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    Mawgrim
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Wrong Rewards - 1. Wrong Rewards

Something to do with violence

A long way back, and wrong rewards...

Philip Larkin

Rob knocked twice on the door of the manager’s office, waited for long enough to let Fitzgerald stash away his bottle of whisky, then went in. It was a dingy room, with walls stained brown from years of nicotine. Even though smoking indoors had been banned a while ago, it had never been redecorated and the aroma of ghostly cigarettes still lingered, together with the greasy redolence of many a takeaway supper. The walls were hung with faded film posters and framed publicity awards dating back to the nineteen-seventies. Brian Fitzgerald looked up from his computer screen.

‘Have you seen this?’ He pointed to the left hand side of the monitor.

Rob went around the desk to check it out.

‘Apparently Entertain are interested in buying us. You used to work for them, didn’t you?’

‘Yes.’ It took him by surprise. Of course, everyone knew that Palace Cinemas had been up for sale, but he hadn’t expected this. He scanned the article rapidly.

‘In London, wasn’t it?’ Fitzgerald continued.

‘What?’

‘Where you used to work, before you joined us. Never understood why someone of your calibre would want to bury himself out here in the back of beyond.’

‘Well…’ He’d had his reasons. ‘It suits me. I like it here.’

‘I suppose they might put some money into the old place,’ the manager mused.

‘If it happens. There’ve been so many rumours.’ And let’s hope this is just another one, he thought. Five years had passed since he first walked in to the once opulent foyer of the Ribblesthorpe Palace, with its air of decayed grandeur. It had been a challenge; a good place to start all over again. As he had restored order to the neglected projection equipment, so had he felt the shreds of his life begin to knit together. Gradually, the cinema had lost its reputation for having at least two breakdowns every evening. He was proud of his achievements, even if they were a long way from the career he’d once envisioned. Now, there was a danger it might all be swept away, just like before.


That night, he had the dream again, for the first time in ages. He was climbing a stairway toward a familiar door. He struggled to wake before reaching the point where he knocked, hesitantly at first. Then, when there was no answer, that sense of something being wrong grew steadily, until he slowly opened it to find…

‘Rob! Rob, wake up.’

Carl’s voice brought him back to the present day. ‘What?’ he asked, head still fuzzy from sleep.

‘You were flailing about. Shouting. Was it a bad dream?’

He nodded. ‘Shouldn’t have eaten all that cheese.’ He tried to make light of it. ‘I’m fine.’

‘If you’re sure…’

‘Honestly.’ He smiled, then snuggled closer to his partner, yet even after Carl’s breathing proved he had dropped back to sleep again, it eluded Rob. It was so unfair. He’d been happy here, in his bolt-hole. He’d had a new life; someone who truly loved him. As the thoughts went through his mind, he realised he was already categorising those happy times as ‘past’. The air of doom that had briefly touched him in the office seemed to cling more closely, like a shroud. It was only when the grey light of dawn began to filter through the blinds that he finally fell asleep again.


Two weeks passed. He was eating his sandwiches prior to the first show going on, when he heard the distinctive buzz of the house phone. It was today that the sale would be finalised and Palace Cinemas would belong to the highest bidder. He picked up the old bakelite handset. ‘Projection.’

‘Rob. Thought I’d best tell you the news,’ Brian Fitzgerald said. ‘It’s Entertain. Just had official confirmation.’

Rob felt strangely calm now that his worst fears had been realised. ‘Thanks for letting me know.’ He moved through the first shows on autopilot, presenting films to the sparse afternoon audience as competently as ever, yet with his thoughts elsewhere. Maybe it wouldn’t matter, he thought? Maybe they’d leave him be, now that so long had passed? Or maybe not?

Before the last performance, he went and sat out on the flat roof at the end of the projection box, enjoying the warmth of the evening sunshine. Liz, one of the usherettes, brought up the fish and chips he’d ordered. ‘There you go,’ she said. ‘Good news, isn’t it? We might get some new seats in screen two at last.’

‘Maybe,’ he said, noncommittally, before biting into a chip.

Liz went over to the parapet, placing her hand on the concrete capping before peering over. ‘Let’s see how much of a queue we’ve got.’

‘Careful,’ he said quickly.

She turned. ‘What’s up?’

‘Don’t lean on it. It’s a bit fragile in places. I’d hate for some little old lady in the street to get brained by a piece of falling masonry.’

She grinned. ‘Maybe Entertain will fix that, too.’

‘Or maybe they’ll just close us down.’

‘Why?’

‘Have you any idea how much a site like this in the middle of town would fetch if it was sold for development?’

Her face fell. ‘I’d never thought of that.’

‘They’re ruthless. That’s how they got to be so big.’

‘You worked for them, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, that’s how I know.’ Best to change the subject. ‘Thanks for fetching my tea.’

‘No problem.’ She crossed to the door. ‘Hey, maybe you could put in a good word for us, if anyone you know’s still with them.’

‘I doubt that would make any difference.’

After the curtains had swished to a close and the last customers had left, he shut off the power and met the others in the foyer. Fitzgerald set the alarm, then locked the cinema’s front door as they left together.

‘See you tomorrow,’ Liz called cheerfully, as if nothing had changed.

Well, for her, he supposed, it hadn’t. He got on his bicycle and rode home. Normally, that was an opportunity to unwind from the day’s work. It didn’t have the same effect tonight and he was still preoccupied as he let himself in the house.

Carl had a cup of tea ready, as usual. ‘Good day?’ he asked.

Rob wondered if he should lie, then realised Carl knew him well enough by now that it would be pointless. ’I’ve had better.’

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Entertain have bought us out.’

Carl sipped his own tea. ‘Why is that so bad?’

‘Well…’ He’d not told Carl very much about his former career. When they’d first met, three years ago, Rob had been glad that he didn’t work in the business. Sometimes it felt almost incestuous, with the same faces swapping around between companies and everyone knowing about your past. The gossip anyway. ‘You know I told you I used to work for them before I moved up here.’

‘Yes?’

‘Well, I didn’t exactly leave because I wanted to.’ There, he’d admitted it.

‘You mean you were sacked?’

‘Not exactly. More like… oh, you know in films when someone’s left alone in a room with a loaded gun and they’re expected to do the right thing? Like that.’ It sounded over dramatic, but that was the cinema business all over. Sometimes the line between what was shown on the screen and what went on behind the scenes was almost invisible.

Carl looked puzzled. ‘Not quite sure what you mean.’

‘They didn’t want me around any more. I was encouraged - shall we say - to hand in my notice.’

‘What, because you’re gay?’

‘No. That was never a problem.’ Cinema companies had always been tolerant, even before the Equality Act had come into force. ‘It was… complicated.’ From the expression on Carl’s face, he must be thinking something terrible had happened. It was time to come clean. ‘I should have told you before. It’s just… even after so long, I don’t like to talk about it. In fact, I signed a document saying that I wouldn’t.’

‘Are you sure this is a cinema company we’re talking about? It all sounds a bit James Bond.’

That made him smile. ‘Some of the people in the industry think that way.’

‘So, can you tell me anything without getting sued?’

‘I need to. You’ve always been honest with me. I should do the same.’ He drank some tea. ‘I started with Entertain when I was eighteen. Worked my way up over the next two years. I was the youngest chief projectionist on the company, before I joined technical department.’ He’d been ambitious back then, thinking he could go all the way to the top. ‘Jack Fairbrother, the chief executive at that time, came from the same background. He’d been a projectionist too, when he was younger. That put him at odds with some of the other departments, particularly when he unveiled his plans for revitalising the company. I thought he had some good ideas. I used to argue about it with Steve.’

‘He was your first love, wasn’t he?’

He’d told Carl that Steve had broken his heart and let him assume it was the usual story of a failed relationship. ‘Yes. He worked at head office, too, in finance. We met shortly after I got promoted.’

‘So he didn’t like your boss?’

‘He was on the other side.’ It was one of the odd things about Entertainment; the division between people who had worked in actual cinemas and those who’d come in via other career paths. He tried to explain. ‘You know how you sometimes talk about the IT department in your firm as if they’re a different species? That’s how head office felt about anyone who’d worked in a cinema, particularly if they were from projection or engineering.’

‘So they looked on you guys as geeks?’

‘More or less. But the real problem was that most of us acknowledged the fact that the core business was showing films to audiences and we generally thought any improvements should concentrate on technology and innovation to make it a better experience.’

Carl frowned. ‘Wouldn’t the average person in the street say the same?’

‘Of course. But I’ve been to meetings where you’d think it’s all about selling overpriced snacks and loyalty cards. There was always a sense that the most important part of the cinema was the retail area and the films were a shabby little secret, tucked away out of sight.’

‘That seems weird.’

‘It’s one of the reasons I like working for Palace Cinemas. It’s a small chain and everyone from the managing director down loves films. The bigger companies seem to have lost that. Entertainment definitely has.’ He could talk about the iniquities of the industry all night, but he knew he was procrastinating. ‘Anyway, you know how I feel about cinema. I’ve told you that enough times.’

‘So, what happened, then?’

Rob cradled the mug between his hands. ‘I was never too good at the politics; the machinations that went on behind the scenes. There were some who wanted to make sure Jack Fairbrother never succeeded. He had enemies in the company. Steve warned me to choose the right side…’ He shrugged. ‘I didn’t take any notice.’ Even after so long he remembered those last days; the huddles around the coffee machine, the way conversations sometimes stopped when you entered a room. A feeling of being slightly out of the loop. He’d known it was going to end badly, just not quite how badly.

‘I’m not sure who was involved in bringing him down. But I’ll never forget that day when I found him, in his office.’ It hadn’t been exactly like the dream, although close enough. ‘I’d had a call to go up. When I got there the door was closed. That was odd. “My door is always open,” he’d said and it always was, unless there was a private meeting going on. I knocked. There was no answer. Then I went in. The lights were off, but I could sense something was wrong even before I saw him…’

Carl leaned forward. ‘Was he dead?’

Rob nodded, mutely. The images sprang back to his mind, as clear as if it had happened just yesterday. He’d been sprawled forward over the desk, head cradled on his arms, almost as if he’d been sleeping. But sleepers aren't usually lying in a puddle of blood and don’t have half of their skull missing. ‘He’d been shot. The gun was on the floor. Then there were the pictures.’ An opened envelope on the desk. After calling for an ambulance, even though he knew it was too late for that, Rob had noticed them. ‘Compromising photographs, lying on the desk next to him.’

‘I still don’t understand why they made you leave. You only found him…’

‘I was arrested. The person who finds the body is often the one who did the deed. Well, that was what the police implied, anyway. Of course, I knew I was innocent, but convincing people that you’re telling the truth isn’t easy. When I was released, no one would talk to me. Even Steve acted strangely. He said it was best if we didn’t see each other until it blew over.’

‘That’s terrible.’

‘It wasn’t much fun, no. But it got worse. Although I was never charged with anything - insufficient evidence - it didn’t do my career any good. Not even after a verdict of suicide was finally reached. Then things got more complicated. It seemed there had been some financial irregularities and the finger pointed back to our department. There were rumours Fairbrother had been being blackmailed and he’d diverted money from projects to pay someone off. And guess who was in charge of those projects?’

‘You, I suppose.’

‘Bingo. I knew that nothing wrong had gone on. I had figures to prove it, too, but they all got conveniently lost. The more I tried to fight, the deeper the hole I dug myself. Eventually I called Steve. He was in finance; he’d know the truth of what I was saying.’

They’d met at a little cafe, well away from work. Rob had assumed until that point that Steve was still on his side, maybe a bit too ambitious for his own good, but basically decent. ‘I set out my case and asked if he’d help me. But he wouldn’t. “You just don’t understand, do you?” he said. “You can’t win, not against the company.”

‘I told him it was wrong. That Jack Fairbrother didn’t deserve to die like that. All he said was, “if you know what’s good for you, you’ll shut up about it. Otherwise, they’ll find out the dirt on you as well. You don’t want to end up the same way.”’

‘What a bastard.’ Carl shook his head in disbelief. ‘Do you think he knew more about it than he was letting on.’

‘I don’t know,’ Rob continued. ‘But I realised I’d meant nothing to him. Career was more important than love. If he’d ever really loved me at all. A couple of days later, they offered me a deal. Six months salary and good references if I’d leave quietly. I signed to say I wouldn’t tell any tales and that I’d drop my investigations.’

Carl moved closer, putting an arm around his shoulders. ‘They shouldn’t have got away with it. He shouldn’t have.’

‘Well, they did. And he did. I heard he got promoted to finance director a few months later.’ He finished up his tea. ‘I didn’t know if I even wanted to work in the business again after that. But then this job came up and Palace were happy to take me on. Now, I don’t know what’s going to happen.’

‘They can’t do anything to you. You’ve done nothing wrong.’

It was good to hear someone believed his story. Rob let himself relax into the embrace. ‘I’m hoping they’ll just leave me alone. It was a long while ago and I’ve kept my word. Besides I’m no one of any importance these days.’

‘You are to me. Whatever happens, I’ll be there for you.’


For the first few days after the purchase was announced, Rob was edgy at work. Logically he knew that it would take some time for the seven sites belonging to Palace Cinemas to become assimilated into the behemoth of Entertain. They wouldn’t know, or care who worked at those cinemas. Even so, every time the house phone buzzed, he expected bad news.

Three weeks later, it was announced that the small Palace head office was to be closed and henceforth all film booking, finance and personnel would be handled by Entertain. Fitzgerald grumbled about the new stock handling procedures and the extra reports he was expected to fill out. Nothing changed at all in projection. Rob began to relax.

It was a Wednesday morning when he went into the office to sign in as usual. Cynthia, the assistant manager was on duty. ‘Guess what,’ she said. ‘We’re having a visit next Tuesday.’

‘A visit?’

‘Yes. The new owners. Entertain. They’re going round all of our sites. There was an email this morning.’

‘Really?’ The tension was back almost instantly. ‘May I see?’

‘Of course.’ She swivelled the monitor as far as it would go so that he could read the email. It didn’t really tell him any more than she had done already, except for saying that more details would follow shortly. ‘You used to work for them, didn’t you?’

‘"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…"’

She laughed at the quote. ‘So this is Tattoine?’

‘Yes and they’re the Empire.’

‘Let’s hope they don’t bring the Death Star. Or Darth Vader.’

He wondered who it would be. Probably a couple of area managers. Maybe their boss as well. Someone from property, or maybe technical services, depending on what their plans were for the place. They’d have plans, of course. Not that anyone at this level would be privy to them. If they decided to close the site, it would be the usual six to eight weeks notice and the standard redundancy package. In all probability, none of those who came along would even have heard of him. He’d keep his head down and stay in the box. It was doubtful anyone from head office would want to set foot up there, where film was actually shown and nothing sold apart from the intangibles of presentation and audience satisfaction.

The following day, he heard more. Brian Fitzgerald called him down to the office once the afternoon shows were running. ‘About this visit. I think we should probably tidy the place up a bit. Do you think you could paint over that graffiti on the side walls? I’ve got the staff out pulling weeds in the car park right now.’

Rob doubted it would make the slightest bit of difference but he wanted to stay on Fitzgerald’s good side. ‘I’ll get it done tomorrow morning.’

‘Excellent, excellent. Where would I ever find another chief projectionist like you? You know, I said exactly that to the girl I was talking to from Entertain. “You’ll not find a projectionist as good as Rob Grant,” I said.’

Rob tried not to let the panic show on his face. It wasn’t an uncommon name and chances are whoever he’d spoken to wouldn’t even have been working there that long. Ringing a cinema manager was grunt work for some lowly admin assistant.

‘Anyway, they’ll be here around lunchtime, depending on the traffic. Thought I might take them over to the Coach and Horses once they’ve had a look round.’

‘Hmm.’ Fitzgerald had always done that when Palace’s regional manager had visited, but he was human. The suits from Entertain would laugh at the menu choices available in Ribblesthorpe.

‘Come along if you want.’

‘No, but thanks for asking.’ He thought up a quick excuse. ‘It’ll be too close to the first shows by then.’

Over the next few days, everyone was involved in the efforts to make the old building as presentable as possible. Staff polished the brass door handles until they shone. The kiosk paintwork had a wash down. Chewing gum was scraped up from the stair nosings. There wasn’t much that could be done with the rickety seats in screen two, or the sticky carpets at the back of screen three. As the day grew closer, Rob became more nervous.

‘Don’t worry,’ Carl assured him, the night before. ‘They’ll probably only be there for half an hour or so and you’ll not even see them.’

Rob hoped so. ‘I don’t even know why I’m worrying. But I can’t stop myself.’ If they decided to close the cinema, there was nothing he could do. If they didn’t, it would be hard to get rid of him. He’d always done a good job. Still, his memories of treachery and intrigue made him realise that wasn’t enough. You could dig up dirt on anyone, or manufacture it.

The next morning, he cycled in as normal, trying to act as if it was just another day. He made sure to do all his jobs in the public areas first, just in case they got there early, then cleaned the projectors and laced up the film in the two smaller boxes downstairs, ready for opening. That meant he could escape to the main projection box, well out of the way. Once everything was done, he started rewinding the film reels that had arrived, ready to be made up on the bench. It was sunny again, so he took a cup of tea out to the flat roof and, being careful of the fragile masonry, took in the view of Ribblesthorpe; the church spire at the top of the hill, the familiar streets, shops and back gardens of the terraced houses along Mill Street. Familiar and dear. He cared about this place. Ambition had been all very well, but the decent salary and the company car had never been quite as satisfying as putting on a show to a packed house. He liked this cinema and enjoyed his work.

Just as he drained the last dregs, the house phone buzzed.

‘Can you switch on the auditorium lights for us, Rob?’ Fitzgerald sounded much the same as ever. ‘After we’ve seen the auditorium, we’ll be coming up to the box, if you could open the pass door.’

They must have brought someone along from technical services, he realised, probably to see what kind of sound and projection equipment was installed. Oh well, there was no escape. He’d be polite; get it over with. ‘They can’t hurt me any more than they did already,’ he muttered, rinsing out his mug. He decided to occupy himself rather than stand around, waiting. He put a six thousand foot spool on the rewinder and had just begun to check the last reel when he heard footsteps on the winding stair. A group of people, by the sound of it. Their voices grew louder. He took a deep breath, reminding himself that it would be unlikely any of them would know of him, or his past.

‘This is the main projection box,’ Fitzgerald announced as the visitors stepped inside. ‘And our chief, Rob Grant.’ Rob stopped rewinding and turned to face them. He recognised one of the three instantly. Steve had put on some weight since they’d last met - all those lunches paid for on expenses, no doubt - but he was still handsome and carried himself with the authority of someone who knows his own importance. If he was surprised at meeting his ex-lover, he didn’t show it.

Fitzgerald introduced the head of technical services, who seemed pleasant enough. ‘It’s good to see a well-maintained projection room,’ he said, shaking Rob’s hand. ‘Have you been here long?’

‘Er, five years now.’

‘He’s a damned good chief,’ Fitzgerald said, proudly.

Rob’s eyes met Steve’s. He wasn’t going to hide. He had nothing to be ashamed of. ‘Good to see you again,’ he said, even though that was the furthest thought from his mind.

Steve acknowledged him with a brief nod. ‘So, you came back to the old business.’ He turned to his colleagues. ‘Rob and I worked together, way back. But he always preferred to be in the field rather than being stuck behind a desk.’

Rob could see by the other men’s faces that they’d dismissed him already as just another provincial dogsbody; not worth a second glance. He didn’t really care.

‘So which way is it to the roof?’ the technical services man asked. ‘I’d like to have a quick look round, while we’re here.’

‘Sure.’ Rob pointed to the exit door. ‘Just through there.’

Fitzgerald ushered them through. Rob was about to give his usual warning when Steve pulled him aside and spoke again, more quietly, so the others couldn’t hear. ‘We’re staying in a hotel in town tonight, if you fancied meeting up for old times sake.’

The look he gave Rob left him in no doubt about what sort of meeting he meant. ‘I don’t think my partner would like that,’ he said smoothly.

‘Your loss. But then, you’ve never been good at working out what’s best for your career.’ Steve gave a dismissive smile and followed them out onto the roof.

Rob stayed by the door. All of the resentment he’d buried over the past years flared again. He wished he’d been able to think up an apt and witty put down. But really, was there any point?

The head of technical services took some pictures with his phone, while the other man kicked at the guttering. Steve went over to the parapet, full of bravado as always. ‘Hey! Great view from up here,’ he called to his colleagues, leaning his full weight on the unstable masonry. He must have felt it give slightly. ‘This feels a bit dodgy, Mike,’ he said, pushing on it again. It was too much. The whole wall shuddered, then collapsed, Steve tried to step back, but part of the roof had weakened as well. For a moment, he flailed for balance, then abruptly was gone. Rob heard the impact as he hit the canopy on the way down; a sickening sound.

Fitzgerald was the closest to the crumbling edge. He hung on to the nearest piece of good wall and began to step back carefully.

‘Oh, Jesus!’ Mike swore, dialling a number on his phone. The other man went gingerly forward to look.

‘Don’t!’ Rob knew that more of it could go, now that the structure was weakened. ‘Move slowly. Get back here.’ He offered a hand to Fitzgerald. His face was an unhealthy colour; a kind of grey-tinged beige. As soon as he got back inside the projection box he leaned against the wall, shaking. The others followed quickly.

‘Yes, ambulance. Someone’s fallen from the cinema roof. No, I’ve no idea if he’s breathing…’ Mike was still on the phone.

Rob left them there and hurried through to the projection staff room. Its small window overlooked the front of the cinema. He had to see for himself. In the road, traffic had stopped. A crowd was already gathering around the sprawled body on the pavement, lying still as a puddle of blood spread around its head.

He’d never know now how much Steve had been involved in the plot to bring down Jack Fairbrother, but he couldn’t help feel that somehow, poetic justice had been served.

Copyright © 2021 Mawgrim; All Rights Reserved.
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Wow.  This was different. Very well done, but very unexpected.  Seems Steve got his just desserts.

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karma is such a bitch...

 Steve went over to the parapet, full of bravado as always. ‘Hey! Great view from up here,’ he called to his colleagues, leaning his full weight on the unstable masonry. He must have felt it give slightly. ‘This feels a bit dodgy, Mike,’ he said, pushing on it again. It was too much. The whole wall shuddered, then collapsed, Steve tried to step back, but part of the roof had weakened as well. For a moment, he flailed for balance, then abruptly was gone. Rob heard the impact as he hit the canopy on the way down; a sickening sound.

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I really enjoyed this short story! The characters were well developed, the writing flowed well and was very readable. Best of all, to me, the story, although short, was very complete. It might be fun to read more about Rob, but I don't need more. Great story! Thanks. 

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