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Book Clubs  •  11 June 2018

 

Short Story Club – 28 June 2018

Read the story being discussed on Jesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 28 June 2018

Frank, It’s Raining

by Anthony McCarten

 

In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Cock Up

 

Unable to sleep, Frank quietly slid out of bed, crossed to the bedroom door, shut it behind him, and descended the stairs. The house was asleep — a wife, two children, a cat, a TV. The refrigerator, however, rumbled on, coldly defiant, so Frank headed towards it like an old friend.

Frank couldn’t remember when he’d last sweated so much. He used to play representative basketball in his early twenties. And he still played squash two times a week. But lying in bed beside Janet, the back of his pyjama top was stuck to his skin. The dark tips of his fringe were wet. And he hadn’t been dreaming, just lying awake, watching the crosshatching of light on the ceiling and thinking to himself that perhaps he’d wasted his life.

With eyes half-closed after being wide-eyed in the darkness, he surveyed the hierarchy of foods in his fridge: the basic commodities (perishable vegetables, cheap, ephemeral, good for you), the in-betweens (dairy products, soup stock, left-overs of an uninspiring meal cooked by friends two nights before), the finer edibles (olives, salami, imported chutney), and two bits of the kids’ green Lego that he remembered he wasn’t allowed to touch because they were energy packs for a super secret space computer. Frank found himself choosing the in-betweens, perhaps locating himself there — a lump of cheese, a cup of milk, and a cold roast potato. He sat on a stool by the dining bar against the window, looking past his own reflection in the glass down to the end of the street — a cul-de-sac that appeared on the map as an exclamation mark — and, biting into the cheese, tried to get rid of the peculiar lump in his throat that earlier had made him think he was going to stop breathing.

It had rained. He had heard it, lying in bed, twenty minutes after turning out the light, unable to sleep. It came softly and made him think how all the guts had gone out of rain these days, how when he was a kid the noise of rain had been terrific and you’d felt it like it was penetrating the ceiling. It had been dangerous and frightening and had made him feel alive. Admittedly he had tiles on the roof now in place of iron, but the whole feeling had changed. Perhaps the sky had altered; anyway, the rain these days came in a floating slow motion, and he had given up on it.

It had even failed to subdue the volume of Janet’s breathing, a machine that with its low purr loudly mocked his simple inability to go off. And with his mind racing he had started to sweat. So he got up.

The rain had stopped.

Frank felt better with the cheese inside him; he hadn’t appreciated its restorative properties. And milk too — well, a little less surprising. Life was founded on milk, wasn’t it? Human life — mammal, mammary, yes. He wondered if he should see a doctor. It had been years; all this time his body had been running unsupervised. He wasn’t that old, but not that young either. Thirty-nine. It was high time. Then again, the last time the doctor had merely checked that his heart was beating, touched his testicles, and billed him $40. Yes, but he was twenty-five then. Twenty-five. Completely young . . . My God, thought Frank again, I’m thirty-nine!

He sipped his milk, a smooth assuring sensation, an infusion of whiteness. He took a deep breath. It was as if a spider were at work constructing webs in his throat, and the milk only slowed down the progress. He looked disappointedly out the window into the dark neighbourhood. A few street-lamps burned half-heartedly, and the trees were shadows. Parked cars stood in front of houses. Frank swallowed half a cold potato to spite the spider and realised that for all its familiarity he actually hated the neighbourhood in which he lived.

Thirty-nine years ago, he was brought from hospital to a small house, now gone, two streets away from here. He was schooled in this neighbourhood — schooled, churched, and now officed. Even his squash club and the private bar he frequented were nearby. But the area had changed for the worse. Go and ask one of those sleeping hundreds if you can borrow a power tool for a day, he thought, and see if it hasn’t changed.

Waiting for the rain to resume, Frank set his glass on a Lotto ticket (he had never won a cent) and looked around for some cigarettes. He thought how his own father had been killed by this upper-income neighbourhood. The actual assassin was cancer — the old man had been a heavy smoker too — but the neighbourhood was the root cause. The gentle disapproval of those who dare to park over someone else’s driveway, the obsession with whiteness, the responsibility you must have for a tree that automatically sheds leaves onto your front lawn . . . His father’s epitaph should have acknowledged that never once, in all those years, not even during the most bitter tragedy, did the grass exceed three inches in height on the front lawn. Who could be sure that such things did not kill you as surely as cancer? he thought, drawing the smoke in deeply and wanting to hold it there for a year.

The sudden groan of plumbing as a toilet flushed upstairs disturbed Frank’s thoughts. One of his children, probably Susan. She was seven, the oldest, most like Frank and so quick to learn how to pee by herself. He hadn’t actually seen it — he’d been at work — but Janet had related the story: the look of joy in her achievement, the way she held out her skirt like a little nuclear mushroom above the bowl, the way she lingered afterwards, refusing to let the toilet be flushed, looking down into the yellow pond with the pride of a creator, the way she drank lemonade furiously half an hour later so it could all happen again. These things he missed. Like the advent of freckles the previous summer. One day none, the next day two hundred, giving her face a sort of pointillism that made Frank want to stand back from her to gain the full effect, which was pretty, though she would have his long nose, modified to fit a woman of course, but his all the same, and troublesome. He suddenly wanted to stay near her, just to watch his nose grow on her. The sound of a bedroom door closing came down the stairs. The noise of the water cistern ceased. And Frank was alone again.

On the dining bar was a copy of Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a token of his wife’s recent religious revival, which seemed to be nearing its peak, though there was always the possibility that she might keep on going right into the clouds. She was bringing such books into the house much faster than she could read them. She obviously meant to kill him, via God, who would not strike him down but trip him up — with a pile of books on the top landing — and he would cascade down the stairs, the books following him, landing hopelessly broken and stretched out at the bottom, a biblical dictionary open and flapping on his chest, his winged spirit on the verge of flight. She was clever, Janet. Look at the way she was able to sleep . . .

He drew a circle with his finger on the misted-up window, then rubbed out its interior, creating a porthole for himself. To anyone outside he would look like a diver peering anxiously out of his bathysphere, perhaps looking for reassurance that he hadn’t gone down too deep; but Frank didn’t interfere as the window began to mist up again. He’d come down to the kitchen because he was tired of staring into darkness.

They’d redecorated the kitchen. You’d have to say it was successful. Imitation marble benches. Wood finish. Walk-in pantry. The works. Frank stood and moved about the room, looking at the joinery, the workmanship. Beyond a doubt, there wasn’t a visible fault. You wouldn’t believe it; he couldn’t find a single one. He even checked with his hand, up under the cupboards where he couldn’t look, feeling for a join, but couldn’t find one, though there had to be one there, and concluded it was too perfectly married to be felt. It was what he’d paid for, what you’d expect from the computer age, but it made him feel disgusted — that when perfection finally became achievable it applied itself to nothing more glorious than a kit-set kitchen. He tightened his pyjama cord around his pants, went to the drawer, took out a knife, and where no-one was ever likely to see, inside the front wall of the pantry, scratched his initials, FL, with a full stop between — something he’d been thinking of doing for weeks. Then he sat down at the dining bar and relaxed. He had started to sweat again, as if it were a sign that he was moving in the wrong direction. He resolved to sit quietly from now on and tire naturally. Activity made you more awake. He had, once again, a desire for rain.

It was a choice between a school report he’d already seen (‘she is well mannered but lacks concentration’), one of Janet’s women’s magazines with an unbearably beautiful face on the cover, and the book by Bonhoeffer. He didn’t believe magazines or school reports could help him now, so he opened the book.

‘It is wholly right and proper for a bride and bridegroom to welcome their wedding day with a sense of triumph. All the difficulties, obstacles, impediments, doubts and suspicions have at last been — I shall not say thrown to the wind for that would be to make too light of them — but honestly faced and overcome. Both parties have now won the most important battle of their lives.’ Frank re-read the passage, then put the book down and finished his potato. He took a mouthful of milk, too, chewing it and mixing it and swallowing it in three. He was thirty-nine.

Three minutes later he opened the book again.

‘I am trying my hand at an essay on “The feeling of time” (Zeitgefühl), a topic of peculiar interest to one like myself who is held in custody for examination. Over the door of this cell one of my predecessors here has scribbled the words “In 100 years, it will all be over”. That was his way of trying to overcome the feeling that time spent here is a complete blank. There is much to be said on the subject, and I should like to talk it over with Papa . . . ’ With Papa. Papa Bonhoeffer. There is much to be said. Frank looked at the book’s introduction and discovered that shortly after writing these things Dietrich was taken away to be hanged by the Nazis after conducting a Sunday service for his fellow prisoners — thirty-nine years old.

Involuntarily, Frank remembered the words from Psalm 13 that he had learnt in catechetical instruction at school: ‘How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord?’ What a question! There was a spider in his throat and he couldn’t sleep . . . What was going on?

Frank dared not admit the thought he’d often had that he would die in some trivial accident. He’d just finished reading a novel in which the protagonist drowned in a punctured waterbed. If he had a waterbed, that could be him. Or he might die through loss of sleep. But insomnia just led to madness: you couldn’t sleep one night, so you got tense; the next night you were tense and couldn’t sleep, which made you more tense, and so on, until you went mad. Frank was tempted to take a knife, go back to the pantry, and scratch out his initials. His mind was getting away on itself. He only just mastered this urge; he knew it would not be helpful.

Behind him the cat meowed. Frank turned to see a small oval face looking up from the doorway, a pleasant, warm, useless package of fluff and survival instinct, on four legs and its third life — one taken by a car, the second by a disease that claimed its womb. The meow was a low siren that lacked only a flashing red light between the cat’s ears. Frank went to the fridge and took out a tin of food, a stinking substance that he objected to keeping in the same place as his hierarchy. But the cat loved even the expectation of it and rubbed figure eights around Frank’s ankles as he scooped it into a dish.

He stood and watched the cat eat, for five minutes, studying the mouth action, the eating strategy, the mop-up, the cleaning of machinery, the retreat. He had never hated and admired the cat more. If he could just be like the cat, uncompromisingly selfish, utterly egoistic, then he would be free.

Frank cleaned up the mess he’d made. He took a cloth and wiped the bench. Here was the influence of Janet, who taught him one could not be happy alongside muck. He gave the table a second wipe, coaxing some crumbs out of the corner that he’d hoped wouldn’t bother him during the first wipe but did. She had given him this, second thoughts, hundreds of them, complicating his life to such a degree that now, sometimes, the second thoughts came first.

Frank was worried about Janet. They were moving apart, and he was losing hope that the tide would turn. They seemed tired — there were too many hurdles — and she felt the strain too, though she was more fortunate than him in being able to sleep and wake each morning fresher and a little more likely to succeed. He was wringing out the cloth now with cold water.

They got on all right, but Frank felt they were settling for somewhere between second and third best, and his daydreams told him he had begun to envy other people. Frank wanted, for just five minutes, to experience ecstasy as he had heard it described by others. But wanting wasn’t getting, and such daydreams had become common. Janet’s answer was to invite him to go with her to Sunday services. For a year she had been going to a modern evangelical church and she now said things like her heart was full of hope. He didn’t know why, but such comments upset and depressed him. He would look at her strangely on these occasions and then continue cutting the bread, or whatever it was he was doing at that point. It seemed he could no longer even understand his wife.

But right now, the kitchen was clean again. Frank checked once more, pushed the cat saucer with his bare foot a few inches towards the fridge then switched off the light. The house, with a snap, fell asleep again.

He went into the living room. It was cooler, and he had stopped sweating. For a moment he stood in the darkness, listening for something — he didn’t know what exactly — and looking out through the Venetian blinds, but the night was perfectly dark and quiet — more calm than it had been for years. And then it rained, a strong purposeful rain that came up the street in a visible formation, overtook Frank’s house, and soon covered the whole neighbourhood. Frank went to his front door and opened it. And there it was all right. Water ran down the footpath towards the gutters. The rain splashed on his bare feet, wetting the bottoms of his pyjamas. Frank couldn’t remember when he’d seen rain come down so hard or fast. And he was thirty-nine. He stood on his porch in wonder, thinking that he was probably the only person in the neighbourhood watching the rain, that in a way it was his, and that all of a sudden, from nowhere, the guts had returned to it. He could barely see the other side of the street. The saplings on the berm were being bent over. There was water everywhere, but the noise of it was still muted, restrained, and Frank wondered why. He closed his front door and stepped outside. The rain came down on him, running through his hair and beating against his pyjamas. He was wet in seconds, raising his hand to shield his face against the rain as he walked across the driveway to the front lawn, which was becoming a giant pond. He walked to the middle of it and stopped. The house was only a dark shape behind him.

Frank felt strangely excited. The melancholy that had kept him awake, a stupid sadness about nothing in particular, was gone.

Theatrically, he held his arms out wide with his eyes closed. And he laughed to himself. Of course all this was profoundly indulgent, but who was awake to criticise him? He brought his hands to his face and felt his eyelids with his fingertips. What rain! Water broke on his crown and streamed down all sides of him at once. When you got out of bed in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, you never imagined that what might do you good, more good than milk or a bite to eat, more good than scratching your initials in secret recesses, more good than listening to the internal noises of a sleeping house, better than any of those things, might be to venture into heavy rain out of simple curiosity, yet Frank did feel good. He tried to put his finger on the right word for this new sensation, as the weather coldly buffeted his pyjamas. A window flew open behind him.

‘Frank! Frank! Is that you?’

Janet’s voice split his thoughts. She was craning out of the upper bedroom window. ‘Frank!’ she cried. Her voice conveyed worry and confusion. Frank turned innocently towards the house, huge and grey above him, and saw the window open wide, filled by the outline of his wife. Without thinking that his behaviour might seem peculiar, he smiled and waved, a boyish wave that sprang from nowhere and said simply, I’m OK. And with that the word came to him — hope — as he took a step towards her.

‘Frank! What are you doing? It’s raining!’

 

 

© Anthony McCarten, From A Modest Apocalypse and Other Stories, Godwit Press, 1991

Anthony McCarten is a filmmaker, playwright and novelist. His latest publication is Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought Us Back From the Brink, written to accompany his film of the same name.


Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought Us Back From the Brink Anthony McCarten

The official tie-in to major new motion picture DARKEST HOUR - starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill.

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