Frankie’s List, a short story by Louise Hall
12 Stories of Christmas: Day 1
Sleeping rough in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
I’ve less than ten minutes I reckon, before your woman Sadie, with her gold loopy earrings and yellow streaked hair, comes around from behind the hotplate, wipes her hands on her apron and reaches for the bell. She always gives a warning before it tolls, clearing her throat like she’s making some sort of important speech that no one wants to listen to.
“Time, ladies and gents. If you could bring your empties up to the kitchen and make your way to the front door now please, so we can close up shop for tonight. Tanks ferry much.”
She’s only short of throwing in – “Have ye no homes to go to?” – Only she knows that would be pushing it just a bit too far. Even for Sadie.
So, I’m looking around the room, filtering through the faces of the familiar, everyone wearing the same pitiful look as they do every evening at this time, seeing if I can spot the hobbit in his brown dress – the one he ties with a rope – before we’re all thrown out for what will be another night of obligatory stargazing.
Sure he’s a grand man, the hobbit, or Brother Hubie as he likes to be known. But he has a terrible habit – or a wonderful knack – of disappearing when you’re looking for him, or appearing when you want to be left alone.
But I need to see him now because I know he’ll make it right. Or at least make it feel alright. Even if he can’t put the pieces of the jigsaw back together.
It’s the list. The one with the names on it that he helped me write a fortnight ago. Even though I hadn’t written a single word in more than twenty years and even though I told him that I couldn’t, that I didn’t want to. He did as Brother Hubie always does. Persevered.
“It’s not an obligation, Frankie Boy, ” he told me, “It’s a necessity.”
And now look where it’s got me; up to bleedin’ ninety and less than ten minutes to spare before they shut up shop for the night.
I can hear the clanging of plates on a table behind me and the smell of Sadie’s cheap toilet water perfume spittin’ at the back of my neck. Her breath is hot like a dragon and I know she’s about to spout out some sour words so I tip my cap down over my face and wait for the onslaught.
“Don’t chastise me, woman,” I’m about to say and then a fight breaks out near the hot plate and she’s running over, waving her hands in the air like a mad woman, as if it’s one of her young that’s being attacked.
He’s usually here at this time, floating about and laying his hands on shoulders, patting the backs of withered and worn men, whispering a prayer or two that no one can hear. And when I’m sober, like I am now, I look deep into his brown dopey eyes. If look hard enough, I can see the pain and suffering of everyone he meets, swimming around in a deep pool, never sinking to the bottom but never surfacing to the top either. The man is living through his own purgatory. But then, aren’t the rest of us too.
I run the sleeve of my duffle over the frosted window, just enough so I can look outside to see if I can catch a glimpse of Brother Hubie. I think it’s Thursday because the usual posh nobs, all suited and booted, are flocking into McPhelan’s pub across the way, jubilant that it’s pay day and that they can savour a well-earned pint. If I’m lucky, and I get into the doorway of the vacant Georgian gaff across from the square before anyone else, then they might throw me a coin or two on their way home.
It’s one of them. The great dilemmas of life. The aul’ battle of conscience.
‘Don’t give him anything, he’ll only spend it on drugs or booze.’
‘Ah give him something, the poor fella’s just down on his luck.’
Oh, they know me so well.
The cafe is starting to empty out. Rashers is talking quietly to Sadie and they’re both looking over at me every so often.
I need my list. But it’s still not there. Not in the pockets of my trousers or coat. Not tucked into my sock or folded into the toe of my shoe.
I close my eyes and try to remember the colour of the ink.
The names at the top of the page.
Karen and the boys.
She had to be first on the list because it was never her fault. Not one bit of it. She didn’t deserve it, what I did on her. On us.
“You have destroyed our family,” she said to me on the day I left our home with two black bin liners hosting all my tangible possessions. The boys were hiding behind her legs, not understanding why their da was looking so vulnerable. So weak. So scared.
Fifteen years since I saw her last, right up until a week ago. For the first five years after she threw me out, I went back every so often. Always promising her I had changed, that I’d sorted myself out. That it would be different now. But it never was. And so I stopped going back. I left for the last time with the image of my wife and three sons, their faces contorted with pain, and me not knowing or remembering why.
But I’ve put it right, just like Brother Hubie told me I needed to.
She didn’t recognise me when I called at the door. The years haven’t been kind.
“You’ve aged, Frankie,” she said standing under the doorway, unsure if she should let me in.
“How are the boys?” I asked as I stood there like a timid schoolchild, absorbing the ethereal beauty of my wife’s face, wanting to reach out and touch the deep lines that were etched around her eyes.
“All grown up now, Frankie, with families of their own,” she said with a smile. “You’re a grandfather too, four times over. Maybe you’d like to meet them all someday soon.”
“I would love that, Karen,” I said, not sure if I could continue as my voice began to break.
Deep breaths, you can do it. It’s a necessity, Frankie Boy.
“And I’m sorry. Sorry for everything,” I croaked.
I watched the lines in her face soften. Her shoulders lowered and her folded arms fell to her side. She stood back from the door and invited me in.
Eddie and Nora.
Eddie was at home getting ready to go visit Nora in the nursing home.
“Come with me, son,” he offered after the first half hour of awkward silence.
“She’s not herself anymore and she mightn’t recognise you, but at least the nurses will believe that she actually has a son,” Da said as he drove us both up to the hill of Howth and into the gravelled car park of ‘Dun Roamin’ nursing home.
“Is she happy in herself, Da?” I asked before we went inside.
“Happy out, Frankie,” he said.
“The nurses tell me that every time a fancy car pulls into the driveway of the home, your Ma gets up out of her bed and goes to the window. ‘That’s my Frankie coming to see me,’ she says. And the nurses all say to her, ‘Of course it is Nora, now let’s get you back into bed, dear’.”
And I’m happy that that one memory of me, coming to see her in my company car, all those years back when I was a young buck with guts and ambition, is the one she clings onto in her final years.
I’m an only child but Vince was like a brother to me, all six foot six of him with his shovel-like hands, timid personality and heart so tender it must have been made of soft clouds. When Karen threw me out for the last time, Vince was the next person I latched onto.
“I need your help, mate,” I pleaded. And he didn’t step back as the stench of stale whiskey blew into his face.
“Come in, buddy,” he said in that same whispering tone that exuded an unnatural strength. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Two days I lasted in Vince’s city centre bedsit. But I could take the withdrawals no more. I cleaned him out of every last cent, every valuable he ever had. Then I left, leaving nothing but my rancid smell and a trashed room in my wake.
Then I made my home on the streets.
I didn’t know what ever happened to Vince. How life turned out for him or where he was living. They knocked down his old bedsit, turned it into some fancy convenience store. But Brother Hubie helped me write him a letter. He came with me to his parent’s house just a few doors down from where I grew up. I let Brother Hubie do the talking because the tremors had been too bad for me that day.
“It’s good to see you, Frankie,” Vince’s da said before putting his arm around his wife, “but Vince passed away two years ago. Died suddenly in his sleep. A heart attack, the doctors said.”
Brother Hubie asked if we could go and visit his grave.
“Of course you can,” Vince’s da said. “I know he’d love a visit from Frankie.”
Then he turned to me with red swollen eyes and said, “You were his only friend.”
I can’t remember.
That’s why I need my list.
That’s why I need Brother Hubie.
I can remember that I wanted to put him on the list but he said NO.
And when Brother Hubie said NO, he meant NO.
“There is no need to put me on the list, Frankie Boy. I’m around you all the time. I’m here for you whenever you need me,” he had said.
“Time, ladies and gents please!” She’s at it again – Sadie barking orders and acting like she owns the joint.
I scratch at the cut in the back of my head and curse my mind for how weak it has become. So weak that I can’t even remember a single name on a short little list.
And I know I’ve myself to blame because there’s only so much abuse your brain can take. The alcohol, the pills, the heroin, the pain, the regret, the thrill, the hit, the want, the need, the numbness, the yearning.
I don’t know.
But I know that I don’t want to be where I was three weeks ago, waking up under the glare of the emergency room, the contents of my stomach being pumped into a silver bowl, the feeling that the lights were getting brighter each second, and the want to be closer to them so overwhelming.
And though my eyes were shut, I could hear them all talking to Brother Hubie. How I was nearly gone. How they brought me back. How it would have been too late if she had found me minutes later.
As I bury my head in my hands, knowing the cafe doors will soon be locked, I start to remember being in the recovery room and Brother Hubie standing by my side, a pair of wooden rosary beads entwined in his hand which was holding mine.
“It’s alright, Frankie Boy,” he was saying. “You’re going to be alright.”
At the door near the foot of my bed, I remember seeing a figure, so familiar yet so strange.
I couldn’t speak, couldn’t ask Brother Hubie who it was.
“If it wasn’t for her finding you on her way home from work, then you wouldn’t have made it, Frankie Boy. She brought you here herself, said she couldn’t wait for the paramedics.”
A week later, we wrote the list.
“Frankie Boy,” Brother Hubie has come out of nowhere and has his hand on my shoulder. “It’s time for Sadie and the others to lock up now, I’m afraid. They’ve been working hard all day serving up meals, and they need to get on home now. Have you somewhere to go tonight yourself?”
I stand up from the table and button up my duffle before fixing my cap so it’s firmly on my head.
“I’ll be alright Brother Hubie,” I say, “It’s a mild enough night tonight.”
“How are you getting on with the list?” he asks in a whisper.
“Fine Brother Hubie, just fine,” I say to him as I gather my black bin liner from the floor.
“Just one more person and I’m done.”
I walk slowly over to the hot plate just at the same time as Sadie is taking off her stained apron and letting down her greasy hair.
And it’s clear now.
So clear that it’s dancing like a motion picture before my eyes.
And she’s looking at me, the way everyone on the list looked at me when they saw me approach them. Unsure, nervous, frightened.
“Sadie,” I say as I push my hands deep into my pockets and try not to look at the floor. “I’m sorry for giving you a fright a few weeks ago.”
Sadie grabs her coat and swings it over her shoulders.
“It’s alright Frankie,” she says, “just don’t do it again, ay.”
Then she reaches into her handbag and takes out a crumpled piece of paper.
“Here,” she says as she hands it to me, “I found this on the floor the other night. I think it belongs to you.”
Sadie winks at me, throws the keys to Brother Hubie and then heads out the door.
I open it up and read down to the bottom of the page.
And I smile.
Louise Hall is a writer from Malahide. She has two non-fiction books published with Columba Press and one with Italian publisher Edizioni Piemme. This story was shortlisted for the inaugural Colm Tóibín Short Story Competition 2016. louisehall.ie Twitter: @LouHallWriter