We queued in the rain.
© Ken Armstrong
It wasn't a terribly long queue and the rain wasn't particularly heavy but Shiv was not a happy person. I tilted the umbrella further out over her head, getting myself thoroughly drizzled-on in the process. She did not seem appreciative.
"Why can't we go and see something new? There's that one with 'what's-his-name' in it, you know who I mean."
I knew exactly who she meant. 'What's-his-name' was reason enough not to go see it.
I didn't say that though.
"We can go next week. Give this a chance, you'll love it, I promise."
We progressed two steps in silence.
"It's not as if I've never seen it. I have, you know...twice!"
"Yeah but only on television. It's not the same."
Shiv made a face. "Oh please!" she said, "It's not as if it's 'Citizen Kane'. "
Then she laughed.
I laughed too. We both felt the same about the great 'Citizen Kane. We reckoned it was the most chronically overrated film of all time. Perhaps we should have gone to see it in the cinema.
The queue started to shuffle along with a purpose so I took the umbrella down and shook it.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"We'll be inside in a minute."
"Then put the goddamned umbrella down in a minute!"
God, I loved that girl.
The ticket lady was enclosed in a chin-high perspex booth. Permed, fluffy and wearing horn rimmed glasses, she looked like an escapee from a Larson cartoon - everything but the chickens.
I paused respectfully in front of her. She sat rigid, staring blankly ahead. Shiv had wandered off somewhere so we were practically alone. She studied a point beyond my left ear, a dying breed, masticating gently. I wanted to say something to her, just so she'd acknowledge me, but nothing appropriate came to mind. I paid up the admission fee and two pink bus tickets clunked out of the shiny metal plate on the counter between us.
"Thanks." I volunteered.
She chewed at me - once.
I found Shiv over at the wall where the poster hung. She was staring at the credits.
"You didn't tell me John Barry did the music."
"You're right. Sorry love. I know we shouldn't keep such things from each other"
"Be serious! I hate John Barry. You'd never have got me here if I'd known it was him."
I nervously adjusted my jacket. I believed John Barry to be the greatest Cinema composer since Rachmaninov. I even had the soundtrack album at home, it had cost me thirty-five quid. Was this a stand worth making?
"You're probably right," I said, deciding not, "I can't hardly remember the music."
Shiv started jumping and pointing at me.
"Liar! Liar! You love it, you've even got the record, I've seen it under your bed along with all those soggy Penthouses."
"Hey, you know I only read those for the articles."
"Anyway, they never look as good naked as you."
Shiv looked round anxiously.
"For Christ's sake Minty!"
"Well, it's true."
"Have an Opal Fruit."
It was time to go in. We headed for the double doors, held open by the stubble-chinned relic in the decaying blue tunic. I handed him our tickets and he ripped them effortlessly in two.
"See that?" I asked Shiv.
"He ripped our tickets in half. Look."
"Wow, is there someone we should call?"
"Don't be sarcastic, there's a whole generation of kids coming up who've never had their ticket torn at the movies."
"Have you lost it completely, Minty? Everybody tears tickets."
"Rip, they rip. Hardly anyone tears. The secret is in the perforations.
It's all perforations now. All you get are those awful printout jobs with hot dog offers on the back and perforations to rip along - I hate them!
"Shiv, what you are about to experience here is Cinema as it used to be. No gimmicks, no tricks, just raw nostalgia."
"Just keep taking the pills, that's all."
And then we were in. The place was about quarter-full, people scattered around here and there. It was old fashioned, of course, that was part of the attraction. Dominant colour red, not particularly ornate, plush in a dusty sort of a way and big...very big.
"God it's big, isn't it?" Shiv was impressed. She and I were frequently impressed by similar things. "Which are our seats?"
"Anywhere you like. First come, first served."
"Are you sure? Didn't the computer allocate us seats?"
"The 'computer' was too busy filing her nails. It's much better this way."
"Oh come on! It's a great little movie-house, sure, but let's not stretch this 'weren't the old ways wonderful' routine too far. Computerised seat allocation is a great idea and you know it."
I arched an eyebrow at her. "Do I?"
"Okay, you smug git, tell me it isn't!"
"All right it isn't. Not always."
"Yeah? When is it not? Give me one 'for instance'."
I need to explain that the show hadn't yet begun. The house lights were still up and people were chatting away among themselves. Also we were speaking quietly so our mid-aisle exchange was neither exhibitionist nor a nuisance to anybody. I feel I should make that clear in the light of what was to follow.
"In the afternoons."
I had her here, I knew it.
"Automatic ticket allocation can be an embarrassment in the afternoons."
"I am not! Listen, the computers always allocate seats on a 'best seat first' basis, right? The best two seats are always in the same place, near the back, in the centre, beside each other..."
"Let's sit here," Shiv marched into a row, chose a seat five in from the aisle and collapsed into it, "Now, what are you going on about?"
"Most afternoon shows only ever get a small attendance. Okay, suppose two separate people, a guy and a girl, decide to go to the same movie one afternoon. The movie is a bit well...sexy, and they're the only two people who go."
"Don't you think this is a touch contrived?"
"Let me finish. Those two people, who have never met, will be allocated seats right next to each other. They'll have to sit, shoulder to shoulder, through some of the most graphic sex scenes ever committed to celluloid, with hundreds of empty seats all around them. Nervous, anxious and seriously embarrassed those poor people will emerge cursing the computer that seated them. And that, m'lud, is where the system falls down."
Shiv mused on it a moment.
"I think it sounds great. I bet the two would get off with each other, and live happily ever after. Pretty imaginative though, Minty, well done."
"Did you just make it up?"
"Of course... sure."
She caught my tone.
I must have shifted in my seat.
"You didn't! You sod! That actually happened to you, didn't it? What happened? What was the movie? Did you get lucky?"
"Don't be silly."
At that moment the house lights dimmed and I clammed up, saved by the bell. Neither of us believed in talking while the show was running. We both got too wound up when other people did it.
An usher crept in and sat on a little pull-down perch at the side of the stairs below us. Not the slob who had torn our tickets - this was an altogether smarter-looking guy. I watched as he made himself as comfortable as possible and then gave himself to the screen, obviously a fan. I followed his example and settled into the show.
The curtains opened.
No trailers, no adverts and no charity-collecting-do-good bastards rattling their tuppence boxes along the rows. This was Cinema, folks, as it used to be.
The Film began.
The titles gave us our first taste of the smoky, elusive score that I loved so well - no matter what Shiv thought. Piano first, then tenor sax, lazy, slow and seductive but always, not far behind, that insistent, nervy back beat warning us, telling us to watch out - there is more going on here than meets the eye.
"John Barry," whispered Shiv, "I hate him!"
"My god, it's hot!" breathes the lady on the screen as the sax fades into the wail of distant sirens, " 'Stepped out of the shower and started sweating again."
The man she is talking to turns from the window to grin at her distractedly as she climbs into her nurses uniform. He is Racine, the lawyer. The nurse is not relevant, we won't see her again.
The film seemed different from the last time I had seen it eleven years before. I suddenly realised what it was. Back then, Racine had been anonymous but nonetheless instantly recognisable as a dubious character. Since then, though, he had become infinitely more well-known. Now he was William Hurt - Movie star - and as such towed with him the baggage of the many memorable roles he had since played. A person seeing the film for the first time would now take a while to figure out the nature of Hurt's character.
I didn't let this worry me overly. The mood was as I remembered, the atmosphere still intact. The movie was going to be just as good this time around as...
A guy, well built, wearing a black leather jacket, a gangly blonde girl in tow. They fell up the stairs fooling with each other and giggling selfishly. The usher jumped from his perch to quieten them.
"Tennn-shun!" the big guy bawled, at the top of his voice, and then, "Jesus Corr-aye-est, is it dark in here or is it me?"
A palpable swell of hostility coursed instantly through the entire auditorium. These were good people, all they wanted was to enjoy this fine film in peace. They did not deserve this West End Saturday Night trash.
"Two of your best seats for my lady and I, scout," the noisy one boomed, "And be quick about it!"
The usher tried his best. "The feature has already started," he hinted coolly but the guy was ready for him.
"Good job too! Less of this shit for me to sit through," he marched past the usher, "C'mon, babe, let's sit up here."
Four seats in from the aisle was where we had sat. Why did we do it? We could have just taken the aisle seats like normal people. The quest for the perfect stereo position perhaps. Didn't matter now, the mouthpiece and his girl had collapsed into the two seats right next to us, her closest to me. Ignore them, I advised myself, give your attention back to the film, they'll probably shut up once they settle.
On screen, Racine and Mattie were about to meet for the first time. The fire was beginning to burn. The band played 'I saw you last night and got that old feeling' while Hurt pursued Kathleen Turner through the summer heat. I relaxed again, forgetting the interruption.
"Hey," brayed the big guy, "What's this crap all about anyway?"
Somebody behind 'ssshh'ed angrily but it only served as encouragement to him. He twisted full round in his seat and stared out into the gloom behind.
"Shush me one more time, scout. I'll come back there and shush you."
Then he turned jubilant back to the girl beside him, punched her shoulder and said, "Where's my sweeties?"
Anything but sweeties, please.
The blonde rummaged in her coat pocket and fished out a virgin bag of gold wrapped chewy caramels. The brute ripped them out of her grip...
...and proceeded to tear the plastic limb from limb. The bag was gunfire in the still of the auditorium, it went...
For many people it is a certain smell which trigger vivid memories; flowers, bus stations, drains.
For me it is a sound.
"Are you all right?" whispered Shiv anxiously.
Fine. Except for that sound, dragging me back.
"I said are you okay?"
Shiv was now also torn out of the movie and was worried about me. She knew how I got.
"I just wish he'd...stop. Y'know?"
"I know. Just try to watch the movie, it's good."
I tried to watch the movie - I really did - but that bag went...
...and back I went...
It was a joke, a kids joke. We were walking back to school one day and we had our rolls of mint imperials in our hand, chewing away. Remember the packets? Ten white ovals laid end to end, wrapped in a square of transparent cellophane then all rolled up with a couple of twists in both ends.
Coogan finished his first and rasped the paper into a ball in his hand. I told him to stop, that I hated that noise. I didn't really, it was just something to say, but the guys latched onto it.
They started to call me Minty. They rasped paper at me all the time. Everywhere I went - rasp, rasp, rasp - and it wasn't the noise that got me, not really. It was the knowing that, even though I'd said how much I hated it, they still kept on doing it just the same. It got to a stage that every time I heard that noise I got really upset.
It became something of a problem for me.
Mop does it one day and I lose it completely. We'd been playing marbles in the gutter on the back street and Mops opaque had rolled down into the gully. We manage to get the cover up - it is cast iron and very heavy - and mops kneels and reaches in to feel around in the muck at the bottom for his prize. I wander off to look for pennies but he calls me over.
"Hey Minty, c'mere and see!"
I go over and kneel down and he pulls his arms out and he's got a filthy mint imperial wrapper in his hand. He rasps the damned stuff at me, right under my nose, then he laughs and shoves his arms back down the hole. "Poor mad Minty," he says.
Then I just get all upset and kick the gully lid over on his arms. It crunches down on him just above the elbows. It doesn't chop them off or anything but it's still pretty bad, there's a lot of gore and stuff and Mops is howling....
I snapped back. From the corner of my eye I saw the blonde staring at me, annoyed, and I realised that I have been cracking my knuckles slowly one by one. I can crack them really well, twenty-two different ways. Shiv reckons I'll have Arthritis by the time I'm forty. It really winds her up.
Anyway, this blonde was staring at me angrily and her dumb boyfriend was still off in his own world rasping away beside her so I couldn't resist the dig.
"I'm sorry," I said, turning and smiling my most winning smile at her, "I do hope I'm not bugging you."
I could see that she didn't really know what to do. Her eyes darted away from me to the screen for a moment but then back again. I cracked another knuckle at her for punctuation. She winced.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, hardly a breath really, "he wanted to go and see Tom Cruise."
"So did she," I said, nodding over at wonderful unaware Shiv, "but she's still behaving herself."
Then, from nowhere, he was over in my face. He had leant across the blonde using her arm as painful purchase to drag himself closer to me.
"What's this then, sodding 'Blind date' or something?"
He was too close, I could smell the caramels on his breath, probably wedged somewhere between his teeth.
Shiv snapped suddenly around to face him.
"Why don't you shut up, you ignorant shit-head?" she hissed. Shiv really doesn't like being disturbed in the cinema.
He stared at her just for a moment then threw himself to his feet in a manner that might have been funny in different circumstances.
He pushed roughly past his girlfriend towards Shivs' seat.
"Shit-head, am I?"
"Sit down," somebody behind said.
"I'll sit in a minute, scout," he replied, almost reasonably, "Just let me straighten something out with this bitch here."
To get to my Shiv, he had to first get through me. I stood up to face him, my seat popping upright as I left it. Somebody behind swore softly, I sympathised - it really was a very good part of the film.
"You first, eh?" The guy looked pleased to see me," Good. I'll save her for dessert."
He probably would have too. He was a foot above me and a damn sight heavier. I calculated the odds, realised it was a certain loss, then reached in and drew out my gun.
"Minty!" Shiv shouted.
The entire cinema gasped. Some girl behind started to scream. It was just like being back at that gully.
I extended the gun, raised it above the morons head and slowly brought it down level with the bridge of his nose. His mouth fell open and chewy caramel-coloured drool ran out of the corner of it. I could tell he was impressed.
"Step back and sit down," I advised. He did.
"Pull in your legs" I requested the blonde. She did.
"Minty, you swore..."
"Shut up a minute, Shiv." I said. She didn't.
"You're a real Wally sometimes, you know that?"
I advanced on my quivering thug, past the blondes' tucked-in legs. I inserted the barrel of the gun into his left nostril and pressed hard. I was all upset again.
"You wanted to straighten something out with us? Is that what you wanted to do?
"SHUT UP!! Just...shut up"
I forced the barrel of the Walther a little further up his nose.
The James Bond gun,' Shiv had called it when she gave it to me two birthdays ago. Not quite. The Walther PPK, 7.6mm was a cool piece but If she'd wanted to buy me the 'James Bond gun' then she should have opted for the Beretta .25mm. Bond only gave his Beretta up because M forced him to in 'Dr. No'. Still at least she got the holster right - Berns Martin triple-draw - worn tight under the left shoulder.
I'd promised I'd never carry it outdoors because that was totally illegal and normally I didn't but today we were going to see my all time favourite film. I wanted to see what it would feel like to see it tooled up.
Actually, it felt all right.
"Hey," the big guy sounded a bit bunged up.
I blinked. I had tuned out for a second, it was true, but I was back now, loud and proud. Things had changed. The house lights were up, for a start, and somebody had stopped the film. I took a look around, everybody was watching me, waiting to see which way I would jump. The usher from the pull-down seat was out in the aisle just beyond the Jerk. The room was poised.
Then somebody down the front spoke up, an American I think.
"It's a fake."
A murmur raced around.
"It's a fake gun, for Christ's sake. Who's going to pack something like that in London?"
He was right, of course, my gun was a replica, it fired only blanks. Below me, the idiot slowly realised that this had to be true. A smile spread slowly across his big mouth.
"Put your toy away now scout," he said, "It's time to learn some manners."
Normally that would have been it. My bluff had been called, it was time to pay the price. That's how it had been when I kicked the gully cover down on Mops arms. I had triumphed in my rage but only for the briefest of moments. Many bad things were to follow close behind.
The guy's hand rose up to brush my gun aside and, normally, I would have been powerless to stop him.
Not this time.
This time there was an awful lot of anger still inside me. This PIG had ruined my favourite movie for me forever and then, THEN had moved to hurt my Shiv, My dear precious Shiv, and I knew, if he got past me now, he would surely go on to Shiv and hurt her and hurt her and hurt her and hurt...
"LEAN BACK, YOU SON-OF-A-WHORE!!"
He leaned back...and stared.
"THE GUN IS A FAKE, SURE IT IS," I roared, pumped with adrenaline, "IT SHOOTS BLANKS."
The blonde was staring, the usher too. Everybody was staring.
I made a little speech.
"Anybody know what a 'blank' is? Anybody? I'll tell you shall I? It's really just a little bit of paper rolled up really tight. Wouldn't hurt a fly. Right?... Right?... WRONG! Ever hear of Jimmy Ruane? No? Jimmy 'Sax' Ruane put a gun to his head during a game of Russian Roulette in Salt Lake City back in 1988 and fired a blank round at his temple. That piece of paper went in one side of his skull and out the other and took half his BRAINS with it. Believe me? No? Shall I prove it to you?"
I dug the gun back up his nose and squeezed at the trigger.
The big guys' eyes were bursting out of his sockets and his jaw seemed to be locked ajar.
"Get off me!"
I eased the gun back to let him move.
"Get out of here," I whispered, "Get out of my sight."
Drool, once more flowing freely.
He jumped up and fell out into the aisle. The blonde got up too. She muttered an 'excuse me' as she squeezed past, her hip brushing me. For a second, I thought she was going to stoop and get the bag of sweets.
When the big guy had got some distance between himself and my piece of paper he turned around and made like he was going to come back. The audience started up a slow handclap and a low sinister hiss. He cut his losses, spun and stomped down the stairs.
From outside, he screamed.
"I'm going straight to a phone and calling the police. You'll suffer for this, matey, you'll pay."
Then he left.
I got the gun back into my Berns Martin triple-draw holster only with a lot of difficulty. My hands had started to shake really badly.
I looked at the scatter of faces, all gaping at me, then I looked over at Shiv. She just stood there shaking her head and crying. I straightened my jacket and headed out into the aisle. Once there, I looked back. She was sitting down again.
"I did it for you, you know"
"Go home, Minty. Just go home."
I left without her.
On the stairs, I met the usher from inside. He was hanging around nervously. He looked as if he had something to say.
"What?" I asked.
"It is hot," he said.
I had to smile back.
"Yes," I agreed, “it is.”