The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 6

Not Dinner

It was three weeks after Jerzy Gruszka was killed before the coroner released his body, and another four days before his funeral could take place. The pathologist’s report made it clear that Gruszka had been subject to a sustained and vicious knife attack, suffering 17 stab wounds from a serrated blade, including one to his left lung from behind, and several to his arms, suggesting he had turned and tried to defend himself, and had died owing to blood loss and multiple organ failure. It also noted other injuries, including a contusion to his genitals, suggesting his assailant had kicked him sharply, a bruise on his forehead, and a broken and bruised nose, as if he had been hit by a hard object. On receipt of the report, and of evidence from the scientific support team which had attended the scene, the coroner recorded a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’, solely because she was not allowed to record a verdict of ‘Oh, take a fucking wild guess, shit-for-brains’.

In the meantime, police had issued an appeal for witnesses who might have seen a ‘white or Mediterranean-looking man in his early to mid-twenties, between 5ft 7ins and 5ft 10ins, of slim build, and wearing a hooded top’ leaving the scene.

It was the night before the funeral, and Peter Brophy had walked past roughly a dozen white or Mediterranean-looking men in their early to mid-twenties, between 5ft 7ins and 5ft 10ins, of slim build, and wearing hooded tops between Cricklewood Station and Croft Road. It appeared to Pete that the police had something of a task on their hands and only the vaguest of leads. But what they did have was enough for them to release a man, presumably known to the victim, who was at the scene, soaked in blood, and carrying a pair of bloodied scissors, the day after the murder. They must have something more than they are saying, he thought, still – almost sweetly – convinced that the same people who had left him in a hotel for three days, because they did not understand how phone numbers worked, knew what they were doing.

He paused before opening the front door, and stepped inside. His pigeon hole was full of the usual misdirected junk mail and a letter from the council informing him of a planning application about which he would worry when he had less time, and he absolutely could not be bothered to take any of it up to his flat. But there was a letter offering Mr J. Gruszka a credit card deal at 24.4% APR on the top of the discarded pile. Pete thought for a moment and then took it. He then flicked through the rest. There were five more envelopes addressed to Jerzy distributed through the pile, and he took them all up to his flat. He flicked the kettle on, kicked off his shoes, and settled down on the sofa to read. Apart from two more credit card offers, a mail-out from Homebase, and competing late suggestions that the deceased Pole sign up to either satellite or cable television, the junk mail Jerzy regularly received offered no clue to his life.

Pete boiled the kettle again and made a cup of tea. He scoured the cupboards looking for inspiration for his dinner. God, when did he start calling it ‘dinner’? He had lived in London too long; he would be calling it ‘supper’ next and then he would be lost forever. He admitted defeat and pulled a packet of spaghetti out of the cupboard. He put a pan of salted water on to boil and opened the fridge. He creased his nose looking at a box of eggs with a use-by date in one week and took them out, along with a block of Parmesan, and a packet of streaky bacon. He heated up the frying pan and dropped the wrong amount of pasta into the ferociously bubbling brine. Cooking was one of the few things Pete could do with any confidence. He was not an exceptional cook, but he was fluent. And it relaxed him in a way it never relaxed his mother, cooking the tea at the end of a long day for his father and Our Gerry and Our Amanda and Our Becky. Besides, he had to look after himself, did he not? Nobody else did.

Pete snipped some bacon into the frying pan, and, as it began to catch and sizzle, he had a pang of vegetable guilt. He took a bag of spinach from the fridge and blanched a couple of handfuls in a third pan. God, Pete thought, how many pans am I using? He refreshed the spinach in cold water and squeezed the moisture out. His spaghetti carbonara was going dangerously off-piste. This was what would have passed for excitement in the Brophy household up to three weeks ago. He threw the spinach in the frying pan, anointing it with the crisped bacon’s fat, and stirred it. This would work, surely? Spinach goes with eggs and cheese, bacon goes with spinach, eggs, and cheese. It was not as if any actual Italians were watching to disapprove.

He broke two eggs into a bowl, grated Parmesan into the eggs, and whisked the sauce, adding ‘abundant pepper’, as he had been taught by Antonio Carluccio himself, through the medium of a YouTube video. ‘Abundant pepper’. Pete loved that. Carluccio used the English language with the zeal of the convert, finding words like a surveyor finds the cracks you never notice. He dropped the spaghetti into the bacon and spinach and took it off the heat, then he poured the egg sauce into the pasta, stirring so that every strand was coated without catching.

Pete emptied the pan into a shallow bowl, gave the spaghetti another dusting of Parmesan and pepper, and took it through to his dining table. He twirled a fork in the pasta, pulled out too much, and took his first taste. It was all right. He had made something new and it was not completely terrible. What should he call it? There’s plenty of iron in spinach, spaghetti carbonara, iron with carbon is pig iron. Pig Iron Spaghetti! And there was bacon in it too. It was written in the stars! He was so pleased with himself he forgot for a moment that he lived alone and had nobody to tell. And then he remembered that he was sitting there, on his own, as usual, with nobody to tell him what a nice meal he had made.

So he switched the television on, in order to hear another person’s voice, and sat down again to eat his dinner.

No, tea, not dinner.

***

In the end, Pete took the whole day off for Jerzy Gruszka’s funeral. It was a struggle because it was short notice, and, y’know, Pete, it’s not like you were related or anything. But Pete explained that it would really help him with his post-traumatic stress disorder – even though, as far as he could tell, he had no post-traumatic stress disorder apart from the nightmares – and neither of the Tobys wanted to take the risk of a tribunal somewhere along the way. He stood in front of the wardrobe and took out his new dark grey suit, still with the labels attached.

He snipped every label from the suit and placed them in the pile made from the packaging of his new white shirt, pieces of cardboard and clear plastic, and crepe paper, and clips, and all of which somehow seemed to have more volume than the actual garment. He dressed quickly, and stepped into his flat’s tiny hallway, adjusting the knot of his black tie in front of the mirror so that it was just so. If he was going to gatecrash a funeral then at least he was going to look respectful. Then he pinned a black ribbon to his lapel. This was a Polish funeral and that was what mourners did at Polish funerals. It said so on the internet.

It was a 10-minute walk to St Agnes’s and the putty October sky somehow held back the rain that Friday morning until Pete arrived at the church. The smell hit him first, the years of incense which had patinated the very air of the place, and he was back, suddenly back, in Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception. All Catholic churches are different and all are the same. Even the stoup holding the holy water was in the same place at the entrance, and before he could stop his hand it had dipped itself in and made the sign of the cross on his head and chest. Muscle memory or something more? Pete did not know. All he knew was that it was not by choice. Not any more.

He slipped into a pew near the back and looked up towards the altar. A pair of trestles in front of the sanctuary awaited Jerzy’s coffin, and nestled near the trestles, around the front rows, a coterie of little old women were reciting the rosary, a low rumble echoing off the exposed brickwork. Pete tried to hear the words, running the Hail Mary through his head.

Then a rustle, as the purple-robed parish priest swept down the aisle, followed by an elderly thurifer. A tinny bell rang and the organist began to play. Pete looked over his shoulder towards the entrance. The rain was tearing down now, bouncing off the coffin which the priest had greeted at the threshold. The priest cast holy water over Jerzy’s coffin, which mixed with the rain rolling off it. Did that water down the holiness, wondered Pete, or did the rain itself become holy? All he knew is that sometime, somewhere, a Catholic bishop would have worked out the answer to that, and it would have been made official doctrine.

The priest turned, and he and the thurifer led the coffin into the church, as the organist began The Lord’s My Shepherd. Kuba, the customer from Lubin’s mini mart, was one of the coffin bearers, and gave Pete a hint of a nod. He was joined by two other men of similar height, and tattooed six-foot-three Lubin the shopkeeper himself. The effect, Pete thought, was that of a coffee table which had lost one of its legs, and had it replaced with one from a dining table, and he had to hold in a giggle. Behind the coffin were the mourners, pouring into the centre aisle, drenched black figures like seals filling up the church. Pete looked to see if Donna was there, but he could not see her. He’d blown it, hadn’t he? Two middle-aged women sat on the same pew as Pete. Across the aisle a group of three men sat together. They were dressed entirely in black, yet looked entirely out of place. Perhaps it was the piercings, and the spider web tattoo one of them had on his neck. Pete looked up the aisle at the coffin, slowly advancing towards the trestles. Lubin the shopkeeper was doing his best to compensate for his height, but had bent his legs in such a way that he looked like a drunken orangutan. It was too much for Pete, and the giggles broke. He covered his mouth with his hymn book, and he was horribly aware of the sour faces of the two women trained upon him. He turned the laughter into a reasonable facsimile of a heaving sob, so much so that others in the church turned to look at him. This discreet gatecrashing of a funeral was not going quite as well as he had hoped. The woman next to him patted him kindly, and the bearers placed Jerzy’s coffin on the trestles, as the hymn faded.

‘The Lord be with you…’

‘And also with you,’ said Pete, as the rest of the congregation said, ‘And with your Spirit.’

‘We’re here today to say goodbye to our friend, Jerzy. I’d like to give a special welcome to members of Jerzy’s family, who have come from Gdansk…’

Pete stared down at his order of service, already switching off. The liturgy had changed. It was not quite as he had remembered it. The constructions seemed clumsier, the rhythm of the words seemed wrong. You are not the Liturgy Critic of the Sunday Times, Brophy, he told himself.

He breathed in the incense. There was another smell in the air, like incense but not quite. Something familiar, that he could not quite grasp. A perfume, but not a perfume. What was it? He leant back on the bench and glanced across at the uncomfortable goths. That was it! Patchouli oil. He was so pleased that he had worked out what the smell was that he had to pretend he was crying again to hide his delight. And then, when he took the handkerchief the woman by his side had given him away from his face, he looked across the aisle and saw her.

It was the woman from the photographs in the police station, the woman with the chipped tooth.

His leg started to jiggle, as it always did when he was keyed up. If anybody knew Jerzy Gruszka, the real Jerzy Gruszka, it was she. His foot was rattling the knee rest. He had to calm down, or people would start looking again. Concentrate.

The priest had begun his sermon. He spoke about Jerzy, his simple faith, how he had taken the collection on Sundays, his friends in the Polish community, his Dungeons & Dragons group – the goths squirmed as the eyes of the mourners fell upon them – and his work colleagues. Pete kept stealing glances at the woman with the chipped tooth to make sure she was still there.

But as the eulogy went on, Pete was drawn more and more into Jerzy’s life. Look at how many people are here, he thought. Gruszka had only lived in Britain for six years, but he had roots and flowerings. Pete had been in London for more than twice as long, and if he died tomorrow who could he count upon to come to his funeral? Alice, certainly. And Si, of course, because Alice would make him come. Orlando, maybe. But who else? Nobody. He had not even changed his next-of-kin at the GP’s surgery after Dad. Poor Dad.

He drifted into scenarios. What would he say to the woman? Would she understand Jerzy’s message? Could she even be trusted? In a film she would gain his confidence, wouldn’t she? And then she’d double-cross him because she was working for the Russians, but she would redeem herself just before she was shot dead by the number one henchman. And then he would have to stop the Mr Big behind the whole operation, and why was everybody standing up…?

It was time for Holy Communion. The congregation of mourners was shuffling into the centre aisle and slowly making its way up towards the sanctuary, two queues trying their best not to knock over the coffin which sat between them, just by the priest, who was distributing the actual Body of Jesus, in the form of wafers, just in front of the actual Body of Jerzy, in the form of a gradually decomposing corpse.

The two women next to Pete stood up, and the expressions on their faces made it clear that they expected him to join them. Reluctantly, he struggled to his feet. The woman with the chipped tooth was still sitting in her seat. He would grab her afterwards. Well, not grab her, exactly, but…

He was slowly walking up the aisle. He knew this was wrong. Only true believers were allowed to do this, adherents of the One True Faith, passed down by Saints Peter and Paul and all the martyrs, and believers in the doctrine of transubstantiation, by which bread and wine became not just symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but his actual body and blood. And Pete was very much not one of them, not any more. He had cast aside God and Jesus and Mary and all the Holy Saints once and for all after the choir loft incident as a crutch for those who lacked the imagination to contemplate the infinity of space and time and the moral fibre to do the right thing without the fear of Hellfire. There was no God. He knew it inside, just as simply as once he had known there was a God. So why did this feel wrong? Why was he so afraid of the anger of a God who did not exist?

He stood in front of the parish priest. The priest raised a single wafer, about the size of a watch face, from the chalice. ‘The Body of Christ,’ the priest stated.

‘Amen,’ lied Pete, and the priest placed the wafer onto his tongue.

He turned away from the priest and slowly walked back, past Jerzy’s coffin, trying not to think of the blood. He allowed the wafer to dissolve on his tongue, as he had been taught. ‘You do not chew the Body of Christ like a toffee,’ Father O’Driscoll had told the seven-year-olds in Pete’s class at Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception RC Primary. Even then, Pete had wondered what difference it made, but he did it anyway. Catholicism in microcosm, Pete thought. The two women were back at the pew, and, rather than moving along the bench to accommodate him, waited beside it so that he could sit on the inside.

The woman with the chipped tooth was still there, he noted with relief. In five minutes he could be talking to her and maybe he could have some closure. Maybe he could bury Jerzy too on the day of his funeral. The recessional hymn began, Witaj Królowo, as the lop-sided coffin slowly left the church, guided by the priest and elderly thurifer.

The mourners filed out behind Jerzy’s mortal remains. Through the jumble of black-clad bodies, he could see the woman stand up and leave. He made to follow her, but the two women sitting next to him were fussing tortuously with hymn books and wet umbrellas, and it was not as if he could just climb over them. And by the time he emerged into the filthy rain, there was no sign of the woman.

Kuba approached him, carrying an umbrella. ‘You’ll join us, yes.’ It was not a question. He nodded and followed the Pole to a taxi. He clambered in past Lubin the shopkeeper, and one of the other pallbearers, and the taxi sloshed on through the rain-greyed streets towards Islington Cemetery as the three other men spoke sombrely in Polish.

The woman was not at the graveside when the funeral party arrived, and nor was she in the community centre for the wake. She had vanished, and Pete had no idea where to find her. He stood, disconsolate, in the corner of the hall, sipping a cup of barely hot tea, his dark grey suit dripping and blackened by the rain, as conversations in Polish went on all around him. Across the room stood the three goths, each of them wondering when it would be polite to leave. Pete joined them.

‘Hello, I’m Pete. How did you know Jerzy?’

‘Oh, thank fuck, mate,’ said one of the goths, ‘Do you have any idea what’s going on?’

‘Dunno,’ said Pete. ‘They just gave me this cup of tea. Are you the, er, the Dungeons & Dragons lot?’

‘Yeah, I wonder what gave that away,’ said the goth. ‘I’m Dom, this is Thomas, and this is Tom.’

‘That must be confusing,’ said Pete.

‘Yeah, that’s why I’ve got this tattoo’, said Tom, the man with the spider-web tattoo. ‘So I know which one is me.’

Pete was not entirely sure he was joking. ‘God, I used to play D&D when I was a kid’, he said, feeling the goths bristle. ‘Did you play round at Jerzy’s?’

‘Yeah, he was the Dungeon Master. We’d go round every Wednesday night, play a bit, watch Realm Of The Sword, play some music. Jerzy was into all that Kraftwerky industrial shit, wasn’t he, Thomas?’

Thomas nodded.

‘Yeah, I know,’ said Pete, scanning the room in the hope that the chipped-tooth woman would just walk in.

‘How did you know him?’

‘I live in the flat above him,’ said Pete.

‘Fuck! You’re the one who found him,’ said Tom, and Pete could not help feeling there was a hint of jealousy in his voice.

‘Yeah.’

‘Fuck, that must have been shit.’

‘Well, yeah.’

They had run out of things to say. At least in the taxi Pete could not be expected to join in the conversation. Pete cast around wildly. ‘So, Realm Of The Sword…? DVD, or…?’

‘What?’

‘No, it’s just, he didn’t have Sky or cable, did he?’ This was the one fact Pete had discovered about Jerzy independently, and, by the God who did not exist, he was going to use it.

The goths laughed, sneered, almost. Dom said, ‘You do know he worked in IT?’

‘Oh,’ said Pete.

‘Yeah, he knew where to look, if you know what I mean?’

Pete sort of knew what he meant.

‘Fuck, no, he was good,’ said Tom with the spider-web tattoo. ‘He could get episodes before they’d even been shown in the States.’

‘How did he do that?’

Dom sniffed. ‘Like I said, he knew where to look.’

Kuba approached Pete carefully, like a man who had been taught to be wary of goths. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘Jerzy’s mother wants to talk with you.’ Pete followed him over to the corner, where a small elderly woman in black was surrounded by mourners.

Pete had encountered women like her before – mothers who had lost children. He remembered Mary McGovern, who became a shadow after Shaun died, shuffling from place to place, and just existing, and whose smile was another muscle memory, never real. And how much worse must it be for Mrs Gruszka? Somebody had chosen – actually chosen – to end her son’s life, the life of her beautiful little boy who had slept in her arms and whose knee she had bandaged and who loved her long before he even knew what love was. She was like a campfire, radiating grief.

She spoke to Pete in Polish and pointed at the black ribbon on his jacket. Kuba translated. ‘She says you must have been close to Jerzy.’

Pete blinked. ‘Yes, well, I lived in the flat above him.’

Kuba spoke to Mrs Gruszka, and she nodded. That seemed to have been enough. She looked like the grandmother in the photograph DI Holloway had shown him. ‘She wants to know if he suffered in the end.’

‘Oh, God,’ Pete said, ‘Um, I mean obviously he was stabbed, and then I… I mean, you know, I mean he suffered then, I suppose. But when he died he was quite peaceful. I mean it took me a second to realise he’d died, with the blood and everything… Erm.’

Kuba sighed. ‘Nie’, he said to Mrs Gruszka.

She replied to Kuba, and there was a tear rolling down her cheek. Kuba turned to Pete. ‘She wants to know… What did Jerzy say before he died?’

Pete gulped. He looked into Mrs Gruszka’s dark eyes and drank in her grief. She was empty, scooped out. How could he deprive her of her son’s last words, even if what they meant were terrible? A last scrap of something new about her little boy? And in any case, maybe it was a message. Maybe it was a message to be delivered to her. He had to do it.

‘Kuba, can we have some, y’know, some privacy?’

Kuba ushered the surrounding relatives away.

‘I haven’t told anybody this, not even the police,’ said Pete, when Kuba came back. ‘But he did say something to me when he died.’

Kuba translated as Pete spoke. Mrs Gruszka put a hand to her chest.

‘It must have been important. He said it twice.’

Mrs Gruszka leant forward.

‘He said… “Two packs. Score within”.’

Mrs Gruszka’s eyes widened with shock and revulsion, and Pete felt his stomach drop. He did not notice Kuba balling his fist.

‘You piece of SHIT,’ said Kuba, and he punched Pete in the face, flooring him. Kuba hauled him to his feet. ‘Get out, you fucking bastard! Get out,’ cried the Pole and he called across to Lubin the shopkeeper. Pete was groggy, shaken. Lubin tore across the room. He grabbed Pete and dragged him to the exit, before throwing him out.

Pete landed on his hands and knees, scraping them on the pavement. What had he said? What had he said? Slowly he staggered to his feet, his nose bleeding, dripping into the rain-soaked concrete slabs. And then he felt a hand on his shoulder. Was Lubin about to punch him again?

If only. It was Detective Inspector Holloway.

‘Would you mind explaining how somebody who told me under caution that he didn’t know Jerzy Gruszka from Adam is at his wake? No? Well, maybe we can do it down at the station.’

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