Now that E is away at University and unlikely to be occupying his room for more than a couple of weeks at a time, the children’s Papa – a tidy soul to the core – has ambitions to turn the space a little more guest-friendly, by turfing out some of E’s more juvenile possessions. The practicalities of this aspiration have in the first instance fallen to me. To anyone who knows me, it will be no revelation to be told that I am absolutely useless at throwing things away.
How do I know whether E is still attached to the Lego star-cruiser that he so laboriously constructed eight years ago and which has been poised for takeoff from the top shelf of the bookcase ever since? I dare not even touch it, lest I accidentally dismantle one of its delicate protrusions and put myself permanently in the dog-house. Ditto the Airfix, the sporting trophies, the Warhammer sets.
“Just go through the books, then”, said P. Nope. While P sees a rummage through bookshelves as an chance to winnow out any that haven’t been read for a while, I see it as an invitation to reacquaint myself with old friends. One doesn’t put old friends out the door. From The Very Hungry Caterpillar to The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, to Wolf Brother, to Smith, to The Hunger Games, to King Hereafter, E’s bookshelves are a coded chronicle of his life with us, and each of them is still a darn good read. So having pulled all the books off the shelves and replaced them, I settled down, slightly guilty, very exasperated, and in need of cheering up and soothing, with a couple from his mid-primary-school stage: Mij Kelly‘s Forty-Eight Hours With Franklin and Franklin Falls Apart.
The thing with good books, I find, is that on re-reading, you come across bits that resonate as new, because you have changed in the interim. I first read Three Men In A Boat in my very late teens, on a Scotland-to-London train, disrupting the entire carriage with honks and snorts of mirthful recognition at the posing, mock-heroics and ineptitude of the young-adult heroes. Twenty years later, with the benefit of knowing my brother’s personality-plus Jack Russell, I read it again and was convulsed by the contributions to expedition-packing – long-forgotten – of Montmorency the terrier.
Re-reading Franklin, the adventures of an accidentally-animated shop dummy, I laughed again, as I expected to, but I also began to see another layer that didn’t appear to me ten or twelve years ago. Franklin, born into the world of humans as a six-foot baby, has no understanding of people or how things work, which leads him to repeated close shaves with law-enforcement. He doesn’t talk, although he learns to repeat sounds, words and phrases that he hears. He is literal-minded. Asked to lend a hand, he does what any sensible shop-dummy would do: unscrews one of his at the wrist and passes it over. He relies heavily on his flesh-and-blood siblings, Gertie and Joe, to protect him from the consequences of his unwittingly disastrous actions. They understand, from a knowledge of his past, what his probable intentions are and what his apparently out-of-context repetitions of stock phrases mean. They know that when he says, “Ow, ow, ow, motorbike stars”, he means his legs are hurting and “Body no Perkins, body cow”, means actions were stupid (like the cows) but not malicious (like Mr. Perkins).
Well-meaning adults, such as Joe and Gertie’s parents, don’t quite get this, at least not until they have spent time with Franklin and begun learning to understand him. And even then, the parents get it wrong, initially thinking only of how presenting papers on Franklin to international conferences will enhance their standing as scientists. Strangers, pardonably, think Franklin is weird or rude when he addresses them as ‘Podgy’. They aren’t to know this is his attempt at complimenting them for being a ‘prodigy’. And some strangers, learning just how different Franklin is, see him as an opportunity for money-making: as a freak-show exhibit; as a subject for containment and study; as a tabloid newspaper headline. In pursuit of their own aims, they ignore or dismiss Franklin’s rights to bodily integrity, autonomy and self-determination.
Echolalia, language differences and communication difficulties. Incomprehension of the world around him. Reliance on others’ attunement. At risk of exploitation and/or incarceration. Not quite human. Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?
Perhaps that’s why there was never a third Franklin book. Perhaps, having created her living mannequin and seen him evolve, maybe without her realising it, into someone who looks very like an adult with learning disabilities and autism, Kelly just couldn’t imagine a future for him.
P.S. The Franklin books are long out of print, but occasionally resurface second-hand.
They are available together as an e-book called The Franklin Files.