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    Mawgrim
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

Hidden Secrets - 2. Ten of Wands

Hard work and the burden of responsibilities.

 

Back in the projection box, I set about getting the cinema ready to open. As I cleaned the projector, I reflected that maybe it was Colin’s bad vibes that had been getting me down as much as the state of the place. His lack of care and resentment could even be a contributory factor. Hadn’t my mother always said that people made their own luck? Those who expected success often achieved it, while the ones who moaned about their lives and complained nothing ever went right seemed to hurtle from one disaster to the next. Maybe this cinema was suffering from an excess of gloom as much as physical neglect? If enough people kept thinking no one cared and that nothing would ever change, a place could stagnate. An old engineer had once described this feeling in words more apt than any I had heard before or since. ‘Of course, I knew they’d close Fordbridge cinema,’ he’d said. ‘It was just a matter of when. Every time you walked in through the front doors you could hear the death rattle.’

Once the power was on - and I hoped I’d managed to find all of the right isolators and switches - I raised the lights and started the non-sync music playing. Even that wasn’t quite right. The soundtrack from Corpse Bride was playing with Nanny McPhee. I hastily changed it for something more suitable and went to check all of the maintained lighting was working. Unexpectedly, it was, but one of the pageant lights had failed. That was why only half of the curtains were lit.

It took me around twenty minutes to find the correct lamp and a ladder but I was determined to achieve as much as I could to start making a difference, even if it was my first day. Once back inside the auditorium, I was surprised to find three elderly ladies sitting exactly where I needed to put the ladder. They had immaculately coiffed hair and were sharing out a bag of boiled sweets.

One of them spotted me. ‘Hello, love. What time does the film start?’

I checked my watch. ‘Not for a good three quarters of an hour. Maybe you’d prefer to wait outside, in the foyer?’

One of her friends chipped in. ‘We always like to come in nice and early so we can get our favourite seats.’

‘Ah, right.’ They must be regulars. ‘Would you mind moving up a bit so I can change this light.’

‘No problem, dear.’

They watched me climb the ladder and fiddle with the pageant as if it was all part of the show.

‘Do you work here, then?’ one asked.

I wanted to reply, ‘No, I’m just nicking this light,’ but that would have been uncalled for. ‘Yes, just started today.’ The most difficult screw to turn was always the one you couldn’t quite reach. I leaned over, hoping I didn’t fall off the ladder.

‘Not local, are you?’ She must have noticed my southern accent.

‘Not really. My aunt lives here, though.’

‘I hope you’ll put the film on on time. Last week we waited… how long was it, Elsie?’

‘About half an hour. In the pitch dark.’

‘Thought they’d forgotten about us.’

Elsie laughed. ‘They had, too. Still, we got to see it in the end.’

‘Does that happen much?’

‘Ooh, yes. And sometimes the film breaks.’

‘Then there was that time the sound went, too. We got free tickets after that one.’

‘You come here often, then?’ It sounded way too much like a chat up line.

Elsie must have thought so too and chuckled. ‘You’re a bit young for me, me duck.’

‘We’re part of the fixtures and fittings,’ said her friend. ‘I came here to see Little Richard. And the Beatles. It were a grand place in those days.’

‘The Beatles actually played here?’ I hadn’t been sure if that was true or not.

‘Twice. Not a dry seat in the house.’ Elsie gave a wheezy laugh.

‘You carry on like that and it’ll happen again,’ her friend warned.

‘Well, I hope you enjoy the film,’ I said, climbing back down the ladder. ‘I won’t forget to put it on for you.’ Hopefully, there’d be no breakdowns either.

They waved goodbye and as I carried the ladder back down the stairs I saw they were busily dividing a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk into three. That was what I really liked about these old cinemas, I reflected. The characters. The memories.

I returned to the front of house to check the lights there. No sooner had I set foot in the foyer than the middle-aged woman standing inside the confectionary kiosk pointed me out. ‘There he is.’

An older man, wearing large glasses that made his face look slightly owlish, peered at me. He wore a brown anorak and there was something about him that made me think he was a fellow projectionist.

‘Good morning, young man,’ said this newcomer. ‘Have you got the kettle on yet?’

‘Sorry?’ Behind him, the cashier gestured frantically, but I had no idea what she was trying to convey.

‘Well, it’s time for tea. And what are you doing with that ladder? We’re open to the public now.’

‘Sorry, but who are you exactly?’ I tried to remain polite.

He shook his head sadly. ‘Didn’t anyone tell you?’ He held out his hand to shake.

I moved the ladder to the other hand and took it. He had a firm grip.

‘Maurice Gudgeon,’ he said. ‘I’m the chief here. I expect you’re another one of these relief projectionists.

‘Well, actually I’m the chief.’

He looked surprised and a little annoyed. ‘You can’t be. I am.’

It felt a bit absurd, like that scene in Life of Brian where the rich merchant says, ‘I’m Brian and so’s my wife.’ Then, abruptly, the wheels fell into place. Maurice. Colin had said the former chief’s name was Maurice.

The cashier let herself out of the ticket desk and waddled over. I checked her name badge. Sylvia.

‘I’ll make sure you get a cuppa,’ she said kindly. ‘You just have a seat for now.’ She led Maurice over to one of the settees, then came back to me. ‘Didn’t anyone tell you about Maurice?’

‘No. Not much, anyway. He was the chief wasn’t he?’ Retired through ill-health, hadn’t Dan said?

‘That’s right.’ She lowered her voice. ‘Poor dear’s got Alzheimer’s. He thinks he still works here. He pops in a few days every week. Just give him a cuppa, let him have a look around the box and he’ll be fine. But it’s best to let him think you’re the relief or he’ll get upset.’

Just then the office door opened and Dan came out, dressed now in his suit. He took in the scene with a quick glance. ‘Not him again,’ he said to Sylvia.

Maurice had been sitting fairly placidly, but on hearing Dan’s sharp tone, he stood up. ‘I have every right to be here.’

Sylvia rolled her eyes despairingly and went over. ‘What the manager means, Maurice, is it’s your day off. That’s why the relief’s here.’ She pointed at me.

‘Is it? Golly, I must have forgotten.’ He wrinkled his forehead and stared off into the middle distance.

Dan just shook his head. ‘Go home.’

‘Yes, go on, love,’ Sylvia exhorted. ‘Brenda will be wondering where you’ve got to.’

Dan beckoned me over towards the office. The last I saw, Sylvia was guiding Maurice toward the door. ‘Don’t waste your day off. Weather’s too nice for that.’

‘I should have warned you about him,’ Dan said.

‘Don’t worry, I know now.’

‘He’s getting worse. This is the third day running he’s been in.’

‘He seems pretty harmless,’ I commented.

‘Yes, but I’ve caught him wandering around the screens a couple of times. He disturbs the other customers. And he’s got into the downstairs projection boxes before now. You need to make sure and keep them locked.’

I lifted the giant bunch of keys. ‘Not a problem, as soon as I figure out which ones they are.’

‘Hasn’t Colin been helping you?’

‘I’ve sent him home. He showed me around, so I can manage well enough on my own. I doubt it’s going to be too busy today.’

He sighed. ‘More’s the pity. Still, Wednesday they’ll be flocking in.’

That was the day a certain mobile phone company’s two tickets for the price of one offer kicked in, meaning it was often the busiest day of the week.

‘We’ve had over a hundred bookings for “Zorro.”’

‘Excellent.’

‘Can you make sure the sound’s all right for it?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Make sure it plays in Dolby Digital.’

I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at. I’d seen the film on the plate earlier and was pretty sure it had a digital soundtrack. ‘Has there been a problem with it, then?’

‘Sometimes it doesn’t work properly, according to Colin. People complain. I’ve had the engineer in, but he couldn’t find anything wrong with the equipment.’

‘Well, I’ll check it out. We might need a new print if the soundtrack’s damaged.’

‘Good.’ He seemed relieved. ‘Thanks. Let me know, will you. I’d appreciate it if you could be on duty Wednesday evening.’

Evidently, he didn’t trust Colin. I was supposed to be off that day, but I could always swap around. ‘I’ll sort that out, too.’

‘Thanks.’

As I made my way back upstairs, I wondered why I was being so obliging. It was partly because I was new and keen to make a good impression on Dan, but there was something else, too. This was now my cinema. I wanted it to have a chance. I wanted people to go away and say to friends, ‘I went down to the old Regal the other night and they put on a really good show.’

It was strange. When I turned the last corner of the stairs to the top box, I could have sworn someone was there. Later, as I laced up the film, I felt I was being watched, although not at all in a malevolent way. It was a feeling I’d experienced before in old cinemas. It was as if I was being weighed up; judged for what I could give. Like a nervous dog, the place wasn’t yet sure of me but once I had managed to win its trust, it would help me.

Several hours later, I trudged up those same stairs wearily, realising how unfit I’d become during my time away from the business. Even though the cinema only had three screens, because of the differing lengths of the features and the pre-film adverts and trailers you were up and down the stairs like a yo-yo. You had to keep a constant eye on the clock, working out if there was time to clean and re-lace screen three before starting the program in screen one. Another reason most projectionists preferred working in multiplexes, where all you had to do was to lace up, then set the automation timer so that the show began on time. Very easy, but very boring.

This cinema had no automation. Starting a show was a complex dance of pushing the right buttons and switches to fade the lights and sound, while starting the projector motor running and judging the right moment to open the curtains and the shutter. By the evening, I’d got used to the curtains open and curtains closed button being in different places in screens two and three, despite the panels looking identical in every other way. I contemplated swapping the switches around, then realised that would confuse Colin, who would probably put it down to malicious interference on my part.

As I sat in the one comfortable chair in the projection staff room, sipping at my seventh mug of tea, I felt strangely content, even though my feet ached. I’d had no breakdowns and no missed lens changes. Every show had started on time, at the correct sound level and in focus. Maybe I was impressing those unseen witnesses I’d sensed earlier? The atmosphere certainly felt more accepting.

‘Mad,’ Cliff would have said. I could almost hear his voice. ‘But then all of you projectionists are a bit crazy.’ The first time he’d said that, I asked if he included me in the statement. He’d laughed. ‘Of course. It’s one of the things I like about you. Everyone else is so bloody normal.’

There’s a standing joke among people in the business that it’s very unlikely any relationship will succeed unless the other person also works in the cinema. Partly, this is to do with the unsocial hours, but there is also a definite feeling that cinema people aren’t quite the same as regular folk. Cliff definitely fell into the latter category. He’d had a good education at a private school, followed by university and was working his way up in the finance department of a large multinational company. We met by chance at a party held by a mutual friend.

‘Terry knows all about films,’ Julie had said. ‘He works in a cinema. He gets to watch everything for free.’

‘Really?’ Cliff hadn’t sounded impressed. I imagined he probably thought I sold popcorn. Most people didn’t even realise there were other jobs behind the scenes and that it was quite possible to have a career in the business rather than using it as a way to earn money before getting a ‘proper’ job.

‘I’m a projectionist,’ I told him.

He raised his eyebrows. ‘I’d have thought it was all on video these days.’

A lot of people did, so he wasn’t alone there. ‘No, it’s still film and will be for a while yet.’ Back then, in the late nineties, there had been rumblings about the possibility of the industry switching over to digital projection, but it was a long way off. I didn’t go into all of the long winded explanations. I’d felt a pull of attraction from the moment I spotted him and certainly didn’t intend to bore his pants off. There were far more fun ways to do that, most of which we’d explored within a few weeks of that initial meeting. The more we got to know each other, the better it was.

My parents had accepted that I was gay - my mother had read it in the tea leaves before I actually told her - so there were no issues as far as they were concerned. Cliff’s parents were a different matter. As their only child, they wanted the best for him. Although they’d come to terms with his sexuality and realised he wasn’t going to go down the usual middle-class route of finding a suitable girl, marrying her and providing grandchildren, they still assumed he would find a partner who came from a similar background. Then he’d brought me home. I’ll always remember the Sunday lunch when he first introduced me.

Cliff’s mother had shown me around their tastefully decorated detached house, set in a leafy suburb, before sitting us down in the dining room. Over the meal, the interrogation began, as Cliff had warned me it would.

‘So, Terry, what is it you do?’ his mother asked.

‘I’m a projectionist. In the cinema.’ I couldn’t help wondering if her make-up would crack as she strained to keep her best ‘social’ smile going. His father kept his eyes down on the roast beef. He was obviously well trained.

‘Well, that is unusual. Isn’t it, Jerry?’

Cliff’s father looked up. ‘Oh, er, yes.’

‘I suppose you had to study a long time to qualify for a responsible position like that?’

‘Not really. I started when I left school and learned on the job.’

‘I see.’

That was when Cliff chipped in. He’d been looking forward to shocking them, I knew. ‘Tell mum about that chap you worked with. The one who thought aliens would take him away.’

‘Aliens?’ His mother raised an eyebrow. ‘You mean illegal immigrants?’

‘Not exactly,’ I said, feeling slightly uncomfortable. ‘People from other worlds.’

‘Little green men in flying saucers,’ Cliff added, with a smirk. ‘This chap thought they were going to kidnap someone from Earth and ask them all sorts of complicated questions. If they didn’t know the answers then the human race would be doomed to destruction.’

‘I’m sure that’s an exaggeration.’

Cliff continued. ‘Then there was this other projectionist who had a shrine to Marilyn Monroe in the staff room. Tell them about him, Terry.’

‘Well, er…’

‘And what about the one who thought he was a vampire?’

Bravely, his mother attempted to change the subject. ‘So, Terry. What do your parents do?’

Great. Time to show my working-class credentials. ‘My dad’s a joiner by trade.’

‘Can he fit kitchens?’ Cliff’s father asked, showing some interest at last.

‘Er, yes.’

‘But he doesn’t do much in that line of business these days,’ Cliff put in. ‘He gets more work as a dowser. You know, finding buried treasure.’

‘It’s mostly water,’ I said. ‘Old wells, water pipes and so forth.’

‘How fascinating. Does your mother work, too?’

‘Yes.’ I might as well admit it. Cliff was giving me one of those looks that told me I’d be amply rewarded if I went along with his plans. ‘She reads tea leaves and Tarot cards.’

You didn’t need to be able to read the cards to predict that during the four years we were together, I was only invited back to the house once or twice. I suppose it was also predictable that Cliff’s desire to shock his parents out of their suburban complacency would eventually wear thin. Gradually, he started to try and change me into someone who wasn’t too far from what they’d approve of after all. I went along with it, afraid of losing him, until fate decided that was exactly what was going to happen, whether I wanted it or not.

I woke with a start. The whirring drone of the projector had lulled me to sleep, now that everything was running for the final performance of the day and I could relax. It was a good job no one had walked in. I checked the time. Ten o’clock. The plenum would need switching off and the boilers checking before the shows ended. The long walk from the staff room to the stage end of the building might wake me up a bit.

Picking up the weighty bundle of keys, I set off, walking along the rear aisle of the circle. There weren’t many people in tonight, but Mondays were always quiet unless a blockbuster film was showing. I stood for a few minutes, listening to the sound quality and checking the steadiness of the picture, feeling very much at home in my new domain. There’s nothing like standing at the back of a nineteen-thirties cinema auditorium, your eyes sweeping over the grand expanse of what had once been described as ‘an acre of seats in a garden of dreams’. I imagined all those seats filled, as they undoubtedly would be in a few weeks with the release of the fourth in the Harry Potter series. A full house created a buzz of excitement in a building and the job satisfaction increased when you were putting on a film everyone had been eagerly awaiting.

The soundtrack of the film carried for some way down the exit, which led to a deserted foyer. The front of house staff had long since cashed up and gone home, switching off the bright lights over the retail area. Two members of floor staff nodded to me as I unlocked the door leading to the front stalls area and carried on down towards the stage.

From so close, the screen towered above me and the sound reverberated around the space between the drop wall and the stage. As I walked down the central aisle toward the orchestra pit I felt an unmistakeable prickle of the hairs at the back of my neck. It was a feeling I knew well and meant there was some kind of presence here. Nothing evil; there was no heat in it. As I carried on walking past the spot, the sensation weakened, then vanished.

It was dark under the stage, but that didn’t bother me. I’ve always been able to see well in dim light and I knew there was nothing down there that wanted to harm me. There was nothing in this cinema that would harm anyone but what I’d felt indicated that it wanted to make contact.

Once again, I heard Cliff’s voice, putting doubts into my head. ‘Isn’t it all just nonsense, though? I understand why people want to believe in life after death, but I certainly can’t. When you die, that’s it. Out like a light. Ghost stories are nothing but the product of an over-active imagination when people are on their own in a place they’ve been told is “spooky.”’

I’d argued it with him a few times, until I learned not to bother. Cliff had all the answers.

‘Scientific experiments prove there’s nothing out there but the human mind at work. I know your family make a living out of it and I suppose there’s nothing too bad about giving comfort to grieving relatives by letting them think they’re talking to Uncle Bert, or whoever, but it’s not real.’

He’d never managed to convince me otherwise and there was no way he’d change his opinions. It just became one of those taboo subjects every couple have. We avoided it. I learned to ignore - or at least not to talk about - my ‘weird’ senses the same way people train themselves not to notice things they’d rather not see.

None of which helped when something in this cinema now knew it had attracted the attention of a person who was aware of its presence. As I returned, the feeling was just a tiny bit stronger.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2022 Mawgrim; All Rights Reserved.
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This story will update every Monday

Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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I really enjoy your writing! This was another great chapter, I especially liked the interactions with all the cinema visitors, like the three old ladies and Maurice. 

And now there's also the matter of the strange entity that began making itself known. Looking forward to learning more about it! 

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Cliff was a bad boy revving up his parents with Terry's apparent inappropriateness. I can't imagine they keep in touch.

He's only just started and the dark is already looking back with interest. This spirit is benign, but is it alone?

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13 minutes ago, drpaladin said:

Cliff was a bad boy revving up his parents with Terry's apparent inappropriateness. I can't imagine they keep in touch.

He's only just started and the dark is already looking back with interest. This spirit is benign, but is it alone?

No. After Cliff died, his parents didn't want anything to do with Terry.  You'll have to wait and see whether the spirit is alone!

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