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|poetry gallery lies my father told me pipedreams blog|
"I christen you Nemesis," he said.
The first time Frank mounted Nemesis and kicked her over she spluttered, but neither caught nor died. The petrol feed? Frank leaned over to look in the "viewer" of the distance piece he'd thoughtfully installed. The petrol's flowing, he saw, and in that instant the engine caught and surged, spiralling Frank through the air to the ground. Nemesis suffered little, leaping the curb and through the shop window of the corner tobacconist. Frank says he had to laugh, despite the pain, and the damages. Frank sported a crutch, one foot bandaged, the first time I saw him outside the Free Times Cafe. He was leaning lightly on the crutch, with his white hair a lion's mane, then in his mid forties, a handsome man, not big, or grand - but with a substantial feeling.
My getting to know Frank came through the Free's crash service and life's catastrophe. In the early nineteen seventies the Free ran an alternative welfare system. A major item was the crash service. They had a list of those who'd offer accommodation for a night or, like the Arabs, up to three nights. Then one had to move on, till one found some resolve, or exhausted the system.
A while after my return to Brighton - drawn to Brighton by the Free like moths - my first marriage floundered - another story. She threw me out. I went up to the Free, to their crash service and spent my first nights away from home with Spanish Frank.
Frank lived in a basement in St. Michael's Terrace. I slept on his sofa. We sat up late into the night and talked. During the evening, he played Flamenco guitar, of course, and he played a recording of Bach, a canto where the organ builds tone on tone, till overtones roared with one another. "Better than rock and roll," he said. I conceded. And then he told me the following story, how he got his name.
The East End of London, after the depression, before the war, had no savour for young Frank Lewis. The war though, promised excitement and escape. At fifteen, Franklin lied about his age and enlisted in the Merchant Navy, which was the fastest freight out of London. In the wartime, all sailors were Royal Navy and under fire. That didn't faze young Frank. "It's a man's world," he said, chest swelling. And away from Europe, to begin with, there were long weeks of implacable ocean.
Frank sailed off to the Orient. In Shanghai, he went ashore with friends, to an opium den. "If that little chinaman can smoke that stuff, so can I," thought Frank. And telling the story, his face relaxed, quietened. "I had a thousand dreams," he said, "and all of them were bad."
It was in Shanghai that he bought the little green jade Buddha that was to become his love charm, and his luck charm. I will speak of it later.
On a hot night in the summer of '43, Frank's ship was torpedoed in the English channel. As far as he knows, Frank was the only survivor. He was washed up on the Brittony shore. In the morning, he found three German soldiers swimming, found their clothes and weaponry amongst some rocks and cover. Killed them. He didn't go into details, but one by one he took out the rest of the German soldiers on the bay - twelve in all. These killings outraged him. He felt empty like the corpses and he vowed he'd replace them - that he would sire twelve children.
Demobbed after the war, civie street looked dull. The only interesting niche seemed to be larceny, so Frank became a thief, graduating from corner shops to banks. For fifteen years he lived the life of a villain. The main drawback, he said, was that villains were boring people. The other problem was getting nicked. No problem for fifteen years. During this time Frank generated twelve children by twelve women, before getting nabbed for armed robbery. He was sent down for eight years. He served six, this in Parkhurst maximum security. He spent four years in solitary. He preferred his own company. Found it dependable.
About six months before he was due parole, someone brought him in a tab of LSD. A turning point. To be trite, Frank saw life as though it were new, alive, breathing, and he loved it so much he let the chips fall off his shoulders. He decided thence forth to live an affirmation of delight. Next day he wrote a letter to a friend begging them to bring him a guitar, and in the remaining six months in jail he taught himself to play. He no longer resented being in prison. It gave him the time he needed make changes, and learn new ways. After his release, he went down to Spain to study Flamenco. There after his friends called him 'Spanish Frank'.
Spanish Frank returned to England in '69, and made his living as a roofer. When I met him in 1972, his guitar playing, the Flamenco, was quite wonderful. He was damn near a virtuoso. And though he didn't sing, in his grunts and oles, you could smell the gypsy campfires, and the sour wine of the taverns. I once ask him why he didn't play professionally. "Sometimes," he said, "when you try to turn a pleasure into a business, you end up with a heartache. I know that this is a solace for me, and if sometimes its a pleasure for my friends, well..." He shrugged.
Frank was still mending roofs years later, when I met up with him again in Wales. We drove over to a valley where Frank was mending some stonewalled outbuildings which, in Wales, they call barns. A high wind had lifted and shifted the black slate roof. The day, that morning, was warm and sunny - the one piece of sun I saw in my whole three weeks in Wales that spring. Frank took off his coat, and threw a line over the roof. He was just going to pull it back up onto the wall with the tractor. I was surprised that it was such a simple procedure. "That's how it's done," he said.
We walked round to the back of the buildings to secure the line round the main beam and to inspect and release the supports which Frank had put the day before to shore up the roof and stop it shifting further. As I helped him by untying one of the support, he drew my attention to urgent consequences. "Take the line in front of you, not behind. You needn't risk tangling in it, even for a moment. If the support, there, gave way ..." he left the rest unsaid.
In the afternoon we were driving back to the cottage Frank was renting, driving in his old ford van through the loins of the Carmarthen hills, narrow roads tunnelling through shrouded trees into the twilight. Though forenoon had been sunny, now drizzle and vapours wrapped grey around us. "We're back in Wales," I said. On the dashboard there was that small jade Buddha. I asked Frank about it. Could I handle it. Pick it up? "Sure." He explained how he had bought it during the war, as a lad, in Shanghai. I asked him if it had religious connotations for him, or if it was a good luck charm. "More of a love charm," he said, and he explained that he used is to stimulate his amours in foreplay to the threshold of climax.
We stopped at a crossroads corner shop. I bought bread, butter and Marmite. I'd just discovered Marmite. As we drove on, I dabbed my fingers into the brown paste. Frank leaned across and scooped his little finger in. "Hmm," he grunted. "This salt kills babies."
We turned off the little highway onto a country lane, tortuous in trees and fog. "Last week," said Frank, "I drove off the road here. I just turned the wheel and drove into the ditch. A moment later, a sports car shot round this corner. I would have been annihilated. A total catastrophe."
"Maybe you heard it coming. Heard it humming, subliminally Some vibration" "Perhaps. It happened another time. Not the same bit of road, but the same thing. I just drove into the ditch and swish. I don't think I heard, but whatever. I follow my hunches."
It wasn't the drama of Frank's life that drew me to him. It was a calmness, a warmth and a solidity he carried, that served me as a model in my transition from a dazed youth to the next struggles: a calm that still eludes me. And Frank was a hero to me, but again not because of the spice and storm in his history. My heroes are people who overcome adversity to make something meaningful of their life. Not something grand. But they take back control, usually in a simple way. Just being. Frank was the first of these models. Crazy Jane was probably the second, though I didn't know it at the time. Not until seventeen years later, when we met again. I'm going to speak of Crazy Jane, for her story twines with Spanish Frank.
I went back to Brighton last summer after twelve years away. A maze of memories - these hills, that house - I've lived all over this town. Hanging out with my kids, this time round, I stepped back not twelve, but twenty-five years, back into my habits of the sixties, sitting round walls, smoking, walking the beach collecting pebbles, walking the town - I bumped into shining Neil. "How do you find Brighton after so long?" he asked. I said it looked seedy. "It's always looked seedy," he said. Twelve years back, when Neil was experiencing God in a guru, he was walking round in a loin cloth with wild open eyes. I tried again to penetrate his eyes. We managed a smile, but the eyes were surface, flat; their lustre gone.
I quizzed Neil about old friends. Did he know of this one or that? Did he know of Spanish Frank? "Frank Lewis? He died sometime in the early eighties. Crashed his bike."
I sat a moment.
"Oh, that Crazy Jane," said Neil, "with the deep voice. I see her around." Now his eyes lit for a moment. "She's looking splendid. On the up and up. Always smiling."
Did he know how I could reach her? "She's around," he said, and paused. "I think she's working at a hostel. The one for recovering alcoholics up in Kemp Town."
I phoned. They told me a Jane, with a different surname, would be in at seven. I left a message and said I would phone again. That voice, deep, conjuring lady wrestlers, vibrant, conjuring Winston Churchill? How did I forget that voice? Gone with Frank's face that I can't even conjure. I had written a short story about my encounter with Jane, and I wanted her to read it. We arranged to met in a pub near her home up at the Seven Dials. She looked her age - late thirties - only a little bit weathered - meeting again after half a life time. Her eyes were still frank, but less transparent then in her wild days. Now she had careful boundaries.
After an exchange of pleasantries, I gave Jane a copy of my story. It being short, she insisted on reading it right there. When she got to the part about stabbing the therapist at the Copenhagen airport, she stopped. "When you phoned yesterday," she told me, "and they said that you had an American accent, I wasn't sure whether it was you or that therapist. I'm glad it was you."
Jane offered some corrections to the story as I had recalled it. It wasn't a knife that she had taken from her handbag at the airport. It was a scissors, though Jane thought that a knife made for a better story. The copy of the story I had given her lacked a title page, and she asked me if the story had a name. "I call it 'Catching Butterflies'," I informed her. "You were the butterfly that I couldn't catch."
Jane explained a few things about our brief interlude - our almost meeting, not quite loving, seventeen years before. "You didn't know I was a lesbian? It pisses my husband off," she said with a tender laugh. Her husband was very ill. Serious T.B. (Or not T.B.) And Crazy Jane took it on the chin. And crazy Jane was sane.
"When I met you I was falling apart again."
"I noticed," I said.
"And after that I fell through the floor. I spent two years on the street. I don't mean whoring. I wasn't up to that. Destitution. Bag lady. Didn't know what time was. What city. Two years sleeping rough. Out of it. Frank Lewis took me in. Saved me. I lived with Frank for two years. I don't mean I lived with him. We were never lovers. I stayed at his place. He looked after me. Amazing man. Almost imperturbable. Finally we had a falling out. A big fight. I guess I had to see if I could move him." She looked wistful. "We patched it up before... He died, you know. In the early eighties. Drove his bike into a wall. I can't help but think that it wasn't an accident. He had cancer. I think maybe..." The words died away.
I told Jane the story of his driving off the road. His hunches. She nodded her head as she listened. And I volunteered the story of the Jade Buddha, the love piece. I don't know why. Jane listened quietly, and then replied, "Then that explains it. When I left, ran away, after we fell out, I took a couple of things from my room. A rug, an ashtray and the Buddha. I'd been with them so long, tender years - I felt they defined... I felt they were mine. Frank called the cops. I could never understand why he did that."
our brief, not quite affair, Jane had sent me a postcard, a line drawing of God's
finger reaching out to Adam as on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. "Keep
in touch," it said. So here's an answer, seventeen years on, an ode to Spanish
Frank; a story, without an ending, unless it's Frank splattered on a wall and
my meeting Jane again to find this link between us.