Friday, 16 January 2015

Frank's Chicken

The car was maroon, an estate, possibly a Volvo or a Vauxhall or something of the sort. I've never really taken much interest in the minutiae of the automotive realm. It was parked on the grass at the side of the driveway which ran past the School of Art. Wells and myself had only come in to college for the sake of signing the register, and this one last job before we broke up for the Christmas holiday. We had eggs, bags of flour, and shaving foam. We were all ready to go.

We had both been in the year below Frank at school, and I'd only really known him through reputation. I'd had friends who disliked him to varying degrees of disdain, and he in turn hadn't thought much of them. He was an unusual combination of swot and bully, doing well in almost every class whilst having a pathological need to belittle others, particularly those he considered enemies. These were generally people who had noticed his absolute lack of a sense of humour and who made sport of this failing because it was funny. The more agricultural pupils would mock his regimentally neat appearance and hold impromptu darts tournaments during the technical drawing lesson utilising Frank's expensive fine-nibbed Rotring pens as darts. Mr. Stanier, the technical drawing teacher, had been carbon dated to no later than 1650 and was ill-equipped to restrain rebellious pupils, or pupils of almost any other description, and so Frank was left to fend for himself, and then to vent his frustration on whoever else was available and conspicuously lacking in reinforcements.

Frank reserved a particular venom for my friend Pete who was in his class and physically smaller, thus presenting a convenient and legitimate target. Pete however had the sharper wit. His retorts were quick, perceptive, and very funny, and he could shoot you down before you were even finished saying whatever crap it was you had thought so funny when you first thought of it. This didn't sit well with Frank whose wit was by contrast blunt and overly reliant upon terms such as pouf, bender and bumboy. He compensated by delivering these descriptors with force sufficient to quell any further insurrection; and his laughter was stupid and cruel, the amusement of a brute. Hur hur hur hur hur hur hur hur...

Pete and I had formed a group with two others, Graham and Eggy. We called ourselves the Pre-War Busconductors and we made most of the songs up as we recorded them, improvised direct onto cassette as we bashed away on cardboard box drums and an acoustic guitar amplified through Graham's Action Man radio. Naturally Frank was eulogised on more than one occasion.

He's saving up to buy a jeep.

He does his homework in his sleep.
He's got a massive square head,
And we all hope he'll soon be dead.

On more ambitious scale was (He's Called) Frank, a home-made cassette single we mastered directly onto TDK DC90 as Eddie & the Ogdens, this being the name under which we recorded as a trio when Eggy was otherwise indisposed. We termed it a cassette single because the A-side was one song forty-five minutes in duration, a happy clappy gospel number singing toxically sarcastic praises of Frank which mutated into other musical styles as it went on. There being one particular rude word which rhymed with Frank, we just kept going until we felt the theme had been explored to full extent.

I had no direct contact with the subject of these songs whilst we were still at school, the single exception to this being a snowball fight with our bunch against Frank's team, Anders Longthorne and Mark Lewis, both of whom seemed to have sided with him out of anthropological curiosity and were waiting to see what the hell he would do next. Frank rolled his snowballs with joyless rage, going after Pete with obsessive fury that bordered on weird. It wasn't about taking part, or even about winning for Frank. It was about the utter destruction and humiliation of his opponent.

In September 1982, I found myself embroiled in further education, taking art 'A' level in the same class as Frank. It was the first time we had sat at the same table, or probably even spoke to each other. He had no idea I'd played on Pre-War Busconductors songs concerned specifically with detailing his numerous character flaws as we saw them, or even that such songs existed. He seemed amiable, and so we got on reasonably well, or at least as well as one can with a person with whom you share no mutual interests. Frank was not lacking in talent, artistically speaking, at least in so much as his craftsmanship was exceptional. His imagination on the other hand seemed to operate at the same level as his wit. I recall one laboriously executed painting presented as a stern warning against the perils of drugs - a subject of which Frank had, to the best of my knowledge, neither experience nor understanding. The painting showed a beautifully detailed human brain rendered in ink and gouache, a syringe full of that heroin protruding from its rear, sinister looking tablets and packets of ciggies strewn all around.

Hey kids, don't do drugs, it sort of said.

We both passed art 'A' level, and in September 1983 started on the art foundation course at the Mid Warwickshire College of Further Education in Leamington Spa, a course designed to get us ready for our degrees the following year. Frank kindly offered to give me a lift each day, Leamington being some twenty miles distant from Shipston. In return I stumped up petrol money and spent an hour or so of daily travel time listening to him talking what was mostly complete shite about which was the best Star Wars film or who amongst our fellow students was probably one of those bent homosexual bumboys. He seemed either uninformed or unconcerned regarding my position on Pete, his old enemy from school, and would retell lumbering tales of hostile encounters which had given him pause to consider anew what a loser and a complete bender my friend had been. I already knew the tales well from Pete's telling. Some of them had already inspired songs, but Frank clearly took pleasure from the retelling and would bring forth the hur hur hur hur hur hur. Day after day I listened to him declaring his superiority over our fellow students, people we both knew from school, women and members of ethnic minorities. He would explain that he wasn't being racist or nothing but that Pakis really do stink.

'It's probably all that curry,' he opined thoughtfully.

I managed about two weeks of this before I switched my allegiance to Wells, another kid I'd known from school who drove through Shipston each morning to attend the same art foundation course. Wells was the sort of kid who would spend the summer holidays blowing things up with home-made fertiliser bombs, but I had more in common with him than with Frank. The first few trips in his bright yellow Ford Escort were justified by my explaining that I needed to be home by a certain time, and Wells always slipped away early, unlike Frank who dutifully stayed on to polish apples until college closed at five. After a couple of weeks, the new arrangement had become habitual and required no further explanation.

The weeks went by and Frank came to seem increasingly incongruous in the environment of an art foundation course. We were trying to expand ourselves, generally and artistically speaking, and Frank was Jeremy Clarkson in a vegetarian café. His craftsmanship remained phenomenal as he began to build articulated model dragons, meticulously crafting latex flesh upon skeletons of hinged plastic ligatures. He was heading for the film industry, for special effects, and so far as I am aware he got there and has been doing very well for himself in that field ever since; but in the winter of 1983 his abrasive personality was really beginning to get on our tits, these being the tits of myself and Wells, hence the eggs, the bags of flour, and a spray can of shaving foam.

It was the end of term, and such high jinx were to be expected. We had left school but could only be deemed adult by the most generous of definitions. We were agents of karma redressing the balance of Frank boring us shitless, driving like a lunatic, and that stuff about Pakis. We covered the car in eggs and flour and then, in a moment of inspiration, I sprayed a cartoon chicken across the bonnet in shaving foam turning the vandalism into a philosophical question of first cause. It was art.

We returned about an hour later. The car had been cleaned, and there was Frank hunched over the bonnet, his elbow working away like a piston on the flank of an old-time steam engine. His face was crimson, his teeth gritted, and his blood red eyes appeared distended upon veined stalks. He looked like something you would see on the cover of a Meteors album.

'When I find out who did this—' His vow became an angry incoherent salad of legal proceedings seasoned with promises of physical violence and even torture. It seemed safe to assume that he was yet to appreciate the true levity of the situation.

'Oh no,' Wells and I chimed innocently. 'What's happened, Frank?' We moved in closer, thankful at least of Frank being so blinded with rage that he wasn't going to notice our stifled hysterics. 'Did someone do something to your car?'

Still scrubbing, he spluttered and raged without making any real sense. There was no longer so much as a single grain of flour or a smear of albumen to be seen, but then we noticed how some chemical component of the shaving foam had left a permanent stain upon the paintwork. My cartoon chicken had become a burnt umber silhouette at the centre of the maroon bonnet. Had I spent another minute on the drawing, it might now have resembled a custom job, the deliberate choice of someone who really liked chickens and wished to express this in an automotive medium.

Frank scrubbed and glowered but the stain was going nowhere. He appeared to be coming close to foaming at the mouth, and apparently lacked the imagination to suspect Wells or myself. He had probably made more significant enemies on the course. It would be a disgruntled bumboy, or perhaps even a bender of some description. The thought of my having done permanent and legally actionable damage to his paintwork sobered me towards levels of guilt sufficient to at least mute the hysterical laughter that might have otherwise risen to the surface at any moment.

'I'll ask around,' Wells offered like a true mate. 'See if maybe anyone saw anything.'

We wandered off in the direction of his yellow Ford Escort, hunched shoulders and looking left to right like the beginnings of the posse which would deliver justice once it had gained momentum. We waited until we were on the Warwick New Road, heading home and out of sight of the monster we had helped create, then we began to chortle, describing the scenario to each other, and then to howl with laughter. Try as I might, I really could not quite bring myself to feel sorry for Frank.

He wasn't a terrible person. He had helped me out on a few occasions, one time driving the ten miles to Stratford-upon-Avon to pick me up when a missed bus had left me stranded; but he could be such an insufferable cunt at times, and Wells and I really felt he had earned that chicken. When we returned to college in the new year, the chicken was gone, although I can barely guess at how many hours of scrubbing and polishing it had taken to effect its removal. Frank continued to be Frank because as lessons go, it had been pretty vague even without accounting for his reluctance to learn anything he didn't already know; but thirty years later I think of that chicken and it still gives me pleasure, so maybe that is enough.

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