Being Frank Elliot by Beth Crossley

'I’m sorry for leaving you, I truly am.’ The words were black as treacle, round and soft.

Each letter desperately chased the next.

Frank put the paper down and wearily shifted his body round; he sat on the edge of the bed and with some difficulty crossed his left leg over his right bended knee. He removed his sock and turned it inside out, it felt damp. It would do another day. He picked out bits of fluff from between his toes, tiny black balls sprouting cotton tails. He clasped his foot in between his hands and rubbed it violently, the curve of the sole made him think of her, full, plump breasts, cinched in waist and rounded hips. For a moment he could almost smell her perfume, it lingered like a ghost in this bedroom where she had never even been. There was a blue tinge to his nails. His papery skin was almost translucent; it was like looking through a film of ice into a freezing blue pool.

He went to stand up and steadied himself by pressing his hand into his knee until his lean body was straightened out. He picked his shirt up from the end of the bed and slipped his arms into the sleeves, leaving the buttons undone to reveal a sallow chest and shadowy silver hairs.

In the kitchen he twisted the button on the oven and waited for a click. A blue flame sprouted from one of the hobs and sat like a crown. He opened an overhead cupboard with a creak and took out a pan; he fumbled behind a stack of chipped plates and packets of food for some minutes before he was rewarded with his bounty, twenty Silkcut. He pushed his thumb into the lip of the packet and prized it open like a mouth to reveal two rows of perfectly round, yet yellowing and grainy teeth.

He pulled one out. With cigarette in one hand and pan in the other he walked over to the sink and turned the tap to release a trickle ofwater. The pan was heavy. He took his place back at the oven, he stuffed the cigarette into the side of his mouth and bent over to light it in the flame; he inhaled and allowed himself to enjoy the first smoke of the day.

Frank stretched out his body and dug his left hand into the curve of his back to ease the pain, whilst his right hand continued to make the inadvertent and mechanical trip from his side to his slightly opened mouth. Smoke snaked upwards and concentrated around the fire alarm which he had disabled. He stared at the water in the pan as it spluttered, tiny orbs swimming to the surface and forming a lid like frogspawn till they popped, open mouths punched closed. He took his left hand from behind his back and spread his fingers as wide as he could. He pinched his skin between his thumb and finger then let it slowly fall back into place like the fluttering of a moth’s wing. He removed the cigarette from his mouth and pushed his dry lips against the gold band he wore.

It was Sunday 2nd of December. The church bells rang loud and clear, something he normally slept through. How jubilant they had sounded on their wedding day. She had looked radiant, delicate white lace dripping from her limbs. Her hair had rested on her shoulders in soft curls and her lips were like a strawberry dropped into a glass ofmilk. She had clasped a bouquet of roses in her pale, cold hands; the petals blushing crimson against her breast. After the service they had stood on the church steps whilst guests snapped photographs of the happy couple. Frank had smiled widely and enveloped her in his arms; she had stared up at him and smiled too, because he was happy. He had rested one hand on her stomach and felt the gentle swell hidden by the embellishment of her dress.

The water had boiled; he poured it over the teabag he’d placed in a cup.

He looked out of the window at the house opposite his, light sliced through the parting in the curtains.

He watched as the figure of a woman came into view, and just as quickly disappeared. She moved around the bedroom and Frank was left to wonder what she did when hidden by the drapery. He hadn’t seen her before, she must have just moved in. She took a seat at her dressing table and looked straight towards Frank. He was obscured by an ornate mirror and her reflection staring back. She worked her way through the different powders and creams scattered on the dresser. She ended the performance by painting on ruby red lips as defiantly as an author would punctuate a sentence.

Joe lived in the flat below hers. His curtains weren’t open, they hardly ever were. Joe was alright, he’d been kind to Frank when he first moved in all those years ago, joining him for a pint and discussing the football scores. Joe wasn’t well and had all but given up. Frank didn’t blame him.

Maybe Joe was doing him a favour by keeping his curtains closed, he thought. After all, old sick men didn’t need to be confronted by other old, sick men.

The phone rang in the hallway. It was Mary, his sister in law. She was calling to make sure Frank hadn’t forgotten that they were meant to be meeting at eleven. Of course he hadn’t. He decided he’d stop off at the cafe before then; he needed some food before dealing with her. The cafe was ten minutes down the road, it would be icy outside but Frank decided to walk. The cold, crisp air might do him good.

It was almost empty when he got there. Don was sat behind the counter clutching a cup of tea in one hand and turning the pages of the newspaper with his other. He looked up as Frank pulled a chair out from under the nearest table.

“Alright Frank? Don asked.

“Making do," said Frank

“You’re looking well, considering," offered Don.

What a grand old lie, thought Frank. He caught his reflection in the metal of the coffee machine; he looked awful, really bad, the worst. “Aye, I suppose," Frank said.

“What can I get for you?" Don asked.

“Give us a coffee," Frank said. “Black, two sugars, and a bacon sarnie," he said. “Nice and crispy."

He remembered that he hadn’t eaten since Sunday evening. It was Tuesday morning now.

“Mind if I smoke?" Frank asked.

“Ah, go on then, just don’t tell Janet, she’ll have me guts for garters she will." Janet was Don’s wife, a Hilda Ogden figure with a voice like breaking glass and a face full of wrinkles.

“Wait, let me open these windows first," said Don. “You really shouldn’t be smoking though. I thought the Doc’s told you to quit the fags?" He questioned further.

“Ah, Don. If a man can’t have a cigarette in the morning then what’s the world coming to?" Frank sighed as he lit up.

“S’pose" said Don.

“Anyway what’s the use in giving it all up now?" said Frank. Don frowned.

“I have cut down though, Don. I’ll promise you that." As he told the lie Frank didn’t know whose sake it was for.

Mary opened the door to the cafe just as Frank finished his coffee and sandwich. She took the seat opposite him. There was something different about her, Frank thought. Had she changed her hair? He couldn’t really remember what it had looked like the last time he saw her. Thin red frames were balanced on the end of her powdered nose.
Frank watched as she nervously picked at her plaid skirt for bobbles of fluff. It was going to be awkward. The furrows in her face looked deeper than when they had last met. Nevertheless, she still looked good. Maybe he should have looked after himself a bit more. Instead he’d completely let himself go when June died. At thirty he’d resembled a man ten years older, and unfortunately this pattern had doggedly pursued him ever since. But, unlike Mary, for Frank the passing of time had been a comfort. He welcomed the setting of the sun and revelled in the sense of peace that night brought, he let every year pass over him like the gentle rippling of a wave.

“Do you want a tea?" Frank asked.

“Peppermint, please," Mary replied.

“I don’t think they’ll have that. Will Yorkshire do?"

“Oh yes, I forgot that good taste petered out after Watford Gap."

Frank had forgotten how pretentious she had become since her big move to London all those years ago.

“Yorkshire will be fine, I’ ll have semi skimmed milk too if that has made its way up here yet."

Today was going to be hard. Frank wished that he didn’t have to deal with Mary, but their annual meeting and trip to the cemetery was a ritual too important to interrupt.

It was the 2nd December; thirty-eight years ago to the day that June had died. She’d taken the car out to run some errands and skidded on the ice which clung to every road and pavement. She had crashed into a tree, and that was that.


Don shakily placed a cup in front of her. Tea spilled onto the sticky white tablecloth. She began to take tiny sips, leaving a smudge of lipstick on the greying mug.

“You look good, Frank," said Mary.

He winced at the lie. Mary did too. She had never thought of Frank as old, just as she never acknowledged herself as a greying and arthritic seventy something. She had the same image of him etched into her brain for years. To her, Frank was still the twenty six year old young man in a Polaroid, stretched out on Scarborough’s burnt golden sand many summers ago. She recalled the photo now. His legs had been crossed at the ankle and his defined arms had propped up his lean body, his elbows had dug in the sand to form tiny dimples, and his face had been covered in a furze
of dark hair where he hadn’t shaved.

June had been stretched out a few feet away from Frank, leafing apathetically through a French novel. She had been long limbed and tanned, twenty-two years old and already married with a young daughter. Frank had pushed his sunglasses on top of his head and watched his wife intently.

She must have been aware of his gaze but hadn’t looked up; she had licked her finger coquettishly and dampened the corner of the page. Rose had been slumped in her pram with heavy eyes and ice cream smeared across her chubby face.

Mary remembered taking the photo. She remembered how everything used to be.

“I could be worse," Frank replied.

“Ever the optimist, Frank," Mary said.

He did look awful though. It was as though she was really looking at him for the first time in years, a film seemed to have been peeled back and she was no longer viewing him through a cloudy lens on a summer’s day forty years ago. June would have hated to see him like this.

“I’m getting a train back to London later this afternoon," Mary said.

“Not staying in a hotel like usual then?"

“No, I’m going to stop at Rose’s tonight. She said I didn’t have to, but I know she’ll be feeling down, just
thought she might need a rest."

“Right. Did she not want to come up?"

What could she say to that? Of course she hadn’t wanted to come up. Mary couldn’t remember the last time Frank and Rose had been in the same room together.

“You really should tell her you’re ill, Frank," Mary said.

After June’s death, Frank had crumbled. Mary had been to visit him a couple ofmonths after the funeral and walked into the kitchen to find a dozen eggs smashed on the white tiled floor, a sobbing Frank and bemused Rose. He just couldn’t make scrambled eggs like June could, Frank had whimpered. Not long afterwards Rose had moved in with Mary. Frank was totally incapable of looking after himself, never mind his daughter. Mary had never thought it was going to be a permanent thing; however the years passed quickly, like the turning of a page in a good novel, and before long Rose was a young woman. The two of them had called in on Frank occasionally but Mary sensed that these visits left him awkward; his Rose was budding and he had given up on life.

Mary drained the last of her tea and the two of them stood to leave. Frank held the door open and Mary reluctantly stepped into the grey and drizzling street. A bitter wind snaked around her fragile body, and
crept through her button holes and coat sleeves, its cold, smooth fingers stroking her bare neck. She should have worn a scarf. Frank followed her out of the cafe and the two of them began to walk side by side.

They arrived at the cemetery gates. Row after row of slate grey headstones stood to attention. The branches of old trees unfurled across the pathways. A few leaves had survived from autumn, but their burnt oranges and rich cinnamons had disappeared and were replaced with dull fawns and muddy browns.

They were drowned in the winter fog and made no sound underfoot. The absolute quiet unnerved Mary.

June was in the corner.

Mary noticed fresh flowers in front of the headstone. She knew they were from Rose; she must have come up yesterday. The two of them stared at the memorial for a little while, neither of them sure of what to say. The awkward silence became unbearable.

“I’ll never understand why she did it," Mary said. Frank remained quiet and tugged at the hem of his coat. “She had a baby to care for. She left Rose, Frank. She left you."

“I know she did, but that doesn’t make me love her any less," he replied angrily. Mary softened and slipped her hand into his.

“I’m so sorry, love. I wish it could have been different." A lone tear slid down his sunken leathery cheek.

Mary watched Frank through the train window. The cancer’s really got him, she thought, nothing they could do, he’d said. She resented herself for thinking it was for the best. The slow rumble of the train starting up flooded the station, a wiry man dressed in blue tussled with the refreshments trolley.

“Would you like anything, madam?" he asked.

“Just a peppermint tea please," she replied.


Rose enveloped herself in the thick duvet; the house was freezing. She happily padded along the corridor in her plush cocoon and turned the thermostat up. She made her way into the bathroom and began running
the water into the tub. She wished her husband, Simon, could have stayed home today, not to make sure she was okay as she moped around the house and tried to remember her mother, but to celebrate. Simon had had to go to the office to pick up some files for his meeting tomorrow; she had pretended to sleep as he had crept round the bedroom earlier that morning. The sun had skulked through the blinds and stolen their last moments together. As soon as she had heard the click of the kitchen door and the car starting up outside she had run into the bathroom holding what would be the sixth pregnancy test she had taken since last night. It was to be the sixth positive pregnancy test she had taken since last night. She needed to be sure, and now she was. At thirty-nine years old Rose had finally defeated her battle against sterility. She plunged her milky body into the steaming water and wedged her toe into the cold tap,
her ears rang and cheeks burned with delight.

Mary was coming round tonight, she could tell her and Simon the good news together. Rose could imagine their reactions, Mary’s joyful tears at the prospect of becoming a grandmother when she had never even been meant the role ofmother. Simon would embrace her and kiss her stomach, something he’d done so many times before, but this time it would be different. This overwhelming feeling of complete pleasure forced Rose to think of her own mother, how unhappy she must have been to turn her back on it all, to turn her back on life. For a moment she was saddened. She remembered the letter she’d seen years ago, the explanation, the loving goodbye that her Frank kept in his bedside drawer. 'I’m sorry for leaving you, I truly am.’ She’d heard Frank and Mary when she was younger; speaking in hushed tones, pretending that June’s death was a terrible accident, protecting Rose from the realisation that her mother hadn’t wanted to live.

Rose didn’t blame them. They had only tried to protect her, and so she let them believe that their secret was safe.

In the evening Mary, Rose and Simon sat round the kitchen table after dinner, Mary and Simon celebrating with wine and Rose with water. Rose’s faces ached from smiling. The telephone rang in the hallway, shrill and loud.

“Hello," she answered.

“Hello," said the voice at the other end of the line. “It’s Dad."

“Are you okay? Has something happened? Is Mary okay?" Rose questioned.

“Everything’s fine. Mary’s fine. It’s just I have some news."

“Really? Me too as a matter of fact, you go first though," she said

2011 -Crossley

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