Elle by Tim Frank

Tim Frank’s character tells of an intense relationship with fellow college student Elle.

Our train sliced through a tunnel, causing my eardrums to pop. We juddered in our seats and the wheels clapped like an offbeat gospel choir.

Our class was on a school trip to the Tate Modern art gallery. We had boarded a train from a deserted countryside station and then we travelled through cornfields bordered by clumps of maple trees, bound for central London.

I'd hardly spoken a word to Elle before, but I was instantly put at ease in her presence as she sat down beside me, nonchalantly plucked an earphone from my ear and placed it in hers. I felt a thrill as she brushed up against my arm with her hand - blue sapphire gemstones on every finger. Half an hour later she was asleep with her head upon my shoulder. Still, we had hardly shared a word, but other students had noticed us and were beginning to gossip.

When Elle went to the toilet, Cynthia, who had a major crush on me, was fuming, and approached me with a sly grin and said, "Elle's got bipolar, you know." Then she darted back to her seat a few rows behind mine.

I didn't know exactly what bipolar meant but my attitude towards Elle was immediately tainted. When she returned to her seat, she rested her head back upon my shoulder and reached out to hold my hand. My whole body stiffened but I held onto her anyway, almost too tightly.

I knew two things about Elle: the first concerned her relationship to a scruffy bunch of boys who gathered in the park by our college, smoking resin, playing house music on their phones, fighting the boredom of a small town. I had spotted Elle sitting on some of these boys' laps - playing with their long dirty hair or blowing smoke rings into their eyes.

The second thing I knew, was she that painted these fantastic abstract figures with their skulls on fire. I heard sometimes she would burn her canvases too, but no one knew whether this was an artistic statement or not.

We arrived at the gallery, but still I refused to prise myself away from Elle's side as we wandered through the Tate's mesmeric portraits of trippy cityscapes and statues of reclining women with hypnotic eyes.

After the trip, back in our home town, we stepped off the train and I aimed an awkward smile at Elle's feet. She gathered me up into a giant hug. I felt her warm breath on the nape of my neck. I couldn't look at her.

The next day Cynthia cornered me on a damp park bench while I vaped ice menthol under a light rain. She revealed things about Elle that I really wish I could forget.

Apparently, Elle had had a string of boyfriends - all of them untrustworthy thugs - most of them drug dealers who treated her like shit. One of them beat her constantly yet she continued to see him. Then Cynthia inched in close and said, "And her mum slept with her sixteen-year-old drug addict boyfriend, stole some drugs off him too. Elle's mum has been sectioned before, you know, so that's probably why Elle's ill."

I was determined not to fixate on Cynthia's toxic words because I was intent on being fair to Elle (her sweet cherry scent and caramel skin couldn't be so easily dismissed), but when I ran into her outside the art studio I tried, and failed, to avoid her.

"I've got something to show you," she said, playfully. She pulled out her phone and tapped the screen to bring up a photo. It was of me - denim shirt, chinos and Nike Air Max trainers - my body angled towards the sun creating a striking silhouette.

The image of myself sparked a flurry of tormented memories.

I recalled one night in particular when I dropped half a tab of acid with a friend and a couple of other guys I didn't know. It didn't take long before I started speaking about the stock market's influence on serial killers, while compulsively licking my teeth with my tongue, alarming everyone in the room. All of a sudden, I lost the ability to speak and all I could do was bury my head under a cushion and pretend to sleep. The whole night I listened to everyone whisper about me, how uncool I was being, how I'd ruined their night. Thankfully, in the morning my speech returned, but once I got home, I could still feel my mind darting about in confused panic-stricken spurts. I was terrified my thoughts would never return to a coherent groove. I'd buried these memories, but now I couldn't hide from their reality, all because of Elle and her wretched photo.

"Delete the image," I said, furiously.

And then it occurred to me, maybe Elle's flirtatiousness was a sign of a disturbed mind - evidence of a broken personality. That realisation, and Cynthia's scathing words, pushed me over the brink. So, when Elle refused to bin the photo, I snatched at her phone sending it tumbling to the ground, cracking the screen.

I said to her, "I need you to delete that photo, you crazy fucking bitch."

She scooped up her phone and with trembling lips, said, "I'm not crazy. What the hell is wrong with you?"

She darted away, shaken, cradling her phone in her hands, my photo refracted through plastic shards.

We never spoke to each other again, and as the months went by, we passed each other through the maze of college hallways, acting as if we had never met. I couldn't say I missed her, but I was unable to forget the wounded look she gave me when I dashed her phone to the ground. And I couldn't shake the irresistible feeling that I might unravel at any moment from the intoxicating madness lurking inside my mind.

7 comments:

  1. I think these two would best continue avoiding each other for both their sakes. An interested and well-written relationship story.

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  2. Interesting characters. And unique. I was looking for more of a story line and resolution though.

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  3. These characters ring true. This the way so many working class youth look, the way they smell, and the way they behave. You've presented a nice snapshot. Nice work.

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  4. Cool story... his anima was projected out onto Elle... he was like her. The intensity of the teenage years and all the search for belonging and identity captured in the story's mood and style.

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  5. Intense and slightly confusing - in a good way. The phrasing and delivery had me wondering if certain elements were reality or figments of the MC's imagination...the Cynthia character, in particular, was intriguing for me in this way.

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  6. I always enjoy Tim Frank's work. This was no exception.

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  7. I liked this quite a bit and thought it was a terrific start to something.

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