The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 9

After Dinner

Help me, I don’t know what to wear
3.39pm

Where are u going
3.48pm

How do you type without punctuation
Isn’t it harder for you?
3.49pm

Do u want my help or not
3.52pm

Yes. Sorry. It’s a Thai place in Soho. I think
it might be a chain.
3.53pm

Classy. Wouldnt nandos let you book 🙂
4.02pm

Is that sarcasm? I can’t tell if that’s sarcasm.
4.03pm

2 late now. Right when are u meeting her
4.09pm

8.30.
4.09pm

Driving
4.12pm

. . .

Right home. Why are u meeting at 830
4.30pm

I thought it’d give me time to get home and change.
4.31pm

U live above her
4.32pm

I panicked.
4.32pm

OK charcoal suit and that blue shirt
4.33pm

The light one?
4.34pm

Yup and wear black shoes n belt. And no tie!!
4.36pm

Blue shirt is not an option. My Biro
leaked on it. Unless I keep my jacket on?
4.37pm

Get new shirt on ur way home
4.40pm

Same colour?
4.41pm

Same colour?
4.42pm

Alice? Same colour?!
4.45pm

Pete I am not your mother I am Daisys mother
and she needs her supper yes same colour
4.48pm

Light blue?
4.49pm

YES!!!!!!!!!!
5pm

***

In the event, Peter Brophy did not have enough time to go home. A visit to Pete’s desk at 5.34pm by one of the Tobys put an end to that faint hope. He rushed into Top Man on Oxford Street with minutes to spare and bought a blueish shirt intended for Pete’s head age, rather than his girth age. The best that Pete could say about it was that it was there and it was on a hanger – which meant it was not creased – and if he breathed in throughout the meal it would be all right. He changed in the toilets in Costa and had to leave his work shirt in the Top Man bag, which he then stuffed into an over-filled bin near Oxford Circus tube. A street preacher cried out certainties in the darkness as Pete disposed of a perfectly good shirt. It burned so much, but you can’t take a Top Man bag with a sweaty shirt inside on a date, can you? Surely that is in the rules of dating? Pete could not remember the rules of dating. Mind you, Pete could not remember a period in his life during which he had gone through so many shirts. To put this in context, 91.6% of his shirts pre-dated Sara, and she had moved out of their old flat nearly two and a half years before.

Now he had three quarters of an hour to kill before the date. The shops were closing. Young women in white blouses jumped up to engage locks behind glass doors, watched by unhelpful security guards. Maybe he could go to a pub and read his phone. He dismissed the suggestion. He did not want Donna to think that he needed to have a drink before he saw her to calm his nerves. God, maybe he should have a drink before he saw her to calm his nerves. Calm down. He could feel sweat on the back of his neck, at 7.52pm in October. Why did Alice suggest a light blue shirt? Why did he accept her advice? There was no way he could take his jacket off in the restaurant. He would look as if he had been lifted off a swing by a giant with wet hands.

Pete walked to Frith Street, as slowly as he could, and by the time the restaurant was in view, the cold breeze of night had dried the perspiration. He was shivering and he could not be sure if this was because of the cold or his nerves. It’s just dinner, he told himself. You know how to use chopsticks and how to drink from a glass. You have brought your wallet, and you know how to speak English. You could not be more prepared.

He was five minutes early when he walked through the door of the restaurant, and Ms D. McKenzie was already there. He could not have been less prepared.

‘At last,’ Donna said as he approached the table.

‘Eh?’

‘You’re 10 minutes late.’

‘Am I?’ Pete checked his watch. ‘I’m three minutes…’

‘You said 8.15.’

‘Did I?’ said Pete. I didn’t, he thought. I definitely didn’t. ‘Sorry, thought I’d said 8.30. My fault.’

‘You did. I’m winding you up, you plum. I was early,’ said Donna. ‘Ten points for trying to spare my blushes, though. What a gentleman.’

‘OK,’ said Pete, from his default position on the back foot. He took off his coat and draped it on the back of his chair. ‘Good idea,’ said Donna. ‘Should be warm enough now. It’s freezing out there.’ She stood up and unbuttoned her own coat, shedding it to reveal a green wrap dress. It clung to her in all the places it should. She was almost cartoonishly curvaceous, Pete thought. Like a figure-eight. She sat down. ‘Better.’

‘Blue and green should never be seen…’ said Pete.

‘What?’

‘Your green dress, my blue shirt… It’s erm…’

Donna wrinkled her nose. ‘You don’t do this very often, do you?’

‘God, is it that obvious?’ asked Pete. ‘It’s my first date in a very long time.’

‘Date? You didn’t say anything about a date. “Not a big scene,” you said.’

‘Oh, well, I mean, erm…’

‘Oh, God, relax, will you? I’m sorry, I tease people when I’m nervous,’ said Donna.

‘I talk bollocks when I’m nervous,’ said Pete. ‘About colours, mostly. You look lovely.’

Donna nodded, and stirred her gin and tonic with a plastic swizzle stick, the ice clinking against the glass.

‘Hang on,’ said Pete, ‘You’re nervous?’

A young waitress appeared before Donna could not answer and handed them menus. ‘Could I have one of those, please?’ said Pete, pointing at Donna’s glass. As the waitress disappeared behind the bar, Donna said, ‘What a relief!’

‘The menus? I’d have just asked for them…’

‘No, I mean you aren’t one of those “Can I get…” people. I hate that.’

‘God, I know,’ said Pete, scanning the menu for something he could eat without incident. ‘I blame Friends. An entire generation thinking they’re Chandler Bing.’

‘So, did you come straight from work?’

‘Yeah,’ said Pete. ‘Did you?’

‘What? Do I look like I’ve come straight from work?’

‘No…’

‘I did, as it happens,’ said Donna. The waitress returned with Pete’s drink. ‘Are you ready to order?’ Pete was invited to go first, and then he took in his surroundings as Donna ordered. It was full of young men with the beards of old men, and young women with the tattoos of old men. On the next table was a fiftyish man with a female companion at least 20 years his junior. He gave Pete a conspiratorial nod, and Pete felt a little sullied. The restaurant itself was minimalist, as far as Thai places went, with plain wooden tables and benches, only the condiments on the tables – fish sauce, soy, chilli sauce – and the two large golden elephants spraying water at each other ostentatiously gave a clue to the passer-by as to the cuisine on offer. And Pete could see those passers-by. Although his back was to the window, there was a mirror behind the bar, and over Donna’s shoulder, between the various bottles of spirits, was a reflection of Soho, with its blunted edges, PG-rated these days, the pink fluffy handcuffs of London, racy, but unlikely to give offence, like a tiny dolphin tattoo on the ankle.

‘So, what do you do?’ asked Donna, as the waitress disappeared.

Pete took a sip of his gin and tonic through the straw, before removing it. ‘I’m not eight years old,’ he said, and he explained what he did for a living.

‘Sooo… You’re in IT?’ asked Donna.

‘Sort of,’ said Pete, conceding defeat immediately.

‘Like, Jer…’ his companion began to say, before thinking better of it.

‘What about you?’

‘Oh, I work for the NHS. A mental health unit in Holborn. Admin, I’m not a shrink. When they talk about cuts not affecting front line staff, they mean me. Yeah, me specifically. Aren’t you warm? You look warm. Take your jacket off.’

‘No, I’m OK,’ said Pete.

‘Light blue shirt. Got it.’

‘Oh, God, I am never going to listen to Alice again.’

‘Alice? Alice? Who the fuck is Alice?’ Donna chanted.

Pete laughed.

‘She’d better be your sister.’

‘Good as,’ said Pete. ‘She’s my best mate.’

Donna rolled her eyes. ‘No,’ said Pete. ‘It’s not like that. I used to call her my work wife, y’know? Like when you have somebody at work you can moan at, and who moans at you?’

‘No…’ said Donna.

‘Then she left when she had her little girl, and now she’s a freelance marketing consultant making a packet. She’s my mate, y’know? She and her husband let me stay at their place for a month when I split up with my ex, I’m her little girl’s godfather, that sort of thing.’

‘Right,’ said Donna. ‘Although… she can’t be that good a mate if she’s making you wear a light blue shirt on a date.’

‘Yeah. We’ll have to have words.’

They sipped their drinks again.

‘So when was that?’ asked Donna.

‘What?’

‘When you split up with your ex.’

Pete cast his eyes around the restaurant, as he did whenever he was asked an awkward question. It made him look shifty, rather than uncomfortable.

‘About two… two and a half years ago. This is my first date since.’

‘Wow,’ said Donna. ‘How long were you together?’

‘Seven years. Ish.’

‘Long time. Any kids?’

For a moment Pete thought about the two blue lines and the second set of two blue lines – just to make sure – and the first scan, that turned out to be the only scan.

‘No.’

‘Brothers, sisters?’

‘Yeah, one brother, two sisters.’

‘Parents?’

‘Mum and dad. Not any more.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Donna. ‘God, they must have been young when they…’

‘Yeah.’

‘Do you see much of your family?’

Pete sighed. ‘No. We kind of lost touch. You know how it is.’

‘I don’t. I wish I could lose touch with our Claudette. Sorry, we’ve got to the deep bit early, haven’t we?’ said Donna.

‘Is this how it is these days?’ asked Pete. ‘I’m sure we should be talking about musical tastes at this point. I mean, I could show you my appendix scar if you want…’

‘Sorry. Uncomfortable? I suppose we have done all this in the wrong order,’ said Donna.

Pete pondered that. No, he thought, not uncomfortable at all. God, she was gorgeous, wasn’t she? Look at her. Straight from work and all fresh and fragrant and lovely and alive. And interested, actually interested. Stop looking at her chest, look at her eyes. God, they’re beautiful. What colour are they? Stop staring at her eyes…

The waitress returned with a couple of small plates of fish cakes and spiced cashews. ‘What about… ow, that’s hot… What about you? Were you seeing somebody?’

‘Well, Peter Brophy! Thereby hangs a tale, Peter Brophy…’

And Donna began to tell Pete about her recent sexual history, but Pete had averted his eyes so as not to stare, and, as a result, was not listening. After this day, when he looked back, he realised that this was the moment which changed his life. Had this not happened the discovery of Jerzy Gruszka would have been a memory of fading significance down the years, gathering moss and weeds and eventually eroding away and then swallowed up by the soil. Because as Donna commenced her tale, Pete saw something reflected in the mirror over her shoulder, a flash of yellow entering the bar across the road. Even through the darkness he could see who it was.

This is probably a good point to talk about coincidence. Pete certainly thought a lot about it afterwards. We place significance on the moments we receive a call from the person we were thinking about just before the telephone rang, and ignore the many more occasions when we thought about people who did not ring. We are grateful for the prayers answered, and seize upon them as proof of God’s grace and mercy, and disregard the many more times our pleas were ignored.

So let us take into account the three times in the previous month that Pete and the woman in the photograph had passed each other on Cricklewood Broadway, the time she had stood behind him in the queue in the Co-op on Cricklewood Lane, and the six times they had been on the same train from Cricklewood station to St Pancras. And let us also not disregard the fact, despite promising himself that he would put Jerzy Gruszka behind him, that he had subconsciously been looking out for the woman ever since Alice had pointed out that she was probably still in the country.

Weighing all this together, we can deduce that Pete finding the woman in the picture was not so much coincidence as an inevitability that had merely been deferred until then. The coincidence was that it had to happen on the night on which, were the trajectory of his date with Ms D. McKenzie allowed to continue, the number of active participants in his sex life would double.

In the mirror, Pete could see the woman tap the bouncer outside the bar, who was arguing with two young – probably under-aged – men, on the shoulder. She scurried around him and into the bar. He needed to be in that bar. He needed to speak to her, make some sort of contact. Why? Why did he need to speak to her? What could she possibly have to tell – oh, God, she’s stopped speaking.

Donna was gazing at Pete, half amused, half annoyed.

‘Um… Crazy,’ said Pete.

‘What’s crazy?’

‘The… y’know, everything.’

Donna put down her napkin. ‘Did you actually listen to a word of what I just said?’

‘Um…’

‘So I had to listen to all that stuff about your boring IT job and your work wife, and you zone out when I start telling you about how my husband died?’

‘No!’ Pete said, feeling hot and pale at the same time. ‘I was…’

‘I knew you weren’t listening,’ she said, evenly. ‘He’s not dead at all.’

‘I’m sorry, I was just… distracted.’

‘By what?’

‘Your eyes.’

Donna let out her sea lion bark. Hugh Hefner on the next table was jolted. ‘Ha! Oh, smooth. At least you didn’t say my tits.’

Pete stared at his fishcakes. ‘Right. So I didn’t want to freak you out by staring, so I looked away, and then I remembered some work I needed to do, and, well, then you stopped talking.’

‘I see…’

‘Sorry,’ said Pete. ‘I really am not very good at this.’

‘Clearly, Peter Brophy. Well, as I was saying…’ And Donna launched once again into the story of her terrible ex and the debts he had attached to his motorboat which he couldn’t even drive, because who has a motorboat in Cricklewood, I mean, fuck? And Pete listened so intently that he could have done a paper on midlife crisis motorboats for his Donna Studies A-Level. He had righted the vessel, which was more than Terrible Ex had ever managed to do, apparently.

Every so often, when Donna was not looking, he would check over her shoulder, to see if the woman emerged from the bar. Let it go, he told himself. The food arrived, and the conversation continued, and the occasional check in the mirror became increasingly infrequent. And for the first time in a long time Pete was living in the moment, enjoying somebody’s company, not worrying about consequences. Alice was bloody right, this was exactly what he needed.

‘I thought I’d missed my chance,’ said Pete.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, y’know, the night you invited me in for tea.’

‘Which, by the way,’ said Donna, ‘you didn’t even drink. I will tell you, for future reference, Pete, that when you’re kissing a woman, it’s a really bad move to stand up, tell her it was a big mistake, and fuck off like you’re being chased. You know, if you want to see her again. Just a little nugget of advice there.’

‘I’m really sorry,’ said Pete.

‘Course you are. Why wouldn’t you be? I mean, look at me.’

Pete winced. ‘I’ve been trying not to.’

Donna shook her head, her curls bouncing. ‘Foolish boy. Anyway, I decided to give you one more chance. Don’t screw it up, Brophy.’ She flicked her straw at him, spattering his light blue shirt with droplets of gin and tonic.

Eventually the bill came and Pete paid it, because he had invited her, so it was only right, wasn’t it? And she argued but conceded, as long as she paid next time, and neither of them questioned whether there would be a next time. As they left the restaurant, and the cold Frith Street air hit them, Donna hugged Pete’s right arm to her body. The sky was clear, and a crescent moon hung just over Ronnie Scott’s.

‘Can I see you to your door, miss?’ Pete asked.

‘I think that’s probably allowed,’ said Donna.

They looked at each other for a moment, illuminated by the light leaking from the restaurant. Pete could feel the blood pounding in his ears and went in for the kiss, just as Donna began to speak. It was awkward, not like the last time, because this felt like the first time, with clashing teeth, and lips that were not used to each other, awkward and lovely and such a relief.

‘Well,’ said Donna. ‘I was going to say, before I was so rudely interrupted, I don’t want to go home yet.’

Pete glanced across the road at the bar the woman in the picture had entered. No, he couldn’t? Don’t be stupid. Kill two birds with one stone? You’ll probably kill yourself with it. ‘We could have a drink over there.’ Idiot.

‘Good idea,’ said Donna.

‘No, no, it isn’t! Let’s try down…’

But Donna was already crossing the road, forcing a pedal-powered tuk-tuk to brake suddenly. ‘Come on!’ she instructed Pete, who trailed reluctantly after her. They passed the bouncer and headed into the bar.

Carny, according to the website, ‘brings together the worlds of the travelling carnival and the barbecue for an unforgettable Soho experience.’ If you imagine that means burlesque dancers, jugglers, burgers with skewers, and £16 cocktails in a dimly-lit room, you imagine correctly.

Donna and Pete stepped into the entrance hall, its walls filled with framed carnival posters and sepia photographs of freak show acts from the turn of the 20th century. A coat check desk was set into the wall in the form of a bunco booth. Pete removed his coat, and slipped off Donna’s from her shoulders, fancying himself a sort of George Clooney figure, a George Clooney channelling Cary Grant. This was a new Pete, a suave Pete, a Pete who would kiss a date without being asked, a Pete who would actually have a date.

He took the coats over to the check booth and looked straight into the face of the woman in the picture.

Without breaking eye contact, she wordlessly took the coats from Pete. And there was fear, or something like it, in her eyes. God, she knew him, didn’t she? She recognised him. How?

‘Thank you,’ said Pete, as she handed over the tickets and walked off with the coats. Donna joined him.

‘You all right?’ she said. ‘You look pale.’

‘Yeah… No, I just… I have trust issues with coat checks. You know how it is.’

‘I think I know how you are.’

They walked towards the door into the bar. ‘Do you know the coat girl? I’m sure I recognise her,’ said Donna.

‘I’ve never met her before in my life,’ said Pete, truthfully, as they stepped into the darkness.

Pete had never been more pleased to see a juggler. That is to say he had never before been pleased to see a juggler. But at least the man on the podium in the centre of the room casting flaming clubs in the air ended the line of questioning. It was less a bar and more a cabaret, with tables around the room. They sat at one, and a waiter took their drinks order. Keep your head in the room, Pete told himself. You are here with a lovely woman who likes you, do not cock this one up.

The juggler finished his act to jaded, bordering on sarcastic, applause, and exited with his clubs in a sand bucket. An MC, dressed like a traditional ringmaster, bounded onto the podium. ‘Thank you, The Amazing Frank. Ladeeeez and gennulmen, we present for your delight, for your delectation, for your dollars, the dame with the diamond smile, Imelda Immoderate!’

A buxom 50s throwback in a slinky painted-on dress took the podium, dancing seductively in an arch way to a Duane Eddy soundtrack. ‘I hate burlesque,’ Donna confided to Pete, her lips brushing his ear.

‘God, yeah,’ Pete replied. ‘It’s just stripping with a humanities degree. It’s not art, is it?’

‘No, I mean, they don’t take everything off.’ She gave Pete a slow smile.

Pete gulped and took a £7 swig of his £23 cocktail. This really was going well. Stay in the room. Just stay in the room. As Imelda Immoderate pulled off her second glove, another couple entered the cabaret room, opening a rectangle of light which drew Pete’s eye. The woman was still sitting in the coat check booth. He could see her. Oh, God.

‘I need to, um,’ said Pete.

Donna dismissed him with a gesture. He walked behind Imelda Immoderate as she slowly unzipped her dress and pushed open the swing doors into the reception corridor. He waited till they were closed and approached the coat check booth, his heart pounding.

‘You know who I am, don’t you?’ he asked the woman.

‘Yes, I do.’ She had an eastern European accent.

‘I need to talk to you. Not right now, but…’

‘I’m not interested in talking to you.’

Pete staggered a little. ‘It’s just about Jerzy. I…’

‘No. I don’t want to talk to you.’

‘Honestly, just five minutes, I won’t take up any more of…’

‘Are you fucking deaf? Leave me alone!’

The bouncer rushed though. He was half a foot taller than Pete, and a foot wider. ‘You OK, Marketa?’

‘Omar, this customer is bothering me.’

Omar the bouncer grabbed Pete by the shoulders. ‘Out you go.’ He started pulling him towards the door.

‘No! Wait!’ shouted Pete, as he jammed his heels into the floor. ‘My coat! Donna!’

Donna pushed through the swing doors. ‘What the fuck is going on?!’

Marketa threw their coats through the booth at Donna, as Omar threw Pete through the door. ‘I know you,’ Donna said. ‘You were Jerzy’s girlfriend.’

She chased after Pete, jostling the bouncer. Pete was on his hands and knees on the Frith Street pavement. He was getting used to this.

‘What just happened in there? You said you didn’t know her.’ She helped him to his feet.

‘No, I said I hadn’t met her…’

‘You’re lying to me already? Christ, we haven’t even fucked yet.’

‘It wasn’t a lie…’ said Pete.

‘It might as well have been.’

‘Look, I’m sorry… I really am. I needed to speak to her…’

‘Oh, my God! Is that why we went to that restaurant? You were using me? You were just killing time?’

‘No! Honestly, that was just a coincidence.’

‘I don’t believe in coincidences, Pete.’

‘Honest! It’s true! I had no idea. Really…’

“And then you leave me watching a fucking stripper while you try to get off with another woman?”

“It wasn’t like that. I needed to speak to her about Jerzy…”

“So why lie to me about going to the toilet…?”

Pete stared at her. He did not have an answer. Eventually, “She was on a picture the police showed me, and…”

“Why do you need to talk to her about Jerzy? What’s going on?”

Pete tried to work out a form of words to say that would not make him look like a fantasist. It took too long.

Donna looked at him coolly and breathed in. ‘You had your second chance. Fuck this,’ she said. ‘I’m better than this.’ And she turned and started to walk away.

‘At least let me get you home.’

‘I’m perfectly capable of making my own way home, you prick,’ she said, as she went off to look for a cab, leaving Pete on the pavement, his warm breath turning to mist in the night.

***

So how did it go? Im not expecting
a reply til the morning
12.08am

It went really well. And then I
bollocksed it up.
12.09am

Oh pete go and have a cup of tea 😦 x
12.11am

Well ahead of you. Night. X
12.12am

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