An Afternoon at the Cinema – Conversations with the Bearded Man (8)

Photo by Janko Ferlic on

…The cinema is ok when you are on your own: it’s dry and warm; you can turn up late, book a seat that has no-one sitting around you, wherever that might be in the auditorium, and enter while the Coming Soon adverts are assaulting the pre-assembled eardrums like artillery shells.  Nobody really notices you.  It’s not like going into a strange pub: no sudden, uneasy silence, no stares from men holding pool cues, no landlord asking what you want to drink when all you really want to do is get out of there, no lukewarm, cloudy beer in a pre-lipsticked glass, no standing in the middle of nowhere because it’s less risky than accidentally taking somebody else’s seat, no apologising profusely to the walking threat who has just knocked a full pint down your trousers…

But you know how it is, nothing ever goes quite to plan.  I saw them walk in, this Amazonian couple and I knew instinctively that they were destined to sit directly in front of me, with their giant tray of nachos, a sack-sized bag of crisps that crackled like a Taiwanese Hi-Fi, a Bucket-A-Coke and an unfinished conversation that was much too good to mute during the film.  I craned my neck left and then right before realising that I was not going to see anything in the centre of the screen that had not been filtered through hair-gel unless one or the other of them suffered a major infarction, so I settled down as far as ancient knees in a confined space would allow and attempted to snooze the next hour and a half away in a shape unknown to Tetris when a voice beside me said, “It’s so annoying isn’t it?” and despite a period sufficient for the average couple to have met, fallen in love, rented a flat, fallen out of love and soundly trashed one another on social media having elapsed since the last time I saw him, I knew at once to whom the voice belonged.  “There’s nobody sitting on this side of me if you want to sit there,” he said.  It seemed impossibly churlish not to do as he suggested and so I bottled all my churl and moved into the vacant seat on the other side of him.  I knew that there was no point in asking him how we could find ourselves sitting side by side in a cinema I had only entered to get out of the rain.  I knew his answer would only confuse me further.
“I’ll move if anybody has booked the seat,” I said and he nodded quietly, obviously content that it would not happen.  His long white hair was, as ever, immaculate and dry, yet he had no coat that I could see; no umbrella or hat.  He looked like a man who had just emerged from a hairdryer, whilst I looked like a man who had just emerged from the Thames, cold and not entirely free of effluent.
“It’s quite a comforting place, the cinema, when you’re on your own, don’t you think?”
“It allows me to be anonymous,” I said as the sound and fury of some intergalactic war or another warped speakers all around us.
“Salty or sweet?” he asked, holding out popcorn.
“You have to ask?”
“No, not really.  I bought both.  Why would you want to be anonymous?”
“Do I mean anonymous?  I might not mean anonymous,” I said.  “I might mean unnoticed.  Most places I go to, people notice a single man.”
“You don’t want to be noticed?”
“I don’t want to be stared at.”
“And you don’t want to be single?”
“Of course I don’t!” I snapped, momentarily flushed with anger.  “I hate being alone.  I don’t know how you do it.”
“You’re always alone.”
“Only when I choose to be.”
“You came here alone.”
“I was meeting you.”
“But how did you even know I’d be here?”
“I didn’t need to.  You didn’t know that I’d be here either, yet you still managed to meet me.”
I stared for a moment before, resigned, I grabbed a handful of popcorn.  It is so hard to argue with a man whose version of logic is at once bizarre and irrefutable.  “I presume it didn’t work out with Sara,” he said.
“And I presume you already know the answer to that!” I snapped again, feeling both ashamed and frustrated by my inability to control my anger.
“Well, I do now,” he said, sipping Coke through a straw, looking for all the world as if it was the first time he had ever done so.  “It’s a shame.”
“Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but what does it matter to you whether I am alone or not?  Whether I am happy or not?  Whether I am anything at all?  I don’t really know you at all.  You don’t know me.  I don’t really know how, or why, we keep doing… this.”  I turned towards him, but found his eyes firmly fixed on the screen.  He was distractedly eating popcorn one exploded kernel at a time.  Nobody eats popcorn like that!  The Sara question hurt because I really liked her, but as I always do, I had let things slide.  We hadn’t been in contact for some time and now I didn’t know how to try again without… well, you know.  I hadn’t actually done anything wrong had I?  I didn’t feel like I needed to lose face, even if Lorelei had made me realise how much I missed her company.
“You know,” he said, not removing his gaze from the screen, “I think I prefer the salty, until I try the sweet and then I’m not so sure.”  I knew that there was a point to this, but I had no idea what it might be.  He held out the two card containers.  “Here,” he said, “see what you think.”
Despite the conviction that I was nothing more than a lab rat in a maze, I took a single piece from each box and chewed meditatively.  It was impossible not to agree with him.  I took another two pieces before settling slightly in my seat and turning my own attention to the film.
“You know,” he said, “I think I might have seen this all before.”
“I think it’s new isn’t it?”
“Is it?  I must be mistaken then.  I can’t have seen it before can I?  I just feel as though I know exactly what is about to happen.”  I struggled to form a clear image of his face in the flickering gloom, but as far as I could see there was no suggestion of irony there.
“In my experience,” I said, “you always seem to be at least one step ahead.  It’s like you always seem to know exactly what’s going to happen next.”
“I’m like everybody else,” he said.  “I know what I’d like to happen, but I’ve no way of knowing that it actually will…  unless, of course, I really have seen the film before.  Do you know I think I might have to… I’m sorry.  I won’t be a minute.”  I smiled smugly, bathing in the knowledge that at least in one way he was no different to me.  Drink a large tumbler of Coke and you’re never going to make it all the way through a film.  “I’ll leave these here,” he said, placing the two boxes of popcorn carefully under his seat.  I watched him wander down the stairs and into the dimly lit entrance, turning back to the film at the exact moment that a silhouetted figure passed between me and the screen catching her foot on the unprotected popcorn containers and scattering the contents for some distance in all directions.
“Sorry I,” she said…  “Shit!”  The popcorn cascaded out of the boxes and down under the seats ahead.  “I… oh bugger,” she kicked away as much of the spilled popcorn as she could and picked up the now empty containers.  “I don’t know how I do it.  I always manage to turn up just a little bit too late, after everybody else has settled down” she tried to explain “and instead of disappearing into the crowd, I usually find myself treading on toes, making a grand and unwelcome entrance.  I’m sorry, I’ll…  Jim?”
“Sara?”  Of course, it had to be
“Well, I was going to offer to buy you some more popcorn, but you can buy your bloody own,” she said.  She was torn, I could tell, between anger and laughter.  She looked closely at her ticket and began to sit in the seat beside me.
“I think that seat’s taken,” I said.
She compared her ticket with the number on the seat again.  “No, this is mine,” she said.
I wondered what might be said when Lorelei came back before I realised that, of course, he would not be returning to his seat at all.
“Of all the cinema seats in all the cinemas…” I said.
“Here,” said Sara holding out a paper bag.
I took a small handful of popcorn.  “It’s salty,” I said.
“I know,” she said.  “Do you prefer sweet?”
“No,” I said.  “It’s fine.”
We both settled into our seats to watch the film and enjoy the prospect of not actually being alone for a couple of hours.  I struggled to find something to say, but decided that silence was the best policy until, hearing a quiet sigh beside me, I risked a quick glance to my side and was shocked to see Sara’s face close to my own.  “Do you know,” she whispered, “I think I might have seen this before…”

Author’s note: I’m sorry if this seems unduly long, it’s just how long it took.

If you wish to read earlier episodes of this tale you can find them here:
Episode 1 –  An Introduction
Episode 2 – A Further Excerpt
Episode 3 – A Further, Further Excerpt
Episode 4 – Lorelei
Episode 5 – A Pre-Christmas Exchange
Episode 6 – Newark
Episode 7 – Helpline



8 thoughts on “An Afternoon at the Cinema – Conversations with the Bearded Man (8)

  1. A nice read. Being set up in the Cinema working out nicely
    And on the authors note; ‘I’m sorry if this seems unduly long, its just how long it took?’ Irrefutable in a very St Patricks Day kind of way!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mrs Underfelt here. I was really hoping it would be the Bearded Man. I love the Bearded Man stories – enigmatic, thought provoking and usually leaving me with a smile on my face…(somewhat quizzical, but still a smile). Thanks, Colin.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.