All Stories, General Fiction

Frank by Jane Houghton

Eighty-nine-years-old and he hasn’t a clue. About fucking any of it.

*

“I’m sorry, my love. I’m so sorry.”

*

The kids off the estate call him Frank. Short for Frankenstein. The little shits are also pig-shit-thick and don’t realise that it’s Frankenstein’s Monster. He’s no scholar, left school at fourteen on a Friday and went straight down the pit the following Monday with the rest of the class, but he bloody knows that. What do they teach them these days? In school until they’re thirty and they can’t read a word between them.

There’d be none of this Frank business had they clocked him in his younger days. He ought to dig out a picture and tape it to the window. Golden hair slicked back with half a tub of Brylcreem. His jaw a chiselled wonder, a masterpiece of interconnecting planes and smooth edges. Tight kecks and a snazzy tie. All the girls lusted after him. Wanted to be on his arm and most were at one time or another. But never at the same time. He wasn’t a cheat, his ma had brought him up right and, in any case, two-timing was too much like hard work. Would she find out about the other one? Would he forget himself and call her by the wrong name? God, no. He hadn’t the patience. Why complicate things?

He switches on the telly. Friends. Just in the nick of time, its theme tune getting into its stride and guiding his head towards a rhythmic nod. He likes Friends. The TV-powers-that-be have been showing it every afternoon at four o’clock for weeks; he hasn’t missed an episode – nor does he intend to. Best thing on the box since Dallas. It soothes him, cradles him like a lullaby. It’s not nice to have favourites but Rachel is his. Phoebe is okay but Monica’s too skinny. Nothing to grab hold of or keep you warm at night.

He went about with a Rachel once. Rachel Forster. Or was it Foster? His memory’s not what it used to be. Just like the rest of him. His Rachel looked nothing like this Rachel. Not pretty, a Blackpool Tower of a snout, but a grand laugh on her. Always laughing, that lass; you could hear her for miles. It threw him into hysterics, too. His pal, Blower, so-called on account of his perpetual farting, had a thing for her. The hots, like. He was no dwarf in the snout department, either, so they were a perfect match. Symmetry. Like the good mate that he was, he broke things off with her, leaving the path wide open for Blower to blow in. They got married and moved to Australia. No, not Australia. The other one. Like it but shorter. Austria. A bit random – but some folks get off on that, don’t they? Spontaneity and adventure and you only live once…though this last one not according to the Dalai Lama. But why oh why take his word for it? He’s just a baldie with a penchant for dressing gowns. He should stop being so stingy and buy a pair of pants.

The Blowers had a couple of kids, a lad and a girl. They now have two girls – their lad had one of those sex-changes a while back. Had it chopped off. Well, anything goes these days. And you can’t judge. Good on him. Her. Good on her. She must’ve had some great big balls to do that. Her wife divorced her and her kids cut off all contact, but Samantha – was Samuel – now gets to embody her true reality. Every cloud. And she can enjoy her retirement without fretting about the kids’ inheritance. They can’t cut ties and then expect money. Two clouds.

His name is Sid, by the way. Not Frank. Nothing like bloody Frank. Sid, as in Sid James. Or Sid Vicious. He’d like to turn vicious on a few of these kids. Teach them a lesson, give them a good hiding… Jesus wept…there’s one there now…outside his window…grinning and giving him two fingers.

GO ON. SLING YER ’OOK. GET OFF MY PROPERTY.

Sid shoots the greasy runt his own V. Two can play at that game, sonny. The kid backs away, his face still a grin. A very slappable grin. This one’s cocky. No fear in this one; not even a trace.

He hasn’t any kids himself. They tried. Tried and tried and then tried some more. They nearly made it, once. Nearly made a life.

They. Him and Olive. Sid and Olive. Olive and Sid. Any which way, as long as together. The girl that made his heart sing. Made him want no other girl. The One. Soppy, he knows, cringeworthy, but true. He loved her. Loves her. Loves a memory. A pile of cold bones six feet underground.

*

A knock-knock-knock, loud but not aggressive, rouses Sid from his doze. An afternoon nap, post-Friends,has become his custom. Twenty minutes of quality shut-eye and, BAM, nothing can faze him, he’s untouchable, he’s ready to wield the peeler and tackle the spuds for evening meal. Gordon Ramsay says that you should leave the skin on but the fella’s a foul-mouthed twat who doesn’t know his head from his bollocks. The skin spoils the taste – you might as well be eating cardboard. Cardboard marinated in soil. Ramsay’s too lazy to peel – he thinks that he’s above it since getting his Michael Star. Sid enjoyed today’s instalment. Rachel was in fine form. But when is that lass not? What was Brad Pitt thinking? He wants her back now, but too late cried the wolf. Sid looks in the direction of the door, obscured by a wall and two inner doors, for a moment confused. And then it comes to him, a download from the darkening recesses of his cognitive faculties – and the confusion is gone. A short-lived void. Weedy. It’ll be Weedy.  

He reaches for his walker and, after a brief pep-talk, in which he tells himself in no uncertain terms that he’s to shift his ancient arse into gear, quick-style, he wrenches himself up into a standing – stooping – position. Cue a solid minute of coughing before he can even think about edging himself forward. Alas, there’s nothing quick-style about his motion. His feet hurt. His knees hurt. His hips hurt. He’s as stiff as a bloody statue. Stiffer than a bloody statue. A good job that Weedy knows he’s right for it.

Weedy is his drug-dealer. And next-door-neighbour. And friend. He’s only twenty-five but he’s a cracking lad. Sid thinks the world of him. Would recommend him to anyone. He’s as honest as they come, no overcharging. Good moral code. Never says a bad word about anyone. Except his ma, but Sid can’t stand her, either. She’s an ignorant cow and she doesn’t shave her legs. Sid would say nothing about it but the woman lives in short skirts. She’s hairier than him; he suspects that there’s some Italian in the family. She has a moustache, too. He looks the other way when she lifts up her arms.

Comin’, son. Just startin’ up the eld legs.

A few torturous minutes later, Sid makes it to the door. Starting is the worst of it. He’s grand once he gets going, once he carves out a momentum. He peeps through a pane of glass in the door. Can’t be too careful. He’d be knackered if a robber got in. And he isn’t in the mood for Billy friggin’ Laing.

*

Sit yerself down, cock. Take the weight off. Time fer a brew?

I’ll make it, Sid, you sit –

Nonsense, son. The day I can’t brew up is the day the buggers can finish me off.

Leaving the easy-chair for Sid, Weedy sits down on the two-seater and nods his head. Almost as old as its owner, the two-seater is a labyrinth of lumps and bumps and hidden holes, its surviving springs having a habit of jutting out whenever a weary derriere decides to take refuge. This doesn’t go unnoticed by Sid; he’s touched by his friend’s selflessness – he himself has avoided the two-seater and its unforgiving internal structures for the best part of ten years.  

In the kitchen, Sid busies his hands with cups and milk as he waits for the kettle to boil. His eyes take in the walls around him. Grimy. Brown splatters above the stove. But it’s no bother. Nothing that a lick of paint won’t fix – or at least hide. Anyway, who wants to live in a ruddy Show House? That’s not real life. He opens the Biscuit Cupboard and shouts through to Weedy in the front room.

Had another visit from his lordship. Gone too far this time. I’m gonna set up a meetin’ with that councillor. The tubby one with the droopy eyes and thick bottom lip. You should do the same.

Sid has three names for Billy Laing. He alternates between the three according to his mood. One: his lordship. Two: him. Three: dickface. Having the natural disposition of a lover rather than a hater, he only resorts to option three when vexed; given that Laing vexes him quite often, however, option three does get fair use.

Thinks he can intimidate me. Bully me into doin’ his biddin’. He belongs in the nut ’ouse. I’ve seen off worse than ’im in me time.

Sid slots a tray onto his walker, adding two cups of tea and a packet of choccy digestives. No   plate, he and Weedy aren’t precious, straight out of the pack will do. He has perfected this mode of transportation; he can get away with minimal spillages – unless overcome by an extreme case of the wobbles.

He’s a wanker, for sure. Cheers, Sid.

Weedy takes the cup closest to him. Sid knows that his brews won’t win any awards, the shade of brown never quite right, sometimes too pale, other times as dark as treacle, but Weedy isn’t one to refuse an offering.

If he thinks I’m gonna roll over and take it he’s got another thing comin’. This is her home. Our home.

Sid and Olive bought this house when they got married. Nigh on sixty years ago. Pooled together their savings and her great aunt May lent them the rest. May was always a generous soul. Said that they needn’t pay her back, think on it as a gift, a wedding present, but they both wanted to; took them six years of careful budgeting but they felt so proud, felt like bona fide adults, when they handed over the money, complete with a bunch of flowers and May’s beloved wine gums. A tiny two-up-two-down, no inside loo, but, to them, a palace. Paradisial. A space of their own. Not her ma’s front step or his da’s ramshackle shed. A place where they could make love and make a life together, build a future.

And now…and now…that dickface is trying to snatch it all away from him…oh, it makes him mad. MAD. He wants to bulldoze their haven and build some cheerless discount store. Because the eight that the town already boasts aren’t enough. He loves a good bargain as much as anyone, he’s his ma’s son, after all, and she could root out a bargain with her eyes closed, but there’s more at stake than a reduced multipack of baked beans. He and Weedy are the last men standing, his lily-livered neighbours pocketing Laing’s grubby back-hander and slinking off to fully-furnished houses on the estate. They talk about it as if it’s obvious. A no-brainer. He knows that they discussed him. Called him stupid. Insane. He heard them. The walls aren’t thick. A damp terrace or a three-bed semi with its own garden? They can discuss him all they want. He doesn’t care. One positive of old age: there isn’t the time to care.

Sid will die in this house. For this house. She was happy here. They were happy. No price tag can rival that. This isn’t a game of Lego, Laing can’t waltz in and raze their history, a lifetime of love and laughter and intimacy. And, yes, pain, there was pain, too. A crib left unused. Blue wallpaper torn off in a silent rage. A christening outfit never lifted out of its box. But they always faced their pain together, and that was its own happiness.  

Don’t go gettin’ yerself all het up, Sid. You know what the doc said.

Ah, he can fuck off an’ all.

Fuck. Laing has this effect on him. Riles him up to where he doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going; makes him say words that he fucking shouldn’t. Words of which his Olive wouldn’t approve. She was no prude, a good job given that she was married to him, but she hated it when people dropped the F-Bomb. Sid drops the F-Bomb a lot these days. He tries to curb it, tries to do his Olive proud, but somehow the little fucker manages to burrow its way out. A spot that thrusts forth its livid head no matter how much concealer is daubed all over it.

Don’t worry, Weedles. We’ll fight the bastards. We won’t let ‘em win.

*

Red. He’ll go with red.

He likes red. Likes what it can do. Some colours are powerful. Persuasive. Competent. Others are nondescript. Vanilla. Bloody boring.

Red is bold. Grabs you by the nethers and has a little tug. This tug is what he’s after. What it’s all about. Tug. Make them stop. Tug. And think. Tug. And bubble with outrage.

Red, the colour of blood. Streaming out like river water from a busted dam. On and on and on. And on. How much blood can a human body hold? It doesn’t look so red once the air gets to it.

Red, the colour of fire, of licking flames.

Fire mutilates. Fire kills.

But it also ignites. Rouses. Calls to action.

*

Sid teases out the red felt-tip pen. The packaging is tight, like that vacuum crap that they smother over salmon fillets, strangling the fishy life out of them and slashing his fingers into a crime scene. The pens are new, bought yesterday afternoon. Set Friends to record so no bother there. Savoured it with his lamb dinner and a fat joint on his return, a lamp casting a halo of light behind him. Rachel looked even more alluring than usual; the cosy hues suited her. He caught the bus into town and had a shuffle round Ryman. Never seen such an elaborate configuration of pens and rulers and rubbers in his life; it was like ten schools squished into one room. Lucky for him, and his blink-and-you-miss-it state pension, they were running a half-price promotion on pens. He picked up ten extra-thick, extra-durable felt-tips for two quid. Ten pens for forty shillings! Impressive. His ma would be proud.

He curls his fingers around the pen. No. He tries to curl his fingers around the pen. They aren’t taking the bait. They’retaking the piss. Bloody arthritis, damn you. To Hell. He surveys the miscreants. Knobbly sausages, more gristle than meat. The cheap cut. The scraps that no one wants. He needs his fingers to co-operate; this is important. This could make all the difference. He relaxes his grip; if he doesn’t force the movement, then it will come. In time. Its own time.

Getting old is a bitch. The bitchiest bitch. He hates it. Things shrivelling up. His body slowing down – shutting down. His skin all saggy and heading south. He has never been a muscle-man, never stepped foot in a gym, but once upon a time he sported a fine pair of pecs. My buns of steel, Olive would say, her eyes aglow with a territorial mischief. Mining had its uses. Now he sports two drooping tits. Olive’s steel has melted. They swing like pendulums when he heaves himself up of a morning.

It’s better than the alternative. That’s what people say. Day-in-day-out, like they’re sharing something new, laying bare a profound truth, not repeating the same old, tired line for the umpteenth time. Getting old is better than the alternative. They mean better than death. But is it? Sid isn’t so sure. He knows what’s facing him. What the accumulation of even more years on this rotating rock will bring. Piss and shit. Whole nights lying in his own piss and shit. Babbling like a half-wit. Pureed dinners. The Baby Food and Nappy Years: A Return. Where’s the dignity in that? The justice?

He watched it happen to his ma. His strong, brave ma. She who’d spent all her waking hours doing doing doing. Giving giving giving. Never getting. Never expecting. Keeping a spotless home, cooking and fetching round the clock for his da, sweeping that sodding church from top to bottom every Sunday evening whilst Father Twat sat on his flabby backside and pondered who to terrorise next with his Hail Marys and Mortal Sins. She didn’t know him at the end. Didn’t remember him. Her flesh forgot him – forgot itself; he became no one, his nine months within her erased. He could’ve been the milkman. She couldn’t talk. She couldn’t smile. Or perhaps didn’t want to. Perhaps intuited that to smile is to hope. She could just about breathe and swallow. Until one day she couldn’t. It broke him to see all her layers – the traits and faculties that had made her the person that she was – dissolve into vagueness. A couple more years and that will be him. Unless he intervenes first.

At least his Olive was spared all that. But it should’ve been him.

It was his fault. Her spilled blood is on his hands. It drenches every inch of him. He wasn’t concentrating, his mind elsewhere. Rugby. Bloody rugby. He was annoyed and stewing. Sulking like a child. Olive asked him to run her to the shops; he wanted to watch the rugby. They had words. Heated ones. Unpleasant ones. Then they had no words, an angry space opening up between them. There’s something loud about a silent car journey. Something heavy. It pummels your head, hollows your bones. The click of the indicator. Metronomic. Ceaseless, even when it stops. The rattle of the key in the ignition. His hands on the steering wheel. His feet on the pedals.

His hands too slow on the steering wheel. His feet too slow on the pedals.

God, why wasn’t it him? Why didn’t he die? He is nothing. She was everything. He doesn’t believe in God but, Jesus, if he did, he’d call him a heartless cunt.     

His face caught fire, but he survived.

Kids shout Frank, freak-face, monster, look at him with a mixture of disgust and mirth, but he survived.

There is pain, even now, twenty years later, burning, tightness, his skin screaming, but he survived.

He breathed on. Breathes on still. The breaths come slower, these days a battle, an unnatural release, but come they do. Weedy helps. Not once has that lad judged him. Winced at the sight of him. Weedy’s magic herbs help. Take the edge off. For half an hour, sometimes a full hour if he rolls it just right, the slicing pain mellows into a bearable ache. He can touch his face without a tear descending into the fissures. The images drop away; Olive’s screams become one of her giggles. Peace. Stillness. A lightness in his heart.

Then the magic wears off. Arbadacarba, an incantation in reverse. And back it all floods. Faster. Stronger. LOUDER. Olive’s screams louder each time. Screams have no ceiling. A break from the pain gives it time to multiply. It’s what he deserves. How it should be.

Because she died and he survived.

Because he called the love of his life a nagging bitch and then she died.

*

The house is all that remains. Of her. It’s his universe. His oxygen. He can’t let Laing steal it, swipe it from him like friggin’ Fagin; he’ll do whatever it takes. This poster is his first punch the first in a long line. Weedy said that he’ll photocopy it and paste it all over town. He offered to do something fancy on the computer, he’s a whizz with technology, computers, phones, you name it, but Sid needs this to come from him. He’ll show people what that snake is up to. Dickface has picked on the wrong man.

This. Is. Her. Home.

Jane Houghton

Image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph’s page on the Geograph website for the photographer’s contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Dr Neil Clifton and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

13 thoughts on “Frank by Jane Houghton”

  1. Jane–

    It’s both heartbreaking and moving. “Two clouds.” Love that. I admire the way it doubles back to the “Frank” cause mentioned at the start. the backstory fully bloomed along with the now. Such a wonderful piece, it deserves to be read by many.

    Leila

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  2. Resonant. And nicely sets up the puzzle of why the kids call him Frank before resolving it appropriately in a perfectly paced way. Great stuff!

    Like

  3. Hi Jane,
    A full story about one character and what a character he is.
    You control the pace and the voice never wavers.
    Excellent.
    Hugh

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    1. Thank you, Hugh. These words mean a great deal coming from a master like yourself! As with Leila, thank you so much for agreeing to publish this.

      Like

    1. Thank you for your comment, David – I always try for believable and sympathetic characters, so your feedback means a lot to me.

      Like

  4. Wow, what a great story! I was completely immersed reading about the persona and life of Frank, very well created and structured. I could envision completely where he was at, although I’ve never been in his situation. Human connection in the end is the strongest bond, and his connection to Olive remains his lifeline, though wow what a tragic parting. The beginning and the ending of the story go full circle, poignant. PS: I enjoyed the part about Frank making tea for his friend Weedy. Very cool.

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    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my work and then leave such a detailed comment – it has absolutely made my day!

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  5. Great read Jane … Again .. Of course I knew him .. it was me at the window flicking v’s .. brilliant

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