1983. There’s a patron saint for everything, if you search hard enough.
1987. I have a friend. A toxic relationship, I’ll admit, but one I have no desire to escape from. Francis has been with me my whole life.
Even as young as five years old, sitting on the rough tartan sofa in my granddad’s terrace house in Derry city. Late December cold. Smelling the warm salt of yesterday’s soup, watching the coal fire sending tiny fusillades of sparks onto the carpet. A little boy with ink-black hair sat on the blackened stove, swinging his legs and smiling at me. “You know there’s a lion trapped in the chimney?” he said.
“There is. Swear to God. Where do you think that roaring’s coming from?”
I looked into the hot coals and saw feline faces staring back. Francis kept on swinging his legs and telling me stories, placing dragons under the stairs, eyes behind the windowsills. Sometimes his stories frightened me. Whenever anybody walked into the room, he vanished.
1989. People thought Francis was cute. Cute, the stories and lopsided poems, illustrated in squiggly pencil-crayon, stuck on the fridge door by my proud mammy. Poems tacked to the kitchen walls of our house in Sheffield, paper wilting in the steam of dark-night windows, words melding into each other. Cute. Me and Francis hand-in-hand, too young to be taken seriously.
He came with me on my first day back at school after the summer holidays, the building reeking of disinfectant, pee and fresh-dried paint. “Tell you something funny,” Francis whispered, “The principal has painted the whole school magnolia. Soon all the kids will be wearing magnolia uniforms too. Imagine!”
My Magnolia School, I wrote. It’s the first poem I remember writing. Cheesy as hell (I was six years old), it’s about a principal who goes berserk in her insistence on monochrome neutrality and introduces magnolia shoes, magnolia skirts, magnolia blackboards. I showed it to Francis and he laughed.
Was it loneliness that drew me to this oddball, whose black eyes could speed up time, and who hung bat-like from my ceiling when I least expected it?
I was an only child for the first seven years of my life, until my sister arrived on a snowed-in February night. But up until then, the house was always full of kids. School friends hanging off the garden swing, sleeping over on the travel bed with its curly, squeaky springs. I was hardly ever alone, because of Francis with his sticky smile and gap-toothed eagerness to jump on the sofa beside me and tell me his stories.
1990. Places we liked to go: the heathery sprawl of countryside around Sheffield city, where ice-age rock formations had been abandoned across bracken and fern-dense hilltops. The terrifying Victorian mansion of a childhood friend. Attic, basement, wild-briar garden. A posh dump, my mammy used to call it. Spiders and naked bulbs, ghost stories we’d use to scare the crap out of each other with. Out in the white peaks, the canyon of Dove Dale with the loud splutter of its stepping-stoned stream. Monsildale Valley arched over by the old railway viaduct. Ladybower Reservoir, where on summer days the spires and rooftops of a drowned village jutted through the blue. “There’s people still down there, in the drowned village,” Francis told me, filling my head with images of bulbous, floating faces. He loved scaring me.
1992. Francis came with me to Ireland almost every summer. Sometimes if there wasn’t enough money to go to Derry, we’d take a family holiday to Wales instead (still in my imagination, Wales is a type of fake Ireland). Francis skipping and jumping beside me on the P&O Ferry, memorising haikus, riddles, impossible tongue-twisters.
1998. How much time is too much time to spend with a lover?
Francis was never banned from the house in my teenage years, but he wasn’t exactly invited either. At some point during my early teens, my relationship with Francis had gone from cute to worrying, in my parents’ eyes. I guess they thought there were better options for me than hanging out with a skinny goth kid with a dodgy sense of humour.
Aged fourteen, I read Romeo and Juliet, The Colour Purple, To Kill a Mockingbird. Francis and I re-read each word by torchlight. At school and at home, people started to talk to me about career options. When I closed my eyes to think about these questions, all I could see was Francis’ face, the stories on his lips, the feel of his paper-pale skin against mine. Like all teenage romances, our love thrived on the elicit thrill of secrecy. I stopped telling people about Francis. Notebooks shoved under the mattress, words scribbled after the last light in the hall had been switched off.
Cold nights in the city of steel, when the water running from the bathroom tap was like knives of ice between your fingers. I’d open my window for Francis, who’d scoot up the drainpipe to clamber in, shake the frost out of his inky hair and hold me. Pressed against the penumbral warmth of his chest, he’d lock his fingers into my hair. Time would melt away. Seven-hilled city smouldering, orange lights like piles of smelt in the background. On another hill, the dirty-white scar of Sheffield’s ski slope.
2002. When I moved to Dublin to study at Trinity, Francis came with me. As first year undergrads, we were inseparable. Detached from my family’s questions by the growl of the Irish Sea, I was able to spend all my free time with Francis and he loved it. Half the time I couldn’t even get to sleep in my tiny attic at the traffic-roaring Portobello crossroads, because Francis kept me awake all night with his teasing. Whenever I turned off the bedside lamp, Francis would flick the light back on to reach for me. Our desire turned us both into insomniacs, but I didn’t mind losing sleep over Francis.
At this time, Francis’ pale skin was webbed with indecipherable tattoos, whose greenish tentacles seeped into his inky hair. He had a comma-shaped eyebrow piercing and black full-stops of earrings which lent his face an edgy look. Francis wanted to be daring and to shock people but he didn’t quite have the nerve. Beyond the tattoos and tentative piercings, he was a sickly-looking young man who always wore trailing gloomy clothes to blend into the shadows and barely dared to show his papery face. Only one friend in Dublin (an English girl I trusted) knew that I was living with Francis. Most people saw my cheap white runners, tight mini-skirts and anxious eyes, and they looked through Francis as if he wasn’t there.
2003. Septembers of my college years. The first autumn mists sending that almost sexual buzz, the rush of a story not yet written. And with Francis, Dublin was my playground. There were shards of brilliance hidden at every crooked corner, and the city played out like a film before my eyes. Willows skimming the muddy path of rowdy mallards in St Stephens Green. Back-to-back seahorses laughing on lampposts along the Liffey walls, silver paint chipped and flaking. Everything in Dublin was new, and I simmered with secret confidence when I was with Francis. By day, I’d attend lectures in the Arts Block and wander the streets until they started to become gradually familiar. At night I’d retrace my steps back to my attic overlooking the Grand Canal where dirty swans floated between sunken trolleys and crushed beer cans. I probably would have been lonely on those nights if it hadn’t been for Francis, who kept me company, made me laugh and held me in my sleep.
2004. Even bleak Dublin days were brightened by Francis. Ghosted, often waiting on phone calls from a Dubliner who slept with me and then never called, I poured out the story to Francis who enjoyed it so much that he made me retell it from five different angles. When people discredited my Irishness by pointing out my accent and calling me English, Francis hugged me until my bruises healed. Even when I got homesick, missing my parents and the gentle familiarity of the Yorkshire hills, Francis blotted my face with kisses until my tears had ceased. Francis was never annoying, and he was never boring. Chameleon-like, he adapted to suit my every mood.
Of course, our relationship was not without problems. “Why do you never feed me?” Francis announced one day, “You spend all your time in the library now and you leave me hungry!” I apologised and tried to sweet-talk him, but that didn’t work.
“I know you only really like it when we’re at home alone together. But I can’t afford to heat the flat all day,” I explained. “That’s why I go to the library. Why don’t you come with me, Francis?” I suggested, “It’d be great.”
“NO,” he replied, “I am not going to the bloody library.”
“But Francis,” I said, locking my arms around his neck, “Come to the library … it’ll be fun.”
Scowling, Francis pulled away. This was the thing about Francis; you couldn’t convince him to do anything he didn’t want to do, or to go anywhere he didn’t want to go. You couldn’t cajole him or persuade him. It just didn’t work. What Francis was second-most afraid of was criticism (what Francis was most afraid of was himself). Once at the Trinity writer’s group, someone dared to make a mildly sarcastic comment about Francis’s tattoos (“trying a little too hard, perhaps?”) and Francis fled the seminar-room and didn’t come near me for a fortnight.
2005. “Not the desk,” Francis moaned, “let’s sit on the bed or the sofa, or anywhere, but not the feckin desk.”
“Alright,” I said, “okay.” (Since I was a teen, I have always had a desk and Francis has always refused to sit at it.)
Francis loved late nights, and he adored early mornings. Shortly after sunrise, we’d bask together on the wide windowsills of my Georgian student flat, or stroll along the canal in the almost-day. At the extremities of day and night, Francis’s eyes were alive with ideas, but he hated afternoons. Many afternoons, Francis would get scared of things that weren’t even there and I’d have to stroke his hair and whisper to him that everything was okay.
“You don’t love me!” Francis shouted at me one day and hurled a paperback at my head, “Am I even on your list of priorities? Am I even bloody on the list?!”
“Of course you’re on the list, Francis!” I told him, reaching to take his hand, “You are my list! For God’s sake, it’s only you on the list!” but Francis turned away.
“I used to be top of your list …” he said to his frowning reflection in the window, “But now I’m second, SECOND!”
“No, Francis, it’s not like that,” I pleaded, but he stormed out of my apartment and I didn’t see him for days. Sometimes Francis’ absence came as a relief. My essay grades improved and I could do things like laze away an afternoon on the lawn in front of the Pavilion Bar without worrying about Francis.
2006. I was sheltering at front gate waiting for Francis on a damp day when the Trinity cobblestones were marbled with rain, when a short man with swarthy skin approached me, “Excuse me madam, do you know where is the Book of Kells?”
“I’ll walk you there,” I offered and he ushered me under his gleaming umbrella. The Italian was newly arrived in Dublin from Verona. Forgetting all about Francis, I took this charming stranger on a make-shift tour of the city streets, on a route which inevitably ended up back in my bed. He was easy to be with, and dating him was like taking a holiday from myself and all that messed-up stuff with Francis. Leaning my head on his shoulder at Parnell Street cinema, sitting on the worktop while he cooked lasagne with the pouting, frowning concentration of a five-year-old building a Lego tower, I felt the giddy joy of normalcy. This is what twenty-somethings were meant to be doing; relaxing and enjoying life. On Saturday afternoons when I would normally have been sitting on my bed arguing with Francis, I lingered in the Italian’s river-view apartment, dressing, undressing, re-dressing against a backdrop of water.
At first, Francis was quite turned-on by this development in my life; he liked it when I tried new things. On nights when I wasn’t with the Italian, Francis would keep me awake till all hours while I related every detail of my latest romantic encounters. But the more time I spent with the Italian, the more Francis slipped away, and I saw less and less of him. Then whenever we met, Francis would just stare at me and refuse to talk. Francis and I spent awkward nights in my bedroom, both of us sitting there without touching or saying a word. “Sod him,” I thought to myself, “I don’t need him at all.”
But what started as a slight scratch under my ribcage soon spread into a body-wide ache. I’d wake up in the middle of the night sweating, scared that I no longer knew who I was, and petrified that I’d never see Francis again. One night I phoned Francis, “Look,” I said, “You know I need you Francis, but I also deserve a life. Why won’t you let me have one?”
Francis just hung up.
It was becoming clear that I would have to make a choice: love or Francis. I couldn’t have both. The Italian was caring and tender, turning up with bunches of yellow roses in crinkly cellophane, and telling me stories about the history of tiramisu, given to soldiers by their Venetian lovers. Meanwhile, every time I glimpsed Francis across campus he was doing something destructive like tearing down sign-posts or beating himself up.
One time, when I was on the bus going down the sunlit Rathmines Road, I saw Francis walking towards me with his hands in his pockets. He looked gorgeous. My stomach lurched when I saw him. Lovesick. Now I knew the meaning of this phrase. The bus was going too fast for me to get off, and before I could help it, Francis was just a dot on the horizon behind me. I was suddenly nauseated by the idea that Francis (my Francis) was on his way to meet somebody else.
“I can’t do this,” I told the Italian as we sat by the Liffey, “I need my space.”
“Space?” he squinted at me, rubbing his head, “Space for what?”
I need space for Francis, I thought, but I didn’t say that.
I left the Italian sitting on the boardwalk and set off to search the streets for Francis. I looked in all our usual places; the deserted cricket ground at the far end of the Phoenix Park, the cavern-like coffee shop in the Georges Street Arcade, on my bed and on the sofa, but there was no sign of him anywhere. And the more I searched for Francis, the more I realised how much I needed him, and the further away he seemed.
2009. For years after I graduated, Francis refused to return.
Lost and tired, I drifted across continents.
Things which I thought would summon Francis: moving to Catalonia, the rattle of chestnut shells across cobbled streets, the smell of roasted castanyes and marzipan panellets, getting lost in the hot metal-tasting maze of the Barcelona subway … Brazil, a predawn landing in São Paulo airport, skyscrapers rising up to swallow the plane’s wings, Caraguatatuba with its white curve of beach, its jungled hills that looked like the humpbacked form of some oceanic monster … Derry city, walking along the river, tracing the steps of my ancestors. Imagining women’s heels clacking along steep streets on their way home from the shirt factories, sunken U-boats dragged up the Foyle. None of this appealed to Francis. At times, he’d text me. Short, barely comprehensible messages which I rarely replied to.
So I fell into primary teaching, partly as a path to a stable income and partly for fear of never doing anything else. The late nights and early mornings once occupied by Francis were now taken up with lesson plans and student observations. My mind fell into a type of stupor. I’d stare out of the window, thinking about Francis but unable to conjure up a single word to say to him.
2012. And it was years later that I looked up and saw Francis leaning in the doorway of my empty classroom. He looked like crap. His eyebrow piercing had gone septic, his cheeks were flushed and a torn leather jacket hung off his sunken shoulders like a raven’s ragged wings. “What do you think you’re doing?” Francis said.
“Working. Earning a living. Helping people,” I replied, indicating the tiny yellow-legged chairs, the overturned pots of broken crayons and the little rail of multi-coloured backpacks.
“You? Helping people?” Francis kicked over a wastepaper basket and walked out.
Just then, my Senior Infants charged back in, scrambling, elbow-butting, pencil-fighting, making me feel miniscule in the face of their tsunami of noise. My attempts to gain control over the class were failing fairly spectacularly, and clarity dropped over me with such gentle reassurance, I wanted to laugh out loud. The next September, rather than looking for another temporary contract at saint-something-or-other-national-school, I took a job teaching English to international students at the university. Life was easier. I was getting more sleep.
“In my country,” one of my students told me, “if a couple kisses under the first snow of winter, it means they will be together until their hair is white.” Stalled in the middle of a lesson on the Present Perfect, I imagined a young couple dashing from the sliding doors of a glassy office block, running towards each other through spiralling flakes. A warm feeling spread from my belly, the pleasure of a story unfurling. I looked up and saw Francis sitting beside two bored-looking Italian girls who were painting their nails at the back of my classroom. For once, Francis looked relaxed and well-rested. I mouthed at him, “hi.”
2013. A late summer day, walking through the blonde sway of dry summer grasses in the Phoenix Park, the city held in the dusty caul of an August heat haze. Francis fell into step beside me and casually opened the conversation with, “So, what’s new with you?”
“Nothing exciting,” I told him, “Just work and the kids at school and living in the furthest flung corner of Dublin, where everybody is from somewhere else. Nothing worth talking about.”
“We don’t have to make up mad shit,” Francis said, “It’s your life. We can talk about that.”
And we did. We talked all afternoon and long into the night.
For the first time ever, I introduced Francis to someone. I took him along to a creative writing workshop, where the teacher, a well-known poet and editor, looked at me and raised an eyebrow, nodding towards Francis, “How long have you known this guy?”
At this time, Francis was dreadlocked, bearded and hooded, and sat with his hands between his knees. At home, after the workshop we showered together. I sat behind him, trimmed his dreadlocks, kissed his shoulders. “Come on, Francis, it’s time to stop hiding. You’re in my life. Ok. I finally get it.”
2015. Those days Francis was more beautiful and more selfish than ever. He’d filled out, become more confident, got more tattoos and started to wear brighter clothes. We were infatuated with each other and hardly had time for anyone else. When I brought Francis out in Dublin, he started to attract some attention, holding circles of people enrapt with his mad stories and conversation. He was taller, stronger, more eloquent but just as likely to scarper. We went to literary festivals, stood under hot spotlights in theatres and arts centres and answered questions about our relationship. Francis loved it.
For a brief and glittering moment, it seemed we would always be this way.
May 2016. Francis stood beside me one day as I opened a brown box, lifted out the first book and ran my finger over the title. The strange alien-feeling of my name on a bright book jacket. My inner thoughts turned into a holdable object. All I could think of were my doubts about certain stories, and of last-minute edits which had occurred to me too late to be included in the final manuscript. Nothing had prepared me for the feeling of nakedness, of my thoughts being exposed to the world. The thought (and I don t know why this hadn’t occurred to me before now) of reviews, and of my friends and family reading the book. Francis ran into the ensuite and retched over the toilet. All I could hear was him muttering, ‘crap, crap, crap.’
2016. I was still teaching to pay the bills. Sometimes my colleagues would find out about Francis and give me looks which might have been jealous or suspicious or downright freaked-out. “You dark horse,” they’d say. Presuming that … what? That my life with Francis involved sunset cruises and roses? That my relationship with Francis was easy?
All my life I’d felt like a wave pulled by lunar gravity. I’d presumed the lodestar tugging me all those years was Francis, but I was wrong.
One late May afternoon, I took a deep breath and looked at him, “Are you ready?”
He nodded. He was wearing a black jumper embellished with silver calligraphy, and page-white skinny jeans which he’d worn for our latest literary festival. His attempt, I suppose, to be different and stand out from the crowd. “It’s okay,” he said, “you can do this.”
I stooped and lifted the white plastic stick from the bathroom rug, where I’d flung it in a moment of panic. Lines and squares and circles and sweet Jesus, I didn’t know which line meant what. I reached for the box, pulled out the instruction sheet. It was all in some language I didn’t even recognise. Shit. Öppna förpackningen I samband met tatt da skall… Where was the English? Words loomed and swam before my eyes. One band: you may assume to be ‘not pregnant.’ Two bands: you may assume to be ‘pregnant.’
I sat down on the bed, watching the
deepen colour before my eyes.
It felt like someone just pressed the ‘pause’ button on my life.
Francis took my hand.
2016, mid-December. According to my pregnancy app, my growing baby was the size of a cauliflower and could even dream. I imagined the child’s eyelids twitching with REM. What do unborn babies dream of? Black-and-white photos from my child’s twenty-week scan were pinned to the kitchen noticeboard. Sometimes I’d stare at them, like photos of someone in a far away war, trying to imagine life and movement into the static images. At these times, I never thought of Francis.
Other times, when I was sitting on my bed deep in conversation with Francis, I’d forget about the baby. Forget to feel her kicks and rolls, to imagine her turning in her sleep. When I realised this, I would turn away from Francis and concentrate on my belly. It was a sense of re-earthing. I’d feel guilty for having ignored the baby. Unborn, unseen and yet already she was my lightening rod.
2017. Blood behind sealed doors and the particular pressure of waters being broken. Pre-labour ward, behind hospital-blue curtains, the subaquatic thud of fast prenatal heartbeats. I’d been induced, and so far nothing was happening, but I knew what lay ahead. From behind one side of my curtains, quasi-orgasmic moans and from the other side, a woman whose squeals sounded like a trolley with a stuck wheel. Francis sauntered up to me while I lay there waiting for the pain to start. I threw a book at his head.
The night before Valentines Day, 2017, my daughter was born. At last, Francis and I had something in common.
2017, mid-March morning. Jazz hands, fingers splayed, waving rapidly to and fro as if my daughter has been startled from sleep. Tiny fingers conducting invisible air flows. Eyes that shift between the brown of fresh turned earth and the grey of ocean storm.
And I am not meant to feel like this. I’m trying to be cool and not to write about motherhood, but here’s the catch; parenting is walking into a forest for the first time. How can you avoid writing about that?
“Bees! Flowers! Horseys! Can she see them? Hold her up! Look, little love! Clippity-clop, horseys!’
No one can write like this. It’s hardly the material of high-brow literature.
I take Francis aside and tell him, ‘We are in some serious shit.’
But Francis, in a baggy blouse, doesn’t care. His tattoos have faded from his skin as if erased, and his piercings have healed over. His face is relaxed and calmly confident. He’s no longer trying to impress anyone. He suddenly wants to know things like the names of wildflowers and how to identify birds from their song.
Summer 2017. We’ve had our moments. All these years, it seems we’ve rarely been on the same page. But one thing Francis and I agree on; my daughter is all we want to talk about. After she’s gone to sleep (and sleep is rare, sleep is fleeting), we sit watching her. Francis is as smitten as I am. And there are times my daughter looks at me with a particular concealed-humour in her storm-grey eyes (they never settled into a definite colour) and I see my mum looking back at me. We could be hunting for bees in the garden or reading bedtime stories, but when she looks at me like that, I am transported miles away. Decades of wisdom in her baby face. Like all babies, it’s as if she was born knowing everything. Skipping ropes between red brick Derry terraces, the swing of a lilac paisley skirt along a London street, make-shift sledges charging down a Sheffield hill, the snow marshmallow deep, our family story written in white engine spray catscombing the Irish Sea.
Before my daughter arrived, I worried that becoming a mum would mean the end of my relationship with Francis. Instead it’s as if we’ve just met each other for the first time. Gone are the teenage fumblings, the stupid arguments. Francis is less flighty, and also less concerned about what other people think. A thin blonde dress-maker in an alteration shop once told me, ‘Once you’ve given birth, you are not prudish any more. You don’t give a crap who sees what.’ An elderly friend of my mum’s once peered into my daughter’s pram and said, ‘Congratulations. Now you will be worried until the day you die.’
The change in Francis came about so slowly, it was almost invisible. An abandonment of arrogance. A slow kindling of empathy, making it easier for us to grab a quick coffee together during my lunchbreak, or chat on the phone during my daughter’s afternoon nap. His hair grew past his shoulders and his form softened. I’ve re-read the texts he sent me during the time I spent living abroad, and we laugh about these texts and discuss them at length. Even though Francis still hates afternoons, out of necessity he’s learnt how to be more pleasant at this time of day. We Skype. We message. We make it work. Now the metamorphosis is complete, it’s hard to know how I didn’t see it. Francis sits on my bed, watching the baby attempting to crawl. ‘You could keep your name?’ I suggest.
S/he says no. ‘I’ll just change to ‘e’ to an ‘i.’
I shake my head. ‘Oh Jesus, Frances.’
2018. An unbelievable summer. Unrealistic, even. Weeks of dry, hot weather have left the lawn a dry wasteland. ‘HAY,’ my daughter says as she runs helter-skelter across the grass in an abandonment of gravity. Aged eighteen months, she is discovering the magical algorithm of slotting words together. TEDDY BEAR. MAMMY’S ROOM. PURPLE SHOES. It makes her seem less like a baby and more like an actual person. It’s possible to have an almost-conversation with her. Frances and I spend weekends like this, talking and being stunned by the sudden gush of language.
These days my daughter is my priority. Along with full-time work, sometimes that leaves little time for writing. Words are squeezed into the margins of my life, condensed into the corners, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Frances is always by my side, seeing everything and storing it in her inexhaustible memory, waiting for the pilfered minutes, late at night or early morning, when we finally have the chance to sit on my bed and talk. At this point we’re just two friends who have known each other their entire lives. There’s an honesty between us, neither one trying to show-off or prove anything. Frances sits behind me and rubs my tired shoulders, ‘So? What’s the latest story?’
Saint Francis de Sales, a bishop of Geneva, died in 1622.
He is known as the Patron Saint of Writers