It’s official. Frankie is the worst person in the country. She says so herself, and the only thing she has never done is tell a lie. Sometimes she is too honest, too quick to speak her mind.
Personally, I am envious of people with an ability to speak like this. It is refreshing to the ears, and, for a time, thwarts my tendencies to conform. In Frankie’s case it has landed her in a place she would rather not be. Perhaps here there is a warning for those of us tempted towards the shimmering paths of integrity: Don’t ever tell the truth. These days it is confused with being of an unsound mind.
Frankie’s original condition is a mystery. Nobody even knows when it first whispered its menacing presence. To maintain this unresolved atmosphere, doctors in the first hospital have sworn her to secrecy. This is another thing she does: keep secrets. She has been keeping them since she was first told one when she was six years old. At this stage she is brimming with them. What I’d like to know is where she finds the room. All I’ve ever gotten out of her about that first secret is the word poison. Possibly, this was an early clue to her future.
There are other clues. But they are unsatisfactory. All they seem to do is compound the mystery. After her stint in the first hospital, for instance, it turns out her original condition is not one but two different conditions. This is what the hush-hush doctors say. So by extension, she is harbouring not one but two further secrets. This must force a strain on her fragile resources. It seems unfair. Of course, Frankie has no problem with secrecy. It is a game she knows how to play. Still. She finds it a little strange that the doctors want her to stay quiet about certain things. It goes further. They do not want her mingling with other patients. They do not want her discussing circumstances over the telephone. They do not trust her open mind.
‘What is wrong with my daughter?’ Mother asks.
‘Sssh,’ the doctors say, and put fingers to lips.
After that they spend a lot of time out of sight. Rumour has it they are preparing questions for Frankie. They want answers before they can treat her secret conditions. Possibly they have other matters to attend.
Meantime, Frankie is unsure. She doesn’t know which doctor to favour with an answer. When question time arrives she says she would prefer to be in a room with the Gestapo. Or the CIE.
‘You mean the CIA,’ Mother tells her.
‘No. I mean the CIE. You try getting it through to one of those bus drivers that you have no idea where you are going. Just drive, I tell them. But they always insist on an answer. This is the last time I ask you, love. Where are you going? But it is never the last time. I wish they would stick to their word.’
‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ Mother says.
‘There is nothing medically wrong with you,’ announces the doctor in the next hospital.
In hospitals, it is no surprise for a patient to greet a comment like this with unfettered displays of euphoria. So we expect the doctor’s diagnosis to be a defining moment. But Frankie is not euphoric. She can hardly keep her eyes open. After another opinion, she is transferred to the topmost ward.
‘Who is in charge of this idea?’ Mother wants to know.
‘We should be grateful,’ I tell Mother. ‘Frankie lacks energy. She is not ready to step back into the real world.’
By the time she has arrived at the topmost ward we have been told to separate the conditions from the patient. Mother looks confused but separation does not present me with a problem. For as long as I can remember I have been making lists of people side by side with a corresponding list of what I think is wrong with them. It is a system I employ to detach unwary victims from the severities of existence. My list reminds me that foolishness and despair are not always a person’s own doing. My list is now a book.
In my book Frankie has competition. There is a set of parents, and, not one, but two other sisters. These were the first names to appear on my list. In time others appeared. My cousin Tommy. The manager of the Longford branch of Dunnes Stores. My ex-girlfriend’s best friend’s boyfriend. Bono. And, once he started doing television on Friday nights, Pat Kenny. Sometimes I remove one of the original names from the list. Once or twice, I have added my own name.
‘Are too many eggs bad for you?’ Frankie wants to know when her tray of food arrives.
‘The cheek of her,’ Mother says, as though Frankie is not present. ‘And not a word about what she’s been feeding on for the last four years.’
‘Get those eggs inside you,’ I tell her.
‘Who the hell are you giving orders to?’ she now wants to know. ‘And hey! Am I still on your list?’
It is difficult to break into conversation, to crack open the hard shells that have been forming around us all this time. I try not to ask questions. They don’t go anywhere. Nor do I supply answers. I am afraid it will be the wrong answer, which is strange. I seldom know what I’m going to say until I’ve said it. Usually I regret it too. Instead, I memorise in advance what I am going to say. This helps a little. But not much. Mother asks lots of questions. They serve the same evasive function as my not-asking.
‘What are the others like?’ Mother asks.
‘They’re all nuts,’ Frankie says, poking a fork through her eggs as if searching for concealed substances. ‘That one over there keeps packing her suitcase. Every few minutes she is going somewhere. Where are you going, Margaret? the nurses ask her. Then she unpacks and gets back into bed. Last week another one took off without bothering to pack. They said she does it at the same time every year. Like a swallow flying south for winter. Now that the climate is changing they don’t know when to expect her.’
‘How long has she been here?’
‘Don’t know. Before she fled she accused everyone of sprinkling dish- washing powder into her Bolognese. There’s an aftertaste, she said. A nurse told me it’s the only way to get anti-depressants into her. See that one over there. Stole money from her husband’s mother. She won’t say how much or what she did with it. She told me she’s been married for fifty years. Once for twenty-two years. Once for ten years. And three times each for six years. She says her love CV reads very well. She says an acute sense of responsibility leaves her in a state of permanent unrest. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? I’ve seen her try but she is unable to do anything for herself. They tell me I am paralysed by fear.’
‘Eat those eggs,’ I tell her. ‘There’s no point talking to us now.’
‘Be quiet, list-maker. I’m answering. There are three Kitties and a Katie. One of the Kitties is eighty-eight. She is not responsible. On Thursday she saw fireworks for the very first time. You should have seen her face light up. She won’t let us turn on the TV. It affects her asthma. Tomorrow, she’s leaving too.
In a helicopter. As soon as she transfers the insurance from her car. I’ll miss her but at least I’ll be able to see The Sopranos.’
‘The Sopranos has finished. Mother and I watch Brothers and Sisters. There are lots of secrets. You’d like it.’
‘Please. Give me a break. Did I tell you I have a wheelchair? I am to be pushed everywhere. I’m like the Queen. You, boy, push me. It’s time for my cigarette.’
Frankie pushes aside her tray of eggs, steps out of her bed and into the chair. I wheel it to the lift. Along the corridors I test the chair for speed. The blanket sticks in the wheels and when the chair jars to a sudden standstill, Frankie is propelled head first to the ground. She gathers herself and steps outside for a cigarette.
Outside, it’s chilly. While I pace on the spot, Mother appears with a coat for Frankie. Frankie is still answering.
‘Did I tell you we have Angelina Jolie? Hello, she says. My name isn’t Sharon, it’s Angelina.’
‘Does she look like her?’
‘She looks like the Bride of Frankenstein. She has started writing her life story. She wants Helen Mirren to play her in the movie version.’
‘Helen Mirren is too old to play Angelina Jolie,’ Mother says.
‘She’s too dignified,’ I say.
‘She is not,’ Mother blurts. ‘I heard her say Queen, my arse on TV.’
‘Be quiet now. I have to tell you both something. I woke up this morning and realised: this place is growing on me.’
‘That’s because it’s morbid. You feel superior.’
‘Yes, but I worry about people. I even worry about doctors. Especially the one who says there’s nothing medically wrong with me. He pastes photographs from magazines onto cardboard rectangles. I’ve seen him with my own eyes. Collage for the soul he calls it.’
‘Sounds like something for people who don’t know how to use a crayon,’ Mother says.
‘The nurses are brilliant. They look out windows with me. We admire the views. There are really great views on my floor. They won’t stop feeding me. They say I’m meeting targets. About these eggs…’
‘Our sister is coming,’ I say.
‘Which one? The one who hates me or the one who wishes I was dead?’
‘The one who wishes but there’s no need to be like that. She just doesn’t want to talk about you all the time. It’s a sister-sister thing. As opposed to the brother-sister thing we have. I can separate the person from all the mysterious conditions. She just sees a nuisance. I see a nuisance and a headcase.’
‘They say that’s a healthier way of looking at it. Jennifer is a bitch.’
‘Of course she is. She wants the whole world to go away—except her little patch.’
‘She’s so distant, isn’t she? A distant bitch—the best place for bitches.’
‘I’m going to save that for when she arrives.’
‘Do. But I want credit.’
I’m glad Frankie likes it here. It is morbid. I wonder what my older sister will make of it all. It’s unfair to call her a bitch. She is many things. But not that. Nor is she my older sister. My sisters are all younger than me. But I like to call Jennifer my older sister. It sets her apart. She has figured out her life. She is going places. Plus she looks older than me.
Once, Jennifer told me what she really thinks. You are nothing, she said. It was towards the end of a rant—something she likes to do. You think you are something, her rant had begun. By the end of it I was nothing. We called her Six-babies when she was little. She doesn’t cry as much anymore. She rants. But Six-rants doesn’t have the same ring to it. She is due any moment now. I’m looking forward to her presence. I’m in the mood for a rant. I just hope she redirects it.
A man hobbles through the exit doors. He is tall, gaunt looking, trying to grow a beard. He holds his arms out in front of him. His hands tremble. He pauses before Frankie.
‘You are four great people.’
‘This is the Thief,’ Frankie says. ‘He steals things. Cigarettes, flower vases, my pyjamas. I told him I was going to knock his block off. He said I wouldn’t beat a paper bag. He said I wouldn’t kick grass. He said I have less sense than tadpoles. Keep talking, I said to him. But if any more pyjamas disappear I’m going to burn your beard. Since then he goes out of his way to pay me compliments.’
‘Let’s go into the grounds,’ Mother says.
The grounds are pleasant. There is a pitch and putt course, a tennis court, a gazebo where patients and loved ones smoke. There are gardens with walking paths. In the distance I see deer and old men running. Frankie eyes the exit gates.
‘You know what I they think should do?’ she says. ‘Abolish unnecessary visits. In future, circumstances must be exceptional. And once you have seen the person you came to visit, leave the hospital directly.’
‘What do you think we’re going to do on our way out?’ I say. ‘Tour the wards. Distribute cures on the q.t.’
‘Flowers should be banned too. The lights went out the other night. The electricians were arguing over who should change them. You should have heard them going at it. We could make a joke. How many electricians does it take to change a light bulb? The electricians are nuts. Watch out. Here’s the Thief.’
‘You don’t have a spare cigarette,’ the Thief asks a smoker happening by.
‘You’re exactly right, I don’t,’ the smoker replies. ‘And when I do it won’t have your name on it.’
‘Here you go, Thief,’ Frankie says, handing him a couple of cigarettes.
‘You are four great people.’
Mother often wonders how Frankie became such a warm individual. This wonder is conveyed in mantras. As a child Frankie was very distant. As a teenager Frankie was a little rip. Now that Frankie is a young adult could she kill her, Mother wonders.
Mother often asks me how I remember Frankie. Did I notice indications?
There’s no point asking, I always say. Besides, as soon as I could, I took off. I noticed very little. That’s what your older sister says, Mother informs me.
I remember friendly terms when she was little. There was a lengthy separation after that, but I don’t see it as anything to do with a lack of warmth. We both wanted to step away, and chose the first path we could take. Except for the time I told Father what she was doing with his chequebook. She cooled towards me after that. I suppose she thought it was our little secret.
‘This is the nicest hospital I’ve been in,’ she says. ‘At 3 a.m. last night I fell asleep. I woke up with my head inside my locker. Are you searching for something, Frankie? the nurse asked when she looked in. Does anybody want to see my room?’
‘This place is like an art gallery,’ I say en route. ‘Look at those views. You can see right across the bay. There’s not a cloud in the sky. It’s like being in a different country.’
She has a TV in her room; books heaped onto her bedside locker; a journal with a clasp. On the wall photographs of her dogs: swimming after a stick, drooling in her car, chasing the ocean. Don’t mention the dogs, I’ve been warned.
‘They keep you busy,’ I say, pointing to her timetable for the week.
‘Busy as bees,’ she answers. ‘We buy food and cook. We eat and talk. We look in mirrors and describe what we see. I get it wrong every time.’
‘Is there anything you want?’ I ask.
‘A movie. Something light.’
‘I watched Chicago the other night,’ Mother says.
‘I started to watch it,’ I say. ‘It reminded me of Christmas. So I turned it off.’
‘You’re such a cynic.’
‘It could be worse. I could be a sceptic.’
‘I know the difference between a cynic and a septic.’
‘It’s sceptic, not septic.’
‘Tell a cynic a compliment and he’ll say up yours too. Tell a septic a compliment and he’ll say thanks, but I don’t know that I agree.’
‘Is Father coming?’ Frankie asks.
‘Not today,’ Mother replies. ‘There are too many of us. Plus, I think he’s coming around to the notion that I’m trying to have him killed. He accuses me of calling him back when he’s halfway across a busy road. Is there a bus coming? he shouts over his shoulder. Actually, I do call him back but he always makes it to the other side. I don’t know what he’s bothered about. He’ll outlive us all.’
‘He told me about this policy he has. Very expensive. Guaranteed to pay out very nicely.’
‘I know the one. Murder doesn’t count, he warned me. So don’t get any ideas. He says he has a condition for when the fateful moment arrives. If I am located within ten miles of the corpse, all bets are off. Suicide doesn’t count either, he said. We should humour him more.’
‘Is he still obsessed with the death of Napoleon?’
‘He’s now convinced the English poisoned him. The English maintain it was stomach cancer. Saint Helena was a desolate place. Not at all like Elba. Did you know Napoleon had an Irish doctor? His name was O’Meara.’
‘Has Father told you about his dream?’ Frankie asks.
‘The one about the yellow frog?’
‘No. The one about the red Audi. Remember he used to have a red Audi. He was emotional about it. In his dream he goes to bed convinced it is going to be stolen from his driveway. He has it every night.’
‘And is it stolen?’
‘I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. The point is that he is anxious about the future. That’s what he says dreams are about. The future. Dreams are prophecies, he says. They tell you what will happen as opposed to what has. He’s even come up with a way to remember them.’
‘What does he want to remember an anxious future for? As if the present isn’t bad enough.’
‘I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Every night he sets his alarm clock for six o’clock. When he wakes, he sets it again for eight o’clock. Then he goes back into a not-so-deep sleep, and at eight o’clock he remembers everything.’
‘What’s so special about a red Audi?’ I wonder aloud. Frankie gives me a look.
Our genes have been quarrelling for centuries. We are touchy. Feelings run deep and surface easily. It is dangerous to look directly at us. Not a good idea to tiptoe into our presence. You will regret small talk. We detect malevolent intent in this kind of thing. We have a sixth sense. We are a scary bunch when we react. If I catch somebody looking my way, I imagine him meeting sinister ends. By our standards, this is a pathetic reaction. Perhaps if I was a sister or a father it would be different. We are also dogged. We survive.
My older sister arrives. She looks like she is on a mission.
‘Somebody better tell me just exactly what the hell is going on.’
‘It’s always about her,’ Frankie says.
‘Over to you, Mother,’ I say, and duck into the canteen.
I order a cup of watery coffee and ten pieces of black pudding. ‘Another quip like that and I’ll have you barred,’ the chef tells me. I receive my tray of goodies and take a seat.
Near me sits a doctor. Possibly he is a consultant specialist. Or an electrician. Or a patient. It becomes more and more difficult to tell people apart. He is tucking into a plate of eggs, and wolfs them down as though his life depends on it. When he’s done, a cleaner approaches his table and is quickly banished. Holding on to his knife and fork, he glares at the empty plate in front of him, as though the scrambled yellow mess now inside him has just confirmed someone’s worst suspicions: Too many eggs are definitely bad for you.