They found a table by the window. They didn’t speak for a while. The road outside was white with frost, scored with black tire lines. A bus went by on its way into town. It looked packed.
‘All Right Now’ finished, but nothing else came on the jukebox, and the silence was very noticeable.
Mick took a sip of his Guinness and said, “You go to The Rex a lot?”
“Yeah, I guess so. You?”
“All the time. I can’t believe I’ve never seen you before.”
“Guess we just kept missing each other,” she said.
The weight of these words seemed to temporarily stun them, and they fell silent. Sarah tucked one side of her hair behind her ear, and for possibly the first time in his life, Mick Maystock truly noticed the simple grace of a woman.
“How come you’re out on your own?” he asked.
“I don’t know. None of my girlfriends would want to come and see films like these.”
“Never met a girl that went to the pictures on her own before.”
“You don’t approve?”
“No, I think it’s great.”
“Well, I like people watching as much as film watching.”
“You live nearby?”
“Just down near the rec, off Bolton Lane. With me mum and dad.”
“Oh, yeah, I know.”
“I live just up there, top of Barnaby Street.”
“Right by The Rex?”
“No wonder you go all the time. I probably would as well if the pictures were down my road.”
“Been goin’ all me life.”
They both took a drink. Another bus rattled by. Mick watched it. He could see the lights of The Rex further down the road. He noticed her looking at him.
“This is strange, isn’t it?” she said.
“Bit,” he said.
“I’m not kidding myself, am I?”
“What do you mean?”
She shook her head. “Oh god, I’m going to make a fool of myself.”
“No, no, not at all. What is it?”
“Well... I’ve known you for what? Ten minutes?”
“I think we’re pushing fifteen.”
“It just feels... I don’t know... kind of... easy. Doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, it does. It sounds stupid, but it feels like... like I already know you.”
She looked relieved to hear him say that. “Exactly.”
“So... what now?”
She laughed. “I don’t know. I guess we drink up and go watch Frankenstein.”
“And who says romance is dead?”
A freezing fog had shrouded The Rex by the time they headed back. The lights of the picture house looked smudged, colours leaking across the brume.
“Perfect night for a horror film,” said Sarah.
The road was quiet, not a car, nor soul about. They stood across from the old cinema and Mick held Sarah’s hand. She looked up at him, but he was watching the fog. It moved down the road, as if with purpose.
“It’s like there’s just us,” he said. “Everything’s so still.”
“It’s eerie, isn’t it?”
“It’s so dense. Come in so fast.”
Two points of light appeared down the road, shifting, and moving closer. They couldn’t hear the car. The fog seemed to deaden all sound.
The headlights pierced the murk, becoming bigger and brighter. Mick thought of stories he’d heard as a kid, about will-o’-the-wisps and malevolent fairy folk leading night travellers to their deaths.
The car passed them, moving very slowly. The sound of its engine only reached them for a brief moment, and then was gone again. The fog swallowed up the red tail lights.
“I think we should go in, Mick. I’m freezing.”
“Yes, of course. Sorry.”
Harry was at the ticket stand, watching two wavering shapes appear in the fog outside. As they approached the doors he saw that it was Mick Maystock and a girl. Not the girl he’d started the night with either, noted Harry, with amusement.
The young couple stepped back into the lobby, shivering.
“Quite a night,” said Harry, startling them both.
“Jesus, Harry,” said Mick.
“It sure is,” said Sarah. “Fog seems to come out of nowhere.”
“It’s a right pea-souper. Think it’s gonna be tricky for folk to get home later.”
“My dad’s picking me up,” said Sarah. “I hope, anyway.”
Mick looked at her. He knew absolutely nothing about this girl, and yet, whatever this was, it felt pure and important and right. It also felt dangerous.
He turned his attention back to Harry. “We’ve not missed the start of the second picture have we?” he asked.
“Trails are on. Better get yoursens in there.”
Mick took Sarah’s hand and they crossed the lobby.
Mick always loved a good Hammer, no matter how creaky the sets, how hammy the acting, or how rubbery the bats were, and The Horror of Frankenstein was no exception. Everything was right. The Monster was suitably lumbering, Dr Frankenstein, cocksure and deranged, and Kate O’Mara’s breasts were nothing short of a marvel – even Sarah commented on them.
“Blood and boobs,” she said. “The Hammer recipe.”
So, as ropey as it was, Mick would have enjoyed the film regardless, but watching it with Sarah made the experience positively joyous. They sunk down into their seats, their faces close together, whispering and laughing, becoming increasingly aware of one another. The audience were pretty rowdy and there was a great vibe.
However, just as the plot was starting to get going, the film broke down. There was a loud pop, the image froze, then nothing: a white screen. The place erupted into boos and whistles and laughter and complaints and Mick and Sarah sunk deeper into their seats.
Old Harry came down the front and stood beneath the empty screen. He announced that there’d been a technical fault, but assured the movie-goers that it was all in hand – Ernie the projectionist was currently fixing the problem and The Horror of Frankenstein would resume shortly. There was some pissing and moaning from the audience, but for the most part, folk just accepted the situation. This was The Rex after all. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, nor would it be the last. The place had opened in 1925 and little-to-no renovation or updating had been done in the subsequent forty-five years.
Mabel came round with the ice cream tray and Mick bought them both a strawberry sundae. They remained in their seats as they ate and waited for the film to come back on.
“What do you do?” Sarah asked him.
“At the moment, I’m working with me old man. He’s a brickie, so I’m labouring for him.”
“That must be hard work. Especially in this weather.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty grim this time of year. I go to work in the dark, come home in the dark, so that can get a bit depressing. Keeps me out of trouble though. I usually wear about twenty layers of clothes, so I look like the Michelin Man. Me dad knocks off early on a Friday, so that’s good, and we have Saturday’s off, unless he’s up against it.”
“Are you going to follow in his footsteps?”
“Go on the trowel?”
“Well, Dad keeps going on at me to learn the trade, but it would mean four years at Tech. He lets me go on the line every now and again to lay a few, and I usually point up for him, but I don’t know...”
“Is it just you and your dad?”
“No, there’s the Big Ant as well. His name’s Alan, but he’s known as The Ant or Big Ant for some reason. Proper old boy, he is.” Mick finished his ice cream, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “What do you do?”
Sarah gave him an odd look which he couldn’t quite decipher – a touch of anger maybe, or perhaps sadness. Either way, it struck him as strange. Then the lights lowered and The Horror of Frankenstein resumed – to huge cheers from the audience – so the question, and the look, were left hanging.
Mick didn’t much enjoy the rest of Horror of Frankenstein. The film did go off the boil, but it wasn’t that. It was the look Sarah had given him. Moreover, they no longer huddled down, laughing at the film. Something had changed. Their hands remained locked together, but Mick felt the distance, and for the second time that night, he was utterly confused as to what had happened.
Towards the end of the film, Victor Frankenstein locked his serving girl, Kate O’Mara, in with the Monster. The results were predicable – she was strangled in about three seconds – then the Monster escaped and ran amok in the countryside for a bit, only to return to the castle where Frankenstein hid his diabolical creation in a vat, then, inexplicably, a little girl played around with a lever in the Baron’s laboratory and filled the vat with acid, accidentally destroying the Monster. There were general groans from the audience when they realised that this was the end.
Sarah said, “That has got to be one of the shittest endings ever.”
This made Mick laugh, which felt good.
The house lights came on and people began to shuffle out. Mick and Sarah remained seated. A lot of folk were commenting on how terrible the ending was. Mick noticed Laura Newman scowling at him and Sarah. A group of lads passed behind, discussing Kate O’Mara’s chest in great detail. Then, they were alone.
“I get it,” he cut in. “You’ve got a boyfriend.”
“No, no, I haven’t. It’s... it’s nothing like that.”
“Then, what is it?”
She bit her top lip, then–
“Come on, let’s be ‘avin’ ya!”
It was Harry. They turned in their seats and saw him stood at the top of the aisle.
“I’m ready for me bed,” he said. “Be off with ya. Come on.”
They stood up, pulling their coats on, saying nothing. They didn’t hold hands as they walked out of The Rex.
It was still foggy out, but not as dense. Mick and Sarah stood beneath the glow of the marquee. There were a few people further down the road, walking home from The Rex, but other than that, the night was quiet. The Navigation was a smudge of light in the gloom.
Sarah turned to him. “I don’t know what this is,” she said. “I don’t know who you are or how you’re suddenly in my life. I didn’t think something like this was even possible.”
“Like... knowing someone is right for you straight away. I somehow knew it from the moment I saw you tonight. God, I sound like an idiot. Like a schoolgirl.”
“No,” he said. “No, you don’t. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I feel the same way. I can’t explain it.”
She looked down. The fog moved through them.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, if we both feel like this...”
“It’s not that, Mick.”
“Then what is it?”
She looked at him. “I’m leaving.”
“I’m moving up to Manchester. I have a job and...”
Sarah gave him a sad smile. “I’m going next week.”
“So... what does that mean?”
“It means... I won’t be here.”
“You’re not coming back?”
“Not to live. Christmases... birthdays maybe, but that’s it.”
Mick stepped back from her. He saw the lights of a car approaching in the distance.
“Whatever this is...” she began, but stopped she heard the approaching car. She turned, peering into the fog. “That’s probably my dad.”
Mick stepped forward and kissed her. He put his hands on her hips, and she wrapped hers around his neck. They heard the car pull up, but they didn’t stop.
It was a long kiss, a deep kiss, a kiss they would always remember. The lights on the marquee went out and they kissed on into the darkness, in the fog, in the cold.
Finally, her lips left his. Hair fell across her face. Her eyes glistened.
Then she was gone from him. He watched her go.
She stood at the car door, tilted her head to one side and gave him the loveliest smile, then she got in and was driven away.
He watched until the tail lights faded to nothing, then he looked up at the dark marquee, wondered if he’d ever see her again, and walked home.
© A.D. Barker
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