Celluloid Job by Sharon Boyle

First Prize in the 2017 Exeter Writers Short Story Competition.


Saturdays: the day dedicated to hangovers; the day for purging pores of beer dew. Ruined when I was forced to chaperone Mrs Dewhurst to the cinema and thereby curb my medicinal lie-ins. Saturdays had been sacrificed to make up for me losing Mother her job at the pharmacy. Long story.
“Oh, aye,” said Mother, “you’ll be taking old Mrs Dewhurst to the cinema, no arguments. She’ll be paying and it’s a job you can manage – sitting on your fat arse.”
The first time I collected Mrs Dewhurst I don’t know which of us looked more surprised when she opened the door –me, agape at the female clown I was meant to trot about town with, or her, eyebrows conveniently pencilled into high arches. The rest of her was a picture too: powdered-corpse pallor maximizing rouge circles, frilly blouse and a velvet skirt that, God forbid, showed stockinged, withered knees.
We both took breaths. Mine, aghast. Hers, a sigh. But before I could skedaddle she hooked my elbow and directed me toward the taxi waiting outside, saying that her previous chaperone always wore a suit and she supposed she could overlook my jeans, but she could not tolerate the ripped knees.
There was only one cinema left in town, The Pally, recently whored up to compete with the high-falluting city cinemas. It had one large picture room and a smaller one that sat twenty patrons in four rows of red velour seats. After Mrs Dewhurst paid for tickets we sidled into the near-empty smaller room.
“This film is one of my favourites,” Mrs Dewhurst winked as we settled into two front seats. “Did you bring some chocolates? My last helper used to bring chocolates. Mint creams are my favourite.”
“You have a lot of favourites, Mrs Dewhurst,” I said, fighting for bum space on the tiny seat.
The film turned out to be a black and white offering coughed up from the bowels of some geek-boy’s dusty Hollywood collection. An Oscar winner according to Mrs Dewhurst, who kept up a hissing info-spiel in my ear.
“The actor is Gary Cooper and the actress is Grace Kelly. Isn’t she beautiful?”
The Kelly lass was indeed beautiful, in a virginal, fully-clothed way. As soon as she walked on screen I knew there would be no sex. At least it was a cowboy film.
Mrs Dewhurst sighed as the credits rolled up. I sighed too. I had been duped. It wasn’t a cowboy film, it was a love story masquerading as a cowboy film. Not only that, the love parts comprised of prim kissing.
Mrs Dewhurst hobbled out the cinema on my arm. “Did you like it, Stanley?”
“It was okay. I suppose the way it played in real time was cool,” I said to Mrs Dewhurst.
“Never again,” I said to Mother.
“She’s paying money, money we sorely need,” Mother countered in a non-conciliatory voice. I translated money we sorely need into money we sorely need after you turned up pished one Friday at the pharmacy and made an utter fool out of my boss. That’s not the whole story.
On the second Saturday Mrs Dewhurst and I watched some film where a woman actually manages to lose her children and spends the next hour trying to get them back. All in inglorious Technicolor, accompanied by music that billowed and swelled unnecessarily. I chomped through the mint creams I had bought in the foyer earlier after Mrs Dewhurst claimed penury and held a bead on the kiosk till I cracked.
When the lights came up I whistled one long ribbon breath, turning to Mrs Dewhurst to say, “What a downer,” but stopped short. Mrs Dewhurst’s mascara had had a tough time dealing with her tears. Her face was a black-streaked, pierrot mess.
“Wasn’t that braw, son?” she sniffed, routing in her penny-free bag for a hankie.
I had been attentive throughout, for sheer politeness sake. I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the plot but wanted to gee up Mrs Dewhurst so she’d quit with the sniffling. “It held my attention, Mrs Dewhurst. Preferred the second half when it was the kids who found the mother.”
“Oh, aye, I’ve always liked that twist. And I do have a wee fancy for the main actor, he’s very handsome, don’t you think? A bit like my Hank. He was American and a looker too. He’d gaze at me a certain way and I’d feel all queer inside.”
This was unseemly territory, so I asked an unconnected question, “How old are you, Mrs Dewhurst?”
“I’ll be ninety next month,” she said proudly. “Was in the war you know. Drove a tank in France. No, don’t look like that, I did. Desperate times. What work do you do, Stanley?”
“Tesco’s. Bit of this and that; pushing trolleys, stacking shelves.” I stopped speaking to reflect on my job. Described aloud made the sheer dullness of it stink sky-high.
“Tescos?” Mrs Dewhurst twisted round. “After the war I had to work in a factory. Bloody awful it was. Wished to God I could have done something else but there weren’t many choices then.” She paused before, “How did you end up doing a job my Thomas could do with his eyes shut?”
Thomas was her cat. I mumbled something about being too thick or too lazy or perhaps I mentioned that being born of a deserting father and low-aiming mother might not have been good life examples.
“Try living through a war, son,” snipped Mrs Dewhurst.
I turned mute in the taxi. Mrs Dewhurst rattled on though; about the film, life in general and then another barb about my loser job. “You want to get out there and see the world. You could have class, you could be a contender, Stanley, a somebody instead of a numptie. Excuse me being so frank.”
I sniffed. There would be no mint creams next week.
***
Week three must have been a well-known movie for there was a queue of young and old. For one splendid moment I thought we weren’t going to get in, however once the ticket booth lady (the lovely Delores, apparently) clocked Mrs Dewhurst, she waved us forward.
“Mrs Dewy, you nearly never made it. I knew it would be busy so I reserved your seats.” And then she glared at me as if she knew it was my fault we were late because I’d spent ten minutes raking the laundry basket for my least smelly top.
“All full,” she grunted at the folks behind us.
I had thought the other patrons would be annoyed at this outrageous queue-jumping but when I turned to give a bad-luck shrug I saw a few of them laugh – snigger even. Obviously the sight of a chubby, handsome young man and the spectacle that was Mrs Dewhurst – kaleidoscopic make-up, hair in ringlets – was hilarious, so I threw them the finger instead.
At the end of the film I turned to Mrs Dewhurst aghast. Had she done it deliberately? I had never seen the film where a haggard Bette Davis skips about like a wee lassie complete with pig-tails, but it was obvious the queuers had. Leaving the cinema took a whitewash of my pride as I shuffled and stalled to avoid the other patrons.
“Where’s my taxi?” asked Mrs Dewhurst when we eventually made it outside. “He must have picked up someone else. Did you like the film, Stanley? I do like a bad man, but I like a bad woman better.”
“Aye, those two sisters were nutters all right.” I waved down a taxi. “Never quite seen a film like it.”
“They made fantastic movies then, none of this stripping off in the first five minutes and getting at it like pneumatic drills.”
“Mrs Dewhurst, there you and I disagree. I’m wondering what folks did for kicks all those years ago.”
“The authorities didn’t want to incite us toward hanky-panky, Stanley.”
Watching porn never incited me toward hanky-panky with anyone apart from myself.
“Not,” continued Mrs Dewhurst, “that we didn’t get up to some nonsense. There was a war on after all.”
“Hanky panky Hank?”
She laughed. “And Harry. Harry Dewhurst, my husband. He turned out to be a dud. I always wanted to be Mrs Mitchum. Mrs Robert Mitchum.”
“How many men have you had?”
She let go an ear-splitter. “Stanley! Robert Mitchum was a movie star. Harry was quite the opposite and he wasn’t interested in me after we married.”
I don’t know where it came from but I said, “Mrs Dewhurst, surely not. You must have been a doll back in the day.” I actually did know where it came from – a pity-pool inside me offering an empty gesture to give her a thrill and nothing more.
She gratified me with a titter. “Unfortunately Harry had a touch of the Rock Hudson’s.”
“Rock Hudson? Sounds like a wrestler.”
A rattle of giggles. “Far from it. He might have fancied the wrestlers though.”
“I see.”
“I don’t have much luck with real men. Think I’ll stick to the celluloid ones.”
By the following week I’d changed my hangover days to Sundays. Just as well for the next film was Gone with the Wind, a film I had always avoided due to it being 1. historical, 2. a love story and 3. over three hours long. Jeez, Mrs Dewhurst got her money’s worth that week. It wasn’t till the lights came up that I realised how much my arse nipped, although I admit it didn’t seem like three hours and I agreed with Mrs Dewhurst that Scarlett was brilliant even though she was a bitch, especially as she was a bitch.
“I do like the Southern twang,” she crooned in the taxi. “My Hank had that accent. Said he would send for me, you know, once the war ended.”
“And?”
“Nothing. Not one letter even though he said he would post me passage.”
I guessed this man who made her feel queer had got his hanky-panky before deserting her with empty promises. Hank. The Heartbreaker.
“He would have been snapped up like chocolate when he went back home. He was a lovely talker.”
Hank. The bastard.
***
“Sidney, you do look smart today. Slacks instead of jeans?”
“You did say it was a double bill, Mrs Dewhurst. Hook a crook.”
She took my elbow. “Oklahoma and Seven Brides. Two musicals.”
I stopped short. “You never told me musicals. Singing, and possible dancing?”
“It’ll be jolly, Stanley.”
After Delores handed us our tickets with a mean glare after refusing to believe Mrs Dehurst’s true story we were late because she had to tong her hair and assumed it was because of me, no reason necessary, I guided Mrs Dewhurst to the front row to discover our seats were occupied.
“Shall we sit in the second row?” I suggested.
“If you like, Stanley.”
But I could tell from Mrs Dewhurst’s petted lip she wasn’t going to be happy about it so I leant toward one of the usurpers and whispered something about them possibly moving if they wouldn’t mind, for the cinema was the old duffer’s only pleasure and yeh, jeez, she was a sight, but you know, it would really make her day.
There was a pause when I thought the guy was going to object but after a long analytical stare at Mrs Dewhurst he nodded.
When Mrs Dewhurst and I were ensconced in our rightful seats I passed over the packet of mint creams I had bought with no coercion.
“No, thank you, Stanley.”
I sat through the first film, the ambience creeping through me: the thigh-slapping tempo and cherry bright colours.
“You’re right, Mrs Dewy, theses old musicals are jolly,” I whispered.
“Yes, even this old duffer knows what makes entertainment.”
I sat back, stiff. It was dark and I couldn’t make out Mrs Dewhurst’s countenance but her voice had been flinty. And when the lights came up two hours later I saw her mascara had gone walkabout.
The taxi home was awful. Mrs Dewhurst insisted I didn’t need to see her to her door and I, like a slinking rat, watched her hobble from the taxi.
If there was a way to muck up a good thing I’d do it. Mother’s job at the pharmacy? Her boss had told her she was too old to be on her feet all day and too vulgar to be dealing with the public. He hadn’t appreciated my remonstrating with him to the point where I swept a hand across the counter causing the contents to clatter floorwards. Not such a long story after all.
Throughout the next week I felt sick every time I thought about Mrs Dewhurst and when Mother returned home from job searching and said, “Mrs Dewhurst’s in the infirmary. Seems you won’t have to take her to the cinema any more. I’d love a job where I could sit on my arse all day,” I felt sicker.
***
It took two days for me to raise the courage to visit hospital. Mrs Dewhurst looked like an anaemic bird.
“Stanley, I don’t have my makeup on, I don’t want any visitors.”
I handed her some mint creams and said, “Mrs Dewy, you look great. You always do.” I patted her hand. “I’m sorry. I’m a numptie. I’m yet another man-idiot.”
A tiny smile broached her lips and she said, “Aye, you are.”
The second time I visited I had done as requested and brought her makeup. Not in a bag but a box, the size and weight of which made it difficult to navigate the chilly waters of the nurses’ suspicion. I watched Mrs Dewy paint herself, discussing the merits of The Magnificent Seven.
“A film I truly did like. A proper cowboy film.”
“And I missed it? Yul Bryner was a handsome man, wasn’t he?”
“He was a fine actor,” I corrected.
“Lovely lips.”
“He certainly brought the right gravitas to the role.”
“Big hands – and thighs.”
“The film’s ending was good – uplifting but not twee.”
“I’d have gone a round of pneumatics with him.” She puckered her lips into the mirror.
“Mrs Dewhurst, please.”
She lowered her lipstick. “Oh, Stanley, I’ve had a life with no swelling musical score in the background. My fault entirely, I know. And you; if your life featured music it would a bagpipe dirge. How do you fancy that for the rest of your life?”
“Nice pep talk, Mrs Dewhurst. Mint cream?”
***
They say she died from angina but I know she died from a lonely heart, one that had been cracking and forking for years.
“Are you listening?”
I lifted my head.
The lawyer continued. “She didn’t leave you money. She left you a paid ticket for –”.
“The Pally?” I clapped my hands.
The lawyer stared at me over his glasses. “A paid ticket for a round-the-world trip.”
“How the hell did she arrange that? What about my job in the supermarket?”
I had actually said this aloud. Uttered my first thoughts. Of banality. I tried a manly follow-up, one that say, Robert Mitchum might come up with. “That tin-pot job herding trolleys and holding onto my gut as I chase after shop lifters?” I stood fully. “I don’t give a toss about that dirge-like job.”
“Are you having a conversation with yourself?” squinted the lawyer.
“I will take this travelling ticket, not because I want to, you understand, but because I wouldn’t want to insult Mrs Dewhurst.”
“Quite,” said the lawyer. “I’m sure the supermarket will somehow survive your absence.”
I would loved to have pistol-whipped the smirk off his face but made do with plucking the ticket from between his fingers and swaggering out.
Before I left I paid for fifty-two consecutive Saturday seats on the front row of the Pally. Delores told me it was a fantastic waste of money which would be better going toward a worthwhile charity. She said this to take the shine off my idea but I insisted, mainly because it was my homage to Mrs Dewhurst but also to spite the not-so-lovely Delores. I told her that no matter there may be loads of empty seats I wanted to preserve Mrs Dewhurst’s, and besides, I added, wasn’t it helping to keep certain folks in dirge-like jobs? Delores screwed up a lip and said she was leaving her job as she was too young and bored to be sitting round on that swivel seat all day, with no point in being nice to folks most of whom were A-holes anyway.
I held up a hand. “I know just the shrew who can take your place.”
***
As I sit here on a Saturday under the shade of an Australian summer, five months into my year-long travels, I like to think of Mrs Dewhurst’s ghostly body sitting in the darkness of The Pally, her face lit up by the screen’s flickering, the scent of mint creams in the air. I’m flying to Yank Land next, might get myself a job or two before heading on elsewhere – anywhere but return to Supermarket Land. And if I come across a glib-mouthed Hank looking slick for his ninety-odd years, I’ll tell him most ghosts are black and white like the grand, old movie actors. But not Mrs Dewhurst’s. Hers is pure class; pure Oscar-worthy Technicolor. That’s what I’ll tell Hank the Turkey.

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