Jerzy Grabianski, as I mentioned in a recent post , first appeared in the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment; one half of a skilled team of cat burglars, a bulky, perhaps surprisingly humane man with a propensity for falling inappropriately in love. Too interesting a character for me to leave alone; not least for the similarities – physical and genetic – between Resnick and himself. So, after a gap of some years, he featured prominently in the short story, Bird of Paradise, first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and collected in Now’s The Time (2002) , and appeared again in 1997, in the ninth Resnick novel, Still Water.
And it’s to Still Water that we go for a little of Grabianski’s background …
Grabianski was thinking of his father; the half-sister, Kristyna, he had never seen. The family had fled Poland in the first year of the war – and a slow, cold fleeing they’d had of it, walking, occasionally hitching a lift, hiding beneath the heavy tarpaulin of a river barge: Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland. Kristyna had drowned in the waters of Lake Neuchatel; she had been eleven years old.
His father, a textile worker from Lodz, had flown as a navigator for both the French and British forces; parachuted out over the Channel, plummeting towards the black, unseeing water with images of Kristyna, her stiff, breastless body, trapped tight behind his eyes.
He had survived.
Jerzy Grabianski had been born in South London, his mother a nurse from St. George’s, his father sewing by electric light in the basement room in Balham where they lived. Weekends, when his mother was working, his father would walk him to Tooting Bec Common, sit with him in the Lido, dangling Grabianski’s flailing legs down into the shallow water, never letting go.
And here, in the opening paragraphs of Bird of Paradise, is Grabianski, ornithologist and burglar, first sighting the woman with whom he becomes infatuated …
It was still surprisingly cold for the time of year, already well past Lent, and Sister Teresa kept her topcoat belted but unbuttoned, so that the lower part of it flared open as she strode through the stalled traffic at the corner of Radford Road and Gregory Boulevard, revealing a knee-length grey wool skirt and pale grey tights which Grabianski, watching from the window of an Asian confectioner’s, thought were more than pleasingly filled.
He popped something pink and sugary into his mouth and smiled appreciatively. One of life’s natural observers, he never failed to enjoy those incidental pleasures that chance and patience brought his way: a brown flycatcher spied on the edge of Yorkshire moorland, the narrow white ring around its eye blinking clear from its nest; a chink of light just discernible through the blinds of a bedroom window, four storeys up, suggesting the upper window may have been left recklessly unfastened; the stride of a mature woman, purposeful and strong, as she makes her way though the city on an otherwise unremarkable April day.
Casually, Grabianski stepped out on to the street. He was a well-built man, broad-shouldered and tall, no more than five or six pounds overweight for his age, somewhere in the mid-forties. His face was round rather than lean and freshly shaved; the dark hair on his head had yet to thin. His eyes were narrowed and alert as he angled his head and saw, away to his right, the woman he had noticed earlier, passing now between two youths on roller blades, before rounding the corner and disappearing from sight.
Dressed in civilian clothes as Sister Teresa was, Grabianski would have been surprised to have learned she was a nun.
The order to which the good Sister belongs is The Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, as detailed in chapter four of Still Water …
The Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help lived in an undistinguished three-storey house midway between the car park for the Asda supermarket and the road alongside the Forest recreation ground where the local prostitutes regularly plied their trade.
There but for the grace of God, as Sister Bonaventura used to remark, bustling past. Whether she was referring to whoring or working at the checkout, Sister Teresa and Sister Marguerite were never sure.
All three of them were attached to the order’s outreach programme, living in one of the poorer areas of the city and administering as best they could to the unfortunate and the needy, daily going about the Lord’s business without the off-putting and inconvenient trappings of liturgical habits but wearing instead civilian clothes donated by members of the local parish. Plain fare for the most part, but ameliorated by small personal indulgences.
Sister Marguerite, who came out in a painful rash if she wore anything other than silk closest to her skin, purchased her underwear by mail order from a catalogue. Sister Bonaventura stuck pretty much to black, which she relieved with scarlet Aids ribbons and a neat metallic badge denoting Labour Party membership. “Who do you think He would vote for, if he came back down to reclaim his Kingdom on earth?” she would ask when challenged. “The Conservatives?”
And Sister Teresa, whose mother had stopped measuring her against the kitchen wall at fourteen when she had reached five foot seven, was forced to make her own arrangements as the kind supply of cast-offs rarely matched her size. Regularly, she would bundle up a pile of pleated skirts and crimplene trouser suits and take them to the Oxfam shop where she would exchange them for something more fitting.
When Grabianski and Sister Teresa finally get to speak, in a scene from Bird of Paradise, it is when he rescues her from being physically attacked by a fiercely angry man whose battered wife she has been trying to help.
Hearing the sound of someone at his back, Palmer half turned and met the heel of Grabianski’s outthrust hand full force upon his nose. The snap of cartilage was dredged through snot and blood.
“Don’t … ” began the woman, easing herself up on to all fours. “Please, don’t … ” as she levered herself back against the wall, head sinking gingerly forward till it came to rest against her knees.
“Don’t what?” asked Grabianski gently, bending down before her.
“Don’t hurt him.”
He recognised the dull sparkle of the ring upon her hand. Why was it they always defended them, no matter what? One of her eyes was already beginning to close.
“A beating,” Grabianski said. “No more than he deserves.”
“No, no. Please.” She fumbled for then found his wrist and clutched it tight. “I pray you.”
Something about the way she said it made Grabianski think twice; he recognised her then, the woman who had been striding out in shades of grey, and felt a quickening of his pulse. Somehow instead of her holding his wrist, he was holding her hand. Behind them, he heard her attacker scurry, slew-footed, away.
The muscles in the backs of Grabianski’s legs were aching and he changed position, sitting round against the wall. Sister Teresa, blood dribbling from a cut alongside her mouth, was alongside him now, shoulders touching, and he was still holding her hand.
She found it strangely, almost uniquely, reassuring.
She said, “Thank you.”
He said it was fine.
She asked him his name and he her’s.
“Teresa,” she said.
And she had to think. “Teresa Whimbrel,” she said and he smiled.
“What’s amusing?” she asked.
“Whimbrel,” Grabianski said, “it’s a bird. A sort of curlew.” The smile broadened. “Notably long legs.”
He looked, she thought, decidedly handsome when he smiled – and something else besides. She wondered if that something – whatever it was – might be dangerous.
She was looking at the fingers of his hand, broad-knuckled and lightly freckled with hair and curved about her own.
“I think you should let go,” she said.
“Of my hand.”
“Oh.” He asked a question instead. “Was that your husband? The man?”
“Not mine, no.”
He could feel the ring on her finger, no longer see it. “But you are married?”
“In a way.”
Grabianski raised an eyebrow. “Which way is that?”
“A way you might find difficult to understand.”
Back, finally, to Still Water, in which Grabianski, learning that Sister Teresa is interested in visual art, invites her to join him in London to visit the exhibition of Degas’ paintings at the National Gallery ….