Memento Vivere

I can remember the sun was as brilliant as only a summer sun of a person’s youth could be. The tarmac on the road was sticky underfoot, and the smell of freshly cut grass drifted in the air. I remember the group of younger kids playing football using an empty drive as a goal. I remember ignoring their shouts as the ball bounced free, close to me, and I remember smiling with juvenile cruelty as they chased their ball down the hill.

It was the summer of ’84, and fear and possibility tore at me in equal measure. I was lucky that technology had made the impossible so possible. I had seen the evolution of movies on the silver screen, and the video cassette recorder meant that those images could be taken home with me. My own VCR was a huge thing, with piano keys that shuddered whenever a cassette was ejected, and my room was an altar to the cassettes it played.

I had always loved film, my mother had taken me to see a rerelease of 101 Dalmatians when I was a child, and I had stood precariously between the seats trying to push one of the puppies to safety. A year later I had screamed in fear at the half-transformed witch in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and sat wide-eyed watching the star-ships in Star Wars tear their way through the midnight blackness of space.

The attendant at the local video store knew me by name, as every one of them would until it closed ten years later, and none of them never balked at the movies I brought to the counter. Was it a bad thing that they didn’t care? Was it good that everyone allowed my autonomy? Many of the films that found their way through my VCR would be banned later that year, some were already looked on with scorn, but enquiring minds wanted to know, and I knew – even then – that few minds were as enquiring as my own.

I walked down the hill away from that store, not walking home but making the long trek into the city centre. My destination was church, not one with a cross but one with a screen. My church, a church to film. The walk would take time, enough time to anticipate the wonders that awaited me. I didn’t know what films were being shown, it was not so easy to know in those days. The local newspaper would say, a call to the cinema might reveal its showings, but I was thirteen and I had access to neither.

I clutched the five pound note in my pocket, not understanding how much work my mother had done to earn it, but grateful enough for her sacrifice. She worked three jobs to raise me, and it would be much later before I realised how much she had earned my respect. It was 1984, and at twenty-seven she was the only single mother on the street.

The mechanical shudder ran through my fingers as I hit play on my Walkman. The headphones filled with whispers, the ghosts of blank tape, before Pat Benatar’s In The Heat of the Night flowed from the headphones.

My journey took me down the hill, and under a train underpass. Across one high wall a huge billboard was decorated with the pre-release poster for The Search for Spock, the edges of its sections curling, some misaligned. I paused across the street from the image, scanning the block of credits across the posters base until Bat Benatar gave up the stage to Bobby Segar, and I continued my trek.

The road was straight, angling downward, and very nearly led directly to my destination. At its end I should turn right, but a turning of left would take me far and wide of my aims. How true of life. How many times since the first thirteen had I taken that left without thinking? Wandering wide of a destination that should be so clear to me.

The Bobby Segar track was a short one, and the first heavy thuds that heralded the Kiss song Strutter followed so swiftly It was as if I were suddenly woken from a dream. I was crossing the canal bridge, passing between a doctor’s surgery on my left and a public house on my right, and even at thirteen I saw the humour in that placement. I crossed the road to the window of the pub and glanced in. A Space Invaders machine stood just inside the door, and I knew on its high-scores would be my initials. Sometimes I would play it as my mother spent one of her rare nights socialising, patrons feeding me with change from their purchases and laughing at my frustration.

I smiled and continued, not long now. The first few shops of the city centre lined the street, family owned businesses. A butchers, a hairdresser, a fish-and-chip shop. Some signs hand painted, advertisements pasted to windows. I glanced in them but refused to be distracted, I walked to the end of the street and turned right.

Minutes later, with Kiss replaced with Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, I came into sight of the Cathedral of Film. Three screens, one of which sported a balcony, each filled with the plush red that I would always associate with cinema. I had seen 101 Dalmatian’s in the same screen, and Star Wars a few years later. Today I scanned the titles and chose my film.

I no longer remember the movie I chose, that experience belongs to someone else now as you’ll soon learn, but I purchased my ticket and returned to the step, sitting against the wall so I could watch the people as they filed in.

I always waited until the cinema was full, picking a seat far away from the crackling bags of confectionaries and noisier groups of kids. So I waited until the small crowd thinned, planning to stand and join the end of the queue, but that was when I saw her.

She wept. They were small dignified tears. She was in pain, but did not want to advertise that pain to others. People walked by her, either not seeing or not caring. I stayed seated and watched. Her large eyes glanced at her watch and then peered up the street, pausing only to wipe her runny nose on her sleeve before glancing the opposite way, almost looking directly into my face. She was too consumed by her thoughts to see me, and instantly I knew her story. Her little denim jacket had a tartan patch on the one sleeve, and the frayed hem of her cut-off shorts drifted in the breeze like tiny feathers.

Girls were a mystery to me, and in all honesty that’s something that would never truly change, but pain, that was something different, pain I knew. A boy spending more time speaking to books than people will know something of pain. A boy with no father to speak of, in a time when that was so uncommon, would have something to say about pain.

They say that misery loves company, and that may be true, but pain makes bedfellows of us all.

As the queue filtered in, I stood. I thought I intended to join it as it wound its way into the darkened screen, but instead my feet – quite of their own volition – took me over beside the girl and I sat. Closer now, I saw she was older than me. She was easily the sophisticated age of sixteen or seventeen, practically a grown up compared to my thirteen years. She glanced at me and her lower lip trembled, reminding me of a much younger child.

Then I did something that would surprise most who knew me. I took the ticket from my pocket and slid it into her hand. She raised it to her face and looked at it, blinking at the blue rectangle of not quite paper, not quite card, in mild confusion.

I didn’t wait for a response, I think – in fact – that I was embarrassed at my presumption, instead I stood and walked from my Cathedral of Film, beginning my journey home. I never told my mother about what I did, fearful that she would be angry at me, but now I wonder if she would have been proud. I sometimes wonder if that little girl watched the movie, and I wonder if she still thinks of that little boy who cared for her pain and – in his small way – tried to alleviate it. I hope she does, she would be fifty now, perhaps with children and grandchildren of her own, and it would be nice to be part of someone else’s tale as she is mine. I hope when she sees that film she remembers that little nameless boy with fondness, as my heart goes out to the memory of that little girl with the tears in her eyes.

posted by Alan Preece
on May, 03

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