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November 2008
LILLIAN GISH’S SWEETHEART

Moy McCrory
The movies have always been kinda special for me, a secret world. You enter the picture house and it’s dark and womb-like there and you curl up on your own.
Sweetheart-McCrory-

You see that’s the way to go to the movies, to hell with all this being sociable, that’s to miss the point entirely.

Course when I was a kid my mother took me. She was really into them. That’s probably where I get it from. And all the musicals, I swear she knew the words of every song every song.

After a film she’d be miles away. We’d go home together slowly and she’d walk out in front of cars. People would stare but she didn’t notice nothing. Instead of everything drab she was too busy seeing Technicolor and the street noises just gave up competing with the music running round her head.

She used to put on dark red lipstick and her black high heels. That’s how I could tell when there was a new a new film on. She’d take me to most of them. I was tall for my age and she’d let them think I was sixteen.

But when I was a little kid I used to pester to go to the Talter down town which showed nothing else but cartoons and the programme was run continuously. I’d sit through the same bill three, four times before she could convince me I’d seen everything. Sometimes she’d get me a cone or a bag of popcorn and tell me she’d be right back and not to move. I never noticed the time going. The film would be ending and there she’d be, smiling with the usherette. ‘Is this the little girl?’ and my mother would take my hand.

‘I’ve been out of my mind with worry’ she said the first time she left me.

‘You told me to wait here Mum.’

‘Ssh.’ She put her finger to her lips, squeezed my hand. ‘They’re such a worry at this age…’ but the usherette had already gone back into the darkness to wander among the other shadows.

My mother’s hand would pull me back into the afternoon. I still love that. You know? The way the foyer is a different world when you step back into it, and if you go to the pictures in the daytime how the streets look odd when you come out. The place outside the cinema is peopled by strangers and the real world is back there in that dark place waiting. My mother knew which world we both preferred. We wanted to stay forever with familiar faces, actors who said smart things and were funny without even trying. It was family.

I saw my father only once. We were in the back row on a rainy Saturday and this family sat down in front of us. I wondered what it felt like to be like that, with a mum and a dad and these three kids; and the littlest ones were squabbling and the oldest, he looked kinda bored with everything. My mother sank right down low in her seat. Her face came level with mine. ‘I can’t believe it.’ She was having difficulty breathing. ‘I can’t believe it. That’s your father.’

I stared at the man in front with the kids and tried to make sense of what she was telling me. I’d never thought about a father. I suppose that sounds odd, but there’d always been just the two of us and I never expected different. She was hissing. She sounded frantic. ‘Your Father!’

So I stared hard at the back of my father’s head, willing him to turn around.

‘Not him’ she said ‘There! There!’ and she pointed towards the screen where the slaves in Spartacus were taking to the hillside.

‘Behind Tony Curtis. That one. Never forget. That’s the one.’

She got to leaving me more and more on my own. Sometimes she’d come back smelling of mints and she’d sing on the way home. Once the bus conductor told her she’d have to get off and walk and a woman behind said ‘She’s got that kiddie with her mister. Look, the kiddie’s falling asleep.’

‘It’s a shame that is, a shame.’

‘They’re all pigs’ my mother told the bus. ‘Men are pigs.’

At home she kicked off her high heels; lipstick was smeared along her cheekbones. ‘I should have gone for a screen test but I was having you. They don’t like fat actresses.’ She rubbed her big toe up and down where a bunion was starting to develop and then she was asleep in the armchair.

There were eight cinemas down town then. Now there are two and they’re these multi screen things no bigger than the telly. You might as well stay at home and watch it when it comes out on video.You need big
screens; big wraparound screens with big wraparound sound. But there were eight then, eight. And she was known in every one.

‘You’re not old enough to be her mother’ the ticket collectors winked. I felt proud. She was a celebrity.

Once, when we were queuing, one of the attendants was leaning by the exit sign. Her mouth was moving as if her teeth didn’t fit too good or she was chewing something awkward. She was saying something but my mum yanked me over to the far side of the queue. That woman’s eyes followed us, gleaming like a cat’s in her torch beam. I heard her hiss ‘Slut!’

As the house lights dimmed my mother giggled into the back of her hand. ‘Take no notice. They’re jealous of me. That’s all. They know I once went out with Steve McQueen.’

She had met him in the petrol station forecourt. She had a carton of milk from the twenty-four hour shop and he was putting air into his tyres. He asked her not to let anyone know he was over from America because… well, it must be kinda hard if you’re a big star and all you want is to get away and not be recognised.

She’s over seventy now. She waits for Al Pacino in Tescos. She said to me ‘Christ. You should see him. You know — without the make-up. He’s nothing special.’

Sometimes I sit in the dark on my own and I try to think myself back to a time when it was all magic and my mum was beautiful, like a film star and she took me down town and I was proud.

‘Just you behave nicely’ she used to say to me. ‘Like a lady.’ And I’ve always tried to. Like how she taught me. Nice like they do in the movies. Although it’s not always easy. People don’t react the way you’d think they might. Not like in the movies, especially the old ones. You can watch them again and again and they don’t ever change.

They tore the Tatler down and built a car park. The Variety’s a supermarket now. But back then when there were still eight cinemas everything felt better somehow. I mean, even when she started leaving me there in the cinema I knew she’d always come back.

They’ve been running this series of classic silents in the Film Club. Dead easy to join. I go on my own, but no one minds me. Thing is, these silents, well they make you want to laugh, at least I do, I want to laugh because they’re so stagy. But these people who go to the club, they’re kinda serious and they sit round talking about the films in the coffee bar. Do all these funny coffees there, and you can’t get a decent cup of tea? What’s that about?

There was an old guy the other day in this big, long overcoat (I told you it’s easy to join). I saw some of them give him the odd look. When the lights came on he was holding Kleenex to his face. People get embarrassed by that kind of thing don’t they? Just as well he was on his own. But he saw me looking and he said, ‘She used to be my sweetheart. Lillian Gish. She used to be my sweetheart.’

That’s the trouble with the early evening shows. There’s always some auld tosser ready to destroy the dream no matter how carefully you try to fold it away inside yourself, keep it there, neat until the next performance, there’s always some auld fool who comes along and scrunches it up like a dead ticket.

I went home along the street and noticed how cold it had suddenly become. Real cold. Like winter.




© Moy McCrory 2004
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