Monday, September 01, 2008

When I was a kid one of my best friends was called Francis.

Francis is a bad name to have if you live on Barrow Island, the part of town tucked away behind the shipyard, which is dominated by flats built at the turn of the eighteenth century for the workers.

In some ways though this was the least of his problems.

Francis was the illegitimate son of a Pakistani doctor who had briefly lived in the town. His mother had had an affair. She decided to keep the baby. He was brought by his mother Ruth and her husband, a small, quiet man with crepey eyes and a grey moustache.

In retrospect, the fact that she didn’t have a termination or give Francis up for adoption and the fact that they agreed to bring him up together seems incredible. The stigma at that time in a closed, exclusively white Northern working class community would have been enormous.

I never knew anything about this until I was in my twenties. As a child I asked my mum why Francis was a different colour to everybody else. My mum replied that, “some people are just born a different colour.” For years I thought that it was perfectly possible that a white couple could just spontaneously produce a black child or vice versa.

There was the name, there was the colour of his skin, there was no doubt a certain amount of ostracization and shame for his mother, Ruth, the huge elephant in the living room at home, the tensions in his Dad’s attitude to him. But it didn’t end there.

He was also hyper-sensitive, prone to cry immediately and uncontrollably at the slightest frustration, disappointment or shock, and childhood is full of shocks. He was a sissy, a cry-baby. Once, being told that I couldn’t come out to play as I was about to have my dinner he collapsed distraught in a wailing, sobbing heap in our backyard and had to be brought into the house until he calmed down.

Not only this, he was extremely intelligent. A group of the brighter kids in the school took some kind of intelligence test. Francis came top. We were in a special group for Maths and had the highest reading ages in the year. We gravitated toward each other because we knew we were different and even at a very young age suspected that the world would treat us badly.

He was bullied constantly and treated as a kind of town idiot by the local boys. His idiocy, his sub-normality, resided in his inability to be tough. We were sitting on some swings in the local Rec one evening when an older boy, probably about fourteen, came up to him, stood staring threateningly at him for few moments, fists clenched, then shouted “BOO!” Francis predictably burst into a fit of snotty wailing and trembling as the boy strutted back to the group of laughing girls he’d been showing off to. It was like this every day for Francis

But then it was hard not to bully him. His debility invited cruelty. The utter certainty that there would be no retaliation tempted even the weakest of us to experiment with our power and so even among his friends he was often exploited. He was truly at the bottom, in that town, at that time. In my own vague memories of my childhood I imagine that I was one of the few, perhaps the only one who never bullied him. But given what I know of people, I imagine this is a convenient elision.

And there we have one more convenient elision. I should have written: given what I know of myself.

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