Short fiction

Issue #10

Strangers in the Theatre

The Phoenix was everything Richard had been hoping for, a haven of comfort and antiquity that smelled of caramel and dust. Nestled in a snug corner of East Finchley, it was the last surviving stronghold of the traditional picture-house – all red curtains and polished hardwoods, squat beneath a vaulted ceiling. There were perhaps a dozen people there on his first visit. The Phoenix cast aside all the sweeping grandiosity of commercial cinema for a treasury of art-house pieces and forgotten relics in black-and-white.

It was the first time London had fulfilled its promise of glamour. Richard had arrived fresh from Cambridge, clutching an Oyster card and an M.A. still wet with ink, which he’d brandished at every office he found until some weary manager had taken pity and given him a desk and a stack of paperwork. By day, he eked out his living, switching between his grubby house-share and dingy office cubicle. But by night, he lived another life; that of a critic, absorbing others’ stories and reviewing them online to a cosy cluster of followers.

The night the girl first came, the Phoenix was showing a French romance set in 1945. The trailer made Richard cringe, but he went to escape the cold emptiness of the house. He lived with poltergeists. He assumed they must all be alive, since the landlord hadn’t told him otherwise, but he shared his home with the traces others left behind. Sometimes there would be a cup left on the side, and he’d open the fridge to an empty container of milk. Often, he heard the back door lock, and then the heating would mysteriously turn off. Once he even caught one turning the corner, reflected in the mirror when he’d left his door invitingly open. He was safe at the cinema, where silence could not follow him.

The girl arrived five minutes into the film and sat in front of him. It was too dark to see her, but the noise was enough – shuffling and mumbling, rustling around in what could only have been a tinfoil jumpsuit, unwrapping, nibbling, crunching. She had brought an obnoxiously scented packet of crisps, and her attempts to eat them discretely resulted in a ‘crk … crk … crk,’ so drawn out that even she couldn’t have enjoyed them.

Richard’s hand twitched around his pen. At one point, the girl stumbled out of her row to go to the toilet, and only then could he concentrate on the picture. The plot was as sappy as he expected, and he spat his vitriol straight onto his notebook, scrawling in the dark. When she returned she clutched a wad of toilet roll.

The girl blew her nose, sparing Richard from another wooden line of dialogue. Against the flickering screen, the silhouette of her hand moved to wipe her eyes. Her sniffles persisted until the lights came up. All he saw of her face before she escaped to the toilets were the wet flakes of mascara on her cheeks.


When he’d sent the samples of his writing out, Richard knew it was a desperate attempt, born of his desire to escape the deserted house-share and return to the luxury he’d grown up in. It was the last thing he expected, when he sat in his cubicle flicking idly between spreadsheets, to receive an email from Sight & Sound.

It said what he’d expected it to say. They thanked him, listlessly, for his interest, regretted to inform him (due to the large number of applications received) that there were no internships currently available, and wished him good luck for the future. Richard’s eyes fixed on the one sentence that mattered.

 ‘Your writing style shows promise, and I would encourage you to continue reviewing a variety of cinema. I found your overview of Wes Anderson a little fawning, but your critique of Les 4 Soldats displayed genuine moments of wit.’

His mouth smiled against his will, and just then he saw his name printed, crisp and glossy, on Sight & Sound’s inner pages. His scathing review had received encouraging comments on the blog, but this was another kind of praise. Later that week, Richard decided to test his skills on a twee comedy about the social dynamics of an allotment. He watched the title arise, readying his pen for the attack.

Naturally, it transpired that one of the pensioners was terminally ill: that was when the tell-tale sniffling began. Richard turned. There she was, alone again, a kaleidoscope of colours reflecting through her tears. Unbelievable.

The realisation that the Phoenix delighted in screening schmaltzy trash as much as it did legitimate cinema crushed his ideals – but his readers loved it. His blog’s popularity skyrocketed. He savaged plot holes and cut each sentence through with his caustic wit, and all the while he was fuelled by the presence of the girl, who rustled and cried her way through to the credits every time. None of his pointed glares seemed to deter her, and she sure as well wasn’t going to triumph over him. She never brought her own tissues. Richard half hoped the Phoenix would go bust from overspending on toilet roll, and then neither of them would be able to go.

 ‘She drives me mad,’ he told his blog. Her latest exploits were now a regular feature. ‘She never gives anything decent a chance, just comes to shit films so she can eat crisps and cry. She should at least go to the Odeon where nobody gives a shit about actually watching the film.’ Her taste was hopeless. He’d been raised on films that blistered and sparked on the screen: films woven together with crisp dialogue and abstract colour; films that ached with nuance and made him lie awake on his pillow; films too proud to expect anyone to cry.

He’d thought it was a valid point. His followers did not.

‘Obviously she challenges you,’ said one, reeking of smug anonymity, ‘or you wouldn’t talk about her so much. You really ought to man up. If she’s so rude, give her a taste of her own medicine.’


He was still sulking over the affront when he stood at the counter in the lobby.

‘Usual?’ the barista said, moving towards the espresso machine.

‘I fancy something different today,’ Richard said. With steely resolve, he pointed to the machine churning blue and red ice. ‘I’ll have one of those, please. A large one. And a bag of Maltesers.’

He lingered outside the theatre until he was sure he was late enough. It was the final screening of the night – her preferred time – and the film was the latest Pixar adventure. It wasn’t hard to find her when he went in. He still hadn’t seen her face, since she always made such a show of hiding her tears when she left, but as the months grew colder she’d taken to wearing an oversized bobble-hat. Presumably that had been selected to better obscure the views of those behind her. He chose the seat two along from hers, slouched back, and flung his foot over his knee with flamboyant machismo. She glanced to the side as he slurped aggressively on his Slushie.

The Girl ignored him, or tried to. She put her cheek in her palm and thrust out her chin, her eyes locked obstinately on the animated characters until they said their final goodbyes. Richard crunched through fistfuls of Maltesers, glaring at her. A defiant tear slid over the bridge of her nose. When the lights rose, so did she.

 ‘Fuck’s your problem?’ She had an alarming West Midlands accent.

Richard faltered, thinking of his self-righteous critics. ‘I’m just showing you what you’re like.’


 ‘You’ve been ruining films for me for months.’

 ‘Oh my god. That is so fucking rude.’

She seized her things and marched out into the lobby. People were watching, Richard realised with horror, thinking this was his fault. He scrambled to his feet and went after her.

 ‘Oh Christ – it was a joke.’

The Girl turned to stare. In the light, he saw her clearly for the first time. She had strong eyebrows and cheekbones, and was even quite pretty, in a shabby sort of way – as if Hollywood had passed up on Elizabeth Taylor and she’d been cast in Hollyoaks instead. ‘You’ve been watching me,’ she said, aghast.

Words stumbled from his mouth. ‘Not – watching – not on purpose, I mean, I’m here all the time. And so are you. I thought I should say something.’ She was still staring. People were still watching. ‘You have really terrible cinema etiquette.’

Her cheeks went red. ‘I didn’t know I had somebody judging me.’

 ‘Sorry. I thought you should know.’ He was acutely aware of how awful her embarrassment was making him look. ‘You only ever watch cheesy films.’

 ‘So what?’

 ‘Well – it’s a shame. I see so many people here that just don’t give smaller films a chance. You don’t know what you’re missing.’ By now his cheeks were burning too so he floundered on. ‘I wanted to know why you watch what you do. I’m a film critic, you see.’

It was one of his more pathetic lines, but it must have interested her because she gave a nervous little laugh. ‘Oh,’ she said. She tilted back her chin in faint acknowledgement. ‘Odd way of asking. Could have just offered me a drink.’

He rifled through his pockets for change, but found only a squashed packet of tobacco. ‘Will a smoke do?’

They went outside and lit up. The Girl held her fingers too straight when she smoked, betraying her inexperience. She looked younger than him, maybe seventeen or eighteen, and her eyes looked lost and empty. Richard’s stomach twisted as he thought of all the times he’d ridiculed her. ‘So what’s the point of only seeing things that make you cry? You could be supporting independent studios.’

 ‘I don’t know. I never thought of it like that.’ Her feet shuffled in embarrassment.

 ‘There’s got to be a reason. You’re always showing up here, alone.’

She made that awkward laugh again. ‘You really have been watching me.’

He was fascinated. He couldn’t look at her eyes without feeling how lonely she was.

‘There’s so many better things on at this place,’ he said. ‘You could see them instead of all this sentimental crap. You could see things that make you laugh. It might cheer you up a bit.’

The girl stubbed out her cigarette. ‘Why do you care? I don’t need cheering up. I like sentimental crap, thank you.’

Sweat prickled on Richard’s palms. He hadn’t been watching her for months and finally broken their silence to have that for an answer. Nor could he mock her, now that she had a face and a voice. ‘Gravity’s showing on Friday. It’ll be brilliant. You’ll see what you’ve been missing. I’ll buy your ticket.’

She tried to laugh but it caught in her throat. ‘I’m not sure I want to come here any more. Since I’ve obviously been ruining things for everyone else.’

Some instinct made Richard move his arm towards hers. She flinched. It was a tiny movement, but he felt the way it cut between them.


He returned to the sprawling grey grid of Lewisham, back to his own soot-stained terrace, his head reeling. He needed another voice to make sense of this, but he found the house still, except for the dull throbbing of bass music. The living room was scattered with filthy takeaway boxes and empty beer cans, and his own Bose sound-system still blasted out that week’s Top 40 to a deserted audience. Richard hauled the system up to his room, locked his door, and sat in the silence. He didn’t know why he cared. She didn’t belong in the Phoenix. He’d done everyone a favour, hadn’t he?

He pressed his head into the cold pillow. The sumptuous red curtains now seemed so distant, tainted by guilt, an emblem of snobbery. Every time he returned he twisted in his seat, unable to concentrate, craning his neck to see if her will ever broke and she came back – but she stuck to her word, reminding him of his selfishness with every film she missed.

He had scared her away. He’d exposed her, shamed her, like shining a torch on a nervous little moth. He would never know what was wrong with her: never know why her eyes seemed so hollow, never see the shine of her teeth as she broke into laughter. The Phoenix was his haven again – but the films blistered and sparked for him, alone.

Catherine Stanford

© 2014