I have a principle which, for as long as I can remember, I have applied to my creative writing: I do not refer to any living person by their real name. Oh, I impugn the dead mercilessly and draw any number of coelecanths from the fathoms of my own imagination. But the living … if you sit across the table sipping moccachino with your little finger extended, fear not an exposé in these pages. It’s one of those pithy foibles that allows me to consider that I do no injury to those whose orbits pass closer to me than most.
I now break this rule. I have tortured myself for months searching for a plausible, fictional name for this individual. In vain. He is what and who he is. He rejects any other appellation as rain is shucked from metal road into culvert’s maw. He was when I first met him, appears to be, breathes and sweats as, blankly acknowledges to and refuses to be any other than Frank.
December. We are driving toward a castle in Thuringia. The unspectacular landscape of northeastern Germany needs such fripperies. We stop by the side of the road to pick up the last member of the party. Frank gets in. I have never met him previously. I make conversation as best I can over the garrulous tongue of the seatbelt. I gather that Frank was studying something unsuccessfully and is now studying something else. We walk around the castle museum huffing at dummies. Frank says nothing and explains nothing. I try to imagine the castle returned to its grande paranoia of a thousand or more years ago and the countryside aflame with plot and treason. Frank lifts up the skirt of a replica Altenburg princess. He doesn’t want to know what’s there, or what might even have been throbbing in the loins of royalty. He just needs to touch it. He replaces the skirt and history rights itself. I see from the parapet rolling green countryside and villages made from primary-school ideas. Frank looks at the ground from eighty metres up and drops a perfectly spherical gob of spit.
When we drop him off, Frank goes to hurriedly to check his mail. It’s a Saturday and there has been no post. After peering resolutely at the mailbox, he then closes the lid and goes inside the apartment. There is no goodbye. There is no social interaction. Frankly, there is nothing.
Later that night we arrange to meet Frank in a coffee shop. He comes in while the girl is in the toilets. He passes right before me, does a quick circuit and is gone. "Frank was here," I say when she returns. "Shit! He’ll be pissed off." "Don’t know. Tried to catch his attention but he went straight past." She calls his mobile and there is no answer. "He’ll be on the way home now," she says casually. "He’s like that." I’m stuck with her for the evening and maybe Frank has taken the path of least resistance by taking the rapid path home.
On a different day or week or season of mundanity, it has been arranged that Frank and I will go riding bicycles to another castle complex and return by train. Bicycles, check; Frank, check; train timetables, check. The girl briefs Frank on the information that he is to give me when we arrive on site, actually three historic buildings side by side. Frank nods. I follow his pony tail out the door and through innumerable villages ending in -dorf and smelling like granny apples. I stop momentarily to try to take a photograph of haystacks.
"This is haystacks," Frank says blankly.
"Yes, I know. I’m interested in the texture. To m they’re not like Australian ones. Different shape. And the light does something to them." Frank looks intently at his watch as if making a mental note: German haystacks may be photographed by foreigners between the hours of 15:00 and 15:05. Perhaps, I am able to theorise some weeks after the fact, he feels that he is running late on an excursion gloriously unscheduled.
The triple delights of Dornburg are perched on the edge of the plains. They peer timelessly along the Saale valley or, when bored, glance behind them at ornate gardens whose fountains toss whimsy to the wind. Frank and I wander around. He explains one building after the next. "Well, you can see, this is historical schloss, with, errr, many features. And this is, err, also historical schloss. It is schloss built in the historical period with fineness. And this other one schloss, as you can see, is … " I haven’t done any research although another friend has explained to me that the castles once belonged to the grand-dukes of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. I take more pictures, simply interested in the shadows cast by the shutters and the domes and the wayward trappings of frankenschloss.
Frank fidgets. I walk around some more. "There’s nothing up that way," he calls as I explore along the ridge. The street comes to a dead end. I turn the bicycle around while my eyes draw in hills and windmills, camouflage patterns of the forest, toy farms linking arms across wooden bridges across streams they might have dug themselves with boot-heel in sand. We coast downhill and pause at the junction. Left to village.
"Let’s go to the village," I offer. "We just missed the train so we have almost an hour till the next. We can have some coffee." For me, a reflective cup of coffee while I soak up the ambience of the village and read the Braille history writ in cobblestones would be perfect. I turn my bicycle to the left and the path to the village.
Frank launches a mumble that grumbles and stumbles until I stop. "Is twelve kilometres to Jena. Well twelve kilometres from Dornburg village. And here is one kilometre from village. So eleven kilometres from here. If we go to village we will wait for train and then by train. It is longer. From here is shorter."
"I don’t mind, Frank. There’s no hurry." Unsaid: What’s going on? We agreed to go back by train. It’s surely just a matter of filling in time until said train is ready for departure and –
"Well, coffee, yes coffee, maybe coffee I don’t. I don’t know coffee I know train. Yes with train yes we arrive Jena after one hour and fifteen minutes. Which from here is average speed of ten point four five kilometre per hour. By riding directly to Jena we can average twenty kilometres per hour well maybe fifteen kilometres per hour you not so fit, approximately for age and calculating -"
The savant has come! Weary legs and caffeine addiction are no match for –
"In riding we make eleven kilometres in zero point seven three three hours, ah so, forty-three point nine nine minutes. Is clear no?" By the time I think of asking whether he has calculated stopping at red lights on the way he has already headed off. I bite my lip and trail behind. There’s a headwind which brings a whiff of haystack-pimpled farmlets and fractions: "trains have average speed of … not speed as such but included waiting time … may include any lateness but not expected … regional train not fast as inter-regional express which has average speed …"
I confront the girl when I get home. She has no face, just a mess of hair sprouting from a Teutonic mask of stoicness hiding her insecurities. Plural.
"There’s something about Frank. He’s a bit odd, isn’t he? You said you’ve known him since high school."
She nods. "He’s autistic. Well, he can obviously function in society but he has his limits. You know he’s just moved out. He lived with his mum up until a few months ago. But she’s legally blind anyway, it’s not as if she did much for him. He has his own apartment now. I think he’s lonely. It’s good for him to get out and meet people. He needs it."
"So I was your social experiment today? Many thanks."
"Were there problems?"
I recount the happenings of the day. She absorbs it all with the nonchalance of, and indeed resemblance to, a tumbleweed.
"He used to be worse," she says. "A few years ago he was violent. Scared us. I mean, the people who grew up in his neighbourhood." I imagine Frank, totally without expression, cutting open live cats to see what is inside. See the red stuff move, baby. "But he seems better now. I wouldn’t have told him about the excursion if -"
If, if, if concrete is ugliness then Lobeda is Ugliness. Frank lives there in a tower of steel-reinforced beton that overlooks a tragic jungle of other similar structures as far as the eye can see (and I would really counsel it not to). We – an eclectic bunch of co-residents and flimsy acquaintances – have been invited to Frank’s for dinner. There’s Saul, who lives mostly in an online computer game when he is not contemplating suicide; there’s Timon, who has a pregnant wife he didn’t bother to bring; there’s Anthea, who studies Latin and deserves a lifetime shuffling dead books in the archives of Nowhere County; there’s Werner who arrived with a giant crate of beer and looks as if he would like to reside foetally inside it until we have all gone.
And there’s Frank. He is fretting about how long to cook a few handfuls of giant spaghetti. I read aloud from the packet where it says in three languages to cook it in boiling water for ten minutes. Frank curates it for thirty and then some while he plays us his collection of Who videoclips downloaded from the internet. If Frank has a hobby, it is this: he downloads songs and catalogues them. I am sure that most of them have never been listened to, for, with a similar quote of assuredness, that’s not the point. The point is in the doing, see? See?! Listen?! Daltrey’s voice is not the same now as in 1977, despite the file playing at exactly the same bitrate of 192 kilobits per second. See? Hear!
"Any Bob Dylan, Frank?" I ask.
He looks timidly at the spaghetti and decides to leave it another five minutes. He moves aside the steering wheel from his computer set-up – racing? random surfing? interplanetary travel? – and creates a new playlist of songs for me. I can see he is trying hard.
Well, I’ve walked two hundred miles, now look me over, yowls Dylan. Saul pretends to cover his ears as if he doesn’t like it, and moves to the window to pretend to jump out. It’s the end of the chase and the moon is high. Frank arranges three plates on the table. "There’re six of us Frank. More please." He nods. "Yes, I cook spaghetti more time longer."
It won’t matter who loves who,
You’ll love me or I’ll love you
I don’t think I could ever fall for a girl like Anthea. Every time we made love I’d be thinking about why she was infatuated with yet-another-modern-translation of the inanities of Virgil. "I think I love you, Anthea," I whisper. "I know something about Homer." She looks over her shoulder curiously. "Yes, homer. Saw Guerrero hit a pearler against the Athletics. Middle-deck in centre field, three runs batted-in."
"Fuck you," she says.
"Never," I whisper again.
When the night comes falling from the sky.
"I think Dylan sang this on his tour of Australia in ’84, Frank. Saw the concert at Melbourne."
He stirs the spaghetti nervously.
"But Dylan wasn’t in Australia in 1984," he replies. "1985. Four concerts. Sydney, Hordern Pavillion. Melbourne, Kooyong. Adelaide, West Torrens -"
Got it. Frank feels nothing but all the details of everything you think you knew are locked up inside. Just give them a chance and they’ll kick your teeth. But you don’t need teeth, do you, to suck down spaghetti boiled to the bone? We grin and swallow. It’s a party after all.
Next party is a couple of months later. It’s someone’s birthday and Someone organises a barbeque complete with Old Friends intent on squirting beer on the coals. By coincidence it’s Frank’s birthday too. He turns up with a rhubarb cake made by his mother. Another someone told me that each culture has a food which they – and only they – cherish beyond absurdity. I can imagine what it might be for Australians after a Sydney-born Greek descended into raptures at the arrival of a jar of Vegemite in the post from his mother. But for Germans, apparently, it’s rhubarb cake.
Frank sits quietly. People talk and drink and sanctify the embers with holy beer. I ask him if he has done anything special on the day.
"Rode to classes. Rode home. Stopped gym. Got home. Shower. Rode here."
I see, I say. Frank, I am told, has three bicycles. One is his old one and remains in the cellar just in case. One was stolen recently and he is pursuing an insurance claim. One he rides to classes, back home, stopping gym, etcetera. He looks very uncomfortable, as if he would gladly dispense with all birthday frivolities to be sitting at home cataloguing another classic band, song by song, line by line. He eats rhubarb cake dutifully.
Frank is not at all noticeable in a physical sense. Not for him a bulging forehead a-la-Downs or a deformed claw clutching persistently and vainly and pathetically at his bicycle chain. He appears a perfect Mister Average. Height, weight, two-day beard, modestly fashionable pony-tail, anonymous jeans, black t-shirt, jacket under his arm and books protruding from his back-pack. I could take him to the Univeritätsplatz and lose him instantly in a throng of doppelgangers.
Yet there is something that sets him apart. He could have I-Have-Never-Had-A-Girlfriend-And-Never-Will tattooed on his forehead but it would be unnecessary. After a few minutes in the ante-room of his presence it is blindingly obvious. He perches on the edge of conversations without ever putting a toe in the water. Attempts to toss him in the pool are futile; an invisible body makes no splash at all. Frank stays apart. All his emotions, upon their debut in society, are immediately defrocked and sentenced to life imprisonment.
I know I’ll never understand him. I’ll never take him into my confidence and unburden the rusty treasures of my heart to him. I will neither invite him to my wedding nor wait a score of years at the mailbox for an invitation to his. I imagine he’ll never grow old. He will never cross the irredeemable boundary into adulthood and saddle himself with political parties or civic causes. He’ll be playing video games where he drives efficiently/ruthlessly over cats and downloading Hollywood bootlegs. Is Martin Scorcese’s first film, unreleased of studio. File size 192 megabytes. With young Robert De Niro, yes? Yes. He’ll be shaking his pony-tail for girls who never cast a second-glance. He’ll be eating rhubarb cake because his mother made it. He’ll be riding any one of his bicycles faster than a speeding train because he knows. Really, he knows.
He leans over to me and says, without any hint of emotion or expression, "I’m not really called Frank, it’s just a name I use." He returns to his computer, almost lost in Daltrey or Bowies. I look back at him and for the first and only time in his life there is a flicker of a smile and then it is gone.
Frankly, far too brief for mine.