The old Cannon Cinema was where he went on his first ever date.
A girl who drew bouncy cartoons called him up one day and said to him do you want to go to the cinema with me, and he said yes without even thinking, without even checking what the film was, and when she called him a day or two later and told him that they were going to see Jurassic Park he still said yes, said it twice in fact, even though he’d already seen it and he knew which of the characters would be crushed and torn apart and eaten.
Because the thing was, he loved the Cannon Cinema. He loved the ritual of buying a ticket only to have it torn in half moments later. He loved the enormous bags of sweets that seemed even more desirable for being so shockingly overpriced. He loved the wood panelling that was the colour of muddy clay and the musty smell from the seats that clung to your clothes for hours afterwards. He loved watching stories play out on screens easily as large as his parents’ living room wall, his heroes vast and irreducible and seductive like uncharted continents. It was his place of comfort and magic.
When the day came they queued outside around the corner for tickets, his anticipation heightened by the dirty sodium glow and the rain that fell like shattered stars, and as cars rolled by on sibilant tyres they talked disjointedly about things that didn’t matter, swapped lies about parents and teachers and pubs that they’d never been into, and as she spoke he registered her details like an archivist: the dark freckle on the side of her nose, the white tidemarks of fluoride on her front teeth, the pale and featureless skin like suet on hands that seemed so much smaller than his.
The cinema was hot and stuffy, bundled with people, and the air was thick and smelt of adolescence, smelt of rain and sweat and butter and grease. When the queue reached the booth window he bought them two tickets, and then he bought a carton of popcorn for them to share. The cardboard was warm in his hand as they walked up to where the uniformed man stood taking tickets, and her heels clopped on the plastic strips that edged each step.
Screen 3 was low and flat and stifled by rolls of dark velvet, and the carpeted floor was pockmarked with fossilised stains and strewn with pebbles of discarded chewing gum. It was the smallest of the three screens, the most intimate, the most magical, and by the time the trailers burst out into the darkness it was malevolent with teenagers. The two of them sat near the back, slumped deep into rigid seats, and his stomach felt hot with fear and desire. They ate cardboardy popcorn until above their heads the projector clacked and whirred into life like the wings of some prehistoric insect, and in stolen glances he watched her face run blue, green and white, painted by the colours of the dinosaurs that flickered on the screen.
Something went wrong about halfway through. After Jeff Goldblum and the ripples in the water but before the velociraptors and the hunter. The projector broke or the film reel snapped, and for several minutes the screen was blankly incandescent and the audience boiled with frustration. Eventually a flat voice announced that the showing was over, that customers could get their money back from the ticket booths, and a riot of teens tumbled out into the foyer, all elbows and knees, and they clamoured like refugees at the ticket windows.
He said they shouldn’t worry about getting a refund, mumbled something naively chivalrous about her company being priceless, but she insisted, said she didn’t want him to be out of pocket. So they waited a while, embarrassed by the interruption, reluctant and introverted beneath the glaring foyer lights, and after the elderly cashier with the leathery cheeks gave him back his ticket money they stepped out into the evening and the cold wet air chased away any final shreds of romance that remained.
Shall we go somewhere else, he asked, and as he said it he already wished that he’d been more assertive, that he’d simply told her where they’d go next, but it was too late. I should get home, she said. I should get a taxi. So they hunched like penitents under a black umbrella and they walked down the sleek redbrick hill to the station, to where the taxis milled and jostled like beetles, and he held the door open for her as she got in.
When the taxi had gone he walked back up the hill. The cinema was quiet now, the teenagers scattered like leaves, and the rain felt gritty on his face. He knew already that he wouldn’t see her again, that his calls would go unreturned, that her friends would avoid his gaze as though he were a carrier of some kind of disease. He looked up at the white plastic sign with its rows of confident black capitals and it reminded him of the banner in the film, at the climactic scene, the banner that read When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth and which fluttered down with awful clumsy irony as the Tyrannosaurus rex destroyed the dreams of a vainglorious Richard Attenborough. He looked up at the white plastic sign and decided that he’d wait around for the later showing and then watch the film again. Just for the atmosphere. Just for the smells and the warmth and the darkness.
She was gone, sure. But there’d always be the Cannon Cinema.
Written for Wells Read.