Out of the blue arrives that street-smart rock hooligan Frankie Michaels with two bottles of rose wine and two girls. They are students and a decade younger than either of us. One is his girlfriend, and with her, a friend, Jayne, both fresh off the train from the raw moors of Lancashire.
They came round to use the pool and might be a little alarmed to find themselves walking into a novel, so I’ll not name them.
Though I’m rattling with a bout of self-loathing brought on by a rare yet stereotypical Scarface-esque derangement of the senses three days earlier – a holiday from all this thinking that culminated in some sordid pre-dawn grappling in an alien flat somewhere in north-west London – and though I woke this morning with lumps of blood falling out of my nose this morning, it’s nevertheless good timing. It takes me away from all thoughts of the icy crystalline chill of that long night staring in the mirror and burrowing through flesh and brings me back, quite unexpectedly, to thoughts of the kidney.
Frankie Michaels has been sunning himself by the pool for much of the summer, a welcome surge of energy through confusing times and part of the pool-side furniture on the hottest days. I feed him an endless stream of joints and we talk about music and literature and life, trading conspiratorial tales and shady anecdotes until we’re sweating so much that swimming in a chilled communal residential outdoor pool is the only option.
Yes, the same swimming pool features once again.
The girls are on their summer break and in the capital on their way to Berlin. Liz is a willowy art student with the posture of a model and a sharp mind; art is her thing. Her friend is quiet, a most attractive quality. She studies the classics and literature – especially Russian - and I’m buzzing when she mentions Mikhail Bulgakov as her favourite of the dusty old tormented souls who were slaying the Western world with their pens long before someone thought up the Cold War as a nice device to keep the fatties of America fearful. It is her first time in London. Conversation turns to Dostoevsky, which I take to be a good sign. I’ve not read him myself, but I know an appearance might end some extra weight to the text should I ever capture this green grass summer scene in print, like others take a photograph. For these chapters are, after all, ultrasound scanned snapshots of a summer that has a demonstrated a healthy beating heart of its own.
Frankie Michaels isn’t his real name. He knows I’m writing a book about a missing kidney and a twisted summer and has already poked his half-Jewish, half-Moroccan nose into rough chapters and held no quarter on the shortcomings, whilst simultaneously encouraging me on, reasoning “You’ll be a cunt to get this far and not reach some sort of resolution by the close of summer” – which, incidentally, is fast approaching. Once summer ends, who knows what the autumnal darkness will bring, so he has a point, though naturally I wouldn’t admit that for a minute to him for ours is a friendship based on insults and put-downs. It’s a male trait and we’re both definitely idiots.
Frankie Michaels also knows that just by turning up with girls and
rosé and swimming shorts he may well be immortalized alongside the kidney of which he has heard so much about, so decides he’ll use a different name today – in case I make him look like a cunt.
Cunt, incidentally, is one of his favourite words, and he uses it well and without prejudice. Noun, adjective, verb etc.
“Just call me Frankie Michaels,” he says, then leaps into the pool and splashes around like a child.
He hasn’t seen his girlfriend for a few weeks and the sun is shining.
“Take a picture of me,” says the newly-christened Frankie Michaels, hoisting himself onto a floating air-bed. “I feel genuinely happy today.”
He’s pleased about this, and so are we, four people coming together with a few shared common interests – sunshine, water, wine. The Russians. The summer. This moment. This little sun-trap deep in the jungle of a season I shall always associate with ‘The Missing Kidney’, whatever may come beyond it. Frankie lies back on the lounger and actually looks a little like Tony Montana. He’s always had something of the plucky Pacino swagger to him.
Soon Frankie is telling me about the latest story he’s working on, for he is a writer too. And for the right reason: because he wants to. Like me he has no audience, no ‘market’, no literary obligations – just balls and compulsion. All you need.
I roll up my trousers and dangle my feet in the pool. It’s early September and the sun is still beating down, but we all know that a cold spat is just round the corner of the seasonal bell-curve and pour days of languishing on green grass with
rosé wine are numbered.
While the girls talk I give Frankie some kidney updates. I tell him all I’m really waiting for is an ending to present itself and that I still have faith that all will become clear by the summer’s end, that maybe this kidney quest is one of confusion and sunburn, literary indulgence, chemical frustration (natural or otherwise), sexual dehydration and borderline psychosis, but I still think something good will come of it. Or at the very least in the absence of international travel, I’ve had a strange and memorable holiday of the imagination.
“Here,” says Frankie, interrupting the girls, who are discussing which galleries they hope to visit when they reach Berlin, “did you know Ben has only got one kidney? He had the other taken out and replaced by a book.”
“Oh?” says Frankie’s girlfriend, smiling, because she knows what Frankie is like. And that is: prone to telling tales that can be long and rambling or incredulous, yet always contains something unique. It’s because he’s interested in everything that makes him the way he is, and half the reason I like him. So few people possess the intelligence or energy to bother these days. They’d sooner take the short-cut than formulate an opinion about anything of worth.
“Yeah. A book about a missing kidney.”
Then he turns to me, flashing that big sloppy Anglo-European-African grin of his:
“That should be your ending. The missing kidney was replaced by a book about a missing kidney – don’t look at me like I’m a cunt, it’ll be cool!”
He rolls off the airbed and flops under water where he stays for sometime and somewhere deep inside I hear a gurgle and a page being turned.
Then Frankie’s does something with a banana that I’ve never seen before, not even in Amsterdam.
“Have you ever asked a banana a question?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “I don’t think I have.”
She takes a banana out of the bag that I have brought into the garden.
“What do you want to ask it? You need to make sure it can be answered with a yes or a no.”
She passes the banana to me. Frankie reappears from the bottom of the pool to watch.
“I want to ask ‘Is the pursuit of a missing, now near-mythical kidney a worthwhile one, even if only as a mindless literary pursuit in lieu of anything else of substance or significance in my life at the moment?”
With a knife Liz begins to deftly carefully cut away the very tip of the banana. She handles the knife well.
“Wait,” I interrupt, too curious to wait for an explanation. “How does it work?”
“If the black centre produces a Y shape, the answer is yes,” she explains, gesturing towards the cross section of the banana tip. “But if it’s a black dot, the answer is no.”
She looks down the barrel of the banana like it was an old musket from the American Civil War unearthed from the Gettysburg field, or maybe a telescope, or an arrow or anything that needs to be straight and true for story-telling purposes.
Anything but a banana, basically.
“It says no…I think.”
Then she passes it to me.
“The banana says no?”
I look and see a black smudge within the banana. It looks less like a yes or a no, than it does a piece of blackened banana. But still, at least I’m looking at something from a new and original perspective – the best you can hope for on a hot summer’s day in the grimy concrete heart of the city.
She takes it back and has another look.
“Actually, I think that’s a yes. If you look closely you can see the Y shape running through it. Yes, it’s definitely saying yes.”
“Great,” I say. “At least now I know there has been a purpose to all of this. This summer hasn’t been in vain.”
Then I slip into pool with all my clothes on and everyone laughs, everyone except the banana who is forever consigned to a yes-no dialogue with itself.
Ben's second novel, The Missing Kidney will be published by Social Disease in Autumn 2007. The above story is a short chapter from the book. For updates please check www.benmyers.com