Peter Higgins is one of thirteen short story authors with fiction old and new that you’ll find in The Open Pen Anthology. His Issue Ten cover story “Smoking in the Library” is in there, as well as his new piece, “The Gloves”. But Higgins made his first appearance in Open Pen way back in September 2013 with “A Brief Guide to London’s Lost Cinemas”. The story went on to be long listed for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize, and here it is online with Open Pen for the first time.
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A BRIEF GUIDE TO LONDON’S LOST CINEMAS
BY PETER HIGGINS
Make no mistake: yes, I was pleased to see him (of course I was). But that was as far as it went. I was perfectly content to keep my distance and sip my coffee and hide in my own shadow. I never asked him to come over and make conversation. He could have just gone away. He could have just left me alone. But no, he had to “come over”. He had to “make conversation”.
‘Patrick,’ he said. ‘Fancy meeting you here.’
Compelled by my own good nature to at least greet him in a civil manner, I stepped into the light and said, ‘Hello, David.’
‘Are you seeing La Blanc et le Noir as well?’ His charmingly clumsy pronunciation of the film’s title made me smile in spite of myself.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’
‘Not really my thing,’ he said, ‘French films, subtitles.’
We were standing in the foyer of the Truffaut Cinema, Tavistock Square, London WC1. My second home. Repeat: my second home, which was now being invaded by this young ruffian with his estuary accent and his ridiculously short hair and his pale blue eyes. He worked in the maintenance division of the firm in which I was also gainfully employed. I had spotted him, once or twice, on the security gate, checking people’s passes, and once, one blinding summer afternoon, in the car park, he and a colleague had been admiring someone’s Aston Martin and had looked up and caught my eye as I looked down at him from my third floor office. I turned away, to my crowded in-tray, and the fat phone which squatted next to it, and which, happily, began to ring, and the rest of the afternoon was lost in some fiendishly intricate office politics far too boring to go into here.
‘You meeting someone?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said (I always attend the cinema alone, and would not have it any other way) ‘Are you?’
He rubbed the top of his head (his hair really was tremendously short), and said, ‘Yeah, actually. My girlfriend.’
No, of course, David was not the solitary type. What type was he, then, if not the solitary type? Young, I suppose, brash, I suppose, handsome in a crude sort of way, I suppose, and slightly shorter than my six foot one, and slightly bulkier than my virtually fat-free frame.
I was feeling suddenly rather warm. I glanced at my watch – a slim gold analogue antique – and saw that it was almost twenty past six.
‘Well,’ I said, pulling my ticket from my wallet. ‘Time for me to go in.’
At which point the girlfriend appeared – a short, giggling creature who I could not have found more irritating even if I had tried (and I tried). Hurried introductions were made, and then the two of them entered the auditorium while I finished my coffee which I had completely forgotten about.
I placed my coffee cup in the bin and went inside, too. I spied them almost instantly, sitting halfway down, in the middle (I can see very well in the dark).
I placed myself in my favourite seat – dead centre, back row. I bent down, undid my laces, and took off my shoes, an old habit of mine.
The film began. I absolutely did my best to keep my gaze on the screen, but it would keep wandering off to the spot where, twelve rows ahead of me, he sat, with his girlfriend’s head on his right shoulder and with his head leaning against her head.
I was in a dilemma: after the film, should I “hang around” and “chat” with my colleague and his little pal, or should I just vanish into the night and let the two of them go to hell? Option (a) filled me with a nameless dread. Option (b) seemed infinitely better.
The film ended. The credits began to roll. I was putting my shoes back on while David and friend were already walking up the aisle towards me.
‘What did you think?’ he asked me. ‘I thought it was alright, actually. What you doing?’
I looked up from my laces, with which I was still struggling a little, damn them.
‘I did enjoy it,’ I said, ‘but only’ – I finished tying my laces – ‘only on a superficial level. Dumoir has done so much better. This, to me, lacked his usual vitality. Dumoir on auto-pilot, I suppose you could say.’
Girlfriend had no idea what to make of that, but merely turned away as if looking for something, or someone. Her shoulders shook slightly. Clearly she was in a hurry to leave. Well, goodbye, then.
‘She loved it,’ said David. ‘Didn’t you?’
She nodded and said something unintelligible while still looking away, before turning to face me, suddenly all serious and unsmiling.
‘Come on,’ she said, to him. ‘Nice to meet you,’ she said, to me.
‘Yeah, cheers,’ said David, and they were gone, she holding on to his arm with both her hands, and leaning against him for support (had she been drinking?).
After visiting the lavatory, where I micturated while staring at the ceramic-tiled wall with its constellations of dried snot, I left the cinema and strode the two hundred yards to the Zetland Arms, that splendid, always dark, always half-empty pub on Crossfire Street. There I ensconced myself in my favourite corner, with no-one and nothing to keep me company save for an ice-cold gin and tonic and two packets of peanuts (dry-roasted).
I had been hoping to get some work done on A Brief Guide to London’s Lost Cinemas. To this end I extracted notes and pen from my jacket pocket and laid them carefully on the table. I sipped and mused, and stared at my notes, clicking my ballpoint pen absent-mindedly, and getting nowhere. The title was giving me no end of trouble. A Brief Guide to London’s Lost Cinemas? Or, A Brief Guide to the Lost Cinemas Of London? And did I need that Brief at all? The Lost Cinemas of London? London’s Lost Cinemas? A Guide to the Lost Cinemas of London?
Time for a nut. I stabbed my pen (might as well make itself useful) into the shiny brown foil, which resisted maddeningly, and then gave, just as maddeningly, spilling several nuts onto the table and onto the floor.
I swore under my breath and a young woman standing at the bar turned away from her friend to look at me. Her friend looked at me, too. I felt foolish and old. They turned away again, their expressions unreadable. What, I asked myself, did they know of the Ladbroke Grove Phoenix, the Highbury Ritz, the Curzon, Camberwell Green? Nothing. They knew nothing, and they didn’t care.
I got up and stuffed my notes and my pen back into my pocket, along with one unopened bag of peanuts, and headed for the door, the street, the tube, and home.
The next week at work brought some refreshing challenges. I spent a weary Friday morning checking and re-checking the latest cinema listings to see if my Saturday could accommodate a repertory screening of Citizen Kane and a preview of some intriguing-sounding Italian thriller and an early dinner at a charming little café I know near the French Institute in South Ken.
Simon came into my office after lunch for a brief chat about some reports or other that still had not been done. While he looked with barely-disguised disdain at the mess all over my desk – papers, stapler, coffee cups, elegant silver letter-opener (a gift from someone I no longer think about) – I explained that I still was waiting for Susan to get the files to me. That being the case, I could not reasonably be expected to proceed with the creation of the reports. Simon, with that shyness of his that I used to find rather charming but which now tends to grate, if I’m perfectly honest, tried to claim that Susan had emailed me the files at least a week ago. I went through the rigmarole of searching my inbox, but, as I pointed out to Simon, there was nothing recent from Susan there.
The day ended with a frankly infuriating phone call from some brute in something called the “IT Department”. (Since when have we had one of those?) The IT Brute claimed that his records definitely showed that Susan had sent me an email, with the relevant attachments, on this or that date, at this or that time, and perhaps I had deleted it “by mistake”.
Trying not to laugh I checked my Deleted Items folder. Empty. The IT Brute then talked me through the hellishly convoluted procedure by which one can, apparently, recover deleted items. And there it was. Absent-mindedly slapping the silver letter-opener lightly against my thigh, I said, ‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’ I put the phone down, picked it up again, put it down again, picked it up again, and called Susan.
We had a good giggle about the entirely innocent mix-up and agreed that we must meet for lunch again, and soon, and she would call me, but she was rather busy at the moment (aren’t we all?) and that was that.
I worked on the data for the rest of the afternoon, pausing only now and then to glance out of my window to the car park below, to see if anything was happening. Nothing was.
Friday night brought its usual wealth of opportunity and choice, but I was tired, and I refuse to feel guilty for spending my time lying on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket, watching television and drinking wine.
Saturday afternoon: I boarded the tube and headed to the Truffaut. Question: is there anything better than Bloomsbury in the autumn? Answer: no. The sun shone, the air was crisp and cold, and the sky was as blue as those eyes, remember? Try to forget. I bought my ticket, and, with twenty minutes to spare, shot round the corner to the small bookshop nearby.
‘What you doing here?’ said an all-too familiar voice.
I said hello to David, and then to his girlfriend. They were “killing time” before the movie. ‘He’s never even seen Citizen Kane,’ she said.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘fancy that.’
Time duly killed, we entered the cinema together, and sat together, and watched the film, together. I kept my shoes on.
Afterwards I excused myself and went to the lavatory. When I emerged, I found the two of them, David and his little friend, sitting in a leather sofa, laughing hysterically about whatever it is people laugh about.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘I must be going.’ And it was true. By my calculations I had half an hour to get from Russell Square to South Ken in time for my next assignation.
‘Do you,’ enquired the girl, ‘usually to go the cinema alone?’
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Usually.’
Few understand the sheer pleasure of solitary cinema-going. Now and again I will spy a similar figure, alone in the dark, waiting for the film to start, checking his watch, perhaps sipping a coffee, perhaps bending over to do something with his shoes, perhaps, and I will give a little smile and say to myself, It’s not just me. There are others in the same club, others who relish this experience just as much as I do. There have been times, post-screening, when I have been tempted to introduce myself as we shuffle down the aisle in the slowly gathering light, but I have always resisted. It would be a mistake. No contact is required. The occasional glance, the occasional half-smile, perhaps, but nothing more. We need our solitude, we cinema-ghosts.
Monday came along, as Mondays always do, and I was confronted with a veritable barrage of emails about the reports of the previous week. There were, apparently, “concerns” about conversions and formulae. I sighed. No doubt Susan’s data had been produced in a hurry and were riddled with inaccuracies. I began the tedious task of sorting everything out, and resolved yet again to find a much better job, with much better conditions, and a much better salary.
The rest of the week went as follows: on Monday night I attended a screening in the blue dusk of Hammersmith. On Tuesday I was in the boarded-up, slightly alarming night of Kentish Town. On Wednesday I braved the charmingly muscular heat of Brixton. And then, on Thursday, I dashed up Southampton Row to Tavistock Square and the Truffaut, for the five-thirty showing.
I asked for my ticket (‘One, please’) and then stood there like a cretin, patting my pockets, becoming faintly aware of small sounds of dissent in the queue behind me (the film was about to start). I had left my wallet at work.
‘I’ve left my wallet at home. At work. Somewhere.’
This was, surely, the moment when David was supposed to come to my rescue – This one’s on me, mate.
I patted my pockets again. Nothing.
‘Why don’t I pay you next time?’
The box office man uttered a sound that combined a disbelieving laugh and the word what? into one short perfect burst.
‘Why can’t I pay you next time?’
‘Can’t do that, mate.’
Don’t you mate me, young man. ‘But I come here constantly,’ I said. ‘I practically live here.’
‘Oh. Then you’ll want to sign our petition’ he said, and handed me a flyer.
Stunned, I stuffed this into a pocket while one half of a very annoying couple behind me pushed past and said, ‘Two, please. Thank you.’
Ignoring the queue’s blazing eyes, I scuttled away and burst into the open air. Take me to The Zetland Arms, feed me gin and salty snacks. But, no, the Zetland Arms tonight was all screeching women in high heels and short skirts, leaning on braying be-suited yobs with eyes that never blinked.
I sat in the tube – hot, slow, reeking of abandoned fast food – and read the flyer. Save Our Cinema. Yes, it was all true: this cinema, like so many others, was destined to become one of London’s Lost. Landlords, leases, purchase of entire site for redevelopment by something or someone called LA Fitness. Already I was writing, in my head, the notes for the chapter devoted to the Truffaut, Tavistock Square, WC1. Screen one: two hundred and twelve seats. Screen two: ninety nine. Digital projection and digital Dolby sound in both. Opened in nineteen sixty one, as the Euston ABC. First showing: Please, Not Now, starring Bridget Bardot.
On Friday I arrived at the office hoping against hope for a bit of peace and quiet in order to restore my shattered nerves. Imagine my disappointment to find Simon and Susan waiting for me, the former looking at his watch, the latter avoiding my gaze. They were both, apparently, rather keen to “have it out” with me, “once and for all” about these “bloody reports.” I invited them to sit down, and even offered them tea. They didn’t want to sit down, and they didn’t want any tea. I made myself some tea. First thing in the morning, I told them, I have to have tea. I can’t function, first thing in the morning, without tea. Simon looked at his watch again, and then proceeded to inform me that I was behind, and that my lack of co-operation was hindering everyone else’s work and that I needed to “get a grip”.
I informed him, again (everything was happening again), of the perfectly valid reasons for the current unfortunate situation. I was not going to blame Susan, of course, not with her standing right there, but nor was I going to shoulder all the responsibility myself.
Poor old Susan exploded and said that she found it ‘very annoying, actually,’ that all I did, all day and every day, as far as she could tell, was mess about on the internet, and make cups of tea, and stare out of the window at [pause] people.
Simon interrupted her before she could go any further, thank god, and calmed her down as much as possible, and persuaded her to go away, just go away.
‘That’s better,’ I said. ‘A man-to-man chat. What exactly is it you want to get off your chest?’
That evening I was fit for nothing but a hot bath, a lot of whiskey and an early night. Saturday was a write-off: I could hardly get out of bed. And guess where I went on Sunday? I was desperate, and could not face a trip into town, so guess where I went? The local Odeon. The local fucking Odeon. I sat among the terror-children, trying to ignore their cries, and endured two entire hours of hyperactive violence and spirit-crushing comedy. Never again.
On Monday I stayed at home: I was ill. On Tuesday I sat in my office, ignoring the letter in my in-tray (Private and Confidential) and the emails from Simon (Reluctantly instigating… we await your response…) and trying to keep my mind on the figures on the screen in front of me. Come on, concentrate: if the doors open at five-twenty, that means the film starts at five-thirty-five, and if the film is 110 minutes long, when will it end?
I stared out of the window. David was sweeping leaves. How I envied him his simple existence. Sweep up those leaves. Yes, sir. Job done. Next? Clean that car, change that fluorescent lighting tube, fix that broken something or other, whatever it was he did all day. I could leave this stupid and pointless job and do something useful, something valuable, something practical. I could sweep leaves, be a postman, drive an ambulance. Yes, I could say goodbye to all this: all those things that people like David never had to think about or look at, and remember, and forget.
I emailed Simon to tell him I was still ill and I was taking the rest of the day off, starting now, and I didn’t care what he thought of that, or what he had to say. His reply, copied-in to his Line Manager, was, I had to admit, admirably succinct.
I found, in one of my drawers, an old carrier-bag, and swept some of the things on my desk into it: stapler, silver letter-opener, two coffee cups. The bag was flimsy and pathetic and the stupid cups went straight through the bottom and landed on the floor, where the handle of one of them, the better one, came off with a sad little snap. Cursing and sweating, I bundled the other cup and the other things together in the rags of the bag and shoved that into another bag I’d found. What a mess it all was.
I swept down the stairs, and almost fell, and then I thought I could hear Simon behind me, saying something, so I walked faster, faster, until I was at the double doors that led outside. These I banged open so vigorously that one of them swung back and almost hit me in the face.
But the car park was shining in the brief slot of sunlight it was allocated each day, if the sun came out at all, and my spirits lifted, a little. And who was this, striding purposefully away from the yellow skip that was always there, gently banging an almost comically-dented toolbox against his leg as he walked towards me?
Smiling wildly I gestured in greeting, and he stopped, a charming, confused look on his face, and the sun was in his eyes and he held a hand to his forehead and that is how I shall always remember him.
Cut, please cut, now, to the next scene: Interior. Cinema foyer. Day.
Why is the thing you want always in the wrong pocket? Sort of clutching my scrappy plastic bag to my stomach with my left hand, and bent over somewhat because of it, I took my wallet out of my left pocket with my right hand, extracted (somehow) a twenty pound note from it, and gasped quietly and said, ‘One, please.’
‘Oh, hello,’ he said, ‘you’ve remembered your money this time.’
Don’t recognise me now, you dolt. Not now. It’s no use to me now. I smiled, which seemed to scare him, so I stopped smiling. He handed me my change and my ticket. I went down to Screen Two: ninety nine seats, all of them empty.
I sat in the back row and let my flotsam and jetsam fall to the floor (oh, who cares?).
Work? They can stuff it. I wondered what would happen next, what depths of humiliation and awkwardness yet awaited me. I didn’t care. I did care. I didn’t care. And what about the Brief Guide? Well, what about it? I had hardly even started it, beyond scribbling a few desultory notes and marking some points on an old A-Z. And, anyway, who would have read it? A rhetorical question, of course, but nevertheless I had a sudden, terrible, pathetic vision of me presenting David, of all people, with, of all things, a signed copy.
Someone came in. He walked down the aisle and sat twelve rows in front of me.
I took off my shoes. Then I rummaged around on the floor amid my office supplies and my broken crockery – Christ, it was like a jumble sale down there. Had I been paying attention I would have seen the man twelve rows in front me turning around, no doubt wondering what all the noise was about.
Meanwhile, I had found it: the silver letter opener. I held it in my right hand, enjoying its satisfying heaviness and staring back at the sliver it contained of my own dark reflection.
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