‘Frankie’- by Heinrich van der Walt
I had not thought of that name in more than thirty years, yet sitting in the smelly back seat of a taxi I could think of nothing else. Had it really been that long? The name brought back fragmented memories, almost as if I was peering into the corners of my mind through a broken kaleidoscope. As the memories slowly surfaced through the murky waters of time I wished that they had stayed submerged. The crumpled note I clutched in my hand had forced me to drag those waters and I had a feeling that there was more beneath the surface than I had the courage to face.
I had just left the hospital for the eleventh, and hopefully the last, time. Doctor Ames was satisfied with my recovery and again marvelled at the almost unnatural way my body had accepted the new heart.
“Your surgeon did a divine job, Arthur. And your body seems to be happy with the new pump.” He had smiled broadly as he said this. “You are by far the luckiest transplant patient I have ever treated.”
The steady rain that had been falling for the last two days had already reduced the streets to shallow rivers, reflecting the dull grey skies above. Outside my window people were rushing along underneath their umbrellas, their images blurry, and I wished suddenly that I could leave the confines of this stinking taxi and join the phantoms that fled past.
As the vehicle crept forward a few more feet, I tried to remember what Frankie’s voice sounded like. His speaking voice, not when he was crying or screaming. I tried very hard, but I just couldn’t. I could recall his face though, as if I had seen him yesterday. His mouse coloured hair was always standing on end, little patches cut too short, revealing the pale skin underneath. The haircuts were something that occurred all too regularly and Frankie would often have scars on his forehead or scalp when he slunk into class. Once he had to wear a bandage over his left ear when his dad cut the tip right off. Frankie explained that it was his fault, he wasn’t sitting still and his dad was in a hurry. In a hurry was what he called it when his father was drunk and angry. Like when his father broke his arm because he let his battered old bicycle out in the yard.
“Pa was in a hurry to go into town and my bike was in the way,” Frankie explained the next day. His dad was always in a hurry it seemed.
We didn’t care though. Who could blame his dad for taking a hand to the side of his head when Frankie was just such a useless kid. He never did well in school and at the age of six he still had trouble writing his own name. He was even worse at sports, and whenever teams were picked for our Physical Education periods we would draw straws to see who would have to take Frankie. The shortest straw would get you Frankie, followed by loud groans of protestation from everyone on that team. They would inevitably lose and Frankie would get the blame. If the loss was particularly humiliating we would shove him to the ground and dance around him like Indians, cupping our hands over our mouths and chanting incoherent battle cries. If he tried to get up someone would kick his legs from underneath him and we would carry on our ‘war dance’, our cries getting louder until you could hardly hear him screaming and crying.
And sweet Lord, could he scream. One Saturday we were beating up on him behind old Calpy’s Café, and as usual he was hollering his head off for us to please just stop. Suddenly Mrs Southey rounded the corner and started yelling at us that she could hear him crying all the way to the other side of the park. Her house must have been about four blocks away, yet Frankie’s voice had carried all the way over there to where she was listening to RSG in her kitchen. We thought this was great and were almost impressed with Frankie.
He also never retaliated. Even when a kid half his size started beating on him he would just stand there and take it, infuriating his tormentor even more. After a while even the smallest kids in school would slap him in the hallways and casually stroll away, knowing that he would not fight back. In fact, the only time I can recall him getting angry was one day when he nearly broke our living room window. I had invited him to come and play at my house that afternoon, promising that this time I was serious about letting him join our group of friends. But just as all the times before, we locked the doors and teased him through the window when he came knocking. That afternoon he seemed to take it a bit harder than before and when we pressed our backsides up against the glass to moon him, he threw a rock the size of my shoe at the window. He missed (he was horrible at anything that involved throwing, catching or kicking remember?) and hit our front door with a loud thunk! We fell down laughing even harder than before. He didn’t throw another rock and just stood there looking at us, tears and snot running down his face, before turning around and fleeing into the street.
Nobody knew what happened to Frankie’s mother. He lived alone with his father in a rundown little house on Elam Street. Set far back from the street, the house was obscured by an overgrown hedge that ran the length of a limp fence. We would often peek through the tangled branches, trying to see into the gloom of their front yard. We didn’t even know if they had a back yard as none of us had ever stepped through the rusty gate out front. His father’s battered old Nissan would always be parked out front, sometimes with the front wheels on the pavement from when he would arrive home late at night, usually in a hurry. I asked my mom once what Frankie’s father did for a living.
“Never you mind what that man does. You just stay away from him, you hear?”
The look in her eyes told me that was the only answer I would get, so I didn’t ask again. My friend Alex told me that his dad said Frankie’s father didn’t work at all. I found this hard to believe as he was an adult, and all adults work.
And so, Frankie and his father lived alone in their little ruined house with the sagging fence and overgrown yard. Even though we tried our very best to come up with unique and interesting ways to torment him, he never missed school, and every morning when the bell rang he would slip into class quietly and scamper to his desk where he would make himself as small as possible. When final bell rang, Frankie would be the first one out the door, running for the gate as if the hounds of hell were at his heels. Which in a way I suppose they were. The hounds in this case being me and my little troupe of friends. Most of the time though, he was lucky and made it through the gate without us catching him.
Then one day Frankie was gone. His father had had one too many the night before, and on his way home from The Tiger he drove straight into the boundary wall next to the Methodist Church, leaving broken glass and pieces of his scalp scattered all over the rose bushes that the ladies from Sunset Home had planted only the previous week. I suppose he must have been in a real hurry that night. Frankie was collected later that week by his grandmother who took him to live with her in Port Elizabeth. We never saw him again. His father’s remains were left to the municipality to bury. As far as I know, their house stood empty until Pick ‘n Pay tore the entire block down a few years later to build a liquor and cut-price clothing store. Frankie and his father were already erased from our collective memories by then so we missed the irony in that.
The rain had finally stopped when the taxi pulled up to the curb in front of my little house in Fir Street. Getting out carefully, I noticed again how run down the place had become. I struggled to open the front gate, pulling at the vines that seemed to have grown over the hinges during the few hours I was in hospital. I yanked it closed behind me and walked up the cracked walkway that lead to the front door. The door used to be bright red but it had now faded to a dirty pink. Evelyn had painted the door one Saturday afternoon, a long time ago. I still remember how lovely she looked that day. I had sat under the willow tree drinking beer and watching her graceful movements as she applied layer after layer of red paint to our door. We had made love that night and afterwards, as I fell asleep with her in my arms, I had wondered if I could ever be happier. It turned out I couldn’t, and less than a year later she left. I accept full responsibility for the disintegration of our marriage. She had always been faithful. I had not.
The air was still felt heavy with rain and the untended garden smelled of rotted leaves. Closing the door behind me I was overcome by a weariness that I have not felt since the first few weeks after my operation. Switching on the lightbulb that dangled from the stained ceiling, I shuffled to the living room and sat down heavily on my scuffed Laz-e-boy. I rested my head in my hands and listened to the silence of the house around me. The house felt empty and cold. A sob broke the quiet and I finally gave in to the sorrow that had been welling up inside me since I left the hospital. My hand drifted to the front of my shirt where I could feel the scar tissue underneath the fabric. The thick red line that ran vertically up my breastbone no longer hurt, but I could feel a deep throbbing pain underneath the scar, much deeper than my new heart. As my sobs echoed through the empty house I reached into the front pocket of my jacket and took out the folded note that the nurse had passed me before I left the doctor’s office. I read the lines slowly, my eyes blurry with tears.
I was the surgeon who operated on you in June. I noted in your chart that you were born in Westbury in the Northern Cape. It took me a while but I think I remember you from the few years I lived there with my father. Unfortunately, I have not been back there since the day I left but I assume the old town is still the same as always. Or perhaps it has changed. In my heart, I hope that it is the latter. You see, I have come to realise that some things in life can never be changed, even though we wish they could. But every now and then we get lucky and life gives us a second chance.
Your new heart is that second chance Arthur, and I hope you treat it as well as you can. It’s a good one – and good hearts are very rare.
I wish you much happiness for your future,
Dr Frank Arbour