Jump to content
    Mawgrim
  • Author
  • 3,470 Words
  • 775 Views
  • 9 Comments
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.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
This story is a nostalgic look at the British cinema industry from the 1960s to the big changes when cinema exhibition abandoned film and converted to digital in the years following 2010.
it follows the fortune of three characters, each of whom starts in the business during different eras and describes how they cope with an ever changing workplace.

Last Reels - 4. Characters

Over the next few days Cat learned more about the cinema and the people who worked there. The circle was closed to the public as it was in such a bad state of repair. The carpet was mouldy and some of the seats had collapsed, but the main reason it remained out of bounds was due to the rodent problem.

‘Imagine sitting up there and having a great big rat scamper over your feet. The local papers would have a field day,’ Geoff told her. They had a little tour upstairs, when he showed her the ice room. One of her duties was to carry a tray around the auditorium in the short break before the main feature. Immediately before the sales break, an advert was shown encouraging patrons to buy ice creams, popcorn and ‘delicious hot dogs’. Now that Cat knew what happened to the unsold hot dogs, she had vowed never to buy another one, however hungry she might be. Having sat in the steamer all day keeping warm, any remaining sausages were put into a plastic container and taken up to the ice room fridge until the next day, when they had another chance to be sold. If it was a quiet week, they might be in and out of the fridge five or six times.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ Elsie said, when she asked if this was strictly hygienic. ‘There’s so little meat in them there’s nothing to go bad.’

As promised, she had been shown the old restaurant. It was a sorry sight. Its full length windows were cloudy and streaked with bird droppings. In places, the floor shone wetly. A jumble of tables and chairs were piled roughly together, as if the building had been tipped on one side. Many were broken. Glass crunched loudly underfoot. For some reason, it made her think of the restaurant on the Titanic as it began to sink.

The back wall was lined with rose-tinted mirrors, etched with figures of dancing girls and forest creatures in Art Deco style. She thought of all the people whose reflections had been captured here during a meal or afternoon tea. It made her shiver. Once this place had been bright, busy and full of life and now the years had brought it to this state of decay.

She left hurriedly, wanting to be back among people again.

‘You all right, love?’ asked Frances, the administrator, who was busy counting the drink cups. ‘Did you see a ghost?’

‘Ghost? Is the cinema haunted?’

Frances smiled. ‘Course it is. Stands to reason, doesn’t it? All the people who’ve come through those doors over the years, it’d be amazing if someone hadn’t died. And there are all sorts of stories about the place.’

‘Really? Like what?’

‘Whispering voices.. That feeling you get of being watched.’

A shiver ran down her spine. ‘I get that a lot.’ Every time she locked up in the dimly lit auditorium, she had to force herself to walk at her usual pace, not to give in and rush back up the aisle.

‘A few years ago, we had a relief manager. He had a little dog; a Yorkshire terrier. No trouble at all, just stayed in the office most of the time. But one day it followed him up the stairs and ran down howling and shaking.’

Maybe it had encountered one of the giant rats, or maybe not.

‘Dogs can sense things we don’t,’ Frances finished. ‘Glad I work down here, that's all I can say.’

Cat tried to be logical about it. It stood to reason that if you were alone in a big, echoing building, you were bound to get spooked at times. Some evenings it was worse than others and the mere thought of going up to the ice room alone filled her with dread.

There were always two front of house staff on duty until the last show ended. She discovered that it was quite normal for one of them to disappear for a while. Geoff often went out to get something to eat, while Phil, the other doorman, liked to go up to the circle alone and smoke a joint while he watched the film along with the rats. She decided that she might as well explore the vast and unmapped depths of the cinema, overcoming her fear of the shadowy darkness.

Armed only with a torch, she roamed the dusty passageways backstage. There were lots of dressing rooms with filthy sinks and cracked mirrors. Many of them had been used for storage once the live shows stopped. Old posters and publicity stills with curled edges littered the floor along with broken popcorn warmers, leaflets for shows that were long finished and lost property that had never been claimed.

A passage under the stage had tide marks on the wall showing where it had flooded more than once. Her feet made tracks in the dried mud. The stage itself was frightening in its vastness. Above her head, metal framework rose into the gloom. Ropes and cables dangled down. Light from the film spilled through the thousands of tiny holes in the screen, giving partial glimpses of what lay behind. A large speaker cabinet draped in tattered black cloth put her in mind of a hunchbacked giant.

Worst of all were the pigeons. She’d soon realised that pigeons can get into a building through gaps that look more like the size of a sparrow. In some of the stairwells, years of droppings covered the rails and the steps. As they heard her approach, they fled for the exit holes, their wing beats echoing down the empty passages in a terrifying staccato. By the time she turned the corner, all that remained were a few drifting grey feathers.

She checked her watch, thinking that it was time she should get back. In the foyer, Geoff was propped up against the kiosk reading a magazine. ‘All quiet in there, is it?’ he asked, assuming she’d been sitting inside the auditorium all along.

She nodded. ‘Nothing much happening tonight.’ Clive was on duty in the projection box, but it was Laura’s night off, so it was less likely anything would break down.

‘Well, now you’re here I’m just nipping out.’

‘Okay.’ As he went to get his coat, she leafed through the magazine. It was one Laura had left behind, full of stories about celebrities and their latest diets, affairs and scandals. Before working in the cinema, she’d never have read anything like that, but it helped to get through that interminable hour and a half, once the kiosk was closed and there was nothing to do but wait for the last show to finish.

The clock’s hands moved slowly. Occasionally a noisy part of the film penetrated through the thick auditorium doors. After a few minutes, the phone on the cash desk rang. She answered it, knowing that Mr Watkins would be busy counting money and filling in paperwork and was not to be disturbed.

‘Hello. Gaumont Cinema.’ Most likely it would be someone wanting to know what was on and when. She reached for the timesheet.

A sharp, female voice asked ‘Is Clive there?’

‘Well, he’s up in projection. Do you want me to get him for you?’

‘No, don’t bother. Can you just give him a message for me?’

‘Okay.’

‘Tell him that when he finishes tonight I’ll be waiting for him in the car. I’m going to run that bastard over.’ Her voice was quite calm, not at all hysterical or crazy.

‘Who is this, please?’ Cat thought she’d better check.

‘I’m his wife.’

‘Oh…’ There was a click at the other end as the phone was put down.

She tried calling the box on the house phone, but there was no reply. There was nothing for it but to warn him herself.

She’d never been up there before, but the route had been pointed out to her. A small door just before the circle foyer. led into a dingy exit stairway, which smelled of damp and pee. She climbed up and up, past three landings before she found another door leading to a much narrower stairway. From far above, she could hear the sound of machinery and the film soundtrack playing, so it must be the right way.

Worried that she might walk in on Clive doing something she’d rather not see, she called his name as she climbed. ‘Hello, Clive. Hello!’

The whirring noise grew louder. The stairs became a corridor. An open doorway on her left led into the projection box. She peered in cautiously.

‘Hello, Clive. Are you there?’

Two huge projectors stood by the front wall, perched at an extreme angle. One was running, the other ready to start. She knew that each projector ran for twenty minutes at a time; Geoff had alerted her to the marks in the top right hand corner of the picture which the projectionist used as a cue to change over when a reel was about to end. ‘If Clive’s on, sometimes he forgets to push the button in time, and the screen goes black for a couple of seconds,’ he’d warned. She wondered what on earth she would do if the film ran out now, with no sign of a projectionist anywhere.

‘Hello,’ she said again, stepping forward. It was warm in the box. There was a smell that reminded her a little of a tube train. Everything hummed with electricity and life. Light spilled out from the projectors, making patterns on the floor beneath.

She looked through the porthole. How tiny and distant the screen seemed from here. You wouldn’t know if anyone was down there at all in the darkness of the auditorium.

‘Wotcher,’ said a voice behind her. ‘You looking for me?’

Clive winked as she turned around. He was holding an enormous mug of tea in one hand, a doughnut in the other.

‘Oh, er, yes. Your wife just phoned. She asked me to give you a message.’ Cat paused. ‘She said she’s going to run you over when you leave tonight.’

Cat waited for some kind of reaction but Clive didn’t look particularly bothered by the news. He nodded calmly, took a bite of his doughnut and washed it down with a swig of tea. ‘She’s always saying stuff like that. It doesn’t mean nothing.’

‘Are you sure? She sounded serious.’

He shrugged. ‘She’s just impatient for the divorce to come through, that’s all. But ta for telling me, anyway. I’ll make sure to look both ways.’

A bell tinkled. ‘Nearly time for a changeover. You ever seen one done?’

‘Only from downstairs.’

‘Well, just stand there and you can see what happens.’ He ate another chunk and carefully put his tea and the remains of the doughnut down on the rewind bench.

‘Watch through that porthole. Look for the dots.’

She did. Nothing happened for a while. She wondered if she’d missed it just as Clive said, ‘There’s the motor dot.’

He started the projector, turning the bottom spool by hand a couple of times. ‘Now for the over.’

She saw it flash past this time. He pushed a button. There was a loud click and suddenly the beam of light was coming from the lens of the other machine.

The tail end of the film reel rattled through the far projector. ‘There you go. Nice and easy.’

If it was that easy, how come he managed to make a mess of it so often? She sensed he was trying to impress her and wondered if that was how it had started with Laura. ‘Thanks for showing me, but I’d better go before they miss me.’

‘Come up any time.’

Cat wanted to tell him to be careful, but decided it might be misinterpreted as showing interest in his well-being. She wondered what on earth Laura saw in Clive. He was at least forty, with a beer belly and stained teeth. What was left of his hair was greasy and unkempt and there were food stains down his T shirt. It definitely wasn’t looks, and she hadn’t seen much evidence of personality either. Was it the romance of the job? Projection seemed a lot more skilful than tearing tickets but that didn’t seem like a good enough reason.

She made her way back downstairs just as Mr Watkins came out of the office. ‘Oh there you are. I was looking for you,’ he said.

She felt herself blush, as if she had been doing something wrong. Maybe he would assume she fancied Clive too? She decided the best course of action was to be honest and told him about the phone call. ‘I thought I’d better warn him, that’s all.’

‘Don’t worry too much. She’s threatened the same thing a few times before. And Clive’s still here isn’t he? Mind you, I wouldn’t cross the road next to him, just in case.’

Weeks passed. Clive didn’t get run over. Cat started to bring in her coursework to fill in the last hour and a half of waiting time. No one seemed to mind. A couple of the staff asked if she could do portraits, so during the quiet midweek evenings, they sat under the kiosk lights while she made quick pencil sketches.

College was certainly more civilised than school. The people she’d dreaded seeing were taking other courses, so the only time they met was in the cafeteria at lunch, or occasionally at the beginning or end of the day. Even then, they were far less annoying than at school. Her life was tolerable.

She hadn’t made any friends, but that was normal. She was quiet, bound up in her own creative world. Speaking to people intruded on that. It was also, at some point, going to bring up her deep, dark secret. Someone might begin talking about relationships, then she’d be asked if she had a boyfriend and she’d have to lie again. It was much easier just to not talk to people.

The cinema was different. There you could chat about films or work. No one asked any probing questions. She knew that Geoff was married with two kids; that he had a full time job with the council, but worked evenings at the cinema to earn holiday money. He was fairly talkative about his home life, but he didn’t expect her to reciprocate.

Cat soon met the other projectionist, Steve. He was a quietly spoken man who seemed to care about the job a lot more than the so-called chief, Clive. Once everything was running, he wouldn’t leave the box, so he sometimes asked the front of house staff to pick up a Chinese takeaway for him. Beef Chow Mein was his favourite, and Cat became used to popping out for it, then taking it up for him to eat between changeovers. One evening, she walked in to find him hitting one of the tall amplifiers with a broom handle. It reminded her of the scene in Fawlty Towers when Basil loses his temper with his car and starts thrashing it. She stood in the box doorway, unsure if it was safe to enter.

Steve spotted her. ‘Don’t worry, I haven’t gone mad,’ he said. ‘The sound just failed again. It’s a dodgy valve in the amp rack. A few sharp blows usually sorts it out. Listen.’ One more and the soundtrack suddenly blared from the monitor speaker.

‘It’ll be fine now for a couple of days.’ He patted the amplifier. ‘On its last legs, like everything else here.’

As there were no other cinemas in the area, the Gaumont played both Rank and ABC releases, but with only a single screen it was inevitable that they missed out on some films. In the first few months Cat watched each new release. That was the best thing about being allowed to see films as part of the job; you watched things you might not have gone to see if you’d had to pay. For example, she probably wouldn’t have chosen the double bill of Midnight Express and Taxi Driver and would therefore have missed out on Robert de Niro’s brilliant performance as Travis Bickle. She would definitely have bought a ticket for Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but would only have been able to afford to go once. As it was, over the week it was showing, she managed to watch most of the film several times until she was able to quote chunks of dialogue.

When Alien was released, a group of staff went up into the circle to watch it in the scariest possible conditions. Cat had to shut her eyes some of the time, not sure whether to be more afraid of face huggers or rats. She loved the way the film had been shot; so gloomy and atmospheric. The fact that you never saw the alien in full until right at the end made it all the more frightening. Imagination can scare you much more than any special effect.

After this, she didn’t dare to go into the more remote areas of the cinema for a few days. The stage was the worst; all that darkness above your head. Anything could be hiding up there, waiting for the right moment to reach out and grab you.

She was also dissuaded from exploring as the passage under the stage slowly filled up with water throughout the wet winter. Because of this, the auditorium started to smell like a river at low tide. The heating wasn’t very efficient either, and patrons often complained about chilly draughts. It was a good job they didn’t know the projectionists had to paddle through the flooded boiler house in a dinghy to get the heating going each morning.

‘Those boilers need major work on them,’ Mr Watkins said. ‘With the price of oil these days we hardly make enough money to heat a building this big. And I’ve been told not to spend any money on repairs.’

‘Do you think they’ll close us down?’ She had heard rumours almost since the day she started.

‘One day. But the threat’s been hanging over us for years and we’re still here so far. There are some good films coming along soon that should put a few more bums on seats. We’ll get by.’

Every few weeks the gloomy union representative dropped in with news of how many cinemas were facing the axe, making it seem impossible that such a huge white elephant had survived so long. The company had a lot of cinemas in the suburbs and many of them had already been twinned or tripled, offering more variety. The cinema in Fairham she’d always gone to as a child had been modernised with two smaller screens built underneath the circle. And it was only twenty minutes’ drive away. People often came in to the Gaumont, found that the film they wanted to see was on ‘up the road’ and drove off again to the superior comfort of Fairham Film Centre.

Spring came at last, and the tide under the stage slowly receded. Once the clocks went forward, admissions dwindled even further. It was depressing being stuck inside the empty foyer while people sat outside the pub on the other side of the road, enjoying the evening sunshine.

Even though Cat only worked a few evenings each week, it was obvious that breakdowns were happening more frequently. She didn’t count the late night Kung Fu shows; the poor state of them meant that there would always be some stops when the joins snapped. But even during regular shows the sound would fail, or the light dim and flicker all too often.

It was embarrassing trying to placate annoyed patrons whose enjoyment of the film had been spoilt, especially when she had no idea why. Her excuses became more creative as the weeks went on. She tried to learn a little about projection, but it was difficult. Asking Clive questions gave him the idea she fancied him, when nothing could be further from the truth. Steve was approachable but didn’t give much away, as if he was worried he might be imparting some trade secret. He did say, however, that Clive had called the Service Engineer to take a look at the equipment.

‘And that’s desperation. He’s a funny bugger, is Bertie Arkwright and Clive’s dead scared of him. I heard he once threw a chief down the stairs for not looking after the kit properly and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true.’

Following the visit, Clive was very subdued and the projectors behaved themselves as if they too had been frightened into running more reliably. But it was clear to everyone the cinema was in a long, slow decline from which there was no return

Copyright © 2022 Mawgrim; All Rights Reserved.
  • Like 4
  • Love 10
  • Fingers Crossed 3
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.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Story Discussion Topic

It is with great sadness I must announce the death of Mawgrim, Promising Author on GA. He had been in declining health for some time and passed away on Christmas Day. Mawgrim worked for decades as a cinema projectionist before his retirement and was able to use this breadth of knowledge to his stories set in cinemas. He also gave us stories with his take on the World of Pern with its dragon riders. He will be greatly missed and our condolences go out to his friends, family, and his husband.
You are not currently following this story. Be sure to follow to keep up to date with new chapters.

Recommended Comments

Chapter Comments

I remember very well the huge old cinemas in my home town. They had names like the Alhambra, the Metro and the Colloseum. We used to throw peanuts from the top circle to people down below. Fond memories. 

Link to comment
View Guidelines

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Newsletter

    Sign Up and get an occasional Newsletter.  Fill out your profile with favorite genres and say yes to genre news to get the monthly update for your favorite genres.

    Sign Up
×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

Our Privacy Policy can be found here: Privacy Policy. We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue..