was gasping like his father, gasping like the northerner he would always be. He poured the stagnant pool from the kettle into the sink, and he ran the cold water from the tap for a full minute, just as his father did when they came back from holiday. ‘You don’t know what’s in there’, his father had always said, leaving the question of what might be in there hanging.

He put the kettle on and washed a mug, threw a tea bag and splash of milk in the mug, and headed into the bedroom to kick off his shoes and unpack the various socks, pants, and shirts he had been forced to buy during his exile, listening all the time to the pitch and frequency of the bubbles as the water boiled, knowing exactly when to return. He walked down the steps into the kitchen as the kettle clicked off, and he poured the boiling water into the mug. In three minutes he would be sitting on his own sofa, watching his own television, drinking tea he had made in his own mug with milk that tasted of milk and came from a container larger than a thimble. He was home and he could not be happier.

Then the first curd appeared in the cup, followed by another, and then a dozen more, floating to the top of the infused water. Pete opened the fridge door and pulled out the milk carton. The use-by date was six days gone. He stared into his mug, the surface of which now resembled a crumbling polar ice cap, rested his palms on the worktop, and kicked the cupboard below hard with his sock-clad foot. After a moment, he limped up the steps out of the kitchen and went to retrieve his shoes from the bedroom.

The twilight of his arrival home had long become night by the time he stepped past Donna’s flat and out into the street, an indigo blanket with spots of orange light from the lampposts, and two little green and gold lights he failed to see. They were set into the skull of a tortoiseshell cat, which was stretched out on a branch of the tree outside Pete’s flat. The cat watched Pete for a while as he trudged up towards the traffic of Cricklewood Broadway, and was then distracted by the cry of a child in a bedroom across the street.

It occurred to Pete that the last time he had walked along Croft Road towards Broadway in the dark, Jerzy Gruszka had still been alive. Of course the same was technically true for the opposite direction, but Pete was not in the mood for quibbling, Pete had milk to buy. It was a week after the murder, and he still knew very little about his late neighbour beyond what fact he was “just this lovely man, y’know” and what he had read in the paper. And his musical tastes. Of course! Krautrock and industrial music, the steady, insistent, mind-bending, stomping, 4/4 beat which had vibrated Pete’s bedroom floorboards for around an hour most nights was virtually a motive for murder. If Pete had a pound for the number of times he had tried for an early night and found himself wishing that his neighbour were dead, he could have paid for the hit himself. And maybe he would not have had to burn through what was left of the Dad Money. He needed a new flatmate. Soon.

He turned onto Cricklewood Broadway and headed towards the Co-op, Jerzy and Donna fighting for his attention. There was a gang of young men at the bus stop ahead of him, talking and somehow swaggering without walking. Pete was catnip to gangs of young men. He had the mark of a victim. Just walk past them, Pete told himself. If you do not look intimidated, you will not be intimidated. Walk perfectly normally.

Pete forgot how to walk perfectly normally. He tried a number of paces. He shuffled. He loped. He tried to stride purposefully. And then he stepped on his hastily tied left shoelace with his right foot. He tripped and fell forward, and, through sheer force of will, dragged his feet in front for half a dozen frantic steps, counteracting his centre of gravity, and righting himself. Described like that, in bald terms, it sounds dynamic, almost heroic. In reality it looked ridiculous, as if he had decided to attempt Irish dancing on the high street. He would have appeared more dignified had he simply fallen on his face. Although none of the gang of young men had seen his aborted pratfall, their keen antennae were nevertheless attracted, and, as one, they turned in Pete’s direction.

But, between Pete and the young men, on the opposite side of the road, was a grocer’s shop, one of the several eastern European grocers on Cricklewood Broadway. He had walked past it roughly a thousand times in two years and never really noticed it. This time, on the sign above the window, next to the legend advertising cheap international phone calls, and below the name of the shop, Lubin, shone out a single word: POLSKI. He had never considered entering the shop, but he would have bet a week’s wages that Jerzy used it regularly. Maybe if he went in there, Pete might learn something about his murdered neighbour.

And so, having dressed cowardice in the Kevlar vest of virtue, he dashed through the traffic and into Lubin. A synthetic beep-boop rang as he opened the door. It was a standard mini-mart with shelves running down two walls, a couple of aisles with a shelved unit in the middle, and a chiller cabinet at the back wall. Next to the door, in front of the shop window, was a counter, and behind the counter was a range of cigarettes and alcohol, and a six foot three shopkeeper in his late thirties, with arms like tattooed hams. He was talking to a smaller customer – virtually all of his customers were smaller – in an Eastern European language of which Pete had no hope understanding. Pete had lost virtually all of his knowledge of French and Spanish in the summer after his GCSEs, and never regained it. The shopkeeper was the first thing that Pete noticed. The second was the smell – a mixture of paprika, sour milk, cumin, and musty linoleum, presumably from the floor covering, which must have appeared worn out from the moment it was laid. The third was the groceries themselves, labelled in a mix of Roman and Cyrillic script indecipherable to Pete. The only labels he recognised were on grey market imports of items widely available in the UK, cans of Coke with Romanian labels, bottles of Maggi liquid seasoning. This must have been what it was like for him as a small child, taken to the shops by his mother before he could read, looking at an array of cans and bottles and packets and having no idea what would be in them. For a moment he wondered about how well he would cope if forced to live in a country in which he did not speak the language. He would starve within a week, well before he could learn how to beg for bread and water, he was sure of it.

He walked down to the end of the shop, grabbed a plastic carton of milk from the chiller cabinet, and took it to the counter. The shopkeeper was still conversing with the customer in low voices. He broke off abruptly as Pete approached the counter. ‘Sixty pence’, the shopkeeper demanded. Pete handed over the warm pound coin he had kept in his hand, and the shopkeeper gave him his change without a word. Pete stepped away from the counter, as the two men turned from him and started talking again sotto voce. He pulled the door open, the beep-boop ringing again through the shop, and saw the group of young men walking down the other side of the road. Lace, remembered Pete, conveniently, and he stepped backwards into the aisle between the shelves which led to the door. He crouched and started to fasten his shoe.

The shopkeeper and customer immediately became louder and more animated. Pete could hear every word from his unintentional hiding place, and understood none of them, apart from two words which they repeated several times. ‘Jerzy Gruszka’. His heart pounded. What did they know? What were they saying? How long could he crouch there legitimately while tying his lace?

Beep-boop. Another customer – a middle-aged woman wearing bunny slippers – entered the shop and jostled past Pete as she reached for some pickles. His balance was compromised, and he toppled forward, face first, sending the milk carton skidding across the linoleum. He yelped, before his hand slapped the floor with a clap. The shopkeeper and his interlocutor halted their conversation about Jerzy Gruszka and stared at Pete, as he scrambled to his feet, grabbed his milk, and flung himself out of the shop with a final beep-boop.

Idiot, he thought, as he came to rest. They knew Jerzy, they were talking about Jerzy, and they clearly knew who Pete was. He should have just stood up and had a conversation with them. He could have asked them… God, what could he have asked them? ‘Any idea, apropos of nothing, what “Two packs. Score within” might mean?’ Besides, that shopkeeper could have ripped his arm off, and used the wet end to mop the lino, which, quite frankly, would not have made it look any worse.

Pete crossed the road and was about to walk home, when he heard another beep-boop over the traffic. He turned back and saw the customer who had been speaking to the shopkeeper leaving Lubin. This was a second chance. What was he going to say to him? It did not matter. He should catch him first and worry about that afterwards.

He crossed back over the road, but was delayed by a cyclist with a laissez-faire attitude to traffic lights, and the customer had made a lot of ground for a man with short legs. Pete scurried after him, gradually catching up as the customer turned down one of the side roads off Broadway.

Some of the lampposts in the road were broken, and the others were struggling to bear the burden. Pete was about 15 feet behind the man from the shop. ‘Oi, mate,’ Pete called out. The little man looked over his shoulder and started to run. ‘No, wait!’ Pete could barely believe it. The Lubin customer clearly thought he was a mugger. He started to run after him. ‘No, really, mate! Hang on!’ What would make him stop? What would make Pete stop?

‘You’ve dropped some money!’

The Lubin customer slowed to a stop and panted hard. Pete caught up and stepped into the light of the nearest lamppost, his face suddenly visible. ‘Sorry, mate, I had to get you to stop. I need a…’

‘Get away from me! Don’t kill me! Please, don’t kill me!’ The man was pressed against a hedge wall.

‘What? No, I’m not going to… What?!’

The man had tears in his eyes, brimming. He was terrified. So this was what it was like to intimidate somebody.

‘I didn’t kill Jerzy,’ said Pete. ‘He was like that when I found him. Honest.’

The customer did not seem entirely reassured.

‘Honest, I’m sorry for spooking you. I just wanted to ask you a question about Jerzy. Look! See!’ He held his hands up, the carton of milk hooked around his index finger. ‘It’s just milk.’

‘What… What do you want to know?’ The customer had a heavy Polish accent.

Now Pete had cornered his prey, he had no idea what to do with him. He was like a dog who had chased after a car and somehow caught it.

‘Yeah, a question, erm…’ And then he had one of his thurible moments. ‘Do you know when the funeral is?’

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