The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 8

Elevenses

This is a typical day.

0700
Outkast’s Hey Ya bounces around the room from a vibrating mobile phone. This is not what he needs right now, thinks Peter Brophy, who had woken at 0414, and dozed until 0651, when he finally achieved deep and restful sleep. He is wrong. It is exactly what he needs.

0703
Outkast’s Hey Ya bounces around the room from a vibrating mobile phone.

0705
Outkast’s Hey Ya bounces around the room from a vibrating mobile phone.

0710
Outkast’s Hey Ya bounces around the room from a vibrating mobile phone.

0715
Outkast’s Hey Ya bounces around the room from a vibrating mobile phone. Peter Brophy finally pushes a leg out of bed, feeling for the floor, as if he has forgotten how gravity works. He sits up, rubs the sharp crumbs away from his eyes, and takes a swig of the room-temperature stagnant water he had left on his bedside table the previous night. He winces. It is his first wince of the day. In a typical day he will wince many times more. This is a typical day.

0718
Pete’s kettle boils. He pours the water onto a teabag, adds the right amount of milk, and leaves it to brew in the mug.

0721
Pete flushes the toilet and curses immediately. The shower has been running while the water heats up and now the cold water is being diverted to the cistern.

If he climbs into the shower now, the searing jet will peel the skin from his body. He will have to wait, shivering, until the toilet has taken its fill.

0729
Pete fishes the teabag out of his mug with a spoon. It falls off and lands in the tea again, splashing over the worktop. A second attempt is successful, and he drops the bag into the bin. He wipes the worktop and takes a sip of his tea. The bag has been in too long. He winces a second time.

0734
Pete brushes his teeth over the bathroom basin. He tries never to look at his face in the mirror, but glimpses the yellowing halo around his eye. He winces for the third time, rinses, and spits.

0737
Pete descends the two flights of stairs from his flat to the hallway. Halfway down the second flight he sees Ms D. McKenzie stepping out from her flat for the first time since their ill-conceived clinch. As she closes the door she says, ‘Christ, what happened to you?’

‘I was hit by a Pole.’

‘What, did you just walk into it?’

‘You could say that,’ says Pete.

‘Speaking of Poles,’ says Donna, attempting to change the subject while unwittingly staying on it, ‘they finally buried Jerzy.’

‘Yeah, I know.’

‘Did you go?’

Pete nods and hopes she will not ask any more about it.

‘I couldn’t go. Work, y’know…’

Pete does know. ‘I told them I’d been traumatised, and they let me take time off.’

‘Oh, now I feel bad about not going,’ says Donna.

‘Sorry, I didn’t want to make you feel bad,’ says Pete. ‘I just felt somebody should be there.’

‘Oh, now I really feel bad.’

A silence muscles its way between them. For four and a half seconds neither one of them speaks.

‘I’d better…’ they say simultaneously while gesturing vaguely in the direction of Out There.

They emerge into the grey daylight and walk up Croft Road, next to each other, though not necessarily together. Pete breaks the awkward silence with an awkward question. ‘So, do you work?’

Donna looks at him as she walks along in her fuchsia business suit and shiny pumps. ‘No,’ she says, ‘I just like to make a special effort when I’m meeting the rest of the pissheads on Kilburn High Road and it’s my turn to bring the Buckfast.’

‘Sorry, I meant where do you work?’ says Pete, covering himself.

‘Camden.’

‘Oh,’ says Pete, deciding not to press the issue further.

They continue to walk along Croft Road for a few seconds. ‘And where do you work?’ asks Donna.

‘Near Soho,’ says Pete, trying his best not to show the relief in his face. ‘Well, Fitzrovia… Well, we’re supposed to call it “Noho”, but I can’t see…’

‘Oh, God, I hate that!’ Donna jumps in, as they turn onto Cricklewood Broadway. ‘What is wrong with Fitzrovia? It’s a perfectly good name.’

‘I know! That’s what I told them, but apparently it wasn’t leading edge enough for them. Or bleeding edge. I can never remember which one is best.’

‘Leading is better than bleeding, I reckon,’ says Donna, and for a moment they are both back in the hallway with Jerzy. Donna stops walking.

‘You all right?’ Pete asks.

‘Yeah, I’m just going in here,’ replies Donna, pointing at the door of the newsagent’s next to which she has halted.

Pete looks at the newsagent’s, with its signs for international phonecards and its fading advertising for newspapers, which have been redesigned three times since the posters were produced, and he wonders what he should do. Should he join Donna in the shop, or is this her way of ending their conversation? Should I stay or should I go? Shut up, Joe Strummer.

He makes his decision. ‘Right, well, I’ll… er,’ he says as he points up the road. Donna gives him a tiny wave and disappears into the shop, and Pete stomps up the road, furious with himself. You were bonding with her, he says. Yeah, right, he replies, bonding over the name of Fitzrovia, that’s nothing, that’s Post-It Note levels of bonding. Shut up, he tells himself, you’re a fucking idiot. You’re brave when you should be a coward, and a coward when you should be brave. This is your entire problem. Yeah, fair enough, he replies. Maybe I can pick up again at the station.

0755
The St Pancras train arrives on the platform at Cricklewood. At one end of the platform stands Peter Brophy. At the other end stands Donna McKenzie. They pretend not to have seen each other. Pete boards the train.

0821
Pete oozes onto the Metropolitan line at Kings Cross, part of a liquid mass of commuters. He is standing crammed between a woman somehow reading a hardback book and a man whose sweat smells like onion. It is like human Tetris. In his time he has had less intimate sex, he thinks. It has been a while. It has been so long he cannot remember which bit goes where. Why didn’t he bloody ask her out?

0830
Pete leaves Great Portland Street station, takes a Metro, and joins the bat people of London, a seemingly chaotic flock who somehow avoid bumping into each other against the odds. The flock thins out as he turns into Great Titchfield Street. The idea of a great titch – like a tall dwarf – stopped amusing him six years previously.

0836
Pete takes his pass card out of his wallet and presents it to the scanner set into the wall, just above the sign for Beta Bee Solutions, halfway down Great Titchfield Street. It features an abstract logo, in which the arcs of the Greek character ‘beta’ represent the wings of a bumble bee, according to the graphic design consultants Beta Bee Solutions engaged to produce the firm’s insignia for a six-figure sum. A buzzer sounds and Pete pulls open the door. He unenthusiastically makes his way up metal steps, which flex and vibrate a little too much for his liking, and walks in to the open plan chartreuse and orange ‘ideasphere’ of the London office of Beta Bee Solutions.

He drops his bag next to his desk, picks up his mug, and heads for the ‘javasphere’, or staff kitchen as it used to be known.

0844
Pete sits at his desk sipping tea while he waits for his computer to boot up.

0846
Pete sits at his desk sipping tea while he waits for his computer to boot up.

0848
Pete sits at his desk sipping tea while he waits for his computer to boot up.

0850
Pete begins the working day, staring at his computer as his colleague Orlando sits opposite him. Orlando looks like a pencil, long and thin, with an elaborate haircut, the specifications of which Pete could not imagine. ‘God, Pete, do NOT ask me about last night,’ begs Orlando. Pete acquiesces. It makes no difference.

‘I was in this gin bar in Seven Dials with Buckbeak and Jessica One… You remember Jessica One?’

‘Walks with a lollop?’ suggests Pete.

‘Nooo! That’s Lollopy Jessica… Hence the name. Ha ha ha! Jessica One is the one who took her Uggs to Morocco. She’s just MAD. Anyway…’

And Orlando launches into a rhapsody of bacchanalian excess involving something or other. Pete does not care. He continues staring at his screen and replying to an email from his fourth-most difficult client. Whenever the noise from Orlando stops, Pete merely says, ‘Crazy.’

He discovered a long time before that that single word, deployed whenever Orlando pauses for breath, works on all occasions as a simulation of engagement. Reassured of Pete’s attention, Orlando continues. It is not that Pete does not like Orlando. It is almost impossible not to like Orlando. He is unrelentingly positive and friendly and helpful. He would give you his last piece of Kit-Kat and look after your actual cat if you went on holiday. And yet not a day has gone by in the previous three years in which Pete has not thought the words, ‘Will you please just fucking shut up?’

‘Crazy,’ says Pete. But Orlando has stopped now. It still works, and Orlando is satisfied.

Why didn’t he bloody ask her out?

10.58
‘Ooh, Pete, it’s nearly that time,’ says Orlando.

‘What time is that?’ asks Pete.

‘Elevenses!’ sings Orlando, shaking his mug.

‘Is it my turn or yours?’ asks Pete.

‘Would I be this excited if it was my turn?’

Yes, thinks Pete. He picks up his mug, reaches across for Orlando’s, and pads across to the javasphere. She couldn’t wait to go in that shop, thinks Pete. She ignored you on the platform. You ignored her too, you idiot, thinks Pete. Mate, forget it, she’ll say no, and then you have to live in the same house for God knows how long. Milk, you need milk.

A couple of members of Pete’s team are already in the javasphere. They are both around 10 years younger than Pete, which, coincidentally, is about the age that Pete still believes himself to be in his head. They are having a great time until Pete appears and flicks on the kettle, and then they become more subdued. Pete pours Orlando’s coffee while he waits for the kettle to boil.

‘God, Shuv,’ says Nishat. ‘Did you see it?’

‘I was at Danny’s. No spoilers! I don’t want spoilers! Tell me what happened and I will end you,’ replies Siobhan.

‘Just one bit, please, just one tiny bit, where…’

‘I will stab you, I mean it,’ says Siobhan, and the words get caught in her throat as she realises in whose presence she is uttering them. Nishat’s eyes widen in horror.

Pete turns around. ‘Is this Realm Of The Sword?’ he asks.

‘Yeah,’ says Nishat, as she and Siobhan relax again. ‘Did you see it?’

‘I’ve only got Council Telly,’ says Pete. ‘Someone I knew said he could get the episodes before they were on telly in the States.’

‘Nah, he can’t do that, he’s messing with you,’ says Siobhan.

‘What, do they not release them online or something before they go on television?’

‘No, telly first,’ says Nishat.

‘Your mate must be some sort of ninja,’ says Siobhan.

Pete realises this is the first time he has thought about Jerzy since before 8am. How odd. And how did he get his hands on unbroadcast material?

The kettle clicks off.

1305
Pete sits at his desk munching a tuna and sweetcorn sandwich from Crusts, next door but one, while he reads over a report on the opening of CME Plastic Solutions’ new distribution plant in Castle Bromwich, and castigates himself for not going into that bloody newsagent’s. It is multi-tasking at its least impressive. Pete is responsible for the content of other businesses’ websites. He does not write any of it, he just checks that his small team of content providers, like Nishat and Siobhan, has written it, but he is the point of contact for the clients. Consequently he spends most of his day speaking enthusiastically about unenthusing subjects, like the opening of distribution plants and the restructuring of the Pagnall Products catering equipment supply chain, which leaves him with little appetite for enthusiasm outside work. When people ask Pete what he does for a living and he tells them they do not understand what he does and assume he works in IT, even though he works no more in IT than any other office worker who spends most of the day at a computer keyboard. He does not correct them. It is simpler that way.

1507
Pete has been in a meeting with his bosses Toby and Toby and the other managers for seven minutes. He knows it has been seven minutes because he has counted every second.

His mind drifts as the meeting moves onto a subject which does not affect his department at all, and he starts thinking about Jerzy the IT Ninja and how he could possibly have accessed those episodes. He assumes the three goths were telling the truth. They seemed quite proud, and it would be a strange thing to lie about at a funeral, wouldn’t it? Jerzy must have journeyed into the inner recesses of The Dark Web, that hilariously melodramatic description of the parts of the internet off the beaten track, where the virtual CCTV cameras do not point, which is a bit like calling the countryside ‘Dark Britain,’ isn’t it? Still, fair play to him. And…

‘Pete? Pete? Thoughts?’ asks one of the Tobys.

‘Crazy,’ says Pete, instinctively.

1733
Pete logs off from his computer and starts putting his things in his bag. One of the Tobys appears at his desk as Orlando zips past and out of the ideasphere. ‘Oh,’ says one of the Tobys, frowning at Pete’s screen. ‘Closing down.’

‘Did you need something?’ asks Pete, seeing the grim big picture immediately, but not the fine detail which will be painstakingly brushed in by the master, Toby.

‘Pagnall Prod overview.’

‘Yeah, you said you needed it Friday. Just got to dot the…’

‘Hmm,’ says one of the Tobys. ‘Really need it first thing tomorrow now. Could you just pull the last few bits together? Big help.’

This particular Toby is the maestro of the ‘could you just…?’ demand. The smaller he makes a task sound, the bigger it actually is. ‘No, Toby,’ Pete wants to say, ‘I can’t “just” do it. It’s a two-hour job and you’ve landed it on me three minutes after you stopped paying for my time.’

Pete wants to slump, but he cannot do a slump justice. He must appear professional, and so only his insides slump, peeling away from his interior walls. His back is ramrod straight, as if he were incensing the altar.

‘Yeah, no problem,’ says Pete.

‘Cool beans,’ says one of the Tobys, and off he goes in time to spoil somebody else’s evening. Pete waits for the computer to finish logging off so that he can log on again, switches it on, and takes his mug to the javasphere.

1741
Pete sits at his desk sipping tea while he waits for his computer to boot up.

1743
Pete sits at his desk sipping tea while he waits for his computer to boot up.

1745
Pete sits at his desk sipping tea while he waits for his computer to boot up.

1747
Pete starts work again.

1929
Pete emails the Pagnall Products overview to both of the Tobys, just to cover his back, and logs out of his computer.

2010
Pete emerges from Cricklewood station and aches his way towards Cricklewood Broadway, and along to Croft Road. It is dark and he is tired and God knows what he has in the fridge.

2021
Pete pauses briefly by his front door, as is typical now, and takes his key out of his pocket. It glints a little in the light from the lamppost. Just above him, on a branch of the pavement tree which extends almost as far as Jerzy’s window, a tortoiseshell cat watches him push the door open.

As he steps into the hallway, he feels a sharp stab of panic. For once it is not because of the events of the night of September 7. It is because Donna McKenzie is stepping out of her flat. ‘Hello,’ she says, ‘Late one?’

‘Early for me,’ says Pete. ‘Ah, you know how it is.’

‘I do,’ says Donna. She is wearing boots, and a black coat with a velvet collar, and it is not helping Pete find a way out of this conversational cul-de-sac. ‘Off out?’ he asks.

Donna dismisses the easy opportunity for sarcasm. ‘Nowhere special,’ she says. ‘Meeting some friends on Kilburn High Road.’

‘Oh! The winos?’ says Pete.

For a moment, Donna feels insulted, and then she remembers the morning’s conversation. ‘Ha!’ she says. ‘Actually, you’re not a million miles away.’

‘You should meet my mate Orlando.’

‘Is he good looking?’ she asks.

‘I suppose,’ says Pete. ‘I don’t think you’re his type, exactly.’

‘Always the way,’ mock-sighs Donna.

Another pause.

‘Oh, well,’ says Pete. ‘Have a nice time.’

He walks past her in the hallway, as his brain launches into a full-scale assault on itself. Ask her out, you idiot. She’ll say no. She might not. She’ll have a boyfriend. She hasn’t mentioned a boyfriend, have you ever seen one? This is the time, Peter Anthony Brophy, this is the time when you should be brave, the one time, this is not a thurible moment. You always think it’s not a thurible moment when it is a thurible moment.

He turns back. ‘Um, actually, erm, I was going to say…’

Donna turns again, expectant.

Oh, God, what do I say? I don’t know, I told you this was a terrible idea. Just say something, God!

‘…I was going to say, did you fancy going out at all on Saturday night? I don’t mean like a big scene or anything, I just mean…’

‘Sorry,’ says Donna. ‘I can’t. I’m busy. Thanks, though.’

I told you, you gobshite, look what you have done. This is going to be so bloody awkward. ‘Ah, well, never mind. I’ll just, um…’ says Pete, and he starts to walk up the stairs. Wincing.

‘I’m free Friday,’ says Donna. ‘If that’s any good…’

This is not a typical day.

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