It is a bright Wednesday in Liverpool and Sergei is a happy man. Thickset and swarthy, he wears black trousers and a black leather jacket. A thick gold chain glistens through the open neck of his black polo shirt. Dark hair slicked back in a ponytail, he smiles and waves his copy of The Sun, much to the disgust of his tracksuited sidekick.
“Jerzy Dudek is hero,” says Sergei in an accent thick and luxurious, like treacle, or Jade Goody wrapped in velvet. “In paper he claim to be slave but paid million pound week for playing in football. And most time, he sit watch only.”
Sergei slaps a meaty hand on my shoulder. “Jerzy make job easy,” he says . “Now everyone want to be slave.” For Sergei is a people person. “Human resource,” he says with gravitas.
But not human resources like Yvonne from the third floor. Unless Yvonne devotes her weekends to herding impressionable youngsters into cramped and airless containers, the promise of a better life quickly crumbling into a brothel-bound existence so dark and squalid that those who fail to survive the journey eventually come to be envied.
“Maybe Jerzy really slave, like my girls,” muses Sergei. “Maybe he make sex with Mr Rafa and boys. Maybe wiry Polish body pump and strain like wild goat, red-faced Rafa nod head like Churchill dog and rest team stand round cheer.”
I am burdened with an image that will take some shifting but, as Sergei rumbles cheerfully on, I begin to see how such a regrettable situation might arise…
It all starts innocently enough. Attempting to keep himself occupied on match day, Jerzy lays out some of the kit. Big mistake. In the brutal world of football, any sign of charity is a sign of weakness. So the requests start coming and “Get us a drink will you Jerzy lad” quickly becomes “Oi, Dudek, scrub them boots”, and before long Dudek (for it is always now Dudek) is satisfying the new owners’ lust for profit by toiling 18 hours a day chained to a Singer in the Anfield boot room, knocking out replica jerseys.
Soon that’s not all he’s knocking out. Released for the evening from his sweatshop to serve drinks at the club Christmas party, Dudek allows a techno version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot to stir something deep inside him. Thoughts of freedom and rebellion merge as he sheds a single tear and pops a robot move so discreet as to be barely perceptible.
But he is spotted, there is a shout of “Look, a Pole dancer,” and as the players collapse in merriment Rafa’s eyes begin to twinkle. Next morning the team defend corners to a soundtrack of It’s Raining Men while Dudek writhes around the near post wearing nothing but a blond wig and a cerise diamante thong stuffed with cash. His smile is fixed; his eyes are dead.
…slowly, Sergei’s strangely soothing baritone seeps back into my consciousness. “Grunt, then splash. And that why Jerzy called Safe Hands,” he chuckles, concluding a joke I have no wish to hear.
Then Sidekick speaks. It is brave and unexpected. “Ah, Serge, bang out of order. That’s bad taste, lad, that is.”
The world goes silent. Nobody breathes. His face now utterly without expression, Sergei turns slowly to face Sidekick. I fear the worst.
Suddenly Sergei explodes with laughter. “Bad taste. Yes, bad taste,” he roars, clapping Sidekick heartily on the back. “That what Jerzy say too. I say he get used to it, just like my girls.”
Sergei jerks his head. “Come.” And with that, he lumbers off chortling, “You see what I do? I say come. I very funny man.”
Sidekick doesn’t move. “Some character, your Sergei,” I say.
“Yeah. I think I preferred him when he was Fat Dave from Croxteth and worked the door at Bojangles.”
Ah, so maybe nothing is as it seems. Maybe Sergei is no Ukrainian. Maybe Jerzy Dudek is no slave. And maybe, just maybe, he didn’t say he was.