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Travelling On - 1. Back to Work

Craig got home as darkness began to fall, parked his car on the snowy drive, then let himself into the house. It was warm; he always kept the thermostat on low for Jerry’s comfort. Jerry was curled up on his favourite armchair and immediately jumped down to greet him. You are never alone with a cat.

‘How’s it been for you?’ he asked, receiving a plaintive meow for an answer. He always talked out loud to the cat. It made the house feel slightly less empty. ‘Want some food?’

Jerry knew the last word. His green eyes glinted and he rubbed enthusiastically around Craig’s legs, purring as he ripped open a sachet of salmon flavour food and doled it out.

He left the cat eating while he unpacked his overnight bag. He knew he’d also need to restock the car with bottled water and snacks before he started work again tomorrow.

Work. The thought made his mood even more gloomy. Back on the road again. Back to the beck and call of the uncaring IT wizards at the Operations Centre in Sweden, who seemed to be under the impression an engineer could easily ‘pop’ from Newcastle to Brighton in a day. Maybe the roads were better in Sweden, if they could do those kind of mileages without a thought. Probably a lot less vehicles on them and a lot less idiot drivers.

He had a shower, washing off the accumulated dirt of the past two days, then put a load of dirty clothes in the washing machine and set it running. Finally, he made himself a coffee and sat down in his comfy chair, staring at the magnolia painted wall as the events he’d recently experienced replayed in his mind’s eye.

He visualised the village as he’d seen it in this morning’s sunshine, snow glittering like a Christmas card. Could it really be less than twelve hours ago he and James had taken that walk from the church hall where all the stranded motorists had been put up for the night?

Jerry stalked in and jumped up onto his knee. ‘At least someone’s glad to see me,’ he said, rubbing the cat’s ears in the way he liked. Jerry butted his battle-scarred head against Craig’s palm. ‘It’s all so simple for you, isn’t it? Eat, sleep. No worries in the world.’ That wasn’t quite right. Jerry had an enemy; Smudge from two doors down. Mostly they’d just sit on their respective fences and glare at each other, but sometimes the animosity escalated and there’d be a scrap. Expensive trips to the vet were often the result.

Jerry settled down and purred softly. Craig sipped his coffee. He remembered his boots crunching on the snow; the easy way he and James had matched each other stride for stride as they bordered the village green. He tried to remember all the nuances of the conversation, but failed. Something about the universe giving you a nudge and there being a right time and place for everything. Then James had reached out a hand and he’d taken it. They’d kissed on the village green and he’d let hope seep into his heart.

He sighed. It had all seemed so easy, then. The village had been a little taste of something magical dropped into his humdrum, everyday life. When they’d been taken back to their cars, after the roads were cleared, just for a moment it had seemed as if anything was possible. But that was a hundred or more miles away, removed now in both time and distance. He was back at home and the grim reality of his job; his life, closed in once more.

Just to underline that point, his phone began to ring. He picked it up, glancing at the screen. The number began with +46, the code for Sweden. The OC. Great.

He answered. ‘Craig Surtees.’

‘Ah, Craig. You are back in the swing of it again. This is Erik, from the OC. Are you busy?’

‘Not right now.’

‘Good. I have a job for you. Galley’s End, screen two. They have been experiencing overheating in the lamp house. The projector has shut down three times so far.’

Galley’s End. That was only around eighty miles from home. Just down the road, really. ‘I’ll be out to them first thing.’

‘You cannot get there tonight?’

It was almost five-thirty. It would be do-able, just. But he was comfortable. Hungry too. He didn’t feel like turning out into the cold again and the roads were still a mess. He’d be lucky to get there before the last show was due to start, luckier still to get it fixed in time. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ve only just got home after being stuck on a motorway in the snow and having to spend the night in emergency accommodation. I’m getting a hot meal and a good night’s sleep before I set out again.’

‘All right,’ Erik said reluctantly. ‘I will tell the cinema.’

Craig sighed. His sense of responsibility nagged at him. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll give them a call myself and try to talk them through some diagnostics.’

‘Thank you. I will log that.’ Erik hung up.

Craig found the number and pressed call.

The phone was picked up fairly rapidly. ‘Good evening. Galley’s End Crest Cinema. How can I help you?’ The woman who answered sounded as if she was on autopilot.

‘This is Craig Surtees, projection engineer. I’ve been told there’s a problem in your screen two. May I speak to your manager, please.’

‘I’ll try to find him.’

The excruciating hold music came on. Greensleeves again, with a hollow electronic tone and slight distortion. It was torture. He held the phone away from his ear until it stopped.

‘Hello. This is the duty manager. Is it about screen two?’

‘Yes. You’ve had some overheating, I hear.’

‘That’s right. It runs for half an hour, sometimes a bit more, then shuts down. It says on the panel the lamp house is too hot.’

Craig knew sometimes there was a simple answer. ‘Have you checked to make sure the extract fan’s working?’

‘Yes. I can see the duct moving, just like in all the other screens.’

Not so simple, then.

‘I’ll be out first thing. What time can I get in?’


The usual answer. Very few cinemas these days would open up any earlier, even for an emergency. The managers worked long hours and there were insufficient staff to cover.

‘You can’t get to us tonight?’ he asked, hopefully.

‘No. Too far away, I’m afraid. It’s been difficult, with all this snow.’

‘Tell me about it. We’ve had hardly any customers coming in.’

In that case, did it really matter if it waited until the morning? Craig didn’t say that, of course, but it assuaged any glimmer of guilt he’d been feeling. He put the phone down and shut his eyes for a moment, seeing James's clear blue gaze meeting his own. Warm breath against his lips on a cold morning. Later, they’d exchanged numbers, as you sometimes do after meeting people on holiday. No one ever actually calls and they don’t expect you to, either. He’d felt as if there was something more; a real connection between them, but you could never really tell for sure. His life wasn’t meant to have Hollywood endings. Sad, but true.

A good night’s sleep in his own bed left him feeling refreshed. He fed Jerry and left the house by seven. He knew there was a small cafe near the cinema, where he could get decent coffee and freshly baked croissants. The sun rose as he drove, illuminating banks of snow either side of the road just as it had the previous morning. The golden hour, James had called it. He wondered where James was now. On the road himself, most probably, travelling somewhere. The difference was, he only had another two days of it. James had taken the brave step of getting off the corporate turntable; that never ending whirl which sucked you in and burned up your life. Try as he might, he couldn’t see himself daring to do the same. If it didn’t work out, you’d end up cursing what you’d done. In his job, there’d be no way back. Technology moved too fast these days. It was bad enough catching up after a two-week holiday. A few years and it would be a whole different industry. Not like those vanished days when cinemas still ran film and changes came slowly. The days before the onslaught of the digital juggernaut. Craig knew they’d never return, but his memories of those times were what kept him going. He didn’t really like what the industry had become, but he was stuck. No way out.

His phone rang. Not the OC, thank God. It was Mike, one of his fellow engineers. They often called each other in the morning, on the way to their first jobs.

‘How’re you doing,’ Mike asked. ‘Hear you got an unofficial day off. Lucky bastard.’

‘If you call getting stuck on a snow bound motorway in a blizzard lucky, then yes.’

‘Did you have to sleep in the car?’

‘No. We got taken to a village hall and fed fish and chips.’ It sounded so mundane, put like that.

‘I suppose you haven’t heard about Tony, then?’

‘No, what?’

‘Got another three points on his licence for speeding. One more and he’ll get a ban.’

‘Well, we all know what a nutter he is.’ Most of the others referred to him as ‘Ton-up Tony’.

‘Still, you can’t blame him. The younger guys let themselves get pressurised into trying to fit in all the work that’s sent to them. I always know when to call it a day.’

‘I did last night,’ Craig said. ‘I’d just got in when they tried to get me to go out again. I’m on my way there now.’

‘What’s the problem?’

They talked shop for a while and speculated on what might be causing the overheating. Mike’s best guess was a faulty sensor, or the extract fan having failed.

‘They said it was working.’

‘They always say that. If I had a quid for every time someone swore blind something was working then when I get there I find it isn’t, I’d be a rich man. Talking of which, you haven’t found one yet?’

It was a standing joke at their meetings, enquiring as to whether Craig could find himself a rich man so he could give it all up and live a life of leisure.

‘Not yet. Still searching. Won the lottery yet?’ That was Mike’s dream of escape.

‘If I had, I wouldn’t be here. Right,’ he said. ‘I’ve just arrived on site. Let’s hope they remembered to come in early for me.’

‘Catch you later.’

After his coffee stop, Craig got to the cinema for five past nine. Although the forecast had said a thaw was on the way, it was still bitterly cold. He waited outside the front door, hunched against the prevailing wind, hoping he wouldn’t have to get his phone out. He rang the bell again, peering in through the doors. The foyer had the unlit, empty look of a cinema with no one home.

Cursing, he called the number, able to hear the strident ringing through the glass. Ten times. Twenty. Nope. There was definitely no one there.

He went back to the car to wait. He could have stayed and had a second coffee, if he’d known. Although maybe that wouldn’t have been a good idea. His bladder was nagging at him. If no one arrived soon, he’d have to find a suitable alley to relieve it. There were never any public toilets on these god-forsaken leisure parks. Thankfully, five minutes later a well-wrapped figure strolled up to the front door. Craig got out of his car and called out, but the scarf wrapped round the manager’s head meant he didn’t hear, so Craig was forced to ring the bell again. It didn’t improve his temper at all.

Once inside - and after a hasty trip to the loo - he got into the projection room and found the heating and ventilation panel. As reported, the extract seemed to be working, so he opened up the lamp house to look inside. The safety cut out had done its job and prevented the lamp from damage, but force of habit made him check all the connections. Now there was no one technical on site, it was all too common to discover lamps hadn’t been installed correctly. The high amperage of the operating current meant loose connections soon led to arcing; another common reason for overheating. Nothing like that here, though.

He connected up his laptop and downloaded the error log, just to be certain of the reason it had shut down. Yes, definitely overheating. There was only one thing to do now; run it and see if the problem happened again.

While the adverts played, he sat on the floor and checked his emails. In common with many projection rooms these days, all the tables and chairs had been removed once digital was installed. In some of the newer builds, they were calling them machine rooms rather than projection rooms, trying to maintain the manufacturers fiction no human need ever set foot inside. Craig had no doubt that if they could replace him with a robot, no matter how much more it cost over and above his salary, they would. Human beings were too analogue for this day and age.

Emails read, he scrolled through his contacts, pausing at James’s name. He’d said he’d call, but so far there’d been nothing. Maybe he’d been busy? Or, most probably he’d forgotten about Craig already. After all, he was nothing special. A forty-something cinema engineer with a growing bald spot and a bit of a paunch from too much snacking in the car. Craig’s thumb paused over the name. It would be so easy just to press the button. But no, that smacked of desperation. Anyway, it was first thing in the morning when most people would be hard at work. Maybe he’d do it later, at a time when normal people took a lunch break, or better still, when James might be at home.

The red lights flashing on the back of the projector and a high-pitched beep told him it had shut down again. Twenty-five minutes this time. Once more, it had overheated and he could feel from the temperature of the casing it wasn’t a faulty sensor. Now he had to figure out why.

He sifted through his memories of similar incidents. Once, back in the days of film, he’d visited an old site where xenon lamps repeatedly failed due to overheating. The air flow inside the lamp house had been nigh on nothing and when he’d climbed up to the flat roof, he discovered the wooden housing for the extract fan had rotted and collapsed. Although this was a new building and most probably a lot better maintained, he had to check for himself.

It took nearly half an hour to find the hatch, then a key with which to open it. The manager, unsurprisingly, hadn’t ever been up there. Didn’t even know the place existed. Snow made it slippery underfoot. He was very careful as he edged along the walkways, trying to locate the extract cowl for screen two’s projector. Icicles hung down from some of the metalwork, where snow had begun to melt, then frozen again overnight. The sunlight gave them a crystalline beauty. He remembered two sets of footprints in the snow, the rising sun over the woods. The sense that they had stepped outside of reality, into a magical world. It had been like a scene from a film; a romantic comedy where everyone lived happily ever after. Real life didn’t work that way.

He shook his head, dispatching the dream. There was no time for all that now. He had a job to do. Trying to orient himself with the projection room below he headed in what he thought was the right direction. Back in the days when every cinema had its own projectionists, they’d have been able to show him right away where to look. But back then, they probably wouldn’t have had to call in an engineer at all. Someone competent on site would have fixed it as part of a day’s work.

As he came closer, he spotted the problem right away. A lot of snow had piled up around the top of the cowl, partially blocking it. Strange how it hadn’t melted from the passage of warm air. He scraped it away with his boot, encountering something underneath that wasn’t snow. As he carried on clearing the mini drift, he uncovered the reason for the blockage. A thick piece of plastic had become jammed under the overhanging edge. It took a bit of force to rip it away, but he was confident that had been the reason for the overheating.

Back downstairs, he started the projector again, filling in his report while he waited. As he typed, his phone rang. Maybe it was James calling? His heart gave a little leap, then abruptly fell to earth again as he saw it was the OC.

‘Hello, Craig. This is Anders.’

It was another problem, of course, around an hour’s drive - depending on the state of the roads - from where he currently was. The manager had turned on one of the projectors and found it flashing an error code. ‘You’ve dialled in?’ he asked.

Anders sounded a little bashful. ‘We did a firmware update overnight. I can’t connect to the projector now.’

Great. ‘I’m just checking to make sure I don’t still have a problem here, then I’ll be on my way.’

‘Thank you.’

Once he was certain it wasn’t going to shut down again, he relocked the projection room and dropped the keys back in the office. ‘There was a plastic bag trapped in the vent,’ he told the manager. ‘If someone had gone up for a look, you wouldn’t have missed all those shows waiting for me.’

He shrugged. ‘You wouldn’t get me up on that roof. Don’t like heights, me.’

‘Just thought I’d let you know. Maybe someone who hasn’t got vertigo could check around every few weeks, in case it happens again.’ He knew they wouldn’t bother.

By the time he got to his second call, they’d missed the first show. He had to re-format a board and re-load the firmware to get the projector up and running again. It was the third time in a few months something similar had happened. When an update was performed remotely, all it took was a glitch in the internet connection for it to fail, leaving the projector unstable, or at worst, unusable.

He left the cinema, wondering if he should head straight for home. It was always a gamble. The town where he lived was slightly further south and east than was ideal to reach all the cinemas he might be called to when on emergency cover. Sometimes, he just went to his store at Colesworth cinema, as it was more central. Today, he couldn’t be bothered. He’d had enough of it. Everywhere would be on screen, so unless there was a breakdown, there was no work he could do anyway. Might as well go home. At least he could have a decent cup of coffee and relax. Well, as much as you ever could when you knew you might have to go out again and drive for several hours.

His phone rang. Not the OC, thankfully. The name flashed up on screen. It was James! ‘Hello,’ he said, feeling suddenly and unaccountably happy.

‘Hi. I promised to give you a call, so here I am. Are you busy right now?’

‘Driving. On my way back home.’

‘I’m on site, but I had a couple of minutes while some of the smokers indulge their habit. Just thought I’d check to see if you’re still interested in coming over this weekend.’

‘Well, yes. Of course.’

‘I’ll text you the address then. Saturday morning’s best as they’ve just told me they’re having a bit of a “do” for me after work on Friday. How’s that for you?’

‘Brilliant. I’ll be looking forward to it.’ And he really was. James had just made his day.

‘See you soon, then.’

Craig imagined his smile and that twinkle in his eyes as he rang off. He felt like singing. In fact, he found himself humming the tune of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ just as they both had on the motorway, before parting. He’d been proved wrong and he was glad.

Copyright © 2021 Mawgrim; All Rights Reserved.
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I hope Craig won't make the mistake of letting James do all the work of keeping in touch. Even though James seemed more confident and determined, he may give up if Craig doesn't do his part.

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The winds of change are circling Craig but will they be strong enough to dissolve and remove his uncertainties! This coming weekend with James may be his catalyst to make the change!  I can relate to Craig's dilemma and absolutely love this continuing story - thank you Mawgrim!

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4 minutes ago, KayDeeMac said:

The winds of change are circling Craig but will they be strong enough to dissolve and remove his uncertainties! This coming weekend with James may be his catalyst to make the change! 

Maybe not right away, although he may start to realise he has other options.

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Just found this while checking Threadfall's page, and the similarity to Fellow Travellers title had me look in.  I'm glad you've continued their story!

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I like the way you started exactly where the first story ended with no messy catching up to do. I think that James is already having an effect on Craig and it looks like a good one, I've got my fingers crossed 🤞

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