Frankie wished she could say something. She could never talk when it was needed. Usually she reveled in quiet but now the silence of the hospital room oppressed her. It made her shrink and writhe with displeasure. She wanted to run, scream, kick, make a sound; do anything, anything except sit still like this.
Where was Fenny? When she needed her sister the most she of course wasn’t there. She was the one who should be handling this, she was the one who’d forgiven their father or at least pretended to have forgiven him. She was the one who had the busy city life, the one who reached places late and left early all in a breezy, I’ve-got-to-get-somewhere-more-important air.
And she – Frankie had nothing but school and that could never be an excuse for anything. That had no currency, inspired no awe and was utterly uninteresting. She wasn’t really doing anything; everyone knew that school was a farce. All people ever asked was – How is school dear? She answered depending on her mood. If she was in a good one she’d mutter a fine thank you, if she was bored she’d say – Oh actually it’s very stimulating. I gain fascinating knowledge on a daily basis about the facets of human life and learn plenty of useful facts. Of course, no one asked about school anymore, simply because there was always something else that took center stage until someone remembers that you won’t be in school for very long and then they start asking you about what you want to do after.
Frankie looked at her father, who for the sake of both of them was pretending that he was asleep and had closed his eyes. We’re a family of pretenders, Frankie mused and every family must deal with things like this. Marriages, children those are things that you initiate but every once in a while life bowls a full toss at you, something that you least expect, something that you never see coming and it corners you, and forces you to change how you think, forces you to forgive, it demands compassion. It was that kind of a situation where you had no option but courage and Frankie didn’t like that, she preferred being selfish, it required less effort.
Things got a lot worse when Fenny left and the worst part was that Fenny was so happy to go, she talked about it like it was a good thing, she talked about missing home and missing school but never once did she think of what would happen to Frankie alone with their father. Never once did she say – Frankie I’ll get you out of here. She was only too glad to go without as much as a backward glance. Frankie shut the door behind her, only too happy for the quiet in the house to deal with the stone of discontent that had formed and fallen to the pit of her stomach, a heavy, underwater kind of stone.
Frankie knew very little of what families could be like. She remembered nothing of her mother. Her neurotic sister alternated between protecting her and deserting her while she went off to ‘Live God Damn it, Be Free!’ Of her father the less said the better; she played a constant game of cat and mouse with him, terrified of losing and not daring to win. She didn’t ever call any girls from school home – she just couldn’t say -Welcome, do come in, meet my family.
Frankie was good at every little and bad at almost nothing so she got away without being noticed much. But this however was undeniably her fault. There were no two ways about it. She’d forgotten to check the fridge and when she’d come back from school that day her father was lying flat on the floor, whether he was breathing was hard to say. Frankie could feel a pulse and hear a slight wheezing. Fenny was the first person she called and Fenny was the first person who was busy. Mrs. Jacob was the sixth person she called and Mrs. Jacob was the first person who was not busy. Mrs. Jacob was the widow who ran the local nursery school for tiny tots which Fenny and Frankie had attended when they were; well, when they were tiny tots. Fenny was absolutely adored by old Mrs. Jacob and when Frankie joined, Mrs. Jacob would always, always call her Fenny’s sister, nothing else, less or more.
Mrs. Jacob said she would call the hospital and then be over as fast as her stubby legs could carry her. Fenny waited. For 10 minutes she just sat by her father making no attempt to revive him, feeling no desire to touch him, pump his chest or to help him breathe. She simply sat and waited.
Fenny pushed the swing door open; her face showing the worry that Frankie didn’t feel.
“Is he going to be ok?”
Fenny repeated what the doctors had said, “No”.
“No? What do you mean no? How can that be possible? He’s been taking his pills everyday and drinking one peg in two days, they said that was ok.”
Sure Fenny, anything you want to believe. Maybe if you’d come over more often you’d stop pretending like you actually believed that father stuck to the rules and that I would actually dare to tell him not to drink more than he should. I don’t want to have his belt buckle on my backside, he can drink all he wants for all my bum cares, Fenny wanted to say.
“I don’t understand either; you should talk to the doctors.”
“Since how long has he been sleeping?”
Couldn’t she tell that he wasn’t sleeping? “Since before I got here, which was an hour back.”
Her phone started ringing. She had a very insistent ring tone. “Ok you stay here; I’ll go see what I can do.”
Frankie turned around to look out of the window that overlooked the hospital park. Resident patients sat around in their striped uniforms making them all look like prisoners in jail, they were in a way, and maybe we all are in a way.
“Frankie”, her father said, his voice hoarse but still trying to sound authoritative. She was so surprised to hear him call her name that in her haste of spinning around her legs got entangled and she promptly plopped down on the floor.
“Yes father” she said, getting up.
“Don’t tell them about the drinks and I won’t say a word about you not stopping me.”
What was this? A bargain? Blackmail? Or sheer idiocy and immaturity? Frankie nodded and turned back towards the window. Seeing her father helpless on the bed was a new feeling. He was everything and anything except helpless but now he was in trouble. Big trouble, if he bailed himself out this time it would be a miracle. There was only so much abuse that the body can take.
Their father died that night, with his liver packed in and cholesterol clogging his blood vessels; it took just another minor heart attack to do him in. There was no other word to describe what Frankie felt except pure, liquid relief. She went home and pulled out all his clothes that were torn, dirty or smelt of alcohol and put them in a huge pile on the carpet. What remained was a pair of socks and a red tie, the one he had worn when he had got married. There was no point in sending one lone tie to the shelter so she added that to the pile as well, gathered it up and heaved it over her shoulder. She took the whole lot downstairs, out through the garden, down the street and to the garbage dump. With one mighty swing she gave the bundle wings.
Frankie came back and using some inbuilt reserves of energy, scrubbed the entire house clean. The kitchen sink, the windows, the sofa covers, the corridor curtains and the ceiling fans all got the scrub of their lifetime. She lined the cupboard shelves with newspaper and took out all the empty bottles and old magazines. She even ventured into the garage and rearranged the useless boxes, disturbed the spiders and spotted a mouse.
Flushed with her success and with nothing left to do Frankie sat down at the clean kitchen table with her books. Finally, finally she could read without nonsensical television noises and beer belches. Finally, and though it had indeed been Frankie’s fault it had also been Frankie’s first mission and now it was accomplished. Extermination complete. What next? Maybe she’d become an actress, or do something equally outrageous like go to college.
Frankie’s eyes wandered around the kitchen until they locked with Fenny’s looking out of a photograph from a magnetic picture frame on the refrigerator. She was smiling a fake camera smile with her lips pursed together, the kind that you couldn’t look at for very long. Her eyes wandered out to the garden, the dahlias were in full bloom though now they were drooping their petal-led heads in the moonlight. Ideas floated in the air, ideas of the dangerous kind. She looked at the picture again.
Maybe very soon something else would also be her fault.