It’s a hot, muggy summer afternoon, the kind of day where the pollen hangs thick in the air and the sun beats down on the roads, giving the illusion that the tarmac is melting. On days like this, the cinema is always empty. From my post stood at the rear left of the aisles during the matinee screening of City Lights, I can see only one person watching. He’s a regular; a tall, wiry man with bird-like features and a long stare. The Bird Man, I call him. He carries a small canvas bag on his person at all times and usually wears a tan-coloured mac. He gives the impression of always being cold, whatever the temperature. I watch the back of his head for a while, unmoving.
The mugginess of the day has reached in here with unforgiving hands and beads of sweat prickle across my forehead. The cinema doesn’t offer the luxury of air conditioning like the big Multiplex on the outskirts of town. Our single screen seats just 200, the dark red carpets lining the corridors are stained with years of wear, and there’s only one flavour of popcorn served in the lobby.
By the time the film has ended the Bird Man has already left, seemingly evaporating into the chair like ice cream on the pavement. The lights go up. Blinking, and turning my head from side to side to ease the stiffness in my neck, I adjust my uniform and drift down the middle aisle. The Bird Man has left no trace, not even an outline on the seat, and I’m just about to turn and leave when I notice something nestled in between two of the seats on the opposite side to where he sat.
It’s a small box wrapped in brown paper, and what strikes me at first glance is that it has been tucked carefully above the arm rest where the two chairs meet, as if on purpose, as if it is waiting to be found. It’s too conspicuous to have been simply left behind. I look around me. There is no one else here. The whirring of the projector still lingers, but beside that, the theatre is silent. I edge along the seats and approach the package, torch in hand.
Shining dutifully, the torch beam probes at something that the room’s dim lighting didn’t initially pick up: a small label attached to the furthest corner of the box, affixed with brown tape. It’s folded over so I can’t see what it says. Edging forward, and as I reach the chair, I hold out my hand so that my palm and fingertips brush against the side of the box nearest to me. The package feels cold. I crane my neck to see if I can read what the label says but can only make out the letter ‘F’ from between the fold. After taking another quick look around, I fix my eyes back on the label and lift one side of it up carefully.
In large, joined-up letters, the words ‘For Alex’ stare back at me in black ink. I let out a small gasp and the torch slides from under my arm, dropping to the floor with a clatter. I edge back slightly and let the paper fold back over.
Shock gives way to rationality, as I pick up my torch and switch it off with a loud ‘click’. Alex is a common enough name, I reason, it can’t be for me. It must be a birthday present for another Alex, forgotten on the way to the party, a group of people, perhaps.
But my mind wanders. The calculated way it was placed there, on this seat, someone had to know that I would be the one to find it. They knew that the place would be virtually deserted at this time, on this kind of musty summer afternoon. And assuming the package was left here last night, how did no one spot the package when the theatre was emptied?
My thoughts go back to the Bird Man. Did he leave it there for me? Other than a handful of polite formalities, a ripping of tickets, we had never spoken, despite him being a regular customer. His steely eyes always seemed to look straight through me. Is he trying to communicate something?
My eyes wander back over the package. It waits obediently, knowing what is coming next. Bending over it, I enclose my hands around its edges and lift it up to my waist. It’s heavier than I expected; the weight of a small watermelon, maybe. Gripping on to it firmly, I turn and exit the aisle, making my way out through the thick, velvet drapes at the back of the theatre.
There are only two other staff members working today: Amy, a cheerful, red-haired college student who serves popcorn and sells tickets, and Brian, the projectionist, a tall ghost-like creature who seldom leaves his post in the tiny room which houses the cinema’s outdated equipment and dusty film reels.
Neither is around as I hurry through the lobby. I’m so engrossed in my walk and the thorough checking of my surroundings that as I reach the centre, I collide with the life-sized cardboard cutout of Charlie Chaplin which is displayed near the main doors. The Manager, usually sparing with the cinema’s small budget, had splashed out on an ostentatious display to promote the ‘Greats of the Silent Era’ season.
The whole thing collapses onto the red carpet as my feet fall over each other, legs tangled with Chaplin’s cane, which is now bent and pointing awkwardly in the direction of the ceiling. The whole time, my hands remain gripped to the package. I feel a strange connection to it, like when you are drawn to a book in a shop window and simply must go inside to investigate its contents. I regain control of my legs and stand up, leaving the distorted cutout where it lays, the box clutched even tighter to my body.
I’m making a bee-line for the employee lounge, a cramped room on the other side of the ticket booth through a red door marked ‘private’. It contains several grey metal lockers, benches, a broken coffee machine, and a dirty old sink hanging off the wall. Another door leads through to the Manager’s office. He’s seldom here. I go in and shut the door. I can’t lock it from this side, but I grasp the handle and twist it firmly, as if willing it to stay closed.
Sitting down on the bench facing the sink, I place the package carefully at my side and spread my palms across my knees. There is a ‘lost and found’ box behind the ticket booth; it wouldn’t be too late to do the right thing. Maybe my finding should be dropped in there, alongside the musty scraps of old clothing and forgotten articles, and other items unimportant enough for people to leave behind in the cinema; a dog-eared teddy-bear; a child’s single shoe; an empty plastic lunch box.
This package doesn’t belong with them, though. It was meant for me. I steal another glance at it and take a deep breath.
Suddenly I hear something…the heaviness of someone walking, and cursing, through the lobby. They are steps that I have become accustomed to recognizing. I can almost hear his breathing, hot and angered. It can only be the Manager. Quickly, I slip the package into one of the lockers behind me and slam it shut, just as the door handle turns. There he is, hovering in the doorway like a bloated shark, ready to bite.
He’s a short, stocky man, with a bald head and a face that is perpetually red and shiny with old sweat. He must be about forty-five, and wears a stubby tie with a short-sleeved shirt. It must be the only tie he owns because he always seems to be wearing it – brown and silky with a heavy knot. His eyes are creased and grey-coloured, and a small black moustache sits above his mouth, which is twisted in anger.
‘You..!’ he growls in my direction, ‘are you responsible for this mess in my lobby?’ and he gestures with his hands out the door.
Calmly as I can muster, I begin, ‘Oh, that. Sorry sir. I fell over the Chaplin cutout and hurt my ankle, I was just resting up before coming back to fix it…’ I try to relax my upper body, ignoring the slight shake in my voice.
He seems to get redder and angrier. ‘Are you even aware what the time is? The next showing is in ten…minutes! And not only have you left my lobby looking like shit, but you’ve destroyed a piece of expensive merchandise! There is no fixing it! That’s coming out of your pay, mister. You’re lucky I don’t fire you on the spot!’ and he disappears into his office, grunting ‘students…useless, all of ‘em’, slamming the door as quickly as he enters through it.
His rant permeates the tiny room. My face feels hot and I can hear the echoes of people arriving and Amy’s cheery voice as she greets them from the ticket booth. I lift myself up and shuffle towards the open door, stealing a quick glance to make sure the locker is shut tight. The package should be safe in there for now.
Out in the brightness of the lobby a family is gathered by the listings on the far wall waiting to go in, whilst a couple of teenagers loiter at the ticket booth. The Chaplin cutout lies demolished in the centre. Amy darts me a sympathetic glance from her post – she must have heard the Manager’s tirade in its ugly entirety. I smile weakly back and step towards the wreckage.
The alleyway which runs alongside the cinema is perpetually shaded from the blaze of the sunlight, and as I step into it from the back door of the building a damp chill closes around me. Gaggles of people have started to arrive in the lobby for the six-fifteen screening, and the sound of chatter and footsteps drifts into the distance as I carry the cutout in extended arms to its final resting place.
The smell of Chinese food from the restaurant next door fills the narrow space, which is blocked off on one side by a tall metal gate. Bins and stacks of old crates and boxes cluster around the entrance to the alleyway, obscuring it from the immediate view of the street. A thin crack in the heavy shutters on the opposite wall is a favourite for the rats to scuttle in and out of, and I can hear some of them rustling as I move past.
As I search for an appropriate place to leave the cutout, pushing the damp cardboard to one side with the toe of my shoe, my eye is caught by the graffiti above the bins to the left of the shutters. There are the usual nondescript scribbles and lines scrawled in layers of coloured spray paint, but over the top of that, in fresh black lettering and at shoulder height, is a message:
‘DON’T OPEN IT.’
The letters look as if they are burning into the wall, large and purposeful and designed to catch the immediate attention of anyone looking. I drop the cardboard to the ground and move nearer, letting my eyes narrow as they slowly study each character.
It’s my handwriting.
It’s unmistakably mine. Each letter is tall and careful. The ‘O’s are slender oblongs and there’s a slight slant to the strokes on the ‘T’s. It’s been my handwriting for as long as I can remember.
I look around me. There is no one else here apart from a one-legged pigeon watching solemnly from the edge of the rooftop. A car passes at the opening of the alleyway, and a group of schoolgirls murmuring amongst themselves drift along the pavement. No one sees me. I stare back up at the wall, my mind racing and a feeling of gradual unease growing in the pit of my stomach like a virus. As I stand there, time seems to stop with me.
It’s apparent that the six-fifteen screening has already started before I make it back into the lobby, and Amy throws me a fierce stare as I float past into the theatre, to my position at the rear left of the aisles. Popcorn is strewn across the carpet like confetti and the rustle of packaging can be heard beneath the glare of the music. The seats are mostly full, and as I fumble around in the dark, some latecomers arrive. I find my torch and shine it over their outstretched hands, taking their tickets and waving my arm in the direction of the screen. Amidst the thickness of the shadows, I sense their confused frowns. Eventually they amble away.
I close my eyes and try to focus. The message is seared into my eyelids, the black writing burning, unmoving. Where did it come from? I search the reaches of my memory but have no recollection of ever writing on that wall. I imagine I must be crazy.
I think back to the parcel, sitting there in the quiet. It must hold the answer. It’s the key to the lock.
Slowly, I move toward the curtains and push apart the opening a little with the end of my torch. I crane my neck outside but can see no one around in the lobby. Stepping through the velvet, I make my way back to that red door marked ‘private’.
Sat on the bench and with the parcel back in my hands, I check the label once again. The writing is unchanged. It looks like a girl’s handwriting, swirly and joined-up and written with intention. I try to imagine the girl as she wrote it, head bent over so that the look of concentration in her face is semi-obscured by the falling of her long hair. Perhaps she wears a playful smile as she writes. I turn the package over in my hands so that the folds of the brown paper are facing up towards me.
‘DON’T OPEN IT.’ The words reappear at the forefront of my mind. I still can’t make sense of any of this. I feel as if I am in a dream. My head swims and sweat peels across my skin.
The room is getting hotter, the air more stifling. Taking a deep breath, I prise open the first folds of paper. My hands seem be acting freely.
Everything begins to slow. I try to concentrate on my fingers, but darkness closes in. I struggle to breath and my body gradually sinks backwards. I feel strangely disconnected from everything, like a displaced sheet of newspaper floating on a breeze. My world is left behind.
The dreamy reverie of the orchestra arouses me. I recognize the music; it’s the final scene of City Lights. My eyes open in the darkness, and as they adjust, I begin to focus on Chaplin’s smiling face up on the cinema screen as The Girl hands him a flower. I notice a single head silhouetted against the film’s grey glow. The music swells. ‘THE END’ beams as blackness takes up the frame. I hear the rattle of the projector.
As the lights go up, I look around. The theatre is empty. Hot and confused, I poke my head through the curtains to look at the lobby.
There is no one here, and the mid-afternoon sun bakes through the glass entrance doors. Where did everyone..?
My thought is cut sharply.
In the middle of the lobby, the Chaplin cutout stands, intact. Even from behind I can see his long cane flicked merrily, left arm bent outwards, bowler hat tipped. I walk out from the curtain and touch the cardboard. It’s smooth and warmed by the heat from the sun. Chaplin’s face beams at me. I stare back, transfixed.
Turning on my heels, I run back into the theatre and into the middle aisle. I look up at the vast, empty screen for answers, but nothing happens, the whole place is deserted and the air feels as if it has been drained of oxygen. I turn around to go outside when something catches my eye, to my left.
It’s the package. It’s nestled between two of the seats in the middle of the row, perched thoughtfully on the arm rest. My mind races. I try to count the seats from where I am stood, but I already know that the package sits in the exact place that I found it. Even the label is folded over in the same way. It is happening again.
All I can do is run, run beyond the theatre and past the cutout in the lobby and through the sun-scorched glass entrance, into the quiet street. A kid across the road stops and stares. The ice cream he is holding drips down his hand and wrist, onto the pavement.
It’s a hot, muggy summer afternoon, the kind of day where the pollen hangs thick and the sun beats down on the roads, giving the illusion that the tarmac is melting. I take a large sniff of the heavy air and turn back. Chaplin’s smile seems to flicker behind my eyes.