Two Rings On The Kitchen Table
‘So what happened then?’ asked Alice. ‘Hang on, I think I’ve got it,’ said Pete. He was lying on the floor, his head against the skirting board, pushing a wooden spoon up behind the radiator. ‘Why don’t they make wire coat hangers any more?’
‘Ooh, wait a minute, I think I’ve got one,’ said Alice, and she raced off. Pete heard her feet padding along the hallway and then thudding on the stairs.
Daisy stood over Pete, a fat tear rolling off her chin. ‘It’s all right, Daisypoos. We’ll get her out in a minute,’ he said. Daisy did not look sure. ‘Millie, honestly, the number of times I’ve told you not to walk along radiators,’ he said, addressing the mini doll stuck just out of reach. ‘What?! You can’t say that! No, Daisy does not have a funny face. Oh, Daisypoos, isn’t she rude?!’
Daisy began to giggle. ‘Serves you right to get stuck behind the radiator, you cheeky monkey.’ The giggle turned into helpless laughter. ‘Mummy, Pete called Millie a cheeky monkey!’
‘Did he, darling? He’s funny, Pete, isn’t he? Cheeky monkey. It’s like being in the presence of Groucho Marx.’
‘It’s not my fault I’m effortlessly charming,’ said Pete. ‘Did you get the coat hanger?’
‘No’, said Alice. ‘I’ve got a plastic one. Will that do?’
‘Yeah, just melt it on the hob and then pour it into a hook-shaped mould.’
‘Yeah, your charm basically only works on women up to the age of six, doesn’t it? Would you like me to give you another black eye, just to match?’
Pete struggled to his feet. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got any chopsticks? I need, um, eight?’
Alice pulled the chopsticks out of a drawer. ‘And Sellotape,’ Pete added. Alice laid the chopsticks in front of him. He paired up the chopsticks and taped the pairs together two abreast. Then he took two pairs and taped them lengthways, making them double length. He repeated the process with the other pairs, ending up with two double-length, double-thick chopsticks.
‘See these, Daisypoos? You know the giant in Jack And The Beanstalk? This is how big his chopsticks are.’
Daisy smiled, unconvinced. Pete took them over to the radiator, and used them as tweezers to pull out Millie, a rag doll of a size almost specifically designed to make it easy to lose.
‘There you go.’ Pete handed the dusty doll to Daisy.
‘What do we say?’ asked Alice, choosing number 43 from the Mother’s Hymnbook.
‘Thank you’, sang Daisy, and she ran off to lose Millie somewhere else in the house.
Alice and Pete returned to the kitchen table and their mugs. Pete took a sip of his tea, which tasted like all of Alice’s cups of tea, in that it was clearly made by somebody who did not drink tea. ‘That was actually quite clever,’ Alice said. ‘Ingenious, even. Mind you, those chopsticks are fucked now.’
‘Hey! Did I tell you I finally worked out how to fill a kettle in a…?’
‘Yes. Twice. Now tell me what happened next.’
Pete rubbed the dressing on his nose. He ached to scratch underneath. ‘OK, so he punched me, and then the big fella picked me up and threw me out, and then…’
‘Yeah, but why did he punch you? Apart from the usual reasons. What did you say?’
‘I was trying to console the mother,’ said Pete. ‘Not sure what I said.’ In a way he was telling the truth. ‘All I know is the next thing I’m on the pavement, and one of the Feds is asking me to accompany him to the station.’
‘The Feds, is it? I suppose if you have been arrested twice in a month…’
‘Once! I was arrested once. The second time I went voluntarily…’
Pete sat in the same interview room in which he had been deposited on his previous visit to Kilburn Police Station. One day, he thought, one day he would like to turn up at a police station and not be covered in blood. His nose had bled copiously onto his new white shirt. And the strip lighting was not exactly helping his headache. He felt his face. His left eye socket was swollen, and he imagined the bruise was already forming. His nose did not appear to be broken, though, and he clung to that piece of good news like a man who had found trousers to fit him in the January sales.
DI Holloway walked in, with the young Asian officer Pete had seen last time, whose arrival had heralded his release. They were followed by Roseman the solicitor again, wearing the same suit as on the previous occasion, a bold pinstripe, bordering on deckchair. Roseman sat next to Pete, while the two officers sat opposite. DI Holloway switched on the tape, cautioned Pete, and introduced Detective Constable Mariam Khan for the benefit of Pete and the tape, but mostly the tape.
‘Firstly,’ DI Holloway said, ‘do you wish to make a complaint?’
‘What? You mean about you phoning my flat to tell me I could come back to my flat?’
Roseman’s eyebrows shot up. ‘They didn’t?!’
‘Yeah! I know! Three hundred and sixty quid to live half a…’
‘No, Mr Brophy.’ DI Holloway was suppressing dangerous levels of rage. ‘When I met you outside West Hampstead Community Centre you had evidently been assaulted. Do you wish to press charges?’
Pete looked across at DC Khan to see if she could give him a clue, but her face was unreadable.
‘No,’ said Pete. ‘It’s all right.’
‘I see,’ said DI Holloway. ‘So can we take from this you feel you somehow had it coming?’
‘Well, no, but…’
‘So I have to ask, given that you stated, under caution, that you did not know Jerzy Gruszka, what you were doing at his wake. Only family and close friends were at that wake. Why were you invited, seeing as you didn’t know the man?’
‘Well I wasn’t exactly invited…’
‘You gatecrashed a funeral?’ asked DC Khan, her poker face slipping for a moment.
‘No!’ said Pete. ‘I just went to the requiem Mass. Anybody can go to a requiem. And afterwards Kuba asked me if I’d like to go to the burial and the wake.’
‘Kuba?’ said DI Holloway.
‘Yeah, I don’t know his surname, sorry.’
‘And he will confirm this, will he?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Pete. ‘He’s the one who punched me.’
Roseman had to look the other way. ‘So why don’t you tell us why you went to the requiem of a man you didn’t know?’ asked DI Holloway.
‘Well, I felt bad that I didn’t know him when I found him, and that I couldn’t help him. And I just wanted to make up for it, in a way. Pay my respects, maybe get a bit of closure, y’know? That’s it, really.’ It rolled off his tongue; this justification for attending the funeral had been repeated so many times in the office, and in conversations with Alice, that it did not feel like a lie. After all, there was enough truth in it to camouflage the lie. It was a sort of transubstantiation – the substance of a lie had taken on the accidents of truth.
‘OK, so this… Kuba invited you to a wake and then punched you in the face?’ asked DC Khan. ‘Why didn’t he just punch you at the requiem?’
Pete looked at DI Holloway. He could tell Holloway was thinking the same thing.
‘Obviously other stuff happened in the meantime,’ said Pete. ‘I was trying to console Mr Gruszka’s mother, and whatever I said must have got lost in translation, and it upset them. I have no idea why. You know what funerals are like.’
DI Holloway did not know what funerals were like, because every wake he had experienced in his adult life had been attended by at least one police officer, and consequently everybody was on their best behaviour.
Roseman spoke up. ‘Look, are you planning to charge my client with anything? It’s quite clear he requires some medical attention.’
Holloway and Khan exchanged a short glance. ‘Interview concluded at 3.16pm,’ said DI Holloway.
‘Is that it?’ asked Pete.
‘Thank you for your cooperation,’ said DC Khan. The officers stood up. And Pete had another one of his thurible moments.
‘Hang on a sec, I want to ask you a question,’ said Pete. Roseman sighed.
‘Go on,’ said DI Holloway. ‘I’m all ears.’
‘You were totally convinced it was me last time, and I didn’t blame you at all. Your DC comes in, and you let me go straight away. What changed?’
DC Khan faced DI Holloway and shrugged her shoulders.
DI Holloway pondered for a moment. Then he turned and sat down again. ‘You,’ he said to Roseman. ‘Schtum.’ He addressed Pete. ‘We received CCTV footage of another suspect following Mr Gruszka to your house. He was then picked up leaving the area a few minutes before you called for an ambulance.’
‘This is the guy who was in the paper, the appeal you put out?’
DI Holloway nodded.
‘Well, why haven’t you put the CCTV pictures out?’
‘For operational reasons.’
‘But people might recognise him,’ Pete said. ‘Can I see it? I might have seen him around, because, y’know, that description…’
‘Well, for a start, laddie, according to you, you didn’t even recognise the man who lived in the flat below you,’ said DI Holloway.
‘Well, yeah… but I might recognise this man. Go on.’
‘For operational reasons. Now shall we end this, or would you like me to arrest you for wasting police time?’
Pete looked at Roseman, who shook his head, and DI Holloway and DC Khan exited, leaving the door open.
‘I just don’t get it,’ Pete said, as Roseman packed away his briefcase. ‘I could help them find this man.’
‘Well, identification mustn’t be an issue,’ said Roseman.
‘They know who did it?!’
Roseman sniffed. ‘Only explanation.’
‘That’s good, then, isn’t it?’
‘How do you mean?’ asked Pete, taking a sip of Alice’s unsympathetic tea, the tannins totally out of balance with the milk. Why could nobody make tea like Pete?
‘Well, they’re on to him. Presumably it’s just a matter of time till they arrest him. And you’ve been to the funeral. OK, it didn’t go brilliantly, but you’ve done it now, haven’t you?’
‘Got that “closure” you were after.’ Only the mug of coffee in Alice’s right hand prevented her from emphasising the ‘closure’ with air quotes.
‘I suppose,’ said Pete, not supposing. ‘It’s just…’
‘Oh, God,’ said Alice.
‘I wish I’d been able to speak to that woman.’
‘You need an actual girlfriend, mate,’ said Alice. ‘You can’t go around chasing after dead people’s girlfriends. It’s not healthy.’
‘I just want to know more about him,’ said Pete. ‘You know?’
‘Not really,’ said Alice.
‘She’s probably back in Poland now anyway,’ said Pete, and he took another swig of tea. He reckoned he had another four to go before he could legitimately put it down on the kitchen table and leave it.
‘I doubt it,’ said Alice. ‘You don’t fly over from Poland for an hour-long service, and then not go to the reception afterwards.’
‘Do you reckon? Do you think she’s still here?!’ said Pete.
‘God, sometimes I need to learn to keep this shut, don’t I? What’s wrong with your tea?’
‘Nothing! Why do you say I need a girlfriend?’
‘Look at you, Pete. You’re obsessed with a dead man you never met, you’ve got a black eye, you’ve been arrested twice, and you’ve told me about that fucking hotel kettle three times. You’re turning in on yourself. You need someone.’
‘You said I’d only told you about the kettle twice.’
‘I know,’ said Pete. ‘It’s just… I don’t meet anybody, y’know? The last new woman I spoke to was my neighbour, and she’s…’
‘Ooh, is she nice?’
‘Yeah, she’s… It’s just, it’s a bit awkward…’
‘We had a conversation about Jerzy, and then one thing led to another, and… I mean, we didn’t. But we nearly did… and…’
‘So she obviously fancies you. Ask her out.’
‘Seriously, do it properly. Ask her out,’ said Alice. ‘It’s been a long time since Sara. Time to move on. You’re 34, for fuck’s sake.’
‘She might not like me.’
‘Yeah, well, maybe she won’t have any sense and you’ll get lucky. Just ask…’
‘Mummy!’ cried Daisy from upstairs.
‘For fuck’s sake,’ said Alice, ‘was I sitting down for four whole minutes? Coming, darling! Give me that.’ She took the half-emptied mug from Pete’s hand and put it and her own in the sink, and then she ran through the hall and up the stairs.
Pete stared at the kitchen table, at the two rings left by the mugs. They were next to each other, but not touching, like a faulty Venn diagram. The one on the left represented everything Pete knew about Jerzy Gruszka’s life, and the one on the right was everything he knew about Jerzy Gruszka’s death, and he just could not get those two rings to intersect.
Maybe Alice was right. It was time to let it go. He had passed on Jerzy’s last words and he had suffered for it. Maybe this whole business was the shock he needed to get on with his life. He laughed. What a comfort that would have been to Jerzy, as he bled to death, to know that his murder had not been in vain. ‘Oh, good,’ he would have thought, ‘I am dying in agony, but at least it might make this complete knobhead, who’s just kicked me in the balls, actually have sex with another person again.’ For fuck’s sake, maybe he should just ask Donna…
‘Pete!’ Alice interrupted him with a shout. ‘I’m in the bathroom. Can you bring me those chopsticks?’