Frank's Teutonik Fate
by Zulfikar Abbany
Before turning the key in the third lock of his front door, Frank N. Red stole a glance back out onto the road. He craned his neck and it creaked. The hedge had grown well this year, he thought, although it was virtually dead from the waist down. Even so, it had grown well enough for him to have to stand on tiptoes to look over it. That went for the neighbours too.
Frank lived in a quiet street. Ever since the milkman's round had been cancelled things had been very quiet indeed. No children played football in the road, they waited patiently in cars instead. Chocolate wrappers replaced leaves in drains, clogging them up. No one mowed lawns, or had the decorators round to add little bits to their houses like fake chimneys or Romanesque pillars. There were no DIY fanatics round Frank's way, least of all Frank.
His place lacked light. Or what you might call a certain lightness; the curtains were permanently drawn, the windows filthy, there was cracked paint on the outside and mossy red brick. And who knows what it looked like on the inside. Apart from Frank, who knew indeed?
Frank stepped inside, stood still for a while, then cautiously edged the door shut with a heel. He moved to the front room, dropped his jacket, scarf, and keys and removed his shoes. Then came a moment of nothing. When it had passed, he crouched down to take two plastic bags from a courier's satchel, went into the next room and emptied out the contents of each onto a glass coffee table, making sure his hands did not touch the books that poured out, and that the soiled bags did not touch the table.
Seven titles littered the green transparent surface, scattered like the sticks in a game he used to play: Mikado. There were hardbacks and paperbacks, fiction but mostly non-fiction: a new history of the Indian mutiny of 1857, a biography of Helmut Kohl, George Soros' On Globalisation, some self-help volumes (how to … /how not to …), Kureishi and Savage's The Faber Book of Pop, and a couple of soft copies off that year's Booker shortlist. Each book was replete with its own little bookmark, provided by the shop just off the Charing Cross Road that Frank visited whenever he could. He stared at the goods for a while but began to sway, out of balance and light headed. Crouching down, he had cut off the blood to his legs. Slowly he got up, shaking off the rush, and resumed what had become a regimented, tiresome process.
An hour or so passed; Frank slouched down to watch the tail end of the early evening news with a mug in one hand and the other fingering his damp hair. The city seemed casual through the box, less, … he thought, but the word refused to come. There were, he started again, … but trailed off almost immediately. What use is it talking when the only person listening is me, thought Frank, and I, sort of know what I am thinking anyway? Sort of.
A clock sat above the television. It was just after seven. Frank considered making another hot drink, perhaps even getting some dried fruit. But his mind drifted to the books he had brought back from town. He fingered them gently, impressed with the embossed cover of one. He flicked through the pages of another and sniffed at the print. Frank enjoyed the smell of freshly printed books. Frank liked the idea that he could tell a new book was new. Even books that had spent months or years waiting to be purchased had that whiff of fresh print about them. At least, to Frank. Equally, he could tell an old book by its smell. Readers cannot avoid leaving evidence of their having walked the pages of a book, mused Frank pretentiously. Smokers who roll their own might leave a yellow smudge here, an avid chocolate eater a brown trail there. And then there were those books that had been neglected, those dusty tomes.
Frank spent a lot of time inspecting his bound-paper loot. He felt that carefully reading the author biography on the jacket of a book, or holding the author's picture close to his nose, were as thrilling as reading a work's opening line for the first time. Frank found it fascinating. Take, for instance, this from a collection of cultural criticism, essays and obituaries: 'D. C. is the author of piercing, perilous novels. His reportage is likewise bold, risk-laden and true.' Piercing. Perilous. True. The three words fired a starting gun in Frank's mind. Would it be an advantage or a disadvantage, wondered Frank, to be piercing and true? Did that mean that all other reportage was untrue? Could you be sued for the implied accusation that all other reportage was untrue? And why did the publishers omit to mention where the author was born, or where he lived now, and with whom – a wife, a same-sex partner and adopted children, or his mother? Or how about this: 'J. M. trained at the University of Birmingham Medical School and worked at various hospitals in the West Midlands. He wrote the highly acclaimed television drama C****** A***** (under the pseudonym of J. M.). This is his first novel.' Blimey, was Frank's reaction to that biography; if the author felt he had had to use a fake name, that television drama couldn't have been any good. So how did he find a publisher for this, his first novel?
The evening headed towards eight o'clock. It was Friday night and Frank had already missed Top of the Pops and one comedy. He considered preparing dinner and removed to the kitchen. His favourite meals were simple things, meals he could eat out of a bowl, with a spoon. A large pile of brown Basmati rice drowned in a tomato and eggplant sauce, for example, topped with a cardiac serving of cheddar cheese. And to wash it down Frank liked to take a glass or three of a Pinot Noir or Bordeaux.
With his dinner made and served, Frank moved slowly down the hall and returned to the living room, placing the bowl of food on the glass table, not far from the books he had bought that day. Slowly, Frank readied himself to refill the crater he had left in the sofa. Hovering above it, he held a TV programme in one hand and a controller in the other.
Plonk! was the sound the sofa made in Frank's mind as his arse landed. It was never all that comfortable to begin with; comfort required the fat in Frank's buttocks to almost seep out of his trousers – of course, it didn't ever do that – but the fluid expanse would allow itself to be moulded like putty by the weight of Frank's overall mass, equalising any air-pockets that may have existed between him and the well-worn upholstery. Except Frank never really thought the process through in such detail. Had he done so, he may well have understood, now that he approached comfort – his fat took time to work its magic – his dinner was out of arms reach. As it was every time. (See diagram below.)
Frank shifted his frame. As he did so, outside, he could hear what sounded like a group of young boys – say, five of them – and a few girls. They were making quite a lot of noise, climbing on walls and jumping off, play fighting, shouting, and kissing in that overdone, loud, teenage way. Frank tried to ignore them. He started by turning up the volume on the television and continued by changing the channel (some programmes, thought Frank, were louder than others). But it was useless. Frank sat motionless; the bowl of rice nestled in his lap, and listened. For a moment, he heard nothing. Then suddenly, there came a compressed bang, the thud of something hitting plastic. Frank knew instinctively what it was: obviously, the group had drinks with them and they had taken to throwing their empties into Frank's paper recycling bin. The dustmen had been in the morning and Frank had yet to bring in the bins from the street. As far as he was concerned, pulling the bins out for collection or bringing them back in was nothing to be done in haste. It was necessary for Frank to gear himself up, make sure no one was looking, make sure no one could see that he was wearing rubber gloves. So, quite often the bins waited 'til Sunday.
The steam rising from Frank's dinner bowl slowed until it was no more. Frank was paralysed. He listened for the sound of further missiles being projected into his paper bin, but heard nothing. He was menopausal. A red heat flushed his body, spreading upwards, from his feet to his head. Once more, however, Frank tried to ignore whatever was happening outside.
What happened next was the action of a desperate, old man. And Frank, in all his youth, knew it. He got up and tiptoed towards the living room window, which looked out onto the street. The curtains, as usual, were drawn. It left Frank with one option: to twitch them. He paused to draw breath, a mighty scoop of air, and held it down. Frank presumed that holding his breath would reduce the risk of his being noticed or heard by the gang outside. But as he gently, and at an aching, snail's pace, pulled back one side of the curtain, his heartbeat grew in volume until he could almost no longer hear the television. Millimetre by millimetre, Frank clawed at the draped, fading material. Soon his head began to buzz from a lack of oxygen; he was forced to exhale. In measured, torturous puffs, Frank attempted to breath out in silence. But he found it impossible. The quieter he tried to be, the louder he seemed, and so he stopped. But his mind wouldn't rest.
Fuck it, he thought. This is my house and I'll twitch the bloody curtains if I want to. Yes, he wanted to, but shame overruled this very brief wave of confidence. Shame, and the prevailing sense that he had failed to proceed in a way in which he believed was socially acceptable.
I've got to start again, Frank told himself. Just let the curtain fall back naturally, he whispered aloud, step back, regain your breath, and then go at it again.
So that was what he did. Releasing the curtain, Frank took three steps back (he had calculated five, but found he walked into a chair while undertaking the fourth). Then Frank steadied his breath. When everything was under control, Frank gathered his thoughts and took those three steps back to the curtain. One, two, three, mouthed Frank as he counted the steps, and then again as he counted himself in before moving. He placed his hands at the ready, his fingertips tickling the fabric. Frank's breathing was constant now and he found that that made things much easier.
Outside, a car drove by in the street and Frank froze. The car passed, and Frank went on.
Finally, Frank had the curtain where he wanted it: firmly grasped in his left hand. The job required one last tug – the last, thought Frank, had to be a fast but smooth one. It was the element of surprise. One, two, three …
Frank pulled at the curtain and found a teenage prankster staring back at him, the boy's lips pressed hard against the glass. 'Fuck!' screamed Frank, giving himself and the boy a fright. But it was Frank who bore the brunt of that fright as he stumbled back three steps into the chair which he had knocked before. The gang outside ran off, uttering jibing tones of 'fuck!' like a rogue choir.
The street was quiet after that, but Frank felt violated. Apart from the boy's aping around, he had been able to peer into the house. Frank wondered by how much and what the boy had seen.
From the sofa Frank tried to imagine what the boy's vantage point had afforded him. There was the glass table, the television, the sofa and a nearby lamp. But had he seen the books? All of the books? I hope not, said Frank aloud. It worried him greatly. So much so that for a second time that night Frank felt paralysed. Fixing his eyes on the television screen, Frank turned the sound off to think. The dominant green icon, which subsequently appeared on the screen, relaxed him, though only marginally. Frank knew that to the outside world, of which he so reluctantly partook, the sight of his books would certainly make an outcaste of him. No, not just the sight of his new books, or simply the sight of books at all. It was more the fact that Frank had books piled up in every corner of his living room, indeed every room in the house. Books sheltered under tables, rendering them useless. Books hid in kitchen cupboards, where mugs had once stood. They rested on top of the television and other electrical appliances (such as radios, the video, the microwave, etc.), they colonised the bathroom and toilet (the toilet brush had long been barricaded behind stacks of paperbacks and pamphlets which had become damp and mouldy), and there was no need to speak of any general floor space because it had become a veritable mindfield consisting of books, most of them unread.
Midnight approached, the television droned on. Frank looked but he did not watch. Intermittently, he would suck huge streams of red wine and eye his books. They bore down heavily upon him.
It was late, by most people's standards, for the phone to ring. But when it did Frank reacted just as he would at any other time of day: with unconditional irritation. He let the call go through to the answer phone in the office and waited to hear who had dared disturb his peace. It was Ollie. Ollie was an old, good friend who knew all too well that calling Frank after midnight was a bad thing. And that's precisely why he did it.
'Ollie. You know what time it is. What d'you want?!'
'Aw, c'mon mate! It's only eleven o'clock. The pub's just closed.'
'No, Ollie. It's gone midnight. Twelve-twenty-three exactly.'
'Ah, shit. I must have got locked in again.'
'Yeah, doing what?' Frank was beginning to defrost. He liked Ollie and liked talking to him. Which they did frequently, mostly about song writing and songwriters.
'Pop trivia quiz,' said Ollie.
'Listen, d'you want to come out?'
'What?! At the third stroke the time will be even bloody later! No for fuck's sake.'
'Didn't think so.'
They both laughed at that because they knew it as the truth. Asking Frank whether he wanted to come out was like asking whether dogs shit on streets, only in reverse.
'Well, I was actually calling to ask whether I could borrow a CD.'
'Yeah? Which one?'
'Romantic Raymond and the Roses.' Ollie knew the answer to this question too: a stubborn 'no'.
'Oh, Ollie. Sorry, mate, but I need it, you know, for the … and, anyway, it won't work on your player. It's some dodgy zavix format, or something, and even I can only listen to it on my computer. So, sorry. You know I'd like to but there's no point.'
'Nah, it should be all right. I just bought a new player that can handle zavixes.'
'Yeah? Which one?'
'The PutsoniK X-SM69 MkIV, with added zav player compatibility. It's wicked.'
'Oh, I'm not sure. I've heard a lot of bad things about PutsoniK, especially the X-SM69 MkIV. Crap reputation, … . I've heard they say their machines can do a lot of things but when you get them home they can't.'
'Oh, well, that's a shame. I'm in the area, see. I could've dropped in for a cup of tea and picked it up.'
The suggestion was now not completely out of the question. Ollie was one of the few people Frank deigned to let into the house. Though certainly not at this time.
'Where are you then?' asked Frank.
'Close,' replied Ollie, as though even that were too much information. Frank mulled over the idea. A visit from Ollie would lift his spirits, surely, but just as easily end with Frank sending Ollie home before he had finished dunking his first biscuit. There was also the small issue of Ollie's habit of touching Frank's things. The Books, especially.
'I don't know, Ollie. I'm a bit tired. I've got to read.'
Ollie did not reply, but Frank could still hear him breathing and the sound of a torrent of water hitting grass. Frank wondered whether the kids had returned. Encouraged and strengthened by the knowledge that his friend Ollie was on the phone, Frank confidently pulled back at the office curtains. But all he saw was Ollie, standing on the front lawn, relieving himself against the hedge.
'Ahhh … that's better,' Ollie seemed to be agreeing with his bladder, entirely for Frank's benefit.
'Ollie! What the hell are you doing out there pissing on my bloody hedge?'
'Well, you wouldn't let me use your toilet, would you now?!'
'No, you're right about that. Your idea of sitting down is sitting on the floor in front of the toilet and aiming over the rim! You're not coming in. Go home.' And with that Frank slammed down the receiver.
He wasn't angry with Ollie. Frank knew Ollie had meant well. Rather, Frank was angry with himself. He had closed himself off to his friend, to all of his friends, even his family. He wasted his days, attempting to perfect meaningless chores. He planned things meticulously, anything and everything. How to leave the house, how to get back in. What to do immediately before leaving, what to do on his return. He planned every step he ever took, but managed to complete very little. It exhausted him. Had Frank been French his existence would have been officially banal. Yet compulsive and necessary somehow.
The two things, which did connect Frank with the rest of humanity, were books and music. It had started with music though. Music had accompanied Frank since the age of ten when he first discovered he could extract comfort from a song. Before that, the age at which he discovered Into the Valley by The Skids, music had been a single point of irritation, a nasty reminder of his brother's power.
Books were the same in terms of their potential emotional force. The thing was that Frank lacked the patience for them, so music always took precedence. Frank wanted so desperately, so urgently, to read up on all the things he thought he ought to know that actually reading up on them was too slow a process. By comparison, reading the liner notes on an LP or CD delivered in an instant.
Frank went to find his Romantic Raymond record. It was his current favourite. Contrary to what he had told Ollie, his copy of the record was a limited edition, specially packaged gatefold version that came with its own book and hidden features – not something that he had downloaded from the Internet and burnt in a low quality audio format.
He adored the band's look. They had this German image thing going on: all mechanical, precision heart, narrow ties, and close-cropped de-loused hair. Like some kraut rock group, but without the crap music. Had Kraftwerk ever been a proper rock band with guitars, before or after they sacked their guitarist/violinist Klaus Roeder, The Raymond would have been the Düsseldorfers' bastard offspring. In fact, rumour had it (that is, if rumour can be fact) that the drummer was either half German or had lived in the country for some significant stretch of her life. The Raymond was of Kraut and now, a zeitgeist-anachronism, distinctly Anglo and distinctly Saxon: denim und leder.
But like the wheel, The Raymond were nothing new and they would never be that big. Or as Lester Bangs had once put it in a slurred treatise on how the Germans were taking over rock with machines, they were in no position to reinvent the drug speed, 'for [others] to destroy themselves with, thus leaving the world of pop music open for ultimate conquest'. This remarkable piece of punk journalism had appeared in a September 1975 edition of Creem and was collected in The Faber Book of Pop, which Frank had just bought. Ollie liked to drop it wherever he could in arguments about rock he had with Frank. But Frank could never quite work out the drug connection so he wanted to read the article for himself to see if Ollie wasn't tricking him somehow.
'Well, the Germans gave us methamphetamine and 'machinehood', you see. That's what he's saying,' Ollie would insist, making as few inroads as possible. And Frank would say: 'I don't know, man. It's like he's on this 'German=Nazi, German music=brown shirts and tin drums' tip. Stupid. I mean, was it so true to the 70s British punk ethic to associate every German act, in whichever way would fit the shoe, to the Nazis? Sounds more like the senile rant rhetoric of a veteran. I know they wore swastikas, but still ... '
He had a point.
Bangs asserted that when Kraftwerk 'began in 1970 to set up their own studio', or their laboratory as they also called it, that it was 'for the eventual rearmament of their fatherland'. Stupid again. Even as a metaphor, benign or nasty.
'Look Frank, you don't understand.'
'The swastika was like an inverted symbol of sympathy to the punks. Skewed sympathy for the Jews. Like African-Americans reclaiming The Power by calling themselves niggers. Only the Bromley lot did it by proxy.'
All razor blades, safety pins, and shock. To suggest 'the Reich never died, it just reincarnated in American archetypes ground out by holloweyed jerkyfingered mannikins locked into their typewriters and guitars like rhinoceroses copulating' may be fancy lyrical work, but equally a fart of that very swastika vogue.
Now, had Bangs written this 20 odd years later, when the German pop rappers Fünf Sterne Delux released Sillium, his sentiment, about some German machinator's wish to invent a drug that would kill off all other pop competition, may have had the tiniest semblance of truth. But only by virtue of the album's cover. The Hamburg boys, Fünf Sterne Delux, were pictured in a lab, mixing varying shades of blue liquid. Oooh, scary. Then there was the promotional video for their hit Willst Du mit mir geh'n? (literally, D'you wanna walk with me?, but meaning, Do you want to go out with me?). It has the four band members (their name refers to five) exercising their limbs on walking machines. For medical purposes. Not quite a soldier's march. But the band and that track, which samples the American soulster Otis Redding, are totally German – without the armband to prove it. As are all of the most interesting German rap bands: Deichkind and Fettes Brot included. And this is the point. In assuming the dominant American culture of the day – hip hop and rap – they (no, not all exponents but many) forged a new identity. They were able to avoid producing merely Germanised, or as Bangs might have had it, militarised American fair.
Rap exploded in Germany in the mid-to-late 1990s, not without thanks to Die Fantastischen Vier who first established the mainstream scene and made it cool again (after Kraftwerk) to deliver lyrics in German. All these artists, consciously or not, exist by Kraftwerk's ethic and, what you might now call, tradition. As Kraftwerk's founding member Ralf Hütter explained to Bangs: 'After the war, German entertainment was destroyed. The German people were robbed of their culture, putting an American head on it. I think we are the first generation born after the war to shake this off, and know where to feel American music and where to feel ourselves. We are the first German group to record in our own language, use our electronic background, and create a central European identity for ourselves. We cannot deny we are from Germany, because the German mentality, which is more advanced, will always be part of our behaviour.'
Had Frank read the article in his copy of The Faber Book of Pop he would have made the connection.
By contrast, American culture not only influenced British musicians, adding colour to what was already there. They invariably sucked up the lot, like the fly in Bowie's carton of milk. But any attempt made to defy that overbearing American influence had even art school bands (those who you'd think would know better) being all British, replete with the bulldog and flag. There is no way for British bands, as innovative as they can be, to be different while remaining themselves. And that was the case with Romantic Raymond and the Roses. A British group that was so utterly German. It was as though they were the Windsor's house band. When Frank pulled the record from the rubble of his collection he noticed it had been tampered with. He opened the packaging to find a slip of paper with a message scrawled in what was undoubtedly Ollie's hand. Cheers, mate! It read, I knew you wouldn't mind if I borrowed this for bit. You don't know anything about music anyway! Ollie, he had signed, whereby Ollie looked more like Oillie.
That did it. Frank refilled his wine glass and went back to the living room, this time carrying the bottle and a bar of dark Malagasy chocolate. He took his place in the sofa, refilling the crater, and flicked the television over to Channel 4. A foreign film season was starting with, according to the TV guide, a 'nasty Norwegian narcotics thriller'. Frank drank glass after glass until the wine was all gone, and then sucked intensively on the last of the chocolate, letting the vanilla cocoa infest every pore of his mouth before swallowing the brown mucus gunk.
By 2am, Frank was beginning to find it difficult to keep his eyes open. He rested his head in an awkward position, anything to stop him having to use the muscles in his neck to keep it straight. He dipped in and out of sleep. Each time he came round, it felt like a mere moment had passed. In truth, he missed large chunks of the film. When he was awake, Frank held his eyes open with both hands, hoping to catch the end. But his eyes were too sore. The last time he woke, the film's two rival drug dealers were at each other's throats in a pub, which seemed to be burning. It was very realistic, thought Frank; he could smell the smoke from where he was sitting.
Frank knew it was long passed his bedtime, but he was powerless to move. As typical as it was of a Friday night, Frank hated seeing himself slouched in front of the box. He turned to eye the pile of books he had bought during the afternoon, remembering how the trip into town had filled him with hope. Hope is what he promised himself once more. Tomorrow, he said, I will read. Frank closed his eyes for the last time, incapacitated and lost to his dreams, as the film credits began to roll. Frank's sleep was deep; nothing could wake him now. Not the sparks or the cracking sound of plastic coming from the television, nor the gentle ripple of flames that consumed the books, which lay on top and had overheated the set.
© Zulfikar Abbany 2009. All rights reserved.